“With ‘Fools,’  Gina Chen has written a lush, compelling fantasy that transports the reader to a very unusual island. The main character Fanny is instantly lovable (despite her apparent lack of a heart) and the moment I hit the last page of this jewel of a story, I was desperate for more.”
—Sabaa Tahir, #1 New York Times bestseller



Ahma says my parents were a pair of fools. Runaways, who bartered the promise of my mothers womb to a witch to escape a kingdom that would sooner see them dead than in love. The witch spun a cloak that would hide them from all eyes except for those of the gods, and my parents sailed away from their homeland with only the stars as witness.

My mother bore me a year later and cradled me under that useless cloak until the witch came to collect, guided by my traitorous howling. I used to say it wasnt my fault we were found, that the cloak was supposed to hide us from everyone, and Ahma would only respond, “Incorrect.”

But I dont blame the witch for taking me: a promise is a promise. My pure heart, hours old, would make her a fine batch of potions. She nipped it out as gently as she would pluck a flower bud, then brought me to her sisters island at the edge of the world, where trees grow as tall as mountains and a manor roots itself among them—glossy as hemlock, white as beech, gnarled as oak, with towers branching off in every direction of the sun.

Ahma says when she found me on her porch, I was as small and ashen as a frostbitten kit, not a drop of blood left. I would grow stout and healthy under her care, but my pallor never changed and the hollow in my chest never filled.

I never saw my parents again.

 

* * *

 

There are places for girls like me, the remnants of someone elses story, and in this corner of the world, that place is Ahmas island. Twenty-two girls live here—just us, Ahma, and her birds. Ahma claims the foundation drew her here long ago, as if rock were something that could be felt hundreds of miles away, but the forest is what kept her here.

“The roots go down to the soul of the world, and the magic is drawn up to the surface. The island is a crossroads of destinies, a place where stories begin anew. Very ancient,” she said with a note of glee, “like me.”

Human and Otherworldly tourists flock here seeking to change their path. They whisper of Ahmas wisdom being the answer to life itself—but truly? She dispenses more fried pancakes than talk. You just cant think clearly on an empty stomach. Sometimes they need her spells or one of us girls and our strangenesses; like Mari, the victim of a king with a gemstone touch, whose opaline throat trilled songs that could beckon statues to life; or Linna, thrown into the sea as a sacrifice, who washed ashore with a sense for pearls as deep as fifty feet underwater. Sometimes our talents are needed elsewhere and the travelers whisk us away.

We all leave when a story calls to us.

At the break of summer, beetles buzzing, Bao joined a traveling troupe of actors for their tour. Not bad for someone who was harvested from an onion field as a babe. She has the ability to make you cry on sight if she wills it.

“You could come with us,” she told me before she left. We had stayed up through the night and dew flicked from my hair when I shook my head no. She sighed, swinging our arms. “Fanny, youve stayed here for longer than anyone else now.”

She knew I wanted to see the world outside the island, but I didnt belong among vibrant performers. I couldnt tell jokes or play pretend. I was, according to the girls, “a bit of a spoilsport,” though I was “their spoilsport.” Besides, the world has a kind of symmetry in its bargains and rules, and stories should fit like puzzle pieces as if they were crafted for us. My parents left me without a heart, and I wanted something to fill that space again.

“Ill be fine,” I said. “This troupe is your story, not mine.”

Bao bit back a second sigh. “Well, Ill miss you.”

She sends letters when she can. Her last one told of a performance in some place called Hythill on the Southern Coast. At night there, the waves glow with jellies and stars streak down from the heavens into the ocean, sizzling. I wish Id seen it.

 

* * *

 

No one has needed me except Ahma.

The chimes on the manors porch havent quieted today and scents from the other side of the mountain range blow past with the wind. Ahma squints at the trundling clouds overhead like shes about to scold them. “Its going to storm, Fan,” she says.

I take the broom by the door and head to the cleft.

The upsides of a missing heart are few and practical. Without a heart, I dont bleed, I feel my wounds less, if at all, and unlike my parents, I am never distracted by a leap of emotion. So Ahma gives me the task that demands the steadiest of the girls—that of guarding the gate between worlds.

Any closed body of fresh water can serve as a crossing point to the Otherworld. Down past the wall of pines, through the hollow log, and two skips from the mushroom trail, theres a cleft that slices the ground down to the rock and cups rainwater during the storm season, and it always needs watching. Most crossings are unconcerning—wood spirits, Toadmen, minor dragons, the Otherworldly that hardly ever bother humans—but every so often, a demon tries to sneak through. Nothing as awful as the ones that used to pillage the human realm, but menaces just the same whod steal your coin, cart, and horse and then fast-talk you into bargaining your left hand for their return. They can travel with the proper permits if theyve proven themselves honest, but they never have them and Ive stopped asking. If a solid thump on their heads doesnt drive them back, the mention of Ahma does.

