The Changeling’s Fortune
By M.C. Aquila & K.C. Lannon
Kallista Callaghan had heard the rumors: there was a faery in the Neo-London Hospital. In all her years of working as a nurse, she had never had a faery patient before. She was determined to see if there was any stock in the whispers that circulated the building. If what she heard was true, then Kallista had to act quickly.
Where are you, Marko? You’re late…
She tapped her foot impatiently and gazed out the wall of windows at the cityscape while she waited. A spring shower dotted the windows with rain, distorting the view of the city that had once been known as Portsmouth forty years ago, built up into a grand city that mirrored its namesake in small ways. The lights of Neo-London winked in the darkness, and the city was quiet. The maternity ward was also absent the usual cries of pain, cries of joy, cries of relief. Tonight only one infant was delivered. Tonight there was only stunned silence.
Hearing footsteps, Kallista looked up to see Marko, a fellow nurse, walk down the hallway to meet her, still in his hospital scrubs despite his shift having ended.
“I was about to go in without you,” Kallista informed him.
He placed his hand on her shoulder, squeezing reassuringly. “Maybe you shouldn’t go in at all. Maybe you should go home to your husband and son, Kalli. Don’t get mixed up in this.”
“So what they’re saying is true.” Kallista rubbed her hands furiously on the front of her scrubs as sweat bloomed on her palms.
Marko nodded. “Supposedly, the mother threw half the staff against the wall when she went into labor—without even touching them. It was magic.”
“What business does a faery have at a maternity ward? They have their own healers, their own ways of doing things.”
“The father is human,” Marko answered. “You might’ve heard of both parents, actually. Aino and Oliver Windsor. They were just on the radio the other night, pushing for faery protection laws.”
Kallista’s eyes widened, and she nodded in understanding. This was not the first time she had heard of such a thing, a faery and a human marrying, but it was rare. She knew of the Windsor couple and of their outspoken criticism of the military system, only because her husband had been fighting against their proposals for years. Oliver’s relation to the king, his cousin, protected the couple’s objections.
“Do you really want to get involved?” Marko asked. “Chances are, we’ll have to smuggle the infant out of the city to get medical attention.”
“I told you before,” Kallista said. “I want to help.”
For several years, Marko had also been practicing medicine outside the hospital, offering his services to those who could not afford it. While he rarely brought up faeries around her, Kallista knew that his help often extended to them—even though human medicine could not help much in some cases. Still, Kallista wanted to be a part of that.
Marko smiled at her faintly. “You have a family. People who need you. People who would hate to see you in prison.”
She took his hand. “You have family too.”
“Not one that depends on me.” Marko gently pried her hand away; she pretended not to notice.
A few of Marko’s relatives still lived in Neo-London after the government policies forced most of the Roma and Travellers away. His mother and father and a few cousins remained.
He looked her in the eye. “Kallista, are you sure?”
“I will see the baby. Then I will decide if I will help or not.” But she already knew her answer.
* * *
As Kallista inched her way into the room, she was first struck by how beautiful Aino was. She had seen faeries in the city before, but none quite as stunning. The only feeling Kallista could compare it to was when her family had taken a day-trip to a lake outside the city and a white roe deer had shot out of the forest right in front of them. The animal had stood stock-still and staring before bounding off with grace and power.
At the time, Kallista’s mother had said it was good luck to have such an encounter. Encountering a faery, however, usually meant the opposite.
Kallista’s gaze drifted to the incubator at the end of the hospital bed and the infant that was lying unnaturally still inside. The baby’s legs had stopped developing just above where the knees should have been. Even from the doorway, Kallista could hear the babe’s labored, slow breathing, its lungs filling with phlegm, and she knew the baby would not last the night.
Oliver looked almost as tired as his wife but leaped to his feet from where he sat diligently by his wife’s bedside. “Thank God,” he said. “We’ve been waiting for someone to—”
“No one is coming to help you,” Kallista said. There was a tremor in her voice, a tremor in her body; she clenched her hands into fists to stop them from shaking.
“I don’t understand,” Oliver said, his eyes darting toward his infant daughter. “Is there nothing the doctors can do for her?”
“Even if they could”—Marko entered the room behind Kallista—“it is not likely they would do a thing to save your little girl. This is not the first time they have let a child die. They believe she’s a changeling baby—a faery child swapped for a healthy baby.”
Shaking his head, Oliver protested, “She’s not a changeling; she’s half faery! Faeries wouldn’t even notice her…”
“Even if you’re right, the doctors will not help.”
Aino’s features were calm, set. When she spoke, her voice was musical in nature, demanding to be listened to. “My daughter needs a faery healer. You will take her to the Summer Court.” Her sharp, blue-eyed gaze fixed on Kallista.
The Summer Court? But that realm has been hidden for decades…
Marko began to gather the sleeping infant into his arms with great care. He wrapped her in a hospital blanket.
Oliver walked over and planted a lingering kiss on his daughter’s forehead. The infant took a shuddering breath.
“I will do my best,” Kallista said.
“Consider it done.” Marko nodded firmly.
Aino extended one pale arm toward the child and stroked her head of soft, dark hair, her hand beginning to shake.
She’ll turn blond eventually, Kallista thought absently, if she lives long enough. Both Oliver and Aino had golden hair.
“Goodbye, Alvey.” Aino pulled back her hand, clasping it tightly.
Marko grabbed Kallista’s arm and began steering her toward the door. As they exited the room, Oliver and Aino huddled together, grasping each other in quiet desperation, Aino’s eyes closed, her chin trembling. Kallista supposed that some rumors about the faeries held no weight: faeries could feel love and loss just like humans after all.
* * *
Kallista pulled her jacket tighter around her shivering, petite body and adjusted her red floral headscarf over her long, dark, wavy hair, pushing back the twin braids that framed her face. They spotted Marko’s car parked a block away. Once they were able to drive, their chances of being discovered by the Iron Wardens—the militarized police that dealt with faery and human relations in the city—lessened somewhat. Still, the enforced curfew was growing closer, and they were running out of time.
“How are we going to sneak her past the city limits?” Kallista asked. She knew that the military often searched vehicles for contraband, unregistered goods, and forbidden items used for performing magic.
“My contact has assured me that the infant won’t be seen or heard by anyone.”
Kallista huffed. “And how exactly is your contact assured of that? Is this assuredness out of arrogance or… something else?” She shuddered at her own implication that the babe would be protected from discovery by magic.
“Didn’t think it was any of my business to ask.” Marko shrugged.
Kallista glared at him.
“What did she mean by the Summer Court?” she asked after a moment of terse silence. “Hasn’t it been barred off from our world since the Cataclysm?”
Kallista had heard many tales of the Summer Court growing up—mostly of the beautiful Seelie queen, Titania, and Oberon, her powerful king. They and their only son, known by humans as the Summer Prince, ruled over their kingdom to the north. These childhood stories were always flowery and poetic, portraying the faeries as romping through the forests and singing and picking wildflowers when they weren’t creating mostly harmless mischief for humans.
However, Kallista knew now that there was a darker side to the tales. Although the Summer Court was comprised of mostly neutral beings, they were no friends to humanity, providing no help in the aftermath of the bombing of London, forty years ago. Instead, they barred their realm off with magic. The Summer Court had held only one objective for centuries: to win the war against the Winter Court, run by the Unseelie faeries, their even less friendly neighbors.
Marko did not answer her question about the Court, pointing silently to the street ahead where two members of the Iron Wardens were passing by. Kallista froze. The Wardens made rounds to ensure that no one in Neo-London, human or faery, broke curfew or any of the many rules they enforced. Kallista had been supportive of the idea when her husband had proposed it, but now it was more of a hindrance than a way to discourage magic use and the celebration of pagan or faery holidays.
After the Iron Wardens were out of sight, they began walking again. “We will go to the city limits, meet my contact, and make our trade.”
“Trade?” The word tasted sour in her mouth. That word didn’t belong with an infant.
“Well, more of an exchange.”
“Those words mean the same thing, Marko.”
Marko scratched at the back of his head, avoiding looking Kallista in the face. “Oddly enough, my contact came to me earlier this week, looking to hide a faery child within the city. He mentioned a curse—”
“We are not in the business of human trafficking!” Her stomach was like ice, though her chest felt aflame. “I will not send a human child to become a slave, one of their thralls.”
