The young inventor Nicolette Lampton is living her own fairy-tale happy ending. She's free of her horrible stepfamily, running a successful business, and is uninterested in marrying the handsome prince, Fin. Instead, she, Fin, and their friend Caro venture to the lush land of Faerie, where they seek to put an end to the bloody war their kingdom is waging. Mechanical armies and dark magic await them as they uncover devastating secrets about the past and fight for a real, lasting happily-ever-after for two troubled countries—and for themselves. Smart and unconventional, this novel will appeal to readers of romance and adventure alike.
About the Author
Betsy Cornwell is the New York Times best-selling author of Tides, Mechanica, and The Forest Queen. She received an MFA in creative writing from Notre Dame and lives in Ireland with her family. Visit her at www.betsycornwell.com.
Read an Excerpt
The furnace rumbling in my horse’s belly warmed my feet, and puffs of smoke from his nostrils drifted over me as we cantered toward the palace. Snowflakes melted and hissed on his flanks. My patron, Lord Alming, had teased me the first time he saw the saddle I’d designed for Jules. He couldn’t understand why on earth I would want to ride in the open air when I could stay warm and dry inside the glass carriage I’d already built. But I missed Jules when I was inside the carriage, and there was something weirdly impersonal about pulling levers to direct him, as if the levers were reins and Jules no more than a normal horse. After all, I needed only to tell him where I wanted to go, and he would take us there. I didn’t need reins when I was riding Jules either. I had fitted retractable handles into a slot between his steel shoulder blades just in case, for my own comfort until I got used to riding again. But I knew he would never try to throw me. Whose best friend would do that? Riding had been Jules’s suggestion, not long after last year’s ball; it was the day I left the Steps to start my own workshop, in fact. I had walked out of the house that used to belong to my parents with my head held high, the little mechanical insects Mother and I had made buzzing around me in a protective swarm. Mother’s books and journals, which she’d left in her workshop after she died, were boxed and stacked inside my carriage. Even with my sewing machine and dress form wedged on top of them, the small compartment was barely half full; it had been years since the Steps had let me keep anything of my own—at least anything they knew about. I carried the ball gown Jules and the insects had made for me over my arm. Lord Alming had been waiting for me in his own elegant barouche; I was to ride with him to my new workshop and apartments in Esting City, and Jules, pulling my carriage, would follow. Stepmother had been there at the door when we first arrived at the house. I’d steeled myself for her icy cruelty as Lord Alming helped me out of my glass carriage, but she’d held her arms out to me and smiled, wide and beatific. “Nicolette!” she’d cooed, grasping the hand Lord Alming wasn’t holding. She’d pressed my palm to her own cheek. Her large gray eyes fluttered closed for a moment, and her face took on the glowing expression of a painted saint. “I am so happy for you,” she’d said, with never a glance toward Lord Alming, even though this act of hers was for his benefit. I couldn’t move, couldn’t look away from her; I’d felt a bone-deep revulsion that rooted me where I stood. My throat felt too thick and full to speak. I sensed Lord Alming watching me. I’d torn my gaze away and glanced back at Jules, where he stood in the drive with steam rising around him in the cold morning air. His immense metal strength reassured me, and I could do what I’d intended: ignore Stepmother completely. I squeezed Lord Alming’s hand and led him forward, sweeping past her and into my parents’ house. The huge manservant who had accompanied us followed silently. Stepmother had stayed with us, hovering like a malevolent bird as I made my way up the main staircase and down the winding corridor that led to the servants’ quarters. My bedroom there was spare and small, and it had already been ransacked, the threadbare quilt tossed in a corner, the thin mattress overturned. But I’d always known Stepmother went through my things, and the journal I’d come for was still safely hidden in the spring-loaded slot I’d installed under the bed. I relished the small hiss she made as I took the book out. “I wish you could have trusted me, Nicolette,” she’d said in a sweet but weakened voice. I watched not her but Lord Alming, to see if her virtuous charade was having any effect on him. He’d given me a look of such disbelief through his monocle