French translation: en français
The Lost Boy
(A Story of Ironbridge)
© 2012 Karen Mahoney
Bedlam wasn’t so much a club as it was a dark carnival. On its best nights it was truly a spectacle to behold; a glittering Gothic parade, almost as though the Wild Hunt itself had come down to party within its purple-sprayed walls.
I watched the crowd as it heaved with undulating bodies, the crimson lighting giving the impression of molten heat winding among the dancers. Music pounded from hidden speakers, the bass throbbing in my limbs and making my sinuses hurt. My head felt increasingly light, as though there was something more than music engulfing my senses. Which there probably was. In a club like this one, there’s always more than just music in the air.
I could almost taste the magic as it lay hot and heavy on my tongue.
I am flying.
The thought burned in my brain, hot and feverish. At least, that’s what it felt like as I spread my arms and spun in a fast circle, surrounded by the myriad beautiful strangers.
Music beat through the soles of my favorite boots, and my hair, well overdue for a cut, whipped around my sweat-soaked face.
In that moment, all I cared about was the blood pumping through my body; the white-noise in my head and the blissful sensation of oblivion.
The last thing I wanted to do was to think about Ivy.
And yet, despite the noise and the dreamy high I was trying to ride, I couldn’t seem to help it.
Where the hell was she?
That’s when I caught sight of a petite figure slipping between shadows and whirling dancers with easy grace. The changeling girl was headed in my direction and I felt the last drops of tension roll from my shoulders. The blade strapped to my torso burned cold.
Finally. Now we could get this show on the road.
Wait, this isn’t the way it really begins. I need to back up a bit, tell it right if I’m going to tell it at all.
Maybe if I write things down this will all start to make more sense—I don’t know how else to understand. Just when I thought I’d finally begun to find answers and make sort-of-a-life for myself, Ivy found him and blew the lid off everything.
She found the boy who was supposed to be me.
My name is Alexander Grayson—Xan, to most people who know me—but that wasn’t the name I was born with nineteen years ago.
My true name was as good as stolen from me by the same creatures who gave me the wicked scars on my back. That’s where my wings should have been—fledgling wings that never had a chance to grow and develop the way they were meant to, because the wood elves ripped them out when I was just a child. I was born mostly human, with evidence of my faery blood hidden until I was able to walk. Of course, by then I’d been stolen away to live in the emerald darkness of the Elflands. Stolen from my human life; my human name given to a changeling left in my place.
I first met Ivy last year when I reluctantly began my freshman studies in Boston. I didn’t want to be there. Not even slightly. But I was tired of life in Ironbridge; exhausted by the constant lurking presence of the Ironwood on the edge of town, a cruel reminder of the life I’d lived for those first years when I was just another victim taken by the fey from my hospital crib.
Ivy told me the truth about all of it, one night over a bottle of jewel-bright wine in my dorm room. I didn’t think it strange that she’d managed to track me down—that’s her job, after all. She worked for an underground collective of solitary fey; only I suppose they weren’t quite so solitary, having formed a group which found other kids with Faerie ancestry who needed help. She was known as a Seeker, and she was damn good at it.
So there we were, Ivy and I—a changeling girl and a half-fey boy—sitting in a tiny dorm room with sickly yellow lights that made her green-tinted skin look even more freaky, and the sound of my neighbor’s dire soft rock drifting in through the window.
I remember spending most of that night glaring at her, angry that I was being forced to talk about the unexplained things I could do—abilities I’d had to keep secret from my adoptive parents.
“Now that you’ve found me,” I said, almost accusing her, “what are you going to do? I suppose you’re going to take me to your leader, or something stupid like that.”
“Alexander,” Ivy replied in her strange, rustling voice. “Why are you attacking me, when all I want to do is help you?”
I felt guilty, but only for a moment. She was a reminder of everything I’d tried to escape. I had just started to get my life back together—getting out of Ironbridge and away from my well-meaning but mostly absent parents. They’d adopted me as a physically scarred and emotionally screwed up kid; money had changed hands (a lot of money), and no questions asked. I was a mystery: the boy who walked out of the Ironwood with no memory of who he really was or where he’d been.
