This story is set in the same universe as Visitor and Queen.
The last mortal wore out and Grandmama wanted a new one, so they sent Bree.
Well, first they named her Eliliand, but that was early and forgotten enough that nobody knew that name apart from Grandmama herself and Eliliand's father. And the mortal they took was once named Bree but they called her Trinket, and in Trinket's place because fair's fair Grandmama sent - well. Bree.
Bree the fairy cried a lot. She did not like her wings being tucked away with the magic of fair's fair. She did not like drinking milk, nor how hungry she got when she wouldn't swallow it. She did not like it when Trinket's human parents picked her up and rocked her and she didn't like it when they left her alone and she didn't like it when they acted like she couldn't understand every word they spoke. Bree was young but she wasn't brand new or stupid, she knew everything they said, she could read. (But she couldn't talk, or write, not until a mortal the age she was pretending could. Fair's fair.)
Bree was young enough to forget, though, exactly why all these things were the case. Exactly why they were so upsetting.
By the time fair's fair allowed her to talk, she had nothing to say on the subject. She was uncomfortable all the time and hated meat and dairy and didn't want to be hugged and she was whip-smart with a book - but she was called Bree and three years old and human, probably, right, that would be the obvious thing for her to be, look at her human parents right there.
This was why they had to send a very young fairy. If a grownup fairy were changed to look like a baby mortal, then they would inevitably act very inhuman - and then fair would not be fair.
And fair was fair.
Bree was a very obedient child. She did not whine about how her back hurt, after they brought her to a doctor and the doctor said nothing was wrong and Mum said stop complaining. She did not turn up her nose at cheese and eggs and sausage after she turned up negative for allergies and Dad said clean your plate. She was not allowed to ask for a new bicycle again or neglect writing her uncle a thank-you note or eat her entire dark chocolate Easter bilby at once or stay up past nine or talk back to Mum or interrupt Dad or let her shoelaces stay untied or or or -
It did not occur to her that it might be odd to have no choice in these matters until she had already been attending school for several years. Of course her friends said that their mums did not let them do things, and then often tended not to do them. And Bree did not have to do what her teachers said, except for Miss Hope with the tin of lollies (and everybody liked Miss Hope, largely on account of the tin of lollies, so it was not unusual to be cooperative with her).
But when Bree was eight one of her friends (Bree socialized with other well-behaved children, both because they formed a natural clique and because her dad encouraged it) did not do her homework. And Bree had heard her mum tell her to do it.
Bree did not bring this up with her friend. But she thought about it.
As a general rule Bree herself did not tell people to do things. Her dad had told her not to be bossy, once, when she was four.
But Bree had also been told, since then, Say please. And she found this gave her a bit of leeway.
"Please let me go to the movies."
"Please buy me that dress."
"Please don't make me go to school today."
And her mum or dad (who were named, respectively, Anne and Sam Taylor, which information Bree had memorized in case she became lost) would absently give her leave to go, put the dress in the cart, call in sick for her.
Bree didn't know why she could do this, but she did have the feeling that she oughtn't push it. Her mum and dad (and her grade two teacher with the lollipops and the one friend she had a habit of swapping lunches with) could do it right back, so she didn't think she had best bring it to mind, or it would all be very Ella Enchanted until she found a prince and Bree did not think princes were in stock at the boyfriend store.
When she was fourteen she did entertain thoughts of going to Canberra and whispering instructions to politicians, but if one did that it probably led to sinister gentlemen in suits carrying one away for sinister experimentation.
Being fourteen also led her to try:
"Please come with me to the dance."
But the poor boy stammered so as he nodded and promised, and looked so upset, that she called him the next day and said that she was not going after all and he had better find someone else and then hung up on him before she could make more of a fool of herself.
And then Bree flopped face down on her bed and cried.
She convinced her parents that she wanted to go vegan for animal rights reasons, although Bree did not actually like animals, had never liked them, they moved wrong and their eyes were wrong. Her parents let her and she ate a lot of salad and a lot of fruit and a lot of cake that foamed up with vinegar and baking soda.
Her friends thought she was strange for not liking animals. How could you not like birds. How could you not like koalas. But all Bree could think when she saw them was how uncomfortable it looked to be them, to have to move that way, to have eyes on opposite sides of your head, no hands, an unsmiling beak. To be edible.
