“What a pathetic little province. Aunt, are you sure an [Emperor] lives here of all places?”
Lord Rael of Veniford twisted in his saddle to speak to the older lady riding next to him. He stared down the dirt road, at the shabby signpost at the crossroads and the distant houses in the distance. He could see small shapes working as the evening light turned the world orange. Peasants building more houses, by the looks of it. He wrinkled his nose in distaste.
The woman riding next to him gave Rael a sharp look. Like him, she was dressed in fine riding clothes, attired as befit her station. Her dress was impeccable but it stung Lord Rael’s pride that it was the same dress she’d owned a year ago. His family, the Venifords, could not afford to dress in the latest fashions so they repaired their clothing rather than replace them at year’s end. Rael was acutely aware of the stitching down the left side of his pant leg—practically unnoticeable, unless you cared for good cloth.
And it was presumable that everyone in the small procession cared about such matters. They were all the nobility of Izril. The Human nobility, that was. Rael wouldn’t have ridden with a Drake—if they did know how to ride at all—for any amount of money. He was a [Lord], an owner of a large province of land bordering Invrisil. Unfortunately, said land was not nearly as profitable as, say, Lady Magnolia Reinhart’s holdings and their family had fallen on harder times since his birth.
If the Venifords had one treasure, it was their matriarch and Rael’s aunt, Lady Bevia Veniford. She was an old warhammer of a woman in Rael’s opinion. She’d survived two husbands and both Antinium Wars and she was a high-level [Lady] adept at social graces. Her ties had brought income to Veniford in the form of trade and so on, but it made Rael angry thinking of how his aunt lowered herself to make deals with [Merchants].
He had been raised to be proud of his class by his father, Lord Willam Veniford until his demise during a hunting session at the horn of an angry Corusdeer. It was just another litany in the list of Veniford’s woes. And this—being forced to attend a social gathering in the middle of nowhere at Lady Magnolia Reinhart’s request was just another injustice Rael intended to correct when he assumed control of the family. Unfortunately, his indignation did not seem to impress his aunt. She leaned over and quietly spoke in a cutting tone.
“You will keep your remarks to yourself, Rael. We are in the lands of Emperor Laken and while we are here you will behave properly, or I will put you over my saddle and spank you myself.”
Rael jerked and his cheeks flamed. His head swiveled quickly, but none of the other riders were close enough to have heard. He glared at his aunt.
“This is beneath us! We are nobility—why is there no escort? And look at that village! It can’t hold more than a thousand peasants!”
“It can. Riverfarm has expanded of late. And they are putting up new houses quite quickly. I had heard they were in the middle of rebuilding not a week ago, with barely more than half a dozen homes standing. There must be four times as many houses. Quite impressive of this young [Emperor].”
Lady Bevia straightened in her saddle, giving the town an appraising look. Rael fumed, trying to see what she did in this rundown countryside. Bevia shook her head slightly as she regarded her nephew with disapproval.
“You have too much of your father in you, Rael. Look beyond appearances. Lady Reinhart herself has taken the time to organize this gathering—at a time when the Goblin Lord is marching through her lands! This [Emperor] is the first of his kind to appear on Izril in over a thousand years.”
“He might not be a true [Emperor]. Why would one appear here?”
Rael muttered sulkily as he brushed at his hair. It was wet, conditioned with an [Alchemist]’s tonic he’d bought half-price while in Invrisil a month ago. It felt too slick—perhaps the mixture was going bad? He cursed to himself as he impatiently adjusted his posture on his mare. He should have been riding a stallion at the head of this band of nobles!
Laughter came from the fore of their procession. Rael scowled at the young [Lords] and [Ladies] pressing their mounts ahead. Not everyone invited to the gathering was as old and tiresome as his aunt. A number of young nobles had come with their families. Rael itched to join them, but he was worried about his hair. And the stitches on his pant leg. He tried to tell himself that no one would care.
Bevia eyed Rael as she drew her mount around a fresh pile of horse dung dropped by a rider in front. She cast her eyes back to the wagons filled with foods following their group at a good pace.
“I do not believe Magnolia Reinhart would make mistakes. Nor do I believe Lady Rie Valerund would pledge her loyalty to a charlatan. This Laken Godart is an [Emperor], I have no doubts. So if he appears before us in rags you will bow and address him with respect.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised.”
Rael grumbled. Bevia sighed through her nose.
“Rael, you are beginning to test my patience. I brought you on this outing because Lady Magnolia requested I bring you, and I agreed against my better judgment.”
“Lady Magnolia asked for me specifically?”
Rael’s heart jumped in his chest. Bevia shook her head.
“She had a list. Do not let it get to your head. Now, if you wish to ride with the younger men and women, do not let me stop you. But remember—respect. Hold your tongue, Rael.”
She raised a finger. Rael nodded absently. Magnolia Reinhart knew his name! He kicked his mare forwards eagerly, riding past the other older nobles.
“Rael! It’s about time! What, were you going to hang back with your aunt until we got to the village?”
A young man called out as Rael trotted his mount forwards. Lord Andres of Lelk turned his stallion and rode back as Rael slowed. A group of six young nobles turned to him and Rael recognized all of them. Three were young men and three young women. They were all local nobles, none from exceptionally large houses. Of the six, Lord Andres probably had the wealthiest lands although Lady Cimeca of House Tellis probably had more holdings.
Rael would have been placed at the lower rung in terms of both wealth and size of his lands, right above Lord Pattin of Vaunt. Rael was glad to see him and smiled arrogantly at Pattin. The young [Lordling] was heir to a small city and a few villages that produced cheese and little else.
“I decided to keep my aunt company. She’s getting on in years and I didn’t want to abandon her until I was certain she could do without me, Andres. Cimeca, you look well.”
Andres laughed as the young woman with red hair turned her head to look back at him. Rael’s heart skipped a beat as Cimeca politely smiled his way. He urged his mare forwards and he was soon part of the group. The young nobles laughed as their older counterparts hung back, talking quietly. Soon Rael was repeating his comments about the landscape to the laughing crowd, heedless of his aunt’s warnings.
“Aye, it’s a poor province. Riverfarm and the surrounding area earn a pittance compared to lands managed by proper [Lords]. I heard all of this was once Valerund land until the family lost all of its members during the Second Antinium War.”
Andres nodded around the countryside, shaking his head at evidence of unused cropland long abandoned. Rael nodded, but Lord Pattin cut in.
“First Antinium War, actually, Andres.”
“What? The Antinium didn’t invade our lands during the First Antinium War! Pattin, are you sure?”
Haviet Meliope turned her head, her emerald earrings sparkling as she looked at Pattin. She was dressed well, although she was no beauty in Rael’s eyes. Still, her clothing was a far cry from Pattin’s worn riding clothes and sad mare. Pattin nodded, undeterred by her skepticism and his poor fortunes. He twisted a ring on his finger as he talked absently.
“We were never invaded, it’s true, but Lord Quail Valerund was one of the first to pledge his forces to Lady Magnolia when she led our armies to fight the Antinium at Liscor. He perished in the battle—one of the only nobles who fell. He was Lady Rie’s grandfather and a powerful [Lord]—he was succeeded by his daughter and her husband of course, but the loss of such a high-level [Lord] hurt the family and they never quite recovered. Then of course the Second Antinium War happened and they lost control of almost all the rest of their lands along with their garrisons. That was why Riverfarm and the surrounding areas are so poor—”
“Argh, enough talk of history!”
Rael burst out, annoyed by Pattin’s lecturing tone. He spurred his mare and his horse trotted forwards a few steps as Rael raised his voice.
“No one cares why this place is so poor, Pattin. But why an [Emperor] of all people would deign to live here is beyond me. I wouldn’t let a Drake [Lord] live here—if they’d ever come out of hiding behind their Walled Cities, that is!”
He smirked as one of the young women laughed and Andres chuckled. However, Haviet smiled nastily at Rael. She and he had hated each other ever since he’d made an ill-advised comment about her appearance to a few of his male friends a year back. She’d heard and never forgiven him for it.
“I wouldn’t speak so loudly, Rael. If your aunt Bevia hears of it she’ll put you over the saddle right here and now.”
Rael turned beet red as Andres, Pattin, and Oswalt howled with laughter. The other ladies laughed too. He glared at her.
“Haviet just learned the [Long Ear] Skill, Rael. Haven’t you heard?”
Andres grinned as the others kept chuckling. Haviet smiled at Rael and he glared at her. He was a low-level [Lord], as was she and the rest of their company. He didn’t know their exact levels, but they couldn’t be much higher than he was, a Level 13 [Lord] and Level 4 [Warrior]. He glared at Haviet and came up with the most cutting response he could.
“[Long Ears], eh? Well, it can’t hurt Haviet’s looks even if she started looking like a half-Elf. Who knows? It might even be an improvement!”
His words made Haviet flush beet red and provoked another laugh from Oswalt and an unwilling one from Andres. Pattin didn’t laugh though, giving Rael a troubled glance. Rael cared not one whit for his opinion. Cimeca gave him a frosty look, however, which wasn’t part of his plan.
“I think any Skill is to be commended, Lord Rael. Besides which, Emperor Laken Godart has invited us into his domain and that merits a certain degree of respect from all of us.”
She swept her gaze past Andres and Oswalt who immediately stopped laughing and cleared their throats awkwardly. Rael turned his head away, face flushed with anger and shame. After a pause in which all seven nobles trotted forwards, it was Oswalt who spoke.
“I say, there are a number of nobles I don’t quite recognize. I know all of our families, but who’s the woman riding with that man in the doublet with the rapier behind us? Is he her bodyguard or is she single?”
He nodded covertly and everyone turned in their saddle to look. Ellia Cantras, third daughter of the Cantras family, known for their beekeeping, peach orchards, and small population of [Mages], glared at Oswalt. She and he had been in an unofficial relationship for two years until it came out that Oswalt had been cheating on her with local peasant girls and visiting brothels.
“That’s Lady Bethal Walchaís, Oswalt. And if you have half a brain you’ll keep away from her if you don’t want her husband to run you through. Sir Thomast is a [Chevalier] and ten times better with a rapier than anyone here.”
All the young men turned to stare at Sir Thomast. Andres whistled.
“That’s him? I thought he’d be bigger! And that’s Lady Bethal? I heard she’s a firebrand.”
