“I did not.” Oberon’s look was pitiless, unrepentant. “What do I care for human rituals? I need no permission to take what I want. Besides, had she been truly happy, I would not have been able to sway her.”
Bastard. I bit my tongue to keep the angry word from coming out. Furious as I might be, I wasn’t suicidal. But Oberon’s gaze sharpened, as if he knew what I was thinking. He gave me a long, level stare, challenging me to defy him. We glared at each other for several heartbeats, the shadows curling around us, as I struggled to keep my gaze steady. It was no use; staring at Oberon was like facing down an approaching tornado. I shivered and dropped my eyes first.
After a moment, Oberon’s face softened, and a faint smile curled his lips. “You are a lot like her, daughter,” he continued, his voice split between pride and resignation. “Your mother was a remarkable mortal. If she had been fey, her paintings would have come to life, so much care was put into them. When I watched her at the park, I sensed her longing, her loneliness and isolation. She wanted more from her life than what she was getting. She wanted something extraordinary to happen.”
I didn’t want to hear this. I didn’t want anything ruining my perfect memory of our life before. I wanted to keep believing that my mom loved my dad, that we were happy and content, and she was his whole life. I didn’t want to hear about a mother who was lonely, who fell prey to faery tricks and glamour. With one casual statement, my past had shattered into an unfamiliar mess, and I felt I didn’t know my mother at all.
“I waited a month before I made myself known to her,” Oberon went on, oblivious to my torment. I slumped against the bed as he continued. “I grew to know her habits, her emotions, every inch of her. And when I did reveal myself, I showed her only a glimpse of my true nature, curious to see if she would approach the extraordinary, or if she would cling to her mortal disbelief. She accepted me eagerly, with unrestrained joy, as if she had been waiting for me all along.”
“Stop,” I choked. My stomach churned; I closed my eyes to avoid being sick. “I don’t want to hear this. Where was my dad when all this was happening?”
“Your mother’s husband was away most nights,” Oberon replied, putting emphasis on those two words, to remind me that man was not my father. “Perhaps that was why your mother yearned for something more. I gave her that; one night of magic, of the passion she was missing. Just one, before I returned to Arcadia, and the memory of us faded from her mind.”
“She doesn’t remember you?” I looked up at him. “Is that why she never told me?”
Oberon nodded. “Mortals tend to forget their encounters with our kind,” he said softly. “At best, it seems like a vivid dream. Most times, we fade from memory completely. Surely you’ve noticed this. How even the people you live with, who see you every day, cannot seem to remember you. Though, I always suspected your mother knew more, remembered more, than she let on. Especially after you were born.” A dark tone crept into his voice; his slanted eyes turned black and pupilless. I trembled as the shadow crept over the floor, reaching for me with pointed fingers. “She tried to take you away,” he said in a terrible voice. “She wanted to hide you from us. From me.” Oberon paused, looking utterly inhuman, though he hadn’t moved. The fire leaped in the hearth, dancing madly in the eyes of the Erlking.
“And yet, here you are.” Oberon blinked, his tone softening, and the fire flickered low again. “Standing before me, your human mien faded at last. The moment you set foot in the Nevernever, it was only a matter of time before your heritage began to show itself. But now I must be very cautious.” He drew himself up, gathering his robes around him, as if to leave. “I cannot be too wary, Meghan Chase,” he warned. “There are many who would use you against me, some within this very court. Be careful, daughter. Even I cannot protect you from everything.”
I sagged on the bed, my thoughts spinning crazily. Oberon watched me a moment longer, his mouth set in a grim line, then crossed the room without looking back. When I looked up, the Erlking was gone. I hadn’t even heard the door close.
A KNOCK ON THE DOOR STARTLED me upright. I didn’t know how much time had passed since Oberon’s visit. I still lay on the bed. The colored flames burned low, flickering erratically in the hearth. Everything seemed surreal and foggy and dreamlike, as if I’d imagined the whole encounter.
The knock came again, and I roused myself. “Come in!”
The door creaked open, and Tansy entered, smiling. “Good evening, Meghan Chase. How do you feel today?”
I slipped to the floor, realizing I was still in the nightgown. “Fine, I guess,” I muttered, looking around the room. “Where are my clothes?”
“King Oberon has given you a gown.” Tansy smiled and pointed to the gown on the bed. “He had it designed especially for you.”
I scowled. “No. No way. I want my real clothes.”
The little satyr blinked. She clopped over and picked up the hem of the dress, running it between her fingers. “But…my lord Oberon wishes you to wear this.” She seemed bewildered that I would defy Oberon’s wishes. “Does this not please you?”
“Tansy, I am not wearing that.”
I recoiled at the thought of parading around in that circus tent. My whole life, I had worn ratty jeans and T-shirts. My family was poor and couldn’t afford designer clothes and name brands. Rather then bemoan the fact that I never got nice things, I flaunted my grunginess and sneered at the shallow rich girls who spent hours in the bathroom perfecting their makeup. The only dress I’d ever worn was to someone’s wedding.
