Night began to fall by the time the Godmother’s carriage rolled to a stop at the bottom of the winding road leading up to Nightwell Keep. Beside the road stood an enormous old black tree, its limbs gnarled and twisted, and carved out of its base was the Fantasma Boutique. The facade was made up of two large windows emanating a pulsing green light over a great wooden door, giving the illusion of an agonized face. Arbo couldn’t help but shiver as the night creatures of the forest around them began to wake.
“Surely this can wait until mornin’, Godmother, then, eh?” He asked as they climbed out.
Aryssa’s eyes danced with amusement. “Why Arbo, I didn’t think you would be so frightened of nature.”
“Nothing natural ’bout this place,” Arbo muttered and reluctantly followed her inside.
To his surprise, the inside of the boutique resembled that of any other store you might find operating in downtown Phaeton, only darker. The floor was polished black marble from which rose several gold and glass counters that held everything from jewelry and hair combs to gloves and handkerchiefs. The salesforce was made up of Imps, Elves, and Fairies who were busy assisting a multitude of customers.
As they’d discussed on the carriage ride over, Arbo slipped in amongst the crowd, pretending to browse as he listened to their conversation. One of the older Imps came forward to meet Aryssa. Her pale green skin was complemented by her violet gown. Between her pointed ears sat a shimmering purple band from which jutted three large feather plumes. Her yellow eyes peered at them behind a pair of spectacles that sat on a pointed upturned nose. A large mole twitched beside thin pursed lips painted red. The Godmother’s presence caught everyone’s attention and the room was soon filled with awed whispering. It reminded Arbo of how awestruck he was the first time he’d met the Fairy Godmother.
Arbo Woldfoot was a foundling, left on the doorstep of the Destiny Gardens Orphan Home as a baby. He’d lucked out as orphanages go. He’d had three square meals a day, the rooms were clean and only slightly chilly in winter. The sisters and headmaster were firm but fair and the children were taught skills that would give them a better chance at survival as adults.
Nevertheless, Arbo was different. He was the smallest and youngest orphan in the place, always, perpetually the smallest and youngest. As the other children grew and aged, they would look at him wondering why he did not. As is human nature they mocked and abused Arbo, calling him a freak of nature, a changeling. Surely this was why he’d been abandoned.
Upon reaching his 25th year at the orphanage, the headmaster had died and his replacement, repulsed by Arbo’s mere existence, chucked him out. Appearing perpetually eight years old with the mind of a grown man, Arbo quickly got into mischief as he traveled the countryside. Robbery and pickpocketing were easy ways to make some quick coin due to his size and stealth. Whenever he was bored or had been abused by some nobleman or merchant with delusions of grandeur, Arbo found a couple of strategic pinches in a crowd often resulted in a brawl.
It was during one such brawl that Arbo stumbled upon the Godmother’s gleaming golden carriage as he snuck away. Suddenly, he was scruffed and pulled inside, landing on the floor as it began to roll away. He looked up to find a short hairy man with gray sprouting in his dark beard glaring at him with murder in his eyes. The Godmother regarded him with a mild expression.
She wasn’t a beauty by any means nor was she offensive to look at. Her hair was a mousy brown bound behind her head. Her eyes were grey like the winter sky just before a storm. Her nose was long and thin and her mouth small with full lips. She was a plump woman in a blue gown, plain despite the majesty of her carriage. Arbo wouldn’t look at her twice had he passed her on the street and yet now she sat with a regal air, not put upon of course but actual nobility that put him in check immediately.
“I suppose ye think it’s funny to start riots, do ye laddie?” The vicious-looking man barked at him.
He was the smallest adult Arbo had ever seen though nobody would ever mistake him for a child with a voice like gravel and a thick brogue that was difficult to understand.
“What’s it to ya?” Arbo snapped back.
He grabbed Arbo by the throat and brought him nose to nose with him.
“Ye might nay care about howfur Dwarves are treated around here but I do and I willna have it said we start riots!” He snarled. “A good old fashioned brawl is yin thing, but this? It’s boggin.”
“That’s enough, Irk.” The woman said. “Put him down.”
Irk opened his fist and let Arbo drop with a thump. Arbo glared at him as he got to his feet, rubbing his behind.
“I never did nothing to no Dwarves, any road, so.”
“Are ye havin’ me on?” Irk barked a laugh.
“No, right, Dwarves ain’t done nothing to me so I don’t do nothing to them. Hellfire, I’ve never ever seen a Dwarf before, right? They’re all up in the bloody mountains diggin’ for gold, ain’t they, then, guv?”
The couple exchanged glances.
“Irk is a Dwarf.” The woman said.
“And so are you,” Irk added.
“Wotcher mean by that, eh guv? I ain’t no Dwarf!”
“Like hell yer nay. Ye might be trying to gowk a’body else pretending to be a bairn but ye canna gowk a Dwarf nay to recognize yin of his own.”
