The man eyed Lorelei, and she returned the look. “I didn’t think I was gone that long,” he cracked a half smile, exposing bright white teeth, then extended a hand, “You must be the manor’s newest staffer. Name’s Conrad.”
“Conrad,” she searched her mind then took his hand, “Someone may have mentioned you.” She played at coyness, though it was glaringly clear in her mind that Ren had suggested enlisting Conrad to wipe her memory earlier that day. “I’m Lorelei.”
“A lorelei? Well, that makes sense!” he shook her hand a bit longer than he should have. When she glanced down at the shake, he broke it off then squeezed the back of his neck. “Ziah has been needing the help, and it’s always nice to have a new face around.”
“Well, I’m not exactly hired yet,” she cautioned as he turned and started for the cart where the stone creatures were loading the last of the luggage. She hurried behind him, “You work at the manor?”
“Onsite apothecary,” he nodded, tucking his book into his satchel. He easily hopped up into the cart and offered her a hand. She hesitated, “Ziah didn’t say I’d be picking any people up.”
“I’m actually headed back a little early.” He shifted his gaze away and sighed, “Just dumb luck you were here, otherwise I’d be walking back to my bike.” She stared at his offered hand again, and when she didn’t take it, he faltered, “I mean, if it’s okay.”
Lorelei shrugged and hoisted herself into the cart without his help. “Just don’t like, grow horns or something, okay?”
Conrad responded, but his voice sounded far away and hollow the moment the stags took them back through the archway. If she had to explain it, Lorelei would have called it nothingness, the feeling of being in that dark place between the train station and the forest. She shivered when they left the tunnel, but this time the forest’s darkness was familiar and almost inviting.
“So, you must have been at the manor for, what, only a few days?” Conrad was leaning lazily against the seat, turned slightly toward her.
Lorelei pinched her knees together at the far end of the bench, “Less than twenty four hours, actually.” It sounded more impressive when she said it aloud, and she allowed herself to smile just a bit.
Conrad nodded, “It has that effect on people.”
They sat in the quiet, bumping along the pathway. Lorelei tapped her foot and wrung her hands, but her nerves weren’t a product of the shadows beyond the trees this time. She had a very distinct feeling Ziah would not like this one bit.
“So, are you from Moonlit Shores?”
Unsure what he meant, she motioned randomly into the forest, “Uh, no, I’m from a little ways west.”
“So what, you came out her on vacation and ended up with a job?” He asked like it couldn’t be true.
She sucked in her breath and gave him a curt nod, “Almost.”
Conrad smiled, “Ziah is particularly persuasive.” Lorelei thought about the woman’s cat-like eyes and flowing black hair. It was an understatement.
Before he could ask her anything else, she turned fully toward him, “And you’re an apothecary?”
“Yeah,” his cheeks went red, “I’ve completed all the formal training, trust me,” he tapped his bag, “These are all elective. Since we get so many different guests at the manor, I need to keep up on, well, everything.”
“Oh,” she squinted with only a little idea what an apothecary actually was, but was too afraid to ask, “That’s cool.”
He sighed and leaned back into the cart, “It’s always good to be back home though.”
“You live at the manor?”
“We all do,” he was staring up at the sky through the trees, “It’s a nice perk, no commute.”
Lorelei thought hard for a moment. She hadn’t been considering where she would live if she was offered the position at the manor. Home would just become a place she once lived, everything and everyone left behind. Her chest felt tight, even at the thought of losing the things she was running away from, and she felt tears prick at the back of her eyes.
“Are you all right?”
Conrad had leaned too far forward and was studying her with a knit brow, his face inches from her own. She backed into the seat of the cart, any possibility of tears blinked away, “Yes. Definitely fine.”
“Sorry,” he sat back again quickly, scratching his head, “you looked, uh, sad.”
“I’m just worried,” she half-lied, “A lot of things are weird for me right now.”
“Ah,” he nodded, “Same. You’re not originally from a community like ours, are you?”
Lorelei couldn’t answer, and she dared not look at him. Was it that obvious? Could he read her thoughts? She’d encountered weirder things that day, he may as well be in her mind that moment. I’m human! She shouted in her head, Please don’t kill me!
“It’s becoming more common,” he said, no sign that he’d heard anything she’d telepathically yelled at him, “So many are halfsies or changelings, I mean, Arista herself is halfsies.”
He sounded like a child, suddenly, and she almost laughed. “I’m not familiar with that term,” she ventured carefully.
“Halfsies? When you’re part of one thing and part of another, sometimes even human. Arista is zero percent human, though, of course.”
She felt her heartbeat a little harder as she watched him roll his eyes. Man, these people didn’t like humans.
“Wait, did you mean changeling? Like, when you’ve been misplaced. Changelings grow up out there, in the other world. They always eventually find us though.”
“That’s it,” she pointed at him knowingly, “That’s me. A changeling. I don’t know anything about all this. But I’m, like, here now.”
“A changeling,” his eyes were wide, “Fascinating.” Then he smirked, “I should have known. I mean, for a second back there I thought you were a human!” Lorelei forced out a laugh along with him. “But Arista would never allow that. Gods, I can’t even imagine.”
