“The physic said the night’s chill would worsen my health.”
“The physic is wrong,” Harry said calmly, and added, “Your Grace,” as the room grew a touch less stifling.
“Come here, Hart,” the King murmured, and Harry stepped closer, elegant and lightfooted and quiet, just like his namesake, to the edge of the silverwood bed, its carven posts twisted through with details of the Great Hunt, with stags leaping around one post, to hunters drawing their bows on another. The tapestries that portrayed the Six Great Seasons of Stormhold in intricate brocade, that usually hung around the bed, had been unceremoniously pulled back, and the neat little ashwood side table that had once often held a book, or a carafe of firewine, was now laden with a tray of ill-smelling greenish bottles of medication.
“Your Majesty,” Harry said politely, and the King laughed again, wryly, this time. Age had been unkind to the old man; his skin was parchment pale and scrunched against his cheeks, his hair in drifting puffs over his sweat-dotted forehead, and he lay upon the rich quilts and sheets like a man pressed down by Time herself. The only reminder of the hearty, hale man whom had once named Harry to the Kingsmen were his eyes: steely and ruthless and as cold as ever.
“Any trouble with Enoch?”
“No, your Grace. Lord Enoch has conceded the matter of sovereignty with regards to the River East-Over-The-Marches, if with considerable reluctance. Bors is keeping an eye on him, just in case. It’s possible that he might decide to secede again.”
“Good. Good work. The incursion from the West Reach?”
“More of a little skirmish than an incursion,” Harry corrected, “And I have been assured that it has been dealt with. The wildlands have not encroached.”
“Now. How are my darling little children?”
“Well, your Grace.”
The King shook his head wearily. “Tell me.”
This was a game they played each time, all towards the same end. “Stormhold sits on the brink of war. Your children gather at the feet of your throne, waiting to see which of them will strike first - or last. Your Council waits in the wings, betting against one child or the other or not at all. Your Kingdom holds its breath, preparing itself for the war to come. The lands around you stay restless yet, but in wait.”
At this, the King closed his eyes. “Your counsel?”
Harry shrugged. “I am but a Kingsman, your Grace. I do not give counsel.“
“Your counsel, Hart,” the King interrupted testily, and this was new. Usually, the King would laugh, and wave Harry away, and lie in misery for a day or so more, suffering through doctors and physics and more before bidding Harry back to his side.
“Well, your Grace,” Harry said wryly, “Were there a way for you to be young again, I would say, and do so. But in lieu of the same, I would say, choose one of your children quickly, and hang the rest at the Gate and be done with it.”
“Hmm.” The King smiled at this, though he didn’t open his eyes. “Brutal and efficient to the last.”
“As you say.” Harry waited, his gloved hands folded behind his back, the leather-scaled black short coat that he wore lying supple against his breeches, pushed into riding boots. His shirt was bone white and impeccably pressed, his cravat perfectly folded, and with his pistol hidden under his coat and his longsword Advent Of Winter Passing left in his chambers, Harry looked like any gentleman courtier of the King’s Court, on first glance. He smiled, faint and polite, to complete the picture.
“Call in my children,” the King said at last. “For I would speak to them.”
Harry nodded, and stepped over to the doorway, calling over a guard. Instructions given, he walked back to the window, then over to the King’s side, when beckoned, and stood at ease when no further command was given.
The Princes and Princesses of Stormhold filed in, one by one, over the course of the next half hour. The oldest, Charles, weighed down by his splendid gold-and-maroon magisterial robes, smiled an uneasy smile when Harry glanced at him, and the youngest and most drab in her black riding gear, Roxanne, glanced around the room with quick, curious eyes.
“The Gods cursed me with eight children,” the King began without preamble, “None of whom as yet strike me as being particularly suited to rule. But we must all make do with what we have.”
Princes and Princesses both smiled fixedly back, long used to their father’s temper, though Harry noted that Roxanne was actually grinning, genuinely amused. He frowned slightly at her, and she looked away quickly. “It is time for me to choose an heir,” the King added wearily, “And as much as I would hope that all of you would support whomever it is at the end, I know that ’tis too much to expect. Hart, attend me.”
The King was clawing awkwardly at the back of his neck, and with deft fingers, Harry undid the catch of the gold chain of the Power of Stormhold, the Great Binding, the Eye of the Sun, the Trueseer’s Grace - all lofty names for the giant, fiery topaz that sat in its nest of gold and steel at its seat on the base of the heavy chain.
For a moment, the King’s hand tightened on the topaz, then, to Harry’s surprise, he threw it with surprising strength out of the window - where, instead of falling in an arc to the Grand Conclave below, it rose instead, like an arrow, arcing up towards the midnight sky. Gasps rippled through the young scions in the room as the chain winked out of sight - and then, minutes later, a star fell, an arcing comet that streaked past the horizon.
“Whomsoever finds and brings the Power of Stormhold back to the High Seat shall be known as the True King of Stormhold upon my death,” the King said heavily, with a strange sort of satisfied finality, as his children blinked at him in shock. “Now go. Go! I do not wish to spend another moment in your presence.”
The Princes and Princesses filed out, and the guards closed the great ashwood doors behind them, and Harry waited, as the King coughed, sinking back against the bed, as though the effort he had spent had cost him dearly. At long last, when the King said, “Hart,” again, it was laboured and soft.
“Aye, your Grace.”
“If I could be young again…” the King trailed off into another rheumy cough. “Aye. That was the best counsel yet.”
“We Kingsmen have been scouring the Markets of Faerie-“
“Yes, yes I know,” the King interrupted irritably. “There is only one way to steal back years from Time herself. Go forth from Stormhold, Kingsman. Find me that star.”
“The Power of Stormhold-“
“I don’t care about that bauble,” the King said flatly. “The star. Bring me the star.”
“As you wish,” Harry said, a little bemused, and wondered, not for the first time, whether age and sickness had finally ruined the mind of the King, and bowed, backing out of the room. He took in a deep, grateful breath when he had left the stench of incense and death behind him, and nearly whirled sharply on his heel when he heard someone clear her throat.
It was the Princess Roxanne, almost hidden behind a pillar, and she was wearing black today, a riding coat and breeches and boots, for all appearances like a boy, but for her rich curls over her shoulders.
“Rather too early for mourning, Princess,” Harry noted, while he would have nodded politely and left with any other Stormhold scion, and Roxanne grinned at him, amused. Harry had not been the Kingsman who had trained her, but the Princess Roxanne was just as deadly as any of her brothers and sisters, just as ruthless.
“I did not wear this with that in mind,” Roxanne said innocently.
“With prescience, then, for you have a long way to go now.”
“With prescience, I believe,” Roxanne said, and waited, and when Harry said nothing else, she added, “How is he?”
“Your Father? His sickness pains him,” Harry said, deliberately misunderstanding her query. “Is that all, Princess?”
“Charles is going to make his move soon,” Roxanne noted. “For if all of his rivals conveniently disappear on our way to the Power of Stormhold, so much the better. He won’t even have to return with that chain.”
“As you say, Princess.”
“You’re going after it too, aren’t you?” Roxanne asked, and this was why the Princess was Harry’s nominal favourite where the Princes and Princesses were concerned: she had her mother’s wit and her father’s coldly efficient mind.
“I go where the King bids me, my lady,” Harry said, and smiled inscrutably as she scowled a little at him. “Is that all?”
“Not in the least,” Roxanne said, for along with her mother’s wit she had inherited the late Queen’s stubbornness, and glowered at Harry as he bowed to her and took his leave, regardless. For as unsteady as the crown sat where it was now, Roxanne was not yet Queen - if she ever would be.
The star rubbed a hand over his eyes, then flinched and held his hand up, spreading unfamiliar fingers up against the night sky. He turned his hand this way and that, curling and uncurling fingers, then he let out a softer, yet just as vehement “fuck!” and sat up, wincing.
Groping fingers found something cold and heavy against his ankle, and so that was mortal pain, that brutal, painful throbbing up from his leg - he had not broken anything in his fall, but that blasted thing that had knocked him right out of the sky had done its damage. It was a heavy gold chain, with a yellow stone at the centre of it, and with another muttered oath, the star threw it away from him, the chain bouncing off the bark of a tree and landing somewhere in the undergrowth.
Staring up at the sky, the star muttered a final, drawn-out “ah, fuck,” as his situation finally dawned on him, and tried to get up out of the blackberry bush. He almost succeeded, up until he tried to put a little weight on his ankle, at which point the injured leg of his new body crumpled under him and left him flat on his face in the grass.
Giving up on life for the moment, the star rolled onto his flank, grit his teeth, and swallowed down angry tears. At least he had landed in Faerie, by the looks of it, and not in the Lands of Man, but it was cold, the chill seeping through even the skyweave shift on his shoulders, and the star shivered as he pushed himself gingerly up, sitting with his back against a tree.
He sat there for a time, feeling sorry for himself, until the pain seemed to ebb a little, then the star pulled himself carefully up, supporting his weight against the tree. An attempt to step forward almost ended just as precipitously at the first, but for the star’s flailing hand grabbing on to a branch, and as he stood, irritated and breathing hard, the red hart appeared.
It was huge, taller at the shoulders by a hand’s breadth than any horse, but graceful as it stepped through into the glow of the star, its branching horns brushing the low arch of the crown of a tree, and it held itself with a dignity and poise beyond its stature. In its mouth, it held a slender silver ring of a lantern handle, the lantern itself containing a small candle, one that had burned almost down to a stub, and even from where the star stood, he could smell its magic.
The red hart studied him, with a cool, professionally curious stare, then turned its head, and noted the gold chain where it lay in the grass. With a delicate lift of its head, the red hart hung the lantern on a low branch, then took another step forward; magic folded within and without, and then the red hart was man-shaped, tall and prim. Horn-rimmed spectacles sat high against the same cool, curious eyes, dark hair impeccably combed, dressed in a short, leather-scaled black coat over a white shirt and cravat. A longsword was buckled to one hip, its hilt plain and serviceable, wrapped in leather, and the shapeshifter’s only adornment were gold buttons on the cuffs of his coat, with a strange symbol, like two arcs over a horizon line.
“Who are you?” the star asked warily, all too acutely conscious that he was injured, that this could be no coincidental meeting, not with the smell of magic like this.
“Do you have a name to give?” the shapeshifter asked instead, his tone brisk, as though not particularly expecting an answer; for names had power in Faerie where they did not in the Lands of Man.
“Ain’t quite polite, innit, you asking me for a name when I asked you first,” the star shot back, cold and irritable now.
“Ah, of course.” The shapeshifter looked briefly thrown. “I am known as Harry Hart.” Harry smiled, wry and sharp, and even sketched a brief and courtly bow, but the star watched it all with a little frown, refusing to be charmed.
“I got no name,” the star admitted, “But those in the Lands of Man called me ‘Arcturus’.”
Too late, the star realized his mistake, even as Harry’s smile faded. “Then I will give you a name,” Harry said, low and earnest, “Where those beyond the Wall called you ‘Arcturus’, yours should be a name out of the Knights of their legends, a name for bravery, for worth, for sacrifice. I name you ‘Galahad’, a name that shall be your true name, and I bid you to remember-“
The star had managed to lunge forward, awkward as it was hopping on one leg and flailing against the trees, grabbing for the lantern, and even as Harry reached for his shoulder, to stop or to steady him, the lantern’s ring was in his hand, and as he took his next awkward hop, the world seemed to speed away, blurring fast-
-and this time, when the star fell flat on his face, it was right onto a rolling plain of sweet-smelling grass, a sea of it, with no apparent end within sight.
“Fuck,” the star said, indistinctly, feeling ill all over again, dropping the lantern and rolling onto his back. He had run just in time to escape the final binding, but the first threads of spellwork, as old as Faerie itself, had already caught fast. For the first time in eternity the star had a name, and as he breathed in, and out, he felt a part of his old, eternal self slough away.
The star gritted his teeth, breathing in deeply, and then Galahad breathed out, and cursed under his breath, and managed, with some awkward balancing, to get up, lantern in hand. He would keep going until the flame burned out. It had been ill magic that had knocked Galahad out of the sky, old magic that now bound him firmly to Faerie, and he wanted no further part of it.
He had to get further away. Find a place to hide.
The next hop took his bare feet out from grass to warm sand, then the next to the banks of a creek, all polished pebbles and soft grass. The candle flickered and went out, the magic seeping away, and Galahad studied the lantern for a moment with a frown, then sighed, and sat down heavily to wash his feet in the cold water, and was pleased to discover that the chilly water numbed the pain.
He was sitting on the face of a hill, the trees around him skinny and tall, with odd, orange tufted leaves, and beyond, under the night sky, tiny under the stars, was a settlement of some sorts, a township, judging from the size, sitting beside a silver band of a river. The noisy brook at Galahad’s feed crooked eventually down to join it, weaving through the low grass and shrubs and trees, forking into the silver band close to the faraway dotted lights of the township gates. Little boats sat anchored against the distant shore, dotting the river close to the township like stationary fish clustered against coral.
Galahad grimaced. The fewer mortals the better, he decided, and started to clamber laboriously if reluctantly to his feet, once the pain felt sufficiently numbed, supporting his weight against the closest tree to the brook. The air was less chilly in this part of Faerie, far more bearable, and perhaps if he found someplace to hole up and rest, the world would make more sense in the morning.
Just as Galahad managed to right himself, from behind him, there was a drawled, “Now, boys, what ‘ave we ‘ere?”
Carefully, Galahad turned, hand braced against the tree. Further down the brook there were three men, one skinny, one plump, and the one in the centre was the oldest, dressed in a tattered coat over stained overalls and a shirt open at the neck, with a ridge of pointed horns running like a crest from his forehead into his thinning hair. Under his beetled frown, small eyes were narrowed in suspicion, the man’s mouth twisted into a sharp curl of distaste.
“This be Dean’s land,” the older man said sharply, “My land. And I don’t take kindly to trespassers.”
Harry had thought Galahad far too injured to even walk, let alone manage to steal the league lantern, and now he was paying for the assumption. He looked around slowly, to give Stormhold’s current Merlin a view, then waited.
Finally, the geased brooch murmured, “Well, that’s a mess.”
Harry grit his teeth. “Aye.”
“But it’s a bit of a wee start,” the Merlin said comfortingly, through his spellwork, in his amiable voice the warm burr of the northlands and beyond. “Since there were but two jumps o’ seven leagues left by my ken.”
“Have you mentioned it to the King?”
“Nay,” the Merlin said, amused, and laughed when Harry sucked in a slow breath. “Why worry the old man? I told him that you’re working on it and that’s all he needed to know.”
“He’s my liege lord.”
“And mine,” the Merlin retorted, though no one quite knew why the tall, mysterious northerner had come by Stormhold, nor why he had agreed to take up a post left empty for half a century. “But he’s an old man, and a sickly man, and it’s best that he not worry himself overmuch. Are you going to keep moving, or nay?”
Harry swallowed a sigh, and changed his skin, bracing himself briefly against the grass before he took up the great hart’s ground-eating stride, heading ever towards the east, where the star had run. Upon the Byrgen sea, once, he passed a small caravan of mixed Faerie folk, probably merchants travelling between townships, veilfolk and Man-kin and fae all, and they gawked openly at him as he darted past, the sun giving his Kingsman coat a ruddy sheen.
Stormhold’s agents were rarely seen this far Eastwards, leagues out of the Stormlands’ borders, and for a moment, Harry regretted the necessity of speed. Had he had time enough to spend on this, he would have bought a horse, pretended to be a travelling courier, and thence drawn far less attention than he was now.
No horse born in Faerie or in the Lands of Man could run as fast as Harry could in his Kingsman skin, however, or as tirelessly. He had wasted the night and the dawn trying to pick up the scent, but now that he had it, Harry knew he would likely catch up with the star in a matter of hours.
Harry found the next jump within the next couple of hours. The footprint that Galahad had left in the warm sand of the Moonchild’s Mirror was still there, and Harry changed his skin, to give the Merlin a look. “Hm,” the Merlin said, after a moment’s pause. “He’s going to fetch up close to the Silverwine.”
“He won’t have gone far, not with that leg of his.” Harry was itching to run again, to get this entire puzzling and distasteful business behind him and return to Stormhold, but manners dictated that he had to wait until the Merlin waved him on.
“D’you know why the King wants a fallen star?” the Merlin inquired mildly.
“Not even curious?”
“Not in the least,” Harry said, wondering what the Merlin was hinting at now. Sometimes northerners could be strange, with their odd and impulsive ways. “Kings and Queens do what they like.”
“You should wonder,” the Merlin said, with mild reproach. “No matter, I suppose. But why did you choose ‘Galahad’ as a name for the star?”
“It was the first name that came to mind,” Harry admitted. “I saw an opportunity and took it. I didn’t think that he would steal the lantern.”
“Names have power in Faerie,” the Merlin said wryly. “And the one once known as Galahad had courage and presence of mind both.”
“It was just a good name,” Harry said defensively. “The first that came to mind, as I said.”
“Yet it would have been easier,” the Merlin added, as though Harry hadn’t spoken, “If you had named him ‘Servant’, or ‘Slave’. ‘Pet’, perhaps. And he might have come more easily with you back to Stormhold.”
“He will come back to Stormhold with me regardless,” Harry retorted, nettled now by the Merlin’s tone. “Are we done here, wizard?”
“Aye, we are. Head on.”
Harry changed his skin, with a bit of relief, and the red hart shook itself out, snorting and pawing the grass. He had to circle around the lake, cleft hooves digging into the sand, and it was easier like this, in this skin, easier not to be distracted. For Harry had been disoriented by his find, he had to admit: he had not expected the fallen star to look like Man-kin, let alone look so beautiful. The star was moon-touched, his skin luminous with otherworldly light, his hair a pale gold so fine that it looked like stardust, his brilliant green eyes startlingly intelligent in his fine-boned face.
For a moment, Harry felt a touch of guilt that all this had happened at all, then he pushed it away. Faerie was a dangerous place to the uninitiated, and if he did not reach Galahad soon - then someone else would.
Going around the lake took time, as did finding his way down from the high cliff of Sea’s Breaking, the sharp divide that marked the end of the vast grassy plateau of the Byrgen Sea from the Byrgen Lowlands, where pockets of wooded copses fought a losing battle with square tracts of farmlands. There was no Kingsroad here, but the Byrgen Pass straddled an old valley cut into Sea’s Breaking by some old calamity, now long forgotten. Here, far enough out away from Stormhold, the red hart’s appearance gathered surprise and suspicion rather than awe, and Harry was careful to pick his way briskly through the scattered line of travellers heading up to the Sea or down towards the Lowlands.
There were more Man-kin here than the Faerie folk, unsurprisingly, for the Silverwine eventually fed out from the Lowlands through a breach in the Wall to the Lands of Man, one of many such breaches. Magic ebbed a little slower near its mouth, uncomfortable for the deeply Fae or for those bespelled, and the red hart’s skin did feel heavier on his shoulders as Harry sidestepped a tinker’s overburdened cart, antlers scraping against the sheer walls of the steep pass.
Once out of the pass, Harry set off again, with a brief glance at the Faerie sun, heading towards Galahad’s most likely path. He could see the Silverwine in the distance, and the township further yet, and Harry picked up his pace, already impatient. Getting a reluctant Galahad back to Stormhold was going to be tricky, but not impossible. At worst, Harry did have the funds to buy horses, the best of whatever might be available in Byrgenton, and although it would be slower going to get back to Stormhold on horses, it might be the best and safest way if Galahad was bound on escape.
And why wouldn’t Galahad be? After all, the King of Stormhold had knocked Galahad out of the sky, startlingly so, used as Harry was to feats of magic. The star would bear the King and his kith no love at all for what had been done. But Harry was a Kingsman, above all, and had been one e’er since he was strong enough to bear arms, and his King’s word was law.
It took another couple of hours before Harry finally found the most likely spot that Galahad had appeared in, next to a brook, within sight of Byrgenton. Harry changed his skin, circling first from the scuffed depressions marking where Galahad had sat down next to the brook, perhaps to chill his injury, then stood up again - then he noted, with a growing sense of grim inevitability, three other tracks, heavy-footed, which had circled about and stamped down a great deal of grass.
The three tracks had led in from the brook, and led out towards Byrgenton with a fourth track, one that looked as though it had been made by a man with one foot and a stick. Some sort of crutch had been fashioned for the star, it seemed - one tree close to Harry had a branch freshly shorn. The heavy tracks were clustered close to the star’s, suspiciously so, and Harry let out a deep sigh.
“Trouble?” asked the Merlin.
“Friendly folk wouldn’t walk so closely to someone they just met. They were corralling him.” Harry followed the tracks as they passed deeper into the copse. “Hobnailed boots was the leader. Man-kin, perhaps, or half fae.”
“If you’re heading into Byrgenton,” warned the Merlin, “Just saying, you might want to take off that Kingsman brooch, and don’t - Oak and Ash - don’t gad about in a different skin. Stormhold’s not so loved out so far in the wildlands.”
“I know that,” Harry said, a little testily.
“If you knew that, then you should’ve gone down Byrgen Pass in your real skin,” the Merlin said, always a bit of a nagger at the best of times, “For now word of your passing’s been spread far and wide, I don’t wonder.”
“I was in a bit of a hurry,” Harry muttered, though he couldn’t quite argue the point, unpinning the brooch that marked him out as an agent of the Stormhold Sovereignty, and tucking it into a pocket of his coat.
“What did you do with the Power of Stormhold?” the Merlin asked, as Harry glowered briefly at the township and started to jog briskly towards it.
“Left it where it fell. Why?”
“It’s only a centuries old, priceless artefact, key to the very heritage of Stormhold,” the Merlin said reproachfully, “Enchanted by the Trueseer herself. The first Queen of Stormhold? The herald of its Golden Age?”
“I was asked to fetch the star, not the chain,” Harry shot back, unimpressed. “Let the Princes and Princesses do what they can to find the blasted thing, and good riddance to the lot of them.”
“You’re going to be days behind the others at this rate,” Percival ‘said’, through the ambarite earring that he wore in this form, his normal voice translating rather oddly out into the air, as though floating near the gray hart’s sweeping antlers.
“I know that,” Roxy said tartly, for Percival had nagged at her incessantly e’er since she had mentioned the King’s challenge to him, days before, when all her brothers and her sister had scattered out of Stormhold, while she had remained.
“Unless you don’t want to be the Queen,” Percival said, forever unwilling to let go of a point once he had made it.
“Percival,” Roxy said, with studied calm, “I very much appreciate your service to me all these years, and I value your counsel, but we’ve had this conversation twelve times.”
“Didn’t manage to get anything out of the Merlin, did you?” Percival shot back, unfazed. The annoying thing about the Kingsmen, Roxy noted sourly, was that rather many of them failed to treat anyone but the King with due respect: something that often irritated her siblings and amused Roxy.
“Maybe I should have swapped harts with Amelia,” Roxy retorted, for her older sister Amelia had the dapple, the famously taciturn and solemn Tristan Hart.
“Oh please, you’ll be climbing the walls by the end of the day,” Percival replied blandly, and this was an old argument between them, old and tried and comfortable like a loved coat: Roxy hid a smile. “I say. When the King first assigned me to a squalling little baby in a cradle-“
“-I always thought that you would grow up to be a fine and upstanding young lady,” Percival continued, unperturbed by the warning in Roxy’s tone. “Not one to mope about the castle when there’s a Kingdom to claim.”
“I don’t like how the King sent Harry out on a mission at the same time.”
“Harry’s the Captain of the Kingsmen. He goes on royal missions all the time. Most of which you aren’t privy to,” Percival replied loftily. “And he was right not to tell you about it when you asked.”
“Whatever it is, I know that he took a league lantern from the Merlin,” Roxy said, for she had a good memory, and a fine eye for detail, and the current Merlin was a man whose Tower was always impeccably orderly. She had not quite been pestering the Merlin for verbal answers.
Percival sighed gustily. “Princess, you know that you’re not meant to try and spy on the Kingsmen. Particularly Harry. If he’s on the King’s business, that’s his business and the King’s and no one else’s - you’ll get into trouble at this rate, young lady, just you watch.”
Roxy held back the retort on the tip of her tongue and smiled sweetly until Percival snorted, giving it up as a bad job, and they trotted on in a comfortable silence until the evening, when they reached a traveller’s post: general proviso, inn and stables all at once. The young stablehand was half fae, with pale gray feathers dotting his cheeks, and he flinched violently when he saw them, blinking as Roxy dismounted from her mare and handed him the reins. He flinched again as Percival changed his skin, turning from the gray hart into a tall Man-kin, impeccable in his elegant storm-gray riding coat and charcoal vest, his high-collared white shirt snug over his pale throat. Percival seemed visibly unarmed, but Roxy knew that there were knives up his sleeves, a dagger under his coat, and a pistol in a shoulder holster, for all that the Kingsman smiled gently and politely at the startled boy.
“Milady will need a room for the night, and supper for two,” Percival told the stablehand, who mumbled something about the innkeeper and hastily retreated into the stables, towing the roan mare behind him.
Roxy and Percival exchanged glances, then Percival let out a soft sigh, and motioned Roxy to stay at his back as he led them towards the inn proper. It was a rambling old thing, one that had probably been held within the family for generations and patched up haphazardly here and there, and the hearthroom was quiet, with a large fireplace, clean rushes, and neat communal oak tables before a long bar. There was only another cluster of travellers, crouched in a corner of the room, mostly fae: a small green wren with a tiny top hat sat perched on the edge of its mug, while seated opposite it was a spindly old frog in a tweed coat. To its right, a squat woman of indeterminate age frowned at them then averted her eyes, the hummingbird wings where her ears should be fluttering awkwardly.
Over at the bar, the innkeeper, a narrow-faced woman in a discoloured yellow apron with squirrel-furred cheeks and arms blinked openly at them for a moment, then belatedly bustled over when Roxy pointedly sat down at one of the communal tables. Percival swept the inn with another once-over before settling down as well, with one of his gentle and unassuming smiles, as much a skin to the Kingsman as the gray hart.
They ordered two servings of stew and a mug of ale each, and as Roxy studied her food, Percival quietly checked it with a little cantrip for poisons. She scooped a spoonful of the vegetable stew into her mouth, and was pleasantly surprised to find that it was actually tasty, even if the crust of bread that had come with it was hard and chewy. Percival ate with no complaint or any apparent opinion, drank his ale with just as much aplomb, and seemed only stirred towards a mild curiosity when the innkeeper finally bustled back over to clear the plates.
“We’ll get a room as well, please,” Roxy said, because unlike many of her siblings she had never quite seen the point of assuming the airs of her station, particularly when outside Stormhold territories.
“Of… of of course,” the innkeeper stammered, and in the corner of the inn, the little pocket of travellers scurried away, out of the inn.
“Unless there’s some sort of problem?” Percival asked, in his mild and friendly way, with his carefully guileless eyes, and although Roxy had seen Percival use this tactic and his natural charm dozens of times, it still always surprised her when it worked.
In the coldroom of the back of the inn was a long wooden box, tucked awkwardly into a corner, and as the innkeeper nervously twiddled her thumbs, Percival bent and lifted the edge of the lid with the flat of his dagger, Farthest-From-Night. Roxy had steeled herself, but she still stiffened up with a cold shiver as she saw a glimpse of her sister’s face, half-covered with straw, bone-pale, eyes wide and staring and dead.
“That’s enough,” Roxy said crisply, and Percival dropped the lid back on the box.
“I… he… said that someone would come for it,” the innkeeper mumbled. “Her, I mean. Her. It’s been nowt trouble keeping her in here but… but well. It’s been two days and more and it’s not right, her being here, and me not even knowin’ her name-“
“Her name was Amelia,” Roxy said crisply, her tone perfectly steady. “Percival will give you an additional gold sovereign for tonight. Use the money tomorrow to send a raven to Stormhold. Who was she here with?”
“Um… er… a man. Three… three men. Two were skinchangers, like um, your friend here,” the innkeeper was stammering now. “One white hart, one dapple.”
Roxy frowned. Rufus, then. He had always been the closest to Amelia, or so it had seemed: for the both of them enjoyed the same books, the same plays, the same music. How easily did these ties break. “And where is the dapple hart?”
“D-dead too, milady. But they ordered it burned an’ the bones buried. T-this is a good establishment, a fair one,” the innkeeper moaned, “And… and for the… the Lady Amelia to sleep and not wake, her and her skinchanger friend both… people’ve been doubting, thinking-“
“Peace,” Roxy interrupted, tiring of it all, all of a sudden, of this freezing cold room, of the innkeeper’s anxious distress, of, Gods, her poor, naive sister, lying on straw in a meagre box in a room that smelled of cured ham. “Remember to send that raven.”
When alone in the guestroom on the second floor, Percival said, “I’ll set the usual wards tonight.”
Roxy nodded, distracted. She was sitting on her bed, near the window, staring at her hands, and after a long moment, Percival added, “Perhaps there was some sense to what you did. To wait.”
“This isn’t why I waited.” Roxy murmured. “Poor Amelia! She had no interest in the throne at all. She probably just thought what a grand lark it all was, to go travelling with Rufus. Damn his hide. He didn’t even bother to give the innkeeper proper instructions for our sister’s body!”
“Then why did you wait?” Percival asked gently, sitting on his own bed, and Roxy glanced at him, studying his gentle face, that mild-mannered mask that hid a killer as deadly as any of the other Kingsmen, as dangerous as even the red hart, perhaps.
“I didn’t think that Rufus would have had Tristan killed as well,” Roxy added, evasively, and Percival chuckled, even as he started to remove his shoes.
“That is the way of things, your Highness. I rather suspect that at the end of all this, there’ll be but one of you - and one hart - remaining, and whoever that may be will be the Captain, and it’ll be his task to select a handful of new Kingsmen to take the Covenant, I don’t wonder.”
“Has it come so far?” Roxy whispered, a little startled, for she had always assumed that the Kingsmen belonged to her father, for all that they dogged the steps of the King’s children or did his will. “What about those of you who aren’t with one of us? Bors and Harry?”
“It varies,” Percival said, untroubled. “Read your history, young lady.”
Roxy pulled a face, then she dropped her eyes back to her hands, and exhaled. “All right. I stayed because I was waiting for news. I’ve got friends from outside Stormhold, good friends. And two days ago, one of them sent me a raven. A great red hart was spotted in Byrgen Pass.”
