1265 Forrester St.
Upper Hayesline Halls, 5th Ward
Ammingrad of Dairswyn
Eightday, Second Span, First Autumn – 4808 AAA
Amara Birchoff sat at her vanity mirror watering her hair from a small silver watering can. It was a gift from her Grandfather which he had presented, only last elevenday, on her 15th birthday. Of course, the little watering can was, at the moment, her most favorite possession and she used it every afternoon.
With her head tilted this way and that, she sprinkled small streaks of water over her mossy green tresses. They hung well past her shoulders in waves of light green as soft as cottonwood fluff. Within its strands, from hairline to hair tip there lay dozens of flower buds that were just now showing themselves. Where the water passed over them, the tiny buds hungrily drank the warm liquid, spilling not a drop on the polished wood floor. Already a few of the buds were beginning to open, showing their vibrant petals beneath. Amara watched these eager buds particularly close, smiling to herself as she thought of them bursting into bloom. She’d be able to swish them about just like a real Sylvani lady!
While she watered, Amara hummed. Her tutor, Calmia Swent, had told her that new buds loved to be sung to. She must be right as Calmia had the most beautiful full rose blooms of any Slyvani lady that Amara had yet seen. Unfortunately, Amara did not care for her singing voice but felt that humming was probably just as good. Today it was a slow tune that perhaps had something to do with a lonely tree on a wintry hill or maybe it was a wintry tree on a lonely night. She couldn’t remember. Where had she heard it first? Grandfather’s parlor? During music lessons? It gnawed away at her concentration to that point that she did not hear her Mother calling her from outside her room.
“Amara?” Her Mother’s muffled voice said from behind her bedroom door, “Amara, are you ready?”
Amara didn’t reply. She was pouring the last drops over the small buds clustered by her left ear, sticking her tongue out in concentration. The left ear buds where the trickiest of business and tricky business called for such things as stuck out tongues.
“Amara!” her Mother said, pounding harder, “Did you hear me?”
“I’ll be ready when I am ready, Mother.” Amara said, rolling her eyes.
“It had better be soon,” her Mother huffed, “Your Father will be home any minute.”
Amara’s eyes flitted to the clock beside the door, it’s hands reading nearly ten till six. She nearly cursed before scrambling from the vanity, clattering her watering can as she dashed about the room finishing her last preparations.
“Will of the world, Child! Are you alright in there?” her Mother called.
“Yes, Mother,” Amara hissed as she bent over to shake out her hair. The buds rustled as she did and she winced, feeling them knock into each other. She gingerly righted herself, hands cupped around the larger buds to protect them. Her tutor had told her more than once how girls had lost their buds by being too rowdy. She took a deep breath, banishing rowdy thoughts. She would have to be more careful in the future. Losing buds just wouldn’t be the “fashionable” thing, as Mistress Calmina Swent had told her.
Amara took one more deep breath. She smoothed her blouse and admired the off white linen it was made off. With a subdued twirl she fanned the skirt and smiled, but thought better such a frivolous gesture. Being demure and tranquil were the hallmarks of a Sylvani as Calmia Swent was fond of saying. Amara tried looking demure and tranquil, but found she looked more constipated than either. She huffed, giving up and instead winked at her reflection before rushing to the door.
Amara flung the door open, revealing her Mother standing in the frame. The human woman’s hand was raised in a knock, but lowered it to her hip. She seemed surprised almost as embarrassed as a child caught pilfering the cookie jar.
“It is about time, child!” She chided, as Amara stepped onto the narrow second story landing. “You can’t spend all afternoon primping!”
“Calmia Swent says that a lady must take as much time as she needs to become presentable.”
“Yes, well I am sure Calmia Swent has never left two hundred people waiting at her own birthday party while she tried, unsuccessfully I might add, to dye her skin green.”
Amara winced at her Mother’s mention of her birthday fiasco. She tugged at her cuffs, trying to cover up the last of the green tint she had plastered onto her fair human toned skin. She still could feel the raw skin from where Mother and several of the lady servants had had to scrub with ashstone and brownie brush.
“Yes, that was awfully awkward,” Amara said, closing the door behind her. “But I’m keeping things simple today.” She coyly tilted her neck, trying accentuate the buds in the lighting they deserved. Mother only raised a scathing eyebrow.
Amara sighed, returning to her attempt at timidity. She even bobbed a polite curtsy. “I promise to be mindful of the time, Mother.”
“I hope so.” Mother scoffed. They began to descend the stairs, Mother allowing Amara to walk ahead of her. “This family has enough embarrassment.”
Mother spoke the words softly but Amara heard and felt a blush of heat rise around her high collared blouse. She batted it down. Calmia Swent said blushing was unsightly and possibly indecent. Amara could had not yet been told which kind of indecent though – the exciting kind or the gut rotting kind.
“I’d like a nice evening.” Mother said, a wistful look in her eye. “You, having a quiet dinner with Father and then maybe both of you sitting around the sonophone as you quietly listen to quiet music.”
“Mother, no!” Amara whined.
“And why not!” Mother replied “I’d give me some peace while I get some of the cleaning done. Doesn’t that sound nice?”
“No. It doesn’t!”
“Oh? And what would you rather do?”
Amara almost blurted out dancing. For several seasons she had begged Father to take her out to the dancing salons, but he had said he would go only if Mother came along. Mother had irritatingly refused. It was madding! Dancing sounded far better than listening to the stuffy Ifriti orchestral symphonies Mother and Father were fond of.
