(Posted August 18, 2016)

Love Struck Out

Winter of the Rising River - Winter of the Crumbling Peaks


My ten-thousandth birthday flickered up and flickered away again in the same simple manner they all did. Around that time, Ambrosine decided that he wanted me sanctified and baptized as he had been with water drawn from the Promised Basin, which crowned the fountain honoring the Tuatha Dé Danann in the courtyard of Queen Shoulath.

The ceremony was a small and short-lived one. I'd hoped Solara might take the opportunity to make her reappearance and prove her fairyhood once and for all. She chose not to, though we did use Chipixie as her surname on my medallion. Instead, I passed several of my Hundred Hours of Reflective Silence wandering the courtyards and castle halls, with Prince Northiae as my occasional guide. I suppose that was satisfactory enough.

Three hundred and seven years after I turned a hundred and fifty-seven thousand, Ambrosine summoned me to his office in Wish Fixers. I'd long worked beneath him on days when I wasn't expected in school (we only attended twice a week back then, not every other day as they seem to do now), but today was not a day to discuss clients. Today, he took me out for a lunch of sandwiches as he sometimes did, and as we awaited their arrival, he tapped his fingers against the side of his face.

"Fergus, you're through with puberty, and we need to find you a wife."

I removed my thumb from my mouth. Except where my peers could see, in my youth I was ever a horrible thumb-sucker (Hawkins, I imagine, can in his own way attest to it). "Already?"

"Why not? Your gyne freckles are just starting to prickle in. No reason to wait."

My eyes went to the waitress who had at last arrived bearing our sandwiches and soup bowls. She had freckles of her own up and down her nose, though that didn't mean she was a gyne- only drakes could be gynes or drones, and not just average kabouters. "I… I'm not sure I'm ready. I'm still more than forty thousand years short of age of majority. I can't even buy my own sugar, or- or travel most of the cloudlands by myself, or own a house bigger than an apartment room. I'm still in upper school. I don't even have my license yet to use magic outside the school building if I'm not supervised by someone with their adult wings."

"Then we're both lucky that marriage after your hundred and fifty thousandth birthday legally emancipates you." Ambrosine took the table's edge in both hands and used it to pull his floating wireframe chair nearer to mine. "What's the part that makes you anxious?"

"I don't want to do it," I whispered.

"Do what?"

"I don't want to leave home yet. I don't want to pay for my own magic usage. I don't want to have to take care of myself when I'm sick. I don't want to mate. I don't want my wife touching my personal stuff or poking fun at what I like to do or bothering me when I'm trying to work. I don't want to get my wings notched. I don't want it to hurt."

Ambrosine shrugged. "There's nothing I can do about that. You can't live with me forever."

"Why not?"

"Firstly, because you sap up my money with little benefit to me. A hundred and fifty-seven thousand years ain't short."

"'Ain't'?"

"Secondly," he went on, ignoring me, "you're a gyne. I wasn't lying when I told you millennia ago that your brain is wired to believe it's entitled to leadership. The darker your freckles get, the more you're going to want to usurp my position as head of the house and the family business. It's just the way you are. I think, perhaps, that I ought to get a cù sith- you wouldn't risk killing me dishonorably with one of those around just waiting to swap souls with you and get yourself stuck in its furry little four-legged body, hm? At least then I'd have a fighting chance."

I crossed my arms against the table, staring into my steaming tomato soup. "Right. The territorial issues. That's why I'm the only gyne this half of Novakiin. I'd forgotten about how I stuffed Steven or Stuart or Stanley Wilcox in that cardboard box and left him locked up in the old Sprinklewings place when I was nine thousand."

"I was so proud of you," he remembered. "Naturally, I expected you to win your little kerfuffle the entire time. Third, it's just not done, a pretty drake as well-off as you without a mate once you're of age."

"Uh-huh. Okay, but logic gap: If I'm such a threat to you, your life, and your stuff, why did you even keep me instead of giving me away to some other drake and damsel who might have wanted to raise a baby? I mean, you've always said Solara left you because you two had me, right? Easy fix."

"Yes, but I needed an heir, simple as that. Also, you were adorable and I couldn't resist. It's just not in me to hurt a nymph. I love them too much. Second also, few Fairies are interested in adopting such a sickly child, and a gyne to boot, when other options are available."

I picked up my simple cheese sandwich for the first time, though I didn't yet bite into it. "And I assume I can't live alone by myself because…?"

"I want grandnymphs. If Wish Fixers does go to you one day, I'd like to be sure you'll pass it along to your eldest child who's interested in it, too."

I tried to imagine being interested in Wish Fixers. After chewing through half my food in silence, I said, "Recently, I figured out what I think I'd like to do with my life."

"And it only took you a hundred fifty thousand years. Not too shabby."

"It's a big choice. It took a lot of thinking." He didn't answer, so I added, "Don't you want to hear what it is?"

Ambrosine took a long sip of his lemonade. After softly smacking his lips, he shook his head and knit his fingers. "It doesn't matter. You're my heir. Wish Fixers is yours. I can't just call take-backs."

I pushed my fingertips through the holes in the table's mesh and maintained eye contact. "I want to go to law school."

Ambrosine weighed my words as he plucked at his handkerchief. "If I let you go to law school, what would you do after you were done?"

"I'd take cases and things. I'd defend what people want me to defend, argue for what's right. I don't believe good people ought to be taken advantage of, and I think those who break the rules or Da Rules ought to be punished for it. I want to do my part to make the universe a fairer place. I like the neat, the orderly, and I like everything being exactly the way it's supposed to be. Most of all, I'd like to sit on the Fairy Council someday."

He choked on the next bite of his roast beef and bacon sandwich, but only for an instant. "You think you'll be able to sit on the Fairy Council?"

"If I work hard and live long enough, then yes. I'll prove I want to help people, then they'll support me in the election. Easy enough. Since we're located in the Central Star Region, I intend to go for the purple robe. I mean, there's certainly no way I can become ambassador of the fairy species. Not with the royal Wester bloodline hogging that position."

"Yes, I see. Unfortunately, I control the money in this family, and I don't need a lawyer. You're going to learn therapy."

I slammed my fist on my plate. It wasn't that I hadn't anticipated the response, but it never stopped turning my blood blue. "You're a therapist. Would it seriously knot your lines for you to be supportive of what I want? Just this once?"

"The future you're demanding is far too ambitious and unrealistic. That's just your gyne side talking. Happens to all of you when the freckles creep in. You'll grow out of it and be thankful you did when you realize you otherwise could have been wallowing penniless in the gutter of broken dreams."

I lowered my head, chewing on my lip. Never once had that occurred to me.

He raised just one thin black eyebrow. "So, therapy?"

My fingers relaxed. "Therapy."

"Excellent. Now, back to our original order of business." Ambrosine drew a broken chunk of tablet from one pocket of his red vest and blew off a scattering of dust. Grit tumbled between the thick wire mesh of the tabletop with an oddly-comforting pinging sound. "I've already taken the liberty of drawing up a list of all the damsels that I think would give you adorable nymphs and who would benefit our family line if we crossed ours with theirs."

