Jackie missed the Black Dogs. She told herself she just missed dancing, but she also missed them, every single dorky one of them, except Tim, who was an unforgivable asshole. She hadn’t realized how much of her social life was tied up with the dance troupe until she got mad enough to stop going to practice. Not that they hadn’t called her, asking her to come back. Everyone had called her (except Tim) and Vax had not only called her, but he’d texted several times and stopped by the Pygg and Wassail asking after her.
Aisling covered for her, fortunately, because she didn’t know what she was going to say to Vax. She was angry that he wasn’t gay, and that seemed ridiculous, because when she went over their conversations, she realized he hadn’t lied to her, she’d just come to her own conclusions. He’d pointed that out on one of his many voice mails. She didn’t really have any reason to be angry at him, except that thinking about how she felt about Vax took Jackie to uncomfortable conclusions, and also he was one of the Black Dogs now, and the Black Dogs had let her know that she was nothing but a goddamn groupie.
Avoiding the Greenman meant that Jackie had to find a new place to hang out. She decided on Café Ishmael, because if Kit’s brother James liked you, he would sometimes read your tea leaves for you, and he was eerily accurate.
The scent of coffee wafted towards her, along with the warm babble of conversation and the hiss of milk foamers. She didn’t come to the Old Town that often. Its cobblestone streets and fake half-timbered buildings were charming and fun, but parking was nearly impossible and it got crowded on weekends.
As she stepped inside, she saw a cluster of people near the hearth. An apologizing customer had apparently knocked over a cup of something sticky and brown. In the process of cleaning it, they’d knocked down one of the floral displays James arranged along the mantel in celebration of midsummer. The customer kept saying she was sorry, while Kit crouched down, mopping up the drink with a clump of paper towels. Jackie was about to offer to help when she saw a tall fair-haired slender woman approach with a handful of barmops.
It was her. She was even prettier up close. She had enormous eyes and not an inch of flab on her. She didn’t want to deal with this right now. Jackie turned to go.
“Hi Jackie!” Kit said.
Jackie winced, then turned back with a smile. “Hi Kit. Is your brother here?”
“No, he’s got a migraine. We’re manning the helm until he feels better,” Kit said. She glanced at her and then back again, with a smile, like they were friends or something, and what was up with that? “Did you come for a tea leaf reading? Because James has been teaching Tali here how to do it, and she’s really good.”
“You’re Jackie?” Tali asked. She handed Kit the barmops and then extended her hand to shake. “Jackie of the Black Dogs? How nice to finally meet you! Vax talks about you constantly.”
“He does?” Jackie allowed her hand to be shaken. “You know Vax?”
“We’re…” Tali glanced at Kit as if asking a question. “We’re from the same country.”
“I hope you’re not thinking of dating him, Jackie. You can do better,” Kit said. She gathered the clump of sodden paper towels and handed them to Tali.
“He’s got flaws,” Tali said, throwing the clump of sodden paper towels into the garbage. “But he’s crazy in love with her.”
“He is?” Jackie said.
“Well of course he is.” Kit snorted, and wiped the hearth with the damp barmops. “Jackie, even I knew that, and I’m always the last to know this sort of thing.”
“But I saw him kiss you!” Jackie said to Tali.
Tali shook her head slowly, furrowing her brow as if she didn’t remember what happened at the intersection.
“On the eyes,” Jackie said.
“Oh!” Tali laughed. “On the eyes. Yes, of course. It’s something—it’s something my people do. It’s not romantic. I’m not into Vax.”
Jackie narrowed her eyes. Tali was protesting too much. Not that Jackie cared. She wasn’t attracted to Vax, after all. But seriously, he was into her? Really? Why hadn’t he said anything?
“Heads up guys,” Kit said.
Vax walked along the sidewalk towards the door. He was long-limbed, and had a loose, easy walk to him. He wore his usual: dress shirt untucked over nicely fitted jeans. His hair was a little longer than she liked on a guy, but she had to admit she liked a tall drink of water. That is, if she were into him, which she wasn’t.