“Well?” Mother prodded.
The word was there, teetering at the edge of Amara’s tongue, begging to be said, however “Reading.” is what tumbled out. Mother cocked another of her scratching eyebrows.
“Calmia Swent says that a well read lady is the envy of all that hear her speak.” Amara recited, trying to sound convincing. She smiled to add the final touch.
Mother smiled back before saying, “You are a terrible liar.”
“Is it that obvious?” Amara sighed.
Mother nodded, the incredulous look on her causing Amara to sigh more deeply.
“What were you actually going to say?”
“Dancing.” Amara said with a wistful, inevitable smile.
“I thought so.” Mother tutted, softening her gaze. She took Amara by the shoulders and gave a tender squeeze. “You were always one for the bright life. You have light in you, my dear. I’m not sure where you get it from. Obviously not from me.”
Mother’s hands wandered from Amara’s shoulders to the girl’s lustrous hair. She smoothed it tenderly with thick calloused fingers, caressing the delicate buds. A sadness crept into her Mother’s eyes and the woman touched her own plain brown human hair absently. The hair was frayed and worn in places, grey and wispy in others; a stark contrast to Amara’s soft green tresses.
Mother shook herself, breaking the moment, “Now, wait here, child.” Mother whispered. She stepped away, the embarrassment blatant on her face. “I’ll make sure the other servants have begun preparing supper. Your Father should be home any second. Will you wait for him? He loves seeing you when he first gets home.”
“Of course, Mother.” Amara replied, confused. Mother bustled away, heading through the hallway, her steps heavy on the smooth wood floors.
Amara watched Mother go and shook her head. Mother was being so odd. She turned and passed through the archway into the wide parlor. She sat in her favorite overstuffed chair by the big bay window that overlooked the wide Forrester St. on which they lived. Father had bought this house shortly before Amara was born and she could not envision another place in all of Ammingrad that felt for like home. She loved it.
The house sat in a modest but fashionable Sylvani neighborhood in Upper Hayesline Halls. The houses and shops were two or three stories tall and were rather narrow, as it was the best way to fit the homes between the enormous trees that stood like stately Lords and Ladies throughout their neighborhood. With so many trees mingled with the buildings that the neighborhood looked less like the narrow urban streets of the 2nd or 3rd Wards and more like a forest, or something of a hybrid between the two, with the wide canopies of leaves casting the street in perpetual dappled shade. Even the cobblestone road of Forrester Street was as much grass as it was road. It seemed to walk the line between two very separate but mingled worlds and that had always warmed Amara’s heart.
As Amara sat in her chair she watched the people pass by under the dense canopy. She saw male Fey in their coats and stylish hats walking with female Fey in beautiful walking gowns and wide brimmed bonnets. There were human workers tending to the hedges as well as in the canopy pruning away dead branches. She even saw a group of Gobbin men riding in an small open carriage pulled by two massive dogs. They talked animatedly and Amara watched them roll past her window and out of sight.
Life flitted past this window like colored leaves in a stream. On most days she watched them and guess at their lives. She’d play pretend, imagining that that halfgene Ifirti and the human he was buying flowers from were secretly in love, or that the Brownie selling hot rolls was really an agent for the Arcanica Guild, deep undercover. But today her thoughts could not linger on any of that or even the blue skinned Janni man who sailed past on a low cloud. Instead her thoughts tumbled toward Mother.
Amara really didn’t know what to do about Mother. The woman had taken to these flights of sadness quite readily these days and they vexed Amara. They vexed her more than Calmia Swent’s lessons or that she thought she’d never be kissed by a charming young naiadi in a rose garden at twilight. She loved Mother, but her undercurrent of melancholy was beginning to distress her. And what was worse, Amara was beginning to think that she was the root of it.
Amara knew from the looks Mother often gave Mistress Swent, that she held a deep resentment towards Fey beauty. She had caught Mother glowering at the two of them as Amara and Calmia Swent practiced posture or when Calmia Swent had shown Amara how to care for her new flower buds. Amara shrugged, it was not surprising behavior coming from Mother, she was after all human and therefore predisposed to plainess. But why should Fey beauty bother Mother so? Didn’t Father tell her he loved her? Didn’t he call her the most handsome human female in the Ward? Had he not praised her work ethic and her eye for detail and made her the head servant in the house? Mother’s authority was only below that of Father’s in the house. A truly unheard of situation by Calmia Swent’s own recollections. True, Mother was not a beautiful Fey woman like her tutor, but she held what Amara thought was a quiet beauty. She was beautiful in the way she worked and cared. She was beautiful even with her calloused hands and hard lined face. She was beautiful because Amara loved her.
“Amara!” Mother’s voice cried, echoing through the house. “Amara, the door!”
Amara shook the thoughts from her head. The chimes for the front door were ringing and she had not even heard them.
“I’ll get it!” She called out, leaping up from her seat. She began to run but stopped herself. She could hear Calmia Swent speaking in the back of her head, “A Lady does not run when walking will suffice.” Amara briskly, strolled, with dignity, to the large wooden front door and opened it. On the other side stood a tall Fey in a spring green suit backlit by the late afternoon sun as it filtered through the canopy of the street. He was an older Sylvani, with expressive hands laced over the head of an ornate cane. His hair was green layered leaves and was fashionably pulled back into a tight knot at the back of his head. His skin was ashy white and looked like it was peeling in places like birchwood bark. He turned to her, his thin face breaking into a wide smile.
