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The Court of Five Thrones

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Augus

*

The An-Fnwy estate was just as grand and imposing as Augus Each Uisge had imagined when he was an underfae teenager, living in a lake nearby. But things were different now. He was no longer underfae status, but instead representing the Inner Court of King Gwyn ap Nudd’s Unseelie Kingdom. He wasn’t stealing food from the orchards, he was now a consummate predator, able to hunt humans as necessary, grow his own fruit and vegetables in his own holdings.

And, he had to admit, the shine had rather gone off the place, now that he knew that Crielle ferch Fnwy and Lludd Llaw Eraint were not the perfect bastions of Seelie fae conduct.

Augus passed the fence – a cream limestone wall with sharp iron points set into the top. The iron was used especially to deter the lesser statuses of fae who could not generally abide it. He sat in a compartment, in a carriage drawn by horses not nearly as well-trained as they should be. Well, the Unseelie Court couldn’t afford better, and they would have to do. He inspected his clothing from within the privacy of the compartment, flexing the black leather of his gloves, clicking his buckled boots against the floor. He straightened a smart, green shirt and fixed the collar, looking at his appearance briefly in a small round mirror he’d pilfered from prey he’d killed in the human world. He met his own green eyes and raised arched eyebrows at himself, then smirked.

The mirror was a cheap, tacky thing. He dropped it once he was satisfied with his appearance. It clattered and rolled under the seat.

The water that wept from his mane formed droplets that never penetrated the wicking material of his shirt. Waterweed sprouted from his scalp and fell healthily through his black hair. He was in remarkably good condition, given that he was supposed to have been executed, that he was underfae status less than a year ago, that he was still regularly fielding assassination attempts.

No one particularly liked him. He’d made a mockery of the Unseelie Court during his own reign as King. Bankrupted the Kingdom, destroyed land, became not only a villain found in human fairytales, but a villain to the fae.

Can’t be helped, really.

The front of the multi-storeyed An-Fnwy manor was made of the same ketton stone as the fence. It was separated into two distinct wings by an imposing portico and verandah, complete with columns curlicued with vines of rare yellow and gold wisteria. A large fountain at the front depicted a man holding a longbow staring imperially into the distance. His other arm was outstretched, water flowing from an open palm into the musical water below. Augus’ eyes widened when he realised it was the deceased Lludd Llaw Eraint.

Please,’ Augus muttered to himself. ‘You didn’t even get to demigod status, no matter what the humans say.’

The huge double stone doors set in the entrance opened easily. Slabs of stone that large shouldn’t open smoothly for anyone, so it was enchanted to respond to an owner’s or staff member’s touch.

The coachman came – a well-kept moth fae with fringed antennae pricking and twirling in new surroundings – and opened the door to his compartment, stood back respectfully. Given that Gwyn had needed to imprison two of their common fae servants for attempting an attack on Augus’ life, Augus thought anything approximating respectful from their own staff was a step up. Though nothing really compared with the dedicated indifference of the Unseelie trows, whose competence and privacy Augus appreciated more than he could say.

He was surprised when, not a moment after a butler had stood beside one of the open doors, gloved hands folded, Crielle herself came to the landing. She pinned Augus with a sharp gaze, couched behind a warm smile and a fae glamour so strong that Augus could feel it pulsing around him even from such a distance, coaxing him to feel welcomed, safe, comforted.

Augus allowed a more genuine smile to grace his face, but something darker twisted inside of him. He’d seen Crielle attack her own son with that glamour before. He respected her, she would have done well in the Unseelie Kingdom with her hidden cruelties. He even admired her. But he knew he was lucky to be partially immune to the glamour.

His boots crunched across white gravel and he resettled the rapier at his side, his long, calf-length coat fluttering as he strode towards her. He slipped off his gloves and tucked them into his belt, offering her an inclination of the head. As he moved up arched, stone steps, he looked around, surveying his surroundings as a predator might; though he only showed an expression of appreciative curiosity.

He was a higher status than her, he didn’t have to bow before her, regardless of how respected she was in the fae world. But she took his lack of formal bow as a slight. He could see it in her eyes.

‘So!’ Crielle said, with no preamble. ‘It has come to this, has it? My dear son, the King, sending his Advisor to me, instead of visiting himself? Does he have no love for me in his heart?’

Augus smiled graciously.

‘My darling, he doesn’t even know I am here. And shall you entertain me outside, where it is grand and so lovely for this time of year? Or might you invite me inside, so that I may see the splendour of the An-Fnwy estate for myself?’

‘Ah, that’s right, you’re baseborn, aren’t you? Enter, you may as well see if it meets your low-bred expectations,’ Crielle said, laughing. She waved Augus ahead, his skin prickled unpleasantly as he walked.

‘Come, let me have someone serve you some tea,’ Crielle said, signalling to housekeep waiting in impeccable dress nearby as she escorted Augus through a giant, vaulted marble-floored entrance-way, complete with dual marble staircases, underneath a crystal chandelier lit with pale yellow werelight. They walked into a smaller, carpeted room designed for receiving important guests.

No one had offered to take his coat. This wasn’t to be a meeting with standard fae etiquette.

He sat down in an impeccably kept old chair – likely kept clean with magic – and crossed his legs, leaning back and looking at Crielle for any signs of strain. But no, house arrest didn’t seem to be affecting her negatively at all. She was well-coiffed, her golden hair up with not a single hair out of place, pearl beads decorating it. Her face gave her the appearance of a woman in her mid to late thirties, despite the fact that she was tens of thousands of years old. She wore make up, just enough to accentuate her deep blue eyes and the perfect curve of her lips.

She was, Augus marvelled, an exquisitely rendered woman. The kind of beauty that the old King of the Unseelie Court – the Raven Prince – would have much admired.

‘You look marvellous given your lack of freedom,’ Augus said, meaning it.

‘Kind of you,’ Crielle said. ‘But if you must know, I am under terrible strain. But let us not turn to such maudlin contemplations. Is it true, my dear, that you are my son’s lover? Oh, don’t tell me, I know. What he risked for you, when you were a prisoner in the Seelie Court! With everyone wanting you dead! How reprieved you must feel. Not only free, but his right hand man? And he does not know you are here? Fascinating.’

Augus picked up the tea presented, scented it carefully for poisons. He was Inner Court status, couldn’t be killed by any poison, but he’d prefer not to be laid out for a week or two in agony either. He detected none and sipped carefully. He lowered the cup back to its fluted saucer and realised how relentless Crielle’s glamour was. It appeared as though she was doing nothing more than watching him patiently, but he could feel the power of her dra’ocht battering at him. If he didn’t have his own partial immunity, he’d be under her complete thrall by now.

‘No wonder he never killed you,’ Crielle said, leaning forwards conspiratorially. ‘We all could never understand why. When did you start plotting your escape? Before or after he defeated his own Kingdom? It was a nice feather in his cap, wasn’t it? That Unseelie monster, doing oh...so much for the Seelie fae – defeating you and your pathetic reign, putting the Nightingale back in the underworlds where he belongs.’

‘Ah, no pretence of politeness, then?’ Augus said, sighing. ‘You don’t truly believe the rumours everyone else does, do you? That he masterminded his way to the top of the Unseelie Kingdom after three thousand years of being brainwashed by you and his father? A man cannot be expected to live a Seelie life for so long, and be the criminal genius everyone thinks he is.’

‘So it’s true,’ Crielle said, a vindictive streak lighting across her expression. ‘What a rumour machine the Unseelie Court has become. Then, I suppose you all deal in lies and deceit now, don’t you?’

Come join us then, Lady. I think you’ll find you fit right in.

‘Let’s not forget the ones who started this, however. If you hadn’t felt so crushed by birthing an Unseelie beast after your whole family birthed true for as long as the records showed, we’d not be in this situation now, would we? You wouldn’t be under house arrest for lying to the Seelie Court for...what’s that ridiculous Seelie name for it? Ah yes, crimes of lignancy. Gwyn ap Nudd wouldn’t be King of the Unseelie Court. He’d be dead. And now you’ve got yourself a son that’s almost impossible to kill. What were you both thinking, when you didn’t kill him in his crib?’

‘Darling, why are you here?’ Crielle said, and Augus’ spine stiffened.

All fae possessed glamour as a form of communication, but primarily to protect themselves from discovery or capture in the human world; most couldn’t use it as a weapon. Not like this. He had to focus. He’d come here to...

...I doubt it was to have polite conversation and reveal all your secrets to her. You’d better act quick, or that glamour will leave you ripe for the taking.

‘I made a promise,’ Augus said softly. He picked up the cup and sipped again. ‘But more than that, I wanted to meet you. I can’t help but admire what you did to him. How you tormented him. Let’s not prevaricate shall we? You know what I am, you know what my life has been. I appreciate sadism in all its forms.’

That was true.

‘Mm,’ Crielle said, laughing softly. ‘Everyone knows what you are. Taming those that need to be tamed. How tawdry. You’re nothing more than a horse that breaks in horses more unruly than you.’

Augus nodded carefully, let the insult simmer where he wouldn’t be distracted by it.

‘And Gwyn?’ Crielle whispered. ‘Did you tame him? Don’t tell me it was any difficulty.’

‘Oh no. My dear, you did a fine job of breaking him yourself. I merely showed him a new direction to follow.’

Crielle smiled at him, but it didn’t reach her eyes.

He set the cup down, felt his teeth lengthen in his mouth. His blood pulsed in thick currents beneath his skin. It heated until it was an itchy need to move. She would sense it soon enough, if she hadn’t already.

‘Oh, my darling, if you think you can-’

He launched, leaping across the coffee table and burying his fingers through her ribs, into her lungs, staring at her. The wave of glamour that hit him made him choke, terror turning his stomach so sour he gagged above her, even as her blood turned his skin hot.

‘My dear,’ Augus said, using a massive burst of power to thrust his arm deeper into her body, reaching for her spine. Her eyes widened, but she still looked in control of the situation, and Augus snarled. ‘My dear, all this time you’ve been blaming him for Efnisien’s death. That golden nephew of yours. Quite a resemblance he bore to you as well. I would place bets that you wished he was yours. And how uncouth of Gwyn to simply kill him and not even let you see a body afterwards.’

Augus hissed as she slashed with manicured fingernails. She couldn’t get through his coat, and he was grateful then that no one had offered to take it. But she sliced through his shirt, his chest flaring from the pain of deep, messy cuts.

‘The reason you never got to see a body, is that I didn’t leave enough of one to be presented. All this time, labouring under false illusions. Gwyn is not the type to kill his own family. You made sure of that. Torturing him. You think the Unseelie are monsters, but we don’t go for our own.

Crielle’s eyes had widened.

‘You...’

Me. You underhanded bitch. I know you tortured him his whole life. Oh, my darling, don’t mistake me, I do admire you. I do.’

Augus’ breathing sped up, he curled his fingers around her spine and laughed at the terror she invoked within. She didn’t understand. None of them understood. No artificially created fear could transcend the despair or misery the Nightingale had evoked in him, once upon a time.

She looked alarmed at his laughter, then defiant. Her mouth opened, blood poured from it.

‘Don’t speak,’ Augus crooned. ‘Now, where was I?’

He was fast losing his ability to think. The scent of blood in the air, the iron tangle of it reminded him of Gwyn’s blood spilling over his skin, brought saliva to his mouth. You taste like her, sweetness, won’t you be pleased to know? His teeth were almost so sharp he couldn’t speak properly. He felt like he wanted to split the seams of his own skin, shift into waterhorse form and tear her apart properly.

But no, he needed this measure of control.

‘I wanted to take my time with you, pay you back some of what you’ve bestowed upon him, but you’re too dangerous, and I’ve taken too long already.’

He threw power into the twist and snap of his arm, breaking her spine with a sound that made him hungry.

Crielle was Court status, she held on for another minute, two, despite the brutal damage to her ribcage, her lungs, the mortal damage to her spine. He looked into her blue eyes, even now staring a venomous promise of revenge at him, and then – impossibly – she smiled. She looked content, pleased even, as though she weren’t swimming in pain, as though he hadn’t just ended her life.

He snarled at the bloody teeth bared at him, even as the darker animal inside of him twisted and writhed.

It wasn’t a conscious decision to rip into her viscera. He couldn’t feed, she wasn’t human, but he could tear and destroy. His fingers wormed through organs, clawed at them, instinctively leaving the liver alone, even now. He kept going long after the knowing light had disappeared from her eyes and her lungs had stopped trembling for breath. He slashed claws he’d sharpened just for this occasion across her neck, her wrists, and started to tear into the muscle of her thighs when he saw it. The scar.

He hadn’t noticed it before, lost in bloodlust, and he could hardly see it now through the haze of red in his vision and the gouts of blood covering it.

Gwyn’s light, damaging everything in its wake from the moment he’d been born, including Crielle.

‘You should’ve killed him,’ Augus whispered, running a careful thumb over her forehead. ‘You should have killed him. If only your heartsong would have let you. Appearance isn’t everything, darling.’

He looked up at the servant who had been paralysed by the threshold of the door, he’d been about to run.

‘Oh, you fragile, frightened thing,’ Augus said, getting up slowly and stripping off his coat. The slashed material of his water-wicking shirt caused him to shed blood in round droplets. But it was stuck in his perpetually damp mane, to his face, his fingers and forearms, everywhere it could make an impression. ‘Did she torture you too? Tell me.’

‘Y-yes,’ the fae said, helpless to hold back an answer once Augus infused his voice with compulsion. Augus grinned at him. The fae’s eyes sheened over with tears, he shook visibly.

‘Someone should really put you out of your misery then, shouldn’t they?’

The fae’s eyes widened.

Augus struck, claws out, laughing.

*

Two hours later and Augus was hardly recognisable in a mirror. Blood had clotted and stuck to his skin, he needed a shower. The house had been well-populated with staff, and he’d decimated all of them. The cook had put up quite a fight for someone who was only Capital class, and he’d ended up with a nasty gut wound thanks to a meat cleaver. He leaned over a bathroom bench and pressed his fingers to his own bleeding skin.

He needed to feed, but he couldn’t eat anyone in the fae world. Their meat was not something his body would recognise, even though the taste of the blood was familiar enough that he had to struggle to stop the beast inside of him growling. He took several deep breaths. It was just a stab wound, it was painful, inconvenient, disgusting, but he’d dealt with enough of Gulvi’s violence to know how to weather this out.

He ran the shower, removed his boots and stepped into cold water – unaffected by frigid temperatures. He didn’t bother undressing. His constantly wet hair had gotten him used to a lifetime of clothing feeling damp or having water droplets clinging to it.

Fifteen minutes later he shut off the water and walked bloodied, watery footprints into Crielle’s bedroom – impeccably furnished, of course, in white, cream and gold. He opened pale oak dressers and cabinets. Yanked drawers from their fixtures and rummaged through clothing.

He tore the room apart, growling at the pain flaring in his own gut. There – behind a bedside cabinet, behind perfectly restored wallpaper – he found a slim hole in the wall. He tore into it, yanked out several folders worth of documents.

He flicked water and blood off his fingers, then wiped them off on the brocaded bedspread.

Because he knew Crielle had plans for her son.

The first few sheets were simply illicit accounts; crimes that could get Crielle imprisoned simply for not being an honest and true Seelie fae.

He sat heavily when he reached the second folder. Everything laid out clearly, and a plan none of them were aware of. Yet money had exchanged hands, barter had occurred.

This looked like a plan that had been put into place.

Not torturers in the traditional sense, not murderers or assassins or mercenaries; Crielle had brought shapeshifters. Put them into training, given them sheets of information on Lludd, Augus, Ash, Gwyn, Mafydd.

He rifled through the sheets trying to find a location of the shapeshifters, but found nothing at all. And the actual details – when it was supposed to happen, where, how...

He jerked up. A rustle nearby. A young woman, dressed neatly in garb that was a step above and apart from what the other housekeep were wearing. He couldn’t pick the species of fae she was, she could pass completely for human, except for an odd violet glint to her eyes. She wrung her hands nervously. He hadn’t sensed her, which meant that whatever she was, she was skilled enough to hide her scent, her presence, from high status predators.

‘Who are you?’ he snapped.

‘I-I’m Lady ferch Fnwy’s personal assistant, All’eth, Sir Each Uisge.’

By the name he thought she might have been a fire elemental, but he couldn’t tell. It hardly mattered.

‘So you know about this?’ He held up the folders, and All’eth nodded, brown ringlets bouncing by her chin.

‘Yes, Sir.’

‘Was this actioned?’ Augus said.

All’eth nodded once, her throat worked on a gag, though she suppressed her fear with an uncommon amount of strength. She probably needed it, he reasoned, spending her time in personal service to Crielle.

‘Where are the shapeshifters?’

‘S-Sir, I don’t know. Crielle did all of this almost completely on her own. When they visited, we were instructed to leave the room or even the wing. They were very secretive. True shapeshifters, Sir. P-please, I have- I have a family. Children.’

‘Appealing to an Unseelie’s sense of mercy?’ Augus said, raising his eyebrows in delight. He licked the taste of blood off his lips and stood up slowly, approaching her and grinning as she backed away. ‘Stop moving.’

She froze.

‘Everyone knows you care about the Traitor King, that he...that he tamed you,’ All’eth risked, a flare of fire entering her eyes and turning them muddy red.

Augus laughed, even as a familiar wrench went through him. He was partly responsible for those rumours, but he hated them. Tamed, indeed. He stood and ignored the pain in his gut from that stab wound. He was healing, and that was all that mattered. He shoved older, panicked, underfae instincts away. He wasn’t underfae anymore.

‘You helped Crielle with this plan, didn’t you?’

‘Y-yes.’ Tears spilled, and he smiled beatifically as he reached her violently trembling form. He trailed a claw across the fine cloth covering her shoulder.

‘Oh, my darling, don’t look so scared. We all get what’s coming to us in the end. Some of us a little more than others. Now, hold still, and try not to think about your children. Do they, by any chance, live on the property?’

She wasn’t through her first sob when the sound claws ripping through skin filled the room.

*

Augus felt the unmistakeable shriek of heavy magic against his skin, and knew that someone had alerted the Seelie military. He grabbed two of the folders and sprinted through the Manor until he could look out of one of the windows, peeking through embroidered curtains, the smell of lavender tickling his nose.

The moth coachman lay twisted, dead, on the white gravel; arm askew. The horses toed nervously nearby. There was an eerie silence. A breeze ruffled bluebells, rosebushes, the manes of the horses. He could see no activity.

Augus’ fist closed harder on the folders and he turned around slowly, skin turning to gooseflesh. He wanted to call upon his invisibility, but it had been getting harder and harder to maintain in the past month.

He had no choice though, when he scented them coming closer. Silent and stealthy, even possibly trained by Gwyn himself – given that he had been the Seelie War General, and King, for centuries before the Seelie Court demoted him. Augus swallowed down curses and called the invisibility to him, looking back out of the window.

Damn these vaulted ceilings making this building so much higher and this so much harder.

He needed to teleport away. No point taking a carriage now, and he needed water. Fast.

He tried to slide open the window, but it wouldn’t budge in his hands. He tried to smash it with his fist, using the heavy material of the curtains to protect his knuckles. The glass wouldn’t give, and he hissed when he felt a bone fracture. It would heal. It would. But it would be slow going, with the stab wound as well.

His heart beat faster, he sunk deeper into the invisibility, masking his scent, the scent of the blood around him.

Perhaps I should have thought this part through. It was this kind of thing that got you defeated and demoted and thrown in a cell in the first place, remember?

Augus slunk through the room, peered out and saw soldiers moving carefully down the hall. They should have looked more out of place, given their large frames and armour, but they were well-funded Seelie soldiers, they wore bright armour, new fabrics, and they looked like imposing martial sculptures come to life. Besides, this was a military family; armour, weapons, illustrations of battle scenes were everywhere.

Augus ducked out behind them and crept slowly past blood spatters he couldn’t remember leaving on wooden floorboards. He moved past bloody footprints and viscera that he couldn’t pinpoint to specific victims, at that point he’d become truly consumed with bloodlust.

Even now it pulsed through him, demanded he feed, that he finish with something heavy and satisfying in his belly.

He moved down the marble steps, realised he’d left his boots upstairs, decided it hardly mattered. He flared his nostrils for fresh water and smelled something earthy, almost like lake water but not quite. Too much stone.

A well.

It would do in a pinch. He only hoped it wasn’t protected by some Seelie guardian wight. That was the last thing he needed.

He moved into the housekeep quarters, along narrower, low-ceilinged corridors designed for people who were meant to be out of sight and out of mind on a regular basis. He moved over bodies that he had left behind, picked his way through pools of blood.

He found the well just off the kitchens and sensed no life within it at all. No guardian wight to worry about. He dropped the invisibility and dove, fully clothed, into the darkness. He gritted his teeth as the knife wound in his side pulled, his hand throbbed. He twisted water around him, spiralled into bubbles and ripples, becoming nothing more than the currents and water around him.

Time to go home.

*

The folders were useless. The ink wasn’t water-fast, and he dropped the sodden papers on the chair by the door as he entered the guest-room that he had come to think of as the room that belonged to he and Gwyn.

Gwyn still hadn’t changed the blasted Court design since becoming King. He’d had a month, and he wasn’t responding to discussion, appeals, torment, even threats of torture. Augus was starting to think that Gwyn was intimidated by the whole responsibility of using the sacred magic that welled within the Court to dare change it. But Augus needed it to happen; he was sick of seeing the Court he’d made, sick of the memories that lurked in shadows.

Gwyn, himself, was dozing. He rarely let himself sleep properly, and even seeing him taking a nap during the afternoon was uncommon. But Augus could smell sweat and metal in the room, and as he stripped off his bloodied coat, wincing at the stab wound, he knew he’d been forcing himself to train through the nerve damage and muscle damage in his shoulder; as he’d been doing almost every day and night for weeks.

Augus stalked around the bed, gazing at him. In a short time, he’d put on more muscle definition, gained back weight, his ribs were no longer as visible. A combination of the Unseelie trows leaving food for him to graze on in almost every room he visited, alongside the training, meant that Gwyn was slowly starting to build back his old, formidable strength.

The strength he’d lost when the Seelie Kingdom had discovered Gwyn had been pretending at being a Seelie fae. Though they’d voted him in, though his parents had forced him to maintain the lie, the betrayal of Gwyn pretending to be Seelie was too great. Gwyn had been imprisoned, demoted to underfae, hunted in the forest, injured doing deals with gods.

Less than three months prior, Augus was sure he’d never see him alive again.

Gwyn led the kind of life that Storykeepers dreamed about telling over campfires. But knowing him, living with him, caring for him soured the experience. Besides, Augus had enough of his own stories. He didn’t need more.

Still, he managed to look innocent enough. His pale white-blond lashes resting lightly on strong cheekbones. Curled hair, finally at a decent length and in fine condition, resting cherubic on his forehead and the pillow behind him. He may have been built for war – muscular, tall, astoundingly powerful – but in sleep he looked more like the boy he once was. His lips were in a perpetual pout – uninjured arm flung out to Augus’ side of the bed.

Augus refused to feel anything about that. Only noticed the way his injured shoulder was tucked in close to his body.

He remembered blood in his mouth and nostrils. Gwyn’s, Efnisien’s...now Crielle’s. He smiled and pulled his shirt off with one hand, not caring about the buttons he broke – the shirt was useless anyway. He ran fingers over the nail marks Crielle had given him, they were rapidly healing. He touched claw-tips to the stab wound still oozing blood that held a green, oily sheen to it. He refused to touch the black and phosphorescent blue of the Soulbond etched into his chest. Instead, he unbuckled his belt, slid off his rapier and let it all clatter to the floor.

Gwyn woke with a start.

‘Hush,’ Augus said quietly. ‘And before you panic-’

‘What happened to you?’ Gwyn said, blinking himself awake, pale blue eyes focusing on the wounds at his side. He pushed himself onto his elbows even as Augus crawled up the bed on all fours, staring down at him.

Before you panic, there was another assassination attempt. I am fine.’

‘Augus, you-’

‘Sweetness,’ Augus sighed, bending his head and scraping teeth that were back to their human shape over his skin. Gwyn inhaled sharply, shakily. He sounded oddly disoriented for a nap, and Augus wondered if his body had been forcing him into a sleep cycle. Gwyn found it harder to keep proper, healthy sleep at bay, since being underfae.

Augus bit down into Gwyn’s good shoulder, remembered biting into the flesh of Seelie fae not that long ago, and his jaws snapped down. Blood pooled around his teeth and he moaned thickly, even as Gwyn shifted beneath him, grunted a complaint.

‘Was there more than one assailant?’ Gwyn said, his voice deeper. ‘I can smell different- Augus, who? There’s something familiar about-’

Augus grimaced as he let go of Gwyn’s shoulder and painted Gwyn’s mouth with his own blood, licking it across his lips.

‘You think too much,’ Augus said, nosing at his cheek, running hands over his torso. He was covered with far less blood than before, and it disturbed him how quickly Gwyn could pick that there was more than one person present. He hadn’t considered that Gwyn might be able to scent his mother’s blood. He wasn’t quite ready for Gwyn to know what he’d done.

Timing is everything.

‘Roll onto your belly for me,’ Augus said, and Gwyn shuddered, hesitated.

‘Now that I’m awake, I really should be getting b-’

Augus had been letting that go for a while. Gwyn really was busy, so was Augus, but if Gwyn tried to leave now, Augus thought he might actually end up drawing a significant amount of blood to get him to stay. Then again, Gwyn might like that.

‘Did it sound like a suggestion?’ Augus said, his voice becoming even quieter. He pressed his thumb to the wound in Gwyn’s good shoulder, smearing blood. ‘Roll over.’

‘Augus, we shouldn’t-’

A flash of poisonous green behind his eyelids, instincts flaring hard and sharp inside of him. He lashed out, struck at Gwyn’s sore shoulder, pulled him into position even as Gwyn stiffened beneath him. His own hand shrieked at him, he must have been shifting the fractured bone. It only made him angrier.

‘Your listening skills have gotten worse. You will listen to me and roll over, or I will send you off to your meetings with so many wounds you won’t heal in time to make a good impression.’

Gwyn’s eyes – the same shade as the blue in icebergs – went frosty for several seconds, and Augus expected serious resistance. But then, whether because of tiredness, or because they both knew that Gwyn needed this and had been avoiding it for far too long, his eyelids hooded and he winced, trying to roll his sore shoulder out of Augus’ grip even as he turned over.

Augus was impatient. A scene that focused Gwyn’s benefit could come later, but right now he needed to burn out his bloodlust or he’d be dazed and unable to function. It wasn’t as though Gwyn wouldn’t respond, regardless, but Augus needed, and he didn’t want to hunt a human and wipe himself out of Court business by needing to digest his food for a week at the bottom of his lake.

He straddled Gwyn’s hips, twisted his wrists up behind his back, riding out his struggles. He sent out waterweed through his wrists and coiled the rubbery stuff around Gwyn’s, a convenient bondage when he didn’t want to move from his position. Looking down at the gnarled, angry scar tissue from that foolish debt Gwyn made with a fire god, he bared his teeth.

He was seething. The mess of his life had grown exponentially since encountering the wreckage of Gwyn’s. He had to work harder than ever at jobs that he didn’t like. He was wedged into a position of responsibility, and caring about the person who had levered him there made it difficult to walk away. There were two people in the world who held privileged positions in his mind, and he was starting to feel that one of them took him for granted.

He was the Each Uisge, he wasn’t taken for granted.

It was hard not to see that he was more of a prisoner here – imprisoned by reputation, obligation – than he was when Gwyn let him have almost free reign of the Seelie palace while he was still, technically, a prisoner.

He didn’t realise he was growling until Gwyn shifted, discomfited, beneath him.

‘Augus, what’s wr-’

Stop talking,’ Augus said, throwing compulsion into his voice without thinking. It didn’t matter. Gwyn was resistant to them. But Gwyn said nothing else, even as Augus reached over to the bedside cabinet and drew a vial of lubricant from a drawer.

He pressed his hand into Gwyn’s hair, dragging fingers through it, massaging at his scalp. It was all the reassurance he could offer. He could still taste blood in his mouth, and Gwyn smelled like prey. Augus swallowed down saliva and ran possessive hands down Gwyn’s sides, watching as Gwyn’s arms shifted in the bindings and then stopped.

Gwyn made a sound of pained frustration. Augus knew the restraints at his wrists forced his arms into a position that put undue strain on his bad shoulder. But he wanted Gwyn to be distracted. If Gwyn was thinking too much, he’d start to ask more insightful questions.

‘Good,’ Augus said, as he grabbed a handful of Gwyn’s ass in each hand and squeezed hard enough that Gwyn squirmed beneath him. ‘No more talking. It’s been rather too long, hasn’t it? I actually have two outfitted rooms now, complete with saltire crosses, benches, beds, a whole accoutrement of toys, and I haven’t been able to get you into either one. It’s remiss of both of us, given you need to unwind more.’

Gwyn’s breath hitched like he wanted to respond, then hitched for an entirely different reason when Augus forced his knees between Gwyn’s legs. He slid a hand into that warm space, ran fingertips over his balls. He licked his lips when Gwyn swallowed down a sound as he squeezed them. He scraped claw-tips over the insides of his thighs, reached further between them – Gwyn’s hips lifting helpfully – pulsed his hand over Gwyn’s half-hard cock. He kept up the pressure until Gwyn’s shoulders strained at the waterweed. He choked, tried to twist away from his own struggles. He’d wrenched himself.

‘Careful there,’ Augus said, squeezing one more time and dragging a hoarse gasp from Gwyn’s throat. ‘Wouldn’t want to hurt yourself.’

He covered his fingers with lubricant, warmed it up in his hands before wrapping fingers around his own cock. He arched back, ran his thumb up over his foreskin and then down, stroking the straight, black pelt of his own pubic hair with slick fingers. He shifted between Gwyn’s legs, letting go of himself and pressing his thumb down hard into the base of Gwyn’s spine, turning his wrist and trailing fingers down between the seam of his ass.

Gwyn twisted his upper body, Augus realised he was trying to look over his shoulder.

Not distracted enough, then.

Careful of his claw-tips, he pressed both his index and middle fingers into Gwyn, opening his mouth at the stretch of Gwyn around him. Gwyn hissed, his legs tightened around Augus’ legs.

‘Relax,’ Augus said, then smirked. ‘Or don’t. It’s really all the same to me.’

He took his time, withdrawing and pushing back, rocking fingers forwards until his knuckles were flush with Gwyn’s ass. He curled them and Gwyn made a muffled sound behind closed lips. Augus was moving too fast. He needed to quell a rising wave within him. He bent forwards and roughly scissored his fingers in Gwyn, even as he bit the fleshy part of Gwyn’s exposed palm.

Gwyn’s wrists yanked in the waterweed bonds, and then he shivered to a halt.

‘Mind your shoulder,’ Augus said, and Gwyn growled, pressed his face back into the sheets. ‘Thank the gods for those healing abilities you have now that you’re King, hm?’

‘Augus...’

The threatening, apprehensive tone in Gwyn’s voice sent a thrill through him. He quickly withdrew his fingers, scratched at the tickle on his thigh only to realise it was wet. He looked down and saw blood painted over himself. His own. He gritted his teeth at it. The stab wound had been brutal. That cook had a wicked ability with a cleaver. He didn’t like to be in pain. Not like this.

He moved quickly. Fisting his freshly blooded fingers over his cock and then pushing against Gwyn’s entrance, even as he slid his other arm forwards and slipped his sore hand over Gwyn’s cheek, caressing the line of his jaw.

He bucked forwards, opening his mouth at the sensation of tightness. It was bordering on uncomfortable, and it was just the sort of sensation he needed to distract himself from the pain throbbing through the scratches that Crielle had given him, the stab wound, the fracture, the myriad other bruises that he’d gained on his rampage through the An-Fnwy estate. Gwyn’s back had bowed, then arched in a convex, a cry forced out of him.

‘Hush,’ Augus said.

He slid the hand at Gwyn’s jaw down to his throat, and wrapped his fingers around that broad neck, squeezing as he sank deeper.

Gwyn made a sound close to a shriek and his shoulders jerked so hard at the waterweed that he snapped it. He shouted again from the pain in his shoulder.

‘Stop, stop, stop, stop, stop, stop, stop,’ Gwyn said, panicked.

Augus froze, eyes wide, shocked away from his own discomfort. Gwyn was a masochist, he liked pain.

Augus loosened his hand around Gwyn’s throat, then withdrew it. He shifted, started to pull out of Gwyn, disturbed at the breathless pleas pouring almost silent from Gwyn’s throat. But the motion of removing his hand from Gwyn’s throat changed everything. He slumped back into the bed, shoulders heaving from a fear that was starting to leak through his own dra’ocht. A sign of how distressed he was.

This isn’t normal.

But as he pulled his cock free, Gwyn made a faint noise of protest, shifting his hips as though to discourage him.

Augus hesitated.

‘Touching your throat wasn’t a problem before,’ Augus said, speculatively, sliding his hand back towards Gwyn’s face and watching him flinch away. He bucked his hips forwards again and Gwyn moaned in despair. A moment later – in a move that Augus couldn’t tell was stupid or deeply arousing – Gwyn slid his free, reddened wrists into a voluntary cross behind his back.

Augus licked his lips and obliged, wrapping waterweed around them again. It was easy to forget that Gwyn had the strength to break most bondage.

But his throat...it really hadn’t been a problem before. Not like that. Gwyn was still close to hyperventilating.

Augus felt hardly coherent enough to put the puzzle together, but as he withdrew and slid back in – deeper this time – riding Gwyn’s fractious shifts, a sense memory flashed unpleasantly.

Gwyn ap Nudd, then-King of the Seelie Court, standing before him, forcing his defeat. A hand around his own throat as Gwyn announced Augus’ demotion from King of the Unseelie, to the lowest of all fae classes – underfae. The feeling of his power leaving him, the pain of it...

But Augus had been lucky enough, at least, to be born underfae. He knew how far he was falling.

Gwyn had no idea what to expect when his own demotion was visited upon him by Albion, current King of the Seelie fae, the one who had ripped Gwyn’s life – such as it was then – away from him.

A twinge in Augus’ chest, an ache he didn’t want to think about. He shifted his hand away from Gwyn’s face and dragged it through Gwyn’s hair instead. Once, twice, enough that Gwyn finally started settling beneath him. His breathing eased – just enough that Augus thought he might be coming away from the edge of fear. It was still laboured, Augus was still taking him with not nearly enough preparation.

But then, Gwyn was a masochist.

‘I’d ask you to hold onto those sheets of yours, as you usually do, but you’re a little tied up right now.’

Augus smiled at the tension in Gwyn’s hands and then grasped his hips hard, yanking Gwyn back, bottoming out in a single thrust. Before Gwyn finished crying out, Augus withdrew, undulated his hips as he pushed back in, opening his mouth at the warmth of it. The heat in his blood increased, felt as though he circulated sluggish lava.

Gwyn pressed his mouth into the bed, each sound partly muffled, still wonderful to hear. Augus let his body fill with pleasure, arousal, then consciously dispersed it through his body until it was more distant, easier to handle. For the first time in a while, not just in the past few hours, he felt like he could truly focus.

Gwyn kept denying himself, kept overworking, and Augus wasn’t taking on clients anymore. He belatedly realised with an unwelcome clarity, that he needed more than what Gwyn was offering.

It wasn’t as though Augus needed much, but he certainly needed more than what he was getting.

His lips thinned, he spread Gwyn’s legs with his own and used his weight to thrust harder, to take what Gwyn had been withholding for weeks. Gwyn’s fingers splayed, shook, clenched, the noises he made leaned more towards pain than pleasure. Augus closed his eyes and drank it down, knowing that this wasn’t the way he normally did things, but then...the mass murder of fae that he couldn’t eat wasn’t really his style either.

He was branching out.

Augus laughed softly, Gwyn sobbed beneath him. Augus made a crooning noise, more condescension than care, and smirked, grabbing Gwyn’s hair roughly and dragging his head to the side. Gwyn resisted, but Augus’ grip was unrelenting and Gwyn blinked at nothing for several seconds, then closed his eyes, pressed his lips together. Augus slowed his pace, concentrated.

‘It’s not enough for you, is it? You need a proper scene, and I need time to break into you. Why do you keep putting it off?’

Gwyn said nothing. It was telling that he didn’t try to defend himself. All the excuses about being busy, the Kingdom, commitments, the Unseelie Court – they all sounded perfectly valid, but Augus knew something else was going on. But now wasn’t the time to get to the bottom of it, he only wanted Gwyn to know that he knew.

Augus leaned on his hand so that Gwyn’s head was pinned in place, then moved quickly, pistoning back and forth, letting his own pleasure fall back into his lower spine, throb down in his cock, his balls. He thought of blood on his hands, the sound of bones breaking, indulged. It was far messier than his usual thoughts, more than he often allowed himself to have because he valued self-mastery so much. If he was honest with himself, the days leading up to the execution of his plan had left him agitated.

Augus’ gut ached, and from more than pleasure. He made a thin, pained sound. He couldn’t afford to hold his release off for much longer, the clench and release of his abdominal muscles was aggravating the stab wound. Augus could tolerate pain if he had to, he didn’t want to prolong it now.

He was surprised Gwyn hadn’t come yet, but then...Augus hadn’t exactly been paying attention to what he wanted. His brow furrowed, he shook away an agitation that had grown familiar under his skin, and slowed his movements, concentrated once more.

Gwyn moaned thickly at the change of pace. Augus ran his teeth over his bottom lip.

‘Sweetness,’ Augus said, breathless. He shifted his grip in Gwyn’s hair until he could massage fingers over his scalp, sticking to the slower rhythm he’d set. Gwyn’s head didn’t tilt back into the touch, but his neck tensed like he wanted to.

Once, when his heartsong was dominance, he would have been able to predict the exact moment that Gwyn would come. Now he was taken aback when Gwyn clenched hard around him, head jerking in Augus’ hand as he tried to turn back into the sheets. Augus tightened his fingers, and Gwyn opened his mouth on a silent cry, hiding so much of himself and able to get away with it because Augus hadn’t been able to take his time, break him down properly.

Damn it.

Augus closed his eyes, found the well of arousal inside of him and focused on it, amplified it with heat and the taste of Gwyn’s blood in his mouth.

His release, when it came, was less satisfying than he’d hoped. It felt good, but it didn’t sate the hunger he’d unleashed. Halfway through he laughed breathlessly at himself. He’d handled six months in a cell in the Seelie Court better than this.

As soon as he was finished, he withdrew, cutting through waterweed with his claws and absently making sure that Gwyn didn’t move his arms too quickly. The nerve damage in his bad shoulder was brutal, and Gwyn had a habit of punishing himself simply for being injured by deliberately wrenching it. Augus eased Gwyn’s arms forwards, noting the spasms in his breathing as his right shoulder was gently guided forward. He left both of his arms crooked, hands curled into loose fists by his head.

He pressed his hand to his belly, then wadded up some of the sheet and held it in place, staunching the bleeding.

Gwyn pushed himself up, holding an arm across his chest, a sign of how much pain his shoulder was in. Later Augus would have to release the nerves again. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d done it. Two, three days ago? Maybe longer? He’d meant to do it every day that he wasn’t hunting but...it just hadn’t worked out that way.

Gwyn pulled on his pants, a shirt. He was so used to being interrupted by staff or Gulvi, that he was in the habit of getting dressed even before he showered. He sniffed the air.

‘You’re bleeding,’ Gwyn said. Augus stared at him.

‘Your powers of observation leave me, as always, spellbound. I did say there had been an assassination attempt. But in truth, I have a surprise for you.’

Gwyn’s brow furrowed. He was losing the sleepy, debauched look already. His facial expressions these days fell too often towards cold, aloof, or some form of unhappy or suspicious.

He was managing to find at least two of them now.

‘A surprise,’ Gwyn said, flat.

‘Mm. Something worth celebrating, perhaps,’ Augus said, sliding off the bed and finding this moment to be far more satisfying than the release he’d just had.

Gwyn’s expression had landed on suspicion, and seemed to be staying there.

No time like the present.

‘Congratulations,’ Augus said. ‘You’re an orphan.’

Gwyn’s eyebrows drew together, then his eyes widened, his mouth went slack. Confusion passed into a stricken expression that took the peak off of Augus’ excitement.

‘Mama?’ Gwyn mouthed, looking down and then to the side.

Augus went cold, something hardening inside of him.

‘I keep my promises,’ Augus said. ‘I did warn you.’

He felt uneasy. That Gwyn would refer to his mother in such a way, after always calling her Crielle or mother.

‘I feel we need to have a meeting to discuss something that you have been trying to avoid discussing for weeks – she has actioned plans against you, I had evidence but teleporting back waterlogged it and it wasn’t written in waterfast ink. I-’

‘It wasn’t an assassination attempt,’ Gwyn said, and Augus rolled his eyes.

‘It was, it was just a successful one, and it was mine.’

Gwyn’s chest rose and fell rapidly. But his expression shuttered into a blank, awful mask. A coldness that Augus was familiar with. He opened his mouth to retort, to remind Gwyn that Crielle had made Gwyn’s life a misery, but there was a sharp knock on the door. A familiar rap.

‘You’re not joking,’ Gwyn said, after his nostrils had flared, picking up the scents in the room. ‘You...’

‘I’ll get the door then, shall I?’ Augus said. Gwyn’s reactions hadn’t been exactly what he’d expected, and he was still too lost in bloodlust to think straight. He walked over, naked, a sheet held to the wound on his abdomen, yanked the door open.

Gulvi, Unseelie swan-maiden, an integral part of Gwyn’s Inner Court. She gave Augus a desultory look, then her black bird eyes moved past him and her wings flared quickly in agitation when she saw Gwyn. She had one hand resting on the hilt of a dagger, shifted her feet.

‘Darlings, you should know that a messenger has come from the Seelie Court at the behest of our dear Seelie King Albion himself, asking that you come immediately to answer charges of matricide of a respected Seelie Court member through the vehicle of your Advisor, as well as the slaughter of twenty two other Seelie fae, and the somewhat lesser charge of trespassing.’

‘They think I ordered this?’ Gwyn said, and Augus raised his own eyebrows. He really hadn’t thought that part through.

Gwyn and Gulvi were right, this side of politics was definitely not his strength. Not that he particularly cared. He mostly just needed Crielle ferch Fnwy to be eliminated for his own peace of mind. He’d known she wasn’t done with Gwyn, and it hadn’t felt fantastic to be proven right.

‘They think I ordered...’

Gwyn’s voice quavered once. Gulvi glared at Augus, and Augus returned the gaze, nonchalant.

‘They can wait while I shower,’ Gwyn snapped, and Augus turned to him, surprised at the change in tone. He was surprised to see that pale blue gaze directed at him, a formidable focused glare.

‘I did you a favour,’ Augus said.

‘Did you?’ Gwyn said, jaw clenching.

He’ll come around. She was, by far, one of the worst influences in his life. And all the other ones are already dead. Except perhaps Albion. We can work up to him.

‘I’ll deal with you after I’ve been to the Seelie Court.’

‘You’re going?’ Augus said, and Gwyn barked out a laugh.

‘I have to go, they think I ordered the slaughter of my own mother. If I don’t go, I as good as admit that this was something you and I masterminded. Which is something I’ll likely have to do, regardless, to protect the rumours we’re fostering. And no, Augus, this is not something that works to the credit of the Unseelie Kingdom. She is a respected, powerful individual with so many contacts on both sides of the river that her death will be read as an affront. I-’

‘-It’s not worth it,’ Gulvi said abruptly. ‘He’s high on bloodlust.’

Gwyn’s eyes narrowed, he shook his head. The gesture was so resigned, so despairing, that Augus felt teeth lengthening inside his own mouth.

‘Get out,’ Gwyn said quietly. ‘Get out. Do whatever you want, since that’s evidently what you’re going to do anyway.’

Augus’ lips thinned, he dropped the sheet, exposing the worst of his wound. His cock was still slick with lubricant and he didn’t care if Gulvi saw it. He picked up the sodden folders he’d dropped on the chair, shook them at him.

‘You should know she was planning something, and that the plan has been executed. I’m not sure what you can salvage from these, but there’s documentation in here, and there will be more at the An-Fnwy estate.’

He walked out, not caring who saw him. Perhaps he needed some time in the lake. He certainly needed a shower. He’d wanted to ask if Gwyn was asking him to leave, or ordering him as King, and realised he didn’t want to know the answer.

Change the location, still a prisoner. I believe that is what Ash would call: ‘Same shit, different day.’

 

Chapter Text

Gwyn

*

Gulvi, his Queen-in-Waiting, waited by the bedroom door as he showered thoroughly. After, she briefed him as quickly as possible as they walked side by side to the throne room, where all Seelie messengers were customarily seen. It wasn’t the first time the Seelie Court had sent messengers to ask for one thing or another – the new list of Noble Court fae, an account of current land holdings (which Gwyn had told them was none of their business, because even he didn’t know what land the Unseelie Court currently had), accounts of other matters, information on where Gwyn stood on several peace-treaties between Seelie and Unseelie nations.

Albion, King of the Seelie fae, certainly liked to make trouble.

But this...

Gwyn stood, dressed in far more formal wear than before – clothing Augus had found for him – with a sore ass, a vicious bite mark in his shoulder, and a frightened but game Seelie messenger reeling off a list of his crimes.

His crimes. Because Augus was his primary Advisor, and anything he did was – apparently – something Gwyn could be held accountable for.

They sent the Seelie messenger out to wait for them, and Gwyn paced in a cream doublet with black trim, scratching absently at it even though it fit perfectly well. Gulvi stood nearby, a thoughtful, dark look on her sharp face. She tightened the ponytail at the back of her neck, not that the white-blond hair needed it; Gwyn was noticing a lot more of her nervous habits these days. He’d had a chance to, she wasn’t particularly suited to being tied to the Unseelie Court.

‘So that’s both of us then,’ Gulvi said abruptly.

‘I beg your pardon?’ Gwyn said, looking up, watching as Gulvi lowered her hands to the hilts of both of the blades hanging bare by her hips.

‘Both of us who have lost a mother thanks to Augus.’

Gwyn shook his head. He was trying to divorce himself from the situation. He could almost, beneath his outrage, see where Augus was coming from. Augus had warned him, but that had been months ago, and Gwyn had never thought that Augus might seriously attempt it. Crielle was dangerous. Augus wore the wounds to prove it. Flashes of worry sparked alongside apprehension.

Gulvi’s brow furrowed, she held up a single finger. She teleported away in a rush of wind and two downy feathers fell to the ground. Gwyn was used to Gulvi using her teleportation frequently within the Court, and only seconds later she returned, holding the sodden folders Augus had dropped on the chair, in her hands.

She opened them, made a face at their wet state, then frowned.

‘It’s useless,’ Gulvi said. ‘La! Fucking useless. Even if there was any truth to it, even if he wasn’t lying through his teeth, you can’t go to them with this. Not without more proof. And you can’t go to the An-Fnwy estate now to look, it will be crawling with Albion’s minions.’

Gwyn took the folders from her and turned over water-damaged leaves of parchment. He could make out very few words, and nothing that pertained to a supposed plot against him. Though...he shivered; his mother was more than capable. Had a plan been actioned?

‘What choice do I have?’ Gwyn said, laughing. ‘Apparently, on the list of things they can now hate me for, I’ve killed my own mother.’

‘And they will hate you,’ Gulvi said quietly. ‘The Seelie, some of the Unseelie too. We put our families before honour.’

Gwyn nodded.

‘I need a drink,’ Gulvi said. ‘Would you mind if I stabbed your waterhorse again?’

‘No,’ Gwyn said darkly, and shook his head, held a hand up to indicate that he didn’t mean it. ‘I’ll deal with him.’

‘Will you? It seems to me that if you weren’t so terribly busy, you would have been able to see this coming.’ Gulvi paused, and then laughed. ‘Oh, quoi! What am I saying? That deviant is too unpredictable. But my point stands. You’d better get a move on. This is – as Ash would say, if he were ever here – something of a clusterfuck. But, my sweet thing, return soon, because that place is not good for any of us; least of all you.’

Gwyn smiled grimly.

He consciously rolled his shoulders. The damaged one shrieked at him, and he craved clever fingers pressing into pressure points, finding ley lines of pain and transforming them into nothing more than neutral, pain-free feedback.

‘Gwyn,’ Gulvi said, as Gwyn readied himself to teleport into the world he’d been raised within, the world he didn’t want to return to.

Gwyn turned to her, and Gulvi grimaced.

‘I’m aware that – for all accounts – she treated you heinously. But I am not like the waterhorses. I understand what it is to have a family, no matter what your feelings towards them. I’ll have some kvass with your name on it, if you want to get drunk later.’

Gwyn offered her a bitter half-smile.

‘I’ve tasted kvass, Gulvi – and what you brew isn’t it. But...I- Thank you. Tell the Seelie messenger where I’ve gone.’

He dissolved into light.

*

Every King or Queen of the Seelie and Unseelie Court were given an ability to transform their Court into whatever beacon they needed it to be for their Kingdom. Gwyn – during his reign as King of the Seelie fae – had turned the Oak King’s palace into what Augus had called ‘the world’s fanciest log-cabin.’ It hadn’t been a beacon to the Seelie Kingdom, but he hadn’t cared. In retrospect, he realised he’d ruined the Seelie Court – made it less appealing, less accessible – as a way of showing his displeasure that they’d voted him into power in the first place.

Albion – King of the Atlantic, King of the Seelie, saltwater fae and master of the seas – had transformed it into a palace once more.

Gwyn approached down a giant entryway –a broad, vast road covered in glittering, shining jewels. They were many-coloured and likely mined from the depths of the sea or recovered from the chests and safes of sunken ships.

The path was bordered with fields of flowers. Shrubs and trees twisted heavily bowered floral branches to the sky. The meadows, the path, the plants were bathed in a radiant, golden light, as though the sun was rising or setting nearby, sending warmth through the world.

It grated at Gwyn’s skin. It was supposed to. The Seelie Court was not supposed to welcome Unseelie fae. It was supposed to remind them that this place did not belong to them.

Gwyn stared down at the gauche display of wealth at his feet. Gwyn half-wanted to bend down and lever some of the gems out of the ground to take back to the Unseelie Court, and he was startlingly aware of how much even his own considerable amount of personal wealth was not enough to fund the rebuilding of an entire Court and its military.

He saw tiny woodland underfae shrinking away from him, hiding, disappearing behind branches. He even recognised some. Once, they had been fae he was familiar with. Those that would attend Seelie Court functions. They weren’t friends, exactly, but they never used to avoid him.

Now he was the monstrous traitor.

He felt naked without his armour.

The Seelie Court had taken that too. Gwyn couldn’t afford to get fitted for new armour, and wouldn’t be seen dead wearing poorly fitting medieval plate armour into the Seelie Court. There was no point getting custom armour while the musculature of his body was being built again anyway.

Gwyn’s face remained impassive, but he snarled inside. He and Augus had been in an increasingly tense space since they’d started living in the Unseelie Court. Gwyn didn’t have time for Augus, not in the way that he used to.

He couldn’t remember the last time he’d allowed Augus to take control of him for a day, an evening, in one of their scenes. He hadn’t experienced enough of Augus’ aftercare to remember it clearly, but he ached for it. But it wasn’t in his nature to ask, and he was truly just busy.

Augus could be helpful one moment, malicious the next, his mercurial nature ruling his actions. Gwyn worried for him. The Unseelie Court – though made for Unseelie fae – was a harmful place for Augus. It was a source of flashbacks, of constant tension.

Once, Augus ruled the Unseelie Kingdom, and invited a fae far darker than he, made toxic by the energy of the underworld, to rule with him. The consequences had been catastrophic for everyone.

Gwyn reached the mailed, armoured guards at the huge double gates leading into the Seelie Court. They held giant spears across it and Gwyn waited calmly, standing at attention, using his dra’ocht to transmit determination, fearlessness, masking his discomfort.

‘I have been summoned to meet with King Albion,’ Gwyn said crisply.

The guards did not move their spears. Wary eyes watched him from behind helms. One had giant spines growing from their back in neat red-and-white array, and he realised they were a lionfish-shifter. Gwyn wondered how many of Albion’s underwater retinue he’d moved up into the Seelie Court to bolster it. Too many, and he’d be facing increasing dissent from the land fae.

Go on, Albion. Move them all up here.

‘I’m not sure if anyone remembers their courtesy, but I’m quite sure that one of you should now let someone know I am here,’ Gwyn said, his voice turning cold.

The guards shifted their spears, the gates opened, and the glamour hiding the true nature of the Seelie Court faded away. Beyond the gates, beyond the glowing, golden meadows of flowers, was an arched, blue bridge leading to a palace of pristine newness. It gleamed in pale blue and white, a confection of underwater architecture combined with above-ground building materials. Around the palace of towers and turrets, a giant moat that smelled strongly of saltwater.

It was Old Pete who teleported to meet Gwyn, just behind the guards and the Seelie gates. He gestured for Gwyn to come forwards, to cross the threshold, and Gwyn did so. His skin itched.

‘I like what King Albion’s done with the place,’ Gwyn said, and Old Pete laughed.

‘Do you? I find the salt gets in my nose. But it’s pretty enough. Something out of a fairytale.’

Old Pete, Storykeeper to the Crown and only one of two land fae on Albion’s Inner Court, was a classless fae, an ancient one at that. For someone who was the living trove of more stories than could be counted, no one knew where he had come from, or indeed much of anything of his life.

Gwyn was classless too – that odd category of Seelie and Unseelie fae who followed different rules of existence to everyone else. No one knew who might end up being classless and they could be any species, appear in any place; though they were rare. Crisis, change and chaos followed them. They had a status, but often lived far beyond the lifespan the status indicated.

Many died early. The rest ended up living alone.

‘If you would just take me to King Albion,’ Gwyn said. ‘I would like to get this over and done with.’

‘Hm,’ Old Pete said. ‘They’re serious charges.’

‘I’m aware,’ Gwyn said.

‘Would you permit me to teleport you into the palace?’

Gwyn grinned at him, shook his head.

‘No, thank you. Let’s walk there. I’d be delighted to see what Albion – my apologies, King Albion – has done with the place.’

Old Pete raised bushy eyebrows. They turned together, making their way quietly along the splendour of the arched bridge. Beneath their feet, below the steep drop, saltwater fae swam curiously in the depths, looking up, talking to each other and pointing when they realised who had entered the Court.

Old Pete himself was uncharacteristically silent. He was less than half the size of Gwyn, a motley gathering of mismatched layers of clothing, pouches and shoulder bags hanging from his waist, belts, both shoulders. Little bells tied into his hair and the ragged edges of his hems tinkled and chimed as he walked, and his nails were overgrown and hooked into unthreatening claws. His brown, wrinkled eyes shone, and were the most visible part of his face, the rest hidden behind a veritable bush of facial hair. It grew out of his nose, his ears, it sprouted thickly – white and grey – from his jaw and chin. He was one of the few fae who had chosen to age to a physical appearance of about seventy. Gwyn had ceased his own aging at a physical appearance that set him at about mid to early thirties, even if he was three thousand years old.

Old Pete looked harmless. But he wasn’t. He radiated power. Gwyn wasn’t sure how Albion had coaxed him onto his Inner Court.

‘You know, I remember you when you were younger,’ Old Pete said, lightly. ‘During the Oak King’s Court, you were just a young thing. Eager and obedient.’

Gwyn nodded quietly. He remembered. It had been at his presentation to the Court, and he’d only just come out of adulthood and was to formally enter the military, despite having already been active in it for over a century. Old Pete had been kind to him, though distant. Many other fae had been presented that day, and Old Pete had ended up taking on an apprentice Storykeeper.

Gwyn remembered being envious.

‘You’ve seen a few Courts in your time, haven’t you?’ Gwyn said, and Old Pete laughed.

‘A few.’

‘Do all the stories run together, after a while? You must have seen everything at least once.’

‘Oh no,’ Old Pete said, arching his neck to look up at him. ‘Everything? No. Do you think I’ve seen a time when a single fae has ruled over both the Seelie and Unseelie Court? Aside from now! And the world has seen nothing like the Raven Prince and likely never will again. No, King Gwyn, I think you’ll find as you get older, the stories stop running together.’

‘That we could all live to such an age as you.’

Old Pete laughed.

‘You’ll not get my age out of me that way!’

Gwyn smiled, helpless to Old Pete’s charm. His glamour was gentle thing.

As they approached the proper entrance into the Seelie Court, Gwyn remembered that this wasn’t his Kingdom, this wasn’t his Court, these weren’t his people, and Old Pete was not his friend. He’d only spent three thousand years living with them, being their colleague, fighting for them, killing for them.

He took a slow breath.

Crielle is dead.

Gwyn struggled, briefly, to keep his face clear of emotion. He wished it was only an hour before, when his biggest concern had been land acquisition and military restoration.

Not Augus murdering his mother in cold blood.

‘How long ago was she killed?’ Gwyn said, and Old Pete looked at him sharply.

His expression seemed to say: Don’t you know?

The Seelie energy began to grate more noticeably. His own destructive light seethed beneath his skin, and the Seelie Court bore down upon him. He was grateful that he’d scrubbed Augus’ scent off himself in the shower, that his clothing hid the bite mark.

He was led through double doors that looked as though they had been carved apiece from a single pearl of unimaginable proportions. Within, the paved ground changed to a mosaic of abalone shell, leading to the vaulted grandeur of the throne room. A single throne carved of deep blue coral in the centre, but Albion wasn’t there.

Gwyn’s eyes narrowed, but he also felt a wash of relief. This throne room bore no resemblance to the one he’d ruled from during his own reign in the Seelie Court; and therefore it didn’t remind him, visually, of the place where Albion had demoted him, ripped his power from him, forced him to underfae status before dragging him insensate into a cell.

He was grateful that he no longer had the tracking spell on him that had been placed when he’d been imprisoned. It had mostly dissolved when he’d been made King, but they’d hired a Mage and broken the rest of it.

He was led down a stoa, a broad, rooved path framed with regular, grand columns on both sides. Rooms marked with arches were on their left, sprawling water gardens to their right. He could see many servants – all saltwater fae – but no one else of note.

His lips pressed together when Old Pete led him to a side room that appeared to be of no consequence and waved him inside. He entered a small room that held only a single, grey stone table with some documents on it. Two chairs on either side. There was another closed door behind the chair where Old Pete sat.

Gwyn remained standing. Old Pete was right – even here, the salt of the sea did find its way into his nose.

‘I am King of the Unseelie Court, and I am here to see King Albion,’ Gwyn said.

‘Not entirely, I’m afraid,’ Old Pete said apologetically. ‘You are here to see me.’

‘You are not even Chief Magistrate,’ Gwyn said. ‘If these are such serious matters, why is the King not handling them? Or Alysia?’

A pause, and Old Pete’s expression transformed into one of eloquent pity.

‘Ah,’ Gwyn said. ‘Insult.’

The door behind Old Pete swung open, and Gwyn stiffened when he saw who was behind it, waiting behind it. Mikkel, the Reader fae who had interrogated him when he was briefly held prisoner in the Seelie Court. One of the fae able to pull people’s emotions from their head to such a nuanced degree, they could practically read thoughts. Mikkel was adept, and he’d made Gwyn feel far more stripped bare than many other torturers he’d encountered in his life.

‘You can report to ol’ King Albion that it worked, at least,’ Mikkel said cheerfully, blowing a kiss at Gwyn before leaning against the wall and crossing one leg over the other.

When he’d been in the cell, he’d been too unwell to pay much attention to Mikkel beyond his horrifying ability to Read him. He had the pale brown eyes that were too familiar, Gwyn swallowed to see them. His face was broad, several days into needing a shave, and his hair was short, brown and tightly curled. He was a solidly built man, tending towards roundness. He wore human clothing – brown jeans, brick red boots, a cream shirt with some embroidered word on it that Gwyn couldn’t make out. There was a red leather cord around his neck. He gave Gwyn the same once-over that Gwyn gave him and then shook his head.

‘Don’t know why you’re so stressed out. Can’t read you as well now that you’re King and all. Though I can still read you. Jesus, Petey, you sure you want me here? He’s just gonna get his back up.’

Old Pete said nothing, didn’t even face him, and Mikkel pouted. His face then settled into a smug smile as Old Pete drew out several documents and then gestured for Gwyn to sit.

Gwyn didn’t sit. Insult upon insult. First that Albion wouldn’t see him, then that his King-in-Waiting wouldn’t see him, and not even Alysia – the Chief Magistrate. Now Mikkel was here. He found himself very much wanting to smash his fist into the fae’s face.

Mikkel laughed under his breath and said nothing at all.

‘The charges – you’ve likely heard them already – are as follows: Through the avatar of your Advisor – Augus Each Uisge – you have been found guilty of matricide. A crime, as you know, taken very seriously amongst the Seelie and Unseelie Noble Court families. You are also charged with using Augus to kill twenty two additional Seelie fae without motive. There are charges of trespassing and property damage, but, hm, I’m sure when this becomes a story later, not many people are going to be talking about the property damage.’

‘I’m sure,’ Gwyn said.

‘Hm,’ Old Pete flicked through some papers, and Gwyn glared at Mikkel, trying to hold onto the coldness inside of him. If Mikkel couldn’t read him as well, then perhaps he could bury his terror, his sense of betrayal.

‘You cannot bring any punishment against me,’ Gwyn said, finally. ‘This is not a world where Unseelie account to the Seelie; even if that’s the world that Albion wants.’

‘It’s the world you wanted,’ Old Pete said, his beard moving as he frowned, bells chiming absurdly. ‘You were the one who defeated Augus Each Uisge, you introduced the precedent of Seelie intervening in Unseelie crimes. This act has always been frowned upon, yet you did it.’

‘I introduced no precedent, I was Unseelie at the time,’ Gwyn said. ‘Again, you cannot bring any punishment against me. None that I’m sure Albion wasn’t already going to visit upon the Unseelie Court. So why am I here?’

‘’Cuz we want to know how much control you’ve really got over that Court of yours, duh,’ Mikkel said. He stepped away from the wall. Old Pete shot him an irritated look. Mikkel sauntered over and walked behind Gwyn, trailing a finger over his shoulder. He clapped him on the injured section of his back, and Gwyn couldn’t stop the gust of breath that escaped his lungs. ‘Never fear though. Like, I dunno, Petey...I think he’s guilty.’

Old Pete looked up sharply, and Gwyn masked his surprise.

‘Did you order Augus to do this?’ Old Pete said, looking at Gwyn in disbelief.

‘I did,’ Gwyn said, his voice far stronger than he felt. He took a deep breath, felt like he was marching off a precipice. ‘I ordered her murder. She has been making plots against my life, and one was actioned. We have documentation, and I expect further shall be found upon the combing of the estate. If you like, once I have inherited the An-Fnwy estate, I shall be gracious enough to permit the Seelie fae to go through it themselves; more than they are at this very moment, even.’

Mikkel walked back around the table and leaned over it next to Old Pete, placing both of his hands on the edge of it, looking up at Gwyn.

Old Pete pushed some parchment forward.

‘Gwyn,’ he said, his voice oddly gentle, it set Gwyn’s teeth on edge. ‘You should know that you have been formally disinherited and disowned. There is paperwork, and its veracity has been confirmed.’

Gwyn felt cold, his feet weighted down like lead. He stared at the parchment, but the words blurred. He blinked twice, hard, to make them out, and saw the looping, curling script of the family lawyer.

Common fae were so much like humans, at times, that it disgusted him.

‘Disinherited,’ Gwyn said. ‘Noble Court disinheritance can only occur upon the agreement of the mother and the father, in the cases where there are both; even death does not render this null. Lludd never gave his agreement while living, otherwise-’

Old Pete shook his head. ‘He did. It was a loose but written agreement that, should he die and Crielle decide that she had valid reasons for disinheritance, he would lend his support. It’s been enough to make the document binding. You are welcome to see this agreement. I am afraid you have no right to the An-Fnwy estate. You are no longer permitted the use of the ‘ap Nudd’ surname.’

Gwyn picked up the parchment and read it, read it again. He almost laughed. Orphaned and disinherited in the same day. Within a period of hours.

‘Anything else?’ Gwyn said, setting down the parchment.

‘He’s not happy,’ Mikkel said to Old Pete in a theatrical whisper.

‘Believe it or not, Mikkel, I can tell that for myself, thank you.’

Mikkel smirked up at Gwyn. There was a mischief in his eyes that made him – for a moment – seem all too familiar to a boy he once knew, and Gwyn looked away. He half-expected Mikkel to fill the silence with digs, insults, but time passed and neither of them said anything. He looked back, and Old Pete ran his finger over the paperwork, studying it. Mikkel stared at him, something quiescent in his gaze. His smile had disappeared.

‘Enough of us have no surnames,’ Old Pete said finally, ‘that you’ll manage, I expect. After all, we have an Old Pete, a Raven Prince, an Oak King. And I think you’ll find, Bright One, you have no shortage of monikers.’

‘Indeed,’ Gwyn said.

If all of this was to be believed, Crielle’s last acts in her life were to disinherit him and plan his murder. He knew she hated him, he did know that; but her schemes had never been quite so obvious.

He would need to go back and explain he had no right to that land; it would have been a strategic coup to win it. Geographically, it was close to the Seelie Court, centred in premium land holdings of some of the Seelie noblesse.

He wanted to go to Augus. He wanted an Augus that would offer sympathy for how his parents had treated him. It was a silly thing to want, petty, but he wanted it all the same. And he wanted – for good or ill – to talk to him.

But he couldn’t. Outrage still simmered at everything that had just transpired. Augus had killed his mother. It wasn’t Augus’ fault he was disinherited, it wasn’t, but it was certainly his fault that Gwyn was finding out the way that he was. He was humiliated, King Albion nowhere in sight and a Reader not more than two metres away from him, plumbing his emotions for knowledge.

Old Pete’s unexpected kindnesses were strategy, they had to be. Albion must want Old Pete to maintain something of a tenuous tie to Gwyn’s good will. But Gwyn didn’t trust any of them.

‘Is that all?’ Gwyn said finally.

‘Funeral arrangements will be handled by the Seelie Court, and though you are free to ignore it at your own detriment, King Albion himself has requested that you not attend. I’m sure you understand, of course. He’s also warned you to stay away from the An-Fnwy estate. He will react with military offense if you show up on the land.’

Gwyn resisted the urge to grind his teeth together.

Albion said this. Albion said that. Albion can’t be bothered turning up to a meeting with the Unseelie King as he is obligated, because he is making a point.

He’d trained with Albion, he’d fought side by side with him, they’d shared ale together, clapped each other on the back after difficult tours. Gwyn hung onto the fact that Albion had said – more than once – that Gwyn showed signs of promise as a General. This was more than just strategy, this was personal insult.

He has my armour, my sword, my possessions, my heritage, my name.

‘Hm, however, if it is true that Crielle has executed a plan against your person, we’ll take that very seriously.’

‘I’m sure you will,’ Gwyn said.

You likely all know about it.

Old Pete gazed at him for a long moment. It was hard to tell, but Gwyn thought he saw something of sympathy on his face. But then the openness shuttered away and he gestured to Mikkel.

‘Mikkel will see you out.’

Gwyn couldn’t help but smile at that.

‘I think I’m more than capable of seeing myself out.’

‘Of course you are,’ Old Pete said. ‘But we cannot let the Unseelie King move through the Seelie palace unescorted. You understand.’

Mikkel wasn’t even Inner Court status. He was only a Court fae. Handy to have around, Gwyn was sure, but a sign that the Seelie didn’t find Gwyn remotely significant enough to merit any escort of higher status. Or at least they were pretending at it. Gwyn wasn’t surprised. His last serious encounter with Albion and his Inner Court had involved a lot of grandstanding. After the initial shock of seeing his lightshow, they would have realised exactly how under-resourced Gwyn was.

‘Thank you for your hospitality, Old Pete,’ Gwyn said stiffly. No drinks had been offered. No sharing of glasses. The old cooperation between Seelie and Unseelie; even stiff and forced, was drifting further and further away. ‘I can only hope that when you next visit the Unseelie Court, we can surpass it.’

‘It won’t be hard,’ Old Pete said, and he made a face then, glowering at nothing in particular.

Mikkel walked around the table, attempted to slide his arm through the crook of Gwyn’s elbow. Gwyn shook him off, stalking towards the door and making his way down the stoa, footsteps echoing on dark blue marble with white striations that looked like seafoam.

Mikkel said nothing, though there was an obnoxious spring in his step that made Gwyn wonder how the Seelie would respond if he were to punch him in the face and bodily toss him off the side of the arched bridge into the moat.

They walked through the double gates together, and they slammed shut behind Gwyn with a resounding clang. They made their way on the jewelled pathway – stupid, Gwyn thought – and Mikkel laughed again, under his breath. Mikkel sped up until he could walk backwards to Gwyn’s forward step, facing him. Gwyn increased his own pace until Mikkel was forced to stop, and he moved back to Gwyn’s side, shrugging good-naturedly. Annoyingly.

‘You didn’t order her death though,’ Mikkel whispered, sounding delighted. ‘Do you see what I did in there?’

‘Don’t fuck with me, Mikkel,’ Gwyn bit out.

‘It’s so weird when you curse. You’re all Noble Court manners until you’re pissed, and then all that soldier training comes out doesn’t it? You must’ve heard some filthy shit when you were with them, oh man. And I have to fuck with you a little, don’t I? Can’t help it. It’s boring otherwise.’

Gwyn looked down at him. He’d wondered. There was something about the way Mikkel had kept looking at him that made him wonder why Mikkel was lying about Gwyn’s role in Crielle’s murder. Was he playing his own game? Was he answering directly to Albion and not Old Pete?

‘You’re way more Seelie than you think, y’know,’ Mikkel said, looking up at him and quirking a grin. ‘I mean yeah, you’re Unseelie, and everyone knows it. But ask me, you’re kind of a hybrid.’

‘No one is asking you.’

‘They’re gonna ask me, actually, later. They like to get an emotional read on you. Albion, in particular, thinks I’m some kind of core part of his Court.’

‘If that were true, perhaps your status might reflect that.’

‘Huh, it’s like I’d never thought of that,’ Mikkel said, laughing sharply. ‘You are super smart.’

He couldn’t teleport back to the Unseelie Court, not yet. But soon. Another two hundred metres, and he could go back to a place where the zahakhar actually made him feel good. Artificial though it may be, Gwyn could do with feeling more settled than he did now.

Disinherited. Disowned. Orphaned.

His mind unhelpfully reminded him that he had also been publically demoted, shamed, imprisoned, nearly executed.

He could hear Augus’ quiet voice in the back of his mind: ‘Melodrama.’

‘You should pay more attention to me,’ Mikkel said quickly, as though he’d realised how quickly Gwyn was speeding towards the threshold so that he might teleport away. ‘Cupcake, you really should. I’m in your corner.’

‘You’re in your own corner, Mikkel.’

‘That too. Though I’m not particularly fussed, you know. I go wherever my interests take me. You’re interesting. Old Pete thinks so too.’

‘He doesn’t seem too fond of you.’

‘That’s because I can – no idea why – actually Read the hell out of him. It drives him nuts. He’s a secretive old coot, but you can only be so secretive when someone can pick your emotional motives straight out of your head. Albion’s not an open book. Alysia only is with her rage. You’re hit and miss. Like bad transmission. It was much better when you were underfae. Then I got to find out like, you were this damaged, abused cupcake with a heart of gold.’

Gwyn had passed the official threshold of the Seelie Court, and was now in the closest thing to neutral land. So the crime wouldn’t count as Court violence. He wasn’t breaking any of the old laws. He grinned, turned, and smashed his fist down into the side of Mikkel’s face, watching in satisfaction as he hit the ground hard. Gwyn’s heart pounded.

‘I lied about that ‘heart of gold’ part,’ Mikkel said, spitting blood onto dirt. ‘Ah, stop worrying. I don’t need to be the one to tell them you lost it at the threshold, god knows there’s enough spies around.’

Mikkel forced himself up onto his palms, then his knees, wobbled. He sat back down with a dazed laugh. His smile was bloodied, but he managed a cocky wink all the same.

‘I’m serious. As much as I can ever be. I’m in your corner.’

‘Mikkel, there are spies everywhere. This is a very ham-handed attempt the Seelie Court is making. I am not going to ally with you, share my secrets with you. Go back and tell them you’ve failed.’

‘Yeah, the spies will do that. But seriously though,’ Mikkel said. His face cleared of mischief again, a sober expression crossing his face despite the split of his lip, the trickle of blood making its way from the corner of his mouth. ‘Seriously. Do you know anything about a Reader’s abilities, aside from the fact that we can pluck emotions out of the fae? We don’t just Read people. The spies only heard what I wanted them to hear. They don’t know that you didn’t order that murder. They don’t know how unstable your Court is. They just know I’m doing what I was supposed to do. Go research more on Readers, idiot.’

He pushed himself upright and dusted himself off with quick flicks of his fingers.

‘I’m gonna be seeing you sooner than you think, Gwyn ap- Oh. Huh. Not anymore. Just Gwyn, now.’

Gwyn’s last image of Mikkel was the tiny wave he gave with his fingers, before his light finally came to him and whisked him away from the place that had once been – almost – a home.

*

The gloom of the Unseelie throne-room was off-putting. With its four thrones leftover from Augus’ reign and the shadows that clung to it, even the zahakhar couldn’t ameliorate the ugliness of the place.

He’d been putting off transforming the Court. The pressure to create a great Court weighed upon him, especially as everyone knew what he had done to the Seelie Court. He wasn’t a designer of buildings, he wasn’t classically known for his architectural or design aesthetic.

He stared at the walls, the floor, the thrones themselves, because it was more bearable than facing Augus and Ash – brothers related by species, choice, and now Soulbond. Augus had dressed, was wearing his rapier again – which meant that he’d gone back into their room while Gwyn had been away. Gulvi stood near Gwyn, and he realised by the way she was shadowing him, she was feeling protective.

He doubted she was aware she was doing it. Just as he tended to assess an environment based on how easy it would be to secure, she assessed situations based on her own training as a bodyguard and assassin.

‘Look, I get that he did something you guys aren’t happy with,’ Ash said – Gulvi had gone to fetch him from the human world. ‘But he’s hungry, and he’s kind of still high on bloodlust. I don’t know if you’re gonna get anything useful from him at the moment.’

‘Or ever?’ Gulvi said, and Gwyn grimaced as Augus pinned him with a feral, lambent green glare.

‘When was the last time you fed?’ Gwyn said, and Augus shrugged, looking down to the ground for several calculated seconds. The look he directed back at Gwyn was just as hungry as before. Gwyn shook his head, exasperated. ‘You’re supposed to have better control of yourself than this! Instead of some impulsive decision to-’

‘It wasn’t impulsive,’ Augus said quietly. ‘Is that what you think? That I contracted a coachman, a carriage, that I discovered when she would most likely be home alone, that I did all this on the spur of the moment? I did actually tell you, plainly, that I would kill her.’

‘Augus, come on, man. You put your life in danger,’ Ash said, turning to Augus.

There was a flicker of something in Augus’ eyes that made Gwyn realise just how true that was.

Augus, however, was still swimming in bloodlust, and something feral sparked in his gaze.

‘Does no one actually care that she’s contracted shapeshifters to mindfuck the King of the Unseelie throne? Anyone?’

‘The documentation is unreadable,’ Gwyn said. ‘I wouldn’t put it past you to lie about this, Augus.’

‘Do you know,’ Augus said, walking forwards and invading Gwyn’s personal space, ‘she’s contracted a shapeshifter to look and talk like Mafydd? Pray, tell, what do you think she’ll do with that?’

Gwyn stared at him, stared at the others. That was a name that wasn’t supposed to be said. And it wasn’t supposed to be said in public, in front of others.

‘Who’s Mafydd?’ Ash said, and Gulvi made a sound under her tongue.

‘We’re looking into the plan, Augus. The fact remains that you cannot be a King’s Advisor, and kill the King’s mother without his knowledge.’

‘I can. That’s precisely what I did.’

Gwyn made a short sound of frustration, stepped away from everyone.

‘She did nearly kill you,’ Gwyn said, unable to even look at Augus. ‘You were sporting many wounds when you came to me earlier.’

‘Trifles,’ Augus laughed. ‘The wounds from her were trifles. It was the cook that packed a mean ability with that cleaver.’

Gwyn stood, mind blank. Something spiralled away inside of him, hollowing him out.

It wasn’t just Crielle.

Twenty two other fae...killed without motive.

‘Gwyn?’ Gulvi said, nearby. He had no idea how much time had passed. He was becoming aware that it had been quite a taxing afternoon.

‘The cook...’ Gwyn said, his voice weathered. ‘I cared for her.’

How many others? How many others were still working in that Court from my childhood? The stablehands? All’eth? Melchor?

‘Then go to her funeral,’ Augus said, with a coldness that shocked him. Gwyn turned and couldn’t determine the expression on his face.

‘Go to her funeral, tell her what a wonderful job she did taking care of you. Tell me how she earned your good will in that household.’

This was not a discussion to be had in front of Ash and Gulvi, no matter how curious they looked. Gwyn wanted to defend the servants who had been caught in that household’s web as much as he had growing up, but he couldn’t. Augus looked expectant, but when Gwyn wasn’t forthcoming, his expression shifted, he frowned.

‘I find I am hungry,’ Augus said, sighing. ‘All that blood and yet not a drop to drink! I’m going to hunt.’

He turned on his heel and walked away, Ash hesitating, then following at a gesture from Gulvi.

It left the two of them standing in the shadowed gloom of a throne-room Gwyn had yet to change. He couldn’t help wonder how much the Unseelie Court itself – its appearance – was responsible for this harder-to-predict Augus.

‘He’s a twat,’ Gulvi said quietly. ‘And I’m thirsty. With your permission...’

Gwyn reached out and took her hand and she whisked them both into the air, teleporting them on streams of blue and breeze and wind. They landed in her rooms, and he walked straight to a low, stone bench and sat down.

‘I’ve been disinherited,’ Gwyn said, laughing softly. ‘They’ve taken my last name.’

Gulvi froze where she was setting out two shot-glasses. She turned to him slowly, frowning.

‘And they had a Reader there,’ Gwyn said, stretching his legs out, thinking that this was the stuff he might once have told Augus.

Gulvi said nothing for a long time, then handed Gwyn a glass of what could have been vodka. He knocked it back and held it out, and she scoffed and filled his glass again. Gwyn drank that down quickly and ran a hand through his hair.

‘He didn’t used to be like this,’ Gwyn said quietly, looking at her sidelong. ‘I doubt you’ll believe me. I hardly believe it myself. But he didn’t.’

‘I do, actually,’ Gulvi said after a measured silence. ‘I saw him when he was searching for you.’

They were silent for a long time. About once a week, he and Gulvi shared drinks together. Usually it was a weary but jovial affair. But this wasn’t jovial, and Gwyn tipped his head back until it touched a wall textured like rough, unpleasant rock.

‘La! Gwyn, the orphan, no longer Gwyn ap Nudd. A tough pill to swallow. I used to think that I would be happy to be well shot of my heritage, my connection to Dubna. But now that time has passed, I am attached to my name. Gulvi Dubna Vajat. It is what I am. They are trying to take what you are away from you. Unfortunately, I have no trite bullshit pandering to the idea they cannot. They obviously can.’

‘Yes,’ Gwyn said, eyes closed. ‘Yes, they can. I’m barred from the funeral.’

Another long silence. Gulvi filled his shot glass again, but in that moment Gwyn was too tired to even lift it and drink. He didn’t want to move. He hated that others were seeing him like this, but he preferred that it be Gulvi over anyone else.

He startled when he felt a sharp-clawed hand press firmly to the middle of his sternum. His eyes opened. Gulvi leaned over him, something pensive yet warm on her face.

‘I stand here before you, as the common fae stand before the lay of their lands. I touch you in your grief, as we are all touched by it; the passing of one of us into the lands that we will – all of us – to one day return.’

Gwyn stared at her, shocked, touched. It was a common fae saying, a ritual common upon the death of one of their own. He was surprised she even knew it.

The last time he’d experienced it, his mother had touched the breastplate of his armour and used the weapon of her glamour to hammer him with hatred, even as she said the right words in a teary, sweet voice. And that had been a bizarre moment, as it was over the death of his cousin, Efnisien. There was no love lost between them.

‘He’s killed two of my family members now,’ Gwyn said, the words vibrating into Gulvi’s hand.

‘Then you should watch your back.’ Gulvi smirked.

Gulvi left her hand on his chest for another minute, then stepped back and flared her wings so that she could sit more easily on her own bed. He closed his eyes again. He could hear her sipping at her drink. He could smell feathers and musk, as well as the oils needed to sharpen and keep blades and leathers in good condition.

There were hollow shapes inside of him.

‘I do not know why I care that she is dead.’

‘She is your family,’ Gulvi said, as though it were the simplest explanation in the world.

‘I hardly cared when Lludd died,’ Gwyn said.

‘It is funny, what death does,’ Gulvi said. ‘I never thought I would miss my mother the way I do. We were never close. La! We fought. I was far closer to some of my sisters – Galina, Alva, even dear little Maruta – than I ever was to my maiden-mother. And yet...it is not my sisters that leave the largest hurt inside of me, now they are gone. It is her. I cannot quite explain it. And I don’t need to, Gwyn. It doesn’t need explanation. Your grief doesn’t answer to us, or even you.’

‘You’ve done this before,’ Gwyn said. ‘How many people have you counselled in their grief?’

‘My dear, darling cygnet, I worked for families that murdered each other to try and make their point. And I have lived enough of it now to know how it works. It’s painful and tiring, it creeps upon you when you least expect it. Perhaps you are grieving more than just her. Perhaps you might consider the slow disintegration of your connection to a predatory waterhorse, the loss of your name, the constant work to keep a Court alive when it is hanging by a thread and has little meat left to its bones for the hungry to devour – yet still they come, hungrier than ever. Expecting marrow where none is left.’

Gwyn wished for Augus’ hands in that moment. He wished for fingers upon his back, upon his shoulder. Gentle scrapes along his scalp until he was lulled into rest.

‘I think, when Augus returns, I shall change the appearance of the Unseelie Court.’

‘La! Fucking finally! And I suppose this week shall be yet another week of damage control.

‘I don’t understand it. He’s doing the common work. He’s serving the underfae. He is, from what I can tell, working.’

‘Then you have an answer to a question you don’t want to ask,’ Gulvi said eventually. ‘If someone has changed, you need only look at their circumstances and ask: ‘What, here, is different?’ Are you caring for him? I may loathe the disgusting creature, but he is your creature all the same. After your reunification, you have hardly seen him at all. He did a lot for you, Gwyn, to find you.’

‘And now I will not see him for a week, while he hunts and digests.’

‘And your mother dead,’ Gulvi said. ‘Tell me something of her. Something no one else knew.’

Gwyn rested his hands, loosely, in his lap and shook his head.

‘She was an expert poisoner,’ Gwyn said, half-smiling. ‘She was an enthusiast in the art. She kept abreast of latest developments, ordered books and scrolls. There’s a library in the An-Fnwy basement devoted to it.’

‘Truly?’ Gulvi said, sounding fascinated.

‘I wonder if the Seelie Court will be surprised at what they find at the An-Fnwy estate; or if they knew what she was like all along?’

‘Both, I expect,’ Gulvi said. ‘It will be both.’

 

Chapter Text

Gwyn

*

The trows, the common fae servants, Julvia in her swan-form, and his Inner Court – Gulvi, Ash and Augus – all waited beyond the bounds of the Unseelie Court in warded land. Sentient creatures that were permitted to live within the Court; owls, foxes, felines, lizards and snakes, a troop of giant, jewel-encrusted lobsters that lived mostly above ground and seemed very peaceful, and many others, were also all waiting beyond the boundaries, Called to patience by Gwyn’s ability to gently compel animals to his will.

No one but the monarch could be in a Court the day its appearance was changed.

Gwyn wandered the dark, shadowed corridors alone. He had no blueprints in his hands despite having drawn many. He drifted in a half-daze, allowing the energy of the Unseelie Court to slowly come to him. It was difficult; it was an energy he’d been rejecting all his life. So it crept towards him in tiny waves.

The Unseelie and Seelie Courts could be completely changed in appearance once per reign. The wellspring of transformative magic was profound, only responded to regnancy, and no one knew where it came from. Only that it could be used to transmogrify a giant section of land, call stone, tile, art, paint and furniture into existence, grow trees and shrubs within hours and even minutes, call water, banish whatever was unnecessary. It was the type of metamorphic energy that some fae Mages trained to have, and even then, by comparison, they only had a drop of it.

It was similar to the magic that allowed each fae to make a home for themselves from a similar wellspring. But those homes were always much smaller in scale, and bound by the energies already living upon the land. What the Unseelie and Seelie rulers could do – by comparison – was transformation on a gargantuan scale.

After the first and most significant transformation, only small, ancillary changes could be made. New furniture had to be purchased and brought in. Trees would have to be grown slowly, unless fae were hired to speed up the process. Afterwards, the only thing Gwyn could change on a semi-frequent basis would be the permissions; the invisible energy that he would lock into the Unseelie Court, making it his own. It would determine who would be allowed to go where.

It was a huge responsibility. He’d not taken the burden so seriously in the Seelie Court; really only constructed a haven for himself, cared nothing at all for the leisure and political requirements of the fae who would be visiting.

He had to care now.

There was such a rich tradition of verdant, generous, shadowed Unseelie Courts that went before him. Augus had smashed all of that heritage into the ground when he transformed the palace during his reign – but many of the fae remembered the beautiful Courts. Even the Seelie would talk about how lush and lovely the Unseelie Court was. It was described in the vernacular of perfect, cool nights, of luminous stars occasionally hidden by veils of solar auroras, fae talked about the abundance of werelight and the night gardens, of shadowy havens to quieten minds, inspire dark deeds or encourage carnality.

It had been a terrible week. The scrolls, letters and visitors began to pour in. Everyone wanted to know: Why Crielle? Did he really order it? What was the purpose? Was it revenge? Were there any more high profile Seelie targets? And in the background, some Unseelie fae with families began to look at him with increasing suspicion. They may have been predators, but those who had the capacity for care, who had a family, put them before everything else except themselves.

Gwyn was concerned for Augus, but it was swamped underneath his fury at what Augus had done. Gwyn would never have sanctioned such an act, which was likely what drove Augus to doing it without his consent. But it was yet another rebellious act by a waterhorse that simply possessed too much power and was a thorn in the side of everyone.

A month before, they’d found some solidarity. It was everyone versus Albion and the Seelie Court. But weeks passed and the busy work of building an Unseelie Court turned their lives far more mundane, and solidarity was forgotten.

Gwyn became increasingly suspicious of Augus; he was far more unpredictable, and the Unseelie Court took a heavy toll on his psyche. Augus dealt with his own fear and misery by lashing out at others. Yet Gwyn couldn’t simply send Augus away, he needed his assistance. The more that time passed, the more Gwyn wondered how much of the Augus he had fallen in love with was left to him.

Gwyn had changed too, reverting back to the colder self that was better able to withstand the constant chaotic responsibilities of early Kingship. He couldn’t afford to be softer. Feared, in fact, that if he allowed Augus to take him apart, he would realise how much he was unable to handle the burden of what he shouldered.

When Augus returned from hunting, they’d exchanged a long, wary look. Gwyn left the bedroom in order that Augus could sleep – because, frankly, it was hard to be near him and not remember that the first thing that Augus had done after murdering his mother and the staff, was come back and fuck him with Crielle’s blood still in his mouth. Augus watched him with a dark, disapproving expression, and Gwyn hadn’t even made excuses for himself. He had no idea what to say.

Twelve hours later, he’d summoned all the fae into the throne-room and announced that he was ready to change the appearance of the Unseelie Court.

The look of naked relief on Augus’ face was so unlike his usual expression of indifference, it twisted an ache into Gwyn’s chest.

If he and Augus were talking as they’d used to, perhaps...

But they were not talking the way they used to, and Gwyn wasn’t sure how to ask Augus how he was feeling and get an honest answer from him.

Now Augus waited beyond, and Gwyn turned over all the designs in his mind, all the previous Courts and buildings he’d researched, gardens he’d visited. He thought of Augus’ needs and for the first time in weeks started to feel a cleaner affection for him, something untouched by suspicion and paranoia. He doubted that Augus loved him, but in the space he was finding in his mind, he could see that things between them had once been better.

He made his way in slow, concentric circles to the very centre of the Unseelie Court.

The centre of the Court was nothing special – unusually. It was only a space in a corridor. Augus really had tried to destroy every aspect of what made the Unseelie Court special, and had done a marvellous job. Gwyn could only assume that someone who enjoyed aesthetics so much, had a better grasp than others of how to best destroy something that had been beautiful.

For, here, the walls were slick and damp and black. Covered in stone-growing fungi and slime moulds, the floor beneath disguised with a patina of dirt. The only light in the place was that from a candle Gwyn had brought with him. It reeked. Here, in the centre, Gwyn found it easier to fathom the damage the Nightingale had done to Augus’ psyche while he had him captive for a year. For Gwyn knew very few details – only bits and pieces he’d found for himself, and the rare times Augus had shared memories in moments of distress. Here he could imagine it, how Augus’ mind had been infested with underworld creatures: slurchers and memory eaters and the spirits of accident.

It was easy to forget what Augus had experienced. He buried many of the signs of it so far down they were hard to see. He presented himself as a waterhorse of unpredictable, unparalleled strength. Not one that had been broken and destroyed.

But here, in the dark, with fetid smells tickling at his nose and his fingers touching what felt like mucus on the walls, he found himself hoping more than anything that he could make an Unseelie Court that would lift some of the weight resting upon Augus’ soul; his heartsong.

Gwyn pressed his hands and forehead to the wall, let the creeping waves come closer. They knew him. They knew him as Unseelie even as he’d tried to deny it all his life. They knew him as King even though he’d not been King of the Unseelie for very long. The energy of the Unseelie Court was alive and thoughtful, responsive and inquisitive. It trickled into his mind, his body, and the zahakhar – that artificial sense of homecoming and warmth – expanded sharply within.

The energy in his mind became a stream, an upturned well of vast potential. His own heartsong of surrender – how he loathed it – pushed him to give himself up to it. To lose himself in the nature of it.

He had one last moment to fleetingly remember all the designs he’d looked at, before he opened his mind fully to the wellspring of the Unseelie Court and lost himself within.

The transformation of the Court started immediately; spreading from his fingertips, then far, far beyond, radial lines moving from a central point.

Where before, a broken palace loomed tall and ugly over the Gwylwyr Du – the dark, official entranceway into the Unseelie Court – stones broke and reformed around clear panes of glass, coloured panes of stained glass. The masonry took on a charcoal-violet tone, accented with black, gathering in height until finally it rivalled even the splendour of the Seelie palace, then exceeded it.

On the ground floor, a new throne-room, larger than before and partly woven together by the trunks of trees that sprang from the ground just for this purpose. Their spirits talked to Gwyn quietly, made recommendations, and lattices of branches, fretworks of twigs began to knot together behind the new, marble dais where the thrones would rest.

Canopies stretched into higher levels, found huge spiralling staircases growing stern banisters with the tiny faces of animals and fae carved into the sides. The kitchens were re-centralised so that they were closest to the newly forming places of entertainment – ballrooms, halls, pavilions, the throne room and dining halls. Ancillary outdoor kitchens were added near the spaces that were to be the night gardens, the new training fields, the stables, kennels and mews.

Gwyn lost all sense of time passing. His stomach growled and he couldn’t feel it. His light flickered away inside of him, unpredictable, chaotic, but it was weighed down by the power flooding through him.

He turned his sights to bedrooms and guestrooms. For himself, at least twenty rooms – indulgent, but he needed different spaces. Those for cartography, for making his own longbows – even if he couldn’t draw them properly anymore – for training. He shifted the rest of the training arenas into one localised area; weapons rooms, sparring fields, wrestling grounds, an amphitheatre and more forming a network of connected regions that would flow onto the land where he had been training his military.

He looked to the plumbing, the lighting, providing more wall-sconces, more torches that would eventually be lit with flames that would be self-sustaining, nourished by the constantly regenerating magic of the Court itself. His mind drifted to walls and flooring, bringing in far more floorboards instead of corridors built only from dirt. He brought cornices and polished wood in dark tones of warm grey for the main thoroughfares. In the rooms themselves, he allowed greater personalisation.

But that was harder, and it took more time. Moving from room to room – the hundreds of them that would be preserved and kept whole by the Unseelie Court’s energy – sending energy flowing into furniture, wallpaper, plaster, fixtures, making sure each was appealing.

He didn’t feel it when he slid down to the floor, legs starting to shake.

This wasn’t like most Court transformations where he only had to alter sections and could leave other parts untouched and whole.

Everything needed to be redone.

He recreated stoa and arcades alongside the throne room and ballrooms. Night-blooming vines sprang up along some of them, suckering to the stone, showing crimson blossoms with pale interiors, black and dark green leaves springing shiny from tendrils. He had even researched sculptures, and some part of his mind found that research and pulled from it. Between every column, out of the way of the major walkways, a plinth of marble with a sculpture upon it – representing many of the world’s species of exclusively Unseelie fae. Kudlak, gorgon, waterhorses, fie ellyllon, afrit, bogles and countless others. Vines grew upon these as well.

As time flowed away from him, he found his mind wandering down to the basement levels, creeping over a living wetland where he’d once defeated Augus – he altered that only slightly – and then onwards into the dark.

As he moved, mentally, along pitch black staircases and corridors, taking the transforming Unseelie energy with him, he had the strangest feeling he was being watched.

It prickled between his shoulder-blades, his breath caught in his throat.

He hesitated, swimming in energy and magic, hardly aware of himself. There was something here. Something awful.

He was familiar with this quality of energy. He’d felt it in Terho – that sweet, Seelie mouse-lad who had saved everyone, but spent far too much time in the underworlds to ever be accepted again. After all, underworld energy clung, polluted the fae and the fae realm. It turned Augus’ self-mastery into a need for world domination and chaotic malice. It plagued Terho’s mind until he could no longer leave his tiny, one-roomed cottage.

