Blade of the Fae
By R.A. Rock
“The King is never going to let me come home,” Tessa said to her friend, Nyall. Despair dragged her shoulders down, and fury pounded at her insides, demanding to be released.
“No,” he said, striding to his liquor cabinet and pouring himself a drink. “He’s not. You’re too useful to him.”
They had just returned from seeing the king of the Fae and were now in Nyall’s public chambers—the part he called the sitting room.
“Shadows take him,” she said, pacing back and forth across the expensive carpet, unable to contain her anger.
“Language,” Nyall said, sounding slightly shocked at her curse. He walked toward the window where there was a breathtaking view of The Valley. “You’re not in the Dark Court right now, Tessa. Try to act like a proper woman.”
At Nyall’s command to act like a proper woman, Tessa wanted to pull at her clothes and mess up her hair, but she knew better. She was in the Light Court and emotions were frowned upon—especially emotions in women—and Nyall would just roll his eyes. The silk of her gown ought to have been smooth and comfortable, but the dress felt as though it didn’t quite fit properly.
Tessa didn’t fit here, and she didn’t fit in the Dark Court. She didn’t know where she belonged anymore. The only thing she knew for certain was that she wanted to come home.
No matter what.
She wanted it more than she wanted her next breath.
“We don’t talk like that in the Light Court, Tessa,” Nyall said, apparently not finished with his tongue lashing. “Have some decorum.”
“Decorum?” she asked, beside herself with outrage. She really hadn’t thought the king would refuse her request to stop being a spy in the Dark Court and return to her home in the Light Court. Tessa had been absent from the Seelie lands for hundreds of years, and she was over it. Totally over it. She wanted out. “Shadows take decorum, Nyall. I can’t believe he would do this to me. After everything I’ve done for the Light Court.”
She loved Nyall like a brother, but it annoyed her that he had the nerve to look shocked at her words.
“Tessa, honestly. I don’t even recognize you anymore.” Nyall had a disappointed look on his handsome face. “Who have you become, Tess?”
Who have I become? I have no clue.
Sometimes when she looked in the mirror these days, she didn’t even recognize herself anymore. The woman in the mirror was so unhappy. So trapped. So powerless. It made her sick to look at herself.
Even though in the Dark Court she had control, she didn’t make the mistake of thinking that was true power.
Because it wasn’t.
Freedom. Now that was power.
To be able to decide where you went and when you went there. That was freedom, and that was power over your own life.
She might be the Captain of the Guard and the Queen’s right hand in battle, but she knew that she had as little true freedom as one of the Dark Queen’s monsters in the dungeon.
“Sometimes, I don’t know who I am anymore either,” she murmured, dropping into a chair, her limbs weak with impotence. On the gentle breeze that blew in the window, she smelled the scent of lilacs, and it brought back her childhood so strongly that tears stung her eyes. She blinked them away.
“Well, that’s what you get,” Nyall said with the shrug of someone who had never known what it was like to have to give yourself completely to something you never really wanted. He didn’t turn from where he was contemplating the beautiful day outside the window, and the rays of sunlight pouring in lit his blond hair so that it shone like gold itself.
Her body went rigid at his words.
“What do you mean, that’s what you get?” Tessa asked, sitting up straighter. If Nyall had truly been listening, he would have noticed the dangerous edge to her voice. And if he had known who she’d had to become to be a spy in the Dark Court, he would have been afraid.
But he was completely unaware of how he was affecting her, and he kept on with his pompous lecture, sure that he was right and that Tessa—a weak and useless woman—would benefit from him pointing out the facts.
“You’re the one who volunteered to go to the Dark Court as a spy,” he said with another infuriating shrug of one perfect shoulder.
“I wanted to help,” she spat. He didn’t seem to notice her anger because he was still turned away from her.
“Sure you did. And you knew it was going to be hard. That you would get hurt. That it wouldn’t be pleasant. But you went anyway.”
Tessa clenched her teeth together so tightly she thought they might splinter. Nyall was one of her oldest friends, but he had lived his whole life as a privileged member of the Light Court, and it made her furious that he could make pronouncements like that as if he knew.
