“The Wild Hunt shall sharpen their teeth upon your bones, Chancellor, if you waste my patience.”
Until that moment, Jhaer merely half listened to the minor petitions submitted before his queen. The Unseelie Court fell silent in anticipation. Only about thirty Sidhe attended this session, a woefully thin number that continued to dwindle in recent decades. A smattering of other dark fey with whom the queen found favor or advantage added to the number. Even still, the queen conducted court in the smaller Eastern Hall rather than suffer the empty echo of the Grand Hall.
Jhaer repositioned himself in the shifting crowd. Very few knew his true calling as the head of the Queen’s Elite. Nothing about his manor or his clothing differed from the other Sidhe in the Dark Court. If anything he was unremarkable in his black silk shirt and tailored dark slacks, which fit him with a certain understated elegance and yet provided him with freedom of movement.
Sweat beaded across the chancellor’s brow as the fey of the Wild Hunt salivated at the very mention of Sidhe flesh. “As you wish, Highness,” he bowed his head and backed toward the entryway. “Your Majesty might forgive me for wanting to clear the docket of mundane matters first, once you learn of the great issue before the Court.” The chancellor collected an ornately-carved, gold canister from the Scribe who served as his aide. As the chancellor turned the lid, breaking the magical seal, an explosion of sparks burst forth into the hall only to rain slowly down in a shower of twinkling multicolored pixie dust. None of the Unseelie reacted with anything that resembled wonderment at the gaudy display of Seelie magic.
The chancellor removed a scroll from within the canister and unrolled it. He skimmed over it before clearing his throat to speak. Undoubtedly he paraphrased, for the Seelie never said anything so directly. “The Shining Court invites your Majesty and the king to a summit to be convened immediately. The All-Mother herself is to preside. They claim it is to address the sovereignty of the Courts and negotiate a peace that will bring a lasting balance and unity for all Sidhe.”
The whispering began, laced with fear. In previous centuries Danu remained neutral throughout all the wars between the Unseelie and the Seelie. For the All-Mother to preside openly over any matter was unprecedented, for no fey bound to the Mounds could withstand a direct battle of wills with Danu. Through the creatrix all magic flowed.
The evil in the invitation circled tightly around the notion of unity. The very moment the chancellor uttered that word, the pit of Jhaer’s stomach soured. The head of the Unseelie Elite didn’t need Aoife’s prediction to know that would never succeed. The polar opposites of the Seelie and Unseelie could never co-exist in a single, harmonious Court. Only separation and sovereignty brought temporary peace to the Mounds, all conditions that had the Seelie foaming with self-righteous indignation. Even as he knew this for himself, many fey placed their faith in the prophetess, Aoife. Her visions frightened many fey into fleeing to the surface, preferring to live as exiles, for if her vision came to pass, the Mounds themselves would be destroyed.
The queen processed the possible consequences of such a venomous invitation with stunned silence. When at last she spoke, the knife edge so familiar in her voice faltered. “This invitation comes from the Seelie Court? Not the All-Mother herself?”
The chancellor rolled the scroll tightly closed. “Yes, your Majesty.”
As she rose with renewed determination, the whispers died down. “What messenger bore this treachery from the Seelie to this Court? Bring him before me.”
Sounds of a scuffle filtered into the silent hall as a young elf was forced bodily before the queen. A guard clutched each wrist and kept the elf’s arms outstretched away from his sides. The troll behind the elf cupped his massive hand over the lower half of the boy’s face, muffling his protests. The thick fingers of the troll’s other hand controlled the elf by his long, blond hair. Wasted though the effort was, the lad struggled with all the strength he possessed, even under the deadly glare of the queen.
“Bring him to my chambers. I shall speak with him alone before he carries our decline to the Seelie.” She slipped out of the hall in a flow of scarlet satin that shimmered like thick blood, a small reminder that the queen gained her throne through the dominance of her power and not from some trick of negotiation or contest of popularity.
Though one might not have guessed that the elf could fight harder, he certainly managed to jerk and jump against the restraints of the guards’ bodies with even more frantic energy. As the guards dragged him off, and the Court descended into gossip and tense murmurings, Jhaer melted into the shadows. He teleported himself into the queen’s chamber. The queen saw him materialize behind the wide marble pillar on the balcony. Once they made eye contact, she turned from him and he wrapped a Glamour around himself so that he was invisible when the guards deposited the elf at her feet with a shove hard enough to lay out the young man on his stomach. They retreated as quickly as they’d come, leaving the elf to the mercies of the queen.
“Why did they send you?”
The elf struggled up to his elbows and swiped the back of his hand across his bloodied lip. “I volunteered.” He glanced up at her, no more fear in his youthful, silver eyes. The elf lifted himself to his knees.
“Do they suspect you?” The queen traced the cut on his mouth, catching the blood smear on a tapered fingertip. Concern laced the gesture, but Jhaer knew from the stiffness of her spine that the queen performed this more for show than what was heartfelt. Few truly won her limited store of sympathy. Her reputation for cruelty stayed the hand of would-be challengers far more often than her magic. Under her rule the Unseelie held fast against the constantly mounting pressures of the Seelie Court, something no one of lesser conviction could have maintained.
“No, but I had to convey this information myself.” The elf rose to his feet. Absently, he straightened his clothing and hair in an instinctual manner. Beautiful and vain, certain races of lesser fey tended to preen at inappropriate times, especially those of the Seelie alignment who mistook physical beauty as evidence of righteousness. “I overheard Danu speak of the prophetess with Manannan.” His excitement left him breathless and grinning. “She is imprisoned in the Glenveagh Forest.”
Jhaer watched the elf closely: his body language, his voice, his expression. The elf either surpassed Jhaer’s skill to detect a lie or he believed what he spoke.
The queen rubbed the smear of blood between her forefinger and thumb as she considered this. Jhaer knew her feelings about the prophetess. The Unseelie queen inspired obedience through fear. The prophetess inspired them through faith. With Aoife by her side, they could rally support from factions in the Seelie Court. Together they could defuse the threat of unity once more.
“You risked much to bring this to me and I know your sacrifice.”
“To prevent the disaster Aoife predicted, I would surrender my very life.” This elf, most certainly a Seelie in every aspect, believed in the prophetess, even a hundred years after she disappeared. No amount of threats of violence could instill that kind of faith.
The queen nodded, as though well aware of the elf’s sentiments. “Then you will resume your mission?”
“Yes.” The elf steeled himself. “I know what you must do. Just please make it quick.”
The queen reached out a hand toward him. As she closed her fist his body arched forward, as if his sternum were attached to some rope she gripped. With a sharp jerk of her hand, dozens of shallow knife cuts opened across his flesh. The elf screamed with agony. He crumpled to his knees, his hands covering the wounds on his face. It was unavoidable. If he returned unharmed, the Seelie would be suspicious. The injuries guaranteed the safety of his cover.
“Guards! Send him back to his Seelie masters!” As the queen spun away from the elf, she shot a glance to where Jhaer remained cloaked by his Glamour. She didn’t need to utter a word. The Unseelie Court teetered on the brink of losing everything. The prophetess would tip the scales back in their favor. If the information was true, for the salvation of his people, Jhaer would find Aoife.
The Adventure continues in
Foreshadow - Prequel to the Rise of the Unseelie
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