The capital was alight with lanterns, burning bright to welcome the sun in the hopes that it would soon chase away the darkness and the frost. The zenith of the cold months had been reached and endured, spring right around the corner, and the people rejoiced. The festival of the winter solstice culminated in one bountiful night of revelry, with families exchanging gifts and friends dancing in the streets. Carols drifted in the air, the freezing winds carrying them even to the highest tower of the palace.
Which was where Prince Adrien sat, listening to the faint hints of a celebration he was not allowed to attend.
He stuffed another pastry into his mouth and scowled. Made by the supposedly best baker in the realm, he tasted nothing of the sweetness. The honey cake crumbled into broken bits as he squeezed it too tight, rolling the disintegrating remains between his fingertips.
Damn his father’s superstitions.
It’s not safe to go out when Underhill is so close, Adrien.
And yet, somehow, magically, everyone else in the realm made it through the night just fine. The only danger people had to contend with was the fierce threat of a hangover.
The prince eyed the barricaded door, iron lining every crevice. A protective circle of runes was half-visible, drawn with chalk on the threshold. Every winter solstice – and summer, too, for that matter – Adrien had spent this way. Locked alone in a room with food, water and some books to further his education. As soon as he’d turned old enough to be trusted not to stab himself with it, his father had also left him an iron longsword.
It had been an exciting game when he’d been a child, eager to play along with his father’s delusions. He’d been a brave knight under siege, defending himself against the vicious fae armies who were surely just outside, plotting to break through.
But now Adrien was almost a man grown and had long since tired of games.
Nino was having the time of his life right now, and Adrien should be having it with him. But he was here. Locked in a tiny room. Keeping himself safe from imaginary threats.
Anger churned inside of him.
He did not mind indulging his father’s superstitions. Truly, he did not. But if Adrien was to spend the greatest celebrations of the year locked up in perpetuity, the least his father could do was keep him company.
King Gabriel leaned back in his throne, clutching the hilt of his sword.
The great hall was empty, the servants dismissed for the night, likely stuffing their faces and drinking themselves into a stupor elsewhere. While the capital was alight, the palace was not.
Blackness bubbled up at the very center of the room, as it had on every solstice since his heir had become more man than boy. A hand rose, claws digging into the fine marble to find a hold. A thin, spindly figure dragged itself out of the hole, dripping darkness as it crawled toward the throne.
Then it paused and raised its head, smiling wide. Its teeth were sharp and far too many.
“Where is my due, King?”
“He is not yours.”
“But he is. You gave him to me, remember?”
Gabriel’s lips thinned.
“You tricked me.”
The Lady of Misfortune laughed haughtily and raised herself to her full height. Black tar was dripping off her, but where it had seeped away it revealed a deceptively beautiful creature. Full red lips and striking blue eyes, long black locks flowing behind her.
“You chose to get drunk and boast that you would trade your firstborn for the crown.” She tsked. “Jealousy is such an ugly trait, my King.”
Gabriel’s grip on his weapon tightened as his lips curled back in a silent snarl. This woman had murdered his brothers, picked them off one by one, until only he was left to take the throne. And now this revolting being had the gall to demand his son?
“He is not yours.”
“You cannot hide him from me forever.”
“No. But then, it does not have to be forever, does it?”
Her eyes glowed red for but a moment before she once more smoothed her visage into beauty. She sauntered closer and he raised his sword to keep her at bay.
“Leave me be, fae. You are not welcome, and you’ll find no more bargains here.”
“I will tear you to pieces, human,” she said pleasantly. “You cannot escape a deal with a fae. A price must be paid, and it will be either his life or yours.”
“Then it will be mine.”
Her lips thinned, and she stared at him with hate filled eyes, her pupils like that of a cat. But suddenly, the slits grew wide and round. Slowly, she tipped back her head, scenting the air.
Lady Misfortune laughed, and it was the loveliest sound there ever was.
“Found you,” she said in a sing-song voice, and Gabriel’s cold heart grew still.
Adrien drove his sword deeper into the narrow opening, putting more of his weight into the leverage. Iron screeched before giving way, and just like that, the window sprang open. Finally.
He leaned forward to look down, calculating any possible paths. Adrien had spent much of his youth climbing these walls, having been born gifted with strength, agility and, as father liked to put it, 'far too little common sense.'
Or, as Adrien liked to put it, an overabundance of daring.
He grinned and swung one leg over the window sill. For one moment he hesitated but then shook his head. He’d make his way back up before dawn and the king would be none the wiser. With practiced motions his fingers dug into any crevices they could find, his boots finding their hold on jutting bricks. His descent was slow and patient until the last few feet, at which point he let go and landed with catlike grace on the outer walls of the palace.
Dusting himself off, he turned toward the capital, grinning wide.
Nino was off dancing with the other nobles of the court and as much as he wished to join his best friend, word of the prince attending that particular gathering would surely reach father’s ear.
So, nothing to do but mix with the common folk.
The guards of the southern gate were deep in slurred conversation.
“–and the most generous tracts of land.” An armored glove mimed cupping something in front of a breastplate, and the rest of the men burst into raucous laughter.
Which died instantly when they spotted Adrien, to be replaced by elbow shoves and quick scrambling to stand at attention.
“Y-Your Grace!” The Captain on duty saluted and miscalculated the gesture, hitting his helmet’s visor. It promptly slammed shut over his eyes. The man stood frozen, appearing unwilling to move from his respectful stance.
Albeit he was moving, swaying ever so slightly.
Adrien winked at the group. “I shan’t tell if you don’t. I’m sneaking out to the market square.”
While half the guards relaxed, one – a rather small fellow and an evidently sober one – frowned. “Your Grace, is that a good idea without an escort? There’s a chance you might be accosted. Perhaps we should–“
“Accompany me? Dear sir knight, that defeats the purpose of sneaking.” Adrien grinned wide. “Besides, the lot of you is three sheets to the wind. I’d be guarding you more than you’d be guarding me. So. This shall be our little secret, yes?”
An eager chorus of agreement answered, one of them shouting at ‘Max’ to not be such a priss. Adrien was about to take his leave when he paused as a thought struck him. He’d need money, wouldn’t he?
“Might I borrow some coin from one of you? I’ll pay you back in the morn’. With interest.”
“I’ve got you, mate. I mean. Your Grace.” The tallest – and drunkest – of the knights dug out his purse and threw it.
Adrien caught it with ease. “Much appreciated, sir…?”
“Sir Kim, Your Grace.” He raised the ale he’d been keeping hidden behind his back.
Adrien eyed the tankard with curiosity. His father abhorred all liquor, forbade Adrien to imbibe. But, well, this was a night for rebellion, was it not?
The knight must have noticed his interest because he produced a second tankard from seemingly nowhere, holding it out to him. “’s bad luck to leave without one for the road,” he said.
“Well, we can’t have that,” Adrien said. “I heard Misfortune stalks these streets tonight.”
While he laughed at his private joke, it only confused the knights, likely because for them a solstice was a night only for joy and celebration. But the moment passed when Adrien tipped his head back and let the bitter liquid slide down his throat. With the aid of the men’s encouraging shouts, he finished the drink in one motion. The guards cheered, and Adrien laughed once again, a pleasant warmth spreading through his body.
“Keep this gate open for me, will you?” With a glance at the lone sober guard, he added, “And if I’m not back in two hours, you have my permission to come find and drag me back.”
“Understood, Your Grace.” Sir Kim saluted with his tankard and Adrien waved as he took his leave.
As he walked the winding alleys, following the sounds of the crowd, a peculiar tingle crept up from the very tips of his fingers. He slowed his stride, marveling at the sensation of inebriation setting in. Adrien closed his eyes, taking a deep breath. The winds of winter were cold, but this one carried the scent of cinnamon. Not far to the central marketplace now. Already he could hear the soft hum of voices.
Adrien opened his eyes with a frown and his steps stuttered to a halt entirely.
He was staring at the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. Ruby red lips curved into a smile, her black hair wild and untamed. She raised one elegant hand and turned it so her palm faced the sky. Then she crooked one finger. Beckoning.
Adrien glanced over his shoulder. The narrow alley was deserted save for the two of them. Did she mean him?
“Come to me, kitty,” she crooned.
Adrien’s gaze once more swept the dark street, looking for the cat she meant to lure. Had it run away? But the street was empty. In fact, it had grown entirely silent except for the faint crinkle of her gown’s fabric fluttering in the wind.
He took an uncertain step toward the woman, unable to help himself. She was so lovely, and he wished to gaze upon her for a moment longer. If she’d lost her pet, then he’d help her find it.
“Can I help you, Madame?” His voice was husky, the liquor making him bold.
“Perhaps.” Her blue eyes shone in the darkness, twinkling like the stars. “I’ve been looking for so long, but I can’t seem to find him.”
“Tell me what he looks like and I’ll help you search.”
She gasped. “Oh! I think I just saw him dart into that alley. Follow me!”
Perhaps he should have bristled at the command, more used to giving than receiving, but he did not hesitate to hurry after her when she ran past. She left behind a faint trace of her perfume – something floral. Sweet. But then the scent faded, swept away by the wind. More.
Adrien broke into a sprint, but the woman was fast, so he redoubled his efforts to keep up with her. He chased her through winding passageways and narrow backstreets, yet every time he came close to catching her, she suddenly ducked around a corner. Strangely, when he turned the very same corner mere heartbeats later, she was so far ahead he had trouble even spotting her silhouette.
A growl rose in the back of his throat. She would not escape him!
Throwing propriety to the wind, he crossed the distance between them in a few leaps. He nearly crashed into her when she skidded to a sudden halt and turned to face him. Her finger tapped his nose and he grew still, utterly mesmerized.
“Come kitty.” The woman kept her voice low to not spook their prey. “It’s in here.”
He nodded and made sure to tread lightly as she pushed open a door. Inside, there was a room with only a single table at its center. But, oh, the plain wooden bench was overflowing with a feast, meats and roasts and goblets filled with wine. How fitting for such a day of celebration. He’d known that the solstice would be brimming with delights, but never had he imagined anything like this.
Licking his lips, he prowled closer. Her fingers brushed his nape and he grew still.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
His name? He had one, he was certain of it. A noble one. But the liquor was dulling his senses and somehow it wouldn’t come when called. He stared at her, eyes wide, humiliation burning in his gut. What kind of simpleton couldn’t remember his own name?
“What’s yours?” he countered, biding his time.
Her eyes twinkled. “That’s for you to find out. For now, you may call me your Lady.”
“My Lady,” he whispered.
She smiled at him and it was like the sun’s light tiptoeing over the horizon. His response had pleased her, he could tell.
“Come. Dine with me.” His Lady took her seat at the very head of the table, a delicate hand reaching for one of the golden chalices. “And indulge me in a toast.”
Eager to discover more of the marvels of liquor – his skin was burning, veins on fire with passion – his claws clacked against the goblet’s metal as he raised it.
Never drink or eat what a fae offers you. It will strip you of your humanity until you are just like them, corrupted to your very soul.
But those were the silly ramblings of a superstitious mind, so he dismissed the faint voice. He’d escaped it for a reason, after all. The liquid was sweet and slid smoothly down his throat and again he finished it all at once.
His Lady’s blue eyes gleamed with satisfaction, and he, too, was satisfied to have pleased her. He shuddered when her fingertips brushed his jaw, scratching the stubble, before moving further up.
“My, what big ears you have,” she said. And laughed.
He laughed, too. Not because he understood the jest, but simply because the Lady’s laughter was so very lovely and he wanted to join in. Besides, the solstice was a night for revelry, for indulgence and for feasting. His gaze darted to the food, but she had not yet taken her seat. Her fingers were still in his golden mane. His eyelids fluttered at the simple pleasure of being petted.
Why had he never been spoiled like this before? It was a marvelous sensation. It was his birthright to be pampered. After all he was a p–
He growled in frustration. Why were words so sluggish tonight? Perhaps he should have not drunk so much at once after all. But then the Lady filled his goblet once more and he had not the heart to deny her when she held it out to him. He drunk deep, not bothering to resist when she undid his belt, sending his sword cluttering to the floor.
Right. How rude of him to have sat down at her table with a weapon on him. And the belt had been pinching his backside anyway.
“So what is your name? I must know. Tell me.”
He whined, so strong was the need not to disappoint her. “…Adrien? Adrien Agreste.” Was that right? The vowels felt foreign on his tongue.
“Adrien Agreste,” she repeated thoughtfully, and the name reverberated in his bones. But then she shook her head. “No. That’s not it.”
A friendly voice, warm and pleading. “Come now, Adrien, surely you can change his mind? I know your father's set in his ways, but tonight’s the night.”
“Adrien,” a sharp voice said, the king’s edict final as always. “I do not care what Lord Lahiffe has invited you to, you must stay inside tonight. Our court does not lack for festivities for you to attend, you’ll survive without this one.”
“I’m Adrien,” he said uncertainly, clinging to the memories. That was what people called him, wasn’t it?
“But it doesn’t suit you at all,” the woman said with a titter. “Look.”
Her long fingers closed around a handheld mirror on the table, and he reverently took it from her hand, gazing at his reflection. Green cat eyes stared back, surrounded by handsome black fur in the shape of a domino mask.
“Don’t you agree?”
Agree with what? What – what had they been talking about? He swayed, and his reflection frowned. But – that wasn’t his reflection at all, was it? In the mirror was a stranger, one with bare pink skin and small round ears. Something was – something was wrong, something didn’t fit but he couldn’t figure out what, liquor slowing the flow of his thoughts. Maybe sneaking out had been a bad idea after all.
“I – I should go,” he whispered, laying the mirror on the table. He had to be back before dawn. Somewhere. Meeting someone. It was important to be back before dawn.
“But don’t you wish to dine with me?”
Back, go back, leave, something’s wrong.
He pushed himself away from the table and fell to all fours, and no matter how hard he tried, he could not seem to make himself balanced on two legs.
So he crawled, her delighted laughter at his back. What was so funny?
“Here, kitty, kitty.”
He froze, the familiar call drawing him in. Slowly he swiveled his head around. His sharp gaze swept across the feast laid out before him, the scent of blood making his mouth water. Was the meat still warm? How had he not noticed that?
She smiled and raised an apple to her lips, biting into the rotten fruit.
Now he was free to eat as well. Pets were not allowed to start a meal without their owner’s permission. Not that he was anyone’s pet. So where had that thought come from?
“Come dine with me, kitty. Eat up, it’s all for you.”
He prowled closer, setting his hands on the bench to get a better look at what she was offering. Meat. Succulent and warm, right in front of him. Deciding to forgo the cumbersome fork and knife, he snatched a bloody chunk with his sharp fangs.
“Tell me your name, sweetling.”
He paid her no mind, climbing on the bench and setting his front paws to both sides of his plate, burying his face in the fresh kill. It would taste better if he had hunted it himself, but he would accept the gift all the same.
“Do you not have one?”
“I suppose I’ll have to give you one, then.”
He paused, licking his fangs to catch the red drip. A name given to him by this Lady? Her body thrummed with power, but so did his. By what right would she claim him?
She tapped one long finger against her chin, contemplating.
“I’d like to tame you, sweet kitten, and I have reason to believe you’d enjoy it. I have woods to hunt in, dangerous lands for you to claim as territory, and an empty spot next to my throne. You could sit at my feet and I would pet your pretty hair.”
That did sound tempting.
“Do we have a bargain? Shall I take you in and name you?”
The tip of his tail twitched. A name? For him? What would she choose? He leaned forward with curiosity. She must have read his interest, for she smiled wide, red eyes aglow.
“A sleek and graceful creature like you, with fur as dark as my night? I think I’ll call you Chat Noir.”
The hunter pressed himself close to the ground, holding himself so still that not even his tail twitched. His gaze had locked in on his prey, narrow pupils tracking its movements through the shifting pebbles. Saliva gathered in his mouth but he refrained from swallowing. Even such a minor muscle spasm might give him away.
A tremor ran through the forest, the gnarled trees shuddering as the ground quaked. His hindlegs tensed.
Fodhen were vicious, mindless creatures, rarely ever leaving their underground lairs. Beneath the earth they slumbered, waiting until something walked on the soil above them. Then their long fingers broke through the earth and dragged their victims down into the depths.
He’d lured this one with the scent of blood, leaving the carcass of his last hunt near its hiding place. Not even they could resist a free meal.
The earth burst, the beast unhinging its jaws to swallow the cadaver whole, and Chat Noir lunged.
Chat Noir meticulously groomed his paw, his tongue paying careful attention to the space between his toes to dig out the last of the dirt. At least, that was how it appeared to outsiders. In truth, his ears were perked and his gorgeous black fur free of all contamination.
No, he was merely luring his stalker into a false sense of security.
Chat suppressed a grin and leapt to the side, just as a body crashed right where he’d sat. He could not help the mocking laugh that escaped him when he took in orange fur caked in mud, obscuring the white patches.
Trixx was always so inept when they tried to sneak up on him.
The young fae huffed and pushed themselves to sit, purple eyes narrowed in an accusing gaze.
“Maybe next time, fox.” Chat did not even attempt to keep the smugness out of his voice. Trixx was young, had scarcely seen fifty winters, whereas he was already close to his adulthood. It would be quite some time before the little spirit of illusion would be able to rival his power.
If he ever would. After all, Chat would be a Lord someday.
“What gave me away?” Trixx sprung to their feet, shaking all nine of their tails to clear the grime away.
“That’s not an answer, Chat.” The fox’s bottom lip pushed forward in a pout. “How am I to improve myself if you will not give me hints what I’m doing wrong?”
“You keep picking the wrong target. There’s easier prey than me.”
“But Chat,” they purred and snuggled close. “My aim is to capture you.”
The black cat rolled his eyes and leapt away, escaping the other fae’s grasp. Foxes were amorous creatures, and Trixx was no exception. They shot him a wounded glance.
“Is it this body? Does it not appeal to you?” Just like that, the flat chest gained curves, narrow hips broadening while the waist dipped. Trixx’s voice climbed several octaves as they spoke. “Because I can be anything you want.”
“Try reaching a century. You’re too young for me.”
“Age is smoke and mirrors, Chat. What is time in Underhill? For all you know I might have aged thousands of years since you last saw me. I could have fallen into a pocket dimension.”
“…well, no, but I could have.”
“Well, that’s good. For you to be such a bad hunter at age one thousand would have been cat-astrophic.”
“You are cruel, Black Cat. Cruel.”
“No. I am already claimed. As you should know.”
Trixx snorted derisively. “Oh yes, I forgot. You are our Lady’s future consort.”
Chat smiled. “You’ll see. She loved my last gift.”
“She’s being polite. Contrary to what you think, nobody enjoys finding dead birds on their pillow.”
A faint blush heated his cheeks. “I would never insult my Lady with a gift so meager!”
Well, he had.
But that didn’t count. It had been at the very beginning of his courtship, and his inexperience had shown. Like an overeager kitten, he’d utterly embarrassed himself in his infatuation, so unused to the ways of the civilized Court. She’d laughed with indulgence, but it was the kind of shameful memory that kept him from sleep at night.
“No, I gave her the still-beating heart of a Foghen.”
And how her red eyes had shone with delight. She’d taken his tribute and devoured it right in front of him, its warm blood streaking down her face. Chat Noir had wanted to lick it off but had refrained. Touching her without permission would have been uncouth.
“You killed a Foghen?” Purple eyes grew wide in admiration and Chat could not help but preen. Yes, his hunting prowess was unrivaled. The black cat stalked the ruins of Underhill in search of foes to best, and so far none had been able to withstand his might.
That was why he and he alone would win the Lady’s favor. While all the court squabbled amongst themselves, locked in an intricate dance of backstabbing, he was doing what needed to be done. Underhill was decaying, low creatures encroaching from all sides. Nothing pleased the Lady of Misfortune more than when he dragged the fallen corpses of her enemies before her throne.
And as much as he yearned to boast of it, he told Trixx nothing of the private audience she had granted him for his latest tribute. His Lady had said that whatever she wished to reveal was for his ears only.
Walking on two legs did not come easily to Chat Noir, but some occasions called for it. He was most dangerous when he was crouching low to the ground, always a mere heartbeat away from a fast and fatal leap. But not all beings understood that.
Some even thought the way he wiggled his tail in preparation of a pounce was cute. Idiots. They always died first. If Chat Noir never heard the syllable ‘aw’ again, it would be too soon.
But all creatures intuitively understood size. When Chat Noir walked on two legs, he towered over all but the fae descended from giants. Which came in quite handy when sauntering into the Nightmare Court.
Eyes shining with magic and malice swiveled to face him as soon as he entered her throne room. Prey? Food? Rival? He knew the questions they were asking themselves, and Chat Noir answered them with a toothy smile as he confidently strode past them all.
He was a rare sight at Court, preferred to stalk the outskirts of her realm and defend its borders.
But there was always a place for him here.
Wordlessly, he sat down next to his Lady’s dais on the pillow laid out only for him. When she reached down to scratch him behind his ear, he cast a triumphant look to the rest of the Court, basking in their jealousy.
See? See how she favors me? I am her most beloved pet and you are nothing.
A purr rumbled in his chest and he closed his eyes, not listening to a word of what she and her subjects spoke of. They came to petition her for all manner of things, and it was all tremendously boring. Politics and favors and small mercies. What did he care? He lived to serve and to hunt and to kill his Lady’s enemies.
It was only when the last of her subjects had been dismissed that he opened his eyes again.
“My Lady,” he said softly. “You requested my presence?”
“Indeed.” She bestowed a thin smile upon him and then beckoned him to follow. As always, he did just that, prowling behind her as she led him to the hall of staircases.
The seat of the Nightmare Court was a labyrinth, filled with endless corridors and winding stairs that led nowhere at all. The most treacherous trap was its central hub, a dizzying construct of stairs that rapidly veered with no warning and changed alignments. One wrong step and one would suddenly be walking on the ceiling without being aware of it.
But none of that concerned him for all he had to do was make sure his paws stepped into the black footfalls she left behind. Eventually, she turned toward a narrow door. When he stepped over the threshold, darkness lifted to reveal a soft light shining from above.
“Look up, my pet. Do you see it?”
Chat Noir tilted his head. Stars and galaxies danced on the ceiling. One swirling vortex in particular drew his attention, for it was hard to miss, taking up half the sky.
“What is that?”
“That’s the human realm. The solstice grows close, and so do our worlds.”
“Humans?” He’d heard of these creatures. A lifespan like insects, they said, withering long before death claimed them, doomed to spend decades crippled by decay. Faes remained strong for all their days until they died in battle or blew away like dust to rejoin the Underhill from whence they came.
“Abhorrent creatures,” his Lady muttered. “Do you know of Iron, my sweet kitten?”
He’d heard the whispers and the tales. All fae instinctively feared the element that killed with its mere presence. For all his valor, Chat Noir was not foolish enough to not heed such warnings. “Iron is death.”
“Yes. Yes, it is.” She sighed. “Yet not to humans. They have put it to use, built great machines with it and wield it as a weapon. Short-lived they might be, but they breed like rats. With every passing year, they encroach on our territory. They desecrate our sanctuaries by building cities atop where our lands are mirrored, spear the earth with iron where we would place our portals. Underhill is dying because of them.”
Chat Noir’s eyes grew wide. He had seen the decay at the edges of her realm, but dying?
“There must be something we can do,” he said, his fangs aching with the need to bury themselves in whatever had caused such anguish in his Lady’s voice.
“There is.” She turned to him with sorrow in her eyes. “My sweet Chat Noir, how long have we known each other?”
Time was a fickle thing in Underhill, flowing like water – sometimes a slow trickle, sometimes as rapid as a raging river. But Chat had done his best to count. “Five winters.”
She nodded. “And I have watched you grow strong and clever, far exceeding even my wildest expectations. You are on the cusp of adulthood now, Chat Noir, and all that remains to claim your place in my Court is the completion of a Wilde Hunt.”
His eyes lit up. A quest. She was here to give him the final test after which he would become an adult member of her Court, eligible to become her consort in more than spirit. How long he’d waited for this!
Yet was that worry he detected in her ethereal features? He would not fail!
“Chat Noir. Your Wilde Hunt shall be no easy task. What I ask of you is far outside the scope of what an ordinary Hunt would entail, but so is the reward I offer you. Succeed, and I will share all the power of Misfortune with you, making you mine for all eternity.” He hissed in a sharp breath, his body aching with want. “Fail…” She raised her head toward the sky. “Fail and I fear Underhill shall come to an end.”
He swallowed heavily, tail lashing back and forth. “You would trust me with something so important?” And such a reward? If he had understood her correctly, she was offering him to be more than even her consort. He’d be her Lord, taking the empty throne beside her.
“Yes. For you see, you have a gift that makes you uniquely suited to this task.” She turned to face him, red eyes gleaming. “You are Iron Kissed.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means you can withstand the bite of Iron. Walk freely in its presence, even bear its cut. I knew I had to have you long before we met. Chat Noir, I must confess, I tamed you for this task.”
His brows furrowed, ears pressing against his head. This was why he was favored?
“So… did my gifts not matter at all?” He’d thought he’d been wooing her so cleverly.
His Lady laughed, the sound clear as a bell. “Such lovely gifts they were. A sacrifice of blood to strengthen me is never wasted.” Her fingertips brushed his ears. “Your devotion is precious to me, my pet, and I cherish it. That is why it pains me to send you away. I did not expect to dread the day you left on your Hunt. Let me show you.”
She held out her palm, black vapor gathering to form the shape of a handheld mirror. Gingerly, he took it from her and gazed at his reflection.
A reflection that was all wrong. Yes, that was his golden mane, though it was cut short, and he supposed he saw the resemblance in the jaw and the sweep of the nose and brows – but where were his ears? The eyes were white where they should have been green and when he parted his lips, his reflection’s fangs were as flat as some herd animal’s.
“This past winter solstice, Nightmare devoured a Lordling who was set to take over as ruler of one of the biggest human settlements. Your task shall be to travel to the human world and take his place, securing us the crown that would have been his.” His Lady smiled, baring her multitude of fangs. “Then we shall destroy the human kingdoms from within. Cull their number and give Underhill the chance to grow again.”
Chat Noir blinked slowly. “I’m supposed to pretend to be human?” How was he supposed to do that? He didn’t even know what they looked like, let alone anything of their customs or mannerisms. Infiltration was a Changeling’s task. Chat Noir was made for battle, not deception.
She nodded gravely and there was sorrow in her dark gaze. “I shan’t lie – it won’t be easy. Not only will your task be time-consuming and our separation far too long, but…“
He could not bear to see her pain. “What is it, my Lady?”
“The mirror is the key. Within, you will find all the memories necessary so that you might play your role convincingly. But you must be sparse in how often you consult it, Chat Noir. Take only the most essential of the Lordling’s knowledge and leave the rest.”
“Why?” The better a hunter knew his hunting ground, the more assured the kill.
“If you look too deeply into the mirror, Prince Adrien’s memories will try to swallow you whole. If you do not take care to guard your heart and soul, they would convince you that you are him.”
The disappearance of King Gabriel’s only son threw the realm into chaos. Not only did it threaten the line of succession, but two cousin branches instantly locked into a heated dispute over whose claim to the throne was stronger. Worst of all, while he might have reigned for a few more decades and fathered more sons, the king went mad with grief.
The people pitied their ruler who had become the last of his line, outliving not only his son, but everyone who bore his last name. A once prosperous house reduced to a single madman.
Rumor had it that when Prince Adrien failed to return from his late-night excursion, the king had torn out his fair hair, scratching at his own face and howling about fae. The day after, he had ordered all mirrors in the palace covered.
Duke Bourgeoise, the king’s steward, pledged his men toward tracking down the villains who had taken the prince. Yet the king wanted to hear none of it, refused to release funds for a search, and locked himself away to grieve.
His physicians prescribed laudanum to keep the nightmares at bay.
Chat Noir’s eyelids drooped and as much as he wanted to listen to all his Lady’s words, it was rather difficult to concentrate when her claws were softly raking through the thin stripe of fur on his back.
“My pet, are you listening?”
“Of course, my Lady.”
“Repeat what I just said.”
He yawned, blinking sleepily. “You cannot accompany me to the portal leading to my Wilde Hunt because the winter solstice is too narrow a window. You’ll be busy with other duties.”
“Look at you. Cats do listen.”
“Occasionally.” Truthfully, he hadn’t paid even the slightest bit of attention to her explanation of what exactly her other duties entailed. He didn’t need her to see him off. Chat Noir left the Nightmare Court for his hunts all the time without so much as a by-your-leave. She allowed him this freedom, trusting that he would always find his way back to her side.
Although this would be his longest Hunt yet. By the time he came back, Trixx would likely be an adult, and it saddened him to miss their growth. For all that he mocked their pitiful hunting attempts, they were improving, and Chat loved their little chasing games. The fox spirit was the only being at Court whom he’d befriended, for it was closest to his nature – mischievous, wild, yet not needlessly cruel.
Not that his Lady was cruel, either, for all that she ruled Nightmare. No, his Lady loved all her subjects and, like a mother defending her cubs, was willing to tear her enemies to pieces. Chat Noir admired that ferocity, like he admired everything about her.
Once he became a full-fledged member of the Court and took his place as her Lord, this realm would become his to defend as well. What better way to demonstrate he was worthy of that responsibility than to cull the humans?
“Good pet,” she crooned. “Don’t think I’ve not noticed that you’ve stopped making your abominable puns.”
Well. In her presence, anyway.
Still he happily writhed in both her praise and her lap. Once he was Lord and her equal, that was when they would revisit the topic of his genius wordplay. For now, he had too many rivals to be able to afford teasing her.
Though did any of his rivals get private audiences like this? No. Only him. Because Chat Noir was special. Iron Kissed and tamed by her hand, plucked from the wilderness of Underhill too savage for any Lord or Lady to claim as territory. Courtiers could snicker and taunt him for not having been born into Nightmare all they liked, but one day he would rule them all. He had learned their ways, and soon they would learn his.
Chat Noir was born to rule, he felt the truth of it deep in his bones. His Lady felt it, too, for why else would she task him with stealing a crown? It was like she was winking at him, an unspoken promise between them.
Oh, she was still talking. He lazily perked up one ear.
“…will meet you on the other side. The Changeling was moved to her place on the last summer solstice, to prepare for your arrival. Lean on her experience if the human world proves confusing but remember that she is not Iron Kissed like you. Changelings are not built for battle, even a plain human soldier can slay her. She will be able to aid you with the court, but only you can safely infiltrate their military command.”
“Humans have a Court of their own?”
His Lady sighed. Chat Noir smiled prettily, evidently having just given away that he’d not listened at some point.
“Kings and Queens are the human equivalent of Lords and Ladies. Yes, they each have their own court filled with courtiers, balls and amusement.”
“And politics,” he said glumly.
Chat Noir hated politics, all those snide remarks and insults hidden under compliments. He knew they were mocking him, but rarely did he figure out what for, their conversations difficult to follow. Learning who was beholden to whom, where the secret alliances were, complex feuds spanning centuries – just contemplating the very notion of Nightmare Court politics made him long for a hunt.
He was a creature of simple needs, neatly dividing the world into allies and things he could eat. The notion of smiling and complimenting the dress of a creature he planned on devouring was absurd. Yes, he liked to play with his prey, too, but not over years and decades! That was just cruel. And would surely grow boring.
Yet it was what his Lady was asking of him. To infiltrate the humans and lead them to their own destruction. He supposed patience and cunning were skills she needed him to master if he was to become her Lord.
“And politics,” she confirmed. “I know you do not like to play the games of whispers, but it will be vital for the success of your Hunt. Your position as prince will make it easier. People will be eager to please and impress you. But it is with others of your own rank you will have to be careful. While we aim to plunge the human kingdoms into war, we cannot let it happen before we are ready. Do not antagonize them nor show yourself weak.”
“I understand, my Lady.” His tail flicked with irritation that she thought it necessary to explain such basic concepts to him. This he understood instinctively. “Identify the predators among the prey and find a way to share the territory without killing or being killed. That comes later.”
She gifted him with a smile and another scratch of his ear. “Clever kitten. Exactly. For now, your task will simply be to seamlessly blend into your role as Adrien Agreste and to gain insight into his world.” His Lady grew very still. “Without being consumed by it.”
“My Lady, I belong to Underhill. No stolen memories can overcome my love for you.”
“I hope so.” Her touch was featherlight now. “Chat Noir. Such a delightful surprise you turned out to be. Failing this mission would be a blow to Underhill but losing you shall be a blow to me.”
“I won’t fail,” he growled, his heart beating as fast as a bird’s wing. He tucked the high praise away, would surely revisit those words many times during his Hunt.
No, he would not fail her. Not ever.
Chat Noir’s claws traced the edges of the surface reflecting a stranger’s face at him.
His Lady had warned him to not use the mirror needlessly, so that left the question of what was most vital for him to know. The answer was obvious – he needed to know about the one he’d be taking the crown from.
The prince’s father.
Chat Noir knew little of family. He did not remember his sire, nor a mother or littermates, if he had any at all. Perhaps he'd been born fully formed, as some fae species were, woven from Underhill's magic and clawing their way out of the earth. But memories of his youth were murky, so he could not say. His intellect and self-awareness were gifts from his Lady, given to him on the day he’d consented to being tamed. The subtle magic altered him more and more with each passing season, sharpening his mind.
He welcomed the changes for they brought him closer to being her equal.
Well, not all of them. There were drawbacks to the way his thoughts were splintering. Simple truths became multifaceted uncertainties. Once he had neatly divided the world into prey and predator, but then he’d come to realize that this was only in relation to himself. The creatures he swallowed in one gulp were fearsome predators to someone else.
He was proud of discovering these things, but sometimes this strange melancholy swept over him. What else was he certain of that just wasn’t true? He loved his Lady, but sometimes he had this suspicion that he’d been happier before she caught him, when he’d still been running free under an open sky. It wasn’t that he wished to be an unthinking beast again, but there was no melancholy in the wild, only the battle for survival.
Chat Noir did not much care for doubt or indecision. He banished the sensation from his mind whenever it arose. Chat Noir was his Lady’s pet and would one day be her Lord. That about covered the ideal depth of his thoughts and he didn’t want his world to get any more complex than that.
Though he did like the complexity of wordplay.
He really liked the way his mouth could make one noise and have two meanings. On one particularly magical day not long ago, Chat Noir had succeeded in a triple entendre. Truly, his intellect was growing by leaps and bounds.
And he would have to be smart to fool the humans. Smarter than ever before.
“Mirror, show me the prince’s father.”
Adrien’s forehead hit the page and he jerked back up a mere heartbeat later. A steely blue gaze rested on him and the king raised an eyebrow.
“Am I boring you, my son?”
“No, father.” He rubbed his forehead and subtly peered at the open book in front of him. The ink hadn’t smeared, thank the Gods. “I just didn’t get much sleep last night. The arithmetic problems you gave me are difficult.”
“And you stayed up to solve them?”
He fidgeted. Adrien loved the way the numbers fit together, the way they could move back and forth between the sides of an equation until they turned into another formula entirely. But these formulas were vexing him. “Well, I tried.”
“You didn’t succeed?”
His shoulder slumped. “No.”
“Would you like another set of problems, then? Easier ones?”
The prince’s head snapped up. “No!” Yes, they vexed him, but some novel way of looking at them would come to him eventually. And then the math would reveal its elegance.
King Gabriel’s lips curved into a rare smile. “Then I’m proud of you, Adrien. Take as much time as you need. It’s only failure if you let it be the last try.”
Chat Noir blinked, tilting his head.
Humans were curious-looking creatures. All that pink skin and no scales or fur or anything at all to harden them against attacks and elements. Chat Noir had his own weak spots like that, much more than he’d have liked, but they had it all over. What a fragile existence.
Well, they did have a mane on top of their head, so he supposed that was something.
But still. They looked so soft his heart seized with the urge to protect the man who’d been giving his son a gentle lesson. Ridiculous. He didn’t stop to marvel at cute critters, he ate them.
So what had he learned from the vision?
Well, the prince liked math. Whatever that was.
“Mirror, mirror, on the wall,” he murmured, and then frowned. The mirror was in his hand, not on the wall, why would he say that? Chat shook his head, pinpricks of a foreign mind falling off him.
If he was to be convincing as Prince Adrien, then he needed to be able to mimic his preferences.
“Show me math.”
The Glamor was an innate ability of all fae, and Chat Noir was no exception. He sometimes used it to meld with the shadows to play a prank on Trixx, but never had he worn one for any length of time. This one had been strengthened by his Lady, to make it as convincing as any Changeling’s.
It was an ill fit.
He placed another unsteady step in front of him, wobbling. Chat Noir had mastered walking on two legs, he had, but without the aid of his tail to keep him balanced, it was a ludicrously hard ordeal. The prince’s body was stiff and inflexible, not at all lending itself to his fluid grace. It just wouldn’t bend right.
Chat Noir toppled over, deciding then and there that he hated humans and their stupid, weak, fragile, rigid, no-good bodies.
Trixx howled with laughter and Chat hissed at them.
“This is not funny!”
“It’s a little funny.”
“Share your secrets, shapeshifter. How can you bear this?”
“Hm, there’s some things you’re doing wrong. Let me think of how to explain it.” The young fox mimed a thinking pose, then snapped their fingers. “Oh yes, that’s right. Everything. You’re doing everything wrong.”
“I know what you’re doing and while I do appreciate the dramatic irony, will you not rise above such petty impulses? Don’t you want to be better than me? Prove yourself the superior fae? Here’s your o-purr-tunity.”
Purple eyes blinked in surprise.
It was not an expression Chat was used to seeing from the fox. “What?”
“Nothing. It’s nothing.”
Chat Noir scowled. “I’ve no patience for games right now, Trixx. This is my Wilde Hunt and the solstice nears. I need to have mastered this body by the time the portal opens.”
Three of their nine tales curled into Trixx’s lap and they absently brushed their claws through them. “I cannot help but notice that you’ve gained some eloquence since last I saw you.”
“…pocket dimension. Time dilation. You know how it is.”
“Right. Is that where you learned what dramatic irony and time dilation are, Chat? I like my men young, dumb and hung and you are starting to not fit the bill. It’d be a tragic shame for me to lose my lust for you. Try growling something about prey under your breath for me?”
“I am most indebted to you for revealing to me this most marvelous method of circumventing your amorous intentions.”
They threw a small ball of fox fire at him and Chat Noir’s infuriatingly slow body did nothing to dodge in time, producing more of a sad twitch than the intended leap.
“Trixx,” he whined pitifully and tried to make his eyes do the thing with his pupils that made even his Lady melt. Sometimes. She did not melt per se, but it earned him the occasional pat on the head. “Help me.”
“Oh, fine, fine. Some fearsome nightmare you are. Your new body has instincts, too. Use them instead of relying on your old ones. I promise you those hips were made for walking on two legs. It’s not hard, tail or not.”
Chat nodded and pushed himself to sit.
Yes, his new body had instincts, too, and he was very aware of them. Uncomfortably so. It made him want to prowl around on four paws out of sheer spite. Trixx was not wrong to notice the change in his speech, for even Chat Noir caught the prince sneaking into his vocabulary. And maybe that was a good thing, would add to his authenticity in the role he was to assume.
But his Lady’s warning rang in his mind.
For just the briefest moment, assuming this form had felt like coming home. Chat Noir had recoiled, promptly forcing himself into a crouch. He was a fae, not a human, and he would do well to resist the memories so eager to take over his will.
“So are you going to tell me what this Wilde Hunt of yours is about?”
“No. You know I can’t.”
The fox pushed forward their bottom lip in a pout. “And you know I can keep a secret, Chat. Who would I even tell? You’re my closest friend in all the Nightmare Court. My only friend.”
Trixx had an uncanny gift for disguises, so much so that their animal form didn’t even smell fae. They survived his Lady’s harsh borderlands only through trickery, not daring to venture anywhere near where the more powerful fae lived.
How would the young fox fare without him? Chat was forever pulling them out of trouble. It was like Trixx delighted in running headlong into danger just so Chat would have no choice but to give chase.
Chat’s voice soft when he answered. “And you are mine.”
“But you still won’t tell me what you’ll be up to in the human world?”
“I can’t. Our Lady forbade–“
Trixx sighed softly. “Well. Can’t disobey our Lady, can we? I’m going to miss you terribly. It will be so boring here without you.” Their ears perked up. “I guess I’ll have to sneak out during the solstice and track you down.”
Chat sat up, alarmed. “Trixx, don’t. Humans are dangerous.”
The fox spirit only smiled, showing teeth. “So am I.”
“Show me the prince’s home, mirror.”
The ocean raging against a cliffside, ceaselessly beating its waves against the unyielding stone. Towers rose like a crown at the very edge, one half defended by the sea’s fury, the other overseeing a sprawling coastal city. To the east, the cliffs sloped gently, allowing ships to dock at the shore where fishermen peddled their catches. The wares brought by the large trade vessels from faraway lands were carried deeper into the capital, to be sold at its central market square or offered to a more selective clientele at court.
Adrien smiled at his kingdom and his people, breathing deeply of the air carrying a hint of salt.
Chat blinked slowly, the tip of his tongue darting out to catch the lingering scent of fish.
His Lady’s nightmare realm was a thing of beauty. Stars glittered above all hours of the day, illuminating thorns and the skeleton forests Chat liked to hunt in. It was easy for him to blend in with the shadows of his home.
But the human world was bright, so bright that standing in it would surely hurt his eyes. It should have repulsed him. A horizon of nothing but water? Horrible.
Yet the more he glimpsed of it, the more eager he grew for his Wilde Hunt. He would conquer this new challenge, as he’d conquered his territory. All beasts, no matter how ferocious, knew to stay away from the slice of Underhill that Chat had carved out for himself.
The scent of Adrien’s home stirred something inside of him. It called to him, his body quivering with anticipation of getting to breathe its full splendor. The human’s senses were dull, but Chat would be able to appreciate all the subtle flavors the prince was missing. Like catching a glimpse of a wonderful treasure behind fogged glass.
On the night of the solstice, the dark sky ripped open, and the Lord of Misfortune watched from his perch.
Scarcely a few days after the anniversary of his disappearance, Prince Adrien was found and freed over a hundred miles from the capital. The realm rejoiced when they heard the news. The king, however, without even meeting his miraculously returned son, started screaming that whatever had been found was a lying imposter.
It took three of his knights to wrestle the iron sword out of his grip.
Stepping through the portal felt just like stepping through a waterfall.
Which was to say, Chat hated it. His knees nearly buckled, far too much force slamming into his body, and it left him with the unnerving sensation of being coated in some sticky substance. It was no more than a phantom itch, but it still left him battling the urge to clean out his coat. Not that he had one. No, he was naked, pink skin wrapped in a thick layer of leather. A poor substitute for warm fur.
Scarcely five minutes into his Hunt and he was already keenly mourning its loss. How long until he’d have opportunity to wear it again? If he was to be surrounded by humans all hours of the day, it might be years.
But then new scents reached his awareness and he inhaled deeply. Strange. He was used to that ever-present burn in his nostrils, the one that heralded fae and nightmare. But there was nothing, no tingling scratch in his nose keeping him alert. Just a sort of… blandness.
Well, not quite bland.
In fact, without the overpowering scent of Underhill’s magic, a lot of other, subtler flavors opened to him. A hint of ice and frost tickling his nose, but also pine cones and sleeping grass and–
He whirled around, eyes widening.
