“Lucy, Bal, will both of you get up?” Keri yelled up the stairs. “You’ve got fifteen minutes before we’re due out of here.”
The rattle of hangers quickly followed a thunder of footsteps over the squeaky boards above. The pipes gave the familiar clank from the bathroom. Keri sipped her coffee. This rush is, as usual, their fault. I’ve called them twice. She glanced at her watch and shook her head.
Footsteps pounded down the stairs. Bal stood on the bottom step, a little out of breath, combing through the shimmering length of her dark hair.
“Is Lucy nearly ready too? I’m not waiting for her again.”
“I got to the shower first. She won’t be long. Thanks, Keri, we’d never make it into the office at all if not for you.” Bal gave her a bright smile and drank a mouthful from the mug Keri offered. “Oh yes, I needed caffeine,” Bal murmured, and closed her dark eyes after another gulp.
“Then, Baljeet, tomorrow why don’t you get up in time to have a cup of your own?” Keri shook her head and took her mug back.
“I’m ready, I’m ready.” Lucy’s voice wafted down.
Bal sat to zip up her tall, suede boots.
Lucy stood at the bottom of the stairs, wearing a voluminous gypsy skirt matched by a tight bolero over a green silk blouse. She offered an apologetic smile as she grabbed her perfume bottle off the mantle and squirted a blast of fragrance on each of her wrists.
Keri eyed both her housemates. “Right you two, listen to me. When we get back tonight we’re cleaning up in here. Okay? We have the Valentine’s party in two days and I want this place fit for guests. Oh, and let’s make it a proper clean up, shall we? No sweeping everything under the sofa cushions, or shoving dirty pans out of the way in the oven. So, no dates tonight, not for any of us, right? I don’t care who emails, texts or phones, you are busy. Agreed?”
Bal gave a brief nod of assent as she stared down at her phone checking texts.
Lucy wrinkled her nose and yawned. “Keri, darlin’, much as I love you, it’s far too early to discuss all this. How much would it cost us to get a maid service in here?” She slipped her arm through Keri’s. “Let’s go, sweetheart. Can we stop off at the coffee shop before we hit the office?”
Stunned to silence, Keri stared, but then, with her arm linked tight in Lucy’s, she moved toward the door. A maid service? Really! We need more than a maid service for sure. She stomped down the hall and did her best to ignore the rash of cobwebs in the corner of the ceiling in the porch. Bal tapped out a stream like Morse code, texting, as she walked behind.
* * * *
The slam of the door shook Poppy from her bed. Peeling back the covers, she shivered in the damp morning. She yanked on her cloak, clutched it tight for warmth, and peered down from her vantage point, in a gap in the brickwork, inside the top of the porch.
Below, her three mortals strolled over to the small blue car. A smile rose, for as always they were all so lovely. The one graceful as a swan, who Poppy remained certain had fairy ancestry, led the way. The glorious wealth of pale blonde hair tied up by a flower-decorated clip would be certain to lure the glance of both fairies and men. Next came the mortal with the loudest voice, but by far and away the best figure as well as a wild tangled mane of chestnut curls. Finally, the girl with exotic thigh-length dark hair and golden skin, strolled at the rear of line. All three of them got into the car, and Poppy sighed, sorry to see them go for the day.
So far, since she’d found them, life here had been fun. Being so vibrant and young, energy simply oozed from them. The parties her mortals hosted entranced her. At each event, she sat under a leaf in the garden and sucked energy to her heart’s content. She did wish she could find a way to help them, even if only a little. The trio seemed to be such good mortals, providing flowers and sweet-scented plants in their garden, and they fed the birds at a very pretty bird table. These mortals really cared about their garden.
The strangest thing was though, since her arrival, not once had one of them made a direct wish for anything. They seemed not to need any help with romance. She’d seen young men arrive to meet them and whisk them off in cars on a regular basis.
Perhaps, as it’s soon to be the most special romantic time of year, I might get the chance to grant a few wishes. Her worst dread remained a too real prospect. One day she would go back to the fairy court and have to tell everyone she’d done nothing at all to help her chosen mortals. She shivered at the thought, for such a confession would be a huge humiliation. The critical expressions some fairies could wear were savage. She’d seen a lot of those before she left on fly about.
