The Old One Passes
Hyacinth awakened and knew immediately that her reign was ending. The signs had been there for days -- her dwindling appetite, the way she could no longer feel the imbalance of the land with every breath, the moments of total silence in her mind -- but she'd hoped to have a little longer.
That hope, like so many of her reign, would not be fulfilled.
Hyacinth's castle was nearly empty. Only the dust elementals remained, creatures that predated her reign and would long outlast her. Without the balance to hold, she had no real duties, no supplicants to see, no roads to open. And as her grip on the land faded, the needs of her body did, too; she had no need to eat or wash now. So she stayed in bed and considered her successor. Iris -- well, if Iris had lived, things would have been very different. Hyacinth's mind returned to well-rehearsed memories: she saw the Hunters returning, their stately march as they approached the castle, the bier draped in flowers, their useless condolences, as though anything, anything at all, could have begun to recompense her for the loss of her heir and daughter. They'd apologized, they'd claimed innocence, they'd claimed accident, and it had mattered not at all, for Iris was gone, gone while in their care and keeping. Hyacinth had punished them for it, though less than they deserved. And the punishment would continue forever if she had her way.
In her bed, dying, Hyacinth took a deep breath and forcibly dragged herself away from the old, painful memories. She reminded herself that she would not have her way, that someone else would make that decision.
Not Cyclamen, the daughter who left, resigned, gone to the new world and the new ways. Cyclamen would never be entirely of that world, no matter how she tried, but her abdication would hold. Cyclamen's older child, then.
Hyacinth reached for the child's name, but couldn't recall it. She'd met the girl once or twice, an unimportant, unimpressive creature.
Cyclamen's child. Unprepared, presumably. Hyacinth knew she should speak to the dust elementals or write a note, somehow leave some information for the child, but she was very tired.
Let her find her own way to wear the Hood, Hyacinth thought, and closed her eyes. I did, for all the good it did me.
The land shuddered when the Hood died. The dust elementals froze, stepping out of time as the source of their animation disappeared, and the castle became truly silent, truly still.
The Great Pack, scenting along one of the empty hunting paths, felt the shudder. The wolves halted and raised their heads in a long, high howl, to drive out the ghost of the old Hood and clear the air for the new one. When the evening forest was quiet again, the leaders turned without a word and ran for the castle, to wait for the new Hood.
And in the hall of the Hunter King, the mostly empty table vibrated slightly, shaking the half-empty glasses and few serving platters. Every Hunter present shivered. The Hunter King nodded to his guests, and they rose and filed out, most of them carrying the mugs of mediocre cider that had long since replaced the wines the Hunters had once loved. The Hunter King waited until he was alone with his three sons and his scholar to say, "She is gone. This is our chance."
"She'll have poisoned the new Hood's mind against us," his youngest son predicted.
"Then you'll find a way to change her mind," the Hunter King told him.
"You say that like anyone has ever changed the mind of a Hood."
"The Hood did not keep her heir close to her," the Hunter King pointed out. "That was a mistake. When the new Hood arrives, she'll be vulnerable, possibly uninformed. You'll be able to play on her weakness, and you will. You will make her need you. You'll make her do as you say."
"Remember," the scholar told the third Hunter Prince, "You must get her to take a symbolic sacrifice, some part of you."
"Maybe you can get her to take your head," the oldest Prince told his brother, laughing. His father waved a hand to silence him.
The scholar continued, "When she accepts it, the paths will open to us again."
"Don't fail," the king told his son.
"I never do," the Hunter Prince said. He drank the rest of his cider, rose, and bowed to his family. He left the tent, already moving quickly; he'd need to be in the castle before the new Hood came into her power, and the trip was going to be very difficult, as all journeys were without the favor of the Hood.
They'd been out of favor for a very long time. He was going to change that. The new Hood was their last chance.
The New One Comes
"-- please call to reschedule." Netty recited her phone numbers and hung up. The client wouldn't return her call, she knew, and then he'd page her in a panic when his court date was coming up. She made some notes in his file, then checked the clock. She had nearly twenty minutes before her next appointment, more than enough time to finish drafting her motion for summary judgment against her new least favorite slumlord in the Bronx. She opened the file and started in, but before she'd typed more than ten words, she heard tapping on her door. Darlene hovered in the doorway, a large package in her hand.
"Came by courier," Darlene told her, eyebrows raised. They didn't get a lot of couriers coming to their office; mostly, their clients couldn't even afford stamps.
Netty took the package from Darlene. She checked for a label -- none at all, which was strange -- and then took off the brown wrapping paper. Underneath was a box made of dark, rich wood, dulled by age. As soon as she touched it, she knew something about the box was strange. It felt simultaneously too real and unreal. Netty took a deep breath and opened the box.
The Hood. Netty knew it was the Hood even though she'd never seen it before. It was a cloak, actually, made of fabric unbelievably rich and heavy and bright, and she reached out for it almost automatically, already planning to put it on, pull it over her head, drape the ties around her neck -- and then she reminded herself that this was not just clothing and yanked her hands away. She took a deep breath that only shook a little.
Darlene came over and stood next to Netty, looking into the box. "Oh, that's gorgeous. Where have you been shopping? I need to get me some of that, that's serious class. Wooden box and everything." Darlene glanced up at Netty and then did a double take. "Netty, honey, are you okay?" She sounded worried, and Netty made herself focus on Darlene, not on the box. Or the Hood.
"My grandmother is dead," Netty told her, blinking away the weirdness of it, how just for a moment the office looked unreal, like a stage set. "I'm going to need to take some personal leave."
Darlene was obviously confused -- most families didn't announce death with outerwear, Netty knew. "She's -- from the box, you can tell that?"
Netty nodded, looking back down at the Hood, and swallowed hard. "It's -- well, it's a family heirloom, I guess you could say."
Whatever Netty was revealing in her face or voice convinced Darlene, who said, "Oh, honey." Darlene came around the desk, pulled Netty to her feet, and hugged her. Darlene was the sort of person who hugged everyone, but Netty was not the kind who took hugs well. She never knew where to put her hands, how long to hold on, why anyone would do this. So the hug, like every one she'd ever received from Darlene, was incredibly awkward. After what felt like a very long time, it was over. Darlene patted her back a few times and said, "What can I do?"
"I'll need some time off. I'll -- I'm her executor, I have to deal with it." Netty knew she did have to deal with it, but she had no idea what that would entail. "I --" She broke off. Darlene didn't need to know. And she wouldn't understand anyway.
Netty didn't really understand herself.
Netty waited to make the call until she was away from work, away from her colleagues' worried faces (and her boss's somewhat more disapproving face; it wasn't that he didn't want his lawyers to have personal lives, exactly, just that he didn't like anything that might reduce the number of hours they could dedicate to the good fight each day). She pulled over in a convenience store parking lot, and she looked again at the box. The Hood was lying on top, and she didn't want to touch it until she knew for sure what that meant. If just touching it bound her to anything. Changed anything.
She paged through her contact list until she found one of the few entries that had nothing to do with work and dialed it. As she worked her way through the phone tree and listened to the hold music, she rolled her window down -- the air outside was cold, catching at her nose and throat with the chill, and she was already cold, but she felt less trapped when she breathed it in. Cold always helped her think.