I make it to the cleft before the storm batters down and watch the crossings from the opening of a hollowed knoll, rain misting my cheeks. Small spirits gleam through at first, then deer-like creatures skitter out as the pool widens. Something leaps in from overhead, returning to its home with a splash, and the forest canopy rattles.

Rivulets feed the pool until it grows into a small lake. As I move to higher ground, I hear bubbling and turn.

The water spits out a wet bird. Then another.

I pace closer to the pebbled shore. The birds flap away, alive enough. The lake is still bubbling—something is still crossing. But the water is all dark and I cant see what—

The dark is crossing.

The water turns into slime, the slime into a sheen of feathers. The thing rises like a geyser of mud, sloughing its mass of feathers in globs around the shore, until its three times bigger than the biggest demon Ive ever seen. Ahma says nothing truly dangerous passes through anymore, that she is the most fearsome thing in this forest, but—

The shrieking starts—all the birds of the island awake at once to shout an omen. An arrival.

The demon twists around and behind the mess of feathers blooms a pale, human face. A shiver runs through my whole body from outwards in, stopping behind my ribs. Without a heart, Im not afraid, I tell myself.

I hoist the end of my broom at him and shout as loud as I can, “Permit, please!”

The demon peers down, close enough for me to glimpse the frayed swath of feathers on one side of his neck, upturned as if he forgot to brush it, if demons have such mundane rituals. His voice is deep and rasping. “I will be here briefly. I only seek a bride. Though I would prefer a less grim-looking one than you.”

I dont self-consciously look for my reflection in the lake like he wants me to, so that he can slip away. My eyes stay on him. “There are no girls here, and you cannot cross without a permit. This is an ancient witchs forest! Go elsewhere!”

“Ah, then Im in the right place. Let me find my bride, and Ill leave you.”

I slide my broom into a better grip. “What if she does not agree to go?”

“Then I will find another. Love must be reciprocal.”

I dig my feet into the gravel. “And … if you find no one?”

“Then I will leave for someplace else.”

“And if I do not trust what you say?”

“Then you do not trust me. That is not my concern.”

“Oh, it is.” I snarl and lunge.

My foot kicks into the demons body, sinking into his feathers with a squelch. Sweeping my broom underneath me, I draw a gust out of the air and propel myself upwards. High enough to meet his bewildered stare.

And I bring the broom back over my head.

Mortal means wont kill him, but I cant let him kidnap one of the girls. If I inconvenience him enough—

The demon blurs, moving the bulk of his body so fast, it cant be muscle, but smoke instead. I strike empty space, flailing, and crash onto the shore.

A shadow falls over the cleft. His wings are spread, poised for flight. Clambering to my feet, I charge again before he can take off. The black wall of his wing swings out, batting me into a tree. I groan.

“Fool,” I hear the demon murmur, the softest chiding.

Scraping my arm against bark, I push myself up. He inclines his head, as if he can sense the press of my toes in the mud, the stumble of my fingers along the slippery broom handle. When I rush at him a third time, he shoves off from the ground, soaring into the air. He disappears in the direction of the manor.

I run after him.

Rain and sweat slick my face. I claw through the forest, over stone and stump, squeezing my lungs for each breath.

“Ahma!”

I stagger into the manors clearing, the spiral towers whirling above me. A man is standing on the porch, nested in a flurry of feathers. My vision steadies as he turns to me, smile dimpled, hair morning-mussed, and black feather cape fluttering. The demon.

Ahma, dont open the door.

The door opens and I glimpse Ahma with her eyes bulged and her cheeks red, but I dont have the breath to cry out more than her name. “Ahma—” She hasnt seen the demons true form.

Spittle flies from her mouth. “Sidoi! You are leaving a mess!”

Sidoi? All adrenaline drains out. “Potato?”

“Yi,” the demon-man says, sinking into his cravat, “please dont call me that in front of others.”

Ahma rakes the feathers he shed into her arms, tossing them back in his face. “Look! Look at all this!”

He ignores her and, instead, hisses to me, “Call me Dimen.”

“Ahma, hes a demon,” I say. “I saw him come through the crossing.”

Ahma waves a hand. “Half-demon, bah. And about time. Sidoi hasnt visited in decades!”

