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Tessali dreamt herself into a palace she didn’t recognize. She looked around, surprised. It had wide corridors, and as she followed along one, it opened into a tidy garden. She had heard the palace of Clan Tannen spiraled around itself, and the palace of Clan Yew wasn’t a true palace at all, but furniture in an orchard of blooming apple trees. She hadn’t heard descriptions of any other palaces. She didn’t think it was possible to dream yourself into a place you’d never been.
It went without saying that she’d never been to anywhere in the Realm but the palace of Clan Holly. Indel of her rank never traveled, unless bonded to a Vargel who was sought after enough to be invited to other clans. Tessali had once said to her mother that she wished she could bond with a famous poet or athlete so she could travel, but Kirali told her to be careful what she wished for. At the time, Tessali had taken her mother’s warning to mean that you would never be happy when you wished for things you couldn’t have. Maybe she knew even then that Tessali would likely be exiled.
A pair of servants slipped past Tessali, ignoring her. They were Indel, low ranking, and their overskirts were slit and scalloped in the back. Her mother could tell her what clan this was just by the fashions, but Tessali didn’t know. The Indel strode towards a pair of huge doors at the far end of the corridor. Stylized branches had been carved into the tan marble where the pillars met the ceiling, and the branches became leaves when they met the side of the door. The floors were marble polished so smooth that it looked as though the servants were blue ducks gliding on lake. They opened the double doors, each taking one half and swinging it open in synch as if reflections of one another vertically in addition to horizontally, though the black-haired Indel was tall and thick limbed, and the other was gray-haired and petite.
Tessali curtseyed to get their attention. The smaller one turned to look at her, even though Tessali was wearing black and gray and clearly just a ghost here.
“May I ask which palace this is?”
“Clan Cypress,” she said, and latched the door to the floor.
If this was the palace of Clan Cypress, that mean that these two servants were of Clan Willow. Tessali had never met anyone from Clan Willow, and would have liked to talk to them, but as soon as the dark-haired Willow latched her door into place, the two of them vanished through a cleverly hidden side door. Tessali felt it would be rude to follow them, so she went to the open doors instead.
Inside was an amphitheater. Peering down the aisle, she could see the sandy arena at the bottom. A Jal-Dit tournament. It seemed the first bout had ended quickly, because the servants were raking the sand and washing off the blood before the intermission musicians had a chance to set up.
She had only been to one Jal-Dit tournament. Her mother had taken her, and Tessali had cringed and pressed her eyes shut every time one player swung a blade at the other. Kirali had scolded her, as she’d pulled strings to get good seats, but Tessali had still been a child and didn’t understand she was supposed to enjoy the violence.
She backed away from the door as the murmur of the crowd changed cadence and the spectators began to pour out.
Tessali pressed herself against the open door and watched the people leaving. No one noticed her, the gray ghost with her back to the wall. The Cypress Vargels and the Willow Indels were chatting about the bout, the swiftness of the second match, Linden’s chances in the Indel-league playoffs, Yew’s startling comeback from the first round setback earlier in the season. The Cypress accent sounded whispery, like wind through shutters. Their Ds sounded more like Ts, their Gs sounded like Ks, and their cadence went up and down like they were each in their own opera.
Their clothes were different too. The hemlines were just high enough to look odd, and every other person had jagged scalloped slits in their overskirts. Was this Cypress’s latest fashion, or had it taken over all of the Clans, and she’d find that even her own mother was sewing scallop-edged skirts for her clients? She didn’t know. She’d been in the dying lands for over a year now, and even in the nearly-unchanging Realm of the Faerie, life had moved on without her.
Maybe she should stop dreaming herself in the Realm of the Faerie. She’d been so happy when she’d first figured out how to visit. She could still see her mother, and her friends, and the halls of her home. But now it just seemed to make her even more homesick. She should pull herself away, squelch these dreaming heartbreaks until they stopped coming. Perhaps she’d have a decent trash dream if she left here, of Rosemary and Sage, and of listening to guitar music and eating spicy corn chips while Sage gossiped about the knights she had a crush on.
One of the Cypress in the crowd was shorter than the others, capped with brown hair instead of black or gray. Tessali shifted to catch sight of her face. That was odd. She was the human she’d met back in April, and again in the room with the window.
Kit Cypress had high ranking Indel clouding around her, some of whom were flirting so shamelessly she heard their whispery Cypress-inflected voices above the din. She had a high rank. Tessali didn’t know why, but she could tell by the saffron and russet of her collar, even if the fawning courtiers didn’t tip her off.
