Here it is! It's a first draft, so it still needs a lot of work. But you can still read it, so long as you tell me what you think and let me know of any typos.
Iron Lace is dedicated to
that wonderfully handsome sweetheart behind the counter of the resort.
You have saved my life so many times, and you will always be my first love.
In Sinnoh, anyway.
This book is for you.
“Finally!” A tall-ish young fae bounded up to a golden dust-line in the grass. He would have looked normal, if it was possible to ignore the bright red-orange hue of his hair. “It’s about time!”
His friends, four other fae, strode to a stop just behind him.
“I thought we’d never get here,” a girl agreed, pushing her white-blonde hair out of her eyes.
“Well, we’re here,” responded a yet taller fae. He looked down at the golden line and smiled a little. “So quite obviously we did.”
The red –headed fae hopped over the marker finitely. “First one back home,” he crowed.
“I’m after Nayl,” the blonde responded, stepping over it. “Hello, Idanon.”
The third fae shook his head and stepped over the line. A sullen-looking fae followed him, rolling her eyes at the other’s excitement.
“You two are absurd,” she said flatly.
Nayl just grinned at her. “You would say that, Oleander. You are evil, after all.”
Oleander narrowed her magenta eyes at him. “I’m not evil,” she said definitively.
“Mmmhmm,” the blonde said, looking up. “We believe you.” Her tone showed that she didn’t.
“Not you too, Cai,” Oleander said, fixing the other girl with her glare.
“What?” Cai asked, raising her eyebrows. She was resisting the urge to smile. “Did I say something?”
Oleander rolled her eyes. “How many times do I have to tell you? Poison fae are not evil.”
Nayl and Cai exchanged glances. “Right,” the boy responded, drawing out the word, demeaning.
Oleander jumped to defend her element as the tall fae, Veson, looked back over the golden-dusted border. “Kira?” he asked. “Are you coming?”
The last fae looked up at him, roused from deep thought. “Hmm? Yes,” she said, stepping across the barrier. “I was just thinking,” she responded lightly.
“About what?” he asked her, ignoring the squabbling of the three other fae.
“Well,” Kira said, her blue eyes on the trees before them. Her gaze went beyond their green leaves. “We’ve been gone from Idanon for several months now. I was just trying to think of all of the things that could have changed since we left.”
He nodded, thoughtfully. “I don’t really think that much will have changed, though. Do you?”
Kira smiled at him, but her expression was unreadable beyond that. “I don’t know,” she responded.
He looked at her for a moment, trying to decipher her thoughts, before being interrupted. “Veson!”
He turned from Kira to the other three. Cai was standing slightly to the side, and Oleander was sitting on Nayl’s back, his arm twisted in her hands. Nayl was the one who called. “Can you get this girl to get off of me?” he asked humor in his voice.
Veson motioned slightly to Oleander. “If you would be so kind.”
She looked up at him placidly. “Must I?”
He nodded once. “It would be nice.”
She sighed and got off. Nayl rolled and hopped to his feet.
“You know, if you wanted to prove to him that poison fae aren’t all bad, tackling Nayl probably wasn’t the right way to do it,” Veson reasoned lightly, smiling a little.
Oleander rolled her eyes. “Yeah, whatever,” she said, straightening out the primrose skirt of her dress.
Cai laughed. “Oleander was always the best negotiator out of all of us,” she joked.
Oleander started to open her mouth, but Veson cut her off. “We need to keep going,” he reminded them. “No wonder we took so long getting here,” he said parenthetically to Kira.
“Hey, life’s only as fun as the detours,” Nayl responded, heading off the group as they all started to walk through the woods. “And speaking of detours . . . Where are we, anyway?”
They looked to Veson, who pulled out the map. Turning it in the right direction, he glanced up in the direction of the sun filtering through the leaves before looking down at it. “We’re on the south side of Idanon,” he responded. “We should be coming up on a town pretty soon, called Rofel.”
“What an attractive name,” Oleander said drily.
“Hey, I don’t care what the name is if it has an inn with some food. I’m pretty much done with this sleep-on-the-ground, eat-a-bloody-rabbit deal,” Nayl asserted.
“Don’t complain about the food,” Veson reasoned, “because you’re the one who cooks it.”
Cai’s nose wrinkled. “Hey, he never attested to being a good cook,” she responded. “He just has the firepower to roast the thing.”
Nayl, rather than argue, just nodded. “You know it,” he laughed, lacing his fingers together in front of him and popping them.
Cai glanced back, where Kira was making her way slowly across the forest floor. “How far is it, Veson?” she asked, looking back to him. “I think we’re all running out of steam.”
“Not me!” crowed Nayl.
Veson ignored him. “Not too far,” he replied.
The five fae made their way through the forest. Nayl and Oleander led the way, bantering in a friendly but loud manner. Cai was behind, with Veson, chatting with him lightly. Occasionally she would call to the two in front of her and join their conversation. Kira followed behind, thinking contemplatively. About what, none of them could gather. She was prone to musings as she travelled, and was not much for conversation.
Their conversation dulled and they all walked in silence, in the direction of the town as Veson steered them. Nayl and Oleander fell back and joined the other three.
They heard the town before they saw it. Apparently something large was going on, from the sound of it, and nothing good, either. Veson held up his hand as they neared the edge of the woods where the town began and dropped to the ground. They followed his lead.
They inched into the brush. The plants around them softened and curled inconspicuously, shielding them and masking any sound the fae might make.
A collective shout went up from the town’s fae, who were collected in a mass before a rough pillory. Constructed towards the back of the stage, there stood a gallows, and a straw figure hung from a noose high above the fae. It swayed despondently in a stiff breeze. The black mass attached to the misshapen head was tickled by the wind, as it, faceless, and stared downwards.
“We will not stand for this!” cried the young fae on the pillory. His earthy orange eyes were on fire, and his brown nails shone where he brandished a shovel in his hand. He was the only one with a weapon. “We will not subject to invaders!” He paced the stage, agitated, and made eye contact with the crowd. They were deathly still, looks of grim determination on their faces.
“Well?” He called spiritedly. “What say you?”
The townspeople cheered again, and Cai looked to Veson. “What are they talking about?” she asked perplexedly.
He motioned for her to be silent, watching pensive.
“That’s right!” he exclaimed, pride showing in his eyes as he looked at the townspeople. “We will stand for our freedom, even if we’re the only town in all of Idanon to do so!”
The crowd echoed his call for freedom threefold.
This time Nayl spoke up. “What’s going on up there?” he asked, perplexed.
“Just stay down until we find out, okay?”Veson asked.
Nayl scowled. “Why? It’s not like they’ll attack us or anything.”
Veson glared at the fire fae. “I said stay down. We don’t know what’s going on, and until then, no one is going anywhere.”
Nayl fell sullenly silent.
“Other towns may stay silent,” the fae on the stage preached. “Other towns may bow down. But we will not! It is time to take a stand! And if that stand means giving our lives, so be it! We will not back down, and it will take much, much more to conquer this town!”
Nayl fidgeted impatiently.
“Are you with me?” demanded the fae.
The crowd responded, resolute.
“Well,” Nayl said rashly, “We sure are learning a lot. I’m going to go ask someone what’s going on.” He hopped up and made his way to the back of the crowd.
Veson rolled his eyes, frustrated. “Yeah, or you could run out there like a stupid idiot,” he said, irritated. He looked at the girls, who all looked back at him. “Well,” he huffed, “let’s go. We have to make sure he doesn’t say the wrong thing and end up where whoever that guy is.” He motioned to the straw figure, then hopped up and hurried after Nayl.
Nayl looked a little smug when he saw the others followed him, and he smirked to show it before tapping a fae with brown hair on the shoulder. “Excuse me,” he asked, “what’s this meeting about?”
The fae looked surprised, and raised her eyebrows. “You don’t know?” she asked, bewildered.
“We’re travelling,” Veson explained before Nayl could speak. “We just returned to Idanon after a long journey, and I’m afraid we aren’t aware of what’s been going on here the last few months.”
The fae looked to the stage, where an older fae was hobbling to the center. “Shh,” she said, eyes lighting up. She pointed to the man and glanced at the group. “He’ll explain.”
The old fae scanned the townspeople with his cool gaze before beginning to speak.
“A few months ago, as you all know,” he said, voice low. “Idanon was suddenly taken over by dark fae Soel.”
The crowd was silent and angry. The five fae near the back exchanged glances. Even Kira looked surprised.
“Soel killed the consulate that ruled Idanon from the capital city, and assumed control of Erul, and, consequently, the country as well.”
The young fae stepped back up. “And we will not stand for this mistreatment of our country!” His voice was strong and determined. “We will not stand for a dictatorship!” He pointed an accusing finger at the straw fae hanging from the gallows behind him.
Veson turned back to the fae with the brown hair. “How on earth did this Soel take over Idanon? Why don’t you just fight back?”
The fae blinked her tan eyes at him. “I can’t believe you don’t know this. Soel took over by seizing the castle, and by the time we heard of it and went to arm ourselves, all of our weapons were gone. He somehow stole them before we heard of anything. That shovel is the only thing left in our village. Then he killed the consulate, and now he’s in power.”
“Okay,” Oleander said without inflection. “So . . . we’re fae. We have power over the elements. Why can’t you storm the castle and attack with the elements?”
She shook her head. “No such luck,” she replied. “He has an elemental shield around the castle. Nothing can penetrate it; fae themselves just bounce right off. The citizens of Erul tried everything.”
“How is that even possible?” Veson asked, stunned.
“No one knows,” she responded, shaking her head. “I wish we did—then maybe we could do something about it.”
Cai looked up to the stage, where the young fae was calling the others to rally together. “What is this meeting for, then?” she asked, watching him move the shovel from his gloved hand to his bare hand agitatedly.
The girl’s eyes shone. “This meeting is a call to rally. We won’t let Soel take over our country without a fight, not even if he takes away all of our methods to fight back. We will not lie down and let him walk on us!” She spoke with such conviction; the others were slightly taken aback.
“Together, we can take back Erul!” the young fae called from the stage. “Together, we can liberate Idanon! It takes a lot more to take down a country than one lone fae—who is with us?”
The girl cheered along with the crowd, but underneath the sound came another—one of clanking metal and hoof beats.
The girl cheered along with the crowd, but underneath the sound came another—one of clanking metal and hoof beats.
The crowd turned as one to behold armored fae riding into the town. From the way the crowd shrank back in disgust, it could only mean they were royal guards.
The fae on the stage was not intimidated, however. “Justice will be served!” he cried, ignoring the guards. The guards, in turn, shouted, and spurred on their horses towards the crowd, brandishing swords.
“Death to tyrants!” he yelled. He lobbed the shovel into the air, and with a dull thwock it stabbed through the stomach of the straw Soel. The fae leapt off of the pillory and disappeared into the woods. The crowd scattered before the fae on horseback and vanished into the surrounding forest and between buildings.
Veson motioned for his friends to follow him, and he darted into the woods. They ran away from the town and the guards pursuing them. Veson halted and rested a hand on the trunk of a large tree. Closing his eyes, he concentrated, and the side of the tree creaked open haltingly. Nayl, Oleander, Cai and Kira darted in. Veson glanced around before following them.
The inside of the tree was warm and sweet smelling, and the five friends huddled in it silently as Veson willed the bark to seal them in. They sat, in silence and darkness, as the sound of guards searching the woods surrounded them.
The straw Soel swayed in the air, as silent as the deserted town itself.
Nayl was the first to speak. “Wow,” he said simply. “I never would have guessed that would happen.”
“Idanon had such a good government,” Cai said thoughtfully. She formed a small orb of sparks and held it in her hands, lighting the inside of the tree so they could see one another’s faces. “How on earth did Soel steal all of the weapons and create an impenetrable barrier to protect himself in the castle?”
Kira was looking off into the space beneath their feet. “We have a bigger problem,” she said quietly.
The others hushed and looked to her. She looked up and scanned the group with her bright blue eyes. “We were seen at that meeting. We were seen with the dissenters. That means we’re branded as dissenters ourselves.”
Cai’s clear blue eyes went wide. “What? Just because we were at the wrong place in the wrong time, now we’re branded enemies of the state?”
“Now,” Veson reasoned, looking at the group in the tree, “that’s stretching it a bit. We don’t know that for sure.” He did not look as certain as he sounded.
Kira didn’t argue, just shrugged a little.
“Well,” Oleander said, listening. “Are they gone?”
Veson thought, leaning his head against the tree’s wall behind him. His green hair came away free of sap as he nodded. “Yes, they’re gone.”
“So what now?” Cai asked, looking nervous.
Veson shrugged. “We keep going. I don’t think there’s really that much to worry about. I doubt they’ll recognize us.” This time his confidence was certain.
“If you say so,” Oleander shrugged. She shifted. “Now how about you let us out of this tree?”
The five fae made their way, taking a long detour around Rofel. They continued walking until they came across a little town with a tavern. Upon Nayl’s request, they stopped to see if they could get a room.
They were standing at the counter, Veson inquiring after a room, when in walked two fae dressed in the same uniform as the guards that had broken up the meeting in Rofel. They were laughing and enjoying their conversation, until one of them looked up and spotted the five fae.
“Hey, you’re—” he started, his eyes going wide.
They turned, and in an instant Oleander extended her arm. A purple-grey mist shot from her palm, like a dart, and sank into his neck. He fell to the ground, unconscious from the poison.
The other guard stepped forward, but as soon as he did, a vine erupted from the ground and, like a hammer, smacked into the side of his head. He, too, fell to floor.
The innkeeper, behind the desk, stared at the two fallen guards.
“Well?!” Nayl demanded, looking at his friends. He leapt over the fae to the door and wrenched it open. “Let’s get the heck out of here!”
They fled the inn, back into the woods. They crouched, wary, in the underbrush as the sun set. They stayed like that until they were certain no one was looking for them, and then started off into the night.
“Word sure travels fast around here,” Oleander said drily.
Nayl looked to Kira. “Well, you were right.” He glanced at Veson, but the green-haired fae was silent.
Cai looked dejected but not surprised. “It makes sense,” she replied. “I mean, they would have to keep a pretty close reign on their subjects to avoid rebellion.”
Oleander voiced all of their thoughts. “So what now? If we’re enemies of the state, which is what it looks like, what do we do? Just live in the woods in hiding or something?”
Veson shrugged. “I guess so,” he admitted. “We can’t show our faces anywhere there are Soel’s henchmen, and they appear to be everywhere. I guess all we can do is try to keep a low profile until they forget about us.”
“If they forget about us,” Cai replied reasonably.
“Aw, man,” Nayl said dejectedly. “That means we’re going to have to keep sleeping in the dirt and eating rabbit, doesn’t it?”
Kira smiled slightly. “Yep. Sorry, Nayl.”
He sighed. “I was looking forward to sleeping in a bed,” he pouted. “Or at least a floor.”
Oleander smirked a little. “Hey, you still can. I’m sure that there’s a nice floor in a jail somewhere they’d be happy to put you up in.”
Nayl turned to the poison fae. He frowned, his lower lip protruding a little. “That’s not nice,” he said, comically sullen.
“What can you expect?” Cai smiled.
“But for real,” Veson interrupted, “this isn’t something we can just laugh off.” He looked around the group seriously. “If we’re really going to be branded as rebels here, do we even want to stay?”
Kira’s head snapped up. “Are you suggesting we just leave?” she asked, voice calculating.
Veson shrugged, noncommittal.
Oleander crossed her arms. “Well, it’s a good question. Should we stay? We don’t really have anything to stay for.”
Kira looked around the group. “Is that how you all feel?”Cai looked like she was about to say something, but Nayl remained silent for once. Rather than let the electricity fae speak, however, Kira kept talking. “Idanon is our country,” she told them. “We have a responsibility to stay, if not for our good, for the good of the others that live here. We can’t just abandon it. What kind of a way to deal with your problems is that? If we had that mentality when it came to each other, we would have broken up a long time ago.”
She looked at her friends, a cool measure of control in her eyes. “If leaving is what you want to do, fine. But I’m not going to leave my country—not when it needs fae who can step up and help defend her, not now.”
Veson sighed a little. “You’re right,” he admitted. “I don’t think I could leave it in need if I really wanted to.” He laughed a little. “I’m too loyal.”
Oleander looked around the little group and shrugged. “I’m not. But I will stay, because you all are. It’s just an organization to me, and I’d rather live somewhere where I don’t have to worry about being a refugee and breaking any laws. But we are a team,” she admitted. “So I guess I’m stuck with you.”
Nayl grinned at her. “Gee, thanks for the wonderful reassurance there, Olly. Good to know you stick with us because you love us, not because you have to.”
“You’re welcome,” Oleander replied crisply. “And call me that again and I’ll give you indigestion for a week.”
They walked through the now-darkened woods. Cai listened for followers as they walked without conversation, surrounded only by the chirp of crickets and the murmur of the wind through the leaves. The moon peered at them from behind dense clouds, its light filtering gently through the openings in the foliage. They fell into a single file line, lead by Veson, as they snaked through the woods, seeking somewhere they could rest for the night.
They walked until they could not see by the light of the moon any longer, and then Cai and Nayl created orbs of electricity and fire, lighting their path so they could continue. The air grew chill, and they drew the orbs closer to the group, warming themselves in the cool night air.
Finally they reached a tiny clearing in the woods, no larger than the floor of a small house.
“All right,” Veson announced, looking around at it. “Here’s where we’ll stop.”
The others looked around. “I’d rather find a nice floor to sleep on,” Nayl said, voicing their disappointment.
“Well, this will have to do for now,” Veson replied, not in a mood to deliberate about their misfortune. “Until this thing blows over, we’ll just have to get used to sleeping on the ground.” He kicked at some leaves, and shook his head. His green hair fell into his eyes, and he pushed it back. “Well, almost on the ground.” He knelt, and touched the ground, and within instants the leaves began to move. Tiny sprouts of a thick, soft-leaved plant sprung from the earth and grew to cover the forest floor.
Veson sighed and rocked back, looking at the thin layer he grew from the earth. “That’s good enough,” he said. “I can’t do too much, or else I won’t be able to do it again tomorrow.” He looked up at his four friends and smiled a little ruefully. “How’s that, Nayl?”
Nayl smirked. “Eh, I’d rather have a floor,” he replied, plopping down.
Cai rolled her eyes. “It’s great. Thanks a lot, Veson.”The other two girls agreed as well, Oleander with a ‘yeah’ and Kira with a simple nod of the head.
As the others settled into the layer of leaves, Nayl put his hands out and sparked a little fire. It burned a circle in the plants, and he sustained it with one hand, digging under the fluffy leaves to find a few sticks to drop into the flames.
The fae crowded around it, keeping warm.
“So what now,” Oleander asked flatly, looking around at them. “Do we just stay here?”
Veson shook his head. “I think it would be best to keep going. We need to try and outrun our reputation.”
“But how far would that take us?” Cai asked, raising an eyebrow. “We could end up on the north reaches of Idanon before that happened.”
“But how far would that take us?” Cai asked, raising an eyebrow. “We could end up on the north reaches of Idanon before that happened.”
“Yeah,” Nayl chimed in, “and that is a lot of walking.”
Kira looked to Veson. “We should go towards the capital,” she stated.
Cai gasped. Even Veson looked at her with a measure of surprise. “Why do you say that?” he asked evenly, knowing Kira never spoke her opinion without sufficient reasoning to back it up.
“The closer we get to the capital, the less they’ll suspect our presence,” she replied, just as evenly. “Security may be tighter as we go towards the capital, but I know there’s a large forest near there that hardly anyone goes into. The citizens there leave it alone, because no matter how hard they try they can’t get the elements to obey them there.”
Nayl nodded, remembering. “I remember that place. Forest of Emptiness, didn’t they call it?”
“Yes, the locals called it that,” Kira responded. “It would be the perfect place for us to hide. No one would suspect us and no one would bother us.” She looked around at them. “I think we should go there.”
When Veson did not say anything, Cai nodded. “I’m in. It sounds like our best bet,” she said, looking to Veson.
“I’m following you,” Oleander said, lying back in the leaves. “We are a team, after all.”
He nodded after a moment. “It does sound like the best plan we’ve come up with yet. And I know you’d have thought about it before. We’ll head to the Forest of Emptiness, and from there . . . who knows.
“But for now,” he said, looking at the little group, “we need to sleep. We’ve got a lot of walking to do before we get anywhere close to the capital or this Forest of Emptiness.”
Nayl sighed as he lay down. “More walking,” he grumbled quietly. “I don’t see why we have to walk so far.” Then he perked up, sitting up a little in his spot. “Hey, sis, you solve all of the rest of our problems. Why don’t you just make something to transport us wherever we want to go?”
Kira allowed herself a small smile. “We’ll see about that, Nayl,” she said, lying down beside him. “Right after I solve how we’re going to take back the capital for the people.”
It was a long walk to Erul’s Forest of Emptiness, and it took the five fae quite a while to get there. They kept off of major roads and highways, avoiding all towns and villages, and after a few weeks, made it to Erul. Kira showed them the way to the forest, and they set up camp, nestled in the center of the Forest of Emptiness.
Nayl sat at a little fire he had constructed from sticks. As the little drift of smoke lazily made its way skyward, he sucked it out of the air and dispelled it from his other hand.
Oleander sat nearby, mashing up purple flowers and leaves together in a poultice. She slathered it on a fat carrot Veson had found earlier that day, making sure that the smell of the mush did not mask the scent of the carrot.
“You know, I didn’t know that this ‘no-elements’ thing was going to be this much of a drag,” Nayl said despondently, waving his hand over the little fire. “I’m actually burning sticks here. Sticks. And all I can do is make sure nobody sees the smoke.”
Oleander rolled her eyes. “You’ll get no sympathy from me,” she responded drily. “I’m poisoning a carrot to catch a rabbit with my hands. And then I have to go and check the traps I set earlier, and cut out the little mongrels’ stomachs so you all can actually eat them without getting sick.” She wrinkled her nose. “I’d rather just inject and withdraw the poison myself and bypass all the nasty bloody work.”
“Well,” Veson replied, strolling back into their little camp, holding a bundle of miscellaneous plants, “we could just eat what vegetables and plants I can find.”
“No,” she responded, “I’m not ready to resort to just eating plants yet, thanks.”
Nayl sighed. “At least with your job you get to do something. I just have to sit here and play with . . .” He waved his hand over the fire again. “. . . smoke.”
She laughed at his misfortune. “Yeah, you have fun with that,” she replied sarcastically. “I’m going to go hack up some bunnies.”
Oleander wandered off, and Nayl sighed again. “Why do I have to do this again?” He implored Veson. “I’d rather do anything.”
Veson shrugged. “We have to keep the fire going. Otherwise, how would you start it again?”
Kira wandered into the camp, carrying a battered bucket filled with water. She paused by Nayl, setting her pail down on the leafy ground.
“Yeah, I know,” Nayl glared at the fire. “No elements means no starting fires without flint.”
Kira watched as the fire fae gathered the wisps of smoke into his hand over the fire and dispelled it from his hand behind his back. “Well,” she admitted, “You could go and see if you can find any flint. Then you wouldn’t have to keep doing this.”
“Yes!” Nayl cried, hopping up. In a flash, he had stomped out the tiny fire. “I’m out of here,” he announced spiritedly. “To flint I go!”
Kira smiled as her brother disappeared into the forest.
“I doubt if he’ll find any,” Veson said reasonably.
“I know,” she responded, watching him until he was out of sight. “It’ll keep him busy for a while. Besides, he’s pretty lucky, and if anyone could find flint in these woods, it would be him.”
Veson assented. “Yeah, you’re right.” He wandered over and dipped his plants in the water. “Thanks for getting this, Kira,” he said, beginning to wash them.
“It was nothing,” she responded. “I’m going to go and see if I can find Cai.”
“Yeah, I’m not sure where she went,” he said, glancing up and pausing from his scrubbing.
“I’ll find her,” she replied. “It’s not a problem.”
“Okay,” he said. “I’ll call for you if she shows up,” he added as an afterthought.
Kira nodded and started off into the woods, eyes peeled for the light colors of the electric fae. She followed the meandering stream through the trees, looking up into their leafy arms contemplatively. Thinking, she soon let Cai slip from her mind, and she closed her eyes as she slid through the foliage, her feet in the water.
She opened her eyes and noticed a large rock by a small pool. It was a pretty spot. The stream dispersed among the rocks, leaving the surface of the water cool and undisturbed.
Climbing up onto it, she curled her feet beneath her and sat, looking into the water. She looked back at herself; the bright blue eyes fixed in her face of pale skin. Her blue hair tumbled over her shoulder, the brightness of the blue contrasted by the light azure of her dress.
She looked into her eyes, trying to measure her own thoughts. When she could find nothing but reflection, she was pleased, and sat up a little straighter. Water was a very powerful element, but that meant it was also the element of control. Without walls or boundaries, water could prove to be the most destructive force on the planet. That fact was only more beautiful when juxtaposed with how soft and calm a pool could be, like the one she was looking at.
Water is a mysterious thing, and that is what she saw in her eyes.
Her head snapped up as she listened, and a ripple ran through the pool as a pebble plicked into the surface of the reflection. “Hello?” she called warily. “Cai?”
A figure stepped out from behind the foliage without hesitation, but it wasn’t Cai. Instead of the short and thin, light fae girl, a relatively tall young fae stood there. His eyes were a blue-grey white, and he looked at her interestedly from beneath his slightly long, black hair.
“Hello,” he responded. “What are you doing out here?”
Kira was alarmed, but brought her feet underneath her and looked at him evenly. “Sitting,” she said, uninformative.
He smiled, a little impertinent. “I never would have guessed that,” he said, though not saturnine. He walked a little closer, sticking his hands in the pockets of him black pants. Kira watched him closely. “Do you come here often?” he asked, tilting his head.
This time he laughed, and his eyes closed as he did. “Not one for conversation, now, are you?” he asked, amused.
“I can be,” she said, studying his face. After a moment, she tilted her head. “You’re Soel, aren’t you?” she decided, unafraid.
His smile did not diminish. “Yes,” he replied. “I am. And you are?”
She reasoned there was no way he could know who she was. If he did, she could see he had no weapons and elements were wild in these woods. Her friends were within shouting distance if anything happened. She was reasonably safe. “I’m Kira,” she replied.
Sole continued to smile at her. “You’re not from around here, are you?”
Kira raised an eyebrow coolly. “Why do you say that?”
“I’ve seen you before,” he said. He looked up into the trees, seemingly pointless, and began to speak. “Our guards include art fae, you know, who record the faces and physical descriptions of dissenters all around Idanon. I was perusing the records the other day; I enjoy that kind of thing.” He looked at her with an artificial air of interest and surprise. “Funny, if I remember correctly, one such description was of a fae that looked much like yourself. She fled from Rofel a few weeks ago . . . but, then, she had several friends with her. Perhaps one of them was named Cai?”
She gazed at him, face a mask. “Perhaps.”
He looked across the pool contemplatively. “The only problem with supposing anything based on that is that it would, quite frankly, make no sense. Why would enemies of the state flee to hide in an enchanted forest right beside the capital?”
“They might,” Kira suggested noncommittally, “if they weren’t really rebels at all. Suppose they were just unlucky, and caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. Suppose they fled to the forest to ensure their safety with no intentions of harming any kind of government.”
“Perhaps,” he replied, “But, then, how likely is that?”
“Presumably as likely as the leader of the new government meeting one of them alone in that same forest,” she said. “Almost as likely as her and her friends getting caught after that unfortunate meeting.”
Soel laughed again, only slightly humored. “Now, I’m not sure if I believe at all the likelihood of that last speculation. After all would the leader still imprison them if he knew, or suspected, them innocent?”
“If he killed the consulate,” Kira said calmly, “she could assume him capable of all kinds of evil, regardless of what he knew or suspected.”
He smiled, but ruefully. “And now we’ve gone too far again in our speculating. If she has only heard of the leader at rebellion meetings, does one really know of his character?”
Kira was silent, and he continued after a moment. “No, I don’t think so. Don’t worry, Kira. You and your friends have nothing to fear—I won’t send any guards after you.” He turned his back and began to walk away, in the direction of his castle.
“If the leader is calculating enough to have guards break up riots in small towns across his country and record all of the faces of the fae present, why would he leave five fae alive in the forest right next to his palace?” She asked, quietly.
He turned and smiled. “Because,” he reasoned, “you are no threat.”
Kira sat there, listening to the sounds of his footsteps recede into her leafy surroundings. She sat until she couldn’t feel the rock cutting into her hand anymore where she propped herself up, until the twilight was heavy about her, falling over the woods and basking them in its crepuscular light.
Then she roused herself and made her way through the woods to their little camp.
Oleander was turning flays of rabbit meat on a spit over a little fire. Nayl stood above her, dispelling the smoke after it slid by the food. Veson stood nearby, watching, with his hands in his pockets. The tin pail sat in the cinders, the water steaming around the plants inside.
Nayl looked up as she entered the little glade. “Hey, you’re back!” He gestured to a variety of stones on the ground beside him. “I have flint!”
She smiled a little, and Veson noticed her. “Where did you go?” he asked. “Cai came back quite a while ago, and she just went out again.” He glanced at a pile of flowers on the edge of the tiny clearing.
Kira nodded. “There was a pool,” she gestured vaguely. “I lost myself looking into it, I think.”
Oleander turned the meat. “Narcissist,” she muttered.
“Well, the food is just about done,” Veson responded, looking back down at the fire. “Don’t you think so, Oleander?”
The poison fae inspected the meat. She poked it briskly twice with a sharp primrose nail. “Yeah, it’s good,” she decided.
As soon as she pulled the meat away, Nayl stomped out the fire with a vivacity that said he was not going to babysit a fire all evening. He waved his hands impatiently over it and called, “Cai! Food time!”
Cai emerged from the woods, slightly flushed but smiling. “I found some more flowers,” she beamed. A huge bouquet lay in her arms.
