Authors: A. R. Kahler
Mab gives them a cursory glance.
“No. They’re our version of fireflies. You
know what fireflies are, yes?”
“Sorry for asking,” I mutter, and we continue the rest of the way in silence.
The scent of burning gets stronger the closer we get to the city. Great obsidian walls rise up before us, barely visible through the black and grey trees. The smoke is thicker here—it lies on the ground in swirls like sleeping greyhounds, pooling as heavy as fog. With it comes the telltale burn of brimstone. I wonder if there’ll ever be a time in my life where that’s not a frequent smell.
Between the shadows of one tree and the next, Mab changes, her leather armor shifting into a long black silk dress with a collar of white fox fur. I glance down at my own jeans and T-shirt. Just another reminder that I’m a peon entering her kingdom—the tent may have been my domain, but here, I’m pretty much nothing. A few feet from the wall that encapsulates the city, I can see the burn marks and scratches in the stone; it looks like someone launched flaming cannonballs at the defenses. Mab doesn’t pause. She raises one hand and flicks her wrist, and white light spears through the smooth wall before of us. The light cracks down in a jagged line, shatters again at the top to form two more arching bolts of light that outline double doors. Then, when she lowers her hand, the doors fold open with a grumble of stone and magic.
Once we’re inside, the doors close behind us with a thud, and I realize why this is called the Winter Court. The buildings within aren’t just made of obsidian—there’s stonework, sure, but the rest is ice. Ice as black as pitch or clear as glass pierces up all around us, carved into towers, arched over into bridges. Stone and ice form every facade, every winding path. Everything is angular and jagged and sharp—not even the wisps of snow built up in the corners have softened the landscape. Like Mab, the city is seductive in its untouchability, sleek as a jaguar and just as fierce. The air drops about twenty degrees the moment we step into the city; my next breath comes out in a puff. I glare at Mab’s fox shrug and wish I’d been advised to bring a jacket.
Again, she doesn’t speak as she guides me through the city streets. Now that the scent of burning is gone, I’m struck by the distinct lack of smell. The city simply doesn’t smell or feel like it’s lived in. There are a few lights glimmering in icy towers high above us, but the streets are empty, the air blank: no scent of cookfires, no rumbling of voices. It feels like walking through a frozen city of the dead.
She leads me through the winding streets, our feet tapping against the path like it’s made of glass. I try to keep my weight low, walking carefully so I don't slip. The last thing I need is to make more of a fool of myself in front of her and the rest of her kingdom. Which, I’m starting to realize, is just about as cheery and welcoming as Oberon’s Summer Court.
Is all of Faerie this bleak? I’m reminded of the Wildness, the realm ungoverned by either monarch. Maybe that’s where all the happy faerie parties are. Maybe being under the rule of Mab or Oberon naturally dampens the mood.
“Where are we going?” I finally ask. My voice echoes in the air, carrying farther on the cold than I’d intended.
“You still have Penelope’s necklace?” she asks.
“Yeah.” My hand goes to my chest, my fingers wrapping over the warm stone.
“Then you’ll know what my jewelers can do. There is a very special piece I want you to see. One that will shed light on our predicament.”
I’ve grown used to the way Mab works; as we walk down back allies and corridors, I don’t ask what she’s talking about, don’t push for more of an explanation. She’s not one who gets to the point—a trait I think all faeries share—so if I have to follow her into the bowels of her kingdom to learn why she brought me here, I’ll do it. I just hope she kept her word and Austin’s still okay.
We pass apothecaries with their windows filled with glowing vials and bundles of herbs and organs in jars, pass bakers and tailors and a shop with a sign labeled A
. The window of that shop is curtained shut, but my skin tingles as we pass the pentacle-encrusted door.
“This is the market district,” she says over her shoulder. “Anything and everything you’ve ever dreamed of can be found here. Even the things your dreams deny you.” As she says this, we pass by a red-curtained shop that I’m almost entirely certain is a brothel, judging from the very enthusiastic noises coming from within. Her timing is, as always, perfect. I think she must practice giving tours like this.
We finally stop in front of a fairly nondescript door, at least at first glance. When she knocks, I realize that what I thought were wooden planks is actually tarnished silver—the entire door was crafted to look plain, though up close it’s clear it’s been made from a single piece of hammered metal. The attention to detail and overt attempts at deception tell me we’ve reached the jewelers.
