Dissension — Chapter 5

Chapter 05 A Quiet and Lonely Castle

  Rook didn’t make it hard for them to follow, but she didn’t exactly make it easy, either. The woman moved through the forest at a brisk pace, never stumbling or slowing even for the most difficult patches of trees and brambles. Melody and Zoë had to scramble and even run to keep up, as the rifle slung over Rook’s shoulder served as a flag to follow, a glint of steel shining from the morning sunlight poking through the canopy.

  Every step forward, Zoë felt a little more trepidation. If we’d come this way last week, we’d have been sent away by a gunshot. If we came here a month ago, we’d probably be dead. What are we doing now? This isn’t a good idea.

  Mel’s face was enough to restore her confidence. Her eyes were set, her expression determined, and her footing sure. Zoë stumbled far more often, and Melody was the one to keep her going. They didn’t give up, they didn’t turn back even for a second. 

  Every step forward brought Zoë a little more sense of magic, of spells wrought with power far beyond what she could imagine. It scared her, but it was a little bit exciting, too. I’m going to be the first to see what’s changed. See the new Rallsburg, the new Natalie. I didn’t know the old Natalie, but still… this is something really big.

  Zoë didn’t necessarily want to be at the center of anything big. She liked to read about huge happenings from afar. The Hailey Winscombe adventures were a delight in armchair adventuring, living vicariously through a girl flying around the world like a real superhero. Once Zoë actually believed them, she’d enjoyed reading back through everything, getting to feel the same sense of wonder that Melody always had.

  Doesn’t mean I want to be in those stories… they usually have a lot of tragedy to go along with them. Oh god…

  Without warning, she reached forward and grabbed Melody’s hand. The other girl looked up, startled. Zoë winced.

  ”Just needed a hand,” she murmured.

  Melody smiled. “Anytime.”

  They saw a wide open space ahead, and structures they couldn’t make out behind the tree cover. Rook had emerged into the bright morning sunlight. Melody clutched Zoë’s hand tighter as they approached the edge—her turn to be anxious, as their goal neared. Together, they walked out of the treeline, shielding their eyes from the sun.

  A castle stood before them.

  It wasn’t like any castle Zoë had ever seen, but to be fair, she hadn’t seen a great many castles in her life. The structure was made of smooth stone, rising several stories into the air. The place was triangular, two turrets at the front flanking the gate and one taller tower at the opposite point. Within the walls, a wide open lawn surrounded the main castle structure, and bridges crossed between the walls and the second story on all three sides. 

  Tall windows dotted the walls, seemingly at random, and many with glass of varying colors. Zoë saw bright pink, deep blue, green, purple, gold… it was as if the designer couldn’t settle on a particular style. Most weren’t even of the same shape. Likewise, one turret was pointed with windows, the other flat-topped and open, and the rear was flat with a raised cloth covering.

  ”Oh, wow…” breathed Melody, who’d stopped in unison with Zoë, taking in the huge structure. “It’s incredible.”

  Zoë’s attention was already elsewhere, looking at the rest of the town—or more accurately, the empty space where the town had once stood. It looked like Natalie had cleared out the rubble, and only the plots where houses once stood remained, surrounded by dirt and paved roads. On the opposite side of the town from the castle stood the only remaining structure—the old library, half caved-in, the last vestige of the old Rallsburg.

  The castle’s exactly where her house was… Zoë realized with a start. She’d studied the map of Rallsburg once out of idle curiosity, and it popped back into her head as she looked across its remnants. Natalie built her new home atop the ruins of her old. 

  ”Come,” said Rook again. Their eyes snapped back to her, gesturing for them to keep moving.

  Melody started forward as if a zombie, walking across the tall grass, her hair blown around by a sudden wind. The trees whistled and bent around them, only adding to the foreboding sense of danger. An eerie unease crept through Zoë’s body, seeping into her skin.

  The whole town was empty and deadly silent. As they passed through the huge gate, a portcullis hanging above their heads waiting to crash down, Zoë didn’t see a single person inside the castle grounds either. All that stood to great them was an enormous golden mountain lion, casually prowling the space within the walls. 

  Zoë tensed as the cat approached, muscles visible in its powerful stride. It walked in front of the castle doors and stopped, eyeing Zoë with a fierce gaze.

  ”Ystävät,” said Rook calmly. 

  After a few moments, the cat nodded. It stepped aside. Behind it, the castle doors waited—a pair of handsome brown wooden panels, each as tall as Melody’s house, with a simple outline of a wolf carved into the surface. The whole place didn’t seem foreboding, exactly. As castles went, it actually seemed relatively open and inviting. Still, she couldn’t bring herself to just walk in.

  ”Mel…” murmured Zoë. Wandering through an empty ghost town was one thing, but once they entered the castle, who was to say they could ever get out? “I don’t like this.”

  ”I want to go in,” said Melody, as Rook began to walk toward the door, hand outstretched.

  ”What if—”

  ”You may leave at any time,” said Rook abruptly, interrupting their conversation. She pulled open the door. Inside, a flicker of firelight promised warmth and comfort, out of the chilly winter air. “There is nothing and no one that will hold you against your will.”

  Melody turned to Zoë, excitement glimmering in her eyes. “Will you come with me? Please?”

  ”Yes,” said Zoë, before she could stop herself. “‘Course I will.”

  Her girlfriend’s face lit up, and Zoë’s reluctance melted away. She still had more than enough anxiety and caution for the two of them, and she resolved to keep a good getaway path in her head at all times, but if this might lead to Melody’s awakening, then Zoë was in it for the long haul.