“I haven’t met Arista yet.”
He grimaced, “You might change-ling your mind about staying if you do.”
Lorelei tried to contain herself, but the attempt at a pun was as bad as it was good, and she sputtered out a laugh.
Conrad stared at her a moment then shook his head, “I’m sorry, that was not funny.”
“No, it was,” she wiped at her eyes, catching her breath, “Stupid, but funny.”
“Well, sorry to say your sense of humor might not fit in at the manor,” he was grinning stupidly, “Elves and fairies can be pretty humorless.”
“Fairies?” Lorelei cut the laughter short, remembering the winged woman who had flown out of the laundry bin.
“Yeah, we’ve got at least a hundred, but they travel a lot.”
“That was a fairy,” Lorelei repeated to herself, staring down at her lap, “And Ren’s ears…”
“Took a course on elven biology over the summer,” Conrad snorted, “I can confirm they do not have a funny bone. Hey, there’s my bike.”
At the edge of the path, tucked under a tree, was the outline of a motorbike and the slight shine of metal. Conrad hopped out of the cart as it continued to travel down the path. He jogged ahead and walked the bike out from under the ferns. Lorelei saw all this and didn’t see it at the same time. In her mind she saw Ren and the small winged woman and the horned horse, and things both made sense and didn’t.
“It was nice meeting you,” Conrad’s voice reminded her she was in the presence of another human–or not–and she mumbled back a similar platitude. He started his bike and mounted it, looking back at her, “What did you say your name was?”
She told him with a frown, annoyed to repeat herself. He nodded slowly, almost bewildered, then popped on his helmet and drove ahead, disappearing down the path, the sound of his bike lingering long after his form was gone.
Some time later, the stags brought her back out of the forest, and she was surprised to see the sun was setting beyond the manor and the grounds were cast in an orange and purple haze. The rest of the trip was a strange swirl of trying to accept the absolutely unbelievable, and wondering where the hidden cameras were. Worse, she began to consider if this were some kind of joke being played on her by those she’d wronged. When she entered into the foyer after dropping off the cart and luggage at the barn, her mind had still not settled. Ziah looked up at her with a smile over the reception desk. She dropped the papers she’d been shuffling and slammed her hands on the desk with wide, excited eyes, “You’re back!”
“You’re not an alien.” Lorelei found herself pointing at the woman.
“I never said I was,” Ziah took a deep breath then put on a grand, bright smile. Even from under deep eye circles, it was infectious.
Lorelei smiled back, laughing a bit at her own words. “I met Conrad,” she said as if that explained everything. “I told him I was…a changeling?”
“Well thank gods for that.” She glanced up at the clock then back at her, “There’s a lot to discuss, but right now I need to work. In about thirty minutes, we’re hosting a meet and greet, so go get fancied up a bit and meet me back down here.”
Lorelei hustled up the stairs and into her room solely at the urgency in Ziah’s voice. She paused for a moment, wondering why she didn’t insist on the answers she’d been hoping to get the whole cart ride, but the thought was fleeting. In the adjacent bathroom, she hopped in and out of the shower, and dressed in a short, loose fitting dress she found at the bottom of her bag. Beneath it her cell phone had been buried, and after a second of contemplation, she snatched it up and shoved it into an opportune pocket before hurrying back down to check in.
Ziah stood at the counter, changed into a body-hugging, scarlet number and matching lipstick. Lorelei felt twelve years old in comparison. And yet the woman smile at her, blinking long lashes, and told her, “You look lovely,” and Lorelei absolutely believed her.
She could hear the rumble before they even turned into the hall that lead to the white room. She was shocked to see, upon entering, the size had at least tripled. There was a mass of people inside, but she could see over every head but one, Seamus, who was regaling a group of dwarves with some tale that made them all laugh. Ziah pushed a tray into her hands, covered in bready balls of cheese with a crisp meat topping, and told her to make rounds. She attempted to, but the dwarves were on her in an instant and gobbled them up with grins hidden under big, bushy beards and mustaches. She looked to Ziah for help, but the woman shrugged with a smile, headed in the opposite direction, mouthing to her above the crowd, “Just make them feel welcome.”
Lorelei found a counter for the empty tray and glanced about at the short men. They were so joyous she didn’t feel her presence was needed anywhere, but she certainly didn’t feel unwelcomed either. She laid eyes on a dark corner of the room where one dwarf sat atop a stool, stein in hand. She went to stand near him and leaned against the wall, “Hello.” He raised his mug to her with a nod, then turned his gaze back out to the crowd.
She slid her hand into her pocket and gripped her phone. There would be so many messages, her stomach turned at just the thought, and she pulled it out to stare down at the black screen. As she contemplated dumping it in a half-empty pitcher beside her, the device was slipped from her hands by a set of short, stubby fingers.
Lorelei scrambled, but the dwarf who had taken it was grinning ear to ear. “What’s this?”
“Uh,” her mind spun. These were dwarves, Ren was an elf, and there were fairies living in the walls. Did any of them know about this kind of technology? Was she totally outed?
