The forest whispered to Cirelle.
She ignored it, of course. Only a fool would respond to the distant hissing of her name, the half-heard snatches of melody. Though the susurrus of voices was nothing new, a lump of dread still knotted her stomach. Cirelle had never been to the forest after dark, nor had she ever left the safety of the enchanted paths.
Her hands shook as she carefully arranged the offerings before her: a delicate music box and an ancient statuette that tingled with faerie magic, its enchantment long since lost to human memory. On the stolen napkin, a berry scone rested beside the latest bottle of expensive brandy Cirelle had pilfered from the palace’s cellar. A cut crystal glass scattered the faint starlight.
She twisted Briere’s ring on her finger. It was a simple thing, a band of silver with a small, glossy oval of polished amber. Something that wouldn’t attract too much attention. Cirelle’s heart ached as she slipped it from her finger. The stone was the color of Briere’s eyes in sunlight, the color of honey. A nameday gift, the last one exchanged between them before Briere’s marriage. But faerie rules demanded a sacrifice for the summoning, an object of emotional importance.
“I’m sorry, Briere,” she murmured softly.
Cirelle placed the ring on the corner of the napkin and stood, scrubbing her itchy, watery eyes. Toadstools encircled her, the ground still damp from the brief spring shower. The air smelled of loam and earth and moss. She tilted her head back and her eyes sought out Marya’s constellation through a hole in the canopy. The Diplomat.
Divine Marya, if you’re up there, if you’re watching, please help this work.
Cirelle looked to her guard. Lydia stood at the edge of the clearing, eyes scanning the trees with every strange rustle or far-off giggle.
“I must ask,” Cirelle said, “why did you come out here instead of dragging me back into the palace?”
Lydia shifted her weight from one leg to the other. “Your Highness… do you remember that I had a cousin in Greenriver?”
A small tremor of dread shivered in Cirelle’s stomach. Greenriver was a mid-sized city along the border to the southern coastal kingdom of Asheir, a center of trade along the river. It was also where the plague had first come to Arraven.
“She was a chandler,” Lydia continued. “Had a wife and a son. They always asked me to come visit, but I was too busy here.” Her voice hitched. “They were gone before I knew they were sick.” Lydia’s voice was a hoarse murmur. “It has to stop, Your Highness. Even if this is a fool’s errand, we need to try.”
Tears stung Cirelle’s eyes. “I’m sorry.” There was little more to add to that, and it was time. Straightening her shoulders, she called softly to the night sky. “Ellian, I summon thee. Ellian, I summon thee.” She paused, taking a deep breath before the third repetition. “Ellian, I summon thee.”
Cirelle bit her lip as her heart thudded in her ears like heavy drumbeats. Ellian, a sidhe. Her books had mentioned his name as a faerie willing to bargain with humans. Her fingers and toes tingled. She couldn’t decide whether she wanted to cower or toss her head back and laugh at the thrill of it.
Metal scraped as Lydia readied a blade.
“No,” Cirelle chided her gently. “We don’t want to give offense.” If a human insulted a faerie, retaliation was certain.
“Yes, Your Highness.” A soft click sounded as the blade’s hilt settled against the sheath.
“Good advice,” a husky, rumbling voice said.
Cirelle startled and turned toward the sound. Stars, it actually worked.
The faerie’s movements were too fluid to be human. He was tall and long-limbed in elegant lines that reminded her of fine-boned racehorses. A sidhe, one of the more humanlike races of the fae, but still wondrously strange. A great weight of magic clung to him, making the air heavy and close. Her skin prickled all over.
She lifted her chin to meet his silver eyes. Two dark brows swept over them like a hawk’s outspread wings. He could have been a sculpture carved of cool gray stone, all sharpness and edges, softened only by the curve of his full mouth. His skin bore the colorless hue of damp ashes. Pointed ears peeked out from long, dark curls, with shining silver hoops at their tips.
The faerie stepped over the toadstools to stand within the ring. Cirelle was forced to crane her neck upward to look him in the eye or else stare at his improperly exposed chest, his open shirt barely covering half of it. His tall boots were strangest of all, the dark leather barely visible beneath a network of filigreed silver metal pieces that made a soft tinkling noise like bells.
He regarded her for a few heartbeats, then knelt in one smooth motion to examine the array of bribes.
“Lord Ellian, I have brought these offerings to open negotiations between us.” Cirelle tried not to let her voice tremble. Steady now. Just pretend you’re meeting a foreign ambassador. Never mind that she’d skipped or failed most of her lessons on diplomacy. “For the sake of hearing my plea and entertaining my request, they are yours.”
