(Posted October 13th, 2020)
A/N – And we're back for Act 3, folks! Where we left off, Anti-Cosmo had fought off Snowball the three-headed dragon, rescued Prince Eastkal, and was thrown into the Eros Nest. At the end of "Cageflight," Anti-Bryndin, H.P., and Anti-Saffron arrived to bring him home…
ACT 3 - SUPERSONIC
In which Anti-Cosmo touches base at the Blue Castle before progressing to upper school in the Summer of the Scattered Whispers
Beneath metal-hot sunlight, we devoured cold, fresh melon slices, steamed potatoes, bone-snap carrots, velvety beets, and tender-cloud cauliflower outside one of Fairy World's street cafes… Hot, buttered, grilled beets. I'd never known a plant more delicious. The accent of salt hit the roof of my mouth like a face full of snow. I licked up every trace of it, and snuck more than a few packets of the stuff in my pockets for a future day. Ha! Despite all my school years of eating mostly Fairy foods, I never had my fill of them. It was for this reason, you know, that I'd insist on bringing Coire Dagdae across the border during war… Not that I knew what lay ahead at the time.
Anti-Saffron (Or that is to say, my betrothed, now called Mona again) sat in the chair beside me, a hum in her throat and her pale white wing brushing mine. If she, Anti-Bryndin, and the Head Pixie conversed at all, I didn't hear a word. Because for dessert… Oh. Peanut butter and honey drizzled over banana slices in a waffle cone, with the smallest decorative wand sticking from the top and half smothered in swirls of cream and sprinkles. You know… the sort of head-turning treat you might see slapped on an advertisement by the Barrier. The Fairies called this concoction a "béimnómi," which if I'm not mistaken translates to "mouth of paradise." I'd never had bananas as a fruit before - only baked into bread - but I fell in love at first nip. They weren't nearly as juicy as I'd anticipated after all these millennia, but rather thin, soft, squishy, and gently, tamely sweet. I liked that. Especially wedged beneath my tongue.
"The Anti-Fernfires need these at Maplefeather," I mumbled through my third bite. My nostrils flared with every taste, drinking in the gooey smell. Lohai, snug in her lamp beside my hand, couldn't possibly imagine what she was missing. And there was still more… I remembered then what Anti-Coleen had said to me about my apparent fate as her future employer, according to what the soothsayers had said of her weave… Perhaps this was my fate. Perhaps this - my employment at the chocolate factory, Anti-Kanin's rejection, the Faeheim dragon, the Eros Nest - perhaps every step that had brought me to the Lower West Region this day was all part of the spirits' design to set me in a position where I could bring the most wonderful desserts in the cosmos to my people, serving scoop after scoop until every tongue cheered my name…
After peeling my mouth away, I turned to Mona and pointed to my cone. "Now this is what I'll stay monogamous for, darling. I'll die fat and happy in your arms if I can have but this dessert for the rest of my immortal life, wot?"
She smiled politely back. "Hooray. We'll honeymoon here for our wedding ceremony someday."
"Oh no, pet, we shouldn't… I would so hate to choose between you and my just desserts." I only teased her, of course. I'm certain I've made clear enough the path my heart must chase. Mona will understand.
The Head Pixie, you must realise, had kept himself withdrawn the entire meal. When I looked his way, I found him drawing a grid pattern with his finger through the water droplets on the table, chin balanced on his other palm (Rice the cù sith sat in his lap, interjecting the occasional rude commentary into our conversation that I don't deign to repeat here, for politeness' sake). "Aren't you going to have any?" I asked them both. To say the Head's reservations startled me was, well… an understatement. Pixies hadn't formed their dull and boring reputation quite as intensely in those days as they later would, and I saw before me a man with more riches to his name than the Anti-aristocracy had in whole. I broke off the tiny tip of my waffle cone and balanced it on my claw. "Why, surely even a Fairy with every creation in the world a wand wave away can't tire of béimnómi! You don't know what you're missing, old chap. I say, you don't know what you're missing if you don't try one of your own."
"Can't," he said, quite bored of me and everything I possibly had to say. "It's common fact that béimnómi is tasteless without the honey. Deathly allergic. I'm considering cake. Ordering takes effort, though."
Oh? How curious. I casually pretended not to notice he'd just revealed an eensy-weensy detail we Anti-Fairies could take advantage of in the future. "The cake looks delightful," I said instead, holding my hand out to Mona for a handkerchief (I hadn't one on me). But my ear twitched back then, tugged by a sudden prick of interest in the energy field. Hm? Why, who was that thinking such curious thoughts nearby?
… Wait. When I rotated my eye towards Anti-Bryndin, I found him watching the Head Pixie with great hunger in his eyes and no attempt to disguise it. I stopped short. My teeth, embedded in cold banana slices, began to chill.
Oh. So I wasn't the only one who'd noticed that little confession? I, um…
I wrinkled my nose, not sure whether to feel more envious or pleased that I'd mirrored a thought of the High Count himself. You know, in the professional world of luck manipulation, it's considered poor technique to interfere with someone else's target. We call it 'sweep-jamming' and it's incredibly rude.
Ah, never mind… As if Anti-Bryndin would ever permit me near enough the Head Pixie to taste his karma again. More likely than not, in the Anti-Fairy social sphere he guarded the Head like a baby chimera. I would.
I crunched my cone a little louder than I maybe should have. Anti-Bryndin glanced my way, ember eyes cold and knowing. Oof. So my overly jealous imagination had pierced the energy field after all. In shame, I ducked my head.
"Have either of you seen Glassy Lake before?" the Head Pixie asked, shifting his eyes between Mona and me. I withdrew my tongue, trying to wipe some of the caramel off on the inside of my cheeks.
"I know of it, Head Pixie. My grandmother Anti-Miranda lived on the other side of the mountain before the war, in Esterale." I raised my claw towards the brown peak in the distance. "She passed stories to my mother who passed them to me. It's a soul-soothing lake, clearer than any mirror can hope to be."
"Then your maps are outdated."
"Oh," I said. He didn't add anything else, just maintained direct eye contact while crunching through a scone. I… didn't understand why Anti-Bryndin enjoyed his company at all.
Once we'd eaten and properly cleared the table off, the Head Pixie led us down the crooked road. I pressed Lohai's lantern to my chest with one palm and kept quietly in front, knowing only too well how Fairy World viewed Anti-Fairies taking up the rear… See, this is why our assigned Fairy escorts wear those disgusting orange vests with all their flashing and padding too thick to bite.
I wasn't certain what our destination might be, and held Mona's hand quite tightly as we went. As far as I knew, my monocle still lay abandoned on the soft floor of the Anti-Fairy enclosure, sheathed in vibrant flora. In the end, we came to one of Fairy World's public shower houses and paused before the door. The noise of water gushing from within those walls nearly splashed away the bubble of tranquillity that offered soft resistance in the energy field. I tuned my ears forward, trying to separate the voices. How many individuals was that inside? Twelve? Eighteen?
"Oh," Mona said, confused and disheartened by our arrival. Her fingers slipped against mine. She turned her head. "High Count, I'm socially certified in spa specialties. Everything they have here, I have at home, but better."
Anti-Bryndin's swift glance gleamed with reproach and fear. "This location is the pick of the Head Pixie. You will respect this and know your place."
Mona stepped forward in appropriate apology, head bowed.
I frowned until my eyes squinted up. From what I could see, the architectural design of this building didn't match the shops around it. The stones were too new. White. Uncracked. But that seemed incongruent with the ancient hum of energy tugging at my feet like a whirlpool. Distorted, like rocks in a stream. Unstable. My hand flew to my coat for my pearl-bladed knife. Mona and Anti-Bryndin both grabbed my arm.
"Not here," Anti-Bryndin breathed.
"But the umbrae-"
"Not. Here." He lowered my hand to my side. "The Fairies will see this as a threat."
I left the knife where it was, but grit my fangs and held Lohai's lamp tight. If the Head Pixie noticed anything, it didn't show on his face. Very little ever does. The four of us waited in silence, looking his way. After a moment, his eyes zoned back in.
"What? Is it polite for me to get the door? I'm in the back."
"It's a pull," I said, biting the flatness out of my voice. Anti-Bryndin shot me another dagger-eyed glare.
"Anti-Fairy tradition, of course," he told the Head Pixie, stepping aside. The Head Pixie cast me a longer glance than necessary, but floated past to open it. Hm. I, first in line behind him, received direct line of sight from the doorway to a cluster of shiny Fairy bodies over on the right.