  Inside the castle, the stone hallways had long, plain rugs lining the floors, and torches stood in stone sconces which seemed to be shaped into the walls themselves. As Zoë passed one, she realized the fire was self-powering. In much the same way as Cinza’s fires, the wood fibers repaired themselves, using energy drawn from somewhere Zoë couldn’t figure out.

  She built all of this herself, in only a month… It must be true then, that she’s one of the special ones like Hailey. Wonder if she can fly too.

  Rook led them through a small maze of hallways until they reached another set of double doors, with an engraving matching the wolf from the front. “The throne room,” she said, gesturing forward. “Enter when you are ready.”

  Without another word, Rook turned and walked away. Zoë stared after her, watching the rifle bob on her shoulder until she turned the corner and vanished. 

  ”What are we doing, Mel…” murmured Zoë.

  Melody had been about to reach for the door handle, but she hesitated. “What do you mean?”

  ”We already nearly died once out here. You open that door, we’re part of their world again.”

  ”You’re already awakened,” said Melody. She tried to say it with a smile, but Zoë could hear the painful melancholy behind her syllables. “You’ll always be a part of that world.”

  ”There’s a big difference between being awakened and walking into Natalie Hendricks’ castle.”

  ”We’re already inside the castle.”

  ”You know what I mean, Mel.”

  Melody nodded. “I know. I’m scared too. But this could really be it. Everybody says if awakenings are ever gonna come back, it’ll be because of one of the Eight. Natalie’s one of them.”

  ”‘Everybody’ tends to be wrong about a lot of things,” said Zoë, resisting the urge to roll her eyes.

  ”What do you want to do?”

  Zoë hesitated. She hadn’t expected that question—but of course Mel’s always gonna ask me straight, instead of trying to guilt trip me or anything else. “I want you to awaken. I don’t know how that’s gonna happen. I guess…” She sighed. “I guess this is as good an idea as any.”

  ”Thanks,” said Melody. She leaned forward and kissed Zoë on the cheek. “I’m really glad you decided to come talk to me in the computer lab.”

  ”…You mean when you flat out rejected me and didn’t talk to me for six months?” said Zoë, smirking.

  ”Six more months I could’ve had with my Zoë,” murmured Melody dreamily. “I’ll have to make up for that sometime.”

  ”I’m just glad you decided to actually give me a chance.”

  ”Let’s go,” said Melody, holding out her hand. Zoë took it, savoring the warmth of her skin, and together, they opened the throne room doors.

  …This is a throne room?

  If anything, it looked like a living room. There was a fireplace set into one wall, with couches and chairs surrounding it. Zoë guessed they must have been the most intact pieces of furniture left in Rallsburg, repaired by Natalie or Rook. Across the room, a table with more chairs and a huge rug covering the floor. A window peeked out onto the rear lawn, facing the turret at the far end from the gate.

  A huge grey wolf sat curled next to a chair close by the fire. In the chair sat a girl with purple eyes, a spiral scar filling the side of her face, and pointed ears poking through the curtain of brown hair now reaching down past her shoulders. She was the daughter of the Traitor of Rallsburg, the most powerful awakened outside the Three Gods—perhaps even more powerful than the new one, Hailey, if the rumors were true—and as they entered, Zoë had the most startlingly obvious revelation.

  She’s just a kid.

  Natalie Hendricks looked up as they entered, one hand on the neck of her wolf. She looked as nervous as Melody, but given how she had built every stone, every scrap surrounding them, Zoë felt she needn’t worry a moment. Natalie practically radiated power, so much that Zoë sensed it from across the room.

  ”Hi,” said Natalie. She gestured for them to come forward to the other chairs near the fire. “This is Gwen,” she added, gesturing at the wolf. “She won’t hurt you.”

  The wolf growled, giving the exact opposite impression Natalie suggested.

  ”You built all this, Natalie?” asked Melody.

  She shook her head. “I did, but I’m not Natalie.” 

  The girl scratched the wolf’s back, eliciting a faint purr, before turning back to face the two of them. She gestured toward the other mismatched chairs. 

  ”My name is Linnethea.”

 

 

***

 

 

  Uhh… what?

  Zoë and Melody took seats across the fireplace from Natalie. Melody looked totally still, but Zoë could tell she was desperately restraining herself from asking the question burning in her heart. Probably for the best, too—we have no idea what we’re going into here. Especially if she’s… not Natalie? I still don’t really know what to do with that

  Natalie settled back into her chair, once again driving home how young she was. Her demeanour screamed older, but by any other measure, she was just thirteen. She wore a pair of simple pants and a shirt, enveloped by a dark green jacket. Like the room’s decorations, it seemed totally at odds with the medieval feel of the castle. Besides which, if Zoë had to put it into words, it felt like a kid’s impression of an old castle. The place wasn’t exactly built for a siege, or in any strictly logical sense.

  She doesn’t seem crazy… Mostly, anyway.

  ”Rook invited us to come out here,” said Zoë finally. 

  Natalie nodded. “I built all this stuff, but… there’s nobody here yet. I finally figured out how to live on my own, but that’s… kinda lonely,” she added reluctantly.

  There’s the teenager I expected. Meanwhile, at Zoë’s side, Melody looked like she might burst into tears. Zoë had to take the lead, at least for this conversation.

  ”And you wanted us to…” she prompted.

