(Posted February 2, 2021)

ACT 4 - SOLDIER

The Makings of Greatness

Autumn of the Silver Bird - Spring of the Ruby Kiss


You could say our pixie cakes took off like hotcakes, if that expression had existed 240,000 years ago. Every day, Luis and Dewdrop and I cut different batches of material into boxes, searching for a style we could easily mass-produce. Each package we then stuffed with six small cakes. Moist. Soft. Coated with thin frosting. We folded them all by hand and the grocer cloudship picked them up personally from the village dock, only for our stock to fly from the shelves before the evening stars leaned out. I slumped at my office desk the first week of autumn, hands folded against my face. Years of patient, coldblooded marketing were finally culminating…

The pixie cakes alone had turned a profit this year, not even taking into account the requests for help with taxes and similar paperwork that flowed in now that we had an official "office" building and I'd renamed the village Pixies Inc. The advertisements. The promotions. The endorsements. The talks. For the first time in what felt like the start of my life… I had a net income. And if this kept up, maybe next cycle I wouldn't have to borrow a single coin. Praxis could keep the Whimsifinado fortune if he wanted to; I'd let it die with him. Or with Ambrosine, if my father so chose. I hadn't heard much of Praxis's status since Ambrosine's holiday, which he'd refused to comment on very much. Only that relations were still sour between them. Just as well. As much as possible, I would support myself from this moment on.

But the pixie population would only grow from here. With a grimace, I drew my hands down my face. I sat in my new office, far larger and shinier than it really needed to be in order to work in, seeing as the main goal was to convince the cloudlands of my affluence. It seemed to be working thus far. But while patting myself between the wings might bolster my confidence for a day or two, it wouldn't feed hungry bellies. Cinna, Kaufman, Saddler, and Abernathy had been born into our ranks. Next turn of the zodiac cycle would be better. It had to be better. Why oh why, I ask the forces of magic… did Fairies need to eat?

My attention flickered up when the door handle twisted open. Then my wings swung out on impulse; rarely these days did I find myself without Rice's stern, warning gaze on the back of my neck, and this was one of them. But it wasn't Longwood. Juandissimo, actually, fluttered through my office, practically dancing on his toes. He clasped a blue scrap of parchment to his chest, which he extended to me.

"Your signals taste the way I imagine honey would," I said dryly, looking the page over without taking it. It had been creased at an imperfect angle. Annoying. My fingers curled at the very tips. "What's the plan to make use of that good mood?"

"Ah… Do you recall that dame I've spoken of who makes my soul twinkle up to my ears?" Juandissimo smiled at me thinly. The glow had brightened in his violet eyes, gleaming and reflecting the light of the lantern on my desk. "I asked her to dinner. Do not bother setting the table for me, for I will be eating in Cornflower City tonight. May I have your sign?"

It took me a moment to process Juandissimo's words completely. By sign, he meant my signature. The blue paper… The High North region, represented on the Council by the Blue Robe. Juandissimo wanted to travel to the High North. Neither Dewdrop nor Luis had ever requested my permission to travel outside the Central Star region alone, and Rupert for obvious reasons never traveled without supervision. The rest of my drones would be stopped at every border without a baptism medal, and I held all theirs in my room until I deemed them old enough to wear them. When I'd lived on the planet below, there had been no regions, no territories, more specific than "West Rainbow," "Sidhe Coast," "The Genielands," and of course the vaguely-defined lines of will o' the wisp country splattered between them. The implication of what he wanted was clear, but I hadn't leant enough attention to his past gabbling to identify the damsel in question. So I said, "What?"

Juandissimo tilted his head, eyes dipping downward. "You are aldra mór. May I cross the border for dinner with my… date?" He offered the paper again. This time with uncertainty. "Boyfriend," "girlfriend," and "date" were all new words in his generation's slang, having taken on the role of the more traditional my drake, my dame, my escort, and my beau. Dinner in Cornflower City? How serious had this relationship moved in just a matter of years?

"Will you be alone?" I asked. The words plowed through stone even in my own ears, though my aura of pheromones prevented Juandissimo from flinching more than a blink of eyes. In my day, it was considered fast and forward to set evening plans outside your parents' home. Far more appropriate to meet in the sitting room with a courtship candle on the mantel, conversing in public ear of the family. That's how I'd done it at his age. A yawning temptation in my gut prodded at me to demand Juandissimo invite his "date" here where I could keep an eye on them. I took the blue paper from his hand and stared at it a little longer. Yep. Plain as day, that's where he wanted to go: Cornflower City. Though I hadn't the slightest idea why… The most notable thing there is the bank, followed by the Leaves Temple halfway between the city and the Frozen Garden Palace.

Juandissimo didn't hesitate in his answer. "We dine alone at our table, but this time of year is popular and we were asked to make a reservation to keep our spot. I suspect then, señor, that we will not be very alone." He paused then, looking for all the word like he'd rather keep the next sentence to himself, but maybe he'd been around my young and rather forthcoming pixies too long. Either that, or Jean had dragged him through the dirt to find a humble tongue. Juandissimo avoided my eyes again. "And… I imagine that after we eat, she and I may… walk about the city together. I like to look at the buildings and listen to her speak. We will find our way home before the stars' light changes."

Dinner and a walk. I didn't like that. Iris and I at least had an excuse for eating alone: one, we were business partners, and two, we were so far above age of majority that it would be more laughable if we did abide by our father's rule. Emery and Logan had already committed to a night of promise, even if thus far they'd refused to make that knowledge public in ceremony. They didn't count. But Juandissimo…

"And Fairywinkle is fine with this?" From what little I had paid attention to from Juandissimo's pining sighs, he had his eyes on either the daughter or son. Tonight's conversation confirmed the daughter, I suppose.

"To my knowledge, sí."

"You're both young." And a luz mala, among other things.

Now Juandissimo's signals had turned to fidgets and unease. He hadn't expected I'd say no. He hadn't seen through my lens. "Please, señor," he said again, not begging. Not demanding. Simply prepared to launch into reason. "We will not stay too late, and it was this day which we planned so carefully…"

I stared at Juandissimo's paper for two more seconds, then removed my cohuleen druith and scribbled my name in ink. Head Pixie.

"You're a free drake for the evening, then. But I want advance notice before you make any future plans like these. Be back shortly after midnight. I don't want to look for you when I'd rather be in bed."

Relief ebbed across his pores and wafted through the room in a tingle of vanilla scent. Juandissimo made the warrior's salute as best he could with just one hand, then bent his paper along the existing crease. It was still off-center. The paper went back in his pocket. Then he folded his arms behind his back with the crispness equal to a baker serving cakes at a contest. "And… In addition to this, I wondered if I could speak with you a moment, señor."

"Not long," I muttered, replacing my hat. "I'm busy."

He inclined his head to the left. "My father has not had experience with damsels. You know I am a luz mala; I and my brother and sister were together conceived through the magic of a genie. Señor Jean never spoke much to me. This is for future days; I can promise you that. I shall swear on the wand of my father if you should desire it, for I am loyal as the bird which migrates south each turn of winter. So if I may ask, what advice can you give me about the experience I might find with damsels? How does it differ than with drakes?"

How does… Half-incredulous, I looked him over from head to heels. "Didn't you intern at the Eros Nest practically since you could float? I'm surprised you need me to talk you through it."

"Not those parts," he rushed out, a golden glow slithering across his cheeks. "I only thought, perhaps, you can offer me more advice of the courting nature…? Por favor, forgive me if I'm offensive. I…" That glow blushed brighter, to my mild curiosity. Juandissimo didn't cover his face, although I suspect he would have had he been under the influence of a different gyne's pheromones. Instead of that, he tapped his fingers against his leg. "I think of you as a wonderful influence, señor. I admire you greatly for the kindness you have always shown to my father and me. And if… you would join him in waiting vigil when it's my time for marriage someday, I would be most honored. You are a good drake. I… wish I had always known you instead of Jean. You would have been good to both my father and me."

I continued staring at him. Juandissimo gazed back at me, his wings fidgeting, but stuck his chin out. He did not look away. I raised a brow at that; even his gentle eyes could fry the butter off a dish faster than the sun. Maybe interning under the Eros Triplets had done that to him.

"If dinner goes phenomenally, ask her for her hand," I said with a wave of my own. "That's all the advice I can give you. 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?" When Juandissimo tilted his head the other direction, I shook mine and went back to my desk drawers. "Talk of these things should be reserved for fathers and sons. I'm Head Pixie. I'm your aldra mór, but I'm no one's daddy. Don't forget that."

"Yes, señor." He closed my office door gently on the way out so as not to catch the leaves of a potted tree standing nearby.

I think he hit it off well with that damsel, though I never bothered to confirm the level of bed sharing that may or may not have gone on between them. Juandissimo spoke of her often, more and more distracted every day. Oh, please. I tasked him with accompanying Longwood to pick up groceries every week just to make use of him if he wanted to be out of the village anyway. As I mentioned, his interest was Fairywinkle's prize daughter… An organized, cold, efficient dame who hadn't fallen short of top marks in her life. I'd heard she wasn't much for smiling until Juandissimo's path squiggled past hers in the hallway. She'd dyed her hair fuchsia pink. A chat here, an offered hand there, and the rest was history.

And Fairywinkle was no less possessive of his offspring than I was of my pixies. I tolerated Juandissimo's presence every faithful time he returned to the village on school vacation, but there was no telling how long Fairywinkle would. I found it bemusing that the man hadn't forcibly ended the relationship the moment it blossomed, but I asked him once at Fairy Con, both of us leaning against the fence to watch three younger gynes scuffle around in the ring, and Fairywinkle only shrugged.

"Drake was raised in the Eros Nest, practically brother to the Triplets themselves. Can't get more Daoist than that. Luz mala or not… His core's in the right place. Smart kid. Good in school. Needs to work on his self-restraint and keep a lid on that volcano he's got for emotional expression, but I respect him. If my daughter wants to give her soul to a luz mala, that's her choice to make. If he treats her well and raises her kids traditional, that's good enough for me."

I didn't answer at first. The crowd burst into cheers, wings aflutter in celebration of the gyne who'd just come out on top in the ring. "He is a smart kid," I admitted at last. "Strong-willed too. But those years of being beaten down for the circumstances of his birth have left him void of confidence. I'll put him through training."

"And I get first visit rights to the grandnymphs," Fairywinkle cut in. I rolled my eyes and pushed him off with one wing.

"Toss me the key to what used to be the Whimsifinado estate and you've got a deal."

(He never did agree to that.)

On the subject of damsels, I spent years searching for one who would agree to spend a few years in Pixie Village each time I bore a nymph and would offer her milk for nursing. I received a startling number of applicants, no doubt most of them enchanted by the prospect of acting as milkmother for such a dominant drake. I presume. Who wouldn't? I had status now. Impressive status. With twenty pixies (Graham included), I'd sired more offspring than probably anyone alive in the cloudlands. Even damsels who took multiple husbands turned curious eyes my way, a little impressed.

Odd. 10,000 years ago, I'd been Fergus Whimsifinado, hunkered in a hillside with a pitiful garden and sometimes a fish to my name. Now here I was, sitting in a high-backed chair with multiple resumes laid out on a desk of polished wood. How quickly times change.

Finally, I settled on Skyna the leprechaun, whom I'd shared a few classes with in school (and flirted with at that Wish Fixers anniversary party so long ago). She'd married short-tempered Tupilo, who refused to believe I wouldn't charm her until we wrote a contract together. We swore a binding geis on it: unless Skyna failed to fulfill her nursing duties, I could not lie with her lest I die a dustless death. I really didn't have a problem agreeing to that, but okay, dude.

Emery grimaced when I relayed the oath to her in the kitchen. She set down one plate and took a second from the sink. "Dustless, huh? So much for all fae ending up on Plane 23."

