The Changeling Prince
By Cortni Fernandez
The hill with the willow tree was Reiya’s favourite place to linger on the path between the schoolhouse and the farm. She lay on the grass and watched the sun filter through the willow tresses, while her brother Taji sat a few feet away, feeding the sparrows with a bag full of bread crumbs. Half a dozen of the little brown birds perched on his outstretched legs and bony shoulders, twittering softly. Taji, the long lost prince of the fairy realm, twittered back, holding one sparrow out on his finger.
“When I return to my kingdom, I think I’ll make all of you my royal courtiers,” he said, bringing his cheek to the bird’s fluffy form.
Reiya watched him through the corner of her eye. His human form, as Taji called it, had been well designed to resemble her: sleek black hair, skin dappled by the sun, and several grass stains on his elbows and knees. While Reiya’s cotton robe was a dull wine red, Taji’s was patterned with pale pinks and orange. He was crowned with a ring of woven leaves, accented by a large white flower he had discovered that morning. Smiling and covered in tiny birds, he did resemble the fairy prince he insisted he was.
“What about me?” Reiya said, folding her arms more comfortably behind her head. “I don’t want to be a courtier.”
“How about a princess?” he suggested. “Taji and Reiya – prince and princess of the fairies.”
“That sounds terrible.” Reiya thought about the horse-riding lords who used to roam the countryside, carrying real swords that glinted in the sunlight. “Can I be a knight instead?”
“Hm… I’m not sure. Are there knights in the fairy realm, or is that only for humans?”
“It’s your kingdom, your majesty.”
“True enough!” Taji said, sitting a little straighter. “Alright then. You may be my knight.”
Before he had finished his royal proclamation, Reiya felt trouble approaching in the form of stomping footsteps. Sighing, she remained on her back, hoping they would pass by. Instead, all the sparrows suddenly took off in a cloud of feathers, and Taji made a small sound of disappointment.
“Oops,” said a loud voice. “There go all your friends in the world.”
Reiya tilted her head slightly to look, but she and Taji knew better than to reply to Jinba or his backup crew, Muka and Yogani. Jinba was broad but short for his age, and felt that being aggressive was the best way to gain a few inches. Muka’s shadow usually dwarfed Jinba, but by the way Muka’s small eyes always looked to his friend, you’d think it was the other way around. Yogani, with the poorest luck of all, had half their mass and half their brains.
“Hey, nice flower,” Jinba said, stopping on the path. He seemed to enjoy towering over Taji and Reiya, since neither sibling was standing. “I said something nice, fairy boy. You should thank me.”
Taji’s nose remained lofty and he brushed breadcrumbs off his robe sleeves with exaggerated elegance. Muka and Yogani came closer, flanking Jinba like a widening ocean wave. Jinba leaned down and stuck out his stubby nose.
“Are you rude or just dumb?” he said.
“I am Prince Taji of the Fairy Realm,” Taji said, with all the stern dignity of royalty. “I’m very polite and smart, and I’d be happy to teach you to be both.”
“We don’t want you to teach us,” Yogani said, looking confused, and earning a silencing shove from Muka.
“You must be stupid if you really think you’re a fairy prince,” said Jinba, folding his arms.
“Yeah,” Muka added. “Show us your magical fairy powers, dimwit.”
“See, this is why you need a teacher,” said Taji, without the traces of annoyance that Reiya felt at that moment. “Of course I can’t show you my magic. I’m in human form.”
This simple statement prompted a chorus of ugly snorts.
“Oh yeah? Well change back and prove us wrong,” Jinba said through his fake laugh.
“I can’t show you my fairy form unless you truly believe in me, and clearly you don’t. Only true believers are worthy.”
Reiya was familiar with plenty of fairy rules – Taji kept her well-informed – but this time Jinba and the others didn’t laugh right away. She found this very suspicious, and she narrowed her eyes at them.
“I thought fairies can’t declare themselves,” Muka said.
“That’s right, that’s the rule,” Yogani piped in, proud to know something correct. “If you’re a fairy, how come you can say it?”
Taji smiled benignly. “Because I’m the prince, of course,” he said. As he had explained to Reiya several years ago, Taji had few but precious memories of his true parents, the king and queen of the fairies. He couldn’t remember why they had been forced to leave him in the care of humans, since he had been just a baby at the time. But he knew they watched over him from afar, and would return him to the fairy realm when he was ready to claim the throne. In the meantime, they had blessed him with the ability to proudly say who he was, even though he was hidden in human form.
