I wake in Locke’s house on a bed covered in tapestries. My mouth tastes of sour plums and is swollen from kissing. Locke is beside me on the bed, eyes shut, still in his party clothes. I pause in the act of rising to study him, his sharp ears and fox-fur hair, the softness of his mouth, his long limbs spread out in sleep. His head is pillowed on one ruffle-covered wrist.
The night comes back in a rush of memory. There was dancing and a chase through the maze. I remember falling on my hands in the dirt and laughing, totally unlike myself. Indeed, when I look down at the borrowed ball gown I slept in, there are grass stains on it.
Not that I’d be the first to green gown her.
Prince Cardan watched me all night, a shark restlessly circling, waiting for the right moment to bite. Even now I can conjure the memory of the scorched black of his eyes. And if I laughed louder for the sake of angering him, if I smiled wider, and kissed Locke longer, that is a kind of deceit that even the Folk cannot condemn.
Now, however, the night feels like one long, impossible dream.
Locke’s bedroom is messy—books and clothes scattered on divans and low couches. I wade through to the door and pad over the empty halls of the house. Finding my way back to the dusty room of his mother’s, I take off her gown and tug on yesterday’s clothes. I reach to take my knife from her pocket, and when I do, the golden acorn comes out with it.
Impulsively, I tuck both knife and acorn into my tunic. I want some memento of the night, something to recall it, should nothing like it ever happen again. Locke told me I could borrow anything in the room, and I am borrowing this.
On my way out, I pass the long dining table. Nicasia is there, sectioning an apple with a little knife.
“Your hair looks like a thicket,” she says, popping a slice of fruit into her mouth.
I glance at a silver plate on the wall, which shows only a distorted and blurred image of myself. Even in that, I can tell she’s right—a halo of brown surrounds my head. Reaching up, I begin undoing my braid, combing it out with my fingers.
“Locke’s asleep,” I say, assuming that she’s waiting to see him. I expect to feel as though I have something over her, being the one that came from his bedroom, but what I actually feel is a little bit of panic.
I don’t know how to do this. I don’t know how to wake up in a boy’s house and talk to the girl with whom he had a relationship. That she’s also a girl who probably wants me dead is, oddly, the only part of this that feels at all normal.
“My mother and his brother thought we were to be wed,” she says, seeming as though she might be talking to the air and not to me at all. “It was going to be a useful alliance.”
“With Locke?” I ask, confused.
She gives me an annoyed look, my question seeming to bring her briefly out of her story. “Cardan and me. He ruins things. That’s what he likes. To ruin things.”
Of course Cardan likes to ruin things. I wonder how that could be something she only just realized. I would have thought that would be something they had in common.
I leave her to her apple and her reminiscences and head toward the palace. A cool breeze blows through the trees, lifting my loose hair and bringing me the scent of pine. In the sky, I hear the call of gulls. I am grateful for the lecture today, glad to have an excuse for not going home and hearing whatever Oriana has to say to me.
Today the lecture is in the tower, my least favorite location. I climb the steps and settle myself. I am late, but I find a spot on a bench near the back. Taryn is sitting on the other side. She looks at me once, raising her brows. Cardan is beside her, dressed in green velvet, with golden stitching picking out thorns tipped in blue thread. He lounges in his seat, long fingers tapping restlessly against the wood of the bench beside him.
Looking at him makes me feel equally restless.
At least Valerian hasn’t shown up. It is too much to hope that he never returns, but at least I have today.
A new instructor, a knight named Dulcamara, is talking about rules of
inheritance, probably in anticipation of the coming coronation.
The coronation, which will mark my rise to power as well. Once Prince Dain is the High King, his spies can haunt the shadows of Elfhame with only Dain himself to keep us in check.
“In some of the lower Courts, a king or queen’s murderer can take the throne,” Dulcamara says. She goes on to tell us that she is part of the Court of Termites, which has not yet joined Eldred’s banner.
Although she is not wearing armor, she stands as though she’s used to the weight of it. “And that is why Queen Mab bargained with the wild fey to make the crown King Eldred wears, which can only be passed down to her descendants. It would be tricky to get it by force.” She grins wickedly.
