Authors: A. R. Kahler
“I did warn you,” he says. “I like to deliver on my oaths. Unlike
I shake my head. The stories never really touched on how passive-aggressive faeries actually are.
“Still,” he continues, “that doesn’t answer why you came.” He peers down to my wrist. “And with such unusual company.”
Zal is perfectly visible on my arm, smudged and dark.
I shrug and try not to sound like he has me cornered. “Zal didn’t want to die with its master, so it came to me. I’m the new host.” I look back at Oberon, try to meet his eyes. “But you’re right. I didn’t just come back for the fun of it. I’m here to make a deal.”
“A deal? My dear, you have absolutely nothing to bargain with.”
“I do,” I say. My brain is racing a hundred miles an hour—I’ve never been good at thinking on my feet, but a few weeks impersonating Mab has me thinking I can.
Vivienne, what are you doing?
I’m not sure if the question is my own or Kingston’s. “Me.”
Oberon chuckles. “I’m listening.”
“Spare the show,” I say. “Let Mab keep the circus, and let my friends keep their lives. That’s all I want.”
“A tall order,” he says. “Seeing as Mab still has control over most of the Dream.”
“Only because she has me,” I say. “You said it yourself. So long as she has Kassia and me to control the demon, she can’t be toppled.”
“Are you saying you’d join me?”
“No,” I say. I take a deep breath. My eyes flicker to Kingston.
“But I’ll leave the show.”
Oberon stands. “Not good enough, I’m afraid. You’d just be a vigilante, then. There’s no telling where your loyalties would lie, and you’ve already proven you will always choose her over me.”
“Don’t you see?” I say. “If I leave the show, I’ll be mortal. And if I’m mortal, I’ll die.”
His eyebrows furrow. For all his talk of death and destruction, it’s clear he’s not keen on the idea of losing me.
Vivienne, seriously, what are you doing?
I don’t know if this will work out or not—I’m not a faerie, my vows mean nothing. But in a past life, I wasn’t exactly human, and apparently some part of my soul has been and always will be connected to this place.
And Oberon wants that back more than anything else.
“If I die,” I say slowly, “I’ll come back again as the Oracle. Until the end of time. That’s always been the issue, hasn’t it? Who gets me when I come back? So I’ll take the risk out of it.”
Oberon lets out a small gasp.
“Yeah,” I say. “You let my friends live, and I swear my next incarnation to you. I’ll be yours again. And all of Summer will return to its former glory.”
Oberon is speechless.
His mouth opens and closes a few times, a gaping fish struggling for air. I can’t tell if he’s overjoyed or upset, but when he drops to his knees in front of me, I’m pretty certain it’s the former. He reaches out and puts his hands on my knees. I try not to flinch. I meet his gaze dead-on, though my expression is definitely more stoic than his.
“Vivienne,” he finally manages. “You mean it? You would swear yourself to me?”
I shrug. “If it keeps my friends safe, sure. Whatever. It’s not like I’ll remember making this choice the next time around anyway.”
Maybe he loses a little of his excitement in that statement; I’m past the point of caring. I’m not about to pretend I’m excited to throw myself back into his servitude. All I can think of is Tír na nÓg and how I want to run back and live that dream life; then I get glimpses of Kingston out of the corner of my eye, and I know I still have to fight. There’s no dreaming for me, not anymore.
Besides, if Mab gets her way, we’ll manage to save Kassia. If there’s one thing I can count on Kassia for, it’s her rage. So long as Mab has her, I have an easy out—I’m sure it wouldn’t be difficult to convince Mab to kill my next incarnation before I’m old enough to know what’s happening. Morbid, sure, but it beats an eternity with Oberon.
I just won’t tell him that.
“We’re going to need to make this binding,” he says.
Please let this not work.
He reaches down to the grass at his feet. A tiny flower coaxes itself up through the blades of grass, its bud tight and yellow. He picks it gently and holds it up to me.
“Do you, Vivienne Warfield, promise your next life to me, so long as I spare the lives of your friends?”
“Then take this flower as a symbol of our agreement and repeat your promise.”
It feels an awful lot like getting married. And, I suppose, in light of my past relationship with Oberon, it kind of is. Still, I don’t have a choice. I can dig myself out of this hole later, once Kingston is back and the demons are gone.