She did like the more attractive categories of bugs. Butterflies, mostly. Dragonflies and ladybirds. They were too simple to be uncomfortable or afraid, she thought, and so pretty.
The more she sussed out how she was not normal the more aggressively Bree tried to do ordinary things. She went vegan but followed the herd in what music she claimed to like, which actors. She couldn't bear dogs or cats or parrots but she wore pink and painted her nails and grew her gold-blond hair into long, long waves, and people thought she was pretty, and pretty people could get away with eating salad if they gave the impression of watching their weight. She took the same second language as her friends.
She had to drop out of Mandarin. It was just - she couldn't even begin to explain. It just looked like English.
Well, it looked like English always did to her, at any rate. It was just words. The teacher said hello class and Bree said hello right back and the teacher said no, no, Chinese, "hello", go on, it's not so hard to pronounce and then got steadily angrier until Bree fled the room to the school office and transferred into Band and learned to force sound out of the flute.
Her parents made her practice, and practice she did.
When Bree turned eighteen, her dad said, "You're a grownup now, my girl. You can do what you want."
And Bree could almost feel something go snap.
She did not have stand up straight she did not have to brush her teeth twice a day she did not have to wake up as soon as her alarm went off she did not have to call if she was going to be late she did not have to put half of her money in savings she did not have to wipe her feet before she came inside she did not have to hug her grandpa she did not have to say excuse me she did not have to practice music thirty minutes a day she did not have to she did not have to she
Bree squeaked and bolted for the bathroom and leaned over the sink and breathed very hard.
Had she been doing that to herself, the whole time - did someone tell her to do some long-forgotten awful thing with her shoulders or spine, or was it psychosomatic, Bree had not previously thought that "thinking about a purple elephant" sorts of orders were different for her than for anyone else but what if someone just told her that she should feel like her back hurt all the time
Bree peeled her shirt off, unhooked her bra.
And Bree wanted to stop doing the thing - whatever it was.
And just like that, just like magic, she was a butterfly-girl.
She felt entire.
Those were her wings. She could fly with them if she wanted. She could be lighter, she could be smaller, she could beat those black-edged golden gaudy wings and rise into the air, oh, she was dreaming, she was dreaming -
The wings moved when she wanted to move them. It felt at least as natural as flicking her fingers. They'd been crumpled up, smoothed away, and no doctor had ever turned them up but there they were.
Who had told her to put them away?
She made a half-turn in front of the mirror and stepped on the piece of birch-bark paper that had fallen in a roll onto the floor when her wings had unfurled.
And she picked it up.
"Bree!" called Dad. "Are you all right?"
"I'm fine!" she said, a little too high-pitched.
She stuffed the paper into her pocket.
With a deep breath, she folded her wings away, back into familiar pain, and put her top back on and left the bathroom.
But later, when she had moved into her university dorm, and had her room all to herself with a lock on the door, she took them out again.
And she read over her little roll of birchbark paper which she'd tucked into her toiletry bag.
You are a changeling.
If you have escaped your mortal captors and are ready to return home, the gate is thirteen kilometers north of the house you were left in, marked with a row of stones, and should be entered traveling due southwest. They can only keep you for as long as they can
Grandmama has a place for you in the Court.
If you have escaped your mortal captors and are ready to return home, the gate is thirteen kilometers north of the house you were left in, marked with a row of stones, and should be entered traveling due southwest. They can only keep you for as long as they cankeep you; fair is fair.
Grandmama has a place for you in the Court.
Bree read it over, and over, and over, and she went to bed, because she'd signed up for early morning intro bio, and didn't want to be late on day one.
In uni the Mandarin teacher was a native speaker and thought Bree was a prodigy. She evaded his pleas to enroll in his classes; the other students would only hear English. Or whatever. She still didn't know exactly how that worked. Maybe this was why it had been so hard to learn to type; computers did not know what words were and could only accept letters. She still preferred to write her assignments longhand. Trying to spell with a keyboard was a nightmare.
She took intro to this and that. She read her birchbark note now and then.
Mortal captors. Fair is fair.
What kind of place would Bree have in a court of butterfly-people?
She'd undone her transformation all the way, now. It was ecstatic to be so free of squeezing awful whatever it was; the wings weren't the only thing. Her parents had said that her joint aches were growing pains, that she felt gross and heavy because she was bombarded by media of girls thinner than her.
