“Stepfather,” I muttered automatically.
“—but no one has been looking for you for a while,” the nurse finished, as if I hadn’t said anything. “Your appearance might seem odd at first, but I’m sure Robin can fix it so you aren’t conspicuous. Either way, I doubt anyone will remember you.”
I wasn’t sure about that. “What about a dress?” I argued, still determined to find a loophole. “I don’t have anything to wear.”
This time, I received scornful looks from both the nurse and Puck. “We can get you a dress, Princess,” Puck scoffed. “Hell, I can glamour you a dress made of diamonds and butterflies, if you want.”
“That’s a little extravagant, don’t you think, Robin?” The nurse shook her head at him. “Do not worry, Miss Chase,” she told me. “I have friends who can help us in that regard. You will have a beautiful dress for the formal, I promise you that.”
Well, that would be a nice sentiment, if I wasn’t absolutely terrified. I tried again. “The school is forty-five minutes away,” I pointed out, “and I don’t have a license. How will we get there?”
“I have a trod that leads directly to my office in the school,” the nurse replied, crushing that hope. “We can be there in seconds, and you won’t miss a thing.”
Damn. I was fast running out of excuses. Desperately, I played my last card.
“What about Ash? Should we move him this soon? What if he doesn’t want to go?”
We all whirled around. Ash stood in the doorway, leaning against the frame, looking exhausted but a little better than before. His skin had lost the gray pallor, and the wounds across his face and arms were not as striking. He didn’t look good, by any means, but at least he wasn’t at death’s door.
Ash clenched a fist in front of his face, then let it drop. “I can’t fight like this,” he said. “I’d be a liability, and our chances of getting the scepter will diminish. If there’s a chance for me to shake this off, I’ll take it.”
“Are you sure?”
He looked at me, and that faint, familiar smile crossed his lips. “I have to be on top of my game if I’m going to kill things for you, right?”
“What you need,” the nurse replied, stalking toward him with a steely glint in her eye, “is to go back to bed. I did not spend the last few hours stitching you back together for you to fall apart because you refused to stay down. Go on, now. Back to bed!”
He looked vaguely amused, but let himself be herded back into the room, and the nurse shut the door firmly behind him. “Bullheaded youngsters,” she sighed. “Think they’re damned invincible.” Puck snickered, which was the wrong thing to do. She whirled around. “Oh, you think it’s funny, do you, Goodfellow?” she snapped, and Puck winced. “I happened to notice your shoulder doesn’t look well at all. In fact, it’s bleeding all over my clean floor. I believe it needs stitches. Follow me, please.”
“It’s only a flesh wound,” Puck said, and the nurse’s gaze darkened. Stalking back across the floor, she grabbed him by one long ear and pulled him out of the chair. “Ow!
Hey! Ow! Okay, okay, I’m coming! Jeez.”
“Miss Chase,” the nurse snapped, and I jerked to attention. “While I’m fixing up this idiot, I want you to get some sleep. You look exhausted. Use the empty cot in the patient room, and tell Amano that if he bothers you, I’ll break his other leg. After I’m done with Robin, I’ll come by with something for your throat.”
Doubts still nagged at me, but I nodded. Finding the empty cot, I lay down, ignoring the satyr who invited me to share his “much softer bed.” I’ll just lie down for a minute, I thought, turning my back on Amano. Just for a minute, and then I’ll check on Ash.
“COME ON, you sleeping beauty. We’ve got a ball to attend.”
I woke up, embarrassed and confused, staring around blearily. The room was dark; candles flickered erratically, and mushrooms on the walls glowed with a soft yellow luminance. Puck stood over me, grinning as usual, the light casting weird, fluttering shadows over his face.
“Come on, Princess. You slept all day and missed the fun. Our lovely nurse got a few of her friends together to make you a dress. They refuse to show it to me, of course, so you have to march in there and come out wearing it.”
“What are you talking about?” I muttered, before I remembered. The Winter Formal! I was supposed to show up at my old school after being gone for so long, and face all my former classmates. There would be pointing and rumors and whispers behind my back, and my stomach clenched at the thought.
But there was no going back now. If we were going to get the scepter, Ash needed to heal, which meant I had to endure the humiliation and just get on with it. I trailed Puck out of the room, where the nurse was waiting for me in the hall, a small, pleased smile on her lips. “Ah, there you are, Miss Chase.”
“How’s Ash?” I asked before she could say anything else. With a snort, the nurse turned and beckoned me to follow.
“The same,” she replied, leading me down the hall. We passed Ash’s room, the door tightly closed, and continued without pausing. “The stubborn fool is walking now, and even challenged Robin to a sparring match this afternoon. I stopped them, of course, though Robin was only too happy to fight him, the idiot.”
“Hey,” Puck said behind us. “I’m not the one who offered. I was just doing the guy a favor.”
The nurse whirled and fixed him with a gimlet eye. “You—” she began, then threw her hands up. “Go get ready, idiot. You’ve been hovering at the door like a lost puppy all day. Tell the prince we’ll be leaving as soon as Miss Chase is ready. Now, get.”
