There are liminal places in this world, spaces where the skin of reality tears open and creates a portal between this realm and the Otherworld. Hidden in rings of mushrooms, under grassy mounds, in the silent hours before sunrise on the night of a new moon. But times change, and so do the liminal places. Abandoned churches, convenience stores at 2 a.m., empty theatres playing movies in languages you've never heard. If you know what you’re looking for—if you’re what they are looking for—you’ll see it. A door, etched in white light, torn like fabric in the wall or on the floor. And if you reach for it—
No, you won’t step past the threshold. Not like that. You see, where skin tears, blood appears, and the doorways demand a sacrifice in return. Cut the throat of a calf; slit open your palm; break your heart and bring the pain with you; eat the right mushrooms and lay your sanity at the threshold, like in ancient times. Then, perhaps, if the sacrifice is great enough, the doorway will allow you entrance.
But never forget: blood for blood. A favor for a favor. Those are the rules. Don’t break them.
Envision now the Comet Hotel, a rickety building barely standing at the end of an unmarked exit on Route 66, run-down but popular with a certain kind of traveler. Outside, the plastic sign with its peeling blue paint and faded stars creaks in the howling desert wind; night has fallen and it is bitingly cold. A few cars out front, beat-up junkers. Go through the glass doors out front (they're smeared, haven’t been cleaned in weeks) into the lobby, where a tired woman in a grey blouse sits behind a massive desk. Behind her, a corkboard with keys hung on rings; the Comet is an old-fashioned place. To the right, a hallway leading to the hotel’s rooms; to the left, a small and illegal casino, slot machines with their flashing lights and chirps and whistles. Empty.
But what’s this?
A woman, tall, blonde, whose veins run with brine and who carries the scent of the sea in her hair. She stands determined, clutching a valise in her hand. The tired woman working the reception counter pays her no notice, focusing instead on the crossword she's been idly filling in throughout the day. This is fine with the blonde woman; she doesn't plan on staying long.
She turns to the left, slipping between the first row of slot machines. They scream and flash at her as if personally offended she didn't choose to sit before their flickering screens. The musty scent of old cigarette smoke floods her nose and she coughs hard, but doesn't turn away. To the back of the room she goes, holding the valise close; judging by her manner, something precious is contained inside. They stash the decommissioned machines back here, the ones deemed so unprofitable or unpredictable they're just a waste of electricity. The woman licks her lips and reads the names of the machines under her breath.
"Wheel of Fortune, Cow Abduction, the Night Court…"
She trails off, looking expectantly at the machine. It sits unmoving. The words "The Night Court" are written in a swirly font at the top of the casing. The light bar is dead, the reel still. It has a small screen embedded in the casing; it too is dead. The woman frowns.
(In the lobby, the clock ticks away the seconds. It's 2:58 a.m.)
She sets the valise down and crouches over it, digging through its front pocket. A tin of mints, a lighter, receipts—aha! A ragged piece of paper that she takes out of the valise and holds reverently before her, bending her head to examine it.
The paper is old and yellowed, the ink faded. It's a map of the southwest United States: New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, southern California. Thin curved lines are sketched across it, some overlapping, most soaring in different directions, off the map into the darkness. The woman taps on one such convergence in Arizona, far from any cities, her lips pursed in thought.
"It should be right here," she mutters, and glances up at the slot machine. The lettering dances before her tired eyes; she blinks sleep away and looks back at the map. "It is right here. But the door…"
Abruptly, she jumps to her feet and starts to pace, whispering strange, sibilant words under her breath. Curses, though no one in the building but her would recognize the language. Her hands are trembling, her lips bitten raw. This should be easy for her, a daughter of the sea; the doorway should practically invite her in. But she's only a quarter-blood, and though she's been clinging to the knowledge that a spark of magic does run in her veins, the nagging doubt that it's not enough is starting to wriggle its way out of her subconscious.
The clock ticks over to 3:00 a.m., the witching hour. On the blank screen of the slot machine, white light begins to shine.
The woman catches it out of the corner of her eye and whirls around, rushing to the machine. She clutches its sides and stares at the screen. A parabola carved in white blooms there, glowing like the sun in the dingy darkness of the casino. Transfixed, she watches as it grows larger, gleaming, until it stretches across the screen.
Then it stops. It's waiting for her to make the next move.
Now it's time to reveal what precious thing is tucked away in the valise. The woman kneels on the floor, unzips the bag, and withdraws a length of sleek brown fur. Sealskin. She pauses a moment, stroking the soft fur, then presses a kiss to it.
"I'm so sorry," she whispers, and her voice breaks. But sacrifices must be made; the woman knows this. She stands and turns, holding out the sealskin to the white door.
"This is for you," she whispers, and the air before her seems to ripple, twisting in her vision as if the laws of physics have decided to take a leave of absence. She scrunches her eyes shut rather than watch—she's not used to seeing anything like this, she's spent too much time on the shore—and thus doesn't see the sealskin in her hands shiver and vanish, leaving a single gold coin in her palm.
The sacrifice has been accepted.
She opens her eyes and examines the coin. Gold, with a seven-pointed star embossed on one side, thin and finely-made. For a moment, she hesitates—but only for a moment. Without ceremony, with trembling hands, she drops it in the coin slot.
