Ballad a gathering of f.., p.7

Ballad: A Gathering of Faerie, page 7

 part  #2 of  Books of Faerie Series


Ballad: A Gathering of Faerie

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Page 7

  “So, how are you liking Thornking-Ash?” He finally took a spoonful of cereal and began to eat. I could hear him crunching from where I sat; there wasn’t any milk in his bowl.

  “Beats Chinese water torture. ” Inexplicably, my eyes focused on the hand he held the spoon with. On one of his knobby fingers was a wide metallic ring, scratched with shapes. Ugly and dull, like the band on my wrist.

  Sullivan caught my gaze. His eyes dropped briefly to my wrist and then back to his own ring. “Would you like to see it closer?” He put down his spoon and began twisting his ring, working it over a knuckle.

  A sick, uncertain melody sang in my ears, and in front of me Sullivan fell to the floor, then pushed himself onto his hands and knees, vomiting flowers and blood.

  I squeezed my eyes shut for a second and then opened them. Sullivan was still working the ring off.

  I shook my head. “No. Actually, I’d rather not. Please leave it on. ”

  The words were out before I could think of whether they sounded normal. In retrospect, they sounded like I was a head case, but Sullivan didn’t seem to notice. In any case, he kept the ring on.

  “Well, you’re not an idiot,” Sullivan said. “I’m sure you know why I called you over here. We’re a music school, and you’ve basically graduated with honors before you’ve started. I looked up your stats. You had to know that we couldn’t possibly have an instructor of your level here. ”

  If I hadn’t confessed to my own flesh and blood why I’d come here, I wasn’t about to try it out on a random teacher. “Maybe I am an idiot. ”

  Sullivan shook his head. “I’ve seen enough to know what they look like. ”

  I wanted to grin. Sullivan was all right.

  “Okay, so let’s assume I’m not an idiot. ” I pushed my cereal out of the way and leaned on my arms. “Let’s assume I knew that I wasn’t going to find the piping equivalent of Obi-Wan here. Let’s also assume, for convenience’s sake, that I’m not going to tell you why I came, assuming I even had a good reason. ”

  “Let’s do that. ” Sullivan glanced at the clock and then back at me. He had an intensity to his eyes that I was unfamiliar with in teachers; he wasn’t just another runner on the giant treadmill of adult life. “I’ve asked Bill what he thought I should do with you. ”

  It took me a moment to remember that Bill was the piping instructor.

  “He thought I should just leave you be. You know, let you practice whenever you’d normally be taking your lesson, and leave it at that. But I think that sort of perverts the whole idea of having you come to a music school. Do you concur?”

  “It does seem vaguely wrong,” I agreed. “I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say perverts—”

  Sullivan interrupted. “So I thought we’d set you up with some other sort of instrument. Nothing woodwind or reed-like. You’d pick that up too fast. Guitar maybe, or piano. Something that will take you longer than five minutes to master. ”

  “In the interests of full disclosure,” I said, “I play some guitar. ”

  “In the interests of full disclosure,” Sullivan echoed my words, “so do I. But I’m better at piano. Do you play that at all?”

  “I’ll be taking lessons from you?”

  “The real piano teachers have the lesson slots more than filled with real pianists. But because I don’t want to see you wasting your time here, I’ll find some time between grading horrendous English essays to give you lessons. And it can count toward your music credit. If that is agreeable to you. ”

  People being nice for no apparent reason always made me suspicious. People being nice to me with no apparent reason made me even more suspicious. “I can’t help but feel that I’m some sort of science experiment or penance. ”

  “Yes,” Sullivan said, standing up with his mostly empty bowl of rabbit food. “You’re fulfilling my ‘helping students who remind me of myself when I was young and stupid’ quota. Thanks for that. I’d like to start this week but we’ve got the D. C. trip, so I’ll see you next Friday at five in the practice rooms. Oh, and unless you need it to feel comfortable, you can leave your ego in your room; you won’t be needing it. ”

  He smiled pleasantly at me and inclined his head like those people who nod their heads when they say good-bye. The Japanese?

  I pulled a pen out of my pocket and wrote fri 5 piano on my hand, so that I wouldn’t forget. But I didn’t think I would.

  The practice rooms that filled Chance Hall felt like holding cells. They were tiny, perfectly square rooms just big enough to hold an upright piano and two music stands and smelled like one thousand years of body odor. I cast a scornful look at the music stands—pipers memorize everything—and set my pipe case down by the piano bench. I took out my practice chanter and sat down; the bench creaked like a fart.

  My piano lesson wasn’t for days, but I hadn’t been to the practice rooms before, and I wanted to see what they were like before Friday.

  It wasn’t exactly a room built for inspiration. A practice chanter doesn’t have a beautiful tone to start with—the words “dying goose” come to mind—and I didn’t expect that the crap acoustics of the room would improve it.

