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Eva tossed her backpack on the picnic bench and hollered to Giancarlo. “I’m heading to the creek to cut some willow branches for the summoning spell.”The historian strode up the hill from their car with his gear slung over one shoulder and somehow managed to look like a runway model straight from Milan. “You could bring them with you, you know.” God. His accent just made her knees weak—Inappropriate, Eva. Focus on work.
She snapped a photo of the area with her phone and texted it to her assistant, Sandra. File under Nunne’hi Project. Sometimes the vegetation changed after one of the Fae or other Hidden Peoples visited, depending on the magic they used.
“The willow needs to be from here. The local Hidden People like it better when the baskets are of their place.”
“Why?” He raised an eyebrow, curious, as always.
“The Hidden People are particular about the specifications for these gifts. Must be living willow, must be made by the person making the request… There are papers on it if you’re really curious.”
“What do they do with them?”
“Not one of the Hidden People, just like you.” She cut him off before he could embarrass them both. People thought that having a Cherokee grandmother gave her a leg up in dealing with the Hidden People. They were so not the same thing.
“They don’t tell us, and it’s not like we can just go to into a village to check.”
To be more accurate, no one had been invited across the barrier to the beyond and returned in a timely manner. Standard protocol was to decline an invitation, no matter how tempting. The story of Thomas the Rhymer was a hard-core cautionary tale, even in North America.
Eva had no wish to be taken under the earth for a score of years. To say nothing of the fact that she had no True Love like Janet in the story to pull her from the Faerie Queen’s hunt, or seven followers like the Sun’s Daughter to put her in a box and bring her back.
Giancarlo set his bag on the picnic table. “So…. Um. Eva. After we finish this evening. There’s a documentary on Jefferson at the Rialto. Would you—would you like to go? With me?”
Eva opened her mouth to say yes and then closed it. He was asking her out. On a date. Even with her doctorate, it was hard enough getting respect at the university as a witch without adding fraternizing with a client to the list of her “unprofessional behavior.” She shook her head. “I’m afraid I can’t.”
“Oh.” With a face like his, he probably didn’t get turned down often.
She gestured at the rusted iron camping grill set into the concrete by the table. Focus on business. “You want to start the fire?”
He shook his head and forced a laugh. “After what happened to Ned, I’m getting the recording equipment set up first.”
“Oh come on…. He was whistling and using rowan for the kindling. We’ve got pine. Stick with the magically neutral stuff and don’t whistle.”
He gave her a look with his head cocked, as if she ought to know better. “He still have the rabbit ears?”
“Last I saw.” Eva fished in the backpack until she found her knife. “Sandra wants him to keep them.”
“You’re kidding, right?” Giancarlo set his webcam on the table.
“She just wants him to wait until her paper on the Askina has been peer-reviewed.”
“The Askina—” His mouth dropped as he caught the implication. The Cherokee believed that people had four souls, the Askina, each of which controlled a different aspect of self. “She thinks the rabbit head is a manifestation of a soul? Even though he’s not Cherokee?”
“Yep. Sandra thinks it’s Ned’s first soul made flesh.”
“Amazing.” Giancarlo slipped a roll of duct tape over his arm and picked up the webcam. “The usual spot all right for the camera?”
“Yeah.” She shoved a couple of chocolate bars aside until she found the bags of ground white chalk for marking football fields.
The rituals to call the Hidden People had distinctive variations based on geography, region, and cultural heritage. Tennessee was decidedly different from England in all three areas. The Fae who’d come over with the European settlers had not caused a pandemic among the local Hidden People population of America in the same way the human settlers had. In the Tennessee hills, they’d intermarried with the Nunne’hi and Yunwi Tsunsdi’.
Because Hidden People in general lived so much longer than humans, much of the blending was still fairly new in their terms. Only one or two generations in most places.
Sometimes, if you were really lucky, you could find one of the Hidden People who’d been alive during the pre-colonial times. When that happened, it was a godsend to human historians, like Giancarlo. He’d had been coming to the hill with her every weekend for the last three months.
Holding the bag of chalk loosely in one hand, she dipped the other into the cool powder and began to refresh their circle. She took it almost all the way around until it was open on the side closest to the iron fire pit. She’d close it after they were both inside and ready.