“Hello, Rosebud.” Amara leapt at him, flinging her arms around his thin neck in a tight embrace.
“Yes, yes. Hello to you too,” he answered, extricating himself from her embrace.
“Would you like to come in?” Amara asked, remembering her manners.
“Yes, of course.” Grandfather replied as he stooped slightly, entering the house.
“And what do we owe this unexpected pleasure?” Amara inquired, ushering him into the front hallways.
“I was in the area and thought I would stop by.” he remarked, his light green eyes raking the entry hall. He ran his thin finger over the top of the doorframe, tutting before he turned back to her. “Besides, I have some good news to share.”
“What is it?” Amara beamed.
Grandfather winked and touched the side of his nose. “Patience, my little rosebud. Patience.”
Mother came around the corner, her heavy footfalls announcing her presence. “Amara, is it your Father? I hope so, it’s due to rain.” She said, not looking up from a weather schedule.
“Look, Mother!” Amara answered, “Grandfather is here!”
Mother’s head snapped up, her eyes wide as she looked Grandfather up and down in stunned silence.
Grandfather, a full Sylvani by birth, strode over to Mother. His steps were delicate upon the plush carpet of the entry way. He stood in front of her, his frame towering over her like a sycamore before a squirrel.
“Well met, Judith Baker.” He said in his deep baritone. It was not a friendly hello.
Mother flushed scarlet, the colour rising in her cheeks at a shocking rate and bowed with her hands gripping her apron.
“My Lord Birchoff. I apologize, I had no idea you’d…”
Grandfather held up a hand for silence and Mother complied as if magicked to do so. He passed his hat and cane to Amara, which she took.
“Thank you, Amara.” he replied, “Please place those in the hall.” Amara crossed to the coat closet placing Grandfather’s fine oak cane and wicker hat there. Behind her her Grandfather began to speak to Mother and she strained to overhear.
“Your bow is better, Judith Baker.” He said. “Appropriate even. However, must I remind you that my title is Master Aldeer Birchoff?” Grandfather’s voice was quiet and calm and Amara could feel the weight settle in the air as scolded Mother. It was the voice of an tree chastising leaves for not staying in one place. Amara missed hanging the hat on the hat peg as she strained to hear.
“No, my lord… Master Birchoff.” Mother stammered in a hushed whisper.
“Good. Will I also need to remind you of your station in your own household again?”
Amara could hear Grandfather looming. His absolute authority ladening his words like overripe fruit. She lingered at the coat closet reluctant to enter the awkward scene.
“No, Master Birchoff.” Mother’s whispered.
“That is all, Judith.” Grandfather grunted. “I will be in the library where you may bring me tea. Green tea, no honey and no other refreshment. When my son arrives send him and my granddaughter to me.”
If Mother had answered Amara did not hear. Grandfather’s footsteps clipped across the house as he stalked to the library. Amara heard the library door close and she exited the coat closet, returning to the entry hall.
“Mother?” Amara quavered, looking around the corner.
Mother sat at the foot of the stairs, silent tears running down her face, her lined pale cheeks shiny. Amara locked eyes with her and Mother did not look away, nor did she wipe her tears.
“May I get you anything, Miss Birchoff?” She said standing, giving just a fraction of a curtsey at her ankles.
“No?” Amara said. It was a weak confused sound that bubbled out of her like too much sap. She cleared her throat. “Mother, I…” She stepped toward Mother, but the older human shied back.
“My name is Judith Baker, Miss.” she replied, her posture as rigid as a post in a cold drizzle. “I am Head Servant of your household. While Master Birchoff is in your house you will call me Judith.”
Amara scoffed, opening her mouth to protest but Mother held up a hand, her eyes hard. The protest stuck to Amara’s throat like wet moth wings.
“Will there be anything else, Miss?” Mother hissed, again with a curt curtsey.
No reply jumped to Amara’s mind, so she shook her head and Mother retreated to the servant rooms with as much dignity as she could muster, leaving Amara alone in the hall.
Amara returned to the parlor, numb. She didn’t feel like sitting so she stood, puzzling out her emotions. Calmia Swent said that a true Fey Lady is in control of her emotions at all times and Amara wondered that if that was true how there could be any true Fey Ladies left in the world if hey felt even a tenth of what she held in her heart right now.
Thunder sounded above the house, its low rumble filling the place with its arrival announcement. It was harsh, a grating sound that left Amara’s insides raw and echoed in the hollow of her. Amara looked out the big bay windows to see sheets of rain falling through the trees of her street. It began to beat on the roof of the house, drumming on it like Mother’s cold words drummed on her ears.
Mother had never been cold to her. There had been times she was distant perhaps, but never cold and never dismissive. She hugged herself, still feeling the look Mother had given her before she had scampered away to the kitchen. Not even rubbing her arms could rid the gooseflesh from it.
Amara jumped as the front door banged open, Father entering with a cry. Amara dashed to the entry hall to see him shaking umbrella of large leaves sending water droplets everywhere
“Berries and Bother!” He bellowed,. “If we say it shall be sunny at 5 then by the Will of All it had better be sunny at 5! Not this downpour nonsense!”
“Father!” Amara said, rushing to him.
