Authors: A. R. Kahler
“I really need to stop doing taxes before bed,” I say loudly, forcing myself up to standing.
Now is not the time to show weakness. Now is not the time to show them just how unfit for this role you are.
Mab never stumbled, never collapsed in a fit of visions. Mab was never weak. But then again, Mab was the fucking Faerie Queen; power was just part of her nature.
“What is this?” Arietta asks, nodding to the corpse. So much for her being on my side.
Melody's hand on my arm is the only thing keeping me upright, but I'm hoping the troupe doesn't see it. Everyone's now staring at Damian's body with equal mixes of disgust and fear.
Melody doesn't speak. We both know that if I'm to keep this troupe together, I have to be the one in charge at all times. The moment she becomes my voice is the moment I lose control and she loses her connection to the mutinous ramblings of the troupe.
“Damian tried to dodge his contract,” I say. I force my voice into a semblance of calm, trying in vain to mirror Mab's own smoky confidence. “He left sometime in the night. We found him just beyond the entrance.”
“You killed him,” someone else says from behind me. I don't try to find the speaker; it's not like the sentiments are unique.
“I have no hand in the terms of your contracts,” I say. “And you all know the price of violating your terms.” I sigh. “You are bound as much to this as I.”
“You're in charge,” someone else says. “This is your show.”
“No,” I say. Rage and indignation flare inside of me. The tired, meek girl who came to this circus died a month ago, when I learned I was more than just a cotton-candy seller with latent psychic talents. I was the Oracle, the Summer King's loyal assassin and the key to keeping the demons at bay. I'm no longer a girl they can kick around. “This is
show. Or don't you remember? You are here because you wanted to be here, because you needed something only Mab could give. You entered into your contracts on your own volition. If you want out, you know where the exit is. But don't expect anyone to cry when you end up back here like Damian.”
I stare down the troupe, meeting their eyes without flinching. The aftertaste of the vision still lingers in my throat, and that fire gives me fuel. They don't know it, but I'm being fucked around with more than they are: their contracts are only for life.
Not even death will break me from the chains of being the Oracle.
“You will dispose of his body before the afternoon show,” I say. “I don't care how you do it. But know this—his is the last funeral we will have in this troupe. I will not tolerate any more insubordination. We have a show to run, and it
will go on.
“Or what?” someone asks. My heart drops an inch or two. It's Heath. “What are you going to do if we don't obey? It's not like killing us is a threat.”
I stare at him and square my shoulders, forcing down the aversion to my own words.
“From now on, any deserters will be left to rot in the ditch. No funeral, no tears. If this happens again, I will personally contact Mab and have her lend me her Night Terrors. Maybe having them around will help you focus more on your obligations and less on your pathetic dreams of rebellion.”
The crowd goes silent. They don't know that everything I've said is a lie—I haven't heard from Mab since she handed me her top hat and crushed any illusion I had of breaking free from her reign—but they
know the Night Terrors, the shadowy nightmares that serve Mab's domain. They know precisely how horrible working under that guard would be.
Not that Mab would send the Night Terrors here. She'd probably just laugh in my face and tell me I'm doing a fine job on my own.
“Now,” I say, “dispose of his body. The show tonight will go on as planned.” I turn to Melody. She looks at me with a stoic expression on her face; I don't know when she stopped holding me up, but now she's a few steps away and staring just like the rest of the troupe. Like she doesn't know what I've become. “Don't worry about finding another Shifter,” I tell her. “Maybe harder work will teach them that leaving their friends behind has consequences.”
Then, before anyone can say anything else, I turn on my heel and stalk toward the trailers.
I slam the door shut behind me and collapse on the bed. The trailer shakes from the force, but I'm done trying to be quiet or polite. Tears burn in the edges of my eyes; I can't tell if they're from frustration or fear. This is bad. This is really bad. Before I even took on the ringmaster role, Melody warned me that the troupe was pissed, and she's been hinting it loudly ever since. But this…this felt like the cusp of rebellion. And although Mab had made a coup impossible under her reign, I'm not about to test to see if I have the same safeguard. It wouldn't be out of character for her to “accidentally” leave it out of my terms.
