“Right.” Kya went to lift her foot, but found her feet—her whole self, actually—had frozen some place in between flight and moving forward. Moving at all seemed an impossible task, no matter how her heart jumped and juddered.
“You could always go back,” Hearthorne said lightly, as though what she was saying was nothing of consequence.
“Yes. Back to the pot sitting empty on your keeper’s window sill. It’s still there, you know.”
With great effort, Kya managed to turn her head enough to look Hearthorne in the face. “But what of our bargain?”
The faerie-flower shrugged her leaves. “What good is a bargain that doesn’t have a back door if things get too messy?”
“Yes. The familiars serve the witches.” She gathered the cloak close about herself, careful to keep the hem from dragging or catching on any of the needles. She wanted to make sure she returned the cloak in exactly the state she’d borrowed it in.
“If you’re sure.” He grinned at her before resuming the course he had chosen.
The cat walked for a time, leading her along a path that only he could see, for he certainly didn’t follow any of the trails crisscrossing the forest for very long. Every so often he’d stop and clean his paws, watching her through glowing eyes as he did.
On the third such stop, rather than sitting down, he remained upright, his ears straining at the night. “I think I have need of the first favor,” he said without turning around.
Wordlessly, the moon lifted the hood from her face, washing the forest about them with her silver light. Without warning, the cat darted off to the right and ran up the side of a tree as though the earth’s pull had no permission to impede his movements.
Wednesday nodded companionably, understanding perfectly that the child didn’t actually want to converse with him so much as he simply wanted someone to listen and make affirming grunts in all the right places.
Well did he know the feeling.
But as they walked along, Wednesday’s tooth started to tingle. Not the one that told the story of his tribe, nor the one that gave a brief history of the UnderWhere itself. No, it was his own personal tooth that was jangling in such a way as to make the fur on his face and arms stand up.
The child was completely foreign, and yet somehow familiar. And why had the Lord Mayor, out of all the UnderWherians he might have chosen, chosen him?
Beneath their feet, the path unwound in a litter of peculiar goldenrod-colored bricks and stones. At first, he’d been so preoccupied with the child that he hadn’t noticed, but now he squinted suspiciously down at the path.
Mira hugged her book of fairy tales to her chest, willing herself to fall between the pages into a land where fairies were real and goose girls could become princesses. Where fifth graders could be out doing heroic and magical things instead of being forced to endure fractions, decimals, and figuring out where Timbuktu lived on a map.
“Deep in the forest,” she whispered to herself, “lived two sisters. One as fair as the morning, the other dark as night. They lived with their mother in a forest glen, these two sisters: Rose Red and Snow White.”
Her backpack bumped comfortably against her as her stride and the story weaving itself through her mind and across her tongue all fell into rhythm. Her favorite time of the day, besides that silver hour when the world held its breath in between day and night, was the walk home from school.
It was then when she could be any princess she chose to, fall into any fairy tale she fancied, with no one to look over her shoulder or eye her disapprovingly from the front of the classroom. There were no chores for her to do—not yet—and her homework could wait.
“A rebel, Your Majesty?” Gwyn winced. Her voice was at least an octave too high and a shade too weak.
The queen didn’t say anything; she just looked at Gwyn, her eyes the color of night and twice as unforgiving. Auburn curls fell in soft waves against her face, the only part of her that was gentle. The queen’s poppy-red skirts unfurled about her legs like petals that had bloomed to their fullest.
And she smiled with scarlet lips that hid hungry teeth.
The yellow rose twisted in Gwyn’s hand, and she wished she’d thought to hide it away the moment her cousin had given it to her. Hope and beauty didn’t last long in the Garden, not without the Ruby Queen’s permission.
Permission she never gave to anyone but herself.