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Igms issue 43, p.3

IGMS Issue 43, page 3

 

IGMS Issue 43
 


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  I was too fatigued to stand, yet nobles pestered me to dance. The prince dragged me out of my chair and twirled me.

  "If it's that important to you, I'll rid myself of other wives." His countenance remained blank and unreadable.

  "What do you mean by 'rid yourself?'" The sleeve of my dress slipped down my bony shoulder. If I abstained from food much longer, I would waste into nothing. I could hardly tell how much time had passed since I arrived. Hours? Days?

  The prince stared at my shoulder, his voice thick with a different kind of hunger. "Harming a human is against our laws. I will simply return my wives to the mortal realm."

  That was what my father had done with my mother, sending her back where she knew no one any longer. Did this abandonment not end in death as well?

  The prince squeezed close. "Mayhap it isn't treasures and jewels you desire. Could it be a token from your world?" He snapped his fingers. "Captain Aspen."

  The guard in glittering armor marched over with a covered, silver tray. Though his perfectly proportioned face looked as though it had been chiseled, his visage remained as expressionless as a toy soldier's.

  With his gloved hand, the prince removed the lid and plucked up a pear. It was bruised at the top, a peck in one side from a bird, imperfect and unlike any of the fairy foods.

  "A gift from me to you," he said.

  It had to be a trick, something of this world but disguised. Yet I was so far beyond hunger I didn't care. Tears spilled from my eyes as I sank my teeth into the fruit. It was mushy and half rotten. Still, I devoured it down to the stem, juice dripping through my fingers.

  The prince watched, lips curling with disdain. I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand. My belly felt slightly better.

  "Will you have more?" His guard produced a tray of half smashed grapes. I reached for them, but the prince held them aloft. He pressed me so close I could scarcely breathe. His tone remained as calm as ever. "Do you know what it costs me to retrieve such tokens from the human world? I am only willing to do so for the humans closest to me . . . like my wives. If you agree to marry me and bear my heirs, I will ensure you never starve." He brought the grapes closer, the cold of each berry pressing against my neck. Purple juices trickled down his white gloved hand and onto my dress. He brushed the grapes lower, his knuckles grazing the flesh just above my bodice. The intense desire in his eyes reminded me of the lewd stares of the men in the village.

  Anger boiled in my belly. I was not going to be bought like a harlot. A bit of pear skin was still in my mouth. I spat it into his face. He immediately let go of me and howled in what sounded like pain.

  I trudged back to my father's table. His wife sat as still as a statue beside him. He shook his head at me, pinching the bridge of his nose. "You have publicly insulted the prince."

  "Maybe if you did a better job of ensuring he didn't insult me, I wouldn't have to. You are my father. Can you not protect me from his untoward advances?"

  A bitter smile laced his wife's lips. "You are quite able to protect yourself. All you need do is give yourself to any man in this realm heirs."

  "Is that all I'm good for?"

  Father rested his head on his hands. "Fairies need your bloodline to mix with ours so that we can produce heirs once again. But we treat you well. You are less chattel in this world than the human one."

  No wonder my mother had despised him for bringing her to serve as his mistress and forcing her to have me. I wondered how she had escaped.

  Tears filled my eyes. "I want to go home."

  "This is your home." He reached for my hand but I pulled away. "It's where you were meant to be raised. Only now have I set things right by bringing you home."

  I gazed at the table of shimmering fruits and roasted meats.

  "Perhaps you should eat a little. I can't bear to see you waste away like your mother." The sorrow of his eyes almost convinced me.

  Almost.

  "The prince provides human food for his wives. Can you not bring me some?"

  "Human foods are poison. I have already suffered enough touching them once at your mother's request."

  I crossed my arms. "So be it. I'll just starve. I should be used to it by now."

  My father pushed himself from the table and stalked away from the feast and into yonder trees. His wife left the table and became lost in the sea of dancers.

