Mardalan raised her eyebrows, impressed despite herself. “You’ve dressed appropriately.”
“Well, of course.” Lal sat in the spindly chair across from Mardalan, arranging her skirts with delicacy—as much delicacy as her long, pointed fingers could manage. “I didn’t want to insult my hostess by dressing down.” She was awash in a froth of purple-gray fabric, as many bows and furbelows as could be tucked into every nook and cranny. Her narrow frame was almost invisible under the flounces that adorned her shoulders and chest, so that it almost looked as though she had the bust to fill it out. She even had a matching hat, complete with enormous feathers and a stuffed pigeon, atop her tightly curling black hair.
It was all glamour, of course. So was Mardalan’s table and chairs, and her food and drink. But they were faeries. They lived and breathed glamour; there was hardly a way to separate themselves from it.
Mardalan laughed, remembering the number of balls and parties Lal had come to wearing a black turtleneck sweater and black jeans, but chose not to ask why Lal would dress well for a meeting she had requested and not at a formal ball. Instead, she raised the teapot, fragrant steam issuing from its delicately curved mouth. “Tea, Lal?”
The two of them were silent as Mardalan performed the ritual of pouring tea into both of their cups, adding milk and sugar as requested (Lal inclined her head to say yes to two lumps of sugar, and shook her head to deny milk), and placing a fragile sugar cookie on each of their saucers.
She lifted her teacup, but did not drink yet, watching Lal. Lal lifted her own teacup and brought it to her face, closing her eyes as she breathed deeply through her nose. “You provide a lovely spread, as always, Mardalan.”
Mardalan inclined her head at the acknowledgment of her hospitality. “I could provide something lovely for the ears as well as the other senses, if you would allow it.”
Lal gave a sneering, sideways look to Mardalan’s musicians, who were curled up asleep in a corner of the hall. “Yes. I appreciate your hospitality in acceding to the wishes of your guest and not forcing me to listen to music produced by slaves.”
“Feloc is no slave. He is a prisoner.” Mardalan sipped her tea. Perfect, as always. “But we have had this argument before.”
“We have. You will not change my mind, and I know I will not change yours.”
They were silent again. Lal took several sips of her tea and a bite of her cookie, her teeth bared as though she were snarling.
Mardalan finally put down her cup with a sigh. “Come, Lal. Out with it.”
Lal, to her credit, did not dissemble. She put down her cookie and looked directly into Mardalan’s eyes. “We want to reopen the school, but we must guarantee the safety of our students.”
“Your students have always been safe.” Mardalan lowered her eyelashes and reached for her cup again.
“Safe until you steal them from their beds. Safe until you ruin their lives. Safe until you destroy their futures.” There was a snap to Lal’s voice.
“What do you expect me to do about it?”
“The court is yours now. No more infighting. That means you have the power.”
Mardalan raised her eyes again and smiled at Lal. “Now you are saying things I agree with.”
Lal had not moved. “But you are not the only thing in this forest.”
“Of course not. You live here somewhere, as well.”
Lal did not rise to the bait—but Mardalan had known she would not; her dwelling place was well hidden, even from the prying eyes of Mardalan’s best spies. “Because you are the one with power, I need your help to keep the students safe.”
An unladylike snort escaped Mardalan. “Would you trust it if I did? You know I have no love for the humans.”
“I would trust your word, Mardalan. I know your word, and it is good. I know you do not love the humans like I do, but you are not interested in having your people interfere with them, either.”
Mardalan took a long sip of her tea, then set it down. “Very well. I will bind my people to an agreement that will genuinely stop them from harming or touching the humans. Will that satisfy you?”
Lal took another vicious bite of her cookie. “Perhaps. What’s to stop you from becoming another ruler like Alaineth, granting permission to touch the humans to any who gain your favor?”
Mardalan smiled, imagining what her people would do to gain her favor if they thought it might mean doing what they wanted to, or with, the humans. “Nothing, I suppose.”
Lal finally bent her head, lifting her arm and touching her forehead with her long fingers. “That’s not good enough, Mardalan. You need to understand how we feel about these humans.”
