Oboe sat on a hillside overlooking the Fairy Circle and stared at the burns on her hands. Her blackened fingers itched under the bandages, still raw from the fight with grandmother, but Thistle had told her not the scratch. The fur could only grow back if she left the ointment alone. She tried to put the pain out of her mind. Somewhere below, Theo was waiting for her. She needed to get moving, but whenever she tried to move she felt stuck to the spot with tar.
It was so strange seeing the Circle just sitting there, out in the open. How many cold and lonely days had she looked off in the distance, wishing she could catch just a glimpse of her childhood home again? Well, there it was. Ripped from its hiding place for all to see; the Circle seemed like a great big festering zit on the face of the Whirlwood. Why had she wasted so many years praying for a chance to go back to that vile, wicked place? Because she was stupid, that’s why.
No. Oboe shook her head. She was done blaming herself for the things that were wrong with the Circle. Even if she’d made mistakes, the biggest was believing she was the one at fault.
“Oboe?” Theo hoisted himself up onto the plateau. He looked different, wearing a green sweater instead of his uniform. “There you are! I was looking for you!”
Her dark mood evaporated. She could not help but smile the moment she saw him. The whole world wasn’t rotten.
“Sorry,” she said as he helped her get back on her hooves. “I lost track of time.”
“The council will start soon.” His fingers lingered in Oboe’s a moment longer. “We should start heading that way.”
“…I don’t know if I should go with you,” she said. “I’m the one that killed Bassoon. They won’t want me there.” She tried to let go, but he held onto her.
“The Knights of the Realm will make sure you’re safe,” Theo said. “I won’t force you, but I’d like you there. You look at things in a way I don’t. It’d be better for everyone if we’re both there to fix this.”
Oboe’s heart melted, just a little. Enough to convince her, against her better judgment, to go back to that awful place. “Okay,” she said, and followed him down the hillside and through the gates of the fairy settlement.
The sights and sounds of the Outer Circle felt unreal. Human soldiers in breastplates and silver cloaks patrolled the dirt roads, hefting their weapons. Homes and storefronts were battened tight, with nervous eyes peeping through beaded curtains. The only other fairies they met on the way were quick to slip out of sight. Furies with sharp beaks and sharp eyes. Gnomes moving in packs, like one prickly mass. Leshy wrung their oaken hands, with branches of their brittle hair uneven and freshly broken. They all noticed Oboe as she came through, watching her with eyes wide. There were murmurs. Oboe wondered, with dread, about what they were saying. She scolded herself: it could be no worse than the things they always said.
Their boat landed on the shore of the inner circle with little time to spare. Knights escorted them through the gardens up to grandmother’s palace. Furies stood guard and blocked the doorway with crossed halberds.
“Hey!” Oboe said. “What gives? Let us through!”
The spriggan did not budge. Their beaks tightened, and their eyes narrowed.
“Stand down!” The knights said. “This man is here to attend the council!”
The halberds whipped around, now pointed at the humans. The knights, spooked, unsheathed their swords and readied the shards of crystalline magic they wore around their necks.
“Wait!” Theo said. “There’s no need to fight! Just tell us what’s going on!”
“They are following orders,” a voice called from inside the palace. Hooves clopped against the marble floor, and a chill wind blew from inside. A unicorn stepped out from the shadows beyond the archway, snowy white with a long neck, and a horn that stretched like a spear from her brow. She was draped in a light blue caparison, trimmed with gold to mark her as one of the Titled. “This is fairy business. No human may set foot inside the council.”