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The Fractured Grey
The long moments leading up to the proceedings are hectic and far from political. The fey are wickedly mischievous, gleeful and aggressive, excited and fearful, resentful and anxious. I find myself feeling a disturbing mixture of fervent anticipation, cold terror and heart-breaking guilt for what is to come, for no way is good, unless it ends with Winter thriving; but all ways are pulsing with promise of a happening. Today is the deciding day, and we are all abuzz with the concept of either war, destruction or death. Perhaps all three.
I coax the undines into the centre of the Winter Court. All but Nerida obey me.
“No, Cas, please. I want to watch. I want to help. Jacinda…” She trails off for fear that my mad sister might hear her. But Jacinda is lost in the throng, she is prospering in the chaos; and I know that we will not see her until the event of the trial, when the royals have reigned in their courts, with blood on her lips, and her gaze bright with lust.
“Nerida, I must go and stand with Aureole. It is expected of me.” I take her icy hand and squeeze it ever so slightly, for I know she is truly a fragile thing. Sometimes I do not know whether it is a curse of a blessing that the only weakened part of Winter are the Winter undines.
Her black eyes are sad and knowing. “Watch carefully.”
She smiles. “You will not.”
I leave her with her sisters and crane my head to spy my queen, Aureole, standing silently with her wolves. Some of her council are rested in litters of ice, stone and furs, but she is upright and rigid, a frozen statue among her people. Her eyes meet mine; she has been waiting for me to look at her, I realise. Her gaze strays as if disinterest has suddenly seized her, and the manner in which she looks upon the child, at the centre of this madness, is distant and detached. She knows I am still watching her. She nods slowly, once. I cannot know what she means. I am her agent, her blade, her eyes and ears, and I do not know what she means.
I weave through my court with trepidation. Wherever my feet fall, hard, beautiful blossoms of frost bloom. The fey part for me; most are respectful, others are fearful, and the rest contemplative. What will be my move? They ask. Whatever Aureole's will, I carry it out. It is me they look to, for when the trial begins, when the boy is interrogated, when the verdict is issued. Winter cannot be so careless as to mean for me to act, with all the courts watching. Can she?
I feel something akin to nervousness, which is unnerving in itself. Indecision, unsurity, hesitation - any three could be my death. I breathe deeply. Focus, focus or die. You know this. Be calm.
“Nara,” Aureole calls softly, when I approach her. My dear Nara, my Winter Wolf, pads to her side, lilac-silvery eyes shimmering. He glances at me, rumbling. Lift your chin, Cas. Do not let them see your fear. Our inner conversations are sometimes my only solace. It used to be strange, hearing his voice in my mind, interrupting my very present thoughts, but now I feel empty and lonely whenever he is far from me.
“Stay close to Cas today, as close as you can be,” she says to him. His large, triangular head dips in submission, reaching her waist. And she is a tall faery, taller than I. Nara stands on four muscled legs, as any lupine fey, but he has the power and weight of a bear, and all the speed and agility of a cheetah. His shoulders are broad, paws large with curving claws of unbreakable Winter Ice. No steel will shatter them; no bone – faery or human – will ever withstand their crushing, ripping might. His sister-brother Wolves have each a talent unique to their own design. Aureole created what she needed, and each one provides a service. Nara was once her sole protector. Oftentimes he still is. But the day I opened my eyes newly faery, disorientated, with a heart that was still and my body colder than anything I had ever known, Nara came to me, and he never left.
She strokes his silver and lavender-grey fur absently, and sends a spray of snow and ice cascading from his back. Winter consumes him, as she does me, from the inside out. If I trace a finger over my hand, a web of frost will form. If I press my hand to my chest, I feel no thud, no sound of a heartbeat.
Do you know what she means for us to do? I shoot Nara a pleading look.
She has said nothing, I do not think she knows herself what she will do, and I have served her these long, countless millennia. With everything to play for, and all the courts in the game…it is difficult to judge, but I think if the boy is taken from her she will have meant it to happen, and he will go to one of her allies. Whatever happens, she will have willed it so.
He seems the most likely but I do not think so. He is too devious to be even given a grain of trust. She means for us to intervene in some way. But I do not know how. With all of these eyes so conveniently upon us? Thus far, dear one, I see no clear way through.
I sigh. I am exhausted with the cunning of faeries. There is no end to their reaching ambition, to their spited trickery on their path to power. I look at my own queen, and know I am sick of her, that in some ways I despise her for stealing my life, for making me hers. I know that when she passes, and I am hauntingly torn between wishing for this day and dreading it, I will take her place, I will be queen. I know that I cannot do this.
