Lorelei’s eyes popped open, compelled by a voice that sounded as if it were right against her ear, and much to her horror, when she turned, she saw the voice’s owner indeed perched on the edge of her bed. But she was small, impossibly small, and she hovered there with fluttering wings and a monstrous frown.
“Listen to me, and listen very carefully.” Lorelei squinted, just making out a tiny, but blurry finger being thrust just at her nose. “For Áine knows what reason, Ziah has decided she wants to keep you around. I’ve voiced my piece on that, but it matters not. What does matter is you don’t let that saint of a woman down, do you understand me?”
Lorelei nodded, her face still plastered against the pillow. It didn’t matter that the woman, or fairie as she recalled Conrad stating existed, was about five inches tall; her word felt like law. She had a mess of copper curls voluminously surrounding her face and skin so white it glowed, even without the faint light that resonated off her wings. When she finally landed on the bedside table, Lorelei could see her wings were long and tapered, like a dragonfly’s might be, and iridescent.
To Lorelei’s growing horror, she spotted two others then, another woman who was grinning ear to ear with white-blonde hair and butterfly-shaped wings seated on the edge of a short stack of books and a man sporting smaller, pointed wings and black, stringy hair crouching beside her. They were watching their cantankerous cohort with delight.
“She’ll be up here in an hour to brief you on this meeting with Arista, and you will not take this lightly.”
Lorelei shook her head and pushed herself up onto an elbow, “No, I will not.”
“But no matter what you do, Arista is not so stupid. Ziah is tired, maybe she’s not thinking right, maybe she’s too confident in her own skills, I don’t know,” the woman grit her teeth, crossing her arms and pacing the length of the books’ spines just below the others, “But she’ll see right through you. So.” She ascended into the space just before Lorelei’s nose again, and Lorelei instinctively pulled back. The woman rolled her eyes then curled a finger to beckon her close again. Lorelei complied, wondering if maybe she’d had too much ale the night before, but knowing the truth.
The fairie rubbed minuscule hands together, pursing her lips. Then, she threw them apart and toward Lorelei’s face. Something landed just across the tops of her cheeks, and her face immediately began to tingle. She had the strong urge to sneeze, but didn’t dare blow the fairie across the room.
“That should help you blend in a little better.”
The tingling sensation disappeared, and as soon as it was gone, she felt no different.
The blonde fairie spoke up from the nightstand, “At least you won’t stink as much.”
The other two nodded in unison.
“I didn’t do it for you,” the redhead sniffed, the began to flit off, “Now go get ready.”
The other two alighted and followed her up to the far corner of the room until they appeared to be just glowing orbs and disappeared through a hole in the crown molding.
Lorelei blinked around the room, ensuring she was actually alone this time. “That was weird.”
“No it wasn’t!” she heard in a tiny voice from somewhere in the ceiling, “Now, get ready!”
Lorelei popped up and went into the bathroom. She caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror as she went for the shower and had to stop and go back. They were light, almost invisible, but she’d seen her face thousands of times before, and this was the first time she’d noticed freckles.
Ziah collected her shortly thereafter. She was refreshed, with glowing cinnamon skin and a radiant energy. Lorelei didn’t know she could be so attracted to a woman, but tried her best to put it out of her head. It wasn’t how she looked, she told herself, despite that Ziah’s bare midriff and tight jeans were objectively captivating, it was something more. The way she smiled and the things she said, she was disarming, kind, and Lorelei loved being in her presence.
They went out through the kitchen where the chef and Hotaru were baking, the whole room smelling of sugar and mulled spices, and Hotaru pushed turnovers into their hands as they passed, staring at them expectantly. They both took bites and the young girl squinted at them nervously.
Lorelei look down at the pastry with large eyes, “You made this?”
The girl nodded, her black bob bouncing.
“Holy cow,” she took another bite, ravenously, “What’s in here, crack?”
“Sugar, butter, flour, peaches, mangoes, honey,” the girl counted off on her fingers, “Not crack–what is that?” she looked to Ziah and the woman laughed.
“That means she really, really likes it, hun.”
Hotaru skipped away, beaming.
The turnover was gone before they got out the backdoor, and Lorelei felt a very specific sadness that she couldn’t grab another. Then she snapped her head toward Ziah, “Wait, there was crack in that wasn’t there?”