The faerie’s mouth quirked upward on one side. He picked up Briere’s ring, turning it about to admire the gemstone. “Who gave this to you?”
Cirelle cast a guilty glance at Lydia before she admitted, “My first beloved.” Her deepest secret, one she’d never dared utter aloud.
The faerie peered into the amber, then nodded. Though his hands were already laden with an assortment of rings, he slipped the new one onto the first knuckle of a finger and returned to the rest of the items.
His hands danced over the other offerings before plucking up the tiny carved figure. Made of yellowed stone, the small woman spun merrily, her skirts whirling. He slipped the figurine into a pouch on his belt, then selected the music box and turned the crank. His eyes closed, and he tilted his head to enjoy the lilting melody that emerged in bright, silvery tones. With a nod, this piece went into the pouch as well. In a liquid movement, he folded his legs and settled himself down on the forest floor.
“I shall hear your request,” he said, his voice low and cultured, the timbre of it like velvet brushed the wrong way. He poured the brandy into the glass and held it in one hand while picking up the scone with the other.
It seemed odd to stand while Ellian sat and ate, but he had not motioned her to take a seat. So, Cirelle remained where she was. “My people are dying.”
“An unfortunate consequence of mortality,” he pointed out before she could continue. He took a dainty bite of the scone.
Anger spiked. Cirelle bit her lip to hold back a retort. She went on, continuing the speech she’d cobbled together since they’d slipped from the palace a scant hour or so ago. “A plague threatens our land. I ask for a cure, a way to stop the pox from driving my kingdom to ruin.”
“Your kingdom?” Ellian sipped the brandy. “Who are you, to make this claim?”
She straightened. “I am Cirelle telArraven, princess of the kingdom of Arraven. These are my people, and I come prepared to strike the bargain that will save them.” And save both Aidan and Briere. The thought of two people she loved lying in quarantine, feverish and hurting, left her knees weak.
The faerie arched an eyebrow, but otherwise did not startle. His eyes raked up and down Cirelle’s body, and she was suddenly all too conscious of her trousers snagged with burrs, the plain woolen cloak, the heavy boots. Doubt was written clearly on his face, and his voice dripped with skepticism. “Truly?”
“On my honor, I swear it.” Cirelle lifted her chin, glaring down into those unsettling metallic eyes without flinching. She may have looked a mess, but the disdainful note on his voice pricked her pride nonetheless. A sharp note entered her voice. “If you wished me to greet you in silks and a tiara, then perhaps you shouldn’t require a summons in the middle of the woods.”
Contrary to taking offense, a shadow of a smile flickered across his lips. “Indeed. A princess… It seems I could ask a hefty price, if the weight of a kingdom’s treasury is prepared to bargain with me.”
Ellian delicately licked the last of the sticky honey glaze from his fingers. He took his time about it while he met her gaze with darkened eyes. Something uneasy fluttered in her stomach. When he was done, the faerie sipped the brandy. “You brought quality gifts to open the bargaining. So yes, I do possess what you request.” His free hand pulled something from his pouch. A glimmering spike, perhaps as thick as Cirelle’s thumb at the base and tapering to a fine point at the tip. It shimmered opalescent white in the faint starlight, a spiral of ridges curling around its surface. There was no possible way its length could have fit in the pouch on his belt.
“A unicorn’s horn. Dip this into water and anyone who drinks it will be cured of illness.”
Cirelle’s heart pounded heavily in her chest. This was the key. It could save them all, including Aidan.
Her breath hitched on her response. “What do you ask in return?” It could bankrupt her kingdom if he asked for gold. In some stories, fae requested firstborn children in exchange for a bargain. Could she give him that, a future prince or princess to be raised by faeries?
“I assume you read and write well enough in the human Trade tongue?” He swirled the brandy in the glass. The question was asked in flawless, unaccented Trade, though he’d been speaking Arravene this entire time.
Fear and frustration warred within her. “Yes,” she responded in Trade. Her courtesy slipped again beneath the pressure of her familiar, infamous temper. “What does this have to do with anything? Tell me, what do you want in exchange for the horn?”
His lips curled into a thin smile. “You.” He took another sip of the brandy. “I think a princess would do nicely for the bargain.”
“What?” Cirelle’s blood ran cold.
“No,” Lydia said at the same time.
“One year of your life, to be precise. I find myself soon to be bereft of my personal servant, and I rather enjoy the idea of a human princess for a new one.” He tossed her a languid grin. “If you consent to return to Faerie with me and reside there until one year of your life has passed, I will give this unicorn horn to your guard. You will go with me tonight, immediately.”
