Tisk walked up to the door just in time to hear a crash like glass breaking, and a boy’s startled cry followed by cursing. It didn’t sound like AJ, though. She knocked on the door, and at the same time unfocused her eyes to see past it into the room beyond.
“AJ, what’s going on in there?” she asked even as she began to see it for herself. There were bits of what looked like shattered pottery on the bedroom floor, and her adopted son sitting on the foot of the bed with a wooden mallet in his hand. AJ’s best friend stood facing him, sucking on his fingers and visibly fighting back tears.
“Mom!” AJ’s voice was urgent, but Tisk’s timing had been too perfect too many times for him to be surprised. “Harlan’s hurt himself.”
Tisk opened the door without any further invitation, and AJ began speaking quickly as she crossed the room to them. “Harlan wanted to practice fixing things in case he broke any of his mom’s stuff, so he wouldn’t get in trouble, so he made a vase and wanted me to break it so he could fix it, but then he started picking up the pieces and he hurt himself.”
Tisk turned to Harlan. “Give me your hand, sweetie.”
“It’s true, Miss Tisk,” Harlan said even before his fingers were completely out of his mouth, and Tisk couldn’t help but smile. Harlan was lean and thoughtful where AJ was stocky and impulsive; the two boys were so vastly different that it was only natural for them to end up so devoted to each other.
It was a bad cut, and bleeding rapidly, but no worse than anything else they had done to themselves or each other. Tisk set her jaw and closed her eyes, trying not to wince as an identical cut appeared on her hand. She immediately felt her magic work to knit her flesh back together, and her stomach lurched as her unborn son squirmed in her belly. Over the last month or two, he had always noticed whenever Tisk used her magic. She opened her eyes, dabbing Harlan’s hand with a kerchief to make sure she had been able to take the wound completely.
“All better,” she murmured, smiling at AJ, who had been diligently gnawing on his meaty fist to keep from panicking. “Come on. We all need to wash our hands. City dinner tonight, and it’s the first one in four months where all five Friends are able to make it.” She flicked her hands to shoo the boys out of AJ’s room.
“What about the vase?” AJ said, gingerly lighting from the bed to avoid the shards.
“Well…do you both promise that it really was one Harlan made, and that you weren’t having to ‘practice’ because you really did break one that belonged to someone else?” Tisk said as she herded them to the lavatory.
“Promise!” they chorused earnestly.
“Then I’ll clean it up and throw it away once we get back from dinner, so you boys don’t hurt yourselves on it again. If you had broken one of Uula’s vases,” Tisk addressed Harlan, “I would have cleaned it up, put it in a bag, and carried both it and you under one arm back to your house and made you confess to your mom.” Harlan’s eyes grew huge, and Tisk ruffled his hair with her non-bloodied hand as she began washing the other.
“It’s okay.” Tisk dried her hands on her pants. “Come on. Let’s get going.”
Loy met them in the foyer, greeting the boys with a ruffling of hair and Tisk with a kiss. “We ready?”
Tisk double-checked her hand. “I think so.” Loy spread his hands and said a few dark words that Tisk recognized only because she had heard them so many times before. A shimmering portal opened in the air in front of him, streaming like water.
“Now, that’s not the gate to the People’s Room,” Loy apologized. “So it’ll be a bit of a walk, but I didn’t want to open the gate on top of somebody.”
“It’s okay. I’m pregnant, not helpless. And Freeport’s not that big a town yet.” Tisk kissed Loy on the cheek, then stepped into the water and vanished.
High-mounted orbs of light cast dozens of shadows as the four of them walked down the street toward the golden glowing windows of the Freeport Public Hall. Behind the Hall, the mountain stretched up to meld with the purple evening sky. Tisk saw the silhouettes of others in the street, all with the same destination. City Dinner had started almost three years ago, back when Freeport had been created as a haven for refugees from the Church – it had been a way to help breed a sense of community among the disparate newcomers as they struggled to adjust to their new lives. With the Church toppled, Freeport didn’t get nearly as many refugees anymore, but community meals remained a popular ritual.
Loy clapped both boys on the shoulders. “You two should run ahead and save us chairs.” Harlan grinned at AJ and took off at a sprint, laughing as AJ ran complaining behind him.
“So what set off your danger sense this time?” Loy asked when the boys were out of sight.
Tisk tilted her head. “You couldn’t just ask earlier? You had to send them off to ‘save us chairs’ even though it’s impossible for the hall to run out and they’re probably going to have set a whole table aside for the Friends even though I keep insisting they shouldn’t be treating us any differently than anyone else?”
