In this astonishing, variegated assortment of tales, award-winning author Paul Di Filippo covers all the themes and modes he is best known for, and ventures into new territory as well.
—Visit a hermetic city where beauty is the only currency.
—Experience a steampunk fable in which nothing is what it first seems, and a young man's future rests on finding his true father.
—Hang out with the techno-savvy, social-media gypsies who form the new elite in the not-too-distant future.
—Ride a wild ribofunk express train into the badlands where a man's skin is not his own.
—Experience a counterfactual World War II where victory is achieved by amazing rays.
—Visit a haunted Italian city where the Neolithic and the present live side-by-side, and a hero who falls in love with a goddess and who must battle her ancient foe.
—Visit an Orwellian future redeemed only by the imagination and love of a tortured dissenter.
These are just some of the uncanny tales contained in this collection, incorporating comedy and tragedy, laughter and tears!
"Strange Trades is a splendid collection … witty, thoughtful, accessible … the book's finest story … has a humanity worthy of Dickens or Hardy."– Publisher’s Weekly
"Vibrant, nervy, and full of gloriously wiggy language, Ribofunk is anything but the same old stuff."– Philadelphia Inquirer
"An author who genuinely comes close to defying all attempts at description. A true original."– Infinity Plus
City of Beauty, City of Scars
Our city of Aesthetica takes the form of a tetrahedron, the simplest of all the perfect or Platonic solids, and hence the most noble and beautiful in the eyes of Aglaia. The shining triangular pyramid that is Aesthetica, sited neatly in the middle of a wide green landscaped valley, houses nearly half a million citizens. The three sides of its base measure each twelve miles long—twice six, the perfect number, or teleioi—and its apex looms twelve hundred feet above the base: again, a multiple of the teleioi. The luxurious apartment that occupies the uppermost level—a domicile which, by its tapering shape, is naturally a miniature of the whole city—is home to the male and female Prime Allures.
But because this is my story, and I was born on the lowest level, that's where I'll really begin.
I could not of course bear intelligent witness to the events immediately attendant upon my birth. But my mother, Libet, recounted the story many, many times, during our supervised visits. So often in fact that I, at an impressionable young age, developed false memories of actually seeing her actions unfold, memories as vivid as any I subsequently laid down on my own.
My birth was of course by Caesarean procedure. All births are conducted so in Aesthethica, for we can not risk the archaic animal process of vaginal delivery inflicting any kind of harm whatsoever on the infant. Each child must emerge from the womb with its Aglaia-given genetic inheritance—all its unique possibilities for developmental expression of postnatal beauty—uncompromised by mere accident.
My mother was of course sedated for this procedure. But the ineptitude of the technician allowed her to awaken while still recovering in the operating theater. (He was later severely disciplined, being subjected to a third-degree scarification and exiled from Aesthethica, there being no lower level to which he could be demoted.) At the moment when she regained a hazy, pained consciousness, the doctor and all the nurses and assistants were busy fussing over me, checking my vital signs and annotating my aglaiacal indices. This inattention allowed my mother to hastily fumble for a scalpel, which she palmed and concealed under her gown.
Not long thereafter, in the large, noisy, clean, but impoverished maternity ward where my mother lay abed, recuperating and grimly fondling her concealed weapon, stoking her heart to the task she had determined to perform, a nurse trundled a bassinet down the aisle and delivered me to Libet.
Under a clattering wall fan, part of Aesthetica's complex system of ducts and vents, my mother cradled me tenderly, examining all my young parts with an eye for any congenital defects. But there were none.
My mother addressed the nurse. "He's perfect, isn't he?"
"Yes, I'd say so."
"And his beauty indices?"
"They can be projected outward to a very high plateau of allure, Aglaia willing. You're a very lucky mother. He doesn't resemble you at all!"
My mother's voice was dull and sad. "Yes, so very lucky. I will have my child by my side for at least five years. And then he will receive high marks in all his beauty examinations and ascend to another level, while I remain here for the rest of my life."
With this remark, my mother ran her free hand, the one not cradling me, over her rough-hewn homely face, pausing to finger her minor but significant harelip, a feature of hers I still recall with fond affection, despite its betrayal of all that Aglaia held dear.
"Don't dwell on such future events," advised the nurse. "Enjoy your child while he is with you. Have you and the father picked out a name?"
