Authors: Kalayna Price
Tags: #Urban Life, #Contemporary, #Epic, #Fiction, #Fantasy, #General
“You’ve entered the winter court’s territory. Identify yourselves and your purpose,” the guard with the sword said, coming to a stop directly in front of us. This close, I could see thin, shimmering lines of glyphs tattooed across the exposed skin of the guard’s face and hands—at least I thought they were tattoos, though the ink glimmered like hundreds of ice crystals tracing the man’s skin.
hundreds of ice crystals tracing the man’s skin.
Welcome to Faerie.
“I’m the changeling Rianna, currently in Stasis. And this is
. . .” She glanced at me, squeezing my hand once before dropping it. “My dear friend. I have permission to use this hal to travel between Stasis and the mortal realm.”
The guard held out his hand, palm up. “Let’s see it, then.”
Rianna dug a thin chain out from under the col ar of her dress and tugged it over her head. A blank pendant shaped like an ice crystal hung on the end of the chain, and she dropped it in the guard’s palm.
He whispered a musical-sounding word and the pendant glowed a deep cobalt blue. With a nod, the guard handed the chain and pendant back to Rianna. “Fol ow me. I’l escort you to the door.”
Rianna fol owed silently, so I did the same. Desmond brought up the rear, his nails making the softest clinking sounds on the ice. At first I tried to memorize our route, but as the guard led us down one identical hal way after another I lost track of how many lefts and rights we’d taken.
I’ll definitely need a guide to get back out of this place.
Final y the guard stopped. He gave Rianna a nod and then stepped aside, motioning us to a doorway. Except it wasn’t a doorway at al . It was a large archway set into the wal .
I stared at the unbroken ice wal inside the arch. “Um.”
“It’s the door,” Rianna said, locking my arm with hers again.
“It wil take us anywhere we want to go in Faerie, as long as we know where we want to go. Now you have to trust me.
And don’t let go.”
She stepped forward, into the wal .
I squeezed my eyes closed and fol owed.
The world froze around me. I gasped, sucking in solid frozen air, and a sharp ache fil ed my lungs. Panic stung my mind, flooded my muscles, but I couldn’t move. Then, as suddenly as the world had frozen, it thawed, turning as comfortable as bathwater. I released the frozen gasp I’d comfortable as bathwater. I released the frozen gasp I’d taken, and the pain in my chest vanished as warmth spread over my body. Again I didn’t feel like I was moving, but the world slid out of focus, like a child smearing his hand through a painting that was not yet dry. Then it solidified again, and I was standing in a cavern that held a castle. Not just a big house, but an honest-to-goodness, large-stonefacade-with-turrets-and-towers castle. There was even a moat—though why anyone would build such a thing in the bel y of a cave was beyond me. As I stood there staring, the drawbridge lowered and a portcul is made of twisting vines lifted to clear our path.
Rianna beamed at me. “Welcome home, Al!”
ome?” I stared at the large stone wal . At the moat of crystal clear water. At the jutting spiral towers. “This isn’t a home. This is a castle!” Like a castle straight out of the Middle Ages. Or a fairy tale.
Welcome to Faerie, Alex.
“Do you want to go inside?” Rianna al but bounced on her toes as she asked. “It opened for you. It’s yours.”
“And it’s about time,” a rough female voice said behind me.
I turned, but didn’t see anything. My confusion must have shown on my face, because Rianna pointed toward the ground. I obediently looked down.
A woman who stood no higher than my knee stared up at me. She was nearly as wide as she was tal , so she looked like a waddling basketbal wrapped in burlap as she gave me a quick once-over, and then, with a nod, marched past me.
“Wel , get a move on,” she cal ed over her shoulder. “I’m sure there’s a layer of dust on everything by this point.”
I gaped at the smal woman and then looked to Rianna for explanation.
“Wait, Ms. B,” Rianna cal ed after the woman. “This is Alex.”
The smal woman paused. “Wel , of course she is.” Ms. B
curled her lips in what might have been a sneer or a smile
—I wasn’t sure which. “Now, I’ve work to do.” She hopped onto the castle’s drawbridge, the hair that exploded around her head like overgrown spider-grass trailing behind her as she walked away without a backward glance.
she walked away without a backward glance.
“Uh, Rianna . . . ?” I looked at my longtime friend.