The Nightingale had spent a significant amount of time in the Unseelie Court, and Gwyn could feel it – that underworld signature – a darkness that was alive, sentient.

He’d been sure he’d eliminated all signs of the Nightingale. But here, seething in the dark, a glob of energy that he couldn’t quite grasp. A tumour of pollution on the Unseelie Court itself.

Oh, Augus. No wonder you hate this place.

Had it been there the entire time? Of course. Feeding upon those who had been polluted by the underworld before. Turning thoughts into increasing chaos, perhaps being the final catalyst that might drive a predatory waterhorse to go on a murderous rampage and have very little adequate explanation as to why.

He tried to brace himself as he moved towards it. It wasn’t a living being, he couldn’t kill it, but he needed to remove it from the Court. Underworld energy was a sickness that only spread once unleashed into the fae realm. It couldn’t stay.

He felt sick with apprehension as he wrapped invisible fingers around it. A cloying darkness danced and shimmered through his very skin and he had no knowledge of crying out, of curling around himself. He fought with the underworld energy, with its desperate need to stay and infect everything with the darkness. It was not an energy conducive to life, to creatures whose hearts beat, whose blood flowed, who weren’t yet ready to be cast away into new realms.

The struggle was not the sort of battle Gwyn was used to. It was unseen, hidden, happening in Gwyn’s mind. He tried to bring his light to bear against it, but his light was a thing of death, a psychopomp of living energy. He was repelled when the glob of energy only grew in size upon meeting it. He couldn’t touch the thing with it and he shoved his light away.

Which left him only with himself. A middleworld creature fighting underworld energy, trying to bring the energy of his Kingship, of the Unseelie Court against it – after all, even Unseelie energy, dark as it may be, wanted this gone.

He wasn’t aware of throwing up, of shaking or pouring sweat. His hair clung to his scalp, his fingers and toes twisted into a rictus. He felt none of it.

Except a niggling sensation. Something on his head. He twitched away from it, but it came back. He wasn’t ready to be brought back to himself. For a moment he panicked, thinking the underworld energy was winning; that whatever the Nightingale had left seeded in the underground of the Unseelie Kingdom was growing in strength.

‘Gwyn, sweetness. Can you hear me?’

He moaned a fragile sound, realised it was fingers in his hair. It was Augus. More panic. No one should be here. The Court was shifting and seething with energy, its form so liquid it could easily absorb a stray fae and merge them deep into stone, forcing them to live there until they perished.

His body was being shifted, he paid no attention. Water trickled into his mouth and he choked, pushing away whatever interrupted him.

‘Shouldn’t...be here,’ Gwyn murmured, most of his energy focusing on the underworld energy. He had his fingers underneath it. He was levering it away. But in response it was getting heavier, slippery. It was a chameleon. It disturbed him how much the underworld energy fought to remain. The realms were supposed to stay separate.

‘...Has passed? Gwyn? It’s been twenty four hours. Transformations don’t take this long. You have to stop. What could you possibly need to add?’

‘Underworlds,’ Gwyn gasped. ‘Underworld energy. Removing it.’

‘Leave it!’ Augus shouted at him, a frightened, disembodied voice in the dark. ‘Don’t touch it!’

‘Too...late.’

A shock of movement, the sensation of dropping to the floor once more. Then apologetic fingers on his face, his hair. A murmuring that he couldn’t understand.

Augus’ voice disappeared. Gwyn was so close now. He convulsed as he separated the glob from the wall. And there, behind it, a tiny crack. Something that might once have been a portal. How the Nightingale had found the energy to sully the Court itself he wasn’t sure, but he did know the Unseelie Court could heal it. He felt it clamouring as he forced the glob into a smaller and smaller ball, shoving it back through the crack of the portal.

As soon as it was gone, a dark lightning splintered through him and he screamed as the rest of the portal closed. He was no Mage, he wasn’t trained to open or close portals, and the energy required to seal it scoured at him, lacerated his skin.

Then, nothing at all.

When he woke, he was still in the abstract place, Unseelie energy coiling around him, an ocean of bobbing waves. He dragged himself – mentally – to the night gardens and poured himself out into them. A haven. Vines and flowering shrubs, trees with arching canopies that were fully grown. Grasses. Night-blooming species that both existed and had never existed before. He called into existence furniture, garlands of lights that could be lit by werelight or by flame. He brought in glass lanterns, fragile paper lanterns, bowers, outdoor pavilions, gazebos, bridges over streams, walkways covered in arches.

He separated them by type. There, a night garden for magical plants and herbs. There, one for entertaining and feasting, redolent of the night-picnics that occurred after the Wild Hunts. Yet another became a maze, and there were more besides, each one with a different theme, all connected, spilling into old-growth forests that looked up to the constellations he was growing to love.

He wrung all he could out of that invisible well until there was nothing left. He shuddered like an overworked horse, the world went black.

*

‘...Gwyn? Gwyn? Wake up. You can do it. Come on, Gwyn, I fail to believe that you’ve experienced torture and torment and this will be the thing that leaves you unconscious for hours. Wake up.’

Gwyn moaned weakly, his head rolled in someone’s lap. Fingers were tracing careful, smooth patterns over his forehead. A sound of relief. Water trickling between his lips again. He was so thirsty. He gulped at it, spluttered, and then realised he had to take it slowly just as Augus told him to.

‘Where is...everyone?’ Gwyn managed, and Augus sighed.

‘None will enter. They were almost successful at forcing me to stay. For all that Gulvi doesn’t like me, I don’t think she relished the idea of me being crushed and folded into a new Court. Perhaps she just really doesn’t want me to be a part of it. What do you think?’

It was too many words. But Augus was talking in that soft, patient voice that Gwyn hadn’t heard in so long. His eyes squeezed shut, began to burn. He felt terribly fragile. He turned his head towards Augus’ thigh and pressed his lips together, said nothing at all.

‘You did it, I think,’ Augus said quietly. ‘I haven’t had a chance to look around. I came straight to you. But I think you’ve done it.’

‘Underworld energy,’ Gwyn said, hoarse.

Augus shuddered.

‘It’s gone,’ Gwyn added, because he realised Augus might not have known that.

‘Are you quite sure?’

Gwyn nodded, sighed when he felt the backs of Augus’ fingers stroking over his cheek.

‘Did you know?’ Gwyn asked, and then furrowed his brow. ‘Did you know it was there?’

‘No,’ Augus sighed. ‘Though I think...I can tell that it is gone.’

Gwyn felt a wave of relief at that. He didn’t know if it would change Augus’ behaviour, but he was glad to know that it might, at least, ease some of Augus’ troubles.

‘You need to rest,’ Augus said, and Gwyn swallowed, shook his head.

‘I have to present the Court.’

‘Gwyn...’ An impatience in Augus’ tone. ‘You need to rest.’

Gwyn felt wretched. He pushed himself upright slowly, ignoring the pain in his shoulder as best he could, the smell of vomit in his nose. Augus stood as well, disappointment in the slight furrowing of his brow, the frown pulling down his lips.

‘Gwyn...if you don’t start looking after yourself, I will-’

‘Leave it,’ Gwyn said, too tired to put much force into it. Reality was intruding. He wanted what Augus was offering. He did. But he had to present the Court. He needed a shower.

Augus had murdered his mother. Not only that, but the others that he had cared for, the cook. He made a faint sound in his throat, and when Augus stepped towards him, concern rewriting his features, Gwyn shook his head abortively.

He didn’t know what to do about Augus.

But he did know that he had vomit and about a day’s worth of sweat to wash off his body.

‘Later,’ Gwyn said, and Augus smiled ruefully.

‘That’s what you always say.’

*

The shower helped. He marvelled at the newness of the tiles, the fixtures. He was in his room. He hadn’t yet altered the permissions; but Augus now had his own section of rooms, even a library, and Gwyn had his own rooms too. They had a larger, mutual one, but neither of them were using it as of yet.

He’d even given Ash a personal bar along with his own rooms, and Gulvi an eyrie near the top of the palace.

Everyone’s reactions to the new Unseelie Court had been promising. Gulvi, in particular, said it would be perfect for the Triumphal Entry, when he would finally be able to receive new and old Noble Court families to present their fealty, their gifts.

Ash had seen his own rooms, his bar, exclaimed that the Unseelie energy must have known what he wanted.

Gwyn didn’t have the heart to tell him that it had nothing to do with the Unseelie energy itself; that it was just a malleable tool.

On his way out of the shower, he passed a large mirror and caught a glimpse of the furls and knots of scar tissue on his shoulder. His fist clenched. A glancing impulse to shatter what he saw.

On his bed, a basket of fruit and crusty bread rolls. The Unseelie trows were fast learners, and despite his suspicions that they might somehow try and trick him, harm him – just because of their alignment – they seemed as loyal and true as their Seelie cousins. But though he’d burnt out a lot of energy transforming the Court, he felt nauseous and ill. He bypassed the basket.

He still felt like the energy of the underworlds was clinging to him. He knew, logically, it wasn’t. He’d not taken it into himself, he’d even closed the portal. But it had felt so wrong.

He wondered how Augus dealt with it on a day to day basis. He’d had it inside of him. It was a violation that Gwyn could hardly fathom. Perhaps that was why Augus dealt with so many other things with so much aplomb. After that level of torture, perhaps everything else seemed mundane.

His hair caught and snagged as he dragged fingers through it. Sweating into his hair for so long had caused it to start matting, and he walked through his own Kingdom, bare feet slapping on marble tiles, combing it out carefully, wincing at the tangles. This was something Augus had done for him once, and he wondered if things hadn’t so much fallen apart between them, as never come together in the first place.

Their lives, whatever connection they had, perhaps it was no longer real, or maybe it never had been. Perhaps Augus needed clients again. In his darker moments, he became aware that the Unseelie Court was a toxic place for someone like Augus. He wanted him there. He’d named him Inner Court for selfish reasons. There seemed to be a high price for it now.

Gwyn sighed, made his way down one of the huge spiral staircases, hardly paying attention to his opulent surroundings. He knew this Court inside and out now, he would never be lost here again.

It took a good fifteen minutes to move from his shower to the arcade that would lead to the night gardens. He passed the plinths, the sculptures, his fingers touched the leaves of a vine briefly. He cast his senses out and knew then that the animals had all – mostly – returned.

On his left, one of the battle amphitheatres he’d created loomed in his vision. He wondered how the generals he’d been meeting with, training with, would take it. He suspected that Ifir – a fire fae afrit – would have something to say; likely not something he’d want to hear. They were a difficult lot. He had never been more aware of his Seelie training than when he’d started trying to get a band of Unseelie generals to work together. He’d tried using Unseelie principles, but he was stifled at a most basic level. He wanted them to work for honour, for duty – and that was not only alien to them, but a reprehensible way of doing things.

It was in that moment that he wondered just how Unseelie he was. He might be Unseelie by birth, but three thousand years of his particular upbringing, conditioning, training...

Unfortunately, it had meant he’d started off on the wrong foot with many of them. And as Ifir had so much of their respect in the first place, it was clear that when Ifir called him and his methods into question, the others had questioned him too.

They were the people he needed on his side. Before he could cherry pick his own military, he needed to know and understand how their own, individual militaries functioned.

Thankfully there were some more receptive generals, including Vane, a young but competent elf and representative of the fie ellyllon.

They all struggled with knowing that Gwyn had fought nearly all of them either directly or indirectly in battle, and triumphed over nearly every single one of them, multiple times. In some cases he’d killed their colleagues, their friends, even family members.

Gwyn smiled bitterly as he reached the end of the arcade, passing through into the gloom of the night gardens, lit only by firelight. He passed fragrant black jasmine, its new shoots a pearly cream. The scent of it lifted his spirits.

He made his way slowly to a sturdy, long wooden trestle table, sat on one of the benches and leaned back, looking up at constellations that only existed over the Unseelie Court.

At least he’d made the Court presentable. He found himself wondering what the Raven Prince might think of it. What the old Oak King would have thought.

Unexpectedly, he wondered if Crielle would approve.

He winced.

Of course she wouldn’t. He’d made it.

*

‘I’m hesitant to tell you that the time you took actually helped, in case you ever want to do something like that again, but I think it did,’ Augus said, appearing through an arbour behind him, under grapevines that held no fruit.

‘It will do,’ Gwyn said. ‘What are you doing here? Do you need anything?’

Augus paused, his hand reached out and stroked down the side of the arbour. His expression was already shuttered, so Gwyn couldn’t read him properly. Not that he ever really could.

‘I’m concerned,’ Augus said. ‘It also seems to be one of the rare nights where you’re not working.’

Gwyn opened his mouth to defend himself, to say that he was tired, but Augus pinned him with a hard gaze and he frowned instead.

‘Do I need anything,’ Augus said, pensive, almost to himself. He walked past Gwyn and sat next to him on the bench, leaning his back against the table as Gwyn was, looking at him as Gwyn looked up at the stars. ‘What do you think?’

‘Do you think it will be well-received by the Noble Court fae? You know them better than I do.’

‘You might consider answering my question,’ Augus said, and Gwyn swallowed.

Silence passed between them, as thick as the night itself, and Augus finally huffed out a breath of laughter.

‘Then, how about we talk about the underworld energy you were playing with earlier? Do you have any idea what you were messing with?’

‘Believe it or not, Augus, I do. Who defeated the Nightingale the last time?’

‘I believe it was that tiny, pathetic little mouse that you used to dote on,’ Augus said, faking a yawn. ‘Don’t, for a second, think that the picture you made earlier – fetal on the floor and lying in your own vomit – was one of competence.’

‘It’s gone,’ Gwyn said, tired. He needed to sleep. A doze. Something. He didn’t want to deal with nightmares, but they would find him no matter what. ‘It’s gone, Augus. The portal is closed, and it’s done.’

‘Don’t mess with it again.’

Gwyn bristled at being lectured, at the tone in his voice. He said nothing, tensed when Augus placed a palm on his arm.

‘When was the last time you’ve fed? Not what the trows bring you, but properly? Did you have any battles you attended last week?’

Gwyn shifted, looked towards the tree line in the distance.

Augus was referring to his light. The light that sparked inside of him and when unleashed, would scour out swathes of land and bring death to everyone it touched. He hadn’t known – almost all his life – that it was the way he was supposed to feed. And now, with three thousand years of not using it to feed, his body didn’t absorb the death taken by his light as a proper food. He had better luck feeling sated in the long-term from hacking people apart with his sword, than he did using his light.

‘I assisted Zudanna, one of the Generals, defending her land from a small local skirmish. She had it well in hand, I only wanted to see how her military worked. I didn’t have an opportunity to use the light, but there was a death count.’

‘Something, I suppose,’ Augus said, fingers curling into his muscle. ‘You’re lying about not having an opportunity to use your light. Are you back to avoiding it?’

‘We can’t afford anymore damaged Unseelie land than we already have. As it is, we have precious little premium land for the Unseelie to live upon.’

‘Ah, yes, and of course I destroyed so much of it,’ Augus said, lips quirking. There was something heavy in his voice, and Gwyn turned to him.

‘How is the common work going?’

Augus shrugged one shoulder. It occurred to Gwyn that he hadn’t asked for almost two weeks. It was an oversight. He knew far more about Gulvi’s work, what she was doing, than he did about Augus. He only knew that as long as the work was going smoothly, and that he wasn’t causing trouble, things were okay.

‘There have been a few assassination attempts, but they’re deflected easily enough. A few underfae are making the pilgrimage here not to salvage land but to air very specific complaints about a very specific fae. Usually they bring weapons. One brought poison.’

Gwyn went still. He had thought Augus would tell him about all the assassination attempts, but it was clear he wasn’t.

‘It’s fine,’ Augus said, his voice quiet. ‘We knew it would happen. I’m Inner Court and strong. They’re underfae. I only need to keep my defences up. Though this Soulbond...’

‘It was necessary,’ Gwyn said automatically.

‘Was it?’ Augus rubbed at it over his shirt. It was an unconscious gesture, and Augus did it increasingly. ‘I find myself wondering why I ever agreed to it. Letting you tie me to Ash like that.’

‘Ash knew exactly what would happen, what the consequences were.’

‘I’m going to start rehabilitating landscapes, soon,’ Augus said. ‘I’ve got a few earmarked. I think I can. It aligns neatly with my abilities.’

Gwyn’s hands tensed. ‘Will that mean you going to those places?’

‘Of course,’ Augus said. ‘Are you going to tell me my life is in danger? I’m already aware. I can’t not be. Every fae and their damned dog seem quite invested in ending me. You must get more calls for my death now than you did while I was in the Seelie Court.’

Gwyn laughed.

‘Believe it or not, that’s not true,’ Gwyn said, offering a tired smile.

It was in the act of starting to relax, smiling at him, that Gwyn found a thread of tension once more. It was so easy to believe Augus’ mien, but this was someone who had planned killing his mother. And though he may not have been the reason that Gwyn had no last name, was disinherited, it certainly felt like he was the reason.

‘Tense again?’ Augus murmured. He leaned forwards, pressing lips to the side of his face, a hint of tongue hot against his cool skin. His hand grasped possessively at Gwyn’s arm, and Augus kissed his way towards his lips.

Gwyn stiffened further, then made a small noise in his throat when Augus took Gwyn’s bottom lip between his own, licking back and forth along it, the touch sensual and disarming. He groaned when his tongue slipped inside his mouth, flicking at the barrier of his teeth.

He felt ill.

Augus shifted, knelt on the bench and in that position was actually taller than Gwyn, face over his face, long black hair falling like a damp curtain on either side of them. Gwyn shuddered, and Augus hummed soothingly at him, rubbing his arm when Gwyn’s mouth opened. He’d thought to protest, to say something, but Augus’ tongue was long and intrusive and sank deep into his mouth, painting a slow line along the roof of it.

The kiss went on for some time, Gwyn feeling paralysed as Augus bit carefully at his lips, licked the corner of his mouth, thrust his tongue back and forth with a slow power that was completely at odds with how he’d last fucked him.

After he killed Crielle.

Gwyn turned his mouth away, panting. His face felt hot.

‘I’m tired, Augus,’ Gwyn said, because it was true.

‘Let me help you sleep,’ Augus said, running sharp claws up underneath Gwyn’s shirt and stroking his skin threateningly. The kisses he placed against the side of his face were all sweet, and Gwyn’s eyes closed, he wanted to lean towards Augus, wanted to move away from him.

‘Augus, I mean it.’

‘You keep telling me ‘later,’’ Augus breathed. ‘Later, later, later. When exactly? You’re not working. I’m not sure how long you think you can keep rebuffing me, but I am losing all patience with you.’

Augus bit at his jaw, and Gwyn grunted, pushed himself sideways.

His eyes flew open when waterweed coiled around his wrist, his ankles. Months ago he might have allowed it. But after everything that had happened, he turned and ripped at it, snarling. He caught Augus’ surprised expression, and then had a handful of waterhorse attempting to pin his arms behind his back while waterweed was slid around his calves.

The fight was intense. Gwyn was slashed several times with claws, and Augus didn’t manage to avoid Gwyn’s habit of using his immense bulk to simply shove him out of the way.

Gwyn ripped through fresh waterweed and stumbled several steps away from the trestle table, even as Augus came at him.

‘Stop!’ Gwyn shouted. ‘What is wrong with you!’

‘What is wrong with me?’ Augus said, outraged, panting. His cheeks were flushed dusky, his eyes sparked bright green.

Gwyn paused, thinking over what had just happened, over the events of the past few weeks, and found rage sparking through him so quickly his fists clenched.

‘Yes! What is wrong with you! What would possess you to think that it would ever be a good idea to go to the place where I was raised and kill my mother?’

Augus shook his head, face twisting in anger. ‘I don’t know, Gwyn. Might it have been the fact that she tortured you all your life? Perhaps the fact that she still wanted to do it?’

‘I’m the King, Augus. You’re the primary Advisor. You can’t go and kill someone like Crielle and not tell me about it!’

‘I’m growing quite tired of you telling me what I can and cannot do.’

Gwyn growled, and the playful smirk that Augus offered in exchange was designed to be infuriating. But Gwyn was already finding it difficult to contain his rage, and he had to halt himself as he stalked towards Augus, hands raising to grab at him.

‘Oh,’ Augus laughed, breathless. ‘Remembering the old days, are you? When you used to be able to vent all your frustrations by coming down to a cell and raping me?’

Gwyn felt like he’d been doused with cold water, but the sensation disappeared behind a whirl of confusion, frustration.

‘Why are you being like this?’ Gwyn said. ‘Why? I’m trying to make things better for you, and-’

‘I can make things better for myself!’ Augus snapped. His teeth grit together, a hand came up and raked hard through his hair. ‘I don’t need your assistance, or anyone’s, to improve my circumstances. Don’t labour under any illusions, Gwyn ap Nudd, you-’

‘Gulvi didn’t tell you?’ Gwyn laughed bitterly, and then realised Augus hadn’t been around to find out. ‘I’m disinherited, I have no last name.’

Augus’ face became ugly with shock, and then he laughed in what sounded like pure delight.

‘All these things they do to you, and you still don’t understand why I tore her apart? Why I tore that place apart?’

‘Some of those people were my friends!’ Gwyn roared, not caring how loud his voice was. ‘Cook – Delphine – she made sure, all my life, that I was fed! She was the only one who slipped through their sights for so long, and you just...you killed her?’

‘They were not your friends,’ Augus hissed. ‘They were the people who stood by while you were tormented beyond what most people can comprehend.’

‘You’re not my defender, Augus,’ Gwyn said, voice turning cold as he numbed inside. ‘You’re the Unseelie fae who ruined his own Kingdom, and then proceeded to ruin the Kingdom of another that he supposedly cares for. Given that you also defeated the Raven Prince, one has to wonder exactly who you’re defending, and what your motives are.’

‘Your lack of trust is charming,’ Augus said, something truly sinister moving across his face, turning his eyes brighter.

Gwyn raised fingers to his forehead, pressed them in. He turned away, mind racing. He was too tired for this conversation, and he and Augus rarely talked to each other like this. His wrists had chafe marks on them from Augus’ waterweed. There was a rip in his shirt. Around them, the scents of night-flowers, of the gardens, the wood-smoke and waxy odour of fire and candles.

‘What is wrong with you?’ Augus said, something concerned in his voice. ‘Is this what you meant when you said you couldn’t be King again? Because-’

‘You killed my mother without my knowledge or my consent!’ Gwyn’s voice exploded between them and birds flushed out of the trees. Augus flinched, his eyes darted automatically – he had a phobia of night birds – but Gwyn couldn’t bring himself, in that moment, to care. ‘Right now, in this moment, Augus, you are directly responsible for a lot of the mess I’m fielding! The Unseelie fae who don’t trust me anymore because apparently I ordered the death of my own mother. The Seelie Kingdom, who used this as a fantastic opportunity to both reacquaint me with Mikkel, and rip my name and my land away. It is bad enough that I am fixing a Court you ruined, a military you disbanded, a Noble Court you tore apart, do you have to keep adding to what I’m dealing with?’

Augus stared at him, and Gwyn returned the gaze, breathing hard. He could hardly believe everything he’d just said, he was horrified at himself.

‘Ah,’ Augus laughed softly, and Gwyn realised he’d made a mistake. What was he doing, putting so much of everything on Augus, when he’d chosen to be King again? Granted, there had been significant pressure to take up the mantle, but it was still his choice. Augus had checked. And it was – Gwyn realised with dismay – obvious that Augus wanted to check on him more.

‘Augus, I’m s-’

‘Oh no,’ Augus said, holding up a hand. ‘No, please, let’s examine this moral high-ground you’re such good friends with, shall we?’

‘Augus, please, I didn’t-’

Shut up,’ Augus snapped. ‘Let’s talk trust issues, shall we? Since you seem to want to cling to them. We might as well even the playing field.’

Gwyn opened his mouth to interject and Augus levelled him with a glare.

‘Dismissing how you treated me while I was in the cell, let’s face it – you weren’t in your right mind and what you were doing didn’t affect me as much as it might affect others. Let’s look at the things you have done that have affected me? Let’s look at one thing in particular.’

Silence stretched, Gwyn waited, his heart a sickening thump in his chest. He felt dizzy.

‘Are you so angry that you want to forcefeed me liver again?’ Augus said, his voice falling into the space around them, damning them both. ‘It might not kill me, you know. Not that you cared the first time, when you tried to murder me, to make me atone for the sin of killing your cousin when he threatened my brother’s life.

Gwyn’s mouth was dry. He remembered holding a shaking body in his arms, the trembling convulsions of agony as Augus came so close to death. Gwyn could still hardly think about it.

‘You tried to make me atone for my sins, but remember whose sins we ended up looking at, Gwyn? Do you really want to look at some of the things that you’ve done?’

He could taste heart’s blood in his mouth. Could hear Cyledr’s cries and screams and pleas as he begged on behalf of his father.

There was a rustling nearby, they both whirled around.

‘Trouble in paradise?’ Ash said, a strange look on his face.

Augus looked irritated, then shrugged.

‘No more than usual, Ash. I think I’ll go for a walk.’

‘Yeah, I’ll come join you, hey,’ Ash said, smiling. ‘Give me a second, I want to ask Gwyn something about the new Court.’

Augus looked between them both, and Gwyn felt something tug hard at his chest as Augus turned and walked away, disappearing amongst trees into one of the other gardens. He felt shaky, uncertain. They had more to talk about, but he wasn’t sure how they were supposed to go about doing it.

Ash walked a large circle around Gwyn, and Gwyn’s eyes narrowed when he noticed. Ash was shorter than both Augus and Gwyn, a head full of stiff, curly hair in shades of brown, red, auburn; lime green waterweed poking out of it. He was not a typical predatory waterhorse by any means. He wasn’t even supposed to have survived childhood. Augus had adopted him, raised him, they were truer brothers than many Gwyn knew who were actually related by blood.

Ash was a thorn in Gwyn’s side. He’d never forgiven Gwyn for encouraging him to defeat his own brother while Augus had been King. Never forgiven him for taking Augus prisoner within the Seelie Court.

Everyone loved him; Ash loved everyone.

Except that Ash apparently made an exception for Gwyn, and though they’d been under an uneasy truce for a month and a half, it was evident that Ash didn’t like him as a person.

‘What was that you said about feeding Augus liver?’ Ash said, something amused and dark in his voice.

‘It’s a private matter, and it doesn’t concern you.’

‘It just fucking sounded like, I don’t know- I mean stupid Ash right? Always mishearing stuff? But it just kind of sounded like you fed him liver while he was underfae, and a prisoner, and couldn’t really fight back against you anyway? Like, that’s what that sounded like?’

There was a predatory gleam in his hazel eyes when he looked up. His mouth was slanted into a cruel smirk.

‘’Cuz, like, you know, it’s funny how the both of you won’t be honest with me about how you really treated him. Augus, I can understand in a way, he’s pretty quiet about all the shit he’s experienced. So I’m finding out these bits and pieces. Like attempted murder, in the most excruciating way we can pretty much die.’

‘It has nothing to do with you,’ Gwyn snarled, not in the mood, exhausted.

‘You’re not even denying it,’ Ash said, all traces of amusement disappearing from his face. ‘Jesus, you fucking asshole. I don’t really care what Gulvi thinks about you, or what Augus does, I have been waiting – waiting – for the other shoe to drop. And I knew it would. You think I’m gonna treat you with respect after finding out you did that to him? I tell you, Gwyn, you’d better fucking demote me. If you think we have a truce now...’

Gwyn stared at him, took a slow breath.

‘You can’t though, hey,’ Ash said, toeing his shoe into the ground like he was the meek one. Ash tilted his head, looked at Gwyn from under thick eyelashes. ‘Can’t fire me without upsetting Augus, and maybe you just like being fucked up the ass so much that you can’t do it.’

‘I am your King, and you will not talk to me like-’

‘Not in public, sure,’ Ash said, nodding vigorously. ‘I can play the game, man. We can keep up a good front. But I’m tired of playing the ‘Gwyn’s so great’ game. You tried to kill my brother.’

‘I raised his status! I saved his life!’ Gwyn said, and realised he’d just as good as admitted it. He winced, and Ash laughed.

‘Good for you, dude. That’s like...so good of you. Try and murder him, realise you fucked up and try and save him. How easy is it for you to do stuff like that? And you’re mad at him now, right? Is he in danger? Are you gonna hurt him?’

Gwyn’s jaw set. His mind rushed over possibilities. If he demoted Ash, perhaps Gulvi might understand, but Augus wouldn’t. Augus already had very few ties to things that were good for him in the Court. He needed Ash. They needed each other. And Ash knew that very well.

‘I just want you to know that I know, and I’m onto you,’ Ash said, shoving his hands into his jeans pockets, thumbs out and tapping several times. ‘I don’t know what he sees in you, honestly. But hey, he’s been conditioned to believe the best in a monster before. I see you for what you really are. I’ll toe the line in public. I’ll say all the right things. But you’d better fucking treat my brother with respect, or I will find a way to come at you. Yeah? Got me?’

Ash gave him a look which Gwyn had seen on the faces of folks in bars before they took it outside and brawled hard. But the look melted away into an easy, charming smile. A moment later, Ash’s sickeningly friendly glamour rolled over him, made his stomach turn. It reminded him far too much of Crielle.

Once he’d wanted Ash to like him, which was foolish and childish, but Ash liked everyone, didn’t he?

‘I gotta go check on him now, because he seemed upset, wouldn’t you say? Maybe you should keep your distance from him tonight. Just saying. Alright, well, g’night. Thanks for changing the Court and stuff, I guess. You did a good job.’

Ash flipped him a smile that – along with his disarming glamour – seemed genuine. But there was a glitter in his eyes. A reminder that while everyone else loved Ash, adored him, he was a predator. He might not be a very typical one, but he could obviously be as Unseelie as he wanted when he felt like it.

Ash walked away without looking over his shoulder again, following the direction that Augus had taken.

Gwyn teleported straight back to his rooms and placed his hands on the door as he closed it, changing the permissions so that only he might enter. He needed time to think. Time to be alone.

The door was cold where he rested his forehead against it. He looked at the abrasions on his wrists from Augus’s waterweed, felt a heavy, oozing throb of pain in his shoulder.

He wanted to hunt, to train, to slaughter on a battlefield, but they all brought with them an aggravating pain he didn’t want to think about.

In the end, he sat down at a large desk in another room and quietly went over the accounts, wishing they had a treasurer and knowing he wouldn’t trust one enough to deal with their finances anyway.

 

Chapter Text

Gwyn

*

‘Get your arm up!’ Zudanna shouted to Vane, who turned and laughed, vivid blue eyes dancing with mischief.

Zudanna shifted, wolf ears twitching, wolf paws curling as she mocked an exasperated snarl at him.

Gwyn watched as Vane – a general of the fie ellyllon elves – went back to longbow practice. He ached to be able to do the same thing himself. He couldn’t draw properly anymore. He could force himself through the longsword drills and he was getting better, but whenever he drew an arrow or held a bow, his shoulder quivered. He didn’t know if he’d ever be able to use a longbow again.

Gwyn forced himself to look back at the map in the dirt that Ifir – War General of the marid-djinn afrit; warrior fae of the deserts – was drawing with a stick.

There were sixteen generals and War Generals – not including himself – that he’d picked in order to assess their skills. He hoped to rebuild the Unseelie Court military from the private militaries still active.

They were a strong-willed, uncooperative bunch. Unseelie didn’t work for honour or duty or anything other than themselves and whatever they felt was right in the moment; which changed and shifted like smoke.

They were also fae that Gwyn had fought in battle. They’d all lost soldiers at his hands; colleagues, friends, some had even lost family. They represented those who had survived him and the Seelie Court military. They represented those who would give him the time of day.

Another fifteen had refused to respond to the missives. They tolerated Gwyn as King, but didn’t want anything to do with a formal Unseelie military. Feelings still ran high after Augus’ actions; especially now that Augus was in a position of power once more.

The first meeting with the generals had gone poorly. Gwyn had spent so long training Seelie military with Seelie techniques, that even after weeks of reading through scrolls on Unseelie strategy, reading the diaries of the best Unseelie War Generals – some of whom, like the highly esteemed Ifir, he was in the company of now – he went and blundered almost immediately.

He’d mistakenly brought up the importance of rebuilding the Unseelie Kingdom in order to restore its reputation and its honour.

Ifir, from the fae side of Iran, had tilted his horned head, scratched at bearded, brown skin, then spat out a derisive laugh.

‘Do we look Seelie to you? Is this what we’re dealing with now? You want us to care about the honour of the Unseelie Kingdom?’

Ifir had stepped in front of the rest of the generals and proceeded to humiliate Gwyn by appealing to the others:

‘My friends, do any of us give two shits about the honour of the Unseelie Kingdom?’

Some had laughed. Vane had shrugged, the only one who seemed to care, but his reasons for caring were Unseelie:

‘If the Unseelie Kingdom had more honour, it would have greater trust, more investors, and the fie ellyllon would have access to greater resources, which means more wealth for me.’

Vane was a prince as well as a general and primary economist for his people. Like all the fie ellyllon, he wore his wealth visibly. Enchanted, jewelled neck-chains, bracelets, torcs, even circlets. He chimed as he walked; even his long, pointed ears held crystals cut to release the sound of bells. Slender and tall, he was competent with the recurve bow and a nasty length of wire, but it was his speed, his ability to blur in and out of sight, combined with his knowledge of magic that made him an effective leader of troops in battle.

He, like the fox fae Mu, were famous for infiltrating enemy lines and sabotaging food stores, poisoning water, introducing flux and other diseases long before battles had formally begun.

Gwyn managed to gain some control back after Ifir drew attention to Gwyn’s flawed wording; but the damage had been done. Now, in their twice-weekly meetings, he could sense the majority distrusted him. Yet they were all he had available. The Unseelie Court military didn’t exist and he had to start from scratch, trying to see what he could build with the limited resources he had.

Things were slowly improving. He had a long background of interacting successfully with people who knew how to kill others professionally. They appreciated a straightforwardness when speaking even if they were plotting all the while. Dealing with the machinations and politics of military leaders – convoluted though it could be – was still far easier than the Court posturing more common amongst Courtiers.

It was a cool morning. He’d shown them the outer circle of the new Unseelie Court – they could see the new palace, but not enter it. They moved through night gardens and training fields, many of them impressed. They were all going to be invited as Noble Court, and they were aware they were seeing something no one else had seen yet. Offering them the privilege of early access went a long way to securing a better mood between them all.

They now sat in an unprotected field – Gwyn believed that if seventeen generals couldn’t protect themselves from an attack, they didn’t deserve to be generals – discussing different strategies, while the others practiced skills, talked amongst themselves. Vane was learning longbow, Euryale – one of the gorgon-nagas – watched him closely; the longbow her preferred weapon. But it was Zudanna who shouted the most criticism. She was a Croatian kudlak – a werewolf whose military had eluded Gwyn’s nous for over a thousand years.

‘The problem we have,’ Ifir said, voice rough, pointing to several squares representing the most recent Seelie acquisition of Unseelie lands, ‘is that this is a major food corridor for us. They have the numbers. We’ve gone up against big numbers before and succeeded, but if we don’t succeed this time we run the risk of losing too many while they keep taking over the rest of this corridor. I know you want to secure the Courtlands first, but-’

‘No, there is wisdom in what you’re saying,’ Gwyn said, grimacing. ‘They’re using one of my strategies.’

‘Since you came up with it, you’re aware of its flaws then?’ Ifir said, glaring.

Ifir took Gwyn’s Seelie background and having served in the Seelie Court military as a personal slight. But his wisdom was vast. Even though Gwyn was wary of sabotage, he found himself listening to what Ifir said. After all, Ifir could have relied on his true-form – a huge, fire-generating demon – to win battles, but instead he chose intelligence and strategy over brute force.

‘Yes,’ Gwyn said. He took the stick from Ifir, extending the dirt map. ‘If you follow this corridor backwards, there are several passes here, and here, which the Seelie must negotiate in order to restock on fresh water and food. The plan was always to secure the stronghold and the passes – but you say they’re not secured yet? They’re only vulnerable to attack from three directions – West, East and aerial. The stronghold is susceptible to a full-scale attack. But the passes might be-’

‘With what numbers? Even if we occupied it they’d retaliate. And we could not sustain defense against a prolonged attack from the Seelie. Our numbers would be diminished. Eventually we’d have to cede the taken land after more deaths that we cannot afford,’ Ifir said.

Gwyn smiled grimly.

‘The deaths are necessary, but I was thinking of using the element of cooperation here; something the Unseelie are not particularly known for, which may give us an advantage. You want to take in your afrit and other fire demons, but this is a mountainous region. Appeal to the rock-speakers, offer them exchange, and look at other Unseelie in the region who are most directly impacted. You need a three tier barrier here,’ Gwyn said, pointing at the Eastern end of the pass. ‘You’d only need two tiers facing the stronghold. They won’t risk too many of the soldiers holding the land they’ve already taken for the passes.’

‘Because it would deplete their people with little way of getting more in. Except aerial of course. But they’re useless. No offence, Ocypete.’

Ocypete, a highly respected harpy, took the comment on board with a sharp-toothed snarl. She shifted her bat wings and stared at the dirt map, while tickling the hilt of her makhaira.

‘This is far inland,’ Ocypete said, pointing at the stronghold. ‘Uselessness of bird shifters aside, have you not considered the weather shifting abilities of the seabird shifters? Drown the food corridor with rain. Put mould in the granaries. Destroy the last few years of stock. It can always be grown again. Would you rather have land to rehabilitate? Or no land at all?’

‘Mm, and do you think the seabird shifters will work with the afrit? Fire and water, not a good mix,’ Ifir laughed, and Ocypete laughed back, the sound cutting.

‘That’s your problem, Ifir. You’re a traditionalist. You can’t rely on the same techniques you’ve been using for thousands of years. The Unseelie are too decimated. You’ll have to grow some bigger balls and change the way you’re looking at this.’

Gwyn nodded, kept quiet. He’d been subtly suggesting that for weeks, knowing it would rub off on some of the other fae who would take it up as their own idea. They were more likely to believe each other than him, so he seeded ideas and waited.

‘Does this mean that the Courtlands are no longer a priority?’ Mu said, kneeling by the map and smoothing their silk pants. They looked at Gwyn, fox ears twitching, then pointed a clawed finger at the stronghold itself. ‘You are telling me that you would rather destroy a food corridor to regain it, than the far easier task of defending the Courtlands?’

Gwyn shook his head.

‘I want to do both,’ Gwyn said, and Mu shrugged gracefully, their body reflecting the grace of a sword-master.

Can you do both? We have, after all, assessed just what trained military we have available for employ to the Unseelie Court. And there are those of us whose militaries are not suited to grand-scale work of this nature. You cannot send hu-hsien to do this work. Nor can you send Burralga, Hai-Hong or Baw. Our militaries are of a very precise nature.’

‘My militaries aren’t tasked yet,’ Zudanna called out, turning back and leaving Vane to his longbow practice. ‘But Mu, honestly, the Courtlands are better suited to specialist militaries.’

Baw nodded from where he’d been listening quietly. He was a wokulo from the fae side of Sikasso, Africa. He was three feet tall, but his crushingly strong glamour broadcast might and power. He held up a hand to get the attention of the others.

‘I can help defend the Courtlands. I know we’re usually fighting each other, but it’d be nice to get some Seelie blood on our hands and I know I’m not just speaking for myself here. Those fuckers have been picking us off one by one – army by army, military by military, and now we’re letting ourselves be talked around by one of them. You showed us a very pretty palace, Gwyn, but let’s face it, you’ve made a mockery of us over the years.’

‘No,’ Gwyn said, firmly. ‘It is Seelie advantage over the Unseelie. It is simple. Seelie come together for the sake of honour and duty. Unseelie struggle to do this. So Seelie have always had the advantage of powerful, cooperative broad-scale attack, and the Unseelie have always had their strength in smaller, specialist militaries.’

He’d stumbled halfway through what he was saying. He’d almost said ‘We have always had the advantage of cooperative broad-scale attack,’ and he wasn’t Seelie, he’d never been Seelie, and if the Unseelie ever, ever heard him slip up in that manner...

He broke out into a faint sweat, remembering that he had to monitor himself more closely, not fall into the trap of easy conversation.

‘Don’t lecture us on what we already know,’ Ifir reprimanded. ‘The fact remains – you took land for the sake of taking land because you could. Not because the Seelie needed it.’

‘And of course,’ Gwyn said, lips quirking, ‘Unseelie would never stoop to something so underhanded.’

Ifir said nothing. Zudanna smiled sharp canines at him.

‘If you don’t like it,’ Gwyn continued, ‘we’re working on a way to change it. I want a good battle as much as the rest of you. Complete with blood on my hands. I grow tired of plotting. I want this finalised today. I think, Ifir, you would do well to work with Ocypete, for all that aerial attacks have fallen out of fashion, they used to be very popular once, particularly with those who could work the weather. Albion is taking sea fae far inland; we’re going to have to get used to doing the same.’

‘Baw,’ Mu said, rising to their feet and extending a fox-furred hand. ‘Would you like to discuss how best to protect the Courtlands?’

‘I have some ideas,’ Baw said, taking Mu’s slender hand in a fierce grip that made them wince. They both walked a short distance from the main circle and struck up conversation. Gwyn resisted the urge to eavesdrop.

Gwyn smoothed his hand over the dirt map, destroying it.

‘Now that you’re disinherited, are you going by King Gwyn now?’ Ifir said boldly.

None of the others had brought it up, even though the news had spread quickly.

Gwyn shrugged a shoulder. ‘It seems likely.’

‘And the land? It’s not ours anymore, is it?’

Gwyn kept his face impassive, though he bristled at Ifir calling the An-Fnwy estate ‘ours.’

‘Not unless I contest the disinheritance,’ Gwyn said.

He looked up as Kerri, Luma and Magisakuna came over. They’d been nearby, discussing their own strategies. They sat in a semi-circle on a spare, low wooden bench. Gwyn noticed the way Magisakuna and Luma sat close to one another, but Kerri was off to the side. She wasn’t well liked. She was Gulvi’s right-hand assassin – a blind, cannibalistic Maori fae who was excellent at creating small, precision militaries from scratch, and a fantastic mercenary. But he’d learned quickly that even though the others respected Gulvi, they thought that assassins should keep separate to militaries, and some resented Gwyn inviting her into the circle at Gulvi’s recommendation.

Still, they were beginning to work together, which was something.

‘You should contest it,’ Luma said. Her brown, weathered skin crinkled as she smiled at him. It was a friendly, sympathetic expression. For someone who was angittay and often considered the female counterpart of Tigbalan, she was surprisingly empathetic. Then again, Tigbalan could be too. Or so Gwyn had been told; he’d never encountered that side of the horse fae himself.

‘I may,’ Gwyn said, though he had no intention of doing so. His feelings about it were complicated. He wanted his last name. He wondered how poorly Augus would react if he publically asserted that he had every right to the ‘ap Nudd’ surname. He grimaced.

‘That land, that estate is too well-located to dismiss,’ Luma pointed out.

Gwyn knew that very well. It was why he predicted a difficult fight on his hands if he contested the disinheritance.

Hai-Hong returned with Burralga and they both sat around the rough circle, laughing together. Gwyn held his silence and observed as they all talked amongst each other. Vane and Euryale returned, along with the two other kudlak werewolves and Dogwill, a common fae who was a surprisingly effective commander for someone so young. Vane offered Gwyn a quick, nervous smile, but that was nothing to the ingratiating one that Dogwill offered. He’d been trying to baldly get closer to him since they started their meetings. It put Gwyn on edge.

He didn’t need people to ingratiate themselves to him, he needed effective leaders.

An hour passed discussing the sea fae and their holdings. Gwyn knew admittedly little, and let Hai-Hong and Burralga – a brolga-footed dhinnabarrada from the fae side of Australia – lead the conversation. Conversations moved from discussions of underwater civil wars, to treaties that were beginning to come into effect.

‘The treaties assist them in uniting against a common enemy,’ Mu said, folding their hands together and waiting for Burralga to nod in agreement. ‘Albion is loathed.’

Albion had been very well-respected under the water by most of the saltwater fae, had even achieved unprecedented levels of Seelie and Unseelie cooperation. Both alignments lived side by side in his giant, underwater palace. But since becoming Seelie King, rumours were that many of the saltwater fae thought he had betrayed them by going aboveground to work with the land fae.

‘I’ll send some messengers to check the state of the treaties, see whether there’s anything there we can use. Thank you for the information, Burralga.’

‘Yeah,’ Burralga said. ‘Maybe the treaties aren’t the real thing, but if they are you have a massive amount of allies to pull from. Maybe even some Seelie.’

‘It’s not as polarised in the sea,’ Hai-Hong agreed.

‘It didn’t used to be as polarised up here, either,’ Mu said, raising eyebrows. ‘The Seelie kitsune and Unseelie kitsune used to live together.’

‘The ambaros and the marid-djinn and afshin afrit still do,’ Ifir said quietly. ‘My wife is ambaros and my children are ambaros and afrit between us. We all have a family clan on the volcano of Oroboros.’

‘There are exceptions everywhere,’ Baw said, scratching at tightly curled hair, leaning forwards. ‘Still doesn’t stop the fact that the majority of them are killing us off like vermin. Being Unseelie used to mean something more than hiding like rats in the rafters.’

Gwyn opened his mouth, ready to head them away from reminiscing about better times, better Courts. It wouldn’t benefit anyone.

Zudanna’s nostrils flared, her wolf ears pricked. Gwyn scented it a moment later – he didn’t have the heightened senses of a kudlak, but his senses were sharper than most due to his status as King and his training.

He could smell the watery greenness of a freshwater fae. An interloper?

He turned as Augus appeared through the trees, walking towards them, smartly dressed and his hair tied back neatly. Gwyn hadn’t seen Augus wear his hair like that for some time. It suited him.

‘Excuse me,’ Gwyn said, standing.

‘If he’s been eavesdropping on us...’ Ifir said, threat in his voice. Gwyn raised his eyebrows at him even as he walked towards Augus.

‘He’s my Advisor, Ifir.’

Ifir and several of the others stood, though only Ifir followed – and even then, at a distance that was safe enough that Gwyn decided to ignore it.

‘What are you doing here, Augus?’ Gwyn said. Augus surveyed the scene with a faux curiosity.

‘Perhaps I just wanted to see what it is you do with your days.’

Gwyn inhaled deeply, frowned. His scent wasn’t quite right. Freshwater, yes, but something too...something sour? He couldn’t pick it.

‘Are you well?’

‘Paranoid as always?’ Augus offered the tiniest quirk of his lips, and Gwyn saw something of affection in the gesture. It made his chest ache. He realised it had been a long time since he’d seen an expression like that on Augus’ face. Lately, every smile that Augus offered was one of cruelty, bitterness or mocking. ‘But I was hoping you might come with me, for only ten minutes, if the generals can spare you. I have something urgent to speak to you about.’

‘It can wait, Augus,’ Gwyn said.

Words he was coming to hate every time he spoke them.

‘I assure you, it cannot,’ Augus said.

Gwyn nodded, turned to offer apologies to the other generals when Ifir drew level with him. Gwyn glared at him.

‘Ifir,’ he said, voice cold.

Ifir stared at Augus, eyes narrowed. Augus flicked his gaze over and gave a disdainful stare in return.

‘Ifir, you’re pushing your luck,’ Gwyn said. Ifir shook his head, didn’t look away from Augus. His nostrils flared once, twice.

‘Everyone knows you don’t believe in luck, Gwyn,’ he said.

‘You let them call you by so familiar a name? Not your titles?’ Augus said, sounding surprised, and Gwyn felt a drift of unease move through him.

Augus knew that. Gwyn had told him he was allowing the generals to call him by his first name instead of-

A blur of movement. A spray of blood as Ifir took his dagger to Augus’ throat and slashed it open, skin peeling apart. Ifir rounded up the action with a crushing blow from his golden, fluted mace. Augus flew fifteen feet backwards, landing with a hard thud. Cries from some of the others, enough to mask the cry ripped from Gwyn’s throat before he was aware of making any sound at all.

Augus, staring at him, gouts of blood pulsing from his throat.

Gwyn’s light crackled along his forearm, tore his skin in lightning-like furrows. Ifir snarled at him, fire appearing in his eyes, flames licking along his own forearms as his own power activated in defence.

‘Your Majesty, that is a shapeshifter.’

Ifir ran towards Augus’ body, Gwyn following. He couldn’t think. He could hardly keep his light down. It leaped in flashes along his spine. Ifir watched him warily, anger in his eyes. He kept his hands red with heat, ready to retaliate. But Gwyn only stared down at Augus.

Ifir took a dagger from his belt and cut Augus’ torso open, and Augus twitched, still alive – though not conscious – and Gwyn stared, a hollow emptiness opening inside of him and roaring like a waterfall.

‘Wait,’ Gwyn said, his voice hoarse.

‘I can prove it,’ Ifir said. ‘There’s only one way to prove it. When they commit to a new form, they can’t...change back until the job is done. Or until I- Damn it, where is it!’

A plan...Augus said there was a plan.

Augus, lying there on the floor, covered in blood, streaks of it across his face, his clothing. Seeping into fabric; blooms of red-black against green.

Gwyn squinted. Augus wasn’t wearing as much water-wicking clothing as usual.

The tear and squelch of Ifir ripping apart Augus’ skin and digging a hand into viscera. Ifir’s flesh was so hot that smoke steamed. The smell of burning flesh moved sweet-savoury into the air. He clenched his fists, reminded himself to keep it together.

‘Ifir,’ Gwyn said again, his voice grinding out of his throat. ‘If you have killed my Advisor...’

‘I am a dead man walking,’ Ifir said, his voice faintly breathless. ‘I know. I’m not an idiot.’

He made a sound of triumph in the back of his throat and tore something free. A bright yellow organ, dripping blood. Gwyn’s thoughts cleared as he realised what he was seeing.

An orbus, the loci of the shapeshifter’s ability to change appearance at a fundamental level. And now that it was gone, the body – now dead – shifted back to its original form. A bland looking, slender fae wearing Augus’ clothing, wearing his rapier.

‘Have you seen Augus today?’ Ifir said, something flickering in his gaze. ‘This is very accurate physical mimicry. Even I know that rapier is one of a kind.’

‘I will check on him and chase this matter up,’ Gwyn said, and Ifir dropped the organ, flicking charred blood off his fingers.

‘You should’ve been on this,’ Ifir said. ‘Not me. You think I like the fact that it looks like I’ve attempted a murder on your Advisor? You’re so lovesick over the waterhorse that ruined us, you don’t know how to defend yourself anymore. And if you can’t do that, what use are you?’

‘You overstep your bounds, Ifir,’ Vane said. Gwyn stared at him in surprise. But he couldn’t focus. His mind raced, thoughts tumbling over one another, only one clear thought left to him.

He had to see Augus.

A whole, living Augus – no throat or torso ripped open, no viscera displaying wetly in brilliant daylight. He refused to allow his body to shake, but the pressing nausea rising in the back of his throat wouldn’t release its grip.

‘Everyone knows the true shapeshifters are difficult to spot,’ Vane continued. ‘None of us read his scent as alien.’

‘I did,’ Ifir spat.

‘I did. Though I wasn’t sure,’ Zudanna added, frowning. ‘I think I would have preferred to capture him for questioning, Ifir.’

Crielle’s last plan, Gwyn looked down at the body that had been Augus’ body. He shuddered. Hats off to you, mother.

Augus had said there would be more than one.

‘I need to call a meeting with my Inner Court,’ Gwyn said, his voice crisp. A lifetime of hiding how he truly felt coming to rescue him at a time when he was struggling to keep his light under control. A large part of him wanted to take Ifir’s face between his hands and blast what he held with light until nothing remained.

Ifir watched him like he knew what Gwyn was thinking. Eventually he spat to the side in disgust, resettling his mace at his side and cleaning his small blade on a handkerchief.

‘Do you know how many have been contracted?’

‘Augus does,’ Gwyn said, staring at the shapeshifter. He couldn’t get the image of Augus flying backwards through the air, staring at him in betrayal, in horror. He’d seen it before, after all – the times Gwyn had attacked him, hunted him, forced him to accept a Soulbond.

By the gods...

He took a deep breath and gave orders. Plans to be drawn up. Messengers to be sent. It didn’t take longer than ten minutes and he hoped what he was asking them to do made sense. No one argued with him.

‘We’ll meet at our usual time in three days.’

Gwyn walked back towards the palace, the rest began to teleport away.

He was surprised when Vane ran alongside him. A jingling mess of jewellery.

‘You have to do something about Ifir,’ Vane said, and Gwyn grimaced.

‘I appreciate your advice, Vane, but-’

‘He undermines you. He works behind your back.’

‘Many of them do,’ Gwyn said. ‘I haven’t yet proved myself by their standards. I cannot expect them to be anything other than they are.’

‘You have proved yourself,’ Vane laughed drily. ‘You’ve defeated some of their militaries. You’ve killed enough of us. I still think- Look I know it’s not my place, but I still think you might be coming off a little Seelie.’

Gwyn stared at him, and Vane nodded, didn’t look abashed at all.

‘I think we’re lucky to have you,’ Vane said. ‘You’re skilled. We’re working more cooperatively now than we did during the Raven Prince’s reign. We need that. You know what you’re doing. I just caution you-’

‘Vane,’ Gwyn said, stopping and facing him. ‘I appreciate your advice, truly. But I need to chase up the matter of the shapeshifters. I will see you in three days.’

Vane sighed, nodded, in that moment reminding Gwyn of a disappointed teenager or child, and not the general he was at all. But then he flashed Gwyn a quick smile and ran back to where he’d left his longbow, curled red hair catching the sunlight, making him – with his pointed ears – seem the kind of fae that humans would tell stories about.

Gwyn’s forearms ached, still oozing blood where his light had split along them. There was blood on his clothing, his face. Augus’ blood.

A shapeshifter’s blood.

His heart pounded fiercely as he teleported into the palace.

He had to find Augus.

*

Gwyn walked down the arched corridor towards the rooms where Augus did his common work – receiving underfae, hearing their concerns and trying to meet their needs. His hands shook.

It was a shapeshifter. It didn’t smell like him. Things weren’t right – it wasn’t Augus. You know that.

His hands clenched into fists and some of the scores along arms opened. Fresh blood welled in fissures in his forearms.

He stood before the wooden door leading to Augus’ workspace. All Courts had a section reserved for underfae that were seeking asylum, assistance and status raises. Augus spent a surprising amount of time within; but then the Unseelie Court had a higher than average number of underfae who required help since his reign.

He raised a shaking hand to the door, bracing himself. It left a mottled, bloodied handprint when he took it away again.

His heart wouldn’t stop pounding.

Stop being ridiculous. Stop. It was a shapeshifter. Augus is behind that door. You shouldn’t even need to be doing this. You could have just called a meeting. You need to reprimand Ifir for his conduct. Vane is right, for all that you can’t be seen to be playing favourites, he is right.

But his mind kept showing him a different reality. One where he opened the door and Augus hadn’t turned up to work. One where he searched through all the rooms, the entire palace, until he’d have to acknowledge that Augus was lying dead outdoors. A still-warm, bloodied body killed by Ifir.

His thoughts jumbled together. In flashes he saw what it might be like to try and manage the Unseelie Court without Augus, trying to deal with Albion and the hidden menaces of his family and everything else. He was panicking, trying to mask that panic.

The door swung inward and Augus stood before him, perturbed. He looked quickly down at his forearms.

‘I thought I smelled your blood. You’ve used your light?’ Augus said. He smirked. ‘Did the generals require a demonstration?’

Gwyn stared at him. The shapeshifter had looked exactly like him and the rapier that he was wearing had been a precise replica and it was too close for comfort, he couldn’t stop seeing Augus flying backwards through the air, throat cut open, viscera torn apart, an organ ripped out of him, the wet, sticky sound it made.

‘Gwyn?’ Augus said carefully, expression shifting, a furrow appearing between his eyebrows.

Gwyn nodded. Forced himself to do something. He was just standing there.

‘I’m terribly sorry for interrupting you.’

‘You’re the King. You’re rarely sorry for interrupting me,’ Augus said, squinting at him, lips turning downwards. ‘Damn it, Gwyn, what happened? Give me a minute and I can- Just let me tell this fae that you’ve requested my audience and you’ll have my time.’

Augus turned to leave, and Gwyn realised how ridiculous this must look.

‘No, no, it’s fine,’ Gwyn said, clearing his throat. ‘You’re seeing someone, and I have...I have nothing urgent.’

Augus was alive. Everything was all right.

Augus turned back and Gwyn gazed at him, noticing things he rarely had to notice. The way his pulse could be seen beating slowly at his neck. The rise and fall of his chest. The brightness of his eyes.

‘Gwyn, what’s wrong?’ Augus said, his voice gentling.

But the gentleness disarmed him, left him off kilter. If Augus was alive and everything was all right, then he was in the same situation as before. Augus had buried his hands in Crielle’s body, had destroyed the remaining people from his childhood. After Mafydd, Lludd, Efnisien-

He didn’t understand why it mattered so much.

‘I’m glad you’re okay,’ Gwyn said, dumbly.

‘What are you talking about?’ A hand on his chest. Augus’ eyebrows shot up. Gwyn stepped backwards and Augus followed, pressing his hand forward, curling his fingers into his sternum. ‘Gwyn, if you don’t start talking to me, I will make you start talking to me.’

‘You have a client,’ Gwyn said, and Augus bared his teeth briefly.

‘I’ve been letting you slip from my grasp,’ Augus whispered. ‘Too far, it seems. I will reel you back, Gwyn. With force, if I have to.’

Gwyn wanted to sway forwards into Augus’ touch. He wanted to say, ‘Please.’ He said nothing, but there must have been something in his eyes because Augus tilted his head, a frown marring his face.

‘All right,’ Augus said, rubbing at Gwyn’s chest before digging claws in through the fabric. ‘If you’ve lost your way, I can help you find it again.’

Gwyn looked away. The pinpricks of pain were an anchor, and if it wasn’t for the panic racing through him, if it wasn’t for his fear that Augus would find him out, discover his secret thoughts of loss and hopelessness...he would take Augus back to his rooms, their room, any room.

‘I have to go,’ Gwyn said, voice thin.

‘If I told you that I was initiating aftercare, now, for whatever you’ve just experienced, you couldn’t leave without breaking a blood oath.’

Gwyn stared at him, saw flintiness in Augus’ eyes.

‘Just something for you to keep in mind,’ Augus said.

‘Don’t,’ Gwyn said. ‘There’s been no- There’s no cause for it. I overreacted to something. I just wanted to see- I needed you to be-’

-Okay.

Gwyn laughed. The sound bitter, soft. He was supposed to be the one who had Augus under his control, the one who held Augus’ leash and made him cowed enough to be safe in a Court environment again. If anyone outside of his Inner Court truly knew the situation he’d be a laughing stock.

‘I shall see you at the next meeting,’ Gwyn forced himself to say.

He stepped back, teleported away, avoiding Augus’ concerned, disapproving gaze as he left.

*

‘Ifir’s a problem,’ Gulvi said, after Gwyn had informed her of what had occurred. ‘But oui, I can think of several I trust to send out to investigate the true shapeshifters. Though it will be difficult. Closed communities like theirs are difficult to locate. I shall see what I can do! But oh, they are bold; sending an Each Uisge to the borders of the palace.’

‘Their scents aren’t entirely right. Or at least Augus’ wasn’t. Also, Lludd is dead. Mafydd. Crielle. I’m not sure how effective the rest of the shapeshifters will be, knowing-’

‘Gwyn,’ Gulvi said, her voice hardening, ‘he was trying to draw you away from the main crowd. You said so yourself. And if Ifir hadn’t intervened, you would have gone with him. They aren’t sending these shapeshifters to accost you one by one. This isn’t some ‘ghosts of Christmas past’ situation.’

‘What?’ Gwyn said, confused.

‘La! Never mind. Ash and his fixation on children’s movies. Darling, what I’m trying to say is that the plan seems self-evident, don’t you think?’

Gwyn pursed his lips and turned it over in his mind. He raised a hand to rub his forehead when he realised what she meant.

‘Lure me away and capture me.’

‘Slip you hallucinogens, poisons, beat you until you’re half-conscious and then trot out all those memories. Yes? You see?’

Gwyn sighed. ‘It would have been effective.’

‘It still might,’ Gulvi said. ‘Just because you know it is coming, doesn’t mean it won’t work when you’re insensate. After all, a psychological mind-fuck can be less effective than planned, and still destroy who you are. Mm, I used to enjoy them – the mind games you could play on people. I find they bore me now. Perhaps I just like stabbing people more.’

‘I know you do,’ Gwyn said, lips quirking up.

He sat down on the edge of the wooden table, exhaled slowly.

‘I’ll get my people on this,’ Gulvi said. ‘In the meantime you must be vigilant, trust your nose. Ifir’s quick thinking could be the difference between you being here now, and you beaten and staring at what you think is your father from a very disadvantageous position.’

‘Ifir was aware,’ Gwyn said, ‘that he’d done something that – if a miscalculation – was grounds for his execution. I smelled his fear, the others would have as well. He was certain of his action and it was only afterwards that he considered he may have been wrong. Likely from my reaction. Unfortunately, it makes him seem the more competent.’

Gwyn shook his head, stared at slate flooring. ‘He is, Gulvi. At this moment, he is the more competent.’

‘Self-pity? Gwyn! You are different since your demotion, my sweet. You do know that, don’t you? But no, Gwyn, he is not. He is very competent, yes, but he is not prone to innovation and he is unimaginative as a general. Darling, right now you are exhausted and running on fumes. He is not! The shapeshifter should have been retained for questioning.’

Gwyn rolled his shoulder and caught a sound in his throat. It was a dirty kind of pain, a sickening fire. He could almost smell the burn of it. Nausea flipped in his stomach. He knew he was different since his demotion. Fear found him now in ways it never used to; it found new cracks in his psyche and trickled through everywhere, a brackish water.

‘Can you get someone on him?’ Gwyn said.

‘Not easily,’ Gulvi said. ‘You think he’s in on it?’

‘I think it might be wise to be sure.’

‘It may be easier to get someone on his Lieutenants,’ Gulvi said, scratching idly at the tattoos wrapped around her upper arms – the marks given to her by the Council of Lammergeiers who trained her. ‘I’ll see what I can do, ma douceur.’

An hour later he left, talk of military strategies and possible upcoming plots and other issues moving through his head. It had been easier back in the Seelie Court, when he’d had a fully populated military to answer any threat, working against an alignment that famously fractured in large scale war.

He felt the paradox of being fae and King acutely. Supposedly he would live forever. He constantly felt as though he might not survive the week.

Hanging over him was the recent memory of being underfae. At death’s door, saved only by a god who deigned to visit him.

He’d discovered he didn’t have the skills to survive as he’d once arrogantly assumed.

Gwyn walked to the training rooms. His shoulder shrieked a protest, he was hungry and nauseous, he didn’t care. Control spun away from him. He needed to know that he could control something, even if it was forcing his body to remember what he was made for.

*

The trow woke him from the first doze he’d entered in days. He was groggy, his body trying to enter a sleep cycle. Fae could sleep or doze – the former lasted consecutive days in Gwyn’s case and came with nightmares. But it was the only thing that properly recharged him. Dozing only forced him to borrow time against himself. The confusion he felt as he stared at the trow signing to him took some time to clear.

They need you downstairs, the trow signed again, slower than before. The three foot, gnome-like creature of grey, wrinkled skin and dark, beady eyes, watched him with that impartial stare that showed an almost perpetual lack of interest in Court affairs. All the trows had a similar attitude. It made them unlikely to gossip, while remaining attentive housekeep.

They? Gwyn signed back, pulling on a shirt and pants, gritting his teeth through the pain in his shoulder and not bothering with shoes.

The waterhorse and the swan.

Gwyn walked into the bathroom and ran the tap, splashing ice cold water over his face, blinking himself to alertness. His hair was kinked up one side and he raked his fingers through it roughly. He walked back to the trow and knelt down.

Where?

The common work rooms.

Gwyn felt unease creep down his spine; something he was becoming more and more used to. What was Augus doing working so late? Why was Gulvi there?

I’ll teleport down. Thank you for alerting me.

The trow bowed briefly, trotted away on small spindly legs.

Gwyn teleported directly into the common work rooms. The first was empty, but Gwyn could sense them nearby and walked quickly through halls into the room where Augus commonly received underfae.

There, he found Augus leaning against a wall and Gulvi sitting on a table, wings tucked to one side.

A third fae – a mouse-maiden – stood formally, hands folded together before her. She looked to be middle-aged, a round brown face that was composed but stern. Her straight, black hair was pulled back in a knot behind her head, hair resting behind small mouse ears. Her white sari was high quality, though it was not clean and bore signs of distress. Into an extra band of gilt fabric around her waist, a sorcerer’s staff was hooked. He squinted at her. He recognised her.

‘King Gwyn ap Nudd,’ the woman said, and Augus’ lips twitched behind her. Not everyone knew about the disinheritance then. ‘I’ve come to beg you for asylum.’

‘You’re...Fluri’s granddaughter,’ Gwyn said, holding out a hand immediately. He was in the presence of important company, and it was a shock to see her here. As underfae. She came from one of the long-standing Noble Court families of the Unseelie.

‘You met my grandmother?’ the woman said, her expression softening. ‘She mentioned it, I think. But I did not know you would remember. I am Fenwrel, granddaughter of Fluri. I am a sorcerer and master Mage.’

‘Following in your grandmother’s footsteps,’ Gwyn smiled. Gulvi’s wings flared nearby and Gwyn forced himself to focus. It had been unexpectedly pleasant to see a familiar face. He remembered Fluri fondly. ‘Why are you begging for asylum?’

‘My life is in danger.’

‘May I ask why? Your family is esteemed. You also. I’m not aware of much civil unrest in Kerala.’

‘There is little, Your Majesty,’ Fenwrel said, smiling wryly. ‘Only that my grandmother publically advocated for the Each Uisge, and I do also. Before his defeat, my family home was destroyed and I was forced to flee. Since becoming underfae I have not been able to teleport, and sorcerers are not well-liked. I could not find someone to teleport me here. It has taken me this long to make my pilgrimage. Please, Your Majesty, grant me asylum.’

‘Yes, of course,’ Gwyn said, frowning. ‘Why did you advocate for the Each Uisge? Why did Fluri?’

He remembered hearing something about it some time ago – that Fluri had spoken out in support of Augus, during the worst of his atrocities. She’d been murdered shortly afterwards; it had been a great loss amongst the Mages and the Unseelie.

‘My grandmother and I share a common interest – that of magic and the energy flow in people’s bodies. Meridian magic. We talked about his meridians when I asked her to account for her support of him. She explained that his meridians were – to put it bluntly – blocked like a sump from the beginning.’

Augus’ brow furrowed and he stepped away from the wall.

‘She never said that to me.’

‘Well, Each Uisge,’ Fenwrel said, without turning around, ‘my grandmother also said that you take offense at every little thing.’

Augus’ eyes narrowed.

‘Listen, mouse, you-’

Fenwrel spun, staff out and in her right hand with a surprising amount of speed. Gulvi already had one of her knives out, but Gwyn didn’t scent fear in the air from either Augus or Fenwrel, and suspected this was more of the Unseelie posturing that he’d grown somewhat used to.

‘Yes! That’s what I am! And there’s a lot of us! We could take you down. So don’t you mouse me. You need allies, Each Uisge. Don’t lose the ones you have.’

Augus faked a yawn, stepped back to the wall, the closest he would come to accepting what she’d said. Fenwrel smiled, turned, looked up at Gwyn once more. She was significantly shorter than all of them, but she held herself with quiet power. She looked like she had the same fortitude as her grandmother.

‘I am here to beg a boon of you, Majesty,’ Fenwrel said. ‘During the reign of the Each Uisge, my family had their Court status ripped from them. My grandmother, her surviving children and my...my sons and daughters too. We are all underfae now, and some of us have been killed already. The family of sorcerers are valuable for ransom, as you know.’

She directed a quick, dark look to Gulvi. But Gulvi shrugged and sheathed her knife.

‘I haven’t killed your family,’ Gulvi said, and Fenwrel smiled stiffly.

‘But your kind have.’

‘Swans?’ Gulvi said sweetly.

‘Swans? Try assassins.’

Fenwrel tucked her staff away once more and clasped her hands together.

‘Your Majesty, I ask for entry into the outer circles of the palace or warded land. There have been many attempts upon my life on the way. I ask you to consider the long-standing tradition my family has of serving the Unseelie Court, employed since before the reign of the Raven Prince. My grandmother served loyally on the Raven Prince’s Inner Court and was a trusted advisor and Mage. Let me prove myself to you in exchange for the status raise of myself and my children, and – should you deem it wise, and I think you should – see to the restoration of the recognition of my family as Noble Court status.’

‘Gulvi, Augus,’ Gwyn said, ‘can you give me a moment alone with Fenwrel, please?’

Augus’s eyes flickered towards Gwyn as he left. But there was nothing significant in the look. Gwyn suspected Augus didn’t yet know about the shapeshifter. If Gulvi hadn’t told him, he wasn’t likely to have found out otherwise. Not many of the fae gossiped or shared knowledge with him and he was cut off from many streams of information. Augus looked how Gwyn felt – tired.

Gulvi teleported away and Fenwrel’s shoulders relaxed. She moved around the table and sat where Augus normally sat. She rested her round arms on the wood, her ears drooped. Gwyn realised she was exhausted.

‘You have travelled a long way, not to be served any refreshments,’ Gwyn said, moving out of the room briefly and ringing a bell.

The trows appeared within less than a minute, and he requested drinks and food, a room to be prepared. They disappeared and Fenwrel watched them go, a quiet calculation in her black eyes.

‘I’m sorry to hear of the passing of your grandmother.’

‘It is my children I worry for now,’ Fenwrel said. ‘Fae die, but my children are still young. And none of us are reacting to underfae status well. We’ve had time to adjust, but not enough time. My youngest perished from contagious illness. I was arrogant enough to assume we’d all handle it perfectly well, but it is not so easy when you have lived at Court status for thousands of years.’

‘It isn’t,’ Gwyn agreed.

The trows reappeared with tea and fresh fruit juice, along with freshly baked pastries and sandwiches made from a rich, crusty seed bread. Fenwrel took a sandwich as soon as the plate touched the table, and started taking moderate mouthfuls. The rapidness with which she chewed and swallowed betrayed her hunger.

‘Fenwrel, granddaughter of Fluri, I – Gwyn – with the authority of the Unseelie Kingdom behind me, do remove your status of underfae and raise you up to Court. Where, I might add, you rightfully belong.’

Fenwrel smiled with gratitude as power swelled in the room. She closed her eyes blissfully as her power and health increased. Gwyn found his own abrupt movement from underfae to Inner Court status a painful affair, but she was a Mage and knew how to handle power. Seconds later she continued eating and didn’t stop to speak for a long time.

‘What are your skills in the School of the Staff?’ Gwyn said and Fenwrel continued to eat until she’d finished one of the salad rolls before moving onto the next.

‘Like my grandmother before me, I am a master Mage at meridian manipulation – which includes pressure point combat and healing, along with the blocking and release of powers and abilities by manipulating those pressure points. I am a well-versed illusionist and experienced in charms and counter-charms and spells of increase and decrease. I can work the magelight. That is all. I’m afraid I never trained with the elements, preferring to focus on meridians.’

‘You must know we do not currently have a Mage in our employ,’ Gwyn said.

‘We’re not idiots, any of us, are we?’ Fenwrel said, picking up a glass of strawberry juice with delicate fingers and gulping at the thick liquid. On the flagstones around them an olive green, orange, red and white energy swirled and pooled around them, finding its way into Fenwrel’s body. The room glowed. ‘I do not know if I am what you need in your employ. I am not a combat Mage by trade. But I can certainly earn my place here. I have noticed many empty wall sconces with no magelight. I will provide it freely in exchange for the status raise.’

‘Generous of you,’ Gwyn said. ‘And your children? You will bring them here?’

‘It will be difficult,’ Fenwrel admitted. ‘Zrimat lives a very habituated life in the human world, and he will not want to come back. But he may for the status. Yukti is a trickster. She disappeared when the hostilities fell upon us. I may have to scry her out, and that is not one of my strengths. I do not have that many strengths. But what I do have, I do well.’

She pushed the generous plate of pastries towards him and Gwyn accepted one. He wasn’t hungry – vague nausea had become part of his days and he knew he wasn’t eating enough – but there were old laws of etiquette amongst the fae and sharing food was one of them.

‘Your mother,’ Fenwrel said, wiping crumbs absently off the table. ‘I have been thinking about this. Of her death.’

‘News of it reached you?’

‘Woodland creatures are gossips,’ Fenwrel smiled. ‘I wonder what Fluri might have said about your family? She was always an astute, perceptive woman. She saw something in the Each Uisge that I’m still not sure I do, but I have faith in her judgement. And I think she may have seen something more than the rumours that fly with you. You do not have my trust, Gwyn ap Nudd, but you have my willingness to try.’

‘Thank you,’ Gwyn said, licking sugar off his fingers. ‘You should know I’m not ‘Gwyn ap Nudd’ anymore. And I’m happy to install you in a room in the Outer Court provided it meets with your approval. Until the Court has been properly presented, I cannot show you anymore than that unescorted, I am afraid. Though you are welcome to make use of the night gardens.’

‘Oh, you brought them back,’ Fenwrel said warmly. ‘As to your name? You are what you are. I could disinherit my children but they will still be ‘Zrimat, son of Fenwrel; Uday, son of Fenwrel,’ and so on.’

Her ears twitched, she reached for a damask napkin and dabbed at the corners of her mouth – perfect Court manners, despite how long she’d spent in the status of underfae. Gwyn felt chastised. He’d not spent nearly so long at such a low status and he’d handled it with no grace at all. Was it just him? Did he lack something? Some ability to survive?

Fenwrel reached into a pouch at her side and drew out a single gemstone. It was roughly cut, a crude, weakly blue thing. He took it, unsure what it was. He felt magic moving through his fingers immediately, almost fumbled it; but the magic didn’t feel hostile and he looked at her curiously.

‘You feel that?’ Fenwrel said with interest. ‘You have the capacity to feel passive magic?’

'Some,’ Gwyn admitted reluctantly. ‘Untrained. I can make simple charms. Nothing important.’

‘Nothing important? That is not for you to decide, is it? This is a charm of increase. Place it in your treasury and your wealth will increase. Slowly at first, but with speed afterwards. If you do not believe me, you are welcome not to use it, but I recommend you do.’

Gwyn turned the gem in his fingers. ‘This is a great gift.’

‘It is,’ Fenwrel said. ‘But then you are going to restore my family to Noble Court status, and at your Triumphal Entry I would owe you a great gift. This is it. Take it, Gwyn ap Nudd. The power of the Mages are behind you – or, perhaps, the power of this Mage.’

Gwyn’s fingers closed around the gem and he nodded to Fenwrel. He didn’t know if he could trust her, but she came from a highly regarded background and her family had been well-respected by both Seelie and Unseelie fae alike.

‘Now,’ Fenwrel said, standing, taking two more rolls up in her hand and drinking down another glass of strawberry juice. ‘I need to sleep for several days. I wish to see this guest room, and am grateful for the hospitality of the Unseelie Court. I honestly wasn’t sure what sort of welcome I would receive.’

‘There are those of us who still care for the old ways,’ Gwyn said, and Fenwrel placed a hand on Gwyn’s forearm, looked up at him.

‘There are,’ she echoed, as he teleported them away.

*

Despite Gulvi’s warning that he take someone with him for his own safety, he went ranging out on his own into unprotected lands. He took a crossbow, since using a longbow was out of the question, and he wasn’t confident enough with the recurve bow. He was managing many on-target shots in the training arena, but that didn’t guarantee a clean kill while hunting.

It was a warm summer’s morning. He could see faint signs that the wheel of the year turned towards autumn, and he looked forward to the cooler months. But for now the air hung heavy around him, bringing with it scents of deer and a large ocelli lynx. He could smell the spoor of many animals, the richness of pine and cedar. Canopies exhaled the green scent of oxygen and chlorophyll and he found himself feeling more grounded as he moved quietly in one of the forests near the Unseelie Court.

After two hours of not finding any satisfactory sights on the deer he was loosely tracking – he didn’t really need to bring one back – guilt began to needle at him. He was taking too much time away from his responsibilities and he would need to head back to the Court.

He stopped, braced himself on the scaly bark of a pine. He let his thoughts drift, breathing in the forest air, thinking he might need to see the King of the Forest soon and apologise for shirking his duties as leader of the Wild Hunt.

A twigged snapped loudly in the distance. It might have been nothing, but his senses flooded towards the sound, alert.

He stilled, then crept towards it, his own footfalls silent.

He was near one of the more important roads through the forest when he saw a glimpse of a fae through the bush he was using as a screen. He had the crossbow up, stared down, frowned when he realised who it was.

Mikkel was walking on the forest road, eating an apple, looking as jaunty as he had the last time Gwyn had seen him.

It looked like he was heading towards the Unseelie Court.

Gwyn hesitated for only a few seconds, then ranged ahead silently and found a rise of land. He climbed it carefully, needing his good arm to hold the crossbow. But even going slow, he had plenty of time given how Mikkel was ambling along. Gwyn stood upon a granite rock, the crossbow loaded and the bolt facing Mikkel as he walked unknowingly towards him. Gwyn’s mouth twisted in a sneer. Mikkel hadn’t even realised he’d been spotted.

Gwyn cast his senses out, couldn’t sense any other fae nearby aside from the usual occupants of the forest.

He weighed his options, decided to simply wait and see if Mikkel would even notice him. What did he want? Was Albion sending him to gather more information?

Gwyn didn’t trust him, his finger strayed near the trigger. A single crossbow bolt wouldn’t kill a Court fae easily, but it could do some damage.

A stray wash of something sickening swooped through him.

You’ve held a weapon pointed at a Reader before. You’ve-

Gwyn clamped down on that part of himself so mercilessly that he felt dizzy.

It was only at the last moment that Mikkel looked up and stumbled, eyes widening comically. Gwyn’s eyebrows rose. Mikkel dropped what remained of his apple. The scent of acrid fear rose in the air around him.

‘What do you want, Mikkel?’

‘Holy fucking shit,’ Mikkel gasped. ‘I should’ve been able to Read you were there. What the hell?’

Mikkel’s eyes narrowed, he tilted his head, his gaze went far away. Gwyn thought he was still too bold for a fae facing a King holding a crossbow pointed right at him. But that was also a quirk of Readers. They were cavalier, reckless.

‘There you are,’ Mikkel said, eyes refocusing, shaking his head. ‘Huh. That’s...interesting. Some fae can’t do that, you know. How do you mask yourself like that?’

‘I will ask you one more time what you’re doing on Unseelie land, Mikkel. Don’t test me. I’m not afraid to send you back to the Seelie Court with a bolt in your leg.’

‘Seriously,’ Mikkel said, running his fingers along the leather cord at his neck. ‘How are you doing it? I suppose it doesn’t really matter? It doesn’t feel like you can really control it. Probably easier to-’

It was easy to find the cold locus of power inside of himself. It was easy to find that part of him that was detached and cunning. The part of him that had done terrible things to other fae for the sake of power and glory. He liked how competent he felt when he let the coldness seep into him.

Gwyn counted down from three as he listened to Mikkel talk, then let the bolt loose.

Mikkel went down, shouting, the bolt tearing through the muscle of his thigh. Gwyn had missed major arteries, bone, but Mikkel still writhed on the ground as Gwyn jogged down towards him, bloodlust slowly rising in his veins.

‘Mikkel,’ Gwyn said, reloading the crossbow, ‘I’ll ask you again. You seem to have problems concentrating. What do you want?’

‘Because I can concentrate now!’ Mikkel shouted.

It was satisfying to hear something other than cockiness in his voice.

Both of Mikkel’s hands wrapped around the bolt, and then one of his bloodied hands reached for something under his shirt. Gwyn readied himself to dodge a knife-throw, and registered the gun – a human weapon, so rare in the fae world – too late.

The bullet went straight through his calf.

Gwyn stumbled, remained standing. He was King status now, and the bullet had gone straight through. His body would already be repairing itself. He took several deep breaths at the pain, at the sensation of blood streaming down his leg, then limped towards Mikkel, keeping the crossbow up.

Guns were considered taboo; rude. They were a lazy weapon, and Gwyn shook his head at Mikkel.

‘I know, I know how you feel about Readers,’ Mikkel gasped. ‘Me. Readers. It’s- Fuck.’

He broke off, whined. Gwyn thought he looked pathetic. When he reached his side, he stared down, blood warming his calf. He cocked the crossbow again.

Mikkel stared up at him, pupils expanding; pain and fear and something else. Gwyn pushed his own pain away. It was getting easier to ignore. He’d dealt with far worse on a battlefield.

‘I wanted to see you,’ Mikkel rasped. ‘Okay? Dick. Fucking shot me.’

‘You’re Court status,’ Gwyn said. ‘Three days and you’ll be fine. And I made my point. Don’t fuck with me, Mikkel.’

‘I suppose...I suppose you did warn me. Jesus. We’re not all soldiers you know. This hurts. Oh my god.’

Gwyn rolled his eyes, watched as Mikkel dropped his gun and went back to clutching his thigh.

‘I could take the arrow out,’ Gwyn offered, smirking.

‘Ha ha. No thank you. I’ll teleport and get that done myself. Fine, you got my attention. Fine.’

Gwyn could tell he wasn’t accustomed to this sort of treatment. For someone who had been hired for interrogation, Gwyn doubted he’d last minutes on a battlefield. He was weak. Unfit, untrained, a life of leisure likely bought by the riches of those who needed his empathy in their employ.

‘Good.’ Gwyn crouched beside him and Mikkel flinched back, staring up at him. Mikkel laughed then, a mess of emotions crossing his face. Gwyn didn’t let him speak. ‘I don’t know what Albion has told you about me. I don’t know what you gathered while I was underfae. But I am not underfae anymore, I am the King of the Unseelie fae, and I am not going to let you run me around because of some plan that you or Albion or-’

‘One of your generals is a traitor to the Unseelie Court,’ Mikkel said, squeezing his eyes shut. ‘Borough. He started selling information to certain members of the Seelie like, ages ago. Before you were King. But he’s still...disloyal.’

Gwyn lowered his hand to the crossbow bolt in Mikkel’s thigh and slowly wrapped his fingers around it. Mikkel froze. Gwyn could smell the sour acid of fear in his sweat, thought this was just as good as actually hunting.

‘Dogwill Borough,’ Gwyn said. ‘Are you sure?’

‘Get your horse to interrogate him,’ Mikkel said.

‘Augus interrogated Dogwill,’ Gwyn said quietly, grip tightening on the bolt.

‘Albion gave Dogwill the means to beat the compulsions,’ Mikkel said, his voice coming fast, laced with pain, hitched breathing. ‘It’s a weed from underwater; expensive and secret and worth it for just one…just one guy in your group betraying you. Just...interrogate him again. Dogwill won’t expect it. I’m on your side.’

‘Do you think I don’t know how this works?’ Gwyn said. ‘Perhaps Dogwill is a traitor. Perhaps he was planted so that you might tell me he was betraying me, I discover him, and then you gain my trust. I speak to you of my thoughts, you report back to Albion. The King of the Atlantic plays a long game, Mikkel. I’ve not forgotten. These plays are clumsy.’

‘Are you serious? You think I’m...you think I’m telling you this, with a fucking arrow in my leg, knowing how you feel about arrows and Readers, you think-’

Mikkel chuckled.

‘Oh, cupcake. You think I don’t know what to say to you, to get you off my back? You want to know what I plucked from your head in that cell?’

Gwyn’s fingers tightened on the crossbow bolt and then he let go. He didn’t want to know. He didn’t want to be reminded of Mafydd.

‘All I know, is that this isn’t the worst thing you’ve done to a Rea-’

Stop,’ Gwyn ordered, and Mikkel quietened.

For ten seconds.

‘Do it. Interrogate him. And then...I’ll find you. I want to help you.’

‘Why?’ Gwyn said, voice flat. ‘You’re Seelie. You are betraying your Court. Yourself. You could be put to death if this is more than a clumsy rouse of Albion’s.’

‘Because,’ Mikkel laughed. ‘Because I don’t think it is betrayal. I don’t think it’s betrayal if you’re still part Seelie. And you are, man. You’re a hybrid. You’re not-’

‘I am Unseelie.’

‘You are three thousand- Three thousand years of Seelie conditioning in a Seelie environment amongst the Seelie noblesse and the military. And three thousand years of shoving away what you really are. You think...you think a few months and you’re what, Unseelie? You ever heard of nature versus nurture? I’m not betraying the Seelie by...by helping you. I don’t like Albion. He pays well. He’s a dick. I don’t think he wants what’s best for the Seelie fae. I think he wants what he thinks is best. Guess what? Not the same thing.’

Gwyn stood, stumbled a little on his injured leg. Mikkel rolled onto his back and groaned, raising one of his hands and looking at the blood on it.

‘You shot me. We’re off to a great start. Punching me. Shooting me. I guess this is just like, some form of family bonding for you, I mean after how your father-’

Mikkel’s eyes widened and he stared in fear as Gwyn raised the crossbow again. Gwyn realised, with a lurch of horror, that Mikkel had Read his intent through his emotions before he’d even acted. Mikkel quirked a weak smile.

‘I forget, with you, there’s so much stuff I’m not supposed to talk about. You’re so sensitive. All right. All right. You go interrogate your...yep. And I’m, I’m gonna come back. I’m bored. You’re interesting. You know how we are.’

‘Is Albion using you because he knows that I’ve held a connection to a Reader before? Did you tell him that? Because you are aware that you are nothing like-’

‘Oh, yeah, like I told Albion about that,’ Mikkel groaned. ‘You don’t get it, do you? He’s got enough on you. On your whole...thing. Whatever the Unseelie are right now. I can Read him too, remember? He doesn’t need more. He’s...man, you’re like a meal to him. One he wants to savour. He’s going to take his time, and he’s going to enjoy making you pay for like, personally betraying him. Deep down, you know that this is like, David and Goliath. And you might wonder why I’d bother with that but I tell you, boredom takes someone a long way.’

Mikkel looked down at the bolt in his leg and grinned at it.

‘A real long way.’

‘And what will you tell them about the crossbow bolt?’

‘Here’s the thing,’ Mikkel smiled. ‘I suggested to them I might try buddying up to you; as an informant. For them. You know. They don’t think I can do it. But they do know I’m stupid enough to try. They see me with a bolt in the leg, they’ll tell me to give it up. But Albion might commend me for trying. It’d never occur to him that someone might do this, you know. Double cross. Especially someone Seelie. Even after you betrayed him. He’s not suspicious enough. I think that’s why he did feel so betrayed with you? It feels like, under the sea, loyalty goes a long way down there. Betrayal and double-crossing is rare.’

‘It is,’ Gwyn said.

Albion had always thought many of Lludd’s – and subsequently Gwyn’s – methods of deception in battle were underhanded and unwarranted.

‘You’re not as Unseelie as you think you are, which is like- You don’t even think you’re that Unseelie. So that’s saying something. Oh god.’

Mikkel gasped again and Gwyn knew the cramps would be starting. Lactic acid building up in his body as constant stress took its toll.

‘I hate teleporting,’ Mikkel gasped. ‘Usually- Like- I need strong emotion to do it, and I don’t really feel many strong emotions that are...that I want to feel but at least now it’s going to be easy. I need help for this. Painkillers. Thanks for not hitting bone, I guess? I’ll see you soon.’

Mikkel screwed his face up, teleported halfway through an escalating cry.

The forest was quiet once more. Gwyn looked down at the blood saturating his buckskin boot, his pants leg, sighed.

The shaking came minutes later and it surprised him. At first he dumbly assumed it was shock because of blood-loss, even though the wound was closing and he hadn’t – truly – lost that much blood.

Memories flashed into his mind. Mafydd. He remembered the sound of an arrow cutting through the air, the thock! as it hit-

Gwyn grunted, took a deep breath through his nose.

He was tired of manipulations. Those of his family. Of Mikkel and Albion. Of his own Court and who he could trust in it. It might be time to interrogate some of the generals again, including Ifir. Whether or not Mikkel was telling the truth, it disturbed him to learn of an underwater compulsion block. The fact he hadn’t heard of it before meant Albion had been keeping that secret for a long time.

And for just one traitor in my military...he would use it. He would think it poetic justice.

Gwyn moved off the path and back into the forest, leaning against a granite stone and forcing himself to take slow, deep breaths.

He didn’t know who to trust. And after being underfae, he no longer trusted himself either.

He needed to find a grounding point, soon. It was becoming too easy to surrender to fear, and that was the last thing he needed to be dealing with amongst predatory fae who sniffed it out far too quickly.

 

Chapter Text

Augus

*

He hadn’t told anyone, but he’d killed a nightingale he’d found in the night gardens of the Unseelie Court. It was the wrong species. It didn’t matter. Augus couldn’t abide them. When he saw it, he’d turned cold. The creature was dead from a strong hit of coiled waterweed before he was aware of reacting, and he stared at the small corpse on the ground, feeling ill.

He picked up his healer’s kit and forced himself to take a deep breath, mastered the worst of his fear. It came over him so quickly that a lot of the time, these days, he was only able to take control of it once he’d reacted.

Deeper into the night garden made for healers; picking his way over healthy herbs, shrubs, pushing aside branches – careful of those that wept poison – until he found his way to black-blooming jonquils. He knelt beside them, opened his healer’s kit and drew out a square of red silk just for this purpose. He touched his fingers to the flowers, felt the life in them. He took a deep breath, looked around. Gwyn really did have a knack for landscaping. The palace itself was stunning, given what he’d reduced the Seelie palace to; but the night gardens...they felt almost as welcoming as his old lake.

They both loved outdoor refuges, and Augus had felt something ease in his being when he’d seen the night gardens.

He was still communing with the jonquils, ten minutes later, when he smelled the distinct scent of swan musk and raised his eyebrows.

‘What are you doing here?’

‘Getting some golden allium for Julvia, if you must know.’

Augus set the red square of silk beneath the jonquils and drew a sharp, small blade from his healer’s kit. He looked up, eyebrows pulling together.

‘Is that at Aleutia’s request?’

Oui,’ Gulvi said, dispassionately, twisting the flowers off the plant with an absence that was as good as cruelty. Augus pursed his lips. Gulvi didn’t connect with plants or trees, she was not aware of the damage she was doing, and in all likelihood wouldn’t care. He couldn’t bring it up without drawing attention to the fact that he’d as good as killed her family. He turned back to the jonquils and cut several blossoms off a plant that had more to spare.

‘It’s an interesting choice,’ Augus said, as the black-blooming jonquil wept sap.

‘What do you know of it? Are you a healer?’

‘No,’ Augus admitted freely. He placed his hand carefully over the flowers on the square of red silk, then swallowed nausea before consciously drawing water out of them, drying them in an instant. Damp clung to the base of his palm. He took two deep breaths; it was an act that was simple enough, he’d been doing it all his life.

But he’d turned it to such destruction.

Still, he was going to start rehabilitating the Blighted lands soon. The whole situation left him unaccountably nervous. He missed the days when his heartsong was dominance, when he cared so much for self-mastery that he didn’t have to feel such a broad, nuanced range of inconvenient emotion.

Gulvi made a sound of frustration.

Why is it an interesting choice? How would you know?’

‘I am no healer,’ Augus said, looking up as he bundled the jonquils in the silk and tucked them into a small compartment in the kit, snapping it shut. ‘But I do know what works for freshwater fae, particularly Unseelie. And I suspect that Aleutia is more of a generalist healer. I don’t believe the golden allium will do any harm, but I don’t believe it will do any good, either.’

Gulvi came and stood over him and Augus rolled his eyes, finding himself unaffected by her posturing. If she was going to stab him, he would likely know it by now. He placed his hand carefully by the jonquils and offered a warm burst of glamour in the hopes they might grow stronger after his encounter with them. It wasn’t the same as cultivating the ecosystem of a lake, but it was only polite after he’d taken some of their blossoms for his work.

‘Why did you cut them onto red silk? Does the red matter?’

‘Yes,’ Augus said, tilting his head up at her. ‘Observe.’

He sent extra glamour over the jonquils to lull them, and then snapped open his kit once more, taking out the knife and looking for one of the blossoms that was on its way out and fading. He snicked it from the plant cleanly and as soon as it hit the ground, it dissolved into ash.

‘They are, you see, only preserved when caught upon red silk.’

‘My mother used to know a lot of these sorts of things,’ Gulvi sighed.

‘And then I killed her,’ Augus muttered, finishing the sentence for her. He saw how close her hands were to the hilts of her kris blades. But she stood relaxed, looking down upon him, an arch in one of her brows.

‘You shouldn’t have killed his mother,’ Gulvi said, and Augus sneered, shut the kit again and stood fluidly.

‘I do not think you could stand by and witness what she has done to him and not want her dead.’

‘La! I don’t say it because she shouldn’t be dead, I say it because you do harm to him.’

Augus’ face remained impassive, but her words weighed on him. Gwyn had been odd, colder, since the death of Crielle. He hadn’t expected it. He’d expected Gwyn to be shocked and then...relieved. But instead, he found himself pushed further away as time went on.

Gulvi sighed, cradling golden flowers in one hand like she didn’t know what to do with them.

‘I should at least inform you that we’ve located two more of the shapeshifters. We’ve not been able to bring them in, since they have-’

Confusion flooded him.

We? So you believe me now? You’ve accepted that the plan was not a lie?

Gulvi’s eyes widened, and then she made a harsh sound in the back of her throat, feathers on her wings ruffling and settling again.

‘La! Do you both never talk?’

Augus waited. Gulvi shook her head, her fingers began to clench around the flowers she was holding. She loosened her hand.

‘A shapeshifter in your exact form approached Gwyn during one of his regular meetings with the Generals. Ifir slaughtered him.’

His heart-rate picked up. He remembered the piquant, rusty smell of Gwyn’s fear. The underfae he’d been meeting with – a lichen-deer, far more reasonable than many of the others he saw – had scented it too. It all made sense now. The way Gwyn had looked at him, the way he’d shivered, all of it.