Humans wildly swinging iron sticks at nothing whatsoever.
“They’re enthralled,” a nasally voice said. Ah. There was his taste of home.
Chat Noir turned to face the Changeling. Like him, she was covered in pink skin, even shared his coloring to some extent, an elaborate crown of golden curls sitting atop her head. But her clothing was different, consisting of a voluminous dress, the fringes tipped with delicate lace. His leathers were cut to be more formfitting and practical.
Her body was different, too, all supple curves where he was hard edges. This wouldn’t mean much among the fae, but among humans it marked her female, and him male.
Chat Noir had always liked the bodies shaped like an hourglass. Especially when they formed that dip around the waist and flowed into wide hips, that was his favorite. He begrudgingly awarded one point to humanity, for having half their species look like that.
He glanced at the humans still slashing the air. Males. Or maybe that was just their bulky armor obscuring their form.
“Enthralled for what?” he asked his fellow fae.
She rolled blue eyes at him. “The prince was devoured a year ago. We had to concoct a backstory of where he’s been. As far as these knights are concerned, they are currently rescuing you from the wicked clutches of evil mercenaries.” Her lips pursed as her critical gaze raked over him. “You’re too clean. Alter your glamor to look like you’ve been imprisoned for a long time.”
Chat nodded, cuts and scrapes appearing all over his body, his clothes turning from pristine into a dirty mess. After a moment, he also added a head injury, matting golden hair with sticky red. That should give him a convenient excuse for any lapses in his judgements.
“So what’s your name?” he asked the fae who’d arrived first to prepare his arrival.
“My true name is my own.” She sniffed haughtily. “But here in the human world you may call me Chloe Bourgeois. She was a noble girl, daughter of the king’s right hand. He’s my thrall, too, and his word will ensure nobody will doubt where you’ve been.”
His smile was strained. Already he could tell that this Nightmare fae was like so many others of her ilk, cold and haughty. Working with her would be a pain. Chat Noir at once began plotting ways through which to separate from her.
She was to be his guide in the human world, but he had the distinct feeling that they’d come to blows if he was forced too long into her company.
His Lady would be angry with him if he antagonized his allies. Separation was the best path forward.
“Do you think they found him?” Rose whispered.
Marinette glanced at the blonde before turning her gaze back to the window. “Who knows,” she murmured. “He’s been missing for a year. Any true trail he might have left has long since grown cold.”
Rose pouted. “You’re such a cynic.”
She wasn’t. Not really. She had prayed fervently for his return, every night, for months and months. But hope could only burn for so long before the flames started licking at her flesh. For her own protection, Marinette had abandoned all expectations of ever seeing the kind boy again.
Not that her odds of seeing him again were that great even if he still lived. He was a prince, after all, and she a mere servant. It was only luck that had led to their unlikely childhood friendship. A series of events that was unlikely to ever repeat.
So Marinette had hardened her heart. Prince Adrien was gone from this world, and life went on, as it always did. They would sort out the line of succession, and then some other man would take the place that should have rightfully been Adrien’s. The realm would have a king who bore a different name and nothing in her day-to-day life would change because of it.
And yet Marinette was as glued to the window as Rose, staring at the darkness, looking for any glimpse of the patrol that had set out to follow a clue of the prince’s whereabouts. They had left days ago and would surely be back soon.
If there were awards for being the most pitiful woman on earth, Marinette would earn a spot in the top ten. If not the top three. Hells, she ought not underestimate herself like that – she would aim for the gold.
“Look!” Rose squished her nose against the glass. “Lanterns!”
Indeed. Those were lights on the horizon, bobbing up and down like fireflies.
“Rose,” Marinette said slowly. “I believe it’s time for us to dust the vases in the foyer. I saw stains this morning.”
Dusting was far outside her duties as a lady’s maid but who would complain if they discretely did some extra cleaning in the middle of the night? They positioned themselves so they had a good view of the main corridor, each armed with a duster for plausible deniability.
It did not take long for the door to slam open and men’s shouts to fill the hall. Rose said something, but Marinette did not hear, her gaze fixed on the visible portion of the corridor.
Because there he was.
Unconscious, frayed clothes covered in dirt and grime, he was carried past them by two knights. His golden head of hair was stained with dried red, and Marinette stifled a noise somewhere between a gasp and a whimper.
It was him.
He was alive.
“What’s all this commotion?”
Marinette flinched and turned toward the stairs to her back, sweeping into a deep curtsy. Even freshly roused from sleep, Lady Bourgeois was a sight to behold, her thin chemise fluttering around her body. Her blue eyes narrowed with suspicion as they focused on Marinette.
“There you are. Explain to me why my Lady’s maid absconded into the night when I needed her?” She sniffed haughtily, tugging at her disheveled locks. “My hair is an utter disaster; how can I show myself to the rest of the household like this? I want to see what the fuss is about.” The Lady paused, glaring at Marinette, and then barked, “What are you still standing around for? Get me a comb!”
Marinette curtsied once more and swiftly fetched the comb hidden under a vase. They were stashed in all corners of the household for hair emergencies. Lady Bourgeois prided herself greatly on being fashionable, and even a single strand out of place could send her spiraling into a rage.
Though she’d not always been like this.
No, once Marinette could count herself fortunate to serve a Mistress so fair and even-tempered. But all that had changed almost in the blink of an eye when some sort of betrayal had led the Lady to scorn her betrothed in full view of the court. Heartbreak had turned Lady Bourgeois into an utter nightmare for close to half a year now. Marinette prayed the change in der disposition was not a permanent one.
“My Lady,” Rose whispered, belatedly remembering to curtsy as well. “They’ve found the prince!”
The steward’s daughter grew utterly still, her blue eyes instantly welling with tears as she clutched one hand to her chest. “A-Adrikins?”
Marinette hurried up the stairs to where Lady Bourgeois stood frozen and set to gently taming her hair. “We just saw him get carried in. I think he’s wounded.” She swallowed heavily at the thought of what the poor man must have endured in a full year of captivity.
“Nobody must know,” Lady Bourgeois declared at once, fixing both servants with a hard glare. “The situation is precarious enough, let the prince explain what happened before we start spreading tales of what state he was found in.”
Speculation surrounding the prince’s disappearance was rampant, all wondering who had done it and why. The prevailing theory held it that a rival kingdom had sought to cause a crisis with the line of succession, weakening the realm in preparation of an invasion. But since nobody knew who exactly was responsible, it led to rather tense relations with all the realm’s neighbors who eyed the fortification of their armies with suspicion.
“Of course, my Lady,” Marinette said softly, as did Rose, the biggest gossip in the household.
The rest of the staff knew before dawn. From there, the news spread like wildfire to the rest of the kingdom.
Chat Noir was so bored.
It was one thing to be forced to lie in bed and pretend to malinger. That, he thought, was within his capabilities. Chat was quite skilled at napping.
But they’d placed him right in front of windows, giving him a full view of white fields and a dark forest on the horizon. Little creatures kept drawing his attention, frolicking in the snow, and his fangs ached with the need to hunt. It did not help that he was hungry all the time, those wheat concoctions they kept feeding him no substitute for meat.
They refused to close the curtains, the physician insisting that warm light lifted the spirit and aided the recovery. Physicians, as far as Chat could tell, were some flavor of human healer. The flavor being ‘supremely bad at their job’.
They’d tried placing bloodsuckers on his arm! For a head injury.
He had not been able the hold in the hiss that had torn from his throat. After that they’d prescribed him another dose of leeches, and he had heard them privately whispering about something called an ‘exorcism’. Probably involving yet more leeches.
Restless energy ran through him. Yes, he adored naps, but those roughly twenty hours he spent dozing were offset by four hours of running and leaping and chasing until his tongue lolled and his limbs burned in exhaustion.
Footsteps sounded in the hall and a handful of heartbeats later, the door creaked open. Chat scowled at the newcomer – one of the many maids – and silently cursed his muted hearing. If he still had his ears, his real ears, he’d have heard her coming far sooner. Instead, the world was muffled and dull.
Chloe said he would be able to relax his Glamor in time but for learning how to pretend to be human, it was best to be human. Even when he was alone with no witnesses. Method acting, the Changeling called it. Just so he’d get a feel for what the baseline human male was capable of.
His verdict: not much.
“Your Grace,” the maid said, gliding closer to his bed. “I’ve brought you breakfast.”
A quick glance told him it was more wheat mixtures molded into little half-moons. “Leave it on the nightstand.”
She placed the silver tray just as he’d asked but then she stood still, folding her hands demurely in front of her skirts. Her bluebell eyes were filled with some sort of expectation as she stared at him.
Ah. He was supposed to recognize her.
Trouble was, humans all roughly looked the same. Male and female he could tell apart, yes, and their different colorings were another vital clue. But beyond that? They had nothing approaching the variety he was used to from the fae. Only the most minor variations in their proportions and face.
And then they had the infuriating habit to dress alike. Who’d thought of this? The ‘maids’ all wore the exact same garb and pinned their mane atop their heads in the same bun. It was like they were conspiring to make his life difficult.
Thankfully, he had the haughtiness of a Lordling to fall back on.
“Is there anything else?”
“I – Your Grace – which is to say, Adrien – I don’t mean to be improper! But I’m happy to see you recovering and I was thinking that maybe–” She trailed off into incoherence as one of his eyebrows slowly wandered up his forehead. “Do you remember me?”
He squinted at her. Black hair, blue eyes. If he had to pick one word for her it’d be dainty. She looked like she would break if he breathed on her too hard.
Chat Noir much preferred a mate who stood a chance of breaking him. Danger only added to the passion.
Where had that thought come from? He already had his Lady.
And this human stirred no memory at all.
“I hit my head and have not been paying attention to the servants tending to me. You’ll have to forgive me, but I’m sure you’ve been doing a fine job.” Then he added a variation on the same praise he most liked to hear from his Lady. “Good maid.”
Anger flashed in her eyes and for just a moment she looked interesting. “Th-thank you, Your Grace,” she choked out through gritted teeth, and then she curtsied, turning on her heels.
The door slammed shut with far more force than needed.
Hurt feelings. Not the right words, then. Ah well, live and learn.
Servants were not that important in the game of whispers, though they could make staunch allies. But those were advanced levels of subterfuge, and for now he would concentrate his efforts on fellow nobles.
He fished one of the food items from the tray and bit into it.
Gagging, he spit it out at once.
Whose bright idea had it been to mix wheat with sugar?
Humans had the absolute worst taste imaginable.
“Your Grace. Your son has arrived in the capital.”
Gabriel’s lips drew back in a snarl. “Not my son.”
His valet nodded. “Yes, of course. One must watch for vultures who would take advantage of grief. Grifters and imposters abound. But Your Grace, Lord Bourgeois has confirmed that it is him, as has his daughter.”
“Changeling. Dark magic fools the eye.”
“Yes, Your Grace.” A barely visible twitch of his stoic valet’s eyebrow. “Have you had your dose of laudanum today?”
Had he? The morning had passed in a pleasant blur, so likely yes. Damn. He was supposed to take it in the evenings. The king appreciated the tincture for the dreamless sleep it gave him, but he had to remember not to overindulge. It dulled the senses. “Yes.”
His valet’s frown deepened with disapproval. “You should get ready to meet the man claiming to be your son.”
“Have him executed,” he hissed. “Use an iron blade.”
The dark-haired man sighed. “Meet with him, and you can swing the blade in person. I understand you are angry that someone might abuse your son’s likeness for profit – certainly it’s not the first we’ve seen – but what if it is Prince Adrien?”
“It’s not. I saw what she did to him. In the mirror.” Gabriel paused. “But you’re right. Killing the Changeling in person is much more satisfying.”
“You should eat to gather your strength, Your Grace.”
The king nodded, absently adjusting his finery. “Yes. Thank you, Noel.”
His gaze was drawn to the hated mirror hanging on the wall. It was covered by thick drapery to hide the silent scenes of a hunting predator. The King had not seen his own reflection since that fateful night when the last person who mattered to him had slipped away.
No, whoever it was they’d found could not be Adrien.
Because the fae whore delighted in showing Gabriel the mindless beast she’d turned his son into.
Lord Lahiffe’s life had taken a rather decisive downturn in recent years. Well. Year. Singular. Starting with the best and worst night of his life.
“My Lady,” Nino whispered as he bent down on one knee in front of the entire court.
Here was the girl he had chased through forests and built forts with. The girl who had left with her father on a diplomatic mission abroad as a gangly, acne-covered child and returned a stunningly beautiful woman. The love of his life.
“Will you do me the greatest honor of becoming my–?”
Chloe burst into happy tears and the court cheered when she jumped into his arms, toppling him over.
Despite his prodding and pleading, Adrien had not been able to accompany him to the winter ball, and thus missed the proposal. A slight stain on an otherwise perfect evening, to not have his best friend there to calm his nerves. Nino was known as a rather even-tempered man, but he’d nearly vomited into the bushes of the garden maze shortly before the critical moment.
Yet once she’d said yes, everything had been perfect and magical, and he’d looked forward of telling Adrien every detail the next day. The prince would still have stood by his side at the ceremony itself, so him missing the proposal was no more than an inconvenience.
But Adrien had not been there in the morning.
Nor the day after, or the day after that. His best friend was gone, leaving not a trace behind. The king, maddened by grief, blamed Nino for tempting Adrien to leave the castle, and almost all the nobles followed suit.
Only a small handful of friends stood by him, his sweet fiancée one of them. But it was not the loss of social status that had the two of them desperately seeking comfort in each other’s arms.
The Lahiffe’s estate bordered the lands of the Bourgeois family. He’d met Adrien there when the king had come to visit Chloe’s father to offer him the position of Steward. One entire summer the prince had spent there, and Nino and he had become thick as thieves. Chloe had eternally trailed behind the two boys, complaining of being left out.
Adrien had laughed uproariously when, after a lifetime of pulling Chloe’s ponytail, Nino had one day woken up to notice her stunning beauty. He’d not stopped noticing it since.
They had mourned Adrien together, even as Nino threw himself into every lead he found, followed every whisper of a sighting of the prince.
And then Chloe had gone absolutely fucking insane.
Screaming at him at the top of her lungs in the middle of a ballroom, she had drawn all eyes to her. Throwing his ring in her face, she had accused him of all manner of foul betrayal.
And when Nino had groggily woken up from that hangover, he’d truly had no friends left among the nobility. For what kind of scoundrel was he to make sweet, elegant, well-mannered Chloe Bourgeois lose her temper in public like that?
Never mind that he hadn’t done any of the things she accused him of.
So yes. The last year had been rough on him. He’d gone from being the Crown Prince’s confidant, his ascension to the next King’s steward all but assured, to a persona non grata.
If what they were saying was true, then the downward slide might finally come to an end.
Lord Lahiffe leaned against the pillar of the balcony overlooking the courtyard as a carriage drew closer. He was not the only one of course. Lords and Ladies of the court had gathered on every available surface of the palace and its garden, discretely and not-so-discretely trying to catch a glimpse of the miraculously returned Prince.
But only a small and select delegation waited at the palace’s great doors to greet him in person. Nino, with his reputation and social standing in absolute tatters, was not among them.
But if Adrien was truly alive, then…
He swallowed heavily and willed himself not to get too invested in the idea. There’d been other imposters before. Ransom notes that led to nothing. Men fortunate enough to be born with a resemblance to the Prince’s fair looks, looking to exploit the kindness of strangers to beg for gold.
Oh, but I need only enough for the road back home, and then my father, the King, shall handsomely reward you for aiding me.
These rats never survived close encounters with those who’d known the prince personally.
But this man claiming to be Adrien was traveling directly from the Bourgeois estate. Not even this new and vicious version of Chloe would play a joke this cruel. Would she? No, surely not. Close to madness as he was, the king might just take her head if she dared to vouch for a pretender.
The horses came to a halt and Nino’s fingers dug into his skin, the air caught in his lung finding no escape as he waited with bated breath.
A blond man stepped out of the carriage, gingerly placing one foot in front of the other. He was thin, thinner than Adrien. The prince had liked to spar with his knights and he'd had the physique to show for it.
But then the man raised his head.
His best friend was alive.
Blinking rapidly, Nino watched as the King’s valet-slash-secretary welcomed the prince and lead him to the palace. Adrien curiously turned his head in all directions, seeming eager to drink in the sight of his home.
His gaze landed on Nino, who quickly raised his hand to wave, a broad grin on his lips.
But then the prince’s gaze moved on without acknowledgement. Lord Lahiffe froze.
It could not be.
The possibility had crossed his mind and Nino had dismissed it out of hand.
Surely – surely Adrien would not believe Chloe’s lies?
Gabriel sat upon his throne, the splendid hall plunged in darkness. Heavy curtains had been drawn over the windows and the mirrors. Faes were creatures of darkness and it was only fitting that this one would die in it.
He did not wish to see his son’s face as he sunk his sword into the Changeling’s neck. His grip tightened around the hilt and he closed his eyes to gather his strength. A year of spending his days in bed had taken its toll, the easy sleep offered by the physician’s tincture far more tempting than reality.
But this he would do. Protect his people from the creature that had come to steal his crown in the place of its rightful heir. Had that been their plan all along? Was that why the fae had seduced him into this horrendous bargain?
“Eric is a fool,” Gabriel snarled and slammed the tankard on the table. “Unworthy of wearing the crown.”
“Hush,” said André, not yet quite so inebriated to be entirely lost in the concubine’s bosom. “The walls in these places have ears, you know that. And that’s no way to speak of our dearest king.”
Yes, their dearest king. Who was going to plunge them all into a war at the rate he was escalating his aggression toward Esparia. Unlike their own kingdom, Franeaux, their southern neighbor’s line of succession did not run solely through male heirs, so a woman sat upon their throne. A fact his idiot older brother found so amusing that he continually pushed along their border, thinking her too weak to stop him. A small skirmish here, a patrol straying too far there, and the King laughing at the outraged letters the Queen kept sending him.
“I should have been firstborn,” Gabriel snarled. “Not him.”
“Oh yes,” whispered the scantily clad woman who was rather fruitlessly trying to stir his passions. “A man as great as you would have been a splendid king.” Brown doe eyes batted their heavy eyelashes at him.
How inept. Did she think her flattery subtle?
Gods, how he hated brothels. The heavy smoke of shisha mixed with feminine perfumes gave him wicked headaches. But André was determined to dally with more girls before being shackled in holy matrimony, so Gabriel endured. He took another sip of his drink and cast his best friend a scathing look. The way he moaned about it one would think his parents had arranged for him to marry an ogre, but André’s fiancée was renowned for her charm. There were far worse matches to be had than a golden-haired beauty.
Gabriel quickly averted his gaze when the redhead on André’s lap started undoing his belt.
“Alright, you have fun,” Gabriel murmured and pushed himself out of his chair, the prostitute yelping when she was shoved out of his lap. But when he left the chamber, stumbling over the threshold to the private room, she followed him.
Linking her arm with his, she not-so-gently pulled him toward another chamber. This one was persistent, and Gabriel cast her a baffled look. She was paid for the night, why was she trying so hard when he’d made his disinterest clear?
But the room was spinning, and he supposed it would be nice to lie down amongst soft silks and softer pillows. Sober up a little before he made his way back home.
“So what would you do?” she asked him.
She twirled a brown curl of hair around her finger. “If you were king. What would you do differently?”
What wouldn’t he do? Clean up that mess along the southern border, dig the Crown out of debt, repair the broken infrastructure… all those boring little tasks that kept a realm prosperous and functioning, but that didn’t make for the glorious spectacle his brother so longed for.
War. Eric thought there was glory and splendor in winning wars. Fool.
Not that there was any point speculating about it. He was fourth in line, so he would never see the throne. Already the queen was pregnant, was carrying a little niece or nephew. If it was the latter, then Gabriel would slide down to fifth.
But instead of saying any of that, he deflected with a mumbled, “I’m seventeen, what do I know?”
The crown only officially passed to men who had reached their majority, and he was still three years away from that. And the walls of brothels did have eyes and ears, after all.
She giggled prettily. “Yes, but it’s fun to speculate, isn’t it?”
“Not really. Only reminds me of what I’ll never have.”
The brunette hummed. “It must be so frustrating. Watching from the sidelines as someone botches a task you know you could do better.”
His steps slowed as his brow furrowed. “Well, there’s no point in dwelling on it.”
“Sometimes,” the concubine whispered, “I dream of just running away. Stealing all the gold from the Madame and making a new life somewhere.” Then she smiled ruefully. “But I know this cannot be. They’d catch me before I reached the city gates. But what I wouldn’t give…”
She trailed off and Gabriel stared at the girl with wide eyes.
“I…I have gold. If you wish to start a new life,” he said uncertainly and then mentally slapped himself. Of course. She was trying to gain a higher wage by playing to his sympathies.
But, to his surprise, she shook her head. “No. They’d take that before I reached the door.”
Then meet me outside? He swallowed the foolish words. Gabriel would not be deceived by a pretty face.
“So,” she said brightly as she sat down and pulled him into her lap. “That’s why I like to play pretend sometimes. Won’t you indulge me, my Lord?”
“That depends on what your idea of indulgence is.”
“Just a game. A game of ‘What I wouldn’t give’. We will take turns saying something we want, and the other names a price. If it’s a price you would pay, you must drink.”
“Sounds simple enough. You start.”
She grinned as she filled both their goblets. “Your shirt, taken off.”
“A fifty percent discount.”
The concubine snickered and, rather pointedly, did not drink. “Your turn, my Lord.”
“Very well.” He thought for a moment. Truth be told, there weren’t all that many things he lacked in life. Gabriel came from a prosperous family, even if his eldest brother was a vainglorious simpleton who robbed him of his last nerve. “A pristine first edition of Lord Paeron’s works.”
She arched an eyebrow, no doubt unfamiliar with his favorite poet, and tapped her chin. “Hm. A hundred gold.”
He scoffed at the paltry sum and drank. It was worth a hundred times more than that.
And so it went, round after round, until at last, Lord Gabriel ran out of things he wanted.
“A crown,” he said, voice slurring.
The girl smiled guilelessly. “Your firstborn son.”
Gabriel laughed loudly and raised the goblet to his lips. A son? One could always make more of those.
The king tightened his grip on his sword hilt, pushing those hated memories away.
Eric had been found dead the next day. Soon after, his widow had perished in childbirth. Little by little, the Agreste family tree had been pruned until only Gabriel remained.
What he wouldn’t give to go back in time and slap that young fool he’d been. The prospect of fatherhood had been far away and not quite real. That had changed as soon as he’d held his son in his arms for the first time, the true horror of his bargain sinking in.
Adrien was unique in all the world. Nothing could ever replace him.
Had been unique in all the world.
The doors opened with a screech and swung closed behind the imposter with a reverberating thump.
His son’s face smiled at him and Gabriel’s heart ached.
“Father,” the Changeling said, its words echoing in the great hall. “I’ve come home.”
King Gabriel rose from his throne, grimacing as he briefly needed to lean on his sword for balance, and then descended from the dais, the iron blade shrieking as it dragged along the floor.
“I commend you on the Glamor,” he said softly. “It’s well-done.”
Not-Adrien tilted its head. “Father?”
“I see you’ve not yet noticed the runes upon the threshold. Don’t worry. You’ll notice them when you try to leave. Iron traps your loathsome kind.”
“Iron?” Green eyes blinked slowly, and the voice that sounded just like Adrien’s softened. “Father, they’ve told me you’ve not been well. I – I hadn’t wanted to belie–“
“Spare me your performance, creature. I know what your whore of a queen did to my son.”
For just the briefest moment, its Glamor flickered, pupils narrowing. The king grinned in triumph as the Changeling’s gaze dropped to his sword. Yes, stare upon your doom all you like. I still know how to wield this.
“That’s iron, isn’t it?” The fae crooned. “Can I touch it?”
Gabriel froze. “What?”
“Your valet told me – I remember your stories, father. Fae can’t touch iron, right? So – if I can touch that… then I can’t be a Changeling, can I?”
The king stared at the creature. It wanted to touch the weapon it would shortly be impaled upon? A hysterical laugh rose. Did it think he could be disarmed that way? He’d made sure that even the hilt was laced with iron.
“By all means, creature. Come closer.”
The man who was not Adrien did just that, inching toward him the way one would toward a spooked stallion.
His ungloved fingertips brushed the flat side of the blade.
That could not be.
No sizzling skin, no smell of burning flesh, no Glamor breaking instantly. How could this – his son was gone! Turned into a dumb beast that liked nothing more than to hunt and kill! Nightmares of the images he saw play in the mirrors haunted the king, showing him Adrien’s fur-covered face twist in ecstasy as he chewed on raw flesh and bones.
Gabriel shook his head, taking a step back.
“You – you’re not real. I saw you–“
“Father,” Adrien whispered. “You’ve not been well.” He took another tentative step forward, a teary smile on his lips. “But it’s going to be alright. You’re going to be alright. I’m home now.”
“I know what I saw,” the king whispered.
“But father. Can’t you see me? Standing right in front of you?”
The iron longsword clattered to the floor.
And King Gabriel wept.
“But you see the situation you’ve placed us in, yes?”
Lady Bourgeois smiled as she spoke. Lady Alya of House Césaire would have thought it pretty, had it not so clearly been a threat. The blond woman was baring her teeth, not placating her.
“Esparia has not placed you in any situation,” Alya responded coolly. “As our diplomats have repeatedly made clear, we had nothing to do with Prince Adrien’s disappearance. Queen Penelope even scoured our lands for signs of his whereabouts.”
The fair-skinned noble woman tapped her chin. “And yet you missed him being held so very close to your border.”
“On the Franeaux side.”
“Which not so long ago still belonged to Esparia. Truly a bold statement, that.” Blue eyes glittered with unspoken hostility. “And of course, one of your own is in line for the throne.”
Very much so. Lady Emalia was the closest relation to King Gabriel, a cousin twice removed, and Esparia allowed the inheritance of power through the female line. But Franeaux did not, which had sparked a fierce conflict with the closest male relative. As foolish as Alya thought the restriction, it seemed a rather open and shut case to her – the Crown of Franeaux ought to pass as the laws of Franeaux dictated. But not everyone agreed, and thus the threat of a war of succession loomed not far ahead, should King Gabriel succumb to grief.
But now the prince was back. Better start making heirs, Your Grace.
Alya dropped another sugar cube in her tea and leaned back, regarding the woman in front of her. “Do you often accost your guests with baseless accusations?”
“No. Just keeping our dearest neighbors up-to-date on the latest gossip.” Lady Bourgeois tittered. “Forgive me, I know talk of politics is ever so boring and best left to the men. It’s a side effect of being the steward’s daughter, I suppose, I can never quite keep my mind on more appropriate topics. Like fashions. Goodness, necklines just keep wandering lower each year, don’t they? We’re practically on the threshold of immodesty.”
Ugh. This was why Alya was not fond of visiting the northern lands. If one were to judge by the natives’ treatment of her, the toll for crossing the border was half her wits, for she was suddenly spoken to as a simpleton.
Alya would rather spend her days in lands where girls were not discouraged from reading for fear of taxing their brittle brains. But come to the northern lands she had, for something foul was gathering here.
And her guts told her the woman sitting in front of her had something to do with it.
Lady Césaire smiled prettily, adjusting her own neckline which dipped lower still than the Franeaux nobles wore it. “Well, it does get ever so hot and humid in Esparia, so I for one appreciate the disappearance of neck ruffs. Those were dreadful.”
“Oh yes. And so cumbersome, too, I always felt like I was choking.”
Alya’s smile grew wider and she coyly twirled one finger around one of the red locks artfully framing her face. “Speaking of fashions, have you opened my gift for you yet? I know it takes a while for these things to travel north, but I’ve brought you the latest trend of our capital.”
“Hm.” Lady Bourgeois smiled thinly. “Fashion travels south, not north. Why, it’s downright pitiful how desperately other realms try to emulate our style. Not that Esparia is one of them, you always have such… unique… taste.”
“Oh, I believe you’ll like this one. I for one love how shiny it is.”
To demonstrate, Alya touched the thin choker around her neck. At its center sat a glittering butterfly pin.
Interest stirred in Lady Chloe’s expression.
Alya smiled and sauntered to pick up the parcel that she’d handed over upon her reception in the dining room. It lay forgotten on a window sill.
“Close your eyes for the surprise, Lady Bourgeois?”
A contemptuous roll of blue eyes heavenward, immediately tempered with a smile. “Of course.”
Alya tugged at the ribbon, undoing the loose bow to let it flutter away from the little jewelry box. Walking behind the Lady still seated on the sofa, she brushed away a stray blond curl from her nape as if preparing to fasten a necklace around it.
“You know,” Alya whispered in the woman’s ear. “Neck ruffs went out of style years before Chloe Bourgeois was born.”
A thin chain of iron constricted around the Changeling’s neck and it let out an unholy shriek, its Glamor breaking.
Marinette winced as the needle pricked her finger and accusingly scowled down at the fine silk in her lap, as if it was at fault. But of course the fabric was innocent, Marinette a victim of her own churning thoughts.
What was it about aristocrats that made them slowly turn to ice as they aged? She’d known three nobles when they’d been young, and they had struck Marinette as warm, friendly and playful, no better nor worse than any other child. But as adults they were another story entirely.
Lord Lahiffe, by all accounts, had turned into a rotten scoundrel, stealing maiden’s virtues with false promises and luring the prince into reckless debauchery.
Lady Bourgeois had turned into a broken-hearted harpy. Chloe had always been so considerate of giving Marinette time off, but now it appeared she’d forgotten that servants were still human enough to need sleep. Her gaze raked over Marinette like she was nothing but some vaguely human-shaped blob one assigned chores to.
Which was almost preferable to the way Prince Adrien had looked at her. ‘Good maid’? Like she was a dog! A dog he couldn’t even tell apart from the others nipping at his feet. Never had she felt lower than in that humiliating moment.
Stupid. So stupid to expect the crown prince to remember her just because he’d once liked to sneak into her father’s kitchen and steal some of his pastries. Marinette had been happy to facilitate the theft and thought they’d shared a secret bond over it. Evidently the prince had only been aiming for the sweets, not her company.
Marinette Dupain, Lady’s maid and less memorable than a good croissant.
An inhuman shriek rang out, echoing through the room.
Defend your Mistress!
The voice nearly brought Marinette to her knees, echoing in her mind until it was an unbearable cacophony. Needle and thread clattered to the ground along with the torn dress as it slipped off her lap. Her fingertips dug into her temple, her nails’ sharp bite providing relief. That pain was real and the one in her head was not.
The thought was a bulwark against whatever was ramming against the inside of her skull, dulling and muting it until the furious screams were no more than a soft whisper.
Marinette opened her eyes and found herself lying on the floor.
What was that?
There were footsteps in the hall, people running past her room, and she pushed herself to stand on shaky legs. Inching toward the open door, she saw Rose run past, and Mylène not far behind. What were they running from?
Her eyes widened in horror.
The kitchens were farthest from any exits, located in the basement near the cold storage. Would they make it out in time? Marinette broke into a sprint, running against the direction of the other fleeing servants.
Was the Esparian delegate to blame? There were whispers that they were responsible for hiring the men who had kept Prince Adrien captive. Would they be so bold as to attack the household of the king’s steward in retaliation? Did they want their hostage back? But the prince had left three days ago, headed for the capital.
Marinette gasped when she spotted her mother running toward her and all but crashed into her, grabbing her by the shoulder.
“Maman, where is papa?”
But Sabine was gripped by terror, intent to writhe out of Marinette’s hold and flee.
“Maman, please, I’ll get him, just tell me where you last saw–“
Her mother’s eyes met hers, her pupils contracted so they were no more than a pinpoint. “We must defend our Mistress, Marinette. Let go.”
Stunned, Marinette’s hold slipped and her mother took the opportunity to keep running.
What in the seven hells was going on?
That had not been her mother’s voice. Sabine still bore the traces of her homeland in her speech and had imparted some of them even on Marinette, her voice subtly lilting with a foreign cadence. But just now, Sabine had spoken in the perfectly clipped accent of the upper class.
Another inhuman screech almost split her eardrums and Marinette cried out in pain.
Come. Come to me. Defeat the intruder.
But this time, it was easier to shake off. Marinette did not fall to the floor, regaining use of her limbs before she so much as kneeled. Around her, more servants ran. Although… not just servants. The entire household, even Lord Bourgoise.
For but a moment, Marinette was tempted to flee before it ensnared her, too.
But it had her mother. Perhaps even her father.
Seeing no other choice but to take the measure of whatever the source of the voice in her head was, she followed the rest of the household. It did not take her long to realize that they were converging on the dining room.
She needed a weapon.
Swallowing heavily, Marinette slowed her steps and desperately cast her gaze around the foyer. There! Mounted on the wall behind the Bourgeois’s sigil were two crossed twin swords. Standing on her tiptoes to reach that high, her hand closed around the hilt, dragging it from its sheath.
It made an ugly sound when it slipped out, more rust than weapon at this point. It had been designed for decoration, not battle, but it would have to do.
That was when a monster crashed into the dining table across from her and she squeaked. Its limbs were long and far too many, like an insect’s, but it was huge, with patches of blond hair on its bug head. The pincers around its mouth clicked, and again the call rang out in Marinette’s head.
Thralls, come aid your Lady.
That was when a woman wielding a shining blade stepped into the room. Her skin was dark, contrasting with her wild mane of silver hair flowing behind her. Her long, flowing dress was a pale purple, shaped like butterfly wings which fluttered with her every graceful movement.
Marinette could do nothing but stare at the Goddess – just as behind her two manservants grabbed the woman by the shoulders, holding her in place.
Alya yelped as more of the Changeling’s thralls closed in on her. Before conscious thought caught up, reflex had her jerking back her elbow, and bone shattered. But the mindless servant was unmoved, so thoroughly enslaved that he did not even loosen his hold.
Gods, the Changeling must have infiltrated months ago to have dug its claws into the household staff this deep. Alya’s analytical mind quickly assessed the situation – Changeling in front, snarling at her, two servants behind her, and many more pouring in through the doors. The butterfly pin passed down for generations gave her the strength many times that of an ordinary woman, but she was fighting innocents. She could not afford to hurt them.
And the damn fae knew it, an inhuman cackle rising from its burned throat. Alya was grateful that she had led with the neck chain – it had, at the very least, spared her from a villainous monologue.
Although a monologue would have bought her some time right about now. Alya grew still, panting, and considered her options while the Changeling stalked closer, more and more of Chloe Bourgeois’s beauty falling away. It was a thing of nightmare, this creature, with its impossibly long torso and spindly limbs, rotten insect wings uselessly beating behind her.
The thralls closed in, too, eyes glazed over and empty, forming a ring around her to cut off any possible escape path.
She should have waited. Should have lured the Changeling somewhere it was alone and cut off from its reinforcements. Well done, Alya, disappointing the family legacy in your very first solo mission. Her mother had warned her that her recklessness would be the death of her.
A black-haired servant girl carrying a sword was trailing behind the Changeling. The sword in her hands was rusty, likely dull, and would deliver a slow, excruciating death. Alya swallowed heavily. No clean cut for her. Being a fae hunter meant making peace with the possibility of dying in battle, but she’d still prayed for a swift and painless end.
The fae chittered and it sounded like mocking laughter. Which was probably exactly what it was.
That was when the servant girl drove the iron sword through the creature’s neck.
Three things happened in rapid succession.
The Changeling screeched, blackened veins spreading like wildfire over its exoskeleton.
Behind Alya, the thralls let go and fell into a deep sleep, the fae’s enchantment broken.
And the servant girl laughed hysterically before she, too, fainted.
Marinette stirred from sleep when the ground beneath her shook. Movement, accompanied by the faint rhythm of hooves. She blinked, then gasped, jerking up in horror. Contorting her limbs into her best approximation of a battle stance, she wildly looked around for the horrible insect monster.
A beautiful noblewoman arched an eyebrow at her, flicking open an intricate fan to supply Marinette with some cool air.
“Shhh. You’re safe. It’s gone.”
Living so close to the disputed border, Marinette recognized the accent of an Esparian noble at once, and suspiciously narrowed her eyes.
The redhaired woman smiled pleasantly. “I am Lady Alya of House Césaire. Might I ask your name?”
Marinette’s gaze darted all around her. Rich red silk, fluffy benches, and unsteady movement making her whole body jerk. She was in a carriage. “Where are you taking me?”
“Ideally? To the capital. You saved my life and I am indebted to you.”
“So… do you often express your gratitude by kidnapping people?”
The woman’s lips twitched. “Think of it more as a very forceful invitation to a quest.”
“A quest?” Marinette echoed.
“Yes. To save both your country and mine from disaster. You resisted that Changeling’s call. That is a rare ability and I am in dire need of allies.”
Changeling? Call? Marinette shuddered. “You – you mean that thing. With the wings.” It had been in her head.
“Yes. And I’m afraid that there are many more like it, gathering to overrun our realms. They need to be stopped.” The noblewoman raised her gloved fist and turned it over so the palm faced upwards. “I offer you the power to fight them.”
Her fingers unfurled to reveal a glowing white butterfly.
Thank you to everyone who's commented so far, your feedback means so much to me <3 I adore all your speculation.
I'll be going on a two-week vacation tomorrow and it's uncertain whether I'll have access to internet, so I'm going on a short hiatus. Don't worry, I've got ten more chapters pre-written, and I'm hoping to use my vacation to write at least ten more :D I'll see you all soon!
Chat Noir gently patted the hair of the man who was staring at him with unnerving intensity. His pupils were so dilated they almost swallowed the pale blue around them, and yet they were still pinned on Chat with unerring focus.
The fae’s skin crawled and the gentle smile strained his muscles so hard it was like his face was about to split in two. Chat was a predator, and like all predators, he hated nothing more than being stared at. Being stared at meant he’d either failed an ambush or he was being sized up by a rival.
Don’t hiss at the human.
You’ll give yourself away.
So Chat busied himself with the blanket, drawing it higher over the king’s shoulders.
Who was still staring.
“You should rest, father. Close your eyes.” The last he said with a touch more force than needed.
“My son,” the king whispered, his roaming gaze greedily drinking in Chat’s Glamor. Those were two of the three words that were all the human had said since he’d drawn Chat to his chest and squeezed him so close the fae had almost choked. My, Adrien and son.
His Lady had told him that she’d been forced to drive the king to madness to prepare for Chat’s arrival. People who knew the prince were needed to lend him legitimacy, but those who knew him best were most likely to discover the deception. So measures had to be taken to keep them at bay.
The prince had two childhood friends, and the plan had been to replace one and enslave the other. But to Chloe’s great dismay, the Changeling going by a stolen name had been unable to enthrall the girl’s fiancé. People who had the will to resist fae charms were few and far in between, but he was one of them. Keeping him enslaved would have required constant effort.
So she’d ostracized the Lord, and instructed Chat to give him the cut direct when he saw him. The cut direct was apparently part of this court’s social arsenal – to pointedly ignore a noble in full view of others, turning away from them like they were air when they tried to speak. To have it done by the prince would seal the ruin of Lord Lahiffe’s reputation.
Chat would look at a memory of this man later. Chloe had described him as having dark skin and darker hair, but that was not much to go on. He hoped Lord Lahiffe had some distinctive feature because Chat still had not quite learned how to tell humans apart reliably.
“Adrien.” Fingertips at his jawline startled Chat out of his thoughts and he belatedly remembered to bare his teeth. Smile. Make it pleasant.
Looking at the king hurt. Chat wanted to blame the staring, but maybe it was the wrinkled skin, signs of the decay humans went through, or maybe it was his almost skeletal thinness… but some fae were much bonier than that, and it had never bothered Chat.
Whatever it was, Chat didn’t like it, and he wanted out of this suffocating room right now.
But he couldn’t. Because he had a part to play and couldn’t disappoint his Lady.
“Adrien, I’m so sorry,” the king whispered.
Oh, good. He still remembered some other words. So hopefully Chat had not overestimated the dose of the medicine designed to keep the king’s wits dull. Too much, and it was deadly.
The king dying mere hours after the prince’s arrival would just raise all sorts of eyebrows Chat did not wish to deal with.
“I’m fine, father,” he said. “Nothing to be sorry for.”
“But it’s my fault. My fault you were taken.”
“Of course not. Political rivals will always stalk our family, blame that ancestor of ours who first declared himself king.”
The human shook his head, eyes wide. “My fault,” he said hoarsely. “Adrien, forgive me. I didn’t know.”
Poor wretch. Had it truly been necessary to draw out his suffering like this? His Lady should have ordered father and son to be devoured together, that would have been better. But she hadn’t wanted the crown to pass elsewhere. Chat could follow the reasoning, it had made so much sense when his Lady had explained it all to him, but…
Chat avoided hunting mothers with their cubs. The cub was doomed to a slow death without her, and Chat Noir could not stand to hear the heart wrenching wails the mother made when searching for her lost offspring either.
This man’s cooing over him was equally unbearable. How long was he to endure this?
Suddenly, the king clutched at his chest. Oh no. Overdosed after all? Alarm shot through – ah. The man was only drawing a pendant over his head. He held it out to Adrien with shaking fingers.
Even with Chat’s weakened senses, he could smell it. Iron Kissed he might be, but some primal fear still awoke when faced with the poison to his kind. The metal was shaped in a curiously winding pattern.
“Charm against fae,” the king said hoarsely. “Please take it, Adrien.”
Chat Noir’s smile was growing truly strained. “Father, we’ve talked of this, your nightmares are just–“
“Adrien, please. Just give me that peace of mind. I’ll sleep easier knowing you’re wearing this.”
How could a man be drugged senseless and still possess such a sharp gaze? He must have been a force to be reckoned with when he’d been in his prime.
Pity and respect warred within. It was like gazing at a majestic predator facing its end, limping, blind in both eyes and fur torn apart by scars of battles past. One could not help but bow before such a great beast. Humans chose their leaders well.
“As you wish,” Chat said softly. “But only if you sleep now.”
The pendant dropped into Chat’s palm and he exhaled a soft sigh when his skin did not catch fire. Fae instinct still half-expected it. He draped the necklace around his neck, tucking it under his shirt. A greater shudder of relief ran through the King’s body and he grew still, finally closing his eyes.
Without King’s Gabriel’s strong will animating it, the body looked impossibly frail.
He – he wasn’t dead, was he?
Gripped by sudden terror, Chat poked his father’s arm.
The king startled awake. Smiled. And resumed his staring.
And so began another impossibly long hour of sitting by the king’s bedside.
Chat Noir rubbed the back of his neck, his muscles aching from spending hours hunched over. His true body could hold its position for days when preparing to ambush, but this one hit its limits fast. No wonder humans relied on sheer numbers and iron. Couldn’t even manage to sit still for a few hours without doing themselves injury.
Still, he could not help the pleased smile playing on his lips. His first true test, passed! The king was convinced, not just of Adrien’s return, but of his own insanity. He would be easy to keep placated now. Chat had promised to visit him each morning, would make sure to get the ‘laudanum’ dosage right, and the king would be docile for the rest of his days.
A year or two, his Lady had said.
Adrien’s steps slowed.
…the death would be mercy. No need to dwell on it.
He resumed his path and–
Where was he?