"Wow." I tilted down my glasses. "You have so little faith in me?"

Her hands went up. "I'm just saying, it was pretty short-sighted of the guy not to get my oath to stay hands-off too. Seriously, dame knows how to strut. She's gorgeous, she's high-status, she's in your territory, and you outrank her husband. You must be burning up over this."

"Should I be? She's just Skyna. Our relationship is purely business."

Emery rolled her eyes. "Ha ha. I'm feeling hot. Aren't you?"

"In this weather?" That genuinely was my first response at the time.

"What a dull life you live." She clicked the last plate down, then lifted her wand. "I'm gonna stare at Logan until he takes me to dinner. Steer clear of my room tonight, okay? Make sure the kids are in bed before I get back. It's not very romantic when we're trying to have a nice evening and we can sense you going up and down the stairs for an hour outside."

"I get it; I'll flick off for the night. Consider it your birthday present."

"That's not how this works," she huffed, and poofed out in a storm cloud of dust.

Autumn constellations glittered low above the village like dancing snowflakes. We found ourselves at the midpoint of bright star season. The warriors above kept most vigilant at this time of year, blazing the light of their wands at maximum strength in memory of the Darkness's first attack on our home. Warm night for the cloudlands. The Lowlands of Plane 3 will do that to you. Good place to raise pixies, I suppose. I hadn't thought of that when initially seeking out the land, but it's nice when things work out that way.

I lay out on the grass near the dining pavilion, chewing on a twig with my fingertips curling in the damp, dusty soil. The next nymph would be born in a few more weeks and thanks to Skyna, this was the first one I wouldn't have to pouchfeed. So that meant as long as he remained in Skyna's home, I could keep lying on my stomach. Of all the messy aspects of the early years, lack of stomach sleeping still remained one of my least favorites. Skyna and Tupilo had insisted they wanted experience raising my pixies before they committed to one of their own, and I hoped dryly that the first nymph wouldn't turn them off to the rest. She was in for a very, very long job if that should be the case. How strange to envision, too, that all my pixies would be partly hers if I'd won her over at that Wish Fixers party…

The twig snapped between my teeth, causing Longwood to glance over. Of course it would be him. Several of my pixies wrestled near the place I lay, sorting out the pecking order with determination smeared across their serious little faces. The drones were eager to get in on the action, though Longwood hovered halfway between them and me with a puzzled tilt to his head, like he knew intuitively it didn't make sense to fight with his unfreckled peers even though I'd never explained why. Might be worth training him to be an official referee.

"Maybe Fairytwirl was right," I said aloud. I cast the stick aside, and Longwood veered away before it hit his foot. "Maybe I don't like Seelie Courters. I wasn't sure at first… I think I was in denial… but maybe I really do prefer the Unseelie."

I didn't know what to do with that musing. I toyed with it briefly, pulling it this way and that. I had taken my relationship with the High Count to a rather deep degree… But I discarded the thought with a shake of my head. Emery had asked me if I burned up around Skyna, and the answer was no. I didn't burn up around Anti-Bryndin (either before or after I'd watched him preen the Purple Robe), nor Anti-Elina, Anti-Florensa, or any other Anti-Fairy I'd met. I didn't burn up around either of my counterparts, regardless of the way I teased Dame Head in jest for the false "kiss" she'd had to make on my mouth to share magic and save my life that day in the honeywheat field when we were young.

I didn't burn up around the Unseelie. Not a single one of them.

Kalysta had once accused me of "not acting amorous when she called on me." What did that even mean? I'd draped myself over her and kissed her and let her do whatever she wanted with me. I'd undressed her to her specifications and let her run her hands down my exposed stomach. I'd nibbled on her hair. Wasn't that amorous? Or… had she wanted me to "burn" for her?

Had China wanted me to burn for her? She'd never asked me to. All she'd requested was that I didn't let slip a single sassy comment and ruin the evening mood. For the first time, I wondered if it wasn't purely the thought of physical betrayal that had offended her when I produced pixie nymph after pixie nymph. Maybe… it had bothered her to think I might be burning for someone else on secret nights. Maybe I could have saved our marriage by pretending she and she alone could turn my core to fire.

I knew for certain that I didn't burn for Skyna. I didn't burn for Tupilo. I hadn't even burned for Mary Black, even after I learned she was a lawyer now. Or Iris, though I hoped to restore our friendship from the damage I'd done. I simply didn't burn for Fairies. And no… Despite how badly I wanted to, I couldn't will my body to burn for either Refracts or Anti-Fairies.

"I'm burning up," Emery had said, like a true thing. How accurate was the idiom? It was far from the first time I'd heard heat coincide with thoughts of love, though I'd always considered it too taboo a subject to ask questions about in detail. Times change, I guess.

Had all my forays into romantic relationships failed… because I hadn't burned for my now ex-partners? You were supposed to burn for someone, weren't you? That sort of explained the misty eyes so many of my associates had experienced while we were growing up; I'd written such things off as silly, weak emotions tied to the body's desire more than the mind. But even if the object of your affection was divided from you by legal law, openly admitting you had one was probably more accepted than not burning for anyone at all. Is that why so many… "cream puffs" as they call them… come publicly clean about the desires they have towards members of the Unseelie Court?

Fairy magic falters when one is dishonest or stuffs the truth away for long. When Ian Fairytwirl had blackmailed me for my big mouth, he'd pulled me down the hall by the arm and used that as an accusation: Your magic levels are pathetic… Looks like I was right. You really do have it bad for the Unseelie. What a disgusting little cream puff…

But did I like the Unseelie? Lying in the grass now, hands massaging beneath my glasses, it was impossible not to wonder if there wasn't a bit of truth in Fairytwirl's words for all the wrong reasons. Maybe I'd been honest when I said I didn't care for Fairies, but maybe the reason my magic had struggled all my life was because…

… I'd never wanted to admit the truth that I might not "burn" for anybody. It's… an intimidating thought, the first time you seriously consider it. Like a fallen star you want to touch and wish on, but hang back out of fear it's still scorching hot from the fall. The thought "I may be physically incapable of experiencing attraction to other people" played several times across my head, sounding logical, solid, and sure… but I didn't want to accept it. What about Venus Eros? Or Iris Needlebark?

… Empty schoolboy crushes? Is that all?

I sat up in the grass, blinking the stickiness away from my eyelids. Unlike that moment at Fairy Con when I'd stood before Kalysta in utter conflict and had blamed my lack of interest on being out of season… This time I was undeniably in heat. I had a nymph on the way to prove it. But no thoughts of burning. No desperate itch to scratch. No particular faces I drooled over if ever I grabbed a soda and tried to pass the night with a lewd magazine (Not that I was prone to trying those very often). Only…

I lay back again, hands to my cheeks, and let the grunts of scuffling pixies wash over me. My eyes rolled back in my head, and I exhaled against the stars. "Dear Nuada… Is there anyone else like me?"

Two weeks passed as I debated this restless question. I read books about "love" surreptitiously from the Faeheim library, trying to put gossipy whispers out of my mind and proceed with a confident air (This was in the days before Snowball the dragon destroyed the library, I should mention). I managed to find three Eros texts that weren't considered too holy to leave the Nest, but all read the same: praise Aengus, praise reproduction, praise the traditions of wei-ta and yidreamu (the sacred mating ceremony and appropriate room for it, once a thing a Fairy could expect only once a lifetime in the days before the Eros divined their magic-booster arrows to save us all, et cetera, et cetera). We owe lives, peace, and joy to the Eros family. Seek companions. Strong survive. Reproduce late. Preserve our species. The books hardly spoke a word on love as a feeling.

After thinking it over for a time, I changed plans. Without telling Emery, and certainly without telling Ambrosine, I pinged a letter to the Navy Robe requesting access to the Love Temple in Luna's Landing. It returned immediately in a puff of smoke on my desk. Ah. The inbox basket had automatically detected my desire to enter the temple and kicked the request back to me. I'd forgotten that place was strictly Anti-Fairies only. Apparently there were no exceptions, even with my name already written on the page. But, the letter said in prim navy blue text, provided you obtain the proper clearance, you may freely visit the Temple of Lesser Love in the city of Crowfeld, where you will find replicas of the art from the original Love Temple. Sign your name below if you would like this request to be looked over by Anti-Fairy World's Barrier clearance committee.

Hm. For a moment, I debated returning the letter with the words pixie ambassador written and circled at the bottom. If the Anti-Fairy systems worked the same way ours did (and I had no reason to doubt theirs were any worse), that would override the basket's kickback mechanism and increase the likelihood of it being looked at fast. But… If my business wasn't urgent, that would be an abuse of my rank. If nothing else, I was a respecter of accurate paperwork.

What wasn't an abuse of my rank was sending a scry to Anti-Bryndin and using our familiarity as friends to request a personal invitation across the border. As a guest of the High Count, that would override clearance almost everywhere in Anti-Fairy World. Except… I wasn't sure if Anti-Bryndin and I were on speaking terms. Probably not favor-asking terms. I gave up.

I named the next born Smith (Darius Smith courtesy of Anti-Fergus). Skyna went beyond nursing him. She took her role as milkmother seriously and spent time with him even when she didn't have to. Smith was born with wildfire in his veins. He romped with the older pixies even then, play-fighting like a champion and nibbling fingertips to the bone. So with that said, it shouldn't have caught me so off guard when he moulted his baby skin to reveal a freckled face. I sat in my office for a long time, hands on my own.

"What should I do?" I asked Emery the next day. "Would it be wrong to kill him? I already have my heir; I don't need more gynes. He'll just cause trouble when he's older. It's not his fault he was born with freckles, but hundreds more pixies will be born by the time he's an adolescent. If he kills me with so many still weak and underage, our entire race will collapse. Is it better to remove him now than take that risk?" I didn't like the idea of killing my own pixies, but if that's what was required of me to save the rest…

"Longwood might die," Emery pointed out, jolting me from my rather dark thoughts. "Then who would be your heir?"

"Point taken." Still, I stared at my desk. "I don't think I can do this. Maybe someday I'll let one live, but not now. I'm not ready yet. Smoofing dust, why do I keep naming them before I know what they are? Fairies were stupid to turn their backs on the old custom of waiting five years…"

She placed her hand on my shoulder. "Let me handle it. I'll build a little house in the woods by the river and raise him there."

"I suppose you and Logan did lose yours."

"Yeah…"

Wingbeats of silence.

"Hey, look. So I'll move out of the manor and take care of Smith myself, okay? Logan will probably help, though I won't force him. I'll bring Smith near the office often enough to get him familiar with the place, but keep him under your radar. He'll stay out of your way, but if anything happens to Longwood, you'll still have him."

I nodded sleepily, carving canyons between my eyes with two thumbs. "I don't plan to lose Longwood. But I'd prefer not to kill Smith if I don't have to. It's not his fault he was born a gyne."

Emery agreed. So she and Smith moved out to their woodland cottage, and I looked after the pixies who stayed with me. Every Season Turn celebration, I made sure I counted out the exact right number of presents. I let Smith grow accustomed to my scent and visited him during mine and Madigan's morning walks, if he was awake. He nodded when he saw me, too shy to say much of anything, and clung to Emery's little finger. She practically glowed, and Logan fell in love. Though he never said it, even a pixie could sense the affection in how tenderly he held the newborn to his chest, how carefully he cleaned a wet behind. Like he'd forgotten Smith was mine.

"Don't get attached," I warned. "He probably won't outlive you."

Refusing to heed my counsel, they spoiled him anyway. Smith had to have all colors of baby clothes, and in every snapshot memory for the lockboxes he was expected to look his best. Emery cleaned his wings meticulously each night (until I had to stop her by pointing out the damage she risked doing to such fragile baby appendages) and Logan almost never put down a childcare book, I swear. Then, when Smith turned four months old, Logan looked across the cabin table at my sister and spoke a simple sentence that I'd truly suspected my sister would never hear.

