Ballad: A Gathering of Faerie, page 36part #2 of Books of Faerie Series
“Paul, what did he tell you?” Sullivan asked.
Paul swallowed the last of the donut. “He showed me stuff I’m not allowed to talk about. ”
Sullivan frowned at him, but Paul didn’t say anything more.
“Go get cleaned up,” Sullivan said to us. “You all stink. Then, “And James, I need you again. Normandy wants to see you. ”
“Goodie,” I said.
Halloween. It was finally here. I sort of wished I could disappear.
I’d assumed we were going back to Normandy’s office for our little talking to, but instead, Sullivan made a giant pot of coffee in his room and sat me at his kitchen table with a mug. The coffee was very black, and I said so.
“We’ll both need to be awake tonight,” Sullivan said. “The bonfires don’t even start until nine. ”
When he said bonfire, my stomach pinched for a second, sick and raw. I only had a second to wonder at the sensation—when was the last time I’d been nervous?—when Gregory Normandy pushed open the door and came into the room. Like the last time I saw him, he was in a button-down and tie, only this time everything he wore looked a little rumpled, like he’d been wearing it awhile. He didn’t say anything to Sullivan, just pulled out a chair and settled down opposite me.
“Hello, James,” he said.
I looked at Sullivan.
“Coffee?” Sullivan asked Normandy.
“Yes. ” Normandy accepted a cup and turned his attention on me. He looked huge at the table, his elbows resting on the surface and dwarfing it. “I need you to tell me everything you know about Deirdre Monaghan. ”
Something about the way he said it, just assuming or something, made me bristle. I held up my hand. “She’s about this tall, dark hair, gray eyes, pretty hot in jeans. ”
“James. ” Sullivan’s voice held a warning tone. “Not really the time. Just answer the question. ”
That pissed me off too. I didn’t really care for Sullivan pulling rank on me now, not after everything we’d been through. “Why?”
If I’d known how he would answer the question, I don’t know if I would’ve asked it.
In response, Sullivan pulled a slender phone out of his pocket and slid it across the table to me, sans introduction. I looked at him questioningly and he just gestured with his chin to it. “Read the unsent texts. ”
I clicked past the stock photograph on the wallpaper and through the menu until I got to the unread text section. Fifteen unread texts. Every one to me. My mouth felt dry as I scanned the words.
i miss talking like we used to
i saw more faeries.
luke was here
everything isn’t ok
i killed someone
i can hear them coming now
And finally, the worst, because it was exactly the same as the text message I’d sent before school started.
i love u.
I just stared at the screen for a long moment before slowly closing the phone. I was aware of a bird singing a repetitive, ugly song outside the window and of a misshapen P on my left hand and of the minute pause between when I exhaled and when I began to inhale again.
Normandy said, “So I think you can see why it’s time for you to confide in us. ”
“No, how about this,” I said. I heard how my voice sounded, flat and not like me, but I didn’t try to change it as I kept staring at the screen of the phone. “How about you guys tell me what we’re all doing here. Here at Thornking-Ash, I mean. Not in wishy-washy ‘we’re watching out for you to make sure nothing happens’ terms. Like in, ‘why the hell did you bring us here when you don’t even know what’s going on under your own noses’ terms. Like you told me that you knew something was up with Dee, right at the very beginning, and now she’s obviously totally screwed, and you should’ve done something—”
I stopped speaking then, because Normandy was saying something and I was realizing that I wasn’t angry at him at all. I was angry at me.
I stared at my hands.
“James,” Sullivan said. I heard the sound of Dee’s cell phone scraping across the table as he picked it up.
“Look. You’re not an idiot,” Normandy said. “I thought I was pretty clear when we met. We—we being myself and a few of the other staff members here—founded Thornking-Ash after we realized that They were more likely to harass or kidnap teens with incredible musical talent. Like my son. ”
I dimly remembered hearing something about this, back when I’d first applied to the school with Dee. I just stopped myself from saying “the one who killed himself. ” It sounded too tactless, even for me.
“He was stolen,” Normandy said, his voice very even. “That was before I knew about Them. I knew I couldn’t let that happen to anyone else. So we created the school to find at-risk students and keep them under a watchful eye. ”
“And the thorn king?” I asked. “Obviously his trekking about behind the school isn’t a coincidence, given the name of the school. ”
“He’s a canary,” Normandy said, with a sort of flat-lipped smile as if the statement was supposed to be funny, or had been funny once. “A supernatural canary. ”
I looked at him.
He explained, “Miners used to keep a canary down in the mines, to let them know when the oxygen was getting low. If the canary died, the miners knew to get out of the mine shaft. Cernunnos is our canary. If one of our students can see or hear him, we know they’re particularly susceptible to supernatural interference. ”
Sullivan’s eyes bored holes in the side of my head.