She was momentarily distracted from her rage by the sweet twittering of birdsong in the garden outside that was the exact opposite of the screeching, dissonant noise that clanged in her head at his words.
“Of course, I imagined what it was going to be like,” she ground out. “But the experience of living it for hundreds of years is a little different than what I thought it would be.”
“I know what you mean,” he said. “But you made your choice, and I have to say it again. That’s what you get for—you know—changing your mind.” If her skin hadn’t been holding her together, Tessa thought she might have flown into a thousand pieces. “You shouldn’t have gone in the first place. It was stupid.”
She supposed he was right.
It didn’t stop her from wanting to smash his face with her fist until it was a bloody mess.
Stars above, what am I thinking? Nyall is my friend. A good Fae man. He’s just pointing out a truth that I don’t want to admit.
“I wish you hadn’t gone because I miss you, Tessa,” he said, and her anger at him melted.
After all, he was right.
She had been completely changed by the Dark Court, and she hadn’t even really noticed until this very moment. She walked over to the mirror that hung over a small table and stared at herself. A woman with empty eyes gazed back at her.
Like a ghost.
“If it’s any comfort, the king seems bent on getting the Scroll of Severance,” he said. “And then this whole Seelie and Unseelie Court stuff will be over.”
“I should get the scroll,” Tessa said, almost to herself as the idea popped into her head. “It’s the only thing I could ever do that would convince him to let me come home.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Tess. You can’t get the scroll. Other Fae who are far more powerful than you have tried and failed.”
Tessa held on to her temper—tightly—as Nyall continued enumerating the difficulties.
“The Keeper of the Scroll has never been found—even by the king and queen. And they say that if you were to get the scroll, enacting the spell to end the Severance would destroy the person who tries.”
“I suppose you’re right,” Tessa agreed reluctantly, the bitterness soaking deeper into her heart.
“The king will eventually get the scroll, and you won’t have to do this anymore. You’ll be able to finally come home.”
“And when do you suppose that will happen?” she asked, forcing the question out.
“Another couple hundred years maybe,” Nyall said as if he couldn’t care less, still gazing out at the idyllic countryside.
“Is that all?” she asked, completely sarcastic.
“You’re so strong, Tess,” he said, unaware of her sarcasm or how callous he sounded. “You’ll survive.”
She knew she could put up with life in the Dark Court for longer, but she didn’t want to.
She didn’t want to just survive anymore.
“I probably will survive,” Tessa said, unable to tear her gaze away from the haunted woman in the glass. “But my soul will be dead long before that.”
The rage and powerlessness rose up in her, and she punched the mirror, shattering the glass and her reflection at the same time. Blood streaked down her hand. The shards fell with a crash on the floor, and she spun on her heel, heading out of the room.
Nyall’s expression was no doubt priceless, but she didn’t look at him. She couldn’t talk to him anymore.
Tessa strode down the light, airy corridor, fury burning inside of her like a fire raging out of control. And behind her on the pale tiles, she left a trail of bright drops of crimson blood.
The queen held court in the throne room of Direwood Castle, beginning as usual when the last scarlet rays of the sun disappeared. Tess stood in the doorway to the queen’s throne room and wished, not for the first time, that the Severance had never happened. If it hadn’t happened, then she wouldn’t have to be here.
Centuries ago when the King and Dark Queen had quarreled, Ahlenerra—the Fae land—had been split in two. Literally. The enormous Chasm divided the two lands, and no one was allowed to cross. The Dark Queen ruled over the northern half, which was referred to as the Dark Court or the Unseelie Court. And the King ruled over the southern half, called the Light or Seelie Court.
Tessa worked in the Dark Court and, Stars above, was she tired of it.
Her attention was caught by the prisoner the queen was speaking to. She stared at him, intrigued in spite of herself.
Tessa was so tired after her three-week journey back from the Light Court that she could hardly see straight. She could see well enough, though, to notice the man’s charisma and good looks.
And yet, it wouldn’t do to show interest in anyone or anything in the Dark Court, so she kept her face a mask of stone.