“In bed or out of it?”
Haviet and Ellia rolled their eyes at Oswalt’s joke. Cimeca frowned.
“Don’t offend her, whatever you do, Oswalt. And don’t touch her without her consent.”
“Because you could lose your hand.”
Rael stared at Cimeca. She hesitated and lowered her voice. The other nobles moved their horses closer to hear.
“She’s got a Skill that makes anyone who raises a hand against her suffer. She learned it during the Second Antinium War. The rumor is that she provoked Lord Elmha at a ball six years ago and he slapped her. Apparently he tore half the flesh off his hand and that was before Lady Bethal demanded he duel her husband for the insult. Lord Elmha took three cuts to his right shoulder and apparently hasn’t been able to move his arm or hand since.”
Andres shuddered and Rael found himself glancing backward in alarm. That was Lady Bethal? He knew she was a very influential [Lady] with a powerful estate, but that? Lady Bethal was laughing as she turned in her saddle to talk to Bevia who’d ridden up behind them.
“You’re quite lucky, Rael.”
Pattin was the first to break the thoughtful silence. Rael jumped and stared at him.
The impoverished young lord gestured to his aunt.
“Lady Bevia is quite good at making deals. She’s made connections with everyone in this party except Lady Bethal and if anyone might negotiate a favorable deal with this emperor, it’s her. I don’t expect Vaunt to come away with much, but if Laken Godart is offering anything I’m sure Lady Bevia will secure a piece of it.”
“If he has anything to offer. I still don’t know why Magnolia Reinhart herself went to the trouble of arranging the meeting. I’m just here for the outing, but I’ll be damned if I know why my father sent both me and my elder sister all the way here at her request. Why would she want to help him?”
“Why not? He’s an [Emperor] and she’s the highest-level [Lady] in the realm.”
“That’s not a good reason! She’s hardly pledged herself to him. And this isn’t exactly helpful—it could be a ploy to embarrass him, my mother says.”
Haviet leaned forwards. Andres rolled his eyes.
“With a social gathering?”
“If his village really is poor—”
“I thought he owned the lands around here? Anyone know if he owns the local cities?”
“I don’t know much. Only that he calls himself ruler of the Unseen Empire.”
Rael turned to stare at Haviet. She nodded.
“Hadn’t you heard? He’s blind but apparently he sees everything. Somehow. Don’t ask me, but apparently his army has slain every Goblin, [Bandit], and monster in the area for the last few months! The roads are completely safe, which is why my father wants a trade deal with him.”
Andres leaned forwards conspiratorially.
“I also hear he commands beasts. He’s got a half-Giant for a bodyguard and a [Witch] for a [General].”
“Yes, and—get this—he’s also able to protect his people from harm. He can magically sense when they’re in danger.”
“That has to be false. Unless there’s really a Skill like that?”
“I’m just reporting on what’s said! But apparently there’s a rumor that when he first appeared, he went to Invrisil and bought supplies for his village with gems and gold! People say he’s an exile from Chandrar—”
“I heard it was Terandria!”
“Terandria? Are you mad? They don’t have [Emperors] there. Unless he’s of some old lineage.”
“Hey, what’s that? Someone’s coming this way!”
The noisy gossip broke off as Lady Ellia pointed. Rael looked ahead and saw a group of mounted warriors galloping towards them. He stared in fascination as they slowed and then jerked in surprise as the mounted [Guards] and [Warriors] escorting the party moved forwards, protectively encircling the young nobles. Rael gripped at his new longsword, irritated. He wanted to declare that he could handle himself, but he never got the chance.
Cimeca stared as the lead rider approached the group. The head of the [Guards] rode forwards to meet them and they conversed. The rider nodded and then kicked his mount forwards. Rael stared at him in appreciation. He was wearing heavy mail armor and his horse was covered in scale barding. He looked like a seasoned veteran and the [Guard Captain] was clearly wary of him.
“My Lord and Ladies of Izril, I am Beniar, a [Cataphract] and [Captain] in service to His Majesty, Laken Godart. I have been tasked with escorting you safely through his lands. I bear you my liege’s compliments and his gratitude for your long journey.”
Beniar bowed in his saddle to the older nobles and then flashed the young women a smile that made Haviet and Ellia blush and fan at their faces. Rael saw Cimeca’s cheeks were slightly red as well and scowled at Beniar. There was a pause as the nobles conferred, then Bevia raised her voice.
“Sir Beniar, we are grateful for your escort. We eagerly await meeting his majesty soon. Tell me, are we close to Riverfarm?”
“Indeed, my lady. We are less than an hour’s ride away.”
Beniar bowed again and the procession, heartened by the news, began moving again. Beniar and his escort fell in line with the nobles and their guards. Soon he was the center of attention as nobles—not just the young women—surrounded him. Rael had to grudgingly admit that Beniar was a good emissary. Not only was he a former Silver-rank adventurer, but he was a [Cataphract], a class unknown to everyone in the group. Rael tried not to be impressed as Beniar described fighting for Laken Godart against Hobgoblins.
“You said the village is just up ahead? Can we ride to it safely? I’d bet my mount could give yours a run for its money with or without armor!”
Andres looked eager to race his horse against Beniar. The former adventurer only smiled politely.
“It is up ahead. I’m afraid I must stay with the procession, but if you wish to go ahead, feel free. My Emperor has assured me the roads are clear.”
“And does that mean they are?”
Rael challenged Beniar and was infuriated when the other young man chuckled in reply.
“If Emperor Laken says the roads are safe, then they undoubtedly are, Lord Rael. Nothing moves or enters his domain without his knowledge.”
There was an impressed pause as everyone considered Beniar’s words. Rael considered scoffing, but he didn’t quite dare. Andres laughed at last.
“Good enough for me! Anyone coming? Pattin? Andres? Cimeca?”
The young nobles hurriedly chimed in, all save for Emile and Haviet who were asking Beniar about a scar on his cheek. The five nobles raced ahead, laughing, and Rael spurred his mare hard, trying to catch Andres’ stallion. He lost, much to his disgust. Though he managed to make his mare beat Oswalt, he was outdone by Andres, Cimeca, and to his absolute disgust, Pattin. The poor lord might have had an old horse, but she was quick and he rode flawlessly in the saddle, nearly catching Andres as they raced into the village.
Oswalt laughed, not at all put out by his loss. Rael stared dismissively around the village. Now that he was up close he could see the houses under construction and the milling people at work. It looked just as pathetic as he’d thought! Still, he held his tongue and turned his panting mount as he heard a woman’s voice calling out.
“Lord Andres, Lady Cimeca, Lord Pattin, welcome to Riverfarm!”
A [Lady] was standing in the center of the street, dressed as if she were ready to go to a ball. The laughing young nobles straightened and tried to wipe sweat off their foreheads as Lady Rie Valerund swept forwards. She was a beautiful woman and Rael couldn’t keep his eyes off her neckline. That was, until he saw the giant bear walking down the street.
Pattin cried out in alarm and Andres and Oswalt paled. Rael fumbled for his sword but before anyone could act, they realized the bear had a saddle. And someone was riding it.
“Please do not be alarmed. My young lord and ladies of Izril, may I present His Majesty, Emperor Laken Godart.”
Lady Rie bowed slightly as the bear stepped forwards. Rael gaped. There was a young man riding the bear! He was only a few years older than Rael, and his eyes were closed. He turned his head to the nobles as their horses shied away, smiling.
“Good evening. I am Laken Godart, Emperor of Riverfarm. I thank you for coming all this way. Please, be at ease. Bismarck is not dangerous.”
He gently patted the green bear’s head and it made a whuffing sound. Rael’s heart raced. He stared at the [Emperor] as the young man turned his head unerringly to look straight at him. His eyes were closed, but somehow he knew where Rael was!
“Lady Rie, will you introduce me?”
“Of course. This is Rael Veniford. His lands are a good bit southeast of Invrisil, and he is the sole male heir of his family. Lord Rael, may I presume Lady Bevia is riding with you?”
“Aunt? Ah, yes—she’s on her way here. Greetings, your majesty.”
Fumbling, Rael bowed in his saddle and saw the [Emperor] nod in return. He felt off-guard and unsure what to do but was relieved to see his companions were little better off. Lady Rie smiled.
“You are no doubt exhausted from the trip. Please, allow our [Handlers] to care for your mounts. We have refreshments ready and I am sure you would enjoy touring Riverfarm on foot while we wait for the rest of the nobles to arrive.”
She whisked the young nobles away as Laken Godart remained seated on his bear, patiently awaiting the arrival of the other nobles. Soon, Rael found himself greeting Laken Godart all over again as the other nobles arrived. He was relieved to see they were equally dumbfounded to be greeted by the [Emperor] riding a bear, but they concealed their surprise well. His aunt only blinked once before gracefully bowing in her saddle.
“Emperor Laken, I am Lady Bevia Veniford. I am delighted to make your acquaintance. You do live up to the rumors, your majesty.”
“Oh? There are rumors about me?”
Laken Godart smiled as if he was unaware of the speculation and gossip that had followed his every move for the last two months. Lady Bevia smiled.
“Merely a handful, your majesty. And please, allow me to be the first to apologize for intruding on you at this busy time. I understand Riverfarm is undergoing extensive construction and Lady Reinhart’s gathering was something of a surprise.”
“Ah, well, I am told Lady Magnolia Reinhart enjoys such surprises. And it would hardly do for an [Emperor] to refuse an audience, would it not? I am delighted by your presence, Lady Bevia. I only trust that my hospitality shall not disappoint.”
“I cannot imagine that it would.”
Bevia nudged Rael and he bowed, stammering another greeting. They withdrew as another noble drew forwards to greet the Emperor. As they moved away, Bevia whispered.
Rael looked at her uncertainly. His aunt blinked and he realized the comment must not have been aimed at him.
“That was a true [Emperor], Rael. He has poise—and a sense for drama! Greeting us on a bear of all things. And he called this an audience? Lady Magnolia was right to draw attention to him.”
Bevia squinted at Rael as if to tell whether he was trying to be deliberately obtuse.
“Because it will benefit her to be the one to introduce Emperor Laken to Izril’s high society, of course! And because he is a true [Emperor]. Leaving him alone would be dangerous and risky. Acknowledging him is a safe maneuver.”