"Okay." I licked grease from my fingertips. "Lay them on me, I guess."

"Firstly, there's Carling Feathercourt. She's a fairy, and one with a powerful mother watching over her back. Glassmakers- you'd like them. And she always has a long braid in her blonde hair that you could bat at if you chose. Fawn Whiteripple the alux has blue pigtails and brilliant pink eyes. And three other fairies who have quite the curls in their hair, if I do say so myself: Aelva Stillwing's got silver, Ellette Sugardust has red, and Kristiana Shadow's hair is unsurprisingly black with a white streak down the right side." He peered at me over the list. "Any of them catch your interest?"

"I don't know. The alux, I guess. Her eyes sound pretty. I like alux crowns. They're tall and have gems on them, and that pink fabric cap between the spikes. And, aluxo'ob turn mostly invisible when you don't look directly at them. That's neat."

"Right. Let me see my notes. Ah, right here. I've talked around some, and I happen to know that she and her gal-pal group stop by Seashell Café every Tuesday afternoon - up in Serentip - and they usually sit up front along the counter. Next week, we'll send you over there you check them out. Fawn would of course be ideal, but if you like what you see in one of the others, take the chance and don't just gape at the worm like a cautious eel."

Didn't the cautious eel not get hooked?

So the date was set. I would scout out the damsels, and Ambrosine would shout encouragement from the sidelines.

"One more time," he said in the doorway as he tucked the tail of my tie beneath my mulberry-colored vest. "What do we look for in a wife?"

"She's a fairy with kindness towards nymphs, pretty hair, and a wealthy family behind her."

He tousled my own hair with his fingers and pushed me off the porch. "Off with you."

I went off. Two towns over, in fact, as the dragonfly skims. Serentip was one of the starport towns (it's a full-fledged city nowadays) with cloudships and other skyships ever docking or loading up their cargo for the long haul across the skies. Evidently the town was big on tourism, as boats scrambled for places to tuck in their sprawling rainbow wings and land, the crowds were thick, and the entire place dripped with colorful Krisday lights. I gazed in respectful awe at the fins flanking one of the most ornate turtle-like ships that had yet to move from its corner, then stepped forward and cleared my throat twice.

"Where are you off to, dame?"

One of the sailors leaning on a post at the end of the pier checked over her shoulder. Spitting out a strand of orange hair, she called back, "'Tis the season to bring the Snobulacs their alliance tribute."

"Long trip?"

"About four days, aye. Well." Her hands moved to her hips as she lit her wings and came in my direction. Another curl popped loose from between her lips. "First we have to get clearance from the big bucks up in their pretty tower. We could be here another week before we get to spread our little tortuga's wings."

I glanced between the snoozing Fairies on the dock and the open sky. "Isn't the anniversary of the day the Snobulacs joined forces with our Aos Sí ancestors during the Sealing War like, in the middle of next week?"

"Yes. We'll have to plow through the sky as quickly as possible, putting all our magic into action, although the further you go from the Big Wand then the more distorted the energy field gets. Wander too far and you'll leave it behind. Frankly, I'd snip a few lines for some kind of inter-plane sandwich shop to be set en route. We don't have room for too much food with all the crew we need just to ensure we can maintain a working SHAMPAX system out of range."

"Won't the Snobulacs be horrendously offended if you're late with Fairy World's tribute?"

"Yes, and we'll take their punishments for it." She shrugged. "Every few decades, we go through this. Since most of the cetus-hunting ships, cruise liners, and ferry boats around here readied themselves before we did, we have to wait our turn. Silly system if you asked me. Fun stuff, playing in the grown-ups' world."

That made me frown. "Someone high up should really triage these things based on importance and timing. You should go first."

Smiling, the fairy said, "Just between you and me, someone could make a small fortune if they organized the tabletwork system and made it run as smoothly as Kiiloëi's water. But, sticking around isn't all bad. Serentip grub can be snazzy enough to get by. Hey, but you taste that sort of burning, sizzling scent in your nose?" She drew in a deep whiff. "That's comet dust still clinging to the hull of our ship from an asteroid belt. Sharp and ripe and ready for pickin's. Good stuff in the morning to really pump the magic particles in your blood. I wouldn't give up my starsailing for much of anything. Except maybe that sandwich shop. Get me a cute sandwich shop on its own little asteroid one day, will you? Right between Planes of Existence 5 and 6."

"I'll do that. I promise. And I like it. The smell, I mean."

The sailor tipped her crown at me. "You looking for work? We could use a new cabin juvie."

"Maybe in another lifetime. I'm not really the plane-skipping type- I need grounded clouds beneath my feet. I'm only here sightseeing."

"Bah. Tourists." She waved me off, but there was casual friendliness in her gesture, not actual annoyance. As I picked my way back along the pier, that smell of exploration and opportunity flowed all around me. I spun around in a small circle, raising my arms above my head and stepping backwards since my wings didn't really allow me to fly that way.

"I could do it," I realized then, gazing at the ships as their own either feathered or translucent wings blurred with shimmering pastel rainbows. "If I get that Fairy Council seat, I can fix the little things like this. Or maybe I don't even need to go that far. All it would take is a little knowledge of Da Rules and the laws of the universe, a pinch of authority, a bit of respect, some organization, and I can help people."

Stuffing my fists in my pockets, I slowed my spin and blinked around the little starport town with its rounded roofs, currency exchange booths, language translators bustling about with tour groups, and local culture shops displaying all sorts of Fairy foods and trinkets for incoming alien travelers to marvel at. My eyes, when they came back into focus, settled on one street decorated in winter holiday streamers and window decorations, chatty street performers, pawn shops with doors that constantly swished, homemade craft sellers halfway through the organization of a swap meet, and about half a dozen try-your-luck booths bubbling over as vendors and carnies shouted pleas for attention. While it wasn't normally the place a respected Whimsifinado would stray down, a crudely-made sign on one of the nearest cloth-covered tables caught my attention.

"'Patron Pair: A game with the bugs you share your wings with. Greet your patron and win a coin on the side'." I tilted my head. Sufficiently hooked, I raised my wings and floated over.

"Heh," I muttered as I neared, craning my neck. "It looks like most of this crowd is due to Fairies just wanting to see their actual patron for the first time in their lives. That's so cute."

The drake who ran the table was a leprechaun, his hand resting on a large bell-shaped dome of glass that covered about thirty insects. Beneath the dome, separated by a centimeter of space, lay a wheel turned horizontal, so only one of its sections - or two halves, depending on how it landed when it slowed - lay beneath the dome at any one time. Though I searched and could identify most of them, I didn't see any of the insects sharing my wings any more than Mr. Thimble had once suggested. The elves' honey bee was close, although not at all square.