Taji didn’t gift the three dolts with his beautiful story; he was busy weaving another crown from dandelions and buttercups. “If you think the rules apply to fairy royalty, then you really don’t know much at all about fairies,” he said.
“We know plenty,” Jinba said with a nasty grin. “Like when you capture a fairy and make it give up its treasure.”
“Yeah,” Yogani said, leaning down with wide eyes. “Gold.”
“What? It’s not gold, they have to grant you a wish,” said Muka, frowning at Yogani.
Jinba looked annoyed. “No it isn’t, it’s eternal life.”
“Told you,” said Taji, going back to his work. Reiya was torn between amusement at the boys’ confusion and exasperation at Taji’s slightly smug tone.
“You know what?” said Jinba, turning back to Taji and massaging his balled fist. “Why don’t we find out what you get when you make a fairy bleed,” he suggested.
Reiya sat up quietly. Taji didn’t notice her move, though all the other boys moved an inch or two backwards.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” said Taji, perfectly calm. “I have the grace of the fairies, and it protects me wherever I go.”
Muka scowled his disbelief. “That’s not true.”
It was sort of true, by Reiya’s account. Taji either had fairy grace, or a certain amount of undeniable luck. She had seen him hop across riverbeds in bare feet without slipping. He had a way with animals, almost as though he spoke their language. Taji’s peculiarities did attract unwanted attention from kids like Jinba, but they never managed to hurt him, in spirit nor in body. Reiya thought she had something to do with that particular bit of luck, though.
“It’s okay if you don’t understand,” said Taji, now threading the flowers into a loop. “It’s not your fault. You’re only humans. Maybe you should just go away now.”
“Why?” said Jinba, casting a brief glance at Reiya. “Because your sister thinks she’s so tough with a big stick?”
Muka and Yogani chuckled. Reiya, whose big stick lay right beside her, saw Jinba’s gaze flicker to Taji again. Bolstered by the laughter of his friends, Jinba reached for the crown on Taji’s head.
Reiya’s polished bamboo staff cracked him hard across the knuckles, a sudden barrier between Jinba’s hand and Taji’s face.
“Don’t touch his flower,” Reiya said, as Jinba winced in shock and pain.
Taji rolled his eyes fondly. “It’s a magnolia,” he said, still patient at Reiya’s reluctance to learn the names of all his favourite flowers.
Jinba, who had bumped into Muka and Yogani, now looked as red as the mark on his hand. He tried to grab Reiya’s staff. A few steps and swift strikes was all it took to knock the wind from his gut. While Jinba was doubled, Yogani and Muka reluctantly took their own swings. Reiya struck their kneecaps and ankles, and was rewarded with the sight of them hopping like bunnies along the path back into Kurona village.
“The grace of the fairies protects me,” Taji called after them, waving as they ran off.
“I protected you,” Reiya pointed out.
“Because the fairies knew you would when they brought me to the human world.”
Reiya sighed pretend annoyance as she sat down again and replaced her staff. “Why did they want to give me a brother who’s so much trouble?”
“Because he makes you pretty crowns,” Taji said, raising the finished monstrosity of bursting yellow blossoms above Reiya’s head. She fought him on this for five minutes until settling for a much simpler crown of braided willow branches. Taji managed to get a few dandelions tied to her staff, and Reiya pretended not to notice them until they made their way back to the farm in time for dinner.
Taji’s and Reiya’s parents, both human, had always trusted their offspring, fairy or not. They knew Reiya could protect Taji wherever they went. This meant that Reiya and Taji were often allowed to travel on their own, at least after their chores and homework were finished. Usually they stayed on the outskirts of Kurona, in case their father brought home extra sweet buns from the baker, or their mother wanted a fresh bouquet of wildflowers.
Once a year, though, Reiya and Taji went to the town of Mirabi to hunt for fairy treasure.
No one else in Mirabi was interested in such a task, since everyone knew perfectly well that the Wanderwood nearby was a dangerous place. Most people who ventured inside went mad or got lost and were never seen again. The Wanderwood was generally considered a place to be avoided at all costs – even if it was rumoured to conceal the path to the fairy realm. This, of course, was precisely why Taji begged to visit at the midpoint of summer. According to him, fairies passed into the human world from the Wanderwood on the longest night of the year. He was determined, therefore, to catch a glimpse of them as they did… or at least find the treasures they dropped during their passage.
