Every Word a Play
I’m not here to tell you lilac-scented stories of the Fair Folk; do not ask such things of me. Though it is true that I know more of them than any other mortal here, I can promise you that they are not fair in any sense of the word, and many of them are barely folk at all. As for the lilac scent, it is as false as their smiles, and serves only to lull twitterpated fools into thinking them delicate and soft.
I can assure you, nothing could be further from the truth.
I assume you have heard the rumors of my life. Perhaps you thought that if even half of them are true, I must be the most interesting person in town. You are looking for a good story, a merry romp. If that is the case, please, leave before I do something rash, and we will both be the happier for it.
Perhaps you thought to glean some vital insight or secret knowledge of the fae from me, and thus to go underhill and win your fortune there. Again, if that is the case, do me the honor of letting me bash your head in myself. I promise, it will be quicker and less painful for both of us.
But perhaps you seek warnings and true portents, all the better to arm yourself against any possible encounter you may have the misfortune of enduring someday. If that is the case… come, sit with me awhile, and I will tell you of all the dangers that await a mortal in a faerie court.
I was born to a handmaiden of the Summer Queen. I never knew my parents. My father was some hapless man who chanced upon my mother by a riverbank, so I’m told, and my mother died in labor. She had been a favorite of the Queen, and so fair Titania vowed to honor her memory and raise me as her ward.
The first lesson you must learn of the fae is that they are as fickle and inconstant as any human, but they have had much more time to perfect that side of their nature. It takes a very particular kind of practiced trickery to spend a lifetime believing oneself to be true and pure and good, despite millennia of evidence to the contrary. Titania meant her oath as she swore it, and to this day I suspect she believes she honored it. But ask me who raised me, who watched over me, and Titania is not one of the names I would give you.
The Queen sat tall and stiff-backed in her throne of edelweiss and sassafrass, a blank and perfect mannequin draped in spidersilk, her face a mask of ivory. Her Court milled before her, basking in the sweet everlight. They cast surreptitious glances her way every so often to be sure they had not earned her wrath. After all, it was unusual for Titania to be so still, so removed. It was unusual for the shadows to creep across her face, for vines to twist over her dais, for toadstools to flourish at her feet.
A wisp of a pixie hovered at the Queen’s ear, whispering to her. As the evening progressed, the pixie disappeared into the surrounding wood at random intervals, then reappeared at her side to whisper again. It was only as the shadows darkened and the sky purpled that, abruptly, the Queen rose from her seat.
The Court stilled.
The pixie froze, nearly vibrating in the air beside her. It then repeated something in a voice too small to be heard by any but the Queen herself, even in the sudden silence.
“No,” she repeated, in a voice of midsummer thunder.
The Court quailed, and a few of the less hardy beings vanished into the forest.
Titania turned, waving a curt dismissal at the gathered faeries, and strode into the trees along a densely-grown deerpath. Deep in the woods, surrounded by a cloud of pixies and her own flock of handmaidens, lay a body in a bower.
They had covered her already in soft fernweave and scattered crimson petals across her womb. Deep red stained the leafloam around her, soaking into the forest floor. She was bonewhite, paler than she had ever been in life, and in repose her face seemed grim and old, new lines of pain carved into her cheeks.
Away from the Court, surrounded by only her dearest friends, Titania at last let her reserve crack. Her expression crumpled into grief even as her hair crackled with a sudden charge.
“Elise,” she murmured. “Elise, no.” She fell to her knees, catching up the wan white hand with her own. Lightning crackled down their linked hands, but the dead woman did not react.
The pixies flittered, unsure of their welcome. Titania’s waiting women drew close around her, offering silent support. And for long minutes, the tableau held, and nothing further happened.
Then, unbidden, a thin, frail wail rent the air. Titania jerked back, her eyes going wide and wild and settling on the first woman she saw.
The sprite dipped a shallow curtsy. “My Queen,” she whispered. “The child lives.”
“Lives?” the Queen hissed.
Peaseblossom nodded an affirmative and Cobweb stood, floating off into the shadows.
“Kill it,” Titania ordered. “Take it away and destroy it. That… that thing killed Elise. I’ll not have it in my domain.”
“My Queen!” She could not tell which of them spoke. Or maybe it was all of them, they all looked equally shocked.
“You would question me?” she demanded, glaring back.
The sprites exchanged glances with each other, and Peaseblossom seemed to be nominated to speak for them all.
“It is a child, my Queen. Elise’s child.” Peaseblossom raised a hand as though to take Titania’s, but then thought better of it. “Elise wanted it.”
“Elise never wanted to be pregnant,” Titania responded, her voice fierce. “She was careless. She let a mortal do this to her. He killed her!”
Peaseblossom hesitated. “She told us many times, my Queen, that she did not regret the dalliance. She… she wanted the child for to remember the father.”
“I do not–” Titania’s voice trailed off as Cobweb returned. She held a small bundle with both arms, moving slowly and carefully as though it were made of glass.
“My lady,” Cobweb said, her voice whispery and dry. “Please. She named her Altea.”
Titania stared at her lady and the bundle she carried, her eyes wide. Grief was a rare emotion for her; in all her thousands of years of life, she’d only felt it a handful of times. This time was particularly acute. Elise had been a treasured friend and confidant, and they should have had many more years together.
Cobweb held the child out, and after an interminable wait, Titania reached out to take it from her. She froze a moment, almost afraid to look, until it shifted in her arms. Titania stifled a cry of surprise and clutched the child closer– and there staring back at her were Elise’s big green eyes, her pert nose, her crooked smile. As though her lady’s whole spirit had been poured into the child, like she had not left at all.
“…oh,” said the Summer Queen. “Oh.”
So yes, I grew up in the Summer Court. I lived with the nobles best equipped to house mortals, as not all faeries see a need for housing or food. Or clothing. I admit, in some ways, I was blessed. I could have had anything I thought to ask for, provided I knew how to ask for it. I flitted from one noble hall to another, spending my days in impossible gardens and fantastical libraries. There are those who would have considered it the perfect life.
And yet. And yet. I was a mortal child in a world of immortals. I had no family and no friends, no real connections to anything. The cohort of younger fae might deign to spend some time with me, but before long they would be off cavorting with waterhorses or riding the west winds, and I would be quickly forgotten.
And in that we find the second lesson you must learn of the fae. They have no empathy, no sympathy, no consideration for those who do not fit in their world. They are privileged beyond measure, and have no time for those less privileged.
“Next time we will discuss the mortal struggles against the natural environment, and how humans work together with field sprites in order to grow their foodstuffs.” The old dryad sniffed as he turned away, his mind already wandering on to other topics. “They’d change the very seasons if they knew how. Soon we won’t be able to stop them…”
Altea sighed. ‘Next time’ could be days or weeks away. Or more. Eridain the water nymph had once gone two years between classes, and hadn’t even seemed to realize that any time had passed at all.
The dangers of immortality. Altea quirked a corner of her mouth. Not a problem she’d ever have to deal with.
The erstwhile students drifted off, elves and nymphs and nixies giggling and chattering together. Altea cast a glance back at the instructor, but he was already heading in the opposite direction, having said what he’d intended to say. She hurried after the younger fae, just missing the end of a story that sent them into gales of laughter. She forced a smile and fought down the sudden baseless fear that the laughter was directed at her.
“Weird, right? Human farming methods.”
“Oh, yeah,” Glimshadow waved an airy hand, hints of light trailing through the air behind her. “Mortals are so funny, aren’t they? They try so hard to fight a battle they can never win.”
“…right.” Altea felt her smile slipping, and just managed to save it. Glimshadow was one of the youngest members of the Summer Court, but even she was several hundred years old.
“And really. Brownies. You’d think even they’d have more dignity.”
“Mmm,” Altea managed, and hoped it sounded like agreement.
Glimshadow turned, seeming to notice Altea for the first time. “Lucky you’re nothing like those on the mortal plane,” she said, smiling brightly. “You get to live here, where we only eat when we feel like it. Isn’t that great?”
That wasn’t how it worked, but Altea had tired of explaining her body’s needs years ago. She smiled brightly, letting Glimshadow infer agreement from her silence.
“Speaking of which,” Siennara piped up, her voice music on the wind. “My sister says we’re expecting Soursop back today from Pelinore with some of those blue toadstools. Shall we go see if they’ve arrived?”
“I haven’t had those in ages,” Glimshadow said, her whole face lighting up. “What do you think, Altea? Shall we eat with you this time?”
“I…” I can’t eat those, they’d kill me. Altea cleared her throat. “I can’t, I’ve got to get back to the Queen.”
“Oh.” Glimshadow paused, unsure for just a second how she should handle the awkwardness. Then she seemed to shrug it off. “Oh, well, next time, then. Fare thee well!”
“Farewell,” Altea tried to answer, but Glimshadow and the others were already walking away, laughing together at some comment too quiet for her to hear.
Altea sighed. The Queen didn’t actually care if she came or went, but at least she made for an unquestionable excuse. And anything was better than another round of barely-concealed pity, disgust, and sickly-sweet sympathy from the younger fae.
Even their sincerity was hard to take, and the sincerity was rare enough.
Despite my riches and my freedoms, I was unhappy. I was a child, lonely and unloved. I wanted, with all my heart, things that I did not even know to put into words. I longed for family, for friendship, for loyalty– none of which I had ever experienced, or even seen in the world around me. How can you ask someone to love you if you have only the vaguest idea of what love is? I had read about love in romances, in sweeping epics and legends, but that overwhelming tide of feeling which drove mortals to foolishness did not seem to be what the hole in my heart ached for. There were some times, feast days, when Titania would call me to her side, and sweetly ask me if I were enjoying myself at the festivities. And those times, my heart would hurt all the worse, and my throat would lock up, and I could barely even manage a small, “Yes, my Queen.”
But we are getting off track; you are here to learn the dangers the fae can present. Very well. The Summer Court is the least of your worries. Most of Titania’s subjects are… somewhere between well-intentioned and utterly indifferent. Your worst dangers from them stem from inattention and ignorance. A Summer fae may think they are helping when they whisk you away from danger, but they will not realize that a mortal cannot survive in the void between the stars. Of these fragilities, you must remind them.
I was something like twelve years old when I first encountered a denizen of the Winter Court.
You must remember what it was like to be twelve. Your world is so very small, and you think you know everything there is to know. It is even worse to know everything and to hate it, and to be willing to do anything to escape it. To have so much, but to only want what you can never have. To be the only one that doesn’t fit. You know everyone and everyone knows you and hates you– and then, suddenly, one does not. A stranger, one who finds you in one of your worst moments and offers you everything you thought you could never have.
