The first thing I do after my week of mourning is go to work.
There are jobs for faeries in the mortal world. There are even jobs for people who are faerie-adjacent, like me. I pick up a few here and there, to keep busy. But it’s important for me to have a normal, mortal job, so certain interested parties will think I am living a normal, mortal life. That I am not planning plans, or scheming schemes. That I am resigned to my fate. I am more than willing to be underestimated.
Besides, I don’t want to be indebted to Vivi, even though she says it’s fine and we’re family. Maybe it’s old habit, but I don’t want to owe her too much. Even though I know it doesn’t matter. Even though I know she doesn’t care.
The difficulty comes in finding me a job that doesn’t require a high school diploma or resume that also won’t make me want to kill everyone around me. Vivi says that waitressing is right out. I say she underestimates my acting abilities. She says the second some gross middle-aged man snaps his fingers to summon me I’ll do something rash and draw the sort of attention I don’t want.
She’s probably right.
Eventually, I am set up working irregular hours at a shop that sells comic books and tabletop games and Magic cards. I don’t know anything about comic books, or tabletop games, or Magic cards, which aren’t magical at all, but I can figure out how to work the iPad that serves as a cash register, and that’s enough. I get a phone so I can be texted and pick up two or three shifts a week, mostly on weekday mornings when the shop is dead and all the other workers are busy. That’s a convenient thing about me— these days, I am always available on short notice.
The shop is owned by a bearded, jovial man named Kevin. He pays me for my shifts in crisp twenties, fresh from the bank, and asks very few questions. He is human, but Vivi knows him somehow. All I know is that she makes our introduction and doesn’t step foot in the shop again. I look around at the posters on the walls, at the shelves and shelves of comic books, at the stand which boasts some zines by local artists, and wonder if Heather ever came here, if she introduced Vivi to this place. If this is where they met.
I get an answer a week and a half into my tenure, mid-way through another shift where I count cash and watch terrible shows on the shop TV. The bell over the door rings, and I mute the television then turn to the door to see Heather walk in. Her hair is still pink, nails still splotched with black ink. She’s wearing a backpack and holding a small stack of comic zines in her hands. When she sees me at the register, she stops in her tracks and her eyes widen. A deer about to bolt.
“Wait,” I call, before she can walk out the door. “Vivi’s not here. It’s just me.”
Heather chews the inside of her cheek. I can tell she doesn’t trust me, but she shouldn’t have to abandon a place she likes just because I’m here. That’s stupid.
After a minute of deliberation, she approaches the counter with caution. “I thought you lived over there.”
“I’m here for now.”
“It’s a long story.”
She softens a little. Maybe it’s something in my tone. “Tell me about it.”
I want to be the person who does. I want to be the person who opens up to a near-stranger who was once almost family, because she doesn’t know me and won’t judge me. I want to cry on her shoulder and let her tell me it’s going to be okay. Maybe it will make my chest feel less hollow, my shoulders lighter.
Instead, I shrug. “Politics.” And then, for reasons I don’t understand, I add, “Men.”
Heather rolls her eyes on my behalf. “Cishet men are the worst. I’m glad I don’t have to date them.” And she smiles at me, as if that is a combination of words I am supposed to make sense of.
“Sure,” I reply. She’s probably trying to sympathize with me. “But girls come with their own problems, right?”
“Yeah.” She frowns. “Some more than others, but, yeah.”
I wasn’t trying to make her think of Vivi. “She didn’t mean any harm,” I say, knowing that it’s true, even if I’m not sure that really matters. I think I’ll manage to sleep fine at night if I defend Vivi to Heather and Heather to Vivi. I believe my sister did more wrong, but I know Vivi loves Heather sincerely. She hasn’t been exactly the same since Heather moved out. “She just doesn’t get it. She doesn’t know what it’s like to be a mor— a human over there. She never had to learn.”
Heather looks uncomfortable for a moment, then says quietly, “She should have done better.”
“She should have,” I agree. “I’m sorry she didn’t. But I should have been looking out for you, too. There was just—”
Oak. The Undersea. Locke and Taryn. Madoc.
“There were many things happening at once,” I finish lamely.
Heather gives me a strange look. “Um, yeah. You got kidnapped.”
