Heartweed: Chapter 9

This is the beta version of my novel. If you are a new reader – welcome. You can read from the start here.

New sections are released every Tuesday and Friday. Please let me know your opinion in the comments section. Thank you for reading.

Chapter 9

Despite Gorth’s warning, Artie could not help but gape at the scene in front of her. The arched doorway opened out into an huge room, tall and irregularly shaped it was lit by dozens and dozens of torches that burned with angry white flames. As Artie stared around a cluster of the torches flared into deep violet and then back to white, and then another few into orange and back, casting pools of colour over the faerie throng.
Tall, short, minuscule; turquoise-skinned, grey-skinned, pink-skinned; laughing, dancing, kissing; the fae were a wild riot of colour and form. Their clothes were equally as varied. One faerie, with slack, khaki skin and a nose and jaw that sharpened to a point like a rat’s, wore a three foot high, elaborately constructed white wig and the kind of dress that Artie though looked like it came from Marie Antoinette’s wardrobe. Another faerie lounged completely naked against a wall. Though to be fair, Artie thought, averting her eyes, his skin was very fine – striped with black, white and orange, like a tiger’s fur, the stripes swirling lazily through a kaleidoscope of patterns.
Artie sidled around the fringes of the crowd. Alex’s violin had stopped, and she had no idea how to find him in the chaos. Cursing her height, or lack of, she stretched to tiptoes and craned her neck around to try and spot him. No sign of her brother or of Lord March.
She wobbled on her toes and staggered forward a couple of steps, banging into shin into something. She looked down. A large cat striped in silver and black, its back as high as her knee, stalked past her. It thrashed all three of its tails at her and shot her a withering look. Artie watched it stalk on to a group of crimson faeries, where it rolled back gracefully into a standing position. The joints of its hind legs unfurled into a very human configuration.
Artie edged along, sweeping her eyes back and forth. Once she thought she caught sight of Gorth, looking very out of place in his plain brown clothes. A movement high above the heads of the crowd caught Artie’s eye. A green-skinned girl was flying above them. Her wings so fine and so fast-moving that they were almost invisible – just a gleaming blur behind her emerald shoulders.
Artie was surprised that the faerie girl could keep herself aloft. The fine wings didn’t seem enough to hold her weight, even though the girl was whip thin. Looking closer Artie could see the stiff concentration on the girl’s face, exhaustion nibbling around the edges. Her limbs were slick with sweat.
Under one arm the girl held a bowl and with her other hand she scattered handfuls of a damson coloured powder over the fae below, who raised rapturous faces to the ceiling to receive it on their lips.
The green girl dipped and her feet came level with the crowd’s heads. Hands snatched at her and with a burst of effort she rose and pushed herself towards a quiet corner of the room near Artie. She sank to the floor, using the wall for support, her chest heaving in and out. No sooner had she landed than another faerie stalked over, her face frozen in a scowl. The angry-looking faerie was wearing the same grey livery that Artie had seen on the guard at the door. She must work for March, too.
The liveried faerie jabbed one short finger at the ceiling and snapped something; the green-skinned girl peeled herself reluctantly from the wall and stuttered back into the air. The faerie in grey watched the girl into the air, her eyes narrowed, then turned and strode away. Artie followed. It was a long shot, hoping that the liveried faerie would lead her to March, or to where her brother was, but it was the only idea she had at the moment.
She ended up beside a long banquet table. It was covered in a deep bronze damask table cloth. The centre was piled high with food; fruits, nuts, funghi, and, Artie recoiled in disgust, strips of raw meat and whole raw fish. Elegant place settings surrounded the heaped bounty – gold cutlery for every imaginable course, crystal glassware, and bone-white plates, but no one appeared to be paying and attention to the place settings. Most were treating it like a buffet. One Gentry woman lay on her back across the table, her head drooping over the side. Small Tinkerbell-style faeries carried morsels of food no bigger than their heads to her mouth.
The Gentry’s heavy-lashed eyes met Artie’s. They narrowed as if trying to pierce Artie’s skin, or her glamour. Artie tensed. The woman’s face – sharp and cruel like March’s – drove needles of terror through Artie’s chest. She backed away.  The Gentry lady’s attention slipped away from her and Artie unclenched her fists and breathed again.
The sweet sound of the violin soared through the air. Alex? Artie turned in the direction of the music, but the crush of bodies was too thick for her to see through. She grabbed one of the tall backed chairs and clambered on to the seat, peering across the crowd.
Alex stood in a wide open area ringed with the liveried servants at the very back of the room. They had dressed him in a shimmering red robe, split to the waist down the front. His eyes were open but glazed, and he was dipping and weaving in time to the music, the same way that Artie had found him on the common.
She jumped down from the chair and pushed her way into the crowd, cutting a direct path to her brother. It wasn’t easy. The crowd seemed thickest around where Alex was. The VIP area Artie supposed. She dug her elbow into the spine of a yellow-scaled creature and tried to squeeze past. The creature turned around and shoved Artie down to the floor, before turning away.  Artie scrambled to her feet quickly – it was that or get trampled – and wormed her way forward again.
The green faerie drifted overhead and the crowd went solid as all of the fae pressed in, trying to get beneath the drifts of dust. Artie lifted her face to watch the faerie go by. The dust cloud drifted down towards her face; she remembered Gorth’s instruction not to eat anything and closed her mouth with a snap. The powder fell lightly on her face. It smelled of fizz and blackcurrants and rot. What about breathing stuff in? Was that as bad as eating or drinking?
Artie dropped her face and scrubbed at it with her odd new hands. Her eyes darted around. Had anyone seen? The surrounding fae still stood with their faces turned upwards, eyes slitted with pleasure, skin flushed. Except one.
A Gentry male stared at her through the crowd. His wellwater dark eyes stripped right through her glamour. Artie could feel his gaze on her skin – her real skin. Her heart leapt into her throat and she looked around for a way through the crowds. It was too packed for her to be able to move in any direction, but the Gentry seemed to be having no trouble at all. He glided towards her, his deep blue hair rippling behind him.
Artie tensed as he came closer, ready to run if an escape route opened, but his gaze pinned her as if a rusty spike had been driven through each of her feet into the stone floor. He was so tall. As he came closer and closer she had to tip her head almost all the way back to follow his immobile face. He was dressed in high-collared black like a priest. He wasn’t one of the liveried fae, but he was Gentry so she doubted his intentions were friendly.
“You do not belong here.”
Artie swallowed. Her throat felt like it was coated in flour. She blinked up at the Gentry man’s hawkish face.
“You are human.” It wasn’t a question.
His words sent a jolt through her that unpinned her feet and sent her staggering back, away from the pale hand that reached for her shoulder. His fingers curled back one after another into his palm. The outstretched hand sunk back to his side. Each motion was slow and precise and elegant, and Artie could not help but watch in fascination.
She peeled her eyes away and glanced around for a way out. The throng was loosening and she caught a flash of Alex’s red-robed form.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. Leave me alone.” She snapped.
A ripple of something crossed the faerie’s face like wind over cloth. Anger? Concern? There wasn’t enough that was human in his feature for Artie to catch hold of, to read his expression. She took a step back.
“You should not be here. You need to get out now.”
Artie shook her head. An opening appeared between two olive-skinned women with what looked like ferns for hair. Artie bolted through it. She threw a glance over her shoulder. The blue-haired Gentry man regarded her coolly. He made no move to follow.

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