Michelle has been summoned to the realm of the Fae by the terrifying and sinister gorgon. Her task is to find the source of the cold steel that is defiling their realm and remove it to her own. Her reluctant guide, Edward DeSorcy, has taken her to the Hall of the Hunt following a lead, but while they are there, there's no reason to miss out on some of the more spectacular experiences in the land of the Faerie Queen.
Michelle shut her eyes and let him guide her along the stairs. "Don't let me fall over the edge."
"Never, my lady."
With her eyes shut, she could fool herself into believing she was just climbing an ordinary flight of stairs. However, it gave her mind the opportunity to pursue some unproductive trains of thought. "Was this the way you first went to the top?" She tried to keep a note of jealousy out of her voice. A few courteous flirtations didn't mean a thing, not with a man like this. Given how she -- and probably every woman he ever met -- was falling all over him, it would be rather rude of him not to be somewhat kind. He had hardly made any personal gestures. Still, the thought of a young, starry eyed DeSorcy following the beautiful, sophisticated huntress up these stairs, wonder in his eyes... Get a grip, Michelle.
"No, no, no," DeSorcy was chuckling, apparently unaware of Michelle's efforts not to fume. "It took me three months to make it to the top of these stairs. I'm not as bold as you are. And I was too embarrassed to ask if there was magic on the stairs to keep mortals from falling or not. I lurked below at a meat pie vendor's shop for two weeks straight, watching for a mortal to make a successful ascent. I finally had to move on when the shop keep told me point-blank that if I was trying to seduce her, all I had to do was ask."
They climbed the stairs for thirty minutes or more, Michelle's legs were burning by the time DeSorcy guided her to turn around. "Are you ready?"
"Open your eyes."
The stairwell stretched below her while she found herself looking straight out into a vast hall with a tree growing almost horizontally toward her, narrowing to a tip not far from where they stood. Then her sense of perspective shifted to try to accommodate all the people walking on the ground far in front and just slightly above her and she had a sudden sense that she was going to fall fifteen stories or more, head first. No railings on either side. With a cry, she clutched at the only thing there was to grab onto, a chuckling DeSorcy.
"So," he smiled down at the top of her head. Michelle had shut her eyes tightly and buried her face in his chest, arms clutching his back in complete terror. All she could think of was how in the hell to get down again. She wanted down now. "Do they have these in the mortal realm now, too?"
The note of delighted smugness in his voice broke through to her. She found she could crack one eye open if she focused on the weave of the fabric of his tunic. "Yes," she said in a small voice. "Except our stairs move."
She could almost feel the smile drop off his face. "Really?"
He slid his arms from around her to grip her upper arms had he had his arms around her like that? She must have been terrified not to have noticed -- and lean her back so he could study her face to see if she was kidding. Michelle tried to fix him with a bright smile, but the vertigo caught hold of her again and she couldn't tell for a moment which way was up -- seeing as the floor was some 150 feet above her head and the ceiling stretched another thirty odd feet below her and opened into a sky full of swirling mists. Terrified to let herself fall because there seemed no safe place to fall to, she had a moment of panic. Laughing, DeSorcy scooped her back in close. "So you have these in the mortal realms but they move, eh?"
"I didn't say I'd ever been on one," Michelle said, voice muffled against his chest. "We have bungee jumping, too. I don't do that either."
At his prompting, she told him about bungee jumping until some of the fear faded and she was again aware of his arms around her, holding her close in a way that made it very easy to forget that down was up and any movement should logically spell her doom. Actually, the way he was holding her made her wonder what he was thinking with this much more than courteous embrace. She looked up into a smile that was without guile or ulterior motive and felt a moment of delight tinged with pity. DeSorcy's smile dimmed a little as the same thought seemed to occur to him: she was leaving soon. Tonight if possible, tomorrow at the latest. "We really do have moving stairs," she said before the silence could become awkward. "But they only go the right way, not sideways or upside down. And they have safety railings."
"Then you should have no problem on the way back down," he said lightly, taking a step down and causing her to clutch compulsively at his hands. "Come on. We need to go to the bookbinders. Bowgren said that Ran went to meet Talbot the bookbinder after she left his company."
"I don't think I can do this," she said in a quaky voice as he took another step away from her, still holding on to her hands.
"It's much less dangerous than a troll, my lady." He pulled on her hands gently, coaxing her into taking a step so that she was again standing on the stair just above him. Eye to eye now, he smiled at her. "Just find something else to think about." For just a moment, there was a certain heat in way he looked at her when their gazes locked that gave her something else to think about indeed, but in the next moment he had turned away and started down the stairs, holding one of her hands. "Come along, my lady."
