Ballad a gathering of f.., p.33

Ballad: A Gathering of Faerie, page 33

 part  #2 of  Books of Faerie Series


Ballad: A Gathering of Faerie

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Page 33



  All around us, the birds sang and cars whirred past the deli and the day was beautiful.

  I set my hands on the table, very carefully, and worried Nuala’s stone between my fingers. I wanted so badly to write guilt on my skin that I could almost taste the letters in my mouth. Bitter.

  “It wasn’t fair of Sullivan to tell you that,” Nuala said. She glared at the waitress, who’d returned with our glasses of water. “Yeah, fine, they’re fine. Leave them there!” The last bit was addressed at the waitress, who was trying to catch my eye while she rearranged the water glasses on the table. “Seriously. We’re waiting for someone. Just—” Nuala made some gesture with her fingers like she was flicking water off them.

  The waitress left.

  I tried to imagine the last thing I’d said to Dee. Was it something horribly cruel? I hadn’t seen her since I’d let Nuala just rip into her—but I couldn’t remember how awful I’d been. Somehow I seemed to remember that I’d said something awful. Somehow her disappearance was my fault.

  “Piper,” snapped Nuala. “He didn’t say there was anything wrong. He just asked you if you’d seen her. Obsessing doesn’t do any good. ” She opened her mouth like she was going say something else, but instead leaned her chair back toward the table behind her and grabbed a pen that had been left with the check. She handed it to me. “Just do it. ”

  Another thing to feel guilty about. My skin was almost bare of ink now, and here I was regressing.

  She pressed the pen into my fingers. “Unless you want me to write something for you. ”

  I felt relieved the second I pushed the tip of the pen to the back of my hand. I scratched river black onto my skin, clicked the pen, and sighed.

  “What the hell does that mean?” Nuala asked.

  I didn’t know. It just felt good to get it out.

  Nuala grabbed my pinky finger and pinched it. “I can’t read your thoughts anymore. You have to talk to me. ”

  “I don’t know what it means,” I said. “I didn’t know what half the stuff on my hands meant when I met you. ”

  She frowned at me but looked up as a harried-looking Sullivan stepped out of the deli onto the patio, meeting the waitress in the door. He leaned over and said something to her before joining us at the table.

  He opened his mouth, but I said first, “Have they found Dee yet?”

  Sullivan shook his head. “No. ” He fidgeted with his chair until he was happy with its distance from the table’s edge. “But please don’t obsess about it, James. I only told you because I knew she was a friend of yours and thought you might have heard from her. I was really hoping that you were going to tell me she’d called you. There are a thousand innocuous places she could be. ”

  Nuala gave me a meaningful look, but what meaning, I couldn’t tell.

  “And a thousand not innocuous places,” I countered.

  “Which is true for any of us. ” Sullivan opened the menu but didn’t look at it. “There are people looking for her, and we’re only working on guesses. Right now my attention is entirely absorbed by the definite problem right in front of me. ”

  “Me,” Nuala said. When Sullivan looked at her, she added, “I get it. You hate me. Nothing personal. ”

  Sullivan made a face. “Ehh. I don’t hate you. I just don’t trust you. And—it’s not even you personally. I’ve just never met a harmless member of your race. ”

  “You still haven’t,” Nuala said, with a smile like a growl. “But I would never hurt James. ”

  He looked at me. “Anything to add, James?”

  I shrugged. “I believe her. I told you before. We haven’t made a deal. She hasn’t taken anything from me. ” And she was an awesome kisser and she knew more about me than anyone else in the world. I left that part out.

  Sullivan made a frown that put a wrinkle between his eyebrows, and then used two fingers to rub it, as if he was self-conscious of it. “You’re going to give me an ulcer. Can you imagine how much easier life would’ve been for you if you’d just gone to your classes, learned to play the piano, and graduated with more Latin epithets after your name than Cicero? You know, instead of befriending a homicidal faerie whose modus operandi is to suck the life from her victims? Can you try to see what it is that I’m struggling with here?”

  “Waitress,” Nuala warned in a mild voice.

  We all shut up as the waitress appeared and asked for our orders. None of us had looked at our menus and Nuala didn’t know what food tasted like anyway, so I just said, “Roast beef and chips for all of us. ”

  “No mayonnaise for me,” Sullivan said somberly, turning his iron ring around and around on his finger.

  “Will I like chips?” Nuala asked me.

  “Everyone likes chips. Even people who say they don’t like chips like chips,” I said.

  Sullivan nodded. “That’s true. ”

  The waitress gave us a funny look and took the menus.

  After she’d gone, I said, “I want to know why Nuala has to eat now. ”

  “Why are you looking at me?” Sullivan asked. Both of us were.

