Thunderstorms rumble nearer, the air charged with static, as sticky-hot as only a New Orleans night can be. Arcana knows that the werewolf is going to come. She prays that all the precautions she's taken are not in vain. Prays that he's brought the goal of her quest--
She jumped. She was not in an old mansion in Louisiana, but in her bedroom in New York. And no muscle-bound werewolf stood in her doorway. Her dad did, skinny as a stick.
"Sorry," said her father. "Did I interrupt something?"
"Uh, reading, homework, you know."
"Well, if you're busy . . ." With a sigh, he pushed himself off the doorframe. She could see the effort it took.
He reached out a hand to steady himself. "Fine. I was reading . . . this." He held up a book. "Fell asleep. Began to have the strangest dream."
He smiled. "You."
He'd stepped back into the hall. The light glinted on his gone-bald head. Elayne didn't know when she'd grow used to that. All his thick black hair gone.
She leapt up. He didn't look any better the closer she got. In fact . . . She gripped his arm. "Do you need something?"
"No, I . . ." He smiled again. "Yes. I wanted to read you this." He raised the book. "But I'm kind of tired. So I thought you might read it to me?"
It was late, close to eleven. Her dad was usually long asleep by now, zonked on his meds. But he was going into the hospital in the morning. A few days, they'd said. But they'd said that before.
"Sure," she said. "Love to."
He led her back to the living room and sank onto the sofa while she made cocoa. After plopping baby marshmallows into the two mugs, she joined him, snuggling deep into the old leather. He pulled a blanket over the two of them. It was warm in the loft, but beyond the double-glazed windows, snowflakes fell. A long way from Louisiana, she thought, and shivered. An ambulance's siren, heading away from St. Vincent's, made her shiver again.
"So, what's the book?" she asked.
"Ah!" He handed her an old hardback, small, a little bigger than her hand, the cover emerald green, fading, the edges frayed. "The Maid and the Unicorn," she read out loud.
"I read it to you when you were about, uh, eight, I think."
"Really?" She shook her head. "It's not a fantasy story, is it? You know I'm not into fantasy."
"The shelves in your bedroom tell a different story."
"Dad," she said patiently, "I'm fifteen now--"
"So what about all these vampires and werewolves, eh?"
"That's not fantasy, that's . . ." She was about to say "romance," but romance was something she really didn't want to discuss with her father. So she settled for, ". . . different."
He smiled. "I see. Well, this is different too. Give it a chance."
She gulped some cocoa, put the mug down, opened the book, and read: " 'The Incredible yet Nonetheless True Tale of Alice-Elayne Robochon; Her Adventures in Goloth, Land of the Fabulous Beast; and What Happened Next.' " She looked up. "Alice-Elayne?"
"That's your name. Your full name."
"Duh, I do know. I try to forget the 'Alice' part. It's just so 'Wonderlandy.' " She read again. " 'Robochon'?"
"An old family name."
"So this 'Alice-Elayne' was, like, an ancestor?"
"Not 'like.' 'Was.' Was an ancestor." He pointed. "There's a family tree in the back. But finish reading the introduction first."
She read, " 'And What Happened Next . . . ,' uh, 'Her story, passed down through Generations of the Family by Mouth and translated here, in the year of Our Lord 1863, for the first time in Print, by Alice-Elayne Corbeau, her descendant.' " She looked up. "Another Alice-Elayne?"
He nodded. "Now look at the family tree. It's attached at the back. Careful! It's fragile."
Gently she unfolded a sheet of waxy old paper. At the top were two letters, A and E, except the E was reversed. They were done in gold ink and linked by a tasseled cord. The paper's folds had made black lines down its middle. Between them, in beautiful old-style handwriting, was penned a list of names, descending from . . .
" 'Alice-Elayne Robochon,' " Elayne read. "So she's the one who gets to go to Beast World, right?" Her father nodded. She followed the names down and whistled. "All the women are named Alice-Elayne." She tapped the gold letters at the top. "Their last names change with the men they married, but . . ." She scanned. "Yep. Everyone down to-- Hey! That's me!"
"Yes. I added that."
"Thanks." He leaned over and pointed. "There's Gramma Elly who was Alice-Elayne too. Her mother, and her mother, the same, And there is Alice-Elayne Corbeau. The woman who did the translating and writing down."
"Yes. The original Alice-Elayne Robochon was French. I think this Corbeau ancestor, the writer and translator, was the first one in America."
"So the daughters always get saddled with the name, huh?"
"Yes." Her father suddenly looked serious. "It is one of the reasons I wanted you to read this book tonight. To learn the tradition. Who knows what will happen in the hospital? I might not be able to--" He broke off.
She seized his hand. "It's just more tests, Dad. A new drug therapy, maybe? A few days, then home for the holidays. You're going to be fine."From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Hunt of the Unicorn by C.C. Humphreys. Copyright © 2011 by Chris Humphreys. Excerpted by permission of Bluefire, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.