the academy, chapter one
At a dusty table, in the corner of a dustier pub, a deal was struck.
The customer pulled four GenAm ration tokens out of his satchel and placed them on the table. The Raconteur eyed them greedily, already imagining all the things he could purchase.
“What d’you wanna hear? I know all the greats,” he said, taking the view that the best way to keep the tokens where they belonged, i.e. in his possession, was to give the customer exactly what he wanted.
The customer leaned back in his seat, stretching his long legs out in front of him. “Tell me the one about the cabbage fairy.”
The Raconteur hesitated.
Everyone who lived in the city – even the ones who actually lived under rocks – must have heard the story about the cabbage fairy by now. It was all anyone could talk about, especially here, by the wall. She was a local girl, after all.
But the four ration tokens being offered were the closest he’d come to payment in weeks. He managed to scrape a living telling anecdotes and yarns in exchange for old clothes, a loft to sleep in or bread and beer in one of the pubs. The truth was, selling stories out by the wall was not a lucrative prospect, but he’d always liked the romance of being a Raconteur, even if the reality was decidedly less alluring.
However, the tokens might, potentially, represent a problem. If someone was willing to lay down four tokens, well, that kind of person was obviously very serious about their stories. The kind of serious that might also get seriously angry if they didn’t feel they were getting what they traded for.
Still, with four tokens he could rent a room for a few months, try to set himself up properly. Visions danced behind his eyes… A real dragon’s den, with his name above the door…
The Raconteur reached a decision. He also reached out and grabbed the ration tokens. He half expected the customer to try to stop him, but he just sat there, watching him with those mournful, brown eyes.
The Raconteur set his features and adopted the soft, dreamy lilt of the professional storysell:
“Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin. Once upon a time, there was a lowly cabbage fairy, who dreamed of becoming a Fiction Management Executive – and not just any kind of Fiction Management Executive, a godmother. But all was not well for the cabbage fairy. The General Administration, kind and benevolent in all other things, did not accept fairies to train-”
“Excuse me, but I know all that,” the customer interrupted gently. “Everyone knows how this city feels about fairies, and that despite that the General Administration accepted her into the Academy to train as an FME. Half the city was at the ceremony when the Head of the Plot Department thanked the cabbage fairy for her service.”
The customer’s tone of voice was friendly enough, but the meaning behind his words was clear: Tell me something I don’t know.
“I’m in no hurry,” the customer said, smiling. “Please, take your time.”
The Raconteur found himself relaxing, his body choosing to let go of the tension he’d been holding, without actually bothering to get his brain involved.
There was something about the customer’s smile, something the Raconteur wasn’t used to seeing in the faces of the inhabitants by the wall: friendliness.
“Well, I mean… there are a few stories going round, but they’re nothing worth four tokens. They’re rumours, really,” he admitted. “Gossip.” Later, when the customer was nothing more than a memory, he would wonder why he’d said such a thing.
“I tell you what,” the customer said. “Why don’t you let me be the judge of that?”
“Ahhh, well, yes, alright. That sounds fair. I like to be fair, you know,” he found himself adding.
“I don’t doubt it.” There was that smile again.
The Raconteur cleared his throat, and began again.
“Once upon a time-”
“You really needn’t worry about all that,” the customer said. “Honestly. I’d much prefer to just hear the stories as they are.”
“Oh – er. Right. Yes. Well, you’re the boss. So… well, one thing they’re saying is that she had some help from someone in the GenAm.”
“Do they know who?”
“I don’t think so. But it seems a bit far-fetched, doesn’t it? A fairy doing all that, finishing a Rags To Riches all on her own. Between you and me, it’s caused quite a stir round these parts. Shaken things up, you know?”
“Assume I know nothing,” the customer said.
“Well, you know what fairies are like-”
“Sorry, yes. So, the fairies are making a fuss. Agitating, you know – ahem, that is, they reckon if a cabbage fairy can do it, why not them, too. And, of course, this is making all the other tribes unhappy. No one likes it when the doormat gets tangled under your feet.”
“Ha, yes. You have a way with words.”
For a moment, professional pride overcame him. The Raconteur preened. “Thanks. I’ve always thought so. My mum wanted me to do something else, right? Something more stable, and there’s this troll down our street who runs a stonemasons, offered me a job. But I said no, coz you gotta follow your dream, haven’t you?”
“I couldn’t agree more – I’m something of a follower myself. What else are they saying about the cabbage fairy?”
“Well… They do say that the GenAm arrested her. There were brown suits outside her building for two days, apparently. Though I don’t much hold with that. Whoever heard of the GenAm letting someone off? Plus, even if they had decided not to arrest her, they’d hardly let her join the Academy, would they? But either way, it’s caused a lot of chatter out here.”
“I can imagine. Is there anything else?”
The customer stood to leave.
“I tell you what, though,” the Raconteur said, “She’ll be better off at that Academy than round here. Trouble’s brewing.”
