Written by Marissa Lingen
Illustrated by Verónica Casas
The real difference between humans and fey is not the magic: there are human sorcerers, so thick on the ground some places you can hardly take a step without kicking one. (I do not advocate kicking sorcerers.) It isn't that we were born outside and they were born (or hatched or constructed) under there. Or maybe that is the difference, but not the crux of it, like saying a Russian is different from a Brazilian because their houses are far apart. There's always something else that's the heart of the matter.
And something else with the fey comes down to this: they only know how to make bargains. My bowl of milk for my housecleaning. Your freedom for your pot of gold. My answer to a riddle for your spell—but I get ahead of myself.
When my parents were young—and my parents were young for four hundred years under the hill—the fey got the notion that they might breed two changelings together and get from the continuing union a seemingly endless stream of changelings. Or at least an easier stream of changelings than the ones they'd gotten stealing from human cradles.
After her twenty-third month of pregnancy, my mother decided that this was not, in fact, the solution to anyone's problems. She was quite firm on that point. The Queen of Air and Darkness herself cowered when my mother yelled that day. They let her out on the hillside to finish the job in a mere three more months. In Victorian Ireland. With no money nor husband nor kin nearer than her nine-times-great-nieces, who were in Estonia. My mother spoke neither English nor Gaelic.
I'd like to attribute that lapse to them being fey, but humans sometimes turn out clueless, too.
Mother really wasn't sure which was worse: making her way as a single parent in that place and time or throwing her lot and mine back in with the fey. They decided not to give her a choice. After all, the point of breeding changelings had been to get more changelings. So back we came, both of us howling and red in the face.
I am told that I howled for three days running. I am told that I smiled only for three people: my mother, a fire elemental called Kezhzh, and the yeti who ended up raising me, a sweet soul named Alits. (Alits, in our 120 years together, has shared many theories of gender with me. None of them has impinged even slightly on Alits's own experience of the subject. I was sixteen before I understood that the gendered pronouns existed.)
Alits raised me in part because Alits was the only one who could do it without ear protection for the first two years, and in part because my mother had gone entirely mad. When she stopped howling, a few hours after being brought underhill, she wouldn't stop smiling. You can't leave a baby with someone like that. Even the fey know that much. So it was off to Alits's place for me, with tiny little mittens and a tiny little squirrel fur hood.
They allowed my father to visit on alternate Thursdays, when they could remember it was a Thursday in the first place. Thursday was not an important concept to the High Sidhe. Kezhzh was allowed to visit whenever he could stand the cold, which was more often than alternate fuzzy Thursdays. They taught me how to negotiate with a brownie and how to call tomten and which oceans were suitable for selkies.
They never taught me how to go outside.
It wasn't for lack of asking—there was about a decade when I asked Alits every single day. It didn't feel like a decade to me, but it must have to Alits. Finally I decided that Alits had won the battle of wills, and I would have to do something else to win the war.
But it turned out Alits had gotten there before me, too. I was a favored changeling, small and winsome, and I bargained for knowledge easily, for favors, for treats and tricks and games. I cajoled my way into more than one place I shouldn't have been, and there was always Alits's looming furry presence to bail me out if I got into trouble. But that same looming furry presence made sure I was not going anywhere outside.
Finally luck was with me. I saw a rock sprite caught in a mite trap. He was a bright purple, veined with white; at first I thought that was his fury at the trap, but it turned out he was that color all the time.
"Want some help getting out of there?" I asked casually.
"No!" snapped the rock sprite. "Stay away from me, changeling! I do not accept your help! "He bared little white teeth at me, ready to snap if I came closer.
I shrugged and settled on the hill next to him. "Suit yourself." I watched him struggle. He glared. "I could make that go a lot faster, you know."
"I know, Alits taught you," he said, stopping to rest and think. "But I don't care to owe you a favor for it."
I shrugged again. He started to chant a spell. I whistled tunelessly.
"Do you mind?"
"Not at all," I said. "I was just thinking of the song I was going to sing tonight."
"I hope you sing better than you whistle," he said.