“You don’t know the stories I’ve heard about children being traded to faeries like they’re nothing. You cannot trust a faery, Marko. Ever.”
“You of all people should reserve judgment. Perhaps your husband’s prejudice has blinded you as well.”
Kallista was silent for a moment. She seethed as they neared the car, knowing he was right.
I won’t admit it though.
“My contact, Mr. Goodfellow, assures me that Alvey will be very well taken care of. Once she’s healed, she might be able to see her family again. Until then, we have the chance to do more good by helping out another family. They need a home for the faery child, and we have just the family lined up all ready.”
Kallista frowned. Assuming Oliver and Aino will be willing to take a child in right after losing their daughter.
Looking at Alvey again, Kallista stopped short of opening the car door. “I am stealing a gazhe baby away into the night, Marko.”
She was one of the last of her community in Neo-London. Most people in the city did not see her as a woman, a wife, a mother—they called her a Gypsy. While she was only delivering the child at the parents’ request, the irony of the situation was not lost on her. Why the gazhe, the non-Roma, had the ridiculous notion that the Roma wanted to take their children was beyond her.
“If anyone finds out I’ve done this…”
“It could be worse.” Marko glanced over his shoulder at her, offering her a wry smile. “You could have cursed the parents and their children’s children before you left.”
Kallista laughed, but it was tinged with pain. If she had any ability to curse anyone like the gazhe thought she did, she certainly wouldn’t have to worry about being caught.
“Besides,” Marko added. “Who would arrest the wife of the beloved Captain Alan Callaghan of the Iron Guard?”
Kallista was not certain if she had imagined the hint of disdain in Marko’s voice when he said her husband’s name.
“People see what they want to see.” She sighed. “It doesn’t matter who my husband is.”
“Then I will make sure you don’t get caught.”
“But if something does happen to me, I trust you’ll keep your promise, yes?”
“I’ll look after your family. I swear it.”
* * *
It had been years since Kallista had ventured beyond the city limits. They had made it past the military patrol with surprising—if not disconcerting—ease. No one had glanced in the back seat of Marko’s car, where Kallista lay on the floor, wedged behind the seats with the babe in her arms. They left the lights of Neo-London behind, driving until concrete and suburban neighborhoods gave way to gravel roads and open, endless sky.
The last time Kallista had been this far outside the city, she’d bid her family goodbye. Her father, mother, sisters, cousins, aunts, and uncles—they had all fled the city to avoid being arrested or forced out against their will after their businesses were shut down with no provocation. It had not been an easy or welcome goodbye when she’d chosen to stay and marry the father of her child.
“Why have we stopped?” Kallista questioned as she climbed out of the car. She rocked Alvey with great care in her arms, trying to soothe her faint, mewling cries.
“Mr. Goodfellow will meet us here,” Marko said.
Kallista scoffed. She glanced around, looking for some type of marker or notable monument that made this specific spot in the countryside memorable. There was a great hawthorn tree with sprawling, grasping roots in the middle of a field. After the Cataclysm, a deep, primal fear had taken hold, and all manner of things—even trees—associated with faeries, or magic, had been destroyed. Now that certain laws were in place to protect the faeries and their land, incidents like felled hawthorn trees occurred less and less.
While she felt initially frightened about meeting another faery in the same night, her anxiety turned to leaden irritation in her stomach as the minutes gave way to an hour and there was still no sign of anyone.
Kallista stamped her foot against the ground. “Damn the faeries!” Kallista hissed, handing Alvey to Marko. She stomped again, feeling better each time she did it. “I knew it. I knew your contact would be late. As if I do not have a life, a family that needs me in order to function, waiting at home!” Kallista jabbed her finger at him. “You know why he’s late? I bet it isn’t even because he’s a faery. It’s because he’s a man. All of you are the same, even across the species—”
Someone cleared his throat. A rather high-pitched, musical ahem. It did not belong to Marko.
“Ah.” The voice interrupted. “My lady, you are correct in your observation. Though, I did not realize we were so, ah, pinched for time. We all mark its passage in a different manner from your folk.”
Kallista whirled around, her eyes straining wildly in the darkness for the source of the voice. She brought a hand to her mouth but held back a cry as she laid eyes on the man before her, who was just a bit shorter than her. Even in the dim light, she could make out the green tinge to the faery’s skin. Her face heated when she noticed how sparsely he was dressed, completely unmindful of the damp, cool air.
“Hello, Mr. Goodfellow,” Kallista sputtered.
“You may call me Puck.” The man waved his hand dismissively. He looked them both over, beginning to smile in a way that was thin but not cold. “A nomad lord and lady, under the stars… running in the dark. But this is nothing new.” His smile widened as his gaze fell on the bundle in Marko’s arms. “You have the child then?”
Kallista frowned. “Not for much longer, if you keep her waiting. Time may be frivolous to you, but the child barely has time left.”
Marko handed the infant to Puck. Kallista watched Puck closely, as if he were going to devour her instantly.
“My sincere thanks! I’m starved.”
Kallista’s jaw dropped. Before she could lunge at the creature with her fists raised, Puck burst into a fit of giggles. “Don’t look so grim, my lady! I’m not going to eat her. I just enjoy a good jest, and furthermore…” He looked down at Alvey, who gave a weak cough, stroking her hair with one long finger as he continued, “Her parents have been friends to the Court. Whether they meant to or not…”
Kallista looked down. Marko spared her by speaking up quickly. “Where is the faery child?”
“Ah, yes! I suppose we shan’t forget her.” Puck crouched down on the ground and reached behind him, where a small, red-haired babe was asleep on his back, tied there gently with a large leaf and some kind of twine. He did not touch the child’s skin once as he held her out for Kallista to take. She did so.
“Her name is Deirdre,” Puck said. “All her mother knew was sorrow upon her birth, and thus she chose that name. That is all this child, or you, will know of her origins. That is all she needs.”
Kallista studied the child but found nothing in her soft face that gave her away as Fae. She looked human. She tucked the child against her protectively. “She will be taken care of.”
Puck nodded, smiling again. He tucked Alvey into the same makeshift carrier on his back. “The Summer Court thanks you for your service.” And with that, Puck seemingly vanished into the muggy spring air, leaving behind only unanswered questions and a baby.
* * *
She smelled the smoke and saw it billowing in a plume into the night sky before she reached the city. Marko and Kallista looked at each other and knew, knew in their guts that it was emanating from the hospital. It was.
The Iron Wardens lined up outside along with the fire department, keeping everyone back, guiding people out on stretchers and in wheelchairs and beds. Marko pulled away, tires squealing, before anyone could pull them over. Several body bags were visible on the pavement.
“What are you doing?”
“We can’t get in there now. We will find someplace for the baby in the meantime until we know what happened.” Marko’s voice was steady, though his fingers were trembling on the steering wheel.
“It can’t have been—” Kallista shook her head, as if trying to shake the thought from her mind. “The fire can’t have anything to do with the mother, could it?”
Marko remained silent for a moment. “Where can Deirdre stay tonight?”
Kallista stared down at the baby. Of course the child must stay with her. It seemed like the logical answer until she remembered exactly what the child was. Her eyes widened in alarm at the thought. “I can’t take her home, Marko. If Alan found out that she’s a faery…”
“Say no more.” Marko grunted. “I’ll take her for the night. We can figure something else out tomorrow until we can get her to her new home.”
“What kind of home would that be?” Kallista asked. Handing over the child to the Windsor couple had made sense at least; one of the parents was Fae. She couldn’t imagine a human family raising a faery.
“I could ask around. See if anyone in Ferriers Town is willing to take her in.”
Kallista made a face, unnerved by the suggestion. The child looked so human.
“I’m not sure that’s such a good idea. We cannot be certain if a faery took her in that it would be for the right reasons.”
They sat in silence for a moment.
“If she could perhaps be raised in a human environment, with a strong religious influence…” She might turn out fine. Before the words were out of her mouth, she regretted them. It would be wrong to force the child to hide who she was.
“I could take her,” Marko suggested, though he sounded hesitant. He must have known that it would not be possible or ideal even if he did want to take her in.
Kallista smiled warmly at him. “We’ll think of something.”