that I couldn’t help laughing. And when Stepmother would have followed me into the cellar, down to my mother’s secret workshop, he’d waved his hand, and his manservant had stepped forward to block Stepmother’s path. “I won’t be gainsaid in my own house!” she’d said, more weakly still; but she didn’t struggle. She couldn’t unleash any real venom in front of Lord Alming. When everything had finally been packed into my carriage, when I was walking at last out of that house and toward the happily-ever-after I’d built, Stepmother caught me by the wrist. She brought her other hand up to my cheek and turned my face firmly toward her, so that I had to look. “My darling girl,” she’d said, as if intoning a prayer, “I wish you a joyful life, today and evermore.” Her words were just loud enough for Lord Alming to hear. I’d pulled away, and my legs started to shake as I walked toward the carriages. It wasn’t her obvious attempt to play mother in front of Lord Alming that had disturbed me; it was that I’d suddenly known that she meant what she said. That even after everything she’d done to me, and everything she’d stood back and let my stepsisters, Piety and Chastity, do, she somehow believed that she wished me well now. I’d known that, when she said her real prayers that evening, she would tell the Lord that she’d tried her best to do right by me—and that at least part of her would believe it. I’d started to feel dizzy. I’d nearly stumbled as I kept walking away. But Jules had stepped forward, pulling the weight of my laden carriage behind him. His bright glass eyes looked into mine and he pricked his ears and tilted his head to the side, beckoning me to come toward him. As soon as I got close enough I put my hand on his neck and leaned against him; I’d felt so sick by then that I didn’t think I could have made it even one more step on my own. “Ride,” Jules had huffed, blowing steam against my cheek. I’d pulled back a little to look at him. “Are you sure?” He’d flicked one ear in annoyance. Jules meant everything he said; using his voice box caused him pain, and he never spoke unless he had to. No one else even knew he could speak. I was too shaken to do anything but agree. I’d called to Lord Alming that we’d follow behind him, and I hoisted myself up onto Jules. My arms wrapped around his neck, I felt strength flowing into me with every step that he took. I turned for one last look at Lampton Manor and glimpsed my stepsisters’ beautiful faces framed in a first-floor window. As soon as they saw me looking, they ducked out of sight. The edges of my skirts were smoking and singed by the time we got to Esting City, but I haven’t ridden in the carriage since. A few days later, after we’d settled into my new workshop, I’d brought back a tooled leather saddle from Market. When Jules balked at it, I’d sighed. “Well, what would you have me do? Ruin all the beautiful clothes you and the buzzers make for me every time I ride?” He had snorted like laughter and picked up a piece of fabric left over from another gown. It was a lovely claret color, a rich brocade. I’d had to laugh too. “I should have expected nothing less from a horse who designs gowns,” I’d said. Jules had the final say on all the dresses we created, even my own wardrobe. He led my mechanical insects through all the sewing and tailoring, just as he’d done when he was no bigger than my hand, though now he was as huge and solid as any draft horse. He loved the work, and I’d long since admitted that my horse somehow had better taste than I did. In fact, the dress I’d be wearing to the palace that night was another of Jules’s creations. It was a lovely, ethereal periwinkle silk, embroidered with small white starflowers that drifted down from the bodice and all around the bustled skirt. I had asked for a pale gown, since the one I’d worn to last year’s ball had started such a popular trend of dark purple dresses among the ladies of the court. They all absolutely had to have the adjustable glass slippers I’d designed too, but I didn’t mind that. The huge success of the slippers had allowed me to pay off the mortgage on my very own workshop, and I had nearly enough money saved to make a reasonable offer on Lampton Manor. I didn’t want to make a reasonable offer, though. I wanted to make an offer Stepmother could never refuse. But while the slippers’ sales had held strong, ever since King Corsin had officially declared war on Faerie again, I’d had a hard time selling my other inventions. Before the declaration, the Fey rebellion had grown stronger and more organized until they were close to winning back their independence. Our armies had since put Faerie under martial law and regained control of much of the continent, but