THE FAE COURT—KATA.
Step forward. Touch hands. Step back. Twirl once. Move clockwise to your next partner. Repeat.
Whether you're a part of the crowd of fae dancing, or a mere servant watching from the corners of the room, one thing is certain: every ball is the same. This dance, this room, the lights, the people—nothing has changed. Near the entrance stands the attendant that granted Kata access to her first ball and every ball since. And there, across the room, hangs the chandelier that's always been one crystal short of the others. Perhaps there is a story why—everything has one after all—but everyone's attention is always far too focused on the center of the floor to deal with a young fae's seemingly silly questions.
Both young and old—although what is age to those who are untouched by its dreaded grasp—pair up, spinning and swapping partners as the same music you've heard every ball plays. Their outfits shimmer with every movement, displaying centuries of wealth in all its glory. Dressed in a gown of silver with jewels that would spark wars, the young girl finds herself a bit underdressed for the occasion—a note to self to dress far better for the next ball.
She makes her way into the next group and finds herself in the company of a beautiful fae. All fae are beautiful, otherwordly even, but her partner is something else entirely. A diamond among pearls. Her face flushes briefly as she touches her partners hand, getting into position for the dance.
They will spend only a minute together, something that passes by in the blink of an eye, but in the brief moments that each fae spends with a partner, there is light conversation and sometimes even a small chuckle shared and audible only to them. Nothing more. There is no need to rush a connection when you have a thousand more chances to dance with them.
Yet as Kata realizes her time is ending with the fae in front of her, her fingers linger longer on his hand than they should. Maybe his did, too, but there is little time to think about something so fleeting. The dance begins again. And again. And again. And as Kata takes up her starting position, she gazes across the room, wondering what everyone else is doing.
THE HUMAN COURT—THE QUEEN.
When the Queen woke up this morning, the King was not in bed beside her.
This was no ordinary morning. She felt it as she woke, as maids gathered around her, as the bed was still and empty. When she glanced out her window, a tired hand pulling back patterned curtains, the clouds were dark and the air was still. The day started not wholly atypically. She went over the schedule for the day, waiting for her husband to show, but the clock ticked forwards without him.
The Queen knew what was wrong far before she would have said she knew it. There are dark circles under her eyes. She has many tasks to take care of, but at the moment, this is the main one.
One of you is a recently widowed princess. You’re told that the King cannot make it to greet your guests today. You’re told you will be present. One of you, another princess, or should I say a half-princess? You’re rarely allowed to attend such things without your mother, but today, she agrees to it. The Queen decides it might be safer this way. She knows much, and yet, so little.
This affair is a delicate one, one long awaiting. An offer of peace disguised as a party. The ballroom is large, carefully decorated, refreshments served, a chance to mingle. To look around. To give information, or to take it. Many of you have arrived to the castle, perhaps a week ago, perhaps early this morning. There is space for you all.
Two of you have arrived from your own courts. Both sent by your own queens. You have your own wishes. Perhaps understanding, the first time in a long time you’ll be around more humans than snakes, under a certain sense of the word. Perhaps this is a game for you, a challenge, standing between war and peace, humans and fae, quite liking neither, given an assignment yet still listening only to yourself. Another is simply at a stop on your journey, here to wait until you're whisked off into Fae, where your life is promised to. Perhaps you're counting your days as you wait here, at the court.
The Queen is far from the ballroom. It's a large castle, after all. She thinks, momentarily, about turning back. Attending the event. But she's made up her mind too firmly for that. She opens the door she's certain she'll find her husband behind.
𝐓𝐇𝐄 𝐇𝐔𝐌𝐀𝐍 𝐕𝐈𝐋𝐋𝐀𝐆𝐄—𝐃𝐄𝐈𝐃𝐑𝐀.
Morning light, delicate and brittle, breaks through the fog of dawn. It's a newborn thing, not strong on it's feet yet.
It is cold and dark and the forest is still terrible outside - but it grows brighter every minute, and no peasant can stay in their house forever. There is work to be done outside, on yesterday's mud and waterclogged earth. Last day's rain has brought the couds heavy on this little village, the same as any other in this kingdom of yours. It's tucked by a pocket of wood and untouched, overgrown clearings, where the long feet of deer stray and cobwebs glitter in dew. Houses, neither grand nor crumbling, but humble - they line this worn path, a few shy chimneys peeking over vine-grown huts. Pillars of smoke arise from them, climbing towards the sky choking with clouds.
Things are well. Things are not well. Either way, you have to work. Only the lords and ladies can afford to lay on silken pillows - you, though. You have many things you ought to do.
It is quite dim outside still when Deidra rises from her bed, the glass panes of her little house swarmed by inky blackness; only a few brave strands of the sun dare peek out beyond the tree tops, glancing over them as if unsure if to truly get up and look. Coldness turned the windows foggy and the small fire in the ashes has long burned out, leaving behind a ghost of warmth. Blinking the sleep from her eyes and shivering in the slight chill, Deidra brings a worn hand to her eyes - more she would sleep, if she could, but she has to go if she wants to get the laundry done by sun's peak. The woman slips from under her furs, her simple nightgown gathering in her arms; her bare feet pad over the wooden floor, careful and quiet. On the other bed in this little house slept a girl, younger than she, and Deidra did not want to wake her. She has many little sisters, yes, but Carina felt like one in another way.
A simple dress, brown and hardy, slips over the white garment and on come the shoes. The black curls of her hair protested the ministrations of a ragged brush, even as Deidra ran her hands through them. She cupped a handful of fresh water from a bucket in the corner, and almost off she went - her mind was already by the river and fabrics of people - but she had paused by the threshold still. A few twigs will not hurt, she thinks, as she watched the sleeping form of her roommate, it is so cold, after all. No, it would not hurt.
Fire, small but warm, burned to life in the fireplace. It will not do much, but at least Carina will not wake up to an empty house filled with chill. Deidra gives the sleeping girl a small smile before she steps outside, where the fog and gloom await.
Slowly, the village awakens, like a giant from a slumber. Half-sleeping feet throd in front of houses, wives waking up the children and the men letting out the animals. A few figures already walked to the fields, tools in hands and back hunched under weight of years. The air is crisp and clear, and a stray bird-song drifts along the breeze - a delicate beauty hangs in such silence, even if your eyes are heavy with sleep and your legs do not listen. It seems now, that you are alone in the world; there is only you and the white cloud of your breath and nature that grows around you. The smell of rain followed the woman's step, the earth overfilled yet - it will rain more in the evening, perhaps, if the skies are to be trusted. She has to dry the clothes quickly, if she hopes to spare her woodboards from drops of water. She gives a tired smile as she passes houses, stopping when she sees a few of the villagers up and about.
The feeling was deep and primal, taking hold of her heart in cold, clawed hands. The organ screaming for help so loud that she could hear it thumping in her ears. The cold was bone deep, her body ached with it. But still she ran, something within her urging her to run faster, to not stop or else the thing behind her would catch her. She swore that she could feel it behind her, looming so close that the hairs on the back of her neck stood straight. Was it toying with her? Lingering so close but staying just out of reach as some sort of game? Her kingdom was quiet now, a clear sign that something was dangerous was out and about.
She could hear something calling her name, a mere whisper against her ears.
“Diantheee. Little oneee…” It crooned, voice sounding familiar but wrong. She knew that voice but her fear was making it hard to think properly, her thoughts were only on survival. For all the games of predator and prey she’d played within these woods, she would have never guessed that her role would be switched in such a way. She couldn’t help it, the urge to look grew more fierce with each second passed. She was a fool, the princess looked behind her. She saw nothing.
Dianthe stopped, the forest was quiet still yet there was nothing behind her now. She looked for any sign of the thing that had been chasing her. There were none, it was as if it had up and disappeared. Had it been a figment of her imagination? Was she losing herself in her grief?
“Diantheeeee….Dianthe. Sister.” Came from behind her now. A gentle hand was placed on her shoulder and she could have fallen in relief. He had come for her, and had come to save her. She had known that voice since she was a child.
Something told her to not turn, but she would not listen. Her brother was here for her at last. He had returned for her. The princess turned and her heart dropped.
Dead eyes and skin ashen, a body riddled sickness was what greeted her. His hand attached itself to her throat and she screamed.
The princess awoke with a scream, one of anguish and fear. It bounced off of the walls of her room as she jerked upright. The maids were quick to enter, just as her screams turned to sobs. They shook her and she cried until her body ached once again.
Word of the event had reached her ears long before that date had been agreed upon. Loose lips and excited chatter made for easy sources of information. She had found that people grew careless when believing that they were alone.
It was a matter of little interest to her. Yet it seemed to be something of great importance to her family, to the kingdom as a whole even. Dianthe was sure that they could go on without her. She was in no mood to socialize and deal with the subjects. There gazes would be ones full of pity, she knew it. Those gazed that looked her over as if she was some helpless, caged thing at her mother’s side. She couldn’t stand it.
Dianthe had been within the forest when Pocket came barking. It was a clever way for the guards to find her. He had stopped right at the tree she’d been seated in and barked happily, urging her to come down and play. Dianthe could never resist his call, her only friend was a clear weakness and they shamelessly exploited it.
It wasn’t long before the process began. Dianthe had been dumped into a tub of scented water, soft and sweet, and her hair had been tamed into an elaborate, delicate style. Her mind was elsewhere the entire time, as it had been of late. There was little fuss and for that the servants were grateful.
Eyes that were usually sparkling with mischief were somewhat dull. There was a time when she somewhat enjoyed being surrounded by others, even if it were only to see what trouble she could cause. But now, there was no point. He was not her to affectionately scold her, to soothe her when the crowd began to agitate her. Dianthe had never felt so alone while surrounded by so many people, he had made the feeling insignificant with his presence.
She was aware that she would need to try at least. The mask she wore felt heavier now but she played her role well. The outsiders saw a withdrawn young woman, a flower wilted without its gardener to care for it. Dianthe was demure as she spoke and accepted condolences from the nobility. Their words felt as empty as she did.
Then, suddenly her world was filled with warmth again, even if only for a little while. Pocket was brought to her, tail wagging and tongue lolling. He was dressed up too and it was the most precious thing that Dianthe had ever seen. He reached her and she her smile, though small, returned.
They were sat at the dinner table when the conversation started, eating dove meat in berry sauce off plates made from gold. Dull-eyed servants filled their glass after glass, always looking at their feet.
''Have you met her yet?''' Siobhan had asked, her dress the color of moss - it might have been a trick of the light, but her eyes seemed red. They couldn't tell. Their eyes never got puffy or red, or hurt from dryness.
''Yes.'' Calendula thought to leave it that that, but there was expectaction in their sister's face. ''She's very beautiful.'' Beautiful enough to warrant a poem, they suppose. Men might praise her beauty in sonnets and lament her love in the stanza, perhaps even write a hundred of them. They might kill even for her hand, if so. Calendula doesn't think they have to do any of that.
''What is she like?'' Their sister pressed on, enough to make the rest of the family pause in sudden interest.
''Oh, my poor child!'' Mother had cried, reaching out one pale, dainty hand to caress their face. ''You didn't even get a choice! And we had hoped for a cousin of the queen so.'' Calendula didn't see how they were suffering with the gifts and gold; but they always did love to be the suffering martyr, especially when their minor annoyance would be somebody's blessing. They looked very sad indeed at that, making their mother yowl anew at the injustice of it all.
''What do you think of her?'' One of their brothers had asked, crushing the dove's little bones under perfect teeth.
Calendula feel silent at that, thinking. ''I don't know.'' And truly, they did not. For why should they? If she ended up being a bother, they only have to wait for her to die. Some humans, beloved by fae, never age - but they might not love her. Their father had children with other besides, and Calendula thinks they could remarry if so.
Siobhab watched for a quiet little moment. ''I'd like to meet her, I think.'' Her voice was soft, gaze falling to her still-filled plate. The dove stared back silently.
They snorted at that. ''If she doesn't die first.'' Mayfly lives. Here one blink, gone the next. Their siblings burst into laughed at that.
Siobhan did not. There was a gleam in her eyes that they didn't notice.
The ball was pretty, because all parties here are grand. Calendula tries to remember if the last one was as grand and fails.
