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M. L. John

M. L. John, author of Lady of the Veils
The first novel M. L. John ever read was Frank L. Baum’s The Wizard of Oz, and she has had a love of fantasy ever since. As soon as her handwriting was good enough to write full sentences, she started writing stories about beautiful princesses who spent their time rescuing princes and slaying dragons. Very little has changed about her writing style since that time, with the possible exception of her penmanship. She lives in Colorado with her true love, their three children, an obnoxious baby brother who still won’t let her change the television channel, and a small menagerie of yippy little dogs and cats big enough to saddle. These days, she spends most of her time explaining different mythologies to her kids until their little eyes glaze and roll back in their heads.

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Lady of the Veils by M. L. John The Storm Prince by M. L. John Broken Baubles and Nuclear Magic by M. L. John
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Lady of the Veils by M. L. John
In a suburban town twenty minutes from the border of Faerie lives a young woman named Karen MacGregor. Though she is the daughter of an exiled Faerie princess, Karen leads an unremarkable life full of homework, punk rock and old science fiction movies. When bloody civil war breaks out in her mother’s homeland her life begins to change rapidly. Her brother is presumed dead after his fighter jet is shot down over the Enchanted Forest, and Faerie’s royal family, including Karen’s beloved godfather, has been executed. Accompanied by a Fey Prince with whom she shares a forbidden love and armed with magic she never knew existed, Karen must lead a rebel force against an ancient and powerful enemy.

Word Count: 112700
Buy at: Smashwords (all formats) ~ Barnes and Noble ~ Amazon
Price: $3.99
From Inside the Green Man
From Minding Spot
From Insatiable Readers

Lady of the Veils by M. L. John

To order this book in print, please contact Charlotte Holley at  (ISBN: 978-1-61950-058-7)
The Storm Prince by M. L. John Beriani Quintinar, the youngest son of Faerie’s High king, is brilliant, beautiful, and spoiled as only a prince of the Sidhe can be. He has committed an unforgivable sin—he has fallen in love with the half-human daughter of a traitor. When ogres conquer Avalon and execute his father, he must convince the treacherous Queen of Summer to give him troops enough to win back his homeland. But if he makes it home, what kind of king can he be when he has already committed treason?

Word Count: 50000
Buy at: Smashwords (all formats) ~ Barnes and Noble ~ Amazon
Price: $4.99
The Storm Prince by M. L. John To order this book in print, please contact Charlotte Holley at  (ISBN #978-1-61950-203-1)

Broken Baubles and Nuclear Magic by M. L. John Everyone loves fairy tales. Whether we learn them from Disney or the Brothers Grimm, they teach us that love is forever, the virtuous are rewarded, and that we should always share our bread with strange old women. But what can we do when the beautiful princesses are serial murderers, or when the handsome king and his true love can’t live happily ever after? These ten stories explore the edges of fairy tales, out along the dark rim of story where they stretch into horror and parody.

Word Count: 32260
Buy at: Smashwords (all formats) ~ Barnes and Noble ~ Amazon
Price: $ 2.99


Lady of the Veils

Chapter 1

Vicious pounding thudded on the door of the YMCA. Surprised by the sudden noise, Karen MacGregor looked around to see if someone else was on it, but no one was. She was the youngest of the volunteers, and most of the time the others seemed annoyed to find her underfoot. But how much damage could she do by opening the door? The pounding came again, this time accompanied by terrified shouting in Fey.

Theresa, Karen's volunteer supervisor, looked up from ladling food and snapped, "Would somebody please get that door?"

"Ah, get it yourself," Karen muttered rebelliously under her breath. Theresa either didn't hear her or chose not to respond. Karen ran to answer the door as one last shout thundered from behind it.

As she pulled the door open, the wind nearly blew it out of her grasp. Two Seelie Fey in the green uniforms of the Summer Court, a Brownie and an Undine, stood outside with a similarly clad Sprite sagging between them. All three were soaked, muddy and bleeding. The Undine was a water Fey, and in this violent weather she appeared to be formed of the rain, skin glittering like collected dew, blood pale against her waterfall of hair. On the side of her face, a dark burn the shape of a hand marked her skin. The Brownie was about three feet tall, hairless and nut brown, and had a head wound that was turning the mud on his cheeks red. The Sprite in the middle wasn't moving at all.

