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The Last Wizard

 

 

 

 

The Last Wizard

Jane Merkley

Distributed by Shakespir

Copyright 2016 Jane Merkley

 

Shakespir Edition, License Notes

Thank you for downloading this ebook. This book remains the copyrighted property of

the author, and may not be redistributed to others for commercial or non-commercial

purposes. If you enjoy this book, please encourage your friends to download their own

copy from their favorite authorized retailer. Thank you for your support.

 

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Old English Dictionary

Historical References

Chapter 1: Zadicayn

Chapter 2: Brinella

Chapter 3: Brinella

Chapter 4: Brinella

Chapter 5 Brinella

Chapter 6: Brinella

Chapter 7: Brinella

Chapter 8: Brinella

Chapter 9: Brinella

Chapter 10: Brinella

Chapter 11: Brinella

Chapter 12: Brinella

Chapter 13: Brinella

Chapter 14: Brinella

Chapter 15: Brinella

Chapter 16: Brinella

Chapter 17: Zadicayn

Chapter 18: Brinella

Chapter 19: Zadicayn

Chapter 20: Brinella

Chapter 21 Zadicayn

Chapter 22: Brinella

Chapter 23: Zadicayn

Chapter 24: Brinella

Chapter 25: Zadicayn

Chapter 26: Brinella

Chapter 27: Zadicayn

Chapter 28: Brinella

Chapter 29: Zadicayn

Chapter 30: Brinella

Chapter 31: Zadicayn

Chapter 32: Brinella

Chapter 33: Zadicayn

Chapter 34: Brinella

Chapter 35: Zadicayn

Chapter 36: Brinella

Chapter 37: Zadicayn

Chapter 38: Brinella

Chapter 39: Zadicayn

Chapter 40: Jaicom

Chapter 41: Brinella

Chapter 42: Zadicayn

Chapter 43: Brinella

Chapter 44: Zadicayn

Chapter 45: Brinella

Chapter 46: Zadicayn

Chapter 47: Brinella

Chapter 48: Zadicayn

Chapter 49: Jaicom

Chapter 50: Zadicayn

Chapter 51: Brinella

Chapter 52: Zadicayn

Chapter 53: Brinella

Chapter 54: Zadicayn

Chapter 55: Brinella

Chapter 56: Zadicayn

Chapter 57 Jaicom

Chapter 58: Brinella

Chapter 59: Brinella

Chapter 60: Brinella

Chapter 61: Zadicayn

Chapter 62: Brinella

Chapter 63: Zadicayn

Old English Words Used Within the Story

ART: Are.

BESEECH: Request, ask.

BESOUGHT: Asked, made request.

BETWIXT: Between.

BREEDBATE: A person or something that creates strife.

BUGLE-BEARD: A shaggy beard like buffalo hair.

CANST: Can.

CODPIECE: A covering flap or pouch that attaches to the front of the crotch of men’s trousers.

COSH: A small cottage, hut.

DOST: Do, does.

DRETCH: Torment.

DURST: Dare.

EYNDILL: Jealous.

FONKIN: a little fool.

FOPDOODLE: A simpleton.

FULLSOME: Rich, plentiful.

GARDEROBE: Medieval toilet.

HUZZAH: Originally a sailor’s cheer or salute. To shout aloud.

JUVAMENT: Aid!; Help!

MAW-WALLOP: A badly cooked mess of food.

MERRY-GALL: A sore produced by chafing.

MILDFUL: Merciful.

NARY: None; absolutely nothing; not even close to anything.

NAUGHT: Nothing.

OVERMANY: A lot.

PUDH: Horrible.

SHALL or SHALT: Will.

THEE, THOU: you.

THINE, THY: your.

THITHER: there.

TROW: To think or suppose.

VASQUINE: A petticoat .

WAGHALTER: A rogue likely to swing in a gallows.

WHIFLING: An insignificant creature.

WHISTERSNEFET: A blow to the ear.

WIDDERSHINS: Unlucky, prone to misfortune.

WIST: Knew.

WIT: To know, know.

WOODNESS: Madness, insanity.

YE: You

YORE: years ago.

YOUNGHEDE: A youth.

Historical References Used in the Book

 

Wars of the Roses:

A series of dynastic wars for the throne of England. They were fought between supporters of two rival branches of the royal House of Plantagenet, the Houses of Lancaster and York. They were fought in several sporadic episodes between 1455 and 1487, although there was related fighting before and after this period. The final victory went to a claimant of the Lancastrian party, Henry Tudor, who defeated the last Yorkist king, Richard III, at the Battle of Bosworth Field.

 

95 Theses:

The Ninety-Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences were written by Martin Luther and are widely regarded as the initial catalyst for the Protestant Reformation. The disputation protests against clerical abuses, especially nepotism, simony, usury, pluralism, and the sale of indulgences. It is generally believed that, according to university custom, on 31 October 1517, Luther posted the ninety-five theses, which he had composed in Latin, on the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Germany.

THESE NUMBER 94: Christians should be exhorted to be diligent in following Christ, their Head, through penalties, death, and hell.

 

Victorian Era:

The Victorian Era of British history was the period of Queen Victoria’s reign from 20 June 1837 until her death, on 22 January 1901. It was a long period of peace, prosperity, refined sensibilities and national self-confidence for Britain. Within the fields of social history and literature, Victorianism refers to the study of late-Victorian attitudes and culture with a focus on the highly moralistic, straitlaced language and behavior of Victorian morality. The era followed the Georgian period and preceded the Edwardian period. AUTHOR NOTE: With the exception to girls being tied into their dresses, locked in their rooms at night, and using certain perfumes dependent on their courting status, all other standards were based on the actual decrees put out by Queen Victoria.

 

Middle Ages:

In European history, the Middle Ages, or Medieval period, lasted from the 5th to the 15th century. It began with the collapse of the Western Roman Empire and merged into the Renaissance and the Age of Discovery. The Middle Ages is the middle period of the three traditional divisions of Western history: Antiquity, Medieval period, and Modern period. The Medieval period is itself subdivided into the Early, the High, and the Late Middle Ages.

CHAPTER ONE

ZADICAYN

30 October 1518, England

 

I used to question why only the sons of the family could hold magic, but upon hearing my sister scream, “Zadicayn!” as they dragged her and my mother away to be held in a place where they could be used as leverage against me, I understood.

The hard part is trying to convince these men that I am on their side despite it being devastatingly disadvantageous to me so I could pretend to go along with them, wait for them to become complacent and lower their guard, and the moment they do… run. Run like hell.

But they aren’t lowering their guard. Because they know it is devastatingly disadvantageous to me and, in fact, are only gaining my obedience because of their threats toward the lives of my mother and sister. So I cave. I cause the copper pieces to be forged, acquire the three blood sucking diamonds, and alter the vault beneath the castle chapel so it will keep someone in instead of someone out.

But time for waiting and delaying is up. I run like hell.

They catch me on the bridge.

They stuff a cloth in my mouth so they can’t hear me shout, put a bag over my head so they can pretend it’s not a human they are throwing in the vault.

Dragging me into the castle’s chapel, they force my chest against the wall and make sure I hear the familiar snick of crossbow strings being pulled back and locked into place. A cold chain loops my neck. My amulet. My face is crammed into the wall and I can’t see any of them through the bag.

“Ye modor and ye sester shalt live so long as ye dost,” Gandorlain reminds me from behind, “so I hopeth ye hath thought upon the words for ye spell to give ye long life. Long life.”

My sister is eleven. Six years younger than me. Expecting she’d live until she’s seventy, I’ll give her an even hundred just to make sure. Longer, I’ll give her longer, because I still want to live, want to give someone time enough to gather the key to my release I created for these men who want to harvest the magic from my amulet. Impossible, I told them, but they won’t believe me.

The man holding my head to the wall rattles me, reminding that they are waiting on my response.

If I could only see where the men are positioned about the room, I could use a spell against them. Hands sliding across crossbow wood remind me that spell would be short lived.

My sister said she would free me, I reassure myself, because I can’t afford to rest upon the more likely truth that she won’t be able to. Believing that truth will devastate me and I’ll fail in the spell and my mother and sister’s lives will end by these same men. My sister will free me…

My eyes squeeze shut and I begin the spell.

Cease hunger, cease thirst, cease physical pain… I whisper under my breath in the language of the Fae, forcing my body into a hibernation so I might live a week, a month, a year… forever in stalemate without food and water and the necessities of life until my sister can free me from the vault.

Forever. Fear slides thick and cold down the back of my skull.

I finish my incomprehensible whisperings and just fall silent.

“Ye don, wizard?” Dendaryl drawled.

They shake me. I don’t respond.

“Now the codpiece tis just playing games.”

“He don.”

They removed my amulet. Stripping my shirt off me, they crush my naked chest harder against the cold stone of the wall. Despite my fighting, the three blood sucking diamonds slam into my back, sinking under my skin, beckoning a shriek out of my compressed lungs the men holding me won’t hear clearly through the cloth stuffed in my mouth.

Pretending I’m not human.

They haul me backward, the muscles in my back throbbing. The scrape of stone on stone shoot bolts of warning and fear through me.

There is still a chance.

I thrash with every part of my body that can move but too many hands hold me fast. Someone grabs my legs and lifts me into the hollowed out altar where beneath is the hidden vault my father made. It had a secret escape passage, except these men had blocked it closed with brick and mortar.

“Grab the ladder or be dropped!” someone barks.

I continued to fight. They drop me.

I feel the spell activate as soon as I fall out of the light, landing at the bottom hard enough to summon a moan and a litany of curses. I roll to my knees and tear the bag off my head, looking up from my prison as the metal grid slides shut above me, closing off my access to the only opening in the vault. Two men replace the stone lid of the altar.

And darkness becomes my eternity.

PART I

324 years later

CHAPTER TWO

BRINELLA

24 April 1842, England

 

The sun mocks my tears. The way it glances off the golden wings of the dragonfly perched on my window and the way it magnifies the laughter of birdsong teases me with a knowing that life will still move on despite my grief.

“Brinella…” A hand on my shoulder. When did my mother enter? Despite the overpowering smell of her patchouli, I didn’t even notice that until just now.

A vain wish teases that if I do not move from my seat by the window nothing will change, that it will not become reality until I tear my glance from the window.

My mother prompts me to stand and, as if spelled, I do. But if I look back on my chair I know I will see roots shooting through the wood like anchors holding my sanity in a spot where I can find it again.

She’s talking but all I hear are sounds because I can’t hear anything else. Not through the numbness shooting through my ears to my stiff knees as if unwilling to bend, unwilling to carry me to a reality I can’t handle right now – still – despite I’m already three days into it.

My mother’s brown hair matching my own falls across my sleeve of black bombazine as she clutches me close and moves down the hallway, clutching, as if afraid I’ll fly back to my room to avoid my best friend’s funeral and cease to exist.

Right now, I really want to.

The sun glares on me as we step outside, drowning me in heat and the essence of that which gives life… and watches on as life is taken away.

My father is waiting by the coach pulled by two horses. He assists my mother inside first and then me. The coach lurches forward at the sound of snapping reins. I lift my veil to look out the window at the passing trees along the cobble road, clutching my wrinkled handkerchief.

“Can we go up Canyon Road first?” I ask. “It will just take a moment.”

My mother makes a little sound I choose to ignore. With pressed lips, my father nods. He opens the slid in the coach wall behind his head and passes instructs to the driver.

The coach rolls left onto a dirt road ten minutes later, the ride scattered with bumps and kicking dust into the windows so my father closes them. I still crack open the shutter to watch.

“Stop here.”

My father opens the small window again that opens up beneath the driver’s box and dust billows in. “Stop here.”

“Whoooaa,” chides the driver and the coach slows.

“This is highly improper, Fabrin,” my mother hisses to my father as I gather the black folds of my dress to exit. “You are encouraging her bad behavior!”

My father doesn’t reply, reaching for the door handle to assist me out but stops when I pin him with a seething glare.

“I can help myself,” I snap. Opening the door, I step out, shutting it the same moment I hear my father go to my defense as my mother has a miniature explosion of complaints.

A small foot path snakes through the trees. I am careful to step lightly and pick up my skirt to keep it out of the dirt. I come to a stream about twenty feet off the road. It is small enough that I jump it like I have a hundred times, though I have never done it in a dress and so was not anticipating the back of it falling in the water when I land on the other side. Hopefully it will dry before I make it back.

I reach the open space in the trees which is bare save for a large stone on the edge and a log Durain and I pulled into the area for seating around the small camp fire. Stones border the black spot of ash where Durain’s rucksack slumps beside it.

I sit on the log next to the bag, numb and breathless. The leaves overhead shift and hiss, allowing the sun to still throw glances down on me. No matter how hard I try, I can’t hide from it.

What good did it do to come here anyway? Durain was pronounced dead three days ago. But I have not seen him dead yet, some unreasonable part of me argues, so certainly he can’t be, because fifteen years of friendship can’t just end like this.

“Brine?” my father’s voice rolls through the trees. He would have let me take as long as I needed. But not my mother.

“Coming!” I choke back tears. I look at Durain’s bag one more time, questioning if I should take it with me.

But maybe he’ll come back for it, that unreasonable voice says again.

I leave it.

I manage to jump the stream without any mishap this time, dreading every step back to the coach which will take me to finally witness the end of Durain.

Mother won’t look at me when I climb inside. I’m fine with that.

On the cobble road again, my father opens the shutters to flush out the gentle haze of dust that had still made it inside, and my mother sighs in annoyance.

“Brinella,” she begins with marked disproval, only smothered down from pure hostility because my father has his hand on her wrist. “You are sixteen now. Frolicking about in the dirt is not suited for a woman who is of the age to marry.” Her eyes narrow at the betraying patch of dirt clinging to the wet hem of my dress. I had been too distresses to remember – or care too? – pick up my skirts on the walk back.

“Stop babying me, mother,” I snap, grief over the death of my friend giving me boulders to stand upon. She doesn’t respond. But then my father is doing his best to distract her with excessive fingering on her arm.

Now looking like I was responsible for the brief animosity and feeling bad about my outburst – but not to the point of apologizing – my gaze goes out the window again and no one speaks all the way to my Aunt Magara’s house.

The houses of stone morph into wood as the coach enters my aunt’s neighborhood where the community’s farmers mostly live.

The coach pulls into the yard. I’m unable to avoid looking at the hearse fluttering with black ostrich feathers and professional mourners waiting around it.

My father exits and assists my mother, and then me. The driver snaps the reins and the coach rolls into an area off in the grass where other carriages are parked.

Aunt Magara’s parlour maid receives us in the foyer. The smell of what must have been a hundred different scented candles tinge the foyer in a smoky haze. Their combined smells do not mingle well. My father hands the parlour maid his white calling card, the bottom right corner bent. The parlour maid accepts the card and disappears, leaving us standing in the foyer which looks as if a disobedient flower girl had thrown shreds of black twill on everything: the looking glass, windows, and every picture clinging to the flocked velvet wallpaper. The clock on the wall is stopped at 9:42 – the time of Durain’s death.

The parlour maid returns. “Follow me, Mr. Frondaren.”

I follow last into the parlour, the room clustered with flowers and more candles and enough perfume that I start to feel dizzy. Mother embraces her sister-in-law, both women sobbing silently onto the others’ shoulder. It is a similar sight the two women exchanged after the death of my uncle eight years ago, though with more sobbing. Perhaps Aunt Magara had already sobbed out her heart when her husband died.

A wicker basket across the room holds Durain’s body. I refuse to look at it, standing by the door as my parents go over to the seventeen-year-old boy who died of a heart attack.

A heart attack. At seventeen.

There is this odd sort of hope that he had just fallen into a coma like reports had witnesses before, leaving his body in the parlour to be guarded over day and night to see if he would wake up. But he has still yet to do so. And never will. The hearse parked outside will carry him away.

My step-grandmother on my mother’s side and my grandfather sit next to the wicker basket. My biological grandmother died before I was born. Living in the small hamlet of Valemorren, the residents have been able to avoid most of the deaths that happen too often in the bigger cities of England: Cholera, typhoid, and the like are not biased against gender or age, except they like the taste of young ones best.

Which is odder still, because my grandmother, uncle, and cousin died of none of those.

A gold frame portrait draped in black cloth on the papered walls of the parlour beckon my attention. It is the daguerreotype of when my uncle died. My mother wanted a copy along with Aunt Magara, so after an agonizing twenty minutes of standing absolutely still, a copy now hangs in the foyer in my house too.

They had propped my uncle up in a chair to make him look alive with Aunt Magara sitting next to him, Durain over her right shoulder, Andlas on her left, and the extended family clustered at both ends. It was to immortalize Uncle Scottlen but that picture, for me, would immortalize Durain instead who is still alive in it.

I remain by the door because at this spot I still can’t see Durain’s body. Maybe he is still alive somewhere, after all.

After more embraces and tears and condolences to Aunt Magara and cousin Andlas, everyone gathers on the veranda while the wicker casket is carried out of the house feet first and laid into the heavy black casket on the ground behind the hearse. A gold inscription plate on the coffin winks sunlight – why is the sun still shining? – into my eyes, begging my attention. But I don’t need to look. I know what it says. Durain Ivan Ishnar, 1825–1842. Died 21 April. Heart attack.

The pallbearers pick up the coffin and insert it into the back of the hearse. I only move because my father pulls on my sleeve and we walk across the grass toward our coach.

“Miss Frondaren?”

I look up. And stop. My mother and father stop, too. Somehow the shock replaces my grief for a brief moment.

“Mr. Whaerin?” I manage without losing my breath to disbelief. Jaicom Whaerin?

My father stutters as he speaks. “M – Mr. Whaerin,” he echoes. “So… so nice to see you?” My father tries to word it as a casual greeting but the hint of a question at the end is undeniable.

The blond haired young man of eighteen standing in the grass tips his black pin-striped fedora at me. I’ve only seen – never spoken to – Jaicom a handful of times when social gatherings have forced our near-equaled status together, though enough details from my father who has his eye out for marriageable young men testifies that Jaicom is on his way to taking over the family’s three hundred something year old lumber business and will be the wealthiest man in Valemorren.

And he has just addresses me.

His blue eyes connect. “Miss Frondaren,” he says and I flinch. He’s never spoken to me before and for him to come unannounced and uninvited to Aunt Magara’s house lacks so much etiquette for me to be flattered. Maybe certain etiquettes are ignored if you are the richest family in Valemorren. I notice how his eyes flick to the coach bearing Durain’s body before coming back to mine.

“Hello,” I reply, hesitant.

“I was wondering if I could give you a ride to the parish?”

Silence fills me. Jaicom’s eyes slide over to my father. “If that is alright, Mr. Frondaren?”

A brief pause. This is the very reason Queen Victoria had chosen to have women tied into their dresses, so a male and female could be alone together without being accused of the unrighteous. It is still bold, however, to ask a female to accompany a man without a chaperone. Not forbidden, just… a much deeper step into a courtship that hadn’t even begun.

My father recovers from the shock quicker than my mother and I. “Of course.”

Jaicom looks back at me. “If you would like to, that is.”

“Nod,” my mother whispers next to me. I do so, unable to come up with ideas on my own at the moment. Females being forbidden to follow the corpse to the parish, mother and I were going to ride in Andlas’s coach. But that was soon to be adjusted so I could ride in the coach with the richest bachelor in Valemorren.

I move as if another force is in control of my limbs and Jaicom leads me to his coach; the two black horses pawing at the gravel, froth gathered under their harness. Did Jaicom run them here?

Jaicom opens the door to his coach and I step inside. He follows directly behind and sits opposite. As remarkable as it is that Jaicom Whaerin is escorting me alone, the oddity still cannot come close to the grief swallowing every inch of space inside me.

He, however, doesn’t seem much bothered by the randomness. Removing his hat, he rubs the palms of both hands into his face. The gesture is odd for someone as composed as him… well, from what rumors said, anyway. I know nothing about him.

I want to ask questions but I don’t want to ask without sounding odd so I settle with the silence he doesn’t bother breaking either and I look out the window.

The two horses clip along in a steady rhythm almost in sync with each other. Buildings develop into my view as we come into town, passing people on foot shrouded dismally in either hats or veils.

The bell above the parish tower dongs three times. The coach stops and Jaicom exits, assisting me down the steps. We wait in humble silence as Durain’s hearse rolls in front of the parish. Wait longer still as his coffin is pulled out. Jaicom falls into step behind my father as we all follow the coffin inside.

The organ’s giant rows of copper pipes are moaning out Chopin’s Funeral March. Despite stained glass windows, long dead saints painted on the walls, and candles to light the dark corners, this place of worship is the most frightening place I have ever set foot in.

Jaicom pulls me left and I follow, looking after my father who continues to walk down the isle with my mother. I hesitate. For Jaicom to be so bold as to sit away from my father means yet a deeper level of… if I had been suspicious of him escorting me alone to the parish, the fact he now wants to sit away from my father verifies my suspicions.

Jaicom Whaerin is courting me? This is so odd and out of place that Jaicom has to tug on my arm again to get me to move. Maybe there are some things that can still find room in my grief. Sitting alone with a woman doesn’t happen until later in the courtship, even later than accompanying me unchaperoned. For Jaicom to be so bold already made me suspicious, not lucky.

Movement in the crowd to my right reveals Jaicom’s father. Aklen Whaerin spins back quickly to face the front again but not before I catch dark, narrowed eyes locked on me. What? My mind is buzzing with too many emotions for me to keep my reality straight right now.

The bell above the roof crashes again and the low murmuring voices in the parish fall silent.

The priest emerges from the sacristy behind the bier which holds the coffin. In his black robe he looks more like the demon who leads people to hell than the priest who screams for people to repent so they won’t go there. The somber drone of the organ and the flickering candles make me wonder if hell is not beyond the door he just came through.

His hair is short gray but tight skin will not let show the wrinkles of his age. He stops in front of the bier and faces the congregation.

“Three days ago,” he begins in a voice full of intensity as if it were Sunday and he was preaching, “Durain Ishnar left his body, continuing on his immortal quest to salvation…”

My tears finally break and I duck my head to mop them with my rumpled black handkerchief. The death of my best friend is a death of many things and I am not ready to let any of them go.

The priest continues and I look upon the coffin bearing the body that convinces everyone he had died of natural and unfortunate causes. My childhood had been forged outside of four walls. Durain and I learned what plants were edible, which were poison, and which ones caused heart attacks.

The priest ends with a prayer and invites the congregation to meet behind the parish for the burial, calling for all the family of the deceased to meet in the sacristy to finalize the Will.

People stand and begin filing out reverently. Jaicom leans toward me, close enough that I can smell his cologne. I don’t like it. “I’ll meet you outside.”

I nod and my neck feels like wood. I join my parents who have already disappeared into the adjacent room. Entering it myself, I stand next to my father who puts a warm arm around my shoulders, indicating he’s aware I sat alone with the richest bachelor in Valemorren and he is proud.

Maybe I will at some point feel lucky, too.

Aunt Magara with her new husband of five years, Durain’s older sister Andlas, and her husband assemble in the room with us, Aunt Magara’s face hidden behind a black lace veil. Andlas is holding tightly to her mother’s arm, Andals’s husband standing awkwardly to the side as if not sure whether he should join the distressed pair or give them space.

The priest and executor enter, the executor’s spectacles perched on the tip of his nose. “Please, have a seat.”

The rustle of cloth sound much too loud in the small windowless room as chairs are occupied. The executor stands center of us with a piece of paper in a hand that looks as if it hasn’t seen a day in the sun. Due to the high rate of infancy deaths in England, Final Will and Testaments were done as early as six years old and updated every year.

“The Final Will and Testament of Durain Ishnar,” the executor begins. “Words witnessed the eighteenth of October, eighteen forty-one by the hand of the above mentioned…”

Father disapproves of me giving into distractions. I absentmindedly begin folding my moist handkerchief in my lap. Who would poison Durain? And why?

It hurts too much to accept that he had just died, leaving me to a world I’m not willing to accept, a world filled with careful breeding for a husband to take and increase his standings in society.

I look at every face in the room to include the priest. The females are sobbing appropriately while the men hold steady expressions of grief. The women’s eyes are hidden behind black veils so it is difficult to tell if their sobs are genuine…

I shake my head sharply to clear the ugly thoughts that Durain’s own family would seek ill on him, shamed that I had even entertained that thought since Durain’s father had also come to an untimely death eight years ago. My grief seeks someone in the room to blame. It is much easier to deal with anger than sadness.

“…left a few possessions to be given to the family.” The executor turns to a desk along the back wall where a large oil lamp coughs. On the desk are a few objects.

The executor picks up a long wooden cylinder I recognizes as Durain’s flute he would play on nights of a full moon. He said the Fae always listen to music played on full moon nights. As if he knew anything about the fabled Fae.

“To my sister Andlas,” the executor quotes as he approaches the woman, curls of gold flowing beneath her black head wrap, “I leave my flute.” He hands the white shaft to her. She takes it and bows her head.

He returns to the desk and picks up a small white in color tube thing, longer than it is tall, and approaches me. “To my cousin Brinella Frondaren, I leave my white container.”

I accept the object and the executor bustles back to the desk. I look at it; a white rectangle that stretches the length of my palm. Each of the six sides are smooth except for the long surface of the top which has a shallow impression of some black script I can’t read. If flowers and trees wrote in cursive, this would be it, I believe, because that’s what it reminds me of.

I thumb the sides, trying to figure out what this thing is made out of. It is cold so I first think metal, but it has a very slight spongy kind of feel. Like skin, except that it is most definitely not.

I have no idea what it is.

I put it in my handbag and fix my gaze on the oil lamp as two more items are given away and the priest exposes his eternal sorrow one more time before inviting us to the grave site.

 

OOO

 

Durain’s casket is lowered into the ground. The women begin to sob. Not me. I sense father’s disapproving glance but I’m too numb to care or cry. Tears will not bring Durain back, or honor his senseless death.

With the casket settled, everyone files by and drops in a rose. Family drop in a red rose because they are blood. Friends drop in yellow. Everyone else drops white.

Dropping my flower, I spin and walk away. I did all my crying the night he died.

I’m walking so fast that Jaicom has to jog to keep up. A spike of irritation shoots down my spine when he comes even with me. The richest, most eligible young bachelor in Valemorren and I wish he would leave me alone. He helps me inside the coach and climbs in after. He knocks on the wall against the driver’s box and the coach lurches forward.

My gaze is fastened out the window all the way home; at the trees sliding past, at the leaves fanning sunlight into shadows against the road.

The ride feels much longer going home, but the horses finally make that left to my house and stop. Jaicom opens the door and I step down, kept in his care to the porch.

I want to run to my room but my smothered conscience berates me to keep my manners even if I can’t keep my emotions bridled.

“Thank you for letting me accompany you, Miss Frondaren,” Jaicom says. I look him in the eye. “I hope you will let me call on you in the future?”

I can’t shake that he would be suddenly interested in me. There are probably fifteen prettier, more lady-like females in Valemorren who have been groomed their wholes lives just to catch the eye of this very man.

I don’t want him calling on me. But my father would want that, and so I nod. Score one for Fabrin.

With a bow at the waist, Jaicom leaves and I escape inside.

True devastation hasn’t found me yet, though I feel it chewing the edges of my denial.

Slumping into the chair in the foyer, I look across to the daguerreotype hanging on the retro velvet wallpaper. Uncle Scottlen is the main focus of the picture but I only see Durain. Alive.

“Durain,” I whisper, forcing, willing the frozen likeness of Durain to hear me, “who poisoned you?”

He doesn’t respond. He’s not even smiling. Nobody in the picture is smiling.

The click of hooves on gravel alert me to the coach pulling in front of the house. I wish that denying to have dinner with the family at Aunt Magara’s house would not be considered rude because I can’t… can’t deal with death anymore today. Not for the next week. For the next year. Because dining in the household where Durain’s energy once pulsed is like going to church were the priest has denounced his religion; pain, despair, and an angry prayer to God because someone needed to be blamed.

And the next four weeks of mourning have just begun.

CHAPTER THREE

BRINELLA

 

I wish I could have been happy that the final day of my four-week mourning had arrived, but I’m not. Because my dress of a prison is only changing colors.

As soon as Queen Victoria was crowned she decided that certain etiquettes needed to be practiced throughout England in the wake of all the atrocities that were left unbridled during King George’s rein. One of those is the sexual purity of women. To assure that purity, all women are expected to be tied into their dresses as soon as that woman reaches her first menstrual bleed. Queen Victoria has a bunch of other ‘proper’ etiquettes almost required by law to observe, but this one is the single most dominating factor ruining my life.

For the next thirty minutes I stand like a mannequin as the Frondaren Household macramist, Varseena, circles me, her fingers moving deftly to unlace the ribbon weaved at my back and around the entirety of my waist to keep the corset-like bodice tight and secure to my skin.

The dresses can’t be removed without help and if the macramist does it correctly the knots and weaves she ties are so complicated that only that same macramist can undo them again. Of course that could all be defeated with a knife, but then the intrusion would be obvious. Likewise, someone with enough patients could unlace the complicated weave as good as any lock, but by then the lustful heat of the moment would have passed. It’s just a deterrent. Like locks on doors and window panes.

And did I mention it was ruining my life?

The black mourning dress removed, Varseena leaves and I spend the next while gazing out the window, watching the light slid across the valley as the sun sinks into the west.

The haunt of Durian’s unnatural death still shrouds me, has plagued me every day for the four weeks I wore black. Who would poison Durain? No one. Durain had no enemies.

My father comes by and the familiar click of the door as he locks it confirms my sentence until morning. Thank you Queen Victoria for that “precaution” too.

The handbag I took to Durain’s funeral is still sitting on my vanity. As if the black bombazine had also covered my eyes these past four weeks, with the black dress now shed from my body that had become second skin, I just now notice it, remembering with it that thing Durian’s Will had given me. Despite its oddity, I had forgotten.

Going to the gas lamp by the door, I turn the valve and strike a match to it. Reseated back at the vanity, I pull the white rectangle metal thing out of my purse and hold it in both hands with the flowering script embossed at the top. I slid my thumb over the mild ridges.

It is simply odd. I’ve known Durain my whole life and for something like this to be in his possession is simply… odd.

I lift it closer to my eyes, looking for anything I might have missed that would reveal the obviousness of it. Durain’s words the executor had read said white container, but I can’t figure out how it opens. All edges are sealed tightly.

I hold it away at arm’s length. It’s not heavy but it does have noticeable weight. I shake it; something inside bumps back and forth. It is a container. Excited, I inspect it all over again.

I let it roll in my hand, looking carefully at all six sides, the orange glow from the gas lamp sliding across the surface like oil. On one of the long sides I see markings, only they are so faded I only found it because I was looking for something. There is a long scratch, fairly straight and parallel to the edge of the cube. To the right of the scratch is a circle. Not a perfect circle, but too obvious to not have been deliberate.

The scratch turns ninety degrees downward and ends with an X – the markings still so faint I tilt the cube at different angles to see them all clearly. But my heart is racing now. Small triangle shapes spot either side of the scratch and around the X and there is no doubt that this is a crude map of the path of travel from my house to the fire pit where Durain left his rucksack. Anyone else would not be able to make sense of it but I’ve traveled that path over a hundred times while growing up with Durain.

I rush to my wardrobe, searching among my dresses for my only pair of pants. Then I remember whose daughter I am. I stomp my foot. Of course my mother took it. She probably took it the night Durain died, likely the same instant she got the news. “My nephew just died, you say? I’ll be right back. I have to get something out of my daughter’s wardrobe.”

Maybe my mother poisoned him?

My nightgown will have to do. I turn off the gas lamp and yank on my boots. Opening the window, I look out onto the front lawn. The last glows of the sun are blue, shedding little light. I go back to the wardrobe and pull a ribbon out, hauling my white nightgown up to my thighs and tie it off with the ribbon. I lean out the window again.

I’ve never had the honorable occasion to climb out of my window after Lock Hour. Valemorren’s tightly enforced curfew discourages anyone from leaving the house even through the front door after dark. But then, no one else has had a map left to them by a dead boy, either. And with Durain now dead, I no longer have an excuse to not act like a lady and wear the horrible tiable dresses every day. Score one for Janella.

I stick my pale bare leg out of the window, positive someone was watching only because I’m scandalously exposed and hanging on the side of the house. Fear of falling tingles the back of my neck, but it shouldn’t be any different than climbing trees with Durain.

Except that it is. There is very little to hold onto for the trip down and never mind the trip back up. I pull my leg back inside and reassessed my escape plan.

Had I never grown up with a boy who taught me all the scandalous things a lady should never know (or even use), I wouldn’t have ever thought to tie my sheets together to create a rope to bear my weight as I climb down – slipped a little, banged my knee against the stone – the side of the house.

But I had grown up with a boy. This boy told me fantastic stories about princesses locked in towers who gained their escape by doing just that thing. Stories about dragons and the wizard Merlin and the Fae.

It is thoroughly dark by the time my boots touch the grass. I nurse an angry knee cap with a frantic rub of my palm and step back to look at my white sheet-rope hanging out of my window like an umbilical cord; I have just detached myself from the mother.

Would the parish constable ride by, see it, and report it to my parents? Because what really is the only reason for having sheets tied together and hanging out a second story window after curfew except to betray the escape of a princess locked in a tower?

The fear of getting caught clinches in my chest and I reach for my sheet-rope to climb back up, but I pause. Durain left me a map. And my father had passed the reins of my freedom horse to my mother. During daylight hours I would be tied into my dresses and made to excel the feminine arts of music, painting, and whatever else my mother could make up to occupy my time until I marry. And then a man will make sure my time is occupied for the rest of my life.

I walk away from the sheet-rope, taking refuge in the shadows of the trees west of the house. I concede that if I come back and it’s been discovered, my back up plan will be to run away and join the gypsies who don’t have to be tied into their dresses. Well, they don’t have to pay for items taken from a store, either, but I can over look that, just like I’m overlooking how I will be postage-stamped a whore for the very reason I left my room without being tied into a dress.

If anyone finds out.

I usually navigate the way to me and Durain’s fire pit through the forest which is quicker, but the darkness forces me to walk along the road but as close to the trees as I can.

I walk into the clearing with the fire pit thirty minutes later. Since the map on the white rectangle cub thing had indicated this spot with an X, I look at the area with new appreciation. I sit on the log next to Durain’s bag and pull the cube out of the bunched and tied folds I made with the skirt of my nightgown. The map on the cube reveals nothing further from what I can see in the thin light of the half moon, so I put it away with the understanding that Durain knew I could figure the rest out on my own.

I know this spot of forest by heart. Without knowing why I might be there, I start investigating Durain’s bag, feeling like I’m intruding upon his privacy though it clearly doesn’t matter anymore.

I take everything out, looking over each item carefully before putting it to the side: his matchbox, bone handled knife, a bite of string, handkerchief, silver hip flask with some water still sloshing around inside – items I’ve already seen him use. I inspect the bag itself; the stitching, buttons, shoulder straps, both inside and out until I’m satisfied it is just a bag. The log next.

With the dim light and a few of Durain’s matches, I crawl along the entire length of it, rolling it over to view the underside and the ground. Nothing. For some strange reason I thought I was emboldened with super strength and try to lift the boulder at the edge of the clearing, but it doesn’t move. Obviously. I return to the log. The fire pit, then.

I drop to my knees in the grass and pick up each rock bordering it, inspecting them thoroughly. The fourth rock displays a charcoal drawn X on the underside, smeared from dew and dirt.

Heart hammering at the discovery, I wonder if he had meant the rock itself? I inspect it. Nope. Maybe the ground under the rock? If so, what was so important for him to have to hide it like this? From the look of it, if he wanted me to dig, he had hidden it a while ago due to how the grass has grown back. Obviously he had hidden it before he died, had drawn the map on the cube before… My heart stutters. Did he know…?

More empowered over his unnatural demise than ever before, I scrape at the spot of dirt with the rock. The ground isn’t as hard packed as I had suspected. About half a hand length down the dirt, the rock scrapes across something. Dizzy with anxiousness, I scrape more frantically to widen the hole, revealing a tube of sorts made of wood. I dig down enough to reach in with my fingers and pull it out.

I brush the mud away. It is plain in design. About five inches in length, two inches in diameter. One of the ends is sealed but the other has a lid pressed on tightly. On the lid is another charcoal drawn X. Of course it is obvious already, but it is just like Durain to not leave way to chance.

I’m about to pop the lid in my eagerness when I realize I have virtually no light. I shake the tube. Sounds like paper inside. I’m not about to light a match and risk burning it.

I repack Durain’s bag along with the tube and the cube. Shouldering the pack, I head back toward the road, walking as if timed in my reading of this mysterious paper in the wooden tube.

A Nightingale swoops through the forest with a rapid warble, feathers settling on the branches to watch me as I pass. The night used to scare me until Durain showed there was nothing to be afraid of. “The difference between night and day,” he had said, “is just a new type of predator.”

“There aren’t any predators during the day,” a young Brine had retorted defiantly.

“Yes there are.”

“Oh, ya? What kind?”

“People,” he had said.

The Nightingale springs from its branch as if the tree was suddenly on fire, beating its wings in sync with a whistling cry as it shoots through the dark.

I stop. “However,” Durain had said on that long ago day, “if, at night, you see the animals change direction suddenly without apparent provocation… follow them because they are running from something. They see things you don’t.”

I hear it. An odd, sort of tinkling noise… like glass beads knocking together. Durain’s warning to follow the animal screams at me to move but I don’t, rooted to the spot by curiosity. The tinkling becomes louder – closer?

Something thrashes the tree tops above me and I startle enough that I drop to my knees on instinct, showered beneath a fall of leaves and sticks. I look up. Exposed very briefly in the gap between two tree heads is what looks like an orange colored hairless dog.

It is flying.

Durain had done a good job desensitizing me to the mythical fears at night because I still don’t frighten until I hear frantic hoof beats and the sound of shouting men.

The predators of the day have infiltrated the night. After curfew. The parish constables are convinced that no good lady or gentlemen ever did anything righteous after dark. Maybe they’re right.

The predators will see I am not wearing a tied dress. Despite my own complaints about the “needing to be tied into your dress to maintain your virginity” that society regulates with more scrutiny than what the parish constables do with inmates, fear lodges in my throat at being seen outside of such a dress. I scramble up the closest pine tree, tucking my naked legs into the screen of pine needles just as three horsemen surge around the tree.

I climb higher into the tree, every branch scrapping against Durain’s rucksack. Hands sticky with sap and hoping the scraps on my bare skin will not be noticed at my next bath, I reach the top and look over the dark expanse of night.

The flying dog stands out well enough in the half moon light. Its wings look weird but I can’t tell why. Then the odd creature bucks and screams – flounders – and falls into the forest.

Did the horsemen just kill it? With a crossbow?

I begin a hasty decent down the tree to investigate. But upon my boots touching the forest floor, all the reasons why I should get back home as swiftly as possible push through my immense curiosity. It goes something like: “No good lady or gentlemen ever does anything righteous after dark.” “If you do actually find this creature thing they just shot out of the air with a crossbow artifact from the Middle Ages, then what? Who you going to tell?” “What if those men find you creeping up on them and they… (insert imagination here).”

My Reasoning wins – unfortunately – but I keep looking over my shoulder all the way home. I’ll look at my father’s books to see if they can offer an explanation to the animal I saw. Certainly it was just an animal the men were hunting. Maybe they got permission from the parish constable to do a night hunt?

On the edge of my massive front lawn, I hide in the forest to make sure no one is about. My white trail of sheets is still hanging out of my window, which either means no one knows of my nightly escapade or the parish constable – worse, my mother (expecting both) – is waiting in my room for me to deliver myself into captivity.

Suppose I better find out.

I dash toward the house, struggling in my defiance against gravity to scale the two stories up to my window by means of the sheet-rope. It takes me five noisy, clumsy minutes – I bang my knee again. Same one – before finally hooking my elbows onto my window sill like an upside down bat.

My room is vacant. Unless they are waiting in my wardrobe to spring upon me as soon as I close the window.

I clamber onto my rug, quickly pulling the sheet inside as if it had only been exposed to the rest of the world for a moment and not an hour. I notice a tear in the sheet when I flatten them back on my bed. If Varseena asks, I will blame her since she is tasked with washing them.

I re-light the gas lamp and pull the wooden tube out of the bag. Popping the lid, I dump a roll of paper into my hand. I flatten it on my vanity.

 

26 March 1842

I’m going to start riting words down because it is dangerous being the only one left alive with the secret and this is to important to treat carelessly.

 

What! I look away from the page, trying to forcibly absorb what I just read. It is definitely Durain’s handwriting. He’s kept secrets? We’ve been best friends since I was two and he kept a secret from me? I’m offended to the point that I want to march to Durain’s grave right now and shout at him. But I don’t want to bang my knee against the side of the house again so I continue reading.

 

I’ve ben feeling shadowed as of late and I can’t help but feel that it has found me. I’ve been looking for them, but if the worst happens to me, I wrote down their locations so who I choose to follow in my footsteps might complete this task I’ve been entrusted… I have the first of three. I think it was shortly after this that I picked up the shadow now following me. There are many who would rather keep this secret dead. I hid the first where The Boulder caught her slip.

 

I lean back in my chair. What in the bloody hell does, “I have the first of four” mean? What does any of this mean?

I try to be angry because now I’m confused and irritated, but I know that anger is only disguising the chilling knowledge that I know what he means by, “where The Boulder caught her slip.” Durain had written this specifically for me and in such a way that only I would understand. In case other hands found this paper? If anyone else looked closely at the faint map on the white cube, there is a chance they could have figured out the map and found this paper, but already they would have been stumped at this first clue in the note.

Because only Durain and I know of my slipping and banging my elbow while playing on a giant boulder tucked into the skirt of the mountain range three miles in front of my house. Durain cleaned the cut with the water from his silver hip flask and blessed me cured. We didn’t tell anyone because we weren’t supposed to be playing so far from home. Especially not on a boulder hovering above the valley which provides a remarkable view.

My heart races at the seriousness I’m getting into by understanding the contents of this note. I now know for certain that Durain was murdered over this “secret” and it doesn’t even bother me that I have knowingly accepted the same risk.

 

The second can be found with not her uncle. It is always kept on him. This I know. The third is vaulted for they believe it too much of a risk for it not to be. The Fae are real. When you have the three pieces, follow the pull, and hold on.

 

The letter ends.

I read it again, looking closely at every word for anything else Durain might have snuck in there to hide from other eyes but there is nothing more. A disturbing sense crawls up my spine. This is much too deep and too serious to come from Durain. Speaking of secrets worth killing over, saying Fae are real?

A rain shower breaks outside and lashes against the window pane with a gust of wind. The temperature drops. With cold fingers I stuff the paper back into the wooden tube and turn off the valve on the gas lamp. The dark polished top of my vanity reflects daggered slices of lightening. Thunder rumbles in the distance.

I sit on my bed and bring my knees into my chest. Durain… what is going on? What is this you were looking for that cost you your life? It’s obvious that is why he died. Even his writing eludes to a “shadow” following him. I’m tempted to show this to the Chief Constable but the paper does not indicate Durain’s name in anyway and would only ruin the secret he was keeping… whatever that secret is. He was only seventeen. Durain’s father had also died unexpectedly at the age of thirty-seven. And their grandmother at…

A steady realization tickles the back of my brain, though I can’t decide what exactly I’m trying to make it out to be.

 

CHAPTER FOUR

BRINELLA

 

Varseena’s smile in the morning looks out of place, like the day after four weeks of mourning is too soon for anyone to start smiling again. But Varseena coaxes me out of bed with the threat of a cold bath and then goes to the wardrobe. She flings open the double doors as if dressing herself again at the age of sixteen and rosy at the excitement that she is now old enough to be courted.

But Varseena already knows what dress I will be wearing because she immediately hones in on its location as if she is a bee and my dress is a flower. She extracts a gaudy mess of lace and beads my mother must have put there because under no circumstances would I ever wear something that scandalous in its loud cry for attention. Much too lacy. Much too girly. Much too bright after four weeks of black.

“What a lovely dress.” Varseena’s brown and gray spotted hair is slopped in a tired chignon against her neck. She holds up the dress, clearly imagining herself in it. I almost offer.

I might be more inclined to adore being tied into a dress, I conclude, if my father had not held that rule so loosely over me, tying me only when we went to town but still allowing me to roam free in my trousers with my cousin upon coming home. Maybe he saw into my future and witnessed for himself how deeply troubled I would be if made to be tied into a dress that would not leave my body until I was locked in my room at night, locked away from all that makes my heart beat and fill my lungs. Maybe he saw how the dress would be like a parasite on me, feeding off its host, sucking my bones dry of life and freedom.

My mother, of course, had much to say about my father’s lack of discipline on me. But it wasn’t a lack of discipline. It was a complete understanding of my heart and how I needed to taste the blood of the forest and breathe the air of fantasy like was told from Durain reading to me out of his forbidden “man” books. Forbidden, because women are not supposed to be excited over fictional things that might otherwise distract us from being distinguished ladies. I suppose that is true now because Durain never read to me the books where people followed the rules.

Varseena lays the dress on the bed, smoothing her hands over the millions of layers of lace. “You’re going dress shopping!” Varseena’s smile rivals that of a fourteen year old dewy eyed girl as she stares dreamily at the ceiling, then shakes her head.

Wrapping myself in a robe, I leave my room to join my mother downstairs for my dreaded bath. Also to give Varseena time to try on all my dresses, since it appears she loves them so much.

In the small room next to the kitchen I step into the copper tub filled with cold water. Doctors had encouraged all of England to take more baths but it’s a chore. Maybe more people would do it more often if they didn’t have to haul it in from a pump outside to fill a tub in front of the kitchen fire. My father managed to get running water in the house, but it was nowhere near a fire place to warm it. You couldn’t have both.

I shiver as I sink my entire body beneath the chill. Once a week is quite enough to bathe in cold water.

My mother selects one of the many colored glass bottles on the window sill and uncorks it, upending the oil into the bath water where I swirl it around with my arms and wrinkle my nose at the scent of rose meant for an unmarried girl ready to be courted. The heavy musk of patchouli still lingers from my mother’s bath she must have taken earlier. I hate patchouli; really not in favor of luring a male in with any smells the way animals do.

“Dunk your head.”

I do so, staying under longer than needed, wondering if I could pretend well enough to drown that they would think I was dead and I could make my escape so no one would look for me ever again… or they would bury me alive, like what is known to happen sometimes. But the plus side is I wouldn’t have to get married – I run out of breath and come up for air.

My mother is ready with powdered soap and proceeds to lather it into my hair. My anxiousness to find whatever it was that Durain hid on what our childhood had named The Boulder returns in full force. We are going into town and if I know my mother, we will be there until dinner to deaden my wanderlust which is starting to come out now that mourning is over… why couldn’t I have been born in the Middle Ages where there were handsome knights to rescue me out of a tower so I wouldn’t have to tie sheets together?

My mother is reining me in, hard and fast. The Boulder is three miles from my house. Going during the day is no longer an option because “ladies” don’t do that. But I don’t trust that my tower-escaping sheet-rope will not be soon noticed if I use it too often.

“Rinse your hair.”

Maybe if I refuse to leave the tub I won’t have to go to town and buy dresses.

My mother pulls the plug where pipes beneath the floor will direct the water outside onto the lawn, and the water is swirling away so I am forced to vacate it to find warmth. Shivering, I dry off with the towel provided. Covered again with my robe, I go back upstairs.

I’m tied into my prison thirty minutes later, secured under Varseena’s “secret knot.” The tumble of blue and mauve fabric are my mother’s favorite colors – likely my mother’s dress for me to use until I can get some tailored to me, thus the trip into town. The longer skirt is a deep midnight blue layered by the violet net of lace. The corset is just as bad.

Another agonizing hour is spent on the morning ritual of brushing, pulling, pinning, coiling, weaving, and curling my hair only to be concealed all away beneath a bonnet.

I miss Durain. Badly.

Finally allowed to see the full length looking glass, I stare at the reflection there. I don’t know who that person is on the other side but they look perpetually irritated. Likely because that person is dressed for one purpose.

A show horse.

Varseena ushers me out.

I follow my mother out to the coach were my father is engaged in conversation with the coach driver. He opens the door for us, jumps in himself, and the coach rolls forward.

I sit next to Varseena and my mother sits next to my father because each of our dresses is fluffy enough that it would be a tight fit if mother and daughter sat side by side. Varseena gets to wear a plain dress that does not tie – one of the necessary benefits for macramists who can’t tie their own dresses. But as long as they are always in the company of another female, or their own husband, it equals the same thing. I don’t understand why it can’t work the same for me. Being escorted around everywhere I go would still be better than being tied into a dress where it is a matter of art to utilize the privy. Most girls can’t wait for the day when they can be tied into their dresses. I’ve absconded that day for as long as possible.

I watch my world sliding by the window without my consent.

The three mile ride into town ends at the town’s coach yard. My father exits and assists his wife down the stairs first, and then turns to help me and then Varseena.

My father makes a beeline to the hat shop while the three of us walk across the cobbled street. An accordion and fiddle playing in the town square call my attention to the trio of gypsies gathered there, causing a monkey to dance in front of them which had likewise compelled others to stop and watch, some even tossing coins into the tattered hat below the accordion player’s feet.

“Mrs. Frondaren!”

I turn. A woman with a massive bustle hidden beneath her tent of a dress swoops down the street and latches onto my mother’s arm. “Mrs. Frondaren I am so sorry about the passing of your nephew…”

I conclude the hurt over Durain’s death will not stop the progression of my life, but people constantly bringing it up doesn’t help. I turn my attention back to the gypsies. I let their music blare out the conversation of death behind me. I have a few coins in my purse. I step forward to make a donation.

“Ello, lass!” The accordion player grins at me with a mouth where I can count the teeth. “And who might you be?”

He’s pleasant enough. “Brine Frondaren.”

“Ah!” he says. Despite a mouth lacking teeth and a chin that looks like sanding paper, his eyes are young and his smile warm. “The silverman’s daughter.”

But now the attention is on me and I squirm uncomfortably. “What is your name?”

“Jesaro. Pleased to make your acquaintance.” His accent suggests somewhere up north. Maybe Ireland.

“You play very nice,” I say. A tug on my dress turns my eyes to the monkey whose wearing a tiny top hat. He’s got the fabric of my dress clutched in his tiny hand. I have this insatiable desire to hold him.

The monkey holds out his other hand expectantly and I bend down to stuff a shilling in his hand which he proceeds to bit before scampering off with it.

“It’s magic music,” says with a big grin. “Only those with a beautiful hearts can hear it.”

“Hmmm,” I muse, looking around to pretend he has not flattered me. I find a stranger-friendship in this man and I really want to spill all my opinions about the injustices of the world on him, but I’m suddenly whirling around as if the string on my spin top was pulled.

“No!” my mother snaps. “Proper ladies don’t encourage such slothfulness. They could all get honest work if they wanted to but they don’t. They are leaches who prey on those who do work.”

My scrambled vision from spinning so quickly looks upon the gypsies who heard every word but otherwise appear uncaring. They’ve heard this before. But I’m not going to judge why the gypsies don’t have work. I don’t care. Some misfortune or another has put them here in this square where they have to undress from their dignity to show they are in need and try to earn some money in some way so they can bloody live.

I have a mouthful of retorts for my mother but I would only lose in the end. Because a lady remaining composed in public will prevail. Forever.

I have to force a smile once we enter the dress shop so as not to disappoint my mother. It is every mother’s dream to shop for her daughter’s first tiable dresses. Up until now I have been using old ones donated by my mother and cousin Andlas. I haven’t worn tiable dresses enough up until this point to make getting my own worth it. The end of the mourning period was a birth and death of many things.

The shop cloys heavily with smells of fabric, surprising me that fabrics even have smells. Bolts of rainbow lace and silk arch through the shop. I run a gloved hand across the different textures as I walk the rows. A woman too thin to be healthy, old enough not to be pretty with her thin black hair streaked with silver and wearing an apron with pins stuck through it in places, approaches us.

“Greetings, miss Borayen,” my mother says.

“Greeting, Mrs. Frondaren, Mrs. Alberoot.” Corrana’s eyes fall on me. “You must be excited to dress shop with your mother. Your cousin, Miss Garfair, is here.”

Something chilly slides down my spine at the mention of the young girl who is not actually my cousin. Crisy’s father, Brocen, has been friends with my father since before they wore shoes. Growing up, I saw Brocen with my father just as much and more than I saw him with his own brothers and so it only became natural for me to start calling him uncle, too. It never even occurred to me at that time that he had a different last name.

 

The second can be found with not her uncle.

 

I inhale sharply, realizing Mrs. Corrana Borayen is still expecting a response.

“How nice,” I recover. “We can cherish this morning together like other girls do.” It sounds fake. I know. I hear it.

But Corrana nods nonchalantly anyway and if my mother notices my sarcasm, she doesn’t say so in public. I’m ushered to the back room in step with thoughts ushering through my head. Prickling reality is causing me to sweat as Durain’s last words on paper start to become remarkably real. I need to get to The Boulder to even know what I’m supposed to be looking for. But when can I escape from my mother long enough to not be suspicious?

Crisy is standing on the raised circular platform with a hundred pins holding her clothes to her body. She turns her golden head to look as I enter. “Hello Miss Frondaren. Ouch!”

“I told you not to move,” Crisy’s tailor chastises. “Move anymore and you’ll deserve every pin prick you get.”

I climb onto my own platform and watch Crisy closely as Varseena begins to untie the puzzle of knots holding my dress to me.

 

Found with not her uncle.

 

“Miss Garfair.”

“Yes?” Crisy’s back is to me but she doesn’t turn her head again. It looks like she is barely breathing.

I’ve never associated with Crisy, except in passing for social events since Brocen is considered family even by my father, so gauging Crisy’s reaction beforehand is impossible. I just go for it. “I found I am void of friends as of late.” I pause for effect while checking for the right tone of sincerity and honesty. “I was wondering if you would like to join me for a ride sometime this week.”

Crisy’s head lifts ever so gently. Crisy is a full year younger than me and has never had much association with girls even close to her age. She lives far enough out of town that her option of playmates are limited if she is to remain dignified and only associate with those females in the same middle class. I feel selfish for using that to simply get closer to her father.

“Oh… I’d like that.”

Crisy’s gentle show of excitement earns her another storm of, “Ouch! Ouch! Ouch!” as pins stick her. My mother touches my shoulder and smiles warmly. Even though Durain was my cousin, my mother never fully approved of me not having friends who would influence me to be a lady. It’s only a shame that is not why I’m trying to befriend this girl.

“Miss Borayen,” my mother begins, “I read in the newspaper beginning of March that your shop was robbed. That is dreadful. I hope they didn’t take anything of value?”

Corrana’s back is to us and I see her shoulders visibly shudder. She turns around with a measuring tape in her hand. I watch as the dress maker’s eyes flick up briefly to Crisy and then back down. “They took something irreplaceable.”

My mother gasps. “What did they take?”

“An heirloom. I kept it here because I’m in this shop more than my own house and thought it would be safer.” Corrana sighs heavily, thickly. Full of rage. “I guess I was wrong.”

“And the parish constables have not recovered it?”

This time, Corrana’s eyes meet mine briefly. Her stare is weighted. “No.”

My mother tsk’s. “I am so sorry.”

I’m still trying to process Corrana’s odd eye-lock on me when the dress maker says, “I am sorry about the passing of your nephew.”

“Thank you. It is most unfortunate…”

And that is the cue for my thoughts to flee elsewhere like they always do while Varseena unties the labyrinth at my back.

The parasite of a dress slacking it’s jaw twenty minutes later, Corrana wraps me in the measuring tape. Crisy’s dress is tied soon after and, reaffirming the promise to see me during the week, she leaves with her macramist who is too young and too beautiful not to be tempting to Crisy’s widowed father.

For the next two hours I stand in just my chemise as fabrics of all shades and textures press upon me and pinned to exactness – my mother gushing at all the excitement of maturity she must think I feel too.

Finally, I bend at the waist and the tailor gingerly slides the last pinned together dress over my head. I didn’t realize standing still for such a long time could be so exhausting, and I still have to suffer another thirty minutes of it as Varseena reties the knots on my dress.

I’m made to pick out three pre-made dresses before we leave, although my mother takes it upon herself to choose an atrocious orange one for me. My mother fills out the order to have them delivered to the house and we step out onto the street.

She becomes very chatty as we walk, talking of her first dress shopping experience. I feign interest. I’ll have to go to The Boulder to know what to look for on Crisy’s father before I visit Crisy during the week.

Shoe shopping is next. I don’t realized how shallow my mother is until we enter the shop, as if the highlight of her entire life is this moment when she would buy her sixteen year old daughter shoes. Is this what I have to look forward to? To shudder with excitement because shopping for clothes for my daughters would break the mediocre from the norm of a life bound to painting and music? The bell over the door chimes as we enter the boot and shoe depot.

The shoe depot is just as agonizing as the dress, only this time I am forced to stay seated. My mother asks my opinion of what she thinks of each pair mashed on my feet until I reply, “What’s the point? The dress is only going to cover them.”

So my mother takes over selecting a pair of shoes for each dress we just had tailored to me. I can’t ignore the hurt look on my mother’s face when she finally realizes my carelessness. I can’t even feel bad about it.

We leave the shop, my mother uncharacteristically silent beside me as we walk around the clock tower center of the town square to an outdoor café shading tables and chairs beneath the tent awning. My father is seated there already with a steaming cup of tea, in conversation with Aklen Whaerin.

Jaicom’s father.

Had it not been for Jaicom leaving his calling card every week during mourning with the bottom right corner bent – but declining an actual visit – I would have forgotten his random arrival on the day of the funeral.

But I didn’t forget. I also didn’t forget Aklen’s hostile stare as I entered the parish with his son.

Those dark eyes beneath his black top hat narrow on me again. This time, unclouded from emotions, I verify this is the same brief gaze he had on me in the parish. I’ve never said a word to the man before so I conclude that his ugly gaze is one forged by disappointment in his son for choosing so randomly and so quickly to court a girl beneath the Whaerin family status. I agree with him.

But his begrudging glance vanishes because it is on display for my mother too. My mother, Varseena, and I gently bow our heads as he approaches us.

There is no mistaking this man is Jaicom’s father. Hard brown eyes blare on a tan horizon above a chiseled chin. He doesn’t let anyone forget his status with the way his attitude wears his black frock coat over a burgundy Stafford vest. “Mrs. Frondarens, Mrs. Alberoot.” He tips his hat.

“Mr. Whaerin,” I intone with my mother.

Aklen looks me briefly up and down as if appraising me to see if I will be a hearty enough horse for his son. “You are lovely, Miss Frondaren. My son has done well choosing you.” His tone smooths at the edges but a hard blur at its core is tricky to ignore.

“Thank you.”

My father pulls out chairs for the three of us to sit. “I am so sorry about the death of your nephew,” Aklen begins before taking a sip of his tea, and then my parents are hoodwinked into talking about logging. Of course Aklen would never pass up an opportunity to show off the business he owns in Valemorren which rivals the silver mine my father is part owner for. Well, really, there is no rivalry between wood and silver because that would be like humans rivaling between food and sweetmeats. But it apparently makes Aklen feel self-important if he thinks he has a business enemy.

I look at the stretching shadows thrown down by the clock tower and beyond that to the church yard where center of it kneels a weeping stone angel on a raised foundation. The clock is ticking down from all the time I’m losing by not coming up with a plan to escape on a horse for a three hour ride to find what Durain left for me. And so when Jaicom finally strolls across the square toward us my plan falls into place like a knight’s visor slamming shut before he lunges into battle.

Jaicom approaches the café and I stand, aware all parents are aptly watching the display. Wondering if Jaicom’s interest in me the day of the funeral or the calling cards he left during my four weeks of mourning still have a heartbeat worries me very little. I’ll feed it back to life if need be and not even feel sick with faking something this sensitive to another human. Discovering Durain’s secret as soon as possible is far more important than Jaicom’s emotions.

Jaicom looks up as if shocked to see me and then his glance slides to his father. “You are lovely, Miss Frondaren,” he says.

I don’t realize my stomach is clenched until it relaxes upon hearing Jaicom’s gentle voice which is at odds with his hard eyes. Just like his father who owns the most lucrative lumber business in Valemorren – the only lumber business – I suppose it is impossible for someone to be easy going and aggressively successful at the same time.

“Thank you. Will you please sit with me?”

Jaicom’s thick eyebrows lift in what I can’t translate. Since he showed interest in me the day of the funeral, is he glad I’m showing interest back? I can’t tell. Really odd. No matter. That’s not what I’m after.

I sit down and he joins me. A stiff breeze lifts the overhang of the tent we’re under and tosses my hair in my face despite the bonnet.

“I might curse the wind otherwise,” I say as I mindlessly curl a loose slip of hair around my finger, aware my parents are only half listening to Aklen as they try to hone in on what I might say in the company of Jaicom, “but I’ve been stuck indoors most of the day for dresses and shoes and this breeze feels like freedom.” I shift my shoulders, wondering if I’m even coming close to my desired effect, but flaunting one’s self flirtatiously was lost to me the first time I put on trousers. “Too bad such a beautiful day has been wasted indoors.” I pause. Snicking open my tortoise shell fan, I hold it with my left hand in front of my face.

If I’m even half as lovely as that stranger in my looking glass revealed this morning, a bachelor would be a fool to turn down a subtle invite from an unmarried woman.

But he does. He averts his eyes politely from my flirtatious cue with my fan. I try another one, closing the fan and touching my right eye. Jaicom isn’t looking. But I know he saw because he shifts uncomfortably, pretending to be enthralled with the pigeons pecking the trash on the street.

Why then, I wonder, would he jump the first steps to courting and go right to unchaperoned rides and leave calling cards but still decline visits and then refuse to acknowledge my advances in public?

I absolutely have to go to The Boulder. And fan flirting isn’t working without getting right to the “I love you” which I’m not going to do.

“Mr. Whaerin,” I say loudly, “I desire a ride this evening. Might I indulge in your presence?”

The three adults cease talking, as if they’d been waiting for this.

Jaicom is slow to look at me, drumming his fingers on the table top, but when he does, he has a smile which looks, for all honesty, real. “I’d be pleased, Miss Frondaren. I’ll call on you at three o’clock?”

It worked. I don’t even feel bad about using him so absolutely.

I watch my father fight so hard to keep a casual smile. I half expected my mother to start clapping. Varseena does a good job pretending she’s not there. Silence from Aklen.

Due to the approaching evening now revolving around me, my father concludes his conversation with Aklen and escorts all three of us down the street to the coach yard.

Back at home, my mother invites herself into my room as Varseena unties me and then ties me back again into my riding dress, gushing the whole time about how romantic an evening it is going to be and, “Brinella, you are so lucky. Soon, you will be a Whaerin,” and on and on and all the while I smile and agree with her despite every fiber of my being screaming that I am most definitely not going to marry Jaicom. I’m not going to marry at all, if I can help it. But I can’t have that discussion with my mother.

A knock on my door. My mother answers it.

“Jaicom is here,” my mother beams as she brings his calling card over to me. The top left corner of the card is bent over a picture of three trees surrounding the word Jaicom Whaerin in elaborate green inked calligraphy.

Why do I feel like Jaicom is playing a game on me like I’m playing a game on him? He is throwing off way too many “I am not interested in you” cues for me not to see that something is up. Maybe he is courting a girl beneath his status just to defy his father? Aklen appears to be the kind of man who would force his son to marry a girl who could get Jaicom the biggest dowry. My dowry would be sufficient with my father owning a third of the silver mine but it still would not compare to a girl from London, or even Bristol. Girls from there are prettier too, with status matching the Whaerins.

Whatever. I just need him long enough to go to The Boulder.

Jaicom stands when I enter the drawing room, kneading his fedora in his hands like a cook might do with dough. He leads me outside where the stable hand is holding the reins to my horse with a side saddle I only know how to ride because of my mother insisting I not forget my “lady skills” while I ran around with my cousin in trousers.

I settle myself in the saddle and look over at Jaicom as he swings his leg over the back of his own horse.

Jaicom is handsome. And rich and single and maybe a little burn does spark in my chest about how nice it would be to marry him, since ultimately that is what courting me implies. But the wind tousles my dress and caresses summer fingers through my hair and I can’t let go of all that I would be losing. Soon I will be that mare harnessed to the coach that takes us into town, beautiful, and in its usefulness, assisting my husband on his way to status, all of my property being transferred over to him upon marriage.

There has to be more to life than being owned by someone else.

“There is a place I would love to visit,” I hint as our horses troll out of the yard. “It has a most handsome view of the valley.”

His response is a curt nod. I feel in that moment that it is my duty as a female to inquire about where exactly he stands on his interest in me since he has shown signs of both but really, I don’t care. I just need him for today and then he can take his oddness out of my life.

Aside from giving him directions, there is no other conversation between us all the way to The Boulder.

The rugged mountain peak bristles with sharp edges of stone, like a thorn in the world with almost no dirt to soften the harshness.

“Stop here,” I say.

Jaicom does so and dismounts, tying the reins around an aspen tree so the horse still has a little room to graze. I swing a leg off just as Jaicom turns to help me, the small heel of my boots sinking into the soft dirt as I land. His eyes narrow darkly but I’m able to play off that my rude dismount was because of my excitement.

“Come on!” Clutching my skirt in both hands, I run on my toes up a deer trail Durain and I use to reach the top of The Boulder. In truth, I’m hoping to get to the top before Jaicom does so I can go to the spot where I fell and find whatever it is Durain left for me.

I duck under branches stretching across my way and at most times I have to use my hands to climb the steepest parts; a task that becomes irritating because of the fabric prison banging around my legs.

The dress slows me down and Jaicom catches up. “Brinella, you are ruining your dress.”

Irritation spikes through me. I wish I was wearing all my dresses so I could ruin them.

The skirt of soft earth and vegetation at the mountain’s base harden into shale, turning into a narrow trail mountain goats frequent. Feces of their recent travel scatter only hours old throughout the path.

My skirt is seriously making me angry and I’m about to rip it off. Far gone from the iron fist of society some sixteen years ago, I bunch the chrysalis of a dress into my arms and lift the entire mess above my knees. Technically, I am now immodest but the white bloomers beneath cover my legs to my knees where my black stockings cover the rest. I take note of Jaicom trying to keep an eye on me while trying not to shame himself by looking at my undergarments. I don’t care. The higher I climb the more liberated I felt. Even Jaicom’s calm grumbling can’t dissuade me. He works his father’s lands with lumber so something of this nature should not bother him, except that I’m not supposed to be the one leading him up here.

Heat gathers against my skin and I have to pause, letting the wind shift around my half-bare legs and down the bodice of my dress. I feel my cheeks flush with heat and freedom and even my crushing boots can’t dim the fire within me. We are almost to the top but I can already see the fields falling away beneath me.

Jaicom climbs beside me. It’s hard to tell if he is simply tolerating my wildness or if he is trying to show he won’t lose his head to fantasy ideals. “How much farther?” he asks, lifting his fedora where I see sweaty blond hair plastered to his forehead.

In answer, I start to move again. Another steep climb dumps us onto a broad shelf of rock smoothed by wind and rain and where protrudes The Boulder.

I can’t see my house under the sea of trees but the clock tower reaching center of town is clustered about with tiny buildings looking like salt cubs at this distance. Thirty miles opposite me is another mountain range of lush jade. A silver ribbon slithers across the valley alongside the railroad track leading to Bristol in the west.

Taken by the sight, I momentarily forget why I wanted to be up here in the first place. Coming out of my trance, I looked askance at Jaicom who seems interested by the fresh view but is otherwise detached from it. He almost appears nervous as well, casting glances at the wall of rock butted against the mountain behind us. Is he afraid of heights? I know so little about him.

“It is beautiful, isn’t it?” I say to scramble the silence.

He sighs. “Yes, of course. But we should go now.”

I pull my feet out of my tight boots.

“Miss Frondaren…”

“Just one more minute.” I pick up my boots and walk to the lumps of uneven stone near the front edge of The Boulder to the place I landed when I slipped.

 

I hid the first where The Boulder caught her slip.

 

My heart drops in my chest when I see nothing there. Had someone else taken it?

No. I spot it. A glint of something metal hidden under three rocks. I sit next to it and begin yanking my sweaty boots back, unobtrusively digging beneath the rocks where I grip the metal piece and shove it down my corset. I can’t afford to investigate it right now.

Both boots now enthusiastic on, I stand and uselessly dust myself, looking about to make sure I indeed have what Durain left for me. The rest of The Boulder is barren so I go to Jaicom who is impatiently beckoning. The metal is cold and misshapen against my breast and I hope it doesn’t protrude where it would be obvious.

I allow Jaicom to help me on the decent, even if I can get down easier by myself. I don’t want him believing I am completely without my manners.

The hem of my dress and boots are thoroughly soiled by the time we reach the horses. The cooling air is refreshing on my sweaty skin and I breathe it in as if it could sustain me.

Jaicom keeps his horse at a brisk canter all the way to my house. I can’t place his anxiety but as soon as he helps me dismount, he calms. He stares at me for an odd second and I feel massively uncomfortable.

“Miss Frondaren,” he begins, and his tone settles like salt in my blood, “consider parting ways with your spirited promiscuity for the outdoors. Most men will not forgive you as easily as I do.”

I bit back the words society has told me I cannot say. Heat curls up my back. I got what I needed out of Jaicom. He can go now. Forever.

With a courtesy, I stomp into the house. My father catches me in the foyer before I can go to my room to see what Durain had left me.

“Why sweetheart!” He spreads his hands in front of him. “You’ve ruined your dress!”

With great effort, I don’t roll my eyes. “I took him up the mountain to see the valley. He didn’t enjoy himself.” I don’t say more because if I do, Jaicom’s last words to me will slip out and I’m half afraid my father will agree with Jaicom and I can’t hear that from the one person I trust to protect my “promiscuous” interests.

“Well, you have to admit that gentlemen don’t favor ladies who do that kind of thing.” I look at him and he has the decency to look away. “He is just so astute at wanting to work hard to be a man and provide for himself and a wife,” he amends. “Are you not happy he’s looking to wed you?”

His sharp question stabs me. “He only started courting me four weeks ago. It’s wrong to accuse him of marriage at this point. By the way, don’t you think it odd that he showed up out of the blue to escort me to the parish and sit with me? Especially a girl beneath his status?”

“I’m not going to question. And we are not that far behind the Whaerin status. He’s the best man in Valemorren to marry and he’s picked you when he’s got all of England to consider.” His smile does not reassure me. “But in the highly unlikely event he changes his mind, you need to start preparing yourself for marriage, anyway. But I believe I asked you a question.”

This is certainly not the conversation I want to have standing on the front porch. I rock back and forth on the short heels of my boots. This is my father asking, not my mother. He understands most things I say where my mother would lose her mind. “I feel that any marriage would tie me down.” It slipped out, really, but I’m so anxious for someone to believe me that I didn’t try very hard to rein it in.

“Oh? Because you had plans for other things?”

I shrug.

“Having a financially stable husband to support you is vital for survival.”

“Can’t I support myself?”

This statement goes beyond the need to be understood and toes the line of social blasphemy. I can talk to my father, but even he has his limits. “I – I’m sorry.” I can’t meet his eye anymore. “Marriage is still strange to me and I miss Durain.” My uses for using Durain as a crutch are limited. I chance a look at his face but it is unreadable. I curtsy politely and make my escape to my room. Something in me is breaking and I’m afraid my parents are noticing. I can’t worry about that right now. I have to see what Durain hid on The Boulder. Varseena will be in at any moment to free me from the strangling grip the red sea urchin of a dress has on me. It’s eaten me, but I haven’t quit metabolized in its swollen belly yet.

I dig the metal thing out of my corset. It maintains my interest despite I have no idea what it is.

About three inches long and made from copper, it looks like a handle to something, except it’s wider on one end where there is a piece cut out, looking for all the world like a puzzle where another piece might connect to it. On the opposite end is a red ruby chiseled into the shape of a thorn and affixed to the underside of the device.

 

The second can be found with not her uncle… the third is vaulted…

 

Jaicom’s family has the only vault Durain and I ever knew of.

Durain, I mouth, catching the light from the gas lamp on the copper device. The ruby swallows the light and magnifies it into a bloody glow. What secret was worth your life?

 

CHAPTER FIVE

BRINELLA

 

Since the discovery of… whatever this thing was that Durain left for me on The Boulder, I have a hard time not looking like I’m thinking too hard on something illegal the whole time Varseena ties me into my riding dress.

I might eventually feel bad about using Crisy just so I can get closer to her father, but that’s not even going to come close to happening until after I’ve pieced together this secret Durain left me.

The day is warm but, blessedly, my riding dress today is a thin baby blue cotton minus about twenty layers of petticoats. I arrive at Crisy’s house and knock on the door. It’s opened by Crisy’s macramist.

“Greetings, Miss Frondaren,” the macramist says, accepting my mother’s calling card; a black rectangle of paper with “Janella Frondaren” scripted elaborately in silver to represent my father’s ownership on the silver mine.

“I would like to take Miss Garfair for a ride,” I say, because I can’t say, “I want to take a good look at her father to see if he has a long copper metal thing somewhere on his body.”

The macramist nods and I am seated in the drawing room, hoping Not Uncle Brocen will stick his head inside and say hello. He never does. Crisy arrives twenty minutes later in her riding habit, glowing like a candle in her canary yellow tiable cotton dress and gold hair spilling down under a pale red hat. She is beaming.

“I was hoping to say hello to your father as well,” I say. “Is he here?”

“My father is working in the fields today. I am very sorry.”

Angry irritation swells in my gut like a sponge. How many rides do I have to take Crisy on before I can finally see if Brocen has Durain’s secret on him?

“Well,” I force a smile, “the day is wasting. Let’s be off.”

Crisy’s small middle-class household comprises of the macramist who also takes care of all the details inside the house and the stable hand who duels as every function that needs attendance outside the house. Even poor families, when they have to choose, will choose a macramist. Though their training and skills revolve around tying and untying dresses, most of them understand that with a little extra pay they will also work most of the rest of the house too.

We wait on the porch as the stable hand saddles Crisy’s horse, which turns out to be the same color as her dress when he leads her out. Crisy sits so prettily in her side saddle, glowing in that dress who is likely the only person to look good in that color, with her tumble of golden curls spilling down her neck beneath her hat. Some small, smothered part of me is actually jealous.

Just as I start to think of a way to pawn Jaicom off on Crisy, the fifteen-year-old girl pipes up, “Where would you like to go?”

I force myself to take a minute to respond so it won’t appear that I’m too anxious. “I would like to see where your father works.”

Crisy scrunches up her nose. “Really? It’s so dusty there. You sure?”

“I think Uncle Brocen would like a spontaneous visit just to say hello. It lets him know we see how hard he works.”

“I suppose so. But then I get to choose where we go after that.”

The ride to the local fields is silent of conversation. At least for me, anyway. I might have added to the conversation Crisy was upholding on her own but I have nothing to pull from. I’ve always been aware of Crisy’s existence but had never cared to do anything more with the girl. In general, our personalities conflict. Crisy was excited when she finally reached the day where she could be tied into her dresses, looking forward to learning how to play music and paint and all the other feministic skills I think are mostly worthless. But looking through that conflicting barrier, it becomes clear how anxious Crisy is for friendships. Most of the middle-class girls living in Crisy’s neighborhood are married.

“Did you know that six generations ago my grandfather owned the farming business here?”

“Really?” I hope is an appropriate response, because I am only half listening.

“Ya. But there was a draught that year so my grandfather had to drive the prices up to pay for the loss. People couldn’t afford it, and so grew their own food in underground bunkers. By spring my grandfather was broke and was forced to sell the farm. Someone bought it and there hasn’t been a draught since.”

“That’s really unfortunate.”

“It is. My father’s been working on a way to get the farm back for us though.”

“Truly?” Now I’m interested. “How does he plan to do that?”

Crisy purses her red lips and her response takes much too long. “Just… working hard and saving money.” She shrugs and changes the subject.

The tree-lined road ends abruptly into a large area cleared of trees. Valemorren is far enough away from any larger city that this small town sustains itself.

Clear air disproves Crisy’s worry about it being dusty as we turn onto a dirt path skirting the five hundred acre field. Men and very few women are scattered throughout, walking down designated pathways with bags gathered around them as they pull various food stuffs from the soil.

“This is where he works. You’ve never been here before?”

Yes. “No.”

“You haven’t missed much. Are we ready to leave?”

“I thought we were going to see you father?”

“I saw him this morning,” she says with some effort to keep a measure of disdain out of her voice, but I catch it anyway.

I’m starting to itch with anxiety. The importance of following Durian’s letter to find who his killer was trumps everything else. If only I could tell Crisy about it so she’d support me. I dismount. “It would be so rude to show up and not see him.”

“He’s deep in the fields. He doesn’t even know we are here.”

“Come on.” Without waiting for a reply, I tie my horse to the hitching post and begin walking.

I walk slow enough so Crisy can catch up. It’s then I notice her choice of shoes are not ones she put on to prepare her to walk through a field. I hadn’t planned to walk through a field, either. I just wear boots on default, even to town if I can do it without my mother catching me. But Crisy is at the budding age that she hopes to have a wedding date set by the time she turns sixteen.

After ten minutes of skirting the edge of the field, Crisy finally lets a little irritation slip. “This field is so big. I don’t even know what section he is working today.”

“We’ll ask. Excuse me,” I catch the attention of the closest worker, “we are looking for Brocen.”

The worker bows slightly. “Greeting, ladies. I am sorry to report that I do not know who that is.”

It takes the fifth worker I ambush to point us to a forest of cornstalks. “Saw him over there twenty minutes ago.”

Despite my broad hat, heat sneaks through my dress and moisture gathers under my arms. I feel irritation bubbling around Crisy like an extra layer of lace by the way her face looks carved of stone and her silence is like a black hole.

“If he is not here, we’ll go back,” I assure.

She nods once. “I’m thirsty.” She somehow manages to say that as if I am to blame.

We enter the cornstalks. The path way cutting through is empty.

“Uncle Brocen?” I call.

“Hello?” The reply comes from my left.

I turn so sharply that Crisy almost runs into me. I walk briskly through the stalks, parting them aside as if swimming.

Brocen appears in front of me and I stop, looking him up and down as if expecting the secret to be dangling from around his neck. Then I catch his odd expression at my equally odd surveillance of his body and I look away so he won’t see me blush just as Crisy tumbles into me.

“Hi father,” Crisy says without an apology to me. “Do you have water?”

“Sure thing, sweety.” Brocen lifts the water canteen off his belt and hands it to her. She gulps thirstily. I try to look at him without being obvious about it.

 

He always has it with him. This I know.

 

Even hoping I have the right person.

“To what pleasure do I have for being surprised by your company?” Brocen asks with a pleasant smile. His face is dark brown and leathery from working under the sun all day. Likely his skin would be black by now if it wasn’t for his broad hat. He wears his smile like he wears his hat, actually, like something useful he could put on and taken off without much thought.

Crisy finishes her drinking rampage with a satisfied exhaust of air, wiping her lips. “Miss Frondaren thought you’d like to be surprised.”

“And so I am.” He pulls Crisy in for a hug and kisses the top of her hat. “Thank you for the brief visit. I’ll walk back with you since Crisandra drank all my water.” He grins at us and leads the way out of the corn stalks. I follow directly behind him.

Continuing to look him up and down, I’m trying to decide if the small bulges of clothing are hiding something beneath. But all the way to the water barrels I see nothing. Of course there are plenty of places against the skin that would not show outwardly. However, if I do find the secret on him then that will directly accuse Not Uncle Brocen of murder. I’m not a detective but I believe that is how they would piece that together.

And what exactly was that thing I found, anyway? Where did Durain find the first one? There were three of them?

Crisy turns the spigot on the water barrel and fills a cup. She drinks and fills another.

I’ll read the letter again. Maybe I misunderstood something. Brocen fills his canteen and exchanges small pleasantries with his daughter before waving to us both as he walks back into the field. I watch him until he disappears.

“I suppose that was nice,” Crisy admits as we walk the hard packed road back to our horses. “I should have worn boots. My feet are killing me.”

