“The bank,” Conrad pointed to the most average-looking building on Centaurea Street in Bexley. Squat and with a white brick facade, it stood atop a foundation taller than those around it, four pillars at the top of the marble stairs leading to its entrance. It felt like any bank from her own world, but it leaned slightly to the left.
The line inside also gave her a sense of familiarity, but one that wasn’t necessarily comforting. They took their place at its end, and Conrad turned to her, “So, tell me about your family.”
His voice had been low, but she looked around nervously anyway. The woman ahead of them had in earbuds as well as a tail, though that was inconsequential, and the fairies in front of her were bickering. At the head of the line, a father was trying to distract his three daughters with bubbles from the end of his pipe that didn’t seem to pop no matter how hard the children tried.
“My family?” she repeated.
“Well, you know about mine, the estrangement, death, boo hoo. And you’ve been subjected to Arista and Seamus. It’s only fair.”
Lorelei winced. She was trapped. “Well, uh, yeah, I’ve got my mom, and that’s about it.”
The father at the head of the line was called up to the window, and they all stepped forward.
“No siblings? Cousins?”
“Oh, three cousins, but they live a couple states away. I don’t know them very well. My mom doesn’t get along with her sister. They had a weird childhood,” she shrugged, “That’s all.”
“Oh, so how did you find out?”
She stared at him blankly. “That they don’t like each other? It’s pretty obvious when they’re in the same room together. You should have seen three Christmases ago.”
“No, no,” he shook his head, “How did you find out about you,” he grit his teeth and said under his breath, “The c word.”
“Excuse me?” she took a step back.
“Being a changeling,” he urged her on.
She deflated and laughed a little at herself as the fairies were called up to the next window, “Oh! That! Well, I uh, just, was…informed.”
“Letter?” she asked more than told.
“Who sent that in a letter?”
The woman before them pulled out her earbuds as she made her way to the counter, and they stepped up to the front of the line as someone else joined behind them. It moved quickly, but not quick enough for Lorelei’s liking.
“Well, there was also this kinda giant, in a trenchcoat. He had a big bushy beard and, um, it was my birthday.” Conrad was watching her intently as the lies came out of her mouth. Well, they weren’t totally lies; it had happened to someone, and just because it was fiction didn’t mean it wasn’t true. “And it was when we were on vacation at a lake, and, um–”
Lorelei turned on her heel at the sharp voice and made her way to the counter with a purpose, chiefly being to put an end to that conversation, but stopped short about a foot from the window. Atop the counter sat a white rabbit up on its haunches with a miniature pair of cat-eyed glasses perched on its snout. Lorelei glanced right and left at the other windows where it appeared humans were working with customers, and she worried she’d misheard.
“Yes, next, come on up,” the rabbit waved a paw at her and thumped its back foot.
“Uh, hi,” Lorelei swallowed hard and fished around in her own pocket, “I have this.” She pulled out the paper and offered it to the creature.
The rabbit looked at it, then at her, then back at the page. With a tiny paw, she took it and carefully unfolded the note, then pushed her glasses up further over her ever-bobbing nose. “Yes,” she said quietly to herself, then with a single hop to the back edge of the counter, leaned over and revealed a red magnifying glass from a drawer. Examining the number at its top carefully, the rabbit made all sorts of chittering noises, then finally put down the glass, “Paw, please.”
She had her own arm outstretched toward the girl, and after a moment, Lorelei extended her hand up onto the counter and gently placed it over the rabbit’s soft paw. The rabbit placed the note back in Lorelei’s hand and examined it again, “Well, it seems to be in order. What would you like to do?”
After Lorelei stared at her dumbly, Conrad leaned over, “Remove the contents, please.”
“Very well.” The rabbit pressed a button on the counter beside her, “I need a guardsman.”
A moment later, a figure came from the rooms behind where the tellers stood. Sheathed in metal from head to toe, he was like a suit of armour, but walked independently. The guardsman carried a halberd, a flag of lilac and green stripes attached, and wore a green plume that sprouted from the top of his helmet, oddly organic against the rigidity of his suit. The rabbit passed the paper to the guardsman, and he bent over fully to stare at the note, then snapped his attention back to them.
“Robin will escort you,” the rabbit hopped the the counter’s end and swung open a gate for them to pass through.
