The putrid stench of fish clung to Maia's fingers.
Sea salt tainted the air, the western coastline bordering the lands of the Sun Court, the City of Luxeat visible from the distant docks. The high sandstone walls surrounding the tall colourful buildings looked miniature from the sands; Maia could barely make out the paintwork of the Fae homes, each individual house painted a different shade of bright summer sky colours. The tallest of the buildings sat within the middle of the enclosed city, a singular white stone tower that looked to have once been a mountain now fashioned to impose as a castle steeple. Along the edge of the structure was a curling staircase made from the same sandstone as the high wall, stocky buildings spiralling up to The Governors Tower. Maia squinted her dark eyes at the city, a tanned hand raising to her forehead to shade her face; sunlight seemed to dance across the surface of the far away city and reflect back into her eyes as though even her lingering stare was offensive. Maia had heard gruesome stories from the other villages, stories of human children being stolen from their homes and killed for sport – she could imagine the pristine pastel walls of those beautiful homes within the city covered in blood.
Her attention was dragged away from the City of Luxeat when the wooden cart she was sat in jostled her to the side as an unsupported wheel clumsily bounced over a stone on the dirt road, her ribs complaining when a large crate of bass pushed her into the side of the wagon. Shoving the crate full of fish back to the corner of the slow-moving cart, Maia lowered her gaze to the small community her and the elderly man holding the reigns were approaching. There were no protective walls surrounding her home, just a low fence circling around the cottages and dried vegetable patches, a clearing only large enough to host a dozen market stalls in the centre of the village.
Today the monthly market had arrived.
Residents were bustling around the village centre, peering over crates of produce at the differing market stalls and shouts of negotiation over prices carried over to Maia's rounded ears. The wagon came to rest at the main gate to the village – two warped sticks that only had one low gate hanging from the hinges, the other missing, only bare bolts left in its wake. A grunt came from the old fisherman when Maia thanked him for the mornings work; the monthly market was the only time Maia was able to bring home more than just a few coppers within the week, so she was thankful to be of assistance to the old man. It was a daily occurrence, Maia waking up barely past dawn to rush down to the docks in hopes to catch enough fish to feed both her and her sister for the day, and sometimes Maia was lucky enough to even sell a couple extra fishes or shells in exchange for a few coppers.
The familiar smell of bass and mackerel lingered within the marketplace whilst Maia moved the slippery bodies of the fish from the back of the wooden cart through the small crowd in the village. She had barely hauled off the last bass before the crack of a whip cut through the chatter of villagers browsing today's market and the cart lurched forward, sand and dirt kicking back into her face. Grumbling and rubbing at her stinging eyes with the back of her hand, the dirt there smudging across Maia's already filthy face, she adjusted the large fish in her arms and pushed her way through the hostile villages who were still arguing about the prices of the market today. Blowing the sand from her lips, Maia trudged back to the decrepit market stall that she was working for this month, ducking past the torn and tattered curtain, and dropping the remaining bass into a large leaking barrel. She barely cast a glance at Ilma brooding in the shadowed corner.
Maia found it ironic that a Water-wraith owned the fish stall, its own appearance mirrored that of the gaping fish piled up within the barrels beside her; slippery grey skin that gleamed when the blessed sun caught her, black saucer eyes that took up the majority of her soulless face and a slit in her flesh that would reveal jagged and pointed teeth when she snarled. There seemed to be a constant puddle around the Fae. The lesser Fae hissed at her when Maia was caught staring at its long-webbed fingers, the gills on the Illma's long throat flaring at the effort in the dry heat, "Get back to work girl." Maia cringed at the Fae's voice, the sound croaked and gargled like she still had pond water lodged in her voice box. She was happy to be dismissed, pushing the flimsy off-white curtain aside to step back into the blazing heat and the busy village centre.
