“The Gentry” by Benjamin C. Kinney

“The Gentry” by Benjamin C. Kinney

Manhattan and the Summer Land have a lot more in common than most people think, Prime Minister. The city’s changed a lot in the last ten years, but you’d like some parts of it. Have you ever crossed over? This century? Good. Then I can jump straight to the first time I met one of your rival’s chevaliers. The start of my problem—and the lode of our opportunity.

Envision the mortal world, far from gold and Wall Street riches; a fourth-floor East Harlem walk-up, three in the morning. A cold March night and me asleep in my bed, buried under blankets. A fist pounded against the door, loud and ceaseless. I stumbled out of bed, threw on a sweater, and jiggled the doorknob open.

The door snapped toward me, and a woman glared over the straining chain. A bag lady, I thought; but she pulled off her frayed woolen hat, and then her hood, and shook out hair the color of moonlight on water.

“You! You are Charles Pagano, and you must know what happened to Louie’s Broome Street Diner!”

My breath caught. That hair may sound like nothing to you, but I hadn’t seen that shining color since the day I left for college, when an honor guard of our Gentle Folk regulars saluted my departure. Otherworldly silver hair and flawless bronze skin, lined up to send off their mortal host’s soon-to-be-errant son.

I was in shock, and still half asleep. All I could say was, “It closed. Three years ago, when my parents retired. New owners put up some condos.”

Her shoulders sagged, her radiance dwindled, and I knew I’d said the wrong thing. The splendor of the Fair Folk left my life sixteen years earlier when I escaped my parents’ diner, but I’d spent half my adult life trying to convince myself that had been for the best. One brief reminder of that bygone glory, and I was ready to do anything to bring them back into my world. I unchained the door and beckoned her inside.

She stepped across the threshold and declaimed, “I am a chevalier of her Everlasting Majesty, and I spent seven years and seven days in your world on my quest.” She took a shaky breath. “But I will never see my queen or home again without the Broome Street Diner.”

Believe me, Prime Minister, nothing kills your nostalgia like realizing the fairy on your doorstep is exactly the homeless refugee she looks like.

* * *

Despite her threadbare clothes, the chevalier made my apartment look like the underside of a dumpster. She sat down in the kitchen chair, and I caught a flash of ebony inlaid with silver vines as her scabbard clattered against the linoleum. She sank her head into her hands. Despite her vestiges of glamour, she looked as forlorn as the last dog at the pound.

I took her down to the Poppyseed Café. Eighteen blocks away, almost a mile, but worth the walk. It looked like a sleek yuppie joint, but everything below 95th Street does these days. At Poppyseed, the fanciness was just a front. The menu wasn’t too expensive, and I’d taught their kitchen how to make a grilled cheese sandwich almost as good as Dad’s. The trick is layers of cheese with slivers of sautéed red onion in between. The night-shift waiters wouldn’t know me, but if I was going to show up with one of the Gentle Folk, that was probably for the best.

The chevalier smeared a mozzarella-avocado omelet around her plate. “I’ve been in this world seven years and thirteen days. I didn’t even think that was possible!”

“Don’t worry. I’m sure Louie’s wasn’t the only place where the worlds intersect. My parents used to talk about another diner out in West Virginia.” I hid my grimace behind a bite of grilled cheese. If I called my parents, they’d ask again why I didn’t have a girlfriend. But I’m a New Yorker. If someone’s in our way, screw them; but if they’re genuinely in trouble, we help them out.

I said, “My folks are down in Florida, but I could call them and see if–”

“Florida?” She jabbed her fork downward and cracked her plate in half. She leaned forward, her eyes flickering with distant lightning. “I spent a year and a half trudging through the swamps and golf courses of Florida, and I will have nothing to do with that place again!”

“All right, all right!” I raised my hands. “I won’t call my parents.” The tension unwound from my shoulders, and the thunderstorm-heaviness from the café air.

She slumped back into her chair. “The intersection must still exist, even without the diner.” The waitress approached, profuse with apologies as she cleaned up the broken plate. The chevalier ignored her. “I need to get to the intersection. You have to help me, Charles. You have no idea what battles I fought to find you.”

I knew my answer. “When I left home, I thought I never wanted to get tangled up with your people again. But I was wrong, you know?” I lifted my glass and studied the ice for reflections of fairy jewels. Not there, not for years. “I moved on, grew up, went to graduate school, and what did I get? A theoretical-economics thesis that only six people have ever read, and adjunct jobs that can barely pay for a glass of water.” I gulped it down and then met her gaze. “I can help.”

