Today I’m offering up the first chapter of my work in progress, Fall, as it currently stands. The details are likely to change, and I’ll probably adjust or outright delete some of it as the manuscript approaches its final form, but at this point in time, I’m pretty sure I’m close to the final version. In this chapter, you get to meet Bree, Maddie and Kira, and you learn a little bit about Bree’s world. Chapter Two expands on those details and brings us all the way into the heart of the Winter Court itself. But that’s a story for another day.
If you’d like to see more, I’d urge you to donate to my summer pledge drive. For every $250 I collect before April 30th, 2012, I will post either another chapter of Fall – up to half the novel, in theory – or a short piece set in the same world. After April 30th, I’ll do the same each time I collect another $500 total. If you can’t donate yourself, but you want to help, or you just like the chapter and want to see more, then please tell your friends. The more potential supporters I can bring in, the better.
I hope you all enjoy this first look at Fall.
This is not a dream.
At least, that’s what I keep telling myself. True, it has all the qualities of a dream. I don’t know how I got here. I’m not really sure where I am now. It all seems achingly familiar, like a word lingering on the tip of my tongue, but nothing quite clicks. The clear sky filled with glittering stars arranged into familiar constellations only narrows things down to around half the planet. The standing stones arranged in a broad, broken ring all around me are somewhat more unusual, but I can barely see them through the flickering torchlight and the bustling crowd of dancers and revelers that fills the space between. Music fills the air, flutes and harps and fiddles playing a tune that sinks down into my very bones. Laughter provides a counterpoint to the melody, and the pounding feet of a hundred dancers lends percussion. Colorful banners wave in the breeze, rippling out of my sight before I can spot the heraldry they bear. Everyone here is beautiful, dressed in nothing but the finest gowns and tunics, and as I glance up at the sky once more, I can see tiny, waifish, glowing figures flitting to and fro in their own elaborate dance, their colorful auras washing out the light of the stars and making them seem almost plain. It’s a scene straight out of a fairy tale.
It’s just not the kind of fairy tale I’m used to.
When most people talk about fairy tales, they’re really talking about cartoons and children’s books. Enchanted princesses rescued by handsome princes who carry them off to live happily ever after. Talking animals and cheerful wood sprites who sing and dance merrily as they help the hero along, never asking a thing in return. Mischievous little pixies or plump old women who can give you a whole makeover in no time flat with just a wave of their wands. Evil queens and wicked stepsisters who get everything they deserve and more. Big, beautiful dances like this one.
My life’s a lot more like the old stories before they were cleaned up and toned down…or the stories that were never cleaned up at all. Pale men with ghastly grins who remove their own heads for shits and giggles and steal away innocent children in the night. Ghostly figures who stalk the lonely moors, wailing their agony to the night, murdering any travelers unlucky enough to cross their paths. Phantom lovers who steal away everything their admirers ever were and leave them to die cold and alone on desolate hillsides. Even the evil queens and wicked siblings can be a hell of a lot crueler. Mortals forget why they started calling us the Good People, the Kind Folk, the Fair. It wasn’t because we were beautiful, and it wasn’t because we were wise, or generous, or compassionate. It was because we terrified them, and they didn’t dare say anything that might possibly insult us.
They were right to be scared. This is my world, and it scares me, too.
But this – and this is not a dream, I must not admit that it might be a dream or it might end, and it does feel so real, so heartbreakingly real – this is no part of the world I grew up in, no part of the world I know. I’ve been to fairy revels. Some of them have even looked something like this. But this sense of pure joy and delight and belonging has never been a part of them. The revels I’ve known have never been about celebration except in the most superficial sense. They’ve been more about the endless politicking and self-promotion and social assassination of the Winter Court than anything else. Wherever I am now, it’s a party. There are no walls here, metaphorical or literal, just the vast ring of broken stones and the huge vaulted ceiling of the night sky. Within and around the stones, a vast crowd of the Fair is gathered, more of my people than I’ve ever seen, everyone from daoine sidhe like me to squat, muscular spriggans to the pixie-like ellyllon flying around above us. There are fairy races here that I’ve never even seen with my own eyes, some of which I can only barely name. At the center of the stone ring is a large, flat stone, a sort of natural dais supporting a throne of woven gold and silver, upholstered with rich red fabric and decorated with gleaming emeralds, but I’m too far away and moving far too quickly to give it more than a spare glance. Gathered tightly around the dais, the musicians play on, their grinning faces visible in swift, blurry flashes through the crowd before I’m swept up in the tide of dancers and carried away once more.
I can feel all eyes upon me, but for once in my life, I don’t feel their rage or contempt. When I look around me, I can see that most of the dancers and the Fair beyond them are smiling, their faces flushed with joy, their eyes alight with something I can’t quite name, and I can’t quite help grinning recklessly back at them, which only makes them beam brighter. After a moment, I do catch a few members of the crowd looking on me in sullen silence or even anger, but I let their displeasure slide cleanly off me, as graceful as a swan shedding the water from her wings. I am filled with a peace and a joy that I have never known, and I just want this feeling to last forever.
The music slows, and I am suddenly caught in the arms of a handsome boy a couple inches taller than me, his white teeth gleaming against his tanned face as he grins and offers a shallow bow. My heart skips a beat as I gaze up at him, taking in the shaggy brown hair draped over his brow, the forest green eyes that seem to pierce straight into mine, the long, straight nose and full, gracefully curved lips. His cheekbones stick out prominently, and his jaw and chin are strong and firm, just rounded enough that they don’t seem severe. When he sees me watching him, his smile fades a little, turning sheepish and almost shy.
“My lady. Forgive me,” he says, his gaze falling from mine, and his hands dropping away from me. “Will you do me the honor of a dance?”
I feel a smile tugging at my lips. I have never seen this man before in my life, and yet I can feel a surge of affection for him – not just attraction, but something more, something strengthened by long familiarity. I lift my skirts in a quick curtsy, marveling briefly at just how fine the fabric is, how it glides smoothly against my fingers. “I will, and gladly,” I tell him, my voice filled with easy laughter. “But only if you’ll look at me.”
His gaze returns to mine, and he smirks. “I think I can pay your price, my lady,” he agrees, slipping his left hand against my waist and taking my left with his right. I find his shoulder with my free hand, and then we’re moving with the currents of the dance floor once more, and the whole world melts away.
In the flickering torchlight, I can’t quite make out the livery embroidered on his doublet, though I can see that it’s a deep forest green that matches his eyes. His fingers are callused and strong, but he’s clearly practiced with that strength, guiding me gently as he leads our dance. My own fingers crush the soft velvet of his shirt, feeling the muscles beneath. Soon enough, we’re laughing together as we move through the crowd, the whole world forgotten, and I feel a warmth growing deep in my belly, along with a feeling I can’t quite name. I could almost call it love, but I can’t be sure. I want him, on some level. I know that. But it feels as though something is holding me back, something I can’t quite remember. Then again, if this is a dream, then there should be nothing to stop me from doing whatever I want…
No. This is not a dream.
All too soon, the dance comes to an end, and we step apart. He offers me a graceful bow, lower this time, and I curtsy again in return. Then, before I know what I’m doing, I give him a playful smirk, speaking in a light, flirtatious tone. “You are an excellent dancer, sir, but when next we meet, I think I’ll do the leading.”
“As you wish, my lady,” he replies, suppressing a smile, his green eyes twinkling as he takes my hand once more. “May all the stars go out before I refuse you anything you may desire.”
He begins to lift my hand to his mouth, and my heart thumps loudly in my chest, but before his lips can so much as brush my fingers, I hear someone clearing her voice behind me. His eyes flick upward, and I see him throw another of those boyish grins over my shoulder, somewhat sheepish but largely unrepentant, as he releases my hand completely and steps back. A small, pale hand reaches up from behind to grasp my shoulder, slender fingers curling around my arm, and I can feel some dam bursting inside me, sending a surge of pure joy through my body as I whirl about, my rich purple skirts swirling about my legs. I catch the barest glimpse of a short, lithe figure with pale skin and copper-colored curls before I pull this new arrival to me, our bodies and our lips crushing together, my eyelids fluttering shut.