I reach out and take the flower. Electricity snaps through my fingers the moment I touch the fragile stem. He lets the flower go and sits back, watching me intently.
“I, Vivienne Warfield,” I begin. Then I stop. The moment I speak, tiny tendrils twine from the stem, wrapping around my hand, and every utterance coerces the petals open just a little bit more, like my promise is breathing the thing into life. Oberon gestures at me to continue. A tendril is wrapped around my pinky. “I, Vivienne Warfield”—again, the flower opens and twines itself around my hand—”promise my next life to the Summer Court, so long as Oberon doesn’t hurt my friends.”
By the time I’m done speaking, the flower has opened fully, revealing thousands of brilliant gold petals and stamen the color of blood. The tendrils have wrapped around my entire forearm in a matter of seconds; Zal twists angrily beneath them, like it, too, is being held in place by this terrible deal.
Oberon reaches out and grasps the flower with his index finger and thumb, right above where I hold it. “I swear to keep your friends out of danger, so long as you swear your next incarnation to me.” The flower wraps itself around his arm, too, so we’re both ensnared by thin green vines.
I stare at him, feel the weight of our deal settle on my shoulders.
“It is done,” he says.
The flower petals explode in a flurry of gold sparks, swarming around us as the vines sink into our skin, burn into our bones. I clench my teeth tight, try to keep myself from yelping.
In a matter of seconds it’s over.
Oberon takes my hand in his; his touch is warm, his skin rough.
“Now we will be together again,” he says. “Forever.”
I say nothing. My heart feels like it’s stopped, my pulse is sluggish in my veins. I don’t even react when he leans over. When his lips press to mine, I’m too shocked by what I’ve done to register surprise at his kiss.
Oberon leans back a moment later. I force myself not to reach up and slap him or wipe my lips. His kiss filled me with the scent of green leaves and growing things, a tingle that might have been magic or some resonance of a past life. Whichever the case, I don’t respond. Not at all. I won’t give him that satisfaction.
He doesn’t say anything when he stands, doesn’t apologize or look abashed. Instead, he holds out his hand to help me up. I hesitate. I can’t help but feel that even though he is dead, Kingston’s gaze is disapproving.
I had no choice.
Then, knowing full well I’m not getting out of this situation if I’m bound in vines again, I reach out and take Oberon’s hand.
Showbiz taught me a lot. But mostly, it taught me to lie. And the easiest lie is a smile.
“You must join me for dinner,” he says. “You look like you’ve been starved half to death.”
I’m not hungry,
I want to say. “If you insist,” I say instead. If the answer fazes him, he doesn’t show it. He doesn’t let go of my hand as he guides me down the hall. Leaving Kingston is difficult, a weight at my heels, but I only let myself look back once.
I’ll come back,
I think. But I have a feeling he doesn’t hear me.
I do my best to memorize the twists and the turns, and in my mind I’m praying Zal will remember which way we’re going and how to get back. Mab might have slowed time in the mortal world—however that actually works—but I want out of here as soon as possible. Which means I’ll try escaping tonight.
If, of course, I can figure out how.
I’ve been winging it so far, and I guess that’s what I’ll keep doing.
Because you’re doing such a fantastic job. You were conscious for all of, what, five minutes before swearing your next incarnation to a man who seriously creeps you out? Well done, Viv. Well done indeed.
That thought, I know, is mine. Kingston would have used stronger words.
Much stronger words.
“What are you going to do with me?” I ask as we round another corner. I want to tell him that I’m not hungry. No, I want to somehow access my powers and burn his face off for kissing me. But I have to stay civil. It’s the only way I’m getting out of here. Which, really, means my chances of escape are pretty slim.
Remember Kingston. Remember why you came here.
Oberon spares me a glance.
“You’re the one who came to me,” he says. “What were you planning on doing here? Just walking out?”
“Ideally.” I don’t, of course, mention I’d hoped to be walking out with Kingston.
He laughs to himself. “I never pegged you as an idealist.” A few more steps in silence. We pause outside a wooden door carved with leaves. “I know about your deal with Mab. I know you must return to her show or risk forfeiting your contract. I know that that forfeit means your demise. And under any other circumstances, I would let you leave here because of that. But if you remember, you just swore your next life to me. So, you see, keeping you alive is no longer my top priority.” His smile is wicked. “If only Mab had taught you to be as good at bargaining as you are at being her pet, you might have gotten out of here alive.”