“Ms. B is a brownie. Think of her as a housekeeper, cook, and general organizer of al things inside the castle.”
“I can’t afford a housekeeper!” And I certainly couldn’t afford to keep a castle. I was barely able to stay on top of paying rent on an efficiency.
“Don’t be sil y. You don’t
brownies. Faerie may say you own this property, but trust me, this is Ms. B’s castle.
She went absolutely crazy when she couldn’t get inside—
tried to take the wal apart stone by stone. Not that Faerie let her. She was here before Coleman claimed the castle, and she’l stil be here when the castle changes hands again.” She didn’t elaborate on how I might lose the castle, but hurried on. “My suggestion is to make friends with her.
She never liked Coleman. On the few occasions he stayed in the castle every meal came out burned, the ceilings leaked, moths attacked every scrap of material, and sand wound up on the bedsheets. He’d leave and everything would return to gleaming order. Brownies are good at holding a grudge.”
“Coleman couldn’t get rid of her?”
Rianna shook her head, and the dog at her side made a huff that sounded suspiciously like a laugh. She ignored him. “You don’t get rid of brownies. You could burn the place to the ground, but I’ve heard they wil stick around to tend the ashes. Though, sometimes, if they particularly like a family or a person, they wil relocate with them rather than remain attached to a domicile.” She shrugged, like she used to when we’d study together at academy and she didn’t think the subject was particularly interesting.
“Right.” My head was spinning.
This is all a little surreal.
“Are there any other, uh,
I should know about?”
“Just a garden gnome. He tends the grounds, but he’s shy. I rarely catch sight of him.” She leaned closer. “I think he’s sweet on Ms. B.”
I stared at her, trying to decide if she was joking. She I stared at her, trying to decide if she was joking. She wasn’t.
How do I get myself into these things?
I turned back toward the castle. “So are we sure Coleman’s holdings are now mine? I mean, I didn’t exactly claim anything—I just showed up.”
“Faerie locked this place up tight as soon as Coleman bit the big one. The castle opened for you. It’s yours.”
A castle, really?
I turned away. “Wel , then, I guess I should head back.”
“You haven’t even looked around yet. Aren’t you curious?”
I was, but I’d just found out I owned a castle in Faerie, complete with house- and groundskeepers; I wasn’t up for much more yet. “It’s claimed. Everyone can get inside again.” Which was what I was assuming was the real issue.
Homeless in Faerie land—it sounded like a bad TV show.
“You don’t real y need me for anything else right now, do you?”
“You’l need to choose a court,” she said, quickly adding,
“eventual y, of course.”
“What happens if I want to stay in the mortal realm and be independent?”
Rianna threw out her hands to stop my words, her head swinging back and forth and her gaze sweeping over the castle like she was afraid it might jump up and run. “Don’t say that,” she hissed. “Faerie might listen. Doesn’t happen often, but once in a while, Faerie wil try to move the independents’ holdings to the mortal realm. I don’t think anyone wants this castle to suddenly force itself into Nekros City.”
Oh, yeah, I could see trying to explain that. And with the way reality tended to bend around me, it would be my luck that my castle would appear downtown—probably in the middle of the statehouse lawn.
“I’l look into courts,” I said, though I had little intention of looking quickly. From what Caleb had said, if I wanted to remain in Nekros, I’d have to align myself with the winter court, but when that court moved on, I’d have to go as wel .
court, but when that court moved on, I’d have to go as wel .
Not a good option. “So, you’re good here?”
She nodded. “For now. Come on, I’l lead you back.”
She headed toward a smal arch in a cavern wal , which I assumed was what we’d stepped out of despite the fact it looked like solid stone. As before, she took my arm and we stepped through the arch. Guards once again met us in the deserted hal s of the winter court, and after Rianna once again produced the pendant—did I want to know what she’d gone through to acquire that?—we found ourselves with a snow-cloaked guide leading us through a maze of icy corridors.
As we walked, I leaned closer to her. “So, what do you do here?”
“I’m guessing you don’t mean ‘here’ as in the winter court.
In Stasis, there isn’t much to do, and most of the fae won’t have anything to do with me. Inside the courts, there are bal s—lots of them—games, arts, legal proceedings. I don’t know, faerie stuff.”
“And you never leave?”