Just as I feel as though my heart might burst from sheer happiness, thunder roars through the sky above us, and a freezing, torrential rain begins to fall. Screams fill the air, along with the sound of a stampeding horde. The musicians fall silent as one, and all the laughter and idle chatter dies in the face of sheer terror. My true love is ripped away from me, at last my eyes snap open once more. I stand alone, now, in the freezing rain, my boots sinking slowly into the slick black mud. The stone circle is empty of my people, the torches extinguished by the rain – only by drawing upon my magic to enhance my vision can I see anything at all. The banners have all been ripped to shreds or torn from their posts, and beside me, I can see that the throne has been pushed off its dais and smashed to pieces. I am surrounded by hulking figures shrouded in black cloaks and mounted on great black steeds larger than any horse I have ever seen. My blood runs as cold as the water pouring down upon me, and I scream name after name to the night, but the winds tear my words away from me before even I can hear them. My eyes search desperately for any trace of the friends who surrounded me mere moments before, only to be dazzled by a sudden flash of lightning. The rain turns to ice, and a thousand tiny spears slice through the fabric of my dress, cutting into my flesh, leaving me torn and bleeding from countless cuts. I look down to see my hands and my arms covered in streams of red, and my strength leaves me all at once, sending me stumbling into the mud.
The cold is a living thing, now, pressing in upon me, freezing me to the core. I can’t even find the will to look up as one of the hulking figures dismounts and strides over to me, his boots pounding into the mud, splattering my face and hair. I can hear dark, bitter laughter, and then suddenly he plunges his sword through my back. It burns my flesh and boils my blood as only iron can, and all my magic is consumed in the flames. I can feel my life going with it.
A loud, shrill scream suddenly rises above the thunder. For a moment, I think it’s me, but I don’t have the strength left to scream. I can barely even think through the pain. After a moment, though, I realize that it’s my sister calling out to me, her voice twisted in rage. She’s screaming my name…
“Kira!” I scream, bolting awake, sitting up in my bed. I see a blur of motion out of the corner of my eye, and as I force myself to breathe, pushing sweat-drenched hair away from my eyes, I turn to follow it and find my sister standing by my closet door, watching me with a mix of caution and amusement.
Already, of course, she’s perfectly groomed: her soft white blouse clings to her slender frame, cut low enough to allow a peek at the top of her lacy bra, and a short, pleated pink and gray plaid skirt just this side of scandalous is wrapped around her long, lightly toned legs. Her skin is clear and pale, seemingly as smooth and delicate as porcelain. Her hair, so black that it shines blue where the light touches it, falls past her shoulders in a straight fall, not a single strand out of place. Her ice blue eyes are rimmed in her customary dramatic eyeshadow and thick mascara, and her lips are painted a dark, glossy red. As a duine sidhe, Kira can look exactly as old or as young as she likes. She has over a hundred years on me, but she still prefers ‘jailbait’.
“Mother of all, sunshine, I wasn’t expecting that,” she says, her lips curling into a smile as she recovers herself. “I was just about to try a bucket of cold water. I guess it’s best I didn’t. You might have torn my throat out.”
“Kira,” I growl, my eyes narrowing. “What.”
“’Good morning, Kira. Thank you so much for waking me up. Whatever would I do without my big sister?’” Kira returns primly, gliding back to my bed and perching herself on the edge before turning a huge, incredibly fake smile on me. “Awww. You’re so sweet, sunshine. You’re quite welcome, of course. Now rise and shine, we have to get going.”
“For God’s – I set my alarm, I was planning to get up at -” I glance over at my bedside table, my voice fading as I stare in shock. I don’t know what time it actually is, but based on the sunlight streaming in through the windows, I doubt it’s 2:37 AM, no matter how many times the broken clock flashes that at me. For a moment, I feel like an idiot. Then I remember who I’m dealing with, and the whole world actually seems to turn red for a moment as I turn a venomous glare on my allegedly loving big sister.
“Really, Kira?” I hiss. “You knocked out my freaking alarm? You’re over a century old! Isn’t that a little childish?”
“What? Oh, dear, your alarm,” Kira says, looking over at my bedside table and clucking her tongue. “Must have been a power outage. Good thing I thought to check on you.”
I fold my arms and glower at her. “Yeah. Good thing. I’m so lucky my overbearing, meddlesome big sister was watching out for me. You really expect me to believe you had nothing to do with this?”
“Awww, my poor sunshine’s gone all gloomy,” Kira replies, giving me an exaggerated pout and reaching out to stroke my hair. I grab her hand and push it away, and she pushes herself back to her feet, smiling indulgently and shrugging one shoulder. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. So we had a little blackout last night. Power surges, gremlins, who can say? Of course, if you’d just stay in the palace with me and mother, I’m sure Dougal could rouse you himself.”
I think of my mother’s seneschal – her butler, her herald, and her personal bogeyman – looming over me as I awaken, tall and pale and grinning his terrible yellow-toothed grin, his sharp-nailed fingers curling around my arm, and I shudder, unable to hide my revulsion. Kira seizes upon my distraction and grabs my arm, yanking me out of bed, nearly sending me sprawling to the floor. I recover my balance and glare at her, hating her as only a little sister can. She flashes me a cheerful, infurating grin in return, and finally, growling low in my throat, I stalk out of my bedroom and over to the bath.
Like I said, Kira is over a hundred years older than I am, and she’s still more of a teenager than I am. Sometimes she’s an outright child. It’s not cute. It’s not sweet. My mother, being who she is, is cold, distant and more or less incidentally cruel. Kira’s cruelty is deliberate, calculated to cut as deep as possible, wherever she can cause the most pain, and she revels in every second of it. Case in point: my mother refuses to talk about my father at all. Kira, on the other hand, took great pleasure in telling me that he was a knight of the Summer Court, seduced as a grand joke back before my mother took the throne and then driven to suicide when she turned against him. I was just an accident my mother decided to keep as a trophy. It helps to remember that Kira lies. It doesn’t help as much as you might think.
I do know I’m a daughter of the Summer Court. It’s obvious to anyone who knows the least bit about the Three Courts (formerly the Four Courts) and their noble houses. Most of the daoine sidhe, particularly the nobles, resemble one of their parents more than the other – usually the more powerful one. Kira could pass for my mother’s twin, though my mother prefers to look a few years older. They’re both tall, slender, and as perfectly gorgeous as any supermodel, with sleek black hair, porcelain skin and eyes the perfect crystal blue of unbroken ice. My mother tends to dress in dark, flowing gowns, and Kira prefers to show a little more skin, but aside from their radically different personalities and fashion sense, they’re virtually identical.
I have those same ice blue eyes, but that’s where my similarities to my mother end. I look into the mirror, I see more or less the same sight I’ve seen since puberty finished its work: a broad-shouldered, athletic girl who could have stepped right off of any one of a hundred Midwestern farms, complete with a warm, healthy, perpetual tan despite the general lack of sun in Crowshead, Massachusetts. My hair is a dark blonde, the warm golden color of ripened grain beneath a summer sun, and no one would ever describe me as lithe, slender or waifish. I’m tall, but not quite as tall as my mother or sister. I shiver in the face of cold and damp that would never even bother the rest of my family. I am a duine sidhe, one of the rulers of the Fair, and I am as beautiful as all my people, but I am no true daughter of Winter.
My name is Brianna ni Deirdre o Neachtain. That’s the old form. To the government of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the United States of America, I’m Brianna Naughton. My friends – such as they are – call me Bree. My mother is Deirdre ni Gwynn o Neachtain, Queen of Air and Darkness, Ruler of the Winter Court of Cailleach Bheur, Regent of the Autumn Court of Cliodhna, Sovereign of the Unseelie, and Protector of the Fair in Exile in the North.
I am eighteen years old, and I cannot say with certainty that I have ever been truly loved.
I realize that makes me sound like an emo kid. It’s true that I have friends, though I don’t have many. There are people who care for me. But love? I’m not so sure. I’ve never felt much love from Kira – only a certain fondness, and a delight in tormenting me – and I’ve never felt any real affection from my mother. The very fact that she has kept me around, that she’s fed me and clothed me and paid for my education when I’m nothing but an embarrassment to her, should prove that she loves me, I know. I’m not her heir, I’m not even her legitimate daughter, so she has nothing to gain by it. She could have gotten rid of me years ago, but she chose to keep me. She made that choice over and over again. She even named me a Princess of the Winter Court, same as Kira. So that should settle it, right?