As the Captain of the Guard, the Queen required Tessa to present herself upon her return to the castle, and not for the first time, this injunction grated on her nerves. Why could she not have a bath and get a change of clothes before she had to report in? But the Dark Queen cared nothing for any of her subjects’ needs or wants—even if the subject was Tessa, her right hand and head of all her armies.
Tessa shoved away the traitorous thoughts. It wasn’t smart to even think such things. The Dark Queen had a way of finding out about them and making the thinker suffer—dreadfully.
The prisoner had dark brown hair and brown, intelligent eyes. Under the dirt the soldiers had kicked on him, she could see that his naked chest was strong, lean, and muscled. His torso was marked with bruises, scrapes, and cuts—no doubt from the guards’ tender attentions. The only other thing the stranger wore was a plain ring on one finger. Tessa wondered if he was married.
“Tessa Callahan,” came a voice from beside her, startling her out of her musings. “May the Shadows hide you.”
Tessa responded to the greeting automatically, clenching her jaw and not reacting. “And also you, Runa Byrne,” she said, mocking Runa’s use of her full name and not looking at her nemesis. “What do you want?”
“What I always want, Tessa. To kill you. And take your position of course, which you don’t deserve.”
Tessa turned her head toward the woman who had been her rival since the day she had walked through the doors of Direwood Castle for the first time. The Fae were immortal, magical beings that could not die under most circumstances. But there were ways to kill them, such as splitting their body up so that it could never heal and overloading their magical channels so that they exploded. They could also be injured so that it would take years for them to heal. So it was commonplace to use the word “kill” even though in most cases, it meant that they would simply cause you great and unending pain.
The woman addressing Tessa was tall and slim. She had long black hair and pale white skin. Her lips were always painted scarlet or purple, and her black eyes held nothing but contempt and hatred for Tessa.
“Runa, Runa,” Tessa said, shaking her head. “Will you never learn? The Dark Queen gave me the position of Captain of the Guard because you simply aren’t good enough. And she certainly doesn’t trust you.”
Runa gave Tessa a look of loathing.
“Since the first day we got here, you’ve been trying to beat me, Runey. But you just haven’t been able to. It’s not your fault, though.” Tessa patted the other woman condescendingly on the shoulder. “It’s a natural, inborn lack of talent. You don’t have to feel bad about it.”
“You think you’re so great Callahan,” Runa said, fury in her eyes. “But I will take your position. And I will kill you. It’s only a matter of time.”
“Okay then, I’ll be waiting,” Tessa said, not worried in the slightest. The woman was definitely more bark than bite, and she just didn’t have what it took to lead. The Dark Queen saw that, as well as anyone else who had ever interacted with her, but Runa couldn’t see it.
Tessa felt annoyed at the brief interaction with her enemy and the persona she had to put on with the other woman. But she let it go and turned her attention back to what was unfolding before her.
Tessa gave herself a little shake. She had done enough skulking in the shadows. The queen had glanced in her direction twice now, and Tessa didn’t want to be called forward. That wouldn’t be good. Especially since she noticed the queen had her favorite monster—the Char—lurking in a cage behind her throne. The creature made Tessa’s guts churn.
Tessa hated and feared them so much.
When she had first arrived in the Dark Court, she had been ordered to kill a prisoner in a training exercise as a test to see if she had the required level of brutality and disregard for human life to be a member of the royal guard.
She had stood her ground and steadfastly refused the order. Her superior hadn’t liked it. He thought it a good idea to make an example of her—in order to encourage the viciousness and cruelty that the Dark Queen required of her soldiers. So he had thrown her in the monster arena, while all the rest of the royal guard watched.
The monster arena was where Ransetta frequently amused herself by throwing prisoners in and watching them be devoured by the various different beasts and creatures she kept in her dungeon. But occasionally, it was used for this purpose. It was necessary to keep the troops in line, her superior had told her.
Tessa had been absolutely terrified. It was early on in her time with the Dark Court, and she had still been soft and fearful. The monsters had tormented her, and she had screamed and screamed. She had run. But they had chased her and hunted her down. Until she found a reservoir of strength—and rage—that she had never tapped before.
