My head is pounding when Vivienne shakes me awake. She jumps up onto the bed, kicking off the coverlets and making the frame groan. I press a cushion over my face and curl up on my side, trying to ignore her and go back to dreamless slumber.
“Get up, sleepyhead,” she says, pulling back my blankets. “We’re going to the mall.”
I make a strangled noise and wave her away. “Up!” she commands, leaping again.
“No,” I moan, burrowing deeper in what’s left of the blankets. “I’ve got to rehearse for the tournament.”
Vivi stops bouncing, and I realize that it’s no longer true. I don’t have to fight. Except that I foolishly told Cardan I would never quit.
Which makes me remember the river and the nixies and Taryn. How she was right, and I was magnificently, extravagantly wrong.
“I’ll buy you coffee when we get there, coffee with chocolate and whipped cream.” Vivi is relentless. “Come on. Taryn’s waiting.”
I half-stumble out of bed. Standing, I scratch my hip and glare. She gives me her most charming smile, and I find my annoyance fading, despite myself. Vivi is often selfish, but she’s so cheerful about it and so encouraging of cheerful selfishness in others that it’s easy to have fun with her.
I dress quickly in the modern clothes I keep in the very back of my wardrobe—jeans, an old gray sweater with a black star on it, and a pair of glittery silver Converse high-tops. I pull my hair into a slouchy knitted hat, and when I catch a glimpse of myself in the full-length mirror (carved so that it seems like a pair of bawdy fauns are on either side of the glass, leering), a
different person is looking back at me.
Maybe the person I might have been if I’d been raised human. Whoever that is.
When we were little, we used to talk about getting back to the human world all the time. Vivi kept saying that if she learned just a little more magic, we’d be able to go. We were going to find an abandoned mansion, and she was going to enchant birds to take care of us. They would buy us pizza and candy, and we would go to school only if we felt like it.
By the time Vivi learned how to travel there, though, reality had intruded on our plans. It turns out birds can’t really buy pizza, even if they’re enchanted.
I meet my sisters in front of Madoc’s stables, where silver-shod faerie horses are penned up beside enormous toads ready to be saddled and bridled and reindeer with broad antlers hung with bells. Vivi is wearing black jeans and a white shirt, mirrored sunglasses hiding her cat eyes. Taryn has on pink jeggings, a fuzzy cardigan, and a pair of ankle boots.
We try to imitate girls we see in the human world, girls in magazines, girls we see on movie screens in air-conditioned theaters, eating candy so sweet it makes my teeth ache. I don’t know what people think when they look at us. These clothes are a costume for me. I am playing dress-up in ignorance. I no more can guess the assumptions that go along with glittering sneakers than a child in a dragon costume knows what real dragons would make of the color of her scales.
Vivi picks stalks of ragwort that grow near the water troughs. After finding three that meet her specifications, she lifts the first and blows on it, saying, “Steed, rise and bear us where I command.”
With those words, she tosses the stalk to the ground, and it becomes a rawboned yellow pony with emerald eyes and a mane that resembles lacy foliage. It makes an odd keening neigh. She throws down two more stalks, and moments later three ragwort ponies snort the air and snuffle at the ground. They look a little like sea horses and will ride over land and sky, according to Vivi’s command, keeping their seeming for hours before collapsing back into weeds.
It turns out that passing between Faerie and the mortal world isn’t all that difficult. Faerie exists beside and below mortal towns, in the shadows of mortal cities, and at their rotten, derelict, worm-eaten centers. Faeries live in hills and valleys and barrows, in alleys and abandoned mortal buildings. Vivi isn’t the only faerie from our islands to sneak across the sea and into the human world with some regularity, although most don mortal guises to mess with people. Less than a month ago, Valerian was bragging about campers he
and his friends had tricked into feasting with them, gorging on rotten leaves enchanted to look like delicacies.
I climb onto my ragwort steed and wrap my hands around the creature’s neck. There is always a moment when it begins to move that I can’t help grinning. There is something about the sheer impossibility of it, the magnificence of the woods streaking by and the way the ragwort hooves kick up gravel as they leap up into the air, that gives me an electric rush of pure adrenaline.
I swallow the howl clawing up my throat.
We ride over the cliffs and then the sea, watching mermaids leap in the spangled waves and selkies rolling along the surf. Past the fog perpetually surrounding the islands and concealing them from mortals. And then on to the shoreline, past Two Lights State Park, a golf course, and a jetport. We touch down in a small tree-covered patch across the road from the Maine Mall. Vivi’s shirt flutters in the wind as she lands. Taryn and I dismount. With a few words from Vivi, the ragwort steeds become just three half-wilted weeds among others.
