I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure in the landscape—the loneliness of it—the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it—the whole story doesn’t show.
Human girls cry when they’re sad and laugh when they’re happy. They have a single fixed shape rather than shifting with their whims like windblown smoke. They have their very own parents, whom they love. They don’t go around stealing other girls’ mothers. At least that’s what Kaye thought human girls were like. She wouldn’t really know. After all, she wasn’t human.
Fingering the hole on the left side of her fishnets, Kaye poked at the green skin underneath as she considered herself in the mirror.
“Your rat wants to come,” Lutie-loo said. Kaye turned toward the lidded fish tank, where the doll-size faerie had her thin, pale fingers pressed against the outside of the glass. Inside, Kaye’s brown rat, Armageddon, sniffed the air. Isaac was curled in a white ball in the far corner. “He likes coronations.”
“Can you really understand what he’s saying?” Kaye asked, pulling an olive skirt over her head and wriggling it onto her hips.
“He’s just a rat,” Lutie said, turning toward Kaye. One of her moth wings dusted the side of the cage with pale powder. “Anyone can talk rat.”
“Well, I can’t. Do I look too monochromatic in this?”
Lutie nodded. “I like it.”
Kaye heard her grandmother’s voice calling from downstairs. “Where are you? I made you a sandwich!”
“Be there in a second!” Kaye shouted back.
Lutie kissed the glass wall of the cage. “Well, can the rat come or not?”
“I guess. Sure. I mean, if you can get him to not run away.” Kaye laced up one thick-soled black boot and limped around the room looking for its mate. Her old bed frame was in pieces in the attic, her old dolls were dressed in punk-rock finery, and above the new mattress on the floor Kaye had painted a mural where a headboard might have been. It was half finished—a tree with deep, intricate roots and gilded bark. Although she’d thought it would, the decorating still hadn’t made the room feel like hers.
When he’d seen the mural, Roiben had remarked that she could glamour the room into looking any way she wanted, but a magical veneer—no matter how lovely—still didn’t seem real to her. Or maybe it seemed too real, too much a reminder of why she didn’t belong in the room at all.
Shoving her foot into the other boot, she tugged on her jacket. Leaving her hair green, she let magic slide over her skin, coloring and plumping it. There was a slight prickling as the glamour restored her familiar human face.
She looked at herself a moment longer before pocketing Armageddon, scratching behind the ears of Isaac, and walking toward the door. Lutie followed, flying on moth wings, keeping out of sight as Kaye jogged down the stairs.
“Was that your mother on the phone before?” Kaye’s grandmother asked. “I heard it ring.” She stood at the kitchen counter, pouring hot grease into a tin can. Two peanut butter and bacon sandwiches sat on chipped plates; Kaye could see the brown meat curling past the edges of the white bread.
Kaye bit into her sandwich, glad that the peanut butter glued her mouth shut.
“I left her a message about the holidays, but can she bother to call me back? Oh no, she’s much too busy to talk. You’ll have to ask her tomorrow night, although why she can’t come down here to see you instead of insisting you go visit her at that squalid apartment in the city, I will never know. It must really gall her that you’ve decided to stay here instead of following her around like a little shadow.”
Kaye chewed, nodding along with her grandmother’s complaints. In the mirror beside the back door, she could see, beneath the glamour, a girl with leaf green skin, black eyes without a drop of white in them, and wings as thin as plastic wrap. A monster standing beside a nice old lady, eating food intended for another child. A child stolen away by faeries.
Brood parasites. That’s what cuckoos were called when they dropped their eggs in other birds’ nests. Parasitic bees, too, leaving their spawn in foreign hives; Kaye had read about them in one of the moldering encyclopedias on the landing. Brood parasites didn’t bother raising their own babies. They left them to be raised by others—birds that tried not to notice when their offspring grew huge and hungry, bees that ignored that their progeny did not collect pollen, mothers and grandmothers who didn’t know the word “changeling.”
“I have to go,” Kaye said suddenly.
“Have you thought more about school?”
“Gram, I got my GED,” Kaye said. “You saw it. I did it. I’m done.”
Her grandmother sighed and looked toward the fridge, where the letter was still tacked with a magnet. “There’s always community college. Imagine that—starting college before the rest of your class even graduates.”
“I’ll go see if Corny is outside yet.” Kaye started toward the door. “Thanks for the sandwich.”
