Ewa and the Last Changeling
Ewa withdrew her blade from the chest of the Tsarina. Blood spilled from the wound, staining the pearlescent tiles of the observatory's floor like cinnamon splashed over milk. She wiped the blade on her white assassin's cloak and then sheathed it, knowing that it would never draw blood again.
Ewa looked skyward. Waves crested in violent arcs; a storm was coming. Through the open dome of the observatory, Ewa watched fishing dirigibles draw in their nets, their captured fish shimmering like jewels, and it made Ewa feel lost. They - the fishermen, the sky-farers, the merchants, the artisans, the technocrats - would have cause for celebration when they learned the Unseelie Clan had been destroyed. They would live productive lives filled with joy and empty of fear. But Ewa - along with the rest of the noble trolls - would be useless, for a world at peace needs no warriors or poets. Ewa would have no purpose.
As she rose, Ewa heard the whimpering of a small child coming from behind the telescope's chair. So she strode across the observatory and craned her neck. The child was undoubtedly human, as small as a chochling but with round eyes and ears. Ewa sighed and hoisted the girl onto her shoulders. Human children, she'd been told by other trolls, were helpless and curious. They got into things they weren't supposed to, and then you'd have to track them down.
"Calm yourself. You must be returned to your home," Ewa said as the child wriggled like an earthworm. The first drops of rain were rising from the ground, dimpling the skysea overhead. It would be pouring by the time they left the Unseelie compound.
"Home?" the girl whined, kicking her heels against Ewa's chest. "Is Mommy gonna wake up?" Ewa followed the girl's gaze to the rumpled corpse of the Tsarina. Wodniks were some of the ugliest fae, Ewa thought, but the Tsarina's face was serene. Her eyes were open, and a long smile was stretched across her bloated frog face.
Poor child. She thought the Tsarina was her mother. At least the child hadn't seen Ewa kill the Tsarina. If that were the case, the girl would have run away by now.
"We must get you to your real home, where you belong." The doors of the observatory slid open, and Ewa walked through the compound. Bodies littered the hallways - Seelie and Unseelie alike - only identifiable by the color of their uniforms and the insignia on their battle rifles.
"Where's Damon? And Madison? And Cookie?" the girl asked. "I don't wanna go! I don't wanna! I don't wanna! I don't..." The girl pounded her fists on Ewa's head, but Ewa didn't flinch as she carried the screaming child out into the rain.
It was worse than Ewa expected. The lawn outside the compound was piled with bodies bent into impossible positions. Rusałka-dragons lay motionless on the ground, their wires splaying out from gashes in their synthetic skin, and the street was heaped with the shells of tanks - scrap metal, now. Raindrops struggled as they escaped from the ground, rolling off corpses and shooting skyward, tinged red with blood.
"We will have to walk," Ewa said. "My dragon is dead."
The girl rubbed tears from her eyes and thrust her hands in Ewa's face. "I'm wet," she said. The girl had never cried before and didn't know what the tears were, but Ewa misinterpreted her statement. Ewa ripped her cloak from her armor and wrapped the child in it. "Here. This will keep the rain off you." The girl protested at first, but by the time they reached the Seelie palace, she was asleep, bobbing peacefully on Ewa's shoulders.
"You return," Imber said, spinning its head-wheel to its 'delighted' face. Imber held this face until Ewa closed her eyes and nodded somberly. Imber rose from its throne, and its head-wheel spun to its 'lugubrious' face: bags under its eyes and a frown that looked like a child's depiction of a bird in flight - two gently curved lines for wings. "You are the only survivor, Ewa?"
"Yes, your highness."
"But... the Tsarina? Is she... did you...?"
"Dead," Ewa said, and spat on the floor. Imber's face spun back to 'delighted,' edging on 'suspicious.' Each of the head-wheel's faces shared eyes with the faces next to it, so that the left eye of one face became the right eye of another, and the right eye became the left eye of the face on the other side. Though Ewa rarely looked directly at Imber - she was usually bowed in the monarch's presence - the head-wheel reminded her of a chain, links interlocking together. Emotion in perfect order. "I have the Tsarina's personal changeling, your highness." Ewa peeled back a corner of the silkweave cloak she was carrying in her arms, revealing a peek of the human girl's sleeping face.
"Tell me... were there any other changeling prisoners in the compound?" Imber asked.
Ewa had not seen any other human children. Not alive, anyway. There had been small bodies mixed in with the bodies of the fae. Collateral damage. "She is the last of them, I'm afraid."
"Splendid! How wonderful." Imber's head-wheel rotated half a face. "It will be quite a note of finality when she is returned home, then. The war is over, the Unseelie Clan is no more, and the last of their ill-gotten children will be returned to the humans' world." Imber clapped its hands and settled back into its throne. It smoothed its cravat. "Tell me... what is the child's name?"
"I...I..." Ewa stammered. "I don't know, your highness."
"Well, she is the last changeling. 'Last' shall be her name." Imber nodded approvingly. "Oh, what a grand parade there will be when Last is sent through the Skein. Peace at last! Peace at Last!" Imber giggled at its pun, its head-wheel still spinning like a carousel to reach its 'jesting' face.