“That’s…” Percival looked blank for a moment, likely mentally calculating routes. “That’s somewhat eastwards of where the star likely fell.”
“I think the star’s on the move, and Harry as well. Heading where, I have no idea. But I would bet my inheritance that they still have the Power of Stormhold, and that Harry’s up to something. Something of my dear father’s devising.”
Percival was silent for a long time, looking out of the window, and for an uncomfortable moment, Roxy regretted confiding in him, in this killer who had followed her shadow all of her life, one of many who did her father’s bidding - until suddenly, he smiled, a small and wry smile.
“Then please accept my apology, Princess, for all of my misconceptions.”
“Apology accepted,” Roxy said, trying not to sound smug.
“And Byrgen Pass it is.” Percival lined up his shoes and shrugged off his coat. “And might I add, perhaps we should now stay off the Kingsroad.”
Galahad was allowed free rein of the airship a day into its voyage away from the township named Byrgenton: or at least, as free as the chain allowed him to be. After a few tripping accidents, Galahad was more or less only let about the aft galley and deck, and he spent most of it sitting on a crate on the deck, staring down at the cloud bank beneath them, peering at the occasional breach in the puffy white expanse that revealed the lands of Faerie beneath.
They were passing the 'Byrgen Sea' now, according to a brief and curt description by one of Dean's crew when Galahad had asked, and disoriented, Galahad still wasn’t entirely sure what direction they were taking. The deck beneath his bare feet hummed and shuddered, partly from the wind, partly from the great engine that whirred and groaned belowdecks, churning the air behind them, harnessing the breeze. Great stiff ashwood-spined wings of canvas were strung out on either side of the airship, like the wings of some great insect, rudders in the sea above the clouds, and above, the wind slapped and whistled at great angular gray sails.
“Nice ship, innit?”
Galahad frowned warily. One of Dean’s ‘boys’ had sidled up, a sallow-faced thin boy by the dubious name of Rott. Like Dean and most of the crew, Rott was part-fae, with a dusting of spiky brown fur down his cheeks and hands, and pointed, tufted furry ears. He was dressed, again like Dean and the rest of the crew for the flight, in patchwork leather and cotton, an ill-fitting set of armour, awkwardly repaired and made, a frayed holster holding a club at his hip.
“Nice ship,” Galahad echoed finally.
“She’s a bit light in the air,” Rott said, with an lopsided smile that wasn’t friendly in the least. “‘Cos usually we wait till she’s fat and heavy ‘fore we do the rounds. But Dean says that you’re a score so big that every man jack of us can buy whatever we want in the Faerie Market itself. Fancy that.”
Galahad shrugged. Dean had originally had him locked in a room in some riverside warehouse property, albeit with food and water, and when Galahad had settled down to sleep, still disoriented and in pain, Dean had burst back into the room, flushed and excited. After that, Galahad’s uninjured ankle had been summarily introduced to the unbreakable chain. In the interim, Galahad had long moved past shock, resignation, anger and despair and straight into a sort of numb acceptance, at least for now. With the chain on his foot, he couldn’t escape.
Rott scowled when he got no response, and when Galahad merely stared back at him calmly, he snapped his gaze away, and looked over the rail to hide his discomfort. “So what’s it like then? Up there? When you was a star?”
“I still am one,” Galahad corrected, and shook his chained ankle pointedly.
“Well yes. But before. Up there. What was it like?”
“It…” Galahad hesitated. He found that he didn’t have the words for it, what it had been like to live beyond form, beyond time, for the most part. But he had not quite been immortal: all things, after all, had to end. Even the stars. “It was interesting,” Galahad said finally.
Rott looked disappointed. “That’s it? ‘It was interesting’?”
“It was different,” Galahad said, still groping for words.
Thankfully, Rott didn’t press. “‘ow’d you end up down here?”
“I got hit by something,” Galahad said sourly. “Thrown by some arsehole in Faerie somewhere, I think. It was a… yellow gemstone set in a gold chain.”
“Eh?” Rott looked interested. “And where this chain be now?”
“I don’t know. I threw it away. Then I had to run from the red hart and-“
“Wait,” Rott interrupted, growing a little pale. “The red hart?”
“Was a skinchanger,” Galahad said, frowning again. “Why?”
“Oak and fuckin’ Ash! Dean! Dean!”
Galahad stiffened as there was a loud curse from the bridge, then eventually, Dean came clattering down to the deck, dodging coiled ropes, supply crates and barrels, scowling furiously as he finally ended up before them both, fists shoved against his hips.
“What’s all the noise about then?”
“You’ve done and picked up something of Stormhold’s,” Rott said quickly. “The red hart’s after ‘im!”
“So what?” Dean growled, unimpressed. “Y’think I’m blind? The bloody crest of Stormhold was on the bottom of that lantern that our ‘guest’ was holding on to. ‘Course he’s being chased by Stormhold. Stands to fuckin’ reason, eh? I ain’t seen one of them league lanterns since the last Faerie Market, and they don’t go for a fuckin’ song and a dream, those things.”
Galahad said nothing, tempting as it was to explain the situation. Mortals were clearly an insane and cruel people, quick to harm. It was Rott who protested, “The crew-“
“The crew don’t need to know what they don’t need to know,” Dean snapped, and that was that. Rott slunk away, and Dean shot Galahad a sour look, as though blaming him for the brief confrontation, and stamped back up the stairs to the bridge.
Galahad leaned back on his palms on the crate, breathing deep. The chill of the sky and the altitude was… comforting, in a way, although he had never known sensation like this, with the wind sharply cold even through the skyweave shift, turning the tip of his nose icy, yanking his hair this way and that across his scalp and neck. If he wasn’t chained-
“He’s not always like that,” came a soft, quiet voice behind Galahad, and Galahad nearly rolled off the crate in shock.
The one who had spoken was a woman, one of a handful whom Galahad had seen in passing in the galley, battening down hatches and checking the stows, or up on deck, swarming up rigging and working the sails with the best of the men. This one was older, with a pale face, age lines crinkling in at the edges of her eyes, her thin mouth curled into a wry and hesitant smile, a little doughty at the edges, in a worn and fading smock pulled over more sensible breeches and boots.
“I’m Michelle,” the woman offered her name, and she seemed fully Man-kin: Galahad could see no hint of fur or feather under her carefully mended and re-mended clothes.
Galahad nodded slowly at her, wondering what it would be this time. Dean’s crew had either treated him with curiosity, like Rott, or had outright ignored him, like most of the rest, wary perhaps of Dean’s temper. Michelle, however, merely leaned a hip against the crate that Galahad was sitting on, and stared out solemnly over the clouds.
“Nice to meet you,” Michelle added, when Galahad didn’t offer a greeting in return.
“Sure,” Galahad noted, allowing a touch of irony in his tone.
“Dean said to check on you now and then. See how you were getting on.”
“He means to sell me,” Galahad said finally, when Michelle said nothing else. “I’m sure he’s real nice an’ all when he’s not buyin’ and sellin’ people.”
Michelle winced at that, and looked distinctly uncomfortable. “Look, I’m… well. This is kinda new for us.”
“The flying? Or the people trafficking?”
“Dean’s usually… well. We’re Crows. We just usually buy and sell stuff that we find or nick whenever we cross between the wildlands and the North Approach and the Quiet Sea. Non-living stuff,” Michelle added, in a low voice, staring at her feet. “Hawk it at the Faerie Market or at the Finder’s Keepers, places like that, aye? Nobody gets hurt, we stay up top, everyone’s happy.”
Galahad swallowed his temper, forcing a smile and some patience. If he could get an ally somewhere- “Sounds like a fair life.”
“Aye. Aye it was.” Michelle’s gaze jerked up pensively to the clouds. “I guess it won’t make you feel better about all this. But some of us and the boys, we don’t like this one bit. Even if you’s a big payday, or whatever Dean says. Don’t feel right. The wildlands are the freelands.”
“All right,” Galahad said carefully. “But the chain can’t break, and Dean still runs the ship, and-“
“None of us will cross Dean,” Michelle said quickly, her eyes narrowing as she snapped her stare over to Galahad. “Sorry. You be a stranger still to us. But,” she added, “Maybe we can have a say of who you get turned over to, aite? It doesn’t have to be all bad. Lots’a rich people out there who collect things just ‘cos they’re shiny and interesting, and you’re both. Maybe you can step up into the good life, same as us.”
“Maybe.” Galahad said, unconvinced, but unwilling to destroy this first fragile thread of an alliance. “I ‘preciate the thought.”
“Sure. Um. We’ll. Keep a look out, then.” Michelle said uncomfortably. “In the meantime, if you’re hungry or need something, let me know. Me, or Jamal, that’s the guy with the green parrot feather in his hat, or Ryan, that’s the one in the yellow coat.”
“Thanks.” Jamal had been the one to splint and bind Galahad’s injured foot, and give him a better crutch - that was a small courtesy, at least. Michelle nodded at him, and backed away quickly, with the relieved air of someone who had gotten an unpleasant confrontation over and done with.
Galahad watched her go, thoughtfully, then he sucked in a lungful of the chill air, and stared back over the clouds. For a moment, he did wonder where the red hart had gone.
“I must’ve just missed the blasted ship,” Harry growled, as he prowled around the tiny, hapless little skyport in Byrgenton. Beside the scrying pool, the Merlin leaned back in his considerably cushioned chair and sipped at a cup of hot caffe. “Damn these thieves and pirates!”
“Steady on,” the Merlin murmured, amused all over again. “The harbourmaster told you that they were going south. So-“
“I’ll bet my second skin that the harbourmaster was lying to me through his snout,” Harry picked his way out through the scurrying Man-kin and half-fae port labour, hastening to offload a docked merchant airship. Outside, the view from the skyport platform looked northwards, over the Silverwine and the more sedate port, though it was only at the bare minimum height required for a safe skyport, and seemed to be built rather precariously of scaffolding and rigging that creaked and moaned in the wind.
The shadow of Harry’s hand passed over the scrying pool - the red hart was shading his eyes, looking alertly around him. “There’s nothing to the south,” Harry added, “And what’s more, the Byrgen Ridge makes it impassable there for a run-of-the-mill airship. It’s infested with wildling elementals at this time of year.”
“That be right,” the Merlin agreed, “But an elementalist worth his salt would be able to get an airship through with some luck and a great deal of caffe.”
“I know that,” Harry said testily. “But what’s the point? South of the Ridge is Tergan. The Grandfae have no love for Man-kin or half fae. Any cargo that this ‘Dean’ has would just be confiscated. No. He has to be heading elsewhere. But where?”
“I could ask my contacts to keep an eye out,” the Merlin ventured, as Harry started briskly down one of the anchored rope ladders that fanned out from the narrow landing of the skyport portico. It was a trip that wasn’t for the faint of heart, but at least it was faster than waiting and paying for a turn at the elementalist-run cargo airlift.
“Men like Dean make their living from buying and selling ill-acquired goods to the highest bidder,” Harry said, over the squall and whistle of the wind. “He wasn’t scheduled to leave so abruptly. Ergo, he realized very quickly that he had something especially unusual to sell. And he’s an old pirate, and a canny one. Scoundrels like this all have ingrained habits. He definitely has a favourite place to sell his goods.”
“Or,” the Merlin countered, “Perhaps he’s running set for some rich patron-“
“Unlikely. To have cut a deal so quickly? Someone like him can’t be that well acquainted with the wealthy and powerful.” Harry said nothing more until his feet were on the ground, then as he walked briskly away from the skyport, towards the closest gate out of Byrgenton, he added, “Why does the king want the star?’
“You weren’t particularly interested before.”
“I didn’t need to know before,” Harry said, a trifle testily. “Now it might help me determine where Dean is taking Galahad.”
“Suffice to say,” the Merlin said, “If the King’s intentions are what I think they are, Dean will be insane if he doesn’t try getting a good price at the Faerie Market.”
“Isn’t that… every nine years?”
“Aye, and there be about a week left to it,” the Merlin said cheerfully. “If you run, you might even get there in time for it to wrap up.”
Harry sighed, and glanced back up at the skyport: the view in the scrying pool tilted up. “Assuming it’s even the Market… I know I can’t outrun an airship. But Dean will need to refuel, and the port after Byrgenton is Ashvale. I have a few contacts there. I’ll need you to help me send a raven-“
The Merlin straightened up. Harry had trailed off, slowing to a stop as from an alley in front of him, three heavily built half-fae stepped out. Harry tilted his head slightly, and from his peripheral vision, the Merlin could see that two other half-fae prowled out from the alley behind him.
Harry let out another sigh. “The welcoming committee, I presume?”
The biggest of the half fae, a huge likely part-ogre man spat on the ground, the breadth of his shoulders alone twice that of Harry’s, his face hewn and blotchy, as though hacked haphazardly out of sandstone. “Hear youse been askin’ after Dean,” he rumbled. “Dean’s a very private person. He don’t like that.”
“Now, boys,” Harry said, with studied patience, “I’ve had a rather trying day, and I would much rather not aggravate the situation. So if you would kindly all move aside-“
“Harry,” the Merlin murmured, “Remember. Don’t use the red hart. It’ll call attention that you don’t need.”
“Funny,” the part-ogre smirked toothily, with yellowing slab teeth. “Youse funny. C’mon, funny man. Maybe you’ll be funnier with no teeth.”
“You’re lucky that I’m in a terrible hurry,” Harry retorted, and abruptly spun on his heel, darting for the closest thug behind him; before the lizard-scaled half-fae could react, Harry had landed a very precise, brutal punch in his belly, then scythed the flat of his hand down on the back of his neck when he doubled over.
The half-fae’s companion, a man with goat horns, bellowed and charged, swinging wildly, and Harry sidestepped, grabbed the horned man’s wrist with elegant economy, and tugged, causing him to go sprawling on the cobblestones. With the same easy grace, Harry slammed his booted heel down hard into the man’s neck.
With a bellowing roar, the part-ogre charged, head down, meaty fists pumping, and again Harry dodged, quick as a viper, casually hooking out a foot and sending his attacker sprawling heavily onto the street. As the half-fae groaned and struggled to rise, Harry’s longsword was already bared, the sharp edge pressed delicately against his neck. The clatter of fleeing footsteps told the Merlin that the last two thugs had fled the scene.
“So,” Harry added, not even out of breath, “Where was I? Oh yes. I’ve had a rather long and trying day-“
“Sorry! I’m sorry!”
“-and before I accept your apology,” Harry added blandly, “What’s a few secrets between friends, hm?”
“I would very much like to know where our mutual friend Dean went to,” Harry rephrased.
“Um… er I… all right, awlright!” the half-ogre squeaked, as Advent of Winter Passing pressed a thin line of blood into his neck. “Since we-we… since we’re all friends, yeah?”
“Indubitably. I mean, yes, obviously,” Harry added, when the half-ogre tensed up again. “In the name of friendship and of me not summarily losing my patience and letting my blade slip further-“
“Fine, fine,” the half-ogre grimaced. “Dean’s going to the Faerie Market, he is. Says he’s got a big score. Big enough to feed all of us and then some. S’why he done and gone off without a full load and with only enough crew to keep the ship running. Wants to go as fast as he can, see?”
“I see.” Harry sighed. “Very well. Thank you for your time, gentlemen.” With a swift, sharp kick against the prone man’s temple, he knocked the half-ogre out, and straightened up, wiping his blade on the unconscious man’s patchwork leather vest and sheathing it. “The Market.”
“Long way to go. Unless your contacts manage to stop the ship at Ashvale,” the Merlin offered.
“Quite. Well. Even if we don’t manage to stop the ship in time,” Harry said, as he continued to head towards the township gates, “My friends in Ashvale will be able to arrange for quicker transport.”
The Merlin watched until Harry had made it out of the township proper and had changed his skin, then he wrote a brisk letter and tugged the bell rope. Passing the letter to the servant to get to the ravensmaster, the Merlin ambled back over to the scrying pools to check in on Stormhold’s other scions, and was just in time to watch Prince Digby stab Prince Nathaniel in the back and push his flailing, gurgling body into a bog.
“Ah, politics,” the Merlin murmured absently, and waved the vision away. Life in Stormhold hadn’t been this entertaining in years.
“Yes, I know, awful, scandalous, and all that,” Roxy said distractedly, as they emerged to a busy deck. The airship Duchess Dance was a sleek young thing, a racer built for no other purpose but sport, and it cut across the clouds like a knife, harnessing leashed air elementals rather than engines fed on magic and steam. “Lucky that this lovely thing happened to be anchored in Portenorth.” She ran an admiring palm over the mother-of-pearl inlay in the sleek, contoured siderail of the ship.
Over at the bridge of the ship, shaped like the crest of a wave that poured down towards the deck in ripples that formed the steps, the skinny young Earl of Emmerbane blushed again as he caught Roxy’s eye and waved from where he had his soft hands wrapped around the inlaid pearl helm, while behind him, the actual Captain of the ship, a dour, retired Stormhold Air Forces veteran, switched his glum stare between the helm and his compass. The sails flew Emmerbane orange, with the Earl’s winged serpent crest, curled around a blue rose, and Roxy smiled prettily, waved back, and continued down the deck.
“Lucky?” Percival muttered, “I do believe the Earl has been keeping tabs on your whereabouts.”
“His mother, you mean,” Roxy replied in return. “She does so want her darling son to ascend to the Regency, and is hedging her bets. She would’ve preferred Amelia, who was gentle and more malleable, but poor Amelia’s on her final journey back to the Stormhold and the word’s probably out by now. Were I to make the kingship, there’ll be no power in it for Lady Thorn of Emmerbane but status. Unless she can somehow arrange for me to expire abruptly after the wedding.”
“I wouldn’t put that beyond that scheming old snake,” Percival said, and frowned again at the raven on Roxy’s shoulder. “Having your ‘friends’ send you information on Harry is one thing, your Highness. But bribing the Ravenmaster to send you copies of his correspondence is quite another. This is deucedly illegal, my lady. I must protest.”
“And so you have,” Roxy retorted. “I know the Ravenmaster, and that old man has a gambling habit as wide as the Stormways. Quite likely I’m not the only one who’s managed to bribe him for copies. I’ll be quite surprised if Charles isn’t also waiting in Ashvale.”
Percival scowled. “It’s a wonder that the country hasn’t sunk into civil unrest as yet.”
“There’s no wonder to that,” Roxy chose a quiet spot at the rail close to the prow, looking out over the raft of clouds that the sleek ship was slicing through. “For sickly as my father was, he’s still alive, and he’s always ruled through fear, not love. As he yet lives, there’ll be order in Stormhold.”
“He was a good king,” Percival noted. “Is a good king.”
“Him?” Roxy’s lip curled. “He crushed dissension, jailed anyone who dared to speak out in criticism, exiled any lordling with too much ambition. He destroyed the labour unions, such that our people work with no minimum wages, and are subject to the whims of their employer. He controls the press, our schools, even what books are available to read in the kingdom-“
“And Stormhold is the only kingship in Faerie that rose from a poor little kingdom rife with disorder and internecine wars to one of the wealthiest powers in the land, all within fifty years,” Percival replied calmly, “Your father was ruthless, certainly, but ruthlessness brought peace and prosperity. Safety. Stormhold is the only kingship where a young lady might walk home at night in the rude hours of the day and not fear being accosted. The only kingship where anyone regardless of species or status who sickens may be guaranteed a healer. There’s always give and take.”
“There’s no calculus of sacrifice to matters like this,” Roxy shot back, though her hands curled briefly into fists over the rail. “You can’t rule for the benefit of the future by excising the will of the people.”
“And what is the will of the people, Princess?” Percival inquired, looking amused. “You’ve lived all your life in the High Seat, with maybe a few closely corralled trips here and there out into Stormhold. Kings and Queens change, my lady, and for the most part, the commonfolk care little about whose well-bred arse warms the Storm Throne.”
“I’ve been reaching out all this time,” Roxy pointed out. “A friend told us of the red hart at Byrgen Pass, after all. I’m not blind to everything that’s out there. Ruling with an iron fist and a single vision merely leaves society open to injustice. For all its ‘safety’, Stormhold isn’t without its unjust laws - or harsh punishments. Things must change. And they will,” she added, with a sidelong smile, “When I am Queen.”
“You’re confident, at least,” Percival said, with a sigh. “But whomsoever returns with the Power of Stormhold, even were your father to live long enough to name him - or her - his heir, I suspect that’ll just be the beginning of all the problems. Charles has been pulling lordships to his side-“
“As have I,” Roxy cut in, slightly irritated.
“And that’s my point,” Percival continued. “So has Digby. So have your other brothers, I presume.”
“As you’ve said,” Roxy said calmly, “At the end of all this, there’ll only be one heir - and one hart - standing. We play the game well, or we lose, and die. There’s no alternative.”
“There’s always an alternative,” Percival said wryly. “We could turn this ship around. Go somewhere else. You could live out your life, away from Stormhold, in the Perennial City, perhaps, or Autumnal, or in Shyvenriel-“
“And let someone like Charles become the King?” Roxy asked contemptuously, as the raven on her shoulder shifted its weight and clacked its beak. “No.”
“He’ll be a ruthless king,” Percival said, though he smiled. “Just like your father was. More of the same.”
“Father was ruthless, but not often cruel. Charles is ruthless and cruel.” Roxy corrected, pensive now. “I think Father is right, when he said that none of us are worthy of the Storm Throne. None of us are like him: perhaps none of us could’ve achieved what he had, built Stormhold into the kingship that it is. But I do think that I can do better. I’m willing to try, at least.”
“Ah, my lady,” Percival said wryly, “Then may it be so.”
“This pirate airship that the red hart is interested in,” Roxy said, her voice now a touch challenging. “I wish to know more about it. I want to know who owns it, what cargo it usually carries, where it usually heads, where it’s based, how Harry might have come across it. It might be that it’s somehow managed to steal the Power of Stormhold from Harry, or whatever it is that Harry is looking for. If so, I need to know what we’re up against.”
This time, Percival didn’t nag her about Kingsman secrets and illegalities. “Lend me the raven, and I’ll see to it, your Highness.”
“Using Kingsman resources for a matter not of the King?” Roxy asked, only lightly teasing.
Percival met her eyes evenly, though his smile was still wry. “I too have my own friends - and my own resources. And as you’ve said… we need play this game well, or we die.”
Like its people, the Gray City was colourful, its buildings either painted in riotous colours or with intricately energetic murals, or draped in brilliant posters and buntings. The name of the city was born from its uniform pavements, all neat gray stone blocks, and from the slate gray rooftops of its narrow and tall buildings, packed together on the streets like so many motley book spines.
From where Harry stood, close to the Coal Bridge, over the River Tamurlan, he could see the distant geometric spikes that made up the University of Oak and Ash, one of Faerie’s premier colleges of artefact study, and to his right, further down the snaky, wide banks of the Tamurlan, was the rising tiered hill that formed the Inner Conclave, at the peak of which was Gray Keep, where the Duke of Ash ruled his trader’s city through a breed of politics made corpulent with bribery.
Harry picked his way lightly over the Coal Bridge, behind fishermen trying their dubious luck with the murky waters, heading for the eastern quarter of the city, the entirety of which made up one of the largest skyports in Faerie, rivalled only by the Freeport that drifted around the edges of the Anasharan Desert. Airships dotted the sky, even here, coming and going, the thrum of their engines melding into the droning heartbeat of the trader city, with merchants at every street corner, the air thick with the smell of cooking grease and sweating crowds.
He was almost at the Maiden’s Tail, the canal bisecting Elthorn and the Docks districts when he saw his target: the corsair ship Lady Swank sat idle in one of the fuelling docks, tethered to port by thick skyiron chains that looked flimsy from where Harry stood, but in truth would be thicker than his arm. Harry’s contacts in the Ashvale Customs authorities had managed to wrangle two days’ worth of additional delays to what was really a two day fuelling job, and the last that Harry had heard, Dean was starting to get antsy.
“Better get a move on,” the Merlin advised Harry in a low murmur, pitched only for his ears. “From the reports, I hear that Lady Swank’s poised to light out of there at the hint of trouble.”
“I am ‘getting a move on’,” Harry hissed back, though he did step up his pace, hurrying over the narrow Maidenhair stone bridge, through to the Portico Gray, the squat, vast single building that rose out of the ground a stone’s throw from the Maidenhair like a vast, levelled off plateau.
Portico Gray sat right beneath the skyport, supporting it with thick pillar-like towers and interconnected ashwood bridges, each airship leashed to its dock by a pillar with chains. Often, several smaller ships would be leashed to a single pillar, like petals around a flower, and around the mercantile ships, the platform bridges boiled with activity. Unlovely as it was, however, Ashvale had grown fat off the taxes from its greatest asset, and a great deal of the city lived off business that were derived directly or indirectly from the skyport, judging from the number of tavernas and general shops and hostels that Harry had passed on his way to the Maidenhair.
Security was lax, and Harry slipped through the understaffed ticketing line with quiet ease, heading briskly up the nearest pillar. He had to evade another lax security line at the top, slipping past as the customs officer only gave Harry’s bespelled notebook a brief glance, and then the wind greeted him with a high-pitched whistle as he strode out onto the ashwood platform.
He could see Lady Swank beyond, bobbing up and down gently in the air, leashed to the second pillar, and Harry took in a slow breath, then started to weave his way past the labourers unloading from an old mercantile steam tow, balancing fish-smelling crates on their sun-worn shoulders, all of them ignoring Harry, intent on their work, as their supervisor, a nut-brown woman with a wrinkled face and furry raccoon ears, perched on a crate and yelled good-natured imprecations at her crew.
Harry had just about stepped onto the ashwood bridge linking his pillar to the next when, in the distance, a skinny half fae straightened up from his slouch on a crate, and darted up the gangplank into Lady Swank.
“Harry,” the Merlin warned, but Harry ignored him, lunging forward, even as the pirate ship erupted into chaos, its crew scrambling on deck, struggling to cast off the chain, even as skyport officials scurried around dockside, gesticulating and shouting. The chain was unlinked even as the Lady Swank started up her steam engines with a shuddering groan, causing panic dockside as the airship lurched awkwardly back a yard or so, grinding against the ship docked behind it with a painful moan of wood and steel.
Gritting his teeth, Harry changed his skin, and people scattered wildly out of his path as he charged, surging over the platform even as with another, shuddering groan, the pirate airship managed to propel itself further away, out of leaping distance. From the deck of the airship, Harry could see a horned half fae on the bridge, probably Dean, frantically working at the helm, screaming at his crew as they scurried around to work the airship into full sail, and there, at the aft of the ship, near the stern, was a faintly glowing figure, sitting bolt upright and on a crate.
The airship began to pick up speed, even as the red hart darted alongside, keeping pace, hooves almost slipping on the next ashwood bridge, leaping onto the next platform, then lunging up the gangplank of a cargo scow, ignoring the ship’s fae captain as the crane squawked and backpedalled hastily and nearly fell right off her own ship.
Lady Swank swerved, creaking and groaning, as its sails caught a blast of wind, and then it was surging forward, out of range, angling out away from Ashvale. On the deck of the scow, Harry hissed, stamping in frustration, then hesitated as another ship started to pull close, on its deck the Princess Roxanne, of all people, and Percival. He blinked, hesitating only for a moment longer, then he took a running leap from the scow to the deck of the racer, and changed his skin.
“After that ship,” Harry said brusquely, deciding not to question luck and choices for now, and the Princess waved at the bridge, where a grim-faced man stood hunched at the helm, a colourful young man - the Earl of Emmerbane - hovering anxiously at his shoulder.
“Harry,” Percival greeted him, and Harry nodded at him as the racer picked up speed, chasing the Lady Swank in a tight circle around the skyport, dodging airship paths, quick as a fish in a stream.
“We’ll have to board her,” Harry told Percival, and Percival nodded.
“Captain knows the deal.”
“I won’t ask you how you happened to be here,” Harry said dryly, pointedly not looking at the Princess, “Since it so happens for now to be a stroke of luck.”
“Quite so,” Percival said glibly, as the racer and the pirate airship cleared the city limits, to Harry’s relief, and started to draw level, their sleek elemental-powered ship running faster than the wind itself; here, close to the prow, Harry could see Galahad’s face, even, still astonished. Then the star smiled, laughing, genuinely delighted, to Harry’s surprise, and Gods but that creature was gorgeous like this, rocking back on his seat, palms curled on coarse wood, his face open and bright with mirth.
Harry looked away to find the Princess studying him intently, but when he kept his face impassive, she eventually averted her gaze. “You should stay back, Princess,” Harry advised her, to cover the slip. “Percival and I will handle the boarding.”
“As you wish,” Princess Roxanne said, if with a pert little grin, and started to turn on her heel, to head to the bridge - just as there was a sudden, triumphant shriek from down below, and Harry had just the briefest vision of the air elemental, leashed no more, a twisting serpentine trail as it streaked up skyward - then the ship began to fall, in an awful weightless drop, splintering apart from where the air elemental had shot up right through the decks.
“Percival! Hold on to Harry!” Princess Roxanne cried, even as Percival grabbed Harry's shoulder, and a small hand clenched tight around Harry's wrist, but what could either of them do, like this, with the ship coming apart around them, sucked up into the wind-
-and as Harry twisted in the wind, he could see, up above, speeding away, the face of Prince Charles, peering over the rail of another racer, beside him an elementalist, hands still tracing the final edges of an unbinding rune-
-and he was falling, blinking and flailing, while beneath him the ship fell faster, and further, dead weight as it shattered apart near the Kingsroad to Ashvale, panic spreading in a rippling wake around it, wood and bespelled steel and sails forming an untidy smoking heap-
-and now Harry could smell the familiar magic of a-
One moment, Harry was no longer falling, and the next, he was, his shout of surprise ending in an ignominious gurgle as he splashed into water, kicking in panic for a moment before discipline took over, and surfacing up with a gasp before looking to check on Princess Roxanne.
She was soaked, hair plastered to her cheeks, and she blew out the candle in the fist-sized silver league lantern that she held, swearing a searing trail of most unladylike invective as she splashed over to Percival, who had changed his skin, allowing the Princess to climb onto his back.