"I do. I'm singing at the revel Bald Obix is throwing. They're having all kinds of music and spell contests and dancing—of course dancing—and Alits is making banana enchiladas. "Alits's banana enchiladas, with molé sauce and cherries, wrapped in flattened fairy cakes, are famous.
"Oh, yeah?" said the rock sprite. He was trying to feign disinterest, but I had the equivalent of five years of being thirteen. I can do disinterest like nobody's business. He didn't even seem to notice that he'd freed himself from the trap.
"Yeah," I said. "It's too bad you won't be able to be there. It's really something to see."
"Maybe I'll stop by," he said.
"Oh, I don't know. They have a door troll who'll ask you a riddle. If you don't know the answer, he won't let you in."
"I'm good at riddles," said the rock sprite.
I gave him my best skeptical look.
"How tough are troll riddles anyway?"
"The troll didn't make up the riddle," I said. "Canufiel the Brown made up the riddle."
The rock sprite looked daunted, and rightly so. You don't survive long as a High Sidhe if you can't ask killer riddles. Sometimes literally.
"I'll tell you the answer, though," I said.
The rock sprite's little purple features twisted. "For what?"
"Oh, nothing much, really," I said. "You know how generous we humans are."
He looked even more suspicious. "Tell me."
"All I want to know is how to open a door in the hill."
"Oh, no," he said hastily. "Oh, no, no no no. Alits would kill me."
"Alits is a big teddy bear," I said. "And Alits would never have to know."
"Forget it," he said. "Just forget it. I can make you a lovely necklace, charmed to give you the voice of a bard—"
"Bards don't know when to shut up," I said.
"To give you the seeming of any creature underhill."
"I got bored with shapeshifter games when I was a toddler. They always smell like themselves."
"To let you fly."
I rolled my eyes.
"Anything!" he screamed. "Anything but that! If Alits wanted you to leave the underhill, Alits would have taught you how! Alits has big furry white arms for ripping rock sprites to bits! Alits has pointy vicious ivory teeth for rending rock sprites' crunchy flesh from their bones! Alits has—"
"Alits has no idea that you're talking to me," I pointed out.
When he didn't immediately reply, I knew I had him.
So I whispered the answer to the riddles, and the rock sprite—glancing furtively around him—talked his way around the spell for me. They have a kind of code worked out, so that spells can be taught without being cast. This is particularly useful for battle magics. It also comes in handy when you don't particularly want to shout about what spell you're learning.
I would have to wait for the right time to open the door to the upper world. The rock sprite was a nuisance at the party, but no one knew I'd let him in, and I certainly wasn't going to tell them. He stayed well clear of me, too—not wanting Alits to have any reason to question him (or rip his arms off) when I went above, I suppose.
I finally got my chance when one of the Puck's cousins, a straggle-haired beauty called Fee, went missing. Or rather, when everyone noticed she was missing; she had been gone at least a month. No one could be sure. But they all turned out in force to find her. They suspected foul play. So did I, but what I suspected even more strongly is that they would all be distracted and wouldn't notice one more excursion outside, more or less.
I had just finished drawing the first spiral in silver dust when the rock sprite appeared. He was in such a hurry he had lost his hat. I had never seen a sprite without a hat. "Stop! Stop it! Now is not the time!"
"Now is the perfect time," I said, adding the first of the five runes. "Everyone is distracted."
"They'll be convinced that whoever took Fee took you, too!"
"So?" I said, drawing the second rune. "I'll be back before they notice, and if they did notice, I'd just explain to them that I wasn't abducted. End of story."
"You've never been out on the surface before, and you're not going alone!" The rock sprite leapt into the middle of my spell and spread its short, squatty limbs as far as it could reach. I sniffed and continued with the third rune. When the spell was complete, I said the word of power. The rock sprite squeaked in annoyance, but the hill fell away beneath him, and a door to the outside glowed.
He picked himself up and stood, arms akimbo, in the opening. "Go back, changeling!"
"Back? I'll go through you if I have to."
"Oh, yeah?" said the rock sprite. "Awfully tough for a human, aren't you?"
"You ready to find out?"
He deflated suddenly and mumbled something I couldn't make out.
"What was that?"
"I said, let me come with you."