The old woman shook her head. “It’s too cold out there. Stand on the porch. He should know better than to ask a young girl to wait outside in the snow. I swear, that boy has no manners at all.”
Kaye felt the whoosh of air as Lutie flew past her back. Her grandmother didn’t even look up. “Okay, Gram. Bye, Gram.”
Kaye nodded and used the sleeve of her coat to turn the knob of the door so that she could avoid touching the iron. Even the smell of it burned her nose when she got close. Walking through the porch, she used the same trick on the screen door and stepped out into the snow. The trees on the lawn were encased in ice. Hail from that morning had stuck to whatever it had touched, freezing into solid sparkling skins that covered branches and flashed against the dull gray sky. The slightest breeze sent the limbs jangling against one another.
Corny wasn’t coming, but her grandmother didn’t need to know that. It wasn’t lying. After all, faeries couldn’t lie. They only bent the truth so far that it snapped on its own.
Above the doorway, a swag of thorn wrapped in green marked the house as watched over by the Unseelie Court. A gift from Roiben. Each time Kaye looked at the branches, she hoped that being protected by the Unseelie Court included being protected from the Unseelie Court.
She turned away, walking past a ranch house with aluminum siding hanging off in patches. The woman who lived there raised Italian ducks that ate all the grass seed anyone in the neighborhood planted. Kaye thought of the ducks and smiled. A trash can rolled in the street, bumping up against plastic bins of beer bottles set out for recycling. Kaye crossed over the parking lot of a boarded-up bowling alley, where a sofa rested near the curb, cushions hard with frost.
Plastic Santas glowed on lawns beside dried grapevine reindeer wrapped with fiber-optic lights. A twenty-four-hour convenience store piped screechy carols that carried through the quiet streets. A robotic elf with rosy cheeks waved endlessly next to several snowman windsocks fluttering like ghosts. Kaye passed a manger missing its baby Jesus. She wondered if kids had stolen him or if the family had just taken him in for the night.
Halfway to the cemetery, she stopped at a pay phone outside a pizza place, put in quarters, and punched in Corny’s cell number. He picked it up after the first ring.
“Hey,” Kaye said. “Did you decide about the coronation? I’m on my way to see Roiben before it starts.”
“I don’t think I can go,” Corny said. “I’m glad you called, though—I have to tell you something. I was driving past one of those storage places. You know the kind with the billboards that have quotes on them like ‘Support Our Troops’ or ‘What Is Missing in C-H-blank-blank-C-H? U-R.’?”
“Yeah,” Kaye said, puzzled.
“Well, this one said ‘Life Is Like Licking Honey from a Thorn.’ What the fuck is that?”
“No shit, it’s weird. What is it supposed to mean?”
“Nothing. Just don’t dwell on it,” Kaye said.
“Oh, right. Don’t dwell. That’s me. I’m so good at not dwelling. It’s my skill set. If I was going to take one of those tests to see what job I was best suited for, I would rate a perfect ten for ‘not dwelling on shit.’ And what job do you think that would qualify me for exactly?”
“Storage unit manager,” Kaye said. “You’d be the one to put up those sayings.”
“Ouch. Right between the legs.” She could hear the smile in his voice.
“So, you’re really not coming tonight? You seemed so sure it was a good idea for you to face your fears and all that.”
There was a long silence on the other end of the line. Just as she would have spoken, he said, “The problem with facing my fears is that they’re my fears. Not to mention that a fear of megalomaniacal, amoral fiends is hard to rationalize away.” He laughed, a brittle, strange cackle. “Just once I’d like them to finally give up their secrets—tell me how to really protect myself. How to be safe.”
Kaye thought of Nephamael, the last King of the Unseelie Court, choking on iron, and Corny stabbing him again and again.
“I don’t think it’s that simple,” Kaye said. “I mean, it’s almost impossible to protect yourself from people, forget faeries.”
“Yeah, I guess. I’ll see you tomorrow,” Corny said, and ended the call.
“Okay.” She heard him hang up the phone.
Kaye walked on, drawing her coat more tightly around her. She stepped into the cemetery and started up the snowy hill, muddy and grooved by the sleds that had gone over it. Her gaze strayed to where she knew Janet was buried, although from where Kaye stood, the polished granite stones looked the same with their plastic garlands and wet red bows. She didn’t need to see the grave for her steps to slow, weighed down by the memory like sodden clothes must have weighed down Janet’s drowning body.