He’d been aiming to return to the council waiting for him but had sunk so deep in thought that he hadn’t much paid attention to where he was going. His feet had carried him around entirely without his input. Chat squinted at his surroundings, trying to identify some familiar landmark. But he hadn’t yet had the chance to truly explore his new territory.
Perhaps… that way? Yes. His gut said that way was a good direction, and Chat trusted his instincts. So deeper he went into the winding halls, turning when his feet told him to, until he came upon a balcony overseeing the gardens. His eyes brightened at once at the sight of nature but dimmed within a heartbeat. The hedges had been cut, mutilated and tamed into unnatural shapes that looked like skeletons now that winter had stripped them of their leaves.
…though he supposed the maze looked fun. He could chase prey in there, let it run itself ragged and finally corner it in a dead end. But no, he couldn’t do that. Humans weren’t hunters and there were so many eyes on him.
Although the air smelled nice, carrying a hint of the sea. Even from here he could hear the cry of seagulls and the rumble of waves cresting against the cliffside.
Chat Noir startled and whirled around to face a man who was looking at him with what had to be an equally shocked expression.
“It’s really you,” the dark-haired man whispered.
Oh, how pitiful were his senses that he hadn’t noticed a stranger standing right beside him?
Wait. He should respond. But that man was wearing finery that marked him noble. Chat wasn’t ready for human courtiers yet! He’d practiced his script for the king, studied key memories with the man, but he’d planned on malingering to prepare for facing human aristocracy.
Still. Nothing to do now but improvise. Clearing his throat, Chat Noir dug deep into the rather truncated etiquette lessons for introductions to other courtiers.
“Yes, it is I, Prince Adrien. Bow before your liege, for I have returned.”
Golden eyes blinked at him.
Then the noble burst out laughing. Chat Noir swallowed a yowl when he suddenly found himself being squeezed, the man wrapping his arms around his shoulders. Hissing, spitting and fighting being all off the table as acceptable reactions, Chat stood frozen while the man dampened his shoulder.
Why were humans’ eyes constantly leaking? Disgusting. Even his own were trying to do it as some sort of instinctive mirror response, but he willed it away.
“Adrien. Gods, Adrien.” The deep voice shook, and the man squeezed him again.
Chat tentatively tapped the stranger’s shoulder. Was this a successful introduction? Somehow it struck him as inappropriate. He didn’t want all the courtiers to touch him every time he announced himself.
It did feel nice.
The Nightmare Court was sparse on closeness. Nightmare fae kept a respectable distance for fear of knives, poisons and curses that were activated by a careless touch. Chat Noir lived for those moments when his Lady petted him.
“Hello,” Chat said softly and tried to catch a whiff of the man’s scent, letting his Glamor retreat just a little. He was much better at telling creatures apart by scent than by looks, and he wanted to be sure to recognize this one again.
Greens and forest and den.
The man who smelled like safety drew back, beaming. His lips moved soundlessly. So humans didn’t always find words right away, too. Somehow that was almost comforting, that Chat was not alone in that regard. The Nightmare courtiers were silver-tongued in a way he’d never managed to be.
“I’ve missed you,” the noble said at last.
“I’ve missed you, too,” Chat said, because it seemed like the kind of sentiment one ought to return. Clearly this man knew the prince and Chat would consult the mirror later, his gaze committing his features to memory. Skin like rich earth, golden eyes, prominent nose and hair as black as Chat’s fur. The similarity pleased him immensely.
“How are you, Adrien? Gossip has it you were injured during the rescue.”
Such concern in the man’s voice. Chat got a brilliant idea.
“Hit my head, yes. Speaking of. Can I confide something embarrassing? I’d rather nobody hear of this, though.”
The man nodded. “You know I keep my lips sealed.”
Yes. Chat did know that, his nose detecting no lie. Although it was not his nose leading him to confide. No, it was his instinct that was whispering that this man could be trusted to have his back, and his instinct never led him astray. No matter what kind of silky lies Nightmare courtiers tried to weave around him with speech so opaque Chat could not follow, his instincts always saw right through and warned of danger.
“The head injury leaves me kind of, ah, disoriented sometimes.” He paused, and then sheepishly added, “I got turned around while trying to return to my quarters. Help me back?”
The man’s eyes widened briefly, but then softened. “Of course, Adrien. Follow me.”
Chat Noir did, happily walking behind his new ally as the man navigated the passages. Allies were a vital part of the game of whispers and calculated shows of vulnerability were an important part of bonding. This noble would feel favored by the prince and be eager to earn more now that he’d had a taste.
The noble kept glancing back over his shoulder. “How are you, Adrien? Apart from the head injury.”
“Purr-fect,” Chat said absently, committing the path they were on to memory. He’d rather liked the view of the maze, might revisit that balcony.
The man snorted. “Some things never change with you, huh?”
Chat smiled prettily to hide his confusion. What did he mean?
His ally’s gaze grew thoughtful and Chat’s smile faded. “Adrien, I mean it, are you–? Captivity takes its toll on any man, you know you can talk to me.”
“I know.” Lie. “But don’t want to.” Truth.
The black-haired man accepted that with a nod. “Alright. But I’m here if you need me.”
“I might revisit that offer,” Chat Noir purred.
A tentative smile. “I hope you will.”
Chat was growing increasingly impressed with his own politicking abilities. Making allies out of enemies was easy! Or maybe humans were gullible. Either way suited him fine.
But he liked this one.
Chat would ensure his death was swift and painless, to spare him the agony of seeing his home burn to ash.
Chat retrieved the mirror from his sparse luggage and curled up on his bed, letting the Glamor fall just enough to make that position comfortable and to tuck his tail under his chin.
“Mirror, mirror, in my hand,” he murmured. “Who’s the fairest in the land?”
He cackled at his jest, though he did not quite know what made it so funny to him. Then he sobered and looked at the prince’s reflection. The first priority was finding out the identity of his new ally. They’d parted ways as soon as Chat had recognized his surroundings, and he had promised the man to see him again soon. It would be prudent to know his name by then.
“Show me how that noble and the prince know each other.”
“You’re going to land on your arse.”
Adrien slowly raised his head, taking the measure of the boy on the opposite side of the shore. The stream separating the two of them was shallow but wide. Left to his own devices after finally escaping his guards, Adrien was making a game of jumping on some flat stones without touching the water.
“I mean it. I know it doesn’t look like it’s that far, but that last jump is impossible.”
Golden eyes were staring at him with concern.
“Oh, ye of little faith,” Prince Adrien said confidently, and leaped forward.
Water soaked through his trousers, and the boy had the audacity to laugh. At him! The crown prince! Adrien scrambled to the other side of the shore, wading through ankle-deep water.
“Ah, ah, ah. You stay right over there. You’re a guest of the Bourgeois household, right?”
“Yeah, what of it?”
“This brook is the dividing line between their estate and ours.” The boy flashed him a cocky grin. “Respect our borders.”
So, naturally, Adrien had no choice but to climb up the incline and grab a wooden branch. Brandishing his new weapon, he cried, “Then defend them, villain!”
“Villain?” The boy gasped in mock outrage. Adrien patiently waited while he looked for a suitable branch of his own. “You are the invader here, that makes you the villain!”
“I am only defending my honor from an insult in the form of cruel laughter. En garde!”
Chat Noir came up for air with a wide grin on his face.
Or something like it, at any rate. Playful battles to prepare for true ones in adulthood. His smile sobered. The little humans had been practicing with wooden weapons to one day swing iron ones. Raised to unwittingly destroy Underhill from youngest age.
He shook the morbid thought away and dove into another memory. And another one after that. The way those children played reminded Chat a little of the way Trixx and he would chase each other over Nightmare’s borderlands. They teased and mocked and battled, but it was always affectionate. Just like when Chat buried his fangs in the fox’s neck fluff, but always took great care to be gentle when biting down. And Trixx returned the favor, forever vexing Chat with their illusions.
But the aim of the game was to win and have fun, never to hurt.
Melancholy swept over him. He was alone now and would be for many seasons to come. Chat hadn’t minded being alone when he’d been wild, a lone predator stalking his territories, but now he was tamed. A pet needed company.
Humans were a poor substitute for true friends, but he supposed – well, this one seemed fairly likable. The prince’s fondness for his childhood friend was palpable even through the distant lens of the mirror.
Dark skin and darker hair.
He was supposed to stay away from Nino Lahiffe.
Hello, my lovelies! I'm still on vacation and happily working on this fic in-between being lazy on the beach and de-compressing. Your feedback continues to give me life <3
Next update on sunday! In the meantime, enjoy these absolutely adorable drawings of what Chatdrien looks like when he's lounging in bed.
“For as long as there have been humans, there have been dark fae to torment them. Magical creatures that feast on misery and pain. They inflict it upon humans to harvest power. The way you and I eat food and drink, they sustain themselves with the suffering they cause.
“That is why they must be fought. Contained before they spread. Left unchecked, they would plunge us all into darkness.”
Alya’s fingertips brushed the butterfly pin nestled near her throat.
“Not all fae are like this. The Courts of Destruction have their counterparts in Creation, filled with fae who delight in laughter instead. However, even those fae are not what one might call good. Most of them are indifferent to human suffering and have no stake in stopping their dark counterparts. They are hedonists, feasting on pleasure where they find it, and they do not know grief and sorrow like we do.
“But some select few are benevolent. This pin was given to my family by a spirit of generosity, and it has been passed down for generations. With it, we fight the creatures lurking at the edges of our world. I inherited it last year, after…”
Alya trailed off.
The maids fingertips brushed Alya’s gloves and she startled at the concern in the blue eyes.
“…the dark fae are always aggressive, but as of late they’ve started gathering. Coordinating. Something is happening in both our countries. You follow the papers, yes? It’s just one escalation after the other.” Tension between Franeaux and Esparia were climbing so high that a single spark might set them all aflame in war.
“My House has fought fae for generations, and we have amassed a truly impressive arsenal to counter them. This pin is just one of many such trinkets that bestows power upon its wielder. I’ve trained since childhood to prove myself worthy of earning one.”
But her training was far from finished. And now it wouldn’t be.
“If you’ve an entire family to fight beside you, what do you need me for?” But there was no curiosity in the maid’s tone, for the she had already figured out the answer. No, her gentle voice was soft and filled with compassion.
“The faes have started coordinating,” Alya said stiffly. “They launched an attack on my family. Some of them still walk around now, but they are imposters. Changelings. Like your Mistress.”
“…Lady Bourgeois.” The maid’s fingers dug into her gown.
“What happened to the real one?”
“Devoured, most likely.”
The maid let out a keening whimper. But she did not cry, no. To Alya’s great satisfaction, the girl was drawing back her shoulders, determination taking hold of them. But then she slumped. “I can’t just leave.”
“The Changeling’s body might have turned to dust, but the Bourgeois household still looks like it has been attacked. If you are gone by the time they all wake up, they’ll assume you are missing along with your Mistress. Should you go back, you’ll be held for interrogation for who knows how long – and I must warn you now that no one will believe the truth.”
“Why not? Why can’t we just explain–“
Alya shook her head. “Fae magic clouds the mind. A curse once cast upon the world. They do not wish for humans to know of them unless it suits them, and so humans do not – cannot – conceive of their existence until they’ve witnessed it with clear eyes. They’ll think you mad.”
The maid nibbled on her lower lip as she considered this. “But you just said you have fae magic. Can’t you show them that as proof?”
“They’ll think me a witch. And I much prefer not getting burned at the stake.” Alya sighed. “Trust me, it’s a lesson my family learned with blood. Unless you drag in a live fae specimen in front of them to break the glamor, nobody will ever believe your tale.”
“But–“ The maid’s fingers dug further into her skirts, anxiously twisting the fabric. “My parents will be so worried. I can’t let them think me dead!”
Alya nodded. “Understandable. I can turn this carriage around. But I shall not wait for you to sort this out. I am aware that I am asking a lot, but your choices are twofold – we either leave now and you fight by my side, or you can stay.”
“Why can’t we wait?”
“Because,” said the fae hunter, leaning forward. “They have taken the prince.”
King Gabriel opened the curtains and gazed at his reflection for the first time in over a year.
Age was a terrible thing to sneak up on a man. But age had not so much snuck up on him as much as planned an ambush to drag him into a dark alley. His dignified wrinkles had become small canyons, his face gaunt, and most of his muscles had wasted away until he was no more than skin and bones.
But at least it was his reflection and not a nightmare.
The sheer impotent rage he’d felt when he’d seen what became of his son haunted him still. The fae’s favorite scene to show him, the one that had played out a hundred times, was of Adrien getting caught. He’d wandered into the Lady’s court and drunk from her chalice, body twisting while he’d seemed entirely unaware of what was happening to him.
Until the very end.
Perhaps it had been his dying humanity’s final stand, but for one brief moment, Adrien had tried to resist, to crawl away, only for the last remnants of what he’d been to desert him. He’d collapsed and risen again with not a single spark of intelligence behind his animal eyes.
She had set his son loose in an otherworldly forest. To hunt, to sleep under the open sky, to clean the blood out of black fur with his tongue. The fae had shown every gruesome aspect to Gabriel, reveling in his humiliation by stripping his kind and clever son of all dignity.
The sigil of the royal house was a black lion and the fae had chosen to mock him with it.
…except none of it had been real.
It felt like it had been real.
But Adrien was here now. Not an animal, not mindless, not burned by iron. Yes, he seemed dazed and confused at times, but his wit was sharp despite his long imprisonment.
Gabriel was in no position to judge not being at the height of mental clarity.
He’d been trying to wean off the laudanum, had braced himself for withdrawal, but his mind was as sluggish and sleepy as always. Had he done himself permanent damage? Or had his mind truly just gone soft with age?
“Good morning, father.”
Gabriel turned to face his heir and smiled.
Adrien returned the smile with one of his own, lighting up the gloomy room. Perhaps it was vanity talking, since Gabriel shared quite a number of features with his son, but he could not help the stir of pride at seeing how fine Adrien had grown with age.
He’d been a scrawny child, taking far too long to reach his final growth spurt, but now he had a nimble warrior’s build, tall and lean.
Good. He would need it to defend himself against a hostile world.
“Good morning, Adrien.”
“Did you sleep well?”
“Yes.” No nightmares plaguing him tonight. “How go the preparations for the feast in honor of your return?”
“Apace. I assume. I’ve mostly delegated, to be quite honest.”
Gabriel barked out a laugh. “Good. A good ruler knows his time is precious and does not waste it with trivialities.”
“Well,” Adrien said, setting down the tray of breakfast he insisted on carrying himself. It was a task unsuited for a prince and best left to servants, yet Gabriel did not have the heart to rebuff the kind gesture, propriety be damned. “I’d be lying if I said I spend my days productively, father. I’m mostly lying in bed, same as you.”
“Head injury still troubling you?”
“It’s healing well, the physician says. But I find myself tiring easily.” He sighed. “Must we hold that ball for my return? The New Year’s feast is soon enough, I don’t see why we can’t wait the week and celebrate both at once.”
“Your return is a singular occasion deserving of its own feast. And the people are eager to hear from you.”
“It’s not like I have anything particularly insightful to say.”
The tea cup halted on its path to Gabriel’s lips. “…are you telling me you have not yet written your speech?”
“Adrien,” Gabriel said slowly. “Were you planning on just raiding the desert buffet and dancing a few waltzes?”
“Well, no waltzing, but–”
“What,” he interrupted, “do you mean by that?”
Adrien shifted uncomfortably under the scrutiny. “Head injury, father. My coordination is poor at times, I don’t know if I can dance.”
“Then find out. Or would you rather wait until you’ve disgraced yourself on the dance floor?” Gabriel’s gaze dropped down to the iron necklace hanging around Adrien’s neck. Still there. Still real. He took a deep breath. “It’s unlike you to not do your due diligence, my son. I taught you better than that. Write a speech about unity and coming together in joy and putting the recent uncertainty to rest.”
Gabriel took a deep sip of his tea, and soon enough his irritation ebbed. He smiled at his son, his legacy, miraculously returned to him. The fae weren’t real, and the mercenaries who had held Adrien captive were dead.
Though their masters were not.
But that would soon be rectified. Gabriel would destroy anyone who’d dare try to take Adrien away from him again. Humming happily, he took another sip from his tea and calm washed over him.
Adrien’s eyes darted back to the third paragraph and he pursed his lips.
“Father, are you sure…” He trailed off when sharp blue eyes focused on him. Adrien smiled. “The treatise looks great. How’d you manage to negotiate so many concessions?”
“Intimidation,” King Gabriel drawled.
Yes, Adrien was very familiar with that. To be on the receiving end of one of his father’s looks was silent torture. One would think he’d have learned to endure it by now but the need to prove himself was only growing more critical with age. Gone were the days he could coax a smile from the stern man with a simple melody on the clavichord.
His artistic pursuits had been dropped when he’d turned ten, deemed a distraction. Martial arts had taken their place, fencing and sparring, lessons in the art of strategy and combat. ‘Only a fool courts war,’ his father liked to say, ‘but one must always be prepared for it.’
“So what’s wrong with it?”
“What?” Adrien squeaked.
“You were about to criticize something.”
“No, it’s nothing, father, just something I didn’t quite understand right away.”
“Hm.” The gaze resting on him grew pensive. “Did I raise a coward?”
Adrien straightened his back. “No!”
“Then tell me what you think instead of flattering me. If you’re wrong, I will explain why, and you will learn something. If you’re right, then the treatise needs altering.”
Chat laid his chin to rest on his hands, gazing at the mirror. His Lady had warned him not to use it needlessly or too often. But his father was proving less than docile, quizzing Chat on Adrien’s history, needing constant reassurance that Chat was not a fae imposter.
So the fae imposter had no choice but to dive deep and memorize anecdotes he could casually drop, preempting questions he could not answer. His strategy paid dividends, the king sighing in relief whenever Chat referenced a shared moment.
The infiltration was going well, all things considered.
In the span of mere days, he found himself thinking not of having to visit ‘the king’ or even ‘Gabriel’. No, using the human’s true name felt disrespectful, and the word ‘father’ had slid neatly into his vocabulary like it belonged there. Far from being unnerved by it, Chat was now basking in the man’s affectionate stares.
This needed to stop. Now.
He could not afford to let his guard down around the suspicious king. Chat would not let Adrien’s memories overwhelm his mind. The prince might have looked up to the man, but he was just that – a man. And men had flaws, often terrible ones. Chat would just have to remind himself of those instead of uncritically adopting the prince’s hero worship.
“Mirror, mirror, on the bed,” he said, “Show me Adrien’s greatest disappointment in his father.”
“Father!” Adrien burst through the door to the king’s chambers, a wide grin on his face. “Father, you won’t believe what I just – just…”
He trailed off, eyes widening in horror as he took in the scene before him. That was his father. And his valet. Both staring at him. Both lying in bed. Atop each other. Naked.
Why did father’s valet have breasts?
“Nathalie,” King Gabriel said calmly. “See about that correspondence with Queen Penelope.”
“Yes, Your Grace.” The not-man Adrien knew as Noel slid off the bed and got dressed, her breasts disappearing under a manservant’s uniform so it looked like they’d never been there at all.
Giving the king a stiff bow, and then directing another one toward Adrien, his father’s favorite servant hurried out of the room.
The prince stared after her, speechless.
“She has a brilliant mind, you know.” The king had used the duration of Adrien’s brain malfunction to get dressed as well. “It’s a shame she was born female and a commoner. She could have risen high in the world had she been a man. If she’d been a Lord, she’d be my steward.”
Father’s valet was known for being half a steward already, taking on duties far beyond their station.
“So how long have you been fucking her?” Adrien was amazed by how calm his voice sounded.
“Ten years, give or take.”
“You godsdamned bast–“
“Language, Adrien.” Blue eyes narrowed. “I am still your father and you will show me the respect I am due.”
“Mother’s only been dead for two years!”
The king shrugged. “Ours was an arranged marriage, brokered for power and land. Not love. She was under no illusions about what we were to each other.”
“I just – I can’t believe you! Here you are lecturing me about all the virtues I’m supposed to embody and then you–“
The prince choked on his anger.
When he spoke again, Adrien’s voice was low and seething. “I broke off friendships with common girls because you warned me not to give my heart to someone I can’t have. What happened to ‘Oh, the grass is greenest where you water it, don’t ruin your future marriage before it begins’?”
“I’m raising you to be a better man than I, my son. It is my fate to one day fall short of you.”
Breathing heavily, Adrien wiped at his eyes. Marinette… he’d never sought out the kind baker’s daughter again for fear of being tempted by her treats. Just a childhood crush, but it was the sheer principle of the thing.
“So,” Adrien said coldly. “Did mother get to break her wedding vows, too?”
The king sighed. “There can be no question about the legitimacy of my heirs. I will raise no children who aren’t mine.”
“Oh, but you get to father all the bastards you want, huh?” Adrien’s breath caught, eyes stinging as he swayed on the spot. “Do I – do I have half-siblings somewhere?”
“No. I’m infertile.” The king’s eyes were shining, too. Which was absurd because his father did not weep, not ever. It was weakness, and Adrien had done his best to stamp it out in himself, all to please the man before him. “You are the only son I’ll ever have.”
Marinette’s fingertips brushed the fine blue silk and she swallowed heavily as she gazed in the mirror. She had handled dozens if not hundreds of dresses as fine as this one, but never had she gotten to wear one.
“How fortunate that we are both so unfashionably tall,” Alya chirped as she tugged at the fabric around Marinette’s waist. While she’d been quite dainty in childhood, Marinette had just kept growing like a weed long after the other girls had stopped, until it became evident she was taking after her burly father rather than her tiny mother. “It will lend our story more credibility. You are so pale, but between your raven hair and the height befitting House Césaire, we might just pull this off.”
“Lady Alya, I can’t–“
“Just Alya.” The aristocrat kissed her cheek, eyes shining with glee. “After all, you and I are cousins now, no? We should be familiar with each other, Marinette.”
This was madness. Start to finish, this entire plan was madness.
“How am I supposed to pretend to be upper class, Lady Alya? I – I will mess up and eat with the wrong fork and my accent will give me away and–“
“It’s one night,” Lady Alya said softly. Gathering the somewhat loose fabric around Marinette’s chest – they might share a height, but Alya was more generously endowed – she carefully slid a thin pin through the expensive silk to mark where it would have to be altered. “Nobody expects bastard children to have perfect manners. And you’ll be far from the only one. Half the Lords have offspring born on the wrong side of the marriage bed.”
“Yes, but those bastards don’t get to attend balls.”
“They do when their father has a heart and decides to give them the chance for a better life.” Alya smiled over Marinette’s shoulder at their reflections. “They’ll think you a social climber hunting a noble husband, and you won’t be the only one. The celebration isn’t so exclusive that they’d resent your presence.” Hazel eyes hardened. “After all, the entire realm is celebrating the return of the prince.”
Marinette stifled a wince at the reminder.
Scarcely twelve hours ago she’d been so furious at him.
But the prince was dead.
Sweet Chloe Bourgeois had been devoured and replaced with a harpy. And now they were doing the same to kind, gentle Adrien. A condescending imposter was besmirching his memory. Tears of anger and grief stung her eyes. She’d buried her hope and sealed it away months ago, but she’d dug it back up for his return. Now old wounds were ripped open, the pain as fresh as when she’d first heard the crown prince was missing.
“Alya, what makes you so certain that they’ll make their move at the ball?” Judging by when she’d suddenly changed, Lady Bourgeois had been replaced for months.
“Because he’s the prince.”
Another pin slid into the dress, securing the new measurements. Alya had a quite practical skillset for a noblewoman. Even as sweet as she had been, the true Lady Bourgeois would not have been able to help adjust a dress, despite having seen Marinette do it for her a thousand times.
“Changelings mostly target women and children,” Alya said. “Rarely do they ever pick men who are expected to wield swords or tools, nor do they pick rulers. A noblewoman sequestered in the countryside can avoid ever touching iron, but the crown prince cannot. Brushing up against his honor guard’s armor would break the glamor, as would wielding a ceremonial sword, let alone a real one. The sheer number of people a prince is surrounded with can’t all be enthralled to cover suspicion. This ruse cannot be kept up for any length of time, so whatever it is they’re planning, it will happen soon.”
Alya’s fingers grew still just as she fell silent. Then, in a grave voice, she added, “This is only a hunch, but… given the fae’s recent movements, I believe they are trying to inflame tensions between our nations. What better way to start a war than to first raise a nation’s hope, only to assassinate the prince at a celebration meant to honor his return? They’ll pin it on Esparia, and then no amount of diplomacy will save us.”
A shiver of unease ran down Marinette’s spine. The Bourgeois estate – her parents, her friends, the village she’d grown up in – was so close to the border that it would surely be one of the first caught in the unforgiving crossfire of war. “How do we stop them?”
“First we intercept the Changeling at the ball. That will be our best opportunity to get close to him since he’ll hopefully be mingling. I’ll have thought of a cover story when we get there.”
Marinette nodded mutely and let Alya take the last few measurements.
“So do you think you’ll be able to adjust this in time? We won’t be traveling during the night since there’s ice on the road, so the journey to the capital will take us two more days.”
“I will,” Marinette murmured. She’d even manage in one, thanks to the practiced skill bestowed by countless fashion emergencies on Lady Bourgeois’s part. The silk slipped to the floor and she gathered it in her arms, walking to the bed in the middle of the small inn’s room.
“…Marinette, are you well?”
“No,” she said flatly. “But I will be. It’s a lot to take in.”
The redhead opened and closed her mouth, then smiled tentatively. “If you have any more questions, please do not hesitate to ask. I know this must all be a terrible shock to you. Thank you again for choosing to help me.”
Marinette smiled crookedly. “Well, someone has to avenge Lady Bourgeois. Might as well be me.”
But that wasn’t why she’d said yes. Why she was leaving her parents behind to worry about her fate.
How often had she dreamed of dancing with the prince? Childish daydreams of him one day showing up at the Bourgeois household and carrying her off on a white steed. Passionately arguing before the king that he wished to marry for love, not duty, and that he had chosen this humble servant girl.
They’d shared the duration of one visit, that was all. She hadn’t even known what he’d looked like as an adult. Yet she had recognized him at once, despite his face’s newfound sharp edges.
Except that hadn’t been him. Just an imposter.
Because Adrien Agreste was dead.
A decade spent with Lady Bourgeois and only a summer with him, but the unspoken truth hidden in Marinette’s heart could not be denied. It was him she was aiming to avenge.
Chat’s eyes were wide with horror as he stared at this latest tribulation. Why? Why did humans have to have these rituals?
He could groom himself on his own, thank you very much. Chat was quite fastidious with his hygiene, there was no need for any of this. What remained of his natural musk was perfectly fine.
“Is the temperature too low?”
Maybe? He would have to touch it to find out. No matter how hard he’d tried to subtly plead otherwise, his servants had made it clear that this would be necessary in preparation for the feast this evening.
Suppressing a whimper, Chat Noir edged closer to the water. Steam wafted through the small room, tiny droplets collecting on his bare skin. Digging a dull fang into his bottom lip, he allowed his big toe to dip in.
Experimentally, he let his foot sink further down on the step. Chat Noir stood frozen, then slowly took another step down the stairs leading into the pool, until hot water splashed around his waist.
This was nothing like the rivers and lakes he’d grown up with in the Underhill wilds. No cold that bit his skin even through his fur, no raging torrent threatening to drag him under. Just… pleasant. Like burying himself under a thick blanket, one of his new favorite pastimes. For all their flaws, humans made exquisite blankets.
Chat Noir made his way to the edge of the luxurious bath and curled up, all but his head submerged. He sighed happily, rubbing his back against the ceramic tiles.
That was when the servants dumped a vile concoction on his golden mane.
His nostrils burned, and he hissed, unseeing and disoriented, while strong fingers dug into his shoulders to keep him still.
“Apologies, Your Grace, I did not mean to have the soap seep into your eyes. Please hold still.”
Fingers kneaded his scalp and Chat Noir roared in outrage. “Get out!”
A shocked gasp followed by pleading. “I’m sorry, Your Grace, is it the head injury? We–“
“I said get out,” Chat snarled. “I’ll do it myself.”
Whatever it might be.
But they had no right to touch him like that! Only his Lady was permitted to stroke his hair and pet his fur! He sank deeper into the water, growl turning into a gurgle as the servants fled. When they were gone, he dunked his head underwater, gasping as he came back up for air.
Still the cloying smell remained, masking all other scents. It was unnatural, sickly sweet and far too overpowering. Already he struggled with this form’s weakened senses, but this soap blocked even what little remained.
He wouldn’t have to subject himself to this for every celebration, would he?
“Lady Alya of House Césaire, and her cousin Lady Mariposa!”
Marinette’s fingers dug into the fabric of her luxurious dress until her knuckles whitened as she dropped into an elegant curtsy, mimicking Alya’s. The Esparian noblewoman winked at her, a confident smile playing with the corners of her lips. How? How could she be keeping her cool like this when their plan was utter insanity?
They’d be lucky to escape with their lives.
One noblewoman and one imposter rose in perfect synchronicity as the arrival of the next set of guests was announced to the court. Marinette kept her gaze firmly on the ground. Tripping down the stairs while all the aristocrats were staring at her was just the sort of thing she was at risk of doing.
“Keep your head high, sweet Mari,” Alya murmured out of the corner of her mouth. “These people feast on weakness.”
That wasn’t very reassuring!
Oh Gods. What was her father’s name supposed to be again?
“Dearest uncle Javier was charming, brave and a noble hunter. Ten years ago, he sacrificed his life to slay a Foghen, one of the most avaricious and dangerous fae beasts in existence. He was also known to chase anything in a skirt. Nobody will doubt that he might have left behind an illegitimate child or two. He even had blue eyes, just like you. We’ll say you get your pale skin from your mother’s side. It’s rare, but our clan has many shades.”
Still, as per Alya’s instructions, she forced her chin up, channeling all of Lady Bourgeois’s haughtiness.
Nobody was looking at them at all. They’d arrived late, as was the fashion, and the first dance was already in full swing. Under the watchful gaze of the thin man sitting on the raised throne, colorful couples were whirling to the lively music.
And beside him, wearing a silver coat embroidered with the black sigil of his House, stood the prince, hands folded behind his back in a loose warrior’s stance. He was holding himself utterly still, watching the crowd through narrowed eyes – and being watched in return.
He leaned to whisper something in his father’s ear.
No, not his father. Because that was not Adrien. Marinette swallowed heavily.
“Lord Lahiffe, heir to the earldom of Stonegarden.”
Marinette’s head whipped around as the familiar name was announced. “Alya,” she hissed, fingers digging into one of the redhead’s white sleeves. “Alya, we have a problem.”
Not once losing her serene smile, Alya laid a steadying hand on the small of Marinette’s back, leading her to a shadowed corner of the hall. “What is it?”
“Lord Lahiffe – he knows me, Alya! Chloe was his betrothed before he… before she…” Marinette trailed off as puzzle pieces slid together. With the flood of information she’d processed within the last few days, not everything had yet sunk in.
Marinette had always liked Lord Lahiffe. Not all nobles were kind to servants, but he was unfailingly gentle and polite. Even though they’d not been friends, their stations too far apart for that, she’d nonetheless been disappointed to hear of his cruel behavior.
Except what if he’d not been lying when maintaining his innocence? Lady Bourgeois’s imposter was the liar here.
“Before what?” Alya asked, shaking Marinette out of her thoughts.
“The Changeling spurned him.” Marinette whispered urgently. “But he used to be a frequent guest at the Bourgeois manor. He was always very friendly, the kind of noble who pays attention to the servants’ names and faces. Lord Lahiffe will recognize me when he sees me.”
“Then we just stay out of his path. There’s hundreds of people here, he won’t look that hard at every noblewoman he passes.” Alya peered at her with a mix of curiosity and concern. “…I had no idea people could change their color so rapidly. Breathe, sweet girl. Don’t forget to breathe.”
Breathe. Yes. She could do that. Held an amazing eighteen-year consecutive streak she did not intend to interrupt now.
Alya brushed a stray few hairs behind her ear. “And if the worst comes to pass, I’ll distract him. It’s not that hard to draw the attention of men.”
Marinette swallowed heavily. “…best friend.”
“He was the prince’s best friend. We – if we want to get close to Prince Adrien, he might be our path. Yours, I mean. I can’t go near.”
Alya’s pale eyes glittered with interest as she turned to subtly examine him. “You’d think the prince’s best friend would be surrounded by people eager to gain his favor.”
“Lady Bourgeois spoke very unkindly of him. I think she might have damaged his reputation.” Marinette paused. “Perhaps deliberately.”
“When was this?”
“About six months past?”
“After the summer solstice, then. He might have noticed the change in his fiancée.” An excited note entered Alya’s voice. “This might mean he’s as resistant to enthrallment as you are. I’m going to talk to him, see what he knows.”
Marinette made a distressed sound in the back of her throat. Don’t leave me!
Alya patted her shoulder. “Just smile prettily if anyone talks to you. That’s all they expect of Ladies anyway. Keep an eye out for anything suspicious and I’ll meet you back here soon.” The noblewoman offered an encouraging smile. “Don’t look like that. You slew a vicious fae beast with one swing, you can handle a few aristocrats. Trust yourself. Your earrings will protect you.”
In a swirl of white silk, she disappeared, red locks bouncing as she veered off on a wide arc to make it not quite so obvious whom she was stalking.
Marinette whimpered, fingertip brushing her sapphire earring.
The white butterfly fluttered its wings as it landed on one of the earrings, glowing bright before dissolving into it. “Here,” Lady Alya said. “When you sense a battle approaching, simply cry out for the butterfly’s aid and it will imbue you with power.”
“Should I… shouldn’t I train with it before the ball?”
The fae hunter shook her head. “No. The first transformation is critical and it can’t be wasted on a practice run. It will lock your form and your powerset, changing shape in accordance with your current situation and emotions. Ideally, you should transform with bravery in your heart. That will yield the strongest form.”
“But I was terrified when I was sneaking up on that Changeling.”
“And yet you did not think to run away. That is bravery, Marinette. Don’t worry about training or practice. These powers will be made from your essence and shaped by your will. Using them will come as naturally as breathing.” Alya was quiet for a long moment. “Try to avoid using negative emotions as the catalyst. The result of that is usually… not pretty.”
But how would her earrings protect her from the nobility? She couldn’t very well do magic battle with anyone who dared approach her. Oh Gods, she was beyond doomed.
“My Lady,” a smooth voice said, and Marinette’s head jerked up.
A nobleman with bright turquoise eyes was smiling at her as he swept into a bow.
“Forgive me for my abominable manners. I know we’ve not been formally introduced but when I saw your beauty, I simply had to ask you to dance this next waltz with me.”
Marinette squeaked. A faint blush the color of his hair appeared on the man’s cheek.
“I’m the baron of Kutzenberg, though you may call me Nathanael. What shall I call you?”
“Marin – Mariposa! I’m. I’m Lady Mariposa.”
“Mariposa,” he said, his smile broadening. “What a lovely name.”
“Just – just Mari is fine.”
“Mariposa,” he said decisively. “An elegant name for an elegant Lady.” Then he held out his hand, inviting her to join him.
She shrank away, shaking her head. “I’m afraid this Lady isn’t very elegant on the dancefloor.”
“That’s alright. Neither am I.” A nervous chuckle escaped him as his blush deepened. “I really didn’t think this through, to be quite honest with you.”
“Then let us agree to just stand here and sway with the music.”
“I can do that.”
Marinette caught herself returning his shy smile. Perhaps talking to aristocrats wasn’t so hard after all?
“Your accent is interesting, where is it from?”
Marinette’s diction was an utter mess. Between her mother’s foreign tongue, being raised amongst servants in the countryside and yet spending most of her days as a Lady’s maid, her accent did not neatly fit anywhere. She enunciated her vowels as the upper class did but had little of their refined vocabulary.
But Alya had said this would be to the advantage of her cover story.
“I hail from Esparia. Which is to say, my father does.”
“Ah.” For a heartbeat, his mouth pinched in displeasure. “Well, your grasp on our language is quite good, then.”
“So you’re here to celebrate our prince’s return?” His eyes were narrowing, and Marinette straightened her spine. Had tensions between the two countries escalated so much already that random Esparian noblewomen were met with such suspicion?
“Indeed I am.” She flicked her fan open, covering the lower half of her face. Alya had told her this would aid the illusion of composure. “What a joyous occasion for all of us.”
Marinette’s gaze darted to the throne and–
Where had the prince gone?
They were supposed to keep an eye on him!
“Now if you’ll excuse me, I have – things. To do. Dancing and revelry and such.”
He arched an eyebrow. “Non-elegant dancing, I presume?” He gave a stiff bow. “A pleasure to meet you, Lady Mariposa.”
Ah. Right. She had just turned him down on that offer. Faint guilt pricked at her as the nobleman strode away. It was probably for the best, but still – that had not been well done on her part at all.
Marinette let her gaze roam the room. Prince Adrien was tall, his profile should be visible above the crowd. But he was nowhere to be found. Perhaps he’d stepped outside for some fresh air? Did fae need refreshment?
She made her way to the balcony leading to the gardens. The cold bit at her skin, her dress so sheer and fine it offered little protection. No wonder nobody stood outside, the winter was barely past its zenith.
But Marinette welcomed the brief reprieve from the crowd, leaning on the stone railing to gather herself. A flash of pale movement caught her eye and she straightened her back.
The prince sat on a bench near the entrance to the maze, gazing into the darkness of its winding depths.
“Lure him away from people if possible. The less thralls he has at his disposal, the better. I can plant false memories if needed, but only a select few. The least controversial death for him would be to tragically succumb to the injuries of his imprisonment. I’ll make the physicians attest to that.”
This was her chance.
She brushed her thumb over her earring once more, just to reassure herself it was still there. Alya had said she’d sense its activation, so hopefully Marinette would not have to fight him alone for long.
Gathering her skirts, she descended down the stairs.
Lord Lahiffe hid the tremor of his hand by sliding it into his waist pocket.
Adrien had been back for almost a week now and not sought him out again past that one chance encounter. The few times they had seen each other since – from a distance, with Adrien surrounded by the knights guarding him at all times – the prince’s gaze had rather pointedly slithered right over Nino, like he was making an effort to not acknowledge him.
And with each successive subtle yet deafening rejection, anger and trepidation had buried their way deeper into Nino.
They were supposed to be best friends. Yes, Chloe’s father had played a hand in rescuing Adrien from his harrowing imprisonment, but Nino still deserved a chance to explain himself instead of being written off as a villain on Chloe’s word alone.
But it was the other possibility that gnawed at Nino’s gut, filling him with dread.
Adrien had been through hell, and it might be Nino’s fault.
Did the prince blame Nino for luring him out of the safety of his castle that fateful night? Had only a moment of weakness led Adrien to talk to him in the chance encounter? The injury to his head had to be severe for him to get lost in his own palace. Perhaps he’d even forgotten his anger that night.
Nino’s gaze drifted to the throne. King Gabriel had dragged himself out of his self-imposed exile for this celebration. The year since they’d last seen each other had been even unkinder to him than to Nino. Gone was the regal, rigid man, commanding a room with his mere presence. No, Adrien’s father was slumped in his seat, seeming on the verge of falling asleep.
And Nino’s searching gaze could not find the prince. Anticipation and fear were building to a crescendo that was going to have him start heaving any moment. For tonight he meant to finally confront his best friend in front of witnesses.
Nowhere to run now, Adrien. If you’re going to shun me, just get it over with.
Suddenly, a woman fell into his arms.
He grunted, catching her by the shoulders.
“Oh, forgive me, my Lord,” a husky voice whispered in his ear. “I tripped.”
Chat Noir breathed deeply, eyes closed, taking in the scent of his home. Maybe it was a mistake to rely on Adrien’s memory for comfort, but it was the best he had. There was no dark whisper of his Lady’s magic to wrap around himself in this realm, no forest den to take shelter in, not even the soothing sensation of grooming his fur.
Just the faint traces of ocean being carried by the wind and a maze a young prince had liked to play in until he’d memorized all its paths.
The wind shifted and his eyes flew open, head swiveling until his gaze locked on a noblewoman. She froze under his scrutiny, and his enhanced hearing picked up a soft squeak of distress.
“I don’t bite,” he said softly before he was aware of even summoning the words, so strong was the impulse to set her at ease. She had dark hair and a face that struck him as familiar, though he could not say where he’d seen it. But he’d met many humans today, their far too similar features all blurring together into one.
“Your Grace,” she whispered, and dropped into a curtsy. “May I ask what you’re doing out here in the cold?”
He scarcely felt it, his glamor having receded just enough to fortify this weak body of his so he could have his senses back. Senses that were telling him that she had the most delicious scent in all the human realm. Chat Noir breathed deeply once more, trying to place its components. Like stolen joy and the thrill of a hunt.
It was just sweet, like she had distilled the essence of sugar. He should hate it, but he didn’t.
And she had a most pleasing figure, with that little dip around the waist. Too bad she wore a dress. It was with great disappointment that Chat Noir had learned that female humans never wore formfitting breeches, forever hiding their best asset from view. Apparently, they were expected to cover their glory and only ever reveal it to their mate. Modesty, it was called.
An idiotic notion if there ever was one. A mate was not something to be hidden. A male who needed his mate to diminish herself for fear of drawing a competitor’s attention did not deserve to have one. Instead of making her small, he should become the best he could be, so she would never wish to stray.
“I was getting rather tired of being stared at, to be quite honest.” Chat subtly shifted his weight, making more room for her on the bench beside him.
She hesitated, then inched closer. “Aren’t you used to that, Your Grace?” It sounded more like an accusation than concern.
Yes, perhaps Adrien was used to stares, but Chat’s instincts were built around ambush. Drawing so much attention to himself would have made his tail bristle and lash with displeasure, if the glamor hadn’t robbed him of it.
“Imprisonment takes its toll,” he said curtly, because he couldn’t very well tell the truth, and it rankled to be reminded that he was falling short of the prince’s duties.
“Oh.” She swallowed heavily as she sat down beside him, smoothing her skirts. “I heard you were injured when you were rescued. Are you – is your wound bothering you?”
As good of an excuse as any. “I’m supposed to give a speech and I keep forgetting half the words. It’s going to be terrible.”
She peered at him with a mixture of curiosity and doubt. “Surely it can’t be that bad?”
“It’s so boring. Father made me take out the puns,” he said glumly.
There was that sound of distress again, and suddenly she leaned forward, blue eyes wide with wonder. “You put puns in your speech?”
Finally, someone who appreciated wordplay. He perked up. “Yes! And they were great puns, too. I was going to praise the knights who rescued me for keeping claw and order in our fair lands.”
“Adrien,” she whispered. “Oh my Gods, Adrien, I can’t believe you’re still making cat puns at your age.” Then she broke into half-crazed laughter that held a note of relief for some reason. “I mean, I know it’s your house’s sigil and all, but…”
This one knew the prince. He cursed his rotten luck.
Yet she suddenly grew rigid. “Ah! Not that I’d know anything about that. I mean. I heard you were fond of jests like this, Your Grace. Not that people gossip about it. You’re very – I mean – I wouldn’t say you’re renowned for your wit, but – the, the people think quite highly of - oh no, I’m making it worse.“ What had started as a frantic and far too loud rush of words ended in a despondent whisper.
This human was cute.
For just the span of a heartbeat, Chat Noir would have liked nothing better than to find out what the amazing scent tasted like when licked from her skin.
