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Hunger raked the inside of my belly with freshly sharpened claws. I left the straw
pallet beside my mother, shivering despite the warmth of the fire in the hearth. The
apple Father had brought us last winter twinkled on the shelf. "Will you have a taste?" my father had asked, holding out the glittering apple. It
was like him, too perfect and too beautiful to be of this world. One look from my mother had told me I was not to do so. She had warned, "Take
not one bite, Katy, for if you do, you will waste away from pining." My father's moss-tinted cheeks had flushed green, his emerald eyes narrowing. He
hadn't returned after that. It remained on that shelf a year, as fresh and new as the day he'd brought it. I tiptoed toward the apple. My belly gurgled with hunger. I lifted the apple,
brushing my lips against the skin. A perfume of fall enveloped me. The flavor of
sweet fruit blossomed in my memory. My mouth watered. "What are you about?" called my mother from her scraps of blanket. I set the apple on the shelf behind me, my guilty demeanor surely bespeaking my
intentions. Mother squinted in the darkness. "Come to bed, child." I sighed, hating when she called me child. I was nigh seventeen. Her bony hand squeezed mine as I slipped into bed beside her. The whining
complaints of her empty belly and the cramping protests of my own made it hard
to sleep. Even so, I rose at daybreak to feed the fire. Between the sunlight and the
flames, the interior of our cottage glittered with a million gems Father had brought
as gifts; the walls laced with intricate patterns of emeralds and sapphires, and the
table inlaid with diamonds -- fairy jewels that turned to dust mere moments after
leaving our possession. I let Mother save her strength and sleep while I foraged outside. But I was dizzy
with hunger and so fatigued I only managed to dig far enough under the snow to
gather a handful of wilted greens and some kind of root I wasn't even certain was
edible. Mother was still as I set the vegetables in a pot to boil. I barely had enough
strength to crush a few nuts. "I made broth for us." I touched her hand, her fingers chilled despite the warmth of
the little cottage. She stirred not. "Mama." Desperation leaked into my tone as I shook her slender shoulder. Her body was stiff and cold and she wouldn't wake. For the first time in my life, I
by Sarina Dorie
Artwork by Andres Mossa
Hunger raked the inside of my belly with freshly sharpened claws. I left the straw pallet beside my mother, shivering despite the warmth of the fire in the hearth. The apple Father had brought us last winter twinkled on the shelf.
"Will you have a taste?" my father had asked, holding out the glittering apple. It was like him, too perfect and too beautiful to be of this world.
One look from my mother had told me I was not to do so. She had warned, "Take not one bite, Katy, for if you do, you will waste away from pining."
My father's moss-tinted cheeks had flushed green, his emerald eyes narrowing. He hadn't returned after that.
It remained on that shelf a year, as fresh and new as the day he'd brought it.
I tiptoed toward the apple. My belly gurgled with hunger. I lifted the apple, brushing my lips against the skin. A perfume of fall enveloped me. The flavor of sweet fruit blossomed in my memory. My mouth watered.
"What are you about?" called my mother from her scraps of blanket.
I set the apple on the shelf behind me, my guilty demeanor surely bespeaking my intentions.
Mother squinted in the darkness. "Come to bed, child."
I sighed, hating when she called me child. I was nigh seventeen.
Her bony hand squeezed mine as I slipped into bed beside her. The whining complaints of her empty belly and the cramping protests of my own made it hard to sleep. Even so, I rose at daybreak to feed the fire. Between the sunlight and the flames, the interior of our cottage glittered with a million gems Father had brought as gifts; the walls laced with intricate patterns of emeralds and sapphires, and the table inlaid with diamonds -- fairy jewels that turned to dust mere moments after leaving our possession.
I let Mother save her strength and sleep while I foraged outside. But I was dizzy with hunger and so fatigued I only managed to dig far enough under the snow to gather a handful of wilted greens and some kind of root I wasn't even certain was edible.
Mother was still as I set the vegetables in a pot to boil. I barely had enough strength to crush a few nuts.
"I made broth for us." I touched her hand, her fingers chilled despite the warmth of the little cottage.
She stirred not.
"Mama." Desperation leaked into my tone as I shook her slender shoulder.
Her body was stiff and cold and she wouldn't wake. For the first time in my life, I was alone.
I cried until no more tears came. If I were normal like her, people wouldn't have shunned her. But my moss-tinted skin and silver hair scared the villagers and made it difficult for her to sell our baskets to them.
I dug in the snow to bury my mother's corpse, but the soil was frozen and I was too starved to keep trying. There was only one place I thought she might be safe from wolves.
Slowly, I dragged her body across the fallen log over the stream, amazed at how light she was. Even more carefully, I lifted her into the frozen fairy ring.
My mother had always forbidden me from stepping inside a fairy ring, lest I be carried off by fairies. She used to crush the toadstools under her heels. This fairy ring was on the other side of the stream, where she never ventured. I had kept knowledge of it hidden from her, hoping Father might return.