The door expands, its white light leaking from the screen, filling in the parabola and enveloping the machine entirely. The woman takes a step back, a gasp caught in the back of her throat. The edges of the door are ragged, like it's been ripped into existence. It glimmers. It beckons.
The woman steels herself, picks up the valise, and steps inside.
Paint the picture: a room cobbled together with the décor and technology of centuries past. Gas lighting flickers, casting strange twisted shapes across the mahogany walls. Knots in the planks stare out like faces caught in terror and ecstasy, trapped in wood. Burgundy couches, long and sloping, wrap around tables ornately carved and embossed with gold. Onstage is a jazz band, smooth and mellow, with an old RCA-44 microphone on a stand tucked to the side, awaiting its singer. Smoke from cigarettes and other, more arcane herbs fills the room. It's 3 a.m., and the party is just getting started when the siren walks into the club.
Lana notices it first, her reptilian senses cutting through the thick smoke. She can feel the change in the air when the doorway opens, a sort of primordial shift in her perception of reality, and she can taste ozone in the back of her throat. The taste of ancient magic. Her tongue flicks out; saltwater, sex, and blood lays heavy in the air.
"Hey, boss," she says softly. "I think we have a visitor."
Next to her, Oberon stiffens. Visitors are unusual for the Night Court; it is not a place that takes kindly to new people. Its inhabitants tend to be…dangerous. Like Lana. Like Oberon. Not his real name, of course, any more than Lana is hers, but his kind keeps their names secret. He's lord of the club, and he's been hanging off her every word tonight, enraptured by her smoky voice and the flash of fire in her eyes. She resents this interruption to their little rendezvous almost as much as she's relished having his complete attention.
"A visitor?" he asks, equally low. "Who is it?"
"A sea creature," she murmurs. "A siren, I believe."
"Oho." He gives her a sidelong glance. "Competition, Lana?"
She bares her teeth at him, the unnaturally long fangs glittering in the gaslight. "Hardly."
"Are you—" He cuts himself off and stares over her shoulder. "Look what we have here, Lana."
Lana turns in her seat to gaze in the direction of his pointed gaze, and spies her doppelgänger lurking in the corner.
Well, nearly a doppelgänger; Lana is deadlier than any sea creature ever could be, and thus much more beautiful. But this girl, this little ocean-dweller does bear a strong resemblance. She clearly comes from Outside, dressed in blue jeans and a white shirt, her blonde bouffant thick with hairspray. Still, her beauty shines, the sun reflected off ocean waters. Even Lana, normally less than prone to the weaknesses of her body's desires, is caught in her light for a moment. She shakes herself out of it—this isn't the time or place for giving into pleasure—and narrows her eyes.
"Well, well," Oberon says, and Lana recognizes the way his eyes snap to the new girl with a sinking heart. He looked at her like that, once. "This is new. This is interesting. Be a dear and go pay her a visit, Lana."
Lana knows a command when she hears one.
"Whatever you say," she purrs, and obediently rises from her seat. Her guts churn; how dare a faerie order a dragon around. If only she didn't owe him—but if only is a worthless phrase; she does owe him, and that is that.
Her frustration sparking, Lana makes her way across the room. The girl's taken a chair at a table in the back, her bag between her feet. It stinks of fur and blood. She's shrinking away from the prying eyes pointing in her direction; shyness like that isn't going to serve her well in the Night Court. She glances at Lana, then does a double take; Lana bares her teeth in a smile. She knows what she looks like; she spent hours in her mirror-lined bathroom today, slipping into her crimson dress, sliding on her lipstick red as blood, raking her fingers through her auburn curls until they flowed like lava down her back. The train of her scarlet gown trails like wings along the floor as she walks. The other denizens of the Night Court know to get out of her way.
The siren does not.
Lana stops before her table, smiles. The siren stares at her with wide eyes.
"Hello," she purrs, leaning against the table with practiced poise. A lock of the girl's hair has uncurled from its bouffant; Lana reaches out and tucks it away, then traces the siren's jawline with crimson claws. "What's a little fish like you doing so far from home?"
The siren tilts her head away from Lana's claws and says quietly, "I came here to sing."
A chill rushes through Lana's body.
"Sorry, little girl," she says sweetly. "I'm the only singer in this club."
The siren's eyes flick to Lana's face, and in them Lana sees not proper subservience, but a challenge.
"Are you?" the siren asks. "Because I'm very good."
"Get real," Lana scoffs. "Don't you know who you're dealing with?"
"No," the siren says dismissively. "It doesn't matter. Don't you know what you're dealing with?"
Lana hisses through her teeth, but she has her orders. She gives the siren a tight smile.
"You've been summoned," she says, ignoring the question. "Come with me, darling, I'll introduce you to the King."
The siren sticks close to her as they wend their way through the club. The Night Court has the strange quality of being both a cozy den and a vast venue; perspective warps when you walk through it. It's nauseating. Lana has learned to focus on her destination and pay no attention to the weird stretch of the world around her, but the siren has not; she's stumbling like a drunk, stepping on Lana's dress.
"Stop that," Lana snaps. "This was expensive."
But the poor thing keeps tripping, so Lana stops with a sigh, wraps her arm around the siren's waist, and acts like a crutch until they reach Oberon's table. The siren is curvy but light as a wisp of smoke. She dumps the siren in a chair and artfully positions herself on the table, lounging like she was born to be there.