See, Prime Minister, most mortals would’ve said I will help. Made a promise, and lost their rights in perpetuity. But a doctorate in contract theory has its uses. Between that and Mom’s old lessons, I know the best practices for fairy negotiation.

“Here’s my offer: I’ll help for up to three days, on this task and no other. After the weekend, we negotiate anew. You will place no bonds on me, beyond what I expressly offer here. In case of default, penalties shall not exceed thrice the value of the time promised. You already have my name, so I need your name and your quest as collateral, but I swear I won’t share or reveal them in any way—ever—unless you breach the deal.”

She nodded hesitantly. I couldn’t demand much, atop so many conditions. What did I want in exchange, beyond the intersection reopened? That line of silver-water hair, and all those secret travelers mixing into this dull and dreary world.

I said, “In return, you have to tell me about the start of your quest. And answer any follow-up questions, up to an hour beyond the story. I want to know what it was like when you passed through Louie’s seven years ago.”

Her relief washed over me like a rising sun. “Thank you, Charles. I swear by the Singing Moon, it shall be done. And while you serve as my squire, you are under my protection. So let me cover breakfast.” She raised a black plastic card decorated with a silver vine motif, and the waitress scurried over.

* * *

Dawn filtered across the Harlem River and between the apartment towers as we walked back from Poppyseed. The chevalier kept her cap pulled down tight over her hair as she spun a tale of starlight and chrome, of glamour and griddles.

“You had to leave the booth quickly, because nobody would slide through the intersection unless the spot was empty in the other world. Her Majesty took me straight to the counter, and a mortal woman took our order.” Her brow furrowed. “She must have been your grandmother? No, mother. She curtsied, as best she could behind the counter. Then the Queen ordered cheeseburgers for us both.” Her mouth twisted into a tight wry smile. “Her Majesty said I needed to acclimate myself to all kinds of food before I started my quest. She was right, of course. But I wouldn’t touch it.”

She paused, tipped her head. “You’re sure you want to hear about Louie’s? Not about the Summer Land, or her Eternal Majesty?”

I shook my head. “For me, the good part was your people here, in our world. Magic among us, and the Summer People mixing with we mortals.

“I actually visited your side once, when I was twelve or so. My mom brought in a cousin to work the kitchen, and my dad took me into Fairy–I mean, the Summer Land. It was beautiful, but my dad was completely enthralled. We had only planned to go as far as the Pearl Grotto, but he kept taking us deeper and deeper. By nightfall, he didn’t even seem to remember Mom.”

It’s a primal human fear, Prime Minister: strange crowds, no guideposts, no exit. Most mortals only experience it as getting lost in a mall.

“We got so tired, but I kept myself awake by talking to every Summer Person we crossed. None of them would help us until just before midnight, when I convinced a tiny warrior in a cornfield to lead us back to the intersection in exchange for my shirt-buttons.”

She frowned. “You didn’t want to go deeper yourself? You’re not like most mortals. But I knew that already, the way you act around me.” Her polite smile returned, but her eyes searched my face. “But if you didn’t learn it with your parents, what’s your secret?”

I suppressed a sigh. I’d explained myself enough times for one life, damned if I would go through it again just to satisfy a fairy who wanted to know why she didn’t have me wrapped around her finger.

If she were a mortal, I could’ve lied. But I didn’t have to tell her the whole truth. “Maybe the Summer Land just isn’t my style. I mean, neither was Louie’s back then. I couldn’t wait to get out of my parents’ house, go to college, do something more interesting with my life than work in a diner. Maybe find some wild upstate girlfriend.”

I laughed, a single humorless bark. No, I hadn’t wanted a girlfriend, nor a boyfriend. I’ve never in my life stared at anyone, man or woman or fairy, the way that waitress stared at the chevalier. I got halfway through graduate school before I discovered I wasn’t the only person in the world who didn’t twist the trajectory of their life around the gravity of sex.

A cab stopped at the corner. She waved it away. “More interesting? There can’t have been anything in this world more interesting than Louie’s Broome Street Diner. In either world, maybe.” She shook her head, a mix of awe and distaste. “Simple little place, but nowhere else did I ever see humans and Dawn People of all classes sitting together. Nurses and taxi drivers, tedious little Iron Gnomes and the Everlasting Queen herself.”