"Sweet smoke," I slurred, standing stupidly. My wings dropped against my back, leaving my feet to brush the polished cloudstone floor. I'd, um… I'd quite forgotten such facilities were "clothing optional" even in the front drawing room. Ah. "Lounge." I couldn't see down the hall to the rows of showers from my frozen state by the door - especially not without my monocle - but it seemed the entire place, from its tasselled rug to gossamer curtains to velvet sofas, had been designed to favour blue. Not. Brown. Anti-Fairies would have coloured it brown. A certain ruddy red-brown with an accent of green to be precise, channelling Twis's grounded energy to balance out both Sunnie's fluid restlessness and the woozy haze of Winni's ever-so-flighty self-care.
And still the umbrae whispered in the rivers of energy all around us. None of them solid, not yet… Positive energy pressed the spirit ceiling low, leaving them to slither on their bellies like spilled wine. Aha… My claws twitched like cloudworms against Lohai's lamp. Little filters or some such thing on the upper walls sprayed cool mist all around the room. I suppose that was to dampen scents, ensuring no gyne nor drone experienced a sudden flare in pheromones and escorted the wrong chap home… I think I read that in the school text once. Wonderful technology if you happen to be a Fairy, I'm sure. But every spritz swept past like the whisper of spirit claws and umbra wings.
Underlying this vapour, I detected another scent I believe was blackberry and pine. Tangy, yet sweet. Fresh. Hmm… Fruity scents tucked alongside a plant, strong enough to pierce the cleanser even after a presumed shower? I grimaced and bent my chin over Lohai's lantern. Even I knew that scent reeked of the Fairy aristocracy. Someone in this facility (and it wasn't very large) must certainly be a dominant gyne. No one the Head Pixie knew, I hoped… or would it be better if he did?
"Fernfire," the Head Pixie breathed above my ear. He placed his fingers on my shoulder for the briefest brush of time, touching Mona the same on his other side. The door fell shut again. "Stay close behind me, and ignore him if he gawks. Everyone knows his family's lived on good fortune too long. They fear the day you Anti-Fairies wreck the place and he's incredibly superstitious." When I didn't reply immediately, he added, "He'll harass you."
"I know that," I grumped back, too distracted to be offended. My head looked away from the soft curve of a pale Fairy back, but my eyes didn't. I couldn't tell if Mona noticed. I wrenched my attention up and stared very hard at the Soap Half Price sign on the brick wall behind the front desk. At least, I think that's what it said… With my vision, it could have been Soup Hall Pride.
"You'll want to be clean," the Head Pixie said louder as he squeezed past my arm, not acknowledging the nude members of his species, not making any indication that he was unsure if Anti-Fairies were even welcome here. I rotated my eyes sideways, trying not to look directly at any faces (or rather bare bodies) for politeness' sake. Oh, yes. Several furry selkie skins and feathered swanee capes had been strewn every which way, limited regard for whose coat might be whose. Typical. So sloppy, Fairies are… See, this is precisely why such things are stolen while they bathe! Ha. Never question why no one tells such stories about Anti-Fairies, honestly…
Now understand, it was one thing to grow up in a colony whose members washed and roosted together since we were pups, not a single one of them a fellow I'd not undressed beside seven dozen times before. It was quite another to find myself encircled by so many strange, bright bodies, each one glistening with sweat or dust or shower water. Flashing wings thrummed, scattering droplets like rippling laughs. I walked in a direct line forward. Conversation hopped about as casually as a joke over crab-apple strudels. Hhh. After huffing once behind my teeth, I drew my eyes front and centre at the Head Pixie's back again. My hands remained clasped at my waist the whole time. Although one of only three Anti-Fairies in the room, I would not falter. If the High Count could maintain his dignity (even after tripping in the doorway with a gasp and taking Mona's arm for balance) then so could I.
Anti-Bryndin dabbed gingerly at the side of his mouth as though wiping off a drip of drool. My resolve began to quiver, lip curling as I swallowed past the high collar of my shirt. Had my hand not rested in Mona's, I think it would have trembled. She released it a heartbeat later to pick Rice the cù sith from the ground, but the sweet sentiment remained.
The Head Pixie bought the fine, expensive vanilla flower soap without so much as asking if I wanted it. I'd have liked to keep close behind a "practiced local" in this foreign little world, but the pale fairy behind the front desk put an end to my careful plan when she sized me up with haughty red eyes.
"Anti-Fairies shower in the back."
That's fair, I tried to tell myself, straightening my shoulders. Surely I was putting the attitude in her tone and she only intended to help (She went back to her book, not interested in us after that, which is a step better than suspicious scowling, isn't it?) Surely Fairies knew we Anti-Fairies didn't have much running water back home and we favoured lakes… A large bath would suit us much better than the showers which rained from above. She desired to help us.
Anti-Bryndin took the soap bar from the Head Pixie's hand, but the energy field shuffled to a low twinkle when he did. "So much soap for sale? Why is this? I thought these products came from Anti-Fairy World. They are expensive to offer, yes? They lose money notching the price so low."
The Head Pixie shrugged his wings. "They're going to close this place down next week. May as well splurge while we can."
"Close it down?" I asked, taken aback. My ear flicked back to half-follow a conversation on my right. "Why? It's a thriving social hub."
"The business next door is expanding, so they're building new showers across town. Here's your soap. Also, consider breath mints. Come on, Rice. We're getting massages."
After we'd walked from the Head Pixie's earshot, Mona shook her head. She slipped her hand in mine. "Your breath is beautiful, and I like it that way. Forget the fuss. Must be a Fairy thing."
"Forget the fuss," I murmured. As if she didn't hear the field too. See, Mona was a proper Anti-Fairy dame. She kept her ears low in public, not responding to rustles all around us… the hunting.
I found it almost strange how in order to limit contact with Anti-Fairies, the Fairies had a place for us all the way in the back. Anti-Bryndin took the lead, moving with purpose through the narrow row of shower chambers. A sleek curtain shielded each slot in the tiled wall, though more than one Fairy shifted the folds slightly to the side when they sensed us striding past. Old and wrinkled, young and starry-eyed… I inhaled sickly sweet positive energy through my nose: the perfect blend of refreshing peace balanced with the blended misfortune of slipping on puddles and unfortunate meetings with acquaintances you'd rather avoid. Shame about the stinky magic building up in the pipe system down below… But perhaps I could… resist…
The shower curtains flanking us gave way to dark stone walls. At the end of the corridor stood a sleek door marked with the Anti-Fairy World seal: a blue star with a crack down its centre. It appeared made of polished stone, identical to the ones we used in Anti-Fairy World. But before we reached it, I stopped beside an employee door that clearly led down the stairs. "Ignore this," Anti-Bryndin said, drifting on. Mona took both my shoulders, most likely planning to stop my knife again.
"But…" We'd moved on from the showers (and listening Fairy ears, I hoped), but I kept my voice low in any case, gesturing towards the door with my wing. "The energy field is…"
"Ignore this," he stated again, over his shoulder this time.
"But sir, we aren't going to leave it, are we? Pardon me, High Count, for I don't wish to imply your senses are fading, but I wonder if you floated by too quickly to take a good reading of it? The field is absolutely knotted down there! If the threads burst, a door to Plane 16 opens and this place floods with umbrae. Um." I bowed, stiffly. "Sir."
Anti-Bryndin placed his foot down, swivelling on the toe to stare at me, hands tucked behind his back. "I will be asking you now a very important question, Anti-Cosmo. Do you love Anti-Fairy World?"
I remained bowed, hunching my shoulders high. "Y-yes… Is that the right answer?"
"Then please do not delay. Come along to our bath. We do not wish to keep the Head Pixie waiting."
Mona muttered something that sounded suspiciously like, "I'm sincerely certain the Head Pixie likes loitering when it means more massages for him."
I lifted two fingers beside my cheek, swallowing back what I think was rising dessert. "High Count, may I express my honest reply?"
"Forgive me for my forwardness, for I mean no disrespect, but I'd like to gently draw attention to the fact that I'm a homeostasis specialist. If I am not misunderstanding the purpose of millennia of training I underwent in my youth, I stand by the belief that it's my duty, especially in Fairy World, to untangle knots in the energy field. Fairies can't sense them and they need us to play our part… Sir?"