“Well, obviously your system worked out great,” I said.
Normandy ignored the sarcasm. “Yeah, actually, it did. We haven’t actually had any notable incidents with the Good Neighbors”—he said this last bit with a glance at Sullivan, making me wonder if there was a story there, or if he just knew about Sullivan’s history with Eleanor—“for years. In fact, we’ve just been a premier music school for several years. Until this year—when we’ve had more of Them show up on campus than in all of the other years combined. Patrick tells me it’s because we have a cloverhand here, though I didn’t think they existed anymore. And my instinct is telling me that Deirdre is that cloverhand. Now, I’ve told you everything about the school, so maybe you can tell me this: am I right?”
There wasn’t any reason to lie. “Yes. I think it started this summer for her. ”
Sullivan and Normandy exchanged looks. “So she’s been drawing every single one of Them to the campus,” Normandy said.
“What does that mean tonight’s going to look like? Are They satisfied now that They have Deirdre? Or is she part of something bigger?” Sullivan asked.
“Bigger,” I said immediately. I didn’t say anything about Nuala; I didn’t think Normandy knew about her.
Sullivan said, “I think the other staff need to be notified. There’s ways to get her back, but we have to be prepared. ”
“They’ll be resistant. It’s been years since we’ve had to do anything like this. ” Normandy used the table to push himself to his feet. “Patrick, come with me. ”
Sullivan hesitated, letting Normandy start off without him. After Normandy was out of earshot, he turned to me. “Keep Nuala out of the way and try not to do anything stupid. Just stay inside. In Brigid, maybe. If I don’t see you beforehand, meet me by the fountain when the bonfires are starting. ”
I’m left sitting at the table, goose bumps crawling up and down my arms. “What about Dee?” I asked.
“We’re handling it. Worry about Nuala. ”
He didn’t have to mention that last part. I already had it covered.
Sleep and death are just the same
From both I can return
I emerge from sleep just by waking
And from death, I return with words.
—from Golden Tongue: The Poems of Steven Slaughter
“Nope,” I said. “Ladies first. ”
He gave me a withering look, which was a welcome change from his previously strained expression. “Charming. ” But he went in before me anyway. The folding chairs were set up exactly the same as last time we’d been in here, and James walked down the aisle between them, his arms held out wide.
“Welcome, ladies and gentlemen,” he said, his face flatteringly lit by the half-light through the frosted glass windows. He kept walking down the aisle; I imagined a cloak billowing out behind him. “I’m Ian Everett Johan Campbell, the third and the last. ”
“Spotlight following you up the aisle,” I interrupted, falling into step behind him.
“I hope I can hold your attention,” James continued. He pretended to pause and kiss someone’s hand sitting along the aisle. “I must tell you that what you see tonight is completely real. ”
“Run up the stairs,” I said. “Music starts once you hit the bottom stair. ”
James leapt up the stairs onto the stage, the recessed lighting onstage turning his hair redder than it really was. He spoke as he walked to his mark. “It might not be amazing, it might not be shocking, it might not be scandalizing, but I can tell you beyond a shadow of a doubt: it is real. For that—” He paused.
“Music stops,” I said.
James closed his eyes. “I am deeply sorry. ”
I joined him on the stage. “When you do the scene where they call you out, when they say what you really are, someone will have to cue the music to go with the sentence. Don’t forget that part. ”
There was a pause then—just a tiny second too long—before James said, “You’ll cue it. ” The pause told me he wasn’t sure. He didn’t know if tonight was going to work. I didn’t either.
The fact was, I didn’t know if I was built for happy endings.
“Right,” I said, after a space big enough to drop a semi-truck into. “Yeah, of course. ” I was tired again. It was a heavy sort of tired, like if I went to sleep this time, I wouldn’t wake up. James was looking out the window at the late afternoon sun, his eyes narrowed and far away. I knew he was feeling the press of Halloween as strongly as I was. “Would you play my song?” I asked.
“Will you heckle me if I do it wrong?” But he sat down at the piano bench without waiting for my answer. Not like a proper pianist, but with his shoulders slouched over and his wrists resting on the keys of the piano. “I’m afraid I just can’t do it without you here. ”
“Liar,” I said. But I joined him, ducking under his arms like I had that first day at the piano. His arms made a circle around me as I sat on the edge of the bench, pressing my body into the same shape as his. Like before, my arms matched the line of his arms as my hands rested on his hands. And my spine curved into the same curve of his hunched-over chest. But this time, there weren’t any goose bumps on his skin. And this time, he pressed the side of his face into my hair and inhaled sharply, a gesture that so agonizingly spelled desire that I didn’t have to read his mind.
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