The Fairy's Tale, Chapter Two
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 to 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 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 into her room and haul her off to the Redaction Department.
Nothing had happened.
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 by the thought, she 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, her golden eyes, bright against her green skin, 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 the 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 recommended by an official FME, and so far none 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 cabbage fairies do. No FME will ever recommend you. Not like me.”
Bea’s heart sank. “You’ve been accepted into the Academy?”
“Didn’t you hear?”
“Oh. Well. Congratulations.”
“Thank you. Of course, I could recommend you, once I’ve graduated.”
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, tanned 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 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 his senses, 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.