Oleander looked up, the meaty stick in her hand. Her gaze, as always, was even and factual. “Yeah, that’s real practical.”
Veson smiled appreciatively. “It’s nice that you’re trying to brighten up the place, at least,” he commented. He pulled the pail out of the cinders, a puff of steam following it.
She looked around at the green leaves. “I thought we needed a little color,” she agreed, satisfied.
“Yeah, yeah. Great. Let’s eat.” Nayl rubbed his hands impatiently together, watching the spit stick in Oleander’s hands.
They ate a meager meal of rabbit, assorted watery vegetables, and water. They spoke, but Kira wasn’t listening. She hid behind their perception of the water fae who never paid attention to her surroundings and thought about her meeting with Soel in the woods.
She didn’t notice when she finished her food, and also didn’t notice as the others continued in their conversation and Nayl lit the fire again. She was too lost in her thoughts.
Why would he just let me go? she wondered. Why doesn’t he see us as a threat? He obviously knows that there are more than one of us—more than two of us, she corrected herself. It doesn’t make any sense. She ran possible reasons through her mind, but nothing seemed to fit. He just took over our country. He ought to be more alarmed there are outlaw fae living in a forest right beside his home, or if not alarmed, at least intelligent enough to get his guards to arrest us so we don’t cause any trouble in the future. He ought to be storming in here any minute—so why isn’t he?
She was roused when her brother poked her.
“Hello? Kira? You still with us?”
“Hmm?” she asked, looking up at him.
By now the sun was long gone, and Nayl waved his hand impatiently over the dwindling fire. “Veson just pointed out that it’s late now, and we should get some sleep,” he said. “So . . . we’re going to sleep now.”
She looked around, where the others were settling down. “Oh . . . okay,” she said, nodding. “Sounds good.”
She started to move, but Nayl interrupted her. “Hey,” he said, gaining her attention. His orange eyes shone with concern as he looked into her blue ones. “Are you okay?”
She looked at him and replied honestly, “Yes. I’m fine.” No use in telling him. It would just alarm him, and I’m not entirely sure if Soel is a reason for alarm yet.
“Okay,” he said, nodding but not releasing her gaze. “I just wanted to make sure.”
She started to lie down, and paused. “Thanks,” she smiled at him.
He grinned back at her. “Hey, it’s my job,” he said. “Somebody’s got to look out for you.”
She smiled back at him, and lay down. Yes, she thought, but what if there are more people looking out for me than I know?
Kira sat at the reflecting pool the next day, waiting. She had a feeling Soel might show up again, and was not surprised when he emerged from the trees.
He was not surprised either. “Hello, Kira,” he said, smiling confidently. “I thought you might be here.”
“Hello,” she responded coolly.
He wandered up to her rock. “May I?” he asked, gesturing to it. “I promise you I have no weapon, and you know elements are of no effect here.”
Kira assented with a nod of her head, and he sat down on the other side of the large rock. He sighed with what might have been contentment, and looked up into the sky framed by the green leaves. “It’s a beautiful day, is it not?”
“Why are you here?” Kira asked, looking at him.
Soel glanced at her, and smiled. “I enjoy the fact there seems to be a power here that can even overcome the power we fae hold within ourselves. There’s a magic in it, I feel.” He laughed lightly. “Not that I believe in magic, of course. There’s just something . . . different about it. Wild. I enjoy the bizarre atmosphere, I think.”
“So you come here often?” she questioned.
He nodded and leaned back, resting on his hands. “I enjoy taking walks in these woods, because of that. Life at the castle is not nearly as invigorating as it could be.”
“Not since you killed the consulate,” Kira reminded him.
He laughed. “Yes, that’s true,” he said. “They would have made my life much more interesting.”
“Interesting,” Kira repeated, slowly.
He glanced at her out of the corner of his eye. “Yes, interesting. I would have rather left them alive, you know. But that just wouldn’t have been possible, you see. It wouldn’t have fit in with our plan.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Our plan?”
Soel nodded, now looking up the sky again. “My mother and I. Most people don’t know that she’s part of the picture too,” he explained. Then he looked at her, smiling a little. “But, I do suppose you know all about it because you are the expert from your rebellion meeting.”
Kira allowed herself a small smile. “Oh, but of course.”
They sat, silent for a moment.
“You didn’t answer my question.”
Soel glanced up at her. “I was wondering if you had noticed that.”
“Why did you come here?” she asked again, looking at him askance.
He folded his hands and looked down at them. “Well, I did really just come to get away, but I also thought as long as there was a captive audience in the woods nearby, I might as well make conversation with you. After all, we’re both pretty stuck, and I right?” he smiled at her, but it was forced.
Kira opened her mouth to reply, but just then a call rent the peace in the air of the woods.
Soel slid off of the stone and crouched on the other side, hidden from view, as Kira called back, “Yes?”
Veson poked his head through the trees. “I was just going to let you know we’re all going to go explore. If you come back to the camp and we’re not there, I didn’t want you to be alarmed.” He glanced around. “Is this that pool you were talking about last night?”
Kira looked around as well. “Yes,” she replied.
“It is pretty,” he agreed. “You found a nice spot.”
From somewhere behind him, Cai called his name.
“Well, I need to go,” Veson announced. “See you later, okay?”
Kira nodded, and he disappeared.
Soel clambered up onto the rock again. “Well, he sure was considerate. Is he one of your friends?”
She nodded. “He is.”
He smiled slightly. “So there are at least three of you,” he commented.
Kira looked at him sideways. “If you’re trying to convince me that you’re not going to send your guards after me, you’re not doing a very good job.”
He smiled at her. “Well then, you’ll just have to trust me.”
She nodded, slowly, smiling at the irony. “Right. Trust you. Because you killed the powers in control of my country. Because your guards have sent me and my friends into hiding. Because you snuck up on me in the woods.”
“No,” he replied, still smiling. “Because I asked you to.”
Kira opened her mouth, but he slid off of the rock. “I need to get back,” he said, brushing off his black pants. “Farewell for now, Kira.”
He disappeared from sight, and Kira couldn’t help but wonder. For now?
But sure enough, his words were true. She saw Soel the next day, and the day after that, and each day after those. Every time she went to the reflecting pool, he was there, or shortly arrived. She couldn’t come to it without him appearing, and gazing at her with his white-grey eyes. She found it easy to speak to him, and often shared the day’s happenings with him. Soon he commented he felt as though he knew them as well as she did.
In return, he often told her of life at the palace. He spoke often of his mother, who Kira couldn’t help but think she sounded like a perfectly awful fae.
“So it’s just you and your mother?” she asked him one day.
He nodded. “Yes—it’s just been the two of us for as long as I can remember.”
Kira didn’t show him how perplexed she was by this. Usually fae gathered together in groups, and travelled and lived with their friends. The groups were as tight, if not more so, than families, and most of the time fae didn’t see their family for years if they were with their companions.
“I know it’s a little odd,” he admitted, almost reading her mind. “Usually families don’t stay together. But I grew up in an environment without anyone my age. And besides, it’s not so peculiar, is it? A group is two people. You said yourself your brother was a member of your own group. It’s kind of like you and Nayl, in a way, only my group only consists of my mother and I.”
“What about your father?” Kira asked curiously. Had she been afraid he could be offended by the remark, she wouldn’t have made it, but was it she didn’t think it would bother him that much.
It didn’t. “My father has never been an active figure in my life,” he explained. “His work kept him from marrying my mother, and it also kept me from ever meeting him” He smiled a bit ruefully. “So I can’t really tell you much about him, save he isn’t one to call up his illegitimate children when he wants to.”
Kira was about to offer her sympathy, but he stopped her. “You needn’t feel bad for me,” Soel told her. “My mother and I made it well enough on our own. We have it figured out, for the most part. I honestly don’t know what it would be like if he had ever been a part of my life, but I’m satisfied the way things are. That’s all that matters, right?”
One day, a few weeks after their initial meeting, Kira wandered into camp in the middle of a shouting match.
“What the heck?!” Nayl shouted. “It’s just a stupid fire. Who cares if anyone sees the smoke?!”
“We have to care,” Veson said angrily, gesturing to the smoldering ashes their fire pit, “because if anyone sees the smoke, we’re done for! They’ll know we’re here, and people will come looking!”
Nayl threw his hands up in the air. “Maybe they’ll just think that it’s some fae on a picnic!” he responded. “You can’t pretend to know how every fae around here would react, Veson. It could be no big deal!”
“It could be a huge deal,” Veson spat. “Fae don’t just come into this forest, Nayl, and that’s why we picked it. If we’re going to stay here, we need to be very careful about not alerting anyone, and that means you can’t just wander off and leave the fire unattended, Nayl.”
“Well maybe I don’t want to stay here,” Nayl shot back. “This forest is the worst. We can’t use our elements and we have to watch our every move. Heck, I can’t even go get a drink of water because of this stupid fire! It sucks!”
“Well, what are you going to do then? Just get up and leave?” Veson demanded.
“Don’t tempt me,” Nayl spat.
“What’s going on here?” Kira broke in.
“Nayl left the fire unattended for well over an hour,” Veson explained angrily. “Which means that all of the people from miles around could have seen the smoke, and now they’ll know someone is here, and—”
“Hey!” Nayl broke in. “It’s not like the world is over because I left the stinking fire. I bet no one even saw it, for Jude’s sake.”
“But you can’t be sure they didn’t,” Veson said condescendingly.
“Just like you can’t be sure they did,” Nayl glared.
“Both of you, quit it,” Kira commanded definitively, before Veson could come up with a burning remark. “So Nayl left the fire. He’ll remember to put it out next time, right Nayl?”
Nayl glowered at Veson. “Of course,” he replied.
“And Veson, you need to calm down. It happened, but now it’s over. He won’t do it again, so now it’s all good. Right?”
Veson opened his mouth, and closed it. He nodded, though unhappily.
“I still don’t see why we have to stay in this crummy forest,” Nayl said, kicking at a stick sourly.
Kira smiled empathetically. “I know it’s hard,” she agreed, “but someday we’ll get out of here.”
“We hope,” he said resentfully.
The next day, when she saw Soel, she told him of their exchange. They sat, side by side, as Kira recounted their argument. After a moment, he was silent.
“Hmm,” he thought. “It sounds like you all are getting a little tired of living like this . . . am I right?”
Kira nodded. “I think it’s wearing on all of us,” she admitted. “Even Cai is becoming a little snippy, and Oleander is the worst of us all. You can’t look at her wrong without her accusing you of something.”
“Hmm,” he said again. Kira thought he was going to elaborate, but he just looked up into the sky. “Can I ask you something?” he said instead.
“Yes, you can,” she replied.
“Do you ever do anything spontaneously?”
“No, not that comes to mind. I usually think things through before I decide to do anything. I’m not one for jumping right in. I need to know what I’m getting in to.”
“Must be a water fae thing, what with it being the element of control, and all.”
“Well,” he said, looking at her, thinking. “Can I ask you to humor me in my spontaneity right now?”
“Of course,” she replied.
“I love you.”
Kira blinked, first once, and then twice. “Well,” she responded after a moment. She couldn’t think of anything else to say.
Soel laughed a little. “I know it’s a little crazy,” he admitted, “but think of it this way: if you were to come back with me, and live in the castle, I could protect you from my mother—you and your friends. You’d finally be able to get out of this forest. You would be safe.”
He sat up and crossed his legs. He took her hands and looked her in the eye and said with conviction, “I meant it, Kira. It could be perfect. One day I’m going to be the ruler, and with you at my side . . . “ he trailed off, then released her hands out of consideration for her. “I want you to think about it, though. I know you’re not the kind of fae to make snap decisions, and I respect that.” He pulled his hands into his lap and smiled. “I feel like I’ve known you long enough to be able to say that. And you’ve know me long enough to be able to tell when I’m sincere, I hope.”
He got up, and started to walk away. Then he stopped and turned to look at her. “I love you, Kira. I thought you had a right to know.”
Kira sat up straight as he left the forest. She pulled her hands to herself and realized how cold they were when he had stopped touching them. No, she thought to herself. Get real, Kira. Think logically.
She wandered back to camp and spent the afternoon distracted. Her friends asked her several times for it to click, until finally Oleander commented.
“I don’t know what is wrong with you, girl,” she said, raising an eyebrow, “but whatever it is had better be very important, or else I am going to scream the next time I have to ask you to get some stupid water.”
They ate their meal together and lie down on the ground to sleep. The light of the stars shone through the leafy boughs of the trees, and Kira stared up at them as she thought.
Soel loves me. But do I love him?
She got up, quietly. Nayl didn’t move as she tiptoed past him, and she stole through the darkness to her pool. She slid off her divet-toed shoes, and lying down on the chill rock, she gazed up at the stars as though they could provide the answers she sought.
Does it even matter? She asked herself. If he can get us out of this forest and in a safe spot, is that what matters? If my friends can be safe, that’s all I care about.
She drew her eyebrows together. But if I get a niche position for my friends and I by playing on Soel’s emotions, is it right? Is it right for me to alliance myself with an enemy to freedom for my friend’s sakes? Not only to them, but to all the fae in Idanon?
A cloud passed over the luminous moon, and Kira lay there, watching clouds float by in the grey-blue sky.
Maybe . . . she considered. Maybe . . .
And with that, she fell asleep.
Nayl woke in the middle of the night. His heightened sense of temperature alerted him that something wasn’t right, and he turned to look where Kira lay. The moonlight filtered through the leaves to the ground beside him, but his sister’s sleeping form was not there.
He sat bolt upright and glanced around the clearing. There, Veson slept, and Cai, and Oleander, but Kira was nowhere to be found.
He propelled himself to his feet and made his way around the perimeter, looking for the light blue of her dress. The only thing he could see through the trees was more trees, and the glint of a stream wandering through the plant life.
A stream! He took several steps back until he was in front of it and peered down its course. He saw the distant shimmer of more water, and headed off beside the stream.
He emerged into a little clearing, a wide pool reflecting the starry sky above. The moon hung in the glass-like water. Nayl had to look twice before realizing he wasn’t looking at a part of the sky.
He looked up, and on a large, flat rock, lay a figure. Her light blue dress almost shone in the darkness, and Nayl saw that her shoes were by her side. Her sides rose and fell slowly in sleep.
“Kira, Kira, Kira,” he muttered, smiling. “You always were an odd one.”
He climbed up onto the rock beside her and looked up at the sky. “It is really pretty up here,” he admitted to himself. “Now I see why you’re here so often.”
He lay back on the rock, propping his head up in his arms. “You’re starting to worry me, though, sis,” he said quietly. “Seems to me like you’re really distracted lately . . . and it’s not a normal distraction.” He looked over at her. “Something’s on your mind, I think, but I have no idea what. When I asked you to save our country, I didn’t really mean it,” he smiled humorlessly. “I just want you to be happy, okay?”
He sat up and brushed a strand of blue hair off of her forehead. “So don’t tire yourself out too much, okay?” He smiled at her softly, then slid off of the rock and made his way back through the woods.
The first thing Kira felt was light, warm and bright, on her face. She yawned, and stretched. Rolling onto her stomach, she opened her eyes a fraction, the light hurting them, as she was so used to the darkness.
“Mmmm,” she murmured, stretching out further. She blinked several times, the green leaves bright around her. Birds were singing, and the air itself was cheery.
It took her a moment to realize she was still lying on the rock. Rolling onto her back, she sat up and looked up at the little window of sky visible over the reflective pool. Her feet dangled over the water, and she kicked her bare feet lightly. She had no idea what time it was, but she didn’t really care.
“It’s beautiful this morning, isn’t it?”
She glanced over to see Soel appearing from the woods. “You’re here early,” she commented, realizing she had to give him her answer today.
“As are you,” he replied.
“Touché,” she assented. “But I do live here.”
“But not for long, perhaps,” he said, climbing up onto the rock to sit by her. “Have you considered my offer?”
“Of course,” Kira replied. She looked over the edge of the rock, into the pool. She attempted to convince herself there was no ambivalence in them, and paused to be sure. Then she looked back up, across the pool, into the woods. She felt his eyes on her as she slid her shoes onto her feet.
“ . . . and?” Soel asked. There was a hint of emotion in his voice, and she glanced back at him, trying to decide what it was.
“ . . . and?” Soel asked. There was a hint of emotion in his voice, and she glanced back at him, trying to decide what it was.
“You say if I go with you, my friends will be safe,” she stated, looking down at her hands. She massaged the back of her gloved hand with her bare one, where the mark on it was sealed into her pale skin.
“Yes,” he replied definitively. “You will as well.”
“And we’ll have a future there?” she asked.
“Definitely,” he confirmed. “You friends will be granted comfort, security, and whatever they need, and you will live with me in the castle and rule by my side. If,” he added, “you so choose.”
Kira sighed. My friends will be safe. I may not love him, but if they’ll be safe and provided for, and that’s all that matters. She closed her eyes. “Yes,” she responded.
Soel was silent, and she turned to him. He beamed at her. “You won’t regret your decision,” he assured her, excited. “I promise.”
He leapt off of the stone and offered her his hand. “Shall we?”
She took it and slid off of the stone to the ground beside him. “Now?” she asked.
He nodded. “I have to get back, and it’s best to bring you immediately so you can meet my mother before I say anything to her.” He smiled happily. “I want you to be a surprise.”
“Oh,” Kira said, blinking. “If you really think it’s best to go now . . .”
Soel nodded again. “Definitely.”He took her hand and started to walk, only to stop and turn to her. “Oh, Kira,” he said, still beaming. “This is so exciting. I can’t wait . . . “ he trailed off. “I just can’t wait. Let’s go!”
And with that, he pulled her on to his castle.
Nayl awoke, again acutely aware of the lack of warmth on his side. He sat up straight, before realizing this all seemed horribly familiar.
Oh, right, he reminded himself. She’s asleep on the rock.
He looked around, but the sun hadn’t come up all the way, and the camp was still half-hidden in darkness. His companions lay on the ground in various positions of sleep, Oleander on her side, Cai on her stomach, and Veson on his back.
Weirdo, Nayl thought, rolling his eyes. No one sleeps like that.
He stood and wandered along the stream to the pool where his sister still lay on the rock. He considered waking her, but instead just watched her for a few moments. Her eyes moved behind her eyelids in her sleep, and he tried to imagine what she could be dreaming about. He came up short and went to look into her beloved pool.
“Hmm,” he thought, looking up at the sky reflected in it. “It’s still pretty. Loses some of its charm in the light, though.” He glanced at her, but she was still asleep.
Nayl meandered back to the camp, where Cai was just sitting up. “Oh,” she said, rubbing her light eyes. “Good morning, Nayl. Where’s Kira?”
He shrugged and offered his hand to help the electricity fae up. “She’s at her rock,” he said.
“Oh!” Cai said, looking excited as he helped her up. “Maybe I’ll go see her. I haven’t been to the pool yet.”
Nayl shook his head. “No such luck,” he said. “She wandered over there last night sometime. She’s asleep.”
Cai looked a little disappointed. “Man,” she replied. “I guess I’ll go see the pool later, when she’s awake. Veson said it’s really pretty.”
“Yeah,” he said, sticking his hands in his pockets. “It is.”
Now Oleander rolled over. “Mmm,” she mumbled.
“Good morning, Oleander!” Cai said cheerily.
The poison fae glared up. “There’s no such thing,” she replied darkly. “Why can’t it just be afternoon and night all the time, and skip morning?” She noticed Nayl. “You’re up early.”
Nayl shrugged. “I guess.”
She rolled into a standing position and looked down. “Veson’s not up yet?” she asked, raising an eyebrow at him, lying on the ground.
Cai looked down as well. “Nope, guess not.”
Nayl walked over and gave the lahkan fae a little nudge in the side with his boot. “Hey,” he said. “Get up.”
Nayl walked over and gave the lahkan fae a little nudge in the side with his boot. “Hey,” he said. “Get up.”
Strangely, Veson was unresponsive.
“Is there something wrong with him?” Cai asked, looking a little concerned.
“No,” Oleander put in. “Nayl just didn’t kick him hard enough.” She gave him a snappy little kick in the side. “Get up.”
Veson’s eyes flew open and he doubled over, holding his side. He cried something unintelligible. “What was that for?” he demanded, looking up at Oleander from under his green hair.
She shrugged. “It’s morning.”
“And that’s a perfect call to kick me in the side,” he responded, getting up. He rubbed his side. “That hurt.”
“Sorry,” Oleander lied.
Veson shot a glare at the fire fae, then glanced around the clearing. “Where’s Kira?”
“Asleep on her rock,” Nayl said.
“Really? I can go wake her up,” Oleander replied.
Nayl shook his head, grinning. “Now, that won’t be necessary. I think we should just let her sleep for a while.”
Cai nodded a little. “She hasn’t really been herself lately, has she?”
Nayl shook his head. Oleander raised an eyebrow. “She hasn’t?” she asked flatly.
Cai and Nayl looked at her. “No,” Nayl said. “She’s been really distracted lately.”
“Really,” Oleander stated. “It seems to me like her mind’s always been lost in who-knows-where.”
Nayl looked at her blankly.
Veson nodded a little. “Now that you mention it, she has been pretty out-of-it lately. I hadn’t noticed until you pointed it out.”
“So we’re just going to leave her alone this morning,” Nayl decided. “It’ll be good for her. She needs to sleep.”
Oleander shrugged. “If you say so.”
So that’s exactly what they did. For the remainder of the morning, they didn’t bother her or go near her pool. Oleander was excited that she found a new way to kill a rabbit without having to disassemble it to get untainted meat. Of course, she had to show them.
“See?” she asked, pulling a live rabbit from the trap. She held it in her arms and stroked it to calm it. “I know that in this forest, we can’t really control our powers. But I saw how Nayl still had power over smoke, which is a little removed from his power itself. If he can control smoke but not fire, why can’t I poison the air instead of the object itself? Watch.”
She held the squirming rabbit between her two hands. Her thumbs were hooked under its two front legs, and it wiggled in a futile manner. She closed her eyes and concentrated.
The rabbit, startled, was breathing shallowly and rapidly. It took in some air, and its eyes went wide as Oleander cupped her hand around its nose. Its eyes darted around for a moment, but then they started to close, and within several seconds, it stopped struggling. It drooped a little, and then went limp in Oleander’s hands.
The poison fae looked up at her friends. If her primrose eyes could sparkle, they would have been sparkling now.
“Ew,” Cai responded, wrinkling her nose. “And now that I’ve seen that thing alive, and watched you . . . do whatever you just did to it . . . now I have to eat it?”
Oleander actually smiled sincerely, and one side of her mouth went higher up than the other. “It’s actually pretty simple,” she said. “I just have to take some of the oxygen out of the air, which changes its composition, and the new make-up of the air causes the rabbit to suffocate. Since it’s not technically poisoning it, but it is in effect, I can still get away with doing it inside of the forest. Cool, huh?”
Nayl blinked. “In a creepy, sadistic kind of way,” he contemplated, “yeah.”
Veson nodded slowly. “It’s interesting,” he admitted. “Now I wonder what I can do with my power, if not actually cause plants to grow.”
Cai backed away. “Uh, yeah. Right. I think if I have to watch you cut that thing up, I’ll totally lose my appetite. I’m going to go check on Kira.” She headed off, through the woods, and Oleander held the rabbit by its back legs and let it dangle from her hand. The three of them started walking back to the camp after Cai.
“Well, it’s good to know she’s excited about it,” Oleander said sarcastically. “It’s not like I just found a whole new way to feed her or anything.”
Nayl laughed. “Well, it was pretty creepy,” he responded laughingly.
She glared at him. “Gee, thanks.”
Veson smiled a little. “Don’t let it get to you. Do you need help cooking it?”
Nayl’s eyes went wide and he looked at the lahkan fae imploringly. “Don’t tell me I’m on smoke duty again.”
Veson laughed. “But of course,” he said, grinning.
“Jerk,” Nayl muttered as he knelt down to start the fire.
Cai stepped out from between two trees, alone.
“Was Kira not there?” Veson asked, a little alarmed.
Cai shook her head. “Nope.”
“You don’t know where she is?” he pursued.
Nayl knocked the stones together. Little sparks danced from them. “She probably just went for a walk,” he said.
The rest of the afternoon passed fairly simply. After they ate, Veson tried to figure out how his power would work inside the forest, and Cai found she could turn simple objects into magnets and stick them together. Oleander went to check her traps, and Nayl busied himself elsewhere. The air in the forest started to get colder as the sun set, and the four fae gathered together for dinner.
Oleander glanced up as Cai entered the glove, toting a pail of water. “Is she still not back yet?” the poison fae demanded, curling her lip a little. “She’s been gone forever.”
Cai shrugged, and Nayl looked between them perplexedly. “I’m going to go look for her,” he decided, now worried. He headed off into the woods, not sure where he was going to look.
He found himself making his way through the trees and fallen leaves to Kira’s pool. She’ll be here, he though, reassuring himself. She’s got to be.
Nayl broke through the trees at a jog, not realizing he had quickened his pace. His eyes went straight to the rock, but she wasn’t there. He looked frantically around the glade, but she wasn’t remotely in the area.
Trying not to panic, he attempted to think coherently. She was here this morning, but midmorning she wasn’t. She’s not here now. But maybe she was here somewhere in between?
He trotted over to the rock and took deep breaths, attempting to calm himself. Spreading his hands out on it, he tried, hard, to sense the last time there had been anything alive and warm nearby.
The rock responded to his touch. Underneath the sun’s heat, it had been cold all day, except for in the morning, when there was the heat of two bodies that were not unknown to it. Then there was one, who came regularly, until late the night before, when it recognized that Nayl’s heat had been there, along with the one it had gotten so used to.
Kira, he recognized. But who was the other person?
A sudden thought occurred to him, and he tore back the forest back to the camp. Hurtling through the trees, he burst through the trees and stopped so fast his feet skidded on the leaves. Veson, Oleander and Cai all looked up at him as he cried, “Kira’s been kidnapped!”
Veson leapt to his feet. “What?” he demanded incredulously.
“She’s been kidnapped,” he repeated, taking huge breaths. “She was at the rock this morning, and then someone else came, and now she’s gone.”
Cai stood, her face perplexed. “How do you know?” she asked, concerned.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said shortly. “It was probably one of Soel’s guards who found her. They left the pool this morning. We have to follow them!”
The four fae scoured the pool for clues as to what direction Kira and her kidnapper went. They found several possible leads, and split up, following the trails. They looked, but all came up short. The sun was now so far gone even its presence was just a memory. They regrouped at their camp, despondent.
Nayl cursed, slamming his fist into a tree. “If only we weren’t in this cursed forest!”
Cai nodded, dejected. Had they been able to use their powers, they could have used their electricity and fire to light their way, and searched longer.
Veson decided to make an executive decision. “We need to sleep,” he announced. “We can keep looking in the morning.”
“What?!” Nayl cried, unbelieving.
“It’s too dark now,” Veson said firmly. “We’ll be ready to look in the morning, and if we wake up early we can take full reign of the situation, and find her faster.”
“But if one of the guards took her,” Nayl replied hotly, “we could be too late if we wait until morning.”
“We can’t do anything right now,” Veson stated.
Nayl opened his mouth, looking for something to say. When he came up short, he just cursed again. “I have to be able to do something,” he said, angry tears coming to his eyes. “She’s my sister.” He swiped them away on the back of his sleeve before they could fall.
Even Oleander looked moved. “First thing,” she reassured him.
He looked up and sighed at the night sky. “Alright,” he agreed.
They lay down, but it was a long while until they were able to fall asleep.
Soel and Kira burst out of the woods. To her surprise, a cart sat on the dirt road, ready for their use. A black horse was attached to it, and Kira smiled a little ironically. “You came prepared,” she observed.
He grinned, not at all ashamed. “I had hoped you would say yes,” he replied.
“Or bet on it,” she countered.
“That too.” He hopped up into the cart and extended his hand to her. “Shall we?”
She took it, and they started off along the road to the castle.
“I can’t wait for you to meet my mother,” he said excitedly.
She offered him a sideways glance. She wanted to ask him if she was the one who wanted the consulate killed, but refrained from speaking.
The road changed from packed dirt to cobblestones. They bounced along to the castle. Kira marveled at the thick, transparent cover around the castle. It was black, and shifting like acrid oil.
Soel caught her glance. “The elemental shield,” he commented. “It keeps unauthorized fae out. It’s actually a lot like your Forest of Emptiness in that regard. It’s a rather ingenious little tool of my mothers,” he added.
She nodded, still wondering, as he drew the cart to a halt in front of it. He told her to stay there and hopped down. Placing his palm on the shield, he closed his eyes for a brief moment.
Kira looked up, startled, as a large hole grew in the side of the barrier. Soel climbed back into the cart, and, clicking to the horse, led them up the stony road to the castle.
She glanced back as it closed behind them. Soel guided the horse into the castle walls, past the large metal gates just visible inside the stone walls. He pulled the reigns. The black horse stopped, and a boy came out of the stables to tend to it.
Soel led Kira into the building, fairly bursting with excitement. He pushed open the huge oaken door and ushered her in.
She marveled at the interior. The floor was a shining white and beige marble, the walls richly decorated with hangings, tapestries and paintings. Long red curtains hung beside clear glass windows. Gold embellished everything. The furnishings fairly shone with it.
A long, curved staircase descended on the right side of the room. A crimson rug with golden edging cascaded down them. In the middle of the staircase, with one slender hand on the banister, stood a potently lovely woman. Her long, gleaming raven hair hung lusciously down her back, almost as long as the equally white hair of Cai. The long emerald dress she wore was riddled with silver and gold thread, and trailed on the stairs behind her. It was sleeveless, and a long black glove covered one of her arms well past the elbow. It fanned out at the end, an interesting dynamic, but still lovely.
She regarded the two of them with even orange eyes, and when she opened her mouth, she spoke with power and confidence.
