“What happened next?” Rose bounced excitedly.
“The dragon swooped out of the sky—” Grandmother paused at the thump of feet on the porch. With a wink, she plucked four-year-old Rose off the floor. Rose stretched out her arms, closed her eyes, and giggled as the air whooshed past her. She could almost pretend she was the dragon flying through the air.
“—and picked the princess out of the cart, rescuing her from the evil prince.” Grandmother guided Rose through a dive that was close enough to the floor for her to snatch her doll. Clutching it to her chest, Rose gave a happy shout. “The dragon flew the princess all the way back to her kingdom, where he gently dropped her off by the gate.”
Rose pouted for a moment as she was set on the sofa, but she knew the story was coming to a rapid end. Those footsteps were getting closer, and that always meant the end of story time.
“The princess thanked the dragon, for he had saved her from a loveless marriage and a life away from all the people she loved. The princess offered the dragon a place to stay, food, and a job guarding her kingdom. The dragon accepted, and together they kept the land safe from all who would do them harm.”
“Is that the end?” Rose made her best tell-me-more face.
Grandmother laughed and kissed her cheek. “Next time you can hear more.”
The front door swung open, and feet scraped against the mat. “Mother, are you telling her stories again?”
Rose knew what Grandmother was going to say, so she set the doll against the pillow, slipped off the couch, and picked up her teacup. It wobbled on the saucer and Rose bit her lip, walking carefully so she wouldn’t break it. She’d dropped one a few weeks ago, and now Grandmother’s cup was missing its handle.
“Lily, I’m telling her the same stories I told you when you were her age.”
The short distance to the kitchen wasn’t enough to muffle their voices, so Rose slowed down and listened carefully.
“Fairy tales aren’t real. How are they going to help her later in life?”
Grandmother sighed. “Not everyone sees the world as you do, Lily. Besides, there are lessons to be learned from stories. There was a time when you could see that.”
“Then stick to the traditional tales.”
Rose reached the counter and stopped listening as she went up on her toes to slide the cup and saucer onto the counter. This was the hard part, because she had to reach so high to get the cup up there, but Grandmother trusted that she could do it, and this time she wasn’t going to break the cup. It rocked, sliding off to the side, but Rose was able to steady it and slide it away from the edge.
Heading back into the living room, Rose tried to remember what her grandmother had said, because it had seemed important, but the conversation had moved on. “Fine,” Mom said. “How was she?”
“Delightful, as always.”
Mom nodded. “Is Thursday still good?”
“Yes.” Grandmother spotted Rose and held out her arms. “Can I get a hug before you leave?”
Rose ran into her arms, resting her hair against Grandmother’s shoulder. Worried that this might be the last time she heard a story, Rose whispered, “Can I hear more about Princess and Dragon’s adventures next time?”
She felt her grandmother’s smile. The soft words barely made it to her ears. “Of course you can.”
Ten years later
Rose glanced out the window. It was green and beautiful—her parents were right about that—but otherwise, she didn’t see what was so fantastic about Ireland. This was day six of a ten-day family vacation, and five days of sightseeing had been more than enough for her. Perhaps she would feel differently if her life were going better, but at the moment, her future was up in the air and she hated it. Her parents were thinking about sending her to boarding school, which would separate her from her grandmother and her friends, and she had a feeling this trip would be a major factor in their decision. After weeks of going back and forth on what she wanted, she simply wished to forget about it for a while.
Maybe she would get lucky and her parents would let her stay inside the hotel and read for the rest of the day. Her brother would leap at the chance to see another castle, leaving the room they were sharing all to her. Some quiet time to read would be nice.
Rose opened up the book Grandmother had given her before Rose and the rest of the family had left the States. In this tale, the elves could communicate with animals and plants, and the creatures were helping the elves defeat an evil wizard. One elf had learned how to use magic and could see it in the air. It would be amazing to experience something like that, Rose thought as she turned to the next page. She quickly lost herself in the book, only to startle when the door swung open.
“Rose, we’re going to—” Mom looked at the book in her hands and frowned. “I didn’t bring you here so you could spend your time reading, especially not books like that. There is a whole country outside this room, just waiting for you to explore.”
Rose sighed, closed the book, and set it to the side. “Yes, Mom.”
“We are going to take a tour of a castle. Doesn’t that sound fun?”
“Sure,” Rose said morosely.
Mom sighed. “We thought you’d like Ireland. It’s one of the most enchanting places on earth! They have a rich history of storytelling, there’s beautiful scenery, and the people are delightful. Why aren’t you enjoying it more?”
Rose toyed with a pillow.
“I’d like an answer to that question,” Mom said, her voice firm.
“Can I please stay here while you tour the castle? I just want to read.” Rose reached for her book.
Mom snatched it out of her hand. “What is it with you and these books?”
“They’re just stories,” Rose snapped.
“Of course they’re just stories. Magic isn’t real. Not in this world, not in this novel.” Mom waved the book in the air. “If you want tales about magic, just look around you. We’re in Ireland.”
“It’s not the same. These people, they tell the stories to get away from their lives. They don’t want to be working in shops, selling trinkets to people like us. History, those stories that don’t make any sense, that’s all they have.” Rose sighed. “At least in that book the magic is real. Their world actually has magic, and you can see what it does and how it behaves.”
“Oh, Rose, that doesn’t make it real.” Mom pursed her lips. “Come see the castle. If you must look for magic, this is the best place. And the stories are more than fantasy here. They’re a mix of history, legend, and imagination. I think you’ll be surprised to find it’s just as interesting as that book.”
Rose shook her head. “You, Dad, even Grandmother—you’ve all spent most of your lives doing things you don’t like just so you can have a few minutes of fun. I don’t want to do that. I want to spend my life surrounded by amazing things every minute, not just now and then. I don’t want to be stuck behind a desk. I want to—”
“To actually live like they do in the stories, I know,” Mom interrupted. “Your grandmother told me the exact same tales, you know. And there was a time, a very short time, when I wanted to believe them, too. But then I learned the truth. Life is full of hard choices, and if you want to be happy, you have to be more practical than characters in stories. You have to work hard and keep your focus on reality.”
Rose opened her mouth to protest, but Mom put a hand up. “Not now. You have an hour. Then we’re leaving for the castle. All of us.” The door thumped as Mom closed it behind her, taking Rose’s book with her.
Rose flopped onto the bed, blinking back tears. It was the same fight they always had, just now it was in a different country. Mom was always pushing her to be “practical,” while her friends’ parents were happy if their children got good grades and stayed out of trouble. But no, Rose needed to be like her brother, Paul, needed to have a plan. He had gotten his college degree and was working in real estate. He was productive and happy. He’d drank the Kool-Aid. And now her mom’s eye was on Rose. And according to Mom, there wasn’t time for frivolous things like fantasy novels and Grandmother’s stories.
Brushing away tears, Rose dug a thick envelope out of her suitcase. She gently removed the pages and flattened them before she began to read:
A story to tide you over while you’re gone? This is an odd birthday request, even for you, my Rose, but very well.
It was a day like any other day. The girl got up, made breakfast, tidied the house, and in the late morning, headed down to the well. They needed more water, and it was her job to fetch it. After all, her parents weren’t young anymore and hauling water was hard work.