“Hey—I told my prof about Cennetig’s obsession with hotdogs and he asked about the iron on the grill.” Giancarlo was taping the camera to the tree. He would spend the actual interview in the chalk circle for safety. Her contacts were usually pretty well-behaved, but there was no point in taking a chance.
She shrugged. “Cennetig says it’s like rhubarb.”
“The oxalic acid in the leaves is poisonous to humans, but the trace amounts in the stalks are what gives that tangy, tart flavor. Cooking hotdogs on the grill gives them traces of iron. Cennetig likes the tang.” The Hidden Person’s excitement the first time he ate one had been infectious. He even asked for some to take into the Beyond to share. Though he never said as much, Eva suspected that his mixed Yunwi Tsunsdi’ and Glastig ancestry may have made him something of an outcast. At any rate, she never saw him with any of the other Hidden People.
While Giancarlo finished with the camera, Eva hiked to the creek to cut some willow branches. The warm, woodsy scent filled her nose with earth and the underlying green of the trees. The air still had a faint nip from the past winter but was otherwise warm with the promise of spring.
Eva had set aside two dozen pliable branches, whip-thin with slick, brown bark. Her knife was on the branch to cut another, when she heard an aborted yelp from the camp. Giancarlo.
Her knife slipped and bit into her thumb. Shaking, she shoved the knife into the sheath at her belt and ran toward the camp. The distance up the hill seemed to lengthen, but not through magic.
She slid on dry leaves and nearly fell, barely catching herself on a sapling with the hand she’d cut. A smear of blood coated the thin grey bark. Damn. She’d have to clean that off before they called the Hidden People. No time now. Eva pushed herself to her feet and up the hill. She cleared the last of the trees, running into their campsite.
Giancarlo stood on the side of the picnic table opposite the chalk circle. On the other side, standing on its hind legs, was a black bear.
With his hands held away from his side, Giancarlo glanced over his shoulder. “Back away slowly.”
“And leave you there?”
The bear saw her and huffed, revealing long, sharp teeth.
“At least stop talking.” His voice shook, undermining his light tone.
Eva cursed under her breath. All of her supplies were sitting on the table in her bag. She had her knife, a willow branch, which she had miraculously held onto, and the clothes she was wearing. The willow branch….
She focused all of her attention on the bear and did exactly what she had been instructed not to do: Eva stared into the bear’s dark, glistening eyes. She raised the willow branch, not like a weapon, but like a tool. She put a hand on the knife at her side, gripping it so that her nails bit into the leather handle.
Slowly at first, she moved the willow branch in small ovals. The ovals became figure eight patterns.
The bear growled with an intensity that threatened her concentration, but she maintained her delicate hold over the branch and continued to make the motions, each growing incrementally larger than the one before it.
Bringing together the fabric of the wood, of the air, and the ground at her feet, she wove a new aspect into the current situation. The bear’s aggressive stance wavered. Its mouth closed. With careful precision and focus, visualizing the strands of the world around her, she wove a new attitude of calm for the bear. The animal rested all four of its limbs on the ground. It sniffed at the air and gazed beyond Eva. She made the bear disinterested.
She became aware of the tension in her legs only as they relaxed. She softened her grip upon the knife.
“Wow,” Giancarlo whispered.
But then the bear refocused on Eva. Its eyes were suddenly keen. It…smiled.
“Very good,” the bear said. Its form shimmered as it changed. “Very good indeed.” Where the bear once stood was a gaunt, angular woman. Nita, the Nunne’hi who had given Ned the head of a rabbit.
Eva and Giancarlo were both outside the protective circle of chalk. Eva forced a bow. “Well met, Nita.”
“Well met?” Her long grey hair framed a face wrinkled with sorrow. Even with the lines of age, she was impossibly beautiful. “Have you brought me a present?”
“I have not yet had the opportunity. If you would give me but a few minutes—”
“Then I shall choose my own present.” The Nunne’hi smiled and Eva shivered.
“That’s not in the protocol.”
“No? But you called me with blood.”
