Everyone’s time runs out eventually. Sometimes it comes quietly in the middle of the night at the end of a long life. Other times, death cuts across your timeline without warning. Today just happens to be my time. No, I’m not dead. But this is the end for me. It’s a week before the Winter Solstice, which has always been one of my favorite times of the year. A full feast on the table, as large as money can buy, music pouring out of the windows of every building in Lisden and family to spend the day with. Mom’s been accumulating canned vegetables for weeks and recently ventured into the market to bring home the best of the fresh fruits in a small bag. My mouth waters just thinking about the blackberries. We never get blackberries in this part of the Middle Realm outside of solstice-time. They’re one of my favorite treats. My older brother Leo is due to be home any day now. He’s been gone for six months off on another of his mercenary expeditions. One more assignment, he said, and then he would be home for the Winter Solstice. Just one more assignment and he’d bring me back something nice for the celebration. Just one more assignment. I was lying in bed when it happened. It was late morning: not late enough to be noon, but not early enough to have time to get things done. I had been awake for hours, but I liked to lie in bed and just think. Sometimes, I’d read, but today, I couldn’t get myself to focus. Leo was due home in a week, and I was expecting a letter from him soon. He hadn’t written in a few days. I figured the letters must be backed up—communication in between realms is rare and therefore not always speedy—but I had an awful sense of foreboding. When Leo decided to become a soldier, my mother and I were both terrified. She tried to respectfully talk him out of it whereas I threw a fit and stormed out. I was just scared. Anything could happen out on the roads in this realm. He could have been sent to a peaceful town, or he could be sent south to the farm country where they’re fighting for whatever scraps they can get, and they don’t care who gets killed. But he held out against both of us, started training the day he turned eighteen, and never looked back. I was sixteen and he was nineteen when he was first hired to run security out in the trading ports of Baypoint. We cried when he left home, promising to be home in the spring. But we rejoiced when he sent home his first paycheck, and we could afford new clothes and fresh fruit from the market. Leo sent every copper, outside of his expenses, home to us. He had always said he wanted to take care of us someday like Mom had for all these years on her own, and finally he had the chance. Leo bounced around from job to job until six months ago when he was summoned to city hall with the other mercenaries in his company. We all thought maybe the government wanted to offer him a job, but no. It was the higher higher-ups. The Fae. The Fae have always had a hand here in the Middle Realm. They control the alliances, the trade, and the resource distribution. They all sit up there in the Upper Realm in their fancy castles and their bountiful homes with their magic and just watch us all run around down here like ants. This time, the Fae needed their worker ants, a group of mortal soldiers, to come run security for a top-secret operation of the House of the Sun. They offered more money than anyone in this realm had ever even heard of, and of course, Leo jumped at the chance. I have never seen him prouder to serve, and Leo could never resist an adventure. A knock from the front door echoes faintly under my bedroom door, interrupting my thoughts. I pull the covers over my head in hopes I can stay in bed. “Will you see who that is, Grace?” My mom’s faint voice calls from the kitchen. Ugh. She knows I’m awake. I grab a robe and begrudgingly drag myself out of bed, stumbling to the door. I peer out of the hole in the top of the door and am faced with the back of a strange man’s head. Behind him stand two other men. They stand rigidly at attention, mumbling quietly to one another. The leader’s stance along with the navy-blue uniform marks him as a military man. Then I see the slightly pointed ears sticking out from under his rigid hat. My heart stops. Fae. No. He turns slowly, and I see his face. His skin glows with an unseen light, and his purple eyes seem to bore into mine. It is as though he can see me through the heavy door. Perhaps he can. His features are too bright for this realm. His mouth is drawn tightly into a slight grimace, and I can’t bear to think what it means. “Mom!” I can’t hide the panic in my tone. I hear a dish clank into the sink as my mom rounds the corner in a rush. I feel guilty for making her worry before she even saw what the trouble was, but my face says it all. She peeks through the hole herself before opening the door. She opens it so slowly, delaying the inevitable. As the soldiers take a step forward into the doorway, I can now see that the leader is a Fae commander. The medals lining his breast and the swirling insignia mark him as such. His guards stand behind him. One of them holds a tightly wrapped scroll; the other holds the universal Upper Realm flag neatly folded in his hands. I stand behind my mother, staring blankly at the lot. I can’t bring myself to move. “I’m sorry,” the commander says quietly. My mother collapses to the ground, and I just let her fall. She sobs wildly into her hands as the panic rises up in my chest. I reach out and take the scroll and the flag, shaking my head over and over again. This can’t be real. I tear open the scroll, ripping it violently in my attempts. Leo Richardson—notice of death. I drop the flag, and it hits the ground with a soft thunk. The soldiers start when it hits the ground, but the commander stops them from moving into our home to retrieve it. Thank the Lady for that at least. I would have charged them both if they had tried. Damn them. Damn all the Fae. I kneel at my mother’s side and pull