Her white face is strained. She is usually so chary in keeping it perfectly blank, a mask with no warmth, just a cold lack of emotion. But she is so beautiful. A hard lump forms in my throat, I am so affected, the jealously has my eyes narrowing, and I want to spit with it. Any woman would. She is the most wonderful, lovely thing I have ever seen.
She has worn her long, black hair in an elaborate twist, with an elegant tiara of entwining miniature black and white jewelled swans, framed with climbing dark silver vines. Each leaf is intricate, each metal thorn could wound. Her dress is ridiculous, a colour-alternating billowing thing of white lace and satin and pearls, it drapes over her as fitted as a second skin, and she is poised in it as gracefully as the swans on her head. But it reminds me of the duchesses and great ladies of my time, in their lovely garbs but still not happy until they rose higher; they would fight one another with smiles laced with poison traded so warmly around their men, who could never understand a woman’s vicious drive; and dresses so grand, heavily layered with petticoats and fine silks, smelling of rose water, hair intricately bound under bejewelled hoods and ermine trimmed collars; and barbed words with not a hint of tameness, utterly smug and malicious, with great jewels around their elegant necks, walking so sumptuously, exulting in their own beauty, as if the whole world is dazzled by them. In short, should they have been stripped of their titles and beauty and clothes, they would have been nothing more than bitches in the courtyard, snapping at one another, vying for the attention of their master.
Aureole looks at me now, pulling her own fur cloak around her, as if she is cold – or as if the cold bothers her. She says, “On this day, everything will be remembered, everything will be seen.”
And then I see behind the fine clothes and beautiful hair, and I nod at her. On this day, they will look to the agent of Aureole, but they will not see her in her shabby garments, they will see only the beautiful embodiment of Winter, the most regal creature in the world, as she defends herself and her court with absolute purity. Nara huffs and I rest my hand on his head.
Blend, dear one, as you have been taught. If Aureole can shine bright enough, we will have our moment.
I despair at his words. Our moment for what? We can’t hope to spirit the boy away! In the midst of this, the biggest trial I have ever known, the second greatest gathering in my time. What does she want of us?
I expect we will know when the moment reveals itself.
I want to bite my lip and be allowed to sulk, and I have an incredible urge to sit on the ground and search for grass to tear with my long fingers. After centuries of being trained to be numb, to be a blade against enemies, to be Winter Incarnate, I feel as if I am breaking, and I do not know why. Quiet. Falter and they will stray. Falter and they will stray. As long as your resolve is iron, they will always break before you. I chant the mantra, no longer quite believing it anymore.
We stand high on a stone hill, with the Winter Court clustered tight around us. The moor is enormous but it has trouble housing these thousand fey, and so the bickering is continuous, with everyone almost forgetting the real reason we stand here today. If the boy so wished, he could slip from his chair and out of sight.
He is still mostly unmoving. I see he has crossed his ankles from when I last laid my eyes on him. He seems unperturbed by the mass of fey swarming around him. Then, unexpectedly, his eyes flicker to mine again, as they did the first time, and they penetrate me so personally that I avert my gaze downwards, willing him away.
“Does he look at you so?” I murmur to Aureole.
“He has not met my eyes at all. Why?”
“Have you not seen him stare at me?”
“No, Cas, I have been rather preoccupied with other things; namely, the upheaval of my court.”
Her tone is so weary. I steal a glance at her. “Well, he does. He is choosing who he looks at. It is why they all fear him; he has looked at them all in some way or another, and they are frightened. I wonder why he has not looked at you.”
“He probably knows I am not a thing to be timid and blind with fear of the unknown, as you should not be either.”
I let myself chew my lip for that. This is a hit to me, it insults everything she has made of me. I do not know whether to hang my head in utter distain or to look back at her defiantly and say something intelligent, such as, “Fear is the only thing that will ultimately let us keep our heads, if we go stumbling after strange boys simply because we refuse to show we are afraid of them.” Yes, that sounds rather good. I rehearse it over in my mind a few times and twist the words until it is a flowing tendril. I want to unleash these words on her, come what may, but I cannot, because for now I am a coward. I am not scared of Aureole, or her reproach, or her displeasure – I am afraid that her words might be true, that this boy is nothing more than extraordinarily clever, that he is an extremist illusionist who has fooled us all, and I am falling for it, and this weakness will at some point in the future be my end. And as a faery, I cannot lie, and so cannot say the words.
I am a fool.
“Then he has everyone deceived,” I only remark. “It is why we are here today.”