When she was completely free of all her - magical whatever - Bree was only one and a quarter meters tall, spindly as any magazine cover model, winged, radiantly golden. Kind of flat-chested, but she was that even under her - shapeshifting? Illusion? She kept her fingernail polish and her hair when she changed and her clothes loosened around her, like she was physically morphing, not just shedding imaginary light. It felt real. She could reach shelves with her false height, and everything.
Her face stayed the same.
She could go back, look human, and she didn't like it, it fucking hurt, although she was a grownup and could do what she liked, now, so she could take paracetamol for it and nobody said don't do that, Bree, it won't help, the doctor said it's all in your head.
She could just sprout wings and fly and slip into Grandmama's court and there was a place waiting for her there. Supposedly.
What kind of place -? She'd grown up in the same house they would have had to deposit her in. She could find the gate. She could find out what kind of place.
But she had to look human to turn up at classes, so she did.
Bree made friends at uni, and did not take snacks from them (being vegan was an excellent excuse, although apparently Oreos were vegan, who knew; she had to say she was picky too). Bree passed her classes and learned to like cheap beer and always made the runs for it herself and was very careful to keep an eye on her drink for more than the usual reasons. Bree got a boyfriend but they broke up when she wouldn't go down on him (she didn't know what counted, and was willing to risk kissing but stopped there, and she could go ask Grandmama but who the hell even was Grandmama. Bree got a different boyfriend who did not have this complaint and they broke up over her emotional unavailability and she decided not to seek a new one right away. Bree majored in civil engineering because she liked cities.
Moments of privacy were so tempting.
And Bree tried, tried, to be careful, but she knew now how to make the hurting stop, and it was so hard to go on hurting even when she was alone, when she knew how to shrink and unfold. It was only a matter of time.
"Oh my god," screamed Chloe, bedecked in fluffy bathrobe.
"Shh!" hissed Bree, slicing her wings into herself, exploding into human-gangling limbs and grabbing for her towel. "Shut up, shut up -" Just because she didn't hear the water running -
Chloe didn't shut up. Chloe wasn't her "real" name, by whatever butterfly-person reckoning considered reality; it hadn't clicked when Bree had learned it. Chloe was adopted from the Philippines. Chloe had not wanted a cookie no thank you. She didn't shut up: "What the hell, Bree!"
"Shut up shut up shut up!" Bree went around her and locked the door and this time made sure the handle wouldn't turn. "What did you see?"
"You. Photoshopped in real life. You glowed and you had wings and you were tiny -"
"Keep your voice down," Bree begged, "please."
"What are you?" asked Chloe, hushed.
"I don't know."
"Are you a fairy? You looked like a fairy."
"I said I don't know. I didn't even know until a couple years ago that I was a thing."
"How is that something you miss?"
Bree dropped her head into her hands. "I don't know! I don't know anything!"
"You know more than I do!"
Deep breaths. Deep breaths. "If I tell you what I know will you believe me that that's all I know? And not call scary men in suits to cut me apart?"
"Yes," Chloe promised, sitting on the counter, elbows on knees chin on hands, rapt.
"I was - stuck shaped normal," Bree says, voice low. "I don't know exactly how I got stuck in the first place, but I think somebody must have told me to. People can sometimes tell me to do things and I can't not, and vice-versa, I don't do anything with this except get nice Christmas gifts and once I made a guy stop hitting on me at a - I don't mostly do anything with it, anyway, it's not a big deal. So before I can remember somebody told me to be shaped human and they swapped me for - the real Bree - I was a baby I don't remember it I don't know what happened to her! - and I was stuck until my dad told me that I could do what I wanted and everything I'd ever been told to do went away."
"Do your parents know?" asked Chloe.
Bree shook her head. "Nobody knows. I don't even look weird to doctors. Even if they're looking. It hurts to be shaped like this and some of them tried to figure out what was wrong and they don't notice."
"Can you fly?"
"How would I try it?" snapped Bree. "Where would I go? I get a lot lighter, I can flap, I could probably fly at least until I crashed into something and broke my neck, that's all I know."
"When can people tell you to do things? And the other way?"
"I'm not sure of all the rules. It seems to have to do with whether I've ever taken food from them but I don't know I haven't done science experiments with it. I can't tell you to do things, I think because you don't go by your birth name. I wouldn't have let you shout."
"How do you know you were left in place of the 'real' Bree" (Chloe made airquotes) "instead of being a mutant?"
