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The Fractured Grey
He sits before us, this tiny boy of impalpable age, unnervingly still and watching us as we watch him, with a stare as if to challenge his position – or ours. As if we are the captives, not he, and he is evaluating our worth, determining whether our lives are as valuable as the chair he perches upon. The child’s unsettling gaze lands upon me for just a moment. His eyes are a marble-like concoction of sea grey and dark blue, with silver flashing every so often; a tiny, harmless blizzard of beautiful stars – or a warning storm of lightning. I cannot tell, he wears no expression; it is his dark, knowing gaze; his demeanour, his aura, which is so commanding, which radiates an air of importance, of superiority. And I find, as I take in his white skin so ivory in parlour, with snowflakes glimmering beneath the surface, and his hair so starkly black in comparison that the light flies off it in radiant fright, that I feel I am staring at something more than extraordinary, more than a child of disquieting brilliance. I feel as if I am staring at a thing of disquieting brilliance consuming the innocent body of a child.
When he shifts his unwavering scrutiny onwards, settling on no one in particular, I notice, I release a tiny sigh of relief. Shame floods through me then, not because I am frightened of a little boy, not because I do not understand him and his piercing look, but because I am thinking as one with the rest of the crowd; that he is so alien, that he is not one of us, that he does not belong.
This appraisal speaks volumes, where my own eyes are filled with snow and ice and pools of azure blue, where I have skin as white as he, and my hair falls to my waist in snarls of snow-gold curls, cold to the touch and webbed with shards of ice. I tower above most with my elongated limbs and sharp features; cheeks bone high and defined, ears pointed and nose long and sharp. The entire Winter court regard him from behind eyes dancing with tiny sunbursts and crescent moons, or dark skies filled with constellations and shooting stars, or winter light pouring through icicles and glaciers; with hair tangled in rowan berries and evergreen leaves, or woven with raven and swan feathers, or teeming with thorns and long-legged spiders; with fingers long and double jointed, with arms and legs inhumanly long and double-jointed, or curiously stunted; with skin as translucent as a thin sheet of ice over a grey lake, or rippling with living tattoos of wolves and bears or beetles and snowdrops, or dark as dirt and tougher than dragonscale. We come so ethereally diversely, a motley bunch of terrifying creatures.
After all this time, I still find some new courtier with magenta skin or the face of a lion that gives me cause me to stop and stare. A dull memory penetrates my present thoughts, an unwanted one, blurry and flawed, of my initial years as a human. When I was slower, dumber and primitive, when a knife could be slipped between my ribs as easily as butter, and my eyes were useless in the dark.
I glance at my surrounding undines to distract myself. They are silent and contemplative, where their court-sisters are loud and laughing; their voices tinkling like clinking glasses in the sunlight, becoming sweetly bubbling murmurs, a spring stream, when lowered. My Winter undines do not laugh with their sisters, Spring, Summer and Autumn; they do not join in the humour at the expense of this strange child – the simple, easy thing to do. They openly show their fear, both for him and for us all, they are serious and motionless and beautifully still. They are like me, and this boy, and much of those gathered here today– they are Winter.
“Do you suppose he will speak?”
I turn to Nerida. Her voice is a scratchy whisper of ice and wind, hauntingly beautiful. She is the youngest of her sister undines. “He has not so far. Who can tell?”
“Yes, but they can’t keep him, surely. He’s just a boy.”
“No fey is just a boy,” I remind her, and look at her to see that she has seen her own delicate loveliness reflected in my eyes, her undiminished youth, much like my own. But her gentle, child-like seeming profile is brazenly obvious next to my willowy height. Every bone in her body juts beneath the iridescent skin with a fragile roundness; her arms and legs are otherworldly thin and carry the rest of her as lithely as water. She blinks her large black eyes framed with white, ice-speckled lashes, and sighs longingly, yearning, like many of the gentler fey, for an innocent normality they will never have. It is not their nature. The Winter ones are unpredictable, broody, and eerily silent in their ways. They can pull you down to watery depths or sing you a calming melody – which literally affects your very thought pattern. It is not their fault –it is a temperament they cannot change in themselves. Sudden altercations in mood or temperature have been proven to determine the outcome of their actions, but nothing is certain. Sometimes they are not even aware of wrapping their smooth, damp arms around the choking body of a child and dragging them beneath the water’s surface. For the gentler fey, they are still frightening.