“Remember where we parked,” Taryn says with a grin, and we start toward the mall.
Vivi loves this place. She loves to drink mango smoothies, try on hats, and buy whatever we want with acorns she enchants to pass as money. Taryn doesn’t love it the way Vivi does, but she has fun. When I am here, though, I feel like a ghost.
We strut through the JCPenney as though we’re the most dangerous things around. But when I see human families all together, especially families with sticky-mouthed, giggling little sisters, I don’t like the way I feel.
I don’t imagine myself back in a life like theirs; what I imagine is going over there and scaring them until they cry.
I would never, of course.
I mean, I don’t think I would.
Taryn seems to notice the way my gaze snags on a child whining to her mother. Unlike me, Taryn is adaptable. She knows the right things to say. She’d be okay if she were thrust back into this world. She’s okay now. She will fall in love, just as she said. She will metamorphose into a wife or consort and raise faerie children who will adore and outlive her. The only thing holding her back is me.
I am so glad she can’t guess my thoughts.
“So,” Vivi says. “We’re here because you both could use some cheering up. So cheer up.”
I look over at Taryn and take a deep breath, ready to apologize. I don’t know if that’s what Vivi had in mind, but it’s what I’ve known I had to do since I got out of bed. “I’m sorry,” I blurt out.
“You’re probably mad,” Taryn says at the same time. “At you?” I am astonished.
Taryn droops. “I swore to Cardan that I wouldn’t help you, even though I came with you that day to help.”
I shake my head vehemently. “Really, Taryn, you’re the one who should be angry that I got you tossed into the water in the first place. Getting yourself out of there was the smart thing to do. I would never be mad about that.”
“Oh,” she says. “Okay.”
“Taryn told me about the prank you played on the prince,” Vivi says. I see myself reflected in her sunglasses, doubled, quadrupled with Taryn beside me. “Pretty good, but now you’re going to have to do something much worse. I’ve got ideas.”
“No!” Taryn says with vehemence. “Jude doesn’t need to do anything. She was just upset about Madoc and the tournament. If she goes back to ignoring them, they’ll go back to ignoring her, too. Maybe not at first, but eventually.”
I bite my lip because I don’t think that’s true.
“Forget Madoc. Knighthood would have been boring anyway,” Vivi says, effectively dismissing the thing I’ve been working toward for years. I sigh. It’s annoying, but also reassuring that she doesn’t think it’s that big a deal, when the loss has felt overwhelming to me.
“So what do you want to do?” I ask Vivi to avoid any more of this discussion. “Are we seeing a movie? Do you want to try on lipsticks? Don’t forget you promised me coffee.”
“I want you to meet my girlfriend,” Vivienne says, and I remember the pink-haired girl in the strip of photos. “She asked me to move in with her.”
“Here?” I ask, as though there could be any other place.
“The mall?” Vivi laughs at our expressions. “We’re going to meet her here today but probably find a different place to live. Heather doesn’t know Faerie exists, so don’t mention it, okay?”
When Taryn and I were ten, Vivi learned how to make ragwort horses. We ran away from Madoc’s house a few days later. At a gas station, Vivi enchanted a random woman to take us home with her.
I still remember the woman’s blank face as she drove. I wanted to make her smile, but no matter what funny faces I pulled, her expression didn’t change. We spent the night in her house, sick after having ice cream for dinner. I cried myself to sleep, clinging to a weeping Taryn.
After that, Vivi found us a motel room with a stove, and we learned how to
cook macaroni and cheese from the package. We made coffee in the coffeepot because we remembered how our old house had smelled like it. We watched television and swam in the pool with other kids staying in the motel.
I hated it.
We lived that way for two weeks before Taryn and I begged Vivi to take us home, to take us back to Faerie. We missed our beds, we missed the food we were used to, we missed magic.
I think it broke Vivi’s heart to return, but she did it. And she stayed.
Whatever else I can say about Vivi, when it really mattered, she stuck by us.
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that she didn’t plan to stay forever. “Why didn’t you tell us?” Taryn demands.
“I am telling you. I just did,” Vivi says, leading us past stores with looping images of video games, past gleaming displays of bikinis and flowing maxi dresses, past cheese-injected pretzels and stores with counters full of gleaming, heart-shaped diamonds promising true love. Strollers stream past, groups of teenage boys in jerseys, elderly couples holding hands.
“You should have said something sooner,” says Taryn, hands on her hips. “Here’s my plan to cheer you up,” Vivi says. “We all move to the human
world. Move in with Heather. Jude doesn’t have to worry about knighthood, and Taryn doesn’t have to throw herself away on some silly faerie boy.”
