“Grace,” the drunk fairy said, “is by far the best of the blessings.”
She was drunk because her hostess, who herself had been blessed with hospitality—and a reasonably wealthy husband—had spent the months before her first child’s birth in a fever of preparations, determined to obtain at least one blessing for her own offspring. She had brewed her own fairy wine out of blackberries and wild elderflowers that she and her ladies had picked in the woods, pricking many a finger in the process, and she had coaxed her husband to keep hunting until he managed to get three dozen pure white rabbits—“In winter!” he’d complained in exasperation—which had been stewed and baked into an elaborate pie. On the side of the room, the servants could be observed making the preparations to serve the final course, a fine white cake using a recipe of her own devising, made from fresh-laid eggs and newly churned butter, and dressed with candied flowers and even a ring of preserved orange slices. Even by fairy standards, it was an exceptional meal.
The fairy repeated, “By far,” the remark delivered as a challenge, as she sat down again somewhat wobbly at the high table, and held out her wineglass to be refilled: she had just finished bestowing that very blessing on the small girl in the crib at the head of the room, and now could sit back to her meal in full enjoyment, with the smug consciousness of having amply repaid her hostess. Grace might not have been the most dramatic of the blessings, but it was indeed highly valued, being exceptionally open to interpretation, and rarely given to any child of such low rank—the mother was the daughter of a mere knight, and the father, despite his reasonable wealth, only a baron.
The five other fairies scowled at her. They too were all drunk and well fed, and the meal in their bellies was taking on the sour heaviness of an unpaid debt. They had all brought trinkets for the baby, of course, all the gifts that could formally be expected by a low nobleman—which was why six of them had been invited in hopes of getting at least one blessing—but the feast had also exceeded what could formally be expected for their having deigned to grace the occasion. They could hardly refuse the cake, either—and didn’t want to—and would have a lingering sense of a favor owed.
“Nonsense,” a second fairy said. (I cannot, of course, tell you their names.) “Nonsense! Grace, for the child of a baron! Putting the cart before the horse.” She pushed her own chair back and heaved herself out of it, marched up to the crib, and announced loudly, “Ever may this child’s hands run bright with gold, and all the coffers of her house swell with riches!” She returned to the table and surveyed the others with a smugly superior lift to her chin. “Now that’s a proper blessing.”
She too held her glass out for more wine as a low pleased murmuring went around the room. Two blessings made a remarkable haul for a child of this rank, and wealth in particular was rarely given. It was too valuable to those who didn’t have it—who often couldn’t afford to properly feast fairies anyway—and too redundant to those who’d acquired it without mystical help. But at this rank of nobility, nothing could have been more ideal. The mother was beaming and delighted, already thinking of the excellent match her twice-blessed daughter would surely make, and the father not only delighted but relieved; he’d spent considerably more than he’d wanted to on the celebration, and he’d been worrying about how he’d repay the coin he’d borrowed to do it. But no one now would hesitate to lend money to him, and at very good rates. Even the guests smiled sincerely, rather than with envy; the parents, not being very important, had invited their friends and not their enemies to the christening of their child. The occasion had gone from ordinarily happy to auspicious, and all the company were pleased to be present. The musicians struck up another song with enthusiasm—rightfully expecting better tips—as the happy father waved a hand to them.
“Oh, wealth’s all well and good,” said the third, from out of the depths of her dark cloak. She was a shadowed fairy, and rather alarming even to her companions, but she lived nearer the father’s house than any of the others, in a deep cave somewhere up in the mountains. The baron had known better than to slight her, of course, but his lady had gone beyond that, and sent the invitation with a personal note written in her own hand that they very much hoped to have the pleasure of her company, and a small package of sweetmeats. It was not the traditional sort of courting sent to shadowed fairies—the kind of lord who really wanted their attendance was more likely to send a gift of the knucklebones of plague victims—but the sweetmeats had been carefully made with rotted walnuts and pig’s blood, and at the feast, the fairy had discreetly been served a plate of raw calves’ liver dressed with a sauce of nightshade on a plate of tarnished silver. She had refused the fairy wine, but the hostess had quickly had a word with her steward, and a great goblet of steaming beef blood fresh from a newly slaughtered ox had been brought to the table, laced heavily with old brandy, and the fairy had drunk the entire thing down.
She now covered her mouth and belched out a thin trail of smoke. “Well and good indeed,” she went on, “until someone takes it from you,” and rose from the table in turn.
A hush descended as she went to the baby, her footsteps ringing ominously loud, and the parents began to look anxious: even if she hadn’t been a shadowed fairy, three blessings was a little inappropriate for anything other than royalty. They looked still more anxious when the fairy stretched out a grey withered hand over the crib and intoned, “Let power come easily to her hand and there remain, and to her come dominion over the realms of men!”
The hush became silence. Three blessings was extravagant anyway, and power was a gift bestowed far more rarely even than wealth, as it involved a significant risk for the fairy in question. If two people blessed with the gift of power ever confronted one another, one fairy gift or the other would likely be proven false. (While I am not entirely certain what would happen to the losing fairy in this situation, I am assured it would be unpleasant.)
The remaining fairies could have left things well enough alone here, and should have, but as the shadowed fairy slouched deep into her seat again, she issued a small snort. “There, what’s better than that? I’m surprised none of you twittering lot slapped a pretty face on her.”