The morning they were due to depart for Mirabi, Taji received a parcel wrapped in brown paper from the postman at the front gate.
“It must be from my parents!” Taji said, bouncing with excitement.
Reiya looked through the wrappings he had shredded, but there was no note. All they had contained was a ring of purple blossoms – a flower crown, like Taji loved to wear. He held it up with awe and delight, but Reiya snatched it out of his hand at once.
“I don’t think you should wear this,” Reiya said, holding it out of his reach. Taji gave her a look like she had just kicked a baby animal. “They’re creeping poppies,” she pointed out. “If it rains, you’ll be snoring with your face in the mud no matter how much fairy grace you have.”
Taji didn’t seem to hear her warning. “You do know your flowers!” he said, beaming with pride. “Look, I’ll only wear it in sunny weather, okay? I promise I won’t get it wet. Come on, Reiya. I’ve always wanted these, and it’ll look so nice when we get to the Wanderwood. Please please please…”
Reiya frowned at the mysterious gift, but couldn’t find a better reason not to let him have it. “Fine,” she relented, handing it over.
Taji hugged her in delight.
Once they had packed and said goodbye to their parents, Reiya and Taji headed off on their annual visit to the fairies. They didn’t run into Jinba, Muka or Yogani on their way out of Kurona, as Reiya had worried they might. Instead, they reached the edge of the Wanderwood by late afternoon, and had plenty of time for treasure hunting.
Taji was in high spirits, skipping and twirling ahead, though never straying too far from Reiya. Even he knew she wouldn’t let him enter the forest that stretched out for miles beside them, as innocuous as it looked from the outside. Through the shafts of bamboo that concealed the darkness inside, Reiya could spot the stone lanterns of the Wanderwood. They glowed with eternal flames, like single eyes winking at them from the shade.
“Maybe you’ll find something too this time,” said Taji, walking backwards so that he could face her. He adjusted his crown of creeping poppies, still grinning about it.
“I don’t think so,” Reiya replied. “I don’t have your luck.”
Reiya never looked too hard for fairy treasure in the first place, but Taji had an incredible knack for discovering small wonders, like stones with crystals in them, or brightly coloured feathers. He had already found a spiral shell so far.
“I wish they would show themselves,” Taji mused, twirling the shell between his fingers. “Just once. I hope they haven’t forgotten about me.”
“I think you’re pretty memorable.”
“Thank you! My loyal and trustworthy knight. I will throw a feast in your honour,” Taji said, throwing out his arms in welcome.
Reiya kept one hand on her staff as Taji hopped around, darting a little too close to the tree line. “Careful,” she warned. “We’re not going in there.”
“I wasn’t going in. I’m just showing you the path to my realm. When the time is right, we can go there together.”
Reiya fell into step beside her brother and bumped him a few times as they walked. “I dunno. I’m not sure the fairies would accept me. I’m so human.”
“Yeah, but you’re my sister, so I don’t mind,” said Taji. “Besides, you’d have to come. You couldn’t bear the thought of living without me.”
“Yeah right,” Reiya said as Taji hooked his arm into hers and laughed.
“Haha, you looove-”
Before he could finish, a cold splash of water hit Reiya hard in the face. Shocked and spluttering, she whirled around to see where it had come from, but the water blurred her eyes. She sensed Taji beside her, equally drenched and staggering in surprise. More than surprise, in fact.
“Taji?” she said, as she watched him sink to the grass and slump over. A sickly sweet scent crept up on her as she leaned over him, and in a moment, she collapsed into a deep sleep by his side.
When Reiya awoke, she found herself lying awkwardly on her side, tied up by scratchy ropes. She couldn’t even move her wrists, which were bound together behind her. The sky was dark above, and she knew she was still in the grass outside the Wanderwood.
“Hey, they’re waking up!” said an annoyingly familiar voice.
Beside her, Taji shifted and blinked in the evening gloom. “What the…” he said, struggling to sit up and look around. No one had tied him up, but his eyes widened when he saw that Reiya was awake. He had just reached for her ropes when he was yanked back by his collar. Muka, Yogani, and Jinba all stood around them, looking very pleased with themselves. Muka still had some rope, and Yogani an empty bucket.
“What are you going to do now, bodyguard?” said Jinba, a flaming torch in one hand, and a wicked grin on his broad face.