We lapse into silence, before those listening can twist the words of our conversation; Aureole rests her dark gaze on her court. They feel the haunting tingle she conducts through them, like a bolt of electricity, and raise their gazes to her. It is time.
The wood sprites and pixies return to their perches quietly in the trees, obediently watchful. Snow Girls, Winter Guards and other peace-keeping Winter courtiers form a barrier around their subjects. My keen eyesight instinctively hones in on a Storm Hag from Autumn whistling through the air to the side of her king. He meets my queen’s eyes, and then mine, and bows his head.
One by one, the courts follow suit. It is ironic that we, the Unseelie – Winter, Autumn, Night, Shadows, The Warlords and Tides – are the law enforcers. When the collective sound of a thousand faeries begins to die down to a lulling murmur, I feel almost dizzied, and I lay a hand on Nara for strength. It is a dangerous thing to hear the fey sing, for a human, and for the swiftest of seconds I jolt with fear. My ears are so sensitive, to the sweet keening of the wraiths; the breathy whispers of the sprites, pixies and undines; the enchanting crackles with every movement of the Fire Elves, the Fire Court’s answer to my Snow Girls; the jerky, stormy hisses of the Storm Hags and Lightning Guards - my eyes pass over every species.
My hands tremble ever so slightly, and terrible jolt passes through me.
I stare at them in horror. Slowly, I feel something clutch me. It begins as a seed, rooted somewhere I cannot see. But grows in these small moments. And I am a wreck; fear, mistrust, exhaustion and anxiety have torn me down at last. Every one of my long forgotten human memories feed through with incontestable clarity. What is happening to me?
Aureole is oblivious, Nara is oblivious – I am alone. I look around and I am utterly abandoned. They both stand there, still, watching the courts intensely, but it is as if it is me who is detaching, who is fading. I try to lift my arm, but lead flows through my veins. My jaw is locked, knitted together with wire; and in any case the words will not come. I cannot focus. I wobble my head slowly.
I meet the eyes of the stranger boy.
He is himself the most collected person amongst us all. I notice that his fingers remain fanned over his knees as they have since he was placed in that cold stone chair, they have not so much as twitched. I want to blink. I am experiencing the worst sensation; it is like sweating when you are nervous, when your heart races, your pulse jolts and speeds as if you are about to die. I cannot sweat as I am frozen, neither my heart nor pulse can act so erratically because my body is, in theory, not alive. But yet I am clutched in this grip which makes me think I am so out of control, and I cannot even move.
The boy blinks and I gasp. It is over.
“Cas,” Aureole snaps. I flinch. A snow storm is brewing in the irises of her eyes.
She jerks her chin, quick as a bird, at my torso, and then looks away again serenely as if nothing has transpired. I glance down. Tiny spikes of frost are lancing from my skin; surrounding them is a thin layer of snowfall, slightly crystalized. I hold my arms away from me in horror.
What’s wrong? Nara growls and rakes the muddy grass agitatedly. Aureole hisses for him to keep still.
“The boy, the child,” I whisper, not daring to look into his cold eyes again. “H-he’s not faery.”
“Hush up, Cas.” The Winter Queen’s own agitation manifests not dissimilarly to mine; a spray of ice bristles up from the ground like the rising hackle of a cat.
“But he isn’t,” I insist. “You do not know…he got inside my head.”
She is unimpressed. “Plenty have that ability. And the gift of creating illusions besides. He could easily have been deceiving you.”
“Me? Me? He got inside my head?”
The severity of this finally sinks in for her. I am as powerful as any monarch, I am almost as powerful as Aureole. Her eyes widen a little, but she mostly contains herself for there are many eyes watching her, and she cannot appear weak. Her court feels her unsettlement, however, and this is enough. They shriek and scream and sing and murmur and talk amongst themselves, they are a group of wild animals thrown together. The Summer fey are the first to notice, and I see Rosalind’s eyes hone in on her sister Winter, who is now staring intently at the boy.
“Why…” Her lips grow into a thin line, and her eyes swirl into an abominable darkness so terrifying I drop my gaze, glancing away hastily.
“Why me?” I murmur suggestively. “I do not know.”
“Do not raise your eyes to him again. And speak no more from this point. I mean it. What is the matter with you? This is..."
"I know," I breathe. "I have never felt the like of it."
A flicker of movement draws my gaze back to Summer. She tilts her head thoughtfully, a slow sly smile curving upon her lips. Thankfully, she is the only one taking interest in our moment of unsettlement, for the Lord and Lady of Logic take the floor, and all eyes are upon them.
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