“But she hasn’t come herself. Isn’t that a slight?”
“She sent Lady Bethal, a close friend, and her maid.”
Bevia pointed back to where a maid was standing politely on the ground. She was attracting glances from the local peasants, who’d probably never seen anyone wearing a maid’s uniform before. Rael shook his head.
“Her spy. Don’t try and woo her. Keep up, and try not to fall over yourself bowing next time!”
Soon all the nobles were dismounted and led to a small clearing out in the open. Rael wrinkled his nose at the outdoor setting, but he had to admit that the banquet was certainly impressive. Each noble had brought a variety of foods, and as such the tables were heaped with delights. Bevia nodded appreciatively.
“And without spending a copper coin he has us host ourselves. Clever.”
Rael stared at the [Emperor] as he slowly walked forwards to the head of the table. He needed no guide despite walking without opening his eyes. He was flanked by a giant half-Troll…female in a suit and Lady Rie on his other side. Rael wrinkled his nose as he eyed the half-Troll.
“Clever or not, he’s made us come all the way here. And he only controls this village, Aunt. This is the least he should do for nobles of Izril.”
He’d gotten over his shock of meeting Laken Godart on the bear and was determined to treat this outsider with more scorn than the other nobles fawning over him. Bevia gave him an irritated glance, and Rael saw Cimeca look over. He smiled to himself as he realized the other nobles around him were giving him speculative looks. Cimeca leaned over, keeping her voice low.
“You’re not impressed, Rael?”
“What, by the bear? That was a trick. What else has this [Emperor] got besides a monster for a pet? We are still [Lords] and [Ladies] when all is said and done. We come from powerful houses—this [Emperor] is wise to greet us as equals. He must win our respect.”
Rael saw a few other nobles nodding in agreement, older men and women. He puffed up with pride as Bevia stared at him.
She nodded to Laken Godart. The young man waited for silence and began to speak.
“[Lords] and [Ladies] of Izril, I greet you. I am Laken Godart.”
Rael sensed a stir among the crowd. He nodded to himself. The [Emperor] wasn’t using his title. He was being humble. He shot his aunt a triumphant look, but her focus was on him. Laken Godart continued.
“I am aware that you are here at Lady Magnolia Reinhart’s request. I was unaware of this gathering until she arranged it in my honor, and I am grateful for her aid in doing so. For your enjoyment, my people have created a small setting in which we may mingle and talk. I look forwards to meeting each one of you in person. But before that—”
He paused for a second and Rael frowned. He was already hungry. What did he want, an official greeting? Entertainment?
“—But before that, I believe there are a few more guests I have yet to invite.”
There was murmuring. Rael frowned. Someone else was coming to the gathering? Who? It had better not be the staring peasants. He leaned over.
“Aunt, who is he talking about?”
“I greet the nobility of this land before me. I offer them the warmth of my hearths and the bounty of my lands. I would be remiss if I did not extend the same invitation to my own vassals.”
Laken Godart looked up towards the darkening sky, his eyes still closed. He gestured, as if inviting someone from above.
“My lords and ladies of the court? I invite you to share this banquet at your discretion. My lands are open to all those of my empire on this day. Come, if thou would.”
For a few second there was stunned silence. Rael looked around, and then couldn’t help it. He laughed.
“What was that?”
Bevia’s head whipped around. She glared at her nephew, but Rael was busy watching Cimeca and the other young nobles. He saw her giggle, covering the motion, and heard chuckles around him. Bevia’s fingers dug into his arm and Rael suppressed a yelp. His aunt gave him a look that deflated Rael’s good spirits. It promised trouble.
The [Emperor] seemed not to have noticed Rael’s comment. He looked towards an older man standing to one side, dressed in a suit.
“Mister Prost? We may have visitors this night. Keep a place at the tables open should guests arrive. Now, I believe we are ready to be seated?”
“Of course, your majesty.”
The man bowed and began leading nobles to the tables. Rael was about to walk forwards and find himself a seat away from his angry aunt when he paused. He heard something. A laugh from high above. It was faint, but unmistakable. It cut through the voices, the sound of wind, the chirping of insects—a giggling laughter. You couldn’t not hear it. It was as if it was the one true sound in the world and everything else Rael had heard over his lifetime was fake noise. He looked up in bewilderment and felt a breeze blow.
It was fresh and warm, filled with life. It stirred his hair and heart. Rael inhaled and caught a scent in the air, like morning dew, like the fresh air of forests, like spring. He heard more laughter and looked around. The breeze blew. The forest around the meadow stirred. And then he saw a glow of green, a figure dancing among the trees. By his side Cimeca gasped and Rael heard someone inhale sharply.
A woman stepped out of the forests, laughing. She was dressed in wild green and red clothing and her skin was tinted green. Her eyes danced, and the air brightened around her. She walked forwards, spinning, her steps light on the ground. Rael stared at her. She was the most incredible thing he had ever seen in his life. It wasn’t her appearance that caught him like a fish on the hook, but her otherworldly nature, the depths of her eyes, the way she moved.
And then the forest rustled. The air opened. Green figures began descending, walking out of the darkness, dancing down like birds from above. Wild folk, dressed in wild clothing with eyes that shone. Proud folk, that put the assembled company of nobles from Izril to shame. Fair folk, the fairest and most beautiful folk Rael had ever seen.
This is how they came. I stand, stunned, as the fae come out of the skies and shadows of dusk. They weren’t so large before! And these fae are full of life and motion, bearing the aspect, the very essence of spring itself. The Frost Faeries I knew were small winged creatures full of mischief and laughter.
At least the laughter is the same here. The fae come forwards, laughing, showing off. Yes, that’s what they’re doing. Showing off. Each one is the center of attention, a one-person performance that demands all the attention in the world. They dance into the meadow, shining stars that glow in my mind’s eye.
Dancing and laughing, appearing out of the air like spirits. Called by my voice. The fae descend on my gathering, brightening the dusk with their presence. They walk or run or leap about, dressed in wild clothing that’s both rich and free. Their garments shimmer with beauty, almost as much as the fae themselves.
Or so I imagine. I, Laken Godart, can’t see. But I can listen. I heard the nobles and people of Riverfarm around me gasp with the beauty of the fae. I can only sense them as shapes in my mind for all their voices are like magic to my ears. But there is a difference. And what I sense is that difference without the allure of their physical forms.
The fae are tall. Thin and lithe, their bodies are different than Human ones. Their arms and legs are actually a bit too long for normal. And their faces are more angular than Human ones. I can’t sense what their eyes look like, but I can tell their ears are pointed. Each fae is different, but I sense some with wings.
Insect’s wings. Perhaps I’m the only one who notices them at first. The others are spellbound. I am too, to be honest. But I can’t see the fae, so their effect is muted on me. The fae come out of the forests, at least thirty of them. Perhaps more. I can’t tell—they don’t seem to stand still in my mind. But they stop on the opposite side of the banquet table, laughing, and then fall silence as one speaks.
“So you call us, Emperor of Men! You invite us to your feast, you who gave us the titles of your empire. Do you offer us the hospitality of your lands? Do you open your doors to us?”
I start, surprised to be addressed. The magic of the moment breaks and I remember who I am. Laken Godart, [Emperor]. And I have a job to do. I have to remember. I planned for this. I wasn’t sure they would come, but now they’re here. So I choose my words carefully.
The fae. The fair folk from my world. Not all legends about them are wonderful. In fact, the further back you go, the more sinister they appear. I remember reading of Wechselkind or Changelings, children replaced by faeries. So I answer carefully.
“I offer you the hospitality of this banquet, lords and ladies of my realm. Food I offer you, and company within this meadow. Feast and revel to your heart’s content here, but nowhere else I ask of you.”
“Ah, a wise host!”
The speaker laughs at me. Which of the fae is it? I can’t tell. None of them step forwards. And the voice isn’t distinctly male or female. Neither are the fae.
Strange. I could have sworn the Frost Faeries were female, all of them. But these fae—I can’t tell exactly, but some give me the impression of masculinity. Others are clearly feminine—but the lines are blurred. I can’t tell what they are, only that they’re here. The fae mill about.
“There is iron here! Cold metal in the tables! Does he give offense, this leader of men?”
“In the tables, the nails! Is it a slight or oversight?”
“Not much iron. And we are outdoors. Food is offered. A feast in our honor! We have not seen such in millennia. Sisters, brothers, do we accept?”
“Within the meadow, aye! For a night, aye! Such are the terms!”
“Then we accept! The deal is struck!”
They speak all at once, in a rush. And then they move all at once, making the Humans in the meadow start. The fae descend on the table and snatch up the filled glasses and plates, filling their plates, beginning to eat without so much as waiting for anyone else. They call out to my diners.
“So then, mortals! Join us!”
“Yes, come and revel! Come, sit.”
Every eye is on me. By my side Lady Rie is trembling. I hear Durene’s voice.
“Laken, who are they?”
“The nobles of my court.”
I turn from Durene and address the stunned nobility.
“[Lords] and [Ladies] of Izril, I present to you my guests. Those you see here are the nobles of my court. The fair folk.”
“The fair folk?”
One of the [Ladies] speaks. Bevia, the older noblewoman. She stares at the fae and at me.
“I have never heard of their kind, Emperor Laken. These guests of yours, are they Human or—or something else? Please tell me. From what land do they hail?”
To her credit, Lady Bevia’s voice barely trembles although I know she must be as shaken as I am to be in the presence of the fae. At her words, a few of the shining folk laugh and call out.
“Avalon, mortal woman! That land beyond lands! The eternal realm”
“Shh! They don’t know where that is!”
“Hark, the emperor speaks! Let him explain!”
I nod. How can I explain them?
“As they say Lady Bevia. They come from lands far distant. And they are not Human. They are the fair folk. They have come here in honor of the banquet you have brought with you. They will dine with you. But before we sit, I have a few words of caution.”
I hold up my hand and speak loudly, over the laughter in the table in front of me. I can see the nobles staring at the fae, entranced. But this has to be said. Caution hums in my veins now that the first moment of wonder is gone. Remember the legends.
“I caution you. The fair folk are neither enemies nor friends. Make them no promises and speak no untruths to them. Stay within the meadow and if they ask you to leave with them, politely refuse. They are nobles, but they are not mine. I was honored to give them titles. But they do not answer to me.”