“Well, maybe someday they’ll listen to you, and since I don’t exactly come for the food, I want a good seat.” Loy gave a fanged grin. “And…I always hated it when my mom told my dad all the stuff I did wrong, right there in front of me, so I just want to do my asking in private. It’s just…a thing.”
Tisk smiled, reaching out to squeeze Loy’s hand. “Okay. Anyway. Harlan was playing around with his magic again, and he wanted to try repairing something. So apparently he made a ceramic vase, and AJ broke it for him, and then Harlan tried to pick up the pieces to put them back together. Cut himself pretty bad. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to take it off him completely.”
Loy’s eyes widened. “But he’s got the same power Leonard does, right? So he could’ve just put it back together from a distance.”
“Or at least tried. I don’t know if their powers are exactly the same or not. But it isn’t my place to mention that to Harlan. Even as much time as he spends in our house, he’s still Leonard’s kid, not ours. But I’ll tell Leonard when I see him tonight, and from there it’s up to him.”
“I hear my name?” a familiar voice drifted down the stairs of the Hall. Tisk squealed joyfully and waddled up the stairs toward Leonard and Uula. They graciously stepped down one stair from her, making themselves short enough for her to hug comfortably.
“Did you walk all the way here from the Library?” Leonard asked. “Shau’s here already; he could’ve made a gate straight to you.” Shau was another of the Friends, and the undisputed master of the gate-making power because he had also been gifted with the understanding of complex mathematics. Anyone with the power could create a gate to a specific location if given the “address”; Loy knew those of the Library and the People’s Room, and of his home. Shau, on the other hand, was able to use mathematics to predict the address of any location, with enough accuracy to open a gate directly under someone’s feet if he desired.
Tisk threw up her hands. “Gods! I swear, if I listened to you guys, I wouldn’t be fat ’cause of Sebastian” – she patted her tummy – “I’d be fat ‘cause I wouldn’t be allowed to do anything!” She turned to Loy, who had walked up to stand beside her. “I suppose you’re going to tell them what Harlan and AJ did today ‘cause you think I’m too delicate to say it twice.”
Loy looked straight at Leonard and spoke before Tisk could. “Harlan cut himself ’cause he thought he had to hold the broken ceramic bits in his hand to put them back together.”
Tisk rolled her eyes and punched Loy playfully in the shoulder. “You’re not missing a vase, are you, Uula? They both swear up and down Harlan made it to play with, but I wanted to double-check.”
Uula’s hand had flown to her mouth at the news, and she spoke around her fingers. “No, I don’t think so. Is Harlan all right?”
“He’s fine. It was bad enough I wasn’t sure I’d be able to take the wound completely, but I was.” Tisk looked around. “Loy sent the boys on ahead of us. Haven’t you seen them yet?”
“No…” Leonard closed his eyes for a few seconds. “They’re in the Hall, though. Talking to some of the other kids. Harlan’s showing off for them again. What a surprise.”
“Oh, speaking of kids and showing off,” Uula said, “Vahla and Koshi are here, and little Adam is walking now.”
“Holy crap! I mean, we just saw them, what…” Tisk frowned as she tried to calculate.
“…three weeks ago, last time they came to City Dinner,” Loy finished her sentence.
Tisk sighed. There were several realities in her life that she didn’t enjoy facing. Thankfully, she had a dozen years’ experience with a troupe of jongleurs and actors, and was very skilled at deceiving herself for short periods of time. She shoved her feelings back down and smiled bravely.
“So we’re just waiting on Onuban, then?”
“No, he’s here too,” Leonard said, gesturing downward. “We were all kind of waiting on you, really. He’s just kind of decompressing in the People’s Room. Y’know, with him and Melisae wandering through all those abandoned painted lands to make sure they were really abandoned before turning them off, he’s trying to get ready for dealing with crowds again.”
Loy frowned. “I wish someone had told me the People’s Room was empty.”
Tisk smiled and squeezed Loy’s hand, then turned back to Leonard. “I can understand that, I guess. I wonder if I can catch him for a few minutes before he joins the party.” Tisk nodded to excuse herself, and walked up the remaining stairs into the Public Hall.
“Mom! Dad!” AJ came running up almost immediately, and Tisk winced at the inevitable attention that drew to her. “We’re all over there.” He pointed to the table furthest from the doors. Vahla and Koshi and Shau and Arwynne were sitting and already eating, flanked by several empty chairs.
Of course we’re at that table, Tisk thought. It’s the one that requires me to move past the most people. She stifled a sigh and dutifully followed her son to the table, smiling falsely and murmuring half-hearted responses to greetings she didn’t fully hear. Tisk was known among the Fae as “the Beloved” (as well as “Her Majesty”, another reality she preferred not to face), and it seemed to hold true among the people of Freeport as well. She still wasn’t sure she liked it.
