Chapter One CHAPTER ONE
In which Lena the former giant realizes there’s something wrong about her life under the fairy queens’ control, and discovers a secret message.
Once upon a time, a young farm boy and his mother had nothing to eat, as all of their crops had perished from disease. The boy’s mother sent him to the market to sell the last thing of value they owned, the family cow, and the boy, being a good boy, did just that.
On the way to the market, however, a man with an evil glint in his eye stopped the boy and offered him magical beans in exchange for the cow. “They’re made of shadow magic, boy,” the man said, grinning maliciously. “Trade me your cow, and they’ll bring you fame and fortune beyond your wildest dreams.”
The boy, being a good and worthy boy, did not even consider this horrible temptation. Instead he sang a magical song that summoned his local fairies, and told them of the man’s wickedness. The man tried to escape their judgment, but the host of fairies descended upon him and transported him to the fairy homelands for punishment. They also took the cow, but this was done as a favor to the boy, so that he could no longer be tempted to sell it for any unworthy objects in the future.
But the fairy queens would not leave such an honorable, worthy boy with nothing! To thank him for his quick thinking and upright character, humanity’s divine creators bestowed upon the boy magical beans of their own creation, beans that would feed the boy and his mother for the rest of their lives, once they’d fully grown for the next harvest.
Lena frowned, closing the Story Book she’d been reading for school. The moral of the story wasn’t exactly subtle, but the ending bothered her. After all, the boy hadn’t been able to sell the cow, and the fairy queens’ beans weren’t going to grow for another year. Wouldn’t that mean the boy and his mother were still starving—
“Lena!” shouted her mom from downstairs. “You’d better hurry or you’ll be late for school. And today of all days, you don’t want to do anything unworthy!”
Lena smiled, not needing the reminder. The fairy queens’ ball had been all anyone could talk about ever since the fairies had put up signs for it weeks earlier. The ball promised to be the greatest celebration that the Blessed City had ever seen, and given that it was being held in the fairy homelands, a place few fairies and even fewer humans ever saw, the ball couldn’t help but deliver.
But only the worthy would be allowed to attend, for the ball was more than just a dance. At the end of the event, the fairy queens would bestow a gift upon every human in attendance, to thank them for staying good and pure and not giving in to the shadow. What that gift would be, no one knew, but the fairies claimed it would let the residents live happily ever after, so it had to be amazing.
All of that meant Lena couldn’t be late to school, not when one little mistake might bar her from attending the ball.
“Coming!” she shouted down to her mother as she stuffed the Jack and the Dangerous Bean Talk Story Book into her bag, along with the others she’d been reading the night before, including Fairy Queens: Our Divine Mothers—one of her teacher’s favorites—and The History of the Human World: How Nothing Bad Has Ever Happened, the latter of which always seemed to bring up questions in her mind.
But that had to be her fault, considering what the fairy queens warned about in Our Divine Mothers:
Before time began, the Queens of Fairy created this world and humans to live upon it, blessing you with a gift you can never repay. Though we fairykin are your divine parents—or “godmothers,” as some of your kind call us out of great love and affection—like any other parent, we temper our love with laws that every creature must obey.
If strange ideas try to enter your mind, ideas that strike you as “different” or “unusual,” this means your weak human mind is in danger from the shadow, a force that seeks to corrupt you. Our law is simple: reject the shadow and its teachings with all your heart, because all good comes from the Queens of Fairy alone, and humans must follow their godmothers’ examples. Those who break this law will require purification, or if caught with any form of shadow magic, eternal punishment—
“Lena!” her mother yelled up again, this time waking Rufus up. He yawned widely from his pillow next to Lena’s bed, and she bent down to grab him with another smile. After a quick kiss on the top of his head, which made him meow indignantly, she lowered him into her bag as well, where he settled comfortably onto the pile of books.
She slung the bag over her shoulder, wincing at its weight—all those treats Mrs. Hubbard gave to Rufus were adding up—and then took the stairs down to the kitchen as quickly as she could.
A knock came at the door as Lena hit the bottom step, not surprising, since he knocked at the same time every day.