For a few minutes I can only stare at the early morning light slashed across the ceiling. It feels like my blood is buzzing—from adrenaline or the comedown from my vision, I can't tell. I want to scream or sob or punch the hell out of someone, but I don't. I just lie there and take deep breaths and try to calm down.
“You are bound to my Court,”
Mab had hissed. “
is what you get for thinking you could outwit me, Oracle.
is what happens when you fuck with the Faerie Queen.”
Some nights, I wake up screaming with that final vision of her—her green eyes blazing, her tight black leotard studded with spikes and feathers like some nympho version of the Morrigan. I've faced down demons and wild Fey, but Mab—the
Mab, the Faerie Queen of nightmare—scared me more than anything I've encountered.
was a monster who promised an eternity of damnation and delivered.
This is what happens
I get stuck with a troupe that wants to rebel, with powers I can't begin to control, and the knowledge that soon, very soon, the whole world is going to come burning down. If I had known, a month ago, that this was the price of trying to find out my past—becoming the ringmaster, sitting like a duck between the dueling Faerie Courts—I think I would have just let the visions consume me. I wanted—and still crave—revenge against Mab for all she's done. But was it worth it?
Was losing Kingston worth it?
And just like that, his ghost is there—the memory of him, sitting on the bed beside me, running his fingers through my hair, telling me it will all be okay. I can practically feel him curled against me, can smell his cologne: the perfect mix of musk and cinnamon and something secret. My fingers ache to touch him, to press against him. But his memory is all I have. The real Kingston, the body he left behind, is somewhere in the dungeons of Oberon's Summer Court.
I'm entirely lost to my depressed reverie when the door bursts open. I sit up with a start.
“What. The hell. Was that about?” Mel asks before the door closes behind her. When it's shut, she takes a cautious step forward before stopping herself.
“I'm sorry,” I say. I flop back down and drape an arm across my eyes, blocking out the morning light and trying to calm my furious pulse. The buzz in my head has turned into the telltale onset of a migraine. I need coffee and a good night's sleep and a new life, but I'll probably only be getting one of those in the foreseeable future. “I'm just so sick of feeling like this, like I'm the villain. I guess I just lost it.”
“Not that,” she says. The bed shifts as she sits down beside me. “The fit. Don't tell me you had a vision.”
I bite my lip. That's answer enough.
“That's, what, the third time this week?”
Three visions. Each one getting longer. Each one getting worse. And I know they aren't going to improve. Not unless…
“We have to host a Tapis Noir,” she says. “You can't let this go on any longer.”
I peer up at her under my arm but don't try to sit up. The headache's quickly becoming unbearable; even though the light is dim, it feels like I'm looking into the sun.
“I told you, Mel, I'm not doing that. That was Mab's thing. Not mine.”
“Maybe,” she says with a resolute sigh. “But you know the visions will only get worse.” She drops her voice to a whisper. “You need blood, Viv. Before you go and accidentally kill someone in the troupe.”
I squeeze my eyes shut again. But that action can't block out the other visions, the memories that flood through my head the moment she whispers those words:
before you go and accidentally kill someone
All the people I've killed and fed on, all the innocents who've lost their lives to my hunger, their pained eyes and screams flash through my mind. Too many victims to count.
You are the Oracle.
The Oracle who has to kill and feed on her victims to keep her own visions and powers from consuming her.
Consume, or be consumed.
The guilt's worse when Mel reminds me. Mel, whose girlfriend I killed without even knowing it. Mel, who fed me Kingston's blood at his bequest. Mel, who knows firsthand the full horror of my
“I don't even know how we'd do it,” I say.
“I'll handle it,” she says. The confidence in her voice surprises me. When I first joined on, Melody was the witty girl with no worries and no stress. It scares me just how much she's aged, especially in the past month. “I mean, I'm in charge of front of house stuff, now. Surely this falls under my domain.”
I want to smile and thank her for doing this, but I know precisely what planning this dark soiree entails.
“When?” I ask.
