491 in the Age of Marnys the Kind
Dan and Cixi stepped through the inner door, and into a world of gold. It was all around them, stretching overhead to form a sky of yellow and orange flowers growing on vines that spiralled into the mesh walls. High above shafts of sunlight managed to make it through the thick layer of flowers, shining off their petals in glittering shades that looked like the sparkle of precious metals or gems. No flowers should shine so bright, and indeed none would have, were it not for the creatures tending to them. Bronze shapes punctuated the yellow, shaped a little like birds but with dark wings which made a leathery sound as they flapped from one wall to another around the giant enclosure. Fae, the entire reason for the existence of this place, and for the pair’s visit.
Dan looked down at Cixi and the neatly suited goblin looked back up, dark eyes and lightly furred face holding a certain nervous excitement. Cixi’s paws formed a pattern, signing the question: Ready?
Dan clacked his beak in assent. His glossy black hands smoothed down the deep red silk of his tunic, its colour offsetting the blue gleam of his dark feathers. The tengu squared his wide shoulders, his second shoulders following suit and bobbing the round tops of his wings before they settled back into a kind of feathered cape.
Let’s do this, he signed with black scaled hands, and the pair strolled into the compound.
It was easy enough to find the office, centred as it was amidst the enclosed jungle of flowers. The office tower was raised up on stilts, giving a commanding view of the entire enclosure. The staircase had to turn a corner to reach all the way up to the lone wooden room. Its windows were absent of glass, giving a partial view of a golden figure facing away from them, and a full ear of raised voices.
“If you know what’s best for you you’ll take ‘no’ for an answer!” that seemed to be the golden figure, his deep voice tense with barely repressed anger.
“Oh come now, there’s no need for that,” said a second, unseen speaker, their voice much more measured and smooth, “I’m sure what you mean is that -“
“I mean what I say, and I say ‘no’. Final warnin’.”
“But surely if you just tried to -“
Dan and Cixi were halfway up the stairs by now, paused on the corner and looking up the final flight of stairs to the office, both craning to see what was happening.
Maybe we should – but Dan wasn’t able to finish the sentence.
“No means NO!” A figure hurtled backwards down the stairs, crashing through the landing where Cixi and Dan had just been. Dan was now perched on one of the railings and Cixi held bodily to the other.
“And good mornin’ gents,” the immense figure standing at the top of the stairs boomed cheerfully. “You must be my ten o’clock.” The elf was one of those men to whom the term ‘circumference’ could be ascribed, which combined with his gold shirt and tawny fur to give him the image of a kind of sun standing at the top of the stairs, beaming down at them. “Well, by a happy chance my last appointment finished early.”
A faint groan came from the other side of the smashed landing.
“Come on up lads,” the man continued, strolling back into the office and out of sight, leaving Dan and Cixi staring meekly at each other.
Cixi balanced on elbows and feet, We can still run? Dan hesitated, then shook his head. Both lowered themselves back onto the stairs and, after a shared deep breath, headed up and into the office.
The room was spacious, edged with half-height filing cabinets that left an uninterrupted panorama of golden flowers visible through the open windows. By a large desk in the centre of the room stood the elf, facing away from them and lifting one powerful arm to reach up to a wrapped fluffy ball. At least that’s what it looked like at first glance, dark leather wrapped around a oval shape, one end of which sprouted a tuft of bronze fur which extended into a head.
The creature’s muzzle was short but angular, like a kitsune’s, the fur darker on the back and over the sides of the head where two dark, pointed ears sprouted. The lighter fur on the front emphasized the dark nose and the large, black eyes, currently half closed in a blissful expression as the large man’s fingers scratched under her chin. The dark wrapping of her body loosened, unfurling into two broad wings, not feathered but made of skin stretched between the long digits. The creature craned her neck into the well delivered attention as her bronze body made a deep purring noise. The skin of the wings extended all the way from the sides of her short neck, over the thin arms and down the sides of her fuzzy bronze body, even down the sides of the two small, dark legs hanging onto the railing. The railing ran the length of the ceiling, one of many that held many more fae, almost all of them staring down at Dan and Cixi with wide eyed curiosity.
