I had never seen a human before. No one looked at him apart from me. He merely stood at the foot of the dais, holding my attention like a moth to a flame. The chains cutting into the fragile skin at his wrists, the deep red droplets of his foreign blood falling to the glistening white floor. His soft eyes stared straight ahead, clouded with sorrow. He was able to portray more emotion by simply standing still than most fae would in the entirety of their incredibly long lives.
His tattered clothing and sandy, matted hair were a stark contrast to the rest of the king’s ballroom, to the obnoxious gown that felt like it weighed a thousand pounds upon my shoulders. I studied him carefully from the quiet corner where I stood. No one touched his ornate silver tray; though, he was probably required by whoever enchanted him to hold it. Maybe for an hour, maybe for a week, maybe until he fell dead. This was the land of the fae after all. None of these folk cared about a lowly human.
After two long hours, I still held my first glass of sticky sweet wine. It was just a novelty, a small indication that I was partaking in the banquet. Everyone was expected to dance and sing and get irresponsibly drunk by the end of the night. I didn’t, of course. I was there to watch, learn, and answer questions later. I was always in training. I was my father’s daughter before anything else.
As with all the majestic affairs of King Coro’s court, I caught myself staring longingly at the open door more than I should have. I wished I could rip this terrible dress off, throw it in the trash, and go home. Maybe not in that exact order. Maybe. But the pesky invitation had come because I was Thassen’s daughter, and I was not at liberty to deny the king, even if he didn’t know who I was. Even if he’d never looked in my direction. I leaned my back against the cool, marbled wall and remembered that eventually time would pass, and I could leave.
“Pardon me, beauty,” a high fae with pale skin and extraordinarily small eyes said as he leered uncomfortably close.
I lifted my chin in the air as I looked down on him, hoping my ‘stay the hell away’ face was translated into whatever drunken language he needed it to be.
The fruity smell of aged wine permeating the air was so strong, a lesser fae would be drunk from the scent alone. The tinkling of glasses mixed with the patter of feet filling the dance floor, the cheerful fiddle music so precise, one could easily get lost dancing to it forever. It had been known to happen. I shifted my eyes to the warm firelight glow from the winged tree sprites zipping through the air high above us. The trills of their laughter grated on my sensitive ears.
I looked to the corner, where a group of insufferable brownies sat huddled together. Troublemakers. We had a brownie move into our home several years ago and he wouldn’t leave, no matter how much or how often we offended him. We found salt in our sugar shaker and pebbles in our shoes. He did nothing helpful and everything awful. I hated brownies. I’d have rather hung out with a boggart, and I had half a mind to interrupt whatever tomfoolery they were scheming, but I didn’t want any of them to follow me home.
Scanning the oversized room, my eyes landed on Nadra in the middle of the crammed dance floor as she sashayed around two fae males with her bright red hair. I would have killed for those curls, but I preferred the dark wine, auburn of my own hair. She was my only friend. An acquaintance, really, but that’s the closest I had ever had to a friend.
Nadra was a faithful daughter, but she had a secret lover. Her mother, however, insisted that she find a husband. So, like me, she came to all the soirees and dances and drank and played the part so perfectly, even though most of us knew she would be stumbling home on the arm of a married male—her lover. She looked up at me and winked as if she could read my mind.
I chuckled and raised my glass in her direction.
At least one of us was enjoying ourselves.
The first invitation to a kingdom celebration or holiday is a dazzling experience that answers all the questions a childhood dreamer could imagine. The next time, it’s only a pleasant evening, and after that, it’s the same drunken faeries, drinking the same damn wine, prancing around to the same noisy music, as the same laughter fills the room. The monotony is deafening. And unfortunately, I had been coming for years and years.
We were celebrating Beltane. The festival started outside in the dark green grass with droves of food on brimming trays and agile servants weaving through the crowd with leaning towers of wines and spirits. Morwena, the sea queen, opened the festival with an atrocious song before we were slowly herded into the castle ballroom where, again, the servants swerved through the crowds with endless refreshments. Thank the Gods the fire dancers stayed outside. I didn’t think the guards were sober enough to handle rogue flames. This particular festival used to be held at the Flame Court, but the Elder King hadn’t invited outsiders for ages.
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