It was rare that so many villagers were out of their homes, most of the endless summer spent hiding inside the rotting wooden cottages that surrounded the round centre of the village. There were no stone paths or fresh green grass on the ground here, only dry dirt and the occasional wooden slab that suggested that there used to be wooden floors that covered the land. When the lesser Fae came to the village to collect the daily rent, they often sneered at the desperate faces that answered the doors, bragging about how the roads within the Six Cities was pathed with rare gemstones and the windows to their large houses were made of crystals. Maia looked towards her home, a windowless wooden box barely any taller than the jewellery stall that was blocking the door, a gaping hole in the roof that she often gazed out of at night, counting the stars in the sky and voicing her dreams to her sister, Astrid. Dreams of leaving and running to the secret lands their father used to tell them about in the dead of night. Her sister often slapped her arm, hushing her in case the night watch Fae was lingering close by and listening in on her stories.
Kicking over a low crate then settling onto it, Maia dragged a fish onto her lap from a nearby bucket that sat by the straggled curtain, a dagger in hand to start gutting and slicing the mackerel. She could see the top of the Water-wraith's straggled black hair, the gargling voice sending a chill down Maia's spine as the lesser Fae upsold three of this morning's catch.
"Not bad, not bad … Cod do better though."
Scuffed brown boots toed at her own, the voice warm and joyous and a grin quickly spreading across her lips as she looked up at her lifelong friend Theodore, his auburn hair shining bright copper from the sun and his skin golden and freckled.
Maia stood up to engulf him into a tight hug, a grin still playing on her lips as she basked in the comforting smell of sea salt and sand that clung to her friend, "And here I thought I'd escaped your stupid jokes when you were whisked away to Luxeat." Maia laughed, pushing his broad shoulders away from her to analyse his familiar features, her eyes darting to his sun kissed ears. Not pointed. She knew that you could only be born Fae but with Theodore being away for almost three whole moons she had assumed he was dead, her shoulders sagging with relief when he raised an eyebrow at her concerned face. She could not believe that he was stood there in front of her, tanned and freckled skin no longer dull and grey, his blue eyes bright and full of life again. Her throat tightened at the memory of the last time she had seen him, his eyes sunken and blood dried and crusted around the corners of his lips. The healers within the village claimed it to be a Fae curse, and he was quickly carted away to the City of Luxeat to be treated by the council's best healers, she did not get to say goodbye. Or rather she had refused to see him taken away to the city, a selfish act to not have her last memory of him being his sick face and blank expression. Maia's smile wavered, "You went behind city walls and they just let you back out?" It was unheard of, humans never went behind the wall and if they did they never came back out of the city, the race was either sold or killed.
"They couldn't get me out quick enough."
A distasteful hiss came from the stall, the sound of Ilma's webbed feet slapping the dirt ground following after as she went to go sulk in the shadows of the stall again – Ilma had never been fond of Theodore, his kind ocean eyes always swaying her to sell him an extra fish for a few coppers less. Maia had always teased him that he was a terrible flirt that even the lesser Fae would grovel at his feet to get him to leave as quickly as possible, the comment often resulting in Maia to be shoved onto her arse.
Maia could feel her upturned nose burning in the sun, the skin there peeling from the sun damage already there, "That seems to be a recurring theme for you Theo." She grinned at him, his head shaking after scoffing at her. She marvelled that he was stood in front of her, a presence she had not had time to miss, although her thoughts often drifted to the memories they had these past few moons whilst she laid in bed. They had become friends quickly after Theodore had defended her when they were barely six summers old, shoving a young Fae off of her, his boot used as a weapon when he threw it at the unsuspecting Fae; they have been inseparable since. Maia had often thought that her and Theodore could be more than friends – maybe not romantically but throughout the village there were few who had payed any attention to Maia, her tanned skin and lightened brunette hair showed that she worked outdoors far more often than the other women in the village. Theodore often said that he would much prefer a woman that helps him with his work rather than sit in the dark tying pieces of shells together. They had laughed when Astrid's pale face scowled at them, a shell bracelet in the works on her lap. Although he was a friend, there have been moments when she thought he would start to act differently towards her; Theodore had helped her and her sister, teaching Maia how to catch fish and build a fire. Basic skills but skills that saved their lives. She was embarrassed to be amongst a set of children who he had offered to teach too but Maia had walked down to the beach by his side every morning for weeks upon weeks, nonetheless.
