" The envoy from the Seelie Court is here, my Lord,” Dulcamara repeated, the silver soles of her boots ringing with each step. Roiben heard "Lord" echo off the walls again and again, like a taunt.

“Send him in,” Roiben said, touching his mouth. He wondered if Kaye was already in the hall, if she was alone.

“If I might presume to inform, the messenger is a she.”

Roiben looked up with sudden hope. “Send her in, then.”

“Yes, my Lord.” The envoy stepped out of the way, letting the faerie woman come forward. She was dressed in glacial white cloth, with no armor whatsoever. When she looked up at him, her silver eyes gleamed like mirrors, reflecting his own face.

“Welcome, little sister.” The words seemed to steal his breath as he spoke them.

Her hair was cropped close to her head, a white halo around her face. She bowed and did lift her head.

“Lord Roiben, my Lady sends you her greetings. She is saddened that she must fight against one of her own knights and bids you reconsider your rash position. You could even now renounce all this, surrender, and return to the Bright Court.”

“Ethine, what happened to your hair?”

“For my brother,” she said, but still did not look at him as she spoke. “I cut it when he died.”
Roiben just stared at her.

“Have you any message?” Ethine inquired.

“Tell her I will not reconsider.” His voice was clipped. “I will not step down and I will not surrender. You may say to your mistress that having tasted freedom, her service no longer tempts me. You may tell her that nothing about her tempts me.”

Ethine’s jaw clenched as though she were biting back words. “I am instructed to remain for your coronation. With your leave, of course.”

“I am always glad of your company,” he said.

She left the hall without waiting for his dismissal. As his chamberlain walked into the room wearing a wide and toothy grin, Roiben tried not to see it as an ill omen that of late he was better at pleasing those he hated than those he loved.

Cornelius leaned back against the rough bark of an elm tree just inside the cemetary. He tried to concentrate on something other than the cold, something other than the iron poker clutched in one bare hand or the fishing wire in the other. He had turned his white clothes inside out just in case some of the shit from the books worked and rubbed himself down with pine needles to disguise his smell. He hoped, in the gray and starless night, it would be enough.

No matter how ready he had told himself he was, hearing faeries shuffling through the snow filled him with panic. He didn’t really think the poker was much of a defense against the legions of the Unseelie Court. All he could do now was hold his breath and try not to shiver.

They were gathering for the first coronation in more than a century. Everyone would be there. Corny wished Kaye was crouched in a snowbank with him tonight, not under the hill at the faerie ball. She always made crazy plans seem like they were going to work, made it seem like you could figure out the un-figure-outable. But to get Kaye to come, he would have had to tell her what he was doing and there was no way that would have gone well. Sometimes he forgot she wasn’t human, and then she would look at him with something alien in her eyes, or smile with a smile far too wide and too hungry. Even though she was his best friend, she was still one of them. He was better off working alone.

Corny repeated that thought to himself silently as the first of the faerie processional passed. It was a group of trolls, their lichen green limbs as long and gnarled as branches. They kicked up snow as they passed, growling to one another softly, hooked noses scenting the air like hounds'. Tonight they did not bother with disguises.

A trio of women followed, all dressed in white, their hair blowing around them even though there was no wind. They smiled secret smiles at one another. As they passed, oblivious of him, he saw that their curved backs were hollow and empty as eggshells. Despite the filmy gowns they wore, they appeared not to mind the cold.

Horses wound their way up the hill next, their riders solemn and quiet. Corny’s eye caught on the shock of red berries encircling dark hair. He could not stop himself from staring at the rich and strange patterns of the clothes, the shining locks, and the faces, so handsome that just looking made him ache with longing.

Corny bit his lip hard and forced his eyes shut. His hands were trembling at his sides and he was afraid that the clear plastic fishing wire would pull up through the snow. How many times would he be caught off guard like this? How many times could he be made a fool?

Keeping his eyes closed, Corny listened. He listened for the snap of branches, the scrunching of snow, the whispered snatches of conversation, the laughter that was as lilting as any flute. He listened for them to pass, and when they had, he opened his eyes at last. Now he just had to wait. He was betting on the fact that no matter what the party was for, there were always latecomers.