"First time I let my wings out there was a letter folded up with them. It didn't say very much, just - that I'm a changeling and I can go back where I came from if I want. And I think I can't really be named Bree. Or more people would be able to boss me around. But I don't know my real name, the letter didn't say."
"That's a dumb definition of real name," remarked Chloe.
"I don't know how this works, okay, what am I supposed to call it, special magic ordering people around name?"
"Fair," conceded Chloe. "So when you went back what was it like?"
"...I didn't go."
Chloe looked like Bree had passed up a chance to travel to the moon or something instead of thirteen kilometers north of the house she grew up in and then slightly southwest. "You haven't gone?"
"No. I don't know if I want to. I don't know what's there, I don't know what I am -"
"You're obviously a fairy."
"- and I don't know if I could ever come back," whispered Bree.
"Of course you could," said Chloe. "Why wouldn't you be able to come back? Why would a fairy get lost in Fairyland?"
Bree shook her head, sick with wordless forgotten fear. "I don't know."
Chloe convinced her. Chloe wanted to come along. Chloe wanted to see fairies.
Chloe said, "You know where you can fly? Where there's fairies."
And Bree did sorely want to fly.
Bree had a car, and brought Chloe with her.
"Maybe you're a princess."
"Why would they give away a princess to get a mortal baby?" asked Bree.
"I don't know, but you could be. A fairy princess."
"I don't think so."
"Aren't you even a little excited?"
Bree swallowed. "Maybe the gate will be gone by now. Or there won't be anyone around, it would be all right if there were no one around. Please tell me you didn't bring a camera."
"I have my phone."
"Leave it in the car."
"I don't want pictures of me flying around - with my shirt off! - plastered all over the Internet and I can't make you not put them so leave your phone in the car!"
"Fine," grumbled Chloe.
"We're bringing the compass and our lunches and that's it, we can go look around and then go straight home as soon as we see anything dangerous," said Bree firmly.
"Or I don't show you where it is and we turn around and go back to school and you can tell anybody you like that I'm a fairy or a princess or the princess of fairy bread and no one will believe you."
"Put your phone in the glovebox."
Chloe did. Bree drove.
They found a little park thirteen kilometers north of the Taylor residence. They found a line of stones. They identified southwest.
And they clutched each other's hands and checked for witnesses and stepped over the rocks.
It was late May winter at home, warm for the season in a way that made people mutter darkly about global warming but still sweater weather. In Fairyland it was hot sticky summer jungle. Bree had always liked warmth and rain and now she supposed she knew why. Chloe swore and started shucking layers while Bree slowly peeled off her cardigan.
The gate was marked on this side with another row of stones. Every other direction Bree could see was choked with plants. It was sufficiently dark under the thick canopy that she undid the shapeshifting on her golden glow before she had her shirt off and her wings out, just so she could see the buttons. Her skin shed enough light to see flowers sized between pinhead and hubcap, trees colonized from root to tip with enterprising mushrooms and affectionate ivy, a floor blanketed with faintly phosphorescent mosses and lichens and fallen leaves like nothing out of any field guide.
Bree shrank, and retied the drawstring on her trousers, and took a deep breath. It smelled like green.
"Oh god," breathed Chloe.
"Are you happy now?" Bree asked, but she didn't have much desire to hear a yes. There was no pain. No buzzing insects or crawling spiders. No smog, no biting cold.
I'm a fairy.
As if the wings weren't proof, but - Bree picked a curly-petaled yellow something and tucked it behind her ear and twitched her wings.
I'm really a fairy.
"Are you going to fly?" breathed Chloe.
Bree stepped out of her shoes and let her feet be tickled by moss. She looked up. Most of the really dense branches were stories up; and she was so small.
"Yeah," Bree said, and she flapped her wings and caught a branch, and then did it again, and again, until she was halfway up a huge dark-barked tree and Chloe looked like a doll.
Chloe said something, and Bree fluttered most of the way back down. "What?"
"I said I wish I could draw. Paint. I wish you'd let me bring my phone."
"You're winged and glowing. It'd be arty. I could go get my phone and only take pictures of plants?"
Bree shook her head. "I don't think you'd better."
"Do you think we'll get lost, if we go anywhere out of sight of the stones?"
"Probably. But it's so pretty right here."
"I wonder how people don't wander through all the time."
"You have to do it from the right angle. And it was a bit out of the way."
"If I got my phone, I could take pictures of landmarks and we could find our way back."