  I looked at the door. It had one of those little twist locks on the doorknob so that you could lock yourself in—I suppose so you wouldn’t have people barging in all the time while you were practicing. It occurred to me, randomly, that the practice rooms would be a great place to commit suicide. Everyone would just assume you were inside practicing until you started to smell.

  I locked the door.

  I sat back down on the very end of the bench and held my chanter to my lips. I didn’t quite want to begin playing, because I could feel the song from my dream still lurking right at the edge of my consciousness and I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to stop it falling from my fingers if I started to play. And it would be amazing. The half-remembered song begged me to play it, to discover just how beautiful it would sound released into the air—but I was afraid that by giving in, I might be saying yes to something I didn’t want to say yes to.

  I debated, my back to the door. I don’t know how long I’d sat there, unmoving, when I felt a tug in my head, a prickle of something, and watched goose bumps rise along the skin of my arms. And I knew that something was in the room with me, though the door had made no sound and I’d heard no footfalls.

  I inhaled silently, wondering if it was worse to look or worse to not know. I looked.

  The door was closed. Still locked. I was frigid, my sixth sense screaming at me something’s not right; you’re not alone. I fingered the iron band on my wrist, superstitious, and the action focused me. Close to me—very close—I smelled a weird smell, like ozone. Like just after a lightning bolt.

  “Nuala?” I guessed.

  There was no answer, but I felt a touch, like a weight, against my back and shoulder, from behind me. After a few seconds it was more than just weight: it was warmth, with shoulder blades against my shoulder blades, ribs against my ribs, hair against my neck. Nuala—if it was Nuala—said nothing, just sat silently behind me on the bench, her back leaning against my back. My skin prickled with goose bumps, cleared, and then prickled all over again, as if it couldn’t get used to her presence.

  “I’m wearing iron,” I said—very quietly.

  The body against mine didn’t shift. I imagined I could feel the thump of a heartbeat against my skin. “I spotted that. ”

  I let out the air in my lungs, very slowly through my teeth, relieved because it was Nuala’s voice. Yes, Nuala was bad—but an unidentified creature leaning against me, matching me breath for breath, would’ve been worse.

  “It’s very uncomfortable,” I said, intensely aware of how speaking tightened my chest and created friction between her back and mine. The sensation was simultaneously terrifying and sensual. “The iron, I mean. It seems like such a waste of discomfort. I only put it on for you. ”

>   “Should I be flattered?” Nuala’s voice was taunting. “There’s worse than me about. ”

  “Comforting thought. How bad are you, while we’re being friendly?”

  Nuala made a little sound as if she were about to say something but thought better of it. Silence hung, fat and ugly, between us. Finally, she said, “I was only coming to listen to you. ”

  “You could’ve knocked. I had the door locked for a reason. ”

  “You weren’t to know I was here. What are you—a seer or something? A psychic?”

  “Or something. ”

  Nuala shifted away from me, turning toward the piano. The loss of her touch was heartbreaking; my chest ached with abstract longing. “Play something. ”

  “Holy crap, creature. ” I shifted toward the piano so that I could look at her, and shook my head to clear the agony. “You’re difficult. ”

  She leaned forward, across the keys, to see what my face looked like while I spoke. Her own hair fell in front of her face as she did so; she had to push the choppy pale bits back behind an ear. “That feeling only means you want to be more than you are. It only means you should’ve said yes instead of no. ”

  I was sure she meant her words to be convincing, but they had the opposite effect. “If I get somewhere in this life, it’s going to be because of me, bucko. No cheating. ”

  Nuala made a terrible face behind her freckles. “You’re being quite ungrateful. You haven’t even tried the song I helped you with. It’s not cheating. You would’ve written it eventually. Like, if you’d lived to be three thousand or something. ”

  “I’m not saying yes,” I told her.

  “I wasn’t doing it in exchange for yes,” Nuala snapped. “I was doing it to show you what we could be together. Your damned thirty-day free trial period. Could you just take advantage of it? No, of course not! Have to question! Have to over-analyze. Sometimes I hate all of you stupid humans. ”

  My head hurt with her anger. “Nuala, seriously. Shut up for a second. You’re giving me a splitting headache. ”

  “Don’t tell me to shut up,” she said, but she did.

  “Don’t take this the wrong way,” I said, “But I don’t exactly trust you. ”

  I set my chanter down—it felt like a weapon that Nuala could use against me—and laid my fingers on the cool keys of the piano instead. Unlike my chanter, which was familiar and pregnant with possibilities under my fingers, the smooth piano keys were meaningless and innocent. I looked at Nuala, and unspeaking, she looked back at me. Her eyes were so wrong—so dazzlingly not human—when I really looked at them, but she was right. When I looked into her eyes, I saw myself looking back. A me that wanted more than what I was. A me that knew there was so much brilliance out there to find but that I would never begin to discover.

  Nuala climbed off the bench, very carefully so that it didn’t make a fart-creak, and ducked between me and the piano, my arms forming a cage on either side of her. She pressed back against me, forcing me back on the bench so that she had an edge to sit on, and then she found my hands where they were spread artlessly on the piano keys.

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