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“Name your price,” the human girl, Jocelyn, says, standing a little taller.
The queen stands back a little and puts her hands to her hips. “I’m actually more curious about what you want to offer. Anything you’d like to trade?”
Jocelyn folds her arms and studies the ground as she thinks. “If there was a way I could get into my college fund before I turn eighteen …”
Her Majesty shakes her head and titters, “I have all the riches I could ever want, silly girl. What could you offer me outside of that?”
She pales a bit and swings off her backpack. “Let me just—”
The queen backs away while both Iver and I shout for her to stop. She freezes. Judging by what I’ve seen of her so far, I doubt she’s any real threat, but the queen being injured or killed right now could lead to more problems than opportunities. I reach Jocelyn before Iver, snatch the bag away from her, and begin to hunt through it.
“I didn’t mean anything by it,” she assures me. “I just wanted to look for something the queen might like.”
“I believe you, but we have to be careful,” I answer, rummaging through the bag. There doesn’t seem to be anything of real value inside. It’s mostly writing utensils, enormous books, and journals. There’s also an empty plastics bags filled with crumbs. I knew she fed Hob.
At the bottom lies an old frayed paint brush. It doesn’t look like it’s being used any more, but it’s a sign that the girl might have something worth trading after all. I begin flipping through the journals for some sign that I’m right.
One of them is filled with absolutely gorgeous drawings. Life-like sketches stare up at me. Intricate patterns and shapes decorate other pages. Dancers stand frozen on paper in their elegant routines. Animals bound and fly through their landscapes with as much grace as the creatures they imitate. If the girl is this talented just with a pencil, I wonder what she’s capable of with a canvas and paint. Not to mention she’ll be much safer if she can offer up something physical like artwork rather than something abstract or distant, like a future favor or some part of his soul.
I remove the journal and hand the bag back to Jocelyn.
“That’s just my sketch pad,” she explains. “I have to fill it up by the end of the semester.”
The queen takes it from my hand and marvels at the drawings. “You drew all of this?” she asks in awe. “What other mediums can you work with?”
“I’ve really been getting into oil paint recently.”
“I want seven,” the queen orders, shoving the journal back in her hand.
“Seven what, exactly?”
“Portraits of me. I haven’t had any painted recently. Each one is to be unique and I have to approve them. When you’ve painted all seven to my liking, I’ll heal your mother.” She holds out her hand. “Do we have a deal?”
That’s it? She isn’t going to add a catch? I’ve never known her to want something so incredibly simple before. Then again, if she was saving the life of one of our own or if she was looking for power or riches, I get the feeling she would be making larger demands of the girl. The life of one human woman doesn’t count for much to someone who’s lived for centuries.
Jocelyn studies the queen’s hand, then meets her gaze again. “If I do this, you have to promise that she’ll be exactly as she was. You can’t change her or mess her up or anything like that.”
“Well, of course I promise,” the queen says with a grin. “What else would I do?”
We’d be here all day if she actually wanted a list.
Jocelyn looks back down at the queen’s open palm, holds her breath, and shakes her hand.
The air fills with static and sizzles with the flow of powerful magical energy. The queen stands still and cold as the contract seals itself while Jocelyn’s face pales and contorts in pain. Try as she might to stay on her feet, the magic now flowing through her veins brings her to her knees. She lets go of the queen’s hand and crumples to the floor.
“The pact is sealed,” Her Majesty says, turning back towards her throne. “Paint me seven portraits and your mother will be healed.”
“What did you do to me?” Jocelyn gasps, pulling herself to his knees with his face covered in sweat. “What was that?”
“I signed the contract, so to speak,” the queen explains, easing herself back down into the throne. “You now wear my mark, ensuring that I owe you what I promised, so long as you fulfill your side of the bargain. It also offers you protection within the Faerie Realm. You can come and go as you please without being bothered. This place isn’t safe for humans.”
I resist the urge to wince. I’ve seen the queen make enough deals to know that Jocelyn now has a burn across her chest that will heal to look like deadly nightshade, the queen’s mark. To see my fellow knights and others of our kind enter such arrangements is one thing, but to see a human girl go through the same…I knew Her Majesty wasn’t going to let her leave unscathed, but to mark her? That’s a new level of cruelty.
“I did you a favor, really,” the queen continues. “Who knows what sort of creature lurking around here would like to eat you up or make you their play thing?” She taps Lyle and motions down the length of the Grand Hall. “Go have someone prepare Jocelyn a room. No doubt she’ll be staying with us for several months while she works.”
And there it is: the way she’ll try to trap her.
Jocelyn scrambles to her feet, although she still trembles. “With all due respect, Your Majesty, you can’t honestly expect me to stay here. I have to get back to my family.”
The queen sits up straighter and narrows her eyes. “Why would you not wish to stay here, Jocelyn?” she demands with a voice like thin ice. “Is there something wrong with my court?”
“I’m sure your accommodations are nothing short of incredible,” Jocelyn argues, “but I simply can’t stay. I have other responsibilities I need to attend to while I paint.”
The queen rises to her feet and towers over the boy. “Surely your mother’s life is a greater responsibility than all the others combined? Or should I revoke my promise and leave her to die after all?”
Jocelyn practically turns translucent. “Your Majesty, that’s what I meant. I just….well…”
If Jocelyn stays, Her Majesty will keep her so distracted that it could take her decades to finish those paintings. Not that she’d know. The queen would keep her so drugged with faerie food and wine that months could pass without her being the wiser. By the time she grasped enough sanity to actually finish the paintings, her mother could be dead. That’s probably what the queen wants. That’s what most faeries want: to gain more than they give.