"Why, Lana," Oberon says cheerfully. "You've brought me a gift."
"As ordered," she drawls. "A siren, just for you."
Oberon scrutinizes the siren with gleaming silver eyes. The siren flinches but meets his gaze.
"Fascinating," Oberon pronounces eventually. He takes out a cigarette, slots it into his ivory holder. "Lana, be a dear, would you?"
The siren twitches uncertainly, but Lana knows what he wants. She leans across the table and opens her mouth. Breathes out. A lick of fire slips between her lips and curls around the end of his cigarette. He inhales and it lights, the blended herbs all the sweeter for being ignited by dragonfire. The siren's eyes widen, and Lana suppresses a smirk. Look at what you're dealing with, honey.
"Beautiful," Oberon sighs. "Perfect. Look at the two of you. So alike, and yet not. Nearly twins, aren't you?"
"We're very different," the siren says before Lana has a chance to speak. "Even if we look alike."
"Bold little thing," Lana says with a snort, and Oberon laughs.
"That she is," he agrees. "Why are you here, O gift of mine?"
"I came to sing," the siren repeats, and Lana rolls her eyes: her first mistake. Oberon sees her disdain, and a razor-thin smile cuts across his face. Lana stiffens. She knows that look, has seen it a hundred times as he set friend against friend and enemy against enemy like pieces in a living chess game. She just became a pawn.
A word of advice: never trust a friendship with a faerie.
"I bet you did," he says, eyes darting between Lana and the siren. "A siren in the best club in the Otherworld? I just bet you did."
"What's your name, honey?" Lana interjects. The siren jumps and tears her gaze away from Oberon's; she looks relieved. Oberon's attention can be overwhelming.
"Lizzy," she says. "Lizzy Grant."
A true name, Lana can tell; it's unwise to give in places like this. Poor girl; Lana can hear the bells tolling her death knell already. For all her tough talk, she's guileless, easy to manipulate. The Night Court will eat her alive before she even sets foot on the stage.
"Sweet Lizzy," Oberon says, rolling the name over his tongue as if tasting it. "Where are you staying today?"
"The Comet Hotel," the siren—Lizzy—says, naming the casino that holds the portal between worlds. "I wanted to—"
"Come back tomorrow," he interrupts, "and we'll see about getting you on that stage."
Lana gasps in protest, bristling like she still has her scaly ruff to raise. Oberon turns his eyes on her, and he is not amused. Lana quickly wrangles her expression to a more muted one.
"Do you have a problem with that?" he asks coldly. Lana shakes her head.
"You're the boss," she says, and like quicksilver, Oberon's expression changes to a genial smile.
"Good," he says. "Better hurry, dear, or you'll miss your cue."
Indeed, one of the musicians is eyeing her from across the room as they play one of the lead-in tunes to her set. Lana rises from her seat on the table, glancing at Lizzy.
"Learn from the best," she says airily, and bends to give Oberon a kiss. He grabs her by the hair and deepens it, his tongue sliding between her lips. She lets it happen; this is a condition of their agreement, and she doesn't mind. When she pulls away, Lizzy is staring at her with narrowed eyes.
"The best, huh?" she says. "At what?"
Lana laughs—a siren has no room to judge—and turns her back on both of them. She doesn't see Oberon put his hand on Lizzy's thigh, or how he leans close to whisper in her ear, as she glides to the stage.
Start at the beginning.
There are few places left for the secretive creatures of the world. Deep in the unexplored rainforests, burrowed under the Antarctic ice, lurking around the volcanic vents in the depths of the ocean. But modern technology sees all, and to evade the cold eye of satellite imagery, the dragons learned to hide.
Lana, daughter of the sun, a dragon who would have been king of her people in a different time. She sacrificed her throne—never forget, dear readers, magic requires a favor for a favor—and earned the ability to slip into human skin and walk among them unseen. She is haunting and dangerous, Lana, but humans cannot see it. They underestimated her, assumed she was just another starlet trying to make it big in the music industry: simple. Stupid. Well, they learned better when she left a trail of blood in her wake and fled the human world for the Night Court at Oberon's invitation. There, they respect her power. They hear her song, they bow to her skill. She craves their adulation, sleeps on a bed of roses, diamonds, and love letters to remind her of the sweet glory she’s achieved. Everyone knows better than to cross her. Until—
Rule 1: Never get between a dragon and her hoard.
Start in the middle.
A girl with the voice of an angel (or perhaps a devil), who served Coke and fries at the drive-in theatre in a small California beach town, dressed in a cute waitress uniform, glancing away when the men looked at her like a piece of meat and the women glared at her like she did it on purpose. A girl who at night stripped out of her costume and dived into the sea, playing with the selkies in the shallow waters. Unable to swim deep, only a quarter-blood siren, she was nonetheless capable of coaxing even the thalassophobic into the water, where she rid them of their sanity and occasionally their lives, as her kind have done for millennia. The strip of coastline where she lived earned a reputation as the most dangerous and inexplicable riptide on the west coast, home to more deaths than easily explained by scientists. She makes her foremothers proud.