Besides, if I wore the fancy outfit Oberon picked for me, it would be like admitting to being his daughter. And I wasn’t about to do that.
“I—I just don’t want to,” I stammered lamely. “I’d rather wear my own clothes.”
“Your clothing was burned.”
“Where’s my backpack?” I suddenly remembered the change of clothes I’d shoved inside. They’d be damp, moldy, and disgusting, but better that than wearing faery finery.
I found my backpack, stuffed carelessly behind the dresser, and unzipped it. A sour, dank smell rose from within as I dumped the contents onto the floor. The wadded ball of clothes rolled out, wrinkled and smelly, but mine. The broken iPod also tumbled free, skidded across the marble floor, and came to a stop a few feet from Tansy.
The satyr girl yelped, and in one fantastic bound, leaped onto the bed. Clutching the bedpost, she stared wide-eyed at the device on the floor.
“What is that?”
“What? This? It’s an iPod.” Blinking, I retrieved the device and held it up. “It’s a machine that plays music, but it’s broken now, so I can’t show you how it works. Sorry.”
“It stinks of iron!”
I didn’t know what to say to that, so I opted for a confused frown.
Tansy stared at me with huge brown eyes, very slowly coming down from her perch. “You…you can hold it?” she whispered. “Without burning your flesh? Without poisoning your blood?”
“Um.” I glanced at the iPod, lying harmlessly in my palm. “Yes?”
She shuddered. “Please, put it away.” I shrugged, grabbed my backpack, and stuffed it into a side pocket. Tansy sighed and relaxed. “Forgive me, I did not wish to upset you. King Oberon has bid me keep you company until Elysium. Would you care to see more of the court?”
Not really, but it was better than being cooped up in here with nothing to do. And maybe I’ll find a way out of this place.
“All right,” I told the satyr girl. “But I want to change first.”
She cast a glance at my mortal clothes, lying wrinkled on the floor, and her nostrils flared. I could tell she wanted to say something but was polite enough not to comment on it. “As you wish. I will wait outside.”
I SLIPPED INTO THE BAGGY JEANS and the wrinkled, smelly T-shirt, feeling a nasty glow of satisfaction as they slid comfortably over my skin. Burn my things, will he? I thought, dragging my sneakers out and shoving my feet into them. I’m not part of his court, and I’m certainly not claiming to be his daughter. No matter what he says.
There was a brush lying on the dresser, and I grabbed it to run through my hair. As I looked in the mirror, my stomach twisted. I seemed less recognizable than before, in ways that I couldn’t even put a finger on. I knew only that the longer I stayed here, the more I was fading away.
Shivering, I grabbed my backpack, happy for the familiar, comfortable weight, and slung it over my shoulders. Even though it carried nothing but a broken iPod, it was still mine. Refusing to glance at the mirror, feeling eyes on the back of my neck, I opened the door and slipped into the briar tunnel.
Moonlight filtered through the branches, dappling the path with silver shadows. I wondered how long I’d been asleep. The night was warm, and faint strings of music drifted on the breeze. Tansy approached, and in the darkness, her face looked less human and more staring-black-goat. A strand of moonlight fell over her, and she was normal again. Smiling, she took my hand and led me forward.
The bramble tunnel seemed longer this time, filled with twists and turns I didn’t remember. I looked back once and saw the thorns closing behind us, the tunnel vanishing from sight.
“It’s all right,” said Tansy, pulling me forward. “The Hedge can take you wherever you want to go within the court. You just have to know the right paths.”
“Where are we going?”
The tunnel opened into a moonlit grove. Music drifted on the breeze, played by a willowy green girl on an elegant golden harp. A small group of elven girls clustered around a tall, vine-backed chair with white roses growing out of the arms.
Sitting at the foot of the chair was a human. I blinked, rubbing my eyes to make sure they weren’t playing tricks on me. No, it was a human, a young man with curly blond hair, his eyes blank and bemused. He was shirtless, and a golden collar encircled his neck, attached to a thin silver chain. The group of fey girls swarmed around him, kissing his bare shoulders, rubbing their hands over his chest, whispering things in his ear. One of them ran a pink tongue up his neck, her fingernails drawing bloody gouges down his back, making him arch with ecstasy. My stomach turned and I looked away. A moment later, I forgot all about them.
On the throne was a woman of such otherworldly beauty, I was instantly mortified by my ratty clothes and casual appearance. Her long hair shifted colors in the moonlight, sometimes silver, sometimes brightest gold. Arrogance warred with the aura of power surrounding her. As Tansy pulled me forward and bowed, the woman narrowed glittering blue eyes and regarded me as though examining a slug found beneath a log.
“So,” she said at last, her voice dripping poisoned icicles, “this is Oberon’s little bastard.”
Oh, crap. I knew who this was. She sat the second, empty throne in Oberon’s court. She was the other driving force in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. She was nearly as powerful as Oberon himself.