It started with a race.
Races were a staple part of the culture in Aghios, where wide concrete roads wound around the trees and buildings and through the cave systems in the side of the soaring mountain. The roads were older than Aghian memory, made of a material tough enough that the concrete could have finished setting the day before for all anyone knew, perfect and unblemished.
Unmarked by damage, they made a smooth and dizzying challenge for speedsters on solar-augmented bikes and trikes – shiny, brass-framed contraptions powered by mirrored solar cells set into the spokes of the wheels.
On the days where the road traffic was too heavy to attempt road races, the competition instead took place in the sky, where participants took to the air in gliders – bright-coloured silk stretched over lightweight wooden frames, propelled by light rotors powered by solar cells sewed into the silk.
In most models, the frames had harnesses underneath the wings to strap the glider to the racer’s back, and many were jointed to fold behind the back when not in use, like an albatross’s wings.
Others were designed with no framing, instead having large parasails of silk supported by networks of suspension ropes.
When not used for racing, the gliders were often used by messengers and mail-deliverers, and they were a common, colourful sight above the city.
It was a windy day, but that didn’t stop the girls from jumping to the challenge when Esus flew into the palace gardens and told them a race was taking place off the side of the mountain for which the city was named.
There was a cliff face on the south side of the Aghios mountain where the races usually started, allowing competitors to freefall off the ledge to pick up speed. It was there to which the girls hurried, making the trip using their own gliders, warming up the motors in preparation for the race.
Morana shouldn’t have even been near the palace when Esus told them about the race. She’d felt a screaming sense of being lured into deeper trouble than she was prepared to dive into as Calypso and Kleio begged Esus to wait up and let them compete, chasing after the dragonfly-winged fairy as he raced off with his own emerald-silked glider.
Morana was prepared for a lecture from her mother about skulking around the palace with the two girls on the parade day. She was not, however, prepared for getting caught competing in a spontaneous race on the day of the Harvest Parade, where she was supposed to be staying hidden in her mother’s swamp, and well away from any festivities that might draw attention to her.
“Wait up, Esus, I can’t find my glider!” Calypso wailed, searching through the terminal in the palace where all the gliders, bikes, and other vehicles were kept. It was a huge warehouse of a space, with hooks along the walls to hold gliders and racks for bikes. Calypso’s persimmon-coloured glider was conspicuously not among the royal-owned purple and gold gliders, and the usually cocksure, auburn-haired siren was frantic.
“Just borrow one of the royal ones,” Kleio suggested, the coolheaded dark-haired siren hefting her own teal glider. “Morana, where’s yours?”
Morana swallowed, finding herself in a similar situation to Calypso – her rose-coloured glider was also missing. Unlike Calypso, though, borrowing a royal glider meant much scarier consequences for her if they were to get caught.
She wrapped her bronze arms around herself, letting her pale blonde waist-length curls fall around her face, remembering her mother’s lectures about remaining invisible.
Esus groaned, flitting around the terminal impatiently. The chestnut-skinned, teal-haired fairy was constantly crackling with energy, and it was impossible to keep him still – especially when anticipating a race, a chance to send his glider singing through the air and burn off the worst of that ever-bubbling energy.
“Either grab a glider now, or don’t compete,” he finally said. “I’m not waiting for you to mess around looking for gliders! Knowing you two, you probably left them up at the ledge after the last race.”
Calypso sighed and pulled a purple-silked glider from its hook, twisting the ignition knob and revving the rotor. “Fine. But we come straight back after the race to return these, no hanging around post-race! We’ll be skinned alive if we’re caught with these without royal permission.”
Esus fixed bright, turquoise-blue eyes on Morana. “C’mon, Mor, what are you doing? Glider, now!”
Morana gulped and took a purple glider, praying that luck would smile on them. She couldn’t really afford for their luck to turn sour, now.
The four friends flew through the city, past officials and councillors inspecting floats and flags along the parade route, past revellers in the streets starting their celebrations early, past townspeople taking advantage of the public holiday to enjoy the city and explore.
The Harvest Festival was an important marker of the city’s year; a sign of the good harvest that had taken place in the past few months, harvests that were bountiful every year. But in a city located under a mountain in the middle of a huge, cold, barren desert, the fear of the harvest failing loomed high every year. With the help of royal witches who affected the city and plant life, the city stayed warm and bountiful, allowing the city to survive in the desert – and even thrive.
The Festival was a celebration of that ability to thrive, though the witches who made it possible were always notably absent.
The streets were full of colour and excitement, building up to the parade, and it all flew past in a blur as the prospective racers shot towards the mountain, all praying the race hadn’t started without them.
They alighted on the far side of the cliff ledge, where racers lined up along the edge, another sea of colour with the rainbow of gliders in all different colours and patterns. The group were late, but not too late – the race hadn’t yet begun, though they were the last competitors to arrive.