"Pick ye's favorite bug and a section on the wheel," he explained to a damsel with a pointed star-tipped hat and an unimpressed look on her face. "I tap the glass, the bugs fly up, then ye spin the wheel. Ten sections on the wheel, two of each. The bugs fly up, the wheel turns, and finally it stops. If ye's section is under the dome when that happens, ye win the coins ye bet back plus half as many more. If after that then the bugger ye picked lands on the spot of the wheel you chose within five seconds, then I double what ye paid in, see? Ye can split your bets between multiple sections of the wheel if ye're wanting to."

"Is it a rigged trick?" the habetrot asked.

He leaned across the table, one of his teeth glinting with gold. "Well, I can't be much of a lucky leprechaun, can I? I've been losing more lagelyn than I'm gaining. Double takes a toll outta me."

Upon hearing that, the damsel snorted and skimmed away. I drifted closer to the table, my eyes searching left and right as, over the course of an hour, seven or eight players of Fairies and aliens alike came in to try the game. The leprechaun exploded into cheers each time somebody won, which happened just often enough to keep onlookers interested. Then the trickle expanded into a small bundle of a crowd. Another half-hour passed, and I hovered in the background, and watched, and listened.

It couldn't be that easy. It couldn't be.

"Hey," I said after a satyr had watched the wheel grind to a halt an inch short of the manticore section, and skulked off in disappointment. Five heads turned my way. I drew my wallet from my pouch and tossed it on the table. "Can you match nine thousand lagelyn?"

The leprechaun's red eyes dripped with greed as they shot between the wallet and me. "And ye's picks?"

"I want the duende's house fly. As for the money, put it all on 'unicorn'."

"All of it?" "Did he say all of it?" "He's jitterlines." "He'll lose everything." "Is that all he has?" "This ought to be good." "Poor thing- he's just a juvie." The mutters circled about my ears. The leprechaun's smile twitched a sliver higher.

"Oh," I said as an afterthought. "You said this game was fair, didn't you?"

"Fair as that cherub on ye's left side."

"Oh," she tittered.

"So it's not going to be a problem if I ask you to move that long tablecloth aside, is it?"

He stared at me, pale lips slightly parted. I lifted one hand just enough to make a rolling motion, then tucked it between the other and my chest once again. I half-expected him to squeak, but instead he grinned and nodded and swept the cloth away.

"Nothin' but a couple cords ta keep the game running, see? Wheel has to spin and fairy dust can't work on it. I've got inrita mud in this vial to ward off magic. No tricky tricks." He gestured to the small vial he meant, not much wider or longer than a stylus.

"Good." I cracked my knuckles before bracing my left hand on the corner of the table. "Keep it just like that and let's spin." Once the glass had been tapped and the insects had all taken flight, I took the wheel and thrust it sideways. It clicked and clattered round and around seven or eight times, then stopped. There were no more voices. Only startled silence. The house fly landed on the unmoving wheel, as it tended to quickly.

"Unicorn," I said, reaching across the table for my wallet. I poured the coins into my palm so they dribbled to the cloudstones. "Would you look at that."

The leprechaun's jabbing eyes bore into mine as he unhinged his box and counted out my winnings in yellow bills and green coins. This time, for once, he wasn't exploding about a participant's victory. "What exactly made ye so certain it'd be landing on unicorn, square-head?"

"I don't know," I said back, never blinking, never twitching, never letting slip any show of emotion. "I could just tell."

He grabbed my arm and twisted it backwards so my wrist thunked against the table and the coins popped from my grip. "Ye cheated, lad. I know ye did."

Maintaining my calm, I answered, "I didn't cheat. There's a pattern- I just saw the pattern. I'm good with patterns."

"Wait," sputtered one korrigan, adjusting her ribboned hat as she floated forward. "You're saying there's a pattern?"

The leprechaun released me instantly to put up his hands. "No- no, I assure ye, it's random, sweetheart. Ye see? Ten sections, two of each, equal chances for all."

"Well, I heard it," I amended. "I listened. Your wheel has a loose peg of some sort on the back that keeps popping in and out of place. It makes a whistling noise the spin before it hits unicorn. Every time."

"What whistling noise?" hissed the leprechaun.

"You couldn't hear it? It really acts up when you put your foot on that cable."

His fingers tightened around his box of bills and coins. "Don't tread there, freckles."

Lifting a brow in mock surprise, I said, "Surely a drake as respectable as yourself wouldn't actually resort to using the old squish-the-cable, slow-the-wheel trick?"

"Freckles-"

"Another cheat," a redcap seethed, bearing pointed teeth. "Three in one day has to be a sort of record. What a dirty, rotten city."

The leprechaun grabbed his lagelyn box and took off along the street, bouncing back and forth between the buildings with a stripe of rainbow at his heels. A few of the crowd took chase just for the sport of it, though most contented themselves to stand back and jeer. Two or three congratulated me on my sharp observation and patted my shoulder before they meandered off in search of a new form of entertainment. I chuckled a grim, "Ha, ha ha," as I clutched my winnings to my chest. These were definitely going towards a new set of styluses with the metal points thin and sharp.

Ambrosine rubbed his hands when I floated through the door late that evening. "So?"

"So what?" I asked, unloading my pockets of hard-won cash on the coffee table.

"So, I want to hear all about these pretty damsels you met with."

I stared at him, then smacked the heel of my hand to the space between my eyes.

The following day, we started again. Since it wasn't Tuesday and Fawn more likely than not wouldn't be in Serentip, we settled for a diner in Novakiin. This time, Ambrosine came with me to ensure I reached it. After he had retreated up the street, I folded up my wings and headed inside.

"This won't be a problem, Fergus," I murmured as I studied the faces of the patrons in search of damsels. Heads began to turn one by one. I took two fingers and pressed back my black hair. "You're a gyne. Gynes are more attractive than kabouters and definitely more attractive than drones. Straight face, very good. You mean business. Begin."

One black-haired damsel with unnotched wings was lingering outside the washrooms. I convinced myself that I felt a plug in my lines just when I stared at her face. Her eyes were chocolate. She smiled as I drifted towards her, and introduced herself as Charlene Dulcina. I bobbed my head and put out my right hand.

"Good. My name is Fergus Whimsifinado. It's a pleasure to meet you."

She blinked once, her left hand partway out, then switched hands and tentatively accepted the gesture. "You as well."

Making myself comfortable against the bricks, I said, "Tell me what your family does for a living."

"We farm vegetables down on Earth where the dirt untouched by magic is. I'm due to inherit the place one of these days." She waited for my reaction. "A lot of Fairies don't seem to be interested in that type of lifestyle, but I rather like it. Keeps my hands busy."

"Interesting. Food untouched by magic is vital, of course. What do you like to do when you aren't working or at school?"

Charlene wound a scrap of dark hair around her middle finger. "I read, mostly. I'm interested in studying biology. Mostly the core. Not easy to do when we turn to dust when we die, and Anti-Fairies to smoke."

"No, it really isn't. Good on you for it." I studied her eyes. "So, where do you see yourself in five years?"

"Probably that farm. The Academy doesn't seem to be a real possibility. Simple family."

I'd have to factor that in. "Important work, still. What are your strengths and weaknesses?"

She frowned. "Well, uh… I'm good in school. Um. My hearing's not always the best, though, I guess?"