* * *
Marko drove quietly to the military housing, which was up a steep, walled hill where the city became more suburban, and parked in front of a small, plain home that was tucked between many identical houses. He came around and opened the door for her. Kallista carefully laid the child in the seat before saying good night and then watched him drive away in silence.
As she unlocked the door, crept inside, and removed her shoes in favor of her slippers, it occurred to her that she was out past curfew. She felt a bit like a rebellious teenager, which had been not too long ago. When the lights flipped on, she let out a yelp of surprise.
“I radioed the hospital, and no one could find you.” Alan was standing in his pajamas, holding their sleeping son in one arm. Her husband’s mousy brown hair was sticking up at odd angles, and his ruddy, boyish features were hardened with concern.
“I… I’m sorry—” She could hardly get the words out before he closed the gap between them and kissed her deeply, his hands sliding under her head, twisting in her hair. Her arms fell loosely to her sides, her worries forgotten for a brief moment. She pulled back, breathless.
Kallista’s eyes softened on Iain, whose head was resting against his father’s chest, oblivious to the commotion. Nearly a year old and he had a full head of thick, wavy dark hair. His small, dark, olive-toned hand was gripping the collar of Alan’s nightshirt.
“Marko offered to drive me home after my shift, but we, uh, got stuck in traffic. I’m sorry to have worried you.”
Alan didn’t reply, seeming to accept her excuse.
Kallista reached out and stroked her son’s face. “What are you doing with Iain?”
“Neither of us can sleep when you’re not here, I suppose.”
Kallista sighed. “What happened at the hospital?”
After delivering Iain to his crib, Kallista and Alan both walked into the tiny living room. Alan plopped down on the couch with a groan and ran a hand over his face. “It was the Dearg-dues. Burning their victims is their trademark.”
“The mob?” Kallista gaped.
“There is no need to fret, love. The Iron Guard received an anonymous tip beforehand. Several mob members were shot on sight when they were caught leaving the building. Justice will be done.” She did not hear the satisfaction of justice in his voice. “But not before they took the lives of some very influential people.”
“Who were they—the victims?”
“Oliver and Aino Windsor.”
Kallista was grateful to be sitting down, as the room began to sway in her vision. Tears prickled behind her eyes, and she was grateful for the dim lightning to hide them. “Oh,” she exhaled shakily.
She searched the room for anything to focus on. Her eyes landed on the mantle and to the mess of broken glass under it. She sat up. The glass caught the light, winking at her.
“Don’t.” Alan grabbed her arm as she moved to inspect the glass. “You’ll cut yourself.”
“Your photographs,” Kallista said. “What happened?” The mantle that once held portraits of Alan’s family was now empty, the frames shattered on the floor. “Don’t tell me Iain is getting into mischief already. I thought we at least had another year or so before the terror started.” Her laugh died in her throat when Alan did not respond.
“I’ll clean it up in the morning,” Alan said.
Kallista was going to question him further but stopped when he leaned his head against her shoulder. She sighed, responding by wrapping her arm around him.
The room was quiet, save for the clock ticking away on the wall and the slow rhythmic breathing of the two of them.
“I don’t want to lose this.” Alan spoke up suddenly, his voice muffled against her shirt. He sounded so distant from her.
Kallista held him tighter, refusing to let him slip away, refusing to let him close up like he usually did. “Lose what, my love?”
Alan did not speak.
“You won’t. You won’t lose this, or anything. We’re here. We’re both here. I’m not going anywhere.” Sometimes she felt like her words went unheard. He was scarred, like many who fled to the city from the Cataclysm. They were all afraid of the same thing happening again.
She held Alan until Iain woke them both by fussing in his crib. That night, Kallista found no sleep, only images of flames, charred bodies, and an orphaned infant burning behind her eyes. She knew that what she saw tonight would leave her scarred too.
* * *
It almost felt like a betrayal, taking a faery child to the orphanage several hours from the city. But that was exactly what Kallista did the very next morning. She and Marko had discussed options for several hours, eventually coming to the same conclusion: no single family, no matter how hard they might look, could be guaranteed to be the right match for a faery child. They knew that Trinity orphanage was equipped to handle any sort of child, and they knew it was a nicely kept and well-staffed facility.
Marko snorted as they drove along the gravel road to the building.
“What could possibly be amusing to you right now?” Kallista asked, irritated. She was holding the child tightly in her arms like she did not want to let go.
“What could be funny about a faery at Trinity?” Marko smiled.
Kallista sighed. She didn’t think it was very amusing. At least her husband would probably never discover the child was there at all.
It felt like a second betrayal, just leaving the babe on the doorstep, but she could not risk getting caught with a strange child.
Before she left, Kallista made sure the sleeping girl was wrapped warmly and snugly. She left a note by the door with only the child’s name scrawled there.
She gave the soft head one last, gentle stroke. “I wish you luck, Deirdre. May God go with you.”
“Come on, Louise, get up.” Deirdre nudged the sleeping girl again. Her usually willing playmate grumbled and turned over in bed.
She ran around to the other side of the girl’s bed and prodded her arm. “We’re going out to play.”
“Says who?” the girl mumbled, not opening her eyes. “It’s dark. I’m tired.”
“But you said you’d go out to play tonight! Louise?”
The four-year-old girl only let out a light snore in response.
After moping for a moment, Deirdre stood up straight, her determination renewed. She said she was going outside to play tonight, and so she would.
She padded on bare feet, clothed only in her nightgown, over to the open window, surrounded by beds full of other young girls. Outside, purple dusk had not yet turned into the black night. The heavy curtains on the nursery window were drawn back, the shutters open, hoping to coax in a nonexistent breeze. With the windowsill too high to reach, Deirdre instead shimmied up the thick curtains and leaped out the window and onto the waiting ground a short drop below.
The fragrant scents of a hot summer night were all around her, in the grass, in the air. She skipped happily across the lawn, heading toward her favorite playing spot behind a small line of trees.
The girl froze as a tall Icelandic nun, Mother Superior, headed across the lawn toward her.
“Get back inside this instant!” She steered Deirdre back across the lawn. “How did you even get outside, child?”
“I climbed,” Deirdre muttered, her head lowered.
“That was a very foolish thing to do. Wandering alone is not safe.”
“You were out here alone.”
“I was finishing my rounds, checking for little runaways like you.” Mother Superior pinched her cheek; every girl hated when she did that, and she knew it. It was an effective, quick form of punishment.
Mother rushed Deirdre back to the nursery, all the while reminding her of the rules of the orphanage. As she was tucked in again, Mother forbade her from “being reckless.” And after she left, Deirdre immediately sat up to see if the window had been shut. It had, and she sniffed in disappointment, slowly lowering herself back onto her pillow.
Classes began a few weeks later as summer turned into autumn. Picture books, alphabet games, and crafting paper did little to tempt her eyes from the windows and the world outside. And when the girls were allowed to play, she was the first to jump up and sprint out of the room, laughing as she ran. The outdoors meant play, and play was what she lived for.
And woe betide any child who broke a rule while playing with her. Once while the supervising Sister (Sister Teresa, a young Indian woman) was occupied, a classmate named Adelaide ran instead of stopping during freeze tag. Immediately Deirdre had turned red in the face and bellowed at her to freeze where she was, her deep little-girl voice completely losing its sweetness and softness. Adelaide immediately froze, unmoving save for her sniffling nose and quivering chin. Smiling, Deirdre turned away, feeling that all was well.
And when break was over, Deirdre groaned like everyone else and dragged her feet as they headed back inside. And she’d always sit down in her seat with a weak, woebegone expression that once led a visiting government inspector to believe she was sick. The inspector began to scold Sister Teresa for making students go to class when they were ill, all the while jabbing her finger at Deirdre.
The inspector was louder than Mother Superior and used harsh words that the children had never heard before. Sister Teresa took the abuse silently, her dark brown eyes downward, her coffee-hued cheeks flushed in embarrassment.
About a minute in, Deirdre realized what was being said and shot up in her chair, slamming her little hands on her desk, shouting, “I am not sick, and you’re being mean!”
Sister Teresa’s mouth fell open; this was the first time she had heard Deirdre defending someone (aside from when someone was unjustly being called a cheater). The inspector’s eyebrows shot up as she snapped her gaze at the little girl.
“It’s against the rules to be mean to the Sister!” Deirdre pointed at the inspector, glaring. “You need to say you’re sorry right NOW!”