A new blanket of snow fell around us. I waited for the fairies.
When I realized it had all been for naught, I returned to the cottage. I ate a handful of nuts, my belly ravenous. I had just nodded off in front of the hearth when the door burst open and Father strode in, hair as wild and unkempt as ever, his eyes blazing green fire. He was blindingly bright, shimmering with beauty. A light dusting of snow fell from his elegant robes as he stormed past me.
He snatched up the apple from the shelf and threw it into the fire. He tore down the glittering curtains and kicked over the barrel that held my meager provision of nuts. I covered my ears as he cursed my mother's name.
I cowered in the shadows, afraid my mother had been right about him being a devil. Only when he knelt before me, weeping, did I suspect he might not be a beast after all.
"Forgive me that I did not take better care of you and your mother," he said. "There is only one thing to be done."
I hesitated as my father wrapped an arm around my shoulders and made to step inside the fairy ring. Ultimately, I decided the fairy world could be no worse than this one of hunger and suffering.
I stepped inside.
We remained still while the trees shifted past, the snow melting away and flowers bursting forth. Everything grew bright with the green of spring. My eyes closed against the blur.
When I opened them, the human world was gone.
Silver moonlight painted the forest around me, illuminating blooming lilies and roses. Dewdrops sparkled like diamonds on the clover. Merry music played in the distance. Everything shimmered like a dream after the gloom of the human world.
Father squeezed my hand and I realized with a start my hand was no longer pale. My skin was rosy like a normal girl's and covered with freckles. I touched my hair. It was no longer wild like my father's, but silky and tamed, the same chestnut as my mother's. I was now clad in a brocade of golds. Ruffles and lace made up my skirts, my sleeves wide and open like a noble lady's. Pearls laced the bodice of the gown.
The one constant was the hunger in my belly.
I looked to my father. "How is it I've changed?"
"Changed? I see no difference."
We had gone but a few steps when we came upon a party in a clearing. Will-o-wisps floated above, casting their rays on the joyous dancers. Miniature musicians played lutes and horns from the boughs of trees. The fairy dancers glowed like moonlight, their faces youthful and far more beautiful than any human's. Diminutive fairy servants carried platters of food to the trestle tables nearest us. The feast made my mouth water.
I stepped toward it, but my father tugged me through the crowd to a beautiful woman sitting high on a throne inlaid with gems. She was young, yet something about her eyes looked ancient.
"Queen Maeb, I present to you my daughter, Katherine." My father bowed and I curtsied.
The merriment ceased, even as the aroma of candied fruits and succulent breads wafted toward me.
The queen appraised me with a cool gaze. "It was about time you brought her home. She's a pretty one. And young enough to make a Fay a good wife. Consider yourself once again in my favor." She gestured toward a winsome young man to her left. He was flanked by two elderly women, plain and human, though dressed in the finery of nobles. "Allow me to introduce my son, Prince Summershire."
The elegant man stepped forward and bowed. His hair was the shade of pine needles and in some places made of leaves. The expression on his perfectly sculpted features remained somber as he took my hand to kiss it. "I have need of a new wife," he said. One of the old women gasped behind him.
My father laughed. "Come now, you have two human wives already. Mayhap you should give some other lad a chance."
The prince's eyes narrowed. A sneer curled his lips. "Both my wives are too old to be of any use."
A fairy approached, her gown covered in flowers and vines. "I see you're making introductions. And when, pray tell, did you intend to introduce me?"
My father's face flushed, a stark contrast to the pale, expressionless aspect of hers. "Lady Amaryllis, I present to you my daughter, Katherine. Katherine, this is my wife."
His wife? What did that make my mother?
A warm whisper brushed my ear. "Shall I save you from your stepmother as princes do in tales?"
Without waiting for an answer, Prince Summershire led me onto the dance floor. The music started up, a wild beat that inspired a feverish dance around us.
He spun me to the frenzied music. "If you agree to marry me, I shall keep you safe from your jealous stepmother. And I'll give you jewels and fine gowns."
As I was a pariah in the human world, it sounded too good to be true. "Are you in a haste to marry?"
"Yes." His eyes held neither warmth nor joy.
I caught a glimpse of one of the old woman threading her way through the crowd toward us. She was dressed in gold as I was. That scowling crone would be me after a lifetime here with an unfaithful husband. I glimpsed my father watching, his brow crinkled in concern. They were all unfaithful, these fairies. My face flushed at the way my father had used my mother, calling her his "only love."
I drew back from the prince. "Thank you for your offer, but I prefer to marry a man without wives."
"Such lofty goals." His eyes, emerald green like my father's and the queen's, were simultaneously youthful and aged.
The elderly woman in the gold gown tapped him on the shoulder. Her gray eyes flickered to me with disdain. "I'm hungry. I wish you to take me to the forest."
"Not now," he said through clenched teeth. "Get the captain of my guard to take you."
"I want you to take me," she said, her voice as petulant as a child's.