"His father is banished from the city. He made the mistake of acquiring a critical mass of radiation scars in the mines. Too ugly even for us bottom dwellers. But we spoke of the boy's name before he left. He will be called Tono."
"Very nice," said the nurse, and turned her back.
My mother saw her only opportunity to bind me to her forever. "Tono, forgive me!" she yelled, then flashed out the scalpel.
Her intent was to slice off one of my littlest fingers. Such a mutilation would have ensured that I remained on this level of my birth, without crippling me unduly.
But the nurse, alerted by my mother's cry, spun about and charged. This physician's handmaiden had seen too many such attempts not to react quickly. The two women wrestled for control of the blade, sending me tumbling and squalling to the tile floor.
Eventually my mother was subdued, with the aid of other converging staff members, and I was rescued from the tiles, miraculously unharmed.
Libet sobbed pitifully as I was taken away. Having revealed her intentions to spite the universal and revered aglaiacal system of advancement by beauty, the basis of Aesthetica's whole society, she had qualified as an unfit parent. I was mandated to the crèche on the lowest level, where I could be reared in safety.
So I never shared my mother's humble apartment, the rooms where I had been conceived by her and my exiled father. But, as I said, I grew to know her fine though absolutist maternal nature, and to hear again and again of my own origins, through the thrice-weekly supervised visits which she was allowed with me. In my fifth and last year on the lowest level of the city, in particular, she drummed into me the basis for her actions.
"It's not right, Tono, that people should be graded and separated based on mere appearance. Especially when it means dividing mother and child. Do you think I was selfish, to want to keep you by my side, especially after your father was exiled? I love you so!"
"I love you too, Mama," I would always reply.
"Then give your mother a hug and a kiss, dear!"
I always complied, though often I was reluctant to put down the hand mirror into which I was gazing, already practicing the codified rites of Aglaia.
At age five I underwent the standard public examinations, standing naked on a stage with the probing authorities. Libet watched from a far-off corner of the viewers' gallery, stifling her sniffling for fear of being ejected from the proceedings. The judges measured and compared, prognosticated and argued, while I complied proudly but demurely with all their posing instructions, trying to live up to the teaching of the crèche staff, insofar as my childish mind could grasp the aglaiacal precepts. After a suitable time, they rendered their verdict.
"This boy, Tono, will ascend two levels, and be reevaluated on his eighth birthday."
A single dry and coarse rasping sound burst from my mother, and then I was led away, never to see her again. Gone from the dull, boiled-cabbage-redolent warrens of the lowest level of Aesthetica to a better life, worthy of my endowments.
* * *
The first thing I noticed when making the guardian-accompanied ascent through the stairwells of Aesthetica was the gradient of beauty—not that I could have phrased it so succinctly as a child. Nonetheless, the changing spectrum of beauty still registered on my honed perceptions. (And I should mention now that "two levels" of advancement did not correspond to a mere two stories within the pyramid, for each classification of beauty occupied several floors out of the hundred stories, according to the variable population of each category. Sometimes one category would lose significant population due to deaths (or demotions and advancements), while another would gain, due to births (or demotions or advancements), and the ratio of floors would change by official edict. However, the lowest level, being the largest in surface area, was always more than big enough to accommodate all the least beautiful citizens.)
As I and my temporary wardens climbed the thronging stairs, I was able to employ what was already, even at such a tender age, a finely calibrated sensibility toward degrees of beauty. Faces, forms, carriage, personal styles—all these instantly conveyed to me a person's relative and absolute status in the hierarchy of beauty. I saw that it would be impossible for any individual to masquerade as someone of higher status; a thousand tells would give them away. And although it was conceivable that someone of high beauty could disguise their attainments and endowments so as to appear less beautiful on quick inspection, there was no reason I could then imagine why a person would do such a senseless thing. I had not yet learned of certain perversions.…
Eventually we reached my designated level—what sweet air, what shapely bodies and handsome faces!—and I was conducted not to a crèche, but to a foster home where my next six years—not three—would be spent. In retrospect, it was a generally uneventful time, though there was much novelty. First off, I had to fit myself into a strange domestic routine. I started school, made friends, and deepened my aglaiacal studies. But it was the subsequent stages of my life, as an adolescent, that would truly release my full potential, and so I will devote more detail to that period.
