“Come on, honey.” The voice was kind and broke through the haze of semi-consciousness the woman had been in for longer than she knew. “Wake up a little bit, will you, and let’s see if you can eat something.”
The woman opened her eyes and reached out for the blurry figure before her. “Help,” she begged. “Please, I need help.”
“I know, honey, I know.” The voice was female, and someone helped her to sit up before holding something cold and wet to her lips. “We’re helping you now. It’s all right.”
She gulped down whatever it was quickly and nearly cried with relief when it ran down her abused throat. “Please,” she tried again, this time with a bit more strength in her voice. “My baby…”
“Shush, you just stay quiet now.” More water, more that she had to drink before she could continue. “You’re delirious, honey. You need something to drink, some food, and lots of rest. Just lie here a bit and we’ll take care of you. We know how to do that here.”
A new voice spoke up, younger, and off to the side. “You’re lucky we found you. Some of the people out there aren’t so lucky.”
“Lie still.” There were more voices now, starting to overlap in the background as she began to struggle against the hands trying to hold her down. “You’re hurt real bad, honey, so just lie still while we get you cleaned up—“
“—about twenty-one years old, maybe a little bit older, should we ask her and find out for sure?”
“I don’t think she’ll answer. She doesn’t seem to understand what’s going on.”
“Someone should call Mr. George. I’m not sure that we can help her.”
“Is she at least taking liquid?”
“She was until she woke up. Now she’s just fighting us.”
“My son!” The woman managed to force the scream out of the ruin of her throat. “Where is my son?”
The voices grew louder and more numerous, calling out about soup and water and phones and bandages and disinfectant. One of them said something about finding Mr. George in person, whoever that was, and she thought another one said something about an emergency or delirium or nightmares. When none of them answered, she collapsed back into herself and let the voices wash over her while she wept with sheer, unrelieved hopelessness.
But when they touched her and asked for her name, she could only scream for her son.
It had taken weeks, but Vasha finally worked up the courage to ask the question that had been burning in the back of his mind. “Do you have fur?”
Tomas didn’t even look up from pouring the hot tea at the dinner table in Vasha’s suite. “Of sorts. It’s very short.”
That would explain the oddly shiny tint to the manservant’s skin. Vasha held his breath for a moment before continuing. “Can I…I mean, may I touch it?”
“Your Highness may do whatever he wishes.”
“I’d like your permission, though,” Vasha ventured shyly. “It’s not exactly the same as asking you to help me with dressing the morning, after all.”
The porcelain tea pot set down on the silver tray with a faint clink and Tomas looked up at the prince with the faintest trace of amusement on his immobile face. “If it pleases Your Highness, I do not mind.”
Vasha nearly sighed but that would have been unbearably rude, so he kept his exasperation inside. No matter what overtures he made, the older boy still insisted on treating him in a completely professional and deferential manner. He was supposed to be a servant, true, but Vasha wasn’t used to having people be so permissive around him. Besides, he liked his manservant a great deal, even with all of the Highnesses and servile behaviors. He wanted him to feel as comfortable as Vasha did around him.
Vasha stood up so that he could reach across the table and tentatively ran a finger over the exposed spot between Tomas’ gloves and his sleeve. Sure enough, it felt faintly fuzzy, like worn riding velvet. Vasha couldn’t help the grin that spread across his face at the wonder of it all. “It feels nice,” he offered shyly as he sat back down. “Thank you.”
“Thank you for the compliment, Your Highness.”
With that, Tomas sat down opposite the younger boy and waited patiently for Vasha to take the first sip. Vasha did so eagerly. He had never been a tea connoisseur before, but something about the way that Tomas made it as opposed to the nurses and dinner cooks was much more delicious than he had ever tasted before. Vasha thought he would never get sick of tea as long as it was the kind that Tomas made. The only problem was that he tended to burn his fingers picking up the tea cup, but he hoped that would stop with practice.
That thought reminded him of something else that he had wanted to ask and Vasha looked up from his tea cup after taking his first sip. “Is your fur the reason you have to wear gloves all of the time?”
