Chapter Nineteen: Defiance

IN the grand entry hall, the Magus hissed a final warning as Wynn approached. “Do not forget the consequences of disobeying. I can do worse than take a finger.”

“How could I forget?” Ora’s voice was tinged with more defiance and resentment than the dren could stand. She watched the Magus’s fingers curl around the handle of her blade, but the knowledge that she would soon leave the fae realm made Ora bold. She rolled her eyes.

“Do not test me, Ora,” Tyg said just as the thachwing reached them.

“Well met, Magus Marigen,” Wynn said, clasping her hands before her. “Queen Innes wishes you a safe journey.”

The Yewolyn raised a brow. “Does she?”

“Yes, of course. Good day, Magus.” Wynn seemed just as eager to part with the Yewolyn as Ora. She drew the girl away with a gentle hand.

Tyg did not respond to the thachwing’s farewell, and Ora dared to shoot a final, withering glare over her shoulder. But the dren was already on her way out. “Good riddance,” she muttered under her breath.

Pretending not to hear, Wynn led her to the servants’ wing. There, she eyed the simple linen smock Ora wore. “I suppose it’s more to Tyg’s taste, isn’t it?”

“It’s fine. Really,” Ora insisted. She did not want to be laced up into a ridiculous, layered dress again. “It’s comfortable and doesn’t get in the way.”

Unconvinced, Wynn said, “Well, let’s at least put you into more proper attire while you’re here.”

By then, Pons had crept to Wynn’s side, head bent down as always. “We’re all done with laundry,” he said.

“Perfect! You can show Ora where to find some more suitable clothing.”

At this, Pons blushed. “It’s this way,” he said, then led her down to the big laundry room on the floor beneath the servants’ quarters. Once they were out of anyone’s earshot, he nervously lifted his head. “What happened to your hand?” he asked.

“Nothing,” she said and clasped her hands behind her back.

“You had ten fingers before. I—I’m sure of it.”

“I’ll tell you on one condition.”

He winced. “I can’t promise anything. You should know that by now.”

She leaned forward and whispered in his ear, making him shiver. “I don’t want to wear a dress. Get me something like what you’re wearing, and I’ll tell you what happened.”

“I don’t know …”

“If Wynn says anything, I’ll take the blame. What’s another finger?” she asked with a small laugh.

“How can you joke about that?” he said but did not agree to her proposition. He stood with his hands shaking at his sides.

Seeing the strain on his face, it dawned on Ora that it had probably been a long time since anyone gave him a choice. “Come on. I can’t imagine Wynn being that angry. She didn’t even use our names,” she said. “There’s nothing stopping you.”

His brow rose in surprise. “I hadn’t thought of that.”

“No? Are you always so dull?”

“Are you always so … so …” But he seemed unable to think of an insult.

Ora smiled triumphantly as he stumbled over his words. “Pons, please. I won’t ask for anything else. I promise.”

“Fine, but it’s your problem if Wynn says anything. Don’t drag me into it,” he said and hurried off for a minute. When he came back, he held a neatly folded white shirt and a pair of trousers the same deep shade of blue that he wore. “You better tell me every last detail,” he said.

She grinned. “I won’t spare anything.”

But it would not be until much later in the day that Ora told him about her missing finger. He worked with a sober vigor. To her surprise, he was meticulous in his work, as if he took pride in the exacting details of polishing golden cutlery and dusting empty rooms. She soon remembered why he had irritated her the first time they met.

There were other bound humans, of course, but they were just as distant as Pons, always keeping their eyes down and speaking very little. They wore the same blue palace uniforms, but they came from all over the human realm. She spotted blonde-haired Galgoans, freckle faced Merinians, and other Nors like her. There were those who she could not place, too. Most appeared young. She bitterly wondered if the fae only stole children away.

Her manners, or a lack thereof, alarmed Pons. He watched in horror as she peered into every open room, stole a pastry from an unguarded spread of food, and chased the palace cat along an empty corridor when it refused to let her stroke its black fur. Nothing he said could dissuade her.

