The bank teller put a thick envelope of thaler bills down on the counter. Oboe checked that it was money, all the wages she’d earned, then crammed it into her drawstring bag.
Flying away wasn’t enough. The kingdom was large and stretched in all directions, except one. Sea gulls shrieked overhead and a salty breeze blew across the docks and ruffled her fur.
“We don’t take fairy passengers.” The ship captain was round, unshaven, and ragged. He smelled like tar and old fish. “You’re bad luck.”
Oboe opened her purse and made him change his mind. The sailors brought out a bench for her to rest on while the boat was made ready, and men begged to carry luggage she didn’t have.
It was a big wooden ship, old and battered, with an angry engine that could chop through the ocean with propeller blades when there wasn’t wind for the sails. They called her the Grand Mule. Once she was loaded with barrels of magic and goods to trade, she would take Oboe to Red Spire. There, she could start a new life and forget the one she left behind.
The hair on her back bristled. She turned her stiff neck and saw her brother Fife, with his thin scruffy beard and curled horns.
“…What are you doing?” He said.
Oboe felt as if the sailors had chained the ship’s anchor to her back. There was a betrayed, scared look in her brother’s eyes.
“I’m leaving,” she said, trying to sound strong. “What are you doing here? How did you find me?”
“Thistle told me,” he said. “He was looking for Theo but found me instead.” He glanced up at the Grand Mule and back to her. “It’s true then? You can’t. We need you!”
Oboe felt angry and grateful and tired beyond words. Everything needed to stop, but nothing could be that easy, could it? “I don’t care. I can’t take it anymore. I don’t care what happens, I’m DONE.”
Fife bent down and took her hand. “Sister,” he said. “I just got you back in my life, and I won’t lose you. Not again. Let’s go back to the Circle and talk about this.”
Oboe yanked her hand out of his grasp. “I am not going back there! I hope the humans burn it to the ground!”
Fife winced at those words. “Oboe, please. That’s my home you’re talking about.”
“Not anymore.” She glared, feeling cruel. “They kicked you out, just like they kicked me out. Maybe they’ll take your name too, and then you’ll know what it’s like!”
He tensed, no longer able to look her in the eye. Standing, his arms fell to his sides. “I heard about what happened at the council. …I know you’ve been through more than I can imagine, but please don’t give up on the Circle.”
“Every bad thing that’s ever happened to me is because of the Circle,” she said. “I used to blame myself, but that was just another trick. The Circle is rotten. It deserves whatever happens to it.”
“There is a lot wrong with us,” Fife said. “I know. I worked in the palace and… I let a lot of things happen that I know I shouldn’t have.” His face scrunched, pained. “But not everything in the Circle is broken. There are a lot of good creatures that live there, ones that don’t deserve to suffer because of the Titled. Do you think little Oboe, your niece, my daughter, deserves to get hurt because of where she was born?”
Oboe couldn’t say anything.
“When you came back, you opened my eyes,” he said. “You made me realize what I was tolerating. That’s why we need you.”
“Nobody needs me,” Oboe said.
“You’re exactly what we need!” Fife said, eyes fierce. “You’re one of us, but also aren’t. We all pretend to be good and just and righteous, but you! That’s just how you are! I’ve seen it. You talked to a useless, puffed-up clerk like me, and you convinced me to stand up to the Fair Lady! If you can do that, if you managed to wake me up, then I think you can find the goodness buried in the rest of us and do something with it!”
“There’s nothing good inside the Titled,” she said, but the words were weaker than before.
“Then don’t talk to the Titled.” He planted his hands on her shoulders. “Talk to someone, anyone else. Do something! You’re right, the Circle is rotten, but you came and you changed something, and I’m begging you sis, keep helping us change things so something can get better! We need this, and I need you!”
Oboe looked into her brother’s pleading eyes and felt something. She got up and looked up at the Grand Mule. It was her escape from a life of pain and heart ache. It was her chance at freedom. She imagined her life across the sea, and it tasted as bitter as her years in exile.
Oboe hugged her brother. She was being stupid, but she was lucky to have him, and Thistle, and Theo, and everyone else.
“Thank you,” she said.