"Hi, Mom." Netty took a careful breath and tried to think of what to say. Grandmother was her mother's mother, of course, but they'd never seemed like mother and child. Her mother hardly ever mentioned her life before she'd crossed over, and when she did, it was like she was telling a story she'd heard from a friend, not like something she remembered herself. Still, the loss of her mother was bound to be hard for her, and Netty hated to tell her.
"Are you okay?" Netty's mother didn't sound worried, exactly, but then she wouldn't; her mother was at work, where she was calmly professional, casually organized, and always, always on top of things.
"I think." Netty took a deep, shaky breath. She was thirty-three, but some part of her still wanted -- expected, even -- her mother to solve her problems. Talking to her was reassuring even as it chipped away at Netty's calm. "I think Grandmother is dead. I got a delivery at work, a box. It has the Hood in it."
"Nettle." Her mother's voice was still calm, but she sounded breathless, a sure sign that she was covering for what she was feeling. "I -" She took a long, careful breath, and then she took another. She didn't speak again until she had her voice under control. "What do you need from me?"
"What do I do?" Netty hadn't meant to sound quite as panicked as she did.
"Either you take it or you don't." Netty could hear her mother tapping a pen against something, organizing her thoughts. "If you do, you'll be the new Hood. As soon as you put it on, I think. If you don't -- I don't know." A considering pause. "If you don't take it, it will probably go to Rhododendron."
Netty didn't even know exactly where her sister was; she called from time to time, usually on a crackling line, always from a new place in Europe or Asia or, lately, the Middle East. Generally the conversation ended when the line cut out. "And If Ro doesn't take it?" She couldn't imagine her sister ever agreeing to be tied down to the castle.
"I don't know. Remember, Netty, I left a very long time ago, and I never intended to stay. Back then, we thought Iris would take the Hood from Mother. That was the plan, so I didn't need to know much. And I didn't want to. This world interested me. That one -- didn't. And now, of course, I have no connection to that world at all."
This was more direct information than Netty had ever had from her mother about the other world. That, more than anything, made her aware that this was serious. She marshaled her thoughts, trying to figure out what she needed to know most. "If I put it on, is it forever? Is there any way out?"
"I don't think so, but I don't know. I don't think anyone has ever wanted out, once she's put it on."
Netty thought about that all the way home. There had never been anything she hadn't wanted out of, at least a little.
Netty carried the box into her apartment carefully, holding it by its handles, the lid closed. From what her mother had said, she was pretty sure she had to put the Hood on, not just touch it, but she didn't want to take any chances.
She set it down on the coffee table and just stared at it. The box looked absolutely out of place in her tiny apartment. The coffee table was from Ikea, mahogany veneer over particle board, and it had always looked fine to Netty. Next to the box, though -- the rich, dark, softly glowing wood, the aged brass handles and lock -- it looked cheap and rickety and ephemeral. The box made everything around it seem fake.
Netty stared at it for a few minutes longer and then moved the box to the floor, where it made the grey carpet look even more scratchy and basic and temporary than it was. She turned her back on it and went into the kitchen. It was time for hot chocolate. Maybe with a splash of something in it. Maybe a big splash.
She spent the rest of the afternoon and evening orbiting around the box. It wasn't even her intention. Just, the space that had always been perfectly adequate for her somehow seemed tight and confining once the box was there. She rattled around, trying to think. She had a week off, which was very generous for someone in her position. If she wasn't going to take the Hood, she'd still need to go somewhere; the last thing she needed was for someone from work to see her at the grocery store instead of off dealing with her grandmother's estate. So she knew she needed to pack, to organize, to get ready for a week or so away, no matter what she decided about the Hood.
She had enough clean clothes. She packed some in a case. Then she used up the rest of the milk making more hot chocolate. In the middle of the last mug, she realized she didn't need to call anyone. Her mother knew, and Ro would find out eventually. Work knew, and she'd lived in the city for four years and in this apartment for two and a half without meeting anyone who would wonder where she was.
Netty stared into the mug and thought about it, about the cases she had at work, the clients who truly needed her. She thought about the careful progression of her life up to this point: school, more school, still more school, her first job, this job. A handful of relationships, the last of which had ended while she was studying for the bar. No one since then; she'd never even had time to browse Match.com, never mind actually dating anyone. She didn't have hobbies. She didn't have a pet: she was allergic to cats, and her building didn't allow dogs.
She was good at her job.
At one point, she had wanted to be more than her job. She couldn't entirely remember when her other ambitions had faded in the face of the constant struggle to get through each day.
Netty put down her mug. She texted her mother -- "Putting it on. Love you. Tell Ro I love her, too." -- and opened the box. She pulled out the Hood and placed it on her lap, stroking the thick nap of it thoughtfully. Underneath was a scroll, an honest to god scroll. Netty laughed a little as she flattened it out on her crappy coffee table.
There was nothing, nothing written on it at all, just a long line with an X in front of it.
Netty signed things all the time, but usually there was some fine print to read first. She got the feeling that the fine print for this particular contract wasn't spelled out anywhere. She pulled her bag over and took out a Bic. It looked incongruous against the thick, rich scroll, and it skipped a little over the imperfections in the paper.
Nettle Rose Hood, she wrote. Her name still looked ridiculous, which was a pity; if there was ever a setting it was designed for, it was this paper from this box. She sighed, set down her pen, and sat back.
And then she looked up.
"I thought I had to put on the Hood first," Netty said out loud. It was a stupid thing to say -- obviously she didn't have to at all, since she was somewhere in the castle. She had to be, although she couldn't see very much -- everything around her seemed distant, slightly out of focus, as though it wasn't entirely there. The only thing she could see well was the long, low table in front of her, which was rich and heavy and dark. The box looked natural on it. The Bic did not.
Netty stood up, holding the Hood in one hand, and looked around, struggling to focus her eyes. The castle didn't have electric lights, she guessed, although something similar seemed to be at work: the light level was low but constant, with no obvious flickers. She couldn't see much, but she could hear things, whispering and mutters and strange, sudden breezes that seemed to blow only on her. Something brushed her cheek, but when Netty raised her hand, there was nothing there. She could hear voices, but she couldn't make out any of the words. One rose, louder than the others: "-- Her --" and then it died again.
Netty took a breath and realized her hands were shaking. But she shouldn't be afraid, shouldn't have to be afraid. She was supposed to be the owner of this castle now. It was hers. Surely that should be how it worked -- she had the Hood, after all, and this was the Hood's castle.
She didn't realize she'd said that out loud until she heard the response. "It only works if you put the Hood on, you idiot."
Netty turned. She might still be having trouble seeing the castle, but she could definitely see him. He was standing in a doorway, watching her, his head tilted, his arms folded. His eyes were bright, clear blue, his posture absolutely confident, and his clothes antiquated. He was gorgeous, but he looked like trouble. As she watched, one corner of his mouth curled up. "Well?" he said.
Somewhere, something growled.
Netty stood, staring at him, refusing to look away. She might be the idiot, but she was pretty sure this was her territory, and she had no intention of backing down. Court instincts were good for something. After thirty very long seconds, the man dropped his eyes. He took a step back and said, "Fine. Fine. But I think you'll find I'm right. You can only function here if you take the Hood, Hood." And he stalked away. Even when he was irritated, his movements were graceful and smooth, and she let her eyes follow him until he was out of sight.
He was probably right. Netty took a breath, unfolded the Hood, and put it on, draping the rich fabric over her shoulders and head.