As for my first transition: Boone and Frasca, husband and wife, my new foster parents, had two children of their own, both older than I: Dunkel, a boy, and Mazurine, a girl. Introduced to them, I was outwardly shy. But inside, I had already assessed their aglaiacal potential as less than mine. They had maxed out their innate capacity for becoming beautiful, and would never blossom into anything greater than what they already showed. Consequently, I found myself inwardly disdainful of them. Still, we all got along fine, in a distant manner.
At first, the biggest revelation to me during those five years was that the greater beauty of the citizens at this level entitled them to nicer work and more copious and finer material comforts. The clothes, the food, my mattress, the available entertainments, even the toilet paper! All so much better than those of my birth level. And yet, I knew, so much cruder than what awaited me above.
Only at this juncture did I realize how our city of Aesthetica worked. Until now, I had simply possessed no basis for comparison. The meager, shabby goods and paucity of services available to the dwellers of the lowest level, the backbreaking jobs—waste disposal, uranium mining, power plant maintenance, hydroponic farming, goods assembly lines—these were not conditions shared by all! The insight burst inside me like a bombshell. I resolved then and there that I would do all I could to optimize my innate beauty, and so attain the maximum honors, perks and property to which I was entitled. It sounds like a far-fetched thing for a child of five or six to fasten upon, but it was so. I was a prodigy, and I wonder sometimes if that unnatural aspect of my nature had not been already dimly intuited by Libet, and if that scalpel had not been intended for my heart.
After a time, I graduated to studying and parsing the imagery of the beautiful people who dwelled above us. Then my peers here no longer looked so fine. The very walls of the corridors were big high-definition screens showing random, changing feeds from the public spaces of higher levels. (On my natal level, all we had had to work with were shabby pasteboard trading cards of beautiful people.) This display of beauty superior to ours was intended both as incentive and corrective. Those of us who had the capacity to grow or shape ourselves by exercise into more pleasing forms had examples to aim for. That set of biceps, that elegant haunch, that toned abdomen, that lilt of chin. But at the same time, each of us had to contend with the limitations of our genome, and could only admire from afar the unmatchable ones to whom Aglaia had granted her highest benisons.
At age eight, nude once more upon the inspection platform, I underwent my second aglaiacal examination. I knew now, even if I could not have verbalized it so precisely, that the utter nakedness and public display was essential in maintaining our city's system. The chance for the masses to assess each candidate and to affirm that the proper universal standards were being applied without favor or cheating ensured that there would be no hostility toward those promoted, but only an empathy and endorsement that would secure and reinforce their status. But even though I could sense the rightness of the custom, I had developed enough self-consciousness to feel just a bit unnerved on stage. Nothing like some of the other candidates for advancement who had preceded me, however: girls and boys who had wept or fainted or cowered, thereby blighting their presentation. I stood straight and proud, confident that the judges would reward my clean-limbed grace and poise and lines, all of which I affirmed in the mirror every day, according to the proper aglaiacal technics.
But instead, to my confoundment, they issued a suspended judgment.
"Citizen Tono, we are conflicted regarding your future course. Certain indicators lead us to consider that you represent vast potential for significant levels of allure. Other signs lead us to fear that you might stall and canker. Therefore, we are reserving any decision as to your advancement for another three years. Keep Aglaia's tenets close to your heart for the next three years, and we will surely be able to make a decision then."
I descended the dais in a daze, hurt and confused. Boone and Frasca awaited me with a robe. Later, on the walk home through Aesthetica's corridors, there was some whispering and snickering between Dunkel and Mazurine. I ignored their jealous pettiness. All I could focus on was my desire and need to prove the judges wrong in their doubts.
Three years later, at age eleven, I did just that. To resounding applause, after cycling through the aglaiacal tableaux vivants required at this age, I received advancement up a full three levels. I said a curt goodbye to my foster family and left immediately after the judging, not even returning to our apartment for any of the inferior possessions I had accumulated.
Have I mentioned yet what should be obvious to all, that there were twelve levels of beauty in Aesthetica, honoring the aglaiacal teleioi of six?
And at only age eleven, I had already ascended halfway.
* * *
Sweetser notched upward the settings on the weight machines, forcing me to exert every ounce of strength in my already drained muscles. The gymnasium stank of sweat and chlorine from the lap pool.
"Push, Tono, push! You'll never jump up that last level until you do!"