It only took a few more minutes for a troop of short, gray-clad elves to come up the hill. Hissing impatiently at one another, they waded through the snow. Corny sighed. There were too many for him to be able to do what he planned, and they were too large, so he waited till they passed.

A smallish faery tramped behind them, hopping in the long footfalls of the trolls. Clad in scarlet with a half-pinecone hat, its black eyes glittered like an animal’s in the reflected light. Corny clutched the handle of the poker tighter and took a deep breath. He waited for the little faery to take two hops more, then stepped out of the trees and in one swift movement, thrust the poker against the faery's throat.

It shrieked, falling prone in the snow, hands flying to cover where the iron had touched it.

“Kryptonite,” Corny whispered. “I guess that makes me Lex Luther.”

“Please, please,” the creature wheedled. “What does it want? A wish? Surely a little thing like myself would have too small wishes for such a mighty being.”

Corny jerked hard on the thin fishing wire. An aluminum crab trap snapped together around the faery.

The little creature screeched again. It scrambled from side to side, breathing hard, clawing at any small gaps only to fall back with a yowl. Corny finally permitted himself to smile.

Working quickly, he twisted four thin steel wires into place, fixing the trap closed. Then he hefted the cage in the air and ran down the hill, slipping in the ankle-deep snow, careful to take a different path from the one the faeries had come up. He stumbled to where he’d parked his car, the trunk still open, the spare tire dusted with a fine layer of white.

Dropping the cage there, he slammed the trunk shut and hopped into the front of the car, turning the ignition. The heat came on full blast and he just sat there a moment, letting himself enjoy the warmth, letting himself feel the way his heart beat hard enough to punch against the inside of his chest, letting himself glory in the fact that now, finally, he would be the one making the rules.


Kaye tipped back her goblet, drinking it to the dregs. The first sip of mushroom wine had been foul, but afterward Kaye had found herself touching her tongue to her teeth, searching for more of the earthy, bitter flavor. Her cheeks were hot to the press of her own palms and she felt more than slightly dizzy.

“Don’t—that isn’t good to eat,” Lutie-loo said. The little faery was perched on Kaye’s shoulder, one hand clutching a silver hoop earring and the other holding onto a lock of hair.
“Better than good,” Kaye said, drawing her fingers across the bottom of the goblet, sifting the sediment, then licking it from her hand. She took an experimental step, trying to spin and catching herself moments before she crashed into a table. “Where’s my rat?”

“Hiding like we should be. Look,” Lutie said, but Kaye couldn’t see what she was gesturing at. It could have been anything. Trolls skulked among the tables next to selkies without their skins while hollow-backed dopplers danced and whirled. There was at least one kelpie—the stench of brine was heavy in the air—but there were also nixies, sprites, brownies, bogies, phookas, a shagfoal in the corner, willo-the-wisps zipping among stalagmites, grinning spriggans and more.

Not just the local denizens either. Folk had traveled from distant courts to witness the coronation. There were envoys from more courts than she had known existed, some Seelie, some Unseelie, and others that claimed those distinctions were meaningless. All of them here to watch the Night Court pledge fealty to its new master. They smiled at her, smiles full of thoughts Kaye could not decipher.

The tables were spread with dark blue cloths and set with platters of ice. Branches and holly berries rested beside sculptures composed of frozen blocks of greenish water. A black-tongued monster licked at a chunk containing a motionless minnow. Bitter acorn cakes frosted with a sugary blackberry paste were stacked near pinned and roasted pigeon feet. Slushy black punch floated in an enormous copper bowl, the metal sweating and cloudy with cold. Occasionally someone dipped a long-stemmed icicle cup into it and sipped at the contents.

Kaye looked up as the hall went silent.

Roiben had entered the room with his courtiers. Thistledown, the Unseelie herald, ran in front of the procession, long golden hair streaming from his wizened head. Then came the piper, Bluet, playing her lilting instrument. Next marched Roiben with his two knights, Ellebere and Dulcamara, following him at an exact three paces. Goblins held up the edges of Roiben's cloak. Behind them were others—his chamberlain, Ruddles, a cupbearer holding a winding goblet of horn, and several pages holding the harnesses of three black dogs.