"You know, Em… We should get married."

"We should. I'd like that."

"I wouldn't," I deadpanned, and Emery slapped my shoulder. Hff. I tugged on the finger trap she'd stuck on my hands in an attempt to keep my attention off Smith (it wasn't working). "Both of you could do better. What makes him good enough?"

"He's smart," Emery suggested, waving her wing Logan's way. "And I think he's handsome."

"Well, I hope it doesn't bother you that by day, he's a doctor."

"Doctors have wives," Logan said, sounding hurt, but Emery only laughed.

"Let's have a wedding." She reached over then and flicked the ball at the end of one of his antennae. "We'll eat a fast dinner and exchange presents over dessert. And skip the soda; too many little pixies running around and it'll end badly."

"Ambrosine won't allow that. He'll die without good drink. So will I. In fact, just kill me if you actually plan literal sobriety on your literal wedding day."

"Does Dad have to know about the ceremony?" Emery whined. I gazed at her a moment, then arched my brow.

"He's going to find out eventually. He'll spaz if you elope. If he thought my running away was bad, add marriage and a kid on top of it. Plus it's you."

"I guess… All right. We'll have soda."

"Soda and cake."

"If it boosts your ego to think you're a better baker than all the Central Star Region, fine. I'll let you have this."

Oh, I had it. The first wedding cake commission the pixies had ever received, and I intended to deliver.

That Tuesday, I took the moony couple shopping for promise aprons and gloves. The streets were overcrowded that time of season, everyone pushing and trying to glimpse some sort of unicorn that had been brought down to this plane, I think, so I paid poofing costs to bypass that inconvenience. The apron store was devoid of fellow customers, at least. These places often are… So many days in a century, so few fairies willing to promise away their souls. All the better. We had the place to ourselves and Emery all the time to ask every question in the world.

My sister was Ambrosine's daughter through and through. The tabloids may deface ambassadors and thespians for oft taking outlandish time to pick out their promise clothing, but Emery skimmed right up to the black ones hanging from the hooks in the shop's rear and studied them with purpose. I stood beside her as she held a few to her chest, using the mirror as a guideline for how it looked against her front. "That one," we both agreed when she lifted an apron decorated in yellow swirls. The flames may not have suited me, a rough and tumble denizen of the dirt I'd considered myself when I married China, but it accented the ash-white flecks in Emery's dark hair perfectly. Her mind was settled in a quarter of an hour tops.

For his apron, Logan chose an ocean theme, complete with white ruffles the style of raging sea foam. Promise clothing is one of the few materials you'll never see decorated in true magic symbols, but the shimmer of the hem could have fooled you into assuming enchantment anyway. The contrast made for an interesting foil of Emery's apron, and I appraised them both side by side, my arms crossed.

"You look…"

"Balanced?" Logan asked nervously. "Hopeful? Committed?"

"Just say 'Good,' H.P."

"Frugal," I finished, and Emery pushed me into the wall again. I bought the corresponding glove colors, escorted Logan home, then led them Emery to Novakiin the precarious way: flying over the Tortoiseshell Peaks while we shoved one another around.

That's how she and I broke the news to Ambrosine: when he opened his door, I presented him with the receipt from the promise store, and Emery offered a sheepish hug. "You don't mind he's bald?" she whispered in his ear. Her fingers tightened behind his neck, hitching like stakes in a swap meet tent. I snorted, but Ambrosine embraced her more deeply and whispered back, "Not for a thousand shooting stars."

And just like that… the news was real. And it was all real. My sarcasm faded to silence as my father pulled Emery inside and they began to gush together about the ceremony, about next year's wedding, about the plans. He sat in his favorite chair, squeezing her hands and telling her how much he looked forward to her nymphs, if he was still alive by then. She sat on the chair arm beside him, laughing until her cheeks were a brighter pink than proximity to the fire could paint them.

I watched the exchange in silence, still holding the bark strip receipt in my hand. I crushed it until it cracked. He'd responded so differently when I'd announced my engagement to China on that very same doorstep only a few thousand years ago.

As though summoned by my thoughts, Ambrosine glanced my way and stopped. Three wingbeats passed while I stared at my shoes, my hands clasped in front of my waist. "I always look forward to more grandnymphs," he corrected himself then, and I said "Okay."

"Smith can bring us gifts from the table," Emery suggested. "Just not the wedding bands or the double-tipped arrow. Oh, and of course I'll want Sanderson and Longwood to help with the preparations, and Wilcox to budget, and then Bayard and Hawkins can greet-"

"Hawkins does budgets," I said. Then I walked out and took into the air. I'd barely gone four flaps when Ambrosine poofed in front of me, hands raised against his chest.

"Fergus, this wasn't a favoritism contest. I'm allowed to feel excited for my second child. Do recall I wasn't invited to stand vigil when it was your turn. You-"

"My legal name is Head Pixie, not Fergus. Never again. And if you're upset you weren't there, maybe you should think hard about the reasons why I felt more comfortable choosing China's brother over you." This time I pinged off, magic ration notwithstanding. I'd been thinking of China. I popped into existence in Lau Rell instead of Pixie Vilage, realized where I was with pain, then shook my head and went to find the tram station.

It took more self-control than I'd prefer to say to not barge in on Wilcox at school and question his thoughts, given his own upbringing with Ambrosine. But we had an agreement… My pixies didn't intrude in my office, I didn't visit them at boarding school. I had my friends, they had theirs. Sanderson still hadn't come bounding home, but he'd crack soon enough…

"I'm nervous," Emery told me later that night, fixing the baubles in her hair for the twenty-third time. Ambrosine had poofed Grandmother Nettle's vanity to the village… a vanity I hadn't seen for ages since he never allowed it out of his bedroom. Smith sat in her lap, sucking on his fist. Again, Emery fussed with her hair a few times before collapsing her shoulders with a sigh. "I've never done this before."

"It's just mating," I said, leaning my arm against her chair. "You know how."

She sighed again, then tore all the baubles out and flipped her short curls. "It's not just mating. The Year of Promise is something special. Not that you would know."

… I wouldn't know?

That nearly knocked the wind from my wings. I frowned. "Things ended badly with China, yes. I'm not the biggest fan of mating, yes. But my Promise Year was still special to me. I liked China. I still like and respect China. I didn't start hating her after we started living separate lives. We just don't get along. That doesn't invalidate the good times we had."

"Hm," she said flippantly. "And you'll watch Smith? The whole time?"

"Won't take my eyes off for a wingbeat."

In fact, I held him and we both waved from the step of the drone cabin when Emery flew to join Logan in the sky. It was spring, when Plane 3 stuck nearer to the moon and gravity weighed down on us heavier than usual. Summer stickiness wouldn't be far behind; already, the sprites were humming in the long grass. Which reminded me, I needed to pay Hawkins to trim the weeds sprouting between the cobblestones…

I shook my head and floated inside the cabin. My baby sister, off on a mating flight of her own… I glanced at Smith, who'd started chewing on his foot. "What do you think? Will they successfully keep their hands off each other for a year and a day? Or is the Year of Promise only respected by old farts like me?"

"Pbbth," he said, briefly showing me those pointed teeth. I tightened my grip around his middle and looked away, tactfully pressing down the urge to challenge back.

Ironic, I mused then. I didn't consider myself a traditional fairy, yet the Year of Promise was always one I'd liked. It let you bail out in a socially acceptable manner if you screwed up in choosing your life partner. The Pixie way is to close the door on perfect decisions, but leave a window open for reevaluations, I think.

I managed to wrangle everyone to bed, and Smith and I stayed out on the manor porch to await Emery's return. Ambrosine joined me with two mugs of cider. Rice followed, flopping at my feet. We played a game of fidchell and drank half a bottle of cherry between the both of us. I checked the local starlight measurement on my wand screen more than thrice, but the hours kept dragging on through early morning. As Emery's closest kin, Ambrosine and I were expected to wait for her, pretending to be anxious she hadn't yet come home. She'd end up spending the night with Logan, of course, but after a flirt-filled fight we'd reprimand her lightly for staying out past curfew and pretend we didn't notice her slipping away again. But as long minutes passed, I drilled my fingertips against the wand. It was late. Very late. What were they doing up there?

When China and I had taken our mating flight, we'd kept it quick and simple. It's all ceremony anyway. I don't even know why the common fairy subspecies does it, but since I'd believed myself a fairy at the time, I'd followed the practiced steps (I won't repeat the details; you can always flip back to the scene where I did the dance with "Pip" the anti-cherub for reference). And… admittedly, the sight of China's wings had always piqued my interest. She rarely showed off her fin-like wings, having been born and raised in the water and never a great fan of the sky. But when she did, she always sort of rolled them out from her back in a great shrug. Whether it was practiced or not, I couldn't tell, but the starlight always danced across the membranes. Far more impressive than the cloudy wings of a pixie drake…

Smith fell asleep in my arms, and I counted his freckles several times until two bright streaks in the sky indicated the couple were flying home. Ambrosine and I took that as our cue to go inside and feign washing dishes. "I guess we plan a wedding a year and a day from now," he said, and I said, "I'm pretty sure I'll have plans." He tweaked my ear and sent me off to put the sleeping baby to bed. Smith would be staying with Skyna and Tupilo on the edge of the village tonight… the former of whom was normally delighted to see me any hour of the day. The second? I'd never seen him without a scowl.

I knocked twice on the door of their cabin before entering in the typical 'respecting your independence yet asserting my authority' style expected of an aldra mór. All the lights were out, but when I floated inside, I found myself in the keeping room… and not alone. Skyna, it seemed, had fallen asleep on the couch with a blanket bundled around her shoulders. Her green hat had tipped at an awkward angle on her head. Beside her sat Tupilo, equally swaddled in the blanket. Skyna slept on despite my knock, but Tupilo stirred and blinked up at me.

"Dropping off Smith," I told him, not whispering. The Head Pixie lowers his voice only for his superiors. Same with blinking, really.

Tupilo yawned. Then, lifting a pinky towards the hallway, he said, "There's a crib that way. Put him there. We were just listening to the ocean through the crystal ball… Seems like we dozed off."

"Yeah, Emery and Logan must have had too many insults to fling at one another. Anyway, night."

Skyna had delighted in the nursery. She'd stocked it with empty bottles, copies of my notes, and all the emergency information she and I had managed to think up. I'd played polite and allowed her to show me the tour when I gave her Smith, but I hadn't returned since. This time, I didn't turn on the lights. That made the ribbons, toys, and juvenile baby blue walls a bit easier to bear.

And also painted a silent picture of the dimly lit space. I knew there was a box of books and puzzles in here somewhere, along with the art table and the one for diaper changing, of course. Somewhere. The crib stood out amongst the rest, easily visible beside the pale light of the window. The skyline of a town had been painted on the wall behind it, with windows that actually glowed and occasionally flickered and dimmed as the night wore on. It wasn't nearly as impressive in its details as the animated cloudland maps of the Blue Castle, but nice enough. It worked for babies.

When I tucked Smith in the crib, blanket near his nose, he looked nearly… peaceful. I paused with my hand cupped over his fuzzy head. Huh. Smith sucked his thumb when he slept, the same way I once did long ago. This must have been what Ambrosine saw when I was a baby… a freckled face caught in peaceful sleep. Not a deadly thought inside that tiny head.

I rubbed between my eyes. "What am I doing…?" Did I want to be like Praxis, ascribing assumptions of bloodshed to an infant, treating one as a despicable outcast, slave to his instincts? If Smith grew up away from the rest of my pixies, away from me, eventually he would wonder why. The others would treat him differently, even if we tried to pretend Smith's only reason for absence was to let Emery and Logan have a turn with childcare. Was I doing the right thing in separating him, or far better to let him grow up with the others, the way I'd allowed Longwood to stay?