Silks and diamonds brush past them, each dress all the colors of nature; steam blue, mountain grey, rose red. Masks smile or snarl or pout, or faces laugh or frown or grin. Music plays high in their air, a thousand feet dancing through a routine they've done for a century more. Calendula cranes a long neck, heavy with sparkling jewels, to see who has arrived yet and who had the disgrace of not being invited. It was their little game, as it was the game of many fae; to seek out the faces who haven't been given the invite, just to tell them about the night tomorrow.
''Do you think Lavendra is here?'' They asked nervously of Aisling, turning head here and there. Their brown hair was braided three times, for good luck. ''I sure hope not. She will try to sing again and she sounds like a dying goose.''
Arms linked they went - whether as a rope to a boat or as an executioner's chain is hard to tell between these two friends. It depends on the night, really, but at this specific one Calendula is pleased. Aisling had said something funny earlier, at the account of somebody they did not like, and so perhaps they will be okay for the night.
''Whoever lied to her and said she can sing deserves to be executed.'' They complained, stopping by a near-by empty-faced servant to grab them both a drink. ''Post-haste, even. If I have to hear one more song -''
A pause. A hush of voices. Calendula paused, tensing.
And behind them, the queen. (The part of their brain no one could hear wondered if she heard what they had said and finally stop the horror that is Lavendra's singing. But that is only a far off dream.)
You may accuse Calendula of being vain, or being petty, or even that they are much too like their mother. But you never can call them a fool. They are smart and cunning still; they bowed elegantly in half-instinct, their bracelets and earrings and belt clanking. ''Your Majesty.'' Their dark gaze flickers to the ground, the very picture of respect. ''I trust you are enjoying the evening?''
Violetta woke that morning with the rising sun. She’d spent the night alone. For many nights now, for nearly a season’s worth of time, she’d spent nights alone. Or rather, she’d spent nights in her own room, a bed entirely to herself. The sun just barely broke through a thick layer of clouds, filtering past a delicate curtain, onto Violetta.
Was it wrong, the hint of excitement that ran through her veins upon being given the lead in that day’s gathering? It was mixed with worry, sure, and curiosity about whatever could have happened to change the plans, but her first feeling had been excitement. She’d been looking forward to it; guests had been filtering in at their own pace, offered the castle’s best luxuries, but today was the first formal event since. Well. Was there a nice way to put it? In any case, Violetta was looking forward to it. It was long since time for the castle to come back to life.
It had taken some getting used to, the preparations common to even the simplest meals at the castle. Long gone were days of slipping on a single layer, old clothes being all she had. No. Violetta was bathed, her curls polished and laid in neat order with a small tiara placed onto them, pigments brushed gently onto her skin. Her dress required several layers to hold in shape before it was put on, a soft pink fabric embroidered painstakingly with golden accents. Violetta knew better than most in the castle the work something like it took. Yet, over the years, she’d all but forgotten. It was simply another dress, another pretty thing to wear, a top gripping tightly around her waist before the ballgown skirt spilled out around her.
Violetta loved being in the center of a ballroom. The ceiling, many times her height over, was her sky, the lights hanging from it her stars. The crowd around her was familiar, controlled, and they all knew her. Knew her importance. She was just another member of the court, and still, she was so much more. She offered greetings to passing nobles, accepted their words. She knew the intricacies of the game they were all playing, carefully choosing every move.
Dianthe, her sister in law, caught her eye as she looked around- Violetta had insisted she attend, not wanting too much of the royal family be missing, though she’d heard from her maids it had taken some time to find and bring her inside. She seemed quiet. Today at least, that was preferred to the mischief she was known for, well, before. Pocket joined her before long, clearly excited to be around Dianthe. Violetta hadn’t wanted the dog there. Still, it wasn’t worth arguing about. He was well trained, and he’d been groomed and dressed up for the occasion. Violetta noted that the pair seemed in control, not needing her supervision, and so moved on to her next target.
The ambassador had caught her curiosity in more ways than one. Violetta had never met a fae before him. She’d heard stories, everyone’s heard stories, or rather, warnings growing up. She’d listened to her King talk about them, more importantly, about the threat their kingdom posed. The importance of a good impression, showing both strength and desire for peace. Of everyone there, it was perhaps most important that he be happy.
He almost looked, as the princess made her way over, like any man. Sure, an imposing figure, a glint in his eye seen even across the room, but not an uncommon thing around nobility.
“Ambassador,” Violetta gave a tilt forwards of her head in polite acknowledgement, a careful balance between showing respect and maintaining her position as royalty within this court. Her voice was light in tone, revealing a trace of her curiosity, yet held steady and carefully controlled, “I hope you’re having a good time. Has your stay been comfortable thus far?”
It was at daybreak that light began to filter into the room graciously arranged for the court's new visitor, creeping across the floor and climbing up the bedpost until it rested as a golden spatter on silken bedsheets. They were tucked neatly at every corner, undisturbed by any form of occupancy. Dario hadn't the mind to adhere to the diurnal sleep schedule most often utilized by the humans he temporarily lived among. He much preferred to spend his waking hours wandering under the night's gloom, or more commonly in a gnarled, shadowy thicket. His home featured many of those, a luxury he would miss from inside the castle.
The castle was far unlike the courts he was accustomed to; both were labyrinths, but this quarter was a maze in a far more architectural sense. It lacked the nonsensical twists and turns of the fae's habitations, stairs hitting ceilings, doors opening to walls, and bizarrely-placed windows like a vaguely surrealist painting. This place was far less overgrown, and it was devoid of any sort of investigable intrigue beyond just when it would fall to structural ruin.
Even so, if one would permit a slight contradiction, one uncanny attribute in common remained on Dario's mind: there was always a locked door or a wall untouched, concealing something more. There was something dormant in the castle's depths, comatose, festering like an internal wound. Dario could taste it in the air.
In a figurative sense. He was a fae, not a wolf.
The feeling of having countless inquiring eyes on him at any given moment was... well, it was a mixed bag. Dario couldn't say he didn't enjoy the attention, but the satisfaction was always short-lived. Sooner or later, he would feel the urge to withdraw into another volume of books, far away from the humans who shamelessly gawked at his pointed ears. They had no second thoughts regarding what those features meant, what it meant to be intertwined with the kismet of fae progeny.
He had been their guest for a mere two days and three nights, each of which the jade-eyed man spent scrawling notes, perusing their grand library, or aimlessly wandering the halls, catching the eyes of passerby and returning an enigmatic smirk. There was nothing he could do to make himself any less of a mystique, but he supposed that was to his advantage. This venture was something he and the Queen—his queen—agreed in tandem as another step toward the culmination of tensions between the fae and humans, good or bad. The castle denizens knew this well enough to treat him cordially despite their likely wariness of his genealogy.
Every interaction was sickeningly ingratiating to the point where Dario had become a social soothsayer of sorts, sans the crystal ball. Simply reverse whatever a human said at any given time and presto, there you have their inner thoughts served on a silver platter, plain as day. This was by no means the ambassador's first experience with humans, but their perpetual dullness disappointed him all the same. If they were so fragile and susceptible to change, then surely they could evolve past their compulsive need to lie at every given chance. Was it out of fear, for it was all they could do that the fae could not?
At any rate, Dario's stay at the castle left much to be desired. He would be digging through drawers for curiosities before the week's end and, while that was regrettable, he also happened to have a job to do. He was obliged to exchange information, as well as demonstrate the goodwill he and his people had in store for both sides. Goodwill came in many forms, after all, to which these glorified playthings hardly knew the half of.
Today's gathering would be Dario's real start. With luck, the pleasantries would end and offer something more if it was at least half like the petty, conniving affairs of fae nobility.
Clad in the ritzy, stylish garments provided with his lodgings, Dario set out for the royal ballroom, curious as to what chamber in the castle was without the prefix "royal". The room was warmly-lit and borderline cavernous; how else would it accommodate all of these self-important, gem-encrusted roaches? He scanned the area, scrutinizing every last guest's face and appearance for something that wasn't painfully ordinary. In hindsight, he truly should not have taken for granted the profound extravagance of fae events.
Would that human's dainty little heart give out if Dario the highly-esteemed ambassador asked for her hand in a dance? Would it rupture and implode into red, gushing shreds if he made her just nervous enough? Or worse, he could break her pinky finger with his iron grip.
He decided against a dance. Instead, the raven-haired man stood with natural poise, chin raised just ever so slightly enough to look down upon the other ballgoers, not to mention the reticent girl across the room who seemed to stick out like a sore thumb. Even then that failed to account for the oddity of the hound that accompanied her like a child's stuffed rabbit. Does the court know of her particular... abnormality?, Dario wondered, the first smirk in days inching across his sallow, angular cheeks. He would keep an eye on her.
His attention turned the opposite direction to a young girl he immediately clocked as the quintessential image of a princess, one he may or may not have been formerly acquainted with. He dropped his grin. If she was one of the important ones, the svelte fae either had not been notified or neglected to recall. That was an error on his part, but it was out of preoccupation rather than outright negligence.
"Ambassador," she spoke, and the elegantly-adorned girl was immediately recognized as the widow princess, one of the first to greet Dario at the start of his extended stay. Violetta, her name was, fitting for an individual of wisdom, bravery, and spirituality. These epithets complemented the moniker of an aptly-named flower, an abundant mainstay of his estate's fields. Though her tone carried confidence, Dario found no foundation underneath it. She was simply a little girl playing dress-up. That tiara hardly fit her hollow head, as pretty as it was.
"My stay has been nothing but fascinating," he answered diplomatically, clutching a gilded glass of red wine between his skeletal fingers, "The library has an astounding amount of precious volumes I had assumed to be long-gone!" His voice was jovial and flippant, now smiling with strings attached like a marionette. His eyes did not share this same glow, although a spark of delight did shine through at the mention of the books.
He glanced back where he was once looking, an eyebrow cocked. "Does every ball typically include a canine guest? How novel." His words, though honeyed, dripped with condescending venom. "The guests seem to be thrilled with it."
Whoever wants to be bumped into by Lorelei and mentioned @GracingGravity
Since arriving in the Fae Court a week ago Lorelei had been witness to many different curiosities. Of course she realized the ones that lived on the land wore things to cover their body, she’d even wore clothing when she was on her father’s ship despite not understanding the point of it. It was something she didn’t entirely understand, why hide behind scraps of cloth? It just made no sense to her…at least until now. The beautiful dresses, the magnificent suits, they were all pieces of art to behold as they twirled around the dancefloor. Like colorful schools of fish flitting around and catching the light just right. She even was granted a beautiful dress of her own.
Having been invited to stay there in the Fae Court, despite not yet having met the queen, she was provided a lovely room filled with all sorts of bits and bobbles. She’d had a ball trying on every piece of jewelry and dress that was within her closet. She’d attempted to wear shoes as well, but that was quickly abandoned as she found herself stumbling everywhere in them. Walking around on two legs was hard enough, why would you ever want to take away the sense of feel with those contraptions? So she’d gathered every pair of shoe within her room and tossed them out her door. No sense in cluttering up her space with those useless things. She’d also done the same with all the dresses she decided didn’t suit her figure, much to the chagrin of the servants.
She’d also come to discover some things that weren’t acceptable here. Leaving her room without one of those provided dresses on seemed to be frowned upon, or at least made others a bit uncomfortable. Then she also wasn’t to wander the halls at night singing. It apparently was “unsettling” and “made some fear for their life” which was just silly to Lorelei. She didn’t even lace the song with her magic! Besides, why would she want to kill any of the ones who’d accepted her into their home? Absolutely ridiculous.
Despite it all, she was absolutely thrilled to receive the invitation to this ball. After hounding the servants, another commodity that confused her about this place, she discovered just exactly what a ball was and decided it sounded lovely. A chance to wear the prettiest dress given to her, hear music, and attempt this dancing thing? Sign her up! That’s how she ended up here, standing and watching the dancing. She’d attempted dancing earlier when a man approached her and asked her to dance, but she discovered it was much harder than it looked. After tromping all over the poor man's feet, she resigned to standing and watching the event.