She shrugged as we reached the large ice pil ar I’d seen after I left the Eternal Bloom. “There is no decay in Faerie.
Practical y no death. That means no shades to raise, and you know what it’s like if you don’t raise shades on occasion.”
I nodded. It hurt. A grave witch ached from the inside out if she didn’t raise shades on a regular basis. And grave essence tended to slip through even careful y maintained shields, the magic reaching out and fil ing corpses that the witch had no intention of raising. But if there was no grave essence . . .
“I slip out every once in a while, just long enough to raise a shade.” Noise and light fil ed the air as we stepped through the winter court and into the Eternal Bloom. “Wel , I guess this is where I leave you.”
I held up a hand to stal her. “Wait. Do you remember your last year at academy when we mingled our magic and last year at academy when we mingled our magic and raised that ancient shade? The one whose body had been found mummified in a bog and was believed to be a witch or a priestess but no one else could even sense it?”
“The one that turned out to speak absolutely no English, so even though we raised it, we couldn’t get an intel igible thing from it?” She smiled—a slow, creeping smile, like the memory had reminded her how to make her lips do it.
“What about it?”
“This is going to sound strange, but feet have been washing up from the Sionan. A single foot isn’t enough for me to raise a shade, but if we mingled our magic . . . I thought that together we might have more luck.”
The smile fel from her lips as I spoke. She was frowning by the time I finished. “I would have to leave Faerie for that.”
“You said you’re able to leave,” I said, and her hand dropped to Desmond’s coat. She did that whenever a subject she wasn’t comfortable with arose. I stuck my hands in my pockets and stepped back. “Never mind. It was just a thought.” Sharing magic was personal, and not always comfortable or safe, which was why I hadn’t thought about it when I’d first been unable to raise the shade. But Rianna and I had successful y merged our grave magic before. I shrugged. “I’l see you around, okay?”
I turned to go, but Rianna cal ed after me.
I frowned at her. “What do you mean?”
“You could tel me to help you,” she said, her gaze dropping to the floor. “Could command me.”
My stomach twisted, soured. I stepped forward, lowering my voice so it didn’t carry to the tables surrounding us.
“Rianna, I don’t care what the laws of Faerie say. You are my friend. That’s it. If you aren’t comfortable sharing magic or are nervous about leaving Faerie, I’m not going to force you.” I smiled. “I might beg a little once in a while, but you’l remember that wel enough from academy—al those times I tried to get you to help fudge the results of my spel casting I tried to get you to help fudge the results of my spel casting homework, or that one time I was convinced I could get the attention of that super-crushable guy in meditation if I could cast . . . I don’t even remember what spel it was.”
Rianna’s smile was reluctant, but it slowly crept across her face. “A doppelgänger spel , so you could skip class while stil being there. Didn’t you end up managing to make a copy of yourself that talked backward and total y failed at wearing clothing?”
“Yeah. I never sent it to class.”
She laughed, her fingers slipping from Desmond’s coat and lifting to her mouth as though she could catch the sound of her own amusement. “I’d have loved to see the teacher’s face if you had sent it.”
“No way. She was a total prude. I’d have been kicked out of academy before anyone managed to dispel the stupid double.”
She nodded, but her smile remained. The laughter had done her some good and brought color to her cheeks.
“Okay,” she said after a moment. “When and where do you want to attempt to raise this shade?”
“You don’t have to—”
She waved away my protest. “Yes, trips out of Faerie frighten me, but trips
Faerie frighten you.” She held up a hand, motioning for silence. “And don’t even try to deny it.
You glance at your boot anytime anyone around us moves, so I’m guessing that’s where you stashed the dagger.” She smiled. “You came to Faerie because I asked for your help.
I can suck it up and leave because you asked for mine. So, when and where?”
“Just so we’re clear, I’m not forcing you to do anything.”
“Just a friendly favor.”
I nodded. “I’l need to talk to John,” I said, and then realized that since she’d been out of my life for several years, she wouldn’t know John. “He’s the homicide detective on the case. I’l let you know when he can set up time at the morgue. How can I contact you?”
time at the morgue. How can I contact you?”
“I’l send Desmond or Ms. B,” she said. Then she reached out and hugged me. “I missed you so much, Al.”
She stepped back. “See you soon?”
“You know it.”
We said our good-byes. Then I made my way out of the club, and no one even tried to enslave me this time.