‘The shapeshifter attempted to lure Gwyn away from the generals,’ Gulvi added, smirking. ‘Clever, don’t you think?’

Augus sighed. It was as he’d suspected. Crielle had no reason to have shapeshifters of the dead unless she was planning a particularly direct, concerted attack which would have required his capture.

‘You’ve located two more, you said?’

Oui.’

It was almost as though they were friends, though Gulvi held him in contempt, and Augus cared little for her. She was one of the few who endeavoured to keep him updated on what was happening. He didn’t think it was a coincidence that she seemed to know where he was at all times. He was sure that it was that she wanted to keep an eye on him; she didn’t trust him, after all. But their conversations had become less hostile over time.

He didn’t like it. The world was easier when it wasn’t complicated.

‘You do that increasingly,’ Gulvi said, pointing to his chest. Augus realised he’d been rubbing at the mark of the Soulbond upon his flesh, over his shirt. His hand stilled, then dropped. ‘You really don’t like it, do you?’

‘There are many things I would do to others for my own gain,’ Augus said. ‘But forcing my brother into a magical contract where he dies if I die is not one of them.’

‘Ash doesn’t mind,’ Gulvi said, and Augus smirked.

‘Ash is an idiot and a fool for love.’

‘La! He is that,’ Gulvi said, rolling her eyes.

Ash had behaved strangely after he’d interrupted Augus’ argument with Gwyn in the night gardens. Augus couldn’t tell if it was jealousy, if he just disliked Gwyn’s general cold, stick-in-the-mud nature, or if it was something else. But Ash had acted as though he thought Augus was fragile, about to fall apart. Augus felt nothing of the sort. He was furious. Angry at Gwyn, angry at himself. The situation he was in trickled through his fingers like water, and he couldn’t keep his hand cupped well enough to hold what was left of Gwyn and himself.

He needed to do something. He would. He was only looking for an opening. Gwyn could not avoid him forever, and Augus would not tolerate continued rejections. He was not a pet, nor a slave. He was Gwyn’s equal – at the least – and if Gwyn had forgotten that, Augus would take pleasure in reminding him.

‘You have killed people he cares for,’ Gulvi said, her voice a rich, patronising purr. ‘Do you think he will forgive you easily?’

‘I don’t need to justify myself to you,’ Augus said.

‘I do not want to hear your base justifications. But you might consider that you have a lover who is grieving, and that you are the cause of that grief. I know you lack heart in almost all that you do. But I also know how you feel for Ash, and I suspect it is the same for Gwyn. You have harmed yourself in this. Have you realised yet?’

Augus’ eyes twitched. He looked around the night gardens. Their gentle beauty. Night-blooming plants everywhere. Vines and trees and shrubs and herbs. Cobble-stoned pathways weaving throughout, moss growing upon them. It was a place constructed by one of the colder people he’d met; it betrayed the tenderness that lurked within.

‘Why, precisely, do you care?’ Augus said finally.

‘I care for Gwyn,’ Gulvi said, a small smile touching her lips, so unlike the wicked smile so often wore. ‘You are a callow creature that manipulates too easily. I don’t believe that the Raven Prince disappeared for his own purposes. Not for a second. You loved him too in your own way. You can betray anyone if your need is great enough. But this one, this battle-bred fool – he’s helped you, hasn’t he? There is less of the madness in you. La! I cannot believe I am saying it, but-’

Augus pushed past her. He wasn’t interested in what she had to say.

She let him pass, laughed as he went.

‘If you lose his trust, you’ll lose his support,’ Gulvi called after him. ‘And if you lose that, you’ll become the monster that ruined the Unseelie Kingdom and put us in this position in the first place. And if you do that, Augus, I know I cannot kill you because of that Soulbond; but trust me, I can make your life very uncomfortable.’

Augus laughed.

Threats meant so little, these days. He’d heard them from countless fae. He’d fended off assassination attempts. Gulvi herself had stabbed him multiple times.

None of it mattered. None of them were the Nightingale.

He said nothing else and walked away from her, herbal kit swinging in his hand.

*

When Gwyn had formally asked him to become his primary Advisor, he hadn’t realised how token that status would be. He knew he didn’t have as much political or strategic nous as Gulvi and Gwyn, but he thought he would at least be able to advise Gwyn as to how to take better personal care of himself at least.

Now, he listened to Gwyn talking at the round table meeting between the members of his Inner Court – Ash, Gulvi, Augus – and Augus realised that he was mostly redundant. He looked at his nails, looked over at the stack of papers and parchments before Gwyn, stared past him to the window beyond.

Today. I will start breaking through to him today.

Ash looked through some of Gwyn’s parchments, but he didn’t seem to be following the discussions too closely. Augus only perked up when he heard Gulvi mention the shapeshifters. He looked at Gwyn.

Gwyn refused to look at him.

He listened to Gulvi sum up what had happened with the generals, even though she hadn’t been there to witness it. Ash looked at Augus in alarm, then settled back in his chair as Augus betrayed no expression at all.

Gwyn didn’t look at him once. When he did speak, he looked at the parchments, wrote some notes that seemed very important. If Augus hadn’t seen him immediately after the event itself, hadn’t tasted and smelled his fear, he might have thought Gwyn was entirely nonplussed about what had occurred.

Are you ashamed that you turned up at my door? Traumatised? Guilty that you didn’t tell me what happened? Something else?

Augus leaned back in his chair.

‘They evidently thought they were starting with their strongest shapeshifter,’ Augus said. ‘It bodes well that Gwyn and Ifir, at least, were able to pick up scent differences. Though, like everyone else, the shapeshifter should have been retained for questioning. They may have taken my form, but they do not have my resistance to compulsions.’

The plan disturbed him. He wondered how often Crielle had daydreamed getting Gwyn alone with a group of shapeshifters. He suspected that if she was able to think that extensively about one plan, she likely had others that he didn’t know about.

Gwyn began talking about an encounter with Mikkel, and Augus kept his ears pricked. He frowned when Gwyn mentioned Dogwill.

‘We interrogated him,’ Augus said.

‘Apparently they are using a block of some kind. Are you aware of them?’

‘Mm,’ Augus said, sighing. ‘Rumours of an underwater herb that blocks siren song. But I’ve never experienced its use and I’ve heard it’s rare. A herbal block that can be made from perhaps only three or four plants in the entire ocean, and a lot of sirens very interested in destroying them? I’m surprised it still exists. Am I interrogating everyone once more then?’

‘It’s what I intended,’ Gwyn said, and then shook his head. ‘But the timing is poor. If we remove Dogwill a week or two after Mikkel returns to the Unseelie Court with an injury, I believe Albion will – provided Mikkel isn’t actually working for him – suspect what has happened. We must be careful about interrogation and removing Dogwill from the generals. I have some other ideas to prove Mikkel’s claims.’

‘Do tell,’ Gulvi said, yawning behind her hand. She had never done well in the meetings, petering out about halfway through.

‘Even if it is true, Dogwill might be planted,’ Augus said, interrupting Gwyn before he could start. But he saw from Gwyn’s expression that he was already aware. ‘Who to trust is becoming a problem.’

‘It was always a problem,’ Gwyn said, shaking his head. ‘If Dogwill is an informant to the Seelie Court, we’ll see some increasing defences around some of the Seelie Courtlands. We’ll also see a critical food corridor that’s been seized, be further fortified by the Seelie. I think the best play will be to drop hints around Dogwill that we are leading a small military to do manoeuvres on neutral land – and see if he tells Albion. If he does, Albion will almost certainly respond by bringing a larger military force to defeat them. Albion’s had a rather firm grasp on our movements, and Dogwill is particularly ingratiating.’

‘Who calls their kid Dogwill?’ Ash said, putting his feet on the table and ignoring the look Gwyn gave him. ‘Dude’s got issues.’

‘If the latter plan works,’ Gwyn continued, ‘we’ll locate a larger military force nearby as back-up, leaving Dogwill uninformed. Ideally, we may get a chance to knock out one of Albion’s smaller militaries. It could work in our favour.’

Gwyn kept talking, pointing at a roughly drawn diagram that Gulvi perked up for – she did better with visual knowledge than written. Ash gave Augus a look that expressed deep, ongoing boredom.

Augus’ thoughts drifted again and came back when he heard the An-Fnwy estate mentioned. Gwyn was staring at Gulvi as though she’d said something awful.

‘I’m not contesting my right to that land. Albion has rights to it. I have no legal standing to-’

‘We need that land,’ Gulvi said, and then shook her head. ‘La! It is not only this! You were their son. They did not foster you out as they should have, they chose to keep you – which means they chose to acknowledge an Unseelie creature as their son, even only amongst themselves. You have a right to that land! It is prime Courtland! Imagine what we could do with-’

‘Gulvi,’ Gwyn said, his voice forbidding. ‘I would need to reinstate my surname, I am not-’

‘-They are Seelie,’ she hissed. ‘They have to follow the rules. They will try and weasel out of them, yes, but you have grounds to contest this.’

Augus frowned. He would prefer Gwyn have nothing to do with that estate ever again.

‘I shall be rehabilitating Unseelie land that was Blighted very soon. Within weeks,’ Augus said quietly, drawing their attention. ‘We’ll be gaining landscapes with fresh water back if I’m successful.’

‘No one will want to live there,’ Gulvi said, sighing. ‘Everyone thinks the land is cursed.’

‘They may think differently once they see it whole again and under the protection of the Unseelie Court. I have it on the authority of at least three displaced underfae families – they are willing to try their luck.’

Gwyn’s face twisted on the mention of the word luck, but Augus raised a hand in a one-armed shrug.

‘We need that estate. It has strategic importance,’ Gulvi said, her voice hardening. ‘It is a fight worth fighting.’

‘One thing at a time,’ Gwyn said, and Augus resisted smirking. Turned out Gwyn was good at dismissing everyone, then. Gulvi glared at him, then shook her head in exasperation, wings flaring.

‘I’d like to interrogate Mikkel, too,’ Augus said. ‘How convenient that he just turned up to give you this information.’

‘There is nothing convenient about Mikkel,’ Gwyn grumbled. ‘But I agree.’

‘How is he justifying this?’ Augus said.

‘He believes I am a hybrid,’ Gwyn muttered, disgusted. ‘He has stated that he does not believe it to be a betrayal of the Seelie if I am still – somewhat – Seelie.’

Augus said nothing. He thought there might be some truth to that. Gwyn wasn’t biologically a hybrid – that wasn’t possible – but he’d been exposed to enough Seelie notions and philosophies that he had strange ideas of the world. He still believed in honour to one’s Kingdom. He put others first unceasingly. He did almost nothing for himself. His parents had managed to shatter the things about him that would have given his true identity away to others, and in the process, Gwyn struggled to discover what lay beneath what he had been taught.

He watched Gwyn. The fae who had removed the last of the underworld energy from the Unseelie Court. Augus hadn’t even been aware it was there, but he felt the difference now that it was gone. Not a weight off his shoulders so much as the smoothing of a jagged edge he didn’t know needed soothing. Gwyn who had looked close to death while transforming the palace; even though he was nigh invincible. Who rejected him with excuses.

You should never have let a waterhorse claim you if you didn’t want my persistence. I will have you.

Hands clasped together under the table and he waited, letting something predatory swirl in his body.

He hungered to see Gwyn on his knees.

*

He resisted the urge to pace as he waited in the corridor that Gwyn typically took on his way out of the meeting room. When he’d had regular clients, he’d not only been meeting the needs of others, but meeting a predatory need in himself. Not having more frequent access to Gwyn left him fraught with frustration; he needed Gwyn’s responses, the sweetness of his submission.

Augus slipped into an alcove and pressed fingertips to smooth masonry. He had expected something pleasing when Gwyn transformed the Court; but Gwyn had created something exquisite. He knew it would be the sort of Court that fae would talk about for centuries to come. Longer, if the Court could survive that long. Augus even thought that some sections surpassed that of the Raven Prince’s Court. But then, Gwyn’s Court was a homage to so many others that had gone before him, it united many themes that represented the Unseelie. It allowed for darkness and malice alongside beauty and fierce, devoted love.

Augus scented when Gwyn came nearer; heard his footsteps, heard him turn the corner into the corridor. He stepped out from behind the alcove.

He licked his lips, waited for Gwyn to realise he was there, then pointed to a section of wall nearby. His eyebrow arched.

‘I want you to kneel here, your back facing this wall. Now.’

Gwyn’s eyes widened. His fingers clenched around the parchments he was holding.

‘I have to-’

‘It wasn’t a request. Put the parchments down.’

Gwyn looked around, wincing as the motion pulled at his shoulder. Augus’ brow furrowed. He hadn’t worked the nerves in it for some time. Perhaps he could do that later.

‘Do you want to imagine what I will do to you if you don’t listen to me?’ Augus said.

‘People will come, Augus,’ Gwyn said, his voice hushed.

‘Ash and Gulvi do not come this way. The trows are private. The common fae servants, well, the longer you stall, the longer they are more likely to stumble across you, aren’t they? Don’t pretend you don’t need this. I can tell, Gwyn. You have become colder over time, and-’

‘You slaughtered people I cared for,’ Gwyn said, turning back to him, something flinty entering his gaze.

‘You know what I am,’ Augus said. ‘I have never hidden the truth of my bloodlust from you.’

Gwyn’s hands clenched harder around the parchments until they crumpled. He looked down in shock. He stepped to a nearby bench and placed them down. His fingertips rested on the paper, he didn’t move.

Augus thought the fact that he hadn’t teleported away was progress. Hunger threaded through him in stops and starts. He pointed to the wall again, and Gwyn looked at it, something frightened and wanting in his gaze. His chest heaved faintly as he inhaled.

Oh, how you want this. My scared, callous brute.

‘Can it not be somewhere private?’ Gwyn said again, something pleading in his voice.

‘No,’ Augus said, voice cold, ‘it can’t. Now, before I start to get angry with your recalcitrance; kneel by the wall. Back against it.’

Gwyn looked at Augus as though answers or encouragement were there, and Augus remained indifferent in expression. He wanted a Gwyn that thrummed with fear, at least for now. He ached to pull up the threads of what Gwyn was dealing with, what he attempted to constantly suppress with coldness, numbness. He could master that fear, given the opportunity. Turn it into something else. He needed to for the both of them.

Gwyn took a hesitant step towards the wall and then stopped, looking over his shoulder again.

‘Gwyn,’ Augus said, the word a snapping force between them.

Gwyn startled, turned back, blue eyes flickering once to Augus’. He moved to the wall where Augus had pointed and pressed his back against it, touching his palms to stone. He looked down both directions of the corridor and closed his eyes, nostrils flaring. He sank down slowly, a surprising amount of grace in the movement. Gwyn could be clumsy – very clumsy – but there were times when his training showed, and Augus was surprised to see it now.

Augus walked up to him and looked down at a tangle of pale curls. He resisted the urge to touch them. Instead, he nudged a boot between Gwyn’s knees where they pressed together and kicked – not too hard – until Gwyn spread them reluctantly. Augus kept nudging until they were much further apart, until the fabric of Gwyn’s pants would chafe against his cock as it got hard.

It never took much to assert dominance over Gwyn. Just constant, small reminders of where he belonged, who he belonged to.

Once, Augus had planned on using Gwyn’s submission against him. He’d planned on breaking him until Gwyn would be conditioned, brainwashed, dependent. Until Gwyn would release him from the Seelie Court. There were some fae – a minority – who still suspected that’s what had happened.

The reality was far more confusing, even for Augus. He’d developed feelings for a warrior that slaughtered his way through the world, and that was before he’d realised Gwyn was also Unseelie. He’d broken him and discovered a flickering light in his being that was appealing, addictive.

Augus undid his belt buckle and Gwyn looked away, eyes facing the corridor.

‘Face me,’ Augus said, voice gentle. Gwyn hesitated, then turned and looked at Augus’ thighs. It wasn’t what Augus was aiming for, but it was better than before. ‘Concentrate on this. Not on the others. You’ll need to concentrate. I’m going to choke you with my cock, and I doubt your underfae instincts have faded enough to allow it to be comfortable. Not that it ever truly was.’

Gwyn made a hitched, faint sound in the back of his throat. Augus licked at his teeth, pressed his tongue to one of his canines. The sounds Gwyn made were delicious. He planned to get more before the morning was over.

He undid the zipper of his pants and pulled out his cock – not yet hard, foreskin not retracted – and ran fingers over it. The sensation was light, almost irritating, but Gwyn’s eyes flicked up and watched, hypnotised, his lips opening slightly. His legs shifted where he knelt, his back pressed harder to the wall.

Augus let go of his cock and reached forwards, rubbing his thumb along the fullness of Gwyn’s bottom lip. At that, Gwyn blinked and then looked up, finally making eye contact.

Augus slipped the tip of his thumb in between Gwyn’s lip and teeth, feeling heat and saliva, and his lips quirked up.

‘Do you know that sometimes, when I look at you, I find myself drawn to these full lips of yours, and distract myself far too often imagining your mouth stuffed. You were, after all, made to swallow cock, weren’t you?’

A flush diffused through Gwyn’s cheeks, his neck. His eyes slid away, and Augus smirked.

‘Open wider. I want you to take me like this.’

Truthfully, Augus wanted to feel Gwyn’s tension and struggle to relax, as Augus’ cock grew in his mouth, lengthening down the back of his throat, forcing his mouth wider. He wanted to see how close to the surface Gwyn’s underfae instincts still were. How much his body feared choking. Gwyn loved deep-throating, but they’d not done much of it. A limited amount in the Seelie Court, and nothing since.

Gwyn had handled his demotion atrociously. He refused to talk about it – the demotion itself, the time he spent on the run afterwards. Any information that was revealed was either pulled painfully from him, relayed second-hand, or dropped into conversation accidentally; and that almost never happened.

Augus suspected that despite having undergone years of military campaigns, torture, even near death experiences – nothing had prepared him for the reality of his mortality in the way that being underfae did; especially with its timing. It had traumatised him at a time when he was already so fragile. Augus had begun stripping him down, exposing vulnerable tangles in his psyche. They were making progress. Gwyn had finally gotten to a point where he’d even managed to ask for what he wanted, in a manner of speaking.

One step forward, two steps back. Or thirty.

Gwyn’s mouth still hadn’t opened wider. His stared down the corridor.

Right.

Augus removed his thumb from Gwyn’s mouth, a thin thread of saliva connecting them until it snapped. He grit his teeth as he backhanded him across the cheek. He was Inner Court now, and the blow hit with force. Gwyn’s head rocked, his whole body jerked sideways. Augus stayed calm as he forced him back into position by his hair.

‘I asked you to listen to me.’

Gwyn gasped shakily, his legs shifted like he was moving around a growing hardness between his legs.

‘Oh,’ Augus said, smiling. ‘You do like the rough treatment, don’t you? Open your mouth.

He shook the hand in Gwyn’s hair for emphasis, and Gwyn’s eyes slid sideways once, quickly, and then his mouth opened wider. Augus trailed his hand down Gwyn’s cheek, let fingers trace across his open mouth, dipping inside, pressing onto his tongue. He tapped the tip of it, feeling the gust of breath over his fingers, and stepped closer. Gwyn’s breathing was uneven as Augus reached for his cock and slid the tip of it into that wet furnace.

Augus’ eyes became hooded at the sensation even as he focused on Gwyn’s reactions. He rocked deeper carefully, more to adjust to the heat than to ease the way for Gwyn. But it wasn’t long before he was buried, the head of his cock brushing against the back of Gwyn’s throat so that a minor spasm pressed pleasantly against him. He tilted Gwyn’s head with a hand underneath his chin, made sure the angle was right. He suspected Gwyn might fight this, and a moment later rested his other hand by the pressure point between Gwyn’s upper and lower jaw, ready to activate it if necessary. He’d had to keep Gwyn’s jaw open before.

Gwyn couldn’t deep-throat easily. He had a gag reflex and had to consciously fight it. Gwyn loved the act so much that he was willing to put himself through that; the discomfort, the pain, the involuntary throat spasms that would eventually be caressing Augus’ cock.

‘Perfect,’ Augus said softly, watching as Gwyn shivered at the praise. Like this, Gwyn couldn’t look up and meet his eyes. His nose was pressed into the pelt of Augus’ pubic hair, his hands were braced on Augus’ thighs. Augus leaned forwards until Gwyn’s head was resting firmly against the stone wall, and he felt the shift of Gwyn’s mouth around him, felt breath sucked down around his cock while Gwyn could still manage it. The sensation was cold, strange. He liked it.

Augus rubbed his hand over Gwyn’s scalp, doling out a level of affection that Gwyn never let himself receive, and even now – not yet fucked out and too tired to accept what he craved – Gwyn tensed to feel it.

Augus made a hushing noise, and then leaned forwards even more as his cock started to lengthen, pinning Gwyn between the wall and his cock.

His other hand activated the pressure point carefully, keeping Gwyn’s mouth open.

‘Make it good,’ Augus ordered, and Gwyn’s tongue curled around his cock. His mouth shifted, and suction started a moment later, turning Augus’ focus to that brilliant heat, the wonder of it. He would never get tired of seeing Gwyn on his knees, looking down at a mop of white-blond hair. Never get tired of knowing how much Gwyn enjoyed it, and how humiliated he was by his desire to submit, to give himself over to these overwhelming experiences.

‘I’ve noticed how cold you’ve been lately. How could I not? Have you noticed? You do know it’s a symptom of your being overwhelmed, don’t you?’

Gwyn made a noise of protest, then gagged hard when Augus’ cock started to squeeze down the back of his throat. He tried to jerk backwards but the wall at his back wouldn’t let him go anywhere. Augus watched him struggle with himself for several seconds, and then drew back just enough that Gwyn could gasp two shaky, deep breaths.

He rocked forwards, and dug his index finger into the pressure point at Gwyn’s jaw, forcing his mouth to stay wide as he shoved the head of himself into that tight space, sighing happily. He wasn’t fully hard yet. This was lovely. Gwyn’s throat massaging him, his tongue shifting underneath him.

‘When you’re like this, you do things that are destructive and needless. You do remember hunting me, don’t you?’

Gwyn moaned a low, pained sound and Augus’ cock twitched to hear it.

He was a vengeful fae, and though he understood why Gwyn had done all that he did, he still delighted in finding moments to call Gwyn back to those behaviours. Augus had begun to fear what Gwyn might once more be capable of.

‘Do you remember the time you left the gag on me, supposedly by accident?’

Gwyn’s head thumped against stone in protest. Augus laughed, undulated his hips, felt Gwyn’s chin pressing into the space beneath his cock and sighed.

Gwyn gagged again, several times, and Augus knew he would be finding it frustrating, not being able to go at his own pace. Gwyn was – strangely, wonderfully – proud of his ability to swallow a cock. But Augus knew from the first time he’d done this to him that Gwyn could get unreasonably upset when not given time to prove how skilled he was.

‘Careful,’ Augus murmured, as Gwyn struggled. Choked sounds were humming through Augus’ cock. ‘This can’t hurt you. You can’t die from oxygen deprivation, remember?’

But Gwyn continued to struggle until Augus sighed and pulled back long enough for Gwyn to catch his breath once more; great heaving things that scoured his throat and made Augus’ chest ache to hear them. Gwyn’s remnant underfae instincts were still strong. Augus frowned, tilted Gwyn’s head up even as the tip of his cock was still in Gwyn’s mouth.

Gwyn made reluctant, tearful eye contact, and Augus smoothed away the wetness with his thumb.

Augus shifted so that his weight rested on one leg, and with the other, slid his boot between Gwyn’s legs and felt the ridge of his cock pressing against the seam of his pants. Even through the sole of his boot, he could feel how hard he was. Gwyn closed his eyes as though shamed, and Augus smiled warmly.

‘You’re doing wonderfully,’ Augus said, shifting his weight onto both feet again. Gwyn’s eyes opened, he stared up at Augus in disbelief. ‘It’s been some time, and this is exactly what I want from you. Fair warning, Gwyn; if you cannot come from this alone, you’ll be waiting some time before the opportunity comes up again.’

Gwyn shook his head faintly, eyebrows pulling together, and Augus smirked.

‘You can do it, I’m sure. You come so fast most of the time anyway, and I’m sure with me down the back of your throat...’ Augus shrugged. ‘Let’s try it, shall we?’

Augus pressed harder onto the pressure point, keeping Gwyn’s mouth open, rocking forwards and sliding over the wet texture of his tongue. He continued into the tight space of his throat, and then shifted the angle again and rocked down, fully hard now, wedging himself into a space that spasmed around him.

Gwyn panicked very easily these days.

‘Calm,’ Augus soothed. ‘Calm down. You can take it. You’ve taken it before, and will take it now. Relax your throat.’

Gwyn’s throat was still hitching, jumping, and Augus withdrew and shoved back roughly. Sometimes being soothing wasn’t the right road with Gwyn. Augus closed his eyes in faint relief when it worked somewhat. The spasms increased in force briefly, then died away. He rocked his hips back and forth, staying in the hot grip of his mouth and throat, sighing out in pleasure.

He shifted his left foot forwards slowly, pressed the sole of his boot very carefully to Gwyn’s cock, and Gwyn went rigid, then his fingers dug so hard into his thighs that Augus knew he’d be sporting bruises.

‘You look good like this,’ Augus said, his voice rougher than usual. He could feel increasing heat on Gwyn’s cheeks – a blush from the lack of oxygen, from the boot pressed in between his legs. He shifted it over the fabric and Gwyn squeaked. It was the only sound he could properly make, Augus’ cock so far down his throat.

‘Steady,’ Augus said. ‘I’m letting you breathe again.’

This was far better than when he’d come back from the An-Fnwy estate and simply taken what was his to take. Here he could pay attention to the minutiae of Gwyn’s responses. The way his hair sometimes trembled as a wave of shivering moved through him. How he choked as Augus withdrew and then immediately started heaving for air, each breath so powerful that Augus could feel it against his cock and shivered himself. He slid his hand down Gwyn’s neck, the side this time – not the front – and watched as Gwyn tensed and relaxed.

Clearly Gwyn’s phobia of having his neck touched was connected to the demotion. As long as it wasn’t a hand wrapped around his throat, he appeared to be fine. He felt Gwyn’s thundering pulse point, stroked fingers over the carotid artery, and trailed fingers back up and stroked his thumb firmly over Gwyn’s eyebrow, his forehead, his hairline.

He rubbed his foot over Gwyn’s cock and Gwyn made a sound that was almost a sob.

‘Painful,’ Gwyn rasped, lips brushing over the slick head of Augus’ cock.

‘You’re all trapped in there, aren’t you? Those pants aren’t very forgiving. The seam must have been cutting in even before I started doing this.’

Augus pressed down and Gwyn moaned, head thumping back into the wall. Augus chuckled.

‘You’ll come for me though, won’t you? Just like this?’

Gwyn’s face screwed up, and then he nodded once.

‘You might come, sweetness, but you need more than this, don’t you?’ Augus said, risking it. ‘You need more than hasty blowjobs in a corridor. You need time.’

Gwyn’s eyes slid sideways, filmed over with tears from the oxygen deprivation and maybe something more. Augus couldn’t be certain. His cock was getting cold. He wanted to fuck Gwyn’s mouth, wanted to take, had to answer to more than just the physical needs of his body.

‘I think...so,’ Gwyn said, not looking at Augus. ‘I don’t know anymore.’

‘Hush,’ Augus said. ‘There must be a lot you don’t know, now that you’re ‘just Gwyn.’’

Gwyn’s eyes flew to his, a look of betrayal in them that Augus would even bring it up, and Augus felt a sharp ache in his chest.

‘So much taken from you, sweetness,’ Augus said and then his lips slid into a slanted smile. ‘I want to give you something back, but it’ll hurt a little.’

‘Please,’ Gwyn said, closing his eyes, turning back. He licked his reddened lips.

His mouth opened and Augus’ lips went slack in satisfaction. It wasn’t enough, but it was a placeholder, a reminder of how things would be. He would find more time for this. He would make time. He could push his own anxieties away. It wasn’t as though venting about his stress regarding rehabilitating the land, seeing all those underfae, dealing with assassination attempts would help anyone.

For a moment he felt the oddest sensation that he was being sucked down into a vicious whirlpool. He saw the faces of underfae reaming him out for his actions, his own resistance to their attempts to start arguments, knowing that his job was not about mindlessly defending himself. He saw older responsibilities – more than one King he’d practically worshipped at the foot of; and he knew he wasn’t done with that either. He saw hours of rapier drills, staring longingly at some of the more vicious weapons, cultivating other poisons aside from his own in his spare time, concerned at how skilled some of the assassination attempts had been.

He looked down at Gwyn’s face and felt him there like an anchor. He grasped Gwyn’s hair with cruel fingers, sneered at him.

‘It’s a good thing you heal quickly. Your throat will be sore.’

Gwyn’s eyes drifted closed, his mouth opened even wider, and Augus snarled as he sunk roughly into that space, ignoring the spasms of Gwyn’s throat as he thrust shallowly, quickly. He occasionally twitched his foot over Gwyn’s cock, noting the way he jerked every time he did it. It was a pleasure-pain level of stimulus and it left him increasingly warm with hunger.

Augus let his own pleasure move through him, hot and heady, so much that he almost missed the sound of footsteps walking towards them.

He paused, cock pressed so far down Gwyn’s throat that he could feel the flare of Gwyn’s nostrils against his skin.

‘Gulvi,’ Augus said, voice smooth, turning to see Gulvi walking past the corridor entrance. Gwyn froze. His entire body locked up and went still, and there, he could smell it, fear.

His hand gentled in Gwyn’s hair immediately. He scratched clawtips soothingly, rubbed behind his ears with his thumbs.

‘What can I do for you?’

Gulvi stared at them both, eyes wide, and then her mouth opened on a laugh. Augus shook his head once, curtly, and she noticed, closing her mouth, frowning in confusion. She looked at Gwyn. He was not moving, seemed to be pretending he was invisible.

‘I was looking for Gwyn, but I can see he’s indisposed right now, oui? He can come find me later. It is not terribly urgent.’

‘Wonderful,’ Augus said, fingers stroking over Gwyn’s scalp. He was aware of Gwyn’s chest beginning to hitch. He couldn’t breathe. He was suppressing his choking response.

Humiliation – something that had always been a delightful sore point for Gwyn, but now...something else entirely. Augus truly hadn’t expected that they would be interrupted.

You should have been more realistic if you didn’t want to be stuck doing damage control.

‘Mm, enjoy yourselves,’ she said airily, walking back the way she’d come.

Gwyn started pushing against Augus’ thighs immediately, his cock softer in his pants.

‘No,’ Augus said quietly. ‘Wait.’

A hum of protest around Augus’ cock.

‘Wait, sweetness,’ Augus said, gentling his voice and drinking in the full body shudder that followed. ‘A few more seconds. Nothing bad has happened. We’re fae, remember? Fae fuck. In public, in private, wherever they want. And Gulvi doesn’t care.’

Gwyn tensed again, and Augus closed his eyes, counted down from ten. Gwyn’s hands on his thighs became frantic. Slowly he eased his cock back from Gwyn’s mouth, saliva painting him slick. Gwyn coughed, gasped, looked towards the corridor entrance and then resisted Augus’ hand when Augus tried to turn his face back again. He seemed completely unaware of the spit making his lips wet, the picture he made as he turned fearful eyes to the space where Gulvi had been.

Augus growled and Gwyn’s eyes flickered up to his. When Augus placed his hand at Gwyn’s jaw, he was surprised Gwyn let him manoeuvre his head into position again.

‘Breathe,’ Augus said, ‘because the next time I’m not stopping no matter who turns up.’

Gwyn drew breath in to protest and Augus slid fingers into his mouth, pinching his tongue.

Gwyn’s eyes were pleading. Augus knew if he stopped now, he’d feed Gwyn’s insecurities, feed his belief that submission was humiliating and wrong. And it wasn’t. Fae were carnal. Dominance and submission amongst many was normal. Public sex was common.

‘She doesn’t care,’ Augus said again, voice firm. Gwyn’s eyes narrowed like he wanted to disagree, and Augus was acutely grateful that he’d managed to head off Gulvi’s laughter – which wasn’t likely to have been malicious, but certainly would have been interpreted as such. ‘She. Does. Not. Care.’

Gwyn shook his head, pressing back into the wall as though he could escape the entire situation.

Augus’ fingers tightened around his tongue, he pressed his claws in slightly, leaned forwards.

‘Your family disapproved of your submission because you were supposed to be a perfectly aggressive soldier of the kind that would go get himself killed after fucking himself silly the night before.’ His voice was a whisper, but he could see each word hitting Gwyn and was frustrated because he was still hard and he was close to coming and he knew Gwyn was scared of what had just occurred. He hadn’t wanted to deal with this issue until later, but he was the one who chose the hallway, he had to own the consequences.

‘Your submission is not a sign of weakness. It is not a flaw in your being. Gulvi will not think less of you. You remember what I told you once about the Raven Prince. Do you think less of him? And be careful, before you answer that question.’

Gwyn stared at him. Augus could almost hear the litany of denials in Gwyn’s head, the words of disagreement waiting in his mouth. He wasn’t ready to have this confronted.

‘This, what we do, is between us. It belongs to no one else,’ Augus said, sliding his fingers deeper into Gwyn’s mouth.

The broken noise that came from Gwyn’s mouth was so pained that Augus felt a corresponding twinge in himself. He couldn’t talk Gwyn through this. Action would be better.

He withdrew his fingers at once and shifted, pushing his cock forwards, Gwyn’s mouth now erring towards lukewarm because it had been held open for so long. For a single moment he thought Gwyn would put up serious protest, but the moment passed and Gwyn’s eyes closed, tears clinging to his lashes.

He’d been shaken. But Augus decided that was possibly a good thing. A reminder that his cold, supposedly ironclad control would not get him through this – or indeed much else – intact. Augus licked his lips as he waited for Gwyn to relax his throat and then pushed hard, starting a steadier rhythm than he’d used earlier. Gwyn would need time to get hard again.

He nudged his boot forwards once more and started a soft massage that pressed the seam of his pants into Gwyn’s cock. Gwyn managed a moan when Augus withdrew to let him breathe, and Augus laughed softly, pressing back, winding Gwyn up as his hips rocked.

It was when he picked up a far rougher rhythm, taking Gwyn’s throat, making it his, that Gwyn suddenly leaned into Augus’ hand where it rested against his jaw. Augus thrust forward hard in response, ground his hips deep while tenderly caressing Gwyn’s cheek and feeling fine, constant shivers.

‘There,’ Augus said, thrusting back and forth and enjoying the fact that Gwyn was drooling now, couldn’t help himself. ‘There, that’s good, Gwyn.’

Gwyn whined, and then his hips bucked up, grinding his cock into Augus’ boot. Gwyn was past humiliation now. He was need and fire and light, and Augus was happy to guide him through it.

His own arousal – held back for some minutes – was allowed to move back through him again, and he felt it pooling at the base of his spine, drawing up in his balls. He felt it in the momentary urge to chomp hard on flesh, bit into his tongue instead.

Gwyn tried to inhale deeply when he came and choked instead. The sensation of it, the way Gwyn shifted and jerked against the wall, how his hands came up – one trying to push Augus away and the other actually wrapping around the back of his thigh and drawing him forwards – it was enough. Augus came with a long sigh, a faint groan. He spilled into the back of Gwyn’s throat, forcing him to swallow, and Gwyn kept up with a greed that was admirable.

Gwyn’s own orgasm was prolonged, and Augus was surprised that Gwyn was still experiencing aftershocks even after Augus had finished coming in his mouth. It was a sign of how little Gwyn’s needs were being met. After all, Augus could touch himself, bring himself off, slide fingers into his ass. Gwyn didn’t touch himself unless he was wrecked with bloodlust after a battle; and he hadn’t been in enough to sate himself in that way either.

He didn’t miss the way Gwyn tilted his head into Augus’ hand again, even as Augus slid out of his mouth. Gwyn’s lips puckered like he wanted to keep Augus’ cock in place.

It made him smile faintly, made it all – for a moment – seem worthwhile again.

His thumb moved up and stroked the bruise where he’d backhanded him earlier.

He tucked himself back into his pants, did them up and then knelt between Gwyn’s spread knees. Gwyn watched him in surprise, mouth still open, even as he wiped at the spit that made a shiny mess of his jaw and lips with the back of his hand.

Gwyn still didn’t expect anything like aftercare. Though what Augus had to offer was a poor substitute for what he truly wanted to give.

He moved his hands over Gwyn’s left shoulder, one hand curving behind it, the other bracing him at the front.

Gwyn hissed, still catching his breath. They both knew what was coming. Augus held back a cringe. He’d left it too long. It was going to hurt more than usual.

Just before closing his eyes he saw a pearl of white at the corner of Gwyn’s mouth, a green sheen turning it nacreous. He offered a faint smile of what he hoped was reassurance and then closed his eyes, took a deep breath. He opened his energy to Gwyn’s, felt the subtlety of his glamour still hiding his fear, even now. Behind that, the ley lines of his body, meridians of power flashing like small stars. His shoulder was a mess. Worse than last time.

‘Bear with me,’ Augus said in apology.

Gwyn tensed, but didn’t move away. Augus dug his fingers into the pressure points and winced as he rode out Gwyn’s full body flinch. Gwyn’s teeth clicked together, and Augus looked up when Gwyn slammed his head back into the stone wall, the motion sharp and rough. It jarred through Augus’ fingers.

‘You have paid too steeply for this debt,’ Augus said, tired. He’d never met Kabiri before; was no match for him, but he wouldn’t mind saying a thing or two to him about what he’d done to Gwyn’s shoulder.

At least the musculature was stronger. Gwyn was building strength within it again; but it was a mess of tangled energy connections, nerves not transmitting signals with any sort of efficiency. Communicating pain constantly, reminding Gwyn of what he’d lost even as his life was returned to him.

Augus pressed his lips to Gwyn’s forehead, kept the pressure up until his own fingers started to hurt.

He took a deep breath, shifted his fingers quickly, slammed them into points of energy that weren’t in the right places, and watched hungrily as the lines disappeared from Gwyn’s forehead. He slumped against the wall, mouth going slack, lips red. His breathing stopped being caught up in his lungs and became deep, hungry things, before settling into a far easier rhythm.

‘There,’ Augus whispered again. ‘It’s been too long. You should come to me for this every day.’

He was reluctant to ease his fingers away from the pressure points, but he had to. Would that he could keep pressure on them all the time, but bodies didn’t work that way, and he looked at Gwyn’s face closely as he eased the pressure off. For now, the pain was staying away. But Augus wasn’t treating him nearly enough to get the maximum benefit out of it. Chances were that Gwyn would start feeling pain again in ten, maybe twenty minutes.

Augus smoothed his fingers through Gwyn’s hair, frowned when he realised Gwyn’s chest was stuttering, his breath hitching again in his throat. At first he thought the pain had come back within seconds, then his eyes narrowed.

‘Gwyn?’ Augus said, pressing closer, caging him against the wall. ‘Talk to me.’

Gwyn cleared his throat. Shook his head.

‘I know- I know I shouldn’t care for her. When you- When Efnisien and Lludd didn’t- I don’t understand why…’

His eyes widened as he realised what Gwyn was talking about. A subject they’d both been avoiding beyond the occasional snipe. Something twisted in his chest. If Gwyn were a client, Augus would...

Augus was shocked to realise that if Gwyn were a client – a stranger – he would tell Gwyn that something unfair had occurred. Something unjust. For a moment he couldn’t move, and Gulvi’s words scored him.

You do harm to him. You do harm to yourself, in this. Have you realised yet?

‘Perhaps I shouldn’t have...’

Augus’ forehead furrowed, he shook his head sharply.

Crielle was a monster. He would not be made to feel guilty by the person who she had been attempting to murder, and the swan that didn’t understand anyway. He snarled, furious, unwilling to indulge the caged feeling in his chest. He stood up and backed away, Gwyn staring at him in confusion, eyes brighter than usual.

‘No,’ Augus snapped. ‘She tortured you, your whole life. She used your care for her against you. Do you think I don’t know what impact she’s had? You’ll talk about Lludd beating you more frequently than you’ll talk about anything she’s done.’

Gwyn looked down and away, his breathing shaky.

‘What were you going to say, Augus?’ he said, his voice a bruised rasp. ‘What shouldn’t you have done?’

Augus growled, watched Gwyn push himself upright, a damp stain on his pants, debauched, dishevelled, annoyed that once again he couldn’t enjoy the aftermath of being with Gwyn. This kept happening. It was intolerable.

‘What were you going to say?’ Gwyn said, looking at him, something disarmed in his gaze.

‘You knew what I was from the beginning,’ Augus snapped. ‘Don’t pretend that my behaviour comes as a shock to you. Not with all that I’ve done. I warned you, and I follow through on my promises. The world is a better place without Crielle in it. As to the other fae I harmed...’

But there were no apologies waiting inside of him. Just a strange, unpleasant nausea.

‘Augus?’ Gwyn said, and Augus wanted to lash out, hated hearing that tone of voice from him. The one that was raw, open, that reminded him of times when they once – unbelievably – talkedas though they were friends in the Seelie Court.

Gwyn would be like this now, and in thirty minutes he’d go back to work, and it would be like none of this had happened.

His skin itched.

‘Augus, I’m just trying to understand why-’

‘I will speak to you soon,’ Augus said, picking up his belt, walking away. Gwyn didn’t follow. They were no longer sleeping in the same room. Augus knew he should stay. He knew he should make sure that Gwyn was all right after Gulvi had witnessed them both.

He was tired of obligation. Tired of ‘following through’ when it felt as though he was the only one doing it.

And more than that. He’d been remiss in another duty – this one to himself and only himself. Perhaps it would help to at least get that obligation out of the way. There was someone else he needed to see, hadn’t followed up on for over a year now because of the distractions of the Nightingale, a ruined Court, captivity, Gwyn. Someone else he’d betrayed a long time ago. He couldn’t keep putting it off. He wasn’t even sure how to find him again; but it was important, and he had to try.

He needed to find the Raven Prince.

Chapter Text

Augus

*

His cock was still sticky from Gwyn’s saliva when he’d backtracked through the castle – turning invisible within a marble alcove and following the scent of Gulvi. She’d requested Gwyn’s company, and Augus needed to know how she’d respond to he and Gwyn fucking in public. The problem wasn’t that it had been in public; she really wouldn’t have cared about that. The problem was that Gwyn was so uptight at the best of times she might not be able to resist seeding further discord in him about the subject.

The invisibility ached, felt like a boot pressing upon his chest. He breathed through it slowly and slipped into the room where Gulvi was looking at the RSVPs for the Triumphal Entry. It wasn’t far away now. Augus had the role of finalising Gwyn’s clothing – since Gwyn took zero interest in his appearance beyond making sure his hair wasn’t knotted and his skin was clean.

He leaned in a corner, folded his arms, ground his teeth together. It grated on him to not provide better aftercare and he was furious with himself for caring. Gwyn wasn’t his client, and the neglect went both ways. If he was keeping a scorecard between who was doing a better job of neglecting the other, it turned out Gwyn applied that old heartsong of triumph to a lot of things.

It was another hour before Gwyn showed up, freshly showered. His skin scrubbed pink and smelling of rosemary oil.

Gulvi looked up as he entered, wings flaring, and Gwyn flushed pinker. His ears were red, lips still faintly bruised.

She smirked and Augus stilled, watched cautiously. His fingers curled into fists. He hoped she had taken note of what it meant when he’d motioned her away from laughing at Gwyn.

‘What I want to know,’ Gulvi purred, ‘is whether it makes you more relaxed? It didn’t look particularly relaxing.’

Gwyn looked away, cleared his throat.

Come on, Gwyn, Augus thought in disgust. Where is that cold, confident King you’ve been showing everyone for weeks now?

‘I- I hadn’t intended for you to- I didn’t know you’d be-’

Gulvi raised her eyebrows at him and then grinned a perfect row of white teeth.

‘You? Flustered? This is enjoyable.’

She leaned back, spread her arms as though she wanted Gwyn to continue, and he dragged a hand through his damp hair. He was definitely on the back foot. Augus scowled.

‘La! Think nothing of it,’ Gulvi said. ‘Why are you so uncomfortable? Everyone knows you can be a jackhammer on the field. That little ‘arrangement’ of yours with some of your soldiers, oui?’

Gwyn nodded, his expression flickered before turning towards business. He seemed to be fine after that and Augus slipped out of the room, wandered some distance down the corridor before reappearing.

Gwyn had very little issue with people knowing that he was a brutal, dominating warrior, but as soon as he was on his knees, it was a different story. Augus licked his lips speculatively. He wanted to see Gwyn on a battlefield. He never really had, even when they had directly opposed each other as Unseelie and Seelie King. Even when they’d been on the same battlefield, Augus had been in one area and Gwyn in another, and Augus had missed much of Gwyn’s competence and only heard second-hand reports.

Once, Augus had gotten Gwyn to show him his light and had ended up impaled on Gwyn’s cock and holding back screams in the middle of a barren wasteland. That was – Augus knew – the bloodlust that took Gwyn over in war; the killing edge.

He wanted to be near it again. Dangerous though it was.

On his way to the common rooms, he ducked by Ash’s rooms. He wasn’t there – as usual – but Augus sat on his bed for five minutes, closing his eyes, fingers curled lightly into the bedspread. The room smelled faintly of whiskey and rum; they were poisons that prickled unpleasantly in his nose. There was a scent of silt and freshwater and fruit – berries.

He missed his brother. He wished he could talk to him about the situation with Gwyn, which was a strange position to find himself in. He wasn’t someone who had ever needed a confidante before.

Perhaps that means the giant oaf is more trouble than he’s worth.

Augus smirked. He’d been trying to convince himself of that for a little while, and he knew that wasn’t the answer.

*

Common work was exhausting. He’d nominated himself for it and at the end of each day he wondered what – exactly – he’d been trying to prove. Surely he didn’t care about underfae that much?

He flicked the sleeve of his wrist as he stood over the body of a bobcat fae that had attempted to kill him. Blood was splattered around him and he couldn’t yet sheathe his rapier. It was mostly clean – but ‘mostly’ wasn’t clean.

He lay it carefully on the table and before summoning the trows to clean up, he sat wearily in the hastily pushed back chair the bobcat fae – Yathi – had vacated. He leaned his arm over the back of it and then rested his head on that, looking down into sightless eyes, blown pupils.

‘It wasn’t even a fair fight,’ Augus said, licking blood off his lips and wincing. It tasted musky, unpleasant. ‘Can’t get me with claws alone, Yathi.’

He stared down at Yathi for some minutes longer, composing his thoughts. He felt out of sorts. Common work was about serving the underfae; murdering them was not supposed to be a common outcome. But he had to defend himself.

The creature hadn’t even waited to see if Augus could assist him. Had only seen the riches and fame he might have secured if he had killed the ‘terrible waterhorse.’

Augus sneered and stood, picking up his rapier and ringing the bell for the trows. He walked out before they arrived. They would know what to do, it wasn’t like they hadn’t done it before.

What a terribly uncouth world we live in these days.

*

It was early morning when he went wandering through the palace. He avoided the basement levels – the risk of intrusive memories wasn’t worth it. But otherwise he meandered up and down stairs, through corridors, down the aisles of libraries that were populated with books that Augus thought he had destroyed when he’d taken over the Court himself. The palace was a warren of rooms, much like Gwyn’s mind.

The outer circles were stunning, a Court that would be remembered well by everyone – Augus was sure – but in the deepest sections of the palace, the highest levels, the hardest to reach regions, there were oddities. There were corridors with doorways that opened on marble walls. Augus had found a corridor terminating in a single door on the right, that had opened to another corridor with a door – eventually – on the right, and so on, until finally Augus realised he had walked a neat, well-lit square. He’d shuddered and left it, wondered if Gwyn even knew that these sections of the palace existed.

Augus wandered the convolutions more than he wandered the perfect places. He often found something new and it was rarely uninteresting.

He'd just passed through a vaulted room filled with framed maps of the same location – but for the life of him, Augus couldn’t tell where the location was, or if it was even in the fae world. He couldn’t identify any of the languages on the maps and the regions were unknown to him. A place Gwyn was fond of? A place that didn’t exist? Where had the maps come from? None of them were penned in Gwyn’s hand.

Augus was passing through a stoa when dawn gave its twilight to the Court and Augus’ blood prickled in response to the eldritch hour.

He found Gwyn not long after, carrying a large, heavy bag of what looked like loot. It certainly sounded like gold coins clinking around in the canvas sack.

‘Robin Hood, I presume?’ Augus said, and Gwyn didn’t even flinch. He would have been able to sense Augus’ presence before Augus had sensed Gwyn’s.

‘An experiment,’ Gwyn said, his voice hushed.

Augus followed him and Gwyn didn’t tell him to go away. Augus stayed several steps behind.

‘Does it hurt your shoulder?’ Augus said lightly.

Gwyn made a huffing sound under his breath, didn’t answer. Augus raised his eyebrows. Of course it hurt his shoulder. Even though the sack was braced over his good shoulder, it had to be straining the other. Gwyn still didn’t seek him out for treatments.

They ended up at a room that was locked not with any visible lock, but with energy. Gwyn heaved the bag to the ground. It landed with a musical clinking thud! He pressed his palm to the door and Augus felt energy swirl and shift around them. The door swung open into a void of darkness.

Augus couldn’t move for several seconds, staring into that palpable black. There was movement, Gwyn disappearing into the gloom, and Augus forced his face to nonchalance through the nauseating thump of his heart.

‘As fascinating as this is, I have other matters to-’

A small, warm glow – a candle lit by Gwyn’s hand – revealed the room to be small. No monsters hid within its depths. No creeping creatures dripping black mucous and changing their forms at will while-

‘I’ve altered the permissions so that you may enter,’ Gwyn said.

Augus hesitated, tensed when he noticed the way Gwyn was watching him.

‘Don’t,’ Augus said, cautioning.

‘Don’t what?’ Gwyn said, turning back to the sack and carefully untying the knot. Gwyn’s hands could be surprisingly clever and Augus watched calloused fingers work at complicated ties as he stepped cautiously in the room, looking over his shoulder to make sure the corridor waited behind him.

Of course it does. Don’t start indulging those fears of yours now.

Gwyn took the sack and upended it. Coins and gems streamed out, a river of wealth that made Augus ache to get his hands on it. There were times he truly missed the endless resources at Gwyn’s disposal when he’d been King of the Seelie Court.

Once the sack was empty, Gwyn threw it into the corner. Finally he took a small, insignificant looking gem out of his pocket and placed it down by the gold, pursing his lips at it.

‘I’m afraid I’m not aware of your hypothesis,’ Augus said. Gwyn’s lips quirked.

‘Fenwrel has gifted the Unseelie Court with a charm of increase, but I do not wish to use it with the Treasury in its total. I’ve partitioned some of it off and we’ll see what happens.’

‘She is Fenwrel, granddaughter of Fluri – you don’t trust her?’ Augus said, surprised.

‘She’s Unseelie,’ Gwyn said absently, then stilled. Augus made a clucking sound under his tongue.

‘As are you. But then, I suppose you’re not predisposed to trusting us after the upbringing you’ve had. It wasn’t as though you could trust the people who were supposed to be trustworthy.’

Augus stepped out of the room first. Gwyn extinguished the candle, leaving the holder just inside the door. He closed it, placed his palm against it and changed the permissions again.

‘I can just see it now,’ Augus mused. ‘You out there with your generals feeling like a wolf amongst the sheep. Or is it a sheep amongst the wolves? Are you out there, time after time, feeling like a spy? How hard must you fight yourself to remember that you’re one of them?’

Gwyn offered a grim smile, didn’t rise to the bait. There were circles under his eyes.

‘You need to sleep before the Triumphal Entry.’

Gwyn shook his head. ‘I don’t have time.’

‘When was the last time you slept? Not dozed. Slept. Abusing that status of yours again, aren’t you?’

‘Augus,’ Gwyn said, helpless. ‘There’s four days before the Entry. There’s catering, the generals, I need to make sure that Fenwrel is-’

‘You are King. Delegate.’

Gwyn’s face closed off and Augus almost laughed. If Albion – once a member of Gwyn’s Inner Court – couldn’t get Gwyn to delegate in all the years he’d been King, he didn’t like his own chances. But he did appreciate a challenge.

‘At the very least I need to finish fitting your clothing. You won’t see a tailor, but I’ll not have you out there before the new Court with poorly fitted-’

‘Augus, you have my measurements,’ Gwyn grumbled.

‘You are training on a regular basis and your measurements are constantly changing. See me at ten this morning. My rooms. Yes?’

Gwyn hesitated, then nodded curtly. With that, the conversation was over. Gwyn walked down the corridor briskly, and Augus wondered how hard it would be to dig beneath all those layers of business and coldness and find the Gwyn that would gasp in his arms and cling. He frowned as he walked in the opposite direction.

Likely very hard, given Gwyn wouldn’t give him the time he needed in the first place.

*

Augus held a small black stone in his hands. His Prince had made it for him. It was a locating charm, and the Raven Prince hadn’t known what he was making it for when Augus had once begged it off him for the sake of ‘knowing where my liege is, in case of an emergency.’

Augus turned it – cool and smooth – his doors barred and pacing, forcing his breathing to slowness. He hadn’t used it for so long and he wasn’t even sure it would still work. But the Raven Prince had potent magic, and there was still, hopefully, a kernel of it remaining.

He closed his eyes and kept pacing, having measured out the steps he needed to make sure he wouldn’t bump into anything. His breathing turned slower, slower again, and he sank within the depths of his mind, looking for a still black lake in the core of himself.

But before he could even sink into the well of himself –the preliminary step of the whole ritual – he was snagged in other currents. He whirled amongst thoughts, feelings, adrift on an eddy that wouldn’t release him. He snarled in frustration, kept walking, attempted to extricate himself and sink back down again.

Once more he was picked up and thrust into a tangle of energy and thought.

Quietening his mind hadn’t even been so difficult when he’d been in a cell for months.

He opened his eyes two hours later, his breathing faster, the stone clenched in his fist and his hand damp and warm.

It shouldn’t be so hard. He wanted to blame it on the faded magic of the stone, but he knew better. It was something in himself. When his heartsong had been dominance, he’d been able to master himself more easily. Now that it was balance…

It’s destabilised, Augus realised with a shock, eyes widening. My core is destabilised.

He placed the stone in a decorative bowl of black river stones and then swirled his hand through it to make sure the charmed one was at the bottom, so Gwyn wouldn’t suspect it was there. He brushed away a faint thread of nausea and decided he’d try again later.

*

Gwyn shifted uncomfortably when Augus asked him to strip off his clothing, and Augus rolled his eyes while looking over the stitching on the vest. It was far more formal than what Gwyn was used to comfortably wearing, but it was a formal occasion, and Augus knew very well that Gwyn knew how to comport himself in fine clothing thanks to his upbringing.

Gwyn undressed slowly, dropping his clothing unceremoniously instead of folding it. It was a small act of rebellion and Augus ignored it, turning over the flap of the coat and wondering where he’d need to alter it. He looked over at Gwyn, scrutinised his form. He hadn’t put on too much musculature since Augus had measured him. Augus had deliberately left it as late as possible to make sure that Gwyn’s body wouldn’t change too much.

He still lacked bulk. He no longer stood as proudly as he used to. Augus’ eyes skated over the nasty scar at the front of his shoulder. It rippled all the way over to mar him even more extensively at his back. He couldn’t let his eyes linger on it, because Gwyn noticed and closed up even more. But Augus didn’t like pretending it wasn’t there. He missed the days when Gwyn would stand naked, unselfconscious, as if to say: Yes, I’m glorious, no matter how mentally unstable I am.

‘Put these on,’ Augus said, handing him the pants. Gwyn took them hesitantly, something wary in his gaze. Augus watched him long after Gwyn looked away and started dressing.

There’d been a hint of this when taking his measurements, but it was worse today. Much worse. His nostrils flared and he picked up no fear, but that didn’t necessarily mean anything with Gwyn.

‘Do you want me to do your shoulder after this, or before?’ Augus said, and Gwyn looked up. His chest heaved on a single, silent breath. He never asked for it. Even before training – the activity that hurt it the most – he never asked.

‘After?’ Gwyn said, and Augus nodded and went back to examining the coat.

He’d gone with darker shades than Gwyn was used to wearing, though he kept to the older style of clothing he seemed to prefer. Augus would have modernised the suit for himself, but he decided that a more ornate, complex suit was a better fit. A navy coat and pants, so dark they were almost black, and a pale blue collared shirt that matched the colour of his eyes. The vest was embroidered, pale blue patterns over the navy. Gwyn had protested the entire thing, saying it would be too uncomfortable to wear.

It was a strange thing to protest, given the armour he trained in had to be excruciating at the best of times.

‘Step onto the block while I fix the hems,’ Augus said, and Gwyn took a breath and then did so.

Augus knelt by his feet with a container of pins, needles, thread, and Gwyn tensed. As Augus began making sure the hems were even, would fit well over the shoes he’d chosen, he paused, his eyes widened.

‘You must have many memories of being fitted for clothing,’ Augus said.

‘It’s tedious. Will this take much longer?’

Augus’ eyes narrowed and he ‘accidentally’ trailed the point of the pin over Gwyn’s skin. It was too light to cause any pain, even much of a scratching sensation. Gwyn flinched like he’d just been stabbed with it.

Damn it.

‘Sorry,’ Gwyn said, though he’d not actually moved his feet off the block. His voice was stiff.

‘Who used to fit you for your clothing? Did you have a manservant who did those things for you?’

‘No.’

Augus placed a palm over the bridge of Gwyn’s foot, closed his eyes briefly. He looked up and Gwyn was looking ahead, face a blank mask. Augus could almost hear him telling himself to just get through it.

His jaw tensed as he took up another pin, not looking away from Gwyn’s face. He kept his other hand on the bridge of Gwyn’s foot. Then, never looking away, he slid the pin into the skin above Gwyn’s ankle.

No flinch. No sharp intake of breath. He didn’t move.

‘Pray tell, Gwyn. Why aren’t you reacting? I just slid a pin into your ankle.’

‘It’s a fitting,’ Gwyn said simply, and then he blinked to awareness and looked down at Augus in surprise. ‘What’s wrong?’

Augus slid the pin free and threw it down into the container.

‘Fittings aren’t supposed to hurt. That mother of yours… And after all this time, how do you not know that fittings aren’t supposed to hurt? Surely you had to be fitted away from her; for armour, for…everything since your childhood.’

Gwyn took a slow breath and shifted uncomfortably on the block.

‘I don’t get fitted like this, Augus,’ Gwyn said. ‘I get my measurements taken and then wear clothing based on that. It only needs to be comfortable.’

Augus opened his mouth to argue and realised now wasn’t the best time to have this conversation. Gwyn was resistant, Augus was too frustrated. He picked up the shirt and handed it to Gwyn, satisfied with the fit of the pants. They wouldn’t need much work.

Gwyn was silent for the rest of the fitting, up until Augus attached a silver stag brooch where others might have a breast pocket.

‘A stag?’ Gwyn said, looking down.

‘For the Wild Hunts we’ll have again,’ Augus said, lips quirking. ‘And it seems rather fitting I think. Also the silver will match the crown.’

‘Augus…’

‘You’re wearing it,’ Augus said. ‘This is the first time the new and old noblesse will see the Court, will see you. And you don’t have centuries of having already endeared yourself to them as you did with the Seelie. Impressions will count a great deal. Besides, you will cut a striking figure.’

‘It should be armour,’ Gwyn said. Augus turned him towards the mirror when Gwyn wouldn’t look at himself.

‘We don’t have a properly fitting set of armour for you and I suspect this is a far better alternative.’

Gwyn looked at himself, eyes moving over the ensemble with an expression that Augus couldn’t read. But then Gwyn took a breath and seemed to relax, and Augus realised, pleased, that he liked it.

Augus’ eyes met Gwyn’s in the mirror, gaze sharp. If Gwyn was mostly accustomed to wearing clothing that Crielle was tailoring for him…

‘She was clever, wasn’t she?’ Augus said, keeping his voice even, keeping a careful hand on Gwyn’s waist. ‘Did you ever realise that she was making your clothing fit you poorly so that you would never feel comfortable? Especially in situations where she could watch you squirm in the clothing she had made for you; knowing that she could reprimand you at any moment? What was it? Seams too tight? Irritating fabrics brushing up against sensitive areas? She would have you looking well fitted on the outside and you’d receive oh-so-many compliments, and secretly you’d be dying to just get free of whatever new torture she’d thought up for you.’

Gwyn stared at him in the mirror.

‘Is this clothing uncomfortable for you?’ Augus asked. ‘Think about it, and don’t contemplate lying to me.’

‘No,’ Gwyn said faintly, sounding surprised, carefully tracing the antlers on the stag brooch.

No,’ Augus said. ‘It shouldn’t be. Of course it constrains more than the clothing you use for hiking or ranging or hunting, but it should be comfortable for what you intend it for. Not irritating, not painful.’

Gwyn’s eyes met Augus’ again in the mirror, vulnerable expression transforming into something harder, colder.

Didn’t like finding that out, did you, sweetness?

Gwyn stepped off the block, hands coming up to the hems of the coat and pulling it down, neatening the creases automatically. Augus allowed himself a moment of satisfaction. He’d made Gwyn look very good. So much so, that he had to remind himself it would be inappropriate to rip the suit off him or force Gwyn down to his knees while he was in it. Wouldn’t do to have something that had cost a fair amount – even with Augus making careful choices with the fabrics – require laundering only days before the Triumphal Entry.

He watched Gwyn out of the corner of his eye as he undressed. The way he moved around the nerve damage in his shoulder. The bunching and shifting of his muscles, building under the frequent training Gwyn inflicted on himself.

Gwyn caught him staring. But Augus said nothing, watched him quietly as Gwyn laid all the clothing back out on the bed. Augus’ bed.

They’d not spent time together in the rooms Gwyn had created for them both. Augus had only seen them once during his times wandering the palace when he couldn’t settle his thoughts. They were sensitively crafted. Augus didn’t know at this point if they’d ever be used.

‘You can survive almost everything else,’ Augus said, and Gwyn paused, naked, stared at him. Augus’ eyes were drawn to the vulnerable, limp cock between his legs, the complete lack of body hair. His gaze drifted up and met Gwyn’s.

‘You would not have survived her,’ Augus finished, and Gwyn stiffened. ‘And, given the plan – plans – she may have in effect; you still may not.’

Gwyn turned and reached for his shirt. Augus watched the expanse of Gwyn’s back and imagined running his claws down it until blood trickled down along ridges of muscle.

‘You never give me your time,’ Augus said. He turned and smoothed his hand down the clothing for the Triumphal Entry. ‘Are you waiting for me to claw it from you?’

‘I am, actually, busy.’

Gwyn didn’t look up as he pulled on his pants, and just like that he was done – he was in the habit of not wearing shoes around the palace. Barefooted, hair mussed from pulling on and taking off shirts, he looked younger and more fragile than he had any right to.

He took a step towards the door, then hesitated. He looked back.

Augus smirked. ‘Do you dream of me emptying you of blood and making you ache, as much as I do?’

Gwyn’s cheeks flushed, he ran a hand through his hair.

‘We have a Kingdom to run,’ Gwyn said, and Augus had his answer.

‘Keep slighting me,’ Augus whispered as Gwyn walked towards the door. ‘You’ll see what I’m capable of.’

‘I know what you’re capable of,’ Gwyn said heavily, hand on the doorknob. He looked over his shoulder. ‘I’ve already had to defeat you once.’

It was only once Gwyn had left that Augus realised that Gwyn expected to have to defeat him again. He ran his thumb over the stag brooch and felt tired.

*

Two days before the Triumphal Entry, Augus was overwhelmed. He supervised the servants, brought his full knowledge of formal functions to bear, oversaw decorations in the throne room. He caught glimpses of Fenwrel talking with Gulvi, of Gwyn going about his business with training and the generals.

Ash returned from hunting just in time to bring the knowledge of fae and human liquor and alcohol with him, and then shocked Augus with his adept management of outdoor decorations, catering, and other aspects of entertaining that had slipped Augus’ mind.

‘You look fucking beat,’ Ash said. Augus smiled thinly, refusing to touch and settle his hair as he wanted to. Ash would know the gesture for what it was and become even more concerned. ‘You ever just want to get the hell out of dodge? You know, leave him to it and-’

‘Ash,’ Augus said.

‘Come on,’ Ash said, frowning, ‘you must think about it sometimes.’

‘And go to what, exactly? Risk my life and yours in the same instant?’

Ash’s forehead creased.

‘You…can’t force yourself into something that’s bad for you, for my sake. Okay? You can’t.’

‘Ash, I chose this,’ Augus said, scrutinising the table positions before nodding to himself. Most of the tables wouldn’t be used anyway. Fae liked to explore, meander, find their own secret hideaways. Thankfully the night gardens provided more than enough by the way of havens.

‘S’just, you look tired, you look…’

Ash walked up to him and Augus tried to swing away, knowing what was coming. He growled softly when Ash grasped his wrist and pulled him back.

‘You spent a long time rejecting me,’ Ash said, reaching up and touching Augus’ hair, running his fingers down it in the way that Augus had wanted to for hours. He shivered, closed his eyes, wanted to spend entire days curled in a pile of limbs with Ash on his bed, resting. ‘But you look like shit, brother. I know you’re not looking after yourself.’

‘Perhaps if you were here shouldering some of the load, I’d have more time to take care of myself.’

Ash shrugged. He wasn’t very apologetic about the fact that he wasn’t often there.

‘Go lie down,’ Ash said. ‘I’ve got this. Get something to eat. Okay? Stop doing this to yourself. It reminds me a little too much of how you were in the old Court, y’know?’

Augus shook his head in irritation, stepped away from Ash, refused to fold his arms. He thought of excuses, but none of them would be well received if they all came at the expense of looking after himself.

‘A nap, you say?’ Augus said. There wasn’t much left to be done now, and he knew Ash could handle himself.

‘And a hug,’ Ash said, spreading his arms hugely.

Augus made sure none of the common fae servants were watching. He didn’t mind the trows or Gwyn seeing his affections, but he preferred not to have to deal with others coming to conclusions about the softer aspects of his personality. There was hardly anyone around and he stepped quickly into Ash’s arms, resting his forehead on his shoulder.

Ash’s arms were strong around him, warmer than his own body temperature. He pressed his cheek alongside Augus’, and for several breaths, Augus closed his eyes and pretended that he was back in their childhood lake.

‘Now get off me,’ Augus said, shrugging out of Ash’s grasp, a smile gracing his lips briefly.

‘Go get some sleep,’ Ash said, shoving him for good measure.

*

He came out of his doze with a start, pushing himself up onto his palms even as he realised Gwyn was in his room, sitting on the chair by his desk. He wore more clothing than usual; a sign he’d been with his generals, perhaps. Augus blinked away confusion, wondered what he needed to do. What he’d missed.

For a brief, aching moment he thought Gwyn might be there to seek his company.

As he should. My company is very fine. Being brought low by his insecurities is unbecoming.

Augus draped his legs over the side of his bed, folded his arms in his lap.

‘Your Highness,’ Augus said smoothly.

Gwyn flinched like he’d been struck.

‘Don’t do that.’

‘Do what? Treat you the way you wish to be treated?’

Gwyn looked away, and at the same moment he reached into his pocket and drew something out. A thin, silver chain clinked musically, coiled into Gwyn’s palm. He closed his fingers around it, though a foot trailed down in the direction of the floor. Augus looked at it in confusion.

‘You see, Augus,’ Gwyn said, looking down at what he held in his hand, ‘there is question in the Unseelie Court, at the moment. A great deal more rides upon the reputation – now, more than ever – that you come across as a tame, controlled creature. An Advisor who isn’t about to betray me as he did the Raven Prince. For that is what many suspect now that Crielle is dead. There are some Unseelie who think that if I were to kill Crielle – as I have publically stated – I would have done it already, or done it myself. There is doubt.’

He shifted his hand and exposed more of the chain. Augus felt colder than normal, a thick, sluggish current of nausea turned his gut as he looked at the links of silver holding it together.

‘You, yourself, told me the importance of maintaining reputation.’

‘Don’t you dare,’ Augus breathed, a dark, vicious outrage stirring amongst fear and horror. ‘You wouldn’t dare.’

‘So much of our success rides upon reputation. It would only be a token display of your-’

‘You want me to wear a chain, a leash, at the Entry? In front of all those fae? I’m your primary Advisor, Gwyn. This isn’t a Display! I’m not your captive.’

‘The words you used yourself, Augus-’

‘-You would put me through this again, after-’

‘It is a token, a symbol. The chain is not spelled. It is thin. Everyone will understand that it is a symbolic gesture.’

‘Everyone will understand that I am your slave. Who wears a collar and a leash – a metal chain – by the King’s side otherwise, Gwyn? Tell me? Is it the Advisor?’

Gwyn’s hand closed around the chain, and Augus wanted to wrap it around Gwyn’s neck. His heart beat heavily in his chest. He felt trapped, wanted to shake Gwyn until all the coldness fell out of him. He stood, and Gwyn tipped his head back, watched him warily. But he didn’t move.

He looked unhappy.

Not unhappy enough, the brute.

‘You cannot make me do this,’ Augus breathed. ‘I would like to see you try.’

‘You’re right,’ Gwyn said. ‘I can’t make you. You’re not truly a prisoner. You are not a slave. But-’

‘Is this some petty revenge?’ Augus said, laughing. ‘Can I expect more of this?’

‘Augus,’ Gwyn said, closing his eyes. ‘You very recently reminded everyone of the kind of brutality that you indirectly committed when you, yourself, were ruler. These are all people you’ve harmed directly or indirectly. People you’ve hurt. And you, yourself, told me that they will not trust me – will not trust us – unless they perceive you to be under my control. What better way of showing that, at this time, than showing the Each Uisge – such a creature of independence – voluntarily wearing a chain?’

Augus reached out quickly, snatched the chain out of Gwyn’s grasp before Gwyn’s reflexes kicked in. As Gwyn watched in shock, Augus brought his strength to bear and snapped the chain in several pieces before dropping them all to the ground.

He stood over Gwyn, staring down at him, fingers clenching into fists. Gwyn’s eyes flickered from Augus’ face, to his hands, but he didn’t move.

‘Hold still,’ Augus snarled, backhanding him across the cheekbone, splitting his skin. Gwyn exhaled sharply, but his eyes came back, met Augus’ even as they watered from the force of the blow. The gaze was steady, implacable, and Augus’ mouth turned dry, his skin crawled.

Everything Gwyn said was right.

‘You had best believe that I will make you pay for this,’ Augus said, his voice turning smooth, even though it was deeper with his distress.

‘Of that I have no doubt,’ Gwyn said, raising his fingers tentatively to his cheek and touching the split there. Now he looked like he cared what Augus felt. Now he had the audacity to look at him like he cared.

‘Down,’ Augus said, stepping back and pointing at a space of floor in front of his feet. ‘Go on, King. I grow less and less inclined to stay in this Court of yours. Remind me why I’m here.’

Augus watched in disgust as Gwyn stared at the patch of floor, and then – after a quick, hesitant glance up at Augus – slid to his knees from the chair itself. He knelt, and Augus wished for ropes and chains that weren’t symbolic and took a handful of Gwyn’s soft hair in his hand and twisted hard enough that strands came free. Gwyn made a small sound in the back of his throat, resisted instinctively as Augus pushed his face towards the ground.

‘I said down,’ Augus said, and Gwyn shook as he fought back. Augus pushed harder, and Gwyn’s arms bent voluntarily. He went – faintly resistant – the rest of the way. Chest on the tiles, forehead pressing in where Augus held his head down. ‘I want to know more about this idea of yours.’

‘It would only be once,’ Gwyn said, muted. ‘During the Triumphal Entry. It would be enough. Once would be enough to stay in everyone’s minds.’

‘They respect me little enough as it is!’

‘I thought you took pride in taking responsibility for yourself, your actions,’ Gwyn said, and Augus let go of his hair abruptly, then lowered the ball of his foot to the back of Gwyn’s head, pushing down. He controlled his breathing, made it even.

‘Asking me to submit to a chain is not about pride and it is not about responsibility. You know that very well.’

Augus could hear his own breathing, knew Gwyn could hear it too.

‘You are neglectful, cruel, and cold,’ Augus said, his voice turning soothing, feeling Gwyn shudder and shift through the sole of his foot. ‘Someone should teach you some manners, shouldn’t they, your Highness?’

‘Augus,’ Gwyn said, voice faint. ‘Don’t call me that.’

‘Majesty,’ Augus purred. ‘I fail to see, my liege, why you have such a problem with it when you keep lording it over me.’

‘I’m trying to make this work.’

Augus crouched, resting more of his weight on the foot upon Gwyn’s head, and Gwyn’s good arm came up, his fingers braced into tile. His torso curled like he wanted to roll away. Augus reached out and traced claw tips over Gwyn’s back, delicate patterns that irritated more than soothed.

‘Tell me when you’ll let me have you,’ Augus said. ‘Promise me some of your time.’

‘Augus, I can’t do-’

‘I can work for you, I can be Inner Court, but I don’t have to be your lover. It becomes increasingly clear that you don’t know what it is to be with someone else. I would never have turned away clientele if I’d known it was going to be like this.’

Augus realised with a shock, that it was true.

Gwyn held his breath. Augus waited to see how long he would hold it for. A full minute passed before Gwyn exhaled slowly, silently. Augus watched him hold his breath again and knew Gwyn was distressed, savoured it.

‘Your time, Gwyn,’ Augus prompted. ‘Tell me when I may have some.’

‘It has to be after the Entry,’ Gwyn said.

‘Tell me when. Pretend I am almost as important as everything else that you do.’

‘Take on clients again,’ Gwyn said, though each of the words sounded torn from his chest. In response, Augus slid his hand down and underneath Gwyn’s shirt, then dug a single claw into a pressure point over his hip. Gwyn tried to jerk away, made a sound in the back of his throat.

‘You’re mistaking me for someone who enjoys being ordered around by you. I will ask you one more time; and if you don’t answer me, I am going to walk away. I will not play nice at your Triumphal Entry, and I will foil my own plan to present myself as cowed in order to spite you. I am that petty. That has been established, hasn’t it?’

‘There’s a battle coming up,’ Gwyn said quickly, words falling out of him in a rush. ‘A battle. After the Entry we’re laying a trap for Dogwill; but it will mean a battle and I will have to be there. After that. As soon as I return. Gods, now if you like, Augus.’

‘Oh, Your Majesty, you are so accommodating.’

Gwyn’s fingers scraped roughly across tile, hard enough that Augus scented the faintest hint of blood. He slid his claw away from the pressure point, but knew that Gwyn was tense enough it would still hurt him.

‘I’ll wear the chain,’ Augus said quietly. ‘A chain of my choosing, and I will affix it myself. And if you – at any point during the Entry – treat me with blatant disrespect, I will show you the difference between my cooperation and my lack of it.’

He stood up, lifted his foot away from Gwyn’s head, expected Gwyn to push himself upright straight away.

Gwyn stayed on the ground, forehead touching the tile, body pressed long against it. Augus waited another minute, another, and Gwyn still wouldn’t move, though his breathing came faster.

Augus closed his eyes. Even with everything being so difficult, Gwyn wanted to submit and Augus wanted to claim him. It was one of the few anchors they had. Gwyn lay face down waiting for orders, and Augus – despite the disorientation of being woken up to Gwyn wanting to chain him – wanted to command him until Gwyn felt secure in the boundaries of verbal restraint. Until he could relax. It would be good for the both of them. It had to be.

‘How long do you have?’ Augus asked, and Gwyn’s breathing hitched.

‘Not long. I have a meeting with-’

‘I didn’t ask who you had a meeting with,’ Augus said coldly, ‘I asked how long you had. Learn to listen.’

‘Thirty minutes,’ Gwyn said. ‘At most.’

‘Strip everything above the waist. Then return to this position and do not move,’ Augus said, walking from the room.

He thought of and discarded several different ideas before landing on what he wanted to do; something that would give him a measure of satisfaction after the way Gwyn had treated him.

It bothered him that Gwyn found it so difficult to think of when he could give him some of his time. It meant that he wasn’t thinking of it in general, and that meant that Augus had become an afterthought.

I am no one’s afterthought.

In one of the adjoining rooms he bypassed the saltire cross and moved straight towards one of the heavier drawers in a cabinet, pulling it out and smirking at the assortment of chains in front of him. He drew out spelled leather cuffs, a collar, thick, heavy chains and knew that Gwyn would hear them clinking from the other room. He jostled them more than necessary on the way back, then dropped them before Gwyn’s head. Gwyn’s head was, amazingly, still pushed down onto the floor. His clothing was shoved underneath the chair he’d been sitting in, his shoulders and back tense.

Augus worked quickly, attaching a heavy leather cuff to Gwyn’s ankle, two cuffs to his upper left arm – careful of his bad shoulder, a collar to his neck, and then organised the chains carefully.

‘I have a meeting,’ Gwyn said tentatively. ‘The collar-’

‘-Won’t bruise,’ Augus said as he worked. ‘You are not the only high profile client I’ve ever worked with. It’s spelled to heal bruises.’

Gwyn subsided into silence after that, and Augus grinned. He didn’t think that would last long.

He grasped Gwyn’s left arm, twisted it up and back behind him, wrenching his shoulder. Gwyn shouted, his body lurched, and in that moment Augus grasped the chain attached to the back of the collar and hooked it to one of the cuffs high up on Gwyn’s arm, keeping his head and shoulder locked in place. Gwyn gasped, forced to look up, unable to drop his head back to the floor without wrenching his shoulder further. His hand trembled, flexed spasmodically, and Augus patted it falsely before grasping the cuff at his ankle and bending his leg back.

He chained that to the other cuff encircling Gwyn’s left arm, and there, now he couldn’t lower his leg without wrenching his shoulder and his neck.

Augus tested the chains quickly, then stepped away, watching the rise and fall of laboured breathing.

‘You always did look good caught up in a predicament like this.’

Gwyn tried to look away, turned his head to the side, then jerked and inhaled sharply when even that much jolted his shoulder. He moved back immediately, back pulled into an arch, forced to hold the position.

‘Now, let’s have a chat,’ Augus said, smiling brightly, taking a cushion off his bed and dropping it before Gwyn. He sat cross-legged, watching the changes and shifts in Gwyn’s expression. He was straining at the collar as much as he dared without hurting his shoulder further or constricting his breathing. Augus should have done this a long time ago. Gwyn’s habit of constantly looking away – regardless of his reasons – was infuriating.

‘Not that long ago, you saw someone murder me,’ Augus said.

Gwyn’s reaction was instantaneous. His head dropped to the floor, he cried out in pain, his left leg jerking back to the floor in the process. He made a broken sound as he caught his shoulder in both directions and froze, breathing hoarsely, something high at the end of his inhales. Panic, most likely.

‘Careful,’ Augus breathed, licking his lips hungrily.

Gwyn’s eyes met his, a plea in them. But Augus watched him and let Gwyn see just how much he was enjoying this. Gwyn closed his eyes and his lips thinned.

‘It’s flattering, really, that you can’t speak of it. Because if it wasn’t for things like that I would have no way of knowing that you held me in any sort of esteem.’

Gwyn’s lips tightened further, his body twitched.

Augus waited quietly. He slowed his breathing, let his body find the quality of relaxation he’d had while resting. Minutes drifted. He counted off each one. At the five minute mark – so soon – Gwyn’s forehead creased. The position was very hard on his shoulder, even when he was staying still. Augus watched him shift minutely, trying to find positions that were more comfortable. He found none.

After another two minutes, Gwyn stilled once more. His eyes opened and he met Augus’ gaze.

‘You look frustrated,’ Augus said. ‘Imagine how I feel.’

‘What do you want from me?’ Gwyn said, voice hoarse from the collar, the position of his throat. ‘You killed my family.’

‘Did I? I’d forgotten. It’s not as though you keep reminding me. But let’s take a moment, Gwyn, to appreciate the fact that you’d been neglectful for some time before I did anything to Crielle or your precious housekeep. You’ve been a mess since you were demoted to underfae.’

Gwyn tried to shake his head and bit off a sound in the back of his throat.

‘I’m getting tired of you telling me what we all know – I did kill your family. What is it that you want from me, every time you say it? Is it simply to restate, over and over, that your lack of trust in me has grown? It isn’t as though you especially trusted me before, you know.’

Augus was surprised when Gwyn tried to hide his face once more, dropping his head and choking on the collar, the pain. Breathing quickly, he forced himself back into position. The reflex to hide was stronger than Augus thought.

‘Do you know what I think?’ Augus said, crawling closer and touching his fingertips to a tense jaw. Pale blue eyes watched him, eyebrows drawn together. ‘I think you trust me more than you know, and you don’t want to. No one who truly didn’t trust me would let me truss them up, allow me to do things like this. I think you’re angry that even after what I’ve done, even after all the rumours that you’ve heard about how I am a monster, how I will betray you…’

Something flickered in Gwyn’s eyes and his head didn’t move, but his eyes slid away.

Augus’ eyes narrowed as he trailed his thumb down the line of Gwyn’s jaw.

‘Or,’ Augus said, frowning, ‘you don’t trust me, and you let yourself get tied up like this because you think you deserve it.’

A twitch in Gwyn’s expression, and Augus held back a snarl. He wanted to dig his fingers into Gwyn’s skin, but instead he shifted his palm carefully, cupped Gwyn’s cheek.

Gwyn began to shiver.

‘This is disappointing,’ Augus said, and Gwyn’s eyes closed. ‘All the things you won’t talk about keep piling up, don’t they? The demotion. Being underfae. The debt with Kabiri. Being King of the Unseelie. Seeing me get killed only to realise later that it was a shapeshifter. Your lover killing the remainder of your childhood. And then everything else on top of that, yes? All the responsibilities, the tasks, the Generals, the knowledge that this is a sinking ship and you might be the captain watching it go down around you. Are there too many balls in the air for you to handle, sweetness?’

Augus traced his eyebrow, his forehead with careful fingers as Gwyn’s shaking became more pronounced.

‘What are we going to do with you?’ Augus sighed. ‘It was too much for you when you were the King of the Seelie. I can’t imagine what it’s like now.’

‘It was my choice,’ Gwyn said. ‘I should never have…blamed you for that.’

Augus squinted, then remembered their argument from the other night.

‘I know it feels as though everything is beyond your control,’ Augus said, ‘but you are holding more together than you realise. You don’t see your competence.’

Gwyn shifted, hissed. His face screwed up at the pain. But a few seconds later his expression went cold and he jerked his head down and wrenched his own shoulder deliberately, violently; mouth open, exhaling hard. He shifted back into position slowly as Augus’ hand paused on his face.

You’ll do nearly anything to escape praise, won’t you, sweetness?

‘I don’t want that from you,’ Augus said sternly.

‘You can’t fix it. You can’t fix any of it. I could give you all of my time and it wouldn’t change anything and I would only have more to do. There are responsibilities I cannot even meet. They ask me for maps and I cannot find the time to do them. I’m meant to be exploring possible alliances, getting fae into strategic positions in the oceans, following up…a great deal more than I am. You can’t do anything.’

‘Projection,’ Augus said quietly. ‘You’re the one who feels as though you can’t do anything.’

At least he was talking, volunteering information. Augus tugged at one of Gwyn’s curls, and Gwyn twisted his head away, growled in anger when he wrenched his shoulder again.

‘Let me go,’ Gwyn snapped.

‘If you want me to wear that chain, you had best ‘suck it up,’ as they say. Though I have to wonder how much it reminds you of Albion’s hand around your neck, leeching away your mortality. You behave more like an underfae than you ever did, even now that you’re King. Did you know? You-’

‘I did it for you!’

Augus hesitated, then cupped Gwyn’s face in his hands and waited for their eyes to meet.

‘At some point, you are going to have to acknowledge that you did it for yourself, also. You needed to be free of that place and I was a very flimsy excuse for you to set the stage needed to get you released or executed. You did not care, at that point, which one occurred. You can tell me that you changed the Unseelie Court for me, that it took so long because of me, that you have no time because of me, but at some point you must accept that the world is not just something that happens to you, Gwyn. You happen to the world. And you must see your part in that.’

Gwyn blinked at him, Augus’ fingers curled.

‘I don’t think you want to drive me away,’ Augus said, quietly. ‘Even with the trust broken, you want this. But if you don’t admit it to yourself, and don’t try and fight for it…well, I don’t particularly want to stay here. Do you understand?’

Gwyn’s eyes closed, and Augus slid his hands away. He stood up, aware of the time.

‘You betrayed him,’ Gwyn said, and Augus turned quickly. Gwyn’s eyes were still closed, he looked pained. ‘There was a fae whom you cared for, and then you betrayed him and no one knows what happened to him. I don’t know what happened to him. How you managed to disable – kill – the Raven Prince… You told me that he enjoyed flogging. You revealed to me you even had a similar relationship with him as you do with me.’

‘Don’t you dare compare the two,’ Augus said and Gwyn smiled stiffly.

‘Even so, Augus. Even so, you harmed him, you harmed the Court. In…less than six months, you have orphaned me, removed those people from my childhood I did care for.’

‘I cannot spend the rest of my life proving myself to you, nor do I wish to,’ Augus said. ‘I am Unseelie and a predator. As are you. You know what it is to be taken over by the bloodlust.’

I only intended to kill one person, that day.

Silence stretched away from them, and Augus realised that this was – since their argument – one of the most meaningful conversations they’d had. Yet he could only get anything out of Gwyn by manipulating his guilt, binding him.

Augus sighed and bent down to unhook the chains. Gwyn’s breath caught in his throat and he deliberately thrust his head forwards, wrenching his shoulder brutally, punishing himself where Augus saw no need for punishment.

He gave a tortured cry. Augus hurriedly unclipped the cuffs, grasping Gwyn’s shaking wrist and encircling his fingers around it, holding him still. Gwyn whined and Augus wanted to flay the world, he was so frustrated. Half an hour wasn’t long enough. Gwyn would punish himself, others, if he wasn’t given a chance to experience a safe, controlled environment.

‘Don’t do that, sweetness. I don’t want that from you,’ Augus said. ‘I need your time.’

Augus straddled his back and slid his other hand over Gwyn’s shoulder, running fingertips over scar tissue. He could release the nerves, but when he saw the small pieces of fine silver chain on the floor, he hesitated. As though Gwyn could tell what he was thinking, he said:

‘Don’t. Not until…not until after the Triumphal Entry.’

He’d been thinking something similar, but when he heard the heaviness in Gwyn’s voice, he realised that Gwyn took no pleasure in asking him to wear the chain. He was also right, a symbolic gesture would go a very long way indeed. Augus shook his head slowly, angry. It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

Augus shifted and pressed his fingers carefully into Gwyn’s shoulder, mentally feeling out for meridians. Perhaps he could talk to Fenwrel about other pressure points he might consider.

‘Everyone talks about what I am, what I’ve done,’ Augus said, digging his fingers hard into Gwyn’s shoulder and feeling his muscles tense and quiver under his thighs. He pushed harder into overworked nerves and Gwyn’s head thudded into tile. ‘Everyone has an opinion. And I suppose you are now constantly hearing from others about me: That I cannot be trusted. That I should not have been freed. That I cannot be an Advisor. That I only work with the underfae to assuage some guilt, or that it is a clever guise before I enact my next plan.’

Augus bit his lip and then shifted his fingers quickly, slamming them into pressure points that would release tension, block pain. Gwyn’s head rolled to the side. His eyes opened, unseeing.

‘You have seen more of me than most,’ Augus said, unsure if Gwyn could hear him. ‘And yet you treat me with the same disrespect as any stranger. Do you conveniently forget some of the things we have shared? We have blood-oathed for each other.’

He got up, began to offer a hand to Gwyn to help him up, even as Gwyn pushed himself up off the floor, grasping for his clothing with his other hand. His breathing was fast, shallow. He looked unhappy.

‘You are living in the surface of your mind because you are terrified of what lurks beneath,’ Augus said. ‘But if you don’t learn how to swim in the depths of yourself, we will never move beyond this paltry, weak connection. And you will fail your Court. So. After this Triumphal Entry and this battle, you will give me your time.’

Gwyn ran a hand through his hair, nodded. He turned to leave and Augus placed his hand on the door just as Gwyn opened it. He still felt ill.

‘I may not, after all this, wear that chain. I’ll know on the night.’

‘I know, Augus,’ Gwyn said. He sighed. ‘I was never going to make you.’

‘Gwyn,’ Augus said, smiling through a hard twinge in his gut, ‘I can tell when you’re lying. Can you?’

Gwyn looked at Augus, reached up and rubbed at his unbruised neck. He opened his mouth to say something, twice, but each time the words never came out. He watched Augus with something like longing on his face, and Augus opened the door for him in the end, unable to bear the expression.

Gwyn left without another word and Augus closed the door behind him, eyes alighting on a bowl of black stones, then drifting down to pieces of silver chain on the floor.

Eventually he sat on his bed and refused to think about anything other than deep, still lakes for a very long time.

Chapter Text

Gwyn

*

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.

‘Yes.’

‘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.

Augus laughed.

‘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.

‘Enough.’

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 me 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.’

Ash laughed.

‘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.

 

Chapter Text

Gwyn

*

When Tigbalan arrived – later than many of the others – Gwyn tensed. He remembered a wet, cloying heat. The taste of blood in the back of his throat. Ribs grinding together. The pain of teleportation followed by fussing hands, the combination of care and outrage from Augus. He met the horse shifter’s eyes across a sea of milling fae. Tigbalan didn’t smile as he stepped forward through the crowd.

A movement in the corner of his eye, and Gwyn realised that Augus had stood, much to the surprise of people around him.

Whispers nearby.

‘He’s territorial.’

‘Another horse shifter, this should be interesting.’

Gwyn wondered if that was truly the issue, and he signalled to get Augus’ attention. Augus dragged his eyes away from Tigbalan only reluctantly, meeting Gwyn’s.

Tigbalan reached Gwyn’s side. Gwyn felt like Tigbalan towered over him, remembered being a meal in exchange for the invisibility he had given to Augus to help with his freedom. His skin crawled. He’d been tortured many times, but he’d never been made a meal of, beaten so that Tigbalan could feed. He no longer flinched or cowered on matters relating to the subject, he had no more nightmares about it, but there was a textural scent to Tigbalan – swamps and wetlands, trees with twisting branches and thick, astringent saps that clawed through his nervous system.

‘Your waterhorse wants us both,’ Tigbalan said, holding out hands with hard, hooved fingernails. Gwyn grasped them, and Tigbalan squeezed back.

Those hands had broken his spine.

Gwyn met his gaze coldly, and Tigbalan smiled jagged, wretched teeth.

‘You are lucky I have not come here hungry tonight, Lord. Shall we go to the young Each Uisge? I must insist on your presence. I do not trust his instincts.’

‘Would it not be best to keep you separated?’ Gwyn said, and Tigbalan shook his head.

‘No. He wants my attention. He wishes to speak. And I cannot deny one who carries a part of me within him.’ His voice, deep and profound, was still very quiet, and no one else seemed to hear what he was saying. He wondered if this – along with Tigbalan’s invisibility – was part of his magic.

Tigbalan let go of Gwyn’s hands and strode towards Augus, Gwyn following. Augus watched them both, mouth set in a thin line, hands too still by his side – the chain dangling. Augus swallowed when Tigbalan came closer, the collar rose and fell on the bob of his throat.

‘I did not think you would invite me, young Lord,’ Tigbalan said to Gwyn.

‘You are Tigbalan, and I work with Luma. I observe the etiquette of old.’

‘You are still filth,’ Tigbalan said, his voice rippling through Gwyn while not touching anyone else.

Except Augus. His eyes widened and his face twisted in anger. His fists clenched. But he remained composed, watching Gwyn as though assessing him, before turning his focus to Tigbalan. He seemed to need several seconds to focus before he could even ask a question. His eyes were far brighter than usual, he stared at Tigbalan with an avid hunger.

‘This is difficult for you,’ Tigbalan said, and Augus’ expression didn’t shift, exactly, but Gwyn thought he caught something of a wince in his features.

‘May I talk to you about this invisibility?’

Tigbalan’s horse eyes crinkled in something of bemusement.

‘Yes, colt. You may. Though I require Lord Gwyn to stay here. Your territorial instincts are too strong.’

Augus looked to Gwyn. Gwyn could tell this was a conversation that he didn’t want Gwyn to witness. Gwyn averted his eyes, gave what privacy he could.

‘The invisibility is becoming harder to use,’ Augus said finally. Gwyn’s eyebrows twisted up. He hadn’t known that. ‘It affects my breathing. It leaves me drained. I thought it would become easier with time, but instead-’

‘Easier with time? Are you saying that you were afflicted with this tiredness from the beginning?’

‘Yes,’ Augus said, and Tigbalan stepped closer.

A deep growl sounded around them, and other fae nearby – excluded from the conversation by Tigbalan – turned at that, eyes widening in alarm. Augus cut the growl off immediately, cleared his throat.

‘I don’t have what you might call exact control, over that,’ Augus allowed.

‘Do not rile yourself. I am not going to hurt you.’

‘Because you have such a great reputation of not hurting people,’ Augus said, looking to Gwyn.

‘That was a transaction. This is not.’ Tigbalan reached out and placed a palm on Augus’ upper arm. It was a light, brief touch, but even so, Augus bared his teeth and the whites of his eyes showed. Tigbalan stepped back immediately, something troubled on his face. His horse ears flickered. ‘You are sick.’

He turned to Gwyn, ears flattening.

‘Lord Gwyn, you should have told me this. I would never have bequeathed this gift to someone as sick as he.’

‘I’m not sick,’ Augus said, looking alarmed.

‘He’s shown no signs of-’

‘I tell you, he is sick.’ He turned back to Augus. ‘The invisibility should have eased into your power seamlessly. This is my gift also. That it hasn’t, that it is being rejected…truly I apologise. I did not know. I should have been told.’

Augus looked confused, and then his eyes met Gwyn’s before he looked somewhere past Tigbalan.

‘Is it because my heartsong is destabilised?’

‘I beg your pardon?’ Gwyn said, staring at him in horror. How long had Augus known that for?