They followed the walking armour as it announced its way across the marble floors. They were taken down a corridor and ended at a vault. The guardsman picked up his halberd and flipped it horizontal, and they jumped away as it sliced through the air between them. The armour inserted the end into the vault’s lock and twisted, the door giving way.
The inside of the vault’s walls and floor were lined in a deep red velvet, and the room was flooded with light. It was dizzying to barely be able to see where floor and wall met, and they focused on the counter-height table in its center. The guardsman closed them in and secured the door. If he was mechanical, she thought, she hoped he wouldn’t run out of power inside.
There was another door, which the guardsman told them to stay back from, not with words, but with the stiff sweeping motion of his hand. Lorelei and Conrad stood at the far end of the table, and the armour made similar movements, let himself in, and a few agonizingly silent moments later, emerged with a box. He locked the door again, placed the box on the table, and marched to a corner, turning stiff as stone.
Unsure if he was truly alive, Lorelei leaned over to Conrad, “Is it…saying it’s okay to open the box?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
“You think so?” she groaned, “He’s got a really sharp thing in his hands, you know.”
He could only shrug, “I’ve never done this before.”
Lorelei bit her lip and reached out for the box. It was silver and unadorned, and though she tried to remind herself of Ziah’s words it could just be an old mismatched sock she felt a jolt of excitement as she lifted the lid. The box was lined in the same deep red as the room and completely empty save for a bronze circle in its center. She picked it up, much heavier than she expected, and ran a finger over the animal etched into it, round-bodied and big-eyed, holding up what appeared to be a shield. “What is this?” she asked, turning to Conrad, “Is it a chipmunk?”
He had busied himself staring at his shoes but was quick to look when she asked. He gasped and in a swift movement almost grabbed it from her, then stopped. “May I?”
“Of course,” she placed it in his hand and he flipped it over.
On the back, a long, thin metal pin was attached. Conrad held it close to his face, “It can’t be.”
She was afraid to ask, so she only stared at him.
“A brooch,” he flipped it over again, “And this symbol, I recognize it, but I’ve only seen it one place before,” Conrad stared at the brooch another moment, then plunked it back into her hand, “In my father’s casket.”
Lorelei froze. He’d just told her about his family’s passing, but this made it seem much more real.
“No,” she tried to push it back into his hands, “You should keep this if it was your father’s.”
“No, no,” he pulled away, “My father had a ring with that same chipmunk, and I saw it buried with him. And anyway, this is yours. Ms. Pennycress gave it to you. I’m just surprised. I never saw that symbol anywhere else, but,” he stared at it a moment longer then looked away, “I’m certain that’s it.”
After a few more awkward moments of silence, Lorelei let the guardsman know they were finished. They were led out and left the bank, crossing the street to the park.
“You said your father was in a secret society?” Lorelei finally ventured when she could see the arches again.
“Well,” he laughed, “I did, didn’t I?”
“Does this have anything to do with that?” she patted her pocket where she’d placed the brooch.
He shrugged, “No idea. I never wanted to be inducted. I wanted a different path, and I guess I got that.”
When they went back through the portal to the station, Lorelei felt the shiver more intensely than she had before, then when they passed back into the woods, she felt sick to her stomach, “You weren’t kidding about the Warlock General,” she told him, though she wasn’t entirely sure she felt ill because of the arches and their mysterious transportation powers.
He took her arm gently and stopped her before they mounted his bike, “Are you all right?”
“Oh, yeah, I’m fine,” she blushed then stood up straight, reminding herself he was, after all, a doctor, “Just nauseous.”
Back at the manor, Conrad had wished her good night and headed for the basement, and Lorelei found herself alone at the front desk, night having fallen and most parties already in bed. She pulled out the brooch, still wanting to give it to Conrad, but he didn’t seem keen on having it.
An idea struck her, and she slipped into the newly organized office, immediately finding the file she needed with Ms. Pennycress’s name. Unlike the others, she did not have a telephone number or email address, only a mailing address in England. With her travels, Lorelei couldn’t know when she would again be there, but it was her only shot. On Moonlit Shores Manor stationary, she drafted up a quick letter to the woman, thanking her for the gift and inquiring more about it, being sure not to specify anything about Conrad or his family. She slid the sealed letter into the outgoing mail bin between two bills and went to the staircase. Before heading up, she turned back to the office, unsure if Samuel’s presence was there or not. “Don’t mention this to anyone,” she said under her breath for good measure and went to bed.