Augus found Fenwrel in one of the smaller libraries a few hours after seeing Gulvi. The knife wound had closed, though it ached. She was stacking books by category, and not all of them were focused on Magecraft and meridians. He noticed a surprising amount of scrolls on the politics of the Unseelie Court and he picked one of them up, unfurling it and looking towards her.
She reminded him very much of Fluri. She had a quiet grace about the way she moved. Even today when she wore near black jeans and a red choli. Her bare feet with mouse toes always placed just so on the ground. Her hands and wrists were elegant. She was a sturdily built woman, thickened with muscle and fat, despite the taper of her neck and the aristocratic bearing of her features. He thought – in another lifetime – he would have liked her as a client; not that he thought she would have needed his services.
‘Politics? Should we fear a coup?’ Augus said, and Fenwrel laughed, nose wrinkling.
‘Should we? No, I think not. Not from me, anyway. I want to be useful. My grandmother did amazing things while she was here. I want to achieve amazing things.’
‘You’re already a Master Mage, a mother – how ambitious are you, exactly?’
‘Quite,’ Fenwrel smiled, her black mouse eyes glittering. She looked healthier than the last time he’d seen her, brown skin more vibrant. ‘Not to rule; only to leave a legacy for my children. I’m not sure you’d understand.’
‘I’m sure I don’t,’ Augus said. He couldn’t reproduce, and his only parent was a lake. Beyond the bond he had with Ash, he found the concept of family quite abstract.
‘You’ve sought me out. Why?’
Augus slid onto the table and crossed one leg over the other, swinging them slowly; a pretence of casual interest.
‘I wanted to ask you two questions.’
‘Two? Then ask,’ Fenwrel said. ‘Questions are free.’
‘Fluri taught me the basics of meridians and pressure points. I’m out of practice, and out of touch with the art. I understand you’re busy, and I have no idea when I might find the time myself, but I wish to brush up on my skills and understand more of what I am doing.’
‘You want to apprentice?’ Fenwrel said, looking at him shrewdly, ears twitching in what could have been annoyance.
‘No,’ Augus said. ‘I wish to learn.’
She nodded and didn’t answer.
‘Your next question?’
Augus winced. The bluntness also reminded him of Fluri. He wasn’t able to get much past her, and he suspected the same went for her granddaughter.
‘Are you- I have an odd question, I think. Tigbalan said he thought I was unwell, at the Entry. I’ve had no sense of being ill, no symptoms. I have a destabilised core, but with one such as mine – it’s easy enough to destabilise. Are you able to…check? He suggested I come to you.’
‘Then he thinks it’s a matter of meridians,’ Fenwrel said, ears flicking forwards in interest. ‘Could you stand for me?’
Augus slid off the table and stood straight, watching as she approached. She took the book she’d slipped from the row and placed it calmly in a stack. Then she lifted her hands up and spread her fingers. Her technique was slightly different to Fluri’s, but he recognised it all the same. She closed her eyes to better focus on the lines of energy that lay within his skin, running along his nervous system, his spine, the arteries of his blood – rivers inside of him; the waterways of the body.
Her expression didn’t shift once as she traced the primary meridian from the centre of his forehead down to the bowl of his pelvis. Only her ears twitched. Sometimes flattening, sometimes pricking forwards. He expected her to move to other meridians, but she stepped back and opened her eyes slowly.
‘You’re poisoned. Tigbalan was correct. You are suffering illness, Augus. You say you have not noticed? That doesn’t seem possible. But then it is quite incredible what we can learn to live with.’
‘I’m Inner Court status,’ Augus said, shaking his head. ‘What possible illness could I have that would-’
‘It is long-term exposure to underworld energy. I am not…an expert. No one in the fae world is an expert in these sicknesses. But your meridians are a mess. When Fluri said you were blocked like a sump, I think there may have been more going on than even she was willing to say. She would have known you were sick. It is not normal for Mages to teach anyone their skills without…taking them on as an apprentice. But Fluri taught you. Perhaps she wished to give you the skills to help you heal yourself, or arrest the damage. You are deteriorating.’
Fenwrel’s face softened as she said the last sentence, and she raised her hands towards him, as though to measure something else. He took a step back.
‘Can you fix it?’ he said.
Underworld energy. He wanted it gone. Gwyn had removed it from the Court, so he knew it was possible to destroy it. His fingers curled and he – in a flash – imagined clawing it all out of himself, the black sliminess of it. He imagined blood on his hands and his claws, along black globes of clinging dark.
‘I can unblock your blocked meridian points, but Augus…this is not a thing I would attempt lightly. And nor should you. It will likely make you worse before you get better. Lakes and rivers hide their poisons in the deep silts. Dredge them, and you know not what you risk bringing to the surface. I suspect that is why you have remained functional for so long. Freshwater fae are exceptional at sinking deep what they do not wish to see.’
