As Kit held her arms out to the sides, she mentally practiced the exercises that Jis Tamarisk had given her. Just one lesson, she’d told herself, but then one lesson became two, and two became three. There was so much she didn’t know how to do, so much to learn.
She was in her fitting chamber, the closest thing to a bedroom in the Realm, where no one slept. Kit’s apartments were luxurious. They were about twice as large as Fenwick’s house. The ceilings arched up high overhead, painted deep blue with stars that twinkled and glowed like real ones. The floors were soft with the jewel-hued padded quilts that Clan Cypress used as carpets. In her garden, (her own private garden!) gravel paths surrounded a shallow pool reflecting the wall of closely-packed cypress trees that served as a wall to guard her privacy.
Her muscles burned, but here in the Realm of the Faerie, the body was mostly illusion, and she knew that if she let her hands fall the voluminous sleeves would touch the top of the fitting platform.
Kit had been trying on gowns for what felt like four hours. But who knows? It may have been twenty minutes. This particular gown was spring green with herons and rushes embroidered at the bottom of the sleeves and hem. They’d made dozens of gowns for her while she was here. She couldn’t appear in the same dress twice, or people would tut at the impropriety of it.
The Indel servants finally stood up and surveyed their work, putting hands in elbows and knuckles on chins like fashionistas surveying a mannequin. Deeming their work finished, they undressed her and sent the gown to the tailors to make the adjustments they’d indicated. Then they set about dressing her in the clothes she was actually going to wear that day. Kit let them. She could get used to being pampered.
The ensemble they finally put her in was mostly orange and red, with piecework like filigree leaving the top open to an under-bodice of crimson and violet. Like every gown, she wore it over soft white shirfa, but it was so tight in the hips and waist that you couldn’t see the line where the top of the shirfa tied. It had a matching headpiece, a heavy, gold-chased cap that peaked in red velvet swirls and swoops on the top of her head, held in place by curls of her own hair pinned into the fabric. She couldn’t shake her head too quickly, not so much for fear that it would fall off as fear that she’d strain her neck muscles.
The bodice of the gown, while an exquisite masterpiece of embroidery and design, constricted her chest so tightly that she could barely breathe. Boning on the undertunic made her look as flat as a ballet dancer. The sleeves of her arms, encrusted with jewels and gold thread, wouldn’t allow her arms to go higher than the height of her shoulders. The five inch tall porcelain chopines they slipped her feet into were the least hindering aspect.
When they finally granted that she was well dressed enough to be seen in public, they let her go. She minced her way down the hallway, towards the wing where her sorcery instructor waited for her.
It was a lovely palace. Stylized willow leaves in silver and bronze decorated the heavy wooden doors at the far end of her chambers. Arching barrel vaults covered corridors and porticos opened to neatly formal gardens. Lines of cypress at the far ends of the garden echoed the lines of pillars supporting the side of the corridor. The pillars appeared to be made of marble, and they’d been carved to resemble the branches of trees, so that walking down it was like walking down a tree-lined tunnel.
The palace of Clan Cypress had many corridors, bordered on one side by pillars that sometimes buttressed smooth plaster walls and sometimes opened into courtyard gardens. She paused to rest in one of these. Not sit, because she already knew she’d need servants to help her do that, but at least to stop moving and give her feet a slight rest.
The garden had a path of gravel with raked wavy lines to make it look like water. It ended in a round pool full of completely clear water, and when she peered into the depth, she saw a mosaic depicting two faeries presenting a third with something that looked like dresses hanging down from poles.
The shrubs, densely flowered in yellow and gold, had been carved in undulating hills, and when she stood at the right angle, they resembled fields and vineyards, bordered by violet mountains of lavender.
The garden felt unnatural to her. It was scrupulously clean; even the gravel pieces looked like they’d been washed before being laid down. That felt wrong, as did the oddness of seeing agricultural landscape replicated in miniature. No one ate in the Realm, so why did they know about wheat fields? She stepped carefully along the path, feeling bad about the fact that some servant would have to re-rake the fake river. When she got to the lavender, she realized there weren’t any insects. On a beautiful sunny spring day, bees should have been buzzing happily away.