  ”Be here, I guess,” said Natalie. She seemed as uncomfortable as Zoë felt. “I’m the queen here, but I can’t really have a queendom with just six people. I thought, you know… if you were out here this whole time in the camp, maybe you would want to come and live up here. I already figured out how to build stuff, how to get food, keep warm, everything.”

  Six people…? Zoë glanced at Melody, whose expression was etched with sympathy.

  ”It’ll be nice to have more people,” Natalie went on. “I… I only really ever lived with adults, and mostly on my own. I want…”

  ”You want friends,” said Melody finally, nodding.

  ”…Yeah,” said Natalie.

  ”You live out here all alone?” asked Zoë. Might as well try to get my own answers here. I’m still really unsure about this, but better to get as much information as I can while I can.

  ”Not alone,” said Natalie, gesturing to the wolf. “I’ve got Gwen, Percy, Scrappy, Rook, and Hector here.”

  ”Where is Hector, anyway?” asked Melody, glancing around as if she could have missed him in the empty throne room. “We followed him out of town.”

  ”He’s starting to make lunch,” said Natalie. “We’re having a feast today. Because… you know, it’s a big day.”

  The coronation. Whatever the hell that means. This is so weird. When did we leave the real world? If Natalie didn’t have totally normal clothes on, I’d think I went back in time or something.

  ”Are you going to stay?” asked Natalie, just as Melody opened her mouth to say something else. “Oh… sorry. I haven’t talked to anyone in a while. Besides Gwen, of course.”

  ”It’s true, then?” asked Zoë. “You can talk to animals?”

  Natalie smiled. She turned to the wolf and spoke something—an incomprehensible stream of words in a sing-song lilt. The wolf flicked its head toward Natalie in response, before settling back down again. Natalie frowned and sat something else, and the wolf gave a faint growl. Finally, it stood and walked out of the room.

  ”That was incredible!” said Melody excitedly. “Oh, I hope I can do that someday!”

  ”I dunno how I do it,” said Natalie, “so I don’t think I could teach you.”

  She shrugged. “I’m not awakened yet anyway.”

  ”…Isn’t that all over now?” asked Natalie, glancing between them. “That’s what Rook told me…”

  ”Yeah,” said Zoë. “There haven’t been any since…” She trailed off.

  Since your dad was arrested. Since you knocked out electricity for all of us. Since you started building this thing. I wonder if she knows some people blame her for this. They’ve got their timelines wrong, but some people think her ritual is what stopped Grey-eyes from awakening people. 

  And they already didn’t like her ’cause of her father…

  ”Will you stay?” asked Natalie again. She glanced out the window, across the lawn to the castle walls. “There’s plenty of room. I made a lot of rooms in the castle, and Hector’s cooking for a bunch. We were going to invite more, but…”

  ”I don’t know,” said Zoë, before Melody could commit them to something they didn’t really understand yet. “We don’t know what this really means yet.”

  Wait… is a kid really gonna understand what I meant there? I should rephrase that…

  Except, Natalie did seem to understand it. After a pause, during which Natalie seemed almost like she was arguing with herself, she gave Zoë a solemn nod. “There’s already a room for you. Hector can show you where it is, and then you guys can decide together. Nobody should have to live somewhere they don’t want to. If you want to go back, I can make sure you get there safe.”

  ”Thank you, Linnethea,” said Melody politely. She stood up, hand in hand with Zoë. “What’s for lunch?”

  ”A bunch of things,” said Natalie. “I’ll see you then.” She turned back to look at the fire, and out of the corner of her eye, Zoë saw her fiddling with something, though she should quite make out what it was. 

  They took their cue. Zoë and Melody turned to find Hector Peraza waiting by the door. Without a word, he led them back into the castle corridors, and only once they were several hall-lengths away did he finally speak.

  ”I’m glad you came.” He sounded a little upset, and a lot nervous. Zoë felt like laughing—here they were, two college kids suddenly under the umbrella of two of the most powerful people in the world, not to mention a special forces operative or whatever the hell Rook was, and they seemed like the scared party.

  ”We were following you, actually,” said Melody. “I mean, I think we were… Were you in the camp earlier?”

  ”I was. I needed to get some cheese, since we can’t exactly grow it here,” said Hector. He smiled slightly. “A lot of her favorite foods have cheese.”

  Okay, now that we’re talking to an actual adult here… “So what’s going on here?” asked Zoë. “Natalie’s changed her name and is like… building a new home or something?”

  ”A queendom,” said Hector. “I don’t… I don’t pretend to understand it, but I don’t really have anywhere else to go. The rest of this continent already made it clear they don’t want me around…”

  ”Where are you from?” asked Melody gently.

  ”México,” said Hector. “But my parents immigrated when I was twelve. The same age as when she lost everything,” he added, looking vaguely over his shoulder back the direction they’d come. 

  They kept moving through the long castle corridors. Zoë wondered if it was a trick of the many identical hallways or some other magic which made the castle seem much larger from inside than it should have been. She tried to feel out for a spell—as she’d done to see the forest maze when Melody wanted to try and find the Greywood—but there was just so much magic around them, Zoë couldn’t really land on anything in particular. Not while they were walking, at least.

  ”I was twelve too, when we moved from Venezuela,” said Melody. She put a hand on Hector’s arm. “Yo estaba muy asustada. Pero al final encontré un hogar.”

  ”Gracias,” said Hector, smiling. “I found a home too. It was right over there,” he added, pointing out one of the windows, where they could see the empty space of the town through the open gate. Zoë realized they’d somehow moved to the second floor, though she hadn’t felt even the slightest incline of the floor. “Rallsburg was the first place where I really felt at home. It was the longest I’d ever stayed in one place.”