"How many times do I have to tell you no phone? You should have brought a ball of yarn if you wanted to do that."
Chloe sighed and sat down on the moss. "It's so quiet."
"I can still hear the traffic from - from Earth. Look, if you want to go on a bit without getting lost you probably can do it fine if I stay put in a high branch and keep an eye on you and the gate?"
"Thanks," said Chloe, and she started tiptoeing through the rainforest, pausing to pointedly not take pictures of every third growing thing she saw, picking a flower for her own hair when she found a scalloped purple one.
Bree sat lightly in a tree, like a soap bubble. By some instinct she kept her wings spread, flicking now and again to keep her balance. Watching, breathing.
Bree saw the other fairy first.
He was gold and he glowed.
He spotted Bree, and then he tracked her gaze straight to Chloe where she was examining a creeper.
He mouthed a word but Bree couldn't read his lips, and then he dove off of his branch towards Chloe and Bree gave chase but he was faster.
He touched the ground neatly; Bree didn't stick her landing, but in the process of failing to do that she stumbled into Chloe and got her a few ungainly meters of distance. The other fairy didn't seem to be attacking, though; he had his hand mid-gesture and seemed surprised that Bree was reacting as she was.
"H-hi?" said Chloe.
"Don't eat anything he gives you," Bree hissed in her ear.
"What? I thought that was just you," Chloe hissed back.
"I can hear you," remarked the other fairy mildly.
"I'm not going to hurt you children," he said. "There's no reason to look so frightened."
"So we can go, then?" said Bree.
"I suppose," he said. He wasn't wearing a shirt either. Mercifully, he had on pants; they looked like they were made out of handspun cotton-or-something. "If I frighten you so much." He gave Chloe a look: can you believe her?
Chloe glanced between the two fairies. "He doesn't seem very scary to me."
"Don't eat anything they give you. Don't - your name is fine because - but don't tell them mine because of - the thing," said Bree.
"I already know the court mortal's name," the other fairy said. "But I'm not permitted to speak it, so it wouldn't do very well as a nickname for you. Do you have something you like better than Changeling? The last Changeling goes by Pyrite now but it took him some time to settle on it. I'm called Lamplight."
"...Changeling's fine," murmured Bree.
"I don't want to go by my name here, it gives me the creeps, now," shuddered Chloe. "Call me, I don't know, call me Seltzer, whatever."
"Now that we're all introduced," smiled Lamplight, "I suppose you can turn around if that's what you really want to do, but I'd be happy to show you to the Court."
"Come on, B- Changeling," said Chloe. "He seems perfectly nice, he's not trying to kidnap us."
Grandmama has a place for you at the -
"And then what?" Bree asked Lamplight.
"What do you mean?" he blinked innocently.
"After you show us the Court."
"I didn't have a particular agenda beyond that. There's going to be a story-reading this evening, if you find the tour inadequate hospitality." He looked so bemused and friendly.
"Come on," Chloe said to Bree, and Bree realized very abruptly that if Chloe were willing to wander through Fairyland without Bree, she'd have done it as soon as they found the gate. Chloe would have gone back for her phone and taken pictures of everything and would perhaps even now be turning her speculative looks at Lamplight's torso into extended flirtations or something. Chloe was not doing this because she thought she needed Bree, and if Bree demanded that they leave, they'd leave, unless Lamplight had a trick up his lack of sleeve.
Bree also realized that if this was what it took to send her hurtling out of Fairyland, if a polite fairy boy (who hadn't asked their names or tried to give them anything to eat) offering to show her a Court she'd known was there was all it took to scare her away - she would not ever come back.
There was an entire fairyland and she'd seen scarcely any of it.
"Fine," escaped Bree's lips, and Lamplight gave a little bow, and led them into the jungle, away from the gate.
They were called glowgolds and there were dozens and they lived in a treehouse palace.
It was neither a cheap plywood backyard hangout nor a half-plastic safety-coded public playground. It was a palace. The trees themselves had been coaxed into bridges and platforms and arches and balconies where the branches formed too dense a thicket for flight. Where there was conventional construction it flowed smoothly out of that; flower-adorned thatch and wood that joined to other wood through shape alone, no nails or glue in sight.
Lamplight found a rope ladder - well, a vine ladder, many thin tendrils dried out and braided together - for Chloe.
Bree, though, could just fly straight up, and after she'd choked down her apprehension she did.