I don’t like to think about the missing month that I spent in the Undersea, hopeless, helpless, despairing. Remembering puts me back on the ocean floor with water in my lungs. Belatedly, I realize it would have been a much better lie to say I was sent here to recover from my ordeal. “I’m fine now,” I say quickly. “I’m here, aren’t I?”
This does not seem to persuade her in any direction. “Is that one of the things that just happens over there? Do people just get kidnapped by mermaids?”
“No. That was… new.” I nod at the comics in her perpetually ink-stained fingers, eager to change the subject. “What are those?”
“Oh!” Heather exclaims, as though she’d forgotten them. “These are mine. They let me sell them here sometimes, on the zine shelf. I was hoping to talk to Kevin…”
“He’s out this morning. I’ll take them for now.” I hold out my hands and make sure to handle the comics with care when she passes them over. Out of curiosity, I ask, “What do you sell them for?”
She shrugs. “Like ten bucks. If I were trying to make money, I’d do something else. But this is what I love. It’s just cool to make something someone can hold in their hands.”
There’s a thing about the mortal realm and following your bliss. Doing what you love. It must be nice to be able to do that instead of what it takes to survive.
Heather is looking at me again. “Hey, Jude,” she says a bit dreamily, as though she’s lost in thought. “How old were you when you moved there?”
Moved there. Vivi never bothered to explain that either. My irritation stings. “Seven.”
“Has anyone ever bothered to teach you how to be a person in the real world?”
My world is as real as yours, I want to say. But I know what she means. “No, but I’m a fast learner. It’ll be fine.”
“I can help,” Heather volunteers.
I blink at her slowly, convinced I’ve misheard. “What? Why?”
She shrugs. “You were nice to me when I needed it.”
I am a lot of things. These days, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who would call me nice. I feel a little squeamish, like I have told a bald-faced lie, even though I haven’t.
“I am human, though,” I protest. “I’m sure it’ll all come back to me.”
Heather looks me over, then looks around the shop. Her eyes alight on the TV. “Do you even know how to change the channel on this thing?”
“Uh, no,” I lie. Let her think that’s why Keeping Up With The Kardashians reruns are being broadcasted in a nerd shop. Not because I find watching rich beautiful people be horrible inherently comforting. Familiar. “There are so many buttons.”
Heather sighs. “The world’s changed a lot since 2008, Jude,” she says. “Let me help you out.”
How often have I wanted to hear those words from someone? How often have I balked at them, wary of invisible strings? Heather doesn’t know how good I am at biting the hands that feed me. But she is also human, and doesn’t assume that I’ll be in her debt if I accept. She doesn’t expect anything in return for her help.
In fact, she thinks she’s paying me back.
“Okay,” I say. “Teach me how to be a person.”
The job is the first thing. The second thing I do is take some of my earnings and join a boxing gym.
I am keenly aware of how outmatched I was against Madoc at Cardan’s coronation. Training Oak in swordplay won’t be enough, nor will sparring my own reflection. I can’t fight Cardan in the way that matters with my fists alone, but when I make my return to Faerie, I will probably have to fight just about everyone else.
And if I picture his face anyway and strike a little harder, who’s to know but me and the punching bag?
So I ride the bus to the gym, to trade my twenties for a membership and equipment. There I learn that human fighters are careful in a way that faeries aren’t. I am reckless with my body. They are not. I learn how to wrap my mortal hands so the bones in them don’t shatter. I am given posture corrections so that I don’t sprain or twist anything. I wear padded gloves for punching.
The first time I am matched with another girl to practice crosses and jabs and blocks, she aims just to the side of my head. I aim for her face, and she doesn’t block me fast enough. My glove connects with her nose, and she reels back, clutching at it with her own padded hands. Tears spring up in her eyes, but it’s not broken.
I apologize to her, but only once. She won’t learn to block if she doesn’t learn the consequences of not blocking. But she doesn’t look at me again, and then she’s paired with someone else.
By the second week I am told to only come to the intermediate and advanced sessions in the late afternoons. So I do.
One of the instructors asks me where I learned to fight. I say my father taught me. It isn’t a lie. Madoc would be proud of how even some of the men twice my size are reluctant to spar with me now. But it isn’t the entire truth, either. I am what he made me, but more than that, I am what I made myself.
