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An Invitation

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Eleanor had heard the stories of the Lilac Fairy’s court since she was a little girl. In Benedict's kingdom the stories were about "Count Lilac," but the stories Eleanor had grown up with called the leader of the fairies simply "the Lilac Fairy," and Eleanor had always pictured her as a woman. She'd tried to imagine what she would be like. Beautiful and terrible all at once, Eleanor thought.

Her nanny would start each story by saying this wasn’t the sort of thing for a young lady to hear, just servants’ talk, stuff and nonsense, all of it—and then she’d go on ahead and tell the story anyway. She was always full of legends and charms for every occasion. Hold a candle to the mirror on a midwinter night, speak the right words, and you’ll see your true love; a handful of salt in the fire in spring, and you’ll hear your future in the pops and sparks; and the saucer of milk left out by the kitchen door was for the fairies, not the cats, whatever the cats might think.

Eleanor had once overheard the groom insisting that it wasn’t milk that you were meant to leave out for fairies anyway, it was horse’s blood. The maid he’d been talking with had called that grisly backwoods nonsense, but the thought had stuck in young Eleanor’s mind with a delighted thrill of horror.

She could never sort out what you were meant to think of the Lilac Fairy’s court in these tales—whether the fairies were good or wicked, whether it was milk or blood they liked best. Half the stories hardly seemed to be about the same fairies at all. In one tale, they would lead a poor woodsman and his wife to uncover fabulous treasures hidden in the forest; in the next, they’d enchant a farmer’s cows to give sour milk. They’d snatch children away and leave fairy changelings in their place, but then in the next story they’d bring the human child back again. It was a maze of trickery and strange deals, puzzles and adventures—but by the end of every story, the righteous or clever heroes were rewarded, and all was well.

She hoped all would be well this time, too, though she didn’t feel particularly righteous or clever at the moment, trudging across a snow-covered field, freezing her ears off. At least Benedict was game. She’d been certain he’d think it was mad, this idea of seeking out the fairies for help, hiking across the countryside without an escort like they were teenagers again; but here he was, trudging along right beside her with the lantern.

There’d been a rumor going around the castle, and if she’d heard it on any other day she might have paid it no mind. But this was midwinter, and the night seemed full of magic, and so she’d listened.

One of the servants had just recently had his first child. She was a sickly, silent thing—she wouldn’t sleep, she wouldn’t eat, and as the days went by, she just wasted away in her cradle. Until one day, as if the father’s prayers had been answered, the child sat up in her cradle, hale and healthy as anything, and cried for her milk. It had been a miracle, everyone had said.

No miracle, the rumor had said.

The child’s mother had taken the child and stolen away over the fields in the night, or so the rumor went; stolen away to a stand of evergreen trees where a ring of mushrooms grew, even in the depths of winter, plainly marking the site of the fairies’ nighttime dances. And maybe the fairies there cured the babe’s sickness, or maybe they’d been the ones who’d caused it from the start, or maybe the child she took into the trees wasn’t quite the same one she came back with. But however it had happened, a deal had been struck in the woods that night, make no mistake. Where prayers fail, there are always other places to turn for help.

And Eleanor had been praying for a very long time.

The stand of evergreen trees beyond the fields was easy enough to find, though they were both shivering by the time they reached it. And the mushroom ring was just a little more difficult to spot by lantern light, popping up through the dusting of snow.

There were no dancing fairies to be seen. But then she took Benedict’s arm, and they stepped into the mushroom ring, and the world changed around them.

It was like stepping through a door in a dream, where stepping out of your bedroom didn't lead you into the familiar hall, but into some far-off desert or a busy city street. One moment she was standing up to her ankles in the snow, beneath the branches of the evergreen trees; and with one step, the trees vanished, the winter chill was replaced by a summer breeze, and she was standing beneath a sky open to the stars, surrounded by the scent of roses. A maze of roses in every shade and shape and size; red roses and gold, black roses and silver, and brilliant, impossible blue roses, such as she’d never seen in the gardens of any palace.

And in the center of it all stood a woman as strange and as beautiful as the garden, so pale and tall and still that she could have been a statue, if it hadn’t been for the way she watched the guests to her garden.

At least Eleanor hoped they were guests, and not intruders. Because one look at the fairy mistress of the garden—and this woman could only be the mistress here—one look at her brought every fairy story Eleanor had ever heard running through her mind all over again, both the wishes granted and the dire consequences, and every childhood imagining she'd had of their beautiful and terrible leader.

But she had to ask. “Are you the Lilac Fairy?”

Somewhere beyond the rows of roses there was a sudden sound of laughter, and when Eleanor turned to look, something moved on all fours in the shadows and was gone. But her eyes lingered on the flowers of the garden. Roses and roses and roses, and not a lilac to be seen.