But as much as I disagreed with Praxis, he had been right about me. I'd attempted to kill my father that night at the Academy. I'd killed multiple gynes besides that. It's what we do. It's who we are. We're born with the ferocity to challenge the dominant. Society needs a large handful of gynes to keep magic in check, keep any single Fairy from growing too powerful for this world. Someone will always want what you have. Someone was born with the urge to rip it away from you. If Smith grew up outside of Pixies Inc., how long would it take before he no longer saw himself as a pixie of class and esteem, but as a lone foop gnawing on scraps in the dark? I couldn't help but wonder if raising him away from me made it more likely he'd challenge my rule instead of less.

Then again… killing them had always been my choice. It was our culture. It was tradition. It's what we were taught in all the books, all the classes, all the outdoor plays: it's honorable to kill your opponent, foolish to let them go lest they strike back against your mercy… But instinct only led you to the fight. Killing was always my choice.

I sighed, leaning over Smith's crib with folded arms. How quickly he'd cease to be this cute and innocent, I thought. How fortunate he smelled of Skyna, of Tupilo, of Logan… of people my body wasn't inherently ready to fight. At least there was some comfort in that. Until he grew old enough to smell like a gyne, only the sight of him risked triggering my instincts. He had time.

Emery took to her new life like a butterfly to air, withdrawing almost entirely from the village and leaving food preparations on my head. Not that I really minded, considering that when she was around, all she wanted to talk about was Logan, Logan, and Logan. Logan himself seemed pleased with the arrangement, a little more brave when it came to wandering my property, which I spoke to him about. Not to mention that Smith was far more comfortable living under their now-permanent roof in the forest cottage than he would have been in the village proper. Case in point… Longwood.

It happened six winters later, in the Year of the Starfall Seeds, when my pixies were off school for break. We were hosting the sylph ambassador for lunch, and sat about chatting in the pavillion. Then, in the middle of my sentence, a shriek cut through the air. Emery whipped around.

"Smith?"

Ten minutes ago, my pixies had gathered around a toad they'd found and had decided to "trap" it in a square of rocks. Evidently, the novelty had worn off. What I'd believed to be a circle of pixies around the toad had become a circle of pixies around Smith… and it wasn't to trap him between stones in a game. At Smith's squeal, their voices rose in chatter. Emery and I abandoned the table, rushing to get a better look at what was going on. Rice pounded on my heels, puffing "Oh no, oh no, oh no!" every time his paws hit the cloud.

My drones scattered at my arrival, shifting their arrangement until they were practically flanking me. But the two gynes remained in the center: Longwood standing, Smith crumpled on the ground. Thank dust, his skin hadn't been broken. The shriek hadn't been one of pain so much as alarm- Smith's wings shivered twisted and tattered above him, his cheek pressed to the dirt. Longwood backed away at our approach, hugging his shoulders, but when he saw us rushing towards him, he flew off for his cabin. I stared after him, resisting the urge to chase him down and scold in front of the ambassador.

"Is he okay?" Emery demanded, trying to wiggle past me (my pixies hadn't moved to allow her to stand where they did). Smith was awake- that was certain. I scooped him into my arms and he clung to the collar of my suit with both hands. He shivered for a moment there, refusing to look at even Emery. He rubbed the dirt from his cheek with one palm.

"H.P., did I do something wrong?"

Still talking. Still full of magic. Still full of life. Beyond the crumpled wings, he didn't seem to have been hurt. Sighing, I adjusted my glasses and said, "You didn't do a thing wrong, Smith. Longwood just doesn't like your freckles."

"Why?"

"Because he's a neat freak and they look like blemishes. No, I meant that in a good way. They're ghostly now, but they'll be pretty and red like mine when you're older." I looked at Emery in case she wanted her turn to comfort, but now that she knew Smith was all right, she held up her hand to signal her reluctance to baby him. To Smith, I added, "Now, run along with Madigan here. He's the one to talk first if you need something, before you talk to me. He'll be a sort of guide and mentor from this point forward." I placed the younger pixie in Madigan's arms. "All of you, play nice with Smith. Don't ever leave him with Longwood unsupervised."

"Yes, sir."

Longwood was chastised, which he accepted with a grunt. Smith was kept under more watchful eyes. The years clicked by, gear tooth upon gear tooth in the wheel of time. My pixies continued their schooling, though I still didn't understand why. We had books here in the village. I didn't require homework. Except for Hawkins, they sought security exclusively in one another instead of making friends. Seemed rather pointless to me.

"Let them go," Luis said in amusement when I asked for his input. "They'll always think of this place as home. If they wish it, let them spend time away… Perhaps to a pixie, school is a vacation from the work you give them here."

Dewdrop nodded mild agreement. "I suppose," I muttered, and let the subject drop. We all looked up when Juandissimo opened the manor's door and entered the hall outside the kitchen. I raised my glass of cider in his direction. "How goes the newest student of the Fairy Academy?"

"Ah…" Juandissimo rubbed behind his neck, throwing his gaze towards the ceiling. But he was smiling. "I am not as you might say, a resident there… I have only received my acceptance letter. It will be another cycle or even two before I can even consider the move up."

"You've finished all your baseline specialization classes, right? Just your study abroad to go? That's worth celebrating. A few more cycles and you'll be out of there. The Academy can hardly keep their hands off you."

Juandissimo shrugged and folded his arms behind his head. "I think I won't go too soon. You see, I am many years older than the dame of my affections, and I wish to refrain from speeding far ahead of her in class. My high school study program requires me to finish soon, but she and I have discussed and wish to be together at the Academy if we can. In the meantime, I will focus on my work at the Eros Nest. Dm. Venus and Drk. Cupid have already assured me my date of leave."

Dewdrop tipped his head. "What were you studying in school again?"

"Ma-" Luis began, but I shushed him with an upheld finger. Juandissimo unsheathed his wand in a burst of sparkles and flicked it above our heads. A scroll unfurled in the air, displaying the words Massage Therapist in cursive script.

"I'm glad that worked out for you," I told Juandissimo as the scroll twinkled with light. "But you need to brag more about your abilities. Play up the luz mala part. Talk up your skills. Claim there's magic in your fingers so in tune with people's emotions that there's no way you won't satisfy, and you'll have the public eating out of your hand."

He nodded and sheathed his wand again, causing the scroll to dissipate. "I will be packing today for my study abroad. But forget me not, for I shall return in a few short years as a bird migrates to warmer waters." He kissed his father on the cheek, took some fruit from the table, and poofed back to the room he and Luis shared. "Perhaps I need to hire someone else," I mused as he went. "I'll miss having his extra hands around."

A week later, Longwood entered my office without knocking and asked if I'd take him to Luna's Landing when Spring Turn and the Seven Festivals arrived.

"I take you every cycle," I said, lowering my glasses to look at him.

"To work." Longwood kept his voice level, but the slightest fleck of scorn crept into the end. He placed his hands on the edge of my desk and his knuckles tightened white. "You don't let us go anywhere. We just clean the tent, wash the dishes, and sell your cakes."

"Those cakes are the reason we can buy groceries. We've wiggled our way into being a staple for many a traveler when the Seven Festivals arrive and I don't plan to fail the world any time soon. It's not high on my bucket list."

"But that's working," Longwood protested again, this time with emphasis. To a degree, he was right. Since Anti-Florensa was no longer on hand to watch them, I kept my pixies within range of my senses at all times. Busy party season. Crowded streets. Too many Anti-Fairies wanting to touch their wings or stop and stare. I hadn't so much as left our booth to watch a play since Anti-Bryndin and I had gone off speaking terms. He and I barely glanced each other's way at the Council meetings. When I told Longwood the answer was no and opened a cabinet drawer, he stared at the back of my head for an impassive moment before suggesting Emery and Logan escort him around instead.

"For how long?"

"There's Seven Festivals, so… I was hoping all seven days?" What started as a confident statement quickly collapsed into quiet hesitation. Preferable on some point to a presumed sassy comment from Sanderson, but I found it irritating all the same. Not very pixie-like at all.

"It's doubtful. They have work; doctors and godparent overseers don't receive an entire week of holiday. Anti-Fairies can get away with it because they never work anyway. I suppose we could work around it if you want to wander the city on Naming Day, but I might need your hands at the booth."

"Then can Rice take me? I'll be responsible and won't run off."

"Dust no. Rice lacks the motivation to keep you in line."

"Can you ask Anti-Florensa? You said she watched everyone else a lot before you started making cakes."

"She had her son's help, and no, it isn't my place to impose that on her. I'd need to ask Anti-Bryndin first and he'll invite me to tail him just to be polite. I don't want to wander, nor am I interested in turning down an invitation I didn't want extended anyway."

We discussed back and forth for a few minutes more before finally, Longwood played his final card: "China asked if I wanted to go with her and I said yes. She's going to watch me; I promise I'll be safe. So can I go? You made me stay home when you took everybody else."

I sighed through my nose, still rifling through my cabinet. "You're still not going. We divorced. You're not China's ward anymore. She needs to talk to me about that, not you."

"Then can you ask her if we can go see her family in Cikacoral instead? I really want to go to Anti-Fairy World, but I'd be okay with just Cikacoral if I had to."

"You need to ask Sanderson's advice on how to bargain effectively. I'm not convinced. No means no, Longwood. If you go anywhere with China, I'll inform the Purple Robe that my marquess has been kidnapped and I intend to press charges. That's my final answer."

Longwood left the room in silence, leaving my office door wide open. Juandissimo's head appeared around the frame a moment later.

"Ah, I did not mean to overhear the words spoken so firmly in here, but if you wish for an escort who could-"

"Don't encourage him. Luna's Landing is hardly safe for an adult to wander this time of year, let alone a child. We're Fairies. They'll pick on us before any of their own."

Juandissimo bowed his head. "Yes, señor."

It did not escape my notice that he'd arrived from the same side of the hall Longwood had stormed away down. Longwood was 7,500 now… Had Juandissimo made the choice to speak with me on his own, or had Longwood implied he wanted it? Was his influence as a gyne beginning to prickle up and affect those around him, even this young? I stared at my hands a moment, fingers curled around the edges of the cabinet drawer. Had I influenced any of my friends at that age? Any adults, even Ambrosine? And if Longwood hadn't begun yet… How much longer before he did? The thought of my pixies dividing their loyalties between both Longwood and me was an unpleasant one, and pervasive. I needed to step up the preening licks.

I rotated my right hand so the palm faced the ceiling. If an area's aldra mór weakens overnight, does the next gyne in line get propelled into their aura young? I hadn't taken that into account…

It was the evening my pixies had returned from school, which meant they would be together for the first time in months, which meant most of them would stay up all night and sleep in later than usual. So the following morning, I shook Wilcox awake in bed. He ignored me with a grunt and a whine, but finally, when I pinched his wings and Rice licked his nose, he sat up with a groan. The fuzzy blankets oozed like slime off his back, pooling on the floor.

"H.P.?"

"Get dressed," I said. "I've made arrangements to visit my foster parents and I want you to come along."

He stopped rubbing his eyes. "What?"

"My foster parents. The ones who raised me for twenty-nine years while Ambrosine went off to war. My milkmother is growing old and frail, and I've hardly seen them since my baptism. We have a long way to travel."

"… What?"

I sighed. "You turned 8,000 exactly this year and I want to celebrate that by taking you on a special trip. Just get dressed and meet me by the tram station. And don't wake anyone else."

Wilcox scratched behind his neck. "Okay, boss. Just give me a sec."

Five minutes later, he met Rice and I by the edge of the village. With a ping, he swapped his appearance to match that of an adult fairy woman… and not an unattractive one either, I suppose, by the traditional standards of short colorful hair. He'd picked green. After brushing down his button-up shirt, he extended an elbow to me with a flourish.