  ”Lo siento mucho,” said Melody, sympathy thick in her voice. “That must have been so painful.”

  ”It’s funny,” said Hector—and Zoë didn’t have a clue what he could find funny about all of that. “Rallsburg actually was different. I lost my store, I lost my home, but… I still had my friends. The town didn’t hate me, didn’t hate I was from México, they just hated magic. So, in a way, it was a huge improvement. It’s why I wanted to come back.”

  ”And now you’re back,” said Melody, smiling. “You had a grocery store, right?”

  ”Ah, mi amigo,” said Hector. “The best supermercado in el Bosque de Olímpico!”

  Was there a single other grocery store in the Olympic Forest? wondered Zoë, but Melody spoke before the words made it to her mouth, to her relief. She responded in Spanish, and Hector in turn, and soon Zoë had lost track of the conversation entirely. 

  Probably for the best, too—Hector had lost a lot in his life, and she wasn’t exactly great at handling that. Zoë didn’t want to be mean to anyone, but sometimes, her brain tried to be clever ahead of the empathy she’d only recently discovered. It was one of the reasons she’d never really connected with people properly.

  For a very long time, Zoë hadn’t really had friends herself. She’d had acquaintances, people she liked to hang out with, even people she spent days and days with. Zoë even called them friends, but in truth, she hadn’t really known what friendship was like until Melody came along.

  Melody was Zoë’s first real friend, though their relationship didn’t start out that way. More importantly, Melody taught her what friendship really meant. A friend wasn’t just someone Zoë spent time with—a friend was someone she could trust, someone she could say anything to. She could be vulnerable around friends, a concept which took a long time to really sink in.

  Suddenly, when Zoë had a bad night, when she was lying awake in the dead hours, going through an emotional breakdown… she had support. She’d gone so long without, between her emotionally distant parents and the many “friends” she feared she’d lose if they saw her as anything less than the badass tough Zoë she put on as a front… 

  The first time Zoë called Melody at two in the morning bonded them for life. Zoë hadn’t known it then, or even a couple months later, but that night sealed the deal. 

  She had a best friend.

  Didn’t expect my best friend to turn into my first love though… that’s definitely not on the friend agenda. Zoë finally emerged from her cocoon of reminiscing as the conversation shifted back to English. Melody had noticed they’d unconsciously swapped languages, and gently maneuvered them back into a language Zoë could actually understand.

  ”And what was the name of this fabulous place?” she asked, smiling.

  ”Just Hector’s,” said Hector with a shrug. “I couldn’t afford a sign at first, and by the time I could, everyone already knew it. Neffie helped me make a sign with some fruit and bread on it, and we hung that over the entrance instead. I liked that more.”

  ”Since it could be for any language, English or Spanish,” said Melody, nodding.

  ”Or Turkish,” said Zoë, finally reentering the conversation.

  ”Or Turkish!” Melody agreed without missing a beat. “I’m sure they have bananas in Turkey, right?”

  Zoë shrugged, but Hector answered, to her surprise. “They do! They shouldn’t, since it’s outside the normal climate bananas grow well, but when have we ever let climate stop us, hm?” He laughed. “Anyway, this is your room. Lunch will be in a few hours. We don’t have clocks anymore, but one of us will come find you when it’s time.”

  Hector hesitated, glancing back the way they came. “If you want to leave, you can follow the strings to the front door.”

  ”The… strings?” asked Melody, looking around. There wasn’t anything visible in the halls, beyond the rugs and the torches of course, as well as the doors lining the hallway they’d stopped in. “Am I missing something?”

  Zoë didn’t see anything either, but she did have one advantage. Closing her eyes, she felt out with her essence… and there it was. A string of energy hung in midair, from which each torch drew its own power. If Zoë traced it back, she could tell it got stronger as it moved deeper into the castle, and weaker toward the exit.

  ”Got it,” said Zoë.

  Hector smiled. “You know, it took Rook more than a week to find the string. I’m impressed.”

  Melody glanced between them, realization finally dawning on her. “Oh, is this a magic thing?”

  ”Yeah, Mel.” Zoë patted her arm. “Magic thing.”

  ”Oh… okay.”

  Hector turned to leave. “If you need anything, follow the string to the other end. That’s the kitchen!” he called over his shoulder as he receded into the distance, turning a corner and vanishing from sight. To Zoë’s surprise, there was barely even a hint of an echo—bet this place would be deafening if they didn’t have rugs everywhere. 

  She turned to the room they’d been offered, but Melody seemed uncomfortable again, perhaps even upset. Zoë frowned. “You okay?”

  Melody perked up immediately. Her face lit up like usual. “Yeah! Come on!”

  Not hesitating a moment more, Melody pulled open the door, her other hand grasped tight to Zoë’s. Inside, a wide double bed waited, with a window looking out over the empty courtyard. Torches flickered on the castle side wall, but as Zoë reached out to them, she found she could extinguish and relight them with only a tiny flick of her mind. The room was totally sparse otherwise, but with plenty of space they might use… if they chose to stay.

  Melody closed the door behind them as Zoë sat down on the bed. She turned, brushing her brown hair out of her face, eyes wide.

  ”What just happened?” she breathed.

  Zoë burst out laughing.

  ”What?”

  ”This is all insane,” said Zoë. “Look at where we are!”

  ”In a castle,” said Melody simply.

  ”In a castle,” repeated Zoë. “A full-on, legit medieval castle built by a thirteen-year-old girl in a month, with magic torches and some crazy hallways and I don’t know what else. And all she wants is for us to be her friends.” She shook her head. “What are we doing here, Mel?”

