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The Compact

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Cinders had all but forgotten about her mother's compact with the fairies until the night her daughter went missing.

It had, in fact, been years since Cinders had thought about the fairies at all. The memory of their first meeting at her mother's gravesite left her with a creeping feel of wrongness across her skin, and the implication that her mother had made some sort of bargain with her made the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end. So from that day, she avoided the fairies: steering clear of the forest and the graveyard, no longer leaving offerings in the forest, and not telling her daughter, Jeanne, the stories that her father had told her. She had banished such things from her life forever, and she had expected them to stay gone.

But apparently the fairy was determined to remind her. Cinders sat bolt upright in bed, suddenly awake from deep sleep, her heart pounding, convinced that something was wrong without knowing why. She threw off the covers and jumped out of bed; she was halfway down the hall by the time Tobias woke enough to call out her name. Flinging open the door to Jeanne's room, her worst fears were revealed: the bed was empty, the window open, lace curtains waving in a gentle breeze. "No, no, no," she whispered, hand coming up to cover her mouth; then she let her hand fall and she called out. "Jeanne? Jeanne?" Not under the bed, not hiding in the wardrobe; she went to the window and looked down in the yard, but there was no sign of the girl.

"Cinders?" Tobias padded into the room, his eyes widening with alarm as he realized his daughter's absence. "Where's Jeanne?"

"I don't know," she said, voice rising with panic, even as she was convinced that she did, in fact, know. "I had a dream, that she, that the fairies--" Spoken aloud, the words sounded ridiculous, and she just shook her head. "I don't know," she repeated.

"She must be here somewhere." Tobias laid a firm hand on her shoulder. "I'll look downstairs, you look up here."

Cinders took a few quick gulps of air, then nodded. "You're right. She probably just went for a glass of water."

"Then I'll start with the kitchen." Tobias dropped a light kiss on her forehead, then left the room with a speed that belied his calm demeanor. Cinders followed him out, then turned to the end of the hallway, starting with the playroom and working her way forward.

By the time they met again in the foyer, the household had been roused, every room and the grounds turned upside down, but still no Jeanne. Tobias ran his hands through his hair until it stood up on end. "Where could she be?"

"I think I know," Cinders murmured, her heart gripped by a cold certainty. "We need to talk for a moment, alone." She took his hand, slick with the clammy sweat of fear, and gripped it tight as she pulled him into the study and closed the door behind them. Together they sat on the small sofa in the corner. "I had a dream tonight. That's what woke me -- I was dreaming about the fairies."

Tobias furrowed his brows. "The fairies in the forest?"

"Yes," Cinders said. "You know we met, once; she offered her help, but I refused. It seemed to be a bad idea to be beholden to a force I didn't understand. Madame Ghede was mysterious, too, but at least she was human." Tobias nodded. "Anyway, in my dream, I was walking through the forest with Jeanne, and we went to the lake. Jeanne was feeding the ducks, and then suddenly the skies went dark and the fairy appeared, looking exactly like she did ten years ago. She held her hand out to Jeanne, and Jeanne took it, and they both vanished." She took a deep shuddering breath. "And then I heard her voice, as clear in my head as we're speaking now:

"'You have violated the terms of our compact, and now you will bear the consequences.'"

"Compact?" Tobias raised both eyebrows in alarm. "What compact?"

"I don't know. I've never known." Cinders shook her head in frustration. "The fairy made some sort of agreement with my mother, but she never explained the details. So I don't know what agreement I violated, or how, but there must have been something, and now she's taken Jeanne to collect. I'm sure of it."

Tobias took a sharp breath through his nose and stood up, walking around the room in a slow circle, his hands clenching into useless fists. Cinders stopped herself from going to him, trying to calm him; he would need to come to terms with this on his own. Finally he let out a sigh. "Then we have to do what we can to get her back. Do you think they're at the lake?"

"I hope so," she said.

He nodded. "How do we find the fairy? Can you summon her?"

"With an offering." Cinders stood up and walked closer to him. "Bread is best."

"Then I'll have the cook find us some. There must be leftovers from dinner. You go get dressed, and I'll meet you in a few minutes." Tobias headed for the door, then in two quick strides returned to Cinders, gathering her into a fierce embrace. Cinders buried her face in his neck, and let a few tears fall. "We'll get her back, love. No matter what we have to do." She nodded, and he kissed the top of her head before leaving her for his errand.

-x-

Tobias shifted awkwardly from his right foot to his left as he peered across the dark water. "What do we do now?" He looked at Cinders, then the covered basket hanging from the crook of her elbow. "Do we tear up the bread and toss it into the water, like we're feeding the ducks?"

Despite her fears, Cinders found herself chuckling at the image of the fairy, floating on the water and bobbing for pieces of bread. It was a warm spring night, and the croaking of frogs had serenaded them throughout the walk here, but as they neared the lake, the air had gone still and quiet, the light breeze dying as the moon set behind the distant mountains. "No," she said. "See that rock over there?" She nodded toward a flat boulder just at the corner of the trees. It had never really occurred to her when she was young just how much it looked like an altar. "That's where my father would leave his offerings."

