Kit knew that her head had been severed. She saw her body fall. She saw the bloody knife. She was glad when the little were-opossum led them off, because she knew she was dying and didn’t want that sick fuck to get the satisfaction of seeing the despair on her face as the blood drained out her neck. She expected it wouldn’t take more than a minute for her to die. Her sight would grow dim, and then her hearing, and then she would exsanguinate.
She didn’t expect the ground to pull away from her, as if she were flying. Someone was holding her, but it didn’t feel like hands, it felt like sticks of wood. Her hair fell over her face, and all she could see were trees and leaves and a human arm, the left arm, with a gold and emerald ring on the third finger. Her own arm, seen from the wrong side.
She hadn’t died yet. Was this one of those situations where ten seconds felt like twenty minutes? The sticks shifted, and the hair fell out of her eyes, and she saw something falling towards her that was so unexpected that she didn’t think she could be seeing it until the fat, wet snowflake fell along the side of her nose. More snowflakes fell, coating her eyelashes, her nose, her cheeks, her hair.
She couldn’t speak, couldn’t turn her head, couldn’t do anything except blink and move her eyes. Whatever was holding her head shifted to something softer, yet still prickly, as if she were being cradled by the branches of a fir tree. From this angle, she could see her body. It clung, headless, to an equally headless dryad. The dryad had one branch supporting her under the hip and another branch curving under one of her arms and around to where the back of her head would have been if her head were still attached.
Snow fell thickly, not quite muffling the sound of the dryads sliding through the forest floor with a sound like a shovel through wet gravel. Kit looked up, straining her eyes to try to see what was holding her own head, but all she saw was the peak of a fir tree, twisted in a way that made it look supernatural yet not quite human.
“Ysuelta?” she mouthed.
She felt a tendril of thought, a connection, a reassurance that the familiar-to-mage bond remained intact.
Snowflakes landed on her eyes, and she blinked them away.
She didn’t feel cold. It wasn’t cold at all. The snow held the memory of freezing, but it didn’t sting or make her nose run. She tried to breathe in through her nose and smell the crisp wet wood scent of forest, but without a diaphragm she could only sense what air blew along her nostrils. She could feel movement, the steady sliding over terrain and faint rise and fall as the dryad pulled itself out of the ground to follow the craggy oak that carried her body.
Kit had been raised Catholic and lapsed away from it, which meant that she didn’t believe in Hell anymore but knew she was going there anyway. Having her head and body carried lovingly by dryads as she glided through a snowy forest wasn’t much like how she pictured the afterlife, but she knew she had died, and that this is what came after. It wasn’t until she saw the faeries that she realized she wasn’t dead at all.
She was in the Realm of the Faerie.
The landscape changed suddenly, and she found herself looking at a packed gravel path and neatly trimmed hedges. Faeries gathered around, speaking in a language that sounded like Vargel. She couldn’t see them very well. The dryad’s fir branches had her head angled down, so all she saw were the hems of gowns, and slippered feet peering out from under soft white pants.
Then the dryad who was carrying her spoke. It had a voice like the distant rush of water, and whatever it said, it made the faeries scurry around. They brought forth a stretcher. Kit felt her head laid down and saw a glimpse of wooden arms and fir branches before the weight of her skull rolled her head to one side. Then they laid her body below the head. She knew her body was there even though she couldn’t see it, as if the pieces of soul within the body and head were trying to reconnect.
The branches that had been holding her receded and the panic they had dampened came back with a fury. She opened her mouth to scream, but she had no air.
Hands rotated her head gently, until she was looking up into the face of a faerie, a Clanfaerie, with long, gray hair and the exotic features of the Vargel and Indel. A woman’s voice said something, and he nodded, which also meant yes to the Clanfaeries, but what had he agreed to? She wanted to ask him what he was going to do, and where had the dryads gone, and who was he, and where was she, and more to the point she wanted to scream, but she still had no air.
Kit woke up what felt like moments later. She tried to sit up, and found to her surprise that she was able to do so. Her hands flew to her neck, her fingertips gently probing along the skin, but she found no seam.
They put it back on. She barely remembered the surgery, a fog of faeries poised over her, looks of concern on their long, foreign faces. The memory faded in and out like the sound of a movie in the theater next door.
“How do you feel?” A faerie asked her.
