HE SPELL THE QUEEN CAST ON MY CLOTHES was transformation, not illusion; it didn’t break when we left her knowe. I made the trip from the beach to Golden Gate Park in the ball gown, clinging for dear life to the back of Walther’s makeshift “broom.” Marcia rode sandwiched between us, arms locked around Walther’s waist and eyes squeezed resolutely shut. I didn’t blame her. Tylwyth Teg can fly, but they aren’t good illusionists—in order to keep us from being spotted, Walther had to stay six stories up for the entire flight.
Spring in the Bay Area starts around the end of February, but San Francisco is a coastal city. It gets cold fast once the sun goes down, and most dresses aren’t built to combat extreme wind chill. I was shivering uncontrollably by the time Walther brought us in for a landing inside the Tea Garden walls. So was Marcia, whose trendy jeans and lace tank top gave her almost no protection against the elements.
“Sorry about that.” Walther stepped off the broom, turning to help Marcia dismount. “Are you both okay?”
“Are Tylwyth Teg self-defrosting or something?” I climbed down, shaking my skirt back into a semblance of order. “I’m fine. Where’s Lily?”
“Lily’s in the knowe.” Marcia paused, swallowing hard before she added, “None of us know what to do. That’s why I came to find you.”
I looked around the darkened garden before returning my attention to Marcia. She had moved to lean against Walther. “Did Lily tell you to do that?”
“No.” She shook her head. “We just . . . ”
“We didn’t have any other options,” said Walther.
The statement hung between us, utterly true, and utterly tragic. Independent Courts like Lily’s enjoy a lot of freedom . . . at a price. There’s no one to help them when things go wrong, and someone’s always watching them, waiting for signs of weakness. Most of them hold their land through a mixture of inertia and looking like it would be too much trouble to take them down. That’s why we had to deflect the Queen’s Court onto something more scandalously interesting. If the Queen took an interest . . .
“Well.” I took a breath. “Does she know I’m here?”
“I don’t know,” said Marcia.
“Okay.” I took the lead as we walked toward the moon bridge that served as the entry to Lily’s knowe. “Can I ask a few questions before we go in?”
“Anything,” said Walther.
“Well, for starters, who the hell are you? I’ve never seen you before, and now you’re one of the people coming to tell me there’s an emergency. It seems a little—” I stopped as I realized where that statement wanted to go.
“Fishy?” finished Walther, not seeming to notice Marcia’s wince.
I shot him a sharp look. His expression was entirely innocent. “Yeah,” I said. “That.”
Walther shrugged. “I moved to the Bay Area last semester, for work. I didn’t want to jump right into working for any of the local nobles, and Lily agreed to let me hang around if I’d do some odd jobs for her while I get settled. You can check my references, if you want.”
“I may do that. For right now, when did this start? Was it tonight, or earlier?”
“We don’t know,” said Marcia miserably. “She didn’t say anything about being sick, but she’s been really quiet for the last few days.”
“Pieria hurt her wing. I went to get Lily, and I found her passed out on the pavilion floor.” Walther looked away. “I managed to wake her, but she didn’t remember who I was. I got worried after that, and took some of her water for testing. It’s clean. I don’t know what’s going on.”
“I really don’t know what you expect from me.” I started up the moon bridge, pulling myself higher one step at a time. The branches began snarling together overhead, weaving the roof of Lily’s knowe and shutting out the mortal world.
“I didn’t know where else to go,” whispered Marcia. I wouldn’t have heard her if she hadn’t been right behind me. “You weren’t home, so I called Sylvester, and he said you’d been called to Court.”
Meaning she’d technically been sent by my liege. This just got better—although I was going to have to ask Sylvester how he knew I’d be at the Queen’s knowe. “I’ll do what I can,” I said.
The last of the branches slithered into place above us, marking the final point of transition between the mortal world and Lily’s corner of the Summerlands. I stepped off the bridge, stopped, and stared, feeling the bottom drop out of my stomach.
Pixies clung to the woven ceiling, casting a faint glow over a landscape that seemed less complicated than it should have been. We were surrounded by an endless array of ponds, streams, and tiny islands—but where were the elegant bridges, the pavilions, the decoratively twisted Japanese maple trees? It looked like half the knowe was missing. The only concrete landmark was the stand of willows to our left. I started in that direction, Walther and Marcia following close behind.
Two women stood in front of the willows, leaning against each other for support. One had scales peppering her face; the other had a Gwragen’s gray-white skin and deep-set eyes. The scaled woman raised her head as we approached, prodding her companion into doing the same. They were standing a bit apart by the time we reached them.
The Gwragen moved to grab my hands as I drew close, and then shied back, looking startled by her own boldness. “Our Lady is in the grove,” she said, slanting a glance past me to Marcia. Her eyes were an almost human shade of brown, marking her as a half-blood.
I nodded. “Is she awake?”
“She was,” said the scaled woman. “Wakefulness comes and goes. Please don’t stay too long. She isn’t strong.”
“I won’t.” I turned to look at Walther and Marcia.
They shook their heads, a few beats out of unison. Walther gestured me forward, saying, “It’s better if . . . it’s just better if we don’t.”
“. . . Right,” I said, and swallowed hard. I’ve faced down killers, crazy Firstborn, and the Queen of the Mists. None of those could compare to the fear I felt as I stepped forward to push the dangling curtain of willow boughs aside, squared my shoulders, and stepped through.
The inside of the grove was filled with a hot, thick mist, practically turning it into a sauna. Sweat beaded on my skin almost instantly, and the moisture soaked into the fabric of my gown, making it hard to move. It wasn’t entirely dark inside the trees; pixies clung to the branches overhead, their pale glow barely providing enough light to navigate. I started forward, moving slowly as my eyes adjusted.