‘No. This is an old sickness. It clings to you. A miasma. You should go to that one over there.’

He turned and pointed at a crowd of people, and Gwyn could just make out mouse-ears, a chignon, a white sari. Fenwrel.

‘I have been taught how to use pressure points and meridians,’ Augus said slowly. ‘I think I’d know if I was ill. Perhaps your power is just-’

‘Ask the Master Mage to check. I am not wrong. I am not sure if you can preserve the invisibility. But it will take some time to wane completely. Perhaps in that period you may become healthy enough to help it integrate.’

Tigbalan turned and walked away, and Gwyn had no choice but to follow, indicating that Augus should sit once more. Augus looked shaken as he sat back on the throne. Gwyn’s head swum. Augus’ heartsong was destabilised? When had that happened? He’d not even had it that long. He was ill?

When they were a distance from Augus, Tigbalan turned and rolled his horse eyes down to Gwyn, the horizontal pupils expanding and contracting at him.

‘Should you ever need anything from me again, you need only find me. I have to confess, I dream of feeding from you once more. It’s not every day a King offers himself up as a meal. Just looking at you whets my appetite.’

‘I think you’ll find I won’t have need of your services again,’ Gwyn said, remaining calm as possible despite the memories that Tigbalan’s words were evoking.

Tigbalan gave him a long, measuring look. Horse lips curling up into something like a sneer. He drifted away into the crowd and Gwyn breathed a quiet sigh of relief. He wanted nothing to do with Tigbalan again. He’d only invited him to prove to the Court that he had no issue with Tigbalan and show his respect to some of the oldest members of the Unseelie alignment.

Still, his spine ached with phantom pain, and it took some time before he was able to fall back into the façade he’d so carefully cultivated.

*

Many of the fae that had drifted into the night gardens, vocally praising the Court’s appearance, drifted back for the Presentation of Fealty. Gwyn found the fancy name laughable; it was simply the period of time where different fae noble families would try and buy their way into Gwyn’s graces.

Gwyn and his Inner Court sat down in the four thrones. Augus sat to the far right, hands folded in his lap, staring straight ahead – elevated enough that he could stare over almost everyone’s faces. Ash, next to him, rolled out a calming glamour. Gwyn wondered if that was because he felt nervous. Gulvi, at the far left, looked into the crowd with calculating eyes. Enemies and allies of hers were all present, and she’d been socialising carefully. He’d tried to get her attention several times, but she always seemed to be off in the shadows with someone, behind a pillar, in an alcove – the people she spoke to taking a risk in showing that they knew her publically; not that it seemed to matter, Gulvi had many friends in high places.

Common fae servants and trows waited nearby to assist with the careful removal of gifts to prepare for the next presentation, and had already amassed a fortune in chests, coffers, magical orbs and more.

Gwyn, thus far, had been surprised at the pledges. He’d expected less, and more veiled insult.

Perhaps Fenwrel was right. Perhaps they did want him to succeed – some of them, anyway. Ifir still watched the proceedings with suspicion on his face, and some of the other War Generals maintained expressions of indifference. But as Gwyn generally did the same, he wasn’t sure what their thoughts were.

Princess Braith and Prince Vane stood before him now, on the dais, kneeling before six coffers of uncut, high grade gems, and a seventh of pearls from Trearddur Bay, harvested from the rare singing oysters. Ash had whistled low under his breath when he’d seen it all, and even Gulvi had leaned forwards, eyes widening.

They’d expected the fie ellyllon to want to buy their way back in – but this amount of wealth almost matched half of what was in the entire Court treasury.

Gwyn opened his mouth to offer thanks, when the shadows in the throne room darkened, spread cloying around the cavernous space. Gwyn looked up, eyes shrewd, nostrils flaring. Augus made a small, terrified sound beside him, and Gwyn placed a hand out without thinking, to keep Augus still. The Nightingale wasn’t the only fae who could manipulate shadows, though to manipulate them to this degree meant there weren’t many others who it could be.

Except…

Exclamations of shock, and fae parted around a small creature. Gwyn caught the scent of rotting animal flesh and bone, of fur badly treated, and then saw a mop of tangled hair matted into locks in some places. A pale face and opaque dark red eyes the colour of dried blood.

‘I heard there was a thing going on,’ the Nain Rouge said in the impish, hard voice of what looked to be an eight or nine year old girl. But everyone there felt the ancientness of her. She’d sat in one of these thrones during Augus’ reign. She was old enough that she’d occupied Inner Court positions so long ago that many of them had not been born.

She was one of the classless, and Gwyn shivered to see her again. Last he’d seen her – they’d been on opposite sides of a war.

‘I always think uncut gems look a little like oversized poprocks, yeah? Shove ‘em in your mouth, listen to the little bombs going off.’ Her small legs, covered in bloodied furs, feet in dirty red leather boots, complete with buckles, took huge steps to make it up the dais. She was uninvited, but no one stopped her. No one would.

‘Hey, grandma,’ Ash said, and the Nain Rouge’s eyes shot to him, her lips split apart in a grin that revealed broken teeth.

‘Don’t you call me that, fuckin’ ingrate, I might be old as balls but I’m no one’s grandma.’

‘S’good to see you too,’ he said, and Gwyn wondered when it was that Ash and the Nain Rouge had apparently forged a connection. Was it that they both cared for living in the human world over the fae? Was the Nain Rouge one of the few allies Ash had when he was Inner Court during Augus’ reign? It seemed hard to believe. Most fae wanted to stay as far away from the Nain Rouge as possible.

‘Your glamour tastes like hard liquor,’ the Nain Rouge said to him.

‘Yours is like pixie sticks,’ he said, giving her a mischievous smile.

‘I swear to fucking god, I leave the Court for all of five seconds, and come back to a pair of tweaking queens running the show. This world is going to shit. Can’t say I mind. Bitches fucking shit up is like my favourite.’

She reached into the coffers and drew out a handful of gems on sticky fingers. She then let them all fall back into the container. She had to shake an emerald off – a clot of blood sticking to it – and Princess Braith raised a dark red brow, but otherwise said nothing at all.

Gwyn watched, tense, as she walked past the jewelled boxes until she was between Gwyn and the fie ellyllon. She stared impishly up at him, and then looked over at Augus.

‘Hiya, Princess!’ the Nain Rouge said. ‘Remember demoting me? Cuz I sure do. S’pose you think I’m all weak as piss now, but actually-’

He hadn’t seen it coming with Ash, but he saw it coming now.

The Nain Rouge leapt for Augus amidst gasps and cries from the Unseelie, but Gwyn was already out of his throne, springing in front of Augus. Shadows gutted and flared around the throne room. Outrage made his body to turn hot and then icy cold. He got his hand around the Nain Rouge’s neck while she shrieked with laughter, but it was her hands that were the danger. He was sure she wasn’t strong enough to suck people’s life force from their necks as she once used to, but he didn’t need to find out the hard way.

He secured one of her hands as she laughed and alternatively cried out: ‘Ow! Ow! Uncle! Time out!’ His shoulder flared its nasty pain at him and he ignored it, lifting her clear off the floor and moving her bodily away from Augus, despite the fact that she was far heavier than she looked. He stepped to a clear section of the dais and twisted her body as he went down to one knee, pinning one of her arms beneath her and bringing his weight to bear, his other hand broad enough to have her wrist by the thumb and the rest of his fingers wrapped around the flesh of her neck.

She stopped laughing when he squeezed, though laughter lines still crinkled around the dead blood colour of her eyes.

He looked up into the crowd of Unseelie faces, furious.

‘This is the throne room of the Unseelie Court! We follow the old laws.’ He looked down at the Nain Rouge and glared at her. ‘We do not go after our own within these walls!’

His voice rang out, the only sounds that of fae shifting, the Nain Rouge wriggling half-heartedly beneath him.

‘I do not care what grievances you hold with him,’ he said to her, then looked up. ‘And that goes for all of you. I do not care what grievances you hold for each other! I know of the civil unrest amongst many of the Unseelie and I am not blind to the tensions in this room. I understand that you have no reason to think of the Unseelie Court as a haven, even though that is what it has been for tens of thousands of years more than it has ever been anything else. But that is what it is.’

He looked down at the Nain Rouge again.

‘Lady, I know your penchant for mischief, but I do not wish to hold you bound for the rest of the evening.’

‘Like you could, dickface,’ the Nain Rouge said as he released the heavy grip he had on her throat. ‘But whatever, capisce, I got it. Lookin’ pretty good with that crown, I gotta say.’

Gwyn moved his hands away from her slowly, then held out a hand to her. She took it, and he was sure she deliberately gripped hard enough to smear his hand with the blood of her kills. He could hear the coffers being moved off the dais by the common fae servants. Princess Braith and Vane retreated after Ash murmured something to them. Gwyn was too busy meeting wondering at the attack, at the timing of it.

Was it a test?

For though she played at mischief and chaos, the Nain Rouge was one of the oldest advocates of the old ways. She paid her debts. Though she called the Nightingale a younger brother, she’d distanced herself from him when he’d become close to the spirits and gods and demons of the underworlds. She was dangerous – but even the Nain Rouge didn’t attack other fae within the walls of the Court.

She held her hands out to him in supplication, palms up, and he grasped them and squeezed.

‘So you’re a King again,’ she said. ‘Righty. I can’t, with you. It’s not Pokemon, you don’t gotta collect all the statuses.’

Gwyn had no idea what she was talking about, but Ash snorted behind her. Her eyes slid past Gwyn’s torso and she winked at him.

‘I didn’t bring you any presents,’ the Nain Rouge said, shrugging. ‘I mean aside from me. Being here. That counts, doesn’t it?’

‘You bet, grandma,’ Ash said from behind Gwyn.

The Nain Rouge mock gasped.

‘And in front of all these ‘who’s who’ of the dark!’ she reprimanded. ‘You’re such a shit-stirrer.’

She looked towards Augus, then grinned wickedly.

‘Tell that pony of yours that he looks damned fine chained up like that. Missed his calling. There’s a whole porn industry waiting for-’

‘Do not insult my Inner Court,’ Gwyn said coldly.

He let go of her hands and she winked at him, quickly waved at Ash, then scurried off into the crowd. The fae parted like water for her, and a small chuckle aired in one of the darker alcoves when she reached it. The dais was clear once more and there were no more gifts to receive.

Gwyn drew himself tall on the dais, looked out into the crowd, deciding that now was the best time for it.

He groaned inwardly.

Speeches.

‘It is time to re-establish the old laws of this Court. The ones that hold us all bound while you are within this throne room, while you walk the night gardens and the outer circles.’

Seeing the way they all met his eyes – the different expressions – was familiar. It was like trying to reach a group of unruly soldiers.

‘We do not go after our own within the outer circles of the Unseelie Court. We do not feed our true appetites at these gatherings. Moderate theft is permitted, but we do not steal the breath and livelihood of another while we stand here. We are all bound to these laws, made the same beneath them.’

He wasn’t sure that was entirely true; it wasn’t like there was an abundance of underfae represented here in the throne room. And those that ‘advocated’ for their species, often advocated for their wealth or their militaries instead.

Still, it was a start.

He spread his arms, offered the triumphant smile that had caused soldiers to rally around him at a time when all might look lost.

‘By the gods, but it is good to finally make it home.’

There was something close to a collective exhale when he spoke those words. He saw scepticism on Ifir’s face and couldn’t fault him for it. He had been practicing these words for so long they hardly felt real. He couldn’t say whether the Unseelie Court was home even if the zahakhar told him that it was. He couldn’t tell whether these were his people, even though his alignment and his status made it true.

All that mattered was that he be a person they could rally behind. He would lose a few, certainly, but…

The Unseelie Court had to survive. He believed that even in the days when he wished he was Seelie down to his marrow and the Oak King was trying to find ways to not-so-subtly destroy the Unseelie completely.

‘I know there have been whispers since my securing the position of Seelie War General. Whispers in the dark. Always, since the beginning, fae under their breaths have wondered: ‘How does he use Unseelie strategies so well?’ ‘Where does he get it from?’ Some of my methods, unsurprisingly Unseelie. Now you know.’

He turned a slow circle, indicating his Inner Court with a slow sweep of his arms, noting the slightly stunned expression on Augus’ face. He resisted smiling.

You didn’t know I could be good at this, did you?

‘My Inner Court is still growing, consisting of some of the most beloved, infamous, and powerful fae in our current times. We have forged allies across land and sea, our military is growing.’

He was grateful they had seen that for themselves. Some of the War Generals that very evening – notably Ocypete, Anggitay, Ifir, Vane, Mu, Baw and – of course – Dogwill, had pledged quantities of soldiers towards the Unseelie Court military. The one that would officially be designated to protect all those who pledged their alliance and fealty directly to Gwyn and the Unseelie Court.

‘There has been far too much war,’ Gwyn said, allowing his voice to go quiet, even hushing his glamour. ‘To that end, I have seen the wisdom in re-opening the Winter Court when the season is right.’

Low, excited whispers. Tiny whoops of excitement from the fairies clustered around several of the vines curling around pillars. Fae turned and whispered to each other, eyes widening or narrowing, smiles lighting up on several faces. Amaley Manytrees beamed at him from her corner, where she sat with several other gentler natured Unseelie fae.

‘We shall be holding a Masquerade like those the Raven Prince himself used to hold, in the coming months,’ Gwyn said. ‘And for those who like the chase, the Wild Hunt has not been forgotten.’

He had them. Even the War Generals hadn’t known that, and some of the more doubtful gazes had perked up with reluctant interest.

‘Hard times have befallen us,’ Gwyn said, his voice rising in volume. ‘And I have been responsible for some of them, so it is that I owe you a debt to undo what has been done to the Unseelie. But take heart, for we are the shadows and darknesses upon the land. We grow stronger when the light fades. We only gather as one when there is true need. We grow rich from the misfortunes of others. And we will remind the Seelie that this is a world that needs balance. And we will remind the world of our true natures, as our hearts crow hungrily, as we feed upon the lifeblood of others.’

A small scattering of cheers, he felt the energy locked in now, focused on him, and his dra’ocht blazed, turning him shimmering. He couldn’t see it himself, but he knew that those who could – saw him as the Bright One. The one that the trows called ‘Gwyn of the Stars.’

‘I need not remind you of our code, but I will speak it anyway. A reminder of what we are, what we fight for:’

He took a breath, remembering doing this for the Seelie when he became King the first time, not so long ago that he couldn’t recall the whole thing in terrible clarity.

‘Honour is a lie!’

Uphold honour and all things virtuous.

‘Duty only to one’s self and one’s loved ones!’

Duty to one’s family and Kingdom.

Cheers now, growls and roars and the satisfaction of knowing he’d won them. Knowing that this feeling was the sort of thing that Crielle had lived for all her life, to the point where he couldn’t not look for it himself, in any crowd he found himself within.

‘Beauty and ugliness are the glamours we use to feed!’

Beauty is truth.

‘Fervour, frenzy, agony, ecstasy and chaos are our birthright!’

Change only when necessary, stay your hand when it is right.

Hands, paws, clawed fingers were raising in the air, and the Unseelie pushed forth their glamour together, the giant room shining with a stir of energy, twinkling in the air like motes of dust. It was a fretwork of jarring, abrasive, passionate, hungry energy, lacked the containment of the Seelie, but there was a rawness there that Gwyn appreciated.

‘The night gardens are yours to enjoy for the evening,’ Gwyn said, indicating the direction they should go. ‘All tastes have been catered to and our beloved Glashtyn has provided the drink, which I know will please many of you.’

‘He probably stole it from us!’ someone shouted.

‘Not this time, Arinaud!’ Ash shouted back.

Laughter, a release of the worst of the tension, and Gwyn knew it was time to wind things up. He’d planned to say more, but a shorter speech was best. He would see many of them at the opening of the temporary Winter Court, at the Masquerades; there would be many more chances to speak.

Gramercie,’ Gwyn said, inclining the head. ‘The gift of your presence is great.’

Old words, and the speech was closed. Excited talking buzzed immediately, some fae running off to the night gardens – the fairies zooming fastest of all towards the night-blooming flowers and werelights that awaited.

Gwyn continued to mingle, conversation turning to more relaxed matters. The atmosphere of the throne room had changed markedly, though Gwyn could still pick how often they tried to manipulate him, how many of them wanted higher status, wanted recognition, wanted the chance to get in on the ‘ground floor’ in a poor, fractured Court.

Hours drifted by; fae caroused into the early morning hours. The entire time Augus sat on the throne and Gwyn made sure he talked to as many as possible, never letting his time be monopolised by one person for too long.

The revels would continue. A large portion of the night gardens were now open to all Court fae, at any time. Along with the throne room now being accessible to all except during Court meetings, the Unseelie Court was officially open for business.

Gwyn turned and saw Augus – alone on the dais now, as he had been for some time – standing and stretching subtly. He searched the room and met Gwyn’s eyes, looked fatigued.

Just like that, Gwyn remembered that there was a cost to this evening. That he, too, was sleep deprived.

He made his farewells to the fae closest to him – not expected to stay up with the rest of them – and walked towards the antechamber doors, knowing that Augus would follow.

As soon as the double doors were closed, Gwyn removed the crown and held it in his hand. He expected Augus to stop, to say something, to express surprise at Gwyn’s competence, or to at least acknowledge him. But Augus walked ahead, didn’t even turn his head and meet his gaze. He walked crisply, though there was a heaviness to his booted steps. Gwyn remembered Tigbalan saying, ‘He is sick.’ Was it true? He could have Aleutia there in a heartbeat, if he thought Augus would submit to it. But Tigbalan had suggested Fenwrel, hadn’t he?

Augus reached behind his head and carefully removed the tie from his hair, dropping it to the floor as he went, running his fingers in long lines through his mane, settling it over his shoulders.

Gwyn’s hands ached as he watched.

They were already deeper into the palace when Gwyn realised that Augus possibly had no intention of acknowledging him at all. After a night of being sought after by some of the most powerful fae in the Unseelie alignment, following after Augus like a wayward hound was disconcerting.

‘Augus?’

Augus slowed to a stop. He didn’t turn and face him.

He said nothing as he undid the collar at his neck and let it and the chain fall to the ground with an ugly clatter. Despite how beautifully they had been wrought, the sole of Augus’ boot found them – with an air of absentness – and pressed down, crushing the finely worked ivy leaves and part of the stag’s copper-verdigris antlers into the ground.

Only then did Augus meet his eyes, something considering in his gaze, despite the fact that the rest of his face was a mask.

‘You did well,’ Augus said. ‘It went well.’

It did.

Gwyn didn’t care about that.

He opened his mouth to ask if Augus was well, but Augus spoke first.

‘I’ll bid you good evening, Your Majesty.’

The words – how he hated hearing them from Augus’ mouth – were like glass in his chest. He watched, unable to move, as Augus turned and walked away again, a half-crushed collar behind him. Gwyn stared down at it in dismay. He…wanted that collar. Not for Augus – never again – but for himself.

His hand was cut as it clenched around the indestructible Unseelie crown.

Minutes passed before Gwyn propelled himself into action, running after Augus, turning a corner only to-

Augus was backed up against the stone wall and staring at Gwyn in horror, the whites of his eyes showing and silent gasps sounding in his throat, his chest heaving, his hand hovering near his heart.

‘I thought you were someone else,’ Augus managed, his normally smooth voice breaking.

Gwyn was shocked. Surely- But surely Augus must have known it was Gwyn? There was no one else who-

Gwyn closed his eyes, pained, realising what Augus must have thought when he heard the footsteps pounding towards him.

‘But- But I changed it. The whole Court. There’s nothing there that should remind you of him.’

Augus forced himself to straighten, his breathing still shallow and uneven. He placed a tired hand against the stone, claws scraping against it. He offered a weak, wry smile.

‘The Court remembers. Shadows speak – ineloquent, clumsy things that they are. And, Gwyn, forgive me…but tonight has been rather trying. Filled with unpleasant discoveries and memories both.’

‘What can I do?’ Gwyn said. ‘Is there anything you need? Do you need-’

‘You can’t know how long I’ve wanted to hear-’ Augus shook his head. ‘I need many things from you. But right now, I only wish for space. And you…you should get some sleep, Gwyn. I can see how tired you are.’

He left Gwyn standing alone in the corridor, a crown cutting his hands and a cold sweat clinging to his body.

 

Chapter Text

Augus

*

Augus slept for almost two whole days. He woke in the midst of nightmares, clawing at the Soulbond on Ash’s forearm without realising, blood trickling onto blankets. It wasn’t Ash who swore at the injury, but Augus who lost his temper.

‘Get out!’ Augus shouted.

‘Augus,’ Ash said, holding up his hands. ‘Augus, just wait a sec. Okay? I just…’

When had it become more permissible for Gwyn to witness this over his own brother? Augus’ nostrils flared at the scent of blood in the air and he blinked dizzily. He was hungry. When Ash’s blood triggered off his appetite, he needed to feed. Soon. Did they have time? He’d missed two days of his common work. He raised a palm to his forehead.

Why do I even care?

The events of the Triumphal Entry came cascading around him. The insults, the threats, fae standing by him and explicitly describing what they’d like to do to him while he had to sit there and take it because damn him, damn Gwyn, damn them both, but it was true – the chain and the collar had shifted the opinions of so many. Between that, Gwyn inviting Tigbalan to the event and not telling him, seeing the Nain Rouge again, the shadows guttering and Augus swearing that the Nightingale had decided to return for a flashy entry and-

‘Easy, easy, easy,’ Ash said, and Augus ripped the blankets back and got out of bed, growling.

‘Get out,’ Augus snarled. ‘I need only a moment to compose myself. You can’t ambush someone while-’

‘Okay, not an ambush? Just a brother checking in on his brother after he had a tough time, okay? You get that there’s a difference right?’

Augus slowed his breathing with difficulty, pushing out longer exhales, imagining the pollutants inside of him exiting his body. Even as his breathing evened, he closed his eyes and remembered Tigbalan saying he was sick, that it had nothing to do with his heartsong. The worst part was that he believed him. He didn’t want to, but Tigbalan had used his true voice; and fae of their nature couldn’t lie when they used that voice.

Ash’s hand reached out and cupped the back of his head, and Augus bared his teeth in a snarl, even as his shoulders dropped automatically.

‘How is the Court?’ Augus asked, distracting himself from warring instincts.

‘Gulvi’s dealing with shit, not in a bad way though. I’ve been helping a little. You and Gwyn have been dead to the world. I think he’s still sleeping. I don’t know, I’m not checking on him. I can’t believe he did that to you. That monster. He-’

‘Ash,’ Augus said, leaning his head back into Ash’s hand. ‘It was effective. I won’t have to do it again. He’s sworn to blood-oath it. I’ve collected…quite a few blood-oaths from him.’

Like the one to make him accept aftercare. Which I haven’t been providing lately.

Augus’ fingers curled into fists and he forced his hands to relax again. Ash’s hand tightened minutely on the back of his head and Augus didn’t know whether to growl or calm.

‘How was the feedback after the Triumphal Entry?’

‘Ha, yeah, some of them are still out there partying,’ Ash laughed. ‘I’ve been keeping everyone stocked with liquor. I forget how fae party sometimes. Most folks like the Court. I dunno, it seems to be going well?’

‘I’m surprised you stayed.’

‘This is the kind of thing I can handle. And I seem to miss these huge gaping things when I’m gone. Like you and Gwyn apparently deciding that you look good in like, servitude. What, it’s the new black now, or something?’

Augus just looked at him, expression indifferent. He didn’t have the heart for this conversation. Ash rubbed at the back of his head, and Augus knocked his arm away, lips thinning.

‘You should clean that,’ Augus said, pointing to his forearm, trying not to sneer at the Soulbond itself. He looked away from it as soon as he could. Pressed a palm absently to his chest and rubbed at his own mirrored marks. ‘I’m going to feed today. I won’t be back for a week.’

‘And then what?’

‘Whatever do you mean?’ Augus said, walking into his wardrobe and pulling out the clothing he preferred to wear in the human world. It was still water-wicking fabric, but not quite as carefully made. It gave an illusion of class, but the clothing was worn with the knowledge that it would be torn, scratched, bitten. He often had to discard whatever he wore on his hunts. He liked the moment when humans realised they were going to die and they fought. It was worth the ruined clothing.

His mouth filled with saliva. He hadn’t eaten in far too long. Everything else could wait. He could calm himself by spending time in waterhorse form. There, none of those tiny, trickling thoughts found him. Perhaps he would ground himself enough to be able to successfully locate the Raven Prince with the tracking stone when he returned.

‘I mean, what then? I thought you were gonna spend more time in your home. You know, I worked to find a good replacement lake for you. I know it’s not the same, but I did like…I did try. You’re never there!’

‘I’m going to be there. I’m going hunting,’ Augus said.

‘You know what I mean. Don’t play that ‘dancing around the subject’ shit with me. It doesn’t fly anymore.’

‘Why are you so angry?’ Augus looked up at him, frowning. ‘I’m not in a cell in the Seelie Court. I’m not ruling a Kingdom and doing a poor job of it. I’m amongst allies – though you may not believe it, and I’m at a high enough status that I can protect myself and therefore you.’

He pulled on his pants and then walked over to Ash, placing a careful hand on his chest and listening to the anxious thump of his brother’s heart.

‘Ash – brother – what’s wrong?’

Ash stared at him as though Augus was getting it wrong, disappointing him. Well, if Ash wanted him to fall apart in his arms, to demand comfort, he was sorely misinterpreting the whole situation. Then again, maybe it was something else. They had been misreading each other for some time. It wasn’t as though Augus ever saw the method of his defeat coming, he never knew that Ash was capable of-

Augus carefully shied away from those thoughts, even as he took his hand away from Ash’s chest and walked back to his shirt, shuttering his mind and focusing on his breathing.

He was trapped. He had no choice. And you told him to.

‘I’m not going to let this situation get as bad as it did last time,’ Ash said. ‘Never again. Just because Gwyn doesn’t gloat about what he does to you like the Nightingale did, doesn’t mean-’

Don’t,’ Augus said, turning. ‘They aren’t the same. There is nothing to gloat about.’

His breath was cold in his chest. He could just imagine the charming, casual way the Nightingale would bring it up. Augus closed his eyes and grasped at the memories and fears like they were wayward leaves. He dragged them down into the depths of himself, forced them to stay dormant in the silty dark. Everything became calmer. He buttoned his shirt and met Ash’s eyes.

‘Stop comparing the two,’ Augus said quietly. ‘Gwyn defeated me because he had to, because he actually cares about the Kingdoms. The Nightingale…cared for nothing but his own power. He was – if you’ll recall – all about making a third Kingdom to rule over all.’

‘Very Sauron of him,’ Ash muttered, and Augus shrugged like he knew what Ash was talking about. ‘There’s different kinds of monsters.’

‘That I know very well, being that we are two of them ourselves.’

‘Augus, you-’

‘No, Ash,’ Augus said, settling his hair over his shoulders and sitting on the bed as he pulled water-wicking socks on. He reached not for the boots he wore in the Court, but the ones he could afford to lose in the human world. They pinched somewhat, but they would do.

‘I need you to be okay,’ Ash said.

‘And here I am, dressed and about to feed and free and Inner Court. What more do you want?’

‘You’re a facetious little shit, Augus,’ Ash grumbled. ‘Whatever. Okay. Fine. But don’t think this is the last you’ve heard of it.’

Augus watched as he walked out, buckling his boots absently, shifting his feet in their tight confines. As he found a more comfortable position for his feet, he remembered, abruptly, fitting Gwyn – the discovery of his history with clothing.

He closed his eyes.

He’d been too exhausted to deal with the fractious, yearning energy of Gwyn’s the other night. Had needed to drown himself in sleep far too desperately. Was afraid of what he might do if he stayed and talked to him. His claws had itched for pressure points, and Gwyn was…

Gwyn was fragile. There was only so much violence Augus could inflict on him, and Augus was quite sure he’d reached his quota.

He walked out into the corridor and headed towards Gwyn’s rooms, shaking off the last of the nightmare.

Gwyn had invited Tigbalan. The fact that Augus hadn’t known until the last minute – despite sitting in on almost all of those awful Court meetings – meant that Gwyn had hidden it. Augus was at once glad of the opportunity to speak to the source of his invisibility, and horrified that Gwyn was standing before the one who had destroyed him.

Gwyn was so proud of his ability to handle that level of torture, but it was only a damning sign of what he was accustomed to. Gwyn’s expression had hardly altered when Tigbalan had called him filth. He didn’t even defend himself. He was King of the Court. The Raven Prince would have had the creature imprisoned at the least for such an insult.

It was several minutes before he reached Gwyn’s rooms. The double doors were closed, and he tested the handle carefully. It clicked open, and he pulled the doors closed behind him.

His chest ached when he saw Gwyn.

He hadn’t even gotten undressed. By his side was the crumpled collar and the fine copper chain – close enough to his fingers that he’d obviously been holding it as he fell asleep. He wasn’t under the blankets, the bed was hardly rumpled. For two days he’d been sleeping like that, and the trows wouldn’t have interrupted him to undress him. Gwyn slept little enough as it was.

Augus sighed and sat on the side of Gwyn’s bed, drawing his legs up and leaning on one arm, the other reaching out and fluttering through soft, mussed hair.

Gwyn’s face was cleared of all discomfort when he slept. There was no faint furrow between his brows, no downturn in his lips. He looked like a boy in a deep, peaceful place. His cheeks were faintly flushed, his chest moved in the slower breaths of rest. Augus grimaced and stared at the collar again.

He’d broken it. He loathed it. He possibly shouldn’t have told Gwyn he had the extensions for it locked away. He hadn’t expected Gwyn to look at the collar with so much yearning. He rubbed at his neck, tore his eyes away from the collar.

He rubbed at Gwyn’s scalp carefully, then increased pressure when it didn’t wake him. Gwyn’s sleep cycles were deep.

Gwyn tilted his head unconsciously into the touch, and there, his eyebrows twisted together and he murmured something uncertain under his breath that never resolved into words.

Augus didn’t quite understand it, how Gwyn could be like this, and then go and be King for everyone else. Oh, he’d seen glimpses of it in moments, but never like that. He’d played the crowd with his speech. His glamour was a golden, inviting thing. It wasn’t soothing, it roused. It encouraged response, reaction, engagement. Augus had wanted to serve him, had felt compelled to do something for the good of the Court, and the sensation of it bewildered him even now.

He hadn’t missed the way Gwyn moved from person to person; asking relevant questions, listening attentively, politely excusing himself every time. He’d still somehow been himself the entire time. Slightly awkward, earnest, and yet reverberating with a power and sureness that inspired confidence. His speech had been commanding; even for Augus, and he – at that point – was so close to blanking and disappearing from the room entirely, that he was surprised to remember it.

He was determined, more than ever, to see Gwyn on a battlefield.

It was hours later – Augus quietening his thoughts and wanting to wait until Gwyn woke – that Gwyn’s nightmare snapped into the room with violence. Gwyn breathed in on a strangled note, choking. One of his hands came up and tore at his coat.

Augus shifted, straddled him, tried to pull his hands away.

Gwyn shredded the coat, the waistcoat, the shirt, gasped sounds so hoarse that every exhale sounded like a dry retch.

Gwyn’s fingers burrowed under ripped fabric and pressed hard against his scarred shoulder. His back arched and Augus’ legs tightened around him, riding the force of it, eyes wide as Gwyn let off a sound that was unearthly with pain.

‘Gwyn,’ Augus breathed, grasping the hand that was clawing into the place where – where what? Was he dreaming of the arrow that shot him? Or when he ripped it out? The pain of the infection? Kabiri? ‘Gwyn, wake up!’

Gwyn wouldn’t wake, and Augus quickly reached underneath his arched neck, digging in hard, gritting his teeth as he activated painful pressure points.

Gwyn shouted, his eyes snapped open, and Augus let go immediately. Gwyn’s gaze went unseeing to the ceiling.

Augus moved off him – the last time he’d woken Gwyn from a nightmare, he’d had to dodge a blast of light that had scarred the room. But Gwyn didn’t move. One hand clutched his shoulder, the other grasped the blankets, his legs bent in odd positions – frozen in the middle of his writhing.

After many short, tortured breaths, Gwyn turned and faced Augus, blinking into awareness.

‘Augus?’ Gwyn pushed himself upright, wincing. ‘Is everything okay? What’s happened? How long have I-’

‘Careful,’ Augus said. ‘Careful. Give yourself more time than that.’

‘Why are you being like this?’ Gwyn said, confused, as Augus took him by the wrist and eased him back down.

‘Like what?’ Augus said.

‘We…left on poor terms,’ Gwyn said, looking away.

Why are you being nice to me? That’s what Augus heard behind the uncertainty in his voice.

‘That’s why I’m here,’ Augus said. ‘I’m leaving to hunt. I wanted to see you before I left. And instead I find you, asleep – as I expected – with a collar and chain by your side. Did you want to remember me in chains? Is that it?’

He knew very well that it wasn’t. Gwyn flushed, his eyes found the chain and his hand twitched like he wanted to hide the evidence.

‘You liked it, didn’t you?’ Augus said, leaning closer, looking at Gwyn closely. ‘An entire night spent showing people how powerful you are, and instead, you-’

‘I didn’t like you in chains,’ Gwyn said, and Augus reached out to touch Gwyn’s eyebrow, run a thumb across it. Gwyn jerked back before he made contact.

‘Then why keep them?’

‘You…’ Gwyn rubbed at his face absently. Dragged uncaring fingers through his hair, shaking strands off his fingers.

‘Mm?’

‘You said you could- That is…’

The awkwardness was endearing, and Augus took entirely too much satisfaction watching Gwyn squirm. Always so dazed when he woke up from nightmares. It was delicious. Augus didn’t like that he had the nightmares themselves, but he did like a Gwyn far more receptive to conversation than usual. One that hadn’t teleported away, one that didn’t say ‘leave it’ or ‘later.’

‘I said I had extensions, didn’t I?’ Augus said, and Gwyn made a small sound in the back of his throat. He pushed himself up until he was sitting against the headboard, his knees bent.

‘You destroyed it.’

‘I can make another,’ Augus said. ‘I can have another made. For you.’

His eyes narrowed. This was an interesting conversation. Did Gwyn require some token from him? Some sign of his regard? It seemed entirely too human. But then, Gwyn held sentiment in places where others didn’t. He disregarded some of the things fae cared deeply about – luck, fate, curses. But why this? Did Gwyn want to be collared simply to experience it? Or because it was Augus who would be doing it?

‘I liked this one,’ Gwyn said quietly. ‘The stag. The ivy. I don’t- It doesn’t matter.’

And just like that, Gwyn summoned coldness, he shut himself away. But Augus knew better, especially while Gwyn was so close to the pain of his dreams.

He reached out quietly and his fingers found the pressure points on Gwyn’s bad shoulder, and Gwyn resisted, tried to push him away. He made that horrible, strangled sound again, when Augus pushed his fingers in. Augus closed his eyes and looked for the twisted meridians that would provide some peace.

When he pressed his fingers into those, Gwyn slumped back against the headboard, and Augus had no choice but to lean in with the movement.

‘You were dreaming of Kabiri, weren’t you?’ Augus said against Gwyn’s cheek, and Gwyn said nothing, though his breathing hitched. Augus opened his mouth against Gwyn’s jaw and bit down hard as he released his fingers from Gwyn’s shoulder. He shouldn’t be doing this. He’d be too neglectful if he did anything now. He was too hungry.

He moved away, didn’t miss the way Gwyn’s eyelashes had fluttered shut against his cheeks. He paused.

‘Kiss me,’ Augus said, voice rough. ‘Your way.’

Gwyn stared at him. His eyebrows twitched together, breaking the impassive coldness on his face. He shifted in his sheets, and Augus moved closer still, wanting to offer something, a small bandage to cover the wounds they’d inflicted on each other. It would take time to make anything like real progress. Neither of them could really use what they’d developed in the Seelie Court as the foundation for what they were creating now.

Captivity does not a healthy relationship make.

Augus’ lips quirked upwards at his own thoughts, but Gwyn must have found it encouraging. His eyes closed and he leaned forwards, pressing soft lips against Augus’ and sighing gently through his nose.

Augus rubbed his lips against Gwyn’s, closing his own eyes, listening to their breathing. His fingers came up and traced the indentations where he’d bitten into his jaw, then up further, finding the crest of his cheekbone and rubbing it with his thumb.

Gwyn’s lips parted, he captured Augus’ top lip in his own and held it, and Augus felt something quieten in his chest. A vicious, prowling thing settled.

‘You didn’t tell me about Tigbalan,’ Augus whispered against his lips, as Gwyn shifted to kiss him again. Gwyn stilled, and Augus opened his eyes to see Gwyn staring at him. Augus kept his fingers soft against Gwyn’s face. Gwyn’s skin was firm and soft because his fae healing kept it unscarred and unblemished. Underneath his fingers it yielded as he pressed and stroked at it. He reached up and pressed his thumb to the corner of his eye, then leaned and licked a stripe over Gwyn’s lips.

‘We used his power to ensure your safe release, it was only fair that he be issued an invite,’ Gwyn managed, and Augus slipped his fingers back through Gwyn’s hairline, over his scalp, and pulled on his hair – not enough to hurt, but enough that Gwyn’s breath caught. Augus was surprised when he felt a hesitant touch on his other arm where he braced himself on the bed. Gwyn’s touches were rare, and like this, always welcome.

Are you ill?’ Gwyn said, and Augus kissed him again to see if he could wipe away the tone of his voice.

‘No,’ Augus said after a minute, Gwyn breathing harder against him. ‘I’m not sure. I don’t feel ill.’

‘You said your core was…it’s destabilised? So soon? I thought it fit you well.’

So did I.

Augus pressed his forehead to Gwyn’s. He hadn’t expected his heartsong to falter so soon. He’d thought – upon being free of the Seelie Court – balance would be something he’d have more of; not less.

‘I know you work…quite hard.’

‘Do you?’ Augus said, and then dragged his fingers through Gwyn’s hair, tugging on a ringlet that bounced satisfyingly back into place.

‘I’m worried about you.’

‘And I, you,’ Augus said.

In that moment, Augus couldn’t understand why they weren’t sleeping in the same room. Why they weren’t spending more time together. They both had their commitments, certainly, but why was it so hard to find moments like this?

‘You need to feed, also,’ Augus murmured, and Gwyn brushed his lips against Augus’.

‘A battle in two weeks,’ Gwyn said. ‘I’ll feed.’

‘Did you ever end up speaking to Aleutia about your issues with absorbing the energy of the dead?’

‘No. There’s time, I’m in no immediate danger.’

Gwyn’s fingers curled around Augus’ arm as Augus kept stroking fingers through his hair. Waterhorses loved having their hair petted and stroked, it was part of their biology; a human placing their hand on the back of his head while he was still in human-form, could stop a hunt in its tracks. They were the only victims who had ever gotten away.

Gwyn was no waterhorse, but it didn’t seem to matter. He became increasingly lax as Augus continued to touch him. All his resistance, his coldness, had disappeared. The nightmare had left him with his guards down, and Augus wasn’t giving him a chance to put the walls back up again.

Here you are, my gentle, soft creature.

Lips touched his, then a careful tongue licked across his bottom lip, following its curve from one side to the other. It was rare for Gwyn to be so exploratory, and Augus responded by opening his mouth, slanting his lips across Gwyn’s and pressing his tongue against his, tasting a faint bitterness and something like burning carbon.

But all too soon, Augus realised he had to feed. He’d left it far too long again, and he sighed as he withdrew, carefully settling Gwyn’s hair before sliding off the bed.

Gwyn watched him and Augus lifted his chin.

‘Remember, you promised me your time after that battle.’

‘Yes, Augus,’ Gwyn said.

It wasn’t until he walked away that he realised that Gwyn wasn’t the only one who had his guard down just after a nightmare.

*

A satisfying hunt. Augus had been so famished he’d ended up taking two humans at once; not his usual style, and he had a moment to be disturbed at how ravenous he’d let himself become before his instincts took over and he cared for nothing else by the chase, the feeling of marrow and flesh caught in sharp, jagged teeth.

A week at the bottom of his lake, long legs curled beneath him and his waterhorse head resting in a bed of waterweed. The waterweed in his own mane floated above him, sensitive to the currents and movements of the waters around him.

It was an alien lake, it still didn’t feel quite right, but even so there were small turtles using him for shelter. An eel nestled in the dark space between his forelegs. Tiny fish nipped and nibbled at the inside of his slowly twitching, black ears.

His belly full, he digested his food, warm in the knowledge that he was sated. Power flooded him once more.

*

He returned, dazed and still faintly hungry. He emerged naked from the lake within the Unseelie Court and walked towards his rooms, leaving wet footprints as he went, his scalp shedding far more water than usual.

Clothing felt awkward and wrong. He left his feet bare, not liking the feel of the boots against his ankles and toes.

Though it hurt his chest to use it, he slipped into invisibility as he stalked the corridors, knowing it would be some time before he came back to himself fully. Walking in human form helped, but nothing stopped this clumsy transition, where his mind clung to instincts and his higher thought processes struggled to assert themselves. He watched everything with a warier gaze. His fingers stayed curled, in case he had to claw at something. He wished for water and darkness, and he avoided great, airy spaces. He was not meant for a huge bowl of endless sky, but the limited bowels of a lake.

It pained him to breathe deeply through the invisibility, but he managed. He clung to it and remembered what Tigbalan had said. He had to speak to Fenwrel.

Augus wandered for hours, until the strong smell of swan musk pulled him up a flight of stairs, and another, towards the corridor that led towards Gulvi’s rooms.

Up here, the corridor was wood-panelled. Werelight flickered warmly in sconces up against the wall. Augus trailed his fingers along ridges of polished wood.

A door was slightly ajar and he slipped into it, walking through an empty, tiled room and following the sound of a cultured voice. He heard the bleating of a swan and tilted his head.

‘La! Julvia! It’s the same medicine you’ve had every day for months now. Will you not just take it?’

He moved, unseen, into another room. This one small. Gulvi crouched on the ground before a giant white swan, holding crushed herbs in her outstretched palm, as the swan – Julvia? – hissed at her. Augus smirked in amusement. His nose could pick the herbs, and he wondered at Aleutia’s treatment plan. It was none of his business, but why wasn’t Gulvi using red elodea, at the very least?

The room itself was high ceilinged, and one wall was marked with floor to ceiling arched windows. An odd design, and Augus wondered if Gwyn had designed it for Julvia, to allow her to look out into the world even while she was trapped in swan form and not allowed to leave. Augus couldn’t decide if that was cruel or caring.

A bed of straw and blankets in one corner of the room – newly clean. Did Gulvi muck out Julvia’s waste? Or the trows?

A single wooden shelf screwed into the wall, and upon it many glass jars of herbs, vials of liquid, bandages – which seemed unnecessary. There was also a shallow earthenware vase, filled with swan feathers. Gulvi must be keeping everything that Julvia shed, knowing that in the wrong hands, Julvia would be compelled to fulfil wishes that she had no power to fulfil.

Gulvi’s body language spoke of defeat. Her wings splayed out and hanging, as though she no longer had the energy to keep them tight and neat against her back.

Julvia continued to hiss.

‘Julvia, sister, I know you can’t really understand me, but – as I have said many times before now – this medicine is designed to help you.’

Augus’ nose wrinkled. If he was a swan, he wouldn’t eat it either. It smelled bad. He didn’t think it had spoiled, but he found it repellent.

Finally Gulvi knelt down on her shins and sighed, reaching into a small pouch and offering up a curling snail instead. Julvia snapped that down in an instant, hissed again. She waddled forwards, her long swan neck nosing into the pouch.

‘Darling, no! Only once you’ve had the medicine.’

But Julvia didn’t understand. She wasn’t a sentient swan-maiden, she was a swan. She could learn basic commands, she could discern that Gulvi provided food and water and therefore was tolerable. But Augus could see that Julvia didn’t recognise her sister as a sister, and she certainly didn’t understand the sentences being spoken to her. If anything, the frustration in Gulvi’s voice put Julvia on edge.

Augus had never met Julvia before. Not as a swan-maiden, anyway.

When he destroyed the Dubna and its surrounding tributaries, he hadn’t catalogued the fae he’d be killing first. He went with the purpose of destroying the waterway.

Julvia wasn’t even supposed to be alive. All of her sisters had died.

Augus raised his eyebrows at the swan.

Strong thing.

Augus could think of at least three herbs and the sap of a tree that might help. After all, the herbs that Aleutia was choosing were simply designed to bolster Julvia’s immune system. The gnarled flax helped to call back one’s true energy, but…Augus wasn’t sure that would be of any use here. After all, Julvia was truly a swan – would the herb call her back to herself? Or did it simply make it more comfortable for her to stay in swan-form? It also tasted repulsive to freshwater fae.

He thought about what he had in his herbal kit, and slipped out of invisibility easily.

The swan squawked to see him there, but showed no recognition otherwise. She didn’t react like he was the one to have done this to her.

Gulvi turned around and her face turned hard. She drew a knife out of her hilt and stood, herbs shaken out of her hand.

‘I could help her,’ Augus said from where he leaned against the wall. Slipping out of the invisibility felt like freeing his heart from a vice, and he breathed more freely, his thoughts more alert.

‘Are you here to humiliate me?’ Gulvi snapped. ‘Wet, disgusting thing? Are you here to watch as I try and heal the sister you almost took from me? Might as well have taken from me?’

‘Actually, no,’ Augus said, looking at the curved edges of the dagger. He became aware that he could have chosen a better way to go about this. ‘It has come to my attention that my life is perhaps not what I thought it was going to be, when I was freed from captivity. It…would be useful for me, to stretch some of my older skills. Surely Ash has told you that I used to sometimes offer tinctures and herbs to sick freshwater fae?’

‘You would come here, spy on me, while I tended to my sister – who, might I add-’

‘She doesn’t recognise me,’ Augus said, lifting an eyebrow. ‘She’s lost. If you want her back, you might consider a different treatment regime.’

‘And I should trust you over Aleutia, mm? Is that it?’

‘You can run everything I suggest by her, if you wish. But I can see that you’re desperate. This is a static situation. You can have a swan, or perhaps your sister; I don’t know. But I can help. Well.’ He waved a hand towards Julvia and shrugged. ‘As much as she can be helped.’

Gulvi flew at him, great wings propelling her forward. Julvia made a soft noise of alarm in the background, cowering against the wall, even as Augus tried to duck out of the way.

He was clumsy on his feet, thinking to use his hands like hooves, but his fencing reflexes kicked in. She cornered him against the wall, white feathers and tattooed skin and black, glinting eyes that promised another knife in the gut – at least one – from the looks of things.

He snatched at her forearm, twisting it, but wasn’t fast enough to get to her other hand.

Gulvi was fast.

He twisted his hips out of the way, felt the stinging pain of his skin parting for a sharp blade, the fall of blood down his flank into his pants. A wound far shallower than usual, but she was already withdrawing the knife, spinning it handily and getting a better grip. He twisted her wrist hard and she slammed him back against the wall.

He brought his waterhorse strength to bear, snarling, and waterweed shot from both of his wrists. He coiled it around the grip he had on her, lashed at her pinion feathers, and she shrieked outrage at him.

‘You dare, darling!?’

Black eyes moving towards him and the promise of more pain and Augus felt a strange sensation – a bubble bursting – and he wasn’t even in the room anymore.

‘You dare, darling?’

Augus went limp, a defence mechanism. He hated hearing Court-speak in this place. Too long underground. He’d not seen fresh, fae-world water for months. He was drinking brackish dreck whenever the Nightingale remembered to bring it, and it wasn’t enough. He had licked water off walls. Laughed as he’d done it. Look at him now, beloved by his Prince, abandoned to the black.

‘Darling, are you even listening to me? Oh, Augus, you filthy pony, you’ve made me most upset. Tch. I know, I know, survival instincts. You can’t help it, can you, down here? Everyone I’ve taken down here has fought so hard to go home. Of course, they all died. Look at you, so resilient.’

A sob, his own. He was supposed to be limp. He was furious with himself.

The Nightingale always knew exactly what to say. Augus could just imagine him, mouth open, those red eyes hidden behind pale eyelids, drinking down Augus’ misery.

A slurcher touched his neck, bare because his mane had been shorn, and he twitched. How could he still have room for terror. How?

‘Nightingale, I beseech you, I didn’t mean-’

He hated being brought so low.

He was filled with it. Acid and poison and wretched hate. His fingers curled, even as they hurt, his joints swollen. If he could get his claws in the Nightingale’s eyes, if he could rip out his tongue, sink teeth into his larynx and crunch into gristle and-

The touch to his neck came again, now sliding over his skin. First deceptively gentle, texture and temperature like a large frog’s foot. Creeping towards his ear.

He couldn’t do it again. Not again. He held onto his name, he held onto Ash, he didn’t know what he’d remember when he returned to himself this time. He was going to be soundly punished.

The tendrils of the slurcher pushed into his ear, caressed cartilage and then slid in.

His shattered laugh tapered off into a weak scream as he was lost.

Pressed against a wall and the floor, one arm high in the air, caught up in his own waterweed. He stared ahead blankly. There was a white, fuzzy form several metres away. A swan. There were no swans in the underworld. He squinted. Was it an illusion?

‘Julvia,’ he said, realising. His voice didn’t sound…quite like his own.

He looked up, knew there was someone standing over him. Gulvi stared down at him, eyes so wide he could see the whites of them. Her wrist still bound to him with waterweed. She held a knife in her hands but it didn’t look like she was going to use it.

‘You’re no Nightingale,’ Augus said, feeling stupid; grateful that he managed to make it sound almost like an insult.

Gulvi blinked at him, then reached up and for a moment he thought she was going to try and cut his hand off at the wrist. Instead she sliced through the waterweed, and his arm fell with a jolt to his side.

He pushed himself upright and tried to shake the fogginess out of his head. It felt like wisps of cotton sticking to the ends of his thoughts. He appreciated sharpness, wit, but everything was softened and muted.

He hadn’t ever wanted Gulvi to see that. He didn’t want any of them to see it.

He shoved the memory as far down as he could. Closed it up in a bubble once more, hoped he’d never see it again.

‘Does Gwyn know?’ Gulvi asked, stepping away from him.

‘He’s…aware,’ Augus said cautiously. Aware of what? That he regularly encountered things he really would rather not, while he lived in the Unseelie Court? His chest heaved. He hated it here, he hated it…

…He couldn’t afford to hate it. He had responsibilities. It was nothing more than a combination of the remnants of waterhorse brain alongside the unfortunate words Gulvi had used. She was used to saying ‘darling,’ using Court-speak. It was a fluke, and not likely to be repeated. He resisted the urge to press his hand to his forehead, to settle his hair, to walk to Ash’s room and lie face down on his bed. Ash was still in the Court, and he didn’t want his brother to see him like this.

‘Do you really think you can help her?’ Gulvi said, looking over at her cowering sister. She walked over and Julvia gave a fluting call and backed away. She’d voided her bowels in alarm, and the whole room smelled of a mixture of half-digested herbs and snails and other wastes.

‘Don’t pity me just because you saw…what you saw,’ Augus said, staring at her. ‘If you think my offering to help was such an insult, it’s still an insult now, isn’t it?’

‘I do not appreciate people seeking to humiliate me,’ Gulvi said, her voice hard.

‘Nor I,’ Augus said, licking his lips, glad that she hadn’t – yet – mocked him for what she’d witnessed.

She will though. Now that she’s seen what you can be reduced to.

‘I didn’t intend it as an insult,’ Augus said. ‘It will honestly not take a great deal of time from my schedule, and working with herbs and other wortcunning is something I- Didn’t you want me to become more grounded? Use my time with more salience?’

Gulvi sighed as Julvia stretched her neck out and quested towards her fingers with a nibbling beak.

‘There, darling. Nothing to fear. The frightening, ugly waterhorse isn’t going to hurt you. Not anymore.’

Augus laughed softly, ruefully.

‘I will tell you everything I use. Aleutia has the tools to check and double-check all that I suggest and offer. And I will find you ways to better administer whatever you are told to give her, because believe me, swans do not like gnarled flax. Nor any freshwater creature. Try it yourself and tell me what you think it tastes like. That’s an herb for grain-shifters like Aleutia.’

‘Augus,’ Gulvi said, sternly.

For a moment, he thought she was reprimanding him for something he’d said – which was ridiculous, she knew nothing about gnarled flax. But she wasn’t meeting his eyes. He looked down to where she stared and his hand halted. He’d been rubbing at the Soulbond on his chest again. He dropped his arm and stared at her, dared her to say anything more.

‘You killed my family,’ Gulvi said.

‘I’ve been hearing that from a few people lately,’ Augus offered something close to a smile. ‘And yes, I did.’

‘And now you’re offering to help the survivor.’

‘I’m capricious,’ Augus drawled.

‘Is it guilt?’

‘You don’t have to say yes,’ Augus exclaimed, losing his patience. ‘I wish to test my skills at healing, Julvia is convenient as she lives here, and none of the rest of you are sick.’

Except perhaps me. Apparently.

‘I don’t know why you’re all so quick to assume that guilt is the only motivator that exists amongst the Unseelie. We are self-serving, remember? Or had you forgotten? Has Gwyn’s brainwashing gotten the better of everyone who lives here now?’

Gulvi quirked an eyebrow in amusement, and Augus couldn’t exactly recall why he’d thought this was a good idea in the first place.

He inclined his head in farewell and walked from the room. He was closing the door behind him when he heard:

‘I’ll consider it, Augus. If you think you can help.’

He turned back and looked over his shoulder.

‘I don’t know if I can help. But I do know there are plants that Aleutia could be using, that she’s not. And I know how to find and prepare them. It is a simple thing.’

As he walked away, he hoped she’d say yes, even as he tried not to care either way. It was calming to work with herbs. He needed more of that in his life. It was one of the few things that he and that great beast that lurked within him could agree on.

 

Chapter Text

Augus

*

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.’

Fenwrel sighed.

‘It explains a lot,’ she said.

Excuse me?’

‘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.

‘No.’

‘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.

 

Chapter Text

Gwyn

*

Gwyn held his bloody, slippery long-sword to Augus’ throat. If it is him. Augus had fallen to the ground, both hands underneath him, still laughing.

He could hardly think. Post battle and not yet ready to calm, pulses of energy and light moved through him, one after the other, an engine of energy. He lowered the sword slowly to skin and watched it paint a line of other people’s blood over Augus’ neck.

‘You are thrilling like this,’ Augus breathed. ‘Are you going to kill me?’

Why are you here?’ Gwyn commanded. He was far enough away from the battleground now that no one would hear him.

He blinked dumbly down at Augus.

The moment the invisibility had dropped, Gwyn had known.

Then…this can’t be a shapeshifter.

He licked at his teeth, tasted blood. At one point he’d savaged someone’s throat open. His whole face felt sticky and wet. He leaned down and picked up Augus one-handed, a fist in his shirt, dragging him unresisting, upright. He pressed his nose to Augus’ neck, breathing deeply, mouth opening.

Fresh water, the faintest hint of silt, nothing sour at all. Not a shapeshifter. He breathed in again and Augus chuckled. Gwyn felt a flash of rage.

Did Augus not understand how dangerous it was to visit a battlefield? The position he was in? What if he’d been captured by the enemy? He could have compromised the entire outcome of the battle. As it was, the first two hours had been close, and he was beyond grateful for the kudlaks. No wonder they’d evaded him for so long, they were such fighters.

But here, Augus in his grip and amused and Gwyn unsatisfied, lust burning through him, turning his thoughts to haze…

Someone needs to teach him a lesson.

He opened his mouth and licked over Augus’ pulse point. Augus tensed.

Gwyn crooned a low, rumbling sound at him. He held the sword with his other hand, dimly aware of a heavy throb pounding through his shoulder, shooting into the rest of his body. The armour weighed a fair amount and didn’t fit properly. He’d worn parts of his body raw.

‘You’re a marvellous fighter,’ Augus said, faintly breathless.

‘Yes,’ Gwyn said. ‘And you’re a thorn in my side. If they had seen you, you could have been killed. If they-’

But it was too many words, and he wanted more than talking. He nosed into Augus’ hair, dropping the sword. It thudded to the ground and he paid no attention. Gusts of his breath hit the space behind Augus’ ear, and Augus shivered in his grip.

Like prey.

His next sound wasn’t a croon, but a growl. Gwyn dragged him further away from the battle, and Augus didn’t struggle. Minutes later, Gwyn’s head was clearing, though sounds of battle still rung in his ears and his hands thrummed like they were absorbing blow after blow. He pushed Augus face first against a thick tree and leaned his body into him. Augus grunted, uncomfortable.

‘Take your armour off, at least,’ Augus snapped, and Gwyn blinked at himself, forgetting that he was still covered in metal. He took several steps back and mechanically worked at removing the armour. He would leave it here. He didn’t want it. It wasn’t his armour.

He snarled at it as he threw it to the floor. He should care more. Armour was valuable.

They’d loot more from the dead.

Gwyn looked up as he removed the last of the armour, stilled at the calculating expression he saw in Augus’ eyes.

He side-stepped just as Augus shot waterweed out of his wrists. With nothing but his hands to tear through it – and Augus being so much stronger than he used to be – Gwyn couldn’t get through the stuff fast enough. Not with how strong it was. He tore one coil snaking around his torso, but others followed too quickly and Augus advanced upon him.

With his instincts too close to the surface and his animal nature at the forefront of his mind, lust turned into fear and his heartbeat skyrocketed. He gasped, struggled, becoming aware of the aches in his body. He was bleeding from several places, nicks and an inch deep divot where an arrow had hit – at least one – and lacerations that had snuck beneath the plates. His shoulder screamed as he tried to twist out of the ropes.

‘Careful. Careful now,’ Augus soothed, something dark and amused in his voice. ‘I’ve always wanted to have you like this, you know. Wild, vicious animal. I can smell your fear for once. It is sharp, isn’t it?’

Gwyn’s mouth was open as he struggled to get a full breath around the ropes of waterweed that were crushing his chest. He tore with a weakening grip and then went to his knees when a strong hand pushed him down.

He cried out in outrage, and Augus laughed, reaching out and taking a handful of his bloodied hair and twisting it up. Gwyn’s head was forced back and he stared up at Augus, throat working, still trying to rip away twists and knots of waterweed. Augus was Inner Court, and Gwyn was beginning to feel the effects of battle. They were evenly matched. Gwyn could use his light, but-

Not here. Not with Augus.

When he couldn’t get a proper grasp on the rubbery waterweed, he roared and struck at Augus’ torso. Augus stepped nimbly out of the way and then jerked the wrist holding his head, a full-body jolt that commanded Gwyn’s attention and left him still and panting on grassy ground.

Augus shoved him down to the ground. Gwyn braced his forehead on the grass, tried to flip over, then stilled when Augus straddled him. He blinked when Augus ground hips down into him, his hands went limp.

‘Beast,’ Augus hissed, breaking some of the waterweed with his bare hands, claws finding purchase in the rubbery, green stuff far quicker than his own blunt nails did. ‘I saw the way you paced the outskirts, wanting to fuck. I wonder if you could find just as much satisfaction in this.’

Gwyn said nothing. Conflict warred within. He wanted to dominate, to control – not to be controlled, not for Augus’ words to winnow their way into his mind and leave him panting and wanting and hardly aware of himself. He struggled weakly as fingers slipped into his thin pants and pulled them down, baring his ass to the sky. He tried to get his knees under himself, but Augus dug claws into his leg and Gwyn made a low, lost sound.

‘I don’t care either way,’ Augus purred. ‘I want you like this. Battle ready and still hungry for blood. You are, sweetness. Aren’t you? So hungry. Turn your head to the side and open your mouth.’

Gwyn opened his mouth and forgot to turn his head to the side, fighting his own instincts to throw Augus off, to take.

A rough hand in his hair and another around his wrist. His arm was wrenched up even as his head was turned to the side. His own fingers – covered in blood and gore – were forced into his mouth. He made a sound of shock, and then a heavy bolt of something else turned him lax against the ground as he absently, then enthusiastically sucked at the drying, sticky stuff covering his skin. The blood of Seelie and Unseelie both flavouring his mouth. Augus panted briefly above him. Gwyn closed his eyes, his fingers a thick weight on his tongue.

Gwyn,’ Augus said. ‘Is it good?’

Gwyn made an unthinking noise of agreement, licking between his own fingers with a slick tongue, and the edge in his heartbeat easing.

The hand around his wrist forced his fingers deeper and Gwyn choked slightly, his own fingers as long as Augus’, thicker. He moved away, and a hand at the back of his head stopped him.

‘Deeper,’ Augus ordered, and Gwyn bristled at the order. His eyes slid sideways, and he caught a hard, unforgiving gaze on Augus’ face. He opened his mouth, tried to jerk backwards, and Augus brought his own strength to bear.

‘I said deeper.’

His own fingers scraped his spasming throat and his teeth accidentally shut on the base of his knuckles. He cried out, tried to growl, couldn’t manage. He could taste blood throughout his mouth, swallowed down a tiny piece of flesh and knew that he should be loathing this, that any good Seelie fae would-

Not Seelie.

He looked at Augus again, holding very still.

‘The battle is won and I want some of your time. Will you give it to me?’

Gwyn’s throat hurt, his wrist was twisted into a strange position, his body was a mess of feedback. The weight of Augus where he straddled his lower back was…

Threatening. Calming.

He moaned softly, the sound muffled around his fingers.

‘That’s it,’ Augus murmured, approval thick in his voice. Genuine approval, like he hadn’t heard for such a long time. Gwyn’s eyes drifted shut again, he shifted on the ground. He was aware he should be struggling more. They were in public, anyone could stumble across them. But those thoughts were distant, muted. He sucked harder on his fingers, his own throat relaxing for himself, and he moaned again. Did Augus know that he’d done this before, after battle? When no one could see?

The hand at the back of his hair eased and settled on his cheek, thumb moving over his skin, petting him. He huffed out a breath and shifted his hips impatiently.

Augus quickly ripped away the waterweed binding Gwyn’s lower legs. He dug fingers into Gwyn’s pants and dragged them down, and Gwyn made a sound of alarm when the fabric caught on his cock. Augus paused and encouraged his hips up. He unhooked the material, sliding the pants all the way off, tugging them off his ankles, baring him from the waist down.

‘Keep your fingers in your mouth,’ Augus said, voice crisp.

He felt hands on his ass cheeks. His fingers slipped free of his lips and he shouted in outrage, because he’d been tricked, it was a trick. He’d just won a battle. He didn’t submit to anyone! He flipped half over and tried to scream, and a mouth slanted over his. Augus’ tongue slid between his lips and Gwyn’s cry rippled out between them, vibrating hard, strong enough to force their lips apart for a second, before Augus pressed back with a firmness as unavoidable as a tide.

The kiss was overwhelming. Augus’ hand in his hair dragging his head back to an uncomfortable angle. His tongue sliding back and forth, wet and hot as Gwyn weakly tried to get into a better position. If anyone was going to be on top, if anyone was going to be fucked, it wasn’t going to be-

But the kiss went on and on, and Augus wouldn’t draw back to give Gwyn room to catch his breath properly. He felt like a pane of glass misting at the edges. Clarity faded, his struggles eased into something hungrier. He pawed at Augus’ clothing. His tongue curled around Augus’ as he moaned, over and over. Augus made a soft, encouraging sound in response, and Gwyn opened his mouth wider, sucked on Augus’ tongue, scraped teeth over it. He needed more than this. He tried to arch his body into Augus’, but the position wasn’t right. He made a long, high noise, and Augus laughed against his mouth.

He withdrew with a wet sound, and Gwyn stilled again when he felt fingers at his ass cheeks. A fingertip dragged dry over his hole, then pressed. His back arched, fingers dug into dirt and grass, and his mouth opened on a dull cry as Augus’ fingertip slid in, just a little.

‘I could take you like this,’ Augus said. ‘You’ve done it to others, haven’t you? Forced them to the healer’s tents? I know how some of you want it so much rougher once you’re Court status or higher, and know it can’t truly hurt you. A little pain in the moment, and you’ll feel fine in a week, isn’t that so?’

His finger winnowed deeper, forcing its way in, and Gwyn rubbed his forehead into the ground and then arched his hips back into Augus’ hand.

‘Augus,’ Gwyn said, all thoughts of the Court, the battle, disappearing. ‘Augus, you-’

Augus’ finger wriggled, moving even deeper, and Gwyn felt the burn of it, could hear his panting harsh in his ears and hardly cared.

‘What do you want, sweetness?’ Augus said, every word a balm, even as they challenged him.

But Gwyn’s inhibitions were far away. He tore up sods of grass as his hips rolled.

‘Fuck me.’

‘Are you always so demanding after a battle?’ Augus said, but he sounded so pleased, and Gwyn groaned low as Augus’ finger thrust back and forth. There was so much friction that his finger dragged, caught on the rim of his hole, and Gwyn bit into his lower lip. He brought one leg up, as much as he could, surprised that Augus was allowing him. But it made the position better, made everything easier.

‘That answers that question, doesn’t it?’ Augus said, hooking his finger into Gwyn’s entrance and pulling, chuckling at the wretched sound that Gwyn made in response. There were a myriad of aches inside of him, but Augus was causing him to focus on a particular one, and he didn’t know whether to push back or pull away. ‘Luckily for you, we won’t need a healer’s tent. I thought ahead.’

Augus’ other hand slipped underneath Gwyn’s body and found his cock with a familiar grip, before squeezing the head so tightly that Gwyn jolted in pain. Augus didn’t stop, didn’t respond to Gwyn’s tension. Gwyn whined after several seconds, not sure what he was supposed to do. There were no orders, he wasn’t aware of disobeying anything.

‘Careful,’ Augus whispered, increasing the pressure. Gwyn cried out and tried to shift away, and Augus moved with the bucking of his body. A lance of pain slid down his cock into his balls, flooded into his belly. The grip was terrible. ‘I just want to see how tame you are right now. Why, you’ll let me do anything, won’t you?’

A dry sob, because he didn’t want that to be true, not now, not after battle, but he felt paralysed beneath the slighter form of Augus, that crushing grip.

Augus let up after another minute, Gwyn shaking beneath him, and there was a moment of relief before a pulsing of pain as blood flooded back into the tip of his cock. He whimpered, shifted, feeling bruised and sore.

‘Shh,’ Augus said, rubbing at his flank. The pop of a cork, and then fingers spreading his ass cheeks and cold slick pouring between them. Gwyn’s eyes widened as Augus’ fingers stemmed the flow of lubricant and two fingers pushed it into him. It wasn’t his usual method, and Gwyn turned his head, tried to look over his shoulder, then forgot what he was meant to be doing as he was stretched on a hard thrust of Augus’ fingers.

‘There’s blood everywhere – yours, others,’ Augus said, a smile in his voice, lazily thrusting his fingers in slow but powerful strokes. ‘You’re practically humming with energy. I think we need to tire you out, don’t we?’

Gwyn closed his eyes and growled. Augus was in a mood.

Augus laughed again and withdrew his fingers. He arched over Gwyn, grasped his wrists and pinned them down, and Gwyn half-heartedly tried to tug free, then jerked his arms with more force, crying out when his shoulder blazed with pain at the same time as a cock pressed down between his ass cheeks. He tugged his good arm over and over, and Augus did nothing more than slide between, not even trying to penetrate him.

‘Please,’ Gwyn said, the word breaking out of his throat. ‘Please, just-’

‘All right,’ Augus said, though he kept holding Gwyn’s wrists down, kept up that frustrating back and forth slide. Almost fucking, but not quite. Augus was shushing him again, and Gwyn vaguely realised that he was making low, fractious sounds.

Energy roared through him and he bucked forwards. If Augus was going to leave him like this, he would find someone else and fuck them, Augus be damned. He couldn’t stand it. He began to get free and dragged a foot forward, and waterweed tripped him up, a hand slid around one of his wrists and he was brought back to the ground again. He heard Augus say something, sounding delighted, but couldn’t think for the pounding drums in his head. He needed a sword. Surely, out there, there was someone he could run through and slake his bloodlust with a good kill. Surely, he could-

He’d hardly been paying attention in his struggles, but gasped the moment the head of Augus’ cock pressed against his entrance. He reached around to shove Augus off him, but Augus rocked forwards, forcing his way in, past tension and friction and still deeper. Not as much lubricant or stretching as usual, and the roughness of it made Gwyn aware that he was being taken the way he used to take others. He made a vague sound of dissent, and then moaned low when Augus used his body weight to bear down, forcing him into the dirt.

Every thrust after that was slow, deliberate, Augus inching inside of him and Gwyn’s eyes wide, breathing harsh, his cock throbbing painfully in response even as aborted rage flowed through him in hot flashes of light.

Augus had his chest pressed to Gwyn’s back, sticking to the remnants of blood and sweat, penetrated him with undulations that knocked the breath out of his lungs. It was always easy to forget just how long Augus’ cock was, until he began to reach places that Gwyn associated with dull aches and feeling pinned to the ground.

The cry he gave was raw, he didn’t have the presence of mind to hold it back. He shivered when Augus grunted an approving sound in response.

Gwyn shifted, unable to contain the energy in his body, writhed beneath Augus and was held back with grasping hands that were strong; waterweed coiling around him – not tying him to anything, just wrapping around his arms, cold and rubbery. He gasped, fought the reflex to retaliate.

Augus’ pelvis pressed against his skin, and Gwyn made a deep noise of discomfort, lust, pleasure. There was an aching pain that wasn’t helped by the steady throb in the head of his cock where Augus had squeezed too tightly.

He thought Augus might say something, but Augus was silent. Even his breathing quietened. But a hand stroked over his face, dragged over his lips, then pushed his face down into the dirt. It could have been an entirely rough gesture, but fingertips were still stroking carefully, even while the heel of Augus’ palm was uncompromising.

Gwyn moaned in response. Augus always knew what to do, and Gwyn’s thoughts of fighting back disappeared behind being so surrounded, the need to come.

Augus’ movements after that were firm, though not demanding or rough. It was still enough to make Gwyn feel pleasure race up and down the back of his spine, sparking into his hands and fingers. It flowed down his legs until his toes were curling, pushing absently back into Augus.

‘That’s it,’ Augus encouraged. ‘That’s it, move back into me. Just like that. That’s wonderful, sweetness.’

Gwyn moaned and rocked back, meeting Augus’ thrusts. His own cock pressed up against his belly and the faint friction was enough. He whimpered, head pressed into the dirt. He was going to come.

Augus kept his hand on Gwyn’s head, the other braced beside him. He didn’t stop moving as Gwyn’s body locked up, as muscles screeched. His breathing stuttered, became uneven, and his cock hurt as it stiffened further. Augus had bruised him. Something feral moved through him – sensation and light and pleasure, abrasive and brittle.

He came silently, come hot against his own feverish skin, shuddering violently. He moaned once towards the end and Augus hushed him, voice soft.

His hips slowed, he stopped meeting Augus’ thrusts; but Augus didn’t stop. He continued despite the aches and pains making themselves known in the wake of the worst of the lust leaving. He continued despite Gwyn being tighter, despite his cock beginning to soften underneath them.

Gwyn moaned again, and Augus shifted the hand holding his head down and attempted to stroke his hair. He only shifted strands matted together with blood.

‘We’re not done,’ Augus said, voice low, full of promise. ‘When was the last time I saw to you properly? Tired you out the way you should be?’

Gwyn opened his mouth to protest, but couldn’t manage it. He blinked his eyes open and winced at the broad daylight, stared at dense trees around them. A shaft of sunlight was on them both, but the forest here was thick and shadows loomed. Gwyn couldn’t hear the sounds of looting, couldn’t sense any fae nearby except for those animals and fae that naturally lived there.

Augus still rocking his body, a metronome of desire and entitlement wrapped around him.

He closed his eyes again, tried to lose himself in it. Because just behind it was over-stimulation, a frustration that knocked at his body and tried to force its way in. And then it would feel unbearable and he would struggle and Augus would just keep going.

He groaned and Augus chuckled, moving like he had no intention of ever stopping.

The ache of it was hypnotic, and Gwyn drifted. He shifted fractiously several times, but every time he did, Augus only hushed him and pressed even closer. There was so much skin contact between them that Gwyn couldn’t concentrate. The bloodlust of battle tipping into a slower, lazier heat.

‘I’m impressed,’ Augus said some time later, when Gwyn was starting to get hard again and panting as sparks leapt inside of him. ‘I thought you’d be far more upset with me.’

‘Do you…want me to be?’ Gwyn managed.

‘I like you like this, too,’ Augus said, and then in a series of brutal, merciless thrusts, stole the rest of Gwyn’s breath away so that he was whimpering into grass and leaf-litter. His cock twitched and he shifted, tried to push his arms underneath himself, make the position easier. He couldn’t function. He went limp, whined for mercy.

Augus slowed down enough that Gwyn could catch his breath, but not enough to stop stoking that reluctant fire in his gut. How long had Augus been fucking him now? Too long.

‘Gods,’ Gwyn gasped.

‘Aren’t you more worried that people will find us? See you? You could be in danger.’

‘No one…’ Gwyn said, the sentence emerging unclear. He struggled to find the words. ‘Can’t sense anyone.’

Augus hummed, pleased, and then blew out a hard breath and kept moving. Gwyn wondered if he was close. Knowing Augus – probably not.

The second time he came, it was a slow, roiling thing that eventually steamrolled through his senses. He couldn’t manage to do much more than keen, Augus’ fingers resting gently over his nose and mouth, as though to gather the sound up and hold it. He managed nothing more than a weak spurt of come, and the rest of his orgasm was spasms and cramps, nearing painful.

Augus was still thrusting into him, rhythmic and demanding and Gwyn’s eyelashes were wet, eyes burning.

‘Augus.’

‘No, sweetness,’ Augus said, voice firm. ‘It’s been far too long.’

‘I can’t.’

‘You will,’ Augus promised, and then hushed him once more. ‘You’re King and a fae. Where’s that famed refractory period we’re all famous for?’

Gwyn was too tired to get free, though at one point he put in a good effort at trying. Augus petted him, whispered soothing words, even as it was obvious he wasn’t going to stop. Gwyn weakly clawed at him, and Augus only took his hands in a gentle but firm grip and pinned them down, stroking his palms with his thumbs so that Gwyn didn’t know what to do anymore. He needed whatever it was that Augus was offering, but the cost was so high that he didn’t know if he could stand it. He felt raw, bruised, his cock valiantly hardening again, though it couldn’t manage the same stiffness as before. His ears, cheek and neck burned, he blinked wetness out of his eyes.

He was limp and breathing raggedly when his release found him much later – nothing more than a dribble of come and his pelvis and balls convinced there was more. He moaned in despair, lust, and Augus was saying things – praising him, but Gwyn couldn’t focus on the words.

Augus picked up speed after that and Gwyn couldn’t bear it, begged Augus to stop, but couldn’t put much force behind the words because he knew it meant that Augus was close. He hung onto the things outside of his body that didn’t hurt. The sound of Augus’ breathing – that he could actually hear it now; the shakiness on the inhales that meant he was finding his own pleasure. The way Augus’ hands clutched at him more than they gentled, as though he needed to something to hang onto.

Augus came deep inside of him, moaning softly, once, then again, and then a third, unexpected time. He was never particularly vocal, and Gwyn treasured every one of the noises he heard and tucked them into a secret place inside himself.

He curled up as Augus withdrew. He was aware of come leaking out of him, sweat rolling down his skin, tracking through the blood on his face and neck, tickling his spine.

‘You’re a mess. I suppose we both are,’ Augus said quietly. ‘You kill things like you expect to die. Has it always been like that? All that brilliance hiding all that need to seek an end?’

Gwyn was too tired to lie.

‘Always,’ he mumbled. ‘I tried to get killed on my first battle.’

‘You have a lot more to lose now.’

‘I don’t mean to do it anymore,’ Gwyn said, mouth open after his sentence, focusing on breathing. He felt so raw. ‘It just happens that way. It’s the way I fight.’

He wanted blankets, a bed and a shower. Perhaps not in that order. He hardly knew what he wanted. Augus had fucked him boneless. He couldn’t remember the last time this had happened. Augus was right, it had been far too long.

‘Do you want to die?’ Augus said. ‘Do you want to know what it’s like?’

An odd note in his voice.

‘Sometimes.’ He thought about it. He’d been tortured to losing consciousness before. He’d ached for death. Yet when he’d been underfae, he’d been so terrified. ‘That moment…before the black. I think about it.’

‘Do you want me to give it to you?’ Augus said, and Gwyn blinked his eyes open, confused. Augus crouched before him, naked, cock hanging slick and limp between his legs and as casual and free an animal as any Gwyn had ever seen in the wild.

‘Death?’

‘The illusion of it. You’ll come back after. I don’t imagine it’s the first time you’ve even experienced it. But since battle didn’t give it to you, and my cock can’t either…’

‘Then how?’

‘Come with me, back to my lake. You need aftercare anyway, you’re wounded and exhausted. And you can’t leave without breaking a blood-oath. Come with me. Let me take you down into the depths. Not just teleportation.’

‘Drowning,’ Gwyn gasped, and he hated that his heart jumped at the thought of it. It would hurt. He hated drowning. But if Augus was there…

‘You can’t die from it. But it will knock you out, for a time.’

‘It will hurt,’ Gwyn said, voice plaintive.

‘Yes,’ Augus nodded, calm. ‘What do you want more? We can leave that for now, and I can tend to you. Or-’

Gwyn pushed himself up to his elbows and took in a deep, shuddering breath.

‘Do it,’ Gwyn said, blinking the last of the tears of overstimulation from his eyes. ‘Do it, Augus.’

A craving so wide it threatened to swallow him whole.

‘You’ll come back from it,’ Augus warned him. ‘This won’t be the relief you want it to be. The end you dream of.’

‘Why doesn’t it bother you more?’

‘Because I knew you wanted to die a long time ago. Perhaps when you were visiting me in that cell,’ Augus said. ‘Earlier, even. When you first visited me. You were scared of me, yet there was a scent of death about you even then; you were looking for it. You’re not the first person I’ve met who has wanted to die. And you’re not the first who has learned to live, in spite of it. Though you are one of the most persistent in putting yourself in life-threatening situations. Here, let me take the edge off.’

‘Yes,’ Gwyn said. ‘Though…I need a moment before I can stand.’

The grin Augus gave him was frightening in how self-satisfied it was.

 

Chapter Text

Gwyn

*

Augus dressed, but Gwyn left his armour where he’d shed it, only putting on the thin pants and shirt of before. Now he stood with his feet in the shallows of a lake near the battle, and Augus faced him, holding his hands in both of his own, making a steady, challenging eye contact. He was already knee deep in the water.

‘I want you to be very sure,’ Augus said, ‘because it will do something to me, to have you like that in my lake. I won’t be able to stop until you’re drowned.’

‘And then?’ Gwyn said, disturbing images of teeth in his flesh, shaking and tearing at him. The fact that Gwyn got gooseflesh from it still didn’t make it clear whether it was lust or terror the thought excited.

‘And then you’ll wake in my home. But I need you to be very sure.’

‘I’ve been drowned before,’ Gwyn said, like it was something he did all the time.

It hurt. It was an awful, waterlogged, vicious pain.

Augus’ eyes were very bright. Gwyn half wanted to do it just because he could see it was something Augus wanted.

‘How long?’ Gwyn whispered. ‘How long have you wanted to do this?’

‘Long enough,’ Augus said, matching his volume.

‘I’m sure. I mean to say – I’m very sure,’ Gwyn said, licking at dry lips. He just wanted to collapse. He felt wretched. Used and raw and blown out with battle and like he could sleep for a week.

‘Then come with me,’ Augus said, stepping backwards into the lake and pulling Gwyn with him, never looking away, green irises slowly brightening. ‘Don’t let go of my hands.’

Gwyn stumbled, and Augus’ eyebrows twisted together.

‘Not much longer until you can rest. I promise,’ Augus said, and Gwyn stared at him.

He sluggishly tried to remind himself that Augus had killed Crielle, but in that moment, he couldn’t even understand it. All he wanted was Augus’ hands in his own, the rising water, the eye contact.

It was all that mattered.

*

Gwyn remembered to hold his breath as they teleported from the battle location to Augus’ new lake. They landed just beneath the surface. Gwyn could see light dancing above him as he returned to buoyant, corporeal form. Augus already had an arm around his shoulder, the other around his torso.

They began to slowly sink. Gwyn met Augus’ gaze, his heart rate shooting up despite the tiredness in his limbs. Water a cold shock, and his hair floated above his head. Augus’ drifted all around them, and Gwyn noticed the way the waterweed in his scalp moved up towards the light, as though a separate plant spirit was woven into his energy.

For all Gwyn knew, it was.

Augus’ hands were firm on his skin. The water responded to him and only to him. It helped their descent, and Gwyn felt it as a slow increasing pressure encouraging the air out of his lungs.

A burn spread in his body.

He looked to the surface again, wondered if he should have-

‘No,’ Augus’ true voice rippled out around them. ‘Into the deep with you, I’m afraid.’

They sunk deeper, faster, and the breath was crushed out of Gwyn’s lungs. He expelled it quickly and tried to hold back from gasping. He closed his eyes, shook his head, pushed weakly against Augus’ body.

‘Breathe in.’

A thin noise in his ears, his own. A protest. He clutched at Augus’ shirt and then tried to push him away, kicking back. He wanted it, he did, but this part would hurt. More than he was willing to accept. His body was already so tired. Augus’ hands stayed firm around him, if anything gathered him closer, until Gwyn’s face was against Augus’ shoulder, Augus’ cheek pressed against his head.

‘Breathe in. Drown for me.’

He thumped Augus’ back in protest, arm sluggish in the water, trying to fight off the need to open his mouth and breathe. The pressure built and built, until finally he opened his mouth wide and instead of taking a tiny amount to accustom himself, he sucked down a huge draft of the lake, coughing immediately, trying to expel what was there by breathing in more of it.

His struggle was outside of his conscious mind then. He struck out hard against Augus, and his light built inside of him. He panicked, not wanting to truly hurt Augus, wanting to escape, unable to shove his light away. Only at the last minute did Augus use a combination of his waterhorse weight and his ability to manipulate water to twist Gwyn so that he faced the opposite direction. A ball of light flung out away from them and Gwyn stared at it, trying to summon more, kicking back against the weight that dragged them further and further down.

Water in his lungs and agony screeching through him reminding him that this was wrong, wrong, and Gwyn tried to scream and couldn’t manage it.

‘Breathe it,’ the voice moving through him now, pressed into the back of his head. ‘Drown, my King. Listen to your heartsong. You wanted this. You were very sure. And you cannot know how delicious you are like this.’

Sharp teeth scraped across the back of his neck, blood bloomed around them.

A sob, water moving in, being pushed out, bubbles around them. His struggles became weak, automatic, and then his hands couldn’t find the strength to twitch.

Augus turned him easily and Gwyn stared at him, managing one last weak spasm as blackness encroached on his vision.

Augus’ eyes glowed. They lit the faint smile on his face, lit his hair and the waterweed. His hands were gentle against him. Gentle and firm.

He couldn’t look away.

Peace stole into him. A rare sensation that wasn’t dependent on the zahakhar of the Unseelie Court. It loosened tensions in his mind and left him hanging in Augus’ grip, staring at him and wanting it – the blackness. The death that wasn’t quite death.

Wonder, then, that Augus was so good at knowing what he needed. He could seek this on his own, but it felt…better to have someone else holding him through it. He didn’t fear what Augus might do – not now, not anymore.

He tried to offer a smile before he fell unconscious, but his body wasn’t listening to him anymore. One moment he was there, meeting Augus’ steady, reliable gaze; the next – his body shut down, and he was gone.

*

He woke to spasms, a grip forcibly turning him as he expelled what felt like buckets of water – though it couldn’t have been. He was inhaling painful breaths of air, coughing up mouthful after mouthful, and there were gentle words above him and he couldn’t make them out and unexpectedly he was teary, wanting to reach up and rub at his face and not having the energy to manage even that.

‘Easy,’ Augus said again, as his voice resolved into clearer words. ‘Easy, this part is the worst part.’

‘Y-You’ve done…done this before.’

‘Yes,’ Augus said, wiping a cloth over his face carefully, thoroughly, catching at his eyes, his forehead, the splutter of lake water and drool around his mouth. Gwyn tried to reach up for it, but motor control was slow to return. ‘You’re not the first fae who’s wanted to experience that.’

‘Gods,’ Gwyn said, as another wave of wracking coughs hit.

‘Be quiet for now, for a little while,’ Augus said. ‘Your healing is still kicking in. I suspect you took more injuries than you truly remember, in that battle.’

It was easy enough to listen. The coughing continued for some time. When it finally stopped, Augus eased him back onto…a bed, Gwyn realised. He’d been leaning over it, and there was a large basin on the floor. Augus picked it up like it weighed little and took it away. Gwyn listened to the sound of his rough, raspy breathing and distantly realised his ass was still sore, his limp cock, he still had wounds, his body had blisters and sores rubbed into it from poorly fitting armour. His neck hurt, and he was aware of a towel beneath his head.

He groaned roughly and kept his eyes closed.

Augus returned a few minutes later, crawling onto the bed and straddling him without settling his weight.

‘You’re healing,’ Augus said quietly, touching a place near his ribs that thrummed with pain. ‘It’s slow.’

‘I have to get back to the-’

‘No.’

‘I have-’

‘Do it, and you’ll break the blood-oath.’

Gwyn opened his mouth to protest, and instead shivered into silence. He didn’t – truthfully – want to move. His eyes stayed closed, and he sighed when Augus leaned forwards and smoothed fingertips over his face. Claws touched his eyelids lightly, then rubbed his eyelashes.

Gwyn sneezed.

He made a faint sound of annoyance, and Augus only moved his fingers over his cheeks, cupped his jaw, rested thumbs on his lips.

‘You’ll heal faster if you rest.’

He nodded automatically. Healers said that to him all the time.

Augus kept leaning forwards until his chest pressed against Gwyn’s chest. The pressure awoke faint pains throughout his body and he frowned. Augus buried hands in his hair and pressed kisses to his sternum, to the rise of his pectorals. Each one warm and soft.

‘You did so well,’ Augus said between kisses.

Cheeks burned, he turned his face to the side. What did he do so well at? Letting himself get fucked by Augus, and then indulging something he knew he was supposed to be ashamed of?

‘So well,’ Augus said. He pushed himself up, and Gwyn knew Augus was staring at him. ‘You are an incredible warrior.’

‘I had good teachers,’ Gwyn said.

‘I’m not talking about them,’ Augus said. ‘I’m talking about you. You are spectacular. You won the battle.’

‘We all did.’

But it was a tiny battle, a small thing, and the Unseelie Court had so few resources to begin with. What if Albion mounted a large scale retaliation, what then? Gwyn shook his head, his eyes blinked open. Augus’ new home. He’d only been here once before, when he was still underfae, when his instincts had screamed alarm at him every five seconds.

He didn’t feel very far away from being underfae.

‘Gwyn,’ Augus said, voice warning.

‘I can’t do it,’ Gwyn said shakily. ‘We can’t do it. I don’t know what I was thinking. That was a small-scale battle. It was nothing. Albion has resources and Mikkel is right, the only reason he hasn’t crushed us yet is that he just wants to wait and enjoy the outcome. He just wants to take his-’

‘Easy,’ Augus said, slowing the word down. ‘Take some breaths. Let’s start from the beginning. Take some breaths, Gwyn. That’s it. You panicked thing. You can hardly move and look at you.’

He focused on his breathing, squeezed his eyes shut.

‘Your first point – you can’t do it? Be King? Make the Unseelie Court a force to be reckoned with? You’re already doing the former. The latter is…it’s in the hands of the fates.’

‘I don’t believe in fate.’

‘You should. But let me be clearer – it’s not up to you. You can’t fix things by force of will alone. If Albion decides to crush us tomorrow, then he will. If he waits and gives us time, then we have time. If shapeshifters steal you away in a week, then we have to deal with that. Also, you? Not believing in fate? Celestial Unseelie King-of-two-Courts?’

Gwyn made a sound of protest.

‘Celestial Unseelie have likely existed before,’ Gwyn said. ‘They probably killed themselves and their families with their powers before they could be cultivated safely. I tried to do the same. Forced suppression seems to be the only way to survive to adulthood.’

‘Mm,’ Augus said, sounding unconvinced.

Gwyn sighed when lips pressed against his, stopping any further conversation. Augus’ tongue licked against his chapped lips, curled against the inside of his upper lip, and then lapped at his tongue. Gwyn made a rough sound, lungs hurting, and reached up with a weak arm – muscles still recovering – and placed a clumsy hand on Augus’ back.

‘You’re touching me more,’ Augus said, against his lips.

Gwyn lifted his hand, and Augus made a displeased noise. He slowly lowered it again, thought he might be flushing if his skin didn’t feel so pallid and cold.

‘It’s good,’ Augus said, kissing the corner of his eyebrow. ‘It’s welcome.’

‘It is?’

Gwyn tentatively dragged his hand down Augus’ back, and then raised it and repeated the gesture. Long strokes. It felt like petting a hound. He didn’t think he’d tell Augus that, but he liked the feel of it. Apparently Augus did as well, since his mouth returned to Gwyn’s, assailing him with lazy kisses that ended with him tugging Gwyn’s lip forward between his teeth in a grip that didn’t quite hurt. Gwyn groaned, and then shook his head faintly.

‘I can’t do anything,’ Gwyn said. ‘Not after…’

‘It’s only kissing. It comes with no cost.’

All too soon, Augus withdrew and sat back, watching Gwyn closely. Gwyn’s arm fell to his side, and Augus took it by the wrist, measuring his pulse, frowning. He ran his palm along Gwyn’s arm and the furrow in his brow deepened.

‘What is it?’ Gwyn said.

‘Your healing is slower than usual. Give me a moment.’

He slid off the bed and walked into what looked like a large room that doubled as a wardrobe. Gwyn tried to turn to his side to watch Augus, but couldn’t manage it. His body was hardly listening to him. He was terribly cold, but none of his muscles were shivering like he expected.

Augus came back with some small towels, and then grasped Gwyn’s arm in one hand, and started roughly rubbing the towel over his skin with the other.

Gwyn raised his eyebrows in confusion.

‘Blood flow,’ Augus said. ‘You’ll start to warm soon. You should have told me.’

‘I didn’t realise,’ Gwyn said, feeling strange. ‘It’s not every day that I…experience that.’

‘I went easy on you,’ Augus laughed.

Gwyn only watched him, winced a little at the brisk strokes of the towel. His whole body tingled, and when Augus picked up his other arm, began the same treatment, he shivered. Augus noticed, nodded to himself. Gwyn’s shivering picked up and he became more aware of the aches in his body. He grit his teeth against them.

‘Am I still bleeding?’ Gwyn said, as Augus stripped back blankets and started in on his feet, his toes, his ankles.

‘There’s a nasty wound at your back which may still be bleeding. The rest have already ceased.’

Gwyn closed his eyes in relief. To think that once – not so long ago – he had nearly died from an arrow to the shoulder. He touched the gnarl of ruined tissue lightly, then shuddered and moved his hand away. His teeth started chattering.

‘That will stop soon,’ Augus said, and Gwyn winced when Augus started in on his calves, but said nothing. He couldn’t quite understand why Augus was being so kind. Did he want something? Gwyn watched him, and when Augus looked up minutes later, he stopped. He sat up straighter.

‘What is it?’

‘What happens when we go back?’ Gwyn said, steeling his muscles against the shivering, trying not to let his teeth chatter.

You have no reason to be this way to me, unless you want something. Why are you being like this?

‘What punishment are you saving up for me?’ Gwyn added.

Augus said nothing, returned to Gwyn’s knees, rubbing more roughly than before – though not enough that it truly hurt. He then raised he blankets back over Gwyn’s lower body again and walked out of the room, taking the towels with him. When Augus returned, he looked sombre, unhappy.

Gwyn wanted to be petting him again, wanted the spell of only minutes ago. He even wanted the moment of peace in the depths of the lake, staring into Augus’ eyes.

‘How can you be like this…now, and then think that killing my mother without my knowledge wouldn’t…’

‘Wouldn’t what?’ Augus said, standing in the middle of his room on a wide, plush rug. ‘Wouldn’t upset you?’

Augus made a sound of frustration and then raised a hand in the air, fingers splaying.

‘Go on then, talk about it, since you seem so invested in bringing it up at every opportunity.’

‘No,’ Gwyn said, stung. ‘You- Augus, you mowed through the Estate. I’m trying to understand. I am. And I know it’s in your nature, I do. But it’s also not. You can’t look at me and tell me that massacres are your modus operandi. You simply can’t.’

Augus rubbed at his face as nervous energy built in the room between them. Gwyn pushed himself upright, still shaking, and then his body locked up from the fierce ache of it. Augus turned and bared his teeth in frustration.

‘I am trying to help you, and you seem to want to ignore all of that and fight with me.’

‘Help me by talking to me,’ Gwyn said, something hot lancing through him that had nothing to do with the blood rising to the surface of his skin.

‘What do you want to hear?’ Augus snarled. ‘Do you want to know what her blood tasted like? Or how she smiled at me as she died? Do you want to know that I think she half expected me to find you as disgusting as she did?’

Gwyn couldn’t think for several seconds, blinking away his shock. He hadn’t imagined…they’d talked. He didn’t know what he’d imagined. In fact, now that the images and words Augus had evoked were floating through his mind, he realised he’d tried not to give it any thought at all.

‘You want to punish me for suggesting a collar and chain – which, Augus, you know helped the Unseelie Court. But I cannot even talk about what you did to Crielle, without you becoming so defensive that you- What if I were to punish you? I am within my rights.’

‘I’m still not sure you haven’t,’ Augus said, staring at him. ‘And I do not become defensive.’

Gwyn laughed. ‘Don’t you? Ash isn’t here to interrupt us this time. I’m just waiting for you to find some way to run from your own home.’

Augus looked so affronted that Gwyn opened his mouth to apologise. He forced himself not to. He hurt. All over. This was wretched. All he wanted was to be fortunate enough to curl up on his side with Augus. To have more of that touch, if he might be allowed it. He didn’t understand why he couldn’t let it go. Why it was so important to him? Efnisien and Lludd had hardly mattered. He tried to bring his knees up to his chest but the motion was too painful, his ass and lower back still ached too much.

