Gwyn kept resettling the coat he was wearing, for no other reason than he liked the way it felt against his fingers. It could have been a case of nerves as well. Beyond the hall, behind the doors leading into the throne room, hundreds of fae awaited his presentation. He took a slow, deep breath. He’d commanded legions. This was nothing.
Still, he waited in the hall, looking down at the suit, the crown heavy upon his head.
There were few safe subjects he could think about these days. Even bringing Augus to mind reminded him of their last significant encounter. He remembered the betrayal on Augus’ face when he’d seen the chain. Even now, he didn’t know if Augus would cooperate.
Gwyn sighed and leaned his head back against the wall, closed his eyes. There were hundreds of fae out there. Some of the biggest players in the Unseelie Kingdom. Some of them had more wealth than the entire Unseelie Court.
In the past, he’d always tried to be nothing more than the soldier the military had made of him. But tonight he’d need to pull on skills he’d learned from Crielle. That knowledge was a caustic weight inside of him. He had been marshalling his glamour together all day, knowing it made him appear like a glowing, golden god. It wasn’t an endearing light, but it had presence. It was a light that said:
Fight alongside me, or be my enemy.
He heard a door open and close nearby, a great sigh of relief, and realised it was Fenwrel. She had a distinct scent. He couldn’t place the wood, exactly, but he hadn’t ever smelled it on anyone else. He wondered if it was her Mage staff that he was scenting.
He stepped away from the wall, smiled to see her so well turned out. She wore a white sari with gold embroidery picked all the way over the edges. Her straight black hair was back in a chignon, gold earrings in her mouse ears and rings on her fingers. Her staff was tucked into the white belt that complimented her sari and she wore no shoes, but her mouse tail was gilt in rings. She seemed to be giving him the same up and down that he was giving her.
‘You look dashing,’ she said, eyebrows lifting, a quirk in her mouth. She noticed him step towards her and waved him back to the wall. ‘Don’t fuss yourself on my account. I need a breather.’
‘What’s it like out there?’ Gwyn said. He wasn’t supposed to make his entrance for about two hours after the event started. Things would be well and truly underway.
‘What’s it like? I certainly feel like I’ve been surrounded by a mishmash of jarring energy. A lot of fae were surprised to see me. I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve been smoothing over some jagged edges – explaining that I am not against Augus as your Advisor, despite the fact that he demoted me.’
‘Fenwrel, you don’t need to-’
‘You seem to feel as though you are the only one that wants this Court to succeed. Or perhaps you feel that it’s you and your Inner Court and no one else. It’s simply not true. Yes, there are suspicions out there, but there are many of us who just want a chance to rest. We cannot do that until we have a functioning Court.’
‘I confess I haven’t seen you around often, since your arrival. I would have liked to converse with you more, outside of that other meeting we had the other day.’
‘I’ve been teleporting in and out,’ Fenwrel said, inclining her head in a graceful acknowledgement. ‘I have been trying to organise my children together so that we might all be present when you make us Noble Court once more. Yukti evades me.’
‘Is there anything I can do?’
‘Your Majesty?’ Fenwrel said, black eyes shining in shock. ‘Anything you can do? I believe you have enough to be worrying about. You are King.’
‘I have a knack for finding the lost,’ Gwyn said, feeling chided for offering help. It was a strange thing to feel, and he drew himself upright, squared his shoulders. Fenwrel noticed, clasped her hands together in front of her.
‘Your Majesty, that is very kind of you, but I am not without resources as yet. It is a strange thing to be both so proud and frustrated. It is a matter of pride you see that she is underfae and can still make herself so hidden – from a Master Mage like me, no less! Her mother. But that child was always so. I hope you get to meet her. I hope she has not met…another fate.’
‘From all you have said, I’m sure that’s not the case,’ he said, offering a reassuring smile.
He straightened his coat again and looked in the direction of the throne room, something else occurring to him. He’d seen Fenwrel once since her arrival, and it was to ask a favour.
‘Have you placed the spell?’
Fenwrel grimaced. She had tried to talk him out of it, a bold move, given she seemed to have an idea that people were supposed to obey their Kings and Queens.
‘Are you sure, Gwyn?’
And there it was, she’d lapsed back into informal speak. It was interesting to watch her do it – those moments when she thought it was appropriate to defer to him, versus the moments when he could tell she wanted to pull rank.
‘It is a magic that doesn’t go a long way to fostering trust.’
‘Would you trust him?’
‘I’m not sure if he will trust you, after this.’
Gwyn sighed. They’d talked about all of this.
