Chapter 23

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Hissy said staying hidden would keep her out of harm's way, and there was truth to that. This wasn't Ria's world. Traipsing blithely through the unknown would probably end with her untimely death, but tonight was Yuletide: a High Holy day for her people. Being sequestered to the rafters while the party ensued below felt like an "it's for your own good" type of punishment.

Watching the shadows lengthen as the sun dipped below the horizon line, Ria couldn't keep her mind from wandering back to Sors. She should have been with Mal, hanging decoration, their home perfumed with woven boughs of evergreen, holly, and ivy. In the hearth, an oak log and fall-gathered acorns would be smoldering happily as the two sang songs long since vanished from the landscape. Their feast would be sparse but warming, the sisters having prepared it together with smiles that didn't quite reach their ears, remembering what had been lost four years ago.

Separated by forces beyond her means of combat, the holiday lost its luster, turning to rust in Ria's mind. Her yearning to be with Mal pulled at her like the moon pulled on the tides. Being alone-tucked away in the rafters of a castle's corpse like a forgotten toy-put such a weight in Ria's heart she thought she'd fall back to earth and shatter into a thousand pieces.

No, tonight wasn't the night for isolation. Fae or not, she wasn't going to let the evening pass without at least giving thanks in her own way and maybe sending up a prayer or two that she'd see her sister again soon. If that meant taking a risk against the fae, so be it.

Gingerly feeling her way back to ground level-a feat more easily imagined than executed in the cloying darkness with hands still slick from the ochre she'd smeared herself in-Ria made it safely back to earth and picked her way towards the courtyard. It was slow going, each step hampered by her inability to see through the blue-black gloom. One hand out to help feel her way and the other closed around her Adder Stone, Ria opened herself to the energy pulsating around her like a heartbeat, using its steady rhythm to help guide the way.

Eventually, she picked up on the low hum of voices drifting through the cool night air and honed in on that, pointing her body towards an otherworldly glow emanating from the heart of Tree Spring. It reminded her of the parties her family attended at Cillian's pub while her parents were still alive. All that was missing was the ring of clinking glasses, the smell of stale ale and pipe smoke, and the memory would be complete.

Finding her way blocked by a fallen wall, Ria pulled herself over the obstacle and dropped onto the other side, barely rising from her crouch as her attention settled on the courtyard, unsure where to feast her eyes first.

Never in her wildest dreams could she have imagined a site quite like this.

They were everywhere. Creatures who should have only existed in the depths of her dreams milled about as flesh and blood beings. Some were tall and thin, like willow reeds and sinewy saplings. Others were squatty, with short, hairy bodies and stout appendages. Some slunk about, reptilian in both nature and appearance. Others would never pass for anything but fae. More than a few sported wings: bat, owl, hawk, raven, insect, feathery, leathery, and everything in between. Most had claws, and all of them looked dressed in their best, no matter how wild or alien.

"This is incredible," Ria breathed, forgetting to remain on-guard until a small mound-dweller bumped into her on its way to the Tree. She jumped, ready to run, but the creature snorted an apology and lumbered on. It shouldn't have surprised her the Adder Stone and ochre worked as well as they did, but she could feel the thrum the freedom fizzle in her blood like oil in a hot pan.

Tonight, she was invisible. Thank the gods for small miracles.

Content on wandering near the back of the courtyard, Ria climbed atop a series of broken steps to watch the carnival-like spectacle unfold. Fae came and went in courtly processions, dropping offerings at the base of the Tree before mingling with their betters. Every so often, the crowd parted for troops of whooping, hollering fae who danced in strange, erratic patterns to music foreign and wild.

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