Contest #23 shortlist ⭐️

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Submitted on 01/11/2020

Categories: Fantasy

On a snowy day, it takes me 23 extra minutes to get to work. The accumulating slush on the city streets back up traffic so badly the buses run at least half an hour behind schedule, so I walk. The city is prettier after a snowfall anyway, the white blanket covers the dirt and the trash and the grime, for the first day at least.

I don’t know how long I walked before I passed through the gate. I was listening to a podcast to block out the noise, and if the wax paper hadn’t slipped off my morning hash brown, I wouldn’t have turned to grab it and realized I had no trail behind me, the snow a carpet of undented white.

“Damnit!” I screamed, plucking out my earbuds. She heard. She knew. Most likely she was just waiting around to make a grand entrance. I hate it when she does that.

“Hello, darling,” her voice fell as soft as a snowflake. She was leaning against the trunk of a white pine that hadn’t been there before, her preferred tree, still sacred to her in some parts of the world. Untouchable, like her. Her cut-crystal features were arched in an expression that someone less familiar might mistake for a smile.

“Mother.”

“I wanted to see how you were doing. It’s been a long time.”

“How did I pass into your realm? I’m carrying iron in my pocket,” I groped for the skeleton key I always carried, but came up empty. What a rookie mistake, and on the first snowfall to boot.

“Since you entered the square. I’ve missed you.”

“Feeling’s not mutual.”

Her impassive expression didn’t change, but I could feel her frown. She’s been using her shifting moods to provoke the obedience of mortals since time in memoriam. I don’t know if she does it to me out of mere habit, or because she’s deluded herself into thinking it will actually work.

“It’s been a while. I wanted to know when you’re coming home.”

“Home is Baltimore Ave, now.”

“You’re still miffed.”

Miffed is what I was when she got bored and triggered the War of the Roses. Miffed was when she blighted the Irish potato crop because she wasn’t receiving the deference she felt she was due. I forgave her those transgressions because killing by the millions was her nature, as the frost and the biting wind are her nature. Winter is a time of death, and it’s never been personal.

Jacqueline was personal.

“It’s been two centuries, my love.”

“One and a half, not even! And that’s not the point, Mother, the point is your spitefulness and your refusal to let me be happy.”

Jacqueline had been a shop girl in the city when I met her, a nice, safe job for women like her. Feminine, pretty Jacqueline was able to live on her modest salary and help her mother and grandmother keep house. If she didn’t want to marry, it was chalked up to being a modern young woman with an independent streak, certainly not the product of anything… untoward.

“Humans are playthings, my little love. It wasn’t good for you to be so serious about her. I’d have let you keep her if you knew how to maintain boundaries.”

“She ate bread and salt in your court, at your table, by your invitation. You refused to observe the covenant. Out of spite.”

“You have so much of your father in you.”

I was the product of her liaison with a human man she’d regarded as good enough to father a fairy child, but again not worthy of keeping in her court. He’d died of old age before I was out of swaddling clothes. It’s never occurred to my mother that the parts of me that were human would be anything other than an anecdote.

“I loved Jacqueline too much, I’m too much like Papa, does anything ever change with you? Do you ever accept fault?”

“I am above fault, little girl. As you could be, if you simply chose to see things as such.”

Mother hadn’t really cared that much about the strength of my feelings for Jacqueline. Humans had discovered a new way to heat iron, forge it into something stronger. Cities became larger, higher. We were pushed ever further into the wilderness, the borders of our court growing ever smaller, as more human places became inaccessible. It was for that Mother banished Jacqueline, who made no decisions about city expansion and had no control, but who was there, and who wanted to be part of my world. Winter has always been an unforgiving bitch.

I returned to the city with Jacqueline, my broken-hearted love. The human blood that pulses in my veins left me impervious to iron’s tang, an inborn vaccination of kinds. I’d proposed moderate injections of human blood at court to inoculate all of us, but Mother had been adamantly against it. The old ways were best, because she didn’t know how to navigate anything new.

The wind had gone out of Jacqueline’s sails with her banishment. She stopped striving for things, allowed life to happen to her instead of going out and living. I took care of us, and her family. Soothsaying had cycled back into fashion, and I made a tidy living telling fortunes, using scarves and crystal balls so my accuracy was more easily believed. As Jacqueline aged, I took to selling creams and unguents, pretending to my unwitting customers that rose hips and lavender were the secrets to my youthful looks.

When age took her, I stayed behind, making my home in the city that had embraced her when the court had not, surrounded by steel and safe from my mother, who sent blizzards to plague the northeast whenever she remembered my betrayal. I was careful to avoid the oldest parts of the city without some sort of talisman to ward away the passages to her realm, but every so often I slipped, ground down into autopilot like any young human navigating post-Industrial capitalism, more concerned with my subway pass than fairy rings.

“What is this world without your little pet, my darling? Isn’t an old mattress on a grimy floor cold without the embrace of your little human? Come home. Return to palaces of ice and white furred canopies and servants to comb the snarls from your hair. This is no place for a princess.”

“Nowhere in this world is colder than your home, Mother. All the furs and the fires in your realm can’t warm you.”

She was in front of me now, quick as a squall. She cupped my face in her hands and the edges of the world blurred white. I could feel my resolve weakening under her gaze and I felt myself falling in thrall to her, my eyelids drooping. Soon, I would awaken in my own bed after a few centuries of deep sleep. My belly would be full of fairy fruit, a dribble of wine running from the corner of my mouth. It was an old, cursed trick. She’d bound me before, when I was too young to know her tricks were more to cure her boredom than out of any actual parental love. As I grew wiser, she grew wilier, finding new ways to cut me off from old escape routes.

Rage can only last so long. Cut off from humanity, I’d forgive her. And I wasn’t ready to see past her betrayal yet.

Numbly, I groped in my pockets for something, anything, to ward her off. My mother was old, so old that cold iron only gave her a persistent dull headache, and little of humanity’s talismans against the fair folk were effective in an actual fight. I didn’t need to win, just to escape.

Deep in the corner of my coat pocket, when all seemed lost, I found salvation. A paper packet, the kind that contains a single serving of salt, that had accompanied a meal long forgotten. I pressed it against my thumbnail until I felt the paper tear, and I flung it into her face.

She howled, and the gentle snowfall became a squall. The salt couldn’t have done much—a cascade of tiny welts marring her perfect face, already healing—but the audacity shook her to her core. I bolted for the edge of the square, the border between my mother’s realm and the steel comfort of the city just before the diagonal walkways gave way to cold concrete.

I nearly stumbled into the street and caught myself at the last second by clutching a parking meter. Such an ugly thing, so common, so ordinary, so wonderfully iron-forged and welcome. I stopped short of kissing it with relief, and contented myself with embracing it in delirious glee.

A few pedestrians raised their eyebrows at me, but most were content to ignore me completely.

Mother would win, in the end. I belong to the hinterlands, and the fair folk have the luxury of playing the long game. She believed that delaying the inevitable was a protracted temper tantrum on my part, but it wasn’t so. I knew the fire of my anger would cool in the frozen halls of my mother’s palace, and I wasn’t ready to douse the last spark linking me to Jacqueline. All the passion I’d once held for her, I poured into my rage, fanning the flames of her memory with my fury.

As I turned down a side street, I spotted a parking sign gone to rust, and pried a steel nut from one of the screws, pocketing it as a safeguard until I could get home to my trusty key. I continued on to work, checking behind me as I went, every step a clear and distinct mark on the new fallen snow.

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