Tomas stopped with his cup only halfway raised from its saucer and for once did not look up at Vasha. After a moment he set the cup back down and folded his hands in his lap. “No, Your Highness. That has nothing to do with it.”
Vasha wondered if he should continue…he had never seen Tomas react like that to anything yet, not even when they first met. But he was curious. What possible reason could it be, then? “May I ask why?”
“If Your Highness wishes.”
I want you to say its okay, Vasha thought desperately, not just say so because of who I am! His father may have wanted Tomas to be his son’s manservant, but the other boy was the closest thing to company that Vasha had ever had and he didn’t want another servant anyway. He wanted a friend, that was all.
Still, it wasn’t appropriate for polite society to blurt out something as silly and spoiled as all of that, especially not for a crown prince of the blood, so Vasha kept it all inside. “I do wish,” he replied instead. “I wish to know the reason why my personal manservant is apparently unable to touch me with his own hands.”
Even as the words left his mouth, he wanted to flinch away and blush. He hadn’t meant to say the last bit of that sentence. It sounded spoiled and selfish in petty, but he hadn’t been able to help himself.
Tomas didn’t seem to notice, and simply looked down at his hands in his lap for a moment before carefully removing the left hand glove and setting it on the edge of the table. He held his hand up silently, displaying a hand like any other…save for the curved and wickedly sharp short nails protruding from the very tips of his fingertips.
“His Majesty the King said that such a sign of my deformities would be upsetting to the higher classes in the castle,” he finally offered as Vasha stared with wide eyes. “Claws are not generally looked upon favorable when on anything other than house cats.”
Unable to tear his eyes away, Vasha searched frantically for a response that would be comforting. “They’re very clean, though,” he finally managed with only a little bit of fascination coming through in his voice. “It isn’t as though they are unsightly.”
Tomas merely shook his head and picked the glove up from the table with his claws. Not his fingers. Vasha had noticed his habit of picking things up rather delicately before this, but now he realized why. “Your Highness is too kind,” Tomas told him gently, “but there are some aspects of society that you have yet to experience. This is merely the result of one of them.”
“Wait!” Vasha cried out, leaning forward to snatch the glove out of the other boy’s grasp before he could put it back on. “You don’t have to do that!”
Tomas stared at him with an expression of pure, unadulterated surprise on his face. It was probably the most open expression that Vasha had ever seen on his face, and he made no effort to hide it even as the silence stretched on. Vasha cleared his throat nervously. “Ah…that is…I’d rather you didn’t wear them.”
Tomas blinked, deliberately. Vasha had yet to gather up the courage to ask exactly what kind of Changeling his mother had been, but only because it was obviously a feline of some kind…the manservant’s lack of blinking would have been a dead giveaway, even without seeing his claws. It was a bit unnerving to see him do so while Vasha was looking. “Your Highness?”
There had to be a more polite reason than admitting that Vasha found the more alien aspects of his new companion fascinating, and he thought quickly to try and come up with a realistic sounding excuse. “Your hands look far more sanitary than these gloves must be after using them to touch everything around the castle. You can wash your hands, you see.”
It was a terrible, transparent excuse, but Tomas didn’t laugh. He simply blinked again and removed the remaining glove. “As Your Highness wishes. I will have to wear them when His Majesty the King calls, however.”
“That is fine,” Vasha agreed hastily. “Just so long as you keep them off when tending to me alone.”
The older boy nodded and for a moment something that almost looked like a smile crossed over his features. Before Vasha could be sure if he had seen it or not, it had vanished.
Tomas nodded towards the tea tray between the two of them. “Your Highness, the tea will get cold if it sits out for too long.”
With a flush, Vasha bent back over his tea cup and the rest of the tea passed without a word. Vasha was too embarrassed to speak and Tomas rarely did unless he was answering a question or asking if the prince needed anything from him. Still, even as embarrassed as he felt, Vasha didn’t mind all that much.
It was just so nice simply to have someone else sit with him during tea, even if they never said a single word.
