Bea watched anxiously from the hill as the handsome hero fought his way into the thorns, trying to reach the castle where the heroine lay sleeping.
Everything would be fine, she told herself. He’d looked a strong lad. And that armour was definitely serious stuff. And it was only a plant, for goodness’ sake. What harm could a plant do?
It was quite a bit bigger than she’d expected, though.
And, in hindsight, she probably shouldn’t have left it alone for so long.
Bea started to chew her thumbnail.
Ten minutes passed.
There was no sign of the hero. By now the briar should have retreated, and the hero have reached the heroine and woken her with True Love’s Kiss.
Bea squinted at the tower, which remained annoyingly unbreached. The story was supposed to finish at sundown, and already the sky was darkening as the sun sank lower on the horizon. If the godmother came back before the hero had reached the tower…
Puffing and holding her skirts up, she ran down the hill, skidding to a stop in front of the barricade that imprisoned the castle. It was certainly impressive up close. Snaking green branches wove in and out of each other, each one edged with sharp thorns. She glanced to her left, at the horizon. The sun bobbed low, a half circle of brilliant orange.
From somewhere inside the briar she heard the sound of a scream.
Bea rolled up her sleeves and plunged her arms into the mess of branches, ignoring the pain as the thorns ripped at her skin. She closed her eyes, and began to have a very serious discussion with the plant.
Plants don’t really have language – they don’t have mouths or tongues and teeth, so producing words is, understandably, something of an impossibility. But that isn’t to say that they can’t communicate. And Bea was a cabbage fairy, which, while offering her absolutely no status at all in the general make up of fae society, did mean she had the trick of communicating with plants.
And so Bea proceeded to tell the briar, in no uncertain terms, exactly what she thought about its somewhat enthusiastic interpretation of her request to keep the castle and the heroine safe, and that, if it wouldn’t mind, could it please stop killing the hero and basically, right now, retreat back to the rose garden where it belonged.
Days, weeks and years passed while Bea waited for the briar to respond. The sun was little more than a sliver now, hugging the horizon.
And then the briar pulled back, adding a cross section of tiny cuts to the ones already on Bea’s arms. She watched as the branches twisted and turned in on themselves as they retreated back across the castle, her chest heaving as she tried to catch her breath.
The hero was revealed, waving his sword around and thankfully without any serious harm having befallen him or his horse. He hacked at the already greatly diminished briar, a determined and, Bea privately felt, somewhat constipated look on his face. The courtyard cleared and he jumped off his horse and dashed into the tower. The briar returned to the rose garden, and, perhaps by way of apology, started to flower.
Bea dropped heavily to the ground, a cold sweat making her skin clammy, and fixed her eyes on the tower. With every turn the hero made inside the tower she was able to the see him run past the narrow windows. He reached the turret just as the sun went down.
Bea fell backwards, exhaustion and relief flooding her body.
A shadow fell across her.
“What are you doing down here? You should be watching from the hill.”
Bea scrambled to her feet.
The godmother looked her up and down, her lip curling. “You look a state.”
Bea glanced down at her homemade dress. It was covered in tiny thorns and bits of leaf, and one of the patches she had attempted to sew on was coming loose.
“I fell,” Bea said, brushing away some of the worst of the evidence. “From the hill, I mean. Yes. I fell down here.”
The godmother, a pixie, rolled her eyes. “Sleeping on the job, I suppose?”
“No, no, I was just, um-”
“Now, I need you to take this and drop it off with the Indexer at the Grand, if you think you can manage, that is,” the godmother said, shoving a large, leather bound Book into Bea’s arms.
“Please don’t make a fuss. I’ve got a new Plot starting at midnight and I just don’t have the time to get back to Ænathlin, fight my way through the Grand to drop off this Book, and then get back here again.”
“Honestly, I’d have thought you’d want to help, to be given a bit of extra responsibility. Isn’t that what you’re always banging on about?”
“I am, I do,” Bea said.
