When the doors opened, everyone froze. The organist began to play a march that caused the guests to scramble to their feet. Vax seemed to have chosen the side with all the taller people on it, because he had to crane his neck to see.
He saw James first, holding a woman’s arm. His face was glowing with relief and joy. Vax did a doubletake. It was Kit.
“Where did she get that dress?” the woman next to him muttered.
But Vax knew. He knew the cut and color and the line of the skirt. It had a pelisse arch with a cobalt underrobe, which was Ty Willow’s signature style. The headpiece with its distinctive wing-shaped golden hair combs looked like the work of Has Cypress and Riia Willow, whose jewelry work was so sought after that they spent more time at other palaces than their own. The embroidered cypress trees along the train were good enough to be from the best of Clan Hawthorn, and master jewelers had made those nose and ear and finger rings. What he didn’t know is why she was wearing a russet and violet colored masterpiece so exquisite, so high ranking that even a clan elder might feel too modest to wear it.
The dress had no fasteners; in the classical style, they’d sewn her into it. It had many colors, but the anchoring fabric was a deep ruby red that changed to violet when seen from another angle, woven with a subtle pattern that looked like the stylized river-and-mountain motif of Clan Yew, though he couldn’t tell from this distance. Unlike Jackie’s chest-baring neckline, Kit’s dress came almost up to her chin, with the glints of colored jewels sparkling along the edge of the collar. It covered her knees and hips, but bared her elbows, also in the classical style. Her hair had been grown out long enough to reach the floor, like a Vargel, and the dressers had woven golden and iridescent cords and tassles into her locks so that it fell over her back like a cape. The crowd had grown intensely silent, silent enough to hear the muffled chime of her belled chopines as she minced her way down the aisle.
It was the most beautiful gown he had ever seen anywhere, and anyone who had been born to one of the clans could tell that the best artisans had put their heart and soul into its creation. How, by the One Tree, had she managed to go to the Realm and convince Clan Cypress to create her a masterpiece? No wonder she was late.
Jackie had told him that Kit was supposed to go up to the altar, at which point the man in the dark suit would recite some lines. Kit’s fiancé was supposed to stand there quietly and say a couple of words, then put a ring on her finger.
He wasn’t supposed to cry out. He also wasn’t supposed to leap down the aisle, running so fast he only took three strides before he was embracing her. He wasn’t supposed to pick her up, or kiss her so passionately that her headpiece tilted back precariously, chiming as the golden bells listed on their chains. He was also pretty sure the crowd wasn’t supposed to spontaneously cheer and clap as the bridal couple kissed and kissed and kissed.
As Jackie promised, the reception hadn’t been cancelled. It was at the Pepperwood Country club, an elegant hall with doors flung open to expansive gardens redolent with the scent of roses and lilacs. They took advantage of the open bar, and then Jackie danced with him until the food was served
“I can’t believe she made it,” Jackie said. “I was sure she’d gotten cold feet, or that she was lying dead somewhere. As soon as I see her again, I’m going to find out where she went, and why she didn’t take me with her.”
“She went to the Realm of the Faerie,” Vax said.
“Again?” Jackie said, around a mouthful of cake. “Kind of elaborate just to get a dress, don’t you think?”
Vax nodded. “Where are they now? Aren’t we supposed to congratulate them or offer them gifts or something?”
“They left as soon as they cut the cake. Guess they wanna little…” Jackie made a rude gesture.
Vax brushed her hair behind her ear, leaned in, and kissed her. “Maybe we can go home too?”
Jackie leaned into his kiss and pulled her taffeta-ruffled body closer. “Yeah, that’s a good idea. Lemme fetch my purse. Can you go get us a cab?”
Vax stumbled outside. The country club had a circular drive for the valet parking, and the drive was large enough that the center had a fountain surrounded by more roses. Two young women in dresses had taken off their shoes and were dunking them in the fountain, shouting as though they’d also taken advantage of the open bar.
Vax was stumbling more than a little. He’d matched Jackie drink for drink, and she could put them away like apple juice. He saw lots of cars driving around, and valets handed keys to drivers, but he didn’t see any cabs. He walked across the circular drive, past the valet lot. Maybe they’d have cabs closer to the side entrance. He saw a guy he knew, dressed in all black so maybe he was a valet, except he didn’t know any valets, but he thought he knew this guy and when he came up the guy approached him like he knew him too, so that was okay. He could ask this guy where he could catch a cab.
Or maybe he could just say hi and keep going, because he could already see a line of green cabs just past the guy’s shoulder. And he couldn’t think of where he knew him from anyway, so it was going to be awkward trying to make small talk when he just wanted to take Jackie home, but the guy was clearly on a trajectory to intercept him. He kept looking at Vax intently. He was wearing a long black coat, which was strange, seeing as how warm it had been. Vax himself had taken off his jacket and folded it over an arm.
The guy looked human, not one of the people Vax knew from the community center, not one of the people he knew from the corner market where he went to buy groceries sometimes. Where did he know him from?
Just when Vax figured out that the guy wasn’t really human, Faco lifted something out from under his trenchcoat. Vax caught sight of two barrels, and he turned to run, but it was too late.