When will I have to kill again?
My stomach flops.
“The next new moon is in four days,” she says. “I'll arrange it for then. Right before we leave this site.”
“You're a good friend,” I say.
“I know,” she responds. She slides off the bed. “Remember that next time you're doing payroll. If, that is, we ever really get paid.”
The day of the Tapis Noir dawns without screams or broken bodies—a novelty, these days. No one's tried to jump ship since Damian's body was buried somewhere in the purple mountains blotched against the horizon, and for that I'm thankful. Even better, I haven't had a single suffocating vision, even though I have caught the telltale whiff of brimstone on numerous occasions.
It's the little things…
Still, my stomach does somersaults at breakfast at the thought of what's coming up this evening. Mel sits a few tables away from me—not because I've done anything wrong, but because we've both decided that the only way for me to keep a rein on this troupe is for her to be on the inside. And the only way people will tell her what they
feel is for them to think that she and I are no longer besties.
I glance over at her—laughing with a group of Shifters and drinking what I'm positive is more than straight coffee—and feel loneliness settle in my stomach.
This new course of action may mean I don't lose my head in my sleep, but it also means I no longer have anyone to talk to. And in a company this small, that isolation is impossible to shake off.
“Vivienne is lonely,” says a voice to my left. The words turn my cold isolation into dread.
Lilith sits on the bench beside me. She wears a pale blue baby-doll dress covered in lace, the ringlets of her long black hair pulled back with a ribbon of the same color. She looks like a demented porcelain doll, one that will slit your throat and microwave your puppy when your back is turned. The truth of her is even worse.
“Lilith,” I say, trying to keep my voice calm. “What are you doing here?”
She points to her tray of food: a heaping bowl of sugary cereal, four oranges, and a cinnamon roll. “I was hungry.”
Her words are innocent, childlike—they match her eight-year-old body perfectly. But they still send chills down my spine.
I was hungry.
Hungry for what?
“Well, please, don't let me interrupt.” I take another sip of my coffee and look away, toward the tent, and hope she'll get the point. I know I checked the top hat this morning—it's become a nervous tic. I know the ruby on the brim is still mostly intact, even though the cracks spiderwebbed through it are now glaringly visible. The demon hidden within Lilith's body is still contained. So long as the ruby holds, Kassia is locked away.
Unless Mab was lying about that, too.
“You miss him, don't you?” Lilith asks, and the chill becomes a lance of ice. There's no singsong tinge to her words—they are calm, composed. She is perfectly in control, and that scares me more than anything else.
It means the demon's getting closer.
“I don't know what you're talking about,” I say. I don't look at her, but I can feel those catlike green eyes burning into the side of my face.
“Oh, but I believe you do,” she says. “The magician has met the ten of swords, high priestess. And now it's the tower's turn to play.”
For a moment, I have no idea what she's talking about. Then I'm reminded of the Tarot reading I did a few days before leaving for Oberon's Court, and a fresh wave of chills breaks over my skin. When I did the reading, I was trying to figure out what was going on with the show. The moment I drew
I knew it was talking about Lilith. I knew it spelled our end.
Ever since I've returned from the Summer Kingdom, Lilith has been—for the most part—absent. At first, I had hoped Mab took the girl with her, until I saw Lilith crawling among the bleacher pylons during intermission. The fact that she's here, that she's decided to talk to me after weeks of silence, makes me feel like some diabolical cog has begun to turn.
“What do you want?” I whisper. I finally look to her and meet her gaze. Something burns behind her eyes, a hatred and fire that practically glows in the early-morning sun.
“The same as you, Oracle. I crave revenge. And freedom.”
“But what do you want from
I know what you are. Why the hell would I let you go free? After all that you've done, why would I help you?”
She smiles, her grin slashing far too wide for her cherubic face. I expect her skin to crack like it did in the nightmares, for light and hellfire to spill forth between the fissures. The fact that it doesn't almost makes it worse.