  ”We’re on an adventure.” Melody crossed the room and sat down next to Zoë. Her head nestled into the space on Zoë’s shoulder—Zoë was forever grateful Melody was shorter than her, so that it was actually comfortable for them both—and finally relaxed. “Isn’t it all just so exciting?”

  ”We just watched the magic theater production of how-this-whole-place-exploded last night,” said Zoë. “I don’t know how excited I can be about us going to the place where everything died, with the daughter of the guy who’s largely responsible for it.”

  ”You don’t think…” Melody glanced at the door. “Really?”

  ”I don’t know, Mel,” said Zoë. She laid back on the bed, and Melody followed. After kicking off their socks and shoes, they wrapped up in each other’s arms, like they usually did—the happiest and safest place for Zoë, no matter where she might be in the world. “I’ve heard a lot and I’ve read a lot about her.”

  ”What do you believe, though?” asked Melody. “What does your heart tell you?”

  My heart’s only concerned with you, Mel. The rest of the world can go away. “I think she’s the most powerful person in the world that’s not got a ‘god’ title next to her name, and she’s also a scared little kid who’s had the worst childhood I’ve ever heard of.”

  ”She seems really lonely to me.” Melody ran her fingers through Zoë’s hair, idly twirling it as she spoke. “I think she just needs a chance to be herself. Maybe she’s never really had that.”

  ”How are we supposed to do that for her?” asked Zoë. “That girl needs professional help. She’s changed her name, she’s living alone, she’s got a mass-murdering psychopathic father, and she’s dealt with more in a year than most people in their entire lives. This is psychiatrist territory. You’re gonna be a teacher someday, maybe you can help, but I’m just an art-school dropout.”

  ”You haven’t dropped out!” said Melody, poking her in the back. “You’re just on a break.”

  ”You know people are saying she’s killed before, right? That she’s got a bodycount too?”

  ”I don’t believe it,” said Melody firmly.

  Zoë sighed. “She’s got his genes and she was raised by him. Odds are she’s willing to kill too. Maybe, maybe not, I dunno. Nobody really had a specific story, just that they’re pretty sure she’s done it.”

  ”This is horrible,” said Melody, shivering. “Please stop.”

  Zoë hugged Mel close. “Sorry.”

  They stayed quiet for a while, holding each other close on the bed, while the sunlight in the window crept closer with every passing minute. It began to tickle Zoë’s toes as it lit them up, a fresh new warmth to complement the torch fire from the other side of the room. 

  ”I know you’re just trying to keep us safe,” said Melody finally. “But it’s not like we can force Natalie to do anything. If she needs help, she needs it, but it’s never going to happen unless somebody steps up. Why not us?”

  ”Why us?” countered Zoë. “What makes us special? Of all the people in the camp, why are we the ones who ended up here, who got invited by Rook?”

  ”I don’t know,” said Melody. “But I can’t just… let it go.”

  She wants magic. This is about awakening. Melody’s convinced Natalie might have a way to awaken that doesn’t need Grey-eyes. But that doesn’t change anything. We’re not the right people for this. She didn’t voice it aloud, because she didn’t want to be mean, but it didn’t matter. Melody knew.

  ”It’s not just about awakening,” said Melody.

  ”How do you always know what I’m thinking?” asked Zoë.

  ”Porque yo te amo, mi Zoë.” She kissed Zoë on the cheek again. “I think we need a break.”

  ”Yeah,” said Zoë. They had a long-standing agreement that either could call a break on an argument, if it didn’t need to be resolved immediately. There were still a few hours before the big lunch, and even then, Natalie hadn’t asked for a decision right away. “Let’s just be here for a little while.”

  ”Oh!” Melody got up and grabbed her backpack, in which she’d stored the present from her parents after Rook slowed down back in the forest. She returned to the bed before the warmth had a chance to fly away, settling back against Zoë before she began to unwrap it. “I got your letter, too,” she added, handing it over.

  Zoë sighed. “Let’s do yours first.”

  ”I’m sure it’s a Merry Christmas. Your parents care about you too,” said Melody. She pulled off the lid, and out spilled a bag of chocolates. “Ooh!”

  ”Your favorites,” said Zoë, nabbing them before Melody could manage it.

  ”We should share them with everybody at lunch. I bet they haven’t had chocolate in forever.” Melody set aside the chocolates and pulled out something else—something soft and long, with many different bright colors interwoven. “A scarf! Oh, this is just what I needed!”

  That’ll look really good on her… Zoë smiled as Melody admired it, though she personally couldn’t pull it off in a thousand years.

  ”This is definitely my abuela’s work,” said Melody confidently.

  ”And it’s got your name on it,” added Zoë, smirking out of sight. She pointed, and sure enough, Melody was stitched into one end.

  ”Hey, hang on… there’s another one.” She dug in, and sure enough, another scarf came out—in plain gray with simple white lines marking it, of the same material, and even with a little Zoë stitched into the end. “Oh, abuela,” murmured Melody. “Remind me to write her thank you. These are so nice!”

  ”She really shouldn’t’ve made me one…” muttered Zoë, though she honestly felt a little overwhelmed that Melody’s grandmother had thought of her at all. “I already have a scarf. Looks almost the same as that, too.”

  ”Well, that’s probably on purpose! I bet she saw it in one of our pictures and thought you’d like a hand-made one.” Melody wrapped the grey scarf around her neck. “It’s really nice, too. Yours was getting kinda old.”