  Vexing him was a bittersweet satisfaction. Again, I was alone and hungry.

  "Care to dance?" A noble bowed before me.

  Not alone. Even worse. Surrounded by suitors.

  No one had ever stopped me from using the trees beyond the ball as a privy, nor told me not to sleep in the partitions of moss hanging from trees as I did on occasion. Still, I waited until the queen was diverted by feeding sweets to her human pet before I trod into the forest.

  These trees were knobby with broken limbs, not the perfect specimens draped in curtains of lace like those near the clearing. Try as I might to find a path in the gloom, there was none. The music of the never-ending party grew more distant as brambles of claw-like fingers raked at my legs. I fought against soupy muck and shredded my hands against thorns. But I pressed on, walking as best I could through it all. A light flickered in the trees ahead. I parted the boughs, hoping I'd arrived into the world of humans. A blast of music made me jump, and a Will-o-wisp floated past.

  I once again had arrived at the ball.

  Father's absence stretched into an eternity. I sat with my head resting on the feasting table, too dizzy to move. I told myself I'd ignore my father out of spite when he returned . . . if he returned.

  Yet when I spotted him through the trees, I rose on shaky feet and went to him, clinging from tree to tree for support.

  "You were gone so long." I nearly knocked him over, falling into his embrace. His eyes sparkled with delight and I couldn't help feeling pleased to see him.

  He sat me on the ground, placing a basket before me. "I was gone but a moment."

  His mouth was gray and blistered. He crouched before the covered basket, his movements stiff and slow like those of an old man. His once white gloves were dingy and brown. Where his sleeve and the glove gaped, his skin was bruised.

  "Father, you are hurt?"

  "Think nothing of it." He tugged the sleeve over his arm. "Look what I've brought you."

  He peeled back the edge of the cloth, exposing a feast of fruits and dried meats. I tore into a loaf of bread and bit into a lump of butter.

  "Pace yourself. This is meant to last."

  "Thank you, Father," I said, gnawing through the wax casing of cheese.

  My father swallowed. His gaze followed my fingers as I selected a pastry from the basket. He had said fairies didn't eat human food, but from the way his breath hitched as I bit down on the pastry, I would swear he watched with longing.

  The food was gone all too soon, and my father set out for more. With the second basket, he appeared weaker and more out of breath. Each trip after took longer for him to recover from the gray blisters crusting over his fingers and face.

  "You're killing your father," the prince said to me, the closest thing to a smile on his lips that I'd seen yet. "He hasn't the magic I have. How will the knowledge that you've killed him settle on your conscience?"

  He left me to ponder that.

  Will-o-wisps danced above the partygoers as I strolled along the edges. I watched a human child shriek and twist away from the fairy feeding her.

  The captain of the royal guard deigned to speak to me for the first time, though he didn't look at me. "The prince is right. You're killing your father."

  My father rested with his head on a table, his eyes closed as fairies feasted around him. My heart sank lower. One parent was gone. Surely the other would follow on account of me.

  His voice low, Captain Aspen said, "Leave the clearing and enter the forest. Have a care not to be seen. I will show you where human food is to be found."

  Hope alighted in my breast. I endeavored to k
eep the eagerness from my face as I meandered to the edge of the ball. I ducked under lacy boughs of lichen and past the cushions of moss and flowers where I slept of late. Dark shadows stretched toward me.

  I waited so long I grew uncertain whether Captain Aspen would come. Mayhap it had been a trick to get me alone where the prince might have his way with me.

  The lithe shadow of a man darted through the trees. Heart pounding, I ducked close to the base of an oak, lest it be the prince.

  "Katy?" The guard whispered the nickname my parents called me. "It is I, Captain Aspen. Do you wish me to show you where human food is?"

  At the thought of food, the rumble of my belly gave me away.

  "There you are. Rise and come with me." He held out his arm and I reluctantly took it. Brush rustled and trees creaked as they shifted out of his way. A path cleared before us, silhouettes of oaks and maples less ominous with the light of the moon painting each leaf silver.