Eva looked at the cut on her hand. Oh, hells. There were rituals that used blood and they created deeply binding contracts with the Hidden People, but she hadn’t invoked one of those. Except…the tree she had stumbled against. Gods and saints. What kind of tree had it been? “I have to point out, the cut happened after Giancarlo screamed.”
“I didn’t scream. I yelled.”
She glared at him. “Fine, you yelled. The point being that he yelled because you appeared so I could not have summoned you with blood.”
“But you did.” Nita’s face twisted into a scowl, sharpening the inhuman lines. “Not the piddling amount dribbling from your hand but with the blood of my family.”
“I—I’m sorry. What?”
“You gave Cennetig the tools to kill my family.”
“Nita…I don’t know what happened, but please believe me when I say that I had no part in it.” Eva held her hands out in a placating gesture, aware of the knife she wore.
“Did you not? Did you not send Cennetig with meat cooked on iron?” Her mouth pulled back to reveal her teeth, sharp like a bear’s. “Did not my husband and my son eat this tainted flesh and die?”
Eva pressed her hand to her mouth in horror. “Cennetig had asked for hot dogs to take with him, but—They hadn’t affected him. I am so sorry but we had no reason to think that they were dangerous.” Was she really discussing the relative safety of hot dogs with a Nunne’hi?
“His mixed blood protects him from iron. All those from Titania’s court can withstand the touch of some iron. It will hurt them, yes, but a small amount will not kill them. My people are not so fortunate. We had no long exposure to iron to build any sort of tolerance.”
Giancarlo lowered his head. “I am sorry for your loss. Truly.”
“What does your sorrow matter to me?” Nita tossed her head. “I’ve come for the woman.”
“I made the hotdogs.” Giancarlo, the brave, foolish man, stepped between Nita and Eva. “She had nothing to do with them. I take full responsibility for that.”
“Wait—He doesn’t know what he’s saying.”
“He accepts responsibility. That is sufficient.” The Nunne’hi reached a slender hand for Giancarlo.
“Stop!” Eva strode forward, hands raised. “Our hearts go out to you, but we are no more responsible than a blacksmith is for the wounds his sword causes.”
“But the blacksmith is responsible. If he wanted nothing to do with death, then he should make plowshares.” Nita closed her hand on Giancarlo’s shoulder and they vanished.
“No!” Eva ran forward, as if there were a way to follow them into the beyond. She cursed, spinning on the spot where they’d been standing. Giancarlo was only a historian. There was no telling what sort of mistakes he’d make.
Facing the camera he’d placed in the tree to record the encounter, Eva pulled out her phone and texted Sandra. “Giancarlo taken by Hidden People. Going after him. We’re at our usual spot. Camera is in the pine tree.” At least if she disappeared for a couple of decades, people would know what happened.
She carried the willow branch into the chalk circle, thinking fast. Maybe if her grandmother hadn’t passed as white she would have known what to do. As it was, Eva felt like a poser every time her Cherokee heritage came up at staff meetings. All she had was a grandmother and “book learning” and today that would have to suffice.Her phone vibrated in her pocket, but she ignored it. Sandra would tell her not to do this, but she’d told Giancarlo that she would keep him safe. Heck. She had a contract. By the Hidden People rules, that made her responsible even if her own moral sense didn’t.
Eva left the circle of chalk open since she would need the Hidden Person to touch her. She knelt on the ground and lay the willow branch across her left palm, loosely. Setting her teeth, she drew the blade of the knife across the cut in her thumb, reopening it. She wiped the blade on her trousers and shoved it into the sheath at her belt. She let the blood flow over the willow branch, coating the brown wood in scarlet. Blood magic was dangerous, but she needed a binding contract if she had any hope of getting Giancarlo out of the beyond.
Bending the wood, she wove it into a simple circlet, chanting a spell that blended elements of Classical Gaelic and Cherokee as she did. Magic thickened in the air around her, shimmering in a haze outside the chalk circle. The veil between the mortal world and beyond thinned and Cennetig stepped through.
His long black hair had some of the sheen of his Yunwi Tsunsdi’ father, but horns curled back from his forehead. Below the waist he had the legs of a goat, rough with remnants of winter fur. He stood only as tall as her chest and tilted his head back to look up at her. “Well met!” Then he frowned and pointed at the bloody circlet in her hands. “Eva…what have you there?”