“Language,” Percival and Harry murmured, then the gray hart flicked his ears and started to laugh, through the spelled earring, even as Harry let out a rueful snort, looking around him. The Princess had angled them both into the Maidenlake, east of Ashvale, into which the Gray City’s canals all eventually fed.
“Good timing, Princess,” Harry finally said, as they paddled towards the shore. “And I won’t ask where you got that particular league lantern, either,” he added, even as from his brooch, the Merlin could be heard to mutter, “that thieving little minx!”
“Best not to,” Roxanne said loftily, placing the lantern back into the pouch belted at her hip. It had been, Harry recalled, with wry amusement, one of the Merlin’s treasures: a lantern that allowed its user to jump any part of seven leagues, and not a fixed seven per step, encased in a thrice-warded cage in his tower. How the Princess had acquired it was very likely a tavern-worthy story in its own right.
“I don’t want to know either, then,” Percival added, with a sigh. “Or why you hid it from me before.”
“It was for emergency use only, and I fully intended to return it untouched if we never had to use it,” Roxanne said, then she pulled a face. “Poor Jamesy! His mother will be devastated.”
“Or delighted,” Harry countered, for now the Dowager Lady of Emmerbane was the head of House Emmerbane. “Either way, your oldest brother has much to answer for.”
“I’m going to stab him through his heart with a blunt fucking butter knife,” Roxanne growled, and added, “Oh, shut it,” when Percival and Harry started to protest her language again. “Now what?”
Percival trotted out of the lake even as Roxanne slipped off his back, and Harry followed suit, dripping onto the grass. “I need to follow that ship,” Harry said wearily. In the distance, the Prince seemed only interested in the Princess’ demise, and hadn’t thought to chase the airship: the little dot of his racer was gently descending towards the wreckage. “May I have the lantern, milady?”
“No you may not.” Roxanne frowned at him. “But you may use it with me, if you like. Where are we headed?”
Harry frowned at Percival, who didn’t change his skin, instead flicking his ears back and forth, and didn’t budge even when Harry narrowed his eyes. So it was that way now, then. Harry had known that this was coming, as the harts chose their sides, and although he was fairly sure that he could handle the gray hart and the Princess both… he did owe them his life.
“Fine,” Harry said finally. “The Faerie Market.”
“The league lantern should be enough to take us most of the way there,” Percival said, if in a slightly more conciliatory tone. “Shall we?”
“Righto, then.” Dean’s voice made Galahad flinch, but the Crows’ Captain wasn’t addressing him, slouched against the rail at the bridge, glowering at his crew. “Well. I can tell you boys an’ girls one thing. I’ve been working with airships since I was a wee mite. I’ve been in a coupl’a wars, even, on the winnin’ side, on the losin’ side. And I’ve nowt seen someone do something like that. Unbind an air elemental in a ship in mid air.”
There was an uncomfortable ripple of mutters from the crew, who were gathering, weary faces lifted, here and there coloured pale with shock or fear.
“It probably ain’t for trying,” Dean added, drumming his fingers on the rail, “‘cos it takes an big shot elementalist to bind one of them elementals in the first place, one strong enough to carry an airship, and it probably takes an even bigger shot to unbind one from a fancy ship like the one we saw right on the fly. But the thing is. I know some of you been doubtin’ me, saying I done brung on trouble we can’t afford. I know some of you been sayin’ that it ain’t right sellin’ someone who for all he glows is obviously people and not a dumb beastie.”
Galahad straightened up again, but Dean continued, “But I think we’ve come a wee bit too far to argue over things like that, aye? I think we were lucky that whichever asshole it was thought us too small to chase. Or his beef was with the other ship, not us. First things first, we got to keep hiding now, and stay away from skyports, get to the Faerie Market real quiet. It can be done, and you know we’ve done it before.”
“And two,” Dean held up his hand, at a rising rumble of voices, “Maybe our cargo’s trouble. But we’re used to trouble, an’ besides, we’re in too deep now. Maybe our cargo’s in trouble, in which case, I may be an arsehole and a scoundrel and a blackguard and all that, but I don’t feel right handing over anyone - or anything - to fuckers who’d unbind an elemental right out of an airship in the sky, Hells take the consequences.”
Dean was an opportunist at heart, Galahad knew, saying what he needed to bind together his fearful and divided crew, but he could see that it was working, that the crew was relaxing, going back to their tasks. And besides, with the red hart dead… it wasn’t as though Galahad did have any other direction in Faerie. For the moment, as his ankle healed, this was as good as any.
There were extra rations at supper, ale and stew both, even for Galahad, and the Crows Jamal and Ryan sat with him on the crates, keeping watch over the stern.
“How’s your foot?” Jamal asked solicitiously.
“Better.” In a couple of days or so, Galahad felt, perhaps the splint could come off. “It’s almost all right now, and doesn’t hurt as much as it used to.”
“Man, you heal real quick,” Ryan said enviously. “If I had done broke me foot like that, I would’ve been limping for months.”
“I fell from the sky,” Galahad pointed out dryly. “That sort of distance probably would’ve splashed you across the ground.”
Ryan grimaced, even as Jamal sobered up further. “All them people who crashed in that airship. Well fuck.”
“Fuck,” Galahad agreed softly.
“You knew any one o’ them?” Ryan asked, always the more perceptive one of the two.
“Not really. I’ve effectively only just arrived in Faerie,” Galahad pointed out.
“Know what I heard?” Jamal said, kicking his heels against the crate. “I was out an’ about in Ashvale, and they got a big number of bars an’ tavernas and such. Word there on Stormhold was that the old king be dying, and his sons an’ daughters be killing each other to be the next in line. They’ve already done in Princess Amelia and Prince Nathaniel.”
Ryan let out a low whistle. “I never been to Stormhold.”
“I been,” Jamal said, a little proudly. “Dean swung by there once. Brief refuel stop. When we was doing that long haul trip up close to Tergan. Scary run, that. Grandfae don’t like non-fae, or even halfies like me an’ Dean.”
“Well what’s it like then?” Ryan asked impatiently.
“Cleanest city you’d ever see. Pretty safe, too. Though they weren’t too damn keen on us,” Jamal added, with a laugh. “Guess they probably thought we were dirtying up their nice, clean streets and gardens. We stayed dockside to refuel. Weird little place. Very orderly. Was kinda like being in a city fulla automatons. Very trusting locals.”
“Did abit of lifting then?”
“You kiddin’ me? Dean said he would pitch anyone who tried to hawk drugs or lift purses offa side of the ship if we tried. They take those things damned seriously in Stormhold,” Jamal spat over the side of the airship. “Caning, imprisonment, hell, they’d hang you if you’re caught with twopenny’s worth of weed.”
“Micky would’ve done badly there then,” Ryan grinned, “I bet there’s a sovereign’s worth of weed in his blood, just from what he’s done over the years.”
“That’s right.” Jamal nudged Galahad lightly. “So cheer up! It ain’t that fun a place to be.”
“I wasn’t thinking about that,” Galahad said. “Just about… that airship falling, and-“
“Ah, yeah,” Ryan cut in hastily. “Best have less talk about that as well. Crew’s nervous as all hell right now.”
“Rott was afraid of the red hart.”
“Oh, that?” Jamal shrugged. “That’s cos the harts are famous.”
“S’right. I hear they’re actually demons,” Ryan said, with a more conspiratorial tone, “Leashed to work by the Trueseer, from way back, and they’re always in service of the King.“
“That’s bullshit,” Jamal said contemptuously. “Shows what you know, you who think books ain’t worth nothin’ but for wiping your arse.”
“What are they, then?” Galahad asked quickly, as the boys glowered at each other over Galahad’s shoulders.
“Well,” Jamal said, contenting himself with a final glare, “They’re picked out of the King’s service, whether it’s the military or the Royal Air or whatever. Random people who’re good at killing, I don’t wonder. Then the King uses some special Kingly trick of some sort to give them the ability to change their skins. There’s only about nine o’ them at a time, I think. But I could be wrong. And they’re all different colours. The red hart, the gray hart, and all that.”
“Red hart’s the scariest one. Everyone knows that,” Ryan cut in, eager to show that he had at least some worldly knowledge, it seemed. “He’s the Captain of the Kingsmen - that’s what they call the harts in Stormhold. His name’s Harry, I think.”
“Harry Hart,” Galahad murmured.
“Aye. They lose their family names when they enter the Kingsmen and take on another name in service of the King, or summat. Me, I think it’s just an easier way for the King or Queen to keep track of them all.” Ryan shrugged.
“Why is… why was he the ‘scariest’ one?” Galahad asked.
“Man, there’s been stories everywhere about that. ‘Course, no one really knows which one’s true and which one ain’t,” Jamal amended. “But everyone’s pretty sure that he’s behind the reason why the Grandfae’s now one of the felids an’ not avian. Big story there, whatever’s true of it. Where the red hart’s seen, sometimes kingdoms change hands. Big things happen.”
“‘Course, you wouldn’t see his name mentioned anywhere in the official reports,” Ryan said, “But we hear differently in the dock tavernas. An’ it’s not like his red hart skin is hard to spot, if he’s in it. But wherever he used to get spotted, that’s where everyone knew that there was change comin’.”
“Bad way to go,” Jamal said, guessing at Galahad’s growing unease. “And hell. Even if he was gonna do us all harm, or whatever he wanted… it’s an ugly way to die an’ he didn’t deserve that.”
“Yes. He didn’t,” Galahad agreed softly, regretfully, and for a moment, wished that he hadn’t stolen the lantern, that he hadn’t run. The irrational moment passed quickly, however, leaving a sour taste in Galahad’s throat. He had done what he had needed to survive. And Harry Hart’s death was not his fault - pitiable as it was.
“I’ll drink to that,” Ryan cut in, and they knocked ale mugs, the strong-scented homebrew sloshing, and all took a sip, in the memory of legends dying, in the shadow of a valley under the clouding face of a moon whom Galahad had once known by name.
Still, it was an increasingly difficult matter to swallow, as the King’s health waned and his temper grew ever more irascible, and the Merlin took in a slow breath for patience outside the King’s chambers, composed himself, and strode through, a touch of glamour in his robes and a touch of frost in the air. Theatrics were necessary for Kings and Queens, sadly - not that they ever seemed to impress that evil little monster of a Princess. The Merlin still couldn’t quite believe that she had somehow managed to steal from him. Somehow.
“Your Grace,” the Merlin greeted the King, relaxing a little as he noted from the touch of colour to the King’s cheeks that this was, perhaps, one of the better days.
“How goes the hunt?”
“Harry Hart was almost upon his target at last when your eldest son sought to intervene, your Grace,” the Merlin said unemotionally. “He unbound an air elemental from the red hart’s airship and caused the ship to crash.”
“One belonging to the now late Earl of Emmerbane.”
The King let out a long, low groan, then a cough, then a wry and ghoulish chuckle. “Damn that boy! He’s got poison in his veins from that first wife of mine, trouble through and through.”
“Quite so, your Grace.” The Merlin had not had the dubious pleasure of making the acquaintance of the first and late Queen of Stormhold, but he gathered that she had been highborn, and beautiful, and exquisitely vicious.
“Still,” the King coughed again. “Unbinding an elemental? There’s bad, bad blood in that, even for a Prince of Stormhold.”
“Aye, your Grace. The word’s come around. The Dockside Guilds and the Admiral of your Air Forces have all put forward petitions for your attention.”
“Answer them as you see fit,” the King said distractedly. “Or have my Small Council do it. No, no. Do it together with them. Don’t sweep it under the rug, but make promises of retribution vague. If that little monster turns out to be the next King of Stormhold, it’ll be a bloody disaster for us all. But I don’t want to have to be seen to be forced into anything.”
“Quite so.” The Merlin made a show of making a note. Of all of the King’s scheming brood of little monsters, Charles was perhaps the biggest monster of them all, and the Merlin had never quite understood why the various harts did so tend to get attached to their charges.
“Did the red hart die?” the King added, as unemotionally as he would discuss the weather.
“No, your Grace. Your remaining daughter managed to intervene.”
“Did she now.” This time, there was the faintest ghost of a smile on the edge of the King’s pruned mouth, though there was no humour or tenderness in it. “Was spying on Harry, was she?”
“Your son Prince Charles as well, most likely.”
“Hm.” The King closed his eyes briefly. “Was it the Ravenmaster? The leak?”
“I couldn’t say, your Grace,” the Merlin said, for at the core of all things he was not an unkind man, and he had, over the course of his travels and studies, developed a rather more generous approach to human frailty.
The King, however, was undeterred. “Have the guards hang him on account of treason.”
“We’ve the right to imprison people without a trial in matters of treason and state security,” the King said testily.
“Not to hang them, I do believe. Your Grace.”
“Of course. Fine, fine. I was jesting.” The King let out another shuddering cough. “As simple as that would be. Just have him arrested, then. Put another ravenmaster in his place. One that understands the uncertain nature of his position and the necessity of maintaining only appropriate loyalties.”
“As you wish.” The Merlin made another note.
“Anything else of note?”
“A related issue to Prince Charles’ use of the unbinding spell - Ashvale’s asked for reparations to their Kingsroad and an apology.”
“Issue an apology… something about regretting any injuries caused, etcetera, don’t take responsibility or name Charles, negotiate a settlement on the side,” the King said wearily. “Gods, I’m tired. Damnably tired.”
“I know,” the Merlin said, and managed some gentleness in his tone, to his own surprise.
“I’ve thought about what you said, you know,” the King murmured, as though struggling to stay conscious. “I think about it more of late. About how you saw in your augurs on that Winter Solstice, years ago, that the Golden Age in Faerie will come only upon the appointment of the Last King of Stormhold, when the High Seat knows no further master. About how you came to Stormhold to see matters play through.”
“What might come to pass may come now, or a year in the future, or ten years,” the Merlin pointed out, “Or more, perhaps. Such things are hardly definite.”
“And my answer is the same,” the King said fiercely, “For fate is a matter best left to songs and blushing maidens, and I’ve found a way around your blasted prophecy, just watch. Stormhold will not fall back into war.”
“As you say, your Grace,” the Merlin said neutrally, and this time, decided not to try and argue. For the King’s patience with debate had shortened considerably of late, and there was no use explaining the intricacies of interpretation when he was in this state.
“Go away, then!” The King said, with another, slow breath. “Wait. First. Call back the chestnut hart from Lord Enoch. I have a job for him.”
The Merlin nodded, and bowed deeply, and left the sickroom with grateful steps. Death hung in a deep pall around the King, now, and around him, ghosts gathered, wisps and hints of the past, of Kings and Queens of Stormhold whom had met their violent ends in these old, cold stone walls. At the end, they whispered sometimes, when the Merlin was in the King’s chambers, they too had fought against fate, against time.
There were two new ghosts of late. Unsmiling, subdued Amelia, and a bitter-looking Nathaniel, with a dagger hilt in his back. They hadn’t given the Merlin even a glance, crowded instead near the bed, their eyes intent on their father’s face.
Once away from the Royal Apartments, the Merlin allowed himself a shudder, and then clutched his notes more tightly to himself and headed briskly back to his tower, regretting for a moment the curiosity of an augur that had brought him so far south, so many years ago. At his desk, he wrote a missive, first to the royal guard, for the arrest of the Ravenmaster, then another to the Chancellor, instructing him to appoint a new Ravenmaster and call for a meeting of the Small Council, then he sat at his desk, and rubbed at his eyes, and wished for a moment that he was still in the lands of his birth, where the winter clung eternal to the vast peaks of the spine of the world, where he had been known by another name.
Then the Merlin let out a slow sigh, and looked over at the scrying pool, where Rufus was in the middle of adding something powdery and white to a bowl of soup, within yet another kitchen, this one larger, with stone walls and a well-stocked pantry: some lordling’s mansion, perhaps. The Merlin watched for a moment more, then he shook his head slowly and flicked the vision back to Harry Hart’s sight, just in time to see the Princess Roxanne seat herself at a table in a crowded outdoor cantina, roped off in a square of grass by a long piece of twine hung with brightly coloured triangular flags.
“-here early,” Harry Hart was saying. “Thanks to the lantern, it’ll be days yet before the Lady Swank arrives.”
“Isn’t it a good time now to tell us what you’re actually chasing?” the Princess asked, ever the bold one, as beside her, the gray hart in his true form sighed, drinking from a mug of beer, dew frosted on its cold glass flanks.
“I’m on your father’s business, Princess,” Harry said firmly. “But I thank you kindly for your aid, and in exchange, I’ll tell you this freely: the item that you seek is not here, nor is it coming here. The last I saw of it, it had been left in the long grass within the Ulf, northeast of the Sere forests, within a small clearing. That is where the star fell.”
“You don’t have it?” Roxanne said, with open scepticism.
“Why would I have it? It’s none of my concern.”
“Hm.” Roxanne frowned, her eyes narrowing. “And this is true?”
“I’m prepared to swear it on my name.”
“That young gentleman on the other ship,” Percival began, then he smiled wryly. “Oh, don’t glare at me so, Harry. It’s bloody obvious what he was. He was glowing. Wearing skyweave. That’s the… that’s our new guest, isn’t he? That’s what you’re chasing. You really did leave the chain in the middle of some forest. Thanks very much.”
“The Princess insisted on coming this far with me, I do recall,” Harry said, not without a little smugness.
“Someone will find the chain,” the Princess said dismissively, “That’s the easy part. The difficult part is keeping it without getting murdered for it. If I don’t go to the chain, I think that whomsoever finds it will eventually come to me. No matter. What I am curious to know is what Father wants with our ‘guest’.”
“Kings get what they want,” Harry said indifferently. “If you count the leagues in sevens, out of Stormhold, you’ll eventually happen on a spot in the Ulf. That hint’s my gift to you both for your help.”
“Oh pish, I think you need us yet,” Roxanne said, and smiled at whatever she saw on Harry’s face. “And besides, don’t tell me that you don’t want to be around to get your own back on Charles.”
“I’m a Kingsman, your Highness,” Harry said patiently. “I can’t act against the royal family.”
“I bet you’re still going to enjoy watching me get my own back on my darling half-brother.”
“… Perhaps so,” Harry allowed, with a sigh. “I can’t say that I won’t find any joy out of it.”
“You’re a bad influence on the harts, Princess,” the Merlin offered his opinion, and Roxanne grinned, and raised her own mug. Perhaps this was what the augur had meant, the Merlin thought, as Princess Roxanne tipped back a hearty gulp of her ale, enough to rival even the Kingsmen at her table. The last King, before a line of Queens, perhaps. Prophecies were notoriously fickle, though, and the Merlin watched the world through the red hart’s eyes only for a moment more before he switched over to the chestnut hart, who was in the middle of studying a row of books in a large library: Lord Enoch’s private collection, perhaps.
“Bors, you are recalled,” the Merlin said, patching through to Bors’ bespelled brooch. “And… wait. My word. Is that a copy of Ebrietas’ Maleficum? Do acquire it for me, if you please. But… ah… Quietly.”
Sometimes it was good to be the Merlin.
Thanks to the rule against violence, however, there was a rowdy camaraderie to the Faerie Market that felt absolutely new to Roxy. Certainly she had seen far more than her share of haggling, outright thievery and other miscellaneous felonies, all in the span of the day and night that she had been here, but there was an odd sense of fearlessness in the Market.
“Who enforces the rule?” Roxy asked, over lunch with Percival in an open-air eatery of two long benches and communal tables, set on the fringe of the Market. They were having steaming bowls of wheat and egg noodles, in a fragrant mushroom broth, delicious in its simplicity. Roxy was going to miss the Market when she had to return to Stormhold.
Percival frowned at her, but when Roxy merely arched her eyebrows, he sighed. “It’s not a polite topic.”
The gray hart looked around, but Harry was nowhere to be seen - as had been the case since the morning, probably skulking around the Market’s ‘skyport’: really a set of teetering scaffolding set on the opposite end of the Market, leashed to trees. Anyone seeking to offload heavy cargo from one of those deathtraps was looking for a broken neck, in Roxy’s opinion, but so far, she hadn’t witnessed any mishaps.
Clearly abandoned by his superior, Percival let out a long-suffering sigh, and lowered his voice. “There was a Great Binding spelled on the Market. One of the last High Weavings of the Diamond Age.”
“So long ago?” Roxy raised her eyebrows. Stormhold was still a warring set of villages during the Diamond Age. The walls between Faerie and the Lands of Men had been far more porous, then.
“Aye. Long ago,” Percival looked around, a little glumly, then lowered his voice further. “Satisfied, Princess?”
“Not particularly. What’s so controversial about that?”
“I see you’re hell bent on being difficult to the last,” Percival said mournfully. “Talk to the Merlin about it, if he’s forgiven you by the time we get back to Stormhold. He’ll know better.”
“Really? Why him?”
“Because - and you would know this if you had listened during history classes - all the High Weavings in the Diamond Age involved the most famous of the Merlins. Happy now, your Highness?”
“I see,” Roxy blinked.
The most famous Merlin had been a man supposedly so powerful that magic remained his constant companion even when he walked beyond the Wall: an ability beyond all citizens of Faerie in this modern age. For many, talk of the Merlin was an uncomfortable reminder of the Faerie of the past, where magic had flowed more readily, before the escalation of corruption in the Lands of Men that had forced the last High Weaving of the Silver Age, to forcibly close most of the pathways between the worlds.
“Good,” Percival muttered, and pointedly began eating his noodles.
“And I’m sorry that I pressed,” Roxy added.
“No you’re not,” Percival said wryly, and tacked on an amused, “Your Highness,” for good measure.
“Where do you think Harry is?” Roxy asked, by way of revenge, and smirked a little when Percival let out another long-suffering sigh.
“That’s the King’s business. Not ours. Remember? He may have acknowledged, in his way, that he might require our assistance, but that’s for Harry to decide, not us. Until then, I propose that you explore the Market. Look at some of the things on sale - though don’t buy anything until you talk to me about it. After all,” Percival added, amused again, “This is the place where you’re able to buy your heart’s desire. Whatever that might be.”
“My heart’s desire?” Roxy scoffed. “It’s nothing that can be bought. Only earned.”
“You’ll be surprised,” Percival teased, though he said nothing more through the lunch, as they finished their food, brought the bowls back to the stall, and started to head back through to the Market.
They had managed to acquire rooms at the Opal Daughter at what Roxy felt was an extravagant rate for the quality of the rooms that they had actually been allocated, but space was at a premium, and facilities and clean rooms were, it seemed, worth the fortune of a small country. Harry had paid without complaint with the King’s credit, however, clearly just itching to have the entire business over and done with, and that in itself was a curious thing. Roxy had never seen the red hart wear anything but elegant patience - until now.
“Is there an information broker around here?” Roxy asked.
“I thought you might ask,” Percival said glumly. “Yes there is, and yes, you’re going to pay the earth itself for the sort of information that you want. Not to mention call over all sorts of trouble.”
“Is the broker well-known to you harts?”
“Everyone in the need of obscure information knows Mister Valentine,” Percival shrugged. “The trouble is, I don’t know anyone who’s actually come out of a Valentine deal a winner before.”
“Depends on your opinion of winning, I suppose,” Roxy said loftily. “Point him out to me, Percival. Subtly.”
“If you wanted trouble you could just leave the Market and chuck a stone at the closest beehive,” Percival said, always a nagger at the best of times, though he reluctantly obliged, leading Roxy around an open-air bookstore, stacks of rare tomes piled with dusty rhymes, all on broken bamboo weaving.
Past another food stall, this one grilling fruit and vegetables over a coal fire, no room to sit, but doing a brisk business to a hungry queue. Past a narrow buyer’s corridor of trestle tables spread on grass, each hawking their own charms and bottled cantrips, fae and half-fae and Man-kin all rubbing shoulders with no incident. The air smelled of grilled vegetables and animal fur and sweat, punctuated by haggling and laughter and the distant threading chords of a minstrel’s song.
Eventually they came to a colourful pink caravan, one of a line of equally colourful caravans of different hues, pulled into a semi-circle around a three-legged table, where a Man-kin with a shaved head sat, dressed in a lime-green hat and and a black brocade coat, over loose-fitting gray breeches, barefoot. Beside him was a half-fae, a centauress, her upper body a pretty, slender woman with waist-length black hair, clad in supple scale armour that hugged her shoulders and torso, her lower body that of a gazelle’s. The Man-kin was talking animatedly to a fae, a large gray rabbit with a little bow tie, long lop-ears occasionally twitching.
Eventually, the rabbit pushed over a little ivory box, the size of its paw, dotted with strange opalescent flecks, then hopped off the table and waddled away, and the Man-kin pocketed the box, saying something to the centauress that Roxy couldn’t hope to catch from where they stood, behind the thick draped bunting of a pottery stall, several stores away.
“There,” Percival murmured unnecessarily. “Mister Valentine.”
“How does he get his information?”
“No one knows. But it’s always been good.”
“He has a high price?”
“Not that,” Percival said, with another wry smile. “He always asks for a secret in exchange for a secret. ‘Course, your secret is then fair game to the next person who comes around asking - if he or she can also pay Valentine’s price. It’s all very well for the commonfolk to play at Valentine’s game. But I wouldn’t think it very seemly for a Princess.”
“But it’s seemly for one of the Kingsmen?”
“Princess,” Percival said patiently, “I’m willing to fight for you - die for you even, if need be, but this information that you seek from Mister Valentine? You should ask yourself whether you do truly need it, or if-“
Wordlessly, Roxy pointed. Approaching from the eastward line of shops, apparently oblivious to Roxy’s and Percival’s presence behind the potter’s shop, the red hart had just strolled straight up to Valentine’s table, and had seated himself with his usual elegant aplomb.
Percival blinked, and then he cursed under his breath, ending with a hissed, “What the devil is he up to?”
“That’s what I’ve wanted to know since the beginning,” Roxy pointed out dryly, and this time, got a rueful shake of the head from Percival.
“I suppose your instincts were right all along. Whatever the King’s asked Harry to do, it does seem rather out of the norm. Something isn’t right.”
“I told you so,” Roxy said, never against pointing it out whenever she needed to.
“Yes, milady,” Percival sighed. “I do hope that someday you’ll get tired of saying that to me.”
“I know what you’re thinking,” Jamal told Galahad, looking just as glum, “And I’m thinking the same thing. I been to the last Market, and it was just like this.”
“It’s always here?”
“Every nine years,” Jamal elaborated. “And naw. Not ever in the same place. The last time, it was real close to one of the gaps through to the Lands of Men. Funny place to be. Heard some of the natives from the Lands of Men came over, even. Not that I saw any. Was busy manning the store.”
“Are you people opening a store this time around?”
“Nah. We don’t have the usual run of goods.” Jamal eyed him thoughtfully. “I heard that Dean’s just gonna put the word out. Have a closed bidding somewhere, very secret, invite only. Then you’ll go to your new, um, life. That’s all. No theatre or humiliation involved.”
“All right,” Galahad said, resigned to it all, now that they had come so far, and having exhausted all attempts to date to get the chain off his foot. The day before the had arrived at the Market, Michelle had gone out of her way to make him comfortable, and for that, Galahad supposed he was somewhat grateful. “Who vets the invites?”
“Dean, but Michelle an’ me an’ Ryan are gonna try and get a say in it tonight,” Jamal reassured him. “You want a look at the list too? We can talk it over with you. That way it’ll be a fair deal all the way.”
“Dean will let you do that?” Galahad asked sceptically.
“Well, ‘far as I can tell, Michelle’s right. Only rich nobs will have the money to spend on some… um, on something like this. And since the money be the same, then we might as well make sure it’s someone half decent,” Jamal said, growing expansive, hands gesturing broadly. “I mean, maybe you might end up living like a toff in the Observatory. Or up in Hightower with the Grandfae, even. Faerie’s a big place. Good place to be if you got comfortable living.”
“I… suppose so,” Galahad said doubtfully. “I would’ve liked to see the Market,” he added wistfully. “I’ve seen it before, of course. But from way up.”
“That’s nothing,” Jamal said quickly. “Look, we’ve still got… a few hours until it’s dark out and everyone shuts shop. I’ll have a word with Dean, yeah? Might be good to stretch our legs a wee bit.”
“Thanks,” Galahad said, brightening up, and Jamal grinned at him as he slipped off the crate, heading over to the bridge. Michelle was already there, and she greeted Jamal. Galahad watched them speak with Dean for a moment, then Dean waved the lot of them belowdecks, not even looking at Galahad as he did so.
Frowning, Galahad tried leaning a little weight on his splinted foot, winced, and settled back up on the crate. Looking over past the skyport, he could see the bustle of the sprawling market, with its haphazard, chaotic rows of stalls and open-air cantinas. He had always ever only seen it from high above and afar, and even at this distance, he could hear the constant buzzing rumble of haggling, conversation, the faint strains of instruments and voices raised in argument - and in song.
For the first time since his unceremonious landing in the forest, Galahad felt a frisson of anticipation. The days since his landing had mostly passed in a dizzy blur of pain, frustration and bewilderment, punctuated by tragedy. This was perhaps his first chance to experience the new world that he found himself in.
An hour into the evening, however, a grim line of crew emerged on deck, cages in hand, a fluttering, squawking crow in each cage, and dangled the bird cages in a line over the edge of the rail. Dean glared over the deck at Galahad as he disembarked the ship, heading off over the rickety scaffolding, and made a show of checking the chain’s binding, even as Galahad’s heart sank, his hands curling tight in the edges of the crate.
He should have kept this in mind all along. Dean had brought Galahad here to make a profit, not to make friends.
Staring at the crows in their new skins, Galahad bit the inside of his cheek, and swallowed the snarl that curled in his throat. He stared at the deck, past his feet, his eyes stinging for a moment in sheer frustration before he took in a few deep, slow breaths, and clenched his hands into fists over his lap.
As night fell, the meadow beyond lighted up, with lanterns hooked up over stalls, cantinas converting into rowdy bars. There was a skeleton crew on board, with Dean somewhere else, probably arranging for the auction, and Galahad was fed a fair helping of bread, cheese and soup, the crows quieting down for the night. One of them, which had possibly once been Michelle, or Jamal, eyed him with a sad-eyed stare before tucking a beak under a wing to rest, and eventually, Galahad found himself left alone on the deck, under a sky that was too cloudy to pick out his once-brothers and sisters.