Anti-Bryndin stood there, gazing at me in silence for half a minute at least. Then he nodded his head towards the back room. "It is not my first time in this bath. I wish to show you something. Open the door."
I did as requested, even though it was a push. When I stepped through, I had to blink again. White light shone down from the ceiling… Not harsh, but certainly beaming, as though we stood outdoors during bright star season. The chamber didn't slope to water like an Anti-Fairy pool would. The walk was flat, the drop unforgiving. This was no mere shower stall, but a full bathing chamber just as I'd anticipated. "Hm," I said, turning then. I wedged my foot in place to hold the door, then brushed my hand down the black wall behind it. My fingers came away with a sooty, chalky substance that certainly wasn't cinderstone.
"Early newfound-solita design style back here," I said aloud. "No wonder the Fairies want to tear this place apart… It's been around since the Chimera themselves. Ha. They care more about modern chic and safety codes than preserving history, wot?"
"That's so sad," Mona murmured, holding her hands to her chest. "It's beautiful in here, even if the lighting is harsh." She paused. "Although… Do you feel a presence?"
I listened, ears pricked for umbrae. "I don't sense anything."
Mona traced her finger down the door, but lifted her eyes to the harsh lights above. She frowned.
"Here," Anti-Bryndin said, motioning for us to follow him to the window. When we joined him, he pointed one finger through the bars. "What do you see, Anti-Cosmo? Anti-Saffron?"
I had to stand on my toes, feeling like a child with my fingers wrapped around the ledge. Being without my monocle didn't help matters whatsoever. We appeared to be poised atop a cliff, and below us, scoops of purple hills rolled like cotton down to a shimmering pool of…
"I see a lake full of stinky magic, sir."
Mona placed her chin on the ledge beside mine. "Is this Glassy Falls?"
Was it? Perhaps the Head Pixie had been right in saying that our maps needed an update after all these millennia. I took a step away. "Oh. Oh my gods, that's disgusting. What's happened to their lake? My grandnana said it used to be beautiful here! Is all that stinky magic fed by the run-off of the showers? All the magic the Fairies wash from their skin… flows down there? It's so polluted, the rainbows are visible!"
Anti-Bryndin remained by the window, eyes half-lidded. Hands still clasped behind him. "And which is the only species to effectively control the stinky magic?"
"Um. We are, High Count? And maybe genies, if they could sense the field, but-"
"So someday, when there is another war and our descendants wish to take Fairy World, does it not benefit them to have a large reserve of power lying in Fairy World?" He turned then, almost making me edge back. "You are an Anti-Fairy, and your duty is to tame or kill all umbrae which set paw in Anti-Fairy World. But in places where stinky magic gathers in great amounts, you are to leave it untouched. Someday, this grants power to the Anti-Fairies. We will take back Beira's temple. We will take back Esterale. These clouds will again become our home. Is this okay?"
Take back Esterale, where Grandnana Anti-Miranda had raised Uncle Anti-Harold and Aunt Anti-Joanie? Take back Beira's temple, which the Fairies had cast us from after the war? It sounded… good. It sounded hopeful. But…
I averted my eyes, pulling back my claws from the window ledge. "Forgive my slow mind, High Count, but I don't think I understand. Surely we can't really put generation upon generation at risk because of the assumption there might be another war. What about all the Fairies who live here now? Doesn't… leaving the lake so polluted put them all in danger?"
"You think small," he said, turning crisply. In a swift movement, he untied his scarf and began removing his trousers. "This, Anti-Cosmo, is why you will not sit upon the camarilla court. You are young and still have learning yet to seek. So many things which you do not understand."
My final question died unanswered on my lips. How could my people praise our ancestors who took their forms to love and guide the Fairies… while we refused to help at all?
I can't pretend, I thought in the pool, scrubbing the gossamer soap carefully between the webs of my fingers. I curled my claws into my hands. I can't just act as though I didn't feel the unbalance I sensed today. But what could I do about it? As the "guest of honour," there was certainly no chance I could slip away before we crossed the Barrier…
"There it is again," Mona said, jolting up straight beside me. She spun around, sloshing water. "Can't you feel that? Someone's overlapping this room on the higher planes. A spirit, I'm sure; it's simply so strong. Too strong for it not to be."
"I'm certain you're only sensing stinky magic," I muttered, not even keeping the edge out of my tone.
The three of us washed up, then patted ourselves dry with the towels stacked on a bench nearby. Mona remained on edge the entire time, but since Anti-Bryndin didn't seem phased, I was inclined to agree with him.
We parted ways with the Head Pixie in Faeheim (which looked considerably better than the last time I'd visited, I'll say that). A few notable buildings had undergone renovations following the dragon attack, but thankfully the Water Temple appeared to have been left untouched. We ducked inside for a quick prayer, then rode the trams to the border in Godscress and fooped to the Blue Castle after that.
We'd hardly floated into the courtyard when a blur of black and blue shot from the observatory door. "Mother?" I yelped, but we collided a wingbeat later, the energy field a shower of excited bells. Mother completed a tight spiral and came out of it several metres above the ground, holding my shoulders at arms' length.
"I TOLD them you hadn't just stepped out to market, Anti-Cosmo! Though it seems like you've been gone for 10,000 years." Their searing blue eyes flicked up and down my figure before releasing me into the air. "You've grown into your scent gland… Earlier than your brother did, too. And such strong legs- Why, I'm proud enough to melt! Tell me you're at least a creche father by now."
"I am, Mother, I am." But I whispered that part behind a lifted hand, feigning humility. "Please don't let on to Anti-Bryndin, or to anyone. I'm allowed three weeks to rest here before the school year begins, and I shan't wish him to drop that gracious deadline down to one."
They pinched my cheek and gave it a tiny twist. In affection, I think…? That sign of praise swelled my breast despite that little lie of mine. I received another pat behind the shoulder, followed by an affectionate bump on the head with their staff. Mother joined me on my quest to seek and pack up fitting clothes, and at supper even insisted I sit beside them. Like parent and son. They didn't so much as scold me for dividing my food in separate quarters of my plate. I admired that. You see? I really think they missed me.
Following supper, Mother and I walked in the garden with Mona, as both she and they thought it best I greet Jasmine myself rather than second-hand. They seemed quite insistent I see her soon, notwithstanding the fact that Mona and I were finally reunited in Anti-Fairy World and we'd eaten soundly, which according to our custom would have been the proper time to embrace and kiss her the proper affectionate way. Yet they both remained firm. This puzzled me for several long minutes, up until we reached the blackened, silver-leaved grove where Jasmine sunned herself. The soft black cat sith lay stretched on her side, pawing a nearby rock like a tiny mushroom. I fumbled when I saw her. Because you see, she, um… She wasn't quite…
Jasmine rolled over and sat up, nearly swiping a boulder loose with her tail. Her whiskers quaked like swords. "You got a lot bigger," I said, well aware that wasn't an appropriate thing to say to a damsel. Automatically, I felt for Mona's hand and squeezed. "H-have you been waiting for my return all these centuries?"
"Of course," she replied. Her voice rumbled in her throat at a depth it had never graced before. I winced. Jasmine lifted on her paws and, each step crunching over pebbles, picked her way down the slope. "We are emotionally bonded, after all."
Oh, how I tried to keep polite when Jasmine rubbed her face on mine, though the sheer size she'd grown left me trembling as I had before Snowball the dragon. And through that emotional bond of ours, she probably knew it too. I didn't quite like the way she circled me…
"I'm off to school," I told her, resisting the urge to twist around. "Anti-Bryndin and I spoke about it on the tram. He says he feels good about that decision after praying to Sunnie today, so he'll pay for me to go. Anything to get me out of his colony, in truth- I'm a young drake, after all."
"I shall accompany you," Jasmine said, sitting back on her haunches. Her belly somewhat bulged against her paws. I set my teeth, uncertain of my mood myself.
"Thank you," was all I said.
Jasmine, er… was no longer likely to fit through our castle doors. After a few more words, I bid her farewell and escorted Mona to the upper library, where I adored the scent of scrolls and felt the shelves would offer more privacy than the reading rooms down below. This is where I pulled her close and planted kisses down her neck, roaming fingers up her sides. Mona murmured softly in my ear, as she so often did when charmed this way. I thought nothing of it until she bit her fangs against my lips.
"OW!" I pulled back, stunned and hurt. "Good smoke, woman! Why would you that?"
