“Then we can’t go home! Not until we make good on our promise to Luce! I don’t want to be one more person who lets her down.” Shelby felt suddenly deflated. “She deserves better.”
Miles slowly exhaled. He paced around the well, brow furrowed—his thinking face. “You’re right,” he said finally. “What’s one more day?”
“Really?” Shelby squealed.
“But where are we going to find Daniel? Didn’t Lucinda say something about a castle?” Miles said. “We could find it and—”
“Knowing Daniel, he could be moping around anywhere. And I do mean anywhere.”
Shelby heard the sound of horses’ hooves and turned her head toward the wide central pathway through the marketplace. Past the merchants’ stalls, which were being shut down for the evening, she caught a glimpse of a regal, snow-white horse.
When it passed the last merchant’s awning and came into open view, Shelby gasped.
The figure in the black leather saddle lined with ermine—whom Shelby, Miles, and most of the townspeople watched in unabashed awe—was truly a knight in shining armor.
Broad-shouldered, his identity obscured by his visor, the knight rode through the square with a commanding air of nobility. The riveted steel plates began at his feet, which were steadied in two stout stirrups. His legs were encased in polished greaves, and his mail coat was cut so close it clung to his muscular sides. His metal helmet had a flat top, with two curved plates meeting in an angled seal over his nose. There were tiny breathing holes in the front of the visor and a narrow slit across his eyes. It was alarming: He could see them, but they could only see the blinding outward evidence of him.
A sheath fastened at his left side carried a sword, and over his armor he wore a long white tunic with a red cross across the chest like one Shelby thought she’d seen in a Monty Python movie.
“Why don’t we ask him?” Shelby said.
Shelby faltered. Sure, she was nervous about approaching a real live knight. But how else were they going to find Daniel?
“Do you have a better idea?” She pointed at the looming figure. “He’s a knight. Daniel’s a knight. Chances are they’re gonna run in the same chivalric circle, right?”
“Okay, okay. And Shel?” Miles inhaled halfway, something he did when he was nervous. Or when he thought he might be about to hurt Shelby’s feelings. “Try not to use the Georgia peach accent, okay? It might have rolled right over love-struck Lucinda’s head, but we need to be more careful about blending in. Remember what Roland said about messing with the past.”
“I’m blending, I’m blending.” Shelby hopped off the edge of the well, straightened her shoulders like she imagined a proper lady might do, gave Miles a wink that felt a little awkward, and strode toward the knight.
But she’d taken just two short strides when the knight turned to face her, lifted his visor, and narrowed his dark eyes into a glare—a glare that Shelby had earned several times before.
Speak of the devil. Hadn’t Miles just mentioned Roland Sparks?
Roland glanced back and forth between Shelby and Miles. He clearly recognized them, which meant this was the Roland of their present-day era, their Roland, the one they’d last seen in Lucinda Price’s battle-blasted backyard. Which meant they were in trouble.
“What are you two doing here?”
Miles was at Shelby’s side instantly, his hands protectively around her shoulders. It was really decent of him, like he wasn’t going to let her get busted alone. “We’re looking for Daniel,” he said. “Can you help us? Do you know where he is?”
“Help you? Find Daniel?” Roland gave them a baffled quirk of his dark eyebrows. “Don’t you mean Luce, the mortal girl lost in her own Announcers? You kids are in way over your head.”
“We know, we know, we don’t belong here.” Shelby put on her most repentant tone. “We got here by accident,” she added, staring up at Roland on his incredible white horse. She’d had no idea horses were so huge. “We’re trying to get home, but we’re having trouble finding an Announcer—”
“Of course you are.” Roland huffed. “Like I don’t have enough obligations, now I’ve got to babysit, too.” He raised a gloved hand casually. “I’ll summon one for you.”
“Wait.” Miles stepped forward, interrupting Roland. “We thought, while we were here, we could maybe, um, do one nice thing for Lucinda. You know, the Lucinda of this era. Nothing major, just make her life a little brighter. Daniel ditched her—”
“You know how he gets sometimes—” Shelby cut in.
“Hold up. You saw Lucinda?” Roland asked.
“She was devastated,” Miles said.
“And tomorrow is Valentine’s Day,” Shelby added.
The steed neighed, and Roland steadied it with the reins. “Was she cloven?”
Shelby wrinkled her nose. “Was she what?”
“Was she a union of her past and present selves?”
“You mean like—” Shelby was thinking of the way Daniel had looked in Jerusalem, lost and out of focus, like a 3-D movie with the glasses off.
But before she could answer, Miles’s shoe crunched down on her toes. If Roland didn’t like them being here, he sure wasn’t going to like the fact that they’d been traveling around via the Announcers sort of everywhere. “Shhh,” Miles whispered through the side of his mouth.
“Look, it’s pretty simple: Did she recognize you?” Roland pressed.
