The Changeling Prince, p.1Cortni Fernandez / Fantasy
The Changeling Prince
By Cortni Fernandez
The hill with the willow tree was Reiya's favourite place to linger on the path between the schoolhouse and the farm. She lay on the grass and watched the sun filter through the willow tresses, while her brother Taji sat a few feet away, feeding the sparrows with a bag full of bread crumbs. Half a dozen of the little brown birds perched on his outstretched legs and bony shoulders, twittering softly. Taji, the long lost prince of the fairy realm, twittered back, holding one sparrow out on his finger.
“When I return to my kingdom, I think I'll make all of you my royal courtiers,” he said, bringing his cheek to the bird's fluffy form.
Reiya watched him through the corner of her eye. His human form, as Taji called it, had been well designed to resemble her: sleek black hair, skin dappled by the sun, and several grass stains on his elbows and knees. While Reiya's cotton robe was a dull wine red, Taji's was patterned with pale pinks and orange. He was crowned with a ring of woven leaves, accented by a large white flower he had discovered that morning. Smiling and covered in tiny birds, he did resemble the fairy prince he insisted he was.
“What about me?” Reiya said, folding her arms more comfortably behind her head. “I don't want to be a courtier.”
“How about a princess?” he suggested. “Taji and Reiya – prince and princess of the fairies.”
“That sounds terrible.” Reiya thought about the horse-riding lords who used to roam the countryside, carrying real swords that glinted in the sunlight. “Can I be a knight instead?”
“Hm... I'm not sure. Are there knights in the fairy realm, or is that only for humans?”
“It's your kingdom, your majesty.”
“True enough!” Taji said, sitting a little straighter. “Alright then. You may be my knight.”
Before he had finished his royal proclamation, Reiya felt trouble approaching in the form of stomping footsteps. Sighing, she remained on her back, hoping they would pass by. Instead, all the sparrows suddenly took off in a cloud of feathers, and Taji made a small sound of disappointment.
“Oops,” said a loud voice. “There go all your friends in the world.”
Reiya tilted her head slightly to look, but she and Taji knew better than to reply to Jinba or his backup crew, Muka and Yogani. Jinba was broad but short for his age, and felt that being aggressive was the best way to gain a few inches. Muka's shadow usually dwarfed Jinba, but by the way Muka's small eyes always looked to his friend, you'd think it was the other way around. Yogani, with the poorest luck of all, had half their mass and half their brains.
“Hey, nice flower,” Jinba said, stopping on the path. He seemed to enjoy towering over Taji and Reiya, since neither sibling was standing. “I said something nice, fairy boy. You should thank me.”
Taji's nose remained lofty and he brushed breadcrumbs off his robe sleeves with exaggerated elegance. Muka and Yogani came closer, flanking Jinba like a widening ocean wave. Jinba leaned down and stuck out his stubby nose.
“Are you rude or just dumb?” he said.
“I am Prince Taji of the Fairy Realm,” Taji said, with all the stern dignity of royalty. “I'm very polite and smart, and I'd be happy to teach you to be both.”
“We don't want you to teach us,” Yogani said, looking confused, and earning a silencing shove from Muka.
“You must be stupid if you really think you're a fairy prince,” said Jinba, folding his arms.
“Yeah,” Muka added. “Show us your magical fairy powers, dimwit.”
“See, this is why you need a teacher,” said Taji, without the traces of annoyance that Reiya felt at that moment. “Of course I can't show you my magic. I'm in human form.”
This simple statement prompted a chorus of ugly snorts.
“Oh yeah? Well change back and prove us wrong,” Jinba said through his fake laugh.
“I can't show you my fairy form unless you truly believe in me, and clearly you don't. Only true believers are worthy.”
Reiya was familiar with plenty of fairy rules – Taji kept her well-informed – but this time Jinba and the others didn't laugh right away. She found this very suspicious, and she narrowed her eyes at them.
“I thought fairies can't declare themselves,” Muka said.
“That's right, that's the rule,” Yogani piped in, proud to know something correct. “If you're a fairy, how come you can say it?”