Taji spotted the crown of creeping poppies on the ground a few feet away, soggy and trampled. “Oh, you three are going to be so sorry,” he promised, frowning up from where he still sat in the grass.
“Shut up fairy boy. We’re the ones in charge now.”
“Yeah. And you’re going to give us your fairy gold,” said Muka, wrapping the rope around his fists.
“I thought you said we’d get a wish?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Jinba cut in. “Because we have to find the fairy realm first. And you’re going to lead us right to it.”
“I most certainly will not,” Taji said, looking scandalized.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Reiya muttered, straining against the ropes to sit up.
“Only a fairy can find the right way through the Wanderwood, and he said he’s a fairy,” Yogani explained to her.
“And now he gets to prove it.”
Reiya followed Muka’s gaze towards the Wanderwood, which was now aglow with the light of a hundred lanterns. The shadows reached around the lighted path like clawing hands, and it wasn’t hard for her to guess what all three boys were thinking. “This is ridiculous,” Reiya snapped, now thoroughly annoyed. “Jinba, untie us right now and I won’t give you a black eye.”
Jinba sneered at her for a moment with his arms folded. “Do you think I’m stupid?”
“Well, you kidnapped me and my brother because you think he’s going to give you fairy gold.”
Taji laughed. “Humans,” he said, shaking his head.
Jinba ignored Taji and came to squat in front of Reiya with a deep frown. “Listen, you. I don’t know if he’s crazy or just simple,” he said, jabbing his thumb at her brother. “But there’s something weird about him and we all know it.”
Reiya squirmed as Jinba turned to advance on Taji, but the itchy rope wouldn’t budge.
“It’s true,” Yogani said, nodding. “All the birds really like him, and they don’t like us.”
“And everyone knows your farm never has a bad season, even when the weather is bad. It’s unnatural.”
“And look at that,” Jinba said, picking up Taji’s shell from where it had fallen, alongside a tin button and a stone with a leaf imprint. “What is this, fairy treasure?”
“That’s mine!” said Taji, indignant. “They leave them for me on every equinox when they pass through the forest into the human world.” He tried to take it from Jinba’s hand, but Jinba tossed it far over his shoulder.
“This is garbage. But you’re going to lead us to the real treasure now,” he told him, pointing.
Taji gasped as he looked into the forest, but whether from delight or fear, Reiya couldn’t tell. Yogani pulled Taji upright, and Muka came to pick Reiya up by her ropes.
“You can’t,” Reiya said, trying to shake off Muka and stand on her own. “We’ll be lost in there.”
“Not if we’ve got a fairy with us,” said Jinba, taking up Reiya’s bamboo staff in his free hand. Reiya gaped at him for a moment as she realized how determined they all were. She had heard the legend that only a fairy could reveal the true path through the Wanderwood; they merely had to touch the fire in the gatekeeper lantern at its centre. If an ordinary human tried such a feat, they would be consumed by the flames – that is, if they even made it there alive.
“We’ll go mad and never come out again,” she insisted.
“Then he’d better not be lying,” Jinba snapped. “Fairies can catch the fire in the gatekeeper. Let’s see if he’s the real fairy prince, or just a freak of nature.”
The beginnings of real fear began to prick at Reiya’s neck. “You can’t really believe that,” she said, searching for doubt in their expressions. It was there in the nervous shifting of their eyes, but none of them were listening to her now.
“Don’t worry, Reiya,” said Taji, as Muka and Yogani pushed them together to face the forest entrance. “These peasants will get what’s coming to them. The moment my people find out what you’re doing-”
“Oh yeah?” Jinba said, waving his torch at the looming stalks of bamboo that arched up before them all. “Hey fairies!” he shouted, his flame making the shadows dance. “Come out and show us your ugly faces.”
Yogani and Muka giggled at their own nerve, and Taji’s shocked expression.
“That is so rude!” he said over his shoulder. “They’ll never want to be your friends now.”
“Taji, please stop talking,” Reiya said quietly.
“I can’t just let them talk like that. They should show some respect.”
“Just drop it, okay?” she whispered at him. They had never been so close to the entrance before. The path was littered with fallen leaves, and the stone lanterns flickered in the darkness. It would have been very mysterious and inviting indeed, if Reiya hadn’t known that it would probably end in flames. “We do not want to go in there,” she muttered to Taji beside her.
Taji gave her a reassuring look. “I’m not afraid,” he said, putting a hand on her shoulder. Reiya shook her head in dismay, wishing he would understand just how much trouble they were about to get into.