“Hey, Tisk!” Shau and Vahla said almost in unison as they approached. “Hey, Loy.”
“Hello, Miss Tisk. Hello, Loy,” Koshi said with her usual precise cheerfulness.
“Your Majesty,” Arwynne said, inclining her head. “Aloysius.”
“Lady Arwynne.” Tisk returned the nod, her false smile dissolving into a real one. “Hey, all.” Tisk did not sit down, but turned to Koshi, who was holding her baby in her lap. “So I hear he’s walking now?”
“Yes!” Koshi said, and both she and Vahla smiled proudly. “I find that he has been developing faster than is average in many respects. I knew we would do well. In fact, once Adam is older, I intend to have more children, and they will be wonderful too.”
Vahla’s smile froze for a moment. He looked slightly embarrassed. Shau rescued him by changing the subject. “And you’re just about due any day now, aren’t you, Tisk?”
“I don’t know about any day now…”
Koshi chimed in once again. “Based on the approximate date of conception stated originally, Tisk will be ideally giving birth in no fewer than three weeks and four days to ensure a fully developed infant.”
Tisk had to giggle. There was no doubt in her mind that Koshi was every bit as “real” as herself, capable of feeling love and even of birthing a flesh-and-blood child, but it was moments like these that belied her origins as a robotic nanny. She could only imagine how much more of it Vahla had to endure on a daily basis.
“And at that point you will be returning to the Courts of Fae?” Lady Arwynne’s voice calmly brought her back to the moment and hauled her up in front of that unpleasant reality. Tisk took a deep breath.
“Yes. A little sooner than that, perhaps. Ben Janni seems to think it might make some of my people happy if the birth itself happened inside the castle. I couldn’t tell if he meant the Fae wanted to be present and watching it happen or not.”
“They would wish to welcome it as a prince is due. Even though your child has no Fae blood in it whatsoever” – Arwynne’s eyes flicked to Shau and then to her own rounded belly – “he will be the Queen’s son, and thus by birthrights a courtier of the Fae.”
“I see. But yes. Once Sebastian is born, then Onuban already understands that he won’t be able to call on me like he has in the past, for at least a year and a day. And with any luck,” Tisk lied, “in that year and a day he’ll find a suitable replacement for me, and I won’t be called upon after that.”
“We can hope. And your lover and this child?” Arwynne indicated AJ with a nod.
Tisk willed herself to stop shaking. She knew Arwynne did not mean to be hurtful, and that it was her own damn fault for refusing to think about the matter, but it was hard to not resent Arwynne for putting her on the spot. Or for pointing out that part of becoming Queen of Faerie had been marrying a Fae, relegating Loy to “lover” status for the rest of her life. Tisk guessed she was happy that this bothered her more than it did Loy.
“They would be free to come and go, like any honored guests,” she said at last. “They would have designated living quarters, and unless you can think of a really good reason not to, I would ask Shau to teach Loy the gate-word to those quarters.”
“Are you going to sit down, hon?” Loy interrupted. Tisk blinked, hoping the relief didn’t show too much in her smile. She noticed that Leonard and Uula had joined the table when she wasn’t looking, and even Harlan and AJ had sat down. Only two chairs aside from hers remained empty. Tisk unwrapped the napkin from around her silverware and dropped it in her chair to indicate that the seat was now occupied and it was okay to bring food to it.
“Not yet. I think it’s time to go flush out Onuban and have everyone here at once. Bets on how many words or less before he decides he’d rather be out here in a crowd than talking to me?”
“Forty-seven,” Vahla piped up immediately, grinning.
Leonard sighed. “He doesn’t hate you, Michelle. He never did.” Leonard was the only one of the Friends who ever called Tisk by her birth name.
“I’m not saying he does or did. I don’t hate him either. But I am most definitely the queen of frustrating him just by opening my mouth. You can’t argue that. Anyway, back in a minute.” Tisk glanced at Loy, silently telling him not to follow her, then threaded her way through the tables to the small door which led down a short hall and some stairs to the People’s Room.
Tisk’s boots rang on the steps, and she made no effort to quiet herself. The People’s Room had been the original site of City Dinners back when Freeport was small enough for everyone to fit in the chamber. The room was still dominated by a long table ringed with chairs, and by exquisitely sculpted statues which the djinn Melisae had created to honor the five Friends. The columns which supported the room had been carved with the names of people who had died heroically in defense of Freeport, and of the Friends and their ideals of Harmony. Tisk wished she didn’t recognize so many of the names.