‘It’s for his own protection,’ Gwyn said. ‘It’s not unheard of between monarchs and their Inner Court to-’
‘That is something that is consented to. You have asked me to place this magic without his consent.’
‘So you won’t do it?’ Gwyn said, staring at her.
‘I’ve done it,’ Fenwrel said, her lip curling, briefly. ‘It’s placed. Done. But I hope you speak with him about it.’
‘He doesn’t know?’
‘No,’ Fenwrel shook her head. ‘It’s not an intrusive magic, and he didn’t even need to be there for me to place it. He is not sensitive to magic, he would have no idea of its presence.’
Gwyn breathed a sigh of relief, even as he shoved away concerns for all Fenwrel had said about issues with trust. It didn’t seem like this would complicate things much further. He even had the hope that Augus would understand, but his greater hope was that Augus would never know.
‘I think it’s time for me to get out there,’ Gwyn said, pulling his dra’ocht towards himself and settling it through his body, feeling the shimmer of it. She blinked at him slowly, a smile stretched upon her face.
‘I’ll be there in five minutes. Luck to you, Majesty.’
Gwyn nodded in thanks, even as he winced when he walked past her. Luck was for fools.
Gwyn’s breath caught in his throat when he saw Augus in the small, private antechamber. He was already standing, waiting, facing the doors that would lead to the throne room. Beyond, they could hear nothing – the soundproofing was perfect. Though Gwyn could sense the great weight of their presence, he could only stare at Augus.
He wore a form-fitting suit with no jacket, no tie, a waistcoat of copper, green and black. His hair was pulled back neatly, highlighting the sharp press of his cheekbones against his skin, the angularity of his jaw, often softened by the fall of his hair. Gwyn’s mind flashed to the shapeshifter, then snapped back to the present again when he saw the collar around Augus’ neck, the chain he swung lazily in his fingers.
Gwyn’s mouth opened.
Augus had fashioned something of copper, stained with verdigris. Ivy leaves twining symmetrically around his neck, joined in the middle by a stag brooch that was the copper mirror of the one Gwyn had pinned to his breast. His fingers reached up and touched the one he wore, absently, and he didn’t miss the way Augus’ lips quirked into a smirk. The chain itself was copper, set off pleasantly against the green shirt he wore, the black pants, the rapier at his belt.
His blood quickened in his body and he stared at Augus hungrily, huffing a breath of air out of his nostrils. He looked good.
‘Oh, Gwyn. I don’t know whether to be flattered or furious.’
He stepped forwards, still swinging the end of the chain where it terminated in a small loop like it really was a leash. He looked Gwyn up and down and then met his gaze, something dangerous flickering in the green. Gwyn turned as Augus walked a circle around him.
‘I think I’m going to choose furious,’ Augus breathed, his gaze turning sharp.
Gwyn’s hand fell away from the brooch. For a moment he’d thought…
He felt like an idiot. He felt like Augus hadn’t minded. His heart thumped heavily in his chest. Of course he minded. This was too close to the Display that had ruined Augus. It was a terrible thing to ask of anyone, even if Gwyn couldn’t see another way out of the situation they were in.
‘How-how much did it cost us?’ Gwyn said finally, clearing his throat and trying to master the tremble in his voice.
Augus’ lips curled up in a threatening smile and he leaned into Gwyn’s side, resting his chin on Gwyn’s shoulder.
Augus’ manicured claw-tips danced over Gwyn’s neck.
‘I had an extension made so that it would fit around that thick neck of yours. Would you like to wear it, Gwyn? Be collared and leashed by me? Led around on a pretty chain?’
Gwyn’s eyes closed and he forgot about the Triumphal Entry. He forgot about the rest of the fae, despite their energies wrapping around the both of them. He had a clear image of it suddenly, and his neck ached for the kiss of metal wrapped around it, placed there by Augus’ hands. He blinked himself back to awareness and stared at Augus, mute.
Augus hummed, a sound of indulgence.
‘It is about the only thing that makes this bearable,’ he said, under his breath.
Gwyn looked away, took a breath, another breath. He thought he was nervous, but he was the one asking Augus to go out there and face so many enemies, chained up like- Gwyn went to rake a hand through his hair and had his wrist snatched in a rough grip.
‘No. You’ll unsettle it,’ Augus said.
‘I’ll never ask it of you again,’ Gwyn said, and Augus stared at him, plain disbelief on his face. Gwyn was quite certain that what was happening now, between them, was more difficult than anything he’d face out there.
‘Augus, it’s once, I swear. I’ll- I will blood-oath it. Here, now, if you like.’