Why was Tessali seeing Kit Cypress again? This was at least the third time. Was it some kind of spell involved? She’d heard of witches who could make reality alter like that, make you encounter someone over and over again, like if you were in love with a person and wanted to see him more often. Rosemary head told her that, said she knew some. Tessali wasn’t sure if that was really possible or not. Sometimes people said things were possible, and it turned out they weren’t, like winning money from the lottery or losing weight by drinking shakes. Other times people said things weren’t real, and they were, like werewolves and faeries. She wasn’t sure if dinosaurs existed or not, and hoped they didn’t, but witchcraft was in the gray area where she just didn’t know.
Maybe she should talk to her.
As soon as she had that thought, a burst of anxiety hit Tessali so hard she almost woke up. No. She couldn’t talk to her. She was a ghost here, a black-and-gray clad exile, as welcome as the lingering smell of gas after the farter has left the room. She was still a good Indel. A good Indel didn’t approach her superiors unless summoned. She couldn’t do this.
She thought of Mark’s bleeding feet, and of Caleb crying in his sleep.
Tessali swallowed. Her dream body replicated the dry throat sickness of fear that her sleeping body was no doubt feeling. Her dreaming body felt something in her hand, cold metal teeth biting into the soft flesh of her palms. She looked down and saw a comb, but it transmuted to a key. She was holding a key in the dying lands. The key she’d found. If she gripped it any harder, she’d wake up. She’d wake up and she’d miss her chance.
Yes. She loosened her grip on the key. She would talk to Kit Cypress and ask for help.
Tessali glanced up again, but the human Cypress had disappeared, washed away in the flow of the crowd surging out of the amphitheater. Tessali pushed her way through the crowd. She concentrated on making herself solid so that their contact didn’t shove her into a trash dream. She shoved her way towards the front of the crowd, which had mostly dispersed into a corridor at a right angle to the one she’d been in. She went up a flight of steps, and followed the trail of chattering spectators. Holding her skirts high to keep from tripping, she ran towards the clump of pink and saffron and apricot gowns. They were on the far side of an enormous hallway. The crowds were thinner now, dispersing to chambers and gardens and other amusements of the high ranking set.
“Kit Cypress!” Tessali called out. Her voice was far too loud, and not loud enough. People turned to her with expressions of shock and disgust. An exiled Indel girl, shouting at a higher ranking visitor in a crowd? It was as if she had shit in a public swimming pool.
“Kit Cypress!” Tessali called out again. She was so afraid she felt her grip on this world shifting. People around her tsked and muttered, and they pulled away from her. Tessali glanced around, but she didn’t see the human anywhere.
The hallway cleared out, echoing with the sounds of doors being latched shut and voices fading away. Tessali felt ashamed. She wanted to puke, but you didn’t puke in the Realm of the Faerie any more than you ate or slept.
Soon, she was alone. She heard sweeping from a servant cleaning dust left by the crowd that left the amphitheater. Voices came from the hall behind her, and she turned, but it was just stragglers leaving the tournament, and they didn’t come towards her.
Halfway down the corridor, the wall had been replaced by a line of columns opening to a garden. She drifted towards it, making no more sound than the ghost she was. The garden had wheat and lavender, tight terraces like whorls of a fingerprint in stripes of purple-gray and greenish-gold. No one ate the wheat or used the lavender to make sachets to sell to patrons to get money to buy gas and camping equipment. She’d always thought of the Realm of the Faerie as the real world and the dying lands as the after world, but now she realized that it was the reverse. People didn’t live here, not really. They just stayed, in a dream, and only children aged.
The wind blew the grass and lavender in waves, a gentle scented susurration. She took a step down into the garden, and then another. The ground dipped, and then swooped up into a gentle hill, down, then up again, so the stripes lay against each other like a pattern on folded cloth. She didn’t know what lay beyond that. Her tutors hadn’t told her, hadn’t liked to be asked. There were things you were meant to know, and things you weren’t.
She heard doors open, and footsteps grew closer. Two people, she thought, but she didn’t turn to look. She tensed, knowing they couldn’t hurt her physically, but bracing against the hurtful words. Small thing, they’d call her. Or drudge. Servant girl. Barbarian. That was the worst, because it might be true. There had to be a reason why her skin was brown instead of ashen.
“Come with us,” a male voice said, in Cypress-inflected Vargel.
She turned and saw two Indel, dressed like honor guards rather than ushers. Their faces were politely neutral.
She rose to her feet and followed them. Even now, she was too much of a good Indel to disobey. She followed them up the stairs to the corridor. They didn’t look at her, escorting a prisoner but not deigning to touch her, perhaps. She didn’t look at them either. She thought it might be amusing if she woke up and disappeared, so that when they turned around they saw nothing but empty corridor behind them, but she was too much of an obedient Indel to do that.