A hidden window in the door opens immediately after her knock. I catch sight of a man’s eye before there’s a nervous gasp and the window slams shut. The door opens.
“Your Majesty,” says the man behind the door. There’s something about him that seems off. It’s not his dirty leather work apron or the goggles covered in magnifying glasses on his forehead, nor is it the frazzled curly brown hair or dark brown eyes. He bows low, revealing a column of black tattoos on his neck that disappear down the collar of his aged linen shirt. They look like runes.
It’s only when he stands and his weary eyes lock on me that I realize what seems different. He’s not like Mab or the rest of the Fey I’ve met—he looks tired, worn through by the years. There are lines at the edges of his eyes and a shake to his delicate, blackened fingers.
“What brings you to us so late in the night?” His voice is antiquated as well, like he’s speaking in some Shakespearean play. He glances at me again. “Especially with such an unusual guest.”
In that moment, I have a gut feeling that this man knows more about me than he’s letting on.
“I have no doubt you felt the attack?” Mab says, though she raises an eyebrow like she’s actually harboring a great deal of doubt.
The man looks confused. “Attack? Oh! I thought we had an earthquake.”
“William,” Mab says calmly. “You must remember: We don’t have earthquakes in Faerie.”
“Ah, yes, right.” He glances into the alley behind us. Almost like he expects we’ve been followed. “Well, do come in.” He pulls the door open a little bit wider and lets us slip inside. The moment we’re in he slams it shut, and I look over my shoulder to see a series of intricate locks and clockwork mechanisms sliding into place and securing us inside.
The man notices my look and shrugs.
“Many would give all the Dream in the world for what we hold down here,” he explains. “We must protect it every way we can.”
He doesn’t sound proud as he says it. He sounds a little terrified, as though this fact grates on him every day of his existence. It would sure explain his twitchiness.
“I need to access the special collections,” Mab commands. “Urgently.”
“Of course. Follow me, my queen,” he says, bowing past Mab and me. Without another word, he leads us down the hall.
Unlike in Oberon’s kingdom, the tunnel he leads us down isn’t warm or inviting—no torches in the walls, no strata or carpets of grass under our feet. No. This hall is as black as the city, and the light comes from icy-blue and sea-green panes of crystal set in the walls. Everything glints with false dampness. The smooth stone beneath our feet glimmers like an oil slick dotted with shards of stone and metal findings.
The deeper we go into the tunnel, the more the air smells like old smoke, and a metallic tang sticks to the top of my mouth. The path is long and winding and, at times, I catch sight of something glinting beneath the obsidian surface of the walls, flashes of iridescence that look like the runes inked down William’s spine.
We must protect it every way we can,
he said—I’ve no doubt the runes are one more magical defense. Which makes me wonder why he himself is covered in them.
The air gets steadily warmer as we walk, and with every step the sound of hammering gets louder—at first, it sounds like steady chimes, but the further on we go the louder and heavier it gets. Another band of runes flashes in the walls, a ring that circles floor to ceiling. My skin tingles as we pass through.
William takes us down a corridor to the right, and from here the ambiance of the tunnel changes. The crystal panes on the walls here are amber, the floor beneath our feet suddenly covered in a lush red carpet. Even the stone of the walls changes, a slow and steady shift from sleek obsidian to striated tiger’s-eye.
“This is the collections hall,” Mab says beside me. It doesn’t take long to figure out why. Five steps in and alcoves appear in the walls, each ensconced in a thin pane of glass. I’ve never been one for anthropology, but I have no doubt that the items displayed within those alcoves are very old and very precious. The hall itself is a costumer’s wet dream, and the sights make even me catch my breath. To my right is a jewel-encrusted scabbard embossed with Nordic scrollwork. Across from it is a mannequin bust covered in pearl necklaces and a choker with a red rosary-type pendant.
“That was Queen Elizabeth the First’s,” Mab whispers in my ear. “If it weren’t for me, she never would have worn pearls in the first place. Every monarch in history owes her fashion sense to me. And my jewelers, of course. Fashion truly does influence the age.”
William seems to shrink in on himself a bit more at this. “We strive to produce only the best, my queen,” he says. Somehow, he manages to make it sound self-deprecating.