The music was hauntingly beautiful, unlike anything she’d heard before and it made Lorelei’s heart ache for her home. While this music was lovely in it’s own way, it was nothing in comparison to the songs of her family. Was dull in comparison to the song of the sea. If only these people could hear it, they’d likely agree with her. Perhaps she could sing for them sometime. She could definitely do much better than some of the ones that had sung already tonight. If there was another person to sing that was off pitch she feared she’d have to shove them away and take over.
She softly hummed along to the song that was currently playing, beginning to sway from side to side as she tried to mimic some of the dancers. She was determined to learn this dancing thing, she had to master it. It was like singing a song with your body, so complex and enchanting. Her swaying increased until she bumped into someone.
”Oh my, I do apologize. I suppose I wasn’t paying attention to my surroundings.”
She giggled as she looked the person over, unsure if they were a servant or a guest. She was still struggling to figure out the difference. She didn’t have much time to ponder it, though, as the room went rather quiet and she turned to see a woman was the cause. She stared at her for a moment before leaning over to the person she’d bumped into.
Silas’ eyes flit open, pupils widening in adjustment to the dim light of his room. The sun had just begun to show itself on the horizon. Each day it chose a different spot to start its daily climb, changing the feel of his surroundings every time he woke. This morning, its position spread weak orange light into his room to gently ignite the motes of dust floating freely in the small space.
He sighed, listening to the sound of the waking bell grow gradually louder as its carrier passed through the halls of the servants’ quarters. He shifted to the side with a breath of effort while his mind worked up to speed with his reality. The royal court was hosting a grand ball, meaning the weight of the preparations fell on the servants who worked directly under the Queen. There were enough of them to complete the court’s typical needs, but on a special event such as today, they would all be drowning. Although the day to day work was less labor intensive than what he had endured in the human realm, here, it was never ending. There was no such thing as breaks, holidays, resting days. The sun rose each day and thus so did he, living by the breath of those who commanded him. The other servants were fae, making their endurance of the long working hours much greater than Silas’. He simply couldn’t keep up with the never ending shuffle, and it was starting to take its toll.
Long, lanky limbs hauled themselves from the warm softness of his bed. He looked around the space, checking to make sure everything was in order before he left it for the day. The room wasn’t much, but it was the one thing that was his. He liked to ensure it was well taken care of. Diligently, Silas stood outside the door to his small room--some might describe it as a prison cell--while the head servants took morning roll and assigned duties. Although he was technically a servant to the royal court, Silas didn’t see or interact with the Queen herself often. His only notable interactions were with the other fae servants, like the one that stood in front of him while listing out his responsibilities. Silas was to be preparing the hall for the main event today. Cleaning the windows, polishing the floor, setting tables and dinner spreads, serving the fae who attended. The list went on and on in his mind. Silas followed the other servants in a line to the bathing room to scrub his body and prepare himself to be presentable--well, as presentable as a human could be.
The other fae servants joked and laughed their usual morning banter, teasing their friends with swooning fantasies of being swept away by some royal to live a lavish life where work was a fever dream of the past. Silas had trouble picturing how that would happen, servants were never truly seen by any of the royal fae, guests of the court or not. Though maybe they had some secret insight he lacked. Silas usually kept to himself during moments such as this. Although his fellow servants were categorized in the same class as him, he had felt the sinking weight of inferiority the moment he found himself in this mysterious new world. He was simply--lesser than, not a cruelty but a fact. A pill he was far too used to swallowing.
The uniforms set out for the day were more lavish than his normal day to day attire. The fabric was rich and silky under the pads of his fingers, the black shade mesmerizingly deep. He slipped the lush fabrics onto his body, straightening the buttons and ties into perfection. None of his attire ever sported color. The royal servants’ uniforms were kept purposely void of color as to be easy to spot, hard to mistake. Regardless, the clothing was finer than anything Silas could have possibly dreamed of in the past. Attire that, to the fae, was fit for the lowest in their society was far beyond anything his former human companions would ever be able to afford in a lifetime. He thought of his siblings, of the rags they wore which, at the time, seemed like the wear of royalty compared to his own shabby and ill fitting clothing. Were they wearing something more suitable, now that he had been sacrificed to this servitude?
A sharp crack blossomed stinging pain across his knuckles. Silas tightened his jaw to stifle the pain. Never talk unless spoken to, never express pain. “I said, those in the ballroom report to your marks,” One of the fae servants snapped, her gaze hostile as she regarded Silas. Silas simply nodded, correcting his mistake quickly and casting the remaining wandering thoughts from his mind.
Silas stood still along the wall of the ballroom, watching the gala before him unfold. The fae milled around each other in opulent dresses and suits, the expensive jewels decorating their bodies glittering like stars while fizzing drinks were held languidly in one hand. It was at a time like this that Silas fully understood the stories he had often heard from others who knew his mother. Her restless curiosity for the secrets of the forest, her obsession with the possibilities that existed in the vague concept of the others. Why would you ever settle for the black and white reality of the world before when splendor and magic as great as this truly existed? Silas had learned early on to watch the ball unfold with unmoving eyes, affixing his gaze to a distant point at the edge of the ballroom, never daring to move it from there. Servants were to fade into the background, to move only when summoned, to pay attention only when necessary. The fae did not want to feel watched or gawked at. Never make eye contact. Never stare.
There were many things Silas had to learn to grow accustomed to in this new fae world. The work was very different from his previous jobs. The systems of royalty and wealth were things he had never imagined. Graceful tasks the other servants picked up on easily turned clumsy in his hands. Everything had a rhythm, a grace to it. Mistake after mistake he would make, the fae servants correcting him with physical punishments until he would get it right. They would curse his humanness for not taking to it easily. Bruises, scratches and marks decorated his body in the first weeks of learning his new duties. But the cruelty of the fae was nothing like the cruelty of his father. When his mistakes ceased, so did the corrections, and eventually the blossoming bruises across his body faded into nothing. After a time, Silas began reciting mantras in his head, repeating back the words the other servants had drilled into him redundantly.
A fae that had split off from the large gathered crowd gestured over for Silas to serve him, holding up an empty glass expectantly. Silas silently maneuvered to him. Walk forward, eyes down, bow, display the drink, wait for approval, don’t speak, don’t make eye contact. The fae inspected the label of the bottle Silas held out towards him, shrugging with an indifferent nod for Silas to refill with what was in his hands. Gently tilt the bottle, don’t spill, stop when signaled, bow, don’t make eye contact, hold the bow until dismissed, return back to your mark. Silas repeated the mantra in his head on a loop, turning each instruction over and over again in his mind while his pale eyes burned into the floor. The fae took a test sip of his freshly refilled drink, and with a languid wave of his hand, dismissed Silas to return back to his mark along the wall.
He soundlessly strolled back to the line of servants that melted in with the grand feast of options that were offered to the attendees. Silas let his mind wander in the hopes to distract him from his aching body. The cleaning earlier had been a hard workout by itself. Now, he was to stand statuesque in one marked spot, stilling his muscles to the point that it was hard to glean even the movement of breath. It became agonizing after a period of time. Silas took in the scene before him as patrons of the ball passed by his restricted field of vision. Some of the fae he recognized, those who frequented the court much more often than most. Others, like a fae who danced herself uncaringly through the crowd and whose hair cascaded vibrantly down her back, were faces he did not recognize. Silas swallowed down a bitter feeling that rose like acid in the back of his throat as the glory and opulence of the ball washed over him. He had felt something similar to this before, when he had seen his siblings playing in the yard carelessly while he was setting off for another long day of work. It was an angry feeling, something he didn’t like to dwell on for long. Silas swallowed hard and turned back to the mantras in his head. Don’t make eye contact, stand still, don’t sway, wait to be summoned, never leave your mark, don’t, don’t, don’t...
First there was nothing and then there was everything; from a child ripped from the hands of their hag mother to a force unwillingly used. It is not often that Semael thinks of the disaster caused by their looks; how the blood touched the soil, how tree bark has become smothered in wounds, how they are only loved and admired for their shell and nothing more. Their value had only been in their appearance, contributing to their loneliness, the suffering caused by the selfishness of others.
Nature is their comfort; as the full leaves scent the air, breaking off from branch to branch, fluttering with the hum of the winds.
Ancient bodies—trees—hold stories in its rind, stories their mother told in the dead of night. Pomegranates and oranges fall, skin bruised and battered, but the insides are still sweet and ripe. Branches bend but do not break. And the air, in its whistles, calls upon memories faded.
How they wished to be in Nature’s embrace; with strong branches, like arms, wrapped around them. Mother Nature often persisted, shifted, re-settled; coddling what needed to be coddled, bearing life in the most unsuspecting of places. This, however, could not be farther from the instance that Semael found themself in — it was only this time did Mother Nature fail them, kept them from healing when the clouds drew dark and dreary in their state of disrepair.
Olive green eyes stare back at the pond before them; spindly fingers, long and thin, touch its surface. Ripples in the water broke their reflection, and what stared back was imperfection: this imperfection led to relief, a weight temporarily taken off of their back. Full, parted lips wanted to speak, but not a sound could be heard as they urged the thoughts into the back of their mind. There was nothing to say, even in the lonesome conversations with themself, one could only do so much until there was nothing to talk about.
An inhale, an exhale, a soft breath that kissed the bitingly cold wind that nipped at the tip of their nose; Semael straightened their back, pulling the thick cloak closer to their body. It is then they feel something — that something, however, is lost on them. Their face is stark and empty, expressionless as their mind brews with thoughts they cannot decipher; it is hard, when things have been taken from you, it is almost like they have taken a part of yourself as well. And in their wandering, footsteps now far from the pond, bare feet on soft blades of grass, Semael wishes to be lost.
Fleeing was the only thing they wanted to do, but stern eyes were always present: ready to protect their prize, their weapon, their work of art. Cherished like the marble statues scattered within sturdy walls, isolated from the life they once lived. A quiet life, though with hardships, was a life they so wished to win back; Semael dreamt of it, yearned for it, wanted to fight for it with all of their might but the power that loomed in the shadows—they were no match for it.
Stern eyes are always present. Semael must always be in their sight.
Ripped away again, a gold pin is their replacement in the field of green.
It is a testament to the ongoing string of company they’ve been keeping that they receive far-too-enthused compliments with no more than a pander to what one thinks they want. In the grand gestures, wild and extravagant garments, never ending (and unwanted) attention is insincerity. An insincerity known all too well. “Semael, I promise you,” a voice soft like linen, warm like freshly baked pastry, called out to them; the mirror reflected the face of a woman, brows furrowed as if concerned. Semael had almost believed it, they wanted to, but such interactions warranted apprehension. “It’ll be fun! This is for you.”
And they looked back, maskless and wary. “That’s the problem; you know I don’t like,” they paused, rearranging words in their head as they canvas for them, “this stuff.” This stuff. What was this even to be called?
“C’mon, chin up. Frown, upside down. Smile for me,” the woman, teeth glistening in the light, demonstrated for them. Her enthusiasm was admirable, how she readily came to their side in aid of whichever inner turmoil it was today. And they smiled back, they couldn’t help it; mouth wide, teeth radiating, eyes squinted partially. “Ah! There it is! My sweet Semael,” she placed her hands on their cheeks, squishing them together with pouted lips.
Personal space. She loved their personal space almost as much as they did. “Please, Thena,” Semael brought a hand to hers, pulling it away gently. “Thank you. I mean it,” maybe they were grateful—more than grateful, even. To have someone treat them so warmly, and sincerely so, Semael’s walls were down but only momentarily. It is only then that another enters the room, dressed in ornate garb and hair piled high on her head. Crooked glasses leaned towards one side, brass frames near melting into their complexion.
She was stern, much like the many people that lived among them, “chin up. Back straight. And don’t wear that ghastly mask, it’s an eyesore.” The woman pointed to the piece in their hand, a mask decorated like a pierrot, shining under dim lighting. “That cloak, too. It’s too distracting,” she added to it, hand reaching to rip the garments away until she was stopped. Attention began to pile into the room, their heads poked inside with eager expressions to get a look at the gifted. “Out, out, out! All of you, Semael must get ready and they do not need any more distractions!” The small group was chased off, a withered hand reaching for the door.
“Julieta, I’m not comfortable without it. People stare.”