I touch the cold wetness on Nerida’s cheek. Undines do not often stray from their watery depths for too long. If you stroke their skin and it is dry, they will be dead within the hour.
“He gives them cause to fear with his gaze alone,” I tell her, and swivel my head to see him again. “He is unrepentant, and the courts despise nothing more than a tool that will not bend for them.”
“Why must it always come down to power and ambition?” She mutters back, stealing glances at our supposed allies, the tricky court of Night, seated near our unmistakable opposition – Summer.
“Because it rules them as they rule us, and we will never be at peace while we each of us have our counters,” I whisper back to her with passionate resentment. I feel a tingle of warmth; it is the only warmth I have ever felt since being in this higher, cold form, it is the sensation that alerts me to the near presence of my rival sister - my own counter. It is difficult to tell if Jacinda will first thread her way through Winter to my side, if only to gloat and taunt and tease and torment me, or if she will stand obediently beside her court and master, Fire. She is as unruly as she is unpredictable, and her temper is fierce. She will be running mad if the events do not unfold as she so wishes. I have always wondered if this bizarre madness, this taint of illogicality, is down to the fact that we are not exact counters. She should have been created from Summer, my direct opposite, but the queen, Rosalind, would not abide by the ancient rules. My counter had to be made or I would die, for everything in every world must be balanced or it will wither and crumble – and only one other court could be allowed to offer her. And so Jacinda came into the world, bitter with her position as tool of the explosive King – who, more often than not, unleashes the rage of his failings upon her, and uses her in any way he wishes – torn with the same love and hate for me as I for her, and brimming with a consuming fire to match my biting ice. All of this makes her perhaps more dangerous than I. She is certainly more unstable.
I flick my wrist and send my Snow Girls, and some of Winter’s guards just to be safe, to stand around the stone-skinned undines. In strength, speed and cunning Jacinda and I are perfectly matched, but I cannot be in all places if she so desires to take her spite out on one of my gentler courtiers. Winter, undoubtedly, is one of the strongest courts; but the undines, in each of their respective seasons, are not beings of confrontation – certainly not above water.
“Poor Celie,” Nerida remarks softly and quietly, pointedly ignoring my sudden discomfort. She knows Jacinda must be coming, and that I shall have to bicker with her, and that she and her sisters may not be safe. I follow her gaze to the queen of the most timid of courts, the brightest and fairest. Celie is a thin figure of apricot skin and golden hair that quite literally radiates bursts of sunlight. Her usual, flamboyant host settle around her, as carefree and unabashed as if we are all at some dainty tea party. “She has not even been crowned yet. I think Spring are the only unambitious fey in all the courts.”
“Don’t pity her, don’t help her, do not show her a kindness,” I say, hearing the harsh words but not regretting them. “Nerida, I mean this for our own good, not for cruelty. Every court is massing here today to pass judgement on this child and claim him. Spring will fair the least well. As you say, they have no political outlook. They are weak because they do not try to rise, and the others will prey on that, as they always have. Our queen will be among the first not to hesitate,” I add grimly, and Celie giggles at something dim-witted with a freeness that is misplaced, with absolute hope and joy and delight, and I think that she is a fool, and her court are a bundle of fools, and they will all be crushed. I push away the nagging sparks of guilt and regret within me, I smother them until I am Winter’s blade once more, and I patiently await my sister’s approach with my most taciturn of expressions. I do not look around me; I do not need my sight to know when she is upon us.