She was not out of place for not wearing a shirt, although her fleece sometime-pajama pants were not exactly the light cottony shorts that everybody else had on. She was really a bit too warm.
When she alighted on a palace outcropping a cry went up:
"Changeling's come home!"
She was surrounded; but when she shrank away they backed off, eyes wide. "Didn't mean to scare you." "Oh look at your hair, it's everywhere, I can braid it for you." "Welcome home!" "Aren't you hot in those? Do you want a pair of mine?" "You won't remember me; I'm Inkwell, I'm the court scribe, I wrote your note -" "Oh Changeling we wouldn't ever hurt you don't look so frightened." "You're home, you're home!"
"Why are -" Bree looked around for Chloe. Chloe was halfway up the ladder, staring openmouthed at everything; but no one was trying to sneak a slice of fruit between her lips. "Why are you all so excited to see me? Why did you give me away if you wanted me here?"
"Oh, Grandmama wanted a mortal," said, apparently, Inkwell. "Grandmama likes to have one at continental meetings, and it didn't take you so long to come back."
"I'm - I'm twenty."
"Twenty-three!" corrected another fairy. "You weren't brand new when we put you down. You had to speak enough to hear your orders."
"But that's a long time," said Bree.
"Hardly anything," scoffed a third glowgold.
"You're so new," a fourth cooed, reaching for Bree's hair but retracting her hand when Bree twitched.
Mortal captors. Mortals.
Oh god she was going to live forever. She was never going to look any older than these ageless lineless faces. If she ever went home she'd have to move a million times and keep changing her name and computer records just kept getting better.
Or she could stay, but she didn't want to give them ideas.
Still, her legs were pouring sweat. "I - think I will borrow a pair of shorts. If you don't mind." In moments a set were pressed into her hands. They did not seem to expect her to want privacy, and she was already topless; she just changed without making a big deal about it. "What are all your names -?"
"Nicknames," corrected someone.
"Sorry. Of course."
And then there followed a flurry of nicknames. Night and Grassland and Spindle and Travel and Plenty and Royal and Laughter and Woodgrain. Wisdom and Boxes and Snow and Hearth and Salt. Bree could barely remember them all. They didn't snap into slots in her mind. They weren't real. Of course.
Chloe made it up to their platform.
"Who's your mortal?" asked Boxes.
"I'm my own mortal," said Chloe.
"Seltzer," said Bree swiftly. "Don't - don't try to take her or - or anything."
"We can't do that," blinked Laughter. "That wouldn't be fair."
Bree did not quite understand how that worked, what exactly was the fairness inherent in swapping babies, but they had to have had some reason to give her up to get the real Bree, and it might well prevent them from collecting Chloe.
...She needed to stop thinking of the real Bree as "the real Bree". This could not possibly be helpful. Bree was both real and Bree. And the girl she had replaced was - also real, also Bree, just differently.
"You should tell us all about the mortal realm at the story-reading," said Travel.
"Yes," agreed Salt, "it wouldn't be reading but that would hardly matter, half the time it's actually only telling from memory or making things up."
"Much more interesting than listening to Aspiration again, or Invisible, let alone Quadrant," nodded Travel. Everyone groaned as though Quadrant's boringness were a well-worn inside joke. Bree smiled nervously.
There is a place for you -
Bree and Chloe ate their packed lunches, when they got hungry. The glowgolds were not offended.
There were so many of them. Most of them seemed interested in the returned changeling and her mortal friend, but only a fraction stopped to say hello, overwhelming though that fraction was; the others flew from place to place in the magnificent complex of treehouses on their own business. Bree saw glowgolds grooming the thatch, weeding the understory, carrying baskets and sacks and jugs, carving bits of wood, reading, writing, kissing, singing, cooking alien vegetables with flameless warmth and serving skewers of them to the other glowgolds. (The food was accepted without a fuss. She needed to learn how that actually worked instead of coasting on guesses made based on lollipops and snack-swapping.)
She didn't see any children.
But they were immortal, so for them not to have overwhelmed the whole of Fairyland, weighed the treehouses down until they collapsed into kindling, run out of nicknames - they had to have children very seldom. One twenty-three years ago - maybe they were all set for a century.
Bree decided that she needed to figure out how they did that, when they did it - could she have children? Could she not - with mortals - even if she wanted?
It occurred to her that she'd never been sick. This had probably never risen to her parents' attention. She'd stayed home from school, complained of aching - just not because she had a cold.