Notus sneered at the stragglers as they alighted, groaning in disapproval. “Why must you four fledglings always lag behind?” she snapped. “You wouldn’t think you’d be some of our fastest, judging by how long it seems to take you lot to arrive. You know we only have small windows of time for these races!”
The tall Aghian woman was a veteran speedster, and these days was the main co-ordinator of the races. Her own navy glider was harnessed to her body, silk wings folded behind her back, ready to take off should a racer be thrown off-course or come to danger. She was a stern, dark-eyed woman who worshipped punctuality.
“We’re sorry,” Esus said breathlessly as the four dropped coins into the urn beside the woman – their fee to enter the race, and at the end of the race the urn full of coins was given to the winner. The group hustled into positions along the ledge, alongside the other competitors. “Some of us had our gliders go missing and had to find alternative transport,” he explained. “For all we know, some of the early birds might have pre-emptively hidden them.” He shot a glare towards the line of competitors along the ledge.
Notus grinned. “Don’t go bandying around accusations before the race, fledgling,” she said, jerking her head to motion him to take his place. “Settle disputes by way of winning.”
Morana found herself shuffled next to a stranger, a racer she’d never seen before. The unfamiliarity of him made her stare for a moment, trying to identify the new racer.
He was tall and powerfully built, though not as muscular as many of the other racers. He was clearly a fairy like Esus, with long, pointed ears the shape of knives, and clawed hands. His skin was very pale, a shimmering iridescent play of pale lavender, turquoise, green and blue, like his skin was made of mother-of-pearl. His hair was black, fading into turquoise ends that curled and ruffled past his shoulders with the wind, and his clothing consisted of a bare upper torso, black leather wrist-guards, bare feet, and plain black leggings – simple and skintight, as demanded by the nature of the races.
He turned and fixed Morana with a turquoise-eyed glare, and she turned away, face flushing. She shouldn’t have been staring, but she was surprised by the stranger – all the competitors were familiar to each other, and newcomers didn’t race often.
“On my mark,” Notus bellowed above the howl of the wind. She held up a flare gun, ready to fire it. Morana felt her body tingle with adrenaline, anticipating the mark.
A loud bang marked the flare’s ignition – the racers’ version of ‘get set‘. Morana’s muscles tensed, ready to leap into the abyss.
Another bang, and the gun fired, sending a plume of bright-coloured smoke streaming across the sky.
The racers launched off the ledge, plunging off the mountainside, careening down towards the city.
Morana held off as long as she dared, plummeting towards the ground. When her nerve broke, she yanked the glider upward, hearing the engine roar over the wind as the glider struggled to rise.
She soared past Esus and Calypso, closely tailing Kleio. The mystery stranger had disappeared, and up ahead she could see a cobalt blue glider, and a striped grey-and-black glider. Zephyr and Boreas, fierce rivals of Esus, and no doubt whom his comments about the missing gliders were aimed towards. She doubted they would stoop to hiding their gliders – it was more likely she and Calypso had misplaced theirs. But one of Esus’ running flaws was a fierce suspicious streak that flared up whenever he was worried about losing a race.
She tilted her glider, catching the wind and sending herself accelerating towards the pair, zooming past Kleio.
The route of the race led in a circuit around the city, from the ledge where the racers began, down towards the city centre. Above the city centre the route changed, looping around the city square and underneath one of the arches of the southernmost aqueduct in the city. As they raced it, Zephyr outpaced Boreas, and Morana flew past Boreas to tail Zephyr.
The route led in a tight spiral through two of the caves, before leading back out around the mountain, back towards the ledge where the race started. As the cliffs loomed into view she crept ever closer towards Zephyr’s cobalt glider, close enough to see the man harnessed beneath the silk wings.
She was so close. If she could push just a little faster, she could win.
A large shape swooped out from her left, startling her and causing her to jolt, her movement swinging the glider and losing her speed. As it passed, she registered three things in the space of less than a second:
1. the shape consisted of the stranger who’d glared at her, harnessed to a glider.
2. the glider he was harnessed to was a very familiar one, with rose-coloured silk sewn and stretched over a bamboo frame she’d grown and put together herself.
3. the stranger had almost certainly stolen her glider, and was presently beating her in the race with it.
Before she could cry out in outrage, the stranger had passed her and Zephyr both, and was soaring up to the ledge. She scarcely noticed Esus and Kleio racing past her as she approached the ledge, eyes fixed on her glider and the thief attached to it.
Her borrowed glider landed, and she wrenched out of the harness.
“Slow start, Mor,” Notus said, approaching her to help her out of the harness. “You picked up a good speed though, if you hadn’t faltered in that last second you’d have -”
“My glider!” Morana cried out. She pushed past Notus, ignoring the woman to stomp over to the stranger. “You stole my glider!”
The stranger had finished unclipping himself from her glider, and settled a level stare on her. “And by the looks of it, you’ve stolen a royal-issue glider without permission from any royalty,” he said in a voice sharp and dark as obsidian.