Dimen cringes—how could I ever doubt Ahma was the more fearsome one? “Yi ah,” he says, “you know how fast time goes on this side, its only been a few years …”

“Only! Clean this up and then I will acknowledge you. She beckons for me. “Fan, come in, youll catch your death, sopping wet. Excuse my nephew …”

I stare at him, truly now. I didnt mishear; he called her his aunt. But Ahma only has one sister that I know of—the witch who took my heart. His face stirs no memories. He hardly even looks like Ahma. Meanwhile, we look like opposites—I, broad-shouldered, calloused at every corner, and he, only a sliver taller than me, but slender as a reed. He looks as if he could dance with the flicker of a flame. And hes beautiful. Awfully beautiful.

Dimen bows. “Its a pleasure to—”

“You heard your aunt.” I kick the feathers out of her entryway and shut the door behind me.

 

* * *

 

After Dimen clears out all the feathers, he deems the porch his. Every day he takes his tea there, argues with Ahma there, flirts there. All the girls love him, and I cant help but wonder which story he fits in, which girl will leave with him—willingly, of course, or hell meet me and my broom for a second fight.

“Dimens so handsome, I can hardly believe it.” Pems confession, wrapped in a clouded breath, hangs in the icy air of the manors tallest tower. She and Mari insisted on meeting here—the furthest point from the guest room where Dimen is staying—because we arent sure how good half-demon ears are.

Stretched out on the sheepskin rug, Sheli nods. “Hes not my type, but hes gorgeous.” Ive been long certain when Sheli leaves Ahmas, it wont be for love, anyway. Maybe for a treasure map. Shell take Linna along, if shes still here.

When I next catch Dimen lounging on the porch under the still set of wind chimes, his finger is curled under Linnas chin. Juniper and Pem are leaned over his shoulders, draping him like stoles. Mari sits cross-legged at his feet. Their eyes are glassy, distant, and all the hairs on my neck bristle. I thought they were just taken by his beauty and his novelty, but—

“Youre bespelling them,” I say, and I know Im right when he is the only one to turn at my voice. “Let them go.”

He shrugs and his cape of feathers ripples with the movement. “It is not a … thing I do. It just happens. It will fade. When they bore of me.”

I haul the girls away from him, one by one, pushing them into the manor even as they protest. When Im done, I bring the broom out, sweeping the porch steps with unnecessary force. A small threat, but one he notices.

“Apologies for the other day,” Dimen offers. “I wasnt sure how powerful you were. Thought you might cut me down before I could see Auntie. Turns out you just have a lack of self-preservation.”

“How are you even choosing a bride?” How long are you staying here? is what I really want to know, but some questions get better answers than others.

“You are aware of the tale of the beautiful girl who saved the rose-born beast?”

“You have a curse to break?”

“No, no, not my curse. I”he presses his hands to his own chest—“am the beautiful girl in this instance.”

My mouth drops open. “So the girls here …”

“Are the beasts, yes. Its the charitable thing I can do. If I save a poor cursed soul—”

I smack him with my broom. “Were not beasts!”

“Technically,” Dimen says, one arm raised like a shield, any creature of blood is one.”

“Well, I dont have any blood. I dont even have a heart. What does that make me, Potato?”

“Rude, apparently.” He grins, all teeth. “No heart, hmm? Do you miss it?”

I stare hard at him, at his beautiful face and the long wisps of his hair and the anticipatory smile pulling at his lips—all tricks. That is the way with Otherworldly demons; tricks are all they know. “Your mother may have carved a heart out of me,” I say, “but I have grown a better one. Just because my heart lives in my mind doesnt make it any less real.”

“My mother? Ah—if you think Im anything like that hag, I assure you, I am not … although stealing hearts runs in the family a little bit, if I do say so myself …”

I tighten my grip on my broom, and he raises both arms.

“A joke! A joke!” He snickers. His eyes glimmer like jewels in a jade frog. “You know, I like you.”

My skin tingles. I chew the inside of my cheek to make it stop. “Well, I—dont like you, so.”

He responds by raising his brows but says nothing. I dont realize hes waiting for me to speak further until a long silence has drawn out between us, but when I open my mouth, I find myself speechless. What do I want from him, anyway?

Sometimes, I do miss my heart, if only to give me an answer in times like these. I know I love Ahma even though shes stern and I love the girls even though they can annoy me, but how am I supposed to feel about this half-demon who suddenly flew in and takes up too much space in the manor?

“Just find—find your bride and leave. Or better yet, just leave.” I end up flinging the front door open harder than I mean to and march inside, and Ahma shouts at me from the kitchen to not walk so loudly.

