Ballad: A Gathering of Faerie, page 10part #2 of Books of Faerie Series
Eleanor’s pity burned like a slap. “Feeling quite weak, are you, poor dear?”
“I’m fine. He only died a few months ago. ”
Her consort frowned, his thoughts drifting toward me, wondering if he should be politely expressing grief. Eleanor inclined her head gently toward him and explained. “She needs them to stay alive, you know. Their creativity. The poor creatures die of course, eventually, but I’m sure the sex was worth it. Don’t worry, lovely, I won’t let her have you. He’s a poet. ”
I realized that the last bit was directed at me and looked at the human again; he returned my gaze steadily and without judgment. His thoughts were easier for me to read now, without the cacophony of the faerie dance around us. I probed gently in them for his name but met resolute silence—he protected it as well as a faerie. So he wasn’t a complete idiot, despite his questionable taste in women.
“So you are looking for a new friend ?” Eleanor asked, and I realized that she had known all along that I had no one. “I would just ask you to be mindful of my court, lovely, as you’re choosing your next … pupil. There are goings-on that we don’t need meddling with. This will be a Samhain to remember. ”
It took me a moment to remember that Samhain was Halloween. I jerked my chin toward her consort. “Because of him? I hear there’s king-making going on. ”
I had probably said too much, but there was no taking it back now. Besides, Eleanor was just gazing at me as if I were a pile of puppies. “Truly there are no secrets amongst my people, are there?”
The consort, for just a moment, looked a little sick to his stomach—regretting, I imagined, his loose tongue.
The queen stroked his hand with her fingers as if she sensed his unease. “It’s all right, darling, no one thinks ill of you for becoming a king. ” She looked to me again. “You will of course remain quiet on this subject with your pupils, won’t you, little muse? Just because all of Faerie knows of our plans doesn’t mean that the humans need to. ”
“Quiet as flowers,” I said sarcastically. “What do the humans have to do with it?”
Eleanor laughed with painful delight, and her consort stumbled from the force of it. “Oh, lovely, I forget how little you know. A human—the cloverhand—is what pulls us here to this place. We follow her, as always, against our will. But after this Samhain, we will choose our own path. And we will become more fey, more powerful, for it. ” She paused. “Except for you, of course. You will always be tied to them, poor creature. ”
I just looked at her, resentful, hating either her or myself.
Eleanor’s lips curved up at my expression. “I forget how sulky you young ones can be. Tell me, how many summers have you seen?”
I stared at her, sure that she knew the answer to this question and was just baiting me, trying to push me to tears or anger. In my head, flames licked at my skin, hungry, both recollection and premonition. It had been years since my body had last burnt to a cinder, but the memory of the pain never went away—even though all other memories did. “Sixteen. ”
The new queen stepped very, very close to me, and she ran a finger up my throat to my chin, lifting my face toward hers. “Yours is a very strange immortality, isn’t it? I am surprised you don’t plead at my feet for freedom from your fate. ”
I couldn’t even see her feet underneath her sweeping green dress, and I couldn’t imagine pleading at them even if I could. I stepped back from her touch, hands fisted. “I know better. There’s no avoiding it. I am not afraid. ”
Eleanor smiled, thin and mysterious. “And I thought my people couldn’t lie. Truly you are the most human of us. ” She shook her head. “Remember what I said, dear. Don’t get in the way of our work here and perhaps I myself will find time to watch your burning this year. ”
I sneered at her. “Your presence would be truly an honor,” I spat.
“I know,” replied Eleanor, and between one breath and the next, she and her consort were gone.
I scrambled up into the corner of my bed, jerking from sleep, and pulled spiderweb strings of music from my face. They clung to my features, lovely, perilous strands of melody, and I scraped at them until I realized that they were nothing and that I was ruining my boyish good looks with my fingernails. Nothing. Music from a dream. Music from Nuala. I leaned the back of my head against the wall with a brain-cell killing thunk.
I was beginning to hate mornings.
And the phone was ringing, sending an army of militant miniature dwarves with hammers to work on the inside of my head. I hated the phone at that moment – not just the phone in my room, but all phones that had ever rung before noon.
I fell out of bed and pulled on a pair of jeans. Paul’s bed was empty.
I smashed my hand over my face, still caught by the music, by sleep, by sheer friggin’ exhaustion, and relented. “Hello?”
“James?” The voice was pleasant and ominously familiar. My stomach prickled with the feeling of imminent humiliation.