“Hello, my dear!” Father remarked, as he shrugged out of his dark green over coat. He tossed it to Amara and she snatched it as she passed before throwing it on the coatrack.
“Blasted weather we are having, Mara-bud. I told them at the Weather Office that we scheduled the rain for 5:15 but no one listens to me. They figure on the tick of five is as good as fifteen after, I suppose. Insidious ruffians! Schedules mean nothing to them!”
Amara giggled at Father’s mock tiraid and Father winked at her. Father turned and with a wave of his hand the large leaves he held like an umbrella shriveled down into a flat bean pod no larger than his hand. Amara felt a tingle run up her spine as the air was filled with the smell of loam, wood and clean good earth. As suddenly as it had come, it was gone. Without even stopping, Father thrust the pod into his pocket and Amara reveled in the familiar thrill she experienced when Father performed magic.
“Judith! Judith, my love, where are you!” Her Father rumbled, as he shook out his leafy hair. He was much like Amara’s Grandfather. Tall, thin, birchy skinned with leafy hair. Yet where Grandfather was angles and proprietary. Father was smiles and winks, with a green beard of soft green moss.
“Well by the Dair himself!” He said, latching his gaze on Amara at last. “Who is this fetching creature I see to greet me at my arrival? Might I ask, your grace, are you a princess?” Father performed a elegant bow and Amara giggled again.
“But of course!” She cooed, in her most elevated accent. Amara curtsied low for him, offering her hand. Her Father took it and brushed his mossy moustache to her knuckles before righting himself and taking her into a fierce hug.
“Hello again, Mara-bud,” he roared happily.
“Hello, Father! Welcome home!” She replied.
He held her close to his slightly damp vest and Amara breathed him in. The smell of green leaves and sappy wood washed over her, and she sank into it, the previous turmoil of emotions in her rolling away. She felt seven again, swept up in his arms as he flung her about in the bright sunshine of a dappled wood, Mother laughed near them on a checkered blanket, the breeze fragrant with the smell of flowers and grass.
“Dear me!” Father exclaimed after a moment, pulling Amara from her memory, “Are these nearly full buds in your hair?” He inspected them and Amara turned her head, barely containing her pride.
Amara could not help but smile as she replied, “Indeed they are, Father! Calmia Swent says I should have full blooms by the end of the elevenday!” She twirled for him, exhibiting her buds.
“The Will bless me! They were barely peapods before I left this morning, but now these are almost opening! Soon you’ll be a proper lady.” Father mused.
Amara playfully smacked him, “Father! I am already a proper lady.”
“Oh yes, of course.” He replied. His brow furrowed deeply as his face turned in a mock frown. “Very serious business all this growing up.”
“Yes yes, of course!” Amara copied, deep voice and frown to match. She couldn’t hold it long before laughing.
They both broke into a smile and Amara saw a memory cross Father’s eyes. She thought that it might perhaps be the same as her memory of the picnic in the woods, but it faded as Father walked to the coat closet to deposit his hat.
“We should go somewhere special for holiday when your buds open.” He remarked, heading into the closet “ I hear they are creating a new nature preserve in Oakpassage. The three of us should go enjoy the woods for a few days. Would you like that?”
“That sounds wonderful.” Amara replied. “We should ask Mother first though.”
“Amara!” Father hollered. He rushed back to her from the coat closet, a wicker hat and familiar cane in his hands and concern touching his bright green eyes. “Is your Grandfather here?”
“Yes.” Amara confessed, nodding.
Father’s eyes darkened. “How long has he been here?” He grimaced, his jovial manner dissipating.
“Five minutes maybe.” She answered. “Why?”
“Did he say what he wanted?” Father insisted, ignoring her question.
“No.” Amara replied, “Only that he was in the area and had good news.”
“That will be the day.” He thundered darkly, dropping the hat and cane onto the steps and stomping past Amara to the doors that led to the lower kitchens. He pushed it open, calling for Mother but she did not answer.
“What could he possibly want?” Father asked himself, tisking. He called for Mother a second time receiving only a distant “Coming!” from downstairs.
“Grandfather seemed particularly harsh today. Is everything alright, Father?” Amara asked as she stood next to Father.
“Yes, of course.” Father said, retreating to the parlor room mirror to look himself over. He adjusted his tie and fretted at the dampness of his clothes before trying to smooth down some of his birch bark skin that was peeling in places.
Amara shook her head. “If it is, you are acting terribly odd.”
Father laughed but it was far too shallow for Amara to believe.
She took a seat in her favorite spot and studied him as he fluffed his leaves. “You would think,” she said, “that Grandfather were some sort of demon, come to gobble you and Mother up.”
“Your Grandfather hasn’t made a house to us visit in thirty years. You’ll have to excuse me for being a bit suspicious.”
“But why be suspicious?” Amara blurted, her tone reaching an unlady like level Calmia Swent would have been appalled at. “He’s only Grandfather!”
Father looked over his shoulder at her, his eyes lost in thought. “Loving your Grandfather is not an evil thing, Mara-bud.” He finally said, “But not all love is put into the best places. Your Grandfather has a different view of the world than we do and he can be harsh to people like us.”
“He’s never been harsh to me.” Amara stated, pulling her knees into her chest and resting her head on them.
“I am not sure your Grandfather could ever be harsh to you.” Father said with a wry smile, crossing over to her. He sat on the window seat next to her, placing his arm around her. “From the moment you were born he has loved you like I have never seen him love anyone.”