waging a war was expensive, and Esting’s once-decadent courtiers had far less money to spend on my beautiful clockwork trinkets now that their funds were needed to help quell the rebellion. My workshop was near the heart of Esting City, and Jules and I reached the palace in only a few minutes. Its blackstone walls loomed like huge shadows, lit at intervals by the bright glow of gaslights in the evening gloom. I suddenly remembered how I had looked and felt exactly one year ago, riding up to the palace doors in my glass carriage. I saw myself as if in a vision: I had been shivering inside my old, patched, oversize work coat and thinking of Fin, the boy I daydreamed about, waiting for me in the ballroom. I didn’t even know he was the Heir then. There were so many things I didn’t know. Watching that ghostly girl, I wished for a moment that she—that I—could stay in the glass bubble of Jules’s carriage, heart beating fast, hoping to dance with a boy I’d met more times in my imagination than I ever had in waking life. By the time I’d walked out of that ballroom last year, I’d left those fantasies behind. I didn’t live there anymore, in that place where I dreamed of a hazy, perfect future. I lived in my happy ending now, but it was nothing like those simple dreams. For one thing, I couldn’t approach the palace anonymously this time. As soon as Jules stepped into the halos of gaslight, guards emerged and bowed to us, and a groom I didn’t recognize hurried toward Jules. “The guards will send word to announce you within, my lady,” the groom said. “I shall see to your mount.” He reached mechanically for Jules’s reins and his hand closed on nothing but air. I smiled at his baffled expression; he must be new. “It’s all right,” I said. “I’ll bring Jules to the stables myself. Please don’t announce me.” “But my lady—” Jules and I were already off. We knew the way to the stables blindfolded. Jules crunched nimbly through the three or four inches of snow on the ground, and I pulled down the hood of my fine cloak and took a deep breath. My vision of the girl in the carriage had faded away, and my nostalgia for her had gone with it. I always had thick cloaks and fine dresses now, and my back and feet were never cold nor my stomach empty, as hers had so often been. Whatever complications I faced here in my happily-ever-after, I had saved myself from real hardship. I must always remember that. As we reached our destination, a tiny, lithe figure came jogging out to meet us. The stable hand’s red hair was almost bigger than she was. “Hello, you beauty!” Bex cried. I grinned. I knew she wasn’t talking to me. “So Nick’s brought you back at last, hey? Oh, I missed you so much!” She approached Jules and held her hands under his nose for him to sniff, a huge smile painted across her freckled face. “Honestly, Bex, it’s only been a few days,” I said, dismounting. I had to fairly leap down; I’d built Jules bigger than even a quarry horse. He rose like a shining glass-and-steel mountain next to diminutive Bex, steam crowning his head like clouds. “So long?” With considerable effort, Bex arranged her face into an expression of dramatic woe. Jules huffed smoke at her and nosed through her pockets. “Only apples in that one,” she said, “but I have what you’re looking for right here.” Bex slipped her hand inside her coat and came out with two big, dusty nuggets of black coal. She opened the hatch in Jules’s side and dropped them into his belly. Jules whinnied his thanks, a screeching-springs noise that always made me wince and smile at the same time. “You two will be all right till I come back, then?” I asked. Bex and Jules both nodded. Jules had never spoken in her presence, or in anyone’s presence but mine, but she’d figured out long ago that he could respond to human speech in a way that no other horse could. Most of the kingdom thought Jules was just a fine simulacrum, with no life of his own at all. But he was alive, and all I knew about the Ashes that gave him life was that they had to do with illegal Fey magic. I guarded Jules’s secrets closely. But I trusted Bex with him, at first because my friend Caro did, and later on her own merits. Bex was sharper, harder-edged, and more mischievous than Caro, but they shared the same golden optimism and the easy honesty that comes with it. “Are you sure you don’t mind missing the party?” I called as Bex and Jules walked into the stables. Bex’s laugh cracked through the darkness. “And lose the chance to ride this lad? Don’t worry, Nick, he’ll be right here when you’re done waltzing.” She looked back at me, her eyes reflecting just enough of the reddish glow from Jules’s furnace that I could see her wink. “Just kiss my girl for me, will you?”