"To kiss you," she said, surprised herself. I frowned, touching my mouth with my hand.
"You never kissed that way before."
"Sorry," she mumbled, sinking from her toes to her heels. She flipped her amauti hood on her head, eyes downcast. "I love you… and it just felt right, now that we're older…"
Did it? Was that the next step our courtship was meant to take? I didn't recall reading that before…
Anti-Bryndin presented me with a new wand and monocle that night, and I collected Lohai's things so I might bring her terrarium tank with me. Carl Poofypants, my new upper school was called (Well… "High school" they were calling it now). We'd just begun a Love year, so I'd be heading straight to class in a matter of weeks rather than twiddling my thumbs for the rest of the cycle. I looked forward to taking classes again, though the thought of Jasmine escorting me on campus made the fur prickle beneath my chin. Bruised and elated and exhausted, sagging under the weight of fond greetings and well wishes I'd received from half the colony, I quickly fell asleep at roost.
The second day, I awoke feeling groggy. Morning had dragged into afternoon; I'd overslept. The array branches were empty, save myself and a pyjama shirt snagged and dangling from a twig. Even Mona hadn't waited up. Not that I could blame her, really. Still… what a lonesome morning after all my weeks in the Nest. I groaned and stretched my arms, allowing my elastic bones to bend back into their straight positions with a series of soft squeaks.
"These could be my final days in the colony," I murmured, dropping from my branch into the air. Once steadied out, I clasped my elbows and looked about this one last time. There were no windows, and even the corridor torches on the far side of the curtain had dimmed without movement for a time. I floated a slow lap to each corner of the roosting room, tracing my claws along the wall as I went. Nostalgia snaked like liquid up my spine.
Even as a pup, First General Anti-Buster had never coated the truth in sweet flakes of salt. The damsels always grew up knowing they faced two options: either leave the colony alongside a new drake, or keep with their birth colony and grow into the creche father's damsels by default. Pursuing a strong male, then (either their betrothed if they had any or some flashy hotshot who caught their eye over migration), became critical for those like Mona who preferred flirting with males their own age. Drakes were shooed from home as young adults indiscriminately, sentenced to make something of themselves… whether that meant becoming a creche father or living a life in lowly service to another. Anti-Bryndin had rescued me from the Eros Nest and allowed me brief time to stay, but the way ahead lay clear. I would leave the Blue Castle colony for school… and I would not come back. Not for vacations. Not to visit Mother. Not for anything, unless I had to. I was welcome during New Year's and that was that.
I knew all this. I'd grown up with this fate stamped across my head. We were a species encouraged to leave old family members and seek out new friends; a sleek species built for travel more than we'd ever been made to settle down. I hadn't minded leaving the Castle when I'd flown off to have my adult ceremony 10,000 years ago. So then why…
… did it start hurting now? This oath of leaving without return? I'd see my mum and old friends again. I could still seek them out over migration twice each year. I suppose in the back of my young adult mind, I'd always imagined coming home. It's where Mona was, after all, and Anti-Bryndin had never officially tossed me out. But now, by sending me to school…
Still in pyjamas and not caring if I left Lohai's lamp and my wand behind yet another day, I drifted into the corridor. I flew to the stairs twisting up to the floor above, intending to clean out the last of my old work room. That's where I ran into Anti-Wanda. The lone dame had begun descending just as I'd been heading up. We both paused. I tried to edge around her, but she leaned against the stairway banister with the tips of her hair between her teeth. Oh. When I made to scoot past her the other way, she tightened her jaw until the split ends broke.
I looked at her sideways, still heavy from sleep and not… really sure what she wanted. Her eyes glowed flamingo pink like dancing stars. Logically I knew they would. Anti-Phillip had passed her the virus, after all, and Anti-Bryndin had selected her to fill Anti-Praxis's empty place as the Seat of Sky. But it was still my first time seeing those eyes in her particular face. Strange. She and Anti-Wendy were identical, but Anti-Wanda carried herself with so much confidence. I'd watched her swagger from noisy room to noisy room at migration long ago, hips swaying. Seen her hop between roosts, collecting orders for the drinks she'd soon send back on floating trays. You know? I'd even stolen a few peeks at her tail long ago.
Funny how I didn't find her attractive standing in front of me now. Once I had, undeniably. But not anymore. I suppose that happens from time to time… even for me.
"Ben'ara," I said too, disguising a yawn behind my hand. How unfortunate… I desperately needed to apologize for my behaviour towards Anti-Juandissimo at Cracklewings, but I hadn't yet rehearsed the words. I'd hoped not to bump into her alone this way until later in the week.
Anti-Wanda glanced up the stairs. Then she took one step towards me, her hands folded at her chest. I stayed still for politeness' sake, though tempted to lean my head away. She splayed her toes each time she stepped. They squished in the soft red runner. My ears twitched towards the floor.
"About that night," she said. She took another step, bringing her body close enough to mine, our silk shirts both fluttered at the hems. "I can't stop thinking, Anti-Cosmo."
I reached behind me, gripping the stairway banister. So she knew it too… Wide awake now, I tried to bring my thoughts to the forefront of my mind, only to drop them over and over again. My tongue flicked about my lips. "Ah, um… What night was this, darling?"
Anti-Wanda combed a blue curl of hair back from her face. "Back when you asked to see me and I said to meet me at my daddy's cabin, yeah?"
"Oh. Oh, that. Yes, of course." I'd almost forgotten. When I'd begun to lose myself in the Eros Nest, Anti-Wanda's promised affections had dissipated from my mind. It seemed silly to resent old mistakes now. She wished to apologise for posing a rabbit, then? Now, after all this time? Why, we must have crossed paths at Cedarcross and Maplefeather a dozen times since-
… But we hadn't. I'd left Anti-Kanin and Anti-Shimmer the night after Anti-Wanda hadn't shown. Lohai and I had wandered a lonely year together, deliberately choosing not to migrate. That same year, I'd slipped through the Barrier and ended up in Faeheim. I'd faced down Snowball before being dragged away.
A large stone settled in the pit of my stomach. Oh. Had Anti-Wanda been awaiting my return all this time… to apologise? To me? And in my laziness, I'd planned to postpone my own apology towards her for days on end? (Oh spirits, strike me down where I stand…)
Anti-Wanda bit her lip so tightly, it started turning white. Once again she moved towards me, this time taking my face between her hands. Ooh. Even for an Anti-Fairy, I thought them colder than a wind-blown field. Like sweet vanilla cream. Her claws, though chewed on 'til they'd rounded, pricked my skin.
"I meant to be there, Anti-Cosmo. Really. I knew Anti-Bryndin or whoever on the court was gonna come get me, but I thought I had another day. I didn't know it was that night."
"They give you an exact date in advance," I muttered, wishing I winced at my words. A bitter blossom trembled in my chest. One by one, those buried emotions flickered through my throat and spilled over, pressing at my lashes. I… I'd forgotten how much I missed Anti-Wanda. How steady her voice, how feathery her touch. Oh, gods. I held eye-contact the whole time, even though it meant tilting back my head. My tongue curled behind my fangs, arching in a whine. And to recall how I'd slammed Anti-Juandissimo with that tray, Anti-Wanda horrified and storming off…
"… I forgot when it was." Her palms trailed down my jawline. "A-and I wanted to tell you, but I couldn't. And you never came back? Just… I looked for ya at migration. Didn't know ya left the Eros Nest. My sis…"
Her voice trickled out, leaving me wobbling like liquid between her hands; I pinched my eyes shut, lips pressed in a grimace. Sorry, she said in silence, nudging her body to mine.
"I'm sorry too," I mumbled back. Guilt prickled up my arms. I waited the appropriate amount of time before attempting to pull away, but Anti-Wanda grabbed my wrists, clutching me in place. "Erm," I stammered then, both ears thoroughly sweeping down now.
"Sorry for that," she repeated aloud, goopy eyes like lace. Her thin brows fluttered up. When she pressed a little closer, my wings bumped against the stairway banister. "And for yelling at ya at Cedarcross, and avoiding ya after that. It's been… It's a lot. I was gonna be scared to say sorry if you were gonna stay here long, I'll be real. But since you might leave forever… I think I gotta say it, and say it good."
That banister bumped perfectly between two bones in my spine, biting skin. "We may want to take this somewhere else," I said, picking out the most careful words I could manage. I pulled back my hands again. "I appreciate the gesture, Anti-Wanda, really, but, um… I think it's I who should be-"
"Oh," she realised, dropping my hands. "I'm not doing this right, huh? Shoot, let me get your coat for ya- that's rude of me to stand here."