Ziah shook her head, “No, of course not.”
“Well, not exactly, but you know, like, it was enchanted or something. Just like this place,” she hesitated, “Like you.”
As they walked out through a high-hedged garden, Ziah went quiet, eyes trained on her feet as they crossed out into a field and up a natural hillock. Normally troubled by silence, Lorelei was a bit relieved at it for once, afraid of what was going to come next.
At the top of the hill they stopped. On its other side lay an orchard, rows of golden-leafed trees lit up by the morning sun stretching out to the horizon. An open field lined with a low, wooden fence beside it, joining to the barn where a handful of goats were spilling out and bounding across the grass. Beyond that, the forest Lorelei had traveled the day before cast a thick, green shadow, and behind them she could feel the manor standing watch over it all.
“All of this is protected–or is supposed to be–from humans.” Ziah cocked her head, “It’s not that we all dislike your kind, it’s just safer this way. We’ve lived among you forever, but never in the numbers we have now, and we know isolation is best.”
She put her hands on her hips and flashed a brilliant smile, “Things are good for us. Most humans never even know we exist, and the ones that do rarely meet more than one of our kind. The truth of it can be a big shock. A human meets Ren, okay, they know elves exist, but not the rest of us.” She said it so casually that Lorelei wondered how frequently it happened.
“So he is an elf?”
“Well, you already figured out we’re not aliens,” she chuckled. “We’re the origin of every fairy tale and nightmare you humans have. Some call us Charmed or the Fair Folk, but there’s no one name because we were never, you know, like this before. For a long time we had nothing to do with one another, but as the world grew for humans, it shrank for us. Now we do our best to get along in the pockets of space that we have. Moonlit Shores Manor is a safe haven for our kind to come to when they want to travel.”
“So the book I signed when I got here, it did ask for species?”
“It did,” she narrowed her eyes at Lorelei, “Though you shouldn’t have been able to access the manor at all as a human. Are you sure you’re all human?”
“I don’t even know what I would be.”
“Well, everyone thinks you’re a lorelei.” She seemed to read the confusion on Lorelei’s face, “a bit like a mermaid or a siren.”
She glanced down at her legs, “Guess I made a good deal with a sea witch.”
Ziah chuckled and began leading her to a little building off the back of the manor, “That’s where the changeling part comes in. We would say that someone in your ancestry was a lorelei, and the magic just stayed dormant in your lineage until you came around. Maybe you showed some kind of power and found yourself in our world…somehow. It’s not polite to ask, so you should have some time to come up with your story.”
“So is Arista going to suspect I’m human?”
“Hopefully not. She’s not very hands on at our level, but she has to approve everything. She owns the manor with Seamus. Lucky you he loves humans, so despite that they’re married, he’s not going to give away the secret, not if it means he gets to keep you around.”
“That’s nice of him.” She suddenly thought she might have just been given a brief glimpse into the life of a cat.
They came up to the garden that surrounded the cottage, butterflies diving in and out of the flowers, blooming unseasonably bright despite the fall chill in the air. Two round windows flanked the door in stained glass roses.
“So fairies, dwarves, mermaids…what are you?”
She stiffened a moment, “It’s not polite to ask, remember?”
“But you’ve got it on your form,” Lorelei frowned at her.
“All in due time. You’ve got more important things to worry about. Like this meeting with Arista.”
With a deep breath, she tried to steel herself as they went for the door, “Can you at least tell me what she is? If she’s got like two heads or something, I don’t want to be thrown off.”
“Oh, Arista will look totally human to you. She’s almost entirely witch.”
“A witch?” Lorelei cocked her head, “Isn’t that just a human?”
“Not in our world. It’s something you’re born into. In fact, it’s one of the prevailing species around. Arista’s not totally a witch though, she’s got a little banshee in her too.”
“Banshee?” Lorelei thought hard, “So what does that make her?”
Ziah put her hand on the doorknob and turned, lowering her voice to a whisper just at Lorelei’s ear, “A bitch.”
The cottage’s interior was the very definition of charming. With slightly bowed walls that Lorelei was unsure were a design choice or just the result of settling, the room felt like a nest, the space small with the rest of the cottage continuing behind a door. The room they’d entered held a desk surrounded by bookshelves and cabinets filled with leather-bound tomes and ceramic figures. A floral-patterned chair sat behind the desk, and two overstuffed ones in pink chevron faced its front. Sepia photos in mismatched frames showed various stages of the manor from times long ago, and portraits of, Lorelei assumed, owners and guests. She recognized no one but knew they were not inconsequential.