I couldn’t say that I’m an exception if I wanted to. Faeries can’t tell lies.
“If I may, Your Majesty,” I say, stepping between the two. “It might be in our best interest to let the girl return to the human world, at least for a little while.”
Her Majesty scoffs. “What are you getting at, Dominic?”
I turn to the girl. “Where is it you reside, Jocelyn Lennox?”
He blinks several times, then answers, “Northland, sir. It’s about an hour from here.”
“That’s not far at all,” I comment.
“And did anyone know you were returning to the site of that car accident today?”
“My uncle and my sister, sir.”
“And if you don’t return, no doubt they’ll come looking for you, correct?”
“I’d hope so.”
I turn back to the queen, who looks on with suspicion on her face. “Your Majesty, I understand your desire to keep Jocelyn here at court. You wish to keep an eye on her, make sure she’s focused, and ensure she isn’t trying to cheat on her side of the bargain. However, Jocelyn is not like most of the humans who find their way here. She has people who will come looking for her and they will come within the day if they suspect something has gone wrong.
“They will search this entire forest to find her and, while we can hide ourselves for a while, even you know we cannot do it forever. Your subjects will get restless. Someone will slip up and expose themselves to a human, attack one of them, do something moronic to put us all in danger, even under pain of death.”
The queen glares over my shoulder at the girl. “So, what you’re saying is that I should void the contract?”
“On the contrary,” I continue. “This contract could be an asset to you as the Hallowed Offering grows closer. It could prove to your subjects and enemies alike that your bond to the Other World holds strong and true. Just allow the girl to live in the human world while she paints. She can bring the paintings to you as he finishes them.”
Judging by her scowl, she’s not convinced.
“To the north of here, there’s an old farm house that’s been empty for years,” I remind her. “We used it for surveillance missions when the humans were paving the roads near there, but once the construction was finished, we abandoned it. We could have Jocelyn live there. She’ll be close enough to check on whenever you want, but she’ll still be able to stay in contact with her family.”
Not to mention that such a location would be a perfect base of operation for less than Faerie Court-friendly activities. Faeries might not be able to lie, but we’re quite skilled at leaving out certain information if we see fit.
“What am I supposed to tell my family if I just move all of a sudden?” Jocelyn asks.
“I’ll help you figure that out,” I tell her. Turning back the queen, I add, “I’ll take full responsibility for her and make sure he stays on task.”
Her Majesty ticks up one thin eyebrow. “I must say, Dominic, I knew you’ve bored around here for some time, but this is quite the project.”
I shrug. “With the entire faerie realm under your control, a knight such as myself as little to do and I’ve grown restless. Lyle can handle the goings on of the court and I’ll be close by should anything arise.”
Since nothing really happens around court these days, Lyle will do fine.
The queen clicks her nails and drums them on the arm of her throne as she thinks it over. “You might be onto something, Dominic,” she finally says. “If I have subjects stupid enough to run into human streets, it won’t do to have humans sneaking around here until I remind everyone of the consequences of such foolishness.” Lifting her wine glass to her lips, she gives us a wave of dismissal. “So be it. Look after the girl. I want a progress report in a week. If I find out she hasn’t been living where I can get to her, the deal will be null and void.”
I bow and say, “Thank you, Your Majesty. I won’t let you down,” before turning and herding Jocelyn and Hob out the door.
None of us speak until we’re out of the queen’s keep, through the court ground, and have entered the thick of the forest. It doesn’t feel safe to speak until then.
Jocelyn leans against a tree and doubles over as if she might be sick. “Holy fuck, what did I just get myself into?”
“So, you speak like a real human after all,” I chuckle. “Though I must say, the way you handled the queen was rather impressive.” I glare down at Hob as he waddles past. “Except someone shouldn’t have brought you here in the first place.”
“Her BLT was delicious and the left over chocolate cake was to die for. I owed the girl a favor after a lunch like that.”
“You owed her a favor, not death-sentence at the hands of that she-demon,” I argue.
“Don’t be dramatic, Dominic.” Hob motions to Jocelyn, who still looks shaken and pale. “She’s still alive, isn’t she?”
I sigh and keep walking. “Thanks to me.”
The goblin tags behind. “Oh yes, because we’re supposed to believe you protected the girl out of the kindness of your heart. What are you really playing at, Dominic?”
“I’d like to know too, actually,” Jocelyn chimes in as she catches up. “You gonna burn me too, or are you a bit more creative than that?”
“Oh, please. I’m not going to do anything to you. I just needed an excuse to get away the court for a while and you happened to provide the perfect opportunity. Thank you and you’re welcome.”
Jocelyn walks backwards to speak to me as we move through the woods. “So, what now? Are you really going to help me move and all that?”
“Of course. I’m a faerie of my word. Once we reach your car, you’ll leave me your address and phone number. I’ll get the house ready, then call you when it’s time to set our plan in motion.”
“And all you get out of this is a break from your boss?”
The girl doesn’t look convinced, but she turns around and leads us to her car none the less.
Let her be suspicious. When dealing with faeries, one always should be. So long as she keeps her questions mostly to himself, does what she needs to fulfill this insane agreement, and then gets as far away from the faerie realm as possible, she’ll be fine.
I, on the other hand, have some serious explaining to do once word gets out. No matter. Once I explain myself and show what a wonderful opportunity this has presented us, everyone will understand. Besides, we still have Shaylee on the inside. It’s not as if I left Her Majesty without any surveillance. Plotting, scheming, and strategizing play more to my strengths anyway.
With this new plan set in motion, the Queen of Light may return sooner than we thought, all thanks to one human girl desperate to save her mother.
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