If Cardan were to try to stop her lesson, she looks like she would eat him alive and crack his bones for marrow.
The Gentry children look at Dulcamara uncomfortably. Rumor has it that Lord Roiben, her king, is planning to swear to the new High King, bringing with him his large Court, one that has held off Madoc’s forces for years. Roiben’s joining the High Court of Elfhame is widely considered to be a masterstroke of diplomacy, negotiated by Prince Dain against Madoc’s wishes. I suppose she’s come for the coronation.
Larkspur, one of the youngest of us, pipes up. “What happens when there are no more children in the Greenbriar line?”
Dulcamara’s smile gentles. “Once there are fewer than two descendants— one to wear the crown and the other to place it on the ruler’s head—the High Crown and its power crumble. All of Elfhame will be free from their oaths to it.
“Then, who knows? Maybe a new ruler will make a new crown. Maybe
you’ll return to warring with smaller Seelie and Unseelie Courts. Maybe you will join our banners in the Southwest.” Her smile makes it clear which of those she would prefer.
I stick my hand up. Dulcamara nods in my direction. “What if someone
tries to take the crown?”
Cardan gives me a look. I want to glare, but I can’t help thinking of him sprawled out on the ground with those girls. My cheeks heat all over again. I drop my gaze.
“An interesting question,” Dulcamara says. “Legend has it that the crown will not allow itself to be placed on the brow of anyone who isn’t an heir of Mab, but Mab’s line has been very fruitful. So long as a pair of descendants try to take the crown, it could be done. But the most dangerous part of a coup would be this: The crown is cursed so that a murder of its wearer causes the death of the person responsible.”
I think of the note I found in Balekin’s house, about blusher mushrooms, about vulnerability.
After the lecture, I go down the steps carefully, remembering taking them at a run after stabbing Valerian. My vision blurs, and I feel dizzy for a moment, but the moment passes. Taryn, coming behind me, all but pushes me into the woods once we’re outside.
“First of all,” she says, tugging me over patches of curling ferns, “no one knows you weren’t home all last night except for Tatterfell, and I gave her one of your nicest rings to make sure she wouldn’t say anything. But you have to tell me where you were.”
“Locke had a party at his house,” I say. “I stayed—but it wasn’t, I mean, nothing much happened. We kissed. That was it.”
Her chestnut braids fly as she shakes her head. “I don’t know if I believe that.”
I let out my breath, perhaps a little dramatically. “Why would I lie? I’m not the one hiding the identity of the person courting me.”
Taryn frowns. “I just think that sleeping in someone’s room, in someone’s bed, is more than kissing.”
My cheeks heat, thinking of the way it had felt to wake up with his body stretched out beside mine. To get the attention off me, I start speculating about her. “Ooooh, maybe it’s Prince Balekin. Are you going to marry Prince Balekin? Or perhaps it’s Noggle and you can count the stars together.”
She smacks me in the arm, a little too hard. “Stop guessing,” she says. “You know I’m not allowed to say.”
“Ow.” I pick a white campion flower and stick it behind my ear. “So you like him?” she asks. “Really like him?”
“Locke?” I ask. “Of course I do.”
She gives me a look, and I wonder how much I worried her, not coming home the night before.
“Balekin I like less well,” I say, and she rolls her eyes.
When we get back to the stronghold, I find that Madoc has left word he will be out until late. With little else to do for once, I look for Taryn, but although I saw her go upstairs just minutes before, she’s not in her room. Instead, her dress is on the bed and her closet open, a few gowns hanging roughly, as though she pulled them out before finding them wanting.
Has she gone to meet her suitor? I take a turn around the room, trying to see it as a spy might, alert for signs of secrets. I notice nothing unusual but a few rose petals withering on her dressing table.
I go to my room and lie on my bed, going over my memories of the night before. Reaching into my pocket, I remove my knife to finally clean it. When
I bring it out, I am holding the golden acorn, too. I turn the bauble over in my hand.
It’s a solid lump of metal—a beautiful object. At first I take it only for that, before I notice the tiny lines running across it, tiny lines that seem to indicate moving parts. As though it were a puzzle.
