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 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 woken the heroine with True Love’s Kiss.
She squinted at the tower. 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 returned 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. 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 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 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 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, 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, hugging the horizon.
The briar pulled back, adding a cross section of tiny cuts to the ones already on her arms. The branches twisted and turned on themselves as they retreated back across the castle, Bea’s 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 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, Bea fixed her eyes on the tower, watching the hero 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 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—”
“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. I don’t have the time to get back to Ænathlin, fight my way through the Grand, drop off the 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 are plenty of others who can watch my Plots, you know. I didn’t have to take a fairy on.”
Bea looked down at the Book, and then 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 doubt one of your tribe could keep up with the work load, not if you can’t even stay awake to watch a simple Happy Ever After. Right, wait here while I 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 tatty dress and the cuts running up her forearms.
“Fairies. You don’t help yourselves, do you?”
The godmother bustled off to finish the story.
“You’ve got no idea,” Bea said to herself.
Bea had learnt a number of things 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. Nausea went hand in hand with transworld travel, and Bea always carried a spring of mint in her bag to counter it.
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’d 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.
The Grand Reflection Station was the home of the Mirrors and the commuter hub of Ænathlin. Instinctively Bea hugged her bag close to her chest, 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, but they keep closing sections of the station. Reckon they’ll be no Mirrors left soon. 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 more impressive if she hadn’t been talking to a troll.
“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 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, the General Administration’s giant red banners, repeated every few hundred yards, carried their 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 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’s grip on the Book tightened 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, would they be 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 Indexer she had to hand the Book to, desperate to get rid of it, when something caught her eye.
Ahead of her was one of the now many defunct Mirrors, a black cloth shrouding it from view, and in front of it was 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’s lungs burned, 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. Nothing had happened.
Bea breathed again.
She glanced 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 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 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 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 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.
Coming to her senses, Bea turned back towards the exit, looking for the Indexer. It took her a moment, but eventually she spotted her. 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 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.
“Hi, hello, hi. I’ve got this Book to drop off.” She shoved it 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?”
“She had 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 complete. 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 get out. She was so nearly free and clear.
But the Mirrors were breaking…
Perhaps this time…
“Are the Plot Department 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 weren’t 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 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.