"Ah ah ah," I gasped out, swatting her hand away. "Anti-Wanda, no, it's-"
When I moved to block her, her fingers closed around my wrist again. I trailed off, glancing up at her face. Anti-Wanda's eyes locked on mine. So pink, outlined in deep black goop, lips glossed bruise purple…
I'd grown accustomed to her smiling face devoid of paint… not the strange dolled-up grimace I found now. Those odd bucked teeth had been rather cute long ago. Once, I could envision my tongue licking the flat surface while Anti-Wanda giggled in my arms. Now they looked lopsided, yellow, bulging. Had she been eating? Her form was scrawnier than I remembered. The ragged hem of her shirt displayed a cut of belly, not perfectly her size. But her skin didn't excite me. And that, I thought, was really quite a shame. Yes, I know I promised Mona monogamy, but I still… you know. Was planning to keep my favourite fantasies for lonely nights. But they seemed to have left me now.
How strange to feel her hand on my skin now. During migration, I'd felt such a spark between myself and Anti-Wanda. Perhaps in another lifetime, she and I could have been something. Maybe we'd lived together long ago, but it was over now. Only Plane 16 would have those memories now…
"Oh, gee," she said. She grabbed my shoulders. "Aw, please don't cry! Shoot! I din't mean for this to come out, like… mean! You ain't scary like, BAD scary, and I don't hate ya neither!"
"I'm not ready for this," I blurted, shoving her back. She bumped against the other wall. "I'm sorry. I need to go."
I flew up to my old study, leaving her lonely on the stairs.
Even with magic, I spent an hour cleaning out that study before I determined it was done. There. Emptied and scrubbed. I'd be taking Lohai with me to school and she deserved her best terrarium to birth her candles in. Jasmine would join us later once I found a place for her to stay. After searching for some time, I at last discovered Mona peeling potatoes in the kitchen for tonight's supper. Anti-Phillip worked alongside her, dicing carrots, though he didn't acknowledge me. "I'll switch you out," I offered, placing my fingertips on the counter beside him. "It smells delicious, darling."
Anti-Phillip chopped several more slices in silence. At first I thought he intended to ignore me, which I didn't understand, but then he stepped back from the counter and wiped his hands down his apron. "Sure, yeah… Yeah, that would be great. I've, uh… got studies to finish anyway. I'll check in on you later?"
"He's a good chap," I said to Mona once he'd flown off. With a wave of my wand, I summoned a clean apron of my own. It felt like ages since I'd last worked in the kitchen, even though Anti-Shimmer and I had both cooked together every night we lived under Anti-Kanin's name.
"Good chap?" Mona scoffed, peeling her next stripe of potato skin with exaggerated force. "You haven't heard his speeches. No one tries to tell Anti-Bryndin, but Anti-Phillip will make a horrid High Count in his heyday. Crystal clear of confidence."
"Oh dear," I said, mildly puzzled. I took up the knife, aligning the cutting board just so. Each chop echoed through my ears. "Is there any chance Anti-Stacey may become High Countess in his stead? She's next in line, after all."
"No one will say. But she often studies alongside him. I mean it, Julius… No one wants Anti-Phillip ruling the colony. He's too weak-willed, with no steady sign of shaping up."
"Interesting," I murmured.
Mona sighed and dropped the peeler with a clatter. She stepped back from the scrap bucket, rotating her wrists and shrugging out her wings. "I missed you. What was it like in the Eros Nest for so long? I imagine it was strange. Nowhere to travel, nobody new to meet…"
"It was beautiful," I said. "You would have thrived. The creche fathers were strong and the damsels were fawned over. They raised their pups so closely, none could tell who was and wasn't their parent. How different they are from us, their modern brethren." I stared at the heap of diced carrots for a moment, then turned my head. My knife went down. "It's laughable, really. For a time, I forgot the Fairies call us 'evil.' I don't understand their reasoning. They're no less the trickster archetype than we are; they simply switched the labels around so suddenly we woke up and heard that interacting directly with mortals was 'Good' and keeping a distance by influencing only their luck was 'Bad.' The Eros Nest is the one place the war didn't touch. We had no 'us' nor 'them' in there. It was all so… so…"
Teeth tight, I raised one hand with thumb and forefinger a hair apart. "So pure, Mona. So absolutely old-fashioned and natural in every way, as if it were a real colony. No. It was a real colony. Only… standing still instead of traveling live, you know what I mean? I'd never felt so in sync with fellow Anti-Fairies before. Astounding. Simply astounding."
"I miss doting on the old days dearly," she murmured, rubbing her hands on her apron hem.
"Come now, you can't miss them that much. The war ended before even our parents were born, aside from my infant father."
"I meant when I was Anti-Jesse."
My gaze focused in on the knife, which I returned to my hand in the slowest motion you'd ever seen. Tumbled tears blurred the forefront of my brain. And… and a dragon's bladder worth of jealousy crashed over my head. Because every Anti-Fairy. Every. Last. One, apart from the few newborn souls left in existence (though some say none exist any longer)… Every last one of them. All my litter, all my crechemates, all of Anti-Fairy World…
They shared secret memories I could not touch. Our people didn't merely study the past. They longed for it… because they'd lived it. Is that how the greats became great? Rising to positions of power, falling skilfully into their self-same leader roles, while in the meantime I scratched quietly and helplessly outside the door, my painted, wispy nails tearing to the quicks? Ohh, the shame of it!
"It's not speculation, then," I blurted out. I don't know why and started chopping carrots even louder. "All that… that stuff. You know- How the old ways were better when we lived in Fairies' homes. As…" The word rolled like poisoned pig then off my tongue. "Teaghlaichean." ('Families.') "That really made us happy?"
"Not Fairies' homes," Mona corrected softly, her brows arching in the centre. She released the hair she'd pulled back and ran her hand up the lumps of my goose-trodden skin. "Don't call them that. We had as much right to live there as they did. They were our homes."
Mona folded a tab of hair behind my ear. "Have you unlocked any memories from the past, Julius? You're nearly 160,000. If not from who you were in your last incarnation, then surely the one before that?"
"Only recently," I said, carefully lowering my eyes. I sliced again with my knife. "Um. You know as well as I do that ascertaining those old memories has never come easily to me, aha. Most Anti-Fairies uncover old pup memories while pups themselves, adolescent when adolescent, and so on. I always did struggle tapping into my spiritual side, fighting uphill to separate my thoughts from Clarice's in my head, but… I've picked up a few clues, yes."
"I was named Ki-sat d'ingtolm once, part of a Vatajasa-speaking colony in the Far West region. Understandable, considering the heritage on my mother's side. I had a queen at this age, and my own follower drake. Yes, I remember this age exactly. Nineteen damsels, two pups, one juvenile."
"Ki-sat d'ingtolm," she repeated, unfamiliar.
"The colony was full rotation. See, that's why I've struggled all this life with monogamy, Mona!" I grasped the back of her hand and squeezed. "I think some part of me confused my old life with this one; an old life when I was wild and careless and you and I surely met and mated only at migration, if we'd even crossed each other's path at this age! But trust me, I've restrained myself now. Those nineteen damsels were fleeting and even my ex-queen wasn't the fated match Tarrow chose for me in this life. In my Anti-Cosmo incarnation, I promise myself wholly and solely to you."
A small smile broke across her face and she hugged me dearly. I returned it, careful with my knife. She didn't need to know that everything I'd said just now, I'd based off Anti-Cinder. He wouldn't be listed in Anti-Fairy World's log book and Mona would never assume he had a traditional name. The Eros family only knew him by his Snobbish one. Unless she lived among them, she'd never know the truth.
Mona and I spent the whole day together, teaming up on all her chores. Growing up, I'd often read a book nearby while Mona sewed or practiced her wandwork, but I hadn't realised just how much adult damsels do around the Castle. Of course we used magic to tidy dishes and clean some of our clothes, but certain enchanted fabrics resisted spells… and as the migration season host, our colony had brought home every lost item we'd found. Most corners of the castle required careful scrubbing with a rag to keep magic build-up away. A segment of fence in the garden had to be measured, adjusted, and tested by hand, even if the repair itself was made with a wand.