Fairies enjoy being taunted roughly as much as do boys of twelve, and respond with as much maturity. The fourth fairy—who had just polished off her eighth glass of wine—sneered in heavy sarcasm, “Why would anyone do that? She’d be better off ugly as you instead!”
She instantly covered her mouth as the whole room gasped, but it was too late; the gift had flown. The mother made an abortive move towards the crib, her face falling, and the fairy looked abashed and guilty beneath the many censorious looks thrown her way. Looking around for a solution, she pointedly elbowed the fifth fairy, a spring fairy who would be half-asleep for another two months anyway and under the influence was snoring gently away with her mound of grey-brown hair, dressed elaborately with vines of ivy, beginning to slide comprehensively off her head. “Wha?” the fifth fairy said.
“There’s nothing like being strikingly ugly,” the fourth fairy said, urgently, a hint that would have worked just fine on a fairy about half as drunk as this one.
“Go on, listen to you!” the soused fairy said groggily. “Strength! That’s the best of them, everyone knows. Strength to the babe!” she added firmly, groping for her glass and toasting it in the crib’s direction vigorously enough to splatter.
There was another round of gasps, broken up this time by tittering. The shadowed fairy shook with malicious cackles and the fourth fairy, glad to shift guilt over, snatched up a napkin and swatted the fifth, abusing her as the ivy came off the rest of the way. “You green-headed leaf peeper! Strength, for a girl! Get under the table with you!” as the first two fairies looked on and shook their heads in righteous disapproval.
Her twin sister, sitting on the other side, took offense both at the attack on her sister and at leaf peeper. “Much you should talk, handing out ugliness!” she said. “What’s wrong with strength? Strong let her be, and see which does her more good, our gift or yours!”
“No, thank you,” Magda said, graciously, and tuned out the formalities as the very relieved duke’s son looked up—the first time he’d actually looked her in the face—and begged her to reconsider.
A doubled gift made all the others lean towards it; she couldn’t have any of the ugliness of ill-health, only the ugliness of brute strength. That was the only thing anyone saw when they looked at her, that she could pick them up and break them in half like giants did when mounted knights got too close, shelling them like lobsters. None of her features were ugly enough to stand out, none were nice to look at, and all together they made a bad painting without enough colors. But the proposals came anyway: she was destined to be rich and powerful, and she had six fairy godmothers looking after her interests.
She repeated her refusal, he gratefully promised not to trouble her any longer, and took himself away in a hurry. She had been left alone in the garden with him; as soon as he left, she tossed the embroidery hoop aside onto the bench and went to the back wall. She’d left her old bow and spare quiver there, tucked at the base behind a shrub. She slung them on, then jumped for the top, caught it easily and pulled herself easily over, and was free from her chaperone for the rest of the afternoon, which was the reason she’d agreed to entertain the proposal in the first place. She felt a little sorry for having alarmed the duke’s son, who’d been decently polite about his courting, but at least she hadn’t made him worry for long, and her mother would have made a worried fuss, otherwise.
She didn’t risk her freedom by going to the stables for a horse. She jumped the moat behind the garden wall and jogged along the dusty track up into the Blackstrap Mountains on foot instead. It was a nice autumn afternoon, and only seven miles or so. It had been almost a year since the last time she’d managed to escape—her mother had kept closer reins on her since her sixteenth birthday—but she still knew the way. She stopped in the orchards to pick a good apple for herself to munch, and a few wormy and wizened ones to tuck into her good skirt, which she’d already tied up around her waist.
“I brought you some spoiled apples, Godmama,” she said, poking into the mountain cave. “Withered and worm-eaten on the branch.”
The shadowed fairy grunted in approval from the depths of the cave where she was stirring something noxious. “Put them on the bench there. What have you been doing with yourself all this time?”
“Courting,” Magda said succinctly, folding herself down onto the floor so she wouldn’t knock her head on the roof of the cave.
“Oh, courting. Well?”
“I sent one away today,” Magda said. “I don’t remember his name. The Duke of Edgebarren’s oldest son.”
“Oh, a duke,” the fairy said dismissively. “Don’t you bother with a duke. He’ll give himself the credit of it, when he gets anywhere, even if it’s all your doing. Make it a knight or make it a king, that’s my advice to you—if you do mean to saddle yourself with any of them.”
She peered out of the hood, making it a question; her face was hidden too deep in the cowl to make out her features, but the cave mouth made a gleam of reflection in her eyes.
Magda considered: the duke’s son made seventeen. Her mother was growing anxious, but Magda hadn’t seen much to choose from among them. The ones whose ambitious fathers had sent them, who mumbled through their proposals without looking at her at all; the ones who put on false smiles as they looked up at her and pretended they liked feeling the weight of her hand in theirs as they led her through a dance. There had been a knight, and there had been a king, and neither of them saw anything to like when they looked at her, because the only strength they wanted in their house was their own.
Well, it had been a blessing, after all.
“I don’t,” she said, with decision.
“Just as well,” the fairy said, nodding, and put down her stirring ladle. “You’d better come into the back, then. You’ll be wanting a sword.”
(Editors’ Note: “Blessings” is read by Stephanie Malia Morris on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast Episode 22A.)
© 2018 by Naomi Novik