“Nita took Giancarlo.” Forget the formality of greeting. “She said you gave the hotdogs to her family. They’re dead.” She held out the circlet. “I charge you to return Giancarlo.”
A look of horror made his mouth drop open. Cennetig sucked in a breath and shook his head. “I—I did not forsee this.” He turned away from her for a moment. “Alas, as I did not take him, I cannot. Only someone who has a claim on him can take him across the border.”
She had no idea if her claim was strong enough– She and Giancarlo had never done anything that wasn’t related to the job, but Eva took a chance. “I was contracted to keep him safe when dealing with the Hidden People. If you take me to him, I will win Giancarlo free myself. Tell me what your price is.”
“A kiss.” His lips curled into a thin smile.
She bit the inside of her cheek, thinking. Kisses were the catalyst to a lot of different spells in almost every branch of the Hidden People. This wouldn’t be as simple as it sounded. “What would you do with this kiss?”
“Nothing. I am required to ask for a price and that is the price I ask. I promise you I will let no harm fall to you as long as you are under my protection.” He tilted his head. “That protection will end when you grant me the kiss, but I will not ask for it until you are safely returned to the mortal world. This is the least I can ask for and still accept your charge. Do you agree?”
Did she have a choice? “I agree.”
He leaned forward and let her place the circlet on his head. The wood twisted to pass over his horns and settled on his brow.
Eva had a bare moment to wonder why he seemed so very pleased, before the magic thickened around them and the mortal world vanished.
* * *
She stood in the beyond or Faerie or… elsewhere. Even if the massive old growth trees didn’t tell her she’d moved, the clarity in the air would tell her that she was no longer in the mortal world. Each leaf stood out starkly from its shadow. The light seemed to gild every blade of grass individually and the air was heavy with the resin of rowan mixed with oak and maple. Eva resisted the urge to immediately pull out her phone and start snapping pictures of the space around her. She wasn’t here for research.
The branches arced over the clearing like a cathedral or a longhouse. At the edge of the clearing, stood a mud-and-daub house in the Cherokee style. It had a single hide-covered door in the side, decorated with a red and black paint pattern unlike anything she had seen in any records. It had elements she recognized from Cherokee basketry but mixed with some curvilinear patterns that seemed to shift as if the paint were alive.
Ringing her, was a fence of living willow—no. Not a fence. These were baskets that had been woven from green willow and then planted. They vibrated slightly with the movements of things inside the baskets.
Eva shivered. She had wondered what the Hidden People did with the baskets she wove and now she knew. They were living cages.
“Cennetig.” From the door of the house, Nita stepped into the clearing. “You are not welcome here.”
“I have brought you the human who killed your family.” He minced forward. “She tricked me into carrying poison here.”
“What—? No.” Eva took a step from him. “That’s not what—”
“Be still.” Nita raised her hands and wove a spell, flinging it at them. The magic twisted into vines in the air, which reached toward them.
Eva flinched, unable to think of a counter-spell fast enough.
The spell shattered inches from her face with a crack that smelled of mildew and November leaves. Shaking, she stepped back and bumped into Cennetig. He steadied her with a hand on her waist.
Nostrils flaring, Nita lifted her head. Her hands moved in complicated patterns as if she were weaving spells in the air but nothing happened. Why wouldn’t her spells work? Nita could turn into a freaking bear. All the years of research and working in the field of magic fled Eva’s understanding.
Nita scowled. “What bargain protects you?”
Cennetig laughed and straightened the crown on his head. His hand came away with blood.
Holy—The crown bound Cennetig to Eva until he returned her safely to the mortal world. No wonder the price he asked in return was so low and no wonder he wanted to claim the reward after she was back. He’d turned their contract into an insanely powerful protection for himself. He held his hands out, pleading with Nita. “My love, I—”
“I am not your love.”
“I only wish to speak with you.”
“With more lies?” Her voice broke and her shape shifted around the edges, becoming denser and shaggy like a bear. “Why couldn’t you let us be—?”