I can’t screw off the top, although I try. I can’t seem to do anything else with it, either. I am about to give up and toss it onto my dressing table when I glimpse a tiny hole, so small as to be nearly invisible, right at the bottom. Hopping off my bed, I rattle through my desk, looking for a pin. The one I find has a pearl on one end. I try to fit the point into the acorn. It takes a moment, but I manage, pushing past resistance until I feel a click and it opens. Mechanized steps swing out from a shining center, where a tiny golden bird rests. Its beak moves, and it speaks in a creaky little voice. “My dearest friend, these are the last words of Liriope. I have three golden birds to scatter. Three attempts to get one into your hand. I am too far gone for any antidote, and so if you hear this, I leave you with the burden of my secrets and the last wish of my heart. Protect him. Take him far from the dangers of this Court.
Keep him safe, and never, ever tell him the truth of what happened to me.”
Tatterfell comes into the room, bringing with her a tray with tea things.
She tries to peek at what I am doing, but I cup my hand over the acorn.
When she goes out, I set down the bauble and pour myself a cup of tea, holding it to warm my hands. Liriope is Locke’s mother. This seems like a message asking someone—her dearest friend—to spirit him—Locke—away. She calls the message her “last words,” so she must have known she was about to die. Perhaps the acorns were to be sent to Locke’s father, in the hopes Locke might spend the rest of his life exploring wild places with him rather than be caught up in intrigues.
But since Locke is still here, it seems as if none of the three acorns were found. Maybe none of them even left her bower.
I should give it to him, let him decide for himself what to do with it. But all I keep thinking about is the note on Balekin’s desk, the note that seemed to implicate Balekin in Liriope’s murder. Should I tell Locke everything?
I know the provenance of the blusher mushroom that you ask after, but what you do with it must not be tied to me.
I turn the words over in my mind the way I turned the acorn in my hand, and I feel the same seams.
There’s something odd about that sentence.
I copy it out again on a piece of paper to be sure I remember it correctly. When I first read it, the note seemed to imply that Queen Orlagh had located a deadly poison for Balekin. But blusher mushrooms—while rare—grow wild, even on this island. I picked blusher mushrooms in the Milkwood, beside the black-thorned bees, who build their hives high in the trees (an antidote can be made with their honey, I learned recently from all my reading). Blusher mushrooms aren’t dangerous if you don’t drink the red liquid.
What if Queen Orlagh’s note didn’t mean that she’d found blusher mushrooms and she was going to give them to Balekin? What if by “know the provenance,” Orlagh literally just meant that she knew where particular blusher mushrooms had come from? After all, she says “what you do with it” and not “what you do with them.” She’s cautioning him about what he’s going to do with the knowledge, not the actual mushrooms.
Which means he’s not going to poison Dain.
It also means that Balekin may have uncovered who’d caused Locke’s mother’s death, if he found out who had the blusher mushrooms that killed her. The answer could have been there, among the other papers that I, in my eagerness, had overlooked.
I have to go back. I have to get back into the tower. Today, before the coronation is any closer. Because maybe Balekin isn’t going to try to kill Dain at all and the Court of Shadows has the wrong idea. Or, if they have the right idea, he isn’t going to do it with blusher mushrooms.
Gulping down my tea, I find the servant garb in the back of my closet. I take down my hair and arrange it in an approximation of the rough braid that the girls in Balekin’s house wore. I tuck my knife high on my thigh and shake out some of my silver box of salt into my pocket. Then I grab for my cloak, toe on my leather shoes, and am out the door, palms starting to sweat.
I have learned a lot more since my first foray into Hollow Hall, enough to make me understand better the risks I was taking. That does nothing for my nerves. Given what I saw of him with Cardan, I am not at all confident I could endure what Balekin would do to me if he caught me.
Taking a deep breath, I remind myself not to get caught.
That’s what the Roach says a spy’s real job is. The information is secondary. The job is not to get caught.