Tomas agreed that the kingdom of Rhys was lovely on the surface and on the rare occasions when it was not raining, he quite enjoyed walking along the moors beyond the castle grounds. There was something about the not quite silence that permeated the area that was infinitely soothing and peaceful to him, as if the whole world were holding its breath in anticipation of some great event that was waiting to happen just over the edge of the horizon. But whatever it was never happened…it just rained.
There were great things waiting to happen, Tomas knew, but he wasn’t at all sure if they were good things, either.
Thunder rumbled low in the distance and the spot where the sky met the hills flashed behind the clouds ominously. Tomas shivered and double checked that his scarf was tucked tidily into the spaces between his body and the back of his cape. He hated rain more than anything. He supposed he ought to hate other things more; the king, perhaps, or the rules of society that made it completely legal for others to heap abuse upon him and the other Changelings within the castle, but those were big worries and carrying that much emotion around was too much strain for someone still as young as he was. It would be two more years before he was officially a man grown, and then he would take on the worries and great emotional burdens that a man bore. Until then, it was the rain that he hated the most.
As he passed through the broken gate posts that signaled the start of the city proper, a lone farmer leading a bony, starved looking cow back home raised his hand up and waved a listless welcome. Tomas raised his hand in return but already the farmer had gone back to leading his cow along the road towards the fields. The cow stumbled and went down to her knees but did not make a sound of protest as she did so. Even from a distance, Tomas could hear the farmer’s grunts as he tried to tug the beast to her feet again, but even he did not say a word. Neither farmer nor cow actually cared about resting or hurrying; it was all rote habit and neither much cared for it.
Tomas looked away and hurried on to the market.
The city market had been a bustling, busy place in times long past, or so Tomas had heard. Now it was small, with more of the stalls standing empty with every year, leaving only a few sharp, hawkish vendors plying their wares to the few customers who barely even bothered to make eye contact as they went about their business. As he grew older, Tomas found it all incredibly sad. As a child he had looked around the market with wonder and even the most cynical of sales people would offer up a short smile at his excitement at being allowed to pick out a vegetable for the palace stew or a skein of silk for the maids to use for the king’s bed curtains that month. Now, though, he was old enough to realize that everyone and everything else in the city was colorless and completely devoid of wonder, and one person’s wonder did not make the rest of the place wonderful.
Tomas watched the others in the market from beneath the brim of his hat without even making eye contact. Everything looked colorful and even the bright red and gold figure he made walking through their ranks in the castle uniform did not seem out of place. It was just like the rest of Rhys, he mused sadly. The kingdom was beautiful on the surface but when you took off the colored glasses, it was all really just shades of gray.
At last he came to the booth he wanted and bent over to get a closer look at the glass caddies filled with tea. The woman helming the booth till reached out with a switch and lashed it over the exposed back of his neck. “Hey! You there!”
Wincing with the pain, Tomas looked up and met the disgusted look in the woman’s eyes without blinking. She merely shook her head. “Stay back! Don’t get too close, you think anyone will want to buy my things with your filthy fur scent all over everything?”
Inside, the part of Tomas that was more his mother’s child than he would ever let on bristled and braced itself to attack. Outwardly he could only nod and step back to study everything from a distance. Once upon a time he had struggled with the desire to fight back whenever such things happened, but his father had taken him to watch as a young Changeling only a few years older than Tomas was now had been beaten by one of the king’s soldiers before being hung before the crowd of bloodthirsty onlookers. “He let his nature get the better of him,” his father had whispered to Tomas sadly, “and attacked that soldier. He didn’t do much damage, but even so…”
He had nodded towards the Changeling waiting with the noose around his neck, then turned Tomas away and covered his eyes. They weren’t allowed to leave; none of the king’s guard could leave a public execution while he was there observing. But he kept Tomas from seeing the actual death. “Remember,” his father warned him in a low voice, “keep yourself under control. No matter how much they might deserve it, the law will always be against you in Rhys.”
That had been nearly ten years earlier, but Tomas had remembered. He couldn’t have forgotten even if he wanted to. The simple fact that he couldn’t inspect the wares at the market for quality the way the others in the market could was reminder enough.