I guess I should be grateful to them—my adoptive parents, I mean. They saved me from getting lost in the system and gave me a pretty good home. But they hadn’t figured I’d come with as much baggage as I did. The scars on my back weren’t the only wounds I had to show for the early years of my life in the dark and twisted hands of the wood elves. No, those psychological wounds ran far deeper than the scar tissue on my shoulder blades.
Anyway, that was then. Now we were back in Ironbridge, taking an unscheduled break from school; I was already failing most of my classes and finding it increasingly hard to care.
But thinking of the life I could have lived—had the elves not snatched me away from the hospital after my birth mother died—was becoming an obsession. I’d always assumed that the changeling boy left in my place would have sickened and died as the lore describes, but perhaps I should have known better.
After all, if Ivy could live and grow in the Iron World, that must mean there were others like her.
I needed to find out. I needed to find him—my replacement.
And if I did… what then? Would I take back my life? Make him pay?
I couldn’t say, but the desire to know the truth gave a purpose to my days and nights that relieved the numb boredom of my existence. That sense of purpose was as straight and sure as my blade, and I clutched them both to me with a fierce determination.
Ivy stood bright-eyed and alert beside me, scanning the shadowed booths that lined the edges of the dance floor. Tonight she was wearing a shaky glamour that had her disguised as a leather-and-lace clad punk. Iridescent make-up surrounded her eyes and gave the illusion of butterfly wings spreading into her obsidian curls. I let her guide me through the rolling swell of bodies, feeling perspiration flick onto my face as I swayed too close to a lanky blue-haired boy rocking glaze-eyed to the beat.
She nodded at the booth in the far corner. “Him.”
The thin, pale, white-haired guy lounged on a sofa with his feet up on the low table in front of him. He had a young-old face that gave me the creeps. An overweight blond boy slouched next to him, blue eyes glassy as he swayed back and forth. There were no bodyguards in sight, and I wondered about that. If this dude knew as much as Ivy said he did, maybe he could give us information about my origins. Anything was worth a try at this point; life was becoming… difficult.
I almost laughed at the understatement, digging my fingers into my palms as I clenched my hands into fists. Be cool, I told myself.
But if the guy we’d come to see really was the most powerful of the solitary fey still left on the outskirts of Ironbridge, shouldn’t he be better protected than this? I wasn’t sure about the blond kid’s role, but he looked both afraid and enthralled—not a good combination. He probably didn’t have long to live.
“Are you sure you want to do this, Alexandar?” Ivy’s cool hand rested in mine, and I didn’t remember her slipping it there. She was tiny, but I knew not to underestimate her. Changelings could kick ass when they wanted to.
I shrugged, not taking my eyes off the booth. “It’s not a case of what I want to do; more like what I have to do. He’s the go-to guy for information, right?”
Her breath whispered against my ear as she reached up on tiptoes. “There are always choices.”
“Not today,” I said.
I marched towards the booth, wondering at how oblivious the humans were to the magical reality around them. They were dancing with monsters, but they couldn’t see through faery glamour and were easy pickings. What even drew them here in the first place?
Sure, I could understand why some of the solitary fey would frequent a place like this—the musky scent of human depression and desire, loneliness and ennui, were like a perfume designed to attract the ones who fed on such things. But the humans were looking for something else. I doubt they even knew what.
Tonight was a themed event; an elaborate Steampunk costumed ball. I’d never seen so much Victoriana and leather in one place, and the smell of it, combined with hot, faery-spiced sweat was almost overwhelming. Most of the dancers looked young and human, but I knew from experience how appearances could prove deceptive.
With my eyes fixed on the shadowed booth that Ivy had pointed out, I didn’t notice the newcomer until she was practically in my path.
“Would you like to dance?” asked a husky female voice, from so close beside me that I could feel hot breath caress my cheek.
“We’re fine, thanks.” I kept my voice steady, wanting to grab for the dagger hidden under my jacket but trying to stay calm.
The willowy brunette was wearing a black rubber bikini, lace-up boots and a top hat. Even under the muted crimson lights I could make out the countless cuts and bruises covering every inch of her slender frame. She stroked my chest through the thin material of my white shirt, giving me a good look at her jagged, black-coated nails.
She pouted. “Are you sure I can’t interest you in some games?”
“Get lost, freak,” I said in a conversational tone.
The woman’s beautiful face contorted, her nose spreading into what looked like a pig’s snout and her lips growing rubbery as they widened to reveal a mouth full of razor-sharp teeth.
