Every Heart a Doorway (Wayward Children #1)(6)

by Seanan McGuire

“You organized them by color, and it took me weeks to figure out where anything was. I’m doing important research up here.” Kade unfolded his legs and slid down from his pile of books. He knocked off a paperback in the process, catching it deftly before it could hit the ground. Then he turned to look at Nancy. “You’re new. I hope she’s not already leading you astray.”

“So far, she’s just led me to the attic,” said Nancy inanely. Her cheeks reddened, and she said, “I mean, no. I’m not so easy to lead places, most of the time.”

“She’s more of a ‘standing really still and hoping nothing eats her’ sort of girl,” said Sumi, and thrust the suitcase toward him. “Look what her parents did.”

Kade raised his eyebrows as he took in the virulent pinkness of the plastic. “That’s colorful,” he said after a moment. “Paint could fix it.”

“Outside, maybe. You can’t paint underpants. Well, you can, but then they come out all stiff, and no one believes you didn’t mess them.” Sumi’s expression sobered for a moment. When she spoke again, it was with a degree of clarity that was almost unnerving, coming from her. “Her parents swapped out her things before they sent her off to school. They knew she wouldn’t like it, and they did it anyway. There was a note.”

“Oh,” said Kade, with sudden understanding. “One of those. All right. Is this going to be a straight exchange, then?”

“I’m sorry, I don’t understand what’s going on,” said Nancy. “Sumi grabbed my suitcase and ran away with it. I don’t want to bother anyone.…”

“You’re not bothering me,” said Kade. He took the suitcase from Sumi before turning toward Nancy. “Parents don’t always like to admit that things have changed. They want the world to be exactly the way it was before their children went away on these life-changing adventures, and when the world doesn’t oblige, they try to force it into the boxes they build for us. I’m Kade, by the way. Fairyland.”

“I’m Nancy, and I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”

“I went to a Fairyland. I spent three years there, chasing rainbows and growing up by inches. I killed a Goblin King with his own sword, and he made me his heir with his dying breath, the Goblin Prince in Waiting.” Kade walked off into the maze of books, still carrying Nancy’s suitcase. His voice drifted back, betraying his location. “The King was my enemy, but he was the first adult to see me clearly in my entire life. The court of the Rainbow Princess was shocked, and they threw me down the next wishing well we passed. I woke up in a field in the middle of Nebraska, back in my ten-year-old body, wearing the dress I’d had on when I first fell into the Prism.” The way he said “Prism” left no question about what he meant: it was a proper name, the title of some strange passage, and his voice ached around that single syllable like flesh aches around a knife.

“I still don’t understand,” said Nancy.

Sumi sighed extravagantly. “He’s saying he fell into a Fairyland, which is sort of like going to a Mirror, only they’re really high Logic pretending to be high Nonsense, it’s quite unfair, there’s rules on rules on rules, and if you break one, wham”—she made a slicing gesture across her throat—“out you go, like last year’s garbage. They thought they had snicker-snatched a little girl—fairies love taking little girls, it’s like an addiction with them—and when they found out they had a little boy who just looked like a little girl on the outside, uh-oh, donesies. They threw him right back.”

“Oh,” said Nancy.

“Yeah,” said Kade, emerging from the maze of books. He wasn’t carrying Nancy’s suitcase anymore. Instead, he had a wicker basket filled with fabric in reassuring shades of black and white and gray. “We had a girl here a few years ago who’d spent basically a decade living in a Hammer film. Black and white everything, flowy, lacy, super-Victorian. Seems like your style. I think I’ve guessed your size right, but if not, feel free to come and let me know that you need something bigger or smaller. I didn’t take you for the corsetry type. Was I wrong?”

“What? Um.” Nancy wrenched her gaze away from the basket. “No. Not really. The boning gets uncomfortable after a day or two. We were more, um, Grecian where I was, I guess. Or Pre-Raphaelite.” She was lying, of course: she knew exactly what the styles had been in her Underworld, in those sweet and silent halls. When she’d gone looking for signs that someone else knew where to find a door, combing through Google and chasing links across Wikipedia, she had come across the works of a painter named Waterhouse, and she’d cried from the sheer relief of seeing people wearing clothes that didn’t offend her eyes.

Kade nodded, understanding in his expression. “I manage the clothing swaps and inventory the wardrobes, but I do custom jobs too,” he said. “You’ll have to pay for those, since they’re a lot more work on my part. I take information as well as cash. You could tell me about your door and where you went, and I could make you a few things that might fit you better.”

Nancy’s cheeks reddened. “I’d like that,” she said.

“Cool. Now get out, both of you. We have dinner in a little while, and I want to finish my book.” Kade’s smile was fleeting. “I never did like to leave a story unfinished.”

* * *

SUMI WATCHED NANCY as they walked down the stairs. The taller girl was holding tight to her basket of black and white clothing, cheeks still faintly touched with red. The color seemed almost obscene on her, like it had no business there.

“Do you want to fuck him?”

Nancy almost fell down the stairs.

After she had caught herself on the banister, she turned to Sumi, sputtering and blushing, and said, “No!”

“Are you sure? Because you looked like you did, and then you looked sort of upset, like you’d figured out you didn’t want to after all. Jill—you’ll meet her at dinner—wanted to fuck him until she found out he used to be a girl, and then she called him ‘she’ until Miss Ely said that we respect people’s personal identities here, and then we all had to listen to this weird story about a girl who used to live in the attic who was really a rainbow who’d managed to offend the King of the Sky in one of the Fairylands and got herself kicked out.” Sumi paused to take a breath and added, “That was sort of scary. You never think about people from there winding up here, only people from here winding up there. Maybe the walls are never as impermeable as we think they are.”