He opens the door like a perfectly respectable gentleman, and it takes everything I have not to scream in his face. So much for the easy way out.
The dining room is like something out of a Gothic horror novel: The center of the room is taken up by a long, oval, wooden table covered in a stark white tablecloth; a half-dozen high-backed chairs are set around it. A fireplace crackles in the hearth that takes up half of one wall, while a handful of large paintings of various unhappy-looking people and places take up the rest of the blank space. The table is laden with silverware and candelabras. Everything glimmers in the light of the fire.
But that’s not the only light in the room.
The three demon children sit at the table, their hands in their laps, the light from their flames dancing across the tableware as they sit in silence. Cortis sits at the far end of the table. The other two demons flank him—the girl has long dark hair, the boy short blond. All three of them are clothed only in flame, their cracked grey skin rendering them mostly sexless, like stone statues after centuries in the rain.
I stall in the doorway. Energy flares in my palms.
“Now, now,” Oberon whispers into my ear, placing a hand on my shoulder, “let’s not do anything hasty. You are our guest, after all.” He smiles at me. I can’t tell if that’s the smile of a generous host or someone granting a last supper. Whatever appetite I might have been able to fake vanishes when, simultaneously, the children look at me.
They have red eyes and charred hair and faces carved into eternal masks of hate. Cortis in particular grants me a nasty sneer. I have a feeling the only thing keeping them from killing me on the spot is Oberon’s broad hand on my shoulder.
“Children,” Oberon says, his voice booming with pride. “This is Vivienne Warfield. She is our guest tonight.”
My body grows cold with his statement, more so when the demons nod as one and go back to staring at the empty plates before them. Oberon has these demons under his control? But how? The only way Mab can keep Kassia from killing everyone is containing her within Lilith.
What is Oberon’s secret?
Oberon guides me over to one of the free chairs, this one beside the girl demon. Her heat is nearly unbearable—how the hell they aren’t burning the wooden table is beyond me. Must be magic. My hands are clenched and every fiber of me is taut, ready to spring into action the moment one of these demons makes a move. There’s no way Oberon just brought me here for a meal. There’s going to be some serious
shit going down, I’m sure of it. Oberon seats himself at the head of the table and folds his hands. He’s beaming. My grip tightens. Everything about this feels wrong, wrong, wrong; and I am seriously doubting my ability to get out of this room alive.
“Isn’t this nice,” he says. “Everyone here, together. The whole family, finally assembled.”
My heart stops.
“Excuse me?” I ask. I can’t help myself.
He smiles at me. “Oh, don’t worry Vivienne. They’re not
children, not exactly. Try as we might, Selena and I were never able to create more offspring. And we tried quite often.” He gives me a wink that makes me want to vomit on my plate. Selena was the name of my past incarnation. Something in his phrasing make my hairs stand on end.
“No,” he continues, leaning back, “these children were born by my queen, a beautiful young faun named Titania, may her soul rest in peace. You can tell by their stature.” He pauses, watching me for some sort of reaction, but I keep myself perfectly blank. My heart sputters back into life, now that I know I didn’t somehow birth these monsters in a past life. If he’s expecting me to be indignant that I was apparently just a mistress when we were…together…he’s sorely mistaken. He resumes his monologue after a moment, his children watching with placid expressions on their hateful faces. “You and I only had one child. Sadly, time was not on our side, and you were only able to birth Oberos a few days before Mab had you killed.”
And my stuttering heart stops again, my pulse congealing in my veins.
“What?” I gasp. The demons look to me, but Oberon’s gaze is more intense than their hellish eyes ever could be.
“Have you not remembered that yet?” he says, his voice barely over a whisper. “Did Mab never tell you? Oberos was your son, Vivienne. He barely knew of you, of course—Kassia killed you before he was a year old. That’s part of why he was always so vengeful toward Kassia, I think. He wanted to avenge you.”
I don’t speak. My heart plummets to my gut, and my skin is cold, frozen despite the heat cast by the demon child to my left, despite the heat of all of their stares.
“Oberos…was my son?” I finally ask.