Who Lorelei could only assume was Arista emerged from the back room. Small-framed glasses were perched on the edge of a long nose pointed down into a ledger, and her face was creased with a thin-lipped frown. She was long-limbed and moved like something much bigger than she was so that Lorelei wanted to back away. Ziah cleared her throat when the woman passed them without acknowledgement.
“Yes?” she didn’t bother looking at her employee as she went for a bookshelf.
“I’d like you to meet someone.” Ziah was immediately annoyed and didn’t bother to hide that fact in her voice.
The woman set her papers on the desk and turned, her skirts swirling around her, but her hair holding its style perfectly still. When her eyes fell on Lorelei, icy blue and piercing, she felt everything tighten, inside and out. But then her frown broke into a toothy smile, “Oh my, do forgive me,” she extended a hand to Lorelei and bent ever so slightly to her height as they shook, “I’ve only returned from a short business trip. I don’t know where my mind or manners are. How are you?”
“Well,” Lorelei managed to croak out nervously. “And you?”
Ziah sighed, “She’s not a guest.”
“Oh.” Arista dropped her hand and her smile. She turned away and busied herself in the papers again.
“But she is an applicant.”
Ziah sighed again, “My assistant.”
“Your assistant?” Arista peered back over her shoulder, perching a hand on her hip, “What do you need an assistant for?”
Ziah crossed her arms and sucked her teeth, but said nothing, staring her down.
“Anyway, I thought you already had somebody? That mousy little kelpie girl. The one with all the hair.” She held her hands up on either side of her head.
“Robina left over a month ago,” she said exasperatedly, “I’d like Lore to take her place.”
Lorelei felt a happy little jolt in her heart at the nickname.
Arista laid her papers down again and sauntered up to Lorelei, “What are you?”
She glanced nervously at Ziah then back at Arista. The question was impolite, but it seemed Arista had her own rules about communication. “A lorelei.”
“Another aquatic?” she rolled her eyes in Ziah’s direction, “Really? Fine, and what’s your last name?”
Lorelei swallowed, “Fischer.”
“No, I don’t know it. You’re not from Moonlit Shores, are you?”
She shook her head.
With a sigh, she went to her desk and sat. She looked up at Lorelei, blinked, then again rolled her eyes, “Well, sit down already.”
Lorelei hopped into one of the pink chairs as the woman opened the drawer in her desk. She held a set of cards, though much larger than playing cards, and began to shuffle them. “You think you’ll be a good fit here?”
“Yes,” she tried to answer as confidently as possible.
“We’ll see about that. Here,” she handed the deck off to Lorelei, “Shuffle.”
She took the too-big cards and slowly and awkwardly attempted two different methods.
“Alright, that’s enough, enough,” waving her hand for them back, Lorelei placed them in her palm. “Tell me, what will be the outcome of Lore’s employment here,” she seemed to say to the cards. She placed the stack on the desk and pointed to them, “Cut.”
Lorelei pulled a few cards off the top and placed them beside the pile. Arista took the top card from the remnants of the deck and flipped it face up. The card showed a white orb surrounded by a purple and black background and specs of silvery glitter, the roman numeral eighteen at its bottom.
“The moon,” Ziah said over Lorelei’s shoulder, “So she’s a shining beacon in the darkness. That sounds great.”
“Or an illusion that cannot be revealed,” Arista peered over the rim of the glasses and Lorelei fought the urge to touch her newfound freckles. The woman gathered up the cards and slid them back into her desk. “On a temporary basis it is, then.”
Lorelei smiled, “Oh, thank–”
“I have many things to do, that’s quite enough,” she waved them away and stood, gathering up her papers and headed back to the bookshelf.
“Nice chat,” Ziah remarked as she opened the door and Lorelei slipped out before the woman could change her mind.
As the walked back up to the manor, Lorelei felt giddy, “Temporary basis? What does that mean?”
“She wants an easy out if she decides to get rid of you,” Ziah laughed in the back of her throat, “Go grab your stuff from upstairs, we need to move you.”
“Employee quarters, of course.”
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