Everything went quiet. The voices, the breezes -- it all stopped. The room around her wavered slightly and then solidified, moved into focus. The lights got brighter, or maybe it was just that Netty could see better. She took a breath, and she could smell the castle -- dust, mostly. She took another breath. Dust, strawberries, and blood.
Netty turned in a circle, taking it in. She could see all of the room now. It held the low table with the box on it and a huge roll-top desk, but not much else. The walls were covered with thick, heavy cloth, and there was an empty fireplace, decorated with odd Art Deco metal plates -- that took up most of one wall.
Netty turned back to the doorway where the man had stood. She could see what had growled now. It was a wolf, waiting in absolute stillness. She wondered if she'd just not noticed it before, or if it hadn't been there. If it was the former, her instincts were maybe not ready for prime time in this place. By definition, wolves were dangerous.
Under Netty’s scrutiny -- she certainly wasn't going to look away from it -- the wolf bowed its head and dropped its front legs slightly. It never tried to meet her eyes. And then it, too, turned and padded off.
Netty couldn't think of any reason to stay in the room, so she waited a few moments, then followed the wolf out.
The hallway was full of people. No, Netty corrected herself, watching carefully -- she didn't think these were people, exactly, or at any rate, not humans. She wasn't entirely sure what made her think that, so she stood, studying them, letting her instincts work.
They were definitely female, that she could see, with skin so pale it looked grey and dark hair so thick it seemed to weigh them down. They were nearly identical except for the variations in the grey and black clothing they wore. They stood very still, in postures that made Netty's joints hurt if she looked at them too long. So they were definitely weird, but Netty was from New York; she had seen much weirder people who were absolutely human.
After a few minutes, Netty realized that these women didn't consider themselves weird. They weren't self-conscious. They didn't hold themselves the way people who knew they were different did. They existed in their own definition of normal, and that was what made Netty so sure they weren't human.
Netty decided that under the circumstances, that couldn't be taken as proof they weren't human. Everything in this castle existed in its own kind of normal, and that was nothing like Netty's normal.
Her old normal, anyway.
She cleared her throat. "Hi?" She winced, wishing she sounded less hesitant.
The grey women came to life. "Mistress," one of them breathed. "Mistress Hood."
"We have been waiting," another said. She darted forward, walking in a way that made Netty's hips and knees hurt just watching it. Her hands fluttered around Netty, touching her so lightly she almost didn't know she was being touched. When the grey woman moved back, the Hood suddenly felt comfortable and fell in natural folds at her sides. Netty found herself opening and lowering her shoulders to accommodate the Hood.
"Would you like a meal?" breathed one of the grey women. "Would you like a bath? Would you like a walk or a tisane or a sleep?"
Netty considered. "I'd like a tour of the castle, I think."
"Oh, yes," said one of the women. She ran a few steps away, her gait oddly stiff and yet still graceful, and then ran back. "Now?" she said.
"Yes," Netty said, and took a step forward. "Now."
The grey woman led her around the castle at high speed, tugging her down hallways, gesturing at rooms. "The second dining room," she'd murmur, and then, a few minutes later, "The second dining hall."
"How many dining rooms are there?" Netty asked her, after they visited a room called the fourth grand dining hall, although it didn't look materially different from the others.
The grey woman hesitated at the door to another room. "Of dining rooms," she said, speaking slowly and carefully, like she was sounding out unfamiliar words, "there are most likely seven."
"And of all dining areas of every type, including rooms and halls?" Netty asked.
Another pause. "Many," the grey woman finally said. "An indeterminate number."
Netty considered that for a moment and filed it away. "What's your name?" she asked, since she'd managed to slow down the whirlwind castle tour.
The grey woman blinked. "I don't need one. Whatever you call me, I'll come."
Netty absorbed this, totally unsure what an appropriate response might even be. After a few seconds she shrugged and moved after the grey woman, who was moving quickly again, and already almost to the next room.
What seemed to be hours later -- the castle was apparently deficient in clocks, but her body certainly thought it had been at least half a day -- Netty finally called a halt to the castle tour. They didn't seem to be running out of castle, but she was running out of ability to put one foot in front of the other, especially in the three-inch heels she'd worn to work much earlier in the day in an entirely different world. "Um," she said -- she felt strange just picking a name out of the air, even if the gray woman was fine with that -- "is there a bedroom for me? I notice we haven't actually seen any beds at all yet."
"Yes, Mistress," the grey woman said. "We can go there immediately, if you like."
"Please," Netty said, thinking wistfully of being able to sit down. The castle swirled slightly around her, and then she was in a bedroom.
"Of course the Mistress can achieve this same thing," the grey woman told her. "You do not need our help. But until you have settled in, perhaps it is easier for us to find locations for you?"
Netty considered that statement, decided she'd have to think about it in more detail later, and said, "Yes. Thank you." She looked around the room. A huge bed, one that required actual steps to get into. Another empty fireplace. A vanity with mirrors and extensive jewelry laid out on the counter. A huge wardrobe, partly open, clearly filled with clothes and shoes. "I think someone is already staying here," she told the grey woman.
"Yes," the grey woman agreed. "You are." And she began moving around the room. She adjusted the bedclothes, removed what looked like pajamas from the wardrobe and laid them out, poured water. "Do you wish a fire?" she asked, pausing in front of the fireplace.
"No," Netty said. She'd made an executive decision: she was sleeping in this bed. Not because it was hers -- it obviously wasn't -- but because it was there, and she was exhausted. The grey woman paused at the door, and Netty said, "Thank you."
The grey woman disappeared. She didn't walk out the door; she was just gone.
"Well," Netty said to the silence. "Score one for the instincts. She's definitely not human."
Netty woke the next morning to bright sunlight spilling into the room from the window. She didn't remember opening the drapes, but self-opening curtains seemed fairly reasonable for this place.
She rose and looked around, trying to figure out the bathroom situation. A door caught her eye, one she was fairly sure hadn't been there before, and she went through it to find an ornate but perfectly modern-looking bathroom.
When she emerged from the bathroom, clean and comfortable, she found a grey woman waiting for her. She wasn't sure if this was a different woman than the one from last night, or if it was the same woman and she'd changed her clothes, so she just said, "Hello."
"Mistress," the grey woman said. "Will you dress?"
"Yes," Netty said, and headed for the wardrobe. She'd only taken two steps when she felt a sort of localized whirlwind wrap around her. She looked down to discover that she was wearing a black dress now, very different than the suit she'd had on yesterday. The grey woman was hovering in front of her, making adjustments to her hair. Netty looked down and realized that the grey woman was literally hovering; her feet were several inches off the floor, which allowed her to reach Netty's head.
"Mistress," said the grey woman, draping the cloak over Netty's shoulders and carefully tying it on. "The supplicants are waiting for an audience with you."
"Supplicants?" Netty asked. She wasn't sure she liked the word.
"Yes. The Hunter Prince and the Wolf Seconds all wait for you. They have been waiting ever since you left."
Netty said, cautiously, "I have never been here before."
The grey woman froze for a moment, then continued her adjustment's to Netty's clothes. "Mistress, will you see the supplicants?"
Netty concluded that her comment hadn't jibed with the grey woman's worldview. She considered. "Do you know what they want?"
"Your favor, Mistress. As always. To give you their favor. To receive yours." The grey woman sounded surprised.