  ”My turn, I guess,” said Zoë, trying to change the subject and get her bearings back. A letter from Dad’ll bring me right back down again. She used one of the few nails she actually let grow out to gently slice open the letter—growing up in a high-power lawyer family meant all documentation had to be treated with care—and pulled out the note inside. As expected, it was straight from her father’s letterhead cardstock, as if he were sending a memo.

 

  From the desk of Daryl Portman

  Luther, Renalds, and Portman, Redmond, WA, 98052

 

  Zoë Alaina Portman,

  Your college tuition has been set aside in a trust under your name. It can be accessed via the attached account numbers when you elect to return to your studies. I trust you will not do anything too reckless during your sabbatical. 

  Daryl Portman, Esq.

 

  ”What’s it say?” asked Melody, leaning over.

  Zoë shook her head. She dropped the note. “Says my dad is terrible at being nice.”

  ”This is really kind of him!” Melody took the letter and held it up again. “He’s telling you that he’s okay with this!”

  I know. It’s freaking me out. “It’s a start.”

  ”Just wait, he’ll be forgiving you and begging you to come home in no time,” said Melody.

  ”Uh-huh.”

  ”And in the meantime…” Melody twisted around, the multi-color scarf in hand. She wrapped it around Zoë’s neck, layering it just right against her jacket. “This is for you.”

  ”…Uhh, isn’t this one yours?”

  ”No, silly.” Melody smiled—and despite Zoë’s trepidation about everything outside the room, her smile was still enough to make all the fear and doubt fade away. She waved the end of the grey scarf, where Zoë’s name was stitched. “Now I can always have you to keep me warm.”

  And I’ve got her. Zoë pulled the scarf a little tighter. Wow, I love this girl. I didn’t see this coming at all.

  An urge struck her, and before she could stop herself, before she could think twice about it or have any doubts or make a cynical joke to break the mood—Zoë kissed her.

  Melody’s eyes fluttered with surprise. A moment later, they closed, and she kissed Zoë back.

 

 

***

 

 

  A while later, a knock on the door interrupted them.

  Zoë quickly let the doll she’d been creating fall into dust. She had no idea how Natalie and Hector might react to it, but given Natalie’s father, she wasn’t about to take that chance any time soon. Melody hurried to the door, behind which Rook waited.

  ”Lunch,” said Rook. She turned and walked away without another word.

  ”…Thank you!” called Melody finally, after a moment’s confused hesitation.

  Not often I see Melody totally speechless… “What’s up with her?” wondered Zoë aloud.

  ”What do you mean?”

  ”Must be the cold-mercenary-sniper thing.” She shrugged. “Assuming everybody in the camp is right.”

  ”Cinza said she was a spy and a traitor,” murmured Melody. “I don’t really see it though.”

  ”Mel, if you can read anything off that block of ice, I’d be shocked,” said Zoë. “You want to go to lunch?”

  ”Yes.” Melody looked at her. “Are we staying?”

  ”I don’t know yet,” said Zoë. “I still think we’re way out of our league here.”

  ”I want to help her,” said Melody. “Even if I didn’t think she might be able to help me. She needs someone in her corner. Somebody who isn’t Hector or Rook.”

  ”I’m not saying I don’t want to help her,” said Zoë, “but… what are we supposed to do?”

  ”We’ll know when it comes,” said Melody. “Just like everything in life.”

  ”Everything?”

  ”Everything,” said Melody. She grinned. “I knew when I met you.”

  ”And which part told you to ask me to go away and then not speak to me for six months?” asked Zoë, smirking.

  ”The dumb part.” Melody rolled her eyes. “I think I made up for it though.”

  Zoë held up the end of the multicolor scarf still wrapped around her neck. “This scarf’s a good start.”

  ”Come on already!” 

  Melody grabbed her and pulled her out of the room. The two of them emerged into the hallway of torches, where suddenly Zoë realized she had no idea where to go. After all, the ‘throne room’ hadn’t really seemed like an eating place. She wondered if they should just go into the kitchen, following the source of magical energy, but something else happened instead.

  One of the torches suddenly changed from orange flames to green.

  ”…Well, all right then,” muttered Zoë.

  Melody, on the other hand, clapped her hands together with excitement. “Oh, this is so neat!” 

  She darted forward, following the torches as they switched colors, seemingly all on their own. Zoë couldn’t sense a spell anywhere telling them to change, beyond vague fluctuations in the main line of magical energy flowing through the hall. She followed Melody through the halls, which seemed more quiet and empty than before somehow with their footsteps as the only sound.

  ”Why a castle?” she wondered aloud.

  ”Didn’t you ever want a castle when you were little?” asked Melody.

  ”…No?”

  ”I wanted to be a princess with my own castle.” She slowed back down to a walk, taking Zoë’s hand as they passed a wide teal-glass window overlooking the forest nearest Natalie’s new home. “It was a big, safe place for all my family and friends to live in, away from everything going on around us I didn’t really understand yet. Plus, you know, I’d get to wear pretty dresses and a crown and order everybody around,” she added with a giggle.

  ”Okay, now I’m interested,” said Zoë.

  ”In which part?” said Melody suggestively, her eyes flashing mischievously. 

  Zoë was saved from answering as a hawk cry echoed from just around the next corner. They followed the green torchlight to a wide open room, where four long tables sat, covered with silverware and plates for dozens of people. A fifth sat perpendicular to the rest, and huge chandeliers hung from the ceiling with more torches set in them. The room was totally empty, of course, except for Natalie and Hector at the head table, setting out the last few dishes.