My head is so muddled with questions no one knows the answers to that I don’t immediately register what Crisy said. If I hadn’t found what I had on The Boulder I would have abandoned this matter altogether to savor my last days of freedom before imminent marriage. But I’m reminded of Crisy beside me who I had just dragged across ten acres of dirt in high heels.

“You could walk barefoot,” I offer.

She gasps. “What will people think?”

I remember to whose company I share and I rescind my offer. No matter. My feet aren’t the ones hurting me.

She’s limping by the time we reach our horses. I think it’s only because she is trying to solidify our friendship that she doesn’t push the blame of her sore feet on me.

“You ready for lunch?” I ask.

“Yes. And it is my turn to choose where we go next.” She shoots me a look as if waiting for me to challenge, then slaps the reins and takes lead.

I follow her into a gully where a stream bleeding off from the river cuts through, bursting lustily with dark green vegetation and leaves spinning overhead. Showers of gold sunlight splash onto bobbing gnats across the bridge and I temporarily forget about the dilemma in my heart. I am right at home.

I look about for the mythical Fae children entertain themselves to believe appear at the apex of a beautiful day or night.

 

The Fae are real.

 

Ya. Sure. Just like the wizard Merlin is real, too.

Of course every child has seen a Fae. A girl in school said she saw one that appeared to her in the form of a badger. A boy testified his Fae was a human shaped thing with branches for arms and legs. I’ve even claimed to have heard a Fae. It sang to me out of Durain’s flute under a full moon.

I conclude in that moment that if I find the second piece on Brocen, then I will believe everything else in the letter. We dismount and walk across the bridge. Crisy sits and dangles her legs over the side. The stream slides languidly benath, a dragonfly resting on a floating branch.

I produced sandwiches from my bag and hand her one.

“You are lucky to be courted by Jaicom,” she says as she unfolds the two slices of bread out of the cloth wrapper.

Of course the small minded hamlet would know already. They probably had an article in the newspaper about it. I swallow a bit of sandwich and force a half chuckle to numb the sudden awkwardness. “You think so?”

Crisy sighs, as if irritated that she has to explain the obvious. “He is handsome and a very hard worker. He’ll eventually live in a big house like his father and have lots of horses and plenty of servants.”

Of course Crisy would point those out. Not Uncle Brocen earns just enough to afford a small one level wooden house, a macramist, two horses, and a stable hand. And since Crisy’s mother’s death five years ago, speculation made people wonder if she didn’t serve another purpose to Brocen, too. There is always that rumor-fueled saying, Who’s going tie the macramist’s dress?

“Then you can have him.”

Crisy snorts as if I had just told a joke, and watching Crisy as she munches on her sandwich I realize she actually likes Jaicom. Well, every girl my age and younger does. I must be the odd one.

“Why not?” I egg her.

“Because your father has greater status than mine.”

“So? Plenty of girls in town have higher status than me. To include the other two owners of the silver mine.” Those girls are prettier, too, with a larger dowry.”

I sense Crisy has more to say but doesn’t. She fills her mouth with sandwich. “Durain was fine,” she says, munching around the bread, “but he never really established a potential job for himself. And my father hated him besides –”

“Wait… what?” I look sharply at my Not Cousin. I heard wrong. “I’m sorry. I somehow got the impression that Durain had courted you.”

She drinks some water from the canteen I pass her. “I wouldn’t call it exactly that. Just one day he showed up at my house to call on me and when I accepted his call, he goes on to ask all these questions about my father’s work and said he was thinking of becoming a farmer himself. Which I thought was…”

I’m still trying to filter the shock through the stone in my chest and so I miss the rest of what she says. Durain courted Crisy? What else did I not know about my best friend I’ve known my entire life? What other secrets has he kept?

“… took me on a few rides and eventually asked if he could have a formal overnight stay.”

I choke on my water I was in the midst of swallowing. Crisy doesn’t appear to notice.

“My father was angry that Durain would ask because my father absolutely did not like him. But he had to let Durain do it because there was nothing morally or socially wrong with Durain courting me and it did look like Durain was eventually going to ask me to marry him.”

I fix my gaze on the leaves sliding beneath the bridge, hoping Crisy doesn’t see the rapid pulse beating out of my neck as if I had swallowed a frantic bird.

Formal overnight stays are something I hope to God Jaicom never asks me to do. I shudder just thinking about it. Queen Victoria had blessed off on it – so long as the father of the daughter is also in the house – because it is a priority for some men to know how a woman sleeps so they could know firsthand if they could tolerate her night habits for the rest of their lives. Both members remained clothed, of course, because intercourse before marriage is one of the worst sins the church and Queen Victoria preaches. That is not a problem for me, because I can’t even tolerate the thought of an overnight stay.

“So he stayed and he was the one with terrible night habits. He would get up, go to the privy and I was so tired I never knew when he came back.”

 

He always keeps it on him. This I know.

 

Keep it where?

“It was about a month after that he had that heart attack. I was a little sad about it but I could never really emotionally connect with him anyway and I didn’t want to be a farmer’s wife after being a farmer’s daughter, but I knew even at that time I couldn’t be picky. So you are double lucky that your father likes Jaicom and he is already a lumberer.”

Was Crisy so dense she didn’t realize the connection? But how could she when I am the only one who knows that Brocen is carrying an apparent deadly secret on him and is likely aware Durain was looking for it? Did Brocen kill him?

“Speaking of sleep overs, would you like to have one?” she asks.

This catches me off guard but I recover quickly because it will give me another chance to investigate Brocen. “Sure. When?”

“Tonight, if you like.”

“Okay.”

I hide my anxious thoughts in the last bite of my sandwich, just now realizing what measures I’ll have to go through to discover what Brocen is hiding… and worried to what measures Durain had gone to know Brocen had it.

 

OOO

 

Back at the house, the stable hand takes my horse back. My father stops me as I’m about to open the door to my room.

“Jaicom came to call on you earlier,” he says, and a shudder starts in my shoulders because I’m certain it was because Jaicom wants a formal overnight stay. “The Whaerins have invited us to Varrica’s debutante.”

“That’s great.” I’m still suffering from the terror the thought of a formal overnight stay left me so I keep my words curt so he can’t hear the shake in my voice. “When is it?”

“Thursday.”

“Okay. Can I go to Crisy’s tonight? She invited me for a sleep over.”

A large smile broadens his thick lips. “Wonderful! Glad to see you making friends again. Have fun.”

I try to mimic his smile because I can’t remember how to make one of my own, and I close the door to my room.

I pull the key bracelet off my wrist and unlock the small wooden box I pulled from under the bed. Some gracious man once believed a woman without some secrets is as uninteresting as a rock on a shelf.

I open the lid and look at the copper metal piece I christen as the “Thorn” in that moment and inspect it for any hidden maps before picking up the white cube to see if they connected in anyway. They don’t.

I read the letter over again, memorizing every word. Given what Crisy said about Durain’s formal overnight stay and in the letter he referenced “not her uncle” points directly to Brocen. I have to believe Durain is going off of only what I could possibly know.

Re-reading the letter reminds me of that weird orange flying dog thing I still need to look for in a book so I can prove it was a real animal I saw and not some freaky thing conjured from a gypsy magician. But of course it was a real animal. That’s easy to believe as long as I can ignore the fact I thought I saw hooves on it as it thrashed the tree top above me. Paintings of demons I’ve seen often show the demons with hooves –

Okay, now that I’ve totally freaked myself out, I concentrate on packing my bag and go outside to ride to Crisy’s house before it gets dark on me.

 

CHAPTER SIX

BRINELLA

 

I never understood the appeal of sitting in someone’s drawing room and talking about everything except politics and other sensitive subjects. But, with those two topics gone there never is anything to talk about, because everything is a sensitive topic. In general, I never knew a conversation that wasn’t maintained by someone complaining about something. But Crisy has been at this for fifteen years and I’ve been at it for about a month if you collect all those random smatterings of social visits my parents dragged me to, to include my debutante which would have granted me marriage right about now if I hadn’t put trousers on as soon as we got back from showing me off to the Queen in London. I owe it to my father for calming my mother down after that. I sometimes think my father might be the wizard Merlin for the spells he puts on her so she won’t explode while he explains how badly I needed my freedom from society for just a little longer.

Hold on… I was going somewhere with this thought… Right. So Crisy has been at this for fifteen years so she is able to keep a constant hum of conversation between us while we sip our tea. She somehow ropes me into comparing her house to the Whaerin’s. Crisy has a fine house for low middle-class standards by any reasonable expectations, even despite her attempt to make it sound horrible compared to the Whaerin’s house who had monopolized the logging business in Valemorren. A logger! Small town politics where a logger is compared to a banker in larger cities.

Crisy produces her violin and begins to play. Unlike me, she is actually trying to make a good impression for young men looking to wed. Ever since Crisy’s mother was killed when she was “thrown” from her horse – according to Brocen who was the only one with her at the time – five years ago, Crisy had fallen into music to chase away the gloomy days. But ever since her mention of Durain’s death a month after Brocen’s intense dislike for him (likely because Durain knew of the secret Brocen kept on him), I am willing to accuse Brocen of killing his wife, too.

Brocen comes home shortly afterward, and apparently drawn into the drawing room by the violin, he opens the door. I don’t think I imagine the jolt of shock cross his sun-tanned face as he sees me.

“Father!” Crisy stops playing. “Brinella is staying overnight. I hope you don’t mind.”

Maybe I did imagine the shock on his face because it immediately softens into a monstrous smile. “It is a pleasure, Miss Frondaren.” And he leaves the room before I can look over his body again.

I’ve never had a female friend so I’m not sure if my disgust toward Crisy wanting to show off all her dresses once we are in her room is actually founded.

Blessedly, darkness comes and Crisy declares she is ready for bed. Crisy’s macramist unties Crisy’s dress first and then mine. There comes a knock on the door.

Crisy puts on a robe while the macramist continues to untie me and goes to the door where I hear mumblings of, “Goodnight,” before the door closes. I wait, but I don’t hear the familiar click of the lock that always accompanies my own door this time of night.

“Did he not lock the door?” I ask.

Crisy scatters her curls as she shakes her head. “I don’t have a bell pull rigged up in my room like you probably do in yours in case something goes wrong in the night so he just settles with locking the front door and window, so you are still safe.”

I wish I could tell her the locked door and window wasn’t for keeping people out.

I was prepared to climb out of Crisy’s window and find a way back into the house but I’ll count this luck as a sign that maybe it’s not a sin to be creeping about a stranger’s house at night.

The macramist slides the bed warmer beneath the sheets on Crisy’s bed and my cot set up next to it before we scuttle under them before they cool. The macramist leaves and I have to fight sleep while Crisy snores away (I would disagree that Durain was the one with horrible night habits), dreading what I came here to do. Despite growing up as a “Fae child” as people commonly call free spirits like me, that did not prepare me to spy on a man considered family while he sleeps and then steal something from him… from off him.

I don’t move from terror for two hours, my heart sunk so deep in my chest it is pushing on my lungs so it is hard to breath. I have to threaten myself that Durain’s soul will haunt me if I don’t complete the task he started, and only when the thought of him haunting me scares me more than spying on Not Uncle Brocen do I get out of bed.

The cold air nips at my bare toes and I am sad that my bed will be equally as cold when I come back.

Crisy is sleeping heavily – still snoring, which is loud enough to cover the whispering sounds of my tip toeing across the room and turning the knob on the door.

The house is small enough that I don’t have to guess for very long which room belongs to Brocen. It’s dark but my eyes adjust well enough to avoid running into the table and bench in the hallway. I stop in front of his door and my courage flees. I swallow sudden nervous bile in my throat.

I don’t move for what has to be ten minutes, unable to continue, unable to back down. Stuck in limbo. In front of Brocen’s bedroom door.

What if he wakes up and catches me? What if he kills me like I think he killed his wife and Durain?

I begin pacing in the hallway, holding my body which has started to shiver. No. I’ve got to do this. Durain thought it was important to risk his life, and so I will not let his death be in vain.

Somewhat emboldened, I press downward on the metal handle of his bedroom door. Smoothly, the door opens. I step inside and close it again, trapping my courage in with me before it has time to run out. Though now my courage huddles on the floor, reaching for the handle. I only hope it will stay quiet.

A shuffling of sheets freezes me and I don’t move, not even to lift my head. Only when the shuffling stops and I count twenty rapid heartbeats do I look up. Brocen is facing me now but his eyes remain closed.

I tip toe across the rug to the foot of his bed. I crouch down and both of my knees pop loudly.

Brocen shifts again and I hold my breath, tempted to run out of here before he can guess who it was and what they were doing in his room because I have no idea what kind of excuse there might be as to why I’m creeping about his room in the middle of the night.

It occurs to me too late that he might sleep naked. I’ll never be able to look at him the same ever ever ever again.

Heat flares through me so I am almost too hot for my nightgown. Brocen shifts again and continues to shift until the bed groans and Brocen throws the covers back.

I’m going to throw up. Not sure if it’s going to happen before or after I die.

But Brocen doesn’t appear above me. I dare a look and see him standing with his back to me in the corner utilizing the chamber pot. I release an almost audible relief of air. He’s wearing enough clothing that I would still be able to barely manage looking him in the eye in a regular conversation, though my face is so hot that he is going to feel the heat when he comes back to bed.

And then I realize he’s going to see me when he turns around.

I scramble under the bed. It’s a tight fit but I’m small enough. I have to be small enough. I’m just afraid he’s going to hear the hammers beating inside my heart. There’s enough space between the bed skirt and floor that I’m able to look out at him with one eye. I’m so tired. What time is it? He turns around, thankfully having tucked things away before he did so.

It’s not until Brocen lays back in bed and throws the covers over him that I realize I had been staring at his muscular, half naked body the whole time, partially entranced.

I would have slapped myself if I had enough room under the bed to do so.

After I waddle through the distracting thoughts of his good looking physic and from what I remember in the dim light, I’m able to conclude that I didn’t see anything on him that might alert me to Durain’s secret.

As his breathing shifts back into the lulls of sleep, I’m so weighed down with shame and disappointment that I don’t realize I fell asleep until I wake up with a jolt and smack the back of my head against the bottom of the bed.

Brocen mumbles in his sleep and shifts around before falling quiet, punctuated only with snores.

I’ve left a spot of drool on his rug and I have no idea how long I’ve been there. It’s still dark outside so maybe not that long. With some lethargy drained of both fear and courage, I creep out from beneath the bed. I look blearily around in the dim light, considering opening all his drawers. Maybe he keeps it in a drawer while he is sleeping.

I’m not going to push my luck. I leave his room.

Finally secured under my cold blankets, I stare at the dark ceiling, confused and angry at all these half clues even though I know Durain did it to protect my identity in case his killers found it.

I wake up with a staccato pounding of disappointment in my chest. But the pounding continues and I realize it’s someone knocking on the door. I pull the covers over my head. It’s Brocen and he wants to talk to me about last night.

“Come in,” Crisy moans, and I hope she didn’t say it in her sleep.

“Good morning, Crisandra!” It’s the macramist. Lenia, I learned yesterday. At least I can take some comfort knowing I didn’t catch the macramist and Brocen in the same bed. I don’t know if I could hold a secret like that and not tell anyone about it.

Crisy tosses the covers aside and stumbles half asleep to grab her robe while Lenia begins making her bed. Crisy leaves her room. Likely to use the privy. It must be outside. I’m one of the few houses that has an indoor one that flushes. Rumors say Aklen Whaerin’s toilet has a silver seat so he can rest his derriere upon the name of the three owners of the silver mine.

 

He always keeps it on him. This I know.

 

You were wrong, Durain. It’s not on him.

I have no idea what to do now. The third piece being in a money vault is obvious and I’ll have my chance at that during Varrica Whaerin’s debutante. Maybe I can also find out if it is true about Aklen’s toilet seat. But if I can’t find this piece which should have been relatively easy compared to one locked away, how am I supposed to gain access to the one in the vault?

Maybe Durain is wrong about the vault, too.

Lenia is fairly young for a macramist, with corn blond hair wrapped into a chignon at the base of her neck. Blue eyes magnify her smile as she opens the wardrobe for her viewing. She is also unmarried. I’m not sure whether to believe the rumors or not. Who ties the macramist’s dress?

I shake my head. Now I’m becoming just like the rest of society, believing every female is a flippant whore if they aren’t tied into a dress.

Crisy comes back into the room.

“What color would you like to wear today?” Lenia asks her.

Crisy joins her at the wardrobe. “Red.”

Lenia selects the indicated dress. I sit on my cot and watch the cheerful pair chatter as Crisy is worked out of her nightgown and into her day dress.

“Does your father work today?” I ask.

Crisy nods. “He’s already gone.”

“Where’s your privy?”

“In the back yard.”

I throw on my robe and leave the room. I glance about for intruders but all seems clear. I knock on Brocen’s bedroom door quietly. Just in case. He doesn’t answer. I take that as an invitation to go inside.

I open up drawers and carefully feel around his neatly folded clothes. The oak chest beneath the window is locked. Maybe it is in there. How can I tell? I’m horrible at this. Of course I’d be blamed if something went missing. A girl who everyone knows was friends with Durain has a sleep over and Brocen’s room is broken into and something goes missing. I’m not a thief. Thieves spend months planning something like this so they could get away with it.

I give up.

I actually do have to use the privy, and so when I come back they look at me like I got lost. I rub my belly and mumble something about, “bowel issues” which they seem to accept without further questioning.

Lenia’s hands are knuckles deep into the special knot on Crisy’s dress when Crisy asks, “Brinella, will you go into that drawer and grab my green glass knot ornament?”

“Crisy, dear, I’m almost finish with the tie. I can grab it.”

“It’s alright,” I say, though I have to consciously tell myself not to stomp across the room in agitation because of the terrible, useless night I had. I yank open the indicated drawer on the vanity too harshly and almost huff in indignation.

I can pretend I never saw the Thorn, grab the green glass ornament which is next to it, close the drawer, and smother my anger that I slept with my head beneath that drawer and spied on Not Uncle Brocen in his… But Crisy will know that I saw it. Will she find it odd that I don’t question it? Would a normal person who’s never seen it before question it on the basis that there is no apparent practical use to the Thorn?

Now I have this insatiable desire to ask her what it is.

“Crisy,” I ask, fighting to get the tone of my voice just right so as not to betray the thunder in my heart. I lift the Thorn out of the drawer. “This is pretty. What is it?”

“Oh,” she begins with a careless air. “It’s a key.”

“Oh?” I say, looking at it again. The end opposite the thorn-shaped ruby is cut in such a way that it looks like it will fit into mine like a puzzle piece. I want it.

Seeing as Crisy does not elaborate on her reference to it being a key, I can’t betray myself with further questioning so with force I put it back in the drawer. I hand the green ornament to Lenia and hold my gaze on Crisy’s rosy cheeks and bright eyes fixed on a future marriage. No. Crisy is fifteen. She didn’t murder Durain. But she is still somehow connected to it.

Lenia ties me into my dress next and my eyes continued roving back to the drawer. I can’t steal it today. I can’t even steal it tomorrow. Maybe not in the next year if I want to be absolutely sure they won’t accuse me. That bird is stuck in my throat again. Will Crisy leave it there? How long has it been there already? How often does she look at it?

Durain stole the first one from someone else. And then died. Who did the first one belong to?

My dress is tied and we are ushered into the kitchen. The kitchen is smaller than mine but I like it better. It feels more like a home instead of a museum.

The kitchen takes half of the room, separate by a breakfast bar with pots dangling above our heads. We are seated at the bar and the cheerful cook hums to herself as she pulls muffins out of the brick oven.

I eat distractedly, tuning out the conversation between the cook and macramist as they share me and Crisy’s breakfast, an affair not seen in my house.

Durain died just after he acquired the first one. If I die, who can I trust the secret too? The weight of this responsibility finally settles leaden in my bones. A secret Durian gave his life for, a secret someone killed for. Despite wanting to avenge Durain, the importance of discovering the secret is deepening within me. Valemorren is not what it appears to be.

I need a disinterested third party, I conclude. Someone else to steal Crisy’s Thorn for me if I am to remain alive and free of blame.

Breakfast concluded, I thank Crisy for the stay and leave.

I’m peppered with questions from my mother when I get home; an oddity because she has never shown any real interest in my activities until Jaicom started courting me. Marriage and womanhood are the only things my mother knows and that apparently translated loosely into sleep overs as well. I conclude it is a mercy for her to have been given a daughter because she might have lost her mind by now if she’d been given a son.

She follows me into my room, describing in detail her first sleep over and I make disinterested noises in reply.

“I hear that Jaicom loves the violin,” she says, “so I’ve got you starting music lessons on Monday.”

I pause with a hand on the door knob, bothered that my mother is stalking Jaicom. I open the door and shut her out on the other side. She is absolutely sure to not give me another ounce of freedom before I’m married. I might actually be attracted to Jaicom and be thrilled about being property of my husband if I wasn’t being forced to be.

I want to punch something.

I’m at a standstill until Thursday. I can verify at that time if the Whaerin family even have a vault, despite the rumors, and maybe find out how it is opened.

So I can tell the thief who robbed Corrana’s dress shop.

 

CHAPTER SEVEN

BRINELLA

 

My father is reading the newspaper when I sit down for breakfast. As the cook leaves a plate of eggs and ham in front of me, I glance up to the front page I can see at my angle: SILVER FINGERS: Jewelry shop broken into. Thief runs off as parish constables arrive. Minimal loss.

“Shame,” my father says as he continues to read the story on the next page.

Bait I think, but asking my mother after breakfast if I can wear her silver necklace my father had made for her from his mine might be too soon.

I try to ignore the fact that I’m bordering on reckless. But it was important for Durain, so it is important for me.

“Can I read that after you?” I ask and hope it’s innocent.

He folds the paper and hands it to me. I open it and read.

 

PARISH CONSTABLES DOING A ROUTINE PATROL DOWN SHIRESTRAIGHT… I begin to skim… THIEF WAS WEARING BLACK PANTS, SHIRT AND WORE A MASK OVER HIS ENTIRE FACE WITH EYE HOLES CUT OUT

 

I close the paper and try to force breakfast into my tight stomach.

My saddled horse takes me into town for my first day of violin lessons. It crosses my mind to ditch the sessions to use this time for my own needs, but I won’t get away with it since the instructor strikes me as being a rat when I first meet her and so I take my seat with the rest of the class.

I recognize a few of the girls from my school a couple years earlier. One of them is the second owner to the silver mine. She won’t look at me or acknowledge my efforts when I try to wave at her. In the prudish way she holds her shoulders and shifts around as if having to break through ice every time alerts me to the thought that maybe she is jealous that Jaicom is courting a girl below her own status. She’s prettier than I am, too.

It almost makes me want to have Jaicom court me to show her she is not privileged to her every want.

I’ve never considered myself an artist, though one day during mourning I was missing Durain so badly that the painted canvas in my room started to sprout dragon wings to which my mother disapproved and I never could figure out why, so I lost motivation to touch it again.

As for the violin, it’s struggling to make me work. It tries to sing, but my fingers are always misplaced and I won’t listen to the instrument’s cues to know which angle to pull on the bow. At some point the violin stops teaching me and instead mulls grumpily in discord for the remainder of the class.

I shouldn’t feel so self-conscious about my bad performance – first day, after all – but I can’t figure out why the other four girls are even taking this class, because clearly they’ve been masters at it since the age of two. Their disapproving looks is starting to chaff me. I explore the idea that if I can prove unteachable, I might be kicked out of the class. There is always a chance that Jaicom is pretending to love violins as much as I am pretending to play them.

The class finally ends with a speech from the instructor whose body sticks too far out in the front and too far out in the back. She congratulates everyone on the fine job we’ve done, sure not to make direct eye contact with me.

Stacking my violin case along the wall with the rest of them, I head outside to my horse and reach for the reins.

“Brine!”

I look around. My father is sitting astride his horse. Pre-irritation builds inside me.

“Father? Why are you here?”

He shrugs and won’t look at me. “Your mother read the newspaper about the thief breaking into the jewelry shop and that somehow translates into the fear of getting kidnapped. Sleep overs three miles from home are fine but a two mile ride back from town on horseback is sure to encourage dangers and it is easier to just not argue with her.”

I think I just pinched the rest of my freedom out when my gloved hand closes over the reins. I tap the flanks and the horse starts forward. “You could have just gone to the bar and had a couple of drinks instead,” I say lightly. “She’d never know.”

He smiles lightly, and I see that he is allowed his worries too.

Riding across the town square, I see the same trio of gypsies playing on their instruments. The monkey is doing hand stands in front of them.

I recognize Jesaro, the man who gave me a nice compliment about my kind heart the day I went dress shopping. My horse is already angling that way before I have fully decided to give in to the temptation.

My father doesn’t question as he pulls his horse beside me. We stop in front of the gypsies and dismount.

“Mr. Frondaren!” Jesaro announces as we approach. “The silverman hisself!”

“Hello,” my father greats politely, looking expectantly down on me. The monkey is pulling on my dress again and I bend down and hand him a shilling.

“Your heart is still kind,” Jesaro says.

“And your music is still beautiful.” I’m pleased my father doesn’t think as lowly about these people as my mother does. I never understood how they get along with each other so well.

A nudge on my shoulder indicates my father is ready to go. I wave to Jesaro and the two others with him and mount up. When we are far enough away, my father says, “They are gypsies for a reason.”

I don’t get angry at him like I did my mother, but I still prickle. “Likely because the women went untied for so long that society has considered them tainted and so were not able to marry a man who could provide for them.”

“Hey now,” my father warns, though his tone is severally lacking any proper chastisement. “Just… be careful. They are pickpockets and I didn’t like the way he was looking you up and down so carefully.”

“He was not!”

My father glances at me with his brown eyes and I shut up. Jesaro was not looking at me like that.

“The parish constables have reported they suspect the gypsies are involved with the thefts of Corrana’s dress shop,” my father says, clearly trying to sway me to think poorly on the poor. “And the jewelry shop. They even think the burning of the Isendell house was their doing, too.”

Isendell… that was a popular topic on the Small Minded Hamlet Gossip Because In Valemorren Everyone’s Business is Everyone’s Business And We Especially Love to Regurgitate Old News Gazette a year and a half ago and is still brought up every once in a while. I have no idea why. Sure, it’s tragic that a house burned down and consumed the family inside – both parents, a boy named Hrendel and a girl named Joseara. See? I still remember the names because of the gossip – but tragedies happen. People certainly don’t need to keep reliving the same tragedy for a year and a half in memory.

I’m not sure where all my boldness is coming from. “Sure. The gypsies are also responsible for Durain’s death, cholera, and –”

“Stop,” he says, and I do because I detect heat crawling into his voice. “Just be careful. There are reasons why people avoid them.”

But now I’m irritated. And because I am, I bring up something else to further my irritation. “Does this mean I must be escorted like a disobedient child to and from town every day?”

He passes the reins back and forth in his hands for a moment, causing the horse to snort and shuffle its neck. “We’ll see. I’ll try to convince your mother of your capabilities.” He sighed. “Unfortunately, those capabilities will hurt you more than save you.”

“Why,” I start off indignantly without refrain, “because girls aren’t supposed to know how to forage? Knife fight? Start camp fires –”

He cuts me off with a brisk raise of his hand. “Yes, all those things Durain taught you.” He falls uncharacteristically silent, tightening his hold on the reins. “Which, I’m afraid I hurt you by letting you run untied for so long.”

“Hurt me? You gave me the greatest…”

He raises his hand again. “Hurt you because now I have to fight with society so they won’t view you as tainted.”

I suppose I knew this already, but to finally have the words inked before me on stark white paper curls my stomach into knots. Society’s insatiable need for gossip fabricates stories to fill them with drama to bust apart their mediocre lives. Since women are discouraged from reading dramatic books, they then start to create their own life-like dramatic stories to live in.

I might run away to join the gypsies tomorrow. I’ll sleep on it overnight.

“Jaicom is over-looking that, though,” I defend, “so societies gossip about me can’t be all that believable.”

“And that is why I don’t want you to ever question Jaicom why he is courting you.” He meets my eyes, his own shinning in the aging stretch of early evening. “I was worried for a while that no man would want to court you. No man has courted you. But now you have the most eligible bachelor in Valemorren pining on you.” Pining is most definitely the wrong word. “And I’m certain that is only because of my status. If we were any lower –”

“I got it,” I say. My father is being truthful and that infuriates me to the point I now want to argue about all the wrongness of the world. “If society didn’t label every woman as an automatic whore, no one would have this problem.”

The trotting horses angle into each other, bumping my dress against my father’s trouser leg. How I miss trousers.

“There is great purpose to why women are tied into their dresses.”

“I know. It is because we are automatic whores.” I’m getting too passionate about the topic so I stop. Why am I the only female that thinks this is outrageous? Durain… I blame it on Durain and how he fed my head full of wonderful stories about mythical creatures and about other worlds different than mine. How he went out of his way to show me how to survive off of edibles in the forest, how to build fires… Ya. I blame it on Durain.

I plod gloomily the rest of the way home like I’m certain my future will. But now because my head is full of Durain and all the stories he read to me, I scamper into my father’s study upon arrival at the house and find a book about the local fauna. Sitting in his leather chair, I thumb through the pages.

And though the artist who drew the wildlife did a remarkable job on the detail, none of them look like the orange colored flying dog thing I saw the night I found Durain’s note.

I doubt myself. Am I sure it was orange? I thought I saw hooves instead of paws but it was dark and I was looking through a blur of leaves and sticks as they fell over me. Something was weird with the wings too but, again, it was dark.

I find an excuse for every odd thing I thought I saw. But what I can’t explain is that noise that approached and left with the animal. A tinkling sound, like the glass bead curtain hanging in the doorway of our drawing room.

I thumb through the book again, but none of the animals offer up any help, because nothing in the book shows a picture of a four legged flying thing. It had four legs. I’m just as sure as that as I am about the tinkling sound.

I close the book with a snap and put it back on the shelf. Durain would know what it was. He knew everything. The ache in me magnifies. I think a visit to Aunt Magara’s is due.

I’m received with an unexpected smile by the household macramist who takes my calling card and sits me in the foyer. My aunt emerges shortly afterward, still enshrined in black bombazine.

“Brinella,” she says with a smile. She reaches for me and I stand, accepting her kisses on my cheeks. “To what occasion do you have to call on me?”

How do I ask this without sounding dispassionate?

“I hope you will not find me inconsiderate,” I say, and already the emptiness of the house void of Durain claws at my chest, “but I was wondering if I might borrow some of Durain’s books.”

I see mixed emotions flex in the wrinkles around her eyes but she nods. “I hadn’t quite gotten to the point of… cleaning his room. Yet. It will actually help if you… take some of his books off my hands.”

I nod in return and follow her through the house to Durain’s room. I’m not expecting the blast of sorrow the moment I step foot passed the threshold, as if Durain’s ghost has latched lips onto me and is sucking me empty. I grab the door frame to catch my breath. Aunt Magara is already in the room and does not notice. With force, I compose myself and join her.

Durain was never a tidy person. Books stack along the wall, clothes draped on everything that would hold their weight, his other random personal belongings strewn about like leaves in a forest but he always knew where everything was. Aunt Magara turns to me with hands clasped in front of her. I can see the effort she is making not to cry.

“Me and Andlas have already collected what we want to keep,” she says. “The rest is going to charity. The more you take, the less I have to… clean up.” She inhales quickly. Then bustles past me to the doorway.

“Aunt Magara?”

She turns around, her back straight and her head high.

“Would you like me to clean his room for you?” I fight tears in my own throat. “It would be no bother to me and I would like to help.”

She inclines her head a little. Then with pinched lips that is not quite a smile says, “I won’t refuse the help. But you won’t make it home before curfew.”

“I’m okay staying the night, if you’ll allow me.”

A smile is finally coaxed out of her trying-for-stoic expression. “You’ll find me in my boudoir if you need anything,” she says, and walks out of the room.

In an odd way, I actually find relief cleaning up Durain’s room, piling his cloths together, scooping his personal effects into a central location on his desk. It is easier to guide a river of sorrow in a direction than to bottle it up in a lake where the dam is only going to get bigger over time as the pressure builds.

I’m cleaning until dinner time, where I take a break to join them for the meal and then resume my work. I’m also looking for any clues while I clean around the space he’d occupied for seventeen years.

Finally tiring, I conclude my cleaning complete and reward myself with sitting down among his stack of books and begin thumbing through them. I’m not surprised to find most of them are about the history of the Middle Ages, smattered with divers ranges of fantasy readings about Beowulf, the wizard Merlin, and others I recognize as him having read to me. He loved this kind of stuff.

I pick the next book off the stack but my attention is caught on the odd looking book beneath it. It appears to be bound in red and black dyed leather, clamped down tight by the four metal corner pieces, the two covers held closed by two metal clamps affixed to the front cover.

I’m not sure where the book went that was just in my hand but now I’m holding this relic of time. This book is so unlike any others I have ever seen that my imagination teases me with a story I’m making up in my head that it has come from the Middle Ages down a long line of ancestors and all of life’s secrets are going to be revealed to me once I open the cover.

I suppose this is what I get for letting Durain read to me. An imagination.

With humble reverence, I pop the clamps on the book and yawn open the cover. I first see a black ink inscription written in what looks like a form of Old English on the first page.

 

Zadicayn,

I hopeth thou hast a birth year happiness like upon a sunrise.

~Elshina

 

My first thought: Who uses the word “thou” anymore? My second thought isn’t even a thought. It is a flutter of excitement as I turn the page. The paper is different than I’m used to. Smoother. The first page shows a brilliant painting of an abada: a mythical creature like the unicorn, although smaller with two horns on its head. That is on the page on the right. The page on the left has hand written words that I can only read a small handful of because they appear to be mixed with some form of Latin.

Is this for real?

I turn the page. I don’t recognize the creature in it and the Latin-English explanation on the left of the page doesn’t help much. I turn again. I recognize the basilisk there and the few words I understand on the left page confirms my guess that the page on the left is a description of the mythical animal.

Every right-sided page has drawings. It looks like they are alphabetical. I recognize some of the creatures from Durian’s descriptions of them during his story telling, but most of them I don’t.

I turn every page as if spelled, trying to process where Durain acquired this book. It looks very old, like, it-should-be-in-some-book-museum old. We’d play games in the forest where Durain would create a mythical creature from his imagination and insert it into our games. I always thought he was highly imaginative to make things up like that. Now I know he was just referencing this book.

I reach the “F” section and my heart skips a beat. Suddenly the room is too hot for my heavy dress.

The creature is orange in color. Hairless. Standing on four legs with hooves. A thick neck like a horse and jaws big enough to chomp through a man’s skull. The wings are a drooping curtain of individual strands of skin jeweled with transparent discs, looking for all the world like our glass bead curtain in the drawing room doorway.

I’m going to throw up.

I don’t actually throw up, but I put the book down and move to the window, tossing it open so the evening air can cool the fever in my brain. And because my brain refuses to connect what I saw that night and what is glaring at me out of the book I left open on that page, I focus instead on the inscription on the first page. Zadicayn. Who is – was – Zadicayn? Was that his book? It has to be his book. Why else would his name be in there? Who was that other person… Elshina? Who names their child Elshina? Why did Elshina reference a sunrise? What does “hopeth” mean?

I go on with useless questions like this for a while until the outside air becomes too cold for me and I close the window. I close the book, too, without looking at the picture again.

I tuck the book under my arm and look around the room again, spying a pair of Durain’s trousers and a shirt slouched in the pile of clothes I made.

I take them both.

 

CHAPTER EIGHT

BRINELLA

 

My mother sits on a stool as Varseena orbits around me, tying the knots. I scrunch my face up in the mirror. “It’s just his sister’s debutante, mother.”

“A man loves it when a woman dresses up for him for any occasion.”

“He might realize I’m over doing it and get creeped out.” I shouldn’t have said that. It would work to my advantage if Jaicom stopped courting me.

“Nonsense. You’ll see.”

I roll my eyes and fork brown hair back over my shoulder.

Apparently, according to my mother, Jaicom’s favorite colors are orange and green. Thankfully, my mother had enough good sense not to have those two colors sewn together. But that doesn’t make the orange dress with brown trim any better, which is the one she picked out on the day we went dress shopping. I’m about to complain that the orange reflecting off my pale face makes me look like I have jaundice but I’ve already decided it would be better if Jaicom is creeped out.

Even when my father comes into my room to remind us of the time, it’s not until my hair resembles something in a J. Turner painting that we finally leave. The cage under my dress bangs against my legs like a bell against the gong as I walk the hallway and down the stairs.

The chirping of crickets beneath the skirt of a darkening sky invites a restless energy inside of me. I breathe in the night with smells alive with grass and cold earth and I want more than anything to run barefoot through the lawn and roll around. But as if my mother can read my thoughts, she latches onto my arm and urges me into the coach.

Never having had the occasion to see the Whaerin mansion myself, I still could have described it to you just with all the rumors and eye witnesses who had. Maybe not quite like the Palace of Westminster, but certainly the Palace of Valemorren.

The coach turns left down a long gravel white rock road lined on both sides with lanterns. A man stands on the porch in a white long sleeved shirt under a black buttoned waistcoat with trousers and shoes to match. I’ve only ever met Aklen Whaerin officially once while in town. Even from this distance I can feel his stature of importance and it only intensifies as the coach bumbles to a stop beneath the four-legged awning like a squatting dog with its head bowed to sniff us out. An orange, hairless, flying dog thing.

I can’t get the picture out of my head. And who was chasing it that night?

We exit the coach.

“Mr. Frondarens,” Aklen manages to say in a tone that combines arsenic and saturol together in a way that makes them sound like envied party favors, “I am honored to have you attend my daughter’s debutante.”

I feel his gaze linger on me even as my mother and I bow our heads. “We are honored to have been invited.”

After my father exchanges a quick word with him himself, we head inside.

We enter the foyer spiraling upward by aid of a staircase and a high ceiling that reaches to all three levels. It reminds me of a castle and a whole bunch of other sins I’m is not supposed to dream about. Bustles and frock coats are scattered across the glossy blue marble floor which could have been its own sky by how it reflects each spear of candle flame like smalls suns reaching a depth into the floor.

For a man who has capitalized the lumber business, he lives in a house made of stone.

Flowers explode from the railing on the stairs and hang in rows along the balcony. Presents are already piled on the foot of the stairs and my mother’s small box joins them.

Barber of Seville is echoing throughout the vastness of the house from the ballroom beyond. Coming to the threshold of the ballroom, my father passes his calling card over to the butler standing by who announces in a well-articulated tone, “Mr. and Mrs. Frondarens.”

The only one wearing white in the room, the debutante stands out like a cameo in a jewelry box, her gauzy dress of lace challenging an ocean’s foam. She looks remarkably like her handsome brother. Her hair, the same blond as Jaicom’s, curls over her right shoulder to slip down the low bodice. She is standing beside her mother who greets us as we approach. Shaking my father’s hand first, she turns to her daughter and says, “Mr. Frondaren, my daughter Varrica.”

My father shakes her hand. “Your many bouquets are beautiful,” he says with a warm smile. He steps aside for my mother and myself to offer some glib compliment before moving on as a, “Lord Falcons” was announced at the door.

I quickly lose my parents – maybe on purpose – in the hot scatter of bodies. I do my best to avoid the young men who don’t hide eyes spying out the girls traveling in packs down the hallways, foyer, and ballroom.

Just as I’m debating whether to snoop around the house for the rumored vault or verify if Aklen has a silver toilet seat, I spot Jaicom standing in a corner of the foyer with a blond haired girl who is about a head shorter than him. She actually reminds me of… Crisy.

I watch a moment longer. Jaicom steps to the side. It is Crisy. I watch with mute detachment as he brushes a finger across her cheek. She turns her head and buries her face in her hands. Jaicom’s body stiffens. He reaches out to her but she is quick to disappear from my view, and likely his too.

My heart goes out to him.

I actually feel weird, watching some melodrama happen in front of me that I am somehow part of because, though Jaicom calls on me, I just witnessed for myself I am not the girl he wants.

And everything Crisy said about me being lucky now makes sense.

I’m so bloody confused.

“Brinella!”

I jump at my mother’s snap. She latches onto my arm. “Brinella, they have humbugs!”

“Oh… great. I’ll have to try some.” And my mother is gone again. Depending on what size clutch my mother brought, I don’t expect the Whaerins to have any confectionary left by the time we leave.

I look back to the foyer but Jaicom is gone. I bury myself deeper into the ballroom.

I’m not sure how my father did it, but he hauls over a young man – assuming the young man followed willingly – over to me and introduces him as the son of Lord Falcon. My life flashes before my eyes and I’m somehow dancing with the Lord’s son. He says he’s from London and makes a very flattering comment about the quality of silver my father pulls out of the mine, and the whole while all I can think is, status, status, status which oddly goes along with the tune of the song.

I courtesy at the end and promptly find a new corner to hide in.

Jaicom finds me first.

“Miss Frondaren,” he says with a slight bow, “I am pleased you could make it tonight.”

I stagger for something to say that won’t betray what I witnessed in the foyer. “I am pleased to be here.” Say something else. My eyes shoot to the ceiling. “Your house is so big.”

“Like a castle,” he says, looking up at the ceiling with me. “Just missing the moat. Would you like something to eat?”

I don’t, but I agree and we walk to the table laden with confectionary. Some I recognize as having come from London. Aklen must have brought them back when he took Varrica to meet the queen for her official debutante. That was in the newspaper, too.

I eye the platters but can’t relocate my appetite cowering behind my plan to sneak about the house until I find the vault. The silver toilet seat will have to wait.

I select three tarts and a small glass of pink hued wine and follow Jaicom to a seat along the wall. I rest my back against the wall and set about to watching couples dance leisurely to the slow cry of violins.

Varrica’s white dress stands out in the center, dancing with a boy about three years older with a military cut hair style.

The song ends.

“Would you like to dance?” Jaicom asks in a tone I decide is obligatory.

No, I want to say. Stop pretending to like me and dance with Crisy.

I put my wine glass on the table next to a complicated arraignment of flowers and candles and accept his lead onto the floor. We get in position and begin the dance, though it is another moment before either of us say anything.

“I’m sorry about your cousin,” he says.

A little belated, since Jaicom has seen me since the end of my mourning period and now. But then I was dragging him up the side of the mountain during our last encounter.

“Your sympathies are appreciated.” I pause as an idea comes. “It’s really odd and unfortunate that a heart attack ended his young life.” Because if the Thorn is found in his father’s vault, Jaicom will be suspect in Durain’s murder.

Jaicom, however, only nods and looks away.

First, I need to verify if they even have a vault.

“I hear your family has a massive vault.”

He appears to contemplate this. “Is this town so small that my family’s vault is the pinnacle of conversation?”

I smile sheepishly. “It’s just that… no one else has a vault.” I hope. “And so for your family to have one is interesting, I guess. So, ya. Your family’s vault would be the pinnacle of conversation.”

“Hmmmm.” Jaicom twirls me on cue to the song.

“Is it really as big as everyone says it is?”

“How big do they say it is?”

“Like…” I look around. “Like as big as this room.”

He laughs. “Well, I guess I should show you so the town can stop speculating and the topic of our vault can be put to rest.”

I want to cheer my success. Instead, we finish the dance to a rapture of cheering and he leads me away. We come into the foyer where I spy the corner him and Crisy had occupied earlier. It feels like they are both still standing in it.

Down a hallway, he opens a door to reveal descending steps. We go through and he closes the door behind me.

The only light we have is what escapes through the bottom of the door, but Jaicom walks down the stairwell without hesitation. I pick up my dress with one hand and follow him.

The wooden steps rumble as we walk. Jaicom stops at the bottom. There is a scratching sound and light blossoms from a match he puts inside the oil lamp. He closes the glass door and looks at me expectantly. His handsome eyes glow in the light before he turns into the room.

The lantern glows upon a massive black steal door pressed against the stone foundation of the house. Jaicom stops in front of the vault door and I think for a moment he is going to unlock it and take me inside.

“The myth has been debunked!” he declares. He turns his head down to me. He’s a little taller than I am. “Not as large as everyone thought, huh?”

Still big though. According to the size of the door, the inside has to be about as big as my bedroom. And I hope beyond it is the Thorn.

“Would you like to see inside?”

I almost fall off my high heels with the shock of his offer. I try not to sound too eager. “Oh, well, I suppose. It’s really not a big deal. I was just curious.” Don’t listen to anything I’m saying. Open the bloody the door!

He hands the oil lamp to me. “Would you hold that?”

I take it, surprised when he pulls a key out of his pocket and fits it into the lock. Maybe his father has kept Jaicom in the habit of carrying the key around with him. So far this is easier than I thought it would be.

He pushes down on the handle and pulls the door open. “Leave the lantern on the floor.

I do, stepping passed it to follow him inside.

So it isn’t as big as my room. Definitely big enough for three tables with bags of different sizes and colors positioned in an orderly manner. They are also on the floor which leaves a small footpath between them all. Essentially, I’m staring at the Whaerin fortune and I half suspect they’ve robbed the royal treasury.

I can’t fathom why Jaicom is showing this to me. I’m sure there is an obvious, good reason that I can’t see right now, but I can’t think about it. Because I’m staring at the third Thorn resting on the table in the back.

I tear my gaze off it so Jaicom won’t notice me staring. I try to say something witty. “It appears your family is poor.” And fail.

“Destitute, rather.” He indicates we should vacate the vault.

I step out and he shuts the door, pocketing the key. He picks up the lantern, preparing to lead me upstairs.

But I don’t move. Now that my thoughts about the Thorn have been sated, that sense that something is off with everything comes creeping back to me; the edgy bond between father and son which is only too obvious whenever Aklen sees Jaicom with me, Jaicom’s random decision to court me, his courting me despite there are better suited girls for his status that didn’t run around untied as long as I did, and all of that through his failure to show that he actually likes me.

I open my mouth to say it all, to say how I saw him with Crisy in the foyer and demand to know why he is courting me instead, but my father’s hand of advice wraps around my throat and I choke.

And that is why I don’t want you to ever question Jaicom why he is courting you. I was worried for a while that no man would want to court you. No man has courted you.”

No other man has courted me. Because I went untied a year and a half longer than I should have. I make threats to join the gypsies but I don’t want to do that. And though I would much rather support myself as a single woman than be owned in marriage by a man, the fact of that is I can’t function in society that way. I would end up being a gypsy where I would have to steal my food to eat. I’d never be a mother. I’d shame my father – and that matters to me, and I would never again live in a house or own books and…

For the first time in sixteen years, I dread being alone the rest of my life. The evidence is sliding heat under my dress and I’m glad for the dim so Jaicom can’t see my face flush.

If Jaicom doesn’t marry me, who will?

No one. Because no one else has courted me so far, and I’m running out of time before I’ll be considered a spinster.

I follow his lead up the stairs.

 

OOO

 

The rest of the evening is a blur. I dance with many more young men – all of them from out of town who have no idea how long I went untied. But I save my last dance for Jaicom. I sneak him a kiss on the cheek when he walks me out to the coach.

I climb into the coach and it rolls away. He’s still standing there watching me as we vanish from his sight.

I need to make sure he knows I’m devoted to him so marriage to him will be less of a question for both of us. Mostly, however, I need to show him I am innocent and incapable of doing something illegal.

So I won’t be accused when his vault is robbed.

 

CHAPTER NINE

BRINELLA

 

Laying in bed, I dare to open Durain’s book again. I stare too long at the orange flying dog thing the handwritten description on the left of the page has named:

 

FÆWRAITH

 

I draw my fingers over the Old English letters. They are hard to read. I flip the book back to the first page.

 

Zadicayn,

I hopeth thou hast a birth year happiness like upon a sunrise.

~Elshina

 

“What are you,” I whisper to the book. “Durain,” I say instead because he’s more likely to hear, “What is this? Why do you have it? Where did you get it?”

The darkness does not reply.

 

OOO

 

My mother doesn’t question why I want to wear her gaudy silver necklace my father made for her. She likely thinks I’m trying to be more feminine. I wish I could tell her it’s to bait a thief, so she can talk me out of it and give me a better idea on how to break into a vault.

It’s only the second day at violin class but I’m the only one who hasn’t shown any improvement. It doesn’t help that maybe I am just not trying because I just don’t care, my motivation impacted by the flying hooved creature I saw in real life who’s only picture is in a book also listing dragons, gryphons, and pegasi.

All mythical.

That in turn is impacted by Jaicom courting me when I witnessed for myself he has affection toward Crisy and I’m stressed because I’m trying to finish what Durain started which includes breaking into a vault, and the only way I know how to do that is bait a thief and by now my violin is screeching so loudly the teacher calls for the class to stop.

“Miss Frondaren.” I stop playing and look up. “You seem distracted.”

I wish I was only distracted. “Sorry,” I say, tempted to use my cousin’s death as an excuse but it’s been long enough since his funeral that no one would believe me. Instead, I buckle down and indicate I am ready to play for real.

The presence of my father waiting for me after class does not ease the frustration coiled in my stomach like the hair on my head Varseena had curled today. I need to tell someone. Ask someone to help me. I’m filled with all these questions and worries and it is chewing me up inside.

But I can’t say anything. Because someone killed Durian to keep this secret quiet.

“Was class that bad?” my father jokes, reaching across the space separating our horses and nudges my shoulder.

“Horrible,” I say. “I think I should drop out. It’s damaging my health.”

My father laughs like I just made a joke.

A gypsy wearing a skirt patched together with random squares of dirty colors crosses the street in front of us, pulling a hand cart. The left wheel wobbles dangerously and falls flat, dumping the contents of the cart over the cobblestone. The gypsy woman presses a hand to her mouth and begins to sob.

“Oh dear,” my father says. He swings his leg over the saddle and goes to her side. Watching him, I see where I get my humbleness from; one of the three key owners to the silver mine will still reach a hand to help those beneath him.

“Miss Frondaren!”

I look to my right. Jesaro is leaning against the red brick wall of the printing house, his monkey fumbling with something shiny in his hands.

“Hello!” I call enthusiastically. He’s standing a little ways off so I have to raise my voice to reach him. “You aren’t playing today?”

He scratches his monkey’s head. “Tommy wants to give you something. He really likes you.”

I gush a little, something inside me chastising that I should not lean too heavily on the opinions of a monkey. I look over at my father who has removed his coat and is helping the gypsy woman figure out how to reattach the wheel to her cart.

I dismount. Maybe this time I’ll get to hold the monkey.

I approach the gypsy man. The monkey perched on his shoulder rewards me with a toothy grin on a head turned sideways and lifts his tiny top hat to me. What a gentleman!

I near Jesaro and he shifts his body so his right shoulder is leaned against the building. I position to face him, my back to my father.

“Tommy,” I comment, reaching for the monkey who has what looks like an earring in his tiny paws.

The monkey leaps off Jesaro’s shoulder and lands on mine, startling me which Jesaro must have translated into disgust because he starts spattering, “Tommy! She’s a lady.”

“It’s alright,” I say, letting the monkey press the earring to my ear. I smile at Jesaro. “Does it match my dress?”

Jesaro’s eyes shift about for a brief moment before settling their gaze on the sky.

Darkness covers my eyes with a hard press against my face. I inhale sharply and gag on a sweet sickness burning the back of my throat. I thrash my shoulders and it’s not until hands grab at me that I begin to panic, trying to scream through the sweet cloth jammed in my teeth but the sound is muted at best. My equilibrium begins to swim.

I’m being dragged backward. The man has such a grip on me with one arm around my waist and the other pressing a rag into my face that no amount of fighting is yielding my release. I try to hold my breath against the cloth drugging me to unconsciousness but it is impossible. Fear is making my heart race too hard. My brain is rolling around in my skull and my thoughts no longer connect because a sweet ocean is busting them to pieces.

I can’t hold my breath anymore. I inhale sharply.

And black out.

 

CHAPTER TEN

BRINELLA

 

A drummer in my brain wakes me. I open my eyes with a hiss as light through the canvas tent stabs into my eyes. I only don’t throw up because I can’t lean over far enough not to splatter myself.

My sluggish thoughts aren’t helping me piece together what happened. Slowly, I am aware of a pain lancing through both shoulders from my numb hands tied behind my back, my back resting against a wooden pole.

Panic clashes in my chest and I inhale to shout for help but stop before I do. I don’t know what’s going on. Maybe it’s better if I pretend I am still unconscious.

My pulse thumping in my throat, my thoughts spin back to the last thing I remember. A gypsy cart losing a wheel… a monkey… a muscled arm around my waist…

Jesaro had me kidnapped!

Why?

I can’t fathom why, except to prove my mother right.

But I’m scared and this is real despite that I pray and wish and demand it not be. I wrest with my tied hands but the rope binding them is sufficient. I’m thirsty and my pounding head makes me want to throw up. Looking down myself and shifting around as much as I can, I conclude that my dress has not been torn into. A feeble reassurance, however, my gloves have been stripped off my hands and my bonnet is gone.

Are the parish constables looking for me? Given the diming light outside the red canvas walls of the tent, it says it’s been about an hour since I last remember. Surely my father looked up from his work on the gypsy cart and saw me missing?

I retch into the dirt anyway, straining my head as far to the left as possible. The acrid taste in my mouth makes me spit five more times before I can tolerate to smell or move my tongue around.

The tent flap flies open and I curl my knees into my chest. But it’s a woman. Her long black braided hair is strung through with enough beds to rival our glass bead curtain. I blearily remember her as the tambourine player in the town square who played with Jesaro.

She comes into the tent and kneels next to me, holding a tin cup to my lips. I need water badly. Taking the risk that it might be drugged, I swish it around in my mouth first to rinse the taste of vomit before spitting it out and taking a drink.

The woman stands and kicks around the dirt where remains the last of my dinner, deadening the smell.

“What’s going on?” I ask.

She doesn’t look at me.

“What do you want with me?” I plead.

She leaves the tent, pulling the tent flap shut behind her.

I conclude that screaming will only guarantee being gagged, so I resort to crying softly instead. Voices murmur outside my tent. I pick up useless words like, “Money… carrots… privilege… Aklen…”

No. They didn’t say Aklen. It was a word that sounded like Aklen.

I’m too stressed to eat when the same woman brings me food. She still refuses to say anything.

“I need to use the privy!” I say, partly because it’s true, mostly because I want to see what’s outside my tent, even though all I want to do is lay down so this headache will go away.

She doesn’t say anything to that, either. She leaves the tent. Two minutes later she comes back inside in the company of two gypsy men I haven’t seen before, both with disorderly facial hair and shirts with no sleeves. The one has curly black hair which is spraying out beneath his black bowler.

I never found any comfort in being tied into a dress until now, so now when I am returned to society – I will be returned to society – I cannot be accused of being tainted by these men.

Bowler Hat unties my hands. A rush of fire reignites in my fingers as blood rushes into them. The men help me stand as if I am incapable of doing it myself, then realize it’s only to keep me in custody. They haul me out of the tent.

I’m in a forest right next to the river and railroad tracks on the other side, though I can’t position where along the river I am. The mountains directly ahead of me declare I am still in Valemorren’s valley. A campfire has drawn seven more people around its circumference, a large pot dangling over the pit and someone stirring something inside of it. Likely the dinner I never ate.

The men practically drag me along, though I am trying to show that I am being helpful even though my heeled shoes are giving me trouble. If I show that I am helpful they might let down their guard. It worked for the heroines in Durain’s stories, anyway.

I’m taken far enough down the river that I am out of view of the gypsy camp. The two men release me and turn their backs. I look around and wonder what I’m supposed to do.

“You’ve never used the river before?” asks the woman with braids. I shake my head. She mumbles something about “privilege” and then goes silent, watching me impatiently.

I look at the river. It’s starting to get chilly with the sun having vanished beyond the horizon, but fearing they will get impatient with me if I don’t do it and take me back to the tent, I gather my dress in my arms and step into the river.

Cold bits me and I hitch up my breath, tucking my other foot into the lazy slid of water. I look across the river. I don’t know how to swim. And even if it was shallow enough I could just walk through, my heavy dress would drag me down and they would catch up to me long before I made it to the other side.

I stop when the water rushes against my thighs. My toes are already numb and the heels on my shoes threatened to break my ankles if I tip too far to one side on the slanting ground.

The bloomers beneath the dress are sewn to the dress, though a rubber cup with a short hose affixed to the crotch allows for mid-day emergencies when not at home to untie the dress for such businesses.

It takes me an irrevocable amount of time through the cold river, the unease of two men standing by, the woman watching me, and my distress over being a gypsy hostage for me to conclude my necessities and come out of the river, my legs so cold it takes me a stiff moment of stumbling around to gain the apex of the bank again.

I’m taken back to the tent, only not shivering violently because of the thick hood of my skirt blocking the wind from hitting my wet legs.

Despite my show of cooperation so far, they still tie me back to the pole.

Evening darkens outside. It becomes so dark I can barely see the yellow pin stripes on the tent. I want to cry again as horrible “what ifs” attack my imagination, but crying won’t free me. I’ve been rubbing at the ropes around my wrists for half an hour now but so far the only thing I’ve managed to free is more despair because I haven’t gotten anywhere. It heaves out of my chest in a strangled choke and I curl my knees into my body.

A hand over my mouth from behind me almost beckons a scream if it wasn’t for a calming, “Ssshh!” close in my ear. “I’m rescuing you.” It’s a female voice but it doesn’t sound like Braids from earlier. She’s breathing heavy, speaking in chunks. “I need you to not speak at all. Make as little noise as possible. And do exactly what I say. When I say it without question. Or hesitation. Nod if you understand.”

I don’t care who this girl is. I nod.

“The train is going to be here in ten minutes. They mean to sell you to the Peaky Blinders. If you don’t leave with me.”

I’m not going to Birmingham to be sold into a gang. But I don’t have to tell her that. She is already cutting through the ropes around my wrists.

The ropes fall free and I stand and turn around. It’s really dark in the tent but I can see the black clothed female wearing a black mask beckoning me to the back of the tent. Sliding on her stomach, she lifts the tent and peeks out. After five seconds she pulls her head back inside.

“You will run straight back from the tent,” she says with dangerous ferocity. I can hear her own heart throbbing in her voice. “Keep running until you can’t see the campfire anymore. When you can’t see the fire anymore, hid behind a tree or bush or anything and crouch down and make yourself as small as possible. And try to hide the bright colors on your dress. Understand?”

Keeping true to her instructions, I nod, even though it is dark. She peaks her head out one more time, then pulls it in. “Run.” She lifts the bottom of the tent.

I gather my dress in my arms and duck to fit through the opening, running on my toes through the dark and the trees without looking behind me, without looking to either side. I run and run and I don’t even know if I am far enough from the camp fire yet but I keep running.

Footsteps pound up from behind me and I whirl around to kick at the man between his legs but it is only the black garbed thief from the newspaper I read about.

She runs past me and I follow her. We keep running until we reach a dry creek bed. She slides down the embankment and stops, resting her back against the dirt. I slid in beside her, holding my breath so I can hear if anyone is approaching but it is hard because my heart is beating so hard.

“The… news… paper said… you…were a…man,” I gasp, failing to catch my breath in a dignified manner.

“Good,” she says with much more breath than I have.

My heart is not calming. I just bloody escaped from being sold to a gang and taken to Birmingham. I’m still shivering with the near-fatal glance of an alternate future. “Thank you… for rescuing me.”

“I don’t work for free,” she says. “Give me your necklace.”

I’m suddenly bitter, even though I am wearing the necklace for the sole reason to bait the thief. But at least she’s not selling me to the Peaky Blinders. I unclasp my mother’s silver necklace and hand it over. “I need to hire… you.”

“What?” She turns her masked face to me. I can see her eyes poking out of the dark slits in the fabric.

“Hire… you.” I inhale deeply. I don’t remember the last time I had to run so fast for so long. Let’s see…

Never.

“You want to hire me?” She digresses a little from her tone of dangerous ferocity and replaces it with a betrayal of curiosity.

I compose my quivering heart, accepting all the sins I’m about to commit. “Yes. And you will be paid for… your efforts.” I look at the girl for acknowledgment but she does not respond, so I continue. “I am desiring an item which is locked inside a vault. The vault belongs to the Whaerin family. In this vault is –”

“One third of the key.”

I blink. “Excuse me?”

She looks away from me and rests the back of her head against the dirt embankment, popping one knee up. “You knew Durain, right?”

Oh. My. Bloody. Priest.

My heart beats four anxious times and it’s not from running. “How do you know Durain?”

An anxious silence thickens between us, as if wondering how our secrets could be used against the other. Nightingales warble in the background, somewhere deeper in the darkness.

But because the thief clearly has more patience than I do, I answer the question first. “He was my first cousin.” My voice falters at the end as I finally realize I never knew Durain half as well as I thought. Betrayal bubbles thick inside me. “And my best friend.”

“I robbed the dress shop over a month ago,” she’s saying, and it takes me a moment to realize through the haze of Durain’s dark secrets and the headache I’ve maintained for me to realize she’s answering the question herself. “I didn’t take anything because there was nothing of value I could have used. Just after I did, Durain located me and asked if I saw a copper device with a thorn-shaped ruby on one end during my theft. I told him I had. I knew he took it shortly after that because the whole town was going on about how Corrana had her ‘heirloom’ stolen. And then Durain died.”

My heart is pounding in my throat. Questions grab hands with my headache and they dance together in a dizzying spin.

“So now I must ask,” the thief muses, “why you are looking for the remaining two pieces of key? Are you even aware that you are meddling in things bigger than this world?”

“I… I don’t know why I’m looking for them,” I admit, my known world falling apart around me. “I was best friends with him. After he died, he left me a note and one of the pieces of what you are calling the key, asking me if I could collect the rest and told me where I could.” Then like a surge, questions spill out of me. “What is this key? Who killed Durain and why did he risk his life for it? Why are you calling it the key? Do you know what it is?” and on and on until she lifts her hand to stop the verbal flood.

“For your protection, I will not tell you. No one has yet connected my real name to my face so I am safe from those who hide the key. But I can tell you might become reckless for answers, despite my warnings, so I dare to tell you this much: the key is made to separate into three pieces so the three ancient families can protect the secret which they are trying to lock away. Durain, as you’ve probably now guessed, is trying to unlock the secret. And he died. And you still want to finish what he started?”

“Tell me what they have locked away and maybe I won’t think it to be worth my efforts.” Anxious energy floods my limbs and I want to stand and walk around to expel it. Now that my heart has calmed down, I’m feeling chilled from my still wet bloomers and the sweat beneath my corset from my dash through the forest.

“I won’t tell you. I’ve only heard from my grandmother rumors of things – ancient things – so even I cannot verify what the ancient families are trying to lock away. Likewise, for your protection, it is for mine as well. There are those select few who will and have killed to hide this thing. I’ve lived this long because I haven’t told anyone. You strike me as someone who would go straight to the Chief Constable and tell him the atrocities that these families are doing, and that would get you killed by those families, get your family killed, and the Chief Constable killed. They’d even kill the Queen if she ever found out. These families learned quickly that dead people don’t talk.”

More questions. What families? In Valemorren? This atrociously small minded hamlet where everyone’s business is everyone’s business?

“But then I don’t know if I should continue this or not.” I thrust out my chin as if to threaten the thief into answering my question.

The thief picks up a stick, swirling the tip into the dirt. “If what I know is true… yes. Unlock the secret.”

“So why are you cautioning me not to?”

“Because it is dangerous. And if you are successful, you will be in greater danger, danger that will never go away the rest of your life.”

“So…”

“So you should unlock the secret.”

I shake my head. I’m done with this dumb riddle. “Okay… so in order for me to do so… I need your help to acquire the other two pieces of the key.”

“And I get paid?”

“Yes. With the money from the Whaerin vault.” That I will inherit if Jaicom marries me. I groan inwardly. The thief drums fingers across her knee. “To show you I am serious about this, I am being courted by Jaicom Whaerin, so if he marries me, that vault will eventually belong to me.”

“Giving me permission to rob your vault to unlock the secret the Whaerin’s have kept secret for over three hundred years? What is wrong with you? I’m a thief and this appalls me.”

“You told me the secret would be worth it.”

“It might… but then are you prepared to unhinge history?”

“What?”

She shakes her masked head. “If one piece is in the vault, where are the others?”

“No, tell me what you said about unhinging history.”

“I asked you where the other pieces of the key are!”

I bunch my fists. Hard. “I have the one Durain st-stole. The other is in the vanity drawer belonging to Crisandra Garfair. At least, that is where I saw it last.”

“Then I will rob the vault first so if the third piece is not in that drawer, I still get paid. I should caution you… these families know that Durain took the first piece. If the other two go missing… there’s no telling what they will do. You still do not comprehend the magnitude of what these people are hiding. They’ve kept it hidden for three hundred twenty-four years.”

“Then tell me what this secret is, please!” I’m starving for that one answer. The thief shakes her head.

“For your protection, you will have to trust me.”

“Trust a thief?”

She shrugs, like it doesn’t matter either way. “It will take me some time to make convincing duplicates, so I will need to see the piece you have so I can get a good measure and weight to duplicate it. Of course if they spend any amount of time with it after I make the switch, they will know. But it will buy you time. I hope. Also, we will be sure to time my theft while you are with the person of whom I am stealing from so you cannot be blamed.”

“Wow. You are thorough.”

The black mask shifts. “You are paying me.”

I try not to think about that. “You seem rather endeavored yourself in this.”

It was a casual statement I thought was merely a false observation but she silences and I feel the mood shift to something brittle and sharp.

“These three families have hurt me badly.” She becomes so still she almost looks like a log canted into the creek bed. She points ahead of us. “Straight forward two miles is the town. There is a good chance you will run into the constables’ dogs. They started the search for you just before I left to track you down.” She jumps up and scrambles over the embankment so quickly I can’t call out to her without shouting.

With no more reason to hide in the creek bed, I stand on shaking legs and stumble toward town.

 

OOO

 

I clutched my arms, tucking them tightly under my breasts to cage in warmth against the chill. The dark trees give birth to a light swinging side to side. I stop, waiting for the dog and its constable to see me before I move again.

“Miss Frondaren!”

Two constables rush forward with their dogs, feeling the need to touch me as if to make sure I am real.

“Where did you come from?” one of them asked. “Where are they?”

I point behind me. “Almost straight back beside the river. They were waiting for the train.”

Three constables with their dogs take off running that way. I’m left in the care of two others who ask me another litany of questions which I answer with a brisk, “I need to see my father,” because I’m only going to get asked these questions all over again once I get to the station.

It’s hard to tell whether I’m privileged because of my father’s status or if they read my mind, because they start to walk toward town with me pressed between them as if a bird is going to swoop in and carry me away.

The constable station is bustling with activity when I step inside where a crying father mauls me.

“I’m okay.” I pat him on his back.

But he is not willing to let me go yet and I feel the small freedom I thought I had shrink away in the tightening grip of his arms.

It takes the Chief Constable to tap my father on his shoulder before my father lets me go. He beckons us over to a table and instructs us to sit, my father holding onto my arm so hard it’s going to be numb in a minute.

The Chief Constable lays paper and an ink well on the table, dips the quill into the ink, and looks at me expectantly. His face juts with sharp plans. Short gray hair spikes at the top and blue eyes do not soften when he asks, “What happened?”

My headache is interfering with my memory but I relay everything I can remember: how I believed the gypsy named Jesaro and the gypsy with the broken cart was a set up to kidnap me, the description of the gypsy camp I was in and all the people I saw. I consider telling them I thought I heard Aklen’s name pass between the gypsies in conversation, but my head was pounding and I was too scared to really hear what anyone was saying outside my tent so I leave that part out. For some reason, both my father and the Chief Constable don’t believe the part about the thief rescuing me but he writes it down anyway.

I’m finally released but my father keeps a tight grip on my arms as if Jesaro would be bold enough to steal me right now out of the station. He leads me to his horse.

“Get on.”

“Father, I’m really okay.”

As if I hadn’t spoken at all, he grabs my waist as if I were a child and lifts me into the saddle of his horse despite my fussing and mounts behind me. Tying the reins of my own horse to the back of his saddle, he slaps the reins and the horses launch forward.

Three constables escort us home. Despite my near horrendous incident, my cheeks still blossom at the embarrassment that will come tomorrow when everyone in Valemorren finds out. It’s probably already printed in the newspaper.

We turn down our road and my mother exits the house, still tied into her dress despite it must be well past midnight.

“Brinella!”

My father stops the horse and indicates I’m to dismount. I do, landing on feet sore from my shoes, completing the agony which had started in my head. I’m wrapped in my mother’s sobbing embrace and because my head and feet hurt, I’m still wet and cold, and I was almost put on a train and taken to Birmingham I begin crying without restraint, clutching at my mother and drink selfishly the warmth and comfort only a relieved mother can provide.

She huddles me close to her all the way into the house. She wants to hear what happened but lifting my dress so she can lay eyes on my blistered feet cut up by the straps she lets me go to my room to digress and instead bombards my father when he comes in.

I’m surprised both shoes have retained their heels. I peel them off my feet and throw them in the corner Varseena will know to mean “garbage”. Varseena unties me and I can tell she is struggling in her refrain from asking about my night. All I want to do is sleep. My head is pounding so hard I’m not even hungry.

My dress untied, I crash onto my bed even before Varseena has time to warm it. She finally leaves and I am left to blessed silence.

Except for thoughts about these three families keeping something locked away resonating in my brain.

 

CHAPTER ELEVEN

BRINELLA

 

SILVERMAN’S DAUGHTER KIDNAPPED BY GYPSIES

 

Said the headline on today’s paper. At least my mother is humble enough to not remind me of her warning the first time I met Jesaro.

Our calling card tray is almost filled to capacity by the end of the day by friends and family who come to call on me to hear about everything the newspaper did not cover.

It makes me almost want to have a bloody ball and make a massive announcement just to keep me from telling the same story twenty times, and I am so full of tea and crackers by the time the last person leaves that I could be used as a ball for school children to kick around.

To make it worse, I’m not allowed to leave the house until I get a parish constable assigned to escort me everywhere I want to go for the next ever.

The only one who doesn’t call on me is Jaicom. I’m not sure if I should be surprised or not.

If church came as a relief for me, it was only because being confined to the house for three days made me want to chew on my bed post like a bored horse. I’m made to sit in the center of the pews with parish constables surrounding front, back, and to the sides, forcing some people to stand since the constables have taken any leftover seats.

I’m embarrassed as hell and I hate my life.

I slink low on the bench as if that would take peoples’ eyes off me.

The priest emphasizing the importance of constant morality with special interest to not cohorting (is that even a word?) with demons makes me feel strangely like he is directing his sermon at me because I hate tiable dresses and clearly the thief is a demon. He ends his sermon with a, “Pray and repent least you suddenly die in your sins like the burning of Frieton, Marisca, Hrendel, and Joseara Isendell,” which makes me wonder if it wasn’t the priest who had started that fire a year and a half ago.

My constable who is to escort me for the rest of my life arrives just in time on Monday to take me to violin class. I’m blaming Durain for everything that’s going wrong with me.

I enter the music room, surrounded instantly by girls in bushy dresses as if I were holding a bowl of seeds to a flock of birds. Surprising because this is the only association I’ve had with any of them so far.

But it’s not to garner any sort of friendship with me. They actually make their questions sound like I am lucky to have been kidnapped by gypsies because of all attention I’m getting.

The teacher finally calls us all to take our seats. I’m still granted a small mercy from the instructor who thinks I’ve earned some excuse because of my “traumatic” experience and so does not point out my obvious short comings – still – on the violin.

After class, I’m reaching for the reins on my horse when my dreaded first name shouts at me from behind.

“Brinella!”

I turn to see a girl I’ve never seen before walking toward me. Glossy golden curls tumble over her shoulders. Her dress is a simple, subdued red and brown cotton, billowing mildly at the hips with full sleeves and a wide open chest. The dress does not tie. She appears to be older than me by the way she holds her maturity in a straight back and pulled shoulders that clearly dominates my age of sixteen.

She stops in front of me. “Are we ready?”

I stare at her. Aside from me having no clue who this person is, there is something off about the skin on her face. Much too thick and bulgy like… like she has clay all over her face like a mask that is drowned in liquid makeup. Tiny cracks spread all over the drying mask. And the hair looks fake, too, in the light.

My lack of a response causes her to roll her eyes. She pops open her clutch and pulls out the barest slip of silver from my mother’s necklace.

A spike of realization jolts through my stomach. Trying to keep my composure, I turn to my escort who is waiting impatiently behind me. Knots of fear sweats in my gut. “This is Madrin,” I say, hoping my voice doesn’t shake too much. The thief didn’t provide me a name so I decidedly make one up. “She’s coming back with us.”

My escort nods and looks around as if hoping someone else will take his job.

The thief pulls a fan out of her clutch and proceeds to fan herself expertly. If I wasn’t lacking a silver necklace, I would believe the girl was well raised and well kept.

She walks beside my horse as we head toward my house. A line of buttons up the front of the thief’s bodice keeps the dress closed. A woman wearing a non-tiable dress is viewed as a harlot, despite circumstances where a father could not afford one or the girl is living on her own. But that is how my society functions. Total black and white. But I did wonder what kind of background this girl had, why she couldn’t be tied into a dress and why she was a thief in the first place.

The thief positions herself between the constable and me and begins a very cheerful conversation. I can’t shake the bother that the very thief the city is looking for is riding beside the constable whose job it is to assure I’m not targeted again by thieves. The irony is so heavy I expect the ground to crumble beneath us.

“I had picked out a baby blue skirt,” Madrin continues, flicking her fingers in the air above her as she speaks, “but when I picked it up it turned out to be an ocean blue…”

I’m impressed with the girl. Clearly acting, she had picked a character to portray and is killing it with perfection.

I try to add to the conversation when appropriate but such things feminism are beyond me. Madrin finally notices and tones her persona down.

The thief and I dismount and the stable hand takes our horses away. The constable dismounts too, tying his horse to the hitching post before going around the back of the house to the kitchen for lunch.

For a blessed moment, I’m finally alone.

“Madrin?” the thief asks.

“You never gave me a name. I had to have something.”

She nods. “Madrin is fine. So what are our activities going to be to mask the illicit ones?” All gaiety gone, she is all business now.

I shrug. “This is your idea.”

“No.” The thief points a finger at me. “This is your idea.”

I look at the house as if the stone fortress could provide an answer. “Can I ask you some questions?”

“No.” She steps daintily in the direction of the front doors. “Let’s get started.”

We walk in silence all the way into the house. I’m not bombarded by my parents so I lead her up the stairs into my room. She pauses, her eyes moving around as if to take in all her surroundings. I close the door, going so far as to look under my bed and in my wardrobe before giving the “all clear.”

I sit on my bed but she is still letting her gaze consume the room. Do I see hunger in her eyes? The spell upon her breaks and she sits at my vanity. “So.” She clasps her hands in her lap. Her fingers are long and rough looking. I guess her age to be about eighteen or so. “Let’s see it.”

As I fish under my bed for my lock box, it occurs to me that I will have to relocate it once the thief leaves. Lest she come back and take it.

I unlock the box, pulling out the copper piece with the ruby thorn. She takes it and studies it from every angle. “Do you have paper and charcoal?”

I gather the items and set them on top of the vanity. She puts the Thorn – re-named Key – on top of the paper and proceeds to trace it. Finished, she hands the Key back. I quirk my eyebrow as she begins to elaborate the tracing with other pictures so soon the trace image can’t be picked out.

“Why did you trace it only to draw over it?”

She sets down the charcoal stick and looks at the mess of lines she created. “In case other eyes chance to see this paper, they will only see these abstracts. But you can still see the trace of the key, right?”

I could. “Is there a chance that someone will see this?”

“Despite planning and precautions, there is always a chance at anything. Best to lessen those chances in every way possible. Durain died because he was too impatient.”

“What turned you into a thief?”

Her pretty eyes darkened. “Are you changing your mind about this job that you gave me?”

“No.”

“Then don’t ask personal questions.” She folds the paper with hasty fingers, making it small enough to tuck down the front of her bodice. “I dare not have an iron smith make a duplicate. I don’t know who is on our side, so I’ll be forced to make them myself. I don’t have any friends of who to trust, either.” She leans back on the stool against the vanity, looking at the ceiling. “I have tools to work with wood to make it as smooth as metal, but then weight is an issue. I could insert nuts and bolts to make them heavy but the wood won’t be cold like metal will be sitting in an underground vault. I can use cut glass for rubies. The glass smith won’t find that unusual. So if I start working on it tonight…” She squints and shakes her head. “Two weeks? And then we have to be sure that you have an alibi the night of the thefts. And hope that both parties don’t handle the key pieces enough to notice they’ve been duped. Hell will rise to the surface in Valemorren if they know.”

I acknowledge with a somber nod. I put the Key back in my secret box and pull out the white cube Durain Willed me. “By chance, do you know what this is?” She knew Durain, if briefly, so it’s worth a shot.

She takes it and within three seconds her eyes widen. “Bloody angels,” she breaths. “It’s all true.”

“What’s true?” My heart gallops. “You know what it is?” Still breathless, she nods and hands it back. “What is it?”

“I’ve told you… for your protection I won’t tell you anything. You’ll have to ask –” She bits her lip and I’m ready to shriek. “I’ll leave you a note in your violin case, telling you the day and time of the steal. I’ll rob the Whaerins first.”

“You think you actually can?” I doubt. “Not to not trust your… skills or, or anything –”

“My father was a locksmith. As was my grandfather. My grandfather was the one who installed the Whaerin vault into their house and showed them how to unlock it.” As if closing a book to the conversation, she looks up at me. “It will be up to you to get an alibi during the day and time I specify in the note I’ll leave in your violin case. And you must dispose of the note. I suggest eating it.”

“Eat it?”

The thief stands. “Would you show me the way out?”

I grumble and lock the white cube back inside the box and slid it under my bed.

We run into my mother halfway down the stairs. “Mother!” I shout, feigning excitement. “This is Madrin. I met her at class and brought her for a visit.”

“Pleased to meet you.” Madrin makes a pretty courtesy.

“Who are your parents?” my mother asks.

I’m ready to reply with a lie that’s likely to be stupid but Madrin saves me. “Corden Asterfel is my father. My mother died a year and a half ago. We’ve just moved into town.”

My mother’s eyes flick downward at Madrin’s un-tiable dress with clear disapproval, though she meets Madrin’s eyes with a smile. “So sorry about your mother. Please tell your father about us and you can join us for dinner sometime.”

“Certainly. It is a pleasure meeting with you.”

“Likewise.” My mother dips her head in parting and continues up the stairs.

The thief is so convincing that I almost believe her, though have to remind myself that if this girl had both parents she wouldn’t be thieving and would be tied into a dress. At least I hope.

On the porch and still in character, she smiles at me and delivers an elaborate departure speech slathered with niceties and future promises and then walks down the road.

I drag myself back to my room to wait the two weeks in anxious confined misery.

 

CHAPTER TWELVE

BRINELLA

 

I sleep restlessly for a week and a half, continuing to have dreams that someone is stealing the Key from my lock box. I re-hide the box in my wardrobe, checking to make sure the Key is there every time I wake. Some sane part of this scheming says not to trust the thief I had employed with my own possessions.

Every violin practice makes me dread opening that violin box. I realize I’m really good at creating situations and then dread the consequences later.

The Thursday before the theft, I open the violin case. Still no note. Did she back down, been captured?

My teacher declares the class will perform for the public next week, though that approaching test still does not scare me into playing any better. The class concludes and my escort’s quiet self is waiting like he’s getting paid and rides silently as usual back home with me. That’s fine. It’s awful enough being tied into a dress and forced to be escorted, but to throw mandatory conversation into the mix would push me over the edge.

Crisy is so hungry for friends it would be simple to ask her for another overnight stay. But what if she had moved the key since I last saw it? What if the one I saw is fake itself?

I groan at this last thought. I hadn’t even considered why it was placed in an easily discoverable place. Maybe it was bait to find the thief who had stolen the first of the three.

Much too late to stop it now. I don’t even have a way to contact the thief, if she had not backed out on me.

“How was class today?” my mother asks over dinner.

“Fine. I want to ride with Crisy to church tomorrow.” Well, it’s not that I want to ride with Crisy. More like… I want to be less suspect as possible when her personal belongings go missing. And to have her see me going to church like a saint is an additional bonus.

