For those with spoons or time issues it is 2,198 words long.
One thing you don't expect to find in the middle of a giant skyscraper is a sword lodged in a boulder. Especially not on a 56th floor mezzanine level where they most definitely had not been a week earlier when you’d lodged the job application that had landed the interview that you were here for now. It made Firenze Howie’s fingers itch.
She’d introduced herself to the receptionist to whom she’d handed that archaically required paper application on her last visit and, when her name was crossed off a list in front of that young lady, commented, “You’ve redecorated since last week.”
“Yes,” the blonde girl in her dirndl-like outfit smiled, “they put it in over the weekend. The Chairman seems very pleased with it. If you’d like to take a seat,” she gestured at the chairs lined up against the solid wall to her left, “Mr Branko will come and get you when the interview committee are ready for you.”
Firenze took a seat, politely nodding to the two people who were already there: Gwendolen Price, who’d been in the same classes at university but whom she didn’t like; and the slightly older man whom she didn’t know but who looked like a minor academic. Gwendolen was fiddling and looking at her watch, from which Firenze surmised that the interviews were running behind schedule. The man, after acknowledging Firenze, went back to reading his newspaper which seemed to have separate columns in Latin, Cyrillic and Chinese characters. Firenze looked around, it wasn’t the sort of waiting area that had magazines for perusal, then pulled her notebook out of her bag and spent the waiting time trying to draw the sword in the stone.
She’d concluded that her first drawing was already a failure just as a dark-haired woman in a black suit stalked her way disdainfully through a doorway that opened off the foyer. She gave the three people waiting their turn a pitying look and carried on to the lift. Firenze attempted another sketch.
In a few minutes a tall, heavy-set man emerged from the same doorway and asked Gwendolen to accompany him. In the half hour Gwendolen was gone Firenze tried two more sketches of the sword and deemed both utter failures. Another man, this one on the verge of being elderly, arrived and joined Firenze and the man with the newspaper.
Gwendolen emerged in much better humour than the dark haired woman and went to the lift without a second glance. After ten minutes the tall, heavy-set man came and fetched the man with the newspaper. Two more bad sketches and the arrival of a red-haired woman later, the man with the newspaper left with something of a spring in his step.
Firenze put away her pen and notebook so as to be ready. As the tall man came across the foyer towards her and she stood, Firenz e first realised he wasn’t human then hoped that she’d kept that realization off her face.
He didn’t so much walk as lope, slowly and the smartly tailored suit camouflaged a very heavily muscled body. Something about the body and movement combination tickled at her memory, then he was there, more than a foot taller than her, and they were shaking hands. “Miss Howie, I’m Jennick Branko, Mr Raitzer’s personal assistant.”
“How do you do?” That seemed so inane, given that part of her brain was trying to figure out what he was.
“Very well, thank you,” his smile didn’t show his teeth as he released her hand. “We’re sorry for the delay but the committee is ready for you now.” He indicated the doorway he’d entered by. “If you’ll come this way?”
“Certainly.” Firenze walked across the foyer with him.
Halfway across, Branko asked, “Are you nervous, Miss Howie?”
“Of course I am,” she managed to say lightly. “I am here for a job interview.”
As he opened the door for her Branko said, “Oh, is that what it is?” He smiled at her, showing sharp teeth in the side of his mouth.
Her mind screamed, “Big Bad Wolf!” But Firenze replied calmly, “Of course, what else could it be?”
“Oh, you never know,” and he smiled again, with his mouth closed.
They had to go down a short corridor to the room where the interviews were being held. After their exchange, Branko was completely professional. He introduced Firenze to the interview committee and took his seat at a separate table where, it appeared, he was taking notes. The committee itself was: Mr Raitzer, who had olive skin, gray bouffant hair and wore a dark blue pinstripe suit with a navy silk tie; Mrs Knochmueller on his left, who had her hair in a bun, clothes that covered everything inward of her larynx and wrists and an expression of thin, middle-aged prissiness; and Mr Plaister, on Mr Raitzer’s right, who had short, red hair turning grey, wore a morning coat over an embroidered waistcoat and was the only person in the room Firenze was certain was human. The three of them led off with the usual questions about experience and research then, “And would you mind travelling, Miss Howie?”
“When you say ‘travelling’ how far do you mean, Mr Raitzer?” Firenze smiled. “If you mean across the city, then I don’t see that as a problem at all. If you mean further afield, like overseas or to the orbital stations or the Lunar domes, then I’d love to. I realise,” she added cautiously, “that the company might not want me to tell the world where or when I was going but I would need to tell my family that I would be away for time, just so my mother doesn’t get it into her head that I’m lying unconscious in my flat and call the police.”
“A wise precaution,” Mrs Knochmueller smiled as she made a notation on the pad in front of her and Firenze wasn’t sure if she meant avoiding her mother breaking into her flat or letting the committee know there were people who’d care if she disappeared.
There were a few more normal questions and then, from Mr Plaister, “So, Miss Howie, have you ever heard of Maerche?”
“Yes,” Firenze was glad to have a genuine, checkable reason for that, “I did an assignment on the Esmeralda Grennich affair in my last year of university.” No need to tell the committee that she’d actually been there. “It’s an otherwhere, one with many connections to this world.”