Cirelle swallowed hard.
How would this affect her betrothal? Will Rhine wait for me? He’d promised her his love, after all, in soft whispers on moonlit walks. A year was a long time. Would she lose him forever if his family gave up on her and forged another alliance elsewhere?
Part of her ached for the fledgling thing that had begun to grow between them, snuffed out before it could truly begin.
Were Aidan and Briere’s lives worth it? Or stopping the plague?
Yes. Even if it meant abandoning her world for a year.
Faerie. A world drenched in mystery and magic, inhabited with beings as beautiful as they were deadly.
A frisson trickled down her spine. A shudder of fear or a spike of excitement? The thrill of danger had always sung to her, a whispering voice that pushed her to take risks a princess shouldn’t. And this would be the greatest one.
She spoke carefully. “The unicorn horn is to be given to my guard, Lydia. In exchange, I offer one year of my servitude.”
“Your Highness.” Lydia’s plea sliced through the air. “You can’t do this. It’s madness.” She paused, her voice fading to a near-whisper. “Let me go instead.”
“I didn’t ask for you,” the faerie told Lydia. Those eyes met Cirelle’s, deadly serious and painfully piercing. “It’s the princess or nothing.”
Cirelle swallowed. “I’m sorry, Lydia. I have to. You said it yourself. This plague has to stop.” Before her courage could falter, she nodded to the faerie. “Agreed.” A small shiver rippled through the air, as if a bell had been rung.
“No!” Lydia exclaimed behind her, but the deed was already done. The faerie nodded and tossed the horn in the woman’s direction. It fell into the grass at Lydia’s feet with a soft thud. The guard bent to pick it up, fist clenched tightly around the shimmering spiral. Her eyes met Cirelle’s with tears glimmering in a grim, determined stare.
Ellian was just finishing off the last of the brandy bottle. That much alcohol—especially in such a short time—would have left Cirelle swaying on her feet, but he seemed no less sober than when they’d first met. He tossed back the last swallow of amber liquid and slipped the crystal glass into his pouch where he’d placed the other gifts. It, too, didn’t make a bulge in the bag.
He stood in a single graceful movement, like a marionette pulled upward on strings, and extended a hand to her.
“No,” Lydia growled, holding the horn in one hand and drawing a blade with the other. “The price is too high.” She advanced a step.
Panic sparked. “Lydia!” Cirelle snapped. “Would you let your prince die? Or so many of our people?”
The soldier’s voice cracked. “I should never have let you come out here, Your Highness.” She took a step forward, tracks of tears painting silvery lines on her cheeks. Lydia was going to get herself killed or cursed.
Cirelle gritted her teeth and took the faerie’s hand, ignoring the frantic pounding in her chest. Don’t think, don’t think, don’t think. Just go. “Let’s go. I’m ready.” A lie.
Ellian hadn’t even flinched at Lydia’s approaching threat.
Cirelle gripped his hand so tightly she could feel the bones beneath his skin.
The soldier lifted her blades and charged.
“No!” Cirelle shouted as the faerie raised his free hand before him. One of his rings, set with a vibrant emerald, bathed his hand in an eerie green glow.
Lydia screamed, collapsed to the forest floor, and vanished. Gone in the blink of an eye, along with the horn that would save Arraven.
Cirelle dropped the faerie’s hand as if it burned her. “No!” The word tore its way from her throat as she rushed forward to the spot where Lydia had been, only to find emptiness. Anger and horror roiled in her gut, and tears spilled free. “What did you do?” she snapped at the sidhe. “Is she—” her tongue tangled on the word, coming out thick. “Is she dead?”
“She drew a blade on me. I defended myself.”
Grief and terror washed over Cirelle in drowning waves. She barely felt it when the faerie strode toward her and snatched her hand. “I gave her the horn, as promised. Our bargain holds.”
Cirelle felt raw, numb, just as she had when Aidan had collapsed. She wanted to claw bloody furrows into the faerie’s skin, to scratch out his eyes. But then she’d be blinked out of existence in a moment, too.
Lydia. She hiccupped out a sob.
What did the disappearance of the cure mean for Aidan? For Briere and her child?
The faerie’s skin burned hot, his long, slim fingers tightening about Cirelle’s. Her heart thudded wildly against her ribs.
“Hold tightly,” Ellian admonished her. The forest dimmed, shapes swirling into fog, and they left her world behind.
To Be Continued…
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