Augus’ eyes widened and he tilted his head, scrutinised him. Gwyn was glad when a hint of relief passed over Augus’ face, the way his eyebrows lifted slightly, his lips relaxed.
Gwyn faced the double doors and took a deep breath, then looked down when he felt the chain being placed in the palm of his hand. He curled fingers around it. Augus looked indifferent, but Gwyn knew that he masked tumult.
‘Thank you,’ Gwyn said, and Augus barked a single syllable of laughter.
‘Don’t thank me yet. Believe me when I say that being subservient isn’t a character strength I have in abundance.’
Gwyn nodded and gathered his thoughts together. He’d spent his entire life trying to reject the formalities of the Court, but the fact was that he’d been raised in a formal Court environment and he knew far more about this sort of thing than anyone else realised. He ran over speeches, dialogue, words in his mind, felt himself become the golden ‘Bright One’ that others called him.
‘Your dra’ocht is different,’ Augus said quietly, perturbed.
‘You’ve not seen me like this before,’ Gwyn said, turning to him. He squeezed the chain as though in reassurance and realised how useless a gesture it was. It wasn’t Augus’ hand.
‘Let’s get this over and done with.’
‘Please,’ Augus said, voice flat.
They walked towards the doors at the same time, but Gwyn could sense the tension throughout Augus’ body, smelled the faintest scent of fear. His fingers tightened around the chain like he could somehow convey his support. But how could he, when he was the one who had asked this of him?
He felt himself beginning to be wrenched by guilt, and slammed that part of himself with coldness.
He was King of the Unseelie. That was all that mattered.
There was a collective hush when the fae – the grotesque, the glorious – milling in their fantastic, mesmerising or elegant clothing saw Augus connected to Gwyn by the chain in his hand. Several pointed at the collar, turning to each other and whispering. Ash – who had been there already, circulating, and known nothing about it – fumbled his tumbler of whiskey and spilled some onto the floor. Gulvi stared at Gwyn in horror. But the rest – the rest of the fae were taking it in, looking between the two of them. Augus – ramrod straight at his side, and Gwyn standing taller; a regal, ruthless glamour moving out over them all.
He didn’t plan on leading Augus around with him all night, so he waved Augus to one of the four thrones against the far wall. Augus walked over, looking only at his destination and not appearing to notice the gazes and whispers around him.
Gwyn’s chest gave a tiny flutter, a twinge that he dismissed. Years – decades – of training returned to him. The Unseelie might brag about how they didn’t care about honour or duty to anyone but themselves, but without someone uniting them at the helm, they would be destroyed.
He walked straight to Iliak – King of the marid-djinn afrit and brother to Ifir. Iliak was not a military man and he held both of his hands out in greeting. Gwyn clasped them, met the tiny flames flickering in his irises and waited.
Iliak nodded a greeting; an acceptance.
‘Well met,’ he said, his voice a natural growl. His huge horns twisted up in spirals above his head, decorated with gold and brass. His hands dwarfed Gwyn’s, easy to do when Iliak stood at over eight feet tall even in his hybrid form.
‘A pleasure to see you and so many others were able to respond to my invitation. Tell me, how are the lands of the marid-djinn and afshin afrit?’
Gwyn offered an interested smile, let his face settle into its usual coldness, and Iliak began talking with him, even as the other Unseelie began to mingle once more amongst themselves. There was a pattern to it – the way the night would progress. The gifts would come later. The speeches came later. Right now, they were all Unseelie in the same room, and it would have been rude for Gwyn to take the throne, even though the crown announced his status to all.
He caught whispers around him:
‘The Each Uisge would never have done that, even for the Prince.’
‘I didn’t think it was true, but look at the way he just sits there. Do you think that…?’
‘After all those centuries knowing he tamed so many others; it turned out he just needed to be broken in by the King. Or his cock…’
Gwyn knew that some of the words were said near enough to him that he was meant to hear them; even if they were whispered. But even more drifted to him in casual conversation. He glanced a few times at Augus as he mingled, saw fae nearby, knew that Augus was hearing the same thing. There was a stony, dead set to his face.
Gwyn hoped fervently that Augus wouldn’t become catatonic; not like last time.
He went from fae family to fae family, clasping hands, enquiring after their lands and their families, offering the polite questions that were appropriate, researched, well-considered. He knew he was coming across as composed, powerful, his glamour a strident thing; a bold brass note.
