Time seemed to slow as Vandra poured grains of sand into a heated crucible. A bead of sweat slid down her temple, and she hissed, moving her head slightly so when the drop landed, it struck the scarred mahogany table rather than the slowly combining mix of components. If one drop landed in the unstable mixture, it would throw off her entire formula.
Students gathered around her, and though they had been cautioned to be still, she heard gasps. Even the other professors who gathered near the edge of the crowd mumbled to themselves and were quickly shushed by their neighbors.
As Vandra set the sand aside, her sister, Fieta, dabbed her brow with a cool cloth and whispered, “Sorry.”
Vandra nodded, resisting the urge to glare. Fieta had only volunteered to assist because their brother, Fieta’s twin, was busy, and Vandra needed someone she trusted. Fieta wasn’t an alchemist, let alone a professional forehead wiper, but Vandra was certain she’d stressed how important it was to keep the mixture untainted.
But Fieta wasn’t as good at paying attention as her brother.
Vandra added a few flecks of lead, the last part of her original formula. Then all that was left was to stand back and wait. The whole room exhaled. Fieta gave Vandra another swipe with the towel and winked. Nearly ten years younger than Vandra, she was at least a foot taller, and her athletic build put the academics in the room to shame, though her dark hair and dusky skin blended in with most. She wore her dark gray City Watch uniform, the reason everyone peered at her as if wondering why she was there. Maybe they thought that if the experiment got out of hand, Fieta would beat it into submission.
“Better mind the pot,” Fieta said softly.
Vandra sighed and stared at her experimental mixture. It had gone like clockwork this time, just as when she’d first performed it. And the five times afterward. The only difference being: the first time, it had worked.
It would work this time. It had to. The crucible was the same. The candle was from the exact same candle maker, made from the same sort of wax, and even made at the same time of day, if the maker was to be believed. Her measurements were exact. The tools were exact. After five minutes ticked down, she should have a crucible full of syndrium, the most sought after, most unique element in the land, made from a handful of common items. She’d done it once. There was no reason she couldn’t do it again.
As before, visions danced in her head. All the machines in the city of Parbeh and in the kingdom of Citran—the last of the five human kingdoms—ran on syndrium. With a surplus, they could create machines to unclog the overworked sewers, to dig more wells for the swollen population, like the thousands of refugees whose lands had been claimed by the slow tide of corruption known as the tattered lands.
Of course, the first time Vandra had done this experiment, she hadn’t been thinking such grand thoughts. It was only one formula in the midst of dozens, but she’d hit it right. No one had been more surprised than her when after five minutes, the crucible full of nothing had been transformed into pure syndrium. Since she’d been the only person there, many believed she’d made up the story, yet they couldn’t prove where she’d gotten a stray pot of syndrium.
Now they’d all see. Now no one would have to worry that the syndrium-powered pylons that guarded their borders would fail. Humanity would be safe from the tattered lands forever. She crossed her fingers and prayed to every god, large and small, that it be so. Her mama would have reminded her that she didn’t want the attention of larger gods anyway, just in case they were of a mind to remember her when they wanted something in return.
Vandra glanced at her hourglass. The five minutes were nearly up. A few people whispered from the back of the room. After her second failure, she’d shooed everyone out, but only after her colleagues had made certain she had no syndrium on hand. But the people didn’t matter, couldn’t matter. She had to trust the formula.
There were only a few grains of sand left. The smoke from the crucible would take on a bluish hue. There! Right on schedule. And then…
The last of the grains ran out. Vandra leaned forward, brushing away the smoke. It had to have worked this time. She made herself believe, made herself smile.
More gasps from the crowd. Professor Lisander whispered loudly, “I loaned her that crucible, you know.”
Beneath the smoke, Vandra spied a glimmer, not the silvery-blue glow of syndrium, but a speck of one of the other metals catching the light. It had failed. Again. Vandra was still smiling, but she no longer had control of her face. What would happen if she yelled that it hadworked then hustled everyone out of the room?
Her audience was waiting. As she stared at them, her stomach sinking and panic gripping her guts, their smiles faded one by one. At the front, Lisander frowned hard, lending more lines to his pale skin. He was always complaining that Parbeh’s laboratories were not as fantastic as his old university in the north, but the tattered lands had taken that. Vandra wanted to snap at him now that if he thought he could do better in the tattered lands, he should go. Then the airborne malice could twist him into something unrecognizable, which would probably be an improvement.
But she had to remain calm, confident, polite. “Perhaps next time—”
The crowd began to disperse. A few professors smirked or tittered, but Fieta glared at them until they fled. Most of the students gave her pitying looks. Lisander glared at the crucible he’d lent her, then stormed from the room, creating a gap in the retreating crowd. It stayed parted when Headmistress Chani appeared.
If Vandra’s heart sank any further, it would lodge in her heels.
“No luck?” Chani asked, giving the crucible a quick glance. “Bit of a letdown, eh, Singh?”
Vandra had no choice but to nod. “Yes, Headmistress.”
“And after all that hoopla? Ah well, better to know now rather than when someone is really depending on the outcome.”
Vandra wanted to say, “Besides me and my career,” but she bit her lip.
Fieta turned her threatening stare in the headmistress’s direction. She never took shit off anyone unless they were wearing a uniform. Vandra poked her hard in the leg.
“I’m sure, Headmistress,” Vandra said, “it must be a miscalculation in the—”
“Course it is, course it is.” Chani’s eyes held the same false sympathy as when a student’s parents insisted that their child really wasa hard worker and only needed a little encouragementto pull themselves up from a failing grade. She wasn’t a bad person, but she’d been an administrator far longer than she’d been an alchemist. “Better luck next time, eh?” She turned to go, then swiveled as she got to the door, an old tactic that allowed her to have the last word. “Maybe next time, do a test before you invite everyone, eh?”
Vandra wanted to say she’d conducted manytests, but the headmistress was already gone.
Fieta rolled her eyes. “Uppity bunch of bookworms.” She clapped Vandra on the shoulder. “Don’t worry. You’ll figure it out.”
Vandra slumped against the table and put her head in her hands. Where had she gone wrong? Maybe one of the metals hadn’t been as pure as she’d thought. Maybe she’d been off in her original calculations slightly, and now she stuck to them too rigidly. Maybe it was the sand that she’d gone through grain by gods-cursed grain! She wanted to sweep the whole thing off the table and hope she got lucky enough to burn the building down.
Fieta was still oozing false cheer. “Pietyr’s probably done with his rounds by now. Come have lunch with us.”
Vandra shook her head. Their brother would also try to cheer Vandra up, and she wasn’t in the mood. She loved her family, but they didn’t understand.
“You’re going to stay here beating yourself up instead?” Fieta asked.
Vandra nodded. “Until I solve this thing or pass out. Whichever comes first.”
Fieta kissed her temple then gave her a light shove to even out all the caring and feeling. “I’ll be back later.”
Vandra nodded again but didn’t watch as Fieta left. Without people, her black thoughts poured in to fill the empty room. She’d created syndrium just after graduation, when the world seemed to stretch before her in endless waves of possibility. Her successful experiment had gotten her an appearance before the assembly. The head assemblyperson had told her that the five monarchs were proud. Everyone had been waiting, breathless, to see what she might do next as the pride of Parbeh.
People had laughed off her first failure. It was proof that no one was immune to slipups; it made her relatable, likeable. She hadn’t known until then that she needed a colossal screwup to be more likeable, but she’d tried to laugh it off.
Now, six failures later, she was either a laughingstock or a subject of pity. When she introduced herself, people’s faces scrunched up as if trying to remember where they’d heard her name, then they’d say things like, “What a shame.”
After hearing that so many times, Vandra thought she’d be used to it. To her surprise, it hurt. Every. Single. Time.
“Give up or wake up.” She went back to her desk and pulled out her books on syndrium again, one of which she’d written as her dissertation. Many people now used it as the final word on syndrium. If not for her original success with her formula, her dissertation would have been her legacy. Only alchemists would have known about her, but she could have lived with that.
Now she had to start over from the beginning. Again. Maybe she should rewrite her dissertation and disavow any knowledge of her former life. “No, I’m not that Vandra Singh. I’m a different one who wrote a very important book and did absolutely nothing else!”
Someone knocked on the door. “Show’s over for today,” she called.
“Pity,” a familiar voice answered, “I was looking forward to it.”
