This story is set in the same universe as Changeling and Queen.
This story is also available in audio, which you may find on this episode of Wingardcast.
He didn't charm my name out of me the first time. No hungry wanderer has the wit to do that, and he was clever enough from the start to avoid the faerie food. I didn't even let him see me. I watched him, I thought he'd been here at least a day by the time I ran across him and he already looked like he'd survived an encounter with a pack of trolls. Meanwhile he watched everything. He watched the least of us tend the flowers and watched the Queen's chariot cross the sky and watched the shadows change directions indecisively under the eternal daylight of the upper Reach. He found a gatekeeper and passed her test (on that occasion she was looking for steadfastness; on another she might punish stubbornness, but he guessed correctly, and held up to scrutiny). He went home. This was common enough. The film between ours and yours is thin. You fall in, see enough to color your daydreams, and go home and have your choice of silence or dismissal.
What is not common is for the same visitor to return a second time.
He didn't charm my name out of me the next time I saw him. But that time, he did see me. I recognized him while he was moving the tiles in the outer wall of the labyrinth that protects the spring of liquid gold. I couldn't tell what he was trying to do, and moved from the shadowed areas where it's easiest to hide, to get a closer look.
And he said, "Hello."
And I said, "Good morrow, mortal." (And he smiled, and I didn't know why.) "What's your name?"
"What's yours?" he asked.
I didn't answer him. "What are you doing?"
"Experimenting," he said.
And I said, "You look hungry. Would you like a candied dewdrop?"
"Do you want a grape?" he asked, and he pointed at the satchel at his feet, full of food brought from the other side of the veil.
I laughed. "Oh! You planned this. I wondered why you had been so foolish as to fall in twice if we didn't tempt you to stay the first time."
"Three times," he said, moving the tiles again into a different pattern.
I laughed again, and he smiled, and if I couldn't have his name or be the one to convince him to take food from me, I could make him smile, and that was an opportunity too. Sometimes mortals stay on purpose, seduced by beauty. (Once they're here to stay, their few protections evaporate and they don't remain for long in their original forms - but that's all part of the fun.)
"You're a tourist," I teased him, and I clambered up to the top of the wall he was playing with. "Playing puzzles and going on little adventures with your name in the balance. There aren't games enough for you at home?"
"I'm a visitor," he suggested.
"Visitor," I allowed. "In and out twice. In a third time. If you like it here so much, why not stay?"
He looked up, met my eyes. He squinted when my wings flashed in the light. "Thinking about it," he admitted, and he smiled again. "If I found a nice comfortable place to stay where the Queen wouldn't eventually crush me."
"You could stay with me," I suggested, fluttering down to his side, getting close enough to smell him.
"Could I, now."
"Of course. Taste a dewdrop from my hand. Or give me your name. Stay forever. Look at the pretty things. Play with the tiles."
"Wind up as dinner, or a mushroom, or fog. Dance without rest for eternity to decorate your hall, or your master's hall, or your lover's hall -"
"You'd be very decorative," I laughed.
"Would be, but no."
"What do you want here, then?"
"I want," he said, looking at the tiles again and slotting the last loose one into place in the new pattern, "to know how it works."
The wall shifted aside, a new entrance into the labyrinth. He grinned.
"Stay and I'll tell you all about it," I purred in his ear.
"Come home with me, I'll make you famous," he replied, and he touched me then, one finger under my chin and I licked my lips, "everyone will admire you, those pretty wings and that blue hair, I won't even make you dance."
I laughed at him.
And I flew away.
And I followed him again when he came back, because he was the most interesting thing about.
The third time I saw him I showed myself right away. He smiled at me and went on drawing circles in the dirt.
"Are you trying to cast spells?" I asked him, peering over his shoulder.
"They won't work in the mortal world. Stay with me, be a sorcerer. I'll keep you for myself, the Queen has enough sorcerers in her court not to steal mine."
"Come with me when I go. Ghostwrite a book. I won't let them cart you off to a laboratory."
I laughed. I touched his hair, made it stand up. "You aren't afraid to touch me," I said.
"You're not one of the violent kinds."
I tugged on his shoulder and had him pinned to the ground under me in a moment. He went limp and pliant, didn't even try to resist. "Are you sure?" I asked.
"If I wasn't sure," he said, "I wouldn't have let you get so close. You didn't hurt me."
I pouted and let him up.
"I'm sure you'd be very dangerous," he said, "if I let you feed me, or told you my name."
"I would be gentle with you," I cooed. "You could do whatever you liked, really. Most of the time."
"You're already nice to me," he said.
"So you can see, I would go on doing it."
"That logic doesn't even work reliably at home, let alone here."
I sighed and sat next to his circle. I wasn't a sorcerer myself, I didn't know what the shapes meant. "What are you trying to do?"
"Weather, today," he said.
I watched him draw.
"I would be kind to you," I asserted.
"Maybe you would," he acknowledged. "I'm not going to stay here. With a faerie I've met twice who hasn't told me his name."
"I don't know your name either."
"I'm," he said, and I straightened up, "a visitor." I slumped again. "Why do you want me so badly? Trick another faerie out of their name, into debt, whatever other ways there are."
I shrugged. I had faerie vassals already. "You're interesting."
He smiled at me. He drew another angle in his circle. "Thanks."