I shook my head. “Not impressed.”
“You should be. Dance or die, halfbreed,” hissed the woman-thing, her voice still strangely audible above the steady beat of the sound system.
Ivy took a step forward, but I shoved her to one side and drew the blade from its sheath. “You can dance with this.”
Tall, Skinny, and not-so-Beautiful gazed at me with hatred and I grinned. Manic energy was taking hold and I couldn’t help enjoying the sensation of being out of control. I usually tried to avoid situations like this, but tonight I was on edge and I wasn’t going to let anyone—or anything—get in my way.
My blade carved a glorious arc through the dry ice being cranked out of hidden wall ducts, forcing the fey creature to take a step back.
“Maybe you didn’t hear me the first time,” I growled. “We’re busy.”
The faery’s bones began to protrude from its skin, making hideous popping sounds as it grew spines along its arms and shoulders. It stared at me and licked its wide lips with an audible slurping sound. “But you’re so pretty. Let me taste you…”
I took a step back, looking around, but nobody else nearby seemed remotely interested in the altercation just off the dance floor. The creature’s hair began to fall out in brown tufts, leaving its bone-white skull shining under the flashing lights.
Ivy seemed transfixed. I saw her lips move, even though I couldn’t make out what she was muttering.
I thrust my blade at the creature. “Can you do that somewhere else, please? You’re invading my dance space.”
Hissing and snapping her swiftly elongating jaws, the faery—I think she might’ve had troll blood running through her veins, though I was no expert about this crap—didn’t look in the mood to play nice. Her jagged arms began to stretch and narrow at the wrist, fingers fusing together to form twin blades. Deadly teeth clicked as she tried to grin, before launching herself at us in a whirl of vicious activity.
Ivy said, “Gross…” and this time I had no trouble hearing her, even though she was ducking at the same time.
Using the dagger with more agility than I had a right to considering how out of practice I was, I swung high while at the same time kicking out with my left leg. A satisfying crunch of bone met the blow.
The creature howled and staggered back, only just avoiding the sharp blade as I reversed my hold on the handle and tried to follow my kick with a knife strike.
Club security suddenly arrived, pushing through the small audience that had finally gathered to see what was happening. The two young men grabbed my would-be assailant and pulled her arms behind her, securing them with what could only be iron cuffs. One of them nodded his dark head at me. “You guys okay?” His voice was smooth, faintly Hispanic; his face wide and open, with brown skin and amber eyes that glowed. He probably wasn’t half as human as he seemed.
I spun the dagger in a flashy display, pleased that I remembered how, and tossed it back into the sheath. “We are now. Thanks for the intervention.”
“Looks like you had things under control.” The dude’s biceps bulged with effort and he glanced at his companion. “Hey Rafa, you think you can hold her steady?”
Rafa glared at him. “Sure, cuz. I’ll just do all the work by myself.”
I nodded at the first guy. “What’s your name?”
He grinned. “Why, you wanna ask me on a date?”
I laughed. “Maybe next time.”
“Maybe you should leave the blade at home next time, eh?” There was no doubt that he meant it, but his tone was still friendly enough. “I’m Nico.”
And then they were off and moving, pulling their subdued prisoner away, taking their time as she limped on the shattered kneecap I’d given her. I felt kind of bad about that—but not too much. She’d tried to kill me, after all.
The crowd that had gathered began to disperse and I looked for signs that the club’s human patrons had noticed anything strange about the attack. It seemed unbelievable that they didn’t see the bones breaking through skin as the faery dropped its glamour. Maybe the humans were just too out of it to care. I immediately figured how stupid I was being: the thick miasma of magic in the air would cloud memories and encourage the crowd to believe they’d just witnessed a regular bar fight.
I looked down at Ivy. “You okay?”
“Of course,” she replied, smiling at me, totally unfazed as usual. Her eyes flashed emerald.
I glanced over at the shadowed corner table, relieved to see its occupant was still there. I couldn’t help wondering if he’d seen me fight, and whether or not I had impressed him. And then I realized that I was being dumb. Again. Clearly the creature who’d attacked us had been some kind of test.
Shaking my head at the convoluted games of the fey I walked over to the booth, wondering if I had passed or failed.