“That’s fine, sweetie. And how’s your new friend?”

“What new friend?” My mother’s odd look confirms my mistake. “Oh… her parents and she take frequent trips back to Bristol, where they are from. Grandmother is sick.” I’m getting better at lying on a whim. I’m hesitant to count that as a skill. “But she hasn’t forgotten the invitation.”

“And I hope she uses it.”

“How much longer do I have to be baby sat?” It came out, really, without asking myself for permission.

“Brinella!” my mother exclaims with more exasperation than necessary. “Why do you question the inconvenience for your safety?”

“It’s stupid.”

My father’s sharp look turns my gaze onto my plate. I poke my fish with my fork, wondering when he’ll come to my rescue. “It’s not an inconvenience,” I repair. It is totally inconvenient. “It’s simply annoying. The whole town is talking about me.”

Whatever odd bond my mother and I shared the night of my kidnap dissolves under the look she gives me. She starts to form a remark but my father lifts his hand to silence her. He looks at me, then turns his attention back to cutting open his fish. “Another two weeks will suffice, I think.”

I try to make my father feel my displeasure with the thoughts I throw at him. I know he is always on me side but he is also married and that, unfortunately, comes first.

It’s clear my mother is not so satisfied but returns her attention back to her meal.

In my room, I endure the eternity it takes to get my dress off, wondering how most girls could dream of the day that marks their maturity and could show that by being tied into their dresses. I want to shout to them all that it is actually a portable prison. I have no desire to lose my virginity before marriage but being forced to take measures to prevent it makes me want to rip my clothes off in public for some backward reason.

Come Sunday, the assigned constable I name Brick Face escorts me to Crisy’s house. Not Uncle Brocen is there, but agrees, along with Crisy (though Crisy is more subdued toward my presence from the last time we spent time together. That was also before I witnessed Jaicom brush her cheek at his sister’s debutante) to my request to ride with her to church.

The azure sky is clear of clouds and the warm sun bears down freely upon us. My pale pink and white riding dress reflects most of the heat that sometimes reaches through the shade of my large wicker hat. Crisy is wearing the same yellow and white print on our first ride together. I have just enough dresses for two weeks without wearing the same one twice. I hate that my parents – well, my mother – wants to show them all off as if I were a doll she can dress up. In many ways, I envy Crisy as surely as she envies me.

Jaicom’s family is sitting at their usual spot on the right row of pews near the back. I watch Crisy’s head turn that way and she stiffens. I seriously need to talk to Jaicom about it. But as soon as that thought tempts me I’m assaulted by another one: If Jaicom doesn’t marry me, who will?

We take our seats and the sermon is vocalized by the priest I like to compare to a crow; his large black robe and long black sleeves under a pointed nose, balding head, only encourage that visual.

I lean into Crisy. “This church has always given me the creeps.”

Crisy muffles a snort. “What makes you say that?”

“It’s made of stone and echoes like a tomb. The dead are prepared for burial in the crypts beneath and the priest wears black and talks about hell all day long.”

“Well,” she muses, “only sinners fear church. So… out with it. What sins would you like to confess?”

I’m still getting to know Crisy and having never seen her at this level of humor, I can’t tell if the unblinking stare she pins on me has already guessed that I’m planning on having her room vandalized or if she is showing off her first step into sarcasm.

Crisy gives herself away. “Good thing I’m not a priest. You might have burst into flames with the look you gave me!” She laughs, a little too loudly, and my mother shushes us – blames me – and turns her attention back to the priest.

“…who sell their soul to the devil!” The priest punctuates the sentence with a thrust of his fist into the air. “All for a chance to handle the powers of God.”

“What is he talking about?” I whisper to Crisy who shakes her head. She hadn’t been paying attention, either.

“It is called mmmmmagic,” the priest emphasizes, casting a steely gaze over the congregation. “Magic. That which turns men evil and compels them to follow after demons is called magic. But, despite the evils of it, some continue to seek it for their own ill or selfishness. Deuteronomy chapter eighteen, verses ten through twelve say thus: There shall not be found among you any one that maketh his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, or that useth divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch, or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar spirits, or a wizard, or a necromancer. For all that do these things are an abomination unto the Lord, and because of these abominations the Lord thy God doth drive them out from before thee.

The priest spends a particular amount of time driving his stare into select people in the room. From my position, I cannot see who, but by now the whole chapel is a little unnerved since the shuffle of clothing has stopped, general sniffing, even breathing.

“The Lord will condemn those who deem themselves wizards and the like,” the priest continues, pacing around the pulpit with his hands behind his back. “In Leviticus, it is quoted, ‘I will even set my face against that soul, and will cut him off from among his people.’ Heed to this warning,” the priest intones, “because as the God Almighty has said it, so shall it come to pass.” The priest walks back to the pulpit, for he has a habit of walking all about the raised dais as he speaks. I’m certain that if someone tied his arms down he would be mute.

“Magic.” I taste the word. What an odd sermon this Sunday. The priest makes it sound like there is a problem with magic and wizards in Valemorren.

Crisy leans into me. “Your constable is kind of handsome.”

“Sure. If you can look past the fact he is fifteen years older than you.”

“Better than not being married at all.”

I wish I still had my doubts about that.

The sermon ends with a somber hymn from the congregation, and after the prayer, everyone files out.

“Magic? Wizards?” Crisy asks as we ride back to her house. She laughs but it sounds weird. “What a strange thing for the priest to go on about!” She looks down at her dainty slippers poking out of the bottom of her yellow dress.

I agree, but I don’t say so out loud. This I can tell you. The Fae are real. Fae are often linked with being the “mother” of magic. Durain believed in the Fae. Was Durain a wizard? By now that wouldn’t surprise me.

I’m actually tempted to tell Crisy about the orange flying thing I saw in the forest. But she is the current keeper of one of the Keys so I change my mind. I don’t trust her, despite she has a genuine sweet nature that I believe is real. I don’t even dare tell my father whom I trust with any secret. There is a weirdness growing in Valemorren and lately I feel like I seeded it.

 

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

BRINELLA

 

I have this intense desire to check the jail registry to see if the thief had been caught, but I can’t think of a believable story to tell my parents why I want to do so. Besides, the thief hadn’t even given me a real name.

I open my violin case. No note. Tonight would have been perfect, too. Jaicom’s whole family is sitting in the wooden chairs below the stage glowing with a gazillion gas lamps, the brown wood of the stage lacquered to reflect the light.

We are in the Community Hall. It is too vain and too large for the small mundane things it is usually used for but when it does support a Ball, people from as far as Bristol attend. The Whaerin family from so many generations ago helped build it, likely in hopes to bait the King for a visit.

The glass, metal, wood, and stone workers combined their arts to create this structure. The two levels with a wraparound mezzanine creating a second floor, teardrop crystal chandlers, and a cathedral ceiling wrestled hand in hand with certain rooms in the Buckingham Palace for dominance and beauty. Archways in the west wall on both floors lead outside to the body of water claimed as a lake. Pillars line parallel down both sides of the rectangular Hall beneath the mezzanine, wrapped in curtains that could be pulled back or draped closed. At one end was our stage, where we waited behind the curtains.

Everyone, to include me – unfortunately – dressed in our horse show best. I feel the title to our musical – “A Violin’s Sorrow” – is misleading. It should have been, “Five Unwed Girls of Age for Sale” because of how all of us had spent the entire day curling hair and nitpicking over brand new dresses no one had ever seen before.

I peek around the curtain and spot Jaicom’s blonde hair shining from some pomade in the lamp light. His glossy locks are parted mostly to one side but his white skin and blue eyes are lacking any mirth. I’m not sure he enjoys violins as much as my mother tries to make me believe. He is very handsome, I admit. The girls behind the curtain are already talking about him, shooting furtive glances my way. They are all very pretty. Prettier than myself. Not that I’m ugly, but I have a heavier bust than most girls and shoulders broad enough to push against the line of being feminine. That somehow gives me a wide face, too.

My teacher waltzes proudly to center stage and the chattering audience quiets. It looks like the entire town showed up.

She welcomes them all, briefing them on what they would hear tonight. One by one she calls our names and we promenade to the chairs on the stage.

Jaicom doesn’t once crack a smile during the performance but he claps respectfully with the rest of the audience. Upon the conclusion of our musical, we stand, bow, and exit as practiced. The crowd stands to begin their filing through the drinks provided. I’m putting my violin back in the case when Jaicom appears beside me. I stand, not sure what to expect.

“You played wonderful.” His eyes scan me, making me feel immensely uncomfortable. “Beautiful, too.”

I blush, so many questions on the tip of my tongue. “Thank you,” I say instead.

He looks over his shoulder, back into the crowd. Is he looking for Crisy?

“Sorry that I haven’t stopped by to see to your safety and health after your kidnap,” he says without meeting my eye, but his sincerity is so bad that any excuse is not going to cover it. And it’s obvious because he’s fidgeting too much and I finally can’t stand it.

“Jaicom, why are you courting me?” I stand bold, ready to never get married if my only option is marrying a man who has no interest in me. “You only seem interested in me when your father is watching.” The more I speak, the warmer I get. “And even then your father looks so distasteful at me that I fear I’m catching cholera. I don’t understand it. Either court me like a real gentleman or stop.”

I catch him off guard. His pale features flush and his fedora becomes a mash of black baker’s dough in his hands. Unexpectedly, he steps across the space separating us and tags me with a kiss on the cheek.

Now it’s my turn to flush. The kiss is so foreign I’m certain it left a mark with how it burns.

“I’m sorry I’ve been confusing,” he says in a tone I almost believe is sincere. “Been busy learning my father’s business and traveling to Bristol. I’ll do better from now on.” He smiles at me and it further drives my frustration which is now morphing into hurt because he didn’t answer my question. “I’ll see you around Miss Frondaren.” And he merges back into the crowd.

 

OOO

 

The buzzing confusion in my brain about Jaicom’s intent is made worse by Varseena talking all the way home about my performance, as if the whole thing was amazing because of me, which I know is false.

By the time I reach my room, Varseena is starting on the time when she first learned to play. I half listen while Varseena unties the knots to my dress and leaves with a promise to finish the tale tomorrow. Unless she is going to tell me how the first violin was made, I’m not sure how else she was going to elaborate on the topic.

As usual, I pull my secret box out of the wardrobe to make sure the thief didn’t help herself. After all, this house had been empty and the thief likely knew it.

I open the lid and stiffness drives between my shoulders. Three identical Keys rest against the bottom, arraigned purposefully. I can’t tell which one is mine. I’m shaking, so many emotions wrestling for dominance in my chest. Relief? Excitement that Durain’s secret is going to be revealed to me? Fear at the cost?

The door knob to my room jostles. I shove the Keys back inside and slam the lid shut. But it is only my father locking me in.

My stampeding heart quells and I open the lid again, touching each piece. They look and weigh identical. As if holding a relic to Durain’s past and my future, I gather the pieces and sit on my bed, folding my legs under me. Trying not to think of the consequences of this, I attach two of the pieces together and then the third, so they look like a three pronged starfish with the rubies dropping down from the tip of each of them

As the third clicks into place… nothing happens. That is to say, I had expected something to happen. A flash of magic like the priest warned about… or something.

Without warning, the three-pronged copper device rips out of my lap as if magnetized and slams into the wall by the window.

I’m screaming before I can stop myself, clamping my teeth shut when I realize it. I run to the door and yell through the crack, “I’m fine! Just saw a… spider. I killed it.” Lame.

Frantic feet come running at me anyway. As soon as the door opens, I greet my father with a nervous smile. “Sorry. A spider crawled across my arm and scared me.”

His stiff expression softens and he pats my head as if I’m three years old. Without a word, he locks me in again. I turn back to the… what should I call it now? Magicked Hunk of Metal, Demon-Possessed Copper Thing? It looks like a star. I will re-christen it as the Star.

I’m shaking with nerves at the remarkability of the thing clinging to the plaster wall facing the mountain range three miles from my house, having flew from my lap as if it were alive. I touch it with the tip of my finger as if it might burn me. Nothing. I slide fingers underneath it and pry. It comes free into my hand with much less force it took to fly away from me and now I have three holes in my wall.

So now I have it. Whatever this is.

Holding onto the Star least it fly out of my hand again, I locate Durain’s letter in my lock box. I see another letter instead on the bottom, face up. Words fill it halfway.

 

I am paid in full, in case you had any douts. Here are the last pieces to the key. Use at yur own risk. A final warning… yu can never go back once you begin. Your life is in danger if anyone finds out. Eat this letter.

 

I read it three times, then shove the paper in my mouth. The ink bleeds over my tongue and I gag, running to the pitcher and basin on my vanity but I obey the instructions and swallowed the paper, washing the ink out of my mouth with plenty of water.

I read Durain’s note to see if it would allude to what I’m supposed to do next.

Follow the pull, it said, and hold on.

Oh.

 

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

BRINELLA

 

Now that violin lessons are complete, my mother indicates in no subtle way that Jaicom loves paintings.

I’m certain my mother has no idea what Jaicom likes but is trying to dissuade me from falling back into habits not desired in a lady. And I briefly hate her because it is working. I haven’t had time just to meander ever since I took Jaicom to the cliff, and even then I was in company that didn’t enjoy himself.

So I’m enrolled in art class twice a week. But I can’t go. Because I absolutely have to follow the pull of the Star and that is going to take longer than a few hours of stolen time, I’m certain. How much time do I need? What if I don’t find the thing I don’t know what I’m supposed to be looking for? What am I looking for?

I write down everything: supplies needed, time frame. I conclude I’ll need to give myself a week to “follow the pull” of the Star, because I have no idea where it is going to take me. I would even like more time but with the increased watchfulness of my mother, it is going to be hard enough to get just that.

I stare at the wall for thirty minutes, at the picture I hung over the three puncture marks in the plaster, thinking of how to request a week off from life to follow the pull of a magicked metal thing the priest would burn if he ever found it. But I don’t know how to find the time. Nothing will work. No excuse, no desperation would yield me that desire.

After some mulling over for a long time I come up with a plan. Brick Face will be relieved from pestering me tomorrow and I will finally be free to travel to art class on my own. Except I won’t show up to art class. I won’t come home, either. After about a week, I’ll come back, having “escaped” from the same gypsy who had kidnapped me already. Despite everything about my real kidnap, I find what irritates me the most is the monkey was involved.

I’d be stuck with an escort for the rest of my life after that and might be married sooner because of it, but Durain had given his life for this. My sacrifice pales in comparison to his and it doesn’t even bother me that I don’t even know what I’m making sacrifices for. Durain thought it was important. So will I.

I finish the last details and store my plan in my lock box, then relocate to the music room to play the violin before my mother nags me about it. My stomach hardens into knots as I think about the bold act I’m committing tomorrow. There are so many holes in it, but I have to get started. I’ve already been too long getting to where I am with the Star and I can’t count on the fake keys convincing those from whom they were stolen from for much longer. I have to find out what Durain’s secret is before I’m discovered.

I play a couple cords, finding the soft edges of violin screams actually ease my worry a little.

I lay in bed and roil with nerves. My chosen outfit of pants and shirt I took from Durain’s room are already hidden in Durain’s rucksack in the forest beside my house along with other necessary supplies to carry me through the unknown for a few days. I fall restlessly asleep.

 

OOO

 

A breeze ruffles my blanket, and I wake because I’m cold. I sit up to close my window I don’t remember leaving open and stop as my eyes fall on a crouched shadow perched on the sill.

A casual leg dangles back and forth from the shadow, head rested against the frame and watching me with eyes which are the only things I can see beyond the mask.

“Hello,” the thief says.

I reach for the candle beside my bed.

“Is light necessary?”

I pause, withdrawing my hand and instead bunch the blanket around me to stay warm against the breeze. “What do you want?”

“Would you find it strange I’m feeling protective of you?”

I find it strange and annoying. I have so many questions and it is simply exhausting being teased by the answers the thief knows but won’t give. “I’m touched.”

“You don’t sound like you are even worried about the danger on your life.”

Honestly, I wasn’t a hundred percent convinced the thief wasn’t making all that up about my life being in danger, and for a thief to get “protective” of me starts to chaff, like I really needed a second mother. “How did you get in my room?”

“The same way I got into your future safe. Only easier. Can you believe they leave the key hanging on the wall beside it?”

“Huh? That sounds dumb. Look, thanks for your misplaced duty of ‘protecting’ me, but unless you’re going to give back my mother’s necklace or stand guard by my side night and day and taste all my food for me then your protection is useless. Who knows? My potato soup was probably already poisoned. I might be dead on the morrow. So you are free to leave.”

“What do you plan to do with the key now that you have it?”

The only other sure way to get the thief out of here is to push her out the window I wish she’d closed because it’s getting bloody cold. “Like I’d tell a thief who can pick the lock to where I hid the completed key. For all I know, you are working for the people whose keys you stole. Why else would the key to the Whaerin vault be found in plain sight for you?”

The air in the room brittles, like it might cut the one who breaks it first. Dark laughter hisses out of her.

“Work for them?” Her voice carries the words on a pitch high enough to penetrate the walls. I worry my mother might hear.

She jumps from the sill and begins rummaging in the drawers at my vanity. I reach to stop her but she pulls out a box of matches and strikes one so the head blooms. Yanking the black mask off her face, she holds the match up until it reflects like hot tears in her eyes.

I look away from her mutilated face, guessing at her real name even before she says it.

“I am Joseara Isendell,” she says. “I died in a fire a year and a half ago.”

 

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

BRINELLA

 

Her face is pock-marked and angry; scar tissue red. Plump lips had been melted away and she has no eyebrows. Patches of ash brown hair fights for growth over her rumpled scalp.

That brittle silence still spreads across the room like a thin layer of ice. “You’ve heard of the Isendell family?”

I shift, careful not to look at her face without being obvious about it.

Joseara replaces the mask and sits on my vanity stool, dropping her voice. “Durain thought he was the last one, thought the burden was all his to bear. He didn’t know. How could he know that there are multiple families who have been silent watching all these years?” She pauses as if waiting for me to question. “Well, there were multiple families. Until untimely accidents, sicknesses, and fires killed them. I don’t know how many are left.”

“So… your family died…?”

Joseara silences. I can’t tell if the girl’s eyes are locked on me or on the past.

“This secret,” she starts again, “I heard first from my grandmother. She told my father and I overheard when I should have been asleep. My father began questioning the church after that, telling them what he had heard; essentially speaking out against the other families –”

“What other families? The families who had the keys?”

“These families have been very good at keeping their secret for so long, and they do it by killing those who would speak the opposite. The next day, our house burned. Everyone in it died.”

“Everyone…?”

“Everyone,” she affirms. “And even then, I still didn’t understand the rumors about this ‘secret’ totally until you showed me the white cube.”

“Really? How do you know what it is? What is it?” I’m crawling across my bed as if to reach across the space and strangle her for more.

“My family died because they asked questions. The less you know, the more convincing you’ll be that you know nothing if you are questioned. For the same reason I won’t tell you what secret you are heading out to uncover.”

I press my face into my sheets and shriek. “Then why are you here?”

“Just another word of caution, so you can see what has happened to those who knew just a rumor, not the entire key.”

“You’re the one who made that possible!”

“Because if I didn’t help, you’d steal them yourself like your idiot cousin tried to do and you’d likely be dead by now… like him. And I genuinely want you to release what has been kept secret for three hundred years.”

“I’m releasing something?”

“I told you I’m not answering your questions.”

“Then stop goading me!” I’m weary with all this mystery crashing together in my head. “So you’ve given me your warning. What else do you want?”

“I want to know what you plan to do next, so I can help you.”

“What’s in it for you?”

“Perhaps I took more money than I should have from the vault and I do have a guilty conscience. But then… I just want to know that my family’s death was not for a fantasy. So tell me, what is your plan?”

Honestly, I’m relieved to know I have a cohort in this. I could use the help. “My parents have put a stop to my wild gallivanting. I’ve been signed up to take an art class twice a week. In the note Durain left me, he said to follow the pull… of the key, I guess. I figure I’ll need a week to follow it if I am to be close to successful. So… I was going to ‘go’ to my class, get “kidnapped” again by the gypsies, and then after a week I’d “escape”.”

The thief laughs, and even though I’m aware my plan is ridiculous, I don’t like it being so obviously mocked.

“Here,” Joseara says, “I’ve got a better one. There are a select few who know who I am and that I’m alive. They have likewise been affected by the other families who sought to burn out rumors they started. They are all for this cause, just scared to do anything about it. Your parents already know me as… what was that name you called me?”

I really want to know who these “other families” are because assuming they are Crisy, Jaicom, and the dress shop lady who’s name I also forgot is too unbelievable. But then, I really don’t want to know. Because it might be them. I fumble with the edge of my blanket. “I forgot.”

“You forgot?”

“You did too!”

Joseara fans a hand in front of her face. “Anyway, your parents know me. I even gave them a fake name for my father which I at least do remember. I will ask one of my friends to act as my father and we will come to your house and ask your parents if you can come with us to Bristol for a week. Eh? What do you think?”

I would have a good alibi and a good story… and I wouldn’t get married as soon as I came back from having been “kidnapped”. I nod at once. “I’ll take it. When can we start?”

The door to the room clicks, making us both start in panic, but then soft footsteps shuffle away. Joseara climbs out of the window without another word, and that is highly unfair because I had to use a sheet last time. Maybe she’s a wizard.

Varseena comes in five minutes later. My weekly cold baptism is ready for me downstairs and my I Am Eligible For Marriage rose oil.

Art class is early morning. Breakfast concluded, I mount my horse and ride into town, tasting my first unescorted freedom since the kidnap. I’m glade Joseara intervened. The more I think about my original plan the more stupid if feels.

At class, I actually enjoy painting. I can paint my emotions and dreams and frustrations on a canvass disguised as art. I can’t do that with a violin. It cries when I try and everybody notices.

Joseara is waiting outside in the same untiable dress, her blond wig tumbling down a face smoothed with clay and colored with makeup. The clay makes her cheeks abnormally plump and a closer look reveals the same small fissures along her mouth and eyes.

“Hi.”

“Hi.”

I mount my horse and she walks beside me. When we are out of town, Joseara says, “I found someone. He’ll come over in a few hours to ask.”

“That’s perfect. My mother was wondering when you’d come for dinner, but I guess lunch would still be okay. Oh, by the way, I told her you had gone to Bristol a short while back to visit your sick grandmother.” I look up at the sky. “I think that’s all the stories I said about you.”

“You lie terribly.”

The dining room is already prepared for lunch when we enter and my father is sitting with my mother at their accustomed chairs. My mother looks up. “Hello, Madrin,” she says, and I am vastly relived that she reminded both of us what Joseara’s fake name is.

“Hello. I hope it’s okay if I join you for lunch today.”

“Of course.” Janella has this astute skill to where she can show obvious disapproval (today it is Joseara’s untied dress) with her eyes but still greet people with a sincere smile.

Joseara sits next to me and we wait for the cook to walk by each plate and deposit a scoop of coleslaw and a bowl of herbed potato cubes, filling our glasses with chilled peach tea.

I watch Joseara out of the corner of my eye, noting how hungrily the girl eats while trying to do so in a controlled manner. Will this girl be doomed to skulk and steal the rest of her life? I clench my fork harder than necessary.

“Father, Madrin is going to Bristol for a week with her father and has invited me along.”

My father looks at my mother who returns the stare. Whatever silent conversation passes between them, my father looks at me, and then back at his food. “That sounds like quite the opportunity, Brine. But we haven’t even met Madrin’s father yet.”

“My father is coming over in a few hours to meet with you,” Joseara speaks up. “We’ve moved around so much that I haven’t been able to retain any friends so my father would like for Brine to come along, if you are willing. I know I am still a stranger to you, so I’ll understand if the answer is no.”

I watch my mother, and when our glances briefly connected I understand that it isn’t so much the issue that Joseara is still a stranger but that she is untied.

“Of course you are not a stranger,” my mother says with a smile, only because it is the proper thing to say, “and we would love to meet your father. Would he like to join us for dinner?”

“He has to make sure everything is packed for when we leave for tomorrow, so he will decline.”

“Well,” my father starts, and I’m glade because I’m literally holding the edge of my seat, fearing I’ll have to implement Plan Original. He finishes chewing his food and swallows. “I don’t have a problem with Brine going, dear. Of course we will still meet with her father.”

My mother does not respond.

After lunch, Joseara and I go to my room and I engage in painting while she watches out the window. A short time later, a man comes walking up the coach way and disappears into the house. A moment later Varseena intrudes upon my room.

“Madrin, your father is here.”

“If only it were true,” Joseara mumbles after Varseena leaves

I follow Joseara to the top of the stairs and look down upon a man standing in the foyer, looking at the daguerreotype, clutching a black fedora in his hands. His gray hair curls in gentle waves to his shoulders. He is thin and his gaunt face almost betrays the possibility that he might be malnourished. Gray stubble peppers his jawline and neck. He looks generally unkempt but his clothes are clean and neat. It actually looks fitting for Joseara. Since she is not tied into a dress, it would mean a macramist could not be afforded.

This man’s appearance shows that they are a clean “family” even if they are not a rich one.

“Hello, father,” Joseara says. I notice she half chokes on the word.

The man turns with a huge grin on his face. “Sweetheart.”

Joseara descends and my father and mother emerge from the drawing room. Joseara goes to the stranger and allows him to put a skinny arm across her shoulders. “Hello,” he says to my parents. He reaches out a hand to my father, who shakes it. “I am Corden Asterfel. I am pleased to finally meet you.”

“The same. I am Fabrin and this is my wife, Janella, and our daughter, Brinella. You have a very sweet girl. We are glad they found a friendship.”

“Indeed, sir, likewise. Now I am here to speak of this trip to the city that I’m sure my daughter has mentioned?”

“Of course. Come with us.”

Corden lets go of Joseara’s shoulders and follows my parents into the drawing room.

“I’m going to wait outside,” I suggest.

She agrees and we step out, seating ourselves on the porch swing on the veranda.

I try to look at Joseara more closely from the corner of my eye. The girl’s expression is placid and hard to read. The clay mask over her face has dried further and shallow canyons crackle across her cheeks. The peach colored powder has faded and wore away and obvious patches of gray puckers out. Lots of black charcoal surround her eyes, perhaps in hopes to steer gazes away from her cheeks that, no matter her efforts, are obviously modified. I’m certain my parents noticed but it would be rude to ask why she thought it necessary to mask her face, especially since she isn’t tied and that topic is always taboo.

“I did leave you money. In the vault,” Joseara says. “There is so much there that it would be impossible to tell that anything was taken. That is, until they count it.”

“How much did you take?”

Joseara presses hands into her lap. “I’ve been saving up money to buy a horse and ride away. Far away. Now I think I have enough to do that. I didn’t want to leave before, because this is where I was born, where I grew up with my family. It’s hard enough not having a family anymore, but it would be worse to no longer have access to the place of their memories. So I’ve stayed. I’ve gotten used to this life style, actually, even if I have to dare to go into stores dressed like this with clay on my face to buy clothes and sometimes food.”

I feel awkward, like I’m eavesdropping on her deepest thoughts. Weird, even, like she is trying to thread us together with some friendship.

“And now that I have enough money to buy my way out of here, I don’t know if I want to go. I…” She’s looking at me now. My face warms. “I might have more than just memories to keep me here.”

A friendship? Is that what she’s implying?

I don’t know how to respond to that, so I nod, letting her know I am listening.

The front door of the house opens in that moment and Corden comes out. Laughing and with a final handshake to my father, he approaches us. Looking behind him to make sure my parents are back inside, he returns with a grin.

“I should be an actor,” he says. “I almost convinced myself!”

“So they are letting me go?” my heart races.

“Yes. You sure you don’t want more than a week? I could have gotten you two.”

“We don’t want to take more than we need,” interjects Joseara before I could blubber out for him to run back in there and ask for three. “She might need that second week for another time.”

Okay. That makes sense. I look around at us. Interesting, really. A thief, a homeless stranger, and me in conversation about a trip to Bristol neither of us are going to make.

“Your father will take you to the train station where I will meet you,” Corden says. “When he leaves, I will lead you to the river where myself and Joseara will care for your unnecessary baggage in your absence.”

“Thank you, Corden.” I refrain from hugging him.

He smiles softly at me and I’m briefly reminded of Jesaro, which warns that I am a bad judge of character. But that opinion about Corden changes when he says, “No. Thank you for taking on this task that’s been kept secret for over three hundred years.”

So he is on my side. And still provides yet more cryptic answers to questions I’m not allowed to ask.

“Good luck out there tomorrow. For the next week,” Joseara says, turning away from me. “When you come back, if ever you need me for anything, hang a sock outside your window. I’ll check it every day.”

“Dirty or clean?”

I pull a smile out of her and she walks down the road side by side with Corden.

My mother hoodwinks me into the drawing room where my father is waiting and sits me down like she’s going to interrogate me.

“So we’ve agreed to let you go,” she says bustily. “But Madrin does not have a macramist so who is going to tie you into your dresses?”

Another obstacle not yet thought of. “Is it such a crime to go untied for just a week?”

My father’s cheeks pale, and though I want to continue to defend that I don’t need a chastity dress to keep me chaste, I retreat from my question. “I heard Madrin say there are macramists available in Bristol for a couple shillings a tie.”

“Are you certain?”

Despite whether I am certain if my lie is true, I’m going to be wearing trousers for the next week anyway. “Yes.”

My mother looks at my father. “We should send Varseena with her –”

“No!”

My parents look at me. A rush of panic shivers through my previous excitement. “Give the poor woman a vacation. She’s only been tying me every day for…” How long since Durain’s funeral? Technically, I should have been getting tied every day for the past year and a half. But my father understood my heart. His status I borrow has helped my reputation so Valemorren was kind enough to turn at least one blind eye. “Since Durain’s funeral. Give her this break, too. There are macramists in Bristol, likely with more complicated knots than anyone here. I promise, Corden will help me out since he knows we are a tied family. Unless you did not find him respectable, and if you didn’t, then why are you sending me with him?”

My parents look briefly at each other. My mother looks away first. Score one for me.

“We just need to make sure the basics are covered,” my father says. “Especially since you have Jaicom’s eye.”

I mindlessly nod.

I’m finally released, which causes me to bustle to my room more anxious than usual, irritated that my plan had almost fallen apart because of supposed whoring women.

I don’t even know if I should be excited or scared. Tomorrow, I will finally start the ending of what Durain had begun.

 

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

BRINELLA

 

Varseena is all chatter as she dresses me, and all the while I want to tell my macramist that it is pointless, that I am going to take it all off once I leave.

Curling my hair takes much too long for my liking and I’m bristling with irritation when I sit down for a quick breakfast. My father carries my carpet bag out to the coach, opening the door for me and then follows. A rapt knock on the roof of the coach gets it rolling.

“Be sure to check out the cathedral,” my father is telling me. “And walk along the Froom River.” He winks at me. “You’ll really like the walk. We took you to Bristol when you were younger. Do you remember?”

I nod, deciding not to tell him the only thing I do remember is falling in the river and almost drowning because, huge surprise, females are not encouraged to learn how to swim, because swimming is immodest and not lady like.

I’m glad my father continues to describe all of Bristol to me so I can have something to pull from when I explain my trip when I come back home, so I sit and smile and nod politely and get myself all excited for Bristol so by the time we arrive at the train station I think I’ve convinced him.

Corden is there waiting, hands clasped in front of him and I’m impressed with his continued act. The coach stops and my father steps out first, guiding me down from the door. I clutch at my carpet bag, holding my bonnet in place as a wind tickles against it.

“Thank you again for letting your daughter come with us, Mr. Frondaren,” Corden says. “My daughter is happy to have a friend along. I’m such a dull companion and she has tired of all my old war stories.” Corden is wise to not use names. One slip and this whole bonfire of lies will burn me.

“Of course,” my father says. He pulls me in with an arm, kissing the top of my head. “I’ve left enough money in your purse to pay for a coach to take you from the station back home when you return.”

“Okay.”

“Have fun, sweetie.”

“I will.”

He enters the coach. I watch until it bumbles out of sight, my heart twisting at the mountainous lie I have just built in front of him. I don’t have a problem lying to my mother – a shame. I know – but my father has stuck up for me, let me be free just a moment longer.

Corden tugs on my sleeve. I follow his led away from the train station along the river, into the trees until we can’t see any buildings. Corden stops.

“Be careful, Miss Frondaren. Joseara told me what you are up to, and I want you to know you are not alone in the troubles that will come, for many of us have gone through them already. A dark thing you are stirring up, but it needs to be stirred. The monster cannot be slain until it is released.”

My back stiffens. “I’m releasing a monster?”

His face scrunches up. “Indirectly. The monster is not where you are going, but when you come back.” Wet sincerity glows from gray eyes and he looks away. I get the impression he had lost something as great as Joseara’s family. “You may leave your carpet bag with us, if you wish. I only ask that you share with us your success if you find it.” His smile gleams and I wonder again if I should trust him. But Joseara does, and Joseara couldn’t afford to not be picky about who she chooses to trust.

“Where can I find you when I return?”

“Here,” he says.

I hand over my carpet bag. Even if he does steal it, I only have a couple changes of undergarments, a tiable dress, rose perfume, and other minor things inside it that will be no great loss to me. My real bag is still hidden in the forest next to my house. It has the Star inside of it.

I hand over my bag, then turn and proceed to walk back toward my house through the cover of trees that fills the three mile stretch between my neighborhood and town.

The sun and physical exertion of walking create a heat storm inside my dress. By the time I reach Durain’s rucksack I’m ready to knife off my dress with Durain’s bone handled knife.

I gather the rucksack and walk south, looking both ways down the road before I dash across, submerging again into the trees and walk my accustomed route to Durain and mine’s fire pit. It’s only been three weeks but nothing seems to have changed, as if this spot had preserved its favorite memory and froze that moment.

I begin the task of untying myself.

After twenty minutes, I resort to knifing my dress open. Shameless, I gather the tattered fabric into a pile and drop into the fire pit. I light it on fire. And maybe a maniacal little giggle escapes me. I don’t even care how I’m going to explain why I’m missing a dress when I get home.

Freed from my bird cage, I slip out of my chemise and haul Durain’s trousers and shirt out of the bag. As if accepting the wearing of a relic, I put them on with humble ceremony. Pulling my chaos of curls out of their neat pile, I throw it all together again in a tight braid.

Now liberated with enough energy to tear the mountain down with my hands, I take my first step to following the last instruction Durain left for me.

I had disassembled the Star after discovering it could move on its own, but I put it together now, stuffing it in my bag before it activats. Sure enough, the Star bucks to life like an irate cat in the bag, and even confined, it pulls heavy in the direction toward the mountain I’m standing beneath.

Exhilarated by the unnaturalness of the phenomenon, I loop both arms through the straps on Durain’s bag, the Star resting against my back, thumping at me as if pushing me forward, like a magnet attracted to another magnet in the mountain.

I step onto the road leading into Valemorren Canyon, named so by the unoriginal folk who had settled in this area. Durain and I have been up it loads of times during one of our frequent haunts, but we had never been up it all the way. About a half hour hike in, a landslide has torn apart the canyon wall and all the trees, mud, and boulders filled up the canyon for three miles like a dam.

My father said the old road used to be the route to Bristol before the train, during the thirteenth century or so. The landslide had only happened about twenty years ago.

Following the pull of the Star, I begin on foot into Valemorren Canyon.

I see Durain in every boulder we had climbed, every tree we had fallen out of, the stream we drank, the berries we ate and then sickened because they were not edible.

Half an hour into my hike, my progress is stopped by the dam of forest debris in the canyon. It reaches about twenty feet above my head. The Star is pushing me forward. I begin to climb.

The rotted wood crumbles under pressure. But like a ladder, the horizontal forest is easy to climb. Mostly, I’m lavishing in the joy of wearing trousers again.

I reach the top, already sweaty and tired. The chaotic mess stretches on for another three miles. Boulders stick up randomly in the mess, like white teeth from a giant… like the giant from Jack and the Beanstalk. Maybe this is where the giant fell.

I take a drink out of Durain’s silver flask and move on.

I have to calculate every step, making sure I can complete the jumps between each tree and make sure the tree or boulder I’m jumping to next is stable. I keep looking at the deep gaps I’m crossing, expecting to find a skeleton of someone who had fallen into the pits. Maybe even the giant’s body.

The day bears hot on the back of my neck. Sweat stings my eyes and hair is sticking to my forehead. I wish it would rain. I jump off a boulder onto another tree. I wish Durain was here. I wish my mother would have another baby so her attention won’t nitpick mine. I land, wobbling a little before I set my feet and grab at the branch sticking skyward. Pay attention. I wish I wasn’t scared about whether or not someone would marry me. I wish I knew why Jaicom was courting me. I wish Joseara still had her family. I wish I was living in the Middle Ages. Ya. The Middle Ages. Those dresses I would wear. They are so stylish and did well attracting handsome knights. I would love to be courted by a knight –

The tree I land on crumples into sawdust. With a shout I flail down into the pit, throwing my body wide and I manage to catch another tree which I smack into like a giant fist in my chest. I cover my head. More pieces of rotted tree and bugs rain over me and the whole framework I am laying under shifts. Terror spikes through me and I brace to prepare for total collapse. I give it five trembling minutes but it doesn’t happen. I suppose there is no space beneath of which it can collapse.

I still don’t move, not trusting my shaking body to be reliable enough to get me back to the surface safely. My heart still thrumming in my throat, I look down into the pit I had almost fallen into. Trees and branches crisscross the way and I scare myself with all the damage I could have suffered. A broken ankle – leg? No one knows where I am. If I couldn’t get out, I’d die. And I’m certain I’m the first person to actually climb across this dam of forest junk.

I give myself ten more minutes to calm my sparking nerves. What if what I’m looking for is hundreds of miles away? Hopelessness at that possibility crashes into me.

But what if it’s close?

I climb back up to the top.

I’m going through water fast. I brought three flasks with me, hoping to rely on streams I found. I hear water running far below the dam. No use.

I move on.

Rain actually does come; a short, cooling relief, just enough to get me wet and miserable before it moves on.

I wish I was dry.

The sun sets at my back. Tired and cold, I look about for a place to lie down next to a fire and maybe sleep. To either side slopes the steep canyon walls. I jump onward a little while longer. A deep shiver rattles me. I find a rock nestled between the trees just big enough to support a fire. At this point, getting dry is more important than sleep.

The rain storm had been brief enough that I find dry kindling underneath the crisscross network of horizontal trees. I strip off my clothes and huddle as close as I can to my meager flame, wrapped in my blanket while perched on a tree next to the rock, the rough bark making an angry seat. I eat my jerky and hard bread and watch the last of the warm sun wink out.

My clothes are dry an hour later and I put them back on. I settle for laying down on the log I was using as a seat, bundling a corner of my blanket into a pillow. I’m tired enough that I sleep without much protest to my bed.

I wake sore and stiff but feel rested enough to move on. The pull of the Star is stronger today. I begin again the endless journey over the forest debris.

I haven’t been traveling long when the pull of the Star becomes noticeable against my back, nudging me left. I stop and pull it out. Yes. It has changed directions. It definitely wants to go left, toward the canyon wall.

The fire for my mission rekindling in my chest, I follow the new direction. By now I’m an expert for navigating a flood of horizontal trees. The pull of the Star moves down. Forcing myself to rein in my anxiousness lest I fall into the framework of trees and break something, I put the Star back in my bag so I can use both hands.

I lower myself down through the gaps in the trees and stones, feeling like an animal scuttling about at random. After a full day behind me and twenty more feet, I finally touch muddy bottom. I take the Star out. It practically jumps out of my hands in its want to go straight at the canyon wall, which is eight feet in front of me. I look up.

There is an archway carved out of the rock. At once it might have been elaborate with intricate carvings but time has made a meal out of it. Aside from that, the archway is closed off absolutely by a sheer wall of more rock.

The Star wants to go that way. I walk forward, stepping over and ducking under trees in my way. I stop directly in front of the flat stone face of the canyon wall beneath the arch. The Star still wants to go forward. Pointlessness fills my throat. This is just rock.

I still step forward until the three red barbs on the Star touch flush on the stone.

And the stone dissolves away. I nearly drop the Star in my shock.

Revealed before me is a tunnel shooting straight into the mountain. I see a pin prick of light on the other side.

It’s hard to swallow with my heart beating in my throat. Magic. This is… magic.

I shake my head. Impossible. I push my hand into the tunnel. This is no weird illusion drawn up in the weary of my over-creative mind. It’s real. A real tunnel.

Real.

I shake my head. The Star wants to go through the tunnel. My mind is reeling, unable to understand how the rock just dissolved and revealed a tunnel beyond. But intense curiosity coats my dread and I take a step forward into the darkness. I keep the Star in front of me, my eyes focused on the pin prick of light. I trudged softly forward, as if the ground and walls around me are as stable as a dream. There is a pop in my ear and I shake my head and look around, but there is nothing to see. Chalking it up to be random bodily oddities, I keep walking.

Twenty steps through the tunnel and my ears pop again and it feels like the pressure changed. My heart races a little; on edge already because of the oddness of the tunnel so any little noise is going to get my fear jumping.

The pop comes again after twenty or so more steps. I keep walking.

After two more pops, the tunnel exit widens as I approach and I hold my breath as I step onto the other side.

I’m standing on a rocky precipice, shielding my eyes against the sun directly above. Mountains surround me, as if I’m standing in the heart of a deep mountain range. Pine trees pepper the rocky facets and a river curls around…

A castle.

The aged weathered stone looks much like the mountains surrounding it. I’ve stopped blinking. Am I still in Valemorren?

I cast my gaze around. It looks like I’m just on the other side of the mountain from Valemorren. Surely people know about this castle? But I don’t see any roads. Only the tunnel I –

The tunnel has closed over. Solid rock again.

I don’t even try to understand it. I walk forward.

I’m on an overgrown, rocky pathway torn up by wind, rain, and snow. It’s leading me the way to a high bridge arching over the river to the castle on the other end.

I don’t need the Star to know this is what I’m supposed to find. I even forgot the bloody thing was still clutched in my hand.

Excitement at my find conquers my weariness and hunger. The trail is shuffled with slates of shale. Birds flit overhead and three does bound down the hill side away, looking back at me. I come to the stone bridge, the river far below sliding underneath.

I cross to the other side. Massive wooden doors hanging rotted off the hinges dangle precariously like two snaggle teeth. Birds have nested between the merlons and in the broken spaces of missing stones of the towers to either side of me.

I stop in front of the doors, heart pounding with the dread of the unknown. Moving around the shambled doors, I step inside.

I think I’ve just fallen into one of Durain’s stories. Enough sunlight reaches through the open windows within that it leaves very few dark corners. More birds have made home of the interior and at frequent intervals they swoop in and out of the windows. Incessant chirping greets me so that it sounds as if I’ve stepped into an aviary.

Stone pillars run parallel on either side of the long chamber, supporting a mezzanine that encompasses the whole room. Rotten blue flags hang from the balcony. At one point they must have touched the floor but some of them pile in brownish heaps and others have been chewed away by time so now they hang at varied lengths.

It’s clear no one has been here for a very, very long time.

“Hello?”

My voice echoes back, like empty laughter. Of course no one is here.

Old wooden furniture molds along the sides as I trudge forward with the Star in my grip, leaving footprints in the dust. My anticipation about what I’m still about to find does not soften all the hard edges of terror of the unknown hovering at the edges. If I die in here, I’m dead. Well… obviously. But, you know what I mean.

Sadness is actually working between the spaces of my thrill, inserting a wedge that breaks apart my excitement as the wedge demands to be heard. What it is saying, is that Durain is not here discovering this with me.

I walk to the end of the chamber and look back. I don’t know why. I continue onward to the continued pull of the Star.

A hallway curls around behind the wall. I walk along it, entering into another chamber that branches down, straight, and up dusty stone stairs; looking exactly like the kind of place where people have seen ghosts before.

The castle is definitely primeval. Middle Ages? It has to be. All stone, the only wood is doorways and furniture. Dust sugars everything. I drag my hand along the stone railing, collecting grime between my fingers.

As the Star leads me around corners and through old rooms, I give in to feministic fantasies. I imagine the Grand Hall at the entrance filled with life, with people dancing, opulent dresses and suites. And even myself wearing the best dress of them all to catch the eye of any young man I want… any man I could choose. A knight. I’d choose a knight.

I half debate not going home. I could fix this castle up again, make it my home and fill it with the life I just imagined. And then I’d die alone. I pretend that doesn’t bother me.

There are no windows in the lower levels but torches hang in sconces on the sides. I take one and strike a match, proceeding downward in a pool of torch light coughing with every step.

The stairway brings me into another chamber. To the left, a small, curling stair case ascends into a room near the low ceiling. At the very end of the chamber is a stone altar. Is this a parish? I can imagine wooden pews spread out before it and a priest beyond. That small room above could be where the priest used to live. Broken pottery are scattered about the altar. Maybe offerings… or urns?

The Star is pulling me directly toward the altar, almost powerful enough to drag me forward on its own. The room echoes with the sound of my steps, warning that I am deep in the mountain range in a strange castle… in the lower levels, no less, by myself. Though that thought makes me panic, this parish is still more comforting than the one back home I attend every week.

The Star takes me forward, straight to a stone podium in front of the altar. The top of the podium has a star-shaped cut-out in the exact size and shape of the Star I’m holding. Deeper impressions at the tip of each cut-out would fit the rubies.

The Star is throbbing now, like the pulse of a heart, making me queasy holding it.

This is what I came here for. Whatever happens when I insert the star, will be what Durain died for.

I’m not ready.

I sit on the floor, gnawing on my peppered jerky and drink too much water. Taking several minutes to convince myself that the only way is forward, I stand again. And insert the Star into the podium. Is that my heart beating or some noise coming off the walls?

Hard-knocking clicks begin deep below my feet. Accompanying the clicking comes a grating noise, the sound moving upward toward the very stone I’m standing on, like giant metallic cogs revolving under the floor.

I scramble backward to the stairs before the floor might fall away. The clicking and grating continue with a vibration that increase as the sound rises, louder and louder.

And then it all stops.

My heart shakes my rib cage like a prisoner wanting out of his cell. Nothing has changed in the chamber. I step carefully back on the floor, slowly, toward the altar again, hesitant to trust the stability of the stone even though it seems just as solid as before.

I’ve only taken three steps when I hear another sound. I stop. A thumping. Coming from beneath the floor so quiet I only hear it because I’m holding my breath. The thumping rises higher, and then ceases. The lid on the altar shifts.

Fear prickles through my body but I can’t convince myself to run. Transfixed, I stare, even aware that whatever it is might do me harm. I draw Durain’s bone handled knife, planting my feet, determined to know what it is I came here for, what purpose stealing the two pieces of the keys had, whether Durain’s death was worth it, and whether I’ve just released the monster Corden warned me about.

Stone grinds on stone as the lid of the altar continues to slide. I grit my teeth at the sound, hoisting the knife higher. My reflexes on fire, I’m tensed and ready to spring, ready to run, ready to fight. The lid continues to shift until it falls completely off with a crash to the floor.

And a human arm reaches out.

PART II

 

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

ZADICAYN

 

I hook my elbows over the edge of the altar and haul my head up. Light forks into my eyes. I gasp and look away despite I am so hungry to know what I am seeing. I look back, shielding my eyes and blinking rapidly, hoping I am not going blind.

As far as I can tell, it looks like a girl holding a torch.

I don’t care who it is. I’d rejoice even if twas the devil.

“Who art thou?” I ask just to be sure, because last I knew I still had enemies. Is that girl still breathing? I can’t tell with this damned light blinding me.

“Who…” she croaks. It sounds like she’s not used to speaking. I don’t blame her. I must be a weird sight right now coming out of even weirder circumstance. “Who am I?”

She speaks strangely. “Yea. What tis thy name?”

A disjointed silence stretches between us. I see her body jolt as she inhales sharply, as if just remembering she needed to breathe.

“I’m…” Her voice is tight. I wish she would put away that torch. My eyes are still adjusting. “I’m Brine Fr – Fron – Frondaren.”

“Art thou here to rescue meself?” I hope she doesn’t catch the silent scream of desperation fighting in the back of my throat.

She’s adjusted the torch more behind her. She must have realized twas hurting my eyes. “Yes,” she says, though it appears she doesn’t know how to answer the question. “Who… who are you?”

Is she asking who I am? She’s using a word I don’t recognize. But we can get to who I am later. I’m going to get out of this vault. Right. Now. “I be fleeing my long prison upon this moment. Wilt though cover thine eyes? Me clothing hath rotted away some yore.”

“Oh… oh… of course.” Slowly, she looks away from me. I see a dagger in her hand.

I haul my body out of my hole, making the mistake of looking down on myself. I almost throw up. My body is covered in odd patches of black hair, like a dog someone tried to shave with a knife. Of course I knew twas there. It is altogether different actually seeing it now. My beard is so long that I trod on it as I step on the next ladder rung, yanking my face down.

I fist my beard in my hand and haul it out of the altar, next my leg. My freakish body hair does not cover my nakedness well but she is still facing away from me. I run for the stairs leading up to the priest’s chamber, my head hair dragging on the floor behind me. It is really heavy. I thought for a terrified moment that I wouldn’t be able to climb out of the vault because of its weight.

I scamper up the stairs. A small leak of sunlight fights through a threadbare curtain drooping across the window in the small room but the light is not nearly as sharp as the girl’s torch. I throw open the wardrobe and grab the first piece of clothing I see and throw it on. It is a festival tent of a robe; too big for me, yellow, and dusty.

I look over my shoulder and the girl is watching me from the doorway, as if trying to make sense of me. The rest of her body is protected behind the wall. Either she’s scared of me or she is trying not to step on my head hair which still trails outside the room. She had put away her torch so I’m able to see her face better.

Her hair is a mess and a smudge of dirt decorates her cheek. Her tunic and britches hang off her as if they were meant for someone more muscular and they are striped with mud. She is the most beautiful girl I have ever seen.

Or maybe my emotions are just severally messed up right now.

But I’m still staring at her, and she visibly flinches with a small gasp and I realize I let my green eyes slip into a flash of brief gold. I blink and I feel them go back to normal. Oops. Well done to further scare and confuse her, you breedbate!

The room is small and has a bed along the wall. Bookshelves throughout support books with dust pressed between the faded covers. I sit on the bed, upsetting the dust so it bursts out in a glittering cloud. I don’t mind. I scratch my chin.

“Prithee, mayest I useth thy dagger?”

She stares at me with some danger in her eyes. I sigh. Lifting my heavy beard, I make a sawing action on it with my finger.

She steps into the room, keeping her eyes on me. I wish she would stop staring. I’m already remarkably self-conscious about how I must look to her. At least she’s not pestering me for answers right this moment. I’m not totally convinced this is not yet another dream of freedom. I’m waiting for that startling moment that will either wake me or slap realization into me that I’m free. My emotions currently lie dead in my chest. I have no idea what’s going to happen when they wake up.

She hands me her dagger, blade first. It has a bone handle. I accept the blade and she takes several steps back. If only I could communicate how deeply, deeply my intentions go to not harm her. Certainly, she’s not my sister. I can’t even hope that she’s my sister’s child because of how long my hair has grown since I was thrown in the vault. Granddaughter? I muse another moment, but I can’t see any resemblance to my sister in her sharp eyes and larger nose.

I begin hacking at my beard as close to the chin as I can. It might as well be steel wool with how stiff and wiry it is. It falls free in chunks as if I had just cut a field of wheat with a scythe. I do the same for my head hair. Black hair covers the tops of my hands too, but there is no help for that right now.

I hand the knife back to her, pummel first. I see the shame bloom in her high cheek bones as she takes the knife, I think understanding in that moment that I’m not going to hurt her.

“Overmany blessings upon thee.” I scratch my chin again. Damn it itches. Maybe I’ve picked up flees? A shame I didn’t have flees before. They would have at least been company. “Me hair bore such a weight. Couldst one thinketh something as fine as hair couldst weigh overmany?”

She’s staring at me really funny. Is it the way I talk? She spoke differently herself – certainly with a different accent – but we can’t speak all that different from each other. All languages fluctuate little by little every year. I wasn’t in the vault that long.

How long was I in the vault? I durst to ask.

She’s still staring at me. I don’t blame her. Though I wish she would stop. Clearly, she is waiting on me to speak again. To explain why a hairy troll just climbed out of a locked and sealed room beneath the chapel altar.

I indicate the only chair in the room. “I prithee, sit.”

She does, keeping her brown eyes locked on my hairy face. I wish I had a mirror. Then I change my mind.

Her boots, baggy trousers, and long sleeved blouse flatter her figure and I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because I haven’t seen a female for a while. I find I’m strangely attracted to her fingernails, which is where my gaze goes. My emotions are so broken right now. I’m pathetic.

I need to say something. What does one say to a human being? I forgot. I only still have a voice because of my endless recitals of the Canterbury Tales out loud to myself. I feel my cheeks warm and I drum bony fingers against my knees and I still don’t know what to say.

“Who are you?” she asks.

“Forgive me. I understandeth nary the last word.”

“What?”

She looks incredulous. Unease prickles across my skin; the first emotion inside me rolling to life again. I hope it takes its time waking up. She doesn’t understand what I just asked. How can that be? Maybe English is not her native language. German? French? She looks neither. “I asked you what your name is.”

Oh. My name. I can’t tell her. Because telling her will only confirm that the person whose amulet was stolen and who was then imprisoned beneath the chapel for several years, was me.

There is actually a question I need to ask. Not that I need to know, but I do understand several years have passed and, just as a formality, I should be in the know.

“What day shines upon us?”

She looks away from me, pressing the back of her delicate white hand to her lips. “I’m sorry. What?”

I try again. “What… what year mighten this be?”

“What?” She leans back in her seat, but her question doesn’t strike me that she is confused. Just… astounded. “What year? Did you just ask me what bloody year this is?”

I barely understand what she is saying. Sweat – something I have not felt for so long in the chilled crypt – pops out of my skin with an odd sensation I don’t like. No. I can’t have been in the vault for that long.

“Yea.”

She looks at me for quite some time before she responds. “It’s eighteen… eighteen forty-two.”

My stomach turns into a stone along with lungs that refuse to expand and contract to feed my fevered brain with oxygen.

I heard wrong.

“I beseech thee, canst thou sayest again?”

I can’t read her expression anymore. “It’s the year eighteen forty-two. Queen Victoria is our monarch. How long have you been down there?”

A fire starts in my belly; a swarming of snakes as each emotion rises its head to look around for the first time in… three hundred twenty-four years.

I drop my head in my hands. Breathe in through my nose. Out through my mouth. Again.

I was in the vault for three hundred twenty-four years.

I thumb both of my ears, rubbing the skin there. The snakes are moving, slithering along my limbs though I will and pray and beg them not to. Breathe in through the nose. Out through the mouth. Stay calm. This is okay. Breathe again.

Three hundred twenty-four years.

Something is clinching my throat, and it takes a great heave of my chest and wetness blurring my vision for me to understand my body is fighting a sob.

Breathe in. Out. In.

I’m breathing too fast. I’m losing the fight.

In. Out. In. Out.

My sister is dead. Has been… for a long time.

In out in out in out in out in –

The snakes of each of my emotions flood my limbs and my head and my heart and bit me from the inside. They are even screaming. Nevermind. That is me.

I lose the fight.

A wail sprays out of my limbs. Every memory, every emotion firing back to life inside me where they had been muted for so long. And it is all happening. At the same time.

I’ve been freed from the vault just to go insane.

“Are you okay?” The girl rises to her feet. I slump forward and crash on the floor in a sprawl of limbs and ugly yellow robe. “Hey!”

She’s saying other things but I don’t hear her anymore. My body is moving without my authorization, writhing in time and power with each emotional snake fighting each other to dominate me. Where I had only seen blackness for so long, colors now flash in my vision.

Rage flares red hot in my limbs. Sorrow a startling cold at the core of my heart. Disappointment spreads yellow across my chest. White joy spins spirals in my stomach. Hate. Love. Envy. Lust. Pity. Envy. Ecstasy. All meeting center of my soul where my snakes are clashing heads, battering me from the inside out. Blackness is swallowing my mind. I hear screaming.

I’m going to die, after all.

I’m slipping. Madness is taking me. I had placed the spell on myself to mute all of my emotions, all of my physical needs and wants… I sort of made myself a rag doll with a heartbeat. But I made that spell so it would break upon my liberation, having no idea what might happen.

Now I know.

My mind is spiraling; I’m lost in a void of black hunger, reaching for direction, grabbing at anything to anchor me but my fingers pass through air.

A touch of fire burns the back of my neck. I focus on that spot of heat, latching onto that one thing that is not floating aimlessly about with me. I anchor my hands onto it. I hear a voice across the mere which has become my mind. I focus on that, too.

“You can do this. You are strong. Listen to my voice. Keep breathing.”

Who is this angel? I turn my gaze toward the voice. Keep talking!

“Hold on. You can fight. You will be alright. Keep breathing. Can you hear me?”

Yes! More pockets of fire erupt across my shoulders – I have shoulders! – and a deep, warm pressure against my face. I feel my body again.

“That’s right. Keep breathing. You can fight this. Keep trying.”

The angel speaking is Brine. Funny I remember her name before mine.

“Keep touching meself.” I realize too late I said it out loud. I can’t feel ashamed about it. Her touch is what is bringing me out of my dance with madness. “Speaketh more.” My voice is ravaging for water.

She does both. My head has ended up on her lap and she presses my face into her stomach. Sweat and dirt overwhelm my awakening senses and I pick up a hint of rose.

Touch. Of flesh and bone. I throw both arms around her waist and press my face deeper into her body, sobbing and I can’t stop. I’m touching life again where I only had cold stone to touch before.

I’m crushing her in this embrace. I can feel it in the way her ribcage against my face is jumping for air. But I can’t let go. Because if I let go then I’m going to wake up back in the vault and I will die.

My snakes stop fighting, finally figuring out a roughly balanced flow to share in my body. My body slackens, and because twas clinched so tightly during my struggle, my limbs quiver. I realize I am desperately thirsty. I’m actually so thirsty that I can’t move.

“Water,” I manage. My eyes are shut tight because if I open them then I am going to wake up in the vault. If I move, if I breath, if I swallow I’m going to wake up in the vault.

A cold wetness is flooding across my lips and I choke, sputtering it back out. I forgot how to swallow. The cold wetness comes again. I gag but I’m able to understand quickly how my throat works again and I’m able to drink and drink, the freeze of the foreign liquid chilling all the way into my stomach. The water stops coming. I am still so thirsty. It’s as if I hadn’t drunk at all. And now I’m starving.

I’m dimly aware that my baggy yellow robe has fallen off my shoulders. I hope to kings I’m not totally nude. But then, my last thread of dignity I was trying to maintain in front of my rescuer crumbled the moment I asked to borrow her dagger to cut off my hair and beard. Even my eyebrow hairs are tickling the corners of my lips.

I’m still embracing Brine. But if I can keep it my way, I’m never going to let go of her. She keeps patting my hairy back and I love that touch immensely.

I’m sweating profusely. The water continues to slosh in my stomach and I’m surprised I don’t hear it echo like water in a cave because it’s been empty for so long. And now I think I’m going to throw up. I am going to throw up.

This becomes the sole reason I let go of Brine. Despite her first impression of me broken beyond repair, I still have enough dignity to not throw up on her. I barely remember to haul my robe up from around my waist before I dash out of the room.

 

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

BRINELLA

 

The hairy man releases his death grip on my body and launches to his feet, stumbling to the doorway. I’m not going to lose sight of him. I chase him down the stairs, across the parish, to the stairs going to the upper level of the castle. He’s practically running, though his bare feet are stumbling so badly it looks like he doesn’t know how to run.

He makes a sharp left at the top of the stairs. After navigating a short hallway, he pushes open a door that leads directly outside. Sunlight falls on him and he throws his arms across his face with a shout as if someone slapped him. With one arm across his eyes, he continues down a staircase there which curls around the castle wall to the river at the bottom.

The young voiced man – or hairy boy? – runs straight into the water without any apparent thought. I stop on the bank, watching stunned as he begins drinking mouthfuls of the river. He does this for a good minute. He ducks out of view behind a boulder on the shore and I hear him retch.

I blossom with awkwardness, which balms over some of my disbelief but it isn’t an emotion I like any better. I back away to the stair case and sit. I hope I didn’t just set free a crazy person. Maybe there was a good reason why he was locked up. Why did he start screaming and sobbing and collapse on the floor when I told him what year it was? I’m starting to think he is crazy. And this is Durain’s secret?

Yes. This is Durain’s secret. So because Durain was vested in it to the point it killed him, I will be too. Crazy person or no.

He emerges from behind the boulder again and I see him drink more river water. I almost stop him. It would be a shame to go through all that effort only for Durain’s secret to die from giardia.

He sloshes back onto shore in a sodden mess, his big yellow robe drooping alarmingly open but enough hair covers most of his body that it’s not hard to avoid looking at all that I don’t want to see.

He looks at me, and from what skin I can see through all the hair on his face is blushed pink. His hairy bare feet slap over to the apple trees along the shore. He pulls several off despite their wizened state and chomps into them – core, worms, all of it –with a ferocity I’ve only ever seen in stray dogs. After he consumes about ten apples, he splashes back into the river.

I want to give him privacy for all the weird noises I’m hearing behind the boulder but I don’t want to let him out of my sight. I stand, following the river upstream. I can still hear him splashing around and retching behind me.

Heaps of wood that resemble broken furniture are piled in a semi-circle with one heap in the center. I can’t place the strangeness of it until I see some purposefully placed trees and bushes and even some flowers… this is a garden. Or was.

The bridge looms high above me, great arches bearing its weight, the river slipping between the beams.

I don’t hear any more splashing or retching. I throw a glance over my shoulder. He’s not there. I run back.

He is sitting on the stairs in a shuddering wet heap, holding his belly and making guttural sounds. He looks at me and I half expect his green irises to flash into gold again. But they don’t. I must have imagined it the first time. He looks away again. I thought I saw something similar to shame in his eyes.

“Forgive me.” His voice is so heavy I half expect him to fall to the ground with the weight it has on him. It also sounds crackly and dry. Probably from throwing up so much. “I art most wretched.” He takes a bite from an apple and sniffs. He’s been crying again.

It’s hard to believe this man is human, under the weird circumstances I found him, but this little apology tugs at me. “Don’t worry about it.”

“It hath nary to dost with worry. I art a miserable sight.”

Why is he talking like that? It sounds something like Old English but no one talks like that anymore.

Without warning, he throws his half eaten apple to the ground and proceeds to cry. Again.

I agree with his statement about being a miserable sight. He’s being very dramatic over… I don’t even know. I just bloody watched him crawl out of an altar! What did he say? His clothes had rotted off him some… what does yore mean?

It is obviously all a lie, but his tears look real. The seizure he had in the parish was real. Or was he just faking it? But who am I to judge his emotional state. Maybe he has some mental deficiently. If so, then he believes it is real.

Hesitantly, I sit next to him. Then even slower, I slide an awkward arm across his wet shoulders. “It’s okay. Everything will be alright.”

His body shudders and he silences instantly upon my touch. His sobbing turns into sniffles. He wipes his nose on his wet sleeve.

“I never got your name,” I say to distract him, because I don’t want to see him cry again. I never know how to comfort people when they cry. Especially men. Men aren’t supposed to cry. How old is this person, anyway? His voice sounds really young but all this body hair throws off any calculations I attempt.

“What doth thou asketh?”

This language barrier is annoying. “What is your name? What do people call you? My name is Brine.” I hope saying it enough different ways will trigger the connection he needs to make to understand my question.

He doesn’t respond right away. His shoulders have turned to stone where my arm is touching him. Cold water soaks into my sleeve. He takes a deep breath as if he’s about to scream, but he doesn’t. “Zadicayn.” His voice hikes in his chest a few times as if fighting another sob. “My name is… Zadicayn.”

“Zadicayn?” I try it out. He nods somberly. Why does that name sound familiar?

The gushing of the river fills in the silent space that follows. He picks up another apple from a pile he made at his feet and takes a bite.

I wonder if now is a good time to start questioning, but he seems so hungry. I’ll let him finish his apple. When he starts eating another one, I give up. “Why were you in the altar?” I’m not going to believe any of this is real until I have an answer that makes sense.

His body shudders, heaving in gentle motions up and down. I think he’s crying again until he takes a breath. He’s laughing. All that hair makes him look like a thirty year old crazy hermit. I’m afraid to sit next to him.

Zadicayn shouts so suddenly that I flinch. He stands and slams a hand into the stone foundation of the castle. I dash five steps away from him.

“What tis wrong with meself?” he wails. All the crazy mirth he had before is gone now. He digs hairy fingers into his head and begins pacing back and forth barefoot in the dirt.

I would have liked an answer to that question myself. My sympathy quickly dissipates in front of his sporadic emotions. He is mental.

He stops pacing and looks at me. I flinch. “Consider taking thyself out of me site until the morrow. I canst nary have thee looking upon me such. This tis nary who I be.”

It’s hard to understand every word he is saying. But I think I got the basics of it.

He looks so sad and broken that I immediately take back what I thought about him being mental. “No no, you are fine. I… look, I don’t know anything about you, so it’s wrong for me to judge. I…” I force out a laugh, still trying to understand the incredulousness of it all. “I had no idea you would come out of the altar. I was just following instructions left to me by a friend. I didn’t know why or what for. So, I am dumbfounded with seeing a human come out of something that I unlocked so… so I need some questions answered. When you are ready, of course. But don’t be ashamed of anything. I know nothing about you or why you were locked up.”

Zadicayn’s staring at me, his green eyes so young and honest. Maybe I spoke too fast. He’s probably struggling to understand how I speak, like I am when he does. “I trow.” He drops the word like he had to get it out of him for him to take another step. I don’t know what that word means. “But I canst nary reply to that question upon the moment. But I shall. Moreverso… mayest I beseech thee a question?”

I tense at his refusal to answer my question. Even the secret won’t tell me the secret! I think I’m doomed to never have any of my questions answered. But I nod.

He takes another bite of the apple. “How dost thee acquire the Binding?”

“What?”

“The…” He flexes his hand not holding the apple. Apparently the language barrier is frustrating him, too. “The copper piece affixed by diamonds of three. The Binding. How hast thee acquire it?” Now it’s sounding like he’s trying to fit my dialect and speech patterns into his own. I still got the idea, though certain they were rubies, not diamonds. My father’s mine sometimes yields rubies so I have a good idea what they look like.

“I came by the Binding by illegal means.” I don’t think he understood that. I speak slower. “My cousin found one piece – the Binding came in three pieces – I had the other two stolen for me.”

“Thy cousin? Who tis?”

If Durain were still alive I would guard his name like a secret. “Durain Ishnar.”

He hung his head. “I knoweth nary.”

I jam the toe of my boot into the dirt. “It doesn’t matter. He’s dead now.”

“I pray thee peace.”

“Thanks.” It’s a small acknowledgment to my pain, but it actually helps that this crazy stranger would care.

He takes another slow bit of apple and chews, then promptly spits it out. “These apples art pudh. Elsewhere I suppose it mighten be me lack of tasting any one thing for… dost thy cousin bespeak ye such about meself?”

I’m really trying to be patient. It’s not his fault. “Forgive me.” Bloody hell. Now I’m starting to speak like him. “Will you say that again?”

“What tis this word yew?”

“You.” I jam a finger into his shoulder. “You.” I point a finger at myself. “Me. Will you,” I point my finger back on him, “say that again?”

Zadicayn looks around as if trying to find a translator for us. “Didst thy cousin…” He jams a thumb into his chest. “spakest upon me?”

“Did my cousin tell me about you?” I guess. “No. Did he know you?” By now I wouldn’t be surprised with the people Durian might have known.

“So ye…” He pauses. “So ye free meself but nare understood it?”

I’m going to start translating for him so he can start to learn how to speak like me. “Are you asking if I was aware what I was freeing when I rescued you?”

He appears to think a moment. Then nods.

“No. He didn’t tell me. He died and left me a note with little instructions that brought me here. He did it in case anyone else found the note. Apparently you are a big secret around Valemorren.” I smile, trying to egg him on to spilling his secrets. He just takes another bit of apple.

So if he won’t answer as to why he was in the vault, maybe… “How long were you in the vault?”

He shivers visibly and doesn’t stop. Fearing he’s going to have another episode from earlier like he did in the parish, I touch him again. For some reason my touch settles him.

He holds up dirty, hair, and apple-sauce covered fingers. “Three hundred and two four years.”

All the air is punched out of my chest. “Three hundred twenty-four years?”

He nods.

“Wha…” Breathless, I try to ask a question I might understand the answer to. “How…?”

He jumps to his feet and races back to the river. He makes a giant splash and I hear him vomit again. I’m still reeling. He’s lying!

“Why canst I nary feedeth meself? I be so famished!” He slogs back out of the water. I push all this impossibility somewhere where I can meet them halfway. I dig into Durain’s bag and hand him the rest of my hard bread, nearly half a loaf.

“If you haven’t eaten in… a while,” I say, not willing to accept what he just told me, “then your stomach is not ready for acidic foods.”

“Acidic?”

I shuffle my shoulders. “Apples have a sort of fruit acid in them.” I tap my stomach. “Harsh on the stomach sometimes.”

He takes the bread hesitantly, meeting me again with those remarkable green eyes. He looks so funny with all that hair on his face – especially his long eye brow hair – that I clear my throat to quell the giggle that surfaces.

He takes a mouthful of bread and reclaims his seat on the stairs beside me.

Have you eaten recently?” It’s foolish for assuming he hadn’t. Obviously he had or he wouldn’t be alive.

“Thou art correct in thy assumptions. I hath nary eaten.” Most of what he’s said already has been with a mouth full of food.

“What does ‘nary’ mean?”

He looks at me. The smile he provides is strange and welcoming at the same time, letting me know that he finds my dialect just as foolish as he must know I find his. I smile back. “Nary, naught –”

“Not? You’ve eaten not? Then you want to say, “I have not eaten.”

He looks at me like I’m the challenged one. Maybe I am. “I have naught eaten.”

“Then how are you still alive if you haven’t eaten? Have not eaten?” I better stick to short, one syllable words. I’m certain he’s lying. Three hundred twenty-four years down there? Certainly, it is hard to guess his age but no one lives that long.

Zadicayn smiles big enough that it lifts the corners of his moustache. His unstable mood seems to be smoothing out the more he talks, the more he even looks at me. His knee is deliberately touching my own. “I consent to understandeth thou dost nary believe meself. Howevermore, bespeaking thy desires of which thee wishes to heareth shall be certain to befuddle ye overmany.” He takes a bite of bread, chews, swallows, takes another. “Thee shall just have to trusteth me word.” Crumbs spew as he talks. “Moreso, the Binding wast in thy keep and thou lay claim to see upon meself flee from the vault. What wouldst thou desire to believe?”

“The word is ‘you’ not, ‘thou, thee, thine, ye,’ or any of that.”

“Yew?”

“Close enough.” I decid in that moment to nitpick his speech to avoid the question I can’t face the answer too. I can’t believe I saw him climb out of the vault I unlocked. Except I did.

“Wouldst yew –” He shakes his head. Perhaps it’s too early for him to learn how to speak normal. “Wouldst ye desire to enter the vault and looketh upon the chamber of me confines thyself?”

“Yes.” I stand, folding my arms. “I actually would.”

He stuffs the last bit of bread into his mouth, ambling to the river where he cups water into his hand and drinks.

“You shouldn’t drink river water,” I chastise. “It’ll make you sick.”

His reply is a laugh as if I had just told a really, really funny joke, and he continues drinking.

“The bread remains downward,” he says over his shoulder. “I beseech thee accept me fullsome gratitude.” He joins me again at the stairwell.

“Try this instead: I thank you very much.’”

He shifts nervously. “I. Thank. Yew. very. Much.”

“You’ll get it,” I encourage, then realize I’m not sure why I’m trying to teach him how to speak my dialect anyway. It’s not like he’s going to leave this castle and enter Queen Victorian’s strict society.

He extends his arm up the stair and bows to me. “Shall we?”

I take the lead. He falls in close behind, his hand on my shoulder which bothers me that he is touching me so much. I just don’t have the heart to tell him no. I’ll just kick in his knee caps if he tries anything obscene. Durain taught me that move.

Once inside, I’m not sure which way to go. He’s pulling me to the right. “Over yonder here.”

My torch has burned to warm embers in the holder in the wall where I put it before following Zadicayn into the priest’s room in the parish.

“I shall gather one.” In a flash of yellow robes, he is gone. I wait, looking back upon the altar I had opened. I’m at peace knowing I’m going to find a whole store of food and a tunnel which leads outside.

He’s not gone long and touching the fresh torch to the smoldering one, Zadicayn breaths it back to life and hands it to me. The fire lights up his eyes in a highly reflective glare. It’s the only attractive feature on him. He lifts his arm, indicating the altar.

I go to it and look down. It’s so black I can’t see the bottom even with the torch. I drop it, just like adventurers in Durain’s stories do to cast light into deep places. It hits the stone floor twenty feet below with a shatter of sparks. There is a ladder affixed to the inside of the altar and I haul my body over the edge and set my feet on the first rung. I look back to find Zadicayn pacing as far away as he can get from the altar without actually leaving the room.

The lid of the altar sounded heavy enough when it hit the floor that I doubt he could pick it up to seal me inside, as skinny as he is. It doesn’t seem like he’d do something like that, but he is still a stranger.

As I descend I notice circles of metal all down the sides of the pit, appearing to be rods that could slide out and back in. That would explain the gating noise earlier.

I reach the bottom and pick up the torch. I stretch out my arm to flash the light about. I walk forward until I reach a wall, then drag my left hand against it as I walk along.

I make the entire loop of the small chamber, seeing nothing. I leave the wall and walk center of the chamber where the ladder touches the floor. There is nothing. No furniture. No doors. No food. Water, source of heat…

Nothing.

It echoes like a tomb.

 

CHAPTER NINTEEN

ZADICAYN

 

I force on a pair of shoes over my hairy feet. The previous owner was larger than me and so the boots become lumbering obstacles. Brine enters the priest’s room. I stop the futile shoe pursuit with a sigh and acknowledge her arrival. “Didst ye findeth any one thing?”

She lowers her eyes and shakes her head.

“That tis well. Because I wast going to upset if ye hath found something I wist nary about these yore of three hundred. Even a stone wouldst hath provided good company.”

“Did no one come to feed you?”

Seriously? “Dost ye wit any one who hath come by that same Binding? I wit there art nary, because I wrought that one.”

“Whoa ho ho… you what?”

I know she still wants to contend with my reference to my three hundred twenty-four years of incarceration, but this remark apparently makes her forget all about it. “Yea. I wrought the Binding.”

“So…” Her eyes are casting about as if to find something she can believe in. “So did you lock yourself in there, too?”

I know my smile is misplaced. I’m still trying to remember how to smile and how to have a conversation with another human. Talking to myself over the years has paid off. “So now ye mighten wit why I pray thine question upon me confinement to be answered lastmost. And because ye have done meself God’s eternal service of releasing meself, I shall tell ye. Yea. I wrought the Binding. A coppersmith forged the metal to the instructions of meself and I instructed the jeweler to affixicate the three diamonds.”

“Are you sure we are talking about the same Binding? Hold on, hold on.” Brine leaves the room abruptly. I wait patiently for her to return. When she does, she’s holding in her hand the damned Binding that sealed me in the vault.

I hold out my hand. “Handeth that hither.”

She does so. I lay the Binding on its head so the three blood sucking diamonds are pointing at me, and I stomp my boot on them, crushing the gems until red liquid drains out.

“What’s that red stuff coming out of the rubies?”

I look up at her. “These art blood sucking diamonds. Nary rubies. And they wert filled with the blood of meself.”

“Filled with your…”

The disbelief is clear on her face and in her body. I understand completely. If I had seen her climb out of the vault, I would think all this too fantastical, too unbelievable for my mind to even want to consider as truth. The sun outside the small window in the bedroom throws shadows in sharp angles as it mounts the horizon on its way to dusk. Her eyes fix on that.

“I beseech ye to consider the invitation from myself to sleep hither this night.” I think I’m hiding my tone of desperation well. I’m somehow able to refrain from saying, because I’m likely to go mad for real when I fall asleep, because I’m going to wake up in the vault and your touch and your voice called me out of that madness earlier.

“If you don’t mind,” she says, pressing a hand on her chest. I can see in her hesitant way to meet my eye that she is still not sure if she is converted to the idea of sleeping in this castle with someone so unstable and full of weird stories. Again, I don’t blame her. “But I don’t intend to sleep until I am satisfied that all my questions have been answered.” She looks at me with firm resolve, anchoring her belief for everything I’m telling her on that one question I have, as of yet, refused to answer.

“If ye assist meself in a hunt to gather meat, ye shalt have thine answers.”

“The word is will, not, shalt. And it is you’re, not thine.”

I look shrewdly at her. “If ye assist meself in a hunt, ye shalt have thine answers.”

Our silent staring contest only lasts three more seconds before she looks away. But now I feel badly for refusing her language lesson I probably need to learn if I’m going to involve myself in society again. “Yore? As in, many years ago?”

“No. No. As in, you are.

“… Like, thou art?”

“Yes. Only say it my way.”

“Yew. Are.”

“Yes. So say, ‘you will get your answers.”

I want to buck her lessons. I’m still not willing to accept I was in that vault for so long. “Yew will get yew’re answers.”

“Perfect!” she says, though I know she is lying because her smile forged from sympathy bespeaks that she is just tolerating me out of the goodness of her heart. My own heart aches with how badly I want to show her who I really am. I feel I can’t do that until I get a damned hair cut! She probably thinks I’m some hairy old man with a freakishly boyish voice. I should just shove myself back in the vault and try my rescue again with a male who will be less judgmental. Might even offer me a sharper knife so I can shave.

I am getting hungry again. I forgot how unpleasant that feeling was. “Art ye a hunteress?”

She shakes her head.

“Then we shalt indulge ourselves on fish. Some leapt beyond meself while I wast making a fool of meself in the river. Dost ye fish?”

“The word is do not dost. No. I don’t fish.”

So many words. I hope I can remember them all soon. “Then if ye create a fire with whatever one thing ye useth to light the firstmost torch, I shall gather fish for a feast.”

She’s looking at me – again – like I am crazy. Purely my drive to impress her keeps me going despite how self-conscious her looks and questions make me feel. “Whatever I used to light the torch with? Do you mean a match?”

I don’t know what a match is. Good thing she does. “Yea.”

“The word is ‘yes.’”

“Yea,” I fight. Then buckle down my resolve and repair with, “yesss.”

“I can do that. Where would you like the fire?”

I beckon for her to follow me. We step over my trail of head hair as we leave the priest’s bedroom. The hair has to be at least eight feet long. She doesn’t seem too perturbed by it. A small blessing I can count.

I avert my gaze away from the altar as we leave the gloomy stone chapel. She does not question why I hasten by it so quickly.

 

CHAPTER TWENTY

BRINELLA

 

We end up in the castle’s kitchen. Zadicayn had long since kicked off his acquired boots and is now walking barefoot, his toes as hairy as his fingers.

A brick oven and open fire place occupy the same wall. A cauldron dangles from an iron rod above old black ash. It is definitely primeval.

“Wood mayest be gathered in the room yonder,” he says. “If nary there, I pray ye shalt forgive meself for sending ye yonder into the trees.” He lifts his shoulders apologetically.

“It’s okay. It’s not like I’ve never been outside before.”

At my comment, his eyes move up and down me as if assessing the truth of it on my dirty clothes and unbrushed hair. His gaze makes me nervous and I squirm, very aware that I am not tied into a dress. I don’t even know this person. Is he dangerous? Had I really released a monster?

The moment passes and he looks away as quickly as he started, leaving me in the kitchen by myself. Even if I had released a monster, I feel badly for him, like I felt badly for Jesaro, who then kidnapped me. Problem with me is, I can’t help but feel badly for people, even if they end up being dangerous to me later.