He didn’t understand how he could want to be close to someone who angered him so much. He looked away for long moments, tension building inside of him, words that he’d said over and over coming back to him.

‘You killed her!’ He turned back to Augus. ‘You killed all of them! You say I might not have survived Crielle, then, all right- But the others? How could you kill Delphine? And even Melchor? How?’

He expected harsh words, but abruptly, Augus’ shoulders sagged, his gaze became less clear, as though he was trying to hide something.

‘I didn’t intend to,’ he said, quietly.

Gwyn blinked at him.

‘Then why?’

‘You know of bloodlust, don’t you?’ Augus said, sounding bitter. ‘I could also not be in that house, that perfect estate, and not think of…what you experienced. I could not think about the bystanders who did nothing.’

‘By your standards, Augus! Not mine!’

Augus stared at him, outraged.

‘Then what exactly did they do for you? Tell me!’

‘You don’t understand,’ Gwyn said. All the words clamouring inside of him fell away like stones, and he was left with nothing.

‘No, you don’t get to escape that easily. Tell me how they helped you. You’re so…wary of talking about your past, but how am I supposed to understand why they aren’t also criminals, when you won’t tell me?’

Gwyn made a sound in his throat on an exhale, he hadn’t planned to. He swallowed automatically, curled his legs underneath himself and rested his weight on one hip, looking away from Augus to a stained glass window that let in a strange, glowing werelight from outside. Sometimes it was very easy to remember they were underwater.

‘Delphine always made sure I was fed,’ Gwyn said quietly. ‘I was- I was always hungry.’

‘Because you couldn’t feed your light,’ Augus said.

Gwyn laughed, the sound far more caustic than he’d expected.

‘No, because…because I wasn’t being fed. I had- I had always done something wrong according to Lludd, so I was never welcome at the table – unless we had guests. And when he was away, Crielle- She- It wasn’t safe to eat around her. And- Augus, I was a Court fae in the Seelie Courtlands and I- I ate animals raw. I ate mice and rats, if I had to. I’m as good a ratter as any feist.’

Gwyn laughed again to say it. Memories of watching the terriers whip their heads back and forth to break a spine or a neck, and learning how to match the snapping motion with his wrist. How Court status allowed him to digest any meat – no matter if raw, or diseased, or how it might turn his stomach to imagine Crielle and her guests with marchpane and cake, while he stole to the mews and helped keep them clear of vermin.

He flushed at what he’d revealed, and he looked down at the fabric of the bed, refused to see the disgust on Augus’ face.

‘Delphine did what she could. In that household, many…many servants were killed. ‘Died mysteriously.’ Aunt Penny was the worst for it, but Crielle too, if she was angry or slighted. And you have to understand that the coterie around my mother – Delphine, All’eth, Melchor, the others…they were hired to protect her. They were her allies. But they…I don’t understand it, they were not unkind to me. Delphine always cooked extra, left food out frequently so that I might steal it. Maids that could have been killed for disobeying my mother would leave food for me in my rooms, sometimes.’

He grit his teeth.

‘Is this it? Is this what you wanted? To humiliate me? Because you are so incapable of seeing them as anything other than evil?’

When Augus said nothing, only stood watching him, Gwyn grimaced and wished he could disappear. He decided that perhaps it was time to run from the conversation, if Augus wouldn’t. He did have to get back to the castle. As for the soreness, this was not the first or even hundredth time he’d had to bear pain until it healed properly.

He slid off the bed and couldn’t see his clothing; it was likely too bloodied to wear.

He called his light, just as Augus shouted in alarm and that blasted pain found him, rusting through his blood cells and dropping him to his knees.

‘Damn you!’ Gwyn shouted through gritted teeth, a blazing full-body pain. It was the blood-oath. ‘This isn’t aftercare!’

Arms around him as his breathing came ragged and tore through his lungs, making him cough again. He was lifted back onto the bed and dug his nails into Augus’ side so hard that Augus grunted in pain.

‘Get off me.’ He shoved, and Augus didn’t move. A careful hand in his hair and Gwyn made a strangled noise. ‘Augus, I swear, you-’

‘I shouldn’t have done it,’ Augus said, voice low, Gwyn hardly catching the words. ‘Not like that. I could never have asked your permission to kill Crielle, you would never have said yes. But the others- I don’t entirely understand your loyalty, but I can see it, and I shouldn’t have done it.’

Gwyn went still, pain shrieking through him, reminding him of an ancient, broken blood-oath. The one he could almost forget until memories crept back, stirred and never allowed to settle properly.

‘I shouldn’t have done it,’ Augus said again.

‘Are you sorry?’ Gwyn said.

‘I don’t know,’ Augus said. ‘I don’t think so. Not the way you want me to be. I regret that it hurt you in the way that it has. But I know that’s not enough. Gwyn, I…had to kill her. And as for the others, I lost myself. I lost myself. I would have done it again, especially now, knowing that you were as good a ratter as any feist.’

Gwyn flinched away and Augus pushed him down onto the bed, following, climbing over him.

‘Release that blood-oath,’ Gwyn said, refusing to look at him.

‘Never,’ Augus said, hands hovering over different sections of his skin, before one finally settled on his chest, the other in his hair. ‘I thought you would take it in your stride, as you did Efnisien and Lludd. More than that, she had plotted against you. If someone had treated Ash the way she treated you, do you think I would have just…let them live because Ash held some sympathy for them?’

‘No,’ Gwyn said, shaking again. Perhaps he’d never stopped.

‘No,’ Augus said, though he sounded unsettled. ‘And if- If you knew someone had hurt me…’

Gwyn thought back to the soldiers he’d killed in the Seelie Court; the ones he’d killed for Augus. Men with families – children. He squeezed his eyes shut and didn’t want to be having this conversation. No one cared for him like that. No one should.

Perhaps Augus was lying about his motivations.

‘Sweetness,’ Augus said, and Gwyn bucked, shoved at him, or tried to- Augus shoved back, pushing him back down to the bed.

‘Get off me,’ Gwyn rasped.

‘Sweetness,’ Augus said, voice even softer, sounding sadder than he had any right to. ‘Do you not understand why?’

He was tired. He’d won a battle. This was not the way he was supposed to feel after winning a battle. He placed his forearm over his face and tried to twist away, and Augus let him. He ended up on his side, hiding like a child. If any of the fae at the Triumphal Entry could see him like this…

Augus was practically on top of him now, limbs draped on either side, a heavy weight he didn’t truly want gone. Augus who never seemed to leave, no matter what he discovered. Augus who might be ill.

‘Despite all that,’ Augus said, ‘I shouldn’t have done it. Not like that. I miscalculated. The cost was higher than I could have predicted. Too high.’

Gwyn said nothing, finding his mouth empty of words and feeling so tired of it all. The Kingdom, the Court, all of his responsibilities. Dogwill Borough in a cell and he would have to see Mikkel again and navigate the tensions amongst the generals and there were upcoming events and none of it looked like finding time to go to a cabin and experiencing the simplicity of the hunt, the stars. Not that it mattered; none of the old cabins he’d made were his anymore. It was all Seelie land.

Augus’ hand started rubbing slow circles into his back.

‘It’s all some kind of punishment to you, isn’t it?’ Augus said, musing aloud. ‘Is that what you want? For me to string you up in ropes and chains for that Triumphal Entry and how miserable it was? Do you wish me to repeat the threats I heard against my person? Do you know how many fae – how many upper class, respected fae – wish to see me ripped apart from the inside out? Ruined and bleeding and-’

‘Gods, no,’ Gwyn said, eyes opening, staring ahead. ‘No. But…’

‘But what?’ Augus’ voice was gentle. But he often said sinister things in that gentle tone. Still, it eased him, and Augus was warm around him. The hand hadn’t stopped rubbing those steady circles into his back.

‘Sometimes…it is easier for me to…’

‘Easier for you to be anchored when you know the punishment, and what you are being punished for? Poor Gwyn. You hate it, really. But you desire it too. The understanding that comes from reprimand. Don’t worry. I’ve not forgotten that Triumphal Entry. I’ll-’

‘You broke the collar,’ Gwyn said, face twisting. ‘You broke it.’

‘What is your fascination with that collar?’

‘I thought- I…’

‘Spit it out,’ Augus said, sounding amused. But his other hand came up to Gwyn’s chest and simply rested there, palm flat, an anchor.

‘I thought – when you said you had the extensions – that you would, you would do the same to me. And then you would hurt me, for how I’d hurt you. In…in your way…’

‘The way that you secretly like,’ Augus purred.

‘In that way, and then I thought we might…we might be okay. I thought you knew. The ivy. It’s my…it’s the plant of my birth.’

Augus’ motions faltered, and the hand at his back came up and feathered through the curls at the base of his neck. Gwyn pushed his head into the pillow and frowned.

‘Ivy? Truly? The survivor. How terribly apt. The one that overcomes all odds. Born at the time of the waning sun. Life is not often easy for those born under the ivy, is it?’

‘Delphine told me, once,’ Gwyn said, thinking back. ‘I have no birthdate that I can recall. It was never recorded. And no birthing day – though common fae do observe them. But I remember when I observed another year at the rising of the sun during Winter Solstice – Delphine gave me a small cake with ivy marchpane twined around it. She was so good with those things. Pretty cakes and carrots cut in the shape of flowers. She lay a hand on my back and she told me it was the plant of my birth, and that a man should know these things. Do you- Do you know yours?’

‘Hawthorn,’ Augus said, cupping the back of Gwyn’s head. He sighed. ‘No wonder you thought I’d made the collar for you. But how would I know it was of significance to you?’

‘Sometimes you just seem to know,’ Gwyn said, laughing softly. ‘Wait, is Ash…ash?’

Augus huffed in amusement. Gwyn smiled, unbidden, to think about it. Such an obvious name now, in hindsight.

‘There was a reason, perhaps, he found the trees so fascinating. I did show them to him frequently.’

‘Augus, you didn’t even try. It’s such an unoriginal name.’

‘Hush,’ Augus said, though Gwyn could hear the smile in his voice. ‘Hush, sweetness. And roll over, this is uncomfortable. Onto your back, if you please.’

They ended up entwined, Augus tugging the blankets up around them. This felt faintly more like aftercare. Not that Gwyn had much experience of it. From his previous encounters with Augus, he knew this slightly more peaceable feeling – as though not every thing was going wrong – came with it. He kept his eyes closed, and Augus slid a careful leg between his and buried both of his hands into Gwyn’s hair, resting his upper body on his elbows, looking down at him. When those fingers massaged, Gwyn swallowed and was relieved to not be shivering as warmth sent welcome tendrils across his skin.

‘I think I understand now,’ Augus said quietly, ‘what it meant when I broke the collar. You thought you would wear it, and I would hurt you, and we’d be even. It must have seemed like I was far too angry for even that much. As though-’

‘If it were me, I wouldn’t forgive me,’ Gwyn said, voice rough. ‘I wouldn’t.’

‘Thankfully, I’m not you. Though I’m still not sure I have forgiven you yet.’

‘You want to leave me,’ Gwyn said, swallowing the end of the sentence so that it came out strangled.

No, you daft idiot,’ Augus said, sounding exasperated. ‘I don’t. That’s why I want you to treat me with more respect.’

‘But we’ll go back to the palace in…a few hours, a day maybe, and I have to- With everything I have to do, I’ll forget. I’ll…’

‘Oh,’ Augus said, smoothing thumbs across his creased brow, ‘trust me, if it’s punishment you’re looking for, if it’s wanting to make things even, you don’t have to worry. I won’t forget.’

There was a promise in Augus’ voice which was dark, frightening, rich, and if Gwyn wasn’t so spent, his cock would have attempted to rise to hardness once more. To anyone else, it might have sounded like a threat, but to Gwyn it sounded like…things were far better than they had been, recently. He shifted, breathed out a shaky exhale and wrapped a careful hand around Augus’ lower back.

He didn’t want to let go.

 

Chapter Text

Gwyn

*

He needed some time to himself, taking a breather in the smaller of the two Court amphitheatres. He’d just finished up a meeting with his generals that was more successful than usual, even though Albion had ended up seizing the pass through to the crucial agrarian lands thanks to Dogwill’s information. Despite that, the fact that Dogwill had been captured, a small contingent of Albion’s military successfully defeated, and the Unseelie Court Military itself now had numbers, meant the mood was far brighter.

He stepped through sword drills with care. He held the long-sword two handed, and huffed out sharp breaths through his nose as his ruined shoulder tried to keep up with muscle memory that still wanted him to move like he was as whole as he’d once been.

Almost an entire day he’d spent, dozing next to Augus on his bed, sheltered in his underwater home. An entire day as his lungs healed and the various injuries he took in battle knit together. It had been restorative. He didn’t like how tired Augus still looked once they’d returned to Court. He’d vowed to ask about it, but over the next few days Augus was occupied with common work, and Gwyn had to send out many letters to the fae who attended the Entry, correspond with many more, and make sure he was generally present in the throne room at least once a day. The Unseelie Court had become a busy place.

Could it be possible to miss the days when he was breaking under the weight of being King of the Seelie, having defeated the two evils he’d been asked to defeat and not knowing what to do next? He missed the quieter days in the forested Seelie Court, seeking out Augus on a regular basis, having time with him.

Gwyn frowned. Reminiscing over having Augus as his captive always sent a cold, slinking feeling through his spine.

Losing himself in drills for the next hour – until his hair was damp with sweat – took his mind off troubling matters. Slowly, he became aware he was being watched. But plenty of Seelie fae had watched his drills in the Seelie Court, and it never bothered him anymore when others watched him work.

He straightened, lowering his sword as smoothly as he could to mask his bad shoulder, and marked Vane leaning over the railing, a look of awe on his face. The fie ellyllon didn’t fight with anything heavier than an epee – broadswords and long-swords were beyond him, to say nothing of axes and maces.

‘They say you fought like a mad thing in battle. But then, they always say that, don’t they? You’re incredible. I wish the others would see it.’

There was a sweetness in the glint of Vane’s blue eyes, which took the edge off the flattery. If Dogwill had said it, chances were that Gwyn would have chafed under the smarminess lurking in every word.

Vane’s pale cheeks were pinked, his tangle of red hair set into curls that flew every which way. With the jewellery he wore – crystals in his ears, rings on his fingers, necklaces, a torc, bracelets and more – along with his pointed little fingernails and sharp canines, he always managed to look the way humans sometimes visualised the Fair Folk. Tall and slender, light on his feet in shoes crafted from the giant leaves of forests Gwyn wished he had time to revisit.

‘Your form is improving,’ Gwyn said, remembering seeing Vane with the recurve bow earlier that day. ‘Practicing around the generals is giving you a good eye.’

‘You think so?’ Vane said, cheeks tightening as he fought to hold back a smile. ‘Means a lot. I did research into how you and your father used to man longbows together! You…you could teach me, maybe? I know you’re busy…’

Gwyn walked over, curious. He leaned his hip against the railing and looked down at Vane. Gwyn was almost a foot and a half taller than he.

‘Perhaps,’ Gwyn said. ‘And what of you, young Prince Vane? How long have you known that your Princess would pledge so many soldiers to us? And so much wealth?’

He narrowed his eyes and Vane flushed. He looked like he wanted to edge sideways. He shrugged.

‘We’re taking a gamble. That’s what we do, you know? My Lady Braith has always been astute and we both have faith in your ability to rescue this Kingdom. You are the one who comes forward when all looks lost, are you not? You are a walking library of battle scrolls, and I think some of the others – Ifir, especially – do not want to see that when you defeated the Nightingale and the Each Uisge, you saved us too. You halted a very great danger that threatened all fae. Not just the Seelie.’

Vane trailed long, agile fingers along the metal he leaned against, tilting his head. Gwyn felt the glamour around him strengthen. Vane’s dra’ocht was sugary, tasted like berries and wine in the back of his throat. It was lovely, but Gwyn knew Vane had an angle. He waited, drawing him into conversation.

‘I do understand you can’t be seen to be playing favourites,’ Vane said finally. ‘Which is why I sought you out like this. Princess Braith has more warriors she is willing to pledge. More wealth.’

‘Are you trying to buy a way onto my Court, Vane?’ Gwyn said.

‘So crudely put, Your Majesty!’ Vane said, laughing. His eyes brightened, his pointed ears twitched with good humour. ‘We do, of course, understand that we must earn your trust first. These things take time, don’t they? But your Court is our Court too. We do care for it, you know.’

‘And you, Vane? What do you care for, besides the wealth of your people, and securing the safety of the Unseelie Court?’

Vane’s lips quirked nervously and he rose up on tiptoe. Gwyn wondered what he was like in the human world, feeding upon mischief and mayhem and deals gone wrong. There was something intriguing about him – not least because Vane was being far more subtle these days in his support of Gwyn and his methods. That subtlety was far more useful than the bald praise he’d been showering Gwyn in the presence of sceptical generals. Gwyn had to admit it held some appeal having actual allies when talking to more resistant War Generals like Ifir.

‘Family,’ Vane looked up, meeting Gwyn’s eyes directly. ‘Family matters to me. My sister. My mother and father. Those that are alive and those that didn’t survive the wars. I have to admit I like the idea of the longbow for long-range attacks.’

‘You have the recurve bow, and your magic,’ Gwyn said, pointing to the slender wand tucked into his leather belt.

‘Come, Gwyn, you know as well as I do that the magic of the wand has nothing on the School of the Staff. We can hold our own against non-magical fae, even some of the ones that can craft spells. But King Albion has a very powerful Mage in his Inner Court. Davix will recruit skilled fae to his cause, and land battles will see a more extreme magical element. We’ve talked about this, yes? I want to learn how to wield elfshot.’

Gwyn’s eyes widened. Elfshot was rare – only manufactured and used by the elven fae, and only with the bow at that. The tiny pieces of shrapnel that caused complete paralysis, and could only be cured by expensive Magecraft, or finding the piece of original elfshot and touching it to the wound; almost impossible in the midst of battle. Long ago, the elves had warred so brutally with each other that the famous elven militaries – known for their use of elfshot – dwindled.

‘Do you know someone who can teach you?’

‘I know someone who makes elfshot,’ Vane said, nodding. ‘But I’d like to use it across a variety of bows. Recurve suits my frame best. I’m afraid I’d be useless at the longbow.’

‘No!’ Gwyn said, shaking his head. ‘Who told you that? You have good musculature for longbow, and your arms are already strong from your wire-work. Do you have…access to longbows?’

‘I might…’ Vane said doubtfully. Gwyn wondered who had been teaching him. Clearly that person didn’t know what they were talking about.

‘Vane, I tell you – you can learn longbow. I do not know of many good Unseelie tutors, but-’

‘Aside from the one that stands before me,’ Vane said, and Gwyn smiled, uncomfortable.

‘Vane, I am too busy. Far too busy.’

‘No harm in trying, am I right?’ Vane said, smiling warmly. ‘Besides, I prefer the recurve bow. I mean no offense there! But longbows are so big.’

Gwyn laughed. He had the oddest urge to reach out and ruffle Vane’s hair affectionately. When training soldiers up for war, there was always one soldier that brought out that instinct in him. He suppressed it.

‘You sell your skills short, Vane. The fie ellyllon are competent, incredible fighters. You don’t need elfshot to win a battle. You’ve proven that time and time again.’

‘That’s very kind of you to say,’ Vane said. ‘And what’s brought the change over Your Majesty, if I might enquire? You seem far more relaxed today – and even at the Entry! It was quite something watching you throw the Nain Rouge to the ground.’

‘I doubt the Nain Rouge lets anything happen that she doesn’t wish to have happen,’ Gwyn said, smiling. His shoulder throbbed at him with increasing persistence, and he tried to shove his awareness of it away. He didn’t like to bother Augus with requests for assistance, perhaps a hot shower might ease it.

Still,’ Vane said. ‘What a night that was. And the palace looks captivating. The night gardens – you’ve outdone yourself. None of us expected…I mean to say…’

Vane trailed off, looking uncomfortable.

‘I mean no offense, but we all heard what you did to the Seelie Court.’

‘It destabilises the Seelie, to live in a place so unseemly,’ Gwyn said, lowering his voice. ‘But I can understand your misconceptions.’

‘You mean you did it on purpose?’

Gwyn decided to borrow from Augus’ book of tricks, and gave a smirk as his answer. Vane’s eyes widened, and he grinned. He was one of those fae easily taken in by the actions of others. The celebrity status that Gwyn had attained amongst some soldiers and generals always made him uncomfortable. Truth be told, even though he didn’t trust Ifir at all, he did appreciate the fae’s grounded way of talking to him. Like they were equals.

‘I must excuse myself, Vane. I’ll see you at the next meeting, yes?’

‘Looking forward to it. It’s great having all the generals together at once like that. I mean I know we fight a bit but…I’m learning so much.’

‘How have you managed to come so far, with such a youthful attitude?’ Gwyn said, raising his eyebrows. ‘That game of yours, you play it well.’

Something flickered on Vane’s face, before his smile broadened even more.

‘And I’ll thank you for saying so, Your Majesty. No one takes children seriously, do they?’

‘I’d rue the day that anyone not take the fie ellyllon seriously, especially one of their key Princes. Good-day to you, Vane.’

‘And you, my Lord!’

*

They sat – with shot-glasses of vodka in front of them – at their small table in one of the strategy rooms. Now that the throne room was a public space once more, Gwyn and Gulvi moved the bulk of their work deeper into the palace. Gulvi absently zipped up the feather filaments in her wings. He watched her surreptitiously, she groomed herself while reading over scrolls, and he’d come to notice that she had many nervous habits while going over matters of politics.

Gwyn rubbed his forehead and then pushed some papers over to Gulvi.

‘Yes, well, I’m not even sure Dogwill needs a trial to be honest, darling,’ Gulvi said, staring at what he’d written. ‘Augus and Ash voted for his execution after Augus interrogates him. I’m all for murdering him without further fanfare. Why give him a public trial?’

‘He’s common fae,’ Gwyn said. ‘They stand by ritual. They might protest.’

‘Let them. Let them protest their traitor General,’ she spat. Then she pressed her thumbs into her eyes and groaned lowly. ‘La! Gwyn! I’m not made for this bullshit. Just let me kill him and get it over with. Thinking of him down there in a cell, sharing the same space as us….’

Gwyn shuddered. He imagined this was how the Seelie talked about him, now that he was no longer there.

‘I don’t like Ifir,’ Gulvi said, looking up, her black eyes catching the werelight that Fenwrel had now provided to the whole palace.

‘You and everyone else, it seems,’ Gwyn said. ‘But people haven’t liked him long before I was made King. It seems that people have doubted his motives from the start. Everyone except the afrit, of course. I think to give him a chance to prove himself. I know very well how maligned people can be.’

‘He’s not you,’ Gulvi said, holding up a finger in warning. ‘But, yes, darling, everyone has played nice with Ifir to get access to those militaries. As it is, the people I have posted near him – not near enough if you ask me – can’t get much out of that situation, except that his family are worried for the strength of your leadership. But that is a common sentiment – all people worry when a new King comes into power.’

She picked up her shot of vodka and drained it, pouring herself another.

‘You chained him,’ Gulvi said, the next shot pinched delicately between her thumb and forefinger. ‘You chained and collared him. He is the Each Uisge, do you not think he will come after you for it? Do you seek to rouse his wrath? His betrayal?’

Gwyn tilted his head at her.

‘He’s no idiot, Gulvi,’ Gwyn said. ‘Of course he was angry. And we will settle that between us, as we have done for months now. He wants this Kingdom to work, he will not come at me through the Court.’

‘You don’t know that. You cannot,’ Gulvi said. ‘He is…’

She licked at her thin lips and then scratched at one of the black tattoos on her arm.

‘He told me you were aware, but you know he is having…ah, the humans call them flashbacks, of the Nightingale?’

Gwyn stared at her. Augus would have done anything for Gulvi to never learn that.

‘I do know,’ Gwyn said.

‘You shove him in a collar and give him a leash, and yes, I do see the merits of it, Gwyn, but…you can’t play this game of everyone hating the Each Uisge forever. You have to build their respect for him now, and you have to find a way to do it fast. If you and I are not going to slaughter him. If we are going to give him this – it disgusts me to say it – this second chance, you cannot give him half a chance and call it whole. I believe he is acquitting himself well with the common work. Push him towards diplomacy like the Raven Prince did.’

‘I beg your pardon?’ Gwyn said.

‘Not amongst any freshwater fae, nor anyone he directly harmed, no! La! That would be an unmitigated disaster! But the Raven Prince sent him to advocate and broker treaties, and he was – from memory – competent. We have no diplomat.’

‘You’d have me send him out, while vulnerable, knowing he has that Soulbond and-’

‘I don’t mean now!’ Gulvi hissed. ‘I think you did him a disservice, even as you won yourself and this Court more respect in the process. Do not – do not think to misunderstand me, I would like to see him with knives in his ribs, begging for mercy for all that he has done. But you traded his reputation and his dignity for your benefit. Now you have to decide what you will do next with him.’

Gwyn stared at her. He’d not thought much of what he’d ‘do with Augus’ beyond the Triumphal Entry. He didn’t want to heap more responsibility on him.

‘You have to strike while the iron is hot, so they say,’ Gulvi pressed. ‘They believe him brought low by you. They believe you have this immense power over him. Even I believe it! I have no idea how you got him to wear that collar and leash and behave for you!’

‘Gulvi,’ Gwyn said, his voice hardening, ‘he saw the merits of it himself. He has always – always – advocated for trading his reputation away for the good of the Court. He did not like the suggestion of the collar and leash, but I did not make him.’

‘You are the King, and he – I am starting to believe this – he adores you.’

Gwyn shifted, uncomfortable.

‘Don’t push him too far, or too hard,’ Gulvi said, looking away. ‘The Raven Prince…Augus adored him too. But the Raven Prince and he had a tense friendship. The Raven Prince pushed him too, Gwyn. I observed as much. You may not have forced the collar upon his neck. But you are the King, he has given his heart to you, and you take advantage of that. Do you not even see it?’

‘When I came here this morning to discuss large scale battle movements, I didn’t expect a lecture,’ Gwyn said, staring at her, shoulders tensing.

‘Tough,’ Gulvi said.

‘You do realise who you’re advocating for?’

‘You can’t have it both ways!’ Gulvi snapped, glaring at him. ‘You can’t defend him in one breath, and then insinuate that I am mad for advocating for him! Either you think he is worth standing behind, or you do not! And if you do, and I believe you do, then stop cowering behind lines like that one and listen to me. I have not lived thousands of years to see you push him into malicious madness once more! I have lost too much, do you understand?’

Gwyn felt paralysed, and Gulvi continued, downing another shot of vodka and pouring herself more, wiping her fingers on her pants.

‘You bring him low for the Court and trade his dignity to prove a point and you did a fine job of it, we all believe you have this magical power over him. I think it is not magical power, but that he has given his heart to you. Don’t turn him into a fool because of it. I may be many things, Gwyn, but I am still a swan maiden, and there are some things I cannot stand to witness, even as I- as I hate him, I cannot…I must give a measure of respect to those who give their hearts so completely, do you understand? That is what I am. I can live the life I do, but I am still a swan.

‘And, Gwyn, my darling, I am beginning to think that he perhaps wants to assist. He offered to help Julvia, and the more I think on it, the more I think the offer may be genuine. Build him up, let the Kingdom have a chance to find some faith in him. There will be those who never come around, certainly. There will be generations of fae who wish him dead and seek that outcome. But there will be others, now, who are ready to see him differently once more. As the quiet diplomat who brokered better will amongst the civil unrest that has always plagued us.’

‘He offered to help Julvia?’

‘I’ve been meaning to talk to you about it,’ Gulvi said, downing another shot and smiling at him as he sipped at his own. ‘Is it a wretched play? Or do you think he means it? Ash says he is quite the healer, but I wish to know your thoughts, too.’

Gwyn narrowed his eyes, thinking back, and bit his lower lip.

‘I can see it,’ Gwyn said. ‘There was a period where I was unwell and my healing ability had been compromised, and he fed me tinctures that I believe helped my recovery. In his home, there was the scent of herbs drying, and he has a well-stocked healer’s kit. I’ve never…asked him much about it.’

‘Nor I, obviously,’ Gulvi said. ‘He gave me permission to show all his work to Aleutia first.’

‘Then I don’t see the harm,’ Gwyn said, tentatively. ‘Aleutia has been taught the skills of herb discernment, she will be able to divine immediately if he’s put anything in them to harm Julvia. But I don’t believe he would…’

‘I don’t understand him,’ Gulvi said, shrugging her wings. ‘I don’t understand him at all. Do you?’

‘I’ve hardly had the time to even see him, so-’

Gulvi shook her head at him, began to laugh in disbelief.

‘He is a bomb waiting to go off and you don’t have time for him? You cannot have him here and then neglect him.’

‘I don’t need relationship advice from-’

Don’t,’ Gulvi held up her hand. ‘I don’t need that shit from you. He murdered my family. The lake, the rivers I called home. You put a Soulbond on him which means I can’t kill him, so I’ve had to learn to accept a lot in a very short amount of time. Not least that he now works – technically – alongside me in a Court that I wish to see restored. You ask a lot from me. From all of us. Sweetling, it’s not only relationship advice. You need to see that for better or worse, he has made himself important to the Kingdom. Your neglect of him could have a ripple effect that eventually touches all of us.’

Gwyn couldn’t think of anything to say to that, and he finished the rest of his shot, pursing his lips and leaning back in his chair. He had the horrible feeling Gulvi might be right. He had an even worse feeling that Augus maybe knew it, too. His heartsong was destabilised and it was obvious he hadn’t wanted to tell Gwyn. Did he fear his own instability? He was having flashbacks in the Court. He’d had them before Gulvi.

‘I’m not sure giving him more responsibility is the answer,’ Gwyn said finally.

‘The work he does right now is gruelling. It would be for anyone,’ Gulvi said. ‘That’s why none of us want to do it. Seeing those underfae, all day – the ones who have suffered the most? And he deals with them day in, day out, and from what I can tell – from all reports – he is doing…dare I say it? A reasonable job. But that is a crushing task, and I don’t believe it is his vocation. Give him the chance to broker some peace. He is not like me. He does not live upon the energy of discord as I do.’

When Gwyn ran his own Court in the Seelie Kingdom, his Inner Court had consisted of Albion – often away at sea – and Ondine, who disliked the Court environment with a passion. He’d deliberately selected something of an absentee Court – and had ended up managing the common work, treasury and matters of battle on his own.

He realised he’d been thinking of all of those individual tasks as easy jobs; if he could manage them all, why couldn’t everyone else? But then, he’d been an absent King, the trows had helped him a great deal – perhaps more than others might find reasonable – and he’d let the Seelie Court fall into disrepair.

‘Do the Unseelie really want peace?’ Gwyn said, offering a wry smile when Gulvi didn’t respond.

She left him stewing for at least a minute before raising her eyebrows and a hand in a gesture of disdain and derision both.

‘La! I don’t know! It’s not as though we didn’t live peacefully under the reign of the Raven Prince! What wars we had then tended to be amongst the Seelie. In fact, if I recall, some of them were against you.’

‘Okay, you’ve made your point,’ Gwyn groused.

‘After all this time, have you bought into the fairytales you’ve claimed to reject in your speeches regarding the cooperation of the alignments? You? Who lives both sides of it?’

‘Of course not,’ Gwyn said, voice flat.

‘I rather think you have,’ Gulvi said, her eyes widening. ‘Are you so ashamed of it? Being Unseelie?’

‘Gulvi,’ Gwyn said, his voice turning cold. ‘I’ll not have you speak to me like that.’

‘Tough,’ she said again. ‘For I’m your Queen in Waiting, and someone has to.’

‘I have Augus for that,’ Gwyn said, standing up and not liking the sudden sense of unease that spread frozen coils through his body. ‘And you-’

She was playing him, he realised. Stirring chaos because there wasn’t enough in the palace. Because Augus’ pain and illness, the oncoming war that tasted like ash and charred flesh in the back of his throat and Ash being a pinwheel of confusion wasn’t enough for her.

He turned back to her, stared her down. She stood, slowly, a smile playing at the corners of her lips and her fingers resting lightly on the table.

The worst part – she was playing him with the truth.

‘Does it help you, to do this?’ he said.

Gulvi’s smile broadened in answer. ‘It helps you too.’

‘For someone who hates Augus such a great deal, you certainly know how to speak in riddles as he does,’ Gwyn said, and Gulvi didn’t take the bait, didn’t become distracted. Her fingers flexed on the table and she took a deep breath in like she’d just tasted a particularly fine liquor.

‘We weren’t born courtiers, Augus and I, but we learned how to talk the talk. ‘Sweetling, darling, creature, my Lord.’ It’s all very fucking tedious at the best of times. Have you ever heard him speak his native Welsh? I have. Did you know he had an accent? Even more soft-spoken than he is now. The Raven Prince asked it of him, as he could speak it too. Both of them walking through these corridors before you graced them, Augus’ voice softer than the Prince’s, if you could believe it.’

Gwyn’s throat locked up. He hadn’t heard Augus speak in his first language. Not properly. And as for his own first language...well, he wasn’t raised a courtier, but he was certainly raised to the Court. He’d spoken the common tongue and picked up other languages voraciously as he went.

‘Your dear lover is collapsing in rooms for fear of enemies that no longer remain. You can trust him when he’s stable, can’t you? I suppose. So Ash says. But when he’s not? Even Ash is worried…’

‘A moment ago you were telling me to place him in positions of diplomacy.’

‘I am telling you to watch that creature of yours,’ Gulvi said, licking her lips, shaking her head as though she’d let the game go too far. ‘I had a client similar to him, once. A very…unwell client. Powerful though. Ally to the Raven Prince and financial supporter of the Court. He acquitted all his debts one day, and then paid a Mage to kill him. Assisted suicide. There I was, eliminating all of his enemies at his bequest, only to find him one lovely evening, dead from Magecraft and a letter of apology in his hands.’

‘Augus isn’t like that,’ Gwyn said. ‘He is too self-serving.’

‘No,’ Gulvi said, shaking her head. ‘I don’t know what he is. But-’

A knock on the door, they both turned. Gwyn bade the person enter.

One of the common fae servants opened the door – Anath – looking faintly apprehensive, as she always did in the company of Gwyn.

‘Your Majesty, there is a Seelie woman here to see you, and she says she will not speak to anyone else. An Ondine of the Seas?’

Gwyn stared at her.

‘Ondine? She’s here?’

His body turned slimily cold as he remembered the last time he’d seen her. The demotion. That cursed event that Augus kept needling at him to talk about. She’d been there. She’d seen it all. Why was she here?

He bowed an apology to Gulvi, and left with the servant.

‘Where is she?’ Gwyn said. ‘Are you sure it is her? Did anyone else come with her?’

‘She is quite alone, Your Majesty. She waits in the second antechamber to the throne room.’

‘Then you must excuse me, but I would rather see her directly.’

With that, he teleported away, leaving the servant alone in a well-lit corridor as his heart thumped an agitated beat in his chest.

*

‘It’s literally the definition of a flashy entrance, isn’t it?’ Ondine said, her voice warm as ever, redolent of Mediterranean summers and the kind of seas where sea-fae might lounge on rocks and sing sailors to their doom.

Gwyn stood before her, towering over her, staring into almost black eyes and a heart-shaped face of olive skin, a necklace of generous black pearls around her neck and long black hair tumbling past her waist now. It had grown since he’d last seen her – though it had always been long. A pool of salt-water had gathered, dripping from her fingers, spreading from the bare soles of her feet. She wore a dress of fabric that, water-damp as it was, had turned into an opaque midnight blue, glints of silver within like stars.

‘Why are you here?’ Gwyn said, staring at her.

‘Is that any way to greet a once-member of your Inner Court?’ she said, voice stern, even as her eyes smiled at him. ‘Give me a hug, first.’

She stepped forwards and wrapped her arms around him, resting her wet forehead briefly on his collarbone, the scent of the sea rising all around him. He lifted his arms belatedly, went to return the embrace, but she was already stepping back and smiling at his awkward stance.

‘Did Albion send you?’ Gwyn asked.

‘Albion?’ Ondine sighed. ‘Do you think I’m welcome at that Court? I was the only one who didn’t vote for your demotion, Gwyn. The only one. Everyone marked it, and marked it well. Albion had me interrogated. I’m surprised – with your sources – that you didn’t know.’

He didn’t know – he’d not put a great deal into chasing it up. After being imprisoned in a cell, and then running for his life, and then being received into the Unseelie Kingdom as their King…

He’d had other things on his mind.

‘I think you and I should have a chat,’ Ondine said, her voice turning grave. ‘For closure, at least. The seas aren’t quite as peaceful as they used to be, and they were never entirely peaceful.’

‘Do you still divine?’

‘That is my vocation, it is what I shall always do, whether I am doing it for Kings or underfae beneath the sea. But, I do not wish to talk here. The energy of this Court feels abrasive to me. How…how did you stand the Seelie Court for so long?’

Compassion in her eyes, as fierce as any wave moving inexorably towards the shore. He didn’t want to be here either, searched his mind quickly for places they could go together; safe enough for the two of them.

‘If you’ll give me a minute, I will fetch something and we can make our way to the human world. I need to repay a debt.’

‘I like it there,’ Ondine said, though she looked down at the water beneath her feet and laughed. ‘They find me a little odd though. My glamour will keep them at bay. It’s not a densely populated area?’

He shook his head, and she smiled knowingly.

They’d both never loved crowded places.

Gwyn teleported deep into the palace and let himself into the main treasury. He opened one of the coffers, took a fingerful of cut diamonds and placed them in one of his pockets. From there he teleported to the place where he wrote his letters and notes to others, and he quickly, but neatly, scrawled some words on a note before teleporting back to Ondine.

‘Come along then,’ he said, ‘let’s get you away from this energy.’

‘Yeah, I’d like that. Very much.’

He carefully rested his hand on her shoulder. He knew not to take her palm. He couldn’t risk her accidentally divining his future now that he no longer had an old lore aithwick hiding the truth of him from her talents.

 

Chapter Text

Gwyn

*

They meandered down a side street as Gwyn got his bearings. The scent of the human world was more cloying than usual, reminding him of the thick patina of human waste and synthetic chemicals he’d found the time he’d sought out Ash in a bar, to tell him where to find the very Soulbond that Augus now loathed.

Here in the human world, they were less likely to be observed by other fae. Especially walking alongside tall fences and strange doors that housed the vehicles humans were so partial to. They both walked barefoot along bitumen, a strange, eccentric pair.

‘He made me Outer Court, you know. As an insult.’

‘Weren’t you born Court fae?’ Gwyn said. ‘He – I don’t understand, Ondine.’

‘I should have stood behind him, I suppose. As the only other member of the Inner Court. I think he expected blind loyalty – but he should know better. He’s too…he’s not made for that world anymore. He should be beyond.’

‘A god, you mean,’ Gwyn said. ‘In the upperworlds?’

‘He’s become too enamoured of himself, and arrogant besides. But I’m not here to talk about him.’

‘Then why are you here?’

‘I just have to know, Gwyn,’ Ondine said, looking to the side, something distant in her eyes. When she looked up at him, her thick brows had pulled together, her eyes glittered. ‘Did you make me a member of your Inner Court not because we were friends, but because I was a diviner? Was it all…strategy to you?’

Gwyn contemplated lying in the stretch of time it took for Ondine to see the truth anyway.

‘I didn’t know anything could confound my powers,’ Ondine said, sighing. ‘But then the old lore was supposed to stay hidden and forbidden, wasn’t it? Clever of you. You used me, Gwyn. Every time you asked me to read your palm, it was just to show everyone that even the world’s greatest diviner didn’t know you were Unseelie.’

‘Why didn’t you vote for my demotion? I’d betrayed you personally.’

‘Yeah,’ Ondine said, nodding. ‘I was angry. But not just at you. I- Gwyn, I didn’t pick your alignment because of that aithwick they put in you, but I did divine you – even if I could only do it a day at time, because your future was always clouded after the twenty four hour mark. But, Gwyn, I never said anything about some of the things I saw because it never seemed relevant. I respected you, and I- But I saw things that mitigated…’

She made a strange sound in the back of her throat, like water gurgling and bubbling away. If a land fae had made it, he would have assumed they were drowning. But with Ondine, and many sea fae, it was a sound of frustration.

‘You are Unseelie,’ Ondine said quietly, ‘and you betrayed us. But you were not acting alone. You don’t realise that I knew Lludd before I knew you? Lludd – Captain of the Seelie Navy? Sailing the seas and the Oak King recommending me as the world’s best diviner? You don’t think I held his hands and saw how he treated you?’

Gwyn stumbled to a halt, refused to look at her, saw the glittering asphalt and realised it had rained recently.

‘Why are you here, Ondine?’ he said, a third time. Perhaps now he’d get a real answer.

‘You should be asking me if I betrayed you,’ Ondine said, her voice husky, soft. ‘That I knew what I did, and didn’t tell anyone.’

‘Did you know I was Unseelie when you took his hand?’ Gwyn said, his voice hoarse.

‘No. That aithwick was a power unto itself. It extended beyond you. It forced the lie into all of us. I don’t think you truly want to know what I saw. But I could have told someone. I should have…realised there was a reason they treated you the way they did. Now the Court are saying that you did it on purpose. Both Courts are saying it. So you have found a way to make their cruelty work in your favour.’

She resettled her hair over her shoulders.

‘I need you to know that I know elements of the truth. That you didn’t play us all from the beginning. That you didn’t gull your ‘poor mother.’ That woman was a storm unto herself and you were the wreckage she left behind. But there are some that make treasure and shelter out of driftwood and wrecked ships. There are merfae that live in those shelters and barter those treasures. And you, I suppose, turned yourself into treasure and shelter for others. I respect that. I still do. Despite your betrayal. I’m Seelie, I’m not an idiot.’

‘Are you- Are you here to blackmail me? To…tell everyone what you know?’

‘I’d be offended by your lack of faith, except I know you’ve had very little cause to cultivate any,’ Ondine said, looking over her shoulder quickly when she heard a dog barking. It stopped after several more territorial threats, and she turned back. ‘No, I’m not here for that. Like I said, I want closure. I wanted to know why you made me a member of your Inner Court. And I want to know if…if things are better now. For you? Even a little?’

‘I never meant to pull you into any of this,’ Gwyn said, surprised, touched, threatened by her compassion. ‘You have to believe me. I wouldn’t have- But I did, and there is no excuse for it. I didn’t know he’d demote you. I didn’t know you’d abstain your vote for my demotion. You should have protected yourself.’

‘There, you see?’ Ondine said, placing a wet hand on his arm. ‘There is how you are Unseelie and I am not. Or…that’s what I think – the lines blur so much, don’t they? Cousins across the river – but some of us live on islands in the middle, maybe. But you think I should have saved myself. And I think I did the right thing for the good of the Kingdom. I did my duty to the Seelie Court, that day. Yes, I felt betrayed, but did you betray our Kingdom? You saved us! The Oak King tasked a General with the responsibility of bringing down evils we were all frightened of – and you did it. And what did they do to repay you?’

Gwyn smiled bitterly.

Took my armour, my sword, my name, my status…

They rounded a corner and stepped onto a footpath made of concrete. His eyes brightened when he saw the house.

‘There,’ Gwyn said, glad for the lack of cars in front of it. It was late enough in the day that he hoped they’d be at work.

‘It’s not like you to need to square a debt with humans,’ Ondine said.

‘I was…hungry, when I was underfae. And desperate. So I…’ He shook his head. ‘So I owe them a debt of gratitude, because what I did was tantamount to theft.’

‘Oh.’ Ondine’s voice was muted, and she was silent as they approached the letterbox sticking out of the ground. It looked like a tiny house on a stick. He stood over it, and decided this might be the best way. ‘It must have been a really hard time for you.’

‘It’s over,’ Gwyn said. Ondine gave him a look, and he thought he’d have to deflect her in the same way that he had to deflect Augus. He hoped that if he didn’t talk about it for long enough, the whole experience would disappear.

He drew out the diamonds and the piece of parchment, and Ondine looked over his wrist to read it.

To the family whom I trespassed upon some months ago, to take your comestibles. Please be assured I would not have done so, were it not a matter of survival. Take this as a matter of gratitude, and may my debt to you be absolved.

When she saw the diamonds, she laughed.

‘Oh, Gwyn, no. That’s a little too ‘illegal drug trade’ or organised crime, you know? You can’t give them cut diamonds like that. If they took gems of that quality to a dealer – they might come under suspicion; a middle class neighbourhood like this. You’ll give them more problems than they likely had before!’

‘What do I do?’ Gwyn said, dismayed.

‘Here,’ Ondine said, moving her slender but short fingers to the back of her neck and undoing the clasp on her necklace. ‘A pearl necklace is something they can claim as an heirloom.’

‘No, Ondine, I can’t, you-’

‘I have my debts with you too, Gwyn,’ Ondine said, smiling at him. She coiled the necklace in the palm of his hand, and then plucked the diamonds out of it. ‘Doesn’t that work out nicely?’

She tucked the diamonds into one of the small, well-hidden pockets on her dress and Gwyn looked at the necklace itself. He could feel magic in it, but he wasn’t sure what the magic did. He tentatively closed his fingers around it.

‘What will it bring them?’ Gwyn said.

‘Protection from hidden threats.’

‘You wore this…to see me? Am I a hidden threat?’ Gwyn said, placing the parchment and necklace in the letterbox.

They walked up the street, away from the alley and the house itself. Gwyn never wanted to visit this place again.

‘Yeah,’ Ondine said. ‘You always will be, Gwyn. But, actually, I have another reason for being here…aside from closure. Something that I think might anger Albion, if he knew I was coming to you about this. But I’m mad at him too, Gwyn. He lowered me to Outer Court status – a redundant status – out of spite. And the sea fae – he’s angered so many of them. I’m worried for the future of the Seelie and Unseelie both. There’s meant to be a balance between the two. I thought everyone could see that. But the agenda of the Seelie Court…’

‘It’s been that way since the Oak King’s reign,’ Gwyn said. ‘I thought you knew. I – you’re the royal diviner.’

Was,’ Ondine snapped. ‘I had an idea of the agenda to eliminate the Unseelie Court. I thought you would change things. I thought we all might. That – and this will be naïve, thus proving that a diviner doesn’t know squat about her own life – you would realise you needed us. That you and I, maybe even Albion, would find a way to restore that balance in a way that…mattered.’

‘I didn’t know that,’ Gwyn said, stopping underneath the shade of a sickening oak tree. He pressed his palm against the bark and willed it to live, to fight on. There was a fungal infection in the roots, pesticides clinging to it from runoff and poisoned rain. But he could only Call animals to him, he couldn’t truly heal anything. His mood became heavier.

‘The favour I owe you, Gwyn, is something obvious that I think you’ve forgotten. It is that…You were never one to call in your debts, were you?’

‘That’s right,’ Gwyn said.

‘How many life debts have you accrued?’

‘A few,’ Gwyn said, wondering what she was getting at.

‘A few?’ Ondine laughed. ‘Well, how many of those debts are owed by the Seelie?’

‘Wait-’ Gwyn’s eyes widened.

Yeah,’ Ondine said, smiling. ‘Let me help you. I never really helped you when you were King of the Seelie. But that’s just it, Gwyn. Call in the debts. Ask for goods. Boats. Caravans. Horses. Gold. Whatever you like. They’re obligated. You know as well as I do that life debts go beyond alignment.’

‘But…I was saving them for a time when-’

An emergency.

‘Believe me, Gwyn. Now is that time. Call in your life debts. They already hate you. Make them pay for their betrayal.’

Gwyn stared as Ondine beamed.

‘It’s something you would’ve realised yourself, eventually. But you can’t afford to lose more time. Gwyn, a lot of the Seelie owe you, and owe you big time.’

She placed a wet hand to his chest, and Gwyn immediately felt salt water spreading in a damp patch through his shirt, over his skin.

‘I always liked seeing that faintly stunned look on your face when you realised something for the first time. There – and now I have given you this favour and our debts are absolved and…I find I am not as angry at you as I thought I would be. I hope you are not angry at me for not speaking up for you earlier. That you can forgive me for seeing what I saw and not acting upon it.’

Gwyn placed his palm over the back of Ondine’s hand, dwarfing it in his own. He met her eyes, the power of the sea running through her – she could have been anything she wanted; but she lived a quiet life, a reclusive one.

‘There is nothing to forgive.’

They smiled at each other, and Gwyn wondered when it was that the Unseelie and the Seelie had lost their way.

*

Fenwrel didn’t end up finding her daughter Yukti. Instead, Yukti turned up wild-eyed and grinning like a true trickster at the Unseelie Court, striding into the throne room, her brother Zrimat following in a cheap, three-piece black suit from the human world. Yukti wore a vibrantly coloured sari and choli in the colour of flames.

Gwyn watched, perturbed, as Fenwrel was torn between expressing relief that Yukti was still alive and rage that she was so impossible to find. These sorts of parental emotions were strange to him, and he watched to see if there were signs of mistreatment – if Yukti inwardly cringed when Fenwrel spoke stern words, or if she was afraid when Fenwrel spoke of love and relief.

But no, Yukti – a whirlwind of energy even as a demoted underfae – only laughed and hugged her mother. She slid her hands underneath her mother’s arms and picked her up, spun her, even though her mother was a good foot taller than she was.

They laughed together, and he saw the joy and fire in Fenwrel. Around her daughter, she was more than the composed Mage she displayed to others.

Fenwrel gathered the rest of her children together, and Gwyn was grateful for a quieter Court that day. There were three others in the throne room. Gulvi and her guest, quietly talking to each other. Augus sat nearby, watching surreptitiously as he pored over notes. He’d seemed distant of late. Gwyn had gone to his room several times to talk to him and Augus was never there. The trows said they saw him frequently, wandering the palace, but that he never wanted to be disturbed.

Finally, the night before, Gwyn had left Augus a note on parchment in his room, on his bed, that had simply said:

I am trying to make time for you, and you are never here.

He didn’t think it was a coincidence that Augus had moved some of his work into the throne room the next day. But he looked worn. Inner Court status made him stronger, his hair more lustrous, his eyes more vivid – but the lack of sleep was telling.

For someone who was so willing to dig at Gwyn until he unearthed painful memories, he was remarkably evasive about his own history.

When Fenwrel and her children stood before him – some looking awed to see him, one looking positively terrified (Fenwrel had introduced him as Suvidh – at which point Augus had looked up and stared at all the tall, slender man with brown skin and odd scars across one side of his face). Yukti only smiled with impish irreverence, not intimidated by either the Court or his status.

‘Children of Fenwrel, who is granddaughter of Fluri, I acknowledge all of you by name – Yukti, Vilasini, Zrimat, Uday and Suvidh. I – King Gwyn, of the Unseelie – reinstate all of you, along with your mother, Fenwrel, to the status of noble Court family. I take from you your status of underfae, and return you to Court status, so that you, your children, and your children’s children, may all know the gratitude of the Unseelie Court for the services you have bestowed upon us.’

Power swirled in the room. Colours of flame for Yukti and, surprisingly, Suvidh, and the others attracting blues and greens – sparkling and flaring along the marble flooring. Yukti did a spontaneous dance and then leaped at her mother, wrapping arms around her.

They each reacted differently. Zrimat looked uncomfortable – though that was how he seemed to feel about the fae world; Fenwrel said he was habituated to human life, and she wasn’t even certain he’d accept the status raise. Vilasini and Uday embraced, and Suvidh clasped his hands together and finally looked up and met Gwyn’s eyes, nodding his head in thanks.

‘Celebration time!’ Yukti shouted. ‘Come on brats!’

She ran out of the throne room towards the night gardens. Her siblings followed, and Fenwrel – after bowing briefly to Gwyn – did the same.

Gwyn turned to Augus, who watched him with an unreadable expression on his face. Gwyn walked over to Augus’ throne and sat next to him.

‘Where have you been, of late?’

‘Busy,’ Augus said, handing Gwyn some of the documents he was looking at. Gwyn frowned when he realised it was intelligence on Dogwill. ‘I don’t want to question him without knowing more about him.'

Gwyn thought about what Gulvi had said, and pursed his lips.

‘I’d like to talk to you later, if I may, about the common work.’

‘I know I could stand to see more underfae per day,’ Augus said without looking up. ‘But not without short-changing them of the time they require to make their needs known. It’s incredible that there aren’t more seeking you for status changes as it is, really. I-’

‘No,’ Gwyn said. ‘I don’t need you to do more. I…I’ll talk to you about it later?’

‘Mm,’ Augus said, absently.

Gwyn watched him, could see his eyes moving over the page, knew that he was reading and not just pretending to read. But still, there was an air about him which indicated that Gwyn’s presence wasn’t…welcome? Gwyn swallowed quietly. He’d thought, after last time… Hadn’t things gone well, last time?

You didn’t once ask him about his health.

‘Augus,’ Gwyn said, his voice hushed.

‘What?’ Augus said, reluctantly tearing his eyes from the page and meeting Gwyn’s gaze. His expression softened. ‘What is it?’

‘I’m worried about you.’

Augus rolled his eyes. ‘You and every other person here, apparently.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Nothing, Gwyn,’ Augus said, taking the documents back from Gwyn and sliding them together, running his claw tips along the edges of parchment. ‘Nothing. I suppose if I assured you I wasn’t heading towards villain status once more, you’d not be reassured?’

Augus laughed blackly. He stepped off the throne and Gwyn reached a hand out to him, tried to place it on his arm. Augus moved away, narrowing his eyes in suspicion.

‘I’m just worried,’ Gwyn said, keeping his voice as hushed as he could. ‘Am I not allowed to be worried?’

Something flickered across Augus’ face, and then his eyes closed.

‘Of course you’re allowed,’ he said.

Gwyn stared at him. The words I miss you lay like tiny creatures on his tongue. Too vulnerable to be allowed. But when Augus opened his eyes, he must have seen the words anyway, because his face twisted. Gwyn felt exposed. He could hear Gulvi and her guest talking in the distance. He hated that they were here in public.

‘I’m tired,’ Augus said, glancing over at Gulvi and then meeting Gwyn’s eyes again. ‘I go to heal one of the Blighted lakes soon. I’m only tired.’

‘I could come with you,’ Gwyn said.

‘Do you even have the time? At any rate, it’s something I have to do on my own,’ Augus said, offering a wan smile. He looked around the throne room, then walked away.

Gwyn wondered what memories trailed him. He couldn’t allay the feeling that something was wrong, and he was far clumsier than Augus at finding hidden truths when they lay inside Augus’ heart.

*

Mikkel turned up a day later. Gwyn sent the trows to fetch Augus, then teleported to meet Mikkel in a room protected from other Unseelie. He had to protect Mikkel, especially now that he knew that Mikkel hadn’t lied about Dogwill Borough. The man still infuriated him beyond reason, simply by standing in front of him, a sly smile on his face.

He couldn’t be certain it wasn’t a game to him, Mikkel never seemed to take anything seriously. Except his clothing. Every time he’d seen him, he was wearing that red leather cord around his neck, the brick red tweed flat-cap that covered his curly hair.

‘I like it,’ Mikkel said, waving his hand at the room and palace. ‘Very sort of…gothic chic. It’s not even like Disney dark, yeah? Didn’t see any bats hiding in the rafters or anything.’

Gwyn said nothing. Eventually Mikkel leaned back against dark blocks of marble and hummed a tune under his breath.

The tune became a song, and Gwyn picked out faint lyrics:

‘I can even Read you right now...’

Gwyn made a faint sound of outrage and Mikkel smiled and went back to humming his song.

‘You really have mastered that love-hate relationship with Readers thing, haven’t you?’ he said, just as Augus opened the door and entered. He looked up and snorted. ‘This? This isn’t gonna work.’

Augus looked at Mikkel with no expression on his face, though Gwyn could tell he was curious. Readers were rare, and he’d likely never met one before. Augus walked around him and stood about a foot away from him, leaning his shoulder against the wall. Mikkel looked unbothered.

‘I can’t Read him as well as I can others,’ Mikkel said, jerking a thumb at Augus. ‘He’s hidden, but also there’s always signal jamming with fae that can use compulsions and hypnotism and stuff.’

Are you here on behalf of Albion?’ Augus asked, and Mikkel raised his eyebrows and then started laughing.

‘You’re both so stupid! Compulsions don’t work on me! Jesus, I keep like, putting myself in danger to see you, and you still think I’m working to double cross you to King Dick? I mean, really? Don’t feel so put out by it, babe. I’m sure you’re the best compulsor of all the compulsors. Compellers? Is there a- I think it’s compellers.’

‘What do you want, Mikkel?’ Gwyn snapped, and Mikkel directed a look of mock shock to Augus, who wasn’t playing along. Augus stared at Mikkel with indifference. Mikkel shrugged and smiled in response.

‘News, I guess. Bored. I dunno, name your poison. Actually I was wondering if we could go for a walk or something.’

Is it a trap?’

‘You might as well quit while you’re ahead, they really don’t work on me. And no. I mean, hell, if it’s such a problem, we can just go for a walk in those night gardens everyone’s talking about? Four walls and a pokey little room like this reminds me a little too much of Albion’s shite.’

‘If I can’t compel him, I don’t need to be here,’ Augus said finally. ‘Unless you need me to be?’

‘There’s no reason for us both to suffer,’ Gwyn said.

‘Oi,’ Mikkel said. ‘I take offence.’

Gwyn offered Mikkel a bland smile and met Augus’ eyes as he left. Augus raised his eyebrows as if to say: Good luck with that one.

‘The night gardens?’ Gwyn said. ‘Most are publically accessible now, and it won’t do to have everyone know you come here.’

‘I shield myself pretty fucking well, thanks,’ Mikkel griped. Even so, he let Gwyn take his shoulder, faintly cringing away from the hand as though he expected…Gwyn to hurt him? He didn’t like touch? He enveloped them both in light and they landed in one of the secluded night gardens that could only be accessed by the Inner Court and their guests.

Mikkel stepped away from Gwyn and rubbed his arms – Gwyn saw gooseflesh over his skin. Mikkel looked around and whistled quietly.

‘Yeah, I can see it. It’s nice, isn’t it? A bit gloomy, but-’

‘They’re not all like this,’ Gwyn said, watching as Mikkel sauntered over to a low, stone bench carved in the shape of a sleeping lizard-doe with horns curling back from her head. The forest around them was gloomy. Black trees with glistening mosses on their trunks stretching snake-like branches towards a dim, muted navy sky. Leaves waxy and catching what little light there was. Around them, peat and an aromatic grass underfoot that smelled of mint.

‘So you come with more news?’ Gwyn said, not wanting to sit next to him on the bench, and not wanting to sit on the ground either. In the end, he stood, feeling awkward.

‘Nah, not really,’ Mikkel shrugged. ‘I just wanted to visit. You’re interesting. Don’t get angry at me, holy crap. People can’t just want to visit? I suppose with all that extensive family abuse and you basically being a poster child for you know, the ‘damaged kid’ – maybe I can let you off or something.’

Gwyn stared at him, and Mikkel shifted on the bench until he draped one of his legs over the doe’s face. He leaned back, arms supporting his head.

‘Don’t get upset, Cupcake. I saw it. Not in detail or anything. But it was there. When you were underfae you were just torn open like…it was almost wrong how easy it was to Read you. Here Albion thought you were gonna be all closed up like- I dunno. He made it sound like you’d be a fortress. But I started getting feelings from you before we even got to your cell. It was sad, actually.’

Gwyn pressed his thumb and middle finger into his temples. Mikkel was a walking headache inducer.

‘It gets a bit samey after a while,’ Mikkel said, his voice quieter, a smile on his lips. ‘You know, a lot of people have been treated like shit. A lot. Fae, human, doesn’t matter. And a lot of people treat other people like shit. I saw that too, with you. People are all the same. It gets dull. But whatever. As for news. I dunno what you want to know. Albion doesn’t share military strategy with me. But he gets me to Read his generals sometimes. Most of them just don’t like you and want you gone and are kind of upset that Albion won’t let them gun after you.’

‘Upset enough to rebel?’

‘Against Albion?’

Gwyn began pacing, thinking it over. ‘Who are his generals?’

‘I don’t remember their names,’ Mikkel said, reproachful. ‘I mean most of them are sea fae and have hard to pronounce names anyway. I dunno, get one of your sea fae to find out. Alysia doesn’t like you. She’s the Polemarch. After Dogwill got defeated, she’s vowed never to underestimate you again. So be careful. Like…she thinks of militaries like shoals of fish, and she’ll attack that way. I guess. That’s all I really know about her.’

It was something Gwyn had concluded for himself, but it was helpful to hear it.

He kept pacing, surprised to find he did believe that Mikkel wasn’t there to betray them. Though he’d still verify everything, best to play it safe.

‘What was he like?’ Mikkel said suddenly.

‘Who?’

‘The other Reader. Mafydd Brant.’

Gwyn stumbled to a halt and stared at him, the blood draining out of his face. He’d not heard Mafydd’s name like that – outside of his own head – for millennia. He felt like he’d been sucker punched in the gut. For a moment, all he could do was breathe.

‘How’d you, of all people, fall in love with one?’

Mikkel pushed himself into an upright sitting position and rested his elbows on his knees, leaning forwards.

‘People don’t fall in love with Readers. Ever. There’s stories about it. Sad ones.’

‘Stay out of my head, Mikkel,’ Gwyn said, voice low. ‘Or pretend.’

‘No,’ Mikkel said. ‘No way. I’ve gone so long meeting like…hardly any Readers at all. And none of them – us – are happy. No one falls in love with us. Which isn’t like, a problem for me, but…I have to wonder. You, as sensitive as you are, how did that work?’

Gwyn stalked over to him and grabbed him by the collar of his shirt, dragging him upright, staring into his pale brown eyes and breaking out into a cold sweat.

‘Aw, Cupcake,’ Mikkel said, looking almost sympathetic. ‘I’m not him.’

Gwyn turned and threw Mikkel down to the ground, knuckles aching with the need to do more. He forced himself to sit down on the stone bench himself, his hands curled loosely into fists at his side. Mikkel stayed on the ground for several seconds, then pushed himself to his knees.

‘And I don’t really…want to be him. Given how it all ended between you both.’

Mikkel’s eyes widened as Gwyn stood, fists ready, violence singing through him. Mikkel raised his hands defensively, looking so much like a child avoiding a blow that Gwyn forced himself to stop. His breathing was shaky, he felt far too cold.

‘Stop talking about it,’ Gwyn said, as Mikkel lowered his hands and gave him a look that might have been mischief and concern together.

‘No, man. You get better at hearing it,’ Mikkel said, fingering the leather cord around his neck.

‘What is that?’ Gwyn said, nodding to it.

‘This old thing? A gift, I guess. From my dad. You know. ‘Farewell, son. I love you and all but I can’t really handle this ability that you’ve got that lets you know all these things that I’m super ashamed of. So it’s time for you to make your own way in the world but don’t forget me and all.’’ Mikkel laughed. ‘I kept it. I like it. I accessorised around it. Hat and the shoes. Can’t forget my dad.’

‘How old were you?’

‘Young,’ Mikkel smiled bitterly. ‘Too young. My powers activated really early. Like, too early for a Reader. Usually we’re- Well, anyway, something happened and my Reading woke up and I was like, ‘Wow my parents don’t love me all the time like they say they do and they don’t really love each other and the world is full of shit.’ You and I. We both got cynical pretty early, I think. Or at least I did. Whatever, I like to project my bullshit onto others because firstly – most of us have the same problems – and secondly, I think I’ve been Reading other people’s feelings for so long now that I don’t really remember how not to project. I might be projecting your own emotions back to you. Who the fuck knows?’

‘So you were turned out when?’

‘Fifteen,’ Mikkel said, grinning. ‘I was fifteen. Geez, you want to know, don’t you? You want to know the story. A lot of people don’t, but I guess you have a high threshold for pain, given you know, everything. Also, I guess you wanna distract yourself from all the Mafydd feelings you have. Whatever, I get that.’

Gwyn had never spoken to anyone quite like him. Even Mafydd hadn’t been the same. Gwyn pressed a hand to his chest as he tried to get more comfortable on the bench.

‘It’s simple, really,’ Mikkel said, his eyes twinkling with genuine good humour, despite the fact that he’d hesitated before speaking, and his mouth was more grimace than smile. ‘Doesn’t everyone go through something? I had a best friend when I was a kid. She was actually my age, which you know – rare amongst our kind, I guess. She was a firecracker of a friend though. Her name was Angelica, and she was a mourning dove shifter. Seelie, like me. Underfae though. She was raped and murdered when she was fourteen, by an Unseelie moving through. I don’t remember what he was. Some species that feeds upon sexual violence. You know – the ones that even Unseelie don’t always like.’

Mikkel shrugged.

‘I was the one who found her. And I figured out…like, what had been done to her. And I guess I just…really cared for her a lot, because my Reading kicked in that day. I didn’t know what was happening at first? Like, my parents were gonna tell me what I was when I was older, when I started showing clear signs of my powers. But instead I was like – I hid it for a couple of weeks, and then I started like ‘testing’ to see if I was crazy or something and they realised and they…

‘Well, they did the best they fucking could. They put up with me for months, you know, and I was a little shit. You think I’m bad now, but I was awful then. You know those people who like, when they’re hurting, they think they can do whatever they want to others and get away with it? All because they were hurting? I did that. I played them against each other. I was an asshole. By the time dad snapped I guess I expected it. To be frank, I was just glad he gave me the cord. I thought they’d just ditch me.’

‘Where did you go?’

‘I was a Reader. I didn’t go anywhere, I got poached about twenty metres beyond my parent’s gates and started getting sold off around then. I was picked up by the Oak King for a little while, but he didn’t like me. Trained me though. Trained me up good.’

Mikkel rubbed his hands over his arms briefly, looking around at the canopy.

‘If you ask me, Mafydd was one of the lucky ones. Like it wasn’t easy for him, I’m sure, but it’s no life, really. Being a Reader. It’s boring and it’s all very like…the same. Interrogate this guy. Question this guy. Better not mind if what you say gets another person killed, like, that’s just part of the job.’

Gwyn didn’t know what to say. Mikkel didn’t seem inclined to talk anymore. He looked at the trunks of the trees around him, touched the grass underneath his fingers. Minutes passed and finally Mikkel turned to Gwyn and shrugged.

‘It’s nice, sometimes,’ Mikkel said. ‘To tell a story and have someone feel so…horrified by it, they can’t find the words. Means they really heard me.’

‘And do you really hear other people?’ Gwyn said, tilting his head. ‘It must get confusing, since you’re obviously quite powerful.’

‘Yeah, well,’ Mikkel said, and then laughed. ‘Whatever! It all blends together. It gets tiring, you know.’

‘Do you have…someone?’

‘Why does everyone always have to go there? Dude, like, no. We don’t all need some waterhorse to tie us down and fuck us until our problems don’t feel like problems anymore. I don’t do any of that stuff.’

‘I didn’t mean- I meant-’

‘I don’t do any of it,’ Mikkel said, cutting his hand through the air to emphasise what he’d said.

‘Because of Angelica,’ Gwyn said, and Mikkel made a sound of frustration.

No. Because I just don’t feel things like that for people! Like, don’t get me wrong, I love my parents, I love Angelica. I have people I care for. I care for you – kinda. You’re interesting. But I don’t…do that whole romantic thing. Nah. Ugh. Just…talking about it. Nope. I’ll leave it for all you oversexed weirdoes.’

Gwyn opened his mouth to say something, and then closed it again. A moment later, Mikkel pushed himself to his feet, shaking his head and laughing under his breath.

‘There’s nothing wrong with me and it’s not because of trauma, and no, it’s not just because I haven’t found the right person yet or any one of a thousand things. Jesus, after everything you’ve encountered, you’re having a problem because I don’t believe that sharing bodily fluids is the ultimate sign of true love?’

‘No!’ Gwyn said, and Mikkel rolled his eyes.

‘Uh huh. I’ll give you a while to parse that one, then. But, seriously, it’s not rocket science.’

‘I apologise,’ Gwyn said, after a minute. ‘You have me at a disadvantage. I don’t wish to offend you.’

‘I know that, already,’ Mikkel exclaimed.

‘You’re extremely irritating,’ Gwyn said. ‘Tell me more about the generals whose names you don’t remember? And Alysia? And Albion, while you’re at it.’

‘Fuck,’ Mikkel said quietly. ‘I knew you were gonna make it about business eventually. But I’m coming back, and we’re talking about Readers again. I don’t care if it makes you uncomfortable. I don’t think you realise how important it is to me. Consider it my…debt, whatever. We’re talking about Mafydd again.’

Gwyn desperately wanted to say: Don’t count on it. The problem being he was quite certain that whatever knowledge Mikkel could gather would be so valuable that he couldn’t afford to walk away just to avoid talking about a subject that made his chest feel like it was on fire.

He closed his eyes and when he opened them again, Mikkel stared at him hard.

‘I’ve just never met someone who’s loved a Reader like you have, man,’ Mikkel said, eyes suddenly brightening. ‘Never.’

‘I am sure you have,’ Gwyn said, and Mikkel’s face was already transforming into shock as Gwyn spoke what Mikkel could Read in his emotions. ‘It’s a great shame you started Reading after Angelica died – that you didn’t get to know the regard she held for you.’

‘You don’t know that,’ Mikkel said, staring at him. ‘You can’t know that. How do you know that? You’re an idiot. You can’t know that…’

‘Tell me I’m lying,’ Gwyn said, glad that he couldn’t feel an intrusive energy shifting through his emotions when Mikkel Read him.

‘Just because you believe it, doesn’t make it true,’ Mikkel said, turning away and wiping at his eyes briefly, laughing in a way that was entirely self-deprecating.

‘I get the impression you’re not shocked easily,’ Gwyn said, and Mikkel’s shoulders heaved briefly, and he turned back, tears on his eyelashes, a smile playing around his lips.

‘Not many people surprise me. I gotta figure you can take it, if you can dish it out like that. Screw you, Cupcake. Even if she did love me, she certainly would’ve stopped once she knew what I was.’ He wiped at his eyes again, and then offered him a bright grin. ‘Like I said, man. You’re definitely interesting. Now, what did you say you wanted to know about those generals? I could do with a change of subject.’

Chapter Text

Augus

*

The Unseelie Court had many libraries, all of which were maintained by the trows. The libraries were inevitably dusty – because as tidy as the creatures were, they had a peculiar aversion to dusting. The common fae servants that Gwyn also had in his employ kept the more crucial areas of the Court dusted – the throne room, their bedrooms, whatever they could get to – but the libraries were left in a state of oddly organised disrepair. Augus was forever trying to wipe dust off his fingers and failing after handling books and parchment.

It was late – late enough that the trows had come in to clean and looked surprised to see him there. He hadn’t made any personal acquaintances amongst the Unseelie trows, but they all treated him with respect; even kindness. They didn’t seem to cling to animosity like other fae, and he wasn’t sure why.

He’d waved them on and kept reading.

He had two stacks of books beside him, but neither had been helpful. Trying to find information on Soulbonds – how to make them, how to remove them – was impossible. He knew Gwyn had ways of finding information that others didn’t, but this was ridiculous. He should – with the resources of the Unseelie Court behind him – at least be able to find more than a passing mention about how they were a myth, or at the very least old lore, and that no one should use them anymore.

Every few minutes his hand drifted to his chest and he rubbed at it.

When Gwyn and Ash had both stood in that room – the two people he cared for most – both of them swearing that he needed it…

Even then, he’d known it wasn’t the right decision.

He sighed and closed the latest book with a snap, dropped it to the floor. It was ancient, contained mentions of magics he’d never heard of, yet still – nothing about Soulbonds.

He knuckled his hands into his chest and his eyes drifted shut. Ash wore his with pride, wearing short sleeved shirts that constantly exposed it. It was disgusting.

He’d been avoiding Gwyn. There was too much waiting between them, and Augus felt unwell, far lower in mood than usual. Augus wanted to find a way to deal with everything he was experiencing, before Gwyn peered into his mind.

He forced his thoughts back to the task at hand, dragged another heavy tome from the carved wooden shelf and rested it on his knees. Little demons looked at him with impish faces from the shelving and he turned away. He sat with his back against the wall, knees serving as a platform for the book. Gentle werelight all around him, but he felt trapped all the same.

He looked for mentions of Soulbonds, and after forty five minutes of giving himself a headache, he let his head thump back against the wall and focused on his breathing. His chest ached. He wondered what Ash was doing.

A scuffling sound nearby and he startled awake, the book falling to the floor with a thump. Fenwrel peered around one of the stacks.

‘My Lord?’ she said.

He waved a hand at the mess he’d made. ‘Research.’

‘I’m not sure what research you think you’ll get done, looking like that. Come here.’

She walked over, extending a hand to him. He stared at it in disdain, then stood smoothly, looking down at her and raising his eyebrows. She only raised hers back, a quiet sort of challenge in them, and backed out of the way so that he could walk past her. He heard her flicking through pages and braced himself for more conversation.

Fenwrel, who could use his compulsions against him without a second thought. He shuddered.

She followed him, he braced himself.

‘Why are you reading about such old magic?’ Fenwrel said. ‘You’re not magically gifted.’

‘I know,’ Augus said. ‘Good evening.’

‘Wait, if you please. Augus, have you thought about the offer I made to you? About the-’

‘Yes.’ Augus paused, rested a hand on the back of a chair. ‘Yes, I have.’

‘And?’

He turned back to her, not able to read her gaze properly.

‘Why are you awake, so late? Why are you always here?’

Fenwrel smiled, her face warming. Mouse ears twitched. She walked over to one of the tables and sat on the edge of the table. She crossed her legs, leaned back on her palms.

‘It is not every day that I get to plumb the Unseelie libraries for their knowledge. I’d like to do it while I have the opportunity. Life has taught me that things can become unexpected at a turn, and I’d best not take this for granted. Now, to you again – do you wish to accept my services or not?’

‘Do you know anything about Soulbonds? Do you know anything about removing them?’

‘No,’ Fenwrel said, her voice firm, but not unkind. ‘Is that what you seek in these books?’

He met her eyes. ‘I don’t even know how Gwyn found the information that he did. Let alone a Mage who could perform one. Leaving Ash with an open debt with a Mage – yes, exactly my point,’ he said, when Fenwrel winced. ‘They are two great idiots, and I wish to remove this…thing, it’s- It’s actually none of your business.’

‘It’s not,’ Fenwrel said, smiling. ‘That’s true. And for a minute I thought you were volunteering the information because you needed someone to talk to. It’s no matter. You do realise you still haven’t answered my question?’

‘I’m unsure,’ Augus said, lifting his hands in something of a shrug. ‘You say it may make me worse. I’m not sure you want to see the results of that.’

‘I’m not sure you do,’ Fenwrel said, and Augus resisted the urge to bare his teeth at her. ‘Augus, I don’t think you understand that I will be very gentle and careful with what I am doing. This is new ground for me also.’

‘Then perhaps we should leave it,’ Augus said. His face twitched. He risked losing the invisibility altogether. He had no idea what else he might lose sight of, over time.

‘My grandmother used to talk about you,’ Fenwrel said, voice softening. ‘It was an odd kind of affection. Sometimes she couldn’t stand you. Sometimes it was more than evident that you were dear to her. Now that I’ve met you, I can see what she meant. Won’t you sit down?’

Augus sighed and pulled out a chair. Once seated, he looked up at her and almost laughed at the thought that Gwyn didn’t trust Fenwrel, while Augus didn’t think twice about it.

‘Why do you want to break the Soulbond?’ Fenwrel said, and Augus shrugged. It wasn’t exactly a secret.

‘Ash’s life should not be bound to my life in the way it currently is. My life is forfeit, and-’

‘Do you truly believe that?’

‘If you saw as many fae determined to kill me as I do, you’d become quite certain. I’ll not take him down with me. I just want you to fix this damn poisoning. Instead you only ask questions.’

‘Give me your hand, palm up,’ Fenwrel said, and Augus extended it, fingers curling lightly. She flattened them with her palm, rested her warm hand upon his. The touch was cloying, he resisted jerking backwards. He felt a thread of energy spool into him. But then the sensation disappeared and he felt nothing, could no longer tell if she was using her magic at all.

Then he felt it, a small increase in those pools of green energy that he used to heal wetlands and swamps. Emerald sparked behind his eyes, blood rose to the surface of his body.

‘What are you doing?’ he said, staring at her, eyes widening.

‘Supporting what healthy systems you have left,’ Fenwrel said. ‘I don’t want to start prodding anything until you are stronger.’

‘I don’t feel sick,’ Augus said, frowning. ‘You’d think, if I was as sick as you say, I’d-’

‘I think you’ve had time to acclimatise to this. I think, Augus, you’ve had time to acclimatise to a lot of things that most people do not.’

She looked at him with that incisive gaze and he looked away. Her hand squeezed his and he started to slide it out from under her grip. She made a small noise with her tongue. He stayed still, closed his eyes after several seconds.

‘Leave it,’ he said. And then he laughed quietly, because wasn’t that what Gwyn said all the time? ‘My apologies, I’m borrowing some rather bad habits from the King.’

‘I make you uncomfortable,’ Fenwrel said, voice measured. ‘It’s all right for you to want me to leave you alone sometimes. You can ask for that, without apologising.’

‘Would you say the same to the King?’

‘I would,’ she said, frank. ‘Status doesn’t scare me as much as it probably should. When your grandmother bossed around the Raven Prince, it makes you grow up with an odd lack of appropriate humility. And you? I thought you did things your own way too. You’re meant to be fierce, proud and unapologetic?’

‘Yes, well, and then I destroyed a Kingdom and can’t be trusted by anyone.’

‘Anyone?’ Fenwrel said, frowning. ‘Even Ash? Gwyn?’

‘Anyone,’ Augus said, meeting her frown with a wry smile. ‘But these are things it’s wise not to talk about. Must keep up appearances.’

‘He didn’t leave you with much pride, did he?’ Fenwrel said, nodding towards the hand she held, indicating the meridians that were polluted. Augus shuddered. When he pulled his hand away, she let him, and he left it in his lap, feeling cold.

‘Thankfully, one is not born with a finite amount of the stuff. It can be found again.’

Augus stood and resisted the urge to stretch. Whatever she had done with his energy had left him feeling sleepy and refreshed. Fluri’s manipulation of his meridians had often been harsher and noticeable. This was gentler.

‘See how that goes,’ Fenwrel said, scratching at her furred ear with sharp claws. ‘And Augus?’

‘Yes?’

‘I want to meet that unapologetic, proud creature you used to be, because you are not it, right now.’

Augus hesitated, looking over his shoulder at her. But she looked sincere, as though she wasn’t mocking him. He wanted to say something, some final words, a quip to turn it around on her, but nothing came to mind. After a while he turned and walked away.

*

A day later, he felt predatory, hungry when he walked to Gulvi’s rooms, climbing staircase after staircase until he was in one of the many turrets and still climbing with two bags of herbal cures that he had no idea would be helpful for Julvia.

He’d spent the morning interrogating Dogwill Borough. At first, he’d thought it would be difficult to return to fae prison cells. Worried about memories of the Seelie prison that might stir. So much of the Unseelie Court was filled with unpleasant reminders, he didn’t know what being in the cells would do.

But as he walked down the long, wide, underground corridor – passing empty cell after empty cell – he was without fear. He thought about the time Gwyn had spent in a Seelie cell, underfae and weak, a time Gwyn never talked about despite the fear that clung to him, as though he knew he’d lose everything in an instant if someone else willed it.

Dogwill played at insouciance at first, but he’d crumbled nicely under the weight of Augus’ compulsions. It was a relief to feel powerful again. Between Gwyn’s resistance, Mikkel’s immunity and Fenwrel’s ability to turn them back on him, he was starting to feel like they were a useless power to have around the fae; a far cry from how he used to feel, having some of the strongest compulsions in the fae world.

Unfortunately, the interrogation yielded little. He did find out that Dogwill was not aware that Mikkel had been the one to sell him out. But Albion had clearly known that Dogwill might be captured, and Augus gathered nothing of true strategic importance. Dogwill was a pawn.

In the end, Dogwill was a sweating, shaking wreck on the floor, trying to raise a trembling hand to brush his lank, brown hair away from his tanned face. Augus stood over him and looked at the notes he’d taken.

Dogwill did keep insisting that there was at least one other traitor in their midst. But he knew nothing more than that, and the information sounded planted by Albion. Still, it was something to keep an eye on.

Gwyn wouldn’t like it, he was paranoid enough as it was.

‘You’re gonna kill me,’ Dogwill said, wrapping his arms around himself. ‘Just do it.’

‘Ah ah ah, that’s not for me, I’m afraid,’ Augus said, smiling toothily. ‘Gulvi gets that honour. She’s been quite looking forward to it.’

He knelt beside Dogwill and watched him flinch away. Augus hadn’t touched him once.

‘You know, I have to commend you for the attempt. Selling us out like that.’

Dogwill made a weak sound and his eyes rolled back. He was exhausted from fighting the compulsions. Blood vessels had burst in both his eyes, he’d clawed his own arms and screamed between gritted teeth, trying not to talk.

Augus had not an ounce of pity for him. The creature was selling information back to the Seelie for an extortionate amount. It was uncouth at best, to betray the Unseelie Court to Seelie fae.

‘Farewell, Dogwill,’ Augus said, walking from the cell.

Blood coursed hot in his veins and he wished there was a human nearby to feast upon. Using the compulsions for so long had wakened the waterhorse within, and he was careful not to lick his teeth, not wanting to cut his tongue.

Now, as he walked up yet another spiral staircase, he adjusted the bags and hoped Gulvi was where she said she’d be. In amongst all his common work, he managed to find time to harvest flora, lichen and fungi from the night gardens. He’d even snuck out to some land nearby, covering himself with the invisibility and wheezing his way through it, trying not to think of Tigbalan or Fenwrel or anything to do with illness.

It had taken several days to titrate and process everything he’d harvested. The trows found a lot of the equipment he needed, and he ended up using one of the extra rooms Gwyn had given him for the processing of herbs. It was a well-ventilated space, open windows exposing the perpetual night sky beyond. Constellations he and the Raven Prince used to gaze at together.

He taste-tested everything he made. After however many months of being fed Aleutia’s cures, Julvia would need something palatable. It was all well and good to give fae medicines that tasted disgusting if they were aware that the medicine would help them. But all Julvia knew was that the caregiver who provided food and water and shelter, also forced her to consume things that tasted repellent. He was certain that if Julvia could come to like her treatments, her healing would possibly progress faster.

Though he was not certain it could. She was already a healthy swan. Calling the sister she’d been back into that body was perhaps futile.

He placed the bags on the ground and then rapped sharply on Gulvi’s door.

The door swung inwards, Gulvi’s frame blocked him from seeing properly within. He could only make out a lot of space, a lot of light – a skylight? Or, no, simply a great open hole that led to the sky above. He pointed to it.

‘That must let in an awful lot of spiders,’ Augus said. Gulvi shrugged her wings.

‘Bats, more than anything, darling. And they eat the spiders. Now, what have you got there?’

‘I need to show it to you,’ Augus said impatiently. ‘Are you going to let me in?’

Gulvi huffed, but she stepped back and Augus walked into a room which held a single, large bed covered in far too many pillows and cushions to be anything more than a great nest of fabric. Otherwise, the rest of the room was bare. There were sconces for werelight, but not a single bookcase, chest of drawers or wardrobe. There were two other doors in the room, perhaps leading to where Gulvi kept everything.

‘Do you not like it?’ Gulvi said, smirking.

‘I’m surprised there’s no fresh water,’ Augus said.

Gulvi tipped her head to one of the closed doors, indicating that she did, in fact, have access to fresh water. Then she looked at his bags once more.

‘There’s no table,’ Augus said, perturbed.

‘Use the bed.’

Augus rolled his eyes and set the bags out. He’d made about two weeks of doses – it would be enough to judge Julvia’s reactions and adjust dosages. Most of the medicine was rolled up into small, dark green pills. He handed Gulvi an itemised list of the plants he’d used, how he’d prepared them, the dosages.

‘Aleutia could do all of this herself,’ Augus said, ‘but as she was getting you to harvest plants yourself, she may be too busy. In which case – if Aleutia approves the medicine itself – I’ll keep making it and adjusting the doses accordingly.’

The predatory drive that found him while interrogating Dogwill disappeared as he explained each of the medicines and how they’d support Julvia. Most of the herbs were of a bolstering nature. As he talked, he remembered Fenwrel mentioning the necessity to boost his own remaining meridians, before they started any serious healing work. He had the oddest feeling that he liked Fenwrel more when he was thinking back on their conversations, than when they were actually having them.

‘Are you seeing Gwyn later?’ Augus said, as he closed the bags up and left them on the ivory sheets.

‘Mm, yes,’ Gulvi said. Her mood was sober, and she seemed to lack for quips. But she hadn’t mocked him yet for his collapsing in front of her the other day, so he felt no need to jab at her either. They’d entered into a strange sort of truce, and he wasn’t sure he liked it.

‘Let him know that I go to try and rehabilitate one of the Blighted lakes today. I’m not sure it will be successful. I looked for him myself before interrogating Dogwill – who, by the way, is free to be slaughtered whenever you wish – but I think he was with his generals.’

‘He was,’ Gulvi said, tightening her ponytail and stretching one of her wings behind her. ‘Should you be going to the Blighted lake alone?’

Augus shrugged.

‘If it works, a family gets their home back.’

‘And if it doesn’t work? What, exactly, are you setting out to do?’

‘If it works, I’ll tell you,’ Augus said, and Gulvi made a face. ‘As it is, I’m late to meet with the family.’

As Augus turned to walk away, Gulvi reached for him. He stepped back quickly even as he realised that she was only trying to get him to pause.

‘Do you think you can ever truly reverse the damage you’ve done?’

Augus swallowed, met her black gaze, the sharp brows pulled together. A flash of spite moved through him.

‘No. Just as you cannot bring those two girls back, no matter how you apply yourself to Julvia’s care now.’

She backhanded him, a step up from being stabbed in the gut. His head snapped to the side, and he collected himself. He didn’t like her insinuations, and he was tired of playing nice all the time. He was amongst Unseelie, most had done terrible things.

‘You’re disgusting,’ Gulvi said, and Augus resisted the urge to touch his cheek to check the damage. It throbbed, but she hadn’t split the skin.

‘And you don’t like to hear the truth,’ Augus said, walking away.

The only response she gave was a sigh as he closed the door behind him, but he was certain it wasn’t intended for his ears.

*

He could sense the moment he entered Blighted waters, as he teleported into the damaged lake. The water was sluggish, it didn’t respond to him as other lakes and rivers.

He swam to the surface in human form, drawing a breath of cold air as he saw a family of five standing nearby. They were otter-pelted creatures with frog’s eyes and rows of sharp teeth, with a name unpronounceable to most fae, though in the common tongue they were known as otterkind. They fed upon the energy of accidental drownings.

He only knew the advocate for the family – a gentleman who went by the name of Amarth and seemed a quiet, peaceable fae. He was desperate for new land for his family, and seeing them all watching him with grave faces, Augus felt a pressure in his chest. He inclined his head to them, but only Amarth approached him. One of the younger fae – he couldn’t pick their age but they couldn’t have been more than about a century – watched him with a calculating gaze.

He saw a lot of gazes like that. A lot of the Unseelie didn’t like him.

‘You do realise this may not work?’ Augus said softly. ‘In which case I will appeal to Gwyn to allocate you fertile land as soon as possible.’

‘You’ve said all this,’ Amarth said. ‘We only want you to try. This used to be our home.’

Augus looked at the blackened mess of what were once trees. Rotting stalks of grass that had lost their ability to hold life. He thought of Gwyn’s horror the first time he’d shown Augus the wasteland he’d created with his light. Even though they were both Unseelie, he understood it. Landscapes were not supposed to be like this. Not anywhere, except, perhaps, the Underworlds.

Which was where he’d gotten the idea in the first place.

‘Of course,’ Augus said, turning back to Amarth. A breeze rustled the dead twigs on trees that hadn’t yet fallen. Augus shivered, looked back towards the lake.

‘Can you truly fix it?’ Amarth said. ‘I’ve lost family.’

Augus had nothing to say to that. He met Amarth’s gold-spun frog’s eyes for a long moment, then walked towards the lake, wavelets lapping at the bank. He knelt and placed his hand on the ground, sent his awareness through the waterways around him.

As he closed his eyes, he saw all the living waterways light up in a pale, vibrant green. And amongst it all, hollowed out in his field of vision, he saw the Blighted land. He could only see it by the absence of light.

He couldn’t detect any body of water with a genius loci so wounded. It was life he looked for, and it lacked in this lake. He could call rain back to this land and it might fall, but nothing would grow.

‘Please be patient,’ he said, as he stood and looked over his shoulder. ‘I have no idea how long this will take. I will return to you once it’s over.’

He swallowed down an odd lump in his throat and dove into the water, turning himself to bubbles and currents and allowing himself to sink deep. He had to use far more of his waterhorse ability than usual, as the lake didn’t have a sentience about it, didn’t help him. He looked for the root of the lake. He made his way to the bowl of it, spiralling down, gathering errant thoughts together and damming them behind a wall.

His mind became cool blackness. He could feel the knocking and clamouring of thoughts but in the water it was easy to not pay attention. He called on his waterhorse mind and sank deeper into himself and the river both.

What he was trying to do, he’d only done once before when he was very young.

It had been an accident then, he had no idea if he could achieve it again.

He pooled his awareness around the entirety of the lake. From the small spring that fed it, to the countless places where water threaded through soil and kept it perpetually damp, once nourishing thirsty root systems and subterranean creatures. He extended his awareness – with some effort – above the surface of the lake where water evaporated, and down beneath the bottom of it, stretching himself out until it was difficult to know where he ended and the lake began.

He couldn’t drown in water, but he found himself wondering – as he lost awareness of himself and a crushing pain vibrated through him – if this was what drowning might feel like.

He reached even further, seeking a spark, something. Here, somewhere, a creature lived. Old as the lake itself, hiding, perhaps finding him as repellent as he’d found the Nightingale.

Please, he thought. Please, let me in.

When he’d done this accidentally as a child in his own lake; he’d not had to ask. The lake deva had enveloped him in a dream he’d had while in waterhorse form. He’d not known that land spirits truly existed before then. After all, he’d assumed that he was the land spirit.

He was grasped by energy, funnelled quickly down as a spiral of water into blackness. Terror pinged through his awareness. He panicked, then all at once he was pushed out of the funnel into a hidden space. Part of the lake and yet not, at the same time.

He opened his eyes and blinked in surprise. There, curled at the bottom of a lake cave, was a giant otter. Its pelt glowed pale green along the ridges of its ears, the tip of its nose, at the ends of its long eyelashes. Its paws glowed where they were tucked under its curled stomach and its chin. Its unmoving tail glowed at the tip.

Augus could see the glow of his own eyes lighting the way before him and he swam closer, holding his breath.

The creature at the bottom of the lake that had birthed him had not been any creature he’d seen before. And he wasn’t entirely sure this was an otter. It was – for a start – about the size of a cottage. Here, however, the water listened to him. He sank to his knees and buoyancy left him. He pressed his hands to the floor and was surprised to see fingers, not hooves.

‘My dear,’ Augus said quietly. He couldn’t see any wounds on the creature. Nothing that he might have to heal. It wasn’t dead – he could see its chest rising and falling.

Not dead meant the lake had a chance.

‘My dear, won’t you please wake up? I need to speak with you.’

The giant otter made a small noise like a whine, and then its front and back paws splayed in a stretch. It turned and sighed some bubbles. Kept sleeping.

‘Lake spirit, I know I am nothing to you, but will you not hear me? There are…there are those above who miss you. Who wish you to return.’

A wave of dizziness blasted through him and Augus raised a palm to his forehead. Either the creature or the place was incompatible with his energy. He was being drained.

He moved forwards on his knees, lowered both his palms flat to the floor once more.

‘Please…I-’

The giant otter’s eyes opened. They were a pale white, and they moved to him. That awareness, centred on him, froze him to the spot.

‘Little thing,’ the otter said, without moving its mouth. ‘I was having such a nice sleep.’

‘I’m so sorry to disturb you,’ Augus said. ‘But it’s time to wake up now.’

‘Such a nice dream…’ the otter said, its voice sleepy and high, almost like a child’s.

Augus bowed his head further. It might have looked like respect, but pain built in the base of his skull. He forced himself to take several deep breaths, and the giant otter shifted lazily.

‘I didn’t feel well. So I needed to sleep. Sick things need rest. I need rest.’

‘Sometimes,’ Augus said carefully, ‘you need nothing more than some energy to get you started. And I am- Of course I understand that I am nothing to you, spirit of the lake. But I-’

‘You look familiar,’ the otter said, creeping closer and stirring currents all around him. Augus blinked through blurred vision and shivered to see a giant nose against his face, whiskers twitching. Those pale eyes – milky and translucent and veins threaded all the way through them – studied him.

The creature gasped.

‘I know you.’

Augus backed away from the sudden deepening of the voice. It sunk octaves and boomed through the cave. Giant paws wrapped around him, claws dug into his chest. He was held tight, staring up as much into the creature’s giant nostrils as its eyes. It opened its mouth and its teeth gleamed sharp in the dim light of its own whiskers.

‘You hurt me!’

‘I think I can help you,’ Augus gasped. He trembled and couldn’t tell if it was the pain in his head, the dizziness, or the knowledge that if he died here, his brother died too, and Gwyn would never know where he’d gone. ‘Let me help you. I did you a terrible wrong. I know it. I do not seek your forgiveness, I seek only to help you. Take from me. They say- they say I am a powerful waterhorse. I don’t know what that means. But I do know…’

‘Yes,’ the otter spirit said. Augus was rolled back and forth in the creature’s paws, as though he was a merchant’s wares being tested by a customer. ‘Yes. You are filled with much life. But I cannot kill you, little thing. And you are sick. You’d taste bad.’

‘Then, here…’ Augus said, placing each of his palms over a large claw and looking for the energy he’d called into lakes before. ‘Let me…’

He sent the healing, green energy through himself into the otter spirit. The paws tightened against him and his skin bruised, began to give. Water was crushed out of his lungs. Then all at once the otter stilled and made a sound that could have been a laugh.

