Kingdom of Shadow and Light
You were my town now I’m in exile seeing you out
After the war to end all wars, my city is perfection.
Flanked by princes, the full complement of the Light Court marching behind me, I glide through the streets of Temple Bar.
Looming beyond the rooftops of shops and pubs, a blood-rimmed moon hangs so round and low it nearly obliterates the night sky, reminding me of another planet where—a thousand lifetimes ago—I stood between Cruce and the Unseelie king and felt I might ascend to the edge of night, hop a pineboard fence and bridge planet to moon in a single leap.
Earth continues to change, becoming more like Faery with each passing day, growing lusher, more opulent and fantastical, befitting a species of jaded palates and hungers extreme. We who rule this planet alter the very fabric of the universe. Mortal physics do not apply. We shape reality; it cedes to our will.
Hunters fly overhead, gonging deep in their chests. I glance up as they glide past the moon, and their obsidian wings against the scarlet-ringed orb causes an unwelcome lightning flash of memory to explode, briefly illuminating my mind—a gaze of midnight stained with crimson, a man’s hard, challenging, measuring stare: Who the f*** are you?
Demented laughter might bubble up inside me, but there is ash where once embers burned, and laughter doesn’t bubble.
Nothing does. I am a bottomless, still abyss.
The clarity granted by the memory fragment fades. I turn from the sky and back to the street.
Phosphorescent fog, driven by an azure ocean lapping at Ireland’s shore, drifts in lacy skeins across cobblestones shiny from yet another rain, draping streetlamps and storefronts in pearlescent webs. As we continue our parade through the district, canopies of velvety blooms explode in our wake, tumbling from window boxes, erupting from rooftop gardens, while a thick carpet of sea-foam and cerulean grasses push up through stones.
Cobbled streets will soon vanish, reclaimed by rich mocha soil. Buildings will be enfolded in the embrace of vines and dragged down until entombed in the earth. This world will be as it should be again.
Pristine. Natural. Fae.
Fog soothes me; concealing, distorting, making all things seem possible. Creates a frame for illusion, brushing the world softer, more malleable. Narrowing my eyes to blur my vision, I fill that frame with things that once mattered to me, hold the images suspended about me, try to insert myself into the frame but . . .
There is nothing for me there.
Dublin will never again be what I remember.
Nor will I.
There is a final act to which I will attend tonight before turning my attention to matters of Court. The soil cannot reclaim a certain bookstore fast enough for me. I don’t trust that the Cauldron of Forgetting will completely eradicate Barrons Books & Baubles from the deepest catacombs of my memory should the earth fail to swallow it and should I, one day, encounter it.
This city, this planet is void of human life.
I am the only trace of humanity left, and I am but a memory of a vestige of a shadow of that complex, elusive quality. Less than a whisper. I cannot hear it and would not know what it means.
Mankind has been scourged from the planet. The old gods are dead, leaving the Fae sole owners of a coveted magic-rich world. The Nine are—I terminate that thought.
A distant part of my mind engages a struggle to understand how I got here, how this came to pass, but I cannot put the pieces together. They exist beyond, in a place I sort of remember though not really, where, once, I was a very different being.
A daughter. Sister. Friend. Lover to a dark and ravenous beast.
But I can’t feel what I can’t feel.
There lurk only distant, vague shapes, nebulous things that chafe at my mind, oddly familiar yet void of meaningful substance.
I lack context. A complete and utter dearth of it exists within me.
I apprehend existence in terms of stasis and change.
Beyond that, there is only today.
There is a single way this type of today can be endured.
If it amuses.
As I near the entrance to Temple Bar and approach the stone archway draped in blossoms that scent the air with exquisite, poisonous-to-all-but-Fae, night-blooming jasmine, a sharp-edged frost that refracts a thousand shades of sapphire slips down alabaster petals, rushes along vines to the street.