I stared down at him. "I don't need a babysitter."
"It would make me feel better. Then I might have some chance of throwing myself on Alits's mercy and living through all this."
"I told you, she won't find out."
"I'll go with you," said the rock sprite in a slightly desperate voice. "Let me go with you."
If I stuck around arguing much longer, some human was going to notice a door out from under the hill, or the spell would shut down, or something. "Yeah, all right, come on," I said.
I'm not sure what I expected of the outside. Here's what I got: the colors are predictable, mostly. Under the hill, we have Sidhe ladies with eyes green as grass, but more often than not, we don't have grass green as grass. Things outside stay where you put them, or if they don't, you can see what happens to them instead.
Outside, things made sense in ways I didn't know I'd been missing.
"How strange," I said aloud.
"Yes, isn't it?" said the rock sprite. "And now you've seen the outside. Come on, then, back we go."
"You go ahead if you want," I said. "I'm going exploring."
"Outside isn't like under the hill!"protested the rock sprite. "You can't just go exploring!"
"Relax," I said. "I have a knife in my boots and an entire yeti's arsenal of defensive spells at my fingertips. What more could I need?"
Scuttling after me, the rock sprite did not reply.
We walked down a dusty road made of a drab, smelly black material. The rock sprite tried to stay in the grass, chattering at the human machines that passed us. I had no idea how much time had passed—not because it felt variable, but because it felt solid for the first time in my life—when we saw human buildings. The ones with labels said they were a bank, a church, and a diner.
"I'm hungry, sprite," I said. "You hide in the bushes. I'm going into that diner."
"Oh, no," moaned the rock sprite. "No, no, you can't. Really really. Alits will—"
"Kill you. You've said that part. Haven't I promised to protect you from Alits? Are you doubting my oath, sprite?"
"It's only effective if you stick around to fulfill it," said the sprite.
It dawned on me what he was saying. "Wait, so if I eat something up here—"
"Some things are fine," said the sprite hastily. "Want an apple? We can get you an apple. Or some nice cookies. Some humans do okay with cookies. The disir trained—"
"What can't I have?"
The rock sprite, intelligently, said nothing.
"It could be pomegranates," I mused, keeping a sharp eye on his face. "But no, pomegranates kept Persephone Underhill, not above ground."
"Hades is certainly further down than Underhill." The rock sprite sniffed. But he looked nervous.
"Not a pomegranate, then. But something related to a pomegranate. Another red fruit? No, no." I chewed on my lip. "Magic doesn't work that way. It's—the opposite of a pomegranate."
The rock sprite closed his eyes. I knew I was right. But what was the opposite of a pomegranate? What was he sure they would have in a human diner? I had never been to one, of course, but the Daughters of Ran had had a party with a diner theme a few months back, or maybe it was years. Milkshakes, burgers, fruit pies, and . . .
"French fries," I said aloud. Of course. Pomegranates grew out in the air, red and juicy and seeded and sweet. Potatoes grew under the ground, white and starchy and solid. And if Persephone had given some of her above-ground sweetness to the underworld with the pomegranate . . . yes.
I marched into the diner, the rock sprite's wail dopplering after me. I fended off a few spells from him absentmindedly. He didn't dare follow me in where my kind would see him, but he felt it necessary to put up some resistance.
"I'd like an order of French fries, please," I told the first person I encountered.
"Sure, hon," she said. "Let's just get you a table first, huh? And then your waitress can take your order."
Sheepishly, I slid into the booth she had indicated. When the waitress came, I repeated myself.
"You want something to drink with that?" said the waitress.
The rock sprite pressed his nose against the glass next to my table. I looked away. "Just water. Thanks."
"French fries and some water. Got it." She walked away shaking her head and muttering, "Kids."
The sprite kept bobbing outside the window. I could tell he was trying not to call attention to himself, but he was probably doing more harm than good, popping up and down.
The French fries were ready almost immediately. The waitress plunked them down in a red plastic basket with a layer of red-and-white waxed paper lining it. They were golden and salty and smelled so good. The rock sprite's little purple head bounced up just in time to see me bite the first one in half. He rattled down the window in despair.
