“Not at all, I needed the laugh,” I said, smiling. “I think the king was more frightened than I was. What does he look like in the future?”
“Oh, very much the same. Maybe a few more worry lines.”
“Why are we eating lunch with this man? I still think he’s crazy.” The king grumbled, tearing his piece of bread in half.
“He did offer to pay for it as an apology,” I pointed out. “A sign of an honorable man. But sir, I’m afraid I must reject your proposal.”
“I understand.” The corners of the young man’s mouth twitched.
“And thus concludes the first romantic chapter in our Bartlemead-brat’s life,” the Faery King said with his mouth full.
“Don’t be rude.” I elbowed him. “I intend to be very romantic in the future.” Turning back to the fortuneteller I added archly, “Come and see me in five years or so.”
The young man laughed. “The years will be long, fair lady.”
The king almost spit his food out. “You’re not serious? This grubby tomboy?”
“Bah, you can only see with your present eyes,” the fortuneteller said as he was getting up to go. “In the future, she’s a total beauty.” He waved a cheerful goodbye.
We left the town soon after, riding in silence for a while. I broke it by saying, “A total beauty, huh?”
The king shook his head. “I can only imagine a girly version of Thomas.”
It made me giggle. “The old grandfather, or the young rascal?”
His face fell. “I keep forgetting that he’s old now.”
“Why don’t you look old?” I asked. “I thought faeries didn’t age, but Grandma looks a little older, while you don’t, not by a day.”
“It’s because I’ve lived in the faery world.”
“People don’t get old there? Is time different? Will I stay a child if I live there?”
“No, no, you’ll grow up. The borders of the faery world act as a sort of barrier for the magic done there, and that keeps anyone living there looking and feeling rather youthful.” At the confused expression on my face, he looked around for a better way to explain. “So you see this stream here?” The king pointed to a ditch on the side of the road and dismounted. “If I dropped a rock in and stirred up the mud--” he did as he said. “The dirt swirls around, but will eventually settle. The water, like the borders of the faery world, contains it. However, if I kick up dust on the road,” he demonstrated, “it will dissipate and spread through the air, going wherever it will. The magic doesn’t linger as much outside of the faery world. That’s why your grandmother isn’t as aged as Thomas, but has aged more than I. Do you understand?”
I nodded slowly. “So, magic is like dust?”
“Not really, but you get the idea. If I were to spend my time outside of the faery world and hardly use magic at all, I would eventually get old and die, same as any human. Many faeries like to do that when they retire, like my parents have. They got bored, and wanted to see more of the world.”
“Are they still alive?” I asked
“Oh, yes. Alive, active, and interfering. Pray that you never have to meet them.” He mounted his horse again.
“You should treasure them,” I said before I could stop myself.
The Faery King’s black eyes met mine, distant as ever, but not as cold as they usually were. “I suppose,” he said, looking away. “Anyway, don’t worry about living in the faery world. Flann won’t try to sabotage your pies anymore, and there are still plenty of human children to play with. You also get days off to visit your family, too-- more than other apprenticeships would give you. Honestly, I don’t know why you were so against signing the contract last time, foolish girl.” He began lecturing me on how grand of a bargain I had made and how lucky I’d be to work in his kitchens. I rolled my eyes, but the lecture was better than my thoughts alone.
Life in the faery world consisted of the kitchens-- masterfully spacious and well stocked with the finest ingredients from all over the world-- and a small, cold room with a narrow bed. It was a bit better than the prison cell that I’d stayed in last time. The only lock was on the inside, but the emptiness of the small space was oppressing.
The head baker, Flann, was indeed much nicer than last time. His respect for me had gone up considerably since he learned that my grandmother was a former princess of the Italian faeries. And I suppose we had formed an alliance from the last time that we’d worked together to prevent my beheading... which he’d put me in danger of... somewhat unknowingly. No, he welcomed me this time, and told the other bakers and cooks to show me around.
The first few weeks were the hardest. I was used to working all day, but in a variety of tasks, like sitting and peeling potatoes, or chopping wood, or being taught to read or work magic by Grandma. Standing all day in the same room was quite different. My feet ached. I slept poorly, not used to being the only person in a stone room. I didn’t see the Faery King after that. We didn’t eat in the Great Hall, but in a common dining room next to the kitchens. He would send his compliments after eating a dish I had made, which Flann would quote word for word. “Not too bad,” was usually the case, though. It was not very encouraging. There were other human children there, but most of them were sleeping by the time I was done with work, so it was difficult to talk much.
