Ballad: A Gathering of Faerie, page 6part #2 of Books of Faerie Series
“Indeed. So we dance until you say stop, and then—we stop?”
I paused. Dancing with Eleanor’s consort without begging for the privilege first seemed like a bad idea. Which added slightly to the appeal. “Where is my dear queen?”
“She is attending to other matters. ” For half a second, I thought I saw something—relief, maybe—flicker across his face, and then it was gone. His hand was still outstretched toward me, and I put my hand in it.
And the music took us. My feet fell into the beat, and his feet were already in it, and we spun into the crowd. There was night somewhere out there, but it seemed far away from this hill, brilliantly lit by orbs and by the dust hanging in the air.
We were watched as we danced, his hands holding mine tightly, as if he held me up, and I heard voices as we danced past, snatches of conversation.
“—the leanan sidhe—”
“—if the queen knew—”
“—why does she dance with—”
“—he will be a king before—”
My fingers tightened on the consort’s. “So you will be a king; that’s why you are here. ”
His eyes were bright. Like all humans, he was half-drunk with the music once he started to dance. “It is not a secret. ”
I thought about saying it was from me, but I didn’t want to look like an idiot. “You’re only a human. ”
“But I can dance,” he protested. And he could. Quite well for a human, the drum beat pushing his body this way and that, his feet making intricate patterns on the stamped-down grass. “And I will have magic, later, when I am king. ” He spun me.
“How do you figure that, human?”
“The queen has promised me and I believe her; she can’t lie. ” He laughed, wildly, and I saw that he was ravished by the music, thrilled with the dance, so very vulnerable to us. “She is very beautiful. It hurts me, cailín, how beautiful she is. ”
That the queen’s beauty hurt him was no surprise to me. The queen’s beauty pained everyone who saw her. “Magic doesn’t just float around, human. ”
He laughed again, as if what I had said was funny. “Of course not! It moves from body to body, right? So I suppose it shall come from another somebody. ”
I considered myself a sinister creature but his statement sounded sinister, even to me. “Another magical somebody, hmm? One wonders how they would find another somebody like this. And what that would do to that somebody. ”
“The queen is very cunning. ”
I thought of the way she’d silently worked behind the old queen’s back, carefully making sure that when the old queen’s crown fell from her head, she—Eleanor—would rise up wearing it. “Oh, yes, she is very cunning. But it sounds to me like it’s going to be extremely painful to somebody else. ”
The consort made a face of disbelief. “My queen is not cruel. ”
I just looked at him. Surely he didn’t believe that. Not unless he’d been dropped on his head as a kid or something. But he didn’t take it back. So I said, “Not everyone can hold magic even when they can manage to find it. ”
“Halloween, cailín. Day of the dead. Magic is more volatile then. And—she would not grant me something I could not carry. She knows my weaknesses. I am not afraid; I believe I will be one of you soon enough. ”
“Stop,” I snarled, and I stopped so suddenly that he jerked my arm, twisting my shoulder uncomfortably. “I don’t think you know what you say. ”
He dropped my hand and stood, arms slack by his sides. The dancers around us spun to stare at both of us. Their voices rose in murmurs and whispers.
“I wouldn’t hurry to throw away my humanness so quickly,” I told him, widening the space between us. “Until you see what being faerie really means. ”
My words were wasted. He just stared at me.
I left the consort standing there in the circle of faeries. Before I’d even gone halfway invisible, a tall, red-haired faerie had taken his hand, and by the time I had abandoned physical form entirely, riding up and up on human thoughts and dreams, the consort had been pulled into the dance once again. From overhead, I couldn’t tell him from the faeries, and I also couldn’t tell what emotion was burning in my chest. But I left them all behind, glad to be rid of them; I had a dream to bestow.
I dreamt of music.
A song, intoxicating and viral, from someplace far away, beautiful and unattainable.
I wanted it, this gray song of desire. It was real in a way no dream had ever been.
I knew this was Nuala’s doing, this song so beautiful that it hurt.
I woke up.
When I woke up, my mouth was stuffed with golden music. It was like having a song stuck in my head, but with taste and color and sensation attached to it. It was all wood smoke and beads of rain on oak leaves and shining gold strands choking me. It reminded me of wanting Dee, wanting to be a better piper, wanting to … just wanting.
“Hey, James. Wake up. ” Paul’s voice pushed back the weight of the song, freeing my chest; I could breathe again. “It’s seven forty. ”
I sucked in a deep breath of air that was comforting in its normalcy: vaguely unwashed laundry, stale Doritos, and old wood flooring. I had never properly appreciated the smell of Doritos—so human. I clung tightly to the humanness around me, a lifeboat in a sea of song. Paul’s words seemed vastly unimportant.
“Seven forty-one,” Paul said. His voice was accompanied by a zipper sound. His backpack, maybe. It pulled me further out of my dream; I tried not to resent him. “Are you awake?”