Karen opened her mouth to speak, but the Undine gave her an indecipherable look and thrust the limp Sprite into her arms.

"Here," grunted the Undine in accented English, placing one silver hoof inside the door, "She is not well. Take care of her."

The Sprite's weight almost toppled Karen, but she managed to keep her feet. The creature was delicate, with long hair that shifted color and bones that looked sharp against her thin skin. She looked as if she could ride the currents of a warm breeze despite the solidity of her body in Karen's arms. The Sprite stared with flat, unblinking eyes. An unpleasant smell reached Karen's nose as she lowered the Sprite to the mud-tracked tiles. Was the Fey bespelled? Could sorcery cause the same nauseating smell as new death?

 Karen just stared at the Sprite for a moment, waiting for a clue or an explanation. She couldn't possibly be dead, could she? She was Fey. They were immortal.

As Karen stared at the creature she heard Theresa's voice from behind her shoulder cried out, "Oh my God!" The woman hurried forward, shouting, "Someone call 911!" Kneeling beside the Sprite, the older volunteer tilted the Fey's mouth open to clear her airway and breathed into it. Karen watched the narrow chest rise in response to the rescue breathing.

People were pushing past Karen to get at the downed Sprite, jostling her. She looked around for the Undine and the Brownie who had just come in, but they were nowhere to be seen, gone without explanation. There was a wall of people between Karen and the Sprite now, and she had to stand on her tiptoes to see over them. From the crowd around Theresa, a voice said, "I think it's too late, Theresa, she's gone."

"Gone where?" Karen exploded, loudly and more angrily than she had intended. A few people looked up at her, but none of them had any answers. "Ogres can't kill the warriors of the Wild Hunt! She can't be dead! Try again!"
Theresa emerged from the crowd. She was disheveled; her dark braid had come loose during the chest compressions and strands of hair were straggling around her face. Her eyes were shadowed with weariness.
"Karen," she said, as if surprised that the young volunteer still existed. "Honey, why don't you go sit down for a few minutes? The paramedics will be here in a while and I don't want you in the way."
Karen almost became indignant at being dismissed again, but something in Theresa's posture made her pause. She doubted if Theresa had anything in her soul that could be surprised anymore. She didn't know how many dead Fey Theresa had seen. Karen had only been working at the Arborville Y for three weeks, since her Civics teacher had assigned volunteer work and a report for their final exam. Karen had chosen this out of some misguided sense of cultural responsibility. She wished fervently that she hadn't.
There was more commotion at the doors. Karen shook off her thoughts, found Theresa gone, and disobeyed her by going to find out what was happening. Someone shouted, "Does anybody speak Fey?"
Karen pushed her way through the crowd. "I do. Can I help?"
Another of the volunteers, a man named Mark with a paunch and balding head said, "What is this guy saying? It seems important."
Karen nudged her way through the crowd to the Dryad who appeared to be the center of the group. He had bark growing from the backs of his arms and his hair was dark green and stringy with rainwater. He wore the blue robes of a wizard. Mud had been ground into the hem. He was wringing his hands and babbling in Fey to whatever volunteer would listen. None of the other translators were nearby and Karen's fluency was strained by his frightened stammering.
Alarmed by his behavior, Karen shouted in Fey to get his attention. "Hey! What happened? What's wrong?"
The wizard noticed Karen for the first time. He turned to her with wild eyes, whites showing all around his irises, and then stammered in the same language, "The ogres are in Avalon, in the palace. They have won. We are conquered."
Karen's mind chattered insane questions, but her mouth was still. The thought of the Ogres inside the palace seemed impossible. If there was one thing she knew High King Thael Quintinar was capable of doing, it was holding his house against attack. The High Queen, his wife, had served with Karen's mother in the Wild Hunt for centuries, and Karen had grown up playing with their youngest son. Each of Thael's children was a stronger wizard than the last. When they all stood together, no Ogre could cross their threshold. Briefly, she wondered if she had misunderstood.
But Karen hadn't learned Fey in school. She had learned it from her mother, who spoke it natively; she had even been placed in special classes as a child because she came from a bilingual home. It didn't matter that the wizard's dialect was more scholarly than the language she spoke with her family. She knew what she'd heard.
"No." Karen shook her head with denial, held up her palms to ward his words away.
"What is it?" Mark demanded. "What's going on?"
Karen ignored him. The Dryad continued, "I saw the flames of funeral pyres before I escaped the city. They came from the courtyard."
Karen felt her heart stop for a second and gasped, "It's impossible."
"I wish it were," the wizard said. He shook his head, sadly, and pushed through the ring of onlookers.
Karen watched him go. "I really don't think this is funny," she called, voice high and near hysteria, but he did not look back. Karen watched one of the volunteers try to give him a cup of coffee, but he ignored it and made his way to the windows.
Mark surprised her a little by placing his hand on her shoulder. Karen's thoughts felt foggy, as if she was watching herself through a badly out of focus movie camera.
"What did he say?" Mark asked again.