I wonder if someday I won’t become a tale that faerie mothers tell their children at night: behave, or the mortal Queen will get you.
When I’m packing up one afternoon, I catch my reflection’s eye in one of the mirrors. She is haunted and hungry, a phantom girl. I don’t know her. But the look, I know well.
My human lessons with Heather continue weekly. She asks me to keep her confidence, and I do. I don’t tell Vivi that I see her. I tell myself that Vivi knows anyway, which may or may not be true. She does seem suspicious of how quickly I begin acclimating all of a sudden.
The truth is that I like Heather a lot, and I am a little angry with Vivi for scaring her away. Anger makes me vindictive. Heather and I might have been sisters. With Taryn on our father’s side, I could use another one of those.
We come up with better lies for me, a new biography. Instead of saying I was homeschooled, I say I went to a small private school with a bunch of rich kids, whom I hated. I say I never graduated, but have been working since, and plan to get my GED soon. I say I used to live with my strict adoptive dad, but decided to move in with my sister to get away from all of that. All of these lies have kernels of truth, which makes them easier for me to spout and people to swallow. They make me seem like a person who understands how this world works.
Heather turns out to be into fashion; she’s a student of various Instagram feeds, finding inspiration in them for her drawings. She brings me a copy of one of her earlier zines, with girls of all shapes, sizes and colors in all kinds of different clothes. I point out the pictures I like best, and she sketches up outfits for me. I remember when Taryn designed me a wardrobe and then used it to impersonate me when Cardan was vulnerable. I remind myself that Heather has no agenda other than being nice.
Besides, Heather knows the secret language of human clothes in a way that I do not. She says that I seem like a steel-toed boots person, but am probably actually a black Converse person. I don’t know what any of that means, but I think that if she knew me at all, really knew me, she would go for the steel-toed boots. But every week she sends me off with a shopping list that I take to thrift stores: skinny jeans with rips at the knees, A-line dresses to flatter my figure, knit sweaters for when the weather really turns cold. Bold colors and simple patterns; nothing too busy, everything easy to mix and match.
I even find a leather jacket that fits me like a second skin, and fashion a knife holster for a small Bowie knife to wear on the waistband of my jeans. I feel a little like myself again.
Slang and pop culture are bigger subjects to tackle. Every week I note down words I hear and don’t understand so Heather can translate them for me. I study them until I know most of them well enough to use them in proper context, although I’ll probably never grasp exactly what a “yeet” is.
Since I’m only planning to be here for a short while, Heather comes up with a solution to my conversational woes: if I can pass myself off as nerdy to most people, they’ll forgive me for not knowing pop culture, and if I can pass myself off as mainstream to the nerds, they won’t think I know much obscure geek trivia. The resulting band of things I “need to” need to by her estimation is fairly slim, and I have a lot of it covered by my unfortunate fascination with the Kardashians, but not all.
For example, Heather is scandalized that I haven’t read Harry Potter, and have only seen a couple of the movies. But the first book had only just been placed in my hands when I was seven, and I was spirited away to Faerie shortly after. When I tell Heather this, she temporarily forgets all about Harry Potter and insists that I watch the animated film Spirited Away instead. She manages to dig up a copy on DVD, and sends it home with me.
Oak and Vivi and I watch it on Vivi’s old laptop that night; Vivi narrows her eyes when I produce the movie, but doesn’t ask where I got it. We watch as a girl is separated from her family, as she finds herself in a fantastical world filled with mostly unkind, unempathetic spirits, as she makes impossible bargains and is forced to labor at a bathhouse. I sit, silent and still, even as Oak cackles and gasps and cackles again; he finds it all very funny, especially when the parents turn to pigs. He doesn’t see the horror, but he wouldn’t.
I leave before the end. I know why Heather thought I would like it, and I know that Heather doesn’t know me very well. In that story, the little girl may be out of her depth, but her tenacity and human compassion aid her; she never lets the cruelty of the world in which she’s found herself mold her and make her cruel. I already know how her story goes.
Girls like Chihiro get to go home.
I know I am being followed everywhere I go, but it takes me a few weeks to actually catch a spy.
