Connor barely slept that night.
Upon seeing Connor at the top of the landing, gawking at the mysterious young woman and the large stranger, Mother had dashed up the stairs and chased him into his bedroom. As if he were a child. He covered his face with his hands just thinking about it. He probably looked like a child, running away from his short but fierce mother, back to the safety of his bedroom.
He lay awake listening. In hushed tones, they shooed Fingal out of the house. Connor peeked out the window, watching Fingal’s dark shape trudge into the rain and head south. Where was he going? He’d climbed back into bed and stiffened as there was more activity on the stairs. Mother spoke in harsh whispers to the mysterious half fae, who barely said a word as the guest bedroom door across from his room creaked open and then shut again.
Then, his parents headed back to their bedroom, down the hallway—and Connor’s drowsy mind swam through a torrent of questions. He dreamt he’d entered his parents’ bedroom to demand answers, but it wasn’t their bedroom, it was an endless sea of darkness, and the smell of fresh roses was all around him, so sickeningly strong that his nose hairs twitched and he nearly gagged.
He woke just after sunrise, as the long orange rays permeated the window pane. He sat up wearily. Across the hall, he heard the guest room door open, and the soft padding of bare feet on the wooden floor. She was awake. He listened to her descend the stairs, and then threw himself out of bed, determined.
If he could catch her alone, without his parents interfering, maybe he could get some answers. Like why she’s a fugitive. Why he’d never heard of Fingal before. Why she only had half a wing. He felt her magic even though he wasn’t in the same room as her—was that normal? Perhaps for a powerful adult fae, but a young half-breed his age? It seemed unlikely, at least from his research on the subject.
And shamefully, he thought, he wanted to know why she looked so human.
He felt guilty for thinking it, but all of the artist renderings of half-breeds made them out to be hideous, lumbering monsters. Had he been reading anti-fae propaganda this entire time? That wouldn’t surprise him—Ashdown was filled with human veterans who cared little for the fae and the library was stacked accordingly.
He left his bedroom and toddled down the hallway and peered over the landing, as he had hours ago. But he was too late—the girl wasn’t alone. She stood awkwardly by the table, one hand carefully placed on a chair back. She wore her dried cloak, even now, as if she wanted to leave. It dawned on him a moment later: no, she wore the garment in case the Donmaghs had unexpected visitors. If one of her wings slipped out, it would only raise questions and perhaps suspicion within the community.
Mother stoked the fire in the stove. Had she gone back to sleep? If Mother was awake, Da was sure to be close by. Perhaps he was in the library.
Mother glanced up at him, revealing the dark circles under her eyes.
There was no point in him hovering on the landing. He’d already proven he was bad at spying.
“Good morning,” he said, trying to sound cheerful.
Yet Mother barely acknowledged Connor as he came down the stairs. Even the girl gave him a passing glance.
“I wasn’t sure if you’d be awake,” Mother said, without turning around.
Connor opened his mouth to reply but the girl beat him to it. “I don’t sleep much.”
He didn’t want to be rude and stare, but she didn’t seem tired, despite her late arrival and early rise. Fae normally slept for four hours a night, at least according to the books he’d read. Connor couldn’t imagine sleeping so little. Eight hours seemed barely enough most mornings, and with the eventful night, his head was spinning and his body ached to return to the comfort of his mattress and the down in his blankets.
The fire stoked to her satisfaction, Mother slid the heavy lid across the stovetop and finally faced the two of them. She levelled the visitor with a deadly glare. “Tea?” she asked sharply.
He’d never seen his Mother so hostile before. Connor couldn’t help but wonder if this was how she was in the war. Or what the girl had done to deserve this treatment.
“Yes, please,” the young half-fae replied. She finally sat down at the kitchen table, trapped by hospitality.
Mother set a heavy kettle over the stove. “What do you eat nowadays?”
The fae looked guilty. “Whatever you have is fine.”
Mother made a disgruntled noise but retrieved a loaf of bread from the box on the counter and sliced it. The sound of the knife deftly hitting the board with every stroke reminded him grimly that she knew how to use it as a weapon. What if she turned it on the young fae? Would he come to his mother’s aid? His magic was hardly battle ready, and no doubt the fae’s power was far stronger than his.
The young fae cast her gaze downwards. She didn’t appear to be a threat.
“Is there anything I can do to help, Mother?” Connor asked, trying to clear the air.
She gave Connor a surprised glance. “Your shift doesn’t start for another hour. I’m surprised you’re out of bed.”
He made a face, choosing to ignore her comments about his sleeping habits. “Before I go to work, I’d like to know why we’re harbouring a fae. Especially since I didn’t know we knew any fae.”
“We don’t,” Connor’s mother said, as the young fae looked up, stirred by his confidence, and said, “I’m not exactly a fae.”
She smiled at him strangely, and he felt an internal tug of magic—as if a look was all it took for her to know everything about him. And yet, it worked both ways: for magic could always sense other magic. He quickly looked away, his face reddening. Everything he had learned had been written down and printed by someone like his parents. She was powerful, far more powerful and knowledgeable than he would ever be. “The fae—I’ve only seen a few in person, they’re not really accepted here, but I’ve seen illustrations, and you don’t look like them.”
“Connor, this isn’t polite conversation,” Mother said dismissively. She brought a plate of bread and a jar of oxenberry jam to the table and placed it before their guest.
“Sorry,” Connor said quietly. What she meant was the term half-breed had connotations in every corner of the realm, but none of the definitions seemed to apply to their guest, because for whatever reason she had been spared the “afflictions” and “imperfections” of her fellow half-fae.
The Evil Queen’s terminology.