"What are you doing?" I asked. The behavior itself wasn't a surprise from Wilcox, as he did everything with a flourish, but I couldn't make up my mind whether I was amused or annoyed that he would use that amount of magic when we were alone in the early morning starlight.

"I'm pretending to be fake married to you, of course. Or pretending we're real married, I guess would be the proper turn of phrase. That's why you picked me over the others, right?"

"Mama Gidget and Papa Reuben aren't the kind of parents you need to impress." I pushed his arm down, brows raised. "But good effort. You'd fool many a Fairy, I'm sure."

Wilcox thought for a minute, then shrugged without reversing the transformation. Which, again, left me unsure whether or not that was annoying enough to comment on. "Why haven't we ever gone to see Grandpa Reuben and Grandma Gidget before now?"

"Ehh…" I motioned Wilcox to follow me into our little tram station, then pressed the button to summon a car from the mainland. "The thing is, Gidget and Reuben aren't very… traditional people. They opposed the War of the Sunset Divide and all that, which is why they were around to raise me after Ambrosine enlisted."

"Why did Ambrosine go to war instead of raising you?"

"Social stigma, mostly. He's a pushover." I shrugged. "My foster parents only raised me for twenty-nine years before the war ended and Ambrosine came back. He thanked them curtly and then we went our separate ways. Growing up, we exchanged a few letters but I never stayed with them for long periods of time after that."

"Oh. So Ambrosine didn't like them? I would have assumed yes if he let them raise you that long."

"He thought they were too relaxed and inattentive. But, he didn't have a lot of choice. There weren't a lot of war protesters in the Deep Kingdom, and particularly ones who were willing to accept and nurse a hungry baby. Before and especially after my freckles showed."

Wilcox nodded his head in thought. We waited together behind the railing, gazing through the glass floor to the canyon below. Finally, our tram car pulled into the station. The ride to Faeheim was uneventful. When we disembarked there, I told Wilcox to use the washroom and pick out a breakfast from one of the shops in the station. He glanced at me sideways without expression. When I didn't respond immediately, he asked, "So it's a long trip? Where to?"

"They live on Plane 12."

"Plane 12!" He smacked a hand to his forehead. "I didn't think people lived up there."

"Well, my foster parents do. It's out of the way and they like their privacy. And don't do that again; displays of emotion like that only tip off your enemies. You're better off maintaining a neutral demeanor at all times."

"Yes, H.P."

Rice cleared his throat, pawing at Wilcox's leg. "Choose the cinnamon roll, bagel boy."

Wilcox shook his head in apparent disbelief, but collapsed his form into that of a pixie once again. "But that's still seven planes above where we are now. We aren't going to ping there from here?"

"I don't want to. We'll go as far as Plane 9, then make the jump from there. You're in school. Tell me why."

"Pinging back and forth on the same plane is average price unless you're using a premium destination pad, but every time you cross planes magically, it's extra expensive. That's why we usually take the trams. But H.P…." Wilcox's expression turned pouty, eyebrows ducking. "Is this going to take all day? I didn't pack my art stuff."

"Yes, it will. And if you want those things, ping them out here before we board the next tram. We'll eat on the ride up."

Wilcox debated for a moment, but made no attempt to summon his things. When I asked, he simply replied that "essential sensories weren't his forté" and left it at that. So the ride was quiet. Wilcox sat across the car from me, Rice remained alert beside my leg.

"Are we going to see snakes?" Wilcox muttered into his hand. "Because if this was just to take me to see snakes, I'm leaving first shot I get."

"Snakes are not the intended goal, I assure you. I don't anticipate running into any, but theoretically it's a possibility. As I recall, Plane 12 is home to herbivores, which snakes are typically not, though I suppose it's possible."

Hours later, we stepped out onto Plane 9. "Ping us to 12," I told Wilcox, and he blinked.

"Why can't you?"

"I want to see what they're teaching you in school. If you want to graduate with top marks like Juandissimo, you need to be practicing outside of class. Show me."

Rice glanced up at me, but obediently, Wilcox lifted his wand. We were off in a shimmer of dust. When we reformed, I waved the particles away from my glasses and squinted about our surroundings. Cold. That's what brushed across my skin first. I had to admit, Wilcox had managed the teleport impressively well, even locking on to our destination without a teleport pad to signal the landing point. This certainly was Plane 12 (the blue grass and rolling purple-gray hills were proof of that, and the mist swirling all around only helped the image). Low overhead - almost too low - stretched the grand, crystal peaks of the upside-down mountains on Plane 13. Not that they were upside-down in the High Kingdom, of course… They surely said the same thing about ours.

There's a good reason, you know, that we call this land the Hush World. They say that in eons past, many chimera made their final stand here before they died. Their voices still echo across the foggy canyon… Or rather, I still called it a canyon out of habit from the days of my youth despite the fact that anyone who saw it for the first time now would know it as a river. Ink-black water had flooded in from somewhere north years ago. I pointed a finger towards it for Wilcox to follow.

"Manannán's Course. Follow it downstream and you'll discover the bridge to Caer Pedryvan. Did they tell you about that in school?"

"No, but Ambrosine mentioned you've been there a few times. He said you served the chimera queen for decades as an adolescent. You used to dance there when you were younger too." Wilcox hesitated, then shrugged to signal he was finished speaking. I highly doubted that was all he knew of the situation, but I did admire his ability to not ramble on longer than he felt was needed.

"That's right. Now, if you get lost on Plane 12, that's where we meet. Never at the place the Deep Kingdom converges with the High; Caer Golud is too near that point. Caer Pedryvan is safer. It's dormant six of the seven years… Far fewer temptations than the Hall of Riches. Do you understand?"

"Yes, sir."

I was well familiar with the area, having followed my foster parents everywhere they traveled outside. Forests expand, flowers die, mountains erode, and canyons flood, yet the remnants of ancient chimera structures have always stood the tests of time. Plane 12 didn't have official walkways (and certainly not paved roads), but I found a place where the silver-blue grass had been trampled by generations of shuffling feet. The trail wound across the field and into the distant forest. "This way," I told Wilcox, walking along it. He glanced at me sideways like he wanted to ask about pinging again, but fell into pace behind me without comment.

"You aren't flying," he observed nonetheless.

"Don't want to. The chimera are more likely to see us as a threat if I soar across the land on spread wings."

Wilcox considered this, but didn't cease hovering at my shoulder. I entered the forest without hesitation, murmuring the same to Wilcox. No good ever comes from hesitating on ancient land. Rice brought up the rear on stubby legs. Each pawstep landed without noise. No rustling leaves. No animal sounds. Only our whispers carried in the frozen air.

The walk to the woodland hamlet wasn't very long, but it was necessary. I don't think I'd describe the place as "secretive," but the word "private" fits it to a degree. Rhodo's residents consisted mostly of folk who had good reason to withdraw from the busy world of Fae on planes below. Some were social outcasts. Many were tomtes. Others simply those who desired a quiet, simplistic life. I don't doubt a few criminals had taken shelter here too, though the homes were spaced out far enough, I had little concern we'd run across them. Besides that, the hamlet lay enveloped in a simple magic block that prevented magic's use for all but flight, healing, and drinking through our lines. It certainly wasn't the maxed-up level of shield that had strangled so many non-brownies in the village of Great Sidhe long ago, but same general principle. You'd find a lot of magic-banishing items around this place.

"Do Reuben and Gidget know we're coming?" Wilcox asked, examining the dirty side of his shoe.

"No. I didn't get around to writing them; they wouldn't check their mail for months if I did anyway. But believe me, they won't have moved. And considering how little magic they use, I'd be shocked to hear they've died."

Wilcox appraised me curiously then. "'Little magic?' So they moved here because they were tomtes?"

"Sort of. Reuben is. Gidget ages at an expected rate for daily magic usage. You'll see."

"And that's why they fostered you? Since if he's a tomte, they couldn't have kids?"

"You'll see."

The woods were dimly lit, purple leaves blocking out most of the available starlight, but the canopy remained thin. We crossed a bare streambed and three homes beside the road before I stopped in front of Number 4. The cottage looked much the same as I remembered it: same general, mostly triangular shape with white walls and a black roof, though most of the material had been replaced over the millennia. A capricorn grazed at glowing flowers in their bed, though at our approach it turned and dove into a pond with a silent splash. Two ravens scattered for I presume the same reason. Wilcox fidgeted with his wand, still more than a little irked that the magic block had stripped him of his shapeshifting. I raised my voice.

"Mama? It's Fergus."

Rice pricked up his ears. At first, no reply. But we waited with practiced pixie patience, and our time was rewarded by the appearance of a pale face in the wide front window. When she laid sharp eyes on me, she laughed and turned away.

"Reuben, you can come out! It's just Fergus. Remember Fergus? He's got an ankle-nipper now. One of them besides the dog."

"Oh," said Wilcox quietly. "She's a-"

A fairy joined the refract at the window, adjusting his glasses with two fingers. At that, Wilcox stiffened. His eyes rotated from them to me. I nodded.

"Wilcox, meet Papa Reuban and Mama Gidget."

He glanced from me to them to me again. Then he set his hands to his hips. "And it didn't occur to you to mention they're a cross-Court couple?"

"Surprise."

"Hm," Rice said, considerably less enthused. Nonetheless, he padded up the walk after us without pausing for a single sniff.

My foster parents welcomed the three of us with open wings. We ate lunch in the rear garden, surrounded by some of the rarer black and glowing flowers that had been imported specifically from Anti-Fairy World these days. Reuben had cared for plants just like these when I was a child, before Fairy World even split, leading me to wonder if he was friends with any seed merchants over there. I'd never known Reuben to care for someone's species… I suppose it was possible there were Anti-Fairies who didn't mind selling a fairy some of their plants for the same reason.

I wouldn't describe myself as relaxing my shoulders when I arrived in my foster parents' home, for that would suggest I'd relaxed my attentive guard. I had very few memories of the place after all these years, nor had it ever felt like a true home to me. Growing up here while the war raged on other planes, I'd always known that Ambrosine would return for me someday. Or if not him, one of his siblings might have taken me in instead, so long as they were willing to stand up to a disapproving Praxis.

But in any case… Although the small, neat, and too-homely home remained unfamiliar to me in so many ways, bits and pieces of memory had remained. The stairs on the left side of the entrance hall. The sleek, black couch of yale leather with the unicorn hair blanket thrown over the back, which I vaguely remembered my milkparents arguing over once as they debated whether it was or wasn't from an actual unicorn. Potted plants on the crystal coffee table, too many timestream images on the wall behind the chairs. Pink curtains and even pinker carpet. I'd once rolled and played on that carpet, flitting around with my toy megalodon in hand and "climbing" it up the shelves on the walls. When we'd walked in today, I'd run my fingers over several silk roses in a painted vase. Those were new. Most else? Same as ever.

"Did you ever foster other nymphs after me?" I asked, sinking my fork into a slice of lemon pie. It had been chilled in the icebox, which I thought I liked better than fresh and hot.

"No nymphs," was Gidget's answer. "But we have opened our doors to many a passersby. Mostly runaway Fairy children; we don't see many Anti-Fairies straying up to the Hush World. Their culture forbids it until they're 200,000, you know, and even fewer find our home and request a place to stay. No travelers keep beneath our roof for very long, but that's the way of the world sometimes, isn't it?"

"There was one Refract," Reuben mused. "She's come and gone through this road several times, seeking protection from house to house, and we've hosted her as many times as she'll accept." He removed his glasses then, folding the arms in and out, and sighed heavily. "Said last time that she was looking for an escort to Salalalyn's Temple. 'Course the only way down there from here was to cross back into Plane 13 and drop from above, but we offered directions to Luna's Landing as best we could. Never can remember all those temple names."

"Salalalyn is the…" I thought back to my upper school education, when we'd finally had Anti-Fairy culture classes at any notable level. "Moon spirit?"