A bell chimed as Vax pushed open the door. “Tali—” he continued with a spate of a foreign language, sounding anxious and insistent, and then he caught sight of Jackie and broke off. His anxious expression transmuted immediately to a goofy grin. “Jackie? What are you doing here?”
Kit raised her eyebrows and gave Jackie a “see what I mean?” kind of look.
“I came to see if James would do a tea leaf reading for me,” Jackie said. “What are you doing here?”
“I just needed to talk to Tali about something. Tali—” Vax rattled off something fast and agitated in that other language of theirs.
“Hey, that’s pretty rude,” Jackie said.
Vax shot Jackie a pained look, and a smile that spoke of apologies, but then he turned back to Tali and kept talking, low and insistent. Their body posture changed, as if they turned into different people once they started talking in their own language. Vax stood a lot closer, and kind of drew himself up, like he was her dad, even though Tali was the same age or older than Vax. Tali bowed her head and wrung her fingers gently in one another, like a child being told something she didn’t want to hear.
Jackie was listening intently to their conversation, trying hard to figure out what they were discussing, which was impossible, since she didn’t speak that language, but she tried anyway. Tali had her mouth set, and she shook her head like she didn’t agree with what Vax was saying but she didn’t want to criticize him directly. The only words Jackie caught were “Fay ko” and “Hastulat” which of course she didn’t understand, because she didn’t speak Estonian or whatever language they spoke in Estonia, which is where the Black Dogs said Vax was from.
“Why are you so stubborn?” Vax finally said, in English as if the language of America was the language of exasperation. “Do you want to—” he slipped back into the other language.
“I’ve seen my future in the tea leaves, Vax. Someone will keep me safe. A kind stranger.”
Vax started to argue with her again, but Jackie realized that eavesdropping on a conversation she couldn’t understand was far too desperate and pathetic, and besides, she didn’t even care if Vax was dating Tali or not because she wasn’t interested in him. She scoffed and rolled her eyes loudly, waved goodbye to Kit, and swung her striped bag over her shoulder. She pulled the door open so fast that the bell hanging from the cord clanked against the glass instead of chiming. No one followed her, which pissed her off.
It was Tuesday evening, not quite twilight, and the warmth of the summer day hadn’t quite faded. Jackie looked around her. She was never outside this time of day. Usually, she’d be working, and when she wasn’t working, she’d be at Morris dance practice, but she was still mad at the Black Dogs. Somewhere from deeper within the Old Town she heard the muffled sounds of a band playing very loudly indoors, and from an outdoor patio, she heard the laughter and conversation of University students getting an early start on their drinking. Jackie mentally ran through her list of friends for people who weren’t working, or busy having fun with their significant others, but she couldn’t come up with anyone.
“Jackie, wait!” Vax ran after her.
Jackie started to smile, but then she remembered she wasn’t that into him. She turned away and kept walking.
“Jackie, wait, I wanted to talk to you.” Vax tried to put his hand on her shoulder, but
“Sorry to interrupt your little lover’s spat,” she said, which sounded a lot more jealous than she had intented.
“It’s not like that.”
“No, it’s not like that. Jackie, please.”
“I don’t care what you do with your life. You can kiss whomever you want.”
She’d reached the fountain in front of the Centerplex theater. The theater was undergoing renovations to take it from tacky and modern into something undoubtedly even tackier and even more modern. The rest of the Old Town had cobbled streets, half timbered houses that looked like they were plucked from a medieval village (though she’d heard they were all built in the 1920s) and ornate metal benches covered with chewed gum and graffiti. Half of the trees had died from some beetle infestation, but other than that, it was romantic and picturesque.
She stopped to toss a penny into the fountain. Superstitious, yes, but ever since Jackie had learned that vampires and witches were real, she gave superstitions a lot more credence.
“I didn’t kiss her.”
“You fucking liar. I saw you.”
Vax looked baffled.
Jackie turned to him. “In the intersection, the other day. You kissed her on the eyes.”
“On the…” He shook his head. “That’s not romantic, that’s something that a, that my people do.”
“I’m not—” he took in a deep breath, like he was summoning courage. “I’m not from Estonia.”