“And you should be grateful that they do,” Julieta retorted as she turned her back to them, Thena bringing forth a pile of clothing at the other woman’s command. “Now try these on, we have to find something fitting.”
There is curiosity with the fae and their events; such grandeur was to be celebrated—enjoyed—but it is easily said that Semael did not. An outsider amongst others, strangers whose bodies are nothing familiar; their laughter and music spread like wildfire as Semael stood in silence. They are grateful in a sense; in their efforts to uphold Semael's beauty is abundance in foods that Semael had never touched before. Fresh fruit, a warm meal served on platters shining brighter than the stars, wine and clean water; this was the life most wanted, but for them it was the cost of their freedom.
It is an odd thing—to have festivities in one’s honor, only under the name of excellence. This was their honor, as words meant to soothe, had only become words of perish; Semael did not want this, to be paraded like a prized possession and nothing more. Beauty is a gift and a curse—and Semael had only seen it as the latter. They were clad in fine garments, exquisite, bright colors and ornate trim—but the look was muddled by the battered cloak shoddily thrown over it. “Straighten your back, no need to slouch,” a voice reached from behind, one rough and husky with a sternness. Candles burned behind them, the scent of Gardenias momentarily stunned the rest of Semael’s senses—it had not sunk in, who the voice had belonged to, but the thought did not take long. "And what did I tell you about that horrid cloak? ...And that mask."
Semael’s eyes lowered with their head, pointing towards the cobblestone, hands tight against their body under the cloak that hid their stature. “Oh. I–” a finger outstretched, one cold to the touch, emerald eyes branding into theirs, she lifts Semael’s chin up. Julieta dusts off their cloak, merely lifts the mask from their face before softly placing it back; she'd given up scolding them, perhaps even accepting the lack of change—and she intended to use it to their advantage—a grand reveal some would call it.
“Come with me, you know you mustn’t stray like this,” Julieta’s strength, despite her age, was comparable to that of an iron bull; calloused, veiny hands stretched around their wrist with a light tug towards the life that bustled just ahead of them. Semael didn’t protest—no, they couldn’t. The movements were far too swift, bodies beelining for the rest of the crowd as the merry parties danced and thrived in their respective joy.
The sight was something to behold, with faces further plastered with bright grins, footsteps aligned with the music that echoed within. Semael couldn’t take their eyes off of it, but to join was a nightmare they were not brave enough to traverse. “Everyone! Our guest of honor: Se—” Julieta’s words cut off as Semael had seemingly slipped away.
Trouble was coming for them, they knew it, as did the fates; the universe called for it and it was only a matter of time. Sneaking away was freeing in a sense, that despite being in the same building, they were away from the attention they despised more than anything else. The music blared, footsteps seemed to get louder with the passing of a beat, and elegance strode against shining floors. They looked back, scattering between passerbys, dancers, and the like. But it had come to a halt, as their body collided with another, a woman whose hair burned bright like flames of a fire.
She leaned, the music silenced, a crowd turned in their direction; their mouths were agape, as was Semael’s during the realization that their mask had fallen off. A closer look is what the others needed, bodies condensed into a swarm, ravaged by beauty that was supposed to be hidden. “I. Sorry. Sorry, it was my fault,” Semael’s speech was quick and panicked. Shaking hands pushed Semael up as they simultaneously searched for the mask, the item lost in the sea of people. Their eyes plucked up again, frantically studying the stranger and their orange locks—ethereal; that’s what they’d describe her as and it was an understatement. “I—Uh,” Semael’s fauled attempt to collect themself left them speechless, more out of shock and anxiety out of anything else.
Aisling’s ears had pricked up weeks ago, catching the first whispers among servants and nobles alike. By the time of the first official announcement, they were already buzzing with excitement. How they loved these parties. The night itself, of course, the overwhelming flood of music and colors and people, at once familiar and irreplaceable. But just as much - perhaps even more - they relished watching all the preparations come together. Like cogs in a massive, intricate clock; a hub of interlocking activity that an outside viewer might never perceive. Not many fae saw all the parts of the process. Not many fae wanted to. Aisling thought they were all fools for that.
Sometimes they sat in on discussions of the invitation list, whispering observations into the queen’s ear when a name they recognised came up (…you know what Larkspur said about you when he thought you wouldn’t hear… I hear that Kestrel’s looking for a bride…remember how their mother acted here last time?…) They couldn’t help wondering, in those long breaks in-between, whether their contributions had any impact. Perhaps the decisions had already been made long before such formalities. Only the queen herself knew, but they liked to think they had at least some effect. A scattering of ripples on the surface of a much deeper pond.
When the conversation began to stretch into a massive web of interconnected relationships, alliances and betrayals, far too much to hold in their head without scratching a diagram in the dirt; or they had caught one too many dirty looks for sitting slumped sideways in their chair, kicking their feet and pulling the petals off a flower like a kid with a nursery rhyme, Aisling would run off to see something a little less stifled. Laugh at a servant thrown out of the kitchens for attempting to steal a morsel of food. Whisk a stool out from under an unsuspecting fae, leaving him with nothing but the sound of laughter as he turned around. Lean in to eavesdrop on a heated conversation over gown fabrics, the choice between olive green and turquoise treated with the gravitas of life and death.
Tick down the days, one by one, the time seeming to stretch endlessly out in front of them.
And when the night finally came, it came all at once. Aisling barely had time to prepare before being thrown into the midst of the celebrations. It didn’t weigh on their mind too much. Their place was not with the host of minor nobles, fretting perpetually over how to stand out against an ever-changing crowd. Not anymore. Their place was taking care in not caring, being the little wild thing they were expected to be. It was an identity as self-aware as any other; the trick was in not letting it show. So they didn’t change their outfit significantly. A few more accessories, a slight groom. Still barefoot in the hall full of dancers, dodging pointed heels with practiced ease. What was the point in being here if they couldn’t break a few rules?
''Do you think Lavendra is here?''
Aisling stood up on their tiptoes, peering out over a sea of masks and intricate hairpieces. A futile gesture, really. Even if Lavendra had been standing a few feet away, any distinguishing features were quickly lost, drowned in the sea of colour and movement. Not least for those who Aisling avoided for their - as they heard Calendula saying - tendency to sound extraordinarily similar to a dying goose. The comment made them snort with laughter, utterly incongruous with the elegance of the setting. Real laughter, not the polite fakery that seemed to be everywhere around them. As they caught their breath, they turned their attention back to their companion. They were glad to have Calendula’s company for tonight at least, to be able to slip into that familiar routine of observation and biting, half-joking critique. Calendula was fickle, their good graces doubly so. It was a breath of fresh air, a splash of unpredictability in a world that sometimes felt deathly bound to tradition and routine. Aisling held no high hopes for this good humor holding out by the end of the evening, knowing how volatile these balls could be. But with their barbs pointing outwards, at least for now, the two could be at peace. A small relief, when there was so much else to focus on tonight.
They took the offered drink without really looking, only just managing to swallow their sip before Calendula spoke again and another laugh bubbled out of them. “And their screams would still sound better than all her attempts to sing.” Their words overlapped the end of their companion’s sentence, their thoughts only half on the conversation at hand-
Then, everything went quiet.
Maybe it was hearing Calendula cut off, or the sudden stilling of people around the pair, but Aisling found themselves snapped back to attention, the world in sharp focus, before they had even consciously registered what was going on. There was a presence behind them, more sensed than heard. Was the shiver that ran up their spine anticipation or fear?
An instinct in the back of their head that told them to run, run now. An instinct they squashed without a second thought. They had learnt a long time ago that the worst thing you can do in front of fae is let them smell fear. So instead they turned, deliberately relaxed, deliberately casual, as though merely approached by an old friend. As Calendula bowed, they inclined their head, eyes on the floor for only the briefest of moments before their gaze returned to the queen. A smaller gesture than their companion’s, more familiar. Perhaps the occasion, the setting, the watching eyes that followed the queen through every conversation, demanded something more. Perhaps they walked a dangerous line, as they always did. But deviating from habit drew attention, and caution was only one step away from fear.
They stayed silent, though, Of course, they were not required to reply here. No-one wanted to seem as though they were speaking just for the sake of speaking. They were doing the polite thing. Deeper down, however, they knew the queen. They knew how cruel she could be to those who slipped up, and how inscrutable her emotions were. And they knew how often a bad mood is taken out on the instigator of the interaction. The best that was likely to come of this conversation was a few pleasantries, undercut with tension sharp as a blade, and then dismissed. The worst?
Well, Aisling had seen their fair share of parties here. They were more than happy to let Calendula take that fall, if it came down to that.
It had been six nights — or was it seven? — since the nightmares began.
It was always the same.
Charity would find herself tied to a post, rope burning into her worn skin. Swans black as coal; their beady eyes red and teeth needle-sharp approached her. They would fawn their bat-like wings as they circled their prey.
She would scream for help until her throat was raw but no one would aid in her rescue. The seven swans would begin to tear into her flesh, Charity's eyes to the night sky in a prayer of sorts. Eventually should would dare to look down and the swans were gone...
Instead of the swans she would stare in absolute horror at the human children by her feet.
Not just any human children...
Her siblings, their mouths ringed with Charity's blood as they feasted.
She would always wake at that realisation; sweat dripping down her face and her sheets damp. Call it stubbornness or the dread the dreams caused, Charity had spent the last two nights awake.
The sun began peeking through the glass, cracked panes and onto the modest, wooden bed. After the death of her mother, her father couldn't bring himself to stay in the room. She understood why, the room was littered with her mother's sewing equipment and a rudimentary mannequin's bust; patterns and strips of fabric were neatly tucked away in a chest that was engraved with "J + S". She'd often trace her fingers over it, smiling at the memory of her mother.
Considering Charity was the eldest, she took over the room at the behest of her father. Sometimes Millicent and even the twins would sleep with her. Yet, no one slept in the room no more. Instead Charity would prop herself on the bed at night, pinching at her skin with chewed nails to stay awake.
Get up, Charity. There are chores to be done.
She practically dragged herself out of bed, wincing at the icy-cold, wooden floorboards beneath her bare feet.
A shattered mirror hung on the wall, held up by a rusty nail. Charity stared back at the fractured reflection, highlighting the black saucers under her sleepless eyes.
You look like shit.
Charity's straw-like hair was still in the same plait as yesterday and the day before that. The end was tied with a faded, yellow ribbon. Coarse fingers played with it, the memory clear as day.
"Where did you get that, Bec?" Charity questioned the young girl, whose eyes were a pale blue. Their mother's eyes. Charity had her father's deep brown, she sometimes envied that.
"Don't be mad, Charity..." Rebecca peered up at her sister with that goddamn look of pure innocence, kneading the yellow ribbon in her tiny hands, "I got it from Mama's chest..."
Charity ignored the bubbling anger of her sister disobeying her and instead smiled, letting those feelings dissipate, "I'm not mad, I get it. I sometimes go through it too."
"Really?" Shock painted Rebecca's face before her eyes flicked down to the ribbon, "I just miss her you know?"
"Its okay to miss her, I miss her too." Charity reassured her, "You can keep it, just don't tell the others, okay? It will be our little secret." She winked at her sister who giggled.
"No, no! I wanted to you to have it! You look so pretty in yellow!" Rebecca beamed, her delicate fingers wrapping the yellow ribbon at the end of Charity's plait.
"Oh, and what is the occasion?" Charity smirked as her sister finished it off with a bow.
"For being the best, best, best sister to ever exist in the whole world." Rebecca wrapped her arms around a tearful Charity.
The memory was interrupted by a shatter. What the hell was that?
Charity tip-toed to the doorway, heavy snoring echoing throughout the small house. She knew then what caused the shatter.
In the living room, she found her father, Jerome, splayed on the straw couch, unlabelled bottles strewn around him. Hand empty and hanging over the edge, with broken glass beneath him.
There was no reason to guess what the bottles contained, the strong smell of ale extruding from his pitiful state.
He had been in this same position since that day. Almost two weeks now. Sometimes when she headed to the markets, she could see him in the tavern, drinking his problems away. The issue was he was to be at work. Each day she found less and less coins on the bench for her supply runs. You are suppose to be looking after me. Not the other way around!