Tell me you wouldn’t take that deal. Against all your better judgement, every instinct you have crying out against it. Everything you’ve been taught and everything you’ve read says that it’s not possible, that there’s no way they could ever deliver what they promise… but what if they can? The stranger is already impossible. You’ve grown up in the Court and never seen him before. Where could he be from? What could be out there beyond the Court? What if the world really is as unknowably vast and as exciting as he says?
So you stand, stretching cramped muscles and wiping away tears. You give him a close look, and he smiles kindly at you. He is tall and thin, almost spindly, ragged and strange. But his smile is true, truer than any you’ve seen before. And so you nod, and you reach out, and you take his hand.
Altea pressed deeper into the wood, tears running down her face. Twigs and vines whipped at her, slowing her down to twist and duck, to protect her face with her arms.
Not that anyone would care if I did get hurt.
The thought brought a fresh burst of sobs and Altea stopped entirely, letting the tears run down her face.
She stood in the middle of a small wood, a wild patch of ungroomed land between two rival estates. Some long-ago disagreement over ownership had resulted in a pact amongst the bordering lords to leave the area unclaimed. Over the years, the patch had grown into one of the few truly wild places under the Summer Queen’s purview, where so few things were allowed to grow as they would. Most of the Court fae barely spared a thought for the unruly place.
Altea thought of it as one of her very few refuges. There was something about her deep loneliness that drove her to seek solitude, as though by choosing her banishment, she could lessen its sting. Now she stood in sun-dappled silence, the wood full of small and hidden movements, a slight breeze stirring the ribbons of her gossamer gown. Her back shuddered in heaves of raw emotion as she sank to her knees, lush moss cushioning her descent.
She thought it was a whisper of wind at first, a trick of rustling leaves and grass. But then it came again, and despite the deep trough of sorrow in which she dwelt, she stopped to listen.
“Poor child,” it said. “Poor, lonely child.”
She sniffed, and hiccupped, and tried to speak. Then tried again, after clearing her throat with a cough.
“Who are you?”
“Poor child,” came the voice again. A supple tendril of vine crept across the ground and pressed up against Altea’s foot. She jumped in surprise, then stared in fascination as the vine budded, then bloomed, into a single full moonflower.
Altea reached out, running her fingers over the gleaming white petals.
“How can I help?” came the voice.
Altea shook her head. She had lived among the fae all her life, and she knew better than to be fooled by parlor tricks and hedge magic. “Come out,” she called. “Let me see you.”
There was a brief moment where even the trees seemed to hold their breath. Then, with a soft susurrus of dead leaves, a figure shuffled into the clearing. He was tall and thin, the dark brown of bark and leafmould. Indeed, he seemed to be made of bark, or covered in it, such that even his eyes twinkled out of deep-set knots in the plane of his face. He swept her a bow with long, thin arms, small twigs catching at his fingers.
Altea sniffed and rubbed her nose with the back of her hand. “You really don’t know who I am?”
The wood-sprite shook his head. “Should I?”
“I’m Altea,” she said. “It’s my birthday. I’m twelve.”
“I am Widdershanks,” said the being. He paused to brush away a spider crawling up his shoulder. “I don’t know what a birthday is, but I’d like to help you if I can.”
Altea watched him, her eyes wide. The heaving sobs of moments ago seemed to have fled entirely, and now she almost felt the urge to laugh.
“How can you help me? You’re a wood sprite, and you don’t even know who I am.”
“I do know who you are, you just told me.” Widdershanks moved to sit in front of her, every joint creaking and groaning as he bent until he resembled nothing so much as a large and narrow stack of twigs. “I do not like crying. I do not like crying children. What made you cry so loudly, child?”
And even though she knew all the warnings, even though she’d grown up in the Summer Queen’s court, even though she’d heard all the stories… no one else had ever asked her such a question. No one else had cared, or had thought she’d know her own mind better than they did. No one else had treated her like a real person, an equal, before. And so she told him.
Widdershanks sat through the entire sorry story, his face set in lines of sympathy and solace. When Altea paused, uncertain, he’d nod in encouragement, and she’d launch into a whole new spate of complaints.
At last she sat quiet, feeling slightly foolish and more than slightly spent. She peered at Widdershanks, who had been sitting still for far too long.
He did not move, and Altea’s heart plunged. Was he asleep? Had she bored him that much? Or had she… had she somehow killed him? She froze, trapped between humiliation and horror.
Then, just as she knew she would have to do something, anything, to fix this, Widdershanks tilted his head to one side, then the other, his neck giving a loud series of pops and snaps. She skittered back from him as he slowly rearranged his lips into a patient, kind smile.
“Poor child,” he crooned. “You have suffered so much.”
“You’re okay,” Altea blurted out, her breath just barely catching up with her.
He stared at her for a moment, then nodded. “Yes. I am fine. But you, you are not. And…”
He paused so long that Altea found herself leaning toward him, as though she could bodily encourage him to speak.
“And…” he continued. “And… I think I can help.”
Altea did not comprehend, at first, what he was really saying. She waited, expecting the rest of the sentence to come and yank away the small hope of the first part. When no more words seemed to be forthcoming, she shuffled forward another inch. “Help?”
Widdershanks inclined his head in a slow nod. “I can… help you leave this place. These people. I can bring you elsewhere, poor child.”
“Elsewhere,” Altea echoed. It wasn’t really something she’d ever thought about before. “What kind of elsewhere?”
“Trees grow as they will,” Widdershanks said. “And see many places. I have seen… another court. Another Queen. One with more… difference. More people like you.”
Altea felt her heart skip a beat. She’d heard of the other court, of course. The Queen with no name, and her court of darkness and cold. Titania’s sister, the Unseelie Queen spoken of only in hushed tones, if at all.
“N– no,” she whispered. “That’s not what I want at all.”
“The Winter Queen welcomes all who’d join her,” Widdershanks said. “All those out of place in her sister’s rigid grip. Mortals. Lost children. Lost… parents.”
Altea’s breath caught in her throat. “My mother is dead.”
Widdershanks inclined his head in a nod. “Yes. Your mother is.”
“Are you…” Altea frowned, working her way through the implications. “Are you saying my father… is at the Winter Court? That he’s been there the whole time?”
Widdershanks inclined his head more deeply, almost into a shallow bow. “I can take you, if you wish.”
Your third lesson on the fae– they always know exactly what it is you want, and they will offer it to you whether it is within their power or not. From my new friend, I extracted three promises that I thought would serve to safeguard me on my adventures– that I would be welcomed, that I would be protected from harm, and that I would find family. I thought I was clever, gathering these oaths. He let me think so.
The fae travel by doorways new and old. We speak of tunnels and burrows, but it would be more accurate to speak of connections. Connections between places vastly far apart, yet also just on the other side of the right door. Dive into a pond in a forest and surface in the middle of an ocean. Walk an old hedge maze to find yourself on top of a mountain. Watch a moth-eaten stranger open a rift in a solid marble wall, and gesture you in first, and never again will you think you know all there is to know of the world.
The Winter Court is as different from the Summer Court as night is from day. And you might think that is obvious, but you do not grasp the full import of my words. Titania’s subjects are generally happy, rich in stories and time and whatever else a fae might value. The Court itself is a gathering of music and art, learning, joy, and beauty. Titania watches over a realm of plenty and peace, and all in her domain are generally content.
The Queen of Air and Darkness presides over cold, and want, and hunger. Her subjects live in privation, and it makes them lean and dangerous. The Winter Court is a place of intrigues and ambition, of backstabbing and scheming. The Queen rewards those who show initiative, or she punishes those who show too much– it is a thin line to walk. The Queen wants, and she hungers, and she desires, and what she desires most is everything her sister has.
Lest I paint too simplistic a contrast between Summer and Winter, let me also say that both Queens are beautiful beyond measure, and both Queens can be kind, and both Queens can be cruel. And when Widdershanks took me, scared and shaking, before his Queen, she vowed to protect me just as Titania had. She already knew what was promised, and she welcomed me to the Winter Court with all the grace of the Moon in a veil of clouds. She forbade any of her Court to ever harm me, and let it be known that any ill done to me would be revisited tenfold on its perpetrator. And then…
And then she smiled, and she pointed to a frost giant, and she said he would be my guardian. And I was dismissed, as simply as that. Some magic bound me that I could not speak, I could not move but to back away from her throne, and I most certainly could not protest that she had yet to fulfill the third promise. I still remember the look in her eye as I retreated– a flash of triumph, a victorious smirk. I realized, then, that I was nothing to her. Barely even that; a possession, a trophy. I was the tangible evidence of a skirmish she had won, one more point in the eternal war against her sister.
She felt the cold strike through her when he took her by the elbow, and try though she might, her whole weight did not shift him even a little. She looked up, far up, to his craggy face, his black, black eyes, and she shuddered.
“Wait!” she tried, but the word stuck in her throat, and all that emerged was a thick mumble. “Wait!” She threw a last glance back at the Winter Queen, so austere and untouchable in a way Titania had never been– and what kind of monarch doesn’t even have a name?– but the Queen had turned away, already focused on another courtier, another issue.
“Please,” she tried, and this time the word emerged as a scratchy whisper.
The giant peered down at her, then jerked his chin over his shoulder, indicating a side door. Altea glared back, the bravado somehow more fragile than ever before. The grip on her elbow tightened, and she felt the ice creep up her arm, prickling at her skin.
The Winter Queen held court in a cathedral of stone and crystal. Towering and immense and somehow delicate as spun sugar, the palace was an ornate tribute to everything the Unseelie Queen represented. Wind whistled down the open corridors heavy with the taste of ice and snow. Sunlight glistened through crystal windows, somehow robbed of any warmth by the time it touched living skin. Intricate carvings covered every surface, beautiful and disturbing in equal measure.
Titania had held her court in meadows, in forests and grassy thickets. Even those of her courtiers who lived in buildings, who fancied themselves artisans and craftfolk, had nothing on this scale.
Her new guardian now hurried her through an arched doorway, and Altea went, unable to resist. The next room was smaller, windowless, but no less ornamented. Here, in a uniform gloom that was somehow not total darkness, she at last felt the Queen’s magic loosen, felt her limbs return to her control.
“Let me go,” she cried, pulling against the giant’s grip. “Let me go, let me go!”
The ice giant seemed to pause, as though surprised that his new charge could speak so soon– or at all. He turned back, regarding her narrowly. The gloaming cast deep shadows on his face, making his sharp features seem dramatic, haggard, tragic.
“You are in my charge now,” he rumbled. “We go to my quarters.”
Altea shook her head quickly. “No. No, this is wrong. I was told there were others like me here. I was promised I’d get to meet my father!”
The giant bent down, nearly bending in two to regard her. “I heard no such thing from the Queen.”
Altea could not stop herself from backing up a step or two. “Three promises,” she whispered. “I was given promise of welcome, protection, and family. You are… none of those.”