But Lizzy wants more than this, and she knows how to get it. A simple betrayal, a sealskin stolen and a selkie stranded on the shore; a journey away from the sea in which she was born to a strange, dry land; a step over a threshold she knows she’s meant to cross. And then—
Rule 2: Never challenge a siren in the art of song.
Start at the end.
Rule 3: Fire and water don't mix.
Return now to the Night Court, that shadowy den of intrigue and danger. Scarcely a week has passed, and the dragon has been shunted to the side in Oberon's affections in favor of the siren.
Lizzy isn’t sure how to feel about that.
It’s not just the way Oberon treats her, with shallow, half-distracted lust that reminds her far more of being a piece of meat on display than a rising star. It isn’t her uncertainty about her place in the club, alone among the Fair Folk with their glamours, the werefolk with their fangs, drool hanging from their lips as they evaluate her. She’s a novelty to them, one of the remaining few of a race hunted nearly to extinction. It’s not even the guilt that gnaws at her, churning her stomach and waking her in the night in a cold sweat, thinking of the selkie she stranded on the shore in her cold calculations to commit the sacrifice necessary to cross the threshold.
No, Lizzy’s problem is Lana.
The dragon takes the stage nightly, crooning into the microphone in a deep, sultry voice, enchanting the crowd as surely as if her song was a spell. She stands tall and proud, clad in shades of crimson—dress, lips, nails, even her hair is a deep auburn—and sings through the smoke. Though they are mirrors of each other, Lana’s beauty has a deadly edge, so unlike Lizzy’s girl-next-door curves. Her voice carries through the club, borne on tongues of fire that flicker from her mouth as she sings, sometimes taking a drag from a cigarette between songs, wreathing herself in smoke like a ghost. Sometimes she looks at Lizzy with her glowing golden eyes, and Lizzy tries not to quail before her, burnt to ashes with a single glance.
Lana is beautiful. Lana is deadly. Lana is the undisputed queen of the Night Court. But despite her fear, Lizzy is going to steal her throne.
It’s 4:16 a.m. and the party is in full swing. Lana is on stage, shifting into a throaty ballad. All her songs are elaborations on the same themes: money, power, glory. Ambition. Cruelty. Lizzy envies her in a way, her blatant selfishness, how unconcerned she is with the opinions of others. But Lizzy also suspects Lana has never felt love, might not even be capable of it. She pities her for that.
For her part, Lizzy falls in love easily, and usually with the sort of men a woman should avoid. It would be convenient to fall for Oberon like that; heartbreaking, undoubtedly, but at least then she wouldn’t want to scrub herself with saltwater when she leaves the Night Court for her room in the Comet Hotel each afternoon. Instead, Lizzy tolerates his attention, reminding herself to do what she must to survive. She’s good at that.
(Did Lana have to do this? she wonders. Did Lana go even further? Is that how she got this gig? She asked another patron once, one of the Fair Folk, and he only laughed. She isn't sure what that meant.)
Lizzy watches Lana sing, replying to Oberon in monosyllables when he remembers to talk to her. The dragon is hypnotizing. She is made of edges sharp as her claws, her cheekbones contoured to cut like blades; her clavicle is like a bone ridge, her wrists thin and strong. In the warm glow of the stage lights, Lizzy can see hints of scales under her skin. She remembers the dragon’s claw tracing her jaw, hovering over her pulse, and—
She flinches away from the thought.
We sound the same, she thinks as Lana curls her tongue around the lyrics of her song.
“I do it for the thrill of the rush,” she purrs, and Lizzy thinks, But I’m better.
Oberon is watching Lana again, his gaze intent. For all that she dislikes him, she can’t let that happen. She needs him to be looking at her. She needs to win the game.
As fate would have it, her luck holds out: it's set break. Lana leaves the stage for the green room, there to eat whatever wriggling creatures reptiles of her size need to survive. She’ll be gone for at least half an hour. Lizzy seizes her chance.
She nudges Oberon slightly. Without Lana there, he’s willing to pay her some attention.
“Remember what you promised me?” she asks, putting a flirtatious twist on the question, peering up at him coyly through her lashes. "About singing?"
"Right, right." He looks at her out of the corner of his eye, thoughtfully, evaluating. "Are you sure you're ready for this? It's not an easy crowd."
"Don't you remember what I am?" she shoots back. He raises his hands placatingly.
"Of course, of course," he says. He glances at the stage. "Better hurry. You won't want to be eaten when she gets back, after all."
A spike of nervousness pulses through her. It's been a long time since dragons ate fair maidens—but the Night Court is mad for novelty, and one singer eviscerating another onstage…
She'll be fine. She will.
Lizzy rises from her seat. She's wearing a powder-blue dress with a Peter Pan collar and a swing skirt, her blonde hair in its customary bouffant. Anything to avoid similarities with Lana.
The walk makes her head ache, the stairs leading onstage seeming to slant in multiple directions at once, an Escher painting come to life. She slips onto the stage while the lights are dim, a silhouette floating in the darkness. The microphone shines at her, seventy years old and still bright and new. Behind her, the ever-present musicians murmur; she feels an itch inside her skull as they scrape her mind for the right music, finding the tune and building upon it. No adjustment of the mic stand necessary; she and Lana are of a height. She wraps her hand around the silver pole and raises her eyes to the audience. They stare back like ghosts.