“Hello, Soel. Who is this?”
“Mother,” he said, smiling grandly, “this is Kira.”
“I sensed you brought someone with you,” she commented. “Why?”
“I’m going to marry her,” he announced.
Now her gaze slid calculatingly over the water fae. Kira tried hard not to shudder under her gaze. She wasn’t sure if it would be unacceptable to look at the fae as she was examined, but instead fixed her gaze on a break in the panels of the marble.
Kira looked up, after a moment. Soel’s mother smiled, and she only looked more beautiful. “It’s such a pleasure to meet you, Kira. I am Eris.” She made her way down the stairs, slowly. Her eyes were fixed on Kira’s face. “You look slightly familiar, somehow. Have I met you before? In the capital, perhaps?”
Kira glanced, unsure, at Soel. He spoke in her stead. “One of our art fae might have painted her portrait. She was mistakenly branded an enemy of the state when she stumbled upon a resistance meeting,” he explained.
“Aah, that must have been it,” Eris responded. She stepped onto the marble floor with a click of her heels. “I’m sorry about any inconvenience it may have caused you.”
Kira dipped her head. “It hasn’t been so bad,” she responded.
Soel smiled. “Apparently not,” he said. “It was, after all, because you had to stay in that forest, that I met you.”
Eris looked mildly interested. “The Forest of Emptiness?” she asked lightly. “I know that forest well. Come,” she offered her hand to Kira. “Let’s get you cleaned up, and then we can talk. The cooks are making something for lunch as we speak.”
Eris looked mildly interested. “The Forest of Emptiness?” she asked lightly. “I know that forest well. Come,” she offered her hand to Kira. “Let’s get you cleaned up, and then we can talk. The cooks are making something for lunch as we speak.”
Kira glanced at Soel, and he nodded encouragingly. She let Eris lead her away, up the stairs. Kira felt self-conscious, walking behind the tall and beautiful fae. She smoothed her blue dress quietly, running her hands over the few large circles on it that added some style to the knee-length fabric. She took several steps to Eris’s one to keep up to the long-legged fae.
“Here you are,” she announced, gesturing to a room. She motioned to the waiting-fae in the room. “Get this young lady cleaned up,” she instructed.
The girl nodded, and led Kira into the room. Closing the door, she drew hot water into a porcelain tub for a bath. Kira undressed and slipped into the water easily. She wanted to melt—the bliss she felt from being one with her element, outside of the forest, was unexplainable. She closed her eyes and let out a deep sigh.
A door opened and closed, and Kira’s eyes flew open. The girl had disappeared with Kira’s clothing, leaving the water fae alone in the room. Only her gloves still lay on the couch. She settled back down and picked up some water in her hand. She let it fall, in perfectly round little drops, sliding into the tub without any splash.
The maid entered the room again, and Kira dropped the water, sliding her hands underneath her. The girl laid a rich blue dress on a couch beside several fluffy towels, and disappeared from the room into a side chamber.
Kira took her time in the bath, keeping the water warm long after it should have been cold. Finally, she pulled herself out of the water and dried off. She dressed and couldn’t help but feel a little shiver of happiness as she pulled the dress over her head. She turned to look in the mirror.
She spun slowly, admiring the rich white brocade across the skirt and bodice of the dark blue fabric. Her bright blue hair lay prettily across her shoulders, only making the cool blues stand out even more.
The maid entered the room again and frowned slightly. “Oh,” she said. “I was supposed to help you with that.”
“It’s alright,” Kira responded, rubbing her palm slightly. Her light blue gloves went perfectly with the dress, she realized. “Thank you for everything else.”
The maid blinked a little, but Kira continued. “The dress is lovely.”
“Yes, it is,” the serving-girl responded, smiling slightly. “It looks very nice on you.”
Kira smiled her appreciation, and the girl was surprised. After a moment, she smiled back, but then something occurred to her. “Oh! You’re supposed to get down there as soon as possible,” she told Kira. “My friend, the cook’s girl, just told me that lunch is about to be served.”
Kira pulled on her shoes and headed for the door. “Thank you again!” she called, heading out of the room.
She trotted down the stairs, watching her step, and almost ran into Soel at the bottom of the stairs. He, too, had changed. Instead of a simple white shirt and black vest with dark pants and boots, he now wore a black regent coat, and higher black boots. His white shirt had a ruffle at the collar, and over it he wore an embroidered black vest.
He smiled at her, and looked her up and down. “You look beautiful,” he said certainly, looking her straight in the eyes.
“Thank you,” she responded evenly. “I think everyone looks better right after they’ve been treated well.”
He offered her his arm, and she took it. He led her into the dining room, where they had a wonderful lunch with Eris. Kira had never been so happy to see anything besides rabbit or carrots.
Soel then took Kira on a tour of the castle. He showed her the library, the ballrooms, the kitchens, the gardens, the throne room, the hidden courtyards, and lastly, where she would be staying. Then it was time for the evening meal, and they joined Eris once again in the dining room.
At the end of the meal, Eris stood. “Kira, come with me,” she said. “I’d like to talk to you.”
Kira got up, and Soel stood as well.
“Ah.” His mother held up a hand. “Just Kira, Soel. I want to speak to her about things you know nothing about.”
He smiled slightly and nodded his assent. “I suppose I can amuse myself until you’re finished,” he admitted.
“Thank you,” Kira said, smiling.
Eris glanced at her, and then started off. “This way,” she said.
She led Kira up a different staircase, and out onto a balcony. They looked over the gardens, in full and glorious bloom. Eris asked, “Well? Do you like it here?”
Kira looked out over the flowers and thought about how this beautiful woman killed the consulate. If Eris had reacted as Soel had, then she had killed them without remorse. “It is nice,” she said cautiously.
“But?” Eris asked, hearing it in the young fae’s voice.
“I have friends,” she explained, “who are in hiding because of your guards now. Soel told me that I could have them come and stay here, but . . .” she trailed off. “I feel guilty, enjoying this, knowing that they’re hiding.”
Eris nodded understandingly. “I see.” She looked away from the gardens, and to Kira. “We most certainly can have your friends come to stay in the castle. I simply have some business I must attend to right now. I’ll make sure nothing happens to them in the meantime, and as soon as I wrap this up, we’ll extend the invitation.”
Kira nodded tentatively, not knowing if she was being sincere. “Alright. And until then?”
“Until then you’ll stay with us. I’m sure Soel wouldn’t have it any other way,” Eris replied, smiling convincingly.
Kira opened her mouth, but Eris continued. “Do you like it? Do you think you could be happy here?”
Kira closed her mouth before replying. “Yes,” she replied hesitantly. “I do. I do like it, and I could see myself staying on here.”
Eris leaned over the railing. Somewhere beyond the elemental barrier the sun was setting. “I’m glad,” she replied.
They talked for a little while longer, until the air grew chill, and Kira retired.
Veson woke up quickly. He usually did when something was on his mind. It took him a moment to remember exactly what, but then he sat up.
Across the little fire pit, Nayl shot up at the exact same second. Their eyes met.
“Let’s go,” Nayl said definitively.
Veson glanced to where Oleander and Cai were asleep. He noticed they had slept closer together this night, and considered it was probably so that they didn’t get taken either. He thought it was a little irrational, and stood.
Nayl hopped up as well. “Well?” he asked. “What are we waiting for?”
Veson gestured to the sleeping girls. “They’re not awake yet.”
“So?” Nayl asked. “Get them up.” He walked over and shook Oleander’s shoulder. “Hey,” he said. “Get up, Olly.”
Her eyes opened groggily. “Don’t call me that,” she said voice gravelly.
“Come on,” he said persistently. “We have to find Kira.”
She blinked several times and sat up. “Right,” she replied, and nudged Cai. Oleander tried to wake the other girl up, and after a moment they were all standing around Kira’s pool.
“So,” Nayl announced, “We all know that Kira and her kidnapper left from here early in the morning yesterday. If it was one of Soel’s guards, they would have gone towards the castle. Since all of our leads led to nothing last night, I say that’s where we should go first.”
“But if it was a palace guard, then wouldn’t he know we would follow him to the castle?” Oleander asked. “If he was smart, he’d go in a different direction.”
“But what if he didn’t know we existed?” Cai considered.
“I think we should bet on his ignorance,” Nayl stated.
Veson was about to reply, but his attention was suddenly drawn to a noise behind him. He turned, and there stood a human girl, her arms crossed. She had short, straight black hair. She wore a black, knee-length dress with a floppy neck and folded-over, worn black boots.
Before any of the fae could speak, she opened her mouth. Her voice was a dry and sarcastic monotone. “You’re not doing so hot,” she told them. “First of all, it wasn’t just the kid’s guard that took your friend. It was the kid himself. You can’t figure out that. I don’t even need to mention the fact you can’t agree on anything else. You guys are doomed.”
Veson exchanged glances with his friends. He was the first to speak. “Uh . . . who are you?”
“How do you know that?” Nayl demanded after he found his voice.
The girl looked up at Veson, her dark eyes indolent. She was short, shorter than Cai, even, and skinny. “I’m Nikola,” she replied. “And I’m going to help you.”
Even Cai looked skeptical. “Um, why?” she asked, confused.
“How are you even here?” Veson asked. “Humans aren’t allowed into fae-land. We have a barrier keeping you out.”
Nikola didn’t blink. “When I was born, one of you fae blessed me. They said nothing could ever be stolen from me. Luckily for me, that includes just about everything, including my freedom.”
“So you can just go where ever you want?” Oleander asked skeptically.
Nikola moved her even gaze to the poison fae. “Yes, among other things.”
Veson raised an eyebrow. “You think that will help us?”
She looked at him. “No.”
They waited for her to go on, but she didn’t. “Well?” Veson asked after a moment. “Why do you think you can help us?”
“Scrap that,” Nayl replied. “Why do you want to help us?”
Nikola shrugged. “I have skills and connections you’ll need in order to get this friend of yours back.” She glanced at Nayl. “Why I’ll help you is an entirely different case. I’ll help you because I’m bored.”
“You’re bored,” Oleander repeated sarcastically.
“This country of yours is boring,” she replied in her dry voice. “There’s nothing to do here. I though fae-land would be at least a little bit more interesting than where I come from. But no, it’s just the same, if not worse,” she added as an afterthought
“How do you know who took Kira?” Nayl demanded.
“I saw him,” she said. “I saw them leaving the woods, and I saw them in the castle.”
“See?” he demanded, turning on Oleander. “I said she’d be in the castle!”
“But you can’t get in,” Nikola stated.
Nayl turned, ready to come up with something, but Veson broke in. “She’s right. There’s that elemental barrier that carpenter fae was telling us about when we first came back to Idanon.”
Nayl sighed, frustrated. “Then how are we ever going to rescue her?” he demanded angrily.
They looked around at each other. Veson couldn’t come up with anything. They all temporarily forgot the human girl—that is, until she opened her mouth and started to talk again.
“That’s when I come in,” she replied. “I have someone who can get us into that castle. Do you want my help or not?”
Veson looked at her sideways. Her posture didn’t show that she had any respect for anyone or anything, and he wasn’t sure how much help she could prove to be. After all, she was a human. Though, she must have been pretty smart to get into fae-land—or incredibly lucky.
He motioned for his friends, and they huddled.
“What do you think?” he asked.
“I think we should,” Nayl said. “She looks like she knows what she’s talking about.”
Cai looked at him and nodded. “She seems pretty helpful.”
Only Oleander shook her head. “I don’t like her.”
“Well, whether you like her or not has very little to do with it,” Veson replied, raising his eyebrows. The poison fae had her arms crossed, and looked rather like the human girl behind them. “Do you think she could help us?”
She sighed shortly, and dropped her arms. “Yes,” she said grudgingly.
Veson stood up, and turned back to Nikola. “Alright,” he agreed. “You can help us.”
She nodded curtly.
“So how do you propose we get into the castle?” Nayl asked excitedly.
The human girl had the audacity to shrug. “I don’t know,” she replied evenly.
“You don’t . . .” Nayl trailed off, aghast. Then he looked back up at Veson and widened her eyes. “We have to let her help us?” he asked.
Veson looked at her. “Alright. You said you can help us. What do you have?”
Nikola blinked for the first time. “I have a friend who may be able to help us,” she replied. “Depending on what kind of payment you have.”
The fae exchanged glances. She ignored them and walked over to the pool and stood above it. She pulled a small red pearl from the folds in the neck of her dress and held it out. “Hey, Yûko,” she called without emotion.
A beam of light shot from the red jewel and a yellow orb appeared on the water, wavering and flickering. After a moment, an image appeared of the interior of some kind of building. A pale-looking human woman also sat in the picture, her black hair let down. It was cut choppily, like Kira’s, and her red eyes stared back at the human girl. Both of them looked equally impassive.
“Oh,” she said, her voice even, like Nikola’s, but more melodic. “It’s you.”
“Yeah,” Nikola said.
Yûko’s red eyes slid over the group. “Who are these people?”
“They’re fae,” Nikola replied without looking at them. “They’re the ones I’m helping here.”
“Ah, yes,” the black-haired woman said knowingly, “your price for travel.”
“Yeah,” Nikola said again, clearly not wanting to deviate from her objective. “Do you have anything to destroy elemental barriers?”
“Another barrier? That’s the second time today,” she muttered. Then, “perhaps,” Yûko said a little louder. “You do know that it will cost you.”
“If you took anything of mine I would just take it back,” Nikola responded. “Besides, you know I don’t have anything you want.”
“Fair enough,” Yûko said. “But I do require compensation.”
Nikola looked up at Veson. “What do you have?”
He fingered a locket, sewn onto the inside of his glove. His mouth went a little dry, but he responded, “I have something, but I’m not sure if it would be worth anything . . .”
“How much is it worth to you?” she asked.
“Well . . .” He didn’t meet her gaze. “A lot.”
Veson knew from their silence that the other fae were exchanging glances. They knew that inside of his green glove, inside the little, beaten gold heart was a portrait of his family. They had died in an accident many years before, when Veson had been off with his friends, and he only had the locket to remember them by.
“That’s enough,” Nikola said, interrupting his thoughts.
Oleander offered him a knife, and he cut the strings attaching it. “Here,” he said, handing it to her.
“Is this enough?” she asked Yûko, dangling it over the water.
Yûko looked past her, straight at Veson. He was a little startled that she could see him, and then he wondered why.
“This means a lot to you,” she said. “It is your last tie to your family. It is enough.”
Nikola dropped it into the pool, and it appeared in Yûko’s hand. The pale woman pocketed it and put her hands in her lap. She reached over with one of them and picked up a black ball, oily-looking in appearance, and shifty. “Here you are.”
It left her hand, and Nikola caught it as it floated out of the water. “That’s all,” she said, letting her hand drop to her side.
“Goodbye,” Yûko responded.
Nikola waved in a dismissive manner and the image disappeared. She looked up at the fae. “Well? Let’s go.” She stood and headed off through the forest.
“But—” Nayl called after her, still standing by the pool. He pointed in a direction 90 degrees from where Nikola was travelling, down the path they tracked the night before. “She went this way.”
She looked at him. Her face wasn’t blank—instead, it was a relaxed portrait of condescension, confidence and surety in what she knew. “We’re not following them,” she told him. “We’re going to where they are.”
She started off. Veson glanced back at Nayl and raised his eyebrows. Nayl just shrugged, and they followed her through the trees.
The human girl led them out of the forest quickly. As they walked, Cai fell back to walk beside Veson.
“I don’t know about her,” the electricity fae said quietly.
“What do you mean?” Veson asked, looking down at her.
She frowned a little. “I don’t really know. But calling up another human using water in a pool? That’s not really normal. I mean, it may be for a certain kind of fae or something, but not just a human girl. She’s not normal.”
He shrugged. “If she can help us get Kira back, she’s not going to be a normal human girl, Cai. I think she’s our best bet right now, seeing as though we don’t have many other options.”
“Yeah,” she responded, discontented. “I know.”
“Hey,” he said, commanding her attention. “Don’t worry, okay? If she does anything crazy I’ll just tell her to leave. She’s just a human, after all. She can’t really do that much.”
Cai smiled a little.
“I have it all under control,” he grinned to widen her smile. He just hoped it was true.
They walked through the woods until they were as close as they could be to the castle. Nikola led them right up to the barrier on the back side of the castle, outside of the wall.
The barrier was huge, and looked a lot like the ball that Nikola held in her hand. It was almost iridescent in some places, and looked smoky and fine.
“Well?” Oleander said, crossing her arms. “Now what?”
“You throw it at the barrier,” Nikola replied.
“That’s all?” Oleander asked incredulously.
Nikola looked at her for a few seconds before answering. “Yes.”
Veson reached for the ball, and she handed it to him.
“So who’s got a good arm?” Nayl asked.
Cai and Oleander exchanged glances. Cai laughed a little. “That would probably be one of you two.”
“You could kick it up there,” Nikola suggested, looking up at it.
They turned to look at her.
She glanced at them and shrugged. “It’s what they did.”
“Right,” Veson said, looking to Nayl. “How high do we have to get it?”
Nikola shrugged again.
“Meaning you don’t know, or it doesn’t matter?” Veson asked.
“Oh, for Jude’s sake.” Nayl rolled his eyes. He grabbed the orb and chucked it at the barrier. “There!”
The orb disappeared as soon as it touched the shield. The barrier shook slightly, and quivered under the impact. With a hissing sound, it altogether disappeared.
The fae blinked. It had only taken moments. “Is that all?” Cai asked.
Nikola made her way up to the castle wall. Knocking on a few stones, she replied absently, “Yes.”
“Well,” Veson replied, blinking. “I had expected something more . . . cataclysmic.”
Nikola found the stone she was looking for and shoved it. It didn’t move. “You can’t ever tell what Yûko is in the mood for. Sometimes it’s cataclysmic . . .” She shoved on the rock again, and this time it ground back into the castle wall. “. . . sometimes not so much.” She pushed it to the side, and stepped back to reveal an entryway. “Come on,” she said, stooping and heading into the darkness.
Veson ushered his friends in, and was about to join them when an odd sound made him duck back out of the tunnel. He looked up, and the barrier was back.
“Veson!” Cai called.
He darted back into the tunnel and followed his friends.
Cai and Nayl lit the way down the dark tunnel, and Cai tried to make conversation with the human girl as they went.
“So, where are you from?”
“A place you wouldn’t believe,” Nikola responded, turning down a pass.
They followed. “Really? What’s so unbelievable about it?” she pursued.
“It’s far away,” Nikola said, pausing for a moment to detect which way she should go.
Oleander snorted. “Like that’s unbelievable. We’ve travelled together so far, I swear no group has gone as far as we have.”
“I doubt it,” Nikola said tersely.
“And why is that?” Oleander said. Veson could tell the human girl’s attitude was ticking the poison fae off.
“It’s beyond your comprehension,” Nikola stated, demeaning. She crouched by the wall of the tunnel. She knocked on it, but, unsatisfied, moved farther down the wall.
“Excuse me,” Oleander replied, offended. “I suppose we’re all just that far below you.”
Nikola fixed her with her stolid gaze. “I suppose you are,” she said, unamused.
Nayl sucked in, pretending her comment hurt him. “Man alive, I say that Oleander’s mean.” He glanced at the poison fae over his little orb of fire. “You’re positively charming compared to this girl.”
“That’s because I’m not evil,” she responded, looking down on the human girl coldly.
“I’m not evil,” Nikola responded. She knocked on the wall again.
They watched in the dim light as Nikola pulled an earring out of her ear. It was shaped like a key, and she slid it into a crack in the wall.
“Could have fooled me,” Oleander mumbled.
“I’m not evil,” she repeated. “I’m self-serving.”
This time it was Veson’s turn to chuckle. “So you don’t just do evil things . . . you do them when you want to.”
“No,” she said, jiggling the key. “I’m self-serving, which means I do what I want. Whether those things are good things or bad things doesn’t matter. I do good things when I wish, and evil things. I have very little concept of morals as you do.”
She wrested open a little door in the wall. Light flooded in and she crawled out without another word.
“That was pretty cool,” Cai said, attempting to direct their attention away from the quarrel.
They all filed out into a hallway. The floor was covered in beautiful stone, and there appeared to be silver in between the panels. Veson looked up and down the halls, but they were empty beside a pair of long windows on either end of the hall. Outside, the barrier was visible. The other three fae did a double take, and looked back at the windows.
“The barrier went back up as we entered the castle,” Veson explained.
Nayl glanced at him. “Who cares? Now we can find Kira.”
“Where should we go, though?” asked Cai.
Oleander glanced at Nikola. “Well, she said that Soel took Kira. Maybe we should find him.”
“And kill him,” Nayl added spiritedly.
“Hey, now,” Veson cautioned.
“I’m with Nayl,” Oleander said. “We should just kill him and get this over with. Then both the country and Kira would be free, like Kira would want.”
“Why do we have to kill him? Shouldn’t we just talk to him?” Cai asked, eyes wide.
“I agree with Cai,” Veson decided. “We’re just going to talk to him. There will be too many guards here for us to do anything drastic. We’ll just take Kira and go.”
“Fine,” Nayl said sullenly.
Veson turned to Nikola, who was leaning against the wall with her eyes closed. “Do you know where the throne room is?” he asked.
“Yes,” she replied.
She didn’t move.
“Would you take us to the throne room?” he asked, sighing.
“Yes,” she repeated, pushing off of the wall.
She took them through the halls quietly and without incident. Once or twice she stopped them to let a maid or a serving boy pass, but other than that they made their way to the throne room undiscovered.
They stopped around the corner of the throne room, just out of sight of the two guards standing at the door with rather menacing-looking spears.
“What now?” Cai asked, light blue eyes wide.
“Now,” Veson said, thinking on his feet. Then he paused for a moment, and looked to the odd human girl. “What should we do now, Nikola?”
She was leaning on the wall again, and shrugged. “I don’t know. I said I’d help you, not that I’d do it for you. Figure it out yourself.”
Veson rolled his eyes and turned back to the fae. He opened his mouth to speak just as Nikola added, “But I’d do whatever I was going to do quietly if I were you. You don’t want them to hear you.”
An idea came to him. “Actually, that’s exactly what we want.”
He stood erect and motioned to his friends. Easily and with great confidence, he strolled right up to the two guards. “We want an audience with Soel,” he announced. His friends trailed after him.
The guards exchanged looks, but a voice from inside stopped them from saying anything.
“Let them in.”
The guards started to push open the doors. The fae exchanged glances.
“That didn’t sound like a guy to me,” Nayl stated what they all were thinking.
“You may enter,” the voice told them.
They walked down the long carpet to where the throne was. Its back was to them, but it turned as they came to the bottom of the stairs leading up to it. Guards lined the walls like statues.
A lady fae sat there in a decadent red dress. Her hair, long and black, hung down over her shoulder, and she regarded them with a cool imperiousness.
“Who are you?” she asked, her voice cold.
“We’re fae who have been living in the Forest of Emptiness,” Nayl said, his voice a challenge. “And we want our friend back!”
She raised a curved eyebrow. “Who is your friend?”
“Kira,” Veson replied, stepping up before Nayl messed everything up. “We think she might have been brought here. Where is Soel? We wish to speak to him.”
“Aah, Kira.” Her voice showed recognition. She looked down on him. “Soel is not available. I am Eris, his mother. Anything you might say to him you may say to me.”
“What do you mean, ‘Ah Kira’?” Oleander demanded. “Do you know her?”
“I do,” Eris responded. “She came here with Soel yesterday.”
“Came here?” Nayl scoffed. “More like was dragged.”
“Are you sure we’re talking about the same Kira? A water fae, yea high, with bright blue hair and lighter blue eyes?” she asked condescendingly, holding her hand up to indicate Kira’s height. “This Kira is going to marry Soel of her own free will. She told me just last night that she was content here and would stay.”
“What?!” Nayl cried. “You’re lying!”
“I am not,” she responded evenly.
“She’s not,” Nikola concurred.
“What?” the four fae turned around to look at her at the same time.
She was leaning against the back wall again, her knee bent and her foot flat against the painted wall. She opened one eye lazily. “It’s true.”
Even Eris looked perplexed. “How do you know?” she challenged.
Nikola shrugged. “I was here yesterday.” Her voice was flat and unemotional. “Stealing weapons from your storehouse. I was bored. I overheard you and Kira talking.”
“You mean . . .” Cai trailed off, shocked.
“Why didn’t you tell us?” Nayl demanded angrily.
“You didn’t ask.” She closed her eyes.
Eris clenched her teeth. “Guards!” she cried. “Take them to the dungeon. I am no longer amused.”
The guards stepped forward and seized the fae. As one stepped up and grabbed Nikola’s thin arm in his large hand, she spoke up. “You also said that you would let her friends go free.”
The guards started to pull the new prisoners towards the doors. Eris looked down at her nails. “Aah, yes. Well,” she responded. She looked up sharply and started Veson in the eye.
The guards lugged them down deep, dank stairs and threw them into a cell. Cai stumbled on the slimy stones and almost fell, but Veson reached out and caught her arm.
“Be careful,” he said, under the laughter of the guards. He looked up and glared at them, and the fire’s light from the torch mounted on the wall fell across his face.
Nikola wrenched away from the guard holding her arm and walked into the cell by herself. She turned, and Cai watched with her as the guards slammed the metal door closed. They called something as they walked off down the hall, but she couldn’t make it out.
Nayl wrapped his hands around the bars and clenched them tightly until his hands glowed with heat. He put all of his effort into melting the bars, but when he pulled his hands away, the metal hadn’t even changed color. He cursed and kicked at the bar. “Now how are we going to get Kira?”
“Well,” Cai asked tentatively, “What if she doesn’t want to come back?”
He turned on her to argue, but Oleander spoke up as well. “Yeah,” she agreed. “The human girl said that she saw Kira say she wanted to stay herself. She’s got a pretty sweet deal here,” she continued, crossing her arms. “The kid loves her, and while his mom might be evil Kira should be okay if she stays on her good side. She doesn’t have to hide from anyone anymore.”
“She wouldn’t leave us,” Nayl said through clenched teeth.
“I would,” Nikola put in.
Oleander actually nodded in agreement. “Think about it, Nayl. Companionship or eternal provision and safety? If she marries Soel, she’d be in a niche position for the rest of her life. She wouldn’t need us anymore.” She glared down at the grimy stones, upset. “She doesn’t need us anymore.”
Nayl glared at her in disbelief. “This is Kira we’re talking about. You don’t really think that she would just abandon us out in the woods, do you? I don’t know if she said that, but if she did, there was a reason. Kira wouldn’t just leave. She wouldn’t.”
Oleander looked down at the stones, unable to meet his gaze. Nayl turned to Cai, but she couldn’t face him either. Isn’t that what she just did? she wanted to ask him.
She heard him as he turned to Veson. She felt the determination slipping away in his voice as he realized his friends weren’t with him on this one. “Right, Veson?” he entreated.
Veson sighed and ran his hand through his hair. “I don’t know,” he said.
Cai glanced up and watched Nayl clench his jaw. “I can’t believe you,” he spat. “That you would think that Kira would just leave us, after all we’ve been through? You know she’s not like that.” He looked at them all like they had just betrayed him. Cai knew that in a way they had. “I just can’t believe you.”
He sat down as far away from them as he could, in a corner by the bars. He drew his knees up against his chest and rested his chin on them, staring out of the cell. He looked very small.
Cai wanted to go over and apologize, but when she looked to Veson, he shook his head. She bit her lip and turned to the human girl.
“So Kira really did say she was content and she wanted to stay?”
“Yeah,” Nikola replied. She was standing in a corner farther into the cell. She almost was hidden in the shadows in her dark clothing.
“And she wasn’t being forced to or anything?” Cai asked, getting more dejected every moment.
“No,” Nikola stated.
Cai sighed and started to walk towards the darkest corner of the cell to see if there was a bed where she could sit down. She wasn’t feeling well, now that she knew Kira had abandoned them.
“There’s someone over there,” Nikola cautioned.
Cai looked over at the girl, startled, as she caught a strain of song.
“Happy birthday to me,” a crackly voice murmured. “Happy birthday to me. I finally have some guests . . . happy birthday to me.”
Cai strained to see into the darkness. “Hello?” she asked, about to create an orb of sparks to light the corner.
“It’s my birthday,” it replied. “My birthday.”
“Who are you?” she asked.
“It’s my birthday,” it replied simply.
She readied her powers, but a hand shot out, old and withered, and caressed her cheek. She flinched, and a face appeared out of the darkness. An old fae peered up into her face with clouded eyes.
“You look just like her,” he rasped. “Your eyes are the same. But . . . but she’s dead . . . because I killed her.”
Cai’s eyes went wide, and the fae stroked her cheek again. “Yes, that’s right—on my birthday. I loved her, but she didn’t love me, so . . . I killed her. On my birthday. She loved someone else, but I loved her . . .” he trailed off, looking past her. Then his eyes snapped back into focus and met hers. “Today is my birthday. Your eyes . . . Are you . . .?”
Cai shivered, but couldn’t seem to move.
“It was my present,” he said, his eyes taking on a glint of madness. “My present . . . they gave me this jail. Because I killed her. And him. I killed him also, and they gave me this jail.” He stared at her and tilted his head. “It gets lonely, sometimes, but I just remember that it’s my birthday . . . and you . . . and you . . .” His fingers stiffened on her cheek.
Something flashed in between Cai and the fae, and a green-gloved hand was suddenly latched onto the mad fae’s arm. Cai looked up, and Veson was right above her.
“Leave her alone,” he hissed menacingly.
The fae looked up, and Veson flung his arm down, away from Cai’s face. Quietly, the lahkan fae placed his hands on her shoulders and guided her away from the corner, towards the bars and the light.
As they left, Cai heard the fae singing, “Happy birthday to me . . . happy birthday to me . . . I’ve killed my true love . . . happy birthday to me . . .”