The large elf turned, about to say something when a high pitched, angry squeak interrupted him. The fae he’d been giving attention to, evidently not yet satisfied, hooked the long thumbs of her wings onto the gold fabric of the man’s shirt and scurried onto his arm with surprising speed.
“For the love of -” the man cursed, but with no real anger, “Pebbles, come on now.” But the creature was firmly attached, hugging her legs and large wings around his arm and holding on with tiny determination.
The man sighed, “Well, as I was sayin’. Welcome gents.” He extended an arm, “I’m sure I don’t have to tell you – I’m Garry Earl.”
Dan hesitated only a moment, staring at the fae hugging Garry’s arm, which was staring at him with wide, curious eyes. Dan took the offered hand in his own, his other forming one-handed signs, which Cixi spoke allowed. “Pleased to meet you. I’m Dan Rituk and this is my interpreter, Cixi.” But as he signed Dan’s attention was on the handshake.
A handshake was a great chance to learn about the other person, or instead, to tell them all about yourself. Dan had received many an overly firm handshake, which told Dan loud and clear that the person was an idiot. It took a special kind of individual to try and out-grip a tengu, whose scaled hands and feet could each hold the whole tengu’s bodyweight from a thin branch. But still, many tried, or offered their hand palm down so they’d be on top, or pulled away after the briefest contact, or made some other completely obvious mistake. But Garry, he was the kind of person who would listen instead. Indeed, throughout the brief, firm but restrained shake, Garry and Dan’s eyes remained level with each other, both watching the other watching them.
Garry smiled. “Gents,” he nodded to each of them briefly before he turned and made his way around the broad wooden desk dominating the far side of the room. Whatever color the top of the desk was, it was obscured completely by a layer of paperwork, scattered with a vague sense of ordered chaos and punctuated by a lone forgotten muffin. Garry sat behind the desk with an audible creak of wood, leaning back with a well deserved air of ownership. After all, he was Mr. Garry Earl, the Earl of Flowers himself, one of the richest people on the entire mainland. “Have a seat,” he gestured with his fae-wrapped arm to a pair of well-worn chairs.
The pair took their seats, Cixi sitting attentively on the forward edge and Dan flexing his wings to fold them over the back.
“So,” Garry asked, “what the hell do you want?”
Dan knew how to handle this. He signed his response with both hands for Cixi to speak aloud.
“Well Mr. Earl, we want to sell your honey to Alsvor for an outrageous profit.”
Garry stared a moment, before his face split into a huge grin. He burst out laughing, his canines glistening in the light. “Oh, that was a good answer, son! Much better than the last bloke at least – you know he was goin’ on and on about how he can’t make ends meet, can barely even get by, what with taxes here and blockades there.”
“Blockades?” Dan asked through Cixi, “but we’re nowhere near the Isles here!”
“Exactly! Did he think I can’t read a bleedin’ map!” He gestured to a space on the desk that presumably held a map buried under all the other paperwork. “And that wasn’t the half of it, oh let me tell you.”
He was smiling jovially, but his fists were clenched on the desk. “You know, he all but demanded – demanded – that I start harvestin’ more! He says, oh how he says, ‘Surely it would be good for everyone if you just harvested just a teensy bit more. You’ve got so many flowers, so what difference would another ten percent make?’ What difference, what bloody difference?!” His ears laid flat, his fists clenched on his arm rests. He flinched at a displeased squeak from his arm.
“Oh, I’m sorry Pebbles,” he soothed, turning over his arm to make sure he hadn’t hurt the fae, the movement causing the creature to start scrabbling on feet and thumbs up and around his arm. she reappeared over his shoulder, looking up at Garry with a questioning chirrup, which Garry answered by bringing his hand up to scratch her tiny head. The creature started purring loudly.
“Helps me keep my temper under control,” Garry admitted, “most of the time at least. Oh Ivan, good.”
This last part was delivered off to one side, to a window containing an expansive shape of white fur. It took Dan a moment to recognisable the shape as a face, and that was only possible because of the sparse darker details within – a thin line of lips encircling a short, very broad muzzle, tipped with a dark nose and topped by two large brown eyes, widely set and looking impassively into the office.
“Your guest left,” the troll announced in a deep, measured voice.
“Good,” Garry announced, a flush of his former anger returning. “He didn’t respect the flowers! Can you believe it?!”