Leaning back to try anyway, squinting up at thick cloud banks, Galahad flinched violently as a hand clamped tight over his mouth, and a familiar voice murmured into his ear, “Don’t make a sound.”
The red hart.
Galahad twisted around sharply, blinking in shock, and in the gloom of the ship, lit only by a night light over at the bridge and at the tip of the prow, the red hart smiled at him, a wry and ironic smile, and executed a graceful little bow. “How?” Galahad mouthed, and Harry shook his head lightly, stealing around the crate to study first his splinted foot, then the chained one.
Glancing over at the crows, Galahad noted that they were all asleep, but he knew that there was a night watch on the ship, skeleton crew or not, and as Harry rubbed the chain lightly between thumb and forefinger, frowning to himself, Galahad half-expected the alarm to be raised at any moment.
He should raise the alarm. But something kept Galahad silent, blinking at this impossible ghost of a man, stilling under Harry’s gentle, warm touch as he probed first the chained ankle, then, more carefully, the injured one. Harry straightened up, and with a murmur pitched for his ears, “That’s an unbreakable chain.”
“An’ so? Untie it off the other end,” Galahad whispered back, stealing nervous glances across the deck. “You gonna get caught soon, you crazy bastard.”
Harry frowned a little at his language, as though in disapproval, but made no comment. “Wait here,” he replied instead, and padded away, absolutely silent.
“An’ where am I s’posed to go?” Galahad wondered softly out aloud in the dark, though he found that he was starting to grin, teeth bared. “Bloody arsehole.”
Harry returned eventually, looking grim. “It’s bespelled to a lock, and I have not the means to break it. Powerful stuff. I’d be curious to know how a sky pirate got his hands on something like that, but no matter.”
Before he could stop himself, Galahad found himself whispering, “There’s gonna be an auction tomorrow. In the Faerie Market. A closed one, invite only. Dean’s been settin’ it all up.”
“I know. I was hoping to avoid all that trouble… Never mind.” Harry exhaled, sounding a little exasperated. “Tomorrow it is. Don’t worry,” he added, when Galahad straightened up in alarm. “I’ll be there, one way or the other.”
“Do I want you t’be there?” Galahad challenged, but Harry gave him a sharp smile, charming and dangerous all at once, and Galahad had to fight not to grin back.
“Better the devil you know, perhaps,” Harry whispered back, and to Galahad’s surprise, he reached for the star’s pale, faintly glowing wrist, and lifted it up, brushing his lips over the sensitive underside, with the ghost of pressure, of warmth, of an intimacy that seemed unfeigned.
“Tomorrow it is,” Galahad echoed, a little unsteadily, as his heart beat a little faster within him, and in the dark, the red hart smiled, as sharp as before, squeezing his hand lightly with a cool and confident grip, then he slipped away back over the rail. Galahad looked over his shoulder at the empty space for a long time, then, despite himself, he rubbed his hands together, grinned, and looked back over towards the Market.
They were ducked under a small pavillion, home to a bevy of avian fae, all selling brightly coloured charm beads of different purposes and sizes. The hubbub around them was fading: it was the last day of the Market, and even the shopkeepers around them were starting to pack up, with only a couple of partridges attending to last-minute shoppers, while the rest of the fae busied themselves counting stock and packing up spare furniture. Here, they were within clear sight of the Lady Swank, which was sitting quietly at port, with the only change being a rather odd line of small bird cages, hung over one flank, all containing crows.
"I mean I lost him," Percival said patiently. "I followed him out of the Opal Daughter late last night, and watched him board the pirate ship. He spent only a short while aboard, then he disembarked and returned to the Market-"
"With the star?"
"Without. I'm not particularly surprised," Percival noted. "The star happens to glow in the dark. Rather hard to smuggle off a pirate ship and through into the Market. Admittedly, Harry's never been one to run from difficulty, so I presume there was some additional problem aboard. A bespelled chain, mayhap."
"Hm," Roxy chewed on her lower lip absently, and ignored Percival when he made a tutting sound at the look of it. "Go on."
"After that, I followed him to the eastern part of the Market, and then he gave me the slip between the pottery shop and the ariga crisps stall," Percival said wearily. "And I spent the night looking high and low for him and haven't found him. Deucedly strange."
The ariga crisps store had been just behind Roxy and Percival when they had bided their time at the pottery shop, spying on Harry. It didn't surprise Roxy that Harry had quite likely noticed them all along, or at some point, and hadn't said a word of it, not through dinner, nor supper. And the fact that he had quite likely allowed Percival to tail him to that precise spot before pulling his vanishing trick wasn't lost on Roxy, either - or Percival: the gray hart was smiling ruefully.
"I thought you harts were about the same," Roxy said anyway, with an affected sigh.
"None of us are quite like Harry," Percival admitted baldly. "Particularly where sheer bloody-mindedness is concerned."
"It's the last day of the Market," Roxy said, frustrated. "We have to find him."
"It's obvious where he is," Percival lifted a shoulder into a light shrug. "There's only one big event going on this day, and it's the closed auction for the star, run by the Crows. Invite only."
"I knew that," Roxy shot back. "We put forward my name as an attendee and I was rejected, remember?" It had put her in a rather bad mood at supper last night, at that.
"Word around the Market is that Dean - that's the Captain of the Crows - wants nothing to do with anyone from Stormhold," Percival reminded her wryly. "After what happened outside Ashvale."
"That had nothing to do with me!" Roxy scowled. She had thought that her position as Princess would've been enough to tempt Dean away from any misguided prejudices. But apparently not. Harry had been disappointed to learn about the rejection, as well, as much as he hadn't made any comment about it, and had simply thanked her for trying.
With that in mind, it probably was obvious why Harry had disappeared. "He's going to find a way into that auction regardless," Roxy decided out aloud. "Since he failed to get an invite on my coat-tails. Surely it's not that hard," she said dubiously. "I mean. It's the red hart. He once spent two months undercover in Tergan."
"It's a little different in the Market," Percival said delicately. "Since violence isn't allowed, security is a matter of tact and circumstance-"
"But he trespassed aboard the pirate ship," Roxy pointed out, if in a low whisper.
"Aye, and I did try to stop him before he did it, but he was too quick for me," Percival grimaced. "It's not very polite."
"Is that all that you're concerned about?"
"Princess," Percival said wryly, "Here in the Faerie Market, there are princes, princesses, witches of every hair and hide of power, wizards and more. It's not considered particularly safe to be impolite - if you are caught. And with that line of caged Crows watching the flank of that ship, I did think that sneaking aboard might be beyond him. I was wrong. But it'll be harder yet to get into the Auction, I do think."
"I suppose-" Roxy began, then stiffened, and dragged Percival hastily behind the pavilion, where a bantam and a flamingo had already stacked stock crates into a industrious pile, with the help of an ingenious set of pulleys. "Look over there!"
Percival turned his head only very slightly, to use his peripheral vision, then he arched his eyebrows. "Well, well," he murmured.
Two rows of stalls away, picking their way carefully through a narrow line of shops frantically trying to offload miniature prisons at bargain prices, was the unmistakably tall, broad-shouldered and chestnut-haired figure of her second eldest brother, dressed in an ebony jacket over silver mail, a brace of daggers in his belt and gauntlets. Roxy knew their names: Falling Leaf, Pale Sister, Tomorrow and Laughter, and she knew how deadly Prince Digby was with his favourite little toys. A step behind him walked Hector Hart, the black hart, seemingly unarmed, in a high-necked white coat and white breeches and white boots, his graying hair combed into a severe wave over his head, his eyes narrowed and blank.
"Fuck," Roxy whispered, even as Percival drew them away from the scene, leading her quietly around the stalls to a safer distance. "What's he doing here? And so quickly?"
"Hector's an Adeptus in his own right," Percival whispered back. "The question is... are they tracking us, or Harry?"
"If they're tracking us, I think they would've stayed out of sight."
Percival nodded, and slipped a hand into his jacket, to where the bespelled brooch was. After a long moment, the Merlin spoke, his tone distracted. "Now's not a good time, Percival."
"Hector's here," Percival murmured. "And I don't think that he's here for us."
"Hm." Merlin cleared his throat, and went silent for a long, tense moment, then he sighed. "Too late now. And the Market's still about. Still, I do suggest perhaps that the both of you stay out of sight, and use the time to get away, if you can."
"And leave Harry here?" Roxy frowned.
"He's quite capable of taking care of himself if need be. Now move along. Matters are starting to get a little delicate."
Percival raised his eyebrows, but at no further word from the Merlin, asked, "What now?"
"Where's this special auction?" Roxy pressed her fists on her hips. She did so hate being told what to do. Even if it was from the Merlin.
"Big tent to the north. We can't get in."
"I don't want to get in. I just want to find out who did get in." Roxy pursed her lips. "And I want to know what the fuss over the star is all about. Why is Father looking for the star? I've no answer to that still, and it troubles me."
"What I want to know is why Prince Digby is here," Percival said wryly. "Under the same misapprehension as you, perhaps, thinking that actually finding the Power of Stormhold is someone else's problem? At this rate, all of you will kill each other, and the chain will be lost forever more."
"And good riddance to that ugly thing," Roxy said, though she didn't mean it, and pursed her lips again. "Come on. Let's go take a look at this auction."
"Or," Percival said quietly, "We could get rid of your brother. And the black hart." Roxy narrowed her eyes, and Percival added, "Better to keep the enemy before you than behind you, milady. And you know he means you harm. As the Merlin said - the red hart can take care of himself. We have our own problems right now, I should think."
"What about the Market and its truce? The unspoken rules?"
"There's ways to do what needs to be done without even violating the spirit of the truce, Princess."
Roxy hesitated only a heartbeat longer, then she nodded grimly. "All right. Digby and the black hart it is. D'you think the Merlin's warned Harry about it? Just in case?"
"The Merlin watches everyone," Percival shrugged. "All of the harts, at least. I'm sure he has it under control."
In the scrying pool, beside Harry, the centauress known only as Gazelle smiled a sharp, mysterious smile. "Here we are, Mister Valentine," she said, as they settled down in their allocated booth, and her smile widened, with a touch of amused irony.
"Thank you, Gazelle," Harry said, and the Merlin felt a fresh pricking of sweat down the nape of his neck as he struggled to keep the glamour smooth on Harry's voice. Harry was sitting down - slouching down - into a cushioned armchair, while Gazelle scanned the crowd, ostensibly idle, but her slender, sharp-tipped hooves shifted her weight beneath her.
Harry rested an elbow over the ashwood armrest, rough-carved, and the Merlin smiled briefly to himself as doing so gave the Merlin a brief view of the bright pink material of Harry's current shirt. Poor Harry was probably squirming inside from the fashion disaster he'd had to wear as part of his disguise: it was hard enough, as the Merlin had said a little maliciously, having to keep up a skin and face glamour and do the voice, without having to concentrate on clothes as well, and Harry had capitulated with as deep a sigh as the Merlin had ever heard from him. The real Mister Valentine had grinned gleefully when Harry had dressed up in a set of his 'old duds', and as they had stood side by side in a dressing room mirror of Mister Valentine's caravan, Harry stiff-jawed, Valentine grinning from ear to ear, the Merlin had quietly memorised this moment as one to be treasured forever.
They were in one booth of five, with a central dais of red cloth draped over a platform. The tent wasn't large, and had clearly been hastily borrowed or rented, but it had been rather professionally warded against scrying. Thankfully, the Merlin had bound his own viewpoint to Harry's brooch and spectacles, an exception to the rule, and as Harry looked from the empty dais to his left, the Merlin grimaced as he recognised the occupant of the booth. It had been a nearly half a century since the Merlin's last encounter with one of the Charnel Witches, and she had been bent against a stick, grim and rheumy-eyed and still murderously vicious: it had been a clash from which the Merlin had come away humbled. This time, or perhaps this particular Sister, was tall and straight-backed and resplendent in a serpent-green gown of pale downy feathers, her skin alabaster pale, her face as smooth and as beautiful as a statue, her hair a thick black mane over bared shoulders. She looked young, but the Merlin wasn't fooled: her eyes, like the Sister he had faced once, in a high bluff in the North, was hard and black and cold with contempt.
Harry nodded politely at the Sister, and looked to his right. To his immediate right was a knight in unadorned gray armour, fully helmeted, broad and tall, with a white ruff of a feather at his helm, no surcoat or cloak, a plain broadsword in a plain black leather scabbard against his back. Curious, but not too curious: likely an anonymous representative of some power in the land. At the far right of the semicircle of booths was a feathered serpent, coiled in thick, iridescent gold bands over its seat, its six sets of wings folded elegantly against its scales - a Singer of the Song of Fate, right out of Tergan, likely operating with the Grandfae's seal. And between the serpent and the knight was an empty seat, yet to be filled... No. It was filled. The Merlin could see a faint flicker in the air above the seat, as though from a slight mirage. The Kings of the Air had sent a representative. Curiouser and curiouser.
The red hart let out a slow breath, no doubt calculating in his devious and bloodthirsty mind how to get rid of all four of his rivals if need be, and the Merlin studied the dais in turn. It was going to be difficult to outbid the Singer. The knight was an unknown quantity. And as to the Sister... the Merlin shuddered. Whomsoever actually did win the auction would likely rue crossing paths with the Charnel Witches, sooner or later.
There was a rustle from the curtained off wall at the back of the tent, then the Captain of the Crows stepped out, sweating and red-faced. His jaw was set into a thin line, and he clearly hadn't bothered to clean up for his exalted company, dressed in the odd, patchwork leather and cloth jacket and breeches that marked out the Crows from the other 'gentlemen' of fortune. "Righto, then," the Captain said, "Best we get down to business. Fanks for coming an' all that." Around one thick wrist, the Captain had looped a length of silvery chain, that snaked down behind the curtained wall. "Rules first. This is an auction. Means all of you bid against each other. Winner takes all an' I don't want there to be hard feelings between any of us, no matter how I decide this goes, aite?"
"Agreed," said the Sister, and the Merlin snorted.
"Agreed," said the red hart, in another man's voice.
"Agreed," said the knight, in a hollow whisper.
Agreed, murmured the will o' the wisp, in a voice like a summer breeze's caress.
"Agreed," said the Singer, in a rich voice as deep as a bell.
"Aye, then." The Captain half-turned towards the curtained wall. "Get the goods out here then."
The Merlin straightened up as the star emerged, still leaning heavily on a crutch, flanked by two other burly Crows, as they helped him up onto the dais and even propped a stool up on the dais for the star to sit on. As before, the Merlin was struck by how beautiful the star was: how curious an affectation of Nature in Faerie! 'Galahad' looked like a young man not much farther than twenty winters, with a certain wary amusement in his eyes, as he looked around the tent, unafraid. For a moment, there was even a flicker of... something else, in his expression, perhaps disappointment, then he smiled, forming a coy little mask, and it was gone. In the dim light of the tent, lit only by lanterns that the Crows now started hooding, the star glowed with a luminous light.
Harry turned his head, very slightly, and the Merlin saw the Sister breathe out, colour blooming into her cheeks, her lips parting, her face alight with raw avarice.
"The Grandfae offers the fiefdom of T'la'vl," the Singer began, like a bard tuning up, all lightly sung verse.
"And what would I do with a fiefdom in Tergan?" the Captain retorted. "You people have no love for Man-kin or half fae."
"Certain trading restrictions-" the Singer began, even as the knight interrupted, "Freedom of movement and trade in the Northlands, a bounty of your ship's weight in Summerstone."
The Merlin sucked in a slow breath. So the Archivist had bestirred himself after all, even from within the depths of the City of Ivory and Glass.
Fair wind for you and your kin forever more, whispered the will o' the wisp, Ill wind to your enemies, and fifty Elemental Sons to willingly pull your ships
Harry shifted slightly in his seat, uneasy. A kingdom would be lucky to have twenty airships pulled by elementals, let alone by Elemental Sons, who could carry cruisers as large as townships. With fifty Elemental Sons, the Captain of the Crows could likely conquer a substantial portion of Faerie, and the Merlin could see that the Captain was tempted.
"The true name," Harry said softly, "Of whomever you wish."
Now this worried the others: the Singer looked sharply over at 'Mister Valentine', as did the Knight, but the Captain laughed, long and loud. "And why would I want that? I be only a Captain of a pirate crew, milord Valentine. I don't do much truck with names and spells and such. How about you, Sister? Want to throw your hat into the ring?"
"I bid with time," the Sister said, and something in her voice sounded like cruel laughter, that raised the hair on the Merlin's arms, as she rose from her seat, pulling something out of the long sleeves of her gown. Beside Harry, the Merlin could see Gazelle tense up, even as the Captain opened his mouth, but the Sister had raised her hand, and crushed something in her fist even as she spoke a Word of Making, a fragment of a spell from the Diamond Age, and blood spilled from whatever she had crushed from her fingers even as the Merlin understood, and gasped a garbled warning-
-and then the scrying dish was dull and blank, and the channeled spell shattered in a sickening lurching wave over the Merlin's senses, making him lean, gasping and dry-retching, against his workbench.
When he had recovered a fraction, enough to answer Percival's inquiry, he connected to the gray hart's bespelled brooch. "Yes?"
"Something strange happened," Percival said tensely. "The auction tent. It's gone. Just like that."
"It hasn't gone anywhere," the Merlin said, still mopping his brow, his robes now drenched through with sweat. "It's gone anywhen." For he had recognised what the Sister had crushed, now, and he shivered.
"Any-" Percival began, even as the Princess Roxanne cut in, "How far ahead? A day? Months?"
"Likely a day," the Merlin said, still shaky. "Damn those Witches!"
"A day," Percival said grimly. "The Market will be over."
"As will the truce," the Merlin agreed, and clenched his hands tightly.
"Well, fuck," Princess Roxanne swore, and this time, Percival merely blew out a sigh.
"We'll watch then. And wait. And-"
"Deal with your own... personal business first," the Merlin said delicately. "The red hart is going to have to handle this on his own."
The first he knew that something had gone utterly wrong was Dean's hand clamped on his shoulder, pulling him back - Galahad yelped as he overbalanced off the chair, colliding with Dean, the both of them flailing and cursing and going sprawling as they rolled off the dais.
"Stay down," Dean hissed, scrambling up, and it was the last thing that Dean ever said: from where Galahad lay gasping on the ground, he saw the witch open her mouth, jaw extending wide, then wider yet, skin going waxy as her jaw stretched like a snake, then a torrent of wasps flew out in a drumming roar, pouring out of the witch in a black wave. Desperate, ignoring the flash of pain from his foot, Galahad rolled away from the dais, fetching up near the curtained wall, and was just in time to see the first prong of wasps flood over Dean, stinging, crawling into his mouth, his eyes. The chain at his ankle went tight - then slack.
There was a scream from the knight that broke off into a gurgle and then a crash of armour, but the serpent too opened its jaws, breathing out a gout of flame that caught both wasps and the will o' wisp in its brilliant green arc. The will o' wisp twisted, its scream of pain a high whistle of wind, twisting wildly in a funnel of air that blasted wasps everywhere away from it; but the Singer's flame burned all the hotter, consuming flesh that no one else could see, until there was a sudden, final gust of wind, and the will o' wisp was gone. The air stank of burned wasps and voided bowels, as the Singer breathed flame, and flame again, but then soon was writhing and shrieking on the ground as the wasps overwhelming it, stinging and crawling and choking it to death.
The witch laughed, a beautiful sound, tinkling and feminine and musical, and she circled out of her booth, stepping lightly past the fallen bodies of Dean's Crows, and drew from her other sleeve a curved dagger, her bloodied fingers closing tight over the bone hilt. Wide-eyed, Galahad shrank back against the curtained wall, dragging the chain towards him, out of Dean's now unresponsive grip. His crutch had fallen where he had left it, against the dais, but he struggled to get up, gritting his teeth, fingers clawing desperately against the thick fabric. He would not die like this, on his knees. He would not-
Then the black, seething bubble of wasps around the second booth abruptly burst, like an egg, shedding tiny winged bodies onto the dirt, and Galahad realized with a startled rush of hope that it had been some sort of shield, woven by the centauress with the gazelle half, and her hands were clenched high above her head, her shoulders shaking with the effort. And beside her, the dark-skinned, elderly human in the bright clothes now wore another face. A familiar face.
Open-mouthed, Galahad could only stare as the witch turned to face her last remaining threat. The roar of a gun going off was painfully loud in the small space, as the red hart drew his pistol from under his loud pink jacket and fired, all in one smooth motion, but the witch had ducked to the side, leaping, her dagger a wide and silver arc in the air. Harry scrambled out of her way, as did the centauress, who bounded out of the booth, slender hands shaping another weaving, and as the remaining wasps rose in a thrumming thunder of wings, the centauress let out a sudden shout, a fragment of a Word of Binding, the bracers on her wrists glowing a hot, pale blue, and the wasps too fell to the ground, still.
The witch clearly cared not: she was darting after Harry, hissing like a snake, her eyes wide, her red mouth open and wide with bloodlust; she was faster than Harry, her second swing of the dagger gashing open his pink jacket at the hem, Harry twisting out from her range at the very last moment, and as she snarled in frustration, swinging again, her dagger sang as it glanced against Harry's pistol, inches from opening up his cheek. Harry bared his teeth and plucked his longsword from its sheath, in a whisper of starmetal, and it whined in the air as it drew a bright line in the air before it and cut the witch's belly open in a gash of silver and blood.
Instead of staggering back, the witch laughed again, with that impossibly beautiful voice, her jet black hair like a cloud of ink around her, and extended her free hand fingers uncurling wide. A blast of pure arcane force unwound, blasting the centauress out of her lunge, sending her sprawling heavily against a booth with a grunt, sharp hooves kicking wildly, dazed. Then the witch spoke another Word, and her dagger burned white hot, slicing through the pistol as though it was suddenly made of butter, angling towards Harry's ribs, but the red hart twisted away, somehow, always just barely out of reach, dropping his now useless weapon.
They danced then, the red hart and the witch, longsword and dagger, one part elegant grace, one part bloody chaos; for even as Harry landed gash after vicious gash on his opponent, the witch but laughed, wilder and wilder, growing faster and faster, as though pain was driving her on, her exquisite porcelain face already sliced open to the bone from cheek to lip. Slowly, but surely, Harry was pushed onto the defensive, desperately parrying and dodging the quicksilver blows, and he would tire soon, Galahad saw; soon, Harry would make a mistake.
It came as a feint, that drove Harry's longsword too high, too soon; the witch's laughter rose to a shriek of triumph as her dagger flashed forward, and only Harry's reflexes meant that it buried itself high in his shoulder rather than in his heart. The red hart staggered back, then tripped over the body of the knight with a yelp, falling awkwardly against the dais, longsword spinning away on the dirt. As he struggled to rise, scrambling back, the witch stalking closer, Galahad saw his chance.
As the loop of the unbreakable chain caught tight around the witch's neck, she shrieked; scrabbling for the chain, twisting with supernatural strength, trying to throw off Galahad as he hung on grimly, turning into dead weight behind the witch. He wouldn't hold her for long, not with his leg like this, but it was all he could think of to do, this desperate act-
-and it was all the opening that the red hart needed, as Harry plucked the dagger from his shoulder with a grunt of effort, uncurling to his feet, and plunged the dagger into the witch's heart.
She roared, no beauty in her voice now, and a wild jerk threw Galahad violently off balance, sending him rolling against the dirt, but the witch was staggering back, clutching at the dagger's hilt, and she aged before Galahad's eyes, her pale firm skin growing cloudy with spots, sagging, her beautiful doll's face crinkling with a hundred lines, her black mane turning silver and falling out, and then she was skin on bone, then bone, then dust.
Harry stared at the dagger as it clattered on the dirt, bleeding and breathing hard and clutching his shoulder, then he looked sharply over at the entrance to the tent as two people burst in, vaguely familiar. The lady and the man from Harry's airship, Galahad recalled, with a blink - the lady looked around, aghast, even as the man stared at Harry for a moment, then pulled a vial from under his jacket and tossed it over. Harry nodded at the man, even as he painfully stripped off his ruined pink vest and pulled open his shirt, grimacing as he uncorked the vial with his teeth and poured it over the wound.
"Well damn," the lady said, as she helped the centauress to her feet. "This is one for the fucking books."
"Language, Princess," said the man, and took a step over towards Galahad, stopping quickly as Galahad flinched. "Pleased to meet you at last," the man said carefully, instead.
"Percival Hart," said Harry, with a jerk of his chin at the man, tossing the empty vial aside. "And the Princess Roxanne. Friends."
"Pleased," said Roxanne, with a bow.
"And the inestimable Gazelle, without whose aid I would be dead," Harry added, as the centauress smiled at him, thin and mirthless.
"Our agreement is complete," Gazelle said shortly, and inclined her head, before stepping over the body of the knight, heading gracefully out of the tent.
"About that," Percival said, staring after Gazelle's back. "What the deuce did you trade? You're playing with the devil, you are."
"Later," Harry said curtly, and stepped over to Galahad, kneeling down. "Merlin?"
"Here," said a voice in the air. "Oak and bloody Ash! What happened? I could only patch in seconds ago. It's been a day and a half!"
"Later," Harry repeated. "Can you get this chain off?"
There was a moment's hesitation, even as Galahad sucked in a tight breath, then the Merlin said, "Now that the person that it was bound to is dead, it's just a matter of remote transference... Are you certain? I could bind it to you instead, if you prefer."
"I'm certain," Harry said impatiently. "And be quick about it, please, I suspect we probably should leave this place posthaste. Before the demise of the representatives of three of the great powers in the land attracts us undue attention."
There was a muttered curse in the air, then after a heartbeat, the chain unwound from Galahad's ankle. Harry slipped it off, his touch as gentle as Galahad remembered, and then he helped Galahad up, pulling an arm up over his shoulders. Percival picked up Harry's longsword, wiping it off on Harry's discarded clothes, then offering it to him, hilt first, and as Harry sheathed his blade, Percival added, as he bent again, this time to pick up Galahad's crutch, "You don't look like you're in any shape to shift."
"Not at present," Harry agreed grimly. "But I think there's quite likely still an airship out there that we can use. Particularly now that its Captain is dead."
They were an hour aboard the Lady Swank, having set course back towards Stormhold after freeing some of its crew from bespelled crow cages. No one seemed particularly surprised that Dean was dead: Harry supposed that pirates were very likely simply pragmatic to the bone where leadership was concerned, and, more importantly, seemed very overawed by Harry's presence. The Princess was at the helm, hopefully supervised by one of the crew, and as Percival tied off the bandage, Harry glanced at him, and he nodded, slipping out of the Captain's cabin to check on the Princess, bloodied bowl and clothes in hand.
Dean's cabin was neat, everything stowed away in chests or bound shelving, all furniture bolted down. Galahad was sitting at the writing desk, hands on his lap, crutch propped against the hull, and he watched Harry curiously as Harry pulled on a fresh shirt. There was a moment's hesitation, as Harry debated the dubious propriety of stripping down to his smallclothes before a stranger, but then this was no mortal: here was a creature whom had watched perhaps the creation of Faerie itself. Harry changed to boots and breeches, and strapped back on his scabbard, and all the while the star watched, with an open curiosity that seemed almost innocent in its honesty.
"My thanks," Harry said, and as Galahad blinked at him, he added, "For saving my life."
"Ah," Galahad smiled, all playful, gorgeous cheek. "Thanks for coming to get me. I think. When I thought that you weren't there..." Galahad's smile faded, but only briefly. "Guess I shouldn't have doubted it."
"Galahad," Harry noted, with a touch of unease. "I may not know why the King wanted to meet a fallen star... but ruthless as he is, he is fair, and just: he loves order above all things, and has spent his life in service of his kingdom. The Grandfae, the Archivist and the Kings of the Air all sent representatives to bid for you. Even were you to leave, to go your own way, I doubt that you could go about for long without being scooped up by one faction or another. And there are two more Charnel Witches in the world."
Galahad shivered. "Aye, I know that much. Bloody hell. Not gonna lie, I think I nearly pissed myself when you cut her open and she just kept on coming."
"It wasn't fun from my end, I assure you," Harry touched his fingers lightly to his shoulder. "I'm bound to bring you to my King, but you did save my life. We're rather far from Stormhold. What I propose is this. We will have to refuel along the way. I will show you Faerie - as a guest, not a prisoner. Should you find a solution to your current predicament, be it a safe place to hide, or a way to return to the sky, I will not stop you."
Galahad arched his eyebrows. "Won't you get in trouble then?"
"The King is old and sickly, and not quite long for this world," Harry said wryly. "I think that the next ruler of Stormhold will quite likely be a Queen, and she and I are fair allies, if not friends. A debt is a debt."
The star thought this over with a pretty little frown, nibbling on his lower lip, and for a moment Harry understood a little of the avarice that had burned in the witch's face, when she had looked upon her prey. Galahad was like nothing that Harry had ever seen, in his travels all over Faerie; he was exquisite beyond reason, like a painting come to life, straight out of a particular breed of madness. "All right then," Galahad said, though he smiled his cheeky smile. You didn't say anything about your friends. Maybe you won't stop me, but they will, eh?"
"I can't speak for them," Harry admitted. "But I can vouchsafe that the Princess' primary interest - other than ascending to the throne - is to thwart her father's plans."
"Funny sort of family," Galahad observed, and laughed when Harry offered him a wry shake of his head. "Fine. I kinda do want to see Faerie. And I guess I might as well do it with a guide. Though I think it's twisty of you, to take your time and hope that your King dies first before you have to break your word."
"I never break my word," Harry corrected. "The King told me to bring you to him. He never specified when."
"That's a... sneaky way of looking at it."
"And to be honest," Harry added seriously, "After seeing what the others were willing to bid for you, seeing how the Witches were willing to chance the ire of three kingdoms just to get their hands on you... I'm not quite of the belief that the King's plans for you are benevolent, shall we say."
"Benevolence from the arsehole who knocked me out of the night sky? Wow. Aye, I totally thought he just wanted to have a cuppa with me and talk about the Moon," Galahad drawled. "What did you figure?"
"Whatever his plans are, for good or for ill, it is not my place to question my King," Harry said heavily. "But I do perhaps have some leeway in the matter, which I've exercised here and there over the last few years." For the King had grown colder and harder as he had aged, and as his body had begun to fail him, and although Harry had unfailingly completed orders to the letter, he did not always complete them to the spirit.