“First of all, I borrowed it with every intention to return it in perfect condition,” Morana retorted. “And second, I borrowed it because my glider was missing. On account of having been stolen by you!”
The stranger narrowed his eyes.
“Morana,” Esus squeaked from behind her. Morana turned to see the fairy staring at her with huge, terrified eyes, hands reaching tentatively to her like a baker might reach towards a just-destroyed wedding cake on the day of the wedding it was intended for.
She suddenly realised that both Calypso and Kleio were staring at her with equally-horrified expressions, and the racers who’d already returned were all frozen and silent. Notus had a look on her face like she was about to be sick.
Alarm bells began to sound in her head.
The stranger didn’t even blink.
Even as the next words left her mouth Morana’s mind yelled for her to shut up, drop it and save herself before more damage could be done, but she couldn’t stop herself.
“If you return it to me now, I might consider not reporting you to the city sheriffs,” she snapped. “As long as it’s in perfect condition, of course, or I may have to report vandalism as well. What makes you think you can just steal my glider?”
The stranger raised a single eyebrow.
“Morana, no,” Esus moaned, before Calypso clapped a hand over his mouth.
“Vandalism and theft, goodness,” the stranger said. “I’d hate to be disgraced by such accusations. You’re a bold one, I’ll give you that.”
He sighed and picked up Morana’s glider. “Fortunately for myself, your glider remains unblemished,” he said. “Also fortunately, such charges wouldn’t have stuck for long in any case. I see you don’t recognise me.”
Morana gulped. Had she been supposed to?
The fairy’s turquoise eyes bore into her. “It’d be difficult to convince the sheriff to arrest the king of Epirus,” he said.
Morana’s blood went cold.
The stranger was King Aides, ruler of the fairies, visiting the human realm as a guest of the Queen of Aghios. And Morana had just threatened to have him arrested.
“Why did you take my glider?” was all that would come out of her mouth, her voice sounding wobbly and faint and very far away.
The king smiled then, stifling a laugh. “Because I couldn’t find mine,” he said.
Notus cleared her throat, stepping forward. “Racers, as coordinator and judge of the race, it’s my duty to keep conflict to a minimum,” she said, sounding impressively stern despite her alarmed expression. “If you two have a problem with one another, settle it now, or save it for the next race.”
The king smiled, holding up Morana’s glider. “My apologies,” he said. “I should have sought permission to use your glider. However, I suspect you’re lacking permission for the royal glider you’ve borrowed, and I’m doubtful the Aghian queen would be as graceful as yourself if she were to find out.”
Morana swallowed hard.
“So, I think we can consider ourselves on equal footing, can’t we?” the fairy king said.
Morana pressed her lips together, and nodded. She didn’t truly think so – she wouldn’t have had to borrow a royal glider if the fairy king hadn’t taken hers. But she was in no position to argue.
Notus spoke again. “In that case, I’ll consider the matter settled,” she said. “King Aides, congratulations on winning the race – as this is your first race, too, I’ll throw in free drinks on the house at my pub along with the prize money.”
She puffed her chest at mention of the pub she owned and ran with her family. “You won’t find a better lager in the Goldfish Bowl, my lord, and we make great food. Stop by any time.”
The fairy king smiled, accepting the urn from Notus. “Thank you, Notus, I’ll be sure to visit – inconspicuously, of course.”
Notus nodded, backing away. Morana could feel the woman’s eyes on her even as she stepped back, and wished she’d never spoken.
“I’ll need your glider to return to the city, of course,” the fairy king said, eyes still boring into Morana. “It was in the royal terminal at the palace, so forgive me if I assumed it belonged to a palace servant. Would you like me to leave it where I found it?”
Morana nodded. “Um, I – I’m not a servant,” she said, and cursed her tongue for only failing now that it had done the damage. “It – my mother, she works at the palace – and I have permission to keep it there -”
“I understand,” the fairy king said, still smiling beatifically. “I’ll leave it where I found it. A pleasure, Miss..?”
“Just Morana,” Morana said.
The fairy king nodded, and he harnessed himself back into Morana’s glider. “A pleasure, Morana,” he said, kicking the engine to life, and he launched off the ledge.
Morana watched her glider swoop away, becoming a red dot against the marble and sandstone of the city.
“You’re in so much trouble,” Kleio said coolly from where she’d stepped to Morana’s side.
“At least he paid attention to Morana,” Calypso muttered. “I didn’t realise your king was so cute, Esus. But he only had eyes for our Morana!”
“Maybe because she threatened to have him arrested,” Esus said frantically. “Stars, I hope he didn’t see me. Or recognise me. I’ll be in even more trouble if he thinks I’m friends with you. No offense, Mor.”
“None taken,” Morana said faintly. She had other worries whirling around her mind, eyes not focusing as she stared out across the city and the sand beyond, the jewel points of the other racers’ gliders against the azure sky, who’d long since taken off to nurse their loss at Notus’ pub.