I find the promised heap of wood inside the small closet directly next to the kitchen door. I bring back an armful and arrange them into the brick oven. An iron grate above the wood will support any food for cooking.

And I realize, that standing in this kitchen in a castle unknown to the outside world, preparing a fire for food in the company of someone who is a mess of confusion and mystery… a sadistic part of me likes this. I’m not even lonely without Durain. I rather enjoy the selfishness of being the only one to know about this place. As for Zadicayn? The truth of him will reveal itself soon.

I have to feed the fire with a second armful of wood by the time Zadicayn, dripping water, comes back with a still wriggling mass inside a dirty shirt he turned into a sack. The holes in the fabric squirm a slimy gray.

“Forgive me. I dost nary wit how to kill them proper in the absence of a dagger. The daggers I own meself art somewhere about, howevermore it hath been so many yore I faileth to remember which bed chamber meself tis master of.”

My stomach flip-flops at the thought of killing a live animal as I accept the shirt-bag. “It’s all right. I’ll take care of it.” With bag in hand, I turn to the table and blow the dust off.

“I wast nary swift enough to catch the fish inside the tunic, so I hath open up this pudh festival tent of a robe on meself to furnish a blockade for them. Twas a good thing thou wert absent.” I see him suppress a smile, making me blush even if I do chortle at the image I fail at blocking from my mind. I brush at the remaining dirt on the table with my already dirty sleeve, having giving up long ago on trying to stay clean. A cold bath would be a treat right about now.

“Um…” I begin, wondering if it was my place to ask for anything. “I could use a bucket of water to clean this kitchen a little. And some rags to wipe everything down, if you don’t mind.”

He nods briskly as if pleased to please me and leaves again.

I set the shirt-bag on the table and select a fish. It wriggles out of my hand and smacks the wood. It lays on its side, heaving in air it cannot breathe. I want to let it suffocate so I won’t have to be the one to end its life. But the longer I watch the more I feel bad about its suffering. Holding the blade over its head, I close my eyes and chop down hard.

To my dismay, the head does not sever completely, so I have to saw at it. But now the headless body is twitching, creeping me out immensely. I endure the same service for the other four fish. Now there is a splash of blood across my shirt. Ruined. Aunt Magara has probably already disposed of the rest of Durain’s clothes, too.

I vent out my anger in the quick motions I make to clean the fish. Having chopped off the heads I’m fearless now to gut them. I scrape the fish guts out the window and do a lousy job pulling out the spine and all the individual bones. There is a million of them.

I slap the mangled carcasses on the metal grate where they hiss against the heat. I have all the fish cooking when he comes back, sopping wet again, with a bucket of water and more fish inside. The bucket is made of wood and is leaking.

He sits in a chair nearby and I continue to flip the fish over the fire with Durain’s knife.

“So how did you stay alive if you didn’t eat or drink?” I prod.

He places his hands on both knees and leans back in the chair, which creaks. “Understanding I wast going to be thus confined for an unknown time, I cast a spell upon me body to cease all me needs to eat, drink, and expel bodily waste. There wert some other things I ceased also, but I forgeteth to halt the growth of me hair. Upon, the growth of which hath been growing for three hundred years.”

I clear my throat at his word spell and move on to another question. “But you are hungry and thirsty now?”

“I wrought the spell so t’would falter upon me escape of the vault. Which upon is why hunger and thirst attacked me with vengeance. Me stomach hath been hollow for three hundred years, and it wanteth to expel everything I forceth upon it. But I attest that ye wert honest upon the acidic in the apples becoming harsh to meself. Meself’s… other internal bodies started working accordingly, which upon the reason of me seafaring explorations of the river.” His cheeks blossom and he looks at the floor.

But he had used the word spell twice now. I turn back to the oven to flip the fish again. “I’m sorry… you said you cast a spell on yourself?”

Yorself?”

“Youself. Thineself.” I know he’s frustrated about how I speak. Hopefully we can work it out before we explode on each other.

“Yea,” comes his measured response from behind me. “I be thus a wizard.”

I jolt and the knife slips out of my fingers. I instinctively grab at it, and demons bit my fingertips as they brush across the molten red grate. My gasp clogs my throat but Zadicayn is already grabbing my arm and hauling me over to the bucket of water. He plunges my arm inside up to my elbow, scaring the fish so they swim in frantic circles.

“Swirl it,” he says. “Ye shalt be a’right. Just keep thine hand in a swirl. Damn! I concede with ache that I yearn for me amulet!”

I’m too distracted to notice his hand on my shoulder at first, and when I do, it feels like a crushing weight that I feel all the way to my toes. Weird.

The cold river water cools my burn significantly after a few minutes.

“The trick,” he says gently, “tis to cool the fire as swift as ye art able. If ye doeth it swift, a scar shan’t mar thee.” He holds that position with one hand on my shoulder and the other on my arm for a good moment. Then as if by force he lets go to fetch my knife out of the fire.

My heart pounds in my throat. Heat rises to my eyes. No… no… no… My mind wouldn’t grab anything else. The place I had been stuffing everything absurd is too full to accept this now, so I’m forced to face it, raw and ugly, force myself to make it make sense. To accept. Is this yet another lie? But who would lie about this? Wizards could control magic, which is preached evil by the – should I tell the church?

My pulse is racing. The sermon on Sunday about avoiding magic and something about God being displeased with people who call themselves wizards and the like fires through me. Does the church know about Zadicayn? Is that why the priest spoke about wizards and magic so randomly out of the blue?

As I watch him dig my knife out of the fire with the fire poker, something inside me says, no. I don’t think he’s a wizard. I haven’t seen him do any magic. He climbed out of the vault and he’s been a broken, hungry, emotional mess ever since. Mentally unstable, I decide. A man-boy who thinks he’s a wizard.

Something nags at the back of my mind to think about how the key pulled me to the castle, through the rock that dissolved into a tunnel… ya. I’ll deal with that later. There is a plausible explanation for that, too.

He sticks the fire poker in the wood and pulls out a burning log along with the knife. The log crashes to the floor and his bare feet leap out of the way with a yelp and I snort in laughter. He looks at me and smiles too, bumping the knife with his heel out of the way to let it cool.

“How dost thy hand fair?”

I have to admit. His use of Old English and equally old accent is kind of alluring.

“My hand is better. Thank you.”

“Then if ye be well, ye mayest withdraw it from the water.”

I do so. He takes the bucket and splashes water on my knife. It hisses violently. He puts the bucket back on the table. “The floor tis still cleaner than afore.”

“Truly.”

“I shall complete the task of roasting our grand feast. Submerge thy hand upon the fire beneath thy skin scalding ye again.”

I watch him flip the fish. He scoots them off the grate onto a dirty pewter plate stacked next to the oven. He splits up the fish and hands me a second plate. “I pray ye shalt joy in thine maw-wallop.”

I take my plate and he takes his seat. Careful to avoid the fish blood, we eat silently with our fingers.

He devours his like he has so far devoured everything else, and so I offer up my other fishes, having been given too much anyway. “You might want to slow down. You will throw it all up again.”

He stalls with his next bite falling off his fingers halfway to his mouth. “Ye art honest. Methinks also the fish tastes pudh. Unless perchance it tis the thoughts of meself only?”

“What does pudh mean?”

“Something akin to being very bad. Horrible, even.”

“You are right. These fish are pudh.”

“Good. Me taste still triumphs.” He pauses for a minute which looks like it takes considerable effort before taking his next bite slowly. Bits of chewed up fish stick to his thick black beard. “I maketh the mistake of spying a looking glass as I sojourn to draw water. Methinks I look akin to me Uncle Daylican.”

I snort, almost spitting fish out of my nose and because that was funny, he laughs too, the sound rich and honest. It’s pulled from deep within his throat so it comes out strong and smoky, a fluctuation in his normal pitch that I haven’t heard before. It’s like his voice is still trying to figure out what pitch it wants to settle at for the rest of his life.

“So, Zadicayn, if you are a wizard, cast a spell for me.”

“If I cast a spell, it shall be to scalp all this hair from off meself.”

“So you can’t cast anything?” I’m relieved. That makes him not an enemy of the church. I’ve only known him a few hours, but I want to protect him because he is Durain’s secret. Why is he Durain’s secret?

“Nary in absence of me amulet.”

I drum my fingers on the table and watch the flames lick through the grate at the top of the oven. “Where is your amulet?”

I see him shiver from still wet clothes and the rapidly cooling evening. “I must attain dry clothing. I shall join ye unhindered soon again.” He stands, and with an exaggerated bow, leaves. I don’t miss that he intentionally avoided my question. Was he going to answer any question?

I need something to do with my hands. I stand, seeing what can be done to make the kitchen at least sanitary if not clean. The floor is already wet so I grab the straw broom spider-webbed into a corner and swish the water around, pushing the excess in front of the fireplace where the cauldron hangs.

A bedroom close by lends me some shirts I find on the floor. Hoping he won’t mind, I use them to wipe down the table and every other surface.

I have a fire going in the hearth to dry the floor when he comes back. He had swapped out the ugly yellow oversized robe for a dark blue coat and black pants. It all fits him much better, showing a tall, emaciated body beneath with knobby shoulders and knees. He’s got his pants tucked into the tall cuff of his black boots, of which the dry graying leather is cracked at the toes.

He moves to stand so the fire is behind him, hands clasped behind his back. The sun had set to official night and the firelight silhouettes his tall figure, adding an air of importance to his already rigorous posture to one who had, at least at one point, known greatness.

He looks at me, casting his arms down the front of his body. “Thou thinkest better?”

His clothes are most definitely something I’ve seen in paintings in book about the Middle Ages. His boots have rusted buckles along the outsides instead of the laces and buttons down the front that I am used to. A thick leather belt over the top of the blue coat is keeping it closed. He fits right into the archaic theme of the castle. It’s like he’s just wearing a costume. It’s hard to believe those are actually his clothes. “Yes. Much.” I wait. Then clear my throat. “Are you ready to tell me why you were in the vault?”

“Nay. But I suppose I must.” He closes his green eyes and inhales deeply. “I shall nary ever be ready, but I must begin. I am thus a wizard. Howevermore, I wert nary the only one. I shouldst joy in saying I am nary the only one, but I nary canst. Twenty of us there wert in England. That number wast maintained by procreation – two wizards for each family. One wast the parent, the other their own younghede. So thereupon wert ten families who bespoke the magic. These families wert chosen by the Fae for their honesty and humbleness because the magic couldst be used too easy for selfish or monstrous deeds.” He pauses, rocking on his now booted feet. “I guess upon I shalt say that the Fae rather enabled us to use magic by giving us the amulets. All of humanity already hath magic bosomed inside us. Ye hath magic in ye.”

I shake my head and decide not to make eye contact with him anymore.

“Nay, truly… hath ye ever upon soared to the skies in thin yonder dreams?”

“Yes.”

“Is this thing nary magic?”

“It’s just a dream. Dreams are just the imagination of our sleeping minds.”

“But whereupon dost dreams cometh from?”

I shrug.

He taps a finger on his bushy head. “Everyone hath the pineal gland. It grows about center of ye head, sometimes christened the third-eye because it hath its own cornea. This gland spins dreams and dreams yield magic. Our amulets lay open the way for us to reach these dreams consciously and harvest them directly into a tangible form of magic. Art ye still following?”

No. Well, that is I understand every word, but I can’t say the same for my conviction. I nod.

“Every one thing in life hath something that eats upon it. There art creatures that eat magic, so they eat the third-eye out of the heads of people. These creatures art named Faewraith. Faewraith hath been living since the Fae wert born. The Faewraith live in the Realm of the Fae so for this reason ye hath nary seen one. In the days of yore when the first human wast born, to stop the Faewraith from feasting upon the humans, the Fae roamed the earth to keepeth the Faewraith away until humans waxed strong enough to accept that task upon thineselves. So families wert chosen to be wizards and hither we art… or at least meself. Yea… just meself…” He takes a deep breath and looks out the dark window. “I canst nary withstand the darkness anymore. And as such that I finally hath company, I dost nary desire… canst nary desire to be’en alone.”

“You still have not said why you were in the vault.”

“Tis still a longer story. Mighten ye asketh that question on the morrow?”

“I can’t chance to be late getting home. It took me a full day and a morning to get here. I’d like to leave tomorrow to make sure I make it back in time.”

He pauses, as if translating in his head what I just said. “Why so long? Tis only a few miles.”

“The road in the canyon leading me to the tunnel I came through is filled with trees and mud. It took me a day and a half to crawl over it all.”

“Dost ye live in Valemorren?”

“Yes.”

“How long tis the journey to thine cosh from the north base of the mountain?”

“My what?”

He casts his eyes about for help. “Thin place of which ye rest thin head.”

“Oh. My house.”

“House.”

“It’s about three miles from the north base of the mountain.”

“I art able to get ye to the north base on the other side of the mountain in minutes of five. Then ye must only journ the three miles.”

I wouldn’t have believed him, except the tunnel I took to get here still boggles my understanding of things, and I’ve already figured out he is only stalling answering my questions because, just like he said, he doesn’t want to be alone. And I feel badly for him.

“As long as you promise, five minutes.” It’s stupid to agree, because he’s not a wizard and there is no way to get me to the north side of the mountain when I entered this valley from the canyon on the west side. But I haven’t had this much freedom since Durian died and I want to keep it as long as possible. I’ll make up a story for my parents to explain why I’m a day late. Getting kidnapped by gypsies just might come back into play.

His smile beneath his beard is unmistakable. “We canst sleep hither so as much as we feedeth the fire. Tis a comfort to meself and I dost nary want to wake in the dark and bethink this tis all a monstrous dream and bethinks I tis still in the vault. I hath had too many of those. I also dost nary trust I art nary still in the vault.”

I see the pain in his eyes. I’m still not convinced he’s real, myself. “Of course.”

“I shall gather us blankets.”

His arms are full of grimy fabric when he comes back, but I need a bath before I sleep. And a toilet.

“Zadicayn, where can I find your water closet?”

“What asketh thou?” He drops the blankets on the floor and looks at me.

“The… toilet.”

He’s blinking slowly at me and I can see that he is trying very hard to understand. “Forgive me. I faileth to understand ye question.”

“It’s alright. I’m going to the river. I’ll be back.”

He nods and begins laying out the blankets.

Torches cling to the walls everywhere I walk. They must have been the primary source of light at night when people lived here. Black pitch stains the walls above each one. Still retaining Durain’s rucksack, I strike a match to a torch and head in the direction I think I remember being the way to the river stairs. It takes me turning back three times until I finally make it.

The outside air brushes cool against me and I hesitate about bathing in it. But taking one sniff at the miasma emitting off my body, it is decided for me. I have to get in the river anyway to take care of necessary bodily functions. Like I did at the gypsy camp. I shiver at the reminder.

I jam the torch between the rocks lining the river. I look behind me at the stairs snaking back to the side door into the castle. I just hope Zadicayn doesn’t come down. I place Durain’s knife on the rock beside me and peel off my clothes. I step in, gasping at the shock of ice zapping through my body, debating about waiting until it is warmer out. But I have to bath. I want to wash my clothes too but I have nothing to change into. And I can’t chance Zadicayn spying on me with the sun out.

I dive in all at once, the cold clinching the air out of my lungs. I surface, rubbing my hands over myself to scrub at dirt likely frozen to me now. I dunk my head and thrash my hair around. The whole process lasts five seconds.

I’m shivering violently when I scramble back onto shore, throwing on my clothes but carrying my boots in my hand. I huddle closer to the torch than is probably safe and race up the stairs and back into the kitchen. I think my face is blue from the cold because one look from Zadicayn and he does the judicial service of draping a blanket over my shoulders. I warm instantly.

He has already folded the blankets on the floor for two beds. I realize I’m going to be the hostess to a Ball for dust mites during the night. It’s not hard to tell when the last time those blankets were washed.

Zadicayn sits on the floor beside his bed and takes off his boots. He gazes into the fire. “I thank ye again, Brine Frondaren. I durst say I still mighten yet have a life. I shalt doeth me best to seek a gift worthy of thee of which to display my fulsome gratitude.”

“No need,” I reassure, not wanting to take advantage of his mentally fevered mind that has fabricated all of this. “Kindness is a gift that rewards both ways.”

“Well… I shalt still make the quest, howevermore any one thing I acquire shalt still fail in being a good equal of me gratitude, beit even the king’s own treasury. And… I thank ye for thine unselfish agreement to staying with meself tonight. Tis something only addled younghedes would desire –”

“Three hundred years is too long to be alone in the dark.” I can’t tell if I’m actually getting better at understanding him or if I’m just guessing and he goes along with it. “But it is not childish at all to want light and company.” It’s easy to smile at him now that I’ve ascertained his mental illness.

He pauses, then nods grimly. “Tis impossible for meself to overjoy my freedom upon the moment. I fear it shan’t be real when I wake upon the morrow. I art scared to believe –”

“You’ll wake up and I’ll be right here,” I say. “This is real.” I indicate my body. Bad move because his eyes go right to where my hands are. “I promise.”

His smile is a pressed thin line. “I thank ye… with all the roses in the House of York, I thank ye. And I… I shall lay me eyes upon ye in the morning?”

I nod.

He nods too, though with apparent hesitation. I lay down. So does he, falling promptly asleep. I lay awake, wondering if I’m going to be the one to wake and find it has all been a dream for me.

 

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

ZADICAYN

 

Light flickers against my closed eyes. I don’t know why. I don’t have light down here.

I open my eyes. A wall of fire fills my vault. I’m going to burn alive.

Juvament!” I scream, despite I’ve screamed that word a million times in the hollow of my tomb and someone has yet to answer.

I run for the ladder and trip over my beard. Hand over hand I scale the ladder until I smack my head on the bars shooting across my only exit. I grab them and shake. “Juvament!”

The fire beneath me swells like a pregnant belly; nine months rushed into an instant. It turns into snakes and they spiral up the ladder, snapping at my heels.

I’m crying so hard it’s a wonder I can’t put the fire out with my tears. “I just want to live!”

“Zadicayn!”

I jerk awake so hard I almost break my leg against the stone lip of the hearth. It takes me a second to realize I’m still kicking at the fire snakes in my dream before I stop and focus on remembering how to breathe.

Brine is rubbing her hand up and down my arm and this alone causes me to finally relax. Touch. I’m breathing again, though my throat is pinched and I don’t know why my eyes are wet.

“It’s okay,” she’s saying. “It’s okay. It was just a dream.”

I’m not sure if my current reality and looking like a fool in front of her is any better than my dream. I durst not look at her. She’s going to see my eyes are gold again and I don’t want to freak her out to the point that she leaves. I’m surprised she hasn’t already.

Without thought, I wipe my wet nose on my sleeve. Good move, you whifling. That looks attractive.

“I shame meself.” Now my own speech is irritating me. I sound like an idiot. “I be sorry,” I try instead like I’ve heard her say. It doesn’t sound any better.

“No no no, you’re okay. You’ve been through something that no one else can relate to.”

Despite her sympathetic softness, I still catch that she doesn’t believe anything I’ve said today. That she is only entertaining me. She likely thinks I’m fevered in the head by some incurable illness. I can’t blame her.

“I dreameth me vault was set afire. I supposeth the fire in the hearth be nary help, after all.”

She pats my arm in a lame attempt at understanding and retreats back toward the hearth.

“Nay –” I reach out as she retreats. When she looks at me, I realize my mistake. “Forgive me.” I pull my arm back.

“What?”

I shake my head. I’m glad for my hair this once that hides my warming cheeks. I disgust myself so much that I want to throw up, even though my throat still burns from my episodes earlier.

“Really, you can tell me,” she prods. “You’re not going to scare me off. Unless, of course…” She smiles. “You suddenly sprout a third arm or chase me around the castle with a knife. Then I might be scared. Just a little.”

Her voice is like balm in my ears where for too long I only ever heard my own stupid voice. But if she could see inside my heart and spy upon the horrific need to have her touch me then she would be scared off.

I tell her. Because there is finally someone to hear me and answer back. I still swallow hard. “It tis a comfort… to… hath thin hand…” I stop because she’s tilting her head at me. I swallow hard and look away. I’ll just go sleep in the vault tonight. “Tis just…” My heart is pounding. “Tis just that… I nary hath any touch…” Just plow through it. She already sees me as an invalid. Her opinion of me can’t get any lower. “I hath nary a touch with any one thing but cold stone… for so long… and I nary realize how bad upon I wanteth it…” I can’t look at her. My gaze shifts toward the door out of the kitchen that is not closed off by bars to keep me inside my torment.

“Zadicayn.”

Her voice is soft and beckons me to look at her. She is motioning with her hand for me to join her by the fire. I’m moving before I realize it. I sit beside her and I melt when she slides her arm across my shoulders. Touch. Like my clothes. My clothes chaff but at least it’s a touch that is not stone.

“I promise ye,” I say, “tis nary whom I be. Tis nary whom I be.” I say it twice so she can really understand.

“It’s okay. I understand.”

She can’t possibly. But her arm is still across my shoulders anyway. I’m glad twas a girl who rescued me. I would for certain drown in my starvation for the physical contact of another human being because I would not, under any circumstances, ask a male to comfort me with touch. I take back my thought from earlier. If a male had rescued me, I would have crawled back in my vault and waited for a girl.

I relax into her, molding my body into the curve of her own. And I start to cry.

I break the contact and stand. “Why cants I nary just be damned normal once again?”

I wish she would look at me like an idiot instead of acting like I’m not. I don’t know what else to do. I flee the kitchen.

 

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

BRINELLA

 

I’m searching for something comforting to say upon his hasty retreat, and fail. How does one comfort the madness of the mind? I don’t know how I feel about his request to touch him, addled with a mental illness that convinces him he is a wizard, but sympathy warms my gut anyway. Just like it did for Jesaro. I actually hate the monkey more.

I was surprised the first time he acted erratically. Now I just prod the fire with the poker.

The horizon begins its cold blue glow outside. I’m tired but my body protests louder that it doesn’t want to sleep on the floor so soon again.

I collect apples at the river. The sun has broken the horizon by the time Zadicayn comes back into the kitchen where I’m rotating the partially wizened fruit warming in the oven. He doesn’t even attempt to smile.

“I halted many such things during me incarceration.” He sits on the chair beside the table. “I maketh it impossible to lose me mind to madness, because I still didst hold some foolish hope that I wouldst be freed. When I fled the vault, all of the spells I hath in place broke, so that barrier I hath made to keepeth meself from going mad left as certainly. I doeth all that without the wit how it might affect meself from whence – if – I ever left the vault. My emotions art so bungled this instant. I hath nary an idea how to keepeth their heads down. I art afraid I still mighten go mad now upon me escape.” He takes a deep breath. He obviously spent the last hour rehearsing. “Thine company tis beyond the price of treasures, despite I appeareth a fopdoodle upon thy first glance of me, and the unfortunate truth that me appearances rivals that of a monkey dost nary help.”

I snort back a laugh. I look up apologetically but it looks like he meant the comment to lighten the mood, to shed some light on the fact he is human. His smile is thin. “So… I thank ye… again. For tolerating meself.”

I wish I knew what to say to make him understand it doesn’t bother me. Despite my unfortunate result with Jesaro, there still are those people out there who don’t have the luxury for basic human needs and comforts. Like Joseara. I consider convincing Zadicayn to follow me to the hospital when I leave. But I end up not suggesting it because hospitals aren’t much useful except to prepare you for your grave.

“Of course,” I manage, despite my misgivings. “Would you like a baked apple?”

“Methinks I shall be famished for the next three hundred years. Yea, thank ye. Overmany wagon loads of thank ye’s.”

I stab an apple with Durain’s knife and pull it out of the oven. He accepts the hot fruit with hands covered in his long blue sleeves. “Ye art much too good for someone ye dost nary wit.”

“Wit?”

“To… understand?”

“Well, where I’m from, people don’t reach out to help anyone they consider below their status, and when they do, they think they should be worshiped. I hate it.”

But he’s nodding. “Peasants wert the bottom of the hierarchy. No soul wouldst reach out to helpeth them. I understand. Dost ye have peasants still?”

“No. I suppose we call them gypsies now.”

“Gypsies!” His eyes light up on me. “I wit gypsies. I art pleased there tis something I recognize still.”

“How old are you?”

He takes a bit out of his apple. “Tis years of three hundred too old for ye?”

I pretend I don’t see his wink, because I don’t know if it’s in jest or not. “No, no. Before you…” Before you thought you were in a vault for three hundred years. “Before you went into the vault.”

He looks at the floor. “I fail to remember.”

“Guess.”

“I nary canst. I forgeteth my birth year.”

I try to see the answer in his green eyes. There doesn’t appear to be any wrinkles from what I can see under all that hair. “Seventeen or eighteen?”

“Perhaps.” He bits into his apple.

“So one day,” I prompt, casually chewing my own breakfast, “you woke up inside a vault and…”

“Might I indulge ye with an exploration of the castle?” I look pointedly at him. He looks away. “Forgive me. Tis just… thou shalt leave this place if ye hath all the answers. And I understandeth that tis terribly self-serving of meself…” He trails off. I fill in the blank.

“I promise to come back and see you again. Will that satisfy?” I say it just so he will tell me. Then I feel bad because I know I can never come back. Is this it, then? Durain dies, I go through the trouble of piecing together what he started, open a vault to release a boy who thinks he’s been down there for a long time, and then go home and forget about it? What am I supposed to do with Zadicayn? What would Durain have done with him?

He shifts the apple around in his sleeved hands to bit another angle. “Yea… yea it shall.” He takes a breath, too deep to be normal. “So the Faewraith wert upon the consumption of humans and ten honest families wert chosen to be the keepers of the magic to bar the way of the Faewraith. Dost ye hath any questions before I continue?”

He’s egressing from my language instruction. I suppose there is no help for it right now. “Why ten families? Does that number matter? How many wizards do you need to keep the Faewraith away?”

“The number of ten tis only specific to the ten regions in England, two wizards for each region. But as for the keeping of the Faewraith away, ye just needeth one. Huzzah for meself.”

“So… how are you keeping them away?”

“Faewraith consume magic, but art nary magical themselfs. So as much as a magical force tis present in the living, it keepeth them away.”

“But if everyone has magic in us, in our dreams…”

“Ye hath magic, howevermore it tis dormant. I shalt correct and say that active magic keepeth the Faewraith from this place. The Fae art always active magic. The wizards’ amulets harvest the magic from our third-eye and keepeth it active. And even though Faewraith eat magic, they art scared away by large quantities of it, just like a lion wouldst consume one human but scare away if there twas a pack of them. On this moment, me amulet is just enough, wherever upon yonder it sits.” He exhales. “Meself is thus thirsty. Mighten there still be water in that bucket?”

I point to the cauldron above the fire in the hearth. “I’m boiling it. I’m still waiting for you to get sick from drinking river water.”

He looks mournfully at the cauldron as if terribly inconvenienced. “So there wert twenty of us, so besides being the keepers of magic to bar the Faewraith away, we wert allowed to use magic to assist in the needs of the general populace, which is why honest and humble families wert chosen so they shouldst nary use the magic for things they wert nary supposed to. If the land suffered a drought, we couldst bring forth rain. We couldst assist in healing and discover gold ore in the lofty mountains. Things to help people live just a mite easier, a little healthier. Magic wast nary to be used in place of actual work.”

He leans back into the creaking chair. I wait for the moment it would break. “Howevermore, some people decideth it shouldst be used in place of physical labor. And that tis whence the problem began.” He looks toward the kitchen door again, like he did earlier, looking like he wanted to leave and I start to understand that gesture means he wants escape, as if he was still inside a personal vault.

“A handful of families; Borayen, Garfair, and Whaerin schemed together in want of their work made easier. Each of them worketh either in lumber, masonry, farming, or metal. Dost thou wit if they art still functioning upon those same labors?”

“What does wit mean again?” I try, nitpicking his speech again to cover up the coldness surging through my chest at the mention of those names Zadicayn should know nothing about.

He shakes his head and looks at his boots as if he’s the one to blame. He lifts his hands and curls his fingers as if to help him find an explanation. “Dost they still function upon those same labors?”

“Yea. I mean, yes.”

He spares me a quick grin at my slip into his dialect. “Thither wert a few families liketh that in every region. Those names of whom I hath just declared wert the ones in my region. Others nearest the ocean wert fisherman and glass blowers… but besides… basically each family worketh a major labor; the pinnacle of human necessity. So of course, those wert the ones that wanteth the magic for themselves, to lay trees without the need of physical labor, to harvest fish out of the ocean without a net… I shall be certain ye can figure out how each of them wouldst use magic for their own ends.

“Of course, doing that would break our oaths we maketh to the Fae to nary use the magic to satisfy the heightened greed of lofty fellows. Thou shalt nary confuse the two; we helpeth each of them with each of their jobs. We nary used magic to pull the fish out of the ocean for them, but we didst show them from whence the biggest swarm of fish couldst be found that day. We nary useth magic to cut the trees but we didst use it to lower the trees to the ground thereupon they fell to waylay injury. Howevermore, these workers wanteth more. And we refuseth to provide it upon their hands. So…” He looks toward the door again. “Art thither anymore apples?” I stab another apple impatiently with Durain’s knife and hand it to him. “How comes about the water?”

It is boiling now, so I scoop some in a wooden bowel I found and had cleaned as best I could and hand it to him. He huddles the bowel to him, watching his face ripple on the surface of the water. “So they demandeth it by force.” He takes a sip of water, even though it steams heavily. I wince for him but he appears unaffected by its heat. “Wherein threats didst nary work… and upon whence torture didst nary work… they starting killing us. Killing us to useth our amulets for themselves.”

He bits into the apple. Once. Twice. Finished it. Gulped more water. “We supplicated them to hear us tell the honest truth that the amulets wouldst nary work for them, but they believed upon we wert bluffing, and killeth us anyway. But tis true… the amulets art attuned to each wizard by our life blood. Twas made so by the Fae so the amulets couldst nary be used by anyone else. The amulets literally became part of us, became our detachable third-eye. Literally. When they started killing wizards, they soon understandeth the amulet dieth too, becoming a useless dangle of cheap jewelry.

“They stopped killing for that purpose, but while they wert thinking upon how to overcome it, the church heralded thereupon that all wizards wert evil because, like a temptress, they lure greedy fellows to do evil things.”

I can’t look at him. Can’t see as well as hear everything connecting into place. The sermon in church about magic and wizards wasn’t random. Something happened for them to warn us about it. It can’t have been Zadicayn. Too clearly, the image of an orange flying dog thing and three men chasing it appear in my mind as clearly as its picture in the book of mythical creatures in my room.

“’But a wizard tis only a wizard because of his amulet,’ the church hast declared, and the church, still empowered to be merciful under the face of their God…” He pauses for too long. I look up to see his green eyes have turned to gold and he is clenching his bony fingers into fists, “thinkest to purge the wizard of the source that wert making him evil, and began – instead – shattering the amulets. It purged the wizard, a’right. Purged him right out of his damned life.”

His eyes fade away back to green and he relaxes his hands. “T’works both ways. Both die whence the other doeth. The church concluded the deaths as a sign that the wizards wert too evil to be purged, and so felt justified in their killings and decreed all amulets to be broken and if the wizard liveth, he wouldst be forgiven of all his ‘sins’. Howevermore, no wizard liveth.”

He pauses and I wait, having just realized my hands are shaking. He sips at his bowl of hot water.

“But you are still alive,” I say.

He takes another bit of apple, as if not wanting to chance missing the opportunity to eat in favor of talking. “Those families killeth thirteen wizards. The church killeth six. Gandorlain Whaerin, Dendaryl Garfair, and Saulfur Borayen wert nary going to roll over and show their bellies. They wrought a cheap version of me amulet and handed it to the church, who breaketh it. Heralding the world purged because all twenty amulets wert accounted for, those three people took the real amulet – me own – and hauled meself down into the chapel below the castle. They wert going to figure out how to harvest me amulet’s magic for themselfes. But they needed meself alive to keepeth the amulet alive.” He told the story boldly, without much care. But now I get to witness the break. “I… I shouldst hath killed meself to stop them, Brine.” He swallows. “But I wanted to live.” He looks up at me. His eyes glossy.

He flees the kitchen.

My knees are shaking so I sit on the floor, resting my head against my palm, trying to wait out the shock overwhelming me. I try clinging to the belief that he is mentally ill, but his facts mirror what I already know. Aklen Whaerin works in lumber… Brocen Garfair is a farmer. Corrana Borayen works as a dress maker now but they all had a piece of the key.

This I can tell you, Durain whispers in my ear, the Fae are real.

The key that opened up solid rock to reveal a tunnel and castle beyond, the key I fixed into the podium in front of the altar and Zadicayn crawling out of a vault I unlocked, a vault I had searched myself and found nothing but a tomb of stone. How the church preached that magic is forbidden…

I swoon, dizzy, as everything from Durain’s death up until now slam into me, drowning me, screaming at me that I have just unhinged history.

I lean against the leg of the table, closing my eyes, trying to stay afloat above the deluge of realization. Durain was murdered because he was trying to get the keys to set the wizard free. Aklen and Brocen and the dressmaker wanted to keep the wizard locked up so they could… Is Jaicom and Crisy part of this too? This is real.

All of it.

I look to where Zadicayn disappeared. I need to comfort him, let him know I’m on his side.

I leave the kitchen, guessing where he might have gone. It’s not hard. He left the door open to the room. His room by looking at the blue rotted curtains hanging around his bed. He’s sitting there, staring mutely at the wall. I invite myself in. It’s not until I sit next to him that he flinches in acknowledgment to my presence. I put my arm around his thin shoulders. He stiffens.

“Zadicayn,” I say, breathless and close to tears myself. “I am so sorry. I wish I could take all that away, I wish… I wish I could do something to make it all okay, I…” I don’t know what to say, but I don’t have to. He’s leaning into me to seek a comfort no words can balm, so I put my other arm around him. His body shudders against me, racking in sobs he tries to muffle in his arm.

I just hold him, and let the damn of grief built up over three hundred years break against my shirt.

 

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

ZADICAYN

 

I wake up in my drool. Great. That’s dignified.

I open my eyes but Brine is gone. I realize I only woke up because I’m on a bed and I can’t get comfortable.

I sit up, staring at the wall and scrubbing my fingers through my hair. I have to do something to change her opinion of me. I’ve already fallen into the negatives with how much I burst out into uncontrollable tears. Pathetic. I hope I’m not subconsciously doing it just so she can touch me. I’m seriously messed up. Maybe I could have been smart and made the spell I put on my body to slowly disappear once I was out of the vault. Let one emotion at a time come back to life.

She must be back in the kitchen. I smell something cooking. Lunch? The light outside my window bespeaks that it might be.

I enter the kitchen to a fist of perfume punching me in the nose. Rosemary. My heart rate elevates as I look about for my mother. I see Brine instead, which is still a comforting sight. She’s cleaned the kitchen in my absence. She must have found the rosemary soap in my mother’s bed chamber, along with a dress of my mother’s which is on the kitchen floor and looks like the dirt of the kitchen is upon it. Oh well. It’s not like I was going to wear the dress. I can’t possibly keep every memento of hers.

Brine is watching me. Waiting for me to burst into tears again. I can’t decide where to place my feet, how to position my arms. Despite that, I mount the saddle of my determination.

“I used to be devilishly handsome,” I say, trying to make my earlier episode days old. “Tis still under all this…” I pull at my hair as if I can pluck it all off. “Somewhere…”

“So maybe those families didn’t lock you away to discover your magical secrets,” she’s saying as she turns the dandelion roots above the fire, “but because they were jealous of your good looks?”

She’s not smiling yet. I need to make her smile. If I can, maybe she will think differently upon her opinion of me. “Now that wouldst maketh sense. For the reason I thinketh I twas entrapped in the vault didst nary maketh sense to meself.” The scent of Rosemary won’t leave me. This alone finally convinces me that I am free from the vault. “You findeth me mother’s soap.”

“Yes. I hope you don’t mind, but I used it to sanitize this kitchen for you.”

I nod, breathing it in. “My mother wouldst only ever useth rosemary soap. She loveth the scent. I thank ye for the clean kitchen. I wouldst hate to finally escape the vault only to die upon dirty wood poisoning.” I try again to make her smile.

She plucks the roots off the grate with a pair of metal tongs she must have found. Women are so thrifty. “Dirty wood poisoning?”

“Certain. I hear it maketh thy body sprout a contagion of skinny black worms all overest. Methinks I hath it already.”

“Oh dear. That’s a lot of mouths to feed.”

“Yea. But tis a cure. The touch of a beautious girl with hair of chocolate silk shall make them slither away.” Her body stiffens a little. Progress? I drum my fingers on the table. “I shall wait.”

She lays a plate of salted dandelion roots in front of me. I’m surprised I can smell the salt. It seems my sense of smell has only heighted since my release. Along with two roasted apples, she also sets wooden tankard of water she’s certainly boiled, in front of me.

“I’ve already touched you and it didn’t work.”

“I meaneth a real touch. Like an embrace.” I think about winking at her, but when I did it earlier it only seemed to bother her. She likely compared it to a monkey winking at her.

“I gave you a hug, and it still didn’t work.” She collects her own food and brings it to the second rickety stool at the table. I see her cheeks have warmed. Just smile for me. I need to know you don’t think me a total failure.

“No, I meaneth… oh ne’er mind.” I am a total failure. My own cheeks are red. But I recover quickly. I won’t give up. I try another approach. “Ye looketh like a troll, anyway.”

She snorts and pins me with a gaze as sharp as her dagger. “Excuse me? A troll?”

“Yea. All that hair ye hath could stuff me mattress.”

“Sure, because your hair looks so much better.”

I nod. I don’t know where to go with that statement, so I start eating. “Ey! Tis so good!” I catch her looking around, as if hoping to see her reflection against something.

“I thought you were one of the honest families.” She gives up her search and picks up her own food. “You’re not supposed to tell lies.”

“I tis from a very noble family! This food tis certain to be found on the king’s own banquet table!”

“These are dandelion roots. And I was talking about calling me a troll.”

I really don’t know how to recover from my comment about calling her a troll. “Finest food I hath partaken in three hundred years!” I begin shoveling the dandelion roots into my mouth by the handful. It’s hard to tell, but my bony fingers seem just a little fuller with a little more color than it did yesterday. A side effect of eating.

“Ye shall not leave,” I say. I realize too late my cheeks are bulging like a squirrel. “Who shall cook me food?”

“I’m your servant now?”

“Nay. Just a pretty las who desires to do a devilishly handsome man the honorable service of cooking his maw-wallop.”

“You just said I looked like a troll.”

“Ye doth.” She doesn’t strike me as being the kind of girl who fawns over compliments. So I drive forward with my original plane and do the opposite. “Because only trolls find other trolls attractive.” I tap my chest. “I also be a troll.”

“There is no way you find this blood splattered shirt and nest of hair appealing, even for a troll.” She reaches up and touches her hair. She must have found time to bath in the river because it is no longer in the braid but hanging down in unruly waves that she has not brushed.

I squint at her as I chew. “Thou art right. The longer I assess, the more ye look like a real troll. An ugly troll.”

“Wow, now I really want to cook for you!” She’s not looking at me. I still spy the smile growing from the corner of her mouth.

I did it! “Ye dost? I thank thee.”

Now she is looking at me. I see her fight a smile, but she loses and she laughs, though I know for certain it is only my goofy facial hair that makes me look like a monkey that is entertaining her. But because I am still the cause of her laughter, I win.

I laugh too, hard things breaking inside of me. Laughter, it seems, is the last snake to rise its head. “Tis so good to finally hath company! And to laugh, and to eat dandelions. And this stool! I hath nary sat upon one for… forever! And the sun, and the rosemary…” I don’t know what I’m doing, but I continue to do it, rattling off everything I can see and smell in that kitchen, liberating myself, slowly beginning to heal from a theft of everything but life. At the moment, I don’t care what she thinks of me.

I only stop to stuff my mouth with more dandelion roots and water. “Wouldst thou desire an exploration of my fortress now?”

She presses her lips together. “Tell you what, we’ll savor that for my next visit.”

“Tis probably better. Mayest I bother ye with assisting in a hunt at the moment? Methinks venison wouldst doeth me body sound.”

She slides off her stool, appearing for all reality as a beacon of gaiety and lightness. For the first time since I laid eyes on her, I don’t feel quite so inferior.

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

BRINELLA

 

He manages to find a crossbow and some bolts in a weapon closet. The cable snaps when he pulls it back. A second fish into the closet reveals an extra cable which he strings with minimal difficulty.

We onto the bridge. “I saw some deer on my way in.”

“Nary a soul hath frequented this area since I wast confined.”

“So, that reminds me, if someone were to climb over that mountain, would they see your castle?”

“Nay.” We walk side by side across the bridge. His boots make a more impressive sound than mine do across the stone. “Ye canst only see me castle if ye cometh through the Fae door, like ye didst.”

“Why is that? How does that work?”

He shakes his head. “That twill upon be answered in yonder time. Twill only confuse ye if I telleth right now.”

“You just want to make sure I come back to see you.”

He avoids looking at me. “Tallyho!”

It’s a doe with her back turned on the hill side, oblivious to the concerns of what Zadicayn might impose. He gets close. The doe looks up at him, curious. He pulls the trigger. The bolt plunges into the doe’s chest and she panics and scrambles up the steep hillside. Her legs give out and she collapses.

It takes both of us to drag the doe off the perilous climb and we’re exhausted by the time we pull it through the broken entrance doors.

“Oh, widdershins.” He’s looking at the doe, her hide disheveled from the drag. “We hath ruined my new trousers.”

“So you’d have brown hair instead of black?”

“Cease thy speech!” Zadicayn pulls a knife off his belt and hacks at the hide, slicing a hunk of meat off the rump. He hands me the bloody mess. I gag. “If ye shalt start the cooking, I shalt move this massacre away from thy pretty sight.”

I want to reference him calling me a troll earlier but I only stare at the blood pooling around the animal, certain my reaction should not be so well contained given how my society grooms ladies.

I nod and vacate with the meat.

Blood drips into the fire as the meat sizzles. It is done cooking by the time he comes into the kitchen, panting and splattered with blood.

“If ye… needeth more venison… just follow… the blood path.” He slumps onto the stool and puts his head in his arms.

I used the salt I found on a shelf and some dry leafy stuff I thought might be parsley to season the meat. I boiled more water, too, and serve both in front of him. He tears into the meat like a rabid dog, not even bothering with the silverware I went to great pains to find and then clean and polish.

“Tis fit for a King’s banquet!” he exclaims with his mouth full.

“I’m just glad I didn’t burn it. I’ve never cooked like this before.”

“What dost ye mean, ‘liketh this’?”

“Me and my cousin roasted vegetables and fruits over our campfires, but never meat.”

“I hath already supposed ye wast smart, so tis no wonder ye hath understood it so swiftly.”

“Thank you.”

“Nay. Thank ye.

Zadicayn eats my leftovers like he’s still starving.

“Do you need more?”

“Nay. I art certain me stomach hath reached capacity but I hath nary an understandable way to knoweth for certain. I best nary let it burst. Howeverso,” he looks out the window darkening to evening, “perchance ye mighten learn me thy speech this eve before sleep accepts us.”

I’m not a teacher. I couldn’t even learn how to play the violin, so how am I supposed to teach someone the simple task of talking?

But I try anyway for the next hour. He listens aptly and laughs at himself when he repeats what I say, as if my dialect is the weird sounding one.

“Say, ‘the sun is setting.’”

“The light over yonder valley –”

“Nay. I mean NO! NO!” I throw my fork at him. “Now you’ve got me saying it!”

“See? Mine tis the more noble of speech.” He’s grinning beneath his beard and I can’t help but smile even if I suspect now he is doing it on purpose.

I withdraw my lessons and he goes to collect the blankets. I stoke the fire in the hearth while he lays them down for two beds on the now sanitized floor.

I remove my boots and socks, hoping they don’t smell as bad as they certainly feel. I tuck myself in with a long sigh.

“Brine?”

For some reason, my name spoken out of him brushes shivers down my back. I look behind me without completely rolling over. His eyes are downcast. “Yes?”

When he finally looks at me, his eyes are burning gold. Another question I keep forgetting to ask. I still have so many questions.

“I wish ye to promise meself, that ye shalt tell me if I say or doeth… something ye think be strange, for me concept of what tis appropriate tis still broken and sometimes I tis nary sure. Promise ye shall tell meself? I shan’t offend.”

I shrug. “Sure.”

He takes in a deep breath. “I tis scared to sleep, for I dost nary want to wake and think upon I be back in the vault, or that me vault tis on fire. Wouldst ye be offended…” There is that gaze of his again, looking toward the kitchen door. “If… I asketh to sleep thither close to ye this night? To…” Now he’s looking at the floor. “To toucheth ye so upon my wake, I shall at least believe that someone tis in the vault with me? I… do not want to wake up thinking I am alone again.”

He says the last line so perfectly that it pulls a deeper sense of sincerity out of him that hits me like a tree branch.

He’s not looking at me, and I have to calm my racing heart. He’s asking to sleep with me? I’m going to say no because it is awkward and weird and… and… is it wrong? But how is this so different than a formal sleep over?

To have a formal sleepover with a stranger I just met yesterday and have it not be Jaicom would edge on scandalous. But the plea in Zadicayn’s downcast eyes rivals my first instinct to say no and that thought fills me with shame. After all he had been through… He is the exception for everything, I decide. But that still didn’t soften the creep of awkwardness. I’ll just consider it as sleeping in the same room where he’d be laying close enough to touch me.

My downfall, I remind. Being over kind to those I don’t even know with no thought to my safety.

I should say no. I should say no.

“That will be okay,” I finally choke out. I hope he won’t notice the knife I also slept with last night.

He exhales, as if he’d been holding his breath for a long time (he probably did), and gathering his blankets with stiff movements he shuffles closer to me. I face the window, stiffening as he slides a hairy arm around my waist. I want to change my mind on the basis of my nervousness, but he says, “Thy hair smells of rosemary,” and his next sound is a snore.

So I stay, though, don’t fall asleep as quickly, realizing with surprise that I don’t mind his touch as much as I convinced myself I did. I’d have a hard time getting up anyway. He’s laying on my cotton mattress stuffing mess of hair spread out behind me.

I sleep on the hard stone better than expected.

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

ZADICAYN

 

For the first time in three hundred and forty-two years I don’t dream. I just sleep. And when I wake, tis to the presence of another human. Something warm. Alive. My final relief over this wrestles out any shame I had about asking to sleep next to her in the first place. I only don’t cry for joy because I’ve resolved to cease crying in front of her for my quest to restore my dignity.

I lay there a while longer before sunrise, selfishly drinking in her presence and her touch. Someday I’ll repair from my abyss-like imprisonment. Some day. If twasn’t for her touch and her presence upon my vacating the vault, I would have gone mad.

It’s just a shame she doesn’t find me as equally attractive. I don’t know why. All this hair gives me a sort of stuffed-animal-toy kind of feel. My sister had this nervous habit even at eleven years old of stroking the long hair on the stuffed toy horse my father made her. Now, how to convince Brine that doing such as that to my face would be alluring to her…

I feel her shift beneath my arm and I feign sleep. Only when she stops moving do I open my eyes again.

Daylight brushes cold blue paints over the mountain tops. Old, unreasonable sensations are also waking up in areas that do me no good right now, so I roll away from her before things get awkward for both of us.

I’ve got breakfast on the cook by the time she wakes, taking a second to look around as if surprised to find herself sleeping on the kitchen floor of a castle.

“Morning to ye,” I say with a cheerful grin she probably doesn’t see through all this hair.

She sits up, scrubbing her eyes with dirty palms. “Good morning.” She’s pulling at her mess of brown hair that has managed to wrap around her neck and bunch at the back of her head like a noose. My sleeping on it probably didn’t help.

“Hey… yesterday I found a hair brush in the same room where I got the soap to clean the kitchen. Might I borrow it?”

“Twas my mother’s. It wouldst honor me if ye keeps it, after all ye hath done for me.”

“Thank you.” She stands and I’m watching the cloths pull against her body as she stretches before I remember my manners and focus on my cooking. I don’t think I’m eighteen like she guessed. I think I’m twelve with how my thoughts betray me; less honorable and raw with energy.

She gathers up the blankets of our shared bed and leaves the kitchen. Given the silence, it triggers three hundred twenty-four years of habit out of me and I begin to recite:

 

And all was conscience and tender heart.

Full seemly her wimple y-pinched was;

Her nose tretis; her eyen gray as glass;

Her mouth full small, and thereto soft and red;

But sickerly she had a fair forehead.

It was almost a spanne broad I trow;

For hardily she was not undergrow.

Full fetis was her cloak, as I was ware.

Of small coral about her arm she bare

A pair of beades, gauded all with green;

And thereon hung a brooch of gold full sheen,

On which was first y-written a crown’d A,

And after, Amor vincit omnia.

 

The venison is done. I’m even able to salt it a little from the remains of what Brine used. I divide the shares and set them on the table, waiting for her to return.

She comes back into the kitchen and her hair is brushed and pulled back into a braid, framing her face better. I also catch a stronger scent of Rosemary. I hope she took a bar of my mother’s soap for herself as well.

She looks at the food. “You didn’t have to wait for me.” She sits down and picks up her fork.

“Ye didst nary have to let me sleep with ye, either.”

I see her shiver a little. I don’t know what that means.

“I have to go after we’re done eating.”

I’ve already torn into my meat like I’ve seen dragons do – not helping my appearance, I know – but upon her declaration, I slow down.

I see her realize her mistake. Not my problem. I wait until I finish eating to say, “Ye nary stay upon another night?”

“If I have any hope of coming back here, no.”

My body suddenly pains me. But I’m trying to be more noble and dignified, so I stand and bow to her. “If tis what me lady wishes, I shall escort ye to the gate.” I don’t look up to see how she registered my referencing her to being my lady. I really should stop trying to flirt with her because as is, coming out of my ugly face, it’s just bound to creep her out.

She gathers her blanket, looks around, and follows me out. We don’t speak all the way to the Fae Gate. Me, because I will probably cry and I’m really trying not to. Her, because she’s likely glad to be ride of me. It’s hard, but I’m keeping some doubt in my heart as pertaining to her return.

I touch the tunnel with my hairy finger that is now, thank the knights, not so skeletal now that my body finally has food. With my finger I draw a pattern over the rock. It dissolves as if it had been mist in sunlight. I hold out my arm to her. She hesitates, but ends up taking it. Together, we walk through.

Her steps are somewhat halting, as if she’s being taken to a place she only must go to because of obligation. This gives me better hope that she will return.

My ears and the burn in the back of my nasal passage alert me to the telltale pop that indicates swift, untraceable travel across a short distance. It looks like the tunnel is only a hundred feet long, but the mountain is much thicker than that. Roughly, the base is five miles thick. Plus, we are traveling through three Fae layers to enter back into the Human Realm. The Fae set up this tunnels. Which is why it hasn’t collapsed yet.

On the other side of the tunnel we step out onto a boulder hanging like a snaggle tooth over a valley. I remember this valley and that brings me peace, even if I have not the slightest idea what that giant black snake puffing smoke out of its head is in the distance. It’s moving very fast.

Brine gasps and I almost grab her in my anxiousness to discover what is wrong, but she’s only looking about in shock on the boulder we are standing on.

“Tis nary the canyon road on the westmost side,” I say, “like twas when ye came through the Fate gate. This be a backdoor.”

She’s still looking at the boulder beneath her feet, holding her body tight. I sense there is more than shock making her react so. Her voice does not betray what is in her head, however. “How did you change it without your amulet?”

“Tis nary magic. It be manual.”

She doesn’t believe me. The shake of her head says so.

“When doth ye return?” My words fail at delivering my plea, hoping instead my desperate green eyes are enough to root her to the spot. I don’t know why I ask. Even if she says, “yea,” I can’t afford to believe her. But it’s refreshing to feel hope again.

She points at the tunnel. “Can I make it back through this same… you called it a Fae Gate?”

So maybe I failed at giving her proper instructions on how to return. The numbness in my head convinces me I don’t want her out of my sight. “Knock upon it ten times and it shall open for ye.”

She’s staring at me again. But today it is not in curiosity or pity. It’s sympathy. “You’re sure you’re going to be okay?”

I want her to ask that question a hundred more times. “Yea. I shall.” I hope that is not a lie. “When mayest ye return?”

She touches her wrist. “I don’t know. As soon as I can. I have to go now.” She turns to maneuver down the pathway there snaking around the boulder.

“Fare thee well,” I say behind her. I keep watching that spot I saw her last, even though it’s been twenty minutes.

 

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

BRINELLA

 

Now that Zadicayn is out of site, it’s hard to believe any of it ever happened. It is just so… unbelievable? Overwhelming? I can’t tag the right word to what I feel. Only that I can’t get his sad green eyes out of my head.

With Durain’s ruck sack over my shoulder, I walk in the concealment of the forest until I hit the road, dash across, and walk preciously near the edge of trees close to my house. I drop my bag, pulling out the hair brush he gave me, rubbing my thumb over the ivory carving of a pegasus surrounded by flowers. I retain the brush, hide the bag, and continue to the river at the spot where Corden said he’d be waiting.

He is waiting. And watching me expectantly as I approach, prying curiosity bubbling out of his old gray eyes.

“Miss Frondaren,” he says, “how was your trip?”

“It…” How to explain it to a stranger I’ve only met once? But, from behind Corden, Joseara joins our company and all the details spill out, willing, desiring that someone tell me it was all a dream. But both of them are nodding.

“I’m overwhelmed.” I press my hand to my sweaty forehead. “What does all of this mean?”

“It means,” Corden starts a hesitant smile. He steps closer to me and puts hands on both my shoulders. “It means you have freed an innocent man, that the three families will be held accountable for the crimes they’ve been committing these three hundred some years. It means that maybe magic might be allowed once again to help the rest of us live just a little easier, like they used to do.”

“So what do we do from here?”

“We need to keep Zadicayn as secret as possible until we can figure out a way to introduce him to the church. It might take a while. For now, we need to protect him. You should bring him to meet us, some time. Let him know who is on his side.”

I don’t know who is on his side aside from myself and Joseara, but I look at the thief and she nods. To trust Corden, then.

“I will.”

“Now,” Corden smiles like a grandfather might to his granddaughter, “Let’s get you presentable for society again. Where did the blood on your blouse come from?”

“Fish.”

Corden produces my carpet bag and hands it to me. All my items are accounted for. I pull out the tiable dress and look at Joseara, who shrugs. “I can try.”

Corden leaves us alone as Joseara helps me into my dress, attempting her best knot.

“If anyone looks closely,” she says, “they will see it’s not a real tie.”

Which will be another complication because Varseena will be the one taking me out of the dress. Joseara throws my hair up in a chignon and covers it with my bonnet. I put on my gloves.

The task done, I give Joseara my trousers and bloody shirt. I can’t take those back with me. I ache as she bids me a farewell and carries them out of sight.

I walk the short distance to the train station and hire a coach to take me home.

As the coach bumbles along, my gaze fixes on the mountain I came out of this morning. My heart aches and I can’t place why; a misplaced feeling to have right now because I’m certain every detail of my “trip to Bristol” is written on my face.

The coach parks in front of my house and the driver opens my door. “Miss Frondaren.”

I exit, careful to turn my back so the driver will not see the poor tying job. I’m already having enough trouble figuring out a convincing story to feed Varseena who will inevitably tell my mother. I hope Varseena will think my excessive sweating is from the heat.

I consider sneaking into my room to avoid questions from my mother about why my dress isn’t tied correctly, but then it would be just as suspicious to sneak into my room prior to gushing about my trip to Bristol.

“Mother! I’m home!”

“Brinella?” My mother emerges out of the drawing room, and with a girlish sequel she picks up her skirt and runs toward me, throwing me in an embrace.

Don’t touch the knots!

“You smell different,” she says.

Fear flares through me. The rosemary soap. “Oh. I don’t know how.”

I’m saved when she disconnects and changes topics. “How was it?”

Well… I spent a day crawling over a dangerous dam of trees and mud where I discovered a castle and a boy who says he’s a wizard and… “I saw some new things.”

My mother’s body language is anxious for details so I don’t know how she is able to say, “You’ll have to tell us all about it at dinner,” because it’s so very like her to demand every detail no matter the inconvenience on other people. “Go get washed now. I’m sure the ride back was dreadful.”

Maybe she can smell the sweat from my travels and my splashing myself in the river briefly. I go to my room… And stand there wondering furiously how to act insolent about my horribly tied dress. Varseena is going to notice. My heart throbs in my throat as I think the worst. Having only a moment to decide, I undress myself – yes, the knot was that bad – and I’m sitting on the vanity occupying my shaking fingers by dipping the towel in the basin of water scented with rose to clean up when Varseena comes in.

“Brinella! How did you get out of your dress?”

I clear my throat to smooth down my shaking. “The macramist that tied it in Bristol did a shoddy job. I didn’t realize it until I got in my room. And so I –”

Varseena screeches and I cover my ears.

“You mean to say…” Varseena is visibly shaking. My skin prickles with the intensity building in the room, “that you rode all the way home… untied?”

The portcullis to my castle slams shut. I take in a breath to shout that I’m not a whore, that the first step to keeping my virginity is wanting to keep it and no dress will stop me if I chose to lose it. But all of this clots in my throat. I end up staring at Varseena with the same acrimony she has upon me, instead.

“Like I said,” I say after a measured minute, the words I really want to say battering at the edge of my caution. “The macramist did a shoddy job –”

“Did you have the same macramist the entire time?” Varseena looks like she might throw up. The aging women is actually pale. It is then that I understand, and a hot flash of fire erupts across my shoulders in a prickling wave that tingles my fingers.

“Varseena…” I should be bloody awarded for maintaining my calm. “I am still a virgin.” It makes my stomach curdle just saying it, as if I have to defend myself against false accusations.

Varseena sits on the chair by the door, fanning herself with her hand. “I should… I should tell your mother.”

“No, you don’t. I had a really good macramist the whole time. Today there was a different one. I didn’t even know she did a poor job until I felt it loosen as I came into my room. It’s not a big deal.”

Still fanning herself, Varseena leaves.

My arms are tingling because I’m breathing so heavy. I don’t move the whole time it takes my mother – fifteen seconds – and Varseena to barge into my room like a raiding party. My mother is crying.

“Varseena told me,” Janella begins, splashing me with wet words and a miasma of patchouli which somehow heightens my anger.

“I AM STILL A DAMN BLOODY VIRGIN!” I scream the words. Damn? Damn bloody? But since I can’t rein the words back in, I continue to ride triumphantly forward. “A damn dress does not keep me chaste. If I wanted to lose my virginity, I would cut this hellacious thing off me and hit up every boy and man I could lay my eyes on!”

“Brinella!”

“I am not a whore! But all of these accusations make me want to be one! But you know what? If you are just so convinced that your daughter has lost her virginity on a whim, then go ahead and believe it. Tell Jaicom what you think and it will get me out of a marriage I don’t want and I’ll move far away to a place where there aren’t any rules!”

Janella is sobbing but I am so far beyond caring. I’m still in my chemise. So I put on the first pair of shoes I lay eyes on and leave the room. Walk down the hallway. And outside.

I fold my arms tightly against me as I turn left at the road which will take me to The Boulder and the doorway to freedom. I’m done with this society. I’m done being a show horse for marriage to a man my parents want me to marry. I’m done with rules. I am…done.

I’m just about to cut into the trees and up the game trail leading to The Boulder to knock ten times on the mountain when hooves pound up the road behind me. I recognize the white stallion my father rides to work and on instinct I want to run into the trees. But I stop and wait. I have respect for my father, at least.

He stops the horse next to me and dismounts. Concern pulls his black eyebrows together. “Sweety? Are you okay?”

I want to cry with anger and frustration, but I suck it all back in hard enough to make me cough. “That depends on if you believe mother’s story or mine.”

My father exhales slowly, holding his hand to his forehead and looking up at the sky. “Where were you going?”

“To a place where there are no rules.”

He presses his lips together and finally looks at me, and I see in his eyes that he knows I’m on the brink of running if just the right trigger is pulled.

“Well…” he says at long, “I won’t stop you. But I would like to know why you are leaving first and I will attempt to try to convince you to stay. After that, you decide. Agreed?”

And that is why I love my father. I nod and sit on the grass on the side of the road. He ties the reins to a tree and sits next to me.

“A place with no rules…” he says. “That does sound great. And there are places like that. People can do whatever they want without restriction. People don’t have to pay taxes. Don’t have to pay for anything, really. They can steal, and damage, and murder… in fact I think they call that Afghanistan.”

“I get it.”

He nods. “Let’s hear your story.”

And I tell him. But it isn’t even about the trip to Bristol I didn’t take. It it about society’s understanding of an untied woman. I tell him how cramped I am with all these rules and just want to be free. I don’t bring up Jaicom to my father like I did my mother. That part feels wrong now that I’ve had time to think about it. And the more I try to convince my father that I’m leaving, the more I’m failing to convince myself.

“So what would you like to do?” He pushes his hat off his forehead. “Living a life free of society’s obligations does sound intriguing. But how will you make a living for yourself? Do you want to get married? Have children? These are honest questions you should answer before you devote yourself to a decision made on a whim of anger.”

I curl my knees into my body and bury my head. His clothes rustle as he moves to his feet. “I’m going back to the house, now. I’ll give you a ride, if you want. Dinner is in an hour. Should we make food for you, too?”

Do you want to get married? Have children? If I don’t marry, I’ll likely end up a thief like Joseara. Or a child-thieving gypsy like Jesaro. Because society won’t let me provide for myself.

My body decides for me and I’m standing, accepting my father’s hand to seat me on his horse and we ride home.

“I don’t like the dress thing, either,” he confides. “However, if you ever fall in a lake, the dress will float.”

The merest of smiles breaks through my lips.

“And,” he continues, “you can hide a whole arsenal under there. I think if we ever went to war, the women would be recruited to carry everyone’s guns, unsuspecting to the enemy. They would never know what hit them.”

I laugh, releasing the rest of the tension clutched inside of me.

Varseena is tight lipped but silent while I wash myself at my basin. I hear her sniff.

“Do I smell rosemary in your hair?”

There is no right answer to this. So I ignore her and continue to mop at my body with water and rose oil.

“Where did you get rosemary soap from? We don’t use rosemary. Right now you are rose. Did the macramist in Bristol not know this? Do they do things different there?”

Sometimes I think I have two mothers. “I wanted to try it this morning. I like the smell. They offered a sample at the soap store we visited.”

Varseena tsks and busy’s her hands with unpacking my bag.

“Oh!” I look over at her. She is holding the white ivory brush from Zadicayn’s castle. My stomach pinches. “Did you get this in the city?”

“Yes.” I fidget. “Do you like it?”

“Oh, it’s… dirty in the creases of the carving. And… is that a pegasus?”

Put it down. Go away. “I bought it at an… antique store. They had all sorts of trinkets. Like, replicas from the Middle Ages.” I’m sweating, almost negating my towel bath.

I tense as Varseena rumples her brow at the oddity. Such animals are the subject of fantasy, something meant to stay as words on a page and only in the minds of children not seeking marriage. Such an animal was found in the very book filled with drawings of mythical creatures I have locked in my box.

“It is beautiful,” she finally agrees, and I release my breath too loudly. She joins me at the vanity. “You have to bring back some trinkets from the city, after all.”

Varseena drags the soft horse hair bristles down my brown hair, and my thoughts return to Zadicayn.

I’m tied into my cumbersome evening gown – a sickly yellow which immediately reminds me of the first robe Zadicayn put on.

Dinner ready, I take a deep breath to steady my performance and fortify my nerves against the lies I will tell, and go down.

My father seats me. “How was your trip?”

I smack on a smile. “I went to the cathedral just as you recommended.” I start to sweat because I can’t think of anything else to say. My father has been to Bristol before and he’s going to know if I slip. “It was… so beautiful. Very unlike the parish here.”

He’s nodding his approval. I try to remember the time I went to Bristol with my parents when I was young and almost drowned in the Froom River, but it doesn’t help.

“Did you see Grandpa and Grandma Frondaren?”

“N – no.” I sigh regretfully. “But I saw Corden’s family. Since it was his trip, I didn’t want to bother him with seeing mine.”

“I agree. Did you eat at Sodsbury?” my mother gushes, trying to pretend our earlier incident didn’t happen. “I get the spotted pudding there every time.”

“I did!” I say, cutting into my lamb and garlic with unnecessary vigor. “It will be on my list of things to do next time we go back.”

“We should go, love,” my mother says to my father. “An anniversary for us.”

“I agree,” he says with a grin. And just as I’m hoping the topic is off me, he asks, “what else did you do?”

And so I continue to be as vague as possible about the stores I didn’t visit, the people I didn’t met, of the food I never tasted and the places I never saw. I throw in much too many, “I walked along the river,” and I’m certain I repeat that I visited the cathedral. I just pray they never ask about my trip in the future because am bound not to remember what I said after dinner.

“Madrin has some intrigue with death,” I make up on the spot. “She took me to the graveyard and pointed at a gravestone of a known onanist who died.”

“Dreadful!” my mother declares. “The doctors are always right.”

“We don’t need to hear about that, dear,” my father says in an even tone.

Good. Maybe they will stop asking me questions. “Mother? Wilt thou pass over the marmalade?”

My mother makes a small sound of amusement and looks directly at me. I haven’t stopped sweating. What did I say?

Wilt thou?” she inquires. Oh bloody hell. “For certain, my lady. Wouldst thee prefer the peach or the strawberry?”

I force out a laugh as if I had meant it as a joke all along. Of course there is no way to guess I picked that up inadvertently from a boy I released out of a vault who was put in there during the Middle Ages. So I’m safe for now.

“Strawberry.” And because I now have Zadicayn on my mind, “Madrin wants me to stay tomorrow night.”

“Oh…” my mother begins, and instantly the air in the room crackles as the argument from earlier re-ignites. “Well, dear, they don’t have anyone to tie you into your dress.” She tries to say it casually, to soften the harshness of similar words earlier, and it might have worked except for she says next, “And I’m worried that Madrin has even lost her –”

My father clears his throat and it is then I realize I’m tensing up my body to do… what? Fight? Flee? “That is not right to assume, dear.” He must realize how fragile the room is to breaking. “Plenty of girls don’t have macramists and it is wrong to say they are no longer chaste because their fathers can’t afford one.” He looks briefly at me in that unfounded way that we can communicate just by a glance. It is by him alone I remain in my seat.

My mother spends a moment chewing daintily. Is she going to continue pushing it even after my father’s response? “It’s not always the girl’s fault when it happens to her,” she says carefully. “Sometime it’s the man’s.”

“So Madrin’s father is going to get inside my dress?”

“I –” my father starts.

“So I must choose my friends according to their tied status?” My voice is shrilling now but I can’t stop it. “Because of their circumstances where they can’t afford a macramist they have to be marked and avoided? Why the hell do you think –”

“Brinella! Don’t swear!”

“You encourage me to have female friends and when I finally take the risk, they aren’t good enough for you.” I’m so angry that my vision is sparkling. Everything my father said earlier is dead, and the fact that I’m not even wanting to go visit Joseara isn’t the issue. “I’m glad to know what my mother thinks of me. She’s so desperate to think me a whore, that I guess I won’t disappoint her anymore. I do want to meet up to her expectations.”

I leave the room. In my terrible shoes. In my hellacious dress. I walk out of the house for the second time that day, make my escape down the road. This time, no horse catches up to rescue me.

 

CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN

ZADICAYN

 

Evening casts a lurid red spread across the sky. I’ve been watching it ever since I came back after seeing Brine off through the Fae Gate, leaning against the short wall of the bridge.

I haven’t re-entered the castle yet. If I take one more step to my left, that will put me back in the very spot where Gandorlain Whaerin and Dendaryl Garfair grabbed the back of my shirt and hauled me backward after I made for my escape. So if I take that step, the castle will suck me in and drag me into the vault. Close the altar lid over me. Like it did on October thirtieth, fifteen eighteen.

But I’m starving. I haven’t eaten since my meal with Brine. Eating is such a weird thing to do anymore. It feels like my body should somehow figure out how to self-sustain itself. Maybe I’ll think up a spell on how to make it happen once I get my amulet back.

Coming to terms with my unreasonable fears, I take that step to my left. Stuffing my hairy hands in my pockets, I walk back into the castle.

I’m halfway down to the cellar to hack off some more meat for dinner when a sound echoing through my home startles me.

“Zadicayn?”

I pause. There is a sudden pinging in my heart. I must have imagined the voice. She wouldn’t return so soon, despite my prayers that she would never leave.

“ZADICAYN!”

I almost trip trying to turn around and run at the same time, collide with the edge of the door all the same.

I burst into the Grand Hall, out of breath. “Brine!” Somehow looking at her pretty face reminds me how ugly my own is. I count this as a remarkable victory that I don’t maul her with an embrace. I’m more glade than ever that she can’t read my mind.

Based off the pleasant body enhancing dress, her hair is not so neat, thought I get the impression it was at one point. She doesn’t look merry. I hope it’s not because of me.

“To what pleasure dost I hath to see thee so promptly?”

Her flare if indignation sooths immediately and I drink up her smile all too greedily. “Mayest I have dinner with thee?”

I flare bright red in pleasure that she would tease with speaking like me, but I hide my change of color with, “I shall gather some venison and see ye in the kitchen.”

I dash out too quickly. I could at least leave the room in a dignified manner! Not like a little boy excited to show his father something he made. I’ve at least stopped crying so much. But suppose I should count the small steps.

I cut off a misshapen hunk of meat and race to the kitchen, stopping to compose myself before I enter, but how does one look dignified while holding a bloody heap of meat in his hands?

She doesn’t notice. “I didn’t bring matches,” she apologizes. “Sorry.”

Whatever matches are. “Tis a’right.” I rest the meat over the grate of the cold oven and acquire the two fireflints from the missing brick space in the oven where the cook used to keep it. Weird the random things I remember.

When the wood ignites, I put my fire tools back and look at Brine, hands clasped in front of me. My sister used to pretend she wasn’t upset when I asked, and because she would always say, “I tis a’right,” I would leave her alone, accepting that she was “alright.” My father – my chest hurts thinking about him – corrected me, saying that females will tell you they are alright when they are most definitely not alright and when they say, “I don’t want to talk about it,” that means they most definitely want to talk about it.

“What tis I supposed to dost, then?” I had inquired. “Speaketh or nary speaketh to them?”

“I knoweth nary,” he had said. “I beseech thee to betray the secret to meself whence upon thy discovery of it.”

I experimented on my sister. Come to find out, you actually do talk to them about it. The trick is to have the perfect entrance as you dive into what is troubling them.

“So…” I begin, “you hath come to grace meself with thy presence because I art devilishly handsome?”

This wins me a laugh out of her. “I could hardly stay away,” she entertains. Her eyes fall to the floor. I almost have my entrance.

“Tis a lie,” I say. “I art most definitely nary devilishly handsome. Tis because I findeth an oil lamp in the garderobe, and upon buffing it up with me sleeve, a genie spewed forth and granted meself one wish.”

“Being kind of stingy, isn’t he? It’s usually three.”

“Methinks he used to belong to King Henry the Seventh and learneth how to be selfish.”

She’s smiling. I keep going. “So upon me single wish, I wisheth for thee.”

Her cheeks get rosy. “And not to rid you of all that hair?”

“Nay. Thy presence brings me greater peace.” I gauge her for a reaction. She sits up straighter and straightens her shoulders. The bodice on her dress forms her torso better than the baggy shirt she wore last time and I do well not to stare too long.

“I can’t lie about being your wish,” she says. “Because I come for selfish reasons.”

I take the chair and spin it around and sit, straddling it. My bugle-beard feels like it’s going to reach out and grab her. “Pray tell, to what demon tis troubling thee? I shall hunt it and devour it. Not raw, mind ye. I shouldst cook him first.”

She laughs again. I want to scoot my chair closer so I can touch her laughter on my face.

“No demon. Just my mother.”

“Aw!” I tense up, embarrassed. “Whereupon, forgive me!”

She’s shaking her head. “You didn’t know. It started at dinner tonight. Oh, by the way, I slipped up and said ‘wilt thou’ to my mother.”

Now it’s my turn to laugh. “Tis the better dialect. Much more noble.”

She waves a hand in front of her face. “Anyway, it started at dinner. You see this dress?” She indicates the voluminous fabric and lace and the obvious threads of leather weaved around her waist and down her back. They look like chains forcing her clothing to her body. But she didn’t need to indicate. I’ve already noticed every detail.

I nod.

“This dress – every dress – is made this way. The leather threads you see are tied in such a way that someone else has to untie them to get you out of your dress. Untying it takes about twenty minutes if the macramist is quick. Every woman who reaches of age must wear these dresses – they do it because it is one sure way to keep them chaste. Does that make sense?”

Her dialect is still a little rough to follow but I get the gist of it.

“Okay…” She takes a deep breath, “so tonight I got into an argument with my mother over it, about how I don’t need a dress to keep me chaste, and I got mad and left. I came here because this is the only place where I can be free from these stupid dresses, from men who think that a woman is automatically a whore if she is not tied, and to be free from my mother.” She’s clenching her fists. “My mother refuses to see how it kills me to be chained down. She’s always signing me up for one class or another. First it is violin, and now it’s art, and she wants to make sure I look my absolute best and act like I should and…” Clearly the list goes on, but she stops. Probably because she came back to the castle to flee her mother, not bring her along.

I listen aptly, memories of my own mother filling my throat so it is yet another victory that I don’t cry in front of her. “Zadicayn,” my mother had said, was actually the last thing she said to me before her and my sister were ushered out of the castle along with all the castle staff as the mob of men came to claim me and my amulet. I didn’t know enough of the Fae language to communicate a spell to keep the bad men away. “I loveth ye. We shalt findeth a way to rescue ye. I promise. Be strong. I hath faith that ye wilt be strong. All shall be well in the end, Zadicayn.”

My eyes blur and I sniff, managing to remember in time not to wipe my nose on my sleeve. “Eyndill,” I breath so I won’t accidently sob. “Thee art fortunate ye hath a mother who bestows so much care upon thy future and being well.” The smell of rosemary still left over from Brine cleaning the kitchen assaults me. “I wish upon I hath a mother who bestows great care upon meself.” I swallow hard and blink. When I return my gaze to Brine, she’s gawking at me. Didst I sayest something wrong?

She stands from her seat and pins me with a gaze that nearly nails me to the wall. “Do you know nothing about feelings Zadicayn? Bloody priest I know you’ve been locked away for a long time but I won’t believe you’ve lost that.”

I recoil, shoulders tensing.

“Out of everything I just told you, you had to stab me again with the one thing I’m angry over. Thanks for nothing.”

I did say something wrong. I wish I could tell her how I am more hurt over my mistake than she is. My throat is closing off. I don’t know how to shove those angry eyes off me, those eyes that are the only thing keeping my head above the ocean of madness. Forgive me. Forgive me. I knoweth nary what I sayeth. I don’t know how to fix this. I can barely keep my stupid tears from spilling in front of her as the emotional snake of my grief fangs my heart.

Wordlessly, I stand up, push in my chair, and leave the kitchen.

 

CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT

BRINELLA

 

I don’t even feel bad about it. I want to cry, scream that I need relief. The only person whom I felt I could be free around refused to acknowledge my turmoil. For a brief moment, I hate Zadicayn. Anger and sadness battle for dominance inside me. And the meat on the oven is burning.

I flipped the meat over and declare it done. I look to the doorway of the kitchen and wonder if I should call for him. But I’m too hurt to see him so soon. I push his meat away from the flames and spear mine with the knife and drop it onto a plate. I don’t even know if the plate is entirely clean.

I eat with my fingers, choking down the gamey taste I suddenly hate so much.

I finish the meal but Zadicayn does not return. I don’t know why he left the room. He’s the one that offended me. Restless and charged with emotions I can’t release, I exit the kitchen. Walk through the castle and out of the Grand Hall doors. Back up the trail to the mountain. And the more I walk, the easier it becomes to digest what he said.

I wish upon I hath a mother who bestows great care upon meself.

I reach the Fae Gate and knock ten times. The tunnel opens.

I wish upon I hath a mother who bestows great care.

I come to the boulder and start down the mountain. Through the trees. I stop on the road. I look left back to my house and then right… away from everything I hate.

I wish upon I hath a mother.

 

OOO

 

Varseena doesn’t ask questions as she unties my dress. Doesn’t say anything, actually.

I lay in bed.

Zadicayn, starving for company, was still able to separate from his own needs to inquire about mine. He’s the first man who’s ever done that to me.

The moonlight turns my tears into shiny orbs as I cry because Zadicayn doesn’t have a mother and I refused to acknowledge his hurt.

 

CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE

ZADICAYN

 

I can’t sleep on the bed. Isn’t because of the nest of mice that scurries out of it as soon as I lay upon it, or even the questionable smell. It certainly has dust mites. No. It’s because the first time I wake up on it, it’s from a dream that, for one horrid minute, I think I’m sinking through the floor of my vault.

So I sleep on the floor of the kitchen. The dream of the vault doesn’t go away, but at least I’m not sinking through the floor, and the new scent of rosemary helps to balm my night terrors to make me think in my dream, just a little, that maybe my dreams are not real. They are certainly different from the usual, if nothing else.

My sleep has positively become worse since I’ve been out; something convincing me that if I sleep too long or too heavily, someone is going to spy upon my body and put me back in the vault where they think I belong. An unreasonable thought, I know, especially since I threw the lid of the altar down into the vault where it broke into three pieces and used every method I possessed in my castle to bust apart the podium where spun the gears to slide the prison bars over the only opening in the vault.

However all that was true, I still believe I could have slept better if brown eyes were not still glaring at me from inside my mind, if Brine’s last words were not of contempt toward me for something I said about my mother while she was upset about hers. The raw ach in my chest does not dissipate upon morning. Does not fall into my belly with breakfast. Does not, still, burn off in front of the fire I am sitting so close to. My body is so cold. The coldness in the vault has seeded in my bones and I don’t know how to warm them.

Forgive me, Brine, I say in my mind, willing, forcing, praying she will hear and will fly a softness to my heart to let me understand she forgives me.

To let me know I have not chased her away forever. Some reasonable part that still clings to me – I don’t know why it hasn’t found me useless yet and fled hand in hand with my sanity – tells me that I am over reacting, that I should not feel this tormented over the confrontation last night.

But I can’t help what I feel. I said something to the very person whom I already owe a kingdom’s weight of ‘thank ye’s’ and apologies for just being who I am and the circumstances she freed me from. At this point, being in the vault where I had muted all my emotions for over three hundred years was a mercy to this moment where my emotions are all firing back and biting me again from the inside.

I don’t understand how I’m not sobbing like a court fool right now. I don’t think it’s because I’m getting emotionally stronger.

Pressure slides across my hunched shoulders. A waking dream. I have contrived Brine from the sick fever in my mind and now my body is responding to it. My ears are even fabricating a voice for her.

“Zadicayn.”

I can’t answer. Because that will only confirm my madness which finally found me. I’ve lost the fight. My madness won’t kill me. No. It will still leave me a warm, dry husk with an amulet somewhere in England to keep the Faewraith away so they don’t rip their way into the Human Realm and start devouring humanity. Glad I am still good for at least one thing, even if I no longer have my mind.

“ZADICAYN!”

I give up. I can’t fight this anymore.

“Yea,” I say into the flames. “That tis me.”

“Zadicayn, are you okay?”

“Nay, but thank ye for thy concern.” My Madness sure is soft, with a comforting arm across my shoulders. Is Death as gentle? I hope so. It makes transferring from one place of mind to another easier, less fighting, less heartache. Maybe that is why so many people are taken by death. Certainly everyone could live forever, but upon age when bones ache and flesh falls away, Death slides an arm across your shoulder. Warm. Tender. And asks a single question. “Doth thou wish to come yonder with meself? Thou wilt be upon young again, free of pain. Rejoined with loved ones.” And because the temptation is so warm, inviting, friendly, everyone goes. Some are just able to resist the tempt of Death longer. Death comes in different forms to people. For a young child stricken with the plague it comes in the form of a mother. For a widowed wife Death comes as her departed beloved. For an aging old man who has lived a good life, Death comes as the old man himself, just younger and spryer and full of energy.