Vandra stood so fast, her chair fell with a thud. Ariadne Bahn, junior assemblyperson, stood watching Vandra and smiling. She had dark circles under her eyes, and her black hair seemed a bit limp. No one seemed to be sleeping well in the government these days.
“I didn’t…” Vandra cleared her throat and bowed. “Assemblyperson Bahn. A pleasure, as always.”
Ariadne laughed. “You don’t have to be so formal.” She smiled softly, a look Vandra remembered from their brief time as lovers. Ariadne had held some lower level government job at the time, and Vandra had been a student. Nearly the same age and constantly run off their feet, they’d been happy with a quick exchange of kisses and caresses in whatever space they could eke out. Work eventually took them away from each other, but that was all right. Life had too much to explore for slow, ever-burning love affairs. Better that they should flame out as quickly as they’d kindled.
Vandra cleared her throat. “What brings you by?”
“Right to the point, eh?” She sighed. “There’s always more work to do, isn’t there?”
She sounded bitter, and Vandra didn’t know what to say. There wasalways more work. Unless Ariadne had been hoping for a quick round of sex. After all this time? Vandra’s cheeks burned. Not only could she not spare the time, but after her failure, she wasn’t in the mood.
But no, Ariadne seemed sad. Maybe her rise in stature had turned out as disappointing as Vandra’s had. “What’s wrong?” Vandra asked.
Ariadne shut the door and sank onto a stool as if she had the world on her shoulders. Her long tunic and loose trousers were bright yellow, save for a red satin sash that led from her right shoulder down across her chest. It didn’t move, sewn to the tunic, and Vandra wondered if all her clothes had the assembly sash sewn in. That would certainly save time.
Ariadne hooked her booted feet under the stool. She’d never gone in for the slippers that many in the ruling class favored. She always had somewhere to go, she’d said, and boots would get her there faster and without blisters.
Vandra smiled at the memory as she righted her own chair and sat. The sting of her failure faded, but she felt it hovering in the back of her mind like a cloud of flies.
Ariadne opened her mouth then shut it again. Vandra tensed. Ariadne never had trouble speaking her mind.
“One of the pylons has gone out,” Ariadne said, almost a whisper, as if she feared her words would have more weight when spoken aloud.
Vandra leaned forward; she couldn’t have heard right. The one thing that kept the remnants of the five kingdoms from succumbing to the horrors in the tattered lands could not have simply gone out. “Failing? Stuttering?” She pawed through her books. “With one pylon malfunctioning, we should be all right, and if it’s only a glitch—”
“Gone out. Ceased working. Three days ago. One of my sources who lives near the border sent a message.” Her dark gaze seemed to take up the whole world. “We need corroboration before word gets out, and I can’t send an entire team or the population might get wind of it.”
Vandra waited for more, her heart thundering. A small part of her thought Ariadne might have come to her for comfort, but by the way Ariadne stared, almost as if she was willing Vandra to see her point, Vandra suspected it was something else.
They needed someone to check on the pylon, someone who knew about syndrium. An alchemist. But surely Ariadne wouldn’t ask her. There were more senior alchemists who weren’t viewed as failures, who…
“Oh.” Vandra’s heart thundered louder. No one would miss the failure when she’d gone. “Me.”
“You’re an expert on syndrium.”
“Yes, but that’s not the whole reason you asked me.”
Ariadne simply stared, waiting.
“I’ll do it,” Vandra said, hoping she sounded less bitter than she felt. “It’ll be nice to finally have failure working in my favor.”
Ariadne stood and crossed the room to take Vandra’s hand. Her fingers were cold. They always had been. “Whatever you can tell me, you’ll be rewarded. Someday. For now, no one can know.”
Vandra nodded and gave her a squeeze before letting go. The remains of the five kingdoms had been crammed into the last kingdom standing. Every town and village was full to bursting. If people found out a pylon had gone out, even if the other nine pylons still stood, there might be riots, not to mention a massive exodus where people ran farther south to get away from the threat nipping at their heels. Vandra imagined the pressure on the coastal towns as people sought passage on ships that could go nowhere. Some might even try swimming into the ocean, thinking the taint of the tattered lands couldn’t follow them there.
They were wrong, at least to a point. The tattered lands corrupted everything they seeped over, flora, fauna, and mineral. It certainly changed the creatures of the sea as well.
Vandra shook the thought away and put her bitterness aside. “Of course. Yes. I won’t spread any news, but I’ll need someone to come with me. There are bandits near the border.”
“I can get your brother and sister released from the Watch for a few days. You can tell everyone you’re going north to visit relatives.”
Vandra nodded. She hoped no one would ask. She’d never been good at pretending. But Fieta and Pietyr could lie enough for all three of them. They’d probably have an entire extended family invented by dinner.
“You can do this,” Ariadne said. “The only way we could find a better expert than you would be if we could resurrect one of the original builders.”
Vandra smiled. That was true, even if Ariadne was just saying it to bolster Vandra’s ego. “When do we leave?”
“Tomorrow. I took the chance you’d say yes and set the wheels in motion. I’m afraid I couldn’t requisition mounts without looking suspicious, so you have a few days of walking in your future.”
Vandra nodded. A failure of an alchemist going to visit relatives wouldn’t rate a mount. That meant backpacks as well as walking, but Vandra didn’t mind a nice long hike. For her research, she’d had to explore the syndrium mines, and she’d even visited a pylon. She enjoyed the outdoors and fresh air…and the lack of people. It was a shame she’d have to hurry back to Parbeh afterward. Maybe she’d send Fieta and Pietyr back with the information and find somewhere lovely and quiet to stay in the countryside.
Where she wouldn’t be a failure. But she would be bored to tears.
Lilani breathed deep and let the scents of the forest surround her. She tried to relax, but the ritual posture consisted of resting on her knees, sitting back on her feet, arms along her legs, with her palms turned upward. It gave her cramps in three different places.
Especially if she had to sit for what felt like an eternity.
She could feel Faelyn watching even though he stood behind her. She’d once asked him how he imbued his gaze with such weight, and he’d said it was the mark of a good teacher. She pitied any offspring he might one day have.
“Forget I’m here,” Faelyn said, but that seemed impossible when he insisted on staring.
She shifted, frowning.
“You’re not relaxed.”
She knew he leaned against a tree; she could picture his crossed arms and irritation. But she’d not even begun to annoy him yet. Her mother once said she could perturb even the eldest seelie, and they didn’t move for anyone or anything.
But now wasn’t the time to think about that. After a sigh, she tried to relax into the feel of the sunlight coming through the tangle of leaves overhead and become lost in the sweet scent of lavender. The breeze whispered over her skin, ruffling her hair and the edges of her long-sleeved tunic. She heard birdsong and the whine of insects. Not far away, some creature rustled through the underbrush. So perfect.
“Your shoulders are tense,” Faelyn said.
Lilani groaned. “I can’t forget you’re there if you keep talking.”
Right. She must become lost in the sounds of nature as she sometimes did when falling asleep, only now she couldn’t accidentally nod off. She would become one with her surroundings and let them flow around her, carry her into the background until she became hidden, shrouded from sight. A natural ability of her people, they could fade from the view of other creatures. But not without practice. Masters of the technique could even hide from other seelie. She’d done it once when she’d been scared out of her wits, but seelie were supposed to be able to do it whenever they wished.
Some were better at it than others. Maybe she’d be the first in history who had no natural ability whatsoever. The idea should have upset her, but she would trade any natural ability for the opportunity to skip this lesson, grab some wine, and spend the afternoon with friends.
By the elders, she’d trade the ability for the opportunity to stand up and stretch. She wriggled her toes inside her soft boots, trying to bring life back to her feet.
“I saw that,” Faelyn said.
Of course. What made her think he wouldn’tsee her toes through her boots? With a frown, she unfolded and sat, wincing as the blood flowed back into her legs. With a sigh equal to the one she felt inside, Faelyn sat beside her.
He wore the lower half of his blond hair loose; the top half tied in a braid at the back. Like hers, his hair moved on its own, shifting in an invisible breeze, moved by his natural seelie magic, the same magic which allowed them to shroud.
If they could master it.
Faelyn’s pale features were as sharp as his crystal blue eyes that stared into the forest, and the slight point of his ears stood in line with his cheekbones. He’d come to this forest long ago when the seelie of the ice-bound northern enclaves fled the tide of humanity and the creep of the tattered lands. But now what was left of humanity crowded against the forest of the Court, the last remaining enclave of the seelie, and there was nowhere to run.