“This is sounding like the biggest bullshit excuse I’ve ever heard. I don’t care if she’s your girlfriend, Vax.”
Vax looked exasperated. He placed his hands on her shoulder, and Jackie wasn’t sure why she let him touch her, but she did. “Jackie, you’re the only one I’m interested in.”
Jackie almost grinned, but then she remembered that she was supposed to be mad at him, so she went on the offensive. “Why did you lie to me?”
“You’re not from Estonia.”
“And you kissed her. You’re close to her. There’s something going on between you and Tali. Where are you from, really? You speak English flawlessly, but you have all these weird traits that I’m pretty damn sure have nothing to do with the Baltic states. I don’t like being kept in the dark.”
“Jackie, I…” Vax sighed loudly. “I don’t want to lie to you, and I don’t want secrets from you, but…how open-minded are you?”
“It’s…I think it would be better if I just showed you.” He put his hands on her shoulders again, then lifted them to either side of her face. If anyone else had done this, she would have hit him, but Jackie was still reeling from “you’re the only one I’m interested in” and she wasn’t thinking clearly.
They’d stopped near one of those ornate carriage lamps, whose yellow glass made the fluorescent bulb resemble candlelight in the same way that vegan cheese resembles real cheese. It was enough for her to see his face, the finely sculpted cheekbones, the angle of his eyebrows, and his lack of facial hair, which made him look Asian despite the fact that his eyes were green.
And then, his entire face changed. One moment she was looking at the face she’d studied far more often than she admitted to anyone. An eyeblink later, his features shifted. His nose was too long, and too flat, his eyebrows lost their arch, his cheekbones curved around in an alien way, as if his ancestors came from a continent that no longer existed on earth. His hair wasn’t dark blond, it was slate gray, and his skin, too, had and oddly grayish cast to it. But really, it was his pointed ears that cinched it.
“You’re a faerie,” Jackie said, sounding only half as giddy as she felt. “Oh, my God. You’re a faerie. What kind of faerie are you?”
“I’m a Vargel.”
“Oh my God.” She put her hands in front of her face, and then clapped them together and jumped. “I can’t believe Kit didn’t tell me this! Are you from the Realm of the Faerie, or are you one of the earth fey?”
“The earth—oh you mean the lesser cousins? No, I’m not one of them. I’m from the Realm of the Faerie.”
“So Tali is one too?”
“Tali’s an Indel. That’s what I was trying to tell you. The eyelid kiss is something a Vargel does to an Indel. It’s like, it’s like the French do, except not on the cheeks. And I can’t believe you’re taking this so well.”
“Are you kidding?” She was still jumping and flapping her hands. A real faerie. This was so cool. “I’m way into the supernatural. Do you know how long I’ve been wanting to meet a real faerie? So that language you were speaking, is that like, the faerie language?”
“There are many faerie languages. I was speaking Vargel.”
“Wait, I thought you said Tali was an Indel. Is there an Indel language?”
“A dialect, but it’s not like a real language. It’s just their own slang they speak to each other.”
She wanted to jump up and down again, but a little voice told her that it was a bit rude, and also that she was supposed to be jealous and angry. “So what were you and Tali arguing about?”
“There’s this guy who, it’s a long story, but she’s in danger. She’s just too stubborn to see it! She seems like such a demure woman, a proper Indel, but then when you try to get her to listen to reason…” he said another one of those curse words.
“In my experience, when a man calls a woman ‘stubborn,’ it’s usually because she won’t let him bully her into doing something he wants her to do.”
“I want her to leave town and not come back.”
Okay, now she was intrigued. That wasn’t what a guy said to a woman he was in love with. Jackie folded her arms and tipped her head. “Why?”
“It’s a long story.”
“Fine. I thought you wanted to be honest and not keep secrets from me, but whatever. See you.” She turned away, her low heeled boots clacking along the cobblestone of the Old Town.
Vax ran to catch up with her.