In the hall, I pass Oriana. She looks me up and down. I have to resist the urge to pull the cloak more tightly around myself. She is wearing a gown the color of unripe mulberries, and her hair is pulled slightly back. The very tips of her pointed ears are covered in shimmering crystal cuffs. I am a little envious of them. If I wore them, they’d disguise the human roundness of my own ears.
“You came home very late last night,” she says, annoyance pulling at her mouth. “You missed dinner, and your father was expecting you to spar with him.”
“I’ll do better,” I say, then instantly regret the declaration because I am probably not going to be back for dinner tonight, either. “Tomorrow. I’ll start doing better tomorrow.”
“Faithless creature,” Oriana says, looking at me as though through the sheer intensity of her gaze she might ferret out my secrets. “You’re scheming.”
I am so tired of her suspicion, so very tired.
“You always think that,” I say. “It’s just that for once you’re right.” Leaving her to worry what that might mean, I go down the stairs and out onto the grass. This time, there’s no one in my way, no one to make me reconsider what I am about to do.
I don’t bring the toad this time; I am more careful. As I walk through the woods, I see an owl circling overhead. I pull the hood of my cape to cover my face.
At Hollow Hall, I stow my cloak outside between the logs of a woodpile and enter through the kitchens, where supper is being prepared. Squabs are lacquered with rose jelly, the smell of their crackling skin enough to make my mouth water and my stomach clench.
I open a cabinet and am greeted by a dozen candles, all of them the color of buffed leather and accented with a gold stamp of Balekin’s personal crest— three laughing black birds. I take out nine candles and, trying to move as mechanically as possible, carry them past the guards. One guard gives me an odd look. I am sure there is something off about me, but he’s seen my face before, and I am more sure-footed than last time.
At least until I see Balekin coming down the stairs.
He glances in my direction, and it is all I can do to keep my head down, my step even. I carry the candles into the room in front of me, which turns out to be the library.
To my immense relief, he doesn’t seem to truly see me. My heart is speeding, though, my breaths coming too fast.
The servant girl who was cleaning the grate in Cardan’s room is blurrily putting books back onto the shelves. She is as I remember her—cracked lips, thin, and bruise-eyed. Her movements are slow, as if the air were as thick as water. In her drugged dream, I am no more interesting than the furniture and of less consequence.
I scan the shelves impatiently, but I can see nothing useful. I need to get up to the tower, to go through all of Prince Balekin’s correspondence and hope I
find something to do with Locke’s mother or Dain or the coronation, something I overlooked.
But I can’t do anything with Balekin between me and the stairs.
I look at the girl again. I wonder what her life is like here, what she dreams of. If she ever, for a moment, had a chance to get away. At least, thanks to the geas, if Balekin did catch me, this could not be my fate.
I wait, counting to a thousand, while piling my candles on a chair. Then I look out. Thankfully, Balekin is gone. Quickly, I head up the stairs toward the tower. I hold my breath as I pass Cardan’s door, but luck is with me. It is shut tight.
Then I am up the stairs and into Balekin’s study. I note the herbs in the jars around the room, herbs I see with new eyes. A few are poisonous, but most are just narcotic. Nowhere do I see blusher mushrooms. I go to his desk and wipe my hands against the rough cloth of my dress, trying to leave no trace of sweat, trying to memorize the pattern of papers.
There are two letters from Madoc, but they just seem to be about which knights will be at the coronation and in what pattern around the central dais. There are others that seem to be about assignations, about revels and parties and debauches. Nothing about blusher mushrooms, nothing about poisons at all. Nothing about Liriope or murder. The only thing that seems even a little surprising is a bit of doggerel, a love poem in Prince Dain’s hand, about a woman who remains unidentified, except by her “sunrise hair” and “starlit eyes.”
Worse, nothing I can find tells me anything about a plan to move against Prince Dain. If Balekin is going to murder his brother, he’s smart enough not to leave evidence lying around. Even the letter about the blusher mushroom is gone.
I have risked coming to Hollow Hall for nothing.
For a moment, I just stand there, trying to corral my thoughts. I need to leave without drawing attention to myself.
