The figure on the path before them had drawn closer. It was a tall faerie, dressed in ragged trousers held up by a belt of rope. Thin strands of gold were woven into his long dark hair and gleamed against his dark skin. His feet were bare.
He spoke, and his voice sounded like the tide at sunset. “Seek you to enter through the Gate of Lir?”
“Yes,” said Mark.
Metallic gold eyes without irises or pupils passed over Mark, Cristina, Julian, and Emma. “Only one of you is fey,” the phouka said. “The others are human. No—Nephilim.” Thin lips curled into a smile. “That is a surprise. How many of you wish passage through the gate to the Shadow Lands?”
“All of us,” said Emma. “The four.”
“If the King or Queen finds you, they will kill you,” said the phouka. “The Fair Folk are not friendly to the angel-blooded, not since the Cold Peace.”
“I am half-faerie,” said Mark. “My mother was the Lady Nerissa of the Seelie Court.”
The phouka raised his eyebrows. “Her death grieved us all.”
“And these are my brothers and sisters,” Mark continued, pressing his advantage. “They would accompany me; I will protect them.”
The phouka shrugged. “It is not my concern what befalls you in the Lands,” he said. “Only that first you must pay a toll.”
“No payments,” said Julian, his hand tightening on his dagger hilt. “No tolls.”
The phouka smiled. “Come here and speak to me a moment, in private, and then decide if you would pay my price. I will not force you.”
Julian’s expression darkened, but he stepped forward. Emma strained to hear what he was saying to the phouka, but the sound of wind and waves slid between them. Behind them, the air swirled and clouded: Emma thought she could see a shape in it, arched like the shape of a door.
Julian stood motionless as the phouka spoke, but Emma saw a muscle twitch in his cheek. A moment later, he unsnapped his father’s watch from around his wrist and dropped it into the phouka’s hand.
“One payment,” said the phouka loudly, as Julian turned away. “Who would come next?”
“I will,” said Cristina, and moved carefully across the path toward the phouka. Julian rejoined Mark and Emma.
“Did he threaten you?” Emma whispered. “Jules, if he threatened you—”
“He didn’t,” Julian said. “I wouldn’t let Cristina near him if he had.”
Emma turned to watch as Cristina reached up and pulled the jeweled clip from her hair. It cascaded down over her back and shoulders, blacker than the night sea. She handed the clip over and began to walk back toward them, looking dazed.
“Mark Blackthorn will go last,” said the phouka. “Let the golden-haired girl come to me next.”
Emma could feel the others watching her as she went toward the phouka, Julian more intensely than the rest. She thought of the painting he’d done of her, where she’d risen above the ocean with a body made of stars.
She wondered what he’d done with those paintings. If he’d thrown them all out. Were they gone, burned? Her heart ached at the thought. Such lovely work of Jules’s, every brushstroke a whisper, a promise.