She had a feeling she’d have to sneak to the Goldfish Bowl too, assuming she returned the borrowed glider without attracting yet more trouble.
Morana groaned. “Mother is going to murder me.”
The palace had become home to throngs of delegates and visitors from all three realms, invited to take part in the Harvest Festival along with the Aghian citizens who celebrated as much with relief as well as joy.
Calypso and Kleio welcomed natives from their own homeland, Aegea, home to the sirens – magic-endowed water-dwellers with the ability to shift shape as needed to traverse both land and ocean.
For the most part, Calypso and Kleio both seemed more human than Morana, but for subtly pointed ears and silver-irised eyes, and so did the delegates and tourists from Aegea. But Morana had seen the girls’ true shapes in the palace baths, where their legs melted into glittering-scaled tails, with fish-like fins that were as powerful as they were translucent and delicate.
From Epirus came the fairies; ethereal, ageless immortals with powerful magic and strange appearances, having long pointed ears, clawed hands, and turquoise eyes. Many of them had other strange features, like wings or odd-coloured skin and hair, and Morana had been ordered very strictly to stay away from them.
The only fairy she knew was Esus, a personal servant of the Aghian queen who’d been raised in the palace, and her mother disliked even his presence around Morana. She hated seeing fairies around her daughter, and it had taken Morana a long time to understand why.
It was too easy to see her truth, Morana’s mother explained once, when Morana was a child.
Morana shared the turquoise eyes of fairies, her ears were subtly pointed, and her nails longer and sharper than they should have been. She looked human for the most part, but it didn’t take much inspection to see there was something distinctly and unmistakably fae about her, and it was that connection that Morana’s mother feared people making – especially other fairies.
Morana wasn’t human, much as she resembled one, and she wasn’t even truly her mother’s child.
The amount of people made it difficult to sneak back into the terminal to return the gliders, but the group managed it. And sure enough, Morana’s rose-red glider was back where she’d left it at the last race, hanging up on the wall as if it had never been taken. She frowned when she saw it, after hanging her borrowed glider back up on the wall.
“Cheer up!” had been Calypso’s advice. “At least you have yours back, mine’s still lost!” she said. She grinned mischievously, pulling at Morana’s hands. “Come on, you have to help me find mine, now!”
The group retreated to the bathing room near the terminal and changed out of their racing clothes – for the girls, their racing uniform consisted of leggings and a band of fabric to bind the breasts, and for Esus this was just leggings, same as the fairy king and the other men who’d competed.
Esus changed into loose trousers that gathered at the calf, made of a silken emerald fabric. He rarely wore a shirt, so as to not obstruct his wings, but sometimes the girls would braid flowers or leaves into his hair. Today, he wore a silver vest and silver bangles, little emeralds glittering in his long ears, and Morana couldn’t resist twining a violet into his hair at each of his temples.
Calypso wore a sheer golden dress that was gathered at the waist by a gold belt and draped over one shoulder, leaving the other arm bare, accented with fine gold chains around her wrists and throat, and pearls from her ears. She swept golden glitter across her cheekbones and eyelids, and painted her lips a dark burgundy to match her hair. Morana made a crown of yellow red-tipped roses to pin in her hair.
Calypso was voluptuous and attractive, and knew it – this party dress reflected that, showing off just the top of her decolletage and emphasising her curves.
Kleio’s clothes were always simple and practical, and for the festival she wore a plain lavender chiton with silver wrist and ankle cuffs, her arms bare and unobstructed. Morana convinced her to let her twine a white daisy into the knot at the back of her half-up half-down hairstyle.
Morana wasn’t much better than Kleio, knowing her time at the festival was best spent being invisible. As such, she wore a black chiton with gold anklets and earrings, and prayed she wouldn’t be recognised. She kept only a single red rose in her unstyled hair, leaving it to curl down to her waist.
Satisfied with her appearance, Calypso twirled to show off, then looked out the door, placing her hand on her hip. “Are we ready to find my glider, then?”
The next hour was spent chasing Calypso through the palace as the siren alternated between flirting with guests and searching for her glider. Finding it proved a result of combining the two – Calypso had sidled up to an attractive siren with cropped ice-blue hair, who’d remembered the persimmon-coloured glider being seen abandoned in one of the courtyards. She’d led them to the courtyard, where they retrieved the glider, and Calypso promptly disappeared with the siren soon after.
Kleio had left soon after that, having to join the palace orchestra to entertain guests. She was a court musician, which meant getting called upon to entertain as needed. She’d wandered away with an apologetic smile, a viola case strapped to her back, promising to visit Morana in her mothers’ garden when the performance was over.
Then it had been just Morana and Esus, and it hadn’t taken long for guilt to take hold and Morana to insist she had to go home.
“Alright,” Esus had said with a smile. “Let me go with you, at least. It means less time I have to wait for Calypso and Kleio to finish being busy.”