  Hang on… I actually recognize this place. She got this out of a movie and just… rebuilt it for herself. This whole castle is probably like that. Things Natalie knows that she was able to put back together. I bet if I really researched, I’d find others. The only thing missing is… well, all the people.

  ”This is such a nice hall!” called out Melody as they walked down the aisles to join the other two. Rook was nowhere to be seen. Her head twisted left and right, looking at the huge glass windows dotting the ceiling, sunlight streaming through from the east. “You did really amazing work, Linnethea!”

  ”Thanks,” said Natalie as they sat down across from the others.

  ”And this is my favorite food!” she added—and she wasn’t lying. Zoë knew for a fact her favorite food sat on one of the many dishes they’d prepared. 

  Hector smiled. He gestured. “¡Coma, por favor!”

  ”Gracias,” said Melody, and Zoë echoed her a moment later. They both bowed their heads briefly to pray. 

  As they opened their eyes, Zoë was certain Natalie had briefly looked unsettled by the action. It passed, and soon enough, they were all digging into the food with gusto. Zoë filed it into the back of her mind nonetheless… just in case.

  Her dad probably used religion as part of his whole spiel… gotta be careful on that one.

  ”Héctor, this was magnificent,” said Melody, setting aside her plate.

  ”Actually, mi reinita made that,” said Hector, glancing at Natalie. She blushed, glancing away from them.

  ”It’s delicious. Thank you,” said Melody.

  ”Will you stay?” asked Natalie, still looking away, not meeting their eyes.

  The mood in the room instantly chilled. Melody hesitated, her hand still on her spoon. She glanced at Zoë. …Okay, time to actually confront this I guess.

  ”…We might,” said Zoë finally. “I think we’re both a little unsure what that means though.”

  ”Umm…” Natalie looked around, at the wide room, the ceiling above, everywhere. A hawk cried again, and from a perch in the rafters, it fluttered down to land on her shoulder. She rubbed its head briefly before turning back to Zoë. “I guess it just means living here. You can leave whenever you want, like I said. But, I figured… you two don’t really have a home, right?”

  ”We’ve got a tent,” said Zoë with a shrug. She knew Melody wanted this more than anything, but was letting Zoë speak her piece first—another reason I love her. “The camp isn’t that bad.”

  ”What’s the coronation?” asked Melody.

  ”Oh… well,” said Natalie, glancing at Hector. “We just wanted to tell people this place isn’t off-limits anymore. New queens in castles have coronations. So I thought I should have one. We wanted to hold it on New Year’s Day, but then… well, a coronation doesn’t mean much if nobody comes to see it.”

  ”Queen Linnethea of…” prompted Melody.

  ”Queen Linnethea of Castle Hendricks,” said Natalie with a shrug. “I didn’t come up with anything else yet. We can name my queendom when it actually exists.”

  ”And we’d be part of your queendom?” asked Zoë.

  ”Only if you want to be,” said Natalie. “I promise to protect anybody in my borders. You can come and go if you want, and you just have to be a good person. That’s all.”

  Well isn’t that the most vague criteria for citizenship I’ve ever heard. Should propose that to D.C. “Well, it’s definitely nicer than our tent,” said Zoë finally. This seems really low commitment. It’s a risk, but… it’ll make Mel happy, and I’d love to get out off the ground for once. “We’ll think about it. Stay the night, maybe.”

  ”Okay,” said Natalie.

  Hector began to clear the plates, setting aside the dishes which could be preserved as leftovers. Even with magic and an apparently easy supply of food—minus the cheese, of course—they still cared about waste. Natalie was talking to her hawk, still perched on her shoulder, while Zoë leaned back and stared up at the ceiling.

  ”I wanted you guys to come,” she added. “Hector and Rook said you seemed all right. She said you seemed ‘worth knowing’.” 

  Mel’s gonna want to stay. I’m still worried about all this, and Dad’s right, I can’t be too reckless. I’m only twenty-one, I’ve got a whole life ahead of me, and somebody I actually want to spend it with. I feel bad for Natalie, but… I just met her. This isn’t my fight. I didn’t even have a fight. Now I’m… what, signing up to be a soldier in her queendom?

  ”I wanted to—” started Melody abruptly, before clamping down on her mouth with a squeak. 

  Uh oh.

  ”Huh?” asked Natalie, looking up.

  ”Do you…” Melody cleared her throat, voice practically quivering with excitement. “Do you know if there’s a way to awaken?”

  ”…Well, you just read from a Scrap, like everybody,” said Natalie. She shrugged.

  ”But you’d die,” said Zoë, as Melody deflated next to her. “Without Grey-eyes, you’d just die.”

  ”I dunno. I didn’t meet her til like… months after I awakened,” said Natalie doubtfully.

  Wait… what? 

  Zoë fell back against her chair, dumbfounded. “You just… awakened, on your own?”

  ”Yeah.” She shrugged. “I guess that’s not normal, though.”

  Okay, so… Natalie just threw out one of the biggest things we knew about magic. Some people can awaken without Grey-eyes. That’s… that’s huge. But why?

  ”What was different?” asked Melody breathlessly.

  Natalie frowned. “I dunno? I just… read a piece of the book. Just like everybody else. I don’t have it anymore though,” she added, as Melody opened her mouth. “Jackson burned it up.”

  ”If I read it… do you think—”

  ”No way, Mel,” said Zoë. “We’re not taking that risk. We know you could die.” She glanced at Natalie. “And we don’t know why Nat— err, Linnethea’s was any different.”

