Ballad: A Gathering of Faerie, page 4part #2 of Books of Faerie Series
She said it like it had a lot of O s in it: Noooooola. She was half-smiling in the smug sort of way that I liked better on my face.
“Are you sure you want to stick with that one?”
She studied her fingernails and bit at one. “It’s a woman’s prerogative to change her mind. ”
“Are you a woman?” I asked.
Nuala shot a dark look at me. “Haven’t you heard that it’s rude to ask?”
“Right. How thoughtless of me. So, have we met?”
Nuala waved a hand at me. “Shut up, would you? I’m trying to listen. ” She adjusted her seat way back and stared at the ceiling a second before closing her eyes. I had this horrible idea that she wasn’t listening to the music on the radio, but to some faraway music that only she could hear. I kept driving, silent, but I kept an eye on her. The afternoon sunlight came in through the side of the car and highlighted a galaxy of freckles on her cheeks. The freckles seemed incongruous, somehow: Very innocent. Very human. Then she opened her eyes and said, “So you’re a piper. ”
This didn’t have to be a supernatural observation. Anybody who’d been on the sidewalk when I played for Bill would’ve been able to hear. Still, I couldn’t help but imagine a subtext beneath her statement. “Yes. An awesome one. ”
Nuala shrugged. “You’re all right. ”
I glanced at her; she was smiling, in a very pointy way. “You’re just trying to make me angry. ”
“I’m just saying I’ve heard better. ” Nuala turned her face to me and the smile vanished. “I listened to your conversation, piper. They’ve got nothing for you here. Would you like to be better at what you do?”
The prick of danger increased to a stab. “That’s a stupid question. You already know the answer, or you wouldn’t have asked. ”
“I could help you. ”
I narrowed my eyes, trying to choose my words. “How do you figure?”
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her sit up straight and then, a moment later, I felt her breath in my ear. “By whispering secrets into your ear that would change your life. ”
I leaned my head away from her before the scent of her breath could capture me. My goose bumps had goose bumps. “And you’d do this selflessly, I’m sure. ”
“You know, I’d get hardly anything out of it, in comparison. You wouldn’t even notice. You’d become the best piper to ever live. ”
“Right. ” All sorts of warning stories of deals with devils and the like were running through my head, and now I was definitely rethinking my decision to get into the car with her. “Well, I’m flattered. But no. ” We were getting close to the school now. I wondered what she’d do when we got there. “I’m happy with my level of awesomeness. Happy enough to work my way up on my own, anyway. Unless you have, like, a free, no-obligation trial subscription that I can cancel after thirty days without owing anything or giving you a credit card number. ”
She showed me her teeth in a kind of grimace or snarl. “It’s very rude to turn down help from someone like me. Self-involved jerks such as yourself rarely get such offers. ”
I protested. “I was nice about turning you down, though. You have to admit that, at least. ”
“You didn’t even think about it. ”
“I did. Now, did you hear that pause there? Just a second ago? That was me, thinking about it again. And the answer’s still no. ”
She growled and shoved her feet into her giant clogs. “Stop the car. I’ll get out here. ”
“What about school?”
Nuala’s fingers were claws on the door handle. “Don’t push me, James Morgan. Let me out and I won’t pop your head off. ”
There was a ferocity to her voice that made me believe her. I stopped the car by the side of the road, trees close in on either side. Nuala fumbled with the door handle and then snapped at me, “Locks, you idiot!”
The doors had auto-locked. I hit the unlock button and she pushed the door open. Turning back to me, she fixed her blue eyes on me again. Her voice was scornful. “I think you lack the capacity to learn what I could teach you, anyway. Smug bastard. ”
She slammed the door and I hit the gas before she could change her mind. I glanced in the rearview mirror, but all I saw was a whirl of dry leaves spinning up from the road.
The blanket of yellow dazzles,
A frenetic sea of autumn glowing
Flowers upon a dying world, gifts for a yearly wake
Hiding behind summer-warm days,
The frost-bit nights are growing
Long with promise of the vicious harvest we take.
—from Golden Tongue: The Poems of Steven Slaughter
For some reason, the memory of that afternoon, the first day anyone had ever told me “no,” stuck in my head with excruciating detail. I could remember everything about it for the rest of my life. The too-hot interior of James’ car and the way that the worn cloth seat felt downy against the palm of my hand. The leaves outside the car, brilliant in their gaudy colors: the red-brown of the oaks was the same red-brown of his hair. The thick feeling in the back of my throat—anger. Real anger. It had been forever since I’d been angry.
It had been forever since I hadn’t gotten something I wanted.