When another half-breed, this one looking more human than whatever else she was, stood beside him in front of the booth and the woman at the till screeched and lashed out with her switch again while screaming something about tainted blood near her wares, Tomas decided he would move on and shop elsewhere today.
There really wasn’t any specific reason for him to visit the market today, if Tomas was completely honest with himself. There was plenty of the tea that the young prince liked so much back at the palace, the kitchen staff did most of the serious food shopping now, and the sewing mistresses had recently found a new boy to run their errands. Tomas’ shopping concerns were now solely about serving his new young master, but Vasha asked for so little that he hardly had to go out to buy anything. But Tomas had checked with some of the gossips around the castle and knew that there would be little fanfare regarding the boy’s birthday in the next few days, and somehow knowing that he was probably the only present Vasha would receive from his honored father made Tomas infinitely sad.
It was probably overstepping his bounds, Tomas knew. It was certainly nothing that would be covered by his stipend for the prince’s expenses. Still, even his father had bought him a toy sword or a new coat for his birthday every year. If a half-breed like himself warranted a gift or two to show that he was loved, surely a faerie prince of the blood did as well.
As he started to pass a stall claiming to sell curiosities from around the world beyond Rhys, Tomas paused and stopped to take a closer look. Most of the curiosities were just broken and badly mended rubbish that could be found in any attic around the kingdom, but Tomas didn’t care about how authentic these fake treasures were or even where they came from. A faint, tarnished glint had caught his eye and he wanted to see what it was.
There was a rusted copper tube sitting amidst the battered, broken rubble. Tomas started to reach out to pick it up for a closer look but the vendor’s eyes went straight to the velvet gloves on his hands and Tomas let his hand fall instead. With a low bow, he waited for the vendor to pick the device up and wrap it in sanitary paper before handing it to Tomas to inspect.
He hadn’t been entirely truthful about the gloves to the young prince. Part of it was due to high society finding such obvious indicators of impure blood to be distasteful and shameful, but the gloves also worked as an indicator for the less obvious half-breeds, labeling them like a uniform to any who saw them. It was how Vasha had realized what he was, after all, and he took more after his mother in terms of looks as it was. Most Changelings and half-breeds were obvious even without the gloves, but the higher classes claimed that they were deceitful enough to try and pass as pure anyway. So the myths about the gloves had come about. But the prince seemed to naïve about such things, and he’d looked so horrified when Tomas explained about his mother and father that Tomas hated to upset him again.
To some people, the gloves still weren’t enough to keep the taint off, though, so Tomas had gotten used to waiting for extra precautions to be taken whenever he wanted to touch anything he came across in the city market.
The vendor passed the device over to him, his expression full of undisguised suspicion, but Tomas ignored him and instead studied his discover. To his surprise, the lens was still intact, and the segmented joints still parted despite the rust. Taking a moment to extend it to its full length, Tomas studied the telescope from the other end and found himself smiling despite himself as he handed it back to the vendor. “How much?”
“To you?” The man laughed. “I wouldn’t sell a treasure like this t’ you no matter how much y’ offered me!”
Without speaking, Tomas reached into the pocket within his cape and withdrew the seal that marked him as part of the castle household. The man snatched it away and stared at it, flipping it over and over in his hand as if it would eventually turn into something else. He held it up to the light, tried biting it with rotten teeth, and finally tossed it back into the dirt in front of Tomas with a snort. “Ten silver pieces, an’ that’s my final offer, king’s staff or not.”
Tomas didn’t argue but simply bent down to pick the seal off of the ground, dusted it off, and slipped it back into the pocket. He counted out the silver pieces without complaint and took the telescope with a deep bow of thanks. The moment the sale was finished, he turned on his heels and walked quickly back out of the city towards the castle. There was nothing else to look for and he’d had enough of the market and the city for one day.
The clouds darkened and the air smelled electric as the storm moved closer. Tomas tucked the telescope side of his cloak and hurried back towards the castle, hoping to beat the rain.