He grabbed cups from the cupboard above the counter and served himself, his mother, and young woman some tea. “It won’t be hard to keep you from the Imperial Guards. There’s only a few stationed here. You could hide in the spare room. The library might keep you more entertained, though. If that’s all right?”
She seemed to think about the suggestion as the heavy doors to the library opened and closed. Heavy footsteps filled the corridor that joined the Donmagh residence and the library. Donnoch, Connor’s father, emerged from the archway beneath the stairs. He carried a scroll wrapped with twine and his fingers were stained black from ink. “We’ll have to go to the supplier today. We’re out of paper.”
Mother grabbed the pot from the stove and slammed it on the table. “Again? But we just got a shipment.”
“Yes, and we used it to print The Glory of Freedom Day: An Isleman’s Account.”
“That cursed tome.” She sat down, ignoring the dripping cup Connor had served her, cradling her unsteady hands around the round pot instead.
All of the human veterans he’d encountered cringed at the wide-spread appeal of the war stories. Now that words could be replicated without the use of scribes, the post-war afflictions veterans commonly experienced – the shakes and the nightmares – had reportedly become worse. Connor would pretend not to hear his father and mother crying in the night; he didn’t need to ask them about the horrors they’d seen.
The young woman gripped the table edge and implored them, “Is there anything I can do? Please, let me help.”
“You’ve done enough,” Mother muttered bitterly.
Da sighed and sat down next to the young woman. “That’s not fair, Nora.”
“Isn’t it? The girl killed—”
The word stung Connor fiercely. It hit his mother too, even though she was the one who had said it.
She stood and paced the kitchen; at least he could relate to that, that was something his mother would normally do when his parents fought.
The half-fae looked pale. She did not deny or offer alternative phrasing. Instead, she nibbled on the plain bread in silence. This seemingly harmless young woman before them—had killed?
Connor was silent, for he knew if he spoke now, he would learn nothing. Perhaps that was why she and Fingal were on the run. But why hide murder from the Imperial Guards? Just knowing a crime had been committed, no matter how old it was, Connor was now a participant in the deception, which felt just as bad as being accused of murder.
“Let’s not drudge up the past,” Da said, not unkindly. “Fingal said he’d return in three days. Right now, what matters is that we keep her safe until then. That means, no telling anyone that we have a guest. All right?”
“R-right,” Connor said hesitantly. “But–”
Da held up the scroll. “You’re going to go down to the market and bring new paper rolls back. We need three.”
Connor protested. “The cart’s still being repaired at the stables. I’d have to do it by hand, one by one. That will take all morning.”
“Yes. I’ll take your shift in the library.”
“Can’t you help?”
“No, I have to help your mother set the type. We have two volumes to print before tomorrow.”
“All right.” Connor turned with his tea, heading for the library connected to the house, but he halted and turned abruptly, their mysterious potential murderess momentarily forgotten. “Wait. The paper. It’s fifty airgid per roll.”
“I’ll get you the money from the safe,” Da said.
“But yesterday you said we had less than two hundred airgid in the safe. One-eighty, if I’m remembering the number on the ledger correctly.” Connor set down his tea on the counter. “I knew you’d do this. I knew it.”
“What are you talking about, sweetheart?” Mother said. She smiled at him sweetly now, but beneath her stare was a warning that said: do not do this today, Connor.
Connor balled his hand into a fist. “If we spend the money on the paper, and counting the money you gave to that man, Fingal, there won’t be enough for a carriage to the capital. To pay for my entrance exam. I saved half, as promised. You said you’d help me with the other half, if I worked hard in the library.”
“We did promise that,” Mother said slowly, exchanging glances with her husband. “Business has been brisk this year. But the expenses have nearly cleaned us out. We…”
“You don’t want me to train at the Tower,” Connor finished.
“It’s…I don’t know if that’s possible,” Mother said with a sad smile.
“What do you mean?” Connor asked, alarmed. “It’s possible. I have the potential. I really think I can pass. I’ve been studying every night. The entrance exam is in a fortnight. I have to be there.”
“You don’t have to be,” Da interjected.
“If I want to work in the Tower, be a wielder, yes, I do.”
“You can always take it next year,” Mother said as she retrieved and sipped her tea.
Connor looked from his mother, to his father, to the young woman. “It’s because of her, isn’t it.”
“He has magic,” the young woman started to say. “He has to train–”
“It’s not just her,” his mother interrupted. “It’s a lot of things. By next year, you’ll have enough to go. You’ll be of age and you won’t need our letters of permission. Not to mention, you’ll be more prepared.”
“I would be more prepared for the exam if you hadn’t saddled me with these extra shifts!”
The lamp in the upstairs hall flickered. Was that him? Perhaps he was stronger than he thought.
“We just want to give you another option,” Mother said. “There’s no guarantee with the exam.”
“I can take it as many times as I like.”
“But you must pay more, each time! You’re safe here, in Ashdown.” She went to embrace her only son, but he pulled away from her.
“Tell me why she’s really here. Who she really is,” Connor demanded, pointing at the half-fae.
“Fingal, my protector, brought me here,” said the young woman, seemingly tired of others talking for her.
His mother scoffed. Da sighed. “Fingal is an old friend from the war, Connor. This is his…charge. They’re running because…you know, the Imperial Guards don’t like half-fae. They cause a lot of problems. Not that they are inherently bad. Uh…” Embarrassed, he looked to the young woman, as if she had to clean up the verbal mess he’d made.
“I’m here because there are dangerous forces searching for me,” she said finally, casting a suspicious glance at the three members of the Donmagh family.
Next time, on Wingtorn.
Connor learns more about Ree’s mission.