I had no time to think about Penny. The vampire traps would have to protect her in our absence; she was a clever enough human that survival came easily to her. I knew she wouldn’t stray far from her supposed brother, not if their bond was anything like mine and Darius’s. But the thrall wasn’t her twin, and his corruption at those monsters’ claws was undoubtedly advanced. There was also the matter of their long separation. I hoped she didn’t get too attached, but humans were all too often illogical.
The timing of our necessary reveal wasn’t the best, especially since we had to leave Penny alone immediately afterward, but I had to concentrate on our future. Darius’s and my future. At least now my brother and I would have something to show for ourselves. I was really looking forward to a serene look of approval from the queen—and something other than that twisted, smug smile on his face.
Each yearly visit to the Other Side of Willow Creek felt less and less like returning home and more like visiting a foreign country. Well, it may not be our home now, but it would be again. Everything would be as it should be. As it should’ve been. Nothing had changed in the small home that Darius and I had shared in our childhood, but it felt more painfully nostalgic than warm and welcoming. When had our heritage begun to feel like a fading memory?
“Honestly, Darius, you can’t be thinking of wearing that to an audience with the queen,” I said. For myself, I’d chosen a somewhat faded pink gossamer gown with bits of sparkling glass woven into the delicate fabric, even if it was probably on the verge of unraveling. But it was traditional fae attire, suitable for an important annual event.
“But it’s comfortable,” Darius said, his lips curved into a gentle faraway smile. The smile that was stolen from him on almost every other day of the year. “I don’t feel like pretending, Isla. Not today.”
“How convenient that the one day you don’t is the day we attend Court. The one day I actually need you to,” I snapped, wincing immediately afterward. Darius was a gentle soul—the kinder half of the soul we shared as twins. He was the breath and water to my thorns and fire. I opened my mouth to apologize, but he shook his head. He already knew. He always knew.
“It’s the same as any other day,” he said softly. “We’ll stand out no matter what, but we’ll be fine. We always are.”
Fine. Is this what he considered fine? Did he enjoy living among the humans? I’d always known my twin was more powerful than I was, more fae somehow, and yet he’d always been so fascinated by the most ordinary things. Could he forget that day so easily, the price we paid?
“Fine,” I said, borrowing his own word. “Wear whatever you want, Darius. Maybe you’re right and it makes no difference at all.”
To reach the palace, we had no choice but to travel through the village.
The skies had darkened into dusk—but time is a slippery thing in the domain of the fae—and there were plenty of other fairies watching us out of the corners of their eyes.
Some of them made no effort to hide their interest at all.
“Bug twins,” a high-pitched voice whispered nearby, followed by lower-pitched giggles.
We kept walking.
“Ugly,” a green girl said, flaunting her wings as she bent toward me and my brother. “Ugly bugs, ugly bugs, squish squish squish.”
“Nice night for a long flight,” said a pale blue boy, changing position in the air as we passed.
I ignored them; it really wasn’t difficult. Darius and I had heard much worse over the years, and they were both young. It wasn’t too late for them to learn how to whisper their insults behind closed doors like the older fae.
Darius smiled softly at me and took my hand as he led me up the stairs. He was fond of stairs—and heights in general, I think. It was a shame we didn’t have the money for a penthouse. I would give him every small happiness I could.
We should’ve taken another route through the village.
“Orlando,” I hissed, dropping my brother’s hand.
“Isla. Darius,” the blue bastard said in that silky smooth voice. “A pleasure to see you again. How long has it been since I saw you last…? It feels like an eternity.”
A year. Exactly a year, and he knew it. Unlike most of the others, Orlando was unfailingly polite…as long as you were oblivious to the disdain laced through his every word. His insults were like tiny thorns; you didn’t realize you’d been pricked until you were bleeding from a thousand places in front of the entire Court.
“Too long,” I said, matching his tone.
“How goes your…modeling career? Is that what the humans call it?” He could barely contain his smirk.
Better than your bid for prince consort, you blue bastard, I wanted to say. Bastard was an entirely human word, though one I was rapidly growing fond of in specific applications. Fae lineage is a mystery, or at least a carefully guarded secret; supposedly this makes Court politics less cutthroat and the division of power more equal, but to me it only feels like every fae for herself. Fae twins are almost mythically rare, and I was lucky to have Darius. No one else could so easily recognize their blood as their own.