Everyone had to be a master at shrouding now.
“Maybe if I stood up and tried?” she asked hopefully.
He snorted a laugh and took one of her light brown hands in his pale ones. “My dear Princess, you can try standing on your head if you wish, but unless you relax, it won’t matter.”
She resisted the urge to jerk away, not wanting him to know how easily he annoyed her. “I’m not a princess.” He only said it to show her he didn’t care that her mother was the empress. Or to let her know he had to report back to her mother whether she had a successful training session or not.
Well, there went any hope of lying to her mother. Not that she ever would. “I was thinking about our mathematics lesson the other day—”
“Stop.” He rubbed his forehead. “I know you love mathematics and history and everything but this. I do, too, but you cannot distract me. This lesson is necessary, so says your mother.”
She grinned. “I can get around my mother. All you have to say is—”
“We could go for a run! We could grab the telescope and climb the Highpeak—”
“I started reading the history of the—”
“No, no, no! No equations, no running, no telescopes, and no history! No books of any kind!” He sighed. “That is a terrible thing for a teacher to say. No books of any kind right now. Sit properly and concentrate.”
Lilani groaned. She hated sitting still unless she had a book in her hands. Even then, she never read at a table like a proper student. She had to have one leg thrown over the arm of the chair or be lying on the rug with her legs stretched up the wall. Her mother had reprimanded her once for lying across her bed with her head off one side, reading upside down.
“Books, especially ancient ones, have to be treated with respect!” her mother had said.
Lilani didn’t see how a book could care one way or another. Besides, she was careful, if not exactly respectful. A book never left her care in worse condition than when it arrived.
Lilani tried to sit on her knees again and fell backward in the grass. “What if I promise never to leave home? Then I won’t have to learn how to shroud.”
He gave her a wry smile. “You’re prepared to make such a promise?”
She thought of how close these woods and the Court would seem if she did. “No.”
“Then up! Relaxation pose.” He prodded her leg. “We’ll stay out here all night if we have to, and won’t that be so much fun!”
Lilani resisted the urge to roll her eyes. “Master Poet Janlyn says sarcasm is a mask for those with no true wit.”
“Master Poet Janlyn can stuff it. Get up.”
Lilani laughed as she knelt again. “I’ll tell her you said that.”
“Do. I love being attacked by poets. Now, focus on the forest, on Master Poet Janlyn, or whatever you need to focus on. Relax.”
With another chuckle, Lilani closed her eyes. Her thoughts drifted to Janlyn, Lilani’s first crush when she’d been old enough to know what a crush was. As she’d gotten older, she found she still respected the poets and philosophers, but she wanted to have fun with singers and actors, the seelie who appreciated a laugh. Everyone in the Court was older than she was—as their long-lived race didn’t often produce children—but many were still young at heart. She recalled fine evenings in this forest, running through the moonlight, laughing and singing. There’d been a few wine-soaked kisses, some heated caresses, bodies intertwined in soft leaves.
Like a lover’s sigh, her magic flowed around her, covering her like a warm blanket.
Faelyn’s sharp intake of breath interrupted her reverie. She opened her eyes to find him staring.
“What?” she asked.
“I did?” She beamed, but her surge of elation faltered when his shocked expression didn’t change to one of pride. “Isn’t that what I was supposed to do?”
“Yes, but…” His smile seemed tentative. “I can usually see a shimmer when someone shrouds. Only the elders and the Guard can hide from me, but I couldn’t see you at all.”
She blinked, trying to process what he was saying and how it could possibly be bad. She grinned. “Well, then! It seems the ability comes naturally for me. Test over.” She stood and took a few steps toward home.
Faelyn caught her arm. “Do it again.”
She tried not to look worried. She had no idea how she’d done it in the first place. She started to kneel, but he wouldn’t let her.
“No, do it standing. Members of the Guard can do it while running or fighting, and the elders, well, some vanish for centuries.”
“All right.” She closed her eyes. What had she been thinking of? Running? Moonlight? Wine? A few minutes passed, and her magic didn’t rise again.
“I can still see you, naturally gifted one,” Faelyn said.
“Give me a minute!” So, not wine. Singing and laughing, then. And after that, she’d remembered… Oh, sweet elders. Was it the sex? How embarrassing!
“Still not happening.” He moved around her, and she opened her eyes but couldn’t meet his gaze. “What were you thinking about to make you so relaxed?”
She told herself to blurt it out, that they were both adults, but he was so much more…adult than her. She tried to say it and couldn’t, and now she felt the heat rising in her cheeks. He blinked at her several times, frowning, before his frown turned into a smirk, and she wanted to run for home.
“Something…personal,” he said. “I see.”
Why did he have to say it like that? “I was only thinking of…having fun instead of kneeling here and listening to nothing, and—”
He held up a hand. “Whatever you need to do. I’m not judging your methods.” He was; there was no denying his grin. He waved as if telling her to get on with it.
She turned her back and closed her eyes. She couldn’t think about lovers with his gaze still pinned on her. She needed something else, like running or exploring, climbing rocks and trees, tracking deer. She remembered the first time she’d climbed the Highpeak: breaking through lines of scraggly trees and crevasses after hours of scrambling upward. She’d turned to see the forest of her people spread below her, but in the distance, she’d spotted the hint of a human city. She’d read about humans, but she’d never seen one or anything they’d constructed. At that moment, the world seemed far wider than she’d imagined, even with all her studies.
Now, she felt her magic gather around her again.
“There,” Faelyn whispered. “Hold on to that.”
His words broke the spell, and her eyes snapped open.
He crossed in front of her, hands on his narrow hips, and even though he was a little shorter than her, he still managed to radiate authority. “All right. If you have to think of lovers or—”
“I was not thinking about that!”
He shrugged as if to say it didn’t matter, but she couldn’t help feeling as if it did, imagining what he might tell her mother, of what others might say, of the teasing she’d have to endure. “Lilani has to think about sex in order to shroud,” they’d say, tittering. No one cared who she loved or how often, but to have to focus on it while doing a task that should have been as easy as eating or sleeping? Who needed to think of sex in order to eat?
And it wasn’t about sex, anyway! “I was thinking of freedom,” she said. “Running free, exploring. Obviously, that’s what relaxes me.”
“Among other things.”
She put her hands on her hips and tried to summon her mother’s regal air, but she couldn’t think of a good retort. She raised one eyebrow instead, going for imperial.
He rolled his eyes. “For the elders’ sake, Lilani, I’m not going to tell anyone. Your mother only wanted to know if you succeeded, and I will tell her you did.”
She fought the urge to fidget and blushed again, elders knew why. “Just so youknow I was thinking about freedom.”
His next eye roll seemed a bit friendlier. “All right. So, thoughts of freedomand excitement in its manyforms…”
“…is all you need to relax and focus. Let’s try it a few more times until you can recall the feeling, wrap yourself in your magic, and shroud at a moment’s notice. The elders know you won’t be able to stop and think about climbing rocks or kissing poets when a bear is charging you.”
She opened her mouth to argue, but he pointed at the ground. In a huff, she sat, and he waited until she’d calmed. This time, she thought of swimming in a nearby lagoon and diving down through the bright water. With each memory, her magic seemed to cover her more easily, and she began to recognize the feeling. She let it wrap around her and shroud her for several seconds at a time, not daring to move for the first few attempts. When she’d done it ten times, she moved her arm back and forth, keeping the shroud, letting the magic flow, but as soon as she looked to Faelyn in excitement, she lost her focus.
He beamed at her anyway.
After the last attempt, she pressed a hand to her belly, feeling a cramp as if she’d run too far too fast. Her lunch threatened to reappear.
“That’s enough for today,” Faelyn said as he helped her up.
“At last.” Lilani opened the small pack she’d brought and took a drink from her canteen.
“Practice more tonight, but don’t exhaust yourself. You’ve already learned that the harder you reach for it, the more elusive it is, no matter how…happythe memory.”
She turned to tell him off, but he’d shrouded, and she saw a shimmer in the air as he fled through the trees. At least he had the good sense to hide from her wrath. She picked up her pack and started home, rubbing her belly. It wasn’t fair to have the ache from running without actually getting to move anywhere, but the closer she came to the Court, the better she felt. The presence of the seelie and the syndrium under their home had suffused the place with power, and as it mingled with her own magic, she breathed easier.