"And what exactly does my favor entail? Remind me."
"Access to the passages and roads, the gates and the highway," the grey woman said, apparently reciting from something Netty would very much like to read. "Protection on the ways. The safety of the grounds."
Netty nodded. "And what are they offering in return for my favor?"
The grey woman hesitated for a long moment. Then she said, "Will my Mistress break her fast?"
Apparently she'd pushed the gray woman as far as she could go. "Yes, please."
"And the supplicants? Will you take a meal with them today?"
Netty figured she had to meet them sometime, and maybe an informal setting would be better. "Sure," she said. The grey woman vanished. "I need someone to show me where breakfast will be," she reminded the empty room.
"Mistress?" said the grey woman from the doorway. Netty turned, and, no, it wasn't the same grey woman at all, unless she'd changed her clothes in the five seconds she'd been gone. The grey woman fluttered up to her and touched her shoulder, and Netty was, again, elsewhere.
"Sometime," she told the new empty room, "you will have to teach me how to do that."
This room was clearly one of the dining areas, although it didn't look familiar from last night's tour. There was a very low table, maybe a foot off the floor, laden with food. On one side there was a single cushion in front of the single place setting; on the other side there were no place settings, just bowls, and there were two cushions. Netty considered that, decided she wanted the side with forks, and moved towards it.
Before she could sit, two wolves came in the door. They walked up to her while she stood frozen in confusion: these were predators, wild animals, but she wasn't afraid. The first one approached her, lowered his head, and gently nosed her knee. Then he headed for one of the two cushions. The other repeated the bow and the nosing and followed the first.
Bemused, Netty headed to her side of the table.
Eating with them was strange, and also strangely comfortable. When she'd first gotten her own apartment, Nettty had made a point of eating at the table, with a full place setting and a balanced meal and, on Fridays and Saturdays, a glass of wine. That had lasted less than a month, and for the balance of the two and a half years, she'd been eating mostly microwave meals and takeout, sitting on her couch, with the television on for company.
There was no TV in the castle -- at least, not that she'd seen, although given the endlessness of the tour, clearly she hadn't seen anything like all of it -- but she wasn't feeling alone. The wolves ate with extensive smacking noises, and Netty was definitely glad to be unable to see what they were eating, but they were good company.
She did wonder how they planned to negotiate, though.
The meal passed in calm silence. Netty found she wasn't terribly hungry, so she ate slowly and sparingly of the fish and rice that appeared to count as breakfast in the castle. The wolves finished in minutes and stayed sitting on their cushions, watching her.
Just as she laid down her knife and fork, the gorgeous jerk from the night before -- the Hunter Prince, she supposed -- wandered through the dining area. "Morning, Lady Hood," he said. "I see you're actually wearing the Hood, now. Well done. Perhaps soon you'll find the Book and the Map, and then you'll be almost like a real Hood."
The wolves growled, a low rumble that Netty could not only hear but feel -- as though their growls moved through the floor of the castle, like the bass of her neighbors' music back home.
"Oh, pardon me," he said, bowing deeply to them, sweeping his hand forward dramatically. "Did I interrupt your conclave? Wouldn't want that. So very sorry." He stepped forward, swept his eyes over the table, and grabbed an apple from the fruit bowl. "I'll just leave you to it, shall I? Of course, she can't understand you yet, but I'm sure you prefer it that way." He walked out through a different door than the one he'd arrived by.
Netty watched him go. "He's kind of an ass, isn't he?" she said to the wolves.
One of them yipped in agreement.
Netty was used to being highly scheduled, with almost every minute and every thought spoken for. She typically had fourteen hours of work to cram into each day, plus any work she hadn't managed to finish the day before. She was used to being busy, too busy to think or pause.
In the castle, she had no idea what she needed to do, no schedule or computer or BlackBerry or lists. She did have some people who might be the local equivalent of office assistants, although when she mentally compared Darlene and the grey women, she shied away from using the word to describe them. But she had nothing to do, or at least nothing she really had to do.
She would have enjoyed it a lot more if she could have been sure she wasn't just failing to do something important.
She spent the hour after lunch wandering around the castle. It no longer felt so threatening, but it was still utterly bewildering. She was lost thirty seconds after she left the breakfast room. Although, actually, since she'd never had any clear idea where that was, she'd technically been lost while she was in the breakfast room. She walked through dozens of rooms empty of everything except dust and carpets, and several more that contained single items of furniture: beds or wardrobes or long, low couches. Eventually, she tired of being lost and said, "Hello? Grey women?"
She sensed something behind her, and turned to see three of them standing on the staircase as though they'd always been there. "Yes, Mistress?" they said in unison. Netty carefully did not think of this as creepy.
"I need a desk." They nodded and reached for her, and she said, "No, wait. I need a way to get around this castle on my own."
The grey women paused, frozen, their hands reaching out for her but not touching her. Eventually, one of them said, "You know the castle as well as you know your own footstep. You are the castle, Mistress."
Netty sighed, and thought carefully. "Okay, try this: how did I learn the castle?"
Another long pause, of the kind that Netty had mentally labeled "Does not compute." "You made the castle," one of the grey women finally offered.
"And how did I do that?"
That question apparently returned them to familiar ground. In unison, they said, "You stood at the crossroads, Map in hand, and drew a circle around yourself. Inside the circle, you said, wolves would not prey, Hunters would not hunt. Inside the circle, you said, all the ways would meet. The circle became a tree and grew. The land and the wolves and the Hunters nourished it."
Netty really hoped that answer would eventually be more useful than it currently was. She studied the grey women thoughtfully. "You weren't here then," she said experimentally. It should have been a guess, but it didn't feel like one. "When I drew the circle." The grey women apparently felt no need to respond to this. "When did you come?"
"We have always been here," two of them said together. Netty looked at the third, standing silent, and raised an eyebrow. That one hesitated for a moment before saying, "We were made here."
"Thank you," Netty told her. "I'll take that desk now." The grey women were as expressionless as ever, but she still thought they seemed relieved when they reached for her.
To her surprise, they took her back to the room where she'd arrived when she crossed over to the castle. Netty found herself wondering about this castle. It was apparently endless, filled with indeterminate numbers of rooms, and yet most of the rooms were obviously unused and almost all of them were empty. Something felt off about that, and about the castle as a whole. She needed to figure out what was wrong.
Netty crossed to the desk and sat. After a few moments of thought, she wrote out a short list:
- Find the Map
- Find the Book
- Figure out how to talk to the wolves
- Punch the Hunter Prince somewhere it hurts
"Grey women?" Netty said, again. This time, two arrived. She wondered if they had to bring at least two because she'd used the plural. Next time, she'd try saying "woman" and see what she got. These two stood, frozen in their usual bizarre postures. Netty said, "I need the Book and the Map. Where are they?"
"The Map is in the map room," one of them said.
"And the Book?"
A long pause, and then they said, "Would you like to see the map room, Mistress?"
So the didn't know where the Book was. Probably. One out of two wasn't actually bad. "Yes," Netty said. "Please take me there."
The map room was huge. The walls -- wall, really, given that the room was circular -- were lined with endless map drawers. Like all the rooms in the castle, the map room had four doors. The bank of drawers nearest the door Netty entered through was labeled "Level 4 Cadastral, Sectors 4 and r." The one next to that was labeled "Anticlimactic Topographical." The one after that was "Ley/Key Inversion Diagrammatic." At that point, Netty stopped looking at the drawers and started looking around for something that might tell her where the capital-M Map was, or, failing that, what the labels on the drawers meant.