She was a fairy, a real fairy, and she had no idea how to be a fairy, and the glowgolds - the other glowgolds - were not trying to hurt her.
But she wasn't sure how to ask the question, not of Salt to her left nor Laughter perched above her head. (Chloe, to Bree's right, wouldn't know.)
"...Can I talk to Pyrite?" she asked Salt.
The last changeling. The one who'd been human, or tried.
"Why Pyr- oh!" said Salt. "Yes. Laughter, go get Pyrite."
Laughter fluttered away. And came back with another glowgold, who looked just like all the others.
"Changeling," he said. "It's odd to call someone else that."
"H-hi," said Bree. Chloe was craning her neck to see Pyrite around Bree. "...So you were the last one."
He nodded. "I came back when I thought I was fifteen."
"I wasn't out of my parents' orders that young..."
"It took some doing," Pyrite said.
"And you stayed here, when you found it?" Bree said. "I mean, right away?"
Pyrite smiled, not nicely. "Changeling, they left me with an Aborigine family. Maybe things are different now, but this was in 1902."
"Oh," said Chloe, before Bree could get any words out. "What did you look like?"
Pyrite didn't answer right away, but Laughter said, "Show them," and Pyrite winced and changed. His human disguise was tall, dark, handsome, and, of faces he could have had in 1902, probably not the easiest.
"You can stop," Laughter said, when the girls had stopped staring, and Pyrite changed back. Gold just like the others, just like Bree.
"It hurts," murmured Bree. "I'm sorry."
Pyrite nodded, not making eye contact.
"What happened," said Chloe, "to the human that got traded for Changeling?"
"Oh," said Salt, "Trinket's still here."
"Where?" Chloe demanded. Bree wished she'd shut up. Bree didn't want to see her. Bree didn't want to know if they looked alike, didn't want to form opinions about which of them deserved to live in a suburb and which deserved the verdant palace, didn't want to feel responsible for a sad human-Bree or envious of a happy one, couldn't she go meet starving children in Africa instead -
"Grandmama keeps her close," Laughter said.
"She's a status symbol when there are meetings with other courts, other fairies," said Salt.
"A pet, when there aren't," said Pyrite.
"A pet?" asked Chloe.
"A hand-fed, literally petted pet," Pyrite said.
"When you meet Grandmama you'll see Trinket," nodded Salt.
Bree would have rather been ordered to drink battery acid.
"Grandmama?" asked Chloe.
"Our matriarch." Laughter said it, Salt echoing her. Unless Bree had mixed the nicknames up again. "We call her Grandmama. You can call her Lady Sunrise."
"Take us to see, uh, Lady Sunrise," Chloe said.
No no no - why - no -
"All right," said Salt. "This way."
Grandmama lived in the central pavilion of the glowgold colony. She had a throne, narrow-backed to support her spine between her wings, made of braided ebony. The throne itself was undecorated; Grandmama, who looked too young to be a mother, let alone a grandmother, was its decoration, yellow hair elaborately coiled back behind her ears, cloth-of-gold wrapped around her waist.
Kneeling on a cushion at the matriarch's feet was a human, dressed like a glowgold but dim and tall and wingless.
She didn't look all that much like Bree, actually. Bree's disguise matched her parents, but not in quite this way. Trinket had her - their - mother's straight nose instead of their father's snub, their father's brown hair instead of mum's blonde. Blue eyes; Bree's were hazel.
When Bree alit on the pavilion beside Salt, and Chloe climbed up, Trinket spoke, smiling: "Welcome, guests. What is your business with my lady?" Trinket's lady herself glanced at the newcomers but did not seem inclined to say anything herself.
"We," began Bree, but Chloe interrupted:
"What language is that?"
"Language?" asked Salt.
"...You can't understand her?" Bree asked.
"It sounds like gibberish. You can?"
"She welcomed us and wants to know what our business with - her lady - is. What language are you speaking, um, Trinket?"
Trinket just blinked at her.
"She doesn't generally answer questions," Salt said in Bree's ear. "Grandmama doesn't like her to be too talkative."
"But why does she talk gibberish?" asked Chloe. "And why can - Changeling understand her?"
Pyrite caught up with them. "That's what happens when humans are brought up around fairies before they have a language of their own to hear," he said. "She's made up her own language, more or less. We can understand her the same way we could understand anything else. I had a book in English with me when I came back, and the last human couldn't read it, only fairy writing."