"I hadn't noticed. What would you say is your biggest accomplishment?"

"Oh, I have the top saucerbee scores for my age range at school."

A fairy whom I guess must have been her brother from their shared dark features crept out from the washroom then. She took his small hand and, with a parting smile, drifted towards a table. An older damsel sitting there - a sylph - eyed me with faint approval. I leaned briefly against the wall and clasped my hands. Nailed it.

Determined not to let the opportunity slip through my fingers, I requested permission to sit with them, which was granted. I perched beside Charlene's brother. A banshee brought me a menu, and once I'd placed my order, I tuned into the light conversation.

"So you're the young Whimsifinado," said the sylph as she looked me up and down. Her red bracelets jangled every other wingbeat.

"Yes, ma'am."

"The therapist's boy? Wish Fixers?"

I nodded.

"Ripe young age, little fellow like you. Taken an interest in many damsels?"

"Mother," Charlene hissed in her ear.

"If you'll all pardon me for just a moment, I'm going to use the washroom," I said carefully, deciding they could use a moment to discuss the pros and cons of a potential pairing between our families.

While I was in there, I paced, an arm behind my back. With a finger on the other hand, I tapped at the air every time I took a step.

"Think, Whimsifinado. You have always been trained to ask questions to learn about people. However, you are not evoking the response from Charlene that you desire. What are you doing wrong?"

Drawing a scrap of tablet from my pouch, I leaned against the wall and spun a stylus through my fingers. "Right. Name. Previous occupation. Schooling. Interests. Workplace skills. What am I missing…?"

What indeed?

"Thank you for excusing me," I said when I rejoined the Dulcinas. "Ah. And my food has come. Nice place. Do they have sesame paste?" I'd hoped to dab a bit on my burek to remove some of the sharp flavor.

"I'll ask for some," Charlene offered, rising to her wings.

"That's very kind, thank you."

As her daughter left, the sylph leaned across the table. "Ask me out and I'll say yes."

I stared at her, a cheese-filled triangle of dough an inch from my mouth. "What?"

"You're a cutie, freckles."

My eyes darted to the notches along the distal part of her costas, then back to her face. "Oh," I said as though realizing her intent for the first time. "I'm sorry. I'm not actually in the serious market for a mate right now. I apologize if I gave off that impression. I've been looking into… another damsel I know."

"Well, this is what the Year of Promise is for."

"Yep," I muttered, twisting my cup in my hands. "That's what it's for."

I couldn't seem to excuse myself as quickly as I wanted to. But Ambrosine was just up the street and the night was still young. I loitered about outside with a lawn gnome drake, awaiting a promising opportunity.

The gnome spat on the ground after one more damsel flitted by us. "Finicky damsels. They always go for the fairy gynes."

"You might be intimidating them with that pipe you're puffing."

"What's your deal, anyway? Can't handle a bit of smoke?"

"I thought smoke was extra bad for lawn gnomes," I answered, glancing sourly up at the invisible magic lines that connected me to the energy field.

"I thought nosiness was extra bad for fairies."

"It's not, actually." I took a step nearer the door as a couple of damsels pushed their way outside. One of them locked eyes with me, and we spoke for a moment before she moved off again.

"You gotta bed a damsel first, sprinkle-face, then start poking around the block for real. They like the gynes who aren't still virgins. They can smell it on you."

"Right, thank you." I got up from the wall. I obviously wasn't going to snag the lasting interest of any damsel by standing out here in the rapidly-cooling air, and I was done with his snide conversations.

"Hey," said the gnome as I drifted away. "I don't like your smell either, punk."

I curled my knuckles as I pulled open the door. "'Hey' yourself, munchkin. I know how to brush off your kind, and I will. A bit of that soap just inside the door will wipe you out like the aphids you share a third of your biology with."

Well, it would make him break into a rash, and that was apparently enough; he raised one eyebrow and both hands and left me alone.

My hopes began tilting up when I was back inside again. I even had the opportunity to lean against a table while I pushed threads of hair back from a qalupalik's face. Tucking them beneath her thick brown amauti, I murmured, "I read once that eyes reveal the secrets of the soul. Eyes tell stories. I like yours. They're green."

"So are you, at flirting," was her reply. Which I admittedly was.

No more messing around. Ambrosine invited himself to Orin Winkleglint's household for dinner, and upon his return, I was informed that he'd scored me the opportunity for a visit with his eldest daughter, Sindri.

He put his forefinger beneath my chin and lifted it. "Good family. I like her braids. You can do this. You have the flowers?"

"Flowers. And two shiny gems."

"Excited?"

"Um. No, actually. I don't really feel anything."

"Close enough." He brushed the back of his hand over my stomach. "Hm. I have my scrying bowl. I scouted about while I was in there and theirs is on the shelf outside the washroom. Ring me if you need anything."

"Thanks, Ambrosine." Straightening my tie, I blew a puff through one corner of my mouth and headed through the door.

I knew the night wasn't in my favor the moment I first lowered my wings and reached out to shake Sindri's left hand with my own. My stomach flipped. The courtship candle on the mantle stuck up only barely above its twisted spiral of a base; Orin had chosen to give me little time for error. He stood guard beside it, trying to decide what to make of me.

Sindri had amber eyes like tiny suns, but I didn't get to sit beside her at the dining table and enjoy them for long. The candle flickered below the metal coil, and I was sent away, outside again and into Ambrosine's reassuring arms.

Back to the eating establishments. This time, it wasn't long before I stumbled upon a nix with brilliant silver eyes.

"Tania, isn't it?" I asked as I took her hand. "There's supposed to be a meteor shower up in Calton tonight. After you eat, I thought we could go. I have badges to get us a boat. I bought them for me and… and my dad."

She carefully accepted my offer, and I dressed myself in a shamrock-green suit to match her ever-damp dress before I picked her up at her place. "Do you know how to fly a rowboat?" she asked as we made our way east.

"I've never tried, but I'm not the kind to turn down a challenge."

Steering a tiny craft with floppy, buzzing wings over an agonizing drop that led straight down to Earth turned out to be more difficult than I anticipated. Our ride bumped and lurched the whole way, and leaned somewhat to the right side and thoroughly convinced me it would dump. But somehow, Tania and I managed.

"Ah," she gasped, peering over the side. "So many boats underneath us. All those Fairies. It's jazzed."

"You like it?" I asked, churning the paddles.

"Do you?"

"I, um…" I glanced downward. Dozens of colorful glowing dinghies drifted about in the hazy near-blackness of a corner of the sky the Sun had recently left behind. Occasionally they bumped against one another and elicited either bubbled laughter, awkward gasps, or snappish grumbles. The solid cloud lay a hundred and fifty wingspans below. "I guess so. I'm not much for pretty aesthetics. Too flashy. I like simple things."

Tania smiled. "And here I was thinking you were a details person."

"I enjoy detailed simplicity. A whole collection of factors intricately woven together to create a system so organized and efficient that a brownie could manage it."

"I'm on wing with you. Fergus?"

"Yes?"