“They’re humans. Lesser beings.” Mardalan shook her head. “Why is it so important to you that they not be harmed? Why reopen the school? Without the humans here, we might live in peace.”
“I’ve tried to explain this to you. You never listen.” Lal gave her shoulders an impatient shake, as though her dark silk and lace were irritating her.
“What’s the point? I have my own humans here, anyway.” She gave a negligent wave at her sleeping musicians. “They never interest me. Only what they can do. I do love music.”
“You’ve never—“ Lal lifted her head and shook it. “You don’t speak to those humans. Not as fellow beings. You just take them and use them. No consideration at all.”
Mardalan frowned. “Why should I—“
“I don’t mean that you should be talking to your musicians and asking them their deepest desires. But you treat them like props. They do have deepest desires. If you had started with a conversation, you would know.”
“Conversation? With humans?” Mardalan rolled her eyes. Conversation with other faeries was bad enough—as Lal was showing her so clearly.
Lal smirked. “It’s no worse than conversation with most faeries I know, and far better than with some.”
“Have you ever bothered to try it? They might surprise you. In your hundreds of years, don’t you miss surprises?”
Mardalan looked down at her spread, admiring it anew. “I don’t need surprises. I have power.” She lifted the remains of her cookie and popped it into her mouth, letting it dissolve pleasurably on her tongue.
“You do miss surprises. Find a few humans to talk to. Just try it out.”
“How?” Mardalan was irritated that Lal believed she knew her better than she knew herself.
“We don’t only need a way to keep the students safe in the fall. To reopen, we will also need a teacher to replace Strega.”
Mardalan sneered at the mention of Strega. “She was weak.”
“I would have thought she’d want to stay, now that we’re making such strides in human-faerie relationships, but it seems she’s made up her mind. So what do you say?”
“What?” Mardalan looked up from her tea, confused.
Lal was smiling. “Come teach a class. You’ll have contact with dozens of students. I guarantee you’ll be surprised.”
“And what if I’m not?”
“At the end of the semester, we can reevaluate. Let me bind you and your people to keeping the students safe from harm. Come to campus a few times a week to teach. If they never surprise you, I’ll unbind you and you can have free rein again.”
“You’re very confident.”
“I’ve been working with humans for a long time.”
“What if I want to leave at the end of the semester? Will you let me go?”
“Of course. You can leave now, if that’s really what you want. You know that, right? There’s no more ruler. There’s no more constraints.”
Mardalan looked around at her hall. “I’d need time to put my affairs in order. The court…”
“There’s time. Just let me know who you’re leaving in charge, so I can negotiate with them.”
Mardalan straightened her spine. “No. I’ll take your bet.”
“Very well, then. Let’s write up an agreement for you to bind your people to, and for me to bind you to.”
Mardalan swallowed the rest of her tea, then snapped her fingers. Her servant scurried up. “Parchment and pens,” she told him. As he rushed off for the supplies, she looked back up at Lal, pressing her lips together. “This will be interesting.”
“Yes,” Lal agreed, a faint smile still playing around her lips. “It will be interesting indeed.”
Mardalan lay back on a chaise, throwing her hand over her eyes. She couldn’t believe the semester was finally over. How did Lal and Rook manage it, teaching not just one class, but several per semester? All those human students! It was exhausting.
“It’s been a long twelve weeks, hasn’t it?” came Lal’s voice.
Mardalan lifted her arm and glared at the other faerie. “How did you get here?”
Lal raised her eyebrows. She was dressed again in her customary black human clothing, but at least she’d made the concession of a skirt, rather than jeans. “Are you telling me I am unwelcome? I have always been permitted in your hall before.”
Mardalan sighed and sat up. “No, of course not. You are welcome here.” She was irritated—she knew why Lal was here, and she didn’t like it—but that did not give her leave to be a discourteous host.
She gestured, and another chair appeared for Lal to sit on. Mardalan would not honor her guest by providing a comfortable chaise when she had not honored the space with her dress; it was a tall, hard wooden chair.
Lal sat as gracefully as though she were surrounded by heavy skirts. “The semester is over.”
“And how was it for you?”