While they were dusting an enormous but cramped study, she opened desk drawers and boxes, rolled a brass paperweight across the palm of her good hand, and flipped through several books. She could feel Pons’s eyes following her. When he at last found the courage to ask what she was looking for, she smirked.

“Silver,” she said. “Maybe a spell book.”

“You’re not funny.”

“I’m not joking.”

A wall of windows faced the mountains. Jagged, gray peaks stretched into the distance like layers of sharp teeth. She pressed her forehead against the glass, trying to see what lay below. “There’s a crossing here at the palace, isn’t there?” she asked.

“Crossings are useless unless you are a mage,” he said.

“That wasn’t a no.” She had made a point of investigating the view from every window she came across. Unfortunately, the palace was monumental in size, and she could not orient herself. She had relied on Pons all day to guide her through the maze of halls and staircases.

He cast her a furtive look, and she thought she saw a hint of suspicion in his expression. But it was fleeting. He ducked his head and ignored her until they finished the room.

That evening, they ate their supper—a plate of bread and cheese—in a sunny atrium. Pons fidgeted with a loose hem on his sleeve and several times looked as if he might speak. When Ora could take it no longer, she turned to him and said, “Go on. Out with it.”

“You promised,” he mumbled.

Ora shifted her hand off of her knee and tucked it beside her leg. But he was right. She had made a deal with him. She looked about the atrium for anyone who might overhear but only saw the black cat, curled up on a bench not far from them. She lowered her voice and told the whole story, beginning with the day Renna explained the crossings. By the time she got to the part where Tyg sliced off her finger, Pons’s eyes could grow no wider.

“I intend to try again,” she said in conclusion.

For a long time, Pons said nothing. He pushed a few crumbs around on the plate and frowned. “Y—you’re not really bound, are you?”

Ora gave a start and clapped her hand over his mouth. “Don’t say that so loud!”

When her hand dropped away, he spoke more softly. “It’s true, though. Isn’t it?”

“Queen Innes told me to keep my name secret,” she said. “Don’t say a word to anyone.”

“How do I know if you’re telling the truth?”

“I have no reason to lie to you. Besides, what are you going to do? Ask her yourself?” Ora’s words rushed out harsher than she intended, stunning Pons into silence. Feeling guilty, she muttered an apology.

“I shouldn’t have said anything to begin with.” His shoulders fell. “You’re lucky, Ora. You still have choices.”

“So do you,” she said. “You chose to get me these clothes, remember?”

“It’s been a long time since I’ve done anything like that. Makes me nervous.” He grimaced. “Wynn hardly bothers with my name anymore. It took years to earn her trust. It’s as close to being free as I could hope for.”

The heaviness in his voice made her heart ache. “Pons, how long have you been here?”

He didn’t look much older than her, maybe only a year or two. His answer nearly made her choke. “About forty years, I think. I’ve stopped counting, really.”

“What? Forty years? You can’t be much older than me. That’s not possible.”

“Fae magic changes you, whether you realize it or not. Aging takes longer in the fae realm.”

The possibility of being trapped within Tyg’s home for hundreds of years made Ora draw in a sharp gasp. “Haven’t you tried to escape?”

“Now that truly isn’t possible,” he said. “Not for me. They have my name, Ora. My true name. I’ll be here until I die.”

“A name can’t be bound forever, can it?”

For once, he held her gaze, and she saw the depth and longing of all those years. “I gave my name willingly to save someone I loved. I would do it again.”

Ora could think of nothing to say. She could not imagine Pons, the skittish Merinian boy he was, giving up his name for anyone.

“There you are!” Wynn came bustling into the atrium, her lavender skirts billowing about her tiny frame. “Ora, Queen Innes would like to speak with you. Goodness knows why. I do wish there was time for you to change, though.”

“The queen?” Ora repeated, her face pale.

“Yes, get up this instant. She’s asked for you straight away.”

Ora glanced at Pons, but he was staring at the ground once again. She set the plate of food that had been on her lap aside and followed Wynn out of the atrium. Unnoticed by anyone, the black cat jumped lightly from the bench and scurried after them.

Sarah Day ©2021