The customer paused. “But the Mirrors are working,” he said.
“Well, yes,” the Raconteur conceded. “There’s some as say we’re gonna be entering a Golden Age. And they might be right, of course – the Teller, whocaresaboutus, knows what he’s doing, don’t get me wrong. But things are changing, and my guess is there’s gonna be a lot of shifting around, a lot of seats being swapped.”
“New masters, you mean?”
“I s’pose so,” the Raconteur said. Funny choice of words, he thought. But tokens talk, and four tokens can talk however weirdly they like. “Still, not much we can do about it, is there? Them up top make the choices, and we have to live with them. S’way of the world, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” said the customer. “Yes, it is.”
A new day grumbled into wakefulness. It was not the only thing in a bad mood.
“Oi! Not so fast!” Ivor shouted.
Bea stopped in her tracks, caught red-footed trying to race across the grotty reception area of the block of flats where she lived.
“Where do you think you’re running off to? Just you march yourself over here, Miss.”
Bea glanced longingly at the exit. It wasn’t often that one thought of Ænathlin fondly. As the last surviving city of the fae, Ænathlin had much in common with the sole toilet at a campsite - everyone used it, though none but the most masochistic of souls could be said to enjoy the experience.
But sometimes the only way to escape a bad situation is to face it head on and try to stare it out, or at least make it so embarrassed it leaves of its own accord.
Bea walked over to Ivor, who was hunched over the reception desk. Two large sacks were propped up against it, which she very deliberately did not acknowledge.
“Hello, Ivor,” she said, her voice sugar sweet. “I’m so glad I caught you – I was worried I wouldn’t get to see you before I left for the Academy.”
She was gratified when the gnome’s mouth twitched in a semi-smile at the outrageousness of her lie.
Technically Ivor was the building manager, though in all the time Bea had lived there she had never actually seen him anywhere else except swaddled up in his oversized woollen coat, sitting behind the reception desk playing solitary games to pass the time.
No, she corrected, that isn’t fair.
Sometimes he sits in the back office, drinking.
Still, despite Ivor’s lacklustre approach to his job, Bea liked him. After all, he had taken her in when no one else would: a cabbage fairy from the Sheltering Forest with nothing to her name except a dream of becoming a Fiction Management Executive, and a godmother at that, hadn’t been a bet any of the other landlords had been willing to take. For whatever reason Ivor had, and Bea was grateful.
That didn’t change the fact, however, that sometimes they did not see eye to eye.
Bea pulled herself up onto one of the stools that fringed the desk, turning slightly so she couldn’t see the two sacks. Ivor had a deck of cards strewn out on the rough desktop. She smiled, recognising the deck. Idly she picked up one of the cards, turning it over.
“What’re you playing?” she asked.
Ivor’s bony hand snatched the card from her. “Never mind that, what’cha gonna do about all this? More of ’em arrived this morning.”
Bea admitted defeat, and finally looked at the sacks of letters. “I can’t believe they’re still arriving. You’d think no one had anything better to do,” she said, trying and failing to defuse the situation.
Ivor snorted. “It’s me that’s got better things to do. S’not up to me to clean up after you.”
“I thought collecting our post was one of your jobs?”
“Don’t go getting smart with me, fairy. It don’t suit you.”
Bea grinned at him, stood up from her chair and walked over to the sacks, reaching her hand in to pull out a large package.
“I wouldn’t open that one,” Ivor said.
It was Ivor’s turn to smile. “It’s squidgy.”
Bea dropped it. “You can’t be…? That’s disgusting.” Now she thought about it, she could detect a certain ‘midden-esque’ smell in the air.
“Hah,” the gnome laughed, showing off his brown and black teeth. “That’s just the voice of the people, that is. Well, I say voice…”
Bea stepped away from the sack. “Mortal gods. This is ridiculous. You’d think I’d murdered a character, not completed a Plot.”
Ivor rolled his eyes. “Come off it. Years you been living here, banging on about how much everyone hates you fairies. You can’t pretend you’re surprised this is the reaction you’re getting. You’ve broken in, ain’t ya? No one likes a burglar.”
“It’s not my fault I’m a fairy,” she muttered. Other things were her fault, she knew. But not that, at least.
“All I’m sayin’ is, you wanted to get yourself noticed and now you have. Take these letters. Some of ’em will be full of hugs and kisses, no doubt. Some of ’em ain’t. That’s what being noticed means. Take it from me, nothing ever ends, happily or otherwise.”
Bea sighed. “You’re right.”
“Too right I’m right,” Ivor agreed, looking smug at winning the conversation. “You wanna play a game?” he added, changing topic with the speed of a weathercock in a hurricane.
“I can’t right now,” Bea said, feeling a pang of unexpected regret. “I’m on my way to see my friends.”
Ivor shrugged. “Suit yourself. Don’t forget to take that package with you – don’t see why I should have to put up with the stink, thank you very much.”
