Lightfingers – chapter 1

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Chapter 1

Children are always nervous when they approach me. They move, one step at a time, closer and closer, eyes wide, mouths open in awe. Sometimes the braver ones will get close enough to touch before they run giggling back to their parents.

It’s not very surprising when you think about it. At that age everything is possible, all the magic stories they’re told at bedtime are real to them. Somewhere out there is a white witch or an evil giant or a pretty fairy. When they see me up here on my podium they think I’m a statue of that fairy, all wings, pixie boots and glitter.

Of course the funny thing is, they’re only half wrong.

I work the tourist crowds at Covent Garden, alongside all the other human statues in London. Admittedly, there’s a fair few who take themselves across the Thames to the Southbank, but I’ve never been a fan of the cold wind that rises off the river. I like the shelter provided by the old market halls and surrounding shops. Plus the company here is better.

Out of the corner of my eye I watch as Bob, the oldest and most experienced of all the statue crew, starts his mechanical movements. Today he’s the nutcracker prince in full regalia, a costume he generally saves for Yule. The shops around us haven’t yet put up their Christmas decorations, but I’m sure they’ll be in place before the week is out. Bob’s generally a good weather vane for the mood of the crowd, and if he’s broken out the seasonal gear, it might be time for me to add tinsel to my wings.

Bob marches five steps forward, then five steps back, looking for all the world like a Buck House guardsman, painted-on red cheeks and the large clockwork key sticking out of his back not withstanding. The crowds here love him, and while he’s an old hand at extracting coins from delighted children and doting parents, but he’s not egotistical about it, and is always willing to stand the first round. He’s the closest thing I have to a human friend.

Ah, yes, catch that did you? Well as I said, the children are only half wrong – I might not be a statue, but I’m certainly a fairy. Even if these wings I’m wearing are just part of the costume, the blood that runs through my veins is nowhere near human.

Yes, you heard that right. I’m Fae. One of the wee folk. A fairy.

No, not the type of fairy that’s two inches tall with butterfly wings. Or one that turns pumpkins into carriages in some bedtime story that really did used to be a whole lot bloodier before you humans got all civilised.

I’m the kind of fairy that lives in the shadows and tempts weary travellers into hidden pitfalls and unseen traps. The kind that delights in shiny baubles and will pluck out those big bright eyes of yours to wear as jewellery.

The nasty kind. The untrustworthy kind. The real kind.

There’s more to fairies than wings and magic dust. We’re malicious and deceitful and there’s not a single Fae race that can be brought back to life by applause.

I’m a Pixie, which makes me a thief by blood and clan and training. My full and formal name is Elenor Bernice Roe Alpam of the Lightfingers clan.

But you can call me Leni.

A little girl with blonde hair and big green eyes moves towards me. She was nervous of Bob, hiding behind her mother’s leg when he moved, but she’s drawn to me. I wonder absently if I look like the heroine of one of her favourite books or just some vision she’s conjured up in her head of what a fairy should look like. I worked really hard on my costume to try and fit in as many fairy stereotypes as possible without becoming a cliche, and it does seem to work, especially on little girls.

A human once told me that to be a proper fairy I should be wearing pink.

I have never worn pink in my life.

Instead I chose a light brown velvet tunic, embroidered along the edges with four different shades of green thread in a leaf pattern. I found my silver leggings going cheap in a charity store, someone’s old clubbing gear discarded, but they go well with my old pixie boots. A belt made up of leaf shaped bits of leather pulls the tunic in tightly around my waist, but also serves as the anchor point for the bottom of the wing mechanism I wear on my back. I let my long pale hair hang loose and I smear glitter make-up on all visible skin.

And here I am, a fairy statue.

My Fae friends appreciate the irony. Though they think the wings are a bit much.

My clan has never had the power of flight – only the smallest of us do, and though I’m short by human standards, five foot is a respectable stature in Fayre, and far too large to leave the ground. But I couldn’t resist these wings. After all, you humans think all fairies have wings, don’t you?

Mine are made from fourteen layers of gossamer thread and the thinnest, most delicate material, stretched over silver wire. They truly are a work of art. I really should have offered my flatmate Ferghus a bigger favour for making them. He took the time to balance them carefully, building a mechanism so that when I flex the muscles in my back they move too, beating like the butterfly wings they pretend to be.

It takes a lot of concentration to move only one set of muscles while staying incredibly still, but I’m an old hand at it now, and I watch as the little girl’s face lights up at the sight.

“Mummy! Mummy!” she shrieks, and the crowd around her lock on the sound and notice me.

Several other children break from the parental ranks to stand before me, staring up with wondrous expressions. I hold myself still (occasionally flexing my back muscles to keep the wings moving) for half a minute more until there are six little faces within touching distance. Then I pivot on one foot and sweep myself around in a bow, lifting one hand to my mouth and blowing glitter over the heads of my tiny observers.