The girl wished someone else could do it because the well was near the woods. Strange things happened in the woods. One time, the boy down the road went missing while collecting firewood.
She hesitated, looked at the tree line, and when it appeared empty, she carefully made her way to the well. Moments later, as she lowered the bucket down, the feeling that someone was watching her swept through her. A soft snap came from behind, and the rope fell from her hand. She turned around to find a man with pointed ears staring straight at her. She was looking into the greenest eyes she’d ever seen, and the next thing she knew, she was following him into the woods, her task forgotten.
As they walked, time and distance passed without fatigue. When she came back to herself, they were far from home and there was a catlike creature flying past her. The man with the pointed ears tugged her past a unicorn, and away from a mushroom the size of a footstool. He didn’t give her nearly enough time to look at the human-bird woman, as he continued to pull her along into an open-air tent. He set a circlet of roses upon her head, and something sharp dug into her scalp. When he pulled his hands away, a drop of blood dripped from his thumb.
The roses had thorns.
Another knock sounded at the door, and Rose hurried to fold the pages. When they were safely under her pillow, she cleared her throat. “Come in!”
Paul opened the door and then closed it behind him again. He leaned against the wood. “You upset Mom.”
Rose frowned. “I didn’t mean to.”
“That doesn’t change the fact that you did.” Paul shook his head. “She picked this place just for you. Dad wanted to go to Germany, and I was pulling for Australia. Mom insisted that you would like this best. What gives?”
Rose drew her knees up to her chest and wrapped her arms around them. “I just don’t see what you guys see.”
After a lengthy pause, Paul raised an eyebrow. “Oh no. You’re going to give me a real explanation.”
She shrugged. “I don’t know. I mean, it’s pretty here, and I’ve enjoyed the sights, but these people aren’t living any different from anyone else. There is nothing about this island that makes their lives any better or more fulfilling.”
He studied her. “Maybe you’re looking at the wrong things. What makes you happy?”
“Grandmother’s stories and the fantasy books Mom hates.” Rose sighed. “But that’s not really what you were talking about…”
“What about gardening and going to the gun range?” Paul asked hopefully.
“Both are fun, but they aren’t things I would want to do as a job.” Rose frowned.
“You’re just starting high school. You have plenty of time to figure out what you love and find your place. I’ll even help you. But you have to promise me something.”
“What?” she asked warily.
“You’ll make Mom believe she made the right choice when she booked this trip. If you can do that, I’ll even tell Mom that boarding school is the best thing for you.” Paul walked over to the bed and held out his hand.
“I’m not sure I want to go to boarding school.”
“Because it means leaving Grams?” Paul asked.
“That will be hard on you, there’s no denying it. But if you live somewhere else, you can go weeks, maybe months, without an argument about your reading choices or future plans.”
Rose was torn. She wasn’t sure she wanted to leave, and since her parents were still discussing things, there was a chance she could stay. However, this vacation was likely to convince her mother that boarding school was the right choice. The school did have a rifle team and offered gardening as an elective.
If Rose stayed home, she would end up spending her entire high school career with her mom desperately trying to turn her into a mini-me. Or she could go to boarding school and be away from her grandmother for months at a time. Though, she could still write and call her grandmother. At home there would be no escaping her mother’s watchful eye. When she thought about it like that, there was only one choice.
Rose looked at Paul and held out her hand. “Deal.”
He smiled and shook it. “Good. Now, get ready to tour another castle.”
“Hey, none of that. This one even has a moat,” he said with a wink.
Here goes nothing…
Three years later
Rose dumped her bags on the floor with a thud, as she pushed her bedroom door shut with her foot. She leaned against the door and took a deep breath, dropping her head in her hands. Her visits home were never easy, but family was family and it was Thanksgiving.
It had been a relief when her father had been the one to pick her up from the airport. He wouldn’t comment on the book in her hand. He had done exactly as expected and had simply given her a hug, welcomed her home, and told her he wished she could be around more often. Boarding school wasn’t her favorite, but it was a place where she could escape her mom’s concerned and disapproving gaze, and that was worth something.
With a sigh, she pushed off the door and lifted her overnight bag onto the mahogany sleigh bed. Wild roses in shades of pink and red twisted across the cream sheets. Even the family tree hanging on the wall, which followed her mother’s side, was depicted as a rose bush.
Someone else might have found the endless roses frustrating, but Rose loved them. With beautiful flowers, sharp thorns, the ability to survive rugged winters and thrive with just a little care, they were as close to magic as anything she’d found.
“Rose, can you help me in the kitchen?” Mom called from downstairs just as Rose was unzipping her bag to unpack.
She dropped the zipper and shouted back. “I’m coming!”
If the past was any indication, the next hour or two would center around cooking a feast that could feed a small army. Rose fished a hairband out of her pocket, divided her hair into three sections, braided it, and tied it off. She shook her head, sending the rope of black hair swishing across the middle of her back. At least it wouldn’t get in her way now as she slaved over the hot stove.
Rose opened the bedroom door and trotted down the stairs. Her father, a thin man with salt-and-pepper hair, was lounging on the couch, flipping between two football games. The sound of metal hitting metal echoed from the next room.
Rose skirted the living room, calling out, “What do you want me to do?” as she walked into the kitchen.
Her mom looked especially round in her ruffled apron, and the strained smile on her face was typical of a family event. “Could you make the pies? The apples are in the fridge, and the pans, crusts, recipes, and ingredients for the pumpkin pies are over there.” She tipped her head toward the counter behind her.
“Sure. Let me scoot around you.” Rose maneuvered past her mother to the sink, washed her hands, and started mixing pumpkin pie filling.
“So how have you been, sweetie?” Mom asked. “We haven’t had time to talk since you arrived.”
“I’m good,” Rose said, trying to sound happier than she felt. It wasn’t a secret that she hadn’t been feeling overly happy lately, but talking with Mom wasn’t going to help. As much love as there was between them, there was also a lack of understanding that Rose had never been able to bridge.
“Are you sure?” her mother pressed.
Rose dumped a spoonful of cinnamon and some other spices in the bowl. There was no way around sharing. Mom had her cornered and knew it. “It’s just applying to colleges.”
“Are you worried about your test scores? You always do well.”
“No,” Rose said. “It’s not that.”
“Are you still trying to decide on a major?”
“Yes. But Mom, it’s Thanksgiving. Can we please not talk about it today?” Rose asked softly. It would be so much better if they could do it another time.
“I just think—”
Rose’s mother shook her head and returned to basting the turkey while Rose started adding sugar to the pie mix. The sound of the football game wafting in from the living room covered the awkward silence.
The oven creaked as the door swung open, and Mom pushed the turkey inside. With the turkey out of the way, she moved to the stove and turned on a pot of green beans. “It’s important to pick a field where you’ll be able to get a job.”
“I know, Mom.” Rose set down the measuring cup. The conversation was rapidly approaching the point at which she would have to either be honest and make things worse or lie to make it better.
“Then what’s the problem? You’re good at math. Majoring in accounting is a great choice.”
Rose closed her eyes and counted to three before facing her mother. “I’ve told you before, I’ll major in accounting, but it doesn’t feel right. There has to be more to life than a boring desk job like that.”
“More what?” her mother said sharply.