I was awake. It was just taking me a long time to claw my way out of sleep. I tried my voice and was a little surprised when it worked. “There is no way on God’s green earth that it’s seven forty. What happened to the alarm?”
“It happened fifteen minutes ago. Snooze button too. You didn’t even move. ”
“I was dead,” I said, and sat up. My sheets were damp with sweat. “Dead people don’t move. Are you sure the alarm went off?”
I realized now he was fully dressed. He’d even had time to slick down his black hair with water, making him look like an Italian gangster. “It woke me up. ” He peered at me, eyes round behind his glasses. “Are you sick?”
“Sick in the head, my friend. ” I got out of bed; it felt like I was tearing myself out of a gauzy cobweb of dreams. Now that I was awake, I thought my bed smelled disconcertingly like Nuala’s breath had when I met her—all autumn and rain and wanting. Or maybe it was me, my skin. The thought was something like unpleasant. I wrenched my attention back to Paul. “But not ill in the conventional sense, I’m afraid. Do you think I can go to class like this?” I gestured to my T-shirt and boxers.
“Man, even I don’t want to see you like that. Are you coming to breakfast? You’ll have to hurry. ”
I dug around on the floor for a cleanish pair of pants while Paul hovered by the door, unwilling to leave without me. I jerked on some clothing and scratched my hair into universal messiness. “Yes, I’m coming. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, dear Paul. I wouldn’t miss it for the world. Do you think anyone will notice that I wore these yesterday?” Paul didn’t answer, wisely understanding the question to be rhetorical. “I’m ready. Let’s go—Wait. ”
I knelt down and pulled my duffle bag from under the bed. Rummaging through the odds and ends in the bottom of it, I felt like I was answering an exam question.
Multiple choice #1: What in James’ duffle bag will help him ward off a supernatural menace with a very fine set of boobs?
a) a watch that doesn’t keep proper time
b) a novel—some horrible-looking space thriller—that his mother sent along, not realizing he would be spending every waking moment reading something some teacher had stuffed into his prone hands
c) a handful of granola bars, brought along in case of a nuclear holocaust and a subsequent lack of fresh food
d) an iron band th
My fingers closed on the iron band—thin, uneven, with knobs on each end. I pulled it out. Paul wordlessly watched me as I fit the band around my wrist.
It had been weeks since the stain it left on my wrist had finally disappeared. I felt better with the iron against my skin. Protected, invincible.
I had always been an ace liar, even to myself.
I squeezed the knobs together until they pinched my skin. “Now I’m ready. ”
Breakfast was as it always was. A bunch of music geeks collecting in the dining hall too early in the morning. Whoever had designed the dining hall had been clever, though; tall windows stretched from floor to ceiling on the east side. The morning sun flooded the room, illuminating the scratched wooden tops of the tables and the faded murals on the walls. At any other time of the day, the dining hall was mundane, dingy even. But first thing in the morning, blasted with first light, it was a friggin’ cathedral.
Conversation was muted and mostly drowned out by spoons in cereal bowls, forks moving through rubbery eggs. I stirred my cereal until it turned to paste, my mouth still full of the taste of the music in my dream.
“James, can I talk to you for a second? If you’re done eating?”
The voice was Sullivan’s. Most of the teachers who lived on campus ate later in a separate faculty room, away from us performing monkeys, but Sullivan often ate breakfast with the students. Since his class was first period, it made sense for him to be here at oh-dark-thirty. Plus, who else did he have to eat breakfast with, if not us?
“I’m holding court at present,” I told him.
Sullivan peered over his bowl of cereal at my table-mates. The usual suspects: Megan, Eric, Wesley, Paul. Everyone but the person I wanted. Couldn’t she even sit at my table anymore? Sullivan said, “Can you minions spare James for a moment?”
“Is he in trouble?” Megan had been babbling about British swear words, but she broke off to observe us.
“No more than usual. ” Sullivan didn’t wait for an answer; he took my cereal and headed back toward an empty table, as if certain I would follow my breakfast.
“It appears my presence is desired by an authority figure. ” I shrugged. I didn’t think they’d miss me; I was being terrible company anyway. “See you guys in class. ”
I joined Sullivan and sat across from him. I wasn’t about to eat my pasty cereal, so I watched him carefully pick the nuts out of his. He had very long fingers with knobby joints. He was a very long person in general, with a rumpled appearance like he’d been thrown in the drier and then worn without ironing. This close, I could see that he was quite young. Thirties, tops.
“I heard about your piping instructor,” Sullivan said. The neat pile of nuts on his napkin toppled as he added another. “Or should I say, ‘ex-piping instructor’?” He lifted an eyebrow but didn’t look up from his careful sorting.
“Probably more appropriate,” I agreed.
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