Actions

Work Header

Midsummer Masque

Work Text:

And we fairies, that do run
By the triple Hecate's team,
From the presence of the sun,
Following darkness like a dream,
Now are frolic...
A Midsummer Night's Dream

Even asleep, Thomas Boniface knew when he was being watched. It was just one of the many well-trained and honed instincts that had kept him alive through decades in the snakepit of Ile-Rien’s royal court. So when he opened his eyes and found Kade staring back at him from so close that she was nearly cross-eyed, he didn’t startle.

“I can hear you thinking,” he grumbled in a voice rusty from sleep. “What is it?”

Kade bounced up to sit cross-legged on their bed and chewed on a lock of her tangled hair. She looked, as his grandmother would have said, like she’d been dragged backward through a hedge, and so intensely alive he felt a wave of foolish fondness. “I’ve been invited to court,” she said.

Instantly wide awake, Thomas rose up on one arm. “Which court?”

“The Seelie Court. By Oberon and Titania.” She nudged his shoulder with her knee. “Come on, you lazy slug-a-bed. It’s past breakfast time, and we need to talk this over with Boliver and Kesair.”

“I should at least be woken with a kiss. When I was stolen away to live with the fay, it was under the distinct impression there would be much more of that.” Kade rolled her eyes, but obliged with a quick, sweet press of her lips to his. Then she pulled away and pinched his arm briskly before jumping out of bed. “Now get up!” she called over her shoulder. Thomas got up, slowly - even with the best healing sorcery Kade could summon, his wounded leg would never be limber in the morning again - and threw on a bedrobe before following her down to the great hall of Chariot castle.

Thomas had expected to feel aimless and at loose ends in fayre. To his surprise, that never happened; at first he was recovering from the injuries of his final duel, and by the time he had regained his strength, he had been absorbed into the life of Chariot as if he had always been part of it.

Kade’s household was small, being composed mainly of those who were willing to accept a queen with mortal blood. As such, they tended to be even more independent-minded than the usual run of fay; they came and went as they pleased, and Thomas knew only a few of them well. Boliver, the red-headed pooka, was Kade’s oldest fay ally, though they tended to bicker and fling invective at each other like rival fishwives. Kesair, who served as something akin to Kade’s seneschal or castellan, was a tall fay whose skin was traced with green veins and whose long black hair always glistened as though wet.

Both of them were waiting in the great hall of Chariot, which, since the castle had stood empty for centuries before their arrival that spring, was more of a storehouse of abandoned furniture that was still being sorted out. But clerestory windows let in the honeyed light and rose-scented air of the southern hills, and the worn tapestries on the walls were shabbily comfortable.

Kade pointed to a golden branch covered in crystal apple blossom that lay before the hearth, casting a soft glow over the bare stone floor. “There’s the invitation.”

Thomas tipped his head to one side, studying it curiously. “You’ll have to read it for me.”

“It’s a token of free passage for Oberon and Titania’s Midsummer Eve ball,” Boliver snapped. “Which you’d be a fool to go anywhere near.”

“Yes, yes,” Kade said impatiently. “But why are they bothering to invite me now? They never did before.”

The others stared at her in shared disbelief. Boliver opened his mouth, and Thomas hastily spoke first. “Kade, you announced your presence somewhat resoundingly in the spring.”

Kade dragged her hair back with both hands, pulling her eyes wide, and groaned. “I just wanted a few months of quiet. Is that so much to ask?”

“You killed Evadne, scattered the Unseelie Host, and gave Titania the Knockma Ring.” As Kesair spoke, each point was ticked off on long, elegant fingers - of which the fay had only three. “What did you think would happen?”

“Sounds simple, when you put it like that,” Boliver muttered.

“She could have neglected to prevent the destruction of Vienne and the invasion of Bisra instead,” Thomas suggested. He gave Kesair a thin-lipped smile. “I can’t say I regret Kade’s choices.”

“I don’t either.” The fay waved a hand impatiently. “And the Host will settle down eventually. But in the short term, Kade’s overthrown a balance maintained for centuries, and there will be consequences. Therefore, the invitation.”

Thomas rubbed his hands together. “Sounds like a delightful little intrigue. I can’t wait.”