Rose tensed. “I don’t know. More magic, more mystery, more…something.”
“Your grandmother told you too many stories when you were a child,” she snapped. She pivoted on one foot, walked over to the fridge, and rummaged around.
Rose closed her eyes, wishing she were anywhere else. This was the sticking point. Every time she mentioned wanting more than a perfectly ordinary life, Mom lost her temper. Maybe her mom could be happy with each day looking much like the last, but Rose wanted more. It didn’t seem to bother anyone else in the family, but even the idea of it bothered her.
Mom sighed as she set a bowl of washed, peeled, and sliced apples at Rose’s elbow. “If you don’t like accounting, you can find a different major.”
It was an olive branch, one Rose was willing to take. “I’ll look.”
“On paper it’s a good job, but maybe something with more…varied work will come along. You might enjoy that more.”
Rose nodded. “I’ll do some research.”
“Just”—Mom pursed her lips—“figure it out before you go to school. You don’t want to waste time and money being wishy-washy in college.”
“Lily, leave the girl alone. It’s Thanksgiving,” Grandmother shouted from the front door. Rose smiled as she heard the door shut and then the thud of her brother’s shoes as he kicked them off. Grandmother still had bat-like hearing.
“I picked up Grams from her house,” Paul announced.
Rose rolled her eyes.
Mom shook her head. “Thanks for the warning, Paul.”
“That’s why I’m your favorite.”
Mom snorted and went back to her workspace.
Paul was Mom’s favorite. They understood each other somehow. When Rose was younger, she had wished for that kind of closeness with her mother. Dad had always tried to bridge the gap between them, but it was Grandmother who had the superpowers to smooth things out and keep Mom from asking too many uncomfortable questions.
Rose abandoned the pie, washed her hands, and hurried into the living room.
“Iris, good to see you.” Dad came around the couch and gave Grandmother a hug. “You haven’t visited in a while.”
“You take such good care of Lily that I don’t have to come around. Besides, I’ve got my garden, church, and two other children to pester.”
Dad laughed and turned to Paul. “What’s the verdict on Grams’s car?”
“Still dead in her driveway. It looks like it needs a new battery. I can take care of it tomorrow.” Paul flopped onto the sofa. “How’s the game going?”
“Two touchdowns while you were gone. It’s tied.”
“I knew they wouldn’t keep that lead,” Paul muttered as the two men were drawn back to the television.
Rose gave Grandmother a hug. “I’ve missed you.”
“Oh, sweet pea, I’ve missed you, too.”
Resting her head against Grandmother’s shoulder, Rose remembered when Grandmother had stood straight and sturdy. Now her body was thinner and weaker, and she didn’t move as quickly; however, there was still a glint in her eye, and she was as sharp as ever.
Grandmother pulled back. “Now why don’t I give you a hand with those pies?” Her voice dropped. “We’ll finish them so quickly your mother will think elves helped.”
Rose laughed. Yeah, sure. Like her mom would ever believe in elves.
“Lily, we’re taking over those pies,” Grandmother said as they walked into the kitchen.
“No cayenne in the pumpkin pie this year, though.” Mom directed. “My mouth burned for half an hour, and only you and Rose could eat it.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it.” Grandmother waited until Mom was busy and turned away before she leaned toward Rose and said, “Only fill one of the pumpkins. I’ve got plans for the other one.”
“Mom said no cayenne,” Rose whispered. The spice had been a fun twist on the traditional pumpkin pie, but she had to admit it wasn’t for those with sensitive taste buds.
“’Course not.” She snorted. “This year it’s all about the chocolate.”
“Chocolate?” Rose couldn’t picture the family being excited about a chocolate pumpkin pie, but it would be a delightful way to follow the letter of Mom’s orders.
“I had one at the bakery.” She smacked her lips. “Heaven. Trust me, they’ll like this one.”
Now that Rose thought about it, it seemed like a mouthwatering combination. “Chocolate it is.”
Rose put the piecrust in the pans, poured pumpkin filling in one of them, and started assembling the apple pie. Grandmother made sure Mom wasn’t looking, and then she set two cookie cutters on the counter. While she was busy doctoring the remaining half of the pumpkin filling with chocolate, Rose set to work cutting out crust dragons that would be connected nose to tail to decorate the top of the apple pie. Once that one was in the oven, Rose cut out pointy elf shoes to plop in the center of the pumpkin pies.
They were sliding the last pumpkin pie into the oven when Mom noticed the color. “What did you do to it?”
“It doesn’t have any cayenne in it,” Rose said.
“Chocolate pumpkin is all the rage this year,” Grandmother said as she slid it in and closed the door.
“You put chocolate in that poor pumpkin pie?” Mom asked.
“It was in one of those magazines you see at the grocery store. And the bakery had one, too. You have to keep up with the times.”
Mom shook her head and went back to mashing the potatoes. “It’s something different every year…”
“Got to keep things interesting.”
A little while later, Mom set her hand on her hips and surveyed the kitchen. “I think it’s time to start setting the table. Rose, do you mind?”
“Pish. We could still use her help in here. You let those men off too easy,” Grandmother said before Rose could speak. “Menfolk, it’s time for you to contribute. Set the table, pour drinks, and get ready to carve the turkey.”
“The game,” Paul said, looking from Grandmother to the television and back again.
“Are they winning or losing?” Grandmother asked.
My brother didn’t move his gaze from the television when he spoke this time. “Down by four touchdowns. Their defense can’t get it together.”
“How far into the game?”
“Halfway through the fourth.”
“Get your rump in here and spare yourself the pain of watching them lose.” Grandmother set a stack of plates on the counter and pulled napkins out of a drawer.
“Always a charmer, Iris,” Dad said as he snagged the plates.
Paul followed him into the kitchen and collected the silverware and napkins. “One of these days I’ll be able to say they’re winning.”
“And when you do you can watch the rest of the game,” Grandmother said with a smile.
Soon they were all sitting down and Dad was saying grace. “Lord, thank you for the bounty before us, the family we love, our health, and the opportunities you’ve given us. Amen.”
The others echoed him. Seconds later, Dad was taking requests for turkey cuts and dishes were being passed around.
“Where’s the gravy?” Grandmother asked.
Rose looked at the table but didn’t see it.
Mom pushed back from the table. “Still in the kitchen. I’ll get it.”
Grandmother hurried after her, muttering something about butter. Dad nodded absentmindedly as he carved the turkey.
Paul passed Rose a plate of rolls. “How’s the college hunt going, sis?”
She looked up at Paul. He couldn’t mean anything by the question since he hadn’t been here when Mom had been pressing. “It’s all right.”
Paul raised an eyebrow. “Just all right? Last time we talked you were enjoying it.”
Rose shrugged and swirled her fork through the juice left on her plate by her green beans. “It’s not as fun anymore.”
“Why not? You were all excited about getting out on your own and being an adult.” Paul was getting that protective-brother tone in his voice.
Rose summoned a self-depreciating smile. “You know me, never content.”
“Rose…” Paul searched for the right words. “Maybe you should find a job in a bookstore or garden. Put off college until you know what you want to do.”
Paul nodded. “And if that’s what you chose to do, I’ll even help you break the news to Mom.”
“Thanks.” She smiled at her brother. That was just like Paul, to look out for two people he cared about at the same time.
