The green was crowded with newly pitched tents, many of which doubled as bartering centers. Shelby didn’t have much to offer, but she managed to exchange her hot-pink elastic hair band for a lace doily in the shape of a heart, which she planned to give to Luce “from Daniel.”

She’d also happily swapped a hemp ankle bracelet Phil had given her on some date back at Shoreline for a leather dagger sheath she figured Daniel might like. Guys were hard to shop for.

The hair band and the anklet were less than worthless to Shelby, but they were exotic to the merchants. “What is this alchemical substance that stretches and retains its shape?” they asked her, examining the band as if it were a priceless gem. Shelby had stifled her laughter, those medieval torture devices never too far from her thoughts.

Like always after shopping, Shelby was ravenous. She hoped Miles had dug up some good grub. She was hurrying across the crowded green to meet him when a blurry thought came into focus: What was she forgetting?

“Oh, what a lovely bonnet!” A fair-haired woman with a broad smile appeared before her. She stroked the lace veil of the wimple that Shelby had swiped from the cart that morning. “Is it one of Master Tailor’s?”

“Uh, who?” Shelby’s guilty blush crept up to the tips of her stolen hat.

“His stall’s just over yonder.” The woman pointed at a tent made of stiff white canvas about ten feet away. “Henry’s got three sisters, all gorgeous seamstresses. Most of the year, their needles fly only for the vestments of the church’s mystery plays, but the girls always manage something small and special for the Faire. Their work takes my breath away.”

The tent’s flaps were open, and there, under an awning, stood the stout man whose cart she and Miles had tried to hop like a freight train that morning. The man who had swiped Miles’s hat. A small crowd had gathered and was giving off oohs and aahs, admiring something apparently very precious. Shelby had to press up against the other fairgoers before she recognized the item drawing so many hungry eyes:

A bright blue Dodgers cap.

“Admire the exquisite dye of this buckram visor!” Henry Tailor was deep in the throes of his sales pitch, as if the hat had always been a part of his collection, as if he had sewn it himself. “Have you ever seen such stitches? Impeccably regular, to the point of … invisibility!”

“And when a sword slices through that felt, Henry, what then?” a man jeered. The crowd began to buzz that perhaps the visor was not the most invincible item in Henry’s collection.

“Fools,” Henry said. “This visor is not armor, but a thing of beauty. Is it not possible that a thing can be made simply to please the eye and the heart?”

As the fairgoers hooted, Shelby’s heart hammered in her chest, because she knew what she had to do.

“I’ll buy the hat!” she shouted suddenly.

“It’s not for sale!” Henry said.

“Of course it’s for sale,” Shelby said, pushing aside her nerves about her awful English accent, pushing aside a few startled people, pushing aside everything but her need to get the hat. It was important to Miles, and Miles was important to her. “Here,” she cried, “take my bonnet in exchange! My, um, father bought it for me this morning and it doesn’t, um, fit.”

Henry looked up, and Shelby had a moment of panic—certainly he would know she’d stolen the bonnet. Only, when he tilted his head at Shelby, he didn’t even seem to register that the hat had once belonged to him. “Yes, that bonnet does make your ears stick out. But that’s not enough.”

What? She didn’t have big ears! Shelby was about to give Henry a piece of her mind when she remembered what was important here.

“Come now! That hat is old, its material faded!” She pointed an accusing finger. “And what manner of wickedness do those letters emblazoned on the front signify?”

“Are they letters?” someone in the crowd asked.

“I don’t know how to read,” said another.

And it was clear Henry didn’t read, either. “What do they say?” he asked. “I thought they were mere ornamentation.” And then, remembering that he’d claimed to have made the hat, he added, “The design was given to me by a passing gentleman.”

“They are the mark of the devil!” Shelby improvised, her voice getting louder as she gained confidence. “The spiky arms are his mark and his brand.”

The crowd gasped and pushed closer. The smell of them made Shelby feel like she couldn’t get a breath.

Henry held the cap away from him. “Is that so? Then why do you want it?”

“Why do you think? I aim to destroy it in the name of all that is holy and right in the world.”

There was a murmur of approval from the crowd.

“I will burn it and rid this world of its evil mark!” She was really getting into this.

A few in the crowd gave feeble cheers.

“I will protect us all from the bane of the cap!”

Henry scratched his head. “It’s just a cap, though, innit?”

Around Shelby, people turned to look at her. “Well, yes, but … my point is that I’ll take it off your hands.”

Tailor looked at the bonnet in her hand, his left eyebrow rising. “That handiwork looks familiar,” he muttered. Then he looked again at Miles’s cap. “An even trade, then?”

Shelby held out the lacy wimple. “An even trade.”

The man nodded and the exchange was made. Miles’s treasured Dodgers cap felt like solid gold in Shelby’s hands, and she couldn’t get back to the tent fast enough. He was going to be so happy! She bounded up the green, past minstrels singing sad and lonely songs, past children in the eternal game of tag, and soon she saw the outline of Miles’s shoulders in the dark.