Karen blinked, struggling to bring her thoughts back under her control. "I think he said the war was over," she replied. "He said the Ogres are in Avalon, and he said he saw flames from the palace courtyard."
Going pale, Mark whispered, "Dear God."
Karen nodded and walked away from him without speaking. Dear God, she thought. She started to cry. Her sobs were painful, burning her throat and her face as they tore loose. If she'd had a moment to prepare, she would have found somewhere to hide her grief. But it overcame her too quickly for that.
"Karen?" Theresa said. She sounded frightened. "Karen, are you okay? What's wrong? What happened?"
Funeral pyres. It could not be so. What did all of this mean for her brother? She wondered if Julian would stumble into the YMCA, another refugee, soaked with his own blood and haunted with the nearness of his own death. Or was it really possible he had died when his fighter jet was shot down over the Enchanted Forest, as his Colonel claimed? She had spent four months refusing to believe it. But now... this war was over. He would be coming home. Or he wouldn't, and that would be her final answer.
She doubted Beri would ever leave his home, even while it burned. He'd rather die. She had begged him last summer to come out to California. She'd couched it in terms of a vacation, keeping her fear for him secret, but he had told her he could not be spared. She had wondered at the time how he could have suddenly become so dedicated to his homeland. Now, with his house burning, that newborn sense of responsibility might have proved fatal.
For a moment, she hated her brother, whom she'd worshiped, and her best friend, who should have been safe in his palace, protected by his father's knights and his own strong magic. Why hadn't Julian stayed home? He hadn't needed to join the Air Force and become a fighter pilot; he could have taken the VP spot at Dad's firm. And Beri should have swallowed his pride and fled for Earth last summer when Karen has begged him to.
Karen cried harder. She wanted to go home. She thought she would, actually, they didn't really need her, and there were enough bilingual Fey in the room to translate the Avalon library into English.
"I'm going home," Karen announced to Theresa, who was still looking at Karen with frightened concern. "You don't need me..."
Theresa nodded, eyes understanding. She patted Karen on the shoulder as the younger volunteer moved past her. Karen didn't think she would return tomorrow. She had chosen a community service for her civics assignment that was far too close to home. She could have cleaned up trash along the highway, but no. Karen had wanted to 'make a difference' in the world.
She hunched her shoulders in anticipation of the cold rain and walked through the back door into the parking lot. Her father's silver Mercedes was dull as a closed eye in the filtering illumination from the street lamp above. Rain plopped into her hair and slid down her spine in oily slug tracks. Karen pulled on the thin gloves that would protect her hands from the steel in her keys, then unlocked the door and started the engine. The car started with a pleasant hum as she put it into gear. It made her think of Beri, who had been an awful driver and crashed three of the nicest cars she had ever seen.
Karen sobbed, horrified as her thoughts of him became past tense. She almost wished she had never loved them, those missing boys that would leave her empty if they passed. She wished she could be any other girl, one who might realize in passing that the Ogres had conquered Avalon, and then quickly forget.
Karen scrubbed at her face and put the car in gear. The weather was getting worse.