"You may hold me now."

I set aside my oars and did. Tania was scooting against me with her head tilted back when I jumped. She pulled away. "What?"

"Some cold and slimy thing just brushed across my back."

Tania shifted in the boat, and I realized my error.

"Um, sorry." My hand slid behind my neck. "I forgot nix damsels have scaly fish tails. And I guess that nix clothes always feel a little wet. I just got startled. And I interrupted you. Were you trying to go in for a kiss?"

"I was…"

Heaving my shoulders, I said, "And I ruined it?"

Tania tapped her fingernails, then crept closer down the bench. "Not exactly."

"Oh. Oh." I touched my lips to hers. She wasn't my first kiss by any means- Ambrosine had ensured I got my chance long, long ago. Still, it was my first time kissing a nix. They taste exactly as I had expected, apparently: like fresh salmon and melting butter.

We pulled apart, me still holding her by the shoulders. I swallowed. "Tania, your eyes are incredible. Like silver… silver circles around black dots. I could stare at them all night."

"You… you have been."

"Oh. Have I?" My thumbs twitched. "Well. They're very nice."

She squinted. "Who kisses with their eyes open?"

"You had yours open."

"Because you did!"

"Not because nixes don't have eyelids?"

"What?"

I tilted my head. "All right. We'll do it again. This time, I'll close my eyes."

But Tania shook her head. One hand trailed up and began to unfold my fingers from her shirt. "Maybe later. Right now, I just want to watch the meteor shower."

"Sounds promising." I lifted my wand and summoned up a warm black jacket. It materialized on her shoulders with a puff of purple-white. From the look on her face as she drank in the sight of my chronically-scattered magic, I knew I had sealed the deal. There would be no second kiss, no second outing. As my hopes plummeted, I figured that at this rate, I'd end up with a brownie.

"We can fix that," Ambrosine promised through the washroom door as I sat in the bare metal tub, scrubbing at my wings with a green cloth.

"We can? How? And why have we never done that before? You've known since I was a nymph that my magic is off."

"No, there's no helping what shakiness your equiangular mutation shuffled you with. I meant about your flirtation skills. No damsel likes to be dragged from one item of entertainment to the next. You need to present."

So I presented. Damsels liked flowers. That fact never changes across the social ladder, or even the entire cosmos. But while the red-eyed Rosika Glittergust clearly enjoyed them, she didn't really go for me. I ended up staring stupidly at my groping hand as she flew home with Brokk Sparklebottom.

"Can't we just buy one?" I asked Ambrosine, flinging my tie onto the couch before flopping down after it.

"Not unless you're a will o' the wisp. And technically, they trade."

"This is hopeless. The only one my age who's ever expressed interest in me was a cherub who dressed all in blue, down to the blue eyeshadow and blue irises, and monogamy isn't always their thing."

"No, not hopeless. 'Hopeless' implies exactly that- absolutely not even the faintest flicker of a possible chance, which is, of course, practically impossible. Here, I have an idea." Ambrosine drew a glass bottle half-full of orange soda from the highest shelf in his kitchen, tucked behind his cookbooks and the trinkets Solara had given him during their courtship. "Have a taste. This'll get the Whimsifinado blood flowing."

I raised my eyebrows. Not counting that dab of chocolate that hadn't sugarloaded me all those millennia ago, it was the first time he ever allowed me to taste such pure, processed sugar. It was heaven at its finest. "Try a little of this before you head out on the trail next week," he said, twisting the lid back on, "and your instincts will kick in soon enough."

My instincts did as well as they could. The next time I went out, I returned with a cherry-haired, muddy-eyed leprechaun in tow. Ambrosine's careful face shifted from slightly delighted to slightly puzzled when I offered him her hand.

"I got one. Now what?"

He scratched his chin. "Would you like to invite her in for dinner?"

Thus, I invited Laika in for dinner. Our conversation began innocently enough, with a light laughing at the squarishness of my wings. Then, as we ate, Laika asked Ambrosine about his history, and Solara. He brought up the wasp-bite story again.

"Speaking of wasps," Laika managed around a sip of orange juice, "did you guys get to scry on that Dragonflies game last Wednesday? They got smashed."

"They did fine," I corrected. After all, Beetleguts had scored seventeen points for the team alone.

She shrugged. "I'm just saying, they could've done a lot better. The Wasps deserved that win."

I tightened my grip on my soup spoon.

The evening went well enough apart from that. Ambrosine and I flew Laika home, and he nudged me into offering her a parting kiss at the door.

"She talks like a dragon," I said as we skimmed homeward again, shoving my hands beneath my armpits. "Get a dragon started on a story and they'll babble themselves to sleep or starvation. Their throats are made for breathing fire, so trying to move them to talk always wears them out. We learned that in school."

"I liked her sleek hair."

"You would."

I'd half-hoped that would be the end of it, but Laika scryed me within the week asking for a follow-up outing. A damsel asking! And it happened again, and again, and again.

When her interest was undeniable, Ambrosine slapped me on the back as I went to replace the bowl on the coffee table and pull on my thicker coat. "Didn't I say it? I told you over and over again that you weren't a hopeless case. You just needed some practice, is all. And look at you now, with a damsel like Laika on your arm."

I scratched my nails along the handle of my wand. "She doesn't like me."

"She doesn't like you?" he repeated, like I'd told him I wanted to visit the remaining Molpa-Pel in the core of Earth. "My smoof! You're a Whimsifinado, Fergus. No damsel 'doesn't like' an unwed Whimsifinado in their age group. Especially a gyne. I could be mistaken, but so far as I know, there hasn't been a gyne in the Whimsifinado line for a dozen generations. You like Laika, don't you?"

"I… I think so."

His round face grew more concerned. "I mean, she's never said she hates you or anything, right?"

"Well, no."

"Then you're doing fine."

I fiddled with my coat's four buttons. "I just- I just think maybe I should wait a little longer. Before I settle with my permanent mate."

"That's what the Year of Promise is for."

"Oh my smoof, Ambrosine," I groaned, covering my face as my flush overcame my freckles. "I'm not ready for this, plain and simple, period, signed and stamped in the lower right corner. I want to meet more damsels first, and make sure I can handle being with them for hundreds of millennia before one of us goes dusty, and I want a big wedding ceremony, and to make sure my nymphs get to have a real nymphhood."

Ambrosine took hold of my shoulders. "Laika is a good match for you. She doesn't take your sass and she comes from a good stock. Just keep things going steady with her. Ask her for her hand. Bed her on the first night of courtship. That's how we fairies do it. They did teach you about the Year of Promise in school, didn't they? How on the first anniversary of that day you're official and get your wing notches?"

"Yes, but- but…" As I stared at him, I could feel my own eyeballs flickering. I didn't want to- of course I didn't want to. But it was difficult to force the words through the cracks in the wall of tradition. Eventually I managed, "Leprechauns are click beetles. And tradition is hugely important to them. Between those two facts, their courtship rituals are so long and intricate that they don't usually mate until the curls start coming out of their hair when they're three hundred fifty thousand."