They passed through four doors, leading deeper and deeper into the higher ranking wing of the palace. She saw fewer servants and more courtiers. The marbled floors grew muffled with thick quilts, and then the honor guard paused in front of double doors. They were no wider than her arm span, but taller than three of her. The guard opened both doors simultaneously, and gestured for her to go in.
Tessali stepped through the door, onto thick green and blue quilts, heavily embroidered. The far wall opened into a private garden, a lush green jewel with trickling fountains and flowers in perfect bloom. She’d never been in chambers this fine, not even to clean, and she was starting to feel anxious. She stood near the doors, but the guards had closed them behind her.
The far end of the room had a fitting platform, and beyond that, a smaller door with latticework cut into it. Movement and voices showed through the holes in the latticework. Tessali thought about running, slipping out the doors she’d come in, but no sooner had she thought that, the far door opened and two women came into the room. One was an Indel, dressed in the striped pinafore of a seamstress, and the other was Kit Cypress, the human. She wore an amazingly embroidered dressing gown that shimmered gold or olive or flame, depending on which way the light hit it. Her floor length culottes were watermarked aubergine satin. The most exquisite fabrics, cut so simply, it could hardly be called fashion at all. Kirali would not approve. Tessali smiled.
“Good day, and welcome to my modest apartments. So pleasant to see you in the palace of Clan Cypress,” Kit Cypress said, in her reedy accent, as polite as if Tessali were a famous poetess on tour instead of a dreaming exiled interloper. “I’ve asked you here because I believe I know the reason we keep running into each other. I want to make you a proposal.”
There was only one reason that a Vargel would talk to an unbonded Indel like this. It was like every dream she’d ever had, a high-ranking Vargel bonding with her. If it had happened three years earlier, she never would have had to leave the Realm of the Faerie. If it had happened six months earlier, she wouldn’t have been kidnapped. Now it wouldn’t do her any good at all, because they were going to kill her after the full moon. What good would a karla do her in the dying lands? Tessali began to cry.
“Oh, Honored One, I am flattered by your offer, but it won’t do any good,” Tessali said.
“Because they’re going to kill me.”
“Who? What?” Kit stepped off the dressing platform. “Who’s going to kill you.”
“The kidnappers,” Tessali said.
“Kidnappers? That’s not why—“ Whatever Kit was about to say stopped in her mouth. The silence grew awkwardly long. Tessali was afraid she’d offended her, or said something wrong, because when Kit spoke again, she croaked out, “Holy Mother of God. Tess, Tessali. Why didn’t I realize? Chance and Luke. I’ll never doubt James again.”
Tessali smiled weakly, not sure if this was a good oath or a bad oath. The seamstress was taking pins out of her mouth and tucking them into the front of her pinafore.
“Tell me more,” Kit said, flat and serious, in English. “Are Caleb and Mark with you? Are they all right?”
“Yes, they’re with me. They’re not sick or hurt, but they want to go home.”
“Where are you?”
“In Kansas, I think.”
“I need more than that.” Kit held Tessali’s shoulders, gripping tightly, not quite shaking. “Describe where you are.”
“In the basement of a house with an L shaped windbreak of trees. There’s nothing around the house for miles.”
“Are there any other landmarks?”
Tessali shook her head.
Tessali shook her head.
“Tell me everything you can think of about the place where they’re keeping you.”
Tessali’s words tumbled and jumbled around in her head. She struggled to think what was important.
“I can see stars through the window, and sometimes the moon, although it’s dirty. And we have a lamp that’s covered in shells and painted gold. And there’s a sofa bed, and a tiny sink and a burner and they mostly give us cans of peaches and beans but never quite enough. I snuck upstairs and ate some pizza and I took a flyer off of it because Mark loves dinosaurs and he always wants to draw pictures of Brontosauruses even though he says they aren’t real. 78 Jurassic, it said, but he said that the T-Rex wasn’t alive during the Jurassic period.”
“What else can you see from the window?” Kit asked, eyes intent.
“A line of trees and a ditch, and then nothing for miles and miles and miles, just grass and fields and sometimes a few trees. There are frogs in the ditch but they stopped singing when it got dry and the grass is dry too and Mark’s feet bled when he ran on them because he forgot his shoes but Luke and Christine and Chance caught us again so I haven’t tried to escape again. Caleb has been wetting the bed and they both want to go home to their mommy again and they’re afraid that she’s dead and I told them she wasn’t but I don’t know.”
Tessali wanted to continue. She wanted to say that she wanted to go home to her own mommy, and she wanted Kit to come and save her, but she couldn’t, because she was fading, being shaken awake by someone back in the dying lands.
Like the book, but short on cash? New chapter next week!