Ice encases the pavement and explodes toward me, licking at my feet. I invoke a carpet of crimson snow blossoms to shatter his ice as the ghost of a mirthless smile curves my lips. A ghost because the possibilities for us, once so ripe with limitless, thrilling possibility, are something I will be forever haunted by, yet never know.
“Mac.” The greeting floats from the impenetrable shadows the Unseelie king has donned as a cloak. He walks the night as the night. Not even I can pry elements from Fae to reveal his true nature. He will remain unseen unless he wishes to be otherwise. His power is staggering.
“Your queen now,” I parry.
“Never my queen. You chose,” the darkness thrusts.
I didn’t, I don’t say. Let him think I did. Preferable to the truth. There was a time I demanded truth, no matter the price. Now I pursue the mercy of illusion with the fervency of a terminal sinner seeking absolution.
He doffs his shadow cloak and reveals himself in a pool of cobalt light that streaks his black wings indigo as they ruffle, shift, and settle. I shiver and draw my cloak more snugly about me. Though I am immune to the Sidhba-jai, I am not immune to the Unseelie king’s allure. He’s lust incarnate. Sexual in a set-your-teeth-on-edge kind of way that can make a woman who needs nothing comprehend the meaning of primitive, mind-consuming, addictive desire. Every nuance of darkness heaped upon every fist and blade of power, he is magnificent, nearly omnipotent and eternal. Explosive carnality saturates the air around him, charging the atoms between us with a wordless, erotic, irresistible compulsion that I yield to him in any manner he seeks. I wonder, with a catch in my breath: Am I still his weakness? Is he still unable to say no to me?
He possesses all those things the Light Court should have had. Might he bequeath those gifts upon us? Would he be willing? Could I, Queen of Illusion, Queen of Fire, seduce him into it? Even were I to fail, at least I’d share his bed. A shared bed is oft parlayed into concessions.
“Never.” The words are soft. His gaze is not.
The king, who should have been my greatest ally, my lover, my consort, is my greatest enemy. But “should” means nothing to the Unseelie king.
“Should” is a false god that skews your aim before you even act, someone once said to me. “Should have” is a devil that devours your soul once you’ve acted. Desire, Ms. Lane, is the only acceptable motivation. What do you want?
I want my king.
And he will never be mine.
He will never forgive the things I’ve done.
Were I capable of caring, it would explode my heart. We were—are—the twin faces of a Janus head. Born to rule, side by side, day by night, sun beside black star.
When his dark court sifts in to assume position behind him, the ice of his nocturnal kingdom surges forward again, crashing into the flame of my day court. Tiny, fiery volcanoes meet geysers of glittering ice in the street between us, blazing radioactive, freezing, blazing again, as our powers battle without involvement from either of us. A hairline fracture splinters the ground between us and might widen into a planet-shattering chasm if we are fools.
Our very existence is at odds.
To merely stand facing one another is to war.
It should not have been this way.
I scan his army. Not with the assessing gaze of an opponent, rather, covetously. There—in the back, draped in a doorway—is one of the gossamer caste I didn’t see until it was almost too late or, rather, didn’t understand what I was seeing. Behind the king are two of his princes, massive black wings concealing a structure far stronger and more lethal than barbed titanium, capable of enfolding tenderly or crushing in an Iron Maiden embrace.
His Dark Court is a night symphony sung into existence from notes of satin, dreamy midnight, motifs of surreal slumber and dark stars. They are seductive and beautiful with no abominations among them. Focused and fiercely intelligent, they make many of my court seem simpletons. Even the most inventively lethal of the Unseelie are exquisite, commanding the eye to linger as they approach. And all the more deadly for it. Humans were unable to turn away. Compelled to look while Death stalked ever nearer, yet it was not his army—
I terminate that thought, too. “Recall your ice,” I hiss.
“I am not the one that needs to get a grip on that element.”
“My court is fire, heat, life.”
“MacKayla Lane was fire. You are colder than ice. Emptier than a void, you birth only illusion. Blossoms may spring forth as you walk, but in your wake you leave destruction.”