The lights come on, blinding as the sun. (She hasn't seen the sun for days. What does it look like, again?) The band picks up the beat, a steady, slow thump like a heartbeat.
Lizzy opens her mouth and sings.
Those who have never heard a siren sing will not understand the glory of such a moment. The song transcends beauty, transcends talent, carries shadows of terror in its notes; it is purely, utterly sublime. It is the sort of song that breaks fragile minds. It is the song that lures men to their graves.
Lizzy sings about her home, thousands of miles away, and the audience aches for it too. She sings about love, and the audience weeps with longing. She sings, the audience ensnared in her fantastical voice, and then a low hiss from the wings and the smell of scorched metal makes Lizzy jump. Lana is glaring at her from the wings, incandescent with fury. The barest shadow of dragon wings arch behind her back. Lizzy keeps her cool; she finishes the song.
"I'm in love," she breathes into the mic. "I'm in love…"
The musicians, sensing her intent, let the music fade away as Lizzy backs away from the mic. Lana swoops in to take her place, shouldering her away; her touch is like fire. Lizzy hisses through her teeth and jerks away. In the wings, she pulls up her sleeve and looks at the place where Lana brushed against her. Scalded, as though by boiling water. Lizzy winces. She makes sure to tug her sleeve back down and compose herself before she goes back to Oberon's table.
He watches her with narrowed eyes as she sits next to him, her skin still buzzing from the thrill of the stage. She meets his eyes boldly. A mistake; with just one glance, he strips her down until her greedy, jealous core is bared to the world and all her good qualities are burned away as surely as if by dragonfire. She drops her gaze quickly, licks her lips, tries to calm her racing heart.
When she looks back up, Oberon is his benevolently distant self again. She forgets, sometimes, what he really is. One doesn't become King of the Night Court with kindness and slow wits.
"You be careful, now," he cautions her. "This spotlight will burn you up if you don't watch out."
"Water drowns out fire," Lizzy says, and turns her eyes to Lana onstage, glaring into the audience, a red tinge to her eyes. "I'm not afraid."
A mirrored dressing room, the bright white glow of a ring light refracted around and around the glass-lined walls in a dizzying rainbow kaleidoscope. The heavy scent of floral perfume, so thick you can taste it; the pounding bass of a band outside the room. A vanity, cosmetics sprawled across its black marble countertop, face powder spilled like snow, a tube of red lipstick standing at attention. Cognac in a tulip glass held in an elegant, slim hand.
Around her lies her dragon's hoard, the prizes and riches she has gathered during her time walking in a human's form. Strings of pearls and precious stones lay in heaps on yards of fine silks and linens, interspersed with dead flowers, the corpses of bouquets from lovers long past. Boxes of chocolate, champagne in crystal bottles, astronomically expensive truffles and other delicacies. She eats none of it; to consume it would be to take away its power. And of course, there are the letters: letters of adoration and adulation, written on parchment, on heavy card stock, on printer paper and the backs of receipts. Lana reads and rereads them, and luxuriates in their worshipful words. These are her most precious treasures.
Thoughtfully, Lana swirls the cognac around the glass and examines her reflection in the mirror. Her resemblance to the siren is disorienting, Lizzy's features stamped on her face: the upturned nose, the full lips, the heavy-lidded eyes and the contours of the jaw. When her skin is bare, when she hasn’t sculpted the angles of her face with highlight and contour powder, she can trace the lines of Lizzy’s face in the mirror, as surely as if the siren were there before her. She reaches out and meets only hard glass; Lana closes her eyes and imagines warm skin.
The only real difference is their eyes, Lana’s burning gold, Lizzy’s the unsettling blue of the deep sea, and their smiles. Lana’s teeth are white, perfect by human standards—or they would be if her incisors were just a little shorter, a little less inhumanly sharp. Lizzy, on the other hand, has rows of serrated teeth like a shark’s, and sheds them like one, too; Lana has found the siren’s fangs littering the stage. Venom lines their edges, the sweet poison that drives men mad. Lana is always careful to gather them with delicacy, lest she be victim to Lizzy as well. (Could they pierce dragon hide? Lana has considered it, in the early morning when she rests alone in the dressing room. Perhaps in her most secretive places, she decides, those intimate areas where the skin is the thinnest and most prone to tearing.)
She collects those teeth, hides them in a velvet-lined jewelry box on her vanity. She doesn’t hold with spellwork, prefers to work the magic she holds innately in her blood than serve as a channel for the energy of the world around her. But flesh and bone are as powerful as true names in the Otherworld; there’s no reason to throw away an opportunity when one is presented. And Lana has a reason to take the bitch down a peg or two.
You see, gossip flows as freely as wine in the Night Court, and Lana has overheard the vile rumors Lizzy has planted. Lizzy: a pedestrian name for a girl that spreads equally pedestrian rumors. If Lana slept with Oberon during her rise to the top, that’s her business and no one else’s; it’s not like Lizzy hasn’t done the same thing herself. But Lizzy, with her human upbringing and her flawed human morality, taints the act, as if sex is something shameful. As if Lana should feel guilty about it.
Well, if Lana fucked her way to the top, so be it; talent, not sex, has kept her there. And it will keep her there.