This time, the giant backed up, putting a respectful distance between them. He straightened to his full height– and while Altea was tall for her age, the giant towered over her.
“I heard her speak welcome,” the giant rumbled. “I heard her grant protection. I am your guardian– you will have food and shelter that you require.”
“But you’re not my father,” Altea shot back. “And I didn’t see anyone there that could have been.”
The giant shrugged massive shoulders. “If the Queen promised, the Queen will fulfill that promise. Perhaps… in time.”
“Time?” Altea asked. She felt a tick of dread in her heart. She hadn’t thought to place a time limit on the promises. The Queen could keep her here, in this cold, empty place, for years– forever– so long as she was somehow working to fulfill her promise.
The giant nodded. “Until then, Ulthar will keep you. You will be unharmed.”
“Unharmed,” Altea repeated, feeling faint. ‘Unharmed’ still allowed for a great many possibilities. Somehow, this already felt so much worse than the Summer Court ever had.
The giant nodded. “Come. Now.”
He turned and began a heavy, lumbering walk through the palace. Altea lingered behind for a moment, then followed. In this desolate place, she could not lose the one person tasked to look after her.
And so, I found myself in the Winter Court. And for the first time, I realized how very lucky I had been to be Titania’s ward. Before, I had been a member of the Court. I’d had a place. I had been politely tolerated, and cared for in at least an abstract sense. In the Summer Court, I was a ward of the Queen. Here, I was barely a fosterling. A hostage, except at least hostages have some hope of returning home. In being stolen, I had already served my one ephemeral purpose, and the Winter Queen had little other use for me.
Here is your fourth warning and lesson: there is always more going on than you know, and you will never learn the true extent of the machinations of any Court. No fae helps you out of the goodness of their heart. There is a very good chance they don’t even have a heart. So if one ever comes to you and offers you everything you’ve ever wanted, you’d best pause and ask what they get out of the deal. I wish I’d learned that sooner.
Not long after Altea settled in to the frigid halls of the ice giant’s home, a messenger arrived on a sunbeam through her bedroom window. She had been sitting by the casement, glumly considering her possibilities, when the light touched her eyes. She turned her face up to greet it, eyes closing in an effort to soak in as much of the rare warmth as she could. When the feather touch caressed her cheek, she shot back from the window, heart racing. A pixie hung in the beam of light, a small creature of more laughter than substance, which now laughed at her.
“What…” Altea blinked in surprise. “What are you doing here?” Of all creatures, surely pixies belonged exclusively to the Summer Court.
The pixie touched down on the windowsill, delicate as a petal. The creature was as long as her forearm, with tissue-thin, glass-clear wings that caught the light and reflected it in a spangle of rainbow motes. Fragile limbs and a long torso gave her the illusion of height despite her small size. She tossed a head of dandelion-puff hair and brushed miniscule dust from her tunic before stepping forward.
“A pixie goes where a pixie will, Altea Hyssop,” she said, her voice high and fluting. “And this Cassia has been going far and wide looking for you.”
Altea grimaced. The sight of Cassia hurt, somehow. It reminded her of everything she had lost all too recently. “Here I am,” she said, gesturing broadly as though to include herself, her room, and all the accompanying gloom of Ulthar’s hall. “I’m not exactly hiding.”
“Not hiding, but not easy to find,” the pixie returned. She took a few more steps and then sat herself down, dangling her legs off the inside of the sill. “Queen Titania is not happy with you, child.”
It was very much the wrong thing to say. Altea crossed her arms tightly, narrowing her eyes. “Titania cares nothing for me.”
“Oh, but she does,” Cassia replied. “Queens don’t direct searches for lost children they don’t care about. They don’t make poor pixies fly for miles and miles and hours and hours, seeking out new places and dangerous territories, for mortal children that don’t matter to them.”
Altea swallowed hard. It was an enticing thought, one that she would once have welcomed, or even begged for, not so long ago. But it came too late to mean anything.
“I made a choice,” she said. “I can’t– I can’t–”
“You can,” the pixie interrupted. “I come with a gift, and an invitation. I can bring you back with me, if you accept.”
“You can’t–” Altea started, but she cut herself off as Cassia raised her arms, summoning a radiant light as bright and colorful as her wings. The light grew overwhelming, warm and welcome and brilliant, until her room faded from sight to be replaced with a sun-soaked glade, twinkling lights caught in the leaves of trees, and long, lush, purple shadows.
A buried memory, long denied. Endless summer evenings replete with the droning of cicadas, the chorus of spring frogs, dancing fireflies and skittering bats. Hammocks of spidersilk and bowers of eglantine, the scent of thyme and musk-roses hanging in the air.
It was every bit as beautiful as she remembered. Altea stood, her jaw dropped open and her heart in her throat as sorrow overruled her self-possession. She breathed deep of the scented air, replete with forgotten joy, with long-lost evenings of magic, of safety, of home.
Cassia reappeared before her, her prismatic wings beating the perfumed air in soft, warm puffs. Altea gasped, still overcome with the shock of the memories, the sharp knife of nostalgia and pain. No words came to her normally-nimble tongue.
“Come away, o mortal child,” Cassia sang. She beckoned, flew a few inches away, and beckoned again. “Titania awaits your return across the waters and the wild. Let this one lead you to her mistress.”
Altea took a step closer to the pixie, only for her to flitter another few feet. Another step, another flitter. Cassia smiled.
“Just follow, Altea Hyssop,” she cooed. “This one will get you there.” She turned, then, and flew.
Altea found that each step in pursuit grew easier, faster, until it felt as though her legs moved of their own volition, her feet swift and light. The pixie floated just ahead of her, picking out a sort of dance in the flower-soaked air. Up and down, side-to-side, the movement was mesmerizing and seemed to hasten her legs in an effort to catch up, to draw even, to find the destination the pixie had promised.
Once, Altea tried to call out to Cassia to wait for her, but the words caught in her throat, strangling there. She coughed, stumbling as her feet lost their rhythm, but as soon as she raised her head and caught sight of the pixie, she found her footing again. Step by step, a walk and then a run, faster and faster — some part of Altea’s mind wondered how this could be happening, how she could have been so easily transported from her small room in Ulthar’s cold hall. And where was Titania, now that she was so close to home? Such thoughts occurred to her, but they came broken and draped in tangled dark vines, and she turned them away in favor of the bright pursuit.
Then Cassia stopped just in front of a swirl of color and light the size of a full-grown human. It was a portal, that much was obvious, it looked just like the one created by Widdershanks. Only this one hung in the air, with nothing to support it but the occasional firefly. Cassia was a bright spark next to the shimmer of color, waving and smiling at Altea as she caught up.
“Here?” Altea asked, because she needed a moment to catch her breath.
“Yes yes, here, quickly now!” Cassia bobbed in the air as she spoke, her light dwarfed by the portal. Shades of lavender, coral, and forest green swirled in the air. Altea reached out to it, longing. All she’d ever wanted…
“Stop right there.”
She froze. Around her, the world cracked and shattered, stained glass falling from its frame. Suddenly, she wasn’t in the Summer Realm at all. Realization struck– she never had been. She’d been glamoured, or possibly completely enchanted, by the pixie who was now screaming with rage. There was no glade, no sweet summer air. They were in fact surrounded by dark walls of stone and ice, by tall and uncomfortable furniture, by– she knew this place.
This was the Winter Queen’s palace, her very own receiving rooms. With the glamour lifted, the portal was in actuality a tall, dark mirror that had long hung in the palace, subject of much rumor. Who knew where it would have taken her, or what it would have done to her. Who knew what would have happened if she’d touched it.
A heavy hand took her by the shoulder. She turned to look up into the surprisingly soft eyes of a palace guard.
“Stay back,” he ordered, shoving her behind him and brandishing a crossbow at Cassia.
The pixie screamed again, and something strange seemed to be happening to her face, her wings, her entire appearance. Shadows crept up her arms, crackling and snapping with power, until, with a crashing roar, a bolt of dark energy blasted from her hands.
The guard snapped his arm around, and a strange-looking metal gauntlet irised out into small shield. The blast hit it and angled off uselessly, its power spent.
The guard– he was tall enough that he had to be part-giant– growled at the pixie and snapped, “You have one chance to leave this place and never return, or the Queen herself will feast on your bones.”
Cassia screeched. She was unrecognizable now, nowhere near the light messenger of the Summer Court she had once seemed. Rot and putrescence crept across her face. Her hair was a tangle of mold and long, segmented insect legs. What was left of her prismatic wings should not have supported her, yet she hung in the air, hissing with anger.
“One chance,” the guard repeated, and he raised the crossbow once again.
The pixie, such as it was, gave a final screech, but she was clearly outmatched. She spun in the air and abruptly winked out of existence, taking all her light and shadow and noise with her.
In the suddenly silent darkness, Altea found herself alone with the guard. They stared at each other for a long moment. Then he flipped his shield away with a flick of his wrist and holstered his crossbow.
He offered a smile. “You must have angered someone badly for them to send one of the sluagh after you.”
Altea found herself too shaken to respond. She shivered, crossing her arms tightly over her chest.
The guard inclined his head, keeping his movements slow. “Let’s get you home before anyone sees you, shall we? You’re the Queen’s new fosterling, right? Living with Ulthar?”
Altea managed a nod.
“Out the west door, then. Come along, I’ll guide you.”
He didn’t try to grab her or force her. He walked ahead, and opened the door, waiting patiently as she passed. She gave him a suspicious look, and he smiled blandly back at her.
“Exciting job, guarding the Queen’s halls,” he said. “You never know what kind of strays will turn up, following the wrong advice.”
Was that what she was? A stray? She supposed it could be worse. Altea managed to grunt agreement as she fell into step behind the guard, and he led her through the long maze of ice and stone to the west wing. They passed a few other guards, but no courtiers or anyone else who recognized her.
“Here we are, then,” the guard announced cheerfully. The door opened with a wave of his hand and a slight finger movement that Altea did not catch.
“Th… thank you,” she managed. She shivered. He could easily have detained her or worse. Letting her go like this was more than she deserved for being so easily tricked.
“Not at all,” he said, entirely too cheerful. “It’s been a quiet day. Good to have something to do.”
That actually surprised a laugh out of Altea, and he nodded. “There you are. No harm done, right? Just go on home and we’ll never speak of this again.”
“…thank you,” Altea repeated, more certainly this time. “And… you are..?”
The guard gave a slight wave. “Eothan. No need to remember that, I’m sure this’ll be the first and last time we see you lurking around. Go on now.”
She went. The door slammed shut behind her, belying his cheerful words. Altea gave it a last, doubtful look, then turned to make her way back to her small, cold room in Ulthar’s small, cold hall.