“How kind of you to ask,” I said with a honeyed tongue. “Very well, thank you, but I’m afraid we’re in a hurry. We’ll have to catch up another time.”
“A year from now, perhaps,” he said, then leaned toward me and inhaled deeply. “Magic. An entire year’s worth, I’d estimate—frittered away in a matter of days. I hope you still have some to spare.”
“Fortunately for us,” I said with a frozen smile, “a new year awaits.” I grabbed Darius by the hand and brushed past Orlando, narrowly avoiding the paper-thin edge of his wings. No doubt he would be making a nuisance of himself at the palace too—he was one of the queen’s most prominent advisers—but I would prefer to enjoy the fresh air as long as I could, without it being ruined by the sound of his voice.
Darius didn’t speak up as we ventured deeper into the village, but his steady presence was still reassuring. No matter how irritated and nervous I was, I made sure to take the time to appreciate the beauty of fae architecture. It would be a year until I could do so again.
Beauty over practicality; nature versus cold, lifeless concrete. How long would it be…?
The stark whiteness of the palace stood out against the riot of colors that spread in every other direction. It never failed to take my breath away, even as that awe competed with hope and fear. It would be different this time. The queen would be happy. Darius and I had finally fixed everything.
To my relief, the palace wasn’t nearly as crowded as the village. The queen preferred quiet to more traditionally spirited fae festivities. Still, the sidelong glances of the courtiers in attendance didn’t go unnoticed, at least by me.
Did they really think they were masters of subtlety?
More likely, they just didn’t care what Darius and I thought. Fae care so little about so many things. Human things, they’d call them. Maybe I’d lived too long among humans—no, I knew I had. But it wasn’t too late for me. For us.
My heart sank as I reached the throne room. Of course Orlando was there. I knew he would be; he’d probably slithered through the grass like the snake he was in order to beat us there. Luckily, the queen was alone, aside from the blue bastard and her two guards. At least the guards would never open their mouths unless the queen ordered them to.
Atop her throne, the queen sparkled with a luminescent beauty—and that was no exaggeration. Her ethereal loveliness was famous among the fae, inspiring hundreds of songs and poems. I was relieved that she apparently had no interest in ever taking Orlando as a lover, as much as she seemed to trust him. It made me like her more, if anyone could ever really like the queen. Respect and admire her, yes, but like seemed too personal.
I looked to Darius for reassurance as we approached the throne. Don’t forget to bow, I told him with my eyes. When I offered the queen a curtsy, I could tell that Darius bowed behind me even if I couldn’t see him. I felt Orlando’s eyes on me like an iron vise.
One of the queen’s guard-attendants whispered in her ear, announcing the two of us. As if she’d ever forget who we were. As if she could. She offered us a tiny dip of her chin in acknowledgment.
“Your Majesty,” I said.
“Majesty,” Darius repeated, his voice not as grave as it should be for the occasion.
“Isla,” she said in a voice that simultaneously managed to be as airy as a bird’s song and as steadfast as a mountain. “Darius. I trust this year has passed without incident?”
“It has, Your Majesty,” I said solemnly.
“Very well. You will be rewarded with your annual allotment of magic, and I shall see you both again in one year’s time.”
My throat closed up. Why was it always the same? “But Your Majesty,” I blurted, “this year is different. We saved a human in need—desperately in need. A true vampire’s thrall.”
“I wasn’t aware of any royally sanctioned rescue missions,” said Orlando.
I ignored him, though I couldn’t resist a glare. I turned back to the queen. “It was an emergency operation, Your Majesty. We came across—”
Orlando interrupted: “My, you two do seem to have a troubling habit of stumbling across ‘humans in need’—in addition to bending the laws. Some might say you even ignore them outright.”
“Some—or you, Orlando?”
“Enough,” said the queen, holding up a pale hand for silence. “Is this vampire victim properly secured and quarantined, Isla? And were you careful to completely evade detection by its captors?”
“Yes, Your Majesty,” I said, steeling myself under her unknowable gaze. “Our human girl is watching him in our absence. As a rehabilitated thrall, she—”
“That’s very interesting,” Orlando interrupted again. “Because according to one of our scouts, a human matching the description of your ward has been spotted dangerously close the palace.” Darius was at my side in an instant, supporting me as my knees buckled. “Along with another human who positively reeks of vampires.”
It couldn’t be. We’d done everything right this time. We—
“Pen’s here,” Darius agreed dreamily. “I always know where she is.”
The world vanished in a white haze.