I hear laughter from the fae.
“The emperor understands!”
“No man, no gods! No ruler save for our ourselves!”
They cheer and raise glasses, already drinking their third refill, some of them. I gesture towards the table.
“Please sit or stand and eat at your leisure. Tonight is a night for talk and entertainment. We will have a magical display and I believe, a demonstration later. But for now enjoy yourselves.”
It’s abrupt and not that refined, but it’s all I can do. Lady Rie isn’t helping—she’s staring like the rest. I have to nudge her before she starts and begins ordering people about.
“Mister Prost, let us break out more wine for our—our guests. And please, let us find a seat for you, Lady Bevia. Lady Bethal, will you sit or stand? Emperor Laken, may I offer you a seat?”
I shake my head. Bethal hurries off and Durene steps over to me. I sense her bending down as the confused nobles hesitantly approach the table with the merry diners. It feels like a dream.
“Laken? I didn’t understand that.”
“I’d be surprised if you did. Durene, remember the Frost Faeries?”
“Them? I remember. What about them?”
“These are the Frost Faeries. Or some version of them.”
“It’s something from my world, Durene. There are…legends about them.”
Lady Rie is coming up behind me. I turn.
“Emperor Laken, the nobles are dining with your other guests. Hesitantly. Would you explain to me exactly what they are?”
There’s a note of panic and fear in her voice. I understand. The fae are brilliant, magical—clearly otherworldly. They entrance just by existing, and unlike the limited magic I’ve experienced in this world, there is something off about them.
They touch this world lightly. I shiver. Awe and wonder can easily become terror at the unknown. I turn to Lady Rie and realize I haven’t prepared her at all for the fae. I didn’t know if they’d come. It felt like a long shot. But now they’re here. I sense Prost approaching, and Wiskeria.
“I should explain. All of you—step over here.”
We move back a few steps so we’re still in the meadow. The sunlight is fading and I can tell the illumination in the meadow comes mainly from the magelights and braziers now. We stand near one and I speak as clearly as I can to Durene, Prost, Rie, and Wiskeria.
“Those are fae. Fair folk. I don’t know if there are legends about them where you all come from, but in my homeland we have tales of them. They are…well, I suppose the best word for them is spirits.”
Lady Rie’s voice trembles. I smile, hearing the fae’s unearthly laughter.
“Not quite. They’re more like magical beings. Very powerful, very mysterious. They’re spirits of nature. They play pranks on mortals, they live deep in forests and in mounds. It’s said there are portals to their world scattered in ours.”
“Dead gods. This sounds like a children’s tale! And they’re real?”
“Reality is stranger than fiction, Lady Rie. Much stranger, apparently. But what you need to know is that the fair folk have rules. After a fashion. They obey bargains and they don’t lie—but they twist the truth. If you don’t try to deceive them and don’t try to make deals or follow them, they’re harmless. Probably. And don’t threaten them either.”
“How would you hurt one of them? Hypothetically speaking.”
Wiskeria turns her head to stare at the fae. I hesitate.
“Cold iron. That means pure iron. Or horseshoes. I think they don’t like bells either. I don’t know—I’m not an expert on the folklore. But they’re masters of illusion. If they offer you gold—don’t take it. It’s probably just flowers.”
Lady Rie’s voice is high-pitched. I can sense the nobles looking at us uncertainly. I turn to her.
“Lady Rie, please calm down.”
“You didn’t tell me anything about this! Where did you meet these—these fair folk? Am I to believe they’ve been hiding here all this time? What do they mean, calling us ‘mortals’? Are they?”
“Lady Rie, calm down.”
She quiets. I take a deep breath, and then another for good measure.
“I’m sorry I didn’t warn you. I didn’t know if they’d come. I didn’t expect this. But they are here. And the danger is…acceptable.”
“So long as we don’t make deals or follow them. What about the village?”
I turn my head to Wiskeria.
“They’re supposed to stay in the meadow. That’s the deal. But…it might be best if you keep an eye on the children, Mister Prost. And you, Wiskeria. Don’t ride patrols. Just make sure everything’s lit and keep an eye on everyone. If you see anything moving—tell me.”
“We can do that.”
To my relief, Prost sounds far more stable than Lady Rie. He turns to Wiskeria.
“I’ll head into the village and tell everyone not to stray. We’ve food set out and we can make an early night of it.”
“I’ll tell everyone else. And find some horseshoes and iron weapons.”
They hurry out of the meadow. I look at Lady Rie. She’s breathing hard, but she does seem to have calmed down a bit.
“I’m sorry, Lady Rie. Are you feeling alright?”
“No. But I suppose this is what an [Emperor] does, isn’t it?”
She looks at me, and I half-smile. Lady Rie shakes her head. She turns back towards the nobility sitting and standing around the banquet table.
“We’ve been speaking too long. We are worrying our guests. Emperor Laken, I believe it is time to socialize. I can only hope that you know what you have summoned to this gathering, your majesty.”
“I wish I knew. Durene?”
I reach out and touch her. Durene stares at the fae.
“They’re beautiful. Frightening and beautiful.”
“I know. I can only hear them. But…I know. Do you want to go to the village?”
She pauses. One of her hands finds mine.
“No. I want to meet them. But stay by me?”
We walk forwards, following Lady Rie. And at some point I find myself dreaming, or something close to it. I hear a humming as I walk towards the fae. Their laughter engulfs me, and there’s a buzzing in the air, just below the surface. And I feel color.
Color. I have never seen color before in my life. I have no idea what it might be. But the fae represent more than just the idea of spring. They are spring incarnate, and when they speak, when I feel them moving about the meadow, I am struck by flashes of—of something that I can’t explain.
Vision. Is this what it’s like? The experience is disorienting. Frightening, even. But I think it’s a color. It can’t be anything else. It speaks to me, I who know no color. They speak and I hear green.
The fae laugh and eat merrily, talking amongst themselves while we mortals move like we’re underwater, watching, listening, talking more quietly. At first I’m overwhelmed, and then I find myself back in the world. And then I’m dreaming again.
The young nobles are clustered around the fae, trying to keep up, staring in awe at these wondrous guests. The fae are caught between genders, some of them. I know they’re the same Frost Faeries I met, but some are decidedly masculine. They flirt with both genders unashamedly, attracting the young nobles—and the young men and women on serving duty—around them like flies. I don’t focus on them for the moment and instead turn my attention to the older nobility.
The wiser ones are nervous as well as entranced. The rest are just awestruck. I sense Lady Bethal chatting to one of the fae while her husband, Thomast, keeps a wary hand near his rapier. Sacra sits far back, her eyes wide in her face.
A voice interrupts me as Durene stares at a male-ish fae laughing and eating a slice of roast beef with his fingers. I turn and sense Lady Bevia.
“Emperor Laken? I was wondering if I might have a word. I am Lady Bevia—we spoke briefly when we first met.”
“I recall. Greetings, Lady Bevia. Let us sit. There are some private tables. Durene? Would you care to join us with some food?”
I move back with Lady Bevia to one of the newly-made tables made for intimate diners. Each one is decorated with a fine tablecloth and candles—a necessary expense according to Lady Rie. She spent lavishly on the banquet even without the need for food. I don’t know if it was worth it, but I’m at least grateful for the silver cutlery. Would the fae have come if we had spoons and forks made of iron instead?
“I’m grateful that you accepted the presence of my other guests so readily, Lady Bevia. I do apologize for their sudden arrival, but my court is…fickle at best.”
“I see. I was unaware of the presence of so many nobles. Tell me, do they live on Izril? Are they part of your new empire, your majesty?”
Awestruck or not, Bevia’s voice is sharp as she sits and Durene hurries over with plates heaped with food. She hovers around the table timidly. I cough and realize that Lady Bevia is eying Durene with some surprise.
“Lady Bevia? May I introduce my consort, Durene?”
Durene squeaks when she realizes I’m talking about her. I sense Bevia blink, but once again she reacts with nothing but grace.
“My word, I had no idea your majesty was married. Do forgive me. Lady Durene, was it?”
“Hello. I’m—I’m not a lady! I’m not married. Laken and I are just—”
Durene stammers as Bevia gets up. She actually retreats a step. I interject again.
“Durene saved my life when we first met, Lady Bevia. I was quite lost and helpless. Blind as I was, I met Durene and we quickly grew close.”
“I see. I am charmed to meet such a forthright young woman. Tell me, Miss Durene, are you the famed warrior I have heard so much about? I have heard of an imposing hero who slew a score of Hobs by himself in service to Emperor Laken, but the rumors neglected to mention your lovely appearance.”
I can sense Durene is blushing even if I can’t see it. Lady Bevia smiles and I’m grateful to her extreme tact.
“I would be honored if you would sit with us.”
“Oh. Okay—I’ll just sit on the ground—”
Durene sits down awkwardly. I smile at her and pat her arm underneath the table. Then I turn back to Lady Bevia.
“I thank you, Lady Bevia. Where were we? Ah, yes. To answer your question—no. The fair folk do not live on Izril. Nor are they part of my empire in truth. My gift of titles was just that—a gift in exchange for a service they rendered to me. They owe me nothing and in truth, I believe they would not come at my behest no matter the situation. This is a…special occasion.”
“A feast. I understand. Do pardon me if I admit to some relief. Your court is intimidating, to say the least.”
“I imagine so. But so are Izril’s nobility.”
I sense Bevia smiling.
“Ah yes. This little gathering was organized by Lady Reinhart. I understand it was something of a surprise. I apologize if we have caused you any inconvenience.”
I lie through my teeth and sense Bevia knows it. She delicately spears a sautéed mushroom on a fork and nibbles at it as Durene tries to eat as much meat as possible while appearing polite. The rich food is a treat to her and the villagers, I have no doubt. I can barely touch my plate for nerves.
“Ah, this food is quite well done if I might say so myself. I believe Lord Imral provided the mushrooms, and Lady Fel the beef Miss Durene is enjoying so much. Tell me, Emperor Laken, have you ever met Magnolia Reinhart in person?”
“No. I would like to at some point. However, I have interacted with her servants.”
“I see. Well, I would hate to color your impression of her before you two meet in person. She is an impressive [Lady] and a credit to my class. If difficult to work with on occasion.”