A redbird flew across the clearing and landed on Nita’s shoulder. A muscle twitched in her jaw. She turned abruptly and walked around the edge of the clearing, trailing her hand over the tops of the wicker baskets. The creatures inside jumped and called as she passed.
Each basket had been set upside down in the earth so that the tender shoots had rooted and grown. Some of them had been there so long that the original basket shape had been obscured by offshoots and leaves. Eva turned in place to watch Nita walk. The cages held badgers, ravens, beetles, foxes, and other animals she couldn’t identify. Cennetig crouched at Eva’s feet and as she turned, he kept her between him and Nita. “He did not deserve you.” Cennetig trembled against Eva. “If my mother had not been a Glastig, you would have seen me as—”
Nita roared. The wind blew her hair in a gust without touching the leaves around them. “I loved Salali. That has nothing to do with you or your parents or any other consideration except that I loved him.” She leaned her cheek against the redbird on her shoulder and closed her eyes. “I love him still.”
Eva’s heart wrenched, realizing that the redbird was one of the Askinas of Nita’s husband. Oh, gods. His soul had stayed behind with her.
With a growl, Cennetig yanked Eva’s knife from her belt and launched himself at Nita. Dancing backward, Nita dodged him.
The knife was steel. Crap. She’d been so frantic that she’d sheathed it without thinking. Eva ran after Cennetig and tried to grab the hand that held the knife. He swiped at her, face tight with pain. He’d pulled his sleeve down to wrap around the knife’s handle, but even with that and the leather handle, the metal still had to be burning him.
Eva tried to keep herself between him and Nita. Cennetig lowered his horns and charged for her. Eva threw herself to the side, crashing onto the ground.
The redbird dove at Cennetig, batting at his eyes with its wings. With Eva’s protection in place, the bird couldn’t touch him.
Cennetig stabbed at the bird wildly. “I killed you! I already killed you!”
If he killed the redbird with a steel knife, Nita’s husband would be forever dead. Nita bellowed and shifted fully into a bear. She swiped at Cennetig, paw bouncing off the protection that Eva had unthinkingly given him.
Swearing, Eva snatched a handful of grass. It wasn’t the best conduit, but it was what she had. Braiding it with shaking hands, she knotted it into a hunter’s twist and pulled a distraction around her. Eva got to her feet and Cennetig didn’t seem to notice. He kept swiping at the redbird, which seemed determined to keep him from getting to Nita.
Heart pounding, she walked behind him and grabbed the circlet. Cennetig bucked as her hands touched his scalp. Eva yanked his head back and gave him the kiss she had promised him.
His mouth was dry, and chafed like bark. Magic bubbled around them as she fulfilled their bargain. Eva twisted the circlet, breaking the willow branch with a crack.
Howling, Cennetig grabbed Eva’s arm. Eyes mad with rage, he lifted the knife.
Nita slapped her great paw against his head and Cennetig’s neck snapped. He crumpled to the ground.
The air in the clearing condensed with the smell of a thunderstorm. Cennetig’s body shivered into dust, which flowed into four mounds. From one, a deer stood. It spied the bear and shied away, running toward the baskets. In a bound, it cleared the fence and disappeared into the woods. A raccoon ran for the edge, but when it reached the baskets it got sucked into the willow cages. A butterfly flew straight toward the painfully blue sky.
At Eva’s feet, a garter snake writhed in the grass. Nita slapped it with her paw and hurled it into a basket.
Her form shivered and she coalesced into a Nunne’hi woman. Spinning wildly, she called, “Salali!”
The redbird landed on her outstretched wrist. Weeping, she bent her head over the bird, and her hair hid them both. This was true love.
Whatever Eva felt for Giancarlos didn’t go much past lust. She wrapped her arms around her chest and shook.
Nita’s voice was low as if she were answering something the redbird had said. She sighed. “Mortal. Why did you come here? To murder more of my people?”
Under the weight of her gaze, Eva had trouble catching her breath. “I—I didn’t mean to.”
“You cause much damage for someone without intention.”
“I just wanted to request Giancarlo’s return.”
The redbird chirped. Nita lifted a trembling hand and stroked the bird’s feathers. “Are you in love with him?”