"Thanks, I guess," Galahad said tentatively. "Though I still think that you're a right arsehole for trying to bind me and all."
"I won't try again, you have my word," Harry assured him, "And, if you did note, I did not give your true name to the Princess, or to Percival. That is a matter known only to myself and one other, and he will keep his silence as well, I believe. Choose a name for yourself, one to present to Faerie, and your other name will remain our secret."
"Another name?" Galahad blinked, and looked briefly thrown. "Like what?"
"True names have power. Given names do not. It is a matter for you to decide, I think." Harry started to get to his feet, then he hesitated, and offered Galahad a quick smile. "Do you need anything at present? I should re-check the ship." At the very least, he needed to get his measure of the remaining crew. See if any needed to be terrorised further - or charmed over to his side.
Galahad started to speak, then, to Harry's surprise, he blushed a little and averted his eyes. "Actually, m' fine. Probably should get a bit of rest."
"Of course." Harry inclined his head. "We'll speak again later, perhaps."
"I'll like that," the star mumbled, though he stared at his hands, not at Harry's face, and Harry waited for a moment before he turned on his heel and left the cabin. Perhaps a mystery for another time.
It felt good to be up in the sky, away from the Faerie Market, from the deadly little trick that Roxy and the gray hart had played on Digby and the black, away from all the violent death in the auction tent. Roxy had flown airships before, smaller ones, never out of Stormhold, and always under the watchful eye of one Royal Air Captain or another, but in fair weather, an airship like this needed only a light touch, so she was free to watch, amused, as the star hobbled over the rail to look down over it, Harry at his side, with a palm pressed so very gently on the small of the star's back.
"He's very beautiful," Roxy told Percival, when Percival came back to the bridge to check their bearings. It was late in the afternoon, the sun a burnished orange, fading slowly down towards the horizon, and she could smell the occasional wafting scent of onions and mushrooms browning, out from the galley, as the airship cut its way through the cloud bank.
Percival arched an eyebrow. "Aye, I suppose he is."
Roxy rolled her eyes. "Have you ever seen Harry Hart so taken by anyone?"
"Only," Percival said, with a lower tone, "By people with whom he has some sort of ulterior agenda."
"You're very cynical," Roxy accused.
"Hardly," Percival retorted, unruffled. "I've known Harry for longer than you've walked this earth, Princess. I know him. He can be absolutely charming when he needs to be, and a willing guest is far easier to manage than an unwilling one - particularly one whom seems to be as highly sought after as our friend over there."
"You're very cynical," Roxy repeated, though with somewhat less conviction, frowning at the star critically. "Any luck with the crew?"
"Seems the star didn't give them a name. They just called him 'the star'."
"How imaginative. Well. I can't keep referring to him by a description. Take the wheel, please." Roxy told Percival, and he stepped over to the helm obligingly.
"Don't interfere," Percival warned her, though his tone was neutral. "Your father is still King, Princess."
"For now, but it is still now."
"You're going to grow gray before your time, you worrywart," Roxy shot back, and strode briskly off the bridge, crossing the busy top deck towards the star and the red hart. Harry glanced over at her as she neared, his elbows pressed on the rail, and Roxy settled on the rail beside the star, her back to the clouds.
"Hello again," said the star, and grinned. Roxy had lived her whole life at Court, and still she had not seen anyone so naturally beautiful; not her mother, even, who had been a renowned beauty, nor any of the courtiers at Court. A pale glow painted the treated wood of the airship's rail where the star too leaned his elbows, and the wind picked at his golden hair, and as she smiled at him in turn, his smoky green eyes crinkled up with mirth.
"Princess," said Harry Hart, though he frowned a little at her, over the star's shoulder.
"I wasn't properly introduced," Roxy ignored him, and extended a palm. "I'm Roxanne. But do call me 'Roxy'. I'm not quite one for formalities."
"So you're a Princess," the star shook her hand, his grip gentle over her skin. "I thought all Princesses wore gowns, and crowns, and flowers in their hair." His smile widened, teasing.
"You've been watching the wrong sort of Princesses from up high, then."
"No doubt," said the star, as he drew his hand away.
"I've given you my name - do you have one for me?" Roxy asked, and smiled prettily, and watched Harry carefully as she said so, but his expression smoothed into a carefully blank mask. "One to wear for every season, here in Faerie?"
"Not yet," the star admitted. "I'm still thinking about it, actually."
"No rush," Roxy said cheerfully. "I could help you, if you like. I'm very good at it. Naming things."
"Far be it for me to criticise," Harry said, "But you don't bother naming your horses, or even your pet hounds."
"The houndmaster names the hounds," Roxy pointed out. "And as to the horses, I've never really felt that they were bettered by names."
"While people are?" the star asked, amused.
"Well," Roxy said lightly, and again watched Harry as she said so, "Wild horses are free, and need no names. Tamed horses are broken in, and will heed any name given. People whom are neither as free as a wild horse nor as broken in as a tamed horse need a name for the world to remember them by."
"I don't quite follow that logic," noted the star, "But I'll be glad for any help that you can give, Princess."
"'Roxy'," Roxy insisted, and the star inclined his head. Harry stayed silent, even as Roxy started firing off suggestions, some of which made the star laugh, some of which made him shake his head, and a few, here and there, made him tilt his head thoughtfully and peer over the clouds. Place names he disavowed, common names made him smile, until they were bouncing off made-up words off each other, each stranger and more convoluted than the last.
The game continued over supper, as the crew seated with them at the galley joined in, charmed by the very thought of it, and Roxy knew - knew! - by then that the star already did have a name, quite likely, a true one, judging from the way he smiled now and then at certain words, an ironic little smile. And she knew too that Harry Hart quite likely had something to do with that, given how the red hart had been so politely quiet through it all.
Even Percival had joined in, particularly when the ship's cook had broken out a cask of decent ale. "Mister Shine?" he suggested, with a sly smile, toasting the star with his mug. "Like a diamond."
"That's dumb, don't listen to him," declared Jamal, a skinny young half fae wearing a rakishly lopsided hat with a green parrot feather, tipsy enough to get over his awe of the harts. "Everyone'll laugh if... iff'n youse had that name."
"I happen to think that it's perfectly serviceable," Percival retorted.
"I don't want a descriptive name," the star pointed out. "Or a boring one."
"Underwyn," Roxy suggested, for she had heard that name once, somewhere, from a play, perhaps.
"Maybe," the star said thoughtfully.
"It's not bad," conceded Michelle, the quartermaster, with whom Roxy had struck up a semi-civilised truce, when Harry had been prowling about the ship and intimidating everyone into obedience.
"Pretty good," agreed Ryan, who had been in training to become the ship's cook, a gangly young man with an awkward smile.
"It's the name of a tragic figure in Malekai's The Tailor," Harry said suddenly, more words than he had said all night, startling Roxy into blinking. "A man who sacrifices himself to save a friend and leaves his family destitute for most of the rest of the play."
"It's a nice name," Roxy said defensively, when the star arches an eyebrow at her. "I wasn't wishing ill luck on you or anything. It was just a thought."
"I don't want a sad name," the star said, then he nibbled on his lower lip. "Though it was a pretty good suggestion, thanks."
"You probably should get a name that means a new life, or summat," suggested Jamal. "Since you're startin' over down here."
"That's a good idea," Percival said approvingly, as he took another generous swig of his ale. "What about... Tamburlane? Or Liam? Brittain? Taron?"
"Those names don't have anything to do with starting a new life," Roxy pointed out, and Percival sighed dramatically.
"Yes, Princess, if you really must be critical about it."
"Fount? Bud? Roe?" Michelle suggested tentatively. At Ryan's blank look, she added, "That's like what fish start as. An egg, see?"
"Eggsy," the star murmured, as though trying the word over on his tongue, then seemed to repeat it again under his breath, tentatively. "I like that one."
"What a perfectly ridiculous name," Percival sighed. "Really? Do you have to?"
"I like it," Roxy decided, and glanced at Harry, who met her eyes with a cool, unreadable stare, before turning to look down at his mug. The red hart was drinking water instead of ale, something that had unnerved the crew at first until the game had started in earnest.
"I like it," Michelle agreed, because sometimes alliances could be struck over small things, and that seemed to be that - the star was christened with a perfectly ridiculous name, under a perfectly round moon, with a great deal of perfectly decent ale, and this, Roxy decided, as she drank a third toast to nothing much in particular, laughing, carousing, amongst people too soused to care a whit about who she was, or her father's name, was a life that she would sorely miss, when she returned to the High Seat.
Galahad, now Eggsy-by-choice, blinked and yawned and sat up in the bunk, running a hand through tousled hair, and frowned, wrinkling his nose. "What time is it?"
"Time to wake up for breakfast," Harry said unmercifully, "The crew and the others have already eaten."
"It's too bright for breakfast," Eggsy said mournfully, though he tugged on the skyweave shift, and pulled his legs off the bunk. Pain still throbbed in his wounded foot as he tried to rest his weight upon it, but was not as bad as before, and in a day or so he'd be able to limp heavily, perhaps, with no crutches.
"Nonsense," Harry said, and stepped over, patient and gentle as he helped Eggsy through the morning's absolutions. Jamal and Ryan had been the ones to help him before, and it had been entirely awkward, with them, as much as they had tried to be unobtrusive. It was oddly different with Harry: there was no awkwardness, like this, even when Harry knelt to examine his foot - there was too much grace to the way Harry moved, the way he held himself, the way he spoke, even, an unshakable calm that was reassuring and inexorable all at once.
Eggsy pressed a playful palm on Harry's shoulder, and inched it over, as Harry glanced up but didn't brush him off, and now Eggsy dared to reach up, to brush a wayward strand of walnut hair out of Harry's eyes, the gesture so intimate all of a sudden that it felt stolen. Harry's lips parted, to take in a soft, inaudible breath, then he rose to his feet, to help Eggsy over to the desk. Breakfast was eggs on toast, today, with bacon and sausage and beans, and Eggsy picked up the knife, speared a sausage, and was about to raise it to his mouth when Harry sighed, tutting.
"That's not what a knife is for."
"That's what the Crows use their knives for. At the table, anyway."
"Perhaps your first crash course in dubious human etiquette came from a band of pirates," Harry said, with a little curl to his mouth, "But if you're to be presented to the King, eventually, perhaps, then you should learn the proper way to hold your cutlery, at the very least."
"I don't see what's so important about it," Eggsy said challengingly.
"The importance, my good sir," Harry said, looking mildly affronted, "Is that manners do maketh the man, and although it's all very well for certain people to behave like ruffians, it behooves someone as lovely as yourself to have equally lovely manners."
Eggsy blushed, and wished that he hadn't blushed, but thankfully, Harry pretended not to have noticed, instead dropping his eyes down to the knife. Self-consciously, Eggsy pushed the sausage off with a fork, and Harry set the table, with the plate before Eggsy, then the fork on the left, the larger knife on the right, then the spoon, at the rightmost. The smaller knife went up on a small plate, upon which was a breadroll, then Harry set down the dish of butter and set the tray down on the bunk, out of the way.
"In the High Seat - that's the King's keep in Stormhold - meals oft times will have rather more cutlery than this," Harry explained, as he touched his fingers lightly to Eggsy's arms, nudging his elbows off the table. "No elbows on the table. The napkin goes on your lap, like so," he folded it into a neat triangle, and arranged it on Eggsy's lap. "What should you eat first?"
"Whatever smells the best?" Eggsy hazarded.
"The bread," Harry said, sounding amused, and Eggsy picked up the bread roll with a shrug, bringing it to his mouth, only for fingers to touch lightly against his wrist. "No, no. Tear a small piece, bite-sized. Butter that if you like. Then you may eat it."
"That's... kind of dumb," Eggsy objected. "It's all going into the same place, innit?" Harry's fingers were warm and callused, pressed against his pulse on his wrist, with a casual intimacy that made his ears heat up all over again.
"It does," Harry agreed, "But it's not proper."
"And that just mustn't do," Eggsy said, mimicking Harry's - and Percival's - very proper Stormhold Common, which got a startled laugh out of Harry; one that Eggsy decided that he would very much like to hear again, as much as he could. And so he tore the bread, as dumb as it was, buttered the little piece and ate it, under Harry's approving eyes, and when that was done, Eggsy picked up the fork, even as Harry poured him a cup of tea.
"No milk aboard the ship, unfortunately," Harry said, "But we do have a slice of lemon, and the tea's steeped nicely."
Eggsy did like the tea, after a first cautious sip, but as he slurped up a bigger mouthful, Harry sighed again, and touched his elbow. "Small sips, and hold your cup... yes, like that, put the fork down, hold the saucer - very good," Harry said approvingly, as Eggsy learned another seemingly pointless mortal custom. "Proper tea is a linchpin of civilisation itself."
"I would say not goin' around burnin' and murderin' your neighbors would be it," Eggsy teased.
"That's a manner of common decency," Harry corrected. "A gentleman arms himself with manners."
"And a pistol and a longsword?"
"And other accoutrements where necessary," Harry allowed, though he smiled faintly. "Now, this is a simple meal, so there is no fixed order to the use of cutlery-"
"Really? No," Eggsy drawled. "No order? That's bloody chaos, that is!"
"-at a proper dinner setting," Harry continued, ignoring the quip, "The rule of thumb is to start from the rightmost and leftmost and move in. Often, there'll be a fish fork, a salad fork, a dinner fork... a dinner knife, a seafood knife and a soup spoon, and a dessert fork or spoon placed above, or arriving with the dessert course. You may only use one set per course."
"Considering that most of you maybe live only a century tops," Eggsy said, blinking, "You make your lives entirely too complicated."
"Food on the left, like bread, and liquids on the right, like wine," Harry added, though he arched an eyebrow for a moment. "It's improper to accidentally drink someone else's wine."
"War would be declared otherwise, I'm guessing?"
"You'd be surprised. Eat," Harry invited, "Your food's growing cold."
"And whose fault is that?" Eggsy wondered out aloud, though he tucked in, and if Harry interjected sometimes, with another gentle touch here and there, or with more tea, or with a murmured comment, bent close to Eggsy's ear... well. Eggsy was not someone who was above enjoying the moment, even something like this, hot as the room felt, as breakfast drew out.
"Don't use the napkin to wipe your face," Harry said, when he was done, "Dab your mouth, then fold it next to your plate. The cutlery should be arranged from ten to four o'clock on your plate, with the handles - no - yes, that's better. The handles should be on the rim of your plate. The tines of the fork facing up, the edge of the knife facing down, bowl of the spoon up."
Harry's fingers pressed over Eggsy's as he spoke, like a caress, nudging Eggsy into moving the cutlery into the correct positions, and Eggsy sucked in a slow breath, sure that he was starting to flush again, just from this. He tipped up his chin, and Harry was inches away, still focused on the cutlery before the red hart realized that he was being studied, then their eyes met, as Eggsy took in a breath that felt charged, Harry's fingers dappling warmth over his fingers and the back of his palm. Eggsy licked his lips, his mouth feeling suddenly dry, and then it was Harry's turn to flush and look away, straightening up, busying himself by fetching the tray and clearing the desk.
"And that's the lesson for now," Harry said briskly, still avoiding looking at Eggsy, even as Eggsy nodded slowly instead of answering, bemused, watching Harry clean up and incline his head and head out of the cabin. Then Eggsy rubbed the palm of his left hand lightly over the back of his right, chasing the fading warmth of Harry's touch, and glanced out of the cabin's porthole, over the banks of endless clouds, willing his heartbeat to slow back down. The red hart was dangerous still.
"Time for what?" Harry asked, distracted. Both their charges were resting, and the night shift of the crew was now awake, a watchman slowly sweeping a patrol, stifling yawns, from stern to prow and back, while others checked the sails and one poor soul huddled up at the crow's nest, wrapped with furs. This close to Eternal Autumn, Harry could actually see the water, on the horizon line, a thin pale glimmer that marked the only vast gateway to the Lands of Men that the Diamond Age had failed to close. Rising from the blackened, dead lands that spread like a rippling, frozen plague out from the waters were the occasional strange wrecks: gigantic rusting sail-less ships, and sometimes, strange slender white fingers, like odd towers fitted with flat rudimentary wings, their flanks dotted with tiny evenly set glass eyes. He shivered.
"For you to tell me what you traded Mister Valentine for that favour," Percival said patiently.
"Maybe he owed me a favour," Harry said, though he was no longer distracted. Harry was one of the oldest of the current Kingsmen, old enough to have known the previous white hart, the then-Captain of the Kingsmen, the sole surviving hart of the current King's ascension war. Time writes herself in a cycle, the old man had told Harry on his deathbed, so very many years ago, when he had called in his young and brash successor for a 'final word'. Watch your back when the harts choose to change their masters, for you can have no other.
The gray hart had chosen a new mistress, and for a moment, Harry felt a little regretful. He had long lost count of the number of times that they had saved each other's lives, on missions, and lost count of the years that they had been friends. Time had written herself a new cycle, however, and now they stood apart.
"I rather doubt that," Percival said, if gently. "I worry about you, Harry."
"The sentiment's mutual."
"What did you do to Prince Digby and Hector?" Harry asked pointedly, by way of an answer, and Percival sighed.
"I didn't break the truce and kill him, if that's what you mean."
"But I may have slipped a few choice rumours, here and there, that Prince Digby and Hector had been banned from the auction by the auctioneer, and had sought to revenge themselves." Percival said calmly. "The last I saw of them, the Singer's entourage was hauling them off in chains."
"Opportunistic work," Harry noted, for Percival had always been rather more of an opportunist of an agent than a planner. "What if the tent had never vanished?"
"Then we would've thought of something else," Percival said, unconcerned. "I don't think we'll be seeing Digby and dear Hector for a while."
"Hector's an Adeptus. He'll escape eventually."
"Oh, I told them what he was," Percival smiled, and it was easy to mistake Percival for the good-natured, gentle one of the lot of them, particularly with his seemingly constant good-natured aplomb, but Harry knew better. "The Tergan fae know how to deal with Adeptus."
"Kinder to slip them both a dagger through the ribs. More traditional, as well."
"Ah, if we were going to be sensitive about tradition," Percival said mildly, "Then our cargo probably should be bound in chains in the brig."
"He's no trouble as he is now," Harry kept his tone neutral. "Why waste a perfectly good length of chain?"
"Why indeed. Particularly when a perfectly good length of unbreakable chain was left abandoned in that tent, hm?"
Harry sighed. Percival could be annoyingly pugnacious when he set his mind to something. "Speaking of chains, shouldn't you and the Princess get around to finding the Power of Stormhold?"
"Oh, we'll get around to that sooner or later," Percival lifted a shoulder into a shrug. "The Princess does what she likes."
"Not particularly a reassuring trait in royalty, is it?"
"Only if unaccompanied by a sense of common decency and unsupported by intelligence." Percival's eyes flickered thoughtfully over Harry. "Do you even know why the King wants to meet Eggsy?"
Eggsy. It was, Harry decided, indeed a perfectly ridiculous name, and certainly it wasn't what he would've chosen for a creature as exquisite as the star, but what was done was done, and 'Eggsy' did seem happy with his new given name. "No."
"Shouldn't you ask the Merlin?"
"I should," Harry agreed, though he didn't want to, and not like this, with Percival's carefully constructed gentle smile, within sight of Eternal Autumn and its impossible sea.
"Don't bother," Percival advised, and when Harry blinked at him, the gray hart's smile turned wry. "I think the knowledge will only make it difficult for you to do your duty. I've been thinking about it, you see," he added, as Harry opened his mouth. "What is it that the star can give, to creatures as powerful as the Charnel Witches, as the Grandfae, as the Kings of the Air, as the Archivist, all of whom have lands and wealth beyond measure and power enough to shake the world if they want to?"
"And what did you conclude?" Harry inquired, a little nettled: he had never been one to sit patiently through lectures.
"I don't know, Harry," Percival said mildly. "What can it be, that all the money and magic in Faerie cannot otherwise achieve?"
And Harry thought that he knew it then, that he had known this all along, when he had been hunting the star, at the beginning, when he had first looked upon his dying King, in an empty room so abruptly bereft of children who bore no love for their own father. What had it been, that the Witch had crushed in her fist, that bloodied thing that had the power to cast them all a day into the future? What was it that his dying King wanted most in the world?
"Time," Harry said, recalling the Witch's words. The King had said as much. There is only one way to steal back years from Time herself.
"Time," Percival echoed softly, and perhaps there was pity in his eyes, perhaps not. Percival had always been difficult even for Harry to read. "Sometimes it's necessary to let go, Harry. Duty isn't everything."
"So you say," Harry retorted, narrowing his eyes, wondering what the gray hart was trying to get at, but Percival only stared back, even and calm.
"Usually only one hart makes it out of an ascension war," Percival said lightly. "To be the Captain of the new guard."
"And you see yourself in that position, do you?"
"Oh, I am in all things a pragmatist," Percival noted blithely. "And sadly, none of the Princes or Princesses have been quite as prepared for this current eventuality as Prince Charles and the golden hart. We're in a deuce of a pickle."
"You don't seem particularly worried about it."
"It's not really my nature to be worried about things that I can no longer change," Percival pointed out. "I was prepared for the King to name Charles to the throne, or someone else, or none at all, building alliances with the Earl of Emmerbane, with Wave's End, with the Eastern Approach. But for the King to do what he did, and all this to-do? That took me by surprise."
"It surprised me as well," Harry admitted. "You say that Charles was prepared for it?"
"Aye, he was. He was the first out of the gate, shall we say, in a nice airship, with a small private army that conveniently included one of the Masters of the Elements from the City of Ivory and Glass," Percival said wryly. "Not only to beat pursuit but discourage it. He's seen this coming. But how? Did the King drop him a hint?"
"Not to my knowledge." Harry frowned. "But it's possible. The King once told me that Charles was the 'worst of a bad lot, which makes him the best'."
"So it's also possible," Percival said blithely, "That while the rest of us have been out here, killing each other, Charles has already found the chain, and returned to Stormhold."
"By that measure, then Charles needn't have left at all, if there was some sort of secret agreement between him and the King."
"Oh, I think that perhaps he felt that he had to get rid of the red hart," Percival noted casually, "For the red hart calls no one but the King of Stormhold master, and would have been a rather inconvenient opponent to have, perhaps. Or perhaps he did think that he needs the Power of Stormhold, for legitimacy, and we happened to blunder into his way. Regardless, I think a quiet return to Stormhold is likely the safer option at this point, don't you think?"
"We'll see." Harry waited for the Merlin to interrupt, but there was nothing from the brooch, and that unnerved him a little. Since the Merlin's words when he had managed to 'patch' back in to Harry after the bloody end to the auction, he had said nothing at all, and Harry was beginning to get a trifle worried.
"Did he?" the King asked, finally.
"Did Digby murder the Singer? Everyone in that auction? Make off with the star?"
And here the Merlin was torn. For he knew precisely what had been done to the star, just as he knew precisely where Digby had been during the auction, but the young Prince had always been an arrogant little shit, and as to the King... well. The Merlin had admired him once. Now, he was not too sure.
"No he did not, your Grace," the Merlin admitted. "It was a rumour put out by the gray hart, as a ploy to put the Prince out of commission without breaking the rules of the Market."
"Ah-h." the King breathed out, with a faint, hard smile. "The inestimable Percival Hart."
"Just so, your Grace," the Merlin said uncomfortably.
"And where is Percival Hart now? With the Princess Roxanne?"
"And the star?"
The Merlin hesitated, but only a moment. Merlins were but observers in time, advisors, meant to be neutral; never to judge, never to overtly interfere. For to intervene was to come too easily to rule, and in Faerie, one need only look to the farthest East, to the Wyntersea, or to the true North, to Cainan, to see how spectacularly badly magic and rule tended to marry.
"With the red hart, the gray, and the Princess, your Grace. They have commandeered an airship and are en route to Stormhold, but have had to make a deviation around the City of Ivory and Glass. Harry is concerned that the Archivist may hold ill feelings."
"So he should. Who was the Unknown Knight?"
"None other than Gandon Ivory, your Grace."
"So the Archivist sent in his heir? Poor move, there. No letter of demand from the City?"
"Not so far."
"Good. Good." The King breathed in, a rattled, choking sound, then out. "How are my other little demonspawns?"
"Unfortunately I am no longer privy to their purview, your Grace. Not since the matter at Ashvale." The golden hart, the silver and the white had destroyed the spelled items that bound them to the Merlin, damn their hides.
"So they wised up. Pity."
"However," the Merlin added, "The Small Council has received a missive, noting that Prince Hugo is on his way home in a casket. Poisoned, I do believe."
"Oh? Whose hand was it?"
"Evidence would point towards Prince Rufus."
"Hm! I must say," the King mused, "I rather expected more of Prince Charles. The body count's piling up everywhere else but around him."
"You mean," the Merlin said dryly, "If we ignore the incident of the late Earl of Emmerbane?"
"Not for lack of trying then," the King corrected himself, and let out a ghoulish, rheumy cough. "How long more do I have?"
"I can't say for certain, your Grace," the Merlin admitted.
"You mean I should've been dead and buried months ago, hm?"
"Years, your Grace."
"Hah!" the King smiled then, a thin, cold line. "I live to disappoint."
"I have no opinion either way," the Merlin lied, but thankfully, the King had his eyes closed, and didn't seem to notice, waving him away wearily, instead.
"Go, go. Make your excuses to the Grandfae. Tell it the truth. As much detail as it needs. Gods know that we don't need the ire of three of the powers in the land. Not now."
"That will result in the release of Digby and the black hart."
"Why then," the King drawled, "Perhaps my dear remaining daughter will soon learn a valuable lesson in always ensuring that the job is convincingly done."
"At once, your Grace," the Merlin bowed, and started to leave the room, only for a coughed, "One more thing," to stop him at the threshold.
"You've been particularly friendly with Princess Roxanne, have you not?"
"She had always been interested in my work," the Merlin said, if cautiously.
"The walls have eyes and ears," the King growled, "And more besides. Don't warn her about Digby. We must all learn our lessons."
"… As you wish."
"But," the King added absently, "Tell her that if she brings the star back to me, and quickly, I will back her claim for the throne - regardless of whether she, or anyone, has found the Power of Stormhold."
The Merlin blinked. "But the red hart-"
"He thinks he can run circles around me because I'm old and bedridden," the King said, with another, rheumy laugh. "The harts have all chosen sides. Even the Captain."
"Your Grace, in actual fact-"
"Call it a precaution," the King interrupted wearily. "Digby is far enough not to inconvenience the Princess on her way home, but he will call his curses home to her, eventually, which suits me well enough. Now go. Go!"
The Merlin backed away hastily, closing the door, and walked briskly away, and only when he was back in his tower did he let out a slow breath, closing his eyes. Then he let it out, and checked on the scrying bowl, patching through to Percival Hart's vision, then to Harry's, then back. Percival was with the Princess on the top deck of the airship, at the helm, discussing the problem of Charles in low voices. Harry was in some sort of tailor shop, sorting through clothes, while the star stood by his side, looking bemused.
"Percival," said the Merlin, patching through to Percival, and the Princess jumped, startled, before he saw her smile, through Percival's spelled lenses.
"Ah, the Merlin. Harry was a little concerned about you. You haven't said a word in days."
"I've been very busy," the Merlin said truthfully, "Putting out fires. You and your siblings don't seem to understand the concept of subtlety, Princess."
"What's the score right now?" Roxanne asked casually.
"Hugo's on his way home in a casket, I do believe."
"Three more, then," Roxanne said grimly, and it was all that Merlin could do to hold his tongue.
"Four," Percival said, to the Merlin's relief. "Digby's not yet dead."
"Does it matter? He's far away."
"It always matters," Percival said cheerfully, "Particularly in a family hell bent on destroying each other, as it were."
"True." Roxanne sighed. "Did you have a message for me?"
"From your father. He bids you good health."
"Really?" Roxanne asked, amused.
"Well, not in so many words," admitted the Merlin. "But he has asked me to inform you that should you return to Stormhold with the star as quickly as you can, he will back your claim for the throne - regardless of whether you return with the Power of Stormhold."
Roxanne blinked, openly surprised for a moment before she composed herself. "But we are returning to Stormhold right now," she began, then hesitated. "Did he have aught to say about the red hart?"
Clever girl. "Not a word."
"Well," Roxanne said thoughtfully, "We were going to return regardless... unless he has other concerns. Tell me, Merlin. Why does my father seek the star?"
The Merlin hesitated, for a long moment, but the King had not instructed him to keep his peace, and besides, the Merlin did have a sinking feeling that perhaps the particular nature of the star was key to the prophecy after all. "Do you know why the Charnel Witches are immortal?"
Roxanne frowned. "What does that have to do with-"
"Because," the Merlin added briskly, "Each time a star falls, they acquire it, one way or the other. And by sharing the heart of a star between themselves, they can, for a while, cheat Time herself. Even eating a little of the heart of a star can cause the old to become young and hale again."
"Eating," Roxanne repeated, paling. "And Harry knows this?"
"It is not for me to advise what the red hart knows or does not know," the Merlin said uncomfortably, and wondered whether he had gone too far, with this; whether he should have held his tongue.
"All right," Roxanne clenched her hands tightly. "Thanks for telling me. I know it was difficult for you to do it."
"Princess," the Merlin began, uncertainly.
"I won't tell my father what you told me about the star," Roxanne assured him. "But as Percival loves to keep informing me," she added bitterly, "He is the King, and still is the King. And if he gets his way, perhaps he will always be King, then where will I be? I should've known that he would pull something like this."
"Princess," Percival said, more gently.
"I need to think about this." Roxanne hesitated. "Tell my father that I hear him, loud and clear. But. I think perhaps it's time that I had a word with my brothers, after all."