Not that he would. He belonged to his Lady, and he did not stray.
“You have me at a disadvantage, knowing so much about me and my habits when I don’t even know your name.” It was a stroke of fortune that the prince, too, was fond of wordplay, and Chat had started enthusiastically leaning into the habit. For authenticity, of course. No other reason.
She peered at him from beneath heavy eyelashes, a blush spreading on her freckled cheeks. “Lady Mariposa.” Then she suddenly straightened her spine, meeting his gaze with what almost seemed like a defiant challenge. “Although my friends call me Mari sometimes.”
“Mari,” he murmured, tasting the syllables. “Sweet Mari.”
She nodded, black curls arranged in an artful bun coming loose at the ferocity of it. There was expectation in her gaze now, almost pleading.
Chat didn’t know what to do with it, so he smiled and leaned forward. “It’s an honor to meet you, Lady Mariposa.”
Her shoulders sagged, and then she forced a smile. “Thank you, Your Grace.”
He’d disappointed her somehow. That would not do. Had he messed up the way to address her? It wouldn’t be the first time he’d misstepped tonight. Maidens by first names, unless they’re the eldest representative of their House in attendance, then by family name. No, that couldn’t be it, she’d only offered a first name. “Have we met before, my Lady? I must confess that my head injury plays tricks with my memory. You seem familiar.”
Her lips formed into a little ‘oh’. She shook her head, loosening yet more of her curls. On impulse, he caught one of them, twining the black ringlet around his finger.
Lady Mariposa grew utterly still, her voice little more than a breathy whisper. “No, Your Grace. We haven’t met.”
“Then I am pleased to make your acquaintance,” he said. “Will I be seeing more of you at court?”
She swallowed heavily. “I’m… not sure, to be quite honest. I don’t think so.”
“What a shame.” His lips twitched, and he dropped the curl to brush his fingertips along her arm. The many jeweled bands she wore jingled as he touched them, and he glanced down in surprise. Iron did not burn him, but it left a tingle on his skin, like an unpleasant itch.
The Lady held her breath at his discovery. At once, he gave her a reassuring smile. “Don’t worry, I won’t give your secret away. Your accessories are beautiful, I truly thought they were pure silver at first glance. Nobody will notice.”
It’d be a lie to say that Underhill had no currency, for fae traded in promises and favors, but this notion of money had taken Chat a while to wrap his head around. Why exactly these chunks of metal held the value stamped on them and why everyone went along with the pretense made little sense to him, but then, the human realm was baffling in many aspects.
But one thing was unchanged from the Nightmare Court – if one held no currency at all, be it in allegiance or coins, a courtier did their best keeping that secret close to their chest. Having nothing was weakness, and the Court devoured the weak.
Lady Mariposa made that little choked sound again, turning away to hide her face behind her fan.
Chat had the sinking feeling he’d just committed his most grievous breach of etiquette yet by acknowledging her dire straits out loud. Of course. He should have let her fake jewelry go unremarked.
Her eyes were doing that leaking thing. But somehow this was even worse than when father and Lord Lahiffe had done it, the need to make it stop growing unbearable.
Please stop doing that, human. The arbitrarily decided value of shiny baubles is not worth crying over.
That probably wouldn’t comfort her.
“Hey,” he murmured, scooting closer. “There is no shame in doing what needs to be done to survive. I’ve done my share of unsavory things. I’m not judging you, Lady Mariposa.”
She shook her head, but it still must have been the right thing to say. Mariposa raised her tear streaked face and gifted him with the brightest smile he had ever seen.
“I’m so happy you have returned to us safe and sound, Prince Adrien.”
Her smile was a thing of beauty, like the dawn breaking through the clouds. Adrien could not help returning it with one of his own. “I’m glad to be home.”
It was almost not a lie. Yes, he’d have liked getting to lay at his Lady’s throne best and too many things vexed him still, but he had years of infiltration ahead of him, so it was best to make himself comfortable in his new territory. Instead of resenting the things that annoyed him, he would focus on what he found pleasing.
Lady Mariposa laughed, a trilling, happy sound. The exuberance of which appeared to startle her back into shyness. “People are probably wondering where you are. We – we should head back inside.”
“But I like the view here,” he said softly.
Her blush deepened. “Y-you have a very boring speech to give. I heard.”
Chat grimaced at the reminder. “I’d rather stay right here, thank you.”
“It’s pretty cold.”
“I don’t mind.”
“Well, I do. I’m freezing.”
He made a whining noise in the back of his throat. “Well, that’s your fault for cloaking yourself in such thin layers. I order you to wear something more sensible next time.”
“Oh, you order me, do you?”
“I am your prince. I get to order humans around when I feel like it.”
Her lips twitched. “Only your countrymen, your Grace. Alas, I am an Esparian. Your words hold no sway with me.”
“I’ll order a conquest in the morning to rectify that, then.”
That sobered her, all amusement vanishing. Chat grimaced. Of course she wouldn’t like the reminder of the conflict his Lady had been subtly stirring up for years.
“That was in bad taste, my apologies.”
“It’s alright.” She glanced around and then tugged at his hand. “Come. It’s not safe for you to be out of sight of your guards, Your Grace.”
“I can defend myself,” he said, but stood up all the same with a heavy sigh.
Lady Mariposa peered at him. “You look like I’m dragging you to the gallows. It’s just a speech. You’ve given, what, hundreds? I heard you’re good at it, too.”
“Don’t like the feline of being stared at.”
She was quiet, not letting go of his fingertips as she shepherded him back inside. When she glanced over her shoulder, her blush deepened once more. “Look at me, then. When you give your speech. Only me, and I promise I won’t be staring back.”
“Ah, but Lady Mariposa,” he purred. “Your stare would not displease me at all.”
Alya’s eyesight was the bane of her existence.
Not only were spectacles so unfashionable that they were considered the kiss of death to any Lady’s beauty, reserved for wallflowers and old maids, being reliant on them jeopardized her very destiny. Hunters were meant to be as sharp-eyed as eagles. Having spectacles knocked off her nose in the midst of battle could be her end. A very blurry, unfocused end.
So she had refused to acknowledge her rapidly deteriorating condition. Alya would have nothing to do with those ugly, thick lenses – she would learn to navigate the world without them. It had delayed her training, her family thinking her inept rather than blind, but one could be overcome while the other doomed her to being nothing more than a Lady. She might have raised little sons and daughters who’d become hunters, but that was not what she wanted for herself. This was her destiny.
And she’d done it. Eventually. She’d earned the butterfly pin, even though it had taken her twenty years when most of her cousins on this path had earned their magical weapon by age fifteen.
With the numerous trinkets in her family’s possession, wielding the butterfly was considered somewhat of a pity prize. It was a support weapon used to create champions greater than oneself, forcing its wielder to avoid the frontlines, leaving others to earn glory.
Was that why her mother had chosen it for her? Had she seen the untapped potential?
The butterfly transformation not only gave Alya strength and speed, it also restored her eyesight. She’d nearly wept with joy the first time she’d used it and seen the world as it truly was for the first time in years. Each transformation reversed the damage time had done to her eyes a little more. In the last year, trees had traded their vestments of vaguely green blobs for blurry leaves.
But the process was a slow one, and so Alya still walked through life squinting more than she’d have liked.
She’d ‘tripped’ into two gentlemen at this point, neither of them Lord Lahiffe.
The golden eyes of the third one blinked down at her, somewhat obscured by thick spectacles. Another reason they were her bane – men were not considered unfashionable for wearing them. No, they were worn almost as a badge of honor by those who prided themselves in having ruined their eyes by reading too many books by the shine of candlelight. While not precisely considered handsome, they were the mark of highly educated men.
Although this one did look a little handsome, even with that thing sitting on his oversized nose. It was his smile that did it, lighting up his face with the sort of genuine kindness that no amount of practice could ever fake.
“It’s quite alright,” he murmured as he gently tipped her back until she stood on two feet again. “The dancefloor is crowded tonight, it’s easy for a stray elbow to disrupt a Lady’s balance.”
Alya nodded, batting her eyelashes, and dropped into a curtsy. “Lady Alya Césaire.”
He returned her introduction with a half-bow, hand on his heart. “Lord Nino Lahiffe.”
Yes! At last the right one. Her smile widened into a grin. “Thank the Gods for your quick reflexes, my Lord. I don’t think I could have born the shame if I’d sent us both tumbling to the ground in front of all the court. ‘twould be a tale to be whispered in my wake wherever I go.”
“Ah, worry not, it’s my reputation that would have born the shame, not yours.” His eyes twinkled even as the corners of his mouth tightened. “See, I’m known as somewhat of a rotten scoundrel. I’m certain that by the end of the evening, the tale would be of me dragging an innocent maiden to the ground in a fit of debauchery.”
She arched an eyebrow. “You? A scoundrel?” He could not look more like a friendly puppy if he tried. The Changeling’s lies must have been quite convincing – but then, mind magic always was.
“Alas.” Lord Lahiffe shrugged as if to say ‘it is what it is’. “You’re not from Franeaux, are you?”
“That would explain why you’ve not yet heard of my dastardly deeds.”
Alya opened her fan, smiling coyly as she fluttered it. “Surely they can’t be as dastardly as all that.”
“Hm. By last count it’s eight deflowered virgins, three devoted wives lured into adultery, three duels on account of that and one broken engagement, leaving a Lady in ruins.”
“You’ve been a busy man, my Lord.”
“The secret is keeping tight control of one’s schedule. You can fit a deflowering between luncheon and supper if you commit yourself to it.”
Alya burst into most unladylike laughter. He smiled, but there was an edge of sorrow to it, so she sobered quickly.
“Lady Césaire, it was a pleasure to keep you from falling, but if you have a care for your reputation, I believe it’s best you stop talking to me now.”
She fluttered her fan again, cursing the fae who’d ruined this sweet man, stealing not only his fiancé but his social standing. “May I confide a secret? You’re the third gentleman I’ve tripped on at this point. I am not going to leave this ball without acquiring at least a little ill repute, and I’d much rather have them whispering about me talking to a rogue than about my accursed clumsiness. Promise not to deflower me in full view of everyone?”
His lip quirked with amusement. “I’ll endeavor.”
“Wonderful. Dance with me?”
The Lord stifled his laughter. “Is it the Ladies who ask the gentlemen to dance in your country? Because here…”
“No,” Alya said cheerfully. “I’m fully committed to being scandalous tonight.”
“My Lady, I would gladly accept this dance, but you did just tell me of your terminal clumsiness. I fear for my toes.”
“My dearest Lord Lahiffe, surely you are not a coward?”
“Ah, you have me there. I shall bear the pain of being stepped on like a man.” He held out his hand just as the last notes of the current dance faded, a new one about to begin.
Her gloved fingers entwined with his bare ones as the violins played a single, gentle note, signaling the beginning of a waltz. Perfect.
“Such valor,” she said breathily as he stepped close. A waltz was a slow, intimate dance, all but designed for conversation. Or interrogation. “But I have something even more scandalous to confess.”
“I lied. You need not fear me stomping on you, for I’m merely shortsighted, not clumsy. You’re within my range now and quite safe.”
A chuckle escaped him – and it must have escaped, for a moment later he looked startled that he’d made the sound. They easily fell into the dance, never missing a step. “I know it’s not the fashion for Ladies, but spectacles really do help.”
“Alas,” she said. “I’m quite vain.”
“Well. You have reason to be, Lady Alya.”
Heat spread to her cheeks and she resisted the impulse to giggle. Focus. This is business, not pleasure. “Hm, I do not remember giving you permission to use my first name, Lord Nino. Are you reneging on your promise not to deflower me tonight, to be taking such liberties?”
“Ah, but see, you only made me promise not to do it in public.”
“You are wicked, my Lord. Are the rumors true, then?”
His lips thinned. “No. They are not.”
Sensing his shift in mood, she softly said, “I believe you.”
“Do you?” The music swelled, and he guided them both into a whirl. Despite his thoughts being elsewhere, judging by the way his gaze darted to the podium, he still effortlessly kept track of the music’s rhythm. “That puts you in rather exclusive company.”
“Well, it’s good company,” Alya said, and meant it.
Warmth shone in his eyes as he turned his attention back to her with a smile. “Agreed.” A beat of silence, and then he laughed self-consciously. “I mean – not that I’m calling myself good – I meant you. You are good company. As well.” He squeezed his eyes shut as he trailed off, flustered.
Alya couldn’t help the grin. “And you were doing so well playing the smooth gentleman.”
“I know,” he said with a mournful sigh. “Would you believe me if I said my nerves are entirely unrelated to a desperate need to impress a beautiful woman I’m dancing with?”
“I might. But be warned, I much prefer that interpretation, so you’ll have to work hard to convince me to let go off the compliment.”
“Well, far be it from me to deprive you of compliments.”
“Ever the gentleman.”
“Naturally.” They shared a grin, before his gaze grew pensive, once again darting to the throne. His brows furrowed. “But in truth, I am nervous about something else. I hope to talk to Adrien tonight.”
“Adrien? The prince? Are you dropping names to impress me, my Lord?”
“Perhaps. Is it working?”
“Perhaps,” Alya said slyly. “You’ll have to keep going for me to judge its efficacy. So, you’re on first name basis with the prince?”
“We are close friends. Well, we were.” His smile grew a touch strained.
“The damage to my reputation occurred in his absence and he’s not spoken to me much since his return.”
“Not much of a friend, then.” Or a Changeling as she suspected. As they twirled over the dancefloor, she, too, snuck a glance at the throne, mouth thinning when she realized the prince was gone. Well. Hopefully Mari was keeping an eye on him.
“One of the Ladies I supposedly treated with callous disregard is his friend as well. Her father played an instrumental role in his rescue. Still…” He trailed off.
“You wish he’d give you a chance to explain yourself?”
Lord Lahiffe nodded and they said nothing more over the next three beats.
“Let’s find him,” Alya declared and he blinked.
“Yes. I shall trip into him and hold him in place for you.”
Lord Lahiffe laughed.
“I am utterly serious, my Lord. I pledge my shortsighted service to you.”
“You are very generous, Lady Alya.”
She nodded regally. “Indeed I am. Now, any idea where he might be?”
They twirled once more, then twice, while he raked his gaze over the room. “He might be outside.”
“In this cold?”
“Adrien is not fond of having to give speeches, he might seek solitude to prepare himself.”
Her eyebrows furrowed. “I heard he’s a skilled orator.”
“He is. Doesn’t mean he likes it.”
“I see.” Alya said nothing more as they danced the last few beats, sadness for Lord Lahiffe welling up inside of her. His reputation, his fiancée and his close friend – the fae had cost this Lord much, and he didn’t even know it.
And now Alya would have to slay the beast wearing his friend’s face just when Lord Lahiffe was hoping for reconciliation. Most likely in front of him. Hopefully he would react as level-headed as Mari.
They came to a halt and Lord Lahiffe smiled at her. “To the balcony then?”
“Lead the way, my Lord. It’s best if he does not see my ambush coming.”
“What a capable tactician you are,” he said, a touch bemused. But already there was growing affection in his golden eyes. More than that when his gaze ever so briefly dipped lower before he turned to walk to the balcony.
Only for the prince to stroll over the threshold to meet them, Marinette on his arm. The servant in disguise looked alarmed and then subtly shook her head, though what she was trying to signal Alya could not say. Not to engage now?
But it was too late, for Lord Lahiffe only accelerated his pace, seeming determined to cut off the prince before he rejoined the crowd. Alya hurried after him, slipping her long iron pendant beneath her décolletage. It would not do to destroy his glamor while he was on the edge of the crowd.
She made the hand signal for ‘Distract!’ but of course, Marinette could not read it, only shaking her head more frantically. But that did the trick all the same, for the prince was alerted to the movement, slowing down to frown at the woman by his side.
Alya darted forward and tripped.
Unlike Lord Lahiffe, the prince did not catch her gently. No, he reacted far faster – jerking back and baring his teeth. Just as Alya was certain she was about to hit the floor, one hand shot forward to close around her upper arm, roughly pulling her to his chest.
“Careful,” the prince said, as if he hadn’t just bruised her.
Alya froze and stared at the chest only inches away from her face.
At the pendant around his neck.
Superstition had it that the triquetra warded against dark fae, though it did nothing of the sort. Was it made of iron?
“Sorry,” she whispered, wide-eyed gaze darting to Marinette.
Marinette, who’d had her arms interlinked with the prince, iron bracelets pressed against him. Yes, the cloth offered some protection, but a fae would still have been in agony.
This was why Marinette had been shaking her head no.
But it made no sense! He’d disappeared on a solstice, and reappeared only a few days after another one, supposedly rescued by a household with a Changeling in it! It was – with all their recent activity, she’d been so certain that this could only be a set-up!
Nino inhaled deeply, his gaze lingering on the gorgeous noblewoman who, true to her word, was keeping Adrien in place for him. The prince was blinking down at her with a frown creasing his brows.
Then his best friend’s expression went utterly blank, catching sight of Nino’s approach.
This boded ill. But Nino was done dreading this. He was caught in some dreadful limbo, still one foot in the life he’d had a year ago. If it truly had all been destroyed beyond repair, then he needed to know that now so he could start building something new instead of hoping for a renewal that would never come.
Adrien’s gaze slid to the side, to the black-haired woman on his arm, as if Nino had said nothing at all. Nino’s breath caught. The cut direct? Would Adrien truly sink this low?
But then green pupils darted back to him, and the prince gave a curt nod.
“Lord Lahiffe. It’s good to see you again.”
The prince fidgeted, busying himself with prying Alya off his chest. The Esparian Lady, not one to miss a beat, immediately dropped into a curtsy. “Your Grace. I am Lady Césaire, Lady Mariposa’s cousin.” She flashed a brilliant smile in the dark-haired girl’s direction, and an instant later was leaning against her arm.
Nino blinked, focusing on the pale girl.
Blue eyes met his, panic shining within.
But that was…
Adrien smiled brightly at both women. “A pleasure to make your acquaintance, Lady Césaire. I would love to stay and chat, but I’m afraid I must give a horrifically boring speech now. Please do not judge me for it, I promise I’m normally the height of wit.”
“Is that your head injury talking, Adrien?” The prince shot him a dark look that Nino returned with one of his own. He was done being ignored!
“Oh, surely it’s not as bad as all that,” Alya said in a clear attempt to defuse the tension.
“The king forbade the usage of puns,” Lady Mariposa said softly.
“Just as I said. Horrific. Lady Mariposa, thank you for the company. I hope to see more of you at court. Lady Césaire. Lord Lahiffe.” Adrien bowed stiffly as he took his leave, turning to walk back to the throne.
“Coward,” Nino whispered under his breath.
The prince hesitated for a brief moment – though with the noise of the crowd it was impossible for him to have overheard – and then continued on his path. Nino balled his fist before gathering himself, exhaling, and turned toward the two Ladies who were fiercely whispering amongst each other.
“Lady Mariposa,” he said, interrupting, and bowed with one hand behind his back. “It’s a pleasure to see you again.”
Marinette made a high-pitched noise of distress.
Lady Alya’s sharp eyes narrowed. “My dearest cousin,” she said, drawing up her shoulders as if preparing for battle, “is a recent addition to the family. Alas, her father failed to inform us of her existence.”
Ah. So his ex-fiancée’s handmaiden had been born on the wrong side of the marriage bed. “I congratulate you on the happy reunion, then,” he said, gazing at Marinette. She was a sweet, if somewhat anxious girl. Good for her. “Lady Mariposa, Lady Alya. It’s been a pleasure making your acquaintance. Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I shall retire early tonight.”
“Wait!” Lady Alya stepped forward. “The feast has only just begun, my Lord.”
Temptation tugged at him, but as lovely as this woman was, Nino knew he’d not be good company for the rest of the evening. “I was only here to pay tribute to the guest of honor and now I’ve done just that. Thank you for the dance.”
I <3 DJWifi. That is all.
Actually, no, it's not. Look at this gorgeous sketch of Chatdrien, courtesy of the amazing ZiriO!
The steps leading up to the podium creaked under the heavy thump of his boots, loud enough even for the weak hearing of nearby humans. Through pointed coughs and subtle elbow shoving, silence spread like a contagion. Expectant gazes turned to face him as Chat bared his teeth in the closest approximation of a smile he could muster.
Words. He should be saying some. They came easily these days, much easier than they used to. But his treacherous memory chose this moment to fail – instead of the speech he’d learned by rote, it only showed him the fresh image of Lord Lahiffe staring at him in bewildered hurt.
The sea of eyes followed his movements as he paced the length of the raised platform, clearing his throat to stall for time. His restless gaze darted this way and that, trying to find something, anything that might give him the moment of calm he needed to compose himself.
Look at me, whispered his memory, and so he did, seeking that bright blue.
She was huddled together close with her cousin, deep in a whispered discussion. Yet as soon as he caught sight of her, she must have sensed his scrutiny, for their gazes met.
And she smiled.
Chat exhaled, and the words he’d been grasping for suddenly flowed from his lips with ease.
“Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen – good evening. Words cannot describe what a privilege it is to be standing among you once more. I thank you all for the warm welcome I’ve received tonight...”
“Your speech was a travesty, Adrien.”
Chat sighed and readjusted the arm slung over his shoulder. “I warned you it was boring.” Even Lady Mariposa’s eyes had glazed over at some point, though she’d made a valiant effort to maintain her smile. Among the polite smattering of applause, her clapping had been loudest.
Yet she hadn’t been among the multitude of people seeking his company afterward.
“It was boring because you made it so. A corpse could have recited that speech with more charisma and enthusiasm than you.”
“I did what you asked of me.”
Dilated pupils strained to focus on him. Between the late hour and the laudanum, the king was struggling to stay upright. Chat had dismissed the guards, having decided to spare the old man’s dignity by helping him to his chambers on his own.
The king was proving less than grateful, choosing the duration of their journey to discuss all of Chat Noir’s many blunders of the night. At length. As if Chat wasn’t aware of all the judging looks he’d drawn that evening. He’d thought he’d done well, all things considered, but his superior hearing had picked up on the whispers trailing behind him as the evening wore on.
Using the wrong fork on the first course was apparently evidence of him being driven to savagery during his long imprisonment, making him little better than a barbarian.
“You did it the way a petulant child would. I know you’re a better orator than that, Adrien.”
Last time I’m doing something nice for you, human.
Chat Noir bit his tongue, concentrating on half-dragging the old human back to his chambers.
“Sabotaging the task you were given won’t prevent me from giving you the task again, as you well know. Do you think I like all my duties, my son? But they must be done, so you might as well do them well and take pride in the accomplishment.”
“Yes, I can see how well you’ve done your duty lately,” Chat muttered.
The king’s steps faltered.
Adrien squeezed his eyes and lips shut. “I’m sorry. That was–”
“No. No, you’re quite right. I’ve–“ His father swayed. “I’ve let down my people. Even you. Especially you. You were alive all this time and I refused to allocate resources to your search because I was so convinced…”
“Father, stop. Please. You were grieving and ill, it’s not your fault.”
“But my responsibility all the same.” The king’s fingers dug into Chat’s bicep. “Regret is a curious thing, Adrien. You never know what it is that will pain you most until it’s too late to act differently. I wished so dearly to have you by my side again so I could tell you how proud I am of the man you’ve become, and yet here I am, berating you for your imperfections.”
“…but you’re right. My speech was utter shit. I did the bare minimum to get through the evening.”
“And that’s unlike you, so I should have been considering the reason. We’ll have the physicians take another look at your head injury in the morn’.”
“Yes, father,” Chat said softly and nudged the older man to start walking again. “I’ll do better next time, I promise.”
Unseen by both men, a white butterfly fluttered high above. When the doors to the king’s chambers slammed shut, it flitted back to the grand hall. Landing on the crystal chandelier, it beat its delicate wings once more before growing still, settling in to spy for its mistress.
The carriage door slammed shut and Marinette sunk into the plush seats as good as boneless.
Adrien was alive.
He had talked to her.
And he hadn’t recognized her.
Perhaps it should sting, and it did, a little. But the hurt was eclipsed by relief and the faint tingle on her arm where his fingertips had brushed her skin. He was exactly like she’d always imagined he’d grow up to be, kind and mischievous and with a beautifully terrible sense of humor. The kind that made her groan and laugh all at once.
…though he had been rather sharp with Lord Lahiffe.
No. She would not let it spoil her mood. Marinette would choose to focus on the good news this eve. They’d worry about all the cracks and imperfections tomorrow.
A sharp lurch ran through the carriage, and then it began moving. The horses’ hooves fell into a natural rhythm as wheels rattled on the cobblestone, taking them away from the palace to the inn Alya had found for them. Lady Alya had grimaced at the run-down lodgings, accepting only because most of the city was filled with travelers who’d come for tonight’s celebration and the approaching New Year’s festival.
“Marinette,” Alya suddenly spoke up halfway through their journey, jolting Marinette out of her reverie. The noblewoman had been rather quiet ever since she’d ushered the two of them out of the ballroom to regroup. “I’m so sorry.”
“Huh? For what?”
“I was so certain that they’d replaced the prince – that we had no time to lose…” Alya closed her eyes, exhaling. “I forced your hand with an impossible ultimatum. And now you can’t go home because my mistake.”
Marinette’s shoulders fell at the reminder. The corpse of Lady Bourgeois’s Changeling had dissolved into black mist, but now the household was missing its Mistress and her Lady’s maid. At best, Marinette would be assumed dead. At worst, complicit.
“You were open to me about the implications of my decision,” Marinette said gently. “Your reasoning was sound and convincing. Do you think the prince is still in danger?”
“Yes. He might not have been replaced, but – I feel it in my bones that there is some force at work here. Some larger plan the fae are working toward. It cannot be coincidence that the prince would vanish on a solstice and reappear shortly after another one, so close to a Changeling.”
Marinette nodded. “Then I do not regret coming. We need to save him. Our realms, I mean. Save our realms.”
Alya peered at her, hazel eyes wide. “You’ll stay, then?”
A sheepish smile. “Well, they won’t save themselves. And where else would I go?”
“I’ll take care of you, I promise. Even after this is all over. You can be my Lady’s maid, or if you wish, I’ll train you to be a hunter like me. Or maybe Lady Mariposa could become real. I would not mind claiming you for a cousin.”
“Let’s focus on one day at a time. Please. I’d rather not have to make any more life-altering decisions anytime soon.” Marinette laughed self-consciously. “Taming my nerves regarding this most recent one is hard enough. But I will tame them, and then we’ll speak of this again, yes?”
Lady Alya nodded, eyes shining.
“But…” Marinette’s teeth dug into her bottom lip. “There’s one thing I’d like to request. I know you said I can’t send them letters, but I’ve thought of a way I could let my parents know that I am well.”
“Mirror, show me how the prince learned to give good speeches.”
Adrien heaved, doubling over until his face was only inches from the bushes. Fingers raked through his hair, brushing stray strands away from his face to save them from splatter.
“It’ll be fine, Adrien,” Nino murmured behind him.
“No. No, I’m going to go up on that stage and the first word out of my mouth will be interrupted by my breakfast. I think those croissants resent having been devoured, they’re fighting their way back up. Oh Gods, why did you make me eat them, Nino?”
“Because you’re going to be fine. You know the words inside and out. I’ve watched you practice every gesture and inflection for three days now. Believe me when I say that you’ll do great.”
“You’re biased.” Another dry heave.
“Adrien, when have I ever hesitated to point and laugh when you fail spectacularly at swordplay? This is no different. I wouldn’t lie to you on this.”
True. Unlike so many others, Nino never felt the need to bow and simper to gain his favor.
“Come now, it’s one brief speech. What’s the worst that could happen?”
“I could faint. Faint in front of all the kingdom.”
“Well. Mostly the people of the capital.”
“You’re not being very reassuring!”
“I’m not trying to be. You’re being ridiculous. Come now, you didn’t even faint when your horse threw you off and broke your leg.”
“That was different.” Physical strain was easy to endure, but this…
“Adrien, I’ve never seen you like this. What is it you’re so afraid of?”
“You only get one chance to make a first impression,” Adrien muttered darkly.
“Yes, and yours will be great.”
No. No, it wouldn’t be. He’d look ridiculous before he even stammered out a single word. Adrien straightened his back and glanced over his shoulder at his best friend. The one who’d hit his growth spurt and now towered over him.
His sixteenth nameday, about to be presented to the kingdom as their future ruler, and Adrien had the build of a twelve-year-old. A scrawny one. It wasn’t fair! His father and his late uncles all had the bodies of a warrior, tall and imposing. He should have listened to his father and eaten more meat instead of sneaking sweets.
The people would take one look at him and break into laughter.
“You know, if the audience starts jeering at me,” Adrien said. “Father is probably going to mount some heads on pikes as a deterrent. And that will be my fault. Those poor peasants forever on my conscience.”
“Nobody’s head is getting mounted on a pike, Adrien.”
“How do you know?”
“First, because your father’s not a madman. Second…” A firm hand grasped him by the shoulder, golden eyes shining with sincerity. “Because your speech is amazing, Your Grace, and I have absolute faith that the people will see it, too. You know my mother was not happy when we became friends?”
A frown creased the prince’s brow. Lady Lahiffe was a gentle woman, radiating warmth and caring. Nino had inherited both his disposition and complexion from her. Adrien had never sensed any animosity from her.
“I know they seem like a love match now,” Nino said, “but my parent’s marriage did not have a happy beginning. She was all but traded as a political hostage to barter for peace, joining two lineages together to ensure their cooperation. Father and she made the best of it, but mother is loyal to her homeland still and has no love for King Gabriel. He strong-armed her family into the match. So yes, when I told her I’d befriended the prince of Franeaux, she was wary.”
His best friend smiled. “Right up until she met you, that is. Trust me, Adrien – nobody will laugh or jeer at you. They will thank the Gods to have a king like you to look forward to.”
Chat’s claws dug into his sheets, jealousy scalding his guts.
Adrien truly had everything.
Chat had been abandoned by his sire, but the king loved his son so much he’d all but given up on life without him. Surrounded by people who respected him, a loyal and trusted friend at his side – the prince’s life was the utter opposite of Chat’s lonely existence.
Yes, Chat had his Lady and he had Trixx, but both only crossed paths with him as they saw fit while he was left waiting and longing.
The little fox spirit never dared come closer to the heart of the realm, too weak and young to face the courtiers. Nightmare’s borderlines were so fickle and everchanging that finding each other was mostly left to chance.
His Lady was forever consumed by her duties. Yes, she always had a moment to spare to scratch Chat’s ears, but that was all she did. Conversations were rare and precious. Almost all Chat knew of her and her Court, he had taught himself by observing.
His Lady was Chat’s life and yet he was not hers. There were other suitors vying for her heart, and he had even heard whispers that there had once been another Lord by her side.
Chat’s blunt claws traced the outlines of the mirror.
The memories it showed him were vivid yet unreal, frayed at the edges. Their viewpoint was always limited to whatever had caught the prince’s attention, tinged with his emotions and sensations. Details were blurred, eroded by time, yet others stood out in sharp relief. What the prince couldn’t remember was blank, like strolling through a half-finished painting.
For all that his Lady had warned him that he might mistake them for real, Chat was acutely aware that these memories were no more than echoes. Tantalizing glimpses into another man’s life. Chat wanted to experience Nino’s affection for himself, earn the king’s respect when he was not made docile by laudanum.
They all thought him too incompetent at subterfuge to fool his father and best friend, but they were wrong. He would claim them for his own, make them care for him as they cared for Adrien. Surpass all expectations in how well he would fill the prince’s role.
A sudden shiver of unease ran down his back.
Chat had not much concerned himself with the Lordling’s fate, spared him no more sympathy than the pheasant they had served him for lunch this day. Eat or be eaten, that was the way of the world. But the more of the prince’s memories he immersed himself in, the more a piercing sliver of guilt wormed itself into Chat’s heart.
Adrien’s disappearance had wreaked havoc on those who loved him.
But – Chat could fix that. He’d take their grief away, smile at them with the prince’s face and drink in their adoration.
It’s not for you, a venomous voice whispered in his mind. They would despise you if they knew you.
The voice sounded a lot like Prince Adrien.
Chat Noir grimaced, rolling over onto his back to stare at the ceiling. Raising his hand before his eyes, he peeled back his glamor. Nails sharpened as the fine blond fur on his arm turned black, thickening and multiplying, only sparing the little pads on the inside of his palm. He curled his long fingers, admiring the curve of his unsheathed claws.
His true form was elegant, beautiful and deadly.
So why was the sight of it so unsettling?
Chat huffed and shoved the thoughts aside. Doubt was truly the most unpleasant side effect of sentience and he was done indulging in it. Letting his tongue dart out, he lost himself in the simple pleasure of grooming his fur, the voices in his head quieting. He closed his eyes, a soothing purr rumbling in his chest as his ears twitched. The night was alive with sounds, though most of them were swallowed by the heavy blankets of snow and sleep laying over the castle.
A faint scratch drew his attention, the familiar clack of claws trying to find solid footing on stone, skittering on the unforgiving surface.
It was coming closer.
Chat Noir grew still, slowly unfurling his long limbs as he turned to press his chest to the bed, hindlegs digging into the bedding, readying for a pounce. Another clack of claws, then all grew quiet.
A window swung open with a creak.
Chat leapt forward, pinning the small fox between his paws.
“When will you learn that you can’t sneak up on me?”
But the fox spirit yelped, hissing and biting as they wiggled out of his hold. Chat blinked, grin faltering, and drew back. The small animal shimmered, a glamor washing over them, and suddenly he was faced with a furious woman wearing a maid’s uniform.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
A confused whine rose to the back of Chat’s throat. “Trixx?” But the mischievous fox spirit was never hostile like this, never let a failed ambush get to them. How’d they even make it into the human world…?
For a brief moment, the other fae mimicked his confusion, but then scowled again. Chat startled when he realized that they bore the sharp note of his Lady’s court, now tinged with rage. While Trixx disguised their scent all the time, there was always a hint of wildness in it. But this one – he inhaled deeply. Nightmare, Changeling, female.
Changelings could freely impersonate anyone, male or female, but they still had a true form with a gender of their own. Trixx flowed like water from one to the other as they pleased.
“What are you doing without your glamor?” she snapped.
“It’s my room,” he said slowly and pushed himself to two feet, hip realigning to make the position more comfortable. But he kept his claws, for now. “Nobody will see.”
“Your orders were to wear human skin at all times.”
Ah, yes. Chloe’s method acting. “My orders come directly from my Lady and no one else. Everything else is advice I am free to follow. Or not.”
“Those were orders, not suggestions,” she said, eyes narrowing. “You are here for your gift with iron, not because we rely on you to make strategic decisions. The prince is a role you play – but do not delude yourself into thinking that you are in command.”
His lips curled back from his fangs. “I might not be in command, but I am not here to serve you either.”
“Infiltration is our specialty, not yours. You would do well to heed us for we speak with experience and our Lady’s authority.”
“I don’t even know who you are.”
She eyed him with distaste, then shook her head. “The name is Lila Rossi. For now. There’s been a complication. Our spy in the Bourgeois household was eliminated by fae hunters.”
Gabriel stared at the missive, nausea churning in his gut. The first line was brief, André’s neat handwriting scraggly and distorted. Had his hand been shaking when he’d put the quill to paper?
The rest of the letter had not been written by his steward’s hand. It was a brisk description of what had transpired, pieced together by the testimony of the household mixed with conjecture. They suspected some manner of subtle poison in the water or the food had been used to put the household to sleep, for they’d woken up dazed and confused, missing not only the memory of two days, but also their Mistress, as well as her handmaiden.
The king’s gaze was drawn back to that shakily written script. Ten little letters, telling a story of unfathomable loss. Why didn’t you protect her? I warned you this would–
“Good morning, father.”
His son’s voice startled him out of his thoughts and Gabriel swiveled his head to the door just as it fell shut. Adrien smiled brightly and held up a tray loaded with what had to be a meal big enough to feed four. Imprisonment had left Adrien malnourished, and he had the appetite to show for it to regain the muscle he’d lost. Still, it was unbecoming of a prince to be carrying around breakfast like a common servant, but Gabriel would be lying if he said he hadn’t come to look forward to this new morning ritual.
The world was much brighter with his son in it.
Even on mornings like these.
“Adrien. Please sit.”
Doing as he was bid, Adrien set down the tray and took a seat, his brows faintly creased in concern as he slid Gabriel’s morning cup of tea toward him. “What is it?”
“Grave news has arrived…”
Gabriel’s pride stirred when Adrien remained stoic when informed of his childhood friend’s fate, his expression barely moving. Last year’s experiences had hardened the prince, and perhaps that was not a bad thing. The king had always feared his son’s gentle nature would be the boy’s undoing. Perhaps that was why his grief had given him visions of Adrien following a dark-haired woman to his doom with a guileless smile on his face.
He shook the false memory off. It wasn’t real. None of it. Neither he nor André had ever bargained away their children.
Still, the peace that had followed his son’s visits in recent days never came. Instead, restless movement turned into uncontrollable shaking, the pulsing pain behind his temple growing so strong he was soon unable to tend to his long-neglected correspondence, his vision blurring.
He’d been waiting for this to set in.
The king rang for his valet. Nathalie would ensure nobody intruded on him while he was gripped by the delirium of withdrawal.
Alya’s trunks hit the floor with a thud and she smiled at the two servants, tipping them handsomely for their trouble. Now that the prince’s ball was over, aristocratic curiosity sated, several foreign dignitaries and nobles were choosing to eschew the New Year’s festivities to return to more pressing matters, thus freeing up a few precious spots in the city’s inns. Since this was turning into a longer operation, Alya had made the acquisition of suitable accommodations her top priority.
Marinette spared the luxury no glance, already curled up on the divan to scribble in her freshly purchased notebook. Ever unable to resist her curiosity, Alya peered over her new ally’s shoulder.
Since all communication to the Bourgeois household would likely be monitored, it was imperative to not give away that Marinette had played any role in the steward’s daughter’s death. Giving away that she was alive and fled elsewhere would surely trigger a hunt for her head. Still, if Marinette was certain that her parents could be trusted, then it became only a matter of how to inform them discretely.
Sending them a handkerchief embroidered with a secret message was not a bad plan, though Alya had a hard time picturing this rune design Marinette had described.
“Letters in my mother’s native tongue are much more complex than the ones we use. Every word has a unique rune associated with it and there’s thousands. I only know a few, but I think it might be enough to say what needs to be said. I’ll use ‘daughter’, ‘safety’ and ‘secret’.”
Alya tilted her head at the geometrical pattern Marinette was sketching.
“I don’t see any symbols.”
Marinette blinked, then pursed her lips, looking none too happy about the interruption to her concentration. She pressed the charcoal to the paper and lightly circled a repeating part of the central mandala’s outer ring. “It’s here.”
Alya cooed, mind instantly running through the possibilities of how such artwork might be put to use for House Césaire. Her clan had built supply chains and secret networks all over the continent. If one knew where to look, there was always a clue pointing to the location of emergency weapon stashes or local contacts who might assist with a hunt. But staying one step ahead in message encryption was a challenge.
“That is brilliant,” Alya said.
Marinette smiled and then sunk back into concentration, nibbling on her bottom lip as she sketched. Leaving her to it, Alya bent over her trunk. The combination lock clicked as she dialed it to reveal one of the secret compartments. No ordinary chest could hold as much as this one did for it was made from one of the many fae artifacts her family had pilfered. This magic of making things bigger on the inside than the outside had proven both harmless and useful enough to replicate.
Unsheathing an iron dagger and fishing the whetstone from her arsenal, she sat down on the bed. The repetitive motion sharpened not only the blade but her mind as she sank into contemplation.
If war ever broke out, any Esparian noble in the Franeaux capital would find themselves a political hostage from one day to the next. Like an oozing wound, the city had been bleeding out for years now, Alya’s countrymen leaving for safer shores one by one. With the tensions between their nations, it would be hard to justify her prolonged presence at court, let alone Mariposa’s.
On the surface, the Césaires were a rather modest house. They preferred it that way, their rank just high enough to enjoy the privileges of nobility, but not so high as to attract political rivals. Only the Esparian Crown knew of the true service the clan provided.
She and Marinette would be able to attend the New Year’s Feast, but beyond that… while winter was the height of festivities, every night a new one, most of these were exclusive affairs, the guest list carefully selected. It was doubtful that an Esparian noblewoman of little importance would be granted entry into even half of them.
Awareness brushed Alya’s consciousness, and her gaze grew unfocused as she listened to what her little spy was whispering.
exhaustion mingles with annoyance, teeth gritting and back aching, curse the spoiled fobs with their godsdamned constant feasts
Alya sighed and withdrew from the disgruntled servant’s mind.
Her butterflies could give her eyes and ears where she could not walk, but their consciousness was limited. They observed emotions yet captured no more than snippets of thoughts and speech. Crowds overwhelmed them, blending countless feelings together into one seething mass.
Which wasn’t to say they didn’t have their use. They were excellent at detecting the creeping tendrils of malevolent minds. Not even the strongest glamor could fool her butterfly’s true sight. She’d left one fluttering in the grand hall last night and bid it to take a closer look at Prince Adrien. Despite his lack of reaction to iron, her gut feeling kept telling her something was not right.
Yet the prince’s thoughts had been warm, affectionate and tinged with sorrow, centered around pity for his ailing father. Nothing at all like the cold detachment of a Changeling. Nor did it have the dreamy quality of an unthinking thrall.
Which didn’t necessarily mean he wasn’t enthralled. Perhaps Prince Adrien would turn into a mindless slave when given some signal, like a dog trained to carry out its master’s orders.
Alya needed more information beyond what her butterflies could give to make sense of it all. She needed access to the palace. Which led her right back around to the problem of how to gain regular access to the court.
She supposed she could play the naïve waif too stupid to understand the implications of her presence there, but not only was that a role which would sit ill, it still wouldn’t garner her invitations to the more exclusive gatherings.
The whetstone ground to a halt.
Lord Lahiffe had been flirting with her in full view of the court. The poor man was in dire need of company, and she was in dire need of a cover. A budding romance was the perfect fit.
Nino’s fingers curled around the marble railing, the chill biting at his bare skin. Still he made no move to put his gloves back on, closing his eyes and letting the discomfort draw him out of his maudlin thoughts.
The royal gardens were loveliest during summer when the air was heavy with the scent of blooming flowers, the colorful petals drawing complex geometrical patterns in the courtyard only visible from above. But even during winter the plaza was a sight to behold, sleeping under a thick coat of white. A fresh layer of snow had fallen just the night before, the central fountain frozen and glittering.
Nino had always loved the sight from this balcony, as had Adrien. It was only accessible through a little passage hidden by wall tapestries, one of many secret paths winding their way through the castle. Most of them were only known to the royal family, yet the prince had chosen to share this spot with Nino. Whenever Adrien had wished to escape his responsibilities for a moment, he’d snuck away here.
The two of them had played cards between these pillars, talked of their studies and of girls. Adrien had listened patiently to Nino’s inept efforts to master the lute, and in turn Nino had suffered through Adrien’s fledgling attempts at poetry.
It was here that Nino had first told Adrien of his intentions to court Chloe.
Nino sighed softly and leaned forward on the railing. Were the Gods playing a cruel joke on him? The brief flare of hope at Adrien’s return had only made it sting more when it became evident his best friend was as out of reach as his ex-fiancée.
