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It was easy to slip from the Palace unnoticed, when you knew exactly what to do. A mistake could get you returned to precisely where you did not wish to be—confinement, boredom, the duties of a Royal Heir—but she'd learned from her mistakes in the past. Now, it was nothing at all to duck her governess and gain her freedom.
It was especially easy on this night, when so many Faeries poured in through the Palace gates that the guards would not concern themselves with the ones going out.
And this was why Cerridwen did not object to yet another royal party. She'd complained on the surface, just enough so that her compliance would not arouse suspicion. And her governess had dressed her hair and helped her into her gown, all the while ignoring the expected grumbling and protesting that she had become so used to over the past twenty years.
Twenty years. Really. Who still had a nursemaid at twenty years old? Not even the Humans kept their children as children for that long!
Twenty years, this night, and a party to celebrate it. A party to celebrate one more year that the Royal Heir was not dead. What importance was an heir, really, in a race that did not die, or, at least, did not die naturally? There would be another party like it, and another, and another, always with the same Faeries, always in the same, boring pattern. A feast, then dancing, and conversation with the few faeries she was allowed to know, all of her mother's friends and advisors. How many evenings of her life had already been wasted in awkward chatter with Cedric, her mother's faithful lapdog, who never said or did anything interesting, lest he offend Her Majesty? Or Malachi, who glowered and stared in the most uncomfortable way, who, it was rumored, was not even a quarter Fae, but was kept because of some bizarre devotion to her mother?
"It is not a waste," Governess would say sagely while she pulled and pried at Cerridwen's tangles. "If it is the will of the Gods, you will never die. You cannot waste that which is infinite."
It did not make Cerridwen glad to know that her boredom would be infinite.
After she had been cleaned and dressed and made to look far more fine than usual for these occasions—which aroused some suspicion on her part that quickly faded when she remembered her plan to escape the party altogether—she had dutifully followed the guards that would escort her to the ball. Then she had promptly allowed herself to become separated from them by the chattering throng of arriving guests, and her escape was made.
It had not been hard to disguise her leather breeches under her gown, and when she reached an alcove, covered over by a tapestry of her mother, the Great Queene Ayla, slaying her father, the Betrayer King, she ducked behind the heavy fabric and shucked her dress, pulling on the shirt that she'd folded and hidden in her bodice. She kept her wings bound—where she was going, they did not know her as the Royal Heir to the throne of the Faeries, nor as a Faery at all. Among them, she was Human, and the ruse suited her.
The blowsy Human shirt—a ruffled, silk thing she traded with Gypsies for—would have covered her wings without their binding, but she had worn them bound since before she could remember. She felt almost naked without them secured to her back. Into her sleeve, she tucked a scrap of a mask. It would guarantee her entrance tonight, to a gathering much more desirable than the one she'd been expected to attend.
She left the dress and her shoes in the alcove. Better to go barefoot than break her neck in those flimsy slippers. She took a deep breath and slipped from her hiding place, but no one noticed her. As she wound her way through the crowd, deftly avoiding her abandoned and confused guards who stumbled, helpless, against the flow of bodies moving into the Palace, she pulled her hair over her shoulder and worked it into a loose braid, making sure to cover the wisps of antennae that sprouted from her forehead. By the time she reached the Palace gate, she could have been any Human slave being sent by their Faery master on an errand in the Lightworld.
Cerridwen spotted two such slaves following their owners into the Palace. In a time before her mother's reign, they all said, this would never have been tolerated. Queene Ayla herself did not care for the practice, either. It brought the Fae races too close to Humans, blurred the dividing line between them. No doubt the Faeries who brought Humans into the Palace tonight would either be turned away or have their names marked down somewhere to note that they were out of favor with the Queene.
Cerridwen's fists clenched at her sides as she marched away from the Palace. Her mother's hypocrisy never failed to ignite fury within her. She was half Human, and yet she criticized full-blooded Faeries for consorting with them? And she kept a Darkling at her side, yet railed against the Darkworld, as well?
The flames cooled as Cerridwen realized how far she had already traveled from the Palace, and how close she was to the freedom of the Strip. Already, she could hear the sounds of it echoing through the concrete walls of her prison world. She came to the edge of the Faery Court, nodded to the guards who stood dressed in her mother's livery, and broke into a joyous run toward the mouth of the tunnel.
The Strip was the neutral ground between the worlds of Dark and Light. A huge tunnel, reaching far over the heads of the creatures on the ground, with dwellings and places of commerce stacked on top of each other, the Strip was home to those who took no side in the ongoing war between Lightworld and Darkworld. Mostly Humans, the fascinating ancestors of Cerridwen's mother, and, she sometimes reminded herself with pride, of herself. Gypsies, who considered themselves apart from Humans, who claimed kinship to immortal creatures long ago. Bio-mechs, still Human, but fitted with metal parts.
Then, there were those that were not so fascinating, not so much as they were repulsive or frightening. Vampires, with their thirst for the death of any mortal creature. The Gypsies that even other Gypsies would not consort with, who lured creatures away from the safety of the Strip to harvest their parts. They pulled stinking carts, hawking their wares, eyes and teeth and horns, and nameless, slimy things that no one, at least, no one that Cerridwen could think of, would want. She could not fathom why any Human would chose to live in the Underground with the very creatures their race had banished below. After the destruction of the Veil between the world of the Astral and the world of mortals, the Earth had to be shared. The Humans had taken more than their share by driving the races of the Underground into their sewers and cellars. Why some of the Humans would follow the creatures into their skyless prison, Cerridwen could not explain.