A messenger. I will disguise myself as a messenger. Messages run in and out of estates all the time. I take a blank sheet of paper and scrawl Madoc on one side, then seal the other with wax. The sulfur of the match hangs in the air for a moment. As it dissipates, I descend the steps, faked message in hand.
When I pass the library, I hesitate. The girl is still inside, mechanically lifting books from a pile and placing them on shelves. She will keep doing that until she’s told to do something else, until she collapses, until she fades away, unremembered. As if she were nothing.
I cannot leave her here.
I don’t have anything to go back to in the mortal world, but she might.
And yes, it’s a betrayal of Prince Dain’s faith in me, a betrayal of Faerie itself. I know that. But all the same, I can’t leave her.
There is a kind of relief in realizing it.
I walk into the library, setting down the note on a table. She does not turn, does not react at all. I reach into my pocket and cup a little salt in the center of my palm. I hold it out to her, the way I would if I were coaxing a horse with sugar.
“Eat this,” I tell her in a low voice.
She turns toward me, although her gaze doesn’t focus. “I’m not allowed,” she says, voice rough with disuse. “No salt. You’re not supposed to—”
I clap my hand over her mouth, some of the salt tipping out onto the ground, the rest pressed against her lips.
I am an idiot. An impulsive idiot.
Locking my arm around her, I drag her deeper into the library. She’s alternating between trying to shout and trying to bite me. She keeps scratching at my arms, her nails digging into my skin. I hold her there, against the wall, until she sags, until the fight goes out of her.
“I’m sorry,” I whisper as I hold on. “I’m winging it. I don’t want to hurt you. I want to save you. Please, let me do this. Let me save you.”
Finally, she has been still long enough that I take a chance and pull my hand away. She’s panting, breaths coming fast. She doesn’t scream, though, which seems like a good sign.
“We’re getting out of here,” I tell her. “You can trust me.” She gives me a look of blank incomprehension.
“Just act like everything’s normal.” I pull her to her feet and realize the impossibility of what I’m asking. Her eyes are rolling in her head like a mad pony. I don’t know how long we have until she completely loses it.
Still, there is nothing for me to do but march her out of Hollow Hall as fast as I can. I stick my head into the main chamber. It’s still empty, so I drag her from the library. She’s looking around as though she’s seeing the heavy wooden staircase and the gallery above for the first time. Then I remember I left my fake note on the table in the library.
“Hold on,” I say. “I have to go back and—”
She makes a plaintive sound and pulls against my grip. I drag her along with me anyway and grab the message. I crumple it up and stuff it into my pocket. It’s useless now, when the guards could recall it and connect a servant girl’s disappearance to the household of the person who stole her. “What’s your name?”
The girl shakes her head.
“You must remember it,” I insist. It’s terrible that instead of being
sympathetic, I am annoyed. Buck up, I think. Stop feeling your feelings. Let’s go.
“Sophie,” she says in a kind of sob. Tears are starting in her eyes. I feel worse and worse still for how cruel I am about to be.
“You’re not allowed to cry,” I tell her as harshly as I can, hoping my tone will scare her into listening. I try my best to sound like Madoc, to sound as if I am used to having my commands obeyed. “You must not cry. I will slap you if I have to.”
She cringes but subsides into silence. I wipe her eyes with the back of my hand. “Okay?” I ask her.
When she doesn’t answer, I figure there’s no more point in conversation. I steer her toward the kitchens. We’ll have to pass by guards; there’s no other way out. She has pasted on a horrible rictus of a smile, but at least she has enough self-possession for that. More worrying is the way she can’t stop staring at things. As we walk toward the guards, the intensity of her gaze is impossible to disguise.
I improvise, trying to sound as though I am reciting a memorized message, without inflection in the words. “Prince Cardan says we are to attend him.”
One of the guards turns to the other. “Balekin won’t like that.”
I try not to react, but it’s hard. I just stand there and wait. If they lunge at us, I am going to have to kill them.
“Very well,” the first guard says. “Go. But inform Cardan that his brother demands he bring both of you back this time.”
I don’t like the sound of that.
The second guard glances over at Sophie and her wild eyes. “What do you see?”