Eva had a crush and certain fantasies, but in love? Knowing how many spells were broken by true love, answering “no” could mean that she wouldn’t be allowed to seek Giancarlo’s release. But the Hidden People, particularly the Nunne’hi, were notorious sticklers for the truth. The literal truth…. “I came after him, didn’t I?”
“So you did.” Nita stopped in front of a cage and crouched to stroke the cat inside. “Why?”
“I told him I would keep him safe. Will you release him?”
The bird chirped again and Nita lowered her head and answered Salali. “Yes, love, but—There are rules. I may not release him.”
Eva balled her hands into fists. Saving Nita wasn’t enough? She tried to calm her breathing and think. Asking Nita to release Giancarlo was like asking the Earth to release gravity, but the lore was full of ways to get around these rules.
Eva tried to think of the right language to use in asking for Giancarlo’s release. Bargains with the various Hidden People were a tricky thing and lord knew, she’d spent enough time researching it, but there was a big difference between knowing something for a research paper and putting that into practical use. She cleared her throat. “May I win him?”
“You may try. Once. Your mortal is here.” Nita swept her arm in a gesture around the clearing. When she completed the gesture, she held a small birch bark casket. “Find him and put all of him in this casket”
The casket weighed almost nothing. Eva needed to approach this like the scholar she was. Examine the evidence and draw a conclusion.
The nearest basket held a bluejay, which flew to the top of the basket and gripped the sides. It cocked its head to study her with bright, black eyes. Eva hesitated and went onto the next. Cennetig’s raccoon picked at the edges of the basket, as though it could unweave them, but the green willow had taken root and every hole the beast made filled with new green growth.
Among the animals in the baskets, she found a hedgehog, which had curled into a small ball and huddled against the side of its basket. If Giancarlo had just arrived, wouldn’t his animal self be more traumatized than the rest of the animals here? Or would he be fascinated? God. Did she know anything about him?
Think, Eva. She had seen Cennetig break into four animals. Nita had said to put all of Giancarlo in the casket. The Cherokee believed that people had four souls. Or some of them did. Her grandmother had been Catholic. She shook her head—she had to think like a scholar. When Nita said to put all of Giancarlo in the casket, she was talking about the Askina. Eva needed to find four animals if she wanted to save Giancarlo.
She went from cage to cage: possum, cat, rattlesnake, raven, field mouse, cricket, bat, canary—
Canary. Those weren’t native to North America and the rest of the animals had been. Could it be that simple? Did she just need to find the European animals?
Thinking it through, the first soul of the Askina was the conscious life and animated the other three. So… so that soul would know and remember being Giancarlo. Probably the hedgehog, which seemed traumatized.
The second soul is physiological which would mean…what? It was seated in the liver and produced yellow bile. Was the canary part of Giancarlo’s soul?
Excited now, she searched for the third soul. Located in the heart, it was associated with blood. She paused by a cage which held a bat. That would be a curious blending of Cherokee and Italian traditions, if the bat’s European association with vampires also linked it to blood here. But was this a North American or a European bat? She shoved her hands in her pocket, thinking, and felt her phone. Slowly she turned to Nita. “Is it cheating if I use something in my pocket to help?”
Nita’s eyes narrowed as she considered. The redbird chirped and she sighed. “My love thinks this is not your fault. You may use the contents of your pockets.”
Eva pulled her phone out of her pocket. The chances of getting a cell signal in Faerie seemed darn slim. Thank God she was a witch. Plucking strands of her own hair, Eva braided them into an intricate knot around the phone. Biting her tongue, she took a picture of the bat and texted it to Sandra. “Is this an Italian or American bat?”
“What do you have?” Nita asked.
“Um…. It’s a magic rock.”
“I believe you mean a smart phone. I was wondering what model you used.”
“I–um…. It’s a GSB Sensibility. The 900 model.”
“Hm…. I find I prefer the ones with a physical keyboard myself.” Her face crumpled for a moment and she closed her eyes. “My son had wanted one. There is little iron in a phone and it is shielded. So…I thought why should we not use this tool?”
“I thought…the European Fae are more resistant to technology.”
“And they are weaker than we are.” Nita straightened and brushed her hand over her eyes. “It is still a new thing to us, but since I told you that you might use it, carry on.”
