“See?” said Karen. “You already knew.”
“I . . . I don’t remember this.”
“You do now.” I felt her hand on my arm, as light as the flower petals still drifting in the air around us. “It’s time to wake up, Auntie Birdie.”
So I did.
ATE AFTERNOON SUN STREAMED through the bedroom window, hitting me full in the face. I opened my eyes, trying to blink and squint against the glare at the same time. Not a good combination. Sunlight. I was only supposed to sit down for a few minutes before calling Sylvester. But then I’d fallen into Karen’s dreamscape, and that meant I’d been asleep. And it hadn’t even been dawn yet when I got home.
“Crap!” I sat bolt upright. The cat that had been curled in the middle of my chest went tumbling to the bed, her purr turning into an irritated yowl.
“Afternoon, Sleeping Beauty,” said May. I turned to see her standing in the doorway, a coffee mug in one hand. “Welcome back to the land of the living.”
“What time is it?” I demanded, raking my hair back with both hands. It was tangled into hopeless knots, matted stiff with sea salt. Crossing the city on a yarrow broom probably hadn’t helped. The cat—Cagney—stalked stiff-legged to the foot of the bed where she settled, her back to me. “Why didn’t you wake me sooner?”
“You didn’t tell me to,” she replied matter-of-factly. Expression turning solemn, she continued, “Also, you didn’t twitch when I opened your curtains half an hour ago, so I figured you needed the sleep. It’s almost sunset. Marcia’s been calling every two hours; there’s been no change in Lily’s condition.”
“She filled you in?” I let my hands drop to my lap.
May nodded. “Yeah. Now get up, get something into your stomach, and get dressed before we’re late.”
“Late? For what?” Cagney stood again, arching her back into a furry mirror of the moon bridge, before strolling across the bed and smacking her sister awake. Lacey responded by biting her. I sympathized.
“I repeat, it’s almost sunset. On the first of May. That means what?”
I groaned, falling backward on the bed. “May, I can’t. Karen was in my head last night. She showed me this screwed-up . . . I don’t know if it was a memory or what, but it had Mom in it, and Oleander. I need to call and find out what the hell she was getting at.”
“Cry me a river. The Torquills expect you to attend the Beltane Ball, and you’re attending. You can explain the situation when we get there.”
“I hate you sometimes.”
“That’s fine. We’re still going.”
The Beltane Ball at Shadowed Hills is one of the Duchy’s biggest social events, and has been for centuries. It’s a night of dancing, drinking, and welcoming the summer. In short, May’s sort of party. My sort of party involves less of a crowd, and a lot more physical violence. “I don’t think this is a good idea.”
“It’s not,” she agreed. “But you can’t become Countess of Goldengreen, run out of the Queen’s Court like your ass is on fire, and then miss the big party. Not if you want to keep the Queen from figuring something’s up.”
“Crap,” I said, staring up at the ceiling.
“Basically.” I heard her sip her coffee. “You okay?”
I laughed bitterly. “I’m peachy.”
“There’s the manic-depressive sweetheart we all know and love. Get up. You’ll feel better after you’ve had a shower.”
“Look, can’t you just call Sylvester and tell him I’m not coming?” I threw an arm over my face to block the light. “Tell him I’m busy saving the world. Better yet, how about you just be me for the night? You look the part.”
“Uh, one, no way. Two, I might
like you, but the jig would be up the minute I opened my mouth.” She walked over and kicked the bed. “Get up before I get the ice water. You’re trying to wallow in your misery, and I’m not putting up with it.”
I moved my arm to glare at her. “I hate you.”
“I know. Now come on. We’ll go to the Ball, and you can meet my date.”
That was news. I sat up, blinking. “You have a date?”
“I do. See, unlike some people, I know a good thing when I see it.”
“I’m going to leave that alone,” I said, scooting to the edge of the bed. My skirt snarled around me, hampering my movement. “I’m up. See? I’m up.”
