The elves don’t talk about their children. That's because elves have no children.
Taako sweeps himself into the common area of the Starblaster with all the drama and panache that he reserves for alternate Tuesday afternoons. Barry ignores him with all the practice he has from a decade of alternate Tuesday afternoons.
“I’m exhausted,” Taako whines, draping himself across Barry’s shoulders, the sharp point of his chin poking into Barry’s collarbone. “I’ve been up since for-ev-er , working on this dumb transmutation thing for Lulu.”
“Go meditate, then,” Barry says, absently reaching up to pat Taako’s head.
“You know, meditation ? Isn’t that, uh, one of your elf things??” Barry finally looks up from his book, barest hint of a wrinkle in his forehead. Taako shakes his head.
“Never heard of it, homeslice. Musta skipped that day at elf practice.”
“Elf practice, sure.”
They say the elves only take the unwanted children. Leave a baby on your doorstep at sunset and it’s gone by sunrise. The elves will take your children and place mirrors over their eyes so they forget their father’s smile, the color of their mother’s hair, the road back to your doorstep. The elves take your children to the darkest depths of the woods, to their primeval forests only lit by the barest hint of bioluminescent lichen. They leave them there to find their way back to sunlight. It takes a century for the children to find their way out. By then they’ve forgotten how to speak common and they can see in the dark like it is noonday. The elves take your children and feed them honey and starlight, they teach them to sing and they teach them to shoot, they press magic into their limbs so they grow long and elegant, and once they are elves they take away their name and bring them back to the cities.
That’s all lies, of course.
The elves only take the children they want.
The first thing Taako remembers is a larger hand in his, leading him down a forest path. He knows that Lup is holding the big person’s other hand, because he can hear her footsteps going pat-pat next to his own. The other person makes no sound as he moves. He’s an elf, and elves do not make any sound while they move. The elf’s hand is warm. Taako wishes he was holding Lup’s hand instead.
“I wanna hold Lup’s hand,” he says. The elf makes a noise of dissent.
“Sorry, darling. I can’t let either of you go. It’s just a little longer, okay?”
“Where are we going?” Lup asks.
“Home,” the elf says, but he doesn’t say home, he says a word that sounds like it should mean home but it doesn’t. “The two of you are coming home.”
“Why?” Taako asks. It’s a nice day out. It’s nice to walk with Lup, and birds are chirping and if he listens closely he could swear it sounds like speech. He’s never been in these woods before.
“Twins are auspicious,” the elf says, in a voice like summer. “Especially identical ones.”
“We’re not idennical,” Taako says. “Lulu’s a girl.”
“What’s auspishus?” Lup says.
“Auspicious means lucky,” the elf says, looking from Lup to Taako and smiling at them. He’s so pretty, Taako thinks. Taako wishes he could be as pretty. “The two of you are very lucky. You’re coming to live with us. Won’t that be fun?”
The last step for admission to the Institute of Planar Research and Exploration is an interview. Davenport doesn’t really like conducting interviews, but it’s better than paperwork, and his commanding officer had told him that he needed more on-ground time to be considered for that promotion. “Can’t spend all your time in the sky, flyboy,” she had said. Davenport wants that promotion — more missions, greater autonomy, more airtime. Maybe even command.
But first, he has to talk with these recruits for his department. The two he’s talking to today requested to be interviewed together. They made it clear that they’re either accepted as a pair, or not at all. It’s not the strangest request he’s seen, but it’s unorthodox. Davenport is curious. The pair has, between the two of them, the second highest and highest scores that he’s seen on the application exams.
They walk into his office soundlessly, as elves are wont to do. They ruin the silence with a loud “Hey what’s up bossman, how’s it hangin’?” and a “Nice to meetcha.”
They don’t talk the way most elves Davenport knows do. They don’t look around Davenport’s office like its something small and pitiable. Strange. He greets them warmly, and they sit across him.
“Which court are you associated with?” he asks them, because he needs to get that information on file before they start. They hadn’t filled it out.
“No court, my man. We’re free agents,” Taako says, leaning back faux-casual.
“We skipped a lotta elf practice,” Lup quips. “We’re not in any of the courts.”
Davenport frowns. The two elves stare nervously back at him. They’re sitting hip to hip on the wide couch in front of him, all tapping feet and twitching ears.
They’re so young, Davenport realizes. Only young elves’ ears move like that, and never so much vibration as Taako is showing. He watches Lup put a hand on Taako’s shoulder.