Onuban sat in a chair directly in front of his statue, gazing out the large window toward the sea just as the statue did, and making about as much noise. Melisae, whom he had married about six months before, sat in the chair next to him with her hand on his shoulder. She turned her head as Tisk appeared in the doorway, and squeezed Onuban’s shoulder.
“And here I thought I’d be safe from you in here, Tisk,” Onuban said. His back was still to her, but Tisk heard the smile in his voice, and she knew why. Tisk had originally been upset with the idea of statues until Melisae had explained them in a way she understood. Now they just made her sad, but for a different reason.
“Everyone’s here now,” Tisk said softly. “We’re just waiting for you to join us.”
Onuban groaned. “And go get mobbed. Tell me again why I thought communal meals were a good idea?”
“What do you mean? It was my idea, so obviously you must have hated it.” Tisk loaded her words with as much humor as she thought they could carry, because they would be traveling close to yet another unpleasant truth.
Onuban turned then. “Tisk…one of these days I really ought to bust your ass for violation of Harmony, attacking yourself like that. But come sit down.”
Tisk took a deep breath. “I’d really rather you come sit down with me upstairs. With everyone else. So we’re all together again one last time.” She hadn’t meant to say those last three words, as they plopped her right in front of her most unpleasant reality, and she felt her face tighten as Onuban raised his eyebrows and slowly climbed out of his chair.
“What the hell are you talking about?”
The emotion was already rising in Tisk’s chest, and she could feel it strangling her thoughts. She hoped she wouldn’t cry this time. Then Melisae smiled at her as if it were possible to hug someone from across the room, and began speaking for her.
“Onuban, love…Tisk’s baby will be born very soon. And then, like she promised, she has to go back to be the Queen of Faerie. And eventually Vahla will have to step up to his duties as King of the Skinchangers, and you and I still have several thousand worlds to explore and turn off. While each of you will certainly see each other again at some point, there may well not be any time in the foreseeable future where all five of you are in the same place at once.” Melisae stroked Onuban’s hair behind his ear and whispered something to him. Tisk was tempted to use her magic to overhear, but didn’t want to rile up the baby right before dinner. Besides, she probably knew what it was.
“And so help me,” Tisk said after another deep breath, “there have been times lately where I actually come in here and sit down and look at all the statues because I know damn well that soon enough that’s going to be the only way all of us are together.” She looked at Melisae with tears in her eyes.
Onuban stretched and looked almost paternally at Tisk before heading up the stairs. Tisk immediately waddled after him.
“If it makes you feel any better, Tisk,” Onuban said as he paused outside the door to the Hall, “I actually plan to come visit after all the painted lands are turned off.”
“What?!” Tisk was certain she’d misheard him.
“Yeah, I know. But I was talking to Melisae about it…yeah, I hate the Fae, we all know that. But you know, we went to all that trouble to get them to support the Harmony, I figure I should at least try to make friends with them.”
Tisk’s head continued reeling. “Well…I’m sure there’s plenty of room for you. And, I mean, you and Fox got along fine.”
“Which reminds me.” Onuban leaned in close. “It’ll be a couple of years at least before we’re done turning off worlds, so you’ve got plenty of time on this, and I’m holding you to it: when I do come to visit, I am going to need lots, and lots, of alcohol.”
Tisk’s laugh rang into the Hall as she pushed open the door, holding it open for Onuban and Melisae to make their entrance and cringing at the applause.
“So was I right?” Vahla asked, poking Tisk as she walked by.
“You expected me to count?!”
“Was he right about what?” Onuban frowned slightly.
“Mom?” AJ’s voice brought Tisk out of her happy reminiscence as she swept up the last few bits of broken pottery.
Tisk sighed, camouflaging it as a yawn. “Yes, sweetie?”
AJ fidgeted as he sat on the bed. “When am I gonna get magic?”
Tisk did the sighing/yawning trick again. She knew Leonard hadn’t yet tried to explain to his son that Harlan was the reincarnation of Leonard’s dead son from a previous marriage, and there was just no easy way to say “and in your previous life, AJ, you were a super-powerful devil that tried to destroy us, so actually we’d all feel a lot safer if it turns out you were born without powers”. Which meant she had to think fast and come up with something else.
“Well, sweetie,” Tisk said, sitting down next to him, “you have to realize that Harlan is the youngest we’ve ever seen anyone with magic. Logan was twelve when we heard about him. I was twenty-two, close to twenty-three. And Onuban discovered his powers about the same time I did, and he’s even older.”