The ex-fiancée who, if court gossip was to be believed, was now missing, if not dead.
Nino had mourned the end of his engagement, grieved for the loss of his best friend, but the wounds were being torn open anew. Chloe and Adrien had swapped places, both lost to him, and the fragile peace Nino had built himself lay shattered.
He was well and truly alone.
A thump sounded from above.
Nino tilted back his head with a frown. Heavy footsteps rang out, moving to the edge of the balcony above, followed by a low grunt.
Prince Adrien vaulted in from above, landing in a graceful crouch just a few feet away from Nino. Green eyes lit up with recognition, and Adrien flashed him his brightest smile, drawing himself up on two feet.
“Good evening, Lord Lahiffe.”
Nino blinked slowly, long-ingrained formality answering at once even as his mind was busy processing this development. “Good evening, Your Grace.” Another slow blink. “Your Grace, may I inquire why you are scaling the palace’s walls?”
“I knew you were down here.”
“…and you couldn’t use the corridors because…”
“Because my guards are not supposed to leave me out of their sight.” Adrien tilted up his head, grin widening. “They’re currently guarding the doors of a room two stories above us. Father’s rather paranoid about my safety these days.”
“For good reason.”
“Aye.” The prince lowered his head, looking at Nino from beneath his eyelashes. His expression was almost shy, cheeks dusted with red. But that was likely just the winter air irritating his skin. “I figured you wouldn’t want an audience for this conversation.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t want an audience?” Venom crept into Nino’s voice. “Seems to me that you’re the one going out of your way not to acknowledge me in public, Adrien.”
“No! I mean–” Adrien winced, fidgeting guiltily. “I’ve been busy attending to my duties.” When Nino opened his mouth, Adrien talked faster to preempt the interruption. “But I know I should have sought you out sooner. I’m sorry. It’s been – acclimating to everything has been rather overwhelming.”
Nino’s mouth snapped shut soundlessly as he frowned at his closest friend. Were things between them not as irreparable as he’d feared? “What’s kept you away?”
Adrien shifted his weight to one foot, crossing his arms in front of his chest. “This is going to sound stupid as all seven hells, but it’s the only excuse I have.”
The corner of Nino’s lip twitched. “I’m used to you saying stupid shit, Adrien.”
“I’m sorry, Your Grace. I meant I understand that being an endless wellspring of wisdom as you are takes its toll and that there are moments you fall short.”
Adrien’s eyes narrowed. “I can climb back up, you know.”
“I’m sure you can, Your Grace. Far be it from this lowly Lord to question your climbing prowess. It’s not as if you have a head injury that might lead you to lose your balance at an inopportune moment.” Nino arched an eyebrow.
“Ah. Fair point. That’s actually – that is what I was going to get at.” Adrien shifted his weight to the other side. “I’m getting better, but I’m still not – not quite myself, yet. Call it pride or vanity, but I did not wish to face you until I was more…” He trailed off, gesturing vaguely with one hand.
“I think I’m going to call it stupidity, Adrien.” Even as his words were chiding, Nino could not help the hopeful smile spreading on his face. “Did you really think I was going to judge you? Me?”
Adrien shrugged awkwardly. “Your opinion matters.”
Nino closed his eyes, shoulders sagging as tension gradually drained away. “…you had me worried. Really worried. I thought you – you’re not angry about that night?”
Blond eyebrows drew together in confusion. “What night?”
“The solstice. You left your tower because of me. You got caught because of me…”
“No!” Adrien crossed the distance between them, grabbing Nino by the shoulders, green eyes blazing with intensity. “Listen. I was targeted for being the prince. If it hadn’t been that night, it could have happened on another. Do not blame yourself for things you had no hand in.”
Then, seeming to remember himself, Adrien let go and took a step back, smiling sheepishly as he brushed a strand of golden hair from his face.
“…I’ve missed my best friend, Adrien. This last year – I know it’s only a fraction of what you’ve suffered, but it’s not been easy for me either.”
Adrien nodded. “Right. Yes. I know that. That’s why I’m here.” Again, he fidgeted, and then sidled uncomfortably close once more. “I heard about Chloe. How are you doing, Nino?”
Nino closed his eyes. “Like shit, to be quite honest.”
“Would you like to find a pub and talk about it?”
“A pub?” He cracked open his eyes with a startled laugh. “You don’t even drink, Adrien.” King Gabriel had rather firm opinions on the evils of liquor, and the prince, ever eager to impress, had adopted the attitude wholesale.
“Well, if ever there was a time to start, this seems to be it. It’s what us males use to drown our sorrows, no?”
Nino peered at him, puzzled, and Adrien flushed under the scrutiny. What a strange turn of phrase.
“I appreciate the offer, but you’re supposed to be guarded at all times for a reason, Adrien.” Turning away to face the courtyard, Nino folded his arms on the railing. “…do you think they took her as retaliation?”
“That is my father’s theory, yes.” Adrien hopped on the balcony’s stone boundary.
“Not one you share?”
The prince shrugged listlessly. “I don’t know. It’s all speculation at this point.”
Comfortable silence descended. Nino peered at his best friend who stole a glance as well and then pretended he hadn’t when he noticed Nino’s scrutiny. Unspoken words scratched at Nino’s throat – why was he holding them back? This was Adrien.
It was a trickle at first, halting and hesitant, but once he started, his thoughts just kept pouring out.
“…I don’t know how to mourn her. In a way I already did mourn her. We parted on terrible terms and I had to reconcile this person she became with who she was before. She spread horrible rumors about me, Adrien. I loved her, but I can’t stand her, and I am the lowest of the low that I can’t let this go even now. She’s suffering somewhere as we speak, maybe she’s even dead, and yet…”
Adrien cleared his throat. “You should focus on the good parts of her. They deserve to be mourned.”
“Easier said than done.”
The prince let his legs swing back and forth, vibrating with restless energy. “So – remember when Lord Bourgeois came back from that diplomatic mission to Denskaye? At the summer palace?”
Nino gave a curt nod. “Of course.” The negotiations between the two kingdoms had taken the steward north, and he’d taken his daughter with him. As adulthood loomed, all three young nobles had been increasingly consumed by the duties of their titles. That summer ball had been the first time Nino, Adrien and Chloe had been reunited in two years.
“You looked like such an idiot when you caught sight of her.”
“I did not.”
“I distinctly remember a slackened jaw and an incoherent garble.”
“Well, she’d – there were curves that had not been there before! They took me by surprise, is all.”
Adrien’s grin was tempered with melancholy. “Go back to that moment when everything was simple. Picture that blue dress she wore, the way she’d pinned her hair up, that new shape – and the joy of seeing her again.” The thoughtful green pupils darted to the maze. “Sentience has its drawbacks. Overthinking complicates matters that are easy, so you must prune away the complications until the world makes sense again. She’s gone and it hurts. Don’t dwell on what happened at the end. Think of that girl you fell in love with and mourn what became of her.”
Nino’s lips moved soundlessly, but no words seemed an adequate reply as the suffocating pressure around his heart eased up. So he said the only thing that came to mind.
“I’ve missed you, Adrien.”
The prince smiled, green eyes so bright they almost seemed aglow.
Sorry for the radio silence, folks, health issues have been kicking my butt and my rather spoiled muse refuses to work under these conditions. Back to your regular weekly updates! (I hope)
Gabriel had been prepared to face the crucible. He’d studied the side-effects, knew what awaited him once he weaned himself off this shameful dependency.
And yet nothing could have prepared him for this.
The king’s back arched. He would have cried out if his voice had not deserted him hours ago, his throat burning. Why had he been such a fool as to send Nathalie away? She could have – he should have tapered off the doses in a more controlled manner. Hubris would forever be his downfall. How far had he truly come from being that idiot boy who’d sold away the only thing that mattered in this world and thought himself pragmatic for not valuing it?
One more year.
Just one more year until Adrien would have reached his adulthood and been safe. Safety had been so close Gabriel had let himself grow complacent, spared his son the lectures. It had rankled, to see that doubt in his green eyes. His son had become a man, and a man did not simply take his father’s word like boys did. So he’d relied on Adrien following his orders, never once stopping to consider that he no longer had a child’s obedience. Gabriel should have explained himself.
But he hadn’t wanted to reveal the shameful bargain he’d struck. His part in their family’s downfall. He’d always vowed he’d tell Adrien once he was old enough to understand, but Gabriel had always found reason to put off the day his son would lose all respect for him.
Until it had been too late.
Slitted eyes stared down at him. Fangs and dark fur. The beast who haunted him, claws closing around his jaw. Another hoarse scream rose to the king’s throat.
Yet then it was just Adrien, gently wiping off the sweat off his brow.
“It will pass, father,” his son murmured. “Just rest.”
Gabriel tried. But sleep held nightmares he could not face, so he was left adrift in that unbearable space at the edge of consciousness, visions dancing at the corners of his eyes until he could not tell what was real and what was not.
A fox leaned over him, only to turn into Nathalie. Faithful, dependable Nathalie, who held out a cup of tea to him.
“You’ve forgotten your medicine today, your Grace,” she said.
And Gabriel drank.
A low snarl reverberated through the hall. Made with a human throat, it sounded bizarre rather than intimidating. Volpina quirked her eyebrow.
“How dare you? He’d almost made it through the worst of it!” The Lady’s pet paced back and forth, fingers curling like talons as if he’d like nothing better than to slash her throat. Volpina could almost see the invisible tail whipping behind him.
“Your body language gives you away,” she said. “If you can’t play your part when you’re agitated, you’ll fail before long.”
“I will not fail,” he snapped.
“Won’t you? Explain to me how you’ve forgotten simple instructions. In the span of little more than a week.”
Haughty green eyes swept over her. Evidently, the beast had not failed all its tasks, for it had certainly succeeded in making the prince’s arrogance his own. But then, even when he’d stalked the Nightmare Court, he had always possessed a sense of importance vastly disproportionate to his rank.
It had made for an amusing game among the courtiers to bring him down a notch, drawing him into conversations and watch him grow increasingly flustered by words too long for his animal mind to comprehend.
“I’ve not forgotten. I chose to adapt the plan to changing circumstances,” he said, and Volpina tilted her head. There was a new glint in his green eyes – not quite cunning, not yet, but perhaps the beginning of it.
“And what circumstances are those?”
“The King suspects nothing. He trusts me. There is no need to keep him in that state!”
“He trusts you because we dulled his wits.” Volpina sighed. “Suspicion builds over time. You’ve cleared the easiest hurdle imaginable and already think yourself a spy master. Our Lady gave you these orders for a reason. Do you not understand how critical this mission is? How narrow the needle we attempt to thread? Shall I draw you a diagram? Use shorter words?”
His lips peeled back and he hissed. With his dull human fangs, it held nothing of the threat of the beast’s true form. “I know what I’m doing.”
“You most certainly do not.” Volpina closed her eyes and inhaled deeply, straining for patience. “You’ve been using the mirror.”
Instantly, his posture grew rigid and defensive. “As instructed.”
“Truly? Did not take a single peek beyond what you needed to?”
“Everything I’ve seen has proven useful,” he said stiffly, and she would have scoffed at this pitiful attempt at evasion, if the subject matter had not been of such dire consequence.
For a long time, the Court had speculated on just what their Lady saw in the pet she’d plucked from Nightmare’s edge. Why she broke up the courtiers’ games with him, why she sheltered him from the consequences of his impertinence, why she devoted her time to him.
Truly, the world was unfair to waste such a valuable gift on him. The things Volpina could do if she did not have to fear the cold sting… Even now, every fiber of her being was ill at ease, surrounded as she was by the humans’ stone walls. The palace was filled to the brim with the accursed metal, even the air itself biting at her skin.
“Good,” she said at last, and forced her mouth into a gentle smile. Reprimands were getting her nowhere, so perhaps a tender touch would yield results. “Well done. Understand, we did not set these rules due to lack of belief in your ability to blend in. Your Lady means only to protect you.”
“…she does?” Volpina had no doubt his hidden ears had just perked up. “Protect me from what?”
“Adrien Agreste. He was strong-willed for a human, and you are young. Be honest now – is it truly you who wishes to spare the king?”
His lips thinned as he pressed them together, a mixture of guilt and defiance flashing in his eyes.
“You have a difficult task ahead of you. Do not needlessly complicate it out of misguided sentiment whispering poison in your ear. Trust our Lady’s plan.”
“I do trust her,” he said petulantly, but the worst of his anger had ebbed, shame creeping into his tone. “But she needs to trust me, too. Father could be more useful when he’s lucid. I won’t have to waste time on the minutiae of ruling when he can do it in my stead. The king respects his son’s counsel, he’ll do what I–“
“He would not hesitate to kill you if he found out what you are.”
The beast stifled a wince.
“Chat,” Volpina whispered, invoking the strength of his true name – the part of it that she knew. She reached to brush her fingertips along his cheek and he stiffened, eyelids fluttering. He responds well to touch. Volpina filed that information away for future use. “None of this is real. It’s illusion. Smoke and mirrors. Remind yourself of this. Our Lady is real. Our mission is real. What you feel for the King is not. The only thing keeping that man from swinging an iron sword at your neck is that we’ve convinced him of his own feeble-mindedness. Do not wake sleeping dragons.”
He leaned into her touch and said nothing, closing his eyes with a soft sigh.
“Do you disagree?”
“No.” And yet, a hint of sorrow in his voice remained. “But still – antagonizing Lord Lahiffe would be a mistake. I need allies amongst the human nobles, and he will be valuable.”
“There are other allies to be made.”
“But he’s already loyal, I don’t see why–“
“We have fae hunters on our trail and he is resistant to enthrallment. If you slip up, the mistake will not be easily erased.” While even the strongest minds could be made to yield with enough effort, they inevitably recovered their wits once out of reach. “He could lead the hunters straight to you.”
“Then I won’t slip up.”
Volpina sighed. “Let’s revisit this discussion once our tempers have cooled, shall we?”
“I’m calm,” he said, crossing his arms.
“But I am not. You interrupted my concentration in the midst of an enthrallment.” She turned back to the wall, pressing her palm against the soft tapestry, senses brushing up against the human mind on the other side of the wall. “Now I shall have to start over.”
“Oh.” Silk rustled as he shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “I… my apologies.”
Glancing back over her shoulder, she decided to grace the stiff words with a smile. “You should return to your chambers for now and think on what I said. I’ll see you at the festivities tonight. I’ll be there as a noblewoman.”
With a frown and one last guarded glance, he faded into the shadows, altering his glamor to slip past the guards in iron suits patrolling the corridors.
As unfortunate as it was, his stubbornness could be worked around. Clearly, it would fall to her to prune the connection to Adrien Agreste’s friends and family so that the pet’s loyalty stayed with their Lady, where it belonged.
Closing her eyes, Volpina focused on the glowing threads before her mind’s eye, plucking at the strings. It was their ability to enthrall that made Changelings the undisputed masters of infiltration – no other fae species could play with human minds as well as they could.
Organized minds such as this one were a boon. A multitude of tasks and responsibilities spread out before her, all neatly aligned in a tightly choreographed routine. Slipping in a new one was child’s play for Volpina, ensuring that the King’s valet would bring him his medicinal tea with the same diligence she performed all her duties.
“So what do you think?”
The last few discordant notes of the lute faded away and Nino smiled expectantly, causing the growing lump in Adrien’s belly to do a somersault.
Wretched. Horrific. An affront to the ears. The prince’s vocabulary was formidable, courtesy of an extensive education in five different languages, and yet none of the words fighting for dominance in his mind struck him as appropriate. Nino had worked hard on that piece, and he’d undoubtedly improved since his last performance, but…
“Stirring,” Adrien choked out at last. “It had emotional resonance.”
Nino’s brows knit together. “You didn’t like it?”
The prince fidgeted. “You know I’m not all that musically inclined.”
“Music is a universal language. You don’t have to be trained in it to appreciate it. So you really didn’t like it?”
“I liked it better than your last piece. You’re getting noticeably better.” How did father like to put it? “Every failure is an opportunity for improvement.”
Nino drew back, enunciating the word. “Failure? You’re calling my music a failure?”
“No! I mean – you’re improving!”
“But right now it’s a failure.” Nino’s voice was rising – a rare occasion for the even-tempered boy.
“I didn’t say that.”
“Just heavily implied it.”
Adrien made an unhappy sound. “You’re putting words in my mouth. Look, you’ve only just started! No master was ever made from one day to the next. All I meant is that you’re showing improvements, and this is a step on the path to mastery.”
“Really, you couldn’t find one nice thing to say about it?”
“False flattery has only ever led men astray,” Adrien said, quoting the words father liked to add after a particularly stinging critique.
Golden eyes narrowed. “You’re right, Your Grace. In the spirit of helping each other improve and attain mastery, I have something to confess.”
“When I said I liked your most recent poem? The one dedicated to the girl with bluebell eyes?” Nino smiled thinly. “I lied. It was atrocious.”
Chat stared at the mirror as the walls of the prince’s room shifted back into place, the last remnants of the memory dripping away.
That was it?
That childish spat was the worst memory Prince Adrien had of Nino Lahiffe?
Chat let himself fall back on the bed with a soft thump, staring at the ceiling. He’d hoped for something that might help him build up some distance, something to remind himself that this was the enemy.
Was he truly straying from his Lady’s plan to have tried adapting it? He’d thought he was being clever, proving himself even more capable than she’d anticipated to fool those who’d been closest to the prince.
For all that Chat Noir was a pet, he could not deny that there was a certain defiant streak running through him. One that urged him to be contrarian out of sheer principle. He was a cat, not a dog, after all.
He loved pleasing his Lady and never failed to heed her wishes, but that was because she always asked so sweetly. It was her right to expect obedience from him, and yet she so rarely did. That she was mindful of his pride made serving her easy. If the Changeling was speaking truth and these were orders, not mere guidance…
The tips of his claws sunk in and out of the sheet as he tried to make sense of this foreign thing twisting inside of him. It felt familiar, yet horrifically wrong. Was he… irritated? With his Lady?
A distressed whine rose.
She was treating it as a given that Adrien’s remains would overwhelm him if given the chance. Had she so little confidence in his abilities? No dead human would best him. Chat Noir was a warrior, one who reveled in conquering even the most formidable foes. To turn away and seek easier prey would be to run away from a challenging hunt.
…or were those Adrien’s whispering taunts luring him down the wrong path?
Chat’s gaze darted back to the mirror. He’d – he’d been using it too much, hadn’t he? And not thought twice about it. Each memory felt like an inevitability, a puzzle piece sliding back into place, and he was far too eager to see the full picture.
But the picture that would be revealed was not worth looking at. It was dead and gone. Chat Noir was here to fulfill his Lady’s vision and paint over the human world in red.
A knock startled him out of his thoughts.
Chat pressed his tongue against his fangs to make sure they were appropriately flat, confirming that his glamor was back in place. “Yes?”
The door creaked open, and the enemy poked his head in.
“Good evening, Adrien.” Nino’s voice was tentatively hopeful as he closed the door behind him.
“…good evening.” Chat swung his legs off the bed, his gaze meeting golden eyes for only a brief moment before skittering away. “You’re here early.”
While Chat had removed the apparatus with its annoying ticking sounds from his chamber, the evening sunlight streaming through the windows told him that he should have peace and quiet ahead still. The New Year’s Feast was scheduled to begin after sunset, and from what he’d gathered, the Court considered it fashionable to arrive far later than that. While no noble wanted to be excluded from the grand event, none of them wanted to appear eager for it to begin either. So the courtiers feigned detached ennui, cultivating an air of being above such things.
Nino smiled crookedly and shrugged, holding up a bottle of dark liquid.
“I’ve reconsidered your offer. You know, regarding drowning my sorrows with you. Found myself with an overabundance of time today and wondered if you were up to killing it.”
Chat’s claws buried themselves in the sheets as yet another unfamiliar sensation joined the convoluted mess plaguing him today. Maybe it was the irritation of being exposed, like he’d just been spotted while preparing an ambush.
Or maybe it was the thought that this camaraderie was not meant for him.
He peered at Nino’s hopeful expression. Another snub at this critical moment would likely do permanent damage, severing the connection that ought to be severed.
Yet cruel dismissal was not what tumbled out of his mouth.
“You know, I find myself in much the same situation.”
There was time to antagonize the Lord later, once Chat was certain whether this was the path forward.
“Excellent.” Nino crossed the distance to the bed and let himself fall down beside Chat. Setting the bottle on the nightstand, he produced two goblets from seemingly nowhere. “Well, figuratively speaking. Not actually excellent that you’re in a shit mood, too. Chloe?”
Chat shook his head. Knowing what had happened to her, he’d avoided all memory of the woman. There was nothing to be gained from spying on a ghost. The brief glimpses of her had been incidental, echoes of a blond girl hovering in the periphery of memories involving Nino or father’s steward.
“…father’s not well today. He won’t be attending the feast.”
“Ah, I’m sorry to hear that.” Nino fell silent as he uncorked the bottle. Chat’s nose wrinkled as a sharp smell hit, stinging even from a distance. Humans drank that? He eyed the dark liquid with suspicion as it sloshed into two crystal goblets.
Ugh. The scent was vile. He drew up his glamor around himself like armor, senses dulling to that of an ordinary human. Nino held out one glass to him, and Chat gingerly curled his fingers around the goblet’s stem, trying not to breathe too deeply.
“Cheers,” Nino said, and clinked his glass against Chat’s. Then the human took a deep gulp, which Chat mimicked.
Only to start sputtering. He coughed and retched as the liquid burned his throat, his superior grace barely saving the contents of his goblet from spilling everywhere.
Nino had the audacity to laugh, roughly slapping Chat’s back twice. “You get used to it.”
“Why would I want to?” Chat choked out, aghast.
But the human only laughed once more, taking another sip. They truly did have the worst taste in all the worlds. Chat’s nose creased as he stared at his drink. Well. Nothing to do but hold his breath and get it over with, just like with those sickly-sweet wheat abominations.
“Woah.” Nino raised an eyebrow as Chat tipped back his head to empty his goblet as quickly as possible. “Pace yourself, man. Remind me to teach you drinking etiquette.”
“I’m sick of etiquette,” Chat muttered. “So what are the rules, then? Second sip no sooner than after thirty seconds but no later than precisely eleven minutes? Measure out how much of a mouthful you’re allowed to take depending on rank?”
Nino tilted his head, lips quirking in bemusement. “You can drink it at whatever pace you want, Adrien. But you’re going to make yourself sick if you drink too much at once.”
Oh, of course. Not only did it taste revolting, it was toxic, too. Why did human males choose to make this part of their bonding rituals? Was it some test of valor? A competition of who would dare ingest the most poison?
Well, Chat was far less fragile than a human, so he would win. Already the burn in his mouth was fading.
And a pleasant tingle was creeping up from the tips of his claws.
Chasing a little bit of warmth as her breath turned to fog, Marinette readjusted her shawl by drawing the velvet tightly around her shoulders.
Unlike the ball to celebrate the prince’s return, which had been held in the palace’s balmy grand hall, the New Year’s Festival was celebrated outside in the royal gardens to culminate in a night sky lit up by fireworks. The guests had traded their fine sheer silks for elegant fur coats and heavy frocks.
Yet even draped in several layers of petticoats – more of Alya’s extravagant dresses hastily altered to fit Marinette’s narrow frame –the winter’s bite gnawed at her skin.
But the splendid sight before her more than made up for her mild discomfort.
In the handful of days since she’d sat in the bare gardens at the prince’s side, the courtyard had been transformed. Rows and rows of long tables had been carried outside, lavished with fine food and finer drink. Ice sculptures stood guard, glittering in a thousand lanterns’ light.
Wide-eyed, Marinette stepped closer to an ice statue twice her height, carved to resemble two birds in flight.
The artist had carved an ornate design into the feathers of their long tails. A familiar one.
“Alya,” Marinette said excitedly, tugging at the noblewoman’s sleeve. “Are these peacocks?”
Hazel eyes blinked, then squinted. “I suppose so. Why?”
“I’ve always wondered what they looked like.” A blush rose just as a memory did the same.
He sneezed as he thrust the vibrant feather toward her, holding it as far from his body as it would go.
“I know you like to sketch, so this is for you,” Adrien said, sniffling. “The finest quill and ink in the kingdom.”
Her hands reverently closed around the precious parting gift, pressing it close to her chest. Then, following an impulse, Marinette reached to brush away the wetness from the corner of his red rimmed eyes, yet he jumped back.
“I – I’m not crying! It’s just – it’s feathers. They make me break out in hives, that’s all.” He wiped his sleeve along his runny nose.
“Of course, my prince,” she said, imbuing her curtsy with just the slightest hint of playful teasing. “Men as noble and strong as you never cry.”
“Exactly.” He sniffed again, trying to make it haughty, and failing. “Besides, there’s no need to cry when we’ll see each other again soon.”
He smiled. “I hope so.”
Fingers snapped next to her ear, startling Marinette out of her reverie. She cast Lady Alya a guilty look, to which the noblewoman responded with an amused one.
“So where were you just now?” she asked, a note of mischief in her voice.
“N-nowhere at all.”
“Mhm. You know, I’m rather fond of daydreams, too. By the expression on your face, your nowhere must be a rather impressive place.”
Marinette could only muster an incoherent stutter in response, and Alya laughed, linking their arms together as they strolled through the frozen garden. She could not help but turn her head this way and that, admiring the impressive craftsmanship and the sheer effort it must have taken the servants to arrange all this in such a short timeframe.
And yet few others were sparing their magical ambience so much as a glance. They were surrounded by labors of love and skill, yet nobody but Marinette seemed awed.
“Lady Alya? May I ask you something?”
“Why do nobles consider it a virtue to be bored?”
A sardonic grin tugged at Lady Alya’s lips. “I’ve asked myself the same thing many times. It seems almost blasphemous, doesn’t it? To be born in a world as marvelous as this one and, instead of exploring and discovering, to make a sport of scoffing at it. But then one day, I realized I was asking the question the wrong way around.”
Marinette cast a questioning glance her way and Alya’s smile faded to a melancholic one.
“They don’t act bored, they are bored. High society is meant to be just that – higher. Better. So they convince themselves that their ennui is a sign of sophistication. In truth, it’s evidence of lacking purpose.” Alya’s steps faltered for a moment. “I think I’d go mad if I had to lead the life intended for a Lady.”
Marinette nodded, turning over the words in her head to make sense of them. She’d dreamed of being carried away on a white steed to the life Lady Alya rejected, and so did most of the servant girls she’d ever talked to. Compared to the daily drudgery she’d had to look forward to, a noblewoman’s lot in life appeared like a distant heaven.
Lady Alya must have seen the direction of her thoughts, for a faint blush darkened her cheeks.
“You must think me spoiled.”
“No,” Marinette said with a slow shake of her head. “I think there must be things about a Lady’s life I don’t understand if you consider fighting monstrous nightmares an improvement.”
A most unladylike snort escaped Alya’s lips. She unfolded her fan with a flick of her wrist, hiding her laughter behind it.
“That is a very charitable interpretation.”
Marinette smiled. “Everyone deserves charity.”
Alya’s gaze softened and she leaned a little closer into their linked arms. “Sweet Mari, have I told you how fortunate I am that fate chose you to be my unexpected ally? I was in dire need of one, and I could not be more pleased.”
Flustered, Marinette smiled uncertainly. “I’ve hardly been much help yet.” And, from what the fae hunter had laid out, her usefulness was likely to further diminish past this point. The odds of smuggling the entirely fictional Lady Mariposa into more exclusive gatherings were practically nil.
As were her chances of infiltrating the castle staff. Not only were the positions so coveted that they required the highest qualifications and references, they were also subject to strict security measures, courtesy of the king’s understandable concern for his son’s safety.
“You saved my life,” Lady Alya said firmly. “And I sleep easier knowing I have you to guard my back. So, may I borrow your sharp eyes for a moment? Tell me if you spot Lord Lahiffe.”
Marinette nodded, her searching gaze sweeping the garden even as she murmured, “I think we might be too early.” Lady Bourgeois had always considered arriving less than an hour after an event’s scheduled beginning to be a dreadfully stodgy faux pas.
“More time for me to strategically place some of my little helpers,” Lady Alya said with a wink.
“Won’t they be noticed? Not many butterflies during winter…”
She shook her head and lowered her voice. “All fae magic carries a… compulsion, of sorts. People avert their gaze, memories slip their mind, and their thoughts will tie themselves into knots trying to find mundane explanations for what they saw. It’s part of the glamor I once told you about – the one only shattered by witnessing a fae in its true form.” Lady Alya paused, humming thoughtfully as her gaze darted to Marinette. “There are those select few who are resistant to such mind games. Those strong of will, like you, if they notice that there is a compulsion they must resist. Children see what adults cannot, though they lose that ability with age. And…”
“And?” Marinette prodded curiously as the noblewoman trailed off.
“If you enter a bargain, the truth is unveiled as well. But by then it’s far too late.”
Adrien eyed the lute with great trepidation, like he expected it to lunge forward at any moment. Nino paid his tipsy friend little mind. Plucking at the strings, he concentrated on matching the pitch of the pristine instrument taken from the royal collection to the well-loved one he kept at his manor.
“It’s not finished,” Nino warned. “I’ve just been working on this on and off the couple of months.”
“It’s fine. Doesn’t have to be purr-fection on first try.”
Nino hid his grin. Even though Adrien had – petulantly – slowed down his drinking after Nino’s warning, he’d outpaced the effects of the liquor. Now the prince’s perfect diction was growing subtly slurred as he rolled and elongated his ‘R’s.
Adrien would get to know his limits the hard way. Despite his initial reticence, he’d quickly turned out to be a happy drunk. Which was exactly what Nino would have expected – drink had a way of revealing true character. What he hadn’t expected was the way Adrien was continually attempting to drape himself over Nino’s shoulders.
Still, it was nice to see that his old childhood friend was still there underneath it all, even with the mercurial changes the imprisonment had wrought in him. Nino would never admit it out loud, but he’d missed the stupid cat puns. They’d largely disappeared as Adrien had grown up. While he’d still had his occasional flashes of mischief, age and responsibility had caused the prince to cultivate an air of rigid formality, his ideas of proper royal behavior clearly influenced by King Gabriel.
“Well, it’s more like my hundredth try. The composition never sounded quite right,” Nino said absently as he thrummed the strings to create a clear chord progression, listening for dissonance.
Adrien cocked his head. “What was giving you trouble?”
“Kept stirring the wrong emotions.”
Nino had tried turning to music to work through the fallout if his broken engagement. The half-finished pieces he’d written had been flawless on a technical level, yet they’d always sounded wrong to his ears. Too angry, too bitter. Never quite capturing the sorrow.
Go back to that moment when everything was simple.
Nino closed his eyes, letting his finger’s muscle memory guide him through the bright and playful melody slowly slipping into grief. He’d tried to build it around some grand and bombastic break at first, but the haunting decline managed to capture his mood far better.
The last few notes faded into heavy silence.
Adrien had grown utterly still, staring at him with half-closed eyes.
Nino smiled crookedly and shrugged, laying the lute on his lap. “Our talk last night had me rework the leitmotif. It’s still fairly rough around the edges, so I’m probably going to keep–“
“I liked it,” Adrien whispered, blinking slowly. “A lot. When did you get so good?”
“Had a lot of free time lately. Plus, it felt like the thing to do.” His smile turned self-conscious. “I’d rather be the Lord known for writing melodramatic songs for his lost love than my current predicament. How much, uh, have you heard about that, by the way?”
Adrien snorted dismissively. “Enough to know it’s all lies.”
Relief eased the tension in Nino’s shoulders. Of course Adrien would take his side, he never should have doubted it. “Good. Great! I’m glad.” He paused, and then, because he had practiced his defense so many times, he found it spilling from his lisp. “I never did anything she accused me–“
“And the rumor with the widow was–“
“More lies, yes.”
“And I never meant to–“
“Nino.” Adrien sighed, bumping his shoulder against Nino’s. “I know. You’re a good man who didn’t deserve what happened to you.”
More tension drained away as Nino briefly allowed himself to indulge in a half-hug.
“I just wish I knew why,” Nino murmured. “Why she did it. Did she tire of me? Did someone else whisper those lies in her ear? That was the worst part of it, lingering in doubt. It’s why I was never able to compose even a single note for you.”
Adrien blinked, drawing back as his expression went blank. “Me?”
“After you–“ Nino gestured vaguely, leaving the word disappeared unspoken. “Chloe – before things broke between us – she kept pushing me to write something in your honor. But – that would have made it real, you know? Final. Like you were truly gone. And I just had this gut feeling that…” He trailed off, and then laughed. “Like as soon as I was done writing down the last note, you’d come strolling through the door and start mocking me relentlessly for composing something so sappy.”
Adrien didn’t respond right away. Then his unreadable expression slowly gave way to a Cheshire grin. “You wound my honor. I have manners, I’d have pre-faced the mockery with pleasantries.”
Nino snorted. “Of course, Your Grace. I would never question your impeccable manners. That is how I know that rumors of you being seen using the oyster fork for the entrée are but vicious slander.”
“Horrid defamation. I would never.”
“And you would certainly not overload your plate with meat and send it toppling over.”
“What kind of savage animal would do such a thing? You know I am the height of decorum.”
“Indeed.” Nino’s cheeks hurt from the wideness of his grin. “Speaking of, I believe we are now sufficiently late to be considered right on time.”
Adrien made a noise of disgust. “What are our odds of making it the new fashion to not attend at all?”
“Poor. Very much so.” At Adrien’s dejected sigh, Nino added, “Not in the mood for celebration?”
“Father’s ill,” Adrien muttered as he reached for yet more wine. “And it’s my fault.”
Nino straightened his back. “No. It isn’t.” Grief might have brought King Gabriel low, but that was not his son’s fault. “From what I hear his disposition’s been much improved since your return.”
Adrien fidgeted and said nothing, merely taking another deep sip from his goblet.
“We don’t have to attend,” Nino said. “Just showing your face for a minute or two will do. But…”
“To be quite honest, I was looking forward to celebrating the new year with you.” He laughed self-consciously. “Call it superstition, but I’d like to put the past year behind me for good and look forward to a fresh start.”
“A fresh start,” Adrien repeated with a thoughtful hum. “I suppose I could attend for that. Clearly, both our reputations have suffered terrible, unjust injury and must be set right.” His best friend’s eyes gleamed in the candlelight. “I’ll have your back if you’ll have mine.”
Nino laughed. “As if you even need to ask.”
Adrien’s answering smile was as smug as the proverbial cat who’d caught the canary.
…the Lord ask me to dance? Hopeful tremors flutter in the belly, oh, I should not have eaten those macarons, maman says men do not like wives who like sweets, it ruins the figure…
“Ah!” Marinette’s squeak drew Alya’s attention away from her butterflies’ whispers. “They’re here.”
Alya’s head swiveled as she narrowed her eyes to focus on two blurry figures in the distance. “Lord Lahiffe?” One of the blobs had the right coloring, but then, she’d once mistaken a potted plant for a man, so it was probably best to receive confirmation.
“With the prince,” Marinette said, her voice breathy.
Oh, had they laid rest to their quarrel? Intriguing.
Alya’s fingers closed around Mari’s wrists, tugging at her to follow. But she resisted, squirming out of the grasp. “I – I should like to stay. I haven’t yet had the chance to examine all the ice sculptures.”
“They’re inanimate,” Alya said dryly. “They’ll be here all night.”
Marinette bit her lip and said nothing for a long moment, fingers digging into her voluminous skirts. “I should – someone ought to stay behind and watch for signs of fae.”
A frown creased Alya’s brow. “Why this reluctance?”
“I…” Marinette made a distressed noise somewhere between a squeak and a gulp. “I just like it here. This is a good spot. A great spot. The view is most magnificent. Perfect for spotting nefarious fae. And it’ll be best if we have someone keeping an eye on the big picture.”
Alya arched an eyebrow, letting the silence stretch to uncomfortable proportions. Quiet was an interrogator’s most useful tool. As expected, Marinette did not last long before her nerves betrayed her.
“He didn’t remember me,” she said softly. “It was lovely to talk to him and to know that he’s well, but anything beyond that would just...” Marinette absently touched her palm to her chest, fingers balling into a fist. Then she raised her chin high, looking as noble and dignified as the most high-born of Ladies. “I wish to guard him from afar.”
“Of course,” Alya agreed gently, entwining their fingers for a brief moment and squeezing in comfort. “I’ll be back soon, hopefully with a new liaison. Seek me out if anything troubles you.”
Marinette returned the squeeze and they shared a small smile before Alya slipped away.
Even with everything a blur, locating the prince was not difficult, surrounded as he was by a small throng of guests eager to gain his favor. Yet he strode past them with no more than a nod and a smile, neither slowing his steps nor interrupting his animated conversation with the man beside him.
Something twisted in her belly at the sight of him, and Alya’s mind went blank, her carefully planned strategies abandoning her. Should she try tripping into him again? Would he be amused by the jest? Or should she try gaining his attention through use of feminine wiles? But how to draw his gaze toward her in the first place? Did she even have functional wiles? She’d so rarely had the opportunity to test–
Alya took a deep, steadying breath.
Boldness. He’d liked boldness. And so did she.
“–perception is reality. It’s their most fundamental attribute.” The wind carried the prince’s words as she drew closer, his blurry features slowly coming into focus. As if to punctuate his words, he bit down on something speared on a toothpick.
Lord Lahiffe sounded exasperated. “But it’s the essence that matters. The body, the core. Even without his limbs, a man is still–“
“But it’s not the core,” the prince interrupted. “A man might be defined by his face, but a–“ He abruptly trailed off, green eyes focusing on Alya. Tilting his head ever so slightly, he squinted, and then his face lit up. “Lady Césaire!” For some reason, he looked exceedingly pleased to have recognized her.
Well. This certainly made her approach easier. Alya curved her lips into her most coquettish smile, aiming it squarely at Lord Lahiffe even as she curtsied to royalty. “Your Grace. My Lord.”
“My Lady.” Lord Lahiffe’s warm golden eyes met hers, a pensive expression on his face. Once again, her belly insisted on that most inappropriate sensation, twisting and churning with excitement.
“Perfect timing,” said Prince Adrien, voice cutting the strange tension between them. “Help us settle an argument, we’ve been talking in circles for half an hour.”
Lord Lahiffe’s lips pressed together into thin lines, even as the corners twitched in merriment. “We ought not bother the Lady with this stupidity.”
“Stupidity?” the prince echoed, aghast. “This is a deep, philosophical question in need of answers.”
“I do so love philosophical questions,” Alya said, “What are we arguing about?”
Prince Adrien flashed a grin before taming his expression into a somber one, his tone grave. “What is the quintessence of squidness?” To illustrate the question, he held up a toothpick with a little slice of calamari, taken from the plentiful buffet.
Alya blinked. Then blinked again. “Pardon?”
“There are quintessential traits that define an animal. Certain shapes that make them instantly recognizable for what they are,” Prince Adrien said. “Like a bird is not a bird without wings and feathers. So what makes a squid a squid? I say it’s the tentacles, but Lord Lahiffe wrongly says it’s the body.”
Yet another slow blink. “…and you’ve been arguing about this for half an hour?”
“He’s stubborn,” two voices answered in unison.
“I, uh.” Gathering her composure, Alya grinned lopsidedly. “I think I’d need to hear more of your arguments before committing to–“
“Don’t encourage him,” Lord Lahiffe said with a deep, longsuffering sigh. “Just run and save yourself.”
“What happened to having my back?” Prince Adrien said, grinning despite his chiding tone.
Lord Lahiffe patted the prince’s shoulder. “That’s what I’m doing. You’ll thank me in the morn’ when you’re sober and your reputation as a smart, educated man is still intact.”
“Spoilsport.” Prince Adrien huffed before turning to face Alya – or rather, to scrutinize her surroundings. Belatedly seeming to remember his sense of propriety, he smiled and said, “It’s lovely to see you again, Lady Césaire. Are you enjoying the feast?”
“The royal winter garden is a work of art, Your Grace,” Alya said with a smile as her gaze darted once more to Lord Lahiffe, gaze lingering. “And the company is most intriguing.”
Yet instead of responding with the warm smile she’d hoped for, Lord Lahiffe’s expression went blank.
Disconcerted, Alya forced her attention back to Prince Adrien’s voice as he spoke to her.
“Speaking of company, is your cousin attending tonight as well?”
Not so forgettable after all? “She is, Your Grace. Lady Mariposa is quite taken with the artistry of the ice sculptures. I believe she’s admiring them as we speak.”
“Is that so?” The prince not-so-subtly craned his neck, searching gaze sweeping over the crowd. Yet suddenly his expression tightened with displeasure.
“Your Grace,” a soft voice rang out, sweet and melodic. Alya turned to face a beautiful Lady in an elegant apricot gown accentuated with silver jewelry. Dropping into a deep curtsy, she spared neither Lord Lahiffe nor Alya a glance as she batted long eyelashes at Prince Adrien.
“Lady Rossi,” the prince said, and it would have sounded perfectly polite, if the contrast to his playful tone just moments earlier hadn’t been so jarring. He bent at the waist, his bow rigid and formal. “I’m glad you could make it.”
“And I’m so glad to see you in such good health and company.” Her voice was husky, yet demure. Her smile stayed perfectly fixed as the two of them stared at each other. “I’ve prayed for your safe return every night for the past year, my liege.”
Green eyes imperceptibly narrowed as something unspoken passed between them. Then the prince’s shoulders slumped in something akin to resignation.
“Lord Lahiffe, Lady Césaire, this is Lady Lila Rossi. And I believe I owe her a long overdue dance,” Prince Adrien said, as enthusiastic as a dead possum. Casting an apologetic smile at the two of them, he held out his hand toward Lady Rossi, gloved fingers twining together. “I’ll be back shortly.”
Alya arched an eyebrow as the prince was all but dragged away, casting a glance at Lord Lahiffe out of the corner of her eye. He looked as puzzled as she, a faint frown creasing his brows.
So the prince’s best friend appeared to be unfamiliar with a woman who’d all but compelled Prince Adrien to dance with her. Alya reached for the awareness of her butterflies, directing the nearest one to flutter after Lady Rossi to take a closer look. Then she inched closer to Lord Lahiffe with a smile, for Alya was nothing if not a multitasker.
“So… essence of squid?” She arched an eyebrow as Lord Lahiffe was startled out of his thoughts. “Dare I ask how this debate was started?”
“A rarely explored conversation thread, to be sure. The secret to unlocking the path to it is an excellent bottle of wine.” He peered at her out of the corner of his eyes. “You’ll have to forgive me for failing to ask you to dance as well, but while it opens up the mind to a host of debate topics, wine is not conductive to my sense of balance.”
“Well, you braved the danger of my clumsiness. I’d have done no less for you.”
“How gallant.” He chuckled dryly. “All the same, I’d rather not shame myself on the dance floor. Instead, might I invite you to a walk through the gardens, Lady Alya?”
“Gladly,” she said, heat blooming in her cheeks at the casual intimacy of being addressed by her first name. When he offered his elbow, she linked their arms. Peering at him through heavy eyelashes, she tried to read his subdued mood as they slowly ambled away from the crowd. “So I could not help but notice that you are on speaking terms with Prince Adrien once more. Did you mend the rift between you?”
His steps hitched almost imperceptibly. “Yes.”