  “Because I get this feeling that you are the most informed about faeries at this table,” I said. “Which is pretty incredible, considering present company. ”

  He sighed. “I spent seven years with Them, so I should be pretty informed. I was a consort to one of the queen’s ladies. ”

  There were plenty of faeries he could’ve meant, but somehow I only thought of one. Nuala and I were apparently on the same wavelength, because she said, “Eleanor. ”

  “I don’t want to know how you know,” Sullivan said. “Tell me it’s not because you saw me with her. ”

  “No,” Nuala replied. “Why, were you besotted?”

  Sullivan rubbed harder at the wrinkle between his eyebrows. He looked at me. “Anyway, in seven years you can learn a lot, if you’re paying attention. I found out when I was with Eleanor that nobody was looking at me. So I got to pretty much look where I wanted to. And I didn’t like what I saw. Them using humans to kill other humans. Black magic. Rituals that would make your toes curl. Humans losing themselves to just … just … soulless pleasure. Nothing had any meaning there, for me. No time. No consequence. No … the worst was what They did with human children. ”

  He didn’t shudder, exactly. He just sort of half-closed his eyes and looked away for a moment. Then he looked back at me, at my arm. “You have a mosquito on your arm. ”

  I slapped in the direction of his gaze and checked my hand. Nothing.

  Sullivan’s voice was tired. “That’s what we are to Them, to the court fey—that’s what I found out. We’re not an equal race. Our suffering means nothing to Eleanor and the rest of them. We’re nothing at all. ”

  Nuala said, “The court fey, maybe. Not us solitary fey. Not me. ”

  Sullivan raised an eyebrow. “Really? You didn’t want to make a deal with James at all? You were just filled with the milk and honey of friendship?”

  I wanted to defend her, even though I knew he was right. I’d been just another mark to Nuala when we met. But I was just as guilty, wasn’t I? Because she’d only been another faerie to me.

  Nuala just looked at him, lips jutted a little.

  “Look,” I said. “I realize that both of you could happily strangle each other across the table, but I don’t think that’s the most effective use of our time, and frankly, I don’t think I have enough money to tip the waitress for that kind of clean-up. And look, here’s lunch. Let’s eat that instead of each other. ”

  After the waitress had left the sandwiches and we’d rotated them looking for the one without mayo on it, I asked again, “So why does she need to eat now? If it’s not because she’s not taking anything from me—which is what you said before—then what is it?”

  Sullivan picked the lettuce out of his sandwich with an unconsciously curled lip. “I’m just telling you that she ought to be fading—
getting more invisible—if she’s not taking anything from you. And if anything, she looks even less … ethereal than she did when I last saw her. ” Nuala looked about to protest, so he added quickly, “I saw your sister fading between victims, once. ”

  Nuala shut up. She didn’t just shut up, she went totally quiet. Like a total absence of sound, movement, blinking, breathing. She was a statue. And then she just said, real quiet, “My sister?”

  “You didn’t know you had—well, I guess you wouldn’t, would you?” Sullivan worried the tomatoes out of his sandwich and laid them in a careful pile that didn’t touch the lettuce. “Of course, she didn’t look like you when I saw her—since you can look like anything. But she was a leanan sidhe as well. I wouldn’t have thought you were related if Eleanor hadn’t told me. Same father. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you. ”

  The last bit seemed a little incongruous with his previous attitude toward her. Maybe her struck silence had softened him.

  “There are two of us?”

  “Both called by the same names,” Sullivan said. He looked at her as if this was supposed to mean something to her. “Overhills. As in, the opposite of under hill. As in, human. It wasn’t a nice term. ”

  “Wait,” I said. “So They called Nuala human?”

  I didn’t think I’d put any hopefulness in my voice, but Sullivan said quickly, “Not literally. Only because the leanan sidhe spent so much time with humans and often looked like them. Even picked up human habits. ”

  I thought of Nuala sitting in the movie theater, imagining herself as a director. Very human.

  I realized that Sullivan was staring at Nuala and turned to look at her. She had her eyes closed and one of her more wickedly pleased smiles on her face. In her hand was a half-eaten chip.

  “I told you you’d like chips,” I told her.

  Nuala opened her eyes. “I could survive on nothing but them. ”

  “You’d be four hundred pounds in no time. ” Sullivan swallowed a bite of sandwich. “I’ve never seen one of Them eating human food. Well, there are stories of some of the diminutive sorts eating beans and things like that, though I’ve never seen it. But—when did you start eating human food? Do you remember the first time?”

  The memory of sucking a grain of rice off Nuala’s lip made my stomach kind of twist.

  “James gave me some of his rice. A few days ago. ”

  Sullivan narrowed his eyes and ate several more bites of sandwich to aid his thought process. “What if it’s a reverse of what happens to humans in Faerie? It’s pretty well known that if you eat food offered to you in Faerie, you’ll be trapped there forever. I’ve never heard the reverse said for faeries and human food, but I can’t think of many situations where a faerie would be in the position to accept food from a human anyway. Except, of course, for the lovely, ulcer-causing scenario you two have developed for me. ”

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