“It was most illuminating.” Lal smiled and shook her head. “Once again, the humans managed to surprise me.”
“I thought that was what you liked about them.”
“This was a bigger surprise than usual.” Lal drummed her fingers against the side of the seat. “I am not saying that I am not pleased. I am merely… surprised by how surprised I am.”
Mardalan shook her head. Lal was often baffling, but that had been an especially baffling little speech.
“And how was it for you?” Lal asked. “I was pleased to see that all your students passed your final exam, so you must have done a fairly good job teaching. I’m proud of you.”
Mardalan snapped her fingers for her servant. “Wine,” she said when he had arrived in a rustle of greenery. “Lal, will you partake?”
“Two glasses of the darkest red,” Mardalan said, and her servant scurried off to obey.
Lal looked around. “I’ve just realized something.” She was being excessively polite, allowing Mardalan to take her time answering the question. Mardalan recognized the unusual courtesty, and it only irritated her more.
“No music. I don’t even see your human musicians—just Feloc in his cage.”
Mardalan waited until she had a wineglass in her hand, so she could look into the dark liquid and not at Lal. “I let them go.”
“You…” Lal’s wineglass shook in her hand as she looked around wildly.
Mardalan looked up and smiled, pleased that she’d managed to render the smooth-talking Lal speechless. “You value surprise, do you not?” She took a sip of her wine.
Lal snorted. “You didn’t do it to please me.”
“No.” Mardalan turned the glass about in her hand, admiring the way the wine shimmered in the light. “I did it because… well, you were right.” She had to force the words between her teeth. “Humans are far more interesting than I gave them credit for. They are not the puppets I took them as, and I could no longer treat them that way.”
Lal shook her head. “That is far better than I expected of you. Whether or not you did it to please me, Mardalan, I am pleased.”
“They did surprise me, many times,” Mardalan said. “When there was an injury in my class… I was surprised by my fear. I did not want a student hurt. I realized that it is not so different than what I did to the musicians, so I gave them back their freedom. And when the ghost came to my class—I knew about her, of course, but I had thought she was a phenomenon, not a person. Now I know otherwise.”
“You knew—“ Lal began to laugh, then took a deep drink of her wine. “Mardalan, you continually surprise me. This is why I come here, despite disapproval of your ways. Perhaps now those ways I disapprove are changing.”
Mardalan shook her head and drank her wine.
“So, will you return next semester?” Lal asked. “Or do I still need to find a permanent replacement for Strega?”
Mardalan frowned deeply into her glass. “How long do I have to recover?”
“Six weeks. You’ll be fine.” There was a smile in Lal’s voice.
Mardalan knocked back the rest of her glass. “I’ll have to take your word for it, as you have more experience than I do. I reserve the right to change my mind at any time, of course.”
“Of course.” Lal set her glass down by the chair, then rose. “I’ll take my leave of you and let you rest.”
Mardalan inclined her head in thanks, and looked about for her servant as Lal walked away—she needed more wine.
Lal stopped before she had reached the door, though, and turned back. “Mardalan. What happened to them?”
“What happened to who?” Mardalan turned to her servant and handed him her empty glass; he knew what she wanted and scurried off.
Lal raised her eyebrows. “The human musicians. Where did they go when you released them? Will I find them wandering, lost, on campus? Did they even survive?”
Mardalan shrugged, confused and irritated by the question. “What do I care where they went? They aren’t mine anymore.” Her servant returned with her wine glass, and she clutched the delicate crystal.
Lal opened her mouth for a moment, then closed it again and shook her head. “Perhaps you haven’t changed so much. Farewell, Mardalan. I shall see you again in six weeks.”
“Oh, you won’t miss the Solstice ball, will you?” Mardalan glanced over her shoulder at Feloc in the corner. “He’s been learning all kinds of new music.”
Lal smiled. “If I’m invited, I’ll be there.”
“Of course you’re invited. We’re friends, aren’t we?”
“Of course.” Lal’s smile widened. “In two weeks, then. Goodbye.”
“Goodbye.” Mardalan returned her attention to her wine, and when she had taken a long sip, Lal was gone.