“So, you believe in the otherwheres, Miss Howie?” That was from Mr Raitzer.
“I looked into the literature when I was doing that assignment,” Firenze replied. “There are a lot of published papers in physics journals discussing them and they are the simplest explanation for the Esmeralda Grennich matter.”
“In what way?” Mrs Knochmueller’s elbows were on the table and her fingers were interwoven in front of her chin.
“Mistress Grennich’s body was exhumed in 1987 when the cemetery was moved to accommodate the new Shire Council administration buildings. Testing was done at that time which showed that she was not a homo sapiens sapiens narrans.” Taking in their expressions she added, “which is the current terminology for humans native to this world. Apparently she came from a different branch of the homo sapiens tree.”
“Do you find it disturbing when your research leads you to things you didn’t believe in before, Miss Howie?” That came from Mr Raitzer.
“So far, sir, I haven’t come across anything in my research that was more disturbing than the political and crime sections of the news websites and the printed papers.” Firenze gave him a tight smile and Mrs Knochmueller gave a cough that might have a suppressed laugh.
“Thank you for your time, Miss Howie,” Mr Raitzer smiled at her, “Please see yourself out and we expect to be in touch, one way or another, within a week.”
“Thank you for giving me the interview.” Firenze rose and left, more certain than ever that Mr Plaister had been the only human in the room and that she had been the only one who wasn’t a Maerchen. Smiling at the receptionist on her way out, she thought to herself that, given the dirndl, the girl, although human, was probably from Maerche too. She did know that the place had a mix of peoples and that the locally originating species were known variously as homo sapiens sapiens narrans phobos, homo sapiens sapiens phobos narrans or homo sapiens phobos narrans. As far as Firenze was concerned, “phobos” was the important word and that had her worried. They knew who she was, if not what, and they knew where she lived.
There was nothing she could do about that now, so she went home and had lunch. After she’d eaten, Firenze took the time to drop the permanent illusion she had upon herself and checked her real appearance. She had been told that the Changes in a newly metamorphosed fae could be spread over as much as a decade, so as she’d been Changed for less than two years it never hurt to check. It wasn’t as if she had any relatives she could ask for advice, everyone else in the family was human, except for Great-Aunt Clara and she wasn’t helpful. That lack of contacts meant too that she had no Master to guide her on this or any other subject -the few adult fae she knew either wouldn’t take her on or wanted a price for her indentures that she wasn’t prepared to pay.
Today nothing had changed since last time. Her eyes were still blue, with a ring of gold around the pupil and a ring of silver around the iris. Her hair was still brown except for that one piece in her cowlick that was the blue of her eyes mixed in with gold and silver. Her pointed ears still sat back neatly against the side of her head and her eyebrows were still bifurcated. What had once been freckles and moles on her arms were still drops and flecks of silver and gold on her skin. Firenze sighed, tidied her hair and recast her illusion of her pre-metamorphosed self. It was time to do the rounds of her usual clients, because she certainly wasn’t guaranteed the job she’d interviewed for that morning. A pity, not because she didn’t like her freelance work, but because a fulltime, salaried job would have let her move to a slightly larger flat in a less elderly residential tower.
Firenze’s first stop, still wearing the suit she’d worn to the interview, was at an antiques shop in a sandstone arcade that had been incorporated into a newer tower block. She wouldn’t have been surprised if her client had had something to do with that. He was an older fae, an antiquarian, at least at the moment, and he usually had little jobs for her that involved tracking down an item he was interested in or checking the provenance of something he’d acquired. He usually paid cash but every three or four weeks he’d pay her with a lesson instead.
Today Miles Chambrey was carrying his usual illusion of a thin, elderly, elegantly rumpled man, and when Firenze arrived he was carefully wrapping a small object in tissue paper for a customer. While he was occupied, Firenze busied herself admiring the porcelain display in the window, carefully keeping her hands and shoulder bag away from the actual items themselves. When the customer had gone, Miles made his way over to her and, smiling regretfully said, “Firenze, it’s always nice to see you, but I’m afraid I’ve nothing for you today.”
“A pity,” Firenze shrugged, “but I think I’ve stumbled on something that might interest you.”
“Oh?” He raised an eyebrow in interrogation.
“My attempts at sketching the thing were pitiful, but do you have anywhere I can cast an illusion in private?”
“Of course. Come out into the back room so I can keep an eye on the shop while you do it.” He ushered her into the little section at the back with its tiny kitchenette and a coat rack. “Will this be enough space?”
Firenze took its measure, concentrated on her memory of the sword in the stone and muttered the words of the spell. Colour flowed in front of them and in under a second an image of what she’d seen that morning hung in the air before them. “This was on the 56th floor of the Harker Building when I went for my interview with Reutz & Hartnell this morning. I’m afraid I only got a look at one side of it but I believe everyone I saw from the company this morning was Maerchen.”
“Well, it’s definitely an Excalibur,” commented Miles. “Maerchen you say?”
“Oh yes, lots of objects of power have replicas or shadows in different worlds. The question is, why did they bring it here and what’s going to happen next?” Miles seemed to be talking to himself as much as to Firenze.
“I suppose,” said Firenze slowly, “that depends if they’re trying to find Arthur or keep the sword away from him…”