Esus knew the way back to the garden almost better than Morana – he visited more often than Morana left, and was familiar with the way from the palace, so he took the lead in their journey back to the garden.
The garden was just outside of the city, not far from the palace. It was an artificial creation made possible by Morana’s mother’s magic, a force to be reckoned with even among other witches, and it served as her mothers’ sanctuary and prison.
The garden was a small pocket of forested wetland, a great marshy swamp with a house deep inside that Morana had been raised in. To reach it, visitors had to brave the marshy terrain and the alligators Morana’s mother kept in the waters.
Esus easily traversed it by way of his dragonfly wings, flying easily above the water. Morana crossed the water in a little boat with a solar-powered motor, and the alligators left her alone, seeing her as a familiar part of the territory.
The house was much like many of the houses in Aghios; a marble and sandstone behemoth with tall pillars and a tiled roof, overrun with vines and other climbing plants. Ducts and channels carried water throughout the house, gathering in pools and waterfalling down walls. Incomplete walls and half-roofs made much of the house open and interconnected with the environment beyond, which Morana’s mother kept carefully climate-controlled so they could never be bothered by the elements.
Solar towers stood around the house like sentinels; they were tall marble pillars that reached above the canopy, topped with solar panels to collect the sun’s energy so as to power the house’s electricity.
Morana and Esus walked though the front of the house into a small, open courtyard with a stone pool in the middle inhabited by water lilies and jewel-bright goldfish.
Morana’s mother stood by the pond, watching the fish swim within. Morana took a deep breath.
“I received a message from your aunt today,” Seto murmured.
She was a tall, willowy woman with nut-brown skin and an abundance of long, dark waves that fell all the way to the floor. She wore a billowing black gown that floated around her as her hair did, but for now all was still as she stood in front of the pond.
The most powerful witch in Aghios, the key to each year’s successful harvest, who spent every Harvest Festival hiding from the city and hoping none paid attention to her or her daughter’s existence.
In the desert location of Aghios, it took powerful control of the elements and environment to allow people to live there. Seto had the ability to bring rain or send it away; raise the temperature or lower it; and she could make plants grow and thrive, feeding and shading the people of the city. Plants were everywhere; crawling over buildings and sheltering them, in fields outside of the city centre where farmers oversaw crops, beehives and livestock, and without Seto feeding them with rain and warmth and life, they’d surely wither and die.
“Mother,” Morana said. Seto turned to face her, dark liquid eyes filled with a melancholy echoed by the dark swamp beyond.
“I told you to stay here,” Seto said. “Safe, away from those why might identify you and capture you.”
Her eyes flickered to Esus then, as if she expected Morana’s childhood friend to spirit her away suddenly. Esus hovered uncomfortably.
“Calypso and Kleio wanted to watch the decorations go up,” Morana said. “I wasn’t going to stay longer than that, but…”
“But you were side-tracked.” Seto sighed. “Darling mine, you know how this always goes.”
“I know,” Morana mumbled.
Seto’s eyes flicked to Esus again, and wisely the fairy decided to take his leave.
“I’ll see you after the festival,” he said softly, tapping Morana’s shoulder. “Give me or the girls a call if you want company, alright? I’m sure Calypso can tear herself away from the fresh meat long enough if you really need.”
Morana giggled at that. “I will, and thank you,” she said. “Enjoy the festival, Esus.”
Esus slunk out of the courtyard, leaving Morana and her mother alone.
Seto turned her attention back to the pond. “Your aunt,” she said. “Dear sister Nomos.”
Her voice held the slightest trace of sarcasm. Morana knew her mother loved her aunt, but sometimes she wondered why – it seemed Nomos brought her vexation more often than not.
“She informed me you were seen participating in one of the glider races today,” Seto said, and her voice took on an exasperated note. “Today, Mor? On Harvest Day? You’re lucky more people didn’t see you – although, if Nomos was telling the truth, it seems you only needed to be seen by one person – the last person I would want to see you.”
The fairy king. Morana gulped.
“Worse, she says you yelled at him,” Seto said. She massaged her forehead with one slender hand. “You threatened to have him arrested!”
“He stole my glider,” Morana blurted out. “I didn’t know who he was!”
Seto sighed. “Well, he’s seen you now,” she murmured. “And worse, you made yourself memorable. Oh, Mor.”
Morana shifted uncomfortably, the weight of her mother’s disappointment sitting on her shoulders. Seto hadn’t even said as much, but Morana could feel it as heavily as the humid, thick air of the swamp.
“We’d best hope he miraculously forgets,” Seto murmured. “With any luck, my dear sister will plie him with enough drink and women for him to forget you completely. She has a skill for that. I wonder if it compensates for her lack of skill in leadership.”
Morana knew nobody could hear them in the swamp, but her ears burned at her mother’s treasonous words.