Charity could feel the anger bubbling up, her nails digging into her palm. The urge to grab him by the shoulders and shake him until he woke was tempting. Not from his slumber but from this state of uselessness and utter despair. Instead she scooped up the glass and disposed of it, before heading outside, a basket in hand.
Charity spent the next hour or so tending to the pigs, pulling weeds from the struggling crops and other gruelling chores.
Eventually she found herself standing in front of a pen, full of white swans. Each of the seven swans had a ribbon tied to their neck with varying colours.
One for each of her siblings.
"I'm sorry there isn't as much food today, I need to go to the markets." Charity explained to the swans, knowing full well how crazy she looked. Sprinkling the feed into the pen, the swans pecked away hungrily, apart from one. The swan's slender neck was adorned with a dark green ribbon, huddled in the corner and ignoring the feed.
"Ingrid, you need to eat. I know you're a picky eater, but this is all I have for now." Charity explained to the swan.
If one was to even believe her siblings were turned to swans, she knew even more doubt would come to how she knew the difference between the identical swans. Yet, they still acted like her siblings. Ingrid would still upturn her nose - or rather her beak - to most of the food, while Adeline and Eric, the twins, would squabble and fight. They all had the quirks. Regardless, to make sure she remembered, she tied ribbons around their necks.
"I'll be back soon, okay?" Charity stood up, dusting off the cheaply-woven skirt. The familiar feeling of guilt eating her up inside.
Charity rounded the corner of the house and onto the path. Men and women were going about their day, similar to Charity. Some would spare Charity a pitiful glance, knowing they thought she had gone mad. Others would give her looks of suspicion, believing she had gone off to the woods with her siblings in tow and killed them. No one believed her. Some days even Charity didn't believe it.
"Good morning. Did you sleep well?" The voice belonged to Deidra, a young woman who lived down the road. She wasn't too dissimilar to Charity, with a large family and responsibility weighing heavy on their shoulders. Sometimes when she has enough coin, Charity would bring her articles of clothing to mend. Unfortunately, Charity wasn't blessed with the affinity of dexterous hands that could sew like her mother.
"Oh, Deidra, morning." Charity replied, purposely ignoring the woman's question; the black under her eyes explaining her situation quite well. "How are you this dreary day?" Charity asked, managing to pull her lips into a small smile.
“Five more nothing! Get your butt up and run your errands young lady!”
Opening her eyes and immediately rolling them playfully, Sophia got up and sat on her relatively small-scale bed—barely large enough to barge her tall frame—stretching her body to erase the doziness the long night of sleep had caused her. A frigid breeze invaded her tidy wooden bedroom, coming in through an open window likely unlocked by her mother, and brought along a refreshing scent of morning dew with it, which brought a smile to her face. “Good morning to you too, momma!” Sophia said jollily. Her mother replied with a “Good morning sweetie!” followed by a warm kiss on her daughter's forehead that instantly dispelled the outside coldness. This type of frisky banter—that, of course, never went beyond gaiety and held no significant weight to it—was common between the two, especially in the morning.
Getting up from her bed and commencing her day, Sophia put on a simple white dress embroidered with flowery patterns and a wool-crafted jacket handmade by her mother; a relatively plain outfit, but certainly cosy. She left her house soon after with a wooden basket in hand, and felt forthwith humidity spreading through her feet; she had accidentally stepped on a puddle, wetting not only her boots but also the edges of her dress. There had been a downpour the previous day, and watery and muddy remains were still everywhere. “Rain... the angels' tears.” She thought to herself, recalling an old saying an elderly woman had told her a long time ago—“The rain falls, the angels cry.” Their tears were quite the inconvenience, but she went on her way no matter. Not spotting her father when she passed by their farm, she assumed he had already gone to the fields.
Sophia's first job of the day was simple enough; pay the local baker a visit and buy a batch of her most freshly baked bread. Of course, the other tantalizing sweets and what-nots that she also had on display acted as a dangerous temptation for the girl's sweet tooth—which was why, most of the times, her mother was the one who took charge of any bread-involving errands—but she somehow managed to resist the urge to devour one of the delicious-looking cookies, instead placing solely the batch of bread on her basket and paying the baker her due price.
Sophia decided to take the longer route back home, munching on a piece of bread as she strolled through some streets she hadn't strolled through in some time and caught up with some people she hadn't caught up with in some time.
She eventually halted in front of one house in particular, the one where two women—both likely around the same age as her—lived; Carina and Deidra, if memory didn't fail her. She knew them by sight and even briefly made small talk with them from time to time, but they weren't close by any means—“acquaintances” being a more adequate word to describe them. Still, Sophia's heart couldn't help but ache for the former one's poor soul; whenever she saw her, the girl brought an air of fatigue and careworn with her and didn't appear to be in a sustainable situation in the slightest.
A wave of emotion washed over Sophia; unable to contain herself, she walked up to the house's doorstep and decided to leave them a piece of bread as a gesture of kindness. Carefully wrapping it around a piece of cloth, she kneeled and placed the clothed piece of bread in a dry spot to prevent it from sogging up. “Perfect!” She thought. “I just hope they like bread... well, if they don't, I guess the cloth is pretty?”
Dusting off his flour-covered hands; Cornelius reached for a towel to cover the dough with. The batters for the bakery were prepared this way every evening, giving them overnight to rise. Cornelius liked to make his own little batch for dinner in the mornings to keep them easily separated. He walked over to the shop's counter, checking the goods he had for sale today. Different types of bread, of course, with a hearty selection of muffins, tarts, and pies to choose from. The sun started to rise, his early-bird customers would be coming by soon. This was the prime time to quickly step out and grab a few things for dinner.
Exiting his shop, the smell of baked sweets followed him as he went along his way. While he grew what he needed for his own goods, sometimes he’d treat himself to something other than bread to support his neighbor's businesses. Today he’d stop by to get a few eggs, maybe even the butchers for a slab of meat. Just the thought of a good meal left a smile on his face, radiating warmth to the other villagers he passed by.
Hearing small talk, Cornelius detoured over to hop in. “Good morning. Did you sleep well?” started Deidra to a few others who passed by. He wasn’t one to be busy in lives of others, so he didn’t know much about her, but they had talked a few times. Charity soon chimed in her own greeting, moving the conversation along. In the kindest way possible Charity looked like she’d been struggling to rest recently. A lot of gossip followed the lady; the baker just prayed she would be fine.
“Good morning! You both are up early, hope you’re doing alright,” Cornelius jumped in, a little too energetic for the time. It was normal for him to wake up before the sun to put the dough on the fire. He had carefully avoided mentioning sleep, seeing as Charity didn’t answer.
this scrolls too btw just in case the text overflows
✦ Leilia ✦
“No, yes, no, no…. No absolutely not” an endless amount of preparations to finish before dusk and Leilia already felt as if she could rip her hair out. Of course she wasn’t doing any of the labor but, all the questions of invitations, music, decor… all needed to be answered directly by her. A fault of her own, she just simply couldn’t trust any of her advisors to adhere to her very specific tastes.
“I don’t care if you can’t find it, I don’t care if you have to make it by hand. There will be sparkling wine at this ball tonight or you and I are going to have some quality time together ripping off your nails one by one.” Leilia’s smile was sickly sweet but the venom in her voice spoke volumes of how sweet she was really feeling today. Although lately this had become everyday, a threat here, a little yelling there, in all reality the servants had probably grown used to seeing the queen act this way. Though this didn’t make her any less terrifying to them, as she should be. She could wipe out their very existence if she willed it to be so.
Dark, inquisitive eyes follow the fae court idly as they flit about, weaving in and out of each dance. The songs bleed into one another, leaving little time for breathes in between. Dresses shimmer in the crystal light and their countless adorned jewels sparkle, all hoping to catch another’s eye. This ethereal scene is one replicated a thousand times over, always perfect; forever unchanging.
However this specific night has brought with it a few new players into the mix that might just be enough to bring a reprieve from the usual staleness of it all. One of which happened to be a siren by the name of Lorelei, an interesting addition that Leilia had yet to completely figure out. Considering the queen had not yet greeted the creature face to face, this lack of knowledge regarding her was to be expected, but didn’t deter the slight annoyance Leilia felt toward the unknown.
The queen sat perched on her throne, the picture of grace as she lounged with a glass of bittersweet liquid in hand. Her dress black as night with gold details on the skirt. A lazy sort of smile played on her painted lips as she watched her court, the balls here have always been this way. Lavish, wild, and forever the same. Leilia used to hate the repetitive nature of her kind but time and betrayal does wonders to change hearts. Everything is always expected, no surprises, and so Leilia has grown to appreciate the frozen state of her fellow fae. Though this does not mean the queen doesn’t like to throw in a curve ball every once and a while to keep things interesting.
Leilia twirled the liquid absentmindedly, her gaze catching on a small bit of commotion nearby. The siren and what looks to be a human are at the center of it, a human with the beauty rivaling the fae. He looked as if he himself was crafted as a work of art, no wonder nearly half her court stared at him. Soon though, his face is once again lost in the crowd and the court has once again returned to their intricate dances and revelry. Hm what an interesting night this is turning out to be already.
Drowning the remaining contents of her golden cup, the queen stands, deciding it’s about time she makes an appearance in a dance or two. If there is one thing the fae know how to do right, it's dance. Unfortunately her attempt at sliding smoothly into the dancing is interrupted by the entire court coming to a stand still. She of course appreciated the respect but the undivided attention from the entire room was a bit nerve wracking, even for her. Two faces she recognized immediately as Aisling, her little spy of sorts, and Calendula, a fae that would be married off to a human any day now. Up close she was even more gorgeous than the queen had heard, what a shame it would be for the court to lose such a lovely flower. However, appearances with the human court must be kept, Leilia has to at least attempt to make it look like she wants peace with the wretched creatures.
“It is as it has always been” Leilia replies, purposefully being vague, just because fae can’t lie doesn’t mean they have to wear their feelings on their sleeves. With a nod of acknowledgement and a wave of her hand to signal the court to go back to their business Leilia weaves through the various bodies, her dress flowing freely behind her as she moves. Another song begins as the previous ends and Leilia finds herself in front of a new face she barely recognizes as Kata. A very new member to her court, and even newer so, to the balls thrown here. Tilting her head in an almost predatory way Leilia brushes her eyes over the girl in a once over, beautiful as all fae are but to be perfectly frank she didn’t know much about this fae either.
But before Leilia can address the curiosity plaguing her mind about this new face she’s already been swept up into the next dance, and the next, and the next.
Eudora sat in her quarters, silent, looking out of the window. She had woken up very early, so the sky was still all dark blue and dotted with stars. The moon was a waning crescent: soon it would be a new moon, turning its dark side completely on the world for a night. A new moon didn't last long, but it only took one night of a shadow in the sky to ruin a whole month. It only took one mishandled moment--one avoided kiss--to ruin a life. Eudora loved Tristan the way she loved this moon, having basked in its light and then been devastated by its darkness. Most days it was fragmentary, but it looked down on humanity with the scorn of someone looking at something broken. Eudora loved her mother the way she loved this moon: it was a hypocrite. It was cruel and judgmental. It was all she had.
A ladybug was crawling near the windowsill. "There's a ball today," she said, though she wasn't sure if the sound came from her own mouth or that of the pretty beetle. She was addressing the moon, but the words seemed to make it halfway to the sky, lose momentum, and then fall, limp and unusable. "The court wants me to attend. They will have servant girls come and scald my skin. They will pull at my hair and powder me up until they are satisfied. It's dreadful." The wind howled outside, speaking over her ladybug voice. She tried again, "I feel all wrong. I... don't want to be here. I want to be at home--or in Tristan's study." If the moon heard her, it gave no indication.
Eudora frowned. She said, "I love you," but those words fell too. She felt them shatter when they hit the ground. Morning was creeping up on the horizon. It was going to burn her. What remained of the night hung around like a pig bleeding, darkness slashed up to redden the dawn. Her respite had ended. A knock would come at her door, and she would be silent.
Eudora had never been to a ball in her life. Even at that moment, standing straight and tall in her dress, she felt like she wasn't quite there. A few members of the court had politely tried to make conversation or offer a dance, but Eudora's unwelcoming silence sent many of them away with confused looks on their faces. If forced to speak to get them to leave her, Eudora pushed out a slight (but sure), "I feel unwell." She didn't know the language of court-speak, but she figured that the three-word sentence would get the message across, and it did. It wasn't a lie, anyway.