Roiben mounted a large, moss-covered dais near a great throne of woven birch branches and turned toward the crowd, going to his knees. He leaned his head forward and his hair, silver as a knife, fell like a curtain over his face.

“Will you take the oath?” Thistledown asked.

“I will,” Roiben said.

“The endless night,” Thistledown intoned, “of darkness, ice and death is ours. Let our new Lord be also made of ice. Let our new Lord be born from death. Let our new Lord commit himself to the night.” With that, he placed a crown woven of ash branches, small broken stubs of twigs forming the spires, upon Roiben’s head.
Roiben rose.

“By the blood of our Queen which I spilled,” he said. “By this circlet of ash placed upon my brow I bind myself to the Night Court on this, Midwinter’s Eve, the longest night of the year.”

Ellebere and Dulcamara knelt on either side of him. The court knelt with them. Kaye crouched awkwardly.

“I present to you,” called the herald, “our undoubted Lord, Roiben, King of the Unseelie Court. Will you humble yourselves and call him sovereign?”

A great joyful shrieking and screaming. The hair stood up along Kaye’s arms.

“You are my people,” Roiben said, his hands extended. “And as I am bound, you are lashed to my bidding. I am naught if not your King.”

With those words, he sank into the chair of birch, his face blank. Folk began to stand again, moving to make their obeisance to the throne.

A spriggan chased a tiny winged faery under the table, making it tremble. The ice bowl sloshed and the tower of cubes collapsed, tumbling into disarray.

“Kaye,” Lutie squeaked. “You’re not looking.”

Kaye turned to the dais. A scribe sat cross-legged next to Roiben, recording each supplicant. Leaning forward from his throne, the Lord addressed a wild-haired woman dressed in scarlet. As she moved to kneel, Kaye glimpsed a cat’s tail twitching from a slit in her dress.

“What am I not looking at?” Kaye asked.

“Have you never seen a declaration, pixie?” sneered a woman with a necklace of silver scarabs.“You are the Ironside girl, aren’t you?”

Kaye nodded. “I guess so.” She wondered if she stank of it, if iron leaked from her pores from long exposure.

A lissome girl in a dress of petals came up behind the woman, resting slim fingers on her arm, and making a face at Kaye. “He’s not yours, you know.”

Kaye’s head felt as though it was filled with cotton. “What?”

“A declaration,” the woman said. “You haven’t declared yourself.” It seemed to Kaye that the beetles paced a circle around the woman’s throat. Kaye shook her head.

“She doesn’t know.” The girl snickered, snatching an apple off the table and biting into it.

“To be his consort,” the woman spoke slowly, as though to an idiot. An iridescent green beetle dropped from her mouth. “One makes a declaration of love and asks for a quest to prove one’s worth.”

Kaye shuddered, watching the shimmering beetle scuttle up the woman’s dress to take its place at her neck. “A quest?”

“But if the declarer is not favored, the monarch will hand down an impossible expedition.”

“Or a deadly one,” the grinning petal girl supplied.

“Not that we think he would send you on a quest like that.”

“Not that we think he meant to hide anything from you.”

“Leave me alone,” Kaye said thickly, her heart twisting. Lurching forward through the crowd, she knew that she’d gotten far drunker than she had intended. Lutie squeaked as Kaye shoved her way past winged ladies and fiddle-playing men, nearly tripping on a long tail that swept the floor.

“Kaye!” Lutie wailed. “Where are we going?”

A woman bit pearl-gray grubs off a stick, smacking her lips in delight as Kaye passed. A faery with white hair cropped close enough to her head that it stuck up like the clock of a dandelion looked oddly familiar, but Kaye couldn’t place her. Nearby, a blue skinned man cracked chestnuts with his massive fists as small faeries darted to snatch up what he dropped. The colors seemed to blur together.

Kaye felt the impact of the dirt floor before she even realized that she had fallen. For a moment, she just lay there, gazing across at the hems of dresses, cloven feet, and pointed-toe shoes. The shapes danced and merged.

Lutie landed close enough to Kaye’s face that she could barely focus on the tiny form.