“What do you want?” the white-haired man asked coldly.
He looked almost pureblood, which would be unusual for a solitary fey. Most of the stragglers trying to make their way in the Iron World—those that, for whatever reason, weren’t safely back home behind the locked doors of Faerie—were halflings, like me. Part human, part fey; outcasts and loners living on the edges of human society.
He stroked the rocking blond boy’s head as though he were a pet and watched me, waiting for a response.
I cleared my throat, suddenly nervous despite the comforting weight of the knife hidden once again beneath my jacket. The blade itself was made from charmed iron and even I had to be careful not to touch it.
“My friend tells me that you know things about the changelings in this area.” I nodded at Ivy and felt her shift from one foot to the other.
“I am Madoc,” the white-haired faery said, as though that was the correct response.
I didn’t know what to say, glancing at Ivy for some kind of clue that we were in the right place, talking to the right person.
She shrugged and I sighed.
Fine. I’d do this myself.
“Will you help me?” I asked the highborn faery, trying for an image of desperate sincerity. It wasn’t a tough act to pull off.
Madoc shook his head. “I do not deal with halfbreeds.” The last word was almost a sneer.
My shoulders tightened and I swallowed a stream of angry words I might later regret. This guy could probably end me with little more than a flick of his bony wrist, blade or no blade.
“You may be a son of Faerie,” he continued, “but your father’s blood is not enough to buy favor with me.”
The blond boy rocked harder and started to giggle; a high-pitched sound that made me feel sick to my stomach. He barely looked sixteen, poor kid.
I wanted to ask what Madoc knew of my true father but he had already turned to Ivy, fixing her with his black eyes. “I will speak with this one.”
The changeling girl clasped her hands in front of her, looking as though she was trying to resist the urge to curtsey. She nodded and flicked a scared look at me. “Wait for me by the doors, Alexander.”
I didn’t want to leave her. “Ivy—”
“Please. I’ll be fine.”
“Do you actually know this guy?”
She didn’t reply, just gave me a little push away from the table. Madoc rested his chin on his cupped hand and waited for me to leave, a bored expression on his bone-white face.
Cursing, I turned and walked away.
I didn’t have to wait long.
Ivy’s face shone under the silver strobe-lights, making her look more fey than ever. “Alexander, we’ve found him!”
“What?” I leaned towards her, trying to make out what she was saying over the soaring techno-punk beat. “Who did you find?”
I knew who she was talking about, of course. I just needed to hear her say it.
Her lips were almost touching my ear, and I felt autumn leaves whispering behind her words as her breath made me shiver. “You, silly,” she said, as though it was the most simple thing in the world. “I found you. The changeling they replaced you with! Jonathan Kane is alive and living in Connecticut. He’s a musician; the guitarist with a band called The Dead Pirates. They’re playing a gig right here in Ironbridge tomorrow night! Isn’t that wonderful?”
Yeah, I thought. And it sure is convenient.
All this time I’d lived my own screwed up life in Massachusetts, whether in Boston or Ironbridge, and now I found out that my ‘double’ was practically next door?
My sight narrowed until it seemed as though I was staring at Ivy through the wrong end of a telescope. Darkness crowded the edges of my vision and my knees turned to water. I stumbled, only staying upright because Ivy grabbed my elbow and stopped me from crumpling in a pathetic heap right there on the edge of the dance floor.
Jonathan Kane? How was that even possible? He was the creature put into my crib in Ironbridge General’s maternity unit, after I was born to a human woman named Kristin Kane.
“Alexander?” Ivy’s concerned tone got through to me as I swayed in my own personal bubble of isolated hell, completely oblivious to the teenagers grinding beneath the multicolored lights all around us.
My gut twisted.
“I have to get out of here,” I said.
Pushing through a sea of wildly thrashing bodies, I raced for the nearest exit before I threw up. The last thing I saw was Nico’s comically alarmed expression as I hit the doors running.
The cab stank of old booze and body odor, but I didn’t care. I just wanted to get out of there and think—away from the noise and the light and the sickening sight of humans dancing with fey, not even realizing they were being glamoured to within an inch of their stupid lives.
Ivy was slumped against the opposite door, her cheeks taking on their natural green tint. She looked as sick as I felt. She must be having trouble in here, what with being surrounded by so much metal. I’d still gotten into the cab, though, despite how painful I knew she’d find it.