It would be altogether different if death came as a monster, shouting and demanding. No one would go if that was –

“ZADICAYN!”

Physical force pushes me sideways so I almost topple off my chair. I have to flail my arms and reset my feet to prevent doing just that. I throw a sharp glance at my Madness who has taken on the form of Brine. Maybe it’s not madness. Maybe this is Death. She won’t even need to ask if I want to go with her. I’ll stand up and do that right now.

Death kneels in front of me, taking my hand. I don’t know why. Does Death usually do this to people? Take their hands?

“Zadicayn, you are not well. I’ve been shaking you and saying your name for three minutes. Can you hear me?”

Death looks remarkably like Brine. Her braided chocolate silk hair hangs like a ceremonial baldric over her right shoulder, but the apparent rain storm outside has her dress and matching head wrap sodden down so she now has a pool of water beneath her.

My staring long enough must have alerted to Death that something was wrong with me, because Death encircles arms around my back and tucks her head onto my shoulder, facing away from my mad bush of black beard. Even Death doesn’t like it.

She pulls me in tighter. I can feel her heart beat. Death doesn’t have a heart.

“Bri – Brine?” I can’t durst to hope.

“It’s me, Zadicayn. Brine Frondaren.” She starts to rub her hand vigorously up and down my back. I gasp as if it pains me. It’s not Death.

I clinch her back tighter than I probably should, but I have to hold her close or else she will see the tears leaking out of my damned eyes. But the heavy breathing in my chest betrays me, added upon by sounds coming out of my mouth despite my lips are pressed shut.

“I’m sorry about your mother,” she whispers in my ear. “I’m so sorry.”

And I lose it completely.

I’m sobbing like a fool, continuing to do so because she continues to pat my back and whisper – whisper – in my ear, “It’s okay. Let it all out. It’s okay.” And so my body obliges, apparently to have her continue to pat my back with her arms around me and hear her whispers in my ear.

I’m severely messed up.

“I brought you some f-food,” she says with a shiver.

“Oh! Brine, thou art cold!” I knew this. I can feel her wet body along my bony arms. Selfishly, I ignored her wetness. But I have no problem breaking contact now to serve her.

I stand from my chair and throw wood into the fire while wiping my nose on my sleeve, getting it blazing (maybe that was too much wood) and insist she sit on the chair where I had just occupied.

She does so, holding her arms and leaning forward, removing the head wrap and dropping the sodden mess on the floor. I run out of the room and come back with a blanket, draping it over her and making sure she is thoroughly covered. I look around. Is there anything else I can do for her?

“Th- thank you.” She shivers.

“Nay. I thank thee.” She looks up at me from the corner of her eye, as if perked to my voice. Maybe not, but I keep talking just in case. “I dost nary know what kind of life ye hast, but I nary believe tis easy for ye to leave upon thy chosen whim.”

She sits straighter up in her chair. She’s not going to tell me what kind of life she has when she is not here, because I am just a hairy stranger who crawled out of the vault. Or maybe it’s the kind of life where she won’t be able to keep seeing me forever and is taking mercy on my wretched heart and not befriending me because that twill only hurt worse upon me when she is no longer allowed to visit. I’m too scared to ask if I am right, so I will pretend ignorance and keep my distance from her, too. At least, I will try.

“It’s not easy. I’m not proud to say I had to throw a tantrum to leave my house on the pretense that I am staying the night with a friend.” She pulls at her wet red dress. It does not have ties like the last one. “This tiable versus untiable dress thing is exhausting so I won’t bore you with it. As for me coming here, I’m short of friends that nurture my need for certain things. My cousin was the last and, really, only friend I had. I didn’t realize how badly my spirit has been destroyed without him. You, on the other hand, are someone I enjoy being around.”

I perk. Hairy face and all. But I see her wince upon her inadvertently calling me a friend. Based upon her declaration, tis best for both of us, I suppose. “I had to come back today because I didn’t sleep with how awful I felt about what I said to you when I left yesterday.” She looks at me and I wish she wouldn’t, because I begin staring back like an idiot. “I am so sorry about what I said to you. I was angry and it was not your fault and it wasn’t you who caused it.”

“Nary apologize. I hath a dragon’s weight of apologies I owe thee for me broken self. Ye gets this one for free.”

She smiles wanly. “How did you sleep last night?”

She’s asking because she sees it on my face and wants to know if she was the cause of my sleepless like she was to her own.

I grin. “Like a whistersnefet.”

She laughs. I love that sound. “A what?

I shrug. She strikes me as someone who is obliged to shoulder the burden of others and she doesn’t deserve any more of that from me. “Me sleepeth a’right. Me mattress tis worthless and the stone floor tis nary better.” She shuffles the blanket and herself around to expose other wet areas of her dress. “How long art ye staying?”

“Till tomorrow. Unless I’m intruding?”

Funny how she is in my castle and I’m the one who feels like the intruder. Is it too early to ask her to be my queen? Probably. I will definitely need a shave first. I actually tell her that. Well, the part about being an intruder, anyway.

“How dost thou believe ye art intruding when tis meself that feels compelled to bow to thee?”

She apparently has no answer to that. She looks back in the fire. It’s then that I notice a basket beside her feet that has something wrapped in a blue checkered cloth. Maybe if I took my eyes off Brine for once, I would have seen it.

She sees my gaze go to the floor. “Oh! I’m sorry. I was so distracted with being cold that I forgot to show you the food I brought for thee – you. YOU!”

I’m laughing. She picks up her wet head wrap and throws it at me. “You’re going to get me in trouble with my parents if I start speaking Old English!”

Old English?”

“Yes. Old. Like, you-are-over-three-hundred-years, old.”

“Hear ye, I art so devilishly handsome that even age cannot touch upon me. Ye, otherwise, there tis nary a fix for trolls.”

She’s glowering at me, but because her hair is wet and she looks to be about sixteen – shorter than me, besides – she looks no angrier than a baby chick with its wings spread. I might like that look more than her smile.

Anyway, I brought you food.” She picks the basket up and brings it to the table where fish blood is engrained into the wood. “Have you been eating?”

I haul up the sleeve on my arm to show her the truth of what the deer meat has been doing for me. Curly black hair shrouds most of my skin. Repulsed, I yank the sleeve back down. “Yea, me hast. Tis doing me muscles well.”

“That’s good.” Her eyes look out the window. “Why is it raining? It was a perfect summer day when I left my house. I walk through the Fae Gate and into a thunderstorm.”

I reach over the table and reveal the secrets of the basket. “I nary tell ye.”

“Why?”

“For the same reason I canst nary tell ye why ye wouldst nary spy upon the castle if ye quested over the mountain as opposed to riding through the Fae Gate. Twould confuse thee upon this moment. Maychance I tell ye later.”

“You just want me to keep coming back.”

I stuff a handful of crackers and slices of sausages in my mouth and decline to answer.

I eat the entire contents of the basket.

When I reach the bottom, I spy something that makes my heart jump. I’m pulling the red leather bound book out before I even bother to ask for permission. But then I don’t have to. It’s mine.

“Whence dost…” I can’t even finish. My not-so-bony-as-of-yesterday finger traces over the abused cover of the book held closed by two clasps.

She’s watching me patiently, watching me pop the clasps. The pages fan open, glaring delicious color on me from the paintings and drawings inside. I select the first page where my sister had scripted her note:

 

Zadicayn,

I hopeth thou hast a birth year happiness like upon a sunrise.

~Elshina

 

I only don’t cry because I am out of tears. As if holding a relic, I begin turning each page, laying eyes upon all the creatures my sister had commissioned a quester of many lands to paint which he had seen in his travels. She then found a book binder to bind it. I feel one of my snakes die but I don’t know which one. The empty space is then filled with a dove of Hope because my re-entry into life is not near as badly as I have so far envisioned.

“Whence dost thou acquire this?” I’m whispering because I don’t know where my voice went. Now I know for certain that Brine is a descendant of my sister… a many times great niece of mine, affirming that my sister kept her promise that she would release me.

I go to the very last page, on the inside of the back cover:

 

Dearest brother,

I journey old upon this day, having thus born children where upon one I hath bestowed the secret of thee, charging them with pleas and prayers to ne’er stop seeking a method of thy release. Dangerous men swarm about me, having thus threatened us all upon Death if we bespeaks even but thy name upon our tongues. I be weighed with sadness that tis nary meself to see thy eyes again. I hath sought the Black Magicians to extend upon me life, with nary findings of them. Forgive me inabilities. Forgive that I wast nary stronger to push aside the threats of dangerous men. Three hold the key in secret places. They art guarded well. I loveth thee brother. I hopeth thy book tis returned upon ye again soest ye mighten hear again me everlasting devotion to thee.

~Elshina

 

“There’s a note in the back, isn’t there?” Brine asks to my left. I forgot she was even here.

“Yea,” I murmur. “Tis from me sester.”

Brine slaps her forehead and I don’t know why. I keep staring at the note. I read it again. And again.

“I saw a Faewraith a month ago.”

I snap the book shut, staring ahead of me before I turn slowly to look at her. “Sayeth again?”

She’s holding the blanket tight around her but still shivering, so I direct her to stand in front of the fire.

“It was four weeks after my cousin – Durain’s – funeral, that I went for a walk at night through the forest close to my house. I heard a sort of chiming noise, like a bag of marbles being shaken. Then over me flew what looked like an orange dog with wings. It was so strange I couldn’t place it. Then I was helping my aunt clean out Durain’s bedroom and I saw that book and opened it.” She inhales deeply and then releases it. “I saw the first inscription on the front inside of the book. Your name sounded familiar when you first said it to me but I couldn’t remember where I thought I’d heard it. Anyway, I found the drawing of the Faewraith in your book. I looked at the picture again last night just to be sure. The Old English text was a little hard to read at first, but now there is no mistaking it.”

“What didst happen when ye laid eyes upon it?” I’m looking her up and down as if she might have sustained injury from the encounter that feels like it happened outside on the bridge.

“It just flew over my head. But then I heard horses so I climbed a tree because I didn’t want them seeing me. There were three cloaked riders, chasing it. From my position in the tree I saw them shoot it down.”

I almost sink to my knees. My amulet. Those five riders had touched my amulet which triggered an influx of magic that pulled the Faewraith into the Human Realm. The Faewraith had gotten away, but then shot down. Clearly, those three families have not in three hundred twenty-four years figured out how to harvest my magic yet. Would ne’er figure out how to harvest my magic. Like I told them.

But still, they try. Fools.

She sees me contemplating. I just nod to acknowledge what she said. This is yet another thing I will have to explain later.

“Methinks we art related,” I say to get my mind off all the tainted hands that have tarnished my amulet.

“Related?” She shakes her head.

I bring the book from the table and show her the last page. She takes longer to read it than I did. She hands the book back. “One of your sister’s descendants could have given the book over to a friend.”

“Nay. Me sester wanted to hold to the promise that she set me free. She wouldst have kept it in the family.”

“What if one of her descendants that had your secret were not able to have children? Or what if they only had one child and that child died of the black plague?”

“Why doest thou insist it perchance fell upon a friend?” I grin. “Art ye afraid any ancient ancestry we share wouldst taint thine admiration upon meself?”

She bunches the blanket in her hands and throws it at me. “Go put that somewhere else. I’m done with it.” Arms folded indignantly, she looks back at the fire and I know I see a grin being fought there. I am devilishly handsome, after all. My rusty head of my Charisma snake is waking up now, too.

I take the blanket out of the kitchen upon her request, giving her time to erase those smiles off her face so she can continue to act indifferent toward me.

Entering the kitchen, I’ve completely run out of entertainment for her. It’s going to be a long rest of the day if we just sit and stare at each other in the kitchen.

“I couldst use thy help cleaning.” I scratch my head, hoping I haven’t picked up lice. Is that the exchange? I find my charisma with the price of lice? “If ye art up to the quest.”

She puts both hands on her hips and pulls back her shoulders. “The gauntlet hath been thrown. I accepteth the challengeth.”

“Ye art better,” I reassure. “And if thou art generous in thine questing mood, I also hath the honorable offer to present to thee the gauntlet of seeking out me amulet.”

Her eyes say it all. Still not converted to everything I’ve said about being a wizard. Happy to keep that odd tidbit comfortably unrealistic in the back of her head.

“I’ll help,” she finally says, though I can’t fathom her real reason. “Just let me know when. It will have to wait until next week because the Whaerin family is having their, like, bazillionth business anniversary in three days and the whole hamlet is invited.”

“Bazillionth?”

She nods. “It means they’ve had their business for a very long time. Anyway, every year it’s this massive Ball and everyone has to be their best dressed.” She presses the back of her hand to her forehead. “Propriety and feminism are exhausting.”

My eyes slid up to her face. “A Ball?”

“Yes. It’s this big party. I’m sure you’ve been to parties during your time?”

I know what a Ball is. I don’t even care that Whaerin is putting it on. “Well… ye just tell meself after this atrocious Ball,” I roll my eyes to encourage her to remain ignorant to my own thoughts on the matter, “whence ye wouldst like to begin. I hath nowhere else to be.” I smile and it lifts my mustache. For effect, I wiggle it at her. She laughs. “I count good fortune when I canst make ye laugh with this ugly face. Gives meself purpose. Ye, on the other hand, still looketh upon like a troll.”

She looks about as if for something else to throw at me. I hope she will consider throwing herself. “Let’s get this troll den cleaned up, then.”

 

OOO

 

I find out soon that it was actually vital she help me clean up some of the rooms in my castle because the divider in my brain which sorts through what is trash and what is useful was actually a sieve and so the two continue to fall into the wrong pile.

“No, Zadicayn, you can’t keep that boot. A mouse has chewed a hole through the ankle and it is missing its sole.”

“Methinks we shouldst nary abandon things just because they be lacking a soul.”

“It’s a boot. Boot sole.

I see no difference. If I turn my head just right, the boot kind of looks like me.

I demand to cook at lunch time. I want to show that I am not as incompetent as she must think I am. I find stuff in the larder I bless off as seasoning and serve up a large plate of deer. I consume mine through inhalation.

I need a break from cleaning. My attention span keeps getting distracted and I have this intense boyish urge to play with half the things I find. Which is unreasonable for me since I think I’m eighteen and should be long gone from such things. I blame it on my time in the vault. So I offer her a tour of the castle.

I show her all the rooms. I realize, too late, that she’s already seen mine from that day she came in to comfort me while I was sobbing, yet again, like an idiot. Now I blush, worried she saw my codpieces all over the floor.

We wind ourselves down to the lower level. I don’t take her into the chapel. We hit the larder where the remains of the deer is hanging and all the molded lumps of stuff that still needs to be cleaned and it smells mostly atrocious but… now I get to show Brine how I’m going to pay her back when I am able.

A narrow descending stair case branches from the larder. I take a torch off the wall and light it with the fireflints from the kitchen. I motion for Brine and she follows me down. Coming off the last step, I enter into a circular room with a domed ceiling. Brine stands next to me. Together we stare at the stone archway directly center of the small chamber.

The archway is eight feet high by six feet wide. The two pillars on either side and top look like ivory. I don’t really know what they are made out of. They came from the Fae Realm. Black symbols paint both pillars all the way around and spread away on the floor.

“This tis how I shall return all the favors I owe ye,” I murmur to prevent an echo. “If I dost understandeth thee, I trust ye shalt enjoy it immensely. I must have me amulet to access it, howeverso.”

“I’ve already told you, Zadicayn, you don’t need to pay me back.”

I touch the tip of my finger under her chin, guiding her to look at me. I bore into her eyes with a sincerity that makes her shiver. She looks away. “Ye hath nary an idea how tormented I wast mentally and emotionally when I fled that vault. I wast so emotionally broken that I be sure ye canst tell I hath nary fully repaired. I mayest ne’er repair. If ye nary stayed that night, or even the second, I wouldst hath gone insane with desperate loneliness and confusion.

I hate ye seeing me such, but I need thine company more. Ye shalt permit meself to return the favors, because I must.” My eyes slipped into gold again. I know because everything has remarkably better color. I take a breath and all the brilliant colors melt away.

“Okay,” she says, a little breathless.

I take my finger off her chin and step back, indicating the stairs. “Shall we?”

It is still raining. On our way back to the kitchen, I get lost and wind up outside. Brine follows me, though is staying safely dry just inside the Grand Hall while I stand like a fool looking up at the sky.

Touch.

I look at Brine. “Trolls hate being rained on.”

“I’m not a troll!”

“Provest thou.”

“I had to walk through that to get here. I’ve just managed to dry off completely.”

“Well, then, if ye cometh nary out…” I take a step toward my castle, splashing into a puddle on the bridge, “I cometh after thee!”

She ducks back into the Grand Hall. I’m faster. I latch on and haul her around. She shouts things at me, interspersed with that word “bloody”.

She’s flailing too, and I’m barley strong enough to hold on. She doesn’t know how weak I am. Eating has been returning my strength but it’s only been four days. I don’t know why these four days feel longer than the previous three hundred.

She’s squirming so hard I nearly drop her, but I’m not far from the doors and so I drag her with me outside into the deluge bursting upon us. I let go of her because I can’t hold on anymore and she shoves me backward. I retaliate and stomp a boot into the puddle at my feet, splattering her. I stand between her and the doors.

She’s throwing a tantrum, stomping her feet and tries to get passed me, to which I continue to stomp into the puddle when she gets close. Finally, she just rushes me.

I wrap her up, squeezing the water out of my clothes onto her. Not until she is most definitely upset do I let her go and she runs into the Grand Hall.

“I withdraw me previous statement,” I say as I follow behind her. It’s raining from the hem of her dress and she’s moving about as if she doesn’t know where to stand, bickering all the while. “Thee hair bears witness ye art most certainly a troll.”

She doesn’t say anything. Just continues to stomp and grumble. I walk passed her. She follows, knowing a fire awaits us both.

Her annoyance evaporates as soon as heat from the fire licks upon us both. Our dinner cooked, we take our places at the table to eat, still mildly wet.

“How’s your trousers coming along?” she asks, eating far more delicately than me with my elbows all akimbo.

“I told ye. I needeth to lose all of me own hair firstmost. Hopefully the barber I find shan’t make a pair of trousers out of me hair.”

“The word is my.”

Still chewing, I look at her steadily as I lean back in my chair and prop my boots on the top of the table. Bad choice. The chair gives out and dumps me unceremoniously onto the floor.

Brine laughs, and I look about for some dignified way to recover. There isn’t one. I stomp over to the corner to acquire a stool and bring it back. She’s still laughing at me so I flick a piece of meat on her with my fork.

She tries to be offended and makes some unroyal noise but I ignore her and resume eating.

I clean up the kitchen, dumping the dishes into the boiling cauldron to clean them. Brine is sitting on her stool, fighting with the floor mat of her hair with her fingers. It looks like she is trying to braid it.

“Here,” I say, replacing her fingers with mine. “please allow me.”

Brine freezes, then quietly rests her fingers in her lap as I begin to braid her hair.

“Me sester made me braid her hair,” I say. “And I still be trying to sooth the need to touch another human. So… this tis for me.” Liar.

“It’s okay.”

I finish the braid, tying the end off with a string from the cuff of my white, threadbare shirt. She’s not moving. Is she still breathing? I don’t know. I leave the kitchen to retrieve the blankets for bed.

I return and she has relocated to the fire, staring into the flames. She stands up to help but I indicate for her to sit down. She’s done serving me. It’s my turn to serve her.

I lay out two beds, giving her the thickest blanket with the least amount of holes. I’ve washed all the blankets in the river with my mother’s rosemary soap. I wish I had silk pillows for Brine to rest her head on.

Our clothes finally dry, we lay down in our respected beds, mine laying between Brine and the door. Naught should come through that door during the night. But just in case…

I look over my shoulder. Brine’s back is to me. Would it be too much of an intrusion to ask to put my arm around her again?

My emotion snakes still rear their heads unnecessarily strong at times they think is appropriate when it is totally not. And I don’t want the snake of Lust to rouse so I have to make awkward excuses why I have to sleep locked in another room in another castle tonight.

“I washed the blankets in the river with the rosemary soap,” I say, trying to flex my dialect like hers. “I kept waking up with a dust mite infestation. Dost the same happen to ye? Of course not. Ye art not as hairy.”

She throws a complimentary smile over her shoulder and continues to face the wall. I look at the fire crackling in the hearth. More dreams of my vault on fire. Someday I’ll get over it.

I exhale, wondering where I will be in fifty years. Still a hairy troll? Hiding in this castle because of the dangers of the church having thought they broke my amulet? Married? Who would want to marry someone who must hide in this castle tucked three layers deep into the Fae Realm? If I don’t hide, then either the church will find out and break my amulet, in turn killing me, or if the church doesn’t find me first, those who have my amulet will, and will throw me back in the vault.

My stomach aches with these thoughts. I don’t want to see where I will be in fifty years.

I close my eyes to feign sleep. A shuffling of blankets behind me says Brine is rolling over. The blankets keep shuffling and I jerk unexpectedly as her arm slides over my chest.

“You lied to me,” she says from behind my neck. “You didn’t sleep at all last night.”

Maybe my dry, bloodshot eyes gave it away?

I expect my snake of Lust to rear up and cause me to think unreasonable things, but it doesn’t. Just as dangerous though, Love opens its eyes instead for the first time and while I fight with myself on whether or not I should accept her offer to touch me while I sleep, that’s what I do.

I fall asleep.

 

CHAPTER THIRTY

BRINELLA

 

Is it possible to fall in love with someone’s heart before their face?

Not, really, that kind of love, because I don’t have the luxury to fall in love with whom I will.

Just more of a… it feels like something satisfied clicks together in my soul when I’m around you kind of love. Can you love without being in love? I’ve only known Zadicayn less than a week but I already like him so much more than Jaicom. I don’t even know why. But I know it started when he braided my hair.

My heart whispers dangerous things to me as I feel Zadicayn’s chest rise and fall with every breath. I clear my throat and those dangers don’t go away, but are mature enough to back into a corner and remain quiet.

It’s been morning for about an hour now. The sun is falling upon my back from the window. But I don’t move. Because Zadicayn is sleeping. And, maybe, perhaps I like the feel of something solid between my arms.

Stay in that corner, Dangerous Whisperings.

I only move because the morning is getting older and my parents are expecting me back. I’m careful to slid my arm off of him. His breathing abruptly changes and he shifts a little.

“Are you awake?”

He rolls onto his stomach and looks at me. “Methinks ye wast still asleep.”

I think he’s lying.

He smiles, lifting his moustache. “The brightest of mornings to thee, troll.”

“Morning, monkey.”

“Hayeth now!”

“Hayeth? That’s most definitely NOT an English word in your dialect.”

“I continues to heareth ye say it. See what happens when I tries to speaks like thee?”

“You’re being a nuisance on purpose.”

“The point beith that calling meself a monkey tis false.” He lounges sideways on his elbow with one knee popped up and runs a hand through his bushy hair. “Ye seeth, I art devilishly handsome. Lastmost one to the river maketh breakfast.”

He’s dashing off the floor before I have time to process his dialect.

“Hey!” I run after him, following his white flash of shirt he calls a tunic as he dashes around corners and down stairs.

He’s faster, perhaps due to him being two inches taller. I’ve never considered myself to be a runner – another thing women are not encouraged to do. I soon lose him completely down a hallway. I emerge outside onto the stairs leading to the river, panting like a forger’s billows.

Zadicayn is already at the water – in the water – with his old boots off and his pants rolled to his hairy knees. He’s chanting my name with something witty thrown in randomly.

I finally have some of my breath back as I come off the last step.

“Cometh into the river! The water tis magnificent!”

I stand on the water’s edge. It’s really easy to ignore his persistent beckoning. “I don’t think you’re a wizard. I think you are a fish in a human’s body with how much you play in the rain and river.”

“And I thinketh ye art the loser, and therefore the maker of the breakfast.”

I stick my tongue out at him. He’s still beckoning me into the river which I ignore, and pick some apples off the tree.

I have the apples baking in the oven by the time he comes into the kitchen with his boots and socks in his hand. His pants are still rolled to his hairy knees.

“I don’t know how often I’ll be able to come back,” I say, handing him an apple. “It was really hard to make it here yesterday and I had to lie to my parents. They are going to see through my lies eventually.”

It’s a long time before he responds, eating his apple with much more grace than his first meal. “Wilt thou still be able to assist meself in reclaiming me amulet after the Ball?”

“Yes.” I still reserve some hesitation about him claiming to be a wizard, despite the evidence of the circumstances where I found him. I just like to see things before I believe in them. The only person exception to that is God. “I will find out a way.”

“Well, whenever the Ball concludes – ye sayeth tis three days from now?”

I nod.

“Whenever ye can safely show up after that, we shall begin. Night time wouldst be best.”

“Night would be easiest.” I agree. I also note how he doesn’t pry into my life outside of the castle. Maybe he knows how we can’t unite completely under the flag of friendship. I also rather enjoy his ignorance of my life, letting me pretend no other life exists outside of these walls.

His strides are longer than mine but he keeps them short so he doesn’t walk ahead of me on our way to the Fae Gate. He has a particular heavy exhale when he breaths.

We stop in front of the gate and he knocks ten times for me, willing to bust his hairy knuckles against the rock instead of mine. I’ll let him.

Goodbyes feel too final, so I don’t say it. I wordlessly walk through. He stands watching with his hands behind his back until the tunnel closes behind me.

 

OOO

 

I enter my front lawn. I look up to see my mother running toward me, holding her pale blue dress off the ground with one hand. My mood sours.

“Brinella!”

And I wish my hated full name was the only reason why.

She stops beside my horse. “Brinella… Jaicom called to take you for a ride. We told him to come back in about two hours and that was an hour ago! Come quick! You must get dressed!”

The picture I have of Jaicom right now is us standing together after my violin performance and my confrontation about why he’s courting me if he has no interest in me. He thought his quick peck on my cheek was an answer.

I’ve decided to just shelve the oddness of his courting me so I can collect them all and eventually piece them together at some point and maybe figure out his motives.

I’m sorry I’ve been confusing. Been busy learning my father’s business and traveling to Bristol. I’ll do better from now on.”

Suppose he’s proving it now. It doesn’t make me any less calm. Especially since now I only hear the name Whaerin – one of three families who had locked Zadicayn away. I want to doubt that Jaicom is involved. I have to. Because I might marry him. And if I don’t, who will?

It’s only because of my status that people don’t look more harshly upon my untied years than they should. I don’t want to live alone. I don’t want to be a motherless spinster living on the street.

Varseena is too occupied with dancing on her toes for joy to notice the distress on my face. On command, I remove my one and only dress that does not tie – because I went to “Madrin’s” house and they don’t have a macramist – and site at the vanity, sponging myself off with water and rose oil.

My mother works my hair into something fashionable while Varseena’s fingers fly to tie me into my riding dress.

When I’m ready for the horse show, the two women leave my room. I’m anxious as I look out the window, waiting for Jaicom to ride up. If Jaicom doesn’t marry me, who will?

I need to occupy my sudden nervous fingers. I begin to unpack my bag I took with me to “Madrin’s” and feel an unfamiliar object in its depths. I pull it out. A pale block of soap. It smells of rosemary. This simple sight calms my heart some. Did Zadicayn snick it in there? The thought of him with his arm around me and his words, “Your hair smells of rosemary” flashes brightly in my mind before it is broken by the knock on my door. I hide the soap under my pillow just as my mother bursts in.

“He’s here!” she squeals. Seeing my mother’s little girl excitement makes me smile. I follow her out. “He’s so handsome!”

I come to the top of the steps and look down into the foyer. Jaicom is handsome. His blonde hair is combed flat to the left side as is the current fashion and his clean shave adds the wonderful flavor of youth to his face despite him being mid-eighteen. A long sleeved green shirt under a short sleeve black cardigan back-drops his pinstriped black fedora clutched in his hands.

He smiles brightly. “Brinella.” I descend the stairs. “You look so beautiful, as always. I was going to ask if you’d like to go for a ride with me, but it appears you’ve already been warned.”

Something sounds weird with the way he’s talking. Then I realize with some internal disdain that I was expecting Zadicayn’s loved ye, thee, and wast.

“Sorry to ruin your surprise. My mother can’t keep a secret.” I cast a glance to where I had left my mother at the top of the stairs. I don’t see her, though she is no doubt peeking around the corner.

“Shall we go, then?”

We go outside to where both our horses stand ready with the stable hand holding their reins. Jaicom assists me to mount and then mounts his own. We start side by side down the road.

Jaicom is not a conversationalist, and so I wonder exactly what he wants to achieve on this ride. Funny, with all the times he’s called on me, I still know nothing about him. Then I remember how very little he has called on me.

“I’ve got some bad news,” he says, and a fear for many possibilities prickle my skin. Is he going to declare he is going to stop courting me, despite I both joy and fear that possibility?

“The vault has been broken into.”

This is so much worse. I panic. Does Zadicayn know they are on to him? I should warn him!

“Thank goodness they didn’t take all the money.”

Oh. Wrong vault. The theft on the Whaerin vault seemed so long ago that I forgot about it.

“Jaicom!” I reply with forced disbelief. “That… how did that happen? How much did they take?” I hope he doesn’t see my gloved fingers trembling on the reins.

He releases a pinched breath. He’s not looking at me. I could believe I’m in the clear. “Twenty thousand pounds.”

Holy church and all its sinners, Joseara took that much?

“But that’s not to say there isn’t so much more left,” he rushes, as if I might look down at him for the loss. “In fact, we are surprised the thief didn’t take more.” The piece of the key… did they notice the fake piece of key swapped for the real? “Everything else is accounted for.”

I release a breath. But only halfway. Jaicom wouldn’t tell me about the key even if they discovered it was fake. And if they know it’s a fake they are going to tell Brocen and…

A gentle hand on my wrist forces me to calm. “It’s okay, Brinella. The business is stable and there is so much money left. It is only proper that I tell you, because goodness knows how this estranged small minded hamlet talks.”

I need to keep him talking, because while he’s talking he’s not look at me to read that I hired the thief to break into their vault.

Then I remember that Joseara said the key to the vault was hanging beside the vault door. I’m surprised Jaicom is surprised that it was robed, even given the vault is under their house.

“It’s got to be that thief that keeps robbing places in town,” he continues. “The dress shop, the jewelry shop. My father is now actively working with the Chief Constable to lure the thief into the open.”

“Wonderful!” I lie. “I hope we catch him.” Maybe if the town is still illusioned to think the thief is a man, Joseara won’t be targeted. I’m also still marveling that Jaicom has said so many words so close together. I like him better when he talks.

After I’m returned and I bed down under the sheets Varseena warmed for me, I’m bubbling from the pleasant hints the day provided. Jaicom actually showed some real interest in me. We actually had a conversation. I actually wanted to act like a tied lady for him. I had to have been wrong about what I saw between him and Crisy in his foyer. For the first time since Jaicom showed up at Durain’s funeral, I’m finally settled with the thought that I could marry him.

I fall asleep with the scent of rosemary lingering on my pillow.

 

CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE

ZADICAYN

 

I admire myself in the looking glass… not at the hair, mind you, but at my charming charisma and dashing wit. No more the man who throws up everything he eats and cries when he had to throw away his mother’s moth eaten dress. No. Looking back at me is the man who had a girl put her arm around him.

Something tells me I should not be so overly proud of this, but I push out my thin chest anyway. I just hope I smelled somewhat decent last night. Throughout the night, I couldn’t decide if I wanted to sleep – since I finally could – or if I wanted to lay there awake and just feel.

So I did an intermittence of both. And I still slept better than the previous nights. With as much sleep as I got, I feel like I could conquer the world. Who knows what might happen if I actually get a full night’s rest?

Is it too soon to ask her to marry me? Is courting still the same today as it was back in… what did she call it? The Middle Ages? I need a shave first. Because hairy men with benevolent hearts are the men you toss a shilling at as they beg on the street. A shame human’s look at a face before the heart. If I knew the words to that spell, I’d speak it. I have to have my amulet to do anything.

But my amulet will have to come second. I have something else I need to do first.

 

CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO

BRINELLA

 

The dress had been fashioned weeks in advance – unbeknown to me. My mother lost the secret when her and my father came home with a thick paper box. “It’s a dress for you to wear to the anniversary!”

My father looks askance at his wife, lips pressed disapprovingly beneath his moustache as he hands it over to me. I open the lid, expecting a fancy saddle and gold bridle.

The dress is sleek and does not bulge at the hips like most of the others. Of course it is still tiable, but this design hides the weave of leather cord and knots inside the dress, which makes tying and untying it all the worse. The innermost layer of fabric glitters white; microscopic bits of glass adhered to the fabric all about the skirt. Over the white baseline is a second layer of red netting in a floral pattern massed at the sweetheart neckline which then cascades down both arms to the wrist and the bodice and skirt, thinning out considerably at the bottom hem.

“There are going to be a lot of girls there tonight. We wanted to make sure you were not second best for Jaicom.”

“Mother, Jaicom wouldn’t court me for this long only to be swayed away at the last minute by a prettier girl.” I look at the dress. It’s a prettier bird cage than most.

“Your mother is right. A pretty girl does change a man’s mind.” My father smiles at my mother, putting a long arm around her shoulders. “So let’s get our daughter shining tonight. Consider this your final show.”

Final blow into my freedom, you mean.

 

OOO

 

It’s still six hours until the anniversary starts, and by all the Seven Deadly Sins, Varseena and my mother are going to take all of them.

The holy ritual starts with an hour soak in the cold, rose oiled water to engrain the scent into supple, dewy skin. Then wrapped in soft, oven warmed towels, Varseena declares war with the calluses on my feet, armed with a pumice stone and copious amounts of skin cream. I do my best to act oblivious to Varseena’s questions about why the soles of my heels are so hard and dry. (“I don’t know. Maybe it’s from all my dreaming where I am running away?”)

Simultaneously, my mother forces cream into my hands, filing down my nails and buffing them so I can almost see my reflection ten times.

It takes both women to yank at the strings on my corset and only stop when I’m ready to pass out because I can’t breathe. (“Don’t fret. You’ll figure out how to breathe.”) I know they tied it that way so I couldn’t run away, even in my daydreams.

Now they are pulling at my hair. Ceramic hair rollers heated by candle flame spin my hair into coils all the way to my scalp. A little makeup too, just enough to rouge my cheeks and brighten my hazel eyes.

I’m made to sit and my mother carries over a pair of blood red high heels with straps arching over the top of each foot and wrapping halfway up my calves. I stand in them and swear I’ve got two of Zadicayn’s castle towers beneath me.

The six-hour ritual bordering on torture finally over, my mother teams with Varseena to gush enough to challenge school girls. I reach for the long coat to protect me from further staring. There is no need for rouge because I’m blushing enough to earn a cherry’s envy. I don’t need to look in the mirror. I feel exactly how I look. And this isn’t who I am.

My father meets us downstairs in his celebration best. He takes my mother by the arm and leads her outside to the coach. He helps her inside first and then me. Knocking on the ceiling, the coach grumbles forward, followed by a steady creak of wheels and stomping horse hooves on gravel.

My mother leans into my father to whisper in his ear, but I still hear my name.

The Community Hall is too gaudy to be worthy of the small town of Valemorren. White stones glow from the light of a thousand lanterns around the foundation of the building and several more hanging from the eaves. A cobbled walkway leads to a wide spread of shallow steps in a semi-circle decorating the front of the building and the open doors. The coach stops. My father exits, assisting my mother first, and then me. Before I can take two steps my father is scooping me into an embrace.

“I’m so proud of you!” Is he crying? “My little girl has grown up.”

“Fabrin! You’ll ruin her hair!” Janella sweeps over and slaps at his arms until he lets go.

I take the lead, looking over my shoulder at my parents who have fallen behind. Like… on purpose.

A symphony reaches me as I approach the large open doors, playing Bach’s Minuet in G Major. My mother often plays it on her violin, along with several sheets of Beethoven. The tempo calms the fibers in the cool air and I breath it in, trying to chase my nervousness away… nervous because I think I actually look pretty tonight. I’m no good when it comes to actually trying to attract the opposite sex. My insides get all squirmy when I think they’re looking at me and I look for a tree to climb. I blame that on Durain, too.

I pass through the doors. The foyer bleeds red wallpaper and carpet. Pictures of the men who built this ancient Hall pepper the walls with gold plaques explaining the history. Small tables beside cushioned chairs hold at least ten candles each. Those just arriving cluster in small groups as they meet with friends, color popping into view every time a black coat molts off white shoulders.

I hang my own coat in the space provided, turning to the table where I pen my name on the open page of the guest book. I straighten up. Take a deep breath, mounting my courage to ride it through the next set of doors into the Grand Hall to prove to Jaicom I am serious. Since our last ride together, I finally believe I am. I enter the Ballroom.

Every member in town floods the red and white swirled marble floor, polished to reflect the light from the gas lamps dangling like tears from the balcony on the second floor. Green and silver banners spill down from those balconies, advertising the Whaerin family colors of their business, as if they are afraid people might stop using lumber to build houses and would instead use straw and mud.

The domed ceiling boasts a painted celestial grandeur and I wonder if this is what Zadicayn’s castle had looked like at its finest. The orchestra playing from the large dais on one end of the hall puts me at ease in this Horse Show. Pillars support the second balcony and open doorways on both levels lead outside to the view of the lake. Silver curtains grace each doorway but they are tied back to allow the lake breeze to waft through.

My mother was right. Every eligible girl here is in contest with each other. The room bursts with swirling colors and patterns and gas light reflect from glossy gold to sultry black hair, the perfume of rose thick enough to chew.

Someone touches my arm. I turn, expecting my father. My stomach flip flops as Jaicom’s handsome smile brightens on me. I can’t interpret what the flip flop in my stomach actually means.

“Miss Frondaren,” he says with a curt bow at the waist, “would you join me for this next cotillion?”

I courtesy back to him, taking his arm as he leads me onto the floor as the crowd begins clapping at the end of the song. We take our positions with three other couples, wait those three breaths before the music starts, and move on cue.

We bow to each other, then link hands with the couple to the left and right of us so we are joined in walking in a circle. The circle breaks and I am joined with the man on my right, walk around each other, and I’m passed off. I make it back to Jaicom.

“You are beautiful,” he says.

In a backwards way, I think I understand why Zadicayn keeps calling me a troll. “Thank you.”

We are both passed off to different partners, and by the end of the French-born country dance I’m dizzy with all the walking in tight circles. Joined back together, all of us face the spectators watching along the walls and bow to their generous clapping.

“Thank you, Miss Frondaren. I trust I’ll be seeing you throughout the night?”

Of course. My shoes are too tall and my corset too tight for me to walk home. I courtesy. “Twas a pleasure, Mr. Whaerin.”

I watch him merge into the crowd who are regathering for the next dance, hoping he makes nothing of the fact I used the word “twas.”

But I’m dizzy and a little breathless so I go to the refreshment table and inadvertently run into Crisy. I try to pretend I don’t see her. Because if she looks at my eyes she’s going to see herself in them with Jaicom touching her cheek.

“Miss Frondaren!”

I feign surprise. “Miss Garfair!” Now that I have acquired her piece of the key, I have no excuse for not calling on her more. I hope she hasn’t noticed.

Her eyes are following someone behind me. Likely Jaicom. “How have you been?”

I shrug. “Been busy with violin and painting lessons.”

“You played very beautifully at the social. I’ve been…”

I pick up a wine glass filled with chilled pale pink wine. The one-sided conversation continues without any effort from me, which I am grateful for since I can’t report on the interests of my own days since all of them are illegal.

My eyes are scanning the crowd both dancing and fanning themselves off to the sides, picking out faces I don’t recognize, some pretty fine looking young men likely from Bristol. Maybe even a few from London. As small as Valemorren is, we claim a highly reputable silver mine and Aklen Whaerin is not shy about throwing his own business in even the Queen’s face. Rumor has it the Queen is going to make him a Lord. God help us.

I hear Crisy sighing and I snap back to reality too obviously, trying to pull from the remnants of my attention what the last thing it was that she said. She shakes herself as if suddenly caught in her own daydream. “I just envy you so badly that Jaicom has his eyes on you.” She says it lightly, like it’s just a matter of inconvenience for her. She hides the truth well.

I know you do. I wish I could tell you right now that you can have him. But I’m afraid no one else will have his eyes on me and then I’ll become a spinster. Believe me, Crisy, I feel as awful about it as you do. “Lucky you’ve got all of these fine men from London to choose from.” I smile to keep the awkward subject airy.

Her eyes shift behind me and she leans slightly to the left to look over my shoulder. “I’ll say. Look who just walked in!”

That’s one small mercy God granted Crisy… she has this ability to move on if a wall shoots up in front of her. Any other, finer looking man with tall status would not have to fight too hard to sway her away. She is pretty enough that it wouldn’t be hard for her, either. She prefers her corset tighter than I do so she is already well on her way to having that sharply narrowed waist and healthy hips.

“I said look Miss Frondaren!”

“Let me guess,” I say, “it’s my constable escort I had for several weeks after my kidnap. The one who’s fifteen years older than you?”

She laughs at my joke. “He was cute.” She keeps making eyes at whoever has caught her interest behind me. My eyes shift to the young men behind Crisy who aren’t fifteen years older than me. “I much prefer blond hair on a man but his black hair brings out his pretty eyes. He fills out his clothes pretty nicely, too.”

“Miss Garfair! You’ve got the rest of the town fooled into thinking you are a lady but you won’t be able to hide it from the men from London if you go on like that.”

She politely ignores my jab and scrunches her face. “He’s got a short pony tail. That’s kind of strange.” One more visual molestation of the man brings Crisy back into our shared space. “He’s really handsome and all but I can’t place his Middle Ages looking clothes.”

“Middle Ages?” I ask mindlessly with a short chuckle. “That’s really odd.”

My hand clinches onto the spindly stem of my wine flute. OH BLOODY HEEEELL NO!

“Ya. Really. Turn around so you can see him.”

“Hmhmmmhm,” I choke passed lips so tightly pressed they are numb. The flute stem snaps in my fingers. Calm down. Calm down. It is not him. Of course it’s not him. How could it be him? Because it’s not. It’s not him because he is as hairy as that gypsy’s stupid monkey named Tommy though I have no idea why I still remember its name and Crisy would not find him attractive. Zadicayn, not the monkey. Stop getting all anxious over just a few words or you’ll give yourself away like you did when you started spouting Old English off to mother at dinner.

My pulse calms down after this logic. I hope Crisy didn’t hear the snap of my wine stem in my fit of illogical panic.

Crisy is still watching him. She inclines her head a little. “I thought his eyes were green. But now that he’s walking toward us, they actually look… gold –”

I don’t know what happened to my wine glass. A handful of Crisy’s blue dress ends up in my hand instead as I push her out of my way so hard the poor girl spins on her high heel. It’s by an act of God she doesn’t fall down.

Running on the toes of my high heels, I’m skating across the dance floor and tripping over my dress in the corridor before I jam back on my reins.

I’m running for nothing. And now everyone who can still see Brine Frondaren beneath this mask of makeup will know I was the fool who just made a scene. I take a peak back into the Ballroom. The music is still playing and people are still dancing. Maybe I didn’t make a scene, though my heart tells me I got lucky.

I rest my back against the wall. The corridor is dark and empty. A few candles bear the responsibility to provide at least some light so people won’t walk into the tables and chairs.

What’s wrong with me? Tripped up by yet another word. Gold. There are people with unusual colored eyes. I’ve seen them. And they didn’t come crawling out of a vault in a castle tucked away. And maybe his eyes were just a very light brown. Gas lamps did alter color somewhat.

I try again to force logic into my skull. Zadicayn is not here. He wouldn’t dare wonder out of his castle to explore society at random. He said the church and three families would try to hunt him down if they found out he was out of the vault. It would be suicide to show his hairy face. And that’s the biggest logic of all of this… Crisy would not find a hairy faced man attractive. He also speaks a different dialect… another dead giveaway.

But just to pretend for a moment… what if he randomly showed up in society? Why am I running? What is this surge of panic that still has my limbs riddled with adrenaline? I have no idea. I wish it would stop.

I force myself to breath as much as my lung-restricting corset will let me. I need to apologize to Crisy. Make up same lame excuse she will buy. I turn from the wall, looking into the Ballroom to make sure my re-entrance is not noted as wildly as my exit was.

“Why art ye running, Brine?”

With a choke, I spin around so hard in my high heels that my ankle rolls. I’m wildly trying to right myself as I fall to the floor but hands grab at me, saving my face from planting on the carpet and my ankle from snapping. Despite the confusion of their hands and mine, we finally stop moving and I’m looking up into gold eyes.

I’m going to throw up.

I’m arched over backward (I have no idea how) from where I was recovered from my fall and it takes a moment of shakily recovered grace to right myself on my own feet with no one else’s hands touching me.

For once, all of Crisy’s Assessment of Attractive Men was right.

I try to talk but my heart is in my throat so I end up sounding like Tommy. It’s not him. I don’t know who this is, but it’s not him. It can’t be. Zadicayn isn’t shaved.

Secured in this sound assessment, I smile politely and turn away, not even bothering to thank him for saving me from falling face first into my foolishness.

I go outside. The night breeze off the lake feels marvelous.

A pier extends onto the lake. Two couples already occupy its furthest reach. I sit down on a bench facing the lake. Violins from inside are screaming too loudly, the pound of piano keys throbbing in my head like thick fingers pointing at what I refuse to believe is real.

It wasn’t Zadicayn. It wasn’t.

Boots crunch the gravel behind me. “Ye art nary the first to flee from these devilishly handsome fine looks.”

I take one, fortifying breath. “That is not why I ran.”

“No? Then why dost ye flee?”

Each excuse tumbles useless across my thoughts. “Vanity is one of the seven Deadly Sins.”

“Which is why I hath accurately called it devilishly.”

My gaze is still fixed on the lake, hoping the moon-splashed night cloaks my warm cheeks. “There is no way you recognized me in a dress with makeup and pinned-up hair. Who did you spell to point me out to you?”

“I spelled that blond haired waghalter who hath claimed thy first dance into showing me the only troll in the room.” He pauses. “He wast useless so I had to find ye on my own. Now…” A rustle of clothes shifts behind me as he moves, “did I go through all this effort to shave and walk four miles only to be refused a dance from yew?”

Perfect. Modern. English. Something moves through my blood and I don’t know what it is, but it’s going to come to the surface if I stand. The music behind me in the ballroom is irritating me.

I stand. Take in another breath, and face him. Heat rushes under my dress. Somehow his remarkable good looks finally not buried beneath all that atrocious hair made touching him while we slept on the kitchen floor something so much different.

Even with the bench between us, he holds out a hand freed of black hair, his fingers plump with color. Healthy.

“Okay.” I throw the word together, as if hastily building a shelter to hide under. I avert my eyes so he will not question why I am looking at him so obviously. His clothes do resemble something from the Middle Ages, but they are neat and crisp and his posture is in such a way that makes him and his clothes not stand out too badly. Small minded Valemorren will just think it’s the latest fashion trend from London.

I lay my white gloved fingers in his hand and he guides me around the bench. I lag a little behind as we walk toward the Ballroom, looking him up and down better without him noticing. His black hair is shaved on both sides, growing longer at the top and cavorting hand in hand with rogue in the way it is spiked with some pomade. His short pony tail at the base of his neck is secured three times down the length of the tail with silver string and colored beads.

The current Gavotte is ending and cheers burst into my eardrums. Why is everything so loud?

Once the cheering calms, the conductor announces to the room, “We will now be conducting the Waltz to Johann Stauss’s Voices of Spring.”

Zadicayn isn’t going to know how to do a Victorian Waltz. He’s got to know that too, so I end up resisting when he tugs on my arm to follow him onto the dance floor. My heels are already on fire because of all the eyes falling on my Middle Ages boy who should still be locked in a vault according to the three families, and dead according to the church. If he botches dancing, his accent coupled with his unfamiliar dress and hair cut is going to bring the church in here faster than Hell’s Carriage.

I’m only able to reassure myself that Aklen Whaerin doesn’t recognize Zadicayn on the spot because Aklen has never seen him.

Zadicayn’s tugging becomes more persistent.

“No!” I hiss, trying to be quiet about it. “Dancing has changed since you last did it! And the Waltz is not the dance to learn on the spot.”

He looks hard at me. “I’m not about to go through all of this effort for ye just to make ye look like a fool in the end.” His gaze is fixed on me and I don’t remember when I stepped closer. “Trust me.”

I can’t afford to trust him. But I want to. Still distracted over his declaration of, …all of this effort for ye… I give in to his pull and he takes me to the floor where we join the mass of people assembling there. I admire his heart, but I doubt the warm forgivings of my current society. There are enough people and dresses that when he messes up it won’t be noticed right away.

We face each other. The conductor cues us and we step in close. Too close. I try not to notice, averting my gaze to look at everyone but at this eighteen-year-old with his hand on my lower back. He’s about two inches taller. I pray to God that my dress isn’t as low as it feels.

The music begins and purely because we sweep into a spin, he sucks me in closer to complete the move. I’m not sure why I am suddenly numb, but I loosen up – just a little – after the third leisure spin about the floor, noticing with halting admiration that he does know how to Waltz. I’ll nag him later about how.

We spin again and I hang my head back. His strides stretch out and I reach to match it; a challenge with my current footwear but he’s able to bend with me in such a way that I find I don’t have that great of an issue.

I’m getting dizzy again. I’m not sure if it’s from my tight corset, the relentless spinning, or something else…

When the song concludes, something else takes over my body so I almost fall when Zadicayn loosens his hold on me. He reminds me to courtesy when I see him dip into a bow.

“I see,” he says when he straightens, “Dost nary give the vault monkey a second glance, but take this dashing, clean shaven younghede and ye lose your wits!”

I look away, though I know he can still see my cheeks burning like I have too much rouge. It doesn’t help that he’s teasing me about it.

A prompt from him urges me to vacate the dancing floor. Ravaging with thirst, I guzzle a whole glass of wine before taking a breath. I wish he would stop looking at me like that. And I know why it’s different now than when he was hairy. He’s actually… attractive. And giving me eyes like… does he actually like me?

This revelation comes as a shock, and is so foreign I don’t know what to do with myself. I start to remember all these little hints he’s thrown at me and the fact he made this tremendous effort to show up to show off tonight has my nerves Waltzing in my hands. No one has ever been attracted to me before. Not even Jaicom. I don’t know what to do with this except either shout for joy or whimper in the corner. I do neither, because my father is approaching. I look around for somewhere to hide Zadicayn.

“Father!” As if part mannequin, I alight with a courtesy so my father can’t see my jittery hands. “This is…” I panic. I don’t know Zadicayn’s last name and I’d only botch it if I made one up.

“Mr. Eldenshod,” Zadicayn saves, reaching in to shake my father’s hand. “Pleased to meet yew.”

“The same.” My father’s eyes scan Zadicayn’s choice of dress. I’m holding my breath. “Brine, come with me for a moment.” My father steps away and I look back at Zadicayn whose sure to connect my glance with a smile my nerves won’t let me translate right now.

When we are far enough away, my father begins in a low voice, “Brine, what were you thinking dancing with that young man? Aren’t you worried of upsetting Jaicom?”

Anger gives flight to words. “I’m not married, father. I’m not even betrothed. Dancing with whomever I choose is perfectly acceptable…” But something mischievous lights in my father’s eyes and with a hard thump in my gut, I pale. “Father, did Jaicom…”

“He just asked me at the beginning of the last song.” His smile almost breaks his suddenly stupid face. “Brinella… you’re going to be a Whaerin!”

A numbness surges to my toes and a sour tang stings the back of my throat that no amount of frantic swallowing will expel. A mad, panicky roil tosses in my stomach.

“He’s going to announce it. Come on!” My father claws onto my arm and pulls what I feel is a dead weight across the floor to the musicians’ dais who are making room for Jaicom to stand.

My father pulls me to the stairs. Jaicom is beckoned me up. He’s not even smiling at me.

I take a step back. I’m not ready for this. I don’t want this. I don’t know what I want but I don’t want this.

But if he doesn’t marry me, who will?

I’m going to throw up. I say I’m going to do such a thing a lot, but this time I mean it.

“I need another minute,” I say, all my logic lodged tight in my corset so they can’t make their way to my brain. “Give me one more minute. I need to… do something.”

“Trust me,” my father has the gall to laugh at the turmoil in my chest, “you will never be ready to have your marriage announced. Now get up there.”

I don’t move. It’s not until my father gently nudges me forward that I remember why I’m standing there.

I mount the Horse Stage, standing beside Jaicom but I couldn’t have felt farther from him. He signals the triangle player who chimes the instrument several times until the crowd silences and faces us. I look at the ceiling.

“Can I have your attention please!” Jaicom calls out. The position of the dais in the Hall makes sound echo too nicely, too clear. “I am Jaicom Whaerin and I have just asked Brinella Frondaren for her hand in marriage.”

It should be illegal for a father to answer the marriage question for his daughter.

The crowd erupts into applause and cheers. Jaicom leans into me and gives me a kiss on my cheek that I barely register. The show done, I climb off the dais on legs turned into bed springs.

The musicians begin strumming again and the room buzzes back to normal, if with a little more energy as disappointed girls relocate. Dresses, coats, buttoned vests with dangling pocket watches blur in front of me as I look for Zadicayn.

I can’t find him anywhere.

The life crushed out of me, I make good on my promise and throw up in a bush outside where no one will see.

Three more dances with Jaicom and it’s still a dreadfully long time before my father announces it’s time for us to go home. I can’t get my coat on fast enough. I slip my arms into the sleeves, formulating an escape out of my room tonight to tell Zadicayn what happened. I shove my hands into my pockets and crunch paper.

I pull it out. It looks like a page torn out of the guest book. There are two signatures in the ragged left corner:

 

b,

i wish i couldst sayeth i be not suprised. after all, yew hath a life i new no thing about. I just wish so it maketh sense. so congratulations! i wish ye the best. i dost nary wit if ye art still wiling to helpe meself in reclaiming me lost item. if ye do, i shal tarry at the ege ede edge of the road where the game trail mets it 2 dAys from now at moon rise. i shal be at that spOt for 2 3 days in a row at the same time in case the first most or second niht nite nary work for ye. please nary seee me before that time. i also forgeteth to tel ye that it wilt be dangrus. i canst nary elaborate on why in case others seees this note. after that I shal go on my own. i shalt, however more, under stand if ye chose nary to helpeth me. i hopeth that ye shalt stil take upon me ofer to pay ye back for the freedom ye hath given me. i stil owe ye for that. however more, if to nite wast the last time i see thee, i pray peace and good health upon thee and thy husband.

Z.

 

“I’ll be there,” I whisper to the note.

 

CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE

ZADICAYN

 

I forgot how good it feels to stretch my muscles, to flex and bulge as I test their strength against my body weight as I lift and drop, lift and drop, up and down like the bobbing heads of my snakes of Reason and Disappointed.

I release the bar and drop to my feet with a crack to my knees that are still remembering what that feels like. Fisting my tunic off the back of the chair, I walk out of my bedchamber.

The night air crinkles across my naked skin and I replace my shirt, leaning against the wall of the roof and watch the moon rise.

I try again to force reason into my brain that is still trying to rein in the snakes of all my emotions that want to have their turn to flicker in and out of my body. It’s none of my business what kind of life she has. I’m a parasite for attaching myself to her, especially so quickly. I’ve only known her a few days. Lucky her, it is only because she is the first girl I laid eyes on when I crawled like an invalid out of the vault.

The snake of Embarrassment takes its turn before passing the gauntlet to Anger. All I did to make an impression on her, going so far as to steal a book about dancing from the town library two days prior and practice with myself.

But anger is unreasonable, because she has a life I know nothing about and it is none of my business. By the end of ten minutes I’m able to stroke the head of Anger enough times to where it settles down into purring Irritation.

I can’t help it. The head of Disappointment still whimpers in the corner of my soul.

 

CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR

BRINELLA

 

I’m going to go against the priest’s words and find an unsavory cohort to go cohorting with.

I hang a clean sock in my window, hoping that will summon the thief like Joseara promised it would.

It does. While I lay in bed wide awake, the window whispers open so silently I don’t even know the thief has entered until the black mass blocks out the moonlight.

“Mmmmm,” Joseara murmurs, closing the window. “Lucky girl getting married to the richest, most handsome man in Valemorren, I hear.”

I don’t want to talk about it. I sit up and toss the covers off my legs. “Zadicayn needs help recovering his amulet.”

The thief sits at my vanity. “I’m listening.”

I fish Zadicayn’s note out from inside my secret box and hand it over. Her pretty eyes scan across it.

“I’m going to do it,” I say, “But I’m certain the more people who help the more success we’ll have. In case we have to… pick a lock or something.”

Joseara hands the note back. “Sure. Glad my friendship to you is linked purely by my usefulness.” Her tone is a perfect balance between sarcasm and seriousness so I have no idea how to respond. “When?”

I wanted to see Zadicayn last night right after the Ball but his note specified not to see him until I was ready to help him with the amulet. And I need Joseara’s help. “Can we do it right now?”

“Now?” The way she says it makes my heart sink. “Will the wizard know I am coming along?”

“No. But I’ve explained to him how you helped find the pieces of the key which is what freed him. I know he won’t mind.” I hope.

“Alright, we can do it tonight. It’s not like I have any other illegal activities pending right now.”

I want to hug her in relief. Instead, I rifle through my wardrobe and find the canary yellow untiable dress with white bird patterns all over. It is atrocious.

Tying my hair into a braid, I look at Joseara who is perched on the window sill like a crow.

Yellow?”

My voice matches my narrowed eyes. “The only thing I have a choice in now days is whether I should eat my pudding with a fork or spoon.”

She makes a face I can clearly see despite the mask. “I suppose I can’t blame you. Sometimes I wish I could participate in society and wear nice dresses, to share dinner with family and friends, to be betrothed to a rich man. But then I look at you and think… bloody hell no!”

“Not my fault!” I snip. “Now will you help me tie sheets together so I can get out of the window?”

“Sheets?”

“Unless you can teach me how to fly, I have no other way to get out of my room.”

She must have taken my tone of irritation for urgency because she climbs off the sill and starts tossing blankets around on my bed. I assist her in tying my sheets together and only when I am certain that I am going to fall this time or my sheets are going to tear do we bless them done and throw them out the window as if tossing an anchor off a ship.

She bows elaborately to me, indicating it is my turn.

The hardest part is getting over the sill, my dress sliding up to my lower back as I sink lower down the sheet-rope. I bang both elbows on the way down, clinging ridiculously tight to the rope so I almost don’t slide at all. My feet touch grass. I look up at her. She sucks the sheet-rope back in the window as if someone had seen us. I look around. But I see no one in the dark.

She emerges, and as if the entire side of my house is a stair case, I watch her find hand and footholds in spider cracks in the mortar, ant-sized protrusions on the edges of the stone, and it isn’t fair that she jumps the last five feet without any apparent injury to herself.

There’s no way I could have reduplicate that coming down. And forget trying to get back up that same way.

“How am I going to get back in?” I ask, surprising myself with all the indifference in my tone.

“I’ll climb inside first and get it for you when we come back. Now, you ready Miss Whaerin?”

“Don’t call me that.”

“You’d have all the girls in Valemorren chasing you with knives if they heard you say that. What’s the matter?”

Marriage is the matter. And it doesn’t look any prettier saddled in money and dressed in Whaerin. I walk passed her and into the trees.

We walk like two silent thieves down the road toward the game trail that branches off and leads to The Boulder. We are almost there when I stop.

“Since I didn’t tell Zadicayn I was brining you, wait here so we don’t scare him.”

Joseara nods and takes a seat in the dirt. I move into the trees.

“Zadicayn?” I whisper. “It’s Brine.” My heart sticks in my throat as I see movement. He emerges out of the darkness, wearing a long blue hooded coat which touches the tops of his calf-high black boots. A tall collar and elevated shoulder devices make him look exactly like drawings of fantasy wizards I have seen in Durain’s books. He’s resting a crossbow over one shoulder.

I see him and I don’t know how to act. Smile? Reaffirm his attraction toward me?

He won’t hold my gaze. “Evening to thee, Brinella Whaerin.”

“Just call me Brine. I’m not married yet and I despise my full name. It rhymes too closely with my mother’s. Only… only my closest friends call me Brine.”

He tilts his head at me. “Friends, Brine?”

“Yes. We… can still be friends, can’t we?”

“I shall dost whatever ye desires. I be more indebted to thee than Edmund wast to King George the fifth.”

“This isn’t about… debt. I… I want to talk about what happened last night.”

His too long pause makes me anxious. He shifts the crossbow on his shoulder. “I just wish ye hath told me ye wast being courted by another man. A Whaerin for that matter. If I hath known ye wert already taken, I nary wouldst hath put forth any effort nor showed up.” The hurt and irritation is obvious in his voice. I see again all that effort he made to impress me, and I noticed all of its obviousness too late.

“Jaicom has been courting me before I knew anything about you. You can guarantee I’m on your side.”

“I know that, Brine.”

Good. He’s back to using the name I link with friendship. “And I’m glad you showed up. I…” I don’t know how to communicate my feelings into words. Just read my heart! How can I tell him that was like a treasure, that feeling of being admired and adored for the first time in my life? “I’m glad you showed up.” My face is on fire. Does everyone have to go through weird conversations like this? “I’m not used to anyone being… attracted to me. I’ve never had anyone attracted to me. So… I missed the signs that you…” I don’t want to be having this conversation. “That you were. Likewise for Jaicom, I didn’t tell you he was courting me because I didn’t think Jaicom was serious. It really came as surprise to me last night, too. When I found out he was going to announce it publicly –”

“Tis a’right, Brine. Tis a’right. Ye hath the right to keep thy life secret from me. I wasst just… shocked and confused and…” He looks away from me. Apparently, we are both terrible at this. “Shocked and confused.”

“I know. I know. I’m sorry.”

We both pause. I want to say more to explain myself, to tell him how Jaicom really didn’t court me, and how I witnessed he likes a girl that isn’t me. That I was overwhelmed with joy when I danced with Zadicayn and shivered the whole time I did it with Jaicom. But I don’t say any of that. Because I’m getting married to Jaicom Whaerin. The only words I know that would balm Zadicayn’s hurt are the ones that would reveal I really don’t want to marry Jaicom and then where would that put me declaring such things? If Jaicom doesn’t marry me who will? A Middle Ages man with no job who lives in a castle inaccessible to the outside world where he is wanted dead by the church and alive by those three families?

“I wast nary expecting ye to show up to help me with this. I still hoped. But I couldst nary durst to expect.”

“Of course I’d show!” I jam on the reins to bring the horse of the tense conversation back to a happy little trot. “You still owe me for freeing you.” I punctuate this with a grin. He returns a little smile, but that is all. I wish I could hug him to make the hurt in his eyes go away like I used to when he was still an emotionally broken prisoner of a mental vault. He still might be. He’s hiding it very well.

No one hast ever been attracted to thee?”

He asks this question as if he can’t believe it. Strangely, this flatters me. “Yea. No one hast ever been attracted to meself.”

He looks at me oddly, and I can’t help but laugh, chasing the frills out of the tension clutched in my chest. I’m getting married by a man who isn’t attracted to me and only friends with the man who is. I hate my life. But I’ve gotten more of a smile out of him now, and it’s easy to pretend I didn’t get myself mixed up in one of those melodrama’s Durain used to read me.

“Try thy best to refrain speaking like this again.”

This makes me laugh again and I’m sure I now look like a crazy person to him but I need this relief. It’s also to keep me from blurting out that I still want Zadicayn to show he’s still attracted to me because I love how that feels, to tell him if he asked me in this moment to run away with him to his castle that I’d do it, despite it being unreasonable and a thought charged purely by emotions.

“I suppose we should start looking for your amulet.” I recover from my spell and look at him expectantly.

“I wouldst ask if ye couldst take me to the graveyard firstmost. I want to see if I can find my mother’s grave.”

Humbled to silence, I nod. “Oh, I forgot something.” Joseara. My heart is still so full of feelings I don’t know how to put words too that I almost forgot her. Actually, I did forget her. “Remember when I told you that two pieces of the Binding were acquired for me?” He’s silent for a moment, then nods slowly. “I paid a thief to get them for me. A very good thief, who can unlock doors and enter buildings without anyone even knowing. She is the reason you are free. Not me. I… I invited her to come with us.”

Zadicayn rubs his clean shaven chin, as if still trying to get used to its nakedness. “Okay? Can she be trusted?”

His New English is getting better. “Her family was murdered because they were on your side.”

His body stiffens. “Which family?”

“Isendell.”

He does not move for a good moment. He clears his throat. “I art nary worth that,” he says quietly to himself which I have the unfortunate chance to overhear.

He’s not moving. I know what’s going on. This I can fix. I step closer to compel him with touch that he has shown so far is one of the few things that can bust whatever grip reality has on him. But my hand is still reaching forward when he jolts and steps away.

He doesn’t need to explain why. The knowledge is already wedding-ring-finger deep in my chest of hurt. I call instead for Joseara.

A light tromping through the forest growth approaches. Joseara stops and stares at Zadicayn, who watches back with narrowed eyes beneath his hood.

“He is real,” she breathes, looking like she wants to reach forward and touch him to make sure. “But you are nothing like what Brine described you.”

“Ye art correct. Brine hath described meself as a monkey.”

“I did n–!”

“He even speaks like he’s from the Middle Ages!” Joseara gushes. For a brief, misplaced second I’m jealous that another girl would make eyes at the man who’s not going to court me and who I’m not going to marry. This emotion makes no sense.

“Ye maketh me sound like I wast born over three hundred yore.”

“Oh! Terribly sorry. That’s just what Brine said.”

“Joseara, he was born over three hundred years ago.”

Joseara looks back at Zadicayn and then me. “Oh!” She laughs. It’s got to be the first time I’ve seen her do so.

I stand next to Zadicayn. “We’ll have to talk on the way. I had to sneak out of my house and if anyone finds out that I did… my future is basically ruined.”

“I see. Well, I thank thee for thy sacrifice. Ye mayest lead the way.”

I do, though Zadicayn walks beside me and Joseara on his other side, peppering him with all sorts of questions which I’m certain he only entertains to be polite. It’s a good thing Joseara isn’t the one who freed him. Zadicayn might have crawled back into the vault to flee her deluge of curiousness.

Zadicayn’s strides are longer than mine, so I either have to jog to keep up or look ridiculous trying to match the stretch.

Joseara manages to occupy the whole three miles into town through the dark with all her questions to Zadicayn. We stick to the trees. The graveyard is behind the chapel, so we’ll eventually have to abandon the trees in favor of dark alleyways and building niches in case the parish constable rides by.

Joseara quiets as we come into the shadow of the first buildings. From here, she leads the way.

I count two constables as we meander among the buildings. I’m the only one worried about getting caught because of my stupid yellow dress. I should have just gone all the way and brought a bon fire with me. That way when the constables find the Silverman’s daughter skulking around the dark parts of town after curfew and not tied, I can burn myself to ash, which would be less painful than the ostracization from society and the disapproving look from my father.

Joseara stops, her left shoulder pressed up against the brick of the building, staring out to the graveyard behind the chapel. On instinct I want to hold my breath.

We wait for several minutes, counting our heart beats, and then Joseara says, “I don’t see anyone on graveyard watch from this angle. And I don’t hear anything either so I believe we are in the clear.” She raises her arm for us to follow, which we do as a mad dash across the road to the spiked fence surrounding the graveyard. She hauls her agile body over as deftly as she scaled the wall to my house. Zadicayn looks at my dress.

“I’ll wait here.”

“Bloody hell you will!” hisses Joseara through the fence. “Zee, hoist her up and I’ll help her down on this side.”

“No! I am wearing a dress.”

“Yes. And it is yellow and will be spotted as soon as the constable rides by.”

“I’ll go back to the tree line.”

“Just climb over the bloody fence. Zee?”

Zadicayn rests his crossbow against the fence, ripping away some ivy to drape over it for some concealment.

“No!” I back away.

“Brine,” Zadicayn spreads his hands, “I promise nary to look.”

A dog barks nearby, alerting a second and a third dog to respond and I finally step close enough to where he can put his hands on my waist.

“Don’t look,” I remind.

“I shan’t.”

He jumps me up until I can grab the top of the fence. His hands reposition to the bottom of my boots so I can use them as a step. He’s gotten stronger since he left the vault. I hook my toe into the fence and maneuver over to the other side. Joseara and I make an awkward tumble of arms, legs, and yellow dress to lower me safely to the ground.

Zadicayn jumps and latches on, climbing up with more grace than I did. Once at the top, he drops down to the ground, his long coat fluttering. I hear the clop of horse hooves on cobble. Zadicayn grabs me before I can take my next breath and unceremoniously dumps me on the ground beside a long stone coffin cover before laying on top of me.

I must have made my complaints audible because he whispers in my ear, “Thy dress.”

I quiet, conceding to myself in silence not to like this arraignment. The sound of horse hooves on the street become louder and stop. I can feel Zadicayn’s chest rise and fall against my back, crickets chirping to fill in the silence There’s too much at risk here. Why did I agree to this? One slip up and I could become the next Valemorren whore for being caught outside a tied dress and after curfew.

He wants to see is mother’s grave.

And that is reason enough.

It’s not until the hooves move onward and fade down the street that Zadicayn stands. The night air catches up to me and I shiver.

He helps me stand, and then backs away while looking at me critically. Undoing the buttons on his blue coat, he slips it off. “Put this on.” He’s wearing a long sleeved blue cotton shirt beneath. I put on his coat. The cuffs on the sleeves nearly swallow my fingers and the raised collar at the back of my head is screwing up my hair which now shifts forward to bother my face. It’s practically a dress on me. I try to ignore his scent he left inside the warm fabric.

He begins weaving among the weeping angels, weathered crosses, cages hulking over individual burial spots, and I follow, making a point to go far out of the way to avoid meeting Durain’s headstone.

I don’t know where Joseara has wondered off too. I hope she’s keeping watch. Zadicayn stops abruptly. It’s not until he kneels that I walk faster to join him. There are three headstones side by side: Makrick, Havannah, and Elshina all with varying birth and death years but all bearing the last name of Eldenshod.

I hear the breath hitch in his chest. I’m going to give him a moment to himself. I turn.

“Stay with me.”

I kneel beside him, staring at the harshly weathered headstones. I don’t have a lot of practice in comforting people in their sadness. When I’m sad I just want to be left alone.

Zadicayn repositions to sit instead, resting his elbows on his bent knees. Seeing now we are going to be here for a little while, I follow suit.

“My father.” He points to Makrick. His voice is especially pinched. “He wast also a wizard. His amulet the church shattered tis laying center of his chest beneath us.” He takes three, full breaths. “There art two types of magic users: wizards and Black Magicians. Dost ye wit the difference?”

“Wit?”

“Wit… to know?”

“Do I know the difference? No. All I know about wizards is what the bible has said about them, saying they are evil.”

He’s silent for a moment. A hundred bodies in this graveyard and only three are breathing. At least, I hope there are only three. There have been cases in London where people have been buried alive. I pray to God I don’t hear anyone screaming beneath the dirt. I won’t be able to help them. Because then I will be caught after curfew and not tied into a dress.

“Have ye heard of the ninety-five Theses by Martin Luther?”

“Yes.” Though, I’m not sure why I’m surprised that he does. Martin Luther was right around Zadicayn’s vault imprisonment if I do my math right.

“Hast ye read them?”

I shake my head, not really listening. Really, I’m just enjoying sitting this close to someone I can call a friend again. I didn’t realize how much my soul had shrunk since Durain’s death. It doesn’t even matter that we are sitting on his family’s graves.

“Wizards hath been around for centuries. Fae art the holders of magic. We communicate with the Fae to borrow this magic. The Fae also regulate it. If they think we art abusing the magic in anyway, they shan’t grant us the magic. Then there art Black Magicians. These art people who learnt to speak with the Devil’s demons and the demons perform magic tricks upon the Black Magician’s biddings. The demons oft doeth terrible harm to people and there tis no regulation to halt them. Sometimes these demons infect the body of the Black Magician.”

I cringe at that image, holding his blue coat tighter around me.

“Wizards came first. Then others wanted to wit how to work with magic so they spakest with the Devil and the Devil granted magic to them. Throughout the years they hath been called many things: sorcerers, necromancers, and the title wizard hath also, unfortunately, been lumped in with them. Wizards nary hath problems with the rest of the populace until Black Magicians tried to mimic us. When that happened, people started getting us confused and word spread that Black Magicians wert of the Devil – which tis true – but they started to believe we wert, also.”

He takes a breath, and I do too, the chill night whispering against my face. Already two hours into the night and we haven’t started looking for the amulet. But Zadicayn needs this. I hope it helps him heal from whatever vault his mind is still locked in.

“But those who wist the difference tolerated us and continued to lean on us to help them with various tasks, like assist in building the Tower of Babel and the Trojan Horse. But Black Magicians couldst nary doth the same tasks as wizards. They believeth all our magic came out of our amulets. So they started killing us and stealing them. But I hath already told thee this.”

“When the wizard dies, the amulet dies,” I recite.

“So this twas causing hate and discontent, and it mightev hath been why Martin Luther wrote his ninety-five Theses or maybe twas just bad timing, but on October thirty first, fifteen seventeen, Martin Luther posted his ninety-five Theses on the door to the Wittenburg Castle church in Germany. This moment sparked a religious Reformation throughout Europe. Twas Theses number ninety-four that spelled doom for both wizards and Black Magicians. Ninety-four says, Christians should be exhorted to be diligent in following Christ, their Head, through penalties, death and hell. So people, wanting to diligently follow Christ, started reading the Bible with clearer focus. And since the Bible states that all wizards and the such art evil, the church maketh a decision on the matter. They believed it twas our magic that twas causing people to murder us, so to ‘purge’ us from this evil magic, they started breaking our amulets. But of course –”

“When the amulet dies, so does the wizard.”

“Yea. So dost the wizard.”

The wind always moans when it spins around the stone crosses and weeping angels. I don’t know why. Zadicayn points at the stone cross of his father’s headstone. The date of his death is almost a full year after the ninety-five Theses was posted.

“And if all the wizards art dead, the Faewraith cometh and devour humanity. After the church broke me father’s amulet, they lay his body in the crypts beneath the chapel for two days so if any evil remains upon him, it wouldst continue to be expelled. After the two days they buried him here and set a cross on his head so if there be any evil magic still lingering upon him, it wouldst stay there.” I see him roll his eyes at the obvious ridiculousness of it, but I have no comment. There are a lot of superstitious things we believe in that I know are superstitious but I take marks to avoid them anyway because, well, you never know.

“Then why go through the trouble to keep your amulet if they can just become Black Magicians?”

“The Devil’s magic tis nary stable. Dangerous to the user. But most people just dost nary want to make deals with the Devil.”

I’m looking at his sister’s grave. Elshina lived to be forty-five, with a nice inscription about being a much loved mother and grandmother. Zadicayn’s mother lived to be fifty-two.

Something on his mother’s stone makes me turn my head to look at it better. I suck in my breath when I see Zadicayn’s name carved amid the Latin words.

“Zadicayn…” I point.

He leans in closer to me. “I saw it. Omnia tandem vale, Zadicayn. It means, all shall be well in the end. My mother left that for me.” He sits back straight again. “My mother hath this saying she made almost scripture in our castle. All shall be well in the end. She hath this fantasy that, no matter how bad anything got, t’would all still end well. She clung hard to this saying after my father…” He clears his throat. “I wast nary there when my father died. My mother telleth vague details but I understand to some extent the church held him bound whilst they drove a pike through his amulet to see if the devil wouldst fly out of him. My father died instead. Instantly. Tis how we art such connected to our amulets. So when I remindeth my mother that father’s life didst nary end well, she said, ‘death tis nary the end.’ Essentially she wast being selfishly optimistic and telleth me that heaven wast guaranteed to be that happy place even if all of mortality turns out to be one giant soiled codpiece.”

“A what?”

He shakes his head. “Forgive me. Anyway, those wert the last words she sayest to me when they took her away so they couldst throw me in the vault. And she hast the gall to carve it on her headstone.” He growls in the back of his throat, but I think he missed something vital.

“Zadicayn… she had it carved on her headstone for you to read it. If she didn’t think you would ever get out of the vault, why would she carve it here specific with your name on it?” He stops making noises and leans his head back, exposing a large adam’s apple. I drive on. “So, I think maybe she is right. All will be well in the end. Your imprisonment ended.”

“But what about on the morrow? Next week? Next year?”

I can’t disagree. How will my own life end well with Jaicom as my husband? Will he finally become attracted to me? What about Joseara? How can her life possibly end well?

“I don’t know. Maybe we just have to choose at what point we are going to decide to be happy despite it all.”

He leans back on his elbows. I’m still cold despite his coat, but he’s not even shivering in his thin blue shirt. Then I remember he slept in a cold stone crypt for a long time. He’s probably too warm right now.

He looks at me, gold eyes shining. “Thank ye for sitting with me. I art still broken inside, but this helps. It helps much.”

“Of course. I am glad you find me a comfort.”

He slides a smile at me and worms tangle in my stomach. “Why do your eyes turn gold sometimes?”

“Tis the surest mark of a wizard. Tis the way the Fae mark us to keep us certainly different from other Mimics.”

“So… you can change back and forth at will?”

He seems to contemplate. Then he nods. “Yea. Sometimes I forgeteth to hold it and it slips through. Like in moments of great emotion.”

Great emotion. Which reminds me of all those times in his castle when I saw his gold eyes and trying to remember what triggered them. What a sensitive secret to share, exposing your feelings outwardly for others to criticize. I will hold this secret dearly for him.

I really like sitting here like this, relaxing with a kindred spirit, talking about whatever comes to mind. It takes me a second to remember why I crawled out of my window in the first place tonight. “We should probably get going. I wish I could have three days to help you look but I don’t even have all night.”

“It tis close.”

I’m tempted to ask him how he knows. But then, it is his amulet.

He makes it to his feet before I do, offering down his hand. I take it and he hoists me up. I teeter a moment with the rush of bloody leaving my brain.

“Joseara!” he shouts as quietly as he can.

We wait in silence, watching the graveyard for movement, chirping crickets spying our every move. The thief slips among the statues and headstones like the plague. “The constable hasn’t passed this way again,” she says when she joins us. “I don’t know how often they check this area, but I feel it is safe to go.”

We cluster together as we walk through the graveyard. We jump the fence the same as last time – for me, still not elegantly – and Zadicayn reclaims his crossbow. We follow Joseara to a spot behind a building that conceals us from any road.

It’s Zadicayn’s turn to lead.

He drops the nose of his crossbow into the cobblestone next to his boots and rests the body against him. He pulls back the sleeve on his shirt and draws a knife on his belt. He rests the tip of the blade against the white skin on his forearm. I look away. Whatever involves cutting one’s skin, I don’t want to witness it.

“Ye remembers me note about this being dangerous?”

Still not looking at what he’s doing with the knife, I nod.

“Did ye tell Joseara?”

No. I look up at the thief.

“I’m in danger every day,” she says. “This will make no difference to me. But, entertain me, why is it dangerous?”

I hear the drag of wood on stone and look over to see Zadicayn has put his knife away and shouldered the weapon. “Rememberest when I told ye about the Faewraith eating magic?”

“Yes.”

“The Faewraith stay away from our realm because they art scared of a higher magical power. Currently that tis me amulet. If I wert to die or leave this realm, they wouldst come rushing in and feast because that magical protection wouldst be gone. And so, contradictory to that, they are also drawn to the greater magical force because that greater magic is what they crave most. So that moment when I get closer to me amulet, me amulet will start to wake up, sending off magical vibes that wilt trigger in the Fae Realm and, ultimately, the Faewraith. They wilt sense that influx of magic and come rushing in hopes to devour it before it chases them away, which I shall be able to do once I hath it in hand. They art brave cowards.”

“What kind of a time frame are we looking at before they arrive?”

“I nary wit. I hast only been warned by the Fae that the window, though short, tis highly vulnerable. Ye mayest turn back if ye wish. I shalt be inconsolable if ye get hurt.”