Sweetser was a cruel taskmaster, but with only my best interests at heart. And he knew how to get results, as attested to by his own achievements, until he had fallen. So I bullied my calves and thighs to their limits for several reps, then collapsed. Sweetser helped me out of the equipment's embrace.
"Off to the showers with you now, boy. Then a massage."
In the showers, Sweetser handed me fragrant soap and scrubbed my back. We chatted idly on various topics, and then I raised one of my perennial daydreams.
"Wouldn't it be so easy," I said, "if we could just go under the surgeon's knife and emerge all sculpted and perfect? Every man and woman gifted with supreme allure!"
"Heresy, Tono, and you know it! I think you just wish to provoke me with this juvenile conceit. What an affront to Aglaia and her gifts, attempting to circumvent one's somatic destiny, or mimic that of another."
I let the pulsating jets of hot water blanket my sore shoulders. "But don't we already strive to coax the seeds of beauty within us, by hours in the gym? How would modification by medical procedures be any different?"
"One involves sacrifice, self-direction and the encouragement and upwelling of implicit, god-seeded forms. The other is mere theft and effortless chicanery. So long as Aglaia continues to be honored, no one would ever attempt such lazy deceit."
"Not to mention that Aesthetica's civil penalty for such actions is immutable exile."
Sweetser laughed. "That too. Here, now, enough scrubbing. Over to the table."
I lay on my side for a moment, relishing the warm air on my naked form, while Sweetser gathered up his oils. I was struck once more by my mentor's stature and decaying good looks. The big, dark-skinned bald man, with a face like chiseled granite, still loomed impressively in any setting. But his allure had diminished from its prime, and was dropping every day.
Sweetser's weakness was his appetite for rich foods. Kept in check during his youth and ambition, his greedy stomach had taken over when he had attained the highest level of beauty, the realm just above this one we currently inhabited, the eleventh. Slackening his dedication, Sweetser had begun to pack on the pounds and gone flabby. An easy fate, when no exertion was required of us, and any delicacy we craved was available in endless quantities. At a certain point, he no longer could sustain an appearance that entitled him to life on the twelfth level, and was demoted to the eleventh, where I had found him and put myself under his tutelage. I had tried to convince him to get back on track, at least stabilizing his beauty so as to remain here. But some essential light or faith had left him, and he continued to abuse his Aglaia-given endowments. He was on a one-way downward course, obesity being a prime reason for demotion.
I had a sudden image of Sweetser consigned finally by ineluctable aglaiacal precepts to the grotty ground floor of Aesthetica, meeting my mother even. Perhaps he could carry some kind of message to her from me. But what, exactly, would I say? I had no idea if she were even still alive, given the hard living conditions there. I had not seen her in all the years since I first left. I could've journeyed back to my natal level on my own. There were no prohibitions against such intercourse between levels. But who, having become accustomed to a certain level of beauty and attendant comfort, would ever want to sully his senses and sensibilities by going lower? That's what made demotion such a keen punishment, to be avoided at all costs.
And in truth, the rare voluntary visits by the slumming allure-rich often deteriorated into mob scenes—love riots, worshipful, but distracting. Unless, of course, a disguise shielded the visitor for whatever strange and decadent assignations he or she had in mind.…
Sweetser nudged me over onto my belly and set to work on my muscles. I drifted off into a kind of hypnagogic fugue while he worked, and began to dream of Odile.
Odile, with her immaculate shapely body and perfectly composed face, her jade eyes and thick, lustrous blonde hair. She had originated two levels above me, but moved through Aesthetica's hierarchy more slowly, so that we arrived on the eleventh together, where our souls immediately conjoined. How lucky I was that she loved me. What we would do together when we met tonight!
Here, on the eleventh level of Aesthetica, all our hours outside of self-perfection rituals were filled with play and leisure. There was no work; we subsisted in luxury on the accumulated efforts of everyone below us. What greater pleasures could the twelfth and final level hold, I often wondered? I could hardly conceive of any, but I knew that soon, with any luck and justice, as a reward for my genes and my efforts in burnishing them, I would get to experience the supernal.
Rousing myself, I dreamily asked Sweetser, "Tell me, my friend, what is life like in the final heaven? You know, for you were there. Do you ever miss it?"
Sweetser's normally booming voice and sanguine tone transmuted into quietude and trepidation. "It's a turbulent sort of perfection, son. Unsettling. You'll see. Just remember to keep close all your dreams, and a sense of gratitude and fidelity."