“Well then, stop gulping at me like a half-dead fish. There’s plenty of others I can find to watch my Plots, you know. I didn’t have to take a fairy on.”
Bea looked down at the Book in her arms, and then over at the rose garden. There was no reason to be worried. Everything had ended the way it should. And they never checked small Plots like this. It was barely a three-acter. “Alright,” she said. “Of course. I’d be happy to.”
“I should think so too,” the godmother said, her expression shifting from one of focused annoyance to a more general exasperation. “You should count yourself lucky you’ve not been accepted to train as a Fiction Management Executive, quite frankly. I’m not a fairy hater, but I honestly doubt one of your tribe could keep up with the work, not if you can’t even stay awake to watch a simple Happy Every After. Right, wait here while I go and do the conclusion, and then you get that to the Indexer.”
She looked Bea up and down, taking in her round, flushed face, her silver hair that never seemed to want to stay in its bun, her badly made dress and the cuts running up her forearms.
“Fairies. You really don’t help yourselves, do you?”
Bea watched as the godmother bustled off to finish the story. And then she looked down at the Book in her arms.
“You’ve got no idea,” she said to herself.
There were a number of things Bea had learnt about travelling by Mirror between worlds, such as not eating immediately before stepping through – at least, not unless she wanted to spend the rest of the day feeling like her stomach was both sickeningly full and painfully empty. Another thing she’d picked up was to carry a sprig of mint to counter the nausea that seemed to go hand in hand with transworld travel.
But life is the kind of teacher that revels in the pop-quiz, and Bea was about to learn a new lesson, namely that the sudden appearance of a short, plump garden fairy in a space already full to bursting point would result in said fairy getting a face full of armpit and wishing she’d held her breath.
Bea had stepped through one of the few remaining Mirrors, leaving the characters’ world behind and entering Ænathlin, the last surviving city in the Land of the Fae. She had also stepped into pandemonium, confusion and, best of all, sweat. No wonder the godmother hadn’t wanted to return the Book herself.
Bea was in the Grand Reflection Station, home of the Mirrors and the commuter hub of Ænathlin. Instinctively she hugged her bag close to her chest, feeling the weight of the Book against her, and joined the queue to get out. She stood on her tiptoes and was rewarded with the ominous sight of a checkpoint barring the exit, causing the bottleneck. The GenAm were out in force, which usually meant something bad had happened.
Or was about to happen.
Pulling at the fleshy arm of a troll lumbering along next to her, Bea said, “Excuse me, do you know what’s going on? Why’s the checkpoint up? Is anyone in trouble – I mean, are they looking for someone? Specifically?”
The troll looked down. For a moment it seemed he wasn’t going to speak to her, but he overcame his initial reaction at being accosted by a fairy.
“You been in Thaiana?” the troll rumbled, not bothering to iron out the look that had creased his face.
“Huh. They can send fairies through, is it? Been picking flowers, have you?”
“I was on official business,” Bea said. “And I’m not a flower fairy.”
The troll snorted. “Fairy’s a fairy. What business?”
“Plot-watching – but it’s still official,” Bea added quickly. “What’s happened?”
“We’ve lost another Mirror. Cracked straight down the middle. Anties.”
“Bloody Anties,” Bea said automatically. “How many Mirrors have they broken now?”
“They won’t tell us. The white suits keep closing sections of the station. Every now and again they bring in a new Mirror, but it don’t seem to make a difference. Reckon they’ll be no Mirrors left soon, and then we’ll be in real trouble.”
Bea frowned. “It can’t be that bad?”
“Well, it ain’t looking particularly good, is it? How old are you?”
Bea pulled herself up to her full height. She realized it might have been a bit more impressive if it hadn’t been a troll she was talking to. “What’s my age got to do with anything?”
“Coz you’re too young, that’s what. You don’t know what it was like, when we nearly lost the Mirrors. You ever seen a siege?”