Amara scoffed, “Surely he loves you too, Father.” She looked up at him, her smile bright and confident.
Father did not answer, but instead looked out the window at the rain as it fell in sheets on the emptiying streets as Fey and humans ran for cover. His face was a coded mask of memories that Amara had no key to. She felt trapped in the moment, unaware of how to move forward or what to say.
Across the room, the door to the kitchen opened as Mother entered with a full tray ladened with tea. Father stood immediately, but Mother gave him little heed other than that infuriatingly curt curtsy as she headed towards the hallway that lead to the library. Amara sighed.
“Was she like this before he showed up?” Father asked, nodding his head to Mother as she gingerly crossed the room toward the library.
“Judith,” Father said, cutting her off from the hallway to the library, “Judith what happened?
“Master Greorg, welcome home. If you will excuse me I am currently engaged in bringing Master Aldeer his tea. If you please.”
“Oh, come off it, Judith.” Father said. “What did he say to you?”
Mother gave Father a flat look. “That’s not what’s important, Greorg.”
“Oh,” Father retorted, “Then what is important, Lady Baker?”
The tea tray clattered as Mother nearly dropped it from shock. “You’d better not have your Father hear you call me lady” she hissed. Her eyes darted to the closed door of the library. Father caught her staring and looked as well.
“Then let him hear!” He snorted. His voice was not even flirting with polite volumes as he turned back towards her. “This is my house” He yelled, “that I paid with our money for my wife and my daughter.”
“Greorg, please.” Mother protested.
“Please what? Have I lied? The truth is that you are my wife. My beautiful, wonderful, perfect wife!”
“But I am not your wife!” Mother roared. “The courts don’t recognize this,” Mother gestured between her and Father, “Thing we have between. By law I’m your half-wife! Wife in name, but in nothing else.”
Mother began to cry and Amara looked away, unable to watch her growing sobs as they rattled the tray, every second threatening a catastrophe of tea.
Amara felt as if the entire house was breaking away. It was as if some spell had been placed upon it long ago and Mother had broken it by speaking the truth. All the hollow places in Amara began to widen at the realization and she wanted to make herself smaller to fill them up.
With calm, caring slowness, Father took the clattering tray and placed it to the side, and with his birch bark hand, took Mother’s face and wiped the tears from her eyes. He kissed her gently on the forehead.
“I’m sorry I was born a human!” she sobbed, the words falling unbidden from her. “I’m so sorry, Greorg. You deserve a real woman – a Sylvani woman with petals in her hair and green skin. I’m sorry that all you got was a dumpy pale human half wife that can’t even claim you as a husband or give you a full Fey daughter.”
She buried her face in his chest, raking sobs exploding from her asFather held her, stroking her dull graying hair as tenderly as if it had been full of silver petals made of moonlight.
“Judith.” He consoled, “It doesn’t matter what you are or what the courts call you. You are my Wife, with a capital “W”. You are my love much more in my heart than on paper.”
“You say that now.” she bawled, muffled in his chest, “But what about in 10 years? What about in 30 years when I am bent and grey and ugly?”
“Well, then you’ll be like my birchwood Sylvani family I suppose. More like a tree than ever.” It didn’t help. She cried harder.
“You are my love,” he said, kissing her hair, holding her close, “and you will always be my love and the other of our perfect half-gene daughter.” Father took her by the chin, lifting her grey eyes gently to his as he spoke, “My life is the best life because it is the life I chose. I chose you because I wanted to and not because anyone said it was a good idea. You are mine and I am yours and that is that.”
They held each other until finally Mother’s tears began to dry. Amara watched them, the fondness for her parents blooming suddenly and irrevocably.
“Greorg,” Mother finally said when her tears had finally subsided. “Why are you wet?”
“Well, cried your human tears all over me.” Mother hit him.
“Unscheduled rain.” Father laughed, coming back to the everyday. “It’s the third time this elevenday the Head Office dropped a rain on the Ward at a time not in the Weather Table. They may not think fifteen minutes makes a great deal of difference but I have half a mind to send their office a pixie. A very surly pixie.”
“Please don’t,” Mother replied. “We’re supposed to have Balmore Fidge’s weather next month for Latter-Spring. I love his Spring Days. He knows exactly how to produce enough breeze to make the entire neighborhood smell like lilacs. Complaining might have them change the roster.”
“She has a point, Father,” Amara piped in, “They might give our Latter-Spring to Quigley Turnwell or even, dare we mention it, Aqueline Ophal!”
Mother gagged at the name and stuck out her tongue. “Not Aqueline Ophal!” She turned her eyes on Father in desperate supplication. “Her Springs are so blustery and drab. I’ll die if I have to spend my Latter-Spring cleaning mud off of the carpets like last year.”
“I don’t know.” Father said, his face scrunched in scrutiny as he stroaked his moss beard, “These carpets do look awfully clean after an Ophal Latter-Spring.”
Mother looked over to Amara and winked. The girl sprung from her seat, green hair bobbing as she rushed to her Father’s side. Together, mother and daughter knelt on the carpeted floor in mock agony, lamenting their plight with loud wails and pantomimed tears.
“No, not the begging of beautiful women! It’s my one weakness!” Father cried, collapsing to his knees between his two girls. “You’ve sapped me of my strength to write a report on this now.” Amara and Mother pulled him to lay on the carpet, as they pantomimed tears and wails of lament, “ No more!” He plead, “I’m done for! My only option is to give a report in person. I hope you two are proud of yourselves!.”