Reinvigorated, dismissing Sweetser's vague bogeymen, I bounced up from the table. "Enough, you tyrant! I'm off to dinner—a moderate repast, which you should consider—and then a long, luxurious evening with Odile."
"I envy you a little, Tono—but not enough to follow your example. You're young, only seventeen, and nearly at the peak of your allure. Age is the final undoer of us all. Wrinkles send us plunging downward as surely as fat!"
Sweetser slapped his gut with a loud thwack.
"Not me! Now, off with you until you administer tomorrow's excruciations!"
I sat across the supper table from Odile that night, holding her small, gorgeous hand and peering deeply into her shining eyes, and we whispered of many things, both large and small. Our glorious future together.…
"It's twelve years since we each had our first examination, dearest; we've reached the penultimate level just as we've completed our first teleioi. Not many are so fortunate. This is a key moment for us. The stars are in our favor. Aglaia looks down and smiles on us, I'm certain. How can we fail to leap ahead into the ultimate heaven?"
Odile's warm voice couched sentiments that matched my own. "We are meant to go through life forever ascendant, Tono, joined together in our beauty." She traced the lines of my countenance with her delicate fingers. "You are the most beautiful man of the eleventh cohort."
"And you the most beautiful woman."
"Let us hope the judges agree next week."
That night our lovemaking put a kind of celestial seal on our hopes, which were indeed fulfilled as we moved like water through the hieratical poses, naked and serene, on the viewing dais. And as the waves of applause washed over us, we were perfectly happy.
For the last time in our lives.
* * *
As I watched Traoke slide and crash helplessly into the blades of the fan—his arms flailing, his fantastically handsome face a mask of fear—a life-changing "accident" which I could still have, for a moment or two longer, prevented, but would not. I knew then that I had paid the highest price for my evil victory, and that it was a fee I was happy to pay.
This was the final expression of the shattering truth no one had ever revealed while we lived below, but which Odile and I quickly learned upon our last ascension.
Up until the eleventh level, there was no sense of competition in our culture's beauty worship, except perhaps with one's self. I did not lose out just because X or Y was also promoted to another level. Their achievement honored Aglaia equally with mine. And all my success was grounded in my own efforts. My only rival was sloth and ineptitude, my only limits the raw genetic heritage my parents had conferred. (And I swear, I did think with gratitude from time to time of my mother's genes, so exemplary in recombination with my never-known father's seed, although those same dictatorial twists of inheritance had betrayed her, with that harelip and blobby nose and lips.)
But upon consecration to the twelfth level of Aesthetica's pyramid—a stratospheric space more cloistered and compact than any other level, of course, a condition which helped foment a hothouse sense of competition—there was no further opportunity for any individual to reach a new plateau. We were all the cream of the crop, perfected. Those meaningless ones below us could no longer serve as our foils. We were like a drawer full of sharp, polished, gem-handled knives, with nothing to cut except each other.
Where, then, did the competition emerge, to bedevil us aimless, high-status citizens?
In the office of Prime Allure.
One man, one woman, each deemed the literal apex of beauty.
And who would judge such an honor? In the realms below, the judges had been learned men and women, preceptors of Aglaia. But here, due to the general youthfulness of the citizens elevated to the twelfth, there were no experienced judges. The award would have to be conferred by a general vote.
And so the twelfth became a swamp of intrigue and alliances, treachery and chicanery, as we all sought the final honor.
To my eternal shame and discredit, I plunged into the milieu and the entire process wholeheartedly, as soon as I ascertained what was what. I wanted to become the Prime Allure. It seemed to my constantly revolving brain the only possible culmination to my long journey. Or, failing that, I wanted a friend to have the success. So I enmeshed myself in a sticky web of enmity and fawning, of backbiting and exclusion, false intimacy and hardened heart.
Odile, however, revealed her true gentleness of spirit and respect for Aglaia. Although her vast beauty would have easily enabled her to contend for Prime Allure against others of her gender, she showed no interest in the race.
"But Tono—did we not pledge eternal loving fealty to each other, and to a life centered around Aglaia? How is this contest worthy of us? Both of us would have to win, if we were not to be separated, and the odds are against such a dual victory. And this elevation of two mere mortals to such a peak of veneration—No, I just can't find it in me to participate."
I made no rejoinder to her sweet-voiced counsel, no plea or justification. I simply murmured something inconsequential and left her, for good. For already my thoughts were turning to Dira.