Ivan nodded gravely, “It seems he not respect stairs either.”
“Oh yeah, that upset ’em a bit,” Garry said in time with another complaining squeak from Pebbles, either at Garry’s returned anger or the momentary stopping of attention, or both. Garry resumed petting the creature, his broad face looking more than a little guilty. “Do a quick round of the sugar buckets will ya’ Ivan? By way of apology.”
With a nod the troll departed, Dan staring as it lumbered away.
Dan, unlike most Alsvorans, had a deep dislike of trolls. And that there was the problem: most Alsvorans didn’t just like trolls, they were always so polite to them, so accommodating, so anxious to avoid offence. Those very same people would use ‘what a squawker’ or ‘don’t you fly off on me’ in Dan’s presence without even realising what they’d said. The racism was that ingrained in the Alsvoran language, they didn’t even think about it anymore. And if they ever did, they’d think it was only fair given the Great Betrayal.
Dan ground his beak – and it had been such a betrayal. Yirkurru the Clever, Royal Knight of Alsvor, Consort to her Dragon and first-hand witness to two centuries of Alsvoran occupation of the Ichikin Isles. And after two centuries of strip mining and deforestation, two centuries of tengu being told they should be grateful for no longer being considered pests, grateful for being raised to the status of second class citizens in their own country – after all this, how could anyone stay silent? Yirkurru couldn’t.
After two centuries of occupation, the Dragon finally accepted Yirkurru’s petition to free his people. She’d recalled her autos from the Isles and Yirkurru had flown home on magic-imbued wings to try and rebuild his civilisation.
And now they called him The Betrayer.
Nothing else apparently mattered, not the fact that the Dragon had willingly let her Knight leave, and certainly not the atrocities of the occupation. No, all that mattered was that Yirkurru had left, breaking the ultimate trust and proving for all time that you could never trust a tengu, not ever, not even now, nearly half a millennia later!
But trolls? Trolls were everyone’s best mates, infallibly honest people whose word was beyond question. Never mind how they’d come roaring out of the deep south, clad in heavy kaj armour and the fury of a blizzard, blasting through the Alsvoran invaders until a frantic peace was signed. No, trolls were trustworthy, given every allowance, able to apply for Alsvoran citizenship and have their new currency recognised as legal tender. Never mind that they chose their ‘currency’ to be granite slabs with a promised barter scrawled on it by claw, as if to insult the whole notion of economics. It was still legal tender, while Ichikin quartz coins got such pathetic exchange rates that most tengu just used Alsvoran or kij coins instead. Because you could never trust a tengu.
All of this was the thought of a second, travelling along well-worn tracks in Dan’s head. Even so, when Dan looked back he found Garry staring at him over his huge hands, the elf’s ears attentively pricked. Garry smiled, but then was all relaxed joy as he allowed, “Oh never mind Ivan. He scares everyone at first, but he’s as gentle as a pup really. He’s also not called Ivan,” Garry leaned back further in his chair with an audible creak, Pebbles scurrying forward over his shoulder. “I spent a week tryin’ to pronounce all seven syllables of his name until he told me to stop before I hurt myself. Sorry, what did you say you name was again?”
“Dan,” Dan said through Cixi.
“Short for anythin’?”
“Just Dan,” DaiaNhrka lied. Watching mammals try to pronounce words from a language spoken with beak and hands and wings was, well, embarrassing.
“Fair’nuf,” Garry said, “so, why should I sell to you, just Dan?”
“Because I’ll give you the best rate I can, no less, no more.”
Garry laughed, “Oh you’re a card and no mistake. And what if I think you’re undercuttin’ me?”
“Then you can throw me down the stairs, for all the good it’ll do,” Dan flexed his wings, his head tilted cheekily to one side.
“Ha,” Garry laughed, “well that’ll do for an answer. Okay, I think we can do business then.” He leaned forward, suddenly all serious, “But there are some terms.”
Dan leaned forward, elbows on knees as hands signed, “Of course.” It was an effort not to laugh when the serious tone was undercut by Pebbles dropping off Garry’s shirt and onto the desk with a loud squeak.
“Only one term really,” Garry continued, as if this were a regular occurrence, “I don’t give guarantees. I’m a sensible man, and I only make promises I think I can keep. But, if I can’t meet a quota, then that’s how it is. And if you can’t handle that, then we’ll be givin’ your wings a test believe you me.”