His declaration warms me. “Nay,” I say in response. I look at Joseara. She’s nodding.

I don’t know where Zadicayn knows to go but we follow him. He takes us back into the trees and we head north.

I’m fighting weariness. After walking for about fifteen minutes, Zadicayn stops and lifts his sleeve up again, pressing the tip of his blade to his skin. I watch this time. He presses hard enough to where a beadlet pops out and visibly jumps about an inch across his arm.

“What are you doing?”

“Me blood tis magnetized.” He jams his sleeve back down and sheaths his knife. “To me amulet, that tis. Tis the same method how ye found me with the Binding.” He points north. “Me blood wants to go that way.”

The moon is bright enough that we can navigate the forest debris carefully enough. After another twenty minutes he nicks his skin again. We adjust our direction a little according to the drop of blood and move onward.

“So Brine… since ye jilted me, ye need to helpeth me find another lass.”

Heat prickles across my shoulders. I’m consciously aware Joseara is listening. “Um. Okay. What kind would you like?”

He muses for a second. “A girl who dost nary smell like rose. The Ball wast so bloated with the smell me thought twas in the castle of King Henry the Eighth who had nary bathed in a year. Flowers wast to mask the stink. That tis all I think upon when I smell flowers now. But then me sense of smell tis still broken.”

I try not to imagine what any size house would smell like if no one ever bathed. I now have a deeper appreciation for my weekly baptisms in cold water. “You are going to have to leave England to get away from girls who smell like rose. The scent of rose signifies the girl is seeking a husband. Unless you marry a gipsy or homeless woman. They don’t follow the same rules as proper society does.”

We come out of the trees and onto a road I recognize as heading toward the river and the Whaerin lumber house. Meadow grass stretches the rest of the way there.

Of course. The Whaerin lumber house. Even before Jaicom sets down his crossbow to check the drop of blood on his arm I know that is where his amulet will be. Joseara does too because she says, “I’ll go forward and make sure there aren’t anyone working late.” Without waiting for us to agree, she slips away from our sides and merges into the tall meadow grass surrounding the lumber house.

“So her family dies and she becomes a thief,” Zadicayn speculates. “Why?”

“It’s a long story. Mostly because if the three families find out she is alive, they will kill her. I actually half wonder if it was the church who killed her family because her family was in support of you.”

“Nary sayest thou. The church wert breaking the amulets, nary the wizards themselves and certainly nary the people in support of the wizards. The church wast trying to save souls while trying to kill the source of evil. They didst nary know we wouldst die upon the amulets break. They just knew they hath to do something because men wert turning evil with greed because they wanted our amulets so badly. Men wert killing the wizard to use the amulet for himself. That tis what the church wast trying to stop. And they think they hast done so, because they know they destroyed twenty amulets, one being a fake, of course, but they didst nary know that.”

“You are getting better at speaking my dialect.”

“I must if I hath any hopes to blend in.”

Which means he intends to merge back into society. “The church knows something is up in Valemorren,” I warn. “They had a random Sunday where they preached against the evils of magic.”

“Mayhapes they realize they hast been fooled with the fake amulet all these years and art trying to flush the three families out?”

“I don’t know. Just… just be careful.” And I mean it. For the first time since I’ve known him, I care about him. This feeling fills my heart to where I want to share it with him, but I don’t want him to mistake that for liking him. So I remain silent and keep selfish this new emotion.

We are close enough to the lumber house to where he indicates we should hunker down in the meadow grass and wait. I gather his blue coat around me to cover everything but my face.

“I couldst get used to rose, I suppose. I want a lass with brown hair.”

“You’re only saying that because my hair is brown.”

“Ye art the first lass I hast seen in three hundred twenty-four years and I hast nary seen any more since. Goeth gently on me.”

“Brown hair. Got it. What else?”

“A lass who shalt promenade in the rain with me.”

“Those girls don’t exist.”

“Ye exist.”

“I’m not supposed to exist. You’re going to have to lower your standards. Joseara doesn’t wear rose. I’m sure she can hunt and I know she has been outside in the rain.”

“She tis a thief.”

I get suddenly defensive over the outlaw. “It’s because she’s a thief that you are even sitting here next to me. She’s the one who stole the last two pieces of the Binding.”

He appears to consider this. “Why dost she keepeth her face covered?”

Scars on the face shouldn’t make an impact on whether or not someone should be loved. I know plenty of people with pretty faces who keep secret darker scars beneath the skin. “She was burned badly in the fire that killed her family.”

He lays back, crossing his boots and reclining on his elbows. He busies his hands with pulling up grass.

I keep my head up, the tall grass hiding all but my shoulders, keeping an eye on the lumber house. Joseara is taking a long time. I hope someone didn’t catch her. As much as I find a kindred spirit in the thief, I’m not going in to rescue her. Then again, I hope she’s not disposing of someone whom she caught in there. I can’t stomach the thought of her killing innocent people just because they might be in our way. “Wizards helped build the Tower of Babel, huh? And the Trojan Horse?”

“Yea.”

“Why?”

“Rememberest when I toldeth thee that Fae allowed the wizards to use the magic to help humanity? Throughout history, if someone needeth help with something they would commission us. With a fee, of course. Twas how we earned money.”

“Oh. What other kinds of things did wizards help with? Please don’t tell me Moses was a wizard and that is why he parted the Red Sea.”

A smile breaks on his face. “Nay. But me father helped during the War of the Roses betwixt the Houses of York and Landcaster.”

I slap my forehead. “Is that why King Henry the Seventh won the Battle of Bosworth?”

“Nay. Ye see, the Fae warned the wizards to nary take part in religious nor political campaigns because we art nary supposed to take sides on any matters. So on the fifteenth of August fourteen forty-five, Henry Tudor from the House of Landcaster inquired upon me father to speaketh a spell that wouldst enable Henry to win the encroaching battle. Me father warned him he would remain impartial to the conflict. Henry insisted, so me father took Henry’s sword, and when he brought it back he telleth Henry that the sword had been impregnated with Henry’s own strength. Upon the morrow, Richard the Third from the House of York besought me father the same thing. So me father took his sword and brought it back to him with the same declaration that it had been impregnated with Richard’s own strength. Which, what that really translates into, wast me father did nothing to the swords and taketh their money as payment.”

“That’s just maybe a little crooked, don’t you think?”

He smiles and spreads his fist full of plucked grass across his thighs. “Me father did sayest he wouldst remain impartial, and he did sayest the swords wert impregnated with their own strengths, which is altogether true, so he nary lied. Tis upon their own faults they thought to believe magic wast involved.”

I’m still watching the lumber house when a dark shape coalesces head of us. It continues forward through the grass. After a few moments, Joseara appears near me.

“Sorry it took me so long. I unlocked the doors and decided to snoop around to see if I could find the amulet. I found a safe in Aklen’s office with three key holes.”

Zadicayn sits up. “That hast to be where tis!”

Joseara is nodding vigorously. “So I took it upon myself to open it. And… it’s there.”

Zadicayn gasps. “Didst ye touch it?”

“No, no I didn’t touch it. I’ve heard the stories. I did see a chainmail glove with it, though. Likely for the families to move it around.”

“Why? What happens when you touch it?”

“If anyone besides me touches it with bare skin, twill still invite the Faewraith to enter this realm and they shalt eat thee.” He looks critically at me. “Ye sayeth once ye saw a Faewraith before?”

“You did?” Joseara questions.

“Yes.”

He nods once. “Someone toucheth it and a Faewraith wast summoned. Me hopes it wast nary Jaicom.”

Me too.

Joseara looks at me, eyes full of questions peeking out of her black cloth mask. “I’ll tell you everything some other time,” I say.

Zadicayn rises to his feet. I follow, tripping over the hem of his long coat. Joseara proceeds first and I follow. I’m five steps forward when I notice Zadicayn is not beside me. I stop and look back. He is standing in the same spot, holding the crossbow on his shoulder.

“Zadicayn?”

His eyes are down. It’s like he’s frozen. I’ve seen this before. He had a couple of these the first few days after the vault. It’s the posture he takes on when stress strangles him and he has to fight not to run from the room so I don’t know he’s crying.

I walk back to him. He’s breathing heavily. His grip on the crossbow is too tight.

“Zadicayn?”

He doesn’t respond. Does he know I’m right here? His eyes are shut tight as if concentrating on breathing. He didn’t want me touching him earlier, but I try again right here, because he is still broken and I know the one sure thing to fix him is the one thing he won’t ask for anymore.

I touch his arm. When he doesn’t react I know something bigger is fighting in his head and so I put my entire arm across his back, and bring the other one around for an embrace, pulling him into me. Only at that time does he crack, gasping as if he had been underwater.

“I canst nary do it!” He backs out of my embrace and drops to one knee in the dirt, dropping his crossbow and hiding his face in his hand. “I canst nary do it, Brine!” I drop on the ground next to him. He doesn’t fight when I tuck him under my arm again. “They shalt wit me amulet tis missing. And then they… and then they shalt lock me back in that v-vault. I canst nary dost that again! I shalt die! And if I die, the Faewraith shalt come and kill everyone else –”

I suck him against me, pulling his head onto my shoulder where he grips me hard. I can feel his jaw on my shoulder grinding teeth.

“Or the ground could open up and swallow this whole town,” I say. “We don’t know anything, Zadicayn. One thing for sure, you have to have your amulet back. This is something we will have to deal with one step at a time. And I doubt they will automatically blame you. Joseara here, has been doing a fine job robbing half the businesses in town and even the Whaerin’s own vault in their house. There is no way they are going to blame you. How can they? You’ve been locked away for three hundred twenty-four years. They’ve probably even forgotten you are the reason the amulet is still alive. To them, the amulet just works. People forget what they can’t see. As far as they are concerned, they still have the two pieces of the Binding to reassure them. What do you think about that?”

Zadicayn’s breathing softens against my neck and his jaw slackens. “I thinketh,” he says with a deep intake of air, “that rosemary smells better on ye.” He pulls back, reaching for his crossbow. “But ye nary touch me again lest ye betrothed has me head.”

“Because you laying on me back in the graveyard is different?”

He stands with the crossbow without responding. I join him, looking over at Joseara who has her back to us as if highly interested in the stone walls of the giant lumber house. Zadicayn takes the next step forward.

The door to the lumber house is ajar, a fat padlock hanging open on the one side.

“When we leave,” Joseara says, “I will lock up the safe and close this padlock so no one can suspect anything until they open the safe.”

“I art glad ye brought her along.” Zadicayn looks at me. “I art glad I besought ye to come along.”

Me too. I follow after Joseara whose first to step into the building.

 

CHAPTER THIRTY-FIVE

ZADICAYN

 

It’s dark, save for the pool of moonlight drowning us from the open sky lights in the roof far above our heads. My eyes latch on to the hulks of metal and wood latched together in some contraption to rival a trebuchet. These contraptions are scattered all over the inside of this building.

“What art these things?” I ask, pointing at all of them just in case Brine doesn’t see them.

“This is a lumber house. Trees are cut and put in the river where they float downstream and are collected here. These machines are used to shave them smooth and plane them down.”

“Fascinating.” I would love to see how they work because I can’t imagine any such thing that would make manual labor almost obsolete.

An old memory alerts my ears and I look around for the source of the sound. Brine stiffens next to me.

“Ye hear it?”

“Yes.”

A ticking… like a handful of glass beads roving around the dark corners of the building.

“Faewraith?” Brine sounds like she barely has the breath to ask the question.

“Yea. Tis.”

Brine pushes out a forced, nervous laugh. “Sneaking out of my window after curfew not tied into a dress to climb a fence into a graveyard and then break into the Whaerin lumber house to steal something does not work on my conscience. But the mere thought of having my head crushed in the jaws of a Faewraith does.”

“Ye shalt be a’right,” I reassure, looking all around but I don’t see anything, though the sound is in constant revolution around me, as if the Faewraith are circling me invisible.

“Why can’t I see them?”

“They art still in the Fae Realm, but they hath been alerted to me amulet’s influx of magic which shall only strengthen the closer I get to it. Ye can hear them, which means they hath come through the first three of five layers. The next layer shalt be sight. Ye shall see them, but they shan’t be able to touch ye. I dost nary wit at what point they become physical in this realm, since I hath never had the pleasure to call them to this realm meself, so it shall be best to stay with me so I can protect ye. Unless ye can find a stone box with a heavy lid to hide in. They hath jaws that crush through wood, smash through skulls.”

It was unfair for me to ask for her help. But I know no one else and, frankly, I would likely die if I tried to reunite with my amulet by myself. Still, I’ll remind her of her choice. “Ye still hath the choice to nary flirt with danger. Ye can leave if ye choose.”

“If for whatever reason you don’t get to the amulet and you die, I’m dead anyway because, according to you, the Faewraith will eat the rest of humanity because we won’t have your protection anymore.” I hear her own hesitation in her tone. “Though I’ll be able to move and run better if I’m not wearing this.” She takes off my coat and hands it back. I replace it about myself and try to ignore the gagging smell of honeysuckle rubbed off into my color.

“Joseara, can ye fire a crossbow?”

“If you show me.”

I put the nose of the crossbow on the stone floor and pull back the string with both hands until it locks into place. I lift it again, placing a short bolt in the groove. “Shooting at the throat tis best. Couldst ye stand above the stairs and fire upon them?”

“I can. I might be a little slow on the reload.”

“Everyone tis slow on the reload.” I hand the crossbow over with a handful of bolts.

“The safe is in that office.” She points to the last office on the second level on the far side. “I left the door to it open. The safe is open, too.”

“I see it.”

She scampers up the stairs and gets into position, looking down at us expectantly. That constant chirping of glass on glass sound is only heightening Brine’s panic. I can see it in the way her spine is straight and her shoulders stiff.

“Ye dost nary be afraid, Brine.”

She blinks and shakes herself out of her stupor, walking forward to the hulking war machine. There is a wooden box next to it where hangs a chain over the side and other long things with handles within. She rummages around, selecting the short piece of chain in one hand and a long metal rod in the other to be her weapons of mass destruction. She joins my side again.

“I counteth three of them, based on the sounds. Joseara, dost nary shoot as soon as you see them. Ye shall tarry until I tell ye.”

“Dost nary?”

“It means, ‘don’t’,” Brine translates. “Don’t shoot until he tells you to.”

“Okay.”

“Ye art going to see them when they first appeareth, but they art nary physical. One mighten even fly at thee, but ye must tarry until I tell ye to shoot.”

Joseara looks down at Brine.

“The Faewraith are going to appear but they won’t be solid. They might even fly at you but if you shoot, the arrow will only go right through them. Wait until Zadicayn says to shoot because at that time they will be solid so can be shot at.”

I start, offended. “That tis what I sayeth!”

“I know. I’m just used to how you talk. Joseara is not.”

I’m remembering our first conversations when I left the vault. I concede that Brine is right.

“I got it, wizard.”

I look down at Brine. “Ye ready?”

She nods, though I see how she might believe she could die tonight.

I’ll damned if I let that happen.

I draw my knife and leap toward the stairs, Brine following. The chiming of glass trails us until we are halfway up, along with a cre-crok animalistic sound. Puffs of mist pop in an explosion of condensation, forming faint circles suspended in the air. And through those circles, the Faewraith burst through.

They swoop toward us. Brine hauls her chain into the face of the one nearest me, but the chain passes clean through. I hear Joseara from the top of the stairs release a tight breath, and I’m positive she had almost been about to shoot anyway. I don’t blame her. For the same reason I still swung my knife and Brine her chain.

There are three of them. All about the size of a very large dog with four legs and hooves instead of paws. A thick neck like a horse but with abnormally massive jaws with canine teeth. Absent of fur or scales make them look naked in their orange skin. Two wings stretch from their shoulders. Trailing from the arm of both wings are hundreds of thin tendril-like strips of skin. Each tendril is affixed with these small, clear, circular shaped disks all up and down it. These fill with light once they have consumed someone’s pineal gland. I’ve seen it happen.

The Faewraith can see us as clearly as we can see them. The three hover above us like vultures. Waiting

“I’ll shoot the one closest to me,” Joseara shouts to us.

Which leaves me looking into the starving eyes of the Faewraith closest to me. Brine swings the chain at hers and it backs away.

“Ready?” I ask.

“Go.”

I spring up the stairs faster with my long legs than Brine does. I’d love to pick her up and carry her but I have to get amulet before any of us die. Brine follows, swinging her chain as the Faewraith dives in her again. This time, the silver links slap into its face and it turns away to reset and try again.

One is trailing me and I’m running backward, jabbing at it with my knife. A thwarp! above my head indicates Joseara having released her first arrow. It dives into the neck of the one I’m trying to knife.

Brine is only stalling hers. She has reached Joseara and is swinging her rod and chain at the two Faewratih like a person taken with woodness while the thief reloads.

I lunge forward and jab my knife into the Faewraith’s throat, blood shooting across my wrist and Brine’s chest. I yank out the knife as the monster drops and service the other one. A Faewraith pops into view down the walkway and speeds toward us.

Joseara fires at it with the crossbow. It bucks back with a gurgle and the body drops.

“Get going!” Brine screams at me, panic giving power to her command.

I bolt along the walkway, leaping over the body of the Faewraith, Brine following close behind. Two more emerge out of the air. Both dive at us. Brine shrieks even as I grab her and pull her to the floor with me. We toss around in a tangle of blue coat and yellow dress and then I yank her to her feet. She looks dazed. I hope I didn’t smash her too badly. I rolled over her twice.

One Faewraith spins about in the air to chase us, the second flying at Joseara who is still pulling the bowstring back.

I jump through the open door into the office, Brine following and griping the chain as if it’s her life she physically has to hold onto.

I have to turn my back on her. Fear zings through me upon Brine’s effort to contain a scream. The Faewraith gallops into the office, it’s hooves cracking on the stone floor.

The metal box with the door is open. I see a red mass. I thrust my arm inside just as I hear the tinkle of chain and Brine shriek.

My fingers latch onto my amulet. I spring backwards and wrap my other arm around Brine’s waist, hurling her sideways onto the floor. I reach toward the Faewraith whose open jaws are diving at me. At the conclusion of my single word, heat bucks down my arm and blasts the monster in the face with a cone of fire.

Magic spins inside my body in a flare of energy and light, as if the sun were puffing fresh breath into my lungs. The feeling is achingly familiar but yet so distant a memory. It leaves me dizzy.

The Faewraith snaps its wings down with a scream, close enough that it’s hooves buck forward and graze my chest. The Faewraith flees the room – on fire. I close my fingers and the cone of fire stops. I chase it.

I run to the railing, watching the torch I made of the Faewraith thrash apart the air and dive back into the Fae Realm, followed by one more Faewraith that had been bothering the thief.

Naked energy is shaking me, making me jittery as if a little drunk. Maybe that was too much magic too soon after such a long sober. Now that the spell is over, my blood is left riddling on the confusion of such a shock to my body.

“Zadicayn!”

I turn around.

“You are a wizard!”

I open my mouth to say something. But a numbness seizes my body and I black out.

 

CHAPTER THIRTY-SIX

BRINELLA

 

His head falls back and he collapses to the floor.

“Zadicayn!” I run to him. Dropping to the knees of my soiled dress, I shake him with no response. He’s still breathing.

The flames are chewing on Aklen’s office. Joseara is running at me.

“People are coming down the road!” she hisses, then she runs by me and into Aklen’s office. I don’t know what she is doing. She comes back and kneels at the wizard’s feet.

“What’s wrong with him?”

“I don – I don’t know.” Panic is drying up my voice and I forget how to make my legs work.

“We’ll have to carry him,” Joseara says. I shake myself out of my stupor enough to nod.

Together, we heft Zadicayn awkwardly in our arms. I’m holding onto his shoulders. His head slumps back into the crook of my elbow. Joseara hooks his boots under her arms and together we stumble as fast as we can to the stairs and then down.

But we can’t go out the same doors because the people on the road will see us. Joseara indicates with her head for me to follow her and she changes directions. I do, because I don’t have the presence of mind to come up with anything intelligent on my own. What’s wrong with Zadicayn?

We weave around piles of shaved and unshaved logs, around and behind more machines until I see a door on the very back wall of the building.

“I explored the building after I unlocked the door,” she says with more calm than I could have managed right now. “You always need to make sure you have a secondary escape route.”

She turns the handle on the door and pops it open with a swing of her hip just as I hear voices erupt in the building from the main entrance. I practically push her through, closing the door in what I hope was quietly.

Four tiny buildings stand about the place on the shore of the river where must house the toilets and sheds. With the wizard slumped in our clutches, we dash passed them to the river and I cut a sharp right.

“No!” Joseara halts. “They will see us if we keep running. Get in the river.”

“I can’t swim!”

“We can’t be caught, either!” She has the lead, and unless I want to drop Zadicayn I have to follow.

She walks into the river, hoisting Zadicayn’s boots to her shoulders. Only the fear of what might come through that back door makes me step into the river. Cold shock zaps up my legs but I keep going, gasping every time my boots slip on the sludge. I try to tell myself this is not the same river I fell into the last time I visited Bristol.

My lantern of a dress floats up to my waist. I hold Zadicayn’s head on my shoulder as I step deeper in, up to my chest. I fix my focus on Joseara, reassured I’m not going to drown only because she isn’t drowning herself. It takes a minute for my body to numb partially to the cold. Already I feel my joints stiffen.

“Zadicayn!”

No response.

“Is he still breathing?”

“I think so.”

She leads the way, letting the river guide us downstream. I don’t dare look behind me. The bank of the river soon rises high enough that it hides our bobbing heads. I keep my eyes locked on Joseara to dash the panic rising in my chest at the moment I might not feel the river beneath me.

The stone building falls into my background and the anxious cries of men go with it. My heart thunders with fear of discovery, amplified by the gentle glow on the horizon to herald the morning in. Had I really been out all night?

Weariness slams into me. Panic and fear had kept me solidly awake, but those all die when it is clear no one is pursuing us. But my father will be along soon to unlock my door. And then Varseena.

“Jos…” I utter the name with as little volume as possible, hoping she heard. She looks over her shoulder. “I have to make it back to my house before they notice I’m gone. My father will be unlocking my door soon.”

“We won’t make it back with Zadicayn like this!”

“Jos, I have to get back. If I stumble in later with a wet dress smelling of smoke and splashed with blood –”

“Okay, okay.” Joseara steers the wizard’s boots toward the bank.

We splash out of the river, laying Zadicayn on the wet mud. Water runs in streams off his hair and clothing.

“What do you think is wrong with him?” I ask, shaking him again, worry making it hard to breath. I’m shivering. “Zadicayn!”

“I don’t know. You better run home. I’ll stay with him.”

“You pulled my blankets back inside my room.”

“Good thing I did because someone would have noticed about now.”

“I can’t get back in my room!”

“You’ll have to get creative because if you don’t leave now, you won’t even have that.”

I’m not creative. All of my ideas come from the stories Durain told me and I can’t recall a story where the princess had to climb back into her tower without a rope. And I need to stay with Zadicayn to make sure he isn’t dead. But the urgency which powered Joseara out of the water in the first place points back at me. I stand up and dash through the meadow.

It wasn’t supposed to go like this. We were supposed to get Zadicayn’s amulet, lock everything back up, and leave. And Joseara was supposed to climb into my room and lower my rope for me. This is all wrong. I’m going to get caught.

Dew drenched weeds slap my legs. My dress is splashed with Faewraith blood, dirt from when Zadicayn laid on me in the graveyard, and a tear from I don’t even know where.

I can’t afford to think about what will happen if I’m seen like this. I concentrate on running. Breath. In. Out. In. How far is the lumber house from my own? Panic at my discovery keeps me moving.

The deep blue glow on the horizon is paling. What is wrong with Zadicayn? What will Aklen think when he sees dead Faewraith in the lumber house? Breath. In. Out. In. He will know what they are. He chased one through the forest with two others while I hid in a tree.

I exit the meadow and enter the dell of trees, gasping for air.

How am I going to get back in my room? Bloody hell I’m going to be in trouble.

It’s taking me too long to run. I see my house through the trees, the roof touched with the first of the rising light.

I stumble into the yard, looking up at my window but I can’t climb into it like Joseara. Telling by the sun, my father has not unlocked my door yet. Yet.

The front door is locked. I scramble off the porch to the window of my father’s study. Locked.

I run around the house, near tears of anxiety. I try every window within reach. All locked. Except the small window above the kitchen sink. It is actually ajar. Something must be slow roasting in the brick oven for dinner. I pray the cook is not about to keep the embers awake.

I scuff up my arms on the sill as I hoist my body up, scraping my shin as I push my body through, knocking over a miniature wooden cross perched there. Inside the house and on my feet, I put the window back where I found it and reset the cross. I hear a creak of wood above my head and freeze, my brain firing for all the excuses I need to make.

The creaking carries all the way to the other end of the house. To my room. Then the creaking comes back.

My door is unlocked. I have exactly twenty seconds to run up the stairs and position myself in my room before Varseena arrives. I look down at my ruined dress. I smell like smoke and the dirt and the blood…

I wrench open the door to the bathroom tucked in next to the kitchen and turn on the water. I strip off my dress and boots and shove it all in a corner between the tub and the wall. I jump in the tub, dousing myself with cold water which sends my shivers into a near seizure.

I nearly dump the whole bottle of honeysuckle on my head, lathering it all over my hair and body, the perfume so strong it burns my eyes. Footsteps on the stairs. I scrub harder.

Varseena opens to door. “Brinella?”

“Varseena,” I mumble in my best tone of anguish, cold water still splashing on my body as I lounge directly under the running water. I hope she doesn’t notice how dirty the water is getting. “I feel so h-hot.” Of course that is the perfect time to shiver. “I feeeeeeel soooooo sick.”

Varseena gasps and flees the bathroom, presumably to get my mother. I start rinsing the honeysuckle oil out of my hair, pulling the plug on the tub before the dirty eddies become obvious.

My mother arrives with my macramist and races to the side of the tub, pressing her hand to my forehead.

“Brinella, your skin is so cold.”

“Uhhuuhh.” I hug myself.

My mother stands up. “Cholera. London’s illness has made it to Valemorren. Varseena, stay with her and I will tell Fabrin.”

I’m shivering without restraint now, certain my skin is turning blue which is not helping my case to convince anyone that I don’t have Cholera. At least no one yet has suspected I started the Whaerin lumber house on fire.

“Come out of the tube, dear.” Varseena snaps open a towel and wraps it around me. I step out of the tub and hope the honeysuckle in my hair is enough to mask the smoke.

She holds me close as if my “illness” prohibits me from walking on my own. We walk up the stairs and into my room. I have no idea where my sheet-rope went. Did Joseara stuff it under the bed?

“Brinella, where did all of your sheets go?”

I moan and loll my head against her.

“No matter. I will get new ones. Sit on the bed and I will be right back.” She leaves in a bustle and I look under my bed. My sheet rope is tossed haphazardly just barely out of sight. I yank it out and start fighting with the knots but it’s taking too long so I push the rope further back under my bed and lay down with an arm over my forehead.

She drops the sheets on my bed and picks up my nightgown discarded there. “Put this on.”

I do so. Finally getting warm. I lay down and Varseena throws the sheets over me while I continue to moan and hug myself. My mother enters. Her face is pale.

“Fabrin is riding into town for the doctor. Hold on, sweetie.” She drags my vanity stool over beside my bed, stroking her hand over my forehead. Genuine worry pulls at the wrinkles around her eyes. I want to tell her to have the doctor sent to Zadicayn instead to make sure he is okay.

I close my eyes and breath sporadically. I have no idea how to act sick. I’ve so far won the predicament of entering my house without anyone knowing I left, though now my exhausted mind goes to Zadicayn I left unconscious on the bank of the river with Joseara. What if the men decide to search downriver? What if Joseara decides she wants revenge on the wizard instead since it was because of him her family burned in the first place? What if –

I’ll for sure go crazy with my imaginations powering my worries. I force myself away from them all, telling myself be it lie or truth that they are okay… that Zadicayn is okay. I guess he didn’t die because Faewraith are not slaying mankind, but that level of reassurance for comfort is very, very, small.

I’m so tired. Aside from being awake for a full day, the events of the night wrangle the last desperate threads of energy out of me and I fall asleep.

I can’t say how long I was out before I’m nudged awake again by my mother and thoughts of Zadicayn assaulted me afresh. Someone is leaning over me. I’m still dragging myself out of sleep. He smells faintly of that same stuff that knocked me out when I was kidnapped and I panic. It’s not until he places his hand on my head that I realize it’s the doctor.

“Has she thrown up or had diarrhea yet?”

“Not yet.”

“Then that is a good sign. You said her skin was cold?”

Very cold.”

“Well, it is warm now. I think it is safe to say it is not cholera.”

An obvious breath of relief escapes both my mother and father. I know he should be at work by now. Now I start to feel bad that he’s late because of a sickness I don’t have.

“What are you feeling right now?” he asks.

I grumble. “My stomach feels really tight and I am really thirsty. Dry throat, too.”

The doctor walks to my vanity where he had set a black bag. He pops the clasp open and pulls some bottles and spoons out of it. Setting them aside, he begins mixing things together. He turns with a milky white liquid in a glass and sits back beside me.

“Drink this. It will help with your stomach. Drink plenty of water. Congratulations on your betrothal, Miss Whaerin.”

I take the glass and sit up on my elbow. I wince at the metallic taste in the water as I drink the whole thing. I return the glass to his hand and he stands.

“Thank you so much, doctor,” my mother says. “Whatever it is, I think we caught it in time.”

“I believe you are right.” He packs his tools back into his bag. With a nod to the audience assembled in my room, he leaves.

My father kisses my forehead. “I’ll see you later, sweetie. Glad you are doing better.”

I nod wearily. I want to go back to sleep but my mother is quick to leave and bustle back in with a glass of water in each hand and won’t leave until she watches me drink both of them. “Doctor’s orders.”

I finish off the last glass, grumbling to myself because I’ll be waking up soon to use the toilet. For now, I nestle under my warm sheets and sleep.

 

OOO

 

I sleep through lunch. My mother brings me a tray of food which lands somewhere between a late lunch and early dinner. I devour it, and drink two more glasses of water under my mother’s careful watch.

“How are you feeling?”

Cured. Stop having me drink so much water. “Much better. I must have eaten something funny at dinner.” And I’m starving.

“Well, I am glad it’s passed. And you wouldn’t believe it, but the Whaerin lumber house started on fire last night! Jaicom came to call on you –” My breath hitches in my chest. “ – just before the doctor arrived but your father explained that you were ill.”

“How… how did it start on fire?” What I really want to ask is, did they see the Faewraiths?

“They don’t know. It appears to have been started in Aklen’s office. The front door lock had been picked so they think the thief snuck in to steal something. They were able to put it out before it spread. Thank goodness someone had enough forethought to build that place out of stone.”

I nod and distract my lips with my sandwich. I chew and wash it down with ginger water.

I don’t like people watching me eat but my mother does just that, not leaving until I have sucked up every drop of water. As soon as she closes the door behind her, I leap from my bed and hang a sock in my window. I need Joseara to come over right now to tell me if Zadicayn is okay.

I try to distract myself from my worries with painting. When that doesn’t work I thumb through a book about the history of music. When that doesn’t work, I stare mutely out the window.

A late dinner is brought with more ginger water.

“If you are feeling better tomorrow,” my mother says, touching my forehead, “your father will buy you a train ticket for Wednesday to take you to Bristol. We were going to write your grandparents a correspondence about your wedding but Grandpa Frondaren will not be able to show. So we thought it best if you tell them in person so grandma can take you shopping in lieu of attending the wedding. She always buys nice wedding gifts.”

My father giving Jaicom my answer about his request to marry me, my parents buying a train ticket for a trip I am going to make… I’m really tired of people making decisions for me.

“You will be using grandma’s macramist, so there is no need to worry.” I’m pretty sure she was just telling herself this out loud and I overheard. Our last blow up over my last trip to “Bristol” will still be a long time before it wallows down to insignificants.

“Okay.” As if I have a choice. As if I have ever had a choice.

My father comes by later and locks the door. And still Joseara does not come, despite the good reason that she’s not going to scale the house while the house staff are still meandering around the house.

An hour. I will wait one more hour and then I will climb out of my window and see if Zadicayn is okay.

About twenty minutes into my wait, I see a shadow dash across my lawn. I lean forward to look better out my window but I don’t see it anymore. Within a moment a masked head pops into view on the other side of the glass.

My heart beating anxiously, I open the window. Joseara climbs in and I close it again. “How is –”

“Fine. He’s back home.”

“What was wrong with him?”

Joseara flips something at me. I catch it. Two rocks? “Go ask him yourself. He told me to give that to you. There is a spot of his blood on each of them. Leave one in your room. If you touch the two blood spots together, you’ll be relocated to the stone he has at his end.”

“Relocated?”

She shrugs. “That’s what he said.”

I close my fingers over the small river stones. Then throw my arms around Joseara. The thief stiffens. She doesn’t relax when I pulled away.

“You have done so much for me,” I say, “Though I don’t know what to do for you.”

“Well… technically I still owe you. I did take a little too much from your future vault. How does it strike you to know the Whaerins are one of the families who have kept the wizard locked away?”

“It strikes me that I don’t have the luxury to think about that. If Jaicom doesn’t marry me, I fear no one will.”

“Ohhhh… I see. You are afraid of becoming a spinster. You are afraid of becoming… like me.”

“No. I’m not afraid of becoming like you.” I’m becoming increasingly irritated, though I can see in her eyes it was only a simple question. “But, yes, I don’t want to not get married. No one else has shown interest in me.”

“Zadicayn did.”

I don’t want to have this conversation. It’s much too personal and I’m getting irritated. “Jos, I watched him climb out of a vault. He’s from the bloody Middle Ages. The church wants him dead and the three families will have him locked back up if they know he’s been freed.”

“So?”

So? Let’s see… not to mention I’ll be forever separated from society and my family and he doesn’t even have a job. He has left over money from what his father left him. That’s it. Why don’t you make yourself available for him?”

“Me?”

“Sure. Not to offend, but you are already separated from society and have no family of which to leave.”

“Well, Brine, because relationships never work between people that the only reason why are together is because there is no one else around. It might be unfair, but my ugly face is a main trigger for people to stay away from me.”

“I know Zadicayn will –”

“Zadicayn has eyes only for you, Brine Whaerin.”

I know he does. But I tell Joseara, “No he doesn’t.”

“Really? Even after the first thing he said after he gained consciousness was, ‘to whence didst Brine goeth?’”

My face is warm. I banter to change the subject. “So you don’t know why he passed out at the lumber house?”

“Something about, ‘I wast nary prepared for so much magic after many yore’ or something like that. I like that he speaks Middle English. It’s kind of… romantic.”

I bustle to my wardrobe for my boots. Remember they are still stuffed between the wall and the tub in the bathroom. I draw out my last tiable dress, an atrocious pink one with red lace, and slip it over my nightgown. I turn back to the window but Joseara is gone.

I place one stone on top of my vanity. My heart zinging with nerves, I press the second stone against the dried spot of wizard blood.

 

CHAPTER THIRTY-SEVEN

ZADICAYN

 

My head is still throbbing from where I smacked it when I fell, but I can’t think of a spell right now to make it go away without also brushing up against the chance of brain damage.

I place my fists on my hips, looking upon the shambled remains of the Grand Hall. Worry sours my gut over if Brine is okay. The thief told me she left in time to make it back to her house. For some reason this society locks their daughters in their rooms like pieces of gold and the look on the thief’s face bespoke too clearly that she wasn’t certain if Brine’s nightly quest would not be discovered.

I don’t know what punishments would be imparted for such an apparent crime, but I hope at least they would still have mercy on their daughters. If it were a man, I’m certain he’d get five lashings.

If she did make it back and also avoid such punishment, I hope Brine accepts my invitation to see me tonight. I finally have the means to pay her back for this gift of freedom, though she might have to leave afterward and never return. I can’t fault her for that. But at least I will have peace in my soul to know I have made good on my promise.

I utter a simple spell. A relocation type, slowly flexing back into spell casting so I don’t pass out on the floor again. The blood in my veins throbs in time with the blood pulsing like a heartbeat inside the red gem now hanging from my neck. I direct the spell to detach the family banner most chewed on by time and decay from the mezzanine to puddle on the floor. The rest can stay. I’ll get new ones soon enough.

Most of the birds have moved out of the Grand Hall now that they see a human once again occupies it, but a few stubborn ones remain in the highest rafters, chirping at me. They can stay. Even birdsong had been robbed from me while in the vault.

I think about for a spell I could use to sweep the dust and leaves off the floor, but I can’t get the words right in my head. I suppose I will have to do it the old fashioned way.

I find the straw broom in the kitchen and begin the task of sweeping the Grand Hall, spinning up dust so I have to hold my breath. I’m at this task for twenty minutes when I hear a patter of feet. I look up hopefully, spying Brine whose looking around at the Grand Hall as if she can see the small difference I made.

I shouldn’t let it thrill me that she showed up. “Brine! Ye came!”

She looks up as if finally seeing me. “Zadicayn!” She’s running toward me and I can’t fathom why. With the broom still in my hand, she hooks me into a very unexpected embrace. I put my hands on her hips and create enough space so she won’t notice some reactions firing in my body.

She lets go, her smile sheepish. “See? A beautiful brunette gave you a real hug and you still look ugly.”

My heart is still in my mouth. I don’t remember hugs leaving me feeling like I haven’t been sober for two days.

I look over her shoulder, expecting to see her betrothed outside with a mob.

“I art glad ye be here,” I say. “I wast worried about thee.”

“Me? You’re the one who passed out!”

“Ye can nary fathom me fear when I woke up and didst nary see thee.” I don’t know why she’s looking at me as if I don’t have my rights to be worried about her.

“Why did you pass out?”

“Twas too much magic too fast after going many yore without it. Just shocked me – my? My body?”

“Yes!” Her face lights up. “The word is my.”

“I shalt try to use it more. Anyway, I can finally pay thee back.”

She rolls her eyes at me like she doesn’t believe me. Or, maybe she thinks she doesn’t deserve it. I’ll prove her wrong twice.

I motion for her to follow me. I’m shaking with anxiousness to show her how I’m going to pay her back. From what I know about her, she’s going to love it.

She follows, trying to match my strides which are longer than hers, especially right now because my renewed confidents in life is stretching them out. I look about the Grand Hall, thinking it looks a little more like a castle now than a crypt.

Soon, it will be a castle, filled with guests and dancing and music and servants and… and a family. Yes. I will hold tightly to that hope yet. I’ve reclaimed my amulet when I didn’t think it was possible. All shall be well in the end, Zadicayn.

At the moment, I truly believe it will.

I look down at her feet. “Where art thy shoes?”

“Oh.” She looks down at her own feet while she walks beside me. “I was so anxious to get here, and since I wasn’t climbing out of my window to go walking through the forest, it didn’t connect in my brain that I should have grabbed shoes. I’m alright, though.”

I lead her through the castle, down to the larder where I have acquired another deer.

We walk down to the domed chamber completely void of any objects except for the white Fae Arch spiraled with the black script of the Fae language.

We stop in front of it.

I take hold of her harm. “Ye ready?”

“I’m not sure what I’m supposed to be ready for.”

My excitement is spilling over into my voice. I can’t wait to see how she’ll react to this. “Ready to discover worlds ye didst nary wit existed?”

She steps a little closer to me. “I guess.”

I step toward the arch, keeping hold and guiding her along. I see her take a breath and hold it as we pass under the arch.

But of course nothing happens. I register her releasing her breath and looking around.

“Nothing has changed.”

Everything hast changed.” I know she doesn’t feel the difference, but I do. Life is pinging around inside me, making me want to fly.

“Your eyes are gold again.”

“Tis the surest way to ascertain we art now in the Fae Realm.”

“We are? It looks the same.”

I guide her around the archway and back up the stairs. As we ascend the levels, I let go of her arm and pick up speed, continuing to urge her on.

“Zadicayn…”

“Follow me!” Laughing, I disappear around the corner into the Grand Hall.

I stop to look back at her. She emerges, stopping abruptly, her eyes shifting on her pretty face as she looks at everything so much different.

For one, daylight is pouring in through all the high windows when it had but a moment ago been night, lighting the Hall and showing a chamber untouched by time and decay. My family banners that had hung rotted are now crisp and fresh, boasting bold colors of blue and silver, trailing down like waterfalls of silk fabric, our family symbol of the dragon heralded back to life.

“Zadicayn…”

I’m galloping through the Hall, beckoning her. “Come on!”

She follows, as if hesitant. The air is clean, like earth and ancient things. I push open the entrance doors still moist as if the wood was freshly cut, and I stand upon a bridge masoned by stone still sharp as if just chiseled.

Lush vegetation feed a herd of does on the other side of the bridge.

“Zadi –”

“Ssh! Don’t talk. Watch.” I walk forward across the bridge and she follows, keeping close.

At the other end of the bridge is a circular pad of white Fae wood about four feet across with the black painted Fae language curving all over the surface, like it does on the arch. I step onto the pad with Brine, keeping a hand on her.

“What are all of these black lines? It’s on the arch, too.”

“Tis the Fae Language. These black scripts art written spells.”

Speaking the relocation spell, there is a strange pressure inside my body. I know Brine can feel it too. There is a tiny pop like she would have felt when she used the two stones I gave her to relocate her to my castle. Within a blink we are standing on the boulder on the other side of the mountain on an identical white pad with black script.

For the millionth time Brine says, “Zadicayn?”

I’m boasting when I smile. “Much easier to explain if ye hast seen it first. I shalt talk as we walk.”

I lead her off the boulder, the same boulder where the Fae Gate is in the Human Realm. We trail down the rocky base of the mountain that will be different than what she is used to.

I look back to see how she is fairing with bare feet. She is picking her way carefully down the incline. Nothing can hurt you in the Fae Realm, but little discomforts on the bottom of the feet still won’t feel nice. Despite her protests, I scoop her into my arms. She’s the one who didn’t bring shoes.

She doesn’t fuss for long, looking all around her at what has changed.

“It’s not the same. There should be a game trail here I use to access the boulder. But everything else looks the exact same. Only without…”

“Without changes made by humans or animals?”

“Yes.”

“Ye remembereth whence I mentioned the Faewraith coming through the five layers? That they live in the Fae Realm?”

“Yes,” she says more hesitantly.

“The five layers art: knowing, smell, sound, sight, and touch. Faewraith dost nary hath a particular smell, so ye dost nary notice them until ye can heareth them. Hast ye ever heard a noise that ye couldst nary explain? Or heareth people talking that ye couldst nary see?”

“Yes.”

“So then the Faewraith appeared to our visual but wert nary solid bodies. Hast ye ever seen a ghost?”

“I thought I did once. I’m certain it was just something else.”

“Hast ye ever been outside and smelleth perfume and no one tis around? Or smelleth flowers when there wert nary?”

“How do you know all this?”

“All of that happens to us in the Human Realm because the Fae Realm tis the world as we wit it. Just five layers away. When ye couldst heareth the Faewraith but nary see them, they wert still in the Fae Realm, just three layers closer. The Fae Realm looks exactly like ours, because these mountains and vegetation groweth in both worlds. My castle tis built in the Fae Realm and then attached to the Human Realm which tis why ye can nary see it if ye wert to just go over the mountain. The tunnel tis a portal to the layer of the Fae Realm where the castle resides.”

“So people are in both worlds?”

“Nay. Every creature that bleeds; fish, bugs, humans, animals all have Lethea so ye dost nary see them here. I wilt show ye what that tis.”

Finally off the rocky skirt of the mountain and on decent tenable ground, I set her back on her feet. “I know I art pretty brilliant but that brilliance can nary hold ye in my arms forever, unfortunately.”

“Now that we aren’t on the slope, I’ll be okay.”

We proceed forward. She steps carefully to avoid invisible obstructions.

“Take me to thy house.”

“My house?”

“Yea.”

She leads the way and I keep next to her. “Fae art immortal. Nothing dies in this realm. Fae art the soul of everything living; animals, plants… the only way to kill a Fae tis to make extinct the very thing the Fae embody. If ye killeth every single dog in all the realms whence that dog exists, the canine Fae wouldst cease to exist and the dog wouldst nary be able to come back.”

“You said in all the realms? What kind of realms are you talking about?”

“Other mortal realms with other races of people. Some with something called teknology, or something like that. I spakest with an elf once who sayeth he wast strapped into a contraption that could fly to the sun, or something.”

“What?”

I guess that is too much too soon. “Me thinks it best to tell ye in pieces. Otherwise ye might get confused.”

“Too late.”

She continues to lead me to her house, though she stops and stares at the ground.

“Okay, now I know there is a road here.”

“As ye can see, the Fae Realm dost nary recognize the changes the Lethea make. Let us continue to thy house.”

“If I can find it.”

We walk about some more. Finally, she stops again. “This is it. That’s the willow tree where there should be a bench beneath it. But, clearly, the bench and my house and everything else but the trees are gone.”

I walk forward. Reaching my desired spot, I point. She joins me. Together we look down at two, small green spheres glowing like fireflies. They are no bigger than my thumbnail. The spheres hold perfectly still, suspended in the air, side by side about a foot off the ground.

“These art Lethea. Also, ye parents. They art currently sleeping close to each other. Though, there art a couple others scattered around as well. Servants?”

A couple more spheres dot the small space at random; different rooms on different floors.

“Yes. But, their rooms are…” She points upward.

“The Fae Realm dost nary recognize anything built by Lethea. This is how the space of ye house translates into the Fae Realm.”

“What happens if something were to walk through them?”

In answer, I lean towards the Lethea and slap my hands together, right through them. Brine gasps but stops short when she can see nothing happened.

“Nary anything,” I say. “Sometimes twill cause their ears to ring, or their nose to itch, or something. From what I hast been told, anyway.”

She’s shaking her head. “This is so…”

“Now ye knowest why I tarry to explain some things.”

A noise above my head causes me to look up. Brine too. A large spread of feathered wings is descending upon us, my short ponytail flapping about behind my head.

Brine clings onto me.

“Tis a’right. Tis a’right.”

The gryphon lands in front of us; a creature with the head and forelegs of an eagle and the hindquarters of a lion.

I think Brine stops breathing. Her death grip is cutting off the circulation to my arm.

“Zadicayn Eldenshod,” the gryphon says, “Life wants to speak with you.” His yellow eyes hover upon both of us. “To discover why there was a three hundred twenty-four year gap after a desperate spell. I am to take you to them.”

I nod in affirmation, looking down at Brine who is pale and shivering. I reach my other arm around her. “Brine, tis a’right. Tis a’right.”

“It’s not real!” She covers her mouth with the back of her hand, shaking her head. “How can any of this be real? I’ve got to be dreaming.”

I smile. Once the shock of this all wears off, I may not ever be able to shut her up about this. “Nary a dream, Brine. Come. Fly with me.”

“Fly? You mean… like a bird?”

“Yea.”

She sucks in too much air. I tug on her but her feet are rooted to the spot. I release her, walking to the gryphon who crouches low for me to slid onto his back. Brine watches me. I reach a hand down to her. “I rather wish ye cometh with me. I really dost nary wish to leave ye in this spot.”

She holds my gaze for a long time, taking turns every so often to look at the gryphon who is waiting patiently.

“No one has fallen off my back, human,” the gryphon says. “Nor will they ever. You are safe with me.”

Brine still shakes her head. I pull my hand back. “A’right. I shalt be back for thee, but ye must nary leave this spot or I shall never find ye again.”

The gryphon pulls back his wings.

“Wait!”

The gryphon stops. Brine blinks her eyes many times before she steps forward. I reach down to her again. She slides her cold hand into mine. It is so small.

“I’m wearing a dress! Should I sit in the back?”

“Ye shalt feel more reassured if I hold ye. I shall respect ye and thy dress.”

It takes her a minute before she nods, squeezing her eyes shut as I pull back my shoulder and she slides a leg over which drags her dress up as promised. She hauls it back down as far as she can. I unbutton my coat and hand it to her.

“It shalt be cold once we fly. Wear this.”

She puts it on. It covers her bare legs a little more modestly and I hope that still goes further to reassure her.

The gryphon pushes back his wings, and with a solid whoosh leaps upward. Brine makes a choked shriek and hunkers across the gryphon’s neck, eyes shut so tight I fear she may never be able to open them again. The gryphon throws his head back and clucks at her.

“Ye holdeth too tightly,” I say, trying not to laugh.

Her white-knuckle grip loosens, but the gryphon turns his head to change directions and her grip tightens again.

I wrap both arms around her and lean over her back. “Let go,” I say with as much reassurance as I can. “I shall hold on to thee.”

Her small body quivers, and then slowly, slowly, she lets go. I lean back, bringing her with me. She resists at first, but then her spine relaxes and she sits up straight with me. Her head is hunkered so far down into the tall collar of my coat she looks like a turtle in its shell.

This time I do laugh at her, hoping the sound will break the tension in her body. “Open ye eyes, Brine.”

She shakes her head with enough fervency to rival the beating of a humming bird wing. She says something. Through the whoosh of gryphons wings on either side of me and the wind tossing at my clothes I don’t hear her. I lean in closer. “What sayest thou?”

She lifts her head out of my coat. Her eyes are still shut. “I have to be back before sunrise in… the Human Realm.” She pauses. It must sound so strange to her calling it that. Like it is a place among all others.

“Then we hath about,” I have to count on my fingers. “Twenty-two days.”

She starts “Twenty-two what?”

“Twenty-two days, Brine. In Fae time. The Fae dost nary recognize space nor time in other realms. One hour here tis roughly one minute in the Human Realm.”

She’s shaking her head. I laugh at her again, joy filling my blood and I breath in the life that for three hundred twenty-four years I didn’t have. And it’s because of this girl in my arms that I am even here.

A universe of green, gold, rock, crystal… everything… sparkles below us as if we are above the vast expanse of space, above the blanket of time. A world cupped in the hand of an immortal. There are no words for what I see, for what I feel, because that would be like describing what the space between the stars is made of.

She needs to share this moment with me.

Was I like this my first time flying? I don’t remember. It came so naturally to me. But then I had been frequenting the Fae Realm with my father since I could walk.

“Open ye eyes,” I prompt her again.

She shakes her head. I tuck my face close to hers. “Ye shall nary fall. I shan’t allow it. I promise. Open ye eyes.”

Her body shudders. But she lifts her head. And opens her eyes. At first it’s a small revolution of her head on her white neck, and then she’s trying to look at everything at once.

“It’s…” She stops, her lips parting to form sounds for which there are no words.

But I know. “Yea… it tis.”

Ahead of us, a circle of white Fae wood hovers as if anchored in the air, forming a loop, marked all over with the black script.

The gryphon flies through it. That inevitable pop again and that strange pressure like all my blood is pressing up from under my skin. We emerge on the other side of the arch and we are flying over a different landscape.

We fly for another half hour, flying through five more loops accompanied by that popping noise every time. Brine is silent.

The gryphon tilts his beak to descend. Brine gasps and throws her body back. I hold her tighter, squeezing the gryphon’s heaving ribs with my knees.

“Ye art safe with me, Brine.”

The land about is green with the lush vibrancy of life. Structures pepper the valley. With a scatter of wings and heaving of muscle, the gryphon lands in the grass at the base of a massive mountain, next to a bridge arching over the river.

I dismount first, swaying a minute, solid ground briefly unfamiliar. I reach back to help Brine. She accepts my hand, landing on her bare feet in the grass. I turn and bow to the gryphon. “I Thank ye.”

The gryphon tucks a leg under and bows back. Turning from us, he throws out his wings and blots out the sun with his body.

I’m nearly knocked over by Brine who cages me in an embrace.

“Zadicayn! I can’t believe it!”

Brine, your touches are like a drug to me. You’ve got to stop. “I thought ye might enjoy this.” I disconnect by sheer force of will.

“Enjoy this?” Now that she’s not touching me, she begins to dance anxiously on her feet. I quit like how my coat looks on her, the long hem brushing her bare ankles and the sleeves swallowing her fingers. Her pure joy makes me smile. This is what I’ve been wanting to see since I left the vault. Someone else’s joy because of something I did.

“This is… this is… I’m dreaming!”

“Nay. Tis real.”

“You are the greatest friend anyone could have!”

Friend. Huh. I’m not certain if I should do her the favor and say that eighteen-year-old single men don’t make “friends” out of girls.

She can’t sit still. She’s walking about the area of the glass bridge and glass bench under the tree. She presses her hand against the tree, upon the grass, as if trying to convince herself it’s all real. I remember doing the same thing when Brine wasn’t looking when I first left the vault. Trying to convince myself I was really free. Some days I still have to touch just to make sure.

“Brine.”

“Yes?”

I look at the bridge leading into the mountain. “I wouldst love to show ye the very roots of Life – the place to whence I go – but Life shan’t allow anyone in who dost nary live in this realm. Except for wizards because I art employed by them. Ye shall tarry here. Ye shalt be fine. Naught can harm ye in the Fae Realm. Just nary wander off on ye own. Ye still hast that stone with my blood?”

She touches her leg over her pink dress and nods.

“Ye shall be a’right. But if perchance ye get taken by gorgaks, I can still find ye with that stone. But dost nary lose it because ye can nary go back to the Human Realm without me as escort.”

“Gorgaks?”

“Yea. Gorgaks. They art the Fae Realm vermin. Aside from being a terrible pestilence, they collect things, and it dost nary matter be it big nor small, people nor stone. But ye shalt be a’right. I just wanted to warn ye.”

“Oh. Okay.” Her eyes still dart around curiously. She’s holding onto my coat so I decide to leave it with her so she can have her hands on something familiar in this strange place.

“I shan’t be long.” I face the mountain. Clasping hands behind my back, I proceed up the glass stairs, across the glass bridge, and to the mountain.

 

OOO

 

Anxiety nearly boils out of my skin. Do they know I am the last one? Do they know why? Do they care?

Swallowing does not soften the hard nub of fear in my chest. I recall something from the histories of the very first wizards that say if the wizards fail to stay alive, the Fae would wash their hands of us. According to the Fae, they have thousands of realms to care for to be bothered with one that cannot care for itself.

I wipe sweaty palms on my pant leg and pass under the shadowy threshold into the mountain. There are many turns in the mountain, but that willowy black script begins scribbling along the white Fae wood floor in response to my amulet, showing me the way.

Enough turns bring me to a deep throat in the floor. I ignore the trepidation and step onto the open blackness. A white disk of light spreads under my feet, the black script weaving out as if they are roots to my body. I begin to lower.

There is no way to kill Life. But, really, the only reason why Life has taken such precautions to guard its access which restricts all but their employed wizards and select few whom they call and have delivered here, is to keep their shrine holy. A sort of place to invite Gods to worship.

The disk of white light lowers me down, so deep I can’t even guess how far I’ve gone. The well of rock around me ends and I sink into a void of stars, endless in their reach, eternal to their time. No one can place where in the universe Life is kept. For certain it is hovering in the universe because no world has right to lay claim to their domain. Each world and realm where are scattered wizards have their own access to the Realm of Life.

Without warning, the stars end and I’m again in darkness but for the light beneath me, still sinking. The next chamber I’m lowered into is an illusion. The colors are too vibrant to be real, with some transparency to everything so I can still see behind to eternity.

A unified combination of forest and sky and sea is abuzz with each Essence of Life, moving about their habitats as if oblivious to their surroundings of trees, water, and clouds not being real.

A cow, a hawk, a bear, beetle, humpback whale, gold fish, on and on and endlessly on the Essences represent every creature, every species of everything that have a Lethea on every world within the compass of every God.

The Essences here is what gives every creature life. If one specific creature becomes totally extinct, then their Essence dies. That is how you can kill Life. However, the Essences have ways to save a creature from total extinction. Like the halicorn. They died off so fast that by the time the Halicorn Essence could rescue them, there was only one left. And to this day it lives in the Fae Realm, unable to repopulate.

My spinning disk of light stops, and there I hover. Nothing to catch me should I fall; an eternal reach all around me, spread all the way with colors and images and each Essence of Life roving about their respective space.

“Zadicayn Eldenshod is here,” I say to the endlessness around me. An elephant lumbers by, touching me with light and air.

“Hello,” says a female voice, many female voices… all the voices of each Essence combined into Life. The voices swirl around me, whispering and shouting at the same time, in perfect sync with each other. “We went three hundred twenty-four years, six months, eleven days, two hours, forty-nine minutes, twenty-three seconds before another spell was cast in the Human Realm. Why the delay? And why was your last spell before the delay so abnormal and desperate?”

I take a deep breath. “Three hundred twenty-four yore, the humans desired our magic and began to kill us for our amulets to useth them for themselves.” It is unnecessary for the Essences to know about the religious sect getting involved. All they will understand from this is that I am the last wizard. “When they realized the amulets died when we dost, they stopped killing us. By then, I wast the only one left and so they took my amulet to figure out how to use it and forceth me into a vault so I wouldst stay alive but out of the way. That abnormal and desperate spell wast to keep me alive.”

“How did you get out?”

“Another human freed me just recently.”

“The girl you brought with you?”

“Yea.”

I stand silent for several minutes, but they ask no further questions. They had an answer to the one question they had. They were done with me.

But I’m not done with them.

“Essences,” I call out, “I be the last wizard for the Human Realm.”

Silence. A Moorias Essence gallops by me, the snake for its tail hissing and bouncing along. A Seadweller dips her belly out from beneath the surge of an illusioned ocean.

“If I die, the Faewraith wilt attack and consume everyone. Humans shalt cease to exist.”

Silence.

I clench and unclench my fists several times before he I am calm enough to proceed without turning my plea into demands. “I wish nary for humans to become extinct. I wouldst asketh for aid in this, to give again magic to wise and honest men to keepeth the Faewraith away.”

The feminine voices dagger my soul. “To ask again?” spoke the million voices combined into one. “If the twenty we granted you failed, twenty more will only fail again.”

A pang of fear lances through me. “Humans art… a selfish race. But the rest of them shouldst nary be punished.”

“We cannot help. Twenty men we gave the magic and they failed. If man cannot do it, then who?”

“Let us tryeth again!” The black future for the humans sets fire inside my head.

“Maybe the humans should die.” The voices darken. “Maybe they should die and the dragons they almost killed could live again on that realm. Humans kill. Let them be killed for once. The dragons need a new realm to live anyway. They are almost done repopulating –”

“The dragons art nary in the Human Realm anymore?” I nearly step back in shock. I had only been out in society a few times but I thought I only didn’t see any dragons because of their migration. This news that humans had nearly killed them off to the point the Fae pulled them into the Fae Realm while I was vaulted is a punch to my chest. I had dragon friends.

“Humans almost made them extinct. Some romanticized thought convinced a people called knights to ride after to slay them for rewards from their kings. Let something else that does not kill selfishly take the place of the humans.”

I want to throw spells to hurt them, to wrangle some mercy out of the Essences that give… and take away.

“Please!” I shout, desperately, restlessly pacing about the small space of my disc of light as my brain tries to absorb the entirety of what this all means. “I hast nary killed selfishly. I just want to live. Humans just want to live. There art selfish humans just like there art selfish dragons or elves. Dost nary condemn the whole race because of a few. Help me keep the Faewraith away!”

“Twenty men could not do it.”

“Then how about twenty women?”

A hiss so loud and deadly rattles my bones. “Females cannot do this thing. It is not their role. Females give life. Males protect it.”

“And why canst they nary switch? What remarkable balance wouldst it hurt?” I will argue until I am out of breath, out of time, out of life.

“Because males cannot give life. If they gave life too, who would protect it?”

“Not every female is going to –” It is useless. Arguing. “What if I findeth nineteen good men?”

“You could find a hundred, but the cycle of selfishness is immortal. It would only start again. And again. And again. At some point the humans will simply kill all the wizards and the Faewraith will still come.”

That would still be better, I think. At least then Brine could live a complete, happy life and not be slaughtered by the Faewraith. “Asketh the Essence of Human what she thinks upon thy decision.”

“She speaks with us.”

“And she tis a’right to killeth all the humans?”

“We would not kill all the humans. We would pull in one female and one male to repopulate again. Maybe by doing so it would erase all the faults these humans were born with.”

“One more chance,” I beg, dropping to one knee. “Please.”

“We have a thousand realms to watch, Human Wizard. You are no more special than the others. Your realm is not the first to be consumed by the Faewraith. Nor will it be the last.”

“Please…”

The voices do not respond.

They are done.

 

OOO

 

I storm down the tunnel in the mountain, likely leaving shatter spots in the Fae wood floor with how heavily I tromp. Fury, hate, and sorrow swirl behind me like a damned shadow.

I stop, slamming my fist into the wall. Pain radiates up my arm but nothing breaks or bleeds in the Fae Realm.

I slump against my arm, against the wall, strangled by sobs and every snake of my emotions biting at my throat so I can’t breathe.

The humans will die… they will all die and it will be my fault because I can’t live forever… I will die… Brine will die…

I slide to the floor in a heap lesser than a naked man stolen of his dignity and honor. Brine is my lighthouse on the shores of my stormy ocean I cannot get to. Someday I’ll find my anchor, direction, the courage to brave the ocean, but if that lighthouse extinguishes before that time I’ll drown.

I’m still recovering from three hundred twenty-four years of having no one to touch and my emotions are still broken beneath me. I don’t know to what emotion should be pieced together with what. The only sure thing I know right now is that lighthouse, shining upon me in the direction I need to go.

But she’ll be gone upon my death. I am able to wrangle a wedge between what I need and what I want so enough room between them lets me accept she will be married to another man. And why not? She had a life before she found me, and I’ve got nothing to offer her. But seeing her die because I can’t prevent the Faewraith from coming drives rusty nails into my chest.

I stand and fist the wall again. And again. And again. The pain maxes to a muffled hum up my arm but I don’t stop until I’m out of rage.

“Every life matters!” I shout to the mountain. “Every… damned… one!”

I attempt to package my emotions small enough to where I can hide them in my pocket and keep Brine from seeing. They don’t shrink gently, but I jam them down anyway. She doesn’t need to be involved in my war with Life.

I walk across the bridge. Coming off the other side, I stop, putting both hands on my hips. I would have expected her to be sleeping. After all, it is about the time in the Human Realm when she would naturally be asleep. I, of course, haven’t slept well since the last time she spent the night with me in my kitchen, but I doubt she is haunted by such things as what keeps me awake.

But, in either case, she is neither sleeping nor awake.

She is gone.

 

CHAPTER THIRTY-EIGHT

BRINELLA

 

It’s alive.

Of course it’s alive.

Nothing dies in the Fae Realm.

I want to touch it.

Really.

Bad.

I creep down the grassy hillside speared in places with clusters of crystal. The dragon looks like a cat in the way all four legs are tucked under him, wings folded upon its back. Its long neck is stretched forward on the ground, massive ribs heaving in and out as it breaths.

Now I’m standing in front of it, the breath from his two nostrils like dinner plates fluttering Zadicayn’s blue coat.

A dragon.

I’m looking at a dragon.

How would Durain react to this? My heart aches to share this with him. I take a tiny step forward. I probably will die when I touch the dragon, but I can’t think of a better way to go.

I rest my palm on his green nose, the texture of the scales like flattened soap bubbles stuck together, bumpy and smooth. I rub back and forth to feel them better. The dragon does not move.

Total reason goes out the window now and I begin rubbing my hands all over its horned face, around the closed eyes, behind the two fans that I think are it’s ears.

“Brine!”

I spin around at the sharp tone, hiding my hands behind my back as if to hid what I had been doing.

Zadicayn walks down the hill and I finally feel ashamed for wandering away when he told me to stay. But that was like throwing sweetmeats around a child and telling him he can’t have any.

I open my mouth to say something when a louder, deeper voice above my head says,

“You ruined my massage.”

I tilt my head back. The dragon’s green neck is swaying above me, looking toward Zadicayn. “Go away so the girl can get back to it.”

Zadicayn’s gold eyes fix on the dragon, and then on me. “I shall. I just came to reclaim me coat.”

The dragon rests his head back in the grass covered in velvet dusk and moonlight. “You may continue,” he says.

Zadicayn stands beside me. I feel his irritation.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “I didn’t realize how far I wandered. Then I didn’t know how to make it back.”

“Tis a’right. Just sent me into a panic when I feared I wouldst nary find ye again. Ye shan’t die or harm here, but there art things that wilt find ye as interesting as ye findeth them. Like the gorgakes. They shall kidnap thee.”

“I know. Again, I’m sorry.”

“If you are not going to get back to your massage, then leave my nest so I can sleep.”

My hands go to the dragon again.

“Brine…”

“He likes it. Just another minute.”

I rub around the joint that connects the canvas-like wings to his back. A steady hum pulses beneath my fingers. Is the dragon purring?

I rub harder and the dragon growls in pleasure, rolling onto his side, and finally his back so I am rubbing his belly.

“Brine, under my chin…” the dragon moans. I oblige.

“Brine, we must goeth now.”

“Where are you headed?” the dragons asks, stretching his body.

“Espelyniumthriwath.”

“Let the girl finish her business on me and I will fly you there.”

Zadicayn sighs and sits in the grass, lounging back in his elbows. He’s not as happy as usual. His meeting with Life must not have gone well. I’ll ask him about it later.

I notice a sparse cluster of Lethea beneath the dragon as he rolls. These people in the human world – or whatever realm the Fae Realm encompasses right at this spot – have been rolled over by the dragon and don’t even know it. Then I wonder how many times I’ve been stepped on by a dragon in the Human Realm.

Only when my fingers are sore do I stop. The dragon shudders and stretches one more time before rising to his feet.

“My name is Varlith. Next time you are in the area, call for me and I will let you honor yourself again with touching my body.”

I giggle. Then I see his narrowed eyes and see that he is serious.

“Okay.”

Zadicayn pulls his body onto the dragon’s back first, reaching a hand down to me. I’m pulled in front of him.

I feel the dragon’s muscle pulse beneath my legs as he stretches his wings. With a whoosh that flings my hair and Zadicayn’s blue coat into disarray, the dragon propels off the ground with more force than the gryphon. I gasp and lean forward but Zadicayn already has his arms around me and is holding tightly.

I don’t watch the land slid beneath me this time despite how I want to enjoy it all over again. Nausea crackles in the back of my nose. I pinch my eyes, grateful for Zadicayn holding onto me because I have to shift my focus so I don’t throw up.

The dragon lowers his head. I lean back but a reassuring, “Tis a’right,” in my ear calms me like it has done already. The dragon lands with a massive shifting and titling of his body. He lowers his chest to the grass and we slid off.

It was only a ten minute ride but already the purple dusk thickens to black, speckled with stars as if someone had spilled salt across a table cloth. I recognize some constellations, so it is the same sky.

“We thank ye, Varlith.”

The beast nods his massive head once. “So long as your girl here comes back to honor herself on me again, you are welcome.” With a bark, the dragon jumps and swooshes massive wings away from us.

I feel less nauseous now that we aren’t flying. But now I’m tired. I would normally be asleep during this time in the Human Realm. But I don’t need to mention this to Zadicayn because he says,

“Let’s get somewhere to sleep.”

I follow him to the small cluster of buildings I saw when we landed after flying on the gryphon. It’s like a small hamlet. Who lives here?

He directs me to the closest building. For everything I can tell, it looks like it’s made of glass.

The doorway has no covering. No door. We walk inside. It looks to be a sort of common room, like for a hotel, but with glass furniture popping with pillows and blankets. And in the wall… it’s wrong to call it a fireplace, because there is no fire. Just a cluster of red crystals that feel as if they are actually putting out heat. Shadows even flicker from them, looking like surreal flits of movement.

Zadicayn urges me forward and up the stairs. We pass doorways shrouded with sheets until we reach an open one. Zadicayn steps inside. I hesitate before following him.

“Ye shalt sleepeth here.”

“Don’t we need to check in or something? Pay?”

He shakes his head, his short black ponytail strung with colored beads brushing the back of his neck. The glow from the yellow crystals affixed to the wall for light magnify his gold irises. “Nary in the Fae Realm. I shalt sleep in the common room if ye shouldst need to find me during the night. Hast a pleasant sleep, Brine. I shalt see thee on the morrow.” He unties the blanket from the doorframe and it falls closed behind him.

Inside the room is a glass framed bed with a mattress and blankets neatly folded at the foot. Next to it is a table with a pitcher of water. I’m hungry and thirsty, and daring this water, I drink it. Food, I suppose, will have to come later.

I lay down, remembering at just that moment that I’m still wearing Zadicayn’s coat. Its touch has become as natural as my dress.

I should return it to him. He said he’d be down in the common room with the weird crystal fireplace.

I consider just keeping his coat for the night. I am so tired and this bed… my conscience won’t let me. He only didn’t ask for it because he’s being nice. I won’t take advantage of that.

I stand from the bed and tie back the curtain so I’ll know which room is mine, and head downstairs.

 

CHAPTER THIRTY-NINE

ZADICAYN

 

The fire crystals actually make the same popping noises as real fire would do against wood. They even throw snakes of shadows about, too.

Mostly, it is warm. And despite that warmth I’m still wrapped in a wool blanket provided on the glass couch. Warmth is like touch, two things I didn’t have in the vault. The vault wasn’t, really, cold, but it was not warm. About as warm as stone is in a shadowy place deep in a castle. I eventually got used to it, but now feeling this… warmth was like blood filling again a limb gone numb.

“Zadicayn?” I turn to see Brine walking barefoot into the common room, my coat draped over her arm. She looks as tired as I feel, though I am still glad that at least she will get sleep tonight. “I’m returning your coat.”

“Hold onto it,” I say. “We shall fly back on the morrow. Tis always colder higher up. I thank thee for thy concerns upon my coat, but nary worry thyself this night. I pray thee sleep well. I shalt see thee on the morrow.” What I hope was a respectful dismissal of her instead, somehow, empowers her to come closer.

“Are you okay?”

No. “Yea. Just tired.” She doesn’t move. Can she see my drooped shoulders as if someone is pushing down on them? I straighten up. “I art fine, Brine.” I try to forge a smile from the remains of hers. “I shalt see thee on the morrow.”

Of course that is not what my body language is screaming and she, apparently, can read it.

“I’m still a little hesitant in the Fae Realm,” she says. “Things are still… weird to me. Can I sit with you a little while?”

Her excuse is a bad lie. “And yet ye wandered off on thy own to fondle a dragon.”

“I wasn’t fondling him!”

“The dragon sure thought so.”

She fidgets awkwardly. “Okay. But sleeping is different. I always have trouble sleeping in a place I am not familiar with.”

I’m not sure how she expects me to fix that for her, but then I know that is not the reason she is down here. She’s already sitting on the couch, leaning in too close and manages to find a spot of skin on my arm not covered by my blanket to touch with her fingers.

She knows how I’m still affected by touch, how every time I’m touched it stitches my Snakes to my body so they don’t wave about at random. Problem is, the more I’m touched the more I want it. Badly. Someday, some way, that need will be fulfilled, but it cannot be by her.

I pull my arm away. She takes a breath as if to say something but stops. I hope she knows it already so I don’t have to explain it.

But now that she is sitting squarely beside me, she’s going to pick up on that I haven’t slept for a while and nitpick me about it and likely offer solutions I cannot take, so I start our casual conversation in her direction. Maybe I can distract her enough she’ll forget about the things I can’t concern her with.

“So… I shall act the big brother and demand to knoweth everything about Jaicom Whaerin to make sure he be a suitable husband for thee. Such as, how didst ye meet him, dost he hast a job, ye know.” I smile her direction but she doesn’t return it.

She shuffles about in her blanket. “Well… when I told you I didn’t know if he was serious, I was being honest. You see, he’s the richest bachelor in Valemorren. My father has money too, but when it comes to status, there are other girls more equal to Jaicom. The first day he started to court me was the day of my cousin’s funeral. He shows up, out of the blue and asks if he can escort me to the parish, which is seen as an oddity in my society because…”

Most of her telling is taken up with can do’s and can’t do’s of the current society. I find it hard to keep track but she assures me it is important for me to understand how odd it is that Jaicom was even courting her in the first place. Apparently, her soon to be father-in-law, Aklen Whaerin, doesn’t like her, and when Brine tells me of all the cases that make her think so I have to agree with her.

“…It was especially odd that Jaicom didn’t come see to my health after I was returned from my kidnap.”

I sit up sharply. “Thy what?”

“Oh… I didn’t tell you about that. Well…”

And so Brine was kidnapped. By a gypsy named Jesaro and a monkey named Tommy. From her telling, she was blaming the monkey.

It’s clear she is safe and sound beside me but my heart is beating in my throat just from hearing her tell the story, as if maybe she would not get rescued by Joseara.

“While I was tied up in the tent, I thought I heard Aklen’s name pass among my kidnappers but I know that’s not right because I already don’t like the man and my mind was just looking for stories to make up so I could hate him further. And then I…”

She inevitably ends at the Ball where Jaicom asked to marry her. Or rather, she was told she was going to marry him.

“Huh,” is my response. I leave it like that for a long moment, trying to recall details of Durain’s death that she has so far told me. A suspicion is nagging on me. “Well, I sayeth ye hath my blessing to marry Jaicom Whaerin.”

“Now my parents are putting me on a train to send me to Bristol to visit my grandparents because they won’t be able to come to the wedding. They did this without asking me. I am so tired of people telling me what to do.”

“A train? What tis that?”

She looks at me oddly before realization dawns on her. “Oh. It’s… a big machine. And really long. Like… a bunch of enclosed metal wagons linked together. It travels really fast on things called tracks, powered by steam. I really don’t know how to explain it.”

“Faster than a horse?”

Much faster.”

“And whence dost this trip commence?”

She looks sharply at me though a smile teases the corner of her mouth. “Why, so you can show up unexpectedly like you did at the ball?”

“Nary. I hath already made my grand presentation into thy society at the ball. That only needs to be done once. I just need to knoweth what day nary to expect thy visit.”

“Oh. It’s on Wednesday.”

The crackling of the fire crystals has such a nice sound. If only it would sooth me deep enough to sleep.

She nestles further into her blanket. “How did your conversation with Life go? What did they want?”

Damn. I didn’t want to talk about me. Because now she’s going to bring the horse around to why I haven’t slept.

I almost choose to not answer her questions, but I have to so she will know why I will be making certain choices in the near future. I take a deep breath, as if preparing to run a great distance. “I asketh them to give the Human Realm more wizards. They refused.”

“Oh. So…”

“So when I die, the Faewraith shall swarm the Human Realm and everything upon it who hath the pineal gland shall ceaseth to exist.”

She’s silent, and then a pang of realization makes her twitch and she looks at me as if to see different words floating in the air. “No, that’s… that’s got to be wrong.”

“Nary.” The popping of the fire crystals in the hearth before us fill the silence for a moment. I don’t look at her. Because looking at her will summon a dry throat and staccato breaths. “I try every angle I couldst think upon. They dost nary care. They hast thousands of worlds of which to mother. Howevermore, ye art safe, for I still knoweth the spell that let me live for three hundred twenty-four years in the vault. If Life shalt approve my spell again, I shall go back in –”

She clamps a hand down so hard on my arm that I can’t just pull it away this time. “NO! Zadicayn!” How she says it makes me feel like a disobedient dog. “No. You will not live like that ever again. I freed you so you could live.”

“What choice dost I hast?” I deflect my anger and terror away from her so she can’t see quit the depth of their reach inside of me. “The Faewraith shall come whence upon I die. I art nary so selfish as to cling to my life for the expense of the whole world. Ye shouldst have left me in the vault. I shouldst hath stayed in the vault.”

“You will not do that to yourself!” I wish I could believe her words. “You will – we will think of another way. I will not abandon you to do that. I refuse to live knowing you have sealed yourself away with a spell to make you immortal. How can I possibly enjoy life knowing at what cost it took? No. I will not take it.”

“And I shall nart live knowing that tis because of me ye shall die!” Now I look at her, my heart beating with my certain future that I’m certain she can feel the vibrations of through the air. “This tis my future, Brine. I dost nary like it more than ye. But this tis the burden I must bear. Knowing that the humans shalt die for my failure to liveth forever dost nary compare to any hardship ye put upon thyself.” My voice has dropped to a near whisper. My emotional weary has me weak enough to where I can’t even show her the urgency in my heart because I am too tired to keep my voice at a convincing level. And she sees it, because she asks,

“When was the last time you slept?”

“I be fine.”

“Liar.”

I ignore her.

“When was the last time?”

“I shalt see thee on the morrow, Brine. I pray thee hast a good rest.”

“You’re still dreaming about the vault.”

“My dreams art part of life. Like your betrothal.” I know I am tired when I sneak that in there. “There tis nary ye canst dost for me. Dost nary maketh it a hardship for ye too by worrying about me.” I haven’t forgotten that she still has hold on my arm. I no longer have the emotional strength to indicate she needs to let go.

“Zadicayn… we can sleep right here, on this couch –”

I’m on my feet before she can tighten her fingers on my arm and keep me down. The blanket drops and I back away from her, backing away like an addict from his addiction. “Nary! Nary, Brine. Ye art betrothed. Ye shalt nary violate thyself.” This is what I say instead of, I’m going to reach a point where I can’t tell you to stop anymore, and then it will be too late. It might reach the terrible point where I force you into something I can’t control anymore.

“Violate?” she snaps the word and I fear I’ve offended her until she softens, slathering her next words with innocents. “Zadicayn, I’ve done it for you before and I never felt violated. I won’t be violated right now. You are my friend. Let me help before I can’t anymore.”

“Nay.”

“If you don’t sleep you will die. I am not married, Zadicayn. And I have never considered these as sl – sleeping with you. We’ve never shared a bed. On the floor of a kitchen in front of a fire fully clothed can hardly be looked at as scandalous. In fact, in my society, they are called formal sleepovers, except those are done on a bed.”

“Ye art betrothed.” I don’t move, considering running out the door and finding somewhere else to pretend to sleep. I don’t do that, because If I can’t have Brine, I’m going to have the warmth of the fire crystals. But Brine doesn’t move. She leans against the arm rest of the couch and opens up the blanket for me.

I hate her. And I hate myself because the Snake of my Need is pushing me back to the couch. I give in. I failed. I’m going to escort Brine to the Fae Gate tomorrow and wave farewell forever. And then I’m going to whisper the spell to make me immortal.

But that is not until tomorrow. Right now, with the blanket wrapped around both of us and I have the touch of her heart beating against my ear, I sleep. And I think it will be three Fae days before I wake again.

PART III

CHAPTER FORTY

JAICOM

 

I step onto a burnt hunk of timber. It crumbles to cold ash beneath my boot. The parish constables are prodding the other worldly creature with sticks. I wish I was a wizard so I could spell the disbelief off their faces, spell them to forget what they are looking at. Worse, because Valemorren being just small enough, the parish constables have taken on the double duty to run the enforcement of the church and the hamlet. The priest is going to find out.

They push on the orange creature. The movement causes the disks on its wings to tinkle like a handful of glass marbles. It is dead. Bled out through the cut in its neck.

Unfortunately, the constables were notified of the fire on our lumber house before my father was. Otherwise we could have gotten here sooner to dispose of it.

But therein lies another problem; the creatures are only summoned when the amulet is touched by skin. I’ve touched the amulet a dozen times because that is the only way to get any sort of reaction out of it, that reaction being these creatures bursting out of thin air and others standing by to shoot them down. But at least it’s a reaction.

My father stands close by. I have no idea what is going through his head. There is no point checking on the amulet. We have both silently agreed that it is gone, despite the safe still being locked. Because the safe at my house was still locked before the accountant went in and discovered money was missing.

The constables are loading the creature into a wheel barrel. It’s a bloody tragedy. Through all my planning, this wasn’t supposed to happen. I could have easily played off the apparent random appearance of the creatures to my father, but I can’t do that for the fire. These creatures have never brought fire with them before.

I watch the constables wheel the thing out of the lumber house.

“Jaicom.”

Somehow my father can draw my name out like a knife and wave it around as if to threaten me with it.

I inhale sharply. “Yes?”

“What do you make of all this?”

It is an unexpectedly mild question. I’m certain my father will point the blame of this mess directly on me. Well, he hasn’t yet, but our conversation just started. “I have no idea.”

