“Of course, great Erlking,” Grimalkin soothed, his fur whipping about in the gale. “I am always your servant.”
“I would be foolish indeed to trust the flattering words of a cait sith.” Oberon leaned back, his face an expressionless mask once more. The wind died down, the sun returned, and things were normal again. “You have your favor. Now go.”
Grimalkin bowed his head, turned, and trotted back to me, bottlebrush tail held high.
“What was that about, Grim?” I demanded, scowling at the feline. “I thought you wanted a favor from me. What was all that with Oberon?”
Grimalkin didn’t so much as pause. Tail up, he passed me without comment, slipped into the tunnel of trees, and vanished from sight.
The satyr touched my arm. “This way,” she murmured, and led me away from the court. I felt the eyes of the nobles and the hounds on my back as we left the presence of the Erlking.
“I don’t understand,” I said miserably, following the satyr girl across the clearing. My brain had gone numb; I felt awash in a sea of confusion, moments away from drowning. I just wanted to find my brother. How had it come to this?
The satyr gave me a sympathetic glance. She was shorter than me by a foot, with large hazel eyes that matched her curly hair. I tried to keep my eyes away from her furry lower half, but it was difficult, especially when she smelled faintly like a petting zoo.
“It is not so bad,” she said, leading me not through the tunnel, but to a far side of the clearing. The trees here were so thick the sunlight didn’t permeate the branches, shadowing everything in emerald darkness. “You might enjoy it here. Your father does you a great honor.”
“He’s not my father,” I snapped. She blinked wide, liquid brown eyes, and her lower lip quivered. I sighed, regretting my harsh tone. “Sorry. It’s just a lot to take in. Two days ago, I was home, sleeping in my own bed. I didn’t believe in goblins or elves or talking cats, and I certainly didn’t ask for any of this.”
“King Oberon took a great chance for you,” the satyr said, her voice a bit firmer. “The cait sith held a life debt over you, which meant it could’ve asked for anything. My lord Oberon took it and made it his, so Grimalkin can’t request you to poison anyone or to give up your first child.”
I recoiled in horror. “He would have?”
“Who knows what goes on in the mind of a cat?” The satyr shrugged, picking her way over a tangle of roots. “Just…be careful what you say around here. If you make a promise, you’re bound to it, and wars have been fought over ‘small favors.’ Be especially careful around the high lords and ladies—they are all adept at the game of politics and pawn-making.” She suddenly paled and put a hand to her mouth. “I’ve said too much. Please forgive me. If that gets back to King Oberon…”
“I won’t say anything,” I promised.
She looked relieved. “I am grateful, Meghan Chase. Others might have used that against me. I am still learning the ways of the court.”
“What’s your name?”
“Well, you’re the only one who has treated me nicely without expecting anything in return,” I told her. “Thank you.”
She looked embarrassed. “Truly, you do not need to put yourself in my debt, Meghan Chase. Here, let me show you your room.”
We were standing at the edge of the trees. A wall of flowering bramble, so thick I couldn’t see to the other side, loomed above us. Between the pink-and-purple flowers, thorns bristled menacingly.
Tansy reached out and brushed one of the petals. The hedge shuddered, then curled in and rearranged itself, forming a tunnel not unlike the one leading into the court. At the end of the prickly tube stood a small red door.
In a daze, I followed Tansy into the briar tunnel and through the door as she opened it for me. Inside, a dazzling bedroom greeted my senses. The floor was white marble, inlaid with patterns of flowers, birds, and animals. Under my disbelieving stare, some of them moved. A fountain bubbled in the middle of the room, and a small table stood nearby, covered with cakes, tea, and bottles of wine. A massive, silk-covered bed dominated one wall, while a fireplace stood at the other. The flames crackling in the hearth changed color, from green to blue to pink and back again.
“This is the guest-of-honor suite,” Tansy announced, gazing around enviously. “Only important guests of the Seelie Court are allowed here. Your father really is giving you a great honor.”
“Tansy, please stop calling him that.” I sighed, looking around the massive room. “My dad was an insurance salesman from Brooklyn. I’d know if I wasn’t fully human, wouldn’t I? Wouldn’t there be some sort of sign, pointed ears or wings or something like that?”
Tansy blinked, and the look she gave me sent chills up my back. Hooves clopping, she crossed the room to stand beside a large dresser with a mirror overhead. Looking back, she beckoned me with a finger.
Anxiously, I moved to stand beside her. Somewhere deep inside, a voice began screaming that I didn’t want to see what would be revealed next. I didn’t listen in time. With a solemn look, Tansy pointed to the mirror, and for the second time that day, my world turned upside down.
I hadn’t seen myself since the day I stepped through the closet with Puck. I knew my clothes were filthy, sweat-stained, and ripped to shreds by branches, thorns, and claws. From the neck down, I looked how I expected to look: like a bum that had been tramping through the wilderness for two days without a bath.
I didn’t recognize my face.