I took the back way in, through the huge, labyrinthine underground servants’ quarters that supported the palace in every sense of the word. I had no desire to walk down those wide marble steps at the front entrance, where the aristocrats would get to inspect me at their leisure, the way I’d done at last year’s ball. I still felt a little embarrassed by my own naiveté back then. Waiting to be kissed by my prince, when I didn’t even know he was a prince yet. I knew the palace now, and I knew which of the servants’ hidden doors would let me out just behind the orchestra pit in the ballroom. From there, I could peer around the curtains and assess the lay of the land while remaining well concealed. It was easy to spot Fin: He lounged on a throne opposite the main staircase, chatting with a young man who clearly wasn’t holding his interest. He looked like the picture of a bored Prince Charming from any story book, except for the snap of good humor in his eyes that even his mask couldn’t quite conceal. King Corsin sat at a small distance in an even bigger throne. A tall platinum crown rested heavily on his brow, and he was dressed in grand military regalia, yet despite his finery, he seemed faded and worn, almost beneath notice. The somber, black-robed Brethren advisors that flanked him had more presence than their monarch did. I wanted to say hello to Fin, but any public interaction between us was highly scrutinized these days. In fact, I had to be careful when I showed myself in public at all, which was why I was so relieved that Fin had agreed to make this second annual Exposition Ball a masquerade. My mask gave me at least some sense of anonymity, of armor for the broken heart I’d had at last year’s ball. But I had worked hard since then to mend my heart and remake my understanding of love and family from the simple, binary ideas I’d had before. Fin and I weren’t the starry-eyed couple I’d dreamed of last winter, true; we were simply a unit, together with our Caro. We were three people who loved and needed one another, and it was as easy and as hard as that. Just then I was attacked from behind. A pair of strong, soft arms locked around my waist, I felt the pressure on my back of an enveloping hug, and I heard the rustle of another gown’s worth of fine fabric colliding with my own. “Caro!” I squeaked. I managed to wriggle around in her arms, and I bent down to plant a happy kiss on her forehead. “Bex sent you that.” “What,” Caro said, “am I not to have a kiss from you, then?” She fluttered her eyelashes coquettishly. We both laughed. I kissed Caro again, for myself this time. Caro was wearing a gorgeous marigold-orange gown that I hoped would cause back orders at my shop tomorrow. Any Jules creation became the latest craze; I just wished he could take the credit for them. And I hoped at least a few courtiers would have enough money to buy them. Given the War Contributions urns placed strategically around the ballroom, though, and the propaganda announcements that periodically interrupted the music, I suspected very few people would have money to spare. Caro looped her arm through mine, and together we stepped out onto the ballroom floor. “Now, what’s our charming prince up to?” she asked. “Dying of boredom, I believe,” I said, but when I glanced up at Fin, I found that wasn’t true at all. He was talking animatedly with a slim young man in a mask of pristine white lace, angled at the edges to emphasize the sharp lines of his cheekbones and mouth. Thick, shining auburn hair rose above his pale forehead. Even masked, his face was handsome. I knew at once who it was and what he and Fin were discussing. And then I knew that another public interaction with the Heir was quite unavoidable, whatever rumors it might restart. Caro knew, too, that there was only one type of conversation that could get Fin so excited these days. “Ugh, politics,” she tutted under her breath. I’m sure she would have left him to it, but I clamped her arm against my side and fairly dragged her up to the dais. Fin could use our help, I was certain, and he was my friend (and I would have to radiate friendship and no other emotion for every instant that we were together in public, I reminded myself) and therefore I was going to help him. The handsome courtier’s barrage of talk didn’t cease when we reached them, but Fin glanced over and sent us the flicker of a wink, all the while keeping his face arranged in an expression of intense interest. “But Your Highness,” the young man was saying in his voice like treacle, “we must think of your safety.” Coming from anyone other than Fitzwilliam Covington, that tone would have sounded condescending, even wheedling. But Fitz was never anything but slick and smooth. Fin’s dark eyes flashed behind his crimson silk mask. “There are others whose safety I value far more,” he said. “There are lives far more endangered than mine ever was.” If Fitz’s voice was treacle, then Fin’s was blackstrap molasses, the sweetness still there but made dark and rough. He’d talked more in the past year than he had in probably the whole rest of his life taken together, what with the speeches he was making all over the country now, trying to persuade the public to feel sympathy for Faerie, trying to pull back the tide of war that