He held out his index finger for the tiny hands of the diminutive fairies – those diaphanous winged creatures in their spider silks and leaf shoes – smiling upon brown, black and white faces alike; noting the many different families that had responded to his invitation. Those with the wings of monarch butterflies, dragonflies, huge lunar moths. They smiled sharp teeth at him, unfurled proboscis. They – more than many – needed havens and the protection of a Court. They were too small, too fragile. Even more peaceable species of Unseelie fae – like swan-maidens – would eat the tiny fairies if they could grasp them beyond the bounds of the Court.
He spent some time with Princess Braith of the fie ellyllon, Prince Vane nearby, a foot shorter than she and none of his weapons visible. She, on the other hand, dripped jewels – displaying her people’s wealth. She wore so many pearls in her hair that Gwyn spotted several other Unseelie picking up ones that had fallen – supposedly unnoticed – to the floor. Braith, boasting heavy freckles upon pink skin, had blue eyes that shone like the seas around her homeland. She watched everything with a shrewd gaze.
The fie ellyllon had been well-favoured by many Unseelie Courts in the past, only to be subtly snubbed by the Raven Prince. They were ready to step back into the limelight. The ways of Princess Braith – even the heaviness of her glamour – reminded Gwyn powerfully of Crielle. He took her hands and noticed the way her nails dug an insult into his palms.
They carried too much wealth for him to neglect them.
He moved to Amaley Manytrees afterwards – the mothertree of the Aur Forest – and one of the few true pacifists. She was only Unseelie because she fed upon the sap of her trees. She clasped his hands and beamed at him, oak leaves growing from either side of her head and arranged to neatly fall alongside her brown hair. Her golden eyes glowed.
‘And so you are here now, and not over there on the other side of the river,’ she said, her voice holding hints of forests in it. Her boots were made of leather cut leaves, pointed and shining in bright, grass green. He could see bark growing along the back of her hands and squeezed her hands lightly before letting go.
‘I believe the Aur dryads are not quite as polarised as some of the other fae,’ Gwyn said quietly, and she tilted her head.
‘We work in concert with the Seelie to keep our forest in accord. The world’s forest. There are some of us who cared very much about your speeches regarding inter-alignment cooperation, no matter what your motives. All these war folk.’ She looked around, then stepped back into the shadows. ‘And you, a War General who talked so often of peace. Does it cut you, to be this way? You are like a grafted tree. You may have been taught to bear the fruits of our cousins across the river; but the rootstock always wins out.’
Gwyn offered a detached smile and asked after her children. Expressed an interest in meeting her seventh son – a magical number, especially as he was a seventh son of a seventh son. He moved away from her with regret into the crowds, keeping an eye on Augus, the appearance of perfect composure on his face a farce.
It’s working. That’s all that matters. It’s only once.
But ‘once’ would do damage, and his chest locked up when Ash’s glamour slammed into him right as a strong hand grasped his wrist.
‘King Gwyn!’ Ash said cheerfully, whiskey on his breath, a dangerous spark in his eyes. ‘Can I have a word? Lord? Yeah? That sounds good, doesn’t it?’
Gwyn walked calmly by Ash’s side, despite the grip that Ash had on his wrist. He sighed silently when he noticed where Ash was headed.
Before the door of the antechamber closed behind them, Ash called to the others:
‘Just stealing him for a few minutes, folks! I’ll give him back whole!’
A scatter of laughter from those who heard him.
They were thrust into silence as the doors closed. Ash pointed in the direction that Augus sat, even though he was no longer visible beyond the walls of the antechamber.
‘What did you do to him to make him submit to that? Huh? What the fuck did you do to him?’
Gwyn took a deep breath, offered Ash a lazy smirk.
‘You might wish to consider that your brother does nothing that he does not wish to do h-’
‘Bullshit. He thinks he’s fucking Fort Knox but he’s not. You get him out of that chain and that collar, and get him out of there. You don’t know what the fae standing near him are saying. Just because they aren’t touching him, doesn’t mean they aren’t hurting him.’
‘It’s part of the rouse, Ash,’ Gwyn said. ‘Augus engineered the chain and the collar himself. After the murder of Crielle, we have to be sure that the majority of the Unseelie know where Augus and I stand.’
‘You mean like, him as your slave, right?’ Ash shook his head, ran a hand over his face. ‘Do you want my help or not, yeah? Because I feel like you don’t realise how easy it would be to turn them all against you. Just a little fucking push, and you’re not King anymore and I get my brother back and wow, like how tempting is that? You seem to forget that the whole reason you engineered that Soulbond in the first place – between Augus and I – is because I’m so fucking beloved by these guys that a lot of them don’t want to touch Augus anymore simply because my life is now connected to his.’