Still, as the sister of the reigning Queen Nomos who ruled over their city and the majority of the human realm, and as the witch who stood between the city and starvation, Seto had more leeway than most to criticise her older sister.
Seto turned to walk close to Morana, reaching out to stroke her shoulder. “You know why we do this,” she said softly. “You know I couldn’t bear to lose you.”
“I know,” Morana said. “I know why it’s important.”
“Then why, Mor?” Seto asked. “Every year, every Harvest Festival – the one time of the year the city crawls with them. And you always run off, Mor. You always slip away into the festival and leave me fretting, terrified one of them recognised what you are and took you away. What if one year they took you?”
Morana kept silent. She knew this lecture, as she received it every year.
And yet, she could never explain why she didn’t do as her mother said and stay safe in her home every year. She couldn’t explain the need to slip out and explore the festival, marvel at the parade or the tourists.
And maybe that was it – the tourists. The allure of the fairy visitors, the fascination with them and their familiarity, strange as they were.
“One day they’ll take you, and I’ll be powerless to stop them,” Seto fretted. “Even Nomos couldn’t stop them, because they’d be within their right, Mor. You must know how much I hate that fact.”
Morana knew. She knew she wasn’t human, knew that Seto’s fear lay in the fact that as much as Morana was the child she raised, Morana wasn’t her child.
Seto’s true child had been abducted at birth, stolen illegally by some unknown fairy, and Morana was the infant left squalling in another child’s crib. A changeling – created to resemble the human child stolen away, but no magic could erase Morana’s true origins completely. Even if someone could erase her turquoise eyes and pointed ears, Morana would always remain strange, fae.
Her magic ability didn’t help. For the most part, she mimicked her mother – growing little bushes and shrubs, tending beehives, calling forth flowers to twine in her friends’ hair. And in many ways, it made her feel more like her mother’s daughter – their shared ability to nurture plants in way non-magical people couldn’t do.
But if she’d truly been her mother’s child, a human daughter, then it would have been seriously unlikely that she’d ever have inherited her mother’s magic and been born a witch. So being able to ape her mother’s magic made her feel even less like her mother’s daughter, sometimes.
It was too obvious that Morana wasn’t human, was an alien in a land not of her own, and so her mother strived to keep her hidden, invisible.
Seto had lost one child to fairies already, and she’d spent the last twenty years determined not to lose another to them. Even if that meant keeping Morana from her people and her homeland.
Morana shut her eyes. “I’m tired, mother,” she said softly. “The race wore me out.”
Seto nodded, clucking her tongue gently. “Go to sleep, then,” she said. “I’ll be right here.”
Morana knew that. Seto was always there, even when she wasn’t. The garden was an extension of herself, and as long as Morana was within it, she was surrounded by her mother. She never had to fear her mother abandoning her, much as sometimes she wished Seto would allow her some space.
Morana left the courtyard, retreating to her own bedroom. It had been hers since she was found in the crib that once stood inside it, and it was achingly familiar, a safe space within the safe space her mother made.
She fell into the bed, and realised her excuse was a truth – she was bone-tired, muscles aching from the race.
She pondered on the aftermath of it, what her mother had said.
If it was all true, if the dark stranger who’d stolen her glider was indeed King Aides, then she was in a deeply dangerous position.
If he realised she was a changeling, a fairy in blood, he may insist on bringing her back to Epirus. He would be within his right to take custody of an Epiran citizen, even if Morana’s home had always been within Aghios. He could force her to go to a homeland she’d never seen, and nobody could stop him.
She wondered if he’d noticed. He’d been staring at her so intently, it was hard to imagine he didn’t see her turquoise blue eyes. She didn’t think anyone had looked at her like that, before.
A tugging flutter pulled at the inside of Morana’s stomach, and in truth, she couldn’t work out if it was fear or excitement.
Later, it grew too much to ignore.
Morana snuck out of the garden for the second time during the festival, and went to find her friends.
She didn’t try to call them until she was well out of the swamp, wandering the streets – the parade had long since gone, and in its wake left drunken revellers roaming the streets. She found a relatively quiet alleyway and tapped the scallop shell in her palm – it was a piece of Aegean tech, a small communication device powered by a solar battery.
“I want to speak to Calypso, Kleio and Esus,” she murmured as she held the shell up to her ear.
Before long, her friends answered, their voices mingling and echoing from the shell in her palm.
“What’s up, Mor?” Calypso said first. “You feeling lonely in the swamp yet? Fear not, I almost have all my clothes on, I’ll be there in a tick!”
“No, Cal, I’m not in the garden,” Morana said. “I’m back in the city. I want to find that damned king.”
Esus squeaked loudly. “No, you can’t! You know what will happen if he figures out you’re a changeling. And, uh, think about how much trouble I would get into.”
“You’ll be fine, Esus,” Kleio said. “Mor, why do you want to find Aides? I thought the matter with the glider was settled.”
