Groaning, I pried open my eyes. My head pounded in time with that deadly music from before… which I assumed was several hours ago, by the way the permanent sunlight of Arcadia had darkened ever so slightly. My heart hammered against my chest as if I were still following the tempo of the devastating dance. Had I danced? I hated dancing with a burning passion. I didn’t remember much of anything after––
Shit. I drank faery wine.
Laughter interrupted the newfound silence I had been taking for granted. “Oh, Starr,” that magically lilting voice from earlier greeted. “I never thought you would let go of yourself like that. I never believed you could.”
“How dare you,” I snapped, but my own voice came out sounding like I had my throat ripped out.
As the dazzling dusk light stopped bothering my eyes, I looked toward the faery that had offered me the wine in the first place. She held slight glamour over her otherworldly features, but my Sight took over for my hangover-aching eyes. Titania smiled in that unique way she had.
“Oh, how delicious.” She clapped her hands together, and the music started up once more. “We should host more parties, you and I,” she laughed.
I no longer trusted myself to speak or move. This was one of her private chambers –– it had to be, with only one smaller-scaled throne at the forefront –– but how many of her subjects had seen me? What had my drunk self even done?
So much for doing what Puck and I actually agreed on for once. I just hoped I hadn’t hurt Tansy in my haste to get to this rotten source. And that, since he apparently hadn’t come to rescue me, Puck knew nothing of what I’d done.
“I think much of my court has become infatuated with you, Starr. We even managed to convince Oberon’s jester to come… but it seemed his tastes have changed from our own. A shame, really.”
A pit sank like deadweight into my empty stomach. He had seen.
Even though I held no real willpower or physical strength, I took a moment of her silence to push myself to my feet. My exit was less than graceful the way I stumbled, but I managed to get out of there alive. Other than whatever embarrassing things I had done under that deadly buzz, I hadn’t been violated by fey whims. At the very least, I was spared that much.
Had I possessed any lick of magic beyond the basest of charms, that wine wouldn’t have affected me.
And maybe flames would be following in my wake right now.
To my surprise, I made my way back to Puck’s room without help. My face burned with an uncharacteristic blush any time I saw someone in the Hedge, afraid they had seen me at my worst. Of all people, I should have known better.
Puck was toying with the nine-piece braid when I entered the temporary sanctuary. “Nice of you to come back, Starr,” he said, hinting at a threat.
“Can we just establish that I was deadly strong when I first came into this world?” I sighed. “What happened last night?”
Swinging his legs to the floor, he jerked his chin to the bed beside him. I gratefully sank onto the mattress. “Funny. I was about to ask you the same thing.” There was blood across his knuckles.
Had he protected me from something? I nodded toward his half-clenched fist. “You first.”
“You suck,” he responded, but didn’t argue. “I met with Oberon as planned, to tell him about the advancements in our war. How you’ve broken two-thirds of the curse. I didn’t mention your current weakness, but around that part of the story, we heard the party Titania was holding. A servant came to tell him that she’d found proper entertainment beyond the music, and when Tansy appeared behind that sentry, I rushed to find you.”
I nodded once, both to myself and to him. “The music was glamoured. Without my usual defenses, I was drawn to it, and I couldn’t help myself. I went to find the source of it, only to find some girl… well, Titania, I see. She compelled me to have some wine, and after that, I have no idea what happened to me.”
“How unfortunate,” he said dryly. I glared at him, not fully understanding what was wrong. Wouldn't it have been better to forget? Puck matched my dark look. “You act too human sometimes, and this was one of them. Having fun is not something you do while in the bloody Seelie Court.” The beast lurked underneath his skin. He stared down at his lap, toying with the braid. A muscle feathered in his jaw.
“You did,” I whispered, instead of mentioning how coming here had been his idea. His green eyes darkened. “How badly did they hurt her?”
Gently shaking his head, he replied, “Enough that I fled with her to the mortal world for a few decades.” My own heart cracked at the sorrow in his voice.
“I’m sorry,” I breathed. “There’s probably no hope of me getting better if things like this keep happening.” I twisted to lie down and ease some of the pressure from my head. Puck glanced at me out of the corner of his eye. “What did I do, anyway?”
The trickster flexed the hand that was marked with blood. “You became someone you’re not.” I scowled up at him, a silent complaint. His smirk was mirthless as he went on. “From what I heard, in the beginning, you ignored Titania and were just a freer spirit, taking advantage of the music. But she ordered the harpist to change and forced you to dance –– and you were so drunk on her wine and her glamour that you couldn’t fight back. That part I saw myself.” He hesitated; I closed my eyes. Visions filtered across my eyelids, of things I would have never seen myself doing. “I think the worst part of all of it was that you wouldn’t let me help you. The other faeries were no better, encouraging you to stay and feeding you more magic. And it doesn’t help that you got high off the influx of glamour.” He clamped his mouth shut, as if realizing he would have kept talking when he should have been giving me the cold shoulder.
“You fought some of them?”
Emerald depths flickering with grief, he nodded. “I tried to get you out of there. The only time you acknowledged me was to tell me to stop ruining your party.” My throat closed up. He turned his back on me.
Silent tears stung my eyes. Puck whipped around as though he felt them, his expression a mixture of concern and fury. I blinked the majority of them away. Some tears still brushed my temples, though, and his look of utter pity made my stomach clench. Different music reached my ears now, coming from the opposite direction of the party earlier. It was the sweet lamentation of a flute, played in a rare octave. The question was: Were my tears in response to the music, or was it responding to me?
“Starr,” he sighed, bracing one arm on either side of me. “You might be the death of me.” A tiny smirk played at his lips. He had said the same thing the day he, Kelsey, and Meghan were captured.
I squeezed my eyes shut for that, not wanting to actually break down and cry. For everything I had put them through, for last night, for the fact Puck seemed completely done with this craziness. More so than I was. “I’m sorry about the manor,” I rasped. “And I’m sorry I was partying instead of finding out where our friends are.” Why did they all trust me so much? I was bound to hurt every last one of them. Hell, I couldn't even get myself together for more than an hour at a time.
“You know I’m still not better, either, right?”
Though he said nothing about my apology, I let the topic slide. “I kind of figured.” There was still a hardness to everything he did recently, a sign of his growing frustration as well as the beast still in charge. “You will be when I break the curse,” I added quickly, finally getting a handle on my despair. I reopened my eyes, if only to make sure I wasn't hallucinating any of this. With Titania around, one could never be too careful. Foolish, I told myself again.
Puck wiped the streaks from my tears from my face. “For some reason, I doubt that.” A shadow hung over his features, the silent observation we had made a long time ago written in that darkness.
I couldn’t take the gentleness of his touch. “Are we ever going to stop feeling sorry for ourselves?” Technically, he still sat beside me, but even then he was too tantalizingly close. My head throbbed too much for the pounding of my heart, and I closed my eyes once more. I was never good with too much warmth to begin with, and the heat of the Seelie Court was finally taking its toll.
“Hey.” He pecked my forehead. “Stay with me.”
Wherever the flute’s playing came from, it was starting to make me dizzy. Puck’s skin shivered with the beginnings of a change, and he swore under his breath. If I was sick now, he could watch over me as a tiger, right? I wondered why he was so worried.
Unless he was afraid of the beast taking over. I’d be scared, too.
You were strong before all this, a voice hissed in my mind.I fell under.