"Captain Aspen!" the prince called over his shoulder. A fairy with long mossy hair, dressed in a glittering armor, bowed and escorted her off.
An arm laced through mine, pulling me from the prince.
"Pardon me, Prince Summershire, but are you done with this maiden?" asked a handsome fairy, snaring me in a dervish-like waltz. "If a prince doesn't please you, mayhap you will be more satisfied with a baron."
Just as the prince, he was regal and glowing with beauty, his eyes strangely distant. He made a few attempts to smile, but it didn't look natural on his solemn features.
A third fairy whisked me into another dance, speaking of his need for a wife. As flattering as such attentions were, I was in no mood for courtship. My belly cramped with hunger, the music wavering over the ringing in my ears. I tripped over my partner's feet and crashed into a servant carrying a platter of food.
"You've overtaxed the poor child," a voice creaky with age said, yanking me into a chair. The second wife of the prince pushed a crystal goblet into my hands. "Drink this and all will be well."
The voices nearest hushed and looked to me with raised eyebrows. The human woman hovered.
I gazed into the goblet of red wine. My mouth watered. "My mother told me not to eat food fairies give you. It binds you to this world."
She leaned forward, her breath stinking of rotting teeth. "I'm not a fairy. Surely something from my hands is safe. Besides, it's not the food that keeps you here. It's the queen."
I didn't like the malice in her smile.
"Thank you," I said. "But I'm not thirsty just now." My mouth as dry as parchment, I forced myself to set the goblet down.
My father's frowning face peeked through the dancers. Relief washed over his visage as he spotted me. "There you are, Katy." Ignoring all others, he guided me to a table covered in food. I shrugged him off, loathing this man who'd used my mother.
My hunger returned in full, and I was dizzy with the aroma wafting from the tables. A man sliced into a roasted pheasant, golden-brown and crisp, carrots and yams circling it on the platter. Pies and cakes, cookies and puddings were crammed onto the table. My stomach growled and whined more than ever. I picked up a raspberry tart drizzled with icing.
I hesitated, remembering the dangers.
My father held out a hand to me which I didn't take. "Humans are welcome to eat our food. It won't keep you here as tales say." His eyes brimmed with tears. "Yet, humans choose not to sup with us, and those that do . . . Your mother changed after she ate from this table. It is possible, you being both of Fay and mortal blood would do better. Some halfling children do." There was doubt in his eyes. After learning his other secrets, I trust him no longer.
I cast my gaze about the outdoor ball. The two elderly wives of the prince sat on each side of him as he feasted. Neither of them ate. The queen stroked the head of a chubby human boy who sat at a table, cramming pastries and candies into his mouth. Tears spilled down the crusts of sugar caking his face.
He yelled above the music. "It hurts so good! More!"
The captain of the royal guard's eyes met mine. He gave me the smallest shake of his head. I laid the tart down.
I had gone from one life of starvation, only to trade it for another.
I kept waiting for the ball to end and the sun to rise. But the fairy kingdom remained a spring night full of fragrant flowers and ageless beauties. The dancers frolicked past, partygoers feasted, and drunken men and women slept in the midst of the ruckus. Possessed of a frenzied energy, fairies whooped and cheered in their fervent dance. But even as they played instruments or sang, no one laughed. They frolicked with intensity, not joy. They ate with gusto, but there were no smiles of satisfaction.
I was too fatigued to stand, yet nobles pestered me to dance. The prince dragged me out of my chair and twirled me.
"If it's that important to you, I'll rid myself of other wives." His countenance remained blank and unreadable.
"What do you mean by 'rid yourself?'" The sleeve of my dress slipped down my bony shoulder. If I abstained from food much longer, I would waste into nothing. I could hardly tell how much time had passed since I arrived. Hours? Days?
The prince stared at my shoulder, his voice thick with a different kind of hunger. "Harming a human is against our laws. I will simply return my wives to the mortal realm."
That was what my father had done with my mother, sending her back where she knew no one any longer. Did this abandonment not end in death as well?
The prince squeezed close. "Mayhap it isn't treasures and jewels you desire. Could it be a token from your world?" He snapped his fingers. "Captain Aspen."
The guard in glittering armor marched over with a covered, silver tray. Though his perfectly proportioned face looked as though it had been chiseled, his visage remained as expressionless as a toy soldier's.
With his gloved hand, the prince removed the lid and plucked up a pear. It was bruised at the top, a peck in one side from a bird, imperfect and unlike any of the fairy foods.
"A gift from me to you," he said.
It had to be a trick, something of this world but disguised. Yet I was so far beyond hunger I didn't care. Tears spilled from my eyes as I sank my teeth into the fruit. It was mushy and half rotten. Still, I devoured it down to the stem, juice dripping through my fingers.
The prince watched, lips curling with disdain. I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand. My belly felt slightly better.