Dira, all dark waterfall of hair, olive skinned and lush, was hot for the honor that Odile disdained. Her fevered eyes and full fleering lips could lash men to high exertions, and cut down others of her sex.
Aglaia and her earthly representatives acknowledge many different forms or templates of beauty, all neatly categorized by the indices. Odile's sylph-like charms had earned her admittance to the twelfth, just as Dira's more earthy endowments had. But in this competitive realm, the two strains of beauty were hardly matched in terms of force or effect. Dira had the twelfth wrapped around her little finger, and seemed a shoo-in for the spot of female Prime Allure.
And when it became apparent, after much politicking, that I was one of the two or three men most likely to claim the matching title, she turned all the intensity of her body and spirit on me.
We became lovers, and I began to heed her damnable advice.
"Tono, you know that only Traoke and Stig stand against you. Now Stig I can easily remove from your path. It will only take a little incitement among various women and their partners. But Traoke—he's too beautiful, too well ensconced and beloved. No, there's only one sure method of taking him down."
Lying naked beside Dira, I played with her thick tresses, only half listening to her incessant scheming, which, truth be told, wearied even me sometimes.
"And how is that to be accomplished, dear?"
"He must be disfigured. It's the only way."
I sat bolt upright. "But that, that's—"
"The only way," repeated Dira.
Days went by before I acknowledged she was correct.
And so we made our plans.
The circulation of air in the closed environment of Aesthetica was vital. A vast series of ducts and filters and fans accomplished this vital function. The fans, ever spinning, lurked mostly ignored behind vertical grills set low in the corridor walls, or high in the ceilings.
As part of the shifting, unregulated competition between the contenders for Prime Allure, I challenged Traoke to a race. A large wide corridor here was devoted to that purpose, and generally untenanted otherwise.
The night before the race, with Aesthetica's illumination diurnally dialed down, unseen by anyone, I removed one ventilation grill and then simply propped it back in place, careful of my own fingers against the dirty whirring blades. Then I laid down invisible silicone spray lubricant across a stretch of the corridor floor where Traoke and I would run, a glide path right to the fan.
The next day we perched at the starting line, wearing only our loincloths. Traoke's magnificent body and handsome countenance revealed no suspicions.
"May the best man win," he said.
"Of course," I replied.
So evenly matched were we, that Traoke and I were neck and neck when we hit the unseen lubricant.
But I had the advantage, for I knew the trap was there.
So when we both went down, I was able to hurl myself with seemingly natural awkwardness into Traoke, sending him straight toward the fan, ahead of me.
His leading arm knocked the balanced grill away, and then encountered the fan blades.
Traoke was remanded to the hospital on the eleventh level, the mere start of his downward plunge to the bowels of the city. Evidence of sabotage was undeniable. But any irrefutable connection to me or Dira was impossible to prove.
Afterwards, Dira and I rejoiced, alone together.
"The election is ours now, lover!"
"When will it be?" I asked.
"As soon as the term of the current Prime Allures is up."
That proved to be a short interval, capped by our predictable victory, and our ascent into the isolated and securely inescapable tetrahedral apartment atop the whole city, where Dira and I learned for the first time the full provisions of our reign.
And now that our own short tenure as Prime Allures is almost over, I await without fear, but with some sadness and remorse, the ritual scarification of our perfect beauty, which could only be soiled by intact readmission to the lesser spheres of the city, and our exile into the wilds beyond the pyramid where our looks, I think, will not save us.
Again, the genesis of this story was an invitation, this time from Stephen L. Antczak—a fine fiction writer in his predominant guise, but now acting as an editor. Stephen invited us all to come up with a steampunk refashioning of a fairy tale. Here were two themes I adored, being mashed together. What more motivation did I need?
But I was immediately faced with the matter of which fairy tale to model my re-telling on? I hate when everyone gravitates to the same tired old models—Red Riding Hood, Snow White, Rumpelstiltskin. Admittedly, these core myths are powerful. But they have also become hackneyed from overuse.
So I turned to "The King of the Golden Mountain," one of the lesser-known Grimm-selected fables. My story riffed on a few particular scenes and talismans from the original, but mainly what I wanted to parallel were the same themes of identity and inheritance, parentage and shape-shifting, youth and maturity.
Those strike me as eternal, whether in pre-technological eras or steam-driven times!