Lana finds her lips parted in a snarl, giving her reflection a feral cast. Onstage, Lizzy is wrapping up her set, her untrained, lovestruck crooning finally complete. Fifteen minutes before Lana takes the stage. Lana is exquisite tonight in a white dress, a virginal color, though the way the silk hugs her curves makes her appear less than innocent. Her red hair spills like blood over her shoulders. Her mouth is painted a slick burgundy, and when she parts her lips, those sharp teeth shine as if in warning. Deadly, patient; she isn’t so different from her ancestors, really, those man-eaters, the scourge of Europe for centuries. Lizzy had better watch her back.
Let us take a step back and consider the curious case of Oberon the Nameless, King of the Night Court.
He has been lord here for time out of mind, a mercurial presence untamed and uncontested. Throughout the millennia he has lived in this court, ever-shifting, taking on the names and guises of others but never revealing his own. No one knows his true name; rumor has it that he has none, and thus is exempt from the strict rules dictating the lives of his people. Blood for blood; a name for a name; and if that exchange is the price of magic, what kind of power can you hold over a nameless man? None. No being alive has any hold over him. This is why he is king.
But like all rulers, boredom strikes him easily. When you can strip down the defenses of your enemies with a glance and turn them to dust at a touch, what kind of challenges can entertain you? Wine, women, and song will only do for so long, and then Oberon's attention wanders. The dragon was a good diversion, an elemental being come to the Otherworld burning with the need to be desired; he taunted her but was ultimately unsuccessful in breaking down the barrier of her self-absorption. Dragons! They're all the same in the end, those egomaniacs. But the siren is a different story.
Sweet Lizzy. She walked into his court and spoke her true name for anyone to hear. Her interest in him is dutiful, rather than genuine, but he doesn't mind—he likes the rush of power when someone bends her will to his—and besides, her preoccupation with the dragon is more than enough to sate his need for entertainment. He's seen Lizzy, lovely Lizzy with her razor teeth and her innocent charm, look at the dragon with hunger, the siren's need to devour focused as intently as a lightning strike on Lana's sinuous curves and sharp edges. Does she know what she desires? For that matter, does Lana?
Oberon knows not, and that alone is cause enough to goad them, denying the stage to one then returning it back to her without pattern, forcing them to orbit each other in a vicious, alchemical game. These lovely elemental creatures; Oberon wonders which of these pawns on his chessboard will break first.
Dragons, Lana has learned, are not immune to the compulsive power of a siren's song.
When Lizzy sings, Lana listens. She is swept up in the throbbing rhythms of the song; her heart dances along with the rise and fall of Lizzy's voice, caught in the music like a fish on a hook. Thus far, she hasn't had much to fear; the siren has only sung to the audience as a whole, never to Lana specifically. The compulsion can only bite her so deeply, her natural resistance and will keeping the majority of the song's power at bay, but if Lizzy targeted her particularly…well. Lana would bend, she would break, she would kneel before Lizzy, and Lizzy would win the game. Lana would be forced to leave the Night Court with her pride in tatters, and diminish, fleeing to the south to live with the rest of her kind. That particular mode of attack is what Lana would do, in Lizzy's position. She cannot let that happen.
Thus, the spell.
She could rely on willpower to defeat the siren's song, but it is better to imbue an object with that willpower, with her draconic magic, as a reserve in case her own stores burn out. It is safer this way, though Lana usually disdains such things as amulets and fetishes.
She sits not in her dressing room, but on the stage of the Night Court. It is midday, and the place has been abandoned, still as a tomb; Oberon has left to do what faerie kings do in their spare time, and his entourage has scattered to the wind. She doesn't enjoy being here when the club is empty, prefers the humming energy when all its denizens come to admire her, but needs must when the devil drives. And who knows what kind of devilish magic has been worked upon this stage? The final notes from Lizzy's last song still hang in the air; Lana can feel them buzzing against her skin, calling out to the dragon within. Abrasive, but necessary. Beside Lana lies four items: a bowl carved from bone, a vial of basilisk's blood, a golden ring on a golden chain, and a single siren's tooth.
First, the tooth. Lana picks it up carefully; she has drained it of its venom, but she trusts it as little as she trusts its own. She drops it in the bowl, bone on bone clattering, and hums under her breath.
Next, the blood. She uncorks the vial and pours it over the tooth, the thick black blood covering it like paint. Blood magic is always the strongest, the sacrifice the greatest. Lana slew this basilisk many years ago, the traditional rite of passage into adulthood, and kept its blood as a trophy. She doesn't regret giving it to this cause; better this than rotting in the depths of her dressing room.
Now the golden ring, unstrung from its chain. This sacrifice actually coaxes a twinge of sorrow from Lana; it was a gift from an admirer, a beautiful thing of diamond and gold, and to destroy a piece of her hoard goes against every draconic instinct in Lana's heart. Nonetheless, it must be sacrificed. Power for power; an exchange of magics. She holds it cupped in her palms and exhales blue flame, watching as the gold liquifies, dripping down her fingers to coat the tooth, the blood sizzling where the molten gold splashes into it. Her own fire cannot burn her; she increases the heat, breathing out flame so white even she cannot bear to look at it. She watches through slitted eyes as the diamond melts in its turn, a third layer to add to the blood and gold already enveloping the tooth.