“Yeah, well, you just better hope you never do. What do you think will happen when we ain’t got no Mirrors to get into Thaiana? When there’s no food to be had? If the Anties keep messing up the Plots, that’s what’ll happen.”
“It won’t get that far,” Bea said. But there was a question in her voice, and she knew it.
The troll shrugged, an action akin to two fat men colliding. “Yeah, well. Better hope so, that’s all I’m saying.”
Bea glanced up at the high, vaulted ceiling of the Grand Reflection Station. Above her were the General Administration’s giant red banners, each repeated every few hundred yards and carrying one of their many slogans:
“The Teller Cares About You”
“Carelessness Creates Crossed Plots”
“Anti-Narrativists Operate In Thaiana”
“The Redaction Department: Protecting Your Safety”
She shivered, for once not just because of the reminder of the Redaction Department – after all, it would be a pretty poor state of affairs if the state weren’t interested in your affairs. But listening to the way the troll talked, it sounded almost as if the GenAm didn’t know how to stop the Mirrors breaking. Which was ridiculous. Ridiculous. The General Administration’s whole reason for being was the Mirrors. Of course they knew what to do.
Nevertheless, Bea felt her grip on the Book tighten until the cover bit into her pudgy fingers. The Book was Bea’s way past the check-point. With it she wouldn’t have to queue up or face being randomly pulled out of the crowd and questioned.
On the other hand, if the GenAm was nervous did that mean they were more likely to check it?...
Bea was being slowly herded towards the checkpoint, and beyond that freedom and fresh air, or at least what passed for both in Ænathlin. If the fae had ever thought of employing canaries to check the air quality of their city, the little birds would have unionised in a wingbeat. She jumped up and down as she walked, looking for the grey-suited Indexer who she had to hand the Book over to, desperate to get rid of it, when something caught her eye.
Just ahead of her was one of the now many defunct Mirrors, a black cloth shrouding it from view, and in front of it a small circle of fae in clean, white suits: Redactionists.
And the crowd was going to push her right past them. In a few feet she would be standing next to the Redactionists.
Bea felt her lungs burning, full with unspent air. Physiology is a strange thing. It holds onto life, when it thinks it’s about to lose it.
The white suits were next to her, talking in hushed urgency.
And then they weren’t anymore.
Nothing had happened.
Bea breathed again.
She glanced quickly around, worried her sudden fright might have been noticed, but no one was paying her any attention. In fact everyone else was staring resolutely ahead, carefully ignoring the white suites. Before she knew what she was doing, Bea shifted herself slightly in the flow of commuters, so she could see over her shoulder. She stumbled a bit, but the Grand was so densely packed she realised she wasn’t going to fall.
The white suits were deep in discussion, only the hard set of their shoulders betraying their intensity. One of them, a blonde imp with a stern face, was tapping her fingers against her hip. She didn't say a word, and yet the other white suits kept glancing at her in the manner of school children who know that the teacher is in a bad mood and just waiting to share it.
The crowds continued to trundle forward, carefully ignoring the intensity of the Redactionists’ dispute. All but Bea, whose eyes were fixed on the blonde Redactionist. There was an air of grim authority surrounding her, so intense Bea could feel it pulling at her, even from so far away. She knew she shouldn’t be staring, but it was impossible to drag her eyes away.
Of course, the Redaction Department would say behaviour like that was dangerously similar to the Anti-Narrativists’.
Bea turned around and scanned the exit for the Indexer. It took her a moment, but eventually she spotted what she was looking for. The Indexers, or the grey suits, always gave Bea the impression that if she were to touch them they would feel cold and clammy. She supposed it was all the time they spent deep below ground in the Indexical Department, sorting and categorizing the Books. The GenAm didn’t like its Books outside the safety of the Index for long, once the Plot was finished.
Bea shoved her way through the crowd, Book held tightly in her arms, until she reached the Indexer.
“Hi, hello, hi,” Bea said, catching her breath. “I’ve got this Book to drop off.” Bea shoved the Book into the Indexer’s hands and turned to leave.