It was hard to believe that any human entering this forest would be plagued by the sense that they should turn back. Their skin would be crawling before they breached the edge of the trees and entered the valley below the Highpeak. If one managed to get to the actual Court, they’d be a gibbering mess. In theory.
But if the humans knew how much syndrium the Highpeak contained, they’d have all died trying to reach it. She’d read that humans tore their own mountains down searching for the rare metal. They couldn’t simply feel it, couldn’t let its magic wash over them, so they had to search every stone. After using syndrium to build their pylons and keep the spread of the tattered lands outside their borders, the humans should have stopped questing for it, should have let the land be.
Or that’s what the histories said. Lilani didn’t see why an entire race should be content when they could explore. And she didn’t think allhumans could be so quick to tear the Highpeak to shreds.
She reached the edge of the valley and paused to look upon the Court, the towers and minarets made from gleaming white stone. Every structure seemed fragile from a distance, like homes made from spider webs, but she could pick out the subtle ways they anchored to the mountain and one another. Some sat upon the mountain itself, surrounded by paths of volcanic rock, dangerous to anyone who didn’t know their secrets. The sense of hard and soft only added to the beauty, along with the shining domes of blue, black, or gold. With the underground river that surfaced at the Highpeak’s base, the seelie had everything they would ever need in their valley, their forest. It was a paradise fit for eternity.
Or so she’d been told. Again and again. By everyone.
With a sigh, Lilani descended. She waved to those who tended the small fields along the Court’s outer edge. She nodded to those who were coming back from getting water and those who were busy creating beautiful works of stone or metal in their workshops and forges. Everyone moved with a hazy slowness, as if they had all the time in the world. If they weren’t killed by some disease or accident, they had that time. Their natural magic protected them from the ravages of age, and the eldest seelie sometimes grew so slow and contemplative that they ceased to move altogether, living only through their magic, needing neither sleep nor food. Some vanished, shrouding naturally and staying that way. They sat along the river or up among the mountain stones, with only garlands marking where they were so no one ran into them. It made her sad to think of it, though few shared her sentiment.
She couldn’t imagine sitting for eternity. By the elders, she needed to have a little fun soon or she’d go mad.
Lilani headed for the great library at the center of the Court. Maybe one of her friends would seek her there, and if not, she could lose herself among the books. In the brightly lit interior, she stopped, inhaling the smell of wood polish and parchment. Shelves full of books hugged the gently curving walls, parting only for a large window at the library’s rear. More shelves followed the winding staircase up to the second and third stories, every available space taken by the knowledge of the seelie.
When Lilani glanced at the large wooden table in the middle of the floor, she started. Her mother sat there, leaning over an oversized book, and Lilani knew what it was without looking: the birth and death records of their people. Empress Dyrana and her daughter might have shared a love of reading, but lately, Lilani’s mother always sought out the same book.
Hair a shade bluer than Lilani’s own shifted over her mother’s shoulders; their eyes were the same bright violet with the same ring of gold around the iris: royal eyes, but she would never get the chance to lead, not with all seelie now living under the Court. There’d be no need; her mother would live forever, and there would never be a separate enclave. Lilani would never have to sort out anyone else’s problems, but her mother would order her around forever, too.
Her mother tucked a strand of hair behind one pointed ear and sighed heavily. Lilani cleared her throat. When their eyes met, her mother smiled. “Lilani, how did it go?”
“A success,” Lilani said with a wide smile. She hoped proof wouldn’t be demanded. As much as Lilani loved the library, she didn’t know if she’d feel free enough to tap her magic indoors.
Well, maybe if she were upside down with a book in her hands.
Lilani crossed the floor and glanced at the giant record book: the births and deaths of the seelie. The entries had slowed over the years. The very last birth name was hers, and she was nearing thirty, barely an adult to some seelie but fully grown nonetheless.
If anyone well into their several-hundreds would ever acknowledge that fact.
“You’re going to drive yourself crazy,” Lilani said, sliding the book away and shutting it.
“There has to be a reason why there haven’t been any children in thirty years.” She put her head in her hands and didn’t seem an empress for the moment, never mind the gauzy purple gown shot with threads of gold and silver that moved like flower petals as she walked.
Lilani shrugged, but she had her own thoughts about why the seelie weren’t reproducing. So many had died making their way to the Court, but still, they fit only…comfortably in their forest. There wasn’t room for many more.
Still, her mother likely knew that. “Maybe there should be more celebrations,” Lilani said. “Drums and dancing, a bonfire, barrels of wine.” And soft sighs in the dark. Her magic fluttered just thinking of it.
Her mother gave her a dry look. “Sex is not the problem. I’ve asked.”
Lilani stared, jolted out of her memories. “You’ve asked?” She conjured up images of her mother sitting down to tea with various people and saying, “So, how often do you have intercourse?” Maybe living long enough cured one of embarrassment.
At least that was something to look forward to.
Her mother raised an eyebrow. “Perhaps I should turn my attention to your friends and inquire there?”
Lilani fought a wince. “No, that’s fine. We’re fine.” She pushed the book farther away. “Brooding over these names won’t help. Come on before you turn to stone.” She started out of the room, knowing her mother wouldn’t be able to resist that bait.
“They are not stone,” her mother said as she followed. “The elders are simply communing with…”
Lilani paid no attention, not bothering to hide a grin. Outside, the sun was setting, and people were carrying tables into the street, getting ready to dine together as the seelie did every night. Lilani took her mother’s hand. “Let’s sit together. Unless you’re going to mope all night. Then I’m leaving you on your own.”
“Callous child. I should embarrass you in front of your friends just for that.” The tone was light, but before Lilani could pull her closer to the tables and lanterns, she stopped. “Lilani, wait.”
When they were in shadow, her mother said, “The lack of births is not the only thing troubling me.” In the near dark, her eyes seemed to glow, the hints of gold picking up the light. “One of the humans’ pylons has gone out.”
It took a moment for Lilani to know what that meant, even though she’d been thinking about the pylons not an hour before. But she didn’t see why it should cause such dread. Even if the tattered lands broke through the pylons, it couldn’t break through seelie magic. “And?”
Her mother sighed and seemed ancient, the flickering light making her features as elderly as a drawing of an old human. Lilani gasped and stepped forward, but as the light struck at a different angle, her mother was as beautiful as ever.
“It is the pylon closest to our border. The humans will be coming to investigate.”
Lilani laughed, her worry dissipating. “They’ll never find their way in here, and if you’re dreading telling me that I have to stay out of the forest a few days, I don’t mind. Truly.” She winked, but her mother barely smiled.
Instead, she looked out on the gathering of their people, on the laughing faces. “Come.” She pulled Lilani back into the darkness of the library. “I have much to show you before we can rest.”
Fear threatened to rise in Lilani’s heart, but she followed her mother back into the shadows. What was worse, pining for adventure or having it in varieties she’d never imagined?
Lilani had been reading for hours, and she still couldn’t digest everything she’d learned. For all her love of books, she’d barely made a dent in what the library had to offer. With her mother guiding her, she began to see how much she’d missed.
She glossed over some events she knew: the spread of the tattered lands and a brief history of the human retreat. Her mother wanted her to focus on the pylons themselves. Lilani had never taken much interest in them. The ancient history of the seelie was so much more fascinating. And whenever seelie books mentioned humans, they were quick to remind the reader about how barbaric, petty, and small-minded humankind was. With their short lives and shorter memories, they were doomed to keep making the same mistakes.
But with the pylons, it seemed they had learned something, at least enough to create new technology. The author of one history, a seelie scribe named Awith, didn’t have the same opinion of humans as the other books. She described daring human battles against the overwhelming denizens of the tattered lands, of noble humans refusing to leave comrades behind to face being torn apart. Awith didn’t shy away from human brutality, but she also stressed that when humans were united in a common cause, they were as perfect and inescapable as the seasons. She had fought by their side, helped with their evacuations. She had loved some of them.
Lilani gasped at that. Awith had many human friends and lovers. She seemed fascinated by them, and she’d wanted her people to embrace humanity despite past misunderstandings.
Of course, later scholars had made notations in the margins of Awith’s history and had added pages to her work. Some refuted her claims about the sequence of events and cited instances that were supposed to prove her wrong. Since Awith had no response within the pages, Lilani had to conclude she hadn’t survived her encounters with humans. Perhaps she’d believed that all of them were as noble as the ones she befriended, and in the end, they’d betrayed her.