The Unseelie Court is a pit of vipers. None of them are to be trusted, no matter how honey-tongued. That is not to say you cannot deal with them; in some ways the Unseelie are more powerful, less restricted, than the Seelie. They are willing to work with forces the Summer Court would never deign to deal with. But in return, they are slippery, harsh, sharp as a knife-blade. They seek out weakness and exploit it, beyond mere wants and desires. Tell your secrets to the fae of the Summer Court, and you might have your life ruined as you get your dearest wish. Tell your secrets to the fae of the Winter Court, and they will promise all you have ever wanted while stealing all you have ever known and loved.
And do not think to save yourself strife by dealing with a noble rather than some common will-o-the-wisp. Velvets and faerie gold serve only to gild the same malice found in each.
“Go on, go on,” the wight hissed, waving long, thin fingers at her.
Altea shrank back against the briars. “Are you sure..?”
“Yes, yesssss.” The creature whined and blinked wide silver eyes at her. “Take the orb, one wish. Next touch, one wish. Touch, wish. Anything you want.”
She swallowed, hard. It wasn’t that she particularly mistrusted the wight. The Unseelie Court was full of pale, ghostly figures that watched from the shadows, whispering and plotting. But Whelkor was particularly ghastly, a gaunt barrow wight that gasped out his words as though speaking stole his breath away. His gangly body wore rags and scraps of what might have once been fine clothes, but he’d been dead so long that clothing and skin both were nigh unrecognizable. He flickered through the halls of the palace, sometimes corporeal and sometimes not, so very close to total nonexistence.
Whelkor’s very horror was part of why she chose to trust him when he approached her. His need was so plain, so clear, that she felt a strange kinship — two beings adrift in the Unseelie Court, lonely and forgotten by the living. When he’d first laid his cold fingers on her arm, she had shuddered, and then stilled in straight shock that any faerie had deigned to touch her. His eyes had burned bright as he’d hissed her name, and she had listened eagerly as he told her of the orb, held by House Vizandir, that granted one wish to any being who touched it.
But hearing tell of it had been one step, and hatching a plan had been another, and now they pressed themselves into the thorns outside a low balcony of one of the great Houses, and she was coming to realize just how very little Whelkor risked in this supposed joint endeavor.
“And it’s up there?” she asked, though they’d gone over the plan until it felt burned into her brain. Now it suddenly seemed surprisingly easy. “Just… sitting in front of the window?”
“Been there. Seen it. So close. So close, but cannot touch it.”
“Mmm…” Whelkor had managed to convey that the orb was protected by a spell from which it could only be removed by mortal hands. It was a logical enough protection– House Vizandir was known for taking in mortals of skill and talent, and more than a few of them had bred into the bloodline. It also explained how Vizandir had risen so relatively quickly within the Court. Recently, many strange incidents had all seemed to resolve mysteriously in Vizandir’s favor, and the Queen had repeatedly honored the House with her approval. An artifact that granted a single wish to anyone who held it would explain an awful lot of those incidents.
It could also grant her freedom. Or it could bring her father to her. Or her mother. Altea closed her eyes against the stab of longing that went through her at the thought. That. That was why she’d agreed to this. Even though she knew the wight had his own agenda, it wouldn’t even matter once she’d found the orb.
“All right,” she breathed. “All right.” She gave the wight a level nod, and the two of them dashed from the shelter of the briar hedge to stand almost directly underneath the balcony.
The wight stretched skeletal arms, and a wind chilling as the depths of winter rose around them. It grew in strength, surrounding them and whipping at their clothes and hair. Altea shuddered, and in the next moment she was lifted off her feet, arms held out for balance, a surprised cry caught and held in her throat.
The wight-wind rose steadily, lifting her. At fourteen, she was tall and gangly. Lithe, but with a certain solidity that hinted at the broad frame and heavy musculature of her mortal parents. It was the work of a moment to catch at the marble balcony railing and pull herself over. She landed gracelessly, but managed to keep her feet under her and straighten almost immediately.
The room was replete with mundane magnificence. Velvets and laces and cloth-of-gold, rich silks and ornately patterned tapestries– it looked so much like every other faerie mansion she’d ever seen, she almost yawned. It was disappointing to see the Unseelie had much the same decorative sense as the Seelie court, though perhaps it explained why they felt comfortable leaving such a valuable trinket unguarded. With so much wealth, how much could a single wish be worth?
It took longer than she’d expected to spot the artifact. A milky white crystal globe the size of her head– she’d expected it to be out on full display, or perhaps locked away in an unmistakably significant chest or cabinet. Instead, it was tucked into the bend of a long velvet couch, heavily draped in blankets and shawls, as though someone had forgotten it. It glowed with a gentle light.
“Hmm…” Altea reached for the globe, her wish already half-formed on her lips when she froze. This had all gone far, far too easily. House Vizandir was arrogant and powerful, but that didn’t mean they were careless. It may even– Altea quirked one side of her mouth– it may even mean the carelessness was a careful show, meant to lead others to underestimate the newly-ascendant House. Altea pulled back, her eyes narrowed at the globe. Then she turned away, seeking a means to test her theory.
Across the room, she found a vase filled with long-stemmed, golden roses. Their petals looked so soft she had touched one before she thought better of it and, when nothing happened, she decided that would make as good a test as any. She pulled one full blossom from the vase, then smiled to herself and pulled another, a tightly-closed bud that she tucked behind her ear.
A few moments later, she returned to the couch. After carefully clearing the fabrics from around the globe, she held the rose at arm’s length directly above it. She closed her eyes, then opened them, determined to watch. The rose fell from her fingers, touched the milky surface, and–
–and in a flash, there was no more rose. A fine black ash settled over the glowing crystal, then sank into its surface until there was nothing there at all.
Lies. Betrayal. Altea gritted her teeth, staring at the globe. It looked no different, but suddenly its milky glow seemed somehow malevolent. The wight had tricked her, clearly intending her to be the globe’s next victim. But why? What did that mean? She’d thought he was alone, unclaimed and unaffiliated with any House. But perhaps that had all been part of the show– perhaps he worked with Vizandir, luring foolish mortals into sacrificing themselves for the sake of… what? Adding to the House’s power in some way, clearly.
Suddenly, everything around her seemed sinister. The room, so carefully arranged to resemble the Seelie mansions she was familiar with. The ease with which she’d entered. The rest of the House, huge and full of unknown dangers to a hapless mortal.
But, Altea reminded herself, she was no ordinary mortal. She was a ward of the Court, under the protection of the Queen of Air and Darkness herself. The Unseelie were forbidden from harming her directly. That, in fact, was almost certainly the reason for the entire ruse. No fae could touch her, but there was no injunction against tricking her into harming herself…
Perhaps she was not so helpless after all. She may be mortal, she may be alone, she may be holding the jaws of the trap open by sheer force of will at this very moment… but she still carried the protection of the Queen. Even if she had technically broken into the House and intended to steal one of their treasures, she was a ward of the Queen, and they were forbidden from harming her.
Perhaps it would be enough.
It would have to be.
With that thought held firmly in mind, Altea turned away from the balcony, crossed the sumptuous carpet, and flung wide the room’s only set of double doors. A pair of guards startled from their posts, one dropping his spear with a clatter onto the marble floor.
“I am Altea Hyssop, Ward of the Unseelie Court and untouchable by order of the Queen,” she declared, raising her chin. “I demand that you grant me passage to the home of Ulthar, the Northern Blight, immediately.”
The most important thing to know about the fae is that in their presence, you are never truly safe, even when you think you’ve finally learned to protect yourself. They can use anything against you– even your desire not to be used. Just when you think you have lost the capacity to feel betrayal, they give you something to care about, and then destroy it in front of you.
Thus they did to Ulthar, poor lost frost giant. He was the sole survivor of a once-great House, a mighty family that rivaled the greatest of the fae noble Houses in influence.
But even a mighty House is no match for the Queen of Air and Darkness. She found her way in, suborned the trust of one young and callow jotunn, and used him to systematically destroy the House. For his service, she let him live. For the death he’d brought to his house, she’d cursed him with a mocking title. Alone in his giant hall, he spends his days wandering from room to room, performing small marvels of ice magic for an audience of shadows, waiting to reach the end of his long life. It is, perhaps, a cruelty worse than death.
She used an unguarded boy to destroy a great House and then doomed him to a life of loneliness and misery, deeming that a fitting reward for his actions. And even knowing this history, even knowing that I had enemies I had yet to face, I still fell prey to a stupid, misguided, naive, unseasoned boy, just when I thought I had learned never to trust anything ever again.
The thing she hated most about her life, she decided, had to be the open Court dates. The Queen presided over a sea of nobles, silent on her icy throne, her eyes ever-piercing. And before her, all the members of the Unseelie Court, from the most eminent establishment to the youngest of the young hopefuls, milled and schemed and plotted and either hoped to catch her eye or tried desperately to avoid it. Primped and perfumed and bedecked in all manner of finery, every word was a play, a scheme, a gambit.
Altea was present because she had to be, but no one could make her participate, and they certainly couldn’t make her enjoy it. She had made her obeisance to the Queen and left slightly faster than was truly polite, following a circuitous route through the crowd until she felt certain she was no longer drawing any attention. With one last look over her shoulder, she ducked under a tapestry and through a small hidden archway. A portico lined with shadowed alcoves led away from the grand hall, sites of many an illicit tryst and dark plot among the nobility. Altea strode from one to the next, until she found exactly what she wanted– less an alcove than a corner, a neglected spot of disrepair that granted access to a narrow alley that ran behind the wall of the portico. Though it was once undoubtedly used to spy on fools who thought themselves unobserved, the corridor was now dusty with disuse. Here, Altea secreted herself away and gave a sigh of relief.
“Altea?” The voice was thin and uncertain and probably male. She recognized it instantly.
“Go away, Diarmuid.”
“Why? No, you don’t really want to be alone, do you?” The gloom was suddenly obscured as another body pushed his way into the alley. He faced her, away from what little light there was, his face in near-total darkness. She knew what she’d see, though, if he’d been at all visible: a tall, pale, gangly human youth, a pointed chin, ridiculously oversized ears. He wore his limp black hair plain and straight, with none of the ornamentation of the fae nobility. Diarmuid was one of the hapless mortals who regularly found their way into the Unseelie Court, and he seemed to think he’d find what he sought in the embrace of the fae.
It was exactly that sort of naive optimism that made Altea roll her eyes whenever she saw him. Why he sought her out so often, she’d never understand.
“If I wanted company, I wouldn’t have come…here.” She waved, trying to encompass the dust, the darkness, the discomfort of the narrow hallway.
“I think it’s great how you know so many places to hide in the palace,” Diarmuid said, and she could almost hear his lop-sided grin.
“What do you want, Diarmuid?”