Mab points to a gold band with an embossed serpent, its rim encrusted with lapis lazuli and mother-of-pearl. “I gave that to Cleopatra when she prayed for an easy childbirth. Serpents were very en vogue at the time, but even more so after she sported it.” She pauses. “Sometimes I wonder if she would have killed herself via asp if I’d not given it to her. Still, I do love the poetry of it.”
We pass by another alcove, this one holding a simple string of pearls.
“Those were Marie Antoinette’s,” Mab says, almost sadly. “I told her that if she wanted to survive the revolution, she must keep them on at all times. She didn’t, of course. Mortals never do pay attention to what they’re told, and look what happens.” She gives me a knowing look. “I think you two would have gotten along quite well. You have her spark.”
“Why are we here?” I ask again. This makes William shrink even more, as though me talking to Mab like an equal sends terror through his heart. But I'm tired of this fashion parade: my boyfriend is hostage, and my tent is under attack. Mab may have promised only a few moments would pass in the mortal world, but I don't trust her. I need to get back. Soon. “I don’t have time to talk about fashion, Mab. I need to learn how to kill a demon.”
Mab’s smile doesn’t drop.
“Fashion, like art, can build an age,” she says. “But it can also topple it. And the right fashion preserves it.”
We pass more relics in silence—diamond tiaras and necklaces of wood and bone and raffia, scepters covered in sapphires and crude stone rings the color of dust. I don’t ask any more questions, and thankfully I don’t have long to wait. William stops beside a metal door. This one isn’t decorated like the one outside the tunnel—this one is heavy steel, pockmarked with rust and engraved with runes. There’s no handle and no hinges. Just a shadowed hole set at chest height, maybe eight inches deep.
“What is it you’re seeking, my queen?” William asks. He fidgets with the belt around his waist, his fingers tracing over the multitude of leather pouches and hanging tools.
“The Blood Autumn pendant,” she says.
William visibly flinches.
“What do you need with—”
Mab clears her throat. William shuts up. Then he nods and mutters something to himself.
“As you wish,” he says a bit louder.
He pulls out a small graphite pencil from a pouch and then scribbles something on the back of his hand. More runes. That’s when I see, hidden through the soot, even more black marks traced over his knuckles and around his wrist. He shakily puts the pencil back into his pouch and clenches his marked fist. He takes a deep breath. Then he shoves his hand into the hole in the door and squeezes his eyes shut.
Instantly, the hole grows teeth: jagged chunks of metal clamp around his wrist, trapping his hand inside. William hisses in pain as the runes across the door and along his spine glow gold. Then, a second later, the prongs retract and he withdraws his hand, giving it a shake. The red welts are already beginning to bruise.
I don’t have time to feel bad for him: gears are clunking, and a moment later the door opens inward. The door is thick and covered in gears and deadbolts, but that’s not what’s making the noise. The shadowed room beyond is changing. Pieces of metal and slabs of stone click and join on clockwork arms, creating, before my very eyes, a staircase leading upward. My ears are filled with the whir of cogs and the sluggish tone of metal on stone. When the door fully opens, the last few pieces of the stairwell click into place and the room goes silent. Everything past the brass and stone stairwell is darkness—it could be rock wall, or it could be a void. It’s impossible to tell.
“After you,” William says to Mab, but her hand is already on the banister. I’m right behind her.
When William reaches the stairs, the door closes shut behind him and the tunnel is thrown into near darkness. The only light comes from the staircase itself—the banister glows with a dull brass light, and the steps are flecked with silver stars.
I’m about ready to scream at Mab in frustration. I just need to get back. I need to save my troupe. Even a second lost could mean life or death. But I keep my mouth shut. Yelling at her would just lead to another monologue.
After all the buildup, the room at the top is an immediate letdown.
I was expecting crown jewels and sarcophagi, something ornate and old and absolutely priceless, but the room we enter looks like an abandoned attic. There are rows of shelves covered in boxes and blanketed with spiderwebs. Light comes from a flickering bulb in the ceiling—the first sign of electricity I’ve seen in all of Faerie—and the air is musty. Old. Another glance around and now I’m not so certain that this
an attic somewhere. There’s an old mannequin in the corner, right beside a steamer trunk and a boarded-up window. The only thing about this place that mirrors the Winter Court is the air—it’s freezing up here, and I’m sorely tempted to grab the fur coat on the hook beside me. If only there was a way to ensure it wasn’t enchanted to, I don’t know, squeeze me to death.