Now that the 20th anniversary edition of Changeling: the Dreaming has dropped, it’s time to start re-establishing the setting! Hooray! C20 updates the Kithain for the modern world, progressing the story from the classic World of Darkness and cleaning up a lot of the squishier ideas that never quite got hammered out in 2nd Edition.
Going back to Baltimore got me thinking about what modern-day Changeling would look like in the Duchy of the Chesapeake. Here’s a first pass at an idea for a freehold in the heart of West Baltimore.
It didn’t matter how early you got up in the summer; the day was going to get started without you. That’s why the sunlight was already glinting off the candy wrappers and smashed bottles in the street at 7 in the morning, and why the crickets were already sawing away when Kevin stepped onto his front porch. It wasn’t hot yet, but the insects were warning him already — “Brother, you’d better find some shade in a few hours so you don’t melt.”
Kevin really hated mornings like this one. You couldn’t even enjoy it because you had so much to do before the sun got too high. Neighbors were breaking the unspoken rule that you just didn’t start lawnmowers before nine because they knew now was the only time to do it. Down the block, he could hear Mr. Gordon puttering away on that ancient gas cutter; there was a weed-whacker going one street over; in the distance, someone was taking an electric trimmer to their hedges. The drone of the motors told him the same thing the crickets were, and it made the morning feel urgent, almost panicky. It riled him.
He sat on the railing and watched the neighborhood. There weren’t a lot of people out, but the ones that were moved with purpose. After the sun beat every living thing back to their pockets of shade, the block would be live with people jawing and fanning themselves on the porches. People would go visit each other, especially when a pitcher of lemonade or sweet tea came out, but that was all the movement you would see until the sun went down. Even then, it’d be too hot to do much besides cook a little something or play a quick game of basketball. This day, like so many in July, would be a long, slow torpor punctuated by brief sprints of movement before all of your energy was sapped again. These few hours were all people had to feel like people; it wouldn’t be long before it was too hot to be in the house without an air conditioner, and who could afford one of those?
So people were out, walking to the corner store, or watering their plants, or getting to the gas station or liquor store a few blocks down the road. The only people who were just sitting on the porch were him and the girl across the street at the Hotel.
It was just a house, but everybody called it the Hotel. As far as Kevin knew, only three people lived there — an ancient old lady with glasses that made her look like some kind of beetle; a short woman who never stopped moving or talking, who could go from laughing to murderously angry as fast as you could blink; and a girl, about his age, who carried herself like an honest-to-God princess. The three women had a ton of people over at their place all the time, though. Some were fairly regular, but most weren’t. The only white people Kevin ever saw that weren’t on TV or at the mall were at the Hotel. They would come out on the porch in the evenings and chat, with plates of food or big glasses of something alcoholic probably, and while the faces were mostly different it seemed like all three of them knew every single one.
Kevin had always wondered what was up with the Hotel, but his mother told him to mind his own business when he asked. The women never bothered the neighbors, despite all the traffic, and the neighborhood left them alone in kind. But that didn’t sit right with him. People around these parts were mostly quiet, and mostly private, but everybody still knew everybody else’s business. Nobody knew anything about the women at the Hotel, and nobody seemed the least bit curious about them except him.
He looked up and down the street, but there wasn’t anyone unusual coming or going. It almost never happened, but the girl at the Hotel was completely alone.
Without thinking about it, Kevin got up and walked across the street. He stopped at the iron fence, his hand hovering on the latch. Something in the back of his brain told him that he probably shouldn’t just walk into somebody else’s yard uninvited. So he called up to the girl watching him from the porch.
“Hey. Can I come over?” He instantly regretted asking like that. He was seventeen years old, not seven.
The girl looked at him, her chin held high. Then she looked away and down the street. “I guess.”
Kevin pushed the gate open. The metal wasn’t iron, but it sure looked like it; it was lighter, though, and cool to the touch. He stepped through it and up to the steps while the gate swung shut behind him. “My name’s Kevin. I, uh, live over there.” He pointed to his house, across the street and one lot over.
“I know where you live, Kevin.” The girl was looking at him again. From his spot at the bottom of the stairs, she actually did look kind of royal. She was in a cheap plastic chair, but it might as well have been a throne. “What do you need?”
“Nothing.” Kevin smiled, unsure why he was so nervous. “I just wanted to say hey.”
“Oh.” The girl seemed almost disappointed. “Hey.” She looked down the street again, and suddenly broke into a smile.