The moon hung overhead, fading in the brightening sky. I said, “The human crowd was less diverse than you make it sound. Nurses and taxi drivers aren’t that far apart on the scale of New York. Rich folks didn’t eat in Lower East Side diners back then. But word spread around that you could see amazing people at Louie’s, so customers kept coming. It’s why the diner survived as long as it did. My parents only sold it because I wasn’t willing to run the place when they retired.”

She patted my arm. “So all this trouble is your fault, in a way. It’s a good thing you’re repaying your debt, isn’t it?”

I clamped my mouth shut. We call them the Good Folk, the Gentle Folk, Mom had always said. But don’t ever cross one, even by accident. Round the bill down, like a baker’s dozen in reverse. And show them all the deference they demand.

I’m paraphrasing, Prime Minister. Not all Good Folk.

* * *

I called in sick –my students would be thrilled– and went back to sleep. I woke up to a phone call from one of the morning-shift servers I knew at Poppyseed.

“Charles, my man. I do not expect this kind of bullshit from a regular. I don’t know what bank lets you reverse a debit card transaction, but I’d better not see you and your girlfriend around here for a good long time.”

“What? What are you talking about?” Light sliced through the window blinds, and my phone said nine-thirty. Too early, after the predawn fairy visit. I tried to unravel the waiter’s anger. Debit card? The chevalier had paid.

Where I come from, Prime Minister, we call it fairy gold.

I said, “Bank must’ve messed something up. I’ll come settle–Hello? Hello?” I dropped the phone and rolled onto my back. I should’ve been more specific when I let the chevalier cover the bill. Just what I deserved, for making a deal with the wrong kind of Summer People.

To be honest, Prime Minister, I wasn’t just angry. I was resentful. We mortals have a more diverse economy than you Iron Gnomes. Variety means inequality, so some jobs don’t get you the things you want, no matter how hard you work. If I could hand out fairy gold, my life in New York would’ve looked very different.

But no matter how I felt, I still had to fulfill my side of the contract.

I dressed for the visit to Broome Towers, and then took the subway down to the Lower East Side. My teaching outfits looked too bland and threadbare to blend in at an expensive new place downtown, and I didn’t own a suit, but I could pull off a perfect rich-hipster disguise: tight jeans, newsboy cap, freshly ironed flannel shirt. If I’d gotten my degree in software engineering, I could’ve dressed like that every day.

The chevalier did me one better. She showed up in a navy blue pinstripe skirt suit, and her silver-water hair up in a French twist. After the fairy-gold trick, I should’ve known she’d fit in downtown better than I did.

Broome Towers looked like every other new condo building, only uglier. Five stories of perfectly uniform brick veneer, above a ground-floor exterior built from fake marble as white as plastic. The bright glass façade looked in on a lobby full of brass and wood. The effect made me think of a minimalist painting choking to death on a lump of deep-fried Art Deco.

The doorman tried to ask our business, but the chevalier smiled, and we sailed past him into the lobby. Blue velvet couches splayed with deliberate artfulness across the herringbone parquet floor. In the middle of the workday, the chevalier and I had the lobby almost to ourselves. I waved to the man behind the front desk, and he looked down at his phone.

We walked past a bank of elevator doors decorated with wing-like designs of mirror and brass. I whispered, “This place is hideous.”

The chevalier shrugged. “You’re certain this is the right location?”

I gauged the distance and angle from the sidewalk, and then tapped my finger against a wall paneled in fake cherry-wood. Booth three would’ve stood right there, on the far side of wood, cinderblock, and three vanished years.

I said, “This is the spot. Should we come back in the middle of the night with a sledgehammer, or do you have any tricks?”

She pressed her palm against the wall and shook her head. A faint sneer curled her lips. “Not against iron and stone. That’s gnome work.”

Leather shoes slapped the hardwood behind me. A shaven-headed man approached, wearing a monogrammed shirt and an impatient frown. “Can I help you two?”

Now, Prime Minister, I know you’ve heard a lot of rumors about me, but I’m not a military sort. I’m at my best when I can prepare my lecture slides beforehand, not when I’m at sword-point. So I just spread my hands and said, “Is there a problem, sir?”

He handed me a business card. “The name’s Eric Martinez. I own Broome Towers, and I don’t recognize you. Are you a guest of one of our residents?”