The woman raised her hands to stop them both from speaking before leaning forward.
“What is your name, young man?” She asked gently though she didn’t look much older than he.
“Arbo, Arbo Woldfoot, ma’am.”
Well, pluck him, if she didn’t bring forth his orphanage manners! She reminded him of those smartly dressed, well-meaning couples who visited from time to time to find a child to take home. They were kind enough, all gentle smiles and soothing voices but in the end, they walked away with someone else.
He shook himself as the cold pit in his stomach threatened to leech out of his burning eyes. Arbo thought he saw a moment of sadness flicker across the woman’s face as if she knew his thoughts. But that wasn’t possible, was it?
“My name is Aryssa Thornhart, I am the Fairy Godmother of Davenmour. This is my assistant, Irk Underbourne.” The lady said.
Arbo gaped at her. “You’re not a Fairy Godmother!”
“Watch it, laddie!”
“Well, she ain’t! How can she be? Fairy Godmothers are fat ole stuck up cows who help spoiled princesses go to balls an’ grant wishes, innit.” Arbo cried.
Aryssa threw back her head and laughed, startling both Dwarves. “Well, I must say that describes a few of my fellow Godmothers to a tee. I am no longer in the business of granting wishes, Arbo, I investigate crimes to clear those who have been falsely accused.”
“Do you really?”
Aryssa nodded and Arbo found himself gaping at her again. He’d start catching flies if he wasn’t careful.
She continued. “And like you, I am newly arrived to Davenmour.”
“Where are ye fae that you’ve ne’er seen a Dwarf, laddie?” Irk asked.
“I grew up in an orphanage in this little town called Earthvein.”
“Earthvein, that’s a human mining settlement near Bleak Falls, isn’t it?”
Arbo nodded. “Sometimes when a John dies or is injured in the bleedin’ mines, his ole lady does a runner or kills herself leaving the chuffin’ nippers behind. Ya can’t have a knees-up without a Joanna. Ya need an orphanage nearby to have who’s left.”
“So ye dunna ken ye folk?” Irk asked.
“That’s what being in an orphanage means, innit?”
“How long have you been in Phaeton, Arbo?” The Fairy Godmother asked.
“A few days.” Arbo shrugged, suddenly feeling ashamed. “The bloody fat cock who got punched were a merchant I’d asked for work an’ a bite to eat. He called me a hammer midget an’ kicked me into a mud puddle for my trouble.”
Irk growled and Aryssa shook her head.
“So you took out your revenge on some poor unsuspecting woman so her husband could thrash him?”
Arbo shrugged. “Didn’t mean her no harm, ma’am. Besides, right, have ya seen her? It’s probably the bleedin’ most action she’s seen all year.”
Irk snorted, earning a glare from his boss.
“Nevertheless, if you are going to work for me you will not lay hands on another woman’s person without her permission. Do you understand?” Aryssa said.
Arbo blinked. “You mean- you want me to work for you?”
Aryssa nodded. “I’ve been watching you all day. You’re very nimble and quick on your feet. Quick of mind too so far as I can tell. You have some scruples so I won’t have to worry too much about you and if I do, well, Irk can handle that.”
Arbo heard Irk’s knuckles pop as he squeezed his hands into fists and winced.
“You won’t have to worry about me, ma’am. What would I be doin’?”
“You will be my eyes and ears where I need them, Arbo. Any time I need information without anyone being the wiser I will send you to collect it.”
Arbo frowned. He shouldn’t ask but his stupid brain was just too bloody curious for his own good.
“I know I’m probably going on myself out of a job but couldn’t you use your magic to cop that information, then?”
Aryssa smiled. “You’d be surprised how many buildings and towns have safeguards to protect from just such a thing, and rightly so. Any attempts to breach such protections either alert those who put them in place, harm the one making the attempt or both.”
Arbo’s stomach gurgled loudly, reminding him he hadn’t yet eaten since arriving in Phaeton and prompting him to ask,
“Grub an’ board?”
“Is included. I own the brownstone which houses my detective agency, Irk resides there as well.”
Arbo looked at the Godmother and the Dwarf and cocked an eyebrow, “You mean, right, you and he live together, under the same roof?”
Irk growled and Aryssa laid a hand on his arm.
“Everything is above board and respectable, I assure you,” Aryssa replied. “Which is why you will conduct yourself with the utmost decorum while you are under my employ. Do I make myself clear?”
Arbo nodded. It was a strange arrangement, this, but the job sounded interesting and he found he liked Miss T. Some part of him also liked how easily he could get Irk riled up though he might keep that in check while he figured out this whole Dwarf business. His stomach rumbled again and he placed his hand on it with a sheepish grin.
“So when do I start, innit?” He asked.
Aryssa beamed at him. “Right now, but first let’s get you something to eat.”