 

* * *

 

The girls and I huddle in the tower again, closer to the stars than to the ground. Theres nothing except shadow if you peer into the forest below, even with the moon bright overhead and large enough to touch if you dared reach out that far.

“I heard hes a runaway prince. Do they have princes in the Otherworld?” asks Mari.

“What!” Juniper exclaims. “Who said he was a prince?”

“Its supposed to be a secret, but …”

Juniper shook her head. “Dimen told me he was a mercenary. That was he hunting down some demons forging travel permits, but he had to lay low to lure them out.”

Pem frowns, looking to Mari for agreement. “He told us that he was being slandered by a royal family and needed to hide out here until talk died down, right?”

I muffle a snort into my hand. And the spell is broken, just like that. Of course even a half-demon would lie through his teeth just to impress us.

“Well, I know he likes Fanny.” Pem leans out of her blanket. “I heard him.”

“Aie, not like that!” I scowl as the girls giggles hum through the floorboards; I answered too quickly. “He was just teasing.”

“So he does like you.”

I cant blush like they do, and I dont want to think about what Id look like if I could. “It wouldnt matter if he does. Im not a fool. Besides, how could I leave you all and Ahma? I like it here.”

“I thought you wanted to see the world one day,” says Juniper.

“Yes, one day, but Ahma needs me—”

“Still? No real demons come through that crossing anymore.”

“How do you know I dont stop them before they get to you?” I shoot back. But shes mostly right. I twist the topic a little. “Wont you all miss me if I leave? Ill miss you. Its a hard decision to make.”

“I suppose.” Mari shrugs as a different thought slides onto her face. “I know Id like to visit a kings court again one day—but a different one, and Ill dress up fancier than a frosted cake. Pems helping me with dress patterns …”

When the girls tire of talk, I accompany the younger ones back to their rooms, then tuck into my own bed. But the chatter built up over the evening crowds out any chance of sleep and I sit up again. I crack the window open enough to let a finger through.

It is a hard decision. And I do like it here.

And even if I want to see the world one day, Im not restless for it. At the same time, its as if a wind is always whistling through me, like a heart-shaped sigh.

Is it possible to want for nothing and everything all at once?

 

* * *

 

It rains again. Ahma says itll rain for days.

I almost dont see Dimen on the far side of the pooling water, dark amongst the tall white birch like a burnt stump. The Otherworldly are easy to miss like that, standing as if theyve always been there—and they might have been. I dont hear his approach either; he is there, then he is in front of me, as if carried by the wind.

“Would you like company?” he asks.

“The girls are bored of you?”

He shrugs a single shoulder.

“So,” I say, “you want company?”

“We both get company. Lets both enjoy it.” He crouches under the hollow knoll and sits next to me, though I dont make space for him.

“Its not very exciting. We used to get more demons, but theres been hardly any for years.”

“Oh, I know. I guarded this crossing point from the Otherworld.”

I tear my eyes from the water. “What?”

“I stopped the bigger demons like me from coming through.” He traces the shape of the waterlogged cleft with a finger. Its shores are now wide enough to let through a whole family of dragons at once. “Auntie has you taking care of the small ones, I assume.”

I imagine him in his demon form, his wings flung out in challenge against some equally menacing fiend as they take flight to do battle in the skies. “You were on the other side the entire time?”

Dimen makes a middling sort of grunt. “If anyone asks. Im sure youre more dutiful at this than I was. Its fine either way; Auntie is scarier than anything in the Otherworld. You never poked your head through the pool?”

I blink. “Humans need a travel permit, too, if they want to cross, and I dont have—”

Head thrown back, he barks a laugh—a real laugh—and its the most imperfect Ive ever seen him, wrinkles all along his face and not just in his handsome dimples. He laughs like Ahma: all in the belly. “Not all rules are for our benefit, you know—most are for someone elses convenience. An excuse to not think too hard about things. So, what do you say—want to look now?”

Hes already taken my hand, pulling me splashing through the puddles.

“Wait!” I shout, and he stops, turning with that slight raise of his brows. My thoughts are buzzing and of no help, and I feel nothing but the cold, clear water at my feet and his hand in mine. “Slow—slow down, thats all.”

“Ah.” He relaxes. “My apologies. I forget myself sometimes.”

We look, just for a minute—a marvelous minute—and in that split-second of crossing back when I stand fully in neither realm, I feel lighter than air, like I could land anywhere in the world. 

We visit twice more in the following days, each time for a little longer. The second time, Dimen brings lunch he claims he cooked, and a certain question cant stay lodged in my throat any longer.

“Are you courting me?” I ask.

“Would you like me to?”