Except it doesn’t. Even I know that love is more than titles, more than support, more than mere acceptance. All my life, my mother has been cold and distant, even to me. She has only once told me she was proud of me, and that was when I learned to change my shape and become a swan maiden. It takes great power and skill and our people respect it – and so it improves my mother’s standing, as if her standing as the most powerful of the three monarchs needed to be improved. Aside from that, she has never smiled at me, never embraced me, never laughed at watching me play, never held me when I cried. There are those who say that the true children of Winter, the highest nobles and the members of the royal bloodline, are incapable of love. That they were cursed long ago with hearts as black as night and as cold as ice, and this is the price they still pay for their power. Maybe it’s true. I wouldn’t know. Like I said: I am no true daughter of Winter.
I shower quickly, running on autopilot, and as I dry my hair, I shake my head to clear it. The dream still haunts me, and not only because of the gruesome events at the end. In the span of moments, I felt more love, more acceptance, more of a sense of belonging than I have ever felt in all the years of my life. I should have known it was too good to be true. There’s no point in dwelling on it now. Today is my first day of college, and while I may still be living at home, I can at least hope that things will be different.
It’s a slim hope, to be sure. Truth be told, I didn’t ask for this. I wanted to run as far and as fast as I could – go to school in California or Florida, maybe, somewhere warm and pleasant where I could build a whole new life for myself, far away from the Winter Court and all that goes with it. I tried everything I could think of to convince my mother to let me go. I pointed out the solid eighteen years of peace we’ve had since she took down the Autumn Court. I argued that no one would be gunning for me even if we were at war – Kira’s the heir, after all, so there wouldn’t be any point to going after me. I even proposed arranging some kind of exchange with the Spring or Summer Courts, getting one of their princes or princesses to change places with me in some kind of fosterage. Mom loves all those old traditions. But Kira spoke against it, and she’s always been a hell of a lot more eloquent and persuasive than I have. She claimed that she was deeply concerned for my safety, and argued that it would be best if we both simply enrolled at Greymont College so the whole Winter Court could keep its eye on me, and that was that. Maybe I shouldn’t blame her for interfering – mother probably wouldn’t have agreed to let me go anyway. My family has always preferred to keep me close at hand. And it’s not like Greymont is without its advantages.
I step out of the bathroom to find my sister still standing in my room, leaning against my closet door and tapping her foot impatiently. She’s already laid an outfit out on the bed for me, summer clothes similar to what she’s wearing now: a short black skirt, a tight, low-cut lavender tank, and nothing else. I guess I should be grateful that she didn’t go rooting through my underwear drawer.
“Kira, you have got to be kidding me,” I say flatly, glancing over at her and rolling my eyes. She knows I can’t stand the cold – and here in Crowshead, it’s always colder than it should be. Our summers are all too brief, and while the rest of New England sweats on through September, our temperatures are already dropping. The last twenty years have seen a hundred case studies on our climate. The meteorologists and climatologists go on about microclimates and wind currents and atmospheric vortices, but the truth is both simple and scientifically impossible: that’s the price Crowshead pays for keeping the Winter Queen in residence.
“I was just trying to help, sunshine,” Kira says, pouting at me yet again. That pout is easily among her top five favorite expressions. It hasn’t worked since I was eight years old. It’s kind of amazing that it took me that long to start seeing through her shit. “Are you going to be grumpy all day?”
“Look, I can pick my own clothes,” I tell her firmly. “I’ll meet you downstairs. Okay?”
“Fine,” Kira says, drawing out the word, rolling her eyes and puffing out her breath in exasperation. “But you have five minutes. If you’re not downstairs by then, I’m leaving without you.”
“I can also drive my own car, Kira,” I remind her.
“Dougal has you blocked in. And you can hardly ask him to move his bike at this point,” Kira breezes, drifting out of the room. “So much easier if I do it. Five minutes!”
I sigh, shutting the door behind her. Of course he does. And, being a dullahan, he can’t expose his eyes to direct sunlight or he’ll be a statue for the rest of the day. He could always remove his head, but that really cuts down on his coordination. He can ride a horse without his head, but I wouldn’t want him operating heavy machinery. He’d probably be more than willing to try it, but honestly, the eagerness only makes it worse.
Shaking my head slowly, I grab some underwear and a pair of socks from my dresser, then go to my closet to find something that won’t leave me shivering all day – and preferably won’t scream ‘jailbait fashionplate,’ either. After a brief scan, I grab a pair of thick blue jeans and a black leather jacket. After a moment’s thought, I decide to keep the lavender top – it is pretty cute, and it always helps to cave in to Kira, just a little. A pair of black-heeled fashion boots and a scrunchie complete the outfit. I grab my bag, unzip it quickly to make sure everything I packed last night is still there, and head for the staircase. I’m still tugging my hair into a high ponytail when I spot Kira waiting for me at the bottom. She smiles brightly at me, and I give her another sour look as I fall in beside her.
“Oh, don’t tell me you’re going to be like this all day, sunshine,” she says, slinging an arm around my waist as we walk outside and pulling me close, her cheek brushing against my hair. “How boring. Are you still upset about this morning? I’ve already forgotten it.”
“Get off me,” I retort, shoving her half-heartedly away, trying to break out of her grasp.
Kira’s smile freezes in place, and she yanks me close again, her arm tightening around my waist. The pressure of her grip edges into pain, and my blood runs cold. I’ve crossed the line. It’s never easy to tell what’s going to set my sister off, but pushing back against her tends to do it. How stupid can I be?
“You know, Brianna, I’d almost think you weren’t grateful.” Her voice is high and distant, almost dreamy, and if I didn’t know her as well as I did, I wouldn’t have a chance at sensing the malice behind it. She turns her gaze upon me, her ice-blue eyes darkening almost imperceptibly. “I found you fast asleep, remember? And it was ever so hard to rouse you. I could have left you there. I could have gone off to campus, and you could be scrambling to get ready even now, begging Doyle to brave the daylight and move his bike so you could get to class. I could have done so many things, little sister.”
I swallow, forcing moisture into my dry throat, and lick my lips lightly. I’m not like Kira. I’m not good at deceit. And as terrified as I am, there’s a dangerous current of anger running beneath it all. I want to fight back. I want to shove her away in earnest and fight to my last breath. I don’t dare fight her, though. I learned long ago to tread very, very carefully around my elder sister. So I force the anger down, burying it deep in my heart, locking it away for one of those rare moments when I’ll be able to vent safely. I can do this. I can appease her again. I just have to focus.
Her sharp nails bite into my waist, snapping me back to reality, and my voice rasps as I speak. “I’m sorry.” I clear my throat and try again, as earnestly as I can, doing my best to sound like a dutiful, loving, repentant little sister. “I’m sorry, Kira, really. It’s just been a rough morning. I mean, there was the power outage, and then you interrupted my dream – but of course that wasn’t your fault – and I guess it left me all in a bad mood. I shouldn’t have taken it out on you. Thank you for waking me up.”
Kira relaxes her grip, just a little, but she’s still watching me expectantly. “And?”
“And thank you for driving me to campus,” I add quickly.
She lets go of my waist and steps away, beaming at me, her eyes lightening to their usual hue. I wouldn’t say her expression softens. Her expression is never what I would call soft. But the danger has passed. “You’re very welcome, sunshine,” she tells me, unlocking her sleek silver coupe and slipping into the driver’s seat. As I open the passenger-side door and climb inside, she turns to me again, a small, troubled frown on her face. “That dream seemed more like a nightmare to me. Have you been having a lot of those?”
If I didn’t know her better, I could almost read that as genuine concern. I shake my head. “No – I mean, that was the first one I’ve had in a while. And it was really only a nightmare toward the end. It was actually pretty good before that.”
“Oh, I see,” Kira replies, flashing me a mischievous grin, then turning her attention to the wheel, pulling out of the driveway and onto the cliffside road. “What were you dreaming about? Or should I ask who? Anyone I know?”
“I don’t know. A party. Nothing important,” I tell her. She seems to accept that, lapsing into silence as we race into town. But as the scenery flies by, far too fast for my tastes, I gaze out the window at the sea, my eyes falling on Watchman’s Tor, complete with its lonely lighthouse and its tall, broad hill crowned with a broken ring of standing stones. I’ve never been to the island myself. The Tor used to be the seat of the Autumn Court, back before my mother destroyed their royal family and claimed their noble houses for her own, and now it’s forbidden to all the Fair of Crowshead. Even so, it’s a familiar sight. I already knew those stones well, but now I see them in a whole new light. Gazing at them now, I’m all but certain they’re the standing stones from my dream.
