‘Where are we going?’ Curio asked.
His child-like voice was carrying a note of sadness. Following Ashlyn’s direction, he had opened a time door and the pair had leapt into another space. They had landed in the middle of windswept meadows and were now following the path of a river.
‘We have to find another offering for the tree,’ said Ashlyn.
She never expected that they would have to leave the Changeling Treehouse so quickly. It was a relief for her to feel the weight of her family’s book in her satchel again.
‘That was terrifying,’ she confessed. ‘I thought I lost the fairy tales forever.’
Curio moved to hover in front of Ashlyn and get her attention.
‘What is it?’ she asked.
‘You’re carrying the fairy tales, but they’re still lost,’ Curio said. ‘Right now, you’re borrowing them.’
Ashlyn frowned and stopped in her tracks.
‘They don’t belong to the tree,’ she said. ‘I never “sacrificed” them in the first place.’
She attempted to walk around Curio.
‘Besides, there’s nothing the tree can do if I decide to run away with MY book.’
‘Time sands are missing,’ said Curio, who insisted on fluttering in front of her face.
‘What do you mean?’ Ashlyn asked.
She took a step back and started to check her inventory.
Curio clarified, ‘The time sands of the fairy tales.’
Ashlyn’s brow wrinkled in confusion. Not knowing what to think, she removed her satchel and got out her family’s book. The cover was just as unremarkable as it had always been. She opened the book to see if anything was out of the ordinary. When she checked the first fairy tale, her face turned as pale as the blank page before her: the handwritten words she knew so well had disappeared.
‘What happened?’ she whispered.
She looked through the later pages of the book. Thankfully, the words of all the following tales had been left on the paper where they should be, but this surprised her.
‘I don’t understand,’ said Ashlyn. ‘Did they only steal one story?’
‘The words are flying away…’ Curio observed. ‘Page by page.’
Going back to the beginning of the book, Ashlyn saw that this was true. Little by little, the words were fading from the page and vanishing into thin air. Nothing but empty paper was left behind.
‘They’re flying back to the tree,’ said Curio, watching the phenomenon that Ashlyn couldn’t see. ‘The words and the time sands they carry.’
His time traveller slammed the book shut in a bid to make her family’s writing stay put.
‘It’s not that easy!’ she hissed.
‘I think it looks easy,’ said a fascinated Curio.
‘I meant taking the book,’ said Ashlyn.
One time leap later, the time traveller and the zeitgeist found themselves back at the bottom of the great dry lake. As soon as they stepped inside the Changeling Treehouse, the book’s missing words were instantly restored. There was nothing wrong with the look and feel of the book. It wasn’t as if the writing had developed an ancient, eerie glow. Everything was as old, wrinkly and tired as Ashlyn had left it, but there was something she was only just beginning to come to terms with: The book was no longer dominated by the time sands of the Espenschied family. Coursing through its pages now was the lifeblood of the tree.
The yellow fairy bat was more than happy to answer Ashlyn’s questions.
‘The longer you borrow a book, the more words will fly back to the tree,’ Yuen Yuen explained. ‘But I’m surprised the words flew so quickly. You left only a few minutes ago.’
It was Song Long who shed light on this anomaly.
‘She’s a time traveller. He’s a zeitgeist,’ she said. ‘They time travelled.’
The green fairy bat was studying a small collection of vials, each of which held small quantities of time sands.
‘My time sands!’ Ashlyn exclaimed, realising her pockets had been emptied. ‘How’d you get those?!’
‘I’m easy to miss when Tin Zan’s eating,’ said Song Long, pointing to the blue fairy bat in Ashlyn’s hair.
‘It’s fortunate you didn’t time travel far, Ashlyn,’ said Yuen Yuen. ‘The tree doesn’t accept empty books, you know.’
‘That book belongs to my family,’ Ashlyn said seriously. ‘All of the stories inside were handwritten by… very important people. I can’t just replace them, so tell me what I need to break a tree’s soul.’
‘Magic,’ said the fairy bats and the zeitgeist collectively.
‘I don’t do magic!’ shouted Ashlyn impatiently.
‘You can grow a new book,’ Ping Wo suggested from the top of her head. ‘Read your fairy tales aloud and you will grow a second edition that is worth its weight in time sands. Then you can trade it for your first edition.’
‘I just said I don’t do magic,’ said Ashlyn restlessly.
‘No need to worry about that,’ said Min Min. ‘Tell your fairy tales inside the tree and she will respond with her own magic. You’ll get what you want if you put the effort in.’
‘Do I really have to “grow” a new book?’ Ashlyn asked helplessly.
She didn’t try to hide how reluctant she was to see this suggestion through. It sounded long and boring. The thought of staying in one place for more than a day felt like a prison sentence.
‘How about I find another book?’ she offered eagerly. ‘I can trade that book for my original, can’t I?’
‘The tree will reject any book that isn’t as equally well-read,’ Yuen Yuen warned. ‘I viewed your book out of curiosity and am not surprised you want it back. It’s unique. It was penned by hand and hundreds of authors contributed to its making. It’s the product of more than a thousand time leaps. There are stories within stories, because each had been told and written under peculiar circumstances.’
His wife, Min Min, turned to Curio.
‘Zeitgeist,’ she summoned.
Curio looked down at her from his perch on Yuen Yuen’s head.
‘Do you remember seeing another book like that in all your time travels?’ Min Min questioned.
‘No,’ replied Curio.
The pink fairy bat turned to face Ashlyn.
‘You ask for the impossible. We ask for your time,’ she said. ‘Actually, it would be more accurate to say that we ask for story time.’
Ashlyn paused and wasn’t sure if she heard Min Min correctly.
‘Are you asking me to read you fairy bedtime stories?’ she said slowly.
The pink fairy bat ruffled her fur with displeasure.
‘Not me,’ she retorted. ‘The kids.’
Ashlyn glimpsed the blue fairy bat, who was still finding bugs in her hair. She looked at the green fairy bat, who stared back at her with low expectations. She couldn’t see the purple fairy bat, who had once again designated her head as his current high place. It was a strange deal. So strange that she had to take a minute to tell herself it wasn’t a bad deal. After all, Shahrazad had to tell her tales of one thousand and one nights between a lecherous king and an execution block.