“Does Heather know about this plan?” Taryn asks skeptically. Vivi shakes her head, smiling.
“Sure,” I say, trying to make a joke of it. “Except that I have no marketable skills other than swinging around a sword and making up riddles, neither of which probably pay all that well.”
“The mortal world is where we grew up,” Vivi insists, climbing onto a bench and walking the length of it, acting as though it were a stage. She pushes her sunglasses up onto her head. “You’d get used to it again.”
“Where you grew up.” She was nine when we were taken; she remembers so much more about being human than we do. It’s unfair, since she’s also the one with magic.
“The Folk are going to keep treating you like crap,” Vivi says, and hops down in front of us, cat eyes flashing. A lady with a baby carriage swerves to avoid us.
“What do you mean?” I look away from Vivi, concentrating on the pattern of the tiles under my feet.
“Oriana acts like you two being mortal is some kind of awful surprise that gets sprung on her all over again every morning,” she says. “And Madoc killed our parents, so that sucks. And then there are the jerks at school that you don’t like to talk about.”
“I was just talking about those jerks,” I say, not giving her the satisfaction of being shocked by what she said about our parents. She acts like we don’t remember, like there’s some way I am ever going to forget. She acts like it’s her personal tragedy and hers alone.
“And you didn’t like it.” Vivi looks immensely pleased with herself for that particular riposte. “Did you really think that being a knight would make everything better?”
“I don’t know,” I say.
Vivi swings on Taryn. “What about you?”
“Faerie is all we know.” Taryn holds up a hand to forestall any more argument. “Here, we wouldn’t have anything. There’d be no balls and no magic and no—”
“Well, I think I’d like it here,” Vivi snaps, and stalks off ahead of us, toward the Apple Store.
We’ve talked about it before, of course, how Vivi thinks we’re stupid for not being able to resist the intensity of Faerie, for desiring to stay in a place of such danger. Maybe growing up the way we have, bad things feel good to us. Or maybe we are stupid in the exact same way as every other idiot mortal who’s pined away for another bite of goblin fruit. Maybe it doesn’t matter.
A girl is standing in front of the entrance, playing around on her phone. The girl, I assume. Heather is small, with faded pink hair and brown skin. She’s wearing a t-shirt with a hand-drawn design across the front. There are pen stains on her fingers. I realize abruptly that she might be the artist who drew the comics I’ve seen Vivi pore over.
I begin a curtsy before I remember myself and awkwardly stick out a hand. “I’m Vivi’s sister Jude,” I say. “And this is Taryn.”
The girl shakes my hand. Her palm is warm, her grip nearly nonexistent. It’s funny how Vivi, who tried so hard to escape being anything like
Madoc, wound up falling in love with a human girl, as Madoc did.
“I’m Heather,” the girl says. “It’s great to meet you. Vee almost never talks about her family.”
Taryn and I glance at each other. Vee?
“You want to sit down or something?” Heather says, nodding toward the food court.
“Somebody owes me coffee,” I say pointedly to Vivi.
We order and sit and drink. Heather tells us that she’s in community college, studying art. She tells us about comics she likes and bands she’s into. We dodge awkward questions. We lie. When Vivi gets up to throw away our trash, Heather asks us if she’s the first girlfriend Vivi has let us meet.
Taryn nods. “That must mean she likes you a lot.”
“So can I visit your place now? My parents are ready to buy a toothbrush for Vee. How come I don’t get to meet hers?”
I almost snort my mocha. “Did she tell you anything about our family?” Heather sighs. “No.”
“Our dad is really conservative,” I say.
A boy with spiky black hair and a wallet chain passes us, smiling in my direction. I have no idea what he wants. Maybe he knows Heather. She’s not paying attention. I don’t smile back.
“Does he even know Vee is bi?” Heather asks, astonished, but then Vivi returns to the table, so we don’t have to keep making up stuff. Liking both girls and boys is the only thing in this scenario Madoc wouldn’t be upset with Vivi about.
After that, the four of us wander the mall, trying on purple lipsticks and eating sour apple candy slices crusted in sugar that turn my tongue green. I delight in the chemicals that would doubtless sicken all the lords and ladies at the Court.
Heather seems nice. Heather has no idea what she’s getting herself into.
We say polite farewells near Newbury Comics. Vivi watches three kids picking out bobblehead figurines, her gaze avid. I wonder what she thinks as she moves among humans. At moments like that, she seems like a wolf learning the patterns of sheep. But when she kisses Heather, she is entirely sincere.
“I am glad you lied for me,” Vivi says as we retrace our steps through the mall.