"All right." Tobias flipped the tea towel off the top of the basket, then pulled out the loaf, which had been fresh made for today's breakfast the night before. It was still warm, and its comforting scent wafted through the air. He wrapped the bread in the cloth, then gently set them both on the rock, stepping back with his hands held in the air. "That's done. Now what?"

Cinders stepped forward to the loaf and laid her hands on it. "Help me," she murmured. "Please return my daughter."

The breeze returned, the lightest breath of air wafting across her cheek. Then it was gone, and Cinders stepped away, then sat down on a fallen log. Tobias settled next to her, his arm around her shoulders, and she lay her head on his chest. "Now," she said, "we wait."

They fell into silence, neither of them wanting to break the bubble of stillness surrounding the glade. Cinders would have called it impossible, but somehow the quiet lulled her to sleep, and she woke only when a voice began to call her name.

No, not her name.

"Mother? Is that you, Mother?"

Cinders opened her eyes and saw Jeanne standing in front of her, her little Jeanne, unruly hair surrounding her face in a halo of red, her father's hazel eyes bright with excitement, dressed in her white nightdress. A light glimmered behind her -- brighter than starlight, but not as strong as the setting moon. But hadn't the moon set already? Cinders wanted to leap to her feet and grab Jeanne tight, but she restrain herself. "Jeanne," she said, gently. "You know you aren't supposed to leave the yard by yourself."

She looked over her shoulder to confirm this with Tobias, but he slumbered on, chin tucked into his chest. Was she dreaming again? Or was some other magic at work?

"I wasn't by myself," Jeanne said, and gestured behind her. As she spoke, the lights shifted into focus: a woman, ageless, beautiful, terrible, looking exactly the same as she had on the night Cinders had met her, all those years ago. "The nice lady was with me."

Cinders knelt before Jeanne and rested a hand on each shoulder, relieved to find her a solid presence. Not stolen, then; not completely. Not yet. "Still, your father and I were very worried. So I'm glad you're all right." She looked up to meet the fairy's gaze, daring her to challenge this statement; the fairy looking back at her with calm, inhuman eyes.

"She is well," the fairy said in her soft, deep voice that sounded like bells ringing in the distance. "But you have made an error in keeping her from me."

"You have no right to her." Cinders pulled Jeanne into her chest and hugged her close. "Jeanne is my daughter, not yours."

The fairy raised her hand. "Your mother made a compact with us. You did not fulfill the terms, and therefore restitution falls to your daughter."

"But I don't even know what the terms are!" Cinders rose to her feet, arms still around Jeanne, and she narrowed her eyes in defiance. "How can you expect me to hold up my end of a bargain that was made before my birth, and to which I was never a party?"

"That is not our way," the fairy replied, drifting closer, wreathed by spider webs and moonbeams. "The terms of the compact must be fulfilled. If not by you, then by your daughter. If not by your daughter, then by hers. Generations, the passage of years, your consent and hers: all are irrelevant. Your mother knew as much when she dealt with us. It was her responsibility to inform you; it is not our concern if she did not."

Cinders searched the fairy for any chink in the armor, any indication of sympathy or a sense of fair play she might draw upon, but there was nothing. The fairy's face was a mask, her posture relaxed and calm, her eyes alien and cold. Well, two could play at that game. She drew herself to her full height, shoulders back, and stared right back, her expression carved from stone. "I deny you."

"You are welcome to try." The fairy lifted her hand and waved it through the air; the breeze returned, and Jeanne stiffened in Cinders's arms.

"Mother?" Her breathing slowed, a chill passed across her skin, and her voice came from fair away. "Mama?"

Cinders dropped down to a knee and looked straight into Jeanne's face, gripping the girl's shoulders to pull her back into the world. "She won't hurt you. I won't let her. I won't!"

A gust of gale-force wind blew through the glade, ratting the trees; Cinders screwed her eyes shut and hugged Jeanne tight, clinging to her, to the earth below their feet. Soon, the wind subsided, and the warmth came back into Jeanne's body. Only then did Cinders dare to open her eyes and look up. The fairy was gone, the horizon was edged in pink and behind her, Tobias yawned.

"Cinders? Goodness, I think I fell asleep." She turned around to look at him, and then he saw Jeanne; he leapt to his feet and threw his arms around them both. "Jeanne!"

"I'm all right, Father," Jeanne said, and then she hugged him as he kissed the top of her head.

"Don't wander off again at night, ever. Do you understand?" He looked down at her, and she responded with a solemn nod. Then he looked at Cinders. "Are you all right?" He touched her cheek, patted her wind-blown hair. "You look worried."

"It's all right for now," she replied, taking his hand and pressing it against the side of her face, then turning to kiss his palm. "I'll tell you later."

He nodded, and the three of them walked off together, Jeanne between them and holding both their hands. And if her steps were a little lighter, skipping over some of the roots and stones in the path, and if her hair and skin seemed to glow a little more than was natural in the early dawn light, Cinders could worry about that later, too.