Princes and Princesses: 8
Amelia + Dapple = Deceased
Nathaniel + Pale = Deceased (Ninja edit: name change away from Stefan. Realized from IMDB that all the Kingsman candidates are actually named in the casting)
Hugo + Orange = Deceased
Digby + Black = Inconvenienced
Charles + Gold
Rufus + White
Roxy + Gray
Piers + Silver
Bors - Chestnut
Harry - Red
The glow from his skin was far less obvious in the midday light, and if the elderly shopkeeper noticed anything out of the ordinary, he didn't show it. He had long left them to their own devices, regardless, and could be heard shuffling around outside in the shop, occasionally humming tunelessly to himself. Harry's hands were warm and firm and pressed, with breathlessly casual possessiveness, over Eggsy's shoulders, studying Eggsy's reflection minutely, as though he was a sculptor, shaping clay.
"It's kinda tight," Eggsy said, just to break the thickening silence, and his voice sounded a little strangled even to his own ears.
"That's because it's tapered," Harry said absently. "We've no time to buy something fitted just for you, but we'll have time enough in Stormhold to get something better. Think of this as an interim set."
Eggsy shrugged, even as Harry seemed to belatedly remember where his hands were, and dropped them off Eggsy's shoulders. "I don't see what's the point, then."
"We have to avoid the City of Ivory and Glass, but we can explore the townships and cities that we pass on the way, if you wish. And you won't be able to do that without proper clothes."
"Oh." Eggsy perked up. "I can probably walk properly soon, too. Looking forward to it." He had graduated from crutches to a walking stick, and his foot still hurt, but it was getting better. "How's your shoulder?"
"Healing," Harry said dismissively. Harry had seemed bent on pretending that his injury had never happened, which was strange to Eggsy, but the crew did still seem mostly overawed by the harts, which might have been the point of it all. "It's a pleasant day. If you're not too tired, we can get a bite to eat, and find a suitable place to lunch."
"Sounds good," Eggsy said enthusiastically, and so Harry paid for his clothes, plus a spare set, then had the tailor pack it all up to send to the airship, including the spare boot that would otherwise have fit over Eggsy's splinted foot. Palynton was a small township that had grown outward from its little skyport: shops, taverns and mechanics clustered like little nested hives around the port, with their strange baked white mud brick walls and yellow thatch roofs, and housing sprawled beyond, in haphazardly tended gardens, melding one into another. Charming as the township looked, riotous with little white flowers growing wild against its old cobblestone streets, its townsfolk seemed a sober folk, incurious, none of them giving Eggsy or Harry much of a glance as they bought pies to go and punch to share, and headed up a gentle hill near the outskirts of Palynton to eat.
From where they sat on the grass, sitting on the skyweave shift, Eggsy felt self-conscious all over again, pressed knee to knee with Harry, the pie hot in his hands even with the paper wrapping, and he looked further out, to where the rolling grass faded into burned soil, to beyond, with the glimmer of some great sea, under a bank of clouds that sat unmoving, drawing thick shadows over silent, eerie ruins, some ship-like, if without sails, and some like large, odd towers.
"From the Lands of Men," Harry explained, following Eggsy's stare. "Through the Last Gate."
"Isn't Faerie still connected to the Lands through several gaps?"
"Aye. But none so large: most of the rest would allow perhaps a pair of horses to pass together, but no further. This great Gate spans half the sea beyond, under the clouds. Try as the best of the Diamond Age tried, they could not close it."
"That is a question better asked of scholars than of a layman like me," Harry admitted. "But the popular explanation is that it's far more difficult to close a Gate at sea than Gates on land, and this was the only Gate that spanned the sea."
"That one still looks new." Eggsy jerked his chin to the right, where there was a smaller, tower-like ruin, with bands of blackened flat metal and debris scattered around it, as though jammed into the soil itself from a great height.
"Things from the Lands of Men still come through now and then, I hear. Catastrophically."
"Not that we've seen."
"No one checks?"
"It's cursed ground, so the locals say. But I wouldn't know." Harry took a delicate bite from his pie, tilted his head, and concluded, "Hm. Adequate."
It was delicious, actually, but Eggsy was too glad of the company to correct him. "I think I remember this. It's open sea on the side of the Lands of Men, as well. But not a flat gate. More of an entire space, a triangle."
A strange note in Harry's voice prompted Eggsy to ask, "Have you been? Across a gap before? To the Lands of Men?"
"Not in the least." Harry eyed Eggsy in surprise. "Why would I be?"
"No King's business on the other side, I suppose."
"Even if there were, he wouldn't send a hart," Harry pointed out. "We'll lose the binding on our names. I wouldn't be able to shift, then."
"So you really like being a shapeshifter?" Eggsy found that he was hungry, after all, and wolfed down his pie, even as Harry stared pensively out over the ruined lands beyond, to the line of the sea, his own pie forgotten.
"It has its benefits," Harry said finally.
"Pays the bills, eh?"
"That it does."
"Won't your missus object? With you being away on business quite a bit?"
"I don't... have a 'missus'," Harry said carefully, and started to eat again, if halfheartedly. "None of the harts do."
"Part of the job description?" Eggsy prompted, and he wasn't sure how he felt about it, all of a sudden. If Harry had vowed to be celibate-
"Not... particularly," Harry said delicately. "It's just not usually a job given to long term commitments."
"Sounds lonely," Eggsy said, challengingly, and this time, Harry smiled, wry and soft.
"I suppose it is, in a way. But it is a life of service to the Crown. To be named to the Kingsmen is a great honour, and one that I am proud of."
Eggsy mulled this over as he finished his pie and started to lick his fingers clean, only to be stopped by a strangely intense look from Harry - self consciously, he wiped his hands clean on the paper wrapper instead. Mortals had all sorts of strange hang-ups. "Is that how it is with all of you?"
"What do you mean?"
"Percival's with the Princess, innit? Like a bodyguard?"
"Also an assistant, her closest friend, an advisor, a confidant, brother, father, all at once," Harry said. "The harts who are assigned to the Princes and Princesses are fully committed to their charges."
"Not the Crown, then?"
"Not... not particularly. Not at this delicate time," Harry amended, and at Eggsy's questioning glance, added, "The King of Stormhold is dying, Eggsy. He's an old man, and very ill."
"Who's next in line?"
"They all are," Harry said wryly.
"Isn't that a... really dumb way of doing it? Kinda messy?" Eggsy blinked.
"You have no idea. It's the unfortunate product of a monarchy that has always been very much a meritocracy, I presume. In the High Seat, there is no space for softness... or weakness. Those who cannot outmaneuver their peers have no place on the throne. It was worse before, so I hear," Harry added. "For prior to this particular King, the country was in a near-constant state of poverty-driven civil unrest."
"Has there been a year where everyone died?"
Harry laughed, that startled little laugh that Eggsy decided that he did like very much indeed. "Strangely enough? Not so far. But I wouldn't put it beyond this particular group."
"I like Princess Roxanne." Eggsy admitted. "She's fierce and funny and don't seem to take shit from anyone."
Harry grimaced a little at the invective. "She is very charming."
"You don’t like her?"
"I like her," Harry corrected. "But I wouldn't trust her. Like her siblings, the Princess has but one goal only: to ascend to the throne. She may smile and laugh with you now, but she will be absolutely ruthless about it all, if she has to, and like the rest of her brothers, she can be thoroughly unsentimental about getting where she wants to be."
"How about you?" Eggsy dared ask then. "Are you like that?"
"I think," Harry said carefully, studying Eggsy with that strange look on his face again, pie forgotten, "That in this matter I might be becoming thoroughly sentimental, as it were."
"All the poetry we have, to describe all that is exquisite in the world, would yet be inadequate where you are concerned," Harry whispered, leaning closer, until Eggsy could focus on nothing else, until he could hear little else than his own soft breaths, "It's painful sometimes, to even look at you. Mortal folk aren't made to know perfection in any form."
"I think I can help you with that," Eggsy said softly, and leaned over, under the burnished warmth of the afternoon, to steal a kiss from the red hart.
Eggsy had almost recovered fully from his injury, though he still had a limp, and he had made his way carefully further down the stream, towards the mouth of the valley, which fed out through to the gray tundra steppes of the Wyrmfang Brace. There he stood, in knee high grass bleached almost the colour of bone by the leywinds that often swept off the Wyrmfang, and raised his chin up towards the late morning sun, the wind blowing out his hair into a crown above his brow as he laughed and raised his hands, palms up against the breeze, like a joyous supplicant to the sky eternal.
Harry had not exaggerated before, when he had said that sometimes it hurt to look at something too beautiful: he could watch Eggsy for a moment only before he cast his gaze back out over the plain. "It's not safe to linger here," he told Eggsy. "The Wyrmfang Brace is sometimes called the Bone Plains for fair reason."
"What's out there?"
"Bandits. Roaming, semi-feral nomadic tribes. Sere wolves. More. Life is short and brutal out over a land upon which grows nothing but grass that cannot be eaten."
"You've been here before, then?" Eggsy had lowered his palms, and for a moment, Harry silently rebuked himself for destroying a little of the star's unabashed joy at a world that he was seeing anew, but Eggsy was grinning challengingly, not frowning, the cheek of the lovely creature, and it was beginning to hurt again to look upon him.
"Only in passing," Harry admitted, for he'd had to ford the Undying Wane in order to get quickly towards the City of Ivory and Glass on a diplomatic mission of utmost importance, in what felt like an age away, when he had been younger, and more unsentimental, and not particularly swayed by the impossibly beautiful.
"In your other skin?"
"I was on a horse, actually." Eggsy began to look puzzled, and Harry explained, "It's a right bother using the other skin where people are likely to see you. It's a rather recognisable guise, after all."
"But it's all right if the Princess is around?" Eggsy asked, a rather incomprehensible question until Harry heard the faintest of scrapes behind him, and his hand nearly jumped to the hilt of his longsword by habit. Instead, he half turned, with a sigh, as the gray hart trotted up sedately to draw level with them on the grass, the Princess seated primly on his back.
"What's all right?" Roxy asked, and grinned impishly at the both of them.
"For Percival to walk around as a hart when you're around, Princess," Eggsy explained patiently. "Harry said that he didn't like to wear his other skin where people might see. I don't know why," Eggsy added, when Roxy's grin widened. "I happen to think that the red hart looks rather splendid."
"You've been spending far too much time with him and his silvered tongue, that's for certain," Roxy drawled, her eyes uncomfortably knowing as she glanced over at Harry. "Personally, I think the gray hart is clearly the most handsome hart. In this skin, anyway. In the other, not so much."
"Why thank you, milady." Percival flicked the ambarite-pierced ear back a fraction, pretending to preen.
"You've never gone riding before, have you?" Roxy said innocently, ignoring Harry as he started to frown at her. "It's a grand thing on a horse, and grander yet on a hart. They're faster than horses, and their gaits are far smoother, like flying."
"Nor are they particularly meant to be beasts of burden," Harry said pointedly, transferring his glare to Percival, but Percival blithely ignored him.
"No one's talking about being beasts of burden," Roxy shot back. "Just about having a little bit of fun between friends. Nothing wrong with that, aye?"
"I suppose not," Eggsy said brightly, looking rather too enthusiastic about it all.
"How about a race?" Roxy invited. "Gray against red. Out over the tundra."
"I'll fall off," Eggsy said dubiously. "I've never done something like that before."
"You fell out of the sky and landed here with nary an injury save a broken ankle, which healed up far more quickly than it should've," Roxy patted the gray hart's neck. "C'mon. If you roll off one of them, you'd probably just bounce off the ground without even a bruise."
"Well..." Eggsy trailed off, then looked over at Harry, his eyes beseeching and hopeful all at once. "Could we?"
Harry had intended to say no, and gracefully, and rebuke his compatriot and the Princess in the same breath, but under those brilliant green eyes what he ended up doing was changing his skin, instead, if with a reluctant sigh, and kneeling to allow Eggsy to clamber onto his back. Roxy let out a whoop as the red hart got to its feet and took a few steps, to allow Eggsy to find his balance.
"Does your foot hurt?" Harry asked, through his own ambarite earring.
"Not like this." Eggsy had a hand splayed against Harry's neck, like this, warm and soft. "I'm so falling off," he told the Princess, if with laughter in his voice, and for another irrational moment, Harry wished that he could see the joy no doubt writ large on Eggsy's face.
"Well then, the good thing about a hart is that they come with handles." Roxy tapped a nail up against one of the gray hart's antlers.
"Antlers, gracious me," Percival corrected, sounding hurt. "'Handles', by Jove! If you fall off, I shan't stop to check."
"Don't you dare," Harry told Eggsy, then relented a little when his passenger wobbled slightly at his next stride. "Well, only if you truly have to."
"We'll race to that rock over there," Roxy waved vaguely at a distant speck that rose out of the tundra grass.
"Isn't this place meant to be full of wolves and bandits?" Eggsy asked, though he wobbled a little more, then seemed to opt for putting his arms around the red hart's neck, cheek pressed against the fur, and Harry was far too conscious, all of a sudden, of how Eggsy was moulded against him, how close he was, this way.
"Feh, wolves and bandits," Roxy rolled her eyes. "Two Kingsmen should be enough for wolves and bandits, surely."
Some of the crew wandered out to watch them, once it became obvious that a race was limbering up, and in the end it was the quartermaster, Michelle, who 'drew' a line in the turf, using two rocks that the Crows hauled out of the stream, and it was the cook's apprentice who whistled loudly to start the race, one foot on a stone, flapping a rag in the air. Roxy let out another whoop of excitement, and they were off, the strides of both harts eating up the ground, Eggsy's grip growing a touch tighter, Roxy seated straight-backed as though she were riding a horse, her balance impeccable even when saddleless.
Worried when Eggsy shifted awkwardly, Harry nearly slowed down, but then Eggsy began to laugh, shouting something at Roxy that the wind stole, and Harry lengthened his stride instead, to inch past the gray hart, and though they were almost neck to neck when they blew past the stone, when they slowed to a more sedate trot, Harry could see from Roxy's pout that the gray hart had lost.
"Pretty close," Eggsy allowed, and he sounded breathless with joy as he straightened up clumsily on Harry's back, petting his neck again, absently, and it was easy to just enjoy this, easy to forget.
Instead, Harry said primly, "This is remarkably undignified."
"Says you," Roxy shot back, then yelled, "Race you back!" The gray hart surged around, heading back towards the valley, and Harry found himself giving chase, as arms wrapped back around his neck.
Eggsy could only stare in breathlessly awed wonder. He had seen the Midsummer City before, of course, from above: had watched it grow from an unsteady and clannish brace of half fae tribes to its rise to something as close to a world power as Faerie could get. Dimly, he could hear Percival and Harry discussing something about how they would reach Stormhold within the next few days or so, but he wasn’t listening, gawking as they drew level with the Midsummer City’s skyport, a marvel of natural engineering, with vast oak trees and branches leashed and shaped together to form cavernous berths of leaves and bark, frozen in a hundred thousand shades of summer and autumn. The harbour guard, a mouse fae with a tiny, slender rapier at its hip and a little purple and gold jacket of Midsummer livery, guided the Lady Swank into berth, waving imperiously from its perch above a gray gyrhawk, and landed on the rail when they anchored to discuss anchorage fees with Harry.
“Wow,” Eggsy breathed, impatient to be off to explore. The skyport was one of the largest in Faerie, easily able to rival that of the City of Ivory and Glass according to Percival, and ranks upon ranks of airships of varying sizes and makes sat along two great leafy corridors, sunlight mottling the cargo floor below, where port labour scurried about, hauling crates and barrels and bales of cloth and brilliantly coloured luggage all at breakneck speed, yet Eggsy saw no accidents.
“Better from up close, isn’t it?” Princess Roxanne asked, beside him.
“It’s the first time I’ve seen it too,” Roxy admitted, a little wryly. “I’m the youngest, you see. I haven’t had the chance to tour Faerie yet. Not like how my oldest brothers have done.”
“You could always visit again,” Eggsy said blithely. “After all this. Maybe,” he added uncomfortably, as he recalled that Roxy was, after all, still embroiled in what was essentially a deadly sibling dispute which had encompassed an entire kingdom and beyond.
“Maybe,” Roxy echoed wistfully, leaning over the rail at the prow and watching the noise and chaos below. “We’re going to be here for three days to refuel and do a few repairs. I’m going to spend it shopping. You can come along if you like.”
Eggsy glanced over at Harry, who had finished paying up the harbour fees, and was striding over, Percival at his heels. “I dunno,” Eggsy said, uneasy all over again. “After the Midsummer City, we’ll be back in Stormhold, yeah?”
“The weather permitting, yes,” Harry said, with no inflection in his tone. “I’ve come to the Midsummer City many times. It’ll be my pleasure to show you around, if you like.”
“I asked him first,” Roxy interjected, though she grinned.
“Maybe on the second day or something,” Eggsy decided. “I think I’ve kinda had enough of shopping for now.”
“Just because of Palynton? Pssh. There’s more to shopping than clothes and-“
“And auctions?” Percival pointed out wryly, and Roxy blanched.
“Ah! Yes of course. I’m sorry, Eggsy.”
“No, no. I wasn’t thinking about that,” Eggsy assured her. “I just wanna spend the first day walking around gawping at things, that’s all. You do your thing. Meet you back at the ship tomorrow morning?”
“At the eleventh bell,” Roxy decided. “We can have lunch. Come on, Percival. Now that we’re finally in some sort of civilised surroundings, I can’t wait to find some place with a warm bath.”
Somewhat bemused again, Eggsy watched as Roxy strode down over the gangplank the moment it was raised, Percival ghosting at her heels as she swept past the harbour guard and into the crowds. Eggsy glanced up, as Harry pressed a palm lightly on the small of his back.
“Would you like a tour?” Harry invited. “The Midsummer City is oft thought of as the jewel of Faerie.”
“But you don’t think so?”
“I think the City of Ivory and Glass is rather more to my taste. It’s rather a pity that we couldn’t stop by this time round.”
Harry’s smile turned faintly wry. “Much of Stormhold’s buildings were created abruptly, within the last fifty years. I do love my country, but its architecture oft has little history to it.”
“And this place does?” Eggsy ambled off the gangplank and to the twisted interwoven branchwork that made up the walkway to which the ship was moored.
“The Midsummer City is very much a stolen city,” Harry said delicately, his voice pitched just for Eggsy’s ears. “For during the Diamond Age it was the greatest power in the land, and it swept the world itself, and in conquest, used magic to repossess a great number of what was beautiful in the world, transplanting it to Wave’s End.”
“Kinda an odd way to do things,” Eggsy said doubtfully, as they started to pick their way through the crowds, towards the huge archway of two twinned oaks, at the far end of the skyport, passing a sleek blue-finned racer as they did so, its owner, a sleek green Kingfisher fae haggling loudly and angrily with harbour officials over some sort of tax or other.
“A consequence of unregulated magic, perhaps,” Harry commented.
“So magic’s regulated everywhere else?”
“Even here. We’ve all learned from the Diamond Age,” Harry corrected smoothly. “Magic has waned in the world, and for most of the rest of the world, only practitioners with training, learning and proven character are allowed to practice magic. Oh, there are hedge wizards and witches and rogue practitioners about, but mostly, things are fairly civilised.”
“Most of the world?”
“Most, but not in Midsummer,” Harry said heavily. “Here, magic is seen as part and parcel of everyday life. A right, not a responsibility. Cantrips and tomes are easily available to anyone; only the most destructive of its forms are heavily restricted. And as such, illicit magic in Wave’s End are common, as are magic-related deaths and injuries.”
“Why don’t they fix it then?” Eggsy asked, puzzled. “If the rest of the world controls it?”
“Because,” Harry said wryly, as they made their way down a leafy, graceful stairway to the packed ground floor, “E’er since it was a world power in the Diamond Age, Midsummer has believed itself the very best kingdom in the world, often despite evidence to the contrary, and it thinks that the opinion of the rest of the world matters little.”
“But if there’s accidents and deaths all the time,” Eggsy persisted, frowning, “Then shouldn’t they figure it out anyway?”
“So you would think,” Harry lifted a shoulder into a light shrug. “The law in the land that gives the Midsummer People the right to use magic was wrought at the beginning of the Lunar Age, when marauders were common, and magic was on the wane; spells were harder to cast, and spells that did murder on a large scale were too complex save for those of surpassing power. In this age, magic is not as rich as it was in the Diamond Age, but it can still be deadly. Still, the law lingers. As does the culture of it all.”
Eggsy had already come to a halt, distracted. The archway of the great skyport fed out to a vast boulevard, lined with lush hedges dotted with sweet-smelling, riotously coloured flowers, sloping down towards a sprawling metropolis of gigantic trees, each earmarked by patchwork structures: here an ivory tower, with a red-slate dome roof, there a stepped pyramid, its burnished sandstone flanks overgrown with thick roots.
And the people! Eggsy had never seen so many people all at once: such a detail had not been obvious when he had been cradled in the sky. As he stared, wide eyed, the boulevard flowed on, like the veins of a river grown sluggish with age, and through the smorgasbord of Man-kin, of fae, of half fae and everything in between, there were strange, teetering carts, hung with brightly patterned brocade.
“What are those?” Eggsy had to raise his voice to get himself heard over the crowd, pointing.
“It’s not polite to point,” Harry said, with gentle rebuke, but explained, “They’re homesteads. Shared by smaller fae, often pulled by a bigger one. Communal travelling households. You won’t see them anywhere in Faerie but here.”
“Where should we go first?” Eggsy asked, dazzled by the spectacle, feeling, despite his true age, utterly gawkish and out of place.
“The Repository, I think,” Harry decided. “For you have yet to learn how to return to the sky, have you?”
Reality dropped back in place like a cold deluge. “Oh. Um. Oh of course.”
“Or we could tour the city,” Harry said, his palm petting reassuringly up Eggsy’s spine and back down, “It’s up to you.”
“The Repository it is. It’s a good idea,” Eggsy agreed, and swallowed hard, and pretended to have his attention diverted by a fae white rhino, apologising constantly as it minced its way carefully through one of the arteries of the most spectacular cities in Faerie.
All things, however, came to an end, even the stars, and perhaps his forced holiday on mortal earth too would soon pass. Eggsy felt a slight sting in his eyes, but he took a few deep breaths, of the earthen smell of the Midsummer City, of spices and animal fur and feather, and composed himself. All things had to end.
“Nothing,” Eggsy said, and though he did look a little glum, it wasn’t quite as crushing a disappointment as Harry had thought he would see the star wearing.
“Nothing,” Harry echoed. “The Repository isn’t everything, of course. I could send discreet inquiries to the City of Ivory and Glass-“
“No. That’s fine.” Eggsy interrupted, and hooked his thumbs into the pockets of his new coat. “I actually… rather like it in Faerie,” he admitted, all in a rush. “At least for now. I mean. I got to meet you, and Roxy, and Percival and Michelle and the others. It’s been a grand adventure so far.”
“Getting knocked out of the sky, sold off and-“
“Well, there was that too,” Eggsy agreed, with an impish grin. “But it’s not any sort of grand adventure if there aren’t any gnarly bits.”
“So what now?” Harry asked uneasily. “You’ll find a place to hide, instead?”
“What about you?” Eggsy challenged.
Harry stared at him for a long moment, then he said, “I’ll do my duty. Eventually.”
“You can’t come with me?” Eggsy invited, plaintively, and for an all too uncomfortable moment, Harry was most sorely tempted. “It’ll be fun. I’ll love to see Faerie. You’ve been everywhere: you probably know everything.”
“Not everything,” Harry said tiredly, though he managed a wan smile. “I appreciate the thought.”
“But you’re gonna say ‘no’,” Eggsy guessed, and sighed, frustrated. “Well then. Say I go back with you to Stormhold and meet your King. What then?”
“I think,” Harry said delicately, “That doing so would not be in your best interests.”
Eggsy studied him for a long moment, as they waded out into the foot traffic in the Autumnal Lane, circling back to the Heartwood, where the better inns were. This circuitous route took them close to the Scar, an ugly gash of wasted rock upon which no grass would grow, trailing through deeper into the Midsummer City.
“Where does that go?” Eggsy asked, seemingly distracted again.
“To the Gate in this City. It’s closed now,” Harry added, and hoped that Eggsy would not ask why.
“Funny that. The gaps in the Wall aren’t all closed up elsewhere. Was it that big?”
“No. But it’s cursed. Royalty was murdered there.” For the greatest Merlin of them all had dragged the Queen of Midsummer to the Gate, while she had fought him, cursed him, and finally, begged him, and had thrown her out into the Lands of Men, to a fate that was to the Lady Titania no doubt worse than death. So had the wars that marred the Diamond Age ended, and with it came the wane of the might of Midsummer. The slow decline of magic itself.
“Oh.” Eggsy blanched, and thankfully asked no more questions, unconsciously stepping a little closer, instead, as they hurried with the other Faerie folk past the Scar, to the better lit avenues of the Heartwood.
They took rooms in the Silver Horn, which had the particular luxury of spelled bathtubs, wrought to create heated water on the whim of inn guests, and Eggsy had dipped his hands into the water, fascinated. “Wow. Is this what Roxy was talking about?”
“Something key to civilisation, yes.” Harry said indulgently, then stiffened up as Eggsy started to unbutton his vest. “Eggsy-“
“Since it’s hot and fresh and all, I want a dip,” Eggsy pointed out.
“Ah, of course. I’ll… meet you… I mean I’ll wait in the rooms.”
“Looks big enough for the both of us to me,” Eggsy said, with that gorgeously cheeky grin of his, and this was a resoundingly bad idea, and one of the worst decisions that Harry could make, at this point, and yet he ended up shedding his own clothes, making sure that both their clothes were neatly folded on a side bench before stepping into the tub, bespelled spectacles set aside and turned face down on their things. His shoulder ached, the bandages growing wet, but pain seemed suddenly trivial.
Harry was almost certain that this was all a fever dream, as Eggsy grinned at him again, so very lovely - all unselfconscious joy, no coyness or pretense as he splashed into the tub, their limbs fitting awkwardly for a moment before Harry pulled Eggsy closer, to take his mouth, to taste the exquisite creature in his lap for a moment more in time. This time, there was nothing else between them to ruin it; as Harry pressed his tongue into Eggsy’s mouth, sensation was just the wet warmth of him, the obscene, shuddering gasp that Eggsy bruised to a whimpering halt against Harry’s lips.
Eggsy’s beautiful, soft hands patted nervously against Harry’s arms before Harry set them on his shoulders and pulled Eggsy greedily closer with a palm pressed against his spine; and it was small wonder that people only meted violence in the name of greed or poverty. For a taste like this had already burned hunger in a waking roil under Harry’s skin, had drawn his blood into a dull simmer; a taste like this was a momentary and unexpected richness made all the sweeter by Eggsy’s unashamed inexperience.
Harry’s hands were greedy as they stroked up and down Eggsy’s back, hungry as they kneaded the pert flesh of Eggsy’s rump, demanding as he closed fingers around Eggsy’s swelling cock. Against Harry’s mouth, Eggsy made a noise like a wounded bird, fluttery and shocked, but then he pushed his hips into Harry’s grip and squeezed his knees tighter against Harry’s hips. It took only a few firm tugs for Eggsy to abruptly bury his mouth against Harry’s neck with a cry that sounded like a single sweet note plucked from a lyre of a soul, that trembled and hummed in gasping aftershocks against Harry’s skin, burning the moment of this theft of immortal innocence into his bones.
They sat in silence for a long moment, Harry stroking Eggsy’s back, his arms, his own arousal ignored for now as the bespelled tub purified the water, the jagged musk of sex fading back to faint lavender, then Eggsy started to laugh, his cheek pressed over Harry’s shoulder, joyous.
“I thought there was more to it all,” Eggsy teased, and there was mirth in his voice, and innocence yet, brazen as it was.
“You’ll teach me?”
“If you wish,” Harry breathed, and it was his turn to groan and squirm as Eggsy closed his hands tentatively around his cock. “Careful of the tip,” Harry murmured, as Eggsy started to stroke him, “And the pressure… here, like so,” he added, as he wrapped his own fingers around Eggsy’s, encouraging him to squeeze tight as he tugged down. Eggsy sat back to look, through the water, clearly fascinated and not hiding it, and Harry didn’t urge him on, content to be washed along this slow wake of pleasure stitched tight by Eggsy’s wonder, gasping as Eggsy cupped his balls with his free hand, curious. “Not too hard on those,” Harry advised, his voice going strained.
“You don’t seem to be as quick,” Eggsy said uncertainly. “Is it bad?”
“Not at all,” Harry assured him, quick to pull Eggsy over for a kiss, sloppy this time, wrenched out of Harry’s usual self control with urgency and lust, his teeth catching briefly on Eggsy’s lip, “I am not young by the way mortals count time, however, and I want to enjoy this for as long as I can.” It was an immeasurable luxury to have a stolen moment like this, Harry knew now, where he could for a time ignore his own cares, kiss the smile that stole back over Eggsy’s plush mouth, until, dazed at the end and drunk on all that he had now and all that he had to lose, release seemed merely like a sunken coda to this privilege of a perfect afternoon.
Eggsy was sleepy when Harry dried them both off and urged him into bed, curling on the sheets against Harry with a yawn. With the curtains drawn down in their suite of rooms, the star’s glow was obvious again, a breath of moonlight over the sheets and Harry’s skin, pushing through his killer’s fingers, as he rubbed a splayed palm lightly down Eggsy’s supple flank.
If Percival was dismayed or amused he did not show it, instead cheerfully asking Eggsy about his day, while Roxy filled in the gaps with inconsequential comments bantered limply with the red hart over the walnut and almond cheese salad, trading halfhearted reminisces over the spiced wine and seed bread. Her father’s promise and the closeness of Stormhold weighed in on her, but all Roxy could think of were the missives that she had burned, the evening before, up on the Tower of the Raven in the Midsummer City, where the Ravenmaster had sent Midsummer’s wraiths on her behalf to find her brothers, where the wraiths had returned quickly enough, bearing her brothers’ sigils.
It was perhaps in a way a betrayal, of sorts, but Roxy found that she wasn’t sentimental about it after all. She had never hidden where she had stood on any matter, even this, and in a way it was more of a test of Percival’s loyalty, a final one, to see if he could lunch with Harry and say nothing of consequence at all.
“The Graven had nothing to say about it?” Percival asked, surprised. “Even Lady Ionida?”
“We had to be careful around her,” Harry said delicately. “But although she had some ideas about how one might cause a star to fall, she did not know how a star might be returned to the sky.”