I raise my eyebrows.
“By all means, Lady Bevia. Color my impression as much as you would like—sight is hardly an issue when it comes to meeting new people for me.”
Bevia’s startled laughter makes a few heads turn and Durene nearly drops her drink.
“Hah! You are quick, aren’t you, young man? Well, I don’t think I can say anything Lady Rie has not. However, I would ask that you think of her kindly. She has held together the squabbling nobility for far too long. This is her being kind, if you can imagine that. She was far more direct in her youth.”
“Really? And may I ask if you were more direct when you were younger, Lady Bevia?”
She twinkles at me. I smile back and find the appetite to have a roll of mustard and beef. It’s actually quite good and I find I have an appetite after all.
“Lady Bevia, I am an unsophisticated [Emperor] with little in the way of subterfuge.”
“I appreciate the lie, your majesty.”
“No, truly. I prefer straightforward conversation. That’s why I fell in love with Durene, after all.”
I hear a choking noise to my right and ignore it.
“You may well imagine this gathering was somewhat difficult to set up, but now you are here, I would be delighted to talk openly and frankly about the possibility of friendship between my empire and yours.”
“Indeed? Well, well. It is refreshing to be straightforward. I did come here in hopes of making friendships, your majesty. However, I have some slight reservations…”
Lady Bevia delicately pats a cloth napkin to her lips. She pauses, and I sense her bite her lip ever so slightly. She might not know I can sense her movements. Or is she doing that on purpose? I remind myself to be careful—Bevia seems a lot more intelligent than her nephew. What’s his name? Rael?
After a pause, Lady Bevia cuts to the heart of the conversation I was expecting.
“Forging friendships is all very well, Emperor Laken, but I would imagine any noble would be concerned about your empire. Monarchy is an alien concept to Izril. We have done without [Kings] and [Emperors]. It is why our ancestors fled Terandria. To have an [Emperor] appear so suddenly would panic some of the nobility. They might fear you would annex their lands in time.”
“Quite understandable. What if I told you I had no intentions to govern more than Riverfarm? That other towns and cities came to me asking for protection?”
“I would not be surprised. The question is what would occur if a city under the domain of say, Magnolia Reinhart were to ask you for similar protections?”
“I suppose I would decline. I have no intentions of taking land or making war, Lady Bevia. I realize that’s a poor reassurance.”
“Ah, from an [Emperor]? I would not doubt your word, your majesty. When a monarch speaks, I would assume it was true.”
“What if I could swear it was true? On a truth gem? That I have no intention of taking over your lands or any other? That I am willing to work peacefully in hand with the nobles of Izril?”
Bevia pauses. She narrows her eyes slightly. Then she smiles.
“Well now, I believe that I might assume a bit more if that were the case. Tell me Emperor, where were you raised? And may I offer you a stuffed egg? They are quite excellent and come from my [Chef]’s kitchens, by the way.”
“I should be delighted, Lady Bevia. Now, Lady Rie tells me your estates import a good deal of food crops. I don’t know if I can interest you, but I do expect to expand Riverfarm’s farms twenty-fold and I was wondering if you were interested at all in produce…”
My conversation with Lady Bevia is short. Short, for a wide-ranging discussion on everything from agriculture to trade to monster incursions and the need for security across Izril. We part after Durene’s finished her third plate and I get up, feeling as though someone’s hit me with a few footballs in the face. For an old [Lady], Bevia is sharp.
“How did it go?”
Lady Rie appears at my side as Lady Bevia moves back to a small cluster of nobles, laughing lightly. I nod and lower my voice. One of the things Lady Rie warned me about was the Skills of [Ladies] and sometimes [Lords]. They can listen to a conversation across a noisy banquet hall if not guarded against. Still, all that I’m saying should be fine to hear.
“Good. You were right—she sought me out straight away. Do you think she’ll relay my words to the others?”
“Without a doubt. Lady Bevia could be considered an emissary of sorts. The others will probably approach you after considering what she tells them.”
“I’ll meet them as they come, then. How are the fae doing?”
I sense the laughing folk at my tables. By this point the fae have eaten a good portion of the food the nobles brought—and they brought enough for four times our number! At this point they’re drinking and talking with the nobles. Most of the older ones continue to stay back, but the young ones are completely engaged.
I sense some of them clustered around a young man with a cup in one hand. Laughing, they surround the young [Lord], laying hands on his body, touching him, flitting away. They provoke him and lead the young man on like a game, and I sense his face flush. He reaches for a female fae and she spins away, laughing. The young man pursues her and nearly lunges until he’s caught by another young man. The second [Lord] says something to the drunk one and I hear a loud, slurred voice.
“Keep off, Pattin! No one wants your opinion. Damn you and your poor house!”
His voice is a bit too loud. Not that the fae care. They ooh and laugh as the young [Lord] named Pattin flushes. He replies as I slowly move closer, on the pretext of asking Gamel if he’s got enough wine to go around.
“They outrank you, Lord Rael. It’s not seemly to pursue them like that.”
“Rank? We’re all [Lords] here, you daft idiot!”
The young lord Rael shakes Pattin’s grip off. I remember him now. He’s the one who laughed after I invited the fae. He doesn’t strike me as hugely bright. Pattin on the other hand interests me. Lady Rie appears like a fae herself and whispers in my ear.
“Do you want me to stop them?”
“No, let them talk. Remind me where Lord Pattin comes from?”
“Vaunt. A small city with a few villages. Very small holding, but they make excellent cheese. Unfortunately, they can’t produce a large amount owing to sickness among their cattle six years back. They have yet to replenish their herds and have fallen on hard times. Young Lord Pattin is considered a very intelligent [Lord] though, and I believe that when he replaces his father, Vaunt will prosper.”
I sense Rael staggering forwards until he’s intercepted by his aunt. I can’t hear what she whispers to him, but it sobers him up fast. She bows to the fae lady that Rael was pursuing.
“I do apologize, for my nephew’s rudeness. May I inquire as to your name, Lady…?”
The fae woman draws herself up and I don’t have to see the mischief in her eyes. I can hear it in her voice.
“I am a Baron, foolish mortal! Kneel before me!”
“A Baron? Do you mean a Baroness?”
Bevia sounds startled. The fae woman laughs at her.
“Why would I be a Baroness? I asked to be Baron and so I am! Will ye not kneel?”
“I’m afraid [Ladies] do not kneel to [Barons].”
The fae woman loses interest instantly. She dances away and I hear her begin to bother someone else. The fae call out to me as I pass by their table.
“Come sit, Emperor!”
“Drink with us!”
“Eat with us!”
“Dance! Dance with our kind! Come!”
I decline as best I can as they whirl around me, laughing, snatching at my robe. Durene moves forwards protectively.
“Hey, keep away! You can’t just—”
“Ooh, the half-child is angry!”
“Come, daughter of Trolls! Dance with us!”
“Walk the woodlands in with us!”
“Eat and drink, half-child! It has been too long since we have eaten with your kind!”
“Wait, what? I’m not—I should—hey, Laken!”
Durene yelps as the fae press drinks and food into her hands. I turn back, but Durene’s objections are quickly muted as the fae cheer her on. She sits with them and begins a drinking contest with one fae. I don’t think she’s in danger, so I move on.
“Emperor Laken? A pleasure to meet you. I am Lord Tourant—”
“Your majesty? Might I have a word? I am humbly Lady Fel of—”
“Do you have a moment, sire? I was hoping to have a quick conversation about—”
The nobles of Izril converge on me, the one person they understand in the sea of strange folk around them. I fend off invitations to sit as best I can and greet everyone I can remember by name. But I move on, breaking out into the edge of the gathering as the fae begin luring more and more [Lords] and [Ladies] to sit and dine with them. They eat and drink with the nobles, talking quietly, listening to the Humans, and laughing.
I don’t know what’s said but I have a feeling those who sit with the fae would tell them anything and everything. Ah, well. I walk on, until I’m standing by a brazier that’s gone out, on the far side of the meadow. I stand there and concentrate. It was just a dim feeling before, but now I’m closer I’m certain.
There’s someone here. I have another guest, one I’ve overlooked. She stands at the far end of the meadow with another silent figure. Another fae. Only these two are different from all the rest. They’re nearly invisible to my [Emperor] senses—more like vague shapes than anything specific. I don’t know if they’re visible to anyone else. I walk forwards slowly.
It’s colder here. The heat of the other braziers doesn’t reach this far. And as I move forwards I sense one of my guests is eating something. The other is quite, quite still.
And armed. My hazy impression of the two changes. One is female, standing alone, greedily devouring a plate full of food. The other is silent. A tall, armored warrior standing by the side of the fae woman. He—and it is definitely a he—makes no move as I approach, but I can tell he watches me. So does she. And as I draw closer, she speaks.
“Emperor of the Unseen. I was not invited to your banquet. I am not one of your court, nor do I wish to be. Yet my kin come, and I was permitted to join them. Will ye cast me out or give me the hospitality of your hearth?”
I start as I hear her voice. Blue! The word springs to mind along with the color. This fae is different from her kin. The air around her is cold, and I feel like her body is different from the other fae. This fae seems surly, almost annoyed at being spotted.
She stands out from the rest of her lively kin. They shine with life and laughter, the embodiment of spring itself. But she stands alone, dour and silent, eating while the silent warrior stands to one side. Watching her.
“I would be only too glad to offer you the hospitality of the banquet. But not of my hearth. What lies in the meadow—”
“Yes, yes. Well then, I shall eat and drink. ‘Twould be uncharitable if I did not offer you my gratitude. So. There.”
I wait until I realize that was it. I cough.
“May I ask why you’re standing here alone? And why I didn’t notice you before? Who is your companion?”
“Yon silent statue? Take no notice. He is here for me, not you.”
There’s a grimace in the fae woman’s voice. She picks up a egg and eats it carefully. Again, that’s surprising—her kin eat and drink with reckless abandon, but this fae is deliberate, mannered. I wonder—
“We’ve met before.”
“Briefly. You might not recall. You met many of my sisters and gave them titles they rejoice over. But I met you alone. In the city.”
Memory strikes me. I gasp.
The fae woman smiles.
“But I thought—where’s Ryoka? And why are you still blue? Is this your true form?”
