Oboe hung back, wanting to watch Theo but worried about Gardner Feather. Would she run her off now that Theo wasn’t awake? Oboe’s fur stood on end as the priestess walked closer. She wondered if she ought to run.
“Be at ease,” the Gardner said.
Oboe’s eyes darted around looking to see who Feather was talking to. There was no one else. Feather was talking to her. She wasn’t supposed to do that.
“What?” Oboe said.
The Gardner gestured toward Theo. “I believe you would be happier to be at your friend’s side.”
“…You’re not supposed to be nice to me,” Oboe said.
“You are right,” she said. “But, as you can see, I am very busy tending to the sick. So busy, in fact, I think it will be impossible for me to do anything about your being here. So, I hope that you will leave of your own accord after you have stolen a bit of the solace we have denied you.”
She was speaking in riddles. “You’re breaking the rules,” Oboe said.
Feather bowed. “It is written: ‘All magic, and every creature touched by it, is born with the purpose to do good.’ Remember that the Fairy Circle is not the Mother of Magic. Our people fall short of Her purpose for us every day.” With that, she walked off.
Oboe wasn’t sure what to think. It seemed she got to stay, even if it was against the rules. Feeling a little bolder, she stepped into the blessed flowerbed to sit by Theo. He stirred, restless and silent. There was nothing to do but wait.
She looked around. Her eyes met with those of one of the sick fairies, a faun like her. She froze. He was a buck, about Oboe’s age. It was foolish, but she could not stop herself from pushing her luck.
“Hi,” she said, ready to run.
The faun groaned, struggling to sit up. He had shaggy dark fur and a notched ear. For a moment he didn’t say anything. “Hello.”
“I’m Oboe. …What’s your name?”
“Zither,” he said, looking away.
“I, er…” Oboe felt like an idiot. “I don’t see many other fauns outside the Circle.”
He winced. “Yeah well… I kind of burnt some bridges there. I’m not out here by choice.”
“Oh!” Were they the same? “Me too! I’m a–“
“I know what you are,” Zither said.
Oboe’s heart sank. She reminded herself that it was a waste of time to talk to other fauns. But then, to her surprise, Zither’s face softened.
“Sorry,” he said. “I’m taking forever to die and it’s making me grouchy.”
“It’s okay.” She told herself to let it go, and bent down next to him. “Don’t worry! Theo said he’s going to help!”
Zither furrowed his brow. “That guy?” They both glanced at him dreaming among the flowers. “He can dream for us, but in a month’s time we’ll be right back where we started: withering away because the humans won’t let us near them.”
“Well, maybe Theo can fix it! He’s the Ranger Deputy. He can go talk to the humans, make them get rid of the ban. That way we can save all of you!”
He let out a snort. “Humans got us in this mess in the first place. Hateful creatures. We can’t count on them to fix this. All they care about is themselves.”
“Theo’s not like that,” Oboe said. “He’s good.”
“Really?” He said, skeptical. “So he’s perfect? Never done anything wrong? Ever?”
Oboe felt doubt creep in. Theo had captured the Tall Man even though he was innocent. The ghast could’ve been killed, and it would’ve been Theo’s fault. She shook her head. That wasn’t what happened. She had to get loud, but he listened to her, and they made it right together. If what Feather said was true, that fairies could fall short but still have a good purpose, so could humans. “He’s not perfect,” she said. “But he cares about creatures, and he cares about doing the right thing.”
“Well, just ’cause you have one good sprout doesn’t mean the rest of them aren’t weeds,” Zither said. “I’m not counting on him, but maybe I can count on you.”
Oboe caught his eyes drifting over her body. Her heart raced. She saw other fauns so rarely, and they never so much as looked at her. The dread of being alone was a dull ache she was all too familiar with. The way his gaze trailed along her hips and chest made her wonder if the past didn’t matter.
“It seems like you’ve got this humans ear,” Zither said. “If you think you can talk the humans into lifting the ban, maybe you can save us.”
Letting her own eyes wander, Oboe permitted herself the guilty pleasure of taking in the buck in front of her. He had good horns, rounded but a bit battered. The fauns of the Circle were well groomed and trimmed, but Zither was scruffy and rugged. His body was nice and fit, but pot marked by scars. He would be more attractive if he took better care of himself, and maybe if his chin were stronger or his shoulders broader, but Oboe told herself she couldn’t afford to be choosey. If she had a chance at happiness then she needed to take it.
“I’ll talk to Theo,” she said. “We’ll find a way to save you.”