“Do you mean you’ll report this after all?” Mother explained.
“Of course.” He replied, pulling Mother and Amara to him till they were lying with him on the ground, nestled in the crook of his arms, “What kind of Head Weather Agent would I be if I didn’t mention discrepancies in the weather time table?”
Mother tried to protest, but Father gently placed his finger on her lips before saying, “But I will make my report in such a way that they do not overreact and give us Awful Ophal as our Weather Master for Latter-Spring. It’s probably a mechanical failure anyway. No need to worry them.”
Amara and Mother cheered before snuggling closer to him. They all lay there in a heap, listening to the rain beat upon the house. This is what Amara missed. These moments of affectionate frivolity and carefree silliness that used to be the brick and mortar of their home. Her Father and Mother happily smiling at each other, the warm safety of the love that bound them, and the feeling that nothing could ever go wrong. That feeling seemed less tangible these day. Amara closed her eyes, desperately clinging to the seconds as they escaped through her fingers.
“What in Ammin’s name is going on here?” A stern voice bellowed above them.
Amara gasped and looked up to see her Grandfather looming over them in the hall. She scrambled to her feet, followed immediately by Mother. They both stood, hands demurely folded at their skirts. Amara raised her chin to speak but Grandfather paid her no attention. His light green eyes only on Father, who was still sprawled out on the parlor room floor.
“Why hello, Ompa.” Father said, placing his hands behind his head, “Care to join me? We’re stretching out on the floor for some family time. You are welcome to rest those rickety branches with me, if you’d like.”
“Arise, sir,” Grandfather roared, “from this indecorous posture. It is most unbecoming of you.”
“I find it quite becoming, Ompa. I’m becoming more aware of how upside down you are – both your person and your ideology.”
Amara gasped. Father had not just said that, did he? She looked to Mother but she merely kept her eyes down, trying to keep her smile to herself by biting her lip. It wasn’t working.
“Is this the kind of welcome I receive in your home, sir?” Grandfather growled. “Veiled jabs and disrespect?”
“On the contrary,” Father snapped, swinging himself to his feet and standing to meet Grandfather’s eyes. “You received a warm welcome at my door from my wife, but you disrespected me by disrespecting her. I would have you apologize.”
Amara had never noticed how similar the two Sylvani men were. Their eyes in particular were the same shade of light leafy green and they were built the same, if only that Grandfather was taller. However, Amara noticed that Grandfather’s feet were close together with his back rigid and straight. Father stood with his feet wider apart, strong and stable, as if shielding her and Mother. It made her love him even more.
“I will not apologize for showing proper etiquette in the house of my son.” Grandfather sputtered, raising his back even straighter. “I gave your Head Servant the exact respect one of her status deserves.”
“And her status as the head servant in my house supersedes that she is my wife?” Father exclaimed.
“Half-wife.” Grandfather corrected with a grimace. “By law she is not your full wife based on her…” Grandfather eyed Mother, who shrunk under his scrutinization, “…unfortunate heredity.”
“Her heredity is not in question here.” Father said, stepping between Grandfather’s gaze and Mother. “I know what she is.
“The Law clearly states…” Grandfather began.
“I know the law.” Father snapped, cutting him off. “She does not hold my name nor any of my property, possessions or titles. She can not claim me as legal protectorate of her person nor can she claim any of her offspring as hers publicly.”
“I am glad that you understand at least the basics.” Grandfather smiled.
“However,” Father shot, cutting in “ That does not change how I feel about her. If you had any respect for me, you would at least amend your attitude based on my feelings.”
Grandfather opened his mouth to speak but Father rushed on, his voice a dangerous calm.
“But you do not have respect for me or my choices. Your narrow minded flippancy disrespects me, our house, my wife, my daughter and most of all yourself.”
Father and Grandfather stared at each other, the silence between them fermenting Father’s torrent of words. Amara expected Grandfather to rage, to summon the fury she had heard about from his days as a Guardian on the Border, yet t she saw none of that. The older Sylvani merely slumped, his shoulders going slack as he rubbed at his temples.
“You had such potential, Greorg.” Grandfather sighed. “Such a brilliant grasp of magic partnered with an insightful mind. We Birchoffs have been Treekeepers for a two thousand years and now…”
“I know the family histories,” Father snapped, cutting his way back into the conversation. Grandfather held his hand up calmly, silencing his son.
“I have given you your freedom to speak. I only ask that you return the respect.”
Amara could see that Father didn’t like it, but he nodded his agreement to Grandfather, who continued. “Two thousand years we have kept faith with the trees. We nurtured them, tended to them, loved them, and sang them into shapes no human could have imagined. It is our abiding legacy and you threw it all away for her.” Grandfather gestured at Mother. She shrank even further into herself and Amara went to her, taking her by the hand.
“If only the Will of the World had sent me another son or a daughter!” The old Sylvani sighed. “But you, Greorg, are all the sons and daughters of our house and with you ends our craft. Do you deny it?”
“No.” Father said flatly. “I did what I felt was right and it lead me on my own path.”
Grandfather chuckled ruefully. “Paths. Following your heart. Blazing a trail into the unknown. Such romantic nonsense. You had a responsibility and you ignored it. Because of you our house stands on the brink of ruin. Can you deny that or have you convinced yourself that your actions only affected you?”