She wondered what happened when the baby cuckoo realized it wasn’t like its brothers and sisters. Maybe it wondered where it had come from or what it was. Maybe it just pretended nothing was wrong and kept on gulping down worms. Whatever that bird felt, though, it wasn’t enough to keep it from pushing the other chicks out of the nest.
Cornelius Stone closed his cell phone against his chest and stood still for a moment, waiting for the regret to ebb. He wanted to go to the coronation, wanted to dance with the terrible and beautiful creatures of the Unseelie Court, wanted to gorge on faerie fruit and wake up on a hillside, scourged and sated. He bit his cheek until he tasted blood, but the yearning only rose with the pain.
He sat down in the library aisle on carpeting so new it had a clean, chemical smell that was probably evaporating formaldehyde. Opening the first of the books, he looked at woodcuts and turn-of-the-century line art. He saw pictures of ponies with flippers that looked nothing like the kelpie that had murdered his sister. He leafed to an illustration of a ring of tiny cherubic faeries with red cheeks and pointy ears dancing in a circle. Pixies, he read. None of them resembled Kaye in the least.
He tore each page carefully out of the binding. They were bullshit.
The next book was no better.
As he started ripping apart the third, an elderly man looked down the aisle.
“You shouldn’t be doing that,” he said. He was holding a fat hardback western in one hand and squinted at Corny as though, even with his glasses, he couldn’t see him very clearly.
“I work here,” Corny lied.
The man looked at Corny’s scuffed biker jacket and his shaggy almost-a-mullet hair. “Your job is to rip apart perfectly good books?”
Corny shrugged. “National security.”
The guy walked away muttering. Corny shoved the rest of the books into his backpack and walked out the doors. Disinformation was worse than no information at all. Alarms clanged behind him, but he didn’t worry. He’d been to other libraries. The alarms didn’t do anything but make a pretty sound, like a church bell from the future.
He started in the direction of the coronation hill. No, he wasn’t going to party with Kaye and her prince-of-darkness boyfriend, but that didn’t mean he had to stay home. None of those books could help with what he had planned, but he’d expected that. If he wanted answers, he was going to have to go right to the source.
The servants didn’t like to let Kaye into the Palace of Termites. She could tell by the way they looked at her, as though she were only the scuff of her shoes, the dirt under her fingernails, the stench of coffee and cigarettes that clung to her clothes. They spoke grudgingly, eyes never meeting hers, and they led her through passageways as though their feet were made of lead.
Here was the place to which she ought to belong, but instead the grim and fabulous court, the cold halls, and the ferocious denizens made her uneasy. It was all very lovely, but she felt self-conscious and awkward against such a backdrop. And if she did not belong here and she didn’t belong with Ellen, then she couldn’t think of any place left to belong.
It had been nearly two months since Roiben had assumed the title of Unseelie King, but a formal coronation could only occur on the darkest day of winter. After tonight he would be the true Lord of the Night Court, and with the title would come the resumption of the endless war with the Seelie fey. Two evenings past he’d woken Kaye by climbing a tree, tapping against her bedroom window, and drawing her out to sit on the frozen lawn. “Stay Ironside for a time after I’m crowned,” he’d told her. “Lest you be dragged into more danger.” When she’d tried to ask him for how long or how bad he thought it was going to get, he’d kissed her quiet. He’d seemed restless, but wouldn’t say why. Whatever the reason, his restlessness had been infectious.
She followed the shuffling feet of a hunchbacked steward to the doors of Roiben’s chambers.
“He will be with you soon,” the steward said, pushing open the heavy door and stepping inside. He lit several fat candles along the floor before retreating silently. A tufted tail dragged behind him.
Roiben’s rooms were largely unfurnished, the walls an expanse of smooth stone broken up by stacks of books and a bed covered in a brocade throw. There were a few other things, farther inside—a jade bowl of washing water, a wardrobe, a stand with his armor. The chamber was formal, austere, and forbidding.
Kaye dropped her coat onto the end of the bed and sat down beside it. She tried to imagine living here, with him, and failed. The idea of putting a poster on the wall was absurd.
Reaching over, she pulled a bracelet from one of the pockets of her coat, cupping it in her hand. A thin braid of her own green hair, wrapped in silver wire. She’d hoped to surprise him before the ceremony started, hoped that even if she couldn’t see him for a while, he’d keep it with him, like storybook knights wore their ladies’ tokens when they rode into battle. Lutie and Armageddon had even gone ahead to the hall so that she’d have a moment alone in which to present it.