“Wait! Where do you think you’re going?”
“The Book needs to be signed in.”
“Ah. Right. Of course.” Bea said, smiling madly. “Everything’s here, safe and sound, no need to worry about that.” She realised her voice sounded too high, and coughed.
“Worry about what?” the Indexer asked over her clipboard.
The Indexer inspected the Book.
“What’s this?” she said, flipping open the cover.
“I can explain-”
“You’re just the Plot-watcher. Why isn’t the FME handing this in?”
“Oh! She had to go and work on another Plot. But I’m the official Plot-watcher for the story, and-”
The Indexer shut Bea down with a glare, and flipped over the sheets of paper on her clipboard in the manner of one who knows that the whole system would fall to pieces if it wasn’t for them.
“Thanks. Um. So another Mirror’s gone down?”
“The Anties are getting worse?”
“I mean, I hope they catch that Robin Goodfellow soon, huh? Ahaha?”
The Indexer looked at her blankly, and then pointed at the paperwork. “Initial here, here and here.”
Five minutes later and all the paperwork was completed. The Indexer laid the Book in a heavy chest, slammed the lid and locked it. Bea felt her shoulders drop, aware suddenly that she’d been holding them tight. She’d done it. She’d handed the Book in and nothing had happened. It would be sent off to the Index and never seen again. Oh, the Plot would get reused, naturally, but that Book was finished.
And then Bea paused.
She’d handed the Book in, and nothing had happened.
Bea glanced back to the covered Mirror. She should just get out. She was so nearly free and clear.
But the Mirrors were breaking…
Perhaps this time…
“Do you know if the Plot Department are issuing anything?” Bea asked, all good sense incinerated in the white heat of optimism.
“Plots are by recommendation only.”
“I know that, but-”
“If you know that why are asking me?”
Bea stared at the grey, drab gnome in front of her. “It doesn’t matter,” she said, cursing herself for her own stupidity. “I was just wondering. Right. Well. Until next time, then.”
The Indexer looked puzzled. “Until next time then what?”
But Bea had already made her escape into the city.
“What do you think she meant?” the Indexer asked, turning around to her companion, who stepped out of the shadows. He had brown hair and tan skin, the same warm shade as a hunting dog’s coat. He was wearing a well-cut suit and a thoughtful expression.
“She was just saying goodbye. It was rhetorical,” he answered, knowing from experience not to try to explain. The grey suited members of the Indexical Department were not retained because of their understanding of the complexities of social interaction. “Did anything about her strike you as unusual?”
“She didn’t sign her name very clearly,” the Indexer muttered in a tone of voice that suggested that, of all the strange and quite possibly nefarious actions of the fairy, this was the most serious. She passed the offending paperwork to the man.
“Mmm.” He looked up at the covered Mirror and the blonde Redactionist. His eyes narrowed.
He glanced down at Bea’s receipt.
“Buttercup Snowblossom? That’s not actually her name, is it?”
The Indexer sniffed. “It’s a fairy name. She calls herself Bea. I had to adjust the filing system.”
“Bea…” He looked up again at the Redactionist. “Have one of the brown suits bring her in. Tonight. What kind of person stares at the Redaction Department, I wonder?”
The Indexer looked panicked.
“That was rhetorical too,” he sighed.
Bea, unburdened by the knowledge that the General Administration had finally taken notice of her, left the Grand and walked towards the central square of Ænathlin, where the GenAm buildings sat like a headache on the city. She should have gone straight home, but instead she had come the Contents Department and the notices board. She’d pick up a short story, nothing like the last one, and she’d do it by the Book.
No more changing the Plot.
It wasn’t like she’d set out to break the rules. The changes she’d made were only little ones. Nothing serious, nothing that would derail the story. Just a few small – very minor really, when you weighed it all up – tweaks here and there to the Plots she had been watching. Well, at least until the last one. Bea couldn’t deny that asking a rose bush to surround a castle was, perhaps, more than a little amendment.
