I wait until we have to stop and let the horse rest. After rinsing my face in the stream, I tell Bertram I have to relieve myself so I can get rid of him for a while. Then, when he disappears, I say a silent prayer and remove the lily from my reticule.
“Come to me, Lysander,” I whisper.
For a second, nothing happens. Damn. Lady Gregory lied. Or maybe Lysander found himself another girl. Or maybe…
The world shimmers and fades. Nausea sweeps over me. It feels like being sucked down a black hole. Not that I have any personal experience, but my imagination has taken over the rational side of my brain. Then, like ripples fading away on the surface, things return to focus.
Wow. The lake is gone. I’m in this huge forest that looks well, magical. Silver leaves and golden trunks form the forest. Quaint yellow houses are built into the trees; I look for stairs but there aren’t any visible to the eye. Maybe the fairies can fly like Krev. Numerous lamps swing from the boughs. Wow, I’m in a dream within a dream. It’s so like Inception, so surreal.
Leaves crackle behind me, signaling someone is heading my way. I scramble up and turn around.
“Legolas,” I breathe.
The man in front of me has features so perfect, so symmetrical that he can’t be human. Like a mathematician calculated the ideal proportions of a human face and a Creator designed this man according to the results. Edward’s the hottest man I’ve seen, but I know he’s human. This man with translucent skin and silver eyes and pointed ears—definitely not.
“My name is Lysander.” The silver eyes narrow into slits. “Who are you, human? Why do you have my lily in your possession? Where is Margaret?”
A powerful force lifts me off my feet. I hover a few feet above the ground, the same force suspending me through an iron-like grip on my waist. “Lady Gregory—she gave me this lily—so I could find you.”
The invisible grip vanishes. I fall on the ground—my kneecaps hit hard earth. I rub my bruised knees and wonder what Lady Gregory sees in him. Okay, so he’s out-of-the-world beautiful, but what kind of greeting is this?
“My apologies,” Legolas—I mean, Lysander, says. “A friend of Margaret’s is a friend of the fae.” He looks down; his eyelashes cast a shadow on his eyes. “She is still unwilling to come back to me?”
His voice is low, but I sense an undertone of angst in it. For a second I feel sorry for him, but then I can’t blame Lady Gregory. He doesn’t look more than twenty-five. Not to mention that insane, ethereal beauty.
I fish the crocheted heart from my reticule. “She sends you a gift she made herself.”
The crochet flies from my hands. I’m impressed. If the fae are normally this powerful, I’ll have no trouble with fulfilling the mission. If they’re willing to help, that is.
Lysander catches the crochet. I dart a glance at him. For a second, something glistens in his eye, then it’s gone.
I hesitate. I’m not sure what I should say. If I say she’s doing great, maybe he’ll be hurt she’s fine without him. But if I say no, she’s still pining for him…I can’t even imagine the consequences.
“She’s fine,” I say. After all, he loved her well enough to let her go. “She keeps busy and productive, she’s in a crochet society and she goes out now and then. I met her at a party, actually.”
“She hasn’t married?”
“No. Everyone knows her as an old maid. How about you? Did you marry?”
He glares, which is kind of scary with those silver eyes. “You insult me, human. In our culture, marriage is for a lifetime. We do not practice human vices such as adultery, polygamy, or divorce.”
That’s because you know nothing about humans. What if the husband is abusive or takes drugs? What if the wife is an alcoholic? Still, I’ve got to give him props for being so single-minded.
“Human,” Lysander says, his tone still icy-cold, “if you have no further message from Margaret, then you may leave.”
“Wait!” I quickly say, before he ejects me from the fae world with his crazy magic. “I’m not done yet. My name is Katriona Bradshaw; I’m the stepdaughter of Earl Bradshaw. I would like to ask you—”
Lysander’s face goes paler; I didn’t think it was possible. Without a word, he disappears—or rather—glides away so fast that I don’t have time to ask him where he’s going.
Talk about hospitality. I’m tempted to wander around, but there’s a palpable vibe of magic humming in the air. What if I touch a tree trunk and get turned into a squirrel?
In the blink of an eye, Lysander returns with a female fairy trailing after him. She’s much shorter, probably even shorter than I am, and she’s adorable with cheeks that haven’t lost baby fat. Lysander’s too perfect for human standards. This fairy, however, has this girl-next-door look. She’s pretty but she isn’t beauty-contest material. Not all fairies are born equal, I guess.
When she sees me, her forehead puckers and she lets out a high-pitched squeal.
“Oh my! Oh my! You’re the other daughter! Oh my, you have grown so big.”
I stare at her with all my might, but I have no idea who she is. Not even an inkling. “You know who I am?”
She nods and comes closer. “Red hair and freckles, so different from your sister. You look more like your father.”
She recognizes Bianca and I. I wonder how much she knows about Elle.
“Pardon me,” I say, keeping my tone extremely polite and respectful. “Do you also know Earl Bradshaw’s own daughter?”
“Unquestionably she does,” Lysander says curtly. “Meg prevented the earl’s daughter from being drowned by your mother’s servant.”