I chewed slowly to make it last. And rightly so: I was only going to have one. Persephone got stuck with a whole season away from home. I just wanted a vacation every year, with the chance to get to know humans a bit better.
I slid out of the diner booth.
"One fry?" demanded the waitress. "One lousy fry?"
I took a gulp of the water to mollify her.
It didn't appear to work. "What's wrong with our fries?"
"Nothing is wrong. It was excellent. But I must return to the underworld for most of the year."
She gaped at me. Finally she found solid ground: "Don't think you can get out of paying for them. There was nothing wrong with those fries."
I handed her a gold coin and walked out. The sprite was having paroxysms of delight on the sidewalk. "You changed your mind!"
I snorted. "You didn't know what my mind was to begin with. I didn't ever mean to stay here. So you can set your mind at ease: I'll go home. I just want to look around."
"Good," said the rock sprite, "because I think we have someone else to take care of here. Oh my."
"Who? What?" I said.
He pointed straight ahead, barely able to keep his mouth closed. And there in the town square, pouting up a granite storm, was our missing Fee.
"Well, I'll be," I said. The rock sprite said nothing. I looked down at him. He was practically drooling gravel.
"She's so beautiful!" he breathed.
"She's been turned into a granite statue, in case you hadn't noticed."
"I know! She used to be squishy, but now—" He sighed happily.
I shook my head. Squishy. "I came with defensive spells. I don't know how to fix this. We can go back and tell her where she is, and then—"
"I don't want to leave her!" said the rock sprite.
"It'll just be until we can find someone to fetch her. Someone with better spells. What's wrong with her, anyway?"
The rock sprite scampered forward—precipitously, I thought, considering that we didn't know what had caused her to turn to stone in the first place. I could see why he had gotten caught in the trap when I found him. "Be careful," I called after him, feeling like Alits.
"It's a trap," he called back. "Turns things to stone. Looks old—a hundred years or more."
I opened my mouth and closed it again. Of course: he was already stone. "What can you do about it?"
He hopped back to me. It had been a miserable trip for the little beast from beginning to end. "Nothing, nothing at all. But I don't want to leave her alone! What if someone—what if they take her away somewhere? We'd never find her!"
I sighed. "I don't know how to make rock into flesh, sprite. I just don't. So unless you've got a better idea—"
"Into flesh!" His face twisted. "There's no need to be nasty."
"So . . . all you want is that she should be able to move and talk again?" I chewed on my lip. "I think I can do that."
I had a spell in my pack to animate things. I'd meant it for transportation or something of the sort, but it would do for a stoned cousin of the Puck. I thought the rock sprite would die of rapture on the spot when the statue shook her granite locks and pouted quizzically down at us.
He climbed up on her shoulder. She kissed him soundly. I thought I deserved a bit of thanks as well, but as I wasn't interested in kissing her, I didn't say anything about it. In fact, I tried to ignore them for most of the way home. Next time you hear someone say, "I'm not made of stone," for heaven's sake, be glad.
Everyone was glad to see Fee, though a little taken aback by her stony appearance and her diminutive new paramour. Not everyone was distracted enough by her return not to notice who had brought her back.
"You've been outside," said Alits. "And you've had human food."
I scuffed my toe on the ground and waited for the explosion. It never came.
"I wish you hadn't."
"I'm glad I did," I said. "I needed to see where I come from. I needed to see how my people live. And—" I grinned. "It was kind of fun. And I did bring Fee back."
"I suppose you think that makes it worth it?"
"You are a stubborn little beast, do you know that?" said Alits fondly.
"I can't help it. It's how I was raised."
Alits heaved a great sigh. "You're coming home sometimes, aren't you?"
"I only had one fry," I said. "That's a month on the surface and eleven months with you every year."
"I would miss you if you were gone."
"I know, Alits." I paused. "You could come with me. It could be a surface holiday for us. We could go camping. Kezhzh could roast the marshmallows."
Alits snorted and then laughed against her will. I hesitated but went on: "I wouldn't feel comfortable up there all the time. The grass stays the same color, and the rocks never teach you new spells."
Alits was too happy to tear the sprite to bits after that. Really, it worked out for all of us.
* * *