"Will you have more?" His guard produced a tray of half smashed grapes. I reached for them, but the prince held them aloft. He pressed me so close I could scarcely breathe. His tone remained as calm as ever. "Do you know what it costs me to retrieve such tokens from the human world? I am only willing to do so for the humans closest to me . . . like my wives. If you agree to marry me and bear my heirs, I will ensure you never starve." He brought the grapes closer, the cold of each berry pressing against my neck. Purple juices trickled down his white gloved hand and onto my dress. He brushed the grapes lower, his knuckles grazing the flesh just above my bodice. The intense desire in his eyes reminded me of the lewd stares of the men in the village.
Anger boiled in my belly. I was not going to be bought like a harlot. A bit of pear skin was still in my mouth. I spat it into his face. He immediately let go of me and howled in what sounded like pain.
I trudged back to my father's table. His wife sat as still as a statue beside him. He shook his head at me, pinching the bridge of his nose. "You have publicly insulted the prince."
"Maybe if you did a better job of ensuring he didn't insult me, I wouldn't have to. You are my father. Can you not protect me from his untoward advances?"
A bitter smile laced his wife's lips. "You are quite able to protect yourself. All you need do is give yourself to any man in this realm heirs."
"Is that all I'm good for?"
Father rested his head on his hands. "Fairies need your bloodline to mix with ours so that we can produce heirs once again. But we treat you well. You are less chattel in this world than the human one."
No wonder my mother had despised him for bringing her to serve as his mistress and forcing her to have me. I wondered how she had escaped.
Tears filled my eyes. "I want to go home."
"This is your home." He reached for my hand but I pulled away. "It's where you were meant to be raised. Only now have I set things right by bringing you home."
I gazed at the table of shimmering fruits and roasted meats.
"Perhaps you should eat a little. I can't bear to see you waste away like your mother." The sorrow of his eyes almost convinced me.
"The prince provides human food for his wives. Can you not bring me some?"
"Human foods are poison. I have already suffered enough touching them once at your mother's request."
I crossed my arms. "So be it. I'll just starve. I should be used to it by now."
My father pushed himself from the table and stalked away from the feast and into yonder trees. His wife left the table and became lost in the sea of dancers.
Vexing him was a bittersweet satisfaction. Again, I was alone and hungry.
"Care to dance?" A noble bowed before me.
Not alone. Even worse. Surrounded by suitors.
No one had ever stopped me from using the trees beyond the ball as a privy, nor told me not to sleep in the partitions of moss hanging from trees as I did on occasion. Still, I waited until the queen was diverted by feeding sweets to her human pet before I trod into the forest.
These trees were knobby with broken limbs, not the perfect specimens draped in curtains of lace like those near the clearing. Try as I might to find a path in the gloom, there was none. The music of the never-ending party grew more distant as brambles of claw-like fingers raked at my legs. I fought against soupy muck and shredded my hands against thorns. But I pressed on, walking as best I could through it all. A light flickered in the trees ahead. I parted the boughs, hoping I'd arrived into the world of humans. A blast of music made me jump, and a Will-o-wisp floated past.
I once again had arrived at the ball.
Father's absence stretched into an eternity. I sat with my head resting on the feasting table, too dizzy to move. I told myself I'd ignore my father out of spite when he returned . . . if he returned.
Yet when I spotted him through the trees, I rose on shaky feet and went to him, clinging from tree to tree for support.
"You were gone so long." I nearly knocked him over, falling into his embrace. His eyes sparkled with delight and I couldn't help feeling pleased to see him.
He sat me on the ground, placing a basket before me. "I was gone but a moment."
His mouth was gray and blistered. He crouched before the covered basket, his movements stiff and slow like those of an old man. His once white gloves were dingy and brown. Where his sleeve and the glove gaped, his skin was bruised.
"Father, you are hurt?"
"Think nothing of it." He tugged the sleeve over his arm. "Look what I've brought you."
He peeled back the edge of the cloth, exposing a feast of fruits and dried meats. I tore into a loaf of bread and bit into a lump of butter.
"Pace yourself. This is meant to last."
"Thank you, Father," I said, gnawing through the wax casing of cheese.
My father swallowed. His gaze followed my fingers as I selected a pastry from the basket. He had said fairies didn't eat human food, but from the way his breath hitched as I bit down on the pastry, I would swear he watched with longing.
The food was gone all too soon, and my father set out for more. With the second basket, he appeared weaker and more out of breath. Each trip after took longer for him to recover from the gray blisters crusting over his fingers and face.
"You're killing your father," the prince said to me, the closest thing to a smile on his lips that I'd seen yet. "He hasn't the magic I have. How will the knowledge that you've killed him settle on your conscience?"
He left me to ponder that.
Will-o-wisps danced above the partygoers as I strolled along the edges. I watched a human child shriek and twist away from the fairy feeding her.
The captain of the royal guard deigned to speak to me for the first time, though he didn't look at me. "The prince is right. You're killing your father."
My father rested with his head on a table, his eyes closed as fairies feasted around him. My heart sank lower. One parent was gone. Surely the other would follow on account of me.
His voice low, Captain Aspen said, "Leave the clearing and enter the forest. Have a care not to be seen. I will show you where human food is to be found."