“The church will undoubtedly be tipped off that the last magic still exists.” My father’s head moves as he surveys all the random splatters of blood all over the second floor walkway. I don’t count his silence over the discovery of his obliterated office as being patient. More like… you have to have heat and pressure to make an explosion. “They will play it off like someone is worshipping the devil and this is what happens, but secretly they will send out spies to locate the amulet.”

“I don’t think we will be accused.”

“I don’t either. Just because it happened here doesn’t mean we are tied to it. We have a hundred workers who also frequent here. I believe the church will just want to find the amulet. And then break it.”

“To think three hundred twenty-four years gone to waste…” I can’t call the words back. I clamp my jaw and look away from my father who likely guesses my lack of remorse.

“Yes…” he drawls. “Gone to waste.” He pauses, and I done armor against what I know is coming next. “Son… why do you think fire came with the creatures? Fire has never come with them before.”

“No idea.” I say it too fast. My father will pick up on it. Sweat breaks beneath my frock coat. It’s not the first time I’ve stood against him, but it only gets harder, not easier. I’ve seen what my father is capable of doing. Of what he promises to do.

He takes two steps closer to me. “You think the wizard stole the amulet.”

I pretend to assess the cost of the damage to the burned wood.

“Yes? No? Are you just going to ignore me?”

“I don’t know why the fire came with them.” I’m very used to pretending false calm when confronted by my father. But it’s hard now to pretend when your father has suspected you all along.

My father snorts and steps away from me, the air suddenly cold in the space he had just occupied.

“I guess the only way to know is to make sure we all still have our keys.” He shoots me a look. “You better hope we still have our keys, son. You better hope.” He walks out of the lumber house, though from this angle I can’t decide whether it might not be the shadow leading the man.

 

OOO

 

The glow from the gas lamps in the drawing room reflect off every face in a ghostly tone. Refreshments remain untouched on the table. I wish for my mother’s violin to ease the curdled worries in my stomach, but she has never been privy to these gatherings. A mercy for her because my father has said the less people who know, the less we have to consider silencing. We, as if he thinks I was ever part of those.

Corrana finally arrives and she takes her seat casually, as if already expecting the worst and had gotten over it a long time ago. Her over-rouged cheeks glow like summer apples in the light. Capped by long black and silver streaked hair, she looks more like a porcelain doll than a human being.

My father stands. The silent room becomes quieter still. “Do I need to tell everyone why they are here?”

Brocen shifts uncomfortably. His daughter, Crisy, plays with a string on her dress. She has yet to meet my eye.

“No? So you mean to tell me this bloody town has spread the word already that the magic creatures were found dead in the lumber house?” No one speaks. He begins to pace about the room. “Okay then. Let’s get right to it. I think the damned wizard has been freed.”

The knocking of the second hand in the clock splits up the fringes of the cold silence that follows.

Brocen clears his throat. “We still have two of the three pieces.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.” Brocen drums his fingers across his knee. “Sweetie, when was the last time you saw the key?”

“What?” My father spins on Brocen, his frock coat resembling the tail on a crow. “You mean you don’t remember the last time you saw it?”

Brocen slinks deeper in his chair, though, still tries to appear as if my father’s barbed question didn’t faze him.

“This morning,” Crisy steps in to her father’s rescue, twirling her blond hair around her finger. And for the first time since my sister’s debutante, her eyes flash to mine. “I see it every day since I keep it in my drawer with my hair brush.”

My father gasps. “You keep it where?”

Brocen stands and faces my father. Everyone in the room leans back in their chairs as if that would avoid the eminent blast. “Where are we supposed to keep it, Aklen Whaerin? I don’t have the money to buy a four hundred pound vault like you keep yours in. I kept mine on me until Durain found out. I had to do something with it.”

My father waves his hand down to encourage Brocen to sit again. He instead looks to Crisy who’s eyes are fixed on her lap. “Did you see anything different about the key, Crisandra?” She shakes her head a little too quickly. I hope my father sees it that he’s scaring the devil right out of her. I can’t protect Crisy from him right now. She knows it, too.

My father looks at Brocen again. “I encourage you to take a good look at the key when you get home. A good look. As for mine, it’s been compromised.” He pulls the copper key affixed with the thorn-shaped gem out of his coat pocket and tosses it on the table. It makes a woody thunk before tumbling to a rest. “Any guesses why that’s fake?”

Corrana, who is closest, picks it up. She shakes her head and tosses it back. “It’s wood.”

Brocen slaps his head with his palm. Crisy sinks down her chair as if wishing to disappear. She’s acting so well. “Father, if mine is wood, I am so sorry –”

“It’s not your fault, sweetie.” Brocen scrubs his eyes with his sun-browned hands. “If a four hundred pound vault can’t keep the thief out, then a hair brush drawer won’t either. But then, Durain is dead. Did he make the switch before he died? When was the last time you handled the piece of your key, Aklen?”

“I think the switch was made after his funeral,” Aklen says, completely ignoring Brocen. “Stealing from Corrana was brash and not very well thought of, given that it was easy to find out who did it. The switch was made by someone who has experience breaking into things and thinks out their plans. I think Durain passed that task on to someone else before he died.” My father struts back to his chair and sits, finally taking the first sip of untouched wine. His calm is a false façade to keep up appearances for those he’s trying to lord over. “I think it’s Brinella Frondaren.”

“Because she is a skilled thief, obviously,” I say, stuffing the word with as much sarcasm as I can, daring my father with a silent challenge which turns the rest of the room chilly. Crisy’s fingers occupy the loose string on her dress.

“She could have hired that thief whose been breaking into all the businesses.”

“Prove it.”

All eyes turn on me.

“Okay, son. Since our talks in private are not good enough for you, we’ll do it with witnesses and let them vote. Durain and Brinella grew up together. Hell, her father even let her run around untied until Durain died. She’s wild enough that carrying on what Durain was doing might not be so far gone for her. They are both descended from the wizard’s sister. Brine didn’t befriend Crisandra until after Durain died – she promptly had a sleep over as well –”

I invited her for the sleep over,” Crisy interjects, a rather bold move for her but she’s seeing the same thing I am.

“– and she came to Varrica’s debutante and… didn’t I see you, Jaicom, take her down to show her the vault?”

“I showed the priest the vault too. Maybe he broke in and took the key?”

“Don’t be snide with me, boy. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think you’re on the wizard’s side.”

The unstable mood in the room is righted somewhat by the distraction of Corrana’s coughing. “I agree with Jaicom,” Corrana says. “Crisy has had other friends, haven’t you girl?” Crisy nods. “And has had other sleepovers as well?” Again, she nods.

“Well Crisy can tell us then.” My father looks at the girl who is doing her best to look inconspicuous. I wish I could sit by her and hold her hand through this. “Crisandra, by chance did Brinella ever look in your hair brush drawer when she was over?”

I try to connect a glance with Crisy without looking too earnest about it. Crisy does not return the glance since she is on display, but she knows. “No.”

“You see?” I say. “It could be the thief all along, without Brine. There are other families who have held close the secret of the wizard. Like the Isendell’s.”

“Regardless,” my father throws a glance my way that says we will talk privately later, “we are safe to say the wizard has been freed. Tomorrow we will meet at the lumber house and open the safe to see for certain if the amulet is there. But given everything… I’m already counting it is not. So right now we need to deal with finding the wizard and putting him back in the vault before the church finds out. After that, we can deal with who let him out.”

“And who are we looking for?” Corrana questions. She has been the only one, so far, to not show any emotional attachment to the fake keys. Her real key was stolen before Durain’s funeral. “We were never given a description of the wizard. There wasn’t a point.”

“Well, this is a small town and I doubt the wizard has reason to leave. His castle is beyond the mountains through the Fae Gate. I did see a young lad with black hair dancing with Brinella the night of the Whaerin business anniversary whom I haven’t seen before. He was dressed rather oddly. And I’m not aware of any other young men taking an interest in Brinella Frondaren. Who would? She went untied much longer than she should have.”

I know that is meant for me. My father said it to lay my real intentions for marrying Brine out for the eyes of the public to see. I hold silent. There is a much bigger battle I need to fight.

“I would like to get to know this young man better.” My father sips at his wine. “I’ll send out my private eye to keep an eye out for anyone they don’t recognize and learn about them. Especially those Brinella associates with for she is not out of suspect yet. But know this… the church has been tipped off upon finding that magic creature in the log house. They will have their own investigation going. It is vital we recover the wizard first, or they will break his amulet and there goes over three hundred years of effort. You are dismissed.”

Chairs scoot back as we all stand. I’m closest to the door, so Crisy has to walk behind me to get to it.

“Wait for me,” I mummer over my shoulder as she passes behind me. She doesn’t indicate she heard. Or cared. I watch her walk out the doorway.

I don’t show I’m as eager to follow them. There is no point. My father will only call for me to remain and the other’s don’t need to hear what goes on between father and son in the dark suspicions of the Whaerin house.

Corrana is the last to leave.

“You know Brinella is involved.” My father’s tone vibrates across the dark landscape of the room. One of the gas lamps chooses in just that moment to shrink.

“You think everyone is involved.”

“That is incorrect.”

“Then why so anxious to kill her on a pure whim of your worries?”

“Because we wouldn’t have kept the amulet secret for this long if our ancestors didn’t do everything necessary to keep it so. And it is because of you,” he knives a hand in my direction, as if hoping a bullet from his gun would propel from it, “stopping Brinella’s death that the wizard is free.”

“You can’t know for sure that she is involved,” I defend, assuming that false calm. My father reads body language like a cat watches the flick of a string. “She’s locked in her room every night and attended every violin class and even went to Bristol with a friend. When would she ever have time to, one, acquire the skill to pick locks and sneak around and, two, to do it all without anyone suspecting? It has to be the thief.”

“The last family to support the wizard burned a year and a half ago.”

“They never recovered Joseara’s body.”

“Burned too ash.”

“The other bodies were not burned to ash. They recovered and identified those ones just fine. Just never Joseara’s.” I can’t make my father’s blame on people go away, but I can shift it to people I can’t care about. It doesn’t even matter if they may or may not be real.

“Brinella is not out of suspect yet,” he says, though his voice reserves some hesitation.

“But I don’t think any of that matters because…” Here it is. What I’ve wanted to tell my father since the beginning. I take a deep breath and exhale as if that will create a thicker buffer between us. “Because, what if we can’t make the amulet work?”

“We come closer every time we try.”

“It’s been three hundred twenty-four years,” I stress, building boldness with the bricks of every word. “If we could make it work, it would be working by now.”

My father’s eyes darken. “What are you saying?”

“I’m saying…” I’m out of breath, robbed of it by my rapidly beating heart, “that maybe we should let it go.” So no one can suffer my father’s greed anymore.

My father seems to grow taller, even though he is already standing. Or maybe his shadow grew, stretching to encompass me beneath him. “Let… it… go?”

I try to act casual about it but my father is slaying it into pieces at his feet. I lower my eyes as his dark words swarm me like a hive of bees. “You have no idea what our ancestors did to keep that wizard a secret, to find a way to give the poor food, clothes, money, to lessen hard labors. You could even see us as being saviors. We have kept alive the last wizard. If it wasn’t for our ancestors, they church would have killed them all.”

I open my mouth to say something, but I’m not brave enough to continue a defense so openly against my father. But he guesses as much.

“Are you saying you don’t want to be part of this anymore? That you’d like your sister to take your spot?”

Icy horror prickles through me. I would throw my head on a blade before I let my little sister get wrapped up in this atrocity. “You wouldn’t.”

“Brocen took care of his wife when she voiced her concerns about the wizard. I took care of Durain and his father and would have done so to Brine if it wasn’t for your ignorance. If Varrica takes your spot, then you should know what would happen to you. This secret is much bigger than you.”

My heart stutters as if I had just been punched. “You’d kill me?”

He locks eyes with me. “I warned you about the implications of this when I asked if you could keep a three century old secret. You accepted, and accepted the consequences. Are you choosing to back out, then?”

All ten fingers clinch the armrests of the chair. Red desire to leap to my feet and strike my father fills my throat. But that’s all that would happen. He would just get angry. I’m not stronger than he is.

If I back out and my father makes good on his promises – he always does – then nothing will stop him from killing Brinella. He’s suspected her from the beginning. Would have killed her in some accident right after Durain’s funeral with the only reason being my father suspected Durain had shared secrets with her.

But I was in the coach with Brinella, and my father – though morally broken as he is – was not willing to involve me on the same whim. Going further to court Brine unstably ensured her protection, because whatever honor code my father is on these days, one thing he and his ancestors held dear was to never kill another’s significant other. So when Brocen’s wife became suspect, my father impressed upon Brocen so heavily that he did the deed himself, though I could never see any remorse in Brocen afterward; twisted by this insatiable hunger to have again the ancient family farming business his ancestors started.

“No,” I say.

He forces a tight smile. “Good thinking. And I know that you would love to show me how devoted you are to this, and that is why you will volunteer to assist my private eye in locating this wizard so we can seal him away again. Yes?”

My heart beats in my throat. “I volunteer.”

“That’s my son I’m so proud of.” He waits a moment for me to say more. When I don’t, he leaves the drawing room.

I dig hands into my hair, resting my forehead against the table. If the wizard is put back in the vault, I will just have to wait until my father dies so I can release him again. There is no way we are ever going to crack the code on the amulet, despite the hopes of three desperate people and over three hundred years of trying. Crisandra feels the same. No amount of magic will bring her mother back.

We would just have to get through to Corrana and her son if she ever decides to pass it on to him. She likely doesn’t want to be caught up in the same mix my father put Brocen through… killing someone due to their lack of support. But Corrana would never support freeing the wizard. She wants her ancestors’ masonry business back. Thus is why there were three keys. If she does not agree, I would have to… kill her.

I clench fingers into my hair. Evil if I supported this madness.

Evil if I do not.

I remember I asked Crisy to wait for me. I don’t think she heard, but I’ll check just in case.

I stand as if mechanically assisted by chains and pulleys like in the lumber house to lift logs. I walk out of the dining room, spying a servant turning off select gas lamps.

I leave out the front door my father won’t lock for another hour and stride across the grass, my heart jumping as I spy a shadowy figure on the gazebo overlooking the pond. The moonlight is just catching Crisy’s blond hair where she is leaning against the railing with her back to me.

Brocen waits by his horse, puffing on his pipe. The man rather thinks I intend to make his daughter my mistress despite my marriage to Brinella, so naturally he’s a huge supporter of allowing a Whaerin to call on his daughter whenever I like, as if he believes Crisy will have any share of the Whaerin profits. None of this is true, though, the ruse does help me to speak with Crisy about other matters.

Her eyes are already red when I step into the gazebo. Her cheeks aren’t wet so she hasn’t been crying. Yet.

“Crisandra.”

She sniffs. “Jaicom.”

“It worked.” Of course those are less poetic words she deserves since our last meeting at Varrica’s debutante. But I can’t talk about what’s in my heart because, despite what Crisy believes, it will only hurt her more.

“Yes.” She fakes a smile. “I was afraid I made it too obvious for Brine to find it. I was afraid you made it too easy for Brine to find it until you mentioned you showed the priest the vault, too.”

“The hard part was getting the vault key from my father. I’m happy to report that he thinks Brinella only saw the outside and that I didn’t actually take her in.”

Crisy nods. She grips her bare arms, hugging them to herself. She’s cold. I remove my coat and reach to put it around her.

“Don’t!”

“Crisy…”

Now she’s crying, and I’m the cause and I can’t fix it. I force the coat around her anyway and pull her into an embrace that she fights even as she grabs my waistcoat and smothers her tears against the red fabric. I knew this mutual meeting on the gazebo to talk about our success in helping free the wizard wouldn’t last long.

“I’m so sorry, Crisandra,” I say, tucking her under my chin. She shouldn’t smell like rose. She should be honeysuckle. That is the stain that should be left on me after she leaves. “We talked about this –”

“I know!”

“Sssh, your father is with the horses. He’ll hear.”

“I know. I just don’t understand why you couldn’t keep pretending to court Brinella. I never thought you’d actually reach the point to ask her to m – marry you!”

“My father was picking up on my ruse. I had to show him I was serious about Brinella. The moment I stop being serious he’s going to kill her. We helped Brinella get our pieces of key to free the wizard now it’s only fair that we protect her. Crisandra, we have to stop this violence.”

“I know.”

“We have to.”

“I know!”

“I guarantee I hate this more than you do.”

Her breaths between her sobs stretches out. Her grip on my shirt gets tighter. I can’t do this. Can’t leave Crisandra – or myself – without some hope. “I’m trying to convince my father that Brinella knows nothing about it. He was never alerted to the key I left beside the vault every night, so that’s a blessing. He thinks the thief picked the lock. He knows Brinella doesn’t pick locks. I fed my father some story that Brine recruited the thief who was robbing the shops in town and I backed that lie with the fact they never found Joseara’s body after her house burned. I just turned Joseara Isendell into a thief and I think my father believes it.”

I don’t know why Crisandra took a deep enough breath to laugh at this, but I hope she will keep at it. She’s going to rip my heart out with how tightly her fingers are clutched to my waistcoat if she pulls away while crying.

“So… there is still hope. The moment Brine is out of suspect, I’ll cancel the wedding.” I say it like it’s only a matter of time.

Crisy isn’t laughing anymore. I hug her tighter to bring it back. Instead she sighs, the sobbing ebbed, though I believe it is more so she can hide red eyes from her father. Tears of joy she will say to him if he asks, to encourage our story that she will be my mistress. This is the game myself and Crisandra have spun around us. I don’t know yet if freeing the wizard was worth it.

She returns my coat. Walks down the steps. I keep watching long after she’s galloped from my view.

CHAPTER FORTY-ONE

BRINELLA

 

I open my eyes to light filling the room. I shift my shoulders until I remember Zadicayn is still leaning into me, drooling on my chest.

I hate to wake him. Who knows how long he’s gone without good rest? I only hope his nightmares will cease before I get married. I hate thinking of him alone, wandering his castle halls on sleepless nights.

The sun continues to rise, the gold wave sliding down my face and neck until it ruptures in Zadicayn’s eyes. I try to shield his face against the light but he blinks awake and sits up, wiping drool across his sleeve. “I slobbered on thee. I be so sorry!”

I laugh, jovial in the light of the morning. “I have to say, it is the first time a man has ever drooled over me.” He turns his reddening cheeks away, standing up to stretch. “What’s to eat in this place?”

Zadicayn motions with a finger for me to follow. I do so, being led into a room adjacent to the one with furniture where we slept. This new room has tables and chairs and shelves with what appears to be food stuffs.

And there is a tree in here as well. A real. Live. Tree. Walking. Around. Its bare arms looked exactly like tree branches and it doesn’t have a face.

Zadicayn seats himself at a table and I sit next to him, eyes fixed on the tree which is using twig-like fingers to adjust things on the shelves.

“What is that?”

The tree walks over to us on feet spreading out like roots and sets two glasses filled with green liquid in front of us. The tree walks back to the shelves. Zadicayn picks up his glass of green liquid. “That tis a Fae.”

“It looks like a tree.”

“It tis a tree.”

“So…” I have so many questions I don’t know where to begin.

He takes another sip. “Looketh here.” Murmuring beneath his breath, he draws his finger around the glass table top. Where the tip of his finger touches, a thin trail of light appears, glowing like white thread. I’m so astounded I almost miss what he is saying.

“…tis divided like this.” The pattern of light he left is of two circles, a smaller one inside a larger with lines connecting them. It resembles a wagon wheel. “There art hundreds of realms.” He taps the spaces between the lines. “So this tis merely a small representation of reality. This circle in the middle tis a representation of the Fae Realm; it tis connected to every realm, separated only by those five layers ye art familiar with. Remember?”

I nod.

“Fae art magic. The Life I speaketh with yesterday art the highest echelons of Fae. Also being the essence of every living thing, they also grant access to magic for wizards like me. When I speaketh a spell, I am actually speaking in their language asking permission to use magic. If they agree, they allow me to access the active magic generated by my pineal gland.” He taps the red jewel hanging around his neck to remind me that his amulet is essentially his pineal gland.

I watch the glowing pattern on the stone fade.

“All magic tis allowed in the Fae Realm so wizards can practice the language and make sure what they asketh for cometh out how they want. Such as, I can nary say just ‘fire’ and hath it come out of my hand like ye saw in the lumber house. I hast to sayeth something to the effect of, ‘transform the heat from my body and magnify its temperature to create a large cone of fire that I can release out of my hand and halt when I close my fingers.”

“Bloody priest! You have to say all that?”

“I hast to be specific or the Fae couldst misunderstand and I wilt be harmed… or die. But I say it all in the language of the Fae, and translated to their language it tis actually a lot shorter.”

The tree comes back with a plate in each branch of an arm and sets them down in front of us. I stare at my plate, not sure what I’m looking at. A bloated purple tuber, a squat red fruit with orange vertical strips, and a crinkle of something green. I look at Zadicayn who starts eating. When he doesn’t grab his throat and start convulsing on the floor, I take a nimble bite of the purple tuber.

“You said you asked to ‘transform’ heat from your hand to make fire. Why? You can’t just say ‘make fire?’”

“Mahic ith mae with pee…” He pauses to swallow. He still has this habit of talking while eating. “Magic tis made with three categories; transformation, relocation, and illusion. Magic can nary create anything. It can only transform something solid into something else ye can reasonably explain how they art connected. Like this glass stool… I can nary change it into an apple. Not connected. Unless ye can figure out a way that they art, which wouldst be a really long spell. Basically, ye couldst dost anything with magic, as long as ye can reasonably explain why you needeth it and how ye can make the connection why they art similar.

“We tried to tell everyone this who wert killing us for our amulets, tell them all the rules but they thought we wert bluffing. They wanted to make money out of thin air. Dost nary work that way.” He pauses to swallow more bits of food.

I finally have the courage to try the blended up grass looking liquid in my cup. It tastes like grass. With a hint of lemon.

“That tis the hardest category to understand,” he says “The relocation tis what ye use my bloodstones for. And illusion tis just fun pictures.”

“What if the Fae refuse to honor a spell request? Like, you needed that fire to fight the Faewraith, but the Fae refused to give it to you?”

He finishes his grass drink. I dare to take a longer gulp of the green slush. “I hath nary heard of that happening. Honest families wert picked for just that reason – to lessen the abuse of magic. Wizards can use magic for self-defense, and they mighten need it upon the very moment. The Fae wilt always grant permission and then ask questions later. Like in my case. I besought for a bunch of spells to keepeth me alive and the Fae granted it.” His smile presses into a thin white line. “Of course when I left the vault three hundred or so years later, they wanted to wit – know – what happened.”

“Why are Fae trees?” I have so many questions lined up and Zadicayn, for once, is willing to answer them so I will blast him for as long as I can.

“Nary all Fae art trees. Fae art plants, yea, because the greatest magic of all tis a massive tree – or plant – growing from the merest of seeds. The plant transforms dirt and water into itself to make itself. Tis a basic, naturally occurring magic. Sometimes that magic tis so strong, Fae art born in the seed as well. When the plant reaches maturity, the Fae also grows then separates from the tree, keeping that sense of magic. Plants – or Fae – hold the realms together because they grow in both realms. Fae can transport betwixt realms at will.”

“Are the Faewraith another branch of Fae?”

“For every good thing that groweth, a bad thing groweth as well. A tree grows and somewhere mistletoe tis born. A human tis born and a disease kills another one. Just like a halicorn tis the opposite of a unicorn, Faewraith art the opposite of Fae. They art born when a plant disease kills a plant. That fungus ate the magic, so Faewraith eat magic. Plants reflect in both worlds, Faewraith can reflect betwixt worlds.” He takes a deep breath. “Wow. Enough blabber. I want to show ye some more of this realm before we hast to head back.”

“Head back? You said we had twenty-two days.”

“Yea. But I art the last wizard. If I be gone for more than two’ish days, the Faewraith shall enter the realm and –”

“I got it,” I snip, maybe a little too harshly. Because I don’t want to leave.

We finish the rest of our questionable food items and head outside. Apparently everything in this realm is free because we don’t pay for our food.

I fall into step beside him as he leads me down the cobbled road, having to either gallop to keep up with is longer strides or stretch out my own which also lacks grace, so I do an awkward mixture of both until he notices and shortens his pace to better equal mine.

“Did you sleep better?” I ask.

It takes him a curious moment to respond and when he does, it sounds like he is ashamed. “Yea. I thank thee.”

The cluster of buildings we approach appear to be built with colored glass. I shake my head at the monstrous task of trying to understand even a part of this world. My confusion and curiosity charge into a sprint and my hair flips into my eyes with the speed of which I turn my head to see everything at once.

I recognized some of the creatures, either from Durain’s own – obviously over-dramatized – tellings or from Zadicayn’s book I had purloined from Durain’s room. These creatures which were once the fabric of imagination I see here shopping, socializing, eating food on the patios of what appears to be some semblance of a café. I see a centaur – a horse with its neck replaced by a woman’s upper torso. An elf. A dwarf. A giant spider with hooves. A creature that stands taller than a human, five times as thick, green skin, and a face uglier than Joseara’s. I see another creature lounging in the shade of the tree. The first time I laid eyes on this creature was in Zadicayn’s book. The book called it a Moorias if I read the Old English text correctly. It’s the size and shape of a horse, though with blue scales, canine teeth, and a snake for a tail which is slithering in the grass.

“Ye shalt break thy neck doing that. There tis still much more to see than ye ever wilt in thy lifetime.”

I stop looking around so fiercely, but only because I’m getting a headache.

“Where do all of these creatures come from?” Right now, my eyes are fixed on a creature that stands upright like a human with two arms and two legs but every other feature about them screams fish.

“Remebereth my tellings about other worlds?”

“…Yes?” I say hesitantly, because I’m not willing to believe it.

“The Fae Realm tis the hub of a wagon wheel connecting all these realms. I hath even been to another realm with my father. There wert humans there also, but this realm had a functioning government made up of ten races of people, to include dragons, ecthore, seadwellers, pegasi… I canst nary remember the rest. I went there with my father on behalf of the Life to maketh an offer to the human king to accept the Fae magic. It wast to my understanding that this realm already hath magic, but some malady made the magic nearly inaccessible. There art other types of magic besides Fae magic, but I speak of that another time. The human king twas interested, but they wert amulet deep in some war at the time so he telleth us to come back some other time. We wert nary able to do so because that tis when the wizards started dying.”

“You mean…” Zadicayn, my friend, had just opened up a whole new universe for me. “You mean you can take me to those other realms?” My heart is racing.

My new future is flashing in brilliant sparks in front of me until he kills it all with, “I couldst. But I must hast Life’s permission to cross borders if I bringest someone with me. I can nary do that, however, since it wouldst take time and I can nary be away from the Human Realm for that long.”

My disappointment is hard to push away. Now that I’ve had a taste of the Fae Realm, I only want more. Now I think I have an idea what Ivan the Terrible went through. I think of Aklen who is nearing a Lordship granted by Queen Victoria and he wants to harvest the magic out of Zadicayn’s amulet to still get more money. Then I think of Joseara, who expressed she is glad she isn’t part of my fine society. Rich men only want more.

Apparently I have stopped walking and I’m looking at all this realm has to offer because Zadicayn presses his arm into my back to guide me into a shop with the glass door wide open. Shelves spread across all four walls from floor to ceiling. A human is standing behind the blue glass counter. I’m so shocked to see her that I exclaim, “Oh! A human!”

Zadicayn laughs and I blush furiously.

The woman laughs too. She is soft of features, gentle wrinkles around her eyes laying testament to her valor upon bearing every one with humbleness. “First visit to the Fae Realm?” She has an accent where she hangs longer onto vowels. It sounds like English is not her first language. What other languages are there in all the other realms?

I can only nod, though I have relocated closer to the woman. She is something I recognize.

“You’ll get used to it, sweetie. Here to live?”

“Just to visit.” Zadicayn approaches the counter as well. “She’s got a betrothed waiting for her in the Human Realm.”

The woman clucks her tongue a couple of times and shakes her head as she continues to fold the clothing articles on the glass counter. “Too bad you’re not betrothed to the young wizard here.” She tilts her head to Zadicayn and winks at me. “He’s quit handsome.”

“Lorcrante…” Zadicayn exaggerates, though he still turns away and rubs the back of his neck under his ponytail. “Ye thinks the troll outside tis handsome.”

Tssssk, Zadicayn. Nice guys finish last. Why haven’t I seen any of the human wizards in over three hundred years? Things going that good?”

Zadicayn finally faces us both. His face is still rogued. He nods my way. “I brought Brine here to show her the wonders of your shop.”

“Oh, yes. I’m sure she didn’t come to hear and old woman badger. But you, Zadicayn, cannot avoid it.” She looks at me with an easy smile. “There is no currency in the Fae Realm. We function on a system of trade. If you find something in this shop you like, I will ask that you trade it for something equal in usefulness. Or if you tell me a fun story, you can have it for free.” She winks at me.

I smile back and move to the nearest shelf, followed by Zadicayn. There is a smorgasbord of items my eyes trace up and down on the shelves. Some high enough it would take the ladder next to me to reach. Some things I recognize. Some things I don’t.

“What is all this stuff?” I say, picking up the nearest thing within reach which happens to be a cylinder of some lightweight, shiny material with a cone on one end and something like glass covering it.

“The Life hath roving wizards who travel through all the realms to bring them Fae Magic, and these wizards collect items and sometimes donate them to shops like this either to interest, teach, or use.” He takes the cylinder out of my hand. He pushes something on the side and a beam of light shoots out of the top of the cylinder.

“What?” I gasp, reaching for it. He hands it back. I take it and wave it, directing the beam of light all around the room like it might be a sword, managing to blind myself in the process.

“The traveler called it a flashlight.” Lorcrante appears beside me. “He said it was from a realm that had something called teknology. Said he saw metal wagons flying in the air, too.”

How can I possibly go back into a tied dress knowing there is a universe out there I can explore?

Achingly, I put the flashlight back on the shelf. It takes Zadicayn to press a black nub on the shaft for the light to disappear. Now I just want to touch everything in here. And so I start to do just that. I rove about the shop, Lorcrante following me with an explanation to each item and a little about the realm it came from. Realms entirely underwater. Realms completely on fire where the people there have scales for skin. A realm where everything flies. And more and more so I don’t remember them all.

Zadicayn is waiting patiently by while I exhaust my curiosity, but at this rate it will never be sated, not until I’ve touched every object in every realm just described to me. Like Ivan… Brinella the Terrible.

It’s with force I back away from the shelves. Well, maybe with a little prompting from Zadicayn. Promising to Lorcrante that he will return, Zadicayn and I leave the shop.

It only occurs to me in that moment of something else that’s curious. “She remembered you.”

“The Fae Realm tis immortal. No one in it can die, so no one can age. Rather, if they choose, they can be recycled into the land to support or create new life. Rememberest what I sayeth about magic cannot create?”

He is right. It is too much to understand. “She asked if I lived here. Could I choose to live here?”

“Certain. But I shan’t let ye.”

“Why?”

He looks at me with those gold eyes and it answers all of my questions. My family. I’m betrothed.

He walks me down the cobbled road until the colored glass buildings stretch further behind us. A smaller path snakes left which we follow until we reach a grassy spot needled with fruit trees and patched with a pond fed by a stream.

A herd of horses lounge in the area in the shade under the trees, but they all lift their heads upon our arrival.

They all have wings. There is a pegasus on my hairbrush Zadicayn gave me. The color and breed of horse vary. Some breeds I recognized, some I don’t. Some have horns on the center of their heads.

“I needeth a ride back to the Eldenshod Castle.”

Two pegasi climb to their feet and trot toward us; a white splotched with brown patches and the other a stormy gray swirl.

“She hast nary ridden a pegasus before. She shalt need some instruction.”

The white and brown nods. It’s unnerving to have an animal act so intelligently. The pegasi bends so both knees press into the grass. “Get on between the base of my neck and wing span,” the pegasus says, startling me in the same way that hearing the gryphon did when it spoke, and the dragon.

I look at Zadicayn who has already mounted the gray pegasus. Zadicayn’s long coat I’m wearing will still cover most of what my dress will not once I mount. I slide a leg behind the pegasi’s neck and grip handfuls of the brown mane.

The pegasi shakes her head. “Not so tight. Your legs against the base of my wing span will brace you when I fly upward. I won’t do anything that might compromise your safety as long as you stay seated. Ready?”

“Yes,” I mumble nervously, stomach clenching. I lean forward so I can hug the entire neck, ignoring Zadicayn who is laughing at me. I want to fly, much like a moth attracted to flame except I am aware of the danger and Zadicayn is not behind to hold me.

Both pegasi swoosh wings downward. Higher and higher they take us, the brown and white following the gray. Zadicayn’s black ponytail whips behind him.

I lift arms above my head, the wind tearing at the blue sleeves on Zadicayn’s coat. Zadicayn thinks he’s taking me back. I clutch the silky mane between my fingers, memorizing the pulse of muscle beneath my thighs, the whoosh of freedom as it tosses my hair between the straining wing span.

The glass buildings shrink to salt granules beneath me. Air gushes down the neck of my dress, flapping my clothes as if they have wings of their own. I inhale cloud and sunlight.

We soar through five of the air portals until we pop above a rugged mountain range like a jaw line of broken teeth.

The pegasi land on the castle bridge too soon. A full year of flying would still end too soon. We dismount. As if marching to my funeral, I walk next to Zadicayn into his castle with head bowed, preparing for the death of my time with him in the Fae Realm as easily as preparing for my upcoming marriage.

“Someone else would like to meet with you,” I say to distract the silence pounding in my ears… or to distract me from crying? I’m not sure. I wouldn’t even know why I would be crying. Why do girls even cry without reason? I don’t know. And I am a girl. Who has cried before. Without reason.

“Who does?”

“His name is Corden. He’s one of the people who lied to my parents, saying he was taking me to Bristol for a week so I could spend that week, instead, looking for you. And then I found you. He’s good friends with Joseara and is also on your side.”

Your side… as if a line had been drawn and the people of Valemorren had been hoodwinked into one of two categories in my mind.

He takes a deep breath and releases it in a whistle. “I dost nary wit, Brine. I…” His fingers flex.

I’ll give a moment to figure out what was trying to say. And then I’ll blast him with more questions because I don’t like the tone he used in his refusal. Like… like he’s not counting on anything beyond today.

I still knoweth the spell that let me live for three hundred twenty-four years in the vault. If Life shalt approve my spell again…

No. Now I’m scaring myself and making up stories. Zadicayn agreed he wouldn’t do that. Didn’t he agree?

He walks me back through the arch. I think about kicking and screaming to stay in the Fae Realm but I doubt I’ll have much luck.

“So…” he says, as if standing before his peers waiting to be judged for a performance, “wast all that worth it?”

I look at him. Wordless.

“I shalt take that to mean, ‘Zadicayn, ye art a minor pagan god and all the land shouldst worship thee.’”

“And you’re humble, too.”

He nods. “I encompass overmany things. I hopeth ye shalt take this as suitable payment for everything ye hast done for me.”

I think his self-proclaimed mission to “pay me back” was unnecessary, but then I have never in my whole life been so happy or free and I could go a lifetime of reprimands from both my parents if they ever found out and still never regret this day.

I want to launch myself at him, then I think upon why I want to embrace him so much. I don’t know why. I don’t allow myself to make up reasons, either.

I settle with a lacking-in-luster, “I am wordless to describe my joy over this gift you have given me.”

“Then we art finally even in both our gifts. I shall now be at rest knowing I hath paid my end and so shall be at peace with never seeing thee again.”

My smile drops. “What?”

He keeps walking. We’ve reached the Grand Hall and he keeps across it as if his destination will be the Fae Gate. I stop, my bare feet cold upon the floor. He turns around.

“What did you say?” Fear lodges in my throat. His refusal to accept meeting Corden and the shivering memory of, I still knoweth the spell that let me live for three hundred twenty-two years in the vault has panic rising my chest.

“Brine… I must get thee back –”

“You’re going to put yourself back in the vault?”

“Brine… cometh with me.”

“No!” It comes out in a shriek I did not intend. I turn around and run back into the corridor. The tromp of his boots are quick to pursue.

He catches me thirty steps deep into the corridor. Now I’m kicking and making incoherent animalistic noises as he throws me over his shoulders like I’ve seen farmers do to their sheep.

“Put me down! Don’t put yourself in the vault! I won’t let you! I will only come back! Put me down! Don’t put yourself in the vault! You’ll torment me the rest of my life knowing I freed you only so you could go back in!” I don’t know where the tears are coming from but I let them flow, letting them wash my heart out of my eyes and onto his shoulder so he will feel what devastating blow he’s nailing into my chest.

He stops walking. I think it’s my tears that have halted him so I keep crying. He slides me off is shoulders which was a bad move for him because if I can’t run far enough to hid then I will cling onto his clothes so he will have to remove them if he has any chance of breaking my grip.

“Don’t put yourself back in the vault…” I whisper into his chest, some reasonable sense in my head saying my tears are ridiculous but I won’t stop them because, for the moment, they are keeping him rooted to the spot.

“Brine…” He’s not returning the embrace, standing like a wall against my grief I am trying to slam into him. “I hath already told thee why I must.”

I shake my head vigorously. “No. NO! There is another way. No one ages in the Fae Realm. You could… you could stay in the Fae Realm for as long as possible, visit the Human Realm just long enough to chase the Faewraith away, and then go back to the Fae Realm.”

“Nay. The Faewraith nary come the moment I leave this realm because they art nary expecting it. But if I shall be out of the realm more than I art in it, they shall soon notice and watch for the moment I leave to come in.”

“Well, fine, speak the spell to make yourself live forever, but you don’t have to lock yourself in the vault!”

“I can nary speak a spell to makest me live forever. I only knoweth the words to prevent me from aging. I can still fall off the bridge, get struck by lightning, catch the plague –”

“We don’t have the plague anymore!”

“Ye dost nary understand. I must live forever. I can stop my aging. The vault wilt stop the other mortal maladies.”

“No!”

“Yea, Brine.”

“I shan’t let you!” I don’t know why that Old English word fell into my vocabulary just now. Maybe I subconsciously thought he wasn’t understanding my pleas because they weren’t in his dialect.

My knuckles are shaking where I’m gripping his shirt. “Please.” It’s the only word I haven’t said. I can’t imagine that in five minutes I could be gone from him forever.

Do I have to marry Jaicom?

The question ambushes me out of place and unawares. Zadicayn brings me so much joy, so much freedom, something my soul needs to feed upon to live. But what would I lose from what I would gain marrying Zadicayn? He has no job to earn money to take care of his needs, let alone mine… children. It is too risky trying to get a job with the threat of discover by the church or the three families. He would likely have to get his needs taken care of in the Fae Realm, which is still alright.

But what about my family? To be married to this wizard would mean permanent exile, completely closed off from everyone but the Fae. I swallow hard. My heart tells me one thing. My needs another. It doesn’t help that I’m losing control trying not to be attracted to the wizard, but he offers me something I need more than a stable job and money. But I can’t get over permanent separation from my family. To love equally in poor exile or to lie equally in rich comfort. The sad thing? I don’t know which is wrong. Even though I know which one I have to choose.

My fingers ache when I unclaw them from his shirt and step back. His shirt sports two wrinkled clumps. “Please… don’t…” I want to tell him I love him in the way I cannot, trying to force that word to mean something mutual with no attachments that good friends might give each other. But the way my heart is beating I know I will never be able to use that word out loud to him in that mutual way because that is not what I feel.

Maybe I should leave and never see him again. After all, my future can’t have him in it anyway. I dare even keep the hairbrush he gave me. I’m going to marry Jaicom Whaerin and continue this game of status and propriety and nowhere in that leaves room for a wizard and the Fae Realm or even a hairbrush with a pegasus carved into the ivory.

“I’m sorry. It’s your choice. It’s whatever you think is best.” I choke on the words. I won’t look at him.

Silence stretches between us. A bird shuffles around in its nest somewhere in the rafters.

“Brine,” he drops my name like a weight, “Ye art betrothed. To what purpose dost ye hath in coming back here anymore?”

Is he saying he doesn’t want me back? Those words cause me to blood-let right now. But that’s not it. His obvious show that he liked me up to and including the Ball slaps me with the reality that I’m hurting him. My presence to him only tempts him with something he can’t have.

My failure to answer his question becomes my answer. He reaches for me and with gentle pressure he guides me out of the Grand Hall. I keep my arms around me all the way to the Fae Gate. Maybe this is why God never lets us know in advance the day and time loved ones are going to die. Because we would only use that as a countdown, trying to make up a lifetime of memory in mere moments.

He opens the gate.

“Mayest I reclaim my coat from thee?”

I consider running through the gate with it so he will have to follow me. But he would just come back to his castle. I take it off and it’s like I’m removing my skin, removing my memory, removing my freedom.

“For now, I shalt nary lock meself in the vault.” All the air in my lungs punches out of me. “Nor speaketh the spell. I shalt do thee the eternal justice to thy torment and thinketh upon other options.”

I can’t stop myself this time. I throw my arms around his neck and pull him in tight.

“Thank you for being my friend,” I whisper to his neck.

He returns the embrace. “And ye.”

I don’t know which one of us let go first. I don’t think too deeply that this is the last time I’ll see him, so I pretend that it’s not, that this is merely a, “see you later.” It’s easier to swallow, but I’m able to do it. I have to do this. There is no room in my life for Zadicayn so why stretch out the torture for both of us?

I’m only able to walk through the Fae Gate under the assurance that he is not going to speak that spell and lock himself in the vault. And I still turn around at the end to see him standing there watching me before the gate closes shut.

 

CHAPTER FORTY-TWO

ZADICAYN

 

She should have just left me in the vault. Or a boy should have been the one to release me because it’s not fair on her that I have anchored my sanity to her presence. I can only hope she hasn’t seen to what depth that has reached.

I guess she hasn’t, otherwise her reasons for banning me from vaulting myself would have been quite different. She seems to be the type that would throw herself down for someone else despite the consequences to her. Like what she did to that gypsy with the monkey who kidnapped her. Like she did for the dragon who loved her rubs. If she knew how hungry I am for her, I would have had to carry her through the Fae Gate and spell her to sleep so I could run back through before she could stop me.

Nice guys finished last. Wrong. Guys with jobs who don’t have people trying to kill you or who would take you away from your family finish first. I may not be last, but I am not first, either.

I fling my coat over me, pressing my face into the tall collar where her imprint of honeysuckle lingers. I don’t like honeysuckle, but it is her scent. A full day of her wearing it appears to have been long enough.

The raw ache in my heart accompanies stiff fingers as I draw the pattern on the Fae door to change the sequence that will allow someone to walk through. So Brine can’t come back. It’s a bitter feeling, but medicine to cure sickness never does tastes well.

I finish the new sequence but now I’m looking at the rock wall and questioning what to do with myself. In truth, I’m not ready to vault myself, as selfish as that is and the cost of the world is waiting on me to pay. I need a longer reprieve. Forgive me, Human Realm. I shall not fail thee, but I need just a moment longer. And maybe, maybe there is another way.

I’m not ready to go back into my castle where lingers the smell of rosemary. I’m still determined to clean it up and make it new again but my nerves are such that I’ll just break things that frustrate me. But maybe that is what I need right now. To break things, to drown out this endless chanting in my head about what my future is going to look like.

I finger the pattern on the door again, opening the Fae Gate and walk through. On the other side I am stopped by a sheer wall of piled lumber, trees and mud that had slid in to fill the canyon road just like Brine had described to me. This is where the Fae Gate was tuned to when she used it to enter the vale.

This gate is the main one, anyway. The road beneath the dam leads right to it with an area close by where people could park horses and carriages when they were invited for parties. The whole village used to show up.

I dismiss the aching nostalgia with a flick of my wrist, sending the log I have suspended in the air – and my thoughts – sailing away from me.

I shan’t sleep for a while but throwing logs into a pile to burn later is comfort enough, inviting the thrill to break and burn things to sooth me.

Once I memorize how to personalize the relocation spell to each tree and rock, it goes by quickly. It would be easier just to send fire on it all, but that would attract too much attention and people would investigate. So I burn them in small batches, relocating the smoke away from the direction of Valemorren. The road is in a tight canyon that curves like a river but it is always better to do everything possible to avoid detection.

It is good that Brine is marrying a Whaerin. She would work on my behalf from the inside.

Spell. Lift. Relocate. Drop.

She rescued me from a pit of madness and agony. I’m selfish, wanting more.

Spell. Lift. Relocate. Drop.

She won’t die by the Faewraith because I will find a way to live forever.

Spell. Lift –

The dam of trees shifts across the space vacant of the log I had mistakenly lifted. Log after log tumble down so I dart back until I am clear. Foolish. Pay attention.

My weary bones remind me I am only mortal, but the coming sunrise reminds me of a stony tomb with no escape.

Squeezing to the forefront of my thoughts come Brine’s telling of her kidnap. I don’t consider myself the kind of person who’s freakishly attuned to small details, but that telling with the one surrounding her cousin’s odd death won’t leave me alone. And she is traveling alone to Bristol on Wednesday. I’m certain my worries are only powered by my inability to rein in my over-dramatic emotions, but that line is starting to become more clear, and for this instance I don’t know as to which side of that line my suspicion stands.

I better make sure just in case. It will also help in defining that line more clearly for the next time I over-react. Brine doesn’t even have to know.

 

CHAPTER FORTY-THREE

BRINELLA

 

I should go check on the Fae Gate to make sure I can still get through. I only haven’t done so yet because of Zadicayn’s question I have failed to answer: to what purpose?

Even if Zadicayn has not locked me out forever, when I get married I will have to lock myself out forever, so what difference will it make to do it now? I can’t find any benefit to see Zadicayn, and I can’t even say why that hurts so badly.

My Middle Ages boy who has shown me the gateway to other worlds within my own.

I’ve made a remarkable recovery from my “illness”, says my mother, and only when I look at her like I have no idea what she is talking about, it takes me longer than it should to remember I had pretended to be sick after I helped start the Whaerin lumber house on fire. Apparently that happened yesterday morning. Being in the Fae Realm for two days has screwed with my sense of time. This is why I try not to tell lies.

“Yes,” I perk.

“Well then your father will purchase your train ticket when he comes back from work. I’ve got some items I’d like for you to deliver to Grandma Frondaren as well. I’ll leave them right here.”

Wednesday morning arrives with the click of a lock and Varseena bustling is as if she had unlocked the door herself. Apparently my complaining of cold baths was heard because I find three bed warmers slid under the tub to coach the water to be a bit more inviting.

I don’t dare look in the corner while to see if my boots and yellow dress are still there where I shoved them. They have to be, otherwise God’s Second Coming would have happened early as a mercy to me had my mother found them.

Honeysuckle is a much milder scent than rose but I don’t like it any better because of what it symbolizes.

With bags packed and too many farewells for just a two day stay in Bristol, I’m sent outside where rain is showering on the coach. My father is waiting next to.

“Gotten used to being betrothed yet?” my father asks with genuine pleasure once we sit inside.

“I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to being married.”

“You will. Just not right away. Give it a few months.”

“A few months?”

He shrugs. “But then I suppose such things are harder for men to get used to than women. Women dream of being mothers as soon as they are old enough to hold dolls.”

“I’m nervous,” I admit. I’m desperate to tell someone who will sympathize with me, maybe even offer up a better solution to one’s future than marriage. “I just can’t see myself being so… held down.

He removes his hat and thrashes his hair a few times. “True, you will be giving up some pleasures but you will receive pleasures in return. You give and you get.”

His response is directly south from his usual north. Of course he’s changed to be in favor of my getting married. Because I’m marrying a Whaerin. Status. I hate it. I blame Durain to the point where I want to dig up his grave and throttle him now because he’s set me on a path of ruin to where I crave the freedom I cannot have.

The coach bumbles to a stop and my father exits, taking my hand to assist me down, my dress brushing the tops of his shoes as it sways. Taking my luggage in hand, we hustle inside the station to get out of the rain. I still have ten minutes before the train arrives, so he sets my bags down near a cluster of women also waiting and reaches for a hug, which I provide.

“Have fun, sweetie.” He kisses the side of my bonnet and departs.

I sit down next to my bag, folding my hands in my lap. Men in long coats and buttoned vests stand in clusters with each other while women layered in petticoats chatter busily. I’m not the only female traveling alone. Another girl about Crisy’s age seems content in her own corner while a lone man is leaned back in his bench, one leg popped over his knee and holding a newspaper which shrouds his face. Something featuring London blares over the front page. I catch him looking at me with one eye out the side but as soon as he sees I’ve noticed he hides himself again.

The train’s whistle hollers its arrival and everyone gains their feet as station boys in red coats and hats swarm in to pick up luggage. The train hisses to a stop and I’m assisted in finding my booth. The station boy loads my luggage inside and I follow, sliding both the inside and outside doors closed, locking both.

The two hour ride comes with a complimentary glass of punch and toast with marmalade. It comes by an hour into the ride and I nibble and sip as I stare out to the country side zipping by.

A train? What tis that?”

What is it indeed to someone from the Middle Ages who didn’t even have toilets back then? Describing a train must be like what if feels to describe the color blue to a blind person.

A solid knock on my door summons me to my feet, though the refreshments have already been brought so I can’t fathom who would be needing my attention. I turn the lock and open the sliding door into the hallway to a man standing there with his head down.

He looks up abruptly and shoves against my shoulders with his palms and I stumble backward. He steps in and closes the door, locking it behind him. Surprisingly only mildly bewildered, I don’t panic until I see the monkey with its tiny top hat climb upon his shoulder.

I suck in a breath to shout when Jesaro lifts his knobby hands. “There there, everything will be okay. I’ll explain in a minute. This will be real brief and no one else has to know.”

“Get out!” I shriek, taking a step back.

Upon my shout he lunges. I see a flash of white cloth which gives me time to suck in breath and hold it as he presses it against my face. He jams his hand against my teeth so hard it hurts. My chest is already buzzing with needed breath as I wrestle to buck him off me.

He’s strong and it only takes one of his arms to keep me from going anywhere. The monkey is making screeching noises and my vision is blurring because I need to breath.

Jesaro lets go. A shout and a heavy thud behind me cause me to spin around and back away at the same time. Jesaro is laying on his chest on the floor, one boot cranked above him in the air. Behind Jesaro stands a man wearing a pinstriped fedora, frock coat, blue buttoned waistcoat, and a red amulet around his neck.

Zadicayn connects gold eyes with me briefly before stepping aside and Jesaro goes zooming out of my booth on his belly.

I don’t have a cloth pressed against my mouth and nose anymore but I’m still not breathing.

I hear shouting in the hallway and I next see Jesaro’s body flying passed my open door where he must have collided with someone because the shouting increases and a concussion of thuds declares many somethings dropping to the floor with protest.

Zadicayn whirls inside my booth and slams the door, locking it. The monkey is left inside, causing a fit. It’s not until the wizard faces me that I find my breath and with it I cover my mouth and scream.

He swoops over to me and muffles my panic into his chest. I’m breathing too hard. I’m going to hyperventilate.

“I. Don’t. Know. What’s. Go. Ing. On.” Each syllable gets their own breath. Zadicayn is ushering me to the opposite door.

“I dost. I shall keep thee safe but ye must trust me.”

I nod. Out of options and too scared to think on my own. Someone’s jostling the handle on the locked door. Zadicayn throws open the back door and I suck in my breath as trees and bushes reach out to snare me as they zip by.

It’s too big of a miracle to think Zadicayn randomly showed up just in time to save me from Jesaro. I’m dizzy with fear and confusion.

Zadicayn sticks his head out the door, his frock coat and black ponytail spinning in the wind. He grabs my arm. I feel a pop like displaced air and next I am falling over because wind and deep vibrations through my feet have unsettled my balance. Zadicayn keeps me upright, his stance spread wide, and with a scream I can’t contain, I find I am standing on top. Of. The. Bloody. Train.

“Tis a’right! Tis a’right!” he’s shouting at me to be heard over my screaming and the wind beating in both our ears. His body rocks back but he hunches forward with me tucked into him to keep us both planted on the roof of the train.

He appears to be waiting for something. I can’t fathom what. The engine at the fore of the train follows a deep curve in the tracks and I’m displaced with that dreaded pop and I land in a fit of dress and incoherent blubbering. I stop flailing long enough to understand I am on a floor back inside the train. Inside another booth, though it is not my own. And it is occupied by a man and a woman who I think are too surprised to scream.

“Forgive us,” Zadicayn says. “I be an amateur magician working on my magic tricks.”

Someone assists me to my feet and because it’s obvious I’m too shaken to walk on my own, I’m also assisted out of the booth where Zadicayn closes the door and practically carries me down the hallway. He slides open the door to an empty booth and pulls me inside, closing and locking it behind him.

I slump onto the padded bench, my mind spinning and my wits frazzled. The wizard sits across from me. His white shirt is untucked on one side. He looks completely ridiculous wearing the current English fashion after what I’m used to seeing him wear.

“Ye art okay?”

“No!” I’m scared and confused and Zadicayn is a major offender of the second. “No I’m not okay! How are you here? Why was that gypsy trying to kidnap me again? How did we end up on the top of the bloody train? How… why… why?” Naked anxiety is tearing through me and Zadicayn remains silent while I stress myself out to the point where I’m exhausted and I finally go silent.

“Ye art okay now?”

“… I’m a little better.”

“That tis well. I shalt answer thy questions now.”

“Please.”

He reclines back and clasps his hands in front of him. Yes. He most definitely looks out of place in those clothes. I wonder if anyone else will notice. Probably not.

“Recalleth back to whence ye telleth me about thy kidnap by the gypsy and the monkey.”

“Okay.”

“And everything ye said about believing Aklen Whaerin dost nary like thee, and the odd death fallen upon thy cousin.”

“Okay.”

“Well…” Here he appears ashamed because his white cheeks crimson. “Hate me if ye want, but when I heareth ye wert traveling alone, and after all these suspicions ye telleth me concerning Aklen and the gypsy and thy cousin’s death… I wast scared for ye and wanted to maketh sure ye traveled well. Turns out my suspicions wert right.”

“Why would I hate you?”

His look reminds me what I said about him “showing up like you did at the ball.”

“I don’t hate you. You… you saved my life.” This pulls a smile out of him and I must look away before my heart hitches. “What suspicions did you have? I don’t know how I missed something like this.”

“Listen upon… Durain dieth of a heart attack, ye say. Ye believe thyself this wast an oddity. Aklen dost nary like thee. Ye thinks ye heardest his name pass betwixt the gypsies during thy capture. I dost nary like the Whaerins meself and I hath proof they art nefarious fiends, but I dost nary think ye wast wrong in hearing his name. For certain they art alerted to thy cousin acquiring one of three pieces of Binding. Of which they killed him for.”

I suck in a breath at such harsh, naked words.

“Given what ye hath told me and what I hath already assumed, tis those three families hath done the unsavory in order to keepeth me secret. If you wert the only person associating with Durain, and Durain stealeth the Binding, what dost ye think those three families art going to believe? Methinks Aklen sent that gypsy on ye both times to get ye out of Valemorren – dead or otherwise – where ye can nary do anymore damage.”

No. No I am not in this that deep. Not deep enough to where Aklen Whaerin would order my death because he believes I had something to do with the wizard. Have they notice their Bindings are fake? They saw the Faewraiths in the lumber house. Do they think I freed the wizard?

If I hadn’t already emotionally exhausted myself with my panic and confusion over the events of the last ten minutes, I would have proceeded to freak out right now. But I don’t. Which allows my new reality to slid in easily and rest as a hard nub in my chest.

“So they know you are free?”

“It wouldst be safer to assume thus.”

This sparks a whole other reality for me. “Do you think Jaicom is involved?” But before I’m finished asking that question I’ve already answered it. If Jaicom wanted me dead he’s had ample opportunity to do so, and getting rid of me – dead or otherwise – after we are married would only look more suspicious on Jaicom. No. I feel confident Jaicom is not involved.

“I shalt leave that question up to thee, for ye knoweth him better than I.”

“I don’t think he’s involved. But I definitely need to let the constables know what Aklen has done.” Righteous anger fills me, but Zadicayn tears it to pieces with,

“Dost ye hast proof of him being involved?”

My nerves are still jittery so I walk about the small booth, my canvassing dress brushing Zadicayn’s knees where he sits. “No. But what do I do? If I hadn’t told you about me being kidnapped, you wouldn’t have been here today. I could be dead or worse right now!”

“Methinks ye shouldst refuse to go anywhere on thy own for a while. Ye shouldst be safe upon thy marriage, but that shalt be up to thee to determine.”

I slump back down. My neatly curled and pinned up hair has come loose and my bonnet hangs sideways. “Were we really on top of the train?”

“Yea.”

“How?”

“Relocation spell. I can relocate anything I hast in my hand to any place where I can see, though I can nary dost that over great distance because it wilt spike the blood in the body.”

I don’t know what “spiking blood” means, but I’m comfortable not finding out. “I don’t know how to pay you back for saving me. I literally owe you my life.”

“Ye already hath paid me back, Brine.”

I know what he’s referring to but I still don’t feel satisfied.

Zadicayn lays on his back on the bench, tucking both hands behind his head and stares at the ceiling. “So this be a train?”

“What do you think?”

“Methinks it be magic to move without obvious aid. How does it work?”

“Something about people shoveling coals into a furnace that produces steam and the steam powers the engine to move forward… I really don’t know. I just ride it.” I wonder if Zadicayn yearns for the time he is familiar with, where you only went as fast as a horse could take you and shirts were called tunics. “What do you think about wearing eighteen forty-two English fashion?”

“This trousers hath blessed upon me a merry-gall and the rest tis a plague I fear might induce an excrement of yellow bile. Given how ye wert eyeing me a moment ago, I see that ye agree.”

“I wasn’t eyeing you.”

“A’right. If ye insist.”

“I’m going to be in Bristol for two days. I’ll be staying with my grandparents so I have no idea where to put you. Now that I’m betrothed I cannot be seen alone with another man. Naturally, I make the exception for you for obvious reasons.” I say that in present tense because Monday was the last I heard from him with the intent to never see him again. “Please tell me you aren’t going to lock yourself in the vale like you threatened to do two days ago.”

“I dost nary wit, Brine. Give me a better reason why I nary shouldst.”

I can think of a ton of them, but all of which would only benefit me.

The train whistles its arrival into the Bristol station. “I need my bag from my booth.”

“Which booth?”

“Car eight, booth twelve.” Even if he didn’t have trains back in his time, it’s pretty self-explanatory.

He stands up and exits the booth via the hallway. I lock the door behind him, already afraid Jesaro is on the prowl for me because he is likely still on the train.

The train lurches to a stop and I step outside into the station so even if Jesaro is still on the train, he won’t dare touch me while I’m in such a crowded place.

I don’t know how Zadicayn is going to find me again so I stay where I am, but I see his black spiked hair coming toward me, my bag in his hand. He must have lost his fedora when we relocated on top of the train. The men around look oddly at him.

He stops beside me. “Thank you. I suppose you could spell your way back home,” I say wistfully, reaching for my bag. “I thank you again for being smarter than me and coming to my aid.”

“And so I shalt dost for thy return trip. Dost nary worry about me. Show me whence ye shalt be staying and I shall meet ye back here in two days.”

I can’t argue that his presence on the way back satisfies me greatly. Keeping my luggage in his hand, he walks beside me as I look for a hired coach to take us to my grandparent’s house.

Despite the last time I was in Bristol when I almost drowned in the river at a young age, I find my interest is not held looking out the window of the coach nearly as intense as Zadicayn’s. His eyes remain wide and his head zipping all about as he takes in all that the Middle Ages, even some things in Valemorren, did not have. I did much of the same thing in the Fae Realm.

Taller buildings of stone and glass windows, steamboats belching from their stacks from the canal as we cross the bridge into Castle Park. Even our enclosed coach driven by two horses and a driver in a top hat and nice black suite. Hopefully Zadicayn never sees indoor plumbing. He might have a fit like I did when he spelled me on top of the train.

The coach wheels around through the tight streets and houses pressing shoulder to shoulder until we turn down the dead end way of Wickham Street. The houses open up more with enough space for a lawn to surround each house. The coach stops three houses down from number three ninety-six as I had instructed the driver to do. I can’t have my grandparents spying Zadicayn leaving the coach with me.

“Number three ninety-six,” I say to him as the wizard pulls down my luggage from the top of the coach. “Are you sure you’re going to be okay? Do you have money?”

He casts his arms down the front of his black frock coat. “Dost ye thinketh I stole these?”

“Sorry. I just… I know currency has changed over the past…”

“But they art still pounds, even if a different monarch tis stamped upon them. But I thank thee for thy concern. I shalt be a’right.”

“Don’t get lost. I know the streets can be confusing. Where will you be staying?”

He shrugs. “Some place strong enough to holdeth my body weight, likely.”

“You don’t have to wait on me. If you… if you get bored you can head back.”

“Nary, Miss Frondaren. Nary.”

“Well… at least come back tonight and tomorrow night on the ninth toll of the cathedral bell so I know you are okay. I’ll keep a look out my window. I’ll see you if you come into the yard.” If he’s going to be protective of me it’s only fair I return it. After all I sacrificed to free him – still sacrificing – I don’t want him damaged.

“I shall. Now, art ye going to let me goest now?”

“Oh. Yes. I guess. Just be safe.”

He nods his assent and I watch him stuff his hands in his pockets as his long stride takes him down the street and around the corner.

 

CHAPTER FORTY-FOUR

ZADICAYN

 

I still can’t sleep on beds. Not only because I have nightmares where I’m sinking through the floor but because I find the fluctuating surface uncomfortable and would only end up sleeping on the floor anyway. Aside from that, I still don’t understand how society functions when it comes to the exchange of money and services and I really don’t want to look more awkward than I already am, so renting a room to an inn is useless. Or, rather, hotel because, I guess, that’s what they call them now.

I eat at a rather lavish place called a restaurant where I’m handed something the female hostess calls a menu and I think I spend more time bewildered over all the foreign choices than I do actually eating it when it finally arrives.

I don’t know how Brine thought I was going to get bored. I don’t think two days is nearly long enough to learn everything I can about this century. I lost my hat during my skirmish with relocating to the top of the train. Or maybe I lost it on purpose before that. They seem harmless enough, but I can’t get over the sensation that it is a sack just waiting to slip over my face just before I’m thrown into a vault. So they can pretend it’s not a human they are locking away.

But people are looking at me oddly and, for the sake of drawing as little attention to me as possible, I purchase another on my way to these ships without sails that the captain of the vessel says is powered by steam.

I suppose time is told by devices called clocks or pocket watches because while I’m still a’sail on the steamboat a female turns to her male companion and asks what time it is, to which he flips something gold and circular out of his vest pocket and declares the time. I consider buying one except I have no idea how to work the thing and the only person I feel safe in asking is Brine. So I leave it alone for now.

Castle Park where sits the church and the bell which will declare the hour is where I conclude to end my evening while I tarry for the ninth toll. Whereupon I shall return to sleep after Brine declares me well. It keeps me warm knowing someone cares about my wellbeing. Well… it keeps me warm knowing Brine cares about my wellbeing. I’ll eat that selfishly until I close myself in my vale upon our return.

A corner of Castle Park is daggered with campfires. A few glimpses of colored canvass among the trees hint on the guess that it’s a gypsy camp. Brine said that man with the monkey was a gypsy, but I’ve had gypsy’s in my days too and they traveled in packs and stayed away from rich men’s money. I also knew plenty of assassins who would maraud as gypsies because what better way to push the blame on someone else than to dress in their culture?

I don’t mind gypsies myself except they were the ones who tended to dabble most in Devil Magic and consider themselves our equals.

The church bell tolls nine times. I begin my walk between the looming buildings which give me the unsettling feeling that they are going to fall on me. There was a reason why shops and houses never went higher than two levels back in my day and because dragons sometimes swooped down really low wasn’t one of them.

Brine called the glowing orbs of light affixed to the top of poles on both sides of the streets gas lamps. I have a sneaking suspicion there is still one wizard alive who has sold his services to the public, because this can’t be anything but magic.

Wickham Street has a few of these magic lamps but it’s mostly dark, covering me as I slip into the yard of house number three ninety-six and sit on the bench. Brine must have been watching because the door to the house opens and she exits. She whispers down the wooden porch barefoot with a silk night robe tied around her white nightgown beneath. With her hair down and scattered around her shoulders in the dark, she looks a bit older. I remove my hat and put it on my knee.

“Praise the Pope, you are safe!”

“Me?” She sits next to me on the bench. “Ye art the one who wast almost taken by assassins today.”

“Assassins? You really think so?”

“I dost.”

She shivers at this new possibility and I have to distract my hands with fumbling unnecessarily at my chaffing clothes so I don’t use my hands to pull her closer to me.

“What did you do today? Did you find a hotel?”

“I found one,” I say, because I don’t want to banter back and forth my reason why I’ve chosen to sleep on the ground in Castle Park. “I also taketh a ride on a steamboat and ate at a place called a restaurant. Stop laughing me.” She covers her mouth as if that would erase the giggle that escaped her. “I shalt take thee back in time three hundred years and let thee guess to whence ye empty thy bowels and how to get comfortable in a pillory.”

“Sorry. It just sounds so odd hearing it said like that. You were put in a pillory?”

“I walked behind Manchester Williams’ son as he pulleth his handcart to the village. I keepeth relocating rocks into the back so it wast mighty heavy by the time he arrived. I got caught and he wast nary happy.”

“Why did you do that?”

“He asketh me to put a spell on him to maketh him strong.”

She starts to laugh again, though keeping her hand over her lips to muffle it. “Like what your father did to Henry Tudor and King Richard? Do nothing and take their money as payment?”

“I warneth him there wast nary a spell for that. He didst nary believe meself. So I taketh his money and provided a solution to maketh him strong. Nary my concern if he nary liketh it. But how dost thy visit with grandparents suit thee?”

“Well… about as well as the energy of a turtle and the memory of a gold fish. But… so you are clearly aware of women being tied into their dresses.”

“Yea.”

“That really only started about five years ago when Queen Victory decreed it. So my grandmother is still latched onto the era when King George was monarch who hated pretension and didn’t care about the propriety of women. So my grandmother only has a macramist to keep up appearances and for when family comes to visit. But my grandmother refuses to be tied, even in public. She’s older so people don’t fret as much.”

“And a macramist is…”

“Oh! Sorry. They are females who are skilled in tying the knots on our dresses. Tomorrow she’s taking me shopping for some wedding gifts.” Her face betrays how excited she is not about that.

Movement behind Brine turns my eyes toward the porch of the house. An older woman is staring at me curiously, clutching her robe closed with one hand.

“Widdershins,” I whisper. “Brine…”

She follows my eyes and turns around to see the woman walking toward us. “Brinella!”

“No. No. Bloody hell no. Quick! Turn invisible or something!”

“I dost nary wit how.”

“And you call yourself a wizard?”

I narrow my glance on her, tempted to pick her right off this bench like I picked up the assassin and then promptly threw at the group of men running at me back on the train.

“Hide or something!”

“Too late.”

Grandma stops beside the bench, her face flushed with delight.

“Oh, grandma. I…”

“Brinella sweety, you didn’t tell me you brought Jaicom along with you!”

I look at Brine. Her glance on me is just as steady. “Yeeeees. Grandmother. I’d like you to meet Jaicom Whaerin.”

Donning a new name and persona, I gain my feet and take grandma’s hand, bending at the waist with lips hovering over her knuckles like I have seen every man in this century doing so far.

“I am pleased to meet yew, Misses Frondaren.”

Brine makes a little noise. Likely because she was afraid I’d slather her grandma with Old English slang. I know Brine’s dialect. I just don’t like it.

“Oh, Jaicom! Your fiancé has slighted me by not introducing me to you. Be sure to scold her for me, will you?”

“I would, but really it twas for my protection, because I should not be here. I am feeling rather protective of her and did not want her traveling alone so I accompanied her. Though, I understand doing something like that is mostly frowned upon because we art not married yet.” So I slipped a few times, but I thought I did pretty well. “Yew were not supposed to know. I just came to tell her goodnight before I go back to the hotel.”

“Nonsense! My granddaughter’s future husband is now part of this family and I will have you stay like family. I will wake Charles and have him make up a bed for you. Your secret is safe with me.” She winks at me, and I like her immensely.

“Oh, grandmother, he can’t!” Me and grandma both look at Brine. “He’s… he’s already paid the hotel for tonight and tomorrow.”

I hear it in her tone and I can’t disagree with her. She’s not marrying me, so having me closer for longer is a very bad idea. Especially since I think she’s picked up on that if a few things were changed, it wouldn’t be Jaicom marrying her in a month.

“Oh, what a shame! You, Brinella Frondaren, would get fifteen spankings if I was strong enough to hold you down. Charles may never be able to travel again and I can’t leave him alone so I would never have met Jaicom had you not brought him along and since you would be pregnant shortly after your wedding –”

“Grandma!”

“ – you wouldn’t have been able to travel for some time and either one or both of us might have been dead before we got to meet him. And here you bring him along but keep him selfishly to yourself and rob this good righteous woman the chance to meet our newest member of our family. You should be ashamed and you might consider going to the priest tomorrow to ask for a remission of your sins.”

Brine tucks into her robe and lowers her head, looking thoroughly scolded even despite I am not Jaicom and we are not getting married. I hope neither of them notice my stupid grin.

Grandma turns to me with a smile. “Jaicom dear, I suppose it is too late to cancel your reservation at the hotel for tonight, but they will refund you for tomorrow. If not, then I will pay you for the hotel and you will join us for dinner and stay the night.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Because nothing she said was a suggestion. I could never say no to my grandmother, either.

She pats my cheek. “You are such a sweet boy. Brine has done well in choosing you. Though, I can’t say the same about your choice.” She shoots Brine another scathing look who has yet to look up from her deep blush I can see in the dark.

“I will be sure to scold her good and solid in a month’s time –” I did it! I made her blush deeper! “But for tonight I must bid her and thee farewell.” Shoot. I slipped again. “Goodnight Miss and Misses Frondaren.” I replace my hat and turn to stride victoriously off the lawn when grandma catches my arm.

“Now now, propriety is still a virgin yet. Don’t be embarrassed to give her a goodnight kiss just because an old woman is watching. I know you’ve been doing it already.”

If only grandma was right. Even now and just for show I’m not the tyrant to steal the kiss meant for the real Jaicom she’s going to marry. Grandma is insisting and finally Brine stands, not meeting my eyes as we cross the distance to each other. I see the fear in her eyes and I try to communicate back that she’ll be alright. I suck her into an embrace she accepts hesitantly and brush my lips bellow her ear. Despite the briefness, I feel the danger thunder between us. We release.

Grandma makes clucking noises with her tongue. “Propriety. Queen Victoria be bloody damned.”

“Grandma!”

Grandma smiles at me. “Have a good night young son. We’ll be seeing you tomorrow.”

“Yew shall.” I tip my hat and I walk off the lawn.

 

OOO

 

I rather think I enjoyed assisting grandma to embarrass Brine. It quite possibly could become my new favorite thing to do. I’m whistling some archaic tune I remember hearing from a bard at the inn my father and I stopped at from our travels back from Manchester. I walk down the street beneath the magicked lamps. It’s not cold out but I still should have thought to buy a blanket while shops were still open. I still forget I now have the option to be warm when I want.

I find a suitable spot of ground in the trees encompassing Castle Park and, looking about to make sure no one is spying on me, I mummer the spell and fire barks to life in the pile of wood I’ve gathered. The ocean is nearby. I feel the wetness hushing under the fibers of my shirt. No matter. I’m not going to sleep well anyway.

The sticks I chose for my fire are very small, but ten feet across from me is a branch as thick as my arm. Unashamed, I summon the branch into my hand with a few words, though I do snap it in half manually. I’ve got to prove to the Fae I’m not totally magic dependent.

My fire purrs and, spelling my hand, I mindlessly start fingering the flames, watching them curl and slip around my knuckles. An orange glow against the trees beyond my camp on the edge of the river is accompanied by shadows dancing and some musical instruments that are foreign to me.

The distraction is nice. I listen to the careless freedom I wish I had. The music tapers off and the shadows still. I hear a man’s voice speaking in an elaborate manner but I can’t hear what he is saying. Next I see something that has me jumping to my feet.

Steadying my glance in that direction, I keep watching. Sure enough I see fire appear above the bushes and it has wings. And a tail. And four legs. It’s catching fire to the leaves but hands and blankets are slapping everywhere to put them out. Children are laughing and adults are admiring and I’m stomping over with the vengeance of nineteen slain wizards.

I enter their camp without any sort of announcement, which turns out to be a huge offense because the laughter quiets and the Black Magician’s fire-formed dragon sputters into ash.

Dirty children stare at me with some light of curiosity while the adults reserve their looks into hostile glances. And though I am still new to this society, I am aware that my manner of dress is more gentleman than theirs which gives me the sensation of a horse going to pasture with cows and they know it. And even though the garish clothing of the man whom I suspect to be the magician could rival a court jester having been dipped in three pots of dye, I’m still the one out of place and not invited in their circle. Nineteen wizards tell me I don’t care.

“Art ye the magician here?” I ask, unafraid to point directly at him.

“Magician?” He laughs nervously. “No, friend. Why do you ask?”

“I saw thy magic with the fire.”

His glance shoots across the assembly gathered in a half circle on the other side of the fire. A baby begins to hiccup to which the mother pats its back.

The magician reaches a hand to his bearded jawline, reminding me with some revulsion that I used to look like that just two weeks ago. Bangles jingle on both arms with the movement. My amulet is a rather thick piece so I hope he does not see it pressing against the back of my waistcoat.

“Why don’t you sit down with us? Share our meal. I’ll entertain you.”

“I dost nary want to be entertained. Ye dost…” I clench my fists to force myself to slow down. “Yew put other people in danger with yewor magic.”

“Dangers? No one is in danger here. It’s just a bit of fun. If you are worried then you may take yourself out of this camp just like you entered, except that you are invited to leave.”

“Art ye aware that magicians like yew caused friends and families of mine to be slain by the church who preach against magic? And here ye art throwing it about like flowers on a bride. Ye art an abomination and a curse and I hopeth the church finds thee and drives a pike through thy skull.”

The anger of nineteen wizards is too much for my mortal body. I’m shaking and my breath comes in hitches. The problem, though, is I know this magician isn’t the only one. They play with magic because it’ “entertaining” and sometimes useful. Even if I drive a tree branch through his chest to end his life before the church catches on and goes on yet another hunt for wizards, it would solve my rage but not the problem. I couldn’t kill him anyway. Fae spells get really picky when it comes to killing things with magic.

“Your loved ones have died because of magic?” the magician says, folding his arms and causing the bells around his bare ankles to chime. “Forgive me if I don’t believe you. The church hasn’t been on a magic hunting rampage for…” He starts to count on his fingers. Gypsies don’t know how to count.

“Three hundred twenty-four years,” I say for him. “And nineteen out of twenty wizards.”

“Hold up, lad! You’re pulling all this anger from that far back? Bloody hell, I don’t even remember my ancestors back that far. The church’s magic hunting is lost in antique obscurity, like the Knights Templar and bathing naked was of the devil. No, wait, wait. I know what’s chaffing your britches… you are an amateur magician and you are jealous that you can’t compare to my skill so instead of asking to apprentice me, you’ve thundered into my show to shame me –” He stops speaking rather abruptly as soon as the ladle in the pot above the fire is relocated into my hand.

“Nineteen out of twenty wizards,” I bit. “I be last the one.”

Despite my short magic display, the man pushes out a laugh. “You may think you are the last Fae Wizard, but the church confirmed they are all dead. Trust me, I’ve had hopes that I might have come from those honorable bloodlines myself. I know how you feel. It’s hard wanting to be better at magic but are stopped by the wiles of the demon you’ve communed. But we do the best we can, don’t we?”

“I be not a magician. I be the last wizard.”

“And I am the Pope, and by my decree, I bless thee cleansed of thy sins so you may now leave this camp in peace.”

I’m going to get my clothes dirty and Brine is going to have questions but I have to take care of this. This careless insult shames the very legends this man is trying to mimic. And it’s putting me further in danger.

I throw my wooden ladle into the dirt, stirring up a buzzing of voices who are still sitting about in my presence. I remove my jacket the tailor called a frock coat and drape it over the back of a chair nearby. Reminded of a story from the bible, I focus on one stick piled next to the fire and I relocate it over to the ground beside my boot.

Hushed whispers hiss behind me. I can’t transform the stick into a snake like Moses because all things transformed must follow a viable pathway from the one form to the other, which I could do but I don’t have time to think about what that pathway would be.

Instead, speaking the Fae language quietly to myself, the stick begins to bend and curve. I’m able to speak the words to produce two round spots on the one end, and a split where flickers in and out a woody tongue. I don’t know how to transform sounds out of it, so it is silent in its slither toward the magician who is only smiling as if just amused.

“Your demon plays well with you.”

“Tis nary a demon.”

The magician causes a flag of flame to leap from the camp’s fire and land on my stick. It continues to slither about until it crumples to ash.

“What are you trying to play at?” the magician asks. “That your demon is better than mine? That you have some special claim to a different branch of magic that supersedes me?”

“I be the last Fae Wizard.” So saying, I let my eyes slide into gold, pointing at them. “Surely ye knoweth of this mark which declares a Fae Wizard?”

“Gold eyes, eh?” The magician hides his face behind his hands. He drops his hands and both of his eyes have turned gold. “I can do that trick too! You are just as worthless as I am.” The magician, uttering what sounds like Latin and using too many hand movements, points at the fire and throws his hand high in the air. With it goes an arch of flame which spreads out wings, a neck, and four legs.

It is small, but the demon-infused fire dragon zooms toward me. “That’s how you prove they are anything but wizards,” my father had said, who also warned that plenty of people would pretend to be wizards so people would pay them for the services only wizards provided. “They always try to hurt you to prove themselves.”

Knowing a little about Devil Magic from my father’s lessons since he was wise to know there would come a time when I might have to duel a Black Magician, I am aware that the demons recruited for the magician can get particular over one sort of object. And from that object is where the demon shows itself, whether infusing himself into it or throwing it about. Essentially, Black Magicians are extremely limited in their show.

The water from the open barrel within my visual shoots out and collides with the fire dragon. The fire extinguishes and my water splatters on those standing too close. People are getting up and backing away to safety; behind trees, their wagons, but their curious heads still watch us.

Frustration conquers the magician’s jaw where he clenches. Sweat beads on his brow from all his furious hand movements and concentration where I have yet to move, hands clasped in front of me.

He starts stomping with his feet and his hands dart out in front of him. His murmuring turns to shouts and with an explosion of spittle, he causes three knives from the table to sling-shot at me.

I relocate the knives skyward, and let them fall. The magician has to bound out of the way before he’s stabbed. He thrashes at me with a hostile gaze, looking all about at what his demon might touch next even though he is panting and out of breath, as if every spell is physically exerting.

“We hath proven naught,” I say. “Except that ye art tired. If ye can make thyself fly to the tops of the trees, I shall concede to believe I am just a worthless magician and I shalt leave upon thy camp with my most humble of failures.”

Now the magician just wants to prove that some seventeen or eighteen-year-old man has not bested him at magic, because the magician sucks in too much air and doubles over and I think he’s having massive bodily and bowel issues. But then I hear him sputtering Latin and I concede to watch and wait.

Everyone else too, moving out of their places of hiding to watch a little closer.

The furious chanting and odd body angles goes on for about three minutes so by the end of it the magician’s voice is hoarse. Finally, his body begins to rise. According to my father, the magicians can only go as high as the demon can lift them. Because, just like the snake in the Garden of Eden, demons are cursed to never leave the ground. Magicians also have to worry about their demons getting bored and dropping them.

The magician gets about eight feet up and then stops. He stands upright in the air and spreads out his arms. “Ha ha! Humble yourself, magician. And I think some compensation is due for your rudeness to taint my name and company.”

I make a big show of looking at him, and then looking to the tops of the trees which is still fifteen feet above his head. “Ye must nary hath heard me correctly… I sayeth the tops of the trees.”

“You won’t be able to make it this high so save yourself from injury because no one here will fetch a doctor.” He’s sweating. I can see the rivulets rush down his bronze cheeks and scruffy black jawline. His body begins to lower. The last three feet and he drops suddenly, though he catches himself with an act as if he meant to do it.