Mom came back with the gravy, followed by Grandmother holding the butter dish. As soon as they were seated, Dad handed out pieces of turkey and they all finished filling their plates.
Grandmother looked up. “Lily, did I tell you what your brother has gotten himself into?”
Mom groaned. “What’s he done now?”
Rose was happy that most of the discussions avoided her and covered neutral topics. But as they started slowing down and saving room for pie, she knew it was only a matter of time before her college plans came up.
“Have you seen any interesting houses lately?” Rose asked Paul. He’d been a real estate agent for six years and loved it. Mom was thrilled with his practical choice of profession.
“There was this one with the washer and dryer in the kitchen. For some crazy reason, when the homeowners remodeled they moved cabinets—and the microwave built into them—from over the stove to over the washer and dryer. I don’t know what they were thinking, but it’s in a prime spot to spill hot soup on clean clothes.” Paul went on, and the entire table got a detailed description of the layout and the location of the microwave.
“I can’t believe your client wants to buy it,” Lily said.
Paul shrugged. “Good price, great location. People will overlook a lot of things. They can always renovate that part themselves.”
With that, Mom’s eyes flicked to Rose and the conversation shifted. “I was thinking about careers you might enjoy, Rose. Have you thought about becoming a teacher?”
Rose sucked in a breath. She had known Mom would circle back. “I don’t know. I’ll think about it.”
“Mom.” Paul’s voice was soft but firm. “College isn’t right for everyone. There are very successful people who never attended college. Let Rose figure out what she wants to do on her own.”
Rose cringed, knowing things were about to get heated.
Mom’s eyes widened. “Are you saying she doesn’t want to go to college?” She pinned Rose with a glare. “If you don’t go to college, what will you do? You’d need to find something that pays well or you’ll never save up enough to buy a home or to set aside money for retirement.”
Rose swallowed, hoping it would steady her voice. “I don’t know. I don’t even know if I want to delay college. I need to think about it.”
Mom rolled her eyes. “You’ve been doing this for years. You need to pick a path and stick with it.”
The words stung, and from the expressions on Dad’s and Grandmother’s faces, they were appalled that Mom would come right out and say it. Paul shot Rose an apologetic look. She couldn’t blame him. This conversation would’ve happened at some point anyway.
“Honey, this isn’t the time,” Dad said softly.
“Neil, she’s stuck in a mentality where she can exist in the moment and never have to worry about reality and the future.”
“Rose doesn’t have to live her life the way you want her to or the way you live yours,” Grandmother cut in. “And really, when you say things like that, it discredits what she’s accomplished. She’s had straight A’s throughout high school, scored well on her SAT, and is applying to colleges. She’s had one acceptance already. Those are real accomplishments for a seventeen-year-old senior in high school. Give her space to breathe. She’s trying to do what you want.”
Rose sat there, biting her lower lip, and Paul squeezed her hand. It had been going so well—a simple family dinner without any unpleasant discussions—but Mom couldn’t let it go. Not that Rose had expected her to. After all, it would be a feat for Mom to understand Rose and allow her to follow her own path.
While the debate continued, Rose pushed back from the table, collected Paul’s plate and her own, and retreated to the kitchen. Moving methodically, she washed off the worst of the mess and set them in the dishwasher.
The only good thing about Mom’s criticism was that it showed how much she cared. If you knew what to look for—the slightly unsteady hands, the fear in her eyes—you could see her worry and concern. She only fought so hard because she cared, and that took some of the sting out of the comments. Some, but not all. It would take a confrontation to get the rest of the remarks to quiet down, but Rose just wasn’t up for any more fighting tonight.
They always started with the most unique pie, so she set the chocolate pumpkin pie, dessert plates, and a pie cutter on a tray. If she couldn’t make a direct assault, perhaps she could manage a misdirect and distraction. The surprise alone should end the argument, and if that didn’t work, well, she’d need to grow a spine and start standing up for herself. Though it was hard to do that when she wasn’t sure what she wanted.
Picking up the tray, she lifted her chin and did her best to hide the hurt. With each step closer to the door, her pulse sped up, and she took a deep breath as she stepped into the dining room. If her voice stayed steady, this could work.
Rose set the tray down at the end of the table and picked up the pie cutter. She tried to swallow, but her mouth was too dry so she hoped the words came out strong enough. “Who wants to try the chocolate pumpkin pie? It’s Grandmother’s special creation, this year’s limited edition.”
Paul seemed to get what she was doing, and his voice was serious even as he winked. “I’ll take a big slice.”
Rose nodded, adjusted where she was cutting, and was handing the plate to her brother when her Dad spoke. “Could I get an average piece?”
“A big one for me,” Grandmother said.
After a long pause, Mom said, “I’ll take one, too.”
Paul’s first bite was small and tentative, but he closed his eyes and gave a content sigh. Grandmother had a winner this year.
Rose passed out the slices to the others before taking one herself and returning to her seat. With the pleased sounds coming from everyone else, she didn’t hesitate to take a big bite. It was exactly what she’d hoped for when Grandmother had suggested it. All the goodness of pumpkin combined with the delight of chocolate in a piecrust. What more could a girl ask for?
The family pulled it together after that, and through cleanup, apple pie, and watching football, there was no mention of Rose’s future. Dad and Paul were quick to keep a steady stream of casual topics going, and Mom didn’t even try to change the subject.
Maybe it was a sign or maybe it was coincidence, but Rose’s parents retreated to their room at the same time Paul retired to his, leaving Rose and Grandmother alone in the living room.
Grandmother brushed a stray hair away from Rose’s face. “Magic is real.”
Rose shook her head. “You don’t have to say that. I know it’s only real in books.”
“Listen to me. Magic is real. It truly exists.” Grandmother took Rose’s hand. “Don’t stop believing in magic. If that’s what you want, don’t ever give up. If you want it enough, it will find you.”
There was an intensity in Grandmother’s eyes that Rose hadn’t seen before. For a moment she didn’t know what to say. Sure, there was magic in this world, but not the type from the stories she’d heard as a kid.
“Are you sure? Are you sure it’s real?”
Squeezing her hand, Grandmother said, “It’s as real as I am, if only you want it enough…if only you believe.”
Silverlight trailed his hand along the white picket fence. He turned a corner at the end of the block, heading down yet another street of nearly identical suburban homes. They differed from one another in only the most superficial fashions—the color of the front door, the style of the trim, or the plants in the garden.
The magic that had followed him into this world scouted the nearby houses, trying to determine if anyone was worth a second look. He could hear the magic, a simple three-note tune, as it moved from one home to the next. In the house on his right there was a family of four, a husband and wife and two little boys. The home across the street belonged to an elderly couple. The next two dwellings had young families, each with a single child, and the house after that had three adolescent humans.
Ignoring the children, Silverlight focused the magic on the young adults. It continued the same tune rather than shifting to the trill that would let him know it had found what he was looking for. These humans were perfectly content to spend their days in a world where magic was a myth.
With a sigh, he shifted his cloak, trying to block the night breeze. It was his bad luck to turn eighteen and be looking for fey hearted during winter. In the summer it wouldn’t have been a hardship to spend his nights exploring the streets of the human town, but this time of year it was raining more often than not, or when it wasn’t raining, it was cold or snowy.