already threatened to drown us. Our army and Faerie’s were both decimated already, and reports of more battles, more deaths, came back every day. Dark clothes were still fashionable, to be sure, but many of this year’s gowns were worn in mourning. Fitzwilliam Covington himself wore a black satin band on his arm. He had recently inherited a minor lordhood after his father died in a Fey ambush. Fitz was among the most vocal advocates of the war. He was ambitious, already using his new position any way he could, and he was rising through the ranks in the military too. Yet he had his eyes on a much higher title. “Duchess Cerese-Jessine Listro of Soleil Domine,” the announcer called from the staircase, his dignified voice amplified through a series of copper tubes leading to blossom-shaped horns installed along the ceiling of the vast ballroom. Fitz’s gaze darted to the tall, stately form of a beautiful young woman descending the main staircase, her hair woven in hundreds of intricate braids on top of her head, a leaf-green gown of Jules’s and a golden mask of my own design setting off the warmth of her brown skin. I liked Cerese, and I’d had great fun dressing her and her sisters for the ball; foreign nobles had been my best customers for months now, and the Listros had a large domain in the Sudlands. I hoped I’d get to speak with her before the end of the night. Fitz clearly shared that hope. He kept watching the lovely duchess as he made his excuses to Fin. “Your Highness, you know how I would love to continue reminding you of the duties you hold toward your own precious person,” he said drily, “but I’m afraid true love calls.” As if he had only just noticed that I was there, he made an overelaborate, nearly mocking flourish of a bow. “Of course, you both know how that feels.” The look he shot me made it clear that Cerese wasn’t the real reason he was leaving Fin’s company; I was. It was the same look he once gave me when I walked in on him with my stepsister Piety—when he was supposed to be courting Chastity. He’d never been one for scruples. But I’d kept Fitz’s secrets, and so far he’d kept mine. I met his eyes, imagining frost creeping over the leaves on my mask. “Yes, yes, Fitz, go on,” Fin said. Fitz turned away just a hair earlier than was really polite for leaving the presence of royalty, bowing before him just a hair less fully than one ought to bow to the Heir of all Esting. “Thank the Lord,” Fin said with a fierce clap of his hands, turning toward Caro and me. “That idiot might have gone on forever if you hadn’t shown up. He’s the only soul in the kingdom who dislikes you, Nick, and although I can’t possibly fathom why, I am glad of it. At least he’s gone now.” I knew perfectly well why Fitz didn’t like me: it was because I hadn’t married Fin. I’d refused to play the game Fitz played, the favor-for-favor court intrigue that he was sure I could win as the Heir’s fiancée, the Heiress Apparent to our powerful kingdom and all its empire. As Heiress, I could have done Fitz any favor he wanted; I could have given him his own dukedom outright so that he was not forced to court beautiful women in order to earn the rank. But to Fitz’s outrage, I hadn’t taken the bait, hadn’t taken the offer, but had remained only Nicolette Lampton—not that that wasn’t enough to give me some power these days. The glass slippers I’d danced in a year ago had turned me into the most famous inventor in the country overnight. I was wearing them again today, of course, like almost all the court ladies. I’d never been able to find other shoes quite as comfortable for dancing. I’d not been able to resist creating my own mask, either. My handiwork was well-known enough that its style might have revealed my identity, but a few other nobles had ordered masks from me, so this one didn’t stand out. It was fine-hammered silver, inlaid with delicate leaves that fluttered when I moved, controlled by minuscule hidden gears. I wasn’t willing to deprive myself of the gift of pride in my work. “Was Fitz talking about the automaton again?” I asked, looking warily at the Brethren beside Corsin’s throne. They both watched Fin, and they didn’t look away even when I glared at them. The king moved his thin fingers slowly back and forth over the sash on his jacket, his eyes half-closed and unfocused. He coughed, and the Brethren turned to him at once, fawning. Fin glowered. “What else? But I won’t be made a puppet, Nick. If I won’t let my father secret me away anymore, I certainly won’t let a snake like Fitz make a simulacrum for me to hide behind.” It had been nearly six months since Fitz had proposed creating a decoy version of the Heir to make his speeches for him, but clearly Fin remained unmoved. “I’m surprised to see you here, Caro,” Fin said suddenly, shifting in his seat. “Shouldn’t you be following Bex around the stables?” Though his voice was teasing, not bitter, I couldn’t help but remember the way I’d seen him look at Caro at the previous year’s ball, the moment I realized he was in love with her and therefore couldn’t possibly be in love with me. How little I had known back then. Caro shot Fin a sardonic look. “Not glad to see me, then?” “I’m always glad to see you,” Fin said carefully. Pointedly. We all knew Caro was spending more of