“Then go ahead, fairy boy,” said Jinba from behind him. “Prove it.”
Reiya felt a sharp jab at her back, and tried to ignore the accompanying stab of panic. With her arms tied and her staff stolen, she couldn’t protect Taji from Jinba and the others, let alone a magical fairy flame.
“You think I’m scared?” Taji said, turning around now. Reiya nearly groaned with frustration at his defiance. “The grace of the faires-”
“He’s not a fairy, you idiots!” Reiya burst out, unable to contain herself.
Jinba, Muka and Yogani stared at her. So did Taji. He gave a nervous chuckle. “Of course I am,” he said, speaking to the other boys. “She’s just trying to-”
“No you’re not, Taji,” Reiya said, standing her ground. Taji looked back at her, his grin a little confused. “Tell them. If we go in there, we won’t come back out. If they try to make you catch the fire, you’re not going to show them the way to the fairy realm. The fire will consume you. You’re a human. You’re not a fairy. You have to tell them the truth.”
Reiya caught her breath, and watched the smile fade from Taji’s face like the light from a dying candle. The sounds of the forest nearby hummed in the silence, and Muka shuffled his feet in the dirt. Jinba rolled his eyes, and Yogani looked to anyone for guidance. Reiya’s frustration ebbed away as she saw Taji lower his gaze to the ground. It didn’t come back up again.
“So… is he a a fairy, or…” said Yogani.
“Who cares,” Jinba said sharply. “The lantern will tell us.” He gave Taji a kick in the back of his leg, making him stumble and Reiya twitch helplessly. “Move,” he ordered.
And with that, their strange little party crossed the threshold of the Wanderwood.
Taji walked first beneath the canopy of bamboo. Reiya couldn’t see his face, and she shuffled beside him, her arms still bound. The air was different inside the forest, with odd sounds and the scent of damp leaves. Squat stone lanterns lit their path, bright at their feet, and dark high above. Taji looked ahead, presumably walking down an perfectly ordinary road, though his eyes seemed unfocused.
“Taji,” Reiya said, coming shoulder to shoulder with him. Behind them, Jinba, Muka and Yogani crept forward, holding their torches out to the shadows and jumping at small noises. “Taji, please tell them. It’s the only way to get us out of here.”
Taji seemed more preoccupied with his feet than strictly necessary. Reiya had never seen him despondent before; he was usually the one cheering her up. “I’m sorry I yelled at you,” she said, ducking her head and wishing he would let her catch his eye. “But you can see we’re in serious trouble, right? These idiots think you can stick your hand in fairy fire and-”
“I’m not an idiot,” said Taji.
His voice was mild, but it still felt like an arrow to the chest. “I didn’t say…”
“I know I’m not really…” he went on, then shrugged. “I just…”
Reiya couldn’t even take his hand, since hers were tied. “Just what?” she asked gently, as they crunched together on the leaves.
“I’d rather be a fairy than a freak of nature,” Taji said, finally glancing at her with a sad smile. “I just thought you understood that.”
He shrugged again, and Reiya felt sick.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered to him. She swallowed the urge to tell him she always understood, and that she’d never meant to hurt him; they had bigger problems. “Really I am, but you can’t stick your hand into that lantern. You know that, right?”
Taji’s smile turned grim. “Not sure I have much choice.”
Reiya took a deep breath and glanced back at the others, who were out of earshot. “Yes you do,” she said to him. “But there’s something you have to do for me first, okay? I need you to do what you do best.”
“What, make you a flower crown?” he said, gesturing at the lack of flowers around them. “I’m a little busy at the moment.”
Reiya fixed him with the most serious gaze she could manage. “I need you to believe in fairies.”
Taji looked at her like she’d announced her desire to fly to the moon. He laughed, but there was a note of bitterness in his voice that Reiya hoped never to hear again. “You just said only idiots do that.”
“I was lying,” she said.
Taji still looked at her dubiously, and Reiya’s guilt ached in her chest. Her brother had the strongest faith of anyone she’d ever met, and she had just crushed it with a few words – right when she needed it the most. “Taji, listen to me,” she pleaded.
Before she could explain, the forest path opened up ahead, and a brighter light shone at the end. Yogani shouted and the others pushed them forward, until they all stumbled into the open space. The great stone gatekeeper lantern stood in the centre, a heavy carved structure with wide legs and a sloping roof. The flame that burned in its bowl was the colour of twilight, and it cast a soft purple glow on all their faces.