Hope alighted in my breast. I endeavored to keep the eagerness from my face as I meandered to the edge of the ball. I ducked under lacy boughs of lichen and past the cushions of moss and flowers where I slept of late. Dark shadows stretched toward me.
I waited so long I grew uncertain whether Captain Aspen would come. Mayhap it had been a trick to get me alone where the prince might have his way with me.
The lithe shadow of a man darted through the trees. Heart pounding, I ducked close to the base of an oak, lest it be the prince.
"Katy?" The guard whispered the nickname my parents called me. "It is I, Captain Aspen. Do you wish me to show you where human food is?"
At the thought of food, the rumble of my belly gave me away.
"There you are. Rise and come with me." He held out his arm and I reluctantly took it. Brush rustled and trees creaked as they shifted out of his way. A path cleared before us, silhouettes of oaks and maples less ominous with the light of the moon painting each leaf silver.
He led me to a small clearing in the trees where the air was cool enough to give rise to goose bumps on my bare arms. A stream meandered past, a quiet lullaby. From the golden leaves at my feet, and perfume of blackberries in the air, I surmised it was autumn.
"Where are we?" I asked.
"It's a world between, not quite your world, not quite ours. It's a half-breed . . . like you."
I tried to eat and drink slowly, as not to become sick. But soon I found myself snatching up the berries and cramming them into my mouth, juices running down my fingers. I ate my fill, yet a strange emptiness remained inside me.
Reclining on the ground and bloated from my gluttony, I was too in pain to move. I glanced with embarrassment at Captain Aspen. He stood alert, watching the way we had come.
Though he looked upon me without the gleam of appetite that the prince did, I knew nothing was without price.
"You have been kind to me," I said, stomach churning as I broached the matter.
"Kindness has nothing to do with it."
At that, I was sure he would insist on bedding me. Instead, he looked whence we had come. "We should return before you're missed."
When next Captain Aspen brought me to a patch of in-between worlds, I was near starving again. On this outing, the in-between world was in early summer, strawberries ripe and fish abundant in the stream. He looked away as I cooked and ate.
Though I ate more slowly than the time before, my belly flip-flopped with nausea as I finished my fish. Captain Aspen stopped me before I ate all my strawberries. "Have a care not to make yourself ill. Save some for another day."
With no other means of carrying extra provisions, I removed my stockings and stuffed what I could inside.
When Captain Aspen and I returned to the ball, he departed without a farewell. When I saw him at his post later, he stared straight ahead without looking upon me.
Father was astute, even in his ill health. "You're looking less thin." His emerald eyes flickered toward the prince.
I shook my head to his unasked question.
The third time, Aspen and I came to winter in the in-between world. I dug below the snow for frozen greens and dormant roots.
Aspen passed me his kid gloves to put on over my own silk ones and handed me his saber to dig into the frozen earth. When I grew too cold, he gave me his jacket, and when I grew too tired, he finished digging for me, though he demurred from touching the roots when he unearthed them.
We retreated into the warmer fairy forest where I ate my prizes. Aspen stood post, his visage as stony as sculpted alabaster.
When I finished my meager meal of bitter greens, stringy roots and a few beetles, I asked, "Why have you brought me hither?"
His face, glowing with beauty, remained serious. "To ensure you don't die."
"And what makes you care if I die when the prince cares so little?"
He hesitated, but when he did speak, his words spewed out of him with vehemence. "The prince may say it's my duty to serve his family first, but I am the Captain of the Fay. I protect this realm, as well as those within. Our laws are to keep humans within our borders from harm, and though the prince may claim doing naught differs from inflicting harm, I disagree."
My heart warmed in admiration of Captain Aspen's noble nature. "And you will not . . . What I mean to say . . ." My heart thudded in my ears. "The prince said he would give me human food if I gave him heirs. I assumed you would expect . . ."
"The same?" He snorted. "Humans should remain in the mortal world with their own kind, where they will remain safe from pining."
What a relief knowing there was one person in this realm who expected nothing of me.
I slept after my meals out in the quiet of the forest. When I woke, Aspen's cape lay draped over me while he sat aloft in a tree, watching the way we'd come. I came to admire his silent, stoic ways, as well as his bursts of conversation, as he grew more comfortable sharing stories of his kind and the mysteries of his people.
Having nourishment in my belly, I refuted suitors with more vitality. With intervals of respite from the chaos of the ball, I grew strong in spirit as well. For the first time since coming to the fairy realm, my hope returned.
I rejoined my father amongst the dessert tables. A smile crossed my lips, try as I might to hide it. The perfume of cookies and candies tickled my nostrils with temptation despite having eaten so many cherries I was near bursting.
He winked. "If you wish to keep your secret, mind yourself not to look at a certain captain of the guard as you have been wont to do of late."
I blushed. "We aren't -- Blast! He has no interest in me."