“Well…” The boy swallowed. He paused, then started digging through his many pockets. Altea heaved a heavy sigh as she waited.
Finally, he found whatever he was looking for and held it out to her. In the dim light, she could just make out a shining disc of some stiff material, the sheen patterned in tight, precise waves.
“What is it?”
“It’s a mermaid’s scale!” Diarmuid’s enthusiasm practically radiated off of him. “I met them yesterday, on the shores of the Everloch.”
Altea was fascinated despite herself. She plucked the scale from his palm and held it up to the light, watching the subtle play of the patterns across it. “Surprised they didn’t take your hand off.”
Diarmuid shook his head. “They did… have a lot more teeth than I was expecting. Sharper. Big eyes.”
He seemed to shudder as he remembered. Then he brightened. “But they were also beautiful. As beautiful as I ever thought they’d be. They wanted to show me their palace, but my House sponsor wouldn’t let them.”
Altea snorted. Of course not– mermaids and their predatory ways were well known even in the Summer realm. She handed the scale back and leaned against the wall.
“I thought I’d put it on a chain,” Diarmuid tried. “Turn it into a pendant. Isn’t it pretty?”
“You’d have to find some sort of magic for that,” Altea replied. “Mermaid’s scales are hard as diamond. House Delverrion makes armor and livery out of them.”
“Oh…” Diarmuid sounded oddly dejected. “Well, I’ll see what I can do.”
He tilted his head to one side, hesitant, then turned and leaned against the wall. His toes touched the opposite baseboard, such that his long legs blocked the entire exit.
“Mmm.” For just a moment, in the quiet, it was nice to relax with another mortal, to see the fae realms through his eyes.
But Diarmuid just had to ruin it.
“Altea… did you know our birthdays are close together?”
The question caught her by surprise, and she stared. Her vision had adjusted well enough that she could tell his eyes were cast down, in thought or confusion.
“I… did not know that.”
He nodded. “Mine’s day after tomorrow, so they’re two weeks apart. I’ll be eighteen.”
She’d be eighteen, too. Altea frowned, uncertain how she was supposed to react. “Huh.”
Diarmuid looked up again. “I’ve been chosen by a House. They’ll take my oath on my birthday.”
“Well, congratulations.” Maybe once he had what he wanted, he’d stop bothering her so much.
Diarmuid kicked one foot against the wall before asking, “Why haven’t you chosen a House, Altea?”
“Me?” She gave a soft laugh. “Nobody would want me, and I don’t want them.”
“That’s not true,” Diarmuid said. “Lots of places would want you. You have the protection of the Queen, you’d bring favor to anyone who took you in.”
“The Queen barely knows I exist. She’s forgotten her promise to me.”
“The Queen doesn’t forget anything,” Diarmuid said, and she couldn’t argue.
It was almost a full minute before he spoke again. “My House has promised me a boon when I pledge to them. I could give it to you.”
Altea snorted. She’d never heard of such a thing, but then, each of the many Unseelie Houses had its own set of traditions. “I don’t want your boon.”
Diarmuid shook his head. “Joining the House is all I’ve ever wanted. To be here, with the Fair Folk, and to see their wonders… it’s all I dreamed of my whole life.”
“I’m sorry for you,” Altea snapped, and instantly regretted it.
“But anyone… everyone knows it’s not what you want,” Diarmuid said, pressing on despite the hurt in his voice. “You never wanted to be here, you’ve never joined a House or seemed at all interested in the Court…”
Altea shrugged. She’d never made any secret of her resentment of her situation. She was a prisoner, and everyone knew it. Joining a House wouldn’t change that fact– it would only tie her closer to her jailors. But he was wrong about what kept her here. The Queen still owed her the third promise.
“You just want to leave. So, when I pledge… I’ll give my wish to you.”
Altea felt herself go numb. No. It couldn’t be happening again. “Your… wish?”
He nodded eagerly. “You’re not supposed to use it for yourself, and lots of people do anyway but like I said, I’m already getting everything I want, so…”
She closed her eyes and leaned her head against the rough stone of the wall, too many thoughts flickering through her mind to let her respond at first. After a minute, she finally managed a strangled, “Oh, I’ll bet they thought they were doing well with you.”
She turned so that she was fully facing him, knowing he’d have the advantage of the dim light to see her full fury. “I can see why they thought I’d fall for it again. I can see why they thought I’d believe you, of all people.”
“What?” His voice was small.
She took a step toward him, and he took a step back.
“You’re so honest, aren’t you?” she snarled. “So earnest. With your big eyes and your stupid pout and your ridiculous crush. Or, don’t tell me, was even that a trick? A stupid trick to make me fall in love with you?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about!”
She advanced again, and he fell back, and now there was enough light to see the faux shock on his face. Altea felt the anger rise in her as this latest plot joined all the previous attempts to ensnare her in some sort of trap.
“Who sent you? Was it Elmheart? Vizandir? Grottelund? Or…” Her eyes widened at a sudden thought. “Has the Queen herself finally decided to get rid of me?”
“Altea, you’re not– I don’t–”
“They could have at least chosen a more accomplished liar,” Altea hissed. “Go away. Get out of my sight. Go back to your masters and report your failure.”
She narrowed her eyes, and her voice was nearly a growl. “Go! I never want to see you again!”
At first, she only thought he was respecting her wishes. Diarmuid had been haunting her steps for weeks, somehow having the uncanny ability to always already be wherever she wanted to go. His sudden absence was therefore noticeable and strangely dramatic, and Altea sighed with relief that maybe she had finally managed to drive him off, now that his plot had failed. But as her eighteenth birthday approached and no one else seemed interested in marking it, she felt his absence more acutely, and started to think back on their last conversation with a wistfulness that made her regret her words.
It wasn’t until she finally decided to seek him out that she realized anything was actually wrong. She sat in her small parlor in Ulthar’s hall, sifting through the responses to her inquiries. It was not unknown for human visitors to the Unseelie Court to flit from House to House, familiarizing themselves with the different customs before deciding which one they would beg to join. Diarmuid had been staying in House Elmheart almost since he’d first arrived, and she’d assumed that would be his chosen House. But even Elmheart had claimed not to know where he’d gone off to. Altea fanned out five response cards, all nearly identical in their claims of ignorance.
All but one.
We do not harbor the human, wrote the steward of House Vizandir. This inquiry is inappropriate. We will respond to no further questions from the unaffiliated.
Altea dropped the other four response cards and held up Vizandir’s. Simple cream paper, dark brown ink, a fine fluid hand… and those words, so hostile as to be defensive. She tapped the card against her desk as her eyes narrowed.
Vizandir. The House that had been so foolish as to try to claim her soul. The House which had lured her with her own headstrong assumptions and vapid nostalgia, and nearly undone her. The House which had forced her, finally, to accept the truth: that no one wanted her, no one claimed her, no one would come save her. The House in which she’d finally found her own strength within herself, and stopped looking to others to help her.
The House which had once offered her a wish, and instead tried to destroy her.
The House that seemed to pledge more humans than any other, though their ranks never actually seemed to grow.
Altea startled up, her chair clattering backward onto the floor in her hurry. She rushed from the room, the response card crumpled in her hand as she darted down the hall and through cavernous chambers to the public drawing and sitting rooms.
Ulthar was reclining on his favorite divan, as was his habit in the evenings. Ice had grown around him in crystalline stalagmites, reaching across the stone floor in delicate arches of lacy frost to culminate in a tall, peaked structure by the couch, which he regarded intently. Frozen crystals crunched beneath her feet as she crossed the room, and the sound seemed to bring Ulthar out of his reverie. He blinked sleepily at her.
Altea found herself suddenly at a loss for words. She’d sought him out with such furious purpose, but now reality set in– Ulthar was merely a disgraced frost giant, an unaffiliated jotunn who was the last survivor of his House. In a way, he was every bit as trapped and as powerless as she was. What could he do?
“I…” Her voice shook.
What could he do? What right did she have to bring this to him? Ulthar had already suffered so much, he’d already shown her such kindness. What right did she have to bring him into noble House intrigue over a mere mortal?
The response card crinkled as her grip tightened.
“I’m sorry, Ulthar, it is nothing. I had simply… forgotten something urgent, but it just came back to me.”
Ulthar frowned at her, clearly dubious. “Any way I can help?”
Altea forced a smile. “No. No, I think… Actually, maybe I can stop it from happening again. Do you happen to have a memory ball?”
It was a simple enough spell, one that even an ice giant might know. Ulthar blinked in surprise, nodded, and touched one finger to the ice-covered floor. Then light seemed to travel through the ice to his touch. A slight glow followed his finger as he lifted it, forming a bright sphere nearly three inches across. The light dissipated to the faintest vapor, and Ulthar held a perfect ball of ice in the palm of his hand.
He held it out to her. “The ice will remember what it sees and hears for one hour. Will be able to show you its memory. Keep it covered until you want it to work.”
Altea took the sphere carefully, and the light went out of it as soon as it left Ulthar’s hands. It was cold to the touch, but not with the biting cold of true ice. She wrapped it hastily in a fold of her tunic.
“Th… thank you, Ulthar. I’m… sure this will be very helpful.”
The ice giant nodded at her, slow and ponderous. “When you need another, only ask.”
Altea smiled, surprised and oddly touched in spite of her urgency. “I will. Thank you, Ulthar, truly. For… everything.”
Ulthar stared at her a moment longer, then shrugged and turned back to his ice sculpture. It was, she saw, a fantastic castle in perfect miniature, a palace even the Queen of Air and Darkness would have been pleased to call home. As she watched, the sculpture sprouted another turret, and Ulthar turned his attention to the new addition.
Altea turned and slunk out of the room. And then she kept going, down the hall and through the receiving chamber, into the massive foyer and straight out through the front door. The response card was a crumpled mess in her sweaty hand, but the ink still glinted with perfect calligraphic disdain.
Sneaking into House Vizandir was much harder when they didn’t want you to do it; or maybe they’d simply improved their security significantly. Nonetheless, Altea had spent a lifetime skulking around fae Houses, and if she had learned anything, it was that the fae were excellent at guarding against any magical attack they could think of, but they often forgot mundane forms of infiltration even existed. It didn’t take Altea long to discover a back gate in the curtain wall which led directly to a small door in the back of the grand House, humble and unguarded. She watched it for hours, noting that it was used only by servants, by mortals, and intriguingly, by merchants. It was frequently left open by busy servants on short errands. Maybe it had a lock, but it never seemed to take long to open when anyone knocked. Altea watched, and noted, and planned. Then, while enough of the day remained to make use of, she returned home to gather what she needed.