Next to the grandeur of the room, though, her gift now seemed ugly and homemade. Not worthy of a King.
There was a sound like the clatter of hooves in the hall and Kaye stood, pushing the bracelet back into the pocket of her coat, but it was only another glowering servant, this one bringing a glass of spiced wine as thick and red as blood.
Kaye took the glass and sipped at it politely, then set it down on the floor as the servant left. She flipped through a few books in the flickering candlelight—military strategy, Peasepod’s Ballads, an Emma Bull paperback she’d loaned him—and waited some more. Taking another sip of wine, she stretched out at the end of the bed, wrapping the brocade cloth around her.
She woke suddenly, a hand on her arm and Roiben’s impassive face above her. Silvery hair tickled her cheek.
Embarrassed, she sat up, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. She had slept restlessly, and the coverlet was half on the floor, soaking up spilled wine and melted candle wax. She didn’t even remember closing her eyes.
A scarlet-clad servant bearing a long cloak with black opal clasps stood in the center of the room. Roiben’s chamberlain, Ruddles, was near the door, his mouth overfull of teeth in a way that made him seem as though he wore an unpleasant grin.
Roiben frowned. “No one told me you were here.”
She wasn’t sure if that meant that he wished someone had or that he would have preferred her not to be there at all. Kaye slung her coat over her arm and stood up, her cheeks hot with shame. “I should go.”
He stayed seated on the wreckage of his bed. The scabbard on his hip touched the floor. “No.” He gestured to the servant and Ruddles. “Leave us.”
With shallow bows, they departed.
Kaye remained standing. “It’s late. Your thing is going to start soon.”
“Kaye, you have no idea what time it is.” He stood and reached for her arm. “You’ve been asleep.”
She stepped back, clasping her hands together, pressing her nails into her palm to keep calm.
He sighed. “Stay. Let me beg your forgiveness for whatever it is I’ve done.”
“Stop it.” She shook her head, talking faster than she was thinking. “They don’t want you to be with me, do they?”
His mouth curved into a bitter smile. “I am forbidden nothing.”
“No one wants me here. They don’t want me near you. Why?”
He looked startled, ran a hand through silver hair. “Because I’m gentry and you’re… not,” he finished awkwardly.
“I’m low class,” she said dully, turning her back to him. “Nothing new there.”
Roiben’s boots tapped against the stone as he walked behind her and pulled her against his chest. His head rested in the crook of her neck, and she felt his breath as he spoke, his lips moving against her skin. “I have my own thoughts on the subject. I care nothing for the opinions of others.”
For a moment, she relaxed into his touch. He was warm and his voice was very soft. It would be easy to crawl back under the coverlet and stay. Just stay.
But Kaye turned in his arms instead. “What’s the big deal about you slumming?”
He snorted, one of his hands lingering on her hip. He was no longer looking at her; his stare focused on the cold stone floor, the same gray as his eyes. “It is a weakness. My affection for you.”
She opened her mouth to ask another question, and closed it again, realizing he’d answered more than she’d asked. Perhaps that was the reason that the servants didn’t like her, perhaps it was the reason that courtiers sneered at her, but it was also what he believed. She could see it in his face.
“I really should go,” she said, pulling away. She was relieved to find that her voice didn’t catch. “I’ll see you out there. Break a leg.”
He released her from the cradle of his arms. “You cannot stand on the dais during the ceremony nor walk in the procession. I do not want you to be taken for part of my court. Above all, you must not swear fealty. Promise me, Kaye.”
“So, I’m supposed to act like I don’t know you?” The door was only a few steps across the floor, but she was conscious of each one. “Like you don’t have any weaknesses?”
“No, of course not,” he said, too quickly. “You are the only thing I have that is neither duty nor obligation, the only thing I chose for myself.” He paused. “The only thing I want.”
She let a small teasing smile creep onto her face. “Really?”
He snorted, shaking his head. “You think I’m being absurd, don’t you?”
“I think you’re trying to be nice,” said Kaye. “Which is pretty absurd.”
He walked to her and kissed her smiling mouth. She forgot about his sullen servants and the coronation and the bracelet she hadn’t given him. She forgot about anything but the press of his lips.