I shoved the phone between my ear and my shoulder and started to lace up my shoes. “As always. ”
“This is Mr. Sullivan. ” I heard laughter in the background. “I’m calling from English class. ”
Crap shit hell etc. I looked at the alarm clock, which said it was a little after nine. It was a lying bastard, because Paul wouldn’t have gone to class without me. “Very logical,” I said, jerking on my other shoe in a hurry, “Seeing as you’re an English teacher. ”
Sullivan’s voice was still very pleasant. “I thought so. So, the rest of the class and I were wondering if you were going to join us?” More laughter behind his voice.
“Am I on speaker phone?”
“Paul, you’re a treacherous bastard!” I shouted. To Sullivan, I added, “I was just putting on my mascara. Time must’ve gotten away from me. I’ll be down momentarily. ”
“You said to go without you!” Paul shouted in the background. I didn’t remember saying any such thing, but it sounded like me.
“I’m glad to hear it,” Sullivan said. “I was planning on having the class heckle you until you agreed to come, but this is much easier. ”
“I wouldn’t miss your fascinating class for all the tea in China,” I assured him. I stood up, spun, trying to find where the smell of flowers was coming from. “Your lectures and bright smile are the highlight of my days here at Thornking-Ash, if you don’t mind me saying so. ”
“I never tire of hearing it. See you soon. Say bye to James, class. ”
The class shouted bye at me and I hung up.
I turned once more, still feeling that I wasn’t alone in the room. “Nuala. ” I waited. “Nuala, are you still in here?”
Silence. There was nothing as silent as the dorms when we were all supposed to be in class. I didn’t know if she was there or not, but I spoke anyway. “If you are here, I want you to listen to me. Get the hell out of my head. I don’t want your dreams. I don’t want what you have to offer. Get out of here. ”
There was no answer, but the scent of summer roses lingered, out of place in our untidy room, as if maybe she knew I was lying. I grabbed a pen from the top of the dresser, found a bare spot of skin on the base of my thumb, and wrote exorcism and showed it to the room, so she would see it and so I wouldn’t forget. Then I grabbed my backpack and left the smell of Nuala behind me.
“James,” Sullivan said pleasantly as I slid into my desk. “I trust you slept well?”
“Like fleets of angels were singing me to slumber,” I assured him, pulling out my notebook.
“You look well for it,” he replied, his eyes already on the chalkboard. “We were just getting ready to talk about our first real writing assignment, James. Metaphor. We’ve spent the first half of the class discussing metaphor. Familiar with the concept?”
I wrote metaphor on my hand. “My teacher was like a god. ”
“That’s a simile,” Sullivan sai
“And he is,” called out Megan from my right. She giggled and turned red.
“Thank you, Megan,” Sullivan said, without turning around. He wrote metaphor in Hamlet on the board. “I prefer demi-god, however, until I finish my PhD. So. Ten pages. Metaphor in Hamlet. That’s the assignment. Outline due in two weeks. ”
There were eight groans.
“Don’t be infants,” Sullivan said. “It will be pitifully easy. Grade-schoolers could write papers on metaphor. Preschoolers could write papers on metaphor. ”
I underlined the word metaphor on my hand. Metaphor in Hamlet was possibly the most boring topic ever invented. Note to self: slash wrists.
“James, you look, if possible, less thrilled than your classmates. Is that merely an excess of sleep on your features, or is it really palpable disgust?” Sullivan asked me.
“It’s not my idea of a wild and crazy time, no,” I replied. “But it’s not as if an English assignment is going to be. ”
Sullivan crossed his arms. “I tell you what, James. And this goes for all of you. If you can think of a wilder and crazier time that you can do for this assignment—that has something to do with Hamlet and/or metaphor—I’m happy to look at outlines for it. The point is for you to learn something in this class. And if you really hate a topic, all you’re going to do is go online and buy a paper anyway. ”
“You can do that?” Paul breathed.
Sullivan gave him a look. “On that note, get out of here. Start thinking about those outlines and keep up on the reading. We’ll be discussing it next class. ”
The rest of the students packed up and left with impunity, but as I figured, Sullivan called me aside as I was getting ready to go. He waited until all of the other students had exited, and then he closed the door behind them and sat on the edge of his desk. His expression was earnest, sympathetic. The morning light that came in the window behind him backlit his dusty brown hair to white-gold, making him look like a tired angel in a stained-glass window, one of those who’s not so much playing their divine trumpet as listlessly dragging it out of a sense of duty.
“Do your worst,” I said.
“I could give you a demerit for being late. ” Sullivan said, and as soon as he said it I knew that he wasn’t going to. “But I think I’ll just slap your wrist this time. If it happens again … ”
“—I’ll hang,” I finished.
It would’ve been a good place to say “thanks,” but the word seemed unfamiliar in my mouth. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d said it. I had never thought of myself as an ingrate before.
Sullivan’s eyes dropped to my hands; I saw them flicking up and down, trying to make sense of the words on my skin. They were all in English, but it was a language only I spoke.
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