Kade dropped into a chair and threw out her hands dramatically. “Who said you were going? Am I not the Queen of Air and Darkness?”

“He’s better at this sort of thing than you are,” Boliver said unexpectedly. “You’ve never been much of a one for politeness.”

“You just called me a fool for even considering it,” Kade objected. “Now you want both of us to go?”

“I still think you should stay well away.” Boliver scowled into his red beard. “But if you don’t go, their bloody majesties will take it amiss.”

And Kade couldn’t afford to alienate any potential allies in the Seelie Court at the moment. Thomas rapped his knuckles on the table for attention. “You know, I have survived more than one court function with my enemies before.”

“Not at this court.” Kesair’s ice-coloured eyes were unyielding. “I doubt you grasp the politics at hand.”

“Oh, I think I do. Let me spell them out: Kade’s parentage already puts her at a disadvantage with some of the high ones of fayre. And some of those will see her mortal lover as a new weakness to exploit.”

“That’s the gist of it,” Kesair admitted grudgingly.

“Isn’t there a courtly truce? What’s the worst that could happen?” Thomas recalled some of the treacheries he’d seen at various Rienish balls, and snorted. “Never mind.”

Kade leaned forward and poked at the crystal flowers with one finger. “Damn it. I suppose this means I’ll need a new dress.”

*

They stepped from the Chariot ring of stones into salt spray and starlight. At their feet, a shining silver bridge over phosphorescent waves hundreds of feet below led straight to the square bulk of Kernoual. All the many eyes of the castle were awake tonight, peering curiously from the walls at the guests thronging the bridge and forecourt.

Thomas thought he had prepared himself for bizarrity, but the sheer mass of strangeness was overwhelming. Roughly half of the guests were vaguely human-shaped, though their limbs varied in number from two to eight and many bore fur or feathers or scales. The rest resembled a forest bursting with life as walking trees greeted creatures that mingled mundane with mythical. And every single one of them was bedecked with ornament: jewels, leaves, tattoos, silks, brocades and laces, feathers or beads, dazzling in the torchlight.

Thomas blinked, and found he’d been staring in the direction of an eagle-headed man. Fierce yellow eyes glared back. Thomas looked away hastily, not wanting to commit some unpardonable breach of etiquette until he at least knew who he might be insulting. Kesair had said that it would be impossible to equip Thomas with a working knowledge of thousands of years of Seelie politicking. “Suffice it to say that there are factions around and against the throne, as in any court,” the fay had said. “Even I don’t know them all, and Kade hasn’t had a chance to learn.”

She squeezed his arm, her nerves palpable in the strength of her grip. “Stop gawking and move your feet. We need to find the court so that I can greet Oberon and Titania.”

“And then a dance.”

“One dance before we leave,” Kade repeated in a hard tone. Thomas, Kesair, and Boliver had bickered over strategy and finally agreed on what protocol would be enough to show Kade’s colours without dangerously overstaying their welcome.

They shuffled forward and progressed slowly over the bridge, hemmed in on all sides by the bewildering mass of fay. Sweat began to trickle down Thomas’ back under his black velvet doublet, and he recoiled as one of the dusty blue wings of the woman in front almost poked him in the eye. “Is this a masquerade?” he murmured to Kade.

Kade smirked. “Not in the sense you mean. Some are using glamour to seem more pleasing, or more intimidating, but no-one is wearing a costume.” Thomas looked around again, but even with the power of clear sight that Kade had given him, he couldn’t always tell the glamoured from the real; given that many of the fay were shapeshifters as well and could change their form or face, it wasn’t always that simple.

He glanced at Kade out of the corner of his eye, admiring her. Even laced into a grass-green silk gown with wide skirts, she still strode as though she were wearing thousand-league boots. She stepped on the heel of the winged fay in front and muttered, “Pardon.” Thomas took a deep breath and felt the first stirring of hope that they might make it through the evening in one piece.

At their numbingly slow pace, it seemed to take hours to reach the central hall of Kernoual. Surrounded by porticoes and galleries, it lay open to the summer sky; the full moon looked wan next to the light of the coloured lanterns and the glittering crowd that danced a pavane only slightly strange to Thomas’ senses.