She did feel unwell. When she had first entered the ballroom, she thought her head would fill and swell with sights and sounds until it became too heavy to carry. All the lights, all the voices, all the people--it was far too much for her. She wanted to run and hide away somewhere. She found herself longing for the cold darkness of her shed. There, at least, no one would ask her to dance and there would be no voices weighing down the air, lacing it with poison. She thought that if Tristan asked her to dance with him, she would, but only if there were no other people in the world and they only held hands and nothing else. But Tristan wasn't here.
Eudora got this feeling of being far, far away, in a lighthouse by the sea looking out at a tempest. The storm was brutalizing the rocky shore. It would soon be upon her. Eudora shuffled uncomfortably and continued to stare blankly into the crowd.
PERHAPSit was always bound to happen, this little reunion- let’s call it, with humanity. Like aging it was to be expected, upon one instance or another, fated never mind the life lived, the life endured. But he hadn’t thought it’d come so soon. No, not once had he predicted this, his royal duties extending beyond the reach of the caverns, far from the home he grew up in, far from the leash his mother kept him on. All alone and with knowledge so bare... He could hardly stomach the thought.
“You’re… You’re going to do great Drakon.” As if sensing his unease, a voice, slow yet reassuring suddenly crept up.
Nagira. Head hunter and best friend, well, really his only friend… But he’d rather not talk about it. She was a bright young thing, with scales that seemed to reflect every colour of the rainbow and eyes that could enrapture even the most unwilling of prey, a true token of Mother Nature’s beauty… For the most part, at least. She then continued. “Perhapss you’ll even find a tempting young princessss”she waggled. And there it was.
Drakon released a sigh, head shaking in denial. His hands fell from his hair, body deflating at the comment and the comment before that comment. Why was she like that.
Usually he would succumb to the serpent’s more than indecent quips but tonight, tonight was different. Tonight something was off. “I don’t know...” He admitted quietly, softly. “…I’m.. I’m afraid.” The prince’s eyes flickered to the cavern’s floors, slender fingers outstretched over its skins. Turbulent, textured. And yet, something he could not bear to loathe, the feeling of home against his fingertips. It was something he dreaded leaving behind, even if for a minute.
Wordlessly Nagira perched herself next to the royal, wrapped comfortably in coil as Drakon’s body laid limp against the alcove, watching the crowd before them. Their voices, their hisses a symphony to the ears and well, a terror to normal people. The flames of the candles dancing alongside them, celebrating the prince’s departure, his liberation with a warm glow.
But was it really freedom at last?
“Look at them… They love you, Drakon. We love you. And you will have that as long as you remain alive. Do not forget it.”
Who would’ve thought that a creature so cold could bear a heart so warm?
A small smile pricked at the corners of his lips. And there it was.
There was a time when he believed he was invincible. That he could leap from height to height, waltz over the cavern floors and out into the forest, a deed most forbidden even for the crown prince himself. And now, when he dares look at himself, dares to meet the gaze of his own reflection, he is harshly reminded that he’s not, in fact, invincible. Like a monster dressed in royal clothing. With his obsidian hair swept back and his scar a glowing memory, he’d only wished that the beloved occasion would’ve been a masquerade. Only then could he have been less hideous, less himself. The prince frowned. He was never made to feel bad about his appearance back home, rather, he often got a kick out of repeating the story to the little snakelets, their “again again!”’sss were encouraging to say the least. But mortals were judgemental, proud in ways he could not comprehend. Hell, even the regalia in this castle was enough to le… Was it always like this?
Though he’d be lying if he said he wasn’t at all fascinated by it, by them. Nay, he was positively enchanted, like a moth to his flame. He’d even found himself returning to that boyish explorer from years before, wandering from corridor to corridor, squeezing through nooks and crannies and nearly scaring the odd servant to death… two or three times now. What could he say? Living amongst predators had taught him to be light on his feet or risk death. It was simply in his nature, though currently it seemed for worse than for better.
With a deep inhale Drakon locked eyes with his reflection once again. Determined to get it right this time.
“Hi! I’m Drakon and I’m from the caverns! .. No no, too jovial.”
“-Greetings, allow me to introduce myself: I am his royal majesty Drakon the first and it is my absolute pleasure to meet you…I… What am I even doing here?”
He sighed defeatedly, running a hand through his hair and distilling a few locks. Woops.
“Hello I’m Drakon and I haven’t spoken with other human beings in nearly twenty-five years.” He muttered bitterly, a nervous hand smoothing over his mane once more. It was a bad habit.
But before the snake prince could continue with his theatrical preparations, he was collected by a young, extremely talkative servant and lead towards the hall. One that was far too loud and far too crowded for comfort mind you. His eyes widened, his heart began to race. Nothing could have prepared him for this. To his left, a conglomerate of gossiping young women, their whispers growing frantic at the ghastly sight of him. To his right, men with their noses caught in the air, chests puffed out as if asserting a sort of invisible dominance. And to his center… Wait- Was that a… a dog?
He stilled, unsure if his homesickness had already made him gone mad or if that truly was a canine in the flesh.
Beyond his better judgement, Drakon picked up his long long legs and began a most rigid descent. (He still refused to use that damn cane, what was he? Sixty?). Finally, he’d be able to meet someone who’d understand… And the presumed owner. “Pardon me,” He began sheepishly, eyes glued to the mutt with nothing but admiration. ”But.. May I?” His hand hovered over his sides, wanting so desperately to offer a friendly pat, to pay respects to such a divine creature.“It’s so… darling.”He breathed.
They had come for her, just as they always did. It was difficult for her to not feel like a spectacle each time she was allowed to show herself. With each ball, each gathering, there was no guarantee that the little princess would make an appearance. Their curiosity grew, the looks in their eyes reminded Dianthe of some starved thing, a salivating beast whose belly rumbled with hunger pangs. She had seen that hunger before, up in the trees, watching the cycle of life in all its entirety. It was odd, she found that she would rather deal with the beasts that dwelled within the wilds. They were far easier to read.
Wasn’t it Ironic? How she ached to free herself from the chains that bound her to this place, but her mother’s oppression was also a sort of comfort? No one dared to venture too close with the queen looming so close to her child. A doting mother in the eyes of her subjects. They never seemed to notice the possessiveness in her eyes.
The way in which she dealt with those who seemed to stand in the way of her and her child, someone who would dare harm a curly hair on her head. She had seen it before, had watched a servant be taken away after spilling hot tea on a young Dianthe. Anna her name had been, she had been one that the princess had actually liked, a clumsy thing, not stiff like most of the servants. Dianthe had not seen her since and could only hope that she had been relieved of her position quietly, peacefully.
Without her mother, she stood alone. There was only so much protecting that Pocket could do. And as much as she would love it, she could not have him chase anyone away. So she was left to deal with the approaching nobles herself. A soft, sad smile here, a weak giggle there, it was easy to play them. The role of a lost princess came easy to her, her grief was all too real.
When they had finally left her be, she returned her attention to Pocket. Her fur was so soft against her hands, grounding her. Reminding her that perhaps, life within the palace was not so bad. She could endure a crowd of millions if he remained by her side. For a moment she remembered their games of mock war. She, a dazzling knight, Pocket her trusty right hand.
A voice snapped her from her reminiscing, inwardly she scowled at the interruption. Another noble, no doubt, coming to offer her insincere words of sympathy and compassion. The princess turned her attention to the individual, she blinked twice.
Dianthe found herself looking up….and then up some more—she had not known the kingdom to be a land of giants. Just when she began to fear that her neck would become sore from the strain, she finally reached their face. Her head tilted, a mirror image of the canine beside her. For a moment Dianthe simply stared, taking him in, the scar on his face was the thing that really captured her attention. His gaze was focused entirely on Pocket, an expression of near awe on it. Dianthe couldn’t say that she blamed him.
Despite the love that she had for her companion, Dianthe would never call him hers. Refused to label their relationship in such a way. He was free to do as he pleased and spend time with whomever he pleased, despite her jealousy when he did so. Dianthe nodded while Pocket approached, curious about the new person before them.
“He, he is indeed darling. His name is Pocket, don’t refer to him as in it.” Her tone was matter of fact but not rude. There was curiosity shining in her own eyes now. The princess was intrigued. “…and who may you be? It’s quite rude not to introduce yourself when approaching a lady. I don’t recall seeing you here in the past.” She continued to watch, head tilted, eyes observing.
THE FAE COURT—KATA.
This was Kata's... 4th—no, 400th, 444th?—ever ball, and yet, her eyes still wandered where they willed across the entire room as if this was the lady's first appearance and not one of her hundreths.
During brief interludes in the music and the moments where Kata lingered between partners, her mind wandered as if it were bored—bored of the never changing decorations, bored of the always familiar faces, and bored of the extravagance of it all. Yes, even the gilded ornaments, bedazzled attire, and indulgent hors d'oeuvres some could only ever experience in their wildest dreams can become so incredibly dull over time. At times like this, Kata is reminded of a silly human adage she heard decades, if not centuries, ago from her father:
A merchant who often brought magical goods past the veil and into the human world for those beings with pitifully short lives to gaze upon with self-destructive greed and desire, Kata's father had heard and learned much about humankind during his many centuries of travel. "Materialistic creatures", he would often remark in a mocking and disgusted tone, "with foolish rules and scruples murkier than the dirt on my shoe." The fae girl, quite young back then, would glance down and see the reflection of her own hazey, more gray than green eyes, wondering just where, if there was any, the dirt was.
But despite the glass-like reflection of his shoe, her father was no saint either. By human standards at least. All things in his collection—from trinkets and potions to pieces of the fae realm like a leaf blown off a millenia old tree—had a price; it was never coin. More often than not, her father would regale her with tales of the most recent journey's trades upon his return, laughing the entire way through about the price he claimed and the grief of his customer. One time in particular, a young maiden struck him after the gilded mirror she naively bought without a care in the world revealed an old hag where a summer beauty had once been. Silly human. Nothing is free. Kata shook her head at the foolishness of the customer in the tale and climbed up onto her father's lap where she heard a low hum—pondering?.
"Did you know my little Kata?" Her father glanced down to make eye contact with his daughter's eyes with a never before seen look that contained a mix of things: laughter, happiness, confusion, and most importantly, relief. "After the hag struck me, with all the force of a human knight in his prime I might add, she shouted at me about how beauty fades to which I remarked that at least her stupidity will last forever." At that moment Kata knew what that relief in her father's face was. Relief that the fae remained untouched by age, never doomed to a life of failing health and poor mobility with an appearance that would become withered by time. At the time, the young girl could never comprehend the meaning, thinking it was just a funny conclusion to the tale.
Now though, she glances through the crowd as a dog does the forest, seeking, searching, scouring for anything of interest, anything beautiful, in all too familiar scene. In humans, beauty may fade from age, but here, beauty is frozen and so, so common that it's boring. Her heart races when finally paired up with the Queen, an honor she's never had before, but it is only a momentary feeling of excitement. The queen is beautiful, but more menacing than what she looks for. She can feel the older fae's inquisitive gaze on her and breathes a sigh of relief as their dance ends. Now, she can continue gazing across the room. Finally, she catches a glimpse; yes, just a glimpse but what a blessed glimpse it is! Luscious black hair with features that became engraved into the mind and roused attention. Despite their countenance, a face that spoke loudly about how much they wanted to disappear, to run away, to hide, someone as heavenly as that has to be known. Absolutely breathtaking. Beautiful, and something she knows she must get to see, if not feel.
Breaking from the circle of dancers, Kata hastily makes her way over as a crowd begins to form around the object of her admiration, spreading the gospel of that heavenly appearance with hushed whispers and astonished murmurs. Her heart beats wildly in her ears and her chest, muscles cry out to stop, and bones threaten to shatter, but she disregards it all. The crowd is increasing. So are the murmurs. She stumbles over herself as she nears, lungs squeezing out every last breath of air, and hair flying all around her. The light shining on it makes it appear grey, but that is no matter. As more and more of the attendees' attention is drawn to the center of the crowd, Kata finally breaks through to the front and gets a better look at them.