AJ didn’t look at all comforted by her words. His obvious impatience made Tisk nervous enough that she no longer felt bad about what she had to say next. “And the truth is…it’s really likely that you never will have magic of your own.” She smoothed his hair. “Remember when you guys were at the orphanage, and Harlan thought his magic was something horrible he had to keep secret? It’s because there really aren’t that many people at all who are born with magic. I know you think there are, but that’s because you’ve been living here in Freeport. Back before we killed the Talisman, his people wanted to hunt down and kill all of us who had magic, so Freeport became the hiding-place for everyone who had magic. And so there are still a lot of people here with magic. But you could go to twenty other cities away from here, and you’d maybe find one person in all twenty cities who has magic. It just doesn’t happen very often.”
AJ sighed. “It’s not fair. I wanna do cool stuff like Harlan or you or Dad.”
“Listen to you!” Tisk scooped up her son with one arm and dropped him on the sliver of lap she had left, turning his head with her other hand so he would be facing her. “You’re talking like if something isn’t done with magic, it’s worthless. Even here in Freeport, there are only about twenty of us with magic, and there’s easily three hundred people living here now. Are you saying those other two-hundred-eighty people are worthless?”
“Well, no, but, it’s just…” AJ squirmed. “I mean, Harlan can fix broken stuff now, and his dad can build stuff. But then Jessica’s dad is a carpenter and her brother’s gonna learn to be a blacksmith. But why do we need carpenters and blacksmiths if we have Harlan and his dad?”
“You’re not listening!” Tisk curled to lean her head closer to AJ’s. “You’re not listening to me, and you’re definitely not listening in school if you’re thinking like that.” She bit off a few words that would have been too harsh. “What you need to understand is, now that the Talisman doesn’t have his stranglehold on peoples’ lives anymore…the magic doesn’t matter anymore, either.”
AJ frowned, shaking his head against her hand. Tisk pinched his jaw slightly to keep him from interrupting her. “I’m serious. When the Talisman was in power, we had to focus our attention on helping the people with magic, because the Talisman was strong enough that we’d all have to work together to take him down. But that’s just it!” Tisk’s face was glowing. “We didn’t defeat him because we had magic. We beat him because we were Friends. We worked together, and we supported each other no matter what the Talisman or anyone else threw at us. Even as many times as Onuban and I fought and argued, when things got bad, we were a team, and that’s what mattered more than anything.”
Tisk let go of AJ’s chin and hugged him as best she could. “That’s what I really wish you’d understand. Only one in a zillion people is going to be born with magic, so having friends is a zillion times more important than having magic. And maybe that’s one of those things you won’t believe until you’re a grown-up, but I promise it’s true.” Tisk blinked back the menace of tears and moved AJ off her lap so she could stand.
AJ looked thoughtful. Tisk wished she could be sure it was of the right things.
“And you know, once you’re older, and maybe once you’ve lived somewhere other than Freeport for a few years, I’d say talk to Onuban about becoming a Sentinel for a while. Do you think being big and strong and able to fly around would be cool enough for you?”
“Really?” AJ’s eyes widened. “He can just…turn people into Sentinels?”
Tisk smiled. “That’s right. I forgot, he’s been gone this whole time, so you never would have heard what his power is. Yes, he can turn people into things like Sentinels.” It was a cross between an oversimplification and a lie, but she didn’t care. Then a thought came to her. This whole time AJ had lived with them, she had never…and dinner had settled enough in her stomach…
Tisk leaned over the bed. “Wanna go flying before bed and see if that’s something you’d want to do?” She began sprouting her bat-wings as she spoke. They were the best choice for carrying heavy loads, and if she was going to tolerate a kicking fit from Sebastian, she was going to do this right.
AJ looked at her, wide-eyed, and hopped off the bed. Tisk opened the bedroom door and called down the hallway. “Loy! I’m taking AJ flying. Wanna come along?”
Loy appeared in the doorway seconds later. “Spend a few minutes curled up against you? How can I say no to that?”
AJ was eagerly opening the door to his balcony, and Tisk smiled as she scooped them up one in each arm. One of these days she would remember to thank Onuban for having made her strong enough to do that. She stepped onto the balcony, crouched, and jumped over the railing.
The moon was setting behind the mountain, but the harbor lights cast plenty of sparkles on the water. A few Sentinels came by to investigate them, but flew away when Loy waved.
“This is awesome,” AJ said after several minutes of wondering silence. “I love you, mom.”
“I love you too, Michelle,” Loy whispered in Tisk’s ear.
“And I love you two,” Tisk said, squeezing both of them. Her future was looming close, but it could wait a little longer. She would hold on to this moment for as long as she could.