Back to Lady of the Veils

The Storm Prince

Chapter 1

Karen was sick, very sick. Just below her breast was a gash deep enough to flay her skin from the wet, red muscle below it. Pus and blood had dried in a striated crust on the surface of the make-shift bandage, and when Beri pinned her hands in one of his own to peel the fabric away, she struggled against him and cried out.

Red lines of infection, spiky and multiple as the limbs of a spider, radiated toward her heart. The wound needed stitches. The girl had not bled to death, though it had been a near thing. Beriani Quintinar had allowed himself to believe the worst was over and she would pull through until this very moment. He swallowed alarm as she turned her face away from him, the tendon in her neck standing out. Good. He hoped she was too ill to have noticed the dismay in his expression.

It took all of his High Court conditioning to keep his voice calm. “This is abscessed. You need a healer, and now.” Goddess, they were in the middle of nowhere, days away from civilization. “Just... just stay here. I will find one.”

Her head whipped about, dark eyes wide and wild. Curls stuck in sweating clumps to her forehead. Her lips were colorless as the belly of a dead fish.

“What? No! You can’t leave me! What if the Ogres find me? What am I supposed to do?”

Beri shook his head. “Karen. I have to get help. You are in no shape to travel any farther. You have to stay here.”

“No.” The wounded girl pushed herself up onto her elbows. A spurt of cloudy blood gushed from her side where the scab had ripped loose. Beri pushed against her shoulder to keep her still. Through clenched teeth she said, “I’ll go with you.”

“How can you?” Taking a shaky breath, he added, “You are pale and sweating. Mother. I have done this with my idiocy. I never should have let you come.”

Karen’s eyes flashed. “Yeah, you’re a real jackass. I forced you to bring me along and then I threw myself between you and an archer. This is all your fault.”

Beri glared at her and she glared back. She was right; of course she was right. No one let Karen MacGregor do anything, even when one happened to be the eldest surviving member of the royal Quintinar house. Sighing, he tucked one of her damp curls behind her ear.

“I will offer you a compromise,” Beri suggested. “I will stay here until you fall asleep. Then I will erect a defensive circle and go for a healer. Will that do?”

She blinked. “What if something happens to you?”

Beri considered his answer carefully, his desire to keep her calm warring with his need to keep her safe. “Your chances are as small if I stay as if I am unable to come back. You cannot ask me to watch you die when I can help you. There is nothing so cruel in you.”

She chewed the corner of her bottom lip, then nodded. Her gaze was haunted with fear. “You’ll stay until I fall asleep?”

Beri pulled her against his side and she rested her head against his heart. She was as hot as a sun and trembled endlessly. She must have spent the entire night worsening in order to be this sick at dawn. He had asked her to tell him if the wound started to hurt again, but he had known even as he said it he could not stop infection if it happened. His magic was not in healing. She must have seen through him. She always did.

Karen’s ragged breathing slowed and evened. He dropped a kiss onto the top of her hair and managed to extricate his arm from under her. She didn’t wake.

He cast the circle as he had promised; he even attempted to disguise their makeshift camp—though he had little talent for Glamourie. He turned his fear into violence and sang a song of lightning before he left her. Perhaps this delicate half-human beauty would die of her wounds, but she would not be accosted by anything from outside his defenses.

Beri stumbled as he walked away from her and his vision blurred. He paused only long enough to shake the fog from his brain and rub his eyes clear. He didn’t have much left now. He needed to find help, and quickly.

On all sides of him, the Enchanted Forest stretched as far as his eyes could see, emerald green and changeless. Birds sang above his head and shafts of sunlight struggled through the thick leaves to pierce the wooded gloom. Finding help would be easiest accomplished with magic, but it had been days since he’d eaten a proper meal and the protective circle had exhausted him. Mage exhaustion lurked in the weight of his limbs.

Beri had no idea where he might go to find help. Even if he found a healer in this lush wasteland, it was unlikely she might be induced to use her skills on his companion. Karen was half-Fey. Her very birth had been an act of treason. He started walking anyway.

Beri was a wizard; he had spent the entirety of his childhood studying meteomancy and was therefore not much given to superstition, but as he walked he prayed. Mother of Us All, let me find some village with a kindly populace or a clever hedge witch. Please do not let Karen die.