Eva could write a whole paper about the mix of technology and Hidden People when she got back but for now…. The fourth soul was located in the bones and was the soul of energy. Darn. This would be easier if she knew anything about Giancarlo. If she hadn’t been so determined to keep things professional.
Her phone buzzed and she gave a half shriek. Her phone buzzed again, and then a third time. Three text messages waited for her.
WTF? Into Faerie? Are you insane? Wait!
Double WTF? You’ve been gone for weeks and then ask me about bats? Please tell me this is a how.
I meant “joke” not “how.” But if it’s not, that loss like an Italian Long-eared bat. If you can trust Wikipedia. And are you texting me from Faerie? WTF?
WTF did not even begin to cover it. Weeks. She’d been gone for weeks in the mortal world and only half an hour had passed here. If that. Eva didn’t text back, guessing the spell would only work three, four, or seven times, depending on which tradition she was invoking. It would be so much simpler if she only had one culture to parse.
If she waited too long, how much time would have elapsed in the mortal world? People had been gone for decades before and thought they had only spent one night. If she waited, her parents would be dead. Everything she knew would be dust. She had to make a choice.
What did she know about Giancarlo? He was curious, and bright. Smart. He liked old stuff? She thought about him standing up to the bear and to Nita. He was brave and noble and foolish. Eva stopped in front of a cat’s cage. The tabby stared at her and winked a green eye. Cats lived all over the world. Of all the animals in the circle, could she think of something more brave and curious?
Praying she was right, Eva parted the willow on the cat’s basket and pulled it out. It purred in her hands and shoved its head under her chin. Carefully, she set it in the casket. The canary sang when she pulled it out.
Lord…what if the cat ate the canary? She watched them for a moment, but the canary hopped onto the cat’s back. Eva sighed with relief.
She went to the bat next. It stretched its wings out like a child wanting to be picked up. She hoped that meant it was part of Giancarlo. The fur was soft and warm under her fingers. She set it in the casket and went to the hedgehog. The casket seemed to weigh no more than it had when she’d started.
The hedgehog still lay in a trembling ball at the edge of the basket. “Giancarlo?”
It twitched and pulled its head out of the ball to look at her. This one, at least, she was certain about. Gingerly, Eva picked up the tiny beast. The spines pierced her palm making her hiss. Slowly, she placed the creature in the casket.
Nita was sitting on the ground by the house, weaving something out of grass. Without glancing up, Nita nodded to the house’s door. “Through there.”
Nita wove as though Eva were not there.
Eva took a deep breath and held it, just in case, before she stepped into the house. Bitter cold dropped on her. Shivering, she staggered forward three paces and was out back into the mortal world. A full moon cast the clearing into silver light.
The casket writhed in her arms. She had time to think of the tale of “Thomas the Rhymer,” before it twisted to become a man with the hind quarters of a cat. He strained against her. Eva wrapped her arms around him as the clawed feet kicked, tearing through her jeans. Eva held tight and he changed again, to a yellow canary that stabbed her hands with its tiny sharp beak. Gritting her teeth, she braced herself for the next change.
Giancarlo twisted, beating leathery wings against her head and arms. Each wing buffeted her, driving the air out of her lungs. One more. She only had to hold him through one more.
He transformed, spines growing from every surface. A thousand pins pricked through Eva’s clothes, driving into her front. She choked on a cry. He struggled in her grasp, the spines digging deeper into her skin. Eva closed her eyes and hugged Giancarlo to her.
Then the pain vanished.
She held a man, slick with sweat. “Giancarlo?”
He groaned, an inhuman noise. Tabby stripes streaked his hair.
“Are you all right?” Aching from pinpricks and bruises, Eva slowly straightened.
He shook his head, squeezing his eyes shut. His breath rasped in his throat. Eva kept her arms around him. He had to transform again. His hind quarters were still those of a cat and his tail lashed furiously.
Unless she had guessed wrong.
Swallowing a wave of nausea, she ran through every piece of folklore she could think of. There was only one consistent thing that broke spells across multiple cultures. Taking a breath, she said. “I’m going to kiss you. To see if that helps. Is that all right?”
His eyes opened, cat green glaring out of his classic profile. He nodded, panting.