We dusted the instruments in the music room, washed the tables in the great hall, fed the peacocks their lunch, and shooed a few pups away from the beehives. Other damsels did even more: shopping for groceries, polishing mirrors, digging holes for plants, replacing sod and sand, catching rodents in the garden, feeding the pups, opening delivery boxes and organizing the contents therein-my mum of course oversaw combat training in the outdoor ring nearly every day. And even when there wasn't anything to mend, the tools themselves had to be sharpened and cleaned by hand. One might reach the end of their chore list Wednesday eve only to find it longer than ever Friday morning!
"The joys of a standing colony," I said, watching Mona wipe the last training wand in her lap with a black cloth. "Perhaps you're right, darling… A life of frequent travel would be the easiest way to live."
"A shame there won't be more Anti-Fairies at your Fairy school."
"Anti-Lance will be there," I reminded her, passing another cloth. "You recall him from migration, don't you, darling? Scruffy stripes of black and silver hair? He's campus creche father and I'll be assigned to room with him again. He's really moved up, he told me last; has his own array tree to roost from now. A chesberry, I think. Very beautiful. Of course, he's surely approaching graduation; has nearly 10,000 years education on me now, what with my hiatus and all. Ah, well."
Mona remained quiet while I spoke, nodding along with what I said. When I finished, she looked up from the training wand. "If Anti-Lance has his own array, do you think someone who isn't attending classes would be welcome to join you there? He's a creche father, after all."
"Mm… Who did you have in mind, darling?" I leaned over her head, feigning like I didn't know. Mona smiled at her lap, finishing up with the wand.
"I'll pack my things."
"I'd like that."
I still had a training session with my mother to complete before supper. They'd requested it, actually, which caught me by surprise. And it wasn't precisely the type of training I'd expected. They didn't ask me to meet in the training building we used for balancing energy, nor the ring where they oversaw close combat skills. Instead, Mother brought me out to the courtyard and had me stand upon the grass, bending over until my fingers touched my toes.
"Good form," they praised, though more monotone than the Head Pixie himself. They nodded slowly, gripping their staff in one hand. "I thought you might have lapsed your exercises while you were away."
"No, Mother. The spirits asked me to serve them. I'm never far from my tools and I train with the umbrae I've tamed every week, at least. Or, well… Before I was shoved in the Eros Nest, that is."
"No excuse," they said, but didn't sound as angry as I'd expected. That thought cheered me. Perhaps after spending time around the Head Pixie both in Faeheim and after the Nest, however brief our time together… I'd gained a greater interpretation of cool, solid voices. I peeked up at my mother, claws still wrapped around my toes. Perhaps those childhood memories of mine weren't as cruel as I'd once imagined? My memory might not be flawless after all, for the Anti-Fairy standing before me now seemed more invested in watching me, shaping me, than they ever had when I'd been a scrawny pup. I'd certainly changed throughout my 160,000 years of life. I understood much more of the world than I had long ago, and I saw no reason that couldn't extend to improved understanding regarding my mum's personality. And isn't it the present that matters so much more than the past ever will?
"Head down," they snapped, bopping my ears with the end of their staff.
"Yes, Mother." I exhaled a silver cloud of magic in a low, steady stream. Hair by hair, I lowered myself from a standing position to a sort of arm-bracing one, palms flat to the prickly grass. At least they'd allowed me to loose my tail. Arms stretched in one direction, tail the other, I closed my eyes and allowed the energy field to flow over and through me the way a river runs. "How long should I hold this pose?"
"Thirty seconds. Your arms won't last any longer."
Once upon a time, that comment would have crushed my chest and left me wobbling, unsure, until juvenile arms collapsed with a squeak. But today… I wanted to laugh. My lips twitched up in one corner. "Ha! I'll show you two and a half minutes, Mother. Time me!"
"Don't talk back, slug," they said, thrusting their staff beneath my chin. They tilted my head slightly higher. "You're weak and unbalanced. You'll fall before a minute's up."
"Try me, Mother. Try me."
One brow arched up. The staff withdrew; they crossed their arms to wait. I closed my eyes again, soothing the magic in my blood. I could feel it circling the points in my body where it flowed the strongest… Both hands. Both feet. My tailbone. My throat. My head. As a minute drew near, I felt an itch at the tip of my nose. Strength began to vibrate in my arms, unsteady and unsure. I inhaled the air again, then blew it out in another sparkling cloud.
A minute thirty seconds.
"Don't bend your back," Mother warned, tapping my rear end down with the staff. "Don't bend those bones out of place. It only takes one slip to trick the body into switching forms. Maintain your locus. Don't. Falter."
Two minutes. That itch had gotten worse. My lips had dried so scratchy, my throat began to clench. I'd brought my water out, not that I could reach it now. My wand lay in its sheath a few metres away. Maybe, I thought ruefully, bending my neck again, we Fae didn't give those wands half the credit they deserved. In contact with my starpiece, I felt connected to the energy field, power surging through my bones. The moment you ever let go? … Ha. Perhaps that's what it's like to feel mortal.
Two minutes, twenty seconds. Mother set their staff on my back again, holding me where I was. My tail flicked to one side. I tightened my brows together, tongue swiping down my lips. As my arms trembled again, Mother took the staff away. With their foot, they shoved me sideways in the grass.
"Time is up. Stretch your arms out now."
"I told you," I said, fighting to smile through the strain. They brought the staff towards my face and I deflected it with my arm. "I didn't forget to practice. Two and a half minutes, just like I said."
Mother stared down at me, that one brow still raised. "Don't expect me to alter our schedule, Anti-Cosmo. Whether you're my son or not, you remain a trainee. Blood doesn't earn you special privileges. We still have an hour of exercise left to go."
"Yes, Mum." I rolled to the side before they could swipe their staff again, rolling my eyes too as I did. "Love you, Mum."
"Fewer words. More stretching. And don't bend your bones."
How strange to settle back in Castle life. We had so little schedule here, mealtimes the only moments off the calendar to even register in my head. If I impulsively desired to fly to Luna's Landing, no one tried to stop me. I could visit the library if I wanted to, or swim through the river, or spiral loop-the-loops above the ruins of the Anti-Eros tower. Three days after arriving, I challenged myself to soar the entire length of Sablewood Canyon, stopping only when my stomach growled loud enough to tell the world I wanted lunch. I'd brought bread rolls with me, along with nightberries, carrots, peaches, and the sunflower seeds I liked. No meat. By myself, not even Lohai's lamp to watch over for the moment, I sat back on a ledge with legs dangling. My wings might be getting sore, but it was the good kind of sore when a workout pushes you until you grow. And that, I thought… was the best meal I'd had in ages.
Speaking of meals, I made it back for supper the following day (having slept in the canyon the night before). We had a special table in the great hall set aside for adult drakes who hadn't left the colony yet, right there alongside damsels our age. Mona, I quickly realised, had become incredibly good friends with all of them. Since several still awaited their own betrothed to make something of themselves in the world before returning, she took great pride in showing me off to her friends. Her hand hardly left the back of mine, even while she ate.
"Tell them what your name was," she urged, nudging my knee beneath the table. "In your past life. Tell them that."
"A writer, I'm sure," Anti-Eloise declared.
"Fitting," Anti-Reagan agreed, bobbing her head. "A writer and a poet fated by the stars."
I bared my fangs in a grimacing grin. "Ahaha… Not quite, dear dames. It took great research before I learned the truth, but I finally did discover who I am. Ki-sat d'ingtolm. Raised in the Far West region and never had a Snobbish name."
GWOOOSH! went a burst of liquid farther down the table. I practically jumped from my seat. A dame began coughing, pounding her chest and trying to sniffle out the last of the wine from her nose.
"Sorry," she choked out, eyes flicking up to me, and I realised then that it was Anti-Wanda. She chose not to excuse herself from the hall, looking around for a serviette instead with hands clamped against her nose. I'm sure she tried to hold it in, but a burp rose in her chest and burst out in a belch. "Ah. S'cuse me. Sorry. Just that name, is all. Just that name."
"Oooh," Anti-Reagan said in sing-song, leaning forward on her elbows. "Sounds like someone's having memory recall. Come on, Anti-Wanda. Share with the creche."
Mona clenched her jaw beside me, pulling in her wings. Anti-Wanda swung her legs over the bench, standing up from the table and swiping drops of wine from the front of her blouse. Her other palm flew up, shaking back and forth.