What does that say about me?
“You doing okay?” I asked, trying my best to care as I reached out to touch her bare wrist. At least her skin was changing color again—a little too pale, too paper-thin and Goth-white—but it didn’t really matter anyway here in the shadowy cab as we raced through the town and back to my adoptive parents’ house. I lived there alone, since Dad was on a three-month business trip abroad and Mom was in England again—she’d moved home after the divorce.
Ivy nodded, dislodging a single leaf from her sludgy hair. “I am… well.”
Yeah, not so much. I sighed, knowing what was coming next—but I knew I’d do it to help her. The same way Ivy helped me.
I closed my hand around the narrow bones of her wrist. I could give her some of my strength to help her maintain the weak glamour she was trying to hold; we’d shared power before, even though I didn’t like the way it made me feel afterwards.
But the rush of compassion I felt was real as I took in the lines of strain on her face. Being enclosed in this much iron might seriously damage her if she was exposed to it for too long, especially if she wasn’t taking care of herself again.
“Here,” I whispered, sending power down through my arm and into my fingers—the fingers that were wrapped around her cool flesh. “Take it, it’s yours.”
Ivy shuddered and moaned, her eyes slipping shut as I used my own energy to protect her from the iron. She still wasn’t very good at working the magic that hid her fey appearance, despite living her entire life in the human world.
But then, she wasn’t even supposed to be alive. As a changeling, she was only meant to live to very early childhood—maybe three or four years old if she was lucky— and then she should die like the majority of changelings. Their purpose was to provide the cover for elves and faeries who stole human babies. Some even died in their cribs days after the true child was snatched.
Ivy, for reasons she claimed not to know, had survived childhood and grown into a skinny teenage girl whose true form would probably send most people running for the hills. Was ‘Jonathan Kane’ like her?
I let her siphon off more of my life-force as I stared at the streets slipping by the smeared window. My heart beat faster as I relaxed into the connection. It’s not as radical as it sounds—it isn’t like I’m losing years off my life, or anything crazy like that. I’m just giving a little of myself to her; sort of like giving blood, because you know you can manage on less than you have and your body replenishes quickly enough. She can use me as a battery, if I let her; providing her glamour with a signal boost when she’s underduress in a particularly iron-filled environment. Like now, in a cab driving through the urban heart of Ironbridge. And it feels pretty good, if I’m honest about it, but that’s the part that makes me uncomfortable—like the after-sex glow you might experience after a particularly intense night. I didn’t have that kind of relationship with Ivy, but these little energy-sharing ‘sessions’ enhanced our connection.
Her hair rustled as she turned her head against the torn plastic seat and gazed at me. I could feel her looking; I didn’t need to see the expression of bliss I knew would be on her face.
Her wrist was warm in my hand and I slowly released her.
“Better?” I asked, still watching the shadow-strewn streets pass by as we neared my house.
“Much.” Her voice was languid, and more human than it had sounded all night.
She crawled across the seat and wrapped herself around me, resting her head on my shoulder. She smelled of earth and the sun.
I wanted to push her away, but I knew how much that would hurt her. Ivy might not even be half human, like me, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t sensitive.
“Alexander,” she practically purred. “Do you want me tonight?”
“Ivy, don’t.” I tried to keep my tone gentle, but I couldn’t help the bright edge of anger that slipped in. I tried to soften the rejection. “You know I won’t take advantage of you when you’ve just… fed from me.”
I still didn’t really know what to call it, but it was a kind of ‘feeding,’ even though Ivy hated it when I used that word for what she did with me. Once, she told me that sharing my energy made her feel like a vampire—a parasite. Her voice had been filled with shame and self-hatred.
But gazing at her now as she smiled blearily and ran her fingers through my hair, I couldn’t see any signs of remorse. One of her hands slid up the back of my shirt and when I felt her trace the edge of my scars I pulled away, grabbing her arms and stopping her from exploring any further.
I hated anyone to see the thick rope-like scar tissue left behind after the wood elves tore my half-grown child’s wings from my back. Having the bumpy skin touched was even worse. It didn’t hurt, not after all these years; but a sort of muscle-memory spasmed under Ivy’s fluttering fingers and my shoulders clenched. Wings I would never have again tried to stretch, like ghost limbs after amputation.