Davenport doesn’t remember seeing an elf show any sort of comforting gesture in public.
“That’s highly unusual,” Davenport says.
Lup shrugs, an exaggerated gesture for his benefit.
“We’re highly unusual,” she says. “It’s one of the best things about us. You won’t have any of the courts coming after us if we do somethin’ they don’t like.”
Davenport nods. It’s true. There have been instances where a court recalls one of its members, and the IPRE is left with another highly specialized position to fill. Last spring, Eleana, one of their pilots, was suddenly recalled and they still don’t know if she’s coming back.
“Can I ask why?” he says tentatively. No one knows much about the elf-courts. The high elves, the wood elves, the drow — the factions between them, Seelie and Unseelie, winter, spring, summer, fall. It’s all hearsay — they say that the grand elf libraries have tomes filled with lineages and alliances, which no one but the elves will ever see.
“Toldja,” Taako says, leaning forward. “We skipped too much elf practice.”
Elf practice is:
Someone is screaming and the voice changes pitch halfway through, and —
You blink and you can’t see and you can see and its supposed to be dark oh gods its —
These are not your hands no these aren’t your hands these aren’t —
You’re drinking something and it makes you feel like the universe, like a god, like a —
Singing of a distant choir reverberating and it sounds like religion it sounds like —
The distant muscle-ache, somewhere far away from the press of flesh against your head and —
Say it again, say it again, say it again —
They left you alone. They left you alone and you’ve never been alone no you’ve always had —
Y’know, it’s elf practice.
They’re eating dinner when the truth comes out. Magnus makes a joke and Taako’s ears jump up, and Lup laughs.
“I’m sorry,” Lup drawls. “My brother never learned to hide his feelings. We skipped that day at elf practice.”
“Fuck off!” Taako says, clamping his hands over his ears. “You make fun of blind people, too?”
“No, just my totally transparent li’l brother,” Lup says, flicking a pea across the table. Taako bats it back and it falls on the table. “Who never finished his elf practice.”
“You never finished yours!”
“But I can control my ears,” Lup says smugly. Merle laughs, and Taako rounds on him theatrically.
“Why are you laughing? Elf practice is no joke you know, it’s not like a freaking walk in the park, my dude, betcha wouldn’t be able to handle it.”
“Taako, what are you talking about?” Lucretia asks.
“Y’know, elf practice. Don’t you guys have like, human practice? Dwarf practice? Gnome practice?” Taako asks.
Everyone but Lup is staring at Taako like he’s just said the sky is made of cotton candy. He blinks bemusedly at them.
“Uh, no-o,” Magnus says slowly. “We just...are?”
“Well Maggie, that, that just seems irresponsible,” Lup says. “That explains so much about you.”
“No, go back a bit,” Davenport says, waving a hand at them. “Are you, uh, saying that elves have to learn how to be elves?”
“Cap’nport, what else would I be saying,” Taako says, matter-of-fact. “Of course we gotta learn how to be elves. How else would we be elves?”
“I mean, don’t you just get… born?” Merle says, wrinkling his nose.
“You guys ever see an elf kid? Didn’t think so,” Lup says with a dismissive wave.
“Cynthia, who used to live next door to me, had a half-elf kid,” Magnus trails off. Taako scoffs.
“Half elves are practically human,” he says. “Did they get their hundo years o’ practice in? Didn’t think so.”
“Not like we got ours, don’t be racist,” Lup says.
“Who’s being racist?”
“Wait, so, what is elf practice?” Barry cuts in, leaning across the table involuntarily. Lup shrugs. Taako rolls his eyes.
“We just told you. They take you away and you spend a hundred years doing whatthefuckever, and wham, bam, you’re an elf — unless you’re like me and Lulu and get the fuck outta dodge early.”
“They took you?” Lucretia says, and her voice is small.
“Amari told us we were auspicious ,” Lup says, nodding.
“Why are you guys looking at us like that?” Taako asks, and takes another bite of his dinner. His ears are sticking straight up.
They want Lup and her brother separated, the elves say, because the two of them are different people who will grow to be different elves, her brother is a maker and she is a fighter, they want Lup learning to shoot, they want Taako learning to change. The two of them have magic dripping from their fingertips, the elves say. They want Lup to reach her best potential. They want Taako to reach his. They think that Lup should go to the coast to train with the spellslingers and that Taako should go to the forest and train with the artificers. Perhaps Lup will not see Taako for decades, and who will she be when he sees her again? Who will he be?