Don’t think about that! Think about good things. She breathed out a huge sigh. The good things always seemed to revolve around one fairy, one utterly gorgeous, heart stoppingly perfect fairy, who didn’t criticize in the way the others did. She sighed again. Perhaps he never said anything about the disasters because he never noticed me at all. She had to have some successful wishes to speak about when she returned. I won’t go back until I have.
The fairy courtiers had come to expect tales of triumph in all dealings with mortals. I must do something to make the lot of at least one of my mortals more bearable, or I risk more than ridicule. If her majesty isn’t impressed I could be banished to the top of some Christmas tree for decades. Worse though, what if he knew? I’d want to dissolve in shame.
She gave a shudder and tried to dismiss the image of the reason for her fly about and her venture into the world of mortals.
I’ve spent enough time thinking of him.
* * * *
The car started the first time despite the condensation from the February chill. Keri reversed off the drive as Bal’s iPod muttered to her from the backseat and Lucy sat with fingers extended on the dashboard, peering at the tiny gems on new silk nail wraps.
Keri sighed. She loved both of her friends. They’d shared the house since they met at the office three years ago, and their adventures had been fun. But neither of her compatriots showed any passion for housework. Both of them preferred parties. Though this preference might be lovely in itself, it did mean between clean ups, the house became more chaotic and slovenly than she liked, until it got to the point she forced the others into tidying up.
This Valentine party would be their first big one since New Year. She couldn’t bear to think people might arrive when the house resembled a rummage sale.
A sigh escaped Keri as she pulled into a space outside their usual coffee shop on the outskirts of Worcester. Lucy dodged out to get three tall cups of coffee and three chocolate doughnuts—their usual breakfast order. The rest of the drive into the office, they all ate. Lucy fed her chunks of doughnut and sips of coffee every time they paused in traffic or at the lights.
“How many guests have we got coming to the party?” Bal asked, as she collected the rubbish left from breakfast and packed it into the paper carrier.
“I think about fifty people,” Keri murmured, her concentration on the mirrors while she parked in the tiny space allowed. They all squeezed out of the driver’s door as the guy with the new Audi had risked his paint job by parking too close on the other side. “So, we have got to tidy up tonight. Promise me?”
“Yes, darling, we know. Come on, we don’t want old Claudia thinking we were late on purpose, do we? There is, I am sure in this paperless office, a snowfall of work to be printed, copied, recorded, filed, or posted.” Lucy clasped her arm and flashed a smile before they headed into the large corporate building where the three of them worked in the legal department.
* * * *
Once the little blue car disappeared from sight, Poppy flew over the drab February garden. The damp, gray morning remained cold with an icy nip in the air, but at least she could feel no imminent snow. In one corner by where the girls parked the car, beneath a leafless bough, a little stand of snowdrops peeked out. Spring would soon arrive and the garden would bloom back into life. She flew up and around to the larger back garden.
Here sat some of the dreaded decking. Lackluster, noxious stuff and when she first saw it, she had thought not to settle in such a place. But her girls, being such clever and willing mortals, covered more than half of the deck with pots, baskets, and bright colored boxes of flowers and herbs. The scent in the summer intoxicated, and this persuaded her to stay. The party that had been in full swing when she arrived, with couples who danced on the lawn, also helped make up her mind. Why, my girls even have pretty fairy lights hanging from the bushes. She knew another party was planned to take place very soon and she could hardly wait.
Poppy hovered down to the kitchen window ledge. The girls had left the window ajar again. They should be more careful. Any qualms about going inside had vanished long ago with her desire to enjoy her mortals and as no household cat lurked in the house, she often slid inside. Today she edged past the danger of the net curtains and stared at the kitchen. What a mess. Really girls, you could do better than this!
Her mortals had one major fault—they weren’t very tidy and sometimes she helped out where she could, but today things appeared to be so bad there wasn’t much she could do. Perhaps when they get home, I’ll come in here and give them a bit of a clean-up nudge.
The slam of the window behind her thudded so forcefully, she almost fell into the sink full of gray water and dirty dishes. She spun around, unable to fly because of the dangerous net, and grabbed at a wet mug handle, but her feet slid on a blob of grease and she teetered on the edge. Her feet skittered and slipped before she managed to cling to the tap to prevent a fall into the unpleasant, dreary mess below. The shadow of the old man who sometimes came to clean the windows loomed through the glass, and she ducked down behind a roll of paper towels, while he scrubbed at the window with a sponge.
