Wicked Lovely Page 54

"Indeed. It is what I do."

Glad to look away from terrible brightness hurting her eyes, Donia walked over to the old wardrobe and opened it. Intermingled with her daily wear were clothes she'd no use for: velveteen tops with impossibly beautiful embroidery, shimmering blouses that looked like nothing more than a net of stars, dresses fashioned of sheer scarves that bared as they concealed, and leather clothes of every cut a girl could want.

She held out a crimson bustier that Liseli said she'd once worn to the Solstice Ball, the year after she'd become Winter Girl. He wept, tears of sunlight, she'd told Donia. Show him what he cannot ever have.

Donia had never been able to be so callous, but she'd wanted to.

Aislinn's eyes widened as she looked at the bustier. "What are you doing?"

"Helping you." Donia hung the top back up and held out a strange metal halter, strung with black gems.

Aislinn pushed it away with a frown. "This is helping?"

"It is." Donia found it then, the one that fit Aislinn: a Renaissance chemise that had been altered into a blouse, strikingly white with an almost lurid red ribbon lacing from bosom to waist. "Faeries respond well to confidence. I learned that too late. You must show him that you are not meek, that you will not be commanded. Go there—act as his equal, not a subject—and tell him you want to negotiate."

"For what?" Aislinn took the blouse, fingering the soft cotton.

"For some sort of peace. He's not going away. Your mortality isn't coming back. Don't start eternity with him believing he can tell you what to do. Start by putting him off kilter: dress for battle."

Donia sorted through the skirts and overdresses. They all seemed too regal, too formal. Aislinn would need to remind him she was not like the others, bound to do his bidding. She was a girl who'd grown up in a world where women had choices. "Be more aggressive than he is. Summon him to you. If he takes too long, don't wait. Go to him."

Aislinn looked helpless, standing there clutching the blouse. "I'm not sure I can."

"Then you've already lost. Your modernity is your best weapon. Use it. Show him that you are entitled to some sort of choice. You know what he is now, so demand that he talk to you. Negotiate for what control you can wrest from him." Donia drew out pants, sleek and modern. "Go change. Then we'll talk more."

Aislinn took the slick black pants with a shaky hand. "Is there a way to win?"

"The Summer Girls believe they've won." Donia hated saying it, but it was true. The girls were happy: they didn't see their dependence as a burden.

Aislinn twisted the cotton blouse in her hands, wringing it like a wet cloth. "What's the alternative? There has to be another choice."

Donia paused. She put a hand on Aislinn's wrist, shook off her glamour, and revealed the snow falling in her eyes. "Me."

Although the winter chill was awful for the summer fey—which she now was—Aislinn didn't look away.

So Donia let the cold slip into her fingertips, leak out until frost blossomed on Aislinn's arm, forming small icicles that dangled on her elbow, then fell to the floor with a clatter. "This."

Wincing finally, Aislinn pulled back. "I want neither."

"I know." Donia reigned the cold in, trembling with the effort. "But given the two…They are free in ways that I'm not. To be a Summer Girl is to live forever, to dance and play, and have the freedom from almost everything. It's a life of eternal summer. They have no responsibility; they leave that behind with their mortality, and he" — she almost choked on the words but she still said them—"takes care of them. They want for nothing."

"I don't want that."

Donia wanted to tell Aislinn to refuse it, but it wasn't her place. That was his job. Instead Donia told her, "It's what you're becoming already. Surely you've noticed?"

At that, Aislinn's shoulder's slumped.

Donia remembered it—that strange dissociative feeling that accompanied the changes. It wasn't a pleasant memory, even now with the cold settled deep inside her. She kept the pity from her voice and said, "To not join them, you must take the test."

"What kind of test?" Aislinn sounded even younger then, frightened.

No one had asked it before. By the time the test was an issue, the girls were already decided. They might not have verbalized it, but their choice—to risk everything to be with Keenan or not—was already made in their hearts. In Donia's time, none had loved him enough to attempt it. Nor, for that matter, had he truly loved them—at least that was what she'd told herself each time he wooed them.

"That's for him to say. I cannot. He'll hold out a third choice, the prize, as it were. In nine centuries, no one has ever become that third thing. If you take the test and lose, you become what I am. If you do not take the test before the next season comes upon us, that too is a choice: you simply join the other girls." Donia gave Aislinn a gentle push toward the bedroom. "Go change."

Aislinn stopped in the doorway. "Is there any way out of whatever mess this is? To just walk away? I want to go back to my life. Isn't there someone we can talk to?"

Donia carefully closed the wardrobe door, not looking at Aislinn. No one had ever asked that, either.

Still facing the wardrobe, she said, "Only one girl has ever avoided choosing."

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