Ballad a gathering of f.., p.3

Ballad: A Gathering of Faerie, page 3

 part  #2 of  Books of Faerie Series


Ballad: A Gathering of Faerie

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Page 3

  “Mom. I don’t want to think about it. It’s going to be hugely depressing and you know I like to project a fearless and happy face to the world. ”

  “Remind me again why you’re there, if not for the piping?”

  She knew darn well why, but she wanted me to say it. Ha. Double ha. Fat chance of that. “Use your motherly intuition. Hey. I think I just found the place. I’ve got to go. ”

  “Call me,” Mom said. “Later. When you’re not so glib. ”

  I parallel-parked in front of Evans-Brown Music. I was beginning to think giving places hyphenated names was a tradition in this town. “Right. I’ll schedule a call when I’m thirty, then, shall I?”

  “Shut up. ” Mom’s voice was fond, and for a moment I felt a tremendous, childish sensation of homesickness. “We miss you. Be careful. And call me later. Not when you’re thirty. ”

  I agreed and hung up. Getting my pipe case out of the back seat, I headed into the music store. Despite the sickly green exterior, the inside was warm and inviting, with dark brown carpet and golden-brown paneling on the walls behind rows of guitars. An old guy who looked like he’d not done too well with the ’60s sat behind a counter reading a copy of Rolling Stone. When he looked up at me, I saw that his silver hair was braided tightly in the back, into a tiny pigtail.

  “I’m here for a lesson,” I told him.

  He looked at something on the counter; while he did, I studied the tattoos on his arms, the largest of which was a quote from one of John Lennon’s more radical songs. He asked, “What time?”

  I pointed to my hand. He squinted until he saw the bit of writing that pertained.

  “Three o’clock? You’re right on time. ”

  I looked at the clock on the wall behind him, which was surrounded by fliers and postcards. It said two minutes to three. I was peeved that my earliness was being rounded up to the closest hour, but I didn’t say anything.

  “Upstairs. ” Old Hippie Guy pointed toward the back of the shop. “Whichever lesson room Bill’s in. He’s the only instructor here right now. ”

  “Thanks, comrade,” I said, and Old Hippie Guy smiled at me. I climbed the creaking, carpet-covered steps to the second floor, which was hotter than Hades and smelled like sweat and nerves. There were three doors on the dark, narrow corridor, and Bill was behind door number two. I pushed the door open a little wider, taking in the acoustic tiles on the walls, the old wooden chairs that looked like they’d been used as scratching posts by baby tigers, and the dusty-haired man sitting in one of them.

  He looked an awful lot like George Clooney. I thought about telling him, but decided it would be too forward. “Hola. I’m James. ”

  He didn’t stand up, but he smiled in a friendly enough way, shook my hand, and gestured to the chair opposite. “I’m Bill. How about you get your chanter out and you play me something so I know where you’re at? Unless you’re nervous—we can talk a bit, but a half hour is a pretty short lesson if we talk much. ”

  I set my case down and knelt next to it, snapping open the latches. “Nope, sounds good to me. ” While I dug next to my pipes for my practice chanter, I glanced up at Bill. He had his head turned slightly to the side, reading the bumper stickers plastered all over my case. While he read Be Careful Around Dragons, For You Are Crunchy & Good with Ketchup, I gave him the once-over. His chanter lay next to his chair, shiny and clean; mine was battered, with multicolored electrician’s tape partially covering some of the holes to make it perfectly in tune. His shoulders were straight; one of mine was always a little higher than the other from playing the pipes so often. His case was still almost-new looking; mine looked like it had been through hell a few times. I was beginning to get the idea that this was a waste of time, especially when his eyes widened at my practice chanter.

  I set the chanter back down in my case. The humble practice chanter is a slender plastic version of the chanter on the full-sized pipes, and its primary virtue is that it’s one thousand times quieter than the actual pipes—making you one thousand times less likely to be stoned to death while practicing indoors. It’s also a heck of a lot easier to play, physically—none of that huffing-puffing-blow-your-bag-in thing. It also sounds like a dying goose; for sheer impressiveness, you really need the actual pipes. So that’s what I reached for now. “Um. Do you mind if I play a tune on my pipes, instead? It’s hard to find a place to practice on campus, and it feels like it’s been ages since they were out of this box. ”

  Bill looked a little surprised, but shrugged. “Sure, there’s no other students right now. Whatever you’re most comfortable with. What are you going to play?”

  “Not sure yet. ” I took my pipes out; the smell of leather and wood was as familiar to me as my own. The drones fit neatly onto my shoulder as I filled the bag; the moment the drones began to sound, I realized just how loud they were going to be in this tiny room. Should’ve brought my ear plugs.

  Bill watched me tune for about twenty seconds, observing my posture, listening to how even I kept the tone while I tuned. My original plan had been to start off slow and then end with a tune so transcendent he kissed my shoes, but the pipes were so loud in the room that I just wanted to get it over with. I ripped into one of my favorite reels, an impossible, finger-twisting, minor-key thing that I could’ve played in my sleep. Fast. Clean. Perfect.