Only, it wasn’t dark.

Miles had figured out how to make a fire! And he was roasting a forkful of sausages over the open flame. When he looked up at her and smiled, a tiny dimple she’d never noticed before appeared in his left cheek. Shelby felt dizzy. It might have been from running all that way. Or the sudden heat of the fire.

“Hungry?” Miles asked.

She nodded, too nervous about her news of having reclaimed his cap to find words. She held the hat behind her back, self-conscious about everything. Her posture, the gift, her baggy medieval clothes. But this was Miles; he wouldn’t judge her. Then why did she suddenly feel so jittery?

“Thought you might be. Hey, where’s your bonnet?”

Was there a hint of regret in his voice? Did her hair look ridiculous? Now she didn’t even have the elastic band to pull it back.

She flushed. “I traded it.”

“Oh. For something to give to Luce and Daniel?”

The way the light played off his face, Miles looked like her best friend and also like an entirely new person. Someone, she realized, she would very much like to get to know.

“Yeah.” Shelby felt weird, standing over him with her crazy lion’s mane. Why didn’t she have hair like Luce, hair that was smooth and shiny and sexy and stuff? Hair that boys liked. Miles had liked Luce’s hair. He was still staring at Shelby. “What?”

“No big deal. Sit down. There’s cider, and some bread.”

Shelby dropped onto the grass next to Miles, careful to hide his cap in the folds of her dress. She wanted to give it to him at the right moment, like after her stomach stopped growling. He slid a sizzling sausage onto a thick, crusty slice of bread and handed her a dented tin cup of cider. They clinked cups, locked eyes.

“Where’d you get all this stuff?”

“You think you’re the only one who can barter? I had to say goodbye to two good shoelaces for that sandwich, lady, so eat up.”

As Shelby took a bite and sipped her drink, she was glad to see that Miles wasn’t staring at her hair. He was gazing at the expanse of tents leading up to the city, at the smoke of a hundred campfires commingling in the air. She felt warmer and happier than she had in a very long time.

Finishing his sandwich before Shelby had even taken a second bite, Miles swallowed. “You know, this Luce-and-Daniel saga, their impossible love, the unbreakable curse, fate and destiny and all that … when we first started learning about it in classes, and even when I met Luce, it sounded like—”

“A bunch of hooey?” Shelby cut in. “That’s what I thought, anyway.”

“Well, yeah,” Miles admitted. “But recently, going through the Announcers with you, really seeing how much more there is to this world, meeting Daniel in Jerusalem, watching how different Cam was when he was engaged … Maybe there is such a thing as true love.”

“Yeah.” Shelby mulled that over, chewing. “Yeah.”

Out of nowhere, she wanted very badly to ask Miles something. But she was scared. And not the scared of having to sleep outside in an animal-filled forest, or the scared of being far, far away from home without any certainty you’d find your way back again. This was a raw and vulnerable kind of scared, whose intensity made her tremble.

But if she didn’t ask, she’d never know. And that’d be worse.



“Have you ever been in love?”

Miles plucked a brown blade of grass and twirled it between his palms. He flashed her a grin, then gave an embarrassed laugh. “I don’t know. I mean … probably not.” He coughed. “Have you?”

“No,” she said. “Not even close.”

Neither one seemed to know what to say after that. For a while, they just sat in nervous silence. Sometimes Shelby forgot that it was nervous silence, and it felt like comfortable silence with her friend Miles. But then she’d sneak a look at him, and catch him looking at her, and his eyes would be all magical blue, and everything felt really different, and she’d get nervous again.

“Ever wish you’d lived in another era?” Miles finally changed the subject, and it felt like someone had popped a huge balloon of tension. “I could get into wearing armor, being chivalrous, all that.”

“You would make a great knight! Not me, though, I stick out like a sore thumb here. I like my noise in California.”

“Me too. Hey, Shel?” His eyes pored over her. She felt hot even as a gust of February wind bit through her rough wool dress. “Do you think it’s going to be different when we get back to Shoreline?”

“Of course it’s going to be different.” Shelby looked down and plucked at the grass. “I mean, we’ll be sitting in the mess hall reading the Tribune and plotting pranks to play on the non-Nephilim. We won’t be, like, drinking from medieval wells and stuff.”

“That’s not what I mean.” Miles turned to face her. He drew her chin up with his finger. “I mean you and me. We’re different here. I like the way we are here.” A pause. A deep blue gaze. “Do you?”

Shelby had known that wasn’t what he meant. But she was scared to talk about what else he might mean. Because what if she got it wrong? However she and Miles “were” here, she liked it, a lot. All day she’d been feeling this buzz around him. But she couldn’t express it. It made her tongue-tied.

Tags: Lauren Kate Fallen Fantasy