“Not quite,” Morana said. “Where can I meet you guys?”
“Where else?” Esus said. “The Goldfish Bowl. Notus extended happy hour for the festival, and she might let us have a free drink each if we’re polite to her. And who knows, we might meet the King there, seeing as he has an open invitation to the establishment. Maybe he’ll shout us drinks.”
The Goldfish Bowl was packed when Morana made her way inside, dodging elbows and drunken gropers. She pushed her way to the bar, where she found her friends already waiting – Calypso still pink-cheeked and her dress askew, Kleio looking tired from the performance, and Esus still effervescent and manic. Behind the bar, Notus flitted from patron to patron, not noticing Morana’s entrance.
Calypso pushed a glass of amber liquid towards Morana – a sweet drink called ambrosia, as popular as beer or wine in Aghios. It wasn’t as alcoholic, but it still gave the drinker a pleasant buzz, and Morana loved the honey-like aftertaste.
“He’s here,” Kleio said as soon as Morana sat down.
“I thought he was just being polite to Notus when he said he’d visit,” Esus said nervously. “Turns out he was good on his word. He’s in a private booth now, and apparently isn’t to be disturbed.”
“Too bad,” Morana said. She’d had only a few sips of ambrosia, too little too soon for the alcohol to take effect, but the warmth in her stomach bolstered her. “We’re going to have a chat with him. Where’s his booth?”
She stood up with her glass, and followed Esus as he wound through the throng to the curtained booths at the back of the pub.
He pointed to one on the far end, in the corner. “He’s there, but Mor, please,” he said. He chewed his bottom lip, looking afraid. “What if he recognises you?”
Morana shrugged. “With luck, he won’t,” she said, and pushed open the curtain.
She wasn’t sure what she expected. Half of her was afraid he’d be there with a lover, and they’d all be horribly embarrassed. But for some reason, seeing the fairy king sitting with his feet propped on the cushions, nursing a cup of ambrosia, surprised her more.
He looked a proper king now, changed out of his racing leggings into a black sarong of silky, undulating fabric that wrapped around his hips, fastened in a knot below his navel. He wore silver earrings, bangles and rings, and an ornate silver chest piece set with silver chains and small gems. A crown of obsidian spikes jutted up from his hair, and he wore a long, open black robe with billowing sleeves over the sarong.
He blinked at her for a moment, before regaining composure. “This booth is occupied.”
“I know,” Morana said, drawing the curtain and sitting down. She faintly heard Esus squeak in horror, but the sound was muffled by the curtain.
Aides scowled at her. “I came here for peace and quiet. You are neither, as we both know.”
“I know,” Morana said. “But I need to speak with you.”
“About what?” Aides asked. He narrowed his turquoise eyes at her.
Morana glanced at the table, suddenly afraid. The worst, and most likely scenario, was that he would recognise her as a changeling. He’d have her taken into custody, and she’d never see her mother again.
“Is this about the glider?” Aides asked. He chewed his lip. “I inspected it thoroughly when I returned it, and I was sure I left it in perfect condition. If that’s not the case, tell me what can be fixed and I’ll recompense you.”
Morana blinked. “Oh, the glider – well, no, but I was wondering, why? Why take my glider? You undoubtedly had permission to take a royal glider, but you took mine. Why?”
Aides stared into his ambrosia. “I liked the colour,” was all he said.
Morana felt frustration welling in her chest. “Come on,” she said, irritated. “There’s got to be more than that. You could have taken any glider. Any one. Why mine?”
Aides sighed. “There’s no trick to it,” he said. “No motive. Red is my favourite colour, simply, and I’m not a wild fan of purple. I’m not a regular visitor here, so it wasn’t known to me that gliders of colours other than purple would be privately owned – as they were in the royal terminal, I assumed all of the gliders would be royal property and free for me to borrow. It was an honest mistake, I promise.”
Morana nodded, looking into her drink. She didn’t feel satisfied. She wanted to ask if he’d noticed her eyes, if he’d realised her truth, but that was beyond too dangerous.
Either he didn’t know, and every second here was dangerously close to revealing herself and winding up in fairy custody.
Or he’d known since the race, and for whatever reason wasn’t inclined to take her into custody. And that was what made her so maddeningly curious – if he knew, why hadn’t he pointed it out yet?
When she looked up, she realised the king’s eyes were fixed on her. He was lounging back against the pillows, head tilted and resting on his hand.
“Alright,” Morana said. “Why did you come to the race? You’re a king, and a foreigner. You shouldn’t have even known about the race, let alone competed in it. So, why? Why take my glider and compete?”
Aides tapped his cheek. “I was bored,” he said. “The queen knew about the race, and she told me. You must know Nomos knows most of what goes on under her nose. Stars, I believe she actually used to compete in the races when she was younger. So, she told me there was a race taking place today. I think she had a mind that I might like to watch. And I was bored, and not in the mood to simply spectate, so I decided to compete. She was called into a meeting with her king and advisors, and I took the opportunity to slip away and enter the race.”
