The Fairy's Tale, Chapter One
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.
She 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 a scream.
Rolling up her sleeves, Bea 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 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 of 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, 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.
Dropping heavily to the ground, a cold sweat making her skin clammy, she 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.
“You look a state,” the newly arrived godmother said.
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,” she 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 Ever 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, fat 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.
She 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 reply, 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. 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. They 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.”
She 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 realised 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. 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 her way past the checkpoint. 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 person to whom she had to hand over the Book, 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 from the Redaction Department, all dressed in brilliant white, glaring beacons illuminating the GenAm’s control, its rule… its ire.
The kind of ire that was always, inexorably, inevitably, directed at those who jeopardised the smooth running of the Plots. And the crowd was going to push her right past them. In a few moments 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 suits. 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, pale green 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 such behaviour was dangerously similar to that of the Anti-Narrativists.
Bea turned around and scanned the exit for the Indexer, the person she had to hand the Book to. It took her a moment, but eventually she spotted who she was looking for. The Indexers, or the grey suits, always gave her 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 categorising 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,” she 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 answered, 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 them all soon, huh? That Robin Goodfellow, who does he think he is? Redact the lot of them, that’s what I say! Messing up the stories! Who would do such a thing? 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 in the Book 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.
She’d got away with it – no one would ever know about the wall of thorns, that she’d changed the story, broken the rules. Broken the rule.
And then Bea paused. She 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.
“Only Fiction Management Executives can run official Plots. You’re just a Plot-watcher.”
“I know that, but-”
“If you know that, why are you asking?”
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.
A tall figure 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.