She pressed her lips against his. Giancarlo opened his mouth with a moan, as his tail wrapped around them both. His teeth were sharp and his tongue was rough on hers.
His breathing eased, slowing and deepening. A deep purr rumbled out of him. Eva pulled back from the kiss. Fur still covered his legs.
“I’m—I’m so sorry.”
“It helped. I feel more…”
* * *
He gestured to his legs which were still tabby-striped but straighter now, almost human in conformation. “I—How do I explain? Less alien? More settled… I do not know if there is a right word in any language.”
No human language at any rate. Eva tried to pull her rational detachment back, and use it to examine his situation like the professional she was. His soul was only three-quarters his. “I suspect that you are absorbing the cat’s attributes as part of yourself. It’s… I don’t know. I’m guessing.” Was there even precedence for that? She needed to take photos before he transformed farther.
Eva’s stomach turned at her own thought. She couldn’t look at this man as a science project. She couldn’t profit from her mistake, and especially not when he had to pay the price. “I suspect that your personality will shift to accommodate the new piece of your soul. We could try to go back…” Even as she said it, she knew that would not happen. That price would be even worse. “Or, is there someone who could—I think the kiss needed to be from your true love.”
“There is no one. But…I am willing to wait.” He lifted her palm and kissed it. The pace of his words had slowed and the rolled Rs of his accent fairly purred. “Isn’t there a saying something about the sum of parts?”
“You mean, ‘I am greater than the sum of my parts?’”
“Yes that.” His kiss moved to the inside of her wrist.
She could barely catch her breath. “What are you doing?”
“I—” He dropped her hand and backed away, eyes widening. “I am so sorry. That felt—I am sorry, that was inappropriate.”
Eva took a step closer. “You didn’t know that you were—that you were kissing my hand?”
He shook his head, wrapping his arms around his body as if suddenly remembering that he was largely naked. “I knew but, for a moment, it felt natural.”
With a struggle, she responded as an academician. “I note that you are less inhibited now.”
“You might need more study to prove that.” He smiled shyly. “Would you reconsider attending that film with me—Or no. We’ve been gone for months, haven’t we. Then I will claim that I owe you dinner at least.”
“But—” She gestured at his legs, which were still those of a cat, to explain her failure. She barely knew him.
“Ah. Of course.” He turned away, jaw clenching. “The legs.”
“No—It’s not that.” Shit. He thought she was turning him down because the cat legs were strange. “It’s just that… I failed you.”
“You came after me.”
She stared at him for a moment. “Of course.”
“Eva—I don’t know anyone else who would do that.”
“I couldn’t leave you.”
“I know the stories. You might have been trapped there.” His tail twitched and he stared at it with horrified fascination. “Why did you choose the cat?”
“Because you were brave and curious and…. I don’t know.” She swallowed hard. “What should I have chosen?”
“The field mouse, though I am flattered that you thought I was brave.”
“You looked brave when facing the bear.”
“Faking it.” Giancarlo’s gaze became more serious and she could imagine the hedgehog’s frightened gaze peering out of him. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have asked. About dinner, I mean.”
“I’m glad you did.” She had tried to keep the pieces of her life separate—the woman from the witch from the professor, and Giancarlo had paid the price for that. Eva took a slow breath and looked at the man in front of her. She had seen the pieces of him, but had kept herself in a tiny box. “I…I had a thing for you. Before. But, it was unprofessional, you know? So… Yes. I’ll have dinner with you. Because I did think you were brave, and I still do.”
He stared at her with raw wonder, and she could almost see the rapid pulse of the canary beating in the vein at his throat.
“You said it might take true love’s kiss. Would you be willing to try again?”
This time, they stepped toward each other, meeting in a shy embrace. The kiss was slow and tentative. Giancarlo’s lips were warm against hers and a part of Eva unfolded a little to meet him. Her hand slid down his back to where the fur began. It remained soft upon his skin.
She pulled away, a little breathless, and shook her head. “It didn’t work.”
He cupped her cheek with one hand. “I’m willing to wait.”
And so was she. True love? Perhaps it might not be in the future, but she would like to know him better. Eva tilted her head up. “Then perhaps we should keep experimenting.”