As soon as she thought that, her eyes dropped to the floor. It was a mosaic, and Netty tentatively identified it as a map, although she had no idea how to read it. It sort of reminded her of the subway map, actually; it consisted entirely of thick and thin lines of various colors. Green lines tended to be the longest and the thinnest, and blue ones tended to run along green ones for only part of their span. Yellow lines were short and straight. Orange lines formed polyhedrons. Red lines went everywhere, crossing every other line.
Netty considered this for a moment. Red lines that went everywhere. And the Hood was red. And when the Hood made the castle, she drew a circle, and the map room was a circle. Weak links, but -- they were links, and she had definitely left the land of reason and moved far into free-association territory. She picked a red line and followed it, walked it like a meditation labyrinth.
As she did, she felt unusual sensations. Some areas made her nervous. Some made her tense. Green lines were welcoming; blue ones felt staticky and hostile. Yellow lines just seemed empty. After a long time, she looked up and blinked. The grey women were waiting, perfectly still, watching her. "There's only one red line," she said to them.
"There has always been only one castle," said one of the grey women. It sounded like agreement.
"The red line is the castle?" Netty asked. The grey women didn't respond, which Netty assumed meant she was right. "What are the green lines?"
"Green runs the wolf. Blue stalks the Hunter. Yellow for the merchant tribe. Orange for the boundary. Black for safety, white for meeting. Red is the castle, and the Hunter is home."
Netty studied the map to be sure, but she had a damn good memory, and she already knew what she'd find. "There is no black or white." The grey women watched her. "Why is there no black or white?"
"By your own choice, Mistress."
"When did I choose that?" The grey women just watched her. Maybe time wasn't an easy concept for them. "How did I choose that?"
After a silence, the grey women said, "Will the Mistress dine?"
Netty considered pushing the matter, but she didn't think the grey women were holding anything back. They were cooperative. They just weren't entirely in her frame of reference. "With the supplicants?" The grey women nodded, and Netty sighed. "Sure, why not? This time I might figure out what I'm supposed to do with them."
The grey women deposited her in a new dining area. This one didn't seem to be built for the purpose; it was a sort of flat place between two flights of stairs, more hallway than room, although it was a very wide hallway indeed. The table was long and high, surrounded by chairs, and there were two place settings, one at each narrow end. Netty studied this with foreboding. "Hell," she said out loud. "I think I'm dining with the Hunter Prince."
"Oh, Hood. You hate me already?"
Netty turned around, more than a little startled, and saw the Hunter Prince walking down one of the sets of stairs. He moved so smoothly and comfortably that it was hard not to watch him, not to follow the lines of his body. He was more than attractive; he was magnetic. "You haven't exactly been friendly," she pointed out.
He smirked at her. "I've been helpful," he said. "Isn't that better?"
Netty opened her mouth to point out that he'd been no such thing, but… he'd told her about the Map. He'd told her to put on the Hood. He couldn't have been intending to help her, surely, but he definitely had. "You could try being helpful and nice, maybe," she finally said.
He cocked his head in a way that looked more animal than human. "I suppose I could." He walked over to one end of the table and sat.
"But you'd hate yourself in the morning?"
He smiled at her in a way that showed all his teeth. "Until you sit, there won't be any food," he said. "And some of us have to eat, even if you aren't there yet."
Netty folded her arms and stayed standing. He watched her. After a moment, the smirk came back. He rose and bowed deeply. "My Lady Hood," he said. "May I escort you to your place?" He offered his arm to her.
Netty walked past it to her chair. "I can sit down on my own," she told him. "Any time I choose."
The Hunter Prince laughed. "And here I was hoping you'd be different than the other Hoods."
Netty sat. The table changed. The Hunter Prince's chair grew horns and hide, the candles on the table lit, and the plates and bowls filled with food.
"Lovely," the Hunter Prince said, and reached for a plate of meat.
Netty studied the plates near her for food she recognized. All the meat was on the bone, and the bones were large and oddly-shaped. Netty decided she wasn't eating it unless she knew what it was, and she reached for the bread instead. "No vegetables," she observed.
"Commerce has suffered these past twenty-nine years," the Hunter Prince said, with emphasis that suggested his words should mean something to Netty.
Netty took a bite of bread and chewed, thinking. The number did mean something to her, but she couldn't remember what. She'd been one twenty-nine years ago, so it wouldn't be anything she could remember. And the Hunter Prince was hardly likely to be up on her family -- no, she corrected herself. He was entirely likely to know more about this side of her family than she did. And then she knew what he meant.
"Iris," she said, and the Hunter Prince flinched, just slightly.
"We did not kill her," he said, flatly. He watched her through narrowed eyes, waiting for some kind of acknowledgement, but she just stared at him. He threw down his food and stalked away from the table, and again she couldn't keep her eyes from following the movement. He moved like a dancer. Or like an assassin, she thought, and then mentally kicked herself for excessive drama.
"Iris," Netty said out loud to the empty room. "Hmmm." Everything she knew about Iris could be written in a single Tweet: Iris, her mother's older sister, had died young, long ago. Netty's grandmother had never recovered.
That was it. But apparently there was more to the story on this side of the castle walls. She wondered where she could learn about that.
"I have to find the Book," she told herself. And if the Book didn't have the answers, she was probably screwed.
In her old life, Netty had gotten ready for bed more or less by rote, completely exhausted by her long workday and whatever attempts she managed to make in the evening towards feeding herself, cleaning her apartment, and keeping up with her dwindling social life. But that night in the castle, Netty was tired but not numb. As she got ready for bed, she made a plan for the next day.
She was considering a way to get fresh air before she developed claustrophobia from never seeing the sky when she heard knocking. From a door. She froze for a moment in surprise. No one knocked in this castle, and most people didn't even seem to use doors, so she'd come to assume that the doors were for something other than ingress and egress.
The knocking came again. Netty forced herself into motion, crossing the room and opening the door.
The Hunter Prince.
And he had roses.
Netty studied him for a long moment -- the huge bunch of deep red roses, the satisfied smile, the confident posture, the frankly gorgeous body, the ice-blue eyes. Then she closed the door in his face.
The silence that followed had a stunned quality to it, she thought, and she smiled. But when the knocking started again, she was careful to take the smile off her face before she opened the door. "I don't want any," she said.
"Roses are a traditional gift," he told her. He was trying to sound like he normally did, confident and sarcastic and irritating, but she could tell she'd wrong-footed him just a bit. She enjoyed that way more than she should have; normally she knew better than to antagonize someone she wasn't sure was her enemy.
"Thank you, but no. I doubt you're offering those because of your boundless admiration for me, and I don't accept things with price tags until I know the price. So are we done?" She moved the door slightly.
He hesitated, and then, as she went to close the door, he said, "I realize you're new at this, and I have to make allowances, but I would hope you'd be bright enough to follow the lead of someone who knows what's going on." He was actually angry, Netty realized, but trying to hide it behind a layer of his normal behavior.
"You want me to 'follow the lead' of someone who claims he knows what's going on but won't tell me. Let me think. No."