Lilani kept reading as her mother stayed silent. What was it she was supposed to learn from this? That she should try to help the humans with their pylon? That she shouldn’t? When Awith’s history came to the construction of the pylons, Lilani read closer.
They were huge constructs made completely of syndrium. The way Awith described the plans for them, the humans wanted them to be nearly alive, not just delineating the border but actively guarding it. Awith suspected the humans had found some way to tap into the magic in syndrium, though they had no natural magic inside themselves.
As she kept reading, Lilani’s mouth dropped open. Awith wrote about how she intended to work withthe humans, to help the pylons shroud the human lands, but the details were rough and hazy, written hurriedly. More like a journal than a history, these pages were all about what Awith planned to do and not what she’d actually done.
Lilani looked up. Her mother was straightening some books, but when Lilani caught her eye, she said, “Keep reading.”
Lilani obeyed, turning the page. The handwriting changed, the notes of another seelie, along with a few passages in what Lilani recognized as one of the human languages. It said the seelie had received notice of Awith’s death, that she’d fallen while helping erect the pylons. The humans praised her bravery, saying she’d stayed with the pylons until the denizens of the tattered lands were upon them. She’d succeeded in her mission, giving her life so the humans might live.
The human words radiated emotion: love and grief and gratitude. Lilani wondered if they were written by one of Awith’s lovers; the seelie who’d copied them into the book didn’t say. Lilani sighed, feeling a spark of their grief. Their words seemed so heartfelt she couldn’t help feeling an ounce of what Awith must have felt for them. Compared with a seelie hand, their letters seemed brutish, but the depth of their feeling screamed from the page. No seelie felt so deeply, not after a certain age. Maybe to bear such a long life, they had to sacrifice passion.
A terrifying thought.
“She helped them,” Lilani said. “And they loved her for it.”
“But didn’t hesitate to sacrifice her.”
Lilani glanced back down at the book. It read as if Awith had sacrificed herself.
“If the pylons are failing,” her mother said, “the humans might seek our help again.” She walked around the table. “We could shroud from the tattered lands, but then we’d spend all our energy simply staying out of sight. It’s why the seelie fled south in the first place.”
“But Awith helped build the pylons for the seelie andhumanity,” Lilani said, caressing the page.
Her mother cocked her head. “Many see the survival of the humans as a mere side effect of Awith’s deeds.”
The words held no malice, but like the seelie who’d left annotations in this book, she seemed devoid of sympathy for the humans, no doubt thinking of conflicts and seelie deaths that were hundreds or thousands of years in the past.
But Awith had been clear about her intentions, her feelings. “Will we help them?”
“Some have suggested we construct our own pylons at the border while the humans succumb to their fate.”
Lilani arched an eyebrow. “So, it’s their fateto be turned into monsters or torn apart?”
A shrug, and Lilani’s belly went cold. She didn’t harbor a love for humans like Awith had, but she didn’t want them to go extinct. No one who’d written of Awith’s sacrifice with such blinding passion could be evil.
She thought back to drawings she’d seen, to the seelie who’d found the beauty in humanity’s muscular forms. Many drawings were marred by a sense of violence, as if death was part of humanity’s very nature. Some said the influence of the tattered lands simply brought out the core of the humans, twisting their bodies to match their souls.
It couldn’t be.
Lilani stood slowly. “I…think we should help.” She touched Awith’s book again, knowing she’d reread it often. “We can study the pylons, figure out what Awith did, and re-create it. And if we do it before more pylons give out, we shouldn’t lose any lives. Awith had to hurry. If we help the humans now, there won’t have to be a sacrifice.” She hoped.
Her mother stared so long, Lilani feared she had become like one of the elders. “No.”
Lilani waited for more, but her mother took the book and carried it away. “That’s it?” Lilani asked, following, her anger rising. “If you’re not even going to discuss it, why show this to me?”
“I had hoped you would see Awith’s tale for what it is: evidence for what needs to be done.”
“How could a tale of love and grief make me see that humans deserve to be abandoned?”
“They take, Lilani. That is what this tale shows us. Some of them may have loved Awith, but they still took all she had, including her life.”
Lilani shook her head, fighting disbelief. “From the way she wrote, she gave those freely.”
“I’m sure they convincedher that it was all her idea.”
Her mother whirled around, anger in her eyes at last. The tendrils of her hair lifted, buoyed by her power. “It is seduction, Lilani. Their youth, their energy, those are their lures. They draw our kind in, and then we are blind to their brutality. They offer with one hand, but the other, the hidden hand, is holding a club waiting to strike.” She took a deep breath, and her hair settled. She placed the book on a shelf. “I know of what I speak. My father ruled here for thousands of years, and I took charge of one of the enclaves. He befriended the humans, and eventually, they struck him down, jealous of our longevity.”
Lilani had heard the sad story of her grandparents. But she’d also noted that the humans the old emperor had befriended were several generations removed from those who’d killed him. Living with humans required a shift in seelie thinking, one that many didn’t seem able to manage.
And by that rare flash of anger, Lilani knew she wasn’t going to get her mother to listen that night, especially if there was a chance that the story of her grandparents would be repeated. If anything happened to her mother, Lilani would have to lead her people, a role she wasn’t prepared for.
Lilani left the library, her thoughts whirling. Change was coming, that much was clear, and it involved the humans whether the seelie liked it or not. But they had time enough to take a look at the border, maybe spy on a few humans, and see what all the fuss was about.
As Vandra suspected, Fieta and Pietyr were eager to go on an expedition. They didn’t care that they had to invent fictitious relations near the border. Vandra stumbled over the lie, but her ineptitude seemed to work in her favor, at least with her colleagues. The piteous looks they gave her said they suspected a lie; they probably thought she was running away after her failure. As much as the thought made her squirm, anything that shielded her true mission was a boon, or so she told herself.
Her parents were harder to convince. As an alchemist at the university, Vandra was entitled to lease a small apartment so she wouldn’t have to live with her parents and youngest siblings. That didn’t stop her family from dropping by to see how she was doing and bringing the youngest—little five-year-old Sita—to charm her into coming home for dinner. And she knew she’d have to have a meal with them before she left andwhen she returned or she’d never hear the end of it.
They wouldn’t accept a story about anonymous relations. At the table that night, Vandra told them the university was sending her to the border on a fact-finding mission. It was true enough.
But Fieta felt the need to add, “They want to count the people living there who have no permanent houses.”
Vandra glared. They hadn’t discussed this particular lie! How was she supposed to—
“The five monarchs want to make sure no one’s living too close to the border,” Pietyr said. He didn’t even glance at his twin as he lied. Sometimes, Vandra thought they shared a brain. No wonder they’d always been adept at sneaking out of the house.
Like Fieta, Pietyr wore his black hair tied back from his face, but he’d shaved the underside. His dark eyes were as smiling and raucous as Fieta’s, but unlike her, he had several tattoos on his face, a star to the side of his left eye, and a small line following the curve of his lower lip, relics of when he’d flirted with becoming a gang member before joining the Watch. Fearing he’d be singled out for the marks, Fieta got a tattoo on each wrist, a hawk and a butterfly, the fierce and the beautiful. Their parents had ceased complaining about the tattoos now that neither of them were gang members.
Though they were still inveterate liars.
“Why does it have to be you, Vandra?” Mama asked as she handed food around. She was short like Vandra, and her curves had begun to soften with age.
“And with only the twins for escort?” Papa said. “They should send more.” He sat at the table, letting Mama bustle around. Most of Vandra’s childhood memories included him kneeling or sitting on the floor. A tall man, he hated to loom over his children, though the twins were nearly his height.
“They should send the Palace Guard,” Mama said. “Since you’re doing the city a favor.”
“Palace guards are too scared to leave the inner city,” Pietyr said.
Fieta grinned at him. “They might stub a toe.”
Vandra broke her bread in half and dipped some in her stew, hoping she wouldn’t be forced to answer any questions.
“Look at her frown,” Papa said, pointing. “She doesn’t want to go.”
“I’ll send the university a letter,” Mama said with a nod. She looked around to make sure everyone had food before she sat. “They can find someone else.”
“No!” Vandra yelled. When everyone glanced at her, she clutched her napkin. At least only four of her siblings were home, the twins and the two youngest. She wouldn’t have to lie to the other four, who were probably doing something much more enjoyable than being interrogated.