“Good girl. Just for that, you can have a
“Don’t make me kick your ass.”
“You can try. Now come on: breakfast, coffee, shower, clothes.” She stepped out into the hall, whistling. I flung a pillow after her. It bounced off the doorframe.
May was in her room with the door shut when I emerged, clearly having chosen retreat as the better part of valor. Smart girl. I made a beeline for the phone in the hall, only to find a cup of coffee sitting next to it. I had to smile a little at that. It’s weirdly reassuring to live with someone who knows me better than anyone else does, even if she
the living portent of my inevitable, probably messy, demise.
I leaned against the wall, dialing the number for the Tea Gardens. The phone rang enough times that I was giving serious thought to panic when Marcia picked up, saying, “Japanese Tea Gardens. How may I help you?”
“It’s me, Marcia. How is she?”
“Toby!” Her voice was naked with relief. “I’m so glad you called.”
“I would have called earlier, but I just woke up.” I sipped my coffee, scalding my lip. The pain wasn’t enough to stop me from sipping again. “May gave me a status report. Has anything changed?”
“No. Lily isn’t any worse. That’s good, right?”
I wanted to reassure her. I couldn’t do it. “I don’t know. Has there been any progress in finding her pearl?”
“Not yet. Everybody’s looking.”
“Keep looking, and make sure that whoever you have watching Lily knows to ask about it if she wakes up. I have to go to Shadowed Hills and make an appearance at the Beltane Ball before I can come. Call there if you need anything.”
“Okay.” She sniffled. “I will.”
There was nothing to say after that. We exchanged a few vague reassurances before I hung up, still unsettled. Attending a Ball while Lily was sick felt too much like Nero fiddling while Rome burned, but May was right; I didn’t have much of a choice, especially not the day after I’d been elevated to Countess. Playing by the political rules was suddenly a lot more important.
I took another large gulp of coffee before dialing Mitch and Stacy’s. “Almost sunset” meant everyone would be up; fae kids may be nocturnal, but that doesn’t make them immune to the allure of afternoon TV.
“Brown residence,” said the solemn, almost toomature voice of Anthony, the older of the two Brown boys. He was ten on his last birthday.
“Hey, kiddo,” I said, relaxing a bit against the wall. “Is your sister up yet?”
“Auntie Birdie!” he crowed, sounding delighted. Then he sobered, the moment of exuberance fading as he said, “Karen went back to bed, but she told everybody that if you called, we should say you know everything she knows, and she doesn’t know why it’s important. Did she dream with you last night?”
“Yeah, she did,” I said, resisting the urge to start swearing. “Look, when she wakes up, tell her to call if she thinks of
, okay? And tell your mom I’ll try to come over soon.”
“Double-promise. I miss you guys.” The Browns are some of my favorite people in the world. It just seems like there’s never time for the good parts of life these days, like hanging out with my old friends and their kids. It’s been one emergency after the other, practically since I got out of the pond.
“We miss you, too, Auntie Birdie,” said Anthony gravely.
Much as I wanted to stay on the line and ask him to tell me what he was studying, what his brother and sisters were doing, all the things a good aunt would ask, there wasn’t time. I repeated my promise to visit soon and hung up, realizing as I did that I was hungry. Apparently the coffee had been enough to wake up my stomach.
I went to the kitchen and filled a bowl with Lucky Charms and coffee. Cliff used to make gagging noises and pretend to choke when I did that, but it’s how I’ve always liked my cereal. I paused with the spoon halfway to my mouth as I realized that, for the first time in a long time, the thought of Cliff didn’t hurt. It made me sad, sure—he wasn’t just my lover and the father of my child; he was one of my best friends, and losing friends is never fun—but it was only sadness. No pain. No longing.
Maybe I was starting to move on.