He dropped the roses at her feet. "You're as stubborn as the old Hood. I don't know why we had any hope at all for this change," he snapped, and stalked away.
"That's a very bad habit," she said to his back. He paused. "You're walking out when there's something you need on the table, and you're not even sure yet that you can't have it."
He turned around. "How do you know I need anything, Hood?"
"I can't imagine what else would bring you to my door with flowers or to my castle as a supplicant." She watched it hit home, and this time he did walk away.
"Temper, temper," she told the hallway, and she closed the door. For some reason, she felt better than she had all day.
The next morning, Netty felt like she had at least managed to establish a routine: a meal, exploring, another meal, and bed. Of course, routine had been most of what was wrong with her old life, but she was hoping this routine wouldn't turn into eight rounds in the ring before noon every day, which was how her old days had always felt.
She did wonder why her days were built around meals. In her time in the castle, she'd eaten some rice, a very small amount of fish, and a piece of bread, and she'd felt perfectly satisfied. One of the mysteries of the castle, she decided. Anyway, the point of meals here clearly wasn't eating; it was eating with -- well, supplicants. And breakfast meant the wolves. She washed, changed, and summoned the grey women for her trip to the dining area -- a different one than yesterday, but set up pretty much the same.
"Morning," she said to the wolves when they entered. "Shall we?"
The wolves headed to their spots and ate, and she reached for the fish. It was some kind of pink flaky stuff today, and that definitely helped her make up her mind. She'd just wait until she got hungry to eat. She wanted to see how long it would take.
That choice made, she sat back and watched the wolves. They were -- preternaturally tidy, for one thing, loud but clean, and there was something odd about the way their paws moved. She wished she'd made time for a few National Geographic specials, but she hadn't realized they'd be relevant to her future.
Of course, National Geographic specials probably didn't feature wolves who lived in castles. Hmmm. "Where do you live?" she asked, wondering if they'd be able to answer. One of the wolves rose and walked around the table to her. She pressed her nose against Netty's hand, and Netty heard, We live in the wild places.
So now I can understand them? Netty thought, remembering what the Hunter Prince had said the previous day. She wondered what had changed. She wondered if they could read her mind, since they could obviously put words into it. She tried thinking that at them and decided, provisionally, that they couldn't. "Where are the wild places?" she asked, out loud.
Everywhere the Hunters are not.
Netty clarified. "Are any of the wild places nearby?"
The wolf pulled her nose back just for a second, giving Netty a look she couldn't interpret, and then returned. All of them are nearby, Lady Hood.
"I think I'd like to see one, if I might."
The other wolf rose and padded around to join them, and both wolves studied her. "Now is fine, if you're finished," Netty said. The female wolf turned and headed for one of the doors. Netty followed her, with the male wolf behind her.
As soon as she stepped through the door, she was somewhere else. Outdoors, in a clearing surrounded by huge trees, with branches intertwined so tightly they almost obscured the sky.
"Why can everyone find their way around this place but me?" Netty wondered out loud.
The female nosed her hand. You have not found your power yet. We trust that you will soon. Netty thought she sounded worried.
"Any idea how I find my power?"
The wolf considered her for a moment, then said, Perhaps if you bond with your territory?
"Is that what wolves do?"
Apparently that one didn't need an answer, because the wolves plunged ahead, one of them looking back over her shoulder when Netty didn't immediately follow. Netty wasn't really dressed for a walk in the woods -- the grey women were still laying out her clothes, and they seemed to favor dresses and high-heeled boots rather than comfortable or useful outfits. But it didn't matter. Netty walked over grass and roots and fallen branches and it felt like she was walking on a lush, thick, even carpet. When the female wolf squeezed between two trees, Netty followed easily, and the trees seemed to pull aside for her, like curtains.
The grey women had said she controlled the roads, paths, and ways. Apparently wherever she was was a way.
She had no trouble keeping up with the wolves, either. Her steps grew longer but not more hurried, and she moved faster and faster without any extra effort on her part.
After what seemed to be several hours of walk that felt like a combination of all the best parts of an exhilarating run and all the best parts of a leisurely stroll, they were back in the original clearing. Netty didn't question how she knew that.
The female wolf flopped down, panting from the run, and the male wolf followed. Netty wasn't ready to go back inside, so she sat down, too. The female wolf touched Netty with her nose, but didn't say anything. As they rested, more wolves arrived. They laid down without fuss, stretching out on either side of Netty, occasionally touching noses with the wolves already there. After a moment, Netty reached out cautiously and put a hand on the female wolf's muff. The wolf breathed deeply and radiated calm.
Netty found herself sitting in foreign terrain, surrounded by wolves, and more comfortable than she could ever remember being.
"You know," she said hesitantly, "all my life I've felt like I didn't exactly belong anywhere. Like I was an extra person, like they had to cram in another chair and place setting just so I could eat." She stroked the wolf thoughtfully. "I don't feel like that anymore. I have no idea what's going on, of course, but it almost doesn't matter."
This is where you belong, the wolf told her.
Netty found that she believed her.
The rest of the day should have been frustrating, since Netty spent half of it trying to figure out the Map and the other half looking for the Book. But the sense of rightness she'd felt with the wolves didn't fade, and she found herself enjoying her search through all the dusty bookshelves and desks of the castle.
She started searching the third library with as much interest as she'd had for the first. "Maybe I'm finding my power," she said optimistically to one of the grey women. The grey woman just looked at her, and Netty had the feeling she didn't agree. "You don't think so?"
"Mistress, if you had your power, you would have the Book," the grey woman told her.
Hmmm. "If I had the Book, would I have my power?" The grey woman didn't think that needed a response. "I mean, does the Book bring the power, or does the power bring the Book?"
After a long pause, the grey woman said, "There is another library, when you are finished here," and disappeared.
"Okay, so I obviously didn't hit that one out of the park." Netty brushed off her dress -- she was going to have to talk to the grey women about the concept of work clothes -- and moved over to search the next shelf.
When the dinner hour approached, Netty accepted the fact that she wasn't going to find the Book in time, which meant she was going to have another frustrating meal with the Hunter Prince. She just hoped he was over the roses thing from last night.
She walked into the dining hall -- same one she'd had dinner in yesterday, she noticed -- and found the Hunter Prince already there, standing next to the table, arms crossed.
Netty crossed to her chair and sat. "And how was your day?"
The Hunter Prince, already filling his plate, stopped and tilted his head at her. "Really?" he said.
"Why not?" Netty said.
"You haven't seemed interested in me so far," he said, and tore a huge chunk out of something's -- leg. It was probably a leg.
"Oh, don't worry. I find you fascinating," she told him, unable to entirely repress a smile.
"Of course you do." He threw his chunk of meat back down on the plate. "Today was very much like every day I've had since I came here. I sat around, waiting for the Hood to notice me and take some action."
"Take some action on what?" Netty asked, interested.
"On doing what the Hood is supposed to do," he snapped. "On being useful for a change." She just stared at him, and he rolled his eyes. "You don't know anything, do you? This has been a total waste of my time."
"When did you come here?" she said.
"Ten days ago," he snarled. "Ten very long days ago."
Netty blinked; apparently it had taken longer for the Hood to reach her than for the news to reach him. "When did my grandmother die?"
"Eleven days ago, and, no, I wasn't here when it happened. It is not the Hunters who have it in for the Hood, no matter what the old Hood might have told you."
