“Oh, hooray! It’s you!”
The airy voice burbled like the brook, but there were no women in Peregrine’s traveling party save the one he currently pursued, the bright-eyed temptress who haunted his every thought. Peregrine scanned the streambed and the tree line, squinting into the twilight.
“Hello?” Was it a naiad? a sylph? A fairy collecting milkweed and thistledown? It might have been the wind rustling the colorful autumn leaves, or his own mind tricking him, as his dearly departed father’s had for so long. “Hello?”
“Please tell me it’s you,” she said. “The Earl of Starburn?
Son of George and Marcella?”
Peregrine’s fresh grief turned his confusion to wariness. No one could be so specific as to his identity unless she’d been following him since the funeral. Like a thief. Slowly, the newly orphaned Earl of Starburn backed against a tree and unsheathed the dagger at his waist. It was an ornamental piece, but Peregrine figured it had at least one good jab in it before he’d need to find a sturdier weapon, like the sizeable fallen branch on his left.
“I am Peregrine of Starburn,” he announced loudly to the creek, in case any of his servants stood within earshot. “Show yourself.”
She manifested out of fog wisps, falling leaves, and leftover fireflies. Her hair was long, longer than his, and dark as the night but for a streak that bisected her ebon locks with a flash of silver-blue. Her eyes were black as well, sprinkled with starlight, and the sparse leaves of the grove brought out an olive hue in her slightly dusky complexion.The air around them suddenly filled with the stench of burned cinnamon.
Like every other child raised in Arilland, Peregrine knew what happened when one encountered a fairy. In the next few minutes, his life would change for the better or worse, and drastically so. Strangely enough, he was not afraid. He thought this new development rather wonderful. Whatever challenge she saw fit to give him, he was up to it.
“I am Leila,” she said. “I am late. And I am so, so sorry.” Peregrine recalled no fairy story that started this way.
“I . . . accept your apology?”
“You are too kind. I will now grant you one wish.” She raised her hands in the air and flapped them about like drunken butterflies. Peregrine clumsily caught them and stopped her.
“Thank you,” he said, “I think. But I’m very confused.” Leila covered her smiling mouth with long, slender fingers.
Her giggle popped like bubbles in the stream. “Your father did not tell you about me?”
“Ah,” said Peregrine. “No. He didn’t.”
In truth, it was very possible that his father had spoken about this Leila, but any mention of fairies, real or otherwise, would have been dismissed as the earl’s further mental deterioration. Peregrine placed a hand over his chest, felt the lump of his father’s wedding ring beneath his tunic, and silently asked a ghost’s forgiveness.
The fairy got a faraway look in her eyes, and straightened. For all her affected daintiness, Peregrine noted that she was almost as tall as he was. “Your father was a wonderful man,” she whispered.
“I tend to agree,” said Peregrine.
“But of course you would. You’re a smart boy.” Her tone slipped into condescension, but quickly righted back into dreaminess. “He came to my defense once, when I was helpless.”
“He did that quite a lot.” Peregrine hoped one day to be half the man his father was, before his father had become half a man. “He was an honorable man, and for his good deeds I promised a boon.”
Peregrine frowned. A fairy wish might have helped his father’s debilitating state. Why had this idiot vanished before keeping her word?
“But I was captured by an evil witch,” she said before he could ask. “I was forced to be her slave in a cave so high in the White Mountains that time itself did not reach the summit. Only now am I free from her spell, and so I came immediately to repay my debt.”
“My father is dead.”
“Which is why I sought your forgiveness.”
“Once again, your apology is accepted.”
“And once again, I offer you the wish that should have been his.”
The cinnamon in the air dried Peregrine’s throat and made him yearn for a brimming cupful of that cool, clear stream.
The fairy sensed his discomfort. “Let me fetch you some water.” His golden cup appeared in her olive hands, though he didn’t remember giving it to her. She bent down to the brook to fill it. Her dark hair and the folds of her cloak eddied about her. Every man has one true wish in his heart. Peregrine paid Leila the courtesy of waiting for her to stand and offer him the goblet of water before saying: “I want to live a long and fruitful life. But in the event that I begin to lose my mind, or any other vital organ”—men often perished of less specific lingering ailments—“I wish to die swiftly and in peace.”
The statement could possibly be seen as two separate wishes. Peregrine hoped this particular fairy wasn’t one to argue semantics.
The sky was dark now. Distant thunder warned of an approaching storm. “Drink,” she said, “and your wish will be granted.”
Peregrine gulped down every bit of the water. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and smiled at the fairy. She smiled back. She was still smiling when the water began to freeze him from the inside out. The hand that held the golden goblet shook, slowly graying from frost. A pressure burst like icicles in his brain again and again, bringing him to his knees. He grabbed at his head and tore his neatly coiffed hair out of its queue, screaming for the pain to stop with a throat that could no longer speak.
She picked up the goblet from where he’d dropped it, and he watched as the silver-blue streak vanished from her dark hair . . . and reappeared in his own long locks. “Thank you, my dear,” she said as she removed her cloak. “Do enjoy your long and fruitful life.”
She tossed the cloak over his head, and the icy darkness consumed him.
Swords and Sisters
Saturday died for the fifth time that morning. Her shallow breath gently stirred the dust of the practice yard. She got to her feet, shook back the strands of hair that had come loose from her braid, and pushed a larger chunk back behind her ear, mixing the sweat and soil there into mud. The one clean thing on her person was the thin band of blue-green fabric wrapped around the wrist of her sword arm, a remnant of the only dress Saturday had ever worn. No matter how disgusting she got, it seemed this magic bracelet was as immune to filth as Saturday was immune to injury.
Shoulders squared, feet apart, and tailbone centered, Sat- urday lifted the wooden practice sword before her. “Again.”...