She kissed me clumsily, missing my mouth by miles and hitting my chin. I wanted to say something cruel to her, to punish her for touching me, but it wasn’t like she was fully in control of herself. I gritted my teeth and tried to stop her unbuttoning my jeans.
Ivy giggled and stuck out her tongue. Her suddenly very green tongue.
I grimaced as she blew in my ear. Great. This was just what I needed right now, but I only had myself to blame for giving her too much of a hit. I ran a hand through my sweat-dampened hair and wondered if I’d get lucky enough to have her pass out.
Yeah, that was the only kind of ‘lucky’ I was hoping to get tonight. I am a bad example for all red-blooded heterosexual males. Sue me.
Putting Ivy to bed was going to be a nightmare of epic proportions.
“Xan…” she slurred, later that night.
Ivy never called me Xan; it was always Alexander.
“Go to sleep, Ivy.”
“I said, shut up. I told you already, you can only sleep in here with me if you’re quiet.”
“But you smell so good,” she said, putting way too many syllables into the word ‘good.’
I rolled over in the huge bed. “Seriously, if you don’t put a sock in it I’m going to tape your mouth shut. You’re drunk.”
“Your fault,” Ivy muttered. “All your fault…”
I ignored that. “Get some sleep. Tomorrow night we’re going to see ‘The Dead Pirates’ play and you’re coming with me.”
She eventually began to snore and I rolled my eyes in the dark, wondering if I was making a mistake by involving her in my life so much. But I needed her at least vaguely capable of backing me up; it wasn’t like I could ask anyone else.
Ivy was all I had.
I curled my body around hers and held her until she quietened, then I flopped back onto my side of the bed. Folding the pillow and tucking one arm behind my head, I waited for sleep to claim me.
It was gone nine the next night by the time we finally arrived at The Jazz Café, and I did my best not to implode every time Ivy smiled and waved at the bemused crowd of gig-attendees waiting patiently in line.
“You don’t know any of these people,” I hissed at her.
She gazed up at me with a genuinely shocked expression. “What does that matter? We’re all here to share the same experience—listening to music brings people closer together.”
She beamed at a girl who would have been pretty if it wasn’t for her face being half-obscured by piercings.
I shook my head. “Are you tripping? We’re just here to see this Jonathan Kane dude. Nothing more than that. If he’s living my life, I want to know about it; I don’t give a damn about these losers.”
“You’re angry.” Her voice was flat and she looked away.
Way to state the obvious. But I swallowed my smart-ass retort and tried not to take out my frustration on her. Ivy was… well, she was just Ivy. There was really no comparison and, even by fey standards she was unique. For some reason she’d taken a shine to me and, despite how irritating she could be, the girl was fiercely loyal. I couldn’t fault her on that.
And if anybody could help me expose the changeling who was living my true life—the life I should have lived—then it was Ivy. Her Seeker contacts in the faery underworld were rarely wrong.
Ivy took a deep breath and marched past the bored guy on the door, trying to stop her glamour from unravelling before she got inside the venue. She was still having trouble holding her favorite disguise of emo-teen crossed with Lady Gaga. At least inside it would be blessedly dark and she could finally relax her control.
Bored Guy looked up and I cringed as he took in her appearance. “Cool hair.”
“Thanks,” she replied automatically, clearly not thinking about what he meant until she caught sight of her reflection in the floor-to-ceiling mirror at the top of the stairs.
I stood behind her and our eyes met in the dirty glass.
Her hair was bright purple with acid-green streaks. “Oops,” she whispered.
The girl drove me nuts.
It felt like we’d been waiting hours for the headline act to come out and do their thing, but it really hadn’t been that long. Still, I wondered if it might be worth poking around—see if I could find anyone from The Dead Pirates backstage.
I glanced over to the bar where I’d last seen Ivy, wondering if I should tell her I was moving from our spot by the side of the stage. I couldn’t see much over the heads of the thickening crowd, as they pushed to the front having suffered through a lame support act.
Shrugging, I decided it wouldn’t hurt to take a quick peek backstage. I’d be rightback before Ivy managed to find her way through the mob. And anyway, she was the one who’d insisted that we needed lemonade ice-cream floats to get through the evening.