“I did what I had to do, Ompa,” Father said. Amara could feel the fight leaching from him with every word Grandfather uttered, the truth cutting him deeper than any shouting match.
“You did what you wanted to do.” Grandfather correct. “You gave no thought to your actions or your childish selfishness, and you have left me no choice.”
“What do you mean?” Father stammered.
“Amara,” Grandfather said turning his gaze on Amara, “how would you like to go to Penelope Crispin’s University of Magic?”
The question sat in the room like a toad on a white doily; seemingly comical and horrifying all at once. Amara opened her mouth but closed it again when only a gurgly noise escaped.
“The University of Magic?” Mother interjected, her timidity melting away. “But, Amara has never shown a hint of magical talent.”
“That does not mean she does not posses it.” Grandfather retorted, keeping his eyes on Amara, “The University Caretakers have assured me that a half-gene Fey can show as much arcanic aptitude as a proper full-gened Fey. More than likely her talent merely has lain dormant.”
“What makes you think her magic is dormant?” Father asked.
“A creature is a product of its surroundings.” Grandfather quoted, “Place a rose in sand and it will not bloom. But place it in good soil and watch it flourish.”
“You believe that Amara is not magical because I’m here?” Mother snorted.
“It is a theory,” Grandfather countered.
“Regardless of what you theorize,” Father barked, “the choice is not up to you. Amara’s life is her own.”
“Besides, she hasn’t been tested or even accepted to the place. I think you’re being a bit premature in your assumptions, Aldeer.” Mother objected.
“Is that so?” Grandfather said, ignoring Mother calling him by his first name “I had hoped to do this in a more formal setting but now will do.” He pulled from his pocket a folded piece of paper which he opened. Amara could barely see the cramped writing but she did recognize the University crest at the bottom of the page. “I have here a writ of acceptance for Amara to the University.”
“What?” Mother gasped. She was across the room and had the writ in her hand before Amara had even felt her let go of her hand.
“You will see that it is notarized by the University Directors and Lara Crispin herself.” Grandfather smirked, letting Mother take the paper from his hand. “They were quite excited to have a prospective Treekeeper of Birchoff under their tutelage again.”
“This is all only a possibility though.” Mother passed the paper to Father who began to study it. “She might not be talented in magic.”
“Or she might be immensely talented after all.” Grandfather proclaimed, his eyes shining, “Regardless, she is the last hope of our house to maintain it’s Treekeeper linage. She will go to the University, train in the arcanic arts and then apprentice under me until I retire.”
“You’d really give your precious Tree-worbbling secrets over to a half-gene?” Mother scoffed, her eyes narrow.
“Any Fey heritage is better than no Fey heritage.” Grandfather retorted, shooting Mother an equally harsh glare. “This is an opportunity for her to forward herself. A prestigious legacy to inherit, a increased chance of her marrying into a high house, maybe even into Gainoor itself. I have already begun sending inquiries to Lady Shrowsberry.”
“It sounds like you have her whole life planned out for her.” Father handed the paper back to Grandfather.
“I do,” he cooed, lovingly offering the writ for Amara to look over, “She is our house’s hope where you were our failure, Greorg.”
“Only if she wants to be.”
“Nonsense.” The old Treekeeper said with a wave of his hand. “The path I’m presenting leads to a better life than anything you or your half-wife could give her.”
“I beg your pardon!” Mother said, a storm of fury coalescing around her.
“Why don’t we actually ask what Amara wants.” Father suggested. “Amara?”
All eyes turned to Amara, who stood with the writ in trembling hands. She could feel the world spinning, the very air seemed to be changing around her. It was as if everything was suddenly foreign. The room, the faces of her Mother and Father and Grandfather, even her own stuttering sounds that were escaping her. Nothing was familiar, nothing was safe.
“It is an awfully big decision,” she squeaked, “I am not sure…”
“Most students start at twelve, Amara. You’d be three years behind other students.” Father fixed his eyes on her.
“But it’s flexible,” Grandfather interrupted “You wouldn’t be in with the children, you’d begin in a class of other fifteen-year-olds.”
Father went on. “It’s a ten year process. You’ll be twenty-five by the time you graduate.”
“A lady of maturity and grace with magic at her fingertips.” Grandfather smiled. “And ready to apprentice to the Birchoff style of tree keeping under my watchful hand.”
“I am sure you have it all worked out,” Father said in a simpering tone, “How many children will she have, Ompa? Do you have that planned out too?”
“I think that five is a good odd number.” Grandfather said, with a sardonic sneer.
“You are unbelievable!” Father roared, “This is why I left, Ompa. You can’t plan out my life and you certainly will not plan out my daughter’s.”
“And look what the unplanned life has wrought you, Greorg.” Grandfather chided. “No honor, no prestige, only a mediocre life as a mediocre Weather Agent with a mediocre human whore.”
“That is enough!” Amara screamed. Father and Grandfather turned to her, aghast. She was breathing deeply, her head full of anger and tears of frustration. “How dare you call my mother that,” she snapped, her eyes on her Grandfather. He blinked in surprise. “She is not a whore,” she added, her voice firm, “and you calling her so proves you are no gentleman.”
Grandfather closed his mouth, the old Sylvani’s eyes troubled by her reprimand. Her Father smiled.