"Yes," he said patiently, "leprechauns keep you in suspense so you can't touch their gold until you've practically proven you're serious about staying with them for life. In defense of their species, they can each only produce offspring once. If you had caught yourself a fairy in the first place, we wouldn't be having this problem, now would we?"

"She'll think I'm, I don't know the word… Forward? She'll think I'm forward if I ask."

"She'll understand. Remember, she learned about fairies in school too. Hm…" Ambrosine rubbed his chin with one finger. "And while we're on the subject, remember what the five colors of magic are. Well, six. Seven if you want to pick a fight about indigo. When the time finally comes for fertilizing your eggs, make sure you and the wife are using yellow. Yellow sticks."

I tightened my teeth. "Thank you."

He crossed his arms. "I'm serious. Of course, the Eros Triplets will bring you back in line if you falter, but it seriously ups the spike in taxes and insurance. Yellow is cheerful and loyal and easy to use when you're tingle-fritzy (relatively speaking, anyway), and it's the only color that lasts after the death of the channeler. Blue shows up when you're irritated, and can be undone by anyone when you're calm again. Or when you fall asleep if it's closer to that questionable indigo. Not a thing you want over the kids' heads."

"Thank you."

"Knee-jerk pink is more of an automatic, one-night stand thing. They always start out pink, so don't worry if you can't draw up yellow for the first few minutes. Green is the color of panic, laziness, or misery and leads to sickly children. Red is for obsession and desperation and it cancels itself within a matter of days. Purple is only natural and holds strong while you're alive, but it fades after death like the Anti-Fairies. Don't fertilize your eggs with purple unless you want to drag every one of your offspring down with you when you die."

"Thank you," I said again, and left.

I met Laika as we'd agreed in the lower town of Claystif, where the neighboring woods had prompted a culture skilled in crafting intricate carvings and designs. Visiting "Patio World", so-called, had thus made slow meandering almost a necessity so that one might get around and admire them. We took a skim along the lumpy walking path that criss-crossed over the hills. In the valley below gleamed the glass tower where they said you could summon Mother Nature and Father Time to make a single plea for their intervention in your life, if your intent was pure and you did the whole grovel-in-ultimate-submission ritual thing and you sacrificed your eldest child, or something odd like that.

I knit my fingers as we descended another rise. "Laika, I was hoping for your hand."

She groped across my wrist, then slipped her slender hand into my larger one. We passed another several wingbeats in silence before I cleared my throat.

"I meant for marriage, actually. When I said hand. Hand in marriage. That's why I asked for it."

"Don't fairies mate on the first night of engagement?" she asked, her nose scrunching.

"Um. Kind of?"

"Which would be tonight?"

"… Yes?"

"And the fact that nightfall would be, oh, any minute wouldn't have anything to do with you bringing this up now, I imagine?" She leaned in. "Would it?"

I tugged at the collar of my striped blue and white sweater. "Not really. And- and we don't have to tell anyone if we don't do it. My dad will ask, but I think I know enough general details to give that will satisfy him."

Laika fluttered her lashes at me. "I don't think so, Fergus. I've been trying to drop hints, but you haven't picked up on any of them. You're moving a little deep into the serious zone for me. I'm only in this relationship for the free food and flowers."

"Come again?" I asked, keeping my tone as smooth as Ambrosine's.

"Don't make that face- you read like an open book. Seriously, you should look into keeping your expression, well, expressionless. But it's not like I could've put a dent in the amount of money your family keeps stashed in your back pockets, so I'm not sure why you're acting like I personally brushed all the dust from your wings."

My hand tightened around hers. "Shall I fly you home?"

Her smile was sickly syrupy. "Please do."

"I take it she wasn't interested," Ambrosine guessed when I slammed the front door behind me and flopped down in his favorite chair.

I grimaced as I massaged my hand up the right side of my face. "She said she still wants to be friends."

"Friends with-"

"No."

Things went slightly better with Irica Caudwell. She was pretty enough, even with her buck teeth and dim, watery eyes. I managed to win her affections and get her into my bed, under my sheets with a bundle of square pillows, before Ambrosine intercepted me a flap from the front door.

"Where are you going, Fergus?"

I about moulted my wings. Out of impulse, when I whirled around I slapped a palm over the top of my head to defend my core. "I- I was just- I needed- fresh air- Lots of mating going on, and all-"

He tossed a piece of popcorn into his mouth and crunched with an unnecessary amount of noise. "Don't you have a damsel to get back to? You're not even undressed, or very tingle-fritzy."

I licked my lips. "The first half of the courtship dance took a lot out of us. We're resting."

Ambrosine pointed down the hall. I shifted my gaze between him and the doorknob, then released it and walked with quick and silent steps.

But it turned out, I ended up back in the keeping room again soon enough. I wasn't in my room for long before Irica blurted a terrible confession past her trembling lips.

"I-I'm a tomte."

I turned around from where I sat at the end of my bed, grinding my toe into the dirt and staring at an uneaten handful of the semi-sweet chocolate chip cookies she always had with her. "What?"

Beneath those soppy tears she was a western elf. No wings. Of course I hadn't asked why she couldn't fly. Needless to say, the night and relationship were over before they could begin.

"She's a tomte," I reported in monotone as I paced around the coffee table. "I certainly can't marry someone who can't do magic."

Ambrosine nibbled on the end of his middle fingernail. "That would rack up expenses. Elf alone was bad news enough since they can't use starpiece magic and you'd have to cover for her anyway. Normally I would protest about your being biased against those unfortunate enough to end up tomtes, but considering how limited your own grasp over magic is… not to mention that going through with mating could easily be deadly for a drake so tingle-fritzy it unplugs all his lines… I mean, there's a reason you're supposed to share."

My legs shook underneath me as that continued to sink in. "I almost mated with a tomte." I slid to the floor, pulling my wings up and over my face. "Ambrosine, I can't do this anymore. I don't even want to get married, and- and- if she hadn't told me what she was, right before she started crying, then I could have maybe…" I gripped the front of my shirt. "Dad-"

"You're thinking like this because you're a drake, Fergus. It's an unfortunate phase of worry that all of us go through." He massaged his forehead. "Perhaps you're right. We threw you into the idea a little young. You'll change your mind when you get older."

"I made her feel special," I whispered. "Even with her being what she was. Ever since our first day, when I told her I didn't want nymphs…"

Ambrosine glanced around for something to drink so he could perform a spit-take. There wasn't anything. He crossed his arms and drew a bit higher in the air. "What do you mean you don't want nymphs?"

"I don't want them," I said from inside my translucent umbrella of wings. "I don't like the idea of mating, I don't like the idea of pregnancy, I don't like the idea of giving birth, I don't like the idea of raising a baby, I don't like the idea of putting up with a toddler, I don't like the idea of struggling through their schoolwork alongside them, I don't like the idea of going to all those parent meetings, I don't like the idea of paying for their magic, I don't like the idea of them clinging onto my arms after I finally push them out the door- I. Don't. Want. Them."

Ambrosine tilted his head. "You have no idea how much like your mother you are."