Weather was not his only concern. Silverlight glanced around, verifying that he was alone. One of the requirements of entering into the human world was avoiding detection. Some of that was accomplished by traveling at night, staying out of sight, and blending in; however, the primary way fey passed unnoticed was by exerting a subtle magic pressure on the humans that made them perceive the fey as something expected. That was the part that required a healthy amount of concentration, especially when coupled with the effort of searching for a fey hearted.
One quiet step at a time, Silverlight made his way down the street. House after house yielded nothing, but that wasn’t unusual, and was why he was not expected to do more than three moons of searching. According to his father, there had once been thousands of fey hearted humans, and every fey who searched would return with one or more who might enjoy life in the fey world. Those days had passed, though, and now it was difficult to find even one fey hearted. Back when the fey hearted were plentiful, bringing one to the fey world was part of achieving adulthood. Now it was simply a tradition to search, and finding a fey hearted was a privilege.
The street dead-ended in a cul-de-sac. Silverlight sighed and continued down the sidewalk. This would have to be his last group of houses for the night, and he had nothing to show for it. If he’d been able to turn the corner and go down another block while heading back to the park, it would’ve been a different story. Unfortunately, with the way these roads were laid out, it would take him the rest of his allotted time to get back to the Slit, which allowed him to travel between the fey and mortal worlds.
He didn’t have much hope of success. After all, he had been going out every night this moon and had yet to find a single suitable human, but he had the magic check anyway. The five houses had a variety of inhabitants, male and female, young and old, but not one of them captured the magic’s attention. The cul-de-sac was as empty as the rest of the neighborhood.
Silverlight dropped his shoulders and tried to push back the disappointment. This had been it—the last night he had to find a human before spring. Per his agreement with his father, he would spend three moons searching for a fey hearted. He still had two moons of searching left and it would be spring before the Slit would be opened again. For the safety of everyone involved, looking for fey hearted was forbidden during the coldest months of the year. From what he had heard, several other fey were planning on searching when the Slit reopened. That would force him to venture farther from the Slit and spend less time investigating houses.
Turning on his heel, he started back down the street with a more purposeful stride. The magic trilled. There. He could hear the magic coming from a house behind his right shoulder. It trilled again, and he could feel the hint of yearning, a wish for something more. That could be it, the human he was searching for. Silverlight spun around and strode back into the cul-de-sac.
Hopeful it was the real thing, Silverlight gave the first house a thorough examination. It contained a middle-aged man and two children, none of whom were of any interest to him. The next house was vacant, and the third house was as useless as the first.
Silverlight eyed the remaining two houses, giving the magic his full attention as it did one last examination. There it was again, that sound, but this time he knew exactly where the magic had located a suitable human. Smiling to himself, Silverlight followed the sidewalk to the driveway and stepped onto the path that led to the front door. He assessed the wooden stairs and porch. They looked solid enough, but he couldn’t tell from a look if they were going to squeak and creak as he made his way to the door.
Silverlight cautiously made his way up the stairs and across the porch. He focused on opening the lock. As the magic changed shape he heard the soft repeating notes shift, becoming more demanding. The lock clicked open, and the sound faded away.
A cat hissed from the bushes beside the landing. Silverlight felt its fear. “Shh,” he soothed. The cat stopped hissing but kept watching him. When he didn’t move, the cat turned and stalked around the corner of the house, tail held high. While the magic could make humans skip over him, it didn’t work on animals.
Silverlight cast one last look around the cul-de-sac, reassuring himself that no one else had noticed him. Then he carefully opened the door, stepped inside, and closed it behind him.
The magic rushed away from him, and he sensed it again. Someone in this house had a burning desire to experience the magic and mystery that wasn’t of this world. Silverlight smiled. It was happening; he’d finally found someone to bring back to the fey community. At last, his hunt could be over, and he would be able to move on to the next part of this adventure—teaching a fey hearted about the fey world.
As his eyes adjusted to the dark, he could see a wide staircase with a thick banister partway down the hall. One careful step at a time, Silverlight followed the fey hearted’s emotions up the stairs and down the hallway. They were a beacon, guiding him to the third door on the left. He used the magic to dampen any sounds and slowly opened the door.
Inside, asleep in a twin bed, was a young woman with a book clutched in one hand. Strands of black hair obscured most of her face, but he could see a dragon on the book cover. From what little he could discern of the rest of her, she was on the small side, which would make her easier to carry.
He placed each foot carefully as he approached the bed. Even with the dampening magic in effect, he didn’t want to risk waking her. He held his breath and brushed the hair away from her face, resting his first two fingers on her temple. As gently as he could, Silverlight used the magic to tap into her deepest desires.
Yes, she was what he had been searching for.
The tight muscles in his shoulders and back relaxed. All at once the last month was worth it. The countless hours spent searching homes farther and farther from the Slit had yielded exactly what he’d wanted to find, and with any luck, he could introduce her to the very world she’d dreamed of all these years.
Shaking his head, he forced himself from his thoughts. This wasn’t the time to linger. There was much to do and not nearly enough time in which to do it. Bending the magic into a new form, he urged her into a deeper sleep, and to him, it seemed to start singing a lullaby. When he felt her reach a sleep that was nearly as deep as a coma, he changed the intent of the magic again, encouraging her to be accepting of what she was about to experience. The music changed tones, creating a more hypnotic tune. When the effects had settled over her, he gathered her into his arms. He couldn’t help but notice that she was even more petite than he had guessed.
As he turned back to her bedroom door, a family tree caught his eyes. There was just enough moonlight for him to see that it followed the matriarchal line. While the men’s names varied, the women—Violet, Aster, Marigold, Daisy, Iris, Lily, and finally, Rose—were all named after flowers.
What an odd tradition. Humans can be so strange.
As he traveled downstairs and to the front door, he was careful not to bump the girl into anything. It was a little tricky getting both of them through the door, but using magic to open and close it certainly made it easier. When he got to the pathway below the front steps, he pulled the strongest invisibility magic that he could muster around the two of them. This really wasn’t the time for a human to get curious.
Once they were off the property, the magic settled a heavy blanket of sleep across the house. No one in there would be awake before morning, and by then, the girl would either be safely in the fey world or back in her bed.
He carried her down the street and hoped she would choose to stay in the fey world. He could already imagine showing her unicorns and teaching her about magic. From what he understood, human stories portrayed magic very differently from its reality. He could also introduce her to other fey hearted. Perhaps they would even share some hobbies and that would help her adjust.
Her desires so closely matched what the fey searched for that it would be a blow to have misjudged her. No one at home would hold it against him, of course. There were always humans who refused to stay for some reason, usually obligations they felt they couldn’t abandon. Though, if she decided to return to the human world, Silverlight wasn’t sure he would be able to keep searching. It would be too difficult to continue after having come so close to finding a fey hearted. Sighing, he focused on this moment.
The park looked just as it had when he left it, dark with big looming trees and empty iron benches. The rustle of leaves in the breeze interrupted the otherwise silent night. He crossed the street with the girl and made his way across the grass, gaze locked on the trees ahead of him.
To the human eye, it was nothing but two pine trees that disappeared high into the night sky. To his eyes, however, an opalescent fog hung between the two trees, and in the center of the fog was an archway. Through it, he could see not the grassy field of the park but a forest with trees, ferns, and squat bushes of all shapes and sizes. He adjusted his grip on the girl and stepped through the arch.