‘Oh yes, oh yes, all right. That is- Yes. I see it now. Let me- I’ll try not to take too much, little thing.’

‘I thought you’d be angrier,’ Augus said, and then pain lanced through him. It was almost as bad as when he’d been force-fed liver, and his spine arched in spasms. His hands splayed, his eyes rolled back in his head, the arches of his feet cramped, his mane floated into his mouth and his scream pushed it out again.

‘Oops,’ the otter said, its voice high and childlike again. ‘Oops. Oopsy. Didn’t mean to- Here. Here we go. Here. Better?’

Better?

Augus exhaled harsh breaths, limp in the otter’s paws. He could hear a faint, thin sound, over and over, realised he was moaning. He tried to stop himself. He could hardly concentrate.

‘Oops,’ the otter said. ‘I was greedy.’

Augus had a strange sense of time passing. He kept expecting to be put down, but the spirit held him in a tight grip. He felt it nosing at him, giant scent-glands rubbing against his cheek. Whiskers tickled his skin. At one point the paws shifted, the grip became careful, considerate.

‘You’re a baby,’ the otter said. ‘How did you hurt me so badly?’

‘I was…shown how,’ Augus said, too weak to bother lying. ‘Shown how. It was… At first it was repulsive. To be shown. He took such delight in… But then I did it myself.’

‘You are filthy with poison.’

‘Can you fix it?’ Augus said, the words slurring together.

‘Oops. I was greedy. No. I can’t fix it.’

‘Please,’ Augus said. His tears burned in the cold water, his eyes were hot.

‘I feel a lot better now. Almost well enough to stay awake for a time. You brought my people back. I feel them. Above. Oh they can…they know. They know I’m here!’

‘Yes,’ Augus said, hardly aware of what he was saying. The otter shook him and Augus made a strange sound in the back of his throat.

‘Not angry,’ the otter said, its voice deepening again. ‘I don’t work that way. There. You nearly killed me. I nearly killed you. Will you come back and give me energy like this again? It was nice and warm, like the sun and green shoots.’

‘I have to…help other spirits.’

‘Tell them not to be as greedy as me.’

Augus laughed weakly. After a pause, the otter spirit laughed as well. The sound was ebullient, joyous. Something bubbling and bright rose in Augus’ chest. A pure contentment he hadn’t felt in years and years. His own spirit lifted, then fell heavily when the otter stopped laughing. After that, he felt the weight of his waterhorse self like a burden, and he kept his eyes closed, pretended the burning in them was from something else.

‘Are you…are you Seelie or Unseelie?’ Augus said, to distract himself from the weakness in his limbs, the pain in his body.

The otter laughed once more, then shifted Augus in his paws so that he was only being held by one. The other paw pressed against his chest with an odd tenderness.

‘Little thing, those words aren’t our words. They’re so arbitrary, aren’t they?’

‘Are they? Doesn’t…everything…?’

‘I’m older than those words and what they mean. And you are going to need a long sleep. You’re very tired. Thank you for coming here and waking me. I could have slept a long time, without you.’

Augus had the sense of rising upwards through the water, still being held. He tried to gain control of his body, but a throbbing pain in his nerves left him limp after several attempts.

‘Thank you,’ the otter spirit said. ‘But I don’t want to see you again, if you're not coming to feed me.’

‘All right,’ Augus said, trying desperately not to think about the number of lake spirits he intended to visit, or the amount of energy they would each take from him. How could he even begin to hide this from Gwyn? He was supposed to see underfae the next day. He had to go back to work.

How?

‘Baby thing,’ the otter said, its voice soothing. ‘Baby thing, so sleepy. Get some rest.’

He wasn’t sure how it happened, but he gained a modicum of energy from the otter spirit. Enough that when it let him go, he could swim to the surface with slow, tired strokes. Enough that he thought he might have enough energy to teleport back to the Unseelie Court and drag himself to bed. He could explain it to Gwyn later.

It wasn’t until he broke the surface of the lake that he realised how different things were.

He’d not noticed the waterweed he’d swum past, nor the roots of lilies or carpets of green algae. He’d not seen the fish and crustaceans and tiny snails and little wyrms that could easily be mistaken for snakes except for their jewel-like eyes.

No, it wasn’t until he broke the surface and saw the green around him, that he knew it had worked.

It should have been a moment of personal triumph, but he was too exhausted to do much more than push himself out of the lake and stagger to his feet. His chest blazed with pain. It hurt to breathe. The waterweed stung where it grew out of his scalp, his head thundered. He took several ragged breaths, tried to master himself – it only needs to be for a few minutes – and then walked towards the otterkind family.

Amarth didn’t step forwards to meet him, but they all watched him with a careful wonder.

‘It’s yours,’ Augus said, surprised at how weak his voice sounded. He cleared his throat. ‘It’s yours. It’s done.’

‘And a fine job you’ve done of it too, Lord,’ Amarth said.

Augus noticed them coming towards him and managed to stop himself from making a face of distaste. He didn’t want to be thanked or hugged or-

He saw the glint of a knife and he blinked at it, then looked into Amarth’s golden eyes.

‘I lost two of my kids,’ Amarth said.

‘I- Wait- I have a brother…’

The knife flashed up and Augus staggered backwards, dread turning his insides cold. He held up his hands. He was shaking too hard to manage his own rapier.

‘I have a brother, Ash, and he-’

‘We know,’ a woman said. He stared at her. She had a vicious hooked implement in her hands and he tried to jump into the lake. Instead, a hand on his shoulder and a slash of pain that started at his sternum and raked deep enough into his belly that he felt a sudden caving where his organs were meant to stay in place.

‘Fuck,’ Augus breathed. Terror turned his body hot, and then he realised it was blood gouting out of him. The knife flashed upwards again. It made everything Gulvi had ever done to him look like child’s play. He sobbed. His lungs weren’t working properly. ‘Ash- I have a brother. I have a brother. You don’t-’

‘We had two more children,’ the woman said. Amarth stood in the background, watching grimly. Augus wanted to laugh. Wanted to say something about gratitude. Wanted to accept what looked like the certainty of his fate except he couldn’t, because Ash was-

Augus reached up with weak limbs, teeth sharpening in his mouth, poison dripping through his gums and sliding bitter onto his tongue. His claws scraped across skin and a knife slashed deep across his arm, severing nerves, turning one hand unusable.

‘Ash,’ he said, knowing it made no sense. He was begging them, but instead of saying ‘please,’ he could only remember his brother’s name.

He had so little energy left. He felt the heaviness of the Underworlds looming over him, poison in his veins and the Nightingale looking down on him with those red eyes. He was aware it was a memory, summoned what little energy he could find. He had to fight.

He growled weakly, the ground shaking beneath him. He stumbled backwards into water and they followed even as he snarled at them, a weak, exhausted creature.

Baby thing…

He made a sound of faint outrage and lashed out harder, catching someone in the side, but others advanced upon him. It reminded him too much of darker times, the Nightingale’s breath on his neck while he pleaded for something he knew was a lost cause.

Ash! I can do it. I can do this. I can save you.

I have a brother…

 

Chapter Text

Gwyn

*

Gwyn was of a mind to leave yet another note for Augus. He had no idea where he was, and tracking his scent had left him with nothing but empty rooms.

He sat in the throne room, avoiding the dais and the thrones. Instead, tables hid behind columns and he looked over paperwork, making himself publically available for anyone who wanted his time. It was a quiet day. Fenwrel talked to Zrimat at another table. Zrimat was heading back to the human world and wasn’t likely to return for a long time, if at all. At a low bench, Gulvi idly sharpened her blades and had a sharp look in her eyes. She was either preparing to hunt, or looking forward to one.

A door swung open. Ash staggered in, and Gwyn held back a groan. Drunk. Dealing with Ash sober was bad enough, but he’d learned – over the past two weeks – that a drunken Ash was even worse.

Gulvi stood, eyes wide, and Gwyn noticed the Soulbond on his forearm – black with blue luminescence set into his skin – pulsing as though alive.

‘Hey guys,’ Ash gasped. Gwyn took in the pallor of his face and the way he held the forearm with the Soulbond. Something crystallised in his gut, icy splinters shooting into the rest of him. He stood, lurched forward as Ash went to his knees.

‘Hey guys, I don’t feel so well,’ Ash said, and then pressed both his hands to his stomach and bowed over himself, taking deep, shuddering breaths. ‘I don’t…’

The Soulbond hasn’t triggered when Augus has been ill, or injured, or having flashbacks, which means this can only be…

Fenwrel now stood alongside him, staff out.

Ash tried to inhale through a closing throat and then coughed violently. He looked up, hardly seeing them, panic in his eyes.

‘Guys, just help him! Oh, fuck. Pl-’

Ash listed sideways, collapsed. Gulvi rushed to his side, pressed two fingers against the pulse in his neck. She swore in Latgalian as Gwyn turned to Fenwrel, heart pounding so hard he felt like vomiting.

‘Activate the tracking spell,’ he said, low enough that no one else heard. Fenwrel nodded. She shifted her staff, moved her fingers. He saw nothing, but he felt an immediate flare inside his blood and knew the location, the lake that Augus was at because it was one of the Blighted lakes. Gwyn felt slimy with nausea. Augus wasn’t supposed to do that alone, and he was – at the very least – supposed to tell Gwyn first.

But even as Gwyn summoned his light to teleport, the certainty of Augus’ location disappeared, and suddenly he couldn’t feel Augus at all.

‘What is happening?’ Gwyn said icily. Fenwrel stared at him for several seconds before replying. She closed her eyes as she spoke, concentrating hard.

‘He is in transit, but he cannot hang onto his teleportation. I think…’

‘We are losing his pulse!’ Gulvi shouted, her voice cracking. ‘And his heart, I cannot feel it beating at all.’

The crystallised feeling in his torso snapped in half. Gwyn resisted seizing Fenwrel by the arms and shaking her.

‘Where is he?!’

Seconds passed, and Gwyn’s hand rested where the hilt of a sword would sit on his hip. He couldn’t feel the temperature of the room, couldn’t feel the surface of his own skin. Ash lay still and pale on the ground. The only thing about him that showed any sign of life was the Soulbond, glowing so brightly it was almost incandescent. Zrimat stood nearby, staring in horror. Gulvi shook Ash quietly, muttered to him, petted his cheeks and checked his pulse and pressed her hands onto his chest and then held her ear near his mouth. She looked stricken.

‘Fenwrel, if you do not answer me in the next-’

Fenwrel’s eyes flew open, she grasped Gwyn’s forearm.

‘He’s here – at the lake in the palace.’

Gwyn knew the lake she was talking about. He teleported them both, not waiting for Gulvi.

He saw a limp form lying still, the water covering its lower half. He strode towards it before his light had faded. As soon as the glare disappeared from his own eyes he ran, because it couldn’t be Augus, not with so much of his body outside of him like that. His chest not moving, eyes open and rolled back in his head. His fingers limp and lying there, wearing more carnage than many soldiers who ended up dying in battle.

Seconds later, Gulvi arrived by teleportation, holding Ash in her arms. She saw Augus, made a small, inhuman swanlike sound as she lowered Ash to the ground. Gwyn could see more of Augus’ organs than he ever truly cared to. Beneath a shredded shirt, his Soulbond pulsed in a weakening glow of pale blue.

One forearm and hand was completely stripped of skin, as though someone had skinned him. But Gwyn knew better. Augus hadn’t managed a complete teleportation.

‘Gulvi,’ Gwyn said, turning to her. ‘Get Aleutia.’

‘Someone should-’

‘Get Aleutia!’ he roared. Gulvi nodded faintly and disappeared in a whirl of feathers. He and Fenwrel stood by the gently rippling lake, Ash and Augus lying on the ground. Gwyn bent beside Augus, noticed the way wavelets lapped at the curve of pale intestines.

‘Gods,’ Gwyn gasped.

‘Move them back into his body,’ Fenwrel said, kneeling by Augus’ head and placing her fingers on his temples.

‘What?’

‘If Aleutia can heal him – and he’s Inner Court; anything’s possible – you must at least make sure he is as whole as possible when she arrives.’

Gwyn was already reaching for the viscera, hardly feeling the hot, slippery mess as he gathered organs in numb fingers. He could see cuts, nicks on Augus’ organs, and his mind finally clicked into gear and he realised someone had done this to him. Someone he could kill. He breathed through clenched teeth, broke out into a cold sweat as he saw ribs that had been broken in his rib-cage, lungs that weren’t moving, the bluish-red-black tangle of veins and nerves, muscle and ligaments and fascia, amongst the yellows and pinks and purples of even more.

All Gwyn could think was how horrified Augus would be, exposed like this.

‘It’s all right, Augus,’ Gwyn said, his voice shaking, losing its force. ‘It’s going to be all right.’

Fenwrel said nothing. Gwyn refused to look at the still form of Ash beside him.

He placed a hand on a bloodied shoulder, then touched a cold – just cold from the water – cheek and tried to smear blood away with blood-stained fingers, fingers dipping into the hollow under his cheek, stroking up to trace the lines at the corner of his eye.

‘He’s too sick,’ Fenwrel said softly. ‘I…knew he could do something like this to himself. He’s too sick.’

‘What?’ Gwyn said, staring at her. His fingers stilling on Augus’ cheek. ‘What are you talking about?’

‘He came to me for assistance. He has a severe case of poisoning from long-term exposure to underworld energy. It will make it…it will make this harder.’

‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ Gwyn said, staring at her.

‘He came to me in confidence, and…’ She saw something in his gaze and her own expression hardened. ‘He has a right to his privacy. You can put as many spells on him as you wish, Gwyn, and yes – I’ll grant you – the tracking spell has come in handy. But he has a right to his privacy.’

‘Can he be healed?’

‘No,’ Fenwrel said, shaking her head. ‘Though it may not matter now.’

The rage that flowed through him was so cold, so sharp, that he almost killed her there and then. He forced himself to look down, but staring at Augus wasn’t helping. He couldn’t remember how to move.

If Augus is…

He fumbled fingers down to his pulse and felt nothing at all.

‘He’s not gone yet,’ Fenwrel said quietly.

‘How can you tell? He’s not breathing.’

‘His meridians are still alive, though barely. I wish- Ah.’

Aleutia arrived, a healing kit in one hand and Gulvi holding her elbow. Aleutia looked between Ash and Augus and then wrinkled her face.

‘You could’ve at least tried to get them to a cleaner fucking environment. Honestly. Oh, shit, never mind, look at that, someone finally gutted the waterhorse. It was only a matter of time.’

Gwyn stared at her, moving closer and closer to the killing edge and working hard to shove down his light. He trembled. When he’d been Seelie War General, he’d sent soldiers out to kill Aleutia and they’d all failed. But he wouldn’t fail.

‘Get out of the way,’ Aleutia said, marching forwards and giving Gwyn a hard look. ‘I mean it, your energy is not helping him. He needs healing energy. Not whatever bullshit you’re giving off. Fenwrel can stay. I need to know where we’re moving them, and I’ll shift Augus if I can get him stable enough to handle the teleportation.’

She was down on her knees, one leg in lake water and the other on moss covered cobblestones. She thrust her paws directly into his torso, staring at him, muscles in her jaw tensing.

‘This is not good,’ she said finally. She looked over her shoulder and glared at Gwyn. ‘I mean it, Lord. Get out of here. Tell us where you want him and we will do what we can, but your energy could kill him off. You do not make things grow.’

Gwyn realised she was right. His light was rising within his body. He couldn’t contain it. Any moment, it was going to crackle along his forearms and he ate fae. Just being in the same room with the two of them was dangerous for Ash and Augus both.

‘Transfer them to Augus’ primary room,’ he said to Gulvi. ‘Ash too, he won’t want to be away from his brother.’

‘Where are you going?’ Gulvi said, as Gwyn’s light curled around him.

‘To do something useful.’

*

He remembered the location of the Blighted lake from the tracking spell. It was a beacon in his chest. He’d braced himself for dead land and landed in an oasis of deep greens, thriving trees, a dense understorey and a lake covered in lilies, grasses and sedge. The croaking of frogs, the calling of birds, and a family of otterkind standing nearby, still covered in blood spatter and holding their knives and he felt his mouth curve into a smile and his fingers curled because he didn’t need weapons.

They didn’t all see him at the same time. It seemed to take them a moment to realise who he was.

‘You harmed a member of my Inner Court,’ Gwyn said, his light bubbling and expanding inside of him until he could see it himself – the glow that everyone else talked about. ‘My primary advisor.’

‘He hurt our family,’ one of them said. A young fae. Perhaps not more than a hundred years old. His voice shook. Their jewel-like eyes contracted and dilated before him. He scented fear.

‘I am not a merciful King,’ Gwyn said, advancing upon them.

His forearms ached as light ran underneath his skin, reaching his fingertips.

‘It’s in your best interests to run,’ Gwyn said quietly, and continued walking after them as they spun and fled, their feet pounding out across the landscape that Augus had revived.

He wasn’t planning on letting them escape. He wanted the chase. Saliva filled his mouth, the skin across his palms and fingers, wrists and the back of his hands split as his light bloomed. He flung the first ball of light and watched as it sailed firmly across the sky and landed square in the back of one of the fae. It took them down without damaging the environment, and Gwyn experienced an odd twinge of gratitude, because it would be a shame to destroy what Augus had made.

They screamed, pleaded, and felt only cold rage and the knowledge that killing them once wouldn’t be enough.

The remaining members of the family split up after he’d killed one of them. Gwyn pursued. One, a tall man, turned to stall Gwyn.

‘Get out of here!’ he shouted to his remaining family. Gwyn shook his head. It was futile. These were not as fast as fleet deer, and he could run even those down on bare feet when he felt the need to do away with bows, arrows and any semblance of dignity.

Gwyn snarled, brought his fist down upon the man’s face, then snapped his neck as the man tried to retaliate with his blade. The audacity of it all, knowing that Augus was- That Augus could be-

The creature’s spine snapped and Gwyn bore down upon the other one, sprinting through the forest. She was begging him for mercy, brandishing her knife at him, Augus’ blood slicking the blade. He had no words for her as he tore her skin open with his fingers and soaked his clothing in blood.

He could have slowly stalked the remaining children through the greening forest. A part of him wanted to. But Augus was waiting for him, sick, and he had the powers of King, and if there was anything they needed – any herb on any mountain that was hard to get to, any item from any Mage, he would get it.

So he used the powers of scent and sight and then finally his animal Calling and instead of stalking, ran after his prey. He found the boy first, struck for his eyes with his fingers and his throat with his other hand. The girl came out, shrieking, terror piquant on his tongue, and her slaughter was an afterthought.

He’d fallen to the ground while killing her, and pushed himself upright once it was done, shaking blood off his hands. He wiped off his arms on grass, teleported back to the Court, breathing hard.

None of them were there, only a large, watered down blood-stain where Augus had been.

He teleported to Augus’ room, nearly landing on top of Aleutia, only adjusting his coordinates at the last minute. A moment of hope when he realised they’d stabilised Augus enough to move him, but no, even here in the bedroom, he wasn’t moving, he was too still, and Ash next to him, neither of them breathing.

‘Will making him King help?’ Gwyn blurted. Fenwrel stared at him in horror.

‘You can’t transfer your Kingship to someone who’s near dead,’ Aleutia spat, her hands still in Augus’ viscera and a glowing light pouring from her fingertips, Fenwrel’s hands by Augus’ head. ‘And I wouldn’t fucking let you. I’d quit healing before I saw that abomination happen. Now get the fuck out of here, if you please! He won’t heal with you in the room!’

‘Do you need anything?’ Gwyn said, his voice a rasp.

Get out!’

Aleutia was clearly past all patience, and Gwyn sickened to realise it was because she wasn’t certain if she could save Augus at all. He wavered in a moment of indecision, not wanting to leave Augus while he still lived. But his rage hadn’t abated, and he stormed from the room, closing the door behind him, pacing the corridor beyond.

Gulvi sat in a chair that had been placed against the wall. She said nothing, watching him pace.

A minute later, Fenwrel opened the door and pointed her staff at Gwyn. He bared his teeth at her, hands clenching into fists.

‘This? This is not helping. Gulvi, will you take him somewhere else, please? He’s far too caustic. Augus needs peace.’

‘I need you back in here!’ Aleutia shouted.

Fenwrel shook her staff at Gwyn.

‘You. Leave. It’s the best chance he’s got right now, Gwyn.’

Oui,’ Gulvi said, standing. ‘She’s right. Come on, we should both give them space to work. Fenwrel can seek us out, come here. Come here.’

She beckoned Gwyn over as Fenwrel nodded to her in thanks and closed the door once more.

‘I need to be here, in case they need something,’ Gwyn said, staring at her.

‘No,’ Gulvi beckoned him again. ‘La! Come here. Come- Or I could just come to you, mm?’

A steady hand touched a patch of blood-spattered skin on his arm, then closed around it. He took a breath, another, and then he was transformed into gale winds and they whisked through the palace.

They landed in one of Gulvi’s many rooms. This one filled with a daybed, a long table, a chaise, and more antique furniture besides. The room that Gulvi had called her ‘gift room.’ For some reason, many of her clients gave her charmed furniture in thanks for her services. After a while rumour had spread that she enjoyed it, and now she had many rooms of charmed furniture. The room itself projected calm and peace. Likely, one of the mage charms worked into the wood.

Gwyn turned a full circle in the room as Gulvi took a few steps back and stood nearby, the palms of her hands resting on the hilts of her blades.

He took a few steps in one direction, turned and walked back the way he’d come, and then started pacing. He couldn’t contain himself, not like this. Surely there were other people to kill. They had an itemised list somewhere, didn’t they? He could hear rough, shaking breathing in the room, realised it was his own. He still had Augus’ blood caking his light-split hands and forearms where he’d placed his organs back into his body. He had the blood of those creatures covering it, the vague musk of otterkind clinging to his skin.

After several minutes, Gulvi stepped into his path and he growled at her.

‘Stop this,’ Gulvi spat at him.

‘If he dies…’

‘What? What would you do?’ Her voice was sharp, far more barbed than he expected. He stopped and stared at her. Words fell down on top of themselves inside him.

‘I need him,’ he said, staring at her.

Gulvi opened her mouth, and he could see the twist of fury barely banked. But then her expression smoothed and she stepped towards him, taking his blood spattered face in her cool hands. He realised then how feverish he was, how close his light to the surface of his skin.

‘Look, my darling, you may not have noticed – understandably – that you are not going through this alone. You are not the only one who has given his heart to one of those two brothers. And-’

Gwyn realised how callous he’d been. He’d not even thought of Gulvi’s connection to Ash, nor thought to ask her about it.

‘Gulvi, I-

‘La! Be quiet, and listen.’

She rose on her feet slightly and pressed her forehead to Gwyn’s.

‘I’m listening,’ Gwyn said.

‘This is a chaos I hate,’ Gulvi said, and Gwyn could hear the dark smile in her voice. ‘And yet even now, I feed upon it. And I hate that more. But, Gwyn, they still live. Ash and I have blood-oathed to each other, and Augus has blood-oathed to you and vice versa. We would know if those blood-oaths broke. They need us to stay focused. Both of us.’

‘I can’t just stand here and do nothing,’ Gwyn said, pressing his forehead into Gulvi’s, feeling her fingers tighten on his face. ‘I need to kill something.’

‘No,’ Gulvi said warmly. ‘Perhaps we just need to spar?’

Gwyn considered it. He was too dangerous.

‘I could hurt you,’ he said under his breath. ‘I could, without realising.’

‘Then I will be armed with knives, and you will have yourself, and no light.’

‘I don’t know if I can-’

‘Then learn some self-control,’ she said. Her hands tightened on his face and once more they were teleporting through the palace. Gwyn felt as though the past moments of his life had been nothing but frustrated movement as Augus lay too still.

They landed in the middle of one of the enclosed sparring rooms. Empty but for a floor thick with mats, some weapons hanging from the wall where Gwyn had left them, and one of Augus’ rapiers nearby. Gwyn stared at it until Gulvi kicked him in the shin.

He turned back, crouching, hands coming up in fists. Gulvi grinned at him, her knives already out of their sheaths and spinning in her hands.

He waited for her to make the first move, wanted to give her a chance to step back, to step away, because his mind flashed horrific images in his head. His hands around Gulvi’s neck, snapping bone. The sensation of pleasure as he’d forced Cyledr to eat his father’s heart so long ago that he shouldn’t be able to taste the joy of it like fresh blood in the back of his throat.

She rushed him, her wings helping, and he stepped back, trying to master himself. Taking deep, long breaths and shoving his light down so roughly that it hurt.

‘Have you forgotten how to fight?’ Gulvi said sweetly, tilting her head at him. ‘Are you some neutered little thing now? Look at you, covered in blood and dodging a swan.’

‘Do you bait everyone you’re about to kill?’ Gwyn said, and Gulvi laughed.

‘So many fae fall for it. Oh no! A swan about to kill them! Come join them, Gwyn. Come see what three thousand years of training has done for me.’

In the end, temptation and the need to forget that he was so useless while Fenwrel and Aleutia poured themselves out for Augus’ wellbeing, forced him into action.

He stepped towards her blades, unafraid of the damage they could do, reaching for them with his bare hands. The first time he did it, she jumped backwards, her eyes narrowing.

That’s a different technique.’

‘Come fight me,’ Gwyn said. ‘Come see how different.’

They moved around each other, Gulvi like a dancer, and Gwyn with the efficiency of someone looking to get those knives away from his enemy and into his own hands. He had to that he cared for her, and he shouted those words at himself as they began to spar in earnest, because his light wanted him to destroy her.

She could see it in his eyes. But there must have been a thrill in it for her, because she laughed more than she looked alarmed.

They exhausted themselves as minutes crept by. Both of them occasionally looking up as though they could see through the ceiling to where Ash and Augus lay. When minutes became an hour and Gwyn hadn’t heard from either of the healers, his energy began to flag, and he took yet another slash from her blades. She dripped blood from his fingernails and teeth and at one point one of her own daggers turned back on her. They were not fighting prettily, both relying on their healing to absorb the damage they were doing to one another; Gwyn wishing he could funnel his own healing directly into Augus’ body.

He sensed when Gulvi was done, even before she straightened and drew her wings back in tight, wiping the back of her hand over her sweating brow and baring her teeth at nothing.

‘We should have heard something by now.’

‘I don’t understand it,’ Gwyn said, flicking sweat and blood off his body and gooseflesh rising all over his skin. ‘I don’t understand why he did something so dangerous. He’s- He’s Augus. His actions are always ultimately self-serving.’

‘No,’ Gulvi said, kneeling down and her wings splaying tiredly. ‘No. He puts Ash first. Ash told me one night. Back when Augus was in the Seelie Court and Ash was perpetually drunk, Ash said that Augus put Ash first often enough that I ended up ripping Ash a new one for trying to derail my anger so. He was very contrite. But he was also very firm. Augus puts himself into positions of great harm.’

Gwyn thought back to something Augus had said a long time ago, in the Seelie Court. When he’d woken from a nightmare and had been too vulnerable, too raw – truths about the Nightingale, his captivity, slipping from his lips.

But it had to be worth it. It had to be. I think of Ash going through a day of that, and I…

‘Gods,’ Gwyn said, staring ahead. ‘I want to drag him into a room and not let him out of it.’

‘Darling, that’s just repetitive,’ Gulvi said quietly.

‘Not like that,’ Gwyn said, staring at her. ‘I only mean…he gets away from me. He’s done it before. He’s doing it again. I haven’t been…’

...Attentive.

Fenwrel had said he was sick. Underworld poisoning. He shuddered to think of it. Augus would have loathed learning that. Would have hated it. His reaction to being possessed with underworld creatures was horror and hatred.

‘Gods,’ Gwyn said. ‘I’m an idiot.’

‘Your neglect could indirectly get Ash killed,’ Gulvi said, her voice deep. ‘It’s not a threat, but I am becoming aware just how important Augus’ health is now. I can’t not. Ash is a hale fellow. Even as a waterhorse allergic to alcohol, he doesn’t care. He poisons himself because he enjoys the outcome. Seeing him…’

‘Why did you give your heart to him?’ Gwyn asked abruptly, and Gulvi’s eyes brightened before him, and she laughed while blinking away a tear.

‘La! You pick your moments.’

‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘I only-’

‘No, it is fine. I’ll tell you, shall I? It’s amusing, really. Everyone knows it’s unrequited, but no one really knows the story.’

‘You don’t have to.’

‘I know,’ Gulvi said, walking a few steps away, walking back, still filled with agitated energy despite having sparred themselves to a less intense killing edge.

‘We met at a concert,’ Gulvi said, smiling briefly. ‘Cockney Rejects, I believe. That we both managed to be in the same place at the same time was strange enough. But there we were, in east London, and we both managed to be in the same human year, around the same age ourselves, and he marked me out. To fuck me at first, but of course. Everyone’s prey when he’s in the human world. But I wasn’t interested. I told him to shove off, because I was there for the music.

‘One thing led to another and we ended up drinking and wandering the streets, talking about issues with the fae world, delighted that we were both Unseelie and well…we hit it off. And I wanted a place to get away from the shit in the fae world, and he had given up on the fae world a long time ago. Do you know, I still don’t know why? What made him so tired of it, when his brother lives here and he loves him so deeply. You would think there would be something that drove him away? But he swears there’s not.

‘It was years of friendship before I gave my heart to him,’ Gulvi said. ‘It wasn’t all about him, in the end. I didn’t want to bind myself to someone in the fae world, someone…relevant. I- It’s hard to explain. I was cynical about love. Very cynical. I didn’t want someone to use a loved one against me. There I was, a mercenary using everyone’s loved ones against them. I thought my swan’s heart a waste of time and something to rid myself of as soon as possible. And Dubna, my mother, she warned me, she did…’

Gulvi laughed, spread her arms and splayed her fingers.

‘I never listened to her, and almost always at my folly. La! Except becoming a mercenary. That I was right to do. That has never felt like the wrong choice.’

‘Ash felt like the wrong choice?’

‘It’s not that simple,’ Gulvi said, dropping her arms. ‘The reasons I gave my heart to him weren’t as clear as they should have been. They couldn’t be. They never are! Swans think they have such pure hearts, but… Ash is worthy, make no mistake, but I never wanted to be with him. Even as I gave him my heart, without his consent I might add, because he would have refused it – I knew I didn’t want to be with him. I didn’t want him to fuck me, I didn’t want to lie on a bed with him beyond collapsing together on a bed with marshmallows and fried foods while watching silly human movies about very profound things.’

Gulvi rubbed at her eyes again. She looked down at the tears on her clawed fingers and shook her head.

‘He has always been a gentleman about it, even as I took something from the both of us the moment I staked him with the permanency of my love. But, Gwyn, I’ve never wanted to be with anyone. Ash gives me all of himself in our friendship. His love is a whole thing. He has such an abundance of it. It spills everywhere. It makes him do and say stupid things. It makes him wiser than he should be. He loves love. Whether it makes him a fool or seer. And me, with my cynical heart, I needed his idealism, his romanticism, all of it. He gives me something I have never been able to give myself. And he has enough of it – so much – that he can give it freely and I never have to worry about depleting him of anything.’

She smiled at him, the gesture free of cynicism and bitterness. Her eyes glittered brightly with tears, and in that moment he could see the softer swan maiden that lurked behind the hardness.

‘You see? Everyone thinks it’s unrequited. But that implies that it is one-sided, and it is not. They say unrequited love is not returned in kind, but he returns it. And they act as though I accidentally tripped over his feet, looked up, and fell in love with the stupid idiot he can be. But I did not. I made a conscious declaration to myself, to the world.’

‘A declaration in favour of romance,’ Gwyn said, smiling crookedly.

‘I’ll thank you not to mention that to anyone else but him. For he’s the only one who knows the whole story in full, and cherishes it truly.’

Gwyn nodded, but Gulvi drew in a shaking breath and closed her eyes, pained. After a few seconds, she opened them again and her wings spread.

‘And you?’ she said. ‘Why did you give your heart to the one who murdered so many of us?’

Gwyn didn’t have a story. He didn’t have a tale to weave for her.

‘He understood,’ Gwyn said, his voice muted. ‘He understood where others didn’t.’

‘What did he understand?’

‘The…the trap of it all. The Seelie Court. The awfulness of- He saw my nature. Even before he was a prisoner. A long time ago. I wanted to hate him for it. I couldn’t.’

He was rarely this candid with anyone, and he stumbled over his words. He opened his mouth to speak again when he felt an odd shivering pain move through him. It fluttered over his skin, then centred on his fingers.

He spread them, confused, and then watched, mouth dropping open, as the scars from blood-oaths he’d made to Augus disappeared from his skin.

Gulvi stared at the inside of her left thumb, mouthed the word ‘No’ over and over.

He teleported back to Augus’ room. He swallowed down bile, his body turned numb. Aleutia and Fenwrel were speaking to each other quickly when he arrived, Fenwrel by Ash’s arm – her hand on his Soulbond, and Aleutia’s hands somewhere in the gaping wound that was Augus’ chest.

‘He’s died! You’ve killed him!’ Gwyn roared.

They were screaming at him to leave, but all he could think was that the blood-oaths had all undone themselves and there would be no more touch and no more aftercare and it was gone, all of it, and he thought he’d fall apart before them but instead he was screaming back at them to do more. To do more and why hadn’t they asked him for what they needed and why couldn’t they just-

Gulvi dragged him backwards. Gwyn fought her off, trying to shake the blood-oaths back into his hands. A weight had disappeared from his blood. A bond that he needed, hadn’t known he’d needed until it was gone.

When he flickered with light, Fenwrel turned, a detached, cold sympathy on her face. She waved her staff at him, and he could feel the yank of forced teleportation in his skin and he yelled at her, threats and more, trying to break through the magic with his own untrained skill and failing, despite the widening of her eyes. He was forced from the room, Gulvi with him, and they both stood in the night gardens, Gwyn in the middle of roaring at them and Gulvi’s breath hitching.

‘I’ll kill them!’ he shouted, half in outrage that they would force him – the King – from the room. He called his light and Gulvi leaped at him, the weight of it causing him to stagger sideways, halting his teleportation.

‘Idiot!’ she shouted. ‘If they need us to leave, they think there’s still hope!’

But her voice broke. She slid down his body until her palms rested on cool, peaty ground. Her wings shook.

‘I’ve lost too many people,’ she said, her fingers clawing the ground. Gwyn watched her, hardly able to move. ‘But if they want us to leave, they think there’s still hope. If they were…if they were truly gone, Aleutia and Fenwrel would have- They would have let us say goodbye.’

Gwyn stared at his shaking hands. The blood-oaths gone. He’d always chafed against the one that had permitted Augus to give him aftercare. He’d always wanted it reversed, removed. It was gone, and he curled his fingers together as though he could force it back into place.

In the end, he knelt beside Gulvi. At first to help her up, but he couldn’t move once he felt the earth beneath his knees. He placed his hand over hers. She turned her hand so it was palm up. They wrapped their fingers around each other’s hands and held on.

It was an hour later, Gulvi and Gwyn cold, still linked by their hands, when Fenwrel teleported to them. She looked exhausted and she was shaking. Gwyn couldn’t make himself stand. He was terrified of what she might say.

‘They’re not yet out of the woods,’ she said, her voice careful and stern. ‘But they’re breathing.’

‘Can I see him?’ Gwyn said, voice small.

‘I think you should.’

 

Chapter Text

Gwyn

*

The next few days were nightmarish. Augus and Ash weren’t stable, and even though Gwyn was now allowed to stay in the room – he ended up in a chair shoved into the corner and was told to stay put – Aleutia was there frequently, adding healing energy, altering what she was doing from time to time, disappearing and returning on her own schedule.

He felt guilty for using his rank and status to make Gulvi handle some of the thornier Court matters, when she was also distraught over Ash. Guilty, but not guilty enough to leave Augus’ side. He was missing meetings with the Generals. It didn’t matter.

Neither Augus nor Ash woke. Augus’ breathing was laboured, and it was obvious he was in pain, even unconscious. His mouth was constantly tense, his eyebrows pulled slightly together. Ash, by contrast, was doing much better, and Aleutia and Fenwrel both claimed that he would be the first to wake.

‘It’s a good sign, Gwyn. It’s good, that Ash is doing so well. It means that Augus is pulling through, despite how he may appear.’

For Augus’ skin hadn’t started knitting properly, and beneath layers of herbs and gauze and bandages, his torso was still an open wound. It wasn’t normal for healing to be so decelerated and when Gwyn had asked about it, demanded an answer, Aleutia had left and Fenwrel had sat on the very corner of the bed by Ash’s feet.

‘Our prevailing theory is that he exhausted himself before the attack.’

Everyone knew, now, that Augus could rehabilitate the Blighted land. Rumours of how he did it spread, and Gwyn had been informed by Gulvi that an ‘unreasonable’ number of underfae had come to visit while Augus was unconscious. Gwyn realised he needed an expanded Court. Not just Inner Court members, but Court fae he could rely uponto handle some of these tasks. Just as Albion had Mikkel to act as interrogator and Reader, even though Mikkel was only Court status. Gwyn needed his own extended network. He wasn’t sure he would trust any of them, but surely it was better than the fragile Court functioning now.

‘He should have taken someone with him,’ Gwyn said, looking at the still, grey form of Augus on the bed.

‘I agree,’ Fenwrel said.

‘He’ll be too vulnerable to rehabilitate further landscapes on his own. I don’t want him doing it.’

‘See how he feels when he wakes,’ Fenwrel said evenly, with a stubbornness that chafed against him. She behaved as though he didn’t want the best for Augus, but he didn’t think sending Augus out there again, just because Augus wanted to go – was in his best interests.

‘It shouldn’t be like this. His heartsong is balance. I tell you, he-’

‘His heartsong is destabilised. He is soul-sick, and has been since his time in the underworlds. He is a polluted creature trying to appear otherwise. It’s folly to accept his self-possession. He might believe in it, but if you care for him, you should doubt it. Augus cannot look after himself as he once did. And he might not ever be as self-sustaining a creature as he once was.’

‘Ever?’ Gwyn said.

Fenwrel looked over to Augus and something grave crossed her features.

‘He still believes that he is the same Each Uisge that existed before his encounter with the underworlds; but I do not think that being exists any longer. Not as he remembers it, anyway. And I do not think he’s come to terms with everything he’s suffered. I think he wants to be perceived as a villain, because the reality – to him – is far worse.’

Some of it was news to Gwyn, but a lot of it wasn’t. His eyes were drawn to one of Augus’ hands, above the blankets pulled halfway up his body. It rested palm up, curled slightly, claws filed down to bluntness in case he tried to claw at himself or the pain in his body. His fingers were long, fragile. He wanted to take Augus’ hand so badly, but Aleutia had cautioned him against touch. Apparently his energy could have a toxic effect.

‘If my energy is so bad for him, is it always that way?’ Gwyn said, reluctantly meeting Fenwrel’s eyes. He’d been avoiding asking the question for some time now, not wanting to hear the answer.

Fenwrel’s mouse nose wrinkled briefly, then she shook her head.

‘It is only when he is in a critical condition, like now.’

He sighed in relief, rested his head against the wall and looked up at the ceiling.

‘He’s coming to you,’ he said quietly. ‘To learn more about pressure points?’

‘And for healing. But he still thinks that a complete healing is possible.’

‘It’s not?’ Gwyn said, frowning.

‘It’s not. I’ve warned him, but he doesn’t yet believe me. I wish I were wrong. I’m not wrong.’

‘He must trust you,’ Gwyn said. His eyes were drawn to Augus’ hair. It lay limp on the bed, but not from the effect of water. He’d stopped shedding water from his scalp early on, and the waterweed he grew had died and been pulled from his head by Aleutia. She’d said it would stop him wasting resources, he needed all the water in his body, for his organs.

Even so, Aleutia regularly injected Augus with lake water. Enough that he had puncture marks along his arms and neck – those also taking too long to heal. She didn’t know how long it would take for his scalp to begin shedding water once more.

Gwyn had always idly wondered what Augus’ hair might feel like when it was dry, no longer damp. Now, the idea of touching it when it glinted dully in the light and clearly wasn’t waterlogged, felt repulsive. This was nothing like the horror he’d felt when the shapeshifter that looked like Augus had been killed. This was something else entirely. A prolonged outrage, and the knowledge that when Augus woke, things were going to have to change.

‘I am not a good…friend, to him,’ Gwyn said. ‘To anyone. It is good that he trusts you. He needs more allies.’

‘I agree,’ Fenwrel said. ‘I’m going to head out and see if Gulvi needs any help. Do you want me to pass on any messages to her?’

‘Tell her to leave the work. If Ash is going to be waking soon, she should be here.’

Fenwrel smiled as though Gwyn had said something especially kind, and then teleported away. Gwyn leaned forwards and rested his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands. He only felt more guilty for not allowing Gulvi to stay the entire time.

*

Ash woke first.

Gulvi sat in a chair right by the bed, watching him quietly for hours, something adoring and heartbroken in her gaze. Gwyn had read over documents and other parchments – assessments from the Generals, information on the underfae, missives from messengers and the trows – and tried to give her as much privacy as he reasonably could, without actually leaving Augus’ side.

Gwyn realised the moment that Ash woke, because Gulvi’s breath hissed through her throat and she was touching his hair, and then feathering fingers through it. Like Augus, his scalp had stopped shedding water for a time, but he’d started again two days later, and his pillow was now damp. Though he, too, needed injections of fresh water.

‘Hey, baby,’ Ash said groggily. ‘That was…some bender. Are you hungover too?’

‘You don’t remember?’ Gulvi said, smiling, her eyes wet and her hands in his hair and Gwyn stared at Augus and willed him to wake. To be a part of this moment. To wake up.

Augus still struggled to take regular, even breaths.

‘Remember what?’

Ash sounded confused, good-natured, happy. Gwyn shoved down a twinge of jealousy. Because Ash would realise he was there, and the mood would be ruined. Because that warm glamour felt so real when it was enveloping Gulvi and others, but it was nothing more than a weapon whenever Ash was near him. He’d never told Augus, but he…envied Ash’s glamour, his ability to be so easy with others. He’d thought, when he invited him onto his Inner Court, that things would get better between them.

‘Remember what, babe?’ He reached out with a weak hand and touched her face, and then seemed to realise where he was. He saw Gwyn sitting on the chair as his face turned, he opened his mouth to say something and then he saw Augus lying next to him.

‘Augus?’

Ash looked up at Gwyn, his gaze hardening.

‘What the fuck did you do?’

‘Darling,’ Gulvi said, as Ash touched Augus’ dry hair and then made a horrible sound in the back of his throat, trying to turn to face his brother and still too weak to manage it well. ‘Darling, Augus was attacked after healing one of the Blighted lakes. Gwyn and I, along with Aleutia and Fenwrel, have been working around the clock to make sure both of you live.’

Truthfully, he and Gulvi had done nothing more than get in the way. But Gwyn was beyond grateful that Gulvi was trying to get Ash to see him as someone who had helped, and not someone who had…

Possibly caused this whole situation in the first place, with his neglect.

Ash had started to pull back the blankets and saw the bandages, the blood-stains from sheets that were changed; but not frequently enough to be clean constantly. He went paler than before, trying to push himself upright in a sitting position and hardly managing. His eyes were wet, and the words he tried to say next were choked.

‘Oh my god,’ Ash managed, blinking tears out of his eyes. ‘Oh my god. Is he okay? Is he okay? Is he going to be okay?’

‘You’re the greatest sign of that,’ Gwyn said, as Ash’s hazel eyes shot up and met his. ‘That you are awake, and speaking, and doing okay – is a sign that he will pull through with time. This is what Fenwrel and Aleutia have both said.’

Gwyn didn’t say that they’d died. He didn’t say anything about the blood-oaths Ash had made to Gulvi having disappeared. Ash would realise that in his own time.

‘Oh my god,’ Ash said, looking at Augus again. He lowered his head towards Augus’, and Gwyn started to get up, wanting to warn him to be careful. But Ash only pressed his lips to Augus’ forehead and then braced himself, so that he could keep his head there without resting the weight fully.

‘Fucking hell, bro,’ Ash whispered. ‘You liar. You weren’t fine. Fuck. I knew it. Jesus.’

Ash said nothing else. He didn’t move from Augus’ side, fingers in his dry hair and trying to move closer without actually pushing himself against him or hurting him. Gwyn settled back in his chair, and Gulvi sat on the edge of the bed, keeping one of her hands on Ash’s back, and closing her eyes. They were all tired.

*

Aleutia returned a couple of hours later. She had many syringes of water, but upon seeing Ash awake, she walked into Augus’ bathroom and returned with a glass of water and told him to finish that up, and then go into the bathroom himself and drink another four. He was shaky on his feet, but getting stronger by the hour. Aleutia didn’t seem happy – she was a brusque healer, and her military background showed in her manner with clients – but she did seem to relax. When Ash returned, rubbing his hands slowly through his hair, she offered him a stiff smile.

But Ash looked horrified as she injected water straight into Augus’ body.

‘Why aren’t you using an IV?’ he said.

‘Because we’re not in the human world, and I don’t like them,’ Aleutia said, staring up at him. ‘You want to try your chances in a human hospital? You’re more than welcome.’

‘No, I didn’t mean that. Sorry,’ he said, wincing. ‘Sorry, I just…’

‘No harm done,’ Aleutia said abruptly. ‘Fae veins don’t collapse from repeated shots – though his might, if his damned healing doesn’t pick up. As for you, young man: I want you to start walking and moving around a bit more, and you’re going to need to hunt. But I want you to leave it for three or four days, if you can bear the wait.’

‘I’m honestly not that hungry, hey,’ Ash said quietly.

‘Your body has been through a shock, and since your organs failed as Augus’ did, I don’t think you’re up for the full range of digestion just yet. You’re functional, but not entirely back on board. Unseelie waterhorses can’t tolerate meat early on in their lives, and you’re…sort of back in that state again. If you start feeling hungry, go to fruit and vegetables first. Check with me first before eating any meat – even non-human. Got it?’

‘Cool,’ Ash said. He nodded after a few seconds. Gwyn still didn’t think he had any true concept of just how serious things had become. For all Ash knew, he’d only collapsed yesterday. Gulvi would let him know, he was sure.

‘Then get out of here, and get moving. I know you want to watch over your brother, and you’re welcome to come back in an hour or two. But for now, go and move your body around. Remember, everything you do for your health, helps his. Got it?’

‘Yep,’ Ash said. But he hesitated, and it wasn’t until Gulvi prodded him on the shoulder that he ended up walking reluctantly towards the door, looking at Augus as he went.

‘We need to get you some new clothes!’ Gulvi said, exasperated.

‘Yeah,’ Ash said, acknowledging her, but not really paying attention. Gulvi still flashed Gwyn a sharp grin as she left, herding Ash out of the room, giving them all some space.

Aleutia sighed when the door was closed.

‘How is he, really? Augus?’ Gwyn said, keeping his voice soft.

Aleutia slid another needle from the inside of his wrist and pushed in the next, shrugging.

‘He died,’ Aleutia said. ‘He died and he’s still sick. What do you want me to say? You need to keep an eye on him? You know that. Or you wouldn’t be here non-stop, with the trows bringing you food so that you don’t have to leave. I think he’ll wake up now, which is something. If you’d asked me a day ago, I would’ve flat out said coma. For months.’

‘What?’

‘We didn’t want to tell you. But anyway, I think that’s no longer a risk. With Ash doing so well, and them being connected by the Soulbond as they are, I think Augus will wake up in a day or so. But I’m not entirely sure he wants to. His energy has been resistant to healing. He’s fought me just about every step of the way. It wasn’t until Fenwrel tried to link his energy to Ash’s in a more concrete manner, that he started fighting a bit more. But, frankly, it didn’t help as much as we thought it would. So Fenwrel unlinked them again yesterday.’

She slid the needle out of Augus’ skin and placed it in a container. She sighed, folded her arms, faced Gwyn.

‘He needs rest. When he wakes up, he stays put. You’re the King, you make it happen.’

‘I intend to,’ Gwyn said. ‘Believe me.’

‘I think I just might, at this point. And I don’t mean he stays put forever, but a week…two weeks. As long as it takes until I’m satisfied with him, anyway. Now, on the matter of payment – I was so happy with that seed I got last time, but the bastard germinated then never actually grew properly, so I-’

Gwyn’s eyes narrowed.

‘It took?’

‘Yeah, but it never-’

‘You said that if the seed germinated, you would come and work here. That you would become the Unseelie palace healer. That was declared as one of your offerings in the transaction.’

‘No, I said that if it…’

Aleutia closed her eyes. In that moment, he knew she was looking in herself to see how the debt they’d made in the Unseelie Court – before Gwyn was even King – resonated. Was she telling the truth? Was Gwyn? He leaned forwards. Could he just have landed himself a Court healer? They were hard to source, because many didn’t want to leave their day jobs. Gaining Aleutia – for all he didn’t love her personality – would be a coup indeed.

And he knew he was right. He leaned back in the chair and folded his arms, raised an eyebrow, waited for her to chafe against the words she’d laid down herself.

She pushed her hip out and rested her hand on it. Her black rat ears twitched rapidly and finally she reached up with both of her paws and pulled the tips of her ears down in frustration, catching tangles of red hair as she went.

'Ooo, fuck you,’ Aleutia said. ‘I did say it. Fuck me.’

‘Welcome back to the Court. You have a week to tie up loose ends with clients, and then you’re working in residence here, thank you.’

‘You wait until you see my rates,’ Aleutia laughed. ‘Ooo, damn it, I don’t want to live in the same place as all you nutters. I suppose it’ll be nice to live with Gulvi. All right. Whatever. You’re, of course, right. I did say that if the Immortalis germinated, I’d come work for you at the Court. Gods, I even gave my word as a healer, didn’t I?’

‘If you like, I can contract out some more seeds as payment, alongside whatever other remuneration you require. You can keep trying. I didn’t expect it to germinate.’

‘You’re telling me!’ Aleutia laughed. ‘Whatever. Well I can’t stay for now anyway. I do have other clients, and I’ll have you know they’re not loose ends.’

She straightened her button-up shirt over her round belly and then her snoutish nose wriggled.

‘You got me good,’ she laughed.

She started to walk out of the room, taking the syringes with her, and Gwyn leaned forwards in the chair. He’d forgotten to ask- He needed to ask…

Perhaps he should have waited until after he’d called her on her verbal contract.

‘Aleutia,’ Gwyn said. ‘Can I…Can I touch him? When will it be safe enough for me to be closer to him?’

Aleutia turned back and looked at Augus consideringly.

‘I should say never just to get some revenge but thankfully, for you, I’m not that petty. But not until he wakes up. Drifting in and out of consciousness is acceptable if he’s not feverish. But not until he wakes up and speaks a word. Until then, I’m sorry, but you’re relegated to the chair.’

‘If it’s so bad now…surely it means…surely it means I’m dangerous to him at other times?’

‘No,’ Aleutia shook her head. ‘Look you don’t understand how it works, which is stupid, given you were born a psychopomp and really should. The general rule amongst the Unseelie is that psychopomps are all well and good around the living, but should really keep their distance from the almost dead in case they, you know, hurry things along.’

‘But I don’t want to hurt him.’

‘And I don’t think you would! I’m not sure how much of it is superstition, and I’m sure it doesn’t apply to all fae who feed upon fellow fae in ways similar to you. But let’s be safe, yeah? Anyway, my week just got a fuckton busier, between the brothers that just won’t quit and sorting out the rest of my clients and moving into the palace. So I’m gonna love you and leave you.’

Gwyn nodded, even as he stared at the distance between the chair and the bed like it was a gulf. He hadn’t been able to touch Augus since…

Not since they’d laid on Augus’ bed together in his underwater home.

In the end, Gwyn sat on his hands, hoping that Augus would wake up soon.

*

Ash returned a few hours later, opening the door and looking at Gwyn cautiously, before crawling onto the bed where he’d spent so much time already. He couldn’t look away from Augus, after his initial glance at Gwyn. He slid a hand underneath his head, very carefully, and left his palm there cradling his scalp. The other went to rest on his chest, but that was still open and not up to pressure beside the bandages, so in the end he placed his hand by Augus’ collarbone.

‘Have there been any changes?’ Ash said, without looking at him.

‘He’s improving,’ Gwyn said, hoping that Ash didn’t use this time as an opportunity to insult him. He didn’t know if he could bear it. He felt frayed at the edges. He tried concertedly, frequently, not to think about the implications of Augus dying, about his own neglect, about the guilt that ate at him, about any of it. But consequently, he was thin on resources. ‘Aleutia says it could be one or two days before he wakes. She also said…he might drift in and out of consciousness.’

‘I’ve only seen him look this bad like, once,’ Ash said, touching Augus’ skin, caressing where Gwyn had been told to stay back and away.

Gwyn looked to the side. He couldn’t bear seeing Ash do something so tender, while Gwyn had his back to the wall and was under orders not to move closer to Augus.

‘When?’ Gwyn said, trying to keep his voice soft. There was a pause. He had no idea if Ash looked at him.

‘After he disappeared – you know, ah…when the Nightingale had him. He came to me after that. He looked awful. Worse than this, actually. Jesus. I should’ve...anyway, and thin. Like, he’s always been like…but this was just so much worse. He pretended he was fine? Sort of. We both knew he wasn’t. He left like, that night. He had these nightmares. Jesus fuck. I’ve never seen anything like it. After that I was shut out. Pretty much…’

Gwyn looked over to see Ash stroking Augus’ shoulder.

‘Maybe since before then. I don’t know.’

‘He does it very easily,’ Gwyn volunteered. ‘He makes it hard for people to care for him.’

Ash’s hand stopped moving, after a few seconds, he looked up. Gwyn tensed. He couldn’t deal with this now. Not now. But after a long minute of feeling scrutinised by something of a fae celebrity – he wasn’t sure how he felt about that – Ash looked down at Augus again.

‘Yeah,’ Ash said. ‘Yeah, he does.’

After that, Ash lay down and curled up into his brother’s side. He pressed his forehead against Augus’ shoulder and kept one hand on his collarbone. Gwyn picked up some parchments and read over them, and Ash fell into a doze. It wasn’t peaceful exactly, but at least it wasn’t insults. Gwyn thought he’d feel relieved, but there were too many other things clamouring in his mind. Peace never came.

*

Aleutia had visited for the last time that day, about two hours before midnight. Now, as they eased towards dawn – Augus a lot more stable than he was before, but still needing regular shots of lake water and still not shedding water from his mane – Augus was beginning to rouse.

Gwyn thought it would happen quickly. That Augus would be breathing unevenly and unconscious, and then his eyes would open and he’d be awake.

Instead, it began with small twitches. Ash noticed them first, and then said his brother’s name a few times until he and Gwyn both realised at the same time that this was not…how they thought it was going to be.

He needs to wake up and say a word, and then I can touch him. He needs to wake up…

‘He’s hurting bad,’ Ash said, an hour later, when Augus had broken into a sweat. ‘Can we give him anything else?’

‘You were here,’ Gwyn said. ‘You heard what Aleutia said.’

‘Fuck,’ Ash said. ‘Yeah…whatever. Okay.’

When Augus woke, an hour later, one of his hands was clenched into Ash’s shirt and his knuckles were white. He shook violently, eyes moving behind his eyelids, in what Gwyn hoped desperately wasn’t a fever-dream, because that would mean he couldn’t touch Augus even if he did wake up and say something. He was standing now, in front of the chair, feeling helpless and trying not to think about how useless he’d been as underfae and how useless he was now, and how even status didn’t make a difference, when he couldn’t help Augus.

‘Ash,’ Augus said, his voice thick and wrecked. And then he was saying his brother’s name over and over again, and Gwyn wasn’t jealous – not exactly, Augus’ bond with Ash was fierce and sacred and everyone knew how important it was. But seeing Ash lying next to Augus, speaking soothing words, watching him with such tenderness, roused something fierce and unwelcome in his gut.

‘I’m here. I’m here, bro. It’s okay. You’re okay. You’re doing really well. Come on, open your eyes. Come on, brother. You can do it, okay?’

Augus’ head rolled to the side. His other hand came up and went for his stomach, and Ash caught it straight away, even as Gwyn took a step forward to make sure Augus didn’t do any damage to himself.

‘Shhh,’ Ash said. ‘Shhh, you’ve been hurt. You’re healing. It’s gonna be fine, Augus. Yeah? Come on, open your eyes.’

Several minutes of deep, shuddering breathing. Gwyn thought Augus had fallen unconscious again – perhaps he had, then he rolled his head towards Ash and opened his eyes.

‘You’re all right,’ Augus said. The hand curled in his shirt flexed and curled once more. He pulled Ash closer. ‘Gods.’

‘I’m fine,’ Ash laughed quietly. ‘It’s you we’re all worried about.’

Gwyn didn’t realise how aggressively he was clasping his hands together until he tore skin on the inside of two his fingers. He didn’t bother forcing his hands apart. Augus was right there, and awake, and Gwyn wanted to kick Ash out of the room and-

Augus made a faint sound of pain, breathed through his nose, and then his nostrils flared. He turned towards Gwyn, and Gwyn stared hungrily, desperate for eye contact, for something.

They looked at each other. Augus’ eyes not nearly as vivid as usual, dull and washed out and far paler than they should be. But his gaze all the same. Lips chapped and eyebrows drawn together in perpetual pain. Gwyn had sentence upon sentence stacking up inside of him, until they all fell down and he wasn’t left with a single one to say.

And then Augus’ eyes narrowed and he turned back to Ash.

‘The Soulbond,’ Augus managed. ‘Did it…affect you?’

‘Didn’t feel great,’ Ash admitted.

Augus made a sharp sound of frustration, and then another of pain. He turned back to Gwyn, teeth bared.

‘You- Can you do something about this blasted Soulbond? It’s untenable, it’s un…’

His eyes rolled back in his head, his fingers went limp, and Ash was trying to get him to come back, to wake again, but Augus had drifted unconscious once more.

*

Aleutia returned at dawn, and Ash dozed again by his brother’s side while Gwyn informed her of what had happened. She seemed oddly disappointed to find Ash there.

‘You!’ she shouted, and Ash woke with a start, blinking groggily. ‘I didn’t turn myself inside out for you and your brother, for you not to be up and about, and getting your body working properly again. I want you out of here. At least a day. Go to the human world. Do whatever it is that you do. But clear out.’

‘That’s a bit harsh,’ Ash said, rubbing at his face in confusion. But Gwyn thought he could see what Aleutia meant. The more Ash seemed to lie down next to Augus, the less aware and awake he seemed to become.

‘It is. Because I need you well, and because your brother needs you well. You’ll have all the time in the world with him, in a day or so. For now, get out of here, go get something to eat. You haven’t eaten yet, have you?’

‘I’m really not hungry, hey,’ Ash said.

‘Go eat something!’ Aleutia said, pointing to the door with a clawed finger.

‘Your bedside manner is so uncool,’ Ash grumbled, walking past her and looking down at her as he went. But he winked at her as he passed, and the relief Gwyn had felt that maybe Ash didn’t like someone else aside from him,disappeared.

When the door closed, Aleutia breathed a sigh of relief and then faced Gwyn.

‘Thought you could do with that. You’re on leave, until I say so.’

‘I’m not leaving,’ Gwyn said. ‘You’ll not order me around like you just did-’

‘I said you’re on leave, not that I’m asking you to leave! Don’t jump down my throat. Listen to me. I know this is hard on you. I’m not an idiot. I’ve asked you to leave your lover alone during one of the most difficult times either of you has gone through recently. You’ll be a shit ruler right now if you return to work, and frankly, Gulvi and Fenwrel are doing just fine. I got Ash off your back so you can have some time with Augus. His fever is broken. Be as close to him as you like.’

‘What?’ Gwyn said, forgetting his Court manners and side-stepping towards the bed, testing her response. She didn’t yell at him.

‘Use your powers to change the permissions and lock yourself in with him, I don’t care. But I’m telling Gulvi and Ash that you and Augus are on leave until I say so. Forced holiday. Not much of one stuck in these rooms, but you need sleep, and he needs rest. He can’t have any more analgesia, though he’s going to want it. I’m sorry, you’ll have to find a way to deal with that. I’m knocking my visits down to twice a day from here on out until he’s recovered. If there’s an emergency, fetch me.’

‘What’s an emergency?’ Gwyn said, staring at her.

‘If he doesn’t wake again in the next twelve hours, or if he stops breathing. Either one.’

But then she hesitated and started talking to him in detail about all the things he should be on the lookout for. Instructions on how much water he should drink once he’s capable and to monitor his scalp and make sure that his wound started knitting over properly – and to remove the gauze once it had. In the end, more than twenty minutes had passed before Aleutia offered him a half smile and nodded her farewell.

She teleported away, and Gwyn stood alone in Augus’ room, Augus breathing evenly, steadily on the bed.

He didn’t go to the bed straight away. Not yet. He wanted to, desperately, but first he went to the closed door and pressed his palms against it. Leaned his forehead to the wood. Changing the permissions was easy enough. And he could let people in if they knocked. He just wanted a space where only he, Augus and Aleutia could enter. Just for a little while.

After that he walked over to the bed and instead of crawling onto it, he knelt on the floor by Augus’ side. He folded his arms on a section of bedspread that smelled of Augus’ dried blood, rested his head on his wrists. The position hurt his shoulder, but he couldn’t bring himself to move. He had permission from Aleutia to touch Augus. Why was it so hard to just reach out and touch him? Ash found it easy.

He took several deep, shaking breaths and then stood up and walked back to the chair – that he now thoroughly hated – and brought it over to Augus’ bedside. He sat and looked at Augus’ face. He reached for his hand carefully. Touching the cool backs of his knuckles, repeating the touch again after jerking back. But Augus didn’t seem to respond. Didn’t seem to have a negative response to his presence.

He swallowed a lump in his throat and took Augus’ hand into both of his. Augus was almost his height, his fingers were as long as Gwyn’s, though his palms were thinner and smaller. There were fresh calluses on his palm, but Gwyn couldn’t tell what they were from, because Augus was left-hand dominant like he was, and so he would be wielding his rapier with the other hand. Something else, perhaps?

He turned Augus’ hand carefully, looking at the pattern of calluses and then hissed out a breath when he realised what they were from.

How long had Augus been digging his own claws into his palm for? How long and how deeply, for calluses to build up? He stood and reached over for Augus’ other hand and turned it. There, a pattern of calluses from rapier use. And, along the top of his palm, four calluses under each of his fingers.

‘Oh, Augus,’ Gwyn said softly, sitting down and taking Augus’ right hand again. He raised his knuckles to his lips and closed his eyes. He was clueless, and Augus had nearly died because of it.

Not just ‘nearly died.’

Gwyn shuddered.

After some time, he carefully drew the blankets back. He lifted gauze and stared, trembling, at the new skin that had formed over his wounds. It was translucent. He could see straight through it to organs within – organs that he had placed back in his body, that he had felt over his hands and scented in the back of his nose.

He scrambled to Augus’ bathroom and threw up violently, hands gripping either side of the toilet so hard his fingers hurt.

He could feel the weight of it pressing down upon him and he closed his eyes, gagged, spat saliva and bile into the toilet and then staggered over to the sink, running water from the tap and scooping it up with his hands. Drinking it, rubbing it over his face, trying to clear away the sense that he was falling from a great height.

But he couldn’t rid himself of the sensation, and eventually walked back into the bedroom and sat by Augus’ side once more, taking his hand and squeezing it gently. He listened to the sound of Augus breathing.

He had to stay here, he knew that. Maybe Augus wouldn’t want him in the room when he woke up. Maybe he would talk, again, about how neglectful Gwyn had been. They both knew it. Would Augus look at him with condemnation?

Did it matter? Gwyn wasn’t going to leave his side, no matter what Augus said to him. Everything else could wait. He wished he’d realised that sooner.

*

The trows tapped quietly on the door. He recognised their little knocks and changed the permissions, and they looked between he and Augus and handed him a hamper of food that Gwyn wasn’t certain he’d be able to stomach. But he nodded in thanks to them, watched them scuttle off down the corridor to whatever they were going to do next. He closed the door, left the permissions. He didn’t mind the trows coming.

He put the hamper down and went to take Augus’ hand, only to freeze when he saw slivers of green peering at him from under thick lashes.

‘Augus?’ Gwyn said.

Augus made a faint sound, then another, pained. He squeezed his eyes shut and his breathing wheezed in his throat. His arms started to lift on either side, then dropped back down to the bed.

‘Analgesics,’ Augus rasped.

His next exhale was a series of shallow sobs and he shook his head slowly from side to side. His eyes closed tighter, he snarled, and then a tear leaked down the side of his face.

‘Get me something,’ Augus said.

‘I…’

Augus’ eyes opened, pain making them bright, and he looked as though he would tear Gwyn apart, if he could only move.

‘You cannot have anymore,’ Gwyn said, his voice firm. ‘Aleutia’s orders.’

‘I can have...ule-moss, at least,’ Augus said, eyes narrowing in challenge.

‘No,’ Gwyn said.

He sat down cautiously by the bed, as Augus’ fingers curled into fists and he turned his head to the side, trembling. A high, thin noise pushed out on the next exhale. Gwyn’s mind stumbled over an unwanted memory, a time when Augus had shaken in agony in his arms and then Augus unhelpfully said:

‘This reminds me…of when you fed me liver.’

‘Augus.’

He told himself his voice didn’t break.

‘I don’t have…your mastery of pain,’ Augus said, dark amusement in his tone, despite how he struggled to shape the words through the worst bout of shivering. ‘I’m not…like you. I need more.’

‘I can’t,’ Gwyn said, reaching for his hand. And then he had an idea.

I’m not…like you.

Gwyn leaned forwards and lay his arm carefully across Augus’ chest, not resting any of his weight. He lifted one of Augus’ hands and lowered it to his forearm. Lifted the other and placed it, as Augus finally turned his head to watch what he was doing.

‘Augus, hurt me,’ Gwyn said, his voice low, sure. ‘Hurt me. You know I can handle it. You want to lash out, don’t you? Aren’t you angry that I’m not giving you more painkillers?’

Augus’ fingers slowly turned, blunt fingers pressing hesitantly into his skin, then moving into precise positions. Pressure points. Gwyn closed his eyes.

Gwyn thought that Augus would ask, would double check, but after several seconds of Augus’ unsteady, shallow breaths, Augus’ hands clenched around his forearm in a horrible grip. Every one of his fingers seemed to find pressure points that evoked pain and Gwyn’s body tensed, he made a faint, thready sound and then clenched his teeth together and forced himself to breathe through it.

He could ride this out, he could.

‘Does it help?’ Gwyn said, a blaze of white flooding across his vision. His arm jerked, an involuntary impulse that he couldn’t control, and Augus’ grip tightened.

‘Yes,’ Augus growled.

It was helping. He was helping. Finally he was doing something that mattered. He began shaking, almost as violently as Augus, refused to open his eyes. His breathing became audible, and Augus hushed him on an uneven breath.

‘Shhh,’ Augus said, something malicious and pained and sharp in his voice. ‘Shhh. Let me. Just let me. You’re much better at this than I am.’

Gwyn nodded, because he couldn’t think of what else to do. He didn’t think it was true, anyway. He wasn’t recovering from being recently disembowelled.

But Augus didn’t let up, and the pain continued, lanced down his arm and into his good shoulder and then across into his bad shoulder. And then he bowed over Augus’ body and tried not to cry out, and failed.

‘Shhh,’ Augus said, something softer in his voice. ‘Just…a little…longer.’

But Gwyn would put up with it for as long as he needed to. Because Augus was talking to him, and wasn’t sending him away, and he was alive.

Chapter Text

Augus

*

He struggled to consciousness again. He didn’t know why he bothered swimming to the surface of his mind. Everything hurt.

Noises, his own noises, he couldn’t stifle them. All that vaunted self-control gone. The humiliation of it was worse than the pain itself. The Nightingale had seen him like this. Day after day after day after-

Or, given that it was the underworlds, perhaps night after night after night was more appropriate.

Always, Gwyn was there. The first time it had been Ash, but now that he knew Ash was alive, safe, he found he wanted it to be Gwyn. Because at least he could get an adequate amount of revenge on Gwyn later for seeing him like this.

Gwyn who was stronger at dealing with pain than he, because he had the benefit of hundreds of years of torture and conditioning; and Augus had only managed a single year with the Nightingale before he’d crumbled.

Well, really, only a couple of months with the Nightingale before he’d crumbled – the ensuing months after that was…

‘I can’t…hold them back,’ Augus gasped, wanting to claw memories out of his head. He’d never thought about these things this much. He tried trick after trick to shove it away again, and it was all just there. Why was it so hard? What had happened? An attack. The Soulbond triggered. Ash unwell. The Soulbond was a curse. It was possibly the only reason he was alive and it was a curse.

A gentle hand prying his own away from his chest, where he attempted to claw the Soulbond away.

Augus growled, and Gwyn said something comforting and Augus didn’t care. He just didn’t care.

*

He was willing to concede that he wasn’t a gracious patient.

Even drifting in and out of consciousness as he was, he could tell that the bruises over the pressure points on Gwyn’s forearm had healed, re-healed, returned, healed again. Whenever Augus woke in agony, Gwyn was there presenting his arm, and Augus gritted his teeth and dug his fingers in so hard that he broke the skin even without his claws. Hearing Gwyn suffering through it, his caught breaths, feeling the muscles tensing and trying to slip away from his fingers even without Gwyn willing it…was something of a balm.

Truthfully he just wanted to drug himself on analgesics until he was unconscious for another few days, but that didn’t seem to be an option.

He was thirsty, he craved water. Gwyn brought him glasses of the stuff and the first time, had held the rim of the glass to his lips and Augus managed to knock the glass away with a violent movement because of the indignity.

Pain flared. He moaned over and over again, because he’d used the arm he’d apparently damaged while teleporting. Gwyn had returned with another glass and let Augus have the illusion of holding it with a shaking, sore hand, as Gwyn gave him as much water as he wanted. His scalp felt itchy and sore and the pillow wasn’t wet and it was all so confusing. He kept expecting Gwyn to explain it to him. To tell him what had happened.

Gwyn hardly spoke at all, except to tell him to get some rest, to drink some water. He sighed every time Augus threatened him if he wasn’t brought more pain medicine. And then Gwyn would present his forearm and Augus could barely keep back whining, because spreading the pain around wasn’t enough.

*

Aleutia prodded at his gut, and he snarled awake and pushed her away – or attempted to. He was weak, and hands caught his hands and held them still. It was only the light in the room that strongly reminded him that he was not in the underworlds at the hands of someone else, which made him stop actively fighting. But he growled on and on, until finally Aleutia yelled at him to cut it out, because she couldn’t hear his heart over the thick, menacing rumble he was sending into the room.

‘Then give me pain medicine, you bitch,’ Augus grit out, and he could have sworn the next poke to his kidney was harder than it had to be.

‘You’re on it!’ she exclaimed. ‘Believe me, Augus. There’s just some things it hurts to recover from, and this is one of them. If you…’

Augus tuned her out, because his heart rate was shooting up and he didn’t know if she’d poked something too hard and then he realised it was panic. Delayed panic. And he didn’t want this around them. Not now. Not-

Because Ash, he’d almost lost Ash. The desperation he’d felt before, at the lake, returned. He’d nearly lost him, and begging hadn’t been enough. That he’d been reduced to begging, and it still hadn’t been enough.

Familiar, isn’t it?

He couldn’t raise his hands to cover his face, because they were being held and it was unbearable. He struggled and fingers tightened around his wrists and he shot waterweed out in a burst of rage and fear, only to scream as his wrists blazed with pain and nothing happened.

Yelling around him, a rapid scattershot of voices, and someone was saying something about trauma, and he was trying to shape the words: ‘I’ll give you trauma,’ and then his head cleared just enough that he could hear what they were saying.

‘Is he in any immediate danger?’ Gwyn, voice rushed.

‘No, he’s just going to waste resources like this, he should be-’

‘Then get out,’ Gwyn said.

Augus waited for Aleutia’s argument, but there must have been something in Gwyn’s tone or expression which made the order an order. He went still as he heard a door open and close. His wrists were dropped, they burned where he’d tried to push waterweed through his skin and couldn’t even make it. He gasped.

‘Augus,’ Gwyn said, his voice firm. Not that stupid croon that Ash used on him. Gratitude flooded him as fingers threaded through his fingers. ‘Augus, she’s gone.’

‘I need a shower,’ Augus said, to avoid thinking about everything else. Then he started laughing.

‘We need to talk,’ Gwyn said, and Augus didn’t like that tone of voice. He opened his eyes and then tried to project as much disdain as he could when he saw the thunderous expression on Gwyn’s face.

‘You got me a Soulbond that nearly got Ash killed,’ Augus said. ‘I’m going to flay your skin from your body and watch it grow back.’

‘I should do that to you!’ Gwyn shouted, and Augus’ eyes widened. His fingers clenched into the sheets automatically, wrists hurting; but the pain of his wrists was nothing to that in his torso, and even that was easier to ignore when confronted with the force of Gwyn’s anger. He was aware that he couldn’t defend himself like this, from anything. His own weakness disgusted him. ‘You chose that Soulbond, and you-’

‘I was a captive being bullied by the King of the Seelie and my brother,’ Augus said cautiously.

‘Are you saying you didn’t choose it?’ Gwyn said, something in his expression shuttering. The anger being tucked away for later.

‘I’m saying it’s complicated,’ Augus said. ‘Given that I was playing said King of the Seelie. It’s complicated. At any rate, I’ve changed my mind – I hate it, I want it gone! He nearly died, Gwyn!’

He pushed himself upright and groaned through the pain of it, and then slapped Gwyn’s arms away when Gwyn pushed him back down onto the bed.

‘I can handle sitting up,’ Augus said.

‘Augus,’ Gwyn snapped, and Augus hesitated. It sounded like anger, but there was panic in his voice. Augus’ eyes narrowed. His mind wasn’t working properly. He had none of the measured, careful thoughts he usually had.

‘What?’ Augus said.

‘Do you remember how I was after Tigbalan? How unwell?’

Augus nodded.

‘This is worse, Augus. What you went through was worse. Considerably.’

‘Was my spine broken at least three times?’ Augus hissed. Gwyn said nothing, and Augus smiled grimly. ‘Then we’re at least on a par.’

‘No, Augus.’

Augus wanted to slap him, the way Gwyn kept saying his name like that, trying to anchor him in the present. It was a trick he used himself. He decided he hated that too. His fingers curled, dug into his own palms and then he made a sound of shock when Gwyn took one of his hands again and started prying his fingers free.

‘Don’t hurt yourself,’ Gwyn said, his voice not soothing, not warm, not concerned – cold.

He’s afraid.

‘Augus,’ Gwyn said again, and this time Augus looked at him, watched him while Gwyn wouldn’t look at him. Gwyn stared at his palms instead. ‘Augus, you-’

Gwyn shook his head. When Augus relaxed his fingers, Gwyn still didn’t let go of his hand. Was it Augus’ arm that was shaking? Or was it Gwyn’s fingers? His breath hitched around a brief spasm of pain, but it faded back to that duller, grating, but more manageable level. He waited, because otherwise he’d ask for a shower again. He felt so thirsty. There was something wrong with his water levels. He couldn’t even think about his mane. The pillow was dry. His mane hadn’t even dried out after six months in a Seelie cell with no water.

‘Augus, you once told me you’d never…kill me or do permanent harm to me, when you were…when we were…’

‘Yes, I oathed it,’ Augus said, confused at the change of subject. And then the finger that held the blood-oath curled automatically and he stilled.

He slowly raised his hands to his face, looking for the scars left behind by blood-oaths – the small amount he’d made over the years. He looked for the weight of them in his blood and beneath the pain, couldn’t feel them.

He couldn’t think properly. He checked his fingers, checked them again. Then, on impulse, he took Gwyn’s hand and spread his fingers apart, looking for the scars he’d seen him make.

‘Did Ash die too?’ Augus said, voice low.

‘Not like you did,’ Gwyn said, his voice even. But Gwyn still wasn’t looking at him,

Augus remembered exhaustion at the lake, and healing it, and a…conversation with a lake spirit and he remembered the flashing of silver from a knife. He didn’t remember teleporting back to the palace. But he knew he had a teleportation injury. Even though his skin had grown back, it still didn’t feel quite right where he’d literally left part of himself behind.

‘I need you to find a way to remove this Soulbond,’ Augus said.

‘I need you…to understand that without it, we may not have found you in time. Because Ash came to us, and let us know that something was wrong.’

But Augus was carefully rubbing his fingers over the empty space on the inside of Gwyn’s little finger. He could argue about the Soulbond later. It was obvious that Gwyn was immoveable on the subject, and he’d learned that the creature’s stubbornness couldn’t always be worn down. Gwyn let him keep rubbing at the space, his body hunched.

‘Could you feel them, when they went?’ Augus asked.

Gwyn nodded.

‘Do you have a knife?’ Augus said.

Gwyn’s eyes flashed up to him, hope and fear and something else in the wideness of them. And Augus grit his teeth together as Gwyn got up and then looked around the room in confusion. This wasn’t his room, and he didn’t know where anything was. Augus pointed to one of the closed, adjoining doors.

‘Through that door, through the door straight ahead, and then in the third chest of drawers along the wall you’ll find my knives. Choose whatever one you wish.’

Gwyn hesitated, and then walked through the door quickly, and Augus used the opportunity to carefully pull another pillow behind his back and push himself into a sitting position. He moaned softly, pressed a hand tentatively to his torso. He was improving. He knew he was. He could tell. Hour by hour, he was improving.

When Gwyn returned, a small, sharp blade in his hand and a faint scent of Gwyn’s blood in the air – which meant he’d tested the sharpness of at least one – Gwyn gave him a hard look at Augus’ change in position. But then he went to sit in the chair by the bed and Augus placed a hand on his arm.

‘On the bed,’ Augus said. ‘Sit here.’

He patted a space beside him, and Gwyn slid onto it carefully, watching Augus for any signs of increased pain. Augus fought hard not to show them.

‘Do you still need me to oath that I will not kill you or cause you permanent harm in a scene?’ Augus said, spinning the blade slowly in his hand.

Gwyn shook his head, and Augus reached out and pressed the tip of his blade into Gwyn’s skin, over the back of his wrist. Blood beaded where the metal parted flesh. Gwyn didn’t react. Augus slid deeper, found a pressure point, needled the metal in, and Gwyn made a noise and jerked his arm backwards. It was an involuntary reflex, and he pushed his wrist back into place like Augus had chided him for moving it away.

All right, then.

‘You’re still an oaf,’ Augus said. ‘Since I don’t want to do those things, I think I still want this blood-oath. Because I’ve nearly killed you in a scene before. You like knifeplay a little too much, and I have too many blades made from Ingrit.’

Augus looked at his fingers and made the cut on the inside of his right index finger.

‘I, Augus Each Uisge, do blood-oath to Gwyn ap- to Gwyn, King of the Unseelie, not to do anything that will cause him permanent harm or death during whatever qualifies as a scene.’

There. A familiar weight in his blood again. A tether that leashed his energy to Gwyn’s once more. Augus licked the blood off his finger, and Gwyn took the knife from Augus’ other hand and looked at the blood on the tip of the metal. He wiped at it with his thumb and then placed the tip of his finger in his mouth, and Augus felt a bloom of arousal like a spreading bruise and he closed his eyes.

‘You,’ Augus said, nodding to the knife. ‘Aftercare.’

‘I don’t like that one,’ Gwyn said. He tensed and slid off the bed, taking the knife with him.

‘My stipulation in this relationship remains,’ Augus said, watching him with focus. Something wasn’t…right. ‘There is no relationship without that blood-oath. I cannot do what I do, without you accepting aftercare in the forms I offer it. And I need you to oath it. Because you want it,’ Augus said, wishing he could lean forwards and unable. ‘Because you need that, but you need to be made to accept it.’

‘And you?’ Gwyn said, turning to him, scowling. ‘Do you need to be made to accept it?’

‘I don’t need to be made to accept aftercare, the one who is generally getting fucked and tied up in this relationship is you. And when the tables turn, you’re very solicitous, trust me.’

‘No,’ Gwyn said. ‘I mean any care at all, Augus. You avoided me for days, and then got yourself killed. You can’t be trusted. You’ve said to me, for so long, that I cannot be trusted with my own welfare. And it used to grate at me that you’d say that. Because my welfare is my own. But, Augus – you cannot be trusted with your own safety. I want an oath.’

‘Maybe it would be easier for me to care for myself, if others were better at showing me care,’ Augus said, knowing it was an unfair jab to make. ‘Perhaps, for example, if the first sign of decent attention from you didn’t come at the cost of my death.’

Gwyn’s expression twisted, and Augus mentally applauded himself for knowing Gwyn’s emotional pressure points as well as he knew the physical ones.

‘I don’t know how!’ Gwyn shouted, turning away, turning back. ‘I don’t know how to do this! I know you need more, I do. I…I didn’t realise. I didn’t- I’m not good at any of this and look at what it led to!’

Gwyn faced away from him, his shoulders bowed forwards even though it must have caused him pain. He clutched the knife, and Augus smelled the sharper carbon scent of more blood spilling.

Damn it.

‘I know,’ Augus said, softer. ‘I know, Gwyn.’

‘I don’t know how to do this,’ Gwyn said, hoarse. ‘I don’t know how. I don’t-’

‘I know.’

‘I know you need more than this, more than me. I do. If you can find it with-’

A flash of anger, Gwyn was getting off the subject, and Augus’ teeth clenched together.

‘It shouldn’t take me – Ash – dying, for you to-’

‘I know!’ Gwyn said, and then he tensed, walked quickly past the bed and into the bathroom and closed the door behind him. Augus couldn’t hear anything – every section of his living space thoroughly soundproofed. Gwyn, likely throwing up and panicking in there, and Augus too sick to follow.

Minutes passed, time trickled by, Augus knew he’d pushed far too hard. He was angry, bitter, hurting. Gwyn had always been a convenient target for anything he didn’t want to deal with.

When Gwyn returned, he looked clammy and exhausted. His face drawn.

‘It’s my fault,’ Gwyn said, leaning weakly against the doorframe. ‘You have every right to be angry.’

‘I know I do. But what, exactly, is your fault?’

Gwyn made a vague gesture towards the bed. Augus grimaced, because he knew what Gwyn was trying to say, but he was tired of always having to guess.

‘The bed? Me? This whole…area is somehow a crime you’ve committed?’

A sound of frustration, and Gwyn was still holding the knife and one of his hands was still bleeding.

‘I should have seen it coming,’ Gwyn said. ‘You died.’

That is not your fault,’ Augus said. ‘Now come over here and get onto the bed properly. I’m tired and sore, and I don’t want to have this conversation with you all the way over there. I can’t come to you, remember? Come here. You tell me you don’t know how to do this, then listen to me, and come here. Lie next to me.’

Gwyn walked over to the bed and hesitated, then crawled onto it. This close, Augus could see faint droplets of water around the bottom of his chin, dampening sections of his hair. He’d splashed his face. He’d likely thrown up. Gwyn curled stiffly onto his side, and Augus took the hand that held the knife and rested it in his lap. He pried the knife free, examined the cuts on his skin. He shaped his fingers around Gwyn’s hand and brought it up to his mouth, licking carefully, running his tongue over faint splits in his flesh. Gwyn’s hand twitched, he blinked several times, watching.

Augus didn’t stop until all the blood was licked away, and Gwyn’s wounds had closed too much for him to tease anything more out of them.

‘You warned me,’ Gwyn said. ‘I didn’t pay enough attention.’

‘No. But my death is not a punishment.’

‘I want an oath from you,’ Gwyn said, and Augus’ fingers tightened on Gwyn’s hand.

‘What oath?’ Augus said, and then closed his eyes as another wave of pain found him. His fingers crept over Gwyn’s skin and then dug hard into his wrists, and Gwyn grunted and bore it. That was very, very convenient. Ash would want to coddle him. Would shower him with hugs and affection and touch; and a part of him did want that, very much. But a far greater part wanted this. Gwyn understood something that no one else had any patience for. Augus was petty. Inflicting pain when he hurt made it easier to carry the load, especially upon someone who could bear it.

He dug his fingers deeper and Gwyn groaned softly and Augus hummed a sound of approval.

Augus eased the terrible grip as the pain faded. He needed a shower. A bath. He needed to be taken to a lake. He needed water.

‘This oath will have to wait. I need water,’ Augus said. ‘A lot of it.’

‘I’ll get you more,’ Gwyn said, but Augus didn’t let go of his arm as Gwyn turned to roll of the bed.

‘I need a lot of it,’ Augus said, persistent. ‘I need you to take me from this bed and teleport me somewhere with a lot of water.’

‘You can’t just drink it?’ Gwyn said, though there was a look in his eyes that suggested Augus was going to get what he wanted. At least in this.

‘No.’ Augus shook his head.

Gwyn hesitated, then moved closer, sliding his arms underneath Augus’ body. His own nudity didn’t bother him, but the fragility of his newly grown skin made him wary of how Gwyn might touch him. But none of the roughness he feared came, and instead he was gathered close in a grip that was careful. Fingers stroked his back. Augus’ breathing was laboured – being jostled in ways he couldn’t control was still painful. Instead of insulting him or causing him pain, Augus pressed his head into Gwyn’s shoulder and wrapped his arms slowly around Gwyn’s back, testing the movement.

‘Does it matter where?’ Gwyn said softly, his own head moving towards Augus’.

‘No,’ Augus said. ‘Somewhere private.’

‘Hold onto me,’ Gwyn said, and Augus’ grip tightened. He pressed his head closer. Gwyn’s light came and it was blessedly warm.

*

Water all around him, up to his bare chest. Gwyn’s clothing sodden against him already. Augus took huge breaths as water seeped in through his pores, and then he moaned as pleasure raced through him, from his feet to the top of his head. Gwyn stood chest deep in a lake nowhere near the Unseelie Court, water so fresh that he could taste its sweetness in the back of his throat without even taking a mouthful.

His spine arched and he kept moaning, unable to stop the visceral reaction. Gwyn’s grip shifted as Augus leaned back, and then further back, and when Gwyn’s hands tightened on him to stop him from falling, Augus remembered that he had to be clear.

‘Let me get my head beneath the water,’ he breathed.

Gwyn’s grip slid down to his hips, strong fingers bracing him. Augus wrapped his legs around Gwyn’s thighs and arched back as carefully as he dared, but the water around him made it easier. It kept him safe and stable as much as Gwyn did, and he stretched his stomach and belly out for the first time since the attack, opening his mouth and gasping through the pain, even as his mane and then scalp touched the water. He kept arching back, until finally the water came up past his ears, his cheeks, flowing into his nostrils, and he immersed his head completely, breathing mouthfuls of water into his lungs.

A sensation of fine bubbles clinging to the surface and underside of his skin, tingling through him. He moaned again, closing his eyes and feeling his scalp prickle and zing. He raised his fingers to his mane, feeling over his head. He could feel the places where waterweed would grow again, but more than that, could tell that his scalp was going to start weeping water again.

He closed his eyes in wonder as his body found its homeostasis. He’d read so much folklore about how every Each Uisge and Glashtyn, and many other waterhorses besides, had always yearned to experience the sensation of true dryness and warmth. That it was the one thing they could never have, so they yearned for it. And – for the most part – it was true. Waterhorses craved dry beds and warm places. Fires in hearths and fluffy towels and blankets and having their hair combed in sunlight. They lived as though they didn’t shed water through their scalp. Rather than spending all their times in lakes, they purchased water-wicking fabrics, lived in homes they kept as dry as possible.

But now that Augus had lived it, he was delighted to learn that he wasn’t missing out on anything. He gulped down mouthful after mouthful of water, and then tilted his head up after long minutes, looked at Gwyn through the rippling water.

Gwyn watched him. Hands steady at his back. Augus squeezed his legs around Gwyn’s muscled thighs to acknowledge him, and Gwyn’s thumbs stroked his sides in response. Gwyn here, anchoring him, disobeying the healer’s rules to get Augus what he truly needed. The burn in his wrists disappeared. His organs felt like they were settling properly.

He closed his eyes, mane floating out around him, and for the first time in a while he felt like he could think. He wandered through the wreckage of his mind and found what felt like a small, shallow pool and sat within it, trying to martial his thoughts.

He hadn’t yet found the Raven Prince, and he needed to learn how to calm himself properly again – for many reasons, but also so that he could divine where his Prince may have gone. Augus was ill. He and Ash had died. Gwyn and Aleutia had saved them both.

How many life debts do I owe him now? Sweetness, this is my least favourite hobby of yours.

But here he was, alive, yet again.

He let his awareness spread out in tendrils and realised he had no idea where they were. Unlike Ash and Gwyn, he was not a traveller. He had not been all over the fae world. He knew they were somewhere cold, and he sensed no fae nearby.

Gwyn let him lay under the water for some time. Augus closed his eyes and let his mind drift, legs loose around Gwyn’s thighs, water fresh and cold in his lungs.

When he opened his eyes and looked at Gwyn again, he saw that his eyes were still open. Blue eyes watching him through the water.

In a single moment, Augus pushed the water out of his lungs, his legs tightened and he rose through the lake, using his waterhorse abilities to make it easier until he could reach for Gwyn’s arms and pull himself up. The pain was less awful, even as the cold air seared his lungs. His mane dripped rivulets down his back, his hands moved up and clasped Gwyn behind the neck.

‘Better?’ Gwyn said, and Augus realised that his rough breathing made it sound like he was still in pain.

‘Yes,’ Augus said, emphatically. ‘Oh, yes. Much better.’

He touched cold lips to Gwyn’s, pressing his chest to Gwyn’s wet shirt, feeling the muscles beneath and proud he’d managed to command that strength, bring it to heel. Gwyn’s lips were pliant, soft and sun-warmed against his own. Augus forced them open, slid his tongue inside and tasted the sourness that came from Gwyn not having eaten enough, and then something behind it that was metallic and tart and his. He groaned into Gwyn’s mouth and then reached up and clutched at his hair.

Gwyn’s arm slid up his back, bracing his spine, the other still low, by his hips.

He licked noises straight out of Gwyn’s mouth. Enjoyed the hungry way Gwyn pressed forwards, kept his lips apart, even slid his tongue against Augus’, participating far more than usual. Augus enjoyed it for as long it took for him to realise that there was real desperation behind each of Gwyn’s movements, that his breathing was fast and shallow, that his grip on Augus was strong enough that it would leave bruises.

He pulled back and Gwyn followed, leaning forwards, nearly unsettling them in the water.

‘Easy. Careful,’ Augus murmured, shifting his hands against Gwyn’s neck. He kept one curled around the back, and then stroked the front of Gwyn’s neck with his other hand, curling his fingers gently around Gwyn’s throat. ‘Careful. I’m alive. It’s fine.’

He remembered how frantic Gwyn was the last time he’d feared for Augus’ life, and the time before that. Augus knew then, how much it was costing Gwyn to be as calm as possible. All for Augus’ benefit.

‘Easy,’ Augus breathed, tightening his hand enough that Gwyn’s eyes closed, Gwyn’s neck thick in his fingers. ‘It’s fine, Gwyn. I promise.’

‘I want an oath,’ Gwyn said, quiet and strained and he was leaning forwards again and Augus let him, because he didn’t want to think about it. But Gwyn wasn’t opening his mouth, he was pressing those closed-mouthed kisses against his lips. Lingering ones, one after the other, catching the corner of his mouth, his bottom lip, the side of his face.

‘What am I supposed to oath to you?’ Augus said, his lips moving against Gwyn’s lips, and Gwyn’s mouth opening just enough to catch Augus’ lower lip and then stay there, making it impossible for Augus to say anything else without breaking the kiss. He wanted the kiss more than he wanted the words. He stroked fingers along Gwyn’s carotid artery, feeling the heavy, rapid thump there and thinking of all that blood coursing beneath his veins. When Gwyn pulled back to kiss him again, Augus spoke in the space between them.

‘Do I oath never to walk into a dangerous situation, and get killed breaking the oath simply for living in the Unseelie Court? What do you want from me, Gwyn? How can you make my life safer?’

‘You knew it was dangerous,’ Gwyn said, his voice low. ‘You knew. That’s why you didn’t tell anyone of relevance. That’s why you didn’t tell me, or…or if I don’t matter, that’s why you didn’t tell Ash. Because I know you enough, Augus, to know that when you’re about to do something very, very stupid, and very, very dangerous, you don’t tell the people you should. Fenwrel told me you’re very sick. Very sick.’

‘Shut up,’ Augus said, feeling tired. The dull pain in his body strengthened. His grip on Gwyn’s neck became stronger as he started to sag. ‘Shut up.’

‘You’re tired,’ Gwyn said. ‘You need rest.’

But Gwyn didn’t teleport them back as he expected. Lips crashed into his, and Augus’ eyes flew open as Gwyn’s lips forced his mouth open and his tongue thrust inside. Augus made a sound of shock, and Gwyn’s fingers dug into his skin and pulled him closer, until Augus no longer needed to be gripping Gwyn at all.

It wasn’t like Gwyn to take control like this, and the kiss was painful, fierce, and yet Augus still stirred regardless, breathing harshly through his nostrils as Gwyn bit his bottom lip between blunt teeth and stretched his lip enough that Augus grunted in pain.

‘You’re to take an escort with you to heal those lakes,’ Gwyn said, when he finally let go, his voice cold – and this coldness no façade. Augus chafed beneath the order, but he was so tired and dazed, he couldn’t think of anything to say. ‘And you’re not to return to the work for at least two weeks.’

‘The water is helping. I’m fine. Aren’t you listening to me?’

‘No.’

Lips against his again, teeth biting his tongue when Augus tried to gain something of control once more. Gwyn bit down hard, once, and then dragged his mouth away and bit the underside of Augus’ jaw, moving upwards until he could close his teeth on Augus’ earlobe. He bit hard, then harder, and finally hard enough that Augus dug his nails into the back of Gwyn’s neck, inching towards a pressure point to make him stop. Only then did Gwyn let go, and Augus tried to summon outrage, but Gwyn – when had he become so devious? – was pressing tender, closed-mouthed kisses to his lips again and Augus wasn’t relaxing into that. He wasn’t.