“True? Form? What would you like me to say? As for where Ryoka Griffin is—you would know better than I. I have not seen her since my punishment began. This is the first time I have come to this world since. I know naught.”
“Yes. Punishment. I am forbidden from returning to this world. Yon guardian is proof of my King’s ire with me. He is here to ensure I do not flee.”
Ivolethe flicked a bit of food at the silent warrior standing behind her. He doesn’t move. But I don’t see the specks of food land on his armor. I stare at Ivolethe, unsure of what to say.
“Can I ask why you were punished?”
“Will you tell me?”
She grins for the first time.
I’m starting to remember her more now. Ivolethe pauses as she drinks from a wine glass she was not holding a second ago.
“‘Tis not my decision to withhold the truth. You need not know what happened, save that I broke the rules of my kind. I interfered with what would be and for that was punished.”
“By exile from this world?”
“Aye. A harsh punishment. I may go where I please, do what I please. But of this world I am banned from returning save for this one moment.”
“That doesn’t seem harsh.”
Ivolethe’s glare is palpable on my skin, like a blast of winter air.
“You think so? Here is where my friend lives, mortal. Here she lives and here she will die. I am banned from entering this world until her death. Understand? That is my punishment. To know my friend lives and to not see her triumph and failures. To live until she is gone and chase memories. That is pain! That is how I suffer!”
Her voice rises. I feel the air chill further and for a second, a cold wind blows through the meadow, cutting off conversation and turning heads. Then the chill fades. Someone laughs, and the moment is lost. The warm magic of the spring fae overwhelms Ivolethe’s cold fury. I stand with her, silent.
“I don’t know what to say. I’m sorry.”
Bitterly, Ivolethe drinks deeply. Then she shakes her head.
“Save your tears, mortal. ‘Twas a fitting punishment by my King. How else would you punish the fae? Our hearts are hurt only by those we give them to. I broke the rules and so, I suffer. No more, no less.”
“Is there anything I can do?”
She looks at me blankly then grins.
“Do? What arrogance of mortals! There is nothing to do, Laken Godart. Nothing you could say would change the fae. Do not mistake your influence.”
She stares at me. Then hesitates.
“Well, there is something.”
“Could you—could you tell Ryoka Griffin I live? That I did not die when my form was broken? Tell her I am punished, nothing more. And—”
For the first time the armored warrior stirs behind Ivolethe. She breaks off sharply and scowls. I stare warily at the armored figure. His armor is dark in my mind. His figure hazy. I don’t know what he is—another kind of the fae?—only that he scares me. Ivolethe stares silently at me for a moment.
“Naught else. Tell her that if you meet her again, Laken Godart.”
“If I meet her? Do you know if I will?”
Ivolethe shakes her head.
“I see perhapses and maybes and what could be. I see the lines of if and when. But the future changes. If you meet her, Laken Godart. Remember me.”
“Good. Then we have little else to discuss. Yon food is quite good. I would tell you to eat as much of it as possible before my kin devour the rest.”
Ivolethe returns to eating from her plate. I stare at her, surprised by the sudden change in conversation. The frost fae stares at me.
“I have a thousand questions.”
“Do ye? I have a thousand answers: no. I am not permitted to speak. Go back to your dream, mortal child. Enjoy the presence of my kind, for thou shalt soon wake from the dream. And be wary, lest it become nightmare.”
Ivolethe glares at me. She gestures to the spring fae again and I turn my head.
I start as I sense Ivolethe baring her teeth behind me. They’re pointed. She grins at me.
“Aye. Or did you really think you could invite the fae to dine with you without dangers?”
I turn back to her. Then I hear the buzzing begin. The night has taken over the meadow and the braziers are burning low. I see shadows shifting across the table. And then I see the fae shapes beginning to move.
They creep across the ground, laughing, dragging the Human nobles into shadows, eating, growing more and more excited as they drink further. The fae enter a frenzy as the pitch of their laughter changes. They seem to grow as the shadows deepen. I see Oswalt, enthralled, follow three giggling fae into a shadow. He disappears.
Ivolethe grins at me as my heart begins to race. I see Durene surrounded by fae, Lady Rie speaking in a trance to one who smiles at her. I can’t tell how many there are, only that they’re moving faster, and…humming.
There’s a buzzing, a thrum in the air. It was a distant sound when I first met the fae. Now it’s growing louder, like the thundering of insect wings. I look around. Where did Oswalt go? Where’s Gamel?
“Ivolethe, what are your kin doing?”
“What we always do. You know the legends, don’t you? You summoned the Spring Court, Laken Godart. What did you think they would do?”
I turn to her, desperately.
“What do I do?”
She tilts her head towards me.
“Have you any bells?”
“Bells? I don’t know!”
“Then I would find out. Quickly.”
Rael knew he was dreaming. He didn’t care. He reached out to one of the beautiful women as the buzzing grew louder. She laughed and let him try to touch her breasts, her face, her arms, always ducking back or stepping just out of reach. He followed her, grateful that Pattin wasn’t anywhere to stop him. But some part of Rael wanted Pattin to stop him.
The fae woman was beckoning to him, telling him to follow her where the lights weren’t so bright in the meadow. Rael stumbled after her. He saw movement in the shadows. Frenzied, urgent, violent. He didn’t know if it was what he thought or—
There was a humming in his ears. Rael stared at the fae woman. She was beautiful. He couldn’t say how or why she was beautiful, only that she was. More beautiful than Cimeca could ever be. Rael was dimly aware of grabbing for the laughing woman’s hands, of telling her something.
There was something wrong. He was drawing further away from the meadow and he recalled that being unwise. But he couldn’t stop. The fae woman’s face seemed to change the further she got from the light. Her features melted until her eyes were dark. They looked almost insectile. But she was still beautiful. Staggering, Rael saw other young men and women following him. He saw Cimeca leaning into the handsome man—or was it a woman?—and heard the distant buzzing grow louder.
“Come. Touch me. You want to.”
The woman taunted him. Rael reached out and touched her. She felt—
Quick as a flash, the woman tilted her head down and bit. Rael cried out in pain and pulled his hand back. Part of the flesh on his forearm was missing. The fae woman laughed as blood dripped from her mouth. She beckoned him.
“Come. Join me. Just a bit further.”
She shifted her dress. Rael stared. His body flushed and he took a step after her. Just a few more steps and they’d be out of the meadow. He saw someone lying on the ground just a little bit away, being dragged onwards. Oswalt? Rael heard buzzing in his ears—
And then he heard a bell ringing. It was faint, but the hum faltered as it rang, clear and piercing through the night. Rael stopped stumbling forwards and looked around. The fae woman looked up.
Again the bell rang. And again. It was chiming loudly. It was a hand bell, and the humming sounded as if it might overwhelm the noise. Then another bell chimed, and another.
The humming faded, grew less urgent. The flush in Rael’s body continued, but he could think around the tightness of his pants. He became aware of the blood leaking from his arm and stared at the fae woman.
“You bit me.”
She shrugged. The frenzied light in her eyes had dimmed. The bells continued to ring, and Rael turned to see the [Emperor] ringing a bell with a number of his servants. They spread out around the meadow and the dim braziers and faded [Light] spells brightened. The world came back into focus. Rael backed away from the fae woman as she smiled.
“Leaving? You will never know what waits beyond yon boundary.”
She indicated a space just past the meadow. Rael stared and smelled spring, the scent of pollen in the air. And blood. He backed away. He would never forget the sight of the fae woman stepping back and the urgency in his blood. And the fear. He turned and ran back towards the banquet as the bells continued to ring.
I ring the bell as loudly as I can in my hands. The sound it makes is loud and high—it’s a sheep bell, designed to be heard by shepherding dogs. I ring it again and see Gamel ringing a cowbell. He looks disoriented, but as the sounds of the bells carry, the confusion fades.
The humming from the fae dies down. I see the excitement fade from the spring fae around me and the humans in the meadow start and shake their heads as if waking from a dream. Those who left the banquet table, the young men and women mainly, stumble back. Not all of them are the same as the ones who left.
I sense Rael returning, covering his arm. One of the young women’s clothing is mussed. Another has a sprained wrist. But the worst is Oswalt. Three of the fae were standing around him. I sense him get up, make an incoherent sound and stumble away.
Bloody. As he approaches I hear Rie gasp. I keep my voice steady.
“Gamel, get a healing potion.”
Oswalt is in one piece. He’s alive. But he’s covered in blood. His arms, his neck, and places hidden by his tunic are dark with blood. He’s been bitten or…scratched. Part of his ear is missing.
A [Lady] runs over to him, pale-faced. His mother. She pushes a fae woman back and the fae retreats, laughing softly. I sense the fae draw back, and the buzzing grows softer as the bells continue to ring.
A voice speaks in my ear. I whirl and sense Ivolethe standing in front of me. Her silent warrior guardian is right behind her. She nods to Oswalt as Gamel rushes over with a healing potion.
“Almost too slow. But not quite. Yon fool will live, although he will remember.”
She grins at me and I shudder. The memory of the fae creeping about, pulling their victims out of the meadow—
“What would have happened if he’d left the meadow?”
“Oh, he would have been outside the laws of hospitality. Perhaps he would have gone for a trip and come back older. Or perhaps he would have woken up naked a few miles yonder. Or perhaps…”
Ivolethe shrugged. There are a thousand things her shrugs hints at. I turn my head away.
“This was a mistake. I thought your kind would obey the rules of hospitality!”
Ivolethe’s eyes glint.
“And why would you think that would make you safe? The summer court is not like the winter. You were lucky that you only invited my kin, not…others.”
“And are we safe now? What if others come?”
The frost fae considers my question. She nods.
“I would draw a circle of salt around your village or at the very least, the houses. Put an iron horseshoe on each door if ye must. But do not fear; those of us who would play mischief are fewer now than we were.”
“Is it? You know the myths. You invited us anyways. Will you complain and say you weren’t warned?”
“No, but they might.”
A voice interrupts my argument with Ivolethe. I sense Lady Rie come forwards. She seems pale, but unaffected by her experience. Of course—those who weren’t lured away by the fae were merely charmed. Durene is shaking her head and saying she feels like throwing up, but the nobles wise enough to stay put are just shaken. It’s their outrage that bothers me.
“How dare you! You’d assault a [Lord] of Izril?”