"Sleep," Wilcox and Rice corrected me at the same time, and Wilcox added, "That's why the Anti-Fairies migrate to her temple every winter; eons ago, they used to fall into seasonal torpor. It was said Salalalyn would put them to sleep. That's where the ancient nickname 'inspector counterparts' came from, actually. It was said that even asleep, their people remained Salalalyn's vigilant guard and would wake immediately to 'inspect' the source of noise if disturbed."

"I see." I noticed then that he had three times the amount of pie he probably should at his age… I let it slide. "Interesting. Present company excepted, it's unusual for a Refract to wander alone, isn't it? There's a reason they're known as Trooping Fae."

Mama Gidget nodded solemnly in my direction. "She's from one of the flocks that frequents the river territory. I'm afraid they cast her out because she kissed a damsel outside the honey-lock. They don't allow such blatant shows of affection in the High Kingdom. She seemed… lost. Our of her element without a flock. We sent her along to your counterpart in Anti-Fairy World; he generally stays in one place, so I've heard, and it seemed likely he could point her in the right direction with little judgment."

Rice barked out a laugh. "Little judgment! Must be the only Fergus who qualifies for that."

This was the first I'd heard of my counterpart associating with any Refracts, and I chewed my pie in thought. Anti-Fergus certainly did stay in one place and he did strike me as the type who would. What did that say about me? Restless and guarded, perhaps. That sounded about right.

"If this refract is from a tribe that followed the river, do you think she may have run across my own counterpart at some time?"

"I suppose it's probable. Yours runs the mill, doesn't she? I didn't think to ask."

"How is the pie?" Reuben wanted to know then, and the conversation changed to the struggles of tending fruit trees on this plane. Once we finished, Wilcox went off with Reuben to visit the orchard while Mama Gidget and I cleared away the dishes.

"Mama," I said when we returned indoors. "I have more offspring than Wilcox, but I brought him up specifically to meet you both."

"Oh?" she asked, licking leftover pie from one of the plates. Then she remembered I was there and set it quietly in the washing basin. I handed her a washcloth from behind the sink.

"I have high suspicions that he's into Anti-Fairies, if you know what I mean. Or at least will be once he's older. I get that kind of vibe off him. I'm not the only one who's thought it, either."

"Really now?"

I shrugged. "He hasn't actually spoken to me about it yet, and I would prefer you didn't let him know I suspect. Who knows? I might even be wrong. But if I'm not, I thought you might be good practice for him to hold that discussion with. Help him recognize and figure out what he might want to do with those thoughts and behaviors. Doesn't have to be now, but I hope to bring him back here more regularly. My other pixies too, but Wilcox was the one I wanted you to imprint on first for that reason."

Mama Gidget waved a fork at me. "Say no more. I'll have a walk and a chat with him tonight. It isn't every millennia you see a Fairy and a Refract together, is it? We'll see if there's something on his mind."

After we finished the dishes, she showed me an image she'd taken from the timestream and tapped the glass frame. "That's Dame Artemis here in the garden," she told me as I dried my hands. "She took quite a liking to those wooden zodiac figures from the shelf you used to line up and draw. Did you ever take them out in the grass like this?"

I stared at the image for so long, Rice leaped up to peer over my shoulder. Then I looked at Mama Gidget. "This can't be Dame Artemis. That's the chimera queen."

Gidget considered this, then shrugged. "In that case, we hosted the chimera queen. But she certainly had the aura of a Refract when she entered our home, and I would know."

I showed Rice the image, pointing my finger at the nix refract in question. The white feathers, red eyes, and pointed nose could have passed as the traits expected of their race. Even the rounded cheeks could have been a coincidence. But the rest? "Isn't that the Queen of Hells? I've seen her at Samhain a dozen times."

"That sure looks to me like the Queen of Hells whom you've seen at Samhain a dozen times. Short golden curls, tall crown-"

I adjusted my thumb to the sun pendant hanging at her chest. It was large, about the size of an open palm, and a shimmering gold with orange spokes uncurling from the middle. It rode on a simple silver chain around her neck.

"Yeah, I was still getting to that part, cupcake." Rice noticed Gidget glaring at him to get down from the table and dropped obediently to the floor. "Hey, the chimera queen can take whatever form she likes. Taking a Refract form isn't so unusual."

"Hmm," I said. "I don't like it. We Fairies have a geis of mutually assured destruction with the chimera. The first step towards breaking an oath is 'getting curious' of the other side's actions."

"We've never bothered with the chimera," Mama Gidget said. "I see no reason why they should want to bother us now."

"Yes, and that may serve you and Reuben well when it comes to avoiding fellow Fae, but chimera are different. They don't play by Da Rules. Let's not forget the lower planes were once their land." I studied the frame a moment more until my knuckles turned white. "Do you mind if I take this picture when we leave? I want to look into this."

She sighed, arms folding. "I see no reason why it's your business, nor do I support nosing into the poor dame's life. When she stood beneath our roof, she was no 'Queen of Hells' that I could see. You may be recognized as some 'Head Pixie' down on lower planes, Fergus, but in my home, you are still my milkson. Take the image if you must, but error on the side of kindness. If you harm that child, you'll be asking me to choose sides. I will choose that of the perceived underdog, and I will smite you on the bottom if you force my hand."

I didn't doubt that. I tucked the picture inside my coat, making a mental note to tell Longwood I'd changed my mind about the Seven Festivals. If he wanted to go, I'd take him myself. I had a few words I wanted to speak with both my counterpart and Anti-Bryndin.

Rice and I spent the remainder of our time with Reuben while Wilcox and Mama Gidget went walking through the hamlet. We all left late that evening, following a promise that I'd return to visit sooner than 300,000 years from now. "So," I said to Wilcox as we boarded the first tram home, "did you enjoy our little visit?"

"I did, sir. H.P., why haven't you taken us to meet Reuben and Mama Gidget before?"

"Eh, they can be a little too loud, nosy, and forward for me. They live far away and I'm lazy. They're nice, but there's nowhere on this plane to get a decent coffee. I may have been small town born and raised in Novakiin, but the city was always my home. I'd go stir-crazy up here. Did you like them?"

"They're interesting." Wilcox looked up at me with eyes glittering brighter than stew in a crystal bowl. "I didn't know you were raised by a fairy and a refract. I didn't even know people could still do that after the war split the Fairies and Anti-Fairies up."

"Well." I tilted back my head. "It's certainly not traditional. They don't like to advertise their relationship. But, they've been together for as long as I've known them. Still going strong all these years."

"When I start courting a damsel seriously, I want to come back here so she can meet Mama Gidget too."

"Oh? Why is that?"

Wilcox froze, his hands still pressed to his cheeks. He glanced away. Then he slid his arms down, behind his back. "I just liked them. They're part of our cultural traditions and stuff, right? I'd like to visit them again someday."

"Well, if you ever find a damsel who likes you that much, you have my blessing to come back here and introduce her to them." I tapped the pocketwatch inside my coat. "But don't wait too long. They won't live forever, either. Even a tomte like Reuben will die someday, delayed aging or not." Grim as the thought may be.

When the Seven Festivals arrived, Emery and Logan took command of the cake booth while Longwood and I moved deeper into the city alone. I'd negotiated with the other village residents to watch my pixies at home today, and between Luis, Dewdrop, Juandissimo, Skyna, Tupilo, and Rice, I was certain they could handle everything. China was easy to find in the pop-up art gallery to one side of the city, and I left Longwood in her care. "I won't be joining you," I told them both. "You're free to spend the week together and be as Zodii as you like, but Longwood returns with me to Pixies Inc. when this is over."

"Can do, Fergus," China said, deliberately using my old name. I stared at her without emotion, then turned and left. Fine, then. In terms of problems on my mind, she was the lowest on the list. How delightful to see where I ranked in her world since we'd split apart.

I hadn't told Anti-Bryndin I would be outside my cake booth this year. Part of it was lazy procrastination; the signal delay across the Barrier just plain sucked and I'm a busy drake. Part of it was the mild concern that something would come up and I wouldn't be able to make it without canceling one of my plans. And part of it had to do with the fact that… I no longer knew where I stood with the High Count: an ally, an enemy… or some forgettable in-between.

Luna's Landing's streets were lined with glowing rainbow crystals in much the same way I'd once seen snowdrifts piled along Earthside roads. Despite being 'the city in the crater' and therefore limited in terms of available space by default, the Anti-Fairies certainly managed to pack a large number of rounded tents in the open land patches each year. The entire city had been designed like a checkered fidchell board. First you walked past a cluster of buildings (mostly restaurants, jewelry shops, or perhaps a satchel store or salon if you were lucky) followed by a square of land. Another cluster of buildings, another square of land. One building, I observed, even sold small rodents by the box. I could only assume Anti-Fairies kept them around as pets. Either that or meals on the go…

This time of year, you could expect every one of those land plots to be brimming with more bulging tents than it could handle. I inspected one outside a shop selling what I believe was veils and headdresses, and the tent material appeared to be leather. Between that fact, the sheer number of tents, and the wool coats and blankets so many were wearing, you can imagine the smell of animals permeating everything. And that's not even including what wafted from their own fur.

After pushing my way uphill towards the crater's edge for some time, ducking around the feet of three hundred Anti-Fairies, I turned off the path and stepped with careful confidence towards a large tent that I immediately recognized as that of the High Count and Countess. Theirs was a solid seven wingspans in diameter and at least three tall. And, of course, every side had been stained blue. As a rule, most Anti-Fairy tents came in various shades of gray or black, so this one stood out like lava down a mountainside. A smaller tent with a red symbol flanked it on my left- no doubt Anti-Buster's private tent, being First General and all. Anti-Bryndin would want him close. I scrutinized the area, expecting his personal guard to have his own, before recalling that Anti-Florensa was also one of his wives. For various reasons, she likely didn't have a separate space.

So… That left me standing openly before the Blue Tent's half-parted door flaps. I'd been inside a few times, all centuries before when I had fewer pixies to my name. As near as I could gather, Anti-Fairies were permitted to enter and leave the tent as they so pleased, at least this evening (as each new day brought with it the rules of a new festival, I couldn't say if that would last). Neither Anti-Buster nor Anti-Florensa appeared to be guarding the door. Surely the same visiting policy applied to me. If Anti-Bryndin was even in. The reach of my magical senses told me that was indeed his imprint in the energy field, and I determined his position sitting on the floor. From the movements of his hands in the energy field, he seemed to be looking at something intently. A trinket of some sort? An amulet? It held magic, whatever it was, though I couldn't read it properly. A gaggle of damsels leaned against his shoulders, all of them apparently eager to see what he held, though I didn't recognize any of them beyond Anti-Florensa, who stood cross-armed in the rounded corner of the tent.

I hadn't spoken to Anti-Bryndin since we discussed our views on what had become of our relationship… Not truly spoken to him, I mean, as in spoken more than with a glance or a nod. My pixies and I sold cakes here each turn of the cycle, but even when I did see Anti-Bryndin floating through the streets, or if I ever caught his eye, Anti-Florensa would be the one to pick up orders on his behalf. I suspected she ate the majority of cakes herself. So I didn't quite know what to expect from Anti-Bryndin, and particularly when I hadn't sent word of my coming.

But I'd procrastinated a deep conversation with him for millennia, and procrastinating a few minutes longer wouldn't settle my thoughts any further. Without another blink, I thrust open the flap of the tent and strode in.

The scene before me was laid out precisely as my senses had suggested: the High Count sat near the rear of the tent with some curious object in his hands while damsels plucked at his clothes or ran fingers through his hair. He seemed to be ignoring all of them, even growling at one who placed her palm against his cheek. The group looked up as one when I entered. Anti-Bryndin vaporized the item in question before I could get a good look at it, splashing a wide smile across his face. A wingbeat later, he'd rocked up to his feet. He spread his hands.

