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Toff was seventeen and his life was in ruins. He didn't look seventeen or anywhere near that age. Twelve was closer to the mark; his height and face worked against him. The others teased him mercilessly about it, although he kept up easily with his work and in all the lessons.
Today was one of the bad days. Toff jumped into the chilly pond with the others after a long day of harvesting grapes, throwing off his clothing just as the others did. The boys he swam with were all proud of what they had between their legs. Toff didn't have that. Had never had that. The word eunuch had been whispered around him since he was old enough to work in the fields during the summer and early fall. At first, he hadn't known what the word meant. Toff had learned, however, and the revelation embarrassed him. He was less than the others.
"It's nothing," his mother, Redbird, told him when he came home in tears at age nine. At the time, it hadn't mattered so much. Now it did. The boys his age would pair up at times with one of the girls, and they'd go off together, down by the pond or into one of the orchards. Toff saw their smiles as they returned. The older boys didn't hold back their sneers or taunts either, whenever they caught Toff looking their way. Of course, they never did it around the elders—they knew better. Toff's persecution was always done away from anyone who might intervene.
"Mother, tell me again what I am," Toff sat dejectedly at the kitchen table while his mother worked to finish dinner.
"You're Vionnu—from Vionn. That's where I adopted you, my son." Redbird smiled at him. She was beautiful—most of her race was. Redbird had red hair the color of maple leaves in the fall. Her hair color had given her the name—she was of the Briar Clan and Tiearan, her father, was Head of the Green Fae settlement. Redbird's skin was clear and youthful in appearance, her eyes a vibrant green. She had power, just as the other Green Fae and their Half-Fae children did, and that was something else Toff would never have.
Redbird's race was a small one—they called themselves Green Birth, a branch of Fae that ate no meat and did not engage in any form of physical violence. They often married into the mortal races, though, and now lived alongside many Half-Fae and their all-humanoid relations. Their small village had grown during Toff's short life and now held nearly two thousand members, most of them humanoid.
"Are all Vionnu like me?" Toff had asked this question before, but Redbird always said she didn't know.
"My son, you know I do not have an answer to that question," she tousled his straight, dark hair before setting plates on the square table in their tidy kitchen. Lengths of tied garlic hung beside the stove and tightly sealed jars of herbs and spices stood in neat rows upon the counters. Toff's adoptive father, Corent River, often set Toff to sanding and polishing the wood countertops. Corent was Half-Fae, but he had power, just as the other Half-Fae did. Toff only had the strength of his hands, which was another reason he was often teased and humiliated.
Toff's first memories of Corent had been of the Half-Fae's hands—they were large and gentle when he showed Toff how to sand the wood or smooth the stones set in the floor of Toff's bedroom. Corent had built the addition to the house that became Toff's bedroom when Toff turned thirteen. "Old enough to have a room to himself," Corent had smiled at Redbird and took Toff to select the trees to cut for the wood.
"What were the Vionnu like?" Toff was still attempting to obtain information about the planet of his birth as he took a seat at the table. Idly he traced the edge of the blue plate Redbird set before him.
"Like many other races. No more questions, I must finish dinner. Your father will be home soon." Redbird turned her back on him and busied herself at the stove.
Corent came in moments later, his hair a dark blue, which meant the sun was still shining in a clear sky outside. Corent's hair, like that of a handful of Green Fae, changed with the weather. It became a light blue-green if the skies were overcast or gloomy. Deep blue meant a sunny sky outside. Toff had learned to look to his adoptive father's hair as the barometer for the outside climate.
"Son, how was the grape harvest?" Corent smiled at Toff.
"Good, Father." Toff wanted to smile back, but he was too depressed to make the attempt.
"Child, what's wrong?" Corent always knew, even if Redbird brushed it off.
"Nothing, Father." Toff looked down at his plate.
"Have you washed your hands yet?"
"Then come with me."
Corent didn't scold Toff for not washing his hands before sitting at the table, as he normally would. "Son," he said, dipping his hands into the wash pan filled with clean water, "Don't compare yourself to the others. They know you're not what they are and they do this anyway. They won't grow sense for another ten years, if they grow any at all. I'm beginning to have my doubts about some of them. Tiearan says he may speak with the Queen."
Toff looked sharply at Corent. The Queen. Just the mention of her sent Redbird into hysterics. Redbird was afraid of the Queen. Toff had only seen the Queen from a distance—Redbird had taught him to stay away.