No one was unkind to me, but I had no friends in my new life. I began to get better at the simpler tasks they gave me, and in turn was taught to make new dishes and desserts. This made me happier, but not as happy as when I finally, after three months, got to leave and visit my family for a week. I even met my great-grandparents briefly, while at the Italian court, but it was clear that Ian was their sole favorite. He’s everyone’s favorite, you know. My mother had gotten tanned and somehow more beautiful from the warm, sunny climate. Grandad said suitors had begun to write poems and fight duels over her. She only rolled her eyes. Grandma demanded that I demonstrate what I’d learned so far, and it was satisfying beyond anything to see their faces light up as they tasted what I’d made. The week was over too quickly.
Most memorable of all my days and nights under the Faery King’s mountain, was the night after I’d returned from Italy. Work was over, everyone had gone to bed. I was sitting on the cold stone kitchen floor, crying my eyes out, when the door opened. At the sound of it, I silenced my sobs and hastily rubbed my eyes dry. It was embarrassing to behave that way in front of someone else. I tried to pretend I was normal, though it was obvious someone had heard me, and normal bakers don’t sit on dirty kitchen floors.
“Has Flann been forcing you to cut a lot of onions?” the Faery King asked, leaning a hand on the counter nearby. I jumped at the sound of his voice, but didn’t look up.
“No, not at all. Do you need something, your majesty?”
“No, Miss Bartlemead. I came because a certain worried chef told me that you've been more unhappy than the average child. Are you being mistreated?”
“No.” I wiped my nose. “Is my work unsatisfactory?”
“Not at all, but... Are you ill?”
“...Is it puberty?”
“NO!” Of all the--! He was just trying to get a rise out of me! I glared and turned away grumpily while he laughed. But then he crouched down beside me.
“Meg,” he said, and it was the most gentle I'd ever heard him speak my name. The first time he’d ever called me by my first name. “Turn your head this way and tell me what's wrong. Is it your dad?”
At the tone of sympathy in his voice—however small it may have been-- I felt even more tears well up in my eyes and the lump in my throat get bigger. Taking deep breaths, I forced it all back and tried to speak steadily. “I miss my family.”
“You miss your family? I thought you’d be happier after just seeing them.” He sounded baffled.
“I miss them so much!” All my pent-up feelings came out at once and I wailed like the child that I was, pushing my head into his shoulder. The poor king didn't know what to do. He had probably never comforted a crying person in all his life, let alone while being forced to sit on a cold kitchen floor. Flustered, he felt around in his pocket and whisked out a large handkerchief. After giving it to me, he patted my head awkwardly.
“I know I just saw them,” I tried to explain in between pathetic convulsions while he listened and nodded. “But I feel so empty now. No one is mean to me, but... I try to talk, but it doesn’t seem to reach them. It’s like I’m surrounded by invisible walls-- by silence while everyone else talks, and I don’t know how to break out of them.” Not rejected, but separate.
The Faery King sat beside me and stretched out his long legs across the kitchen floor. “It’s hard to be with people all the time. Especially those you’re not comfortable with. I understand that.”
“Well, I haven’t been uprooted and such, but with me-- my walls... I built them myself. I mean, being a king is being in isolation. Even though people come to you for help, even when you’re surrounded by supporters, everyone looks up to you. They expect you to behave a certain way. I can’t just be myself because I have to live up to their expectations.”
“Is that why you lie all the time?”
“What? I don’t lie!”
“You do. You say what you don’t mean instead of being honest. You pretend to be annoyed so no one knows that you’re actually excited, and act like you’re bored all the time.”
“I am bored all the time. What are you talking about?” He gave me a stern look.
I chuckled, and coughed a little, clearing my throat. “Your people already like you, but I think they’d like you even more if they knew you better.”
The Faery King turned a bit pink. “... You too,” he said, a little grudgingly.
“The other bakers and children will like you much more once they know you better. You don’t have to be afraid that they won’t. There is nothing about you for them to dislike.”