"The only person who has suggested anything of the kind has been you," she told him. "But as long as we're on the topic -- what did happen to Iris?"
"She died," he said. "No Hunter had anything to do with it. I don't know what lies you have been told, but the simple truth was that she was in our territory, she fell, and we could not save her."
"No one's told me any lies," Netty said, knowing she could be very sure about that, since no one had told her anything about Iris.
"Then why don't you trust me?" he said.
Netty stared at him. The question seemed genuine. "Why did you think I would?"
His brows came together and he watched her through the rest of the meal, silent, obviously thinking, equally obviously not coming to any conclusions.
He ate an incredible amount of food, Netty noticed. She still wasn't hungry.
The Hunter Prince came to her door again as she readied for bed. His timing was uncanny, and she considered for a moment the possibility that he'd bribed the grey women to tell him when she was changing. She tripped on the idea of what the grey women might want, though, and decided to tentatively file that idea under unlikely.
She answered the door after she finished changing. He didn't have flowers, she noticed, so at least he’d learned from experience. He had wine this time, and two glasses.
"Can I come in? Just to share a drink," he said.
"I bet that line works on all the girls," she said. He rolled his eyes, and she stepped back and waved him in.
He walked in cautiously, obviously thinking hard, planning his approach carefully. Netty wondered if he hadn't expected to get this far or if he just never thought very far ahead. Either way, she didn't intend to allow his planning to get him anywhere, but she was still flattered. She wasn't the kind of person who merited a careful approach. Or she hadn't been, in her old life. Obviously, in the castle, she was. The thought pleased her enough to make her smile, and he smiled in return.
He put the glasses down on the vanity and opened the wine. He offered the first glass to her, but she watched until he took a drink from his. "I doubt I could poison you even if I wanted to," he told her.
"So you're telling me you don't want to?" she said, and sipped.
"Oh, I do. And then I think about going through this all again with the next Hood, and I don't anymore."
"I suppose the next Hood would be my younger sister." Netty smiled at him, making sure to show a few teeth. "She's a lot meaner than I am."
"Hoods," he muttered, clearly swearing.
"You're telling me the Hunters are all kindergarten teachers?"
"I have no idea what that is," he said, "but no. Hunters are not all any one thing."
"The problem isn't the cruelty," he told her. "The problem is that you're all so cursedly stubborn."
"I think you'll find I'm by far the most reasonable member of my family," Netty said.
"Oh, lovely. Allow me to perform a dance of celebration and thanksgiving," he said, and threw back the rest of his wine. "Look. I've been thinking about what you said before."
"I didn't know you had it in you," she said, and blinked inwardly. That sounded to her more like something he'd say. But she was the nice one. She'd always been the nice one.
He refilled his glass and topped hers up, though she'd only taken a couple sips. "You're right, you know. I do need something from you. My people need something from you. But you need something, too."
"And so we've reached the negotiation. I was wondering how long it would take." She sat down on the vanity's chair and settled in to listen. "Sorry. I'd offer you a seat, but there isn't another one."
"Listen." He took a deep breath. "Lady Hood. You need to find your power, and believe me when I tell you that to do that, you'll need to restore the balance between the powers in this land. And my people also need the balance. We've been without it for twenty-nine years, and without balance, this land can't function. That's why you created this damned castle in the first place, to maintain the balance. And then you threw it away, everything the Hood is supposed to do and be, just to punish the Hunters."
Netty considered this. "Two points," she said. "First, I didn't create this castle, and I didn't throw anything away. Everyone here confuses me with my ancestors, and it's annoying. Second, how do you propose that I restore the balance?"
He smiled at her, and she could feel him cranking up his charisma. She hadn't realized just how much he had in reserve. Her heart beat faster, and she could feel herself flushing. She wanted to touch him. She wanted him to touch her. His smile widened like he could hear her thoughts, and he gestured towards the bed.
She looked at him for a long moment: the perfect body, the rumpled hair, the bedroom eyes, the face. She let herself think about it, about how it would feel to touch him, to be touched by him, to bury herself in the pursuit of pleasure. And then she looked back at his face, at the sarcastic twist to his smile.
She laughed. "You must be kidding," she said.
The charisma dropped away like a curtain falling and he switched to pouting.
"Are you seriously saying that sex with you is some magical cure-all, that I have to fuck you to fix everything?" He folded his arms defensively. "The answer is no."
"So you think you can find another way to fix things? You can't even find your dinner table without help."
"I think you'd better start hoping I can," she said. "In the meantime, you've got to be going."
He threw his hands into the air and stormed out, and Netty shut the door behind him. She leaned against it for a moment, and then she shook her head and laughed. The Hunter Prince was definitely interesting, anyway.
On the third day she spent in the castle, Netty woke feeling like she was finally getting a handle on things. If that was actually the case, she thought, she'd be impressed with herself: it had taken her two months to feel like that back in law school, and more than a year to feel that way once she started practicing.
She felt a little edgy, too. She attributed that to the knowledge that she was going to spend the day searching more dusty libraries for the Book. She hoped it wasn't the knowledge that without the Book, she really couldn't stay here. She'd find the Book, and then she'd decide whether or not she wanted to stay here.
She selected her own clothes and dressed herself. Given that her entire wardrobe consisted of black dresses, except for a few red plaid ones she wasn't going to consider too closely, she didn't think she really needed a grey woman to do it for her. As she did, she reflected on the Book problem. "You know," she told the dress as she pulled it on, "you would think that, since my grandmother knew I'd be stepping into this role sooner or later, she'd have made the Book a little easier for me to find." She shrugged -- obviously the ways of her grandmother were completely mysterious to her -- and plunged out the door for breakfast.
And then she remembered that she couldn't find the breakfast room without a gray woman, sighed, and called out. Still not the real Hood, she thought. She really hoped she wouldn’t end up having to have sex with the Hunter Prince. First, it made no sense that that would be how she claimed her power, that she had to take control of this land by submitting to someone from it. And, second, he looked like he'd be fun in the moment, but he'd be absolutely insufferable afterwards. She didn't want to have sex with him until she'd figured out how to wipe that smirk off his face.
She laughed to herself. Then she told the grey woman, "Breakfast room. The wolves this morning, I believe?"
The wolves were already waiting in the breakfast room. She sat at the table, so that the food would come, and watched them eat. She still wasn't hungry. As soon as their bowls of meat were empty, she said, "Shall we?"
The wolves rose and she followed them out. She found her heart beating a little faster; she was almost flushed with the anticipation of being outdoors. "I must really need some sun," she told the wolves.
The trip through the woods was even better this time. The wolves ran flat out beside her, and she followed them without struggle, moving faster than she would have believed she could. It was amazing: the wind blew her hair back and made her eyes tear, the ground moved under her feet too fast for her to see, but she wasn't struggling. She felt like she was flying.
As soon as she thought it, her feet rose from the ground -- just a few inches, but enough to make the point. "I can fly!" she yelled, laughing from the joy of it. "How am I flying?" The wolves, still running, made no response, but she could sense their amusement.
Afterwards, Netty and the wolves sprawled in the clearing, and Netty stroked the female wolf -- the wolf she'd started to think of as hers. "I do need to find my power, though," she said.
You will. Her wolf sounded confident. You are.