I sulked until the sun blazed red just above the trees and the students returned to the dorms in knots of two, threes, fours. There were several that walked alone, hands shoved in pockets or gripping backpack straps, eyes on the ground. They would’ve been easy marks; being away from their family and friends was hard and these little lonely souls had only their music for company. They glowed faintly to me, blues and aquamarines and watery greens, all the color of my eyes. Maybe if it hadn’t been so soon after the last one, I would’ve been tempted. But I still felt strong, alive, invincible.
And there James was, in a group of four kids, which was all wrong. My marks never had friends—music was their life. Someone like him shouldn’t have had such an easy way with people. Shouldn’t have even wanted it. I would’ve doubted that it was him, despite his short-cropped auburn hair and his cocky bastard walk, but the fierce splash of yellow—my favorite color, for the record—that glowed inside him screamed music music music.
It was all I could do not to go rushing down there and make him want to take my deal. Or hurt him. Very badly. I had a couple of ideas that would take quite awhile to finish.
Patience. Get a grip.
So, instead, I fell into step behind his group of friends, unseen. I guess I could’ve been seen if anyone had thought to look really hard in the right way, but no one did. No one ever did, these days, though I’d heard from other faeries that it hadn’t always been this way. The few kids that felt something of me now and glanced up saw only a whirl of fall leaves racing along the edge of the sidewalk, climbing into the air before spiraling back down to the ground. That was me, always, the invisible shiver at twilight, the intangible lump in the back of your throat, the unbidden tear at thoughts long forgotten.
As the kids walked past the dorm buildings, the group dwindled to two as the girls disappeared into their dorm. I could get closer then, close enough that the glow of him reflected on my twilight skin and made me want to touch him and pull bright strings of music out of his head. If only he’d said yes.
James and the remaining boy were talking about vending machines. One of them, a boy whose chief characteristic was an innocent, smiling face, was quoting statistics about how many people get killed by vending machines tipping over on them.
“I don’t think they pulled the machines onto themselves,” James was saying.
“They showed video,” the round kid said.
“No, I think there’s probably an avenging vending machine angel that pushes them onto grabby bastards who are bad sports about losing their money. ” James made a pushing motion, a panicked expression, and a squashing sound in quick succession. “Lesson learned, bucko. Next time, just accept that you’ve
Round-o: “Except there wouldn’t be a next time. ”
“How right you are. Dying would prohibit one from acting upon the lesson they’d learned. Scratch that. Let the record show that vending machine tragedies are not morality tales but a form of natural selection. ”
Round kid laughed, then looked past James at something. “Hey, man, there’s a chick staring at you. ”
“Is there ever not?” James asked, but he turned to look anyway, past me at someone else. The yellow inside him flashed, twisted, flared toward me as if begging for me to turn it into something else. But his eyes didn’t find me; they instead rested on a pale girl. Black hair, face washed out in the artificial light of a streetlight, fingers plucking anxiously at her backpack strap. There was something missing from James’ voice when he told Round-o, “Hey, I’ll be up in a second, okay? She’s from my old school. ”
Round-head duly dispatched, James made his way through the circles of streetlight to where the girl stood. She had faint threads of orange glow running through her, like neon taffy, making me think that she would’ve made a good pupil if I hadn’t liked mine young, handsome, and male.
James’ voice was very brave, all funny and strong, even though the thoughts I could catch of his were chaotic. “Hey, crazy, what’s up?”
She smiled back at him, annoyingly pretty—I didn’t really care for attractive members of my own gender—and made a weird, crumpled, rueful face. Again, annoyingly cute. “Just getting ready to go up to my room. I came over this way because I always, um, never, because I never saw the fountain when it was lit up. And I wanted to. ”
Yeah, whatever. So you came over to see him and don’t want to say it. Right. Stop being coy. I glared at her. James half-cocked his head in my direction, as if listening, and I skirted a few feet away from them. But at my sudden movement, the girl’s eyes lifted abruptly, following me, frowning as if she saw me. Crap. I leaned down as if I was tying my shoe, like I was a real student and I was actually visible to everyone. Her eyes didn’t focus on me after I’d bent down—she couldn’t quite see me. She must have some of the second sight. That annoyed me too.
“Dee,” James said. “Earth to Dee. Calling planet Dee. Houston, our communication lines seem to be down. Dee, Dee, do you read me?”
Dee pulled her eyes away from me and back to James. She blinked, hard. “Um. Yes. Sorry about that. I didn’t get enough sleep last night. ” She had a very beautiful voice. I thought she must be quite a good singer. I finished fake-tying my shoe and started to walk very slowly toward the fountain, to hide myself in the water. Behind me, I heard James say something and Dee laugh, a relieved laugh, as if it had been awhile since she’d heard something funny and she was glad humor still existed.
I lay down in the fountain—invisible, I couldn’t feel the wetness—and looked up at the darkening sky, the water rippling over my vision. I felt safe in the water, utterly invisible, utterly protected.
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