I still don’t know what that dream could have meant, but I can’t shake the feeling that it was important. That there was some deeper meaning I have yet to discover.
Something tells me I just got away with lying to my sister.
Kira’s silence doesn’t last long. She chatters her way through the whole ride across town, and finally, mercifully, we arrive at Greymont’s West Campus, where I have my first class. As she pulls the car up to the curb, she glances over at me once more. “Okay, here we are. You have everything you need, sunshine? Schedule? Meal card? Cell phone?”
“Yes – yes, Kira, I’ll be fine,” I assure her, patting my messenger bag and trying my best not to sound annoyed. “Thank you, but I’m all set.”
“All right. I’ll come find you at lunch, we can walk to the Student Union together,” Kira tells me, leaning over to give me a quick peck on the cheek. “Have a great day!”
“Great. See you in a couple hours,” I agree, getting out of the car. She waves as she drives off, and I take a deep breath, feeling the tension slide away from me. Finally, I shoulder my bag and turn toward the crumbling ruin that still technically qualifies as Casey Hall.
My mother, patron of the arts and sciences that she is, has generously bankrolled the construction of a whole new anthropology building, slated to open in the spring. When Naughton Hall is finished, its predecessor will be torn down, and the last legacy of House Cathasaigh, once the royal line of the Autumn Court, will be lost forever. Kira would not have waited almost twenty years to complete her revenge, but Kira doesn’t have my mother’s patience, or her political savvy. Lord Treabhair – the keeper of the royal libraries, and one of my few friends at court – explained this to me once, not so very long ago: if my mother had razed everything House Cathasaigh left behind straightaway, demolished it all and salted the earth, she would have risked near certain rebellion. As things stand, however, everyone has had a decade and more to get used to the idea that their king and all his heirs are gone, and they’re never coming back. My mother is still only the Queen Regent of the Autumn Court on paper, but in practice, the Autumn Court is gone, and Winter will reign in its place forever. Everyone needed time to adjust to that fact. In the meantime, the Casey family was buried and mourned by the mortals who knew them, the funding from their estate quietly dried up, and the hall that bears their name fell into disrepair. Eighteen years ago, my mother’s decision to destroy the old building would have amounted to deliberate provocation and petty vengeance. Now, it’s an act of generosity.
The memories of mortals are short. Sometimes I think ours are shorter. At the very least, we’re more fickle.
Despite the brief moment of self-loathing, I can’t help smiling slightly as I step into the building, breathing in the familiar scent of musty books and decaying brick. I’ve been here countless times, going back even before my first days of high school. I have Lord Treabhair to thank for that as well – or, as he’s known to the staff and students of Greymont College, Dr. Trevor Gahan, senior professor in the department of folklore and mythology. At court, he’s a disgraced Autumn lord, mistrusted by his own people and quietly mocked by ours. He was among the first to bend the knee to my mother, after House Cathasaigh fell, and I don’t think that earned him much respect from anyone. I’m sure his friendship with the Winter Queen’s bastard daughter didn’t help his reputation much, either. Truth be told, I’ve always preferred to think of him simply as Professor Gahan, holding him apart from the useless, terrible politicking surrounding my mother’s bloated court, even if that politicking does form the basis of far too many of our conversations. And I think he’s always preferred to think of me simply as Brianna Naughton, which suits me just fine.
I don’t know what made him decide to take pity on me. Maybe he saw a fellow outcast and figured we should all stick together. Maybe he and his wife just thought I was a cute kid, and by the time they had cute kids of their own, I was already a part of their lives. Whatever the reasons, the Gahan family has always welcomed me with open arms. Mrs. Gahan was always there to hold me when my strength broke and I needed a shoulder to cry on, and Dr. Gahan was always happy to lend me a hand when I was struggling to understand something at school or just needed help managing my all-too-complicated life at court. There is a part of me, the part that owes entirely too much to Kira, that can’t help but wonder if they have some ulterior motive, even now, even after years of their kindness and generosity. I try not to listen to that nagging little voice. If anyone in this world truly, unconditionally loves me, it must be the Gahans.
I probably would have signed up for Introduction to Folklore and Mythology anyway – I’m still fascinated by the subject, even if I am kind of living it – but the fact that Professor Gahan was slated to teach this semester’s unit definitely made up my mind. The prospect of spending even more time with the closest thing I’ve ever had to a father figure, of seeing him in his element for the first time in my life, was simply irresistible. He’s already warned me not to expect any special favors, but we both know I’d never dream of slacking off. Not with him.
I walk into the lecture hall mere seconds before the class is due to start, an apology already on my lips – I really had planned to get here early. Then I glance at the lectern, and the apology dies in my throat. He’s not here. My gaze passes over to the desk at the front of the classroom. There’s no sign of him at all: no briefcase on the floor, no stacks of papers on his desk, nothing on the chalkboard but swirls of faded dust. He should be here. He should be standing right there, at the front of the room, scolding me silently for cutting things so close.
I frown slightly, turning my attention toward the stepped rows of desks rising steadily up to the back wall. Maybe a third of the old, battered lecture hall seats are filled – mostly with freshmen, I think. If there are upperclassmen here, I don’t recognize them. Some of the students are bright-eyed and alert, there eyes darting curiously around the room, while others are bent over phones or laptops, and still others seem half-asleep. I’m pretty sure one guy in the back row actually is sleeping. I turn my gaze to the front row, still mostly empty, and then I see her.
She looks like any of the other freshmen, really, sitting in the middle of the row in her faded jeans and gray t-shirt, a thin red cardigan clinging to her small, slender frame. A battered red and black messenger bag sits by her feet, and there’s a notebook on the desk in front of her, along with a single piece of paper that currently has all her attention. Her skin is pale, though it doesn’t have the same porcelain smoothness I’ve seen in my mother and sister – there are hints of rose there, and a dusting of freckles across her nose and cheeks. Her brown hair tumbles about her face in wild curls, falling just a little past her chin, streaked here and there with red. The dye job is obvious from across the room, but somehow it suits her. Her nose is long, slender and straight, turned just slightly upward at the tip, and her lips are pale pink, full and dry and soft. I’m not really sure why I’m thinking about her lips. I don’t know why my heart seems to jump a little when I look at her. I just know that the whole world seems to have come to a stop, and that something about her seems deeply, achingly familiar. I try to place her, but nothing seems to click.
I’m still standing by Professor Gahan’s desk when she looks up at me, her eyes the gray of a gathering storm, speckled with dark flecks. I freeze beneath her scrutiny, my breath catching in my throat, heat rising in my cheeks as I realize I’ve been staring. Her brown eyebrows knit together for a moment, her eyes narrowing as she regards me, and then she relaxes, her lips curling into a crooked, tentative smile.
I walk over to her before my brain has time to argue. It’s still forming protests as I drop my bag on the desk beside her, flashing her a grin of my own. “Mind if I sit here?”
She shrugs one shoulder, her smile widening, a dimple forming in her cheek. She scans the room briefly, her gaze falling pointedly on all the empty desks around us, but there’s laughter in her eyes as she turns to face me once more, looking me up and down. “If you’d like.”
By now, my brain has had time to catch up with me, and it’s demanding to know just what the hell I think I’m doing, letting down my guard like this. I’ve literally just met this girl. I don’t even know her name. And here I am, jumping right into the thick of things, drawn like a moth to the flame. Some small part of me is certain that Kira’s about to burst in and ruin everything. It’s a ridiculous thought – her class is clear across campus, and there’s no reason to think she’d set me up to be humiliated on my first day, and I’m not really sure what she’d be ruining, anyway – but Kira doesn’t operate by our silly Earth logic. But my heart’s still doing gymnastics in my chest, and my throat is suddenly, inexplicably dry. I felt this way in my dream, I recall, but she’s definitely not the tall, handsome boy I was dancing with, and while my eyes catch on her red-streaked hair, it’s nowhere near a match for the person I ended up kissing. Plus there were no mortals there.
Plus it was just a dream.
“So…are you actually going to sit?” the brown-haired girl asks, raising her eyebrows and smirking as I snap out of my reverie. I blush fiercely and nod, lowering myself into my seat, but my knees are shaking and I end up dropping way too fast. She watches as my butt slams into the scarred, battered wood and snickers softly. “Those are some serious first-day jitters. At least I’m guessing you’re a freshman?”