She was immediately sent to the time-out corner and scolded for being rude to their guest. Through the entire time-out, she sat staring at the wall with her arms crossed, simmering.
When the inspector was leaving that evening, Sister Teresa fetched Deirdre from the dining hall. Holding hands, they headed through the old, high stone halls toward the formal entrance to the building that the young girls never used.
Sensing something of importance must be happening, Deirdre asked Sister Teresa, “Who is coming? Is it a new girl? Or is the priest here?”
“No, dear, we’re saying farewell to Miss Taylor,” Sister answered. “She’s the lady you were impolite to earlier today.”
Deirdre faltered. “But I wasn’t…”
“Once in your seat, it’s time to be silent,” Sister echoed one of their most repeated rules and looked down pointedly at Deirdre. “You were in your seat, but you spoke, even though I didn’t call on you. Plus you shouldn’t yell at anyone. Or call anyone mean. Or point at people.”
Deirdre blinked several times and shook her head as if she had water in her ears. “But… but she was being mean. It’s not FAIR—”
“Don’t call anyone mean, Deirdre. Now, you are going to apologize to Miss Taylor for being impolite to her. Understand?”
She answered in a quiet, reluctant voice, “Okay.”
For the first time in her life, she apologized without meaning it. In her heart, she hoped it would be her last.
The long days of early childhood passed, each hour wonderful, full with play and growth, food and learning, playmates and affection from the Sisters. Her mind latched onto a new feeling each minute and then promptly cast it to the winds in favor of whatever came next. Even as she became aware of what being an “orphan” meant, it did little to dampen her fervor. When the thought disturbed her, she decided that her parents must have died. There was no other reason why she could have wound up at the orphanage.
As she reached her seventh year, she showed no sign of growing out of the innate and stubborn sense of fairness that young children possessed; rule breaking or lying was not to be tolerated.
Once she had to apologize for calling Adelaide a stupid liar when the girl boasted that her father was King Eadred and that she was a princess.
“My father could be someone important,” Adelaide had pressed later that day, looking down her nose at Deirdre.
“But you don’t know,” Deirdre protested. “None of us know our parents! And saying you do is lying.”
“When I find mine, they’ll be important and rich,” Adelaide persisted. “I’m just here because of an accident, like in the faery tales. I bet they’re looking for me right now.”
“If you’re here, your parents are dead, Adelaide!” Deirdre nearly shrieked, her fists balled. “All our parents are dead forever! They aren’t looking for us!”
When Adelaide began to cry, Deirdre felt tears springing to her eyes as well. One of the Sisters came in to see what the fuss was about and found both girls sitting on the ground and sobbing their hearts out.
One wet, muddy day she was playing with Charlotte, a girl in her class who had agreed to sneak out during study time and play hide-and-seek. As Charlotte hid her face behind her fingers and began to count to thirty, Deirdre turned to run, only to glance back and see the other girl watching her through splayed fingers.
“Don’t watch me!” Deirdre shouted. “Cover your eyes!”
Charlotte covered her eyes for one second, only to peer through again with a grin.
“You have to cover your eyes!” Deirdre pointed at Charlotte. “It’s the rule!”
“I am covering my eyes,” Charlotte answered, lowering her hands, her eyes wide open.
“You are not!”
The other girl laughed. “Why are you so mad?”
“You’re not following the rules! And if you don’t follow them, we can’t play.”
“You don’t always have to follow them,” said Charlotte, sniffing haughtily. “That’s what Felicity says. If you had a sister, you’d know better too.”
“Felicity is stupid,” Deirdre shot back maturely.
Charlotte scowled at her. “It’s your fault for not having a sister! Don’t be mad just because you don’t have any family!”
In response, Deirdre slapped Charlotte. Hard.
Crying, Charlotte ran to Felicity, who was around eleven years old. Deirdre was known as a weirdo among the older girls and not in a cute way. Earlier that year, she had been caught raising a bunch of tadpoles with the sole intent of eating them when they grew big enough. Plus she had begun to barge into and win the older girls’ games, especially races. She was not a humble winner.
So when Charlotte came to Felicity with a big sore mark on her cheek, it didn’t take much encouragement for Felicity to get a couple of friends and find Deirdre inside. Felicity and her friends cornered her.
“How dare you slap my sister!” Felicity hissed. She pinched Deirdre on the forearm, twisting fiercely.
“She was being mean.” Deirdre sniffed, smacking Felicity’s hand away and glaring stubbornly at the older girl. “And you’re all a bunch of fat, stinky bullies!”
When the girls grabbed her and dove into the nearest room, hauling her toward the wardrobe, Deirdre did not cry for help. Her vision red with anger, she fought: kicking, punching, pulling hair, even biting. But the girls still threw her into the wardrobe, full of heavy, old coats, and locked her in. Deirdre heard them fussing over their injuries and muttering about how she was a little animal; that did not bother her, but the sound of the door shutting behind them did.
Screaming in outrage, she threw herself wildly against the wardrobe door, the long coats covering her face. With each bodily hurl, she got more tangled in the coats’ sleeves that wrapped around her limbs and around her head. She froze when her face was covered, and she realized she could not breathe.
Her mind going blank in panic, she struggled and twisted; as the seconds passed, her lungs began to scream for air. When she tried to blindly run forward, her wet, muddy shoes slipped on the wardrobe’s floor. She fell forward onto her face, the sleeves releasing her.
After taking several deep breaths, she rolled over onto her back. The long ends of the garments still brushed her legs and forehead. Staying as low as she could, she scooted over to the wardrobe door, pressing herself against it. The only light came through the keyhole.
“Hello?” she called shakily.
No one answered, and she began to cry. She called again and again until her throat went sore. She curled into a ball, finally giving up.
I’m going to be here forever, she thought, her body going cold. I don’t have a sister to come find me, or a mother or father. No one is going to come. She cried harder.
When night was falling and Sister Teresa took roll of the young girls, she noticed Deirdre was missing. No one spoke up, except to report when they had last seen her, so she began searching. She and a couple of the other Sisters began searching the grounds and the halls, calling out her name.
Deirdre had looked up. At first she assumed she imagined her name being called, but it came again. Through the shut wardrobe, the voice sounded unfamiliar and strange. For a wild moment she thought maybe it was her own mother.
“I’m here!” She sat up straight. “I’m here!” She began to smile, all she had ever imagined about her mother coming back to mind, real, immediate.
She wasn’t dead! I’m going home. I’m going home!
When the wardrobe opened and she saw the familiar face of Sister Margaret, the image of her mother shattered. She began to cry again, not resisting as Sister gently urged her to her feet, leading her away to the kitchen for some hot milk before taking her to bed. Deirdre drank it without tasting its sweetness.
The next morning she sat up in bed and scanned the room for Charlotte; she was asleep like all the other girls. But she did not dare face Charlotte alone again. So the moment Sister Teresa stepped inside, before she could even open her mouth to wake the girls, Deirdre ran across the room to her and, pointing at Charlotte, told her the entire story.
Of course Charlotte was punished a little, and Felicity and her friends were punished a lot. But Deirdre also went without playtime privileges for a couple of days, and she had to apologize to Charlotte for slapping her. And she did so but only because she didn’t want to go back into that wardrobe (or even see it, ever again).
Charlotte, Felicity, and her friends did not try to get back at her. But they did begin to call her a sneak, a tattletale, and a snitch.
Unwilling to be locked up again, Deirdre stopped doling out punishment on her own. But hating the title “snitch” and all the shame that came with it, she didn’t report any bad behavior to the Sisters either. Even playing wasn’t as fun as it used to be without rules to be followed, and she nearly stopped playing altogether. As she entered her eighth year, her list of friends dwindled down to zero.
Sister Margaret, in charge of eight- to eleven-year-old girls, had first assumed her growing listlessness was a result of being locked inside. She held off from acting or giving her special attention, hoping she’d grow out of it.
A couple of weekends after fall term began, Deirdre was headed toward the library, lagging behind after having to clean up a mess she made during breakfast. Sister Margaret walked briskly toward Mother Superior’s office, her face red and her fists balled.
“What’s wrong?” Deirdre asked, falling into step beside her.
“Nothing,” she replied immediately.
Frowning, the girl pressed. “Lying is against the rules.”