‘It explains a lot,’ she said.
‘To be this…polluted – it explains your erratic behaviour. What river that breaks its banks doesn’t become chaos for a time?’
‘My behaviour is my own,’ Augus snarled. ‘Do you seek to take that from me too?’
‘Take-? Do I seek to take that from you? Listen to yourself, Each Uisge. Have I tried to take anything from you? You have come to me to ask me two favours, and I have granted one.’
He stared at her, feeling like he could now tell all the places in himself that were wrong. Every slimy, slick place of sticky awfulness. He’d claw them out if he could.
‘I could compel you to heal me,’ Augus said, dangerous.
Fenwrel’s eyes narrowed.
In a flash she had her Mage staff out and waved it once at him. He leapt backwards, expecting an attack, but felt nothing except a weird fluttering in his body.
She kept her staff out and her gaze was uncompromising. Threatening.
‘Sit down in that chair. Now.’
Augus choked as the compulsion found him. It slunk into his mind and he resisted automatically, nausea powering through him and turning his stomach. His limbs ached to obey even as his mind rebelled. He stared at her in horror – he hadn’t known she could do that. He hadn’t known anyone could. He knew Mages of the meridians were rare, that they could block or enhance powers, but-
Pressure built in his mind. He was distantly aware of walking to the chair in stultified steps. He thrummed out a deep, bass growl and couldn’t even count the amount of fae who would have liked to see this happen to him.
He sat on the chair and the pressure in his mind ceased. His throat ached on the rasping breaths he was taking.
‘You’ve never been compelled before, have you?’ she said. Compulsions again. He was answering the question even as he summoned his will to fight it off.
‘It’s not a pleasant experience, is it?’
‘It is not.’
Fenwrel waved her staff and the fluttering – like a zip being pulled up inside of him – returned.
‘Next time, it would serve you well to think twice about threatening it to Master Mages.’
‘Duly noted,’ Augus said, muted. Dull horror thrummed through him. He felt cold all the way through, like he’d just been visited by the Nightingale. He remained very still, unable to process what had just occurred. He stared at her Mage staff – now tucked back into her belt – with something close to loathing.
‘I’ve upset you,’ Fenwrel said, a detached sympathy on her face. ‘But I need to make things clear; I am trained as a Mage and I do respond to threats against my person. Also, compel me to heal you, and what should I do? Remove all your darkness at once so that all the toxins rise to the surface? Do you have any idea how sick you would truly become? You would not be able to function. You would likely not survive it. I have seen good lakes – flourishing lakes – turn the land around them to dust once their inner poisons had been stirred. And you understand that, deep down. As it is, I don’t know what removing even the smallest amount of this darkness will do.’
Augus watched her, unable to think of much to say. She pulled up a chair, sat facing him. She rested her hands in her lap and leaned forwards, as though he was the only being that mattered most in that instance. Fluri had a way of doing it too. A particular kind of undivided attention that was at once both welcome and frightening.
He refused to shift or squirm on his chair, but it was a close thing.
‘You are scared,’ Fenwrel said, and smiled when Augus sneered automatically. ‘I would be scared. Very. Fluri said you had experienced terrible things that you never spoke of. That you had nightmares. And that was back when the Raven Prince was our ruler and you had not yet invited the Nightingale into this Court to join by your side.’
‘The past doesn’t rule me,’ Augus said, smoothly.
‘The past rules anyone who doesn’t master it or understand it. You don’t understand your past. You’ve not mastered it. Augus, believe it or not, but being deft at shoving away what you don’t want to see, is not true self-mastery.’
‘It’s not that simple, I also-’
‘I know,’ Fenwrel said, her voice softening. ‘I know. I understand that you are not idle. I also know that a waterhorse like yourself would feel…drawn to slowly cleaning out any internal pollution. That is how you work. But you are a master of avoidance, are you not? I don’t think it’s a coincidence that you ended up in a vocation where you felt the need to show other people’s avoidance to them, to shove the truth of their past and their pains in their faces through tactile touch and sensuality. We all role model what we need the most.’
No one had talked to him like this since Fluri and the Raven Prince, who both felt entirely too comfortable saying what they thought at any moment. Gwyn talked in stops and starts, so his brutal honesty often hid behind his own fears. Ash was blunt – certainly – but he didn’t have all the pieces to the story, and he didn’t have the will to disturb Augus to the point of upsetting him, unless he thought it was necessary.