She glanced up at Veson, but he didn’t look down. His grip on her shoulders was firm, though not harsh, but when they got over to where Oleander stood, he let go.
“No disturbing that guy,” he told the poison fae. “And don’t let him get near Cai. Apparently she reminds him of someone he once knew.”
Oleander raised an eyebrow. “And?”
“Well . . .” Veson glanced over his shoulder. “He killed her.”
“Oh.” Oleander blinked. “I see.”
They fell silent as they heard footsteps. A guard made his way down the corridor and stopped in front of the cell. “Food’s here,” he announced, tossing two tin platters underneath the bars. One of them clattered to a stop beside Nayl, who sat, still, sullen, and silent. The other slid beside the shadows in the far corner. Pale hands crept out of the darkness and pulled the tin plate into it. Cai shivered again.
The guard started to leave, but Nayl stood suddenly. “Wait!” He called, gripping the bars tightly.
The guard glanced back. “What do you want?” he said curtly.
“Tell Eris,” he said, his voice tight, “that I’ll stay instead of Kira. Do what you will, as long as you let her go.”
The guard nodded without blinking and vanished down the stone tunnel. Cai, Veson and Oleander looked at him, surprised, and after a moment his hands slid from the bars and he sank back onto the stones.
“Nayl,” Cai started, but Veson shook his head in warning. She fell silent.
Oleander looked at the other two and stood. She walked over by Nayl, and simply sat beside him, undeterred. After a moment, she reached over and took his hand.
Cai pulled her knees to her and rested her face on them.
“Well,” Veson said quietly. “This day can’t get any worse.”
They sat in silence until footsteps started back down the corridor. They all looked up as a thin man stopped just before the gate. “You,” he said in a cool and calculating voice. He pointed to Nayl. “Come with me.”
Nayl stood, and the others stood as well. He looked like he wanted to say something, but Oleander just hugged him. “I hope you know what you’re doing,” she mumbled into his shoulder.
He smiled a little, but still didn’t speak. Cai thought she could see tears in his eyes.
She smiled, but it wasn’t a brave smile. “You’re really . . .” she trailed off, unable to keep going. She started to cry. “Goodbye.”
Veson shook Nayl’s hand. “I’ll see you later, Nayl,” he said. Even his voice betrayed him.
The thin man opened the doors, and Nayl followed him out. The gate closed, and Nayl followed after the thin man, to whatever fate was before him.
Kira stood at the balcony as the sun started to set. She was so engrossed in thought that she didn’t hear Soel creeping up on her until he was beside her.
“Hello, my lady,” he greeted her. “How are you this fine evening?”
She glanced at him and decided to tell him the truth. “I’m worried about my friends,” she responded honestly. “I think they’re probably really afraid for me right now.”
He smiled a little. “Well, it’s perfectly natural,” he agreed. “I don’t blame them for missing you.” He continued on a more serious note. “They’ll be fine. As soon as my mother wraps up her business, we can send for them.”
She looked doubtful as she looked across the gardens, where rosy-fingered Dusk was playing about the edges of the horizon, beyond the black gauzy darkness that enshrouded the castle.
Soel sensed her doubt. “Here—I’ll prove it to you.”
Kira looked back at him to see he was unbuttoning the buttons on his shirt that held his glove to it. “No, Soel—” she started, but he didn’t stop.
“I trust you, Kira, and I want you to trust me,” he told her, working on the buttons. “This is the best way I know to show you just how much I trust you.”
He pulled his glove down to his wrist, but Kira stopped him. “Wait,” she said, putting her hand on his. “You don’t have to do this.”
He gave her a meaningful look. “I know.”
He pulled off the glove and massaged the back of his hand while he spoke. “Kira,” he said emphatically. She looked up and met his gaze. He held it, his grey-white eyes sincere. “If we’re going to be married, then we shouldn’t have any secrets. I trust you, so I’m going to show this to you now.”
He held up his hand, and on it she saw plainly his mark.
Kira massaged the place her own mark was. On the back of one of her hands was a symbol representing the element that could kill her if she came into contact with it in the wrong form. By showing her his own mark, Soel was displaying a complete trust in everything that Kira had said. Not only that, but he was entrusting to her his life.
She looked up from his hand to his face. He wore a slight smile, and Kira wondered what she should do next. Fae aren’t accustomed to showing their marks to anyone that asks, not even in their social groups.
“It’s alright,” he told her. Something in his eyes kept her gaze captive. “You don’t have to show me yours. But I want you to know, Kira, I’m giving you my word. Your friends will be safe. You won’t regret this decision.”
He smiled at her and took her hand to lead her to the evening meal, and for the first time she was struck at how dazzling his smile could be.
He’s really serious about this, she realized. Am I?
Oleander sat on the stones, the seat of her dress slowly soaking through. She stared past the metal bars, wondering when the guards would be sending for them, or bringing Kira. They had been sitting there for hours. The sun had long since set, and it was almost impossible to see by the faint light of the torches.
She played with the hem of her purple tulle glove absently and wished that Nayl hadn’t left. She wasn’t ashamed to admit she would rather have Nayl than Kira any day.
But then, she supposed it was brave of him to trade himself for his sister. Brave, if not a little stupid, she considered. But I guess he was always one who was into chivalry and all that.
She looked up at the sound of footfalls. She glanced over to Veson and Cai, who looked back at her. She was aware the human girl Nikola was somewhere behind her, but she didn’t care enough to look back at her. The human girl hadn’t said anything to the other occupants of the cell since they first entered it, so Oleander felt entitled to return the gesture.
Oleander realized as the footsteps came closer that one of the people was stumbling. Curious and wary, she stood and walked to the bars to get a better look.
But there was no need. The guard was back, and he shoved a figure into the cell. The new occupant stumbled and almost fell. The guard started to go, but not before Oleander recognized the reddish-orange gleam on the hair of the newcomer.
“Nayl?” Cai gasped, jumping to her feet.
Oleander was already beside him. He was clutching his shoulder like it pained him and he was bowed almost to the ground.
They put him on the rack, she realized, dismayed.
He looked up, and his eyes met hers. They were full of aching pain, but she couldn’t look away. “Did they . . .”his voice was laced with effort and pain, and he struggled to get the words out. “Where’s Kira?”
Veson was at the bars. His knuckles were white as he clutched them in anger and disgust. “All right, you’ve had your fun with Nayl,” he spat. “Where’s Kira?”
The guard glanced back. “We’re not giving you the girl,” he stated.
Oleander felt a shudder go through Nayl, and a fury came over her. “You’re not giving us the girl,” she repeated back at him, her eyes fixed on the fire fae before her, falling to the ground as every muscle in his body burned with searing pain. “You’re not giving us the girl?”
Her hands shook, and her head snapped up. Her primrose eyes burned with an irate rage. She drew up everything within her and shot the most lethal beam of poison she could at the guard. The very air beside it shimmered with death as it raced toward him.
Out of nowhere, a shield resembling that of the outer shell of the castle materialized in front of him. The beam of poison disintegrated on impact, leaving only purple and green wisps dancing against the shield. These quickly dissolved into the air.
The guard glanced back, and Oleander read uneasiness in his eyes. She took clipped steps to the bars and shouted a few toxic phrases after him. She would have continued, but Nayl groaned.
Oleander whipped around and was by his side in an instant. She cursed as she helped him lie down on the ground.
Where she touched him, it hurt. He winced.
She wished she could say something to make him feel better, but she was too angry at the injustice and cruelty of it all to find any words of comfort. Instead, she swore and scowled. When I get out of here . . . she promised no one in particular. She couldn’t finish. She had nothing to add.
“If I just could have . . .” she started, tears coming to her eyes against her will. She barely noticed that Cai and Veson had backed up.
Nayl closed his eyes and extended his fingers toward her. She took his hand gently, and they sat in silence.
Upstairs, Eris sat on her scarlet silk and gold throne. “Let him in,” she commanded the guards.
A tall, thin man entered through the large doors. She scowled at him as he walked slowly down the crimson carpeting.
He stopped at the bottom of the steps to her crown, and bowed. She looked down on him.
“Someone just tried to attack one of your guards downstairs,” she commented, glancing down at her long fingernails. “One of your few guards would have been dead had I not been paying attention.” She looked up and fixed him with her burnt orange stare. “Why is this?”
He looked up at her respectfully. “I do not know, my lady.”
“Oh come now,” she said, her patience wearing thin. “Why was one of the prisoners attacking one of the guards? You must know. You’re the dungeon warden. If you don’t know, I’m sure I can find someone else to fill your role while you’re filling a grave.”
She continued on before he could reply. “Where were you earlier? I required you assistance and you were nowhere to be found.”
“I was torturing a prisoner,” he responded coolly.
Eris blinked once. “You were—tell me,” she said, changing gears. Her jaw clenched, but she controlled the passion in her voice. “Was it one of the new prisoners?”
“Yes,” he replied, oblivious to her anger.
“I see,” she replied. Her eyes were burning holes into the back of his bowed head. “When did you ask me permission to tamper with my prisoners?” she demanded.
Now he looked up, surprised. “I didn’t know I ought to, your grace,” he replied.
“You imbecile,” she cried. She leapt to her feet, her face the very picture of rage. “Of course you ought to. You impudent slug! I never wanted those prisoners broken, I only wanted them held!”
He sputtered for something to say, now looking frightened.
Eris sighed, a short, impatient sigh. “No matter,” she responded, looking away from him. “I was brought up to let bygones be bygones.”
He started to look relieved, but the next instant Eris’s long fingers were around his neck, her square black nails digging into his skin. “Too bad I don’t follow those rules anymore,” she whispered, her face inches from his.
She straightened her arm, her grip tight. His feet brushed the ground as she held him in the air. Her unfeeling orange eyes watched his face as she filled his lungs with a dark, heavy substance.
His eyes went wide, and he struggled for breath, but his efforts were futile. With one last surge of strength, Eris sent her power raging through his veins, and he slid from her hand to a crumpled heap on the ground.
Disgusted, she sat back down in her throne and looked at him for a moment. “Nox! Vega!” she called sharply.
From a corridor, two female fae emerged. One was tall, with long midnight blue hair, and the other had short light hair pulled into a hasty bun. They made their way over to before the throne. Their heels clicked on the floor.
They looked at the dead ex-warden on the ground, and then the shorter one looked up to Eris.
“Yeah?” she asked. “What do you want?”
Eris took a deep breath, seemingly to calm herself. “You two are now the wardens of the dungeon,” she informed them. She glanced meaningfully at the corpse on the carpet. “Don’t get too pretentious. And get someone to dispose of that.”
With a flick of her skirts, she turned and exited the throne room.
The taller fae nudged the body with the toe of her boot. “Dungeon duty?”
The other sighed. “Never thought I’d see us there,” she agreed.
The tall fae smiled morosely as they started down the carpet to the hall. “I’m really beginning to regret taking this job.”
Oleander lay with her head resting on her arms. She was supposed to be asleep, but instead she was watching Nayl. When he was first trying to get to sleep, he winced with every breath, but now he didn’t flinch. She watched his chest rise and fall softly in sleep, and tried to resist the urge to gently wipe that strand of red-orange hair that had fallen across his forehead back into place.
She felt tired looking at him, and glanced up to see Cai and Veson. Veson was leaning against the wall, his legs stretched out before him, and Cai sat beside him, leaning against his shoulder. Both were fast asleep.
Morons, she thought to herself, returning to look at Nayl. I’d never be that pathetic.
Her eyelids drooped as she watched Nayl. Up . . . down . . . up . . . down. The very sound of his breath was hypnotizing her, and slowly she reached towards his face to fix that strand of hair.
Her attention was immediately commanded by a movement in front of her. She looked up to watch the human girl cross the stones of the dungeon floor. Nikola paused by the bars, and Oleander sat up, curious.
“Hey,” Nikola called to the guards. When no reply came, she raised her lethargic voice a fraction. “Hey.”
This time the footsteps clicked down the tunnel. A fae with short light hair stopped in front of the bars and leaned against them languidly. “Yeah? What do you want?”
Oleander watched as something close to emotion flickered on the human girl’s face for a moment. “Hey, you’re Vega, right?” she asked.
Vega raised an eyebrow. “Yeah.” Her tone left room for elaboration.
“I’ve heard of you,” the human girl continued in her infuriatingly monotone voice. “You’re okay,” she paused long enough to give a one shouldered shrug, “for an amateur.”
Now Vega raised both eyebrows. “Hey, Nox, come here. This girl says she’s heard of us.” A taller fae with long dark hair appeared behind Vega to listen.
“Who are you, girl?” Vega asked, looking Nikola up and down. “And what do you know about a thief’s work?”
“I’m Nikola,” she responded. “You probably haven’t heard of me, but that’s because I’m not the kind of girl who spreads my own reputation.” She raised an eyebrow a fraction, as if this denoted professionalism on her part. Oleander just thought it made her look snobby.
“And I am a thief,” Nikola added. “So I know all about it.”
Vega crossed her arms. “So what makes us so amateur?” she asked.
“You work by contract.” Nikola looked like she was trying not to smirk.
“And?” Nox prompted.
“Working by contract is like asking to get yourself in trouble. You’re easily tracked, and you know too many people. You might as well sit on a street corner and yell, ‘I’m a thief, cut off my hands.’ It’s just not smart.”
Vega snorted. “Hey, little miss human girl, you quite obviously aren’t from around here. You don’t know what it’s like to be a contracting thief operation in a fae land. Maybe you ought to do some research before just telling us we’re ‘just not smart.’”
Nikola remained impassive. “It was because of a contract you landed here, isn’t it?” she responded.
Nikola remained impassive. “It was because of a contract you landed here, isn’t it?” she responded.
Nox smiled a little. “I guess you have done your homework. Yeah, we got tricked into doing this because of a contract we signed.”
Now Oleander sat up completely. “What kind of a contract?” she asked.
Nox glanced at the poison fae. “We agreed to steal all of the weapons in Idanon in this contract. The contractors were Eris and Soel.”
“We figured we’d do it because it would give us something to do,” Vega explained.
“And it was a big heist and we were being paid a lot of money,” Nox added. She continued with her story. “When we delivered the weapons, though, Eris commanded us to stay on. We refused—”
“—until we read that it was in the contract,” Vega said, rolling her eyes.
“So we got tricked into pledging our lives into Eris’s hands,” Nox finished.
“There’s no way around it in the contract?” Nikola inquired.
“Nope,” Vega replied.
“Well,” Oleander asked, confused as to why they didn’t just think of the obvious. “why don’t you just break the contract?”
The two thieves looked at her like she had lost her mind. Even Nikola looked at her like the answer was painfully obvious. Nox and Vega exchanged a glance before looking at Oleander. Without missing a beat, they both said at the same moment,
“We don’t break contracts.”
Oleander opened her mouth to say more, but Nikola had turned back to Nox and Vega. “We’re on a mission right now to save a fae and kill Eris and Soel,” she explained. “Can you let us out of this cell?”
Nox and Vega exchanged glances. “That’s not against the contract,” Vega commented.
“If you can kill Eris and Soel, I’ll help you in any way I can,” Nox agreed.
They pulled the metal keys from a hook in the stone wall and slid them into the lock. With a grinding sound, the doors opened.
Along the wall, Veson jumped at the sound. This woke Cai, and they both sat up, looking a little sleepy and dazed. Oleander hopped to her feet and motioned to them. “Come on!” she said. “We’re getting out of here.”
She knelt and gingerly shook Nayl’s shoulder. “Nayl?” she whispered.
He woke immediately and tried to get up. He groaned and sank back down. “Ouch,” he commented. “I feel like I’ve been run over by a few thousand carts while I was asleep.”
“Well,” she reasoned, “Was it much better when you were awake before?”
He smiled a little pathetically. “No, not really,” he admitted.
She helped him get to his feet and slung his arm over her shoulder. He winced a little, but didn’t protest as she helped him out of the cell.
Oleander glanced up and her eyes met Veson’s. His eyebrows were drawn together perplexedly. Cai was beside him, also looking confused. “How did you get us out of here?”he asked.
She shrugged, and Nayl winced in pain. She bit her lip. “Sorry,” she mumbled, and looked back up to Veson. A small smile disappeared from his lips as she did so. She tried not to scowl at him, but replied with a little edge to her voice, “I didn’t do anything. It was all Nikola.”
Nikola stood by the bars, where Nox was closing the door. The two thief fae led the way as they started off down the hall. Cai fell in beside Nayl and Oleander. Veson walked back to repeat his question to Nikola. Oleander listened in as they walked down the dark tunnels.
“Simple,” Nikola told him. “I’ve heard of them before. They’re thieves, like me. So I asked them to let us out and they did.”
Oleander tilted her head, trying to hear more.
Nayl noticed the action and chuckled slightly. He raised an eyebrow weakly. “You have no shame,” he commented as if it just occurred to him.
“Hey, if they’re talking loud enough for the whole castle to hear,” she said drily, “I’m not going to not listen. And you’re one to talk.”
Nayl shrugged and smiled slightly. “Got me there.”
They fell silent. Veson’s voice rose with disbelief. “And they did?”
“Yeah,” Nikola said.
Veson was silent for a moment. “Wow,” he said finally.
“There is something you have to do, though,” she added.
He waited for her to continue, and then realized. Nikola didn’t continue without being prompted.
“You have to kill Soel and Eris.”
Oleander winced as his voice escalated. “What?” he demanded.
She glanced over her shoulder, where Veson was attempting to argue with Nikola, who, for the most part, was ignoring him. The human girl glanced at him, but only once, and rolled her eyes.
Oleander turned back to see Cai looking at her in disbelief. “What?” she asked incredulously.
“It’s the only way we got out,” Oleander replied. She couldn’t believe she was defending the human girl.
“But—“ Cai started.
“But what?” Oleander interrupted. “What were we going to do, stay in here—“ she looked around the dungeon hall meaningfully, “—with that creepy fae and rot?”
“Well, no,” Cai responded, sounding a little offended. “But it is a little far-fetched,” she added, defending herself. Oleander looked back at the electricity fae, who watched the floor. “I mean, how are we going to kill Soel and Eris? We’re not that strong. We don’t have any secret weapons or anything. It’s too much. We just came for Kira.”
Behind her, Oleander could hear Veson making all of the same points. Nikola didn’t reply.
If she wouldn’t say anything, there was no way Oleander was staying quiet. “Well,” she said, “if we kill Eris and Soel, we do it for the good of everyone. The human girl said she would help us, not do it for us.”
She glanced at Nayl, who managed to meet her gaze. “It’s going to be hard,” she agreed, his pain not yet gone from her memory, “but Kira’s worth it.” She wasn’t one to sympathize, but she tried not to shiver as she realized if they didn’t do this, countless others would suffer as Nayl had, and Kira. She set her jaw and looked up the dungeon stairs.
“They’re all worth it.”
Nayl managed to make the last of the steps, clutching Oleanders hands. She helped pull him up, and he smiled at her gratefully. He ached from the exertion on his already strained muscles. His joints were on fire. “Thanks,” he said, not letting go.
She didn’t either. “It’s nothing,” she smiled tightly. He knew it hurt her to look at him in pain.
“I’m fine,” he tried to assure her, straightening. The action sent burning arrows of pain up his back and limbs, and he doubled back over. A little sound escaped him. “Well, almost.” He grinned up at her to reassure her, even though it hurt.
She tried to smile back, but it looked more like a grimace. “Yeah,” she lied. “I know.”
He looked around the room into which they had emerged. It was the kitchen, and large counters were covered with produce and meat, pots and pans. Nox and Vega headed to another door, ready to lead them on to find Kira.
“Wait,” Nikola stated. She turned, and, to his surprise, stared straight at Nayl. “He’s not well.”
“What?” He grinned to hide his discomfort. “Are you kidding me? I’ve never been better.”
“You’re an awful liar,” she replied, impassive.
He let out a little chuckle and winced that it hurt his stomach. “Yeah, that’s true too.”
She crossed her arms and looked to Nox and Vega. “One of you wouldn’t happen to be a healing fae?” she asked. Her tone of voice showed she didn’t think they were.
They exchanged glances and shook their heads.
“Dark,” Vega said.
“Light,” Nox added.
Nikola was in no mood to smile at the irony. But then, Nayl wasn’t sure if she had ever smiled at all. She glanced at the four fae standing together by the top of the stairs and commented, “I know you’re not.” She considered for a moment.
“You and you.” She pointed to Veson and Oleander. “Can you work something out?”
Veson exchanged glances with Oleander. “I don’t think so,” he said. “Plants are good for a lot of things, but not miracles.”
Oleander shook her head. “I’m a poison fae, not a healing fae. And while I can draw out poison . . .” she looked down like she didn’t want to meet Nayl’s gaze. “ . . . I can’t heal everything.”
Nikola nodded curtly. “All right.” She picked up a giant brass pan and looked displeased. “This trip is turning out to be more expensive than usual.”
“Oh, come on,” Nayl put in as she slid the pan under the water pump. “I’m not that bad. We can keep going.”
She fixed him with her even gaze as she started pumping the water with her foot. “They put you on the rack,” she stated.
His vision blurred as he tried not to remember the intensely dark room. He felt them wrestle him onto the device and was acutely aware of the leather straps on his wrists and ankles. The restraints had been treated with something, as they didn’t burn when he tried to escape as some faceless and relentless entity turned the lever farther and farther. He remembered screaming, and someone laughed.
He staggered, and Oleander wasn’t able to keep him up. Veson leapt forward and caught him as he toppled to the ground. Pain exploded in his knees as he landed on them. His vision blacked out for a moment and Veson hefted him up.
“Thanks,” he said, blinking slowly as his vision refocused. Veson nodded, and Cai and Oleander watched him, looking frightened.
“See?” Nikola said, uncompassionate. “You aren’t going anywhere. You can’t even walk, much less fight Eris or Soel. If you went out there like that, you’d be killing yourself.”
As Oleander’s hand slipped into his, he realized he shouldn’t argue.
Nikola stared down into the pot for a moment while the water stilled. The red pearl was in between her two fingers. “Yûko,” she called, just as she had in the woods.
Nox and Vega exchanged glances and moved closer as the orb projected light onto the water’s surface. Veson helped support Nayl, sliding under his arm to help him walk. The group crowded around the pot as Yûko formed on the surface of the water again.
She had on different clothing and seemed to be in a different place as before. “Yes?” she asked, fixing Nikola with her gaze. “I see you’ve grown,” she commented.
Nikola nodded once. “It happens,” she replied without emotion. “I need you to heal a wounded fae we have here.”
“It will cost you,” Yûko replied simply.
“I know,” Nikola said.
“Who is covering the cost?” The woman on the water’s eyes shifted around the group. Vega jumped, and Nox looked at the human woman, curious.
Veson looked to Nikola perplexedly. “We have nothing. You know that.”
“Neither do I.” Nikola looked away from Yûko to the thief pair. “In order for Nayl to be healed, someone has to pay,” she stated. “This will help you get your freedom. What does it mean to you?”
They exchanged glances. Vega spoke. “We don’t have anything that’s with us,” she said, looking into the pot of water. “We’re thieves. We don’t really have anything worth much.”
“It doesn’t have to be a tangible object,” Nikola replied, drawing her attention away from Yûko and to herself.
Nox looked down at Vega. “What if we took his pain?” she asked simply.
“That would work,” Nikola said. “You’re not going to fight anyway.”
They turned to Yûko. “You would not only be taking his pain, but also his wounds,” Yûko told them. “You would need to rest and recover as if they were your injuries.”
They looked at each other again, and nodded. “We’ll do it,” Vega decided.
“Very well,” Yûko responded. The image flickered and disappeared, and Nikola replaced the red stone in the folds of black fabric about the neck of her dress.
“Is that all?” Cai asked, right before the two thieves doubled over in pain.
Vega glanced up at Nayl as her partner swore. “He did this to you?” she demanded.
“I’m glad she killed him,” Nox added, putting a hand to her back.
Nayl straightened and let go of Veson. His pain was totally gone—he felt as though he had just woken up from a long rest. Rolling his shoulders, he stared at Nikola in amazement. “That’s incredible,” he said, wondering.
She shrugged. “I didn’t do it.”
“Good thing,” Vega added.
“I’d have to hurt you if you did,” Nox added. She swore again.
Nikola looked down at them, unmoved. “You’re coming with me,” she told them. She turned to the four fae. “You’re on your own for this.”
She started to look away, but Nayl watched as she glanced back to Cai, once, then twice in quick succession. She looked a little surprised, and Nayl looked at the electricity fae to see what she was doing that was so bizarre.
Cai simply smiled sweetly at Nikola.
“What?” Nikola demanded, her voice almost showing some emotion.
“You really are a good person, on the inside of you,” Cai decided, beaming.
“What?” the human girl repeated, incredulous. She looked at Cai like she had grown a third arm.
“You got us out of the dungeon, and you helped Nayl, and you won’t let Nox and Vega hurt themselves. You care about people, somewhere in there,” she said, looking like she had Nikola all figured out.
Nikola blinked once, and her face slid back into its impassive mask. “It’s my price,” she said, unpleased.
Nayl remembered the conversation Yûko and Nikola had had before. “Your price?” he asked, his curiosity piqued.
“For the communication device and travel,” she responded. Her hand went to the folds in her dress as she touched the little red ball. “I have to help people wherever I go. Your demise in the dungeon, his consequent death and their pain doesn’t help anyone.”
Veson looked at her blankly. “So basically, you’d rather be anywhere but here.”
She regarded him with something close to respect, possibly acknowledgement. “Yes,” she responded. She glanced back to Cai. “There is no goodness in my heart.”
And with that, she headed out the door and into the hall.
“Yeesh,” Nayl said, glancing at Cai. “She’s just the very definition of sweetness, right there.”
Cai smiled wryly, looking after the human girl. “You can say that again.”
They headed out into the hall, where Nikola stood. She glanced at them s they appeared. “Nox, Vega and I will find something to do. You four go find Kira.”
“Good luck,” Vega told them.
“You’re not getting through without it,” Nox added.
They started off down the hall. “Wait!” Cai interjected.
“How are we going to get Kira?”
Nikola raised an eyebrow. “Why don’t you figure it out?” she replied.
Cai looked frustrated. “But as long as we’re in the castle, those elemental shields will just pop up and kill our powers. How are we going to fight without any weapons?”
“It’s Eris,” Nox stated.
They turned to the tall thief fae, who was looking down the hall. “It’s her power. As long as she’s inside the castle, there’s no way you can do anything.”
Nikola nodded once. “I thought so.” She glanced back at the four fae and looked to Nox and Vega. “We’re going to distract her and get her out of the castle. You four, find Kira. You have to do it fast, though, because if she comes back in here and you haven’t left, you’re over.”
Veson nodded. “We can do that.”
She nodded again, and sprinted off down the hall. Nox and Vega followed her. Nayl could hear their heels clacking on the stone floor even after they turned down a corner out of sight.
“Well.” Veson turned to them and looked around the little group. “Let’s go.”
Kira wandered through the halls, trying to decide what she could do to hurry Eris on her business. Is there any way I can get my friends to come faster?
“What are you thinking about, Kira?” Soel walked toward her, his hands in his pockets. He had a slight smile on his face.
“You’re getting good at that,” she commented, smiling back. “You’re sneaky.”
“One of my many talents,” he said. Kira noticed his smile went up a little on one side of his mouth.
They started walking together down the hall. After a moment, his hands slid out of his pocket and he looked down at it. He grinned at her cheekily. “Excuse me, but would you mind holding this for me while I walk?”
Kira laughed. “You’re absurd,” she teased, but took it. His fingers slid between hers, and he swung his arm lightly as they walked.
They fell silent. Kira looked down at her shoes underneath the hem of her dress. She had had a new one this morning, still blue, and just as magnificent as the first. She couldn’t help but look perplexed while she thought about her dilemma.
“What’s the matter?” Soel asked. His arm stopped swinging. He bent over and tilted his head to look up into her face. He looked comical, but she only smiled a little.
“Well,” she sighed, “I think my friends are probably really afraid for me right now. I mean, I’ve been gone for two whole days now. I just wish I could bring them here.”
“Don’t worry,” he said, his eyes wide and sympathetic. “Soon my mother will be done with whatever her business is. And then we can get your friends. I’ll ask her to hurry, if you wish.”
She smiled, but it wasn’t a happy smile. “Alright.”
“Oh, cheer up,” he said, breaking out into a grin.
“It’s easy for you to be happy,” she reasoned. The sad smile still played on her lips. “You have everything you need.”
“And as soon as we get your friends,” he replied, leading her down the stairs, “so will you.”
“Well,” she admitted reluctantly, “something else had been bothering me as well.”
“Which is?” he asked. Two guards pushed open the wooden doors leading outside to the gardens.
Kira looked up at the sky, trying to decide how to phrase her misgivings. “I’m just not sure if all of this is right.”
“What do you mean?” Soel asked.
She sighed again. “Is there any way that . . . I don’t know. Are you really sure taking over Idanon is what you want to do?”
He shrugged a little, perplexed. “It wasn’t really ever my decision,” he admitted. “My mother came up with the idea. She’s been planning it for a long time. Why? Does it make you unhappy?”
“Thinking about all of the fae in oppression makes me very unhappy, Soel. Can’t you see that?”
“We haven’t done anything to them,” he replied. “So far we’ve just recruited some guards and moved into the castle.”
“And killed the consulate,” she added.
“I’m not planning on changing the government that much,” he responded. “It’s just someone else in power. The fae aren’t exactly susceptible to change. Idanon has been ruled by a consulate for hundreds of years. No one alive has seen anything else. Maybe it’s time for a change. Other countries have been governed successfully by rulers for centuries.”
“But did you have to kill them in order to take control?” she responded, challenging.
“What else were we going to do, Kira? Put up posters and call for a vote? That wouldn’t have ever worked,” he replied. “There weren’t many other choices but force.”
“I just don’t want to be a part of a reign of terror,” she said, looking down so she didn’t have to meet his eyes.