“Of course. I’m surprised there was no spark of recognition. After all,” he says, motioning to himself, “I am far from an ethereal, glowing creature. He received that trait from his mother.”
I don’t know what’s worse: knowing that past-me had a son or the fact that I watched him die without even a hint of recognition. All I can think of is the glowing, golden prince fighting against Mab. All I can remember is him dying at Kassia’s hands, his body bursting into burning butterflies and charred leaves. My fingers clench around the emerald ring, clutching the stone still holding all my memories. Does it hold the memories from my past life as well? Or are those all gone, scattered to time?
“Are you okay, Vivienne?” he asks. And maybe the compassion’s all a lie, but it sounds like he’s actually concerned.
“Why didn’t you tell me? Why didn’t anyone tell me?”
The room spins, and I grasp the ring tighter, hoping it will stabilize me in some way. It doesn’t.
“What’s done is done,” Oberos says. “I didn’t feel our first encounter would be an ideal time to tell you, anyway. That was a past life, my love. There’s no point lingering over it. We must focus on now. On the future. On our future.”
“I’m not your love,” I say. The stone burns under my grip, the one point of heat on my suddenly freezing hands. “And we don’t have a future.”
Oberon’s smile slices through me.
“Not in this life, perhaps. But the next. Which is why we are dining together, all of us. To celebrate the next incarnation. To celebrate the time when our family will be whole. My children have missed having a mother. But soon, you will be reborn, and you will be every bit the matriarch they need.”
I look around the table—to the demons sitting there with twisted smiles on their faces, and to Oberon, who gazes at me with a mixture of love and possession that makes my skin crawl. No sound but the crackle of fire in the hearth. Just the fire and my heartbeat, my ridiculously precious heartbeat, the only thing keeping me from being bound to these creatures, this life.
And with every beat, I get closer and closer to being one of them.
I don’t speak throughout the meal. Although the food that magically appears on our plates is a feast for kings, I can’t taste any of it. Brimstone fills my nostrils, and every bite is like eating charcoal. But I know it’s not the presence or scent of the demons that makes everything ashen—it’s the knowledge that I’ve resigned my next life to this existence, to playing house with a bunch of lunatics. Oberon doesn’t take his eyes off me the entire time. The demon children say nothing. I watch them eat from the corners of my eyes—every bite of food they take turns to ash the moment it passes their lips, and the scent of burning carbon sears into my throat.
It seems like hours pass before Oberon stands and declares I should retire for the evening. I’m not given a choice, of course, but I don’t fight it. I’m too numb to put up a struggle, so I stand when he pulls out my chair, and I let him guide me through the halls.
Laughter still drifts from the courtyards, statues and faeries dancing and singing under the coming twilight.
“They’re celebrating,” Oberon says. One of his arms is around my waist. I want to gouge his eyes out, but I don’t want to give him any reason to kill me. As he said, he has zero need to keep me alive now. I’ve managed to step deep into this. “Now that my children have returned, the tide of war is shifting in our favor. Already, we’re experience a resurgence in Dream as Mab’s hold slips. Soon, we will be victors. Soon, you will return as my queen.”
The war’s not over yet,
I want to say. But with me here, trapped, and Lilith on the run, Mab is as good as defenseless. The only thing I can rely on is Oberon keeping his word—the troupe will be safe, at least. There will always be one last bastion of sanctuary. Not that I have too many friends left to use it.
“Is that your plan, then?” I ask. “Keep me prisoner here until my contract kills me?”
He shrugs. “I hold nothing against your current form, my love.” I
wish he would stop calling me that. “But your contract ties you to Mab. I’m afraid your body’s demise is the only way out of that. So, yes. I will hold you here until you’re reborn. I promise to make you comfortable until then.”
I can’t help the shudder that runs through me. Maybe, if I spoke with Mab, she’d let me stay in the show forever. Maybe I could end up with Kingston in that castle after all, living in Faerie for all of time. If I don’t die, I don’t fall into Oberon’s clutches. Even if I do have to go, there’s still a chance of a few years of happiness with Austin before it’s all over. It kills me to admit that staying with Kingston is suddenly more appealing—eternity keeps me safe. Death just means another life of servitude.