her free time in the stables with Bex than she was at either the palace or my workshop. I was so occupied with my business that I didn’t mind much. But Fin . . . Fin was tired, lonely, and desperate for conversation with someone who wasn’t trying to change his mind about the war. He’d taken so many verbal beatings, public and private, for advocating for Faerie in the past year. Even his father, King Corsin, couldn’t speak to him without shouting anymore. We three dear friends, my beloved family, stood there silent. Caro and Fin glared at each other. As for myself, I did not know what to say. So I was disproportionately grateful to the shy young man who tapped my shoulder just then and requested a waltz. I whirled away in his arms, wishing I could take my heart with me. I danced with four partners in quick succession, and when I finally stopped to catch my breath I had to refuse several more requests. “You’re the belle of the ball again, my dear,” said a familiar deep voice. I turned to see my patron, who was wearing a typically flamboyant outfit: gold-and-green pinstriped coat and tails, with a carved pearl pin stuck into his sky-blue tie. He winked at me through his thick monocle. “Hardly, Lord Alming,” I said with a quick curtsy. “They saw me with the Heir, and they still believe they might be dancing with their future queen. It’s only about power.” He chuckled. “I don’t go in for romance myself,” he said, “but I know it when I see it. Not all of your partners were thinking of their ambitions—not their political ambitions, at least.” He raised his eyebrows and slipped a hand into his pocket. “But I didn’t seek you out to talk of your beaux, Miss Lampton. I have something for you.” He pulled out an envelope stamped with an elaborate blue wax seal. I didn’t recognize the design. “I have last quarter’s royalties for you as well,” he said. “Come by the factory this week and pick them up. I’m afraid sales have sunk a fraction again, but I’m holding out hope for the spring. Glass shoes are so impractical in winter.” I was clutching the envelope, trying to think if I did know the seal. There was something familiar about the handwriting on the front, although I couldn’t quite place it.
N— L—Care of Gerald, Lord AlmingAlming Abbey, WoodshireESTING
And under the seal on the back: Contents Secret. “If I’ve earned enough to save a bit more toward buying Lampton, I’ll be happy,” I said distractedly, turning the envelope over in my hands. “Are you sure I’m the N.L. for whom this is intended?” “Oh, yes,” Lord Alming confirmed with utter confidence. But then he cleared his throat. “Ah,” he said. “My dear, I’m afraid I have some news on that score. On Lampton, I mean.” I looked up. “News?” He frowned, lowering his voice and stepping closer to me. “You know I try to keep abreast of the Brethren’s doings,” he murmured. I nodded, remembering the hawklike men who hovered around Corsin. The Brethren were the increasingly extremist religious group that held far too much sway over the king, or so Lord Alming and I and a very few other Estingers thought. The Brethren were unwaveringly anti-magic, and their priests had been the first to advocate banishing all the Fey from Esting and imposing a quarantine on their country. Lord Alming, who kept his own part-Fey lineage a closely guarded secret, suspected them of even more evil than they openly displayed. He’d spent much of his fortune on bribes and espionage, trying to learn their secrets. “They’ve been gathering monies to support the war”—he clicked his tongue—“which really supports them, of course. There’s more room for religion without magic coming in and making miracles so practical. They’ve just received a sizable donation in the form of a manor and estate grounds from one Lady Coronetta Halving and daughters.” I winced. Stepmother had always been pious, even naming her daughters after Brethren-approved virtues: Piety and Chastity. She hated magic and the Fey nearly as much as she hated me. It would be just like her to donate Lampton Manor to the Brethren to keep it out of my hands. I often wondered if she feared I’d try to claim that it was legally mine, an avenue I unfortunately couldn’t pursue. Since she had married my father, the estate had passed to her on his death. My only hope had been to buy it back. I remembered her last wish for me, a joyful life, how it had sounded at once sincere and menacing, and my skin crawled. My home, the house where I’d been born. My mother’s secret basement workshop, the place where I had found hope, where I had found Jules and the fleet of mechanical insects I loved so much, where I had become the inventor I was today. I’d been working to buy back the house since before I’d even left. And now it was gone. The Brethren were too self-righteous to sell to a nonbeliever like me at any price—and even if they would, I didn’t think I could bear to give them money that they’d use to help fund the war. The envelope started to crumple in my fists. I forced my hands to relax. Lord Alming touched my shoulder. “I am so sorry, my dear, but I thought you’d want to hear it from . . . well. Not from them.” He surveyed the ballroom, and I caught a glimpse of my stepsister Chastity in a far corner, flirting halfheartedly with an elderly baron and wearing, I