Except, it's not the beauty that everyone's staring at.
No. It's Kata, and all of a sudden, everything feels wrong. She is no beauty—no stunned silence, no gasps of aspiration, nothing of the sort is ever heard when she walks past. Perhaps a cordial hello or kind compliment, but nothing more. This time though, there is only horror.
Her hair fades into a dull gray, one that brings a sense of loneliness and despair into the observer. She touches her skin and feels it sag, as if weighed down by the stress of a thousand lives. Her porcelain clear complexion becomes dotted with imperfections that bring a coarse texture to the skin and her body suddenly trembles, struggling to stand upright with perfect posture. It takes only a second for Kata to comprehend what is happening, but that does not mean she accepts it. The only thing she could think as her heart slowed to a still was: I thought beauty wasn't supposed to fade.
And then, Kata is no more. Nay, young Kata is no more. In her place, a hag. A dead one.
THE HUMAN COURT—VIOLETTA.
The fae’s words were almost casual, slipping almost flippantly out of him. Violetta did her best to hold her expression still, the smile perfectly in place, as though she hadn’t picked up on anything but genuine, polite conversation. Of course, a practiced eye could have caught her slight falter.
“Between just you and me,” Violetta had to look up at him as she spoke, her heels not quite giving enough height to meet him, and she tilted her chin up ever so slightly, “We seem to share the same opinion on dogs in ballrooms. But the guests do love him,” She looked over at Dianthe, still with Pocket adoringly around her, and now with another guest enraptured by the creature, “Who am I to deny that?”
It was odd, in a way, Violetta’s position here. Talking to a stranger, representing her court all on her own. The last however many balls she’d attended, she’d been on the arm of a prince. She’d had her parents-in-law, leagues above her, as representatives. Dario had glanced at Violetta so briefly, with so careless a smile, and managed to make her feel perfectly alone. It wasn’t like she wasn’t practiced, years at court being taught how to hold a conversation, establish position, yet this was a test like none other had been. Violetta wasn’t confident in how she was faring, if this was a test, and yet. She was confident she wanted nothing more than to keep taking it. The days had been dull, running by, and now she was here, finally able to speak for herself, finally back to life.
And of course, the fae. Not quite what she’d been expecting, but Violetta was determined to crack him. He would like this court by the time she was done.
“So. Is there anyth-” Violetta’s words were cut off by a crash behind her. The chandelier, pounds of glass and bronze and flaming wax, shattered into pieces onto the ballroom floor.
THE HUMAN COURT—ELIZABETH.
Beth has lived in the castle her whole life. She’s not known by many, certainly not by name, but it is due to her as well as many other workers there that today is a possibility. Before the gathering today, she straightened the arrangement of flowers adorning one of the room’s many columns and with a nod, sent the signal to welcome all of you in.
She left the room shortly after. The staff won’t be seen, save for those with platters of drinks and refreshments. For a few moments, she was content, having left her job well done.
Leaving a roomful of nobles and guests to mingle obliviously to sounds of gentle music behind her, Beth heard a far off noise. Against all reasonable advice, she walked towards it, leaving you momentarily behind. The servant opened a door, deep in the castle, a door you’ve never seen unlocked. She is greeted only by darkness.
THE HUMAN COURT.
The ground shakes under your feet, once gently, another time more firmly. The guests scream, yet if you listened, you might hear a deeper sound, a further away yell, hidden inside the noise. The pillars threaten to fall.
𝐓𝐇𝐄 𝐇𝐔𝐌𝐀𝐍 𝐕𝐈𝐋𝐋𝐀𝐆𝐄—𝐃𝐄𝐈𝐃𝐑𝐀.
It's hard to not feel some sort of kinship, in this little village of theirs; a sort of understanding born from equally worn hands, a life that is harsh from the crib. It beats and kicks you and then waits for you to crawl back, like a heart-broken dog to it's owner. Yet the tragic love the people hold for each other here is something you will find in no castle, no palace made of glass; empathy and human connection captured in a single nod or tiny, tired smile.
Deidra felt that now, looking at the shadows haunting Charity's face. They seem deeper now, in the early morning gloom, devouring all the light in the woman's face like moss eating away at dead trees. Every day she looks more tired than she looked the last, exhausting slinking behind her as if her shadow. Some of the villagers says she has gone mad with grief; she had (has?) siblings once, too, an older sister like Deidra.
She smiles back, a little sadly, answering; ''As well as any of us.''
Good morning! You both are up early, hope you’re doing alright.
Cornelius, the bakers' son - brighter than a summer's day and smelling slightly of the pastries Deidra will buy for Carina, if she can afford to. It was hard to blame him for his unmatched enthusiasm for such an early hour, as it was hard to blame the always smiling man for anything. He is hard-working and kind besides, and Deidra surely couldn't be annoyed. Her smile was never the same breed, never as genuine as his are, but she returns it all the same.
''Same to you. I hope it won't rain today -''
A voice, old and rough, made her turn her dark-haired head. The widow just down the road, waving a hand like a gnarled apple tree's towards her. Deidra re-arranged the basket on her hip with a slight sigh, her breath coming out in a white puff.
''I'm sorry.'' She gives a shake of her head, sending black hair moving right and left. ''I still have to collect by some houses. Good luck, both of you.''
One last smile and she's gone down the road, the mist filling the place where she stood.
Overworked mothers and old wives drop cloth in her hands like stones, her hands aching from the basket digging into the skin of her arm. It rattles painfully against her hip bones as she walks towards the river, last day's exertion still screaming raw in her muscles. Clouds, dark and heavy, lied down in earnest now, sending her hurrying down the slight hill. It was a clear, wide one, not quite the woods and not yet the end of the village. Men will catch small, white-bellied fish here and women will take overfilled clay pots home.
Deidra pulls up her worn sleeves, drops her knees down on the beaten earth - fog clings to the surface of the river, its surface like the distant edges of a dream. It is cold, cold like death when she drops the first cloth in.
Her hands clean the shirt in the river's darkness, little ripples sending every which way; the woods beyond sing in the slight breeze, leaves rustling like voices crying out. The work is hard, but she is used to it; she only frowns when mud rises up from her hands, splashing it away. It happens, sometimes, that the river drags in mud and rocks from the harsh rain. It comes up again as she works on the second cloth, making her sigh in annoyance.
She splashes it away, but the river grows dirtier still.
Like a shadow of a great being passed over it, growing darker still in the cup of Deidra's hands. Thick with brown it rolls on, making Deidra lean forward on her knees.
It is then, in a split second of dawning horror, that she realises that something was not right.
The river bloats like a great, big corpse, dirty waves rolling into themselves like bruises; they soak into Deidra's hands, her knees, the clothes. And the stench -
Her hands snap out of the water as if she had been burned. They come away red.
The woman kicks back the basket and screams.
''The river - the river!'' Her voice slices through the village like a knife, birds flying into the darkening sky. The clothes soak through on the splattered mud, laying on the bank like corpses with their throats cut.
''It's turned to blood!''
Beyond the bleeding river, at the edge of the forest, the fog grew thicker.
The bed, if you could call a single frayed quilt covering a shaky wooden frame that, shook with each high-pitched and childish cry of her name.
"Stop it! Wake her up gently." This voice was hushed, and yet the stern, youthful, and slightly lispy qualities of it still came through. It's owner cooed her name gently, gentler than the way they caressed her hair and twirled it between their fingers. Carina's hair was soft and smooth then, like the texture of finely milled flour, and reminiscent of the early, early morning sun just barely hitting the clouds. She squirmed slightly under the covers as her body began waking, and a low chuckle emanated from someone else in the room.
"Rise and shine little sister. Mother and father are waiting with breakfast—your favorite breakfast."
Carina woke with a gasp, one that unleashed a dam of memories and emotions she had been so desperately trying to avoid even the thought of, and began trembling as a dampness covered her skin. Whether that was from the cool chill of the village's foggy morning air or the nightmare her mind had just concocted, the young girl did not know, did not want to know. Instead, she took in the eerie silence of her surroundings—the overwhelming loneliness of waking up to nothing—and a dread took over her.
This was normal and soon followed by many things. The frantic getting out of bed, the rushed dressing of clothes without a care for how disheveled she appeared, and then the calming realization that her acquaintance always left early mornings—before the rise of dawn even—to feed herself... and now another as well. This was a typical morning ever since Carina stumbled upon this settlement and was so kindly granted room and board by one of the villagers: a girl who seemed to carry the burden of several lifetimes of work on her shoulders and more.
Deidra was her name. Why she took in a young girl with no skills, Carina does not know, but she cannot help but be both grateful and wary of it. Perhaps she saw something in Carina. A kindred spirit perhaps? Two young girls, similar in their youth, and yet so, so worn out by the world around them. Where was the roaring flame and brightness of youth that the stories and songs told by travelers and bards spoke of? Yet, similar as they were, Carina couldn't help but dread the day if, no when, Deidra found out what she was and why she was here. Would she be cast aside once again? For some reason, the thought of that hurt more than she assumed it would.
The sound of movement outside the door roused Carina from her increasingly dreary thoughts, replacing them instead with mild worry. Why didn't they knock? What were they planning outside? Paranoia—a side effect of her travels but oh so necessary for survival—slowly made its way down her spine as she walked closer and closer towards the door. Steeling herself, Carina charged at the door and opened it with enough force that a strong gust blew outwards from it, blowing over... a basket of bread?
Carina looked out and saw a face she had seen a few times during her strolls in the village for groceries when Deidra was too exhausted to do so. "Ah..." Her voice hitched in her throat at the sheer awkwardness of it all: a tipped basket of bread growing soggier and soggier by the minute, a caring neighbor she had mistaken for an assailant, and her own forcefulness instead of the gentleness expected from a young lady.
"G-good morning... So-" What was her name again? She had developed a habit of trying not to get attached to whoever she met wherever she went. We all know how the last time she was attached went. Carina's voice trailed off quietly as her mind blanked, unable to recall the name of this morning's kind benefactor, and fully expected to be met with anger or disappointment.
Instead, it was a bloodcurdling screech—clearer than any blue sky and so easily identifiable. Deidra. Carina glanced at her visitor—as if asking for silent approval to leave—then back in the direction of the scream, and ran. She didn't check to see if they were behind her or not. All that was on her mind was Deidra. She couldn't be alone, not again.
Up in her imaginary lighthouse, Eudora watched the court move around her. She watched the people dance, trade banter, and sip drinks out of finely-made glasses. How could they keep on, she wondered, with their trivial decorum? She would get tired if she had to do such things--in fact, she was already tired and she had barely spoken a word and had not danced a single step. If that was what it meant to be a person in the court, Eudora thought that she must not be much of a person. She felt very wooden, controlling herself with strings from up in her tower. That’s why she couldn’t dance--she wasn’t a skilled puppeteer. Her fiddling with the flimsy strings would make for very ungraceful movements. She’d be exposed. All the people would stare, and they’d know that she was made of something awful.
Tristan, although a noble, never expected her to be good at banter or dancing. She’d spent long nights and days with him in a nebula of strange and informal conversation. Sometimes, she’d have trouble finding words and thus be silent for minutes or hours on end. He’d never rush her. He would always wait until she was ready and fill the space by tapping away at his piano. The expectations for personhood were different with him. She didn’t just feel like someone; she felt like someone who could really do something. Not how she felt now, like a person far, far away from the world, watching, only waiting for something to happen…
And then it happened.
The ground shook, gently at first. Eudora’s eyes widened--the tempest had reached her tower at last! The ground shook again, more forcefully, and she fell out of her lighthouse into the ballroom and into her body. Nauseated by the sudden perspective shift, she stumbled about and fell to her knees, her stately shell now cracked. She felt some eyes on her, but thankfully it appeared that most people were too preoccupied with screaming or their own disorientation to give her much mind. She pushed herself off of the ground, hands shaking, and began walking feverishly. She wasn’t sure where she was going, but the screams of the court were too loud in her head, the sound of it all setting fire to the trees in her mind. She had to get away.
