“Good evening, Oliver,” said the fussy little man.
Oliver smiled. “Friedle, your timing is incredible. You have no idea how much I needed this right now.”
But of course he did. Friedle had been watching out for Oliver and Collette for years, keeping them out of too much trouble. He seemed always to know what they needed, and to be there when it mattered most.
“Thank you,” Oliver said, taking the tray from him and setting it on the coffee table.
“You’re very welcome.”
Oliver took a sip from his cup. A smile creased his lips. Perhaps Jack London’s stories were no longer enough to transport him back to his childhood, but here in this room—which he would forever think of as his mother’s parlor—with the fire burning and the taste of that cocoa on his lips, he remembered what magic felt like.
Not the magic in his hands, or that which had returned to the world…the magic that only existed on the inside.
Friedle started to withdraw. Oliver glanced at him. They knew, now, that Friedle had never been his real name. The goblin who had served the legendary Melisande—his mother—was called Robiquet. But from the moment they had returned to the house on that high, craggy bluff overlooking the ocean, Oliver and Collette had persisted in calling him Friedle. For his part, the fussy man seemed to prefer it. Friedle behaved as if nothing had changed, save for the absence of his former employer, Max Bascombe.
“I miss him,” Oliver said.
“My father. It’s strange, don’t you think? I spent so many years wishing for the courage to get out from under his shadow, and now that he’s gone, I want him back.”
Friedle nodded. “We all miss them, when they’re gone. He wasn’t a bad man, your father. He was just afraid for you.”
Oliver took another sip. “I never thought of him as afraid of anything.”
“For himself, of course not. The only thing that frightened Max Bascombe was the idea of something happening to one of his children.”
The cocoa tasted sweet as ever, thick on his tongue. In his entire life, he had never invited his father to join him in the parlor on one of those long nights when he would retreat here. The old man would have declined, he was sure. Still, Oliver wondered.
“Thank you, Friedle.”
“I’m quite looking forward to tomorrow,” the old goblin said. “Good night, Oliver.”
After Friedle had gone, he sat with his finger still holding the page in The Sea Wolf and sipped his cocoa until only traces were left at the bottom of the cup. Only then did he consider the book again, but after a moment he put it aside, not bothering to mark his place.
“Hello, little brother.”
Startled, he looked up. Collette stood in the doorway in blue flannel pajamas covered with monkeys. She looked adorable as hell, but he wouldn’t mention it, knowing she would hit him.
“I thought you’d gone to bed.”
As he spoke, Julianna appeared in the hallway behind Collette in a burgundy terry cloth robe that usually hung on the back of Oliver’s bedroom door but was rarely worn.
“We couldn’t sleep,” Julianna said.
Mischief sparkled in her eyes and her smile lightened his heart.
“Excited about tomorrow, or nervous?” he asked.
Collette came in and sat on the sofa beside his chair. “What about you, Ollie? You’re not nervous?” She picked up his cup and peeked inside, disappointed to find it empty, though Oliver felt sure that Friedle had brought the two women their own cocoa tray before retiring for the night.
Oliver held out his hand to Julianna. “Not at all.”
She wrapped her fingers around his and he pulled her onto his lap on the chair. A stranger would not have seen the tiny wince at the corners of her eyes, but Oliver felt what she felt. The scar on her abdomen ought to have been the only reminder of the dagger Ovid Tsing had stabbed her with. But, all these months later, it still pained her sometimes when the weather was damp and cold. He suspected it always would.
“Are you sure?” Julianna asked, touching the smoothness of his face. The scraggly beard he’d grown during their time across the Veil had been gone since June.
He kissed her, pressed his forehead against hers, and watched the reflection of the firelight glowing in her eyes. “Completely.”
“It’s going to be a pretty extraordinary day,” Collette said.
Oliver and Julianna broke their trance and looked at her, content in one another, but never to the point of excluding her. They were a family now, the three of them. Always.