Father lowered his voice. "Prince Summershire will not face the truth that he is too old to sire children. And the queen is as blind as he is with hope that it is the humans at fault and not her bloodline that has dried up." His eyes scanned the crowd. The two wives were absent. "Aspen will never love you like a human. Still, he would make a better husband than some."
A jumble of emotions coursed through me, first anger, then shame that my father would say such things. "Captain Aspen befriended me to keep me from harm, to fulfill his duty, not out of motives to marry. He's different from the others. He never makes demands of me. He is truly honorable and good." I said this much louder than I should have, drawing the attention of the nearest feasters.
"Be wary of my kind. The Fay do not feel love in our hearts. We are a kind of demon fallen from the heavens, just as your mother once claimed."
My throat tightened. "Then you lied when you said you loved my mother?"
He stirred the Yorkshire pudding about in his bowl. "Quite so."
I ran to my curtained chamber. I had known my mother was his mistress, yet still I had dared to hope that he had loved her. I had dared to hope he was capable of loving me.
I held in the tears until I neared my private alcove. But when I lifted the lacy lichen to throw myself on the moss, I shrieked. The prince reclined on my bed.
"Pretty pet, why do you cry? Do you hunger for human food? I can make you happy." He held up a bowl of bruised peaches.
I backed away, letting the curtain fall between us.
He called after me. "Don't say you haven't noticed the absence of my wives. I returned them to the mortal realm for you."
His other words were lost in the mayhem of music. I wove through the periphery of dancers, elbowing my way to the edge of trees. Trampling through brambles, my dress snagging on thorns, I fled into the forest until the bushes grew too dense. I covered my ears and sobbed, wishing to be rid of the merry music.
"It was the prince?" Aspen asked, out of breath and suddenly by my side. "I wanted to warn you." He enclosed me in his embrace, tucking my head below his chin.
My tears spilled against the pristine brocade of his jacket. "All fairies are liars. My father said so. He said none of you can love."
He made a noise I might have mistaken for a laugh. "What news is this to you? I have told you as much already."
Tears burned in my eyes. "He said he never loved my mother. And he cannot love me."
He remained silent a while, stroking my hair from my face.
He handed me a handkerchief embroidered with fruits, perfect and beautiful as all the food of this world. "He lies to protect you. Yet surely you aren't blind to the way he looks fondly at you and frets for your welfare. He smiles and laughs just as you do. And when he thinks you see him not, he is overcome with sorrow. With longing."
I thought upon that first time he'd brought me food from the human world, and how he'd watched me eat, hunger in his countenance. Despite telling me human food was poison for fairies, he'd had blisters on his lips. "I think I know what he pines for."
"Yes. Your mother," said Aspen. I shook my head, but he went on. "He was the same as any other in this realm before he met her. I respected him, as he was openly opposed to the marriage between our peoples. To break him of his stubbornness, the queen insisted all mortal maidens who wandered through fairy rings dance with him first, hoping to tempt him. But beauty and youth persuaded him not."
"My mother was beautiful . . . for a human." Her cheeks once had been plump and rosy.
"Indeed, but it wasn't beauty that seduced him. He brought food from the human world, secretly feeding humans in the hope they needn't fall victim to the prince. Your mother fell in love with him and after a time, he changed. He behaved as a starry-eyed human under her spell."
I imagined my parents when they had loved each other.
Aspen's voice took on a sharper edge. "Your mother was considered a witch. My people liked her even less when she tired of your father and wished to go home. It was fear of whatever power your mother possessed that persuaded the queen to allow her to leave."
"There is hope then? Some fairies change, they grow to love? You . . . might grow to love?"
"Oh fie! You see not what I mean at all." He continued to hold me against him. I laced my fingers through the silky strands of his hair, patches of moss and vines tickling my fingers.
He kissed my forehead. "Is that what all these tears are about? Not hunger or the prince forcing himself on you? You cry over a trifle."
I pulled away. "Love is no trifle to humans."
He tilted my chin upward, the warmth of his breath brushing against my lips. My heart raced. "Have you fallen in love with me? Has my indifference made you suffer?"
I lifted my face, pressing my lips to his. The warmth of his touch sent a thrill through my core. He held me in his arms with such tenderness, I could believe he loved me as my father had loved my mother.
He broke away, his tone harsh. "Katy, this is foolish. You will grow to love me more and more, and I will remain dispassionate. I am not like your father. I can never love you."
My heart lurched at words I knew to be true. "But I love you."
He huffed in frustration.
I circled my arms about his neck and kissed him. His rigid posture softened and his fingers caressed my arms. That constant emptiness in my belly shifted to a new kind of hunger. I imagined my mother's magic coursing through my veins. Aspen would love me before long.
His lips curled into a stiff smile, as though he tried to look happy for my benefit. "If this is what you wish and I can't persuade you otherwise, I will take you as my bride."
I expected my father to be pleased, yet he frowned. "I will give my blessing for this union on two conditions, Aspen."
"Yes, my lord," he said, bowing his head. I squeezed his hand.
"First, you must promise to always provide human food for my daughter."