A gentle cough in the corridor made her turn. Kit pivoted—not quickly, the skirts wouldn’t allow that—and saw a woman who was most assuredly neither Indel nor Vargel. She looked human. Not completely, as she still had pointed ears, but her skin was brown and her hair curly black, and her features looked as if you took a random assortment of people from Earth and mixed their genes together. Her clothes were formal, but not of a Vargel cut, so they said nothing of her rank and everything about who she was. She was shorter than Kit, and had a rather thick middle, like a healthy human woman in her fifties might look. She even had laugh lines. Kit liked her instantly.
Kit smiled and bowed a greeting. “You must be the Brondel.”
“And you’re the human, who’s gotten my hosts all ruffled.” The Brondel woman stepped down the steps and approached Kit along the path that emulated a river. “My name is, well it’s too long for these folk, who have shortened it to Illoia. My name means she of the River’s Curve Near the Place Where the Tower Fell. It sounds better in my own language.”
“Yes, of course you are. Who else would be wearing a Raxa Hawthorn original design, and doing it so awkwardly?” She smiled as she said it, turning the comment into a gentle teasing which made her seem like a favorite aunt. “Are you enjoying the garden?”
Kit nodded. “But it’s strange that there aren’t any insects. Do they keep them out with some kind of ward?”
“Insects?” And for the first time, Illoia’s aura of wisdom faltered. “No, there are no insects here in this land. Our tales tell that Cheona, the goddess of insects, chose to remain on Earth when the two lands were splintered. The Vargel have their own tales, however, as doubtless do your own people.”
Kit just nodded, though she’d never heard anything about the insects of fairyland, one way or another. “You’re the first Brondel I’ve ever met.”
“I’ve met other humans,” the Brondel said, walking along the path to meet her. “We gather them from time to time, the strays who wander over from the true lands.”
“The true lands?”
“The Vargel call them the dying lands.” Illoia met her on the path and kept walking, so Kit followed along side of her. “Has your mistress told you nothing of this?”
Kit shook her head.
“She is a piece of the true lands. The clanfaeries call them the Old Ones. The small gods call them the greater cousins. My people call them the landscape gods. All these landscape gods, these pieces of the true lands decided that they should create a world apart, where they kept the things they might need later, as we might store a deck of cards or a spare handkerchief in a sleeve.” Illoia lifted her own sleeve, showing how the curved bottom swayed with the weight of something inside.
“What brings a Brondel to the palace of Clan Cypress?”
“I am one of a few among my people who has chosen to explore this land that the Old Ones have made for us.”
“Have you been to other Clan palaces? Can you tell me of them?”
“They are alike enough that when you grow weary of one you will have grown weary of all of them,” Illoia said. “Oh, Clan Cypress will fete you, and compose poetry in your honor, and take you to games and operas and plays, but when this is no longer enough, perhaps you might come to visit the cities of the Brondel. We have many intellectuals who are always hungry for knowledge of the true lands.”
“But I can’t stay very long. I need to get home.” After just one more lesson. Or maybe two. She was learning so much, and yet she had so much left to learn.
“Yes, I am going to go home soon.”
Illoia smiled. “The rumors say that you are an avid student of sorcery. Even the servants whisper that you learn enchantments faster than they dreamed a human from the dying lands could manage.”
“They do?” Kit shook her head. “They are just being polite.”
“Perhaps they are merely polite, but perhaps not. They say that Jis Tamarisk is as skilled in teaching sorcery as Faco Cypress was in Jal-Dit, and I sense that you hunger for knowledge. You will not find her like in the dying lands.” Illoia reached inside the dip of her sleeve.
“What are you saying? That I shouldn’t go home?”
Illoia pulled Kit’s knife out of the sleeve. “I am saying you must make a choice, and soon.”
“Time passes differently here.”
“But it does pass, when the Queen wills it.” Illoia placed the knife in Kit’s palm. “And the Queen’s moods are hers alone to know.”
Kit took the knife from her hand, closing her fingers around the cool metal. “Is it too late? Has the wedding already passed?”
“That I do not know. Perhaps your teacher can peer into the dying lands.” Illoia curtseyed shallowly. “It was good to greet you, Kit Cypress.”
The corridors were about as wide as a single lane on the freeway, plenty of time for an honored guest, flanked by her retinue of servants, to pass by the retinue surrounding another high ranking Vargel, provided that the latter didn’t stop and make small talk.
They always stopped to make small talk.
“Honored One! I had heard of your presence in our palace and wished so deeply to make your acquaintance, but alas, fate decreed that the time would not draw nigh until this moment. How serendipitous. I am Ras Cypress.” Ras Cypress, not quite an elder, but still high ranking enough to get away with a little bit of apricot woven in among the threads of his saffron colored robes, bowed deeply. “Please allow me to introduce my humble and obedient spira, the most modest and virtuous of Indel, Pleian Willow.”