“And I know what
have done,” she says. “We are equals, you and I. Equally sinned, equally damned. We both have the blood of innocents on our hands. We both know that this is only the beginning. So why not aid each other? Together, we could make the world bow at our feet. If you play nice, I might even help you control your visions.” She leans in close, until her lips are almost brushing my ear, and whispers, “I know you, Oracle. I know every inch of your tainted soul. I can show you how to embrace it—all of it. I can show you how to be a god like me.”
Frustration grows in my chest. Because I know she's telling the truth—a portion of it, at least. And I know that sooner or later, the demon within her will break free, and I'm going to have to try and kill it before it kills me.
She leans back and picks up her cinnamon roll, looking for all the world like a hungry child and not a monster on the brink of world domination.
“The choice is yours,” she says, and then takes a bite.
“You know I don't have a choice,” I counter. “I can't help you. I can't let you out. Even if I wanted to, I can't do anything without Mab's permission. And Mab. Isn't. Here.”
Lilith shrugs, her cheeks smeared with cinnamon and frosting.
“Auntie Mab is many things,” she sings between bites, “a Faerie Queen with pretty wings. But even faeries cease to fly. Even queens must learn to die.”
She smiles again, pleased with her stupid rhyme, and devours the last of her roll.
I say nothing as she stands and pushes her tray to the middle of the table.
“The Broken King is marching,” she intones, echoing the very words she said a month ago. “And he will have his revenge.” Then she picks up her usual singsong voice and does a little dance. I can't tell if it's the demon toying with me or the little girl just being a little girl.
“You think the end will come with me. But no, the end will come with three.” Before I can ask her what the hell she's talking about, she twirls around and skips off.
Shortly after breakfast, I'm sitting on a lawn chair outside Mel's bunk, idly reading a paperback she left lying beside an empty wine bottle. I try to look as inconspicuous as possible, but I can't keep my foot from tapping a nervous rhythm as I wait for Mel to show. All I can think of is the calm in Lilith's words, the confidence of her promised destruction.
The end will come with three.
What the hell was she talking about? Was she giving me a timeline?
And then I remember the vision, the burning tent and the demon in our midst. I feel it like a vise slowly clamping against my chest; the end is coming, the end is coming. And there's nothing I can do to stop it.
“Morning, stalker,” Mel says. The chair creaks as I jolt to attention. She chuckles and plucks the paperback from my hands. “Didn't think lesbian romances were your thing,” she says. Her lip twitches in a wider smile. “Unless that's what you're here to talk about…”
“You wish,” I say. I push myself to standing and glance to her door. That one look wipes the smile from her face. “We need to talk.”
She peers around to make sure no one's watching, but the troupe is already settling into work mode—the performers begin their morning warm-ups and practice, the concessionaires check inventory, and the tent crew…well, they do whatever a group of angry Shifters do when they aren't striking or setting up the tent. Mostly, drink. When it's obvious the coast is clear, she opens the door and gestures me inside.
A few months ago, Kingston enchanted Melody's bunk to keep it safe from prying ears. The magic never wore off—it's the only place in this company where it's safe to talk about anything important.
“What's going on?” she asks the moment the door is shut behind her. “I thought we agreed we should keep our distance.”
I nod and go over to her bed. Her bunk is the same size as mine, but she's definitely lived in it longer. The walls are painted hunter green, and there are stacks of books piled on the makeshift shelves, along with a few dozen candles and a photo of her and Sara. Every time I see that photo, I want to apologize. In it, she and her girlfriend are smiling by the beach, frozen in a moment of romantic bliss. She says she keeps it as a reminder of Mab's treachery, a reason to fight back. I see it as a reminder of the monster wearing my skin.
“I know we shouldn't be seen together,” I say. I sit down on her unmade mattress and she settles down next to me. Aside from the folding chair beside her tiny desk, it's the only piece of furniture in this cramped space. “But something's wrong. Lilith spoke to me today.”
“Oh.” She pauses. “What cheery news did our little poltergeist impart?”
“I don't know. A lot of the same.
Oberon is marching,
that sort of thing. But she said something about the end coming in three.” I glance at her. “What do you think she means?”