“Yeah,” I affirm, ducking my head for a moment before I find the courage to look at her again. She’s obviously amused, but she seems to be teasing me rather than outright mocking me. You don’t grow up with a sister like mine without learning the subtle difference. “My name’s Bree. What’s yours?”
That wasn’t exactly the smoothest thing I could have said, but she lets it pass. “Madeleine. Maddie. I’m a freshman, too. So is Bree short for something?”
“Brianna,” I tell her, and despite my nerves, I can feel a smile tugging at my lips. “Are we going to be trading questions all morning?”
“Brianna. Bree. Brianna,” she echoes, as though she’s tasting my name, comparing one to the other. A shiver runs down my spine. She looks back at me and grins her crooked grin once more. “I don’t know. Do you want to trade questions all morning?”
I flush again, smiling back at her. “We’ll have to stop when Professor Gahan gets here. Uh, won’t we?” I add, at the last second.
Maddie laughs again, shaking her head, her curls bouncing around her face. “That’s hardly an answer. Or a question. Pretty sure I win that round,” she tells me, before glancing up at the front of the room. Her smile fades, and her brow furrows slightly. “He should be here by now, don’t you think?”
If I were Kira, I’m sure, I would continue the game. I would flirt and beguile effortlessly until I had what I wanted. But I’m not, and the truth is that I’m not sure what I want here. And I’m worried too. I glance up at the clock. Time has flown by, and now it’s five minutes past the hour. The other students are starting to get restless. Something’s wrong.
“This isn’t like him,” I murmur. The words are out of my mouth before I realize I’m actually speaking.
Maddie’s eyebrows shoot upward, and her gaze swings back toward me. “Sorry?”
“Oh! Um. Dr. Gahan. He’s kind of…he’s a family friend,” I explain, rather awkwardly. It’s close enough to the truth. “It’s not like him to be late. He practically worships punctuality. I’m pretty sure I’ve even seen a shrine to it in his house. Or maybe that was just a grandfather clock.”
She cracks a smile at my lame joke, shaking her head. “Never? Really? There’s a first time for everything,” she replies. Her tone is light, but there’s an edge to it. Anxiety? I’m not sure why she’d be nervous. Her eyes drift toward the clock, but before I can press her for information, she turns back to me, her face alight with curiosity. “A family friend? How well do you know him?”
“Oh. Well. Pretty well. I mean, he’s not going to play favorites with me or anything,” I assure her, though somehow I can tell that’s not what concerns her. She nods curtly and waves for me to go on. “He’s kind of a mentor to me, I guess. Helped me with my schoolwork when I was a kid, gave me a lot of good advice, that kind of thing. His wife’s always been really nice to me, too. They have me over for dinner every couple of weeks. They’re good people. And he’s an awesome teacher, and it’s just…it’s really not like him to be late. He hates it when people are late.”
Maddie nods again, sucking on her lower lip. “Maybe there was a traffic jam.”
I snort, then cover my mouth, turning beet red as Maddie lets out a small, surprised laugh. “Sorry,” I squeak, when I’ve recovered my voice. “Sorry, that wasn’t really funny. It’s just – you’re not from around here, are you? Crowshead doesn’t really have traffic. Ever. And the roads were clear when my – the roads were clear.” I don’t really want to go telling her my evil half-sister drove me here. I mean, we’ve only just met.
“No, I’m really not,” Maddie affirms, her smile returning. “I guess the roads were pretty empty when I came into town. I mean, the campus was crazy, but the streets were clear. So…what now? I mean, if you know the prof, do you have his number or anything?”
I blink slowly, somehow reining in the impulse to slap my forehead. “Yeah. Yeah, I do. I mean, just the house number, but Mrs. Gahan should be there, anyway,” I reply, rising from my seat and fumbling in my bag for my cell phone. “Excuse me for a minute?”
“Sure,” Maddie agrees, waving me off and flashing me another grin. For a second, I think I catch another hint of concern in her eyes, but the moment passes, leaving me second-guessing my own senses. I shake my head to clear it, then step out of the room, switching my phone on.
I don’t just have the Gahans’ house number – I have it on speed dial, which makes my memory lapse all the more idiotic. It takes me less than ten seconds to place the call, which means it’s less than fifteen before I’m leaning up against the wall, listening to the phone ring endlessly. I count twenty or so distinct rings before I stop keeping track. Even if no one was home, the answering machine should have picked up after five.
My rational side tries its best to seize control. The reasoning goes something like this: maybe Kira wasn’t lying about the power outage. Maybe there was a blackout. It knocked out the answering machine, and the Gahans left the house before they noticed the problem. There was some small emergency – one of the kids got sick, maybe, or there was a problem with one of their cars – and Professor Gahan had to take care of it. There is absolutely no reason to panic.
My gut, on the other hand, is screaming that something is seriously wrong. And all the logic in the world won’t quiet that sense of impending doom. Not today.
I hit the button to end the call, then go back to my speed dial, calling home. The phone at my house picks up after only one ring, and the voice that comes on the line is as smooth and strong as spider silk, and as terrifying as the spider crawling along its length.
“Princess,” Dougal all but purrs, as I try and fail to suppress a shiver of revulsion. “Aren’t you supposed to be in class? With Lord Treabhair, if I’m not very much mistaken.”
“I am,” I say, forcing myself to speak in a slow, even tone. “That’s actually why I’m calling. Why are you in the house, Dougal?”
“Queen’s business, Your Highness,” he replies, his words dripping with exaggerated, almost condescending courtesy. “Nothing you need concern yourself with. Now. What seems to be the trouble?”
What business could possibly be urgent enough to draw him out of the safety of the palace during the day, when a single ray of sunlight could leave him helpless for hours? I shake my head. Knowing my mother, and knowing Dougal, I probably don’t want any details. “I was hoping to speak with my mother, actually. Could you put her on the line?”
“Her Royal Majesty is indisposed, I fear. If you’d care to leave a message, I’ll make sure she gets it.”
I hesitate for a moment, then sigh heavily. “Fine. Look, it’s probably nothing, but Professor Gahan – Lord Treabhair isn’t here. He didn’t show up for his class, and there’s no answer at the house. Not even the machine.”
“Oh? That is a shame,” Dougal replies, his voice filled with the kind of concern a cat might show for the mouse it’s been toying with all day. “I know you were so looking forward to his class. Not to worry, Princess. I’ll give this matter my personal attention. Go back to your classroom, now. Perhaps our Lord of Libraries is simply late.”
Something about the way he says that makes me shiver, but then again, that’s true of everything he says. “Okay. Just make sure you tell mom, all right?”
“Her Majesty will of course be informed,” Dougal says pointedly, a frosty edge coming into his voice. “Good day, Princess Brianna.”
He hangs up, and I scowl at my phone, rolling my eyes. “Yeah, yeah. You have a nice day, too. Asshole.”
A hand suddenly claps down on my shoulder from behind, and I jump about a foot, barely suppressing a shriek. I whirl about, my free hand balled into a fist, my magic rising to the surface – and Maddie is standing there, eyes wide and filled with concern.
“Whoa! Hey! Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you,” she says, stepping back and raising her hands. “Jesus, Bree, are you okay?”
“No. Yes. Sorry,” I say, recovering my breath. “I guess I’m just a little jumpy.”
“I can see that,” Maddie replies, with a faint, fleeting smirk. “Did you reach Professor Gahan? Or his wife?”
I shake my head. “No. I tried calling my mom, too, but…she hasn’t heard from him either.” I hesitate, glancing away for a moment. “It’s honestly starting to creep me out.”
Her brows are knitted together thoughtfully when I turn back to her. There’s concern there, but no judgment. “I’m sure it’s nothing, Bree. Shit happens. He probably just got held up,” she says gently. “Maybe we should go find one of the other professors? He might have called in sick, or whatever. And even if he didn’t, someone’s going to have to figure out what to do with his class.”
“Yeah – yeah, good idea,” I agree, turning toward the nearest staircase and waving for her to follow. “Come on. All the offices are on the second floor.”
“Lead on,” Maddie says, that faintly flirtatious tone slipping into her voice once more. She waits for me to move ahead, and then I hear the stairs creaking beneath her feet as she follows. I swear I can feel her eyes on me, watching my every move, but when I glance back at her, she’s staring straight ahead. She raises one eyebrow at me, then smirks as my cheeks start to burn.
