Home > Girl of the Night Garden(6)

Girl of the Night Garden(6)
Author: Lili Valente

I cough and spit up water, gagging as ocean and air fight for space in my lungs.

“Are you all right?” the boy pants, his breath coming fast, too. “Can you breathe?”

His dark brows—so brown they’re nearly black—draw together over ash gray eyes with flecks of slate near the center. Water drips from the end of his sharp, elegant nose to fall onto his chin and tremble there amidst a hint of black whiskers.

Not a child, then. A man. Or nearly so.

The arm around my waist and the legs that pump beneath the waves are strong, but not fully grown. He’s a young man, but not young enough. When I spread my web above this island tonight, he will still be touched, transformed.

“Can you swim at all?” He grunts, shifting his grip until his fingers curl into the pocket of my armpit. The touch is unfamiliar, strange, and I think I would find it ticklish if my skin weren’t so frozen.

“Can you hear me?” He kicks hard, carrying us up and over a wave larger than the others. “Do you speak English?”

“Of c-c-course,” I say, my teeth chattering. I speak every language known to man and several more known only to nightmares, witches, and fairies.

But the real question is why this boy is still here, helping me.

Can’t he see what I am? Even with my hair wet, the purple shows through. Human children are taught to run from things like me before they’re out of nappies.

“Good. That’ll make it easier,” he says with a relieved sigh. “If you can’t swim, I’ll need to turn you over on your back, all right? It’s the easiest way to swim you to shore.”

To shore. I can’t go to shore. Not like this.

When I walk among mortals, I keep my head covered with a shawl or cap, and the rest of my suspiciously pale skin concealed by my dress…the one that’s a good mile away, floating beside my companions on a chunk of driftwood.

Wig. Poke. I have to find them. To warn them!

“Let me go.” I turn, stretching frantic fingers away from the island, summoning magic that still refuses to come when I call.

“I can’t, Miss,” the boy-man says, his arm tightening around me as he kicks toward the island. “You can’t swim. I’d be killin’ you.”

He’s right. I know he is, but—

“My friends,” I gasp, my heart thumping so hard I bet the boy can feel it where we touch. “They’re out there. In the water. I have to find them.”

“We will, I swear.” His voice is calm and as soothing as the gentle rock of the waves now that he’s keeping me afloat. “I’m Declan. Declan Cooper. My da, Father Cooper, is in charge here. We’ll get you to shore, get you warm and dressed, and Da will send one of our boats to look for survivors.”

“Survivors,” I mumble, my throat going tight.

Wig and Poke won’t survive an attempt on these wards, but I won’t survive a trip out to meet them. I almost drowned. If I don’t let this boy tow me to shore, I’ll finish the business and join all the other things lost to the sea.

“Were you shipwrecked?” he asks, his breath warm in my ear. “In the storm this morning?”

“No, I…” I trail off. I can’t tell this boy the truth.

For some reason, he seems to think I’m human. Until I find a way to escape, I need him to keep thinking that.

Given the opportunity, humans do terrible things to magical creatures—cut off their heads, crush them with spelled stones, burn them alive. Fairies, witches, and halflings with mixed blood, all have gem-colored hair or eyes. We are easy to spot and not too hard to kill if you know the proper methods.

I’ve gotten close enough to death today to be sure I’m not interested in it, certainly not by any of those methods.

So, I lie. “I fell overboard.” The words are sour on my tongue, but not unpleasant. I’ve never had a reason to lie, but it’s not as uncomfortable as I imagined it would be. “I was walking the deck with my…birds. Giving them some air. A wave rose up and took us over the side.”

“Your birds?” He huffs and more breath warms my throat. “Those the friends you were talking about?”

“Yes.” My voice is small, but not ashamed. Even if Wig and Poke were truly pets rather than comrades, I would think of them as friends. “They’re all I have.”

“I’m sorry.” He pants with the effort of talking and swimming. “I’ll talk to my da, see if he might”—pant, pant—“send one of the boats out.” Pant. “Anyway.” Pant, pant, pant. “He probably won’t, but…”

He leaves off, and I’m glad. His obvious exertion is starting to make me nervous.

I’m in the business of transforming men, not drowning them, and I don’t want this boy’s death on my head.

I lie still for the rest of our journey, concentrating on filling my lungs with air and staying afloat, hoping to make it easier to pull me along. At one point, I try to kick my legs a bit—thinking to help—but the boy tightly warns me, “Better if you don’t move. I’m not the strongest swimmer, but I’ll get us there if you don’t fight me,” and so I go limp again.

I stare at the sky going purple and gray above me and count the wisps of clouds. I glance toward where my frozen toes peek above the water and try to name the exact blue of my skin. I trace the patterns of the gulls circling near the shore, anything to keep my mind off Wig and Poke and what awaits me on the island.

What if my magic refuses to obey?

How will I rescue my friends? Or escape when I’m discovered?

Surely, on an island ringed by such powerful magic, someone will realize the truth about me. The one who laid the enchantments, at the very least, will see my strange hair and know me for what I am.

Despite my attempts to remain calm, by the time the boy reaches the shallows and sets me on my feet, I’ve worked myself into quite a state. As we lurch through the waves and stumble to the shore to collapse on a beach of gritty gray stones, I’m shaking all over and my stomach has gone rancid.

After a bit of heavy breathing and a hand run down his pale face, the boy turns to look at me.

And immediately looks away.

“Are you all right?” he asks.

“I’m f-f-fine,” I say, though in truth I’m close to tears. I can’t remember the last time I cried. After the first time, it takes a lot to bring me to this point.

“Good.” His hands come to the front of his shirt. He fumbles with the buttons, pushing them through stiff, soaking fabric with trembling hands. “Here now, take my shirt,” he says, forcing the words out through a shivery jaw.

He peels the clinging black fabric away from his chest and down his arms, revealing skin nearly as milky white as my own, smooth skin with firm muscle beneath and light blue veins that peek through his flesh at his throat, the curve of his shoulder, and the dip between his ribs and the hard planes of his stomach.

His bare skin is…fascinating.

I’ve seen people without clothes on before—lurking around windows late at night the way nightmares do, it’s hard to avoid a glimpse now and then—but never like this.

Never up close. So close that if I reached out, I could touch him. I could feel the tiny bumps breaking out on his arms, the thump of blood through those wormy veins, the patch of hair sprouting in the middle of his chest.

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