A man is shouting. Oswalt’s father, I think. He has a sword in hand as he faces one of the female fae. She laughs in his face and I see two [Lords] trying to hold Lord Tourant back.
“Did ye fear for your son? You were warned, mortal man! What passes is not your choice but his!”
She points at the silent Oswalt. His wounds are healed and save for the tip of his ear he’s fine. But he’s pale and shaking. Lord Tourant trembles with fury as he steps forwards the fae woman.
“If you were not a woman I would cut you down—”
He raises his blade and the fae woman leaps forwards. Before he can, react, she grabs the steel blade—with her bare hands. There’s a cry of shock and Lord Tourant nearly drops his blade. The fae laughs as her hand bleeds crimson onto the blade. She holds it, her blood coating the metal, without pain or fear.
“Steel? Hah! If you’d duel us, bring cold iron and star metal! Bring blades forged of magic and legend! And if you thrust, do it with your heart in your hands for we’ll pluck it out if you miss!”
“Come and dance the dance of blades!”
“Bare your sword, lordling of men! Shed blood and life like wine on this night!”
More of the fae spring forwards and surround Lord Tourant. The excitement in them isn’t completely suppressed by the bells. Tourant backs up as the fae woman offers the blood blade to him, hilt-first. He hesitates, and then another [Lord] curses and reaches for his sword.
“Damn these outsiders. Tourant! Let’s teach them a lesson!”
He nearly has his sword unsheathed when a voice rises.
Both men turn. I sense Lady Bethal striding forwards. Her eyes are ablaze with passion and she seems—her dress is very rumpled. I don’t think a fae did it either, because Sir Thomst follows her, adjusting his doublet. Lady Bethal interposes herself between the two lords and the fae.
“You were warned, Lord Tourant. As was your son. Emperor Godart told you the perils of following them. I won’t see you or anyone else dead over this quarrel, and Thomast assures me it would not be our mysterious guests who perish should it come to blows.”
Lord Tourant pales, but his face is still red with anger over his son. He points to the stricken Oswalt with a trembling finger.
“He was bewitched! That was magic!”
Lady Bethal folds her arms.
“If it was, it was no magic I’ve encountered. It was passion. Quite enjoyable passion, but passion nonetheless. You controlled yourself as did your wife. If young Oswalt had the sense not to chase skirts he would not have injured himself. As it is he has lost part of an ear—hardly a disfiguring mark. Indeed, a lost ear due to passion is quite attractive to some.”
Sir Tourant stares at Lady Bethal. He hesitates.
“Sit down, Lord Tourant. You are in Emperor Godart’s presence.”
Lady Bethal turns and all the nobles seem to start and recall I’m here. The man next to Tourant hesitates.
“With respect, Lady Bethal, this is hardly a matter for you to—”
“Sit down, Lord Melbore.”
He nearly sits down right then and there. The two men back down and sit at the banquet table. Lady Bethal turns. She smiles widely at me.
“That was a most enjoyable interlude, Emperor Laken. May I ask if you have more entertainments planned for the night? Your strange guests are most entertaining.”
I hear laughter from the fae. One steps forwards and kisses Bethal on the cheek.
“Yon mortal could be one of us!”
“A pity she loves only one! Lucky mortal man!”
“Unlucky mortal man! Hah!”
Slowly, the mood returns to something like normal. The fae resume feasting and laughing, but this time the nobles sit across from them at their own table. I find Lady Rie again.
“How bad do you think this was?”
She purses her lips.
“Honestly? I have no idea. Your fair folk certainly frightened the nobles, but whether they’ll hold a grudge against you is different. But watch yourself—she’s going to speak with you next.”
She nods, and before I can turn around I feel thorns. I turn and Lady Bethal is right in front of me with her silent husband.
“Ah, Emperor Godart! We didn’t have a chance to talk. May I have the privilege of a few short words?”
“Of course, Lady Bethal. Are you thirsty? Gamel, could you fetch us some drinks?”
The cups of wine are practically all empty, but Gamel hurries off promising to find some. Lady Bethal laughs lightly as she watches him go.
“Most impressive how many devoted servants you have, Emperor Laken. Am I correct in understanding that young man is a [Knight]?”
“You are, Lady Bethal.”
“Fascinating. You know, I have a small order of [Knights] whom I fund. They are quite energetic. And decent fighters, although of course not as adept as my Thomast. You’ve met him. Say hello, Thomast.”
She waves her husband forwards. He bows slightly and murmurs a word, but, I note, keeps his attention firmly focused on Ivolethe. No—not her, the warrior standing behind her. I’m impressed he can even see the two fae—they’re being ignored by practically everyone else in the meadow. Wait—I think Bethal and Bevia can see them too.
“I’m honored by your presence, Lady Bethal. I understand you’re a close friend of Magnolia Reinhart?”
“Close? Well yes, we did grow up as friends and I do occasionally help her out with small matters. But you know, Magnolia does have her obsessions. And while I understand her, it does grow tiresome worrying about everything, doesn’t it? I prefer to simply act and face the consequences later.”
“Hm. I can admire that way of thinking. I fear that I take the opposite approach. Acting without caution is slightly dangerous when you can’t see.”
“Oh, forgive me! It must be different. I am simply referring to…well, let’s just say I enjoyed myself immensely tonight. I came here expecting to simply eat and dine and chat, which is frankly dull, but this was well worth the trip! I won’t forget tonight. You know, your visitors are enchanting. Who did you say they were? Fair folk? They certainly have wonderful complexions! Do you know if I could visit them?”
I try to fend off her questions, smiling politely, and see Gamel heading towards us at speed. He has a wineglass in each hand and I’m not ashamed to admit that I plan to use him as a conversation topic to steer Bethal away from questions about the fae. He’s nearly upon us and I see him offering a cup to me when a hand shoots out and knocks the cup away.
One of the spring fae shouts, his voice drowning out all sound. He seems enraged and Gamel staggers back, surprised. I whirl as the fae leaps forwards and snatches the cup from Gamel’s hand. Several of the Human [Lords] leap to their feet with a hand of their weapons, but the fae are faster. The one with the cup raises it above his head and shouts.
“Treachery! A poisoned cup!”
The other fae shout in outrage. Their good spirits change to fury in a moment.
“Who dares break the law of hospitality?”
“Who offers violence?”
“Find them! Hound them! Tear them apart!”
They begin shouting all at once, their beautiful faces suddenly twisted with rage. I hear buzzing again, loud and furious. Gamel backs away and the nobles of Izril freeze in fear as the fae turn, their faces masks of anger. A buzzing fills the air, a loud, low drone that makes the tableware rumble and the air shake. I sense the people around me freeze as the fae cry out in outrage. I raise a hand and shout.
The fae halt. They turn towards me. I look at the cup the fae is holding.
“Are you sure it’s poisoned?”
“Yes! ‘Twas not yon servant who poisoned it, but death runs through this cup! A treachery, a breach of sacred hospitality!”
I don’t doubt the fae. I turn to Gamel. He’s pale as every eye fixes on him.
“Gamel, what happened to the cup?”
He trembles, spreading his hands, his face white.
“Your majesty, I swear I put down both cups for a moment to find an untapped keg of wine. When I turned back—it must have been then! Only I don’t know who might have touched it!”
He points to a place where the wine cups were standing. I try and sense whether there are clues or any sign of who might be there. But the nobles all could have gotten up and walked over, and no one’s left a handy bracelet on the ground or incriminating sock. I shake my head.
“So you have no idea who might have put poison in the drink?”
“And it is poisoned? For transparency, let us test it. Good folk, please.”
Lady Rie walks forwards, her face pale. She takes the wine glass from the fae and place something in it. A fork. I have no idea why she’s doing that until I recall—all the silverware is made of silver.
After a moment Lady Rie takes the fork out. I can’t tell if there’s a difference, but the nobles all gasp as one, so I suspect the silver’s changed somehow. Apparently it reacts to many poisons. Rie nods slowly.
“Someone was trying to kill Emperor Laken. Someone in this gathering.”
The meadows goes silent. All the nobles and stare at each other, pale-faced. My people surround me protectively, as if that could save me from the invisible assassin. One of the [Lords], Tourant, speaks hoarsely.
“Surely you don’t suspect us, Lady Rie? We never touched the cup!”
“Indeed, how could it be us? What about a servant?”
“Anyone could have touched the cup! Why, it could be these strange folk—”
The [Lady] who speaks breaks off as the fae closest to her hiss in outrage.
“You dare question our honor?”
The buzzing begins again, loud and fierce. The nobles shrink in their seats and once again I raise my voice.
“Peace, fair folk! Please, peace!”
They subside, looking at me. I take a few deep breaths. Poison. I never sensed it. And it was coming to me? Why now? Was it—where’s Sacra? I speak as calmly as I can, sensing for her. She’s…wait, she’s in the village. Because she’s not a noble, that’s right! But could she have…? I try and focus, speaking to the crowd in the meadow as calmly as I can.
“Peace. I understand and appreciate your outrage, fair folk. However, no harm was done. This is a time of feasting and I would not besmirch the honor of my guests with accusations without fact. I ask you to sit and eat, lords and ladies of the fae.”
They hesitate. At last, one of them shrugs.
“So long as hospitality is not broken entirely and the host agrees, we abide. But a second breach and we will hunt. Honor demands it!”
“I would expect nothing less.”
Satisfied, the fae sit. Soon they begin laughing as if nothing’s happened, but the nobles of Izril are well and truly frightened. They stare at me, grateful to be saved from the wrath of the fae. I sense Ivolethe moving through the crowd. She plucks the offending cup of poison and sniffs at it.
“You have enemies, Laken Godart. Take care you survive to meet Ryoka Griffin.”
She takes the half-full cup from the serving tray and downs the liquid inside before I can stop her. Bethal gasps audibly, but Ivolethe just laughs.
“Fear not, mortals. ‘Twas not the danger to us that offended my kin, but the insult to hospitality. There are few poisons in any world that we fear.”
She tosses the cup down and turns away. Bethal breathes out slowly.
“I see. Well I for one am glad of that. Emperor Laken, I am appalled at this assault on your life—at your own gathering, no less! Please rest assured that I will investigate this matter personally. And please be assured that Magnolia was not responsible for this heinous attack.”