"Who will shepherd the child, your highness?"
"Ewa, my dear," Imber said, face turned to 'dumbfounded', "you will have the honor, of course."
Ewa had never shepherded a changeling before. Normally, one of her fellow trolls would scoop up the human prisoners and spirit them away from harm while she charged into the fray once more. But this wasn't normal. The war was over, and Ewa was the only survivor left on the battlefield. So the burden of Last was hers to bear.
"Your will be done, your highness," Ewa said. But she was thinking of what would become of her when she finished her task, and the trolls' poems and songs faded into legend and myth.
Imber had given Ewa a new rusałka-dragon so her journey to the Skein would be quicker and unmolested by the rain. Imber also gave her a Skein sack - a monomolecular "bag" made of cold iron, as this was the only method of transporting human children back through the Skein without killing them.
Wind rushed through Ewa's hair, and the smell of sea salt - heavy and bitter - tinged the air. She was flying high, just below the sea, and Last was awake and beaming. The child stared wide-eyed at the water, whipping her head back each time she spotted a fish or a cluster of jetsam, only to return her gaze to the water ahead of them, in search of new everyday wonders.
"Tell me a story," Last said.
"We don't have time for stories." Ewa pulled the child closer to her body, afraid that Last's constant lilting would send her plummeting to the ground. "Please stay in the saddle."
Last harrumphed. "Mommy always told me stories."
"I have to take you home. That is more important right now."
"No," Last chimed. "You just don't know any stories."
Ewa wasn't about to let the taunting of a child distract her from her duty. "I know plenty of stories. Trolls are very good at telling stories, if you must know."
Last nodded vigorously, and her pigtails bounced like springs. "Uh huh, I must!"
A sigh escaped Ewa's mouth. If she had time, she would've told Last a story. It would, at the very least, give Ewa a sense of usefulness that she could cling onto before peace settled into place. But they were quickly approaching the Skein.
"Hold on tight," Ewa said. "We're about to land."
The rusałka-dragon folded its wings, resting them after the flight, and recharged its power core. Ewa had dismounted and paced toward the Skein's edge. It was still raining, heavier now.
With Last on her shoulders, wrapped in the white assassin's cloak, Ewa knelt at the edge of the Skein and peered into it - a canyon that was both endless and bottomless. Twisting webs of clouds that looked like gray yarn hung motionless in the canyon. The web was chaotic; there was no order to the clouds' arrangement, just a tangled mass of untouchable vapor trails that stretched on forever.
"What are those?" Last asked, pointing to the pinpricks of light trapped inside the cloud-web of the Skein. There were billions of them, and they glimmered; at one moment they were bright white flares, and at the next they were black spots limned with deep violet and blue.
"Those are humans," Ewa said, scanning the ceaseless canyon, honing in on faint pulses of energy, searching.
"What're they doing? Why do they glow white like that?"
"What're you doing?"
"I'm trying," Ewa said slowly, listening to the song of the dreamers, "to find your parents."
Last puffed her cheeks with air and crossed her arms. "That's not a very good story. Mommy would've told me a better story."
"Last," Ewa sighed. "Mommy had to go to sleep... for a very long time." Ewa didn't know how best to explain the concept of death to the child, and she felt silly. Fae children were born with more developed minds. "Mommy won't be able to tell you stories anymore, but you'll have a new Mommy. You'll have a new home. Do you understand?" Last nodded reluctantly, and Ewa rolled her eyes at the hypocrisy of her explanation to the child; Last wasn't going to a new home. She was going to her original home.
As Ewa continued to search the Skein, Last twisted her fingers in Ewa's hair and hummed a lullaby. It was off-pitch, but it was soothing and it gave Ewa something she could use as resonance to find Last's parents amidst the song of the dreamers, a kind of pitch-pipe to match the girl with the family.
"There," Ewa said as she stood. She was focused on a point of light fading from white to indigo-rimmed black. "Do not run off while I verify the dreamer." And Ewa closed her eyes.
The tangles of clouds lashed at her, like brambles, as she channeled her consciousness deep into the Skein. Dust and smoke and vapor and dreamers whirled around her, whipped through her. It was unsettling - like stepping onto solid ground after spending a long time on a skyship - but Ewa was resolute. She didn't have Skein legs like the shepherds had. She wasn't accustomed to this. But she consoled herself knowing that this would be the only time she'd have to Skein-scry.
She viewed the human world through a spider. There would be perspective shifts, she knew, but for now she was on the ceiling of a living room. On the carpeted floor below her, there were dishes of half-eaten moldy food, heaps of stained clothing, and the stench of filth and despair. Also on the floor, a woman. The dreamer. She had a needle in her hands and clouds in her eyes, and she moaned as a fractal of light opened up and moved across the carpet. A man walked into the room, and he closed the door, banishing the light as quickly as it came.
"Get up, you lazy bitch," the man said as he kicked the woman. Her muffled protests were incomprehensible, drowned out by the man's shouting and the whir of the ceiling fan. Ewa shifted perspectives, her consciousness pulling through itself like an inside-out shirt sleeve being turned right-side out. She was a cockroach now. She could hear the woman better from the floor.