Tessa had fought her way out, killing monsters left and right until she had escaped, but the incident had left a scar. Now, she had an unreasonable fear of monsters that had to be kept hidden from everyone in the Dark Court, lest she be seen as weak. Well, of course, being afraid of monsters was smart. They were creatures to be feared. But she was afraid of them even now, when they were locked up and couldn’t hurt her.
It had been a horrific experience, but she had earned a promotion from the queen because of it—both for her prowess in defeating the monsters and for defying a superior. The queen didn’t generally like defiance in her troops, but she knew a leader when she saw one.
It had taken a while to move up the ranks and prove herself to the queen, but she had done it. Now Tessa had the queen’s ear and her trust. If she really thought about it, the event had probably landed her the position of Captain of the Guard. Which meant she had command of hundreds of warriors and was admired and/or feared by all her soldiers.
But it wasn’t smart to get cocky. Not in the Dark Court. And Ransetta would not be patient with Tessa hanging about in the shadows much longer—monster or no monster.
Tessa moved with precision until she reached her Queen’s side and stood there, avoiding everyone’s gaze. The vile murmuring in the room brushed against her, making her clench her jaw. Then, even knowing it was a mistake, she couldn’t help but slide her eyes over to the prisoner.
The man glanced up at the same time as she took her place next to the queen, and Tessa felt a surge of energy as their eyes met, followed by a wave of desire. This was so startling that she looked away from the man, blinking several times.
Tessa resolutely pushed down the sudden tingling she felt and her pity for the man, whose bluster seemed to simply be a cover for his terror. There was no use entertaining any sort of feelings for one who was clearly condemned. It would only go worse for him. The Captain of the Guard could not be showing interest, compassion, or pity for the prisoners.
The Dark Queen was like the most evil of cats and didn’t like anyone else playing with her mice. Tessa knew that it was better not to get attached. The prisoner would be dead soon enough. And probably in the most horrible of ways, which would give her nightmares for centuries to come.
The Queen always destroyed them.
It usually took the cleanup crew hours and hours to get the polished stone of the throne room clean again. Tessa focused on the far wall, her hands behind her back in a relaxed position, ignoring the prisoner and the scene unfolding before her. Breathing shallowly, she tried to avoid inhaling the scent of blood that always seemed to linger in the throne room, no matter how many times it was washed. She wished the queen would acknowledge her and let her give her report.
All she wanted was her bed.
Then her attention was drawn to the conversation, and she tuned in to what the prisoner was saying, trying to figure out what was going on.
“Bring your greatest warrior,” he said to the queen, a determined look in his eye that almost covered the fear. “I will fight him. And I will win.”
Tessa immediately wished she had been paying better attention. It wasn’t like her to zone out—especially when the queen was playing with a new toy. It didn’t do to be taken unawares by Ransetta.
The queen glanced up at her as if something was funny, and Tessa pasted a grin on her face, desperately wishing that she knew what was happening. Of course, she didn’t let any of her confusion show.
“She’s my greatest warrior, and you won’t last two minutes against her,” the Dark Queen said.
Finn couldn’t believe it. He had been caught by the Dark Queen’s Skransser. They had put a slave ring around his neck, attached to the chain that a guard was pulling on as if he was a dog. His hands were bound so tightly behind his back that he could feel the rope cutting into his skin.
The monster had tracked him down by following the magical trail, which all Fae leave behind. Then it had tricked him into agreeing to go with it by taking on the form of Finn’s sister. And once you agreed to go with a Skransser, you were at its mercy.
It could immobilize you, and then usually, it consumed your soul like you were the most delicious foie gras it had ever eaten. It was such a cliché that the monster used your loved ones against you, but the trap worked, time and again, which was probably why it continued to employ it.
It hadn’t eaten Finn’s soul because the evil thing had a deal with the Dark Queen. No one knew exactly what bargain she had with the creature, but it did her bidding. And everyone agreed that her connection to it contributed to her wickedness.