Mel shrugs. “Who knows with her? She might just be talking out of her ass. Not literally, of course, though I wouldn't put it past her.”
I don't laugh, and I don't say anything. Her momentary attempt at humor vanishes.
“I don't know,” she continues. “But it's never good, is it? Mab's readying for war, Oberon's readying for war, and we're the prize waiting in the middle. Granted, in this case, the prize also has a demon waiting to break free and tear both teams apart.” She sighs and flops back on her bed. “Nothing like waiting to die, eh?”
“That's the thing. I'm not going to just sit around and wait for one of them to claim us.”
“We're already claimed, love. This is still Mab's show.”
“You know what I mean.”
“When we were leaving Summer,” I say slowly, “you mentioned that you were readying the troupe for war. Do you think…do you think they'd still fight? If the Courts attacked, would they fight back?”
“Maybe,” she considers. “They're pretty pissed—I don't think they'd rally under any flag but their own, to be honest. But I also don't think they'd just bend over and take it.” She glances at me. “Are you thinking of raising an army?”
The vision burns in the back of my mind: the tent in flames, the whole troupe rent apart and burning in the fields.
“If they'll fight,” I say.
“One problem: We're sworn to Mab, remember? Even if the troupe
rally under your flag, it's a contractual impossibility to rebel against her. No matter what, we're still her bitch.”
“Contracts can change,” I offer.
“Not without the book.”
I growl and lie back on the bed.
“I just feel like we should be
something, you know? I'm tired of waiting around for someone to try and kill us.”
She chuckles. “Look on the bright side: if Lilith's telling the truth, we don't have too long to wait.”
“You're horrible,” I say.
“And that's why you love me.”
My pulse was still racing when Mel parked the car in the lot outside the new pitch. She let it idle and looked over at me, her expression concerned.
“Are you going to tell me what's going on?” she asked.
I opened my mouth. But, like the entire ride back, I had no idea how to voice what had just happened. She had just rescued me from a cell in the Summer Court, had dragged my sorry ass halfway across Faerie and back into the mortal world. She'd taken me to my family home, to the nightmares that waited in the corners of my memory. And she had waited in the car while I went inside my apartment to learn more about my past. She had missed everything.
She'd missed me stumbling into the kitchen and finding the spot where—months earlier—I had not only murdered my father, but killed my own sister in cold blood. The first kill had been self-defense; the second had been to save Claire from the apocalypse Kassia had been promising. Melody had missed my reunion with my mother, who turned out not to be my mother at all, but a magical construct created by Mab to fuck with me just a little bit more.
And she had missed my confrontation with Mab herself; Mab, in a rage, when she told me that every carefully laid plan I'd made had been in vain. I had escaped Summer under the pretense of ending her rule, of leading a rebellion that would kick her from her own show. But she had known. She had known all of it. And she had turned it all against me.
“I'm the ringmaster,” I told Mel. It was the first thing I'd been able to voice since I had stepped into the waiting car, my only words beyond my initial “We need to go back.”
Melody looked at me like I was speaking nonsense. Maybe I was. It still felt too surreal, too sudden. Mab gave me the show so I couldn't fight back. She made her welfare and the welfare of her entire Court
“What do you mean?” Mel asked.
“Mab gave me the show,” I said. “She said that this is what I got for trying to defy her. She's going back home to prepare for the war.”
“That's ridiculous,” she said. “You don't know the first thing about running a show.”
I nodded. “I don't think she wants me to succeed. She said if the show fails, I die.”
“That doesn't make any sense,” Mel said. “She needs you alive. She needs you to control Lilith—it's the only way she'll win against Oberon.”
“And she knows this is the only way I'll fight for her side,” I said. “Because now you're my responsibility. Everyone's my responsibility. If I fail, you all die. She knows I won't let that happen, not after losing Kingston. She's won.”
There was a fire in Mel's eyes. Melody, who had been rousing the troupe against Mab behind her back, Mel, who had tried to keep her shape-shifting powers secret just so she'd have an ace up her sleeve.
“She hasn't won yet,” she said. “We can still fight back. We still have an army.”