Theodore had been staring at Maia with a mischievous glint in his eyes, his attention flickering from her reddened cheeks to her lips, "Keep smirking at me and see where it gets you." Maia threw him an obscure gesture, her lips barely parting before he harshly shoved her and she tripped over the crate she was previously sat on, her breath knocking out of her when she landed on her back in the dirt. His booming laugh shook his shoulders as he rushed away into the crowd, leaving her sprawled on the floor with a smile still on her face.
Despite the sun setting, the blistering heat of the Sun Court was still heavy at nightfall. Fireflies drifted from the woodland area that sheltered the winding muddy path towards the City of Luxeat, the only light source to guide Maia to her small wooden hovel. Her fingertips were dusted with thin slices from where she had cut into her skin accidently, the dull blade she had been using cutting into her hands more easily than the fish she was gutting. Wincing and pressing her palm to the warm warped door, Maia pushed the door to her home, her shoulder bashing into the solid wood when it did not budge.
"You've burnt your nose again."
Astrid was sat on her knees hunched over a small table Theodore had gifted her last year, a string of shells in her hands dangling by the flame of a singular white candle, the shadows on the wooden walls flickering. Her dull blonde hair was hanging limply by her ivory face, their matching eyes meeting, "You should at least try to not stay in the sun for so long. Did you know that the Finch boys have started calling you Max? You are just like our father- "Maia sighed and toed off her worn boots by the door, making a beeline for the bed. There was only one room in each of the houses here, a room that contained a singular bed, a firepit barely larger than both of Maia's hands dug into the sand. A hole sat in the far corner where Maia had once vomited, both her and Theodore had snatched a bottle of Fae wine and guzzled down the contents without a second thought. Maia had settled onto her side of the bed, her eyes heavy as she looked to her sister who was still ranting, her venomous words not registering in her tired brain; it was a perpetual lecture she received from Astrid. Astrid believed in the village traditions of the women remaining home and untouched by the sun, an attempt to mirror the iridescent complexion of the High Fae and appear more alluring to the male villagers. Her sister depended her future on marrying a rich enough boy, but Maia knew that if she did not rush out of their door every morning to catch whatever she could, then they would not eat that day.
"Are you listening to me Maia!"
"Do you want my honest answer?"
Astrid huffed, grabbing at her tattered skirt as she rose to her feet, a finger pointed in Maia's direction, a groan escaping her lips as she waited a long and repetitive rant from her older sister. The rage that was about to spill from the blonde girls' lips was interrupted when a light knock came from their door, Astrid's brows furrowing at the late visitor. Maia sat up on their bed, throwing a questioning look to her sister who replied with a shrug and then a concerned glance towards the door, the realisation that they both were not expecting a visitor this late in the night was daunting.
Both girls jumped, a louder thud on the door echoing around the small room before the door swung open and bashed against the wall of their home. Auburn hair ducked through the doorway, Theodore filling the space easily as he quickly nodded to Astrid and then settled his worried eyes on Maia.
"Both of you have to leave. Now."
"I'm sorry?" Astrid was glaring at him, her arms crossing over her chest, "You can't barge into our home and then demand we leave." A slender brow raised in a silent question; her full lips curled in disgusts when she lowered her eyes to the mud that coated his boots. Theodore did not acknowledge Astrid, his attention solely on Maia as he took a step further into their home to grab her hands.
"Please listen to me Maia, we have to go." He tugged at her hands, dragging her towards the door. Taking a step back, Maia's hands slipped from his grasp and she moved to stand by her sister, her annoyance evident on her face like a cats bushed up tail.; it was the dead of night, nothing but the sound of crickets could be heard through the open door.
"Listen here carrot top, we –" Astrid paused to point frantically at herself and Maia, "are not venturing out into the wilderness." Theodore opened his mouth to either protest or explain but Astrid's dainty pale hand raised quickly to silence him, "I do not care for an explanation or excuse, its dark outside! Now, you have to leave." And with a flick of her hair she sauntered over to their shared bed, climbing under the thin sheet with her back to Theodore and Maia. Theodore looked from Astrid to Maia, his breathing getting more uneven the longer he stood there in their too small house. He frantically looked towards the open door just as a loud, pulled out siren echoed through the village, the sound low and haunting. Astrid quickly sat up, her dark eyes holding the same expression as Theodore as she locked eyes with Maia.