She turned to regard him. Like most of the Clanfaeries, his skin had a faint grayish cast, and his nose was long and flat, with the space between the bridge of his nose to the top of his lip longer than it ought to be. His eyebrows sloped evenly upwards at the ends instead of arching, and he had very long hair pulled back into a braid at the nape of his neck. His loose overtunic had open sleeves revealing scarlet and indigo, which marked him as an Elder or someone of comparable rank, and the scalloped collar was worn only by those of Clan Cypress and Clan Willow, so she was probably in the palace of Clan Cypress, which meant this was Elder Elsos.
“How do you feel?” Elder Elsos asked again, gently.
“Profoundly psychologically disturbed.”
Elder Elsos made a moue. “I asked them to leave you some memories, but I can have our healer clear out the rest, if you’d like.”
She shook her head, then placed hands on either side of her temples as if afraid her head would fall off. “I recognize this place. Why? I’ve never been here before.” She put her hand to her lips. She had spoken in Vargel.
“I gave you my language and culture. Think of it as an upload. You will have some of my memories as well.”
Just like that? How long had she lived among the Pilell before she even knew how to say hello and goodbye? How many semesters of German had she taken, and she still couldn’t read any of the books Holzhausen recommended to her, not even the ‘easy’ ones. And yet the Vargel could just look into your eyes, and do a little spell, and suddenly you not only spoke fluently, but you could tell someone’s rank and Clan by the color and cut of their overtunic? It felt a little like going on an arduous twenty mile hike and then getting a ride home in a car, like she had cheated somehow.
Kit swung her legs off the cot and onto the floor. She wore slippers, something like a ballet flat that completely covered her instep and came over her ankle like a sock. Over that she wore shapeless white pants, shirfa, held in place by a drawstring at the waist. They were too long for her and bunched up at her ankles, but the culture that Elder Elsos had given her let her know this was normal. The overtunic felt soft, if a little tight, like a nightgown in a size smaller than she usually wore. It had ornate needlework all over it in bright hues, and beadwork encrusted the bodice. The vermillion sleeves said she was a high rank, but the gold and white tracery over the bodice and skirt front spoke of a classical modesty, of one who did not need to show off because one was confident and secure in her social status. Even though she felt like she’d be overdressed at a coronation, this was the clanfaerie equivalent of a sweater set and pearls.
She stood up slowly, in case her legs gave out on her. Her feet sank, and she windmilled her arms, but she didn’t fall. The ground, which she had thought was cement, turned out to be smoothed sand. The ceiling arched overhead like the inside of a pumpkin, smooth plaster painted a pale creamy orange. It was large enough to accommodate a dozen more of the cots such as the one she lay on, but Elder Elsos’ low stool was the only other piece of furniture on the smooth beige sand. Dark reddish stains marred patches here and there. “Is that blood?”
Elder Elsos nodded. “You’re in the arena hospital.”
“Arena? As in sports complex?”
“The Jal-Dit sorcerers are the most skilled at limb and head reattachment. We were honored to do this small service for your mistress. She said it would help heal the offense our clan has done. A wonderous thing, surely. Why are you frowning?”
“I’m confused.” She lifted her foot and saw the divots. The sand was only smooth because servants had come and raked it smooth. No footprints led in or out, so they had done it while she was recovering from surgery. What a pointless waste of human labor.
“In what manner? I would be pleased to enlighten you.”
“Almost every other time I’ve met one of your people, that is, a Clanfaerie, a Vargel or an Indel, they’ve been rude to me. And here you are, an Elder of your clan,” she gestured to his berry-colored gowns. “And you’re treating me like an honored guest.”
“I was the one who gave you the language, which is how I know who you are. We have enfolded you into our clan. You have all the rights and privileges of an Elder of Cypress, which is why I am here waiting on your pleasure instead of one of lowlier rank.”
“Please just answer my question.”
“You belong to the Birch goddess. You are her senndil, her familiar. It is…” He smiled tensely, as if being this frank were out of his comfort zone. “It is a dangerous thing to be in her disfavor.”
Yseulta. Kit closed her eyes and breathed shallowly with her mouth closed, ignoring five of her senses in favor of the sixth, the sense of proprioception. Hands, feet, head, legs arms, like when she was feeling for Kaa. She couldn’t feel him very well. He was in the dying lands, and she was here, a barrier more impenetrable than running water. She felt Yseulta though. She felt the forests lapping over the landscape of the Realm, and through them the echo of the forests of the earth. When she opened her eyes again, Elder Elsos was looking at her. He tried to smile at her, but his smile flickered, like a bird to afraid to land.