“Happy fairy queen ball morning!” Shefin shouted as Lena’s mother opened the door. The boy swept in past Lena’s mom and grabbed a muffin from the plate on the table, making Lena’s father glare up at him. Before Shefin took a bite, though, his gaze shifted to Lena at the foot of the stairs, and he smiled. “And behold. Lena, future princess of the fairy queen ball, has descended from on high to welcome her prince!”
Lena struggled not to wince at that. Part of the ball she’d been ignoring was an election to name a prince and princess, the most worthy humans in the city, who would be honored above all others. Unlike the other candidates, who’d been nominated by friends and family, Shefin had begun campaigning for himself immediately, dragging Lena along with him.
“I’d wait for the results to be announced if I were you,” she said. “Humphrey is pretty beloved by everyone.”
“Humphrey is so fragile, he could trip and break apart,” Shefin said, patting her father’s shoulder. Lena’s father gripped the table so hard, his knuckles turned white. “Don’t worry, Lena. We’re destined to win, I can feel it. I always thought I was meant to be royalty, somehow, and while this isn’t how I imagined it, I’ll still take it!” He glanced at Lena’s parents. “You both voted already, right?”
Her mom and dad shared a look. “We did, yes,” her mother said.
“And Lena definitely got our vote,” her father added.
“Perfect!” Shefin said, beaming now. “See? It’s a foregone conclusion. This is my—I mean, our—moment, a moment we’ll look back on proudly forever.” His smile faded as he continued. “After all, we’ll probably be married in a few years, and then settle down to farm the land.” He started to look sick. “Can’t wait to, you know, plant seeds in dirt, that kind of thing. Just everything I ever dreamt of in life.”
“I’ve had dreams about your wedding too,” Lena’s father said, holding out the plate of muffins to Lena, who grabbed one. “Though I tend to call them nightmares.”
“Good one, Dad!” Shefin said, reaching for another muffin in spite of Lena’s father trying to pull them away. “Can I call you ‘Dad,’ Dad? Or should that wait for the wedding?”
“Oh, I think it can wait for longer than that,” her dad said, clapping Shefin on the shoulder so hard, he almost knocked the boy over.
“Be careful, Roral!” Lena’s mother said, grabbing the plate from her husband as the muffins teetered precariously, and then offering it to Shefin again, who grabbed the rest of the muffins and tossed them into his bag. “Sometimes I think you don’t know your own strength. You could have hurt him!”
“Well, you know my motto,” Lena’s father said, glaring at Shefin. “Humans show their might through moral judgment and reverence for the fairy queens, not strength of arms.”
“Pure poetry, Dad,” Shefin said, and Lena quickly grabbed his arm and yanked him toward the door before her father exploded.
“Can’t be late, got to go, love you, see you in the city square at noon for transportation to the ball, bye!” she shouted as she pushed Shefin out the front door.
“Don’t forget to tell all your friends to vote for us!” Shefin added.
“Stay worthy, you two!” her mother shouted after her. “We can’t have you missing the ball altogether!”
“Yes, Lena, we don’t want you to miss the ball!” her father yelled as well. A loud smack followed by a yelp of pain told Lena her mom hadn’t been amused by that.
Outside, the sight of the beautiful Blessed City did help Lena’s mood slightly. The buildings and streets all practically glowed with the blessings of the fairies, and even though she’d been told the city had been around since the fairy queens had created this world, it still looked brand-new, almost as if it’d just been built in the last few weeks.
The fairies looked to have been busy the night before, though, as all the signs announcing the fairy queen ball had been replaced with new signs, these explaining that all worthy residents should appear in the city’s central square at noon for transportation to the fairy homelands.
“Don’t worry, we’ll win for sure,” Shefin said to her as they passed by Mr. Ralph’s bakery and Humphrey’s farm-fresh-eggs stand, both closed in anticipation of the ball. Even the streets were empty, as anyone who could get away with it was staying home to keep from doing anything unworthy by accident. “I can’t tell you how I know, but believe me, it’s ours.”
His words sent a chill down her spine. “Shefin, what did you do? If you cheated somehow, we’ll both not only be banned from the ball but we’ll probably be purified, or worse!”
Shefin rolled his eyes. “How dare you. I would never do anything unworthy. Shouldn’t you have more faith in me, as my true love?”