‘I will make you one offer, and it is my only offer,’ Fenwrel said, sighing. ‘I will teach you about pressure points and meridians once more, like my grandmother, in exchange for allowing me to heal you at my own pace, which – Augus – will be closer to what you truly need, than you suspect. The urge to remove it all will be unbearable – but what if I tell you that I might not be able to truly remove any of it? Your entire energy is changed. There are some things that aren’t just scooped out, like a leaf on the surface of a lake. Some things stay with you forever. Best to know what they are, instead of hiding from them.
‘When I was younger, one of my children – my youngest, Suvidh – went through something terrible. It is not my business to say what he experienced, but he reminds me of you in some ways. He worked so hard to remove it all, because the knowledge that he would have to live with it horrified him. There is horror and helplessness in knowing that we cannot simply scrape away what feels wrong and disgusts us.’
‘I’m not your son,’ Augus said, standing. ‘This isn’t a bonding experience. And you don’t actually know any of what I’ve experienced. So-’
‘Do you accept my offer, Augus?’
He had been ready to leave, to think of other things, to forget that he’d even asked about any of this. And Gwyn would ask later, ‘are you ill?’ And what would he say? There was no easy way to answer that question.
‘I…need to think about it.’
‘Good. That’s the healthiest thing I think you’ve said since you’ve come to see me. As for price, do not fret. Only offer what you think it is worth and what you can truly afford without harm to yourself, your quality of life, or others.’
Augus smiled, bemused. It was the same ‘price’ he offered to all of his clients. It was strange to hear it in return.
‘You said something earlier I find interesting,’ Fenwrel said, ears flicking forwards. ‘You said, ‘Do you seek to take that from me too?’ As though your acts of evil are the last bastion of yourself that you have to hang onto. As though everything else has already been lost to you. I don’t know if that’s true, this is only speculation, but…you might want to consider how many evil acts you were doing – outside of hunting and feeding – before you met the Nightingale. For all reports say that you were a calm, quiet, introverted thing who cared for healing and his brother.’
‘I’ll not have your pity,’ Augus said, and Fenwrel’s lips tightened into a small smile.
‘I think you need to learn the distinction between compassion and pity. And do not mistake me, young man; your actions are still your own. But there are some of us who must spill our poisons out where the world can see them, because they cannot contain them all within. It’s not healthy, but it is understandable. I wonder…if you are clinging to- Well, we have time to discuss it later, should you choose to accept me as a healer.’
Augus stood, smoothing his shirt, looking towards the entrance of the library. Fenwrel stood also, her gaze sombre.
‘You can come to me at any time,’ she said quietly. ‘Even if you do not wish my help in cleansing your meridians. You can come to speak, or listen, or simply be. I am used to having younger fae around me, and I know you’re not my son, but you do remind me of Suvidh.’
He inclined his head in gratitude, even as he thought it wasn’t likely. The discomfort of experiencing something that he wasn’t ever supposed to experience – compulsions – left him out of sorts. He was biologically resistant to Ash, to other waterhorses, to all other forms of it. Knowing that she could take his power from him, use it against him so easily…
But she could also help him. Theoretically it might restabilise his heartsong, it might allow him to find his inner calm and seek out the Raven Prince.
‘When Gwyn returns from battle, I suggest you-’
Augus’ eyes widened.
‘What? Returns from battle?’
‘He didn’t tell you?’ Fenwrel said. ‘I suppose you are hard to reach when you are on the hunt. There had to be a change of plans. He left not more than a few hours ago, I believe.’
He couldn’t explain it. He knew he’d get other opportunities to see Gwyn in battle. But after seeing him at the Triumphal Entry, Augus itched to see Gwyn in armour again, swinging a sword. He wanted to know the things about Gwyn that other people knew and took for granted, like Gulvi. Not that long ago, Gulvi had said Augus only really understood one side of him; and it was true. He needed to see Gwyn the soldier, Gwyn the warrior.
‘Thank you for your time,’ he said, turning to leave, wondering if he could teleport straight to the location he remembered Gwyn picking in a strategy meeting. He could feel out the lakes of the world once he was immersed in a water source. He could find something nearby, perhaps. Use his invisibility…
‘Augus,’ Fenwrel said, and he turned smoothly. Her eyebrows were pulled together. ‘Do think it over. I want to help you.’
‘Because you don’t want to see me become evil and terrible again and etcetera? I’ve heard it before.’
‘No,’ Fenwrel looked confused, and then her expression sobered. ‘No, Augus. It’s just quite evident that you are not well.’ She gestured towards his meridians. ‘You’re suffering.’
Augus didn’t even dignify that with a response. He held her gaze for several seconds longer, then left.
Two hours later, Augus crouched at the bole of a giant tree, the blood and bone and skin and guts of many assailing his nose, the clang of metal on metal ringing in his ears, the zinging of air before the thock! of arrows impacting the air around him. The ground beneath his feet vibrated under pounding feet, the screams and wails and cries and shouts and roars were a patina upon which flares of magic echoed.