Lup can see the shape of her life ahead of her: she grows strong and Taako grows tricky, and that’s not how its supposed to be because he is strong and she is tricky and everything they are is half his and vice versa. Twins are auspicious, someone told them once, but how is she supposed to be lucky if she is not a twin?
Taako tells her that they told him to stop spending so much time with her, and that he told them no, but they have eyes brighter than Lup’s and teeth sharper than Taako’s and the two of them are only half grown, so she whispers to her brother and he whispers to her and then they are —
— sneaking out of their beds in the dark of the night after the revels are over, their eyes reflecting the half-moon.
— the explosion across the clearing that she set, and she’s always liked change but the way that fire dances across the clearing makes her heart hurt.
— her brother leading her by the hand as she looks back, and his ears are twitching and hers are twitching and she remembers when her ears never moved and she can see the forest as if it is bright as midmorning, and she does not remember the road they took to come to the-word-that-does-not-mean-home.
— the caravan-master asking their age, and her saying “A hundred and two,” clarion like a bell, and the two of them aren’t a day above seventy but nobody but elves can tell the age of an elf.
Here is a story that mothers use to frighten their children. It is often called “The girl who did not go to bed” or “The girl who danced with the elves.” Less often, it is called “The hundred years night.” The telling varies by the storyteller, but the story usually goes like this:
Once upon a time there was a little girl who did not want to go to bed. She argued with her mother every night at bedtime. Five more minutes! she would plead, and her mother would shake her head no and tuck the little girl into bed.
The little girl would pout, and then she would close her eyes, and in the morning she would wake up and go eat breakfast with her family.
But one night, after her mother had tucked her into bed, the little girl did not close her eyes. It had snowed the day before, and the moon was so bright and high, and the girl wanted to go outside and play. So she waited with open eyes in her bed until she heard her mother’s bedroom door close. Then she crept out of bed and put on her coat and scarf and boots and went outside to the world brushed in starlight.
Outside, there was an elf. He was long-limbed and his bright eyes reflected the moon and although it was cold, he wore no coat.
Hello, the little girl said, because her parents had taught her manners. The elf smiled.
Hello, the elf said. Would you like to come to a party?
Yes, the little girl said, because a party sounded wonderful, and the elf was beautiful and smiled so kindly. The elf took the little girl’s hand and led her down a path that grew warmer as they walked it, and flowers started to sprout and there was no more snow, and the trees had green leaves.
They came to a clearing in the grove, and in the middle of the clearing were elves dancing. The elves rushed over to greet the little girl, and they congratulated the elf for bringing them such a charming guest. The little girl smiled, and the most beautiful of the elves asked her to dance with her, and the little girl said yes.
She danced all night and she danced all day and the elves gave her cakes and honey and cooed over her curls and her bright eyes. She ate their cakes and honey and the elves swung her around and she laughed, because this was a party and it was a very nice party indeed.
Stay with us, the elves said. You can dance all night and ride all day, if you stay with us.
The little girl shook her head. My mother is waiting for me , she said. And my father is waiting for me, and my older sisters and brothers and my grandmother.
Stay with us, the elves said. We’ll be your mother and father and sisters and brothers, we’ll be your grandmother.
The little girl shook her head a second time. No, I want to go home.
Stay with us, the elves said. We can be your home.
The little girl shook her head, and the elves waved their hands and the trees parted to reveal the road back home. The little girl smiled and thanked the elves, and she put on her hat and coat and boots (which had been carelessly tossed in the revelry) and she went down the road back home.
But when she returned to her home, there was no house, and the trees were old, and there were seven gravestones on which her mother and father and siblings and grandmother’s names were written on. The girl gasped, and she ran to the town, but the town had changed and no one recognized the crying little girl, and she looked at the clocks and she looked at the calendar and she realized that a century had passed.
So she ran back down the path back to the grove and the clearing, where the revels were still swinging, and the elves greeted her with open hands and bright smiles. She told them about what had happened, and they laughed.
Now that there is no one left, so you can stay forever! the elves said. Now you can be an elf with us.
So the little girl stayed, and soon she was no longer a little girl. She was an elf, and she spent her nights dancing below the silver moon, and her days riding under the beating sun, and she grew thin and lovely and her hair bleached to bone-white and she never went to bed ever again.
And that is why little girls must listen to their mothers.
“Do you think our parents wanted us?” Lup says abruptly, plate in hand as she scrubs it in the sink.