"Ben'argenta, Head Pixie! How great the pleasure is to have you in Luna's Landing this day. I did not know of this your coming here, but I am filled pleasingly in my soul to greet you now."

A few seconds passed in silence. I could now say with full confidence that the item in Anti-Bryndin's hands had been a tiny crystal ball (not unlike the one he had offered me when our friendship began) and I knew this because a small, circular glow had just appeared in the breast pocket of his vest. It was a crystal… and it was still on. Had that been intentional on his part? He'd stated my name clearly.

Whatever. I often had Rice or one of my pixies listening in on many a conversation in my private office. If Anti-Bryndin felt the need to have a witness, that was between him and his anxieties. I may not like it, but I could accept it. I glanced once at the damsels behind him, who were muttering amongst themselves as though debating whether or not it would be appropriate to stand, then shifted my attention back to him. Anti-Bryndin seemed… at ease with my presence. Slanted shoulders, not an ounce of tenseness in them besides what was natural to keep his wings at lifted rest. Following the spread, he clasped his hands politely to wait for my reply. I studied his stance, indecisive on my thoughts. Did he truly welcome me? Did he do so as a fellow ambassador, or as a friend? Did he feel any regrets, remorse, disappointment? Unease? I certainly felt something, despite my best efforts… a spark of jealousy at his calm, rather polite demeanor even while he stood a wing-span away.

"I'm ecstatic to have found you, High Count," I answered, reaching out my hands in turn. We exchanged the typical greeting signs of the Anti-Fairies and I pulled them back. "I recently came into some information that I'd like to run by you and pick your brain over, but it can wait for a time you aren't so busy."

Anti-Bryndin pursed his lips. He regarded me curiously in return, and I wondered if approaching him during the Seven Festivals could be a mistake. What may be a vacation for most Anti-Fairies was a load of extra work for him. This could, quite possibly, have been the worst moment to request a slice of his time.

Nonetheless… Anti-Bryndin waved his damsel entourage from the tent. "The Head Pixie and I have news to discuss, which is very important between us both. We desire drink to pass the time. Bring this to us now. Mona, is this okay?"

One of the younger dames bowed and slipped off in the opposite direction from the rest. I set my teeth. "Oh- I didn't need… I'm good, High Count."

"Grape for me," Anti-Bryndin spoke over my protests and the sound of rustling wings. "And of course as an honored guest, the Head Pixie will have…?"

Sigh. I ran my fingers through the sleek spikes in my hair. "Fine. Admittedly… an orange would be nice. It's that time of year and I've been pulled so many ways that I've hardly had a drop since my sister's wedding. It's busy. I'm busy. She considered a dry and sober event for a while; can you believe it?"

Anti-Bryndin chuckled, patting the backs of my knuckles. Then he let go and gestured for me to take the room's only padded stool. Beside that stool stood a trunk and a desk, which I presumed contained clothes and general High Count work papers respectively. I sat. Anti-Florensa watched like a snake from her corner, now holding her quarterstaff in one hand rather than crossing arms. What she was watching for… I couldn't be certain. If I held a weapon, what could I even do against a regenerating member of the Unseelie Court? For a brief moment, I mused over the idea that Anti-Florensa was really stationed here not to prevent harm towards him, but to keep her High Count from getting into trouble one way or another, especially when it came to other ambassadors. Signing the rights to Hy-Brasilian land over to me came to mind. Not that I really believed I could… Anti-Bryndin was far too clever to be entrapped by the fine print of a contract, not to mention his powers were balanced in the government by the Anti-Fairy Council. On paper, the High Count functioned less like a king and more like a glorified army general with all his experience in search and rescue. A curious daydream nonetheless.

When Mona returned with our drinks, I downed half my orange in one gulp. She hadn't even left the tent. Anti-Bryndin launched into the traditional Anti-Fairy conversation of location, family, food, and magic (in that order), having no desire to get straight to the point. Typical. I entertained his questions with the short, blunt replies I felt were appropriate in a situation where another unknown figure might be on the other end of a crystal ball. Then, with a sentence simultaneously gentle and abrupt, Anti-Bryndin set his mostly-full glass on the desk.

"I think we need to talk of us, Head Pixie."

"I didn't come here to discuss feelings like a Fairy," I assured him. "I wanted to-"

Anti-Bryndin held an upright finger towards my mouth from a wingspan away. I cut off my words. The High Count rotated his glass on the dark desk. The coaster squeaked. He closed his eyes. There was a long exhale, which I suspected was more to delay conversation than anything else. Once it became clear I wasn't about to speak again, he tilted his head towards the roof of the rounded tent. He pressed a hand to the tiny crystal in his pocket and in a blink, the light went out. Privacy. Maybe.

"What now… does this mean for us? And the relations we have together now? If I may express my honest reply, this… dancing that we now play with." He twisted his cup and coaster hard on the word dancing. "These games are dishonest of our true relations and this insults the spirits. You speak to me in words so cool and plain for a Fairy, so much so that it is as though you are unlike them at all. It is this trust you place in the pixie identity that has built such walls around your soul." He looked at me then where I sat silently on the stool. Anti-Bryndin lifted his drink towards me. "But I know you desire true understanding of our relations, and understand where our feelings could be. I desire this too. Call me this typical Anti-Fairy. I am my truths."

"Anti-Bryndin, I don't think-"

"I wish you would call me Kitigan as in days before, Head Pixie. Is this okay?"

I paused. My eyes shifted sideways to Anti-Florensa behind the desk. Anti-Bryndin must have read what I was thinking, because he flapped his hands down as though in modesty.

"As my guard, Anti-Florensa is to be treated as though she isn't here. This is much the same reaction for your retinue, yes? You may speak my name here. We pretend she hears us not; her code is honorable and will not be broken."

"Okay…" I attempted to write Anti-Florensa off as a drone, then, though she was buff enough that even a gyne like me would break into a notable sweat in the ring with her. Unless she moved silently while my back was turned, my brain didn't exactly have an 'off' switch for people it equated to gynes. Facing Anti-Bryndin again, I wrapped my hands around my knees. "The last time we held a serious discussion like this, we agreed we both wanted time away. No more direct crystal ball scrys outside of emergencies. No more surprise visits. No more planned outings beyond ambassador business. No more touch. That's where we left it."

Silence in the tent. Anti-Florensa slightly adjusted her grip on her staff and Anti-Bryndin made a light go-on gesture with the back of his hand. I'd anticipated him taking back the reins of conversation. Expected him to propose new alternatives, new windows of opportunity. But he didn't. If this conversation was to go anywhere, that was on me. I wrestled briefly with several sentences, then discarded them all and upturned my hands.

"The words evade me. Anti-Fairies have a hundred words to describe a relationship between two parties, but my Fairy upbringing left me limited in that respect. Our concepts are… difficult to compress into single words. Within the words we do have, there's a wide amount of variance. I don't have your species' memories and can't recall everything I learned in school, so I don't know your words."

Anti-Bryndin studied my hand for a moment, then made a signal at Anti-Florensa. Somehow, she knew precisely what he wanted. A puff of smoke later, the High Count held two bound clumps of paper on his palm. One he kept. The other he gave to me. The page stood as tall as a restaurant menu and opened in the same fashion, with words printed up and down each time. Terms and definitions… most unfamiliar to me. Though he hadn't explained aloud, the page's function was clear. Dial-a-friendship. Order up.

"Kitigan, this seems… juvenile. I came here on business, not for a grilling analysis on our relationship."

"Yes you did," he said. I glanced over the top of the 'menu' as my face prickled with heat and irritation. But before I could speak, Anti-Bryndin pointed to the page in my hands. "I do not ask you to take these actions, for they are not of your culture. But it is the Anti-Fairy way to act and speak together. Our acts have meaning and we know, always, the friend we are meeting." He smiled in a rueful way. "It is as you whispering in my ear the strengths and prowess which you read in other people by the smells they carry… or as teaching me to dance in the gardens of Mag Mell. The smells are a mystery I cannot unlock myself. It is like that, our relationships. If the Fairies do not have the words, you can share in mine. Is this okay?"

I said nothing, so after a pause, he spoke again. This time, he pointed to the flowing script that demarked the title of the page. "The word in my Vatajasa language for 'to settle relations' is neiidõa. For Anti-Fairies, we define sixty-one unique relations between two people, and each word matches the act we take in meeting. This speaks to the soul these thoughts of care, of sacrifice, of protection, of loss, which words cannot define."

"Like preening signals," I said. "Every preening lick conveys a message. There are only 24 preening signs, but weaving them together in combinations can paint endless explanations about status and a relationship, like the letters of the alphabet." I looked at my 'menu' of friendship terms again. In preening signals, I knew exactly how I would lick Anti-Bryndin's neck: deferring to him as the dominant one for his High Count status, adding in some S5s and S2s before sweeping off to the S7s. Straightforward and simple. Anti-Bryndin was… a High Count I respected. He was also…

… the Fairy word for this would be "my assurance." My stability, my anchor, my trusted one. Or at least he had been. Once. 'Someone whose bare mind I know and welcome.' Not every thought, not every secret scrap of history… but a bare understanding of such a person in the present; an assurance that you felt you could be open with one another without harsh judgment or bitter sarcasm. Did any of the Anti-Fairy terms match a definition like that?

"I'm going to need more soda," I muttered, then rubbed my cheek with my hand. "How do you and the Purple Robe define your relationship? You two are… close, aren't you?"

Anti-Bryndin tilted his head. I said nothing else. Neither did he, at first. Then, a full minute later, he clasped his hands behind his neck and exhaled. "H.P.… Do you envy Shamaiin? I notice you say his name, but do not mention my wives. I have three wives and many damsels beyond them. Are you jealous of their lives, too?"

I stared into the empty soda glass on the desk. A few flecks of orange stained the inside lip. I rubbed one away with my thumb. "Jealous is an emotion, and a weakness. It doesn't apply to me. But when you're with your damsels, I don't wonder about them. It's a different style of relationship and I don't expect to be replaced. I don't know what your relationship with Purple is, and the realization that you are very close to him creates an unknown variable in my mind, which leads to a sense of powerlessness. I can't really blame you. Purple is a Council Robe, higher on the hierarchy than I may ever be. I can see why you'd build a relationship with him. In the face of that alternative… I have little to offer. Purple has a manor and polite adult drones beneath him. I have pixies who bother and break things. I can't see you wasting time on me when Purple is the better option. That's why I've built animosity towards him. Purple was my rival and I lost." I folded the menu without looking and dropped it on the desk. Then, hands on my knees, I went to stand. "This exercise is pointless. If I could bring up the question I came for-"

"The relations first," Anti-Bryndin pushed back, motioning with his hand for me to sit again. "You Fairies think in these terms of rivals and loss and wins, and that is not how Anti-Fairies see it. I do not desire Shamaiin for his titles. You may ask him sometime and he will speak the truth: Shamaiin and I have been friends since before he ever took his robe and seat. His town was a home near the border. Often, he walked to the Seven Festivals and we grew up as friends." He picked up his grape drink again and gestured towards me. "Shamaiin is a friend since I was a juvenile. There is a close relationship, but there are complications in that. He is not the only friend I wish to have. You have experience, Head Pixie… Stories, wondering eyes… a perspective that I will never hear from Shamaiin. I cannot leave these borders easily, so I enjoy the stories of my friends. I wish for you and Shamaiin to be my friends both." Then, with an absent chuckle, he lifted his glass and took a sip. "You would not desire the relation I have with Shamaiin. Since he has become Purple Rose, this has complexed things… There is inconsistency and many canceled plans. It would be to your stress."

"That… makes sense." I looked down at my hands, squeezing my right into a fist. Anti-Bryndin followed the gesture with his eyes. I pretended not to notice. "I… don't know what kind of relationship I want with you, Anti-Bryndin."

"Kitigan, please call me."