“You’re going to have to tell her eventually,” I say. “If you’re serious. If you’re really moving to the mortal world to be with her.”
“And when you do, she’s still going to want to meet Madoc,” Taryn says, although I can see why Vivi wants to avoid that for as long as possible.
Vivi shakes her head. “Love is a noble cause. How can anything done in the service of a noble cause be wrong?”
Taryn chews her lip.
Before we leave, we stop by CVS, and I pick up tampons. Every time I buy them, it’s a reminder that while the Folk can look like us, they are a species apart. Even Vivi is a species apart. I divide the package in half and give the other portion to Taryn.
I know what you’re wondering. No, they don’t bleed once a month; yes, they do bleed. Annually. Sometimes less frequently than that. Yes, they have solutions—padding, mostly—and yes, those solutions suck. Yes, everything about it is embarrassing.
We start to cut across the parking lot toward our ragwort stalks when a guy
about our age touches my arm, warm fingers closing just above my wrist. “Hey, sweetheart.” I have an impression of a too-big black shirt, jeans, a
chain wallet, spiky hair. The glint of a cheap knife in his boot. “I saw you before, and I was just wondering—”
I am turning before I can think, my fist cracking into his jaw. My booted foot hits his gut as he falls, rolling him over the pavement. I blink and find myself standing there, staring down at a kid who is gasping for air and starting to cry. My boot is raised to kick him in the throat, to crush his windpipe. The mortals standing around him are staring at me in horror. My nerves are jangling, but it’s an eager jangle. I am ready for more.
I think he was flirting with me.
I don’t even remember deciding to hit him.
“Come on!” Taryn jerks my arm, and all three of us run. Someone shouts. I look over my shoulder. One of the boy’s friends has given chase.
“Bitch!” he shouts. “Crazy bitch! Milo is bleeding!”
Vivi whispers a few words and makes a motion behind us. As she does, the crabgrass begins to grow, pushing gaps in the asphalt wider. The boy comes to a halt as something rushes by him, a look of confusion on his face. Pixie-led, they call it. He wanders through a row of cars as though he has no idea where he’s going. Unless he turns his clothes inside out, which I am fairly confident he doesn’t know to do, he’ll never find us.
We stop near the edge of the lot, and Vivi immediately begins to giggle. “Madoc would be so proud—his little girl, remembering all her training,” she says. “Staving off the terrifying possibility of romance.”
I am too stunned to say anything. Hitting him was the most honest thing I’ve done in a long time. I feel better than great. I feel nothing, a glorious emptiness.
“See,” I tell Vivi. “I can’t go back to the world. Look what I would do to
To that, she has no response.
I think about what I did all the way home and then, again, at school. A lecturer from a Court near the coast explains how things wither and die. Cardan gives me a significant look as she explains decomposition, rot. But what I am thinking about is the stillness I felt when I hit that boy. That and the Summer Tournament tomorrow.
I dreamed of my triumph there. None of Cardan’s threats would have kept
me from wearing the gold braid and fighting as hard as I could. Now, though, his threats are the only reason I have to fight—the sheer perverse glory of not backing down.
When we break to eat, Taryn and I climb up a tree to eat cheese and oatcakes slathered with chokecherry jelly. Fand calls up to me, wanting to know why I didn’t attend the rehearsal for the mock war.
“I forgot,” I call back to her, which is not particularly believable, but I don’t care.
“But you’re going to fight tomorrow?” she asks. If I pull out, Fand will have to rearrange teams.
Taryn gives me a hopeful look, as though I may come to my senses. “I’ll be there,” I say. My pride compels me.
Lessons are almost over when I notice Taryn, standing beside Cardan, near a circle of thorn trees, weeping. I must not have been paying attention, must have gotten too involved in packing up our books and things. I didn’t even see Cardan take my sister aside. I know she would have gone, though, no matter the excuse. She still believes that if we do what they want, they’ll get bored and leave us alone. Maybe she’s right, but I don’t care.
Tears spill over her cheeks.
There is such a deep well of rage inside me.
You’re no killer.
I leave my books and cross the grass toward them. Cardan half-turns, and I shove him so hard that his back hits one of the trees. His eyes go wide.
“I don’t know what you said to her, but don’t you ever go near my sister again,” I tell him, my hand still on the front of his velvet doublet. “You gave her your word.”
I can feel the eyes of all the other students on me. Everyone’s breath is drawn.
For a moment, Cardan just stares at me with stupid, crow-black eyes. Then one corner of his mouth curls. “Oh,” he says. “You’re going to regret doing that.”
I don’t think he realizes just how angry I am or how good it feels, for once, to give up on regrets.