Blood and gold and diamond, the sacrifice; the tooth, the body of the threat; the music hovering in the air, the magic to be fought. Lana breathes in, breathes out, and claps her hands once. A thunderclap echoes through the club; the notes in the air are obliterated, and the tooth glitters inhumanly bright in the bone bowl. Lana plucks it out of the bowl and threads it on the golden chain; the ritual is over. The amulet has been created.
She's ready for Lizzy's strike.
The siren takes the stage draped in blue silk, a silhouette floating in darkness before the lights flare and she is flung into view. In the audience at Oberon's side, Lana watches with hunger as the lights illuminate the white-gold strands of her hair, the shimmer of makeup on her cheeks, the outline of her lingerie through the thin silk of her dress. She sways to the beat, eyes half-shut, caught in her own world. She is unlike Lana in that way; Lana sings for the glory it earns her, the adulation and the attention. Lizzy sings for the joy of it, and her siren song captures the hearts and minds of all those who hear it.
Onstage, Lizzy opens her mouth. Oberon leans forward eagerly. Lana's breath catches in her throat. And Lizzy sings.
It is not a song that plays with her usual wistful themes of love and loneliness; it is a sultry tease of a song, a beckoning, a promise. It calls to Lana—oh, my heart loves in the fire—and Lana drinks it down like ambrosia. It lights her up, a slow heat suffusing her limbs, her pulse throbbing; when Lana bites her lip, it only makes her hotter, until the desire to shed her clothes and climb up on stage and press her hot skin to Lizzy's cool body begins to drown out her self-control. Her skin prickles and a shiver runs throughout her body; the moment is unreal, the only true thing in the world the thread of Lizzy's voice, weaving in and out of Lana's mind.
No, Lana thinks with deliberate effort, and her hand goes to the amulet hanging out her neck. I won't let her have me like this.
She grasps the siren's tooth amulet hard, and it bites into her palm. Blood drips down her wrist to stain her red gown. Lana doesn't know if the amulet's magic works, or if the pain itself draws her back to the Night Court; she'll never know, and at the time she doesn't care. She bolts to her feet and flees the room on shaking legs. No one else moves as she runs past them, even Oberon; they are hypnotized, mesmerized, and don't even notice her departure.
To her mirrored dressing room Lana goes. Out of the main hall, away from the stage, the drag of the siren's song lessens until she is able to breathe again. She sprawls out on the red chaise in the corner of the room and shivers convulsively. Compulsive magic—it had been so long since she was caught in a spell like that. It affects dragons differently than humans or the Fair Folk, and for all that Lana walks in human skin, she is still a dragon. The magic has shaken her beyond reason.
Ten minutes, maybe fifteen. The spell's grip slowly loosens its grip, and Lana gulps down great breaths of air, curled up on the chaise, clutching the amulet in her hand. Lizzy has the upper hand on her; Lana nearly gave in to her tonight. She has to do something about this before it's too late.
But how to fight a siren? Destroying her physically is out of the question; it breaks the rules of Oberon's game. He is much more amused by battles of minds than of bodies.
(Bodies. A thought flutters; she tries to grasp it, but it slips between her fingers before she can tell what it is.)
She has the power of her iron will, but that barely held in the face of the siren's song. No, there has to be another way to force the siren to her knees.
(On her knees. The thought returns. Lana snaps at it with her dragon's jaws, catches it between her teeth.)
Lana is a dragon. She cannot be beaten in her own territory by a siren, a girl barely past adolescence, an amateur seductress who brazenly usurped Lana's throne on the power of novelty—
—and Lana realizes something vitally important.
The siren sang to her. Amateur seductress, indeed; she wove her net of magic and music specifically to catch Lana like a fish, but didn't account for Lana's power, didn't expect Lana to have the capacity to think things through. But it is clear to Lana, now, as clear as obsidian shines, that the siren had ulterior motives. The siren wants her.
"Oh," Lana whispers, and this time the heat that blooms deep inside her is her own, uninfluenced by any magic but her own. "Oh, yes."
She knows what to do. She understands.
The door opens.
Beautiful Lizzy, Lana's mirror image, an undignified frown creasing her forehead as she looks around the dressing room. She carries an aura of power with her like a cloak draped over her shoulders, the remnants of her song, and Lana is pulled to her as inevitably as the tide follows the moon. Lana lets it happen, lets the lust burn through her; she can use it, she knows—if she can keep her head.
"I saw you leave," Lizzy says. Her voice is warm, mellifluous, melting through Lana like warm rain. "What, didn't you like the show?"
"Lizzy," Lana says throatily, and holds out a hand in her direction. "Come to me."
"Oh," Lizzy breathes, and Lana knows she's made the right move. Lizzy glances around, takes a hesitant step forward. She's right to be hesitant; dragons do not idly allow anyone entrance into their lairs. Lana's protective instincts flare, but they are muted by the sheer force of want Lizzy has imposed upon her.
"I heard your song," Lana murmurs, her hand still out. Lizzy goes to her like she's the hypnotized one; when she takes Lana's hand, she's trembling like a bird. Skin flushed, eyes dark. So vibrant. So lovely. Lana turns Lizzy's hand palm-up and breathes out lightly, caressing the delicate skin of her wrist with her lips; her pulse is rapid, close to the surface of her skin. "Do you know what it made me want?"
