One “i can’t believe i’m going back!” Laurel grinned and shook her head as Chelsea’s voice broke the stillness of the forest. A lot had changed in twelve years, but not Chelsea—not really—and her response to being invited back to the faerie homeland of Avalon was much as it had been before. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity none of them thought she’d get twice, not even with Yasmine as queen. Honestly there’d been a few years when Laurel wasn’t entirely sure she’d see Avalon again. Fortunately for Chelsea, some things could only be accomplished by human hands. Laurel held tight to Tamani’s arm as he led them down a path now so familiar she could have traversed it in pitch darkness. “Who’s got Sophie and Zander?” Laurel asked over her shoulder. Chelsea’s two adorable—if exhausting—young children were ordinarily in tow when Chelsea came out to the land. They loved visiting the forest and their Uncle Tam, but this was a journey they couldn’t take with their mother. “Jason’s got them at home. As far as they know, Mommy’s on a business trip,” Chelsea said with a smile. “It is business of a sort,” Tamani said, with his typical unsmiling wit. “Faerie business. Besides, we won’t send you back to Jason empty-handed and the pups will appreciate souvenirs.” It had long been the official position of Avalon that two humans could keep a secret if both were dead, but in the years since the renegade faerie Klea had engineered a trollish invasion, an unusually large number of humans had kept the secret surprisingly well. Among them, Laurel’s adoptive parents and Chelsea herself—but Chelsea refused to keep secrets from her husband, who had once observed that even if he did try to tell others, nobody would believe him and he had no proof. A lump formed in Laurel’s throat at the thought of the other human who once knew the secret—but no longer. David was directly responsible for their return to Avalon today, making his absence all the more conspicuous. Laurel was glad to have Chelsea, but she couldn’t help but wish both her friends had been able to come. Willing to come. The memory potion had taken a lot of convincing—mostly from Tamani, who was closer to David than anyone except, perhaps, Chelsea—but Laurel was certain she’d done the right thing. If only that certainty made the consequences easier to swallow. Tamani whistled sharply, a warbling sound easily mistaken for a birdcall, and after a moment faerie sentries began to appear from behind trees. They were cautious, leading with their diamond-tipped spears and crouching low in the undergrowth, nearly invisible in their forest-hued clothing. “This is Chelsea,” Tamani said calmly, “our invited guest.” The sentries straightened, making themselves fully visible. Laurel recognized only a few. Once, she’d known more of them, but most of the sentries who’d been guarding the gate during the summers she spent at the Academy had been killed. Most, but not all. One approached now and Tamani reached out to grab his comrade, Aaron, by the shoulders, drawing him near with the gruff, backslapping hug universally utilized by males in both the faerie and human worlds. Silve followed, receiving the same treatment. They’d been brothers-at-arms even before bonding with their shared grief of Shar’s death on their watch. Without the intelligence Shar died to obtain, Klea may have won, all those years ago. And even if she’d lost, Aaron and Silve wouldn’t have been around to celebrate. Laurel watched their silent communication with reverence, the glimmer of sorrow that flickered across their faces resonating with her own. Even in victory, there was sadness enough to last a lifetime. “It’s a proud day,” Silve said softly, and Tamani nodded, though he didn’t speak. “Shar would love to have seen it.” “He’d have been highly amused at the very least,” Tamani said with a humorless laugh, settling back in beside Laurel and reaching for her hand. It was still hard for him to talk about Shar. He forced a smile, but these two hadn’t listened helplessly to Shar’s last moments from miles away. To this day, Tamani hated carrying a cell phone. “Shall we prepare the gate?” he said, and Laurel knew he wanted to leave that subject behind. For the moment. Twelve green-garbed sentries gathered in a semi-circle around the tree that magically concealed the golden gate to Avalon. Chelsea took Laurel’s free hand in her own, her breath catching audibly as the tree took on the gathering glow that presaged the blinding flash of its transformation. It felt so much like the day they’d all raced to save Avalon that Laurel almost looked over her shoulder to see if eighteen-year-old David was there. “Ready?” Tamani whispered close to her ear, keying into her distress. He always did. He knew her so well it often seemed he could read her mind. She loved him for that. She smiled up at him—a tight smile, but a smile nonetheless—and nodded. The golden gate stood shimmering in the clearing, sentries surrounding it with spears extended, ever vigilant, though at the moment nothing but darkness could be seen beyond the bars. “Yasmine should be here any moment,” Laurel said. “Oh! I thought—” Laurel gave Chelsea a quelling glance, then leaned in to whisper, “Much of Avalon knows that Tamani has the power to go where he pleases, but we’re careful never to reveal how.” Her eyes strayed to the nearly invisible lump beneath Tamani’s shirt, where a golden key was strung around his neck on a claspless titanium chain made just for that purpose. “We summon Yasmine as often as we can.” Which was less often than it had once been, with Yasmine the only Winter faerie remaining in Avalon. In the wake of Klea’s rebellion, Marion pursued a number of draconian reforms only to find herself thwarted, time and again, by the alliance between Jamison and Yasmine, as they slowly enacted their own reforms. When she finally tried to cast out both the very old and the very young Winter faeries, the faeries of Avalon had risen up en masse, Spring, Summer, and Fall, crowning Yasmine their new queen. When Laurel had first learned of the revolution Jamison had planned, a vengeful part of her had craved some diabolical punishment for the selfish ruler who had abandoned her people to the trolls and threatened the lives of Laurel and her friends. But deep down she knew that Jamison would engineer a less destructive outcome, if he could, and so it was that Queen Marion moved to the Manor, in Scotland, declaring that she would only return when Yasmine and Jamison had ruined Avalon and came begging for her help. Marion’s stubborn vigil was now in it’s seventh year, allowing Yasmine the freedom to shape Avalon according to the wishes of her subjects rather than dreams of personal glory.
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