“We won’t rule like that,” he assured her. “My mother came up with the plan, and once I’m in power I’ll rule as I choose.”
“The fae don’t know about your mother, though,” she responded. “They only know about you, and they blame you for all of this. Their perception of you is that you killed the consul. Then what? Can you expect them to just fall at your feet and worship you as their new leader?”
“Well, no,” he assented. “It’ll take a while, but as long as I can calm the people without incident, I think we’ll be fine. We can show them we’re not bloodthirsty dictators.”
“Is it too late for that, though?” she said quietly.
“We’ll have to hope not,” he replied, sympathy in his white-grey eyes.
She looked up at the sky, shrouded and warped through the foreign black barrier. “I just wish we could do more.”
Inside the castle, a guard glanced up as a small figure swathed in a blanket made its way slowly across the marble floor. “Who’s there?” He demanded, brandishing his spear.
The figure stopped and started to shiver. He blinked in surprise as he heard it start to cry.
His friend, the other fae on guard duty smacked him. “Nice going,” he said sarcastically. “You made a little kid cry.”
He sighed and rolled his eyes. “How did I know?” he hissed, glaring at his friend. He leaned his spear against the wall and walked over to the child. Crouching down to its level, he tried to reassure it. “It’s okay.” It started to sniffle, and looked up at him with big black eyes.
“I got lost,” the little fae said, her eyes filled with tears. “I’m scared. How do I get home?”
He glanced back at his friend, who raised his eyebrows. He huffed a little impatiently as he realized he was on his own. “Um . . .” He straightened and looked around. “How did you get in here, anyway?” he asked, confused.
He looked back down at her, but her eyes were fixed on his spear on the wall. “Wow,” she breathed, tears forgotten. “What is that?”
“It’s a spear,” he said flatly, wondering where she came from and how he could return her.
She looked up at him, radiant. “Can I . . . hold it?” she asked, shining eyes wide with excitement.
He glanced up at his friend, who shrugged. “Okay,” he said. “But then we’re going to find whoever you belong to, okay?” He grabbed the spear and handed the shaft to her. “Be careful with it.”
“Oh, I will,” she said, smiling deviously. She looked up at him, and she appeared much older than she had just moments before. She stood to her full height and the blanket fell off of her shoulders. Standing in the little girl’s place stood a young woman with a malignant smirk on her face.
“What the—“ he cried, startled.
He heard his friend behind him gasp as two other figures emerged from the halls. He looked back just in time to watch her spin rapidly on the toes of her black boots. The butt of the spear smashed into the side of his head, and it all went black.
“Cygnus!” A guard cried, bursting into the throne room.
Eris was standing at the front of the room, speaking to the head of the guard. “What?” She demanded, turning on him angrily.
He bowed hastily to her, his face flushed. “There’s been a disruption at the front gate,” he explained, turning to the head of the guard. “We need you immediately.”
Cygnus nodded, clearly displeased at the interruption.
Now, however, Eris’s curiosity was piqued. “What kind of disruption?” she commanded.
“Well . . .” he looked uncomfortable and shifted his weight from foot to foot. “A girl dressed up as a child appeared inside the castle and started attacking your guards. Two figures in masks are helping her.”
Eris stared at the guard. Her voice was frosty. “Are you so incompetent you cannot tend to three fae?”
“The girl doesn’t wear gloves,” he said uneasily. “Some of the guards are afraid to attack her.”
Eris looked at him sharply. “She wears no gloves?” She considered for a moment, and then started out of the throne room. “Show me,” she commanded.
The guard glanced at his leader, and headed out the doors.
Nikola’s head whipped up as she lifted her foot from the chest of a guard. “She’s coming,” she announced to Nox and Vega.
Fae littered the ground like leaves after a storm. The two thief fae let their staffs thunk to the ground as they breathed heavily. They were swathed in black sheets they had stolen from one of the bedchambers, their faces completely hidden, but Nikola could tell they were exhausted and in pain. Nox swore quietly under her breath.
She tore her gaze from the castle doors long enough to glance at them. “Are you two sure you’re fine?” she asked. She didn’t care, of course, but killing them wouldn’t help.
The shorter cloaked figure nodded. “We’ll be fine,” Vega huffed.
“Let’s just get this over with quickly,” Nox grunted.
Nikola nodded and straightened as the castle doors burst open.
Soel led Kira to the throne room. “I know it’s hard,” he told her. “But after a while, I think we can win the fae over. Don’t you?”
She looked doubtful. “I don’t know,” she responded uncertainly. “I don’t think they’ll just be won over by words, Soel. What are you going to do to convince them you won’t just kill all who oppose you?”
He considered. “Well,” he said evenly, “I have to kill some of those who oppose me.”
“Why?” Kira asked. She walked through the big oak door that he held open for her and stood, trying to understand where he was coming from.
“Otherwise the people will think that they can just overthrow my power,” he responded, cool. “We can’t have that.”
She stared at him, perplexed. “But who would you kill?”
He shrugged. “Fae involved in a dissenter’s group, I suppose. Someone noble and someone poor, so they know I’m not just going to lie down and let them walk on me.”
“But rulers are supposed to protect and help the people,” Kira argued, not letting her feelings get the better of her, though they were raging behind her eyes. She started after him, up towards the throne.
“Rulers,” he responded, walking backwards up to the throne, “are supposed to do what’s in the best interest of the people. Most of the time, the people don’t know what that is. They just want everything to be good for them, and it can’t.”
Kira opened her mouth to reply, but he turned and his eyes landed on the empty throne. “Oh,” he commented, looking down at it. “She’s not here. Pity—I was going to ask her about your friends.” He reclined in the chair, draping one leg over the armrest. He smiled at her lightly. “But let’s continue this discussion—I do enjoy a good debate.”
She blinked, once, and then twice. “Do you even take this seriously?” she asked, letting a little bit of her frustration show.
He looked surprised, and his easy smile slid off of his face. He hopped up and took one of her hands, seeking her face. “I’m sorry,” he said apologetically. “Did I offend you?”
He looked so sincere Kira tried hard not to let her incredulousness show on her face. She took a moment to collect her thoughts and then let out a little sigh. “I can’t believe you can just talk about fae like they’re nothing,” she responded, shaking her head in disbelief.
“They’re not nothing,” Soel responded. Kira could tell by the bewildered look on his face he was trying to understand. He sat down again in the throne. “They are alive, and I know that. But they need someone to watch them and look out for them, and sometimes that includes doing things for their good, even when they don’t understand. You can understand that, can’t you?”
“So killing one of them is acceptable if it’s for the greater good?” she countered.
He looked confused and affronted. “Yes,” he responded defensively. “Isn’t that what you would say?”
She was silent. He continued after a moment, trying to read her face. “Kira, I don’t want to do this if you don’t. Just tell me. We can figure something out. I know that you don’t want to impose,” he smiled slightly, still searching. “But you can’t just pretend that everything will work out if it can’t. You’ll need to make a decision some day.”
When she didn’t respond, he reached up to stroke her cheek, but his hand just hovered by her face.
Kira stared at him, unsure of how to respond. “I don’t know,” she said. “I just don’t know.”
Veson sprinted down the hallway past some guards. They tromped loudly in the other direction, shouting to each other unintelligibly. He watched them disappear around a corner and waved his friends over.
Cai darted across the corridor, followed by Nayl and Oleander.
Veson looked over this little group and wished he could say something to them, inspiring and real. Nikola had insinuated that they would have to fight to get Kira back, and he hoped they would all come through alright. He opened his mouth, but no words came out. Instead he just closed it, and smiled sadly, and hoped they could tell what he was thinking.
Cai did. She slid her hand into his, but only just long enough to give it a reassuring squeeze. Nayl nodded once, the gravity of the situation registering in his eyes.
Oleander looked at him flatly. “Don’t look like we just killed your puppy on accident. Let’s go get Kira.”
He broke out into a smile. “Yeah,” he said softly. He knew her acting out was only her own way of telling him she understood as well.
Veson turned, and put his hands against the wall. Closing his eyes, he connected his thoughts to the non-life of the potted trees inside the throne room. He concentrated through them, trying to sense if there was any other life inside of the room. He sensed fae life inside the chamber, and his own consciousness recognized the imprint of Kira.
Her let out a little breath as he pulled his mind away from the plants. Blinking to clear his mind, he remembered why he didn’t do that as often as he might. As his eyes regained vision, he blinked over his friends.
“They’re in there. Let’s go.”
“What is going on out here?” Eris demanded as she burst out of the castle doors. Her gaze swept over the fallen guards in various stages of unconsciousness and landed on one figure, clad in black and kneeling on the ground.
She took several swift steps closer to the fae. “Are you the one who’s been causing all of this trouble?” she said. In her voice was an unspoken order to reply. Cygnus and the remaining guard stood behind her, far from the figure. More palace guards were emerging from doors in the castle walls, but Eris motioned them all to stay behind her as she spoke.
The figure stood. She looked down, and her hair covered her eyes. The only thing that was visible of her was a smart smirk. “I am,” she responded finitely. Her hands were held behind her, as though she held a weapon.
“I hear you wear no gloves. Let me see your hands,” Eris commanded.
The short fae’s hands drifted down from behind her. Her smirk did not change as she revealed her arms. The tan skin, unmarred, was the only thing visible.
“What kind of a fae are you?” Eris demanded, her sense of power slipping away from her.
The fae’s head snapped up. Her black eyes glinted. “Why, I’m not a fae at all,” she replied calmly.
The guards behind Eris gasped, and she took a warning step towards the girl. “How did you get in here?” She asked, equally horrified and intrigued. “No human has ever . . .”
The girl blinked. “Have now,” she said simply.
The girl blinked. “Have now,” she said simply.
With those words, she turned and ran through the barrier.
“Guards!” Eris cried. “Catch her!” She swiftly strode towards her barrier and let it down as the guards streamed off of the castle’s grounds. She did not notice two black-swathed figures that stole in among the fae leaving the grounds.
Two of the guards quickly overtook the girl and seized her thin arms. She struggled, but the fae were much larger than her in stature.
“Your resistance is futile,” Eris assured her, looking at the human child with fascination. “You might as well calm down.” Recognition dawned on her as she gazed at the human. “You were that thief brat in my throne room yesterday. I thought you looked familiar.” She walked a few steps closer, and took the girl’s chin in her long fingers. Her nails rested on her tanned skin. “Now, I want to know: what kind of magic did you use to get into fae-land?”
“As much as I used to get you off of your castle grounds,” she responded, insolent. “None.”
Suddenly a cry rang from the woods. The guards looked up wildly to spot two figures in black, hanging from branches in the trees. Pouring out of the forest appeared fae of every shape and size, brandishing weapons of all kinds, from shovels to spears, garden-hoes to maces. They yelled as they surged forward and engaged the guards in combat.
“I told you,” the girl said, staring into Eris’s orange eyes. “I was stealing weapons. Had you had as much insight as any other fae, you would have figured I would have delivered them to someone who would use them. But now,” she said, not looking away. Eris was transfixed by her gaze and found herself silent. “You’re outside of your own castle, and you can’t get back in.” Now the girl looked from Eris towards the castle, where several rebel fae were running up the path to the castle walls.
Quickly Eris brought the shield up again. The fae bounced back on impact and flew to a crashing stop among comrades and guards, bowling fae over as they went.
“Fool,” she spat angrily at the girl, turning on her. The girl’s impudent insolence drove her mad and made her furious. “You have no idea who you are tampering with. You are an imbecile if you even think you can threaten me.”
The girl had the audacity to shrug. “I don’t. I know who you are.”
Eris looked at her in horror. “There is no way,” she said vehemently. “It’s impossible.”
She gazed at the fae evenly. “Is it?”
The barrier flickered, but Eris brought it up again, quickly. “You’re just playing mind games with me,” she spat, reassuring herself. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Maybe not,” the human girl reasoned. “But maybe I know exactly what I’m talking about.”
Eris noticed the guard’s grip on the human girl’s arms slacken a fraction. She glanced at them and realized their confidence in her was beginning to slip.
Angrily, she wrenched the girl away from the guards and pulled her through the fray. The human girl wasn’t strong, and succumbed to being dragged along by the taller fae woman.
Eris pulled her through the woods and slung her at a rock. The girl stumbled and sat on it hard. Eris used her power to solidify the air around the human girl’s wrists, fusing her to the rock. She leaned in, face to face with the black-haired girl and demanded, “What do you know?”
Veson thrust open the door and the four fae ran in. Across the room, Kira and another fae looked up as the door banged against the wall.
Soel, Veson recognized. Soel’s hand hovered by Kira’s face. Veson couldn’t help but shudder.
“Kira!” Nayl shouted. His hands reflexively began to glow.
They both looked surprised, but Cai dashed and tackled Kira away from Soel’s outstretched arm. They rolled on the ground, and Cai jumped to her feet, holding her arm in front of the water fae. “It’s okay,” she cried, glaring at Soel. “We’re here to save you.”
Soel’s eyes darted to the exits, but Veson put out both of his arms. Channeling his power, he connected with the trees. In his frustration, he struggled to keep their consciousnesses separate than his own. The pots began to shake, and crack, and within instants the ceramic shattered into a thousand pieces. The tree’s root pierced the marble and sank as the trunks expanded to envelop the doors.
Now there was no way out.
Oleander slid across the floor, so she was on the other side of Soel. She and Nayl both faced him, one on each side. Veson found his feet on the carpet, and he shook his head to clear his mind of the earthy timeless feeling the trees gave him. Focusing, he watched as Oleander and Nayl both channeled their elemental energies and flung them at the dark fae.
Soel leapt up with incredible speed. Planting his hands on the headrest of the throne, he flipped over the back and landed safely behind it as poison and flame met. The crimson fabric smoldered under the hazy and redolent collision.
Veson noticed the surprised look on Soel’s face as he glanced over the top of the throne. His mother can’t help him now with her shields, Veson thought. Oleander shot a dart of purple mist at Soel’s face, and he ducked back down.
Kira sat on the floor, looking dazed. She tried to stand, but Cai pushed her back down. “Don’t worry,” Veson heard her tell Kira. “You’ll be fine. We’re taking care of it.”
He glanced at them, and looked back just in time to watch as Soel darted across the room. Snagging a round gold plate from the wall, he knelt and slid to a stop behind a couch as Oleander and Nayl peppered him with elements.
Veson willed the decorative plants on the wall to reach down and dispose of his cover. When the roots climbed down the wall and heaved the couch aside, however, Soel had the plate strapped to his forearm. As Soel pushed buttons, Veson heard something click into place, and a sort of webbing spiraled out of the plate. The air flickered, and then solidified into the black element-devouring film that surrounded the castle. The edges of the shield crusted over in white diamond, and Soel stood at the ready.
Oleander and Nayl weren’t done, however. Without any perceptible signal, they both formed laser-like beams and laced the wall with venom and flame. Soel twisted his shield and caught Nayl’s stream, but Oleander’s grazed his leg. He cursed, grimacing.
Kira suddenly came to. “Wait!” She cried, standing up. She ignored Cai completely and looked to Veson. “Stop!”
Cai turned to Kira to speak, and Soel quickly took advantage of her turned back. He brought his hands together and shot a beam of crystal at her.
She cried out as it ripped across her skin. Falling to the ground, she clutched at the shorn white-yellow fabric around her shoulders as a crimson stain blossomed across her back. Her white hair fell in a heap beside her.
At the sight of scarlet blood, Veson’s own blood began to run with cold intensity. He clenched his jaw with determination. We need to finish this.
At his command, the roots seized the couch and slammed it at Soel. The crystal fae darted out of the way, favoring his wounded foot, and the couch splintered against the wall.
“We’re here to save you!” Nayl shouted to his sister.
A look of horrified dismay washed across her face as she sank to her knees. She mouthed a single word. No.
Veson didn’t have time to wonder. Nayl ground his teeth together and shot a beam of fire, smoke, and ash at the imposter ruler.
A wall of solid crystal several feet thick erupted from nowhere before Soel, but the flaming column barreled through it all, and Soel ducked behind his shield. The force of the impact pushed him, his boots sliding across the marble, until he was almost against the wall.
“Kira?” he called. He sounded awfully confused, and Veson stopped calling the plants to his aid for a moment to listen.
Veson looked up to see Soel’s face, and promptly wished he hadn’t. The dark fae looked bewildered, like he didn’t know what was going on. “Kira?” he asked again. He sounded lost.
Oleander shot a shower of tiny venom sparks at him. “Don’t Kira her,” she spat vehemently. “You ought to die for what you’ve done to this country.”
A sheet of crystal appeared in the air before him, deflected the shots, and then fell to the ground. It shattered on impact, each shard a tiny reflection of the room. “Kira? What’s going on?”
Kira did something Veson had never before seen her do. She began to cry, and buried her face in her hands.
“Don’t you want to be with me?” Soel pursued, looking hurt, lost, and desperate. “Don’t you want this to work? We had it all planned out. What are they doing, Kira? Why are they trying to hurt me? Haven’t you explained it to them?” He looked around the room, as if he could find the answers somewhere lingering about. “Kira?”
Kira just shook her head.
He sidestepped an orb of fire Nayl shot at his leg, and deflected another with his shield. He attempted to take a step towards the water fae, but her brother sent a blazing wave to wash over the dark fae if he came closer to Kira even an inch.
“Are you going to tell them?” he asked, eyes wide. “Kira, this was going to work. Wasn’t it?”
Kira looked up at him, her face streaked with tears. “I don’t know,” she cried, sobbing.
He stared at her. He gave voice to his awful realizations clearly. “You need to decide, now, Kira,” he said, gently. He looked as though he could die. He knew her answer.
“I don’t know,” she repeated. Her whole body shook as she gasped for breath. She shook her head, trying to control herself. “It isn’t right. It isn’t right.”
He blinked, once, slowly. “It isn’t right,” he repeated quietly. His voice was thick, and as he blinked again, he looked genuinely sorry. A sad smile came to his face, and he looked at her with love in his eyes. “Okay,” he told her.
The noise of his shield clattering to the ground was huge. Time stood still as Nayl formed and shot an orb of fire at the crystal fae.
Kira screamed and summoned all of her powers to herself. She gathered the water in her arms, ready to put out the flames, but Cai held up a bloodied hand. Kira stood, frozen, watching.
Soel turned to Nayl, and smiled, and one glittering tear fell from his white-grey eyes before impact.
He burst into flames. In the blink of an eye, he was gone. A small pile of ashes drifted down to rest on the palace floor in his stead.
“No,” Kira screamed. She pushed past Cai, the blood marring her blue skirt. Sliding to a stop on the sleek floor, she buried her hands in the ashes on the stone and wept.
They stood in shock, watching her.
Nayl fell to his knees, stunned. He stared at her, trying to perceive what he had just done.
Oleander broke down, clenching her fists as hot tears poured down her face. She shook her head like she wanted to go back and change everything.
Cai stood and stumbled over to Kira. Kneeling beside her friend, she was right there as Kira turned and collapsed into her arms, sobbing violently.
Slowly, Veson walked over to the water fae they had supposedly just saved. Crouching down, he picked up Soel’s glittering tear from the ashes. His hand hovered over her shoulder, but Cai looked up at him, tears streaming down her own face. He slid the gem into his pocket and bowed his head.
They fell silent in memory of Soel.
Eris broke the girl’s gaze when her head whipped up, and her hand flew to her temple. She looked shocked, and then glared at the human, livid. “You,” she accused vehemently. “You got me out here so someone could attack my castle. It was those fae friends of yours, wasn’t it? They’re attacking my castle!”
Her fingertips pressed into the sides of her head as she realized, “They’re attacking my son!”
The girl just stared up at the fae. “And it worked,” she commented.
Eris’s orange eyes turned black with rage as she grabbed the girl around the neck. “I ought to kill you,” she said, eyes wide and mad. She started to send her element into the girl’s lungs, just until she could hear the lapping of it when she breathed. She let it harden a little, knowing the sensation was sending shocks of electric pain through the brat when she breathed.
When the human girl didn’t stop breathing, it only made her want to finish the job, but instead of killing the girl, Eris dropped her. “You’re not worth my time,” she spat.
Turning, she started back through the skirmish. Some of her guards had fallen, but so had some townsfae. She was unmoved. She picked her way around fights, making her way quickly towards the castle.
She watched the ground, being careful not to step on anything potentially dangerous or gruesome, until her gaze landed on a pair of dark boots. A fae stood in her way, brandishing a garden rake.
“Oh, for Jude’s sake,” Eris muttered. She held out her hand, and the air shimmered and shook as a long, dark sword appeared in her left hand. She parried his weak attack away, and blasted the fae with her dark element. She started walking again.
Too soon another fae was before her, a challenge written on her face. Eris sent her flying with a flick of her wrist.
It seemed as though all of the fae in the rebel force had appeared before her, and by the time she had knocked them all down, the first ones had gotten up again. She cursed vehemently. “This is taking far too long,” she added to herself, frustrated that mere townsfae could keep her from her own castle.
“That is the point,” the girl, Nikola, told her. She was sitting in a tree, of all places, and looking down with a smug look at the dark fae queen.
Enraged, Eris snapped the branch the girl was resting on. Nikola jumped just in time, however, and landed lightly and infuriatingly on her feet. Darting through the fae, she melted though the barrier and ran up the cobblestone path to the castle doors.
With a cry, Eris sent all of the fae all around her soaring out of her way. Incensed, she entered in through the barrier and followed after the human thief girl. Impudent brat, she thought angrily. One day I’ll have her head on my wall. But for now, I need to see what her friends are doing in my throne room.
The four fae hadn’t moved when Nikola burst through the doors. “We need to leave. Now,” she announced.
They stirred, and Cai stood with Kira. The water fae was still sobbing into Cai’s shoulder, and her own face was wet with tears. They followed in silence as Nikola led them rapidly through the castle and out the doors. Nayl and Veson trailed behind, and Oleander walked just behind Kira and Cai, looking inept.
Cai turned to glance back at the other fae, and she was struck by how light her head was. She reached up and felt the back of her hair. The crystal shard had chopped off the majority of her hair when it struck her, and it felt odd to her. She attempted to ignore her self-conscious question: What does it look like now?
The human girl stopped by the barrier. They stood there for a moment, and Nikola made no move aside of clearing her throat once. She coughed, then, into her hands, and when she lowered them Cai noticed something dark and unhealthy on her palms.
“Well?” Cai heard Veson ask. It was the first word any of them had spoken.
Nikola held up a hand, and the barrier flickered and diminished.
“Whaat?!” They all jumped as they heard a voice scream, even through the thick castle walls.
Nikola glanced back at one of the windows. “You need to get going. Now. Go and hide in the woods somewhere.” She glanced at the five fae. “And find a good spot. I think she knows more about those woods than you think.”
Cai saw Veson open his mouth like he was about to ask another question, but the human girl darted off and was gone the next instant.
Oleander sighed a little and almost crossed her arms, but Veson started off into the woods. “Come on,” he told them. “You’ve got to admit she’s right.”
“Doesn’t mean I have to like it,” Oleander grumbled, taking off after him.
They darted through the trees rapidly. Cai wasn’t sure where Veson was leading them, exactly. Right now their main objective was to get far as away from the castle as possible.
Cai ducked under a low tree branch and gasped violently as a few leaves brushed her shoulders.
Kira glanced back at her. “Are you okay?” she asked.
Cai tried to turn her grimace into a smile. She didn’t want to appear weak, but when she tried to reply, her voice squeaked. “Yeah.”
Kira looked sympathetic and took the electricity fae’s arm. As she led Cai through the foliage, the latter fae marveled. Kira appeared calm and collected, as though nothing could faze her. The control she had learned as a water fae was never more obvious.
The woods began to feel more familiar, and suddenly they parted to reveal the reflective pool. Veson halted and glanced around. “I don’t think the guards know where this is,” he commented, glancing to Kira, “But we can’t afford to take any chances. From here we split up.”
Cai nodded, and the motion burned in the wound on her back. She glanced around at her friends and couldn’t help but wonder if they would see each other after this.
Nayl hadn’t looked at the other fae since they left the throne room. He stared at the ground as though he heard nothing. Oleander moved toward him, but he turned mechanically and headed off into the woods to hide.
Kira glanced at Oleander and nodded at her. They both disappeared into the trees.
Cai turned to leave, but suddenly Veson was beside her. He looked down at her, concerned. “Are you alright?” he asked, his green eyes wide.
She couldn’t look away. “Yeah,” she told him. “I’ll be fine.”
“I . . .” he looked upset. “I wish I could have stopped him.”
She shrugged lightly. The action pained her. “It’s just hair,” she said, trying not to concern him.
“And your back,” he replied, reaching as though he would touch it.
Cai took a step back. “I’ll be fine,” she repeated. She smiled at him. “Besides, right now we’re supposed to be hiding, remember? We’ll take care of it later.”
“Right,” he nodded, smiling slightly. It wasn’t a happy smile.
Suddenly they heard voices shouting. Veson cursed mildly. “Not our day, hmm?” he asked her. “Come on.”
He led her away from the pool, but the sounds of pursuit only grew. He pulled her behind a tree. Keeping her between the tree and himself, he looked out from behind its thick trunk, thinking.
Cai trusted him, but she was struggling not to panic. “Where are we going to hide?” she hissed.
Veson clenched his jaw. With determination, he decided, “I’m going to talk to the trees. Hold on.”
Cai’s eyes went wide. “You can’t do that!” she objected loudly. She brought her voice back down to an intense whisper. “I know what that does to you, Veson! You’ll lose yourself, and then what will we do?”
Veson looked down at her. “I know what could happen, Cai,” he told her. “But right now it’s our only choice.”
She couldn’t do anything to stop him as he closed his eyes and laid his palm on the trunk of the tree.
Veson had an awful sensation of falling as the world grew quickly green. He was no longer aware of the trunk of the tree on his hand, or Cai’s head somewhere below his chin. He was alone, suspended, in the green miasma. Time seemed to hold still, and the very air felt thick and slow.
Immediately he knew something wasn’t right. It wasn’t like other trees. The atmosphere was too heavy, saturated with something heavy and poisonous. It felt ill.
/Hello?/ Veson called.
Long, curling tendrils reached out of the mist and wrapped around him. An age old voice responded. /Hello, young one./ It was wise, but perverted somehow. /It has been so long since one of your kind has tried to speak to us. We’ve missed speaking to others./
He felt uncomfortable as the tree’s roots swirled around him. As much as he hated to, Veson broke a cardinal rule for tree-speaking. /I need your help,/ he announced. /I need to be hidden./
He felt the tree recoil as the roots stopped dancing about him. They hovered in the air about him, unsure of what to do. Abruptness was unheard of among plants, but what Veson needed was imperative. /Please,/ he added.
The roots curled back around him. /What do you need, young one? We are always ready to help when we can. We just wish to be spoken to in return./
Veson itched to refuse. He knew if he spoke to the trees too long, he wouldn’t be able to leave. Their warm roots and tendrils beckoned him to stay, and rest, and just be, forever.
Instead, he offered his assent. /I need to be hidden./
/You shall be,/ it responded. /Now, let us talk./
Veson wasn’t aware of any movement outside of his body, but, then, that was normal. He was totally separated from it, lost inside the essence of the tree. This didn’t alarm him, though some part of him felt it ought to. /What happened here?/ he asked the tree. /What is the other presence in this place?/
The tree was slow to respond. /The other essence . . . we don’t know where it came from. Many years ago, fae came to this forest. Fae that did not speak to trees as you do. They came, and with them came this force, and now we have no one to talk to.
/But now we do,/ it continued, its roots embracing him He had no urge to leave. /Now we do, and we will talk./
Cai watched Veson, afraid, as he was perfectly still. His breathing slowed as though he slept, and his eyes were still beneath his eyelids. The sounds of fae tromping through the forest grew louder and louder.
Cai panicked. She attempted to shock him lightly to pull him back, but the magnetic forces in the air didn’t respond to her attempt to gather them. Blast this forest, she cursed in her mind. Peering around the tree’s trunk, she tried to see if the guards were close enough for her to spot.
She was startled as Veson’s arm snaked around her waist. She objected aloud to the sudden familiarity, but when she looked up to see his face, his eyes were still closed. He moved slowly, as though in a trace, and pulled her to a spot where no tree stood.
Cai allowed Veson to turn her so she faced him, and was even more startled as he drew her to him. Embracing her, he tucked his chin over the top of her head, and stood still. Even with his eyes closed, his arms avoided her wound completely.
Staring into the off-white fabric of his shirt, she wondered what on earth he thought he was doing. She felt his chest rise and sink slowly, and she realized that he was still communicating with the tree. He might not even know what’s going on, she thought.
She grew uncomfortable quickly. Her forehead rested against his collar bone, and she turned her head slightly under his hand to make sure no guards were already upon them. Standing in a clearing in an embrace with a sleeping plant fae was not the best hiding place in the forest, she reasoned.
It was only then Cai noticed that the sounds of the forest had faded. Looking out, everything was slightly blurred, as though she was looking through a grey-brown netting.
A little gasp escaped her. A tree. He’s disguising us as a tree.
She slowed her breath until she almost stopped breathing completely. Standing as still as she could, she watched as though through thick curtains as guard fae made their way through the trees past them and around them. Some of the guards passed by her so close she could have reached out and touched their arms. She watched them open their mouths in silent calls to one another.
Suddenly Eris herself stepped into sight. Cai repressed a shiver as the dark fae queen looked straight at them. She held her breath.
Eris looked away and called to one of her guards. She took several steps away, and Cai let herself breath again. Eris didn’t offer a second glance to the tree as she directed her guards to search somewhere else, and she stalked farther off into the woods.
More trees extended their roots and joined the comforting whirl that enveloped Veson. They joined in on the conversation, engaging him and speaking thoughtfully of whatever came to mind.
Why don’t I just stay forever? he questioned himself. This is a thousand times better than anything else. They speak here, but they also listen. No fae does that.