‘Take those two tiny brain cells you have and knock them together for a bit and think about it.’
Gwyn opened his mouth to retaliate, Ash’s words digging underneath his glamour, sitting abrasively like sawdust in the back of his throat.
‘Wait, wait,’ Ash said, holding up a hand. ‘Wait a sec, though. He’s not your slave, right? What kind of sick relationship do you both have? You spreading your legs for that cock, while he goes out there with that collar and chain? You know what it’s doing to him, right? Did you spin a good game about how we really need it right now and how like, it’s the only way? Because it’s not.’
Ash pulled on the cuffs of his shirt, though they were rolled up too high to hide the Soulbond – glittering turquoise and black – on the inside of his forearm. He had an absent, edgy energy. It riled Gwyn, made him want to fight, to grapple at something with his hands, and he realised that was what Ash was feeling, his inner predator chafing at the seams. Here he stood in flashy, contemporary human clothing – a collared dress shirt with decorated cuffs, dress pants, shoes that shone a bright red to match the pattern across the weave of his shirt. His glamour was powerful. For all he looked like he didn’t belong, he could play many of them without thinking about it.
‘You were demoted, man. You know what public humiliation is. And he- God help me, he actually cares for you? Proving Augus’ long-term shitty taste in men. I could fucking go you right now, so help me.’
‘Best not,’ Gwyn said, voice crisp.
Ash’s face twisted in anger.
‘Fuck with me some more, buddy,’ Ash snapped. ‘Go on. Because-’
Gwyn stepped back when Ash hunched down and powered forwards. He’d been expecting something, but he thought Ash would have more of a tell. The fist clipped his gut and Gwyn growled, grabbing Ash by the arm and shoving him into the wall-
Except that glamour powered into him and a fist followed it up, cutting up into his navel. Gwyn snarled at the dull burst of pain.
They both backed away from each other, Ash pulling his wrist close to his body. Gwyn couldn’t remember grasping it that hard.
‘Don’t even try,’ Ash breathed. ‘Not me, man. You can do it to everyone else, but don’t even try. You don’t know how close I am to going out there and telling everyone the truth. That their dear King is submissive down to his core and likes taking it up the ass by the guy he defeated, that they’re all threatened by. How good’s that gonna look? Guess what, man, I know what your heartsong is. Augus let it slip. You think any of those guys are gonna follow you when they find out your heartsong isn’t triumph, but fucking surrender?’
Gwyn’s spine felt like ice water was pouring down it. Ash beamed.
‘Got you, princess. Now, I’m gonna go out there and ask Augus if he wants to take the chain and collar off. Because if the point of this was to humiliate him to prove a point, you’ve done that.’
Gwyn’s belly hurt. He straightened his suit. The words of demotion rested on his tongue. It would be so easy to make Ash underfae and eject him from the Court.
Except Ash could be killed then, and he would take Augus down with him.
That damned Soulbond.
It hardly mattered. The Unseelie Court would question him if he removed Ash from his Court. Augus would leave with him anyway…
‘Don’t you forget that I’ve got you by the balls, sunshine,’ Ash crooned, every inch of his predatory nature lighting up in his hazel eyes, turning them bright, glowing. ‘Now, I love shindigs like this and I helped organise it, so I’m gonna go back out there and schmooze. Because that’s what you want. Aren’t I great? Say, ‘thank you, Ash.’’ Gwyn glared at him, and Ash’s teeth showed in every inch of his smile. ‘Oh, oh man, your expression- You should see your face right now.’
Ash laughed, the sound full-throated.
‘You can thank me later.’
With that, he stepped forwards, reaching out and straightening Gwyn’s coat, even as Gwyn raised his hands to deflect for a blow that never came.
He wasn’t like this with anyone else. He was never this defensive. He looked down at Ash, wanted to smash the impish grin right off his face.
‘You look flash,’ Ash said, his glamour dialling down and becoming more tolerable. ‘Anyway, back into the breach and all that, right?’
He tipped an invisible cap and opened the double doors.
‘Hey guys!’ he shouted, and Gwyn felt the moment he powered up his glamour, like warming up a giant spotlight.
Gwyn walked back out into the crowds, face still, composed. Ash was talking to Augus under his breath, kneeling beside the throne. Augus was staring ahead. After a minute, he turned to Ash and shook his head. He said something, but the angle was wrong for Gwyn to be able to read his lips.
Ash looked over at Gwyn, brow furrowing; and Augus didn’t move.
Gwyn felt a moment of relief. But the crowds were moving towards him again, and he had no time to dwell.