"I don't want you to want me because of a song," Lizzy says, a little faintly.
"It's not because of the song," Lana says, and nips at Lizzy's wrist. "It's because of you."
"Oh," Lizzy whispers, and Lana tugs her down to the chaise. "Oh."
"Everything you do," Lana says, and runs her hands down that fine silk dress, mapping out the curves of Lizzy's body beneath it. The indent of her waist, the curve of her breast, the pebble of her nipple and the way she gasps when Lana brushes her thumb across it. "From the moment you walked into the club—I knew you were a threat, I knew I had to watch out for you—"
"How is that a good thing?" Lizzy mumbles, her lips pressed against Lana's neck, and takes her own liberties with Lana, gliding her hands down her sides, finding the hook of her dress with nimble fingers. Undoes it, runs her cool fingers down Lana's spine. Lana gasps and shivers, arches her back against Lizzy.
"You don't know dragons," she answers, and she doesn’t know if anything she says is a lie or the truth. "If you're not an equal to me, you're worthless. But you, Lizzy, with your voice, with the way Oberon looked at you—"
"Help me take my dress off," Lizzy says, and Lana obliges, tearing it off Lizzy and flipping her on her back on the chaise.
A blur of blue silk lingerie, gasps and moans, slick wetness and the scent of sex. Lizzy tastes like salt and silt, her hair spilled like moonlight across the red chaise. Her legs are spread wide and hooked over Lana's shoulders, muscles twitching as she gasps out curses and admonitions—faster, like that, please Lana—as Lana, on her knees before Lizzy with her head between her thighs, licks and licks until Lizzy is frantic. She pauses right as Lizzy balances on the precipice, and asks in a low voice, "Will you leave the Night Court if I make you come?"
"What?" Lizzy gasps, but the question has been asked; Lana is not bound by any contract to repeat it.
"Yes or no," she tells Lizzy instead, tracing a line along the siren's sex with her tongue. Dances in circles around the place where Lizzy needs her most. "It's a simple question."
"Yes!" Lizzy moans. So naive, so easily led, easily betrayed; Lana knew from the beginning she wouldn't survive long. "Yes, yes yes—"
Lana keeps her end of the bargain.
When they're done, she banishes Lizzy from her dressing room, closing the door on her shocked face, and summons Oberon. She has news for him, and Lizzy has a promise to keep.
The siren's fall from grace comes as quickly as her rise to the top.
Oberon is a man easily amused, but he is not kind to his toys; he plays with them, then tosses them aside when he finishes, and doesn't care if they break. Lana won the game he orchestrated, and thus Oberon's interest in Lizzy fades. She was too kind for him, anyway; Oberon prizes the deadly. Like Lana.
She lies languid beside him on a four-poster bed he conjured in her dressing room as he reads her most recent letters aloud, luxuriating in his liquid baritone, when he stops abruptly and says, "I'm taking Lizzy off the schedule."
"Really?" Lana asks, and if her heart races at the sound of the siren's name, it means nothing. "Why?"
"Oh, I'm sure you know, dear." He tosses the letter to the side, and Lana makes a little moue of annoyance at his carelessness. "What? It's just one letter out of thousands."
"It's my letter," she points out with a pout, and rolls off the bed to fetch it. She strokes it protectively, holding it to her chest. "Be nice to it. And you didn't answer my question."
"Ask nicely," he says with a grin. Lana only stares at him stonily; his grin drops off his face when he sees the fire building in her eyes. Lana is tolerant, terribly aware of the debt she owes him, but she has her limits. He should know better than to tell a dragon to beg.
"Fine," he says breezily, as if he changed his mind on a whim, and not because Lana can burn the Night Court to the ground, magical debt or no magical debt. "I'll tell you. I've simply grown tired of her, that's all." He shrugs. "She's a cut-rate version of you, and the Night Court takes only the best."
"Oh, so I passed the test? How lucky for me." She tries to smooth over the tension by adding a flirtatious tone to her voice, but her words come out cold.
"Lana, darling," Oberon says with a sigh, "you can't hold this against me forever."
"No, you can't." His voice was firm now. "When you came to me after the humans threw you out—"
"After I slaughtered them, you mean—don't disrespect me like that."
"Yes, yes—I offered you a place in my Court. I mean to keep that promise." He extends a hand to her. "She was never going to stay forever."
"Good," says Lana, and places her hand in his. She thinks briefly of Lizzy's hands curving around her hips, and shivered; but that doesn't stop her from letting Oberon pull her back to the bed. "Will you tell her tonight?"
"I planned on it."
"Wait until after my set." She straddles his hips and pushes him flat with one hand; she puts Lizzy from her mind and keeps her there. "I have a song to sing for her."
Scarcely a week has passed since the siren was kicked out of the Night Court when the letter arrives.
It's delivered to Lana's dressing room by hand, and it reeks of brine and fury. She leans against the doorway and unfolds it gently, savoring every flutter of the paper, as she always does.
Water drowns out fire, it reads. I know it was your fault. I'm not afraid of you.
This last part is in darker print, the paper nearly torn, as if the writer had gouged out the letters in anger: I'll be back.
Lana laughs and laughs, and lets the paper fall from her hands onto her pile of treasures.
"Come for me, Lizzy," she says to the empty room. "I'll be waiting."