The one I apprehend rides the bus line I take to and from the boxing gym. The first time I see her, she is wearing a white button-down shirt, a blue blazer, and a plaid skirt that drapes over her knees, as if trying to convince everyone around her that she is a student, as if that explains away the glow and vitality. There is some human blood in her—even though I can see through her glamour just fine, her ears are not as round, features not as delicate, as a full-blooded faerie. She has her nose in a calculus textbook and ignores me from the back of the bus with a little too much eagerness.
I pretend not to see her and let her get comfortable. She gets off at my stop and slyfoots well enough behind me for me to nearly forget that she’s there. When I am in safely in Vivi’s apartment, she walks to the end of the street and disappears around the corner.
The next time I take the bus, she is there, reading The Canterbury Tales and pointedly not looking at me. Again, I give no indication that I see her. Again, she follows me off the bus and trails me until I am home.
The time after that, I enter Vivi’s apartment and wait for her to pass, then slip silently out the door and trail her around the corner. She doesn’t hear me as I approach her, continuing along whatever pre-established route had been agreed upon for her. Her day is over. She is likely going to report to whatever master she has.
I have two options: I can wait for her to make her report and find out who her master is, or I can ambush her now and alter that report before she makes it. It’s not as though she can lie to me.
I am restless. I choose option two.
When I am within arm’s reach of her, I reach out and yank her back by the collar of her blazer, then slam her up against the nearest tree. My free hand goes to my knife, which is out of its sheath and against her throat before either of us can blink.
“Senes—” And then she stops herself, because that’s not right anymore and she has no idea what to call me. That’s fine. I don’t, either. “My lady,” is what she settles on, for although I may be a murderer and an exile, I am still Madoc’s daughter and a member of the Gentry. I think.
“Who sent you?” I demand. No time for courtesy. No time for games. The neighborhood is a little darkened at twilight, the shadows longer, but this also tends to be when people are out walking dogs, and I don’t want to be seen.
“My lady, I am of the Court of Shadows.”
Her eyes are wide. She’s green. Apparently, I am not a difficult assignment. I don’t know whether I’m meant to be insulted or suspicious. “I don’t know you,” is all I say.
“I joined after your—” She pauses, unsure of the delicate way to refer to my abduction at the hands of the Undersea. “Disappearance.”
“To whom do you make your reports?”
“The Roach, my lady. When he comes to return the human laborers to their beds.”
That squares with my knowledge. I once accompanied the Roach on such a mission, a lifetime ago. “Then tell him I’m fine,” I say, and my hands don’t shake even though my voice might. “Tell him I’m living my most mundane mortal life. That I’m healthy and well. And tell him only that.”
A very petty part of me wants to tell her that she should say that I am kissing many people and not thinking of Cardan ever. But I restrain myself.
“That’s not enough,” says the spy. “He’s going to know you found me.”
I release her blazer, but keep the knife on her. She hasn’t made any move to resist me, which makes me certain that she is under orders not to engage. “I’m sure he’s counting on it. Swear. I haven’t asked you to repeat any falsehoods, have I?”
She seems uncomfortable, but says carefully, “I swear to repeat it.”
“And say nothing more,” I press.
“And say nothing more.”
I slide my knife back into its sheath. “Best be on your way. I wouldn’t want you to miss your rendezvous.”
The spy tries to give me a glare and brush off her borrowed mortal uniform with dignity, but she is clearly shaken. Good.
I wait for her to disappear out of sight before walking back to Vivi’s place. That night, I sneak out of the apartment and make my way to the place where the Roach and I once brought a magical boat ashore, laden with human cargo. From a distance, I see the spy make her report. And I see the Roach laugh. He asks her a few more questions, to which she either nods and shakes her head, which I did not explicitly forbid her from doing. Then he sends her on her way.
I really should have told her to say the thing about kissing. Maybe it would have soured Cardan’s mood.
But I was right about this being a test. Not a particularly difficult one, but a test all the same.
Throw something else at me, I think as I creep back to the apartment, alert to every single sound. I’m itching to show you all that I can do.
Faeries have no need for fantasy. Everyone who comes into the shop when I am working is painfully mortal. The times I work afternoons or evenings I bear witness to a few tabletop roleplaying games, where the players escape from lives pretending to be wizards or dwarves or elves. I have to give it to them—they have more imagination than most of the Folk I’ve met, even if they don’t know their swordplay or their poisons.