Taji smiled benignly. “Because I'm the prince, of course,” he said. As he had explained to Reiya several years ago, Taji had few but precious memories of his true parents, the king and queen of the fairies. He couldn't remember why they had been forced to leave him in the care of humans, since he had been just a baby at the time. But he knew they watched over him from afar, and would return him to the fairy realm when he was ready to claim the throne. In the meantime, they had blessed him with the ability to proudly say who he was, even though he was hidden in human form.
Taji didn't gift the three dolts with his beautiful story; he was busy weaving another crown from dandelions and buttercups. “If you think the rules apply to fairy royalty, then you really don't know much at all about fairies,” he said.
“We know plenty,” Jinba said with a nasty grin. “Like when you capture a fairy and make it give up its treasure.”
“Yeah,” Yogani said, leaning down with wide eyes. “Gold.”
“What? It's not gold, they have to grant you a wish,” said Muka, frowning at Yogani.
Jinba looked annoyed. “No it isn't, it's eternal life.”
“Told you,” said Taji, going back to his work. Reiya was torn between amusement at the boys' confusion and exasperation at Taji's slightly smug tone.
“You know what?” said Jinba, turning back to Taji and massaging his balled fist. “Why don't we find out what you get when you make a fairy bleed,” he suggested.
Reiya sat up quietly. Taji didn't notice her move, though all the other boys moved an inch or two backwards.
“I wouldn't do that if I were you,” said Taji, perfectly calm. “I have the grace of the fairies, and it protects me wherever I go.”
Muka scowled his disbelief. “That's not true.”
It was sort of true, by Reiya's account. Taji either had fairy grace, or a certain amount of undeniable luck. She had seen him hop across riverbeds in bare feet without slipping. He had a way with animals, almost as though he spoke their language. Taji's peculiarities did attract unwanted attention from kids like Jinba, but they never managed to hurt him, in spirit nor in body. Reiya thought she had something to do with that particular bit of luck, though.
“It's okay if you don't understand,” said Taji, now threading the flowers into a loop. “It's not your fault. You're only humans. Maybe you should just go away now.”
“Why?” said Jinba, casting a brief glance at Reiya. “Because your sister thinks she's so tough with a big stick?”
Muka and Yogani chuckled. Reiya, whose big stick lay right beside her, saw Jinba's gaze flicker to Taji again. Bolstered by the laughter of his friends, Jinba reached for the crown on Taji's head.
Reiya's polished bamboo staff cracked him hard across the knuckles, a sudden barrier between Jinba's hand and Taji's face.
“Don't touch his flower,” Reiya said, as Jinba winced in shock and pain.
Taji rolled his eyes fondly. “It's a magnolia,” he said, still patient at Reiya's reluctance to learn the names of all his favourite flowers.
Jinba, who had bumped into Muka and Yogani, now looked as red as the mark on his hand. He tried to grab Reiya's staff. A few steps and swift strikes was all it took to knock the wind from his gut. While Jinba was doubled, Yogani and Muka reluctantly took their own swings. Reiya struck their kneecaps and ankles, and was rewarded with the sight of them hopping like bunnies along the path back into Kurona village.
“The grace of the fairies protects me,” Taji called after them, waving as they ran off.
“I protected you,” Reiya pointed out.
“Because the fairies knew you would when they brought me to the human world.”
Reiya sighed pretend annoyance as she sat down again and replaced her staff. “Why did they want to give me a brother who's so much trouble?”
“Because he makes you pretty crowns,” Taji said, raising the finished monstrosity of bursting yellow blossoms above Reiya's head. She fought him on this for five minutes until settling for a much simpler crown of braided willow branches. Taji managed to get a few dandelions tied to her staff, and Reiya pretended not to notice them until they made their way back to the farm in time for dinner.
Taji's and Reiya's parents, both human, had always trusted their offspring, fairy or not. They knew Reiya could protect Taji wherever they went. This meant that Reiya and Taji were often allowed to travel on their own, at least after their chores and homework were finished. Usually they stayed on the outskirts of Kurona, in case their father brought home extra sweet buns from the baker, or their mother wanted a fresh bouquet of wildflowers.