Whatever the deal was didn’t matter. What mattered was that Finn had been caught by the creature and held frozen until the queen’s guard came and picked him up.
He had tried to shift to his tiny, winged form and escape, but the soldiers had some sort of dust spell that, when sprinkled on a Fae, made it impossible for them to change forms. He didn’t know how long it lasted, but he still couldn’t shift, and it had taken them hours to walk to the castle.
It turned out that the Dark Queen’s advisor had a weakness for cards and betting, and Finn, not knowing who the man was, had thoroughly trounced him and taken all his money. Apparently, the royal advisor had taken exception to this and had told the Dark Queen that Finn stole his horse. Finn liked to call it borrowing, since he hadn’t kept the beast. The queen then agreed to send the Skransser out to look for Finn in order to make an example of him and to dissuade other horse thieves.
Now, he was being dragged into the middle of the Dark Court, beaten, his clothes torn off, covered in dirt, and so exhausted, he could hardly stand.
How had he ended up in the very place he had sworn to stay away from?
This was bad. This was very bad.
For him, because he would no doubt be tortured and killed if he couldn’t get away.
For the Dark Queen, because the magic of his vow would force Finn to kill her if he did get away.
The big guard pulled, the chain clanking, and Finn stumbled forward into the Dark Court throne room. The cuts on his wrists ached. Before him, the Dark Court was assembled. They wore various shades of black, dark purple, navy, and crimson. There wasn’t a white or pastel-colored outfit to be seen.
And their eyes.
As he passed the courtiers, he noticed that their eyes were nearly all the same. Bored. Cruel. And perhaps slightly mad.
His heart started to pound as he neared the throne. The sound was so loud in his ears, he felt sure everyone could hear it. The Dark Queen was twisted away, but the next instant, she turned to face him, and their eyes met. He felt the urge to jump forward and wrap his hands around her neck, squeezing until she was dead. He clenched his fists, fighting against the magic of his vow.
An image of Emmy, laughing by the brook, popped into his mind. She would never do that again thanks to the Dark Queen. He felt his vow inside him, the magic urging him to violence, but he ignored it. No good would come of him attacking her here. He would just be killed instantly.
And besides, he didn’t want to kill her at all. That was the magic behind the vow talking and trying to convince him to do what he had sworn to do.
He couldn’t kill the Queen.
He needed to get away.
And he needed to be free so he could escape.
He was a good fighter, but he couldn’t fight the entire royal guard. An idea began to form in his mind, and he stifled a smile.
No, he couldn’t fight the entire royal guard, but he could fight one man.
“…and so, your majesty,” Finn finished. “I’d like to propose a wager.”
The blisteringly beautiful queen lifted one delicate eyebrow, her loveliness so perfect that it nearly blinded him.
“A wager? You wish to bet against me?” She seemed both truly taken aback and, at the same time, intrigued by the notion.
“Indeed. It would be amusing.”
“Your majesty,” the queen’s advisor blustered. “I object. Just kill the wretch.”
Finn gave the man a smile and a wink, enraging him even further.
“Want another game?” Finn asked the man. “If you win, she kills me. If I win, I go free.”
The queen gave Finn a look that ought to have melted the skin off his face, and he snapped his mouth shut. Then she turned to her advisor.
“Shut up, Barclay,” she said, tilting her head back and forth. Considering Finn’s proposal, he hoped.
At that moment, the most beautiful Fae that Finn had ever seen stepped up and stood at the queen’s right. With chestnut ringlets tumbling around her stunning face and dark brown eyes he could get lost in, he was entranced for a moment. Then he realized who she must be. Only the Captain of the Guard stood in that position in court, with the queen’s royal advisor to the left. He didn’t know much about the Dark Court, but he knew that. Everyone knew that.
The woman, who must be the Captain of the Guard, met Finn’s gaze, and a shock went through him. They both looked away at the same time. He hadn’t felt anything like that since Emmy, and he immediately experienced a stab of intense guilt at the thought.
But Finn shook away the thoughts. He couldn’t be getting distracted by a pretty woman or by thinking about the pretty woman he had loved and who had died. He would need all his wits about him to avoid being killed in the next five minutes.