“And yet you do not seem pleased,” Alya said softly.
“I am. Very much so. Adrien’s friendship means the world to me.” Golden eyes stared straight ahead and his voice grew so quiet she had to lean in close to hear it. “It’s quite amazing how much can change in the span of a few days, is it not? Thanks to Adrien’s public approval, I suddenly find myself being approached by the very same Lords and Ladies who shunned me a mere week ago.
“I know how the game is played, of course, but to see it so blatantly on display… well, it leaves a bitter taste in my mouth.” He turned toward her, gaze hooded. “It makes me appreciate those few who seek me out without ulterior motive.”
Alya forced herself to smile even brighter as a yawning abyss of guilt opened in her belly. For but a moment she’d have liked nothing better than to yield to its pull and sink into the earth, for her interest in Lord Lahiffe was no less mercenary.
But it wasn’t all ulterior motive. There was a reason she’d chosen to pursue him as her next avenue of investigation. Yes, perhaps her interest was not entirely wholesome, but she liked the man, had replayed their conversation in her mind for more than hints of fae.
“True friends are hard to come by for people of our station,” she said softly.
“Indeed.” He smiled, and yet there was no warmth to it. Or was that Alya’s guilt twisting her perception?
They walked in silence, the lively music fading behind them as they moved deeper into the frozen gardens, and Alya pretended it was comfortable silence. Focus. She needed to focus and go back to her script. Thoroughly win him over and somehow charm an invitation to a rendezvous out of him. Maybe slip in a question or two about the prince.
Yet the words got lost on the way to her tongue.
Gods, why was this suddenly so hard? Their banter had flowed so easily last time, and it wasn’t like she was a stranger to deception. It had been taught to her right along with how to swing a sword, a silver tongue as important in a hunter’s arsenal as an iron blade.
Faintly, she grew aware of the butterfly she’d sent after the woman dancing with the prince as it signaled it had found its target. Alya froze as a mass of dark, writhing malevolence curled its tendrils around her heart.
…idiot cat, will have to take care of everything mys– annoyance mingles with surprise, suspicion on its heels –
Pain shot through her chest as Alya stumbled, the connection to her butterfly abruptly cut off. Lord Lahiffe caught her before she lost her balance, the soft murmur of his concern barely penetrating her thoughts.
Struggling to smooth her composure, Alya choked out a small laugh. “I have to stop tripping around you, my Lord. It’s becoming a most distasteful habit.”
“It’s quite alright. No harm done.”
Murmuring an absent thanks, she turned to look back at the dancing crowd, belatedly realizing just how far away they’d moved away from the central courtyard. The palace’s fortifications rose high above them, so close even with her terrible sight could almost make out the individual bricks of the walls.
“Oh, I love this melody,” she said brightly, tugging at Lord Lahiffe’s elbow to turn him back to the courtyard’s center.
He didn’t budge.
Alya frowned and he met her gaze with an arched eyebrow.
“Not enjoying our stroll?”
“I am! It’s just – I…” She trailed off at the expression on his face, every instinct she had suddenly warning her of danger. “My Lord? I’d like you to let go now.”
“Not just yet,” he said softly, anger blazing in his eyes. “Have you heard the news, Lady Césaire? My ex-fiancée has disappeared. As did her Lady’s maid. Which has left me with a number of questions, considering I just saw said maid the other day.”
Alya’s breath caught as his grip on her wrist tightened.
“I imagine the guards will have a number of questions for you, Lady Césaire. About what you know of Chloe Bourgeois. Let’s hope your answers match those of your cousin.”
As proud of a creature as he was, Chat Noir could admit when he’d been wrong. Occasionally.
This was one such occasion. Alcohol was a marvelous invention, and it was obvious why men used it to solve their problems.
It made things simple.
All loathsome uncertainty had just washed away, and now Chat was walking through the world with a sparkling clarity to his thoughts he hadn’t experienced since the early days of his taming. His path forward was suddenly so clear that this obnoxious whisper of doubt had faded away entirely.
Not even being all but strong-armed to dance with the Changeling could sour his mood, even as she pursed her lips and cast a judging glare over Chat’s shoulder as they joined the whirl of dancing couples.
“I see you’re still favoring the childhood friend.”
“Indeed.” And he didn’t much care for the interruption. Chat’s sense of balance had taken a slight knock from the human drink, and he had little idea of how to dance on two legs besides. But if the Changeling insisted on dragging him away, well, Chat was just petty enough to enjoy the thought of her having to deal with an uncoordinated partner.
Yet when he laid one arm on her waist, the other on her shoulder, his feet started carrying him through the song’s steps without hesitation, as if he’d practiced them a hundred times.
Her scowl deepened, and the heavy weight of her glamor enveloped him, ensuring that nearby humans would hear naught but idle chatter. “Have you not considered what I said?”
“I have. After much deliberation, I have decided there is no need to fix what is not broken.” Or to break what was whole.
“Is that what you think, Your Grace?”
His smile turned into bared teeth at the implied accusation as the dance demanded he sweep her into a twirl. “It is, indeed, what I think.” Soon enough, Chat would turn Adrien’s friends into his own, building a stash of secret loyalties and hoarded favors. Every fae ought to have one, so he’d start here.
True, human loyalty was not worth all that much and likely not worth guarding as jealously as a debt owed to another fae, but still…
He’d staked his claim, and he’d have no other fae interfering.
“Adrien holds no sway,” he said. “Trust me.”
“Trust.” Her nose crinkled as if the very taste of the word disgusted her. “Do you often so blithely demand something so priceless?”
“Well, I am supposed to be a spoiled prince, am I not?” Chat could not help the sardonic grin twisting his lips. “And you ask no less of me, to expect me to change my course of action on your say-so. We might both be our Lady’s subjects, but you know as well as I that our Court has made backstabbing an artform. I trust only one person in the world, and you are not she. Nor are you even the one who was supposed to be my guide.”
“Because she’s dead! And we are on our own, surrounded by enemies, until the paths to Underhill open once more. Our numbers here are too few for us to bicker amongst ourselves.”
“Has it ever occurred to you that she might still be alive if she hadn’t so publicly spurned Lord Lahiffe?”
The thought had hit Chat as he’d been enraptured by Nino’s haunting melody, and it had stirred anger. Faintly, he was aware that he should be sweeter in his phrasing, more conciliatory with his fellow fae, but his tongue was loosened by wine and made acerbic by her presence. Getting along with Nino was as easy as breathing, and it was plain to see that he had adored his fiancée. If Chloe’s Changeling had bothered to put in just the slightest bit of effort, Nino could have been spared the pain and been none the wiser.
“Right after a solstice, too. I could think of no better signal to draw a hunter’s attention to the fact that Chloe Bourgeois had changed.”
Lady Rossi’s lips pinched like she’d just bitten something sour, but she said nothing.
“I am… willing to compromise on the king,” Chat said at length. For all that it had stung, he could not deny the truth in the Changeling’s reasoning. The king had been ready to execute Chat upon first sight and there had been naught but contempt in his clouded eyes, even as he’d looked upon the face of his beloved son. He would not hesitate to kill you if he found out what you are. “But Lord Lahiffe is more useful as an ally than an enemy. Antagonizing him for flimsy reasons would only draw more suspicion to me, not less. And that is the last thing we need with hunters on our trail, no?”
“Well, look at you,” she said, narrowed gaze scrutinizing his face. “Since when do you have a mind for tactics?”
Chat resisted the urge to hiss at the snipe at his intelligence. “Since always. Hunting is my area of expertise. Prey gives itself away with the disruptions it leaves behind in its environment. You rely too much on your enthrallments to cover your tracks instead of just blending in.”
Anger sparked in her eyes and for a moment it seemed like she was about to snap a retort – but then she sighed and shook her head. “Very well.”
He blinked, and suddenly his feet wouldn’t quite dance in step as he lost his balance, not expecting her to yield. “Pardon?”
“I can see your mind is made up,” she said, subtly adjusting her own steps to catch his fumble and returning their dance to its rhythm. “So if you wish to discard the wisdom we have learned over millennia, you are free to do so. Just remember that time passes quickly here, and the summer solstice is not so far away. You will have to account for your actions soon enough. And our Lady is not forgiving of failure.”
The song faded as if to punctuate her words and she stepped out of his loose hold. Dropping into a curtsy, her gaze never left his before she turned on her heels and strode away.
Chat barked out a half-disbelieving laugh, ignoring the curious human gazes pivoting to face him.
Had he… had he truly just gotten a Nightmare courtier to concede a point? Even if her retreat was only temporary, this was – it was utterly unprecedented. When it came to putting his ideas into words – even when they’d made perfect sense in his head – he’d never been adept at shaping them quite as he’d wanted, leaving him to growl incoherently at those at Court who delighted in weaving verbal traps for him.
In those humiliating moments he’d always taken solace in the thought of one day becoming their Lord, that he would grow while they would stagnate. He could not say what had made him so certain, but there had never been doubt in his heart that he was meant to be more than he was.
Not that there was anything wrong with what he was.
He would be more.
With Adrien’s help. Already the eloquence pilfered from the mirror was proving a boon to him. The prince had so much of what Chat coveted, so he would steal the bits he wanted and leave the rest. Prove his strong will to his Lady, showing her that her fears were unfounded. Then she’d have no cause to censure him.
An excited bounce in his step, he made his way back to the edges of the courtyard where he’d left his friend. Hm. But where had he gone? Chat’s gaze roamed the people surrounding him and then flicked to the dancers to see if Nino had perhaps joined in with Lady Césaire.
When that yielded nothing, he carefully peeled back a layer of his glamor, subtly raising his chin to scent the air for a trail to follow.
cinnamon and sweets, a smell like the warmth of huddling under a blanket and sharing his favorite meal, muffled laughter in his ears and pride in his chest for coaxing it from her
Chat’s head whipped around, lips parting as heat surged under his skin, the liquor’s pleasant tingling taking on a sharper edge as he drank in the sight of Lady Mariposa standing not far from him.
Her sleek black hair glinted in the lanterns’ sparse light, the silhouette of her profile aglow in the darkness. She was peering at one of the ice sculptures, a smaller piece in the shape of a butterfly. Her heavy shawl slipped as she raised her arm, gloved fingertips ghosting over the wings to trace the labyrinthine design etched within.
And then she smiled.
It was a small thing, this smile, neither particularly wide nor exuberant, but filled with a quiet sense of wonder and contentment.
A painful drum thumped in Chat’s chest, his heart violently throwing itself against its confines.
Temptation whispered in her ear, fingers itching to explore the little masterwork before her, to feel its edges and curves and textures. But Marinette knew better than to touch – the sculpture’s beauty was fleeting, and it would be downright criminal for her body heat to hasten its destruction.
With one last look of admiration, Marinette turned back toward the dance floor – and squeaked.
Green eyes half-hidden beneath heavy lashes gazed down at her.
A deep, rumbling sound emanating somewhere from his chest answered her, and his eyelids drooped even lower. A pleased smile curled the corner of his lips, his voice deep and gravelly. “Lady Mariposa.”
It made her shiver, but for all the wrong reasons, the false name like icy water. Right. He was talking to the part she was playing. A Prince talking to a Lady. A Lady who had no business addressing him by his first name. At once, she dipped into a curtsy.
“Your Grace,” she whispered. “Forgive my informality, I was startled.”
Had he noticed her surveillance? Surely not. He’d been engrossed in his dance with the noblewoman as they’d carried on a heated conversation. So engrossed, in fact, that Marinette had sought more pleasant sights, only sporadically checking in on him.
Warmth brushed her skin as fingers curled under her chin and Marinette froze. Exerting only a hint of pressure, he coaxed her to raise her head until their gazes met once more.
“Whatever made you think I care about formality?”
Marinette knew precious little about the intricacies of how nobles comported themselves, but she was fairly certain that to touch her like this was an impropriety of the highest order. “It – I – the evidence has been rather – rather lacking so far, yes.”
Gods, why did he still have the power to make her feel like this? He’d forgotten her. She should be mad, or indifferent, or anything but this. But no, her traitorous body hummed with excitement, eager to seek closeness now that she was certain that he was no imposter. Her gaze greedily followed the hard line of his jaw and the arc of his nose while her overactive imagination busied itself with painting stars in his eyes, like he was admiring her with the same intensity she was gawking at him.
Which she knew full well couldn’t be what he was doing.
His thumb brushed along her jaw and moved to tuck a stray hair behind her ear. In-between remembering how to breathe, Marinette had to admonish her knees to refrain from this buckling nonsense they were attempting.
“Excellent. I’d hate to leave the wrong impression,” he said softly.
He was doing this to her one purpose. He had to be. Scraping together what little poise she had, she straightened her spine and took a step back.
“And what kind of impression would you like to leave, Your Grace?”
“The kind where you don’t call me ‘Your Grace’.” His arm fell back to his side.
“It’s not my place to presume such familiarity, Your Grace.”
“Adrien,” he corrected, entirely oblivious to her subtle rebuke.
“Your Grace,” she said stubbornly. If she was a stranger to him, then strangers they would be.
He tilted his head, then grinned. “Might I at least beg for a better title? ‘Your Grace’ makes me sound so appallingly stuffy.”
Marinette bit her lip to keep from returning the grin. Stop it. Stop liking him, it will only bring you heartache. “Well, that depends entirely on the quality of your begging.”
His eyes lit up – with mischief at first, and then–
A strangled sound escaped her.
She wasn’t sure how he was doing it, all she knew was that his eyes had grown impossibly big and dark and vulnerable, and it made her want to coo and squish him to her chest and–
“Stop that,” she hissed.
“Stop what?” His voice was one of utter innocence, but his eyes just kept doing the thing.
“Fine! You win! I won’t call you ‘Your Grace’ anymore!” And just as a triumphant grin spread across his face, she added, “Your Highness.”
When his lips pursed together in a pout, she couldn’t help her laughter. He brightened at once, gaze softening. “It’s good to see you again, Lady Mariposa.”
“Thank you, Your Royal Excellency.”
He clutched his chest as if wounded. “Ruthless.”
“My humblest apologies.” She pressed her lips together, but the temptation proved too great to resist. “…Your Most Exalted Majesty.”
“Careful.” Despite the warning tone, the corners of his eyes were crinkling with a smile. “Keep this up, and I’ll have no choice but to retaliate.”
Oh, Marinette did not like that gleam in his eye. “Retaliate how?”
He leaned forward, his face so close to hers she could have counted the golden stubble dusting his jaw. “There’s no need for formality between us,” he whispered huskily. “Ma souris.”
Marinette’s cheeks burned at the endearment. Fighting hard to choke back a high-pitched noise, she scrambled away to put distance between them. But then her heel got entangled in her long dress, her infernal clumsiness choosing this moment to rob her of the last of her dignity.
Adrien caught her.
She swallowed heavily, trying to ignore the warmth radiating from his hand on the small of her back.
“So shall I keep going, sweet Mari?” His shoulder shook with laughter. “Or will you say my name properly now?”
“…you don’t fight fair, Adrien.”
“True.” There was that deep rumbling again as his smile verged on smug. “I fight to win.”
Volpina’s lip curled back in distaste as she cut her way through the writhing mass of humanity. They scattered like insects fleeing the light at her approach. The remains of their withered instincts gave them just enough sense to fear standing in her way, though few of them were aware enough to notice the wide berth they were giving her.
She’d drawn the cloak of her glamor tightly around herself, not wasting her energy on attracting rather than repelling them. The crowd parting to make way suited her for now – and Volpina was in no mood to deal with human males seeking courtship, as they invariably did at feasts like these.
Annoyance pricked at her temper but she swatted it away. There was no point in being angry at the idiot cat – she might as well rage at the winter for being cold. It was in this pet’s nature to listen to no one but the one who held his leash, and she would simply have to work around his limitations.
A whisper echoed and Volpina grew still. It was no louder than a brook’s babble, should have drowned under the dim roar of the crowd and the music, and yet…
Shadows kept at bay by the flickering lantern light bulged and grew as Volpina breathed deeply, drawing on the magic of Underhill seeping through the ever-present cracks between the realms to give her True Sight. Her awareness of the mortal world faded, ordinary senses dimming, but the whisper grew louder until it was almost a physical presence, a ghost of a touch crawling on her skin, looking for entry.
Who would dare?
She whirled around, facing a glowing white butterfly in a sea of shadows, and snatched it. Delicate wings uselessly beat against the insides of her fist as she squeezed, tasting the magic for its source.
Scent caught, a glowing web of crisscrossed paths unfurled before her, erratic trails left behind by little spies fluttering this way and that. Volpina spotted more of them in the distance, faintly shimmering little dots dancing between oblivious humans, but they were not of interest for her. No, her sight locked onto the tethers binding them and she followed the nearest one, absently unfurling her claws to release the blackened scraps of her caught quarry.
She left the crowd behind, walking along the edges of the labyrinth, until faint voices up ahead drew her attention. Two minds, one sharp and brilliant and vast, the other churning with delicious anger and grief. Humans?
“–hope your answers match those of your cousin.”
“Wait, Lord Lahiffe, it’s not what you think–“
“Save your tale for the guards.”
Volpina’s eyes widened with excitement and she let her human form fall away, her nimble fox body closing the distance in only a few leaps. Neither of the two humans caught in an argument paid any mind to the rustle of the grass as she settled in to watch, too focused on each other.
The woman – red hair, tan skin, hadn’t Volpina seen her just now sniffing around the prince? – took a deep, calming breath as Lord Lahiffe pulled at her arm. His brows knit together in confusion when she did not budge.
Stronger than him.
And the source of that stolen bit of fae magic.
“Listen,” the woman said, her voice as soothing as if she was talking to a spooked animal. “You’re right to be suspicious. But we are not the villains you’re looking for.”
“Then who is?” the Lord bit out. He was breathing heavily in agitation, his fortress of a mind in disarray. Resistant minds were the bane of a Changeling’s existence, never staying subdued for long – if they could be subdued at all. But this one…
Lord Lahiffe’s mind was weakened by drink.
Volpina’s chops drew back from her fangs in the closest thing to a smile this form was capable of. The Fates were favoring her tonight, to drop such an opportunity into her lap. Two problems eliminated in one fell swoop.
Hunters so hated to hurt enthralled humans. Even in self-defense. It was what made them weak, and would soften this one up for easy pickings. Such a shame the Lord would die in the crossfire. The beast might huff and puff, but he could hardly fault her for using whatever meat shield was at hand to survive battle with a hunter.
Opening her mind to the crowd she’d left behind, she tugged at the strings she’d bound her newest thrall with. The king’s valet would ensure the cat stayed away while she broke his toy.
Then Volpina reached for the spark of Lord Lahiffe’s anger and fanned the flames.
Chat grinned as Lady Mariposa regained her bearings, her long, elegant fingers scrunching up her skirts before belatedly remembering to smooth them. She cast him another one of those hooded glances, not quite shy nor fearful, but guarded nonetheless. He was not sure what to make of them, but they intrigued him.
There was a spark there, a hint of inner fire she only allowed him to see in brief flashes. One moment, she was bold and playful, revealing a delightful humor, but then she would retreat into herself for no rhyme nor reason he could see.
Maybe it was a game. The verbal version of the ones Trixx and him liked to play, when Chat would sneak up behind the fox and smack them with a paw, only to dart away at once. Come chase. Can you catch me?
“So, Adrien,” she said, infusing the name he’d coaxed from her with a hint of defiance, lips pursed in a pout. “What brings you to my humble corner of the courtyard?”
“Naturally, I was lured by the prospect of your company.”
Pale blue eyes narrowed almost imperceptibly. “Have I left such a lasting impression?”
“You were the highlight of the evening we met, so yes. Imagine my dismay when I realized you’d left the feast early. Was my speech so dreadful?”
She demurely dropped her gaze. “No, of course not, Your G– Adrien.”
There it was again. “Why do you do that?” he asked, tilting his head.
She cast him an equally quizzical expression. “Do what?”
“Pretend to be a timid little mouse when you’re not.”
“I don’t – I don’t pretend to be any–” Her flustered words trailed off as comprehension dawned on her. “Wait. Is this why you called me souris!?”
“Well, that, and you squeak rather a lot.”
“I – wha – I do not squeak!”
“Every time I lean in. Shall I demonstrate?”
“No!” The pitch of her voice rose an octave, pale cheeks darkening with red as she pressed her lips shut. When he could not restrain his soft laughter, the look she threw him was one of utter betrayal.
“It’s endearing,” he said by way of apology. “Adorable, even.”
Lady Mariposa cast her gaze heavenward, closing her eyes as if straining for patience, even as the corners of her lips twitched. “You know. Sometimes I wonder how I’ve offended the Gods to deserve this torment.”
He grinned toothily. “Oh, surely my company is not so a-paw-ling as to be torment.”
“No, but your puns might be.”
And then she laughed. Breathless and short, with an edge of hysteria, yet music to his ears, a bone-deep longing for more twisting inside of him.
“Adrien.” Bluebell eyes pinned him in place, glittering with that audacious spark that transformed her entire bearing. She raised her hand, pressing a gloved finger against the lion sigil embroidered on his chest. “You really need to expand your pun repertoire. It’s feline derivative at this point.”
He gasped. “Nonsense. These are timeless classics.”
“You’re ridiculous,” she said, voice soft as silk and an expression on her face that he could not read. Chat was getting better at discerning what the subtle shifts in human faces meant, but it was moments like these that he wished that they had a tail and ears that moved like his, if only so he could unravel her mood.
“Ridiculous-ly clever? Yes, I agree.”
“You poor thing,” she whispered. “Is your head injury plaguing you still? To be suffering from such a severe case of selective hearing…”
Stifling his grin, he once more made his eyes large and pitiful. “Yes. Woe. Woe is me. You should–“
“Your Grace.” Startled, Chat turned to look over his shoulder with a frown to spot his father’s favorite servant staring at him expectantly. “May I have a word?”
He glanced back at Mariposa. “Can it wait?”
“I would not seek you out if it was not important, Your Grace. This matter is best attended to sooner rather than later.” Her taciturn voice was raspy, deliberately deepened to uphold her masquerade as a male and she lowered it further still to a murmur meant for his ears only. “Normally it would be your father’s duty, but…”
Chat shifted his weight from one foot to the other, the reminder of the king casting a shadow on his bright mood. “Understood. I’ll be with you in a moment.”
The valet inclined her head, and Chat turned back to Mariposa with a soft sight.
“Duty calls?” she asked sympathetically.
“Rather persistently these days. I would not mind these interruptions so much if people stayed where I left them. If I leave now, will you disappear on me again?”
She hesitated for the length of a breath. “Well, I heard there are going to be fireworks. So I’ll be staying for those.”
“Only for those?”
“I heard they’re a sight to behold,” she said, and a hint of teasing snuck into her tone. “Though I suppose if someone were to be in my general vicinity when they start, I would not say no to watching them together.”
Adrien grinned, leaning forward in a bow to bid her a temporary adieu. “Then I suppose I shall endeavor to find your vicinity.”
She gifted him with a small smile and his gaze lingered a touch too long. When Noel subtly cleared her throat, he forced himself to turn away and follow, catching up to the servant with a few long strides.
“So what’s the matter?” he asked her.
Noel adjusted the silly little contraption sitting atop her nose – a strange human fashion, the purpose of which he hadn’t yet discerned, if there was one at all. Nino wore one as well and never took his off, not even in private. Chat had been tempted to ask why he felt the need to mask his eyes, but the prince would likely already know the answer to that, so he’d refrained from drawing suspicion to himself. Curiosity still gnawed at him, but this matter was too trivial for consulting the mirror, and he’d already been using it more than was prudent.
“There are high-ranking Esparian delegates in attendance tonight. Your father had hoped to meet with them to begin defusing the tensions brought on by recent events, but…” Her brusque voice trailed off, the shadow of sorrow briefly touching on her expression before it became still as ice once more. “His recovery is taking longer than anticipated.”
Faint guilt needled at him, and Chat shook the unwelcome sensation off. “I’m afraid I’m in no state for such a delicate task either. I’m–“
“Inebriated. Yes, Your Grace, I can tell.”
Heat flared in his cheeks and even though he stood a good foot taller than her, he suddenly felt as small as a cub. Her cool gaze swept over him and warmed a few degrees.
“At ease, Your Grace. These negotiations are too important for me to hand to you on such short notice and with no preparation. You are the prince, not the king, and I would not ask you to do a king’s work.” She paused, and adjusted the double lenses once more. “Still, it would damage our standing with the Esparian nobles to not acknowledge them tonight. We need to extend a gesture of good will. You, the crown heir, taking the time to see to their comfort would go a long way toward smoothing the sting of cancelled plans.”
“I can do that,” he said softly, memories of his disastrous speech flashing through his mind.
But he’d promised the king he’d do better. And he would. If nothing else, he'd make sure the man didn't spend his last few years wallowing in disappointment with his son.
“Listen. You’re right to be suspicious. But we are not the villains you’re looking for.”
“Then who is?” Nino’s voice came out harsher more than he intended it to, a stark contrast to her calm and soothing murmur. Once more he yanked at her wrist, but she stood her ground, unmoved. That she remained balanced while he could barely contain this roiling maelstrom inside his chest only served to infuriate him more.
Damn it all.
Nino had liked her. Having spent the last few days obsessively ruminating on Chloe’s fate, it hadn’t taken him long at all to connect the dots to Marinette. As soon as his suspicions had risen, he ought to have sought out the king’s men – yet he had hesitated. He, better than most, understood the harm false accusations could do to a person.
But Lady Alya’s reaction was not that of an innocent unwittingly caught in suspicious circumstances. Her sharp gaze was focused and intense, the brief flicker of panic quickly tamed and hidden beneath a professional mask.
He’d hoped for confusion. Denial. Even indignation.
Anything but this.
“That is what I’m here to find out. There are larger forces at work, ones that threaten both your kingdom and mine.” She hesitated, expertly adjusting her mask to tug at his sympathies. “I’m… a spy. Of sorts. Here to investigate why Lady Bourgeois was taken. Mariposa – Marinette – is a valuable witness who agreed to assist me.”
The venomous hiss resonated in his mind just as rage erupted in his chest, white-hot fury arcing through his veins. His breath caught, the beat of his heart thundering in his ears, drowning out the sounds of the feast that seemed so far away now. His fingers burned with the need to wrap around her delicate neck and squeeze until she (make her scream without sound) gasped for air and choked on her damned lies, until he had repaid the fate Chloe had suffered (and how she suffered) a hundredfold, until (bone makes such a pretty sound when it snaps)–
Nino yanked his hand away from Lady Alya’s wrist, shaking his head to dislodge the exquisitely painted mental image.
“I don’t believe you,” he snarled, or meant to, but what came out was more of a despondent whisper. His temple throbbed, and when he squeezed his eyes shut, faint starbursts danced in front of his vision.
Lady Alya’s composure softened with what looked a lot like concern (she doesn’t need words to lie) and she reached to place her palm on his upper arm, the touch light as a feather.
“I know it sounds suspicious, I know.” she said, soft as silk (and just as slippery). “I wouldn’t believe me if I were in your shoes. But the truth is rarely convenient.”
Nino had enjoyed the sound of her voice, before, had savored it when they’d danced, his first pleasant banter with a fellow noble in far too long. Maybe that had been what had blinded him. The false sincerity was so obvious now, her earnest demeanor undone by the calculating gleam in her eyes.
When he said nothing – for if he opened his mouth, he might just start yelling – she grew bolder, closing more of the distance between them.
“My Lord, I give you my word that I’m–“
“Enough!” Everything about her was just wrong, her discordant voice sawing at his taut nerves. “Your word is worthless. And I am done listening to it.”
Lady Alya stood frozen for a moment’s fraction, her eyes silently pleading with him.
Then her shoulders sagged, and the mask fell with them. His breath caught when her lips curved into a cruel smile, and he took an uncertain step backward. The wine had to be sitting ill, for he wobbled as the world tilted on its axis. Shadows bulged, twisting and swelling to envelop them both, pouring into each crevice to make them stand out in stark relief. The faint lines on Lady Alya’s youthful face became black canyons as deep those of a crone, stealing away the beauty he’d been so foolishly enamored with.
“How unfortunate,” she said. “I had hoped to make use of you yet.”
Nino squeezed his eyes shut against the sight (don’t turn away from the truth), fighting to keep control of his breath as his heart hammered against his chest. A trick – a trick of the light, nothing more, gone as soon he calmed himself.
“You’re too clever for your own good, my Lord.”
Her mocking lilt scraped the insides of his skull, and his fingers dug into his temple as he clutched his head in pain. Something was wrong, this wasn’t–
“Not like your lady love. She had no idea what was coming for her. Not until the very end. Gods, what a mess that was to clean up.”
Nino froze, eyes flying wide open. Lady Alya’s smirked, her mouth too wide and her teeth too sharp, malevolence shining in her gaze.
“What – what are y–?” His frantic heartbeat thundered in his ears, no other sound piercing the dark haze. None but her voice, slicing like steel, and just as cold.
“She screamed your name, you know. Will you scream hers?”
Starbursts exploded in front of his vision, the scene of what must have happened unfolding as clear and vivid as if he was standing right there. Chloe in her golden parlor, the one where they’d shared their first–
She laughed against his lips, breathless and giddy, so at odds with her words and the hand pushing at his chest even as her fingers dug into his undershirt to keep him close. “Stop, we have to stop, papa will see…”
–having tea with a redhaired noblewoman, all smiles and pleasant conversation. Getting distracted and turning away, while behind her Lady Alya quietly pulled a dagger from the depths of her dress. Nino’s body lurched forward, except it wouldn’t move, his limbs disobeying when it mattered most, helpless to do anything but watch–
you don’t have to watch
–watch as his loved ones were picked off one by one–
–and he was left behind, alone, to mourn–
–teeth grinding and jaw aching, he strained against the paralysis that had taken hold of him–
or Adrien is next
He lunged, his elbow connecting with her belly as they both went tumbling down into darkness. She writhed beneath him as they hit the ground, fingernails digging into his shoulders, scratching like claws as she scrambled for purchase to push him away. Her knee jerked up, perhaps in an effort to throw him off, but the blow was cushioned by the many layers of her dress.
Unintelligible babble spilled from her lips, drowned out by the harsh sounds of his breaths, and he paid them no mind. Her words were worthless, and this would end right here. His fist connected with her jaw and a vicious thrill ran down his spine at her agonized cry. Once more her legs kicked at him, but the pain was nothing. Not when gleeful anticipation coursed through his veins, the siren song of blood beckoning. His lips split into a grin as he pinned her hands above her head, and–
Nino reared back, squeezing his eyes shut against the vivid vision of spilled guts and viscera.
What was wrong with him? He abhorred violence, had once even fainted at the sight of–
“…just a little blood.” Adrien laughed as he clutched his arm, the red drip spilling out between his fingers. Nino’s belly rolled with nausea, and he quickly averted his gaze, his breath quickening. “It’s not so bad.”
Gods, the king would have him hanged for this. Nino’s grip on his rapier tightened. “I’m so, so sorry, Adrien, I got careless and–“
“Relax. This is hardly my first sparring injury.”
His eyes snapped open, and a Goddess met his gaze. Wings made of violet light ringed her eyes like a mask, a wild mane of silver hair flowing behind her. All around them, the shadows were retreating, slithering away as if fearing her radiance. Her lips were moving, yet no sound made it past the rush of bloodlust in his ears.
Nino could do nothing but stare as she gently tugged him to his feet – when had he fallen? The question slipped away when she brushed her fingertips along his jaw, cupping his face in gloved hands.
“…ocus on me.” Her voice echoed as if from a great distance, lovely and familiar. “Feel the touch on your skin. Breathe in the air and savor the winter’s chill. Ground yourself in this world, and Underhill cannot touch you.”
The words sank in slowly, their meaning barely penetrating the fog in his mind. What was Underhill? Nothing made sense, and yet – and yet…
Nino swayed and leaned into the gentle touch, eyelids growing heavy.
A snarl rang out, and a vulpine beast lunged out of the darkness, maw closing around the woman’s throat.
Marinette’s gaze lingered on Adrien’s back before he and the servant he was talking to were lost among the mingling crowd. No matter how hard she tried, she could not tame the giddy smile tugging at her lips, nor the fluttering in her chest.
Was she foolish to nourish this spark of joy inside of her?
After all, he still didn’t recognize her. All her prodding and hinting for naught.
They’d been children the last time they’d seen each other. And while, yes, she had recognized him instantly, she’d also known what to look for. Adrien had no reason to search a noblewoman’s face for traces of a servant girl he once knew. Would she have recognized him on the street, if he’d been dressed in rags?
The idealist inside of her, the one who sighed over romantic ballads and spun vivid daydreams featuring a certain prince on a white steed, insisted that, yes, she would have. No matter the circumstances, her heart would have known him anywhere, rich and poor, young and old, in sickness and in health.
Of course, her idealist side was also rather out of touch with reality. It kept up her spirits when she dealt with the drudgery of a servant’s life and so she had enjoyed the indulgence, but perhaps she shouldn’t be looking to it for guidance.
And if she was being honest with herself…
It was that drudgery which had spurred her to cherish Adrien’s memory so deeply. She’d straightened her spine and squared her shoulders, drawing strength from the kind words he’d gifted her when life came close to beating her down.
When she’d been on her knees, scrubbing for hours. When her eyes had hurt from mending the lace trim of Lady Chloe’s dresses until deep into the night so they might be ready come morn’. When needles had pricked her fingers and her once soft hands had grew hard with calluses.
…When the gazes of visiting nobles swept over her like she was invisible. Like she was nothing and no one. No more than a little automaton trained to carry out tasks.
She curtsied and smiled and obeyed every whim, as was her duty, all the while taking pleasure in the thought that one day they’d all bow before a king who’d called her miraculous.
I matter. How she longed to defiantly scream it at a world intent on making her think that she did not. I am more than you think I am.
Perhaps it was unfair of her to be upset that she didn’t hold the same place in Adrien’s heart that he held in hers. He’d been her solace when the world grew so heavy that even her parent’s endless wellspring of love and support could not lift her spirits. Yet a prince had no need to cling so tightly to memories of a fleeting childhood friendship.
Maybe she was the one who’d done him a disservice, to build him up as high as she had. To set the real man up for failure when he inevitably fell short of her silly fantasies.
I was lured by the prospect of your company.
Even without recognizing her, Adrien was drawn to her. He’d sought her out with no prompting at all, and as soon as she’d allowed herself to play along, their banter had flowed effortlessly. His eyes had been shining with delight and affection, and for just a few precious moments she’d felt…
That was something, wasn’t it?
Yet there was that awful moment back at the Bourgeois manor to contend with. Although he had been laid low by a severe head injury at the time, so maybe…
Barely suppressing a cry, Marinette clutched her ears in a futile attempt to stave off the burning pain. The words echoed in her head, just like – no, no, it’s dead, drove the iron through its neck – and she gritted her teeth, steeling herself against the incoming assault.
Yet the whisper faded to nothingness, no cruel will fighting to dominate hers. All that was left was an unpleasant tingling in her ears. Slowly, she lowered her hands, growing dimly aware of the stares her sudden movement had drawn.
Retreating to the edges of the courtyard away from prying eyes, Marinette tried to focus on regaining her breath. But her wildly beating heart refused to calm, every fiber of her being screaming danger.
Was it another Changeling? Nobody else seemed to have heard the call, so was it stalking her? But this one felt different, like a plea rather than a command, and though one of her ears still faintly ached, she couldn’t help but think that this one wasn’t–
Wait. No, it wasn’t her ear. It was her earlobe. Her fingertips darted to trace the shape of the sapphire stud that housed Lady Alya’s butterfly.
Even through her gloves, it was hot to the touch.
Marinette whirled around, scanning the edges of feast. She’d seen Lady Alya leave with Lord Lahiffe, but which way…?
Moving slowly at first to avoid drawing more notice with her erratic behavior, she slipped away into the gardens and broke into a sprint as soon as she was out of sight. Alya, she called out in her thoughts, but there was no answer. That didn’t have to mean something bad had happened to her, did it? Maybe this mental exchange only went one way. A natural fortress, Alya had once called her, admiration in her voice, and maybe that was limiting her now – the instinct to huddle behind her mental walls working against her as it let nothing slip past, neither in nor out.
Gods, was she even going the right way? Starlight was her only guide, the lanterns of the courtyard far behind her now, and with every step she took, the world grew darker.
Swallowing up what little light remained, shadows encroached all around, and sudden dread seized her heart. Marinette stood frozen, the winter’s chill turning her harsh breaths into fog as she stared at the expansive blackness before her. No matter how much she willed it, she could not find the resolve to take another step forward.
The very air was thick with malice, sending uncontrollable shivers down her spine. Not normal. This was not normal. Which meant dark magic, which meant fae, which meant Lady Alya truly was in danger. Alya needed her and Marinette needed to move, move now, move, you coward.
But she didn’t. Couldn’t. Gods, it had been so much easier to run toward danger when she hadn’t yet understood what she’d be facing. When she’d had a weapon to defend herself with, rusted and brittle though it was.
But she had a weapon now, too. A fearsome, magical one.
Marinette raised a shaking hand to her earring. Alya had warned her that she needed courage to transform. Or rather, to transform successfully.
It will give form to your essence. A strong spirit yields a champion, but a heart filled with anger and fear yields a monster.
What if she failed this test? What if she made everything worse? Alya liked to praise her valor and iron will, so utterly convinced of Marinette’s worthiness that Marinette had tentatively allowed herself to believe in it, too. She’d indulged the fantasy, just like she’d built elaborate daydreams of a prince in shining armor who’d one day take her away from the path her life was headed for.
But staring down the wall of darkness before her, the truth sliced through comforting delusions like a blade, ruthless and irrefutable. Her prince was not coming, didn’t even recognize her, and there was no courage in her heart. She knew her mind, all its flaws and vices, and rare was the day when she did not manage to work herself into a frenzy over nothing. And now she was to lay that innermost self bare for the world to see?
The butterfly’s magic would likely turn her into a pathetic little–
Why do you pretend to be a timid little mouse when you’re not?
Unbidden, a memory rose, as it had so many times before in her life, of a blond boy whose gaze followed the scrape of her quill as he leaned over her shoulder. Of a drawing hastily hidden, only to have it coaxed out of her hands. Of green eyes going wide with wonder.
“Why would you try to hide it?”
“I’m not very good at this.”
Adrien smoothed the crumbled paper, holding it like it was precious. “It’s great,” he said softly. “Can I keep it?”
“If – if you want.”
His smile was so bright it filled the room. “How can you not like it? It’s perfect.” He paused for a fraction of a second and then, lips twitching and looking as if he’d just discovered the world’s funniest jest, he whispered, “Purr-fect, even.”
She should have responded with a groan and a shove for that awful pun, yet instead, stilted and awkward words spilled right out of her. “It just – it never looks like I want it to, you know? I have this perfect image in my head, but when I try to put it to paper it looks like a poor imitation.” Drawn by a blind person. Be it her ideas for dresses or her attempts at sketching a piece of reality, her clumsy hands would not stick to The Plan.
Adrien nodded, a pensive expression on his face. Then he bumped her shoulder with his.
“You know, the inside your head must be truly miraculous if this looks plain by comparison.”
Marinette took a deep breath and closed her eyes.
“I am more”, she whispered.
And Alya needs me.
Not just Alya. Maman. Papa. Adrien. The entire realm was at stake. How could she live with herself if she gave less than everything she had to protect them?
Whether she was afraid or not, there was only one path open to her.
Drawing on every ounce of will she had, Marinette surged forward. Legs pumping and heart racing, she let the shadows swallow her as she ran. Once more the burn in her earlobe flared to life, but this time she embraced it, let it seep into her and turn to warmth. Holding the thought of all the people precious to her close, she imagined herself as a shield – no, a knight, standing tall in the face of danger.
Blue light bloomed, piercing the night and sweeping over her, stars entwining with her hair as her gloves caught the gleam. She did not break her stride, her purpose emblazoned in her mind and her heart, and as she ran, every step became lighter than the last. Her dress burned away, the embers swirling and dancing around her waist before taking on a new shape, trailing behind her.
And then Marinette was soaring.
The shadows parted at last, and she could not say whether it was because her eyesight had grown keen or whether it was retreating before her light, but either suited her fine. For a brief moment, she allowed herself a smile, for she was unbound.
As she lightly touched down on the ground once more, she glanced at the thing that had manifested in her left hand, which she instinctively knew was to be her weapon.
A fan of peacock feathers.
She plucked one, separating it from the rest, and her smile widened into a grin.
Just as Alya had predicted, Marinette’s mastery over her new powers was as intuitive as breathing. And why wouldn’t it be? She’d created herself, woven this body out of magic with nothing but her will. Reaching for the one tether that still held her, the source of her strength, she let the tip of the feather slash through the air. The quill left behind a glowing trail, a rune inscribed with ink made of pure light, and she gave it power and purpose.
The butterfly cocooned inside of her fluttered, unveiling the path to its Mistress just as the quill in Marinette’s hand dissolved, its magic spent.
The beast snarled against skin. Something hot and sticky ran down Nino’s face, his vision half-obscured by red splatters on his spectacles. Paralyzed, he could do nothing but stare as the enormous muzzle turned toward him, dragging the woman’s body with it like a ragdoll. Hateful eyes met his, and he knew, at once, that whatever this creature was, it was no mindless beast.
And it wanted him dead.
What the fuck is happening.
The silver-haired woman stirred, drawing the beast’s attention – and a swarm of white butterflies burst forth from her chest, a blindingly radiant maelstrom devouring the two of them whole. A roar rang out and scarcely a heartbeat passed before the beast broke free through a lunge, its maw filled with hundreds of torn wings.
Spitting them out, it turned its agile body to face the silver storm still centered on the woman, growling low in its throat. It crouched close to the ground and raised its haunches, already readying itself for its next strike.
The swarm pulsed and twisted, moving as if it was one living organism. As one, they dove to the ground, crowding so close together it became impossible to tell where one ended and another began. Swarming ever-faster, the protective bubble shimmered bright as it contracted – and burst, revealing a glowing blade.
Snatching it from the air, the silver-haired woman defiantly raised her chin.
But her throat was stained with red, and even from a distance, Nino could tell that the sword was shaking with the effort to hold it up.
Sudden clarity shattered the confused stupor he was caught in. This woman, no matter who – or what – she was, was trying to save him. And he could not just stand idly by while she fought for her life.
The creature lunged.
And so did Nino, throwing himself into the beast’s flank as it attempted to rush past him. His shoulder cried out in pain – like hitting a brick wall – and though it did not lose its balance, his split-second decision did succeed in throwing off the beast’s trajectory.
The woman did not waste the opening she’d been given, bringing down her blade on its neck.
And sank it into the ground when the creature simply vanished.
She reared back with a low curse, swiveling her head for her gaze to sweep the area. But she must have turned too rapidly for she let out a low gasp. Sinking to her knees, she clutched her torn throat with one hand and her sword handle for balance with the other.
The few stray butterflies still left gathered around her, perhaps trying to comfort her.
Nino stumbled back to his feet, ignoring the ache in his shoulder, and crossed the distance between them. “Don’t move,” he said urgently as he started ripping the sleeve of his coat. He had no idea what was happening, but this much he understood. “You’re losing too much blood.”
“It’s still here,” she hissed, her breaths labored and her voice no more than a broken whisper. “Don’t let down your guard.”