She pushed her way across the wide tunnel, toward the stand that sold sweet Human bread, and the smell reminded her that she had not brought anything to trade with. She reached to her hair, where Governess had pinned a jeweled ornament. It was worth too much to trade for simple bread, but the sticky, spiced scent teased her empty belly. Tonight, she would be generous.
A soft, tutting sound came close to her ear, and a voice whispered, "You know better than that, Cerri."
She jumped and laughed as she turned. "Fenrick, you frightened me!"
As he always frightened her, a little. And thrilled her. He smiled, and his teeth stood out, brightly silver against the blue-black of his skin. "You should be frightened of me. You, Human, me Elf—we are, after all, mortal enemies."
"Mortal enemies," she agreed, good-naturedly, but she wished he would not make such jokes. They were enemies, more than he knew. Between Elf and Human, no love was lost. But the animosity between the Faery Court and the kingdom of Elves went back much farther than their confinement in the Underground.
He took the hair ornament from her hand and made a soft whistling sound as he examined it. "This looks like Faery craft. It fairly burns my skin to touch it."
"I found it in the mouth of a tunnel to the Light-world." It was not a complete lie. She had found it in the Lightworld.
This impressed Fenrick; his pointed ears lifted as he smiled. "So much bravery for such a small thing! No doubt you'll be at the front line when the great battle comes."
The great battle. They often mocked it together, the lust for blood and war and victory that both the Light-world and Darkworld professed at length. It was speaking out against such ideals that had gotten the Elves expelled from the Lightworld in the first years since the Great War with the Humans. And it was what had gotten Fenrick's father expelled from the Dark-world Elves only twenty-five years previous. Fenrick had grown, as Queene Ayla had, in the hardship of the Strip.
Strange, Cerridwen thought, that it made her mother so angry and hardened at Humans, so different from Fenrick, who embraced the difficulties of his childhood and held no one unduly accountable.
Fenrick motioned to the stall owner and handed over his trade—a few water-stained packets of sugar from the Human world above, a booklet of paper scraps held together with coiled wire, and two or three small, coppery coins, also Human in origin—and waited for the thick-armed man to assess the value. He nodded, unsmiling, and broke off a large chunk of the sticky sweet bread for Fenrick.
Fenrick held up his hand. "For the Human. She was willing to part with something much more valuable for it."
At this, the shopkeeper's eyes widened in disbelief, and he made to pull the bread back, but Cerridwen snatched it and she and Fenrick ran laughing into the crowd at the center of the Strip.
When they stopped again, near one of the tunnels to the Darkworld, she meant to thank him for the bread. But Fenrick spoke first, and she used the opportunity to bite into the delicious Human confection.
"You look different tonight," Fenrick said, gesturing to her face. "You're wearing paint on your eyes. Trying to impress someone?"
She had forgotten to remove the cosmetics Governess had applied for the royal party. She swallowed carefully, the sticky bread sliding down her throat in a raw lump. Then, she put on a wicked grin, the one she had practiced in the mirror until it looked both teasing and good-humored. "Perhaps. Or several someones. The night is long."
He took a step forward, then another, until they were so close that his chest brushed hers. His gray tongue darted over his blue-black lips, his unsettlingly yellow gaze fixed on her mouth. He leaned down, and she did not know what to do, other than to flatten against the slope of the tunnel and move the bread to her side so that he did not crush it between them. His mouth covered hers—how often had she thought of this happening in the weeks since she'd met him?—and it was exactly like, yet strangely nothing at all like, what she had imagined it would be to be kissed. She heard a small noise from her throat before she could stop it; it was a shame, she wanted to appear experienced and unaffected.
When he moved back, it seemed to have been finished in a blink of an eye. For another blink, she waited, wondering what he would say, if this was when he would declare some feeling for her. Her heart stuck in her throat, or it might have been the bit of bread, but while she gaped at him wide-eyed, his serious, intense expression changed into one of laughter.
"Come on. The night isn't that long." He tugged on her hand and she followed him into the tunnel, bracing herself against the stench of decay that lingered in the Darkworld.
So, that was not what he meant by the kiss, though she did not know what he had meant. It did not matter. She could laugh and dance and be young, unencumbered by the strictures of Palace manners, the seriousness that pervaded every facet of her life in the Lightworld.
She let him take her hand and pull her deeper into the Darkworld, and she thought she could already hear the pulse of the music that awaited her.
Ayla looked up, away from the revelers who crowded the Great Hall. Cedric, seated at her side, turned his attention to the guard who had approached her, as did Malachi, who stood at the foot of the dais, in deep discussion with two other Faeries on her council.
Angry as she was with her daughter, she would not show it. Nor would she show any concern, though in the back of her mind it crept in to spoil her annoyance. "Yes? Have you found her?"
"No, Your Majesty. We did find a dress, which her servants have confirmed belonged to her, and shoes." He cleared his throat, obviously nervous to have to speak to his Queene thusly. "Is it possible that she has left the Palace? We do not wish to presume—"