The raised voices and the movement turned into light in Eudora’s mind. It was hard to see where she was going, like looking into a horizon that was made completely of the sun. She felt like a little girl again, being dragged into the buzz of the village. She remembered: she was all wrong. Her mother had to try and fix her, get her to socialize. She had to be fixed so she could marry well. She heard the awful singsong voice: “Eudora, stop your crying! Open your eyes! Eudora! Open your eyes!” No, it was too loud! “Eudora, open your eyes!”
Eudora opened her eyes and, dazed by the overstimulation, lost her balance and fell at someone’s feet. She let out a frustrated cry before leaning back and looking up. Once she finally got acclimated to the loudness of everything, she found herself gazing into a beautiful face. She looked into the eyes and it was like looking into a clear, calm sky. But it was the calm before something awful. She thought: can she hide in them? When the ground shakes, can she hide in her eyes--in her beauty?
Eudora looked beyond the eyes, into the curls, and saw a tiara. “The Princess,” she thought out loud. Suddenly, there was a bittersweet taste in her mouth, like an unripe apple. She quickly brushed herself off and stood up. She gave the Princess a curious look. It was surreal: a nobody peasant girl like her standing in front of a royal. But Eudora had heard stories from the nobles that lived in and passed through Tristan’s home. She knew that the Princess was once something like her: a commoner from a small village, perhaps underfed, poorly clothed. Maybe that’s why Eudora saw the sky in her eyes.
Eudora found herself hovering her shaky right hand over the Princess’s left wrist as if requesting permission to hold on. Realizing her mistake, she pulled away slightly and put her hands in a ball in front of her chest. She then noticed a man standing nearby. He appeared poised and had a worrying glint in his eyes. Eudora leaned forward clumsily, a broken attempt at a curtsy, and then straightened.
Looking the royal directly in the eyes, Eudora said breathily, “Everything’s shaking. It’s too loud.” Her brow furrowed with stress as she added with earnestness in her voice, “Can you make it stop?” She whipped her eyes around at the screaming nobles and then back towards the Princess. “Can you make them stop?” She turned slightly towards the man as if to say that the request was also open to him. She was alone and lost, miles away from the only person who knew her. She was desperate.
She looked over the Princess’s shoulder at what remained of the chandelier. She watched one of the flames in the mess of wax, bronze, and glass flicker and struggle for a few seconds before going out, the only evidence that it had been there to begin with a pitiful puff of smoke.
Waning was Dario's interest in casual conversation; the princess seemed to be capable of holding her own, a most disappointing revelation. What fun is there in pretending to be on a level playing field? Of course, the crux of that supposition is that Dario was above the likes of this girl, barring any qualms between the royal courts. For the sake of cordiality, the ambassador would partially reel in the condescension.
He let out a mildly-amused hum, sipping from his glass with a watchful, contemplative gaze. "Stranger creatures have graced the ballroom floor." His mind was split between reminiscence of home and a few individuals in their periphery, one of which had hardly left his sight. The girl with the dog was an enigma in about seven different ways and was thus seven thorns in his side. Dario had to figure her out.
...If he could first escape this princess attempting to do the same.
There was a lull in the conversation, and Dario had decided he was nearly finished with the girl. She had nothing of importance to offer, as evidenced by the way his disinterested eyes wandered around the room, scrutinizing every fine detail down to the frayed edge of a tablecloth in the distance. Things seemed to slip through the cracks around this place, didn't they?
Just as Violetta began to speak, a lustrous flash of bronze descended from the ceiling. Dario followed it with wide eyes, but was otherwise nonchalant in the face of a humorous demonstration of human inanity. He took one last drink. It's the icing on the cake, the fae thought, for the grand chandelier to fall and crush someone like a bug tonight. What a farce!
As the former centerpiece of the ballroom came crashing down in a flaming heap, the volume in the room rose from music and idle chatter to a cacophony of panic-stricken shouting. Before he knew it, the ground began to rumble and shake, transforming the wine in his glass to a sloshing vortex of red. A few stray droplets leapt out and splattered onto the floor, narrowly missing the pair's shoes.
As though on a boat at storm, Dario's body leaned to far to the side, nearly causing him to lose his footing and knock into a frenzied noble. "Who conjured a divine retribution?" the fae cried out in a deep, harsh tone. He looked to the princess, searching her for some sort of explanation to this. A pesky flash of panic crossed over his face.
Moments later, there was a doe-eyed girl at Violetta's feet. She appeared as petrified as the rest, yet somehow managed to pick herself up and utter a few stifled words. Dario steeled his gaze and firmed up his stance, fighting against the violently trembling ground. If it was going to fissure and swallow them all, he would at least be the last one down.
"She just curtsied," Dario remarked, glancing at Violetta with a lifted brow. The dedication to formality certainly did not go unnoticed, though the more likely explanation was the frantic girl's palpable anxiety. Amid the sudden calamity, the fae found it difficult to parrot the intense fear pervading the air. First and foremost, he was bewildered. Though even harder to admit, Dario was most agitated with how shocked he was. Not often did he allow himself to be caught so off guard, or at least look the part.
He looked around once more, formulating a plan considering the palace's collapse showed no signs of stopping. "If I were you, I'd be more concerned about death by falling debris than by unpleasant screeching." He offered a slight shrug, setting his glass down on a sliding table. Clearly no one knew what was happening, especially not the princess who had been parading as a strong figure just moments ago.
He looked beyond the frazzled newcomer for the canine-human pair he had been observing, but seemed to lose them in the chaos. A piece of him willed their safety, if only for a chance at later conversation.
"There will be war if I am to die here," Dario stated matter-of-factly, losing his balance once more. He had to raise his voice to be heard over all of the pandemonium. Something about it reminded him of the battlefield. Of course, he was no military pawn. He was above that and he refused to go out like such.
"Unless, of course, you'd like to stay and catch that pillar." He looked up, eyes pointing to a stone column on its way down toward them.
Silas wasn’t sure how long he had been in the fae world by now. Time flowed--differently than it did in the human realm. The sense of it was slippery and vague, the fae’s appearance resisting change while the world they lived in changed nearly every day. Had it been weeks? Years? He decided long ago that it was no use trying to figure out. He had grown used to the pattern of the way the fae lived, using it to document the passage of time instead. Little by little, the realm he had been assimilated into started to become recognizable. Had started to become--home.
Watching the fae glide around the floor in a sweeping dance, their skin glistening and unmarred even under the most unflattering light, reminded him of that truth. Of unchanging beauty, the unfathomable longevity of their lives. A memory suddenly awakened within him as he watched the ball before him unfold. The small piece dislodged itself from somewhere deep within, floating freely up in the dark waters of his subconscious.
The memory was of him and his younger brother Elio, when he would bring SIlas the extra food he had managed to ration away at the dinner table. They were both huddled around a flickering lantern in the loft of their family barn, scarfing away the meager amount of food that had laid before them. The crying insects in the distance leaked through the cracks of old barn wood, joined by the slightly suffocating summer night air. The soft orange glow of the lantern created a dancing pattern of shadow and light across the planes of Elio’s face. He looked up at Silas wide eyed, his irises a dark pool of inky black in the dim lighting while he waited earnestly for the string of stories that his brother had promised to tell. The stories sometimes took on a fantastical spin, while other times they delved into something darker--creepier. This story, however, the one that was suddenly dredged up within him--felt like both.
There was a woman in the woods that Silas’ fellow workers spoke in hushed tones about, always arguing over whether or not she truly existed. It was a generational story, one that someone’s grandfather--their great grandfather even--knew about. The woman’s beauty was supposed to be incomparable, any who saw her instantly fell in love. Every year--every decade, it was the same story, the same woman. Her beauty lasted generations, never aging, never diminishing--never changing. The thought of how that was possible sent a feeling of unease within Silas when he had first heard it. How was that--possible? It was SIlas’ first unsettling encounter of the longevity of a fae’s life, how it made a mockery of the mortal curse of old age.
So when the fae gathered around one of their own, only to violently recoil like beads of water dropped in oil, the sickening fear that exerted from the crowd reached him, too. Fae--didn’t age. Fae certainly didn’t age as quickly as the formerly young maiden had. There was a panicked feeling zipping around the room, charged like electricity. Something was not right--no, something had gone awfully wrong.
A high pitched, shattering sound registered in his ears. Silas turned, much to his own dismay, in reaction to the sudden noise. Several fae servants had recoiled in shock, dropping the bottles they had held so diligently mere seconds earlier. The glass glittered in the light of the ball, dying foam washing up against the floor like the receding movement of waves on a beach. Silas’ grip only tightened around the neck of the bottle he was holding. Was he frozen in fear, or simply following orders? In the chaos, it was hard for him to tell. The other servants that had attended the ball had reacted in a variety of ways. Some simply ran from the ballroom, petrified of catching whatever the poor downed fae had. Others cowered in fear, pressing their backs against the wall as if by some chance they could sink into it and away--out of this nightmare that seemingly erupted from impeccable splendor.
As fae continued to scatter from the center of the ballroom, where the shriveled figure of the fallen fae remained, Silas was continually pushed further and further up into the center of the room. Unable to funnel outwards from the crammed doorways, fae opted to instead push themselves towards the edges of the room. Silas, unable to contest otherwise, simply allowed his person to get closer than any fae dared to go. His eyes landed on the figure that lay collapsed on the floor. He could barely see her through all the shuffling legs and swishing skirts of fleeing fae. Should he be just as afraid too? Was what the fae had caught something capable of infecting humans, as well? He tried to think of what it would feel like to catch what she had, to suddenly have his bones become brittle and old, to suddenly give out and collapse into darkness. Silas tried to ignore the small voice within him that whispered for that fate with a longing tone. No--he shouldn’t think like that.
From the corner of his eye, Silas caught the frantic movement of a thin arm. He turned to look, catching the desperate expression of a head servant. She gestured towards him vehemently, her movements stiff and lined with distress.
“Silas--Silas!” The servant hissed to him, holding out her hand while bracing herself against the swimming chaos of bodies. “Take this cloth and cover the body--now! Usher away any remaining fae who seem to be ogling. We do not need this tarnishing the Queen’s name,” She ordered. The normal, authoritative tone to her voice was ever present, but there was a wild fear reflected in her eyes, like an animal that had been caught in a trap and was witnessing its predator steadily approach. She handed the sheet out to SIlas, her arm outstretched to its furthest and hand shaking violently. Once Silas accepted the fabric from her hand, the head servant snapped her arm back as if afraid of getting bitten, tucking it into her body and attempting to sink back into the pushing crowd that had gathered behind them.
Silas stared down at the bundled cloth that hung limply in his grasp. The head servant's words echoed in his mind. The chaos of the room made him second guess every move he made. What was ordered? What was proper? There was no preparation for a situation like this.
He tried to turn the instructions over like he would his mantras. Cover the body. Protect the Queen’s image. Cover the body. Protect the Queen’s image. Silas swallowed down the unease that had begun to rise like bile from within his stomach. He set the bottle of fizzing alcohol down onto the floor soundlessly, gripping the soft cloth in his hand. Cover the body. Protect the Queen’s image. Walk forward. Do not make eye contact. Do not bump into fae. Cover the body. Protect the Queen’s image.
Silas felt the stares of the fae burn into his body as he began walking forwards--slowly, ignoring the pounding fear that echoed in his chest. The fae still remaining in the path to the body parted wordlessly to make way for him to move through, a sight that raised the hair on the back of his neck in discomfort. This didn’t feel right.
The walk to the center of the room felt like mere seconds. Silas stopped, his eyes still trained on the floor, as the shriveled body of the previously alive and beautiful fae stared back at him. Up close, now seeing her, Silas couldn’t help the feeling of pity from spearing itself through his heart. She looked abandoned and sad. What did it feel like, he wondered, to die surrounded by so many people yet still so alone?
“If you wouldn’t mind stepping back, please,” Silas bowed deeply, addressing two fae that stood in the vicinity of the body still. No--not fae, exactly. They didn’t feel like the usual fae he served on a daily basis. One of them felt--human even. Silas pushed the odd impression of the pair from his mind and rightened his posture from the bow in order to spread the thin white cloth into the air. Cover the body. Protect the Queen’s image. In his practiced hand, the action only took one fluid movement before the unsightly body was covered, the horror abated--for now.