She had come to the Unseelie realm with nothing more than the clothes on her back, and once she’d settled into Ulthar’s hall, she had quickly exchanged her bright, airy Summer garb for more local fashions. Those forgotten garments still hung in the back of her closet, smelling of warm days and sunshine. Now, she took them down from their hangers and folded them carefully into a small trunk, under a layer of unimpressive scarves and shawls. She frowned at herself in her mirror and removed her jewelry, then thought better of it and put on twice as much. She put the memory sphere in one pocket, then another, then pushed it down the front of her shirt, shivering at the chill. Since her last encounter with Vizandir, she’d worked to acquire a small collection of charms and stored spells, and from this she selected a silver key and a small yellow feather, securing them in her belt pouch. Finally, she slipped a ring of disguise onto one finger, concentrated, and took on the appearance of a much older, somewhat haggard human woman.
It wasn’t much of a plan, but it didn’t need to be. She wasn’t letting herself think too far ahead. Step one– get in the House. Step two– she’d figure it out after step one. With one last check in the mirror, she nodded in satisfaction, turned, and made her way from her room.
House Vizandir wasn’t exactly close to Ulthar’s hall, but neither was it far. Distances didn’t work the same in the fae realms, and Altea had long ago learned the trick of keeping her chin up and her eyes fixed on the horizon as the road changed from crushed marble to pearl and jade. The sky was just shading into evening as she neared the great House, seeking out the small back gate. Altea marched up to it, raised her hand to knock– and hesitated.
She took a deep breath, thinking again of the traveling merchant she meant to impersonate. Such wanderers rarely bothered with Ulthar’s hall, but a hardy few had found their way to the lonely place. Altea brought to mind the silk seller who had been their most frequent visitor over the last few years. He had a bright, large smile, eyes wide as though he was constantly sharing his favorite joke, and utter confidence in all he did. He had fascinated Altea, who had spent so long hiding in the shadows, and it wasn’t long before she realized that the merchant was hiding in his own way. His manner invited his audience to assume that all he was lay on the surface, with only shallows beneath. By making like he hid nothing, he never had to reveal anything.
Altea breathed, summoned up her best approximation of the merchant’s smile, and knocked.
Just as before, only a few seconds passed before the gate swung open. A young mortal woman, her skin a rich dark brown, stood in the doorway.
“What business have you here?”
Altea swept a bow. “Just the normal run for a silk seller, ma’am. Scarves and dresses from every corner of the realms, I’ve got. Just the thing to brighten your day.”
The woman gave her a shrewd look. “There’s no need for your scraps here, mercer. This is a Great House, not some country tavern.”
Altea laughed a great, round laugh that she did not feel. “Ha! A country tavern! I rather think I have some rare rags that could tempt even you, mistress, could I only show you.”
The woman screwed her mouth to the side, as though thinking deeply, and then shrugged. “Well, it’s been a slow day, with all the gentry holed up. Let’s see what you have.”
She stepped back, leaving the gate clear and ushering her down the short path to the House’s back door. Altea gave her a quick quirk of a smile as she passed. Inside, she found a large kitchen with a heavy wooden table in the center surrounded by stools and chairs, spread with scrolls and parchment– clearly the nerve center of a busy House, but currently deserted.
“Quickly now,” the woman said, waving her at the table. A heavy ring of keys and charms at her belt told her rank– this was the House Steward in charge of nearly all the goings-on among the staff of House Vizandir.
This was the woman who had written off Diarmuid so cruelly, with such perfect penmanship.
Altea shivered inwardly as she sank further into her role, but let no sign of her hesitation show as she flourished the case.
“I have frocks such as you’ve never laid eyes on,” she boasted. “Silks and scarves from the most exotic lands, fine fernweave, even some mortal spins!”
“We’ll see about that,” the steward muttered.
Altea allowed herself a moment of doubt. How was she to slip past the woman’s watchful eye? She had hoped to find a busy kitchen, a chaotic mess she could slip away from while staff members distracted each other with her wares. Instead, this lone woman watched her with suspicion, as though she knew there was something else going on.
But she needn’t have worried. Once the steward began digging into the case, the Summer realm items immediately seized her attention. The soft pastels sparkled as she revealed them, bearing a warmth rarely found in the Winter Court.
“…oh,” the woman murmured, holding one against her cheek. “This is…”
She trailed her fingers through a pool of moonlight gossamer. “You may be right, tatterscap. I think… I think I might need to show these to my Lady.”
Altea swept a wide bow, relying on the movement to hide the sudden smile of elation she couldn’t quite suppress. “I would be honored.”
“You wait here, I’ll bring her. Would you like some feverbrew to keep you company?”
Altea shook her head broadly. “I am content to wait with only anticipation as my companion.”
The steward snorted even as she strode to the door. “Do not think you can charm me with overblown manners, mercer. Nor anyone in this House. If you want to leave here with full pockets, you will show my Lady more sincerity.”
Altea nodded shortly, taking the warning as it was meant. The steward gave a brisk nod and turned on her heel, leaving Altea alone at last in the empty kitchen.
For the first moment, she sat, feeling her heart pound in her chest. This was the last chance she had to change her mind– she could still simply walk away, out the door and into the night.
And Diarmuid would simply go away, unnoticed and unmarked, just another mortal who had come and gone through the fae courts without anyone the wiser. Altea felt the anger rise in her as she thought about it — about how little anyone in the Winter Court seemed to care about this person, this mortal, who had lived among them. There and then gone, discarded.
A little too much like her, perhaps.
She took a deep breath and stood, walking over to the inner door as quietly as she could. She heard nothing through the thick wood, and the door eased open at her touch, swinging gently on well-oiled hinges. She locked the door behind her with a touch of the charmed silver key, hopefully buying herself a few extra minutes before anyone realized she’d disappeared.
The hall beyond was empty, wide, and short. Low tables lined both walls, leading to a wide staircase leading both up and down. The steward had said something about the gentry being closeted away, which suggested a gathering of some sort upstairs. In any other House, she would assume nefarious deeds were performed out of sight in the basement, but she knew House Vizandir better than that. They hid their wrong-doing in plain sight, relying on sheer audacity to confuse the observer into refusing the evidence of their own eyes.
A sudden commotion from above decided her, and Altea slipped down the wide, carpeted stairs. They descended only one level before ending at a door, this one smaller and less impressive than those above ground. Altea tested it, found it locked, and tried her key charm a second time. A soft click suggested it worked, and she returned it to her pocket, frowning. It would only work one more time, and she wasn’t even close to finding anything useful.
The room beyond was almost disappointing in its ordinariness. It was large but low, windowless but lit with the occasional orb of soft magelight. And packed to the rafters with casks, barrels, bottles, and anything else that might hold drink. It smelled of dark aged wood and musk, an earthy smell that made her feel strangely nostalgic. Altea stood a few paces inside the door as she scanned the room, and found nothing but what she might expect a great House’s cellar to contain.
A waste of time and effort. She sighed, steeling herself for what must come next. Up the stairs, taking even more care now to tread quietly on the deeply-piled carpeting. Past the ground floor, up into the House proper, and now she shrank against a wall, listening intently. Voices to the right, muffled enough to suggest they were behind a door. Silence to the left, but if the basement layout reflected the upper stories of the House at all (and in a faerie building that wasn’t always a guarantee), the bulk of the House was to the left.
What was she doing here? She was looking for Diarmuid– or any evidence of what had happened to him. If he had pledged to Vizandir, he would have quarters here or on one of the floors above. Perhaps she might yet find him sitting in his rooms writing a letter, or eating his dinner, or napping on a featherdown bed.
Heartening thoughts. She crept up to the top stair and peered up and down the hallway. Empty. With a quick breath, she rushed to the first door to the left, wrenched it open, and pulled it closed behind her. The room before her seemed to be exactly what she had guessed– quarters for low- or mid-ranking members of the House, sumptuous enough but by no means fit for a House’s ruling family. It took her only a few minutes to determine that these rooms belonged to a resident faerie– the collection of unguents and lotions would melt a mortal’s face off in only a few days.
The next room was similarly easy to discount, and the next. The fourth room down the hall may have belonged to a mortal, but it looked like it had been occupied far too long to be Diarmuid’s quarters. Crowded bookshelves and piles of books and parchments suggested a serious and busy mind– perhaps these were the steward’s rooms.
The next room was empty. As was the next. And the seventh and last rooms, each perfectly clean and well-appointed, empty of personal effects or any hint of individuality. Altea sat on the perfectly turned-down bed, chewing her lip in thought. By now, surely the steward had returned to the kitchen and noticed her absence. Perhaps she had brought Lady Vizandir with her, or any number of others in the House. Soon there would be an alarm, or at least a hasty search, and she would be forced to flee with nothing to show for her efforts.
Altea frowned down at her empty hands– then blinked up as a glint of light caught the corner of her eye. There– at the foot of the pristine wooden desk, something that didn’t belong, something lost or forgotten. She knelt on the floor and reached for it with shaking fingers, prying it out from where it had caught under the lip of a drawer.
She knew what it was before she had it free. As she held it up, light played over it in wavy, silvery patterns. A lightning-blue mermaid’s scale, wrapped in silver wire and hung on a blue ribbon.
Her blood ran hot, then cold. The edges of the scale pressed into her palm as she held it tight, sharp enough to prick flesh.
Diarmuid had been here– that was unquestionable. And he was no longer here — at least, not in this room. It was possible he’d simply changed quarters, she supposed, but that would mean he’d moved to the rooms of the higher ranking House members, which didn’t seem right. In fact, for a House with a reputation for taking in mortals, she’d seen very little evidence of mortals at all, other than the steward. A House this size ought to at least have a full kitchen of cooks, servants, pages…
There had been people in the rooms to the right of the stairs, which were now the only rooms on the hall that she hadn’t explored. The steward had mentioned something about the gentry being “holed up,” whatever that meant. Could the whole House be there, servants and all?
There wasn’t anything else for it. She’d come here to find Diarmuid, or at least to find out what had happened to him. She couldn’t leave now with nothing but suspicions. Damn him. Damn her.
Altea stood and eased up to the bedroom door. She opened it slowly and slipped out, cursing herself the entire way. She crept down the hall, listening after each footfall. Surely her absence from the kitchen had been discovered by now. Surely she’d be spotted. Surely she’d given herself away–
Voices floated down the hall. Altea darted into the nearest bedroom. This was the one with all the books, the one she had thought might belong to the steward. That was lucky– there was a small alcove between a bookshelf and a corner where she could tuck herself and, hopefully, not be immediately visible to anyone entering the room.
The voices in the hallway approached, then stopped just short of the door. Altea held her breath and strained. She could just make out the tones, but not the words of the conversation.
It was too tempting to resist. She eased out of her hiding place, taking small, slow steps toward the door. A few steps short, and the words were clear. She reached down her shirt and withdrew the ice sphere. Uncovered, it began glowing with a soft blue light that pulsed in rhythm with the conversation.