I’d only gotten as far as stepping behind the first heavy black curtain when I was suddenly shoved in the shoulder. Hard. I stumbled back into the auditorium and broke my momentum against one of the pillars that surrounded the main floor.
But I didn’t get any further than that as I tried to turn, only to be grabbed frombehind, my face shoved against cold stone. The faint grain of the pillar scratched my cheek, and I swore I could almost feel the thrum of a bass guitar being sound-checked.
“Who are you?” The low voice was male, and from his proximity I could tell he was about the same height and build as me.
My blade was back at home; the Jazz Café wasn’t a known fey hangout, and there was no way I’d get it past the door of a regular venue like this. Still, it wasn’t as though I was without other strengths.
I shoved backwards, figuring I must’ve been scoped by security, and pushed my mystery attacker away as I used my inhuman speed to spin and face…
I stood face-to-face with a mirror image, almost as though I was still gazing at my reflection over Ivy’s shoulder back upstairs in the lobby. Another Alexander Grayson who looked just like me.
No, not Alexander Grayson; that name belonged to the adopted son of thewealthy Graysons of Ironbridge.
This was Jonathan Kane. Or, at least, the changeling who had taken over my life—as Ivy’s presence proved, not all of them die in childhood.
Some lived to be nineteen-year-old musicians.
The other me glared with glittering green eyes. My eyes. He was tall and lightly muscled, with caramel-colored hair and golden skin.
My height, my skin.
His hair was shorter than mine, but other than that it was the same. All of it. I felt sick, but I had to say something. Anything. “What the hell did you grab me for?”
“I’m asking the questions! Who the fuck are you? Why do you look like me?”
I wiped my palm across my mouth, noticed that I was trembling and quickly put my hand back down again. “You’ve got that wrong,” I replied. “It’s you who looks like me.”
Confusion crossed his face, but only for a moment. “Whatever, dude. I don’t give a shit about the semantics.”
We stared at each other for a moment that seemed like something old and timeless. I was vaguely aware of the restless movement of people in the audience to one side of me, as they waited for the band to start playing. But they’d be waiting for a while longer—the lead guitarist of The Dead Pirates was down here with me, trying to figure out why he had a double, and whether it really was true that we all had a twin somewhere in this world.
I licked my lips, realizing how dry they were and that my throat hurt as though I’d been screaming. “Do you know what you are?”
The changeling now called Jonathan Kane took a step back as though I’d hit him. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“Don’t play games with me,” I said, trying to keep my voice level. “This is my life we’re talking about.”
“You’re crazy, man.”
“Life-stealer!” The cry left me before I could take it back; the words hanging between us like a dark charm filled with nineteen years of bitterness.
Jonathan began to look around, probably searching for help—no longer able to deal with the threat to his big night in front of his adoring young audience.
Strange, the way life can just flip and leave you gasping as though hanging suspended from a broken rollercoaster. Just like that, our roles were reversed and I saw myself through his eyes: a deranged lookalike, claiming his life has been stolen; maybe even jealous of the success he was beginning to build.
But I wasn’t the imposter—he was. I had been born to Kristin Kane, not this doppelgänger standing in front of me.
Ivy appeared at my side, silent as a ghost as she took in the sight of both sides of the same coin.
“That is so rad,” she said, eyes Manga-huge in her pale, heart-shaped face. At least she had her appearance under control again. Her hair was almost brown this time, although it was hard to be entirely certain in the shadows. There was a spot of ice-cream on her chin.
I fixed my gaze back on him. “Why did you attack me?”
He looked vaguely embarrassed. “I hardly attacked you. I was… restraining you. I just saw a guy trying to get through the stage curtain; I’ve had trouble with stalkers, lately. People watching me.”
I couldn’t help but be interested in that. Maybe Ivy’s friends had been keeping tabs on him. “I was just looking for a bathroom,” was all I said.
Jonathan raised his brows. “Riiight. Sure you were.”
“If you were so worried about what I was doing back here, why didn’t you just call security?” I cocked an eyebrow in return.
“Because—” He gestured helplessly. “Look at you. Look at us. This doesn’t make any sense. I had to know if I was… you know… going insane.”
A tall black guy with an impressive afro stuck his head around the moth-eaten velvet curtains. He gestured to the Strat he was trying to hand over. “Jon, what are you doing, man? Signing autographs? They’re waiting for you out there.”