Once a year, though, Reiya and Taji went to the town of Mirabi to hunt for fairy treasure.
No one else in Mirabi was interested in such a task, since everyone knew perfectly well that the Wanderwood nearby was a dangerous place. Most people who ventured inside went mad or got lost and were never seen again. The Wanderwood was generally considered a place to be avoided at all costs - even if it was rumoured to conceal the path to the fairy realm. This, of course, was precisely why Taji begged to visit at the midpoint of summer. According to him, fairies passed into the human world from the Wanderwood on the longest night of the year. He was determined, therefore, to catch a glimpse of them as they did... or at least find the treasures they dropped during their passage.
The morning they were due to depart for Mirabi, Taji received a parcel wrapped in brown paper from the postman at the front gate.
“It must be from my parents!” Taji said, bouncing with excitement.
Reiya looked through the wrappings he had shredded, but there was no note. All they had contained was a ring of purple blossoms – a flower crown, like Taji loved to wear. He held it up with awe and delight, but Reiya snatched it out of his hand at once.
“I don't think you should wear this,” Reiya said, holding it out of his reach. Taji gave her a look like she had just kicked a baby animal. “They're creeping poppies,” she pointed out. “If it rains, you'll be snoring with your face in the mud no matter how much fairy grace you have.”
Taji didn't seem to hear her warning. “You do know your flowers!” he said, beaming with pride. “Look, I'll only wear it in sunny weather, okay? I promise I won't get it wet. Come on, Reiya. I've always wanted these, and it'll look so nice when we get to the Wanderwood. Please please please...”
Reiya frowned at the mysterious gift, but couldn't find a better reason not to let him have it. “Fine,” she relented, handing it over.
Taji hugged her in delight.
Once they had packed and said goodbye to their parents, Reiya and Taji headed off on their annual visit to the fairies. They didn't run into Jinba, Muka or Yogani on their way out of Kurona, as Reiya had worried they might. Instead, they reached the edge of the Wanderwood by late afternoon, and had plenty of time for treasure hunting.
Taji was in high spirits, skipping and twirling ahead, though never straying too far from Reiya. Even he knew she wouldn't let him enter the forest that stretched out for miles beside them, as innocuous as it looked from the outside. Through the shafts of bamboo that concealed the darkness inside, Reiya could spot the stone lanterns of the Wanderwood. They glowed with eternal flames, like single eyes winking at them from the shade.
“Maybe you'll find something too this time,” said Taji, walking backwards so that he could face her. He adjusted his crown of creeping poppies, still grinning about it.
“I don't think so,” Reiya replied. “I don't have your luck.”
Reiya never looked too hard for fairy treasure in the first place, but Taji had an incredible knack for discovering small wonders, like stones with crystals in them, or brightly coloured feathers. He had already found a spiral shell so far.
“I wish they would show themselves,” Taji mused, twirling the shell between his fingers. “Just once. I hope they haven't forgotten about me.”
“I think you're pretty memorable.”
“Thank you! My loyal and trustworthy knight. I will throw a feast in your honour,” Taji said, throwing out his arms in welcome.
Reiya kept one hand on her staff as Taji hopped around, darting a little too close to the tree line. “Careful,” she warned. “We're not going in there.”
“I wasn't going in. I'm just showing you the path to my realm. When the time is right, we can go there together.”
Reiya fell into step beside her brother and bumped him a few times as they walked. “I dunno. I'm not sure the fairies would accept me. I'm so human.”
“Yeah, but you're my sister, so I don't mind,” said Taji. “Besides, you'd have to come. You couldn't bear the thought of living without me.”
“Yeah right,” Reiya said as Taji hooked his arm into hers and laughed.
“Haha, you looove-”
Before he could finish, a cold splash of water hit Reiya hard in the face. Shocked and spluttering, she whirled around to see where it had come from, but the water blurred her eyes. She sensed Taji beside her, equally drenched and staggering in surprise. More than surprise, in fact.
“Taji?” she said, as she watched him sink to the grass and slump over. A sickly sweet scent crept up on her as she leaned over him, and in a moment, she collapsed into a deep sleep by his side.