"Look, all I want these days is a good friend. I'm not asking for romantic gestures. I'm not even asking for the courgette relation we already tried and failed with. I don't know what I'm looking for or what I'm ready for. I really appreciate the friendship you've offered me in the past. But… I can't accept an offer for the two of us to act that close again. Not yet. In Fairy terms… I think we'd call this the 'I want to see other people' talk."

He tilted his head, mouth twinged up in doubt. "As I said, you Fairies are exclusionary in your relations… Perhaps this is your nature and your comfort. This will make you happy?"

"You did make me happy. For almost two hundred thousand years. Knowing that I could come to you with any problem - that the High Count of the Anti-Fairies respected me - that was amazing. But, I need to find someone I can live with for the rest of my life. Someone who is willing to move in with me. That, I don't think, is a relationship option I'd find on your sheet." I held up my hands, palms forward. "You have your Anti-Fairies. I have my pixies. We're busy men in the primes of our lives these days. You gave me everything I wanted, but I couldn't ask you to leave your Anti-Fairies for me. I'm… interested in looking for someone who can fit my needs a little better at this time. Basically, what I'm trying to say is, although the offer is appreciated, I might have to take you up on it at a later date. Not now. My time and relationships might be changing at the moment and it's not the right time to add you back into the mix."

"You procrastinate," he chided in teasing, but dipped his head. The glass of grape clicked back on the table. "It was good to discuss this. I do hope you will seek me again in future festivals, for you are welcome here. And I like to know that I can speak to you at the Council meetings and it will not be with thoughts of awkwardness and shame."

"No. Not if… we're good. We can just talk."

We wrapped up that discussion and transitioned back towards the reason I'd visited here in the first place. I relayed what little information I had about Dame Artemis to Anti-Bryndin, and he frowned. When I showed him the picture, he too jabbed with his claw. "Yes, that is the one you called the chimera queen. In Mag Mell, she sat upon her throne and danced and ordered the death of the tamlin. There is no other with her face."

"Yes… and I wanted to warn you. My foster parents told me she might be roaming Anti-Fairy World at this time." I didn't volunteer my counterpart's name, nor the fact that Gidget and Reuben had sent her in this direction on purpose. I was relaying information to Anti-Bryndin as a matter of business, but I would not feed him shortcuts while Anti-Fergus remained unsuspecting. "If the chimera queen has broken her geis and is trying to spy for weak points, all of Fairy World could be in danger. If the chimera attack us, the Anti-Fairies will quickly fall."

Anti-Bryndin frowned. "The chimera are dead. In Mag Mell, I told you my thoughts that she was not chimera. This is of the nature spirits… If they are restless and choose to walk the mortal worlds with mortal faces, that is their right. We do not possess this land. They are of nature and it is theirs more than ours. I thank you for the concerns, but there is not need for them."

"The chimera aren't dead, though. I've seen them-"

"You saw spirits," Anti-Bryndin retorted, voice chilled. He didn't yell, didn't even glare, but landed the words firmly between my eyes. "The chimera were killed by the Prince of Dew, and the ruins of the Hush World are all which remain now. They were noble, but had their turn. Our ancestors took this land in our cycle, and when our time has ended, another race will use it after us. This is the cycle of the spirit bears and is their will. The chimera are no more… and someday, the Fae will be no more too."

"You're an anti-swanee," I argued, pointing to his crooked horns. "You're a direct descent of the chimera in physical form. How can you say that?"

Anti-Bryndin sighed. Again the drink came up, then down as he fiddled with his hands. "I know of my ancestry, yes. All my people are of the chimera in a way of definition. They are an ancient race of fallen nature, as my Anti-Fairies were born of smoke, but they were born of the fire of falling stars. It is from this fire which came the smoke that gave us life. The chimera nursed the early smoke at their bellies alongside their own kind. Anti-Shylinda and Anti-Kahnii speak of them in their records: there are twenty named families of these ancestors which my people honor today. I do not argue with these words."

I opened my mouth, then snapped it shut again. "Right," I said. Arguing theology with China had never gotten me anywhere… No use expecting the literal leader of the Anti-Fairies to change his mind any time soon. I massaged my knuckles and gave up. "Anyway… Keep an eye out, I guess. Nix refract with short golden curls, goes by her Deep Kingdom name instead of her Refracted one. You don't have to believe she's dangerous, but we both admit she's an anomaly. Keep me posted if something noteworthy happens, that's all. I should head out now; thank you for your time."

"Not yet, Head Pixie…" When I stood, Anti-Bryndin collapsed onto the padded stool beside the desk, two fingers to the side of his head. He glanced over me up and down. Eyes glimmering. Then he extended his pinky down my arm. "I see what you have done to your hand. You have chosen to cut magic from your skin and take the tomte state."

Ah. So it was visible, then. He must have seen the pulsing rainbows when I'd held out my hands. I grimaced internally and closed my fist behind my back. "That's true, yes. I'd hoped not to draw attention to it, but I suppose you know me too well."

"And you intend to continue this habit?"

"If this extends my life, yes."

Anti-Bryndin templed his fingers beneath his chin. "I should think to ask you the a question, then. The delay of one's aging by choosing to drain magic this way… does not sound as though you have made this decision lightly."

"I didn't. Time is dribbling through my fingers and I'm running out of options."

"So it weighs heavy on you, then." He closed his eyes a moment. I could see him turn the words over in his head, nostrils slowly flaring and tightening up again. "This does endanger your offspring… Yes?"

"Not yet." I wiped the rest of the droplets from inside the orange glass. "I began cutting my hand just recently, around five years after the birth of my latest, Smith. Recovery speed isn't ideal at this time, but it's workable. As long as I stop cutting it as I near my next pregnancy phase, the skin will repair. Each time my hand is required to heal, it will take longer, yes, so I can't delay my aging forever. But I can delay it that extra bit I need. Venus Eros personally warned me I was nearing death at the rate I'm giving off magic. She granted me these… 'medicine strips' I suppose would be the best description."

"Strips…?"

"They're white, flat, about this long." I held my pointer fingers a small amount apart. "A lot of money and research went into them, she won't let me forget. She claims taking those will extend my life by years - maybe even decades - so long as I take them regularly. That's the crutch I'm relying on at the moment, but going tomte didn't sound like it would hurt. Venus refuses to give me more than a month's strips at a time. She said she suspects I'd develop an addiction to them, so I'm eternally trapped at her beck and call. It isn't ideal, but at least she only makes me grovel every few visits to pick them up. They taste blitz-awful on purpose to further prevent said addiction, but nothing's as bad as the groveling."

Anti-Bryndin left his pointer fingers on his lips. "This is not sustainable," he finally said. "And it confuses me. Why does this desire for long life concern you, Head Pixie? I am no expert of matters that belong in Eros hands, nor do I claim this, but it seems to me that your life has many millennia left. Your pixies will be a hundred thousand at least before death takes your soul; they will not flounder in your absence the way you seem to fear, for children are wiser than they often receive credit for. Is this not okay?"

"Because… my pixies might be purple-borns." I elected not to speak the sentence in a way that implied confirmation. When Anti-Bryndin's eyebrows shot off his head, I went on. "I reproduce parthenogenetically. Upon analysis, there's a possibility that my body never produced yellow magic during what, for lack of a better term, we could call the 'fertilization period' of my eggs; the definition of 'fertilize' isn't accurate, but it works for this conversation. The Eroses have adjusted their alert systems now so they will know and prepare accordingly when future pixies fertilize, but it was too late for me. Or at least, there's reason to believe it was."

"A hundred thousand years, then, will not be enough for your eldest offspring to reproduce with yellow magic before you die and your race disappears from our maps of universes. Is this what you mean?"

I gave a slow nod. "Until Sanderson reproduces and there can be a yellow-born pixie to carry on our race, my death is not an option. If I die in his youth, then everything I've ever done with my life has been for nothing. In the universe's eyes, the pixie race is simply the result of a genetic mutation. I find it unlikely we'll ever result from pure random chance again."

Anti-Bryndin sipped from his soda for a long moment. A moment too long to simply be sipping. When he lowered his glass with a soft click to the bar, he looked into my eyes. "Is this the greatest of all your wishes? Because if this is all you desire, I believe I can help you… but it will involve embracing Zodii ways for a time. And breaking a few of Da Rules."

Breaking a few of…

As a pixie, I reacted by staring coolly back at the High Count. I was neutral, I was single-minded, cold-blooded, impassive… But from a logical standpoint, I wasn't certain how to process what Anti-Bryndin had just told me. He believed he could…

… help me?

"I'm not sure I understand, Kitigan. Wait. Wait. Are you implying that… you can grant me an extended lifespan?" My hands were folded immediately, brows drawn over my eyes. "What are the risks involved in this procedure? I won't agree to anything I don't understand, of course. I want answers."

Anti-Bryndin made a twirling motion with one claw, rolling his eyes to the ceiling in a way that suggested the words for the concept he envisioned were balanced on the tip of his tongue, but just out of reach. "Mine are a people of the sciences, no matter what claims the Fairies may make at times that we are 'backwards' from them as they are. If what you say of Venus Eros is true and you have been provided these 'strips' of strength and healing which may extend your life, then I am very certain I can be of help to you. It is not for anyone that I would do this, so I do not wish to reveal these things unless you have made plans in your core to commit."

"So… you want to study my medicine strips? And you think you can improve them in some way? Is that what I'm getting here?"

"I think that with study, the recipe can be learned and we can manufacture these. There can be more than enough for your needs. This would mean no reliance on Venus Eros. It is not her right to keep monopoly. I too have groveled before her feet, and these were not memories I wish to live again. Nor place another through. So often, the Anti-Fairies are called 'evil' for the balance we keep in the universe, but it is Venus Eros whom my people see as a threat to peace over all the cloudlands. I would like to strike against this hold she has on your existence." He tapped the grape glass against his teeth, drifting into thought. "We will need to make plans, for we lost our old chocolate factory when you bought this from us and it had the most advanced machines-"

"If the factory's what stands between me and immortality, it's yours again. Name your price."

Anti-Bryndin smiled in a way that curved quite high up the edges of his face. He tipped back his head, ears flickering. "Is this okay?"

Was it okay? What exactly was Anti-Bryndin offering me? Analysis? Numbers? Results? It sounded real, the way he spoke of it, as so many things do. I ran my thumb across my wrist, half bemused that I didn't find any trace of puppet strings wrapped around there. I wasn't stupid enough to escape Venus's hold on my life just to let Anti-Bryndin make monopoly in her stead. This time, I'd be on my guard. And if he did have his hooks in me again…

I leaned over the desk, bracing all my weight on my uninjured hand. The other throbbed in quiet pain. "Kitigan, I am more than willing to break Da Rules if it means I save the pixie race. Let's collab. I'll get my strips."

… so long as he could grant me what I wanted, then who the blitz cares?


A/N - Text to Text: What Anti-Bryndin and H.P. said about neiidõa is true: Anti-Fairies have individual words to describe the sixty-one unique relationships they care about (Anti-Cosmo referenced this in the Frayed Knots chapters "Unseelie Courting" and "Cageflight"). If an Anti-Fairy claims to be "running neiidõa" or "working on the neiidõa challenge," it means they're actively trying to build and maintain all sixty-one relationship types. Doing so isn't considered a serious goal and is usually said for shock factor and "locker room talk." Anti-Fairies as a fate-loving culture prefer relationships to "happen naturally" and don't always like the idea of pursuing someone with the intent of slotting them into a certain place on the list, but many a youth enjoy joking about it and turning things into a competition. Yes, I have a list of all sixty-one relationships. Yes, this is my life. For the record, the word that would describe H.P.'s 'Someone whose bare mind I know and welcome' concept is sahkivi.

(Also, shout-out to Gidget making her first on-screen appearance after being name-dropped in chapter literal one, and press F for Sanderson spending this whole time at boarding school)