Alice ducked down in her chair, the future forgotten, as Mother came at her with a ladle.
Oh, she would be sleeping with the pigs tonight.
MORE CHAPTERS THIS WAY
The pigs weren’t so bad. They were warm and shared their straw and made little pig noises that helped Alice relax. She pulled her only two finks from her pocket and snapped one in half, saving the other, and suddenly the pigs smelled of fresh lemons and glass apples and soon there was nothing at all to be bothered by. The night was warm and fragrant, the sky sneaking through a few broken boards in the roof. The twinkles looked merry enough, but the planets were the true stars tonight: bright spots of color seducing the sky. Six hundred and thirty-two planets dotted Alice’s upside-down vision, spinning their bangles just as she spun hers.
Her two arms were bangles and bangles from elbow to wrist, her ankles similarly adorned. She’d collected these bangles from all over, from most every market in every neighborhill she’d ever climbed into. She’d traveled the whole of Ferenwood after Father left, knocking on door after door, asking anyone and everyone where he might’ve gone.
Anyone and everyone had a different answer.
All anyone knew was that Father took nothing but a ruler when he left, so some said he’d gone to measure the sea. Others said the sky. The moon. Maybe he’d learned to fly and had forgotten how to come back down. She never said this to Mother, but Alice often wondered whether he hadn’t planted himself back into the ground to see if maybe he’d sprout taller this time.
She touched her circlets of gold and silver and stone. Mother gave her three finks every month and she always spent one on a bangle. They weren’t worth much to anyone but her, and that made them even more precious; Father had been the one to give her the first bangle—just before he left—and for every month he stayed gone, Alice added another to her collection.
This week, she would have thirty-eight altogether.
Maybe, she thought, her eyes heavy with sleep, her bangles would help Father find her. Maybe he would hear her looking for him. She was sure that if he listened closely, he would hear her dancing for him to come home.
And then she rolled over, and began to dream.
Now, while our young Alice is sleeping, let us make quick work of important details.
First: The magic of Ferenwood required no wands or potions you might recognize; no incantations, not really. Ferenwood was, simply stated, a land rich in natural resources, chief among them: color and magic. It was a very small, very old village in the countryside of Fennelskein, and as no one ever went to Fennelskein (a shame, really; it’s quite lovely in the summers), the people of Ferenwood had always kept to themselves, harvesting color and magic from the air and earth and building an entire system of currency around it. There’s quite a lot to say on the history and geography of Ferenwood, but I shouldn’t like to tell you more than this, lest I spoil our story too soon.
Second: Every citizen of Ferenwood was born with a bit of magical talent, but anything more than that cost money, and Alice’s family had little extra. Alice herself had never had more than a few finks, and she’d always stared longingly at other children, pockets full of stoppicks, choosing from an array of treats in shop windows.
Tonight, Alice was dreaming of the dillypop she would purchase the following day. (To be clear, Alice had no idea she’d be purchasing a dillypop the following day, but we have ways of knowing these things.) Dillypops were a favorite—little cheekfuls of grass and honeycomb—and just this once she wouldn’t care that they’d cost her the remainder of her savings.
It was there, nestled up with the pigs, dreaming of sugar, skirts up to her ears and bangled ankles resting on a nearby stool, that Alice heard the voice of the boy with the chest.
He said something like “hello” or “how do you do” (I can’t quite remember), and Alice was too irritated by the interruption to remember to be afraid. She sighed loudly, face still turned up at the planets, and pinched her eyes shut. “I would not like to punch and kick you again,” she said, “so if you would please carry on your way, I’d be much obliged.”
“I can see your underwear,” he said. Rudely.
Alice jumped up, beet-red and mortified. She nearly kicked a pig on her way up and when she finally managed to gather herself, she tripped on a slop bucket and fell backward against the wall.
“Who are you?” she demanded, all the while trying to remember where she’d left the shovel.
Alice heard a pair of fingers snap and soon the shed was full of light, glowing as if caught in a halo. She spotted the shovel immediately, but just as she was crafting a plan to grab it, the boy offered it to her of his own accord.
She took it from him.
His face was oddly familiar. Alice squinted at him in the light and held the sharp end of the shovel up to his chin.
“Who are you?” she asked again angrily. Then, “And can you teach me how you did that just now? I’ve been trying to snaplight for years and it’s never worked for m—”
“Alice.” He cut her off with a laugh. Shook his head. “It’s me.”
She blinked, then gaped at him.
“Father?” she gasped.
Alice looked him up and down, dropping the shovel in the process. “Oh but Father you’ve gotten so much younger since you left—I’m not sure Mother will be pleased—”
“Alice!” The perhaps-stranger laughed again and grabbed Alice’s arms, fixing her with a straight stare. His skin was a warm brown and his eyes were an alarming shade of blue, almost violet. He had a very straight nose and a very nice mouth and very nice eyebrows and very excellent cheekbones and hair the color of silver herring and he looked nothing at all like Father.
She grabbed her shovel again.
“Impostor!” Alice cried. She lifted the shovel above her head, ready to break it over his skull, when he caught her arms again. He was a bit (a lot) taller than her, which made it easy for him to intimidate her, but she wasn’t yet ready to admit defeat.