CHAPTER 1: Netta
We promised, the three of us. No one would discover that we could see the Fae. Too dangerous, Loic had warned, rubbing his nurse’s magic ointment on our left eyes. It stung. I remember blinking through the pain, thrilled at a story come to life: his scaled legs and lizard tail, a boy’s arms, torso, and handsome face. After that one solemn moment years ago, the little river drac’s hyacinth-blue gaze was never so serious again.
But we believed him. We’d heard Madame Brebisse’s tales around the fire of a night, while Princess Aurelie polished her flute and I arranged my mother’s needles on a piece of felt. The Skoeran boy, Garin, would even put aside his book to listen. The princess’s old nurse said that lesser Fae, lutins, and farfadets, were a mixed lot. If a farmwife left honey cakes on her back step, they might repay her by caring for sick animals and fixing broken tools. Or they might tease her rooster into crowing all night. Other Fae, like the skeletal White Ladies, dragon-like gargouille, and shape-shifting river drac, preyed on men. Their attention could be fatal.
Summer after summer we kept our friend’s gift a secret, meeting by the river to play Seek the Princess and Skoeran Pirates. Later, Loic would transform himself into different shapes to amuse us. It was all glorious fun, until one market-day in Cantrez, the year I turned fifteen. As I left the bakery with a hot braided loaf for Aurelie, I saw a suck-breath stalking a baby.
It looked like a bundle of sticks, wrapped in wrinkled gray skin and topped with a shock of white hair. The suck-breath, not the baby, who slept in a basket under Rosine the flower-seller’s table.
A night nuisance, suck-breaths. I’d never seen one abroad in daylight before, and perhaps that’s what rattled me. Like a fool, I walked straight over to it. Rosine was busy helping the butcher’s wife select roses and greenery for her daughter’s wedding party. I crouched to coo at the baby. The suck-breath hissed and twitched away from the bread’s yeasty scent. I broke a piece off the braided loaf, took a bite and chewed, my throat dry. The rest, I dropped into the basket.
Casually, I thought, but Rosine noticed. Suck-breaths were invisible, but in Cantrez, mothers knew what the bread meant. Or else she had smelled the odor of vinegar and old shoes that clung to the ugly Fae. Nothing like Loic’s smell of river reeds, and moist earth, and musk.
“Good morning, Netta.” The flower vendor greeted me, then bent to smooth her baby’s blanket. When she stood up, she set the basket on the table beside her, out of the Fae’s reach. The baby gurgled, and was quiet again. “How fares the royal household this fine day?”
“Well, thank you, Rosine,” I answered. We chatted about the weather, and the dress my mother had made for Princess Aurelie (raspberry silk, trimmed with creamy white ribbons and lace I’d made myself, a new pattern from the capital), and whether Queen Basia’s delicate health was improving in the mountain air.
Denied the baby’s milky breath, the disappointed suck-breath kicked over two tall pails of sunflowers, and another of irises, and stamped away.
“Ah, clumsy!” Rosine said to no one in particular. “Give me a hand, would you, Netta?”
“Of course.” I picked up a pail and fetched more water from the fountain. Gathering the fallen stems, we quickly set the stall to rights. When we’d finished, Rosine gave me a bouquet of irises. She wouldn’t accept payment.
“No, thank you, Netta.” She stroked her baby’s head and we both knew what she meant. I hoped she wouldn’t tell anyone what had—or hadn’t—happened.
The irises were the color of Loic’s eyes, a deep, rich blue, almost violet. Mountain-born folk, like the queen’s family and my own, had dark eyes, brown or black. The foster boy Garin’s were a changeable gray-green, and King Raimond’s a steely blue. But looking into Loic’s eyes was like watching a piece of the night sky just before the stars come out. It made me feel the same way, hushed inside, but joyful, too. Like listening to Aurelie and her mother play their flutes, or swimming in the river on a summer morning, water sliding cool along my skin.
As I retraced my steps to the bakery for a new loaf, I spotted the rare, magical color again. This time, on the coat of a gentleman in plumed hat and buckled shoes, inspecting the pistols displayed in a gunsmith’s window.
At least, that’s what my right eye told me. My left insisted on a lizard’s tail under the coat, the sheen of scales, and a wispy blue fin that sprouted from the drac’s back to drift in an unseen current. Watching him with both eyes made me dizzy, as if the two shapes, Fae and human, didn’t belong in the same space. Though smaller, Loic shimmered like that whenever our games took him far from the river.
I realized that I was gawking at my secret friend’s father. Fear fluttered in my throat; my cheeks burned. I stared at my shoes and hoped he wouldn’t notice me. Prayed the suck-breath hadn’t tattled. Too late to turn around; the bakery was on the other side of the gunsmith. If I’d been clever, like Garin, or brave, like the princess, it might have been all right. But I wasn’t.
“Good day, Mademoiselle,” he said. “What lovely flowers.”
His voice made me think of vanilla custard sliding off a golden spoon. Madame Brebisse said the drac used that voice to lure his victims into the river. People who amused him and his wife would be released after a night of feasting in their underground palace. Dull guests paid for the privilege with their purse. I’d never asked Loic what happened to those both poor and stupid, but I assumed I was about to find out. Aurelie would have given the drac a polite smile and forged on; Garin would have eased away with a witty remark. I wasn’t as strong.
As lazily as a toad catches a fly, the drac’s voice snagged the disastrous truth from my lips. “You’re kind to say so, Monsieur le drac,” I stammered.
Immediately, I wished I had bitten my tongue. Idiot! I knew better than to acknowledge one of the Fae when he wore a human shape. I curtsied, hoping the drac would overlook the slip and let me pass.
Instead he seized my elbow and twisted, jerking me upright. “I beg your pardon, Mademoiselle?”
“That is,” I flailed, as if we were still discussing flowers. “The irises are much prettier growing wild along the river, aren’t they? A bolder blue, and yellow…” even to my own ears, my voice sounded guilty.
“You recognize me?” Each word hard as diamond.
“No,” I said, my face hot. “I’m sure we’ve never been introduced, Monsieur.”
The drac’s voice was almost gentle. “Alas, Mademoiselle. It grieves me, but I cannot permit a mortal, even one as charming as yourself, such familiarity with my affairs.”
“P-please, Monsieur,” I stuttered.
“How did you come by your so-acute perception, I wonder?” the drac inquired.
At least I could protect my friends. I locked my chattering teeth on the answer and stared hard at the irises. I’m not sorry; their celestial blue flags were the last thing I saw before the drac’s claws stabbed out and blinded me.
Excerpted from AURELIE by Heather Tomlinson.
Copyright © 2008 by Heather Tomlinson.
Published in 2010 by Square Fish.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.