Most of the offices are locked up tight, with nothing but darkness visible through the frosted glass set into the doors, but I can see one door open at the end of the hall. Warm yellow light spills out into the corridor, and I can hear a faint tapping sound as I draw near, along with a string of muttered curses. I can’t help grinning as I walk up to the doorway and knock on the frame.
“Dr. Young?” I call softly. “Is your computer bothering you again?”
The curses stop abruptly, and after a second, Dr. Young pulls the door all the way open, running a hand over his bald head and smiling broadly at me, his white teeth gleaming against his steel gray beard and dark, lined face. “Brianna. Yes. I called campus IT an hour ago, but so far they’ve left me to my own devices,” he tells me, rolling his eyes. His gaze flicks briefly over to Maddie. “Who’s your friend?”
“I’d offer to help, but I’m actually supposed to be in class. Oh – Maddie, this is Dr. Joseph Young, head of the anthropology department,” I say, gesturing between them. “Dr. Young, this is Madeleine, uh…”
“Fuller,” Maddie interjects, smiling at him and sticking out her hand. “Madeleine Fuller. You can just call me Maddie, though. It’s nice to meet you.”
“You, too,” Dr. Young replies, shaking her hand, then looking sidelong at me. “Right, you’re in Trevor’s class, aren’t you? Does he need something?”
My stomach twists slightly as I shake my head. “No. He didn’t show up at all,” I explain. “We were kind of hoping you’d heard from him. I haven’t been able to reach anyone at his house.”
Dr. Young frowns, his brow furrowing, and he steps back into his office, waving us inside. “Come on in. I’ll try his cell,” he says, walking back to his desk and picking up the phone. “For future reference, it’s traditional to wait fifteen minutes before leaving your class, but given who we’re talking about here, I can see why you’d jump the gun. Hang on a minute.”
Maddie bites her lip, glancing briefly at me as he dials, and then she paces over to one wall, peering curiously around the office. By now, of course, it’s all familiar territory to me: the neatly framed set of diplomas, the woven wall hangings, the tall shelf crammed with books set into the wall behind the desk, the poster of the evolution of man…and, of course, the group portrait from last summer’s departmental barbeque. It’s that photo that ultimately draws Maddie’s attention. Her eyes fall upon the tiny image of Professor Gahan, standing front and center, right beside his boss, and for a moment I can’t read her expression at all.
“Trevor, it’s Joe,” Dr. Young says abruptly, and Maddie and I both turn to face him once more. His frown has deepened, and his eyes are troubled. “Listen, I hope everything’s okay. Brianna’s here in my office. She said you weren’t in your classroom, and she couldn’t reach you or Orla at the house. I’m going to go dismiss your class for the day. Call me when you get this, all right? And whatever’s going on – take care.”
I watch in silence as he hangs up his phone, feeling my stomach roil once more. For a moment, none of us speak. I can see Maddie’s face out of the corner of my eye, and maybe it’s just my imagination, but she seems somehow paler, her eyes wide with surprise, filled with shock and uncertainty.
Dr. Young doesn’t look too happy, either. “I should call the police,” he murmurs, rubbing his beard. “See if they can go make a welfare check, at least. They probably won’t, not for something like this, but…damn it all, this isn’t like him.”
“No!” I say quickly – too quickly. Maddie’s gaze flicks over to me, her eyebrows knitting together. I can only imagine what she’s thinking, but I can’t afford to care, not now. If Dougal passed along my message, my mother’s already looking into the matter. He may have gone to the house himself, slipping through the Otherworld or just sneaking out without his head. I wouldn’t want to go startling a dullahan, and I have magic and lore and royal authority on my side. I’m not going to risk sending the police into this. “No, I mean – we’re probably overreacting. Now that I think of it, Ashlyn has been sick recently. Some kind of flu or something. Maybe she got worse and they had to take her to the hospital.”
I’m not a good liar. Not compared to my sister. But I do all right. Dr. Young seems to buy it, at least, though he seems justifiably hesitant. When I glance over at Maddie, though, I see her staring at me like I’ve just grown a second head. I shoot her a questioning look, and she quickly turns her face away, frowning deeply.
“Are you sure about that, Bree?” Dr. Young asks. “You seemed pretty damn worried when you came in. Even got me going.”
“I’m sure,” I tell him, turning to face him and flashing him my best, most genuine smile, trying to look as apologetic as I can. “I completely forgot about Ashlyn. It’s been kind of a crazy morning.”
He smiles slightly in return, letting out a low chuckle. “Yeah. Yeah, I understand. Don’t worry about it – I’m used to panicking freshmen,” he jokes. “I’ll let you know if I hear from Trevor, all right? And you do the same. We’ll just hope for the best. Poor Ash, huh?”
“Yeah. Poor Ash,” I echo, hating myself a little more with each treacherous word. “She’s been pretty miserable. So, um…should we just…get going?”
“Why don’t you follow me back to the lecture hall first?” Dr. Young suggests, stepping out from behind his desk. “Let’s just make sure Trevor hasn’t put in an appearance after all. If he’s still absent, I’ll dismiss the class and you two can be on your way.”
I nod, moving aside to let him pass into the hall before falling in behind him. Maddie follows in silence, and though I glance back at her, she stares straight ahead, refusing to meet my gaze. Her lips are pressed tightly together, her back straight, her gait stiff and awkward. There’s no sign at all of the funny, flirtatious girl I met downstairs. Before I can ask her what’s going on, though, we’re at the door to the lecture hall. Dr. Young takes one look inside before letting out a breath and shaking his head, turning briefly to wave us off and then stepping through the door.
Maddie follows me listlessly as I head out the front door, only to turn abruptly once we’re outside, starting down one of the side paths. I stop and turn to her then, reaching out to touch her arm, and she turns back to me, her eyes cold.
“What,” she says flatly, jerking out of my grasp and folding her arms beneath her chest.
“Funny, I was about to ask you the same thing,” I snap, unable to disguise my irritation. “What is it? What’s your problem?”
“My problem?” Maddie replies, her voice full of disbelief, her expression hurt and distrusting. “My problem is that I don’t like liars. What’s yours, Brianna?”
My heart skips a beat as I realize she saw right through my shit. I won’t say no one’s ever done that. I will say it doesn’t happen much with mortals. “What?” I ask dumbly. “What are you talking about? Why would you say that?”
“Because you lied, that’s why!” she snaps. “I can tell, okay? You’re not as smooth as you think you are. Dr. Gahan’s daughter isn’t sick. You pulled that right out of your ass. I thought the Gahans were your friends, Bree. Why don’t you want the police involved? What’s going on?”
Something nags at the back of my mind, but I’m too focused on her anger to think about anything else right now. “Okay,” I affirm, holding up my hands, desperate beyond reason to just make that anger stop. “Okay, she’s not sick. I’m sorry. It’s just…they’re really private people. Seriously private. They wouldn’t want the police poking around. My mom’s going to check on them, and if something is wrong, she’ll contact the authorities. I promise. Okay?”
All of that is technically true. I leave out the part about Dougal. I also leave out the part where, assuming the police somehow avoid a run-in with a trigger-happy dullahan, they’re far too likely to run into sick or wounded fairies – or worse – for my comfort. We’ve been hiding from mortals since we were kicked out of Ireland. We have rules and procedures for this, put in place long before any living member of the Fair was born, and modified regularly as mortal science advanced and mortal society changed. I won’t be the one to expose us. Professor Gahan would understand.
If something is wrong, my mother will call the authorities: the other two rulers of the Fair, and the agents responsible for cleaning up our messes. Then, and only then, will she call the police. By the time they come onto the scene, the scene will be perfectly ordinary and entirely convincing, and our cover stories will be locked into place.
Maddie doesn’t know any of this, though, and I know I’ve given her a terrible excuse. Personal privacy shouldn’t trump personal safety. She has every reason to storm off now and call the police herself. Hell, by now she should be looking at me like I’m Suspect Number One. At the very least, I’ve got to be a person of interest. For once in my life, I actually wish Kira was with me. She’d know just what to do. She’d turn on the charm, maybe throw a little magic into the mix, and have Maddie eating out of her hand in moments. Maybe I’ll get lucky. Maybe she’ll just decide I’m a weirdo. Maybe she’ll just bolt and never talk to me again.
I brave a glance at Maddie’s face, and to my complete and utter shock, the anger is gone from her expression. She’s watching me closely, but her frown is a thoughtful one. At last, she nods slowly, her shoulders relaxing and a small smile returning to her face. “Okay.”