Shelby sighed. “No.”
“No,” Miles said.
“Then she’s the Luce of this time and we shouldn’t interfere.” Roland eyed them with frank suspicion but said no more. One of his long golden-black dreadlocks came loose from its elastic and tumbled from the recesses of his helmet. He tucked it away and looked around the city square, at the dogs attacking a snake of cow intestine, at the children kicking a lopsided leather ball through the muddy streets. He was clearly wishing he hadn’t run into them.
“Please, Roland,” Shelby said, reaching boldly for his chain-mail glove. Gauntlet, she thought. They’re called gauntlets. “Don’t you believe in love? Don’t you have a heart?”
Shelby felt the words hanging in the frosty air and wished she could take them back. Surely she’d gone too far. She didn’t know what Roland’s story was. He’d sided with Lucifer when the angels fell, but he’d never seemed all that bad. Just cryptic and inscrutable.
He opened his mouth to say something, and Shelby waited to hear yet another lecture about the dangers of Announcer travel, or to be threatened with being turned in to Francesca and Steven at Roland’s whim. She winced and looked away.
Then she heard the soft clank of a visor being shut.
When she looked up, Roland’s face was hidden again. The visor’s dark eye slit was unreadable.
Way to ruin things, Shelby.
“I will find Daniel for you.” Roland’s voice boomed from behind the visor, making Shelby jump. “I will see that he arrives in time for tomorrow’s Faire. I have one final errand to attend to, and then I will be back here to provide you both with an Announcer that will spirit you back to Shoreline, where you should be now. I want no arguments. Take my offer or leave it.”
Shelby clenched her jaw to keep it from dropping open. He was going to help them.
“No—no arguments,” Miles stammered. “That will be fine, Roland. Thank you.”
Then came a slight dip of Roland’s helmet, which Shelby took to be a nod, but he said nothing else. He only nudged his white horse around to face the path that led back out of the city. Merchants scattered as the animal trotted, then broke into a gallop, its white tail streaming behind it like a disappearing puff of smoke.
Shelby noticed something strange: Instead of riding proudly out of town, Roland sat with head lowered, his shoulders a bit slumped. As if something inexplicable had changed his mood. Was it something she’d said?
“That was intense,” Miles said, standing next to her.
Shelby inched closer to him, so that their arms were touching, and it made her feel better.
Roland was going to find Daniel. He was going to help them.
Shelby found herself smiling a very un-Shelby-like smile. Somewhere under all that armor, maybe there was a heart that believed in the power of true love.
For all her outward cynicism, Shelby had to admit that she too believed in love. And she could tell by the way Miles had consoled Lucinda this afternoon that he was a believer, too. Together they watched the glow of twilight’s sun on Roland’s armor and listened to the clatter of hooves on cobblestone tapering into silence.
HAND IN GLOVE
One thing about the Middle Ages: The stars were unbelievable.
Unbothered by city lights, the sky was a glittering landscape of galaxies, the kind of sky that made Shelby want to lie awake a long time and stare. Just before dusk, the sun had finally burned through the gray winter clouds, and now the dark canvas above was awash with stars.
“That’s the Big Dipper, isn’t it?” Miles asked, pointing up at a bright arc in the sky.
“Beats me.” Shelby shrugged, though she leaned in to follow his finger with her eyes. She could smell his skin, familiar and a little citrusy. “I didn’t know you were into astronomy.”
“I didn’t, either. Never have been. But there’s something about the stars tonight … or something about tonight in general. Everything feels kind of noteworthy. You know?”
“Yeah,” Shelby breathed, lost in the heavens she’d never thought too much about. She felt close to them in a weird way. Close to Miles, too. “I know.”
Once they’d agreed to stay on another night, scrappy Shelby had procured a blanket and some rope and—using skills learned during her days on Skid Row—fashioned them into an almost elegant tent. Like so many of the visiting revelers, she and Miles had set up camp on a high slope of the green outside the city walls. Miles had even found firewood, though neither one of them knew how to start a fire without a match.
It was kinda nice here, actually. Yeah, there were crazy coyote noises coming from the woods, but Shelby reminded herself that sometimes nights at Shoreline carried the same shrill cries. She and Miles would just stick together—and hide behind some meaty medieval people if any wild creatures came poking out of the forest.
A special holiday night market was setting up near the road, so after pitching the tent, they’d split up, with a plan for Miles to find some food and Shelby to hunt for Valentine’s Day gifts to give to Luce and Daniel the next day. Then they would meet back at camp to dine under the stars.
In the hour before sunset, the vendors in the city had moved the party outside. The night market was different from the daytime market inside the walls, which had sold everyday items like cloth and grain. The night market, Shelby realized, was a special-occasion affair, just for the Valentine’s holiday when the city overflowed with far-traveling merchants and other visitors.