He laughed shakily as he pried away her hand to bind her throat with the improvised bandage, applying pressure to stem the flow. “I don’t think I’m ever going to let down my guard again. Or sleep, for that matter.” If this wasn’t some horrifically vivid nightmare, it would surely become a recurring one in the future.
Assuming he survived long enough to have one.
She held herself perfectly still as he wrapped the cloth around her, not making a sound even though it had to be agony. Her alert gaze was searching their surroundings, though as he leaned close, he could not help but take notice of the way her lids kept drooping, like she was struggling to keep her eyes open.
Familiar face, too, even if her coloring was all wrong. Oh Gods, of course.
Her gaze snapped to him for but a moment before returning to her search. “I vow I shall explain everything, my Lord. Later.”
“I hurt you,” he whispered, horror dawning as he pieced together shards of his fractured memory. “Didn’t I?”
“No. That was not you.” Her eyes narrowed, then widened, fixated on something in the distance. She shot to her feet, raising her hoarse voice. “And you are not one of mine!”
A stray butterfly ahead of them quivered, white wings vibrating. Then it bulged and expanded, luminescence flowing like water into the shape of arms and legs and–
“Clever little hunter,” said the beast in form of a Lady, and recognition struck Nino like lightning. “But being clever won’t save you.”
Lady Alya yanked at her sword – and snarled when it remained where it was, the blade not budging an inch from the frozen soil she’d driven it into.
“Poor thing. How close are you to passing out?” The woman Adrien had introduced as Lady Lila Rossi licked the corner of her lips. “So much blood spilled from you, I can almost taste it.”
“Still have enough left to end you!”
Lady Alya pulled at the hilt again, to no avail. Alarmed by the way her lips were turning even paler, Nino laid his hand over hers, thumb brushing the tense knuckles clutching the sword.
“Let me,” he whispered in her ear, even as some part of him – perhaps the little island of sanity that yet remained in this sea of madness - whimpered at his own words. “You need to conserve your strength.”
She stared at him, swaying where she stood, and Nino did his best to appear confident. Then her death grip on the hilt loosened, leaving him to wrap his fingers around it.
The beast laughed softly, her canines elongating as she spoke. “Ah, the Lord who cannot stomach the thought of violence wishes to rescue the fair maiden.”
Nino was no stranger to the arts of war, as was proper for any Lord of his station. Swords, riding, archery – years and years’ worth of physical education had been poured into him in an effort to shape him into the kind of man the heir of House Lahiffe ought to be.
But Nino had neither the aptitude nor temperament for battle, as a lifetime of being beaten in just about any sparring contest could attest.
I can do this. I will. I must.
With a hoarse yell and a heave, the blade broke through the frozen ground. Unbalanced by the unexpectedly light weight of it, Nino stumbled, barely managing to catch himself in time. Derisive laughter rang out just as he surged forward. Putting all his strength behind the blow, the sword sliced through the air.
And hit nothing.
He’d never known a butterfly could flap its wings mockingly, but this one did. It retreated and reformed into a human shape a few feet away.
“Stop. Running,” he said through gritted teeth.
“Why would I? Your lady love is bleeding out as we speak. All I have to do is wait.” Thin lips split into a wide grin, baring fangs as she inhaled deeply. “And savor this despair.”
His breath caught, his gaze darting back to Lady Alya. She’d sunk back to her knees, one palm on the ground for balance. Could she run? The guard house was not so far away, if only he could distract–
“Oh yes, please do fetch the guards,” the thing said softly, and another change came over it, clothing rippling like water until he stood before a girl in a servant’s uniform, her face streaked with tears. “I saw it all, sir.” She choked on the words as she wept, burying her face in her hands. “When the Lady spurned his wicked advances, he fell upon her like a beast, so savage and brutal that I could do naught but hide and pray he would not see me.”
Nino lunged, bringing down his sword, and the not-girl evaded in a graceful pirouette, all traces of sorrow vanishing in an instant.
“Now that stain upon your social standing would be hard to erase, wouldn’t it, Lord Lahiffe? Even holding the prince’s favor would not save you from the gallows.”
“Ridiculous lies no one would believe!” As if any man could inflict a wound like that. Anyone looking at Lady Alya would know she’d been attacked by an animal. He shot another worried glance in her direction. Purple sparkles were crawling up from the tips of her hair, burning away the silver and leaving her hair the rich, deep red he was used to.
“Ah, but my Lord,” the beast said with an indulgent smile, drawing back his attention.
You forget how very persuasive I can be.
The world spun and bile rose, his grip on the sword loosening. The venomous whisper was inside his head. Had been in his head, before, and driven him to–
“Can’t run.” A hand closed around his throat. “Can’t call for help.” He choked as she squeezed, nails like claws digging into his skin. When had the blade’s hilt slipped through his fingers? “Can’t fight. Which only leaves one fate for you, doesn’t it?”
Narrow pupils abruptly dilated and she whirled around. Her free hand snapped up, catching a soaring arrow aimed at her neck mid-flight.
No, not an arrow – a peacock feather.
From above, a voice rang out.
The feather caught fire, enveloping the creature’s arm in a blue blaze. An unearthly shriek almost ruptured his eardrums as Nino’s knees hit the ground, the claw pinning him in place gone. Cycling so rapidly in size and form that it became a blur, the creature writhed on the ground as it fought to douse the flames.
A shadow passed overhead, and Nino wrenched his head up just as a woman landed between them. Kaleidoscopic wings shimmered in the darkness, folding into a skirt trailing behind her like a peacock’s tail.
The Changeling growled as it rose again as a towering, four-legged animal as tall as a horse. One of its front legs was blackened and streaked with red, smoke rising from its charred fur. Its lips drew back, baring fangs as long as daggers.
“You’ll pay.” The words were rough and barely intelligible, squeezed through the depths of its throat with great effort, the long muzzle not meant for speech.
It should terrify her.
Marinette smiled serenely and opened her fan, plucking another quill from her arsenal.
The Changeling charged, great fangs snapping shut, and she stepped to the side, evading the attack with ease in a whirl of feathers. It was as if her body weighed nothing at all, soaring in a leap with all the effort of taking a single step.
Focusing on the magic pulsing in her veins, she raised her quill to cut through the air, inscribing a rune.
The feather glowed as it absorbed its purpose, readying to redesign reality as Marinette saw fit. She flicked her hand, flinging it like a knife to seek its target, and struck true.
A howl rang out as the fae instinctively pawed at its milky-white eyes, hissing in pain as it collapsed, the burned front leg unable to support the massive body’s weight by itself. Marinette readied her next quill, raising the tip to–
Pain shot through her heart, and she staggered, her power wavering. What…?
Marinette spun on her heels, eyes widening as her belly filled with panicked flutters. Was it her butterfly, warning her that time was running out? Lady Alya was lying on the ground, Lord Lahiffe at her side as he frantically pressed against the red cloth tied around her neck.
She had to finish this. Now.
Yet when she turned back to the Changeling, her blood ran cold.
It wasn’t there.
There were only so many forms it could hide in. The unnatural miasma all around them kept others away – had almost scared her off, as well. So what did not belong? Beyond the three of them, the only living creatures were Alya’s butterflies, anxiously flocking around their Mistress.
All except one.
High above, its trajectory uneven, one of its wings askew, a butterfly was flying away.
Alya’s voice echoed in her head, a lesson driven home over many evenings spent strategizing. Our highest priority is to capture one of them for interrogation. We must find out what they’re planning, else we’re just going to keep stumbling around in the dark.
“I’m sorry, Alya,” Marinette whispered, raising the tip of the peacock feather to carve out her next attack. “There’s no time.”
No sound escaped when her feather sailed through the air and hit its aim. Nor when the Changeling began dissolving into dust, blown away by the winds of winter.
Marinette turned away from the sight, hurrying to her friend’s side. Ignoring Lord Lahiffe’s bewildered look, she knelt beside him, fingers tightening around her quill – the last one of five. Forcing her hand to be steady and cease its useless shaking, she etched wide sweeping loops, this rune softer and less angular than the others.
Concept art of Peacock!Marinette, courtesy of the amazing ZiriO <3
The sounds of battle grew fainter with every strenuous beat of her heart. Sweet relief beckoned as the pain began fading, her eyelids drifting shut.
Her fingers dug into the dirt, trying to find something, anything, to hold on to. Stay. Stay awake, stay here, stay alive. She would not die here, not now, not like this.
Not when she hadn’t yet had her vengeance.
Gravel shifted between her grasping fingertips, crumbling away. Where was her sword, she needed her–
“Maman,” she whispered, but her throat wouldn’t make the sound. Sinking into the murky space between oblivion and waking, the senses anchoring her to the world dimmed one by one.
Muffled noises caught the remains of her attention, and Alya clung to them, straining to parse the words’ meaning. Something pawed at her throat, an echo of pain piercing the numbness that had taken hold.
A rush of air filled her lungs. Gulping in deep, greedy breaths, she rolled to the side. The back of her throat tasted of blood as she retched. She stilled when a soft touch brushed her nape, drawing back the wild locks spilling over her shoulder to save them from the slimy mess she was coughing up.
“Alya.” The gentle voice was infused with relief, sounding familiar and yet alien. Cracking open her eyes, Alya blinked, inhaling sharply as her hard-won ability to breathe momentarily deserted her again. Vibrant blue eyes were staring down at her. The woman’s skin was radiant, her regal face framed by a feathered headdress.
A tentative smile crossed the woman’s face in response. “Hello.”
“Wow,” Alya whispered. “Look at you.”
Marinette’s smile widened into a grin, just a hint of preening in her bearing. But then her expression grew solemn. “Are you alright?” Her voice was subtly altered, melodious and clear as a bell. “Does it still hurt?”
“I’m – I’m fine. I think.” Though she had no idea how. She tentatively wiggled her fingers, her toes, and when she was certain all limbs obeyed as they should, Alya pushed herself to sit. “What happened?”
“That,” said a deep voice, “is what I’d like to know.”
Alya’s head whipped around to stare at Lord Lahiffe, who stared back with wide, bewildered eyes. His gaze darted to Marinette, then back to her, as if he couldn’t quite decide which one to gape at. Blood flecked his spectacles, the sleeve of his elegant coat torn and uneven.
He barked out a laugh, a touch of hysteria to it. It was a sound Alya knew well, born from escaping a brush of death with nary an inch to spare. Holy shit, it said, I can’t believe I’m alive. If she hadn’t been so exhausted, she might just have laughed along.
“Because – because none of this makes any sense. None of it. And I – what was that? What are you? Who – Marinette, really? What is–“
He abruptly cut himself off, staring at his hand. The hand Alya had impulsively decided to entwine with hers, squeezing it in quiet comfort.
“I promised to answer your questions, and I will,” she said softly. “But the answers are complicated, so I must beg your patience for a moment longer, my Lord. Please.”
He said nothing, his troubled stare at last settling on her and only her. Her skin prickled under the scrutiny. A moment later, he gave a sharp nod, even as the tension around the corners of his mouth tightened. He made no move to withdraw his hand, so Alya didn’t either as she turned, craning her neck to survey their surroundings.
Starlight filtered in from above, the unnatural miasma slowly dispersing. She’d read of the death fog in her studies, though she’d never experienced it up close. A little pocket of darkness and isolation, designed to keep witnesses out and the screams of the victim in.
Disquiet rose, an awareness that there was something not quite right.
Why would a Changeling summon death fog? Any unsuspecting human who might have stumbled upon them would have added to its power, another puppet for it to use as a living weapon. So who had it been trying to hide from…?
“Where is it?” Alya asked.
“I killed it,” Marinette said, subdued rather than triumphant. “I know you said we need to capture one of them, but your time was running out and… I had to choose.”
Alya’s hand absently brushed her bare throat, her fingertips leaving an unpleasant tingling in their wake. Not quite pain, but the echo of it. Her skin was smooth and unbroken, and only then was she struck by the fact that it really shouldn’t be.
“You killed it,” she repeated in whispered disbelief. “And then you healed me?”
Marinette nodded, eyes guarded as if expecting a reprimand. Yet her chin was held high, no trace of the high-strung nerves she so often exhibited. No, she looked ready to defend her decision.
“I knew it!” Alya laughed, giddy and excited, and if her limbs hadn’t been so sluggish, she might have yanked her friend into a hug. Instead, the attempt left her flopping forward, her forehead coming to rest on Marinette’s shoulder. “I knew you’d be amazing…”
Yes, she’d been certain that she’d found a soul who would create a strong avatar, although she’d tried to temper her high hopes. For Marinette to develop not only the gift of healing, but offensive capabilities as well… Alya grinned against downy feathers as she closed her eyes. It surpassed even her best-case scenario.
“Lady Alya?” Marinette asked hesitantly and Alya jerked awake.
Blinking rapidly to snap herself out of the daze she’d almost sunk into, she disentangled herself to rub her eyes. “Sorry.” The last remnants of battle fervor were leeching away, leaving her with an exhaustion she felt all the way in her bones.
“You look pale.” Marinette’s too-bright eyes softened in concern. “You should rest.”
“Not yet.” Taking a deep breath to center herself, she looked back to Lord Lahiffe. He’d regained some of his composure, his gaze hooded as he watched their exchange. Yet his hand was still in hers, thumb absently stroking along the back of her hand. Whether it was for her comfort or his, she could not say.
“What you just saw,” Alya said to him, “was a Changeling. A fae.”
“A fae,” he repeated numbly. “Like in children’s tales?”
“Tales with a core of an ugly truth.” She smiled ruefully. “A truth that is rather unconvincing if you haven’t seen it with your own eyes. When you asked me what I know of Chloe Bourgeois’ disappearance, would you have believed me if I told you I’ve been following the tracks of the monsters responsible?”
Her voice softened. “Would you believe me now?”
His thumb stilled, and he stared at their entwined hands. “I would like to.”
She nodded, accepting the somewhat ambivalent answer, and pressed on. “You won’t call for the guards, then?”
Marinette stirred in alarm. “Guards?”
“No,” the Lord said with a soft sigh. “No guards. For now.” The words hung in the air, trailing off into uncertainty as he canted his head to look at Marinette. “…Are you two fae as well?”
Alya shook her head. “We’re human, same as you.” When he opened his mouth as if to object, she tapped the butterfly brooch she wore at the center of her gown’s low-cut neckline. The Changeling’s fangs had missed it by mere inches. Alya shivered at the memory, pushing it away. “Humans who fight fire with fire. This is a weapon which once belonged to a powerful fae, taken by brave warriors who defeated him and passed it on to their descendants.”
“Me,” she said with a nod and a small smile. “Every noble House has its secret histories, and this is mine.”
“It would appear that House Césaire’s family secrets best those of House Lahiffe, then.” He rubbed the bridge of his nose, pushing up his spectacles as he did so. “Ours mostly involve children out of wedlock.”
A pointed look slid back to Marinette.
“…You’re not really related, are you?”
Marinette threw her a questioning look and at Alya’s subtle nod to go ahead, she said, “No, we are not. I met Lady Alya only last week, when I saw her fight a creature much like this one.” She hesitated for a long moment. “It took Lady Chloe.”
“Is she…?” He faltered, choking on the words as fingers balled into fists in his lap. “It… that thing in my head, just now, it taunted me with – but it wasn’t real, was it? Chloe’s not…”
“I’m sorry,” Alya said softly.
He nodded, a sheen to his eyes, and said nothing. Alya averted her eyes, his grief so palpable that watching it struck her as intruding on something far more intimate than he would want a near-stranger to see.
The heavy silence stretched on, only broken at last by the rustle of Marinette’s long skirt. She settled in next to him, laying a hand on his rigid shoulder. “I won’t pretend to know the depth of your sorrow, my Lord,” she said, muted and gentle. “But while we are powerless to change Chloe’s fate, it’s not too late to change Adrien’s.”
“Adrien?” His voice was hoarse and low.
“He’s in danger.” As the reminder struck her, Alya shot to her feet. At once, she regretted the sudden movement. Vertigo enveloped her, her already blurry vision growing dim at the edges. Shaking her head to clear it, she said, “That Changeling – I saw it sniffing around him earlier.”
“The woman he danced with,” Marinette said, nodding.
“Wait, what?” Lord Lahiffe’s brow furrowed as comprehension dawned and he pushed himself up as well. “You’re saying these things are after Adrien?” A hard edge had crept into his voice and his eyes, protectiveness overpowering grief.
“We came here following the suspicion that they had a hand in his disappearance. And I’d say this all but confirms it,” Alya said as she started toward the courtyard. “We need to keep an eye on him, make sure he’s…” She trailed off when she stumbled on her second step.
A hand closed around her upper arm, aiding her balance and holding her in place. “You,” Marinette said, “need to go home and rest. You’re in no state to go back to the feast. Neither of you are.”
“Alya.” Command suffused Marinette’s voice, the servant girl’s avatar wearing the mantle of leadership like she’d been born to it. “I will keep watch over the prince tonight.”
“She’s right,” Lord Lahiffe muttered as he picked at his torn coat’s sleeve. “It would ruin us both if people witnessed us going for a private stroll and coming back looking like this, Lady Alya.”
Warmth rose to her cheeks as his meaning sank in, a quick glance down at herself telling her all she needed to know. Though her transformation had protected her gown from the worst of the battle, it was still stained with dirt and snow, and Lord Lahiffe was similarly disheveled.
They looked like they’d snuck away for a tryst. Vicious tongues would wag so hard they’d combust from friction.
Lord Lahiffe turned toward Marinette, golden gaze studying her for a long moment. “You’ll protect Adrien?”
She inclined her head. “It’s what I’m here for.”
“I’ll hold you to that.” He exhaled, looking as exhausted as Alya felt. “Fuck, what a mess…”
Suddenly, he grew rigid, gaze guiltily darting around to the two of them.
“Pardon my language.”
Alya burst out laughing, almost losing her balance in the process. Maybe it was the exhaustion mingling with the relief of being alive, but no matter how hard she tried, she could not keep it contained, more and more snickers spilling out. It wasn’t that funny, not really – like any Lord of his rank, he’d undoubtedly had lessons in propriety rammed into his head since childhood.
A gentleman does not disgrace a Lady’s ear with vulgar curses.
Sadly, while Alya had memorized her etiquette guide, the lessons had never quite sunk in deep enough to become an unthinking reflex. But at least she could always recite whatever rule she was breaking by heart.
A Lady’s laugh must be like wind chimes; elegant, delicate, and above all pleasing to the ear.
Snorting is ill-advised.
“My Lord,” she said, wheezing. “Are you trying to deal the finishing blow?”
“I–“ He stared at her, bewildered by her reaction. Right. Of course he was, poor man, she was cackling like a madwoman.
“Just when I made it through battle with a fae beast, you would assault my delicate, womanly constitution with such vile, horrid words?”
Another spurt of giggles escaped, and she was forced to lean against her friend to keep from doubling over.
“Oh, Marinette, hold me!”
“There, there,” Marinette said, patting her hair. “We shall endure this horror together.”
“She twisted her ankle,” Nino said, and his mind went blank just as Lady Alya started wiggling in his arms. Warmth pressed against him, a hint to the true voluptuous shape hidden beneath the layers of silk, and he tried hard not to think about it.
There was a lot he was trying not to think about. His head felt just about ready to burst with questions that demanded answers.
Answers he wasn’t sure he wanted to hear.
One step forward at a time. That was how he’d gotten through the last – how long had it been since the world had plunged into him into madness? Minutes rather than hours, probably, and the thought made him queasy.
The dour-faced coachman hopped off his front seat, quickly moving to open the door of the carriage. Grunting with effort, Nino raised Lady Alya high, allowing her to step into the carriage to hobble inside. She was a good actress – her fingers clenched the door for support and her face contorted into a pained grimace when she stepped onto her supposedly injured foot.
By tomorrow his entire staff would have heard of this, and from there it would spread to servants of other households. Not exactly an ideal cover story for either of their reputations – a man escorting a woman home without a chaperone in sight still carried a whiff of scandal, even if it was for ostensibly noble reasons – but it was the best they could come up with, given the circumstances.
He just hoped Adrien would not hold leaving early against him. Not with their friendship so strangely fragile.
“Where to, my Lord?”
“That depends on where the Lady is staying,” Nino answered as he climbed into the little compartment after her, careful to keep his torn sleeve out of sight.
“La Grande Auberge,” she said to the servant with a practiced smile, naming one of the more prestigious inns in the city’s inner ring.
He bowed briskly, and the door slammed shut.
There were a thousand questions to ask, but none would leave his lips. Whenever one rose to the tip of his tongue, it was displaced by another, one that was more important, more urgent, only to be chased away by the next. Where did one start to rebuild when all the foundation of reality had crumbled away?
But of course, one question loomed above all others, and it was the one he wanted to ask least of all.
Tell me how she died.
Did it hurt, was she scared, did she–
Wrenching his thoughts away from that direction, he instead turned his attention to the woman beside him. She was curled up in the little nook between the bench and the carriage window, resting her head on the curtain. Her eyes were half-lidded, though alert, and watching him.
Her lower lip was still swollen, untouched by the magic that had miraculously knit together the skin on her throat. Because he had done that, not the Changeling. Poison had whispered in his ear, and he had lashed out as hard as he could.
Without quite having meant to, he found his thumb brushing the sensitive spot. Her eyelids fluttered.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered.
“It’s not your fault.” How did she do that? Curled up as she was, small and delicate, with her torn dress and obvious exhaustion, she should have been a pitiful sight. Yet between the strength in her voice and the fire in her eyes, he felt like he was staring at a lioness. “Far from it. You fought back.”
“After almost succumbing,” he said bitterly.
“You have no idea how rare it is to even attempt to resist, let alone succeed. It requires a degree of mental fortitude I had to train for years to attain.”
He looked away from the intensity of her gaze, but glanced back from the corner of his eyes when curiosity pricked at him. “How does one attain that, anyway?”
“Meditation. Prayer.” Lady Alya made a most unladylike face. “Spending every morning choking down a concoction of primrose, thyme and salt.”
“It’s the breakfast of champions,” she said, laughing softly. “And fae hunters.”
“Fae hunter,” he repeated, slanting a glance at her. “How old are you?”
She scrunched up her nose. “And here I thought you were such a well-mannered gentleman.”
“Well, you’re the one who laughed at me for propriety.” His lips curved into a half-grin. “If we’re going to descend into uncivilized anarchy, I get to ask Ladies their age.”
“Touché.” A smile touched her face, and his heart thumped. “I’m twenty.”
He nodded. “And if you’ve been training for this for years…”
“Since I was eleven.”
Nino’s grin faded. “That seems young.”
“And when did your father first push a wooden sword into your hand, my Lord? Did you not play war games as a boy?”
“Is it?” Her sharp gaze pinned him in place.
His lips parted, then closed without sound. He shrugged and looked away, sinking into his seat.
“May I ask you something?” she asked tentatively. They’d agreed that he’d be the one to have his questions answered for the duration of the carriage ride, but he supposed he couldn’t hold it against her that she was looking to fill the heavy silence now that he wasn’t holding up his end of the bargain.
So he nodded. “Sure.”
“You’ve had opportunity to talk to Prince Adrien since his return, yes?”
Another slow nod.
“Would you say he is…” She trailed off, carefully considering her words. “…himself?”
He frowned. “What do you mean by that?”
“You saw what the Changeling could do,” she said. “They can take the shape of men and usurp their place.”
Nino’s reaction was immediate and visceral.
“A–are you saying–!?”
“I’m not saying anything,” she said softly. “I’m asking what you think.”
Nino felt that in his gut. There was a vast gulf between the Adrien he’d been drinking with tonight, and the Adrien he’d known a year ago. But–
That was to be expected, wasn’t it? The scars might be invisible, but nobody escaped prolonged imprisonment unscathed.
“He’s…” Nino trailed off, trying to scrape together the right words. “I’ve known Adrien for over a decade now. And in that time – he changed. So did I. I mean, obviously we did. You can’t stay a child forever.” He huffed out a breath, shooting her a worried glance. The last thing he wanted was for his careless words to paint a target on Adrien’s back. “But there’s always this sense of continuity. Adrien at twenty isn’t Adrien at fifteen, but they are alike. The same person, with an extra layer. That’s what he feels like since his return.”
As Nino spoke and put words to this vague feeling he’d been having, he grew more certain in his assessment. Yes, there was an extra layer of… something, opaque and unknown, but the core was the same.
Besides, Adrien had been referencing things only the two of them would know.
Still there was that persistent sense of wrongness, like there was something he had overlooked.
“Does that make sense?”
“It does, my Lord,” Lady Alya said gently. She took a deep breath, as if bracing herself for something, and then asked, “Did you feel the same way about Lady Bourgeois in recent months?”
Nino reeled back, struck by sudden swerve to the topic he was doing his best to avoid.
“What does that have to do with…”
Before the words even left his lips, a sick realization settled in his stomach. Memories he’d tried not to dwell on clawed their way to the forefront of his mind.
Mercurial mood changes he could no longer predict nor sooth.
Lovely red lips curved into a smile, saying all the right words while his skin crawled.
His fiancée shying away from his touch, her blue eyes filled with contempt.
“Delightful,” Chat said, doing his best to keep the smile from dripping off his face.
“It’s risky to be sure,” Lord Cataldi babbled on. “But if our nations cooperate now to establish and secure a new route, it will pay dividends for decades, nay, centuries to come!” How any man was able to muster this much enthusiasm for trade agreements was a mystery.
“Our Master of Coins might just faint in excitement when he hears of this.” Chat took a deep sip of his goblet, the smooth burn sliding down his throat. “I’ll be sure to tell him in person, if only for the entertainment value.”
Polite titters answered him, and with a satisfied nod, Lord Cataldi launched into yet another lecture on the importance of cornering the silk trade in the region.
Chat wanted to pay attention. He really did. This was important to father, and he did not wish to disappoint again. But it was difficult to stay focused on inane chatter when he was being sized up by another predator.
Once again, his gaze drifted to her.
She stood off to the side, her hands demurely folded in front of her drab skirts, all but fading into the background. Yet her sharp gaze kept sweeping over the gathered crowd, watching, judging, calculating, holding herself so still and making herself so unseen that it could only be deliberate.
The ambassador’s daughter, Lady Kagami.
Instinct whispered that she was the one to impress, not the preening Lords trying to outwit each other by bloviating the loudest. So he’d decided to mimic her, listening politely and attentively, offering noncommittal statements, and keeping his opinions close to his chest.
Not that he had opinions on any of this, but a mysterious, knowing smile went a long way toward convincing the delegates that there was some substance he kept hidden.
When a lull in the conversation presented itself, he took the opportunity to wander away from the group, flashing a smile at Lady Kagami as he joined her next to the buffet table.
“Are you enjoying your stay in the capital, my Lady?”
“It’s splendid, Your Grace,” she murmured, doing her best impression of a wallflower.
When she offered nothing more, he asked, “So what do you think of Lord Cataldi’s proposal?”
She slanted a side-long glance at him. “I’m afraid trade is not my area of expertise.”
“And yet, if looks could kill, Lord Cataldi would be lying dead at our feet and the guards would be dragging you away for murder.”
A dry chuckle escaped before she pressed her lips together.
“Oh, I wouldn’t stoop to murder for this,” she said at length. “Grievous bodily injury, perhaps. Was I so obvious?”
“Not at all. But once I took notice, I found myself intrigued. What part of his scheme is it that you find so objectionable?”
Her appraising gaze swept over him, pinning him in place like he was no more than an insect she was examining. For all that he’d noticed that she was playing a different game than the others, he had no idea how to read that expression of hers. It made his hackles rise, his fangs itching to be bared in a threat display, to make her regret thinking she could come to his territory and test him.
“You’re not the first powerful patron he’s sought to fund his plans, and as always, he’s downplaying the risk. What he will not tell you is just how fiercely protective the Eastern nations are of their monopoly on silk. Expect your workers to be murdered, your supplies to be burned, and your traders to be ambushed.”
If the glamor hadn’t robbed him of his true ears, they would have twitched right about now. It was truth, but not quite. Lies by omission. There were more reasons she would object to this deal.
But mentally combing through Adrien’s memories for hints yielded nothing, so he fell back on his smile. “I thank you for your counsel, my Lady.”
“Hm.” She tilted her head. “I’ve been given to understand a woman’s counsel doesn’t count for much in these lands.”
Chat had gathered as much. Countless rules drew a sharp dividing line between human males and females, and while he could see the sense in some, others were utterly baffling. It was the reason the king’s valet ran around pretending to be a male.
“A fool discards wisdom at his own peril,” he said with an expansive shrug, echoing a memory of the king.
“That he does, Your Grace.” Was he imagining the glint of approval?
A high-pitched screech pierced the air, following by deafening thunder. Chat flinched, staring wide-eyed at the sky. A burst of red stars was rapidly fading as a chorus of coos rang out all around him. His sensitive ears picked up on the word fireworks amongst the excited chatter.
Lowering his gaze back down to Lady Kagami, he bowed at the waist. “I’m afraid that’s my cue to seek out a previous engagement. I hope you enjoy the rest of the festivities, My Lady. Happy New Year’s Eve.”
She dropped into a curtsy, her eagle-eyed gaze never leaving his. “And to you, Your Grace.”
Keeping the smile plastered to his face, he turned toward the other Esparian nobles to politely extract himself. By the time he was done with all the formalities, smoke was burning his nostrils, his temple throbbing from the uncomfortably loud bangs overhead.
Forced to draw his glamor around himself to muffle his senses, he prowled aimlessly through the crowd in search of familiar faces. Nino was nowhere to be found still, and neither was Lady Mariposa. Chat scowled, absently rolling his shoulders to try and release the tension that had crept in. Playing at politics was draining.
The humans had huddled together in groups, their gazes turned heavenward and alight with joy. They were absurdly social creatures, forever seeking each other’s company. And it wasn’t that he was jealous or anything, but the fact that the humans he thought he’d made a connection with were so eager to disappear on him did make him wonder if there wasn’t truth to the Changeling’s words after all.
Maybe Chat wasn’t as good at this as he’d thought.
A male not far from him leaned forward to whisper something into his female companion’s ear. In response, she leaned into him, bliss written so plainly on her face that even Chat had no trouble reading it.
And something inside him ached.
A gentle touch brushed his shoulder blade, and he jumped at being ambushed, whirling around.
Lady Mariposa blinked up at him with wide eyes, and then cracked up laughing.
Warmth bloomed in his chest.
Marinette didn’t mean to laugh, she really didn’t. But, well, he looked so utterly ridiculous, his jump clearing what had to be at least a foot in height.
“My apologies for startling you,” she said, biting her lip to keep her grin in check.
Adrien’s almost offended expression quickly softened with recognition, even as his lips pushed forward in a pout. “I meant to do that.”
“Wanted to show off your acrobatics skills?”
“Yes. Are you suitably impressed?”
“I shall swoon post-haste.”
The corners of his eyes crinkled when he smiled. “I have a hard time believing you’ve ever swooned in your life.” He paused, seeming to weigh his words as his gaze grew guarded. “You’re a hard woman to find, Lady Mariposa. I’ve been looking for your vicinity.”
Even an hour ago, the words would likely have left her a flustered mess. Instead, riding the wave of unrestrained boldness she’d uncovered within herself, she opened her arms, gesturing to herself. “Behold. My vicinity.”
His smile deepened, and he turned his gaze toward the sky just as green light erupted overhead, illuminating his handsome profile. “I’m glad you decided to stay,” he said, then cleared his throat. “For the fireworks.”
Marinette followed his gaze, watching the little stars as they burst into existence only to flame out mere moments later. “And the company.”
She felt rather than saw his body shift beside her, a pleased hum on his lips.
For a long moment, neither of them spoke, both their attentions absorbed by the spectacle above. And yet, her gaze kept sneaking back to the man beside her.
He looked no worse for wear since they’d parted, so she could only assume the fae attack had been focused on Alya alone.
“Tell him nothing of who you are,” Alya whispered fiercely, her arms wrapping around Marinette as they said their goodbyes for the night. “Don’t even hint. It’s been made abundantly clear how little we can afford to have anyone draw wrong conclusions about you.” Her gaze darted to Lord Lahiffe, and she lowered her voice further. “I’ll explain tomorrow.”
Marinette inclined her head. “Before you go, I have a question.”
She smiled sheepishly. “How do I turn back?”
Even now that Alya had severed the connection, Marinette still sensed her butterfly’s presence. Like embers lying dormant within, ready to flare into a blazing inferno at her command.
“Lord Lahiffe asked me to convey his regrets,” Marinette said and his gaze swiveled to hers. “He had to leave the feast early, though he hopes to make it up to you soon.”
Adrien blinked, then frowned. “He left?”
“Yes, but – do you remember my cousin?”
“Lady Césaire,” he said with a slow nod.
“She twisted her ankle and can’t walk on her own.” Lies should not be slipping from her lips this easily, and yet… “He’s helping her get home.”
“I see,” he said, his frown deepening.
For the first time, the silence between them grew awkward, his thoughts clearly elsewhere. She ran her fingers through her hair, pointlessly smoothing what was already smooth, and grew still when her fingertips brushed her earring stud.
Courage. Marinette had faced the darkness, and she could face this.
“You’re upset,” she said softly.
He turned to her with a strangely vulnerable expression. “Did he seem... angry with me?”
Golden eyes blazed with intensity. “You’ll protect Adrien?”
“No,” she said with certainty.
He exhaled a touch too sharply and said nothing.
“What makes you think that, Your G – Adrien?” she asked, hesitantly inching closer.
“I’ve been an ass recently.” He shot her a surprisingly self-conscious look, and gestured vaguely to his head. “Injuries make a man ill-tempered.”
Good maid. As they had many times in recent days, those humiliating words crossed her mind. But this time, they faded as quickly as they’d risen, easy to swat away like the annoying gnats they were.
“Nobody ought to be judged only by their low points,” she said decisively. “I don’t know him well, but I doubt Lord Lahiffe would have cut the evening short if it hadn’t been an emergency.”
“Hopefully.” He shook his head as if to shake off his doubts with it, and turned his gaze back toward the sky. “Apologies for being maudlin during a celebration. Here I am in good company and not appreciating it.”
“Well, if ever there was a time to be maudlin, it’s now.”
He arched a questioning eyebrow.
“Get all those thoughts out and leave them behind in the old year,” she said.
Just as his lips started moving, an unpleasantly high-pitched whistling noise rang out, drowning out his voice. Applause ran through the crowd just as the sky caught fire. Marinette had seen fireworks before, but none that could match the sheer extravagance and scale of this, the sparse clouds aflame with the full spectrum of colors.
Prince Adrien leaned forward, lips almost but not quite brushing her ear, speaking softly over the roar.
“Happy New Year.”
A pleasant shiver ran down the length of her spine. “Happy New Year,” she whispered.
His lips curved into an impish grin as he rocked back on his heels, eyes dancing in merriment at some private joke.
“What?” she asked.
“Nothing,” he said innocently.
Marinette narrowed her eyes in suspicion, and he struggled in vain to keep a straight face.
“Fine. I admit, I was hoping for a squeak.”
“You–!” She shoved his upper arm as his laughter spilled forth. “Don’t make me regret coming here!”
That sobered him. “But you don’t, right?”
“…If I say no, it’s going to go straight to your head, isn’t it?”
She rolled her eyes, pointedly looking back at the sky. Her skin kept prickling with awareness of him as he kept his eyes on her, yet even that paled when her little throw-away joke refused to fade from her mind.
Did she regret coming?
“Every step I took that brought me here,” Marinette said at last. “I’d take again.” She grinned at him. “Would you like to know why?”
Curiosity sparked to life in green eyes. “Why?”
“Because I remember staring at the sky this time last year. And the year before that, and the one before that. Standing on the same spot.” She paused, trying to give words and form to this feeling swelling inside of her. The one that had her standing tall in front of a beast. “Nothing ever changed, not really. And I was looking at my whole life ahead of me, knowing it’d be more of the same.”
A lifetime of being ordered around while she yearned for something she couldn’t even put words to. Sometimes her daydreams had given it form, dressed it up in the shape of a prince to take her away on a white steed.
“Well, now I’m here.” Standing amongst nobility and monsters. “And I’m just…so excited. About where this year will take me. Because I truly have no idea. Even if it will be hard, and scary, and… I’m not afraid. Anymore. Isn’t that strange?”
A happy laugh bubbled up.
“I can’t wait to see what I’m capable of.”
“Well," he said softly, his eyelids closing in a slow blink as he stared at her with an inscrutable expression. "Now, neither can I, Lady Mariposa."
“Mari,” Marinette said decisively. The made-up name sat ill, and though she had to keep up the pretense, she didn’t want more lies than needed to stand between them. The nickname, at least, she could pretend was her own. “I – if we’re going to be breaking all rules of formality, you should call me Mari. Adrien.”
“Mari.” It was not quite a growl, the way he rolled the syllables on his tongue, but it made her shiver all the same, stirring something deep in her belly. “Tell me about yourself.”
Her newfound boldness stretched to its limits, she tucked a stray strand of hair behind her ear with a shy smile. “What would you like to know?”
His lips stretched into a Cheshire grin. “Everything.”
Thunder roared overhead, the gaps in between growing longer as the last vestiges of the human celebration faded away.
Volpina cracked open milky white eyes, snarling low in her throat. Shadows danced in front of her damaged vision, the hunter’s stolen magic lasting longer than she’d feared. In the hours she’d lain here, only one of her eyes had managed to slowly regenerate. Even then, the shapes in the distance were still melting into one another, blurred and indistinct.
The grass rustled as she tentatively rose to all her fours, trading a grasshopper’s body for that of a rodent. She was beyond lucky the hunter had taken the bait of her illusion and not looked closer at the butterfly she’d conjured. Never would Volpina underestimate them again.
As galling as it was, she needed help.
Her nose twitched as she breathed deeply, whiskers quivering. Sorting through smoke and ash and humans, she caught that singular trace of Nightmare, the dark magic of her home welcoming her like an old friend. Moving slowly and deliberately, Volpina followed the cat’s scent.
When she came upon the closed gates, she let loose an indignant squeak. Normally, she’d have no trouble navigating the palace and shifting smoothly between shapes to scale the walls. Being blinded complicated things, however, as did her battered front paw.
Should she risk it?
The hunters had been gone for hours, and thought her dead besides. She’d been forced to listen to their conversation, not daring to move a muscle as even a single movement might have given her away.
At least she’d learned a great deal of the enemy they were facing.
Volpina smiled at the thought of them all dying by the hand of the prince they were seeking to protect.
Closing her eyes, she called upon Underhill’s magic, gathering it all in within her chest. Then, like a beacon, she let loose a pulse. Wave after wave, not near enough magic to disturb the world around her – so much more rigid than Underhill – but plainly obvious to anyone with heightened senses.
It did not take him long.
Her ears perked when soft footfalls disturbed the nearby underbrush. Raising her head, she squinted at the shadow closing in on her, barely able to make out the outline of a swishing tail.
“What did I tell you about walking around without your glamor?” she snapped.
The Lady’s pet paused, tilting his head as triangular ears flattened.
“That’s no way to greet your would-be-savior.” His words were half-purr, half-reprimand, and utterly humiliating to be on the receiving end of. Claws closed around her small body, surprisingly gentle as he cradled her to his chest. “What happened to you?”
“Hunters,” she said bitterly. “Which is why you should not be walking these grounds so exposed!”
“Duly noted,” he said as he raised her higher still, setting her down upon his wild mane. “Hang on tight.” Dropping down to all fours, he broke into a sprint. Her claws dug into his scalp when gravity tore at her, and she squeezed her damaged eyes shut against the whipping wind. The scent of Nightmare grew thick as he took her to what had to be his lair.
“It should be more than duly noted.” At last, he came to an abrupt halt, and her stomach churned. “Do you have any idea how near they’ve come to you? They’ve been sniffing around the prince’s best friend. The one you foolishly chose to keep close.”
“I see.” Another swish of the black tail. “Did you give me away?”
Though it cost her energy she did not have to spare, she unhinged her jaw, widening it beyond that of a mere rat to properly infuse her hiss with all the contempt that insulting question deserved.
“Of course not.”
“Good.” He smiled, the glint of sharp fangs bright enough to stand out even with her ruined vision. Behind him, a shadow stirred, the scent of Nightmare growing stronger.
“Chat?” she asked, uncertain. This was – this was not the prince’s room–!
“Not quite.” His voice grew higher as his ears flicked, stretching, black tips giving way to white just as his tail began fraying.
And Volpina roared, limbs twisting, bones cracking, magic flowing over her to create the most fearsome shape she could think of. Blindly snapping her fangs, she lunged, swiping her monstrous paw–
Agony shot through her, black blood spurting as she collapsed.
Looming over her, surrounded by nine tails, a fae absently licked the back of its hand, cleaning away the gore.
“Look, Plagg. I brought you a snack.”
Someone got (☞ﾟヮﾟ)☞ outfoxed.
(I tried so hard to put that dumb line in there somewhere but alas, it was not to be.)
2018 was a rough year for me, but I'm so glad I found the opportunity to join this wonderful fandom. Thank you so much for reading, for all your support and for reviewing - your comments mean the world to me! Happy New Year!
“There is a veil upon the world, Alya.”
The young girl’s eyes are transfixed on her mother’s somber face. She leans so close that the sharp, jagged scars running down her cheek stand out in sharp relief. One, two, three…
Alya learned to count by them.
“It’s time for you to peel it back.”
Her mother was once considered a great beauty. Once, as some of the crueler village boys are quick to remind Alya when she bests them during play. She pays them no mind beyond wielding her wooden sword with even more ferocity. Scars are hardly contagious, and besides, all mothers are beautiful in their children’s eyes.
The scars only enhance Lady Césaire’s noble bearing. A cock of her eyebrow feels like the challenging roar of a lioness. Look at me and despair. I’ve faced worse than you.
Sometimes, Alya’s overactive imagination likes to paint vivid stories of how those scars came to be. She imagines fierce battles with monsters and dragons, her mother emerging bloodied and victorious, having avenged Alya’s late father.
Gently entwining her fingers with Alya’s, her mother leads her to the wing of the ancient manor Alya has never been allowed in. A bookcase slides out of their path, and then they descend down stairs made of cold stone, torches on the wall lighting their path.
“Adults cannot believe it,” her mother says, “until they have witnessed it with their own eyes. Magic blinds them to the truth. Remember what you are about to see, my sweet, for it will give you true sight once you’re a woman grown.”
A heavy steel door creaks open. Just as the smell of burned flesh hits Alya’s nostrils, a snarl echoes through the dungeon. Iron shackles drag along the ground as a creature lunges forward, torch light revealing matted fur, sharp fangs and the face of a man.
Alya is ten years old when she learns just how prescient her imagination is.
Alya is going to be a Warrior for Goodness and Light, Vanquisher of Evil, carrying on an Ancient and Noble Family Legacy. She can feel the truth of it in every fiber of her being. It is her Destiny.
There is just one small problem. Tiny. Insignificant, really.
Aiming at the vaguely circular blob, she loosens her arrow. Her cousins howl with laughter as Alya misses the practice target yet again, and she grits her teeth.
The greatest heroine to ever live shall not be bested by bad eyesight.