Pleian bowed so deeply she practically folded herself in half. She was also dressed to the nines, in clothes just a little less high-ranking than her karla’s, with a symbolic rip on the shoulder to prove that they were used clothes rather than new ones.
“It’s nice to meet you, Ras and Pleaian. I was just on my way to—Tali!” Kit’s shock at seeing Tali startled her out of the polite blather she’d been about to recite.
Tali startled, and looked like she was about to bolt. Her clothes were a modest blue and white, barely ornamented with dainty forget-me-nots along the hem and collar. Only the chartruse underrobe peering out at the neck proclaimed her as of a respectable rank. Tali curtseyed and began to back away.
“Tali! Wait! Don’t go!” Kit gathered her skirts and ran as best she could, which was really more like a manic shuffle than a true run.
Tali held her hands clasped in front of her hips and looked down at her feet. She wrung her hands like a servant expecting a reprimand.
“Tali, Tali, it’s me, Kit.”
At this, Tali looked up. Her expressions shifted almost comically from doubt, to surprise, to puzzlement. “Kit? What are you doing here?”
“I meant to ask you the same question. Did you find a portal here to the Realm?” Kit reached up to touch her shoulder, but her hand just passed through.
Kit stared at her hand, then hesitantly touched again. Once again, Tali proved as insubstantial as a hologram. She looked at Tali for an explanation.
“I’m just dreaming here.”
“Dreaming?” Kit stared at her blankly.
“Lucid dreaming. Once you know how to sleep, it’s not that hard.” Tali looked at Kit’s hand, and then back at Ras and Pleain. “But you’re not dreaming. You’re really here. And wearing such fine gowns. What happened? James said you went missing.”
Kit sensed someone at her elbow, and turned. Ras and his spira had followed her. “Honored one.” Ras curtseyed. “We will not detain you longer.”
They trailed off. Tali was silent, glancing at Kit’s robes, to the corridor where the pair had retreated, to Kit’s servants clustered like leaves near a drainage grate. “An Old One took an interest in you.”
“Yeah, just like you read in my tea leaves,” Kit said. “I’m her familiar.”
“Her senndil? That hasn’t happened since before my mother was born.” Fear flickered across her face, but she smiled it away. “Congratulations. This is a great honor.”
“Yes.” Kit switched to English. “But we can talk about that later. I need to know if my wedding date has passed yet. How long have I been gone? Is James worried about me? Is Fenwick?”
“I don’t know, I haven’t spoken with James.”
Kit reached up to touch her again, but her hands passed through the cloth. “Are you safe? Have you left?”
She nodded. “Someone helped me, just like I predicted. I’m on an island up in the sound.”
“You predicted that I would die and not die. That came true. You also predicted that I would be at my wedding. Will that come true?”
Tali looked at her feet. “It’s already Saturday. Your wedding is tonight.”
Kit felt her insides sink. She didn’t say she would be at this wedding. “I need to get home. Can you open a portal for me?”
Tali shook her head. “I may be able to convince someone to do so. But I have two conditions. First, if I help you, you have to help Vax.”
“Vax?” Kit scoffed. “You want me to help Vax? Vax is in Faco’s pocket.”
“No, no he’s not. He’s my friend. He never told Faco I was in town. He’s protected me, and if Faco finds out that he kept me secret, he’ll kill Vax. I tried to get a message to him, to warn him, but Vax isn’t at home anymore. I don’t know where he is.”
“I don’t want anything to do with Vax. Vax erased my memory.”
“But he gave it back, didn’t he?”
“I don’t trust the guy.”
“He’s trying to be a better person.” Tali stepped closer, uncomfortably close, like they were sharing a phone booth. “Please, Kit. Vax is in trouble, but he won’t get out of town because he’s in love with that red-haired girl. He might obey you though, especially if he knows about…you know, the Old One.”
“Okay. I’ll get him somewhere safe,” Kit said. “What’s the second—“
A shout interrupted her. “There you are!”
Kit turned to see Tuul, Elder Elsos’ spira, gliding forward in a flurry of peacock-blue satin, his jagged-edged undergarments fluttering like the wings of an agitated bird. “Honored one, you’ve missed the first thirty seven stanzas!”
Kit glanced back to smile in apology to Tali, but Tali had vanished.