Suddenly he was aware of the other element, the dark poison that had seeped into all of the trees, repulse. It pushed and fought against him, and suddenly the trees fell silent.
The tree he had first spoken to suddenly became hostile. /You bring bad things to our forest,/ it told him with vehemence. It had a new voice completely, and Veson felt that it wasn’t truly the tree at all. /You leave now./
The roots and vines surrounding him pushed him out, and away, and he fell into black.
Suddenly Veson’s grip around Cai slackened and his hands slid away from her as he fell to the ground. The sounds of the forest came rushing back, and the grey shroud tore and disappeared completely.
Cai dropped to her knees to try to rouse him so they could run, but the sound of the leaves made Eris turn. When her eyes fell on the two fae, her face contorted into an enraged glare. “There!” She cried.
Cai glanced around wildly, looking for some way of escape, but there was none. Instead, she pulled Veson’s head onto her lap and shook him. “Veson!” she cried. “Veson!”
Within instants, they were surrounded by guards. Cai looked up fearfully at Eris, who glared down at her irately. “You,” she hissed, “are coming with me.”
Eris turned and headed back the way she came.
One of the guards walked behind Cai quietly. She flinched as he reached for her shoulder, but instead he took her arm gently. He pulled her to her feet, but not roughly. She was surprised, and when she looked up to see his face, he looked just as frightened as she did. Oh, she realized with a start. These are normal fae, just like us. I wonder what made them come to work with Eris?
A larger fae picked up Veson and slung him over his shoulder. Her guard led her softly after Eris. Cai did him a favor by not struggling.
Eris halted by the pool. She gazed around the tree-line, where other guards were hauling Cai’s friends out of the woods. One of them pushed Oleander, and she stumbled only to pop back up again and begin cursing at him angrily. A guard prodded Nayl out of the trees. The fire fae stared at the ground as he walked. Another guard walked behind Kira as she held her head high, face a mask.
The large fae set Veson on the ground erect. His chin fell to his chest limply, and when the guard stepped away, he fell over completely. Cai pulled away from the guard, ignoring the pain it caused her, and dropped to her knees beside him. “Veson!” she hissed, shaking him as best she could. The action sent searing pain across her shoulders, but she didn’t stop. “Veson!”
She glanced up. Eris was standing with her back to the five fae, looking up. Oleander had fallen silent, and then Cai felt movement beneath her hands.
She looked down sharply at Veson. His eyelids fluttered. “Cai?” he asked, his voice weak. “What’s going on?” He sat up slowly and looked around the clearing.
“They caught us,” she whispered.
He flinched as she said it, though she knew he already had guessed. “I’m sorry,” he whispered back. He sounded so apologetic, Cai wanted to hug him.
Eris turned before she could reply. She looked down at them coldly. There was no sadness or remorse in her eyes, just burning hatred and loathing. Cai shivered, afraid of the fae’s words before she spoke.
“You picked the worse possible place to run,” she informed them, her voice cruel. “I know this forest well. In fact, I am the only one who knows it to its full extent, because I am the one who created it.
“But that’s a story much too long to go into right now, and I’m sure you don’t care.”
She looked as though she might stop, and then she looked over the little band of rebels again. “Well, you are a captive audience,” she commented. “Perhaps you would appreciate knowing why I do the things I do instead of thinking ill of me until I kill you.” She nodded once to herself and added, “Guards, leave us.”
The guards exchanged glances, and she looked at them out of the corner of her eye. “I will be perfectly fine. Elements can’t be used here, and they have no weapons. Their human friend can be of no help to them here, as it is here my power is at its finest. Leave us, now.”
The guards shrugged and wandered out of the clearing in the direction of the castle.
“Always time for a villain monologue,” Cai barely heard Oleander mumble under her breath.
Eris looked after the guards. Kira and Veson exchanged glances, and at the same moment they leapt to their feet.
Eris’s head snapped back and her orange eyes flashed. The air hardened into heavy black weights around their ankles and hands. The added weight pulled them to the ground so they could not escape. From the corner of her eye, Cai watched Nayl look down again as though he hadn’t ever looked up.
“Your efforts are futile,” Eris reminded them. “You might as well listen.” The air around Nayl, Oleander, and Cai’s hands and feet also hardened into stone-like vices. “You’re not going anywhere.” She looked up, thinking, and the five fae had nothing to do but sit and listen.
“Yes,” Eris said to herself, “I was a lot like the five of you, once. Twenty years ago, I was invited by my uncle, who was a noble in the king of Pyror’s castle, to come and stay at the capital. I was just a young fae then, and I had no team of friends to travel with. I accepted with the blessing of my parents, who hoped I would find some companion at the castle.
“And I did. I found the best companion there: the prince. As soon as I entered the castle, he met and befriended me. He, an air fae, was seventeen, and I was only sixteen. For the year I stayed at the castle, he was my constant companion and friend.”
She smiled slightly, and Cai could hardly believe how such an exquisitely beautiful fae could be so evil. “Of course, we were both young, and we began to fall in love. I had feelings it wouldn’t work out, but he reassured me it would. I, like a foolish girl, believed him.
“We decided to keep it a secret from his parents until he was eighteen and old enough to have a say in the matter for himself. It was all going fairly smoothly—I talked my uncle into letting me stay a few extra months until his birthday, and he was already deciding how he would approach his parents.
“Then the king and queen invited a princess from another country to visit at the prospect of becoming his bride. At first, we pretended that the problem did not exist, but we were even more careful about how we approached one another in the presence of others. I started meeting him at night, by a reflective pool in the palace gardens. First the servants, then the nobles, and finally his parents began openly talking about their eminent engagement.
“That night, when we met by the pool, we panicked. We were both terrified that things wouldn’t work out, that he would have to marry her, and I would have to go back to my humble home in the small town I was born in. He kept telling me it would work out.” She was speaking softer now, and she looked terribly sad. “And I believed him.”
The fae queen looked back up at the five companions, and as she did her orange eyes hardened again. She continued, voice devoid of emotion. Cai felt confused—was she supposed to sympathize, or wasn’t she?
“He managed to avoid the visiting princess for several months. It was then I realized I was with child. We were thrilled and terrified. The laws in Pyror stated that if a girl gets pregnant and the father is still in the country, they must get married. He decided we should tell his parents, since the laws were on our side. We went to the throne room together and presented our case, thinking we had them cornered even if they did not approve.
“We were wrong. Instead of allowing us to be married, as we hoped, I was banished from Pyror. We were forbidden to see each other, and I was escorted by a royal guard out of the castle and through towns until we reached the border of Pyror.”
Eris’s voice grew bitter, and she stared at the ground at their feet resentfully. “I had Soel in an abandoned farmhouse in southern Idanon. I knew fae would talk if they saw me . . . all alone, at sixteen, with a newborn baby boy. So I fled, avoiding all fae, to a forest by the capital where I could hide.”
Eris’s gaze drifted upward, to where the sky was visible through the trees. She watched a few birds fly across the tiny window of blue and disappear. Cai discovered she was hardly breathing. “I overheard in a tavern on the way that the prince had married that princess. Any hopes I had of a life of normalcy vanished.
“When I reached the forest, I started experimenting with my element. No one I met had the same element anywhere near the power of mine. I’d never seen anything like it.
“It came in handy when I realized that fae had been entering my forest. I simply filled the soil with aether. When the trees took in nourishment, they also became saturated with the element. Fae would no longer enter the forest, because the canopy that was perfectly attuned to my element destroyed their power over their own.
“This pleased me well, and I raised Soel alone here, all the while coming up with a plan to undo the failure my life had become. I raised him perfectly in accordance to my plan, and I decided we would take control of Idanon and I could show that traitor prince exactly what I was capable of on my own.”
Eris turned to them again and smiled coolly. “From then on, I simply earned money fortune-telling and raised Soel, waiting until I had enough finances to hire those two thieves and find some poor imbeciles and convicts who had no issue betraying their country to gain a few old coins.
“And here we are, years later,” she continued, her eyebrows raised in a slightly impressed but melancholy way. “You five fae and that one human girl have somehow managed to ruin my years of hard work. You even killed my only son.” Her eyes filled with tears, but she didn’t move. The slight smile still adorned her perfect lips. She gazed straight at Kira and shook her head slowly. “I hope you’re proud of your accomplishments. I never thought anyone so dear to him could manage to murder him in cold blood.”
Cai looked to Kira, who sat with her eyes wide. Eris’s words had sent her into a state of shock, and she stared off into the distance, unmoving.
It’s not true. Cai’s jaw clenched and she attempted to speak, but something kept her from doing so. It’s not true!
Eris looked disappointed and hurt. At the sound of her voice, Kira’s head drifted upward until her blue gaze met Eris’s orange. “He trusted you, so much. You’re a water fae. He was a crystal fae. You knew that he could be destroyed by fire. You could have protected him. You could have saved him. Why did you let him die?”
Nayl’s head snapped up. He stared at Eris, horrified, as she kept speaking directly to Kira. Her voice was wrought with emotion as she questioned Kira.
“Why did you kill him?”
At this Nayl jumped up. He clenched his fists under the weights. “That’s not true!” He yelled, closing his eyes tightly. Fragments of tears splashed from the corners of his eyes as he shook his head violently. “She didn’t kill Soel: I did!”
Eris waved her hand in the air and an aether gag materialized around his face. Without blinking, she added to the weights, and he sank to the ground on his knees. His head hung in shame.
The damage had been done, however. Kira looked down, away from Eris’s captivating gaze. “You’re both wrong,” she murmured. “I didn’t kill Soel, and neither did Nayl.”
She looked up to gaze directly at Eris and said calmly, “You did.”
Eris clenched her jaw angrily, knowing she couldn’t try to manipulate the fae any longer. “I hope you enjoyed that remark,” she stated, voice icy. “Because very soon, you will all pay for it . . . with your lives.” She smiled condescendingly.
Kira reached down and spread her hands on the ground. Closing her eyes, she concentrated hard. Instead of trying to do anything to stop the water fae, Eris simply watched, aloof.
The gentle sound of rippling water met Cai’s ears as she watched the water fae. Turning to the pool, she watched the water in it slowly lapping against the edges of the pool, sending ripples of water throughout the surface of the water.
The water slowly rose, and tiny waves washed out from the pool to sink into the ground closest to the pool. The ground soaked it in, turning from a dark brown to a lighter tone of earth.
The fae watched, intrigued, as the thin layer of water continued to spread. Eris moved out of the way as the water lapped against her slippers, but there was nowhere to escape it. It grew and covered the ground, soaking Cai’s knees and feet. She watched it disappear into the woods, a shimmering layer of water covering the ground as far as she could see.
As the earth drank the water, Cai felt something change. The air around her became more balanced, and the weights on her arms and legs felt a little lighter. Concentrating, she realized the oppressive weight of the aether that had been disrupting the magnetation in the air was completely gone. Cai gazed at Kira in wonderment, who gasped and pulled her hands from the ground. She tried to look up, but fell to the ground.
Eris was impassive. She simply stared down at her prone figure and commented, “I hope you got some enjoyment from that. I know I will when I return to fix my forest.” She waved her hand, and the fae were pulled to their feet. “One of you pick her up.” She waved to Nayl and Veson. Nayl lifted her in his arms like a child, and Eris turned. Black aether chains appeared, linking the fae together. Eris clutched a leading chain in her hand limply.
“Come,” she told them, glancing over her shoulder. “Now you die.”
Eris led them through the forest back to the castle. The shield was down, so she strolled right up to the doors. Her guards pushed them open for her, and she pulled the fae through the halls like slaves.
Her heels clicked as she led them through the throne room. Oleander watched the chains sway between Veson’s ankle weights and her own. They made no sound as they moved.
She already knew that the chains inhibited their element control. She had tried to create even a small strand of poison lacing between her fingers, but the air hadn’t even reacted to her attempts. She scowled at the chains moodily. Bad day, she commented to herself.
Oleander bumped into Veson as he suddenly stopped. She looked beyond him to see what was going on, and realized Nayl had stopped.
Eris tugged on the chains once, but Nayl wouldn’t budge. Kira started to wake up, but he didn’t even look down at her. “I don’t get it,” he announced, his voice a challenge. He stared at Eris bravely. “Why don’t you just fight us?”
She didn’t blink. “You’re not worth my time,” she informed him simply. “I don’t want to get my hands dirty fighting you when I could just send you to my dungeon, torture you, and kill you with so much less effort.”
“You’re a liar,” he shot back. He set Kira down on her feet. The chains immediately melded into the line, but his passionate red-orange eyes stared directly into Eris’s milder orange eyes. He would not be deterred. “You’re a liar,” he repeated. “You’re just afraid to fight us. You know if we killed your son, we might actually have a chance at fighting you. So you’re just going to play it safe, like a coward.” He shook his head, disgusted. “No wonder that prince didn’t fight harder for you.”
She straightened, infuriated. “He didn’t fight at all,” she stated angrily. “I was the one who fought. Boy,” she said, walking close enough to him to seize his jaw in her thin, pale fingers. Her eyes burned holes into his as she hissed, “you don’t even know the definition of the word.”
Oleander tried not to curl her lip in disgust. Man, she thought. She makes me look like an angel on a bad day.
the chains around their wrists and ankles disintegrated, and Eris took several steps away from the group. “You think you are any match for me, and you are mistaken. But come,” she invited. “I’ll allow you to amuse me for a short time.”
Nayl was the first to react. Rolling to the right of Eris, he left the group and showered balls of fire upon the aether fae. With a wave of her hand, aether mirrors appeared and the flames disappeared on impact.
Veson raised his arms and plants erupted from the ground around Eris’s feet. She froze them in aether ice and looked at the fae calmly, her face inviting them to try again.
Nothing irked Oleander more than a self-righteous fae, she realized as she summoned poison into her hands. She ran to the opposite side of Eris as Nayl stood, and focused it into a pinpoint of venom. Shooting the laser-like beam at Eris, she circled the dark fae, closing one eye in her concentration.
She watched a beam of water fly at Eris from the front, laced with white-hot lightening. Nayl redoubled his efforts from Eris’s right. Veson ducked down and planted his hand on the marble. Plants shot out of the ground behind the aether crystals, growing from the same roots.
Eris waved her hand, and the aether crystals disappeared, taking with them the withered plants inside. At the last possible moment, an aether orb appeared around her. The air around it sizzled with energy, but when the fae stopped their barrage, Eris hadn’t even moved.
“Pathetic,” she commented. “I’m almost finished with you. Would you like to try once more? It may make you feel better.”
Nikola watched from the balcony above as the fae battled back and forth. Nox and Vega stood behind him. They had cast off their black coverings and stood in their normal, dark strappy outfits. Nox moved her shoulder slightly, grimacing, as they watched.
Nikola glanced at her, but felt no sympathy. She turned back to the scene below and leaned on the banister. The bright colorful flashes of light from the collision of elements lit up her face, but she looked lethargic. “What kind of a fae is she, anyway?” she asked, only mildly interested.
“She’s an aether fae,” Vega responded, sitting on the ledge. Wincing, she got off and stood again.
“Oh, right,” Nikola responded drily. “Which is?”
“It’s like . . . space,” Nox tried to explain. “Matter. The concept itself is pretty vague and hard to explain.”
Nikola watched the fae attack Eris again. They kept switching their tactics and dancing around the dark fae, but she didn’t even flinch. Nayl would use fireballs, and then switch to a beam; on the other side, Oleander would use a venom laser and then switch to pin needles of poison. Veson would alternate using plants to attack directly or hurling objects at her. Kira and Cai worked together but also used their elements in their pure form to attack.
Eris dodged or destroyed every move.
“So why don’t they just kill her already?” Nikola asked the thief fae.
“All fae have a mark on their hand,” Vega replied. “They can be wounded by all elements, but whatever element is represented by the emblem on the back of their hand can kill them if they come into contact with it the wrong way. For example, Soel’s, apparently, was fire. Mine is light, and Nox’s is dark.”
“It’s a mutual trust thing,” Nox added.
“So they can’t kill her because they don’t know what’s on her hand,” Nikola stated, ignoring the last remark.
“Exactly,” Now agreed.
“But it’s also more than that,” Vega added. “Aether is a very rare, very powerful element. It would take another rare and powerful element to destroy her . . . if she can be destroyed at all.”
“In other words, since they can’t even manage to land a hit,” Nikola decided, “They’re doomed.”
Nox and Vega exchanged glances. “Maybe,” Vega admitted.
“Hope not,” Nox mumbled, looking back down at the fight. “Dungeon duty stinks.”
Oleander looked up from bombarding the aether barrier Eris held up as Veson called her name. He waved to her to go and join Cai and Kira. She looked at him like he was insane, but did so, circling Eris slowly.
Across from her, Nayl was doing the same thing. Inching back to join the others, they let up on their attacks as Veson sprinted across the throne room. He slid to a stop right before them. “We need to regroup,” he panted. “Nayl, Oleander, I want you to attack from above. Kira, cover the floor in water and Cai, send electrical currents through it. Hopefully if we’re attacking from four directions at once she might at least be fazed.”
“Children,” she called from behind them, “I’m beginning to tire of this.”
“Go,” he told them. Oleander nodded, as did the others. Waving his hand beside the wall, a large vines wound together to form a staircase to the balcony railing. Nayl sprinted up it, and hot on his heels was Oleander. Nayl headed down one side of the railing, down the left side of the room, and Oleander the right. As they ran, they both pelted Eris with elemental projectiles.
Veson ran behind her to jump up on a ledge behind the throne. From behind, he caused tree branches to explode from the walls and come crashing and beating down upon her.
Kira spread her hands out on the floor and water materialized from the air. It spread in ripples to the walls, lapping across the marble. A small dry circle stood around Kira as Cai planted both feet in the water and sent electric shocks riddling throughout.
Eris watched them all, looking slightly amused. As Nayl’s fire and Oleander’s poison rained down upon her, she formed a half-sphere of aether over her head. The air beneath her feet hardened in accordance to her will, and she floated several feet above the sheet of crackling water on the floor. Without even turning around, she let a blade of aether fall from the ceiling against the wall and chop off the tree’s branches while they were yet growing. Holding it there, she withered the tree branches beyond repair even as they grew. From above, Oleander watched through the aether sheet as Veson’s arms come down as he couldn’t contend with her power.
Eris drifted lightly down and rested on an aether island floating on the water. Around her, the water disintegrated and the electricity vanished.
“Is this truly the best you can do?” she asked lightly.
On the balcony, Nikola shifted her weight and straightened her right leg. Nox and Vega shifted also, moving to one side.
“This is going to take forever,” she commented. “She should just kill them already.”
Nox and Vega stared at her, looking horrified.
She shrugged. “It’s better than just playing with them,” she justified in her monotone.
They exchanged glances, but said nothing in reply.
Nikola moved a little to the right.
Nox and Vega moved in the same direction, away from Nikola.
“All right,” she said, turning on them. “What’s up? Can you two sense poison?”
They glanced at one another. “What?” Vega asked.
Nikola bent and pulled a dagger from her boot. “Poison. The thing’s covered in it. You were shying away from my right side like you knew it.”
Nox and Vega took several steps back. “Put that away,” Nox said, staring at it in revulsion.
“Please,” Vega added.
Nikola shrugged, holding it in one hand. “What?” she asked.
Vega directed a pointed glance, first at the dagger and then at Nikola.
She rolled her eyes and replaced the dagger in her boot. “What,” she repeated flatly.
“It was iron,” Nox said as though that cleared it all up.
Nikola stared at her blankly. “Yeah, it is.”
“Fae are repelled by iron,” Vega explained.
“Can’t stand it,” Nox added.
Nikola thought. “All fae?”
“Yep,” Vega responded, nodding.
“Haven’t you noticed that everything metal here is made of silver or copper or tin or gold or lead?” Nox asked.
“Of course I had,” Nikola responded, not listening. She turned back to the fight to watch as Eris thwarted their last attempt at attacking the aether fae. She seemed like she would just go back to watching, but after a moment she stood. “I’ll be back,” she announced. “Stay here.”
Nox and Vega exchanged glances as the black-clad human thief girl disappeared out of the balcony doorway.
“She’s weird,” Nox decided. “Even for a thief girl.”
“Tell me about it,” Vega rolled her eyes. “I don’t get her. At all.”
They both turned to watch the fight unfold in the throne room beneath them.
The five fae joined together again. “This is not going well,” Oleander pointed out emphatically.
“I can see that,” Veson responded curtly.
“We need something stronger,” Kira said, looking past him to Eris. The dark fae queen was standing still for the moment, watching them, but it was obvious she was tiring of the lack of action.
“What do you suggest?” Nayl asked his sister.
Cai and Kira exchanged glances. “We think it would be best if we combine our elements,” Cai spoke up. “We should all attack together, at the same time. Maybe that could break down one of those shields.”
They parted to stand in a line. They faced Eris, and Oleander caught the bored expression on her face. I hope this works, Oleander thought to herself, because otherwise Nayl just got us a whole world of pain with this crazy idea.
Quickly, not waiting for the rest, she gathered her most deadly venom into a ball and shot it at the aether fae. Her friends did the same at the same moment. Fire, Lahkan, poison, electricity and water swirled and swirled around each other.
Eris put up a shield, but the force was more than she had bargained for. It broke through the thin sheet of aether and barreled into her shoulder. Caught off-guard, she flew through the air and slammed into the wall behind the throne.
“Now!” Veson yelled. They each shot their pure elements at her, and each beam hit her with incredible impact. There was a flash of blinding light, and the fae stopped, breathing hard.
From behind the throne, Eris began to laugh. She stood, and though her richly beautiful dress was burnt, steaming and stained all over, she had an insane smile on her lips.
Nayl cursed. “Why won’t you die?” he shouted at her.
She laughed louder, mocking him. “This is why I can’t die!” She cried, stripping her arm of her long black glove. Holding up her hand, she allowed the five fae to see exactly what her mark was.
Oleander stared at it. Instead of a visible emblem, a grey, globby smudge marred her pale hand.
“What the heck is that?!” Nayl demanded.
“You don’t know,” she explained demeaning, grinning at them like a mad fae, “so you can’t kill me!”
She gathered a large ball of aether in her hands, and a shudder ran up her body as she dispelled it across the room. Oleander was hurled from where she stood and went smashing into a wall.
Dazed, she tried to stand, blinking rapidly in an attempt to regain her eyesight. The whole room was blurry, and the only thing that she recognized before impact was a large black wall of aether coming straight for her.
The aether scooped her up, and formed a cup-like hand around her. Lifting her into the air, Oleander realized what was happening far too late to do anything about it.
The aether hand threw her onto the ground, and Oleander tried to roll as she hit the ground to absorb some of the impact. She still couldn’t see, however, and her journey though the air was much too short to prepare for any kind of movement.
Instead, she landed on her hip. She heard a crunching, grinding sound and screamed in agony. Someone called her name, but everything was blurry and slow as she rolled onto her other leg. Her hands flew to her hip, but the pain was intense and seething, and touching it only pained her more.
Something was in front of her—a figure—but her world was turning a metallic yellow-green. As she struggled to keep her eyes open, her vision fizzled to black, and her consciousness pushed and pulled, tying to escape through the back of her head.
“Yûko,” Nikola called, impatiently pulling the gem from the neck of her dress. The water in the pot hadn’t even had enough time to settle as Yûko appeared, rippling slightly in the reflection. Daylight filtered in through a window in the shop, but Yûko’s clothes were wrinkled. She looked like she had just woken up from a nap.
“Yes?” she asked. “You’re contacting me a lot from this world. Are you having difficulties?”
“No,” Nikola said. “Not that any concern you. I just need that thing I sent to you from the last place I went to.”
“What am I, your storage service?” Yûko responded, looking offended in an unemotional way.
“Yes,” Nikola replied flatly. “I need it now.”
“All right, all right,” Yûko said, waving her hand. “It should be there in a second.”
Nikola almost turned away, but Yûko stopped her. “Oh, and Nikola? I’ll be curious to find out exactly what’s happening where you are. Don’t forget to fill me in. Consider it your fee for my sending this to you.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Nikola dismissed. “It’s mine anyway,” she added.
“Goodbye,” Yûko replied, and disappeared from the water.
Nikola grabbed her object and hurried back to where she was needed.
“Oleander!” Nayl yelled as she fell to the ground. He stood and stumbled across the floor to kneel before her as she screamed in horrific pain. “Oleander! Speak to me!”
An aether hook caught him around his side and flung him into the wall for a second time. “You impudent worm,” Eris hissed, suddenly above him. “How dare you accuse that traitor prince of anything when you’re no better yourself.”
She looked around at all of the fae. Veson was struggling to stand after being hurled headlong into a couch. Cai cried in pain on the floor under the leg, clutching her shoulders as they began to bleed afresh. Kira hefted herself up on the balcony, holding her stomach where she had run into the rail and grimacing. Oleander had passed out on the cold marble floor, holding her hip. It looked warped and mangled under her skirt. Nayl’s hands went to his head. He hit it on the wall both times, and it stung vehemently under his red hair. He sucked in as he realized something was also wrong with his wrist.
“None of you are any better than him,” she raised her voice so that they could all hear. She started walking back to the center of the throne room, fixing them each in her gaze one at a time. “You’re all pathetic excuses for fae of your kind, and I will enjoy causing you pain in my dungeon. None of you were worthy of even stepping into this castle or setting your vile eyes on my son or myself. But you have done both, and more.”
Suddenly the heavy oaken doors banged open, and Nayl craned his neck to see who could possibly be coming to their rescue.
The time Oleander was out was far too short. A loud noise brought her back, and she woke with a start. Pulling her hands from her shattered hip, hot tears of pain streamed unbidden down her face.
What woke me? She wondered, blinking. Her head ached, and she struggled to look around.
In the doorway, across and behind her, stood Nikola. She had something large and awkward in her hand, and she set the other on her hip.
“You!” Eris cried.
Nikola ignored her. Looking around the room, she took in the sight: from Kira, still leaning over the railing of the balcony in pain, to Cai’s blood and Oleander’s hip, to Nayl and Veson, each holding their respective heads.
“She took you all down?” she observed. She was never more emotionless. She was silent for a moment, and then stated, “I knew I would have to do this myself.”
She yanked something out of her boot. She shoved it into the odd contraption she held in her hand, and took sights on the dark fae. Closing one eye, she squeezed the handle of her huge cylindrical object. A loud bang rent the air, and the small human girl was thrown back a few steps in recoil.
Eris’s eyes went wide, but she had no time to speak before the projectile, hurtling from the contraption as impossible speed, struck her. The evil queen Eris dissolved into wisps of grey and black smoke and disappeared.
Veson staggered to his feet. “What did you do?” he demanded of Nikola.
“Is she dead?” Vega demanded, peering over the edge of the railing by Kira. Nox was peering over her, trying to see if it really was true.
“What is that?” Nayl asked at the same moment, staring at the contraption in her hands.
Nikola walked over to where Eris had stood just moments before. Bending down, the human girl picked up a small knife and stuck it back in her boot. “Yeah, she’s dead,” she told them all.
“Wait,” Nox commanded. “I’m coming down.” The tall, dark haired thief fae disappeared from the edge, and Vega and Kira followed.
Nayl stared at Nikola in disbelief. “You mean . . . she’s really dead?”
Nikola nodded. “That’s what I said.”
The doors banged open, and the three fae poured out. “She’s really dead?” Kira asked, eyes wide.
Nikola glanced at Nayl, and then back to Kira. “Guess what guys,” she said in her monotone voice. “She’s really dead.”
“But how did you . . .” Veson started, bewildered.
Nikola cut him off before he could finish his question. Glancing at Oleander and then Cai, she looked back to the consternated Lahkan fae. “Don’t you think we should discuss this later,” she said. It wasn’t a question.
“Oh,” he realized. “Yeah.”
Quickly he ran across the room for Cai, and Nayl went to get Oleander.
“Do you think you can walk?” he asked her.
She shook her head, her eyes tightly closed.
“Well, here,” he said, kneeling down. “I’ll carry you.”
He reached for her, but she shook her head. “No,” she said, voice thick with tears. “Please, don’t move me. I can’t move.”
Nayl looked up at the others helplessly. Veson picked up Cai and had her half-slung over his shoulder. Kira stood, watching. “I’ll find a healing fae,” she told him. “I’ll bring them back here, so that you don’t have to move Oleander.”
She ran off, clutching her side, and he smiled a little. Looking down at the poison fae he reassured her. “It’s alright. We’ll find a healing fae, and they’ll fix your leg. And then you’ll be good as new, and we can go and liberate some more countries.”
She sobbed instead of laughing.
“Aw, don’t cry,” he said, all of the empathy within him hurting with her. “I know it hurts, but once you’re able to move again, it’ll feel a thousand times better.”
“But it hurts,” she managed to choke out through her tears.
Nayl had seen Oleander cry more this day than ever before. “I know,” he said, brushing away a tear. “I know it does, but you’ll get better, all right? I know you will. You can do anything, Olly.”
That just made her cry more, and he sat with her, resting his hand gently on her shoulder.
Beside him stood Veson, Cai still slung over his shoulder. She suggested quietly, “Veson, you can set me down now if Kira is bringing a healing fae.”
“Oh! Right,” Veson agreed, leaning down. She slid off his shoulder to the ground and stood, albeit shakily.
He looked down at her worriedly. “Are you going to be okay?” he asked.
“Yeah,” she said, holding her shoulder lightly with one hand. “I will until the healing fae gets here.”
“Sorry,” he said, like it was his fault.
“It’s okay,” she said, smiling bravely up at him. “The only things that are permanent are the scars, and if my hair grows out again as long as it was before, I won’t have anything to worry about.”
He smiled, but he didn’t mean it. “I don’t know,” he admitted, trying to lighten the mood. “I kind of like you with short hair.”