“Oh, a Berry!” he exclaimed happily, “Haven’t seen one of these in a while. Outdated.”
Lorelei pouted, her phone was only about six months old.
“That’s okay though,” he flipped it over and pulled off the back cover in a shockingly swift move for such small, pudgy fingers. From his breast pocket, he fished a roll of cloth that unfurled to show a number of tiny tools, and from a satchel on his waist, he revealed a small, wooden box. Lining up the tools beside the phone on a table, he went to work. With the sharpest of the tools, he poked into the back of the phone and removed something, Lorelei wincing all the while, but afraid to stop him. From the box he carefully selected a metallic chip and slid it into place. A few more seconds of tinkering, and then the back went on again, and he presented it to Lorelei with a flourish.
She took it slowly, staring at him rather than the device, afraid of what had become of it.
He bounced on his heels and nodded at her, “Free upgrade, my dear. Please, do try it.”
Lorelei held in the button to switch it on, and it came to life with a blue light, a firefly flitting across the screen then, to her amazement, popping out and whooshing around her head before returning back into the phone’s screen and disappearing.
“Hope you don’t mind, one of my personal projects.”
When the screen came back on, everything seemed normal enough. She did indeed have a pouring in of missed calls, messages, emails, and she could feel sweat instantly begin to form on her brow. “Just swipe to the left, my dear.”
What would have been local and world news was replaced with a new screen and set of applications she’d never seen before.
“Don’t know how you’ve been getting about without those,” he chuckled, incredibly pleased, “And plugging it in, you don’t have to do that anymore,” he waved, “So archaic. Holding it will be enough.”
“Welcome, welcome!” A booming voice sounded from the far end of the room, and the dwarf threw his hands up and shouted along with the others in the room. Lorelei stammered out a thank you, and he grinned before running off toward the rest of the gathered dwarves. She stared out at the little man who’d been hoisted onto another’s shoulders. He needed no microphone as his voice carried through the room. “So good to see you all. This year is proving to be one of our biggest ever! From the Buckhorns of Birmingham–” there was a loud cheer from the left end of the room, “to the O’Raighleys of East Shire–” and an even louder cheer from the right end, “And all in between, I couldn’t be more pleased! Now I know we all have much to discuss, new technologies, exciting inventions, but that is all for later. Tonight, we party!”
The entire room erupted so that Lorelei thought the manor might come tumbling down. She held her breath as the dwarves scurried about, clanging steins and pouring themselves new drinks. The room smelled of sweet barley and hot spices, and music erupted from somewhere in the mess. A dwarf grabbed her free hand and pulled her out to the middle of the floor and she found herself skipping about in a circle with him. They clapped and she clapped back, finding herself falling into laughter and bumping into Ziah who had been pulled out as well. The pending messages on her newly upgraded phone faded as she slipped it back into her pocket.
When she looked up from the dwarves, she noticed Conrad standing at the back wall, leaning near the door where Hotaru bustled in and out with another towering tray of food. He gave her a brief nod, and she waved back.
After perhaps hours of dancing and trying to help serve the never-ending trays of food, Ziah guided her to the back of the room. “I’m sure you’re exhausted,” she breathed, looking more tired than ever.
She felt it all at once, and blinked, “Yes. Definitely.”
She led her out of the room and down a tight corridor. They slipped through a hidden door that opened onto a narrow set of stairs, traveled up, and found Lorelei’s room. Inside, she shut the door behind her. “I’m not going to come up here tomorrow morning and find an empty room am I?”
“Am I going to run away in the night?” she snickered, “I don’t think I could if I wanted to. I don’t really know where I am.”
“Good,” Ziah snorted, “because I’m very much wanting to offer you this job, provided I can get a yes from Arista.”
Lorelei felt her chest tighten. “That would be wonderful,” she heard herself saying.
“But Arista, she hates humans, and she could never know what you really are, do you understand that?”
“Sure, well I think I convinced that guy, Conrad.”
“Big deal,” Ziah rolled her eyes playfully, “But seriously, Arista is powerful, and it might be…unsafe for you. And maybe for me.”
Lorelei looked her over, the sleep in her eyes heavy. She still knew nothing of this world, she wasn’t sure if she even truly liked it or just disliked the alternative more, but she wanted to stay.
She sighed heavily and cocked her head, “I know my word means very little to you, but if you made me leave here, I wouldn’t…I wouldn’t tell anyone. No one would believe me anyway,” she chuckled under her breath, “Like I said, I’ve got no one out there to tell. Not really. So if you want me to go, if that’s the safest and best thing, I will. So, why take the risk?”
Ziah was quiet a long moment, and Lorelei feared she may have written her resignation letter before even getting the offer.
“Because you’re asking that.” Ziah looked her over, “And, really, you’re more like us than you know.”
The woman left with a promise to actually let her sleep in the next morning, and Lorelei fell back onto the bed. She held her phone up to her face and it came to life without her needing to press a button. Instinctively, it showed her a screen with all her missed messages, something it never used to do, then when she felt her anxiety rise, the little blue firefly came back and zipped away, turning the screen off again. She dumped the phone onto the nightstand and slid under the covers.