"I already do as much."
"Quite so." My father bestowed a smile with such kindness that my heart grew warm. Then his expression grew serious once again, his fatigue fully evident in his eyes. "And you must promise you will never eat human food. It will cause more pining than you could ever imagine."
My gaze swept over his aspect. "Is that what happened to you?"
He hugged me to his side. "Yes, child. Your mother gave me fruit and I ate of it. I only have known sorrow since that time."
When my father announced that we were to be wed, the fairy voices raised a chorus of cheers, though no mouths smiled. No eyes held delight, save my father's. The prince scowled. The queen married us at once.
I was happy for a time. Aspen and I frequented the patches of in-between world whenever we pleased, and I ate my fill. Only, I was never truly full. Always an emptiness lingered.
Aspen was a good husband. He tried to make up for his inability to love by pleasing me in any other way he could; bringing me gifts of flowers or fruit, stroking me with tenderness and attempting to smile. Though I appreciated all these tokens, none touched the pining inside me. No matter how he pretended, I knew he didn't love me.
He comforted me when he saw this sorrow in my eyes. "I have been thinking on this," said Aspen, one eve as I sat at the stream under a sliver of moon. "Your father said his sorrows began when he ate human food. That's when he changed, yes, but it was when your mother left that his sorrow began." He held up a blackberry. "If I were to eat this --"
"No. It's poison for Fay." I slapped the berry from his hand.
"If I ate a bit of fruit, I would long for you and I would have you. That is love, is it not? There would be no harm in it if you should stay here and continue to love me."
I stroked his mane of mossy hair, staring into his beautiful face. I hated to imagine his heart in anguish. "I will grow old and die. You will despair for all eternity, just as my father."
"You are half fairy. You will live a long life, especially now that you are in this realm. You've stopped aging since coming hither. There will be no harm in it." He held up another berry.
My voice rose in desperation. "My father made us promise."
"I want to love you. I have no fear this is the right choice."
I reached for his hand, but he'd already placed the poison on his tongue. His entire aspect relaxed, his brow coming together in thoughtful concentration. His lips twitched, blanching before my eyes.
Aspen half-moaned, half-laughed as he leaned against me. He buried his face in my hair, covering my neck with kisses. "Is this what love feels like? Is this wonderful ache in my chest happiness or sorrow?"
I laughed too, tears spilling down my cheeks. My heart felt close to bursting with joy. He pulled me into his lap, kissing me with a passion he'd never been capable of afore.
For a moment in this forever land, we lived happily ever after.
Shortly after I learned I was with child, my loving and doting husband said to me, "There's someone I should like you to meet."
He walked slowly to the feasting tables, his gait lacking the vitality it had once had. He didn't give the foods a glance, but my belly whined with complaint at the fragrance of roasted veal covered in glazes and surrounded with mountains of vegetables. My mouth watered as I stared at the glistening pies with the same hunger I had when I'd first arrived in the fairy kingdom. The food stole my attention so completely, Aspen's introductions were but a distant lullaby.
He squeezed my hand. "Katy? I would like to introduce you to John McLean."
I smiled with embarrassment as I took notice of the man. His hair was red, brighter than the Scotsmen I'd once met, his eyes a tad too green to be human. His face, though scarred and blemished, was still of unearthly beauty, a slight glow to his ruddy skin.
"You're part fairy, too?"
He gave a hearty chortle. "Right ye are, lass."
He bit into a scone heaped with jam and chewed slowly, not ravenously like I would have.
My husband said, "John lived most of his life in the human world, raised by his father who stole him away from his Fay mother as a child."
John set down the scone on a gold plate with more willpower than I ever would have been able to do. "Yer husband found the story of me upbringing goodly amusing. I was like ye are, I'd guess. Living in the human world and always a-hungerin' for anything I could get me grubby hands on. Me father always said I'd eat him outta house and home, but most lads are that way, so he dinnae think much of it. I always felt like I was 'bout to starve to death, and then I found a fairy ring and came hither but days ago. Tales say not to eat fairy food. But I ate it as a child. So I ate it again and the strangest thing happened. I felt full!" He laughed and slapped his knee.
I gazed across the clearing at Queen Maeb's pet child, still cramming food into his mouth, demanding the servants bring him more. He was no longer the young boy I remembered, but an adolescent, now grotesquely obese, lost in rolls of fat.
"That wouldn't be you," Aspen said. His lips looked leathery and cracked under the light of the will-o-wisps. "That child is human and made for human food. You're part fairy. If neither human food, nor food from the world in-between suits you, then we must presume Fay food is what you need."
I sat with Aspen in a patch of the world in-between, an array of foods spread out before us. Before me were fairy-made pies and pastries, a whole chicken basted in herbs, rich puddings, and the juiciest fruits imaginable.
This would be the remedy to all my woes. Or the beginning of them.