  He led me to a small clearing in the trees where the air was cool enough to give rise to goose bumps on my bare arms. A stream meandered past, a quiet lullaby. From the golden leaves at my feet, and perfume of blackberries in the air, I surmised it was autumn.

  "Where are we?" I asked.

  "It's a world between, not quite your world, not quite ours. It's a half-breed . . . like you."

  I tried to eat and drink slowly, as not to become sick. But soon I found myself snatching up the berries and cramming them into my mouth, juices running down my fingers. I ate my fill, yet a strange emptiness remained inside me.

  Reclining on the ground and bloated from my gluttony, I was too in pain to move. I glanced with embarrassment at Captain Aspen. He stood alert, watching the way we had come.

  Though he looked upon me without the gleam of appetite that the prince did, I knew nothing was without price.

  "You have been kind to me," I said, stomach churning as I broached the matter.

  "Kindness has nothing to do with it."

  At that, I was sure he would insist on bedding me. Instead, he looked whence we had come. "We should return before you're missed."

  When next Captain Aspen brought me to a patch of in-between worlds, I was near starving again. On this outing, the in-between world was in early summer, strawberries ripe and fish abundant in the stream. He looked away as I cooked and ate.

  Though I ate more slowly than the time before, my belly flip-flopped with nausea as I finished my fish. Captain Aspen stopped me before I ate all my strawberries. "Have a care not to make yourself ill. Save some for another day."

  With no other means of carrying extra provisions, I removed my stockings and stuffed what I could inside.

  When Captain Aspen and I returned to the ball, he departed without a farewell. When I saw him at his post later, he stared straight ahead without looking upon me.

  Father was astute, even in his ill health. "You're looking less thin." His emerald eyes flickered toward the prince.

  I shook my head to his unasked question.

  The third time, Aspen and I came to winter in the in-between world. I dug below the snow for frozen greens and dormant roots.

  Aspen passed me his kid gloves to put on over my own silk ones and handed me his saber to dig into the frozen earth. When I grew too cold, he gave me his jacket, and when I grew too tired, he finished digging for me, though he demurred from touching the roots when he unearthed them.

  We retreated into the warmer fairy forest where I ate my prizes. Aspen stood post, his visage as stony as sculpted alabaster.

  When I finished my meager meal of bitter greens, stringy roots and a few beetles, I asked, "Why have you brought me hither?"

  His face, glowing with beauty, remained serious. "To ensure you don't die."

  "And what makes you care if I die when the prince cares so little?"

  He hesitated, but when he did speak, his words spewed out of him with vehemence. "The prince may say it's my duty to serve his family first, but I am the Captain of the Fay. I protect this realm, as well as those within. Our laws are to keep humans within our borders from harm, and though the prince may claim doing naught differs from inflicting harm, I disagree."

  My heart warmed in admiration of Captain Aspen's noble nature. "And you will not . . . What I mean to say . . ." My heart thudded in my ears. "The prince said he would give me human food if I gave him heirs. I assumed you would expect . . ."

  "The same?" He snorted. "Humans should remain in the mortal world with their own kind, where they will remain safe from pining."

  What a relief knowing there was one person in this realm who expected nothing of me.

  I slept after my meals out in the quiet of the forest. When I woke, Aspen's cape lay draped over me while he sat aloft in a tree, watching the way we'd come. I came to admire his silent, stoic ways, as well as his bursts of conversation, as he grew more comfortable sharing stories of his kind and the mysteries of his people.

  Having nourishment in my belly, I refuted suitors with more vitality. With intervals of respite from the chaos of the ball, I grew strong in spirit as well. For the first time since coming to the fairy realm, my hope returned.

  I rejoined my father amongst the dessert tables. A smile crossed my lips, try as I might to hide it. The perfume of cookies and candies tickled my nostrils with temptation despite having eaten so many cherries I was near bursting.