She almost choked over his words, and Shefin didn’t look much more comfortable himself. But the fairy queens had declared that Lena and Shefin were destined to love each other for all of time, and just because Lena couldn’t imagine ever feeling that way about the boy didn’t mean she was going to argue with the godmothers.
“Then I guess I should… believe you?” she said, wincing slightly.
“Yes, you should,” he said, hugging her slightly with one arm. A low, dangerous growl came from her bag, and Shefin immediately yanked his arm back. “So should your cat. I don’t get why he hates me so much! Maybe when we get married, we can leave the cute little monster with your parents?”
Lena’s eyes widened, and she pulled the bag around to her front protectively, hugging Rufus to her chest. “Oh, I’d never leave him behind. If that’s a problem for you, maybe you should find another true love.” She hoped she’d made it sound enough like a joke that he wouldn’t question it.
“Ha, if only!” Shefin said, only to realize what he’d said, and he froze in place, blushing furiously. “I meant, um, if only anyone else could compare to you, which they obviously can’t.”
Rufus growled again, and Lena sighed. Just when there’d been an opening to actually talk about it all! “Maybe you should go on ahead, so I can calm him down,” she said to Shefin. “I’ll be just a minute.”
The reprieve for his words seemed to perk the boy up, and he nodded. “Only if you’re sure!” he yelled, already a couple of yards in front of her. “I did want to get to school early and make sure everyone voted like I paid… I mean, like they promised they would.”
“You should definitely go, then!” Lena said, hugging Rufus closer to her inside the bag as she pretended not to have heard about the bribery. While Shefin continued on, she started petting Rufus on his head, and he immediately began to purr, much calmer now that the boy wasn’t anywhere close. “It’s okay, little man,” she said to him. “I don’t care what he says, I’d never have a happily ever after without you.”
As his purrs increased, something thumped onto the street just beside Lena, making her jump in surprise. She glanced around her bag to find a book lying on the cobblestones, as if someone had dropped it randomly. Only, no one was around.
Could one of her books have fallen from her bag? Mistreating any of the fairy queens’ books was definitely an unworthy act, so she quickly bent down to grab it.
But just before her fingers touched the cover, she caught sight of the title, and froze in place. Happily Ever After? That wasn’t one of hers, or even a book she’d heard of before. What could—
“Whoa!” Shefin shouted, making her almost jump out of her skin. She looked up to find him standing a few yards away still, staring down at the ground in front of her. “Those aren’t ballots, are they? Were they there a minute ago?”
“No, they’re… I mean, they must… It’s a book, and it had to have been here,” Lena said quickly, trying to convince herself as much as convince Shefin. “We were just distracted and so didn’t see it. It’s probably another student’s, and it’d be unworthy to not take it to them in class.”
But if the book didn’t belong to a student and was instead, say, an object of pure evil, then her touching it could lead the fairies to skip right over purification and go straight for eternal punishment, assuming they caught her.
“A book?” Shefin said, taking a few steps toward her almost warily. “Don’t touch it, Lena, not today. We can’t do anything that might get us banned from the ball, not when we’re going to be elected prince and princess. Call the fairies and leave it to them.”
He had a point. It was always best to alert the fairies when anything unusual happened, just in case it was shadow magic. There were whole rules about it in Our Divine Mothers, even.
Except it was a book, of all things. How could any book be evil, especially one with a title like Happily Ever After?
“The fairies have enough to do today, getting ready for the ball,” she said, then grabbed the book before she could change her mind. Shefin gasped, his mouth dropping open as she stood back up, and she silently hoped she wasn’t making a huge mistake. “Besides, if it is another student’s book, we’d be unworthy if we left it behind, and that might hurt our chances too, right?”
“I don’t know, but this is not going to be good for our poll numbers,” Shefin said, his voice cracking a bit. “Also, what if it is shadow magic, and it infects you, Lena? I can’t be elected prince without my princess!”
“Your love for me warms my heart,” she said, staring down at the book. “Anyway, I’m just going to see if someone wrote their name inside.” She reached out with a trembling hand and slowly opened the cover.
She didn’t find a name, but there was a handwritten message inside:
The fairy queens’ ball isn’t what you think it is. You’re living a lie. Come to Mrs. Hubbard’s store if you want to learn the truth.