No, not the Lilac Fairy. But nonetheless, she must be the granter of wishes that the rumors had spoken of, Eleanor had no doubt of that.

The mistress of the rose garden lowered her head in a bow—not the gesture of a subject to their king and queen, but the acknowledgment of a host to an honored guest. “I am Carabosse, your majesties.”

And with that little bow, Eleanor felt on slightly firmer footing. After all, her long-ago protocol lessons had never covered how to seek a favor from a fairy, particularly when you were no longer certain you were still in your own kingdom. “You know us, then?”

“I know you. I know you’ve been wishing for a child to call your own.”

And with those words, the rose bush beside them parted, seemingly moving on its own accord. Cradled among the thorns there was a sleeping child, a tiny little girl in a white nightgown, her long hair covering her face. As the thorns retreated, the child stretched and sat up, and her hair fell back—and Eleanor took an involuntary step back as she saw the girl had no face at all.

But Carabosse held up a hand and said that there was no need to fear, even as the creature toddled right toward them, just as if it could see.

The child wasn't real, she said. Just an illusion, an illustration. Just a dream of the child that could be, if they were certain this was what they wished. A child who would grow with the beauty, the grace, the courage of her parents—their own true daughter, as surely as if she'd been born to them. But she must be something more than that too. A child of two worlds, and loved by two worlds, mortal and fairy alike.

And as Carabosse continued to speak, the child began to grow.

Although Eleanor knew they were still standing in the rose garden, she seemed to see the child in the palace, in a nursery that had been set aside and standing empty for many years, now filled with light and toys and laughter.

She saw her as a girl of five, curled up at Eleanor’s side before the fireplace, half asleep, soothed by the warmth of the fire and the sound of her mother’s voice, reading a fairy story.

She saw her as a girl of ten, standing in the surf at the seaside, dancing back and forth in the sand. A girl of sixteen, riding across the fields. A woman grown, sitting on a throne.

And then Carabosse's voice ceased for a moment, and Eleanor was in the rose garden again, grasping Benedict's hand tightly in her own. And the child, or the dream of a child, was gone.

And all Carabosse asked in return was an invitation. An invitation into the mortal world, for now. An invitation into the palace, should she ask. An invitation into the child's life, should she wish. For the child's life was hers as much as theirs. And Eleanor thought it seemed such a small request, compared to what she was giving them.

Benedict had heard the stories of Count Lilac’s court since he was a little boy. Eleanor’s people called him the Lilac Fairy, but for Benedict, it was always the Count. And in the stories the young prince had been told, the Count’s court was always a court divided.

In one tale, a fairy would lead a poor woodsman and his wife to uncover fabulous treasures hidden in the forest; in the next, that fairy’s rival would replace all those treasures with serpents and toads. One fairy would snatch children away and leave sickly changelings in their place; another could be convinced to bring the human child back again. The game of fairy politics was a maze of trickery and strange deals for any mortal caught in the middle of it—but if the righteous and clever heroes learned to play the game well enough, there were wonders to be found. So he'd leaped on Eleanor's suggestion to seek out the fairies, and they'd struck their deal, and he had never regretted it. Even if there were more strange fairy stories being spread around his kingdom now than ever before, and new rumors of a woman seen crossing the fields by night, drawn by men who ran on all fours, her whip lashing at their backs.

But Aurora was a wonder, sure enough.

Every day Benedict expected Carabosse to appear at the palace gates and demand to be invited in. But one day went by, and another, and another, and she did not appear. And every day that went by without her appearance was a relief, because all those childhood stories made one thing clear: fairies could give wondrous treasures, but they could just as easily take them away.

But the days went by, and the days went by, until he started to believe that she would never appear.

And as he sat in his study, the sound of the wind against the walls could easily be mistaken for a whisper, a late-night guest expecting to be let in. But he looked out the window, and he saw nothing, and he told himself it was the wind.

And when he woke up in the middle of the night, the sound of branches tapping against the windowpane could easily be mistaken for the tapping of long fingers. He hadn’t had thoughts like that since he was a child. And he told himself he was being foolish, and he told himself to go back to sleep.

And when he walked along the palace walls in the evening and thought he saw a shape moving across the fields, he told himself it was a fox, or a wolf, or a deer, and he didn’t look again.

Aurora didn’t hear any fairy stories from her nanny, or from her mother, or from her father, and if she’d overheard stories from the palace servants, she was too young to understand the words.

But she understood that there were voices in the wind outside her window, and fingers tapping on the glass in the night, and smiling faces peering in at her, friends and playmates just waiting for an invitation.

And Aurora thought, Come in.