  He winked. "If you wish to keep your secret, mind yourself not to look at a certain captain of the guard as you have been wont to do of late."

  I blushed. "We aren't -- Blast! He has no interest in me."

  Father lowered his voice. "Prince Summershire will not face the truth that he is too old to sire children. And the queen is as blind as he is with hope that it is the humans at fault and not her bloodline that has dried up." His eyes scanned the crowd. The two wives were absent. "Aspen will never love you like a human. Still, he would make a better husband than some."

  A jumble of emotions coursed through me, first anger, then shame that my father would say such things. "Captain Aspen befriended me to keep me from harm, to fulfill his duty, not out of motives to marry. He's different from the others. He never makes demands of me. He is truly honorable and good." I said this much louder than I should have, drawing the attention of the nearest feasters.

  "Be wary of my kind. The Fay do not feel love in our hearts. We are a kind of demon fallen from the heavens, just as your mother once claimed."

  My throat tightened. "Then you lied when you said you loved my mother?"

  He stirred the Yorkshire pudding about in his bowl. "Quite so."

  I ran to my curtained chamber. I had known my mother was his mistress, yet still I had dared to hope that he had loved her. I had dared to hope he was capable of loving me.

  I held in the tears until I neared my private alcove. But when I lifted the lacy lichen to throw myself on the moss, I shrieked. The prince reclined on my bed.

  "Pretty pet, why do you cry? Do you hunger for human food? I can make you happy." He held up a bowl of bruised peaches.

  I backed away, letting the curtain fall between us.

  He called after me. "Don't say you haven't noticed the absence of my wives. I returned them to the mortal realm for you."

  His other words were lost in the mayhem of music. I wove through the periphery of dancers, elbowing my way to the edge of trees. Trampling through brambles, my dress snagging on thorns, I fled into the forest until the bushes grew too dense. I covered my ears and sobbed, wishing to be rid of the merry music.

  "It was the prince?" Aspen asked, out of breath and suddenly by my side. "I wanted to warn you." He enclosed me in his embrace, tucking my head below his chin.

  My tears spilled against the pristine brocade of his jacket. "All fairies are liars. My father said so. He said none of you can love."

  He made a noise I might have mistaken for a laugh. "What news is this to you? I have told you as much already."

  Tears burned in my eyes. "He said he never lo
ved my mother. And he cannot love me."

  He remained silent a while, stroking my hair from my face.

  He handed me a handkerchief embroidered with fruits, perfect and beautiful as all the food of this world. "He lies to protect you. Yet surely you aren't blind to the way he looks fondly at you and frets for your welfare. He smiles and laughs just as you do. And when he thinks you see him not, he is overcome with sorrow. With longing."

  I thought upon that first time he'd brought me food from the human world, and how he'd watched me eat, hunger in his countenance. Despite telling me human food was poison for fairies, he'd had blisters on his lips. "I think I know what he pines for."

  "Yes. Your mother," said Aspen. I shook my head, but he went on. "He was the same as any other in this realm before he met her. I respected him, as he was openly opposed to the marriage between our peoples. To break him of his stubbornness, the queen insisted all mortal maidens who wandered through fairy rings dance with him first, hoping to tempt him. But beauty and youth persuaded him not."

  "My mother was beautiful . . . for a human." Her cheeks once had been plump and rosy.

  "Indeed, but it wasn't beauty that seduced him. He brought food from the human world, secretly feeding humans in the hope they needn't fall victim to the prince. Your mother fell in love with him and after a time, he changed. He behaved as a starry-eyed human under her spell."

  I imagined my parents when they had loved each other.

  Aspen's voice took on a sharper edge. "Your mother was considered a witch. My people liked her even less when she tired of your father and wished to go home. It was fear of whatever power your mother possessed that persuaded the queen to allow her to leave."

  "There is hope then? Some fairies change, they grow to love? You . . . might grow to love?"

 
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