her to my chest as she begins to wail. I haven’t even begun to cry yet. I cling to her as tightly as I can, trying to shush her before the neighbors come to see what is going on. Our pain should be ours, not a spectacle for others to gawk at. I stare up at the Fae commander with what I hope is some sort of dismissive glance. His even gaze looks down on me, and when we lock eyes, I am filled with a blinding hatred. “Get out,” I hiss. To my surprise, he only nods, and he and his men turn and leave immediately. I wonder how many death announcements he has had to carry out in his life. It may explain the flash of pity I thought I saw behind his glassy demeanor. I despise his pity. I see the flash of a maroon coat before my uncle Liam is kneeling by our sides. His door down the hall makes an audible click as it swings closed. “Grace, what happened?” He hugs my mother protectively before addressing her, “Anna, what happened?” My mother is too incoherent to answer, and I can’t find the words. I slide the scroll over to him slowly. Liam takes one look at it, and his breath rushes out in one go. “Ohhh, Grace.” He hugs my mother tighter and holds out an arm to me. I lean my head into his hand for one small moment until it is too much. “Take care of her,” I say quickly as I flee to my room. I am being selfish. I know it, but I can’t take the pounding in my head. I slam the door and begin to pace the room. The sunlight streaming in through the window is too bright, too perky for the moment. I try to yank the curtains closed, but the heavy fabric tumbles off the walls causing more light to break. I have no patience for this. My hands tighten in my hair as I look for somewhere to hide. I catch a glimpse of the clothing shoved under my bed, and a rush of emotion hits me all at once. I dive to the floor and reach far under my bed. Rummaging through my things, I search for the one box that has… There! I rip the lid off the jewelry box and throw it across the room. It hits the bookshelf and ricochets off the wall. I cringe and reach to get it, but I stop short when I see the tiny seashell bracelet lying in the case, curled up in the corner. My hands shake as I pull it out of the box. I toy softly with the pure white shell on the end as I finger the smaller shells lining the string. It was the very last gift I received from Leo. He brought it home to me from the beach on his last mortal assignment in Baypoint. I can’t even bring myself to put it on. I finally try to slide it onto my wrist, but it falls to the floor. I pick it up and try again, but my shaking fingers just can’t hang on to it. Finally, my tears come. I scream in my grief, crying out Leo’s name to the heavens and praying the Lady would see him safely to the afterlife. I cradle the bracelet to my chest and rock back and forth as I sob and heave for breath. Come home, Leo. Please come home. You can’t be dead. You’re coming home, Leo; I need you to come home, big brother, please… Please… I cried for a very long time. I don’t remember much else of that day or that week, for that matter. I can’t stand the wintertime now. Too cold. Too dark. Too empty.
Two months later
My time of being compliant is up. I stand on the rooftop of the old abandoned hotel, overlooking Lisden below me. Being up here is the only way I can escape from the rest of the world. This place used to be a rooftop patio; you know, the kind where the upper class has their little soirees with drinks and music. Now it’s just as sad and dead as the rest of the city. Plastic lounge chairs sit in tatters around the rooftop minus two that may be usable if lying at the right angle. The lights have been broken for years, the glass still scattered on the concrete. There’s no resemblance of those old lavish parties. The rubble and debris just show how far we’ve fallen. Now, this rooftop is just mine. Mine to keep. It’s just above the smoke level, thick and grey from the factories. It’s one of the few places I can breathe in clean air for a while. It’s my safe space. Nothing centers me more than sitting up on this roof with nothing but the wind through my brown curls, even if it does blow the full length into my face if the breeze gets too strong. And I need that today. I buried my brother today. Here lies Leo Donovan Richardson, a kind soldier and a loving brother. May the Lady guide his soul. I never thought I would see those words as long as I lived. I can still see my brother’s coffin being lowered into the earth. The designs my mother and I took weeks to carve gave us one last glimpse of his life before it was covered over with dirt forever. My mother brought our childhood to life with her hands, chasing us through the park and following us over the hill into downtown. I tried to capture his confidence and his smile when he graduated from basic training as we gathered around him to celebrate. Each line, each cut was filled with a tear. I was so numb at the funeral, though; I couldn’t bring myself to cry. I held onto my sobbing mother, trying to keep her upright as the pallbearers finished. When the coffin was settled, my mother looked up at me with broken eyes. I knew what she needed me to do, what she wasn’t going to be able to do herself. So, I passed her off to my uncle and reached for a shovel. I tossed the first layer of dirt onto the coffin. Rest in peace, Leo. After the death announcement, we never got a notice telling us when the body was meant to arrive. Weeks went by, and the Fae never brought him back to us. We were visited by only one other official in that time. He was a fool. He mentioned Leo was walking through the mine while on patrol and died during an unexpected cave-in. This foolish man harshly informed us that the body had been completely destroyed, leaving not even a single piece of Leo for them to bring to us. My mother broke down and didn’t leave her room for a week. I hated him for being so explicit. My mother didn’t need to know her son wasn’t whole, let alone how broken he was. That