Dan nodded, “Because you don’t want to overtax the flowers.”
“Exactly,” Garry exclaimed with more than a little exasperation. “That’s what that little blighter didn’t get – if you don’t respect the flowers, you don’t respect the fae. Oy!”
This last part was said to Pebbles, who was noisily scrambling across the paper-covered desk on feet and thumbs to Garry’s formerly forgotten muffin.
“Hey, I’m not done with that,” Garry protested, but Pebbles had already reached the muffin, brown muzzle wrinkling as the black nose sniffed the surface industriously. her ears pricked with interest. Then the muffin dissolved.
It didn’t melt, for there was no liquid involved – it just went from being a single, solid muffin, to a pile of fine dust. But it wasn’t over – Pebbles passed one long thumb over the pile, light brown powder falling free, then passing it back the other way to push dark brown dust off the other side. Pebbles passed the thumb back and forth a few more times, until a small pile of glistening off-white sugar remained in the middle, at which point Pebbles set to with gusto, crunching noisily on the sugar.
Garry chuckled at Dan and Cixi’s astonished faces. “Amazin, isn’t she? Of course she couldn’t have just waited until Ivan brought the sugar buckets, oh no, not when she could transmute the sugar right out of my muffin.”
Pebbles was purring loudly as she licked the last of the sugar from the desk with her small yet noisy tongue.
“But,” Garry sighed, “they wouldn’t be fae if they had any patience. And keeping them happy is good for business, believe you me. Just like your mischievous kitsune. Hey, what is their soul anyway?”
“You’ve lost me there,” Dan signed, Cixi removing the uncertain pauses before interpreting.
“Their soul, their element, their whole deal?”
Dan stared. “Sorry, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Well, better you admit that than pretend otherwise. But you’ve got to know this if we’re gonna be doing business, and if we want to avoid any stair-related incidents.”
“Okay, ” Dan nodded hesitantly.
“Look, all magic producers have a soul – don’t know if that’s the fancy proper term for it but whatever. For the Dragon, it’s love. She needs love for her magic, so she takes a Knight to share the centuries with and builds those horrible automatons for company.
“Then the unicorns, they were innocence… or freedom, whatever, whatever it was they lost it when Echalia started herdin’ them. No innocence, no unicorns, just a bunch of confused looking animals. And no unicorns, no magic – and one stupid decision nearly destroyed one of the most powerful empires in the world and started a two-centuries long war we’re still enjoyin’ to this day.
“That’s why this is important,” Garry insisted with grave earnest, “because if you don’t respect magic, magic don’t respect you.”
Dan blinked. He remembered stories back home in the Isles of how, during the occupation, the kitsune were nearly lost forever. No Alsvoran had ever even seen one, let alone lain a hand on one, their Dragon would never have allowed it – but the total imbalance of everything during the occupation was so extreme that the kitsune vanished. Many thought they had gone extinct, and it was over a century before the presence of their magic was strong enough to be felt again, and two centuries before the Isles could start exporting new charged quartz crystals.
“Magic is balance,” Dan signed, almost unconsciously, hearing Cixi translate the words.
“Exactly,” Garry exclaimed, “balance! You’ve gotta respect it. And for these fluffballs,” he scritched Pebbles again, “for them you’ve gotta keep ’em happy. Joy is their soul. So I never harvest more flowers than will be missed for making all that honey that those Alsvorans are so fond of, all to make sure the fae stay happy. Because no happiness, no fae. No fae, no magic, and no fancy gents like you coming to do business with me.”
Pebbles was lying on her back, tiny face dusted with flower and her belly plump with sugar. She cooed softly with each breath.
Dan cocked his head, looking down at the little creature. “I think you’re right, Mr Earl. To lose them would be a very sad thing.”
The elf smiled, reaching a hand to tickle under the fae’s chin again. Reflexively, one wing lifted up, and Pebbles linked her thumb with Garry’s. He chuckled.
“You’re right there.” He glanced up at them. “Now, gents, I’d offer you the paperwork to sign but unfortunately this little blighter has fallen asleep on top of it. Any chance you’d like a drink while we wait?”
This micro fiction was written by Lex Wills.