“Mama, Papa, please,” Vandra said. “I’m happy to go. It’ll be good to get out of Parbeh, and going will earn me…favor.” With Ariadne, perhaps, but not with the university. Even that small tweak of the truth made her wince.
Her parents knew how bad she was at lying, but they wouldn’t be able to figure out the truth from her expression. When they glanced at each other and resumed eating, she relaxed. They began to speak about their days. As a weaver and a banker, her parents kept busy. The twins had once asked how they’d found the time to raise nine children, but Vandra had snorted at the question. They’d raised two, Vandra and her elder brother, then had them raise the rest. Her childhood had been an endless parade of soiled diapers.
The twins spoke about their day, too, covering for her, and they soon had everyone laughing. When Vandra left that night, her parents hugged her and offered to get her out of the trip. She rolled her eyes but hugged them back, reminding them that they didn’t need to fight her battles, especially when there was no war.
“You can’t fault a parent for worrying,” they said, nearly at the same time.
Sometimes, she almost could.
The next day, a courier delivered a packet of money to Vandra’s apartment, along with a note from Ariadne to buy whatever food and supplies she needed. Vandra grinned. She hadn’t outfitted an expedition in years, and she’d missed it. After rushing through the shopping and pillaging some equipment from the university, they left Parbeh by midmorning.
A tent city had sprung up beyond Parbeh’s walls. The locals had taken to calling it Lowtown, as it sat on the bottom of the slope that led to Parbeh. Every settlement across Citran had acquired such a place. There wasn’t enough room in the cities to accommodate everyone, even fifty years after the retreat and the construction of the pylons. Tents that were supposed to be temporary had become permanent. Lowtown had some order, a semblance of streets, and some of the structures incorporated wood or tin, giving them a more permanent look. The major avenues were patrolled by the Watch, keeping Lowtown from becoming as lawless as some places near the border of Citran, where the desperate lived within spitting distance of the tattered lands.
The twins walked on either side of Vandra, both a foot taller than her and more imposing, even without their Watch uniforms. Maybe it was the tattoos that made people move out of the way, or it could have been the spear across Fieta’s back and the sword at Pietyr’s hip. Whichever, Vandra was grateful. The last thing she needed was some silly physical confrontation keeping her from her task.
When they were past Lowtown and into the fields, the twins chatted amiably, but Vandra barely listened, running through scenarios in her head, trying to see every variable even though she didn’t know the full scope of the pylon problem. She lost all track of everything else until an ache built in her feet and back.
When Pietyr pulled her to a halt, she blinked at him. “What?”
“Are you trying to walk all the way there in one go? It’s time to stop. We’re hungry.”
They were out of sight of the city, though the fields that supported Parbeh still rolled on each side of them. No wonder her back hurt. “I suppose we should rest. It is recommended from time to time.”
Pietyr snorted a laugh. Fieta plonked down on the ground. It wasn’t long before she was stretched out, feet propped up on her pack. Vandra sat at her side and took a more careful look around. In the nearest field, a large farming machine chuffed away, moving slowly and tilling the soil as it went. The sun struck its metal carapace and flashed like a signal fire. Several people trailed behind it, casting seeds back and forth. The five monarchs owned this land, and only those who grew crops for Parbeh would be given such a device and the precious syndrium needed to power it.
In another field, Vandra spotted a few shacks. They probably belonged to the farmers who worked the land, but they could have been squatters who’d soon be rousted. Every inch of this land was spoken for by crops, and the demand never went down.
The road through the fields led to Saribelle, the next closest city to Parbeh and the third largest in Citran. After that, there were no large settlements between Saribelle and the Seelie Forest, where the road turned north. No one seemed inclined to live near where those mysterious creatures dwelled.
Vandra remembered the tall trees from her first trip to the pylons. She’d been sorely tempted to explore the forest, maybe catch a glimpse of a seelie. She’d been enchanted with them when she was younger, would have loved to ask some questions. Of course, one could be standing right next to her, and she’d never know it, not with their famed ability to vanish from sight.
The thought made her shiver. “Don’t get too comfortable.” she said, nudging Fieta. “It’s only midday.”
“I like to rest to the fullest,” Fieta said, her eyes closed.
Pietyr handed out traveling rations: bread baked with nuts and berries, and a roll of soft cheese for them to share. “I suppose you’ll say it’s too early to break out the beer.”
She gave him a look. “If you want to finish our journey today dehydrated and with a headache, be my guest.” She held out the water skin and quirked an eyebrow.
He took it with a sigh. “Yes, Mama.”
“Since I cared for you as children, and you survived to adulthood, I take that as a compliment.”
Fieta snorted. “Shut up and eat your cheese, Mama.” Vandra poked her, and Fieta swatted her away. Before they could get into a mock fight, Pietyr sat between them.
“Think you can fix this pylon, Van?” he asked.
“Of course she can!” Fieta said as she sat up. “She can fix anything.”
“If it canbe fixed,” Pietyr said.
Vandra shook her head, charmed by the compliment but still worried. Until the gods-cursed syndrium formula had gone wrong, she couldhave fixed anything. “There’s so much to do before I can answer that. You have to assess the problem—”
“Before you can treat the problem,” the twins chorused.
She had to laugh. “I taught you well.”
Fieta gave her a look. “Sometimes, Van, you sound like you’re a hundred years old.”
Vandra stuck her tongue out. No one else but this sister could manage to make fun of her, praise her, and tease her in under five minutes. Not for the first time, Vandra suspected that living in Fieta’s head was an emotional whirlwind.
“We have to assess situations like that in the Watch,” Pietyr said as he took a bite. “But just like with people, some problems can’t be fixed.” He stared at nothing, no doubt worried for the future. If the pylons failed, humanity had nowhere to go. She supposed she should have been focused on that rather than intrigued by the problem itself.
She patted his shoulder. “We managed to build them once. If they can’t be fixed, we’ll build them again.” She hoped she sounded more confident than she felt. She’d failed so many times already. At least the pylons weren’t new. “And we’re not even fixing anything on this trip. We’re to observe and report back.”
So that the real alchemists could fix the problem.
The thought made her sigh. Her grandmama had once said that everyone was born with a pool of luck that they drew from all their lives, and one day, it ran out. Vandra had probably used all of hers on her first success creating syndrium.
Her hands squeezed into fists as every ounce of her rebelled against that dark thought. There was no luck, only hard work.
“Whoa, Van,” Fieta said. “Did your bread say something ugly to you?”
Vandra looked down to see crumbs raining from her fist and a berry smeared along one finger. She’d crushed her lunch: the perfect end to a string of frustrating thoughts. “I’m…eager to be off. You both ready?”
Fieta sighed and moaned but stood and donned her pack while Pietyr did the same without question. Maybe instead of luck, everyone was born with a pool of foolish, over-exaggerated emotional outbursts, and instead of using hers, Vandra had given it all to Fieta. At least Pietyr could be quiet once in a while.
The next tent city began when Saribelle was a speck in the distance. The fields from Parbeh had ended some time before, and now every clump of bracken or copse of trees seemed home to someone. A trickle of people moving toward Saribelle swelled the closer Vandra and the twins came to the city.
Fieta and Pietyr fell silent and walked closer to Vandra’s sides. She could almost feel the tension roiling off of them, as if their entire bodies were coiled. From the temporary shelters, people watched the flood of travelers with curious or hostile looks. Many of the faces staring from their hovels seemed dim or desperate, worn out from fighting to simply exist. There were too many people, had been ever since the human retreat, ever since the spread of the tattered lands.
The tent city against Saribelle’s wall was thick with people and dwellings and thin on roads or a City Watch. Vandra and the twins went single file, her in the middle. They stepped over tent pegs and the edges of lean-tos. They picked their way over people lying in the grass. Vandra pressed her sleeve to her nose to try to block out the smell of unwashed bodies and clothing, waste, and sickness.
Before the arrival of so many people, Saribelle had catered mostly to merchants and travelers on their way to and from Parbeh. It had a reputation for fine hotels and shops. She wondered if the whole place looked like this now.
When she and the twins stepped into an open area, a group of children gathered around, begging for coins. Vandra handed out a few while the twins brushed away the eager hands.
“That’s enough!” Fieta barked, and the children scattered. She and Pietyr hurried Vandra along. “You can’t give away all our cash, Van.”
“We have an assignment,” Pietyr said. “We might need the money.”