The old man had banged the window closed tight, and she had no hope to open the catch unless she used up some precious energy in magic.
Nuts and acorns, I’m stuck inside until the girls get back.
While the window cleaner moved on to the next pane, she flew into the sitting room and stared at the scatter of books, magazines, and CD’s on the floor. Alone today, she enjoyed the opportunity to admire the large photographs of the girls on a beach holiday.
I have such lovely mortals; each of them is beautiful in their own way.
The photograph Poppy liked best showed Keri with her sun hat at a rakish angle, Bal with her slender figure sheathed in a mist of white muslin, and Lucy, her charms barely hidden by a tiny scrap of fabric, her skin gilded by a sun-kissed shimmer of gold. They could outshine most fairies I remember from the court.
She’d missed the girls so much when they went on their trips but loved the pictures they put up when they returned. Poppy glanced at the next, a smaller image in a silver frame. She laughed aloud. This picture always made her laugh. Bal and Lucy, both with wide grins, lay buried under mounds of sparkling snow. Only their heads and snow boots showed, and Keri, who wore a satisfied smile, stood beside them with a large shovel in her hand. Poppy chuckled again and flew over to the mantle shelf where a bottle of Lucy’s perfume stood. She sat on top of the spray mechanism with a thump and enjoyed the reward of a delicious waft of fragrance.
One of Keri’s fitness magazines caught her attention, and she spent several minutes admiring the muscular young man who stared back up at her.
Very nice. Perhaps I’ve been away from the court for too long. Fancy me finding a mortal male attractive? But this one is gorgeous. Maybe I ought to work on a wish or two for myself? There’s not much point though, there’s only one fairy I ever really wanted and I was too scared to let him know. She sighed and hovered over to where one of Bal’s long silk scarves dangled over the arm of a chair. What a wonderful opportunity to enjoy this sensual delight. Poppy wrapped a great swathe of the scarf around her.
Mmmmmmmmmm, so lovely.
Draped in the soft fabric she curled up to nap until the girls returned.
* * * *
“Have yer heard the news?”
Cedar Heartwood arched an eyebrow at his friend Yew and handed over a cup of nectar. “No, tell me, what news?”
Yew flashed a gleam of white smile over the rim of the silvered cup, and whispered, “’Tis being said, and by some of those who should know, her majesty is with child.” Yew’s dark eyes widened before he sipped and settled back on the embroidered cushions.
“Never,” Cedar exclaimed in a hushed tone. He turned to check he’d shut the door. Even though they sat in the privacy of his rooms, it was still possible others might overhear them. Gossip always traveled fast through the court, no matter how careful one might be. He sat down by his friend and leaned forward. “Tell me more.”
“Apparently, there’s this fairy, Wilomeena. She turned up a little while ago now, cooing and ahhing, because the mortals she’s hooked herself up with are on their third babe. You know how they all go gooey and sloppy over such things.”
Cedar nodded with a shudder. Yes, they always do. He’d tried to make it a habit not to be around when babies made their way into the conversation. The subject made his wings itch.
“Well,” Yew went on, “the queen heard tell of it. And after long deliberation on the matter.” Yew’s dark glance rolled upward and he scowled with of this part of the tale. “’Tis being said, the queen will announce she’s to have a babe of her own, as we’ve no mortal ones here.”
“And Lord Oberon has agreed with her?” Cedar said.
“When, my friend, has our noble lord’s agreement ever been sought by our lovely lady?” Yew snorted into his nectar and coughed. “He does as he’s bid and ye know it. The consequences are too terrible if he doesn’t. And of course, yer know what it means, don’t yer?” Yew took a deep draught from the cup.
The answer burst forth like a dandelion bloom in May. “By the moon’s bright beams, they’ll all want one!”
“Indeed.” Yew gave a soft belch and a nod. “Of that I’m certain. The court will be awash with weepy females bearing. Come the autumn there will be a squad of squalling babies. Life is going to get very, very dull.”
“Do yer truly think so?” Cedar closed his eyes and tried not to let his imagination run along those lines.