"Nah, nah, I shouldn't. Sorry. You talk. I'm gonna… jist… Anti-Cosmo, can I talk to ya for a sec? Like, alone? This is private stuff."
Anti-Reagan and Anti-Eloise drew out a long "Oooh," again, and several other damsels at the table joined in. I glanced nervously at Mona, who'd fallen very quiet, eyes downcast. I kissed the top of her head, rubbing twice between her wings before I followed Anti-Wanda from the hall. She'd brought a phoenix leg with her, crunching loudly. We didn't go far down the corridor, as she grabbed my lapel in her fist and yanked me into the chamber pot room by the staircase. The sugary scent wafted up exactly as you'd imagine it to, though I had to admit it was unlikely anyone would stray close enough to listen in.
"What's the laughing matter with my old name?" I demanded, crossing my arms tight. "It's perfectly respectable. Far better than the one I carry in this life, if you really must know."
Anti-Wanda twisted around, thrusting the phoenix leg in my face. "Whatcha doing out here stealing names, Anti-Cosmo? Don't think I forgot exactly who owns the one ya gave back there. Someone who's still living with it too."
I didn't say anything for a moment, staring cross-eyed at the bird leg in my face and fighting back the queasy churning in my stomach. I didn't unfold my arms. "I never can pull the silk over your eyes, can I, darling? No wonder you made the Seat of Sky. But please, for my sake, can't you pretend you don't recognize it?" I nudged her wrist away, and the meat along with it. "I'm only here another few days. Then Mona and I will leave for Fairy World and I'll be out of your stare forever. Believe me, I won't be welcome back. I intend to make a creche father of myself and never trouble you again."
"You can't just take his name!" Anti-Wanda brought the phoenix leg down on the wash basin counter. "It ain't easy being creche father in a small place like the Eros Nest when everyone bumps their shoulders together and ya don't get privacy and every drake thinks they can lick your butt. You're taking credit for his work and his damsels. The spirits'll treat you different if you give the wrong name."
"He's locked up; he doesn't care. No one but you and I will ever know."
"But it ain't right!"
I shook my head, finally dropping my arms to my sides. "Why does this matter to you, darling? If you don't mind, my betrothed is feeling anxious now because she thinks your strong reaction means we had a close connection in a past life. I'd rather not leave her thinking that for very long."
"I care 'cuz I's the Seat of Sky." Anti-Wanda clapped her palm against the edge of her face and drew it halfway down. Her wings lifted, then dropped. "Hey, look. I know you don't mind stealing yourself, but I've got this job now. And it's the only thing I'm good for, so I wanna do it right. Can ya just tell me what the seven zodiac ceremonies are?"
"I don't see why-"
"Just list 'em. Please?"
I sighed too, but lifted my fingers to count them off. "Weddings, child bonding, naming, funerals, planet visitation, seniority, and rebirth, in that order. The camarilla court is made up of two representatives for each zodiac, hand-picked by the High Count and High Countess respectively. Only they and the proper temple acolytes have the authority to perform such ceremonies. There. Are you satisfied with my answer, dame?"
"Sky does funerals."
"… Oh." I took two steps to the right. My foot clanged on a chamber pot.
"Ya can't take his name," Anti-Wanda said again, a little less forceful this time. She took up her phoenix leg again, though didn't take another bite. "He needs it. Someday you's gonna have a funeral and someone, maybe me or maybe a different Sky guy, is gonna take your core to the Water Temple and tell the spirits you said you was Ki-sat d'ingtolm. That's not fair."
"Come off it. Ingtolm never set claw outside the Nest and wouldn't have been presented before the spirits as a pup in the first place; he won't be reborn an Anti-Fairy anyway."
"That doesn't mean ya get ta snipe it! The spirits'll have your head if you trick 'em into switching your zodiac."
Baffled, I looked her up and down. "Why does this matter to you? If the spirits didn't see him as a pup, he isn't in their records. They don't care about him. His name is free for me to take."
"Names are everything. You can't just take 'em off, y'know?"
"What about the High Acolytes? They lose their names when they give themselves to the spirits. You're okay with that, aren't you?"
Anti-Wanda threw her hands up in frustration. Without another word, she shoved me aside and grabbed the door handle. I blocked her way, palms out and wings spread. "Anti-Wanda, wait! Please, I didn't mean to offend. Can't we find agreement? You shouldn't go away upset; that's a breeding ground for negative energy."
"Yeah?" She took my wrists and pushed my hands down, maintaining eye contact the whole time. I'd forgotten until just then how much taller she was than I. Anti-Wanda shoved me sideways. "You did. Said you weren't ready for my apology, even after I spent years thinking it up. Well, maybe I ain't ready for yours. Come find me at migration when you figure out what you wanna say."
She slammed the door behind her, leaving me open-mouthed with the sweet stink of chamber pots seeping through my coat. I… didn't know how to respond. I couldn't remember a damsel ever storming out on me in such a way before, no sense of touch to talk me through the meaning of her words. So… what was this, then? Would she spread tale of my stolen name to the rest of the camarilla court? To Anti-Bryndin himself? Or would she follow ancient custom not to speak her griefs aloud to anyone but the one she felt had wronged her? And if she intended to sit upon my secret as a favour to my honour… What exactly would she demand of me in return? Perhaps that vla-vlakrina relationship I'd considered once before wasn't far off the mark after all…
"So it's blackmail then, is it darling?" A small smile curved across my lips. I rocked back on my heels, folding my arms again. "I like it."
So be it, then.
Move-in day for high school opened up two weeks before classes themselves would start. Mona had stayed faithful to her promise of accompanying me, and Anti-Bryndin granted her full permission to go. So after bidding firm and official farewell to the rest of the Castle, Mona and I set off across the mountains. We spent three days with the Anti-Bentleaf colony. Mona's first mum Anti-Penny was off on acolyte affairs, but her second mum Anti-Dixie was more than delighted to see us both. We were kissed and well-fed, and set off for Carl Poofypants Fairy High with wings light and bellies full.
"Ssso," Mona said, flying uncomfortably close to me. Her wings brushed against mine, soft as gossamer threads, but her eyes were wandering off the other way. "You seem… different since you left all those millennia ago."
"Oh, yes? How do you mean?" I swooped low as our eddy gave way, curling back on myself to flip heels over head. I laughed aloud. Mona didn't.
"Reserved," she said. My wingbeats faltered.
"That was… blunter than I would have anticipated, dame. I do hope you haven't forgotten to mind your mannered tongue."
Mona threw extra strength in her wingbeats, taking the lead in our little pair. I pulled up short, caught off guard, when she swung back to me.
"I speak directly because I'm unsure you've caught my hints, Julius. What's changed you since you left? We used to kiss more passionately than what we had in the library the other day."
"Well, rekindling sparks takes time, darling-"
"And I thought with your return…" Mona pushed a loop of hair behind her ear. "It would be appropriate to seal relations. We're old enough. Shouldn't we plan our wedding soon?"
I slipped past her, following the wind. "Weddings are best saved for the Love year, Mona, and planning takes time. Let's put this off another seven years, hm?"
"We can plan fast," she defended, keeping pace with me. "I know. I'll take charge of everything. That's how I'll keep busy while you focus on your schooling. We can be married by Winter Turn."
I considered this, eyes roaming the scrubby mountain brush gliding past us far below. "All right," I said. "Let's be married. Though if I may ask, why the rush?"
"Mm," she answered. "Keeping company with a creche father, mostly. You learned the traditions. Things like that."
"Oh." The part about visibly 'claimed' damsels being socially off limits for other drakes to charm. She wanted a ring. A ring only the Love Temple could grant us. My brow creased. "Are you sure, Mona? To marry by Winter Turn means we'll be wed before Cedarcross. You wouldn't like a few more migration seasons before you commit to such a monogamous life for long?"
She stuffed her hands beneath her arms. "I'm sure."
Sigh. I suppose that went for me too…
"Let's be married," I agreed again. "Plan to your soul's content, darling. Just show me what to wear and point out the place I need to stand."
We crossed the border easily enough, and to my delight, Jorgen was on duty that day. I entertained myself by pinching leaves from the rainbow plant on the desk, feigning I was littering but secretly dropping them down my sleeve just to annoy him further. Once our passes were approved, an escort poofed us to our destination. I coughed on Fairy dust, tilting back my head. We stood on soft pink cloud in the shadow of a white castle… Most likely the on-campus dining building, if the layout of Frederick Shinesworth campus was anything to go by. Not bad. Too many glass windows for my liking, but not bad.