Vandra agreed with a frown. The guards around Saribelle’s wall let them in without a fuss, their clothing and weapons marking them as someone with money. Inside, the atmosphere changed. The press of people thinned, though there was still a crowd.
She thought of the machines in the fields, tilling as fast as they could until they ran out of syndrium. If she could get her formula to work, she could make all the syndrium they’d ever need, and the machines could run night and day, and there’d be food aplenty.
She just had to make sure they weren’t all killed by the tattered lands first. Then she could get on with fixing the world.
Lilani couldn’t get humans out of her thoughts. Her mother had scouts watching the pylons, but Lilani would never be one of them. She couldn’t risk herself, or so she’d heard a dozen times. If she wanted to clap eyes on a human, there was only one way to do it.
She’d begun the day wandering the forest and practicing her shrouding, edging ever closer to the border. She thought about turning back several times. Her mother wouldn’t approve. Faelyn wouldn’t approve. Even her friends and lovers wouldn’t approve. Yesterday, shemight not have approved, but didn’t such consideration show that she’d really thought about her actions? After all, her mother wanted to doom an entire species; the least Lilani could do was have a look at them before they were gone.
Plus, she intended to fight her mother’s decision. Surely there were other seelie who agreed with her. When they presented a united argument to the empress, Lilani intended to be ready with tales of peaceful farmers or woodcutters or whatever else humans did.
Awith would know. She’d lived with them, saved them, loved them. The thought made Lilani sigh. All her sexual encounters so far had been like slow, seductive dances, where magic flowed over the participants as intensely as kisses or caresses. Sex with a human would probably feel akin to making love to a naked flame, hot and hurried. Humans didn’t have time to waste, after all.
With such thoughts, the power inside her rose. She shrouded, holding the magic even while moving. An achievement to be proud of and embarrassed by at the same time. She ran, burning off energy, seeing if she could shroud while at top speed. She stumbled once, but she knew the forest well, and it wasn’t long until she reached the border.
She’d never been so close to the human lands. That alone was thrilling. She walked along the tree line as the air turned chill, afternoon bleeding into evening. Lilani peered through the trees, trying to see the road, to catch a glimpse of a human. When no one appeared, her hopes fell. At least no one in the Court would miss her for one night. Maybe the next day would yield better results. She found a comfortable tree with a curved branch that cradled her body and fell asleep thinking about humans.
When dawn woke her, there were still no humans in sight. A pity. If her dreams had summoned one, that would have made a fine story. She sipped from her canteen, scrounged for edible berries, and wondered how long she’d have to wait.
Oh, Faelyn was right; she was too impatient. One day and she was ready to give up? But as she watched the road, her boredom grew. Maybe her mother had made a mistake, and the humans were already gone. A sad thought. No, she wouldn’t accept that the humans had disappeared with no one to mark their passing. She’d look harder.
The day stretched on as she walked along the tree line, and still no humans. Should she leave the forest? Too dangerous. After all her practice, she could now shroud while moving, even running, as long as her thoughts stayed…excitable, but while her mother might forgive a trip to the border, she wouldn’t excuse a foray into human territory.
Afternoon turned into evening again, and Lilani groaned. She was tired of eating berries, but if she started home now, it’d be dark before she arrived. Better to sleep outside again than spend hours tripping over every clump of brambles in the forest. In the morning, she’d return to the Court in defeat, then she’d press her mother to send scouts to determine if the humans were still alive, and she had all night to think of an argument as to why she should be one of the scouts.
Vandra and the twins left Saribelle at dawn. A bath and a night in a bed had made Vandra’s step lighter. They had one more night of camping between them and the pylons, but they’d spend it at the Seelie Forest. Then they’d turn full north, following the road that led along the massive woods all the way to the pylon.
In the distance, Vandra spotted the lone mountain rising up within the forest, though she couldn’t yet make out the dark wall of trees. “Maybe we’ll see a seelie.”
Fieta hitched her shoulders. “I hope not.”
“It’d be interesting,” Pietyr said.
Fieta snorted. “Until it kills us.”
“Kills you, maybe.”
They fell to bickering. Vandra sighed. If any seelie were about, they’d be hidden and would no doubt run away from the twins’ childish arguments. There were very few scientific accounts of the seelie, though Vandra heard many “stories.” Many histories of human/seelie interactions were lost to the tattered lands. Books hadn’t been a priority to those running for their lives, but Vandra never thought of all those abandoned libraries without a sigh of regret. Many claimed that Parbeh had been the seat of human learning long before the tattered lands, but Vandra didn’t know how much of that was true and how much was local pride.
If she could perfect her syndrium formula, maybe the tattered lands could be pushed back by a line of mobile pylons, and all that knowledge could be reclaimed. A wonderful thought, but she made herself put it away. One quest at a time.
As evening fell, they reached the Seelie Forest. The road here had been well traveled once upon a time. Now weeds grew between the paving stones, making the surface uneven, but it was still easier to walk on than the bare countryside. Opposite the forest, the land lay bleak and barren, dotted with the occasional clump of bushes or lonely stand of trees. Even with so few places to settle, no one lived here, not with the Seelie Forest and every story that haunted it.
“Should we camp on the road?” Fieta asked softly.
“Too vulnerable,” Pietyr said. “According to the stories, if we stay just inside the trees, we should be fine. No need to be afraid.”
She rounded on him. “Who’s afraid?”
“Hush,” Vandra said.
Fieta muttered, and Pietyr grinned before their expressions turned serious. They were probably thinking of their grandmama’s tales about people who’d gone far into the forest and disappeared for hours. When they’d returned, they’d told stories of invisible attackers destroying equipment and handing out broken bones as warnings. Vandra thought it a perfect way to send a message to keep out while not angering the humans to the point of invasion.
The twins set up camp inside the trees, out of sight of the road. “I wonder if the seelie know anything about the pylons,” Pietyr said as he stared into the woods. “If they can’t die, then they were alive for the pylons’ creation.”
“You could go ask.” Fieta gave him a light push. He ignored her.
“It’s a shame they won’t talk to us,” Vandra said as she dug out a small pit for the fire. “I’d like to know if everything we’ve heard about them is truth or myth.”
Fieta cracked her knuckles. “Like if they’re exceptional fighters.”
“Or exquisitely beautiful,” Pietyr said.
Fieta cocked her head as if that idea intrigued her more. “Or both!”
Vandra chuckled. “Your dream lover.”
“Anyone can be a dream for an evening,” Fieta said with a wink.
Pietyr groaned, and Vandra laughed. If the seelie were watching, she doubted they’d appear simply to provide Fieta with pleasant dreams, euphemistically or not.
Vandra built a campfire, and everyone ate dinner quietly. Once full, Vandra stared into the flames and let them hypnotize her, going through her formula again. When she kept making mistakes, she realized she couldn’t keep her eyes open.
Lilani was searching for a comfortable place to sleep when she spotted an orange glow through the trees. She crouched and wrapped her magic around her, shrouding. No seelie would light a fire this close to the human border. That meant…
Her heart pounded, her mouth going dry. Humans at last!
She tiptoed onward, holding her shroud and watching her step. The humans had made camp next to a downed log and a clump of bracken. She couldn’t see them clearly, and she wouldn’t be able to get close without pushing through the brush and making noise.
At least on the ground.
After moving under a sturdy branch, Lilani leapt and caught hold easily, pulling herself up without a sound. Thank the elders she’d had so much practice hiding from teachers. With her heart pounding, she edged forward until she could get a better look at the three humans crowded around their fire.
All three drowsed, heads bobbing. They’d built their fire so it wouldn’t spread if they fell asleep: a cautious act that proved they weren’t thoughtless ruffians. Their dark skin seemed a few shades deeper than hers, and their hair was as black as obsidian. It lay still around their shoulders, unmoving without magic.
They seemed…quieter than seelie, duller, like the earth rather than the sky.
The smallest was already asleep. A female, if Lilani was reading the subtle planes of her face and the curves of her body correctly. Humans and seelie were alike in that regard, or so she’d read. The taller two leaned close together, occasionally talking softly. With her eyes closed, the small female smiled, and Lilani couldn’t help wondering if she dreamed of a lover’s touch.
Lilani chuckled at herself. She needed more hobbies.
When the larger humans stood, Lilani froze, but they only prodded the small female into the tent. After putting out the fire, they joined her, and it wasn’t long before all of them snored softly.