“Faco cut your head off.”
Kit looked up at him, startled.
“I recognize his work. Your neck was severed flawlessly, in a clean blow, barely hitting bone.”
“You’ve seen him do this before.”
“Of course. Faco Cypress is a genius of Jal-Dit. We all loved him.”
“I didn’t want to exile him. I was such a fan of his. You should see how brilliant he was in the arena—oh, I’m sorry. That was in poor taste. Forgive me. I suppose you know of his skill with blades.”
“Why was he exiled?”
Elder Elsos frowned. “He’s a monster. We loved him for his athleticism, so we let him get away with too much. We wanted to pretend that the brilliant Jal Dit player whose blades sung like poetry was not the same beast who treated minds like toys. We ignored the tears of women who said he had used force instead of seduction. We wanted it to not be true. I argued for another chance for him. But eventually even I couldn’t pretend anymore. We exiled him. We hoped sending him to the dying lands would rid us of our problem.”
“But it just passed your problem onto us.”
And if he had decapitated someone who wasn’t the senndil of an Old One, you still would have looked the other way, she thought. She tried to put her hands in her pockets, but her overgown didn’t have any. “Where are the clothes I was wearing?”
“They were riistoul,” he said, using a term that meant something was so filthy and tattered that it was better to disintegrate it than to let anyone, even a lowly servant, wear it.
“But I—” Loved that ratty old denim jacket, she wanted to say, but she could tell that Elder Elsos hadn’t meant to be malicious. He probably thought he was doing her a favor “What about my knife? The utlility knife that Yseulta gave me, with the fey metal blade?”
“She gave it to—Ah. Yes, we suspected it was yril,” he said, using a word that meant a thing so dangerous that only specially prepared people were allowed to touch or be near it. She wasn’t sure if you’d translate it as “holy” or “radioactive.”
“Can I have it back?”
“Perhaps there is some way we can arrange that. I am not sure how, but…” Elder Elsos furrowed his brow for a moment, then smiled as if he’d figured out the puzzle. “We have a foreigner visiting us, a Brondel. I will explain to her who you are. Surely one of the Brondel will be able to touch your yril knife.”
“I’m shit duty, aren’t I?” she said. The Vargel language didn’t have a word for “shit” so she used the word for “tasks which are so unpleasant they are used as punishment.” Making nice with the human? How’d you draw that stone?”
He stared at her as if she’d slapped him. “You misunderstand me, Honored One. It is my pleasure to—”
“Nevermind. I’ll be—” she wanted to say ‘out of your hair’ but that didn’t translate. “I’ll get my branches untangled from yours as soon as I can.”
“Our clan does not please you.” He said it gently, but she could tell he was hurt. “I understand. Perhaps you are angry with Cypress and would rather stay with another clan. I will tell your servants you won’t be needing your apartments.”
“My apartments?” She pivoted. She’d somehow already gotten sand in her slippers, and they irritated the skin between her toes. “My servants?”
“Do you know which Clan you would prefer to stay with? I don’t have political sway with all of them, but I can make arrangements.”
“There’s nothing wrong with your clan, it’s just that I don’t want to stay in the Realm, I want to go home.”
“Back to the dying lands? He furrowed his brow, as if she’d requested an ice cold glass of urine to drink.
“But why? You are of our clan now. You are a Cypress of the highest rank. Clan Willow’s finest Indel are keen on courting you.”
Because friendliness and hospitality based on brown-nosing fear is almost less tolerable than rude xenophobia. “I want to go home. I’m getting married soon. I can’t miss my wedding.”
“I can’t allow that.”
“Can’t allow that?”
“A child of Cypress severed your neck, and it was only good fortune that your mistress was able to bring you here in time for our healers to save you. Your mistress is already angry with us. If Faco were to destroy you, nothing would stay her anger.”
“You won’t let me go home?”
“Will you be so callow to leave without sampling any of our hospitality? There’s a Jal-Dit bout here today. Would you like to see it? My box has an excellent view.”
Kit paused. The Realm of the Faerie was like a dream world, whose time wasn’t synched with the real world. You didn’t know how much time was passing here, or at home. The sooner she left, the more likely she was to make her wedding.
But when would she get a chance to see a Jal-Dit match again? She knew that Faco was Paisey’s killer. They were going to have to bring him down, and the better she understood him, the safer she’d be.
“All right. Let’s go see a Jal-Dit match.”