should have been the end of it. We should have been able to grieve and then find a way to move on. I could have gotten there eventually. But then I received a package from the Upper Realm—an unmarked box with nothing more than my name and the street address. Inside was Leo’s dagger, perfectly intact with no blood or markings of strife. It looked exactly the same as when he had taken it with him. That was when I first suspected the whole thing was a lie. Utter bullshit. My brother never went anywhere without that knife. It was his first luxury purchase when he got his first paycheck as a soldier. He always knew where that knife was, and that blade was too flawless to have been pulled from a cave-in site. Before you think I haven’t taken into account the whole magic aspect: if they had repaired the blade, they would have fixed the little nick I made down by the handle the one and only time Leo let me hold it. The Fae pride themselves on being transparent. They like to say it gives them a better relationship with the mortals down in our realm, makes it easier for them to infiltrate our government, and leaves us less likely to rebel. That and the whole magic thing. When mortal mercenaries are asked to take part in a special operation in the Upper Realm, people pay attention. Mortals are never able to step foot into the Upper Realm unless called upon; it’s too heavily guarded. A chance to see the Fae’s world? No one wanted to pass that up, especially an adventurous soul like Leo. Of course, being in the Upper Realm had its dangers. Being unequipped to fight against magic, a handful of mortals died within just the first day. But it became apparent the Fae wanted to take care of these families. Probably to diffuse tension. If a mortal soldier died while in service to the Upper Realm, they were celebrated. Parades were held in their honor in their hometown, and the Fae always covered a lavish funeral. Every man was treated like a hero. But not my brother. They took my brother from me. My sweet innocent brother, who picked me up when he came through the door and spun me around no matter how much I had grown. My brother, who taught me how to read and how to spot the constellations when we could see them through the infinite grey and smoggy sky. Leo… my best friend. Leo… But don’t worry, Leo. I’m gonna make this right. I can hear the faint noise of footsteps climbing up the back staircase. My shoulders tense, but I relax when I hear a characteristic knock and the creaking of the door opening. I turn my head back to look over the city. “What took you so long, David?” The tall man in question moves to my side, rubbing the back of his neck and sighing in exasperation. “Some of us had business to take care of today.” He runs a hand through the dark, shaggy mop on top of his head. He’s always doing that, and it makes it worse. Sometimes I just want to reach out and fix it. “Well, I told you I needed to see you right after the funeral. This is important,” I say sternly. “I need your help.” David sighs and reaches out to ruffle my hair. I smile at the familiar gesture. “I told you I’d be here. And here I am. Lay it on me, Grace.” I take a deep breath. “I need you to sneak me into the Upper Realm.” The rooftop falls silent, and I cringe as I cast a glance over at him. David’s staring at me like I’ve grown two more heads. “I’m sorry,” he finally says with a grating edge to his voice. “I thought you just said you wanted me to sneak you into the Upper Realm. I don’t think I heard you right.” When my expression doesn’t change, he scoffs and starts to walk off. “You’re insane. Not a chance in hell.” I grab his arm and hold on as tightly as I can. He tries to wrench it away from me as I plead, “David, no, come on. David!” “Absolutely not,” David protests. “Are you out of your mind?” “Come on. Hear me out! Please!” I beg. He manages to work his arm free. “Oh, I can’t wait for this one.” “David, I have to find out what happened to him. You know he wouldn’t have left his dagger if he was on patrol. You know he wasn’t stupid. You know there’s more to this just as much as I do. I have to know.” “So? What the hell do you think you’re going to do? Just stroll on in unprepared and confront a bunch of Fae until you get what you need?” “Of course not, David. I would—” “You would be dead within a day, Grace. Mark my words. You have no idea what it’s like up there. I don’t even know what it’s like there, and I’m a lot closer to the situation than you—” “I’m not going to run in blind, David!” I shout. When he looks around nervously, I immediately lower my voice. “I’m taking combat lessons with Billy down at the ring. I’ll do the research, figure out how to act like a real Fae. I’ll be working more now to support our family. I’ll put away some money and purchase what I need from the shop or from you.” “And you know you can’t get everything you need from this realm,” David counters. “I know,” I concede quietly. “I know. That’s why… I’m gonna need…” I look around to double-check our privacy. There are ears everywhere when your overlords are magical. “I’m gonna need some things from your connections.” David sighs and looks at me with a hint of sympathy. “It’s gonna cost you dearly, love. Black market product isn’t cheap.” “I’ll do whatever it takes.” David rubs his hands over his face with an exasperated sigh. “I don’t approve of this.” “I know,” I reply quietly. “But you know I’ll do it with or without you.” I move to hug him. “You were his best friend. You’re mine too. He was my big brother.” I rub my cheek against his shirt. “I know you’ll make the right decision.” A little cruel, I know, but it’ll get the point across. He chuckles dryly and finally hugs me back. “Fine. I’ll help you.” “Thank you,” I whisper back softly. David sighs one last time before turning to leave. “I hope you know what you’re doing, Grace. For your sake.” As he slips out, I hear him mutter, “Let me know what you need. We’ll be in touch.” By the Lady, I hope this works.