Netty considered this for a moment and then said, "What happens to you, if I do?" The wolf just looked at her. "I mean, I'm supposed to restore the balance, right? What do the Hunters do then?"
"And who do they hunt?"
Netty flinched. "I can't let that happen," she said.
The wolf closed her jaws very gently on Netty's hand. Lady Hood, the wolf told her, we are not pets. We are wild creatures, and we were born to play the game. A life without risk has never been our destiny, although it has been our lot these recent years. We will rejoice to return to the game as it was meant to be played.
"But they'll kill you."
The Hunters are not the only ones who hunt, the wolf told her, and Netty could hear the truth in her voice. The wolves were animals every bit as intelligent and cunning as the Hunters, and like the Hunters, they wanted -- blood. Netty flinched again.
You cringe away from the knowledge, Lady Hood. But why do you think your Hood is red? You keep the balance of the blood, not the balance of the trees. In the winters, they need our fur, and we need their flesh.
Netty considered that, mentally adjusting her job description from something vague about keeping the peace and making sure everything was environmentally friendly to something more specific: keeping the bloodshed fair. Making sure that there was no underdog, that both sides fought fairly. Making sure that both sides got what they needed, but not more than that.
I'm not the queen, she realized. I'm the judge.
The role felt right to her. As she thought it, she could feel something settle on her, just as the Hood had that first night. She took a breath and the air felt charged, sparking, alive.
Your power, the wolf thought, satisfied.
"Now I just need to find the Book," Netty said. Even as she said it, she felt the imbalance in her cloak: one side was heavier. She put her hand on that side and found a pocket she had never seen before. Inside, of course, was the Book. She took it out.
"I took the power, and I found the Book," she said. "The grey woman was right."
She opened it and looked at the first page, filled with notes, notes in what she suspected was her grandmother's hand. "I'll read it all later, I promise," she said. "Right now, I need some facts. And some guidance."
She skimmed a page and saw the word "Iris," but Iris wasn't the question, not really. She flipped to the back and saw schematics of the castle, a blueprint that expanded beyond the edge of the pages it filled, twisting and turning, one eternal hall to fill a land and all its ways. But that castle wasn't the point either.
"The balance," she said. "What about the balance? How do I bring it back?" She skimmed more pages -- something to do with dust, she'd have to come back to it -- and more pages, passing mention of keys and locks and rivers, and then her eye caught the word favor.
She read the paragraph. She read the page. She laughed and closed the Book. "I have to accept a favor to the Hunter Prince, as the representative of his people." A favor, from a people to the Hood, was a symbolic sacrifice, a sign of the people's submission to the Hood's authority. "Surrender of the body, as a symbol of capitulation." She considered this, and the wolves’ words, and added, "Let's see if he can deliver it."
She found herself looking forward to dinner.
Netty dressed for dinner as for a court date, or a battle: a new sleek black dress, her longest, pointiest high-heeled boots. She opened the drawers of her vanity and pulled out the jewelry she knew would be there. She let the grey women do her hair, let them curl it and arrange it. Finally, she put on the Hood, tied its ties, and studied herself.
She looked like a true Hood.
Netty smiled and closed her eyes. She could see the castle in her mind now, could feel it stretching out in every direction, woven through the land, holding it together. She found the dining hall, where more grey women were laying the table, and twisted the space between.
The grey women looked up at her as she appeared in front of them. She'd hoped to see surprise on their faces, but they were as blank as ever. "Mistress," said one of them, one she had begun to think of as Noxy. "Shall I inform the supplicant that the meal is waiting?"
"Please do," Netty said. "I'll just get started, shall I?" She was ravenous. As she waited she tore into the food, astonished by how good everything tasted: like the first sip of apple juice after three days of stomach flu, like the darkest chocolate, the richest meat, the densest, yeastiest bread. It was so good, but so intense that she was full in minutes. She leaned back in her chair, smiling at it all.
She was part of this land now, no longer moving like a ghost through her own castle. And the Hunter Prince was hers. If she wanted him.
When the Hunter Prince entered, he studied her, and for a moment she saw a flicker of doubt in his eyes, rapidly replaced by his usual confidence. Obviously, he was going to need more of a show. The wolves were more subtle, more in tune. But then, it wasn't the Hunter Prince's fault he wasn't. Not entirely. He'd never lived under the balance, or under the true authority of the Hood. She smiled at him and gestured at his seat.
"I see you've started without me," he said, sitting. "And finished without me, too. Tell me, Hood, are you always so... precipitous?"
"I would think that in my castle, I would be the one to define the appropriate time."
He rolled his eyes. "Spoken like a true Hood. What a pity you can't act like one." He reached for food and tore into it. Netty could feel the land moving through him. He was connected to this place, even if he was unfavored by it. He lived, she thought, as she had in the other world -- there, a part of it, but not accepted by it.
She would change that.
She watched him eat, his enjoyment evident, his manners utterly unselfconscious. Clearly, he was unused to being judged, or to caring about what other people thought. Eventually, he said, "So, Hood, have you given further thought to our mutual problem?"
He blinked and hesitated. Then he put down his meat and reached for an apple. "I would think that you, of all people, would appreciate the chance for a --" he paused, obviously searching for the perfect word "-- sensual pleasure." He looked at her, ratcheting up the charisma just a bit, and said, "I'm very good. And I can make that Hood you wear real." And he bit into the apple.
Netty untied the Hood and dropped it off her shoulders. "The Hood is not what's real here. I am."
The Hunter Prince raised an eyebrow, obviously amused. Netty shook her head. "Some people," she said, "take so much convincing." And she threw her power forward, just a little, throwing the dishes in front of her off the table. She let herself rise through the air until she could stand on the table, and she kicked, pushing her power forward with her body, letting the shockwave move in front of her. The dishes flew off the table, and the crashing sounds were like music. She could feel the castle wrapped around her, the power moving with her, the path before her. She was the castle.
As she walked down the table, she watched him. She said, "I would like to think you could tell when the true Hood sat before you, but if you would like a demonstration, I'm happy to oblige." She flicked another place setting off the table. "I would also hope that you remember you are my subject. Which means I can do. Whatever. I. Want. With you." She emphasized every word with a kick, with another wave of power, with a little more destruction. He leaned back in his chair, afraid of her for the first time. She breathed in and tasted his fear. It tasted like respect -- the respect he had only for strength. It tasted wonderful. "The Hunters will not care what I do with you, as long as they have the favor of the Hood again. Any part of you will do as a symbol. Your blood on the ground would be a perfectly acceptable favor. So really, Hunter, the choices here are all mine."
She stood in front of him now, and his eyes widened. He licked his lips and stared at her, seeing her for the first time not as his prey, but rather as his natural predator.
Netty breathed in. This time, she tasted his arousal.
"So that's what it takes to get your attention. Interesting," she said, and she laughed, just a little.
The Hunter Prince leaned forward and opened his mouth to say something, but there was nothing she wanted to hear him say. "I am Nettle Rose Hood," she told him, "and you will bow to me." He jerked farther forward, finally ready to do as she wanted, but the circuit was not yet complete. She leaned forward, pressed her lips to his, and waited until he responded, until he was kissing her intensely, until the kiss was the only thing on his mind.
And then she sank her teeth into his lower lip.
She pulled back and licked his blood from her mouth, took it into herself. She felt the balance slip into place, felt the land sigh with it.
The Hunter Prince dropped to his knees.