But it wasn’t like she was an Anti. The Anti-Narrativists’ intention was to stop the Plots altogether and cause the Mirrors to break, thus blocking off all access to Thaiana and destabilizing the city. Seen in that context, it was easy to understand why changing the Plots was one of the most serious crimes anyone could commit. Whereas all Bea had been trying to do was make the Plot better – but it was unlikely the white suits would see the distinction.
The very first time she’d changed a Plot, it had been so small, and it had seemed so sensible, that the significance of it hadn’t registered until long after she’d returned home. When she’d finally put two and two together, she’d fled the city in panic. She’d packed up her meagre possessions, wrapped a thin cloak over her shoulders, and was well out of the city and into the Sheltering Forest before she stopped herself.
She’d stood in the darkness, the threat of orcs, ogres and gnarls ever present outside the walled city, and realised she simply couldn’t do it. She couldn’t run away, not again. She couldn’t fail and prove them all right.
Let the Redaction Department come for me, she’d thought. Better that than slowly falling forwards into her grave, every day watching someone else get their Happily Ever After. Better to be punished for touching the story than to return home and have to explain, have to apologise, have to admit she’d been wrong.
At four in the morning, this kind of thinking always seems logical.
So she’d returned to Ænathlin, and for the next week sat in her apartment, eyeing the door, waiting for the Beast to burst in her room and haul her off to the Redaction Department.
Nothing had happened.
The Beast, the three-headed, dog-like pet of the Teller, hadn’t come. Indeed, until today she’d never even seen a white suit so close.
So she’d had to face a completely different truth: no one noticed because no one cared what she did.
It should have ended there.
But she’d got away with it, so she’d done it again. And again. And then just once more, because it had worked so well the last time. And before she knew what was happening, she’d taken to adding little touches here and there almost without realising what she was doing. But nothing big. Nothing noticeable, not really, not unless you knew what you were looking for.
At least, not until now.
Bea supposed she should for once be grateful that no one was interested in her.
Not exactly cheered-up by the thought, Bea arrived at the central square where the General Administration was located. She darted across the square, carefully ignoring the Redaction block in the centre, to where the notices board stood to one side, hidden in the shadow of the Teller’s spire.
There was a crowd around the notices board. Bea swore under her breath. It was hard enough finding something interesting to watch, but with so many others pushing and shoving their way forward she doubted she’d find anything.
She stood on the edge of the scrum, weighing up her options. It was unusual for so many fae to be picking up Plot-watches. No one liked the tasks, they were underpaid and boring. Hells, Bea only did them because they were supposed to be the best chance of getting recommended to the Academy, where the Fiction Management Executives – including the godmothers – were trained.
“I don’t know why you’re here,” said a sweet voice.
Bea felt a great wave of exhaustion overwhelm her. As if her day couldn’t get any worse. “I’m looking for a new Plot to watch, just like everyone else,” she said, turning to the imp who had appeared next to her.
Carol looked up at Bea, golden eyes flecked with disgust. “Still relying on the notices? How long has it been now?”
Bea didn’t answer.
“Gosh,” Carol giggled, “you were here before I began, I know that. I must say, you fairies are persistent, aren’t you? You’re almost like one of the characters – Believe In Your Dreams And You Can Achieve Anything!”
Bea clamped her mouth shut. She started to walk towards to board, preferring the mass in front of her to the sweet, soft voice of the imp next to her.
“There’s nothing for you,” Carol announced.
And Bea made the same mistake she always made:
“Says you,” she answered, turning back to the imp.
“Why would they give a Plot to you, cabbage-mother? None of the grown-up characters believe in fairies. They’ve got farms and steam engines to run them. Now me, they believe in imps. We’re fun. We’re pretty. They like that,” she finished, smiling smugly.
“Belief’s belief,” Bea said. She had seen the way Carol shuddered affectedly when she spoke the cruel nickname, and hated her even more. “True Love, Rags To Riches. You don’t need to be popular to manage a Plot.”