"A map," our escort said, extending one to both me and Mona. "You're allowed to roam anywhere within these limits as much as you like, but outside this radius, you'll need to request an escort. That includes visits to your Temples, which you're allowed to visit on the appropriate day as long as you give advance notice that you're flying there."
"I say!" I unfurled my map to the full amount of squares and couldn't hold back a satisfied nod. "Why, this is far greater reach than I was allotted in middle school. Seems age allows one to really move up in the world, wot? I could get used to this."
"Uhh," Mona said, staring at hers with far less enthusiasm. I suppose she was less accustomed to being told where she can and can't fly (Poor lark).
"Come on, darling." I roped my arm through hers. "Let's tell the centre building we've arrived and ask to be pointed towards Anti-Lance's residence. Gods, I can't wait to see him again! If 10,000 years refined my looks, he must have been purified beyond crystal!"
We found the registrar's office easily enough, though it took an hour to wait in line and another to sign me up for all my classes (Ah, the price one pays for arriving so late). When we left the building, Mona had gotten restless. She asked if she might take a circle around the perimeter we were allowed to roam, which I granted her. In the meantime, I decided to familiarize myself with the campus itself. I had a booked schedule this semester… Let's see…
"Recap classes," I said to myself with a sigh, drifting over the clouds. "Well, well. As much as I complain, I understand why they're there. I only hope I don't end up shoved in a lab with a partner who-"
PAF! went a chunk of cloud on the back of my head. Water soaked through my hair, dripping down my collar. I stopped moving, particularly when I heard the snickers some ways behind. I shut my eyes, then started floating again.
PAF! That one hit me right between the wings with a chill. Well, they wouldn't play forever. It wasn't worth getting upset about. This was an empty day, campus nearly deserted as most Fairies chose to delay moving in… Let them pick on me now. They wouldn't dare in a few more weeks with witnesses at hand.
PAF! This chunk hit my head again, knocking my monocle out of place. It swung on its thread. At three hits, surely I was vindicated in lashing out. I drew my wand and spun on my heel, only to take the next hit directly in the face. "Oof," I grunted, crashing back on my wings. My head slammed on cloudstone. The two Fairies who'd hurled the vapourballs at me burst into laughter.
"Can you believe he turned around?"
"See if you can hit that huge nose this time!"
I rolled to the side and - to my surprise - rolled through an incoming poof cloud and bumped into a leg. Both Fairies shrieked and turned tail at once, wings buzzing all the way down the road. When I looked up, still fumbling for my monocle, I could make out the muscled figure of a black-haired fairy who certainly seemed disappointed in such childish behaviour.
"That's right, you bubble-butted bully-wannabes!" A yellow-haired dame in a pink dress zipped up behind him, hoisting the drake's muscled arm over her head. "That Anti-Fairy has just as much right to be on campus as we do. And if you ever come back, this beefy hunk of sinew will pound your face so flat, it'll turn into jerky! Like the rest of you!"
"I will not do that," the drake said, quickly pulling back his arm (The yellow-haired damsel scoffed, but let it drop). He turned to face me, crouching on his toes, and extended his hand. "Are you all right, señor?"
I blinked the last of clouddust from my face. "Jua… Juandissimo? Is that you?" I grasped his hand tightly and he hoisted me back to my feet, even brushing the front of my tunic with his hand. "Ha! Why, of all Fairies to come upon me in such a sorry state, I couldn't have asked for anyone better! I hope the spirits have guided you well since last we met."
Juandissimo smiled broadly, even holding eye contact with me all the while. Now finished with my front, he patted hard beneath my wings and floated back. "I'm afraid I will not be staying long, señor, for I only came to help my beloved Wanda and her sister move in on this very sad day of departure. But I must say… It's as pleasing to see you again as it would be to see the shore after weeks of riding the sea."
"Well, how fortunate our paths crossed today of all days, then. It certainly sounds like fate to me." I turned to the second dame who'd just flown up behind him, staring hard a moment there. Pink curls. Yellow dress. An exact flip of her sister. "Hm. Your hair wasn't that colour the last time I saw you, was it? Dusky brown. I remember exactly. The pegasustail's familiar."
"It's recent. I'm trying dye." The dame extended her hand for a shake the Fairy way. "I'm Wanda. We went to Frederick Shinesworth Middle together."
"Advanced Boudacian Studies. Yes, I remember. Probably your best subject, in fact; as I recall, you were always second place only to me. Very well done." I tilted my head slightly to one side, privately noticing she didn't mention our chance encounter at Maplefeather Point. It was just as well… I hardly wanted to remember the first words I'd ever spoken to her were "You were bathing nude."
Her sister waved to get my attention. "And of course you remember me, Julius. You and I had Basic Meal Prep, Recent History, AND Intermediate Potion Crafting." She grabbed my arm suddenly then, which made me wince, and yanked me forward like a puppet. "Dibs on being the smart kid's lab partner!"
"Subtle," Wanda drawled, setting her hands to her hips.
"I-it's Anti-Cosmo now," I said, not sure how to wiggle free of her grasp without offending her. Wendy seemed to realise this, however, for she let me go and simply placed her elbow on my shoulder instead, her other hand on her hip.
"I respect that, hon. I'm going by Blonda now. If you don't recognize me, it's because I dyed my hair. Needed a fresh start; you know how it goes."
"Yes, that must be it," I said, still puzzled. I flicked my eyes up and down the shape of her face, but it didn't… strike me as familiar. Not with those flower-pink eyes, I mean. She and her sister were identical. And likewise, so were their counterparts (albeit blue and with more fur). I'd befriended Anti-Wanda and Anti-Wendy at a young age. Surely I'd have remembered if I were in a class with Wendy Prime? I couldn't recall a professor ever calling her name. You'd expect me to remember such a face… You know, despite being Wanda Prime's identical twin, she looked somehow… prettier? Hm. Maybe it was the soft fuzz edging her hair, or the tilt of her brows…
"Would you care to come with us, señor?" Juandissimo asked, his own arm resting behind Wanda's neck (not that she seemed to mind, leaning her head against his shoulder). "After such a flight here from Anti-Fairy World, your stomach is surely growling with a dragon's ferocity. We were just planning to seek lunch ourselves. You may join us if you like."
I blinked. Then I blinked again, my ears pricking up. "Are… Are Anti-Fairies welcome in all the restaurants here? That's the first task on my agenda, you know: scouting out the area. I'd love to do so with friends. May I ask my betrothed to join us? She flew off a moment ago, but I can catch up and I'm certain she'd love to meet you."
"Uhh," Wanda began to say, her face slightly more uncomfortable than it had been a moment ago. Wendy (Er… Blonda) didn't seem to know what to think, floating there with fingers still touching my arm. But before either of them could form full sentences, Juandissimo answered for them, smile arching up again.
"Of course, señor! A friend of yours is surely just as much a friend of ours. Shall we meet here again an hour from now? That gives us time to set down our books."
"That's perfect," I told them, and it was. As invisible as our karmic weaves may be, I could practically feel them sewing together, binding us closer with gossamer threads. I thanked each Fairy in turn before spreading my wings again. What fortune to reunite not only with two dames I knew from centuries past, but with my old friend Juandissimo on top of it! He felt much happier now, energy field glistening like the dew on spiders' webs. A muscular figure. Full eye contact. A steady voice. Not to mention a dame of his own these days…
My sweet reward for showing kindness all those years ago, for believing in him at the Eros Nest even when the cherubs ignored him, had finally come back to lift my spirits now. A shame he wasn't staying longer.
I flew high above the campus, the perfect breeze rushing around my wings. And when I spotted Mona soaring up ahead, a smile broke across my face. I swept towards her with hands outstretched. This is what Sunnie wanted of me, I'm sure of it. The scholar of the zodiac spirits desired nothing more for me than my return to school: a place I had once thrived and would again- This time with my love a step behind me and Fairy friends who stood up for the bullied and beaten down.
How fitting we were in a Love year now. Anti-Fairy World behind me, the Eros Nest behind me, those struggles I'd once had with Mother, my shame regarding Lohai's treatment, the lies I'd told to Mona… all of that behind me now. Arriving at Carl Poofypants felt like turning the next page in a grand story for the first time in a long, long while.
I flipped a long, slow loop above the sprawling campus grounds. This could be a wonderful new start…