Sister Margaret smirked at her. “You’re cheeky, aren’t you? It’s nothing— I’m just a little upset at one of the Sisters.”
Deirdre nodded; this she could understand. “Was she mean?”
“No, but she broke one of the convent rules. One of the small ones, but…” She bit her lip, stopping and looking at Deirdre again, realizing she had said too much.
“But you couldn’t punish her for it, could you?” Deirdre asked.
“Oh, no, that’s Mother Superior’s job,” Sister Margaret answered. “I’m going to report everything to her.”
Deirdre blinked. “So you’re a snitch?”
Sister Margaret slowed, considering her. “Deirdre, authorities decide what punishment is given. You know that, don’t you?”
“But you don’t see all the bad things the other girls do. They lie and cheat sometimes, but you don’t see it! None of you do. But I can’t tell you who or when… that’d be snitching.”
Sister Margaret froze, but then she crouched down and took Deirdre’s hand, saying, “It is okay to tell us when you see something bad happening. It’s good to report something bad to me or another Sister or to Mother Superior. We have the experience and knowledge to know how to handle the situation. And if some girl is doing something really bad, us knowing about it will help that girl.”
Deirdre faltered, biting her lip. “Everyone says… Charlotte says that’s being a tattletale. That it’s bad to tell on people.”
Sister looked her in the eye, a small smile playing at her lips. “Do you really think Charlotte knows better than I do?”
Immediately Deirdre shook her head, her short ginger curls flying back and forth.
“Then forget about that. If you see something that you believe is truly bad, don’t be afraid to speak up. Tell one of the Sisters. We’ll be happy you did. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Sister Margaret,” Deirdre said, a smile forming on her face.
Within a few short days, Deirdre became known as the very worst tattletale in the school. The other girls could not get away with anything, and her popularity certainly did not increase. But now when she was called a snitch, she grabbed that insult, tossed it over her shoulder, and kept walking. She knew what she should do to ensure all was right, and so her spirits buoyed back to full life and vigor.
Her unrelenting insistence on fairness did not change as she kept growing; in fact, she changed very little compared to her classmates, especially once they turned twelve. Her classmates began to outpace her in academics, asking questions and having ideas deeper than she could conceive. They began seeing the world in new ways. Especially when it came to boys.
While they didn’t have any boys in the orphanage, there were plenty in the nearby village. As they grew older, shopping with a couple of the Sisters became one of the class’s chores, so they saw the village boys at least twice a week. Her classmates clustered like a giggling and fussing gaggle of hens, pointing out boys they were most fond of.
“Look, Deirdre!” Louise gestured at a brown-haired lad around their age who was helping his father unload a truck of boxes into his family’s store. “Isn’t he cute? I just love when they have brown hair!”
Deirdre saw a small brown terrier at the boy’s heels with exceptionally long, wiry, ungroomed hair. “I guess… he needs a good brushing.”
“What? But his hair is so short!”
Shaking her head, Deirdre pointed. “Look at him! He’s got such long hair.”
Louise rolled her eyes. “No, Deirdre, the boy! The boy! I think his name is Stephen.”
Deirdre frowned at the boy. He looks just like all the others.
“I like the dog better,” she decided aloud.
Soon, boys became the sole topic of discussion for the girls during their free time. They would compare and argue over whose crush was cutest. Deirdre would try to change the subject, but it was fruitless. She felt stupid, completely out of the loop.
Once she tried to engage in their chatter, during which they did their hair in a variety of styles and played with makeup they weren’t supposed to have. After she was forbidden from using the makeup to make monster faces, Deirdre stood up, saying, “This is boring,” and left. The girls called her weird or slow or a child as she walked out the door. Their words made tears spring to her eyes, but she still immediately joined a game of freeze tag with the younger children, unwilling to play alone.
As she became a teenager, Deirdre spent almost no time with girls her age, becoming a playmate and a “cool” big sister to all the younger girls. Spending time with creatures smaller, more fragile, and far more sensitive than her forced her to learn skills that had so far eluded her. Through trial and error, she learned how to determine what games were appropriate for which children and how to explain the rules. She learned how to wait for the younger children to catch up when they went for walks or runs on the grounds.
Finally she learned how to bond with those she would usually ignore. There was one little girl named Iris who got sick easily and so was rarely able to run and play. Once, Deirdre saw Iris confined to her bed, crying from boredom and loneliness, which prompted her to ask the Sisters to teach her new games—quiet, safe indoor games that even the most nauseous child could play without getting sick or exhausted.
She then taught those games to Iris, who was a sharp learner. They most often designed and made paper dolls; Iris was especially amused at how Deirdre, nearly twice her age, was remarkably awful at it, often accidentally cutting her dolls to shreds (after which she usually tore up the pieces in frustration).
And when Iris was too sick for even that, Deirdre would either make up stories or read them to her. While Iris liked to hear stories where orphan children found their birth parents, Deirdre read them reluctantly. The thought of her parents still stung. While she had been completely confident they were dead ever since the wardrobe incident, it still hurt to think that she would never see or hear them, never see what she would look like once she grew up.
On better days when Iris was not nauseated or fevered, Deirdre would put the little girl on her shoulders and run her outside. She knew it was a good day if Iris also laughed as much as she as they dashed out the door.
When Deirdre turned fifteen and Iris was eight, the girl was adopted by a lovely, sweet-spoken mother and a charming father, who lived in a small town with clean air and open fields. And as they tightly hugged farewell, for the first time Deirdre cried both from sorrow and happiness.
This must be what it’s like to have a family, she realized as she kissed the little girl on the forehead.
Shortly after Iris left, Deirdre and her class began to dress differently, more like young women than girls, with middle-length skirts and boots that went to their knees, always with modest, thick leggings underneath instead of tights. They began to learn professional and domestic skills: finance, sewing, embroidery, education, and everything that would make them an exceptional future secretary, teacher, manager, or small-business owner.
When she turned sixteen, Deirdre was trusted to take the ten-year-old girls on weekly hikes; she also took them and other groups on camping trips, lasting anywhere from two days to nearly a week. The weekly hikes thankfully overrode her one sewing and embroidery class. Mother Superior encouraged her to focus more on childhood education than home economics, though she still emphasized that Deirdre needed to learn finesse in sewing at some point in her life.
Deirdre didn’t cling to her or anyone else’s criticism. She rarely minded that she spent almost no time with girls her age; the only thing she disliked was being alone. Only Adelaide, who had grown into the sort of person who always assumed the best, went out of her way to spend time with Deirdre. The other older girls had labeled her as irrevocably weird when she never showed any interest in or attraction to romance or marriage.
“It probably just means you’ll be a nun,” Adelaide offered helpfully between classes one day.
“But I don’t want to be a nun,” Deirdre countered. “All the Sisters say that they knew it was their calling. I’ve never had that feeling.”
Adelaide just shrugged in response.
That May, just days before she turned seventeen, Deirdre brought up the subject once to Sister Margaret, who was now her advisor and spiritual counselor. She listened and then shrugged as well.
“You may just be called to be single, and that is perfectly fine,” she explained, looking Deirdre in the eye as they sat side by side on a stone bench on the orphanage grounds. “No vocation is superior or inferior to another.”
“But what if I am weird or slow like the girls say?” Deirdre pressed, swinging her legs.
Sister Margaret waved her hand dismissively. “Deirdre, this is England. The English are remarkably good at calling people not like them all sorts of silly names. So don’t let it get to you when those girls, or anyone else, says you’re weird or odd or bad simply because you are different. They’re just being rude. Understood?”
Deirdre sighed but nodded. “Yes, Sister.”
“Besides”—she brushed back a lock of Deirdre’s curly, bright red hair that was hanging in her face—“you’re going to get singled out even more when you leave us and go to Neo-London to finish your schooling after summer’s end. I don’t know if you are Scottish like me or Irish like your name… but your ginger hair won’t be smiled on much in Neo-London. But don’t let it get to you. God gave you that lovely hair, and He knows what He’s doing.” She smiled at Deirdre. “Don’t let anyone make you think you need to dye or straighten it!”