She sounded confident enough, but Bea knew Carol had a point. Ænathlin was full, and the Mirrors were breaking. The stories created belief, and belief powered the Mirrors. Without the Mirrors the fae had no way to support themselves. The land beyond the Sheltering Forest was a useless desert, ruined in the Rhyme War.
Thus to be a Fiction Management Executive was a great honour, as you were helping the Plots –being an FME meant that you mattered. And if you were a godmother or a witch, you were actually directly involved, interacting with the characters and everything. But the only way to get into the Academy was to be recommend to the Plot Department by another FME of the same type, and so far none of the godmothers had recommended Bea.
“I don’t know why you bother,” Carol said. “You’d do better to work in the markets, importing plants or whatever you garden fairies do. None of the godmothers will ever recommend you. Not like me.”
Bea’s heart sank. “You’ve been accepted into the Academy?”
“Didn’t you hear? I had a meeting with a Plotter two days ago.”
“Oh. Well. Congratulations.”
“Thank-you. Of course, I could recommend you, in time.”
Bea let the kite of hope fly, only for it to be struck by the lightning of Carol’s viciousness.
“I won’t of course,” the imp said. “It wouldn’t exactly help my career to be associated with you, now would it? Hah, ‘cabbage-mother’. I do like that name. I shan’t have time for these little catch-ups anymore. But I’m glad I got to see you today.”
“Yes, I can tell.”
“Now, now. Don’t be bitter. I only stopped to say hello. Well met.” Carol bowed and sauntered away.
Bea looked up at the notices board, her eyes stinging.
Surely nothing else could go wrong?
Dusk settled like dandruff on the shoulders of the night.
The air in Indexical Department, so far removed from anything approaching life, was cold and tasted stale. It hung in little clouds whenever the tall, tan-skinned man from the Grand breathed out. Thankfully, he didn’t need to go far into the Index. The Books he was looking for weren’t important, and didn’t need to be kept hidden, deep in the cold darkness of the earth.
The Index was quiet – not because of the lateness of the hour, but because it seemed somehow to demand silence. The weight of all the Books, stacked neatly in orderly lines for miles and miles, worked to repress any noise foolish enough to venture down here. It was said only the Indexers could find their way around the maze-like aisles of the third department. Once, during the Great Redaction, a group of Anties had apparently tried to break in and steal the Books. The story went that they were still down here somewhere, lost and alone.
The man, his feet tip-tapping softly on the stairs, hated it. He avoided the Index like a gambling addict avoids the tic-tac-tac of the dice table; but, like an addict, he was always, always aware of it: of the pull of the Books, and the darkness, and the silence.
He quickened his pace.
A few Indexers, blinking like moles, looked up from their cataloguing when they heard him, but when they recognised the colour of his suit they went back to their tasks with the urgency of a thousand bees making ready to swarm. The Mirrors were breaking.
Without any discernible change in the shelves that surrounded him, he stopped. He focused, and then turned off the staircase and walked, slowly now, carefully, down a narrow aisle. Shelves of Books towered over him, making him seem small and insignificant.
He came to an intersection, dimly lit and narrow, more rows of shelf-filled aisles spanning out around him.
He closed his eyes.
He turned left.
He was breathing faster now. Little puffs of his breath were visible in the chill air, escaping him like steam from a funnel, chaining him to the world. He stopped in front of a section of shelving that was in design no different from any other. He ran gentle fingers along the spines of the Books, noting that none of the Plots were particularly complex ones, even allowing for the Teller’s enforced simplicity. If he had been so inclined he might have thought this was luck, but he recognised the reassuring predictability of Narrative Convention.
He reached out well-manicured fingers and, tipping the spine, careful not to damage it, selected a Book. He sat on the floor and began to read. An hour later he closed it and stared at the shelves opposite.
After a moment he stood up, and went to find another of the Books Bea had watched.