was surprised to see, one of the last dresses I’d made her. When I caught her eye, she flinched and turned away. “Coward,” I whispered. But I tried not to think about the Steps if I could help it, so I looked back at Lord Alming and nodded resolutely. “What’s done is done, my dear,” he said, “and perhaps it’s for the best. You can move forward, you know, rather than longing to return to the past. You can use your savings to expand your workshop, or . . .” He waved his hand. “Or anything you like. You’ve thought about travel, haven’t you?” “Mm.” I was looking at the envelope again, trying to drag my thoughts away from my lost home. Lord Alming made a short bow. “I’ll take my leave of you now, Miss Lampton,” he said. “I’m planning an early morning at the Exposition tomorrow. A source tells me the priests have some plans of their own I’d like to keep an eye on . . . and I never know when I might come across some young genius in need of an angel investor.” He winked, bowed again, and walked away. I retreated behind one of the hidden servants’ doors to read my letter. I took the warning on the back seriously, and the ballroom was too crowded for me to be sure that no one would be looking over my shoulder. And if I was going to cry about the loss of Lampton Manor, I didn’t want to risk the Steps seeing me do it. I opened the envelope. The wax seal melted against my fingers, sticking unpleasantly, and I felt a brief, tingling heat slither up my arms. The feeling vanished almost instantly. The wax hardened and fell away from my hands, leaving them clean. A spell—to check my identity, no doubt. I wondered what spell had told Lord Alming I was the correct recipient—or was I simply the only N.L. he knew? It was so hard to tell with magic sometimes. I swatted away my tears and began to read.
My dear Nicolette, I cannot tell you how glad I am to pen this letter. I have longed to write to you for years. Perhaps I should have done so; I did not wish to take the risk. I can only hope you will forgive me. My friend has described the remarkable young inventor he met at Market last fall in several of his letters, but it was only when he mentioned your horse that I was sure the lady in question was my own one-time charge. I have sent this letter through him because we know him to be sympathetic to the cause. I have become an officer in the resistance here, and I write to you on behalf of my commander. We have heard the news of your auspicious engagement, and since I have assured my commander that you are trustworthy, we agree that a meeting between the Heir of Esting, the Heiress Apparent, and the Fey leader would be most desirable. I hope—and I believe your charming prince hopes too—that the war need not take so very many more lives than it has already done. Would you, and would the Heir, be amenable to a diplomatic meeting on our own shores? The Estinger forces have rendered us incapable of travel, as you know. I cannot say too much more in a note that may be intercepted in spite of all our precautions. Again, I beg your forgiveness. You are grown now, and free, and perhaps you still harbor your old sympathy for this place and its people. I remember how you always longed to see Faerie.
Yours ever,A— C—
I pressed Mr. Candery’s letter to my heart. For a moment I wasn’t standing in the gloomy service corridor at all, but in the green and humid jungles of Faerie. Alec Candery had practically raised me, at least until Stepmother dismissed him after Father’s death. I’d always missed my old half-Fey housekeeper and wondered what had become of him; not long after he left me, he and the other part-Fey had all been banished from Esting. He had obviously heard the false rumors of Fin’s and my engagement. If only I had the power he believed I had, to arrange a peace talk that could end this war . . . Fin would be the perfect person, the only person, to do it. He’d campaigned tirelessly for Faerie’s independence this year. He would leap at a chance like this—wouldn’t he? I folded the letter and slid it into one of the hidden pockets in my skirts. I wasn’t engaged to Fin, but I did have his love and respect; he would listen to me. Could I convince him that he’d do more good in Faerie than he would making speeches to unfriendly crowds here in Esting? A meeting that could end the war, a journey to a magical land . . . I shivered, fearful and enraptured all at once. I brushed my hands over my face one more time, straightened my skirts, and stepped back into the ballroom. I began to walk toward the dais, but I saw that Fin’s throne was empty. Fin and Caro were on the dance floor, twirling through a fast-paced waltz. They smiled at each other, happy and relaxed. I was so relieved to see they’d made up that I knew Mr. Candery’s message could wait until tomorrow. We were hardly going to commission a ship for the journey tonight, and I knew Fin would need some persuading—if going to Faerie was even the right course of action. We would decide together, the three of us, what to do. That was always the way. I looked at my pocket watch; it was nearly eleven. I smiled a little, remembering my dramatic midnight exit from last year’s ball. Like Lord Alming, I wanted to make the most of tomorrow’s Exposition. This year I’d leave the ball even earlier.