Thinner than Water
Valerius Blackthorn wasn’t one to cower before any ordeal, and yet he stopped before two winged giants of stone. They stood tall either side of a shimmery metallic doors of the throne hall, holding a vast basin filled with the purest of waters on their shoulders. Gazing upon the statues and their burden, he recalled the legends. They said the guardians of the doors were just the hilt of a cup the gods used to drink from in the dark days. Looking at the twenty foot high giants with their extended wings, and the seven foot wide dish they bore, Vale was glad the gods were dead.
Vale took one step, then looked right and left, checking his surroundings. Never had he so wished for an interruption. A rider with news from the borders, a messenger bearing an invitation, an acquaintance he simply had to greet—he would have taken any excuse that might have called him away.
No one came to his aid. The cavernous halls of Wolven Fort were cold and empty.
“Go on,” said his companion. “Standing about isn’t going to make this any easier.”
Vale sighed, and flicked his wrist, holding his hand up in the direction of the heavy doors. They were made of pure gold and might weigh a hundred stone. He could have knocked, or announced his presence. Most would have, as all magic had a price, depleting some of their energy. A common fae might have been in need of a nap after making such a heavy object move, but Vale was no weakling. Pushing the doors cost him very little.
The doors slid open and Vale entered the throne hall. At first glance, he found the court of night unchanged. The noise of the rabble overwhelmed all his senses, but if he was uncomfortable, displeased, and wary, he did not let it show. The court saw nothing but power, and powerful lords did not display signs of weakness.
He took one step, and every male and female present ceremoniously bowed before him. All except for one fae: the queen, his esteemed mother. His eyes cut through the crowd and focused on Shea Blackthorn, who stood next to her masterfully carved iron throne, holding her arms outstretched in a deceptively welcoming stance.
She wore a dress of shadow and sin, made for slaying fae, in every possible sense of the term. The two long slits on either side of her hips were practical: she could, and would, leap into action if she needed to protect her court and her throne.
The throne was a statement. At all times, she subtly touched it, leaning against it or letting her bare arm rest on it, wordlessly reminding the crowd of one fact: she was more. More than any of them, more than any fae in the Isle. Mighty as they were, iron burned all fae, except her.
“Valerius Blackthorn. We have missed you, son.”
He stifled a grin in response.
Fae folk couldn’t lie, but they certainly were well-versed in the art of twisting the truth. When she said we, she spoke on behalf of the court; she, however, was another matter. No doubt, she would have preferred if he’d stayed away.
The foolish curse that plagued their kind also prevented him from responding that he’d missed any of them. Instead, he replied with a half-truth of his own—“You know I can’t stay away for long”—while morphing his expression into a charming smile that didn’t reach his eyes.
The platitudes might have carried on for a while, but in that moment he felt a presence. Among the entire assembly, he clearly distinguished her essence, her aura, her power.
The female was still looking down, head bowed in a sign of deference.
She was a stranger, an icy high fae he’d never met in his long years; not at court or anywhere else. He would have remembered. She held her back very straight, and kept her shoulders back like a good little well-bred lady. She emanated a familiar mixture of power, entitlement, and indifference, wearing it like a scent. Vale was used to that. It disgusted him enough to render him immune to sensual lips and fine eyes. Usually.
Not this time. He found that he was not, after all, quite indifferent to beauty. His gaze hungrily took in the curve of her elegant neck, and the tight blue fabric of her formal dress. She had hair of night, so dark it almost seemed blue. Her skin was sun-kissed, so unlike the complexions of the rest of the court of night. Her bare golden throat was whispering, beckoning him.
He knew better than to listen to its call. The female was nothing more than an appealing trap. But still he looked, because it wasn’t her appearance that had called his attention.
She felt different. One thing mattered to the high fae of this court and all others: power. The entire unseelie court reeked of it. There were, in this very room, over a thousand ancients who could with very little effort set fire to seas and stones if they felt like it. The queen’s wrath could shake the ground from one end of the Isle to the next. And yet amidst all this, Vale noticed her soul.
She didn’t belong here. Not really. The stranger’s attitude may have resembled that of the rest of the females of the court, but when he paid attention, Vale saw a clear lake, mountains, and forests in her mind. He saw a child lying back in the snow and laughing as she watched the stars. The other fae in the hall were aroused by gold, silk, flesh or control. Sometimes, all four. In her, he saw innocence, and another kind of beauty.
Vale froze when he realized he’d reached out, caressing the edge of her mind to see its nature, its true color. It had been centuries since he lost control of his aptitudes in that manner. He didn’t ever invade the mind of anyone without meaning to these days. And yet he’d done just that with this female.
The beauty wasn’t a woman of the court. She was wilderness. Wilderness in a pale blue silk dress that hugged every one of her delightful curves; wilderness that could effortlessly and elegantly maintain a curtsy for an extended period of time. Wilderness tamed by his mother.
It took some effort, as his interest was seldom piqued, but Vale managed to pull his attention away from the enticing female. No one had identified the object of his focus , although all eyes were on him. His intrusive inspection hadn’t lasted more than a second. He carried on walking toward the platform where the throne had been raised thousands of years hence, when the forests and mountains surrounding the unseelie realm had been young and kinder.