“And you, Father.” she said, turning on him, “This is an incredible opportunity for me. Would you really persuade me to throw it away out of spite? Perhaps Grandfather has plans for me but at least he is honest about it. You’d have me follow your path while claiming it’s my own. I don’t know which is worse.”
“Mara-bud, I didn’t mean it that way.” Father said, shocked. He looked as though she had slapped him.
“Of course not. You meant it in a way that would make you seem the hero. Well, you’re not the hero this time, Father. This is not your choice. It’s mine.”
“And what do you choose?” Grandfather encouraged, his eyes shining with hope..
Amara wavered, the weight of such a choice crashing into her again. “I don’t know.” she said at last, back straight and head held high. “But you will have my answer by the end of the season. That is my promise.”
“Maybe I could take you to the campus?” Grandfather offered “The Directors were eager to meet you.”
“Perhaps.” Amara said, calmer now. “But not today. Thank you for the news, Grandfather. Do have a good day.”
“But…” he began.
Amara cut him off with a look, “I said good day, Master Birchoff.”
Grandfather started, sputtering at her abrupt dismissal but still he obliged her with a polite bow.
“I will show myself out.” He said, walking past her towards the door and kissing her lightly on the cheek. “Do keep in touch, Rosebud.”
“Of course.” She said flatly.
He was gone in a moment, the sudden sound of rain filling the house as he opened the door and then muffled again as he left.
She let his absence linger in the silence that followed his departure. She stood with her parents, but had no words to add, not thoughts to express to them. She had to get away, she had to sort through the maelstrom of emotions that swirled inside her.
“I’m going to my room,” she said softly, turning toward the stairs.
“Can we get you anything, Amara?” Mother asked.
“No, thank you.” She replied without turning. “I want to be alone for a bit.”
“Let us know if you do need anything, Mara-bud,” Father added.
“Thank you, Father.”
“We love you, sweetheart.”
Amara climbed the stairs one at a time and entered her room, coming to sit at her vanity mirror. She looked at herself, and saw a reflection that was far older than the girl who had sat here an hour before. She mused how funny it was that one’s life could change in a moment. She wished that life would warn a person. Maybe put up a sign or set off fireworks or something.
She placed her head on the vanity and closed her eyes, listening to the rain batter her windows.
Grandfather had been right. The opportunity to go to the University of Magic was not passed lightly. It would mean an entirely new life for her. One of hard work and dedication on a prescribed path. It was all terribly exciting. However, she had never once shown any magical ability before. Not that she had tried though. Father and Mother had never pushed her towards the arcanica arts and she had never seen a need to attempt them. What if she had no talent? What if she went to the university and found she couldn’t do it? What kind of shame would that be to make such a huge choice only to be denied it? Would it be better to not try in the first place?
The questions rattled in her brain like dice in a cup until she heard the clattering call of the voxprocula down stairs. Mother answered the voice machine and Amara could hear the muffled discussion from downstairs, but not make out the words. Something was happening. She could hear Mother replacing the receiver and call her Father, followed by Father rushing up stairs and into his room. Amara looked up. What was going on? Father knocked on her door a moment later.
“Can I come in?” he asked from beyond the door.
“Of course.” She answered, placing her head back down.
He entered, and Amara saw in the mirror without lifting her head that he was wearing his coat and carrying his hat and satchel. He was dressed for leaving.
“Going out?” Amara asked.
“We got a emergency call from the Head Weather Office. Someone released some rogue thunder snow in Lower Terraceton. Their weather office is panicking and they’ve called in our Weather Agents to help calm it.”
“Be careful.” Her voice was unusually unemotional.
“I’ll be out all night and probably all tomorrow. I wanted to say…” The words sputtered and spun, dying before he said them.
“What did you want to say?” she prompted, sitting up.
“That…” he wavered but pressed on, “That I trust you. I trust you to make the best decision for you. Not for me or your Mother but for you.”
“Thank you, Father.” Amara said with a small smile. She wiped at her eyes though there were no tears there, only the threat of them.
He crossed the room, scooping her in his arms and held her close. She hugged him and cried, unable to hold back anymore.
“I’m sorry,” Father said. “You were right. I was being a kagging idiot. I don’t want you to make my mistakes.”
“I won’t.” She sniffled. “I’ll probably make mistakes of my own.”
Father laughed, pulling her back to look at her. “My little Mara-bud. No longer little.” He traced his finger over her hair, gently passing the buds there. “When did you get to be so big and such?”
“Today it seems,” she remarked.
“Then today is an especially special day then. A new path presented and your buds are opening.”
“Really?” Amara’s eyes went wide. She turned back to the vanity mirror, seeing for the first time what she had missed. There, along her left ear and over her hairline five full roses bloomed, their petals vibrant shades of pink and orange.
“It’s a good beginning.” Father said, placing his hand on her shoulders.
Amara frowned, looking at the tiny but full blooms. It didn’t seem right, at least not quite. With a rowdy flip of her hair, Amara furiously shook her locks in a very unlady like, very un-Calmia Swent fashion. Immediately the other blooms exploded outward, bursting like fireworks on a clear sky.
“Well, chop me sideways.” her Father remarked, a disbelieving smile spreading across his thin face. “Would you look at that!”
Amara stared at herself in the mirror, the colorful petals and pastel green of her hair mingling beautifully and smiled.
“Now,” she said, “That is a good beginning.”
“A Season for Growing” – short story by Drew Mierzejewski