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 males 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 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 four thousand members.
"Are all Vionnu like me?" Toff had asked this question before, but Redbird always said she didn't know.
"My son, you know I have not the 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 get information about the planet of his birth as he took a seat at the table. Idly he traced the edge of the blue plate that 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 instead, "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 a 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 quietly. He 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?" Toff was curious, now.
"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 dried his hands and didn't hear Toff's words. Silent now, they walked to the kitchen for dinner.