Bea managed a weak smile and grabbed the soft package between pinched fingers. Success definitely wasn’t what she’d hoped it would be.
“Wasn’t it wonderful?” Joan sighed, her eyes glazed.
Joan was a house fairy, small and slight boned, and a little beer went a long way. And she had consumed more than a little beer. As a result, she was now having trouble focusing.
Or rather, Bea corrected herself, Joan was having trouble focusing her eyes; her conversation, on the other hand, had remained determinedly fixed on the Royal Wedding they had attended a few days ago, the grand finale to the Plot she had completed.
Melly, a red-haired elf, raised an eyebrow. “Wonderful,” she agreed dryly. “All that pomp and ceremony? Who wouldn’t enjoy it?”
“Oh shut up,” Joan grinned. “I saw you having fun, you know. Bea saw you too, didn’t you, Bea?”
Bea held her hands up, narrowly avoiding knocking over her glass of wine. This took a lot more skill than might initially be apparent. Their table, situated in a corner of the type of pub that would consider spit and sawdust to be showing off, looked like a battle was being fought between two opposing armies.
It was obvious already who the victors would be.
The empty glasses had taken control of the field, their troops amassing in greater numbers around the perimeter, while the full drinks were fighting a losing stand from the centre. With all the inevitability of war, it was clear they would soon be joining their fallen comrades, only to be replaced by younger troops.
“Don’t get me involved,” Bea said. “It’s my last night here before leaving for the Academy, I don’t want to spend it sitting in judgment over whether Mel had fun or not.” She took a sip of her drink. “Although you clearly did, Melly.”
The elf glared at her, but Bea knew Melly well enough to know she was trying to mask a smile.
“I might have enjoyed it. In parts,” Melly admitted.
“Esh’pesh’ly that part where you were dancing on the table,” Joan said.
“I think everyone enjoyed that part,” Bea added.
“Well,” Melly said, “I wanted to blend in. It was a wedding.”
Joan stifled a burp. “I know what we should talk about. S’more important than Melly dancin’ on tables.”
Melly feigned puzzlement. “What’s more important than me dancing?”
“Bea,” Joan said, waving her hand enthusiastically at Bea, “Is wearing a new dress. And, I reckon, because it’s still in one piece, it’s one she had made. I’m right, aren’t I? Bea? Bea? Bea? Or should I say, Miss Godmother!”
Bea fiddled with the sleeves of her grey dress, silently cursing the fact that when you owned so little, everything new was noticeable.
“I thought I needed a change. A fresh start, a new me, that kind of thing. I was thinking I might even let the grey dye grow out of my hair – you know, get back to my roots. Ahaha. And there’s this meet-and-greet thingy tomorrow morning, before we leave for the Academy. I want to make a good impression. Make friends. Influence people.” Bea coughed, aware she was babbling.
Melly stared at her. And then she shook her head, obviously deciding that now wasn’t the right time to say what was on her mind. Instead, she reached into her sleeve and pulled out a slim onyx case. She opened it up and extracted a thin, black cigarette, which she lit and drew on deeply.
Bea felt the whole activity was done with very pointed and over-the-top exactitude, but she didn’t say anything, either.
“It’s amazing, really,” Joan said, the beer apparently making her oblivious to the sudden atmosphere between Melly and Bea. Or possibly she was choosing to ignore it. Growing up in a large family, Joan was used to what she called ‘friendly disagreements’. “You’re goin’ to the Academy! All your dreams comin’ true – the firs’ fairy to ever be accepted to train! I never thought I’d see the day when the GenAm recognoged, no, no, I mean, recognished a fairy.”
“Yup, that’s me,” Bea said, pasting a smile onto her face. “Cabbage fairy made good. Well almost, anyway. I’m not actually a Fiction Management Executive yet. For some reason I have to finish the training before I can call myself that.”
Joan’s eyes were beginning to cross. “You’ll finish,” she said, “And then you’ll become the best godmother ever, and then, then, after that, you’ll be a Plotter too, and then Narrator.”
“Woah, woah," Bea laughed, aware Melly’s eyes were still on her. "I just want to keep my head down and get through training. I’m not going to cause any trouble. Not like last time.” She wondered if she’d said that for Melly’s benefit or her own.
“No, no, no,” Joan said, shaking her head vigorously. “That’s not right at all. I know you’ll do something amazing, Bea. You will. You’re gonna fall in a mystery or, or, or solve a love. You’re gonna do a’nother Rags To Riches, or one of the Hero Quests. You’re not gonna sit around like some sitting around fairy. You’re stubborn. You’re nosy. You’re-”
And with that Joan’s head hit the table, the beer suddenly getting the better of her.
Bea reached across to check on her friend. “It always surprises me how quickly she goes when she goes. There’s never any warning.”
Melly drained her glass of red. “I don’t think she gets any warning either. Let’s get her home. And then you and I need to have a talk.”