"Where were you all night?" the woman asked, face in the carpet.
"I've been gone two nights... but you woulda known that if you weren't so damn high all the time." The man kicked her in the face. "Look at me when I'm talking!"
Is this the right place? Where is the counterpart changeling? Ewa wondered. Again, her perspective shifted, and she was a moth, dangling on the lapel of a jacket. It was dark, darker than the living room, but a thin crack of light stretched across the floor, and muffled noises seeped into the closet as well: the faint murmur of the man cursing, and the susurrus sobs of the woman crying. Sitting next to a broken vacuum cleaner, with her knees drawn under her chin, was Last. Last's eyes were closed, and she was trembling, listening to screams, wails, and cracking bones, waiting for it to end. Waiting at the edge of a nightmare.
A moment drifted by like a prayer, and the closet door swung open. Though light flooded the closet, Last was circumscribed by the shadow of the man who was standing in the doorway.
"You," he growled. "What're you doing in here?" And he dragged Last out of the closet by her hair.
But it wasn't Last. Not really. Ewa knew that the child in the closet was a synthsimp, an enchanted android made to mimic the human it replaced in every way. It was a decoy, created by the Unseelie technocrats, and nothing more than metal and magic.
Knowing this didn't make Ewa feel any better.
The rain had stopped when Ewa opened her eyes. Sunlight coalesced around her, but the reality of what she'd seen - in the humans' world - sunk its claws into Ewa. Was it all like that? Was everything so dismal? So malicious?
Perhaps not, but Ewa felt a lump in her throat that was painful and needy. Ewa knew that if she scryed into more homes of stolen changelings, she'd see more. She didn't want to see any more.
"Tell me, Last," Ewa said. "What's the first thing you can remember? Think way, way back."
Last bounced on Ewa's shoulders. "You mean when me and Cookie made sweet root soup?" She giggled. "Or when me and Madison played dress-up in Mommy's clothes? That was fun!"
Of course the child wouldn't remember. Humans' memories didn't work that way; they didn't remember being born, taking their first breath, or being captured by faeries.
Ewa stared into the Skein. The lights of the dreamers twinkled - the only stars Ewa ever knew. She should send Last back to her world. It would be the right thing to do, the lawful thing to do. It was her only purpose now. It was the order of things. And yet...
"What're you doing?" Last asked Ewa. Ewa was pulling the long Skein-sack from her belt loop.
"Something we should've always done." Ewa threw the empty iron bag into the canyon and watched it disappear. "Let's go."
Ewa mounted her rusałka-dragon and started to lift Last off her shoulders.
"I wanna stay up here!"
"Okay, okay. But promise you'll hang on tight."
The rusałka-dragon ascended. Its wings beat in slow, sinuous flaps, and by the time it reached a traveling altitude, Ewa and Last were dry. The sun burned brighter within the cloud-web of the Skein, heralding the end of the storm.
"Where are we going?" Last asked.
"Somewhere far away. Somewhere on a mountaintop, close to the sea."
Last squealed with excitement.
Ewa and Last were beyond the outer-reaches of Seelie civilization now. Animals grazed in grassy fields below, and warm wind blew through the leaves of trees laden with fruit. And then a thought crossed Ewa's mind, something she silently scolded herself for not thinking of sooner.
"What is your name?" she asked.
Last bent down to whisper in Ewa's ear, "Anna," like a secret. "What's your name?"
"What does Ewa mean?"
Ewa laughed at the child's question, but she decided that curiosity suited Anna just fine. It was how she learned. "Ewa means 'life giver,'" she said.
"Tell me a story, Ewa."
"All right," Ewa said, tapping one of the child's shoes. "I'll tell you a story about a girl named Anna."
"Same as my name!"
"Same as your name. But this Anna lived in a scary place. Where Anna lived, there was an ocean on the ground and monsters that made Anna hide in a closet."
A wave broke above them, and sea spray misted their faces. They laughed, and Ewa flew the rusałka-dragon faster and higher, just inches from the sea.
Ewa yelled above the rushing wind, "And in Anna's world, there were no wodniks or chochlings or trolls or moras or dodogas or any other faeries. Everyone looked the same."
"Did they look like me?"
"No," Ewa decided. "They didn't look like you."
"That's funny! An ocean on the ground!"
As Ewa continued her story, Anna reached up. Her tiny fingers skimmed the surface of the sea, the end of the sky, the sky above the sky, and a white trail of foam sparkled behind them. Anna smiled and re-wrapped her wet arms tightly around Ewa's chin.
It wouldn't be long before Imber realized that Ewa wasn't returning to the palace. There would be search parties. Imber would declare, through the mask of its 'rancorous' face, "Hunt Ewa down. Treason will not be tolerated."
But, like a dam destined to burst, cracks would inevitably show in Imber's law. Order would give way to the waves of dissent. And there would be rebels because there were other trolls, other trolls who had shepherded changelings and had seen the "homes" they were sent back to, other trolls who would no longer be docile and complacent, other trolls who would rally behind the banner of Ewa - troll, warrior-poet, shepherd, life giver, mother of Anna, and Tsarina of the Unseelie Clan.