The illusion branch of Fae magic is really my favorite because, though substance-less and therefor useless, it looks so damn cool. Well, I take that back. It’s not entirely useless, as long as you don’t let on to anyone that it is only an illusion.

So, because I feel like fancying myself an angel at the moment, especially since I am dueling with a Black Magician’s demon, I illusion a pair of wings unfurling from between my shoulders. Big wings. Why not?

One of the rules for Fae Magic is you must have the object in question in your visual. Illusion is not that way, since it is impossible to harm anyone with it save it be a Black Magician’s pride.

The gypsies are already gasping in awe, but I cause the wings to glow as fervently as the moon above us anyway, and speaking the words to relocate my big toe on my left foot to the leaf I have focused on, I begin to rise to my desired location.

Once I have secured my position on the specified leaf, I look down upon my assembly. I can almost see my reflection in their wide eyes.

This would be the part where I fly away triumphantly like Icarus, but it is super hard to pin point an invisible spot in the air of which to locate oneself, so I lower myself gracefully, flourishing with a bow upon my landing where I’m covered in applauses. My wings fizzle away.

“Aiden, yer’ve been replaced,” barks an elder woman who comes to stand next to me. I picture her as the camp’s doyenne. “Better find something else useful to earn yer stay.” She looks at me with a motherly smile I miss so much. “We can’t pay you much, but we’d love to keep you around if you’ll except whatever we can offer you.”

“No no, I can nary stay.” Typical of me, I do things without thinking about the future of those actions. “I really shouldst hath left well alone. I be sorry for intruding. Forgive me. I shall be leaving.”

She latches onto my arm. “At least spend the night with us. Was that your lonely campfire over there?”

“Tis.”

“Yes… you must stay with us and explain why you do better magic and wear gentleman’s cloths.”

The lure of company is tempting. I’ll set spells about me as I sleep so I don’t get robbed during the night. I can’t see how gypsies have changed much in three hundred years.

 

OOO

 

I’ve already had dinner, but the community stew bubbling above the fire adds warmth to my belly as I lounge inside one of the covered wagons. The magician has found humble association with me who sits nearby with the doyenne, subdued by all the answers to his questions I gave him. There are very few people I trust with my secret. One of those people being a Black Magician who is also an enemy of the church. And I just have a weak spot for grandmothers who feed me.

“I don’t know if I can believe you,” the magician says. I’ve laid my amulet outside my shirt to help root him to the possibility that everything I’ve said is true. “There is no magic to make anyone live that long.”

“Fae magic is not Devil Magic. Wizards don’t recruit demons to do favors for us. Our magic comes straight from the source that gives life to every plant and creature.” Of course there is much more to it than that, but I am speaking with a side-show magician gypsy who probably doesn’t even know how to read.

He’s shaking his head, spooning stew into his mouth.

“You say the Faewraith will show up if all the Fae wizards are dead?” states the doyenne, nestling further into her blanket against the pillows on the floor.

“Yea. Tis why the Fae commissioned twenty wizards to guard this world to prevent their coming. It hast to be magic from the Fae. Devil Magic hast no such substance.”

“And because you are the last wizard, you’re going to shut yourself up in a hole to live forever?”

I can neither deny or admit, so I fill my mouth with warm stew instead.

“Maybe this Life you speak about refuses to give the world more wizards because they don’t have time to look for honorable men to hold the magic. If you do the footwork for them, maybe they will reconsider.”

I laugh at this. “I mighten as well go to the church right now and announce meself, because that tis what shall happen when I start asking people if they want to be Fae Wizards.”

“You could pull from gypsy camps.”

I look at the magician who sits up hopefully. “I sayeth honorable men. Nary men who compel to burn or knife someone with magic.” The magician sulks back and I’m certain I’ve made an enemy of him again of which doesn’t bother me in the least. “I dost nary mean to shoot down all thy ideas, but these are the truths of it.”

She nods. It’s well into the night and her eyes close. Her breathing begins to shallow and I soon believe she is asleep.

Very quietly, the magician tip toes barefoot closer to me where he hunkers down again, speaking softly so as not to wake her. “My father was a magician, as well as my grandfather. I understand the implications of commissioning a demon, but if you know what you are doing you can really get to high places and earn money for your services, like the magicians who work for the Illuminati. I’m trying to get good enough to where they will notice me.”

“Illuminati?”

“Oh. Sorry. I forgot you were… anyway, the Illuminati are a secret underground organization. There’s a lot of theories about them which no one can verify as being truth, so there really isn’t much I can tell you except for what I just did. I do know they have high level magicians and the magicians are paid as if it’s coming out of the queen’s own belly. Given what I’ve seen you do tonight, I don’t have any chance getting hired on by them. But… you do.”

I keep my chuckles quiet. So working as a wizard or otherwise must be done underground and in secret now. “I assume these Illuminati hath dealings in religion and politics?”

“I can’t verify that, but most certain they do.”

“I see. Still doesn’t solve the problem with Faewraith making a feast on humanity upon my death.” Not to mention the Fae guiding the wizards not to have any dealings with politics or religion.

“Well, maybe the Fae lied to you when they said the Faewraith would come if all of you were dead.”

“Yea. Maybe.” No. Absolutely.

“Would you like me to pass your name along? I know the Illuminati would be interested to at least speak with you. The twenty Fae Wizards had turned into legends and stories since it’s been so long. Your magic is far superior to even the Illuminati magicians who have the highest demons under their commission. They would love to have your services.”

Likely just to attempt to harvest my magic for themselves, but I don’t tell him that. “Nay. I need to worry about staying alive forever first just in case the Fae art telling the truth about the Faewraith.”

“Alright. You know where to find me if you change your mind. Just thought I’d let you know.” He stands up. Gathering both our empty bowls of stew, he pads out the door and closes it silently behind him.

 

CHAPTER FORTY-FIVE

BRINELLA

 

Despite Zadicayn made the whole situation worse, I wish he was still here to bear my grandma’s continued ranting with me.

I’m mad at Zadicayn for showing up at the house even though I asked him to. I’m mad at him for coming with me to Bristol even though I would be dead or worse right now. I’m mad at him because now I have to pray that my grandparents die tomorrow since in no way can I bring the real Jaicom to meet them now. I only forgive Zadicayn for all of those because he acted out kissing me beneath my ear when a different kiss was expected by my grandmother. At least he’s honorable.

After grandmother is done washing me in accusations, she sends me up to my room to lay out and dry where I remain wide awake and staring at the ceiling.

Zadicayn arrives shortly after breakfast and it’s my grandmother who bustles out to kiss him on both cheeks. Zadicayn didn’t bring any luggage with him but he has acquired a small black bag. I imagine it is empty, but at least my grandmother won’t nag him about where his luggage is.

I’m in a bad mood and I really can’t place why, but I do everything I can to avoid looking at Zadicayn and hope he doesn’t touch me too much.

Once my grandfather is perched in his study, my grandmother tosses her white hair up into a sloppy chignon and hides it all under a bonnet. I scowl because she made me sit for an hour while her macramist curled and pinned up my hair and still hid it all under my bonnet. “You must look your best for Jaicom!” she had declared.

Zadicayn bows at the waist when I approach the foyer. “Miss Frondaren. How are yew this morning?”

“Fine.” My snappishness will be noticed. “How was the hotel?”

“Marvelous.” He holds out his arm and I take it, following his lead down the steps and to the carriage waiting on the street. He helps me in first and then assists my grandmother. Removing his hat, he climbs inside and closes the door, sitting next to me. I detect a faint hint of campfire smoke.

Zadicayn is very patient with my grandmother as she chatters enough to rival Tommy whom we left in my train booth we vacated. She’s forgotten I’m even there. Zadicayn actually seems to enjoy it, responding appropriately and asking questions of his own.

Winding through the tight streets, the coach arrives at a shop marked with, Chatwin’s Daguerreotype. I can’t fathom why we are here, but Zadicayn catches some cue I don’t and opens the door, stepping out to assist my grandmother and then me.

“Grandma,” I say as cheerfully curious as I can fake, “Why are we here?”

“Well, since we won’t make it to your wedding, I want a daguerreotype of you two.” And she’s back chatting with Zadicayn.

I wonder if anyone will notice if I just… vanish. Squeeze myself between the cobblestones beneath my heeled shoes. I might even fit in that gentleman’s watch pocket who just walked by.

“Come along Brinella!”

There are several things wrong with this. But if I have to pick one prayer for God to answer, please let it be that Zadicayn won’t make some public proclamation that freezing ones image onto a silver plate instead of having your visage painted, is magic.

We enter the shop and Zadicayn removes his hat. My grandmother swirls over to the daguerreotypist behind his desk. Zadicayn stops in his tracks as he looks around the room at all the pictures the daguerreotypist had taken, hanging on the wall and propped up at the large window. My prayers begin flying.

He steps backward so he’s standing beside me. “These art remarkable paintings. This man here wouldst be hired by the king!”

“They’re not paintings.”

He looks at me as if I’m the one who’s mistaken. He presses his face close to the picture immediately to his left. It’s of a boy and girl sitting side by side on a padded bench. “The likeness tis so… real. Tis as if their very souls art captured on canvass. How tis this painter not employed by the king now?”

My grandmother is still chatting with the daguerreotypist. I step closer to him and whisper.

“They are called daguerreotypes. They are not paintings. That man has a… device that will freeze our very images onto a plate so we will look just like those children there.”

“Magic!”

Well, at least God answered the part about it not being a public proclamation.

“Devil Magic!”

“No.” I hiss back, trying to keep my whispering low. “No it’s not magic. It’s safe –”

“This man tis stealing souls!”

“Bloody priest, Zadicayn. No. He’s not stealing… let’s go outside.” I take his arm and throw my head over my shoulder. “We’ll be right back, grandma.”

The bell above the door chimes when we step onto the street.

“My soul tis nary going to be taken!”

“Zadicayn, it’s okay. It doesn’t steal souls.”

“He steals souls and binds them to those canvasses!”

I want to scream at him to stop being so foolish and laugh at him at the same time. Having his picture taken would probably equal to how I felt being magicked onto the roof of the train. How would I react if our roles were switched? Glories, back in his day people thought it was immoral to bath.

“No… no he doesn’t steal souls because he takes precautions to prevent that. You see… that’s why I brought this along.” I open my clutch and fish around for something to use. I end up drawing out two shillings. I hand him one and keep the other in my glove. “You hold onto that and it will fix your soul into your body so it won’t go anywhere.”

“Mildful! Ye hath worried me.” Relief sputters out of him and he wipes his forehead with his sleeve. “I tis sorry I reacted before ye explain. Now I feel foolish.”

“It’s okay. I know this is all so new for you. I’ve trusted you with certain things so now you need to trust me. That man in there is going to tell you to do things and you need to do them without question. You have to remember that this is normal for everyone so you have to act like it’s normal for you. I promise. This is all safe. I’ve had a daguerreotype of me taken already and I still have my soul.”

“Because ye hath held this coin?”

“Yes,” I say with great patience. “Because I held that coin.”

“A’right. I trust thee.” He takes a deep breath and opens the door for me. He must have been watching people yesterday to figure out how manners and chivalry work.

My grandma and the daguerreotypist are in the studio side of the shop. My grandma beckons us over. Zadicayn’s steps are a little more halted but at least he’s moving. A large painted canvass of green flocked wallpaper, half a window, and a curtain pulled back will be our backdrop. In front of this backdrop is a chair and desk.

“Have a seat, young man.”

Zadicayn fumbles with the collar on his frock coat and seats himself, seemingly not sure where to put his hands or feet.

“Miss Frondaren, stand partially behind him. There. Now put your left hand on his shoulder. Mr. Whaerin, relax a little and lean back in the chair. Your right hand flat on the desk top – okay okay, you can keep holding onto that shilling if you want. Okay that’s good.”

Zadicayn is doing well, following all instructions with no rebellion, save it be his tense shoulder I feel beneath my gloved fingers. I give him a couple squeezes to assure him I’m right there with him. I see his lips move and a sound I don’t recognize as being speech, but then I start to believe he might have cast a spell on himself. Likely to make sure his soul stays with him.

My grandma acts like she’s the one getting married again. “Oh, look at you! You make a handsome couple. It almost makes me want to drag Charles down here in his wedding suite so we can have another go at it ourselves.”

The daguerreotypist sneaks behind me and positions the neck clamp on the back of Zadicayn’s neck. The wizard gasps and jolts forward, spinning around.

“What tis this?”

“He’s never had his daguerreotype taken before,” I rush in to his rescue. “He’s just a little nervous.” I lean down to him, hoping I don’t gag on the next word I must say if anyone is going to believe our ruse. “Love, this is a neck clamp. It’s to hold your neck in place because you have to hold completely still otherwise the daguerreotype will turn out blurry.”

“I dost – do not want anything around my neck.” I can tell he tried to say that as a matter of a request, though his body is quivering and his shaking voice doesn’t help.

The daguerreotypist, however, backs the thin pole where is attached the neck clamp out of the way. “It’s quite alright. Mr. Whaerin is sitting down and is aware he must hold still.” He then shifts a posing stand against my back and affixes the apparatus to hug my ribs and the back of my neck. Zadicayn is still tense beneath my hand so I swirl my thumb against his coat and he relaxes a little.

The daguerreotypist retreats back to his apparatus. Adding liquid and powder to his device, he fiddles around with the lens before throwing a thick black blanket over his head and the box with the lens.

“Hold still now,” I murmur to Zadicayn. “This will take about ten minutes.” I reassure him with a minute thumb massage against his shoulder. I see his right hand on the desk clenched tightly around what must be the shilling.

My neck and shoulders start to ache after three minutes, and after about five more the daguerreotypist throws the blanket off him. “It’s done.”

I move with relief, Zadicayn slowly rising to his knees as if numb.

“I will have the daguerreotype framed and delivered to you,” the man says to my grandmother. “Thank you for your business.”

The chiming of the door opening is like a spell breaking for Zadicayn because he finally relaxes and hands my shilling back.

My grandmother treats us to lunch, where afterwards we end up at Marley’s and Birkham’s for all the wedding gifts my grandmother thinks I should have. I’m looking at a set of rose-printed china dishware when Zadicayn leans in really close next to me.

“Love, I prefer the castle painted cups.”

He’s enjoying this. Immensely. Marauding as my fiancé and doing better at convincing my grandmother than I am. My mood darkens.

“I want the rose,” I snip.

My grandmother is somehow standing right beside me. “I like the castle cups myself,” she says. “Rose reminds me of that awful perfume all the debutantes are commanded to wear. You can’t even smell the bread baking down the street because of it. Jaicom wants this, so I’ll buy it for him.”

I won’t look at Zadicayn to honor his smile. My grandmother is buying chinaware for me picked out by the man I am not marrying. Jaicom will likely have a fit when he sees them. Nothing screams, “I am a wild female with no care for reputation,” than castles printed on my dinner plate.

But that’s not the end of it. My grandmother must still be mad at me for trying to hide Zadicayn when I first arrived because she’s focusing more on what he wants.

We walk through the shop arm in arm while Zadicayn points at things and says, “That shall look dandy in my study. That shall look marvelous hanging beside the window in the drawing room.” (He’s even picked up a Modern English accent, which is highly annoying). “Would this look nice as a centerpiece for the table? I loveth how this dangles,” and on and on and so I walk out of that shop a proud owner of a wolf head stitched throw, blue silk couch pillows, a ceramic figurine of a Knights Templar, a painting of a hunt with walker hounds, a vase splattered with pink flowers, a book called History of Wars Throughout Europe, and a mahogany framed wall clock. I picked out the vase.

It’s all going to be delivered to my house some time before the wedding, I am assured. It doesn’t do any good to pray that I will be the only one home when the delivery arrives so I can bury it all so Jaicom won’t ever see it, because God seems to be finding amusement in my predicament. More likely, just to spite me, the delivery will get confused and go to Jaicom’s house with a note from the man saying the last wizard was marauding around as Jaicom Whaerin and sabotaged my wedding gifts to fit his own pleasure. I might as well draft that note right now.

Now my grandmother and Zadicayn are giggling and whisper to each other as if they don’t want me to hear their jokes. So I tuck down into the corner of the coach and hold my cramping stomach while I look out the window, hoping I can make it back to my grandmother’s boudoir before I explode on some innocent bystander

We enter my grandparent’s house and I want nothing more than to hunker down like a soldier in a bunker for the rest of the night with no more communications with any forms of life, but dinner will be ready in a few minutes. Which gives me just enough time to dab my sweaty neck and arms with honeysuckle and make it to the dining room where my grandparents are seated and Zadicayn is waiting to pull my chair out for me.

Out of everyone in this house, Zadicayn is the one person I don’t want to be around right now. I’ve already decided prayers are useless so I just hope people won’t talk to me for the rest of the night. I feel like I’ve got needles coming out of my skin and a fist trying to punch out of my stomach. If I open my mouth, it’s all going to come out and someone is going to get hurt.

I sit down and he scoots my chair in before finding his own across from me.

My grandfather is stooped over his plate, his head bobbing with palsy. “Jaicom? Is that you?” If his voice had feet, they would be skipping in an up and down, sort of way.

“Yes, grandfather.”

“Hello, Jaicom. Nice to meet you.”

“Nice to meet ye to.” I see Zadicayn wince at the slip but my grandfather won’t care and my grandmother has yet to make a comment about it. Knowing her, she’ll assume he’s an avid reader of the bible, which is actually why Old English sounds the way that it does.

Luckily for Zadicayn – and myself – dinner will be an easy affair unlike our morning of having our daguerreotype taken. I’m just super glad that humans have been eating since before Christ was born so Zadicayn already knows how to do it.

The cook serves my grandfather first, then my grandmother, myself, and Zadicayn last. I have just picked up my fork to start into my salad when Zadicayn gasps so loud it startles me so I drop my fork and it clatters against the ceramic bowel.

“What’s wrong?” I ask.

He points into his bowel. “Tomatoes art poisonous!”

Forget what I said about dinner being an easy affair. Weirdly enough, my grandmother comes to the rescue.

“Oh, Jaicom, living in Valemorren you have probably not heard the latest new discovery that tomatoes are not, in fact, poisonous. Restaurants are starting to serve them and people seem to be okay. But you may choose not to eat them, if you like.”

“Tomatoes are poisonous?” my grandfather inquires.

My grandmother pats him on his hand. “No, Charles, they are safe. Valemorren just doesn’t get the same news we do here in Bristol.”

Zadicayn pushes his tomatoes to the side but manages to eat everything else without mishap. And because I find it better from that moment on just to expect the worst, it saves me from mutilating my head against the table cloth when Zadicayn belches out loud, punctuated with a, “My complements to the cook,” before I can stop him.

My grandfather probably didn’t notice and my grandmother is already enamored with the wizard so this archaic display is passed by with merely a quirked smile from her who I am glad more than ever is still stuck in King George’s Era.

Chicken is served next. Zadicayn is on his fourth refill of gas water.

“Really?”

“Yes. And then she calleth me a monkey.”

My grandmother lowers her gaze on me and shakes her head, making a clucking noise with her tongue. “You are too kind to marry her if she treats you that way.”

“Hello, Jaicom,” my grandfather warbles shakily. “Nice to meet you.”

“Nice to meet you too, grandpa. Well, Brine here does hath a sort of charm that would lure even a mad man away from his insanity.” He winks at me and I conclude to fix my gaze on my plate for the rest of dinner.

“I suppose I should credit her at least that. When she was just four years old she comes crying to me with a dead bird in her hands. She’s always had a soft spot for all living things weighed under misfortune. She gave away her brand new coat one December to a gypsy boy.”

“Hello, Jaicom.”

“Hello grandfather.”

“Can we not talk about me?” I think it’s the first words I’ve said all dinner.

“Oh of course, dear. So modest, even when praise is deserved. Now, Jaicom, rumor has it the Queen might make your father a Lord?”

I have no idea how to save Zadicayn with this one. I don’t even look up to see if he’s looking at me for answers. My eyes remain fixed on my plate.

“He forbids me to speak upon it,” he replies easily. “Yew shall be the first to know if it becomes true.”

My grandmother inhales enough air to fluff her proud shoulders. Zadicayn is the first to finish his chicken and he tosses the bone neatly over his head.

I don’t see this happen. I’m still looking at my plate. The thump on the wall and my grandmother’s uncharacteristic silence are enough to remind me that when one dines in a castle dinner hall where there is straw and dogs on the floor for the purpose to catch such things it would, of course, be normal.

I count five heartbeats before Zadicayn pushes his chair back but the cook beats him to it and picks up the bone, scurrying out of there quick enough that there is a chance it never happened.

“Hello, Jaicom. Nice to meet you.”

 

OOO

 

I manage to make it out of dinner without killing anyone. Digressed from my dress, I throw myself onto my pillow washed with lavender. My nerves only get more crinkly and my stomach cramping worse. I have this vain wish that the world will vanish some time during the night so I don’t see what new tragedies await to ambush me upon opening my eyes.

But I don’t have to wait until morning. I’m being ambushed right now.

Clearly, Zadicayn has found the toilet. And he’s flushed it three times.

It’s upon the fourth flush that I toss the blankets off me, making my cramping bark, and throwing on my night robe I storm out of my room. My grandmother doesn’t believe in locking people in their rooms, either.

The water closet is a new addition to the house, so it is crammed in what used to be the coat closet beside the front door. The door to the water closet is open and Zadicayn is staring inside it, watching what must be the water I hear gurgling down the drain. He reaches for the pull chain again.

“Zadicayn.”

He drops his arms and looks at me. “I dost nary care what ye say. This tis magic.”

“Magic? How can this be magic when whatever you did to the Fae Gate to move its opening from the canyon to the boulder you said was manual?”

“That tis manual. This? Magic. I maketh the mistake of asking thy grandmother to whence I might findeth the garderobe since ye escaped promptly after dinner. She thought I wast being funny and directed me here to the water closet.

“I’m… sorry for leaving so suddenly,” I say, holding myself too tightly with my arms. “I’ve not been in a bright mood today.”

“I hath noticed. Ye a’right?”

I can’t start. Because if I do, it will all spill out and I’ll say things I can’t. Like, I hate Zadicayn. I hate him for interrupting my life with temptations I can’t take. I hate him for not being engrained into my society with status. I hate him for being a hunted, castaway in a castle magicked halfway to another realm. I hate Durain for showing me a freedom I can’t have. I hate being tied into dresses. I hate that I’m going to have castle printed china despite I would have picked those out myself and only picked rose to keep up appearance. I hate that my father-in-law sent an assassin on me and I hate how Zadicayn is starting to look really good in current day English fashion, and him leaning against the wall barefoot with his white shirt untucked isn’t helping.

“I’m… getting married and you are distracting me,” is what finally comes out. Worse, I don’t know how to follow up on that with something that isn’t going to charge my emotions and either make him hate me or make him pick up on I don’t want to marry Jaicom despite I have to and despite I am going to.

“Distracting thee?” he questions. I hope he doesn’t ask me to explain. I’ll just go back to my room and pretend to sleep. He looks away from me, toward the clock ticking on the wall across the dark foyer from us. The thumping second hand helps fill in the silence. “Forgive me, Brine. I tease even though I know I nary shouldst. If ye had nary been attacked on the train, ye wouldst nary hath known I wast even there.”

“I am glad you saved me on the train. That’s not what I’m referring to.”

“I knoweth what ye art referring to.”

I don’t want to be having this conversation. I want it to be twenty years from now already so I can shove Zadicayn back into my Pleasant Memory section of my life experiences.

“So… so I’m sorry for getting snippy at the shop. It’s just that now I have to explain to Jaicom why I thought it was necessary to buy blue silk pillows when his favorite color is red. And I’m going to have to hope either my grandparents die tomorrow or keep making up excuses why Jaicom can never meet them because you two looking nothing alike.”

“Ye art the one who requested I show up here last night.”

“I know! I’m just… that’s why I’m frustrated. I know it’s not your fault.” It’s totally your fault. “And… and I’m frazzled with…” I absolutely have no idea how to say, I’m frazzled because I want to spend every waking minute with you but I can’t spend even another moment with you. I like you. I can’t have you. I can’t even say I’m going to miss him after I’m married because I can’t afford him translating that into something else. Just read my heart, Zadicayn. I don’t try to finish what I was saying. My hormones aren’t balanced enough right now for me to even assess if I am making any sense. Why am I still standing here? I should be back in bed.

“Then upon my return to Valemorren, I shall bid thee farewell so ye can focus on thy future.”

“No! I don’t want you to do that! That’s not what I’m saying.”

He has much more patience than I think I deserve. “Well, Brine, what dost ye want?”

I can feel my heart beat throughout my whole body, like I’m one giant pulse. “… I don’t know.” I fail at being human. I am not making any sense. “I’m sorry. I’m really tired and my stomach really hurts so I’m going back to bed before I make a further mess out of myself.”

“Thy stomach hurts?”

“Yes. No big deal. It happens sometimes. It’s also one of the reasons that was putting me in a bad mood today.”

“Ye art flowering?”

I don’t know what that means but it sounds really awkward. “I’ll be fine. I’ll see you in the morning.” I turn to escape upstairs from this worsening situation but he’s quicker.

“Tarry a moment.”

“Zadicayn, I am really not in the mood for anything more today. I want to go to bed.”

He’s waving me over to him. I hesitate.

“I hath a sester. I know about the cramping.”

Well, now I’m in a situation. He won’t let me go upstairs but I can’t go closer to him to see what he thinks he can do for me. So I don’t do anything. He comes at me instead.

“I worked on a spell to use for my sester when this happened to her. Wouldst ye allow me to try it on thee? It worked for her. She came to me every month so I could do this for her.”

I need to keep as little contact between us as possible, but the mere thought of relief has me nodding my head. He stands next to me and puts his palm on my stomach. A little lower, actually, because that is where it is. He knows.

I’ve never heard him speak a spell yet, but standing this close I catch a breathy sigh infused with tiny whispers. To me they aren’t even words. Just sounds.

Whatever he said worked, because my stomach relaxes so much I’m afraid it’s going to fall out of me and I suddenly love life and everyone in it and I want to conquer the world and eventually become Queen. I’m even feeling good enough to forgive Zadicayn for all his faults.

I blink. “Thank you.”

“It worketh?”

“Yes. I… thank you.” I can’t meet his eyes which I know are gold, not while I’m standing this close to him alone in the dark foyer in my grandparent’s house.

“Ye art welcome. I pray a good sleep upon thee.” He turns sharply away from me and takes the stairs two at a time.

 

CHAPTER FORTY-SIX

ZADICAYN

 

Now I know what Brine was saying about wanting to be free. That once the bird is out of the cage – or vault – it’s not so easy to go back in.

I forgot what family dinners were like, talking about unimportant matters and matters that will change the future in equal quantities alike. What it was like to associate with strangers and learn their experiences so I can embolden my own.

I know Brine thinks I’m going to lock myself away in my castle upon our return. I see it in her silence as we share the same booth on the train. I haven’t allowed her to change her mind about it because I don’t know if it is better for her near future if she thinks she has no more access to me. But I’m a little more selfish. Meeting the Black Magician has seeded an idea and I will need her help for it to work.

“Ye sayeth there tis a man named Corden who wanteth to meet me?”

Her gaze out the window snaps sharply on me, tossing a brown curl against her cheek. “Yes.”

I muse a moment longer, trying to force my plan together faster. “I wouldst like to meet with him.”

Her body quivers. I recognize that as her refraining from throwing herself at me for an embrace. “Oh you will! So you’re not going to lock yourself away?”

I massage my right hand where I used a relocation spell to transfer Brine’s cramping into my hand. Her cramps are much worse than my sisters. “At least, nary yet.”

She explodes in place with excitement. I know that if I were sitting next to her instead of across, I would have received one of her hugs.

“What changed your mind?”

I can tell her without bringing up what happened at the gypsy camp. “It occurs to me that maybe I can merge back into society. I think that if I can findeth nineteen good men to present to Life – essentially doing the hard work for them – then mayhap Life wilt grant unto them Fae magic. Right now they dost nary hath the time to find these men themselves. And when I present these nineteen men, if they still say nay, then I shall revert back to spelling meself and locking meself away.”

“And you think Corden could become a wizard?”

“Well… I hast nary met the man yet. But certain it couldst be a possibility.”

She’s nodding fervently. “Okay okay. I’ll contact Joseara and request her to set up a meet time with us. She’s really quick to respond to me so I’ll show up at your castle to tell you when she does. But you better not lock me out.”

“I shan’t.”

“Oh! I’m so glad you aren’t locking yourself away!”

“Didst ye say last night that I am distracting thee because ye art getting married?”

Her excitement mellows quickly. She won’t look at me. “I did say that, yes.”

“Then how dost ye explain thy desire to keep seeing me?”

I see she doesn’t know how to answer that. So I wait.

It takes her an awfully long time to speak again. “You bring me joy, Zadicayn.” She’s pinching the fingers on her white gloves, pulling them partway off. “You bring me freedom and joy and I know I shouldn’t take it, but I do. Because it brings me freedom and joy and I won’t have that once I am married. And maybe I want to fly again in the Fae Realm.”

“Ye knoweth that only makes it worse for thyself. If ye force a perpetually drunk man to sober upon the instant he wilt die.”

“I know. I know.”

She has no more words to offer after that. The spectrum of human emotions has a wedge of feelings that do not have words because no one knows how to define them. Since I understand, I let her be.

 

OOO

 

A half a day gives me enough time to almost completely clean out the canyon filled with a landslide of trees, earth, and rocks. I’m still careful with the smoke from the fire I use to burn the trees because I don’t want to alert Valemorren yet to the oddity that the canyon is suddenly, randomly, clear again. But I need this passage open again like it used to be so when my plan works – when my plan works – the canyon will be open for visitors and dignitaries to travel. Like they used to.

Next, I move to tackle the disrepair of my castle. I fix broken furniture. Make sure no nests have eggs before I knock them loose from the rafters of the Grand Hall. In general, I’m feeling pretty accomplished.

I’m still not sure how to get over the dilemma of my terrible mattress. I still can’t sleep on one but I’m determined to be able to do so someday soon. I really need a new one, but without a way to transport it from the village without using magic, I must work with what I’ve got.

My own mattress I spell down to the river. The summer night is warm enough, so I strip off half my clothes and proceed to jump upon my mattress in an archaic attempt to wash it.

“Are those the scars that –”

I whirl around so fast that I slip on the wet mattress and nearly lose my whole body into the river when I fall. Now sopping wet, I regain my feet and steady myself enough to see that it is Brine standing on the bank.

“Brine, ye scareth me.”

She clasps her hands in front of her. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know how to announce myself without scaring you.”

“Tis a’right,” I say, though my pounding heart doesn’t agree with me.

I snag my tunic off the boulder and slip it on, least her society comes charging across the bridge above us to tar and feather me for allowing her to see me with my shirt off. “What didst ye ask about a scar?”

“Those… those three scares on your back. Positioned in a triangle. Is that where they…”

She doesn’t know how to ask the question. She doesn’t have to. “Yea,” I say. “That tis where the three blood sucking diamonds on the Binding wert pressed into my back.” Pressed is most certainly the wrong word, but I don’t want to taint her with anything more violent.

“Is that your mattress in the water?”

I look down at my hairy bare toes as if surprised to see the mattress beneath me. “It hath about three hundred and forty-two pounds of dust inside. I wast attempting to make it more worthy for my devilishly handsome visage.”

“How did you get it down here?”

Clearly, I can’t let her see that I am any less of a man because I used magic instead of strength. “Well… I carried it, of course.”

“No you didn’t.”

“Ye of little faith.”

“A relocation spell?”

“I shalt relocate you.” I point at her, now trying to figure out how to gracefully dismount from my vulnerable position on the mattress in the river.

“What kind of wizard will relocate his three hundred forty-two pounds of mattress to the river and not relocate the dirt out of the mattress?” She grins at me. She promptly stops grinning when she begins to elevate off the ground, right until her left heel touches my specified leaf where I’m focused on the bush next to her.

“Zadicayn!” Her body flails as if she is still responsible for keeping herself upright.

“The kind of wizard who can only relocate one object at a time,” I say. “Tis easier to move one mattress than tis a trillion particles of dust.”

“I’m sure a real wizard could do it with the right spell!” she dares to taunt despite her suspended vulnerability under my control.

I guide her, suspended, right onto the wet mattress. She lands with a squeal and sodden splash. I vacate the mattress before she can arrange a counter attack, standing safely on the bank while she scrambles out of the cold.

“Wouldst ye stay with it for a while? Just jump up and down a few times more and then I shalt let it soak.”

“You bloody tyrant!” I think she’s really mad at me. If I remember, I think I kind of liked that look. “I came here to tell you Corden will meet with us in an hour.”

“Ah. Well… why art ye playing in the river? Ye hath gotten thy dress wet.”

“I curse your mattress to move about while you sleep!”

“I shall just relocate the curse out to thy own mattress. Come along. I shalt make sure thee art dry before we head out.” Gathering my boots in my hand, I walk up the stairs.

I have a fire started in our usual meet place of the kitchen by the time she joins me.

“I think we hast time for dinner.”

“I’m not hungry.”

“Ye sure? I hath chopped up troll toes, gorgak eyeballs, dragon tongue, and bread. We couldst maketh a sandwich.”

This breaks a smile out of her which I am glad of because I really didn’t want to make her mad by dropping her in the river. “Chopped up troll toes, please, with a drizzle of gorgak eyeball. But could we eat dinner in the Fae Realm? We could spend two days there before we meet Corden.”

“Nary.”

“Why not?”

What would be the point? I can’t have you. Stop tempting me. In hindsight, it was a bad idea to show her the Fae Realm. “Let us say ye came every night, every eight human hours is twenty-two Fae days. If ye spent twenty-two days every night in the Fae Realm, by the end ye wouldst hath spent four hundred twenty days in the Fae Realm.”

“So?”

“So if ye mother asks ye if ye liked what ye hath for dinner three days ago, how wilt ye remember?”

“I would tell her it was delicious.”

“So ye come back and ye lose track of the day, or forget someone’s name ye just met the day before, or forget what kind of dresses ye own. Or, ‘Brine dear, Sunday wast yesterday. Why can ye nary remember the sermon? And ye act like ye dost nary remember how to play the violin, or –”

“Kay,” she snaps. “I got it.”

“Besides,” I say, pulling food items out of the cupboard, “I dost nary wit at what point the Faewraith shalt notice my absence and cometh into the realm and eat everyone.” I start spreading the Fae green sauce over the slice of bread. “I feel generally okay skipping out for no longer than a human hour, but I nary durst take more. And if the Faewraith cometh, it shalt take nary less than a dragon to chase them back out.”

“What? Why a dragon? I thought you were good enough.”

“Some might say I am too good. But it takes a dragon because they hath the biggest pineal gland. It wilt take something that big to dominate all the little Faewraith pineal glands because once the magic protection of the wizard leaves the Human Realm, there tis nothing left to obstruct them so even my pineal gland tis nary strong enough to chase them all out again.”

“So how does the dragon come into the Human Realm to do that?”

I rake a hand through my spiked hair. The warming kitchen is finally starting to dry us both from our scamper in the river. “Tis a higher level of relocation magic.”

“There are different levels?”

“The Bloodstone ye use to get ye from your room to the Fae Gate tis one level. Picking up and dumping ye in the river tis another. To use higher levels wouldst be easy to abuse, but the Fae maketh it to if ye want it, ye hath to show them ye art serious. They want ye to jump off something high.”

“To commit suicide?”

“Close. Whilst ye art falling, ye must speak the spell for the relocation. And whence upon the spell concludes, what actually happens tis ye switch places with whatever creature from the Fae Realm ye want, though in the spell ye must include their name. They cometh here, and ye go there. The kicker is the Fae shalt hear thy spell and then the Fae wilt relay that message to the creature of thy choice and the creature can either approve or disapprove the request. All this is debated whilst ye art falling.”

“What if they disapprove?”

I shrug. “Suicide.”

“That’s so cruel! Has that happened before?”

“I dost nary wit. I hath nary heard anyone even trying it. Wast no eminent need. But ye can nary blame them for saying nay. They couldst die if they came to this realm. And in the words to the spell, ye dost nary hath time to tell them why ye art asking to switch places. Maybe ye art ready to be crushed by a rock slid, or an army of dwarves hath surrounded ye. They cometh to this world blind. So tis always good to maketh friends from the Fae Realm so they can trust ye and answer thy call.”

“But even then they could say no.”

“Yea.”

“So if they say no, can’t you just relocate yourself to the ground instead of killing yourself against it?”

“Certain. If ye hath the time to speak that spell before ye hit. Magic tis dangerous. In the handling of and the execution. Howevermore, the one mercy tis the Fae dost nary want to keep creating blood gems, and tis unfair to ask mortals to take on such a task that couldst kill them without warning, so the Fae took a vial of each wizard’s blood mixed with a bit of their own so if the wizard died, they couldst be brought back to life. The dose tis only good once.”

“Oh. Well that’s nice. I guess. Where is your vial?”

I finish arranging the food in front of me. I turn around, a wood plate in each hand and set hers in front of her with an elaborate bow before sitting down. “My friend Gareoff Vindazmer wast last in possession. Three hundred twenty-four yore. Twas always better nary to carry it around with thineself. It wast kept in a box of Fae Wood to protect it, but it could still break upon whatever killed ye in the first place.”

“So how would the blood bring you back to life? Someone would shove it down your throat?”

“Ye wouldst pour it upon the spot on the body that ended thy life.”

“But what if your whole body was broken? Or you died in a fire? Or you died of old age? Where would you pour the blood then?”

I sigh. “I dost nary wit, Brine.”

“Maybe it’s still floating around. I could look for it. You book made it back to you.”

“Ye wouldst nary find it. Fae Wood changes color upon its season and my name written on the box tis in Fae Language. But that matters nary. Because it won’t bring me back to life from old age.”

This somber topic encourages her to mull in silence for a moment while she eats her sandwich.

Dinner concludes at the same time we both feel dry enough, and grabbing my favored long blue coat with the tall collar, we leave the castle.

We exit onto the other side of the Fae Gate, the side that opens up into the canyon.

“The canyon looks nice.”

“I thank thee.”

“Why don’t you have a Bloodstone inside the castle I could relocate to instead of here?”

“My castle tis three layers deep into the Fae Realm. The only way to cross through those layers tis though the Fae Gate.” I hold onto her arm and indicate she can press the bloodstone against the spot of blood I made next to the Fae Gate.

We relocate with a pop of displaced air and I’m standing in what looks like her bedroom. Keeping hold of her, I focus on the exact spot on the lawn out the window we are going to relocate to. I whisper the spell, and we end our travel-jumping on the lawn.

I indicate for her to begin walking. “I shall follow thee.”

She walks onward and I fall in step, shortening my stride so she doesn’t have to jog to keep up. She takes me into the grove of trees beside her house.

“This is a short cut into town. It’s three miles on the road but you can make it in two through here.”

I should take her into the Fae Realm. Spend twenty-two Fae days for every eight human hours. She’d like that. She’d want that. But the end would not change. She would still marry, forced to pretend she never knew me as she settles into her role society expects of her.

I have naught to give her. Except exile from her family and Fae clothes and food since I can’t yet show my face in the Human Realm. I’d be selfish to offer her less than what she could have if she stayed.

I only have these thoughts in the first place because she is the first face I saw when I climbed out of my immortal crypt. The first body she let me hold to dispel my nightmares, the first voice which soothed the shrieking need in my head. I’ll eventually find a girl, for Fae know I do not want to die alone when I had lived alone. But society has to not see me as demon-infested, first. The church would have to accept me.

The implications of an almost impossible future sends shudders through me and I force breathe into my lungs before Brine notices.

“Found a lass for me yet, Brine?”

She shrugs. “My grandmother seemed enamored with you.”

“She wast a very charming lady, but she hath a particularness to paintings with naked cherubims. I wouldst nary be at peace upon the moment their eyes laid upon me when I must undress for bed.”

She doesn’t offer up any more suggestions so I concede she hasn’t been looking. Not that I really expected her to, anyway.

“Oh, my parents are dragging me to London on Monday because apparently the only acceptable dress for a Whaerin comes from London which is kissed by the Queen.” She makes a noise of alarm and I snap my eyes to her. She’s jabbing me in the chest with her finger. “No! You are not going to show up!”

I laugh which further pushes the tone of cherry on her cheeks. “I dost nary need to, Brine. Ye parents art going to be present with ye. It wouldst take one bold, blood lusting assassin to kill all three of ye.”

“Four. Our marcramist is coming too.”

“So thy safety tis assured. I shouldst nary be distracting thee on that trip.” I keep pushing that word on her that she pushed on me, to keep reminding her she’s not the only one “distracted”. She is, however, the one who keeps intentionally distracting.

It’s only a few miles to the river. I spot fire flickering ahead, guarded over by two people. The girl who has yet to take off her mask and an aging man who stands as we enter into the ring of light.

“Brinella!” The man smiles and motions Brine over who hesitatingly accepts his half embrace. The man’s eyes lock onto me.

“Are you the wizard Zadicayn?”

“Yea.”

“Come closer so my old eyes can see you.”

Scanning his body for weapons, I step forward tentatively. The man squints at me… trying to find proof, no doubt. I relax my eyes so they flash to gold.

“Bloody priest, it is him!”

“Corden, I told you as much after what happened in the lumber house,” the masked girl says. “Did you think me a liar?”

“No no. Just… such amazing things have to be witnessed firsthand, you know?” Corden’s energy and smile warm me. “Please, sit with us by the fire. There are things I would like to tell you.”

I settle myself onto the log in front of the fire next to Brine.

“Do you mind if I ask some questions? If you don’t want to answer just shake your head.”

“Go ahead.”

“How long were you in the vault?”

The question used to bother me. Now I use it to power my motivation to continue the climb out of it. “Three hundred twenty-four years.”

“No…” Corden shakes his head. “No, that… that’s monstrous. I… if I had the means to get you out… I would have. I’m so… so sorry –”

“Dost nary be so. I just be glad I hath people on my side now that I be out.” I look at both the man and the thief and they nod. I remember what Joseara said about her family dying in a fire. Because of me. “Though, at the cost of what ye two must hath been through, tears at me like daggers. I be sorry. No one shouldst suffer on my behalf.” That old shudder, vibrating my limbs as my emotions trampled about to find a seat. I get it under control before Brine notices, so she doesn’t give away her coat to a gypsy boy again.

“Please don’t be, wizard,” Corden says. “You didn’t choose to lock yourself away. But we chose to fight for you. Sadly, our efforts did not work. Not enough voices. When we did speak up, we were killed. But seeing you out is a relief that our losses were not in vain. Now we must figure out how to integrate you back into society.”

This surprises me, but they are all nodding. Even Brine.

“We don’t want you to feel trapped in your castle,” Corden begins, as if all three of them had had this conversation previously. “You are human and can benefit us again like all the wizards used to. I think if we play it right, the church will come to understand that you are not a demon once they see the good you can do for us.”

Sure, up until the day I die and then the world will be devoured by Faewraiths. But I don’t tell them that. Neither does Brine. No need to feed people with fear they have no control over.

“That wouldst be nice,” I agree, which parallels my own plan I had thought I was going to have to do on my own. “I couldst believe the church mighten accept me. But what of the three families?”

Corden nods once. “This is a game we must play carefully. Slowly. Start out with… like, going to church with us on Sunday so the priest can witness you did not burst into flames like a demon would upon touching holy ground. Then you befriend the priest…” His eyes light up as ideas must be sparkling in his head. “We will figure out how to make it work. I know of others who support you but have otherwise done nothing about it for fear of retaliation from either the church or the three families. I will see if I can convince them. Is there something you can give me to prove you are alive and free?”

The idea to feel human again, to function as a member in society again, brings heat to my heart.

His request is a risk to me. To even him. But this became a risk the moment I climbed out of the vault. If I want to find my nineteen wizards, I’ve got to start.

I finger the dirt until I find a twig no bigger or longer than the stem of a chicken feather. On one end I whispered the spell for ice and on the opposite I call upon the Fae for fire.

A cube of ice blooms on one end. It is small so as not to break the twig, but obvious. The other end of my twig forks a baby curl of flame.

Brine is leaning in really close to see better. “What happened to your finger?”

I look at the mare on my fingertip. “The Fae Wood box I telleth ye about?”

“Yes.”

“The Fae cuteth my finger, so this fingerprint shall appear upon the box at my death. Tis how the box opens. Ye art so curious. Wouldst ye also like to know how I hath a scare on my right hip?”

“Yes!”

I ignore her, handing the wonder to Corden, who hesitates before taking it.

“The fire shall nary burn the stick, or anything, and the ice shall hold even under sunlight. Show only those ye trust, but nary force them to believe. I shan’t have any more deaths for my name on my conscience.”

“Nary?”

“It means not or don’t,” Brine translates.

“I see. Certainly. It will take time. But I believe it will work. Would you be willing to come to church with us tomorrow?”

My heart races at the request. My father is buried in the backyard. But I must start somewhere.

“Yea. I shall go.”

And while we plan, the small seed of heat spreads to my limbs, muffling all my fears for a brief reprieve. I stand on a solid foundation of hope, that even when I lose Brine, there are others I can lean on. And because I now have others to lean on, I need to put Brine down as softly as I can. Being in London should give her some time to detach and give myself the words I need to say to her to send her on her way so I can move on, too. Before it gets to the point where I can’t let her go.

 

CHAPTER FORTY-SEVEN

BRINELLA

 

Zadicayn is going to meet me there. I’m scared for him. I have no right to feel like a mother letting her child out on his own for the first time, but I do. It’s hard pretending I don’t recognize him when my father’s coach rolls in front of the church.

He’s standing outside the parish in a crisp black suit borrowed from Corden. He is speaking with Corden, likely cementing their story that Zadicayn is a relative visiting from London. Which might also explain his unique hair style that is at odds with the citizens of Valemorren.

I exit the coach and have to force my eyes away from the wizard or our secret planning might show up on my face for everyone to see. I walk around the weeping stone angel statue in the churchyard and enter the parish.

The priest climbs his pedestal and scans the congregation before him with a more bladed edge than usual. I tense. He knows.

Yes, the priest knows. Knows of the demon-summoned creature found at the Whaerin lumber house, knows it brought fire with it and almost destroyed a good family’s business because that is what always happens when people go cohorting (seriously, he needs a better word) with demons because nothing ever ever ever good comes from cohorting with demons and magic and bla bla bla.

It’s easy to ignore the yawning pit of hell opening up behind the priest’s eyes, but it takes my mother asking why my hands are shaking for me take a deep breath because the preacher hasn’t yet pointed a finger at me.

But he did. Just now. And I expect the moment my dress would start on fire because he exposed me – but his pointed finger moves on to sweep across the rest of the congregation to encompass everyone. I don’t relax.

Then everyone is standing and I shake myself back to a place vacant of priests and cohorting demons. “What’s going on? Is it over already?”

“Weren’t you paying attention?” my mother asks.

“I got distracted… by my upcoming marriage.”

She smiles and rumples my bonnet. “The priest said they found a demon in the Whaerin lumber house. The same night it almost burned down. He wants everyone to look at it.”

Everyone begins filing through the doorway leading to the catacombs below. I don’t know how to choreograph my face for the appropriate reaction for when I see it, so I mimic my mother who is appalled and revolted and comments that whoever summoned it has a coach waiting to take them to Hell. I’m just a little offended. That thing almost killed me. Unless it is a different Faewraith that… no no, nevermind. There is the slit on its neck Zadicayn made with his knife during his flying leap at it.

As the coach – not the one taking me to Hell – bumps along the road back home, I try to think if this Sunday did any good for Zadicayn’s cause. The priest was more passionate than ever about demons and magic and almost everyone said prayers of protection as they walked by the Faewraith in the catacomb –

No. No this Sunday was no good. We’ll try again next Sunday. And the next, over and over until Zadicayn can find a home in society again. I am grieved that I won’t be there for him, but Corden and Joseara will be. I’ll make sure Joseara reports his progress to me after I’m married.

Our coach passes two constables on horseback, ambling along as if trying to appear casual, about the same pace as someone on foot. Why…

A black coat flashes in my window.

Zadicayn. They are following Zadicayn who is walking back to his castle.

A hive of bees barbs my chest.

“Stop!”

The driver’s voice coos to the horses and the coach rumbles to a stop.

My father looks sharply at me but before he can question, I fling open the door just as Zadicayn steps passed.

“Hey!”

He stops. I see the indecision on whether he should pretend to know me or not.

“Do you need a ride somewhere?” I ask, nudging my chin in the direction of the constables who have stopped, watching us.

He sees them as if just now realizing what threat they might offer. “Yea-s. Thank yew.”

“Father, can we give him a ride?”

He hesitates for a second. He can question me all he wants when we get back to the house but right now, I need to get Zadicayn out of sight of the constables. “Well… of course sweetie.”

I motion Zadicayn inside. He ends up sitting right next to me because between my mother’s tiable dress and mine, they are each too voluminous for us to sit side by side. My green sued skirt ends up folding a little over Zadicayn’s knee.

“Thank yew again.” Zadicayn holds his hand out to my father. “I am Elden.”

My father shakes his hand with a nod. “Fabrin. My wife Janella, and my daughter Brinella whom I believe you met at the Anniversary party.”

Zadicayn pauses. Likely calculating how to proceed with caution like I am. “I did.”

“What brings you to Valemorren?”

My heart is galloping like a herd of horses. I look out the window to the constables we left behind. They are watching the coach go.

“You’re a nephew to Corden?” my mother sounds pleased, though her eyes assess the wizard to find the resemblance that isn’t there. “Cousin to Madrin? Madrin is a sweet thief.”

Girl. She said girl.

“And Corden is good company the brief time we had him. Would you like to join us for lunch?”

I can see Zadicayn is fighting to not look at me for guidance, sitting beside me as he is.

I can’t decide if having him lunch with us would be an issue. If he refuses, then where would we drop him off at? Because wherever that is, that would be “Corden’s house” and if ever my parents decided to thread the needle on the blanket of friendship they thought they might have with him and they went to “Corden’s house” for a visit…

I hate lies. It is like trying to plug all the holes in a sieve before the water of truth spills through.

But Zadicayn must remember what dinner at grandmother’s was like because he says, “I shall decline. Thank yew. I wish yew not to take me further than yewr own house so at that point I will walk the rest.” His dialect has likely already alerted my parents so his oddly structured sentences are not standing out on their own.

“Are you certain? It is not a bother, really.”

“It tis a nice day. It tis good for the lungs. Yew have certainly saved me the greatest part of a walk, anyway.”

“Well, be sure to tell your uncle to call on us for lunch sometime.”

“I will.”

The end of two more miles ends in our driveway where we exit. Zadicayn replaces his hat, tips it to my father, wishes all of us a good day, and proceeds on foot back to the road.

I look but it does not appear the constables have followed.

 

CHAPTER FORTY-EIGHT

ZADICAYN

 

Brine had given me permission to relocate straight into her room during her absence so I can visit with Corden and Joseara and discuss my life options further. She reassured me that the house staff left behind would not be frequenting her room. But despite those reassurances, she said she still planed on the house staff being in her room because she has as much privacy as the portrait hanging in her foyer. So she would place the bloodstone inside her wardrobe so I would still be hidden if the staff happened to be in her room at the time I relocate. It seems sound advice not to trust the facts, given what I’ve picked up on how life has been treating her lately. It seems my appearance has rearranged things for her.

I have a bloodstone in my pocket for the return trip, so pressing my thumb to the spot of blood beside the Fae Gate, a pop heralds me into a dark space and I’m being smothered by dresses laced with honeysuckle. After listening a moment for any sounds of life in the room, I crack open the door.

Clear.

I trip on her shoes, sending both wardrobe doors swinging open wildly upon my fall. I pull my pride upright again and fix her tiny shoes back in their place in the wardrobe before closing the door.

I open her window and stare out; listening, watching. I close the window and utter the spell. I’m relocated onto the blade of grass I had focused on and then follow what I hope is the same path through the trees toward where I think Corden’s camp fire is.

Within the hour, my hopes and thoughts do not betray me because Corden and a masked Joseara wave at me from their blooming fire. I wish the thief would not mask herself. Masked men were the ones who threw me into the vault.

But I have enough sense to separate my fears from those I socializing with who may not understand them. She wore a mask for a reason less sinister than those who vaulted me, I’m certain.

I sit across the fire from the aging man who hands me a plate with mashed tubers and a trickle of watered down beef bouillon gravy.

Corden pulls my ice and fire twig out of a bag at his feet. “I was able to reach out to some friends I trust since last time we met, and two out of the three confirmed their support. The third knew nothing of what I was talking about. Due to the church preaching against the sins of magic and the three families of Valemorren silencing the rumors and the people speaking them, the Fae Wizards have turned into just fun stories and myths. Most people haven’t even heard those. Valemorren is small, so I can garner what support I can with the few people I know and then they can pass the word on to London and Bristol.”

“That hast to be done carefully, however,” I caution. “Because upon every three souls in support of the Fae Wizards, ye shalt have one who shall report me to the church. Ye art challenging an entity who pulls their beliefs from a book written before Moses was a babe. Something that deeply engrained shall nary be swayed so easily or too soon, and I art nary going to let thee nor Joseara get hurt in my name anymore, so I shalt travel about as I can and see what I can doeth. Ye hath already suffered losses greater than my own. No one shall die upon my name anymore.”

“That’s fine noble of you, wizard, myself and Joseara have already accepted the risks long before you left the vault.” The old man’s gray eyes look up. Footfalls crunch the leaves behind me. “Hello. How can I –”

Cloth scratches across my face. Stupefied, I surprisingly don’t react until Joseara’s piercing scream shatters me two seconds later.

Panic and bile fill my throat and instant flashes of men bagging me and dragging me to a stone vault turns my blood into hot shots of terror.

I stand. Reaching behind me, I grab the man’s ears and hunch forward. He hollers as he rolls over my back, crashing into the fire in a spit of sparks.

I rip the bag off my head just in time for more men to reach for me. Joseara’s bucking body clamped between two men and terrified screams fade to the background as I sprint through the trees.

Running feet crash behind me like hounds pursuing a fox. Are these the men who want me vaulted again? The church who wants to smash my amulet?

I shove away the clotting terror in my head aside and focus on the spell for –

A body slams into me. Together we tumble to the leaves. I begin the first word to summon fire to do something when the man’s hand clamps around my amulet that had fallen out of my shirt.

The blood gem bucks at the touch and a tremendous burst of air blasts over my head.

Cree-ok!

“What the –” The man’s next word is a scream as the Faewraith swoops down and clamps his skull between two fat jaws.

I shuffle backwards on my hands. The creature swoops after the other two men running away. They are not successful.

When the Faewraith dives back for me, I relocate a branch through the creature’s chest. It makes a half attempt to stay aloft before crashing to the dirt.

Joseara.

I didn’t notice when her screams died away. I sprint back to the fire, adrenaline zapping bolts of lightning through shaking knees. Corden is picking himself off the ground. Their campfire is a busted mess of scattered logs. The man I had tossed into it is gone.

“Corden!” I drop to my knees and help him stand. “Ye a’right?”

“Yes, but I think they meant to kill me.” He’s clutching his chest, breathing heavy. “One of them grabbed my head as if to twist it but he whispered in my ear to act dead, so I did. They took Joseara.”

“Whence to?”

He points.

I scatter leaves on the man in my hast to turn around in a sprint, wishing I knew the relocation spell to fly. Hooves pound the soft earth ahead of me… or is that my heart beating in my ears?

Leave them alone! Tis me ye want! Leave them alone! My life tis nary worth theirs!

Air rushes down my throat with every gasp, burning my lungs, breaking loose tears blurring my vision.

Three horses stand clustered with their heads together, waiting for the three men killed by the Faewraith. I don’t remember how to ride, so I dash past them onto a foot path snaking between the trees. I don’t see or hear the horses anymore. Still moving in the direction Corden pointed, I shudder breath into my lungs and pant upon the words to relocate the moisture in the soil to rise to the surface. It takes a couple of tries to communicate that effectively through my rampant breathing to the Fae who would grant the spell however they understood it, but it finally works. Shimmering liquid glistens on the ground in patches everywhere within my sight.

Most importantly, it pools in the recent horse tracks, now glowing under the light of the moon. Following the tracks, I focus on the furthest tree I can see and relocate.

 

CHAPTER FORTY-NINE

JAICOM

 

It will be okay, I want to lie to her to muffle her screams ripping into my soul as she bucks against the arms that hold her stretched across two horses.

It will be okay but it wouldn’t. My father will kill her and if I stand in the way, he will kill me too and my sister would lose all thread of innocents as my father yanks her into a world of murderous greed.

But as long as it isn’t Brinella. As long as Brinella is safe. This girl is nothing to me. I don’t know her. She is a thief. She deserves –

Her screams sharpen and the man holding her head drives his elbow into her face.

I have to shut out the clawing guilt in my chest. If I die, there will be no one left to stop the monster of my father. More innocents would die. I was able to save that old man because I volunteered this venture. The other men with me would have witnessed me break his neck. At least it is just the girl going to die and not both.

I grip my resolve inside gloved fists against the reins.

She isn’t silenced long. She screams again, punctuated with sobbing which, somehow, drives the guilt deeper into me.

Varrica will be protected from all this.

The thief bucks.

The old man is alive.

The thief works an arm free and the man snatches it back.

Brinella will still live. If all the blame is placed on this thief I will be free and clear. I have to remain alive, pretend to go along with my father so I can be an ally to everyone on the inside. Some might die along the way, but I know I can minimize, if I can’t stop, them all from dying.

That doesn’t make her screams any quieter.

We round the lumber house and muted hoof beats on the damp river bank rumble on for another two miles. We reach the tributary trickling into the river and turn a hard right into the forest until I raise my gloved hand to halt.

Old trees needle the area, void of anything else except leaves and a wire and green wax bush seemingly at odds with the rest of the voidish landscape. The burley mercenary holding the thief’s flashing head clamps a meaty hand over her mouth to muffle her crying as he drags her to the fake bush I have dismounted to stand next to.

Grabbing the stiff leaves of the wax bush, I lifted up and set it and its foundation of a board it is affixed to out of the way. The three mercenaries file down the wooden steps into the underground hovel. I follow last, replacing the bush over the opening.

My father is already lighting a match to the wood he had stuffed into the brick kiln in the far wall, though it is not to destroy the evidence of a Faewraith tonight.

The mercenary drives the thief to her knees, held down on either side by a man holding each arm. My father brushes his hands together as if he had just done the dirty work and approaches.

My stomach cramps. I look at what I have access to in the room and think furiously how to save this girl’s life without compromising my own.

My father fists the girl’s mask and yanks it off. Thick scarring masks her face already. Patches of some colored hair between the baldness does nothing to compliment her.

“Joseara Isendell,” my father sneers. “Dying the first time should have taught you to leave fire alone.”

My heart is already so full of everything else that I don’t have room for the shame to realize the story I fed my father about Joseara being the thief was accurate. I made it up to get his compass of Brinella. I shove the shame away. My father needs to die, father or no. A knife on the table is within reach. Two steps and it could be in my father’s heart.

My father crouches so he is eye level with her. “But I am merciful, you see, for even though you will die in fire since you should have died in the fire over two years ago, you may not have to suffer as badly if you tell me who freed the wizard from his vault.”

Joseara’s screams turn into sobs, reaching for compassion since terror isn’t working.

“Rest assured the wizard will not die,” continues my father’s strained attempt at reassurance. “We captured him, too. We just want him back in the vault where he will live.” He stands, all pretense of kindness hardening. “Who freed the wizard?”

The knife. Grab the knife. It doesn’t matter that he’s my father, that it will leave my mother widowed. He is evil. He is hurting other people for his greed. Grab the knife.

Killing is not so easy a thing when confronted with the option. It is extinguishing a life; forty-three years silenced in a moment.

Grab the knife.

A thick plume of smoke curls out of the burning kiln from behind my father, nearly filling the hovel. He sprints over and slams the cast iron door closed but smoke continues to pour out of the vents and around the seals on the door.

“Something’s clogged the pipe.” He points at the third mercenary who stands as if irritated he hasn’t been paid yet. “Go outside and find out what is obstructing the smoke stack.”

The mercenary unfolds his arms as if to object, but a swift glance from my father and the man stomps up the stairs.

Placing an arm over his nose, Aklen creeps back to hover over the girl. His fingers on his other hand lash out like the jaws of a snake biting Joseara’s white throat. “WHO FREED THE WIZARD?”

Grab the knife.

“I did!” Joseara’s last cry falls broken on my father’s shined shoes.

He purses thin lips and pats her near-bald head. “I believe you are lying but I can’t prove it. I will still be merciful for you, but only because I don’t want to hear your screams for longer than I have to.”

He grabs the knife off the table next to me. The suddenness causes me to flinch. He looks at me without raising his head. “Would you like to do it, son?”

The question zaps all of the air out of my lungs. I fish around for a good excuse but I take too long.

“Next time, then,” he says, apparently reading my hesitation as being too scared.

The mercenary stretches Joseara’s left arm straight out to her side. Her small, lean body fights but it makes no difference. My father lays the blade beneath her arm pit and pulls back. Blood dumps into the dirt. Screams and tears mesh into a single gasp of defeat from Joseara.

A life muffled before me. I could have stopped it. Could have picked up that knife as easily as my father had. Sheathed it in the man’s body. I’ve never killed before. Had no reason or desire too. But now instead of the haunts that would come because I watched a girl die in front of me, I’ll be haunted more because I could have stopped it.

My father tosses his head toward the still heavily smoking kiln, his eyes very obviously watering. “What is taking that bloody man so long?”

The two mercenaries drag Joseara forward. She thrashes uselessly.

A flash of blue from the stairs punches into my vision. I look in time to see the wizard lunging at Joseara. Still mid-air in his leap, his hand clenches the back of her shirt and they both vanish, a roar of fire filling the hovel as they do.

Fire lashes upon all of us in wake of the wizard’s absence, biting into every wood and cloth surface in the room. I’m closest to the stairs. I dash up them, throwing myself into the leaves and roll around to smother the flames eating my clothes.

Burns sears my flesh in patches but they are all survivable. I look at the entrance to the hovel and two men emerge, flaming like torches.

Please leave my father down there please leave my father down there please

Both men drop and roll. Their clothes crumple off them, their skin pink and angry but they are alive.

And one is my father.

 

CHAPTER FIFTY

ZADICAYN

 

My boots nearly touch the back of my head as I land horizontally in Brine’s wardrobe.

Joseara, tight in my clutches, bursts out of the doors, sprawling across the rug.

“Damnit!” Punching my thumb onto Brine’s bloodstone, I pop and Joseara’s body drops onto the dirt beside the Fae Gate.

I nearly break my knuckles knocking ten times on the stone. It dissolves and, scooping up Joseara’s limp body, I sprint through, fear and hate and anguish giving adrenaline to my limbs.

“Nary die!” I shout as if such a thing could be stopped by mere words.

Her blood still pumping from her arm slicks the front of my blue coat; a gleaming pathway to the end of her life. My coat drinks it up.

The blood is pumping out, so her heart is still beating.

Still beating.

I clutch that pathetic hope as if I’ll die when it is no longer true.

On the other side of the Fae Gate, I fix my gaze at a specific stone center of the bridge, shout the spell, and relocate with a pop directly on it.

My boots pound the stone of the bridge, the thief’s blood leaving a pathway through the Grand Hall. I focus on a stone in the floor at the other end and relocate to it.

The gushing blood turns into a pulsing.

I try to find more points to relocate to but I’m turning so many corners and running down stairs too swiftly to get a good focus on any of them.

I reach the dome room. I relocate from the top of the stairs to the Fae Arch and lunge through.

I lay Joseara’s still body on the floor inside the Fae Realm, trembling fingers digging for a pulse in her neck.

My own beating heart distracts me and I won’t hold my breathing, unwilling to verify her death even though I look for it, a death I would have caused because I wanted to leave the vault.

But I hold my breath because if she is alive…

Focusing, I wait for a single pulse against my fingertips, my heart throbbing in my throat.

One.

One pulse.

Two.

There are two. They come too far apart to bring her back to health in the Human Realm, but naught can die in the Fae realm.

She is alive.

Leaving her on the stone floor, I run up the stairs through the Fae Realm side of the castle, shoving a war of emotions to a place that might find me later but for now I am safe from their agony for a moment longer.

Relocating when I can, I make it outside into darkness, jumping on the relocating platform to another one, and another, and another. Until I land on the one for the town I had taken Brine into.

Lorcrante’s shop is closed but I beat on the locked glass door anyway. I run to the inn and ask the tree Fae to call for her. The tree Fae does, in its language, and shuffles back into the kitchen.

I stand outside, pacing back and forth, assurance that Joseara will live failing to give me relief.

Soon, a woman comes running from the cluster of colored glass houses, holding a lantern with a glowing blue crystal and wearing a night dress.

“Zadicayn?” She is breathless, brushing white hair behind her ears. “What’s wrong?”

I explain as I lead her to the relocating platform. We reach my castle. I force myself to slow because the old woman is running to keep up with my long strides.

Lorcrante sets down her lantern and kneels beside Joseara, checking her pulse again just to make absolutely certain.

“She’s alive. If barely. Not enough blood to keep her conscious but enough to keep her alive. Three more heart beats and she would have died, I imagine.”

“Can she be nursed back to health?”

“I am not a healer, but I imagine when her blood replenishes she’ll be alright. If the Fae Realm will assist in replenishing blood. Since nothing dies or wounds in this realm, there is no need for healing.” She looks at me but I won’t connect the glance. My emotions are looking for me. “Carry her to my house. I will take care of her.”

Numbly, I gather the innocent girl who almost died because of me in my arms and travel back to town with Lorcrante.

My arms are fatigued with holding Joseara by the time we enter Lorcrante’s one room house which doesn’t seem so small with all the treasures she has filled in it. She points at the single bed in the corner, the blankets tossed aside.

“Lay her there.”

I do, worried about the blood stains but no one bleeds in the Fae Realm, either. I can’t even see it on my coat.

She pours water on the red crystals in the hearth to activate their heat. Pulling a tree bark weaved basket from under her bed next, she withdrawals a pair of scissors and cuts Joseara’s shirt until her left shoulder and arm are bare.

I’m pacing, re-hiding from my emotions chasing me like hounds on the hunt. Her blood covers me. The emotional hounds will sniff me out and eat me while I scream.

Lorcrante threads her sewing needle. Pulling her glass chair from her glass desk, she sits beside the bed with her needle and thread and spreads the wound open with two fingers.

“Ye said ye weret nary a healer.” I snap the words at her without meaning too. I don’t know how to control my voice.

“No. But I’ve mothered five sons.”

There are no doctors in the Fae Realm. No need. Skin and bones do not break here. So what does one do when you bring broken skin or bones into the Fae Realm?

“I can heal that,” I burst out.

“Can you?”

Can I? I can’t even calm myself, and she sees it. I stand over Joseara, her breathing much too shallow. Three heart beats away from death. The cut is clean; white bone winking from deep within. The artery running through the arm pit and down the left arm is completely severed.

I think what I would need to do: relocate the artery back together with every fiber of muscle, each blood vessel and nerve. Then there is figuring out a spell to replenish all the lost blood – how much blood does an eighteen-year-old female weighing one hundred thirty pounds need? Was there brain damage from loss of blood? How does one fix brain damage –

“ – leaving.”

“What?” I blink, disconnecting from thoughts surging into a whirlwind of panic.

Lorcrante’s smile is only forged to soften the blow of what she repeats. “You realize Joseara is never leaving, right?”

I’m running out of hiding spots. My emotional hounds will find me and rip into me like teeth.

I heard incorrectly. Of course I’m not the one responsible for bringing this girl into a world not her own without her permission and forcing her to stay in it. “Forgive me… sayest one more time?”

“Zadicayn… she is so close to death. If she spends one more heart beat outside this realm she will die.”

“Certainly, because of the blood loss. But her body shall replenish that in time.” I hoped, anyway. I had never known anyone so severely drained of blood to enter the Fae Realm to know for sure.

“But how can you make sure you reconnect the vessels that were torn? If they are not connected properly, and she leaves the Fae Realm, she could suffer internal bleeding –”

I flee the house, pushing open the glass door with almost enough force to shatter it, my emotions barking at my heels, drooling for the lust to kill me.

I crawled out of the vault. I crawled out of it on a selfish whim to be free, to have friends, to eventually have a family.

To be accepted into society.

To not be alone anymore.

Selfish. I left the vault and Corden only lived because someone let him. I left the vault and Joseara is one heartbeat away from death. I left the vault, tempting three men to chase me but were eaten by a Faewraith when one of them grabbed my amulet. I leave the vault and Brine almost died by the Faewraith summoned by my amulet when I joined with it the first time.

I leave the vault and now people will die because of my inability to live forever.

I sprint until I am out of breath. I slow to a staggered limp. The hounds of my emotions howl as they overcome their prey.

I crash to my knees as the hounds of anger, rage, sorry, loneliness, and guilt gnash into me, ripping chunks out of my soul, tears drowning my vision as thick as Joseara’s blood on my clothes.

 

CHAPTER FIFTY-ONE

BRINELLA

 

Ten minutes in the presence of my mother is unbearable. Three days in the city daunts me to eerie silence.

No expense is spared in the decorations for my wedding. Two extra carriages are commissioned to carry it all home.

The groom’s father always paid for the wedding expenses, though since Aklen Whaerin is not present, he expects a receipt for everything. His only guidance about our purchases were to have the wedding colors green and silver. I don’t care. I could have no wedding colors and feel as indifferent.

Finally home, I fly upstairs to await the glorious liberation of my dress. But Varseena stalls in the entry, chatting with my mother about things that couldn’t be chatted with the entire time they were in the train together.

I close the door behind me, considering knifing the dress off me if Varseena isn’t here in three minutes. But I pause.

My wardrobe is open.

No matter. Zadicayn must have visited Corden and Joseara. I just didn’t think he’d be so careless as to make it so obvious in his relocation into my room. But I get a little agitated when I see my shoes scattered across the floor, as well as a dress having fallen off its hanger. As I’m formulating my complaint to Zadicayn for being so careless, I spy a dark stain on the rug.

It is pooled just outside the wardrobe. I crouch down and touch it but it is dry and crusted. I spit on my finger and rub the wet tip into the carpet, bringing my finger up to my eyes again.

It is a liquid red.

Wine?

I wet my finger again and get a better sample. It’s thicker than wine. Then what in the world –

It isn’t wine.

It’s blood.

I scream.

I clamp my jaws shut as soon as the sound leaves my mouth and somehow find amid the ruins of my crumbling self-control to pull Durain’s bone handled knife out of my vanity drawer and hash into the rug around the stain with shaking hands, imagining Varseena opening the door at every moment.

The knife slips and gouges the dark wood base of the wardrobe. I flip the chunk of carpet over. The blood had not soaked through. The carpet is double sided so after years of use it could be flipped for a fresh, clean look. I positioned the chunk as best I can so the pattern on this side would match up. I shove my scattered shoes and dress into the closet and close the door just as Varseena comes in.

She busies right by me, whistling, as if the last wizard is not severely wounded somewhere, alone and hurting. The Faewraith had not arrived so he isn’t dead. Yet.

It takes a strength I did not have a month ago to hold my composure as Varseena begins to untie me.

Why was he bleeding?

My corset comes loose.

Was he fleeing the castle or fleeing too the castle?

Varseena pulls a brown dress out of the wardrobe to ready me for dinner.

“I’ll not be leaving my room the rest of tonight,” I say. “I’ll wear my nightgown. You can tell my father to lock me in.”

Varseena puts the dress away. And because she knows I’m going to leave the house as soon as she leaves the room, the macramist dusts everything with a surface, straightened every painting, fluffed my pillows, and told me about her own wedding.

Only when I am certain Zadicayn is dead now, she leaves. At least my father senses my urgency. He comes promptly by afterward and locks me in.

 

OOO

 

I relocate with a pop. Outside air breaths down the neck of my night dress. I look down. Blood is splattered beneath my slippers. Too much. Anxiety ripping through me, I knock ten times and sprint through the open tunnel. Blood trails along the tunnel to the other side. Across the bridge. Into the Grand Hall.

Every agonizing moment I expected to find his body slumped in a lifeless heap. I won’t know how to handle his death. It’s shredding me apart just thinking he might be dead. I’m dizzy with fear and I stumble even as I continue to run, following the constant path of blood through the corridors. What if I find him dead? Do I just leave him? Carry his body into town for a burial? Will I have to bury him here?

These unanswered questions cramp upon my stomach. The only certain answer I have is I will absolutely lose it if I find him dead.

“Please God. Please God. Please.”

The blood takes me down the stairs to the Dome Room. The arch enters my view and I stop. Zadicayn’s back leans just inside the arch on the Fae Realm side, slumped against the wall, legs spread out before him. Eyes closed.

Dead.

I can’t bear this. I can’t. I’ll die right here because going back means a feast for the Faewraith. My energy sucked out of me, I fall into a heap on the floor, curling into a ball and hug my knees. My sobbing comes out in a mixture between animalistic gnashing and the broken heart of a little girl.

“Brine?”

I flinch out of my fetal position, clearing the blur out of my eyes to look at him. He’s shifting around.

“Zadicayn!”

Drowning in relief, I run through the arch to get to him. As soon as I pass under the arms of the white pillars, he vanishes and I’m staring at the stone wall.

I step back out of the arch. He reappears.

“I am in the Fae Realm,” he says, as if lifting his tongue is too much effort. Dark bags under his eyes witness sleepless nights. Food refuse litter him on both sides.

“You’re alive!” I need to touch him to make sure. This ache in my heart won’t stop. The shock still summons my tears. “Come escort me into the Fae Realm with you.”

“Nay.”

That single word is a punch in my gut. “Why?” He shakes his head. I want to keep demanding but other questions rise to the surface for now. “Is that your blood in my room? Are you okay? Why are you sitting in the Fae Realm?”

He closes his gold eyes, his breathing shallow as if life had finally numbed him. “Tis Joseara’s blood.”

“What happened? Is she okay?”

“She tis alive if that tis what ye meaneth by ‘okay’.”

“What happened?”

He won’t look at me. His adam’s apple bobs as he swallows. He whispers something but I can’t hear it.

“What?”

He digs shaking fingers into his black hair and lowers his head. I need to touch him to make him better. That always makes him better.

“I can nary see thee anymore.”

“What? Why?”

This time he looks straight at me. His gold eyes have never been so painful to look into. “Because people almost died. Because of me. Because I left the vault. Corden only lives because his attacker hath mercy on him. Joseara only lived because I got her to the Fae Realm before she completely bled out.” He takes a deep breath, as if that is the first one he had taken since I saw him last. “Society tis nary ready for me. Because of me, I inspire men to commit evil upon other people.”

“Stop saying those things! They are not true. You don’t inspire men to become evil. They are evil because… because they are evil!” I’m not good at this. Had never had the chance to try.

“But truth tis,” his eerie calm unsettles me, “Joseara wouldst nary be confined to the Fae Realm if it wast nary for me gallivanting about society like a selfish fonkin who thought it would be a’right.”

My desire to touch him to cure his hurt has me pacing restlessly to dispel the energy. “Why is Joseara confined to the Fae Realm?”

“She shall die if she leaves.”

“Why? Escort me into the Fae Realm with you.”

“Nay.”

“Do it!”

“Ye shall die too if I associate with ye.”

“Have more faith in me than that.”

“Tis nary my lack of faith in ye. Tis in meself.”

“Let me in!”

“Nay.”

“I want to see Joseara.” I’ll throw that at him mercilessly until he concedes. “She considers me a friend and I am the reason she stayed in Valemorren.” I recall back to that conversation in my bedroom. I wipe a tear off my cheek. “Don’t make her regret that.”

This causes him pause. He curls his knees into him and he bows his head. I will stand here and scream at him until he lets me in. He can’t deny me seeing the girl I was friends with first.

“A’right. But only to see Joseara. Then I shall bring ye back out.”

He stands, his shoulders hunched as if he bears the weight of every human life he feels obligated to carry. He steps through the arch toward me and dried blood becomes visible on him, doused across the left half of his long blue coat and down his left leg like red dye. I pale.

“Yea. Almost bled out because of me.”

“No.” My voice and breath are gone. “She lives because of you.”

I let him take my arm and he pulls me through the arch. I was going to embrace him to finish settling my relief that he is alive, but the blood on him – though invisible in the Fae Realm – has made me queasy.

His heels tap the stone with every step as we walk, as if too weary to lift his feet any higher. I want to ask when he slept last but that would only add to the list of burdens I see he cannot lift.

Using the land relocating ports this time, he takes me to the town of colored glass buildings. Wordless the entire time, he leads me to a small red glass house and knocks on the door.

The woman I recognize from the oddity shop from my last visit pokes her head out, huddled in a shawl against the cool night. “Hello Brine.”

“Hello.”

“Brine desires to see Joseara.”

“Of course. Come in.”

Joseara is laying on a comfy pile of blankets and pillows in a night dress too big for her with the sleeves cut away. Her left arm pit is bandaged. She’s breathing so shallowly I think I imagine it. I’m forcing myself not to cry as I approach. Tears will only mount upon Zadicayn’s guilt.

I stand above her, fiddling with my fingers. “Has she…” I clear my throat. “Has she woken up yet?”

“Nay.”

“When did you bring her here?”

“Tuesday.”

Time is faster in the Fae Realm. Today is Thursday. That equals three months in the Fae Realm.

I fight the tears by shifting my lips around and swallowing too much. Her insipid skin where I see obvious dry cracks and flakes has tightened on her bare arms and scarred face, sinking her eyes and making her look horrifyingly like a skeleton with how knobby she has become. I could count every bone in her hand if I wanted.

She is dead. Just that nothing dies in the Fae Realm.

I can’t cry here. Zadicayn will consider that an admission that he is to blame and there is no telling what his conscience will do to him.

I steady myself with an emboldening breath. “Is being in the Fae Realm helping her recover?”

“If I must judge that question against what we both see… nay. Tis been three months.”

“But nothing dies here.”

“Ye can nary find harm here, either. She tis the first harmed person I hath brought to the Fae Realm. I dost nary wit what happens to them except nary a thing.”

Now the question I’ve been avoiding. “What happened?”

He folds his arms tightly in front of him. “I visited Corden and Joseara at Corden’s camp. We wert attacked by several men. I can nary say if they wert of the church or the three families. I ran but one of the men grabbed at my amulet and a Faewraith appeareth, eating three of them before coming after me. I killed it. I followed the others who taketh Joseara but they hid in an underground catacomb. It taketh me relocating the smoke from a pipe they had coming out of the ground back inside to flush one of them out to findeth the entrance. I got inside just as they wert dragging her to a fire kiln.”

I clench my fists to keep from trembling.

“They cuteth her arm with a dagger before that. I released a blast of fire inside the catacomb just before I relocated with Joseara into your closet before I couldst relocate to the Fae Gate. I got her inside the Fae Realm just before her last couple of heart beats.” His tone mellows, evened out and stretched. Numb.

“It’s not your fault.”

“A’right.”

“It’s not.”

“I hear ye.”

I don’t know what to do for either Zadicayn or Joseara except to keep staring at the thief, building up my grief for both of them so I’ll drown when I release it in the privacy of my room.

“My guess tis the three families. The church wouldst have nary a reason to kill her.”

“Did you get a look at anyone in the catacomb before you relocated with Joseara?”

“Just a quick glance of a tall man in a coat much like what I weareth to Bristol. Gray hair above both ears.”

Aklen. “Were there more people in there beside him?”

“Certain. Howevermore I moved too fast to look upon them further.”

I’m only able to stomach that my father-in-law has done this to Joseara and something similar to me – twice – when I reassure myself I will be working for Zadicayn from the inside after I am married. I can stop this. Expose Aklen to the church, who also supplies Valemorren’s constables for crimes against God.

“I promise to fight for you on the inside, Zadicayn. I’ll find a way to bring Aklen to justice so he is out of the way and you can continue in your search for your nineteen wizards.”

He doesn’t rep