Kevin stared at her. She was one of those Erykah Badu types, always in form-fitting dresses or pants that looked expensive, hair wrapped in a scarf all bundled up tight. Today’s outfit was a sleeveless dress that was emerald in the shade but a glaring yellow in the sun. Her headwrap matched, and somehow she managed to get long earrings with (probably) fake pearls jangling around a single emerald. She looked pretty tight. Her family must have had money. What did they do in that house?
She looked back his way and he quickly focused on the stairs. He looked back up at her when he thought it was safe. “So what’s your name?”
She looked at him for a moment, like she was judging him. Normally Kevin would have been offended, but here he just felt exposed. “Why don’t you come up on the porch? I’m not going to stab you.”
“I know that.” Kevin smiled again, trying to be friendly but just looking nervous. “I just didn’t want to be rude or nothing.”
“Oh. I said you could come over, though. It ain’t rude to come up on my porch after I invited you.” She looked down the street again. “My name is Tefir.”
“Tefir?” Kevin swirled the syllables around in his mouth and decided he liked them. “What’s that mean?”
“Oh. Sorry.” Kevin tried to make out what she was staring at down the street. He thought he saw some lightning bugs in a little swarm, but that didn’t make any sense. It must have been a trick of the light.
“It’s OK. Nothing wrong with being curious.” She smiled at him. “What does Kevin mean?”
“I don’t know. Probably king or something.”
“So you’re a king then?”
“I didn’t say all that.” Was this girl making fun of him or something? What was he doing here? “Just…you know…something cool, like, this big deal that you can’t live up to.”
Tefir laughed. “Not with that attitude. I don’t know what Kevin means either, but I bet it means something like ‘bold’ or ‘seeker’.”
“Yeah? What makes you say that?”
“I don’t know, just a feeling.” Tefir sat back in her chair and folded her hands in her lap. “How come you never asked to come over before now?”
Kevin shrugged. It felt like he was sweating, but it wasn’t hot enough for that. “You always have company.”
Tefir checked him with her eyes. “Yeah, we do. But they’re friendly. I know Ma wouldn’t mind fixing you a plate if you wanted.”
“All right, I’ll come over then.” Kevin heard himself say that before he thought it through. It would be a little hard to explain that to his mom. “Who are all these people who come over, though?”
Tefir shrugged, then looked down the street. “Just some of Ma’s friends is all. She’s been all over, so she knows a lot of people. She gives ’em a place to stay when they’re in town.”
“Yeah? Was your mom in a band or something?”
Tefir laughed. “Naw. Military. Uh, kind of. But she retired and settled down here. I think she misses going different places, but at least different places can come to her now.”
“Doesn’t it feel weird having all these strangers in your house?” Kevin tried to imagine his mother having company every day, and couldn’t see any way it didn’t end with somebody getting killed.
“Mm-mm. It’s fine. I write letters and send emails to people all over the world. I can go anywhere and know that there’s somewhere I can stay if I need to. I like that.”
“So you want to travel?”
Tefir shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe. I might get my mom’s old job, so I’d pretty much have to.”
Kevin blinked. “I can’t imagine you in the military, though. They wouldn’t allow headwraps.”
“You wouldn’t have heard of it.”
“Some African thing?”
“Something like that.” Tefir snorted. She looked away from the street and at a corner of her porch, then laughed.
Kevin followed her eyes and screamed. He could have sworn there was nothing there before, but a giant lioness sprawled out in the corner now, so big her forepaws were just a few feet from him though her back was against the railing some twenty feet away. Her tail thumped the porch noisily and she startled at the sound. She rose up on front paws as he scrambled down the stairs; to his amazement, she looked surprised.
“Teffie,” the great cat said, “I think he can see me.”
“What the fuck?” Kevin felt like there was a rock in his lungs. He couldn’t breathe. He looked back at Tefir to find that she, too, had changed.
She was taller than before, her bearing regal, almost statuesque. Her skin was a perfect mahogany, and her eyes…her eyes…
They were huge and black, with white flecks inside that swirled and twinkled as he stared. They looked like the sky at night, a milky swirl of stars bending and straightening like a whip cracked in slow motion. They were beautiful and frightening and impossible. Kevin couldn’t look away, but he had to run.
His heel caught air instead of the ground as he tried to back down the steps. He tumbled into the dark before he knew what happened.