"She'll drink your blood!" Redbird hissed at him once, outside Corent's hearing. Toff had no idea what his foster-mother meant when she'd given him that warning.
"What will the Queen do?" Toff asked as he moved to take Corent's place at the wash pan. Corent dried his hands as Toff reached for the soap and then dipped his fingers in the water. He'd almost whispered his words; Toff didn't want his foster-mother to hear him say anything about the Queen.
"She'll come and take a look for herself. If they're not suitable to stay, she'll send them away. The Queen gave this land to us to settle on, since we were forced away from Vionn. We're here through her generosity. If those young ones with no power fail to follow the laws, they won't be allowed to remain on Le-Ath Veronis." Toff watched as the deep blue of Corent's hair turned a lighter shade. Clouds must be coming in.
"Where will they go, Father, if the Queen sends them away?" Toff asked as he accepted the towel from Corent to dry his hands.
"No idea. That will be the Queen's worry, not ours. My concern will be their parents—they don't watch them as closely as they should." Corent's eyebrows dipped in a frown.
"Gren's always been a bully," Toff muttered. Corent was lost in thought as he took the towel from Toff and hung it on its peg. He'd failed to hear Toff's words and Toff didn't repeat them. Silent now, they walked to the kitchen for dinner.
* * *
Toff combed his short, dark hair after a bath and readied himself for bed later. Honey-brown eyes examined his face in the mirror, searching for any sign of maturity. He still bore the full, rosy cheeks of a youngling instead of the more adult features Gren and the others wore so proudly. Gren, Haldis and Sark teased him constantly, calling him baby cheeks and taunting him, then asking if he wanted to run crying to his mother when Toff became angry. Toff was helpless against them—Gren was Half-Fae and had power. Haldis and Sark were humanoid and didn't, but they stuck by Gren no matter what, laughing and encouraging the bully. Toff sighed and went to bed.
* * *
"Baby cheeks gets to crush grapes," Gren laughed the following morning as they made their way to the long, log building where Tiearan and some of the other adults instructed the young ones and made wine. "With the other babies," Gren couldn't help adding, although Tiearan and Rain had walked into the building.
Autumn sunlight shone through the wide doorway, but Toff stood back from the square of light, watching dust motes dance in the early morning sun. Corent was off with another crew, harvesting apples. Trees were Corent's strength—he could make a tree grow in a tenth of the normal time and the fruit that grew on his trees was the best quality. He sent bushels of apples every year to the Queen's palace. Corent selected those himself and made sure they arrived in good condition.
Toff found himself wishing he could work with Corent. He didn't mind crushing grapes and wanted more than anything to do the other chores for winemaking, but he was always relegated to the crush. Gren constantly made Toff ashamed of his work, though Tiearan always said that any job well done was a credit to the worker.
Tiearan's long, gold hair was tied back that morning, and Rain's dark hair was tucked in a bun on top of her head. Rain was Corent's mother and always looked lovely. She seldom came to dinner at the house, though, and Toff often caught her throwing dark looks at Redbird. Toff had no idea why.
"Young ones, follow me, we will get the crush under way immediately," Tiearan smiled. He enjoyed making wine and had done it for years uncounted. He put power into the making and the result was a heady mix, according to some. Toff was still too young to be allowed to drink it, although Gren always bragged that his parents let him have a glass now and then.
Gren and the other, taller boys hauled the stems away after the grapes had been gently crushed by the younger children. Toff liked dipping his hands into the grapes, feeling the smooth, round skins in his fingers, squeezing them lightly as Tiearan had taught him. Tiearan said that leaving the pulp in at this stage left more of the fruit taste for later.
Eventually, the crushed grapes would be run through a press that some of the older ones would crank by hand. Toff would miss that stage—he would be sent to the fields to help gather hay and straw for the animals and the barns. School would also start in two or three weeks, depending upon the harvest. Redbird taught the younger ones—Toff had been in one of her classes when he was very small.
"I get to help Tiearan with the yeast," Gren sneered during lunch break. Tiearan employed power when he worked with the natural grape yeast, adjusting it here and there for consistent results. Tiearan was teaching Gren how to manipulate the natural yeast so the wine would turn out well.
Gren and the others who held Fae power attended additional classes that Toff could never experience. Toff and the others without power were sent off to help with this or that around the village, while the children with power were taught how to use what they had. It frustrated Toff greatly to be surrounded by something he could never do or lay claim to.