I have only now grown courage enough to love her.

But either the Goddess did not hear or She did not care, because Beri wandered on and on and no miracle appeared. His belly grew empty, but he had no time to see to its demands. He had become increasingly used to hunger since fleeing Avalon. He ignored it.

In the distance, a faint sound increased to a dull, steady roar. Beri paused, then altered his direction. It sounded like water, perhaps a strong river. Water Fey often had healing magic. Perhaps he could convince one of them to come back to camp with him.

Cynical, he thought, Having a Quintinar owe you a favor is no small prize.

Through the trees water shone, coin-silver, in the sunlight. As he approached, Beri realized he had miscalculated: he had not found a river. At his feet lay the edge of a tall, white cliff, and below him was a lake so huge it stretched past the range of his vision. White waves crashed against the rocks at the cliff base, and around these the sinuous, scaly tails of mermaids flicked plumes of water into the air.

Beri thought, Where there are mermaids, there are Nixies to eat them, and shuddered. No. There would be no healers in those viciously populated waters. He turned away from the cliff’s edge and moved back inland.

This aimless wandering was not helping. He did not want to wear out his slim energies, but the girl he loved was going to die if he did not think of a better way. Perhaps... perhaps he would just open his senses a little and let the weather flow into him. Reading air currents was something he could do with minimal effort. Closing his eyes to aid his concentration, Beri breathed in the magic hovering in the air around him. Power filled his head and chest like the smell of distant rain.

Above him and to the East, that evening’s pending storm was a knot of potential at the edge of his senses. He felt the moisture in the clouds, the sharp snap of electricity as energy built. There, too, hidden in the condensing raindrops was the salt tang of grief, sharp enough to sting. He knew the storms were for his father. Until someone took the High Crown, Thael Quintinar’s rampaging magic would be free to disrupt the natural patterns of everyday life in Faerie. Or perhaps the Goddess missed him as Beri did and these storms were how she wept.

Focus, fool, he told himself. He dropped his attention into the forest canopy above his head. Birds and rodents altered the patterns of the wind currents as air splashed against them; a swarm of pixies generated their own cloud of magical potential. The barometric pressure dipped between the ancient, sleeping trees. Soon, it would be raining. The small animals that dwelt in the branches moved to and fro as they prepared to take cover.

Hot air rose. His awareness rode the currents of cool air toward the ground. The disturbances in the air were larger here. The lake breathed mist into the waiting sky as its top layer evaporated. He turned his attention away from it; a body of water was too much input and would not help his search. He was looking for something living. Particles of air forced themselves against a bear’s shape, then splashed back against him as the creature shook itself. A rabbit expelled its last puff of breath and began to cool as a fox buried its snout into entrails hot enough to release vapor. No. He needed something sentient. A healer.

Closer than he expected, almost close enough to hear a shout, something walked on two legs. Beri’s attention snapped to it and his focus narrowed. The person felt large, almost as large as the bear. A troll, then, or a rock sprite? He hummed a breeze just strong enough to kiss the person’s face. The moving currents outlined a pair of long tusks like those of a boar extruding from the creature’s bottom lip.

Beri recoiled. Ogres, he thought. They were closer now than they had been since Karen was wounded. In the back of his memory, the Wizard Gen whispered, Focus, young prince. Was it one Ogre or many? The answer could mean life or death. His consciousness eddied against a second warm body, then a third, then a group around a cook fire. A troop, then. A troop close enough to hit with a well-thrown rock.

Another mind brushed his thoughts like a caressing hand. Meteomancer, it greeted.

Beri’s eyes flew open and he ran.

Behind him, a voice shouted in Ogre. Branches broke and foliage crashed. Beri swerved around a tree and jumped over a fallen log. He had magic enough to defend against the number of Ogres that chased him, but that voice in his head was wizard-strong. That much magic meant other Fey. After the strain of living in the forest for nearly two weeks, he was not up to a full-on wizard’s duel. Who were they? Avalon was not at war with other Fey! Still, he heard the musical voices of trained magic users mingling with the harsh tones of shouting Ogres. Perhaps Avalon had not been at war with them, but they certainly wanted him now.