After a few seconds, I parted my wings and blinked up at him. "How did you meet Solara? You've told me once or twice, but I don't remember much of it."

He scuffed his foot. A stupid grin crept over his face along with a fiery blush like his vest, as it usually did when he spoke of Solara. "I dunno. I just got lucky. Right place, right time. My favorite roommate at the Academy pointed her out to me when she passed by our therapy classroom. Class wasn't over, but I wasted no time- I bolted out of there with my bark strips raining around me, flew right up to her, and asked her if she was the damsel who'd make the War of the Sunset Divide worth fighting."

"You flew up to her? Okay, you're making this up. That's even less realistic than you allowing your notes to scatter. You make me talk to the grocer for you when we get food. Every week. Since I was eight hundred."

"I passed her in the hall once and she smelled of cinnamon and oranges," he argued, taking my hands in his. As he led me around the room in what must have been the beginnings of their courtship dance, he continued, "I was a goner from the moment Kalor let slip about that beautiful hair of hers. Every time-"

"-you saw her, you daydreamed of the day she would let down the scarf and allow you to brush it," I finished with him.

He whirled me beneath his arm, and poofed over to catch my hand before I could catch my balance. Swinging me into the air, he added, "I have no self-control around soft things I can touch and hug and thread my fingers through, Fergus. Oh, if I could just introduce you to her one of these days, you'd catch a glimpse of that hair and no damsel under the stars would ever tempt you again." He lay his hand behind my head and brought my face close to his. "If yours were a few hints bluer, you'd have the same gorgeous eyes…"

"Dad!"

I'd thought he was going in for a kiss, but it turned out he just wanted to lick the light freckles above my nose, the way he'd always done when I was much, much younger. When he next let go of me, I didn't accept his offered hands again. Ambrosine tapped a finger to his temple and flicked it away.

"You haven't met the right damsel yet. I think I have a solution. The ceremonial cherub migration is coming up. They'll be leaving the northeastern Nest and heading south to Mistleville for their matchmaking thing."

I found my shoulders relaxing. "They taught us about the matchmaking festival in school. The Eroses are love experts- they can make sure I get paired up with someone meant for me, right?"

He gave me a thumbs up. "All you have to do is submit your name. What better way to know your love is true than getting matched by the Eroses themselves? Of course, we'll have to head all the way over to Mistleville. It's a four-day flight, but we'll save over a thousand lagelyn by moving as the dragonfly skims instead of as the rich fairy poofs. I imagine we'll want to leave come morning. It's a regular tourist town, especially at this time of year."

And it was. We thought we'd left early. Obviously, not early enough.

There weren't cities back in those times. At least not very populated ones. Faeheim was called a city because it housed the residence of the Fairy Elder - a small yellow hut defended by shielding spells and constant guards - and thus the general area was referred to as the Fairy World capital. And certainly it was large enough, but even on a day when the Dragonflies were playing in the saucerbee championships, the crowds did not compare to what I found when we entered Mistleville during the cherub's migratory season.

Two days before the festival was intended to begin and the cherubs actually arrived from the Nest, every surface of every building had been painted or carved with or outright shaped like the lumpy 'heart' symbol that generations of the Eros bloodline had made equivalent to romance. The streets were blocked off with red and white barricades. Shirts and mugs that read 'I met my true love in Mistleville' dangled from the windows of shops that had obviously been carrying such things for a long time, and that were bustling almost non-stop during our visit.

I'd thought that would be it in terms of decorations. But the day of, there were more. Streamers. Dolls. Portraits. Chairs. A tattoo artist who couldn't seem to spell quite right. Yarn. Styluses. Kitchenware. Balloons. Heart-shaped bubbles drifting over our heads, of all things. As we squirmed through the throng, Ambrosine began to drift towards a sugar bar with music leaking through its open double doors. I tugged him back by his white sleeve.

"Maybe later. For now, we have a job to do. Let's get in line for sign-ups."

"We've come up here every year since our honeymoon," one ishigaq explained to me as we neared the front table, hugging her husband's shoulder. "It's our little lovey-dovey tradition."

Another told me, "My wife's been dusty for a generation, and this is the only place where I can see her face."

Those directly ahead of us were a young couple, clinging to one another's wrists and giggling horribly. "By the end of today," Ambrosine said, placing his palm atop my head, "you'll know your match. How do you feel?"

"Anxious."

"Good anxious or bad anxious?"

I licked my lips. "Both. It'll be a relief to finally have a mate who's going to love me. I just hope she's not disappointed."

We reached our place. I took my specialized scrying bowl and candle, and Ambrosine and I made our way towards a relatively empty patch of cloudy hill. He did most of the navigating while I studied the designs along the edges of my bowl. Perhaps I bumped into the damsel, or perhaps she bumped into me. Either way, a blur of black will o' the wisp wings blocked my vision, and I heard a bright, "Ow- My wings!"

"Get them out of my face," I muttered back, swiping them away. "Crazy damsels. To think I could be taking one of you home tonight."

Then I spotted something in the reflection of my bowl, and whipped around. "Did you just turn your wand horizontal at me? You did! Don't try to hide it behind your back- it's right there in your hands!"

"Hey," Ambrosine said, trying to pull me onwards. I made the attempt to shake him off, and didn't succeed.

"No one turns their wand horizontal at me and escapes a fight, wisp! I'm a gyne! I'll tear you apart!"

Ambrosine slapped me upside the head. I shut my mouth, but seethed through my teeth as I turned away from the blue-eyed wisp and pushed through the crowd after him.

"Ambrosine, did you see her do it? Can you believe her nerve? A will o' the wisp damsel! To a fairy gyne!"

"I won't have you picking fights with damsels when any one of them could end up in your bowl."

"So? Her kind are right there at the bottom of the social ladder. They deserve to be put into place when they act like this. That's the rule."

"You and your rules," he sighed, and drifted on.

The empty patch of hill had grown considerably less empty on our way over. Ambrosine left me sitting there and moved off to find his own place. "Don't worry," he said when I expressed unease about tracking him down in the crowds. "You licked my neck enough times as a nymph to burn the scent of me into your mind. You'll know."

I slid off my shoes, then my socks, and allowed my toes to squish the white clouds as I drew my knees near my chest. My bowl glinted in my hands. Now I had only to wait.

Waiting turned out not to be as terrible as I had feared. The cherubs arrived with the glint of Earth's rising sun on the horizon, settling down on rooftops or along the road that had been cleared for them to rest and preen their feathered wings. There were hundreds of them, or thousands. Cherubs were flockers by nature, and while there were smaller groups dotted across Fairy World, most all of them had claimed the eastern section of the Central Star Region as their territory. Unsurprisingly- it was where the Eros Nest was located, and that meant plenty of work, fantastic job security, and low taxes for cherubs. People do odd things once taxes become involved.

One cherub damsel with a pegasus tail of rosy pink hair stood on a small stage. Though I didn't have a fantastic view from the crowded hill, every scrying bowl lit up with her image as she lifted her arms.