“Uh…okay?” I echo, staring at her with wide eyes.
“Okay. I believe you,” she replies, her smile widening. “I actually kind of get it. The people who raised me were kind of the same way. I’m sorry I freaked out. It was just kind of creepy, you know? I mean, I show up in a strange new town, my very first class has a no-show professor, and then the locals start getting all twitchy…it’s like the setup for a slasher movie.”
I freeze at that, and my stomach spasms. For a moment I think I might throw up. Maddie’s eyes widen at my expression, and her smile disappears entirely. “Oh, geez, Bree, I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean-”
“It’s okay,” I say, waving my hand and forcing a smile, struggling to control the sudden bout of nausea. The thought of the Gahans facing that kind of violence…it’s almost too much to bear. I try yet again to convince myself that I’m overreacting. The professor’s just running late. We’ll laugh about this later. But the feeling of impending doom just won’t go away. “It’s fine. I know what you mean.”
“Yeah,” Maddie says, rubbing her neck awkwardly, offering me a weak grin in return. “So, uh…looks like I’m free for a couple hours. You got anywhere you need to be?”
My own smile turns a little more genuine as I shake my head. “Nope. You want to head to the Rat? We could try trading questions again.”
She laughs softly and nods. “Sure,” she agrees, though she wrinkles her nose after a second. “What exactly is the Rat? I can’t say that sounds appealing.”
“The Rathskeller – the snack bar in the student union?” I tell her, turning onto the path toward the Main Campus. “You must have seen it.”
“Oh – yes. I remember,” Maddie says, nodding again as she follows. “I just didn’t realize anyone called it that.”
“Pretty much everyone calls it that. You kind of just pick it up,” I tell her, shrugging.
“Sure,” Maddie agrees, before turning a mischievous grin on me. “You do realize you just lost the game again, right?”
“What? You were the one who forgot to ask a question!” I protest.
She shakes her head, sending her curls flying. “’The snack bar in the student union?’ That’s a statement, Bree, not a question. You just made it sound like one. I win again. That’s two-zip.”
I roll my eyes, but I can’t help grinning. “Fine. Let’s play again.”
“If you like. So. Have you spent a lot of time around campus?” she asks.
I nod. “Yeah. Mostly visiting Professor Gahan,” I reply, trying to ignore my stomach as it lurches yet again, just a little bit. “But I also audited a couple classes in high school, and I made a point to do some exploring after I was accepted here. You said you weren’t a local – where are you from?”
“Maine. I grew up in – well, it was a foster home, basically,” she replies. The wind suddenly picks up, whipping her curls right into her face, causing her to stumble a little in surprise. “Damn it! Do you have a scrunchie I could borrow?”
I laugh, smirking as I fiddle with my ponytail. “Is that your question?”
She looks back at me slyly, her eyes narrowed and her lips curled in a lopsided grin. “If it was, you didn’t answer. And since it was a perfectly valid question – three-love. I think I get to claim my prize now.”
The laughter comes easily, even with the shadow of worry still hanging over me, and I’m suddenly deeply, desperately grateful that I met this girl. “Prize? What exactly were we playing for?”
Maddie stops and turns to face me fully, so I turn to face her as well, raising my eyebrows. She taps her chin thoughtfully as she studies every inch of my face, and though her storm-gray eyes are twinkling playfully, there’s something deeper and more serious behind them. She steps in close and reaches up, her slender, nimble fingers brushing against my ear and stroking my hair. My throat is suddenly dry again, drier than I would have thought possible, and my heart is beating so fast that I half expect it to leap from my chest. She levers herself upward, stretching up on her toes, and my very bones seem to ache as her body slides against mine. I can smell lavender on her skin, the astringent scent mingling with the milder odors of chamomile and cocoa butter, and her hair smells like rich apple cider infused with cinnamon. Her eyes lock onto mine, and a crooked little smile curls her lips, which are so close now that I could lean forward just an inch or so and catch them with my own. I let in a shallow breath, feeling my stomach flutter, and I only barely rein in the impulse to do exactly that.
Then I feel her hand behind my head, tugging gently at my hair, which falls free as she pulls my scrunchie away. She smirks impishly at me as she claims her prize, stepping back and pulling her brown and red curls into a short, messy ponytail of her own.
“There we go,” she says, gesturing at her scalp. “What do you think?”
“I think your hair’s too beautiful to be tied back,” I reply, without thinking, and as her face breaks into a grin, I blush fiercely. I force a small, nervous laugh, then run my hand through my own unbound hair, which is already rippling in the wind. “And I think I don’t have a spare. What exactly am I supposed to do now?”
“Play me again! Double or nothing,” Maddie returns.
“Double or nothing?” I echo. “What, we’re just going to keep playing for scrunchies we don’t have?”
Maddie waves one hand dismissively. “You’ll owe me. Or maybe you can just buy me coffee or something.”
“You seem awfully sure you’ll trip me up again,” I remark, raising an eyebrow.
“Can you blame me? I’m three for three, here,” she replies. “Honestly, you’re kind of terrible at this game. Are you sure you understand the rules?”
“I’m still not convinced there are rules,” I retort, folding my arms and mock-glaring at her.
She grins at me, batting at my arm lightly, then turning toward the student union once more. “Don’t be a sore loser. Come on. Ask me something.”
“Okay, okay.” I bite my lip, thinking, then shoot her a sidelong glance. “Well…this might be a little too personal…”
She glances back at me, still smiling, and shrugs one shoulder. “Ask. If I don’t like it, I won’t answer.”
“Okay,” I say again, taking a deep breath. “You said you grew up in a foster home. Do you want to talk about it?”
She looks away again, walking in silence for a moment, then finally shrugging again. “Sure. I guess. There’s not much to tell.” She shoots me a quick smirk. “Do you want to hear about it?”
I roll my eyes, but smile slightly back at her. “Yeah. Will you please tell me the story?”
“Well, like I said, there’s not that much to it,” Maddie says, looking straight ahead, her gaze growing distant. “I never knew my parents. My whole family died when I was a baby. The Fullers took me in, gave me their name, but…they never really felt like family. That probably sounds horrible. But it’s true. I never really felt any kind of connection to them. I applied here, I got a scholarship and a couple grants and stuff, and here I am. Your turn. What’s your family like?”
I run a hand through my hair, letting out a long breath. “Honestly? I kind of get what you were just saying. I’ve never felt that close to my family, either, and I’m actually related to them,” I reply, somewhat guardedly. “I never knew my dad. My mom’s never even talked about him. It’s always just been me, my mom, and my older sister. Mom’s always been distant, and my sister’s always been a total bitch. For what it’s worth, though…I’m sorry about your parents. And the rest of it. Uh, let’s see – why did you sign up for Professor Gahan’s class? Are you interested in folklore?”
“Thanks,” Maddie says, shrugging once more, then grinning wickedly at me. “And that’s two questions. You are awful at this.”
“Damn it, I just lost again, didn’t I?”
“Three questions in a row!” Maddie crows, laughing. “I don’t know, Bree. What do you think?”
I sigh melodramatically. “I think I owe you a coffee. Or…something,” I add, feeling my stomach flutter again as my eyes meet hers.
“Or something,” she echoes, her voice suddenly very soft. Her smile fades, and she catches her lower lip in her teeth as she tilts her head, her gray eyes sweeping across my face. Finally, she seems to reach some kind of decision. “It’s not really folklore I’m interested in. Not in general. It’s Dr. Gahan – or his work, anyway. I’ve read a couple of his books on Celtic mythology. The Tuatha de Dannan, all the different fairies from the later lore…the daoine sidhe. It’s kind of a special interest, I guess. I was really looking forward to meeting him, maybe picking his brain during office hours or whatever.”
“Oh,” I say, rather stupidly. I’m not really sure what else to say. She’s still watching my face, her gaze intense and expectant, though I’m not at all sure what she’s waiting for. I look at her with new eyes, but all I see is the same freshman girl I already met: pale and graceful and beautiful, sure, but in a supernatural sort of way. Of all the peoples of the Fair, the daoine sidhe look most like mortals, but there are still subtle differences. Growing up in the Winter Court, I’ve learned to pick up on them, to spot one of my kind even in the middle of a vast crowd. I can identify most of the other species on sight as well, and she doesn’t resemble any of them, either. She could be under a glamour, but I would sense the power gathered around her. As far as I can tell, Maddie is nothing but human, and there aren’t many mortals left who believe in us. What is she trying to tell me? What could she hope to learn from Dr. Gahan that isn’t in his books? There’s quite a lot he could tell her, actually, but very little that he would. I open my mouth to speak again, though I’m still not sure what I’m going to say, and then I glance over her shoulder, my gaze turning toward the student union, and I freeze in place.