Summer passed by too fast. Deirdre let her hair grow longer than ever—all the way down to her waist (it was actually longer, but the frizz and the curl always pulled it up a few inches). She played and camped out with the younger girls, and every day Sister Margaret encouraged her to get her fun in now. Neo-London was the biggest city in England, she said, but there was no room for a young woman to run free. Deirdre wasn’t entirely sure if she believed her; she hoped for the best, thinking a city so full of people must have a lot of fun in store.
The last day of August arrived, and she, with one tiny suitcase of clothes, stepped onto the local grocer’s truck that was headed to Neo-London. She was going alone; all the other girls had jumped ahead of her in their studies and had already graduated, leaving to go to university or their first job.
She hugged all the Sisters, and she kissed and picked up and spun around all the young girls. Some of them cried, and she joined in.
Last of all, she turned to Mother Superior, whose face was stiff, almost severe. Deirdre had seen that expression before when other girls had left. She knew the moment she had driven out of sight that Mother Superior would begin to silently cry.
Unwilling to make the proud woman unravel, Deirdre simply curtsied, saying, “Goodbye, Mother Superior.”
Mother nodded, patting Deirdre on the head. “Your hair is so long. Be careful it doesn’t get caught on anything, like it got caught on those branches last week.”
“And always say please and thank you. You forget to do that a lot.”
“And we’ll be praying for you, so don’t worry and do your best.”
Deirdre nodded, beginning to smile. “Yes, Mother. Is that all?”
She shook her head quickly, waving her hand in dismissal. “Off you go, child.”
And as she sat in the back seat of the grocer’s truck and waved and shouted goodbye to the girls and the Sisters, she could see Mother Superior turning away, wiping her eyes. Tears beginning to fall from her own eyes, she kept waving until they rounded a corner and the orphanage was out of sight.
In her heart, she dearly hoped she would be back as soon as possible.
James Callaghan had last seen his mother six years ago. She had been wearing a bright yellow skirt and a vibrant green blouse; that was the most clear, sharp image, standing out against grey cobbled streets, rows of shops and pubs, and dark iron bars that surrounded everything in the city. From the window of the small bedroom he shared with his brother, James had watched her walk down the street from the military housing to the train station a block away. She had packed lightly, carrying only enough luggage to get her through a sudden, weeklong holiday to visit her family out of the city. Her goodbye had been brief and forgettable; no matter how hard James tried, he could not conjure her parting words in his mind. If she had said anything of meaning, he did not remember.
The moments he did remember were as bright as the colors she wore: she used to read to James and his older brother Iain at night from books or, more often, tell them stories. She weaved fantastical tales, some of them retellings of folktales she had grown up hearing and some of them true stories. After she got home from her shift at the hospital, she would sit in a chair between their two beds, and before they knew it, they were awake far past their bedtimes. Night was never quiet in their house when Mum was there. Iain and James were either shouting questions or reacting energetically to the many twists and turns her tales took.
Frequently they received noise complaints from their neighbors because of their riotous laughter when Mum told them personal stories from her youth, like how she had convinced her grandfather to let her and her sister eat all the sweets in their home: “Once upon a time…,” she would begin, “my sister Delphi and I were once mischievous girls, very badly behaved!” She always stopped to warn them not to try any of her old tricks on her. She didn’t want to set a bad example.
“After my grandfather came home from working all day, he would always remark, ‘Oh, how clean this house is! I wonder how it happened?’ Of course, he knew it was my grandmother who kept the house so clean, but she did not know he teased her. He was not the brightest man. My grandmother became fed up with all her hard work not being recognized, and one day she answered back, ‘It’s the house faery that keeps it clean! Don’t you know anything?’ Grandfather was confused. He had no idea we had a house faery!”
The boys had to stifle their giggles with their pillows. A Romani family, keeping a house faery? It was ridiculous. It was bad luck. It was the kind of thing the gazhe would invent about them to validate his or her fear of the fair folk.
“Well, he wondered why a faery would work for us. What did we give the faery in return for its hard work? It didn’t seem fair. Delphi and I told him that we paid the faery in sweets and that he had upset the faery by not acknowledging its existence.
“The only way to appease the faery now was to make it all the treats it could eat and leave it on the counter before he went to bed. If all the sweets were gone by morning, it had worked. So Grandfather spent the evening in the kitchen, making batches of cookies. When he woke up the next morning, sure enough, not a bite remained. Delphi and I had snuck out of bed and eaten all the sweets at once! We were so full we could hardly move! My mother nearly had to roll me to church!”
Sometimes she lapsed into silence, after she’d wiped tears of laughter from her eyes, and Iain always reached over and gave her hand a pat. James never understood how such happy, loud stories could make her so quiet.
“I wish you could meet them all,” Kallista would say wistfully when she spoke of her large extended family and the Romani community that used to be prevalent in the city. “They would love you.”
“Why can’t we meet them?” James would ask. The children at school always complained about having to visit their grandparents and having to listen to their anecdotes about the days before the Cataclysm, and James thought they were lucky to have such a privilege.
Kallista’s explanations were always vague, and she quickly changed the subject. When they got a little older, she would tell them simply, “My father wanted me to marry someone else. But I fell in love with your father, and that was that.”
James wanted to ask “Why?” He had asked Iain once, and Iain had smacked the back of his head sharply. He didn’t understand why she loved their father, and he didn’t think it was fair of Iain to punish him for it. But Iain had always maintained his loyalty to their father.
It was not that their parents did not get along—they coexisted with ease and supported each other. Their father was more like a specter drifting through their house than a participant, rarely joining them. He was quiet and cold and impossible for James to understand.
All James had in common with his father was his green eyes and brown hair, James thought. James’s complexion was dark olive brown like his mother and brother’s, and he had unfortunately seemed to inherit his mother’s slight frame and height as well, though he was still hopeful he’d have another growth spurt (and that Iain would stop teasing him about it).
When they were children, Iain had always been infatuated with tales of brave knights who took oaths to serve and help people, and he would read Arthurian stories like he needed them to breathe. But as the boys grew older, they began to ask less and less for fictional stories and more for personal ones. Iain especially had wanted to make it clear that he had outgrown stories entirely when he was around twelve.
“I want to hear a true story,” Iain had whined one night.
“Who is to say these stories aren’t true?” Kallista had asked, clutching their usual book of Arthurian tales to her chest. Then she’d chuckled at Iain. “And I thought you loved this book, Iain. You used to play knights with your brother all the time.”
“Yeah, well, a Rom could never be anything like a knight anyway, right?” Iain asked with a shrug.
Kallista looked severe. “Who told you that?”
Iain was tightlipped. James had wanted to speak for him and tell their mother it was the Prance brothers who had said it, but he knew Iain would be cross with him if he did.
“That’s ridiculous.” Kallista shook her head. “Us Roma can be whatever we want, just like anyone else. We have been everything. Plenty of Roma have been soldiers and served a king or government.”
“Even in the Iron Infantry?”
She smiled. “If not, I bet you’ll be the first.”
“I knew it was rubbish,” Iain stated, settling back down with a grin. “Anyone can help people, can’t they? That’s what I wanna do.”
After a moment, Kallista had conceded to tell the boys a true story instead. When she asked what they would like to hear about, James had piped up, “Faeries.”
Kallista had gotten up and closed the bedroom door, as if afraid someone might hear what she was about to say. “My parents used to tell Delphina and me stories of the Fae. They were always in warning. It was their way of making sure we stayed inside at night like good girls. But I’ve heard just as many pleasant stories.”
James had leaned in close to hear his mother’s story. She spoke nearly in a whisper, as opposed to her usual boisterous tone when weaving a tale. It was not like the folklore she had spoken of before, where encountering Fae was unlucky or wrong. She told them of how, in her vitsa in Ukraine, a young Kalderash boy had gotten lost outside overnight in the winter and how when they’d found him the next morning, he said strange magic lights had guided him to a warm place to sleep, where little faeries had watched over him.
Iain had grimaced.
James had shivered. Magic and Fae were two nearly forbidden subjects in their home due to their father’s dislike of the faeries and their mother’s insistence that magic was evil and contaminated.
“But isn’t magic bad?” James had asked.
Kallista had thought for a long moment. “Not in all cases, with Fae magic. It depends on their motivation, I suppose. If the motivation was good, like saving that boy, then I don’t think it was wrong. His parents were certainly grateful their prayers had been answered.”
“But have you met a faery?” James had asked impatiently.