He had to get back to Karen; those wizards might be strong enough to break the circle in which he had left her. He shouted down his wards as he drew into sight of his camp and dove into the tent he had made them from leaves and a purple string.

He shook her awake, hard. With one hand she rubbed her face. “I’m up, I’m up.”

“Good,” Beri whispered as Karen opened her eyes. “We have to run.”

Her sleepiness and confusion turned to fear all in an instant. “What is it?”

“Keep your voice down,” Beri hissed. “Ogres. They know where we are.”

“Oh, no,” Karen whispered back. “How did they find us?”

“There are Fey with them,” Beri told her. “They could have tracked us with a hair, or a drop of blood. Their methodology is endless.”

Karen shot him a look of wide-eyed fear and pushed past him to peer through the tent flaps. Then she turned back, gasping. “Sidhe. There are Sidhe hunting us. What are we going to do?”

They were already within her line of sight, then. “Run.”

He dragged her out of the tent. He reined himself in as much as he could bear. She was too sick to run, and she was not full Sidhe. Even the pace he kept taxed her; her breathing rasped in the air behind him.

“What are we going to do?” Karen panted.

“I do not know,” Beri said. His brain buffeted itself against the inside of his skull as he tried to think and run. “They will wear you out long before we wear them out. We have to think of a way to lose them, and quickly.”

“We’ve got to stop,” Karen gasped. “I’m bleeding.”

“If we stop, they will have us in seconds,” Beri said, though his steps faltered. Goddess, he was killing her. “We have to find a way to hide from them.”

“The blood will leave a trail, like before,” Karen observed.

“You may be right about that,” Beri said. “Wait! I have an idea!”

It was raining, he realized for the first time, and darkness had fallen. He had been too panicked to notice. The smell of salt water rode the evening air. If the lake’s energy had disrupted his concentration, it would do the same thing to the wizards who hunted them. He sent his magic spinning between the pounding raindrops to locate the lake’s direction and hauled her toward it.

The lake wasn’t far. In the darkness the water was black and the tidal foam was white against it. The stones below rose above the water, pale as jagged teeth.

Grimly, Beri said, “It’s the Lake of Dark Dreams. We climb down here.”

“Oh, I get it,” Karen panted and held her hand over her wound. Blood, black in the moonlight, soaked her shirt and her fingers. “They can’t get our scent over the water. Good idea.”

“Right. And the waves will break their tracking magic.” Whatever Karen said, this was a terrible idea. But it was the only one he had. He considered her wound. “The only problem is the Nixies.”

“Why are they a problem?” Karen asked.

“Well, they are more like sentient sharks than people. If you encounter any, be very, very polite to them. They are fierce, but they always appreciate good manners. For the Mother’s sake, whatever you do, do not thank them.” He hoped it would help.

“And how did you say we’re going to get down there?”

Beri patted his pockets, looking for his string. Meteomancer or not, even first-year magic students could use sympathetic magic to turn a piece of yarn into a rope. A smart wizard’s kit always included a pitch pipe, a match, and one string. Behind them, a group of Daoine Sidhe glowed silver against the darkness. There were more of them than he had feared. “We will have to climb. Did you see where I left that string?”

Karen asked, “The purple one? You left it back at camp.”

“Mother’s Hair, that was the only string I had. Damn. We shall have to jump.”

With a hiss and a thud, an arrow stuck in Beri’s side. Karen screamed even as the force of the bolt propelled him over the side of the cliff.

As he fell he thought, Karen.
Back to The Storm Prince

Broken Baubles and Nuclear Magic

The Holes in her Shoes

The orchards themselves were enough to keep Adelle coming back every night. Without the princes, without the beauty of their court or the joy of dancing until the soles of her shoes were thin as tissue, she would have come back for the orchards.

They were the first trees she had ever seen. She had read about trees when she was a little girl; their branches stretched into the sky like worshippers in constant prayer, their green leaves creating nourishment from the light of the sun. She had wondered what they would have been like. The closest thing she could imagine were the twisted little weeds that sometimes grew from the hard-packed earth in her father’s courtyard, barely able to survive birth from the radiation-soaked land that had made them. Sometimes, Adelle tried to picture the mutated plants stretching over her head into the watered blue silk of the sky, cracking the palace’s glass dome. But that was not a tree. These were trees.

