Rupert leaned out the bedroom to scout the hallway.
“I don’t see anyone,” he said. “I’m gonna make a run for it.”
“Where will you go?” Theodore said.
The pooka shrugged. “I dunno. Can’t stay here. Épée will chop me to bits if she finds out I helped tear a hole in the labyrinth.”
Theodore glanced at the tear in space behind them. The hole had spat them out into a large guest room somewhere in the fairy palace. Theodore wondered if a carefully worded letter of apology would make up for the damage he’d caused.
“Maybe I’ll go to the Korveil Circle,” Rupert said. “Can’t be any worse than here.”
“Good luck. I’m sorry this happened.”
“Hey.” Rupert tugged on Theodore’s pant leg, and he squatted down to his eye level. “I just want you to know that you ruined my entire life and I will always hate you for that. But I guess you had the decency not to let me die in a dungeon, so you’re still better than most humans I’ve met.”
“Anyway, seeya!” Rupert pushed the door open and took off down the hallway. “If anyone asks, I had nothing to do with any of this!!”
Alone, Theodore stood back up. That was one matter taken care of, but there were others. He grabbed the hilt of the sword. There were questions burning in his mind. He wanted to interrogate Épée about his father, maybe find out what the Fair Lady knew. If his father had attacked the Fairy Circle, if he was responsible for that nymph’s suffering, people needed to know about it. There needed to be some kind of justice.
His grip went slack. No. Not yet. Oboe was still in danger. He couldn’t risk the Fair Lady changing her mind because he pushed his luck. Oboe’s safety needed to come first. Once she was home safe, he could do research, talk to his superiors, and come back better prepared. He hurried out into the hall to look for his friend.
The palace felt empty, breathless. The spriggan seemed to have gone elsewhere. He climbed up and down stairs, trying to remember the way to Oboe’s room. Rounding the corner, he spotted a fury blow a fold whistle and disappear into a link to the labyrinth. Had they sensed what he’d done?
He found the right tower. Oboe’s door was unlocked, but there was no one inside.
“Oboe?” He was worried. He raced to check the adjoining rooms. Bassoon wouldn’t change her mind, would she? “Oboe!?”
He barged into a parlor. There was someone there. A faun, standing still, her back to him, peering into a mounted mirror. He came closer.
She looked at him but did not move. It was her. She was wearing an amber colored mantle, draped from shoulder to navel. Stitched on the front was the same symbol he’d seen throughout the Fairy Court: an acorn with a keyhole in it.
Theodore ran up to meet her. “They let you out of your room? Did the Fair Lady let you go? Are you okay?”
She stared at him with tense eyes. She opened her mouth to speak but seemed to think better of the words.
“Yes,” she said finally. “My grandmother said she spoke with you. I’m free to leave.”
Her voice was so wooden. There was something she wasn’t saying. “You’re angry with me, aren’t you?” He had expected her to be more vocal than this. “I know this isn’t what you wanted, but… I couldn’t bear to see you die.”
Oboe struggled to look him in the eye. He had rushed this. She needed more time. As usual, he’d been an idiot. There was an awkward silence.
“…You’re wearing one of those outfits,” Theodore said. “Like the other fairies here.”
Life sparked inside her. She spread her arms to show it off.
“It’s a naming garment.” It was a relief to see her smile again. “It lets others know what family I belong to.”
“It does?” He said. “Thistle told me they took your name away from you.”
Oboe smiled. The warmth returned to her face. “Grandmother is giving me my name back. She’s letting me come back to the Circle!”
“What? Really?” Theodore couldn’t help but laugh with happiness. Without thinking, he hugged her. “That’s wonderful!”
She stood rigid in his arms, hands folded. He released her, embarrassed.
“I’m sorry.” He surprised himself. He wasn’t normally the hugging type. “This is good, right? I had no idea before today that you were an exile, but now you’ve been welcomed back.” He searched her expression, wondering how he ought to feel for her. “I can’t imagine what that must be like.”
Oboe’s eyes watered. She clenched her lips and held back a sob. She covered her face as tears rolled down her cheeks. Theodore wanted to comfort her. She stopped him with a hand. After a moment, she wiped her own tears away.
“I’ve wished for this every day since I was little,” She said, sniffling. “This is real, isn’t it?” She looked back into the mirror. “Really real. Not pretend, or a trick. Just… real.”
He fished out his handkerchief and offered it to her. “It feels real to me.”
Oboe blew her nose, and Theodore felt as if he could breathe again.
“I think it’s time to go home.”
Together, they left. The guards threw open the palace doors for them, and a boat was made ready. The journey out of the Circle was so much easier than the journey inside. The residents of the fairy village still eyed Theodore with caution but hurried aside as they passed. Oboe led Theodore down an alleyway. Beneath a stone archway was a portal back to the Whirlwood.
Oboe stopped at the threshold as Theodore stepped through. He looked back.
“Aren’t you coming?”
“I…” She hesitated. “I’m going to stay a while. I want to see my family. Grandmother said she’d throw a party. It’s been so long.” Her gaze drifted. “I hope they remember me.”
Theodore felt anxious. “I’m worried. You said you wanted to die. I shouldn’t leave you here alone.”
“I’m not alone anymore,” she said. “I’m home.”
Theodore realized he was being selfish.
“Promise you’ll be okay?” He said.
“I promise,” she said.
“Will you come back to work?”
She nodded. “Tomorrow. First thing.”
He needed to stop. He needed to trust her. “Take as long as you need. It’s your family. I’ll be waiting.”
“Goodbye Theo,” she said, and turned her back on him.