My hand flies to my throat. What Martha told me runs through my head. “But…how?”
“Fifteen years ago, Meg was trying to gather lightning from a storm for an unusual spell, when the earl’s carriage came by.”
“Lightning? Can’t you gather lightning here?”
“No. Extreme weather conditions do not exist in our land. It is eternal spring here.” Lysander’s voice turns bitter. “Margaret complained it was too idyllic.”
Meg hangs her head. “It was an accident! I didn’t mean to…but oh, the spell backfired. I meant to absorb the lightning with my wand, but it veered off course and struck the carriage.”
Lysander crosses his arms. “Meg seldom casts a spell without some mishap.”
“I’ve been trying!” She cries indignantly. “But it’s not my fault that I’m only a half-ling.”
“What’s a half-ling?”
Lysander’s mouth curves. “Have you not guessed already? She is my daughter. Margaret and I decided it would be safer for her to stay with my people.”
I gasp. So that’s why Meg’s features are more flawed, more human, compared to her father. So that’s why the fairy godmother never turned up for Cinderella. Because she lives in another realm.
“The earl took the brunt of the force,” Meg went on, sniffing. “It was too late to save him. But when I realized the terrible mistake I had made, I managed to transport you girls to the nearest cottage. Later, when I went to make sure you were all right, I overheard the widowed lady telling her servant to take the earl’s daughter on pretense of a walk, and drown her in the river. I couldn’t let that happen—especially not when her father’s death was partly my fault.”
A chill runs down my spine. “Because Elle is the sole inheritor of her father’s fortune?”
Meg nods. “When the servant took the girl to the river and tried to push her in, I intervened. I appeared before him and told him that the girl was under my protection. The servant pleaded with me—he said he couldn’t disobey his mistress, and he had a family to provide for. So I created a dummy corpse. It’s so hard to make an object or person out of thin air, so I used a few twigs as a base.” Meg casts a sheepish look at her father. “I created an illusion that could fool human sight and touch for a day. I made that servant swear an oath that he would bring the little girl to safety. He had a friend in the capital called Thatcher, who always wanted a child.”
The pieces of the puzzle are falling into place now. So Elle really is the earl’s daughter. She can marry the prince!
“So you’re not Elle’s godmother,” I say. “When Lady Bradshaw tried to drown her, you were only trying to amend your mistake.”
“Although we are superior to humans, we do not view humans like ants to be trampled on,” Lysander says coldly.
“But you only stayed around long enough to make sure Elle survived,” I say. “Did you know that Thatcher died and left his family impoverished? Are you aware that Elle never knew she was the daughter of the earl? Did you know she came to work as a servant under her own stepmother, who has usurped what rightfully belongs to her?”
Lysander raises his eyebrows. “You also benefit from the inheritance.”
I wave it off. I’m exhausted from the traveling, and all I want to do is get back to the capital ASAP.
“I feel sorry for Elle,” I say, trying to steer the conversation into the right direction. “There’s a ball soon to be held at the palace. She confided in me that she really wanted to go to the ball, but she can’t go because she’s a servant. Can you lend me a hand?”
Meg jumps up and tugs on her father’s arm. “Please, mayn’t I go? It’s so long since you let me venture into the human world. I promise I’ll behave, I will! And I so want to see Mother.”
Lysander crosses his arms over his chest. “But your magic is still faulty. Nothing you create can last permanently.”
“That’s what I need,” I say eagerly. “Everything must disappear by midnight. Except the slippers.”
I grip the sides of the seat as the carriage speeds up, bumping up and down over the uneven road. Now that the mission he knew about is accomplished, Bertram is eager to return to the capital.
I open my reticule (it’s getting worn and dirty by now). There’s this mirror I got from Meg. After running through the spells we needed, Lysander told me the spell di amor would require a few days’ preparation. In the meantime, we’ll communicate through the mirror—kind of like the mirror Belle uses in the Disney movie. Actually, I’m sort of relieved Meg isn’t traveling with me, because I don’t know how I would keep Bertram from discovering her. Meg could perform an invisibility trick, but she admits she has trouble keeping herself completely invisible.
“Sometimes my head shows, and other times it’s my feet,” she confesses. Ew. Definitely don’t want that to happen.
I’m still in shock that my mission went so well. Poppy is happily married to Mr. Davenport, Lady Gregory’s crochet heart is safely delivered to her fairy husband, and now the fairy godmother has agreed to get Elle to the ball. Just a step further. All that’s left is the ball, and I’ll be home.
Home. Mom’s face, beautiful but too often worn down with a frown, as she tries to balance the household budget. Paige, freckle-free and insanely adorable, begging me for a bedtime story or imitating cartoon characters in front of the TV. And school…I never thought I’d miss school, but I do. And goofing off with my friends at the mall—even the boring old mall is awesome, compared to the 19th century style shops in Athelia.
Then I remember Edward, and a lump forms in my throat. I can still feel his arms around me, the heat and softness of his lips, his eyes brimming with love and longing.
He’s only a storybook character, I try to convince myself. It doesn’t mean anything.