"Is that Venus Eros?" I asked one of my neighbors.

"No, the middle triplet. Charite. Those two mostly look the same, but they always wear their hair different."

"Are we going to get to see Venus today?" Along with every drake my age, I had an insatiable fascination with the famous figure, even if I'd never seen her face.

"I dunno. It's early morning. Venus is probably back at the Nest."

Ambrosine and I had picked a purple sweater vest for me to wear, and I plucked at the loops of thread as Charite greeted us with a quick opening speech. Then she pointed her bow into the air and released a single arrow. It exploded with thunder and lightning that made me jump.

The candle-lighting began, starting with the one Charite had just lit and spreading along the streets and up the hills.

"One more minute, Whimsifinado," I murmured. "Only one more minute."

The flames reached our area. I held my candle towards a kobold with a purple top hat who sat near me. A single bead of wax dribbled down the candle until it fell, sizzling, into my scrying bowl. Then I leaned over to share my flame with the candle of a bouncy wraith who sat near enough that I could see his organs and bones through his ghostly white skin.

"As long as she's not a will o' the wisp, a finwife, a redcap, or a brownie, I'm okay with it," I whispered, staring into the rippling water in my lap. "As long as she's not one of the four red flags. Please oh please oh please don't be among the four red flags."

My bowl glittered beneath my candle, and then went blank. I tilted it towards my face, but there was nothing. Not even my own reflection.

"Um." I glanced around as the joyful shouts rang out around me, along with the occasional screech of dismay and spurt of apologies between a couple who hadn't matched each other's faces. No matter how many times I shook it, my bowl refused to shift away from plain clear water, with maybe a hint of my own lavender eyes appearing in the shiny black surface of the bowl every once in awhile, though never in the liquid.

"Ambrosine, did you see Solara's face in your bowl?" I asked when I had finally tracked him down outside that sugar bar he'd been eyeing earlier.

"Sure did," he said through a mouthful of chocolate.

I sighed. "I would have liked to see her."

"Tough break, speck. She's all mine. Now." Ambrosine licked his fingers clean, then began to rub his palms. "Tell me everything about the damsel you saw in the bowl."

One of my shoulders shrugged upwards. "I didn't see anyone. Just maybe my reflection. Did I do it wrong?"

He frowned, his hands still together. "There's no 'doing it wrong'. You must have gotten a broken bowl. Where is Charite? There she is. Over by the fountain, Fergus, tossing about her autograph. Go ask her."

"She looks busy," I said, sliding the tip of my thumb in my mouth. Charite was indeed signing autographs, but it was a bored, methodical process as she forged her way towards the pink tent in the middle of the street, blocked by a shimmering bubble of magic to keep out noise and onlookers.

Ambrosine steered me forward anyway with his left hand over the small of my back. "We didn't come all this way for you to get an empty bowl. Now, go ask."

I tucked my bowl between my arm and trotted off obediently. Then my trot turned into a run as Charite reached the door.

"Excuse me- excuse me-" I sputtered, slamming to a halt as a gruff-looking guard in a suit put his arm in front of my chest.

"We're closed, kid."

"But can I talk to Charite? Please, it will be really quick, I promise. It's just that my scrying bowl stayed blank. Maybe it was broken."

Charite shot me an exasperated look over her shoulder, halfway through the flap of her tent. "That could mean a lot of things, but not that brokenness was involved. Nobody's 'broken'. A blank bowl could mean that your true soulmate has already been legally taken by someone else. We're not allowed to interfere with that. It could mean you or they or both of you are not emotionally ready to seek each other out. It could mean they haven't been born yet. If you saw someone before and no longer, it could mean they've died or moved on to another or you've fallen out of love. It could even mean you flat-out don't have any."

I recoiled, and only partially because the bouncer had pushed me away. "Not have a soulmate? That's not possible. In school and in the books they always taught us that everyone has a soulmate. I'm sorry, but there has to be a mistake. You have to fix it."

"There's nothing to fix." She looked irritated enough now that her blood and magic would have been running blue. "Soulmates aren't for completing anybody. Some people want them and others really don't, and my power can only vaguely touch those in the latter group. I'm sorry. No more questions. Have your existential crisis elsewhere. I'm the Triplet of the Afternoon. My shift starts in two hours and I've hardly slept for a week."

Groaning, I dropped to my knees, set my bowl aside, and raised my clasped hands. "Please, Dm. Charite. There has to be something you can do to help me. I've tried my best for two years, but my dad will disown me if I don't find a mate soon."

"Nothing about that is really my problem," she grunted, but even so, she grabbed something from her quiver and snatched up a fat phoenix quill from a desk inside her tent. "What's your full name?"

I told her, and she wrote it out in a series of scrapes and squeaks. When she was done, she tossed the quill aside, reached through the security bubble around her tent, and shoved the pink arrow into my hands. "All yours, Fergus. Go nuts. Now, please leave me alone." The tent flap fluttered shut, and the bouncer made another gesture for me to get a move on.

I studied the arrow more carefully as I picked my way back to Ambrosine. It was quite long and slender, and supposedly it would dissolve once it hit a sentient thing. The heart-shaped tip was thin and barbed like a honey bee's stinger, effectively preventing anyone from tearing it out before the lovey-dovey effect began flowing through their blood. The thing thrummed with more magic than anything I had ever touched before, and it made my skin itch.

"It looked like you caught Charite," Ambrosine said, offering me two squares of his chocolate bar.

"She gave me this." I held up the pink arrow and twirled it through my fingers like a stylus.

He whistled and shifted aside. "Well, that's a dang pretty bit of firewood. You'll want to use that carefully."

My fist clenched around the shaft. "Well, I don't want it. I don't want to steal somebody else's soulmate. The only thing I'm asking for is somebody who's perfectly meant for me. Like you and Solara."

"Solara was perfect," Ambrosine agreed, "but it doesn't always work out that way."

"No. There has to be somebody like that for me. Somebody perfect. I want someone in my life who will stand by my side and support me always, even if things start to turn out wrong. I want someone who finds an intimate thrill in taking the time to help me clean the place on my wings that's difficult to reach, and won't feel offended if I should ask them to bring me a coffee while I'm working." As I stared at the arrow I held, I felt my lower lip tremble. "Someone who appreciates me as a person more than just as the Whimsifinado gyne. Someone who would be willing to give anything if I asked it of them. Someone who is happy when they're doing nothing but sitting beside me. I want to live with someone who hates to be separated from me. That's all I'm asking for. I just can't see myself settling for less."


A/N: Text to Life - Matings involving tomtes almost always resulting in the death of the male is a reference to the fact that drone bees will immediately die after mating.

Dragonflies are also super weird about their courtship rituals and so I left the basic concept of 'quickly mating with the females', but mostly toned everything down and made them monogamous for life (This is also why fairies are the highest race on the Fairy social ladder- most parents want their kid to marry someone who'll stay with them forever).

(Gotta be honest, though- My favorite part of this is bitter H.P. recording the names of all the girls who ever dumped him and then giving this text to his descendants like scripture.)