Like so many things in Lily’s knowe, the grove seemed to be bigger on the inside than the outside. I walked a good twenty feet before a shallow pool came into view, filled with shadows that resolved, between one blink and the next, into Lily. I stopped dead, clapping a hand over my mouth as I tried to make myself believe what I was seeing. It wasn’t easy, because what I was seeing was impossible.
Walther and Marcia said Lily was sick, but they hadn’t been able to make me really understand what they meant. I understood it now. And I didn’t want to.
“Lily?” I whispered, taking another hesitant step forward.
“Ah.” It was more a sigh than a fully shaped word, accompanied by a slight slumping of already halfsubmerged shoulders. Her head was propped up on a cushion of moss; the rest of her was under the water, cloaked by the thin black shroud of her unbound hair. “My October. I wondered when you’d find your way here.” Her accent was stronger than I’d ever heard it, all traces of San Francisco shed in favor of a Japan that died centuries ago. “Come here, my dear one.”
“I’m here.” I stumbled through the last steps to the pond’s edge, where I dropped to my knees in the damp moss.
Lily didn’t look any better viewed up close. Her skin was waxen, and the scales around her eyes were dull, all their shine leeched away. She was too thin, and too faded. “I’m sorry if I’ve worried you. Who brought you?”
“Marcia and Walther. I would’ve worried even more if I’d found out later than this.”
“Really? That might have been a taste of your own medicine.” She turned toward me, eyes opening. I bit my lip to stop the words that threatened to escape. The green had run out of her irises, leaving them the dark, undefined shade of deep water. “They brought you for nothing, because nothing’s wrong. I’m just tired.”
“You don’t look tired. You look—” I let the sentence trail off, unsure how to finish. She looked like she was dying.
“I know how I look.” Lily sighed again, eyes drifting gradually shut. “I thought it was something in the water, some new weed killer being washed in from the park. The world isn’t as clean as it was when I was young, and I thought it would pass. It didn’t.”
“How long ago did this start?”
“Sometime last week. I asked Walther—dear Walther, you should get to know him better. He’s Tylwyth Teg; your mother would approve. He works at one of the mortal universities. I asked him to take my water for testing.” The skin at the base of her jaw split as she shook her head. Brackish water trickled from the wound. “He found nothing. But something’s wrong.”
“You’re going to be fine.”
“Am I? I wonder. What will happen to my children when I’m gone? They’ll have no one to care for them without me.”
“You don’t need to worry about that,” I said fiercely. “You’re going to be
“Oh, October. If repetition were healing, you’d have me saved in an instant.” She smiled, sending water cascading down her throat. “You were always so fierce, even when you were just a tributary of Amandine’s greater river. But her river is dry now, while you run toward the sea.”
“Lily, please.” I put a hand on her shoulder. Her skin was like ice.
“What?” Her smile died, replaced by confusion. “I’m sorry. It’s hard to find the words. You’ll try to save me, because that’s your nature; it’s what you are. But please, if you do anything, make sure my children are cared for. They need you more than I do.”
It took me a moment to compose myself. Finally, I said, “I promise.”
“Good.” She sank lower in the water. “I’m sorry, but I’m so tired . . .”
“It’s all right,” I said, pulling my hand away. “Get some rest. I’ll see you soon.”
I stood carefully, backing out the way I’d come in. If Lily was aware that I was leaving, she didn’t give any sign. She didn’t give any sign of being aware of anything at all. She just stayed in her pool, silent and unmoving, and let me walk away.
ILY’S HANDMAIDENS STEPPED ASIDE AS I made my way out of the willows. They didn’t need to ask what I’d seen; they knew. My feet carried me to the moon bridge without any orders from my brain, which was entirely occupied with reviewing Lily’s condition. Oak and ash, how was this happening? Lily’s illness was an impossibility. Faerie thrives on the impossible, but some rules aren’t intended to be broken. Undine don’t get sick. Lily was sick.
I was missing something.
The passage from Lily’s knowe to the mortal world was still smooth; she might be sick, but she hadn’t completely lost her grip on her domain. That was probably a good thing. I stepped off the bridge, my feet carrying me toward the gate.
“Toby?” said Marcia. I hadn’t realized she was there until she spoke. That wasn’t good. I was worried about Lily, but that didn’t mean I could zone out completely.
Stopping where I was, I turned to face the moon bridge. Marcia and Walther were standing at the base, watching me. Tears ran freely down Marcia’s cheeks. I didn’t say a word. I didn’t know where to begin.
“Is . . . ” Marcia hesitated, biting her lip before continuing, “Is Lily going to . . . ?”
“I don’t know.” As reassurances go, it wasn’t my best. I couldn’t get the image of Lily’s water-dark eyes out of my head. “I wish I did.”
She looked stricken. I couldn’t blame her. Faerie isn’t kind to changelings. We carve out places for ourselves on the borders of fae society, but they’re never stable and rarely safe. People like Devin, who saw changeling kids as a resource to exploit, are a lot more common than people like Lily, who opened her doors to the weakest among us and never asked for anything but loyalty. She offered protection, kindness, and a place to belong. Some of her subjects never had any of those things before.
Walther put an arm around Marcia’s shoulders, asking, “What’s going to happen if she doesn’t get better?”
“I don’t know,” I repeated. That wasn’t true. I had some idea of what would happen. An entire fiefdom of unaligned, unprotected changelings? At best, they’d find predators like Devin. At worst . . .
“Most of us don’t have anywhere else to go.” Marcia leaned into Walther’s arm. “My family doesn’t even acknowledge me.”
That wasn’t surprising. I still winced. “Lily won’t die, Marcia. I won’t let her.”
Marcia bit her lip again. “Do you promise?”
“I can’t do that until I know what’s going on, but I promise to try.” I hesitated. “Is there a phone around here?”