  Bill’s face was blank. Like, no expression whatsoever. Like I had blown his expression away with the sheer decibel level of the pipes. I took the pipes from my shoulder.

  “I have nothing to teach you. ” He shook his head. “But you knew that when you came here, didn’t you? There couldn’t possibly be anyone in this entire county that could teach you anything. Maybe not in the state. Do you compete?”

  “Up until this summer. ”

  “Why’d you stop?”

  I shrugged. For some reason, it gave me no pleasure to tell him. “Hit the top. Seemed boring after that. ”

  Bill shook his head again. His eyes were studying my face, and I could guess what he was thinking, because it was what they always thought: you’re so young (and I’m so old). His voice was flat. “I’ll get in touch with the school, I guess. Let them know so they can figure out what to do. But they knew all this before they took you on, didn’t they?”

  I lowered my pipes to my side. “Yeah. ”

  “You ought to apply to Carnegie Mellon. They have a piping program. ”

  “I never thought of that,” I said. He missed my sarcasm.

  “You should consider it, after you’re done here. ” Bill watched me put my pipes away. “It’s a waste for you to just go to a conservatory. ”

  I nodded thoughtfully and let him make more intelligent remarks, and then I shook his hand and left the room behind. I felt disappointed, though really, I shouldn’t be. I’d gotten just what I’d expected.

  There was a girl sitting on the curb when I emerged from the music store. In my fairly foul mood, I wouldn’t have given her a second thought if she hadn’t been sitting two inches from my car. Even with her back to me, everything about her groaned bored.

  I put my pipes in the backseat with much noise and scuffle, thinking she’d get the picture—you know, that I’d drive over her if she didn’t move by the time I tried to leave my parking spot.

  But she hadn’t moved by the time I’d finished my scuffling, so I came around the car and stood in front of her. She was still sitting motionless, chin tilted up, her eyes closed against the afternoon sun, pretending not to notice that I was standing there.

  Maybe she was from one of my classes and I was supposed to recognize her. If she was a student, she was definitely not within the dress code—she wore a skin-tight shirt with cursive handwriting printed all over it and bell-bottomed jeans with giant platform clogs poking out from the cuffs. Still, her hair was very distinctive: sort of crumpled, or curly, blonde hair that was long in the front but cut short and edgy in the back.

; “M’dear,” I said in a cordial way, “Your butt’s blocking my bumper. Do you think you might move your loitering five feet to the south and let me leave?”

  Her eyes flicked open.

  It was like I was drowning in icy water. Goose bumps immediately rippled along every bit of my skin and my head sang with an eerie melody of not normal. The events of last summer came rushing into my head unbidden.

  The girl—if that was even what she was—flicked her incandescent blue eyes, made even more brilliant by the dusky shadows beneath them, toward my face, looking intensely bored. “I’ve been waiting for you forever. ”

  When she spoke, the smell of her breath clouded around me, all drowsy nodding wildflowers and recent rain and distant wood smoke. Danger prickled softly around the region of my belly button. I hazarded a question. “‘Forever’ as in several hundred years, or forever as in since my lesson began?”

  “Don’t flatter yourself,” she said, and stood up, brushing the dust off her hands on her butt. She was enormously tall with the platform heels on; she looked right into my eyes. This close, I could almost fall into the smell of her. “Only a half hour, though it felt like several hundred years. Come on. ”

  “Whoa. What?”

  “Give me a ride to the school. ”

  Okay. So maybe I did know her. Somehow. I tried to picture her in a class, any class, anywhere on campus, and failed miserably. I pictured her frolicking in a forest glade around some guy she’d just sacrificed to a heathen god. That image worked way better. “Uh. Thornking-Ash?”

  She gave me a withering look.

  I looked pointedly at her bell bottoms. “I just don’t remember seeing a fascinating creature such as yourself amongst the student body. ”

  The girl smiled at the word “creature” and tugged open the passenger-side door. “No shit. Come on. ”

  I stared at the car as she slammed the door shut after herself. I was used to being the brazen one who caught people off guard. The girl made an impatient gesture at me through the window.

  I considered whether getting in the car with her was a bad idea. After a summer of intrigue, car crashes, and faeries, it probably was.

  I got in.

  The radio hummed to life as soon as I started the ignition, and the girl made a face. “Wow. You listen to crap. ” She punched one of the preset buttons and some sort of dizzyingly fast reel came on. The radio’s dim display read 113. 7. I’m not a rocket scientist (only because rockets don’t interest me), but I didn’t think radios were supposed to do that.

  “Okay,” I said finally, pulling away from the curb. “So you go to Thornking-Ash. What’s your name?”

  “I didn’t say that,” she pointed out. She put her bare feet up on the dashboard; her clogs stayed down on the floor. “I only asked you to take me there. ”

  “How silly of me. Of course. What’s your name?”

  The girl looked at my hands on the wheel, as if she might find the answer to the question in my handwriting. She screwed her face up thoughtfully. “Nuala. No—Elenora. No—Polly—no, wait. I liked Nuala the best. Yeah, let’s go with Nuala. ”

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