“Don’t be a dipshit,” Taako says, shaking his head, taking the clean plate from her. “Elves only take what isn’t wanted.”
“Elves only take what they want,” Lup corrects.
“And we’re elves,” Taako finishes, stacking the dry plate on top of the others. Lup nods decisively.
“Taako!” Amari says, beaming, folding him into a hug. His ears are perfectly controlled. Taako’s jump up in shock. It’s been decades since he’s seen Amari — decades since Lup set fire to the camp. Amari looks the same as the day he held Taako and Lup’s hands and led them down the forest path. Beautiful face, beautiful hair, wearing silk and silver. Taako is wearing a grubby cloak and a satin blouse.
“What the shit are you doing here?” Taako says, too stunned to do anything but hug Amari back.
“Getting a drink! Let me buy you one,” Amari says, gently leading Taako over to a table in the corner. Taako sits stiffly. Amari whisks over to the bar and returns carrying two cups of mead.
“You and your sister, awfully naughty,” he says, winking, as if Taako is twenty and getting scolded for sneaking biscuits. Amari was usually the one who snuck him biscuits. Taako scowls.
“Whatcha gonna do, take us before the court? We’re not part of your games anymore, my man, we’ve defected. ”
“Sure you have, sweetling,” he says. “And you’re still part of our court, love. Do you think they’ll kick you out for something so small? I’ve done worse in my second century, and I’m still here. Please, Taako. You and Lup are welcome back any time. Come to Midsummer’s. Drink your mead.”
Taako drinks his mead, still scowling. It’s the nice stuff. Amari’s always been kind to him. They sit drinking quietly, Amari with a small smile playing at the corners of his lips.
“Why did you take us?” Taako says abruptly. Amari raises his eyebrows. He puts his glass down.
“Twins,” Amari says, “They’re auspicious.” His eyes are luminescent in the bar’s half-light and his teeth are too sharp.
“Don’t give me that bullcrap,” Taako says, leaning forward so that he’s nose to nose with Amari. “That’s, that’s not enough. You had to have a reason, why us ?”
Amari leans back in his chair. He tilts his head, looking Taako up and down, cataloguing his pieces – the pointed ears, the bright eyes, the face so beautiful it could turn armies. He thinks about Lup, her lovely features the same as her brother’s, the way she grinned when she got a spell right. He made the right choice, Amari thinks. He moves forward again.
“I wanted to,” he says, touching the curve of Taako’s cheek softly with the tips of his fingers, smiling tenderly. “Aren’t you glad, darling? You’re an elf, and there’s no better thing to be.”
The kitchen is warm and smells like flour and sugar and soap.
“They have children, here,” Taako says, pouring melted butter into the mixing bowl. “Can you fucking imagine? Children! Elf children.”
“Elves don’t have children,” Lup says reflexively, pulling the vanilla out of the cupboard. “Wait, what?” She whips her head around to stare at Taako, who is looking fixedly at the contents of his bowl.
“They’re not elves like we’re elves,” Taako says, and whisks the batter harder with a glowing mage hand. “It’s fucking weird. ”
“Oh,” Lup says. “I guess that’s good.” She hands Taako the vanilla and he takes it absently. “What’s with the cookies, anyway?”
Taako snorts. “Can’t a guy bake without getting the third degree? Lay off, Lu.”
They work together in silence for a moment.
“Ango’s coming over later,” Taako admits.
“Shut up,” Taako says, without any malice. “Hey Lulu?”
“Ango would make a great elf,” Taako says, quietly, like confession. Lup breathes in. Breathes out. The kitchen is bright and lovely. They picked a really nice spot for their house. It’s nice, to live here with Taako and Barry and the rest of their family. It’s nice to have a family. It’s nice not to have to fight a war.
“He would, wouldn’t he?”
Here is a story that a mother told her children. It has no name.
Once you had two cousins, and they were twins. When they were born, we thought they were both boys but only one was a boy, and the other was a girl. They were identical, and they did everything together. They liked bright colors and they stole trinkets from the marketplace, but when they were scolded they returned them because they were good children. They lived with us before you were born, for one summer. They would have liked you, if they had met you.
Your aunt and uncle miss them very much.
“What were the two of you, uh, before you were elves?” Barry whispers as they lie together in his dark berth on the Starblaster. “Is that insensitive? Maybe I shouldn’t have asked. I’m sor—”
“D’you know?” Lup laughs, cutting him off with an affectionate nuzzle to his face. “I don’t remember.”
Her hands are trembling. Barry takes them in his own.