Lilani swung down from her branch and stepped close to the tent. From the light of dying embers, she saw that they’d taken all their belongings in with them. She frowned. So much for a chance at snooping. Maybe in the morning, they’d leave something behind. She backed away slowly, holding her shroud as she crept through the brush, making as little noise as she could. When she was far enough away, she let her magic settle and pressed a hand to her abdomen. The cramps were back. Fear and adrenaline couldn’t keep them down forever. She let out a long breath and leaned against a tree.
When a touch grazed her back, she leapt, her magic snapping around her. She grabbed the nearest branch and pulled herself up. Terrified, she looked down, expecting to see a surprised human, but Faelyn stood there instead.
His blond hair caught the moonlight as he cocked his head. “I’m beginning to wish I was a worse teacher,” he whispered. “You’re too good at shrouding now.”
Lilani had to calm her thundering heart before she could speak. “You scared the life out of me!”
“I’ve been tracking you.” He shook his head and climbed up beside her. “When I told you to practice shrouding, following humans isn’t what I meant.”
She licked her lips. “I was curious. I’m the heir; I should know our neighbors.”
His bland look said he was unimpressed with the explanation and the haughty grace she tried to adopt. “Well, now you’ve seen them. Home is that way.”
“I don’t want to walk home in the dark.” She turned from his stare but could still feel it.
“You just want to get a look at them in the daylight.”
Did he know about the pylons, about the possibility of human extinction? Would her mother want it known? It couldn’t stay secret forever.
“Lilani,” he said, a warning.
Her temper flared. “I’m being careful. Besides, you can’t drag me back, Faelyn.”
“Your mother does not want our people consorting with humans.”
“Do you see any consorting?”
He rubbed his forehead. “Why do you insist on pushing the boundaries of every rule?”
Lilani waved a hand as if scattering his words to the night. “My mother will want to know what these humans are doing so close to our home.”
“We’ll tell her that they’re currently sleeping. Then she can send scouts to watch them.”
“A waste of time. I’m already here.”
He ground his teeth, the sound carrying as if he chewed rocks. She’d never pushed him this hard before. “Please, Lilani. Everything you need to know about humans you can find in the library. Isn’t that where you’d rather be, hmm? Among the books? Maybe with a little wine?”
She chuckled. “You’re cute when you try to relate to the youngsters.”
He glared, but after a few moments, he finally sighed. “We can stay until dawn. Just.”
She shrugged and settled, making herself comfortable. If he wanted to have a new argument in the morning, that was fine with her.
Vandra awoke before Fieta and Pietyr. Her first thought was to shake them so they could get walking, but it was barely light outside. Better that they rest a little longer. She crept out of the tent, taking one of the packs. She needed to check her equipment and should have done it before falling asleep, but if any gods were lurking the night before, they’d neglected to remind her.
She shivered in the morning air and pulled on a long jacket. With a few quick movements, she unloaded her equipment and arranged it on the forest floor. Her chemicals and powders stayed safe in bottles and jars that were wrapped in cloth and set in leather cases. She pulled out the short-range meter she’d built for detecting syndrium. Only seven inches long, and four wide, the wooden device fit easily in her hand. She twisted the magnets lining the side and made sure the compass in one end read true north. Then she opened a slot that held a tiny ball of syndrium. It rolled along a channel, bouncing between the magnets. With no other syndrium nearby, she expected the compass to stay on north, but as the syndrium ball moved slowly down the slot, the compass needle swung toward the west.
Frowning, Vandra glanced in that direction. The nearest mountain was deep inside the forest, and she was too far from the pylons for this particular detector. A malfunction? She reset the syndrium in its housing and started over, hoping nothing was broken. When she tested it again, the compass rested on true north, and the syndrium ball waited in the middle. She slowly counted to ten, cursing when the same movement happened as before. She shifted the detector slowly, and the needle moved with it. There had to be syndrium nearby.
Vandra took a few steps into the trees, peering into the gloom. She took another reading. Syndrium wasn’t normally just lying on the ground, and in the dim light, she couldn’t see any silvery-blue gleam. She prayed to any nearby gods to guide her and took another few steps. When the needle began to turn, she stopped. She had to be close; the detector couldn’t read far underground. Vandra crouched, searching for jutting pieces of stone. Nothing. Just the roots of a large tree. She put a hand on the trunk. It seemed like a normal tree, maybe an oak. She was good with minerals, some herbs, but trees were not her specialty. She didknow they couldn’t lift syndrium any more than syndrium could climb. She snorted and started to look up into the branches, but someone grabbed her shoulder.
Vandra whipped around, barely keeping in a cry of surprise. Pietyr put a finger to his lips, his eyes wide in warning. After a glance around, he pulled her back to camp. Fieta crouched among the undergrowth, her spear ready as she scanned the quiet forest.
“What’s going on?” Vandra whispered. “I detected syndrium out there!”
“Whatever you found, forget it,” Fieta said. “You were too far inside.”
Vandra looked again. “How can you tell?”
Pietyr shuddered. “I can feel it.”
Fieta nodded. Vandra looked between them but couldn’t argue. Their instincts for danger were better than hers. And if there were seelie nearby, watching, maybe they used syndrium, and that was what she’d detected. She squinted into the trees, trying to see the oak through the soft light, but the twins pulled her into helping break camp. Even when they were out of the forest, the twins cast glances at the trees as they hurried down the road.
Vandra had to jog to keep up. She couldn’t help glancing at the forest and wondering what unnerved them so. If she only had more time to study!
She sighed. There was never enough time to study. But that didn’t mean they had to run all the way to the pylons. “Surely we’re far enough away to slow down?”
They slowed and seemed to breathe easier after a few more minutes. After setting a brisk but not impossible pace, they even seemed their normal selves again, but Vandra couldn’t stop thinking of the unseen syndrium. Maybe the seelie did know something of the pylons if they had syndrium just lying around in their forest. She took out her notebook and jotted a reminder to mention that to Ariadne. Maybe the assembly had an idea about how to contact the seelie. With the future of the pylons at stake, no step seemed too far.
Lilani had opened her eyes when Faelyn gripped her shoulder. It took a moment to remember what they were doing in a tree in the middle of the forest, then she noticed a shimmer in the air where Faelyn should have been. He’d shrouded.
She had blinked and looked down. One of the humans had wandered beneath their tree. Her gray coat rustled softly as she took a small step, her eyes fixed on the device in her hands. Long black hair fell around her shoulders, tousled from sleep. Endearing, even sexy.
She swung the device this way and that but seemed fixated on Lilani’s tree or possibly on those hiding in its branches. Lilani fumbled for her power, but it felt sluggish, sleepy, as if she’d overused it the night before, or maybe it was tired of responding to her terror. The human’s head angled up. Faelyn’s grip tightened, and Lilani wondered if he was readying the knife he kept at his belt. She couldn’t let him…
Another human had grabbed this one’s arm, making her jump, nearly making Lilani jump, too. They’d hustled back to their camp, and Lilani breathed out slowly. After the humans hurried from the trees, Faelyn faded back into sight, glaring.
Lilani blushed. “I tried to shroud.”
He didn’t lose his scowl as he climbed down.
She followed. “Did you see that device?”
“I couldn’t miss it. It seemed to be leading that human right to us.”
“A seelie detector?”
“I don’t know. Please, Lilani, go home.”
He sounded so earnest that she nodded. She took a step, but when he didn’t follow, she turned. “Well?”
“I’m going to follow them,” he said, “see if they enter the forest again. Maybe I can get a better look at that device.”
“You can’t go alone!”
He sighed and seemed more tired than she’d ever seen. Before he could argue, she put her hands on his shoulders.
“I’m not being selfish,” she said. “It’s too dangerous to go alone.”
“Lilani, if you can’t shroud when—”
“I can.” Her power rose, and she shrouded quickly. “I won’t fail again, and I know how important it is to find out if humans are going to start hunting us or…whatever.” She tried a weak smile. “If worse comes to worst, I can stall the humans while you run for reinforcements.”
He winced, reminding her how hard her death would be on the seelie. She was the heir and the youngest. But nothing about the human woman had screamed threat. She had no weapon. If she’d come hunting, she would have brought something sharp, and she wouldn’t have wandered from camp without her armed companions.
Before Faelyn could present another argument, Lilani ran, following the humans’ direction but staying inside the forest, never doubting that she’d find them soon enough.