I stared at the cupboards while my vision blurred with tears. If I had been a plant dying of thirst, those words would have been the first few drops of rain that saved my life.
“Unless, of course, they have to listen to you snore,” the Faery King added.
“--And then, Sarah and I put the fake spider on top of the icebox, and Ferghus screamed like a girl, and then Flann came in, yelling, ‘What’s going on here?’ and screamed too! And we laughed so hard and had to run away before they caught us!” I paused for breath, laughing at my own story some weeks later.
“You seem to have been causing an awful lot of trouble,” the king commented as he paused for breath himself. The mountain we were climbing was rather steep. “Is Sarah the child that was about to be eaten by a troll when we found her?”
“Yes, she started as our morning dishwasher last month,” I said. “I met her when I delivered the cookies like you told me I should. It was a good idea.”
He smirked. “Well, as a king, I have to be good at these things. How far did you say we have to go?”
“All the way to the top!” My face felt like it was splitting from smiling too much-- in a good way. I had managed to drag the Faery King up a nearby mountain, and it was turning out to be so much fun.
“Your business had better be quick! I’ve got a kingdom to run, you know. I don’t have time to be gallivanting up and down mountains just because you keep getting involved with--” The king continued his lecture, but from the look on his face, he was thinking, I’ve missed this. Oh, how I’ve missed this. The clean air, the glorious white clouds that hung around us against the blue sky, and the smile of a companion who couldn’t care less about the crown on his head.
I hopped lightly from one rock to another, feeling-- and probably looking-- very much like a mountain goat. We were almost there. I ran a little ahead just to be sure everything was set up right.
“I still don’t understand why I had to come with you. After all, couldn’t you have gotten--” The Faery King stopped and stared when he entered the sunny clearing at the top. A small gathering of faeries were waiting: Sarah, Cusac, Flann, Jonathan, Rupert, Ferghus, and Jean, all of them sitting in a circle on a plaid tablecloth on the grass, surrounding a magnificent (if a little crooked) cake.
“What--” the Faery King looked at me suspiciously. “What is going on?”
“Happy Birthday!” I yelled, stretching my arms out toward the cake. The group of friends and faeries echoed me and cheered. “I know it’s really next week, but this is my early gift to you. It was Sarah’s idea to make it a surprise, but I made the cake myself! Flann taught me how, and we decided to do a spice cake with a peach filling, and-- hey! I told you not to start eating without us!” I ran over to scold my friends.
The king came a few, slow steps closer to the picnic, but hung back, his brows knit together. So I went back and asked him what was wrong, afraid that he didn’t like it.
“It looks fun,” the king said. “But why did you do this? What do you want?”
I was confused. “I did this to thank you... I don’t want anything in return.”
“But-- doing something so nice-- you’re making me want to do something for you in return! That’s the same thing as manipulating me, you know!” He was in a mild panic.
“It is not!” I argued, miffed. “And if it comes to making people feel grateful, you started it by going out of your way to cheer me up! So it’s really your fault if you feel burdened by gratitude. I never saw the like! None of this would have been possible without you, you know! Why don’t you accept my gift and be happy?!”
The Faery King blinked, looking like he needed time to process this new idea of friendship and whatnot. He’d had friends before! I didn’t understand why he had such a hard time letting someone do something nice for him-- especially since he’d had no problem accepting a small peach pie from a skinny little girl just a year or two ago. It wasn’t really fair for me to scold him at his own party, but I felt like my character had been insulted. All my efforts would be gone to waste if he didn’t understand.
“But...” he began timidly. “Why--”
“Oh, just eat some cake and be happy, your majesty!” I ordered, pointing and imitating my grandmother. I stomped away and sat down at the picnic in a huff. After a moment, he joined us, sitting down a bit awkwardly at first, but warming up to the atmosphere soon enough. After lunch, I watched carefully as he tried the spice cake, cutting a piece from the lowest layer.
“How is it?” I tried not to sound too eager. The look on his face was so satisfying.
“Mm, not too bad,” he said, smiling. “Thank you, Miss Bartlemead.”
I smiled back. “You’re welcome, Faery King.”
And at the end of the day, there was not a crumb left to take home.
THE END OF PART THREE