“Yes. A few,” Kallista had admitted slowly. “The most recent was a goblin woman. And I believe… she was trying to help me. Yes. I think she was,” she murmured softly, her words fading as if lost in thought but looked as if she wanted to say more.
When James and Iain had both demanded more information (Iain forgetting he was supposed to feign disinterest), Kallista had said it was a tale for another night, perhaps, and that it was time for them to say their prayers and go to bed. But she never did tell them about her own encounter with the goblin. She left a week later.
James wished he had been more observant as a child so he might have noticed if something was wrong. Nothing stood out to him as abnormal about the day she left—nothing that explained six years without contact. Mum had prepared a breakfast of porridge and had put Iain to work with household tasks. Iain had been unusually quiet that day, but he’d completed his chores dutifully and without complaint as he always did. He’d got in trouble with the school again, and a harsh scolding from his mother the previous day had stricken him into a guilty silence.
The first week had passed slowly. With their mother gone and their father working odd hours, Iain had taken it upon himself to care for James and the house. Iain had to learn quickly to prepare meals without help. It had been fun for a while with more freedom, just James and his brother looking out for each other, staying up later than normal, ignoring tedious rules no one knew they weren’t following. One week had turned into two, and James missed his mother so much that his chest ached. Iain had become perpetually anxious, shedding his carefree nature like a snakeskin.
Whenever the boys dared to ask their father if he’d heard from their mother yet, he would simply reply that she must have decided to stay longer, that she would be back shortly. Eventually they stopped asking. Eventually their father ceased speaking of her altogether. Weeks of waiting had morphed into months and then into insidious routine and complacency. Life without Mum had become normalized to everyone except James.
James had always thought that Iain had been serious when they would stay awake planning to leave the city one day, travel the countryside, and find their mother and bring her home. They would explore the country and new cultures, encountering wild nature and Fae and the world of greenery beyond the iron walls of Neo-London. Now that James was older, he suspected that his brother only said those things to distract him, to ease his mind. But even when Iain no longer entertained conversations of adventure, James kept planning.
This morning, James woke up far before the sun rose, hoping to finish his morning chores in time to visit the bookshop before school.
He finished scrubbing the kitchen down an hour ago. At least he had finished half of it before becoming distracted. He took frequent breaks when the bleach fumes started making his eyes water, and during his last break he decided to crack open an old book. He sat on the sofa in front of the unlit fireplace in the living room and flipped through the colorfully illustrated pages of a children’s poetry book his mother used to read to them.
He heard the click of the front door unlocking and realized he’d lost all track of time. Iain was coming in the door from his overnight shift. James scrambled upright, tossed the book on the couch, and covered it with a throw pillow before Iain trudged into the room.
“You look awful,” James blurted out.
His older brother’s dark brown eyes were half-closed from staying awake all night, and there was a bruise over his right eyebrow that was swelling.
Iain merely shrugged in response, not seeming to care, and threw himself down on the couch beside James. He sat up after a moment in confusion and reached behind his back, pulling out the book and squinting at it.
“What’re you doing with this?”
“Reading it. What else would I be doing with it?” James asked sarcastically.
“Unless you’re going to use the book to beat dirt from the rugs, I suggest you put it back until later, yeah?” When James sighed, Iain suggested, “Or I could beat you with the book, if that’s what it’ll take for you to do your chores.”
“I was doing chores,” James protested. “I’ve cleaned most of the kitchen.”
“What about your laundry?” Iain nodded toward the back garden out the window where the clothesline outside was clearly bare.
James groaned. Laundry was always an arduous task. Mum had taught them to wash their own clothing when they were quite young. James had long thought it was the same level of tedium for everyone—it was only when he had complained about the task at school did he learn differently. Most of his peers didn’t even wash their own laundry (their mothers did it for them), and no one ever told them they were supposed to separate the upper body clothing from the trousers or wash everyone’s clothing separately.
James wondered if Iain knew that he sounded like a mother hen. “You know, I think you just like to order me around. It’s not like the house is that dirty anyway.”
Iain threw his head back against the couch. “You think I get a kick out of this or something?” he asked. “This old place would collapse if we didn’t keep it neat. We’ve got to bleach the hell out of everything, or the mold will come back. And you can’t be going to school in unwashed clothes, can you?”
James huffed but knew Iain was right. Iain was always repairing things in the home haphazardly. The city didn’t much care to pay for the military housing repairs, and it seemed like their father cared even less than that and wouldn’t pay for repairs either. Sometimes James wondered if Iain didn’t tend to the house or buy groceries, if he or their father would even notice if the house caved in, or if either of them would eat at all without Iain to take care of them. Luckily for them, Iain seemed to enjoy cooking a great deal even if he did not enjoy cleaning.
James began to grumble about how he was going to get it done eventually, but he soon noticed Iain was not listening to him; he wasn’t even on the couch anymore.
Iain returned a moment later with a dish towel with a few ice cubes in it and pressed it against his face. It was a surprisingly common sight.
“What happened?” James asked. He sat up a little straighter, leaning in with interest. “Did it involve a faery?”
James was eager to hear about faeries. His father was always going on about how dangerous they were and what a scourge on the city they were. James knew better. He’d learned a lot more about faeries from the books he’d collected over the years than anything anyone taught him in or out of school. The banned books were the most informative, which was why James thought they were banned in the first place.
Iain shot him a wry look. “A faery wouldn’t conk you. They’d just use their magic. Much sneakier.” He tossed the dish towel onto the table. “Anyway, it was some drunken idiot that clocked me when I was trying to break up a row. He’s worse off for it.”
“That sounds really urgent.” James slumped in his seat. “Good thing we have the Iron Wardens for that.”
“The entire city would be doomed without us, yeah?” Iain chuckled. “Listen, it’s not the most interesting job, but it pays well enough.”
It made little sense that Iain had decided to join the Iron Wardens when he had always yammered on about joining the Iron Infantry and facing real dangers. The Iron Infantry was reserved for combat, various missions all over England, and protecting the king while stationed in the city. On the other hand, the Wardens were more like police than anything else, and while they were in the same group as the Iron Infantry recruits during basic training, they did not have to train as long. The most they were equipped to handle was riot control and a few scuffles. Mostly they made sure no one was out past curfew. Iain had always mockingly called them glorified senior prefects.
“The Iron Infantry pays well too,” James pointed out. “And they at least help protect people from monsters, and they protect the king.”
Iain smiled tiredly. “You’d like that, wouldn’t you? Me gone, you’d have no one to tell you to do your chores.”
When James did not respond, Iain whacked him playfully in the back of the head with the book. James swore and rubbed at the back of his skull furiously, even though it hadn’t stung too badly.
“Oh, come on,” Iain said. “It can’t have hurt that bad.”
“Is that what they teach you in the Iron Wardens, to be a bully?”
“That, and to clean the barracks every day.” Iain exhaled softly, turning the book over in his hands. “I know you’ve got a grudge against them, but the Iron Wardens have done good in this city. Things aren’t how they were before.”
James scoffed under his breath but refrained from commenting about how sorely mistaken he thought his brother to be.
“Besides,” Iain added with a yawn, “Dad recommended me for the job, and he wanted me close to home. How could I refuse?”
James couldn’t understand why Iain would just drop his near lifelong aspiration just because their father suggested he join the Iron Wardens instead, but he supposed there were lots of aspects of his brother that he would never understand. He did not understand why Iain still sought their father’s approval.
“You start school today, yeah?” Iain asked after a pause. James nodded. “Are you prepared?”
“Of course I’m prepared,” James said, gesturing to his pajamas. “And I’m sure smelling of bleach will, uh, make a good impression.”
“Good,” Iain said, clearly not noticing James’s sarcasm or lack of proper clothing. “I’m completely knackered.” He stood up and stretched. “I’m going to sleep.”
James perked up. He might be able to leave in time to visit the bookshop after all.
Iain held up the book threateningly, though his eyes glinted with teasing. “Finish those chores. I mean it.” He grinned before tossing the book to James, who barely managed to catch it against his chest.
“All right. Fine.” He had no intention of doing that.
At the age of fourteen, James knew the city well enough to get around on his own. He found that he could maneuver through a crowd of people without being noticed if he wanted to. He walked along the busy pavement, passed people without even brushing their clothing, darted expertly across streets and past cars, and taking little-known shortcuts through various buildings. People didn’t pay him much mind usually.