My sister is here.
Maddie gives me a puzzled look, her brow furrowing deeply. There’s a flicker of disappointment in her eyes, but it soon vanishes, replaced by confusion and concern. In that moment, I’m sure she’s seen the pain and fear in my eyes, hard as I’ve tried to hide it, practiced as I am in keeping it out of sight.
“What is it?” she asks, in a low tone. Before I can answer her, she turns to look, and I can hear her gasp sharply as she steps back, falling in beside me. I glance over at her, and I can see that her eyes have flared wide open, locking on Kira’s approaching figure. Her jaw has dropped slightly, and her pale pink lips are trembling. I feel a quick surge of anger and frustration, but it soon settles into a sort of resigned disappointment. Another friend, maybe more, lost to Kira’s casual glamour and effortlessly maintained beauty. There’s no point in getting angry, no point in fighting it. I know that from experience. If Kira takes a liking to her, she’ll use Maddie up and cast her aside, breaking her heart without a second thought. Or maybe she’ll find it more amusing to ignore Maddie completely, letting her pine away slowly. She’s done that before, too. Either way, that’s another friendship lost, another life ruined, and try though I might, I can’t think of any way to stop it.
Kira’s eyes are firmly on me, though, or at least they are to begin with. Her dark eyebrows knit together, and her blood-red lips curl into a small frown. “Brianna? Why aren’t you in class?” she asks. Then, at last, her gaze passes to Maddie, and her frown becomes a knowing smile, her lashes fluttering artfully over her pale blue eyes. “Oh, I see. You’re already making friends. My name’s Kira. What’s yours?”
“Madeleine,” Maddie spits out, her voice harsh and angry, and my gaze jerks back toward her, my eyes wide with astonishment. Her lips have pulled tightly together again, and her face is pale and cold, her gray eyes hard. Her back is straight and stiff, her whole body tense, and her hands are curled into fists so tight that I’m sure her nails must be biting into her palms. There’s no lust in her expression, no desire, not even a trace of kindness or compassion.
I glance back at Kira, and for the first time in my life, I see my elder sister looking rattled. She might actually be more surprised than I am. Nevertheless, after a moment, her smile widens, and she turns on all her charm. “It’s a pleasure to meet you,” she all but purrs, her eyes flicking back to me. “Brianna? Aren’t you going to introduce me?”
I suppress the urge to roll my eyes, turning back to Maddie. “This is my sister Kira,” I say, somewhat flatly, my eyes lingering on her face.
She turns to me again at that, her eyes widening and her jaw dropping. “Sister?”
“That’s right. Sunshine here is my favorite little sister,” Kira says, her voice entirely too sweet. “It really is so nice to meet you, Maddie. Any friend of Brianna’s is a friend of mine.”
“It’s Madeleine,” Maddie insists, her tone frosty. She studies me for another moment, her expression carefully neutral, and then she turns back to Kira. “My friends call me Maddie. Excuse me. I have to go.”
“Oh. But – what about that coffee?” I ask, running a hand through my hair.
Maddie looks back at me, then shakes her head. “Some other time. Maybe. See you around,” she replies, shrugging one shoulder as she turns away. It isn’t at all her usual easy, casual shrug – this is stiff, awkward and cold, and I can see her shoulders slumping in the wake of it. My eyes are locked on to her back as she walks briskly away, my sister momentarily forgotten.
Of course, Kira can’t have that. “How extraordinarily rude,” she seethes, staring after Maddie as well, then shaking her head and throwing a smirk in my direction. “I don’t know what you see in her, sunshine.”
“What? I don’t see anything in her!” I protest weakly, my gaze snapping back toward Kira. She already has the advantage in our pointless, seemingly never-ending battle. I do not want to give her any more ammunition.
“Brianna, darling, you skipped class just to hang out with her,” Kira returns. “The evidence speaks for itself.”
“I didn’t skip class! Professor Gahan…didn’t show up,” I admit, feeling the familiar knot forming in my stomach. “Hey, why aren’t you in class?”
“Oh, the sweetest boy offered to take notes for me,” Kira says, waving me off. “He didn’t? That’s strange.”
I shrug, trying not to let her see how worried I am. “Yeah. I already called home. Dougal said he’d check it out.”
“I’m sure it’s nothing,” Kira replies, before grinning at me. “Your little crush, on the other hand, is much more interesting. Admit it, sunshine, you want her, don’t you? I suppose she is sort of pretty, for a mortal. But we must do something about that attitude.”
“Shut up,” I mutter in return, shooting another glance at Maddie’s retreating back. “Anyway, it wouldn’t matter even if I did. I don’t think she wants me. Not anymore.”
“Oh, Brianna, haven’t you learned anything?” my sister replies, turning to watch Maddie as well. I can practically hear the smirk in her voice. “We’re the Fair. Our desires are all that matter.”
It takes me a second to realize what she means to do. Too late, I whirl around, grabbing at her wrist – but it’s already done. With a word and a flick of her fingers, she hurls her magic at Maddie’s back.
“Kira, no!” I scream, futile as it is.
Kira grins down at me, her eyes twinkling with mingled glee and malice. “No need to thank me, sunshine.”
“Thank you?” I echo, barely resisting the impulse to shove her back. Instead, I turn back to Maddie, my blood running cold. “Why on Earth would I thank-”
My voice drops away as I see the small brunette suddenly stop and grab at her left wrist, crying out in pain, the exclamation carrying easily on the cool, crisp air. She yanks the sleeve of her cardigan up, exposing some kind of bracelet, staring down at her wrist as she cradles it gingerly. I can’t help letting out a soft cry of my own, taking a step toward her, and that’s when her attention turns to us once again, her gaze jerking upward and finding mine.
I had thought she was angry before, when she was talking to Kira. Now her anger is a living thing, terrible to behold. Her skin is white as snow, her face twisted in hatred, her lips curled into a vicious, feral snarl. Her eyes are not just the color of storm clouds, now – they are the oncoming storm, blazing with all her rage, and they strike me just like lightning. My heart stops, and I have to choke back an involuntary sob as tears burn behind my eyes. I can feel her hatred, her resentment, her broken trust, and all I want to do is run to her. I want to drop to my knees and beg her forgiveness. I want the Earth to open up beneath me and swallow me whole, all because she so obviously despises me.
I take another step, but Kira grabs me before I can go any farther, her hands gripping my arms with all her strength. She speaks in a low whisper, and for once, she actually sounds afraid. “Sunshine, no.”
“Let me go!” I shriek, trying to break free, but she’s just too damn strong. “Damn it all, let me go! Kira-”
“Brianna – Bree!” she yells, her voice thundering in my ears. “Use your eyes! Look at her damned hand!”
My sister never uses my nickname, so that alone is enough to get my attention. Though I don’t exactly stop struggling, I finally do as she asks, turning my gaze to Maddie’s left hand. I call my magic to myself, enhancing my sight until I can see the smallest details with crystal clarity, even from a hundred feet away. The world is entirely too bright, now, but I manage to shut it all out and focus…and then I gasp. How could Kira have spotted that? How could she have known?
“I…I don’t understand…” I stammer, shaking my head.
“Her wrist, Brianna! Look at the bracelet!” Kira fires back.
My eyes flick up to Maddie’s wrist, and then I see it: a ring of black thorns, with tiny reddish-gold roses peeking out here and there. The roses are clearly just copper, but the thorns…
“Iron,” I breathe, releasing my magic once more, allowing my sight to return to normal.
“Iron,” Kira affirms. “She knows about us, sunshine, and she’s no friend to me or you. You poor, lonely little idiot. What on Earth have you done?”
I don’t have an answer. I just stare after Maddie in silence, watching in silence as she turns on her heel, all but running away from us, now. The truth is that I’m not thinking about the iron around her wrist. That bracelet wasn’t the only thing I saw when I looked at her. I also saw her hand. I saw it in perfect clarity for the very first time. And now I realize I know it nearly as well as I know my own.
A small, pale hand reaches up from behind to grasp my shoulder, slender fingers curling around my arm…
This is not a dream.