The children shriek with joy, some running back to their parents. The little blonde girl stays, giggling as glitter falls around her. A woman, her mother presumably, comes up behind her and presses a coin into her hand. The mother whispers in her ear and the girl suddenly turns shy.

She takes one step towards me, then another. I’m holding still now, not even the wings on my back moving.

She drops a pound coin into the hat on the cobblestones – I can see the grubby gold glitter from here. That really is remarkable generous, most of the time I’m lucky to get silver pieces, or copper scraps, those gold pound coins are worth their weight in, well, gold.

The second the coin hits the hat, I turn again, bringing around my other hand to wave, then freezing into a new stance.

A few more coins drop into the hat, but I don’t look away from the girl. She’s back against her mother’s leg, but she’s smiling, not afraid. Her mother reaches down, takes her hand, starts walking, but the girl is reluctant to move.

I wink at her, closing the eye furthest away from the rest of the crowd, a gesture just for her, and her grin widens for a second before she’s pulled away and is gone.

I hear the dull sounds of more coins hitting my hat, so I twist into a new pose facing the rest of the crowd. I’ll hold their attention for another two minutes, three at the most, then I’ll let them move on, either to Bob if they’re headed north, or down into the main plaza where I can hear the sounds of musicians and maybe even a street magician.

There’s an etiquette to this work; don’t hog the crowd. We all work together, in our own separate ways.

Being Fae gives me a few advantages over my mortal colleagues; I didn’t have to train myself not to blink, I just have to remember to cast a glamour so the crowd doesn’t notice. Sometimes I even cast a large enough illusion to leave the crowd convinced I’m still up there on my podium when instead I’m off round a corner taking a well deserved break or grabbing a swift half in a nearby pub.

This wasn’t the job I trained for. I was raised a thief – pick-pocketing lessons from birth, lock-picks before I could walk, but the sad truth is that’s actually quite difficult to make a living from petty theft these days, especially out here among the humans. I may have the most subtle hands in all the Seven Realms, but when all you humans carry is plastic and microchips, it doesn’t matter how many pockets I pick, I still go home hungry. And I hate being hungry.

But there are other ways to get what you want from the mob. Entertain them.

It’s been a long day and I can see other statues arriving to take advantage of the soon to arrive evening crowds. No one’s looking at me right now, so it’s as good a time as any to step out of character and call it a day.

“Pub tonight, Leni?”

I smile up at Bob, down from his pitch and grinning widely.

“No thanks, Bob,” I reply, ” too tired today.”

“Another time then,” he nods, and moves on to the next of us, a bronze painted student from Brighton who really should have considered the addition of some bronze painted thermal underwear for her statue costume. Paint is hardly enough insulation for London in the Autumn.

I unbuckle my belt, then reach around to undo the hidden buttons that hold my tunic closed under the wings. Once undone I slide the jacket off over my head, revealing the straps holding my wings in place. It’s a cold enough evening that the tunic goes back on as soon as I’ve got them off but I take my time to un-clip and flatten down the wings into the carry case which also serves as my podium. My gossamer wings are delicate, and the newly arrived cold wind could do much damage to them before it manages to turn my skin tone any bluer than it already is.

I drop into the market and use a few of the day’s coins to buy fruit and chocolate. Ferghus is a slave to chocolate, though my tastes run more to dried cranberries and raisins.

Whenever a day is as successful as this one I try to show my appreciation for his creation. It’s the little things that are the most important.

I don’t go far, just enough to be sure I’m alone, then I slide into a dark corner in a side street in the centre of town and step out ten yards from my front door. Who needs public transport when you can walk through Shadow?

My heart is light as I take the short trip home but when I spy my front door my blood runs cold.

A sigil painted in starlight shines out from the cracked green paint of the door panels.

A human wouldn’t notice it even if they looked, but any passing Fae could see what’s there, at least to some degree. I would like to say this isn’t intended for me but as I draw closer I can feel the sigil react and shine even brighter, making it impossible to ignore. It’s mine alright.

My call to audience, for some task, duty or quest. A summons from High Lord Apdeth, Lord of the City.

I have no choice. I owe too much to too many, and should I walk from Apdeth’s service I’ll be back watching my blood run out across the floor. Entering Apdeth’s employ was the best of the several bad options I had at the time, but it’s not anything I would have volunteered for. It’s an obligation, a tax, a tithe, not an honour. One of these days it will get me killed.

Steeling myself, I walk to the door. At this range there’s no denying the sigil’s effect on body. My heart pounds in my ears and I can almost feel my blood flowing faster through my veins. I open the door long enough to slip my carry case inside, and glance around to ensure no humans are in sight. But I’m entirely and completely alone, and out of reasons to delay.

And so with a deep breath I place my hand on Apdeth’s sigil and let myself be drawn through his power into Fayre.

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