I mean, I knew it was me. The reflection moved its lips when I did, and blinked when I blinked. But my skin was paler, the bones of my face sharper, and my eyes seemed enormous, those of a deer caught in headlights. And through my matted, tangled hair, where nothing had been yesterday, two long pointed ears jutted up from both sides of my head.
I gaped at the reflection, feeling dizzy, unable to comprehend the meaning. No! my brain screamed, violently rejecting the image before it, that isn’t you! It isn’t!
The floor swayed under my feet. I couldn’t catch my breath. And then, all the shock, adrenaline, fear, and horror of the past two days descended on me at once. The world spun, tilted on its axis, and I fell away into oblivion.
“Meghan,” Mom called from the other side of the door. “Get up. You’re going to be late for school.”
I groaned and peeked out from under the covers. Was it morning already? Apparently so. A hazy gray light filtered in my bedroom window, shining on my alarm clock, which read 6:48 a.m.
“Meghan!” Mom called, and this time a sharp rapping accompanied her voice. “Are you up?”
“Ye-es!” I hollered from the bed, wishing she’d go away.
“Well, hurry up! You’re going to miss the bus.”
I shambled to my feet, threw on clothes from the cleanest pile on the floor, and grabbed my backpack. My iPod tumbled out, landing with a splat on my bed. I frowned. Why was it wet?
“Meghan!” came Mom’s voice yet again, and I rolled my eyes. “It’s almost seven! If I have to drive you to school because you missed the bus, you’re grounded for a month!”
“All right, all right! I’m coming, dammit!” Stomping to the door, I threw it open.
Ethan stood there, his face blue and wrinkled, his lips pulled into a rictus grin. In one hand, he clutched a butcher knife. Blood spattered his hands and face.
“Mommy slipped,” he whispered, and plunged the knife into my leg.
I WOKE UP SCREAMING.
Green flames sputtered in the hearth, casting the room in an eerie glow. Panting, I lay back against cool silk pillows, the nightmare ebbing away into reality.
I was in the Seelie king’s court, as much a prisoner here as poor Puck, trapped in his cage. Ethan, the real Ethan, was still out there somewhere, waiting to be rescued. I wondered if he was all right, if he was as terrified as I was. I wondered if Mom and Luke were okay with that demon changeling in the house. I prayed Mom’s injury wasn’t serious, and that the changeling wouldn’t cause harm to anyone else.
And then, lying in a strange bed in the faery kingdom, another thought came to me. A thought sparked by something Oberon said. That man is not your father, Meghan. I am.
Is your father, not was. As if Oberon knew where he was. As if he was still alive. The thought made my heart pound in excitement. I knew it. My dad must be in Faeryland, somewhere. Maybe somewhere close. If only I could reach him.
First things first, though. I had to get out of here.
I sat up…and met the impassive green eyes of the Erlking.
He stood by the hearth, the shifting light of the flames washing over his face, making him even more eerie and spectral. His long shadow crept over the room, the horned crown branching over the bedcovers like grasping fingers. In the darkness, his eyes glowed green like a cat’s. Seeing I was awake, he nodded and beckoned to me with an elegant, long-fingered hand.
“Come.” His voice, though soft, was steely with authority. “Approach me. Let us talk, my daughter.”
I’m not your daughter, I wanted to say, but the words stuck in my throat. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the mirror atop the dresser, and my long-eared reflection within. I shuddered and turned away.
Throwing off the bedcovers, I saw that my clothes had changed. Instead of the ripped, disgusting shirt and pants I’d worn for the past two days, I was clean and draped in a lacy white nightgown. Not only that, but there was an outfit laid out for me at the foot of the bed: a ridiculously fancy gown encrusted with emeralds and sapphires, as well as a cloak and long, elbow-length gloves. I wrinkled my nose at the whole ensemble.
“Where are my clothes?” I asked, turning to Oberon. “My real ones.”
The Erlking sniffed. “I dislike mortal clothes within my court,” he stated quietly. “I believe you should wear something suited for your heritage, as you are to stay here awhile. I had your mortal rags burned.”
Oberon narrowed his eyes, and I realized I might’ve gone too far. I figured the King of the Seelie Court wasn’t used to being questioned. “Um…sorry,” I murmured, sliding out of bed. I’d worry about clothes later. “So, what did you want to talk about?”
The Erlking sighed and studied me uncomfortably. “You put me in a difficult position, daughter,” he murmured at last, turning back to the hearth. “You are the only one of my offspring to venture into our world. I must say, I was a bit surprised that you managed to survive this long, even with Robin looking after you.”
“Offspring?” I blinked. “You mean, I have other brothers and sisters? Half siblings?”
“None that are alive.” Oberon made a dismissive gesture. “And none within this century, I assure you. Your mother was the only human to catch my eye in nearly two hundred years.”
My mouth was suddenly dry. I stared at Oberon in growing anger. “Why?” I demanded, making him arch a slender eyebrow. “Why her? Wasn’t she already married to my dad? Did you even care about that?”