Jonathan ran his fingers through his hair in a familiar gesture. I shivered.
He nodded. “I’ll be right there.”
“One minute, Darryl. Please?”
Ivy winked at Darryl. He gave her a confused grin and nodded back at us. He looked like he wanted to say something else (probably something along the lines of: “I didn’t know you had a brother”) but he restrained himself and headed backstage, carrying Jonathan’s guitar and muttering something under his breath about damn musicians.
Ivy rested her hand on my arm and nodded at Jonathan, then fixed me with the most serious expression I think I’ve ever seen on her face. “He doesn’t know,” she said.
It was the truth, and once again she was stating the obvious, only this time it needed saying. This time I was grateful to her for speaking the hardest truth of all—the one staring me, quite literally, in the face.
He didn’t know. He thought he was human; he really, really did. This promising musician, who’d been through the care system after his mom (my birth mother) had died following medical complications, had survived childhood to find his place in the world of music. Somehow he was able to hold this physical form and live a normal life. How was that possible?
Jonathan Kane wasn’t even part human, and yet he was one of those rare changelings: not only a survivor, but one who was so indoctrinated into his human life that he believed the lie.
Maybe he was actually happy.
His eyes narrowed as he tried to figure out what I was thinking.
I took a deep breath, not sure what I was about to say until I opened my mouth.
“I made a mistake, man. Sorry about that—we’re out of here.” I nudged Ivy and began to back away.
“Bullshit,” he said, stating it calmly. “There’s something seriously whacked going on here and I want to know what it is. I always knew there was more going on in my life. Weird crap happens all the time, and mostly I just ignore it. But there’s—”
“No,” I said sharply, shaking my head and ignoring Ivy’s restraining hand on my arm. “Don’t even think about that. You need to get out there and do your thing. Get on with your life and forget this. Forget us. We’ve taken up enough of your time.”
“Are you sure?” Ivy said, trying to make me look at her.
But I only had eyes for my sort-of-twin. He didn’t know what he was, and maybe that was how this was meant to be. He’d taken my life, but it wasn’t like he’d had a choice in the matter.
Ivy’s words from last night came back to me: There are always choices.
Maybe not, I thought. Maybe not for him.
I licked my lips and took one last look in the mirror of the life that could have been, before turning away and heading for the nearest exit.
Jonathan called out after me. “What’s your name? Who are you?”
Pretending not to hear, I broke into a run and didn’t stop until the cool night air hit my face and I could breathe again.
Ivy shed a couple of dead leaves in distress and hopped from one foot to the other. I watched the traffic pass by as we stood on the street and contemplated walking home. Part of me wanted to be alone, but the other part was glad I had company. ‘Alone’ just meant more pain.
“Alexander,” she said. “What can I do?”
“Nothing.” I shook my head slowly, wondering what I was going to do now that my old life—my true life—really was over. “Not a damn thing.”
I looked up at the stars, winking at me like fool’s gold in the night sky.
I’d set out to find a lost boy, the changeling who was living a false existence in a skin not even his own. Instead, I’d discovered that only one of us was lost. Only one of us didn’t know where he fit or who he was supposed be.
Ivy slipped her hand into mine and swung on it like a child. “What will you do now?”
I shrugged, feeling the heavy weight on my chest ease just a little as I looked into her hopeful eyes. “I’ll find out soon enough.”
She smiled and nodded, apparently pleased with my answer.
Giving in to a sudden impulse I touched her face, allowing my chilled fingers to trace the warmth of her cheek. Whatever Ivy felt for me, I wasn’t sure I could ever return it no matter how much I might wish things were different. Sometimes, I let myself believe that I had yet to meet the girl who would really get me. A girl I could trust enough that I’d show her my scars, all of them, both inside and out.
But in that moment there was an indefinable something between us—me and Ivy, I mean—a bright spark of connection that I didn’t want to lose. Maybe because she’d shared this new scar with me. This sense of letting go.
“There are always choices, Alexander. Remember that.” Her voice was almost a whisper.
“Choices.” I thought of Jonathan Kane, living a lie that he fully believed. A happy lie that, when it came down to it, I couldn’t bring myself to reveal.
“Yeah,” I said. “I guess maybe there are.”