He called down rain, and I fled for cover because I hate it when my wings are wet, and he sat next to me under a tree, and he found all of the fey berries I'd snuck into his bag of food and picked them out and threw them away.
Then he tousled my hair, and drew himself a gate out, and went home. He didn't stop to ask me again if I'd come along, not when there was a door right there.
I caught him on his way in, the next time, and caught a glimpse of the other side of the gap on the veil he used - a narrow space between walls of regular, red stones, mortared with something rough and beige, paved between them with something dark and scattered with debris that was brightly colored under the dirt and rot. He stepped in, and the gate closed, and he waved at me.
"Good morrow, Visitor."
"Is that my nickname now? I still don't have anything to call you."
"You could probably think of something."
"I'd rather find out."
"What would you do with me?" I asked, leering at him.
"I'd be nice to you," he murmured.
I laughed at him. "What are you doing here today?"
"Learning things. What else?"
"Oh, I don't know, you could challenge me to a game for our names."
"Why would you even accept the challenge, if I issued it? Why would you want another layer of command over the Queen's?"
"It'd be fun," I said. His legs were longer than mine; I fluttered to keep up with him when he started walking. "If you're going to play, play for stakes."
"Is that how you get your vassals, then?"
"Most of them."
"They lose a game and you keep their names forever."
"Well, we mean forever, but sometimes they get away," I shrugged. "Forever's a long time."
"Have you been a vassal before? Apart from to the Queen, I mean."
"Probably. I don't remember. It's been a very long time, you know, we change roles, the old lifetimes become like stories and then less than that."
"Huh," he says. And then, "Mortals are called that for a reason, you know."
"I know," I laughed, "you're here and gone, barely for days. You've so little to lose."
"It's still all we get."
"Yet you keep wandering here, where everyone and everything wants to snap you up and keep you."
"You would, wouldn't you," he mused. "Even though you like me. Because you like me. You'd take my name or feed me and find something or other to do with me, maybe nice, maybe not, maybe you'd turn me into a bird or keep me as your love-slave or dangle me from your ceiling -"
"Was one of those supposed to be the nice outcome?" I leered.
"- even though you like me."
"Because I like you," I said.
"That's not what mortals do when we like each other," he snorted.
"No? You like me, what would you do with me if you could do whatever you pleased?"
He touched my face again. "That's not how it works at home. Getting to do whatever you please with someone isn't - a liking thing. It's more like this, how we are now, no compulsions, just spending time together, only at home names have no power so the possibility isn't hanging over our heads. Mortals who like each other aren't... covetous like that."
"Well, sometimes. It's not thought to be very healthy." He dropped his hand.
"I'm perfectly healthy," I said, draping myself over his shoulder. "And I covet you. Tell me your name and I'll show you."
"If I got yours," he said, "and you were all mine, to do whatever I liked with, what would you think of that?"
"Well!" I laughed. "I'm not going to do it. That'd be losing."
"How would you feel about it?" he pressed.
"Oh, everyone would laugh at me, losing my name to a mortal -"
"And would that bother you?"
"It's all part of the same game," I said.
"I'm not hearing a yes, it would be horrible."
"You'd mean forever. It wouldn't really be," I shrugged.
"So you'd try to get away."
"Otherwise I'd just go on losing. It's no fun to lose all the time."
"It really does boil down to just a game, doesn't it."
"What else would it be?"
"Hmm," he said, and he laid his hand on my jaw. I squirmed around until I was sitting in his lap.
"Kiss me," I suggested.
"You've probably got faerie food tucked in your cheek."
"Ah, you've caught me."
"Tell me your name and I will, though," he whispered. "It'd be safe then."
"Safe, safe, safe, it's boring, Visitor."
"I'm not playing the same game as you," he said.
"Try it, it's fun."
"I don't have enough to gamble with. You're the high-roller here. You can afford the, what, eighty years if I'm moderately lucky."
"Pfff," I said, "that's nothing. That's not even worth playing for."
"Well," he remarked, and his eyes sparkled, "I'd mean forever."
"That's what I'm here to try. What did you think I was here to do?" he whispered. "Do you think I can do it?"
He grinned at me.
"You're dangerous," I accused, laughing. "What would you do if you had me?"
He looked tired, for a moment. "Trust you. I would be having more fun right now - different fun, but more of it - if I could trust you. That's what I'd do."
"No locking me up in a tower as your love slave?" I leaned in close, winked.
"Is that one supposed to be the nice outcome?" he murmured.
"Maybe. Kiss me."
"Tell me your name and I will."
"Astikari," I breathed, and before I had a chance to regret it, he made good on his promise.
He was nice to me.
And he had a point, about it being more fun. He could stay longer, for one thing - food from his vassal's hand, however fey in origin, wouldn't bind him to the place, and so I fed him all sorts of confections and he knew I wasn't going to poison him and that was entertaining in its own way, how he relaxed. He still went back to the mortal world occasionally. He didn't make me go with him, only bade me run errands and be waiting for him when he returned.
And I did, and he always did return, and I was at his side always, and I began to see the shape of his plan.
He didn't want to be a visitor.
He didn't want to eventually let slip his name to some beauty and consign himself to some traditional fate.
He wanted to learn everything, and use the one advantage a mortal has in our world.
Not even the Queen knew his name, and not even she could command him, if he had enough power to face her.
The Queen's reign was meant to be forever. And she meant forever.
But it's such a long time...