Do you know how lies work, Prime Minister? They’re our own way of influencing mortal minds, what we have instead of glamour. More flexible in some ways, but limited in others. I couldn’t just say yes; even if I knew a resident’s name, they wouldn’t back up my story.

I said, “Nice to meet you, Mr. Martinez. Jake Miller. I heard Broome Towers had an opening, and my girlfriend and I decided to come look around.”

Martinez’s frown deepened. He tipped his head toward the chevalier, though his eyes stayed on mine. “How are you mixed up with these people, Mr. Miller?”

My mind went blank. These people? Did he know the Gentle Folk too? I was worried—no, I’ll be level with you, Prime Minister. When I thought Martinez had Fair Folk coming and going through his life, I was jealous.

The chevalier smiled, and the lobby warmed with sudden hope. “Have you met more of my people, Mr. Martinez?”

He met her eyes, stared for a moment too long, and then straightened his cuffs and said to me, “Today is the third time some supermodel has come in here and groped the walls. If you two are guests, go right on upstairs; if someone wants to buy a condo, I’d be happy to talk. But the weirdo rituals need to stop. Now, do I have to call security?”

The chevalier’s smile vanished. She slid back her suit jacket, reached in toward her hip, and curled her fingers around a silver pommel.

I grabbed her elbow. “No, sir! We’ll be leaving.”

The air around us crackled like a thunderhead, but I managed to get her outside before the storm broke.

* * *

She whirled toward me and jabbed a finger into my chest. “Why did you stop me? That nobleman was interfering with my quest!”

I rolled my eyes. “What were you going to do, kill him?”

She straightened her shoulders. I had never noticed how tall she was. “I am a chevalier in the service of the Everlasting Queen, and no foreign law can constrain me. Neither prison nor bullet will stop me from my quest.”

I threw my hands up in the air to keep myself from throttling her. “They can stop me!

She scowled. “Don’t insult me, Charles. My squires are under my protection. But if you doubt me, I will find someone more suitable to help me finish this. I will contact you if I need the last two days of your time.” She turned on her heel and strode away down Broome Street.

I see you nodding, Prime Minister. But I didn’t know the ways of the Everlasting Court, not back then. All I knew was: if she was going to patronize me like some servant, good riddance.

I sat down on the curb. I’d wasted a sick day, maybe promised away two days more, in exchange for what? A headache and a few cheap stories. I couldn’t even smother my frustrations in a good grilled cheese sandwich. I’d never be able to visit the old Louie’s site again, unless I could roll in there with enough money to make Martinez take us seriously–

Fairy gold. Exactly, Prime Minister.

I ran down the street after her pinstriped form.

* * *

By the end of the weekend, she owned Broome Towers.

It really did work that easily. She poured on the glamour, and everyone wanted to bend the rules for her. No social security number? Don’t worry, you have a suitcase full of cash and such a charming smile.

And then our contract was finished. The chevalier told me a few more stories, and then took off with the deed to Broome Towers, intersection and all. She got what she wanted, and then vanished like a dame from an Elmore Leonard novel.

The next day, I stood again in front of sixty bored freshmen, but I knew this story wasn’t over. I planned to wait a week and then head down to Broome Street and see what the Good Folk had done with the opened intersection. Just a friendly visit, no obligations. I figured the chevalier would be gone, but whoever might come through, I wouldn’t want them in my debt any more than I wanted to be in theirs.

On Wednesday, I turned my phone back on after three classes in a row, and found a pile of voice mail, all from the same number.

“This is Eric Martinez, calling for Mr. Charles Pagano. We’re trying to contact Miss, uh… your employer.” I could hear him struggling to read her signature. “The bank has some questions about the money we deposited, and she gave us your number. Call me as soon as you can.”

See my problem, Prime Minister? I’d been so careful with our contract, but I never thought I’d need to bind her against sharing my name. And somebody would have to take the blame for the missing money.

* * *

Broome Towers looked the same as ever from two blocks away, but not from up close. Construction workers swarmed behind the façade glass, and dusty plastic sheeting blocked off half the lobby.

Inside, I found the chevalier in her navy-colored skirt suit again, now with a scarf of herringbone blues. A pair of contractors hung around her like moths desperate for incineration.

She drew out a black pen embossed with silver vines, signed a check, and handed it to one of the contractors. He touched the brim of his hard hat, and the two of them hurried away to do her bidding.

I wiped my palms on my slacks. “Martinez and his bank are after me. Why did you give them my number?”