I can’t help but eavesdrop on their games from behind my counter. It’s a rare opportunity to observe other people who are roughly my age, to see how I might act. This is a very specific type of playacting, though: putting on voices and verbally spelling out the things their characters do, determining the outcomes of events with the rolling of many different die. It is nigh impossible for me to remember the rules without asking questions, so I don’t.
But I do chime in occasionally. It always startles them to remember that I am there.
“Fourteen,” says Carey.
“That’s a hit,” says Jake, the dungeon master, a tall guy with curly hair and glasses. He has clearly never seen the inside of an actual dungeon. “You stab the orc. Roll for damage.”
“Where are you stabbing him?” I ask, curious, as she takes out one of her oddly-shaped die and drops it on the table.
“Where do you normally stab people?” Carey asks rhetorically. She waves a hand in front of her torso. “This general area. Anyway, four points of damage.”
“You need to know where you’re putting that knife, then. You’ll just scrape a rib if you’re not careful. Or if you’re holding the blade wrong.”
I am the recipient of a few bemused stares.
“Well,” I say with a little exasperation, “that’s what ribs are there for.”
“This is a lot,” Carey says.
“She’s right, though,” says Jake. “Roll a d20 again. Let’s see what happens.”
“Are you serious?” Carey turns her stare on him, for which I am grateful. “We’ve never done that before!”
“Yeah, but that was before we had Jude—” Jake falters. “What’s your last name, Jude?”
“‘Jude Duarte, Master Assassin’ in our midst.” He grins at me.
One of the other guys, whose name, I think, is Enrique, says, “You should get that on a business card.”
They have no idea.
Sighing, knowing she’s not going to win this argument, Carey picks up the die with twenty sides and rolls it. “It’s a six,” she says glumly.
“Yeah, you definitely hit a rib,” says Jake, and then he looks at me. “Half damage?”
“Sure. And you’ll piss off the orc.”
He laughs. “Okay. Two points of damage and one pissed-off orc, coming right up.”
“I’m only stabbing people in the thigh from now on,” Carey mutters.
“There’s an artery in the thigh,” I point out. “You might get lucky.”
“How do you know this stuff?” Enrique asks.
The lie Heather and I agreed on springs easily to my tongue. “I write fantasy,” I say. “So I do a lot of weird research.”
No one questions me, although some of them probably think I’m a serial killer anyway. As long as they don’t suspect the truth: that I am from another world.
When the store is dead and I don’t have anything to do, I pull out some unsold trades and flip through them. Superhero stories weren’t ubiquitous when Vivi, Taryn and I disappeared from the mortal world, but they are now. It doesn’t take me too long to learn them, though. They’re just what comes after the fairytales. Men who make bargains with gods or science and find themselves with gifts that always have a catch. Kings who gain superhuman powers when they assume the throne. Orphan girls taken from their beds and raised to be killers and spies. My stories.
And through all those hazy days, all those other stories, Heather’s zine calls to me from the zine shelf. I know it’s a bad idea to open it, even though she put her comics out, publicly, to be sold. The cover is black except for a little white drawing of what looks like Tinkerbell, from the Disney Peter Pan. That’s enough to keep me away.
But during a particularly slow morning shift, I cave, even though I know what I’m going to see.
The title page tells me that these are “Adventures in Fairyland.” The pages mostly contain individual scenes: a girl from behind, facing a dark forest, a maze with no clear beginning or end, giant toads with reins. A few detail the story of a girl who gets turned into a cat. Unlike Heather, she transforms fully, shrinking to kitten size, running around through shrubs and between the legs of partygoers until someone picks her up. But the story ends there, without her ever being changed back.
And then the likenesses. Heather’s style borders on caricature—wide eyes, big heads, small noses, slim limbs—but everyone is clearly themselves. There’s Vivi, rendered lovingly and terrifyingly in a few different poses, her inhuman features exaggerated, her teeth sharpened. She is beautiful in a way I don’t entirely recognize, in a way that I know Heather must see her.