“…you would even let a stranger in now, when we’re so close to everything we’ve dreamed of.” The voice was female, imperious, angry even– every inch the noble House matron. Altea had never spoken to the Lady of House Vizandir, but she could imagine this voice matching the tall, stern figure she’d often spotted across ballrooms and audience chambers.
“Deepest apologies, my Lady, I’ll send her away–” That was the steward, sounding much less sure of herself than she’d been in the kitchen.
“We cannot risk that. She may be a House spy. Or even sent by the Queen herself.” There was a pause. Then, “Did you say she was human?”
“Human, my Lady, but old. Perhaps not as useful as you might…” Altea could not make out the end of the sentence.
“Perhaps still useful, though. That last boy was not as vibrant as we had hoped. Something dimmed his light just before the end. We could use one last mortal soul.”
The conversation continued, and the sphere still glowed, but Altea heard none of it. A static had filled her ears, white noise that was not sound so much as rage, hot and blazing. It took all her will not to rush from the bedroom, not to confront the two women so sure of themselves and their place, not to wrap her hands around the Lady’s throat and watch the superiority leach from her eyes. She trembled there in the dark, her back to a bookshelf, the surroundings so innocuous as two murderers calmly discussed her death only feet away.
She caught only a few other wisps of conversation, though she did not know what a “sylvan intrusion” or a “biannual etheric” were. They sounded dangerous, and the sphere caught it all– she assumed she had what she needed for her purposes.
And her purposes, she found, had abruptly changed. Or rather, they had focused, crystallized into a single fine point. It was no longer enough to merely discover what had happened to Diarmuid; nor would it be enough to prevent it from happening to any other hapless mortal. No. House Vizandir had been responsible for too much pain, too much death and loss in her own life alone, and who could say how many other lives they had been allowed to destroy. It was time for someone to stop them.
And she now had the means to do so.
But she could not be the one to bring this to the Queen. She had no wish to step into the middle of Court politics, or to shine any sort of spotlight on herself. She had learned better, through the years. No, for this information to get to the Queen’s ears and eyes, she’d need to be careful, secretive even, in how she delivered it. No connections that might lead back to her. There was one obvious choice.
Eothan had risen in rank quickly in the six years she had known him. From a mere palace guard with a sympathetic ear, he had garnered recognition for thwarting multiple attempts to rob the palace, and he’d stopped at least one previous attempted coup. Altea had never asked how he knew she wasn’t doing the same, all those years ago, but she assumed a scared 12-year-old mortal simply couldn’t be perceived as much of a threat. Despite his last words to her on that dark, distant day, they had seen each other many times since. They’d progressed from ignoring each other to exchanging quick nods, and even to holding occasional short, clipped conversations. Even as Eothan’s duties grew greater, he still made time for her, when he could, and he never seemed to lose the sympathy and compassion with which he had handled their first meeting.
He still insisted on taking the darkest, latest, longest round of patrols, she knew. Which meant that she should be able to find him alone, in a far corner of the palace unfrequented by others. But first, she had to escape House Vizandir. Her options were limited– she had one more use of the locking charm, a disguise that may or may not be of any actual use, and one last, closely-guarded secret.
Altea tapped the charmed key on the bedroom door’s lock and moved to the window. Peeking out, she was almost surprised to find that she was, as expected, about two stories from the ground– it wasn’t often that the inside of a fae hall matched its outside.
It made her suspicious, but she didn’t have any time to waste. She swung wide the casement and leaned out, eyeing the distance to the ground. She climbed up onto the sill and dug into her belt pouch, her fingers closing around the yellow feather. She whispered a curse as she tucked it behind her ear. This would be a terrible time to discover that the goblin had scammed her. She closed her eyes and jumped.
She fell. And fell. And fell. And when she opened her eyes she was still falling, slowly, as though through time had stretched to a crawl. She touched down gently on the ground without a sound, and let out her long-held breath. It took only a moment to get her bearings before she took off like a shot, running for the back gate and vaulting over it with the feather’s magical assistance, bouncing right back into a run as she landed.
Trees streamed past her, gleaming gold and green in the night. Dirt and stones crunched under her feet, and soon the travel magic of the faeroad had her, hastening her to her destination. She passed Halls and mansions in the blink of an eye, blazed through forests, tore past lakes and streams. In only minutes she was miles away, and the Winter Palace rose before her, a grey glow of turrets and balustrades. Only then did she slow, no more than slightly winded and lightly sweating.
Eothan’s late rounds would take him to the outer wall, she knew. And she had one more use of the feather, though the height of this wall might be asking a bit much of it. She glared up, weighing her options, when the choice was made for her. Two guards in full armor rounded the curve. They moved slowly, clearly not on alert. One could have been human or elf under their armor, but the other was tall and broad, and Altea thought she recognized Eothan’s calm, easy movements.
Her disguise still held. Altea stared down at her aged hands, contemplating her best move as the guards drew nearer. What was least likely to get her shot with a crossbow before she could say her piece? Put that way, maybe the direct approach was the best one.
She took a deep breath and stepped out from under the trees, into the pool of light cast by the sconces on the wall. She cleared her throat as loudly as she could, then added, “Ho! Guards!”
The effect was instantaneous. Both guards stiffened and reached for their weapons as they turned toward her, and she was gratified to confirm that it was Eothan who apparently decided not to pull his crossbow on her.
“What business have you by the palace at night, traveler?” called the other one. A woman, Altea now saw. This one did carry a crossbow, but she did not aim it just yet.
Altea drew a deep breath. “I have grave news, and information for the ears of the Queen herself. Can I trust you to bring her tidings?”
The guards exchanged a glance, and seemed to agree on something. “The Queen grants audience to all who seek it, grandmother. But come back tomorrow, when the palace wakes.”
Altea waved a hand irritatedly before her. “It may be too late, then. This must get to her immediately.” As she spoke, she drew the memory ball from the folds of her tunic. It glowed a little in the darkness, and she could see the dim forms of remembered deeds within its light.
“What could you possibly have that cannot wait until morning, grandmother?” the female guard asked, her tone shading into boredom. She had clearly already decided this was a waste of her time.
“Treason,” Altea said, the word hissing across her lips. She cleared her throat. “Plots. A House schemes against the Queen. I have it here, all of it.”
She held up the ball, which seemed to flare in the moonlight.
“We don’t need your tricks, grandmother.”
Altea growled in frustration. “No trick! But you can be certain I will tell the Queen which of her guards had the opportunity to stop these traitors, and did not!”
That seemed to get through– both guards flinched back, and Eothan cleared his throat. “What have you there? I’ll take your evidence to the Queen.”
Finally. Altea nodded sharply. “A sphere with a memory, taken just tonight. Nobles who speak of their plot when they think no one is listening. She will know who.”
And when Eothan held up his empty hands, she threw the sphere up to him. He caught it easily, stared into it for a few seconds, and then tucked it away.
“And you, grandmother? Who are we to say gave us this?”
Altea smiled thinly. “No need for that,” she said. “I’m sure this’ll be the first and last time you see me lurking around.”
She saw the flash of recognition cross Eothan’s face as he nodded. The other guard started to voice a protest, but Eothan spoke low to her, and Altea shrank back into the trees. In moments, it was over.
She had done what she could. Diarmuid would be avenged.
It is the day of her eighteenth birthday, and nothing has changed. For three long days, Altea has waited to hear news of the fall of House Vizandir, to hear of fire and smoke and earthquakes claiming the Hall, of wights picking over its bones. But there has been nothing, and nothing, and nothing, and with each passing day Altea feels more like she might claw her own skin off.
And now it is her birthday, and she is obligated to appear in court, and the nobles of Vizandir will still be there, milling and plotting and smiling as though nothing at all has happened.
It is a world of lies and deceit, and Altea no longer thinks she can survive it, if even the rankest traitors are allowed to thrive.
The grand hall today is as crowded as ever, the crowd as grand as ever. Altea wears a black gown detailed in silver spiderweb traceries, her hair in the simplest style that will pass with a noble audience, and even that has more braids than she would prefer. Ulthar walks her in, but soon leaves her alone to join a group of giantkin. She skulks along the edges of the crowd, wishing she knew enough magic to merge into the stone walls.
It is as she expected. Members of House Vizandir mix with the crowd as though they plot no evil. The Lady of the House, distinctive even amongst the other noble fae in silver and lilac, tosses her head with a tinkling laugh that grates on Altea’s ears. If anything, Vizandir seems somehow to be more prominent than usual, more numerous, more… inescapable.
Altea retreats into the deepest doorway she can find, wishing for the shadows to swallow her.
She thinks she has done well to go unnoticed, but then a self-conscious cough catches her ear, whirling her around to face–
Eothan. She narrows her eyes at him. Is he the reason nothing has happened? She had thought she could trust him to inform the Queen, but perhaps he is not as he seems–
“Lady,” Eothan says, inclining his head just so. “I understand you are one of tonight’s honorees.”
There were things he could have said to stay in her good graces. This was not one of them.
“There seem to be a great many honorees tonight,” she bites out. “More, perhaps, than are merited.”
She can’t see his reaction under the faceplate of his helmet, but some small movement– or perhaps, lack of movement– tells her he understands. “The Queen’s vision reaches far, and her reasons are her own. We can trust that she acts in all good faith.”
Altea’s laugh is sharp and loud enough to turn heads towards them. “Good faith is a strange term for self-interest. At the very least, we can hope she acts with all the necessary information at hand.”
“I can… assure you, Her Majesty does not act in ignorance.”
Altea gives the guard a long look, but she can read nothing behind his visor. Does she trust Eothan or doesn’t she? She had thought she could trust her own reading of him, but he is still of the Winter Court, and therefore innately untrustworthy.
“If she does not act in ignorance, why is Vizandir still here?” The direct question is unwise. It exposes her to Eothan, to anyone else listening. It reveals her involvement, her interests, her feelings, her anger– all of which can be used against her. All of which, if she truly has misjudged Eothan–
“Vizandir attends as the Queen’s honored guests,” Eothan says. “They are, as ever, her loyal retainers.”
Hot anger through her chest, ice climbing down her spine.
“Did you not–”
“–I did,” he says, cutting her off. “It is in her hands now.”
Altea stares for a long moment, her breath coming short as her chest constricts with her anger. She whirls, knowing only in this moment that she must get away from him. From Ulthar. From the Queen. From all who would let such injustice continue without raising a hand to stop it.
This is what comes of getting involved. This is what comes of allowing oneself to care. This is what, at heart, the fae truly are– heartless and cruel beyond any mortal ken. She must leave, must get out, must find any possible means to escape–
“Altea Hyssop.” The voice is cold but musical. It floats across the ballroom, hardly loud enough to overpower so many other voices in the hall, yet distinct and undeniable. “You may approach the throne.”