“Okay, I’ll tell you everything, but you have to keep it secret.” Vax touched her shoulder again, and let his fingers twine around a curl of her hair as his hand fell away to gesture towards one of the benches. He’d touched her like this before, but, while she’d tolerated it to a degree that surprised everyone, including herself, it hadn’t made her pulse race like this. What before seemed charming gay affectations now took on extreme significance. The air kisses when they met. Him touching the small of her back as they hugged. Most importantly, he looked at her like he was really listening to her, which was awesome when she thought he was just a good gay friend, but now that she knew he was both straight and into her gave her a feeling like she’d drunk five shots on an empty stomach.
Maybe this would actually work. Maybe Vax wouldn’t turn out to be a reject like most of the other guys she’d dated.
Vax pulled his lips flat and frowned, like he was trying to figure out how to get out of this as easily as possible. He took her hand in his and held it. “Back home, when an Indel likes a Vargel very much, he or she will offer to bond with them. It’s something everyone does eventually.”
“Bonding. Is that like marriage?” She started walking. She liked the feel of their hands together.
“No. Yes. No, not really, I mean, yes, because when an Indel bonds with a Vargel, their rank changes to that of their karla, and they join their property, and by our laws they are like one person. If you’re lucky enough to have children, a spira, that’s your bonded Indel, will help you raise them. And if you’re bonded to a talented tailor or dyer or mage, and they create something that impresses an Elder, you can get invited to the best parties.”
“Sounds like marriage to me. What does this have to do with you and Tali? Were you bonded to her?”
“Me? Leaves and Ashes, why would she want to do that? I’m a blue clad nobody, and she’s, Tali’s not interested in bonding.”
“So what does this have to do with Fay ko?”
“Faco?” Vax looked alarmed. “What do you know about him?”
“I heard you mention that word. It sounded like a name. Who is Faco?”
“He’s a famous athlete. He was the darling of my clan, Clan Cypress.”
“So is he a Vargel or an Indel?”
“A Vargel. Our sister clan is Willow. Tali’s a Willow. The Willow bond with the Cypress, almost always. That’s what it means to be sister clans.”
Jackie was getting confused. “And Tali bonded with Faco?”
“No, she didn’t. That’s the thing. Everyone thought she should have, and he wanted her to, but she’s stubborn.”
“Meaning, she does her own thing and doesn’t obey men who tell her how to run her life.”
“Exactly,” Vax said, glossing over her sarcasm. “He was famous. He’s an incredible athlete. If you saw him in the arena…Twigs on the Tree, the way he moved.”
“You sound like you’re in love with him. Are you sure you’re not gay?”
Vax shook his head. “We all loved him. Clan Cypress was undefeated in every Jal-Dit tournament since the day Faco took up the blade. He’s amazing. Or, he was, before he was exiled.”
“What happened? Why did they exile him?”
“I don’t know. I came here first. Well, Tali came first, and I came here second. I didn’t know her back in the Realm, but I got to know here a little bit here. And then when Faco came over, I could hardly believe it. The most famous athlete ever, in Seabingen! Back at home, in the palace of Clan Cypress, he never would have deigned to speak with me, but here he treated me like we were cousins.”
“And what does Faco being here have to do with Tali?”
“He wanted her to bond with him. He counter-courted her. He gave her fine clothing. He reserved a box for her at his matches. But she wouldn’t accept his gifts. She acted like she was too good for him. She wouldn’t speak to him or anything. She’s not a very high rank either, so everyone wondered why she didn’t offer to be his spira. It was clear he would have accepted. The elders talked to her about it, but she wouldn’t relent. There was such drama, you should have heard all the poems and songs it inspired. Why wouldn’t she bond with him? What did he see in her?
“Finally it got to the point where Faco refused to compete in the final tournament unless Tali offered to bond with him. Everyone was furious. We would have lost without him. All the fans were angry with her. They’d fling curses at her whenever they saw her, which wasn’t often, as she had been hiding in her apartments almost all the time. Finally, with the match postponed for so long that Cypress was about to lose by default, the Elders went to her apartment to see if they could talk some sense into her.”
“And did they make her do it?”
“They didn’t get the chance. Tali was gone. Faco was furious. He thought she’d gone to some other clan’s palace, and he had his contacts search for her, but no one could find her.