Then little Oak with his horns, grinning in one image, clutching a hand, presumably Oriana’s, in another. Taryn and I in our human costumes, then as we were the day of the wedding: Taryn beautiful and glowing in her wedding gown, on the arm of a fox-man, Locke’s animal characteristics overpowering the rest of him; me in Oriana’s borrowed silver gown with Nightfell strapped to me. Taryn looks soft and innocent, the virgin sacrifice. There is something about my likeness that has a very sharp edge.
Then Madoc and Oriana, the odd couple, opposites in almost every way. Other wedding guests, including some of the Folk who must seem strange to her: pixies with jewel-toned skin, the faun musicians, scampering imps. And then Cardan.
I wouldn’t think Heather would find him worthy of drawing, but then again, he is the King of Faerie, and she has portrayed him as such, regal and handsome and unearthly. His black hair curls below his ears. The crown is on his head. The sketch of him is black and white, but I know the scarlet cloak he wears.
I steel myself and turn the page, ready to be rid of him, only to find him again. On the next page, Heather has drawn him looking at me as I walk away, presumably going with Ghost to the site of my abduction. I don’t know that he has ever looked at me that way. Maybe Heather has drawn what she wants to see. Maybe Heather is a big soft romantic.
There are more sketches yet, but I close the zine. I want to throw the thing into the trash. Instead, I calmly walk over and set it back on the shelf, as though someone is watching me. No one is, as far as I can tell, but sometimes it doesn’t hurt to pretend.
This is the shape of my days: wake up, go to work, go to boxing, go home, drill Oak in swordplay and help him with homework. And plan. Always plan.
The rhythm is not one that I would call comfortable. But it is predictable. It is monotonous. There are no surprises. It is all I can do not to be lulled into a false sense of contentment.
One day, I come back from work to find Vivi and Oak seated at the kitchen table, waiting expectantly for me.
“What is this?” I ask, toeing off my shoes by the door, feeling prickly. It seems suspiciously like an ambush.
Then I notice the small round cake sitting between them, the two candles burning, a white, waxy one, a blue polka-dotted eight.
“Happy birthday,” Vivi says, grinning at me.
I stare at her.
“We got cake!” Oak exclaims. He has a party hat on his head, slanting precariously between his horns, and he grins at me.
“It’s ice cream cake,” Vivi adds. “Get over here before it melts.”
I do. I sit in the third chair, and don’t explain to her that I’d forgotten my birthday. Not the date, and not that my birthday fell on it, but the concept of my birthday at all. It’s been so long since I’ve celebrated one with ice cream cake and candles.
“You know the happy birthday song, right?” Vivi says to Oak, who grins widely in response. He’s probably had to sing it for other kids at school. I wonder how puzzled his first teachers were at him not knowing it. “Okay, count of three. One, two…”
They start singing, Oak in his high warbly child voice, Vivi with more confidence and less of a sense of pitch. I want to sink into the floor, but I endure it.
When the song is over, Oak reaches for the cake with his hand, but Vivi intercepts him before he can so much as smear the icing. “Uh-uh,” she says. “Jude has to blow out the candles and make a wish first, remember? And she’s the birthday girl, so she gets the first bite.”
Oak pouts for a second. I understand. There are so many rules to remember. Then he brightens again, and implores me, “Make a wish, Jude!”
I wonder if he thinks my wish will come true. I don’t have the heart to tell him it’s just one of the ordinary, everyday magicks mortals put faith in. When I blow out the candles, my eyes are squeezed tightly shut.
We all know what I wish for.
Vivi informs me that eighteen-year-olds don’t marry in the US unless they’re religious or pregnant. As I am neither, my husband isn’t here, and he only wed me to trick me into relinquishing power over him, she suggests I proceed as though we’re already exes.
“Faeries don’t have a good grasp on monogamy anyway,” she informs me, as though I could forget. “You don’t think he’s—”
“No,” I say coldly. “I don’t.” Mostly because I try not to think about what Cardan might be doing in my absence, or whom. It’s not my concern. It never was. He has plenty of courtiers to warm his bed, not to mention Nicasia, now ambassador of the Undersea. She would be a likely volunteer, and he was strangely eager to keep her around.
“So forget him,” Vivi says, as though it’s the easiest thing in the world. “Go on dates. Kiss boys you don’t like. Or girls. Be a teenager, Jude, at least while you’re here. Figure out who you want to be.”
I know who I want to be. I knew her for hours before she was snatched away from me.