On the far side of the whirlpool of dancers, Oberon and Titania sat on two great ivory and gold thrones. Titania was a dainty, porcelain-perfect figure in blue silk that matched her eyes; Oberon’s black hair and brown skin were a perfect contrast to her, the effect judged to a nicety. Thomas yawned, comfortingly bored by the spectacle. The thin veneer of luxury over spite and ambition here was no different than any of a hundred royal audiences he’d seen.

Kade’s fingers tightened around his arm. The current of the circulating crowd had brought them face to face with an imposingly tall fay woman dressed in rich wine-coloured silk, whose beauty was only slightly marred by her pointed claws and cruel mouth. She made a moue of distaste. “Hail to the Queen of Air and Darkness. Oberon’s guests are certainly very... surprising this year.”

“You know how I love to surprise you, Mahaut.” Kade’s voice sounded bored, but her body was tense and poised for movement.

Thomas had seen a wide range of reactions from enemies, from envy to loathing; even Fulstan had accorded him enough respect to want him dead. Mahaut’s gaze moved over him as part of the furnishings, in the same way she might evaluate Kade’s choice of earrings. “Charming,” she remarked. “But ancient for a mortal, surely?”

Kade’s breath hissed through her teeth and Thomas didn’t bother trying to hold her back. If this was going to turn into a fight, best if she were unencumbered. But she gathered herself and gave Mahaut a tight smile. “That’s right, you prefer to discard your toys after a month.” A group of giggling, silver-scaled maidens crossed their path and Kade seized the opportunity to change direction and move quickly toward the thrones.

“Who was that?” Thomas murmured as soon as they were close enough to the musicians to cover the sound.

“My aunt.” Kade’s tone was defensive, but Thomas wasn’t about to judge anyone on the basis of their relatives. “She has a very low opinion of mortals, except as playthings, and it offended her that my mother’s title passed to me. When I gave up Knockma, that offended her even more - though she had absolutely no claim to it.”

Thomas looked back over his shoulder, but he couldn’t see Mahaut’s scarlet dress any more. “I don’t know why Mahaut is here, or what she wants, but she’d cheerfully grind my bones for bread.” Kade still sounded worried, which worried Thomas; when Kade sounded mildly concerned it was generally a very bad sign. “I think it might be best to present myself to Oberon and then go. We’ll leave the dance for another time.”

The last surge of the crowd deposited them beside the portico to the side of the dais holding Oberon and Titania’s thrones. Kade threw her shoulders back and composed her face into a mask of blank courtly politeness. “Wait here until I come back, and don’t talk to anyone,” she muttered before stomping forward, the skirts of her gown billowing behind her. Thomas leaned against a pillar and watched as she greeted the Seelie Court’s King and Queen. He couldn’t hear their conversation over the music, but from the annoyed angle of Titania’s brows he could see that Kade had gotten in at least one good barb. As a fellow sovereign, she didn’t curtsey at the end of her audience, but only made a slight bow, her skirts tangling in her feet as she backed away.

As Kade turned toward him, a green-skinned fay touched her on the shoulder and Thomas straightened, ready to ignore her orders and go to her side. She looked over and waved him off impatiently, flicking her fingers in a sign to give her two minutes. The ebb and flow of the crowd screened them from view for a moment and Thomas wondered who the other fay was; some relation to Kesair, possibly, judging by the wet sheen of its skin and the damp prints its bare feet were leaving on the flagstones.

When the crowd parted again, the water fay was gone and Kade stood alone, beckoning him over to dance. Thomas raised a brow, wondering what had changed her mind. She crossed her arms and rolled her eyes at him. Grinning, Thomas forced a path through to her and took her hands as the couples formed for the next figure. Kade smiled slyly in return and led him through the first steps.

Together, they eeled through the mass of dancers struggling for room as Kade’s light feet seemed to fall just wherever there was an extra inch of space. Thomas watched her and caught a gleam of feral excitement in her eyes as she searched the crowd - looking for someone? Bodies pressed tighter around them and he felt dizzied from the heat and the noise of a thousand voices raised over the music. He looked down at their feet for a moment to steady himself. As Kade turned in the figures of the dance, her spangled slippers gleamed as they moved almost too fast to see.