“Careful around her?” Roxy repeated, frowning slightly. “Why-“
“Don’t you remember her?” Percival asked dryly. “She was your tutor once. In astronomy.”
“You mean…” Roxy wrinkled her nose. “Charys?” She vaguely recalled a smiling woman, with silver creeping into her hair, and lessons that seemed to drone on forever. “Didn’t she pinch your rump once?”
Percival coughed, even as Harry arched an eyebrow and Eggsy giggled. “That old lady with a beaklike nose?” Eggsy guffawed. “Really?”
“Of all the things to remember from your lessons,” Percival said, resigned. “But yes. Her.”
“She just disappeared one day,” Roxy confessed. “I don’t remember why. Tutors come and go.”
“Yes,” Harry said mildly. “She made an unfortunate public statement about your father after the Mycenaen, when he decided to crush the labour unions rather than negotiate. She was too highborn a figure to get rid of, however, and as such the previous Bors was tasked with escorting her very firmly to the skyport and making sure she boarded an airship out of Stormhold.”
“That was… gentle of him,” Roxy said doubtfully.
“She was your father’s second cousin by marriage,” Harry shrugged. “And besides, matters like these were never personal to your father. Getting rid of the Lady Ionida would have caused trouble in the noble ranks, allowing her to stay would’ve been worse, and humiliating her would’ve served no purpose.”
Roxy managed to hold the red hart’s uncomfortable stare for only a moment before she averted her eyes, even as she grit her teeth and wished that she hadn’t. “I don’t remember her,” Roxy said, perhaps a little too defensively.
“Were you all taught in a group?” Eggsy asked curiously, seemingly oblivious to the byplay. “You and your brothers?”
“No, of course not. I was the youngest.” Roxy seized on the change of topic gratefully. “We all had private tutors. Probably for the best,” Roxy added dryly, “Nobody wants ascension wars to start in the classroom.”
“I was wondering about that,” Eggsy said tentatively. “I mean. Why does it have to even happen at all? Why doesn’t your father just name one of you? Or your mother?”
Roxy dared a glance at Harry, but Harry was pointedly picking through his salad, as though he had tuned out the conversation, and even as Percival started to reply, Roxy reached over to silence him, with a press of her fingers against his thigh, under the table. “It happens because it’s always happened,” Roxy said distantly. “As ‘enlightened’ as my father has been, he’s never particularly liked any of us. He didn’t see us as his children, just as possible replacements. The first Queen drank herself to death. The second Queen, my mother, jumped from a watchtower in the High Seat in the week after my birth.”
Eggsy paled. “Sorry I asked,” he said, after a long and uncomfortable pause.
“No. I don’t remember her. But I suppose perhaps you were to ask, if my father cared about his legacy and about the kingdom, why did he not choose an heir? Or why didn’t he just have one child and one spare?” Roxy noted neutrally. “Because we were not just replacements. We were competition and an audience both. We were given an education in all matters of state and governance, armed with the right knowledge, given only the right amount of power. Because my father has always performed his best when he had rivals, and when he had none other left in the land, I suppose he had to make his own.”
This time, Harry looked up at her, and Roxy stared back, bracing herself. “But all things must end,” Roxy continued slowly. “And the King is old and sick, and I intend to be Queen.”
“You are not Queen yet,” Harry said softly, in a voice like flint, and speared a small orange tomato with his fork, without dropping his stare.
“Sounds like a lonely life,” Eggsy said, a strange catch to his voice that took Roxy a moment to recognise as sympathy, and she nearly laughed. For she had been born a Princess to Stormhold, one possible heir to a wealth and power that now matched even the City of Ivory and Glass, to a life that few could even dream of. And yet-
“I was never lonely,” Roxy said decisively, and clasped Percival’s shoulder, heard his soft and almost inaudible intake of breath, and bent her attention back to her soup. “What about you?” she asked, after a spoonful. “What was it like up there? With the other stars?”
“I can’t describe it,” Eggsy said apologetically.
“But you miss it, don’t you?” Roxy asked, curious all over again. There had been no wistfulness in Eggsy’s voice, no sadness.
“S’pose I should,” Eggsy said hesitantly, and grinned when Roxy blinked at him in surprise. “And perhaps someday I will. We never do forget the lives that we come from. But I don’t mind this new life, at least not right now. I like all of you. Learning new things. Even eating!” Eggsy popped a crunchy yellow flower into his mouth. “It’s great,” he added, indistinctly.
“Don’t speak with your mouth full,” Harry said absently, and tensed up, very slightly, as the half-fae waitress with the raccoon face glided over to refill their cups with sweet ambserseed ale. Percival’s fingers had also pressed lightly to the table, relaxing only when the waitress bustled away, and Eggsy chuckled, watching her go.
“Doesn’t that get tiring? Suspecting everyone all the time of the worst?”
“Actually I find it invigorating,” Percival said cheerfully, “And because we suspect the worst of everyone, we’re hardly ever disappointed when something wrong does happen.”
“You’re beginning to make me think that Stormhold is some sort of lawless land,” Eggsy teased, though he was looking at Harry as he said it.
“Well, not all of it. I’ve always had my suspicions about the Merchant’s Quarter though,” Percival said thoughtfully.
“Don’t listen to him. I’ll show you around when we get there,” Roxy assured him, watching Harry out of the corner of her eyes. “Not that there’s any real hurry, I think. We’re nearly there already, aren’t we? We could always wait a day or so more in Midsummer. There’s lots to see here.”
Harry frowned at her, but Roxy pretended not to see it, even as Eggsy said delightedly, “If you’re not in a hurry to get back-“
“Why should I be?” Roxy pulled a face. “I mean. I haven’t found that stupid chain. That a certain someone left lying around in a forest.”
“I guess if it’s really that big a deal,” Eggsy said doubtfully, “We could swing ‘round and pick it up?”
“Where’s the fun in that?” Roxy asked casually. “I’m sure one of my brothers has found it by now. Whoever that is will be gunning for the rest of us.”
“I thought… Harry said - whoever found the Power of Stormhold would rule the High Seat,” Eggsy said, confused.
“In theory, yes. But all the rest of us would be dead ends,” Roxy pointed out. “And if there’s one thing that all of us inherited from the King, it’s thoroughness. But enough of that,” she said brightly. “How does another day or two in Midsummer sound like?”
“Princess,” Harry began cautiously, but Eggsy had already cut in enthusiastically. “Sounds great to me! I wasn’t looking forward to running off so quick,” he added, when Harry turned to look at the star, “I mean, we’ve only been here one day and a bit.”
“Perhaps an extra day then,” Harry said, in a tone that didn’t bother to hide his suspicion, but Roxy smiled sweetly at the red hart anyway, just to annoy him, and swallowed her own relief.
“What’s the point of it then?” Eggsy asked, as they sat together in the balcony of their suite, looking out over one of the many park squares, ringed with flat slabs of stone that encircled a small squat marble dais, upon which a fae kingfisher sat, warbling to uncaring traffic.
“To inform only those who need to know of what needs to be known,” Harry said cryptically, though he smiled gently as he did so, and leaned over to kiss Eggsy on the temple, lips brushing down to his ears. “He speaks of a Senate decision, of a bill that has passed both the House and Senate and the purvey of the Keeper of the Many.”
“That not happen often?” Eggsy asked, for there was something of amusement in Harry’s tone, like that of an indulgent neighbour.
“Not on anything truly of import. Take today for example,” Harry gestured in the direction of the enthusiastically warbling kingfisher. “The bill involved a resolution to affirm the annual budget put forward by the Graven for the upkeep of the Repository.”
“Ain’t that a big thing? That heart tree’s huge.”
“The same budget’s been approved for two Ages,” Harry said wryly. “And still it took them a week to debate it in the House, and then two weeks in the Senate.”
“How does anything get done?” Eggsy blinked.
“I’m not entirely sure of that myself. They took well upon a year to agree on a replacement Inquisitor for the one who last retired. The judiciary was in disarray for months.”
“Wasn’t there a Queen here before? Wouldn’t there just be a new one even after the Merlin got rid of her?”
“The Merlin of that time instituted the Northlands’ Council-based style of governance after he threw the Queen into the Lands of Men,” Harry explained. “Where the people elected representatives into House, Senate, and the position of Keeper.”
“Sounds good to me,” Eggsy said doubtfully. “Fair.”
“It sounds fair, yes. But where you have a great number of people making decisions, you also create chaos,” Harry pointed out, “And this generation’s Keeper is particularly ill-equipped to deal with it, for he is a gentle man, and kind by nature.”
“And it is better,” Harry continued, “To be a wise man, feared and respected, than a kind man, loved but ignored. He is not here to father his kingdom, but to lead a kingdom, after all. Regardless, since the Diamond Age, the Midsummer City has been plagued with chaos.”
“So the monarchy is better?” Eggsy frowned.
“It has its own particular flaws. Rather than consider which system of governance is better, look at which leader is better, perhaps. Governance is a complex question often limited by luck and made intricate by populace.”
“Roxy seems pretty good to me,” Eggsy offered, with a pert grin, but Harry only regarded him seriously.
“She is ruthless enough, perhaps, but she is yet too young to be wise. Still, we shall see.”
“You didn’t seem happy that she wanted to wait a day more.”
“She’s up to something,” Harry grumbled, “And I don’t like not knowing what it is.”
“‘Course she’s up to something,” Eggsy shrugged, “Sounds like if she wasn’t, she’ll probably be dead, yeah? C’mon,” he added, more gently, daring to reach out to grasp Harry’s arm, sliding his palm up to Harry’s uninjured shoulder. “Stop worrying yourself sick.”
Harry kissed him willingly enough, when Eggsy drew close, but it took a few tries before Harry edged a palm around the small of Eggsy’s back, to pull him closer. Eggsy kissed Harry until he felt a tremor uncurl through the shoulders tensed under his palms, until he heard the smallest whisper of a groan, the first sign of Harry’s self-control wavering.
This time, there was far less elegance to Harry’s touch as his fingers pulled at Eggsy’s clothes, a stuttered cadence to his breathing as Eggsy nipped him, then blooded him when the groan shuddered deeper, pressed the copper tang between their tongues as they tumbled onto the bed, Eggsy scrambling instinctively for balance, Harry’s hands clenched on his hip and against the back of his neck. The rest of their clothes were kicked off in eddying skins, to rope up in the folds of the quilts as Harry rolled them over, pinned Eggsy when Eggsy bucked against him and anchored his fingers against the meat of Harry’s back, blind against lust, his own frantic whimpers far too loud to his ears.
“You gorgeous creature,” Harry hissed against his ear, his spectacles long knocked off somewhere along with the rest of his kit, his longsword sliding off the bed in a clatter, “Do you even know what you’re begging me for?”
“I’ve looked at Faerie and at the Lands of Men for centuries,” Eggsy shot back, and reached down to curl dry fingers pointedly around Harry’s cock, laughing again when Harry gasped out a curse and then kissed him to silence him, growling when Eggsy twisted and bit, then some of the wildness seemed to leave Harry, his hands gentling as he rubbed his palms over Eggsy’s cheeks, the urgency melding into an awed sort of worship that was as thorough as it was tender, bruising his lips with it until Eggsy squeezed Harry’s cock again, wordlessly urging him on.
“Tell me if it gets too much,” Harry said, wrecked and choked as he sounded as he drew his way down, slicking over sweat and skin with openmouthed kisses and the occasional unintelligible whisper of praise, allowing the fingers rucked into his hair, gently pushing Eggsy’s thighs apart.
“What are you doing?” Eggsy asked, confused, then got his answer as Harry kissed the tip of his cock, wet and openmouthed still and far more obscene, his tongue dragging up the sensitive slit and then under the foreskin and curling and a scream was torn from Eggsy’s throat, the spike of pleasure a complete shock to his system, heels jerking into the quilt. Harry swallowed, greedy as anything, catching the rest in his palms and licking that up as well, until Eggsy pushed weakly at Harry’s uninjured shoulder.
Harry hesitated as he drew up, wiping his hands on the quilt, but he allowed Eggsy to pull him down, and lick up the mess; it was salty, and strange, but it was worth the strangeness, to have Harry choke out a curse, to have Harry start to suck his fingers, two at a time, then urge Eggsy’s hand down, to grasp Harry’s arousal, to cradle the pulse of it against the flat of his palm. Harry bit out a sound like a sob, against Eggsy’s neck, as he thrust into Eggsy’s slicked fingers, then he was silent save for the occasional hissed gasp, then he was still, and warm fluid painted a stripe over Eggsy’s belly.
It took Harry a moment to catch his breath, then he murmured, “Stay here,” and slipped off the bed, returning with a basin and a wet cloth, warmed from the water, to wipe Eggsy clean, his again gentle, worshipful, the reddened mark that Eggsy had left on Harry’s lip and the musk in the air the only hints now of what they had done.
Eventually Harry put the basin away, and sat on the side of the bed, only shifting over to lie down when Eggsy tugged at his arm. Eggsy tucked his head under Harry’s chin, to listen to his heartbeat, arching as callused fingers squeezed his shoulders, then curled down his back.
“Eggsy,” Harry said softly. “You should leave the Midsummer City. As soon as you can. Don’t tell me where you’re heading. I’ll give you the money-“
“Actually,” Eggsy interrupted, prodding Harry’s arm, then stroking up to the edge of the bandages, “I’m going to go with you to Stormhold.”
Harry sucked in a startled breath, then he let it out in a ragged sigh. “There’ll be nothing for you in Stormhold but sorrow, I think.”
“There’ll be you, and Roxy, and Percival, yeah? What is there for me out in the rest of Faerie but sorrow?” Eggsy asked, and brushed a kiss over Harry’s pulse, “For you will not be there, or anyone I know, and I’ll be alone. ‘Leastways, until I finally slip up and get caught and used for spells, or whatever everyone else wants with me skin.”
Eggsy had expected Harry to argue, or murmur some excuse and change the topic, or maybe - maybe - to offer to go with Eggsy instead, but instead, Harry was silent, and would not be budged, and in the end, Eggsy slept instead in the stolen city, warm, secure, dreaming.
Harry frowned at Roxanne over Eggsy’s shoulder, but Eggsy seemed entranced by the start, not disconcerted: he laughed, a clear and joyous note, nearly swallowed by the welter of haggling and singing and good-natured wrangling that made up the drumming, frenetic heartbeat of the Dawn Hollow.
Roxanne linked arms with Eggsy, grinning hugely at his obvious excitement. “Surprise! Do you like it? We had to see it, and it’s only once a week.”
“Is that why you wanted to stay an extra day?” Eggsy asked, and laughed again. “You were making Harry nervous.”
“Harry’s always worried over something or other,” Percival said dismissively, and smiled one of his gentle, unreadable smiles when Harry studied him.
“So I’ve seen,” Eggsy said, winking outrageously at Harry and making the Princess stifle a giggle. “What’s over there? Is that good to eat?”
“That? That’s chocolate,” Roxanne allowed herself to be tugged over to the closest stall, where a fae tortoiseshell cat was selling dipped strawberries in multicoloured chocolate swirls, each tapering to a delicate fish tail. “And if you haven’t eaten it before, you’re in for the best day of your life.”
“Really?” Eggsy asked, and hovered around excitedly as Roxanne bought a stick for herself and one for Eggsy, with both harts declining. Pleasure unfolded over Eggsy’s face a heartbeat after he popped the treat into his mouth, his eyes closing, a flush even climbing to his cheeks, and Roxanne laughed even as Harry could not help but stare, hopelessly yoked, mouth going dry.
“OhmfffGods,” Eggsy groaned, not a particularly good sound for Harry’s self-control, and his fingers curled a little, as he took in a slow breath to regain his poise; shattered again in the next as Eggsy gasped, “Harry - here,” and stepped right into his arms, tugging down his chin before Harry could twist politely away, kissing him, chocolate and strawberry juice, all decadent ruin.
They kissed until Percival pointedly cleared his throat, and it was all Harry could do just to cough and rearrange his cravat, while Eggsy smirked, clearly unrepentant, an arm still hooked around Harry’s waist. The Princess pretended not to have seen it, graciously buying Eggsy another chocolate-dipped fruit, and it felt strange to walk through the market like this, Eggsy pressed against his flank, like lovers, a lie as impossible as it was beautiful.
The Dawn Hollow had only a fraction of the wonders that pervaded the Faerie Market, but it was a friendlier place, more laughter, more music; to their right, there was a swell of oohs and applause as some mage lit up the hollow trunk with an upward swirl of multicoloured, illusory birds, in a flock that shot up towards the brightening sky.
“I forgive you for waking us up so rudely,” Eggsy told Roxanne, for the Princess had sent a rather insincerely apologetic Percival to pound on their door an hour before the break of dawn to ‘invite’ them to the market, and Eggsy had been rather put out by all the fuss.
“Rudely?” Roxanne feigned hurt. “My instructions to Percival were to be polite and respectful.”
“I knocked on the door instead of breaking into the room,” Percival pointed out, and at Harry’s sigh, he added, “Be grateful for small mercies, old friend.”
They walked a circuit around the external ring of stalls, until Eggsy’s mouth was sticky with honey and his fingers dusty with powdered sugar, a little tipsy from warm elderflower wine, laughing as Roxanne dragged him bodily over to a a store to investigate smoked strips of fruit and mushrooms.
“You’ve watched the Lands of Men since the beginning,” Roxy said, as they walked away, hands full of charred sticks. “Is it true what they say? That those who live without magic are barbarians?”
“Depends,” Eggsy tilted his head. “What d’you think is a barbarian?”
“Is it true,” Roxy lowered her voice conspiratorially, “That everywhere in the Lands of Men, women are seen as second to men?”
“Not everywhere,” Eggsy allowed, “But in a great many places, it does seem so.”
“And… they eat the Fae?”
“They eat other creatures, yes,” Eggsy said cautiously. “But I don’t believe the Fae exist in the Lands of Men. Neither would I, were I to have fallen in the Lands rather than in Faerie.”
“Ah. An alien world then, certainly,” Roxy shuddered. “How strange! Do you just cease to exist, past the Wall?”
But Eggsy did not quite get a chance to answer - even as he started to speak, Percival abruptly reached forward and grabbed Roxanne’s shoulder, bodily yanking her - and Eggsy - back a step. Roxanne twisted, surprised and annoyed, then yelped as a crossbow bolt shuddered to a halt in a stall post, inches from Eggsy’s head.
Around them, the Dawn Hollow erupted into chaos: people screaming, Fae taking off, a stampeding turmoil that uncoiled like a ripple in a lake; Harry closed his hands around Eggsy’s wrist and dragged him behind an ashwood shelf of little ice globes even as another bolt quivered to a stop just above their heads, smashing open a globe of jasmine and elweed. Across the narrow street, the Princess and Percival had also taken cover, under a trestle table, and Percival held two fingers up, then made the head of a wolf using his hands.
And the White Hart, a marksman without compare.
“What’s going on?” Eggsy asked breathlessly, thankfully not in a panic. “Is it one of Roxy’s brothers?”
“We’ve got to help her!”
“We’ve got to get you to safety,” Harry corrected. “Ascension skirmishes are none of our business.”
Eggsy set his jaw stubbornly, then flinched as another bolt smashed a vase open, a fraction too close; Eggsy yelped as shards scattered like shrapnel, and would have staggered out of cover if Harry hadn’t pinned him quickly to the back of the shelf.
A quick glance told him that Percival and Roxanne were starting to make their way quietly through the stalls, towards the direction where the bolts were coming from, weapons already drawn, and quietly, he started to tug Eggsy in the opposite direction, calculating the best way to get out of the Dawn Hollow without getting shot at or trampled. “Stay close,” Harry instructed. “And keep your head down.”
“I assure you, the Princess and Percival are more than capable of taking care of themselves.”
Eggsy still looked unconvinced, but he followed as Harry darted from behind the bookshelf to the abandoned set of wood fire ovens, made of thickened clay, their contents of flatbread and eggplant still grilling merrily, butter spitting and hissing in the heat. Ducking and weaving, buoyed along by a panicked knot of people, they managed to slip out of Dawn Hollow and into the main thoroughfare, then down into a side street at the sound of a blast from a horn.
Harry held Eggsy still in the shadows as the brilliantly gleaming ranks of armoured destriers with their riders swept past: male, female, Man-kin and half-fae all, a thundering inquest arrowing towards the Dawn Hollow. “Who’re those?” Eggsy asked, when the vermillion-liveried knights had passed.
“They keep the peace in the Midsummer City,” Harry murmured back, as he pulled Eggsy down the side street. “The Lords and Ladies. Strange. That was quick. They must have been on patrol.”
“Nay. But quite a number of them do tend to be highborn second sons and daughters.” Harry ducked a glance out from behind the corner of the side street, then pulled Eggsy quickly over a small bridge over a canal.
“We’re heading to the skyport?” Eggsy asked, and at Harry’s startled blink, he added pointedly, “It’s only the biggest tree in the City, mate, and we’re going right for it.”
Harry nodded grimly. “We have to be prepared to get out of here.”
Eggsy dug in his heels. “Not without Roxy!”
“She’ll catch up,” Harry assured him, but Eggsy wouldn’t budge, and while turning to remonstrate with him, Harry caught a flicker of movement in his peripheral vision. Letting out a sharp curse, he grasped Eggsy, pivoted, and ignoring Eggsy’s startled yelp, used their combined weight to break through the brittle door of the closest house, crashing through into the darkened corridor beyond.
Rolling on top of Eggsy, Harry grit his teeth as a roar of heat scoured through the side street in a torrent of fire, so hot that the windows in the house blasted open around them.
The Black Hart had escaped his fate after all.
“Can you get to the ship?” Harry snapped, as he scrambled to his feet, dragging Eggsy to his. “Get out through the back door, run-“
Eggsy opened his mouth, as if to argue, then he shut it instead, with a glare, and dragged Harry close to kiss him hard on the mouth. Then he scrambled on out through the back of the house, all light, quick footsteps.
Harry drew in a breath, to ignore the worsening ache in his wounded shoulder, and plucked Advent of Winter Passing from its sheath, the blade purring in his grip as it smelled magic. He gave it blood, drawing the flat of it briefly against his left palm, then he breathed out, as the sword bucked briefly in his grip, awakening, and stepped out of the house.
A clatter of hooves above, several roofs away to his right, made him look up, and for a moment, Eggsy nearly sagged with relief. It was the gray hart, perched precariously high on a slate rooftop, its fur gleaming pale under the moonlight, darting glances around it before leaping to the next rooftop, seemingly oblivious to Eggsy’s presence. “Percival!” Eggsy called up, waving. “I’m here! Where’s the Princess?”
The gray hart looked sharply over at him, just as Eggsy realized belatedly that it wasn’t Percival after all: this hart’s hooves were sheathed up nearly to the knees in brilliant white fur, and its antlers were subtly different, the branches narrower, more curved.
Not the gray hart. The silver.
“Ohfuck,” Eggsy managed, and started to sprint, even as the silver hart leaped down onto the street, from roof to a pile of grates and then to flagstones, and Eggsy could hear its breaths in great bellows as it charged, head down, antlers forward-
Eggsy dived to the side as the hart clattered past, snorting and grunting, scrambled to his feet, and squeezed into a narrow alley, running for his life. Behind him, the silver hart let out a shriek of outrage, and Eggsy bit out a sharp grin, turning a corner, then another, occasionally scraping up against sandstone walls, then stone, then wood. When he couldn’t hear the silver hart any longer, Eggsy slowed down, panting, as he cautiously edged out onto a wider thoroughfare, breathing hard.
He was well within sight of one of the skyport’s vast entrances now, but even as he started to head towards it, there was a dry, “Turn around. Very slowly, please,” behind him. “Hands up.”
Eggsy turned. Standing above, on a rooftop, was a young man dressed in a storm gray coat, with a pale blue scarf, pointing a pistol at Eggsy. His features were regular, if not handsome, and he had rich nut-brown hair, the same shade as Roxy’s.
“So you’re the star,” the Prince said idly, tilting his head. “You’ve given my Kay quite a chase.”
“You’re Prince Piers,” Eggsy recalled. “Roxy mentioned her family to me on the way here.”
“Princess Roxanne, thank you kindly,” Piers corrected firmly. “I may hold no love for my misguided young sister, but I will not have her disrespected.”
“Oh?” Piers let out a dry laugh. “Is that what you think? She is no friend of yours, outworlder. Nor am I, for you are the solution to our father’s problems, and in the same breath, our damnation. But I am not without mercy. This will be quick.”
“Says you, arsehole,” Eggsy snapped, and ducked sharply back into the narrow alley. The pistol barked, a chip of stone snapping out of the flagstones behind him, but Eggsy was already safe, running again, nearly skidding on the stones in his haste, all but tumbling over himself as he ran, and ran. Almost there. Almost there.
Above, there was another clatter of hooves, even as Eggsy turned another corner, then careened to a stop: a dead end, the alley walled up with a pile of boxes and foul-smelling rubbish. Eggsy turned, about to take another path, but a tall man landed lightly at the mouth of the alley, his eyes hidden under a broad-brimmed hat, a mace held in one gauntleted hand. He took a step forward, rolling his shoulders, mouth pressed into a thin line, then another, even as Eggsy backed up towards the crates, then scrambled to climb, slipping, dragging himself up, clawing to try and get higher-
Then there was a shout of outrage behind him that turned into a scream. Eggsy risked a glance behind, and watched, wide-eyed with shock, as the silver hart burned, staggering back, hands waving wildly, rolling, trying to put the fire out, but another bottle of burning oil burst over him, then another. Looking up, Eggsy found Jamal and Ryan, wide-eyed with terror, beckoning to him.
“C’mon! Quickly! Quickly!” Jamal yelped, and with their help, Eggsy was pulled up onto the rooftops.
“Where’s Prince Piers?” Eggsy asked, as they ran off over the slippery slate roof towards the flat, baked top of the next building.
“We saw you bein’ chased from way out. So Michelle an’ some of the boys are givin’ him something to think about,” Ryan assured him breathlessly, as they hustled through the skyport and up, into their berth, where Eggsy collapsed onto a crate on the Lady Swank, exhausted.
“Fuck,” Jamal breathed, flat on his back on the deck.
“Fuck,” Ryan agreed, tense at the rail. The remaining crew were armed, watching the sides of the airship anxiously. Waiting for survivors.
Michelle and the remaining Crows were the first to return, supporting two wounded: gunshot wound in the shoulder for one Crow, gash in the leg for the other. She merely nodded grimly at them as she passed. Prince Piers was dead, then. Eggsy let out a slow and unsteady breath.
Princess Roxanne and Percival returned next, seemingly unhurt: Roxanne’s boots were dark, as though bloodied, but she otherwise appeared utterly unruffled. At the sight of her, Jamal and Ryan scooted hastily to their feet, and hurried away, out of her path. “Looks like my darling brothers got wind of us being here,” Roxanne said, as they boarded the airship. “Nothing’s sacred anymore.”
“The black hart is here,” Eggsy said quickly. “He was fighting Harry.”
“Oh?” Percival chuckled. “Well, if Harry went up against the black hart, then we’re one less hart in the world for certain, and it won't be the red.”
“Two,” Eggsy corrected. “The silver hart’s… gone, too. And the Prince. Prince Piers. What happened to the both of you?”
“My brother Rufus thought he would get lucky in the Dawn Hollow. He didn’t,” Roxy said shortly, with a faint smirk. “I’ve got a few fast friends in the Lords and Ladies. Wave’s End is not a good place to try me.”
Eggsy frowned, studying Roxy carefully, her lack of surprise, her smugness: he remembered how she and Percival had reacted, so quickly in the Dawn Hollow, how the Lords and Ladies seemed to have responded in a flash to the chaos that had only just begun in the market, what Percival had once said, about cultivating friends in Wave’s End.
“You planned this, didn’t you?” Eggsy asked tightly, though he lowered his voice, and Roxy smiled lightly at him, tilting her head, but did not answer, getting up to sit on the crate beside him instead, dangling her feet.
“There’s still Charles,” Eggsy told her, when Roxy said nothing.
“Yes,” Roxy pulled a face. “I was rather hoping he would have come.”
“So he might still be around!”
“It was never Charles’ way to skulk in the shadows. Nor the golden hart’s,” Roxy shrugged. “If he’s here, we would’ve known. No matter. That meeting will come.”
“You used me.”
“Everyone uses everyone, Eggsy,” Roxy observed flatly. “Percival kept you out of harm’s way, and I was certain that after that, Harry and the Crows would help you. Harry will use you too, you know,” she added, when Eggsy glared at her. “He needs to present you to my father.”
“He’s not going to. He told me to leave.”
“And you haven’t, have you?” Roxy said, not unkindly. “Because you feel like you can’t bear to disappoint him. I know what it’s like. Some of the harts, as well. It’s why Harry rose to become Captain at a fairly young age. He’s uncommonly good at getting people to do what he wants them to do.”
“That’s not…” Eggsy trailed off, uncertainly. He hadn’t exactly known Harry for that long, after all. What did he know about the red hart? “I won’t believe it,” he said finally, anyway.
“Maybe you’re right. Maybe not.” Roxy patted his shoulder. “But think about it. Right now, by necessity at least, Percival and I are your only friends in Faerie. And the Crows,” Roxy added conscientiously.
“I don’t believe that either,” Eggsy shot back, and clenched his fingers over the edge of the crate, and waited for the red hart to return.
So she waited, with Eggsy, who clearly felt ill-used, for he avoided his eyes and fixed his stare past the rail of the airship, and kept an unhappy silence. And Roxy was sorry for that, as much as she could be sorry: the star was the sole innocent party in this mess, and worse - he was a prize in a game of kings that had just turned even more deadly.
A late breakfast was served on the airship: seeded fresh bread, cheese, and mugs of warmed milk, all purchased from Wave’s End as part of their fresh supplies. As Roxy finished her portion, Eggsy said quietly, “Thanks for taking me to the Dawn Hollow anyway.”
Surprised, Roxy said, “Um. You’re welcome?”
“I don’t understand… mortals that well still.” Eggsy let out a frustrated sound, then gave her a wan smile. “But I have enjoyed coming here. And I have enjoyed the Dawn Hollow, our lunch, all of that. I don’t think you’re a bad person.”
“Why, thank you,” Roxy noted cautiously, amused again.