Today being overlooked was an advantage; he knew what he was doing could get him in serious trouble if he was caught.
A secondhand bookshop was located in the more urban part of the city, crammed between two convenience stores. It was one of the only buildings on the street that was not guarded by an iron fence to keep out Fae, which had intrigued James enough to venture inside the first time last year. By this point, James was a regular customer, and the shop owner gave him a little nod whenever he came by.
The bell over the door chimed as James peered inside the shop. There was one room up front that was completely crammed with books—on shelves, stacked on the floor, piled in bins—and a smaller employee room that was roped off.
James covered his nose briefly with the brightly colored, dizzyingly patterned scarf around his neck. The air was musty, smelling of mildew and yellowed paper and the flowery air freshener the owner used to mask the scent of smoke.
“Morning, lad.” The shopkeeper grunted at him from behind the register. He rolled his eyes at James covering his nose before stamping out his cigarette hastily on the counter. He squinted at James. “You aren’t bunking off, are you?”
James shook his head. “School’s not for another half hour.”
The man raised an eyebrow at him but then shrugged. He waved his hand dismissively in the direction of the back room. “Got some new ones that might interest you. Just don’t go making a mess.”
How could I possibly make this place more of a wreck? James wondered incredulously, but he bit his tongue.
An elderly woman entered the shop and asked the owner to point her in the direction of gardening books. When she spotted James, her eyes narrowed and she frowned. James wilted shyly under her gaze and, not knowing what else to do, gave her a little wave, hoping she’d stop staring.
The woman leaned over the counter toward the owner and said loudly enough for James to hear, “If I were you, I’d keep a close eye on that one.”
James’s throat tightened. He tried his best to ignore the ignorant and unfounded claims about the Roma—that they were inherently tied to magic and faeries, that they were thieves—and he tried to give people the benefit of the doubt. He rarely sought out the darker intentions in people—that was his brother’s undertaking.
But there were other reasons besides his heritage that caused people to whisper and gawk.
James was not oblivious to the rumors and unkind whispers surrounding his mother and her absence, no matter how hard Iain fought to protect him from them. He had overheard a number of theories from his peers as to why she never came back, the most absurd being that she joined a group of faery cultists to connect to her nonexistent magical roots. The most troubling theory was that she had merely got what she’d wanted from Dad and their marriage—his money—and she’d left with no intention of returning. That rumor hurt more than anything fantastical that someone could dream up based on stupidity. It hurt because it painted his mother in a bad light. If they had known her like James knew her, they would never utter such things.
Wordlessly, James ducked into the back room where he found an unmarked cardboard box on the floor. The owner sometimes saved books for James to dig through that he would have discarded otherwise—books that were too ramshackle and decayed, books that were taboo, or books that were banned. Sitting down cross-legged on the floor, James got to work.
Foraging through his bag, he pushed past books on plants, animals, wilderness survival, and a thick volume of maps—Britain, Neo-London, the old city of London before it was bombed in the Cataclysm—and produced a heavily used notebook. He flipped past pages of notes on the countryside and patrol times of the Iron Guard and found the section on magic. Years of research would finally be put to use soon.
James rummaged gingerly through the box at his feet. Some of the book spines were brittle as bones, while others were gossamer as a cobweb and seemed they would be reduced to dust if he grabbed them too eagerly. One book caught his eye. The script was mostly faded on the blue woven cover, save for the faint shimmering shape of a winged faery that was once outlined in brilliant silver. He grinned, tracing the indentation with his fingers.
The worn, spiraling lettering read: Servants of The Winter Court: Unseelie Faeries and Their Ilk.
Snickering at the rather dramatic title, James began flipping through the first few pages. The inside was in good condition, with not a single torn or missing page. He leaned down and took a huge whiff of the book, breathing in the smell of old paper. He coughed once and then began to read.
James knew a little about the Winter Court already; he knew that a king and queen ruled over it but that they were much less organized than the Summer Court. They were supposedly located in Shetland, north of Scotland and the Summer Court. Both Unseelie faeries and monsters of all sorts were allied with the Winter Court, the monsters roaming throughout the island unchecked and untethered by their Court. There had been more and more monster sightings down south with each passing year.
Pen and ink illustrations flitted through his vision as James opened the book and flipped through the pages. Sharp, high-contrast images of dark elves, nymphs, red caps, wolflike spirits, trolls, and other creatures, gaunt faces and hollowed eyes shadowed deeply in black ink. One creature in particular caught James’s eye (besides the rather risqué nymph illustration): an odd type of giant known to terrorize Scotland. It had only one leg, one arm, and one eye. According to the text, it had slaughtered whole villages in the past.
“The Fachan,” James murmured with a disbelieving grin, running his thumb over the image. “Aren’t you a big ugly chap?”
There was more: the curses, spells, and hexes cast by these creatures. How some spells could cause a burst of magic, and some curses could blot it out. How some magic was sealed for years, only awoken by the touch of a powerful or skilled faery of either Court.
The minutes were eaten away, and before James new it, it was time for him to head to school. He decided to buy the book as he barely had time to copy down any useful information into his notebook (if the information was useful and not biased, which was hard to gauge). As he made his way to the counter, he smiled at the elderly woman from before as she gave him a once-over.
“It’s free, lad,” the shopkeeper insisted when James began opening his wallet. “I’d have to throw it out otherwise.”
James nodded gratefully. “That’s, um, a relief,” he said brightly, turning to look at the elderly woman. “Now I don’t have to steal it!”
The woman swiftly turned away, her face flushing deeply. James almost felt badly about embarrassing her. Almost. He was glad his brother was not there to hear him give an old woman cheek, knowing that Iain would either laugh or drag him from the shop by his ear.
As James started toward the door, the bell chimed again. The shopkeeper reached across the counter and grabbed James’s arm so sharply that he winced. “Put that book away. Now.” The shopkeeper hissed, his eyes wide and fearful. “Don’t let them see it.”
Two Iron Wardens shuffled into the shop, glancing around with no attitude of purpose. James quickly tucked the book away into his school bag and focused his gaze on the floor. He tensed as they strode past. His eyes flicked to their batons at their belts, and he knew from Iain’s experience in basic training that they were taught to use them efficiently.
“You get to school now, lad,” the shopkeeper said, never looking away from the Iron Wardens. “Go on. Don’t let them bother you.”
The Iron Wardens began to ask the shopkeeper about a faery in the area that had been seen loitering around. James hurried out of the shop, clutching his satchel to his chest, and did not slow his pace until he reached the school.
“All right, mouse?” a woman’s voice asked cheerfully.
James halted on the first massive stone step leading to the grand school entrance, his feet suddenly heavy. Just as he was recovering from his brush with the Iron Wardens, his heart rate began to pick up again.
He did not need to turn around to know who was speaking—the loathed nickname was evidence enough. She called him “mouse” because he’d always been short and slight, and she thought that was amusing for some reason.
The last time he’d seen Elaine three years ago, she had looked rough, haggard, ravenous—the same way all the Pan consumers, hidden in the corners of the city, looked when they’d reached the height of their addiction, when human food was not fulfilling enough anymore. Pan was faery’s fruit, meant to nourish faeries only. If humans ate the right amount of Pan, it could be a pleasurable but addictive experience. But if too much was ingested, it became a poison.
Three years ago, she’d dropped his barely conscious brother on the side of the road like rubbish and peeled off, tires screeching.
James didn’t reply, out of a mixture of stubbornness and unease. She had always made him unsettled—by her synthetic joy and jittery demeanor. He couldn’t see her out of the corner of his eye. He figured she must have been waiting outside the gates.
Realizing that James was not going to acknowledge her, she retorted to his silence, “You’ve never been one for greetings or niceties, have you, mouse?”
“I’ve got to go now,” James ground out. He began trudging up the steps once more, quicker this time.
“Tell your brother I’ll be waiting for him. Tell him I just want a chat. That’s all. Please.”
James had no intention of doing that. He leaped up the stairs and into the building. Somehow, facing his first day back at school, friendless and ignored, didn’t seem so daunting. Besides, he wasn’t planning on staying for the entire semester anyway. Soon he’d be far away from Neo-London. Soon he’d find his mother, and everything would be right again.