A statuesque woman with white hair stepped out from behind a tree on the fey side of the Slit, where she kept watch. “What did you bring us?”
“A young woman,” Silverlight said.
Moonbeam nodded solemnly and set two fingers against the girl’s temple. “You found a good one.”
Her comment reassured him, even though Moonbeam wasn’t in a position to judge the prospective fey hearted. That was the job of the treis.
“Do you think she’ll stay?” he asked.
“That’s up to her.” Moonbeam shrugged. “Go to the pavilion. You know what to do.”
Silverlight took a deep breath. He couldn’t do anything about his nerves so he focused on his current task. It was only a short walk to the pavilion where the fey who would judge the girl were waiting.
He walked into the pavilion, set her on the empty cot, and turned around, facing the three fey sitting behind a table. On the right was his father, Waterfall, a fey about six feet in height with white hair, pointed ears, and laugh lines etched into his face. In the center chair was Summersky, whose long hair was pulled back from her face with dozens of little braids. Occupying the left seat was George, a fey hearted who’d been living in the fey world for more than two hundred years.
They were the treis and would decide if the girl would get a chance to stay in the fey land. If she was allowed to stay on this side of the Slit, they would undertake the unenviable job of explaining the decision to her. That was one part of this process Silverlight was glad he didn’t have to do alone.
Waterfall turned to the fey sitting next to him. “If you would like, I will remove myself from this process, as I can hardly be objective with my son.”
“Hush, there’s no need for that at this point,” Summersky said.
“The two of us will be objective for you,” George added before turning his attention to Silverlight. “We need to examine her.”
Silverlight nodded, and the three adults got up from the table. They walked past him and over to the girl. One by one they rested two fingers against her temple and peered into her thoughts.
Minutes ticked by, and Silverlight clasped his hands together to keep them from trembling. The few times he’d watched this procedure it hadn’t seemed as nerve-racking as it was now, but now his fey hearted and her future were in question. If he’d chosen well and she decided to stay, then he would be tasked with overseeing her transition and lessons.
The treis returned to their seats and exchanged a look. Finally, George spoke. “You chose well. She fulfills the criteria.”
“Thank you,” Silverlight said, relieved that they agreed with his selection. That didn’t mean that she would stay, but it was a step closer.
Summersky picked up the conversation. “We are prepared to offer her a place here.”
Silverlight felt lightheaded. It was really happening. He had done well enough for the fey to accept her.
“Awaken the girl,” Summersky directed.
Silverlight moved to stand by her shoulder and pulled the sleep magic off her. Her breathing deepened, her eyes opened, and she scrambled away from him, falling off the far side of the cot. The fabric making up the wall of the pavilion bowed out.
He had been warned that humans could have this reaction, but when he’d witnessed the procedure before the human had remained calm and rational. Silverlight leaned over the cot until he could see her. “It’s all right. We are not going to hurt you.”
She took a ragged breath. “Who— What are you? What do you want with me?”
Silverlight held out a hand, and she flinched. He pulled back. She would come to him when she understood that she was safe. “My name is Silverlight, and I’m a fey, though you could think of me as an elf. What’s your name?”
Her other question could wait since it would be better if the explanation came from the treis. They had done it before, and if he tried to explain he might forget something or scare her.
She tilted her head to the side. “Rose… Can I see your ears?”
He pulled his hair away from his face and turned his head to the right and left.
“They’re pointed, but that could be makeup,” she muttered. “Prove that you’re an elf—fey—whatever.”
Silverlight picked a dead blade of grass off the ground and held it in the palm of his hand. Rose came to her knees, using the cot as a barrier. As he directed the magic, he heard a tumble of notes, like a wooden flute announcing spring. The blade of grass transitioned from brown to a healthy green.
He offered it to her. When Rose didn’t take it, he set it on the cot and took a step back. Maybe with some distance she’d relax enough to examine it.
Her eyes darted between him and the blade of grass. When several seconds passed without him moving, Rose snatched the grass off the cot. She turned it over in her hands, felt the edges, sniffed it, and even touched it to her tongue. Apparently satisfied, she set it back on the cot.
“All right,” she said slowly. “The grass is real, but that doesn’t mean you’re fey.”
“We shall take it from here,” Summersky said, meeting Silverlight’s eyes.
He nodded and moved to the side so Rose had a clear view of the treis. He wasn’t happy to be farther away from her. Something about discovering her and bringing her to the fey land had left him feeling protective. He wanted her to choose to remain here and experience the magic this life had to offer.
Rose studied the three adults as they approached. Summersky and Waterfall received once-overs, as they introduced themselves, but then she focused on George’s round ears. “Are you fey, too?”
“I am now, but I was born human,” he explained.
She opened her mouth as if she was going to say something but closed it without speaking.
“The magic changes you,” George continued in a low and relaxed tone. “It also preserves and purifies you, healing injuries and preventing scarring.”
Summersky placed a hand on George’s arm and redirected the conversation. “Rose, Silverlight has brought you here because he sensed your frustration with the human world and wanted to offer you a life filled with the things you desire. If you stay here, you will experience all that the fey world has to offer. Magic, mythical creatures—”
“What kind of magic?” Rose interrupted.
“Fey can heal and interact with plants and animals. You’ll see.”
Rose looked like she was willing Summersky to continue the explanation.
After an uncomfortable moment, Silverlight filled the gap in conversation. “You would meet unicorns and dragons, maybe even a griffin. None of us know what type of magic will respond to you. Most fey can do simple tasks, but from there, individuals excel at different things.”
His father sighed softly enough that Silverlight doubted Rose heard, but he knew it had been directed at him for disrupting the treis’s explanation.
“Would you like to see some of our world?” Waterfall asked.
Rose stood up, smoothed her clothing, and straightened her shoulders. “Yes. I would.”
Maybe they were using magic to calm her because she didn’t feel scared. The logical part of her brain told her she should be afraid. Didn’t horror movies usually start with someone being kidnapped? There was no mistaking that she’d been snatched right out of her bed, since her last memories were of drifting to sleep with tales of dragons frolicking through her head. However, rather than fearing for her safety, Rose was as alert and excited as a child at a zoo. She was ready to see amazing things. This was her chance to see if the magic grandmother spoke of was real.
If she wasn’t still dreaming, that was…
Summersky motioned toward the door. “Waterfall, why don’t you accompany Silverlight and Rose and show her around?”
Waterfall nodded and followed Silverlight over to the open door in the side of the pavilion. As he moved, the sword hanging from his belt caught Rose’s attention. She glanced at Silverlight, who looked to be about her age. He was also wearing a sword. If they wanted to harm her they hardly needed swords to do so. She could ask about them after she determined that this was real.
Rose slowly stepped around the cot and walked over to the men. “Lead the way.”
She watched as they moved into the night. If they were wearing makeup, it was flawless. Their skin was smooth, no seams where prosthetics would be, and the points of their ears were so slight and shallow that earpieces couldn’t have created the shape. Everything indicated that these people were, if not exactly what they’d claimed, surgically altered or wearing makeup that was far more convincing than what was used in the movies.