Adelle could vividly remember the first time she had ever set foot in the orchard. The princes had ordered her sisters to bring her to them the night of her thirteenth birthday. So they had helped to dress her in her finest gown, and they had arranged her hair into golden coils. She remembered wondering what the point of the gown was when she would have to wear her radiation suit over it anyway, but her sisters had only laughed and said there had never been bombs in Fairyland. There was a long, dark tunnel, leading down underground, deep into what should have been the castle dungeon. And then her oldest sister, Mariposa, had pushed open a door and let them out into the twilight.

Adelle had wept the first time she beheld the trees. They were many times as tall as her father, with straight, proud trunks branching into eternity. The leaves were more green than she ever could have imagined, rustling in the wind as if conversing in whispers. The trunks were rough beneath her fingers. There was so much life in them. And there were thousands of them. They grew in an endless sea of rustling foliage. She had not realized then the silver fruit that hung in the first orchard like pendants was an anomaly. The trees themselves had been so overwhelming, jeweled fruit had barely seemed noteworthy.

King Leland, her father, paced before the throne. His hands were clasped behind his back, and a vein pulsed in his temple. Beside her, Adelle’s sisters regarded their father with beautiful, impassive faces. Adelle kept her shoulders squared, and focused on silence. I will not speak, she chanted internally, as she did every morning. I will not speak.

Leland spat when he spoke, too angry to control the spray. He stopped beside Mariposa, the oldest, the one he hated the most, and glared down at her. She returned his gaze. Despite the symmetrical loveliness of her face and the soft fluttering of her golden lashes, her jaw was set. Mariposa would never break. Little did their father know, Adelle was the weakest link. She still had pity for him in the depths of her heart. She wondered if he had ever seen a tree, and if he saw the orchards whether he would understand the need for silence. Could he again become the gentle man who had tickled her ribs the day before her thirteenth birthday? Or, thanks to four years of worn-out slippers, did he hate her as much as he hated Mariposa?

Adelle suspected he did not hate her as he hated them. He never shouted at her directly in the morning. If he had turned his fury on her she might have broken and closed the door to the orchards for all three of them. But he never did.

“We will ask you one final time,” Leland snarled down at his eldest child. “How did you wear through your shoes?”

Mariposa narrowed her bright blue eyes and hissed, “We slept the night through, Your Majesty, as we do every night. The shoes are as much mystery to us as they are to you.”

The King’s red face went pale with fury, and his fists clenched so tightly Adelle wondered if he would strike her sister here before the court. But he did not. Instead he spun, pacing back the other way, and called, “Jack. Come forth.”

A figure stepped forward. His cloak was made from rough hides like those of a Wastemutie, and the three princesses shrank back in horror. He was taller by a head than their father; broader at the shoulders than any man Adelle had ever seen. Terrified of what could be hidden beneath the cloak and hood, Adelle found that she could not tear her eyes away from the creature approaching the throne.

Jack reached up and pushed down his hood to reveal a very human face. Adelle sighed with relief as she studied him. His face was broad and handsome, with a wide mouth and nose. His cheeks were hidden by a downy red beard. The color of his eyes shifted between blue and green, like a river in Fairyland, and they also shifted back and forth as he examined the princesses with a clever, attentive expression. Across his chest he wore a gun bandolier, and two six guns rode low on his hips.

From her place beside Adelle, Lucinda whispered, “Another of father’s spies.”

Lucinda’s tone was dismissive, but as Adelle watched Jack’s face she felt less confident. His expression was bright and alert. He moved with the wary grace of a man accustomed to dodging attacks. She had a sudden, definite feeling this spy would be the end of their nightly travels into Fairyland. Adelle shivered with the acuteness of prophecy, and Jack’s eyes met hers. Adelle gasped, looking down at the worn dancing slippers on her feet.

King Leland’s voice held a gloating ugliness as he announced, “Jack has promised to find out what you do with your shoes of an evening, Your Highnesses. And we think he will. Oh, yes, we think he will.”
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