“What is your name, thief?” the queen asked, her voice sweet and, at the same time, like a dog gnashing its teeth.
“Finn Noble,” he said, hoping that this was progress.
“Hm.” She appeared to be considering his proposal. “Having you killed by the Skransser would be just as much fun, I think, Mr. Noble.”
“You’ve seen that a hundred times.” He assumed. “I guarantee, your majesty, this will be far more amusing than watching me die.”
She was silent a long moment.
“What are your terms?” The queen sat up and focused all her attention on him. It was absolutely terrifying.
He smiled broadly, hiding his fear. “You pit me against your greatest warrior,” he said, hitting his chest with his fist. The chest thump was rather over the top, Finn knew, but he wanted to come across as a stupid brawler.
“Really,” the queen said, looking amused. “You? Are going to fight my greatest warrior?”
“Yes,” he said, a little insulted.
And then the queen laughed. Finn was sure that at one time when she had laughed, all of Ahlenerra had laughed with her, even the trees, even the flowers, even the insects. Now when she laughed, it was enough to make the Stars weep.
“Oh, well, you’re right then. This is going to be amusing. But it won’t last very long.”
His sense of indignation deepened. “You don’t think I can fight?” he asked, trying not to be completely offended.
“You’re handsome,” she said, with a graceful lift of her pale, lovely shoulder. “I’ll give you that. And you look strong. Maybe you even have some skill. But my greatest warrior has been fighting for three hundred years and has never been bested.”
He nodded. “That’s perfect. I want to fight him.”
The queen smiled as if she was amused, and there was snickering from the courtiers. He wondered what was so funny.
“And what if you win this fight?” the queen asked, taking a goblet of wine that a servant offered her and sipping. The silver shone in the light, and he could smell the scent of wine. Finn’s mouth was dry and tasted nasty, but he ignored it all and focused on Ransetta.
“Then I am no longer your prisoner, and I may stay in the Dark Court. I could be of use to you.”
“Interesting. And if you lose?”
“Then you, yourself, have lost nothing. I will still be your prisoner to do with as you wish.”
He refrained from clenching his jaw at the thought.
He wouldn’t lose. He couldn’t lose. He would be a dead man if he did.
Or worse. Food for a Skransser.
“As I wish?” she asked, her eyes raking over his body with barely concealed desire.
Oh no. Not that. I’d rather fall into the Chasm of Severance.
He would rather be consumed by a Skransser than share a bed with Ransetta. He would cut his own throat first.
“Agreed then,” she said. “It’s a deal.”
“Palms,” Finn said, meeting her eyes, his face serious. The Captain of the Guard frowned.
The queen herself lifted her eyebrows in feigned innocence. “Don’t you trust me, Mr. Noble?”
He gave her what he hoped was a friendly smile and didn’t say anything, knowing he was pushing his luck.
“Palms then,” she said, setting the goblet down with a clink.
Finn stepped forward in relief. He was careful not to shrink back from her touch as he held out his hand and she placed hers against his.
Her skin was the smoothest he had ever touched—so smooth it made him want to shiver with disgust—but he controlled himself. A ripple of magic spread out from their hands and only when it was gone did he pull away.
A spot in the center of the hand concentrated magic, and on a Fae, there was always a small trickle of power from that point. If two Fae pressed their palms together, it was like shaking hands on a deal but with a magical component. The magic held each Fae to their word. If either of the parties were to break the agreement, there would be dire consequences enforced by the magic. Finn had made his vow to avenge Amelia’s death the same way, but he had pressed the palms of his own hands together.
Finn gave the queen a nod and stepped back, content for the moment.
“May the Shadows hide you, your majesty,” he said.
“And also you, bold thief.”
She gave him a beautiful smile that was so wicked, it turned his stomach.
“Bring your greatest warrior,” he said to the queen in what he hoped was a strong, confident voice. “I will fight him. And I will win.”
“She’s my greatest warrior,” Ransetta said, grinning up at the Captain of the Guard. “And you won’t last two minutes against her.”