But I don’t argue. Having any fun in the mortal world feels impossible now, but if I’m able to pull it off I’ll spite Cardan in a way he would never imagine, the first coup of many. So I let Vivi swipe through my newly-acquired phone and arrange dates for me. It makes her happy. Who am I to deny her happiness?
The first date is a disaster. I match with a guy who seems all right over text messages. In person, over dinner at a Mexican restaurant, we have nothing to say to each other. We eat chips and salsa, I dully spout my rehearsed lies, and he asks no follow-up questions. He talks about cars and stares at not my face. My burrito tastes like nothing. When we leave, he asks if I want to go home with him.
I turn him down in a way that leaves no room for misinterpretation.
The second one is with a girl, to Vivi’s great delight. Between Locke, Cardan, and that last guy, men haven’t exactly given me a lot to like, and it’s not as though I have anything against girls. This girl is pretty, taller and a little broader than me, with blonde hair in what’s called a “pixie cut,” which is silly, because pixies wear their hair every which way. She’s home for the weekend from college, where she plays something called “rugby,” one of those mortal sports that involves tackling each other into the mud. She likes that I box.
She’s nice, and very normal. I think, had I been raised here, maybe we could have been friends. But there’s nothing else there, and we part with a painfully awkward hug that she initiates.
The third date is a surprise. I don’t seek it out. It finds me.
Jake the dungeon master comes into the shop on a quiet morning when I am behind the counter. “Hey,” he says. “Jude Duarte, Master Assassin. I thought I might find you here.”
“I work here.”
“No, I know.” He shuffles his weight awkwardly, then goes to peer at the collectable figurines for a minute or two. Then he looks at me and says, again, “Hey.”
“I kind of want to hear more about those stories you mentioned.”
It takes my mind a second to catch up. “The ones I’m writing?”
“Yeah. I bet they’re good.”
“They’re okay.” I wonder how I would tell my own story and make it sound it happened to someone else, somewhere else. A fictional person. I was never good at weaving narrative for the sake of it, but I think I could manage to spin Once upon a time, a mortal girl and her two sisters were taken from their beds and raised in a land of fairytales…
Jake is quiet for a minute, and then he says abruptly, “Do you want to get coffee sometime?”
I stare at him. “What?”
He shrugs. “If you don’t want to talk about what you’re writing, we can talk about… how to stab people properly. Or anything.”
“Hold the blade flat, then here—” I pantomime. “—if you’re going for the lungs, lower for the liver.” Curious, I look him over. “You realize it’s a really bad idea to ask someone out when they’re working.”
“Yeah, I thought maybe I should start by asking for your number so I could text you about poisons and antidotes, but I decided to just bite the bullet.” He stuffs his hands down in his pockets. He is having a little trouble meeting my eyes. “I thought you might appreciate that. I don’t know.”
“It was a bad idea,” I repeat. “But okay. Sure.”
Jake looks up. “What, really?”
“You weren’t creepy about it, and I drink coffee, so, yeah.” I watch him light up, and heave an internal sigh. He’s so normal, with his glasses and his vintage-looking Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles shirt that I’m sure is ironic and the fading acne on his jaw. I should really be warning him away from me.
What I actually say is, “Don’t expect too much. I just got out of a relationship.”
I don’t know if that’s true. I don’t know that I was ever in a relationship, much less that I am out of it now. But there’s some weird relief that comes from saying this extremely normal thing to this extremely normal boy. It’s a thing that the version of Jude who grew up mortal might say.
“Ouch.” Jake raises his eyebrows. “Is he dead?”
“I wish. Why do you ask?”
“You just seem to know a lot about killing people.” He pauses. “It’s scary, but also kind of hot.”
It’s like I never left home.
“Do not press your luck here,” I caution.
He nods. “Copy that.”
Jake sticks around for a little while to pick up his pull list. We chat about how axe-throwing is apparently a “thing” now. Then we exchange numbers out of necessity, so we can text about where and when to meet for coffee on Saturday. And then he leaves.
I marvel at the normalcy of that interaction. I have never wanted to make it in the mortal world, but for the first time it seems like something I could do: get my GED; work odd jobs; watch bad TV with my sister; take up axe-throwing; go on dates with profoundly normal boys. That frightens me. I remember telling Oak when he first started living with Vivi that it would be time for him to come home when going home felt like the difficult choice. It’s not a difficult choice to me yet—I know where I belong—but for the first time I feel an icy pang of dread at the thought that maybe, someday, it could be.