Puck retreated, grinning, and the nurse sighed. “Those two,” she muttered.
“They’re either best friends or darkest enemies, I can’t tell which. Come with me, Miss Chase.”
She pushed open another door and stepped through, and I followed, ducking my head. We entered a small room with shelves and potted plants encircling the walls, and a sharp, almost medicinal tang filled the room, as if I had wandered into someone’s herb garden. Which, I guess, I had. Two other gnomes, as shriveled and wrinkly as the nurse, looked up from three-legged stools and waved cheerfully.
My breath caught. They were working on a dress so gorgeous my mind stumbled to a halt for a moment. A floor-length, blue satin gown hung from a mannequin in the center of the room, rippling like water in the sun. The bodice was embroidered with silvery designs and glittering ribbons of pure light, and a gauzy blue shawl had been draped over the nak*d shoulders, so sheer that it was almost invisible. A sparkling diamond choker encircled the mannequin’s neck, sending prisms of fragmented light across the walls. The entire outfit was dazzling.
I swallowed. “Is that…for me?”
One of the other gnomes, a short man with a nose like a potato, laughed.
“Well, the prince certainly isn’t going to wear it.”
The gnomes preened. “Our ancestors were shoemakers, but we’ve learned to sew a few other things, as well. This weave is stronger than normal glamour, and won’t fray if you happen to touch anything made of iron. Now, come try it on.”
It fit perfectly, sliding over my skin as if made for me. I caught a shimmer of glamour out of the corner of my eye as I pulled it on, and deliberately ignored it. If this dress was put together with leaves, moss and spider silk, I didn’t want to know. When I was done, I raised my arms and turned around for inspection. The tailor gnomes clapped like happy seals, and the nurse nodded approvingly.
“Take a look at yourself,” she murmured, making a spinning motion with her finger. I turned to see myself in the floor-length mirror that appeared out of nowhere, and blinked in surprise.
Not only was the dress perfect, but my hair was styled into complex curls, my face lightly touched with makeup, making me look older than before. And, whether it was part of the dress’s glamour or the nurse’s doing, I looked human again, without the pointed ears and huge, unnatural eyes. I looked like a normal teenager, ready for prom. Illusion, I knew, but it still startled me a moment, this tall, elegant stranger in the mirror.
“The boys won’t be able to keep their eyes off her,” a gnome sighed, and all my fears came rushing back. Fancy dress or no, I was still me, the invisible Swamp Girl of Albany High. Nothing would change that.
“Come,” the nurse said, putting a shriveled hand on mine. “It’s almost time.”
Back we went, through the door into the central room, where a handsome boy in a classic black tuxedo waited for us. I gasped when I saw it was Puck. His crimson hair had been spiked up so it didn’t look quite as disheveled, and his shoulders filled out the jacket he wore. I hadn’t realized how fit he was. His green eyes raked me up and down, very, very briefly before returning to my face, and he smiled. Not teasing or sarcastic, but a pure, genuine smile.
“Humph,” said the nurse, not nearly as shocked as me. “I guess you can clean up when you want to, Robin.”
“I try.” Puck, looking very human now, crossed the room and reached for my hand, slipping a white corsage onto my wrist. “You look gorgeous, Princess.”
“Thanks,” I whispered. “You look nice, yourself.”
“Nervous?” he asked.
I nodded. “A little. What will I say if someone asks me where I’ve been?
How will I explain what I’ve done all year, especially after I come waltzing in like nothing has happened? What about you?” I looked up at him. “Won’t they wonder where you’ve been all this time?”
“Not me.” Puck’s normal grin came flashing back. “I’ve been gone too long—long enough for anyone to forget that I ever went to high school. The most I’ll get is a vague recollection, like déjà vu, but no one will really recognize me.” He shrugged. “One of the perks of being me.”
“Lucky you,” I muttered.
“Are we ready?” the nurse asked, suddenly appearing in her human mien, a short, stout woman in a white lab coat, with lined brown skin and the same gold glasses on the end of her nose. “And if you’re wondering, yes, I am coming with you,” she announced, peering at us over her glasses, “just to make sure my patient doesn’t push himself so hard he collapses. So, are we done here?”
“We’re still waiting for Ash.”
“Not anymore,” she replied, gazing over my shoulder. I turned slowly, heart pounding against my ribs, not knowing what to expect. For a moment, my mind went completely blank.
I’d daydreamed about Ash in a tuxedo, silly fantasies that crossed my mind every so often, but the image in my head was as far removed as a house cat was to a jaguar. His tuxedo wasn’t black, but a dazzling, spotless white, the open jacket showing a white vest and an icy blue tie beneath. His cuff links, the silk handkerchief in his breast pocket, and the glittering stud in his ear were the same icy color. Everything else was white, even his shoes, but instead of appearing ghostly or faded, he filled the room with presence, a royal among commoners. He stood in the doorway with his hands in his pockets, the picture of nonchalance, and even as a human, he was too gorgeous for words. His dark hair had been combed back, falling softly around his face, and his mercury eyes, though they should’ve seemed pale against all the white, glimmered more brightly than anything.