This was all so strange, and while it seemed real enough, she was ready to believe that at any moment she’d wake up in her bed and all of this would’ve been a vivid dream. Rose’s mother would have been quick to say this dream was a result of all the nonsense Grandmother spouted. From there she’d go on to criticize Rose’s choice of novels and movies. After all, magic didn’t exist, and pretending it did changed nothing.
Rose dismissed the negative thoughts. If this was a dream, it was one she wanted to explore until she was forced awake, and even then she wanted to remember it for years to come. This might be as close as she ever got to magic.
Outside, floating globes of light drifted through the air, illuminating a dirt path that was worn down from the passing of feet. The surrounding trees looked just like the ones in the park near her house, though there were more of them here.
Silverlight glanced at her a couple of times as she walked. “It’s beautiful here,” he said eventually, “and there’s always a plant to help or an animal to heal.”
Rose nodded, her eyes locked on the lightning bugs flying around. At first they had seemed like the ones back home, but then she noticed that they glowed various colors. There were blues, reds, greens, purples, pinks, oranges, and the traditional yellow. They moved around the trees, making them look like they were decorated with Christmas lights.
“Our settlement is called Veles.” Silverlight spoke quickly. “Many of the creatures of human lore are real. They live here, and if you stay you’ll be able to meet them.”
“Silverlight,” Waterfall said, a warning in his tone.
Silverlight stopped talking, and Rose tore her attention away from the lightning bugs. Moths darted near the floating lights before flying away. A few of them looked like the kind of moths that would’ve been at home in her front yard, but others were glowing in greens and bold purples. One had long pointed wings and was as big as a dinner plate.
“Don’t be frightened,” Waterfall said to her.
“Of what?” Rose asked, looking around. Something zipped past her shoulder and was lost to the night.
Rose started to ask what had flown past her, but she closed her mouth when a small white dragon flew overhead again and hovered in front of her. Its wings were flapping quickly, and its tail was curled. The dragon’s ears swiveled, and it sneezed before flying away.
She gasped. “Was that an illusion?” She hoped it wasn’t. She had always wanted to see a real dragon.
Silverlight looked hurt. “No. We do not trick people into joining us.”
Waterfall whistled and the dragon came back. It looked at him for a moment before flying over to Rose. She reached out a hand, and the dragon moved until her hand was on its head. Rose gently rubbed her fingers over the top of its head.
The dragon’s skin was cool and dry, with the edges of its scales providing the slightest bumpy texture. It snorted, and Rose pulled away. When her hand was by her side once more, the dragon flapped lazily and landed on her shoulder, curling its tail around her neck and leaning against her head. Her heart stopped beating as she reached up carefully and brushed her fingers against its side. The dragon sighed and leaned against her more heavily. It was only because she could feel the creature’s warmth that Rose believed this was happening. She was petting a dragon.
Silverlight smiled. “Pearl likes you.”
“Pearl. A fitting name for a beautiful creature,” Rose said. The dragon’s tail brushed her cheek.
“Rose, we need to continue,” Waterfall said. “Pearl will stay, or not, as long as she desires.”
“All right,” Rose said. She took a step forward, certain that Pearl would return to the air, but the dragon seemed happy to stay perched on Rose’s shoulder.
Rose tried to look around, but her eyes kept being drawn back to Pearl. Even in her most fantastic dreams she’d never come up with something this magical. She wondered what else this place had to offer.
A moment later Silverlight pointed off into the woods. “Most of us live over there, in the Field.”
“If you look that way,” Waterfall said, pointing the other way, “you can see the glowing mushroom. I believe it is unique to this side of the Slit.”
“The Slit? What’s that?” Rose asked.
“As you may have noticed, you are no longer in the human world. Silverlight brought you here through the Slit, which is a portal that allows travel between our world and yours.” Waterfall could surely see her mind forming more questions. “This is not the time. Please, explore this world.”
She nodded. It was clear that he didn’t want to discuss the Slit, but he had mentioned a unique fungus. Rose turned to look at the mushroom but froze when Pearl shifted. She didn’t want to upset the dragon; this was too amazing to end so soon. Pearl simply readjusted herself, lying across the back of Rose’s neck and heaving a sigh. Reaching up, Rose stroked the end of Pearl’s tail, and it curled around her fingers. With the dragon settled, she turned her attention to the mushroom. Her eyes widened in surprise as she took in the green glow emanating from an ankle-high, flat-topped mushroom.
She knelt down to examine it more closely. The top was the size of a saucer, and thick ribs lined the underside. The glow was the brightest around the top, slowly fading to nothing where the stalk met the ground. While she was studying it, a moth landed on the mushroom. With the tan edges on its moss-green wings, it matched the mushroom. The moth flapped its wings, and they began to glow the same color as the mushroom.
Rose didn’t know of any moths or mushrooms that glowed like this in the human world. Even if they did exist, she didn’t think the mushroom would be able to share the glow. This place, this magic, was what she had been looking for all this time.
“The moth is feeding off the energy emitted by the mushroom,” Waterfall said, as if reading her mind.
“Feeding? But moths eat things like insects, don’t they?”
“Here you will find flora that make your flytraps and air plants seem normal.”
Captivated, Rose trailed a finger down the stalk. It felt just like the mushrooms back home. Only this one produced light and was playing host to a moth.
“Come along,” Waterfall said. “There is more to see.”
Rose slowly got to her feet, not wanting to disturb Pearl. As they continued down the path, she did her best to look at everything around her. At first glance this place had seemed so like home, but the more she looked, the more she found things that were similar but oh so different.
When they passed a maple tree, Silverlight removed two leaves. He offered one to her. “Try it.”
Rose held it awkwardly, unsure what he meant until he took a bite out of the leaf. She rotated the stem, getting a good look at it. As far as Rose could tell, it was an ordinary maple leaf, but she didn’t know anyone back home who would grab a leaf for a snack.
“I’m not sure about this,” Rose said.
“Please try it. It’s good. It won’t hurt you.”
Rose nibbled on the edge. As soon as it touched her tongue, she tasted maple syrup, but it was the essence of the flavor, without any of the sugar. She eagerly bit a chunk off the leaf. Rose rotated the leaf and was ready to bite into the other side, when a white snout snatched it out of her hand.
“Hey, that was mine!”
Pearl slurped it down and rubbed her head against Rose’s cheek.
Rose watched the dragon out of the corner of her eye, laughing. “Very cute, but that was my leaf.”
Pearl licked Rose’s cheek, looked around for more, and pushed off Rose’s shoulder, lazily flapping the few feet to a branch covered in leaves.
“I guess she has a sweet tooth,” Rose said as Pearl tore a mouthful of leaves off the tree. “Wait, is it winter here? Back home it’s winter, and maples don’t have leaves this time of year.”
“Our seasons line up with yours, and we have similar weather,” Silverlight answered. “However, these maples do not shed their leaves. Many things you learned about nature in the human world will not be true here.”
Rose looked around, seeing for the first time how many of the trees around here were pines and other varieties that kept their leaves all year. The darkness and unique fauna had hidden the lack of foliage on the other trees.
A moth glowing blue and purple flew past, and Rose suddenly knew this place wasn’t a figment of her imagination, a dream born of too many stories and too much want. It was too vivid, too detailed, and too fantastic to be a dream. Grandmother had always said that if you believed enough you could find magic. She’d been right all this time.