“Stay awake,” Lutie said. Her wings were vibrating with anxiety. She tugged on one of Kaye’s fingers. “They’ll get me if you go to sleep.”

Kaye rolled onto her side and got up, carefully, wary of her own legs.

“I’m okay,” Kaye said. “I’m not asleep.”

Lutie alighted on Kaye’s head and began to nervously knot locks of hair.

“I’m perfectly okay,” Kaye repeated. With careful steps, she approached the side of the dais where Lord Roiben, newly anointed King of the Unseelie Court, sat. She watched his fingers, each one encircled in a metal band, as they tapped the rhythms of an unfamiliar tune on the edge of his throne. He was clad in a stiff black fabric that swallowed him in shadow. As familiar as he should have been, she found herself unable to speak.

It was the worst kind of stupid to be pining after someone who cared for you. Still, it was like watching her mother onstage. Kaye felt proud, but was half afraid that if she went up, it wouldn’t turn out to be Roiben at all.

Lutie-loo abandoned her perch and flew to the throne. Roiben looked up, laughed, and cupped his hands to receive her.

“She drank all the mushroom wine,” Lutie accused, pointing to Kaye.

“Indeed? Roiben raised one silver brow. “Will she come and sit beside me?”

“Sure,” Kaye said, levering herself up onto the dais, unaccountably shy. “How has it been?”

“Endless.” His long fingers threaded through her hair, making her shiver.

Only months ago, she’d thought of herself as weird, but human. Now the weight of gauzy wings on her back and the green of her skin were enough to remind her that she wasn’t. But she was still just Kaye Fierch and no matter how magical or clever, it was hard to understand why she was allowed to sit beside a King.

Even if she had saved that King’s life. Even if he loved her.

She couldn’t help but recall the beetle-woman’s words. Did the dreadlocked girl with the drum intend to make a declaration? Ask for a quest? Had the girl with the cat tail already done so? Were the fey laughing at her, thinking that because she grew up with humans, she was ignorant of faerie customs?

She wanted to make things right. She wanted to make a grand gesture. Give him something finer than a ragged bracelet. Swaying forward, Kaye went down on both her knees in front of the new King of the Unseelie Court.

Roiben’s eyes widened with something like panic and he opened his mouth to speak but she was faster.

“I, Kaye Fierch, do declare myself to you. I…” Kaye froze, realizing she didn’t know what she was supposed to say, but the heady liquor in her veins spurred her tongue on. “I love you. I want you to give me a quest. I want to prove that I love you.”

Roiben gripped the arm of his throne, fingers tightening on the wood. His voice sank to a whisper. “To allow this, I would have to have a heart of stone. You will not become a subject of this court.”

She knew that something was wrong, but she didn’t know what. Shaking her head, she stumbled on. “I want to make a declaration. I don’t know the formal words, but that’s what I want.”

“No,” he said. “I will not allow it.”

There was a moment’s hush around her and then some scattered laughter and whispering.

“I have recorded it. It has been spoken,” said Ruddles. “You must not dishonor her request.”

Roiben nodded. He stared off into the brugh for a long moment, then stood and walked to the edge of the platform. “Kaye Fierce, this is the quest that I grant. Bring me a faery that can tell an untruth and you shall sit beside me as my consort.”

Shrieking laughter rose from the throng. She heard the words: Impossible. An impossible quest.

Her face heated and suddenly, she felt worse than dizzy. She felt sick. Her face must have gone white or her expression must have turned alarming, because Roiben jumped off the platform and caught her arm as she fell.

Voices were all around her but none of them made sense.

“I promise that if I find who put this idea in your head, they will pay for it with their own.”

Her eyes blinked heavily. She let them close for a moment and slipped down into sleep, passing out cold in Faerieland.

 

oiben had not expected an envoy from the Seelie Court to seek him out before he wore the crown on his brow. Silarial had not moved against him these two long months between Samhain and Midwinter’s Eve, and he began to wonder what she intended. The dark, cold months were considered an unlucky time for the Seelie Court to strike, so perhaps she only waited for the ice to melt into spring, when she would have every advantage. Still, he could occasionally believe that she had considered renewing the truce between the Bright and the Night courts. Even with her greater numbers, war was still costly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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This page © Holly Black 2006