And she may be imagining it, but Altea swears the room quiets as she makes her way through it. Conversations stop, the rustle of clothing settles, and even breath seems to be held as she pushes through the crowd. All noise ceases, the room is quiet– but for one corner, where the Lady of House Vizandir holds court, her circle of thanes gathered close. A tinkling laugh spills through the silence.
Magic. It must be. The Queen is toying with her. Altea grits her teeth as she nears the throne.
The Queen is a vision draped in shadow, with gleams of starlight in her hair. She is coiffed, prim, brittle perfection. Skin of marble, eyes of ice, every movement edged in efficiency and precision. She lounges to one side of her vast throne, holding a small white sphere in one hand almost carelessly. Wisps of cold drift between her fingers as she toys with the memory ball.
“Altea Hyssop.” Her voice is cold and clear, as dangerous as the first skin of ice on a winter pond. “On this occasion of your eighteenth birthday, I understand I owe you… a boon.”
The words settle over the court like snow, and silence falls. Altea goes chill, and resents that she fits the theme.
“A boon?” she manages.
The queen smiles, and fear pierces Altea’s heart. “The favor may have been unsought, but I am indebted nonetheless. And never let it be said that the Winter Queen does not honor her debts.”
“…debts,” Altea repeats, thunderstruck. Was she really speaking to her of debt?
The faintest line of annoyance appears between the Queen’s brows. “Do not repeat me child. You understand me well. Or was I not clear?”
The memory ball lights, and dark color plays over its surface. Altea finds herself thinking of the unlit room in the Vizandir house, all bookshelves and thick doors. She raises her chin.
“You were not,” she says, and to her quiet delight, her voice does not shake.
The line reappears on the Queen’s pristine face, and Altea almost smiles.
“I know you are not stupid, child,” the Queen says, and now, for sure, the hush in the Hall is no enchantment. Altea can feel the weight of a thousand eyes on her shoulders.
“Nonetheless,” she says, “I do not… understand.”
The Queen’s eyes flash, and the hall seems to chill. The Court behind her seems to collectively draw its breath, and Altea nearly laughs, the delight bubbling within her chest. Danger be damned, for one moment she holds the power in this interaction, and the Queen will heed her wishes.
“Very well,” the Queen whispers. The ice sphere vanishes with a flourish of her fingers, and she straightens, now seated exactly in the center of her throne. Her back is ramrod straight, her profile a taut line. “If you insist on having it all brought to light, I shall indulge your whim. You prove yourself reckless, child. Not a quality I would have expected.”
There is not a hair’s width of movement, yet suddenly she addresses the entire crowd, her voice rolling through the hall. “Listen well, my nobles. Heed these words. Not three days past, Altea Hyssop brought to my attention the treachery of one of my Houses. A dire plot to usurp my rule and introduce lawlessness to the Winter Realms. As such, I am… indebted to her. I owe her a boon, and now she is to choose it.”
The Court reacts with gasps, with rustles and quick footsteps and a burst of hushed chatter. Altea cannot see, for she will not turn away from the Queen, but she strains to hear the reaction from one corner of the hall, and now there is no laughter to be heard. The particular silence gives her a surge of triumph and bravery.
The Queen’s eyes narrow. “And?”
“Who is it, my Queen, who would dare plot against you? Surely all the Court deserves to know.”
The Queen’s fingers twitch, a movement only noticeable because the rest of her is so still. For a half second, Altea thinks that this is it, that surely she has gone too far and the Queen will strike her down where she stands, but then–
“House Vizandir,” the Queen whispers. “House Vizandir stands against me, and for this knowledge, I would grant you a boon.”
The room is silent once again.
“And…” Altea takes a deep breath, because now she understands what it is that has driven her to this point– the anger, the recklessness, the surprise and delight of provoking the Queen herself– this is where it leads. “What of the rest of your debt to me?”
For a long moment, the Queen is still, as frozen as the walls around her. Then, incredibly, one corner of her lips twitches in the palest hint of a smile. Altea feels her courage falter as the Queen says, simply, “Debt?”
Perhaps this is it. Perhaps she has pushed the Queen too far, come to close to the edge. Perhaps she has tried the patience of the most powerful faerie in the realm and she, a mere mortal, will now suffer the fate of so many other mortals who do not heed the rules of the fae. Perhaps this is her doom, and she has come this far only to fail, to end her hopeless life in a blaze of dissatisfaction and unrealized hopes, of sad ambitions never realized, of hubris and arrogance.
Perhaps. And then again, perhaps not.
“When I came here,” Altea starts, and it comes out entirely too quiet. She stops, clears her throat, and tries again.
“When I came here, you made me three promises.” She straightens her shoulders. “You’ve only fulfilled two of them.”
The Queen gives her an arch look. “Three? I do not recall three.”
Altea feels her courage fail. Fae cannot lie, she knows, but they can prevaricate and avoid and mislead. Yet if she loses her resolve now, she is lost. She holds herself straight with sheer force of will.
“You promised that I would be welcomed.”
“And you were,” says the Queen. “I welcomed you myself, and gave you board and bread.”
“You promised that I would be protected.”
“Not a single faerie has laid a finger on you,” the Queen says. “You have enjoyed every protection I have to offer.”
Altea’s eyes narrow. There is, perhaps, much lacking from the Queen’s protections. And yet, that is not the crux of the issue.
“And… you promised that I would meet my father.”
There is a beat of silence, a moment when the whole tableau holds its breath. Each second is excruciating, drilling into Altea’s courage and chipping away at her confidence that this, this one grievance that she has held for so long, surely at least this cannot be denied–
But the Queen throws back her head, and she laughs. And it is no tinkling laugh, no delicate lady’s politeness. No, this is a full-throated, shoulder-shaking, almost rhythmic sound. It rebounds off the lofty heights of the hall until it seems to fill the whole space, and this is no magic trick, no paltry pretense of presentation. The Queen is amused– no, the Queen is ecstatic.
And Altea knows she is lost.
“Oh, child, child,” the Queen manages. She pauses, another peal of laughter breaking what little composure she has managed to recapture. Then she is once again the austere vision of sharp and brittle beauty, though now she smiles, wide and full of teeth.
“Child. Do you mean to say that in all this time, you have not figured it out?”
“Figured out…?” And Altea cannot for the life of her understand what the Queen finds so funny. Her mind races. Has she, somehow, already met her father? Could that be it? Is it Ulthar? Eothan? Any one of the endless supply of Court nobles who barely acknowledge her existence?
Surely it isn’t a member of House Vizandir? Horror shoots down her spine in cold lightning.
“Oh, no,” the Queen says, her smile broadening. “No, no, no. All this time, and you do not understand where you go wrong. Poor child. Poor mortal.”
The Court erupts in titters and guffaws, understanding now its place in the scene. The laughter only serves to drive the blade deeper into Altea’s resolve. What is it that she has missed?
“Three promises,” Altera whispers. “And you have not fulfilled the third.”
“Child,” the Queen bites off. “I made no such promise, and neither did my agent. Think back, if you must. Remember. There was no third promise.”
Altea frowns. Could it be..? But fae don’t lie. All this time, she had thought…
“Mortals.” said Widdershanks “Lost children. Lost… parents.”
“My mother is dead.”
“Yes. Your mother is.”
“Are you… Are you saying my father… is at the Winter Court? That he’s been there the whole time?”
“I can take you, if you wish.”
There was no promise. There had never been a promise. There hadn’t even been a confirmation. Altea had simply grasped and held on to the thinnest intimation that she might, possibly, not be alone.
Foolish. Stupid. Mortal. Altea feels the weight of years of failure, and her breath leaves her.
“You understand?” asks the Queen, but it is not a question. “You understand, now, your position here? I believe you do. Now…”
Her smile is cold, and cold, and cold.
“Now, you have a choice,” the Queen says. “I still owe you one boon. Which is it? Do you want to meet your father? Or do you want the see the end of House Vizandir?”
None of this, Altea thinks. I want none of this. I am so tired. I am so sick of living every moment on a knife’s edge, and here is one more, two things I want more than anything and only one choice to make, and–
Altea’s eyes widen.
“You’re doing it again,” she says softly.
The Queen’s smile goes thin-lipped. “Am I?”
“You owe me a boon. No limitations. That’s what you said at the beginning. And now you are limiting it. A choice of two options, and no matter what I choose, you benefit. But… it is not limited, is it?”
Altea smiles as the Queen goes still.
“You meant for me to use my boon to demand the destruction of House Vizandir. That is why you have not done it already– you hoped I would have you discharge your debt on something that needs to happen anyway. And now you think to offer me a choice that, I am sure, will also benefit you in some way. Perhaps my father is dead already. Or perhaps he is a prisoner, and I can only meet him by becoming a prisoner myself.”
Altea watches closely, but see no reaction to these suggestions. She nods to herself. Well, fine then.
“But my choice is not limited, and your debt still holds. And so, I ask…” She breathes. “No, I demand my freedom. I demand to be sent away from the Winter Court. Away from the Summer Court. Exile me. Send me to the mortal realms, never to see another faerie. That is my choice. No more lies. No more tricks. Send me to the mortal realms, and your debt is fulfilled.”
The Queen is a marble statue, almost a part of her throne. She is cold as ice, pale as frost, and still until she stands. Snow drifts from her black gown in crystalline sparks. Her eyes are deep, and pitiless, and forever.
“Very well, Altea Hyssop,” she intones. “You are exiled. I cast you out, alone and friendless. Much joy may you have of your one final wish.”
She brings her hands together in a monstrous thunderclap. There is a sudden flash of light, a force that pushes her to her knees but the floor is no more, and she is falling, and falling, and falling. She looks up, and sees a bright summer sun, the thin edge of a new moon. Then she closes her eyes, and sees nothing.
And that is all I have to tell you. A life lived alone, with not a single friend or ally. Betrayal when I thought I could trust, any offer of hope turned to loss and pain. The worst of it, of course, was my own fault. That is how the fae work best– they simply set the trap, and wait for you to blunder into it. And you will. There is no avoiding the trap. It was set long ago, by creatures who know you better than you will ever know yourself.
So heed my warnings, mortal. Learn from my life. Erase any thought you may have to seek them out. Plan your life to avoid them at any cost. Because here is my final lesson on the fae– in the end, you may think you have somehow won, but you will never truly be rid of them.
About the Author
Meridel Newton lives in Washington, DC and dreams of dragons. Her writing spans the subgenres of speculative fiction, and has appeared in anthologies such as 1001 Knights and Recognize Fascism. She has a forthcoming novella from Interstellar Flight Press. Find her at thepuppetkingdom.com and on Twitter as @ridelee.