Oberon pauses outside the door. The hall is familiar, somehow, and it’s then that I realize this is where he locked me up when I was here the last time.
Home sweet home.
He studies me for an uncomfortable moment; I avert my gaze, trying to fight the blush from knowing he’s undressing me with his eyes. It’s not flattery that causes the red to rise, but rage. Rather than focusing on how much I wish he’d keel over, I try to puncture his cocky calm.
“You call them your children,” I say. “You say you had them with Titania. But demons are made, not born.” I look at him, condense every ounce of hatred I have into that glare. “What did you let happen to them? Why would you let them get this way?”
The satisfaction of seeing Oberon flinch is short-lived. His features cloud over, shifting from horny to hurt in less than a second.
“You wouldn’t understand,” he says. His voice is steely, and I don’t miss the way the grass carpet browns by his feet.
“Try me. After all, they’re going to be my kids soon, too.”
Ugh. Even saying that makes me want to hurl.
“I did what I had to to save my kingdom,” he says. His dark brows are heavy over his eyes. He gestures to the door, which opens silently at his command. “I will see you in the morning. If your contract hasn’t killed you by then.”
Something clicks. If he won’t tell me what happened to his kids, I think I know a way to find out. Before he can leave, I lunge forward and wrap him in a hug, my arms sliding inside his suit coat.
Please be there, please be there.
“What is this?” he asks, his arms hovering over me like I might be infected.
My hand clenches on something cold and hard. His pocket watch—the one that, like Mab’s stones, recorded the history of his kingdom.
“I…I don’t know what came over me.” I fall back and quickly shove my hands in my pockets, hoping he doesn’t catch a glint of brass between my fingers. I don’t meet his eyes. “Sorry.”
He grunts and examines me for a moment. I hope he thinks it’s my contract wavering. I hope he’s deluded enough to think there’s a part of me, somewhere, that could love him.
“Don’t apologize,” he says. “We will be joined soon enough.”
Then he turns and stalks away, leaving a trail of crushed brown footprints in his wake.
He’s gone a few seconds later, down the corridor without a second glance back.
Is he for real? He just wandered off and left me out here?
“I wouldn’t, were I you.”
The voice comes from my left. I glance over to see a statue of a minotaur on a pedestal, all white alabaster. The beast’s head turns toward me. That’s when I realize it’s not all stone—the giant double-headed ax it holds is definitely steel and definitely sharp.
“Strict orders. You are not to leave.”
I sigh internally.
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” I say to the statue. “It’s so welcoming here.”
Of course he’d have you guarded.
Then, before the thing can get suspicious—if a creature of stone can even
suspicious—I step into my room and close the door to my own little prison.
The room is exactly how it was when I was first locked here: moss carpet, draped bed, bookshelves filled with gibberish and great picture windows overlooking the statue-filled gardens. Moonlight shines in through the windows—not entirely certain how that works, seeing as dusk was barely settling in the hall—and the light makes slashes across the room, shadows of hedges rustling in the night breeze. I walk over to the windows and nearly scream when it’s not a shadow that moves in the corner of my room, but the statue it stains.
“Jesus Christ,” I hiss, reaching a hand to my heart as the statue steps forward. “Pan, what the hell are you doing here?”
Pan gives a little bow when he emerges in the moonlight, all four foot nothing of him. He’s adorable, in an “I could headbutt you into oblivion” sort of way—tiny little goat hooves and furry legs, bare muscled torso, and two nubs of horns sticking out of his curly stone hair.
“Oberon said you would be arriving soon,” he says with a mischievous smile. “He required a guard for the interior of your chambers, so of course I offered my services.” The grin slides from his face when he registers my expression. “Are you okay, Oracle? Has he hurt you?”
It’s like every nerve inside of me releases at once. All the tension, all the fear and stoic resolve, all of it drops to the ground as I drop to my knees. Pan is there in an instant.
“There, there,” he says, his arm over my shoulders. “Tell old Pan all about it. We’ll get through this, whatever it is.”
I don’t know what spurs me to speak. Maybe it’s the fact that he helped me before, or the knowledge that he was, in another lifetime, my only friend. Or maybe it’s just the exhaustion, the sheer hopelessness of my life. I lean into his shoulder and tell him. Everything. And I don’t stop until my words dissolve into tears.