He breathed shallowly, the invisibility so much a strain that he was sweating from it. Perhaps talking with Fenwrel made him more aware of how much it jarred him, it taxed him more than ever.
Even so, he couldn’t drag himself away.
Gwyn was splendid.
His splendid, exquisite, mad beast.
Augus hadn’t been able to close his mouth properly from the moment he’d first seen him. At first fear had crawled through him. Why wasn’t he wearing a helm? He was covered in blood. Augus had seen at least two strikes from others hit the plating of his bad shoulder.
Gwyn didn’t seem to feel any of it. What he did feel, he responded to with a blistering outrage that always ended in the murder of others.
He fought like a creature possessed. He crushed faces with his bare hand, while swinging a sword that should not have been wielded one-handed, occasionally bringing both his hands to the hilt and cleaving fae almost in two. Soldiers – Seelie and Unseelie – scattered around him. His own kin to give him space, to avoid becoming collateral damage, and the Seelie because they knew him, they knew of his ferocity.
Gwyn sought them out, roaring and bolting after them. Taking leaps off dead bodies and bringing his sword down, crying out in raw delight at the death he wrought.
He looked joyful.
As a result, Augus was nursing an erection that had started around the time he realised that Gwyn wasn’t at risk of imminent death. He ached with arousal. He was reminded abruptly of a time when he’d been running for his life in the Seelie Court, and had ended up being fucked against a wall by a beast of a King who had licked blood off his own arm, yet still managed to find gentleness in all of it.
Augus’ fingers occasionally trailed over the bump of the lubricant in his pocket. He’d felt ridiculous at the time when he’d fetched it, he didn’t anymore.
The Unseelie military was winning. Their army was primarily composed of the ground-fighting kudlaks led by Zudanna, and a contingent of archers and mages led by Vane. The Seelie military was holding its own well, a high death count coming between them and bodies getting in the way of the fighting now. It was evident that Dogwill Borough really had been betraying the Unseelie Court to the Seelie; Alysia – War General of the Seelie – hadn’t sent a large enough military to deal with a situation like this. Gwyn’s play had worked.
Hours passed, the invisibility feeling more and more like a heel digging into his sternum. His inhales wheezed at their peaks, and he pressed knuckles into his chest as though he could soothe it.
Gwyn didn’t tire. Didn’t flag. His normally pale hair plastered to his head with blood, sweat and viscera. At one point he’d cleaved into a fae in a way that caused blood and more to plaster across his face. He’d wiped it away and stabbed the dead body for good measure. And then, when the arrow had thocked between plates of armour, digging into his ribs, he’d torn it out and light flickered along his forearms – that light – and it seemed like the whole battlefield took notice – except they didn’t, not really. Too busy fighting for their lives.
But Augus leaned forwards as Gwyn shoved the sword into the ground and turned on the Seelie archers, running towards them, light crackling along his bare forearms, splintering and blistering from his hands. A silent orb of stuff, an almost hollow boom, and there were roars of triumph from some of the Unseelie – those who weren’t staring on in horror.
None of you tamed him. But I did.
Augus smirked. He was aware that bragging to himself while feeling like his chest was being crushed was possibly not the best use of his time.
Augus didn’t lose interest in the battle, his inner predator twitching to life. Even once the battle died down, even when he could only vaguely make out Gwyn shouting to the Unseelie to begin looting the dead – half to the Unseelie Court and half to the kudlaks and the fie ellyllon for assisting – he couldn’t stop watching. He assumed Dogwill had already been teleported away for questioning, imprisonment, torture.
Augus licked his lips. Gwyn had bestowed upon him the position of interrogator. Something he was quite looking forward to.
He grit out a pained sound as he clung to the invisibility. He watched Gwyn pacing the outskirts of the bodies like a wild thing, holding his sword like he still wanted something to fight. Gwyn eyed his own soldiers now.
He’s looking to sate himself. How do I get over there? Get his attention?
The invisibility was too taxing. He’d have to drop it to walk the distance.
He growled in frustration, and then the pain sharply built in his sternum and heart and in an instant, the invisibility was gone.
Augus struggled for it. Pushed himself upright to stagger behind the tree, even though he was such a distance away and no one had suspected him and-
Augus’ eyes widened when Gwyn stopped his prowling, stilled, then turned and stared right at him.
‘Oh damn,’ Augus breathed.
How did he do that? King’s instincts? Battle instincts? What?
Augus backed behind the tree quickly, and then saw the flare of light in front of him. He only had a bare few seconds to remember that the last time Gwyn had seen Augus around other warring folk, it had been a shapeshifter and-
A sword swung at him. Augus laughed weakly as he wondered if he should start fighting for his life.