“You say she is weak, but perhaps she is the clever one.”
I stand ramrod straight as if she has not spoken. Nerida goes on, “We all of us lay our cards on the table face up, we are what we are. Winter is cold and still and quiet cruelty, and in seconds She can fly into an untameable, white rage of spite and destruction. Summer is hot and volatile and passionate, Fire is temper and unrelenting, Night is trickery and deception, Autumn is tempestuous and warmth and change. What is Spring? She is what she wants us to see. She is frivolous and lovely and sweet and timid. Until you see her eyes. Your own will be opened when you do. I think our queen will be foolish to dismiss her so easily. Celie is not her predecessor.”
I think of Spring’s last King. Faery monarchs rarely meet the final death, and when they do it is a perplexing time. Every fey is dismayed, confused, angry. Because when you live forever, death becomes such a meaningless thing. In a world of immortals, the White Women are beings of mythology even to us, as they visit so fleetingly. When they came for Fintan, the previous embodiment of Spring, the reminder of the fragility of eternity pierced every immortal beating heart.
Celie came to his throne smiling, radiant with the new swirl of golden power, tattooed with writhing dragonflies, ladybirds, butterflies, song birds and flowers, like the one who came before her had never died unexpectedly, had never lived lengthily. He never existed; there was only Queen Celie and her mesmerising dancing, her enchanting smiles, her charming words. Was it planned? Does she live and breathe deception? Is she the same as the rest of us?
I peer at Nerida with a new respect. “Since when did you –“
“Where’s your snow queen, sister mine? I’ve looked everywhere. Has she something up her cold, cold sleeve?”
Jacinda is a living flame darting between us. She pauses in front of me, stealing a careless look over her shoulder at the bizarre boy. I appraise her wild red hair jealously. Each curl hovers and twists as if alive, dancing with fire and soot. They sit upon her pale, gold-freckled shoulders, and the air blurs around her head in a hazy halo from the intense heat. A sliver of flame licks across her collar bone and vanishes beneath her skin once more. As she turns back to me, her eyes are a penetrating shade of crimson, the irises whirling disturbingly. I cannot help but imagine they are brimming with blood.
“What do you want her for?” I ask, my own face perfectly stony.
“She’s not so knowledgeable as she thinks,” Jacinda grins with lethally sharp teeth.
I am uncomfortable with her choice of words. She is watching me predatorily, waiting for my answer.
Jacinda proffers her hand, extending her long, fire-tipped fingers and closing one for each point made: “The boy killed the Lady of Tides but nobody knows how, or has even questioned why. Why he would kill her in particular, why he would let himself be found so easily, how he managed to leave her an empty shell with not a mark on her body? And then there’s Fintan. These fools have forgotten all about him.”
I cross my arms, utterly unimpressed, weary of her mind games. “This is the point of the trial, Jas. They will explore these points.”
“Don’t be stupid, they’ll explore what suits them. They’ll weave it all to their owns ends.” She flourishes her hand irritably; she is impatient with my slowness. “They either want him, or they don’t. They will fight over him or insist he must die.”
“So where does Fire stand?”
“On the edge, where we sit best.” Her eyes are aglow with mischief. “But my king knows the child’s secret where your queen does not.”
My eyes widen. Nerida cringes away from Jacinda’s reaching heat, straining to appear invisible while also standing strong at my side. We all hear my sister’s statement. The undines murmur amongst the guards, my Snow Girls sway closer, while the rest of the Winter Court are furiously silent. A ripple of disorder bristles over them, at this accusation that their queen is lacking in supremacy, the mere suggestion that she is not cunningly superior in the face of her most blistering enemy, Fire – and my sister smiles, small and brief, with all of the smugness of one who knows her own affect. It takes a mere small word to have them up in arms. I grit my teeth and grab her arm. She yelps as a violent mist of steam hisses from her skin and mine. This is another torment to us both. We can never truly touch without destroying the other. As her skin blisters with a freezing, cutting frost, mine sizzles and burns with her overwhelming fire. I squeeze once more, fighting the pain, determined, to show her that her own weakness is my strength. Then I drop my hand and twitch my fingers, and in moments the ice knits over the agonizing burn, and I am unmarred once more.