‘Two weeks,’ Gwyn gasped. ‘You’re not to leave the palace.’

‘I’d like to see you try and stop-

‘I’ll change the permissions and lock you in, much like I did in the Seelie palace.’

Augus froze, and met Gwyn’s eyes. It was something of a shock to realise how much Gwyn meant it. In the past, Gwyn’s fear of losing Augus pushed him into terrified, irrational places where he mostly needed reassurance. But here, he was watching Gwyn reassure himself. Taking action. He half wanted to applaud him, and settled on scraping blunt claws down his neck to vent his anger at being threatened.

‘It’s been a long time since I’ve seen this side of you. Since before you were underfae.’

That got a response. Gwyn winced, but then he smiled grimly.

‘That may be so. Perhaps now it will be harder for you to go off and get yourself killed in the future.’

‘You’re one to talk,’ Augus griped.

A wave of dizziness fell through him like a stone and his vision greyed out. He became aware of Gwyn’s hands being the only thing holding him up, as he blinked back to full awareness. He made a faint sound in the back of his throat, and Gwyn’s expression changed from cold to concerned.

‘Do you need more water?’ Gwyn said.

Augus looked around, trying to clear his head. Where were they? The air was thin. How high were they? Meadows of flowers on the left and a green, wild forest on the right. Mostly pine.

‘Where are we?’

Gwyn adjusted Augus in his grip and threaded his fingers through Augus’ hair. Then, as Augus shivered at the contact, Gwyn cupped the back of his head with his palm and a wave of calm came over him. He pulled closer to Gwyn, trying to get as much body contact as possible, not caring how it looked. No one could see them. He could pretend he wasn’t trying to re-establish himself as a limpet later.

‘I come here sometimes. At night usually. But it doesn’t matter where we are. This place is a secret. It has no name. But it doesn’t matter, Augus.’

Light suffused him, and just as they teleported, he felt the brush of lips against his.

*

Gwyn lay him down again, even as they both dripped water.

‘Look at that, your clothing is wet. Take it off,’ Augus said, trying to brush his fingers against Gwyn’s shirt even as Gwyn drew away. Gwyn walked from the room, into the bathroom and came back with towels. He sat on the bed and took up one of the towels, pressing it carefully against Augus’ skin, towelling him dry. He had a single-minded look on his face.

‘You’re taking Gulvi with you, from now on,’ Gwyn said. ‘To the Blighted land.’

‘What?’ Augus said, squinting at him. ‘I’m sorry, did you just say you wanted the one who’s stabbed me in the gut several times to-’

‘She doesn’t want you dead,’ Gwyn said, staring at him. ‘She doesn’t want Ash dead.’

‘I don’t want to talk about this right now,’ Augus said, reaching over and tugging impatiently at Gwyn’s shirt. ‘I want to talk about it later when I can manage a decent argument. You’ve said a lot of frustrating things today. Not the least being you threatening to imprison me again.’

Gwyn blanched. He fumbled the towel. Augus tugged at his shirt once more.

‘Take your clothing off and lie next to me,’ Augus persisted. ‘If you take longer than sixty seconds to listen to me, I’m going to find at least ten pressure points with knives the next time I tie you up, and fuck you while every one of them is stimulated. And I know you like pain, Gwyn. But even you don’t like- Ah, there we go. Thank you.’

Gwyn stripped off so quickly that the only thing stopping Augus from laughing when Gwyn got his foot stuck in his wet pants was the fact that he was exhausted. The conversation, staying awake for so long, the lake, all of it had been ridiculously taxing.

But when Gwyn was finally naked, his nipples still pebbled from the cold of the lake, and his cock smaller than usual between his legs, he hesitated. Augus raised his eyebrows and Gwyn pointed at the empty space on the bed.

‘That’s Ash’s side,’ Gwyn said, and then he seemed to realise what he’d just said and looked like he wanted to disappear.

Augus made a sound of impatience.

‘It’s my bed, and that’s my side, and I’m inviting you to lie on it, you dolt. You have ten seconds.’

Even so, Gwyn was still hesitant. Enough that Augus bookmarked it for later. Did Gwyn have a problem with Ash? He knew they’d never really gotten along, but this seemed…strange. Gwyn eased onto the bed and by the time he settled awkwardly on his side, it had been longer than ten seconds, but Augus decided not to be menacing about it, because all of that would take energy.

‘Blankets,’ Augus said, and Gwyn reached down and pulled them up over the two of them. Augus didn’t mind the damp sheets beneath him, and his hair was weeping water into the pillow behind his head and it felt wonderful.

‘Now what?’ Gwyn said.

‘Sleep.’

‘I’m…not tired.’

‘Yes, you are. You just haven’t had a chance to stop and realise it yet. Here…’

Augus pushed his arm underneath the blankets and brushed across Gwyn’s torso until he found his arm, and then trailed down and took his hand in his.

‘Here, come closer,’ Augus said.

Gwyn shifted closer and then stopped, and Augus’ eyes half-opened in alarm as Gwyn sat up and the blankets fell down his chest and would he have to make Gwyn stay? Because he didn’t have the energy for that.

Instead, Gwyn settled back down with something in his hand – the small knife he’d fetched earlier. He took it under the blankets with him and then stared at Augus with a strange, intent look on his face.

Some more shifting under the blankets, and then Gwyn licked his lips cautiously and closed his eyes.

‘I, Gwyn…King of the Unseelie fae, blood-oath to allow Augus Each Uisge to administer aftercare, for a length of time he deems sufficient.’

The words felt as sweet in Augus’ ears as the lake water had felt seeping into his body.

‘You’re doing so well,’ Augus said, knowing he had things to be upset about and hardly caring. He was alive, wasn’t he? Again? How many times did that make it now? He’d lost count.

Gwyn made a sound of discomfort next to him, and Augus decided he had just enough energy left to push, just a little.

So well,’ Augus said, reaching out once more and risking turning onto his side, wincing. ‘Look at you. It must be hard for you. Nearly losing someone you care for.’

Another sound, and Augus forced his eyes open. Gwyn stared at him.

‘I lost you.’

Augus knew they weren’t done. This wasn’t over. Arguments and more waited when he woke up again, and he needed to do damage control. A lot of it. But he didn’t care. There was precious little in his life that felt good these days, and he curled fingers around Gwyn’s arm and pulled him closer, until Gwyn’s forehead pressed against his own and their breaths mingled.

‘Sleep,’ Augus said, his own body dragging him to sleep or unconsciousness.

*

Later, he roused in a state of confusion.

He heard sounds nearby. Shaking, uneven breathing, something like muffled sobs. His first thought was Ash, but Ash never stifled his crying. And he realised it was Gwyn, tried to wake himself up properly, because Gwyn never did that, not like this, or certainly never did that around him, but his body was too demanding. Augus made a low, fierce sound of discontent, dragged back into his sleep cycle, even as the sounds were stifled completely and he heard them no more.

Chapter Text

Augus

*

‘Don’t wake him,’ Augus said, as Aleutia let herself in.

Augus knew it hadn’t been long since he’d fallen asleep. He’d expected to need days, but he’d woken from a violent nightmare. He was trapped in the darkness, his body scoured out and hurting; demonic otterkind tearing him apart. The worst part, upon waking, was realising that even though otterkind had never attacked him in the underworlds – every component of the dream had once happened. His mind was just finding new and exciting ways of tying it together.

‘I’m not waking him,’ Aleutia said, her voice hushed. ‘Life is far better when he’s sleeping. His energy was so discordant when we found you, he had to be made to stay away.’

‘What?’ Augus said, leaning forwards, testing how it felt. Her eyes brightened with pleasure when she saw the movement, and she placed her healer’s kit on the bed. Her clawed fingers reached towards him and he was somewhat proud of himself for not flinching backwards. The last time clawed hands had come at him…

Well, he couldn’t remember it very well, anyway.

‘He’s only been allowed to touch you or be in close proximity to you since you woke. Even untrained in using his light and…off kilter as he is, he’s still a shepherd of the dead, Augus.’

‘You made him stand back and not…be close to me?’ Augus said, looking over at Gwyn, who – even now – was curled up in a ball on the bed and hadn’t reached out to touch him.

Had he imagined Gwyn crying the night before? He thought he had. Now he wasn’t sure.

‘It was necessary,’ Aleutia said, turning Augus’ head back and checking his eyes. She lifted his lips and checked the state of his gums. Then she bowed his head forwards and picked claws carefully through his scalp, sighing in relief. ‘You are doing so much better. A lot better than I expected.’

‘I told Gwyn to take me to a lake,’ Augus said, and she tilted his head up and glared at him.

‘Did you?’ she said, and then she smiled mischievously. ‘Well, at least it’s better than you forcing him to get you painkillers. Which you don’t really seem to need now. How’s the pain?’

‘Dull,’ Augus said. ‘Unless I move too quickly. Nothing like before.’

‘Are you hungry?’

‘No,’ Augus said. ‘Not at all.’

‘You’re on a no-animal-product diet until your appetite comes back. Your organs have had a shock.’

‘May I ask…why you didn’t put me in a lake before now?’ Augus said, tentatively.

Aleutia put her hands on her hips and raised her eyebrows.

‘Because I didn’t want your fucking organs to float away.’

Augus took pause, for a moment all he could see was the details in the warp and weft of the sheets covering his legs. They had seen him like that. They had seen him torn open and exposed and- He knew things had been bad. But he hadn’t…

‘Ah.’ It was all he could manage.

‘Yeah, my thoughts too. Now, what’s this I hear about you trying to overtake Julvia’s healing schedule?’

Augus shook his head. He’d not known how Aleutia would react, but he hadn’t wanted a confrontation while he still felt not quite himself. Even his mind wasn’t working the way he wanted it to. He used to be able to compartmentalise a lot better than he did now. Instead of a lot of interconnected lakes he could jump to, his mind had flooded, it was all murky swamp. Everything everywhere, and he had no idea how to start putting everything back in its place.

‘No, not at all,’ Augus said. ‘I tried to be clear to Gulvi that I wasn’t trying to-’

‘Calm down, geez. I was joking,’ Aleutia said, laughing. ‘I’ve looked over everything and you know, I think it’s worth a shot actually. I think your dosages are a little too high, so I’ve stretched what you’ve made over the three week mark. That cool?’

‘Of course,’ Augus said.

‘It was a pretty sophisticated regime – some of the herbs I’ve not been trained in using. You’re not trained, are you?’

‘Self-taught,’ Augus said. ‘I hope you’re not offended.’

‘I’m not fucking offended. To be frank, Augus, I was trained as a green healer, but the fact is I ended up – through a series of really weird circumstances – as healer that specialises in brutal battlefield injuries and poisoning. Life kind of took me in a weird path – and I’d re-apprentice as a red healer but there’s not much fucking point now, is there? I mean, everyone knows what I do and what I am and I can’t be assed apprenticing for a smidgeon of what I’m making now. So I was kind of relieved to get some assistance. Even from a murdering, deranged pony like you. I guess everyone has some good qualities.’

Augus didn’t respond. He was becoming quite inured to insults. There was a time when calling him ‘pony’ would have put his back up, made him bristle, these days it was definitely not the worst thing he was called.

‘I want to know why the hell you didn’t apprentice?’ Aleutia said.

‘Ah. I did think about it. For a long time. But there was Ash when he was young. And then I just…particularly enjoyed staying home. I didn’t think I’d like the lifestyle.’

‘And now here you are, huh? Away from home. You might want to look at that. Because you would’ve been way more suited for healing than you are for whatever this is.’

She waved her hand at him and then walked around to Gwyn’s side of the bed, standing over him. She held her hands out over him and Augus opened his mouth to tell her not to wake him, and she silenced him with a look. A tiny thread of green energy coiled into Gwyn, and she made several unhappy tch-ing sounds with her tongue. She shook her head, her rat-nose wrinkled.

‘What?’ Augus said, looking at the deeply breathing Gwyn and how peaceful he looked, even curled up as tightly as he was.

‘That shoulder. God, I’d like to ream Kabiri out for that. But no, there’s just an unsteadiness in him I don’t like. I thought it would settle after last time, but it hasn’t. Some fae don’t handle switching status well? Just a few, they get sick from it, and the drop from King to underfae back up to King…’

She shook her head and placed a hand gently on Gwyn’s arm. It was odd to see her do something so kind, when usually she was so brusque. Perhaps it was because Gwyn was so deeply asleep, and couldn’t see her offering it.

‘He won’t talk about it,’ Augus said, pursing his lips.

‘Then you’re both made for each other, aren’t you? All this fucking non-communication. In the meantime, you have to keep an eye out on that brother of yours. He has the same poisoning you do. But-’

What?’ Augus said, sitting bolt upright too quickly and wincing, holding his hands over his belly. Aleutia came around again immediately, glaring at him, moving his hands away and pressing her palms flat against his bare skin. He could feel the healing energy she sent into him, and then something happened to his nervous system and the worst of the pain spiralled away.

‘I was going to say ‘But it’s not as bad.’’ Aleutia said, voice hard.‘Not nearly. Fenwrel noticed. He’s making a slow but…natural recovery, we think. We’re almost certain it’s not permanent, unlike with you. Look out for changes in his character and just make a note of them. Underworld energy corrupts, and you’ll notice better than most.’

Augus stared ahead for several seconds. He’d done that to Ash. When he’d asked Ash to carry those creatures in his body so that Augus could have use of them later, just in case. It had only been a few slurchers. Hardly anything at all. And Augus had managed hundreds of them and lived to tell the tale. He could hardly wrap his mind around it. He’d only…it had only been a handful. And proportionately, for hardly any length of time.

‘Then the Nain Rouge would…have the same poisoning, I think,’ Augus said, staring at her. ‘Gods help us all.’

‘She’s handling herself fine. Not that I’d know personally, or anything. But she’s too old and experienced. Anyway, don’t look at me like that, your brother has a super mild case. Not just compared to you, but in general. Really mild. But we don’t know how that impacts people, and so yeah, just keep an eye out. Fenwrel or I will approach him later about healing – but he seems to be course correcting himself. It’s just really slow.’

Augus kept up a steady flow of swearing inside his own head, even as Aleutia wove healing energy into his body and soothed the worst of the pain so that it faded back to that dull ache. As she took her hands away, he placed a careful hand on her wrist. She stared at him with sharp, mistrusting eyes.

‘Thank you,’ he said. ‘I owe you a life debt.’

‘Yes.’ She grinned. ‘Yes, you do. But whatever. I’m the Court’s Healer now. So you can actually come straight to me if you want to alter Julvia’s treatments or talk to me about them. I’m gonna be living here as of…tomorrow, I think. Or the day after.’

‘The immortalis? You were able to make it grow?’

‘Ha. No. It germinated for a very fucking exciting day, then shrivelled up and died. But His Majesty Gwyn is pretty unforgiving on wording. Asshole. Now, talk to me about some of these herbs you used. Red elodea – weren’t you worried about the side effects?’

‘Contraindications are minimal,’ Augus shrugged. ‘Especially with freshwater fae. We digest all species of elodea with ease. Even the poisonous ones. But I paired it with stone willow, which-’

‘Cool, cool, yeah, to balance things out. Stone willow was a nice choice.’

Half an hour later, Augus was flushed with excitement and pleasure. He’d been talking herbs with Aleutia non-stop, not able to keep up with all of her knowledge, but able to keep up with some of it. He remembered more and more of what he used to do when he was younger, and she didn’t talk down to him. He’d leaned forwards on the bed and she perched next to him, her hands moving animatedly as she talked.

Aleutia smiled at him as the conversation wound up. She took up her healer’s kit and shrugged at him.

‘Maybe if you’d apprenticed to a healer, none of this would’ve fucking happened. Do you ever think about that?’

‘Do you?’ Augus said, and she paused, her gaze becoming distant for a little while.

‘Yeah, actually. I fucking do. I lost a lot of people.’

Augus flinched before he could control his reaction.

I lost two of my kids.

It wasn’t guilt, but fear. He would be hearing those words, or words like them, for the rest of his life, and sometimes it would be attached to murderous intent and he would never know when it would happen, when it would come. He had the oddest sense that he was living on borrowed time, and knew he had to get the Soulbond removed as quickly as possible. He rested his hand on it.

‘Do you, by any chance, know anything about removing Soulbonds?’ Augus said, meeting her unreadable gaze.

‘Nope, sorry,’ Aleutia said. ‘Your best bet is the one sleeping beside you, since he was the one who dug up the old lore and figured it out. But to the best of my knowledge, they’re not supposed to be reversible.’

‘Anything is reversible,’ Augus said, and Aleutia laughed.

‘Tell that to the people you fucking killed.’

Aleutia pulled the doors closed behind her, so she didn’t hear his weak retort: ‘I meant magic.’

Though, what he truly knew of magic was very little. He leaned his head on his bent legs and looked over at Gwyn, eventually reaching out and settling his hair. He felt indulgent. He wished Gwyn was awake.

*

The next time he woke, Gwyn wasn’t there. He pressed his hand to the bed and it was cold. He stood up, stretching tentatively. He then walked straight to the main door and tested it.

He grimaced when the doorknob wouldn’t budge for him.

He’s done it. He’s gone and locked me in.

Augus would never admit it to Gwyn, ever, but he was somewhat grateful for the chance to not have to go down and resume the common work. Now that he’d had time away from it, he realised how taxing it was. It was important work, and he wanted to do it, but it was overwhelming. Waterhorses weren’t supposed to work at all. They were supposed to live relative lives of leisure. Their only task was to grow a healthy, appealing swamp or lake. Augus had already gone against the grain by becoming a dominant, but at least then he’d been able to control his hours.

He’d taken weeks, months, sometimes longer, seeing no one at all.

Half a day later, Aleutia visited and informed him that Gwyn was ‘catching up on a fuckton of stuff and I’ve ordered him back tonight.’ Augus was glad of that, wandered around his rooms somewhat aimlessly until he heard the door open and stepped back into his main room, thinking it was Gwyn.

It was Ash, looking well.

Augus smiled in spite of himself, in spite of the worry that he’d poisoned his brother.

‘Hey, bro,’ Ash said, grinning at him, closing the door behind him.

‘Hello,’ Augus said. ‘Did you want a formal greeting?’

‘I want a fucking hug. But I want like…hours of one.’

For once, Augus didn’t even want to put up a pretence of not wanting that too. He stepped into his brother’s arms, and allowed himself to be coaxed back to bed. Augus ended up tangled up with his brother, both of them silent and aware that things weren’t completely all right between them. But Ash still cradled his brother’s head like it was precious, and Augus stroked his back languidly, listening to their breathing slow and deciding a doze would be very welcome.

*

Augus was surprised at how hungry he wasn’t. He thought his body would be clamouring for a proper feed, but instead he had to force himself to pick at spinach leaves, and in the end oddly ended up craving faintly sweet foods. He asked the trows to fetch him dandelion flowers, and ate a whole bowlful. He’d been taught some time ago that if his body craved something unusual, he’d best satisfy that craving, but it was odd that it was flowers. He usually preferred the more peppery taste of nasturtiums.

The day before, Gwyn hadn’t been in the room when he’d woken from his doze. But he could see signs that Gwyn had returned and then…left again. The chair by the wall had shifted. Gwyn had sat, watched them both, and left.

When Ash woke, Augus narrowed his eyes at him, bit the inside of his lip. ‘What is going on between you and Gwyn?’

Ash raised his eyebrows and shrugged.

‘I dunno what you mean, hey,’ Ash said, shaking his head faintly. ‘I mean, I don’t like the guy, but it’s not like I go out of my way to give him a hard time.’

‘Was he here earlier?’ Augus said.

‘Was he?’ Ash said, looking around. ‘I guess he was, maybe.’

Ash was lying to him. Augus tilted his head and pinned his brother with a look.

‘Yeah, maybe,’ Ash said, flushing beneath his brother’s gaze. ‘I just said I wanted some time with you, since he gets you all to himself the rest of the time, thanks to Aleutia. Maybe he made her say that, so that-’

‘Did it ever occur to you that I might want some time with him?’ Augus said, keeping his voice soft.

Ash scrunched his face up and then rubbed a hand through his hair. ‘He didn’t seem to mind. I mean, he-’

‘Don’t lie to me,’ Augus said, frowning. ‘You might want to consider that things might go better for all three of us, if you both tried to get along with each other. I’m not leaving him.’

‘Jesus,’ Ash said, staring at him. ‘So what exactly is it about getting raped, that’s so fucking appealing to you?’

Augus went cold, a visceral rage streaking through his body until he felt it in the tips of his fingers and toes. For a moment, he couldn’t think of what to say. And already, Ash looked chagrined and was backtracking and apologising but Augus slid off the bed and pointed to the door.

‘You’re kicking me out?’ Ash said, voice going higher.

‘Yes,’ Augus said. ‘I am kicking you out. I have explained to you before what occurred between Gwyn and me, and you choose not to listen to me.’

‘You know what I choose to listen to?’ Ash said, staring at him, gaze hardening. ‘The fucking evidence. In the company of Gwyn ap Nudd, you’ve been in a cell for six months, you’ve – by your own goddamned admission – been raped by him, you’ve raped him back because that makes you fucking square or something. You’ve dealt with god knows how many assassination attempts and you’ve been forced into a collar and chain twice and you fucking died!’

Augus forced himself to take a slow, even breath. He tried to sort through his thoughts. He was becoming aware that some of this – he desperately hoped – was those very character changes that Aleutia had told him to watch out for.

But he had to keep his mouth closed, because on the tip of his tongue were sentences he didn’t dare say:

Who betrayed me, Ash? Who was the one who put me in that cell in the first place? Gwyn was doing his job. What were you doing?

‘I can’t talk to you when you’re like this,’ Augus said finally.

‘I just want to help you,’ Ash said, getting off the bed. ‘That’s all. I just want to help.’

‘We’ll talk about this later.’

‘Maybe you could tell me what you fucking see in him. Maybe you could do that later,’ Ash said darkly, even as he walked towards the door.

Augus watched him go and then closed his eyes. He sat on the bed and stared at the floor. In the end, he walked to the shower and took the longest one he could stand, warm water pounding into his scalp, and his palms resting against the tiles as he let his head hang.

*

He stood in front of one of his chests of drawers. He had a thin, rectangular wooden box in his hand. It had a lacquered finish, and was very finely made, though it wasn’t carved. The clasp was shaped like a tiny snake. Augus clipped it open and stared at the long metal rods. He shivered, stroked them with his fingers.

He had no idea what happened to the first set of sounds – very likely, Gwyn had disposed of them, which was unsurprising given what Augus had forced upon him. But, quietly, Augus had ordered a second set. Because the first time Gwyn had sounded him had been a startlingly pleasurable experience.

The door opened and closed in the main room, and he could tell by the cadence of the steps that Gwyn had returned. Augus reached for the drawer quickly to put the sounds away, and then bit his lower lip and decided not to. He kept the box open, looking at the long, rounded lengths of metal bedded down in self-cleaning velvet.

‘Augus?’ Gwyn called.

‘In here.’

Augus looked up as Gwyn reached the doorway. And then Gwyn caught sight of the sounds and his somewhat neutral expression turned terrified so quickly that Augus felt a corresponding surge of adrenaline. Gwyn backed out of the room, and Augus snapped the box shut and followed. They’d never had a proper confrontation about this, and now he rather thought they needed to.

‘Gwyn, wait!’

‘No, you said never again,’ Gwyn said, without looking over his shoulder. Augus jogged to keep with his long steps, only getting a hand on his arm when Gwyn was nearly at the door.

‘I meant it,’ Augus said.

‘Then why do you have them!’ Gwyn shouted, turning on him, eyes so wide with fear that Augus swallowed and held the box behind his back.

‘They’re for me,’ Augus said, his breathing faster. ‘They were for me, to be used on me. They’re not for you. For me.’

Gwyn blinked at him, and then his brow furrowed.

‘For you?’

‘I…enjoyed it,’ Augus said, shrugging. ‘It’s something I can do to myself. But I did hope that with time, you might be able to do it again, to me.’

He removed the box from behind his back and held it out to Gwyn. Watched the wariness in his features, in every line of his body. Gwyn looked from the box back to Augus, and Augus knew that one day they’d have to talk about it. About the fact that Augus had used sounds on Gwyn without anything approaching consent. Certainly, they played around with consent all the time. But nothing Augus had done to Gwyn had ever created this fear response afterwards. Even knifeplay to the point of nearly killing him.

‘Take it,’ Augus said, keeping his voice modulated. ‘Take it and look at them. Is it something you could do again?’

Gwyn reached out and took the box, and then squeezed his eyes shut and Augus held back from going to him. He forced himself to remain still. This was something Gwyn had to decide for himself, and Augus found the whole idea difficult enough. Yes, he wanted to be sounded again. But being forthright about wanting Gwyn to take over for a little while sat uneasily with him.

After a minute, Gwyn opened his eyes and then carefully opened the box. He looked at the sounds, his breathing shallow but steady. He touched his fingers to the smallest ones, and then looked at Augus with something open, less frightened in his eyes.

‘For you?’ Gwyn said. He cleared his throat. And then he turned and Augus thought he was leaving. But no, Gwyn only pressed one of his hands to the closed doors and closed his eyes, shifting the permissions again. Augus felt something turn over in his gut because he hadn’t meant now. When Gwyn turned back to him, there was dark promise in his gaze.

‘I didn’t mean-’

‘Be quiet,’ Gwyn said, looking down at the sounds again. He pressed his lips together as he touched them again. ‘It was quite something, taking you apart like that.’

Gwyn snapped the box shut with a click! then approached until there was hardly any space between them.

‘Is that what you want now, Augus?’ Gwyn said. Augus looked sideways and tried to think of ways he could say no while meaning something else entirely. Nothing adequate came to mind, and Gwyn touched him with the hand holding the box of sounds. He pushed him lightly towards the bed.

‘Lie down,’ Gwyn said, and Augus stared at him. ‘You’re locked in. You’re not going anywhere. Get on the bed. Take your clothes off.’

‘Which is it, Gwyn? Do I get on the bed or take my clothes off?’

‘You’re intelligent,’ Gwyn said, smiling at him. ‘I’m sure you’ll work out a way to do both.’

Augus unbuttoned his shirt slowly, refusing to lick his lips in anticipation or betray his nervousness. It had been a long time since Gwyn had been like this with him. He thought about Gwyn taking control more than was healthy. He unbuttoned the fly of his pants as Gwyn opened the drawers in Augus’ bedside cabinet and found lubricant, tossing the vial onto the bed and then stripping.

As Augus pulled his pants down, exposing a mildly interested cock for Gwyn’s eyes – not that he was looking – he wondered if he should ask about Gwyn’s day. Check if he was truly interested in this. But when Gwyn kicked off his pants and then stared at Augus with that cold expression, he felt nothing but a nervy lust kicking up inside of him.

‘Maybe I’ve changed my mind,’ Augus said, testing the waters.

Gwyn just stared at him, his expression determined. Augus eased onto the bed, and Gwyn followed, putting down the box and pushing Augus down onto his back with one hand on his chest. Gwyn looked down his torso, eyes tracking the soulbond, moving down further. He couldn’t look away from Augus’ belly for long moments. He turned pale and then looked sideways, closing his eyes for several seconds. The play between them broken.

Augus placed a hand on Gwyn’s hand where it rested on his chest. Squeezed reassurance. He was whole, he was alive, and he wanted to not have to think.

Gwyn turned his pale blue gaze on him and pressed his lips to Augus’ lips carefully, before withdrawing. ‘Do you need an oath?’

Augus turned the offer over in his mind. Last time, the first time, he had demanded that Gwyn blood-oath not to hurt him, to listen, to be careful. He’d even secretly hoped that Gwyn would break the stupid oath and die, even if it meant things wouldn’t go well for him in the Seelie palace. Things had changed so much since then, he couldn’t fathom it.

‘Let’s try it without.’

Gwyn inhaled sharply. ‘That’s a big risk to take.’

‘I’m Inner Court now,’ Augus said calmly.

‘It’s still a big risk.’

Augus nodded, and couldn’t help licking his lips. Nerves and more, bubbling away inside of him.

‘I trust you,’ Augus said, and watched Gwyn’s eyes widen. Gwyn opened his mouth and Augus braced himself for the denials. But Gwyn forced his mouth shut and looked at the closed rectangular box and nodded as if to himself.

‘Then I’ll try and be worthy of it,’ he said. ‘Lie back. Wait there.’

Gwyn slid off the bed and Augus lay down and watched him go. Gwyn disappeared into the room Augus had just been in, and Augus found himself staring, because he had no idea why Gwyn was even in there. What did he want?

When Gwyn came back with a length of black fabric, Augus began to protest, and Gwyn held up a hand.

‘I want to blindfold you,’ Gwyn said. ‘May I?’

Blindfold, not a gag. Not a gag. Augus licked his dry mouth, trying to work saliva back into it again. Blindfolded and Gwyn sounding him. This was a level of…they’d never gone this far before. Not with him as the recipient.

Gwyn climbed back onto the bed with the blindfold, kneeling over Augus, staring down at him. Without waiting for an answer, he pulled Augus into a sitting position and wrapped the black strip of fabric around his eyes. Augus didn’t respond. He didn’t pull in the shaky breath that he wanted to. He didn’t bite his top lip or wince. He kept himself still. He didn’t like to give away too much of himself. If Gwyn wanted responses, he’d have to earn them.

The room was blacked from view, and Augus went still. Even though light bled in slightly at the edges, he didn’t like the dark. For a few seconds he couldn’t think, couldn’t breathe, his hands rose up to pull off the blindfold and Gwyn caught his wrists.

‘Easy,’ Gwyn said. ‘There should be a little light. Can you see it?’

Augus nodded automatically. He bared his teeth in frustration. He hated that Gwyn already knew what the problem was.

Gwyn’s hands squeezed reassurance and then lowered Augus’ hands back down by his side. Gwyn pushed Augus onto his back, and Augus’ mouth opened slightly, because he couldn’t really see anything except for two strips of faint light. He blinked at them, shifted nervously. Gwyn was asking rather a lot. Enough that Augus decided he could afford to push hard, the next time he had Gwyn in his hands.

‘Remember: Anything you do to me, I will pay back in kind,’ Augus said finally. Gwyn didn’t say anything, and when Augus heard the click of the box of sounds behind opened, he squirmed, uncomfortable.

Gwyn knelt between Augus’ spread legs. He touched the flat of his palm to Augus’ thigh, then smoothed up slowly and stroked the dip of his pelvis, rubbing across his flat, straight pubic hair, scratching his fingers across it. Lips kissed the rise of one of his hips and Augus relaxed somewhat. The kisses continued until Augus felt Gwyn reach for the lubricant and heard the vial being opened.

When Gwyn shifted sideways and hesitated, Augus knew relaxation wasn’t going to be something he was doing much of. He’d forgotten how this felt. Not only that, but he was now remembering that it wasn’t exactly comfortable, being sounded. He wondered if he should just call it quits and tell Gwyn to wrap a hand around his cock instead.

He expected to have to tell Gwyn not to pick the smallest size again, but Gwyn’s hesitation vanished and Augus listened to his own breathing as Gwyn must have been lubricating one of the sounds. A moment later, the flat of a thumb pressed lubricant over the head of his mostly limp cock, and he shivered. One of his legs bent, he felt restless. He definitely wasn’t sure about this. Imagining it was a lot easier than experiencing it.

Gwyn’s fingers around his cock were careful, and there was a sureness in the movements which surprised him. He expected Gwyn to fumble, to be as nervous as he, but no…Gwyn had slipped into that mental place he went to when he wanted to take charge. Augus wasn’t sure what to expect anymore. He closed his eyes, shutting out the strips of light. He rested his hands on his ribs.

Stroking along the inside of his left thigh. Gwyn’s hand slightly wet from lubricant, his fingers digging into muscle and dragging down, creating lines of sensation that seeped into him. Augus’ fingers twitched, and he thought Gwyn might say something, but instead Gwyn kept up those drugging touches, until he trailed his fingers up and anchored the base of Augus’ cock. Augus swallowed, the sound audible.

Cold metal traced the head of his cock. The rounded bulb at the end of the sound dipped between foreskin and the corona, so that he opened his mouth wider and focused on breathing. Everything was wet, slick, cold and only just starting to warm up. His hands slid to the bed, and he curled his claws – now grown back – into the sheets.

He kept expecting Gwyn to talk, because Gwyn was the nervous one, wasn’t he? The one who needed reassurance, who needed to check in.

When he felt the tip of the sound dipping into the slit of his cock, his body tensed and he pushed himself up on his elbows, gasping. Gwyn shifted his grip and freed one of his hands, pressing Augus back into the bed again with a palm against his chest.

‘Lie down,’ Gwyn said, his voice firm but soft.

‘You have to be careful,’ Augus said, and Gwyn rubbed a circle into his chest. The same gesture that Augus did to him whenever Gwyn felt distressed. He grit his teeth together.

‘I remember,’ Gwyn said, and then moved his hand back and teased the slit of his cock with the end of the sound. Augus’ legs shifted, and he turned his head to the side and pulled a deep breath.

‘You have to-’

‘Be quiet,’ Gwyn said. His voice was soft, but it was an order, and Augus’ eyes blinked open behind the blindfold. His fingers curled into sheets. Why was he doing this again? What was wrong with him?

He felt it when Gwyn secured his cock in a firm grip and then pressed the sound down, in, carefully. Resistance at first, even as Augus’ mouth stretched open and he remembered what this was going to feel like in visceral detail. He wasn’t a masochist, not really, not in the way that Gwyn was, but this was…a penetration he liked and hadn’t expected to. An invasion that felt painful, incredible, and he vaguely recalled how he’d broken down many clients this way and their sounds of pained pleasure and squeezed his eyes shut because he was going to become one of them once more.

‘Your fingers are digging into the sheets,’ Gwyn said.

Augus made a sound of exasperation. ‘Are you going to keep stating the obvious?’

‘Yes,’ Gwyn said, and Augus snarled when he heard the hint of a smile in Gwyn’s voice, then choked into silence when he felt Gwyn push the sound down, into him, and his lips pressed together. He trembled, monitoring the sensations. The sound moved deeper, slowly, but with a confidence that was stealing the rest of Augus’ thoughts away. A stretching sensation combined with pain, the grip Gwyn had around his cock felt good and grounding. Augus opened his mouth and gasped once.

‘I don’t know why you’re not more afraid,’ Augus said, and Gwyn pressed the sound deeper and Augus hissed.

‘Your reactions keep me focused,’ Gwyn said, and then he turned the sound and Augus gasped. His cock was getting hard, already. ‘Easy.’

‘Fuck,’ Augus breathed. His cock thickening, compressing the sound in his urethra, and it was sore and good and Gwyn wasn’t even waiting, but slowly edging the sound deeper and it was nothing like fucking and yet…

‘Slower,’ Augus managed, and Gwyn pushed the sound a fraction deeper before holding everything still. Augus focused on his breathing, and Gwyn kept the metal sound still with one hand and used the other to rub at Augus’ flank. Each stroke over his side was slow, steady, rhythmic. Gwyn was providing a guide, and Augus followed the motions – inhaling as Gwyn stroked up towards his face, exhaling as Gwyn’s hand moved down towards his thighs.

Everything after that blurred together. He was aware that he was trembling and he couldn’t make himself stop. His knuckles hurt where they dug into the sheets and he couldn’t seem to unhook them. Gwyn kept moving the sound deeper, occasionally turning, sometimes moving it back and pushing it forwards again, and each time Augus was finding it harder to stay silent. Shaking moans were dragged from the back of his throat, and he forgot to monitor what Gwyn was doing, because Gwyn was right – he did remember. Every stage where Augus was vaguely aware that Gwyn had to stop, or be patient, or wait for something; Gwyn knew what to do.

When the sound was as far as it would naturally go, Augus’ prostate stimulated, he had his teeth clenched together. Sparks and colour whirled in his mind. He let his thoughts drift, caught in Gwyn’s careful hands.

He was surprised when, after several minutes, Gwyn slowly removed the sound. Augus caught his breath, expected a hand to wrap around his cock – now hard and leaking. He drifted, time passed, and then his eyes flew open when he felt cold, slick metal pressed against the tip of his cock again. It was too cold – not warmed by his body. A new sound. Larger.

‘Gwyn,’ Augus said, one of his hands reaching out to stop him.

Gwyn caught his wrist in a gentle grip.

‘Easy,’ Gwyn said. ‘They wouldn’t be there unless you planned to use them this way.’

‘Not with you,’ Augus gasped, voice thready. ‘I’m-’

‘Be easy,’ Gwyn said, pushing the bulb of the sound into the slit of his aching, hard cock and holding it there, and Augus felt his cock twitch in anticipation and he moaned faintly because this was something he’d really wanted to experience on his own – just in case he couldn’t predict his responses. But Gwyn had done everything well, and Augus equally wanted the opportunity to float, to not have to think.

Gwyn fisted his hand around Augus’ cock, a firm grip with the sound only at the tip and not pressed inside, and stirred that faint, scratchy pain and heavy, thick pleasure by pumping his hand up and down several times. Augus’ mouth opened on a moan.

‘Take the blindfold off,’ Gwyn said, his voice rougher.

Augus’ hands moved up and he picked at the edges of the fabric, realising that Gwyn hadn’t tied the blindfold as tightly as he’d first thought. It slid up and over the top of his head, and he blinked at Gwyn, then looked down at the sound itself as Gwyn steadied Augus’ cock once more and pushed. Augus’ breath hitched.

But Gwyn wasn’t watching the sound, he watched Augus’ face, and Augus felt the weight of that gaze even as his neck arched and he bit the inside of his lip.

‘You look amazing,’ Gwyn volunteered, his voice less strong than before, and Augus’ lips tipped up in a smile at the praise.

When Gwyn pushed the larger size down, Augus’ breath caught. There was a far more noticeable stretch, even after the first sound, and his hips squirmed enough that Gwyn made a faint sound of alarm and Augus froze; he was jostling the sound.

‘Stop moving,’ Gwyn said.

Augus nodded, raised his hands to his head and shoved his fingers into his own hair because it helped him concentrate. He dug his claws into his scalp as the sound pushed down again, and if he couldn’t writhe to deal with the situations, he made faint, repeated sounds in the back of his throat instead. Gwyn’s breathing became audible, but Augus didn’t care about that. He was being dragged along on a ridge of pleasure-pain and he wanted to come and he couldn’t until the sound was out and it wasn’t even halfway down yet. He moaned in despair.

His toes curled, he smoothed his thumbs over his own hairline because Gwyn didn’t have the hands free to soothe him and Augus felt like he was being driven out of his mind. Gwyn felt terribly far away, even though he was right there, and Augus forced himself to breathe, even as the sound itself drove all coherent thought away.

When it was deep, settled, a throbbing, aching pleasure spreading inside of him like tidal waves, he keened faintly.

‘Hurry,’ Augus gasped.

‘Hold back,’ Gwyn said calmly. ‘You do it well enough when you’re fucking me.’

‘Fuck you,’ he whimpered, clawing at his hair. Then he made a high, faint sound when Gwyn tapped his fingernail against the sound and sent vibrations all the way into the core of him, making his gut feel like it was on fire. For a moment he thought he’d detonate.

‘Wait, wait, wait, wait,’ Augus said, his voice frantic.

‘A little more,’ Gwyn said, voice rough, and Augus knew that Gwyn wouldn’t be able to hold out much longer himself. He wanted to look down, see how hard Gwyn was, but he could hardly move. His awareness had become Gwyn’s steadying hand wrapped around the base of his cock, his other hand on the sound, the heaviness in his cock and balls, the hands in his hair.

‘Just-’

The sound twisted slowly, and Augus opened his mouth on a silent cry. He was closer than he thought possible and he tried to indicate it, forced his body to hold back but he wasn’t sure how to tell Gwyn that he didn’t have the same fine control over his bodily responses since he’d been killed since he didn’t want to ruin the mood, but he couldn’t come with the sound inside of him. He pushed himself up on a shaking arm and clawed at Gwyn’s hand.

He opened his mouth to speak, whimpered as Gwyn started drawing the sound back. Slowly, still drawing those sensations out of him, and he couldn’t make himself stop moaning. Gwyn would like that anyway, so he didn’t bother making himself stop.

Once the sound was free, he reached for his own cock to chase the sensations and growled when Gwyn caught his wrist. He opened his eyes in time to see Gwyn shift quickly, his head lowering down to Augus’ cock. Augus’ eyes widened as a wet furnace enveloped the head of him and then sank lower still – no teasing, just Gwyn sinking down and swallowing him, thick tongue massaging the underside of his cock.

Augus jack-knifed, grasped Gwyn’s head between unforgiving fingers and pushed him down even as he thrust up and bullied his way into the back of Gwyn’s throat. Gwyn choked, stiffened, but Augus’ eyes were rolling up in the back of his head because it hurt and yet felt so good. His mouth was open, he moaned over and over.

He thrust roughly, pushing as deep as possible as Gwyn scratched fingernails down the inside of his thighs, and there, heat flooded through him and he was coming. Deep pulses finding their way into the back of Gwyn’s throat and Augus realised dimly that Gwyn was scratching hard, chest heaving and Augus had been too rough, too violent. He dragged Gwyn up even as he kept coming, and Gwyn clasped Augus’ hips and coughed violently. That shouldn’t have sounded as good as it did, contributing to the curl of pleasure in Augus’ gut.

He gasped as his muscles continued to contract, pulling Gwyn towards him, forcing him to move on clumsy limbs.

He saw a streak of oil-slick sheened come against Gwyn’s mouth and cheek, dazed blue eyes, and kissed him violently, digging teeth into his lips and then sucking his tongue deep into his mouth and scraping his teeth against it. Gwyn moaned, opened his mouth wider, his hips pressing a very hard, very hot cock into the crease where Augus’ thigh met his pelvis.

‘Oh dear,’ Augus breathed against Gwyn’s mouth. ‘We seem to have a problem, don’t we?’

He gripped Gwyn’s hair, holding him in place, and reached down between them. He took up some of the lubricant from the head of his own over-sensitive cock and then spread it quickly over his fingers and grasped Gwyn’s cock. Gwyn pushed his face down alongside Augus’ and quivered like he was seconds away.

Augus let go of Gwyn’s head and quickly slipped the fingers of his other hand into his own mouth. He sucked quickly, wetly, laving them. He kept his other hand still on Gwyn’s cock, and smiled as he withdrew his fingers from his mouth with a pop. It wasn’t perfect, but Gwyn didn’t like things to run smoothly.

He ran his thumb into the crack of Gwyn’s ass and soothed Gwyn’s nervous jump by stroking his cock roughly, even as he pressed his index and middle fingers against Gwyn’s hole and pushed.

Gwyn gasped hoarsely into the pillow beside him, and Augus drew his own legs up, catching Gwyn’s hips and holding him still, pushing fingers into him, feeling the stretch and tension of it, Gwyn’s shaking a vibration against his own body.

‘There,’ Augus said. ‘Yes, there we go. My dear heart, you-’

Gwyn jolted against him, tensed. He clenched hard around Augus’ fingertips and his cock expanded and then pulsed hot jets of come against Augus’ hipbone. Augus, tired but pleased, stroked him through it even as he withdrew the tips of his fingers from Gwyn’s ass and stroked Gwyn’s back firmly, pressing him closer.

With a weak, pained moan, Gwyn sagged against him. Augus, aching and more relaxed than he’d felt in a long time, let him. But he kept his hand around Gwyn’s cock, the other between his shoulder blades, keeping Gwyn contained through the force of his own orgasm.

Gwyn opened his eyes, stared at him. His cheeks and neck were still flushed red, lips swollen where Augus had bitten at them.

‘Do you have a sore throat?’ Augus said, and Gwyn smiled guilelessly, nothing of judgement or disapproval in his gaze. Simple acceptance. And Augus purred a rich sound and pulled Gwyn closer.

‘I want to do that more,’ Gwyn rasped. ‘Take control. Maybe sometimes. I haven’t done it as much in case you thought I was- And I thought…I thought you would have wanted to exert control over me, after your- After what happened.’

‘Mm,’ Augus said, digging his fingers into Gwyn’s muscles and massaging carefully. From the buttery sound Gwyn made, Augus made a mental note to explore massaging Gwyn at some point in the future. ‘I felt neglected. Perhaps I wished not to.’

Gwyn stilled, then he pushed himself up on his palms and Augus had to let go of the careful, covetous hold he had of Gwyn’s cock. Gwyn stared at him steadily.

‘Should I not have said that?’ Augus said flippantly.

‘I want you to be honest with me,’ Gwyn said, the graveness of his voice offset by the fact that he still had come on his face. Augus reached up and wiped it off, and Gwyn looked down at Augus’ fingers, caught them in his own. He lowered his tongue to Augus’ hand and licked carefully, thoroughly. Augus shivered, smiled.

Gwyn kept a hold of his hand and met his eyes.

‘You don’t like being honest,’ Gwyn said carefully. ‘You didn’t tell me that you’d gone to Fenwrel, or how sick you were. You haven’t told me how many assassination attempts there have been. You didn’t tell me you were going to the An Fnwy estate – which was dangerous for you. And you didn’t tell me you were going to heal that lake. You so fiercely seek your independence that you deceive the people around you to maintain a false play at it.’

Augus felt a sluggish anger move through him but he was too tired to do anything with it. Especially when everything Gwyn was saying sounded like it might be true.

‘It’s so odd,’ Augus said quietly, ‘getting this lecture from you, of all people.’

‘I’m not saying I don’t have many of my own issues, Augus.’ He laughed, but the sound was bitter and Augus pressed his hand against Gwyn’s mouth. Gwyn moved his head back. ‘I’ve neglected you. I didn’t want you to feel like a captive here and yet I’ve done nothing but treat you like one. And I don’t know how to not do it again. I just don’t know. I don’t know how to be with anyone. I’ve never been with anyone. Even with M- Even in the past, he and I weren’t together. It’s always been…’

‘You’ve always been fucked,’ Augus said, his voice grim. ‘And what would you have learned of healthy relationships from that family?’

‘I made you something,’ Gwyn said, avoiding the question. He pulled back and then got off the bed, looking for his pants. He dug his hands into the pocket and drew out a pale green crystal. Augus didn’t recognise what kind it was, but Gwyn brought it back to the bed and held it out for Augus to take.

‘It’s yours,’ Gwyn said, pursing his lips as Augus twisted it in his fingers. ‘It’s charmed. I…made it. Well, not the crystal, but the charm. I can’t do much with magic, but I can make charms sometimes. Especially communication charms. It’s…for emergencies. If you squeeze it and think of me, I’ll know, and I’ll come to you. I’ll teleport wherever you are. No matter what.’

Augus squeezed it in his fingers, called Gwyn to mind – easy enough to do with him right there – and Gwyn made a noise. Augus watched him, looked at the crystal again.

‘How long did it take to make?’ Augus said.

‘A while,’ Gwyn said. ‘I don’t…it’s not an easy thing to do. I should have had Fenwrel make it, but I wanted to do it myself. She would have done it without a second thought. It took me a few hours to set the energy properly. I don’t really know what I’m doing. But I know it will work. Will you take it with you?’

Augus closed his eyes, felt something jagged move through him. He could imagine Gwyn taking time aside to make the charm. Neglecting his work as King to construct it.

‘I don’t know what I’m doing either,’ Augus said abruptly, hating saying even that much. A moment later he dropped the crystal and dug his fingers hard into Gwyn’s forearm, finding the pressure points, needing to distract himself from the humiliating truth of it. Gwyn flinched, then blew out a long, slow breath. He inched closer.

‘Be easy, Augus,’ Gwyn said. ‘How would you like to be moved into diplomacy, to start taking some time away from the common work?’

Augus blinked at him in surprise, even as a rush of anticipation moved through him, followed by despair. ‘I can’t, there’s no one else to do the common work.’

‘Let me worry about that,’ Gwyn said, leaning forwards and kissing Augus’ cheek. ‘Answer the question.’

‘Yes,’ Augus said, with no preamble. ‘But I hardly see why you’d let me do something like that, since my excursions outside of the palace never seem to bring much good.’

‘With guards, and keeping you away from freshwater fae and the systems you damaged, I think we can make this work.’

‘Did that family end up moving into the lake?’ Augus asked abruptly. It had never occurred to him to follow up on it. Were they still given the lake? Were they in cells? Had he managed to hurt any of them when he’d failed at fighting for his life?

Gwyn blinked at him, and then something dark and predatory stole over his face. ‘I killed them, Augus. I thought- I suppose…no one would have told you.’

Augus stared at him.

‘When?’

‘About five minutes after Aleutia indicated I was useless and told me to go away. I found something useful to do. About ten minutes after I put your organs back inside of you.

Gwyn grit his teeth together, made a sound of frustration, and Augus saw the moment he checked out, went into denial. It was the same moment he tried to run. Augus grabbed him with both arms and wouldn’t let him leave the bed, listened to his ragged breathing. Augus kept one of Gwyn’s arms in a tight grip, and with the other, stroked fingers over his soft, pillow-mussed hair. Gwyn whimpered and Augus carefully tugged him back.

‘Come here,’ Augus said, closing his eyes. ‘Come here, Gwyn. That’s it, you can face away if you want. Just come back. There. Lie down.’

Gwyn went down heavily, collapsing all at once, curling into himself once more – the position Augus saw Gwyn sleeping in a few days ago. He remembered Aleutia talking about Gwyn’s health, and pressed his lips to his shoulder. He tucked his legs behind Gwyn’s legs, spooned him. He felt how much Gwyn was shaking, and he closed his eyes, grimaced.

‘Careful,’ Augus soothed, sliding his hand underneath Gwyn’s arm and feeling sore and sated, yet bothered as well. ‘Let me just…’

‘I don’t need this from you,’ Gwyn said, his voice stiff.

‘I need it,’ Augus said, to cover Gwyn’s embarrassment.

‘I’m meant to be taking care of you.’

‘You are,’ Augus said, huffing in frustration. ‘Certainly more than usual. You can’t see how attentive and caring you just were? But just because I need more care, doesn’t mean you deserve none.’ Augus felt the bumps of Gwyn’s ribs and they were more prominent than usual. ‘When was the last time you ate?’

‘I don’t know,’ Gwyn said, and his voice was higher than usual, he sounded lost. Augus gathered Gwyn closer, pressed his fingers into his skin. ‘Days. I killed the fae at the lake and then…’

Augus’ brow furrowed. He’d been led to understand he’d been unconscious for days, and it had been at least a week since he’d woken.

‘Sweetness,’ Augus whispered, ‘you have to eat.’

‘I did…I think.’

It was a lie, and Augus frowned. Gwyn’s appetite had been patchy since he’d gone from underfae to King status. What was behind it? He recalled how thin and starved Gwyn had been as underfae and frowned. He stroked his hand down Gwyn’s chest, and then rubbed slow circles into warm skin. Gwyn who had broken down, cried on his own, and not thought to rouse Augus. Who always – as far as Augus knew – dealt with those things on his own.

‘Are you tired?’ Augus said.

‘I can’t sleep,’ Gwyn whispered.

‘You won’t lose me again,’ Augus said, testing his theory, and Gwyn’s flinch was more like a spasm, forcing Augus to curl around him even as Gwyn bent in on himself.

‘I want to be better at this,’ Gwyn said, and Augus told himself the horrible pain in his chest was from the whole being recently dead thing, and not the way Gwyn’s voice shook as he said it.

‘Gwyn, my dear heart, no- listen to me, you are becoming better at this. And you are starting at a great disadvantage. You are kind and solicitous when you think you have a right to be.’

‘Stop,’ Gwyn whispered, and Augus pressed his lips to the back of Gwyn’s neck and tasted a faint sheen of sweat. He licked up to his hairline and nuzzled it with his nose.

‘You need to sleep, sweetness. You can. I promise. I’ll be here when you wake. And then you’ll need to eat, I’m afraid.’

He ignored the crystal, cold against his skin where he lay. Instead, he pulled Gwyn closer, pressed his nose and mouth where Gwyn’s neck met his shoulder. He kissed Gwyn slowly, not rushing, sucking faint marks onto his neck that would heal quickly, licking over them, scraping his teeth gently and blowing cool air over areas wet with sweat and saliva. And Gwyn, in his arms, beginning to squirm, small sounds of pleasure caught in his throat.

Augus closed his eyes and stretched his neck, pressed his lips to Gwyn’s ear.

‘I want us to sleep in those rooms you made. The ones for the both of us. We should at least try, shouldn’t we?’

Gwyn hesitated, then nodded, and Augus licked his tongue into Gwyn’s ear and couldn’t help the smile at the noise Gwyn made – as though he’d just been wounded.

‘Sleep,’ Augus said, and this time decided he would wait until Gwyn slept, before doing it himself, so as not to miss any more future breakdowns that might be coming. But he helped Gwyn along by stroking him, kissing his shoulder and the back of his neck, licking letters and symbols into his skin. And Gwyn relaxed slowly, eventually shifting in Augus’ grip until he was almost entirely on his stomach and Augus nearly on top of him.

Only then did his breathing go sleep-slow, and Augus found himself following behind not long after, mouth half open against Gwyn’s shoulder blade, head pillowed on a curve of muscle. His last thoughts were of how pleasantly sore and warm he felt, like floating under the summer sun.

Chapter Text

Gwyn

*

Gwyn woke from his doze slowly, a weight on top of him, a heaviness in his limbs. His body was pushing for a full sleep cycle, but he couldn’t afford one. Still, there was warmth and lassitude, and he shifted quietly, aware of a dried stickiness around his pelvis, his limp cock. His eyes shot open as he remembered the night before.

He saw Augus’ hand draped over him – the slightly blunt, short curved nails of his fingers. He could smell fresh water, the fainter scent of their sex behind that. Augus lay on top of him, and Gwyn was face down on Augus’ bed. Gwyn flared his nostrils, could still detect tiny threads of Augus’ blood from his now-healed wounds. He didn’t like this room anymore. He liked that Augus was in it, but the room itself reminded him of days spent powerless, watching Augus lying too still upon a bed.

Gwyn reached up carefully, not wanting to disturb Augus, and brushed his hand. Augus’ breathing was slow and even. It bore no signs of pain.

He slid out from underneath Augus, then sat on the edge of the bed, watching him sleep. Augus’ face was always faintly troubled in rest, even when he was relaxed. It was the slight pout to his lips. Gwyn wanted to lean down and kiss them, but he didn’t want to wake Augus. Augus needed as much rest as possible, and Gwyn knew he needed it as much for emotional reasons as he did for physical.

He had seen for himself what Fenwrel and Aleutia had told him; Augus was unwell. If Gwyn looked at Augus’ life as objectively as possible, he was a creature that had gone from a stable, nourishing life, to abduction, torture, possession and a great deal more. Gwyn wanted to protect him, but he knew Augus would chafe against any further constraints placed on his actions. Augus was one of the most powerful waterhorses in the world; but there were creatures far more powerful, and far more malicious.

Gwyn walked into Augus’ bathroom and closed the door behind him. He’d been sick in this room the night previous. Gwyn rubbed his hands over his face, trying to wake himself up. Augus was right; Gwyn shouldn’t have needed him to die, to realise that Augus needed more care than he was providing.

He found a towel in a cupboard, studiously avoiding looking at himself, the ugly scar tissue on his shoulder, in the mirror. He turned on the taps of an opulent shower, stepping in before the water had heated, tensing at the cold and hoping it would wake him faster. He needed his body to realise he wasn’t entering a sleep cycle, and he’d been more sluggish than usual. Augus had noticed something Gwyn tried not to think about – he hadn’t been eating much lately. Not nearly as much as he should be.

It was odd, for when he was underfae, he ached for food. He dreamed of the hardy digestion system a higher status would afford him, and then he dreamed further of the trow’s cooking, of Delphine making small marzipan cakes and leaving them for him. Yet when he became King again, something about food and the act of eating became deeply off-putting. After a while, it just became easier to not think about it anymore. The trows brought him food; sometimes he ate it, sometimes he didn’t.

At some point, he’d just stopped eating as much as he needed to keep himself healthy. Every time he thought about doing something about it, he told himself he’d deal with it later. Every time ‘later’ came, he tried not to think about it again.

The water warmed, and he closed his eyes with pleasure. The stiffness in his shoulder started to unwind, until the worst of the gritty pain faded to the ache that was more bearable.

The soap Augus had didn’t lather much, and was mostly unscented. But what scent it did have reminded him of Augus, and he could feel his cheeks flushing hotter than the water at the novelty of using his soap, knowing that he would smell like Augus for the rest of the day. It was embarrassing that he wanted that so much, and he fought the smile that tried to form.

Perhaps you could focus on the fact that he died, and that you were indirectly responsible for that. Augus can say what he likes; he’s so damaged because you’ve done very little to help him, beyond getting him out of the Seelie Court in the first place.

Gwyn paused, a soapy hand on his good shoulder and gooseflesh rippling across his skin.

Seconds passed before he snapped himself back to what he was supposed to be doing, but he scrubbed himself harder, the movements abrasive.

He startled when the door opened, turned quickly, and saw Augus – naked and still yawning – through the steam of the shower.

‘I hope you don’t mind,’ Gwyn said automatically.

‘No,’ Augus said, walking towards him and stepping into the shower without hesitation. He hissed at the temperature, reaching past Gwyn to turn up the cold, until the water became a few shades warmer than lukewarm. Gwyn stared in surprise as Augus came closer, placing a proprietary hand on Gwyn’s chest, the other grasping his hip, claws digging in. ‘Good morning.’

‘Ah,’ Gwyn said, feeling like an idiot. He’d never shared a shower with anyone before, not like this. He’d stepped into lakes and rivers and waterfalls with fellow soldiers, but that was very different. Worse, Augus’ proximity was like a drug, and he couldn’t stop his cock reacting to the sting of Augus’ nails in his hip.

‘Oh, it’s a very good morning, is it?’ Augus said, looking down. His lips quirked. ‘I’d say it’s flattering, but I’ve come to know your cock quite well.’

‘Stop it,’ Gwyn said. He tried to step backwards, but Augus followed him, crowding him back into the tiles. Gwyn blinked at the cold, the flare of pain in his shoulder, as he hit the wall. Augus used the hand on his hip to steer him away from the bulk of the shower’s spray. Gwyn was covered in soap, hair plastered to his head. Augus looked him up and down, and Gwyn looked away, disconcerted. ‘What are you doing?’

‘What I quite like about being Inner Court status, is that you can do what you did to me last night, and I’m not at all sore now. Which leads me to think that your throat feels fine this morning. And I think I want you to feel me in you for longer than that.’ Augus dragged fingers up Gwyn’s torso, and Gwyn’s eyes closed. ‘Also, you’ve left me sticky. I’d reprimand you about tending to me better, but you seemed tired.’

Augus took Gwyn’s wrist and moved it so that Gwyn’s palm was pressed against the jut of Augus’ hipbone, moving Gwyn’s fingers so that they touched flaked come where it had dried in place. Gwyn’s cheeks burned. Usually Augus dealt with clean up, and they’d both been so tired afterwards that it hadn’t occurred him to do anything. He liked resting with his sweat sticking to Augus’ sweat, with the evidence of what they’d done around them. Even now, his fingers moved of their own volition, moving over the smoothness of Augus’ skin, to the come that had dried to him. He wanted press his nose to it, run his tongue over it.

‘I’m surprised you didn’t run off as soon as you woke,’ Augus murmured, the spray of the shower softening his voice. ‘Whatever happened to the Gwyn who could not stand to stay near me any longer than absolutely necessary?’

‘My priorities weren’t balanced,’ Gwyn said, looking at Augus’ shoulders, his chest and the black-turquoise of the Soulbond, the dusky nipples and the muscle definition which was more prominent when Augus was a higher status. Gwyn wanted to touch him. He wanted to press his own mouth to Augus’ chest and taste him.

‘Aren’t you worried about the Kingdom?’ Augus said, and Gwyn flinched hard when fingers touched his cheek. ‘Easy.’

Gwyn relaxed his jaw. He hadn’t expected it. His reaction was stupid, he just hadn’t expected it. He kept thinking Augus would come to his senses, realise how awfully Gwyn had behaved. The gentleness felt anticlimactic every time it came. He was certain it would be the prelude to something cruel and brutal.

A hand on his chest, and Gwyn didn’t realise Augus was measuring his heart rate until it was too late. He tried to step out of the way, but Augus caged him.

‘Are you afraid because you’re worried about the Kingdom? Or because of something else?’ Augus said. ‘I heard you, the other night.’

Gwyn’s brow narrowed in confusion. The other night? The- No. That was private and Augus had been asleep. Gwyn stared at him and Augus returned the gaze, expression unreadable.

‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ Gwyn said.

‘Don’t you?’ Augus said, frowning. ‘Well, for now I’ll give you your illusions, I suppose. My poor, stressed King. Aleutia also says that you are unwell. The status changes. King to underfae to King. I think-’

Gwyn pushed Augus backwards by the shoulders, quickly enough that Augus was taken by surprise. Gwyn sank down, the tiles hard on his knees, shower spray falling upon him, trickling down his face and side.

He wrapped his hands around the backs of Augus’ thighs, leaned forwards and licked over the patch of dried come. He didn’t want to waste a shower with Augus by speaking about subjects he had no interest in discussing. Not now. Not after the night they’d had.

Augus laughed under his breath. ‘Like clockwork, Gwyn. And you are filthy. Go on then, clean me up.’

Gwyn looked up, saw the arch of Augus’ eyebrows, the green of his eyes – healthier and brighter than before. He curved his hand around Augus’ flank and looked down, seeing the curve of a thigh, pressing his lips to it. Everything felt far too tenuous. How could he go from feeling so confident, so sure the night before, to this strange shakiness now? He opened his mouth and rested his teeth lightly on Augus’ thigh, moving his head slowly upwards, teeth scraping, tongue pressed flat. Augus liked slow, and Gwyn refused to let himself rush.

He nosed the place where he’d spilled the night before. Water from the shower already coated Augus’ skin, and Gwyn licked straight up over it, tasting bitterness and a wash of chemicals, like someone had left untempered steel in a fire for too long. He could feel tension in Augus’ muscles, but the hand that came and rested on his head was relaxed, the fingers sprawled over the wetness of his hair, shifting it, scratching softly at his scalp.

‘While you’re down there…’ Augus said, and then his fingers grasped Gwyn’s hair and tilted his head backwards. Gwyn looked up once more. His knees hurt, but it was an easy enough pain to push away. His cock was still hard, words stolen from the back of his throat. ‘You will place your hands behind your back, and clasp them together. It will strain your shoulder, but I’ll release the nerves afterwards.’

Gwyn’s heart thumped harder. He shifted, then did as Augus said. He hissed at the strain in his shoulder, gritting his teeth through the pain. It wasn’t as bad as what he forced himself to endure through training and sword-fighting, but even so, he was distracted for a few seconds as he breathed through it. He clenched his teeth together. This position reminded him of the few times he’d been captured, of Efnisien’s games back before Gwyn had any ability to fight back.

Augus’ hand was still in his hair, and Gwyn’s head was forced up once more. He met Augus’ gaze reluctantly, hating that his cock was still traitorously hard, that Augus looked so hungry, so good. Kneeling like this, Gwyn wanted to press his face to Augus’ crotch, but with Augus’ grip in his hair and his hands behind his back, he couldn’t.

A part of him ached for the way Augus plucked threads of control from Gwyn’s grasp until all Gwyn had to do was close his eyes, lose himself in sensation.

‘Hold still,’ Augus said, bending over him and draping both of his arms over Gwyn’s shoulders. Gwyn grunted as his sore shoulder sent a pulse of pain through him, uncertain what Augus was doing.

He jerked when he felt the rubbery texture of waterweed sliding over his wrists, coiling tight. Augus hissed, even as Gwyn’s wrists were bound tightly and his shoulder blared rough pain at him. Gwyn opened his mouth, wanted to say Augus’ name, to warn him, but only exhaled harshly.

‘Making the waterweed still hurts more than it should,’ Augus complained, cinching off the waterweed and standing up again, Gwyn’s arms bound. In this position, with his shoulder the way it was, he couldn’t struggle free. Not without causing himself a great deal of pain in the process. He looked up at Augus, hoped his eyes weren’t as wide as they felt.

He suspected they were from the way Augus pressed the pads of his thumbs down on Gwyn’s cheekbones.

‘Sweetness,’ Augus said, ‘are you with me?’

Gwyn nodded.

‘Excellent,’ Augus said, a cruel smile creeping across his face. ‘Then, what are you waiting for?’

Gwyn ducked his head to hide a faint smile, then nearly fell when Augus nudged him harshly, indicating he should move. He grit his teeth together as the nudging continued, moving on his knees awkwardly, not having the benefit of his hands to brace himself. Augus pushed him into the direct line of the shower spray, until it was falling upon his head and the front of Augus’ chest. Then Augus twisted and the second shower head was turned on. They were surrounded by water on all sides, steam rising around them.

Gwyn kept his head down so the water wouldn’t fall into his eyes, and then realised what Augus intended. He opened his mouth, exhaled slowly. Even with his head bent down, water trickled down his cheeks, dripped off his chin.

Augus’ hand on his head, claws scraping across his scalp. It was more pain than pleasure, and Gwyn squeezed his eyes shut. He couldn’t struggle properly. Maybe if his wrists were bound in front of him, but no, Augus had deliberately picked this position, he was sure. He pressed his forehead to Augus’ pelvis, water falling on and around him.

Claws tightened on his head, beginning to break skin, and Gwyn turned his head automatically, nuzzling into the pelt of Augus’ black pubic hair, bumping into a quiescent cock. When he mouthed it, keeping his eyes closed, the claws turned into a palm smoothing over the top of his head, and he shuddered.

The noise of the shower muffled Augus’ breathing, so Gwyn couldn’t read Augus’ reactions as easily. But he could feel Augus’ cock plumping beneath his lips, beneath the curve of his tongue. As he moved, opened his mouth, water trickled into his mouth, spattered constantly across his forehead, running down his closed eyes, on either side of his nose. If he inhaled too quickly, he got a nose full of water for his trouble.

Augus reached down with his other hand, gripping his cock at the base, sighing loudly enough that Gwyn could hear it over the shower.

‘I grow impatient,’ Augus said, moving Gwyn’s head back far enough that he could press the head of his cock to Gwyn’s lips. Gwyn’s hands automatically clenched at each other as he opened his mouth, Augus sliding in over his tongue. The motion caused his shoulder muscles to strain and he exhaled hard, inhaling quickly and his eyes flying open as water went the wrong way down his throat and he fought back the urge to cough. Augus’ cock hardened on his tongue, and Gwyn couldn’t brace himself on Augus’ thighs as he’d done in the past.

Gwyn was reminded of the night before. Augus simply grabbing him by the head and forcing his way into Gwyn’s throat so roughly that he’d tasted blood when he’d swallowed. Having his airways abruptly cut off, struggling against the reflex to bite down, he’d been so hard that it hurt, even as he panicked when Augus didn’t let him up. Yet after all that, it had made him mindless with a heavy pain-pleasure.

Now, though, he had enough presence of mind to know that this would be difficult. He looked up at Augus, and Augus stared down at him, smirking, eyes lidded with lust.

‘You know, don’t you?’ Augus said, smiling wider as he rolled his hips carefully deeper into Gwyn’s mouth. Gwyn wanted to spread his knees to brace himself and couldn’t on the slippery tiles. He wanted a hand free. He felt unbalanced, unstable. He kept his mouth open, tongue curling around the taste of Augus. ‘You’ll have to be careful.’

Gwyn stared at him until water ran into his eyes and he looked down, blinking it away, wanting to shake it out of his eyes and unable to with Augus’ cock in his mouth.

‘I’ll give you another two minutes to acclimatise, Gwyn, and then I’m taking over. You’d best open your own throat so that we don’t have a repeat of last night.’

Gwyn couldn’t nod, couldn’t squeeze Augus’ thigh or torso to say that he’d understood. Instead, he moved his tongue underneath Augus’ cock, then moved backwards. He was careful with his breathing, not wanting to inhale too much water accidentally. He moved forward again, Augus’ cock an increasingly heavy weight in his mouth. Augus’ hands were gentle on the top of his head. But Gwyn knew that Augus was likely counting down the minutes in his own head and that the gentleness wouldn’t last. His own cock – frustratingly – twitched at the thought.

Gwyn felt the head of Augus’ cock pressing at the back of his mouth. Water ran down his face. He tried to tune all of it out and focused instead on bobbing back and forth carefully, testing the way it felt, getting his throat used to it. It had been a long time since he’d had time to accustom himself. He knew Augus liked listening to him struggle, choke, but Gwyn liked this part too.

He swallowed, once, then again, and his throat opened around Augus’ cock, his gag reflex close, but held at bay. Over the white noise of the shower, he heard a faint groan, and his arms jerked automatically. He wanted to touch Augus, to squeeze at his side, run hands over him. He shoulder throbbed, he cried out, inhaled unthinkingly – water and air merging together. He pulled backwards, coughing, drawing rough breaths through his mouth, water dripping down his ears, off the bridge of his nose.

‘You couldn’t have made this any easier?’ Gwyn said, voice deeper than usual.

Augus’ hands tightened on the back of his head. ‘Keep that up, and I’ll instigate the ‘no speaking unless spoken to’ rule. And if you think I couldn’t make this more difficult, keep up the back talk, and you’ll see that I can make this much more challenging.’

Gwyn didn’t doubt it.

He moved forward again, but this time Augus didn’t help him, and Gwyn had to shift his torso to get the head of Augus’ cock into his mouth. He tried to move his bad shoulder as little as possible, reminded viscerally of when he had to baby it, nurse it back to health. When his fever had broken but he was still underfae, and his shoulder could still be the death of him. He squeezed his eyes shut, focused on breathing, didn’t notice Augus stroking his hair back from his forehead until Augus pulled his hand away and cupped the back of Gwyn’s head instead, grip turning stronger, hips rolling forward.

He had to be out of time, and he pushed himself, swallowing repeatedly around Augus’ cock to take him deeper, until his throat started to ache. He had to keep his breathing slow, unable to gasp for breath like normal if he didn’t want to cough around the water streaming down his face. He had to keep his eyes closed, unable to look, unable to touch. When he drew back to take a breath, he made a sound of frustration.

‘Augus,’ Gwyn said, and Augus laughed softly, the sound echoing off the tiles.

‘You’d best get it all out of your system now, Gwyn, because the next time you swallow me down, I’m not letting you off easily again until I come.’

Gwyn’s body shook at the promise in Augus’ words, even as he bared his teeth at the tiles, reigning in the worst of his agitation. He shifted his wrists again, gritted off a sound of pain, then cried out in shock when Augus fisted both of his hands hard enough in Gwyn’s hair that he felt strands coming loose.

‘I mean it,’ Augus hissed.

Gwyn’s thoughts cleared and he shifted again, taking Augus’ cock into his mouth and making a sound of alarm when Augus pulled him forwards firmly, undulating his hips so that Gwyn had no choice but to swallow to stop himself from gagging. He kept his mouth open wide, teeth behind his lips, pressed his tongue up and wished he could tell what Augus’ breathing sounded like over the harsh spray of the shower around him.

Augus kept him distracted. He started fucking his way into Gwyn’s mouth slowly, steadily at first, but he picked up speed. Gwyn had no choice but to focus on his breathing, keeping his mouth open, aware of the weight of Augus’ cock. His throat ached, his hands twisted behind him absently, twisting his fingers together. His cock throbbed between his legs, his knees were two sharp points where they pressed into the tiles.

Augus shoved forwards too quickly, too hard, while Gwyn was trying to breathe in – his rhythm was thrown off. He opened his mouth wider, choked, tried to pull backwards. Augus’ hand tightened at the back of his head, holding him in place, and then Augus’ other hand twisted down quickly and fingers dug into a pressure point at the hinge of his jaw, forcing his mouth to stay open. He made a sound of shock, cried out, and Augus ignored him, kept up the rhythm until Gwyn was straining backwards against it and fighting the waterweed, pain flaring down his arm.

‘Concentrate,’ Augus said, voice calmer than Gwyn’s would have been if the situation was reversed. ‘Just swallow for me, Gwyn. That’s all. Concentrate, sweetness. Just swallow.’

Gwyn’s eyes leaked tears that were hotter than the water. He made a pained sound even as he forced himself to swallow clumsily, keeping his throat as open as possible. His sense of balance felt precarious at best, Augus leaned into him for a better angle, and Gwyn had to arch back. Every other time they’d done this, Gwyn could hold onto Augus for support. He had to concentrate, because making sure he could breathe properly, keep his gag reflex under control and not slip or fall or lose his balance was getting harder.

‘I can still feel your mind ticking away,’ Augus said, his voice thicker now, rough with arousal. ‘What will it take, Gwyn? I can do this all morning, if necessary.’

Gwyn whined around Augus’ cock, part protest, part desire.

Seconds passed into minutes, and Gwyn’s throat was raw, his shoulder hurt, but he was beginning to drift and it was warm and welcoming. The water pounding on his skin was hypnotic. He knew he was drooling, saliva filling his mouth, but the water washed it away. Augus’ rhythm was relatively predictable. Firm and rough one moment, followed by long, deep thrusts that ended up with Augus grinding his hips, moving his cock deeply into Gwyn’s throat. The hand at the back of his head was uncompromising, the one at his jaw keeping his mouth open.

Gwyn had mostly worked out how to breathe with water streaming down his face. It trickled in rivulets down his back, his arms, around the base of his cock. Just enough contact to be maddening, not enough to do much more than remind him that he was hard.

He wasn’t sure when the drifting became a pleasant buzz. One moment he was thinking about all the places he still hurt, how annoying it was to have his hands tied up, and the next all the sensations coalesced – pleasure and pain – until his thoughts disappeared. Augus sped up, and Gwyn adjusted for it, moaning hungrily. In response to that, Augus muttered something that sounded like relief, or gratitude, but Gwyn wasn’t concentrating on words and it was just one more texture blending into the others.

Augus groaned loudly, not long after. Gwyn could hear his breathing now, echoing in the shower stall. Gwyn knew he was making choked off noises of want, of strain, but he’d ceased caring.

Gwyn moaned when he knew that Augus was going to come. Augus’ thrusts slowed, but became more forceful, so that Gwyn lost his rhythm once more, choking and straining backwards unthinking.

Augus’ grip tightened on the back of his head, and then Gwyn felt it – the pulsing in Augus’ cock, and a liquid heat in the back of his throat, slightly stinging, but welcome and tasting fresher than he’d imagined. His throat hurt as he swallowed, but he didn’t care. He was only aware of the heat coursing through his body, light pulsing along his spine, his cock heavy between his legs.

Augus held him in place for some time after he’d finished coming, forcing Gwyn to get his breathing under control even with Augus’ cock in his mouth. It wasn’t until Gwyn’s breaths had steadied, nose pressed against Augus’ pelvis, that Augus slowly drew backwards.

Gwyn couldn’t stop the long moan he made when Augus withdrew completely. Gwyn was so hard he was shaking. He’d lost track of how aroused he’d been, and without Augus taking up all his thoughts, he slammed back into the ache of it, gasping around the tight knot in his gut.

‘Stand up,’ Augus said, voice firm. ‘Stand up. Careful.’

A hand sliding underneath his good arm, not untying the waterweed like he’d hoped. He pushed himself up on one foot first, centre of balance thrown off. Augus made sure he stayed upright. Gwyn could hear himself gasping as though from a distance. His head spun.

‘Augus,’ Gwyn breathed. His voice was roughened, his throat stung.

‘Careful,’ Augus said, voice softening. ‘It’s slippery.’

A hand underneath his chin, tilting his face up. He was aware of the green of Augus’ eyes, a calculating gaze, and then Augus’ lips quirked up.

‘There,’ he said, as though he’d seen something he was looking for. ‘Are you floating for me, sweetness?’

‘Augus,’ Gwyn complained, hips jerking forwards, pulses pounding in his body, heaviest between his legs.

‘Ah-ah,’ Augus said, kissing his way up Gwyn’s jaw. ‘Ask me.’

Gwyn shivered, it took him a little while to work out what Augus meant. When he did, he shook his head and then moaned shakily when Augus bit at his earlobe, when a tongue traced over the shell of his ear.

‘Ask me,’ Augus said again.

Gwyn looked to the side, his breathing rough, his throat feeling hollowed, like it had been shaped for Augus’ cock.

He flinched when claws dug into his flank, and then cried out when they pierced his skin, blood oozing hot down his side. It was a burst of pain that quickly became pleasure, and he lost his thread of concentration.

‘This is not a request, Gwyn. I am telling you to ask me to make you come. If you don’t, there will be consequences.’

Pain was an echo through him, only winding the desire in him tighter.

‘Augus, please.’

The claws dug in harder and Gwyn’s teeth clicked together. He took several breaths while Augus’ claws flexed in his side. Gwyn opened his mouth, tried to shape the words. The heat of humiliation stole through him and he shook his head.

‘You have no choice but to obey me,’ Augus said, each word unfurling directly into his ear. ‘The faster you obey, the kinder I’ll be. Remember, I’ve had my fingers in your guts before.’

Augus’ claws pressed in deeper and Gwyn bit Augus’ shoulder wetly, trying to concentrate. He could say it, couldn’t he? If Augus was making it a command. Augus liked it when Gwyn obeyed him. It wasn’t a trap, surely.

‘Augus…’ Gwyn said, voice cracking. ‘Will you…’

‘Actually, I think I want you to say: ‘Augus, I want you to make me come.’’

Gwyn made a vague sound of discontent, trying to push his hips forwards and not having the leverage needed to get any sort of satisfying contact.

‘It’s eight words,’ Augus said, claws still in Gwyn’s side, blood flowing down the drain, the scent of it thick in the air. ‘You can manage eight words, can’t you? You’ve asked me before, and I listened to you, didn’t I? Even when you thought no one was listening. You can ask me, Gwyn. You really have no choice in the matter.’

Gwyn wished there was a way to say it without actually having to say anything. He was losing the pleasant floating he’d had before, and his forehead thumped onto Augus’ shoulder, thumping again. He was hard, sore, aroused. He needed to come.

‘Augus,’ Gwyn said, his voice low and slight and small, ‘I…’ His head turned, he pressed his face into Augus’ neck. In response to that, Augus made a sound that Gwyn couldn’t hear over the shower spray, but rather felt in his throat. ‘Augus, I want…I want you to make me come.’

He wished fervently that he could disappear. His wrists twisted behind his back, fingers digging into each other.

‘Augus,’ Gwyn said, voice shaking. What if Augus had no intention of following through? What if it was just a game, and he-

‘Shh,’ Augus said into his ear. ‘Move back for me. Step back, that’s it.’

Gwyn’s hands and arms pressed against warmed tiles. Augus pushed Gwyn’s head back, exposing his throat, biting wetly across it, teeth scraping but not stinging. His other hand trailed down Gwyn’s torso, wrapping around his cock without teasing him. Gwyn gasped, and then his knees began to buckle when Augus’ hand started moving.

Augus leaned into him, chest against his chest, using his weight and stance to keep Gwyn in place.

‘Just a little longer,’ Augus said. ‘You’re doing well, Gwyn. Very well. Let me make you feel good.’

The praise jarred. He wanted it, he didn’t want it. But how he felt about it didn’t matter very much, because he was dragged down into heat and light, Augus’ hand working him firmly, quickly. Arousal spooled in his gut, the shower muffled the moans and noises he was making.

When Augus’ hand stopped working on his cock, he shouted in frustration, his hands worked the waterweed so hard that his shoulder flamed.

‘Augus! You said- You said you would. You said-’

Augus was murmuring words to him, but Gwyn couldn’t believe that he’d asked, he’d done what Augus had said, he’d asked, and now Augus was-

‘Gwyn,’ Augus said, voice firming, ‘listen to me, listen, I know you asked me, and you did so well. I’m not stopping. I promise. I need you to lock your knees for me, otherwise you’re going to fall and I’m not going to be able to keep you up. Are you listening to me?’

A long sound of frustration and Gwyn locked his knees, unthinking.

‘Good, perfect,’ Augus said, and Gwyn keened when he felt Augus’ hand around him again, moving slowly at first, but picking up speed quickly. His mind was blanking, he was aware of bucking into Augus’ hand and then having to stop, because he couldn’t brace himself against the wall properly. He knew he was saying Augus’ name, could feel the shape of those syllables in his mouth.

‘You look so good like this, you have no idea,’ Augus purred.

Gwyn couldn’t process the words, didn’t even think to have a problem with them. All he knew was that there was heat, fire, and he wanted to combust, wanted it so badly he couldn’t stop shaking.

He tumbled into his release roughly, the sensations of it building in jags until he muffled sharp cries into Augus’ skin. Augus said something but Gwyn didn’t catch it, a sharpness flaying thought from his mind until he could do nothing more than lean half against the wall, half against Augus. Even once he’d finished coming, he could do nothing more than stay pinned, breath rough, throat still sore.

Augus reached behind him and snapped apart the waterweed. Both of Augus’ arms were wrapped around Gwyn’s torso like an embrace. With the waterweed removed, Augus’ fingers massaged carefully at his wrists, drawing his arms apart more slowly than Gwyn would have done it himself. His shoulder shrieked at him, but Gwyn felt it as a red-white noise that he could almost push aside. He was still shaking when his hands were by his sides, Augus holding his arms by the wrists.

‘Move your fingers for me,’ Augus said, and Gwyn nodded. He wriggled his fingers obediently, and Augus rubbed Gwyn’s forearms with something that felt like reassurance, before letting go of them completely.

‘Did you mean it?’ Gwyn whispered, despite the soreness of his throat. Augus hesitated, then reached for the soap and placed it in Gwyn’s fingers.

‘Clean me,’ Augus said quietly. ‘Also, you do realise I have no idea what you’re talking about?’

Gwyn stepped forwards and rubbed the soap in his hands until they were creamily slicked. His wrists still ached and he winced, but pressed his hand first to Augus’ chest, the faint dip between lean pectorals, feeling the heavy thump of his heart – so much slower than Gwyn’s. He moved over the Soulbond and Augus looked away. Gwyn cleaned the Soulbond quickly, even as he marvelled at its magic, that it had given them a chance to keep Augus alive.

‘Did you really want to move into those rooms I made?’ Gwyn said, putting the soap down on a ceramic shelf, using both of his hands to rub soap down Augus’ arms. Unbidden, Augus raised them so that Gwyn could duck fingers into his armpits, a fine covering of hair there – straight and pelt-like, the same as his pubic hair – Augus wasn’t ticklish and didn’t squirm. Gwyn looked at him, curious, knuckling his fingers gently, then firmly into that more tender space, and Augus’ eyes fluttered shut. Gwyn did it again, and Augus’ licked his lips, his eyes opened, he looked at Gwyn sidelong.

‘You’re getting distracted again,’ Augus said.

‘I don’t think I’ve done that before,’ Gwyn said, continuing on, down Augus’ sides.

‘You haven’t, but I wish to feel clean, and now is not the time for your explorations. And, yes, I meant it. Now be quiet, Gwyn. Stop fighting it. Let your mind be still, or as still as it can be.’

Gwyn nodded. He focused instead on what he was doing, soaping Augus’ body, kneeling down again to soap his legs, knees and feet, grunting in pain when his knees pressed into tiles. But it was worth it when Augus dripped hair product onto Gwyn’s head, and massaged his scalp with long, smooth movements that made Gwyn forget what he was doing. He bowed forwards, forehead resting against Augus’ upper thigh. Gwyn’s mouth was open, he could taste the hair product as the water rinsed it from the top of his head and it trickled past his lips. His hands were cleaned of soap and he wrapped his palms around Augus’ calves.

Eventually, Augus slowed to a stop and turned, and Gwyn continued to clean him, needing to apply soap again several times. He liked the wiry muscles of Augus’ back, the way Augus shifted slightly, allowing him better access. Augus’ head tilted back when Gwyn trailed the pads of his thumbs from the base of Augus’ spine all the way up to the top of his neck.

Augus was right, Gwyn was fighting it. He let his thoughts narrow to the feel of skin beneath his hands, the heavy white noise of the shower around them. Eventually, Augus stopped him with a murmur and returned the favour.

Augus cleaned him quickly, thoroughly. The touch wasn’t overly sensual, but it didn’t matter. Just having Augus near him in such close proximity, while they were both naked, was distracting enough. Augus tapped Gwyn’s half-hard cock with the tip of his finger and clicked his tongue.

‘I have just the thing for that,’ Augus said. He reached up with his hands and Gwyn didn’t know what he expected, but he certainly didn’t expect Augus’ hands to dig deep into his bad shoulder, triggering what felt like weeks of pain at once.

He cried out, thumped back into the tiles, his breath a hoarse wheeze. He tried to struggle out of Augus’ grip, but Augus was merciless.

‘Such panic, with you,’ Augus said. ‘You know what I’m doing. I’ve done it before. Ride it out, Gwyn. Breathe for me. That’s it.’

He could hardly feel his arm as anything other than a lightning rod of pain. This was the worst it had been in a long time, and his light was jump-starting along his back. There was a threat in front of him and his other hand clenched then opened, fingers splaying. He could stop this. He could-

‘Gwyn,’ Augus said, cutting into his thoughts. Was he using compulsions?

Augus’ hands shifted and Gwyn almost got away, except that Augus swore in frustration and dug fingers in once more and Gwyn sagged when the pain vanished, leaving nothing but a residue of tingling in his arm, neck and back. He made a pathetic, embarrassing sound, breathing rough and ruined.

‘This,’ Augus said, his own voice rougher than usual, ‘this is why I should be doing this on a more regular basis. What would you have done, Gwyn? Would you have killed me? Are you ever going to talk about what it was like when you were made underfae?’

‘That was underhanded,’ Gwyn rasped, coughing, wanting to moan in relief and just angry enough that he held the sound back.

‘Yes,’ Augus said, smiling. ‘It was. Do you feel better now?’

And damn Augus, but he did. His shoulder wasn’t hurting for the first time in weeks. He felt sated, his throat was sore in a way that made Gwyn swallow more often just to feel it. He could still taste Augus’ spill in the back of his throat. Perhaps he was imagining it, but he hoped not.

Augus pulled him out of the shower by his forearm and took another towel out of a cabinet, handing one to Gwyn, before towelling himself down. Gwyn was in the process of turning his water-slicked hair into an unruly, fluffy mess, when Augus paused him. Gwyn dragged careful fingers through his hair, settling it.

Delicate fingers touched the edges of his scar tissue. The nerves sent back mixed signals. He didn’t look down, because that would mean looking at the scar, so he looked away instead.

Augus traced the edges of the scar, which was broad, ugly. Augus draped his towel over his shoulder so he could free up his other hand, which he used to touch the other side of Gwyn’s back, where the arrow had entered. Both sides were gnarled.

‘It’s starting to fade,’ Augus said. Gwyn saw him lick his lips in his peripheral vision. ‘You don’t talk about it. You don’t look at it. But you are still stunning to look at. Look at yourself in the mirror.’

Gwyn shook his head. He would tolerate this for another few seconds, then, if Augus continued, he’d walk away. He was beginning to learn that Augus liked to choose the times when Gwyn was tired, exhausted, sated, to try and tunnel underneath his walls.

‘Look at yourself,’ Augus said. The words became harder, and Gwyn could tell this wasn’t optional. He sighed, the sound laboured, and looked at his own face, before meeting Augus’ eyes in the mirror. ‘The scar, Gwyn.’

His eyes glanced over it. All he saw was a red, disgusting reminder of how stupid he’d been. How utterly, irredeemably stupid. His nostrils flared, the light that had pulsed through his bones before came back, heating him. All he saw when he looked at the scar was a worthless, incompetent fool who couldn’t even-

A smashing sound, pain in his fist, and Augus standing to the side of him, looking down at the shards of mirror in shock. Gwyn calmed his breathing, straightened his fingers, then lowered his arm back to his side like he’d done nothing at all. His knuckles were cut open. They would already be healing.

Unlike his shoulder, which would never heal.

‘Perhaps you’re not ready for that yet,’ Augus said, voice light.

‘Perhaps not,’ Gwyn agreed, voice stiff.

‘You can’t keep evading the subject forever, Gwyn. It’s not just going to go away if you refuse to think about it.’

‘I’ll get you a new mirror.’

‘Oh,’ Augus said, and then laughed, the sound self-deprecating. Augus gestured desultorily at the Soulbond. ‘I’m not one to talk, actually. Mirrors and I don’t get along as well as we used to.’

‘How can you say that? It’s-’

‘It will be the reason my brother dies. It has already been the reason my brother has died. Don’t you dare tell me that it’s pretty, or beautiful. I can already see it in your eyes Gwyn, but if you say the words aloud, I am going to get angry.’

Gwyn thought that was a double standard, but he didn’t say as much, given that he was also quite sure he would let Augus walk all over him for some time, given how remiss Gwyn had been in his attentions. He sighed and examined his knuckles, picking out some pieces of mirror and letting them fall the floor. The trows would clean up, and – knowing them – would provide a new mirror by nightfall, provided he and Augus left the room long enough that they could enter.

They both exited the bathroom, and Augus seemed perfectly happy to stay nude; Gwyn wasn’t about to discourage him. He pulled his shirt on, because he knew he didn’t look as good decorating a room as Augus did. It was a novelty to steal a few minutes unhindered by the pain in his shoulder. He pursed his lips, eventually he would have to go back to work, he couldn’t spend all day in this room.

‘Augus,’ he asked, watching Augus fish the small green crystal out from the bed and place it carefully on the bedside drawer. ‘If I were to ask Fenwrel for her recommendations for potential staff to cover your common work, and other duties, would you trust those recommendations?’

‘Yes,’ Augus said, unthinking. Then he stilled, his face drained of colour. Gwyn stood, adrenaline coursing.

‘What is it?’

‘I just remembered,’ Augus said, staring at him. ‘It’s…the events before my death are muddy, and they’re only just- I interrogated Dogwill. I have very thorough notes but there was one thing I meant to tell you as soon as I- Damn it.’

‘Tell me,’ Gwyn said, voice firm.

‘Dogwill swore, under compulsion, that there was another traitor in our midst. Now, wait,’ Augus raised his hand as Gwyn tensed. ‘There were some signs that Dogwill had been spoon-fed information by Albion in case he was ever discovered, so I can’t be sure that Dogwill wasn’t simply told that there were other traitors for the purposes of reassurance, or to allay his fears, or to further destabilise us. I’m uncertain. But Dogwill swore to it.’

‘He doesn’t know who it is?’

‘He doesn’t,’ Augus said. ‘He didn’t even know if it was another General or random staff. I tried teasing that apart from all directions, believe me he broke quite beautifully.’

‘And he doesn’t mean the plot with the shapeshifters?’

‘That’s Crielle’s plot, he knew nothing about that at all,’ Augus said, frowning.

Gwyn made a sound of frustration. His fists clenched again.

Augus stepped towards him. ‘Gwyn, tell me what you’re thinking.’

‘Only that I need to allow more staff into the palace. I need to. This Court is barely functional, it drifts into outright dysfunction at times. I can’t trust these people, yet I have to allow more in?’

Augus paused, then settled his hair carefully behind his back, twisting excess water out of it. ‘I think I should interrogate the Generals and the common fae servants – some of them were here before you were in power, and could have been turned. But it would have to be done carefully. As soon as rumours spread that interrogations were happening again, a fae could possibly get more hands on that herbal block- Not to mention that to do this twice to your Generals will sully their faith. They will know immediately that there is likely another traitor amongst them, if I interrogate them once more.’

‘Let them suspect,’ Gwyn said, shaking his head as he thought about it. ‘Let them. They are competent, and their faith is already sullied. Ifir knew the shapeshifter before I did, and – though I question his methods – he did potentially save my life. Let’s assume that not every one of them is a traitor. Perhaps they will see something I cannot, once more.’

‘Could it be one of the Generals?’ Augis said, and Gwyn shrugged with one shoulder.

‘Could it? Vane ingratiates himself to me frequently, but he is over-eager and he has none of the subtlety that I’d expect from an educated, trained traitor. It may be some of the more competent Generals. Perhaps Mu or Ocypete. I hate to think it’s Zudanna. She helped lead the charge against Albion’s military when we set the trap for Dogwill in the first place. There’s no help for it, Augus, they all have to be compelled.’

‘I’ll find a way to do it delicately, at least,’ Augus said, sitting on the bed with his legs together, kneeling on his haunches. ‘What about Mikkel?’

‘I doubt it,’ Gwyn said, frankly. ‘He’s revealed his ‘price’ for his information – which is valuable, but I genuinely sense he has no idea just how valuable some of what he knows is to me. He wants stories of…of a certain other Reader I once knew.’

Augus’ eyes widened a fraction, his mouth tensed. Gwyn fiddled with the hem of his shirt.

‘And is that going well,’ Augus said, ‘considering you still struggle to say his name?’

Gwyn winced, felt a tightening in his chest. ‘What else am I supposed to do? He Reads the emotions anyway. From what he’s said, I was- I was easy enough prey when I was in the cell.’

‘When you were in my cell,’ Augus said, with that belligerent persistence that meant he wasn’t nearly done dropping the subject of what things had been like when Gwyn was underfae. Gwyn tried to gather his thoughts.

‘He has very valuable information. And I-’ like him.

Gwyn’s lips pressed together when he realised what he’d been about to say. Mikkel was infuriating, unfit and didn’t seem to care about fae etiquette. He was invasive and rude and sometimes outright intolerable. And yet…the man had an odd charm about him. After a lifetime of lies and needing to keep things hidden, being able to spend time with someone who peeled everything back to its most truthful core was oddly appealing.

Even if it did come in a mind-bogglingly annoying package.

‘It could be Mikkel,’ Gwyn forced himself to admit. ‘He can’t be compelled.’

Augus said nothing for some time. He was looking off into the distance, and Gwyn wanted to ask him what he was thinking, but decided waiting might be more polite. He swallowed quietly, to feel the pain in his throat, already fading.

‘I’m going to start moving my things into those rooms,’ Augus said finally, looking at him. ‘I’ll start today. Since I’m sure you’re not in the mood to let me heal another lake?’