She frowned. “Because you have a telephone.”

“I can’t keep them off your back, you realize that? They know where to find you!” I glanced toward the street, as if a collection agency might condense out of the New York air. My stomach churned, not because I’d missed lunch. “Wait, why are you still here? And how are you paying all these people?”

“Oh, it was such a relief to see home again, but her Majesty has given me a new quest! Don’t worry about the contractors, I can maintain the glamour for a while yet if I pay attention. Once it wears off, I will capture some Iron Gnomes to finish the job.”

She clapped her hands together. “I’m glad you’re here. I want you to become my squire again. I need someone glamour-resistant on this side to serve as my restaurant manager.”

She’d shocked the anger right out of my head. But some part of me wasn’t surprised. I think I’d always assumed the diner would come back somehow, after the intersection reopened.

She said, “Leave Martinez to me. Don’t answer yet; we’ll negotiate a salary, whatever you need. Her Majesty must have some winter-gold lying around.”

I barely noticed as she led me through the plastic sheeting. She was offering me the exact same job I’d left home to escape, all those years ago when I was a restless teen, so eager for change I couldn’t see the treasure I already held.

Restaurant work would’ve been a waste of my education, but if I could help stir a little bit of the Summer Land’s wonder into the world, it might be worth following in my parents’ footsteps.

I said, “I’d be proud to manage the new Louie’s Broome Street Diner. Or whatever you’re planning to call it now.”

She swept a hand toward the booth. It stood alone, an island of perfection in a sea of tarps and lumber. Perfection by one standard, anyways. Dark fine-grained wood, red velvet benches, marble tabletop, accents of vivid brass and blue. Not a speck of formica in sight. The one booth probably cost more than all the furnishings in my parents’ diner put together.

She smiled indulgently. “Forget the diner. Hamburgers and grilled cheese sandwiches may suit mortal digestion, but this time we can make something worthy of the Everlasting Queen.

“The same goes for upstairs. I will buy out the current residents, knock down a few walls, and rebuild the condominiums so the Dawn People can enjoy all the comforts of home.” She beamed. “When I complete my quest, Broome Street will become the dream vacation destination for every noble in the Summer Land.”

I took a step back. “Hold on. Do you know how few mortals can come to a place like this? I knew there’d be changes, but…” I clutched at a straw. “I thought you loved the diner!”

She shrugged. “It was interesting. But we’ll attract a much better clientele this way. Do pick up a copy of the Michelin restaurant guidebook before tomorrow, Charles. I need a chef who’s earned at least two stars.”

My anger drained away. What had I expected? For her to conjure my childhood with a flick of her blade, and then magic it into a shape worth embracing? I wasn’t upset about the diner—I was upset because she’d made me see what a fool I’d become the moment she walked in my door. I had fallen under a spell: not the chevalier’s glamour, but my own rose-tinted memories.

I didn’t plan the next part, not consciously. But I needed a moment to straighten out my head, and there was only one place to sit down.

* * *

I could’ve signed up with the chevalier anyways. It would’ve been a stable job, a steady income, a chance to work with Gentle Folk and the intersection. Louie’s Broome Street Diner wouldn’t have returned no matter what I chose.

But screw her, and screw the monstrosity she built in Louie’s place.

That’s why I came to you, Prime Minister. The Everlasting Queen and her chevaliers hold the intersection now, but they’re vulnerable, especially from the other side. I know how to contact their enemies in the mortal world, and I can find thousands of people who resist glamour like I do.

We need to prepare a contract, of course. But I’ve spoken to your parliament, and crawled through your peoples’ tunnels of iron and chrome, and I know we can come to an agreement. I’ve spent a year and a day in your world, but I think I’ve finished my quest to find an investor with better tastes.

New York becomes a new city every few years, and nobody can stop it: not my parents, not Wall Street, and not the Summer Land. But you just might get your turn, if you’re willing to listen to a local.

Benjamin C. Kinney is a neuroscientist, SFF writer, and two-time Hugo Award finalist as assistant editor of the science fiction magazine Escape Pod. His short stores are forthcoming or have appeared in Analog, Strange Horizons, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and more. He’s never lived in New York, but he’s originally from Boston, which is the same thing if you’re willing to be completely wrong. He currently lives in St. Louis with three cats and a spacefaring wife. You can find out more about him and his fiction at benjaminckinney.com, or follow him on Twitter @BenCKinney.