Jacinda bares her teeth at me viciously, jumping back.
“Careful,” I say to her in quiet menace, before she can next react. “You are a spark in this court. Go back to your own, Jacinda, unless you mean to say something of help.”
My sister opens her mouth – and cackles with a bubbling stream of shrill laughter. She doubles over and rocks back and forth, she is quite racked with it. Then, the moment passes, and she is upright and still and there is no trace of humour on her wicked, sharp face.
“You,” she whispers, and abruptly, in a quick jerk, leans in to say this to me, “be careful. My lovely Cas. My lovely, frozen, rigid Cas. You have no idea what’s coming.”
I feel the searing heat of her breath at my ear. And, like a cat, she rubs her cheek against mine, darts back and spins away rapidly. She is a tornado of flame, and her laughter fills the clearing. Some stop to watch her, most dip their heads in a fervent attempt to remain unseen by the princess of Fire as she tosses embers into the faces of the moon fey, and only I can see that they are bitterly enraged with her. Their starlight skin burns my eyes it is so bright, and I think they will kill her, but she leaps away into a group of lupine fey, as graceful as a gazelle, with a face more fierce than the lupines.
I say nothing. I wait until she is amongst her own, burning bright, a sun amongst stars, and the king bends his head low to hers. I do not linger on them a moment longer.
The Winter Queen has arrived. With her, in a rainbow of a procession, come the remainder of the courts; the kings and queens, the lords and ladies, the governments, the councils, the courtiers. Tides, Autumn, Sands, Sun, Shadows and The Warlords – even the court of Beasts. The smaller courts, The Broken Regions, made up of various marsh, sky, valley, forest and mountain fey with no allegiance to the seasonal or elemental rulers, blow in conspicuously, standing out from the rest in their alien garb. These faeries are considered our natives, our elders, tired of politics and monarchy and insubstantial hierarchies. They have a scattering of leaders with titles unofficially given, but dubbed by the people. The Lady of the Skies, The Marsh King, The Three Queens of the Valley – three identical triplets – the King of the North – in reference to his governance over the mountains – and the Gilded Prince of the forest fey. They join, with accordance, their brother and sister courts, Winter, Summer, Spring, Night and Fire. The noise, the discord, grinds against my ear. I can only be grateful that these thirteen courts – not including the Court of Logic, the solitary fey, Iron fey and Banished Ones – are not the twenty-three that they used to be.
I have only once in my long life seen such a gathering. It is dangerous for there to be one at all. We all of us gather on neutral ground, where we have no cause to fight – in the realm of humans. Still, it is tricky, with every court and its counter, Seelie and Unseelie, congregating for the trial of a possible weapon. No longer is this child being seen as a boy, or even a faery. He has more than likely committed a murder, and not a soul knows how, he is special; he will be fair game.
I look at the boy and feel a pang of sorrow for him, to be torn this way and that, like a bone for a restless pack of dogs. The feeling is swift, it passes in an instant to be replaced again by fear. I know that Jacinda is right in her questioning. I know that there is much beneath the surface, that this boy is perhaps something more than strange, more than powerful. That he killed the Lady of the Tides, a queen of her people – a monarch. The only thing known able to kill a faery monarch is Iron, or another monarch. Until now. Until this child has appeared from nowhere, seemingly of Winter, and has drained the life force right out of Tides – without laying a hand on her. She was left white-eyed, grey-haired and yellow-skinned, and no trace remained of the striking, ethereal one-thousand year old queen of the ocean eyes and pool-black hair. Strength, wisdom, intelligence, skill – all of it gone in a matter of seconds. Taken, by this watchful, knowing child.
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