“There were rumors about where she’d gone. Some said she’d run off in the wilds, and that the Pilell had captured her and were keeping her head in a sack. Other people said she went to join the Brondel, that she had a spiritual avocation she’d hidden. No one would have imagined the truth, that she’d opened a portal and stepped through to the dying lands.”
“By dying lands, you mean here.”
He nodded. “For some reason, most of the portals opened from Vargel palaces open up here in Seabingen. No one knew this back home. We only figured it out when we got here. When I was exiled, I came through in a patch of forest only two miles from here.” He pointed north, towards the suburb where Jackie lived. “Sometimes I wonder if there’s enough of a residue that I could open it again, but it wouldn’t do me any good. My exile hasn’t been revoked. It’s ironic. Tali is the only one who came here by choice, and she is the only one of us who has the right to go home again.”
“Why doesn’t she?”
He shook his head. “Maybe she can’t find a portal to take her. Tali is a skilled mage, but mage-craft is harder to do here.”
They were walking out of the Old Town and into a neighborhood that wasn’t as familiar to Jackie. The only half-timbered fake Tudor buildings in Seabingen had been built to replace a patch which had burned out, and when you reached the perimeter of the burn area, the architectural style abruptly changed to brick warehouses, infested with organic city gardens, gourmet food trucks, and other symptoms of hipster gentrification.
“Tali knows that Faco is here,” he said. “But Faco didn’t know that Tali is here, and Tali wanted to keep it that way. She doesn’t understand what he’s like, though. He’s relentless, and he’s obsessed with her. She was the only thing he wanted which wasn’t his for the asking.
“Back in the Realm, I wanted her to bond with him, the same as everyone else. I just wanted Cypress to keep winning Jal-Dit tournaments. But now, I know her better, and I know Faco better too. I can tell when people don’t belong together. And when they do.” Vax turned back towards her. He reached out and gently stroked her jaw with the back of his fingers. How she had ever thought that a gay affectation was beyond her. Vax was so into her, how had she not seen it? “Please don’t tell anyone, Jackie. I’m trusting you to keep this secret.”
“Who would I tell?”
“Your friend Kit has been asking dangerous questions.”
“You want me to warn her?”
“No. I took care of it.” He slipped his arm in through hers. “But let’s go have that drink I promised you. We’re almost at the Greenman.”
“I’m avoiding the Greenman.”
“Why? They have your favorite cider.”
“I’m avoiding the—” It was too late. She spied a familiar group of men and heard her friends’ voices shout her name.
“Jackie!” they all chorused together, some of them getting up with hands outstretched.
“What about me?” Vax asked, mock indignant.
“Oh yeah, hi Vax,” Dave said. “Jackie! We missed you!”
Dave hugged her, and then Bruno, and then she was trapped in a ring of sweaty, hairy man-arms.
“You really pulled through, Vax!” Bruno said. “You got her to come.”
“I’m still mad at you guys,” Jackie said, but she was smiling, and she didn’t leave, even when they let her go from the group hug, because someone put a pint of cider in her hand, and she was happy because these were her friends.
“We kicked Tim out,” Dave said. “We got in a fight about it after you left.”
“Tim said that if we let you officially join the side, he’d quit,” Jason said. “And then who would be our squire? It’s a shit job. Nobody wants it.”
“But Vax took one for the team.”
Jackie looked at Vax
“I volunteered to take over as squire if Tim left.” Vax shrugged.
“Yeah,” Dave said. “So then it was a choice between you and Tim.”
“Since you’re fucking hot, and he’s a tool, we voted to kick him out,” Jason said. “It was a pretty easy choice.”
“And Vax’s first job as squire was to convince you to come back,” Dave agreed. “You will come back, won’t you?”
“I’ll think about it,” Jackie said. She tried to look serious and angry, but she couldn’t help grinning. Yeah, so they were a bunch of dorky men, who did the least trendy type of folk dancing ever, so what did it matter that they’d finally accepted her as one of them?
Except it did matter, because they were her dorks.
“Okay. I’ll come back.”
They cheered, and ordered another round. Vax took his hand in hers and squeezed gently.