I knew what he meant, but I still stiffened slightly. Not those things, I instructed myself. He didn’t mean the text messages, or Cubby. But it was too late; panic crept through my center, and suddenly my head spun. Telling Lina had been hypothetical for so long, and now the moment was here.
Of course, Lina zeroed in on my uneasiness. “Addie? Are you okay?”
I’d better just tell her now. Get it over with. I swallowed nervously. “Lina, can we talk in priv—”
“I just found a Titletrack museum in the woods,” Ian interrupted, sidling up next to me. “I don’t know who made it, but you guys have to see it.” And before I could protest, he was suddenly dragging Lina and me in the direction he’d come from, Rowan and Ren trailing right behind.
I tried to dig my heels in, but his momentum was too much. “Ian, stop. I need to talk to Lina. I need to tell her about . . . ,” I trailed off, hoping he’d take the hint.
Instead he sped up, taking us to a jog. “Sorry, but this really can’t wait. The concert starts in less than an hour.”
Lina’s curls were bouncing in time with our pace, and she wrenched her neck back to look at the guys. “Everyone keeping up?”
“Ma certo,” Ren answered affirmatively.
And that’s when I realized that it wasn’t just Ian pulling me along—it was Lina, too. She was just as intent on getting to the museum as Ian was.
“What is going on?” I demanded. “Why are we all running?”
“Just trust us,” Lina said, squeezing my arm, and then all four of them looked at me with big Cheshire-cat smiles.
This was officially getting weird.
Ian finally stopped in a clearing underneath a canopy of decorated trees. Old CDs hung by strips of ribbon, swaying gently in the evening breeze, and fairy lights snaked around tree trunks and branches. A collection of candles sat flickering on an old tree stump that reminded me of the one in the fairy ring.
“What is this?” I asked, stopping in my tracks.
“Sorry, Addie. I know you were really looking forward to a Titletrack museum, but that’s not what this is.” Ian grinned at me, then turned to Lina. “Did you bring the ceremonial garb?”
“Of course.” She unhooked her arm from mine and then dropped her overstuffed backpack to the ground, pulling out four long white pieces of fabric and tossing them to everyone.
I stared as everyone began twisting the fabric into haphazard togas. “Are those sheets? What’s going on?”
Ian knotted his over his shoulder. “We’re putting on our ceremonial garb.”
“And this is for you.” Lina pulled a long, plum-colored shawl from the bottom of her bag and draped it carefully around me, pulling my ponytail out from under it.
I grabbed the bottom edge and held it up to the light. Intricate mandalas swirled through the pattern. “Where have I seen this before?”
“It was my mom’s. She wore it to all of her gallery nights; she said it made her feel royal.”
My heart quickened. “Lina, this is special. You really want me to wear this?”
“No, I want you to keep it.” She straightened the shawl so it sat evenly on my shoulders, and I bit the inside of my cheek, holding back my protest. Every bit of me wanted to refuse the gift, but I couldn’t; it was too meaningful. “Thank you,” I said, my voice wobbly.
“You’re welcome. Now let’s go. Attendant?” Lina gestured for Rowan, who quickly moved to my side, escorting me to the twinkling tree stump.
“Rowan, will you tell me what’s going on?” I whispered. “Did you know about this?”
His dimple lit up in the twinkling lights. “Sorry, Maeve, but I was sworn to secrecy. What I can tell you is that this is not a Titletrack museum.”
Ian gestured to the stump. “Everyone, grab a candle so Addie can stand up there.” His hair looked extra tangly, the hood of his sweatshirt poking out over the top of his toga.
I shook my head quickly. “Oh, no. We are not re-creating Au Bohair.” The stump was completely entrenched in lights, and even though we were on the edge of the grounds, plenty of festivalgoers still milled around us, a few already stopping to watch.
“Relax. You don’t have to say anything. We’ll be the ones doing the talking. So climb up,” Ian said firmly.
He exhaled loudly. “Can you please not fight me for once? Please?”
It was the extra “please” that got me. I climbed up and then turned to face my friends. They’d formed a half circle around me, their candles casting strange shadows on their faces. It looked like I was about to be initiated into a cult. Or sacrificed. “What is going on?”
They shared a conspiratorial grin. Then Ian nodded at Ren. “Okay, master of ceremonies. Start us out.”
Ren cleared his throat and then let loose, his voice booming through the trees. “Ladies and gentlemen. Stradballas and stradballees. We have before us a fair maiden—”
“Ren, don’t improvise,” Lina interrupted. “Just go with the script. What we talked about.”
“Nessun problema.” He cleared his throat again. “On this fine summer day, there was a group of people who loved someone and wanted her to know they had her back. And so they held the first ceremony of Queen Maeve. Here at Stradbally, in full view of many.”
“In full view of many” was right. The crowd was growing by the second, no doubt hoping for a show. Ren gestured theatrically, raising his voice to the tops of the trees. “And so, like Queen Maeve of old, we have put her in a high place and will honor her by building her up, one rock at a time.”
Suddenly, I noticed a pile of fist-size rocks at their feet, and I realized what this was about. They were re-creating Queen Maeve’s growing tomb—the one Rowan had told me about back when he first dubbed me Maeve. “Wait a minute. Whose idea was this?” I asked.
“Ian’s,” Lina said.
Ian shook his head. “We all get some credit. Rowan gave you the nickname, I came up with the ceremony, Lina brought all the supplies, and Ren is master of ceremonies.”
“Ian called me right before we left for the airport,” Lina filled in. “I only had fifteen minutes to prepare.”
“My mom helped,” Ren added. “She has a surprising number of fairy lights at her disposal.”
“This is . . .” I bit my lower lip, not sure what to say. My eyes were already burning with tears. “So what do I do?” I managed.
“Just stand there.” Ren turned to Lina. “You’re up, principessa.”
Lina picked up the rock closest to her, stumbling on her toga as she stepped forward.
“A good friend is like a four-leaf clover. Hard to find, lucky to have.” She paused, weighing the rock in her hand. “I didn’t make that up. I saw it on a T-shirt at the airport.” She turned slightly, addressing the group. “For those of you who don’t know, my mom died last year. Her illness was very sudden, and it took her much too fast.” Her voice trembled, but she looked up, locking her eyes on mine and lowering her voice a bit. “Remember right at the end, when my mom couldn’t breathe on her own anymore and they knew it was only going to be a few hours?”
I nodded. The memory was etched into my mind. I would never forget answering that phone call. Lina had been crying so hard that I couldn’t understand her. All I knew was that I had to get to the hospital. Fast. The old familiar clamp moved over my throat.
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