Reiya watched the greedy looks come over the faces of Jinba and his gang. Taji’s eyes glowed with wonder for just a moment, before he remembered himself.
“You remember the rules about fairies?” Reiya said in a whispered rush, before the others could remember why they had come. “When they’re in human form, they have to hide from humans, so they can’t declare themselves.”
“So because I did, I’m not a fairy. Yeah, I got it.”
“No, that’s not what I mean,” she said, trying to get the words out before it was too late. “They’re bound by magic, right? They can’t show themselves unless someone really believes in-”
“Just stop it, Reiya,” Taji said, grim but resigned as Yogani grabbed his arm and marched him forward.
Reiya tried to follow, but Muka seized her ropes and she could barely squirm. “Don’t make him do it, I’ll do it,” she said frantically, turning to Jinba in desperation. “Let him go.”
“It’s okay, you don’t always have to protect me,” Taji said, letting Yogani lead him up the steps of the gatekeeper. Reiya saw him wince slightly at the heat from the purple flame, and Yogani retreated completely.
“Go on, fairy boy,” Jinba said, standing at the base. “Show us how it’s done.”
Reiya shook her head frantically, trying to think of a way to convince Taji not to do it. Her brother looked at the flame, then back at her. “If I get burned up, you’ll let my sister go, right?” he asked.
Muka’s hand clamped over Reiya’s mouth just as she cried out, so that all she made was a muffled sound of dismay.
Jinba wasn’t impressed by the question. “Stick your hand in there, or it’ll be hers instead,” he countered.
Taji frowned at him. “No. You have to promise to let her go.”
“I don’t have to do anything,” Jinba snarled, now marching up the stairs.
“But you don’t need her,” he protested, glancing back at Reiya. “She’s a human, she’s not…”
But he stared at her again, and Reiya’s heart gave a leap of hope at the curious tilt of his head. Jinba interrupted him by seizing his wrist.
Reiya opened her mouth to let in a foul bit of Muka’s dirty hand, and clamped down on it. Muka howled with pain and jumped away, making her lose her balance. “Don’t!” she shouted as she fell to her knees. Taji and Jinba pulled against each other with both hands now, but Taji was still distracted. Reiya summoned her strength and forced out the words. “Taji,” she called to him, praying with all her might that he would understand. “You’re not the one!”
Muka and Yogani seized her from behind again, but Reiya saw Taji’s eyes widen with amazement. The bitterness and doubt was gone, and Reiya nearly smiled to see the familiar look on her brother’s face.
“You are?” he said.
At his words, Reiya felt a great sense of relief, as if all the ropes binding her had suddenly dropped away. The magic that had kept her safely bound in human form for twelve years released her. She sighed as the forest around them began to change.
The boys paused as they noticed a strange wind flood into the clearing, rattling the bamboo stalks against each other in a haunting rhythm. Taji yanked his hand out of Jinba’s grip, and stumbled backwards, falling to the grass beside Reiya.
All around the clearing, the lanterns began to wink out, one by one, until only the gatekeeper remained. Jinba and the others murmured their alarm in the darkness, crowding around each other in confusion. Then the wind began to whistle in earnest, and phantom lights glimmered through the forest. Pale figures swooped in and out of the branches like the ghosts of the dead.
Jinba’s gang began to panic, yelping as the spectres drew near. In tears, Yogani dropped his torch, and Muka fell to the ground, scrambling to get back on his feet and out of the way. Jinba tried to jab at the figures with Reiya’s staff, but screamed when a ghostly skeleton snapped its jaws over his head and vanished.
Reiya’s staff clattered to the ground, and all three boys tore out of the clearing as fast as they could, crashing away through the undergrowth and into the darkness.
Once the sounds of their cries had faded away, the stone lanterns sparked back to life. The wind died and the figures vanished, like they had never been there at all.
Reiya gave another great sigh of relief and slumped against her ropes. It felt good to use her glamours after they had been locked away for so long, and even better to use them on a bunch of bullies. But as the rush of magic wore off, shame set in. Reiya couldn’t bring herself to look at Taji, who hadn’t moved from where he sat beside her.
After several moments, he crawled over and began to undo the knots of her ropes. When they finally fell off, Reiya murmured her thanks, and they lapsed into silence again.
“You’re a fairy,” Taji said finally.