“Neither do I think that Harry is as bad as you say-“
“Ah, you mistake my meaning,” Roxy interrupted wryly. “The red hart is quite likely the most honourable person you’ll ever meet. If he likes you, he won’t lie to you. He’ll die for his friends and for his liege lord without even a second thought. But he does have a liege lord, and his word will not be broken.”
“I see,” Eggsy murmured, and twisted his fingers together in his lap, his plate and mug set aside, only nibbled. “Can’t say I get it.”
“Nay.” Roxy patted Eggsy tentatively on the shoulder. “Mortals are strange. You’ll have to get used to us, I’m afraid.”
“I’ve never seen Harry quite so taken with anyone, however,” Percival said blithely. “If that helps. Yes, Princess, I do stand corrected.”
Roxy sniffed. “So it looks like we’re heading into one of those terrible tragedies where each lover sacrifices something for the other and it all ends in tears? Rubbish.”
“You’ve had a hand in it.” Eggsy shot back, still wounded enough not to couch it in a smile.
“Well aye,” Roxy conceded. “Think of it as a crash course in the intricacies of high-level Faerie politics.”
“Isn’t it just Stormhold politics?”
“Politics is a power grab no matter where you go,” Roxy shrugged. “It’s cut-throat everywhere. Stormhold’s actually fairly civilised, for the most part. We only exile or imprison our opposition rather than murdering the lot of them, and as to the ascension wars, so far there’s only been skirmishes, not all-out civil war.”
“It’s really a stable government?” Eggsy asked, skeptical, and Roxy laughed.
“For now, it is. Everyone’s too shit-scared of the old man not to fall in step. Paid well, too.” Roxy kicked her heels against the crate, and exhaled slowly. “And the people? Stormhold controls what the people study, what they read, what they hear. It’s stable now, but… sometimes? I feel like everyone’s damaged. That my father’s policies have actually managed to permanently scar generations of Stormhold’s people. You won’t understand until you get there, but for a great deal of people, life’s all about sleepwalking. Get into a great school. Get into a better college. Get into a nine to nine drone job. Work until you retire. Leave it to your kids. Be a good citizen. Walk the correct walk, talk the correct talk.”
“It’s a stable country, but it’s a country that often has very little imagination… or tolerance for anyone different. Absolute order is just as bad as absolute chaos,” Roxy explained, when Eggsy seemed a little bewildered. “It’s just as destructive. In different ways.”
“Some people would love to live in a safe, stable place,” Eggsy said cautiously.
“Survival is insufficient. That’s what I believe, anyway.” Roxy glanced at Percival, who smiled faintly at her, unreadable as ever. “I think I can do better than that. For everyone. And if things get a little chaotic, that’s life.”
“That’s just you,” Eggsy persisted. “Mortals don’t actually live that long. How’re you going to ensure that the next generation actually… does good?”
“Usually, I would just hope for the best,” Roxy said, studying Eggsy thoughtfully. “That’s usually all that mortals can hope for.”
“Unless they find a way to live forever,” Eggsy pointed out quietly.
“Unless they do,” Roxy conceded. “But that’s not for me.”
Eggsy frowned at her, clearly in disbelief, but even as he started to speak, there was a cry from the crow’s nest, and he rushed over to the rail of the moored airship. The brilliant smile that lit up his face told Roxy clearly enough who had just been spotted, and soon the deck of the airship was crowded by awed Crows, watching as the red hart strode aboard: clothes blackened, hair singed, hands bloody, his sword hand occasionally twitching, as though he held on to a fish rather than a blade, one that was straining to leap.
The star started forward, only to flinch as Percival stood neatly in his way. “Old friend,” Percival said carefully, as Harry tensed. “It’s been a long time since I’ve seen High Winter.”
Harry blinked slowly, as though awakening from a dream, then he suddenly took a gulping breath, and savagely sheathed his gleaming longsword. He pulled his sword hand away as though with reluctant effort, then sagged, and would have fallen against the rail had Percival not hastily caught his shoulder to steady him.
“Growing old,” Harry admitted, as Eggsy pushed past Percival, and the red hart tensed up as Eggsy hugged him tightly, burying his face in the hollow of Harry’s neck.
Percival shrugged, unconcerned. “The black hart’s no simple opponent. I was hoping that his captors did their jobs properly.”
Harry merely shot Percival a weary look instead of snapping some retort. “What about you?”
“The Crows got the silver hart and Prince Piers. The Princess got Prince Rufus, I managed the white.”
“Charles and the golden?”
“Nowhere to be seen.” Roxy offered, pulling a face. She hadn’t expected that, for all her plans.
Harry shook his head slowly, then he looked uneasily at Eggsy. “Now’s the time to leave, Eggsy,” he said softly, so softly that Roxy had to strain to hear it. “Walk away.”
Eggsy seemed to ignore him, his grip around Harry tightening instead, and even as Harry sighed, the star murmured, near inaudibly, “I’d rather be with you.”
Harry closed his eyes, even as Roxy looked away, abruptly embarrassed for bearing witness, however accidental, to such a private scene, and she slipped quietly off the crate, heading to the prow of the ship, Percival at her heels. A sneaked glance over her shoulder showed Eggsy helping Harry below decks, probably to rest, and she leaned against the rail at the prow, crossing her arms.
“High Winter,” Roxy said. “I thought that was just a story.”
Percival shrugged. “Harry tells no stories. Rather sad, actually. Tristan used to think that it showed a lack of imagination.”
“Tristan? Tristan never spoke a word if he could help it.”
“Not to you, perhaps,” Percival corrected, and grinned his unreadable grin. “But yes. Advent of Winter Passing is but the dormant form of that blade. It’s quickened by its owner’s blood: and will keep drawing on that blood until sheathed.”
“The death of all lands,” Roxy recalled what she had heard, “The silence of the ravens, the friend of no one. The blade that eats its own kith. The end of all doubts. So comes High Winter,” She shivered. “I had not thought that was true.”
“You’re still new to this world, more or less,” Percival said wryly, as he leaned on the rail beside her. “You’d do well to keep that in mind, Princess.”
Roxy frowned at him, but it was hard to frown in the face of Percival’s unruffled confidence, and after a while, Roxy sighed, and made up her mind. The time for running was over. “Tell the crew to prepare to depart. We set course for Stormhold.”
“Aye, milady.” Percival pushed away from the rail, then he hesitated. “There may be no better time to say this, Princess. But for all the years of my life that I have spent in your shadow, I have not regretted a moment of any of it.”
It would not do for a Princess to show emotion, not now, and so Roxy but nodded, and held her head high, and clenched her hand in the curved wood of the rail.
Stormhold was actually an island kingdom, Eggsy realized, linked to the mainland of Faerie by three great, arching stone bridges, the calm seas around it dotted with ships of varying sizes, crowding around its two main ports. Beyond the ports, anchored further ashore, were the great warships that were the pride of the Stormhold navy, according to Roxy; the foundation of the safety of Faerie’s seabound naval route.
As to the city itself… it looked oddly uniform, gleamingly pale in the sun, all spindly towers of piping heights, some with charcoal rooftops, some blue, all narrow windows, fluting up towards the sky. There was little of grace to it, unlike the Midsummer City, and more of a certain degree of inexorable, implacable purpose; Stormhold and the High Seat looked as though it had been constructed to stand against Time herself, a fortress against the rest of the world.
Unlike Wave’s End, the lands ashore were rocky and only flecked here and there with grass; now and then, a shepherd with a tiny herd of goats would stop and look up as the airship passed, but for the most part, they were ignored, as they floated closer and closer towards the eastward flank of the city, where the skyport sat, suspended above ground by a cunning webwork of interlinking metal chains and cabling.
“Something’s not right,” Roxy said softly, as they neared.
“What isn’t?” Eggsy whispered back.
“The flags,” Roxy started, then she leaned forward against the rail, shading her eyes against the morning sun. Forking out from the distant skyport of the city were tiny, sleek airships, leashed to air elementals, by the shape of their hulls and sail, heading straight towards them.
“Princess,” Percival said warily. “Perhaps you should take Eggsy belowdecks.”
“I’m within sight of Stormhold,” Roxy said, with a trace of irritation. “I won’t hide.”
“If we’re about to be boarded by the Royal Air,” Harry added, “The Princess’ swordsmanship is going to be invaluable.”
“Why thank you, Harry,” Roxy drawled.
“I wasn’t paying you a compliment,” Harry said absently, looking keenly at the approaching ships, then he raised his voice. “All hands on deck. But don’t engage until necessary.”
Warily, the Crows obeyed, taking up vantage points on their airship, some climbing the rigging, some arranging crates into points of cover. Eggsy stood nervously beside Roxy, at a total loss, but when Harry turned to look at him, he set his jaw firmly, and after a moment longer, it was the red hart who looked away, back at the ships.
Each small Royal Air ship was crewed by two: the pilot at a small helm, and a man in light mail with a storm gray surcoat, emblazoned over the heart with a crowned set of flared wings. The closest to them was a woman, slender and tall and narrow-eyed: she swept her stare over Harry and Percival with no comment as her airship drew alongside, then she looked to Roxy. “Permission to board, Princess?”
“Granted,” Roxy said unhesitatingly, and the woman leaped over, seemingly unconcerned by the gulf of distance of the drop beneath them. The moment she was on board, the woman knelt.
“Princess. I am Air Marshal Samanthea. Welcome home.”
“Pleased to be home,” Roxy said, her tone imperious as Eggsy had never heard it. “Why are the flags are half mast?”
“It is my sorrow to advise that your father the King passed away last night, your Highness.”
“Passed-“ One of Roxy’s hands flew to her mouth, then she dropped it at her hip, clenched. “I see. How?”
“His illness finally took him, I believe. His son Prince Charles was with him at the end.”
Roxy’s eyes narrowed a fraction. “Fortuitous. Where is Prince Charles now?”
“In deep mourning, Princess. He has asked us to keep watch for your return, and to invite you home to the High Seat.”
“To invite me home, you say?”
“Prince Charles returned to the High Seat with the Power of Stormhold two days ago, Princess,” the Air Marshal rose to her feet, her voice neutral. “The Council has proclaimed him the next King of Stormhold. The coronation is in two days, after the mourning period.”
“A very great deal of mourning, then.”
“The people respected your father deeply, your Highness, and his contribution to Stormhold. He lies in State and in honour at the House of Storms. The queues to pay respects to him have been hours long since this morning. Prince Charles has declared it a time of grief and respect, and he has been holding a private ceremony of his own, with guests from the noble houses.”
“Stormhold!” Roxy said, and there was a certain rueful bitterness to her voice. “Very well. Get off the ship. I’ll leave. Well played, Charles. I was careless after all.”
“You misunderstand me, Princess,” the Air Marshal said quietly, and now, all of the airships drew level with the Lady Swank, just out of pistol range, the Air Marshals upon each small airship crouching, as if ready to spring. “You are invited back to the High Seat. The invitation is extended to the gray hart and the red - and your guest.”
“You would dare-“ Percival began, but Roxy held up her hand sharply, and he subsided.
“How am I to refuse so gracious a request?” Roxy asked, not bothering to hide her sarcasm. “Lead the way, Air Marshal.”
Eggsy tried to catch Roxy’s eye, but she would not look at him, and he looked to the harts instead, who were watching each other, as though communicating on a level that no one else could hear, and taking in a long breath, he tried not to despair. It seemed cruel that their long journey home had ended like this, so abruptly. Perhaps he should have run after all-
No. That, Eggsy would not regret. Even to the bitter end.
Instead of feeling sorrow, or guilt, or frustration, however, all Harry felt was a consuming weariness. He had run loops for the King only to find that with each loop he had run an even greater one, after all, and yet had come back too late to help his King in any way. And the new King would not bear any love for any of the old guard.
The King was dead - long live the King.
He wished that he could tell Eggsy that he was sorry, but the star seemed more curious than afraid, as they neared the skyport. On the ground, Harry, Roxanne and Percival could easily have taken out that complement of Royal Air Marshals; in the air, they would risk death: kinetic mages to a hair, the Marshals would’ve aimed at their rigging and sails until the airship was blown from the air. The Princess had made the right choice.
Archers watched them from the rooftops during the grim escort from the skyport back to the High Seat, all of them thoroughly disarmed: Crown Prince Charles was clearly not taking any chances. They were ushered, heavily guarded, through the high-ceilinged hallways that Harry had called home for so long, and the castle seemed deathly quiet today, without the scurrying scribes, courtiers, page boys, chambermaids and other staff that so often got underfoot. Death walked the High Seat with the Princess, the last of the blood of Stormhold, and everyone was in hiding.
Soon they were in the throne room, where Charles stood by the Storm Throne, descending down the marble dais to greet them as they approached, flanked by the royal guard. Behind Charles was the imposing, still form of the golden hart, a man shorn of hair but for a riotous moustache flecked with gold dust, his eyes hard and blank, as always favouring Northlander scale to Stormhold armour, his rifle strung at his back, his spear in his hand.
“My dear sister,” Charles greeted her, descending the steps, smiling broadly, the great topaz at the end of the heavy chain glittering on his ornate, ceremonial robes. “Such a sad day for Stormhold. Our poor father.”
“Aye,” Roxanne said evenly. “Our poor father.”
“Pity you made it home a day late.”
“Such a pity.”
“But come. Introduce me to your friend.” Charles said, looking keenly at Eggsy, and Harry had to fight not to stiffen up. “I’ve heard a rather strange story about him, from the King and from the Merlin.”
“What have you done to the Merlin?”
“Why, nothing. The Merlins are neutral and serve the King, do they not?” Charles smiled thinly. “And they are in short supply, and do so add legitimacy to a kingship. I expect the current Merlin to serve me in turn, regardless of preferences. They’re not very sentimental, those Northlanders. Did you think that bedding the Merlin would have swayed his mind?”
“You-“ Percival began, but again, Roxanne cut him off, with an upraised palm.
“I can speak for myself. And I don’t presume to know the Merlin’s mind. As to my friend,” Roxanne linked her arms with Eggsy, ignoring his flinch, “Why, this is the Duke of the Moon Under Water, His Excellency Arcturus, First of His Name, and my fiancé. I did so hope to introduce him to you under different circumstances.”
Charles blinked rapidly, then he flushed. “Stop your japes, sister. You’ve lost. Do it with grace. This is the star, is he not? The one whose heart will turn back time?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, dear brother,” Roxanne said blithely. “Methinks that our father’s illness might’ve been quite hereditary, after all. A creature whose heart can turn back time? What a prize that would be!”
Harry tried not to show any hint of his confusion on his face. Roxanne was playing a game that he did not understand, and he wasn’t sure if Percival was in on it, or if Roxanne had planned this, or if she was improvising, or what her goal might be. If she had chosen to confuse Charles it had worked: if she chose to anger him, that seemed to be working as well.
“You’ve always been the most annoying of all our siblings,” Charles said finally, tightly, and raised his palm. Above and around them, the small arrow-slit windows that looked down into the throne room were abruptly blotted of light, and Harry could see the thin gleam of arrowshafts beyond.
“And you’ve always been the blindest of us all,” Roxanne shot back, and raised her voice. “Merlin! Don’t you see? Here is the answer! Here is the last King!”
“I do see,” said a voice that Harry hadn’t realized that he missed, from his brooch, just as Charles brought his palm down, just as Harry dived towards Eggsy, from some blind impulse to shield him, somehow, and then there was a brilliant burst of light-
When he blinked the spots out of his eyes, Eggsy in his arms, Roxy was gone: she stood before Charles instead, Charles’ dagger seemingly sprouting abruptly from his heart. He staggered back, tripping and flailing, falling against the steps with great gurgling gasps, even as higher up, beside the throne, Percival had just broken the golden hart’s neck. And beside Harry was Merlin, tall and thin and scowling, wearing a plain white vest and brown breeches, looking distinctly resigned.
A deathly silence reigned, broken only by Charles’ broken gasps as he gurgled and drowned in his blood and died, and tenderly, Roxanne unclasped the Power of Stormhold from around his neck. She studied it, for a moment, then she smiled to herself, and put it around her neck.
“Now I am Queen,” Roxanne said, in a voice like iron, as Percival knelt, then the Merlin, then the shell-shocked guards whom had taken them here, and as Eggsy froze, looking around wildly, Roxanne extended a hand. “The Merlin once told me that he came to Stormhold to see the appointment of the Last King of Stormhold, when the High Seat knows no further master. So will come the Golden Age. I can’t ensure that mortal heirs won’t stray from the right path. But you are not mortal.”
“I don’t… but I don’t know anything about-“
“Neither do I, not as much as I would like,” Roxanne said, her voice gentling now. “We’ll learn together. Come. Or will you run for the rest of your life, afraid of shadows and witches and knives?”
And Eggsy smiled, a mischievous and gorgeous smile, as though he was perched on the edge of a precipice, ready to fly. “You can’t convince me that you planned all this,” Eggsy told her, as he stepped forward, to take her hand, and only now did Harry bend the knee as well, breathless: he had not seen this game play out, for all that he had watched the Princess, for all that he had studied the gray hart.
“I can’t because it won’t be true,” Roxanne agreed. “But my best and oldest teacher has always been somewhat of an opportunist, and it seems to have rubbed off everywhere.”
“I suppose Harry can still be the Captain,” Roxanne said afterwards, when they gathered in the Queen’s solar for an informal audience: the Queen, the King, himself, and the red and gray harts.
“Much obliged,” Harry said dryly.
“Fun as it might’ve been to watch the two of you duel for it,” Roxanne added, with a wicked smirk that the Merlin well remembered, one of his very few weaknesses.
Percival sighed. “You know fair well that I would’ve been roundly beaten.”
“More importantly,” Eggsy said doubtfully, “Now that we’re um. Married and all. We’re er.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Roxanne cut in. “Do what you like with your personal affairs, and so will I. There’ll be no issue from this marriage. I don’t quite fancy all that bother of having children, and besides, I think Stormhold’s had quite enough of ascension wars and murderous children and all those problems. Let’s break the cycle of all that idiocy. All I expect from you is to learn, while I’m still here. And eventually, to rule the best you can, when that’s no longer the case.”
“I still…” Eggsy let out a short laugh. “I’m still rather blindsided by it all.”
“It’s not altruistic, believe me. I think you’re smart and you have a good heart. And more importantly, you’re going to be here, long after my own bones are dust,” Roxanne shrugged. “So my friends in Wave’s End have suggested - I spoke to the Graven as well. Right now you have us, so I won’t ask any more of you than to keep an open mind and to learn. But someday, eternity’s going to wear on you, And there’s nothing that’ll occupy you more than having to run an entire kingdom, aye?”
“I really don’t know if this is a good idea,” Eggsy said doubtfully. “But I’ll try my best.”
“You’ll do fine.” Roxanne patted the Merlin heavily on his shoulder. “Prophecies, see?”
“They’re not clear cut,” the Merlin grumbled, but he said nothing more about it. “Now, my Queen, you owe me a lantern, don’t you?”
Roxanne pouted, and threatened, and tried cajoling, but eventually she handed over the small lantern, with ill-grace. “It saved my life, you know. And Eggsy’s. And Harry and Percival.”
“I would have lent it to you if you had only asked,” the Merlin shot back.
“What fun would that have been?” Roxanne retorted, which was why the Merlin loved her and why he could not stand her, and perhaps she saw something of that in his face, for she laughed, like iron, like silk.
It would not be the Last King who would usher in the Golden Age, the Merlin understood then, for he would only be a keeper of legacies: it would be the Last Queen who would build the new world, with wisdom, perhaps, with compassion, hopefully, but also with cunning, with wit, and with her father’s ruthlessness.
“A gentleman is always careful,” Harry said primly, just to see Eggsy laugh, and beckon at him from where he lay sprawled on the divan, beside a balcony with a sumptuous view of the City of Ivory and Glass, with its ancient drum towers and supple, mother-of-pearl domed rooftops. Eggsy was dressed in a rich black riding coat, tiny seed pearls woven into the fabric, dusting up from the hem, like a section of the midnight sky; his silver vest already unbuttoned, fingers tugging his cravat askew.
Harry sighed, and knelt to help Eggsy with his boots, barely having the time to set them and his own boots aside before Eggsy was tugging him up impatiently, their mouths meeting partway, until he had his King pinned on the divan, sprawled above, breeches only part undone, Eggsy riding up against his thigh with a breathless and dazed little cry of delight that made his blood grow hot in his veins.
“We’re meant to be on a diplomatic tour of Faerie,” Harry murmured, as the minx in his arms pulled impatiently at Harry’s clothes, “Preparing to visit the Wayfarer’s House to meet the Archivist at a State dinner? Remember that?”
“How could I, what with you naggin’ me about it all this way? Still. This being the home of the same Archivist wot once sent some guy to buy me, hm?” Eggsy shot back, and made a little hum of triumph when he got Harry’s jacket off, a sound that Harry could only describe as adorable.
“His heir, yes. I do believe he’s still rather upset about what transpired.” Harry nipped Eggsy’s chin in mock reproach, then kissed the mark.
“Well, it ain’t me fault and he should get that into his thick head. Think he needs it in writing or summat?”
“Yes, I’ve already explained why saying that to his face might be a problem. Do pay attention.”
“I’m listening,” Eggsy said breathlessly, as they kicked off breeches, then smallclothes, and the rest of their gear, struggling with vests and shirts and belts, until Eggsy tired of it all and rolled them over, laughing again, bright-eyed, flushed and brilliantly joyous, the Long Summer given flesh.
“Liar,” Harry murmured, as he ran his palms wonderingly up and down Eggsy’s supple flanks, to the lithe, trim muscle of his thighs, propped against Harry’s hips, down to his rump, where Eggsy was still wet from this morning aboard their airship, still stretched. Eggsy smirked at whatever he drew from Harry’s face, cheeky as ever, and made a show of rolling his hips against Harry’s probing fingers, made a show of moaning and gasping as Harry made certain to tease him open, fingers growing sloppy from fluids and the small potion he now often kept in his coat pockets.
It was an act still breathlessly obscene, with a creature this beautiful, but even as Harry faltered a little, Eggsy scrambled off, tugging Harry up, tangling naked on Harry’s lap as they kissed, as though he’d heard Harry’s growing doubt, his caution; they kissed until Harry was fighting for air, his questions drowned, his hands greedy and kneading Eggsy’s rump. Only then did Eggsy pull back, promise in his eyes, mischief on his lips, turning to lie arse-up on the divan, bracing himself against the edge, and turning to look with mock innocence at Harry over one perfect shoulder.
Harry gave in - what could he do but give in? He guided himself down, and braced a leg on the floor, straightening his back, lip tucked under his teeth as he drove in, clawing out a whine and an impatient buck from Eggsy, his hands fitting over the grooves of Eggsy’s hips, that perfect skin, the soft light that still licked between the valleys of his killer’s fingers. He had his revenge, however: Harry allowed himself to take his time, to swallow his lust in patience, to draw out the hours before their dinner appointment in slow, deep thrusts pinned by Eggsy’s choked moans and hoarse pleas, blunt nails scouring the pale velvet of the divan.
It was only when Eggsy’s arms gave out, when he bit out a shocked sob of breath, that Harry relented, reaching down to close his fingers around a cock already wet and slick at the tip, to squeeze down, in a tight funnel of pressure, even as he ground deep and up in the angle that he knew Eggsy loved, and held it, waiting, as Eggsy let out a shout scraped raw by pleading, seed spilling sticky and hot over Harry’s palm, between his fingers, flesh pulsing in his grip until Eggsy was spent. Only then did he press on, shallower now, impatient, no rhythm, a brutal little burst of savagery until the burn in his own blood finally whispered back to embers.
“I think we’re going to be late after all,” Eggsy confided, a little later, in the small heated indoor pool that served as the suite’s idea of a private bath, sprawled in Harry’s lap, golden hair plastered to rosy cheeks. It was still painful sometimes to look upon the star, but of late, these moments were easier to take, as Harry kissed Eggsy’s nose, in wry acquiescence, then the edge of his mouth.
She didn’t object that Harry was, more firmly than before, the King’s hart, above all. She still had hers, and more besides; new harts had been named to the empty roles, to undergo the binding, and rise as Kingsmen in her name. Well. Hers and Eggsy’s, of course, but for now, Roxy was still the teacher, and Eggsy the student, and the Merlin - the Merlin was the long-suffering mentor, perhaps, watcher, lover, augur.
It had taken years to renegotiate peace with the other kingdoms of Faerie, and years to continue to bolster the better parts of her father’s legacy, all the while relaxing the High Seat’s grip on Stormhold’s schools, on its literati, on its people. The noblefolk muttered amongst themselves and whispered of trouble to come, but Roxy knew better now. In a way, her father was right. The success of a government could only be measured by the comforts of its people. It was pity, in the end, that visionary as her father had been in this regard, he had not quite seen certain fundamental rights as comforts.
And so Roxy was patient, and swallowed her ego, and towed Eggsy along, laying the brickwork around the foundation of the past, putting through legal reform, enduring drama in the Courts, criticism by a slowly reinvigorated mouse of a public, the occasional threats from abroad. The Merlin had promised a Golden Age, and it would be her legacy, Roxy had decided, from the first that she had ever heard of it, years ago, when her father the King had still been hale. Now-
“This is probably unfair, you know,” Eggsy cut into her thoughts, as the harts slowed to a trot, nimble and sure of foot even in the rocky lands past the Stormwater, where only goats and shepherds could live.
“What is?” Roxy asked, distracted. Eggsy had insisted on leaving their usual ‘circus’ of royal guard and retainers behind as they took a ‘little trip’ out past the Stormwater, and Roxy still wasn’t entirely sure about it all. Safe as the Stormhold and its lands were, Roxy was far too cynical for optimism, unlike her immortal companion. “We don’t have time for this, Eggsy,” she insisted again. “There’s a big referendum on the morrow.”
“And we’re more than prepared for it, so there,” Eggsy shot back. “You’ve been shut in for days. Percival was getting worried, even. He talked to Harry.”
“You were eating only supper,” the gray hart said reproachfully, when Roxy raised an eyebrow at him.
“This is a resoundingly bad idea, I agree,” the red hart said, in the same fussy tone that all the harts seemed to get now and then, when addressing royalty. “We’re neither of us as young as we were, and this is still utterly undignified. Surely there are better ways of approaching the issue in question.”
“Your posture’s improved,” Roxy ignored both the harts, admiring how Eggsy sat straight-backed, now, balanced, a triumph of the stablemaster’s long-suffering teaching.
“I know,” Eggsy said cheekily, but put his arms around the red hart’s neck regardless, as Harry picked his way delicately over the wiry grass and crumbling rock, high-stepping, like a performing horse. “Race you over to that tree?”
“This is going to be a very slow and embarrassing race,” the gray hart said, though she could feel muscle shifting beneath her, as Percival prepared for a sprint. "Fairness doesn't even come into it. I may be younger, but I've certainly grown fatter."
“Says you,” retorted Eggsy, and laughed, as the red hart leaped forward.
And Harry - Harry now walked with a cane, and old wounds ached in the cold, but as always, he wore elegance like a cloak and dignity like armour, forbidding and stern to most of the world, but alone, with Eggsy, there was still that odd, disbelieving soft wonder to his eyes, a careful tenderness to his touch. They stood in the balcony of Eggsy’s private chambers, watching the Winter solstice revels, the large ice sculptures being finished along the Sommersense Boulevard that fed out from the High Seat.
“Happy Wintersend,” Eggsy ventured, pressed against Harry’s side, an arm around the back of his Kingsman jacket.
Harry no longer wore his blade - Eggsy had not seen Advent of Winter Passing in decades. He had asked Harry about it once, and had only received an evasive answer about repaying a favour in return. As to Percival, Percival had only shrugged, and said something about the Market and the Broker appearing only every so often, until Eggsy had given it up as a bad job.
“Happy Wintersend,” Harry echoed absently, and brushed a kiss against Eggsy’s temple. He looked tired, though he shook his head when Eggsy said so. “Pensive,” Harry corrected instead. “I’ve been thinking.”
“You do that far too often of late, you and Percival. The two o’ you should take up a hobby. What ‘bout chess?”
Harry smiled gently, wry and quick. “I won’t be here for much longer. Not by how you count time.”
Eggsy looked away. He hated it when Harry got into these moods around him, when Harry became philosophical about time, about leaving. “I don’t want to be alone,” he murmured then, and an arm curled around the small of his back, pulling him closer.
“You won’t be,” Harry assured him. “There are the other harts. The younger ones. Roxy will still be here, for a time longer. And there’ll be others. I hope there will be,” Harry added, when Eggsy started to object. “I hope it’s obvious to you now that all I’ve ever done since taking you to Stormhold was to… repay you, in a way.”
“Opening my eyes,” Harry said, and would not explain further, even as Eggsy nuzzled his jaw, not even when Eggsy pressed his mouth to the pulse in Harry’s neck. Only when Eggsy made a small, questioning sound did Harry say, almost inaudible over the crowds below, “‘Survival is insufficient’. I never understood that until I met you.”
“Survival is insufficient,” Eggsy agreed, and pressed tighter against Harry, closing his eyes, listening to Harry’s heartbeat until Harry grew too tired to keep standing in the freezing cold, on hard stone. The red hart slept, quickly enough, when undressed for bed and tucked in, and Eggsy pressed a kiss on Harry’s forehead, before stepping back out into the balcony.
Snow was falling, little pale motes, each like tiny little stars in their own right as they dusted his skin and the stone and the crowds below, drifting, aimless, perfect and icy on Eggsy’s tongue. He looked up, past the High Seat, up, to the indigo sky, to where his brothers and sisters still circled, in their seemingly eternal rhythm, and he knew their given names still, as he hugged himself against the chill, as he breathed out, in a puff of breath, cloudy in the cold. The slow dance of the stars.
Some nights he waved, and wondered if they were watching. This night, Eggsy but watched for a moment longer before he stepped back into his chambers, patting snow off his nightshirt. When Eggsy burrowed under the sheets, Harry murmured only a token protest, still part asleep as he turned to pull Eggsy closer, warm, mortal, safe.
This night, when Eggsy dreamed, he dreamed of endless tundra, of the warm fur of the red hart, soft under his arms, the laughter of the wind and the thunder of hooves, and of a distant marking stone, forever only on the edge of sight.