Though Im not quite looking at him and I dont think hes looking at me, Im certain its an earnest question.

But I never do answer him.

 

* * *

 

I dont believe much in love, at least the kind of love that you fall into. I know it exists. But as a thing I can touch, a thing Ive seen—I dont know. I dont understand how you can make a promise on something so unsolid.

But sometimes, you spend so much time with the same person—

This wouldnt be a problem if Dimen werent the prettiest one here.

He hasnt found a bride, but one day his few belongings are packed and set aside by the entryway, along with a new coat and a twine-wrapped bundle of food. While I help Ahma cook dinner, Tayin, the youngest of us twenty-two girls, tugs on Ahmas apron and asks, “Is Fanny going to leave with the prince?”

“The prince? Sidoi? He is a potato, not a prince, girl. And Fan does not want to leave with him.”

She shouldnt have said so with such certainty, even thought it was true just a week before. Because immediately, I itch to prove her wrong. I let Tayin fold the rest of the dumplings, her favorite task, and excuse myself from the kitchen.

Outside, Dimen is sweeping the porch and the furniture is back where it used to be, like he had never moved it around. I remember when I shouted at him to leave, and hes been nothing but contrary this entire visit; I never imagined hed leave at all.

I chew my lip. “Where are you headed next?”

“Im not sure.” He leans on the broom as he thinks, fraying the bristles. I make him rest it against the railing. “I always wanted to explore the human world. Hythill has nice shores, I hear. I could bring you along if youd like.”

“What—” I gulp to find my words. “What about your bride search?”

“There are beautiful women all around the world. Dont worry about me.”

“Then youre not—I wouldnt be—” Swaying on my feet, I would gladly grasp the closest thing to hold me steady, if it werent his arm. “That is, you know how that would look … if we left together.”

“You dont have to be my bride, if that is what youre asking.”

Have to be. “I have a choice?”

Ever so slightly, Dimens gaze slides somewhere to the side of me, so he doesnt have to look me in the eyes. “You always have a choice, Fanny.”

The wind whistles past and tugs at the secret in my chest; the carved space has always ached, if I knew to recognize its pang. Does he fit there, is he meant to nest there, this feathered demon of smoke? Its a jewel of a thought, one that my fingers are nearly curled around. All I know is he makes me want to talk back to him and I think he likes it when I do, and he would take me wherever I wished and I would trust the hand holding mine. That isnt love. Its not an answer, or anything as neat as a yes or a no. Its certainly not how stories go.

So I say the only thing I know I want: “Kiss me.”

The air hiccups. He glides to the space in front of me, and when I close my eyes for a blink, I hear his movement for the first time—a single beat of a birds wing. “It takes two,” he murmurs.

I lean forward and kiss him. Just a taste, and we part. A peek through the pool can be just a peek and nothing more. I dont want to be a demons bride, not right now.

But I want this. I reach for his hand, and his talon-sharp fingers wrap around mine.

“Bring me with you,” I say.

 

* * *

 

My world fits in a knapsack. I hug all the girls goodbye, then run downstairs and out the back door and meet Ahma in her garden.

Im breathless—maybe even blushing. “Ahma, forgive me,” I say. “I think I may be a fool.”

Ahma laughs; birds deep in the forest startle at the sound. She dusts the dirt off her palms and kneads my cheeks with a liver-spotted hand. “All the best stories begin with one.”

She presses a bag into my arms and I know inside are warm buns and boiled eggs. I kiss her cheek and promise to visit.

“But not too soon,” she adds.

I run to the clearing in front of the manor, bag and broom in hand, and Dimen is overhead, his great wings unfurled, a shadow blocking the sun. He swoops down, I catch the thick ridge of feathers on his neck, and together, we fly away from Ahmas island.

 


AUTHOR’S NOTE

As a Chinese American who grew up on mostly British stories, I always wished for more fantasy that mixed the different lores and aesthetics living in my imagination. I didnt feel like an outsider in these worlds I knew, but neither did any of them feel fully like home. I breathed this wish into particular details: the cadence of the narration, the fairy tales referenced in passing, the language switching—especially the dual names of Fan and Fanny. Fairy tales often center around grand quests, but in this case I wanted to write a small story set in a big world. Sometimes theres an entire journey in those first few steps.   

Ahmas island is a place of multiple languages and dialects. Sidoi is a Taishanese Romanization of 薯仔, which means “potato and is also slang for “fool. Dimen is a Mandarin Romanization of 睇門, which means “guard the door. It also happens to sound a lot like “demon.



{ Edited by Alexa Wejko. }
This new voice is sponsored by Marieke Nijkamp.