Reiya scratched her arms where the ropes had rubbed her. “Yeah,” she admitted, picking at the blades of grass beneath her hands.
“The whole time,” he said.
“Yeah,” she replied again. She couldn’t think of what else to say. She felt awful, hardly better than if she had let Taji burn to a crisp in the great stone lantern. “I never wanted to… you know… steal your identity,” Reiya mumbled. “That’s why I didn’t tell you before. That and, well, I couldn’t. Part of the whole human disguise thing.”
She still couldn’t look at him, but she thought Taji slowly nodded his head. “Do mom and dad know?” he asked.
“Yes,” Reiya said. Though she could now explain the truth without fairy magic binding her tongue, it was still difficult. “I asked my other parents if I could stay with them, if I put on a human glamour. They – yours, I mean – they said they’d be happy to have me. So my parents put a blessing on the farm to say thanks. That’s why it’s lucky all the time. That was about twelve years ago. We didn’t think you’d remember it, but then you thought you were the fairy prince, and it made you so happy, so…” She shrugged, feeling miserable. “I’m really sorry. I just wanted to join your family for awhile.”
“Why?” Taji asked, sounding genuinely curious.
Reiya risked a glance at him, but felt distinctly embarrassed when she met his gaze. She remembered chubby little two-year-old Taji like she had first met him yesterday. “Cause… I dunno, Mom and Dad seemed like nice people, and… well, you were there, talking nonsense to the chickens with a doily on your head. And then you cried when you fell in the mud, so I gave you a flower, and…”
She trailed off helplessly, and before she could continue, they both turned to see Jinba stumbling back into the clearing. He looked over his shoulder like something was chasing him, but froze when he saw Taji and Reiya sitting casually in the grass.
“It’s you!” he said, pointing a trembling finger, his face twisted in horror and disgust. “You’re – you’re both freaks!”
Taji leapt to his feet with astonishing speed. “HEY!” he shouted. Jinba stumbled back like Taji was a mountain lion. “She is Princess Reiya of the Fairy Realm and you will show her the proper respect, you miserable little coward!”
Jinba took off as quickly as he had come, shouting curses.
Reiya stood to join her brother, a little stunned. Taji scratched at his head, now looking as awkward as she felt.
“Was that right?” he said. “Princess Reiya?”
“I guess,” she replied. “No one’s called me that in years.”
Taji picked at his nails as Reiya retrieved her bamboo staff. He looked a little sombre as they stood together at the base of the great stone lantern. “So… are you going to go back now?” he said.
“If you want me to,” Reiya replied quietly.
“What?” Taji’s head snapped up. “No, I just meant… well it must be way better living in the fairy realm than with a bunch of humans.”
A small smile graced his face, and it was like the sun had come out. Reiya had never wanted to hug him more. “Not really,” she said. “I mean, it’s okay. It’s just kind of tedious, you know? All the butterflies talk about is who’s in love and who has a secret and who’s coming in on the next full moon, and the rabbits are even worse after the spring feast. The trees are always changing colour so you can never get a good night’s sleep when you want to. And now everyone’s wearing lacewings and spidersilk gowns and they don’t want to get them dirty, so no one else wants to swim in the sparkling spring or ride a sparrow race with me anymore. I dunno. It’s not that interesting.”
The look on Taji’s face nearly made her laugh when she realized why his eyes were so wide. “Oh,” she said. “You want to go, don’t you?”
“Are you kidding?” he burst out, taking her by the shoulders. “Reiya – your highness! Princess Reiya of the Fairy Realm!” he cried.
“Please allow me into your kingdom,” Taji said, with the solemnity of a lifelong vow.
Reiya gave a long, theatrical sigh. “Fine,” she said.
Taji’s mouth opened as she walked away from him and back up to the gatekeeper. His jaw fell even further when she stuck her hand inside the twilight flame. It danced and tickled her fingers as the Wanderwood began to welcome her home. Beyond the clearing, a string of lanterns changed their colour to the same soft purple, leading away into the bamboo.
Reiya came back down the steps and proceeded towards the correct path, beckoning a stunned Taji after her. “Come on. It’s only a visit though. Mom said we had to be home by midday tomorrow,” she reminded him.
“Really!?” Taji said, before bounding up to her like a happy dog. “But I’m… I’m a human,” he said. He looked a little sheepish about it, but couldn’t hide his excitement. Reiya had never been happier to be by his side.
“Yeah, but you’re my brother. I don’t mind.”