I’m breathing hard. Durene is right behind me, and I know her fists are clenched, ready to hit something.
“You seem very sure of that, Lady Bethal.”
She doesn’t move and her voice is steady.
“I am. Magnolia does not employ poisons. She is far more direct. If she wanted you dead without a shadow of a doubt, well, I realize that is hardly a comfort, but there it is. She intended this gathering as a way to test you, Emperor Godart.”
“And did I pass her test?”
I snap and sense Thomast shift ever so slightly. Lady Bethal nods slowly.
“I would say you did. Please do not mistake Magnolia’s actions for hostility. She must be sure of her friends and enemies. I would elaborate, but I think Sacra is tasked with explaining the rest of Magnolia’s thoughts.”
“I will see her directly then. Lady Bethal, I apologize for the abruptness, but—”
“I understand completely.”
Lady Bethal smiles, bows slightly, and retreats. I turn. Ivolethe is standing behind me.
“It seems this banquet is at an end. The food is nearly eaten and the wine is almost gone at any rate. I believe my kin are leaving.”
Sure enough, the fae are gathering. I hesitate as they laugh and call out farewells to the nobles of Izril. Only Bethal waves and smiles in return.
“Are they offended by the poison?”
Ivolethe grins her pointed grin.
“Only in your name. In truth, I think they rather liked it. A banquet is not complete without bloodshed and intrigue, after all. I thank you on their behalf since they will not, arrogant fools that they be.”
“So you’re going? Just like that?”
She nods. I have a thousand things to ask her, and I sense the warrior behind her and know I won’t get an answer to any of them.
“There’s so much I need to know. Will your kind return if I host another banquet?”
“Most likely not. This was special, Laken Godart. You know that. If it happened twice, would it be as special? Nae, do not look for wonders twice in the same place. We are not permitted to interfere in this world.”
I frown at Ivolethe.
“But you did. That was poison meant for me.”
“Aye. But we were allowed to come here.”
“That makes no sense.”
“You are like Ryoka. Foolish. Don’t you see? The rules we have against interfering are not rules set in stone or graved on the world’s heart. They are just rules. Made by our King. He thinks we should not interfere, so we do not out of respect to him. But there is no reason why we cannot.”
“But then why is he…?”
Ivolethe shakes her head.
“Caution, Laken Godart. Caution and memory. Our King does not wish our deaths. He fears that to interfere would mean the end of one of us, and that is a cost far too high.”
“He fears for you so much?”
The winter fae nods. Her voice grows tired, older, even as her spring cousins laugh and dance about, making the most of their last moments on earth.
“If one of our kind should perish every thousand years, it would be far too many, emperor of men. We are old.”
I feel a frozen finger jab me in the throat and flinch.
“Must you mortals ask a question of everything? Old, fool! When your kind was learning to build with stone and wood, we were already ancient. In ages past we danced with gods and demons and made war and peace across worlds.”
“Once our courts were filled with the fae and we filled the forests with laughter. We are fewer now. Far fewer.”
“But you are immortals. Aren’t you?”
She just sighs.
“All things die, Laken Godart. All things. So our King forbids us to do more than spread winter on this world. And that is a boon based out of obligation. But he let us attend this banquet because it was special.”
“Why? If you don’t mind me asking.”
She just sighs.
“For the memory of such things, I think. Our King desires not to interfere in this world’s doings, but he remembers. We all remember what was and what might be again, and we long for these gatherings. We love acknowledgement, and for that the Faerie King would bend his own rules to allow us a few moments to dance and make merry. For this kindness, you were granted a wonder. If the world changes because of it, well, such is fate. And we enjoyed ourselves, so that’s all that matters.”
She smiles wickedly. I find myself smiling too, but it’s bittersweet.
She cuts me off. I feel a kiss on my cheek, a sweet kiss like a snowflake, like frost. Ivolethe dances back from me, elegant, mischievous, as Durene gasps.
“Hah! If wishes were so easily granted! Take your gifts, Laken Godart. I do not think we will ever meet again.”
I rub at my cheek.
“Don’t you know?”
She shakes her head.
“If we knew everything, what would be the point of anything? Go well, Laken Godart.”
She laughs, a bright, cold sound, and bows. I bow back and Ivolethe turns. In a moment she and the strange warrior are gone. The other fae dance forwards. One steps forwards and bows to me, mockingly.
“‘Twas well done and cleverly played. You asked for naught but our presence, and the boon is granted. So we go.”
I bow again.
“That is all I wished for. You have already done me a grand favor, fair folk. I would say that I am in your debt, but I am told that is unwise.”
“This emperor is wiser than most!”
“No debts, no payment!”
“Well then, farewell, wise ruler! Remember us, mortals!”
They bow, laughing. All of them. I don’t expect it, but the unruly mob lowers their heads in unison. And then they shout as one as the nobles of Izril look on.
“To the Emperor of Eyes! To the Ruler of the Unseen! To the Protector of the Cottage!”
And as the last echo of their voice fades in the meadow they are gone. Gone, just like that, leaving only that most precious of things behind. A memory.
The night was filled with activity long after the fair folk left. The nobles of Izril were almost panicked by what they had seen and experienced. There was the issue of poison hanging in the air, and the fear of suspicion. For the [Emperor] and his people, there was the issue of Magnolia Reinhart’s maid to attend to.
She would have an audience on the morrow—for tonight the [Emperor] insisted on drawing a circle of salt around the village, a tricky task, but a necessary one. The nobles found themselves sleeping in newly-built houses, and if they grumbled about the poor treatment, they found their beds were as soft as any they had experienced in their homes.
Only two people stayed up long after the banquet. Tired though they were, Bethal and Thomast walked just outside the village, ignoring Laken’s warnings. Bethal was chattering into an amulet at her neck, talking animatedly though there was no one but Thomast to hear. And she was not talking to him.
“Oh, Magnolia, I had a wonderful time. The food was quite good—rustic, you know? Of course there were a few delicacies, but I enjoyed the ambiance. We had an open-air dinner and the most intriguing guests. You know, I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed myself so thoroughly. Well, maybe the time we were at Lord Faltifant’s, you remember—well, I was getting to that!”
She huffed as she listened to the voice speaking on the other end.
“Yes, it was quite surprising. All very well done—I enjoyed the décor, for all it was outside. You know, the setting was really—yes, he passed! Splendidly, too! He had these strange guests as well, Magnolia. I don’t know what they were! I said I don’t know—no, not which species! I’m not even sure they were real! But they were quite engaging! Would you like me to tell you about them? Really? Well, listen!”
She began speaking rapidly as Thomast scanned their quiet surroundings for any movement. Bethal finished and added a few remarks to the silent amulet.
“Thomast says he couldn’t kill one of the warriors there. No, not a chance. It was one of the strange visitors, the members of Emperor Godart’s court. No, Thomast says he’d lose, but you know how modest he is—wait, talk to him? I can relay—he’s my husband, Magnolia. I know you know! But I—”
She paused and turned to Thomast.
“She wants to talk to you.”
The Chevalier accepted the amulet, continuing to scanning the landscape. He spoke quietly and matter-of-factly.
“I’m not sure what I saw. But whatever it was, that warrior wasn’t Human or any species I’ve seen. And I’m sure it—he—could have killed me in a duel. I don’t think I could have hurt him with my blade. But perhaps—does the phrase ‘cold iron’ mean anything to you?”
He listened, and then after a moment lowered the amulet and handed it to Bethal. He whispered to her as he passed the jewel back.
“She’s shouting obscenities.”
Bethal covered the amulet and made a face.
“That actually meant something to her? What does she know?”
Thomast shrugged. Bethal raised the amulet and adopted a cheery tone.
“My, that’s an earful, Magnolia! Do you know what—? No? Okay, but I will ask you later—come on, Magnolia, I met them! They were quite alluring in a primal sort of way. You would have—what do you mean, the poison? Oh, right! Yes, the poison. Quite dreadful, but those strange visitors discovered it straight away. Quite luckily too! No, I have no idea who could have done it. But it’s a short list, isn’t it? I doubt one of Laken’s servants would have—you have to go? But I had hardly finished describing the food! Oh, very well. Treat that Emperor Godart as a friend, do you hear me, Magnolia? A friend! Yes, that’s my suggestion! I’m not being swayed! Fine!”
She lowered the amulet and made a face. Bethal dropped her cheery tone as she turned to Thomast.
“She’s going to look into it. But I really doubt she’ll find proof, Thomast. Sacra’s not exactly adept at this sort of investigation.”
Thomast nodded. He looked at his wife as she massaged her throat. The Chevalier considered his words, and spoke at last.
“Why didn’t you tell her the poison was meant for you?”
“I didn’t want to worry her. And she should treat it as an attempt on Laken Godart’s life, not wonder if he’s a threat. My impression was that he was an ally of sorts, not someone Magnolia needs as an enemy.”
“I felt the same way. But that doesn’t change the fact that someone tried to kill you, Bethal.”
“My rings would have protected me. Probably. Thomast, we need allies and Laken Godart didn’t plant the poison. If he had, those angry folk would have said so, I have no doubt. We’ll think of who it could be. But let’s leave Magnolia out of this.”
“She sounded tired.”
Bethal nodded slowly.
“She’s tired. She’s being nice. Trying to keep the continent together as always. If only she had some help.”
“Do you think this [Emperor] is the help she needs?”
“Possibly. I don’t think he’ll make things worse. On the whole, I’d trust him over her enemies. The Circle of Thorns has spies everywhere. Perhaps it was one of them who planted the poison. Or perhaps I just have enemies.”
Bethal sighed. She stood with Thomast as the night drew on. The events of the last few hours swirled around them. Fae and magic. Poison and plotting. Bethal looked up.
“Did you enjoy the banquet?”
He thought about this. The banquet had caused a stir. Laken Godart had either terrified or impressed the nobles of Izril. He’d saved himself from being assassinated by Magnolia Reinhart—Bethal and Thomast had been sent to kill him in a duel of honor if they deemed him too dangerous. All in all, Laken had proved himself an adept [Emperor], if a young one. He had mysterious forces at his command, loyal servants, and that most important of qualities—luck.
The banquet had been a wonder, a moment of strange magic in a time of strife. Thomast nodded to himself as he recalled the fae.
“I hated it.”
Bethal kicked him in the shins.