I can feel her trembling beside me, her whole body shaking. I need to say something fast, before she does. “Lord Cardan told us to be more observant,” I say, hoping that the plausible confusion of an ambiguous command will help to explain the way she’s acting.
Then I walk on with Sophie through the kitchens, past the human servants I am not saving, aware of the futility of my actions. Does helping one person really matter, on balance?
Once I have power, I will find a way to help them all, I tell myself. And once Dain is in power, I will have power.
I make sure to keep my movements slow. I let myself breathe only when we’ve finally stepped outside.
And it turns out, even that’s too soon. Cardan is riding toward us on a tall, dappled gray horse. Behind him is a girl on a palfrey—Nicasia. As soon as he gets inside, the guards will ask him about us. As soon as he gets inside, he
will know something is wrong.
If he doesn’t see me and know sooner than that.
What would be the punishment for stealing a prince’s servant? I don’t know. A curse perhaps, such as being turned into a raven and forced to fly north and live for seven times seven years in an ice palace—or worse, no curse at all. An execution.
It takes everything I’ve got not to break and run. It’s not as though I think I could make it to the woods, especially not hauling a girl with me. He would ride us both down. “Stop staring,” I hiss at Sophie, harsher than I mean to. “Look at your feet.”
“Stop scolding me,” she says, but at least she’s not crying. I keep my head down and, looping her arm through mine, walk toward the woods.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see Cardan swing down from his saddle, black hair blown by the wind. He looks in my direction and pauses for a moment. I suck in my breath and don’t run.
I can’t run.
There is no thundering of hoofbeats, no racing to catch and punish us. To my immense relief, he seems to see only two servants heading toward the forest, perhaps to gather wood or berries or something.
The closer we get to the edge of the woods, the more each step feels fraught.
Then Sophie sinks to her knees, turning to look back at Balekin’s manor. A keening sound comes from deep in her throat. “No,” she says, shaking her head. “No no no no no. No. This isn’t real. This didn’t happen.”
I jerk her up, digging my fingers into her armpit. “Move,” I say. “Move or I will leave you here. Do you understand me? I will leave you, and Prince Cardan will find you and drag you back inside.”
Cheating a glance back, I see him. He’s off his horse and leading it to the stables. Nicasia still sits atop hers, her head tipped back, laughing at something he said. He’s smiling, too, but it’s not his usual sneer. He doesn’t look like the wicked villain from a story. He looks like an inhuman boy out for a walk with his friend in the moonlight.
Sophie staggers onward. We can’t get caught now, not when we’re so close.
The moment when I cross into the pine-needle-strewn woods, I let out an enormous breath. I keep her moving until we reach the stream. I make her walk through it, though the cold water and sucking mud slows us down. Any way of hiding our tracks is worth doing.
Eventually, she sinks down on the bank and gives over to weeping. I watch her, wishing I knew what to do. Wishing I was a better, more sympathetic
person, instead of being annoyed and worried that any delay is going to get us caught. I make myself sit on the remains of a termite-eaten log on the bank of the stream and let her cry, but when minutes have passed and her tears haven’t stopped, I go over and kneel in the muddy grass.
“It’s not far to my house,” I say, trying to sound persuasive. “Just a little more walking.”
“Shut up!” she shouts, lifting her hand to ward me off.
Frustration flares. I want to scream at her. I want to shake her. I bite my tongue and fist my hands to make myself stop.
“Okay,” I say, taking a deep breath. “This is happening fast, I know. But I really do want to help you. I can get you out of Faerie. Tonight.”
The girl is shaking her head again. “I don’t know,” she says. “I don’t know. I was at Burning Man, and there was this guy who said he had this gig passing hors d’oeuvres for a rich weirdo in one of the air-conditioned tents. Just don’t take anything, he told me. If you do, you’ll have to serve me for a thousand years… .”
Her voice trails off, but now I see how she was trapped. It must have sounded like he was making a joke. She must have laughed, and he must have smiled. And then, whether she ate a single shrimp puff or pocketed some of the silverware—it would all be the same.
“It’s okay,” I say nonsensically. “It’s going to be okay.”