“A year late, but here we are,” Oliver replied. He ran his hand across Julianna’s back, thinking about their guest list. There would be many of the same guests who had been supposed to attend last December, but others had been added. Sheriff Norris. Ted and Sara Halliwell. The legendary and the ordinary alike had been invited. King Hunyadi himself had promised to attend.
“I wonder if Frost will come,” Julianna said.
Oliver smiled. “We’ll know by dawn, I think.”
Collette looked at him oddly, then cocked her head. “I’ve been wondering if we’ll see Smith.”
“I doubt it.”
His sister gave a small shrug. “Maybe not. But I don’t think we’ve seen the last of him. Not forever.”
Julianna lay her head against Oliver’s chest. “Everything has changed. The whole world.”
Oliver stroked her hair and bent to kiss her again. “Not everything. The important things haven’t changed at all. The things that matter.”
Collette jumped up. “Speaking of which, it’s almost midnight and you two crazy kids are getting married tomorrow. You know it’s bad luck for the groom to see the bride on her wedding day before the ceremony.”
Julianna rolled her eyes. Oliver did not want to let her go. The memory of her lying there on the ground with blood soaking her clothes remained fresh in his mind. He saw her that way many nights when he closed his eyes, and sometimes he dreamed of that moment, just as he dreamed of the sinking of Atlantis, of the people hurling themselves from buildings, of the power that had been in his hands.
He could never change the past. He would never allow himself to forget. The outcome had been a triumph over savagery and tyranny, but the cost meant he would never celebrate.
Somehow, he and Collette and Julianna had all survived.
“Oliver,” Julianna whispered in his ear.
He let her pull away. She gave him a wistful look, her gaze lingering on his eyes, and then she kissed him again, slow and sensuous. When she stood and started for the door, Oliver took a deep breath and let it out, casting away the shadow that often hung over him. It was a time for joy. And whenever Julianna was around, he could surrender to it, and to the whims of fortune.
To magic, for better or for worse.
Collette kissed him on the head. “Get some sleep.”
She followed Julianna out of the room, and Oliver was alone again.
The fire had begun to die down. After a few minutes, he rose and picked up the cocoa tray. There would be enough chaos tomorrow without anyone having to worry about cleaning up after him.
A gust of wind rattled the window. Oliver glanced that way and knitted his brows. Curious, he walked over and touched his fingers to the glass, tracing lines in the icy condensation on the inside of the window.
Outside, it had begun to snow. The first snowfall of winter. It seemed that Frost would attend the wedding after all.
Oliver turned, and the fox was there.
Kitsune sat warming herself in front of the fireplace, her tail swishing happily. Her copper fur glinted in the flickering light of the dying blaze. Strips of opalescent scar tissue lined her body and head and snout, places where the fur would never grow again. The scars had a hideous gleam in the firelight.
The fox turned her jade eyes toward Oliver. Myriad emotions swirled in her gaze—gratitude and love and regret and something akin to happiness. Or perhaps those were merely the things he hoped or expected to see.
Oliver dropped to his knees and she came to him, nuzzling against him. He stroked her fur without a word. Frost had told him that Kitsune’s wounds were so grievous, that her flesh had been so badly damaged, that she could never change shape again. She would be a fox forever.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “For so many things.”
Kitsune lifted a paw and placed it against his chest. Oliver bent and kissed the soft red fur atop her head.
The fox turned from him, trotted toward the window, then paused to give him a final glance. A gust of wind came down the chimney and the fire flickered. He shifted his gaze only for a moment, but when he looked back she was gone, as though she had never been there at all.
A melancholy smile touched his lips. Oliver hesitated only a moment and then carried the tray toward the door. His mother’s parlor had always been an escape for him, a place to which he retreated whenever he began to worry that his father might be right, that his journeys into his own imagination were foolish.
He stepped out into the corridor and pulled the door closed behind him, but it swung open just a few inches.
The door to his mother’s parlor did not close properly anymore.
Oliver suspected that it never would.