Cai smiled up at him. Kira appeared again, sliding through the doors, a chubby, older castle maid following after her. The maid gravitated to the electricity fae first and tsked. Veson looked on, concerned.
Cai looked to Nikola as the maid pulled out a knife. She started sawing off the torn parts of Cai’s dress for it to be easier for her to reach the wound, and then pulled a length of linen from the bag at her hip. She chopped that with her blade as well.
“How did you kill her?” Cai asked. She struggled to keep her hands at her sides as the healing maid fae’s hands hovered over the torn skin, lightly mending it with her power so that the wounds would heal correctly.
Nikola shrugged. “Nox and Vega were staying away from my right side because I keep my poison dagger in that boot. It’s made from iron, and when I asked them what was up, they said it was because all fae are repelled by iron. They told me about that weird mark thing you have, which explains the gloves, and I figured if aether is supposedly this great element, it would either have to have something really great to destroy it or something not so great.”
“Huh,” Veson said. “So her weakness was really everyone else’s weakness?”
The healing fae dripped a purple-green liquid from a vial into Cai’s wound, and she sucked in a little as it seeped in.
Nikola nodded. “It appears so. Besides, if it hadn’t had worked, the poison on that dagger doesn’t exist anywhere but where I came from. Even there I had to search pretty hard to get it. It’s deadly to all things alive, and I don’t think she would be immune to it.” She shrugged. “Not that I know, anyway.”
Oleander was crying much more quietly now, and Nayl looked up at Nikola. “So what is that thing?” he repeated. He was oddly repulsed by it and yet very intrigued at the same time.
It was a bizarre device, with a long metal barrel shaped a little like a bell. The handle was a caramel oak color, a metal trigger inset into the wood.
The most curious thing about it was its beauty, however. The handle was carved intricately, decorated with elegant flowers and curling swirls. Dancing seams of metal unfurled across the barrel, and at the end, a coil of iron lace circled around the rim.
“This?” she asked, hefting the curious contraption up to her shoulder. It shone faintly. “It’s a blunderbuss; a type of gun. I doubt you guys will be getting them any time soon. They’re made with iron. I’d tell you how it works, but I don’t care.”
Nayl wasn’t sure if that meant she didn’t care enough to tell him or if she didn’t care enough to know. “Where did you . . .” he started.
“Yûko ,”Nikola replied. “I picked it up the last place I went to, and I gave it to her to keep it for a while.”
Nayl was impressed. “You mean humans somewhere have the technology and intelligence to make that . . . blunder-thing?”
“No,” Nikola replied. “Not here. It’s complicated.”
The healing fae had just finished binding up Cai’s back.
“Thanks,” Cai told her, fiddling with the frayed ends of the bandage. “I appreciate it . . .”
“Glydar,” the healer replied, allowing herself a little smile. “You kids sure know how to tear yourselves up.” She turned to Veson, but the lahkan fae motioned to Oleander.
Nayl backed up so that she could be tended to, and stood. No sooner had he turned away from her than Glydar spoke up.
“Nope,” she announced.
“What do you mean ‘nope’?!” Nayl demanded, turning on the fae.
“I mean, ‘nope, I can’t examine her with young fae men in the room’,” she responded, raising her eyebrows.
“Oh,” he sighed, relieved. “If that’s all.” He looked to Veson, ready to leave.
“We’ll see,” she responded, leaning over to examine Oleander’s hip from a few different angles.
“Does that mean that you think something will be wrong?” he asked tentatively.
“No,” she said emphatically. “For Jude’s sake, you’d think she was expecting or something the way you carry on.”
“Whaaat?!” Nayl demanded, flushing.
“She’s not,” Glydar replied flatly. “Now would you get out of here? You’re worse than a new father.” She shook her head.
“Hey,” Nayl said defensively, his face still hot. He was so flustered he couldn’t manage to say anything else.
Kira rolled her eyes. “Stop being so juvenile, you two,” she said. “Come on.” She led them out of the throne room, into the hall. Cai, Nikola, Nox and Vega followed, even though they didn’t have to.
They were all silent for a moment.
“So what now?” Nayl asked after he had recovered. He looked around the little group, at all of their faces.
They all exchanged glances, save Nikola. She looked off behind them somewhere, at nothing. Nayl was once again struck by just how bizarre she was, and offered her a sideways glance before tuning in to listen to what Veson was saying.
“Don’t you?” he asked, looking to Nayl.
Dang it, Nayl grumbled. I hate it when he does that.
“Uh, what?” he said aloud. “I didn’t catch that.”
Veson sighed and rolled his eyes. “I said I assume everything will just end up going back to the way it was, don’t you?”
Nayl shrugged. “Not really,” he said. “We’re going to have to elect a new consulate, and find someone to clean up this mess, and either discharge the guards or tell them they have to serve the consulate now.”
“Well, yes,” Veson said, rolling his eyes. “But then it’ll be pretty much back to normal. No major changes in government or anything.”
Nayl glanced at Kira to find she was smiling widely at him. “What?” he asked, confused.
“I think you just pretty much laid out ‘what now’,” she commented.
He thought for a moment, and then smiled back at her. “You’re right! I guess I did.”
Looking at her smiling face, though, he wasn’t sure if it was just a mask, or if it was a genuine smile.
“Kira?” Nayl asked suddenly.
“Yes?” she asked. Her eyebrows went up as her blue eyes opened. “What is it, Nayl?”
He bit the inside of his lip and didn’t meet her gaze. “I want to talk to you for a second,” he admitted. “Come with me?”
“Sure,” Kira replied.
Just then, Glydar poked her head out of the door. “You all can come in now,” she told them.
Nayl entered and kept walking, even though the little group resumed the same position as before by Oleander. Kira followed him as they walked to the other end of the throne room. They stepped across broken tree branches and puddles of sparking water and poison as they went.
“It’s really a mess in here, huh?” he asked, looking around and smiling a little.
“Yeah,” she agreed. “What did you need?”
“Well,” he started, looking down at his feet. He wasn’t sure what exactly to say to bring up the topic he wanted to talk about.
“Yes?” she asked.
“Well,” he repeated. “I don’t want to . . . you know . . . upset you, but . . .” he trailed off, realizing he was digging himself into a hole.
“It’s about Soel, isn’t it?” she asked, her voice quiet.
He looked up at her and searched her face with his eyes. “Yeah,” he admitted.
She looked very sad. “Nayl, you had nothing to do with what Soel did. It was ultimately his decision, not yours. Don’t feel bad, okay?” she asked. When she looked up to meet his gaze, tears sparkled in her blue eyes. “I’m sorry it’s what he chose, but it was his only option with the response I gave him.”
“But,” Nayl started, upset, “he could have kept his shield up and just let you go,” he reasoned.
“And never be happy?” Kira concluded. She shook her head. “That wouldn’t have worked. Even if he let me go, even if he gave up his throne, even if we dethroned Eris without incident, she would have tried again. We would have had to have killed her to keep her from taking over Idanon. That would have killed Soel,” she said, looking forlorn. She smiled a sad smile. “He loved her, Nayl. She was his mother, after all. It was only the two of them his whole life.
“Even if she was out of the picture,” she continued, “there’s no way we could have turned the country back over to a consulate without Soel being killed. The fae blamed him for everything. You heard it—Oleander even said it. ‘You ought to die for what you’ve done to this country.’ All of the fae believe that way. And if they didn’t kill him, what then? It’s either a life of exile or a life in the dungeon. That’s no way to live . . .” she trailed off for a moment. Nayl thought of Eris, and her banishment from Pyror. “. . . and he knew that.”
She looked up at him and smiled again, through her tears. “So even though I’m sad that he’s gone, I can be happy because I know thing are better this way. Not just for him, but also for all of Idanon. And what’s my sadness compared to the happiness of everyone else? It doesn’t matter what I feel like, so much as they’re happy. . .” She trailed off, starting to sob.
“Oh, Kira,” Nayl said, pulling his sister to him. He wrapped her in a big hug. “That’s not true, and you know it. You’re just as important as everyone else in Idanon—more so, if you ask me. I love you, sis. Don’t say stuff like that.”
She kept crying as he hugged her. They stood there like that until he was sure she was okay, and then pushed her away from himself. Looking down into her eyes, he smiled sympathetically. “Are you going to be okay?” he asked, tilting his head.
Kira sniffed and nodded, smiling also. “Yeah,” she managed.
“Okay,” Nayl said. He looked down at her. “You want to wipe off your face before we go back there? If Oleander sees one more person cry today, she might start up again, and seeing her cry kind of freaks me out.” He grinned down at his sister.
She giggled a wet giggle. “Okay,” she agreed, wiping her face off on a little white handkerchief she pulled from the bodice of her fancy, now ruined dress. “I’m okay now.”
They walked back to the group, where Glydar had just settled back from messing with the bandage around Oleander’s hip. Her skirt was tied up around her waist, and the white bandage covered one of her hips, where her black leggings covered the other.
Nayl watched as Glydar dipped her fingers into a small jar. She pulled her hand out, covered in a faintly glowing icy-blue jelly. Smoke wafted from it lightly as she turned and spread it over the bandage in a thick layer. Oleander winced, but when the healing fae pulled her hand away, she appeared relieved.
“That’s all I can do to the inside of it,” the maid told her patient. “You’re going to have to be really careful the next few months while it heals. I’m going to be watching you closely.”
Oleander cursed lightly under her breath. “That means not liberating any more countries for a while?”
“Most certainly not,” Glydar replied in a teasingly serious voice. Her smile only mocked her tone all the more.
“There go my plans for the year,” Oleander replied, managing a weak smile. “Can I stand up?”
“If someone helps you,” Glydar said. “Don’t put any weight on it,” she added, a warning in her voice.
Nayl stooped over to where Oleander could get her arm around his neck. “Someone, at your service,” he responded.
Oleander reached up and grabbed onto him, but Glydar suddenly grabbed hold and clutched Nayl’s head. “Ow,” he exclaimed loudly, flinching. “Watch it. It’s bruised.”
The healing fae tsked. “I can see that,” she said matter-of-factly. “Hold still.”
She spread her hands over his head and within a few seconds, the pain was relieved. “Thanks,” Nayl said gratefully. He extended his wrist. “I think I hurt my hand too,” he commented.
Glydar inspected it, and bent it, and pronounced him healthy. “You just jammed it,” she told him. “You’ll be fine.” Then she turned to Kira and Veson. “Who’s next?” she asked, looking between the two.
Kira had her arms folded over her stomach. They both pointed to the other.
Glydar glanced between the two of them. “Ladies first,” she decided. She got busy working on Kira.
Nayl stood, pulling Oleander up into a standing position. She didn’t put any weight on her injured leg, but leaned on him instead.
“So,” Cai asked. “What have we all learned from this experience?”
“Ooh, personal application,” Oleander mumbled sarcastically into Nayl’s ear. “Love it.”
He snickered. That received a glare from Veson.
“Never sign a contract that involves you breaking the law,” Nox decided.
“Besides the fact all of our contracts break the law,” Vega responded, raising an eyebrow.
“Well . . . to a certain extent,” Nox amended, smiling slightly.
“Mine would be don’t agree to do things that sound potentially harmful,” Vega chose. “Harmful to anyone. It can get you in a really hard situation.”
“Make sure you take care of what really matters,” Veson decided. Nayl pretended not to notice that he glanced at Cai and the bright white bandages wrapped around her shoulders when he said it.
“Don’t be afraid to stand up for things you believe in,” Cai said definitively, oblivious to Veson’s glance.
Oleander didn’t. “Seize the good things,” she replied, glancing at Veson meaningfully, “because you don’t know how soon they’ll be gone.”
“Never give up,” Nayl stated. He felt that he could go on, but decided to leave it at that. It was enough.
“Never abandon those who love you,” Kira said quietly, sliding her hand into her brother’s, “because they’re the only ones who matter in the end.”
They looked at each other, and smiled. There was a moment of communal silence before the forgotten member of the party spoke up.
They looked at each other, and smiled. There was a moment of communal silence before the forgotten member of the party spoke up.
“Get a new job,” Nikola decided. “Helping people is overrated.”
A trumpet broke the silence that fell over the throne room. The fae exchanged glances, and a young guard entered the room. He looked about five years younger than herself, Kira thought, and his spear was feet taller than he. “Queen Eris,” he started, but fell silent. He looked around the destroyed throne room, where pools, scorch marks and plants littered the ground and destroyed the marble flooring. Finally, his gaze settled on the fae and Nikola, in their little huddle by the door. “Um . . .” he said, looking confused. “Eris?”
The fae exchanged glances, and Kira nodded to Veson. He stepped forward and tried not to smile too largely. “Well, the truth is, Eris is dead. Idanon is free again.”
“Oh,” he said, having difficulty understanding. “Well, then, who am I supposed to tell who is at the door?”
Kira blinked, and Oleander outright giggled. “Moron,” she mumbled.
The young guard looked up at her, surprised, but Veson just placed his hand on the shorter fae’s shoulder. “You’ll have to excuse her,” he explained. “She’s had a rough day, and her emotions are shot.”
“Oh,” the guard repeated again. Oleander burst into another fit of giggles and he offered her a sideways glance. “Well, there’s a royal party at the door, so . . . what should I tell them?”
Kira perked up. “A royal party?” She looked thoughtful. From where? And why? I hope this doesn’t have anything to do with Eris. She knew it wasn’t likely. “Show me,” she told him, not unkindly.
He led the way, out of the throne room and down the halls to the grand front doors. Two pairs of guards heaved the heavy oaken doors open before them, and sunlight flooded in.
They stepped out into the sunlight and Kira blinked for a moment before she was able to identify the dozens of coaches sitting before the front door. They were all decorated in blues and greens, and a lion’s paw sat on the crest. A short bugle call sounded from the tops of one of the coaches, and an even shorter fae announced, “King Loyyh, King of Pyror and surrounding districts.”
The doors of the coach were opened by two coachmen, who then promptly rolled out a green and blue carpet. It rolled all the way up the stairs and stopped, knocking against Kira’s toes.
Her friends slowly trickled out of the dark castle to surround her.
A young-ish-looking fae hopped down out of the coach, dressed in the same blues and greens as his coaches. He fairly flew up the stairs in his shiny-buckled shoes and came to a halt just before Kira. He took her hands and looked perplexed. “Oh my dear child,” he exclaimed, looking her up and down. “Are you quite all right? What has been going on around here?”
Kira was understandably surprised, but at least Oleander managed not to giggle at the fact she was being called a child by a man just over fifteen years older than herself. “Excuse me?” she asked, trying to figure out what he was talking about before he frightened himself to death.
“Oh, I beg your pardon, I beg your pardon,” he said, releasing her hands. “But I heard about all of the trouble going on here, and when I arrive and see a young lady in ruined finery surrounded by other fae in the same condition—well,” he said, looking down and dusting off the front of his breeches self-consciously. “I just got excited.”
Kira smiled a bit ruefully. “We can all use a little spontaneity, I suppose. Won’t you come in?”
She knew her friends were looking at her like she was crazy, but she extended a welcoming arm, gesturing him to enter the castle.
He entered, and she fell in to walk beside him. His royal guards trailed after him, a few paces behind, but close enough to spring if need arise.
“I’m afraid you caught us at a bad time,” Kira admitted, smiling graciously. “If things seem a little bit unorganized, you’ll just have to pardon the mess. We’ve been through a lot in the last few hours.”
“Oh, I’ve heard,” King Loyyh said. “Well—perhaps I’ve heard some of it,” he responded when Kira raised her eyebrows in surprise. “I’ve heard about Eris taking over, that is, and that’s why I’ve come. You see I-- I used to know her, a long time ago.”
Kira smiled again, but sadly. “I know.”
He looked surprised. “You do? Oh, I mean, of course you do, if you’re a relative . . . ?” he trailed off, leaving it as a question.
“Actually, no. I was—“ she paused for a moment. “I was engaged to be married to your son, Soel.”
“My son? Oh! Yes, yes, my son,” he said, looking excited. “How is he? Can I meet him? I’ve never had opportunity before, you see, as he’s lived with his mother the whole time, and she never sent word as to where they could be contacted . . .”
Even with all of her water fae control, Kira barely kept her face from falling as she listened to him speak. How am I going to tell him that his son and Eris are both dead?
“King Loyyh,” she interrupted courteously. “I beg your pardon, but I think it would be best for us to have a seat in the next room.” She glanced at the maid who had helped heal the fae after this fight with Kira. Running her hands over the bodice of her once-fine dress, she inquired, “Is the next room fit for royal company?”
To her relief, the maid played along with her appearances. “Yes ma’am,” she replied, curtseying. Pushing open the door, she ushered them in.
Kira went and stood by the couch. Her friends entered the chamber as well, and until King Loyyh had seated himself, they stood respectfully. Then they took their seats, and Kira decided not to beat around the bush with the kind of Pyror.
“Your Majesty, I’m afraid I will have to be your bearer of bad news this day.” Taking a deep breath, she continued. “Both Eris and your son Soel are no longer . . . with us,” she admitted haltingly. She tried to ignore the pang that sounded so heavily in her heart as she spoke the truth aloud.
Kira and her companions bowed their heads in respect to the deceased, but when Kira glanced up, King Loyyh appeared frozen.
“I know this comes as a shock to you,” she continued, all of the empathy within her threatening to boil over inside of her. She tried to keep her voice steady, but it wavered with emotion as she concluded, “I’m deeply sorry . . . for your loss.”
“Eris . . . and Soel?” he asked, bewildered. His light purple eyes stared, unfocused, at the floor before him.
Kira nodded, unable to say anything more.
She couldn’t help but be impressed at the speed with which he composed himself. “I . . . I see,” he said slowly, voice even. He blinked once, still staring at the floor. Then he looked up and met Kira’s gaze. “What happened?”
Kira explained to the king as best she could what happened. For a moment, he sat looking very still, and then he rubbed his face with his hands. He was only in his mid-thirties, but he aged several years as he did so. “I never got to meet him,” he said, voice thick. His hands covered his eyes.
“I know,” Kira murmured, looking away from the king.
He took a deep breath and looked up at Kira. “You said you were engaged to be married; is that right?”
She nodded, closing her eyes. The thought hurt.
“Can you . . . tell me a little bit about him?” King Loyyh asked, sounding hopeful. “Since you knew him . . . I’d like to know what he was like. Maybe it could make me feel a little bit closer to him.”
Kira’s first reaction was to say no. She didn’t want to talk about Soel-- not now, not so soon after he had died. She didn’t want to tell his father about the things that Soel understood, and the things he didn’t, and the way he smiled when he was thinking about something he knew that she didn’t know. She didn’t want to visit him so soon after he was laid to rest.
But then, King Loyyh was his father. If anyone had a right to know anything about Soel, it would be the king.
Biting her lip, she looked up, into King Loyyh’s light purple eyes. He looked eager and excited to hear about his son, though behind it she could sense his sadness and disappointment that missed out on his son’s life.
She couldn’t look away, so she nodded slightly. Nayl stood up. “The rest of us will attend to the castle,” he stated, giving them a reason to leave the king to speak to Kira. She shot him a thankful glance, and he smiled at her before closing the door behind them.
Kira talked about Soel with his father until the maid had to light candles for them to see by. She cried as she spoke about him, and laughed through her tears, but she felt she needed to share Soel with his father. He would have wanted it to be that way.
When it became very late, the stress Kira had undergone the days before was beginning to wear on her. She had a maid show King Loyyh to his chambers and retired to her own to sleep.
She lay in the dark, her large, luxurious bed feeling empty around her, knowing that her friends were in the same castle with her for the first time. She considered she would be able to sleep better if they were with her.
I bet I could go and ask to sleep with Cai, she reasoned, looking across the spacious room to the door. Moonlight was drifting in through a large, lancet window by the foot of the four-poster bed, making the furnishings look weird and creepy. She sat up, ready to go and knock on Cai’s door to see if they might room together that night.
A knock sounded on Kira’s door that same instant. Oleander’s face peered in as the door slowly creaked open.
“I was lonely,” she explained, clutching a long coverlet around her body. Her bandaged hip stuck out from under it and seemed to glow in the slight moonlight. She leaned on the doorway. “I thought I might come and ask if I could sleep in here with you.
Oleander glanced over as Cai poked her face around the poison fae’s side. “We both had the same idea. I ran into her in the hall,” Cai explained. “Do you mind if we join you?”
Kira shook her head. “Definitely not,” she replied, rolling off of the bed and pulling her blankets down with her. “I missed you guys as well. I was just resenting the fact we decided to each take separate bedchambers for the night.”
Oleander hopped in, Cai closing the door behind them. They spread out their blankets and Cai and Kira lay down. Oleander seized all of the pillows on Kira’s bed and flung them to the ground.
“For my hip,” she explained, balancing on one foot. She lowered herself to the ground slowly and let out her breath. “Glydar would kill me if she knew I was sleeping on the floor.” She grinned mischievously.
Kira laughed and they all lay down, Cai and Oleander being careful of their wounds. In the darkness, they didn’t speak immediately, but each simply reveled in the presence of the others.
Another knock came from the door. Cai and Oleander exchanged glances and giggled as Kira sat up. “Yes?” she called quietly.
The door creaked open to reveal Nayl. Behind him, she thought she saw Veson.
“Hey,” he said quietly. “I didn’t really want to be alone tonight, so I headed out. I had just gone into Veson’s room when I asked myself, ‘What am I doing?!’ He was not the person I wanted to see.” He scrunched his nose, and in the background Kira thought she saw Veson roll his eyes. “So I came to see you. He was already up, so he tagged along.” Nayl looked down, and Kira saw his blanket in his hand. “Mind if we come in for a while?”
She shook her head, smiling slightly.
“Why are you on the floor?” He opened the door a little wider, and he spotted Cai and Oleander laying amongst the pillows and blankets. “Oh. Hi.”
Cai giggled again. “I knew it was you two.”
Oleander rolled her eyes. “Who else could it be?”
The boys entered the room and spread out their blankets. Nayl dropped onto them, his legs crossed. “Man, that Glydar is something else, isn’t she?” he asked, grinning. “She figured something was wrong with Nox and Vega, and she gave them something weird to drink. They told me last night that now it hurts a lot less.”
“Good thing, too,” Cai replied. “That would be awful if they in a lot of pain because of our episode in the dungeon.”
Kira was confused. “Dungeon?” she asked, unable to keep the incredulous tone from her voice. Looking from one of her friends to another, she demanded, “What dungeon?”
Oleander rolled over onto her stomach, avoiding moving her hip. “This one,” she replied, propping her head up on her arms.
Kira let her face show her disbelief. “How did that happen?” she asked, bewildered.
The other fae exchanged glances. “I guess we didn’t tell you about how we got here, huh?” Veson asked.
She shook her head. “I was meaning to ask you about those other two fae that were with you, and the human girl,” she replied. “What exactly went on?”
Cai looked down at her blanket and played with the seams. Oleander let her head slide, so her face was hidden. Nayl glanced at Veson, and Veson turned to her. “Well,” he started. “Get comfortable.
“We didn’t discover that you were missing until the evening of the day that you left. We immediately started searching for you, but we only found dead ends and gave up. Some of us wanted to keep looking, but it was too dark.
“The next day, we were about to start searching for any clues about where you went, when the human girl just appeared. She said she would help us because she was bored.” He rolled his eyes. “We weren’t going to let her at first, but we figured she could help us find you if she got into fae-land at all. She called up some friend of hers in your pool of water, and that lady gave us a dark ball to throw at the barrier around the castle to let us in. It worked, so we got to the castle.
“Some of us,” He glanced at Oleander and then at Nayl meaningfully before going on. “—wanted to take an offensive approach towards Eris about your return, but we decided to go and ask for you from Eris before trying anything.
“That probably wasn’t the best idea we came up with,” he admitted, smiling ruefully. “We went to ask Eris about you, but she told us . . . she told us that you said you wanted to stay. That you were content.” He looked sad.
Kira looked around at all of her friends, with the same despondent expression on their faces. She felt her stomach drop. “I didn’t mean it—“ She attempted to explain. She took a breath to compose herself before she tried again, more controlled. “When I told her that, we were talking about a big picture plan. She and Soel told me that I could have you come and stay at the castle with me as soon as she finished some business.”
“Apparently she had no such business,” Cai replied. She smiled, but it was an unhappy, knowledgeable smile.
“Apparently not,” Veson agreed before going on. “With that, she sent us to the dungeon. We were in a dark cell with a . . . slightly . . . troubled fae.” He thought about what he just said, making sure it made sense.
“He was insane,” Cai added on, looking disturbed.
“I’ll say,” Oleander mumbled. “He only tried to kill Cai.”
Kira stared at Cai, who nodded slightly. “There was that.”
“What?” Kira asked, confused.
“That’s a story for another time,” Veson said, hurrying to move on.
“I think it’s a story for now,” Nayl decided, obviously not hurrying to move on. Veson looked like he knew the fire fae was hiding something. Kira knew he did, but she wasn’t sure what.
“Yeah,” Oleander joined in with a sly glance at Veson. “I think so too.” She looked to Kira, tilting her head on her arms. “Basically Cai wandered into the darkest corner of the cell, and this creepy old fae was singing some freaky birthday song. She kind of freaked out, and the guy’s hand shoots out and starts caressing her face.” Oleander looked repulsed. “It was the grossest thing to watch. Then he started telling her about how he killed his lover on his birthday because she was in love with someone else, and how he thought it was his birthday then. Then he got even weirder and decided Cai was the same fae he killed God knows how many years before, because their eyes looked the same.” She shrugged, then brightened. “And then,” she said, grinning mischievously, “Veson suddenly appeared, and he’s like right behind her, and he grabs the creepy fae’s arm in his hand. And Cai looks up, and he hisses, ’Leave her alone.’” Speaking as Veson, she changed her voice to sound masculine, protective and seductive. “Just like that. And then Veson throws the creepy fae’s hand down, and leads Cai gently back to the light.”
Nayl laughed out loud. “I don’t remember if it happened just like that,” he replied.
“Well, you were moping in the corner,” she countered. Her face took on an authoritative smirk. “I saw it all.”
“It wasn’t like that,” Cai said. Kira thought she could see a touch of blush showing up on her friend’s pale cheek.
“That is what happened, isn’t it?” Oleander replied, raising an eyebrow.
“Well, kind of,” Cai admitted. “But—“
Veson joined in before Oleander could interrupt. “It wasn’t,” he agreed, looking as embarrassed as the electricity fae. “And I don’t sound like that.”
“Yeah,” Oleander smirked, “You really did.”
Kira couldn’t let one remark slide. “Why was Nayl ‘moping in a corner’?”
They all fell silent and exchanged glances.
“Well,” Nayl started, looking away from Veson to his sister. “Some of us had begun to . . . doubt your loyalties.” He paused. “We got into a fight. Kind of.”
Oleander looked down, and her mouth was hidden behind her arms. Her voice was muffled, but her shame was clear in it as she mumbled, “Guilty.” Cai and Veson looked down, not wanting to make eye contact.
Kira’s heart hurt as she looked at them. Only Nayl met her gaze. “Oh, you guys,” she cried, upset. “I am so sorry. I can’t believe that you had to go through that! If only I could have talked to you . . .”
Veson smiled bravely. “But you couldn’t, and it’s over now. Don’t feel bad.”
“Yeah, you’re going to feel bad enough about what you hear in a minute,” Oleander mumbled into her arms again.
Kira looked down at her sharply, wondering exactly what she meant by that, but Veson started the story again.
“After that, the guard came to give us some food. Then,” he glanced at Nayl, “Nayl decided he would try the diplomatic route as well. He offered to let them take him . . . if they would give you back.”
Kira breathed in sharply. Looking to Nayl, now he was the only one looking down. He looked terribly uncomfortable, and it was all she could do to keep from crying again that evening.
“So they took him . . . but obviously they didn’t give you back,” Veson said, also glancing at Nayl. “When they brought Nayl back to the cell. . .” he paused, looking down himself. His voice dropped to a quiet murmur. “ . . . he had been tortured.”
Nayl flinched at the thought, and Kira began to shake. “You—” she whispered, overcome with emotion.
He nodded, his movement barely perceptible.
She bit her lip and reached over to take his hand. Clutching it, she squeezed it as hot tears fell from her eyes. “I am so sorry,” she choked out.
He said nothing, but squeezed her hand back.
Veson cleared his throat before continuing. “The jail warden disappeared for a while. The human girl was in the cell too, so she yelled at the guards and Vega appeared, one of the other two fae with us. Nikola apparently knew her from somewhere, since they were both thieves, and she asked for them to let us out.”
“Nikola is the human girl,” Cai added parenthetically.
Veson nodded. “They weren’t fans of Eris, so they agreed. They let us out, and Nikola contacted that woman again through a pan filled with water. The lady took Nayl’s pain and distributed it between Nox and Vega, so Nayl would be able to . . .” He sought a word. “. . . function.
“Then we started off to find you. Nikola, Nox and Vega created a distraction so that Eris would be occupied, and . . . we found you.” Veson trailed off, looking sad.
Kira smiled sadly. It hurt her just as it hurt him. She tried to find something to say, but came up short, and held back her tears silently.
They sat there in silence.
Finally Veson sighed, and Cai looked up at him. She raised her eyebrows, and something occurred to him. He reached into his dark green vest. Pulling his hand out again, Kira could tell he clutched something in his hand.
“I think,” he said haltingly, “he would have wanted you to have this.” He reached out and dropped it into her hand.
Kira gasped and her tears overflowed over her cheeks. In her hand sat a little round diamond. It was flawless and beautiful, but its very essence was saturated in sadness and bittersweet memory. Somehow, as she clutched it to herself in its cold, determined beauty, she knew it had something to do with Soel.
“He cried . . . just before—“ Veson was having a hard time explaining. His voice had underlying tones of deep sympathy and sadness. “Just before he died.”
She nodded and wiped her tears from her face. With all I’ve been through tonight, it’s a wonder I still have any tears to cry, she thought, smiling ruefully. She put her hand up to wipe her eyes and realized that on top of an everlasting well of tears, she also had a splitting headache.