Sure, I’ll go on a date. But then I need to go back to Faerie. It’s been too long, and I fear that I am far too mortal to resist the strange siren song of this world forever.
Saturday morning rolls around. I shower, dress in clean jeans, my black Converse shoes, and a blue knit top that might be charitably called a sweater but isn’t nearly thick enough. The weather has long been cold, and I pull on my leather jacket and wrap a scarf around my neck. I finish the outfit with a little mascara and my Bowie knife, tucked safely in its sheath. I also keep my pocket knife in my jacket, just in case.
I’ve arranged to meet Jake at a coffee shop within walking distance, since he has a car and I don’t even have a learners’ permit. I arrive early and order a latte. After Cardan exiled me, I find it hard to take my coffee black.
The table I choose allows me to sit with my back to the wall. Jake shows up a couple of minutes late with an apology ready, something about parking. I’m not too bothered. I’d been playing a game on my ancient cell phone, one where a pixel snake eats other pixels and becomes longer and longer and longer. He pokes fun when he sees it, asks if I’m stuck in the mid-2000s, and then goes to buy a coffee and a scone for us to split.
I am stuck in the mid-2000s. More than he could ever know.
Our conversation quickly veers out of my area of expertise. We start awkwardly talking about happenings around the talk, which leads to me asking about a couple of action figures that he bought and receiving way, way too much information about his figurine collection. I am a decent pretend listener, which doesn’t help, because Jake feels all the more empowered to tell me about something called Warhammer 40,000 which seems to involve few actual warhammers and many expensive hand-painted miniatures.
My mind wanders. My eyes do, too. There is art on the far wall of the coffee shop, framed abstract paintings that I do not understand, except the one pastel blue print of an impressionist Eiffel Tower. A middle-aged couple is sharing a table. A woman talks on her cell phone a little too loudly for the space. The barista wipes down the counter. No one is looking at me.
So why do I suddenly feel the prickling at the back of my neck that I get when I am being watched?
I inhale through my nose and take stock of the other people here. The barista. The couple. The woman on her cell phone. All of the people standing in line. And beyond them: a bearded man typing on his laptop. And—
Cardan sits at a table in the back corner of the coffee shop.
My heart stutters to a stop in my chest.
No, no, no. No. This cannot be happening. But it must be happening, because if this were a glamour I’d be able to see through it. Still, there is no rational explanation for his being here.
And yet he is. Not only is he here, but he is attired as though he belongs here. Someone has dressed him as a hipster: he wears several layered shirts, one of them plaid, and maroon skinny jeans cling to his legs. A grey knit cap hides his pointed ears. I can’t help but wonder if some poor mortal man is going to wake up dazed and confused and wearing extremely fine raiment that does not belong to him.
He looks as comfortable as he always does.
He looks ridiculous.
I hadn’t even seen him come in.
He gives me a wave, then sips from a demitasse without breaking eye contact. It is absurdly tiny in his long fingers. Although he has glamoured himself to appear slightly more human, he is still unnaturally striking. Mortals would think he looks like a movie star. One of the girls in line is checking him out.
Before I can plot any course of action—I had envisioned several possibilities for our first meeting, but none of them involved him coming here—he stands from his table, as though having received his cue in a stage play. And he walks over, apparently not realizing how dead he is going to be once he reaches me.
“Hello, Jude,” he says, as though we are old friends meeting by chance. He takes the unoccupied chair from the cell phone lady’s table without asking and drags it over to mine, then sits down.
This is enough to make Jake finally stop talking.
Cardan ignores him completely. The close-lipped smile he wears curdles my stomach. I am reminded of every single feeling I have ever had in his presence. Fear. Hatred. Other things far less comfortable.
“Go away.” I am surprised to find that my voice is perfectly toneless, although I have a white-knuckled grip on my latte.
“I won’t, I’m afraid.” His own voice is calm, like the sea before a storm. His black eyes glitter with something like anger, something I have often mistaken for it. It might actually be anger this time. “It seems that there is much for us to discuss.”