“You keep saying I can stay, but what is this place? What’s the catch?” There was always a catch with fey, or at least Grandmother’s stories always included one. Rose was willing to bet that there was a cost to enjoying this type of magic.
Waterfall seemed to select his words carefully. “You can stay. Would you like to see more or return to the pavilion and discuss living here?”
Rose slowly pivoted, taking in everything around her. There was more to discover here than she could take in tonight. If she could stay, it was worth learning the cost and weighing if it was worthwhile. Though Waterfall had said this was a different world, and that could mean she wouldn’t be able to see her family often.
“Let’s go back to the pavilion.” If that’s where the discussion was going to take place, Rose wanted to get it over with. This could turn out to be a trick, and it would be better to find out now before she got attached to this place.
Waterfall took the lead, and Silverlight motioned for her to fall in behind him. As they walked away, Rose heard a rustle and looked back to see Pearl flying after them with a hunk of maple leaves in her mouth. The dragon dropped onto her shoulder, still munching. As she settled in, she held out a paw clutching a single leaf.
“Thank you.” Rose took the leaf and bit into it, savoring the rich flavor. Pearl made a happy rumble and kept chewing. Rose tried to etch the experience in her memory.
Waterfall looked back and chuckled. “You should feel honored. She doesn’t normally take to people like this.”
Rose finished her leaf, trying to figure out if there was some special meaning in his words. She hadn’t done anything to get Pearl to like her. The dragon had decided to curl up on her shoulder before they’d had more than the most basic interaction. In fact, Rose had scolded the dragon when she’d stolen the maple leaf. Apparently, in Pearl’s world, bickering over maple leaves equaled friendship.
It was surreal to have a dragon perched on her shoulder. If you’d asked Rose this morning what she would have done if confronted by a dragon, she would’ve said she’d run for the nearest fireproof shelter. Never in her wildest dreams would she have thought of one riding on her shoulder. Even Grandmother’s stories hadn’t included dragons that were friendlier than most house pets.
A hiss sounded in Rose’s ear as some creature flew close enough that she felt the air swirl around her head. Ducking, she ran forward a few steps. The movement upset Pearl, who took to the sky with a grumpy rumble. Rose hoped the dragon could understand what had happened.
Pearl was still gaining altitude when the creature passed by again, and this time Rose was able to get a better look. While the wings and body matched that of a wood owl, the face was that of a cat, and the hiss was distinctly more feline than avian.
That last hiss had been directed at Pearl, who gave an irritated grumble and shot a tiny flame from her snout. The flame seemed to scare the other creature, and it flew away. Whatever was going on, it was between those two and didn’t involve Rose, for which she was grateful. She wouldn’t know what to do if a cat-owl hybrid attacked.
“Not nice, Esmeralda,” Silverlight corrected.
“What was that?” Now that it was clear that she wasn’t under attack, Rose was more curious than alarmed.
“Esmeralda? She’s a creature unique to the fey world. We call her a fevian.”
“Do all the animals have names?” Rose asked.
“Just the ones who spend most of their time in this area. Not all the creatures want to be around fey, but as you can see, Pearl likes the company. If you stay you will come to know them.” Waterfall started walking toward the pavilion.
Rose followed him, wanting to believe that this place could be her home. However, she had doubts. There was always a price to pay for magic. Grandmother’s stories had been very clear on that point. This was a decision that could affect other people. She needed to consider her family, her friends, her entire life.
Those were not the only factors. What if the cost was too high? What would she do then? More importantly, could she be happy back home, knowing she had given up a chance to spend her life surrounded by magic? This was a place where she could actually experience magic. To people like her mother that might be a silly reason, but she’d wanted to live in a place with magic since she was a little girl listening to Grandmother tell her stories.
While the magic was a huge attraction, it was far from the only one. In this world she would have the chance to live an adventure few humans were invited to experience. Rose could escape from the parts of life she disliked, get away from the place she didn’t feel she belonged, and build the life she had spent years fanaticizing about.
Esmeralda swooped by again, and Rose got a good look at the fevian’s ears. They were a seamless blend of an owl’s feathery tufts and a cat’s points. The fevian snatched an unsuspecting mouse off the ground and carried it away. The light wasn’t good enough for Rose to see if there was anything unique about the mouse, but from the squeaks it sounded ordinary. Though ordinary was relative here.
They rounded a turn in the path and were back at the pavilion. Waterfall stepped to the side and motioned for her to go ahead of him. The other two adults on his committee—What’d they call it again? The treis?—Summersky and George, were sitting in their chairs behind the small table. Rose searched for another place to sit, but it was the cot or stand. She picked the cot. Silverlight followed her into the pavilion and stood a few feet from the end of the cot while Waterfall returned to his seat.
He looked at the others and nodded. Summersky turned her attention to Silverlight and said, “Do you still wish to offer Rose a place here?”
Silverlight’s voice was steady. “Yes.”
Summersky nodded and focused on Rose. “You are welcome here.”
“What if I want to go home?” Rose asked, not wanting to hear the rest of what Summersky had to say until she knew what would happen if she went home.
“Then you shall be returned to your home, with no memory of this night,” George said.
Rose blinked. It would be as if this night had never happened. She would never know that the magic was real, that there was a place with a dragon small enough to ride on her shoulder and creatures that were strangely beautiful blends of two species. There would be no memory of maple flavor filling her mouth from biting into a leaf, or of a dragon-and-fevian spat, or the colorful wings of the moths that put even the most exquisite butterfly from back home to shame.
All of that and the chance to do and see anything else would be gone, and she’d be back to a life of boring high school classes and bickering with her mother. Who knows, when they took the memory, they might also take the desire to experience the magic, and Rose could end up as obsessed with the practicalities of life as her mom, unable to look up and see beauty and mystery, even when it was in her own garden.
“And if I stay?” Rose was afraid to breathe. Everything hinged on their answer.
Summersky spoke this time. “You will move into your mentor’s dwelling, take classes, learn our way of life, and study magic. You will enjoy a longer life and other benefits of being fey. Once you have adapted to this world, you will take your place in our society.” Summersky paused. “If you choose to stay, you will not be able to return to the human world for one hundred years.”
“But…what about my family?” Rose sucked in a breath. Not only would that put her family through the heartbreak of losing her but also, by the time she could return, they would be dead. They would live their entire lives not knowing what had happened to her, full of regret and worry.
There wouldn’t be any more afternoon teas with Grandmother, or family dinners, or nights heckling shows on the television. Rose wouldn’t be there when Paul got married, or when her parents celebrated an anniversary, or to see the next painting Grandmother finished. She would miss their lives and be unable to properly mourn their deaths.
“How could you ask me to put them through that pain? To put myself through that pain? How does anyone agree to leave their family?”
“We are not as cruel as that. Their memory of you would be clouded and your absence dismissed. They wouldn’t think of you or miss you. To the humans, it would be as if you were a dream, not a person to be missed and mourned. As to your pain, if you returned after spending time here, they would see the changes in you. We cannot allow that.”
“So I couldn’t go back? I’d never see them again?”
“No,” Summersky said gently. “You would never see your family again.”
Copyright © 2016 N. E Conneely