She looks at me and seems to see me for the first time, takes in that I am dressed like her, like a servant, but that there’s something off about me. “Who are you? What is this place? What happened to us?”
I asked for her name, so I guess I should give her mine. “I’m Jude. I grew up here. One of my sisters, she can take you over the sea to the human town near here. From there, you can call someone to get you or you can go to the police and they’ll find your people. This is almost over.”
Sophie takes this in. “Is this some kind of—what happened? I remember things, impossible things. And I wanted. No, I couldn’t have wanted…”
Her voice trails off, and I don’t know what to say. I cannot guess the end of her sentence.
“Please, just tell me this isn’t real. I don’t think I can live with any of this being real.” She’s looking around the forest, as though if she can prove it isn’t magic, then nothing else is, either. Which is stupid. All forests are magic.
“Come on,” I say, because while I don’t like the way she’s talking, there’s no point in lying for the sake of making her feel better. She’s going to have to accept that she’s been trapped in Faerie. It’s not as if I have a boat to take her across the water; all I have are Vivi’s ragwort steeds. “Can you walk a little farther now?” The faster she’s back in the human world, the better.
As I get closer to Madoc’s, I remember my cloak, still bunched up and hidden in a woodpile outside Hollow Hall, and curse myself all over again. Leading Sophie to the stables, I seat her in an empty stall. She slumps on the hay. I think the glimpse of the giant toad undid the last of her trust in me.
“Here we are,” I say with forced cheerfulness. “I’m going inside to get my sister, and I want you to wait right here. Promise me.”
She gives me a terrible look. “I can’t do this. I can’t face this.”
“You have to.” My voice comes out harsher than I intended. I stalk into the house and go up the steps as quickly as I can, hoping against hope that I don’t run into anyone else on the way. I fling open the door to Vivienne’s room without bothering to knock.
Vivi, thankfully, is lying on her bed, writing a letter in green ink with drawings of hearts and stars and faces in the margins. She looks up when I come in, tossing back her hair. “That’s an interesting outfit you’ve got on.”
“I did something really stupid,” I say, out of breath.
That makes her push herself up, sliding off the bed and onto her feet. “What happened?”
“I stole a human girl—a human servant—from Prince Balekin, and I need you to help me get her back to the mortal world before anyone finds out.” As I say this, I realize all over again how ridiculous it was for me to do that— how risky, how foolish. He will just find another human willing to make a bad bargain.
But Vivi doesn’t chide me. “Okay, let me put on my shoes. I thought you were going to tell me you’d killed someone.”
“Why would you think that?” I ask.
She snorts as she searches around for boots. Her eyes meet mine as she does up the laces. “Jude, you keep smiling a pleasant smile in front of Madoc, but all I can see anymore is bared teeth.”
I am not sure what to say to that.
She puts on a long, fur-trimmed green coat with frog clasps. “Where is the girl?”
“In the stables,” I say. “I’ll take you—”
Vivi shakes her head. “Absolutely not. You have to get out of those clothes. Put on a dress and go down to dinner and make sure you act like everything’s normal. If someone comes to question you, tell them you’ve been in your room this whole time.”
“No one saw me!” I say.
Vivi gives me her best fish-eyed look. “No one? You’re sure.”
I think of Cardan, riding up as we made our escape, and of the guards, whom I’d lied to. “Probably no one,” I amend. “No one who noticed
anything.” If Cardan had, he would never have let me get away. He would never have given up having that much power over me.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought,” she says, holding up a forbidding, long-fingered hand. “Jude, it isn’t safe.”
“I’m going,” I insist. “The girl’s name is Sophie, and she’s really freaked out—”
Vivi snorts. “I bet.”
“I don’t think she’ll go with you. You look like one of them.” Maybe I am more afraid of my nerve running out than anything else. I worry about the adrenaline ebbing out of my body, leaving me to face the mad thing I have done. But given Sophie’s suspicion of me, I absolutely think that Vivi’s cat eyes would be enough to send her over the edge. “Because you are one of them.”
“Are you telling me in case I forgot?” Vivi asks.
“We’ve got to go,” I say. “And I am coming. We don’t have time to debate this.”