  Natalie nodded. “You shouldn’t try. I want you guys to stay around. You seem really cool.”

  Melody smiled. “Thanks. I think all of this is really cool, though,” she added, looking around the hall with awe, her burst of depression fast-fading. She’s not given up yet, Zoë mused. She’ll figure out why Natalie’s was different.

  ”What do you guys like to do?” asked Natalie, and it sounded strange… in that it didn’t sound strange. Natalie had been on such an off-kilter tone since they met, Zoë hadn’t been sure how to handle the girl sounding normal

  On the other hand, Melody launched into the conversation as if they hadn’t just been talking to a girl who claimed to be the magic queen of her recently destroyed hometown. “Well, Zoë’s an artist—”

  ”Lapsed artist,” said Zoë, latching onto an easy way to center herself with a quick self-deprecating joke.

  ”—and she’s always trying to create things. I like to sing and write, and someday I want to be a teacher, but I haven’t really settled on it yet.”

  ”I think my mom was a teacher once,” said Natalie. “Before she married my dad.”

  ”What did she teach?”

  ”I… don’t really remember.”

  ”I’d want to teach art,” said Melody. “Or maybe humanities. Maybe both!”

  ”What’s humanities?”

  ”Social studies and English,” said Zoë.

  ”Oh,” said Natalie. “I wasn’t very good at those.”

  ”What are you good at?” asked Melody.

  ”Math. And I got pretty good at computers, thanks to Cinza and Quinn,” she added, smiling a little. Who’s Qui… oh, right. Her boyfriend in Seattle, the one people started harassing. Assholes. “I don’t know what I’d want to do though.”

  ”That’s okay!” said Melody, her smile wide and comforting as always. Even Natalie seemed swept up in it, to Zoë’s relief, and all the awkwardness from their earlier conversation had faded away. “You’ve got plenty of time to figure that out.”

  Annnnnd it’s gone. 

  Every torch in the room seemed to flicker. Natalie’s face fell. The cheerfulness was gone, replaced by a hard edge, a steel not unlike the icy Rook. 

  ”You don’t know that.”

  ”You’re still youn—” started Melody, trying to recover, but she’d already lost Natalie, and Zoë knew it.

  ”People die all the time. It doesn’t matter how old they are,” she said quietly. “That’s why I’m building this place. To make that stop happening.” She stood up. “Come with me?”

  Natalie didn’t wait for an answer. She walked out of the room, the hawk on her shoulder. As she exited into the hall, Rook appeared again, as did the wolf. Melody glanced at Zoë, and after a brief silent conference, they agreed to follow.

  Together, hand in hand, they followed Natalie all the way out of the castle, past the torches now returned to their usual orange glow, back out across the wide lawn of the courtyard, and out the gates into the town of Rallsburg once again. The whole place remained as empty as it had been, with only the two huge stone structures of the castle and the library facing one another across a vast, emptiness, gentle hills and a few trees dotting where the town once stood. Only the roads remained, paved streets outlining the building plots.

  ”This is what I want to do,” said Natalie, rubbing the neck of her wolf as she stared out into the empty space. “I want to build something here. This is my home. It got blown up, but it can come back, and this time it’ll be better. Magic will be allowed, and people can come and go whenever they want on the train or by car or whatever.”

  ”What about electricity?” asked Zoë. “Most of that needs electricity you know.”

  Natalie shook her head. “We’ll do it with magic. Technology just made everything worse. I don’t want it anymore.”

  Kind of a harsh reaction… I can’t totally blame her, but that’s some serious reductionism.

  Wait, what am I thinking? She’s a kid! This is all insane! She’s going to just… build her own town? From scratch, with magic? Who’d actually live here? Visit, yeah, but… seriously?

  Zoë couldn’t believe what she was hearing, but… Natalie kept talking, and slowly but surely, she began to see something else emerge—something deeper and more meaningful, something which pulled at even Zoë’s skeptical heartstrings. 

  ”I wanted a place of my own, but I was a kid. I lived with the Laushires, then Quinn, and now I live here. Hector and Rook, too,” Natalie said, watching the wind blow through the trees, bending the grass in its wake. “None of us had a place of our own. Rallsburg gave Hector a place, but it was dying. Now we can bring it back, and we make it better. We actually have a place now, one we got to choose. We built it ourselves.”

  Natalie turned to face them. “Cinza and Ruby have that too. They built their place from nothing, just a clearing in the woods. They’re the happiest people I know. That doesn’t mean they don’t get angry or get hurt or anything else, but… they’re happy. I want that too. I think I can have it here.”

  She gestured back across the town. “There’s all this space now, where people can live. I want them to, I just don’t know how to do this. Will you help me?”

  Melody was already nodding, eager to accept, to join Natalie and build a new place of magic, but Zoë hesitated. She still found all of it absurd, but something in Natalie’s speech struck her, hit a chord that truly resonated somewhere deep inside her heart, in a space normally reserved only for Melody and herself.

  …I’ve bounced between so many places myself. I never liked home, I never liked college, and I never liked that camp, either. The only reason I wanted to stay was because of Melody, and because of magic. If this place can be whatever we want it to be? With more magic than anywhere in the world, and with the best chance Melody ever has to awaken?

  How can I say no?

  Zoë didn’t answer Natalie directly. Instead, she turned to Melody, and the glint in her eye told Melody instantly everything she needed to know.

  ”So…” said Zoë casually, a nervous grin peeking onto her face. “Which spot is ours?”