Cai rolled over onto her back, settling a pillow beneath her shoulders. “Well, I don’t know about you all,” she said, looking up to the ceiling. “I’m exhausted.”
Kira smiled and lay down herself. “So am I,” she said, pulling her coverlet close around her.
Nayl glanced at Veson. “I think I’ll stay here a little longer before I turn in. What about you, Veson?”
Veson shrugged. “Might as well. I’m not so tired yet.”
Beside her, Kira heard Oleander mumble “suit yourself” before her breathing subsided into a quiet, rest-filled pattern.
Listening to Oleander’s breath lulled Kira drowsily, and she closed her eyes. Comforted, she slipped off to sleep, clutching Soel’s tear to her heart.
The next morning, the fae that had originally tended to Kira when she first arrived at the palace woke Cai, Oleander, and Kira up. She opened the door cheerily and announced, “Breakfast is being served downstairs!”
Kira sat up with no difficulty. Cai hefted herself up into a sitting position without using her arms before Kira could offer to help her injured friend, and Oleander rolled onto one side and struggle to stand without moving her injured leg.
“Good thing,” she grunted, pulling her good leg underneath her. “I’m starving.” She extended her leg and stood on it, mumbling under her breath. “I wonder how much it would hurt to just have it amputated?”
The maid let out a little “Oh!” and looked down.
Glancing to the door, where the maid stood, Oleander realized Nayl and Veson hadn’t ever left. Nayl was splayed on the rug, partly covered in the train of Kira’s blanket, and Veson was leaning against the wall, his chin dropped to his chest. Kira and Cai saw them too.
“Just couldn’t bring themselves to leave, huh?” Kira asked, smiling slightly.
“You know our presence is intoxicating,” Cai replied, amused.
“Like a drug,” Oleander put in. Kira dismissed the maid, and Oleander was about to kick Nayl in the side when she realized her leg was immobile. Glancing around, her gaze landed on a thick stick propped against the armoire. That’ll do.
She leaned over and grabbed the stick with one hand. Extending the other to keep herself balanced, she poked Nayl hard in the side with it.
“Wake up,” she told him. He did, immediately.
“Dang it, Oleander!” he cried, curling around his affected side. “That hurt!”
“Good morning to you too,” she told him drily, and whapped Veson.
Soon they were all standing around Kira’s room, amongst blankets and pillows scattered on the floor. Veson had his arm crossed over the spot where Oleander had jabbed him in his stomach. He grumbled under his breath about Oleander’s morning tactics, but she just fixed him with a stare. “Don’t like it?” she asked rhetorically. “Then wake up earlier.” She held onto the walking stick. She found it quite useful in supporting herself.
He rolled his eyes. “I’m not sure if I like your logic,” he replied, shifting his weight from one foot to the other.
“Veson!” Cai suddenly cried, staring down at his boots. “You’re hurt!”
The rest of them joined her in examining his boots. Sure enough, the leather of one brown boot was torn where it looked like it had been punctured by several small, sharp objects.
“What happened?” Oleander heard Kira demand.
“I . . . don’t remember,” he admitted.
“Idiot,” she said aloud. “You’re going to ruin your foot if you don’t get it taken care of.”
He was looking down at it. “Yeah, you’re right.”
Kira looked up at him quizzically. “Does it hurt?” she asked.
He shrugged. “I don’t know,” he repeated. “I just noticed it now.”
“Well, let’s get you fixed before breakfast,” Cai said. “We can’t have you messing yourself up any time soon.”
Conveniently, Glydar just happened to be traversing the halls nearby when Oleander poked her head out. “Hey,” she called, attracting the chubby healing fae’s attention.
Glydar looked wary. “You haven’t spent the evening ruining your hip, have you?” she demanded.
“No,” Oleander lied, rolling her eyes. “Well, maybe. But we need you for something else.”
Glydar sighed as she headed across the halls, and tsked as she looked at Veson’s foot. “It wasn’t this bad yesterday,” she said, on her knees to inspect it best. “I would have noticed it.”
“I didn’t even know it was there,” he said.
“Take off your boot,” she commanded.
Veson was just bending down to comply when Oleander’s stomach growled. Glydar looked up sharply, and Oleander shrugged as she felt the rest of the fae’s eyes land on her. “Hey,” she said. “I haven’t eaten for two days. I wasn’t joking about the starving thing.”
“Hey, I haven’t either,” Cai realized in wonder.
“Go eat.” Veson waved them on. “King Loyyh is probably down there waiting for you all.”
Sure enough, when they reached the bottom of the stairs, one of the maids glanced up at them, pleased they were there. “His Majesty King Loyyh is in the dining room,” she explained to them. Then she glanced over the little group, and her eyes flashed with uneasiness. “But . . . if I may be so bold, are you going to go as you are?” She asked haltingly, like she wasn’t sure if they would be cross with her or not.
Oleander glanced over their group, in their torn and matted clothing. Her own skirt was tied up around her waist in an untidy, lopsided knot. Cai’s dress was still cut away from her back, the edges fraying already. Spots of dried brown blood were still caked into the fabric in some places, and beneath the dress her shoulders were covered in white bandages. Kira’s fine, luxurious dress was burnt, torn and crushed, no longer beautiful. Nayl’s hadn’t been that wonderful to begin with, Oleander considered, but the grime and wear made them look even worse.
Turning back to the maid, she was perfectly straight faced. “Yes.” She didn’t care what they looked like. “Some of us haven’t eaten in two days. We’re ravished. Getting cleaned up can wait until later.” Then she couldn’t help but roll her eyes. “And we’re just like you,” she told the maid. “Lighten up.”
Whenever they entered the dining room, King Loyyh immediately jumped to his feet. Oleander saw he had a whole new outfit, from a whole new section of the color wheel. She actually did feel a little self-conscious, now that she considered, but then the delightful smells of the breakfast table washed over her. She allowed herself a little happy sound of anticipation as she hobbled up to the table and slid herself into a chair.
King Loyyh had just pulled out a chair for Kira, and was moving to do the same for Oleander when she sat down.
He blinked, surprised, but that gave perfect opportunity for Nayl to take control of the situation. Quickly, so as not to appear boorish, he pulled out a chair for Cai.
Oleander heaped up her plate with whatever was on the table. She took sausage, and bacon, and eggs, and loaded her plate with all kinds of fruits. There were apples, and oranges, and grapes, and pomegranates, and star fruit. She had to set down her plate, as it got too heavy to hold up, but it didn’t stop her from grabbing several pieces of sweet bread in her hands and piling in on top of the precarious pile.
She was so intent on inhaling her food, she didn’t tune into the conversation around her until she was half-through with her mountain of delights.
“What’s your next step?” King Loyyh asked, directing his attention to Kira. She had become almost the only one he addressed. Oleander knew it had to do with the fact she was much better-spoken than the rest of the fae, but she also figured it had something to do with their common affections.
“We haven’t decided yet,” Kira said coolly. “We have been considering electing a new consulate.”
“Are you sure you want to elect a new consulate?” he inquired. “You could always assume rule of Idanon yourselves.”
Kira dipped her head. “I have considered that,” she replied, “but I think it would be best to return Idanon to a static state of self-rule. Idanon has been ruled by consuls for centuries, and until this minor accident. Our people are content, and when they are not they make sure that they change something so that the state complies with the people again.”
“Pity,” King Loyyh said. He really did sound sorry for them. “Monarchies have such a strong government.”
Kira smiled slightly. “Thank you for your concern, but I’m confident we have the situation under control.”
He looked into his wine glass and swirled it. It was filled with orange juice. The cups on the table were mismatched, as though they had been set out hurriedly. Oleander had a mug.
“You’re going to have to rebuild your government fast,” he informed her, watching the juice swirl around and around. “Otherwise a larger power might come in and seize Idanon for itself.”
Oleander realized with a shudder that if anyone could take over Idanon, King Loyyh had the perfect opportunity. He had a large number of guards with him, and if the kingdom would have fallen to his son, it seemed as though he was next in line. Only seven fae and one human girl stood in his way, as the citizens of Idanon hadn’t heard about the news yet.
Looking at Kira, Oleander realized that she already knew that. “Again, I thank you for your concern,” she repeated. Her voice was strong as she added, “I’m sure we can hold our own here until we have our polity under control again.”
Now King Loyyh looked up at her and smiled. “Oh, I’m sure, my dear,” he smiled at her warmly. Oleander realized that even though she hadn’t married Soel, Loyyh still treated her as he would a daughter. “Would you like for me to stay on until things are looking up for you?”
“I deeply appreciate your offer,” Kira replied, smiling back. “However, I think we’ll be just fine. I’m not entirely sure what the other countries surrounding us would think of Pyror being involved in our reconstruction, either.” She paused, thinking. “Do you know how many other countries actually know what has been going on in Idanon the past few months?”
He shook his head. “Citizens on the edge of Idanon, on our side of the river, informed us of it, but we told no one. The only other country that might know would be Zoer.”
Zoer bordered with Idanon on the east side. Kira nodded. “That is probably for the best,” she admitted.
All of the fae looked up when the doors opened. Nox and Vega entered the room, and their eyes lit up at the sight of the meal. They exchanged glances, and almost sprinted across the dining room to reach the table.
As soon as they were seated across from each other, they started heaping up their plates. “Pass the salt,” Nox said, holding out her hand in its direction.
“Is there any butter?” Vega asked.
Oleander rolled her eyes as Cai passed down the salt and butter. The other fae were enthralled as the piles of breakfast food quickly disappeared from the thief fae’s plates.
“Mmm,” Nox commented, her mouth full of something or other. “This is really good.”
“I know, isn’t it?” Vega replied, taking a bite of a biscuit.
“Yeah.” Nox took a big swig of milk from a tankard. “Almost as good as . . .” She trailed off, and their eyes met in a moment of epiphany.
“Parched corn!” They both cried at the same time, elated.
Vega turned to her left, where Oleander sat, watching and confused. Vega put her hands palm down on the table with a smack. “Does your cook have parched corn?” she demanded. She looked so hopeful Oleander blinked twice before finding anything to say.
“I don’t know,” she said after a moment, weirded out.
“No! Parched corn!!” Nox replied, eyes wide. She looked around wildly until her gaze landed on the maid, who was standing by the door, carrying in a pitcher of water.
Vega saw her too. “You there!” She called, jumping up from her chair and thrusting her finger at the maid. The maid looked surprised. “Parched corn!” Vega announced. She looked imperiously commanding, planting one strappy boot on the seat of her fine embroidered chair. “We must have it! And soon!”
The maid was confused, but she curtseyed and backed out of the room.
Nox and Vega grinned at each other, excited and triumphant. “Finally, some good parched corn.” Nox sank into her seat, apparently thrilled at the thought.
Oleander rolled her eyes. “What are you, a horse?” she asked.
Nox and Vega both turned and stared at her. “What?” Nox was confused.
“Haven’t you ever had parched corn?” Vega asked incredulously.
Oleander shrugged. “Not that I remember,” she replied evenly.
They stared at her with a mixed expression of horror and disbelief. “You’ve never had—“ Nox started.
“—parched corn?!” Vega finished.
Nox recovered quickly. “Well,” she replied, settling back in her chair and shrugging. “Too bad. What she’s bringing out now we get.”
Oleander looked at them like they were mad, and was about to reply saying something beautifully cutting as such when the door clanged open again. Nox and Vega sat straight up, eyeing the large bowl the maid hand in her hands eagerly.
As the maid approached, she headed for Vega. Nox jumped up and walked across the table to plop into the seat next to Vega’s.
They both looked up hopefully at the maid, who gazed back with a bewildered expression.
“Parched corn?” Vega asked, grinning. Her voice sounded high and girlish, like she could hardly keep her delight from it.
“Um, yes,” the maid replied, unconfidently. She set the bowl on the table and backed away.
Nox and Vega immediately pounced on the bowl. Filling their mouths with the corn, they started to chew as even bigger grins spread across their faces. “Mmmmm,” they chorused, closing their eyes in delight.
Oleander knew the other fae were staring, just as puzzled as she. “Is it really that good?” she demanded, blown away.
They nodded at the same instant.
“Definitely,” Vega said.
“Certainly,” Nox agreed.
“Wow,” Oleander replied.
Cai wrinkled her nose. “Does parched corn by itself really make that wonderful of a breakfast?” she wondered aloud.
“Yes!” Nox and Vega cried, filling their hands with it.
“Of course it makes a great breakfast!” Vega defended.
“The best. It’s so good,” Nox moaned. “It’s so rich and yummy.”
“I know,” Vega replied. “It’s so super good.”
Oleander turned away from the two obsessed thief fae, mouthing ‘Okay’ with a taken-aback expression as she did so. “Anyway,” she announced, ignoring the two thief fae. They were sitting behind her, bantering back and forth about how luscious their parched corn was. “When do you think you’ll be leaving, King Loyyh?”
The king blinked as he thought. He ran his hand through his ivory hair, though it wasn’t white from age. “I should probably be heading back this morning,” he decided. He smiled a bit sheepishly. “Because, you see, my wife doesn’t exactly where I went, and I think if she found out she could possibly become very angry with me, perhaps.” He shrugged, smiling. “I don’t know for sure, but I think that could be a possibility.”
Kira nodded, stepping in as spokesfae. “It was wonderful having you,” she told him graciously. “I’m sorry I couldn’t provide you with better news.”
“You can’t help what’s already happened, Kira,” King Loyyh said. He smiled sympathetically. He stood, and was starting to go when he turned back to Kira. “Kira, as King of Pyror,” he announced, “I am offering all of Idanon the opportunity to be allies of Pyror when the nation gets back on its feet. Until then, please contact me with any and all questions regarding this sort of thing. I may be of some help to you, and we mustn’t tell everyone.” He winked at them all. “It could be our secret.”
“Are you leaving so soon?” Kira asked, rising from her chair.
“I’m afraid I must,” he replied. “I need to get back to Pyror. Fare thee well, fae of Idanon. I wish you recovering country the best, and Pyror is always willing to lend a hand.”
Cai, Kira, Veson and Nayl followed King Loyyh out onto the porch. Oleander stayed inside. Her hip made it too difficult to navigate the castle halls.
Cai stood on the stone steps, watching with her friends as King Loyyh’s green and blue coaches disappeared over the horizon. Standing out in the brisk cold morning, Cai shivered a little but commented. “Well, he was nice.”
Veson turned to look at Kira. “Kira, you really have a way of talking to people,” he commented. “You ought to consider playing a bigger role in helping Idanon get back on its feet.”
She smiled slightly, but like old times, her emotions were hidden behind a mask. “We’ll see,” she said lightly.
They wandered back in. Oleander sat at the table, watching with a disgusted and intrigued stare as the two thief ladies ate their parched corn and talked about food.
Cai caught the tail end of their conversation as she entered. “Are you guys always like this?” Oleander demanded.
“Yeah,” Nox replied, staring at her. “Why, is there something wrong?”
“We always do better after a long night’s rest,” Vega added. “Last night we slept like rocks. That probably has something to do with it.”
“Oh,” Oleander mumbled under her breath. Cai barely caught it. “So this is better?”
The door creaked open, and Cai glanced up. The young guard from the day before was poking his head in. “Oh,” he said, noticing them. “Do any of you know where Hayllen went?”
Cai glanced at Kira. “Hayllen is the serving girl, right?”
“I may be able to find her,” Kira replied. “What did you need to speak to her about, if I might be so bold?”
“I was going to ask her where she was going now that Eris is gone, and tell her what I was planning on doing myself.” He wasn’t at all ashamed; on the contrary, he looked perfectly at ease.
Hayllen, who had entered the dining hall as the conversation began, stood out of sight of Kira and the young guard. Cai could see the blush light up on her face, and smiled at the fact the girl did seem rather ashamed.
Veson and Kira exchanged glances. “Where did Eris hire you from . . .?” Kira trailed off, not knowing his name.
“Reyden,” he said. “I was working shining shoes in the city, and I wandered into the alley where she told fortunes. I was curious, so I spent a copper on one. After she told my fortune, she told me just how much I’d earn if I started working with her. The work wouldn’t be too hard, and she said it was a job I couldn’t be jostled from easily.” Reyden shrugged. “It was a lot of money, and I didn’t have any friends to tie me down. So I took it.” He glanced around. “I need to find Hayllen now that we’re free, though. I want to know where she plans on going.” He ducked back out of the room.
Veson looked at Kira sideways. “I think we need to talk to the guards now,” he decided.
They assembled the guards in the main hall. Cai watched as Kira went to mount the stairs up to a balcony where she could look over the full assembly. Veson stepped up. “I think I better talk to them,” he told her, smiling slightly. He winked at her. “I doubt they’d really listen to you.”
Cai tried to swallow the stab of jealously that struck her as he stepped out where the guards could see him.
Veson flashed a winning smile at them. He almost looked like he was one of them, Cai thought. So far, so good.
“Hello, men. You must be wondering exactly why we’ve assembled you here this fine morning, and who the heck we think we are to be doing it.
“I’m talking to you now because by now you’ve probably heard that Eris is no longer in control of this country. She and her son aren’t able to give us any trouble anymore.”
He paused for a moment and strode across the balcony part of the way. Looking down at them, he looked quite confident. “I know what some of you are thinking right now. You probably range from mildly pleased to ecstatic. After all, now you’re free!
“And then others of you are probably thinking about where your monetary dues are going to come from now. I’ve discussed it with my—” He searched for a word, and then, grinning, continued. “—cohorts, and you will still receive your money. Depending on exactly how much she promised you,” he added on the side.
“But now that Eris is dead, you all are unemployed.” He placed his hands on the marble banister before him and scanned the guard. “And let’s admit it, that’s not a good place to be. Maybe some of you found you enjoyed some aspects of the work. Maybe some of you found that the life of a palace guard isn’t suited to you. Where ever you’re at right now, I’d like to ask you to bear with me for just a few moments longer.
“After Eris and Soel took over Erul’s castle, they killed the guard that was installed here prior. That means that when Idanon elects a new consulate, they’re not going to have a guard.
“So I’m extending the invitation for you all to stay on the palace guard, albeit with slightly different circumstances. For example,” he stated, gesturing to illustrate the hypothetic nature of what he was about to say, “you won’t be storming small towns or rounding up rebels anymore. You’ll just be here, at the castle, and various outposts you belong to, keeping peace.”
He shrugged. “That’s if, of course, you decide to stay on. If not, then we’ll just give you your money and send you on your merry way. I’m sure someone will hire you, somewhere feeding pigs or something.” He smiled. “Your choice.”
A blonde-white haired guard near the front of the mass raised his spear as if to ask a question. Veson looked down at him. Cai could see the vivid green of the guard’s eyes even from where she stood above.
“This consulate,” he called. His voice was light sounding, and airy. His words were heard by all of the guards. “What exactly will they stand for? I haven’t heard anything of a new consulate.”
“We’re working as fast as we can to ensure that Idanon is returned to a stable government immediately,” Veson replied, trying to save face.
“So what you’re saying is,” the guard continued, “you don’t really know what’s going on administratively, is that right?” His voice was easily loud enough for all of the guards to hear, and though it wasn’t challenging, it struck an interesting point. Some of the other guards began to murmur.
Cai could tell that Veson was struggling to find an answer. “Well,” he started, thinking.
Without blinking, Kira strode out beside him. Looking softly across the guards, her very presence quieted them. She looked down at the fae with the white-blonde hair and green eyes.
“What you say is true,” she informed him calmly. “We are working as fast as we can to return the consulate’s control to Idanon. I can’t pretend to know how long it will take, or how successful we will be.” She looked out over the guards. She didn’t look beseeching, royal or condescending. Confidence was the only emotion on her face, and it was there firmly. “What I do know is that this endeavor will need protection as we seek to rebuild our system of government. Some semblance of peace and security must rest with our people at this time. I don’t pretend that there will be no disruptions or halts to our undertaking of this task. I do know that a guard, if well organized and single-minded, it would be able to defend us from most of these interruptions. Idanon is at a place, I fear, where she needs to be defended.”
She looked rather sad, and Cai even felt bad for her. She managed to look away from her pathetically appealing friend to glance over the guard.
They were spellbound. None of them moved for a moment, until the blonde-haired guard nodded slowly. He began to clap.
Slowly the rest of the guard was pulled out of their reverie to clap as well. Now the whole company was clapping, stomping their feet, whistling. Kira gave them a slight smile in return and waited for them to stop before she asked a final question. Her voice was not commanding, as it could have been, but soft, and gentle. It resounded in the hall, quiet as a whisper but with the power and magnitude of a shout.
“Who of you is willing to stand for his country, his people, and his rights?”
Cai watched as that one fae, with the startling green eyes, lifted his spear high, and laid it quietly on the marble stone far below Kira’s feet.
The guards surged forward in a mass. They threw their spears in the pile in scores, though some still held back. Those who did not pledge themselves to Idanon simply laid their spears against the walls by doorways and disappeared. They didn’t wait to be paid.
Cai heard a slight scoffing noise from somewhere above her. Looking up, she spotted Nikola, the human thief girl, sitting on a stone leaf, coiling from a stone pillar. “You have got to be kidding me,” she mumbled, looking down at the white-haired guard with an expression of unsurprised disbelief and scorn.
He glanced up at that moment, and tilted his head as he made eye contact with the girl. He smiled slightly, looking pleased as he could tell she was not.
Nikola rolled her eyes again. She slid off of the sculpture and dropped to her feet. She wandered off, sullenly silent.
Cai looked between the two, wondering what on earth just happened. Until, that is, she realized Veson was at her elbow.
She turned to him, beaming. “Good job out there,” she told him.
He shrugged. “I guess so,” he commented. “Kira did better, though.”
Cai laughed. “That’s only because she’s a girl pleading their protection, and you’re a fae telling them why they should stick with us. Mostly just because she’s a girl, though.”
Veson laughed as well. “I suppose you could be right.”
“You know I am,” she grinned.
Veson stood as the consul’s meeting drew to a close. He waited until he had made his way out into the hall to stretch.
Cai was suddenly beside him. “How goes it?” she asked, tilting her head. He saw just beneath the lemony-yellow ruffles adorning the neck of a new dress the white bandages were still peeking out from her shoulders.
“I was just about to ask you but same thing,” he responded, sticking his hands in the pockets of his deep green breeches. “Are you healing up all right?”
Cai nodded, smiling. “Glydar says that in just a few weeks the bandages can come off.”
Veson thought that sounded like more time than he would smile about, but he grinned back, for her sake. “That’s great, Cai!”
She nodded happily. “And then I should be back to normal.”
Veson knew from the expression on her face she knew she wouldn’t ever really been back to normal. There were the scars the wound would leave behind. He was proud of her for keeping a brave outlook, though.
They started to walk down the halls. “Would you accompany me to the garden?” he asked her, looking down at her. Her short blonde hair swished as she looked up into his face. “I want to stretch my legs before we’re due back in the council room.”
She nodded. “Are you deciding a lot of stuff about Idanon?” She inquired.
Veson shrugged. “Kind of.” He pushed open the door to the gardens. “Right now we’re just making sure that everything is falling into place correctly, so that Idanon can get back on her feet again.”
“Is it coming along well?” Cai asked, making her way leisurely among the flowers. The long skirt of her dress was full. Even though she held it up, it swept lightly along the ground as she walked.
“I suppose,” Veson admitted. He wasn’t entirely sure. The fae they had found to step up were older fae who had once been on the consulate and had hidden when Eris took control, or intelligent young fae who studied government in their spare time. Veson felt nearly overwhelmed when he was with them. Even though they were gracious when he didn’t measure up, he found it difficult when he couldn’t follow their discussion. “Let’s talk about something else, though, okay?”
Cai got the hint. Glancing up, she grinned and called, “Nayl! Oleander!”
Veson followed her gaze. Nayl lay on the fountain’s rim, staring up at the sky. He was watching small petals as they drifted down from the plant trees. Under his gaze, they burst into little balls of flame and extinguished before they touched the stone. Oleander was sitting by a large, leafy green plant. She had on a new dress, like the rest of them, and the full skirt disguised the swelling of her hip. Unlike Cai’s it was just the right length, but Oleander didn’t seem to care for it. It was spread on the ground with no regard to its finery. Small leaves clung to it. She quickly reached to cover up a shriveled twig with a branch and looked up at them innocently.
“Hi,” Nayl said, not bothering to turn his head. His red hair fell across the grey stone, and he closed his eyes lazily.
Cai laughed out loud. “My, you two look bored.”
“There’s nothing to do,” Nayl explained, sighing a little.
“So you’re abusing the wildlife?” Veson raised an eyebrow.
Oleander shrugged. “Beats sitting in there and pretending to be interested in the various consul member’s family and friends. And I didn’t kill many plants. Only a few.”
Veson bent down and lifted the branch she used to hide her job. A little cemetery lay there, dozens of tiny weeds limp on the ground. He glanced up at her.
“I didn’t specify how many weeds I killed,” she said, straight-faced.
Cai laughed again.
Veson turned as he heard the castle doors open. Kira came out, walking quickly. She smiled slightly as she spotted her friends. She looked so much more mature than the rest of them, Veson couldn’t help but notice. Before the affair with Eris, it was obvious she was much more refined than the rest of the group, but now it was even more striking.
“It’s nice to get away, isn’t it?” she asked, stopping just on the edge of the group. She held her hands in front of her, dignified. Her light blue nails contrasted the dark blue of the flowing skirt of her dress.
“Yeah,” Nayl said drily, “if there was something to get away from.” He opened his eyes and incinerated a few more pink petals drifting to the ground.
Veson couldn’t help but smirk. It was good to see that Nayl was getting back to his normal, hot-headed, irksome self, he thought. It was odd seeing his friends change in such a dire situation. Granted, Veson was glad, for now they were all closer and better fae for it. But still, he thought, We each cried more on that day than any of us put together, on any day before in our lives. He tried not to roll his eyes. I’m glad it’s over.
Kira turned to him. “How do you think the meeting went?” She asked him. She looked so intelligent and ready for an enlightening answer, he thought fast.
“Uh . . .” He swallowed. “Well . . .”
She laughed lightly. “That’s what I thought too,” she agreed. “I don’t know when we’ll be able to get the consul back on its feet.”
“Never,” Oleander grumbled. “We’ll never get out of here at this rate.”
Cai laughed. “What, did another little girl ask for your autograph today?”
“Yes.” Oleander looked irritated. “I didn’t even do anything. I just broke my hip, and suddenly all the little girls who belong to your consulate suddenly become my biggest fans.” She glowered, and a strand of pink hair fell into her face. She blew at it. “It’s obnoxious. I just want to get out of here.”
“What, kids aren’t your thing?” Kira asked, feigning surprise.
Oleander sighed. “It’s not that. They’re cute as . . .” She wrinkled her nose, looking for a word. “. . . as little girls, I guess. But it gets old. I’m not ready for kids, and their parents won’t keep them off of me.” She flopped back onto the stones. “Is there any way that we can make those silly counsel fae hurry up so we can get out of here?”
“Where will we go?” Veson countered.
Oleander pushed herself up on her elbows. Leaves stuck to her purple-and-pink hair. “I don’t know,” she scoffed. “You’re the leader. You pick.”
Veson was about to reply when he realized everyone’s eyes were on him, even Kira’s. He blinked. “Well,” he said. “I’m not sure. I haven’t really thought about it.”
“You might want to.” Veson followed the voice up, to where the black-haired human girl sat in a tree.
Nayl sat up. “Oh, hi,” he said drily.
She just looked down at him for a moment before continuing. “If you stick around here too longer, they’ll find some way to have you stay on. I’ve been in Erul, and they’re all talking about you.” She glanced over the whole group. “They’re expecting you to stay and help rule.” She settled back against the tree trunk and closed her eyes. She looked like she didn’t have a care in the world. She probably didn’t, Veson reflected.
Cai glanced at him, and then Kira. “Even I’m not okay with that,” she commented. “What can you guys do to get us out of here?”
Veson opened his mouth to improvise, but just then Nikola stood. Walking easily across the tree branch, she hopped onto the high wall surrounding the garden. The castle walls came down beside the wall, with wide gutters to catch the rain.
They were empty now, and Nikola stepped across the four-foot gap without flinching, even though Veson couldn’t help but think she could easily fall down in between the walls.
“Where are you going?” Kira asked, only mildly interested.
Nikola glanced back over her shoulder and shrugged. “I don’t know. Wherever I end up, I’ll just end up helping some people who can’t seem to help themselves.” Had she been Oleander or Cai, she would have wrinkled her nose. As it was, she was impervious.
She started up the roof, moving quickly and confidently up the slope.
“So you’re just leaving?” Oleander demanded, incredulous.
Nikola turned this time. “Yeah,” she said. “Does it matter to you?”
Oleander didn’t reply.
Nikola blinked. The words came from Cai, who smiled up at the human thief girl appreciatively. “Thanks for helping us out. I know you have to help someone, but you could have found someone else to help out. You could have just left us when things got hard.” Her smile grew until she positively beamed. “But you were the one who saved the day in the end, and for that we offer you our thanks.”
She opened her eyes, and her smile took on a mischievous lilt. “But I still think you wanted to help us, somewhere in you.”
Nikola went from looking slightly surprised to statically demeaning. “Keep telling yourself that,” she intoned drily. She sprinted up the roof, and was gone in a moment.
They watched her go silently.
After a moment, Cai started to giggle. Veson looked down at her, surprised.
“Isn’t this wonderful, you guys?” She asked, twirling around. The skirt of her dress billowed in the wind, and even the flash of white linens on her back couldn’t keep her from smiling.
Veson smiled as well. “You know what?” he asked, looking around at his friends. “It really is. And the most wonderful thing about it is that we’ll never have to go through anything alone. We’ll always have each other.”
Kira smiled. “And that’s all that really matters, isn’t it?”