“Just like that?” Morana asked.
“Just like that,” Aides replied.
Morana looked down again, chewing her lip. She could still feel the fairy king’s eyes on her, appraising her, and as much as she’d gotten her answers, she still felt dissatisfied.
The king smirked.
“You’re an odd one,” he said. “You confronted me without even a word of introduction, then you barge into my private space without a word of apology. You interrogate me as if there was no wrongdoing on your part, as if I don’t have the right to participate in your city’s activities as a guest of your own queen. You have no manners, and no concept of how to interact with royalty. Yet, you’re Nomos’ niece, aren’t you?”
Morana’s mouth fell open in shock, and she couldn’t think of anything to say. Yet it kept thundering through her head – he knew, and he still had said nothing. He’d only said he knew she was Nomos’ niece.
But according to public knowledge, Nomos had no nieces. The hedonistic Aghian queen had plenty of children and heirs, thanks to her vast sexual appetite and no shortage of lovers, but her several siblings had either produced no children, or sons. She had several siblings, including Morana’s mother and her partner-king brother – an aloof, eternally discontent man with his own consort lover, as while partnered as king and queen, being siblings meant the pair would always have a platonic relationship. Despite this, his children with his consort were considered as much Nomos’ children as they were King Xenia’s, at least officially. However, he’d had no daughters. There were no nieces.
Except for Morana, the hidden one. The one kept secret because she was a changeling.
If Aides knew she was Nomos’ niece, he’d know why she’d been hidden.
“Nomos’ kin should have better manners,” he continued. “You’re still royal blood, as far down the line of succession as you are. Did your mother never see fit to teach you proper behaviour?”
He narrowed his eyes at her.
Morana swallowed. “I was never supposed to be seen,” she said quietly. “If you know who I am, you’ll know why.”
“I do know.”
Morana held her breath.
“I know I ought to have my attendants in here now, to detain you. I know I ought to take you into Epiran custody and bring you back to the realm you’re a true citizen of. I know Aghian law doesn’t prevent me from that, and neither your witch mother nor Nomos could stop me if I decided to bring you back.”
The fairy king smiled.
“But I won’t,” he said. “Not today, at least. It’s not fair to wrench people from their mothers with so little warning, is it?”
Morana let out her breath, relaxing.
“Why?” she asked. “I yelled at you.”
“Maybe its because you yelled at me,” Aides said, shrugging. “I don’t know. I do know I’ll have to bring you to Epirus eventually, though. I can’t stall forever. But I won’t force you to come with me just yet.”
Morana nodded. “Thank you,” she said.
Aides narrowed his eyes again. “Is that why you came?” he asked. “To see if I knew your truth, and if I would detain you?”
“I think so,” Morana admitted. “And… I think I just wanted to see you.”
Aides’ eyes went wide with surprise, and for a split second he didn’t look like a king.
He looked like a boy, off guard and startled, speechless.
There was a loud smashing sound, and a cry went up through the bar. The pub was beginning to get raucous; her need to keep unnoticed aside, it was beginning to be unsafe to stay at the bar.
Morana glanced at the curtain. “I’d better go,” she said.
Aides nodded. “Next time I see you will probably be when I take you back to Epirus,” he said darkly. “You’ll need to be prepared, little secret.”
Morana’s cheeks flushed at the nickname, and she quickly opened the curtain and dashed out of the booth before Aides could notice.
Outside, she found Esus, Calypso, and Kleio huddled outside the curtain, guilty expressions outlining the fact that they’d just been eavesdropping.
“Come on,” she said. “We’d better get going.”
“He knew,” Kleio said. “He knew. But he didn’t take you.”
“He’ll have to eventually,” Morana explained. “But… no. He must have known at the race, but even then, he said nothing.”
“You’ll have to tell Seto,” Esus said.
Morana shivered. She didn’t want to tell her mother. Seto would rage, and then grieve, and the garden would be a storm of her wrath against the fairy king. And while none of it would be directed at her, she didn’t want that. She didn’t want her mother to be so distressed. She didn’t want to make that happen.
But she’d be taken eventually. It was only a matter of time. And when she was, Seto would grieve.
Morana swallowed hard. “I need to go home,” she said.
Calypso squeezed her shoulder. “Call us anytime you need company, or to talk, or even to just hang out, okay?” she said. “Even if its just to gush about how that gorgeous king totally has the hots for you.”
Morana snorted, then nodded. Kleio squeezed her hand, smiling faintly. “Just let us know before you disappear,” she said, and the full weight of what was about to happen weighed on Morana.
She was going to be taken, to a homeland she’d never seen, to a land that may as well be foreign. She’d be in the custody of a dark, brooding king whom she hadn’t started off on the best of terms with.
And her mother would grieve. Her friends would miss her.
She would miss them.
What was she going to do?