"But that means we can't bring her back," said Chloe.
All of the fairies looked at Chloe.
Trinket, obviously, could not understand her and continued to smile into the middle distance. She probably had to.
"She belongs to me," said Grandmama.
"Fair is fair," said Salt. "The parents got Changeling, and Grandmama gets Trinket. For as long as either can hold them."
"No matter that it's easier for Grandmama to hold a human than for human parents to hold a fairy," said Pyrite.
"I keep hearing fair is fair," said Bree. "What does that even mean?"
"To get a human child, Grandmama sends a fairy child in their place," said Salt. "If she only took one, with no exchange, then there would be no new children in her colony. Fair has to be fair."
"There's nothing fair about that," said Chloe.
"It's perfectly fair," says Salt. "If it weren't, we couldn't have more children."
"I get that you're talking weird fairy language and not English but that's not what fair means," exclaimed Chloe. "Their parents would never have agreed to the deal - and how is this fair to Trinket?"
Or me? wondered Bree, but she didn't really know if she wished she'd grown up here. However uncrumpled her wings might have been in the process. However beautiful the forest.
She didn't like the way Pyrite had flinched when Laughter had ordered him.
She did not think she was a fairy princess at all.
"Trinket didn't get anything," Chloe went on.
"Trinket has been looked after," said Grandmama, drawing her fingernails through Trinket's hair. "As she would have been in the other realm. Trinket was not at the stage of reasoning to have any part in the deal. You do not amuse me, mortal."
Trinket only smiled and blinked.
"B- Changeling didn't get anything," Chloe went on.
"You do not know of what you speak," Grandmama said. "Changeling, can you not control your mortal?"
"Shh, Seltzer," Bree said; halfheartedly, but Chloe subsided, glowering at the matriarch.
Bree was, supposedly, three, when swapped. She'd been old enough to understand an order to keep her wings in and her glow hidden, even if she couldn't remember it now. To grow tall, to not speak until she was older.
She had been at a stage of some reasoning.
And now here she was, under no standing orders at all, not five meters from a human whose name she knew, who belonged to Grandmama.
Why would they let her be here, let her talk, let her near Trinket?
She could steal the girl away if she said the word.
They had been doing this for centuries. They wouldn't make an obvious stupid mistake like that.
"Let's go home," Bree said abruptly to Chloe. She couldn't have said why, but she didn't like the way all of the nearby glowgolds were holding still, silent.
"What? They have - they're keeping her as a slave!"
"And we can't do anything about it," said Bree.
There was a sort of tension in Grandmama's wings. Bree was sure she'd know what it meant if she'd grown up around other fairies.
"We can't leave her! Can't you give her orders just the same as they can? We both know what her name is!"
Bree shook her head slowly. "If I try to take her," she says, "then what's stopping them from taking me?"
"I - what's stopping them now?"
"I don't know exactly how this works," said Bree. "I'm not very good at being a fairy. But I don't want to stay and find out by doing something wrong and spending eternity here. It's pretty but I would get very, very tired of it."
"She's a person," said Chloe. "We could figure something out about her not being able to speak a real language - you can understand her -"
"Grandmama knows my name," Bree said, "I'm sure of it. She gave me something in my deal and it's mine as long as I can hold it - isn't that right? - but only as long as I don't try to take anything that's not mine. Because fair's fair."
Chloe shook her head as if to clear it. "Gave you something?"
"Mortal captors," breathed Bree. "Who could not have kept me forever. The way she can. A chance to not have masters, if I don't get cocky."
None of the glowgolds were replying. Most of them weren't even twitching. Grandmama was staring her down, cold-eyed and luminous, mouth a set line. She wasn't even trying to entice Bree to stay. Maybe she thought that no matter what wonders the mortal realm held Bree would come back eventually. They were, after all, immortal.
"I'm sorry, Trinket," said Bree. "But I don't think you can come home to our parents. At least, I can't help you." She swallowed. "But they would've loved you."
Trinket blinked and smiled. Bree couldn't read her eyes to see contentment or screaming or confusion or anything else.
"Come on," Bree said to Chloe, and she fluttered down from the treehouse palace, waited at the base of the ladder for her friend's reluctant descent, and lit their way back to the gate. It wasn't so hard to find the path through the jungle after all.
The glowgolds didn't try to stop them.
Fair was fair.