I did feel better after eating, and a shower would probably make me feel almost normal. I left my empty bowl on the counter, fighting with my dress all the way to the bathroom. I’ve worn enough formal gowns to know how to move in them, but they were almost all illusionary, making changing out of them nothing more than a matter of dropping the spell. This dress was heavy, dirty, and all too real. Getting it off felt almost like a moral victory.
The apartment has excellent water pressure. I turned the taps all the way up before stepping into the shower, letting the spray sting my arms and face. I stayed there long after I was clean, breathing in the steam. There’s something reassuring about standing in the shower; as long as you’re there, you can’t get dirty.
May was waiting on the couch when I came out of the bathroom. She looked me up and down before asking, “Feel better?”
“Told you so. Now get dressed.”
I flipped her off amiably. Her laughter followed me down the hall to my bedroom, where Cagney and Lacey curled up on the bed in the remains of the sunbeam. Lacey lifted her head, eyeing me.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “You’re the lucky ones. You get to stay home.” I started for the dresser, pausing with one hand stretched toward the top drawer.
The Queen’s habit of transforming my clothes is incredibly irritating, especially since I lack the magical oomph to change them
. There are only a few bloodlines in Faerie talented at transforming the inanimate; the Daoine Sidhe aren’t among them, which is why we depend on illusions and chicanery to enhance our wardrobes. But if I happened to have a dress formal enough for the occasion . . .
I grabbed the crumpled gown off the floor, holding it up. If I could figure out how to get the grass stains out of the skirt . . . I stuck my head out of the room. “Hey, May, you know anything about cleaning silk?”
She leaned over the back of the couch, eyes widening when she saw what I was holding. “Are you seriously thinking about wearing that?”
“I don’t think I should be throwing magic around if I can help it, do you? It’s not like I have that much to spare.” Every changeling has a different amount of power, and pushing past your limits is a good way to mess yourself up. If I was going to stay at the top of my game, I needed to avoid magic-burn for as long as possible.
May hesitated before getting off the couch and walking toward my room. She bit her index finger, looking torn, and finally said, “I can help. Go get your knife.”
I blinked. She met my eyes, nodding marginally. Something in that gesture told me to listen. I stepped past her, heading for the rack by the front door, where my knives still hung. I unsnapped the loop holding my silver knife in place and glanced back to May. “I assume I can use the silver, and not the iron?”
“Yeah,” she said, with another nod. “Now cut yourself, and bleed on the dress.”
I raised an eyebrow. “What?”
“Just trust me.” She offered a wan smile. “It’s a funky Fetch thing.”
“Right,” I said, slowly. I didn’t have any better ideas, and so I nicked the back of my left hand, my stomach doing a lazy flip as the blood welled up. I hate the sight of my own blood. I glanced at May before wiping my hand on the bodice.
The already red fabric darkened, drinking the blood like dry earth drinks the rain. May grabbed my wrist, pressing my hand into the dress. I hadn’t even realized she was moving up behind me. “May, what—”
“Trust me,” she said, and snapped her fingers.
My magic flared in response to the sound, rising with an eagerness that was almost scary, even discounting the fact that I wasn’t the one raising it. May was pulling less than a quarter of the power I’d need for an illusion. Her magic rose to join mine, adding ashes and cotton candy to the mingled scents of copper, fresh-cut grass, and blood.
And then the Queen’s magic snapped into place around us, filling my mouth with the taste of rowan and damp sand. I stared at May as she let go of me, holding up the dress like a fresh canvas in a children’s art class.
“The spell’s fresh enough to argue with,” she said. “Now tell it what to be.”
I stared for a moment more before reaching out with my still-bleeding hand, grabbing for the Queen’s spell the way I’d grab for mists or shadows when shaping an illusion. I hit a brief resistance, like the air was pushing back. Then my fingers caught, my magic surging to obscure everything else, and I understood what to do. The Queen taught my clothes to become a gown. I couldn’t break her spell—not even blood gives me that kind of power—but as long as I wasn’t trying to break anything, I could change the definition of “gown.”