My fingers trembled picking up an apricot. I looked to Aspen, memorizing the graceful slope of his nose, the viridian of his deep-set eyes. Where there once had been plump, pink lips were the start of gray blisters. Yet even knowing that the same might happen to me couldn't deter me from eating the fruit in my hand. Hunger, the ever-present monster, still clawed at my belly.
I closed my eyes and bit into the tender flesh, the sweet-tart perfection exploding on my taste buds. It was more heavenly than any food I'd tasted. I took a greedy bite, juice dripping down my chin. This was pure bliss. I tilted back my head and closed my eyes, brilliant colors blinding me. As the last morsel melted away, I realized my belly felt full.
Tears of joy burned in my eyes. I moaned with satisfaction.
"Do you want more?"
I stiffened. That wasn't Aspen's voice. It was that of an old man. I blinked away my tears. My husband was no longer regal and glowing. His face was shriveled and gray, his nose long and pointed. His long, spindly fingers, gnarled like the roots of a tree, clutched at my hand.
Razor sharp teeth filled his smile. The man I loved had been replaced by a goblin.
I screamed and recoiled.
"My love, what is it?" He tried to smooth his claws over my hair but I drew back further.
I lifted up my skirts and hastened away -- to where I knew not.
"Katy, run not. Let me make all well," the voice of the old man said, lagging behind me.
I thrashed through the brush, creepers clinging to my legs and my hem catching on burrs. As I wrenched my dress free, I saw I was no longer clad in the golden gown, but my own attire of rags. My fingers were no longer freckled, but the pale, mossy hue they had been before I came to the fairy realm. An irregular pace crunched over twigs behind me.
Is this what eating fairy food did? It wasn't so much a poison, but an awakening.
"Come back," he called. "We'll be happy at last."
I pushed myself on, unable to face the idea of eternity with a monster. A chaotic and disjointed thunder came from ahead, shrieks and squeals layered over the booming of drums. I ran through a mass of clumpy moss and spiderwebs, and came upon the fairy ball.
It was gray and gloomy, lit only by lanterns hanging overhead which I had mistaken for will-o-wisps afore. The revelers, men and women with pointed faces and gnarled limbs, stomped their feet and twirled to the noise. The singers screeched a chorus that raked the insides of my ears. Hunched, insect-like servants carried platters to the tables where goblins crammed their faces with jellies, meats, and savory dishes. The aroma wafted closer, rich and inviting, but not taunting as it had once been.
I looked for a familiar face in the mob of monsters. At the far end of the ball sat a tall waif, twisted and bent on her throne, eyes glowing with a green iridescence like a beetle.
The adolescent nearest the queen crammed food into his sugar-crusted face. The humans in the crowd gazed into the eyes of the fairies they danced with, seeing not the world I saw, but the lie that hid it. The red hair of John McLean caught my eye as he munched on a biscuit. He was no longer the beautiful half-fairy, half-human, but something grayer and darker, his nose longer and crooked, his flesh dull and waxy. I felt my own nose, wondering what I looked like in reality.
"Katy?" a shriveled old man asked, approaching slowly. From the smile on his blistered lips I knew he was my father. "What ails you, child?"
I smoothed a hand over his knobby cheekbone, feeling pity. This must have been what my mother had seen, why she protected me from their food. Only she hadn't known I would need fairy food. Had I been raised here like John McLean, mayhap I could have grown accustomed to the sight of these creatures.
My father must have recognized that look of pity mixed with revulsion. He shook his head.
A goblin crashed through the dancers and fell to his knees before me, snatching up my hand. His eyes were filled with genuine sorrow, something I had never seen in anyone other than my father and for that reason I knew this to be Aspen. I forced myself not to pull away.
His voice was a strange growl. "You're no longer filled with pining. You'll be happy now. You've made me happier than any Fay in my kingdom." A hopeful smile revealed the rows of sharp teeth in his mouth. "Say you love me still, Katy."
"I want you to take me home," I said.
The cottage was no longer cloaked in jewels. It was in shambles. I had no idea how much time had passed.
"I'll use magic to return your home to the beauty it once was," Aspen said, waving his hands about.
Nothing happened. Still, he admired it as if something more was there than I could see. "I'll visit you. I'll bring you food from the fairy world for you and our child." He took my hand and kissed my fingertips. Adoration twinkled in his beetle-like eyes.
I looked away, as much repulsed by his goblin-like appearance as disgusted with myself that I had done this to him. I couldn't tell him what he'd become to me. The love I'd felt for him was still too deep that I didn't wish him more heartache. As it was, I feared he would go mad from pining for me.
He hugged me, and because I wanted him to feel joy rather than sorrow with his human heart, I closed my eyes and kissed him. I imagined a glowing face with sparkling viridian eyes as I bid him farewell.
I smoothed my hand over the swelling of my belly. Through me, my own child tasted fairy fruit. And she will crave it and crave the fairy world. If I tell her my story and all I learned in the fairy realm, she will have a choice: the illusion of beauty, yet forever pining for something more, or the satiation of hunger served with the ugliness of truth.
Perhaps her choice will leave her more contented than mine left me.
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