Augus laughed at the look Gwyn gave him. After a few seconds, his expression sobered. He slid off the bed and lifted the blankets, looking underneath the bed. He then drew out one of the wicker hampers the trows often dropped off, containing foods that were easy to snack on – meals that could be eaten while working, or in Augus’ case, while recovering.

‘Sit next to me,’ Augus said.

‘I don’t see what the fuss is about,’ Gwyn said, rolling his eyes, even as he sat on Augus’ other side, away from the hamper. His chest was still tight. It was frustrating that Augus had decided to pick on this matter of all matters. Especially when Gwyn was sure it would resolve on its own.

Augus handed him a crusty roll of bread, it was warm, like it had just come from the oven. The trows had magic that allowed them to preserve food, the roll could have been baked some time ago. Still, it smelled fresh. The scent alone made Gwyn’s stomach rumble, his mouth water.

‘The fuss,’ Augus said, taking up some spinach leaves and nibbling on them primly, ‘is that Aleutia told me that you aren’t as well as you should be, and that I have noticed your eating habits have been…shall we say, off kilter, since you came to the Unseelie Court. Though, honestly, they were always neglected. You abused your King status terribly when it came to personal care. Likely, you’ve begun to again. But not eating will impact your health. You can survive it, but I’m not sure you should be seeing your Generals, or ruling this Kingdom, with anything other than an alert mind and sound body.’

Gwyn picked the crust apart, pulling some of the softer bread out of the middle. It was soft against his fingers, like the down or fur of some animal. He ate it easily enough. But all the same, after that first mouthful, he didn’t eat more.

‘Are you so dense you haven’t realised why?’ Augus said, taking the roll from Gwyn’s hands and tearing out some of the fluffy insides. He pressed the bread to Gwyn’s lips, and Gwyn scowled at him before taking it, his lips brushing over Augus’ fingertips.

‘I’m sure you’ll tell me,’ Gwyn said around a mouthful of food. Crielle would have reprimanded him for that, Lludd would have hit him in the face at the dinner table, if they’d not had guests. He resisted the urge to hunch in on himself.

‘Oh, I’m sure there’s a lot of reasons,’ Augus said, pressing bread to Gwyn’s mouth once more. Gwyn took it from Augus’ fingers, and Augus hummed with approval. ‘But I think one of the main ones is that you were starving to death while you were underfae. And one of the things I learned as a dominant, is that fae end up with particular triggers that, when touched, unlock a whole cascade of other matters; almost like a mental pressure point. That one thing becomes the lock and key to a gate that can hide or let forth everything connected to an event, or a series of events. And for you, I think, the act of eating has become a very loaded act.’

Augus cleared his throat. ‘It was likely very loaded already.’

Gwyn swallowed and took the roll out of Augus’ hand, biting into it directly and tearing off a huge mouthful.

‘See? I’m fine,’ Gwyn said with his mouth full, getting up and walking around to the other side of the bed and looking for his pants.

‘Ah yes,’ Augus said, smirking. ‘Of course. Very believable.’

‘Good,’ Gwyn said, belligerently.

Augus laughed outright, and Gwyn looked at him as he finished tugging on his pants. He was taken aback by the lack of irritation on Augus’ face, as though he found Gwyn truly amusing. Gwyn glowered.

‘You know I’m not letting this go,’ Augus said, shrugging, and Gwyn bit down the growl lurking in the back of his throat. ‘Oh? You do know, wonderful.’

‘I have to get back to-’

‘Running the Kingdom? Work?’ Augus said, raising his eyebrows, the smile not leaving his face. Gwyn’s cheeks began to burn, and Augus dug into the hamper and picked up some more spinach leaves. Gwyn didn’t want to say anything, but he felt a small curl of warmth to see Augus voluntarily eating, after Aleutia had noted that his and Ash’s appetites would be stifled after their organs had shut down.

‘I am actually the King. That does actually mean something,’ Gwyn said.

‘It does. Speaking of, will you really…transfer me into diplomacy? If you can- if we can find someone to help out with the common work?’

‘You should have told me you disliked it this much,’ Gwyn said.

‘I- I don’t dislike it, per se,’ Augus said, though Gwyn very much doubted it from the way Augus’ jaw tensed. ‘It’s important work. And diplomacy seems a distant goal, given you also slaughtered my reputation at the Display- Ah, no, at the Triumphal Entry.’

Augus wasn’t looking at him, and Gwyn was grateful for that because it meant he missed Gwyn closing his eyes, a bolt of pain coursing through him. He thought back to Gulvi’s lecture, and decided that as hard as her words were to hear, he needed to hear them. He walked over to Augus’ side once more, sat next to him, taking one of Augus’ hands in his own.

‘I did you an injustice,’ Gwyn said. ‘And it’s time I took measures to make sure people respect you as they once did. It won’t be possible with everyone – but we can make steps in the right direction. You say you trust Fenwrel? I’ll ask her to recommend potential candidates. If she doesn’t know who to suggest, I’ll find others who can help assist in Court matters. The common work could be spread out, titrated.’

Gwyn pressed Augus’ hand between his own, meeting those green eyes.

‘I wanted to tell you,’ Gwyn continued, ‘Ondine came to visit me, a little while ago. She gave me the seeds of a plan, and I wanted your blessing. Given you are, after all, my primary advisor.’

‘Oh?’ Augus said, curious.

Gwyn resisted smiling, explaining the plan. In the end, it was Augus who grinned darkly, and Gwyn took that as a good sign.

‘Mm,’ Augus said, sliding his hand out of Gwyn’s grip and stretching. ‘I think you have a Seelie King to vex.’

‘I think so,’ Gwyn said. He got up, wanted to lean down and kiss Augus on the lips, wanted to do something, but unsure what he could do. In the end, he walked from the room saying an awkward farewell. He’d taken Augus’ hand hadn’t he? That was plenty. Besides, it had been a strange but good evening and morning. He wanted to put the energy he’d gained from it to good use.

Chapter Text

Gwyn

*

Gwyn thought he would feel nervous, but he didn’t. He wore nothing more than simple pale brown pants, a creamy linen shirt, and a short sword belted to his side. Many didn’t know he could wield a short sword nearly as well as a longsword and claymore, and he almost wished someone would give him the opportunity to show them. He itched for a good battle, the Unseelie couldn’t risk the soldiers to have as many as he truly wanted.

He waited, arms folded, in front of the door to a villa built with yellowing limestone. He’d knocked loudly and looked around, curious. Perhaps he should feel more threatened, but he didn’t. It was incredible what having a task did for his confidence, and this was one he was looking forward to completing.

The aging door opened, and a short, squat fae with burly arms and curly hair stared up at him. His small eyes widened in his weathered face, he gasped, and then Gwyn smiled as the fae went to slam the door in his face.

He slid his foot forward and the door hammered into it, not closing.

‘Go away!’ the fae shrieked.

‘Now, Duribard, is that any way to greet the Unseelie King?’

Gwyn felt it as the door was shoved against his foot even harder. It hammered against the edge of his boot, and Gwyn simply leaned into it, resisting the urge to smile wider.

‘Go away, traitor!’ Duribard shouted.

‘Duribard,’ Gwyn said quietly, ‘do you want your neighbours to see me? I can wait out here all day. And the day after that, and the day after that. Not to mention the fact that you owe me at least one life debt. Don’t you?’

The thudding on the other side of the door stopped, and Gwyn saw the square head, the bright eyes, poke out from behind the door. The stare was wary, frightened.

‘You remember those early days, yes?’ Gwyn said. ‘Quite a reckless young fae you were out there with us all. Weapons repair, back then, wasn’t it? But you always put yourself out in the line of fire, just to make those weapons worked for the Seelie fae. So very loyal. But foolhardy. Even feckless.’

‘What do you want?’ Duribard said, staring at him.

‘Invite me into your home,’ Gwyn said coldly, dropping the smile.

‘Never,’ Duribard hissed. ‘I’ll not invite you into my home. Not ever. Lord Albion should have killed you ten times over.’

‘Duribard, I don’t actually need an invitation to enter, I’m the King,’ Gwyn shoved past him, pushing aside the muscled dwarf like he weighed nothing and entering his home, closing the door carefully behind him. ‘Do you ever wonder why Albion hasn’t killed me ten times over? It’s no matter. Now, if you’ll not observe the fae laws regarding etiquette, I will observe them myself. Where is your kitchen. Ah! I see it.’

He walked towards the kitchen and listened as Duribard scrambled to his feet, trotting after him.

‘Get out!’ Duribard shouted. ‘I’ll summon the King! I can do that now!’

‘Duribard,’ Gwyn said quietly, not turning around, ‘you owe me three life debts.’

‘Everyone knows you don’t collect on those. Everyone.’

Gwyn did turn around, leaning against the doorframe, folding his arms. ‘If I hadn’t saved your life, three times over, you would never have become the primary systems weaponeer for the Seelie fae. In point of fact, Duribard, they would have overlooked you if it hadn’t been for my personal recommendation to the Oak King.’

Duribard’s eyes narrowed, then practically disappeared behind the wrinkles on his face. Gwyn could tell he was lost in thought, and then Duribard clapped his hands over his face and shook his head.

‘What do you want?’ he said, looking at Gwyn once more over his fingers.

‘I want forty trebuchets,’ Gwyn said. ‘And then you can consider the debt half paid.’

‘Forty? What!? I can’t make you- I can’t do that! I can’t! Albion would- I couldn’t even make them. Do you know how long they take to make? We’re not Mages, you know. We don’t just wave a wand and conjure them from nothing. Even Mages couldn’t do it.’

‘That does sound hard for you,’ Gwyn said. ‘Doesn’t the Seelie Kingdom already have forty trebuchets in its military? Actually, as I recall, they had more. I wouldn’t even be leaving them in the lurch.’

‘Gwyn,’ Duribard said, mouth going slack, horror, fury and more on his face.

‘It’s King Gwyn, to you,’ Gwyn said, voice clipped. ‘And you know the debt is fair. Don’t you? This is my price, you must pay it within two weeks. Deliver the trebuchets to the Unseelie Kingdom. Before the Gwylwyr Du. And don’t think to lay a trap for me, Duribard, for I’ll just end up living, and I’ll ask even more from you.’

‘Why don’t you just kill me?’ Duribard said.

‘Because you are far more valuable to me alive. And because I’m quite fond of you, Duribard. We used to drink together, did we not? I remember those stories we shared. You talking of your large family, your beloved sisters, how novel it was that your mothers and fathers were still alive. How fond you were of the tiny sparrows that you bred.’

Duribard stared at him and Gwyn smiled coldly when he realised the threat had landed. By the gods, but he’d missed this.

‘Albion will kill me,’ Duribard said. ‘He’ll kill you.’

‘Perhaps,’ Gwyn said, shrugging. ‘Though, honestly, if he kills everyone who ends up paying off a life debt to me, he’s going to lose a significant chunk of the most powerful minds in his land-fae military.’

‘I’m not the first you’ve visited,’ Duribard said, voice flat.

‘Nor the last. And Duribard? As part of the life-debt, I demand that you not inform any of your peers, or use any method to let others know about our exchange.’

‘Those- Those trebuchets are old. They need maintenance. Let me…let me make you new ones. Give me more time,’ Duribard said, and Gwyn pretended to look like he was thinking it over.

‘Forty of the Seelie trebuchets would do just fine, Duribard.’

‘You can’t do this. What about…what’s to stop fae from doing the same to you? Claiming their debts back from you?’

‘The simple fact is I have operated many military sieges, battles and missions for almost three thousand years, and my heartsong was triumph for a great deal of that time. I won a lot of battles, I elected to save a lot of lives, and you would be surprised how many fae will volunteer the words: ‘I owe you a life debt’ to someone who has just saved their life in order to set the debt in stone. Perhaps they said it because they were convinced I would never call them to repay it. But then, everyone thought I was Seelie, too.’

‘I fought by your side,’ Duribard said, shaking his head slowly. ‘I helped you. Over and over again. We all did. We worked for you. You don’t know what your lie has done to us, the Seelie. You don’t even care. And you don’t know what we’ll do to you, if we get the chance.’

‘I’m sure it will look like torture, followed by death,’ Gwyn said.

Duribard quivered all over, not in fear, but suppressed violence. To attack someone calling in a life debt was physiologically impossible, especially if that life debt was reasonable. There were some fae laws that went beyond words, deep into the marrow of a person. If Duribard didn’t pay the debt, he would eventually sicken and then die.

‘Do you honestly think Albion will let this stand?’ Duribard said, voice shaking, and Gwyn shook his head.

‘No, I don’t. Do you truly think I haven’t considered that? You’re saying nothing that comes as news to me, Duribard. Now, you know the terms. The trebuchets, delivered within two weeks. I want them delivered whole and untampered with, and should you breach those terms I will declare the life debt unpaid and then take the lives of your family as payment. You were with me the day we took Nwython’s property. You know I am more than capable.’

‘Even without the trebuchets, our military is stronger than yours,’ Duribard snarled.

‘Yes,’ Gwyn said. ‘Partly why I consider the debt half paid. I’ll come back for the incendiary cannons later. Now, if you must excuse me, I have someone else to visit. It has been a busy day, you understand.’

Gwyn walked towards the front door and then looked behind him as he opened it. Duribard hadn’t moved, save for his head which tracked Gwyn’s movement.

‘And Duribard, do remember your manners next time. The laws of fae etiquette are sacred, and you do your alignment a disservice when you ignore them. Farewell.’

He closed the door behind him, and teleported to his next location.

It really had been a busy day.

*

Gwyn returned at midnight, and a trow intercepted him immediately. He crouched down to the trow’s level, a rush of warmth finding him as he read what the trow was saying. He signed back instantly.

Are you sure? Gwyn signed. Augus was approved to hunt by Aleutia?

The trow nodded vigorously. The waterhorse said he will not return for a week, and that you should still rest in mutual rooms, and not your own rooms. He was very firm. Shall we be delivering food and so forth there now?

Gwyn nodded, and then thought about how to phrase his next sentence. If you could keep bringing some linens and clothing to my old rooms, however. Just enough that I can utilise them on occasion.

The trow nodded, spindly fingers moving a quick agreement. Gwyn inclined his head in thanks and then teleported to one of the strategy rooms he and Gulvi had commandeered. She wasn’t there, which was more the norm these days as she and Ash spent a great deal of time together since his temporary death. Gwyn looked at the large list of Seelie fae on a parchment hanging from the wall. He highlighted another five names, and then wrote down what each had pledged to do, or not do. Wealth, trebuchets, a promise to halt the military manoeuvres for three squadrons, for four weeks.

The list contained two hundred names, with another one hundred and seventy on the side as back-up. They represented the most significant land fae in the Seelie military, the skilled engineers, the most successful farmers, even the best farriers and hound breeders.

It made him uneasy, looking at all of them. Ondine had told him to get revenge, but Duribard – and many of the others – were right; Gwyn had fought to protect these people. He’d put his life on the line for them and everything they stood for, and a part of him still believed in the Seelie principles. He knew for the sake of the Unseelie Kingdom, he had to buy time and resources. He knew that he was hurting the people he’d once supported for thousands of years.

He clenched his fists and walked away, before losing patience and teleporting straight to the training rooms.

*

The next day, still sore from training for hours without cease, he visited another thirty Seelie fae, jumping from place to place with teleportation that no longer fatigued him now that he was King status again.

At the end of his day, when the sun had already set in the Seelie courtlands and the stars had come out to watch all he did, he found himself at a property neighbouring the An Fnwy estate. It was a landscape he hadn’t visited for some time, and he felt oddly nostalgic, even as his mind revolted with a wealth of unpleasant memories.

He walked down a pristine drive lit with the orangey flames of torches that were spelled to self-ignite, then burn down to nothing at dawn, before springing up anew the following night.

A high pitched whining. A rush of air zooming past. Gwyn looked up, withdrew his short sword, and his night vision allowed him to see fae on the battlements.

A cold sweat bloomed through him. The last time an arrow had come at him, it had-

But no, since he’d been underfae he’d been in battle, there had been arrows and spears aplenty and his bloodlust had driven away his terror at what it felt like to be shot as an underfae. He let himself fall into that cold hunger, his grip tightening on his hilt, then deliberately loosening.

It would be a good way to test if his reflexes were up to par.

Another three arrows came as he walked calmly up the path. He knocked each one away with the sword, muscles bunching and relaxing, the movements a blur. Only fae that battled with him knew how fast he could be, how quickly he could move his bulk. He’d trained hard for the fitness he carried with him, his power accelerated with the privilege of his status.

Aggravation stirred slowly and thickly within. All his life, everyone knew you treated the King of either alignment with respect. You invited them into your house, you offered them refreshments; even if you were planning on going straight to your alignment’s Court afterwards and telling them everything. There were rules that transcended the individual principles of each alignment. Rules of etiquette, rules of courtesy.

Even his mother and father observed them, painstakingly.

To be knocking arrows away as he approached the wealthy, verdant villa set his teeth on edge. He’d expected the fae to start informing others of Gwyn’s sudden urge to collect upon life debts, but perhaps he should have expected this instead.

The front doors opened as he approached, light spilling on balustrades and a landing that looked as though it were made of blue and pink mother of pearl. He’d never liked the aesthetic of the daoine sidhe at the best of times.

‘Marika!’ Gwyn called, ‘I call upon the laws of life debt, you must hold council with me!’

He heard the whine of the arrow as it came from behind, and stepped out of its path, knocking the arrow down. There were bow wielders behind him. No matter. He walked up the steps and a flurry of arrows came towards him. He leapt aside, dodged some, and an odd, feral glee found him. This was no harder than some of his training as a child, when Lludd had decided to take realistic trials one step further. He’d only been twenty the first time he’d been expected to dodge arrows from skilled bow-wielders. Back then, he hadn’t been able to dodge them all, but he had a good rate of success only two years later, when his father wouldn’t stop the trials even if Gwyn had arrows jutting from his flesh.

Was he trying to kill me even then? Did he realise what it would mean when I didn’t fail?

Abruptly, the shower of arrows stopped, and Marika came to the door with her hands on her hips. Gwyn was sure that, to others, she was stunningly beautiful. She had a more refined face than even his mother, and had been beloved of the Court for longer than many could remember. Marika of the daoine sidhe was one of the trusted tutors who had taught him his skills with the recurve bow, and it pained him to be here.

There was a reason he’d saved this visit for the end of the day.

‘Good to see all that training paid off,’ Marika said, her voice flowing and rippling, almost like a brook.

‘I’d missed your sarcasm,’ Gwyn said, shooting her a bright smile. She looked taken aback for several seconds, but Gwyn meant it. Marika was one of the few tutors whom he’d been permitted to spend more than a year or two with, because Marika had constantly maintained a brutal coldness around him. To the point that Gwyn had wondered if Marika was secretly trying to kill him when he was a child. It wasn’t until he was older, a General moving up through the ranks of the military, that he met Marika again and realised that nothing was quite as it seemed. ‘Invite me into your home, Marika.’

‘You have a standing invitation,’ Marika said quietly, stepping back with the tall, slender grace of her kind and tilting her head, her pointed ears. She fit the fairy stereotype far better than he did, and Gwyn resisted the urge to touch his rounded ears, the ones that made it so easy for him to pass as human in the human world.

He followed her down a corridor that shimmered like the inside of a pearl. He felt magic all around him, but nothing particularly hostile, though he did not sheath his sword until:

‘Gwyn,’ Marika said, without looking back at him, ‘if you truly wish me to observe the older fae laws, then you will put away that weapon inside my home.’

‘I’m just trying to assess how many bow-wielders could be hiding inside,’ Gwyn said, sheathing his sword easily and following her past plants that grew flowers that glowed cream and pink, smelling richly of vanilla and cinnamon. His mouth started to water, and he knew he should eat something when he returned back to the palace.

He was led to a sun parlour, the light provided by werelight and a profusion of glowing flowers, of leaves limned with light. It was an older, kitsch fae décor that had fallen out of fashion, yet it put his mind oddly at ease. He watched as she walked straight to a daybed and sat easily upon it, adjusting her transparent robes. She gestured for Gwyn to sit opposite her.

‘I would offer you refreshments, but I know you would not trust them. I will not besmirch you in this way.’

‘I appreciate it,’ Gwyn said, sitting stiffly. The chair was comfortable. He didn’t want to be lulled.

‘Now,’ Marika said, ‘you mentioned a life debt? There are three, aren’t there? That is what I get for supporting you in some of your campaigns. But before you simply come here and ask me for what you will, let us chat first.’

Gwyn scowled at her, looked around the room slowly. There was no one else hiding in here. Carefully, he let his ability to sense other fae spill around him, and aside from fae that seemed to be gathered – hiding? – in the opposite wing, and the bow-wielders on the property, he sensed no one. Still, he kept his power spilled, in case she had summoned others without his knowing. She wasn’t a Mage, but she’d always been adept at magic.

‘What do I tell you, Gwyn ap Nudd?’ Marika said, looking at him closely – to see, he presumed, if he noticed the use of his full name. The one taken from him by his family, by the King. ‘I voted for your demotion. I was one of the many Court fae summoned that day, and I saw the aithwick cut away from your bones. I felt the lie revealed. I was not furious as the others, but struck with melancholy. I knew a little of your childhood, and I had once confronted your father as to why he was rushing you through the training of war and war skills at such a young age. Why he would put you in the military when you were only a baby. He told me he was confident you would triumph over all. And he said it with a tone of voice that I’m sure you knew very well, one that brooked no further discussion.’

She smiled coldly. ‘I came to my own conclusions and I kept them silent. You are Unseelie, perhaps he should have killed you the moment he knew. But we are covetous of our reputations are we not? Our positions close to the King. And the Oak King, though he ruled justly, played favourites. He played us against each other to make sure our loyalties were to him and not each other, to make sure they were fierce, devoted, that we were always plying him and his Court with favours.’

‘Marika, I-’

‘Hush,’ Marika said, trailing her hand down the silks. She looked relaxed, in repose, but Gwyn knew that her reflexes were as sharp as his, that she could be up and have a knife to his throat if he didn’t keep a close eye on her. ‘Your mother never much liked me, though she invited me to many of her soirees and other functions. King Albion’s sea fae don’t much like me now. They don’t much like any of us. They don’t understand the fae of the land. Can you imagine what it’s done to the land fae, to find their Court palace turned into an idyllic place for merrows and mer-fae?’

‘I can,’ Gwyn said quietly.

‘He wouldn’t be King, if we didn’t have your betrayal to pit ourselves against.’

‘He would,’ Gwyn said, shaking his head slowly. ‘There was no one else to rally behind, and the fae will not go without a monarch.’

‘Strange, isn’t it?’ Marika said, leaning forward and offering him a bright smile. ‘Now, when you told Duribard he could not speak of your debt price to the King or his peers, you did not tell him that he could not speak to those he considers beneath him, and I believe you may have under-estimated Duribard’s rage. By now, King Albion knows well and truly what you’re doing, if he hadn’t already divined it for himself. You stir an ant’s nest, Gwyn. But it’s one that some of us want to see stirred.’

Gwyn stared at her. She couldn’t be suggesting what he thought she was suggesting.

‘I’m not an ally,’ Marika said, holding up a hand at his expression. ‘But nor do I support the Oak King’s agenda, Albion’s agenda of annihilating the Unseelie. I quite like the Unseelie. They throw intriguing functions. Their masques are something to be reckoned with. The Wild Hunt only exists because of the accord between the Seelie and Unseelie. And I have cousins and other family members, daoine sidhe, bean sidhe, cu sidhe and more, who are Unseelie. So you see, I have never supported the Oak King’s agenda, as you haven’t. That was why I liked you so much.’

‘Is all this talking leading to a point, or are you going to put me off claiming my debt from you forever?’ Gwyn said, and Marika gave him a pointed look, and then lifted her fingers in a shrug. The gesture reminded him of Augus.

‘You are Gwyn ap Nudd, child of Crielle and Lludd, and as they did not kill you, they had no right to take away your name. I always appreciated your strategies, and I appreciate them now. Do you know what Albion will do, with you impacting so many of the significant military land fae? He will remove them from power, or put them on the bench, and then he will put his mer-fae and merrows into positions of power. For they owe you no life debts. He will create a very powerful military. He already has. But the land fae, the Seelie land fae, will not appreciate Albion’s response to you.’

‘You talk like you already know what he’ll do,’ Gwyn said, though he’d suspected Albion would do the same. He was banking on it. More dissent in the Seelie ranks could only work in his favour. What Marika didn’t know was that Gwyn wasn’t only targeting high status military fae. He was a soldier, he’d worked alongside other soldiers, he knew just how crucial it was for every part of the team to pull its weight. He knew just how quickly things fell into disarray if soldiers didn’t work together.

‘This is not a game only you and Albion are privy to. It’s one we all get to see. Moves and countermoves. Those that are obvious, like this one – this you do to stir him from his palace and throne, and those that are subtle. Now, I suspect you are here to ask me to pay you a debt. Here is what I am going to give you, for free. Not because I support you, but because I support the outcome of what you are doing. I will cease tutoring all Seelie fae in the art of the bow, for a period of five months. Five months only. And I will cease working in the military in any capacity, except advisory, for three months.’

She straightened and had a small knife in her hands. He hadn’t seen where it had come from. She snicked a line across her middle finger and blood trickled down her hand.

‘This I oath to you on pain of death, should I break my oath.’

Gwyn stared at her.

‘Now, save your life debts with me, for you may need to call upon me in five months or more. I will tell Albion that you have exacted a crueller price upon me than some of the others, and simply state you have saved my life more than once. You are not alone, Gwyn ap Nudd. Now that the dust has settled, I have had a…shall we say, surprising number of fae come to me and ask me what I think of your upbringing, of your nature. After all, I lived so close to you, tutored you, fought alongside you. So I have had a surprising amount of opportunities to examine just what I think about you.’

Marika licked the blood away with a pointed tongue, and her pupils constricted long and narrow like a cat’s as she did so. She tucked the knife away, and then settled her silks once more.

‘The Unseelie Kingdom cannot collapse,’ Marika said. ‘It simply cannot. And there are of those of us with cousins across the river whom we care for, very much, who are fighting to make sure it does not collapse. And we have been here longer than you have, and we have a much older agenda to fight. I don’t know that I care for you, young man, and nor do I know if it will be your reign that pulls us through this rocky time. But I have come to hope that it will.’

‘You shot over seventy arrows at me while I approached your home,’ Gwyn observed.

Marika smiled down at her fingers. ‘I was only making sure my tutoring had left its indelible mark on you, as I am glad to know it has. You know as well as I, that I could mount a far more aggressive attack upon you if I wanted, and you would still survive it.’

That much was true.

‘Now,’ Marika said, standing and gesturing for Gwyn to do the same. ‘I demand that you take back your name. You are Gwyn ap Nudd. We made you, did we not? The least you can do is make us stand up and notice you. And some of us do, young man.’

Gwyn stared at the healing cut on her finger. The one that would scar, because she’d made him a blood oath to stop tutoring all her students. He knew Marika, she trained the bow squadrons – the most advanced. He’d planned on asking her to halt her tutoring for a week, two weeks at best. Five months was a coup he couldn’t quite fathom.

She walked him to the door quietly, and Gwyn felt out of sorts. What had just happened? And why? They were supposed to hate him. Ondine only liked him because…because she was Ondine, and had a soft spot for everyone.

She paused before she opened the double doors of her home. ‘Gwyn?’

‘Yes, my Lady?’

‘Perhaps the Unseelie Kingdom will be crushed. But, on the small chance that it’s not, you should also think of who you want to see ruling the Seelie Kingdom. For it cannot be Albion. We must all think of who we want to be running our Kingdom.’

‘With all due respect, Marika, this is not my Kingdom any longer,’ Gwyn said, smiling ruefully.

‘With all due respect, Gwyn ap Nudd, I do not think you truly understand the position you’re in, or how to make it work for you. The sooner you realise that we are not ‘the enemy,’ or not all of us, the sooner you will understand that there is an opportunity at your feet. Although,’ Marika smiled darkly, ‘you cannot trust Duribard as far as you can throw him. Not even that far. Now, leave, so that I might pretend at terrible distress, and tell Albion what a cruel, cruel thing you have done when he comes to question me – as he will.’

‘You gave me a blood-oath,’ Gwyn said, staring at her hand once more. ‘I would not have asked it.’

‘That is why I gave it to you. It is my gift. I look ahead to a day when I might be able to tutor someone such as you, or any Unseelie, my own cousins, and not be demoted for it.’

‘A day that doesn’t exist,’ Gwyn said grimly. ‘Has never existed.’

‘I have lived far longer than you,’ Marika said smiling. ‘And I look ahead to a future you cannot see. Now, you’d best teleport away, since my bow-wielders have been instructed to be most merciless upon your exit.’

Gwyn stepped onto her landing, holding her eldritch gaze as he summoned his light and left her property, his head ringing.

*

Four days later and Augus hadn’t yet returned, though the trows were on alert to let Gwyn know as soon as he had.

Duribard and some of the other Seelie fae had found ways to report to Albion and each other, and almost half the fae on his priority list were not to be found in all the places he sought them, so he moved to his back-up list. Many of those fae clearly hadn’t considered themselves to be in positions significant enough to be visited, and so his hit rate stayed high.

Still, as the days passed, he found himself funnelling more and more of his time into training. He used a mixture of private and public training arenas, though he often had an audience of Unseelie Court fae when he trained publically; they circulated frequently in the outer circle of the Unseelie palace now. It didn’t impact his performance to have spectators, but he did have to clamp down on his urge to growl through the worst of the pain in his shoulder.

Lurking through him was a growing agitation that he couldn’t sate with splitting and shattering wooden dummies with a longsword. Marika’s words bothered him, the attitude of many of the other Seelie fae he met filled him with disgust. But the more he trained, the less control he seemed to have over the anger that coursed through him.

Fenwrel had informed him that Ash had a mild case of the underworld-sickness that Augus had. What did that mean? Should he be nicer to Ash? Was there a chance that Ash was treating Gwyn the way he was, because he was ill? Gwyn made concessions for Augus, but then – even ill as he was, Augus didn’t treat him the way Ash did.

And apparently Gwyn was ill, Augus insisted on it. How were they supposed to run the Kingdom? Gulvi hated being cooped up in the palace and he couldn’t blame her, but it also meant that she was absent with increasing frequency. He needed to keep shoring up the defences of the Kingdom, and fast. He needed to know that if anything happened to him, the palace had a fretwork in place that it could build a future reign upon. Augus had left the Unseelie Kingdom with nothing. Gwyn at least wanted to ensure a Kingdom would function if he surrendered his Kingship in the future.

Right now, he knew it wouldn’t.

He looked up from the large parchment list he was updating, when a trow entered.

‘Is Augus back?’ he said, and the trow shook its head, scratched at its gnarled, wrinkled face.

The Reader is here to see you. We have taken him to the private night garden with the sculptures, as you requested.

‘He came alone?’ Gwyn said, already summoning his light. The trow nodded, and Gwyn disappeared.

*

Gwyn approached Mikkel, where he sat on the bench that was formed from an antlered doe made of stone. But he approached quietly, from behind. He’d managed to surprise Mikkel once before, and wondered if he could do it again.

Mikkel’s red tweed flat-cap made him stand out. He was a thickly built man, lounging back against the chair and whistling a tune that sounded creepy in the night gardens. Gwyn couldn’t pick the tune, but he liked the way it sounded.

When Gwyn deliberately let his foot crunch down on a twig, Mikkel made a sound of shock and turned around, staring at him.

‘Fucking- How do you do that?’

‘Good evening, Mikkel.’

‘Yeah, uh huh, to you too. And- Oh yeah it’s coming through now,’ Mikkel said, waving fingers near his head, indicating the Reading. Gwyn clenched his teeth automatically as he stood before Mikkel, who looked up at him with a cheeky smile. ‘So, like, wow – pretty much all the people you love end up kicking the bucket, don’t they?’

After a week of dealing with Seelie fae and their petty words, after the weeks previous – worrying about Augus and his health – Gwyn felt something within snap.

His fist clenched, he punched Mikkel so hard he drove him from the seat, standing over him, already panting with rage.

Mikkel groaned, spat out blood. He looked up, that shit-eating grin still on his face. ‘Now, now. Can’t solve all your problems with violence.’

The anger spiralled higher, white and red crowding on the edges of his vision.

‘Three thousand years has taught me that I can,’ Gwyn snarled, punching him down to the ground once more. His teeth were still bared, but Mikkel stayed down. Then, in a flurry of movement, Mikkel curled into himself and Gwyn thought he’d hurt him too badly, he always underestimated his strength as King, but-

Mikkel had his flintlock out and pointing at his crotch, hands shaking. ‘Hit me again and I will shoot your fucking dick off. See if I won’t.’

Gwyn was taken aback, and he stepped backwards, raising his hands. The gun didn’t scare him, truthfully. Whatever Mikkel shot would remake itself with time. And though a bullet wound was inconvenient; they weren’t nearly as damaging as being stabbed with a sword or blade.

‘I apologise,’ Gwyn said, still breathing roughly, surprised at how quickly his anger had risen, how quickly it was draining away.

‘Screw you, Cupcake,’ Mikkel said, groaning, spitting out blood once more, before pushing himself up onto his palms and shaking his head slightly. ‘You’re scary.’

Gwyn stared at him. He’d only punched him, and Mikkel was Court status, how was that-

Mikkel turned his head, stared at Gwyn with his mouth open, blood oozing from one side of his lips. ‘How do you- How are you shocked at that? You’re legit scary, Gwyn. You can’t just go up and… I was joking before. I made a joke.’

‘It was tasteless, given what you were joking about,’ Gwyn said, as Mikkel pushed himself back up to the bench and rubbed at his cheek, wincing.

‘You should deal with that temper of yours,’ he muttered.

‘You should learn some tact,’ Gwyn said.

‘What I said was true though,’ Mikkel shrugged. ‘I’m not doing something wrong if I’m telling the truth. Also, there are a lot more people like…more loudly pissed off at you lately. Not just saying so but like…I can feel it. A lot of anger at Gwyn happening in the Seelie Court.’ Mikkel winced and touched shaking fingers to his cheekbone. ‘Jesus, I think you broke something.’

‘I’m sure I did,’ Gwyn said. ‘But you’re Court status, and if you don’t move your face too much beyond speaking, the bone will have knit together by tomorrow.’

‘It hurts,’ Mikkel said, staring at him. ‘I don’t care if it heals by tomorrow, it fucking hurts now.’

Gwyn shook his head, impatient. It was only pain, and Gwyn knew very well that it was frustrating, but it would go.

‘You’ll heal,’ Gwyn said, sitting on the ground in front of him, folding his legs together. Mikkel stared at him again, for a much longer period of time. Gwyn looked up at the constellations to avoid the fact that he could tell Mikkel was sifting through his emotional state, those pale brown eyes looking into him in a way most others couldn’t.

‘You know,’ Mikkel said finally, ‘if you didn’t like the way your dad treated you, maybe you shouldn’t fucking do it to others.’

Gwyn blinked, refused to look at him. His lips thinned. ‘Mikkel, have you Read anything about Albion having another agent in the Unseelie Court?’

‘What?’ Mikkel said. ‘No. Why?’

‘Dogwill swore that there was another traitor, like him, under the force of compulsion.’

‘Well, shit,’ Mikkel said quietly. ‘No, I haven’t Read anything. But Albion…isn’t easy to Read. His surface emotions are easy enough – you know he’s generally angry at you, generally a proud, officious twat, sometimes he wants to bang some mermaid, but the specifics are locked pretty deep. You know that, man. And if Albion got someone inside and didn’t tell anyone else, I wouldn’t know, would I?’

‘You couldn’t find a way to ask him?’

‘Huh, and what would I say? ‘Hey Albion, you got another traitor in the Unseelie Court? Oh, why am I asking? No reason!’ He already dislikes me. Can’t wait to give him an official reason to kill me.’

Gwyn sighed, it was true enough. Mikkel couldn’t insert himself closer to Albion without acting too much against the personality he already had – which was someone who didn’t really enjoy Reading, and only did it because he was being paid to. Mikkel had no particular interest in war, and any increased interest he showed would come across as too suspicious. He realised that he cared too much for Mikkel to want him to put himself in any greater danger for Gwyn’s sake, and winced.

‘Anyway,’ Mikkel said, scratching at the back of his head. ‘I gave you a lot last time. A lot of shit. A lot of information. And you told me squat about Mafydd. So I’m coming to collect. I had a bad day too, you know. I can have them as well.’

Gwyn rested his hands in his lap and looked at them. He’d cut his knuckles on Mikkel’s cheekbone. The pain was distant, and faded even behind the background noise of his shoulder. He shook his head.

Mikkel leaned forwards. ‘Oh yeah, you’re not getting out of this, and you know you can’t. Not with what I’ve given you so far. I just…come on, maybe it’ll be good for you to talk about it. I don’t know. I don’t really give a shit. So, I dunno, let’s start somewhere easy. How’d you two meet? How old were you?’

Gwyn took several breaths, trying to gauge if this was indeed something he could talk about. But it wasn’t about ‘coulds’ and ‘couldn’ts,’ after a week of collecting debts, he knew he couldn’t back out of the one he’d made with Mikkel. He had to respond. He owed.

‘I was sixteen,’ Gwyn said, ‘and he was the son of someone my father worked with. I’d never met him before. The father of Mafydd thought he was friends with my father, but…my father didn’t have very many friends. I think for Lludd, it was a matter of strategy.’

‘You were sixteen,’ Mikkel said, voice flat. Gwyn rolled his eyes at his hands.

‘If you don’t mind, I’ve heard that diatribe from Augus already.’

‘Oh, so like, Augus knows about it then? Then you can definitely talk about it with me. Also, really glad that the dude that everyone thinks is super evil also gets that you were fucking sixteen. Good to know he has like, a principle or two.’

‘It wasn’t like- He wasn’t that much older,’ Gwyn said, looking up at Mikkel and shrugging. ‘Or at least he wasn’t officially…an adult by fae standards.’

‘How old?’ Mikkel said, biting his top lip.

‘Two hundred and…something.’

A strange, cold feeling was creeping around Gwyn’s chest, like a wet blanket getting colder and colder, tightening. He focused on his breathing. He didn’t like that Augus had made a big deal out of it at the time, and he didn’t like it now. It didn’t matter if he was supposed to have a ‘fae childhood,’ he didn’t have one. It wasn’t like they cared nearly so much that he’d been on his first battlefield at the age of thirty five, or that they started giving him to Efnisien as a plaything when he was…when he was much younger than sixteen.

‘Okay,’ Mikkel said. ‘Cool, friend of the family. So he was already in the Court system then. They would’ve been grooming him for the King. Actually I know that much, because it’s in the records.’

Gwyn was shocked at that, he couldn’t remember Mafydd saying much about it.

That cold feeling in his chest got tighter, and he bowed over it.

‘What’d you like about him?’ Mikkel said, and Gwyn’s skin crawled, pimpled with gooseflesh. But he could do this, couldn’t he? It all happened a long time ago. Mikkel hadn’t asked him to say Mafydd’s name once, which made this…easier.

‘I don’t really know,’ Gwyn said, and then cringed to hear himself. Even he wouldn’t accept that answer. He held up a hand at Mikkel’s derisive response. ‘He was…what do you want me to say? He was different to what I was used to. He was good with a bow. He was friendly to me. Even kind.’

He was, he was, he was, he was. Past tense, because you killed him. Even though he was friendly to you, and kind.

Gwyn shifted, and couldn’t seem to get comfortable where he was sitting. He found the lines on his palm fascinating for several seconds, and heard a voice sailing over him until-

‘Earth to Gwyn, I want more than that, come on.’

‘Why?’ Gwyn said, as though from far away, stretching his hand out and looking at the thick line that curved around the fleshy part of his thumb.

‘Because I do,’ Mikkel pressed. ‘I just fucking do. So he was friendly, and kind, and…what?’

‘He liked…’ oranges.

Gwyn watched the fingers of one of his hands press into the wrist of his other arm. And then, with unerring accuracy, he found the pressure points that Augus had used so often when he was recovering, he could tell where they were even with his eyes closed. Or so he thought. When he pressed down, he didn’t catch all of them, only glancing off two. But the rush of pain was sudden, mind-clearing.

‘He talked to me,’ Gwyn said, looking down where he dug his fingers into his own arm. ‘And he was kind.’

‘Oh man,’ Mikkel said quietly. ‘Is it really that hard for you to talk about? It happened ages ago, man. Ages ago.’

‘You don’t understand,’ Gwyn said.

‘Huh,’ Mikkel said, then laughed. ‘I don’t? Which part? The part where you fell in love with him? Or the part where killing him broke you into pieces? Or the part where I think he was the first person in your world to actually like…see you for you. Or the first person who could see you for who you were, and who still liked you. I don’t know. But he knew, didn’t he? Could he Read you? Was he even old enough?’

‘No,’ Gwyn said, shaking his head. ‘Not exactly. His powers hadn’t properly activated when I met him, but they…activated while I knew him.’

‘You- fucking hell,’ Mikkel groaned. ‘Like me and Angelica? I bet he saw something fun.’

‘You could say that,’ Gwyn said, mind tripping over flashes of memory that were fuzzed at the edges and sharp in the centre. ‘I didn’t know he was there. He wasn’t supposed to see anything. Lludd realised that he and I were…getting along, though he truly had no concept of how much I liked him. But he’d explicitly told me to avoid Mafydd, to not even befriend him. But Mafydd wanted to be friends and I- I didn’t realise how much I wanted it, until it happened. Lludd divined enough to know that he needed to intervene. And so he did…intervene.’

‘He hit you,’ Mikkel said, and Gwyn nodded.

‘A lot, actually,’ Gwyn said. ‘Not too badly really, considering how he could get when he was in one of those moods, especially after a hunt. But enough. It would have looked quite frightening, sounded quite frightening to someone unused to it. I didn’t know that Mafydd was hiding in my bathroom. And I didn’t get off the floor straight away, so he found me…like that. He- His Reading came soon after, and then in increasing amounts. I should have- I was- The right thing to do would have been to tell him to stay away. He told me he’d stay away for me, for my sake, to stop my father treating me like that. But I asked him to- I asked him to stay. He should have stayed away. I didn’t think I was risking him too.’

A long silence, and Gwyn closed his eyes when he realised that he’d said Mafydd’s name aloud. He’d said it, and his heart felt cold. Not just his chest and ribs and lungs, but all the way through the centre of his chest. It felt hard to take a full breath, but he tried.

‘Why did you like him?’ Mikkel said again. ‘Why else?’

‘He was vibrant,’ Gwyn said, lips quirking haplessly. ‘He was- Well, you’re a Reader, you know how you are. He had some of that…recklessness, even young, before his Reading had properly activated. He wanted to- We broke out of the house on the first night we met. The very first night. And he was bold. So forward. It was like- It was like being taken by the hand and dragged into adventure. I didn’t know- And he showed me how to control my light better. I didn’t know how. I wasn’t supposed to tell anyone what it was, or that I even had it. He didn’t know it was destructive, he thought I was Seelie too. But he taught me anyway.’

He’d been in a shower stall when he’d been shown how. Mafydd kneeling at his feet and looking up at him and talking him through it, even with a hand on his cock for the first time, the very first, and Gwyn had been scared of someone finding them both but no one had come, and he hadn’t known he could have something that felt so good with anyone. Anyone at all. Gwyn shuddered, his head pounded.

He didn’t want to think about these things.

‘Mikkel,’ Gwyn said, keeping his voice small. ‘May we stop now?’

‘I know what I gave you was really, really valuable last time,’ Mikkel said, his voice rough. ‘I know, man, I could feel it. I don’t know why it was as important as it was, but I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to tell you shit that important again. So, like, I’m sorry? I am, but…just a bit more. You can’t know what it’s like for there to be so few of us, we’re like- There are endangered species in the human world, critically endangered species that are like, more plentiful than us.’

Gwyn closed his eyes. Mikkel was right. Gwyn was common fae, a type of fae so prevalent, they’d earned a species name stating just how prevalent they were. But he’d gotten glimpses of that Reader loneliness even with Mafydd. A desperation in all of his acts, as though he wasn’t quite sure just how much life he would get to live before he had to be a Reader, work for another, lose so much of his autonomy.

He tried to imagine Mafydd interrogating suspects, relaying information to monarchs and Generals that would get people killed, and he couldn’t.

‘You broke out of the house the first night?’ Mikkel said. ‘You couldn’t just leave your own home?’

‘No,’ Gwyn said, shocked. ‘No, of course not. There was a curfew. And I wasn’t meant to socialise with Mafydd in any way. At all.’

‘Where did you go?’ Mikkel said, smiling a little. The expression suited him. Made him seem playful, puckish.

‘We shot some arrows together. He was very good, really very good. Then we went to the orange grove,’ Gwyn said, returning the smile. ‘On the estate, we had an orange grove. We…’

We kissed. The memory so visceral that Gwyn swore he could taste salt and oranges all at once, his tongue moving absently in his mouth.

‘You forgot to answer the question,’ Mafydd had said against the corner of his mouth, the stickiness of oranges between them. ‘Do you want me to stop?’

‘Please don’t.’

The coldness within fractured, and he felt it as a sudden shaft of pain. He swallowed hard, fist going to his chest, remembering that he was trying to take slow, deep breaths. Something wasn’t right. He looked up at Mikkel, and then had to look away from those pale brown eyes, because he just couldn’t-

He just couldn’t.

‘The hardest part, sometimes, about the Reading, is knowing that there’s so much more and not knowing how to get at it,’ Mikkel said, almost to himself. ‘Do I just, what- ask a different question? What do I do? You’re having all these emotional responses and I can’t even Read them all because they come and go, and now you’re just…I think- Huh, I think we’re done for the day.’

Gwyn nodded. He felt nauseous, swallowed saliva down the back of his throat and couldn’t get the taste of oranges out of his mouth. He licked at his lips, and then wiped at them with the back of his hand. He was imagining it, wasn’t he? It was in his imagination.

‘Oh man,’ Mikkel said suddenly. ‘Oh shit.’

‘What?’ Gwyn said, looking up. His heart was pounding. When had that started? He needed to clear his head, to…go for a walk. Get away from the palace. Just for a little while. He pushed himself up and felt like he’d been sitting on the ground for hours.

‘Ah. I think I broke something that wasn’t supposed to be broken.’

‘What?’ Gwyn said, staring at him.

‘I’m sorry, for what it’s worth.’

‘What are you talking about?’ Gwyn said.

‘Yeah, yep, nothing. I’m not talking about anything!’ Mikkel said, flashing a bright, false grin. ‘You just keep up with that denial as long as you can and I’ll…catch you next time. Thanks though, thanks for this. Really. Really. I don’t know why it helps me so much, and I’m sure you wish it didn’t, but it does. So thanks. Given you’re fucking over so many Seelie fae right now, thanks for helping me.’

Gwyn nodded, felt dizzy. It wasn’t his heartsong was it? But no, that awful heartsong of his, the core energy of surrender, it was still there. Still. Then what was Mikkel talking about? He blinked at Mikkel, and Mikkel offered him something of a chagrined look as he teleported away.

What was Mikkel talking about?

Gwyn shook his head. Pressed the heels of his palms to his forehead. When was the last time his head had hurt this badly? And he could still taste oranges in his mouth. Still. He walked over to a tree and picked several leaves and put them in his mouth, chewing them, making a sound at the likely toxic bitterness. He was King. He couldn’t get sick from something like that.

Still, he could taste oranges.

*

Clearing his head wasn’t working. He’d completely forgotten it was day beyond the Unseelie palace, and squinted at the sky in confusion before trying to shake his head clear of both the headache and the sudden sense that things weren’t all right. He only succeeded in making his headache worse.

Then, after minutes of just wandering through forests close to the Unseelie palace, he got the sense that he wasn’t alone.

He could still taste oranges in his mouth, on his tongue, behind his teeth. Sticky and sweet and rich. If he chased the sensation, he could feel hands, a mouth against his, breath mingling with his breath that didn’t smell of fresh water and green waterweed as Augus’ did.

He threw out his sensing ability, narrowing it so that he stopped picking up most animals, the trees, the plants, and caught several fae nearby. Some were unmoving, perhaps resting. One was moving from tree to tree away from him – perhaps a native of the forest.

But there was something there moving towards him, stealthily, slowly.

He had no patience for this.

Skin prickling, his hand reached for his longsword only to remember it had been a while since he’d worn one, and he didn’t even have his short sword at his side.

His vision swum when he saw his father. Swum for seconds before he realised what was happening. He ignored the frantic thump of his heart and the pain behind his eyes and walked straight up to him; the man even taller than he, with cold blue eyes the colour of the sea under storms, black curly hair that was Gwyn’s hair too, not in texture, but in shape.

‘Son,’ Lludd began.

Gwyn shook his head.

‘We’ve so wanted to get one of you into our prisons for interrogation,’ Gwyn said, voice thick, and then smashed someone down to the ground for the second time that day.

Chapter Text

Augus

*

Augus couldn’t teleport to the cells like Gwyn could, so he had to walk there, which gave him plenty of time to worry. Another shapeshifter that resembled Gwyn’s father, Lludd Llaw Eraint – Captain of the Seelie fae’s navy, and brutal abuser of Gwyn for much of Gwyn’s life while he lived – was in a cell in the Unseelie Court as of this moment. Augus had to clear his head as quickly as possible when the trows found him first, then Gulvi found him second, both confirming that Gwyn had detained a shapeshifter for questioning. The murky, watery mind he was left with after hunting would be of no use to him, and he needed to see Gwyn.

The Unseelie palace buzzed like a hive when he passed the outer circles. Everyone knew what Gwyn had been doing to the Seelie fae, calling in his life debts. But Augus knew there would be consequences for Gwyn antagonising those he’d previously been allied to in his past. And now this.

Augus had his rapier belted to his side. He wore the fine, formal clothing he could now afford thanks to the building wealth in the treasury. He felt more alive, healthier than he had in a long time. He needed to ask Aleutia and Fenwrel how they’d healed him, what they’d done, since he suspected Fenwrel had done something to his meridians while he’d been unconscious. The idea of her doing anything without his permission… Yet he couldn’t be sure she’d done anything more than help him survive, perhaps this was just how he was meant to feel with a decent amount of food in his system, and things improving with Gwyn.

He’d been informed that the entrance to the Unseelie prison was a mirror of the Seelie entrance; but he’d never seen the Seelie entrance, having been insensate when they’d tossed him in the cell, and then only ever leaving it through Gwyn’s use of teleportation. So looking at the tall, gnarled black oak on the outer edges of the palace still caught his attention. A prison constructed in the soil, with the roots of an oak tree holding it together. He’d sat on one of the roots of the Seelie oak tree for six months, alone, before Gwyn started visiting him.

He descended the steps quickly and licked at his teeth. He fancied he could still taste the warm, rich blood of his prey clinging in the gaps; though it was all gone now, sucked clean by the ravenous beast he became when he fed.

He could hear a voice, it wasn’t Gwyn’s. A stern, low voice talking quickly. Augus walked faster. The voice didn’t echo, muffled by the dirt. But it sounded exactly as Augus remembered; he’d lived in proximity to the An Fnwy estate as a young waterhorse, after all. Ethallas forest neighboured the An Fnwy estate – rare public land in the Seelie courtlands – and Gwyn’s family regularly went hunting through it.

He turned a corner and walked down a longer corridor, and there Gwyn leaned against the outside of the cell the Lludd-shapeshifter was contained within. Gwyn’s arms were folded, and Augus didn’t like the energy he felt. Something strange and passive and wrong.

‘I see we have finally netted a shapeshifter,’ Augus said as he approached, and Lludd stopped talking, Gwyn looked over his shoulder.

Augus took in his expression, the worn quality in his eyes, the faded brightness, the corners of his mouth pinched. Was the Lludd-shapeshifter stirring memories? Was it something else? Gwyn didn’t often wear his fatigue so obviously.

He couldn’t afford to ask how Gwyn was, not here, not now. Instead, he drew his glamour to him and faced the creature that, for now, was Lludd.

The resemblance between Gwyn and Lludd was strong. It was in the shared broadness of their shoulders, the angled strength of both their faces. Ash once forced Augus to look at a book of Roman and Greek busts of Olympians and other warriors – trying to convince Augus that humans were worthwhile due to their fascination with and devotion to the arts – and Augus had to admit he saw something of those sculptures in the faces of both. The straight noses with the notable bridge, the larger eyes fringed with thick lashes. Gwyn’s lips were fuller, wider, Lludd’s cheekbones more defined. They shared hair that looked almost the same, except that Lludd’s was shorter, jet black with a bluish sheen, and Gwyn’s was the colour of white beach sand and curled loosely beneath his ears, resting unevenly over his neck and forehead. But they both had the same thick, wide curls.

Augus felt cold when he realised that if he tugged one of Lludd’s curls, it would bounce back just the same as Gwyn’s did.

The other difference was that the Lludd-shapeshifter wore numerous bruises. His face mottled blue and violet, two of his fingers black and swollen.

‘How’s the resemblance?’ Augus said, looking at the way the Lludd-shapeshifter stood, wearing a suit, hands clasped before him.

‘Exceptional,’ Gwyn said. ‘You may enter and interrogate him whenever you wish.’

It was easy enough to slide into the role of interrogator, especially given that he still had his waterhorse mind close to the surface of his thoughts. He wanted to hunt, he wanted to break the truth from the shapeshifter and feed upon it. And shapeshifters were not inured to compulsions.

However, it was hard to yield the truth, since biologically, the shapeshifters Crielle had hired had to adhere to the truth of their character once they transformed. At first, all his questions only yielded answers pertaining to Lludd. Slowly, though, Augus dug deeper, and he knew he was making progress when the Lludd-shapeshifter fell to his knees, breaking into a flop sweat.

‘Now, now,’ Augus said softly, having lost track of time. He didn’t bother taking notes, knowing that Gwyn’s memory was sharp and would pick up everything of relevance. A part of him liked the fact that Gwyn was watching Augus break someone with the visage of his father, another part of him wanted to send Gwyn away, lock him in a room and tell him not to come out until the monster had been destroyed. ‘These plans of yours, of Crielle’s, what are they? You clearly didn’t expect to be captured.’

‘To lure Gwyn and sequester him in a warded place. And there – torture and systemic breakdown over a period of weeks or months. But there isn’t another Augus, so that we may begin the plan again,’ the Lludd-shapeshifter groaned. ‘Our training is exact. We did not expect to fail. We did not expect the War Generals to know.’

‘Then why are you pursuing the plan?’

‘We were paid in full. We must implement the plan until we have succeeded in its execution, or until we are executed.’

Augus paused to gather his thoughts, and the Lludd-shapeshifter turned to face Gwyn, looking up at him.

‘Son,’ he bit out, and Augus fingers curled, claws brushed against the top of his palms. ‘You-’

‘You are not my father,’ Gwyn said calmly.

‘Am I not?’ the Lludd-shapeshifter said. ‘You would still dare question me? Still show me such insolence after all this time? You yourself know exactly where that insolence led? Tell me, if I was not your father, would I remember exactly how you begged before you sent that arrow through Mafydd’s heart? You may have been shaking, boy, but that first arrow was on target. Your tutors might have been proud if they’d not been disgusted by the pathetic wreck you’d become.’

Augus was about to punch the shapeshifter himself when Gwyn cleared his throat. Augus met Gwyn’s eyes, and forced himself to relax his fists.

‘Crielle may have fed you what she thought you needed to hear, but she was not there, and you have only vaguenesses,’ Gwyn said. ‘I don’t doubt that Lludd had to inform her of what had happened, but there is only so much you can say. Was this her play then? To have those of my past barrage me with recollections of events that occurred so long ago? If this is your most effective card, shapeshifter, then Crielle spent her last move on false assumptions.’

Augus knew Gwyn had retreated to the coldness he sometimes put around himself whenever he was disturbed, unhappy. He’d seen that coldness as a prisoner in the Seelie Court. He’d experienced it since. He didn’t like it, but he did like the fact that it meant that right now, before the shapeshifter that so perfectly resembled his father, he was able to stay both calm and composed.

‘I don’t need to see more of this,’ Gwyn said abruptly. ‘Break the truth out of him, then leave him for Gulvi to slaughter. I have more important things to do with my time than waste it on the dregs of a failed plan.’

Augus nodded an acknowledgement to Gwyn, who immediately turned and walked away. Augus wanted to follow him, but bloodlust still bubbled beneath his skin and he smiled widely at the Lludd-shapeshifter trembling upon the ground, eyes closed.

‘Oh, my little lost lamb, there’s nothing to be frightened of. I’ll take care of you.’

*

Blood on his hands, since he hadn’t been able to resist doing a little bit of damage before Gulvi finished the shapeshifter off. Truthfully, there hadn’t been much more to pull from the shapeshifter. He’d aggressively questioned him about the existence of another plan – he was certain Crielle had one – but had to stop once the Lludd-shapeshifter was oozing blood from both of his nostrils, capillaries having broken in his eyes, his nose, his mouth. If Crielle had a second plan, she didn’t tell her shapeshifters of it. Not that one, anyway.

The doors to the rooms that Gwyn had intended them both to share were non-descript. Plain and wooden, only the fact that they were double doors indicated they might lead to anything important. Though Gwyn used the same kind of doors to lead to storage rooms, the treasury, map rooms, strategy rooms.

Augus pushed inside and entered the smaller room that held boots and coats. The trows had already put much of his clothing in place, but Augus was surprised to see some of Gwyn’s travelling coats, and a well-worn pair of soft leather boots leaning over themselves on the floor.

‘Gwyn?’ Augus said, walking to the left through an archway into the large – even grand – room that held a bed covered in sheets and blankets of rich, woodsy browns, deep olive greens. And there, under the blankets, curled up as tightly as ever, Gwyn lay. Augus could already see his breathing was deep and even, and for several moments he stopped, staring in shock.

Was he sleeping? But Gwyn hardly ever- How tired was he? Augus walked around to the other side of the bed quickly, crouching down, examining Gwyn’s face. Even asleep, he didn’t look as innocent and carefree as usual. Augus touched fingers to his chin and frowned.

‘Gwyn?’

Nothing. If Gwyn was dozing, he would have snapped awake. Even a heavy doze, he’d rouse to the sound of his name. He was sleeping. Augus felt a mixture of relief and concern. Gwyn didn’t voluntarily sleep unless he was pushed to it, and he doubted this was any different. But there wasn’t any point in waking him to find out, and Augus could join him in the meantime. He didn’t truly need sleep, as the waterhorse demanded about a week of it while he digested his human prey. But this was his and Gwyn’s bed, and he’d not slept in it yet. He wanted to indulge.

He cleaned up, showered in a bathroom more lavish than even his own. He could see little details that Gwyn had intended primarily for Augus. More than one ceramic shelf in the shower, because Gwyn knew of Augus’ attachment to different herbal products. A detachable showerhead made from a hollowed vine, the showerhead itself looked like it could be chrome. Vines with tiny, yellow flowers tangled up over a large bath, releasing their scent as steam rose in the tiled room. They were fragrant, smelling not of sweet nectar, but a spicy deep scent like cinnamon or nutmeg.

Augus wore nothing at all when he finally slunk under the blankets, having squeezed the excess water from his hair. He pushed up close to Gwyn and took advantage of the heat that rolled off his body. When Gwyn leaned unconsciously into him, murmuring something under his breath, Augus knew Gwyn was well and truly gone. There was no way Gwyn would do something so obviously affectionate while awake, or even dozing.

But these raw moments were ones he cherished – even if Gwyn was unaware he was part of them. They all pointed to a future when Augus might be able to draw such affections from a Gwyn that could consciously show how much he cared for someone in more than just vines that twisted up in a bathroom, or multiple ceramic shelves for haircare.

*

Augus snapped out of his doze to one of Gwyn’s nightmares.

It was one of the worst he’d witnessed. Maybe the worst. Gwyn made a sound like he was choking, followed by horrible, rasping gasps. For a moment Augus assumed there was something wrong with his health, that he was choking; but Gwyn’s eyes moved rapidly, he was dreaming. His body strained off the bed, his back arched, his face twisted into a rictus of pain.

Augus straddled him, moved his fingers so that they rested over the pressure points at the back of Gwyn’s neck. He didn’t like to use them. They were excruciating, but they would wake someone up. It was dangerous. Gwyn could retaliate with his light, with violence, but Augus couldn’t watch him go through this, not knowing how long Gwyn’s nightmares could last.

‘Gwyn, wake up,’ Augus said, then exhaled hard when Gwyn’s eyes leaked tears behind closed lids. Gwyn mouthed half-swallowed protests, but Augus couldn’t make out any actual words. There was no indication as to what Gwyn was dreaming about, but...knowing the wealth of experiences that had traumatised him, it could have been anything. Augus didn’t doubt there were events in Gwyn’s past that Gwyn still hadn’t shared with him. He was certain that he knew some of the worst by Gwyn’s standards, but Gwyn’s standards were meaningless. He brushed off being tortured by his cousin as though it was nothing more than a minor irritant.

Gwyn,’ Augus said, curling his fingers further underneath Gwyn’s neck and pressing hesitantly down between the vertebrae, not yet agitating the pressure points.

A shriek; Gwyn's voice a sharp, wretched protest.

Gwyn!’ Augus shouted, shaking him, and then nearly fell off the bed when Gwyn lurched upright, shouting in desperation, trembling violently. His eyes were wide and unseeing. His pale face twisted with a pain that Augus rarely saw on his face. Gwyn didn’t even seem to be back in the room with him yet.

‘Gwyn, you’re in the Court, you’re fine. It was a nightmare. That’s all.’

He hardly seemed to hear him. His chest heaved. Augus thought Gwyn would be sick all over him, he hadn’t seen him so pale and clammy since he’d been underfae.

Gwyn’s chest heaved again, and he let out a sound that Augus was unused to hearing. He sobbed. It shook his whole frame. The next one that followed ripped out of him, strained through his lungs. And Augus shook his head rapidly, moved the hand from the back of his neck to curve around his face. He thumbed at Gwyn’s tears, frowning.

‘Gwyn, it was only a nightmare. Gwyn, it’s...’

But Gwyn – whatever he had been dreaming – was wrecked. His shoulders bowed, Gwyn flinching as he caused himself pain in the process. But after a handful of sobs, each more heart-breaking than the last, Gwyn fell back to the bed, threw a hand over his face, held his breath, tensed. He was holding it in.

Always with this, always.

Augus frowned, stroked his hand through Gwyn’s hair. He leaned forwards and felt the spasms in Gwyn’s chest. The sobs he wouldn’t let forth. There was a pain there that wanted to be expressed, and he wasn’t letting himself.

‘Gwyn, my dear heart, it’s safe. I promise you. Let it go.’

No,’ Gwyn said, his voice strained on the pressure of holding in whatever was sundering him apart. His body was racked with monumental shudders. He accepted Augus lying on top of him, but he seemed far away in his own mind. His eyes were squeezed shut, trying so hard not to cry.

Augus didn’t have any patience for that.

‘Gwyn,’ Augus said, pressing his palm firmly against Gwyn’s cheek, ‘Gwyn, let go.’

Gwyn stiffened, and Augus whispered it again, letting compulsion weave thick through his quiet voice. Gwyn struggled against it, struggled so much that Augus knew that whatever had happened in the dream had left Gwyn stripped down to his barest parts. He never struggled against compulsions unless something was wrong; the last time it had happened while Gwyn had been King, Tigbalan had tortured him for days. But Augus could use that. He would use it.

Let go, Gwyn.’

Gwyn pushed upright to throw Augus off, but Augus moved his other hand to the back of Gwyn’s neck. He threatened to activate the pressure points. Gwyn stilled, practically vibrated against him. Then he slumped back down to the bed. He turned sideways, forcing Augus to move with him. Gwyn’s legs jack-knifed to his gut, he pushed his palm over his face and keened.

Augus felt a chill move through his body. He’d never heard Gwyn make such a sound, didn’t know he could.

‘Gwyn,’ he whispered, ‘Gwyn, by the gods, it’s-’

Gwyn sobbed in earnest. Huge, racking sounds that must have hurt his lungs, his throat. Each one ripped from a place that Augus couldn’t fathom, hadn’t seen before, had always suspected was there. Augus rubbed circles onto Gwyn’s back with one hand, drew blankets up over them with the other. They were already warm, but this felt private. It felt hideously private. He didn’t stop until the blankets were well up over their heads, and he pressed his face into Gwyn’s hair, closing his eyes as the horrible, ugly sobs continued.

He placed his hand over Gwyn’s where it rested on his face. Felt the burning heat of salt water already. Gwyn didn’t move his hand, clenched it harder over his face and Augus made a sound when he realised that Gwyn was digging his nails into his own skin.

‘Please, sweetness. I’m here. I’m right here. Things are so different now. So different.’

He tried to pull Gwyn’s hand up, tried to ease the pressure, but Gwyn was having none of it. He curled in on himself further, shaking like he was coming apart at the seams.

And then Augus saw it. A blink-and-miss-it moment. A flash of light spilled briefly from his skin. It didn’t hurt, didn’t destroy anything, but it was there. Augus blinked, shocked. The light was close. It was a sign of how deeply Gwyn had gone into himself, how far he’d been pushed.

‘Gods, Gwyn,’ Augus whispered. ‘Hang on. Hold on, it won’t last. I know it hurts. It won’t last.’

‘It never goes away,’ Gwyn cried, his voice mangled and breaking, far higher than usual. Augus took an involuntary breath. This was what Gwyn never let anyone see. He carried it around with him everywhere, in every moment. It touched everything. Even his sweet, innocent moments were scarred with this depth of pain.

‘Gwyn,’ Augus said, swallowing down the thickness of his own voice. He stroked fingers over Gwyn’s forehead, smoothed long strokes over his spine, leaned his weight down hard to remind him he was there. ‘Sweetness, just stay here with me. Hold onto your light.’

Gwyn didn’t respond, lost to strong, racking sobs that shook the bed. Augus stopped moving his arm and simply held on as hard as he could. This was a storm of emotion he wasn’t accustomed to, and he had seen many people at their worst. But this radiated off Gwyn in waves, made all the more powerful by the fact that Augus knew that no matter how hard he’d pushed Gwyn for over a year, he’d never discovered this pit of grief, only ever glimpsed it.

What did you dream?

Minutes passed, time stretched away from them both. Every time Gwyn started to calm, he would stiffen and another wave of sobbing would come. Augus’ hand was soaked. His other hand was damp. A fine sheen of sweat covered Gwyn’s whole body.

Eventually Gwyn’s sobbing settled into something quieter; still desperate, still pained.

‘He told me,’ Gwyn managed.

Augus shook his head. ‘He told you what?’

‘He told me I didn’t love him but I did. I did.’

Gwyn began sobbing again, turning his head into the pillow. Augus furrowed his brow and then he closed his eyes.

Mafydd.

Augus had complicated feelings about Mafydd. He was almost certain that the reason Gwyn was so accepting of being wonderfully, pleasantly submissive with Augus, was because of Mafydd. And he knew that Mafydd had given Gwyn something he would never have accessed otherwise. Who else would have offered him a glimpse of how the world could have been, beyond that awful family? But he also knew how terribly young Gwyn was when it had happened, he knew that Gwyn saw nothing wrong with being so young and schooled to a harder form of sex before he’d even reached adulthood, and Augus had an idea of how Mafydd had died. He knew that wound went deep, and it had never healed over.

‘You did love him,’ Augus acknowledged. ‘Anyone can see that.’

‘He told me I didn’t, and then I- I-’

Gwyn gagged, jerked hard, and Augus shifted so that he could get a better grip on Gwyn’s upper body, holding him tighter.

‘Then you what?’ Augus said, and Gwyn shook his head over and over again.

‘You know,’ he said, his voice tear-streaked and small.

‘Tell me,’ Augus encouraged.

‘I can’t!’ Gwyn moaned, and Augus rode out the fresh wave of crying, pressing his forehead into Gwyn’s hair. Gwyn sounded as though he was young all over again. His voice thin and pleading. He’d always been prone to regression, and Augus wasn’t sure he was even that far out of his dream. If Gwyn had any true coherency about where he was, who was with him…Augus was sure Gwyn wouldn’t willingly show this side of himself to anyone. But he wasn’t going to let the opportunity go, either.

‘Tell me, Gwyn,’ Augus prompted. ‘My dear heart. Please.’

‘I did a bad thing,’ Gwyn whispered, voice trailing off into a moan. ‘Oh gods.’

Oh gods indeed, Augus thought, squeezing his own eyes shut.

‘Tell me,’ Augus said, and Gwyn shook his head. His hand shifted on his face, slightly, and Augus took advantage of the shift to slip his hand beneath. He replaced Gwyn’s palm with his own, holding his hand over Gwyn’s face, blocking his eyes from the light, feeling where Gwyn had dug his own fingers too hard into his skin.

Gwyn’s hand came back up, uncertain what to do, and Augus snagged it with his little finger, encouraged it to settle.

‘You loved him,’ Augus prompted.

Gwyn moaned again. ‘I didn’t mean to, father. It was an accident. I swear it. I swear.

Augus stiffened. That was too far down the path to his past.

‘Gwyn, I’m here. It’s me, Augus. It’s okay, you’re safe in the Unseelie Court. You had a nightmare, remember?’

‘I didn’t mean to love him,’ Gwyn whispered, not acknowledging him. ‘It just happened. I didn’t even know I could. It just happened. I wasn’t supposed to be like that!’

Augus couldn’t find the detached perspective he usually used in moments like this. He was entwined too closely around the moment, though he wasn’t sure when that had happened. His eyes had begun to burn, though when that had started, he didn’t know. He laid his cheek on Gwyn’s shoulder and licked at dry lips.

‘Gwyn, tell me what you did,’ Augus said.

Gwyn shook his head, panicked. ‘No, no, no, I can’t. I can’t.’

‘It’s already happened,’ Augus reminded him.

Gwyn stilled, then: ‘No, please, Augus. Please.’

‘You dream about it,’ Augus said, shaking because Gwyn was shaking. ‘Please just say it. Just once.’

‘I’m a monster,’ Gwyn whispered.

Augus inhaled slowly. ‘Not that, sweetness. Tell me what you did.’

‘I l-loved him. A lot,’ Gwyn said, and he tried to bury his face in the sheets but Augus’ hand against his face wouldn’t let him. Every word that Gwyn spoke brushed lips against his palm. His mouth was wet with salt, with saliva. Gwyn was a wreck. Someone had left him in a pile thousands of years ago, and never told him that it wasn’t supposed to be like that.

‘What did you do?’ Augus repeated, insistent.

‘I didn’t mean to,’ Gwyn said, ‘I didn’t. He...father was there, he said...’

‘Tell me what you did.’

Stop,’ Gwyn said.

Augus shook his head. ‘Say it. Say the words.’

‘I...’

Augus’ ears strained, hardly able to believe it. He was pushing hard, but he didn’t think Gwyn was capable of actually admitting it. But there were poisonous, unspoken truths in everyone. Truths that needed to be lanced, to have the toxins drained.

‘I’m not angry with you,’ Augus said, and Gwyn whined. It was a sad, lonely sound. ‘I promise you I’m not, sweetness.’

‘You will be.’

‘No, I won’t. I assure you.’

‘But I...’ Gwyn sobbed again, he tore his hand out of Augus’ and struck at his own forehead with his fingers before Augus knew he was going to do it. The movement was vicious, calculated. It was a level of hatred that was so unconscious, so careless, that it twinged at something in Augus’ chest.

‘Sweetness, don’t do that. You don’t have to do that.’ He moved Gwyn’s hand back, winced when he saw that Gwyn had drawn blood with the single strike. ‘Tell me.’

‘I shot him,’ Gwyn said, his voice going strangely still. ‘I shot him. I murdered him with my favourite recurve bow. I didn’t deserve him. He didn’t deserve that.’

A pause, and then Gwyn dissolved into silent sobs, only the sound of him catching his breath audible. Augus took a deep breath. Another. He would see this through.

‘Your father made you,’ Augus said.

Gwyn jerked. ‘He only talked. I did it. I did it. I murdered him. I-’

‘You were his weapon, and he used you like one,’ Augus said, ignoring the way Gwyn shook his head in denial.

‘I couldn’t think properly,’ Gwyn moaned. ‘It hurt. It hurt. It wouldn’t stop. For months. Even now.’

‘What hurt?’ Augus said, unsure specifically of what pain Gwyn was referring to.

‘I broke the oath. I broke it. Mafydd told me that it wasn’t a real oath! He said father was lying to me. He told me that father would never have broken fae law like that and so I told him and oh, god, I didn’t mean to. I didn’t. It was just that he knew something was wrong, he could tell. And then, ah, it broke. I didn’t know what was happening to me, I didn’t, I didn’t want him upset, I-’

‘And it hurt?’ Augus said, and a part of him was curious. Gwyn was the only person he’d ever met who had broken a blood oath and survived the process.

‘It was like fire. It...I deserved it. And then I, and then father... I- I didn’t want to. If I’d been stronger, I wouldn’t have-’

‘Your father made you,’ Augus said. ‘If you had refused, what would he have done?’

‘Killed us both,’ Gwyn whispered, his voice going dead. Then, panic crept into his words once more. ‘I tried to get him to get it out of his system. I did try, you have to believe me!’

‘I believe you,’ Augus said absently, brow furrowing. ‘How did you try to get Lludd to get it out of his system?’

‘I provoked him,’ Gwyn said. His voice still younger and higher, still lost in the past, in the dream. ‘I made him lose his temper. I thought if he hit me first, just a few times, it wouldn’t be so bad for Mafydd. And he did, he hit me, and it wasn’t that bad, and I thought that would be- But then he dragged me into the arena and Mafydd, gods, Mafydd was already tied up to the target and I tried, I tried. I told him to shoot me. I told him to just get it done. It’s what he wanted. You should have seen him- It’s all he ever wanted.’

Gwyn was sobbing again, his voice breaking on many of his words. Augus’ heart hammered in his chest.

‘I tried,’ Gwyn said. ‘I tried. I couldn’t fight him properly. I wasn’t strong enough. I was so weak.’

No. I don’t believe that for a second. No one who has met you could accuse you of weakness.’

You have,’ Gwyn said, and Augus closed his eyes to hear how abandoned and lost Gwyn sounded in that moment. So confused. He was so disoriented Augus couldn’t stand it.

‘I have. I’ve accused you of cowardice. And perhaps, in some ways, it’s been true. But if you think that at your root there is a core of weakness, you are wrong. A frightened boy, perhaps. But not a core of weakness.’

‘I hate him,’ Gwyn whispered. ‘Gods, I hate him. If I could kill him I would do it. I would destroy him.’

Something in Augus snapped when he realised that Gwyn wasn’t talking about his father, but the boy in Augus’ analogy. His whole body chilled. He removed his hand from Gwyn’s face and hooked it hard into his blonde hair, clenching his hand tightly. Gwyn whimpered, eyes clenched shut, but Augus was beyond caring.

‘Is that what you do? Carry your father around with you everywhere, to make sure that frightened boy stays frightened?’

‘You don’t understand,’ Gwyn said, voice thin.

‘I understand,’ Augus said darkly. ‘I understand very well. You do have to carry Lludd around with you everywhere. It’s the only way to keep a frightened but brave boy under his control.’

‘No,’ Gwyn cried. ‘I’m not like him. I’m nothing like Lludd. Mikkel is wrong. You’re wrong.’

Mikkel is wrong. Augus squinted. What were those two talking about, that it had come up in conversation? If Mikkel was the other informant of Albion’s, it sounded like he was in a rather good position to tear Gwyn down. Augus filed the information away for later.

‘In many ways you are not like him,’ Augus said. ‘But in some ways, in this way, I’m afraid you were taught too well how to mimic his sins. In this, you are downright cruel with yourself, Gwyn. Trust me, I know it when I see it.’

‘Not cruel enough,’ Gwyn said, and Augus closed his eyes. He was getting Gwyn’s shoulder wet. He wondered if Gwyn had even noticed.

‘No? Still deserve punishment then? Deserve to be hurt for being used by your father to kill someone you loved? Still love? Is that it? Is that what you want?’

He lowered his hands from Gwyn’s hair to the vertebrae at his neck, and dug his fingers in hard. Gwyn jerked, he strained for breath, his eyes flew wide open at the pain that Augus was causing.

‘Well?’ Augus said coldly. ‘Answer me. Is this what you want?’

This is a gamble. You know this is a terrible gamble. What will you do if he says-

‘Yes!’ Gwyn cried out, face twisting at his own answer. ‘Yes. Augus. Punish me, please, I-’

‘How dare you,’ Augus growled, digging his fingers in harder, vindictively, gritting his teeth when Gwyn squirmed to get away. ‘How dare you try and involve me in this! If you think that’s what I’m interested in, you don’t understand me, you don’t know me at all. And if you think that’s what you deserve, you don’t know yourself. I am not going to punish a frightened boy for doing the only thing he could do in order to survive. I will not ever be implicated in that.’

Augus suddenly removed his fingers, grimacing. This wouldn’t do. There were things he was poor at tolerating. Gwyn’s deep, cruel self-destructive streak was one of them. He shifted again, stroked fingers through Gwyn’s scalp, trying gentleness instead. Gwyn shuddered and shook his head, but didn’t otherwise protest. Augus suspected it wasn’t the progress he wanted it to be. Gwyn was sinking deep into his own thoughts again; whatever mess was in there, it was convoluted, frustrating.

‘Tell me about the dream,’ Augus said.

Gwyn squeezed his eyes shut. ‘No.’

‘Mafydd was there,’ Augus supplied, and Gwyn’s whole body tensed. Augus braced himself, in case Gwyn attempted to throw him off the bed. But Gwyn stilled. He shook his head abruptly, trying to dislodge Augus’ hands.

‘I don’t want you here,’ Gwyn said, annoyed, pulling coldness around him like a shroud. Suddenly he was a commanding King, voice deep and resonant. ‘I don’t want you here. You shouldn’t have been there then, you shouldn’t be here now.’

Augus frowned, tilted his head. He puzzled it out carefully, followed every breadcrumb down the trail, back to its home.

‘I was in the dream, wasn’t I?’ Augus said, and Gwyn stared blankly ahead. Augus curved closer, beginning to use his weight to try and shift Gwyn onto his back. Gwyn wouldn’t go with it, but his good shoulder curved backwards. He wouldn’t make eye contact. Augus didn’t know if he could.‘Why shouldn’t I have been there?’

‘He knew,’ Gwyn whispered, staring up at nothing. His voice was lost again, frail. ‘He knew how I felt about you. He knew. I had to do it anyway. I had to.’

‘Sweetness,’ Augus whispered. Of course, this all made sense. Augus had died only recently. And he knew Gwyn hadn’t truly dealt with that either. ‘Did you kill me in the dream?’

Gwyn’s throat worked. His eyes closed. A fresh wave of tears came, and Augus pressed his face to them. They were hot against his skin. Gwyn was overheating. Augus couldn’t bring himself to move the cocoon of blankets away from them both.

‘Where are you?’ Augus said, and Gwyn shook his head. ‘Tell me where you are?’

Gwyn was becoming unresponsive, pushed too far in his own mind, unable to come back on his own. Augus lowered his lips to Gwyn’s and brushed them carefully against his wet, closed mouth. He repeated the motion, over and over, until Gwyn sighed shakily.

‘What...?’ Gwyn said, and Augus was glad to hear his voice.

Augus wasn’t sure what to say. That panic when he’d woken, the terrible sobs that had ripped their way out of him, had he just killed Mafydd in his dream? Or Augus? In other circumstances, in earlier times, Augus would have felt pleased to know that Gwyn was so affected by Augus’ presence. But now, with more time having drifted past them both, he wanted Gwyn to be able to trust that Augus would remain in his life, not disappear.

Augus left his lips against Gwyn’s while he tried to summon his thoughts. Gwyn responded to intimacy, but even now, he was being carefully still. The dream had damaged something. Or, perhaps, it had highlighted something already damaged. This was not something he could fix in an evening. This was no random flash of a disturbed unconscious, this was a carefully placed nightmare. Gwyn would have it again. Perhaps he’d had it before and Augus hadn’t known.

Augus lifted his head up. ‘Gwyn, have you had this dream before?’

Gwyn’s face twisted in assent.

‘Why didn’t you come to me?’ Augus said.

‘I don’t like people seeing me like this.’

Augus finally managed to use his weight to shift Gwyn onto his back. He straightened the blankets around them, and then pushed one of his hands beneath Gwyn’s head, cradling it. With his other hand, he picked up Gwyn’s wrists and guided them around his back so that his arms were resting against him. Gwyn had drawn his knees up again, he didn’t tighten his arms around Augus, as though he didn’t dare.

Augus tucked his head down alongside Gwyn’s. They were cheek to cheek like this, his damp hair curling across the side of Gwyn’s face. It was one of his favourite positions, and he wanted the closeness for himself. He brushed his lips against Gwyn’s ear, surprised and pleased when Gwyn shivered.

‘I’m not ‘people,’’ Augus said, quietly. ‘Am I?’

Augus,’ Gwyn said on a breath, an agreement. But he didn’t seem capable of managing more than that. Augus placed his fingers against neck, searching unerringly for the pulse. It was faint and fast. For all that he was quiet and spaced out, there was still a wealth of fear lurking within.

‘Let me compel you,’ Augus said, and Gwyn’s focus drifted back slowly, then all at once. He swallowed hard.

‘I don’t think so.’

‘Don’t want me wandering around that head of yours?’

No.’

‘Because I would like to go wandering around that head of yours. I would like to know, very much, why you won’t just come to me when you have dreams like this.’

‘I don’t have them often,’ Gwyn said quickly.

Augus couldn’t help his smile. ‘That’s not my point, sweetness.’

‘Don’t call me that.’

‘Sweetness,’ Augus said again, directing it precisely into his ear on an exhale. Gwyn shuddered. ‘My dear heart, tell me why you won’t come to me with these things?’

The arms on Augus’ back shifted uncertainly. He still wasn’t willing to actually embrace Augus. There was a lack of faith here, even in reality. There were days, weeks, where Gwyn would suddenly – inexplicably – withdraw. He would talk less, he would make less eye contact, he would stop reaching out, he would treat Augus like a stranger; formal and more detached than even Augus could be at times. Augus wondered if some of those periods were triggered by these nightmares. It wouldn’t surprise him. But those times were often only fixed when Gwyn was tied up and forced to confront the fact that Augus was there, and real, and not going anywhere.

And Augus wasn’t interested in that, not now. Not in pain and restraint and force. If this was one of the raw causes of that mood, he wanted to understand it.

Tell me,’ Augus said, letting a faint thread of compulsion enter his voice. Strong enough that Gwyn could suppress it, but enough to let him know that Augus was serious. He wanted answers. In response to the compulsion, Gwyn’s pulse leapt under his fingers, it raced.

‘I can’t,’ Gwyn said. ‘I can’t come to you.’

‘Were you able to resist the compulsion?’ Augus checked quickly, concerned. He lifted up and looked down. Gwyn was somewhat clear-eyed, he nodded. He had intended the compulsion to be a hint, not a command. It was a relief to know that Gwyn had chosen to speak, even if his pulse was the pulse of a scared, cornered animal. Augus lowered his head again, sighing.

Gwyn’s pulse beat faster, and then faster again, and Augus’ eyes widened, even as he felt something change around him. Some deadening of Gwyn’s glamour, a withdrawal of something powerful.

‘Please,’ Gwyn whispered, voice high and lost, and then turned his head suddenly into Augus’, pressing hard.

‘Please, what?’ Augus asked, increasing the soothing pressure at the back of Gwyn’s head, feeling minute tremors shaking Gwyn’s body. His pulse was a shattered, wild thing, and Augus could feel Gwyn’s heartbeat through his own chest. Fear. He could smell it now, acrid, strong, like a thin veneer of oil coating the back of his throat.

Please,’ Gwyn said, voice turning thick and hoarse. There was a strange, vivid desperation in that word, and Augus had no idea what Gwyn was asking for.

‘Gwyn, I don’t understand. Tell me.’

Please, Augus, don’t...’ Gwyn curled in on himself. His arms tightened reflexively around Augus and then loosened again, as though Augus had burned him. It was confounding.

‘Don’t be dead,’ Gwyn whispered. And then he shook his head, vigorously, his chest began to shake again, sobs building once more.

Augus couldn’t move for a few seconds. Was Gwyn still lost in the dream? Did he think Augus wasn’t real? Worse, had he experienced this before, alone, and been too afraid to check if Augus was still there? Was this something he dreamed when he was underfae? How long ago did these dreams start?

‘I collapsed,’ Gwyn said in a rush, responding to some unbidden prompt. ‘I collapsed after I shot him. I fell and I- Time didn’t move properly. I didn’t understand what was happening to me. It was all just a dream. Just a bad dream. It wasn’t the first time. I have nightmares about Papa all the time! It’s just a bad dream. Everything with Mafydd – a dream. I’m supposed to wake up. I’m supposed to wake up. I’m supposed to- And I can’t.’

Gwyn’s arms tightened convulsively over Augus’ back. Augus was reeling, it was the first time he’d ever heard Gwyn refer to his father as anything other than ‘father.’ The use of the informal was horrifying.

‘I thought it was just a dream,’ Gwyn whispered, his voice fractured. ‘I woke up and Papa was gone, and I...a note. A note. Papa left me a note, it said to clean up after myself. And he meant- he meant to get rid of Mafydd. And Mafydd, he didn’t move...I didn’t understand, it was meant to be a dream.’

Augus realised how disoriented Gwyn still was. Augus had several options, and – perhaps unsurprisingly – he decided to take the riskier one.

He slanted his open mouth over Gwyn’s and pushed his tongue inside, ignoring Gwyn’s sudden wave of tension and sliding his tongue along Gwyn’s. The inside of his mouth was a furnace. If he didn’t know better, he’d think Gwyn was coming down with something. But no. His light was running too close to the surface, and likely it was burning him. He’d learned enough about that light to know that it was a merciless, strange power. That – once – when Gwyn had claimed it would tear the world apart, he’d almost laughed. But now...

He had reasons to be glad for Gwyn’s ability to suppress just about anything he put his mind to.

Gwyn’s hand sunk into his hair and tightened, Augus thought he was going to be tugged away, but then Gwyn’s hand simply clasped at Augus’ scalp, fretfully. He was taking small, shallow breaths through his nose. It was taking Gwyn a surprisingly long time to participate in the kiss. Augus knew beyond a doubt that Gwyn still doubted if this was real, if Augus was even there.

Augus withdrew and bit Gwyn’s bottom lip until he grunted. And then slid his tongue easily back into Gwyn’s mouth, pushing deeper than normal, claiming a space for himself until Gwyn’s chest jerked and he moaned, broken.

That’s it. Come closer, sweetness. Come to me.

Augus flicked his tongue at the roof of Gwyn’s mouth, and Gwyn exhaled sharply. His tongue stirred against Augus’, and he opened his mouth further and changed the angle, increased the contact between them. Augus wanted to let him know that he was doing well, coming back to the present like this, and he murmured a sound of approval. Gwyn sobbed in response – less grief, and more desperation, relief – arms tightening further around Augus’ back.

Augus withdrew and Gwyn leaned up, chasing Augus’ mouth. Augus rewarded him by licking at his lips, but kept a small distance between them.

‘Does that feel like a dream to you?’ Augus said, and Gwyn hesitated, then shook his head. ‘Where’s that light of yours?’

‘Close,’ Gwyn said, voice breaking. ‘Not as bad as it was.’

‘Painful?’

Yes,’ Gwyn said, shaking. Augus grimaced.

‘Will you let me compel you? In this? Just this?’

Augus gave Gwyn time to make up his mind. He wanted to offer his compulsions like this more often, but he knew for the most part, Gwyn would never say yes.

‘Just this?’ Gwyn said, checking.

‘To help you relax,’ Augus amended, and Gwyn swallowed. The compulsions disturbed him – as they should – and Augus knew he was asking for a lot.

When Gwyn nodded, reluctantly, Augus rewarded him with a deep, languorous kiss. By the time he drew back again, Gwyn’s mouth remained half-open, his eyes were closed. Augus waited, could tell the moment that Gwyn was beginning to clear a space in his mind for Augus.

Relax,’ Augus said. ‘The pain is less.’

The first time he’d had to do this to settle Gwyn had been under very different circumstances, and yet Augus couldn’t help but feel that Gwyn was more broken this time around.

The barrier that Gwyn had in his mind that prevented compulsions from reaching him was down, but Gwyn still resisted. It was a novelty not to be able to compel Gwyn easily, to have to ask permission. It was probably for the best, really. If Gwyn couldn’t resist the compulsions, he would have been killed a long time ago, or – at the very least – Augus would have rummaged around in Gwyn’s mind, taken what he could use so he could turn it against him, back when he was prisoner in the Seelie Court.

Gwyn’s body relaxed in increments, and he licked his lips tiredly, blinking owlishly up at Augus. His cheeks were splotchy, eyes red-rimmed. Augus thumbed tears away, unable to prevent the small smile that came.

I’m proud of you,’ Augus said, taking a risk. Gwyn stiffened, started to fight the compulsion, and then at something he saw on Augus’ face, he simply closed his eyes and tilted his head back, accepting. A moment later, Gwyn made a low, distressed sound in his throat. Augus closed his mouth around Gwyn’s exposed neck, licking at the hot skin. Gwyn relaxed again, his muscles worked in a swallow beneath Augus’ tongue.

‘I’m so tired,’ Gwyn said plainly, weakly.

‘You haven’t slept well. And this has been exhausting, for the both of us, I expect,’ Augus said, licking his way up Gwyn’s jaw and biting his earlobe.

‘I didn’t want to do it,’ Gwyn said, his voice dazed. ‘I loved him, Augus.’

‘I know,’ Augus said softly. ‘I suspect even he knew. Your love is an earnest, sharp thing, so raw to look upon I’m not sure how he could miss it.’

Gwyn looked askance, even as Augus nuzzled into his cheek.

‘Is it?’ Gwyn said, finally. ‘Is that what it is?’

‘Yes,’ Augus said, marvelling at all the barriers that were down, all the barriers that Gwyn would painstakingly put back into place. But Augus would never forget this evening, and he suspected Gwyn wouldn’t either. And, covered beneath the blankets as they were, he felt that this was theirs alone, it belonged to no one else.

‘You’re not angry?’ Gwyn said, and then cleared his throat, his voice deepening once more. ‘It is a foolish thing to dream of, I shouldn’t have-’

‘Hush,’ Augus said against his skin. ‘There is no foolishness in grieving lost love.’

‘Even if I was the one who destroyed it?’ His voice was cynical now, even bitter. Augus shook his head and lifted up, stared at the side of Gwyn’s face until Gwyn reluctantly met his gaze.

‘You were a vessel,’ Augus said. ‘You would not hold a victim of mine culpable, if I compelled him to kill another. I can no sooner do the same for you. Your father didn’t use compulsions, no, but he had the benefit of years of causing you direct harm. Believe me; compulsions can be broken by some – but a lifetime of torment? That is not easy, or even possible to break past, while you’re still in the worst of it.’

Gwyn stared at him, but Augus couldn’t read his gaze. Couldn’t tell if Gwyn was trying to figure out if Augus was telling the truth, or if Gwyn was doubting him. His glamour was still dampened down, though his body was less hot than before.

‘I would’ve let him kill me,’ Gwyn said, unblinking. ‘I begged him to.’

‘I know,’ Augus said, his voice even. ‘I can imagine. Do you not realise it gave him more pleasure to see you broken and begging, and still deny you? There was no way you could have won, that day, Gwyn.’

‘I should never have told Mafydd I was Unseelie,’ Gwyn said, and still Gwyn wouldn’t look away from him, something steely in that gaze, hiding the fragility that Augus had witnessed before. Was it a test? For if so, it would be dismayingly easy to pass.

‘Shouldn’t you?’ Augus said, raising his eyebrows. ‘Truly? You once told me, sweetness, that you liberated the lost. Did you not think, in that moment when Mafydd asked you to bare your secrets for him, when he showed you care, did you not hope that perhaps you were to be liberated?’

Gwyn’s faced screwed up, his eyes clenched shut. One of his hands dropped from Augus’ side and pressed over his face.

‘Did you not think,’ Augus whispered, pressing his lips to Gwyn’s knuckles where they rested over his eyes, ‘that it would be more bearable if someone knew? Just one person who would not use it against you?’

‘And he died,’ Gwyn said, voice tight.

‘I know,’ Augus said, lengthening the vowels, sighing. ‘I know, Gwyn. And it is a monstrous thing. But it is not your monstrous thing. You know I do not indulge you in these things. You know that I never let you off the hook for murdering Nwython or tormenting Cyledr. I have never once let you slip free when you’ve not wanted to accept responsibility for the harm in your actions. And I am not telling you to believe me, I am only stating a fact; the weight that you carry for Mafydd’s death, your guilt, it does not belong to you. It’s not yours to carry. You should give it back to the people it belongs to.’

‘Be quiet,’ Gwyn said, though his body sagged into the bed, and his fingers twitched. He moved his hand away from his eyes and blinked up at Augus again, eyes bright once more, but no tears spilling.

‘Hello,’ Augus said, lips quirking, and Gwyn made a face at him, and then sighed a huge, shuddering sound. ‘You’re still tired.’

‘Yes,’ Gwyn said. A second later, he yawned. Augus shook his head as his own body rose and fell on the giant movement of Gwyn’s chest.

‘Oaf,’ Augus muttered, poking him lightly, and Gwyn smiled. It was a simple, guileless expression, and Augus was surprised to see it. It sent a shiver through his whole body. Gwyn smiling like that – shy, earnest, it was a sharpness in Augus’ chest. It was still such a rare occurrence.

‘You’re not going to come and see me after those nightmares, are you?’ Augus said, and Gwyn’s smile faded. He shook his head. Augus closed his eyes to think of Gwyn dealing with the hugeness of all of this on his own. Just because it had always been that way, didn’t mean it should be that way in the future, did it?

‘I can’t tell when you’re going to have them,’ Augus said, frowning. ‘I know you so often have nightmares, but they aren’t often like this. I don’t like the idea of you dealing with this on your own.’

‘I have been alive for a very long time,’ Gwyn said, his voice soft, but