Faco shot him.
Vax felt stinging pieces cut through his clothes and into his skin. Faco lifted the gun to shoot him again, and Vax turned, shielding his head with the folded jacket. Faco shot again, then pulled the trenchcoat around him and vanished in an invisibility glamour.
“What the hell?” Jackie said, coming out of the wedding hall with her shawl and clutch purse. “Was that a gun? Vax? Are you okay?”
“I think so.” He shook Jason’s jacket, and some pieces of metal fell out. The metal pieces had pierced his shirt and gone just under the skin, no deeper than splinters. “I’m hardly even bleeding.”
The alcohol must have been starting to catch up with him. He didn’t know how Jackie managed to convince someone to let them cut in line, but she got them into a cab. He felt kind of dizzy in the back seat, and slouched against her.
“Your friend’s not gonna puke, is he?”
“No, he’s—” Jackie was pulling his arms and shoulders, sliding him out of the car. “Get his feet, will you?”
Vax blinked. He wasn’t at the country club anymore. Chris was leaning over him, looking concerned. He said something that sounded like English. It had the takatatakata gabgab sounds of English, but it made no sense to him. Chris jerked back suddenly, looking scared. He ran out of the room and came back with a phone. Wait, where was he? When did Chris get here?
Jackie looked at Vax and called someone. He could hear her talking, but couldn’t make out what she was saying. She was worried, frightened, both of him and for him.
Vax looked down at Jason’s suit. He must have bled after all, because the shirt front was dotted with pinpricks of red, and loose, as if the glamour had fallen off. His skin itched where the pinpricks of red were, and he scratched at them, but that only made them burn.
It burned where Chris grabbed his arm, and also on the leg. Vax couldn’t remember getting shot in the leg, but he also couldn’t remember how he got here. Chris and Kit’s fiancé were carrying him out of a car and up a narrow cement walkway to a small fifties’ style house with a large lawn. They were all talking, asking him questions, agitated and frantic, but he couldn’t understand any of them.
“What thing has come to pass here? Am I poisoned?” he asked Jackie, but Jackie shook her head like she didn’t understand. He tried to say it in English, but all the English words he knew seemed to have fled. How? How could this happen? How could he lose his language? It was one of the most solid spells he knew, and he’d done it so long ago, it should have rooted within him.
They were putting him down on a carpeted floor in a sparsely furnished house. A ceiling fan, thick with dust, swung lazily in a circle. He felt like blinking but he knew if he blinked again then everything would change. He scratched again at his midsection, which made his wounds burn. Jackie unbuttoned his shirt and swore. Vax tried to see.
Every spot where the sliver of metal had entered his skin was marked with striations of angry red lines radiating out. They itched horribly, but when he scratched at them, the lines grew wider and felt hot to the touch. It looked like infected measles, or like he’d been lying in a bed of ants.
Kit came into the room. She’d managed to take off most of her gown, but still wore a pair of shirfa and a half-length underrobe. She’d gotten off the headpiece, and her hair fell to the floor, freed of most of the braids and tassels that had ornamented it. She asked Jackie and Chris some questions. Vax couldn’t tell what they were saying, but he knew they were confused and afraid.
“Will this thing destroy me? I ask your aid, for I do not wish to perish!” He couldn’t remember a single word of English, so he implored them in Vargel, hoping they’d understand his fear if not his words. “What has occurred?”
“That is the thing we wish to know of you,” Kit asked him, in Clan Cypress inflected Vargel.
“The pieces he flung with the tube under my skin, they burn like poisonous iron.”
Kit said something to Jackie, and Jackie’s hands flew to her mouth. Kit left and came back with a utility knife. She knelt, and without warning, stabbed him with the blade.
Jackie shrieked, but Vax just stared dumbly at the handle prodruding from his skin. The blade hadn’t cut him. It passed through his flesh as if through air. But then she angled the blade, and something began to burn a line through his wounded leg. He bucked and moved, but Chris and Fenwick held him down. Kit pulled something out of him, hissing as she pinched it with her fingers.
She set it down in Jackie’s palm. Jackie inspected it, and asked Kit a question, which Kit answered in English.
“Why can I not understand your words?”
“I fear this poisonous iron has disabled your enchantments,” Kit said, dipping the blade into him again. “Jackie grew alarmed when your glamour faded, revealing a face from the Realm. I told her to bring you here that I might use my yril blade and remove these poisons.”
“Why are you aiding me?”
Kit paused, as if crafting a lie. “I am hoping you will repay me by teaching me enchantments.”
“Save me and I will teach you anything you wish.” Vax wanted to know a thousand things; why did Kit speak Cypress-inflected Vargel, why did she have such fine gowns, where had she gotten a yril blade, and why wasn’t she afraid of it?
But most importantly, he wanted to know if he was going to die.
“Will this…” he swallowed thickly. “Will this destroy me? Will these wounds take my life from me?”
Kit looked at him sideways. “You need do nothing but rest, and not worry about such things.”
Vax wanted to point out that she hadn’t answered his question, but she’d slipped the blade under another piece of iron, and as she lifted the shard along its entry wound towards the surface, all he could do was scream.