“I swear to you by Pan’s twin horns, I’ve had one ask me already if I would contribute to the cause.”
“No.” Cedar gulped from his cup, stared in disbelief, and swiped away the dribble of nectar he’d failed to swallow. “Who?”
“Aye,” Yew whispered, leaned closer still and cupped his hand by his mouth. “On my way over here I got cornered by the lovely little Violet. The one I spent some time with last month. All honey mouth and sweet little sighs. ‘Don’t ye think babies are lovely,’ she cooed. She batted her eyelashes and said we need more fairies in the world. Worse than that, she asked me outright, wouldn’t I like to call one of ’em mine?” Yew shuddered, gave a huge sigh and stared down to his tight, satin court breeches. “’Tis enough to shrivel the mightiest of oaks to naught, it is.”
Speechless, Cedar shook his head and once he’d steadied his hand, gulped another swift drink.
“I’d wager,” Yew continued, “yer won’t get a decent lay from now until next midsummer, not without a babe being part of the bargain. I’d bet my wings on it.”
“They can’t do this, it’s…” Cedar spluttered, “…it’s terrible. Blackmail, Yew, it’ll be blackmail! I’ll not take part in it. What about the parties? The nectar? The music and dancing?”
Yew grimaced and undid the snowy froth of cravat at the neck of his elegant frilled shirt. “I’ve heard the kitchens have already been told anything served to the royal tables has to be good for females bearing. Yer know greens like spinach and watercress.”
“Aye, did ye not see the last two nights at the top table? I’d thought ye might have noticed, lots of fruit and vegetables in the serving dishes, no nectar at all, and our lovely lady beaming rosy. One of the musicians told me they’ve started to rehearse lullabies.”
Cedar shuddered and drew a deep breath. “I’ll not stay to be caught like a crane fly in a web. I’m going to do fly about, time I did anyway.” He slammed his cup down on the small table.
“I don’t blame ye, my friend. I’d go too, but I went a while ago and can’t go again yet, which leads me to why I’ve come to see ye.” Yew gave him a grin.
“What can I do for ye?” he asked, though his thoughts had already turned to packing.
“It’s our little Poppy,” Yew began.
“Oh, I remember her, lots of red hair, a tiny little tulip-shaped freckle by her mouth.” He turned back to Yew, full of sudden attention. “She left on fly about a few years ago now.” The memory of her robbed all thought of what he’d pack. Poppy was a very luscious fairy, and if she had been a little more forthcoming, she might have been of far more interest than her brother. He’d missed her.
“I’m surprised yer remember the freckle and not some of her more famous exploits. If ever there was a fairy that should have been named Calamity, why I have to say ’twould be Poppy for sure. Anyway, no matter on that, but I’ll tell ye, I’m worried. I’ve heard nothing from her, and knowing Poppy, she could be in all sorts of trouble. I wondered if ye went, and I thought yer would on hearing the news. Could ye have a scout round on yer way, and see if yer can find out how she is?”
He gave Yew a nod. “Of course I will. If I find any sign of her I’ll let ye know. ’Tis a wide world out there though, and it might take me some time.”
“I know, but I’d like ye to see if she’s doing well, perhaps being a help somewhere or other.”
“Of course, I’ll find out for yer, or at least pick up a lead to her if I can. I’ll send a message back by butterfly. I know they’re slow but they’re more dependable than anything else. And ye? If yer stay, will ye be part of the new fashion?”
Yew gave a soft sigh. “Oh, aye, I expect so, if Violet and her like have their way. One of ’em will get me, I’m certain,” he said and sighed again. “We can’t live on nectar alone for long, can we?”
“May the blessings of Pan protect ye.” He grasped Yew’s hand in a firm grip.
“Aye, and good journey to ye when yer go.” Yew squeezed his hand in return.
“My thanks, and I’ll be off with the dawn tomorrow. I ain’t ready for this new fashion for certain.”
Yew nodded, his expression dogged when he rose to leave. “Fly well, my friend, and maybe by the time yer get back the fashion will have changed to something more palatable.”
Cedar gave Yew a swift embrace before Yew redid the lace cravat and left. Once alone, Cedar locked the door, fearful to be lured into any female’s dream desire of breeding before he had the chance to flee. He bundled some essentials into a small knapsack and sat in wait to escape at dawn.