"Do you believe him? Bowgren, I mean." Michelle wavered between keeping her eyes on the stairs so she wouldn't fall over or throw up and sneaking peeks at the vista around her. The stairs were tilting back towards the proper direction, but that was almost worse because with everything in the proper perspective, the lack of railings was terrifying. Always, DeSorcy was there to lend a hand or an arm.
"Hm. I don't necessarily disbelieve him. He didn't seem to know she was dead. I wouldn't think he would have remained so calm if he had committed murder and someone had come asking questions. I also don't think he would have killed Marquisa while Rejak knew she was in his company. Here," he stopped for a moment with a smile. The stairs had twisted upside down again. "Before we get too far down... look straight up and stretch out your arms. It's like flying."
"People are going to think I'm a newbie and an idiot."
"If they do, they'll merely be bitter that you still have a sense of wonder. The damned are jealous of anyone who feels joy or delight. Do you care what they think?"
In answer, Michelle lifted her arms and looked straight up into the down. Imagining she was flying was terrifyingly easy and she couldn't help but wonder if visualizing soaring up into the "down" would trigger the magic on the staircase to release her. She could swear she was feeling the blood rush to her head and she covered her face, feeling a cold sweat break out. "Here, have a seat my lady." He sat beside her for several moments while she wrestled with the vertigo again. "For a time, I liked to come here to have a meal."
"And you didn't throw up?" Michelle was incredulous. A sudden thought distracted her. "Which way would it...? Never mind," she bit the question off as DeSorcy looked away, rubbing the bridge of his nose.
The trip down was harrowing, so much so that it was very tempting to allow her fear to provide her with the excuse to wrap herself around DeSorcy again. That would be tantamount to copping a feel, however, and she couldn't quite bring herself to stoop that low. The fact that he hadn't offered again made her suspect he was thinking along the same lines and would therefore see through any such attempt she made. His respect was more important to her than the warm, hard feel of his shoulders under her hands or the delicious scent of his skin. If this was just a figment of a brain tumor or madness, she reflected, then she had to commend herself on having one helluva fine imagination. There was only one further point where the legitimate opportunity to be held by him presented itself and that was when a party of fair folk came chatting gaily up the stairway. DeSorcy drew her aside to let them pass, bringing her so close to the edge that her knees buckled in sheer terror. Most of the fae had ignored them, but one who passed sneered and laughed at her fright, purposely sweeping dangerously close as if to push them over the edge. DeSorcy's arms around her served the purpose of restraining her as she found her feet with a murderous light in her eyes.
"Let it go, my lady."
"I don't care who the hell he thinks he is! If he wants to play those kind of games, he can come back here and throw me over the side instead of trying to sneak a cheap shot in when no one is looking, like a petty little coward!"
"Lower your voice, Lady Michelle. It's not worth your while. What other joys is he going to have? He has no soul. He deserves your pity, not your contempt."
"He deserves a foot up his... fine." Michelle took a step back and continued walking down the stairs, allowing herself at least the small satisfaction of stomping. Five steps. Ten steps. Twenty. "DeSorcy... are all these people going to hell?"
"I don't know."
"Well you said they couldn't get to heaven."
"That is true. They're trapped here."
"Well, that doesn't really seem very fair. Just because they got trapped here in this realm? There are a lot of mortals here."
"Are you trapped here, my lady?" DeSorcy asked her mildly, keeping his eyes on the steps.
"To be imprisoned here is a consequence of sin. This place cannot hold a pure heart. Gluttony, greed, lust... all who are here indulged in some vice."
"Even if they only did it once?"
"What of the maid who gives of herself only once and then finds herself with child out of wedlock? The consequences of sin are not fair. They are not punishments from a vengeful god to be meted out in proportion to the offense. Rather, sins are destructive acts that God wishes us to avoid precisely because they can be so harmful. You can sin a hundred times and escape consequence, or you can sin just once and pay for it forever. That is why God tells us to avoid sin."
"Do you really believe that?"
"And you're okay with the fact that you believe you're going to hell?"
"That is not a fact. I merely know that I am deprived of the chance to go to heaven. And I am not 'okay with that', as you say, but unfortunately I made my choice long ago and now must live with the consequence. Now, theology aside," DeSorcy stepped lightly onto the flagstones at the bottom of the staircase and held a hand out to help her step down off the last step. "Was the climb worth it?"
That drew a grudging smile. "Yes. Yes, it was. Thank you."
"You are most welcome. And thank you for not fracturing my ribs any further on the descent. The bookbinder's shop is not so exhilarating, I'm afraid."
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