His body reacted instinctively a moment before his slower brain knew what was wrong. When his dancing partner spun back to him, he seized her by the waist. “Where is Kade? What have you done with her?” he hissed in her ear.

Kade’s face smiled back at him, but it wasn’t Kade behind it. Her fingers tightened on his shoulders and claws pricked his skin through the velvet. “Never mind where Kade Carrion is. Here you are, and here you’ll stay, with me.” He couldn’t pull away, and the strong white arms drew him inexorably down to the smiling mouth, with teeth more pointed than Kade’s half-concealed behind red lips. Thomas fought against the pull, but still he leaned closer and closer, until their bodies touched, his doublet pressed against the bodice of her dress - and the fay shrieked in a thin, high voice and flinched away. Black wings unfolded and snapped out as it hovered in the air above his head.

Thomas stumbled backward, barely staying on his feet, as the delicate music came to a ragged halt. His dancing partner’s face was haggard with pain, and it was hunched over the burning point on its body where it had been touched by the gilded iron button Thomas had sewn carefully into the long row fastening his doublet. No longer did it look anything like Kade; its fingers were too long for human, its eyes blazed a scarlet matching the ragged silk draping its form. Yet Thomas still recognized the face of Mahaut.

All the dancers had halted around them, leaving Thomas alone at the centre of a ring of staring, avidly fascinated fay. Whispers spread into the corners of the hall and even Titania rose from her throne for a better look. Thomas clenched his hands and prepared to run.

Then Kade--her true self--was suddenly beside him, her body taut and vibrating with controlled rage. “Why, Mahaut, you’d break guest truce, for me? Such an honour.” The lacerating scorn in her voice pierced the noise of the excited crowd, and they hushed to listen.

Mahaut spat at Kade’s bare feet, and the flagstones smoked where it fell. “You’re no true fay. You don’t belong here as a guest, and neither does your mortal lapdog.”

Honest laughter shook Kade’s shoulders. “You never did have the wit to know a lapdog from a wolf. Perhaps if you spent more time with mortals, one wouldn’t have been able to best you so easily.” She raised her voice to a clear pitch that would carry across the court to Oberon and Titania. “Your welcome here is revoked. Go now, before I ask their majesties’ leave to eject you.”

Mahaut growled and flung herself into the air above the court in a cloud of choking smoke. As ashes spattered to the ground, the fay erupted into thrilled chatter and gossip, crowding closer and lining the galleries above to gawk at Kade and Thomas. This would be a full nine-hours’ wonder for the court.

“Well,” Thomas said dryly. “At least we made an impression.”

*

Kade yanked Thomas through the fayre ring back to Chariot so rapidly he felt his ears pop. With soft grass under their feet and the familiar southern stars overhead, Thomas released a breath of relief. But Kade kept moving toward the shelter of the castle walls, pulling him along by one arm.

“Kade,” he said, and set his feet. “Kade!”

She swung around to face him. “You’re wondering what you’ve gotten yourself into, aren’t you,” she said flatly.

Thomas reached out and pushed a lock of hair away from her eyes. “You forget I’m used to serving queens. That wasn’t even the worst brawl I’ve seen at a royal audience.” He tugged her hand gently, pulling her close enough to put his arms around her.

Kade tightened her own arms about him and squeezed so tightly his breath caught for a moment. “I’m sorry,” she mumbled into his shoulder. “When I asked you to come away, I thought it would be… quieter. Less dangerous.”

“I’m a courtier. Intrigue and politicking are my daily bread.” Thomas kissed the top of her head. “It’s true that I can’t go on using my sword to prove my worth as much as when I was a younger man. I’ll just have to rely on my wits.”

He felt her reluctant smile against his shoulder. “Keeping iron on you was a good thought.”

“You see? I’m not so foolish as to go wholly unprotected anywhere.” Thomas sighed into Kade’s hair. In many ways, she was still just coming to realize what Ravenna had faced at a much younger age. “You are a power in this world, Kade, which means that others will seek to sway you--unless you decide to find a cave somewhere and become a hermit. And even if you did rusticate, I have no doubt that trouble would seek you out.”

“I don’t want trouble,” Kade grumbled, and Thomas could do nothing but throw his head back and laugh.

“You are trouble, and I love you for it.”