The dark prince of the court of night, lord of the court of sin, who’d stayed away for sixteen years, was finally home.
Party time, they thought, no doubt. They expected a spectacle. He was to torture, threaten, fuck, and drink his way through the upcoming solstice. By the time he was gone, everyone would recall what a wastrel he was. This was his role, and he’d play it well.
There were various reasons why he had to stick to that script. The first one was obvious to anyone who knew the game of king, queens and heirs. Shea Blackthorn had ruled for over a thousand years now. It was expected that monarchs should relinquish their power to their heir after a time. Their race may be immortal, but the elders’ understanding of the world became obsolete after a while. How could old souls rule over a nation they were fundamentally unable to understand?
Many times in the history of the Isle, the people had demanded that a previous ruler pass down the throne to their heir. The Seelie and Unseelie Courts were alike in that respect: both governments included a Senate who advised the Throne and discussed the laws their monarchs proposed. Ultimately, the monarch had the last say, but the Senate had the right to demand the abdication of an unfitting leader. Considering the way Vale acted, no one would think of suggesting it in their case.
Vale had no desire and no intention to rule over the entire unseelie realm any time soon. Carvenstone, his domain, the land running along the northern borders of the realm, was his home and the only place he cared to oversee.
The second reason was the fact that now, thanks to his unpredictable persona, absolutely no one wished to visit him in his court. He was known to be mercurial and cruel; why would anyone seek out the likes of him?
And the last reason why Vale wouldn’t disappoint the audience, who were secretly delighted to watch him disrupt the course of their mundane lives, so long as his attention wasn’t directed on them, was because drinking, threatening, fucking, and torturing those who displeased him was the only way he could stand spending time in this accursed place. The court of night? A better description would be the court of hypocritical, elitist swine. He seldom returned—only when it was entirely unavoidable.
“You should have sent a messenger ahead,” she stated with a slight frown that meant she was absolutely livid.
Her expressions rarely changed at all and every minimal twitch of her eye had meaning.
Vale shrugged indifferently. “I had no intention of traveling south, just three days ago, or I certainly would have sent word. But Kallan and I did let those spies of yours see us ride south. Surely they warned you, Mother, or you wouldn’t have had time to gather such a welcome.”
The queen sighed. Without a word, she turned on her heels, heading out of the throne hall. She snapped her fingers, summoning him. The formalities were apparently already over with. Good. After one hand gesture of his own, ordering Kallan to remain behind, Vale followed her like an obedient hound.
They took the corridor to her left, leading to one of her studies. Vale entered the familiar octagonal room, stiffening as he pulled the door behind him. He expected to be informed of his dozens of failures and told to grow up. The tiresome business was unavoidable.
The instant they were alone, two soft and seemingly frail arms wrapped around his shoulders. The embrace was short-lived, fleeting, yet shocked him to the core, as any display of affection from Shea Blackthorn did.
Vale was glad when it stopped.
“All right.” He had a perfect explanation. “The world is ending.”
His mother chuckled, offering him a thin smile for half a beat.
“Basically. Thank fuck you’re here.” Her verbiage was far from formal while away from her subjects. The curse didn’t alarm Vale, but he didn’t fail to note the fact that no reprisal crossed her lips. “I didn’t think you’d come. You seriously need to get better at answering messages, Vale.”
She’d sent him three letters over the last month. They had been opened, but not by him. Valerius got Kallan to run through correspondences like those. What were subordinates for, if not dealing with the things he didn’t want to think of?
Kallan had told him his mother wanted to see him on some pressing matter, so he’d planned to make the journey at some point within the next year or so.
What had occurred three days ago, close to dawn, had changed things though.
Among other things, Vale had inherited his mother’s love of four-letter words. There may have been an endless array of suitable terms in his vocabulary, accumulated over the course of seven centuries, but more often than not, “fuck” happened to be exactly what he wanted to say.
“And you figured I should be warned before they get there. I thank you, Valerius. When will they arrive?”
“Two days—three, tops. Kallan and I used the fastest paths and changed horses seven times to get here directly. They have carriages and civilians. They’ll need to take the main roads, and travel slowly.”
He was familiar with the queen’s expression. She was calculating, scheming, plotting. As was her way. Vale only wished she shared her findings.
“This warning is incredibly valuable. Pick whatever reward you desire.”
He didn’t attempt a reply, too taken by what he saw now that he was paying attention. Shea truly seemed wary.
She stood at five foot four, the shortest high fae Vale had ever seen, and yet more imposing than any of them. Shea Blackthorn looked youthful and as beautiful as the most delicate of roses, thorns and all. Usually, the queen was ready to fight against a whole army before breakfast. Right now, it looked as though she’d already killed them all and was waiting on a second assault.
“What is it, Mother?” he asked.
The plea went unpronounced, and yet it was answered.
Shea moved to her desk and started to shuffle through documents. She laid out a dozen handwritten reports before standing behind her chair.
She never sat if it could be helped.
After a lengthy pause, the queen replied.
“War is coming. See for yourself.”