“Come, then,” she says. Together, we go down the stairs, but as we are about to go out the door, she grabs my shoulder. “You can’t save our mother, you know. She’s already dead.”
I feel as though she has slapped me. “That’s not—”
“Isn’t it?” she demands. “Isn’t that what you’re doing? Tell me this girl isn’t some stand-in for Mom. Some surrogate.”
“I want to help Sophie,” I say, shrugging off her grip. “Just Sophie.”
Outside, the moon is high in the sky, turning the leaves silver. Vivi goes out to pick a bouquet of ragwort stalks. “Fine, then go get this Sophie.”
She is where I left her, hunched in the hay, rocking back and forth and talking softly to herself. I am relieved to see her, relieved she didn’t run off and we weren’t even now tracking her through the forest, relieved that someone from Balekin’s household hadn’t ferreted out her location and hauled her away.
“Okay,” I say with forced cheerfulness. “We’re ready.”
“Yes,” she says, standing up. Her face is tearstained, but she’s no longer crying. She looks like she’s in shock.
“It’s going to be okay,” I tell her again, but she doesn’t answer. She follows me mutely out behind the stables, where Vivi is waiting, along with two rawboned ponies with green eyes and lacy manes.
Sophie looks at them and then at Vivi. She begins to back away, shaking her head. When I come near her, she backs away from me, too.
“No, no, no,” she says. “Please, no. No more. No.”
“It’s only a very little bit of magic,” Vivi says reasonably, but it’s still coming from someone with lightly furred points on her ears and eyes that flash gold in the dark. “Just a smidgen, and then you won’t ever have to see another magical thing. You’ll be back in the mortal world, the daylight world, the normal world. But this is the only way to get you there. We’re going to fly.”
“No,” Sophie says, her voice coming out broken.
“Let’s walk to the cliffside near here,” I say. “You’ll be able to see the lights—maybe even a few boats. You’ll feel better when you can see a destination.”
“We don’t have a lot of time,” Vivi reminds me with a significant look. “It’s not far,” I argue. I don’t know what else to do. The only other choices
I can think of are knocking her unconscious or asking Vivi to glamour her; both are terrible.
And so we walk through the woods, ragwort steeds following. Sophie doesn’t balk. The walk seems to calm her. She picks up rocks as we go, smooth stones that she dusts the dirt from and then puts in her pockets.
“Do you remember your life from before?” I ask her.
She nods and doesn’t speak for a little while, but then she turns back to me. She gives a weird croaking laugh. “I always wanted there to be magic,” she says. “Isn’t that funny? I wanted there to be an Easter Bunny and a Santa Claus. And Tinker Bell, I remember Tinker Bell. But I don’t want it. I don’t want it anymore.”
“I know,” I say. And I do. I have wished for many things over the years, but the first wish of my heart was that none of this was real.
At the water’s edge, Vivi mounts one of the steeds and puts Sophie up before her. I swing up onto the back of the other. Sophie gives the forest a trembling look and then glances over at me. She doesn’t seem afraid. She seems as though maybe she’s starting to believe that the worst is behind her.
“Hold on tight,” Vivi says, and her steed kicks up off the cliff and into the air. Mine follows. The wild exhilaration of flying hits me, and I grin with familiar delight. Beneath us are the whitecapped waves and ahead the shimmering lights of mortal towns, like a mysterious land strewn with stars. I glance over at Sophie, hoping to give her a reassuring smile.
Sophie isn’t looking at me, though. Her eyes are closed. And then, as I am watching, she tilts to one side, lets go of the steed’s mane, and lets herself fall. Vivi grabs for her, but it’s too late. She is plunging soundlessly through the night sky, toward the mirrored darkness of the sea.
When she hits, there is barely even a splash.
I cannot speak. Everything seems to slow around me. I think of Sophie’s
cracked lips, think of her saying, Please, just tell me this isn’t real. I don’t think I can live with any of this being real.
I think of the stones she filled her pockets with.
I hadn’t been listening. I hadn’t wanted to hear her; I’d just wanted to save her.
And now, because of me, she is dead.