There is much to learn for a Lady of House Césaire. Alya immerses herself in the art of dance, polite conversation, and how to hide iron blades under long flowing gowns. She studies the ancient histories of her ancestors, reads up on every fae species they’ve faced and catalogued. Their strengths and weaknesses she can recite by heart, knows that sirens can be entranced with the gleam of gems and that a dryad will only die when its birth tree has been felled.
Every morning she drinks the herb brews designed to strengthen her mind and body, and while her elder sister nods off due to boredom, Alya’s mind never strays during her daily meditations.
Alya strains her arm, hopping in place to reach the highest bookshelf. It takes her four jumps to push the blue tome as far in as it can go, the last lock sliding in place, and the secret path opens. Clutching an iron dagger to her chest, she makes her way down the winding stairs, following the twists and turns engraved in her memory.
A low growl greets her.
“Hello,” she says to the beast on the other side of the door, her high-pitched voice echoing in the dark stone hall.
The snarl ceases abruptly.
“Greetings, little one,” says the beast with the sweetest timbre Alya has ever heard. “Who let you down here?”
Alya’s eyes widen in excitement at the unexpected response. Mother said that the fae is resistant to all interrogation and has been for years. But if Alya can coax valuable information out of it and prove her worth, then that will surely impress the elders of her clan and earn her a magical weapon.
“What’s your name?” she asks.
Alya’s lower lip pushes forward in a pout. “I asked first.”
Low, silky laughter. “True. Shall we trade, then? A name for a name?”
“I’m not telling you my name,” Alya says with a huff, her mother’s warning in her ear. Names have power.
“And yet you demand mine. How rude to not offer anything in exchange.”
“I do offer something in exchange.” Alya hastily reaches into the depths of her frocks. “I offer a light that sparkles like the stars.” Fae love shiny things, or so the books she’s been studying say, for they are greedy creatures.
But the fae responds with derisive laughter. “Nothing shines down here, little one. There is only darkness and the burn of iron.”
“This light shines without reflecting the sun.”
“You mean fire. Fire devours that which sustains it. I’ll not trade my name for a few hours of candlelight.”
“No.” Her fist closes around hard edges, and she fishes a glowing crystal out of her pockets. “This one will bring you comfort for years and years. It’s magic of your kind.” A trinket so trivial and benign, nobody even noticed when Alya snatched it from her clan’s vast trophy collection.
A long silence. “Now why would you bring me such a thing?”
“Mother says you are a creature of darkness. But I saw you lunge for the light.”
A thoughtful hum. “You have a hunter’s perception, little one.”
If only. The world grows more blurred year by year. It’s hard to excel at the trials testing her merit as a hunter when so much of it relies on sight. As eager as she is to follow her mother’s footsteps, Alya knows her cousins’ derisive whispers behind her back are not entirely without merit.
Hence the desperate measures.
“So, my name for a light in the darkness. Is that our bargain?”
Alya swallows heavily. “Yes.”
“You have the makings of a temptress. But you underestimate how much my name is worth.”
“Well, now I know it’s worth more than the light you long for.”
A hoarse cackle answers her.
“My name is eternal. This… predicament of mine is not. So, no, I shan’t offer my name to the spawn of those who would bind me with it.”
Alya’s shoulders sag in disappointment. “So why are you talking to me at all?”
“By all accounts, you’ve been bored for years, and haven’t deigned to do more than growl.”
“Would you believe me if I said I have a heart? Can’t say I’ve ever been interrogated by a little human before. I have a soft spot for innocents.”
“Are we your favorite meal?” Alya mutters under her breath.
The fae laughs. “No. Though reliable sources tell me human children are quite tender.”
Alya can almost picture the fangs gleaming on the other side of the door. She swallows heavily at the reminder that the affable creature she’s talking to is a monster. One who would devour her if given the chance.
“So, little one,” the silky voice purrs. “What else might I trade for that light? Shall I promise you a favor of your choosing?”
“A favor from a prisoner is not worth much.”
“As I said. My predicament is temporary, and my memory long. I remember those who would give me a drop of pleasure when my need for it is greatest.”
Her fingers clutch the crystal, a shiver running down her spine. This is a mistake. Intuition whispers that unless put down, this one will escape one day. Being remembered by a powerful fae with a grudge is the last thing she wants.
His wrath will be worse if she forces a debt on him.
It takes all her bodyweight for the door to budge even an inch. A gentle kick sends the glowing crystal sliding into the cell, briefly illuminating slitted eyes before the heavy door slams shut again.
“Consider it a gift,” Alya says, “and forget I was here.”
“As you wish, little one.”
The crystal and the fae get added to Alya’s growing pile of secrets.
At the heart of it, there’s only one secret, but like a cascade, it necessitates endless deception. If she ever hopes to be a hunter, nobody must know of the weakness that would disqualify her. So she smiles and shrugs sheepishly when she’s yet again admonished for her poor aim, vowing to improve even as her eyesight secretly deteriorates. She memorizes the obstacle course by walking it at night, counting the steps until she can run its length even with her eyes closed. If she cannot rely on her eyes, then she will rely on sound and intuition.
It’s not enough.
Alya thinks little of it when Nora is the first one chosen to receive a Weapon from the family’s vault. She’s older, after all, and easily the most ferocious of them all. Stamping out all seeds of jealousy, she crowds around Nora like the rest of her cousins to admire her many new limbs, congratulating her elder sister with a smile on her face.
And she even means it.
But one by one, everyone else either receives a Weapon of their own to move on to prepare for field work, or they quietly slip away to build an ordinary life, electing to raise the next generation of hunters instead of risking life and limb.
Not Alya, though. Alya keeps trying.
But it’s galling to be eighteen years old and seeing cousins three years younger than her being judged worthy while she stagnates.
Tonight is the solstice. They feel it in their blackened heart. Home. So close, and yet so far. Tugging at the iron shackles, they hiss at the pain.
Warm light pulses, the crystal in their lap soothing the sting. It’s their eldest brother’s light, just the kind of trinket he loves to create. Wisdom shines a path when the hour is dark. The gift is their one stroke of fortune in recent years, and the Lord of Mischief treasures it.
One of their tails twitches, and their ears perk up.
The walls crumble, heavy iron door torn from its hinges with a deafening screech. A woman steps through the opening, trailing behind black, bubbling corruption. A creature with dark fur stalks closely behind, pressing itself against her leg when she comes to a halt, eyes shining with devotion.
“Hello, sweetling.” Reaching to scratch the feline fae behind its perked ears, the Lady of Nightmare smiles, revealing multiple rows of sharp teeth. “I have need of your talents.”
“So mercenary. Don’t I even get a hug before we bargain for my freedom?”
Soft laughter echoes. “I cannot say I’m eager to feel your claws digging into my back.”
“My claws?” Trixx tilts their head. “I remember our last embrace differently. Was it not I who nearly died?”
Red eyes flare in irritation at the reminder, and Trixx grins, even though they really shouldn’t. They’re caught in her trap, after all. Perhaps it’s their pride talking, but Trixx refuses to believe that ordinary humans succeeded in shackling them all on their own. Any moment now she will offer them escape from the hunters she no doubt aided.
For a price.
And they are weary enough of imprisonment to say yes.
Their gaze is drawn back to the fae by her side. There is something not quite right about it, something off.
The feline fae pays no mind to Trixx as he begins grooming the fur on his paw, only the slightest hint of feral intelligence in his green eyes.
How did he tear his way through the hunters’ iron defenses?
The Lady follows their gaze and her smile widens. “Do you like my new pet? I made him myself.”
Kindred, whispers instinct, and Trixx listens.
“Your creativity knows no bounds, mother.”
Her mother’s mouth is a grim line these days, mirroring the expression on all the elder hunters. Alya seethes at being left out. As if she hasn’t put together the meaning of the fire destroying half their family’s ancestral estate on a solstice night.
It escaped, she is certain of it.
But she does not complain. Instead she throws herself into yet more training, burying her nose in ancient tomes. Whining won’t get her anywhere, only proving herself will.
And she is richly rewarded when, scarcely a fortnight later, her mother calls her to a private supper.
“I have a gift for you, Alya,” the somber woman says without much fanfare. “Keep it close and tell no one.”
Unfurling the silk to reveal a small purple pin, Alya wants to shout her excitement from the rooftops. She has imagined this moment of triumph a hundred different ways, always vindicated in front of all who’d doubted her. Yet now she is to keep it secret?
“Because I trust you to keep it safe. Your uncles do not share my concern, but we have experienced attacks on even our most guarded sanctuaries. Our weapons are not safe in the vault, they need to be dispersed.”
“Oh.” Disappointment churns within. “So… I haven’t earned this?”
“In an official capacity? No.” A rare smile graces her mother’s ruined lips. “But don’t think I’ve not noticed your hard work. In my eyes, you’ve earned this chance years ago. I would counsel patience until the others see sense, but this is no time to leave you defenseless. So this will be our little secret.”
Alya swallows the lump blocking her throat, cradling the magical pin to her chest. “I won’t let you down.”
“I don’t doubt it.” Her mother hums thoughtfully. “The butterfly flaps its wings, and a storm rises elsewhere. It’s a subtle weapon made for subterfuge, not for those who’d charge straight at the enemy. I chose this one because it fits you, and I know your clever mind will make good use of its gifts.”
The transformation flows over her like water and suddenly Alya is as light and nimble as a leaf dancing in the wind. A swarm of butterflies rises to envelop her, whispering secrets in her ear.
A vision of the world unfolds with perfect clarity.
The Lord of Mischief crouches low, watching the hunter clan’s eldest and strongest gather. They think themselves safe in their fortress under the light of a new moon, when Misfortune is weak and far away.
But Trixx has a unique talent.
Balanced on a razor’s edge, they do not belong to any world, able to stalk the borders and spaces in-between. Shackled to neither Creation nor Destruction, they and they alone are truly free.
Which makes the invisible chains constricting around their neck truly galling. Even now their bargain pulls at them, the price for their freedom. They do so loathe being indebted. Best to cast the shackles off and get it over with.
The seams between worlds rip open at their command, and a nightmare army descends upon the hunters.
“I’m so sorry, Alya.”
She nods, gloved fingers digging into her silken gown.
“Your mother and sister fought valiantly, but they were outnumbered.”
“How did you escape?” Alya does not mean to make it sound like an accusation, and yet it does.
“Luck, nothing more.” A strong hand ruffles her hair. Her shoulders stiffen at the touch. “We’ll take care of you, of course. You’ll have your yearly stipend. But Alya – don’t you think it’s time for you to find a husband? Your mother wanted nothing more than to see you safely settled.”
“Perhaps you are right, uncle,” Alya murmurs demurely.
Not far away flutters a white butterfly, circling above the few survivors of the ambush. And in all their heads, the same void.
Alya forces her lips to take the form of a shy smile. “I think I should like to go traveling for a while. To the northern coast, to calm my nerves after this ordeal. May I?”
The puppet wearing her uncle’s face returns her smile, the corners of his eyes crinkling.
“Of course, my sweet.”
Chat Noir ran.
Hidden beneath the gnarled canopy of twisted treetops, he was one with the shadows, his paws soft as silk as they touched down on the ground. Dark fur glistened with sweat as he pushed himself, faster, faster, hindlegs pumping and heartbeat thundering. His blood was aflame with the ecstasy of a hunt, his prey’s scent burning in his nostrils.
A wild mane of black hair gleamed with the light of dying stars, slipping out of sight between the trees. He snarled in frustration. Why? Why did she always run? Still he was helpless to do anything but pursue, her scent sweeter than honey, and as irresistible as a siren’s call. It beckoned him, his fangs aching with the need to bury themselves in flesh, marking, claiming–
He skittered to a halt, claws raking through the mud.
Bathed in light, pale skin shining like the moon, she stood at the center of a dark clearing.
And he pounced.
They went tumbling to the ground, limbs akimbo, skin pressed to heated skin. Shoving his face to her throat, he inhaled, a guttural groan of need spilling from the depths of his chest. Long fingers wound their way into his mane, scratching the spot behind his ear just right. A purr erupted, because, gods, how he’d missed this. He nipped at her throat just as her joyous laughter enveloped him like a caress.
Chat had never heard his Lady laugh like this before.
When he raised his head, he expected to meet the unyielding stare of eyes like blood and rubies.
But it was clear blue sky that greeted him.
Chat’s eyes snapped open, a strangled growl in his throat. He kicked and writhed, only managing to entangle himself further. Fabric constricted around his chest, the texture unbearable as it scraped over sensitive skin. Too hot, overheating, he needed – needed –
He moaned when cool morning air hit his skin, detangled from the fake furs ensnaring him at last. His fangs throbbed in his mouth, his back arching as instinct lashed at him. His paws curled, claws rending the fine sheets. There was comfort in that, the sensation grounding him.
Reality trickled into consciousness and memories of a dark forest slipped away.
Biting back another ragged breath, he shook his mane, and the disorientation with it. Tail lashing in agitation, he blinked, once, twice, thin slits blowing wide to make sense of the darkness. Stone walls rose high above – had he taken refuge in a cave last night? But no, these were too even, too steep, so perfectly aligned that they had to be–
Chat Noir blinked again and sank back into his bed. Absently kneading his pillow to release the restless energy sizzling through him, his tail still kept lashing, the strange fervor refusing to dissipate. Grasping for the remnants of murky images, he tried to make sense of what had happened.
He’d been… dreaming?
And he’d been denied his kill. No wonder there was dissatisfaction curling in his belly. It had been far too long since he had last tasted fresh blood.
Casting off the sheets, he bounded toward the window and leapt to perch on the cold stone overlooking his new territory. His shoulders sagged as he stared at yet more unnatural shapes, stone and wood carved to the humans’ liking.
There was no hunt to be found here.
Separated by towering walls, the city was divided into three rings, the innermost housing the Court. Like a vortex, wealth was drawn to the palace at the center, the buildings growing ever more modest at the city’s outskirts. While there were shadows aplenty to take shelter in, there was no prey for him here.
Nothing but humans.
Chat tilted his head, squinting at a forest lining the horizon, far outside the sprawling huts lining the outer walls. He could run there, navigate the rooftops on all fours, cloak himself in a glamor to meld with the shadows to keep away prying eyes.
With his speed and agility, he could be back in a matter of hours.
Hours that were sure to cause a stir if his absence was discovered. Father had forbidden Adrien to leave the safety of the inner ring.
Dread crawled up his spine at the thought of the king, his ardor rapidly cooling. Dawn was breaking through the clouds, and soon it would be time for his daily visit.
The prospect of seeing pale blue eyes glazed over with stupor again was…
But it had to be done.
Wrenching his thoughts away from that direction, Chat let his gaze roam the courtyard below. A glint caught his eye, and a moment later his lips softened into a smile. The ice sculptures built for last night’s feast were shining in the sun, catching and refracting the red gleam.
Lady Mariposa – Mari – would enjoy this sight.
She’d been so captivated by them last night. It was an easy thing to imagine her lips subtly parted, her pixie features growing soft in wonder. And then she’d turn to him to thank him for showing this to her, and he’d capture a sliver of that delight.
She should get to enjoy this sight. He’d send her an invitation to take a walk through the royal gardens during daylight, and make sure the guards would know to let her in. It was, after all, not unusual for members of the nobility to socialize on the castle grounds. He’d just place her name on the approved visitors’ list.
And she’d have to come back soon, before the ice melted.
Anticipation surged, his mood brightening at once. It had taken him a while to figure out what made her company so appealing, but last night had put a rest to that mystery.
His instinct, as always, had steered him true. As much of an outsider to the Court as he, she was a joy to talk to. With no expectations of the prince to meet, Chat found himself keeping the pretense to a minimum, which eased the strain he hadn’t even realized had been getting to him.
“I was unaware of having blue blood until I met Alya.” She raised her chin, her bold gaze blazing with a challenge. “I spent most of my life as a servant.”
A test, daring him to judge her. Chat knew enough of the human Court to realize that most nobles would. Should he feign disgust? But truth was tempting his tongue to reassure her that he, too, knew servitude, and would never judge her for hers.
Sanity prevailed, and instead of giving himself away, he smiled. “That would explain why you keep trying to make yourself smaller than you are. Old habits die hard?”
Her cheeks darkened with a blush, even as she held his gaze. “Yes,” she said softly. “Did you mean it?”
“When you said I’m not the mouse I pretend to be.”
At that, he could not help but laugh. Leaning in close, he gestured to their surroundings. “I don’t know of any mouse brave enough to willingly walk into this nest of vipers.”
Hopping off the window sill, Chat landed on two feet, tail and fur dissolving into black smoke. He grabbed the tunic laid out for him and pulled it over his head. Unlike Changelings, his mastery over his glamor was too limited to mimic fine details like those of a prince’s richly decorated garb, so he still had to cloak himself in true clothing. For all their resemblance to each other, Chat couldn’t even convincingly imitate other humans – only this one, singular face his Lady had gifted him with.
He waved to the guards keeping vigil over his quarters as he stepped through the doors, receiving a silent nod in return. The stomp of heavy iron boots followed his light footfalls at a respectable distance as Chat made his way down a winding staircase. He was getting better at tuning them out, but the feeling of being watched whenever he left the privacy of his rooms never sat quite right.
And the knights weren’t the only ones keeping an eye on him.
Chat froze just a little tuft of silver slipped out of sight.
He’d seen it before, lurking around him when he’d been exploring his new territory, trying to uncover the palace’s hidden pathways and crevices. Fascinated by the little creature who was so much like his true self and yet not at all, he’d tried to go near, but it was quick to skitter away whenever his attention turned its way. He’d respected the signals to stay away so far, even as it was very clearly stalking him. And maybe it was the curiosity that had been building for days, or echoes of this morning’s need for a hunt, but either way, now Chat found himself in pursuit.
Leaping over the stairs three at a time, he landed at the foot of the stairs with a thump. The cat darted away, but he was faster. Backed against the wall, its back arched, striped fur standing on end. It didn’t hiss – a promising sign – although its pupils were blown wide in alert.
Chat dropped into a crouch, carefully turning his gaze away as if he’d lost all interest. Showing he meant no harm would be easier if he’d had his tail and his ears, but the human guards weren’t far behind, so he had to stay Adrien. Carefully, he slid his lightly curled fingers forward – not so far to intrude on its space, but close enough to be an invitation to investigate.
“Hello,” he murmured. “Care to share your territory with me?”
After patiently holding himself still for half an eternity, a pink nose twitched, ears flicking up in curiosity. It inched forward, clearly suspicious, but seeming unable to help itself. Stretching its fluffy neck as far as it would go, it scented his offered hand.
Golden eyes pinned him in place, and for all that it was the size of a snack, Chat found himself barely daring to breathe under the scrutiny. There was no reason at all to care about this little creature’s approval, and yet he really, really wanted it.
And a heartbeat later, he had it.
Bumping its forehead against his palm, it purred and writhed under his touch. Adrien didn’t hesitate to scoop it up. Dangling hindlegs scrambled to find a hold on his arms, and the cat wrapped itself around his shoulders like a scarf, happily rubbing its cheek against his ear.
He answered with a deep, rumbling purr of his own, leaning into the warmth.
It was cut short when he remembered the nearby humans. Swallowing the sound, Chat cast a covert glance at his guards to make sure they hadn’t heard – not that it did him any good, with the way their facial muscles never so much as twitched.
He quickly resumed a brisk walk while reaching up to scratch his new friend behind its velvety ears. Hopefully it liked that spot just as much as Chat did.
“Are you hungry, little one?”
A soft murr answered, and he took it as a yes. He took a sharp left turn toward the bustling entrance hall, past which lay the quickest path to the palace’s kitchen. Chat visited it most mornings anyway to swipe a little meat for himself. That way he could at least pretend to be satisfied with the wheat abominations they kept serving him – it was much easier to pretend when his stomach wasn’t cramping with hunger.
Then he could take a breakfast tray to father, and–
He slowed his steps, turning his head to look over his shoulder at the familiar voice.
Nino hurried toward him, his black hair disheveled and a lopsided smile on his lips.
“Good morning,” Chat said slowly, brows furrowing. Something about Nino’s demeanor was setting off an instinctive alarm.
“Morning. I was just about to head to your room.” Nino paused, scrutinizing gaze flicking to the cat lounging on his shoulders. “I’m surprised you’re up already, I was half-expecting you to be nursing a hangover.”
“I’m fine.” Chat was a fast healer, after all. Lowering his voice, he gently asked, “…are you?” Dark circles ringed those golden eyes, untouched by a smile that was forced a little too wide.
“Yeah. Yeah…” Nino raked his fingers through his hair, grin fading. “Couldn’t sleep last night, is all.” Pause. “I’m sorry I left early, I – it was – I know we agreed to…“
“Don’t worry about it,” Chat said when Nino appeared to run out of words, a faraway look in his eyes. Whatever remained of Chat’s annoyance at being left to his own devices paled next to the urge to cheer his friend up. “Lady Mariposa explained what happened, and I still had a good time. Is Lady Césaire alright?”
“I – yeah. She’s fine. Is going to be fine.” There was that strange expression again, and Nino’s gaze slid back to the cat whose claws were subtly digging into Chat’s biceps. He raised his hand, reaching for it.
The cat hissed.
And Nino, for some reason, laughed.
“I see how it is. Don’t have any more use for me, do you?”
Chat blinked in confusion just as the cat batted at Nino’s hand with one white-tipped paw until he withdrew. “Huh?”
“Your hellbeast had no problem soliciting my cuddles in your absence, you know.” His gaze softened, as did his smile. “She yowled for weeks after you disappeared. Honestly, the first time she deigned to sit next to me, I thought the sky was about to fall.”
“Oh!” Well, her being Adrien’s certainly explained the stalking. Chat grinned, slanting a glance at the grey tabby out of the corners of his eyes. “Sounds like she has discerning taste.”
“Of course. The noble Lady Meowgana is far too fine to settle for anything but royalty. A mere earl such as myself will only do in the direst of circumstances.”
Chat broke into laughter, and Nino joined in a moment later.
“Happy New Year, Adrien,” Nino said after they’d both calmed, his grin reaching his eyes at last. “And I come bearing an offer of how to make up for cutting last night short.”
“How do you feel about hitting me with a stick?”
“What?” Was this some human atonement ritual he’d somehow missed learning of? “I’m not that mad.”
Another blow rained down upon his shoulder, and Nino groaned in pain as his knees hit the cold stone. Pain radiated down his arm and a moment later, the wooden weapon slipped from his grasp, clattering to the ground.
A looming shadow fell over him, green eyes shining with concern.
“I’m sorry, I got carried away.”
Nino barked out a laugh, tilting up his head. “So much for being out of practice. You liar.”
“Hey.” Adrien mirrored the teasing tone as he sat down next to Nino, drawing one knee up to his chest. “It’s not my fault you suck.”
Nino grimaced at the reminder of his own ineptitude. Despite the uncertainty written all over his face when he’d first picked up the sparring sword, it hadn’t taken Adrien long until he’d been skillfully wielding his weapon like an extension of his arm, becoming more confident – and aggressive – with every thrust and parry. The prince had always had a gift for swordplay, one Nino had not been able to keep up with past their boyhood games, the gulf in their abilities growing wider with each passing year.
A gift that Adrien’s long imprisonment had evidently not robbed him of.
“Yeah,” Nino murmured, letting himself fall back with a thump. “That was pretty pitiful, wasn’t it?”
Adrien’s only reply was a diplomatic hum. “You don’t seem in the best shape. Perhaps tomorrow, with a proper night’s sleep–“
“–it might take you a whole three seconds to land a blow?”
“Practice makes perfect.” His best friend smiled wryly. “Where is this sudden urgency coming from?”
I need to protect you.
“These are dangerous times,” Nino muttered, perfectly aware that if Adrien hadn’t been able to defend himself from the forces that took him, Nino stood even less of a chance.
“…is this about Chloe?”
“Yes.” He pressed his lips together to keep the swell of questions at bay.
“Oh.” Fabric rustled as Adrien shifted uncomfortably. “I’m sorry.”
“Hardly your fault.” Or was it? But no. That was Nino’s newfound well of paranoia speaking. He angled his head, reassuring himself that Adrien’s eyes were as warm as ever.
Chloe – the other Chloe – her eyes had been like ice, cold and dead, and his skin had crawled in her presence. Nausea rose again at the thought of Chloe having been dead and gone for months, all while he’d been seething with hatred for something that was not her fault. He shoved the notion away, but it refused to stay gone, having robbed him of his sleep and haunted his every step ever since he’d left Lady Alya at her home.
She’d tried to tell him more, but nothing had penetrated the numb fog inside his mind past that. Nothing but her urgently whispered warning.
“You can’t tell him anything.” Her fingers curled around his wrist, holding him in place even as all he wanted was to escape this nightmare. “It’s of the utmost importance that you act without drawing suspicion to yourself. We don’t know who’s watching.”
“You’re in no shape to train today,” Adrien said softly, “But – we can do this again tomorrow. If you want a sparring partner.”
The radiant woman wearing Marinette’s face spoke with such conviction it was impossible to doubt her. “While we are powerless to change Chloe’s fate, it’s not too late to change Adrien’s.”
“Yeah.” Nino closed his eyes. “That sounds like a plan.”
More Adrinino fluff because I am bromance trash.
i love these boys a lot okay
Today, I woke up to discover absolutely stunning art of Peacock!Marinette and Butterfly!Alya. Words cannot describe how happy I am. Please give the artist some love, they're amazing! <3
Nathalie brushed her fingertips over the delicate clockwork mechanism, silencing the shrill screech and restoring its pleasant ticking rhythm. A marvelous automaton created by skilled craftsmen, perhaps the only one of its kind in the entire realm. A gift to the king by a foreign ambassador, and then a gift to her, the only luxury in her sparse quarters.
At once, she swung her legs off the bed, walking briskly to the chair on which she’d meticulously laid out her clothes for the day. The tight undergarment flattened her chest, while the loose overcoat concealed what remained. Never breaking her stride, she moved through her morning routine by rote, and within ten minutes on the dot, she was ready to face the day’s duties.
Yet as she strode toward her Lord’s chamber, an unease pricked at the back of mind, a nagging awareness that there was something she’d forgotten.
Mentally reviewing her duties for the day, she–
A dimly lit room, the flickering candlelight making the shadows dance on the walls. Somber words spoken in private, for her ears only, the physician dabbing sweat from his brow as he delivered the grave news.
Her steps stuttered to a halt.
Then she turned on her heels, mouth pressed together in a thin line as her heart ached.
How could she have forgotten the newest addition to her routine?
It was hard to look at what the ravage of time had done to Gabriel, so much so that she sometimes liked to pretend it wasn’t happening. But she could not allow such foolish sentimentality to get in the way of carrying out her duties to the best of her considerable abilities.
The doctor’s orders had been clear.
Gabriel’s body had grown too frail to withstand withdrawal. He needed his medicine.
Marinette woke to an awareness of being watched.
She blinked, dazed, dreams of a dark forest and bright green eyes crumbling away. Mere moments later, her view of the ceiling was obscured by a wild mane and a broad grin.
“You’re awake!” Lady Alya was vibrating in excitement, her long locks cascading over her shoulder as gravity pulled at them, the tips tickling Marinette’s throat. “Has anyone ever told you that you sleep like the dead?”
“Many, many times,” Marinette grumbled, squeezing her eyes shut against the far too bright sunlight filling the room.
Bright sunlight. In winter. When the nights were long and the days short, and Marinette had to get up far earlier than the first light of dawn to attend to her chores.
She jerked up, only Lady Alya’s fast reflexes saving the both of them from a head collision.
“Why didn’t you wake… me… oh.” Taking in the opulent suite and Lady Alya’s bemused look, Marinette trailed off, her tired brain only belatedly making sense of her surroundings.
Would she ever grow used to facing a day filled with nothing but leisure time?
Well, that, and the fight against otherworldly monsters.
“I won’t lie, I was tempted to throw a pillow at your head to get your attention,” Lady Alya said with a soft laugh, and it was only then that Marinette noticed she was sitting at the foot of Marinette’s bed. “But if anyone’s earned the right to rest after last night, it’s you. My curiosity can wait.”
Marinette peered at the almost voracious expression in her friend’s hazel eyes, then dropped her gaze to the worn leather-bound book lying open in Lady Alya’s lap. The once-blank pages where filled with elegant yet compact handwriting, dozens of clues, theories and stray observations squeezed into as small of a space as possible.
“…I’m about to be interrogated, aren’t I?”
“Only a little.” Flashing a grin, Lady Alya held up her hand and started counting down her fingers. “I merely need a blow-by-blow retelling of how you defeated the fae, a description of all your new powers including their limitations and–“ Her smile grew sly as she waggled her eyebrows in a most unladylike manner. “–a thorough account of what you and the prince were up to last night, considering how late the hour of your return was.”
“L-Lady Alya!” Marinette buried her face in her hands to muffle the squeal. “Don’t make it sound like that!”
The eyebrow waggling intensified, and Marinette’s head hit the pillow. Circumventing her attempt to hide under the blankets, the noblewoman pulled the soft sheets away in one swift motion, prompting a whine.
“Oh, I’m just teasing.” While her grin was as wide as before, Lady Alya smoothed her tone into a serious one. “I truly do need to know what you make of him, now that you’ve had more opportunity to observe.”
Green eyes shone with interest, their corners crinkling with a smile so kind she knew in her heart it could not be fake.
“He’s just like what I’d imagined he’d grow up to be,” she whispered, the pillow swallowing the sound. A little sillier and more playful than one might expect a crown prince to be, but… him.
Lady Alya answered with a thoughtful hum, and a moment later Marinette heard the sound of something scraping against paper. Peering at her through the corner of her eyes, Marinette watched Alya as she added more notes to her book, using a plain black quill that never needed to be dipped in ink. It had taken all of Marinette’s self-control to not grow green with envy the first time she’d seen this particular fae trinket.
Although now she had magical quills of her own.
Propping herself up on her elbows, Marinette said, “You must have a theory of what’s going on by now.”
“Only guesses. Guesses based on far too little information.”
“Well, we saw the fae dancing with him – that confirms he’s of interest to them, right?”
Lady Alya sighed. “And that he’s being watched. Which will make it rather difficult to interrogate him.”
“If we can corner him alone…”
Red curls bounced on her shoulders as Lady Alya shook her head. “We don’t know what’s been done to him. And until we do, it’s not safe to tell him what we know. Alerting the fae to our presence could be our death.”
Marinette sat up straight. “You think he would betray us?” Even as she said them, the words tasted bitter, the idea unthinkable. Adrien was not malicious, she felt that in the depth of her bones.
“It’s not betrayal if he can’t help it. For all we know, they might be inside his head, knowing what he knows, seeing what he sees.” Lady Alya absently underlined a few words in her notes. “I think it’s fair to assume that his imprisonment was their doing, and that he is a victim in this. But once someone’s caught by fae – their chances of escape are slim. Unless they are allowed to flee. One way or another, he might be a pawn.”
Marinette worried her bottom lip as she absorbed that information, and nodded. “Then we help him make a true escape.”
“Easier said than done.” Lady Alya hesitated for a long moment, her voice softening. “I know you want to protect him, Marinette. But… just prepare for the possibility that it cannot be done. If he was forced to bargain for his freedom, then–”
“Then we find the loophole.” Marinette raised her chin in determination. She’d been studying the book Lady Alya had provided her in an effort to be of more help – an abbreviated compendium on fae and their many different species. She hadn’t gotten far yet, the information too dense and her ability to read too slow, but she’d gathered this much. “There’s always a loophole, isn’t there?”
“There is,” Lady Alya said at length, wearing a pensive expression as she studied Marinette. “What do you think we should do next, then?”
“Me?” Taken aback, Marinette blinked. “You’re the experienced hunter, not I, Lady Alya.”
“And yet, if it wasn’t for you, I’d be dead twice over by now.” Lady Alya laughed, but there was a raw edge to it. “I mean, I really – for a few moments last night, it looked like – I really thought this is it. If you hadn’t been there…”
She trailed off.
“Marinette. I have a confession. I’m not – I fear I’ve abused your trust in me.”
“Just Alya. Please.” Exhaling a sharp breath, she curled her fingers around her throat, fingertips tracing the wounds that were no more. “Yes, I’m a hunter. I’ve prepared for this all my life, until my bones cracked and my knuckles bled, studying the fae and their histories. But I am woefully, woefully lacking in experience.”
Her pin gleamed with an ethereal glow, calling a white butterfly into existence. Hazel eyes followed its movements, until Lady Alya crooked her finger to call her creation to her.
“You know… this weapon of mine. It’s somewhat of a pity prize. At first, I thought its unpopularity was due to lack of personal glory. The butterfly’s power is shared, giving its wielder only a fraction of the power of the other weapons at my family’s disposal.”
Marinette raised one hand to her ear, fingertips ghosting over the precious stone housing the butterfly Lady Alya had shared with her. Last night, her body had been overflowing with power. Even now she shivered to recall the certainty that creation itself was little more than clay to be reshaped as she saw fit. “Your family holds weapon more powerful than this?”
“Held. Once. The vaults are likely lost now. But – no. When I read up on the butterfly’s history, I realized that wasn’t true. Its full potential is quite potent.” Alya leaned forward, intense gaze seeking Marinette’s. “But it needs the right partner. The right person. Few people can stand to know what lurks inside them.
“But you – you. You were amazing.” A shaky laugh burst forth. “That’s why I’m asking your opinion. Because you’ve proven yourself more than capable. You and I – I want us to be partners. Because I…” She trailed off, as did the last of her laugher. “I don’t know if I can do this on my own.”
“Oh,” Marinette said softly just as Alya hid away the fleeting expression of vulnerability, burying it beneath a lopsided grin.
I should have seen this.
From the moment Marinette had first laid eyes on the huntress, fierce and awe-inspiring and driven by an indomitable will, she hadn’t hesitated to follow. Shining so bright she seemed larger than life, Alya had always been there to provide comfort and guidance when Marinette’s courage was close to faltering.
How could she have failed to consider that Alya had to have fears of her own?
Alya was not a goddess, no matter how well she could play at being one. She, too, was only human, and scarcely older than Marinette besides. A girl alone in the world, faced with an impossible task.
On impulse, Marinette reached for Alya’s hands, squeezing as she entwined them.
“I’m with you. Alya.”
The answering smile was shy, almost painfully so, before it widened to become smooth and self-assured, Alya’s armor sliding back in place. “Then let’s hear your opinion on how we should handle Prince Adrien.”
With a nod and a purse of her lips, Marinette cast down her gaze as her brows drew together in a frown. She knew, at once, what she wanted to do. Not only did Adrien likely hold answers to some of their questions, she was eager to cast off the false name, doing away with the lies and uncertainties. She wanted to be called Marinette, and see his face lit up with recognition.
And if he truly had been imprisoned by fae, then she wasn’t the only one burdened with the weight of lies.
Just as with Lady Alya, it had been hidden beneath bravado, but she’d sensed it all the same. Glimpses of melancholy and echoes of loneliness lasting no more than a heartbeat.
Marinette knew how it had tilted her world, to know there were monsters lurking in the shadows. And unlike her, Adrien had no one, unable to speak of what he’d been through without being thought mad.
She could not let her personal feelings lure her down the wrong path. The stakes were far too high for that.
“It’s as you said. We need more information,” Marinette said haltingly. “If he’s being used, then revealing ourselves without knowing how and by whom is too risky. We’ve already encountered two fae shadowing him – surely there will be another one we can capture and interrogate?”
“Most likely,” Alya said, nodding.
Struck by a thought, Marinette tilted her head in curiosity. “But maybe – he might open up to his best friend without arousing suspicion. How did things go with Lord Lahiffe last night?”
“He was quiet and in shock, so I only told him the bare necessities.” Alya’s cheeks darkened with a blush, a sheepish expression on her face. “I might have… fallen asleep in the carriage. A little. And woken up here.”
Marinette’s eyebrows shot up, just as Alya quickly pressed on.
“He’ll come back when he’s ready. Lord Lahiffe does not strike me as the kind of man who would run away.”
“Oh, doesn’t he?” Marinette could not help but add a teasing note. “I’m starting to get a clearer picture of why you proposed a false courtship with him.”
A pillow hit her in the face, and Marinette fell back on the bed, laughing.
“It was the most prudent strategy to get close to the prince,” Alya declared, her refined accent somehow reaching new heights of frosty propriety, even as her lips quivered, on the verge of a grin. “I think he’d make a fine ally, that’s all. My judgement when it comes to someone’s character is impeccable – is what I would say, if I hadn’t just been so heinously stabbed in the back by someone I thought I could trust.”
Marinette could do naught but dissolve into helpless giggles, earning her another whack of the pillow. A moment later, Alya joined in, flopping down beside her on the bed.
As they both calmed down, comfortable silence settled over them, eventually broken by Marinette’s soft murmur.
“I’m glad you took a chance on me, Alya.”
“So am I.” Alya’s smile was soft, filled with affection. “I knew you were bursting with potential, Marinette. Even if my butterflies hadn’t whispered it, you picking a fight with a Changeling with nothing but a rusty sword was a rather compelling piece of evidence. Speaking of!”
Alya wiggled her fingers, the soft smile giving way to an eager grin. Marinette’s right earring grew warm, a murmur of magic pulsing through her veins.
“Let’s take a look at just what this potential of yours is capable of.”
Chat’s gaze skittered away, unable to meet the glassy-eyed stare as he sat down at the bedside.
“You were asleep when I came by this morning.” A half-truth that somehow sat more ill than all the many lies he’d been telling. He’d eagerly taken up Nino’s offer of training, then dawdled by sending an invitation to Lady Mariposa, all to prolong the moment he would have to deal with this. By the time he’d made it to the king’s chambers, it had been far past the normal time of his daily visits – and father had been unresponsive.
He knew the Changeling had taken it upon herself to see to the laudanum, but he would have to have a word with her about the dosage.
The king responded with nothing but a hum that was so uncomfortably close to a growl that the sparse golden fur on Adrien’s arms stood on end.
“My recovery appears to be taking longer than expected. This morning Nath– Noel.” His father grimaced at the slip-up, then shook his head as if to center himself. “Noel briefed me on last night.”
The gaunt jaw tightened in displeasure.
“You were drunk.”
“Only a little. It was a celebration.”
Chat squirmed in his seat as the accusatory silence stretched on a beat too long.
“A celebration is no excuse to be indulging in such vices. Mind-altering substances are not worth the–” A shadow passed over the king’s face, and he trailed off with slumped shoulders.
Pale blue eyes blinked, dilated pupils struggling to focus. “No matter,” he bit out. “You know my opinion on liquor, so I’ll spare us both the lecture, Adrien.” After a brief pause, he stiffly added, “Noel tells me you did well.”
While Chat was taken aback by the unexpected praise, a small measure of satisfaction warmed him. “I did?”
“You took over as gracefully as could be expected, given the short notice.” The king closed his eyes and exhaled a long, tired breath. “I had hoped for more time for you, but given my current… circumstances… it’s likely you will have to take over my duties again in the near future. And I do not want them to catch you unprepared again.”
“Father,” Adrien whispered, fingertips reaching for his hand and stopping just short of providing comfort. “You’re going to be fine.”
“Well, I intend to be,” the king drawled with a quirk of his eyebrow. “But only a fool fails to prepare for the worst–“
“–in vain hope for the best,” Chat said without quite consciously willing it, then blinked and softly added, “I remember.”
“Aye.” For the first time a faint smile touched his lips. “From now on, you will attend the daily council meetings. Your task is to learn and listen. Noel will bring you my correspondence, and you will familiarize yourself with all the geopolitical changes of the last year. You know the major players on the stage, but now you will learn the minor ones – their motives, their alliances, their strengths and most of all–“ A glimmer of steel shone in cloudy eyes. “–their weaknesses.”
Chat groaned as his head hit the desk, the thump cushioned by an absurdly high stack of letters. Resting his forehead against the paper, he squeezed his aching eyes shut just as Lady Meowgana let out an affronted chirp at having her nap on his desk interrupted.
Human scribblings were so infernally small, the wide loops and flourishes distracting him from symbols that were far too similar. The pronunciation followed neither rhyme nor reason, leaving him to mouth the letters over and over in different ways until the sound transformed into a real word and the meaning sank in.
Even a single paragraph of the densely written letter was an ordeal to slog through.
He cracked open one eye, gaze sliding to his nightstand.
To the mirror he knew was lying within.
Adrien had been able to read much faster than this, the mirror had shown Chat that much. His claws itched with the urge to wrap around its handle, his heart beating faster at the prospect of curling up on the bed and diving into the sea of memories.
And yet, it was that very excitement that gave him pause. The mirror was a tool, a means to an end, only to be used for bare necessities. He shouldn’t be so eager to gorge himself on Adrien’s thoughts, had already drunk too deep from that cup.
Well, he was a curious creature, always had been. Was it so bad to enjoy the process of learning? There was skill here, free for the taking…
A skill likely learned under the tutelage of the king. Between a legion of faceless tutors, there was the guiding hand of Adrien’s father, taking the time to review his son’s progress and to offer advice.
Chat straightened his back and shook his mane, narrowing his eyes at the letter like it could be made to give up its contents through the sheer force of his scowl.
No, he’d had his fill of memories like those. They were doing him no good, would teach him nothing new and only make it harder to look away from the old man on the bed. The one who was not his father, and for whom he shouldn’t be sparing this much sympathy.
The foundation for his masquerade was laid. From now on, the mirror would stay dormant.
Chat knew these symbols and what they meant, now all he needed was to practice until the words flowed as easily as they did for Adrien. No, better. He was a future fae Lord, while the prince had been only human.
Fun toys to pass the time with, but he really shouldn’t be crying over them when they inevitably broke.
When he broke them.
Wiping the back of his hand over his tired eyes, Chat tried to concentrate on the symbols before him – only to grow still at the tell-tale sound of claws skittering on his window sill.
The scent of nightmare grew thick.
Ink spilled as Lady Meowgana sprang to her feet, dashing away in a flurry of loose letters. Chat, similarly startled by the sudden movement, barely had the presence of mind to snatch the ink pot from its free fall, frowning at the little creature as it scurried under the bed.
Wonderful. More of her.
…he supposed dealing with the Changeling was better than reading about the tedious business of tax disputes. Swiveling around in his seat, he watched the Changeling slink in through the window.
In the form of a small black cat with vibrant green eyes.
“Is that form meant to mock me?”
The black tail’s tip flicked with irritation, and yet when the fae spoke, it was in a bored drawl. “Cub, I’ve had this form long before you came to be.”
Chat grew rigid, nostrils flaring. “You’re not Lila.” Their scent tasted similar, both with that unmistakably tart signature of Changeling, but this one had a hint of something more… pungent to it, something he couldn’t quite put a finger on.
“Very observant. Perhaps my predecessor was wrong and you’re not entirely hopeless yet.”
Chat’s frown deepened just as the not-cat’s lips broke into an impossible grin, too wide for a cat’s muzzle and the teeth far too numerous.
“Don’t look so glum. I’ll be taking over as your guardian from here on out. Now. First things first. I’m starving.”
Ears perking, the Changeling leaned forward, eagerness written all over his feline features.
“You got any cheese?”
On hiatus, but not abandoned <3 Don't worry, I have this story plotted from start to finish and I'm very excited for certain upcoming scenes, so there's no way I'll leave this unfinished. Writer's block hit hard during the last year but now that my muse has deigned to show up again, I will be wrapping up my other (shorter) WIP first and then return here.