ENCHANTING THE ELVEN MAGE
There were only two good things about the winter solstice celebration at the fae court. Wine and wine.
Aury didn’t long for the drink overmuch herself, but it was definitely her ally. Wine turned watchful eyes blurry and slowed cruel, pinching fingers.
Wishing she were still in the barn with the horses, she gripped a rough crystal goblet of spiced red and forced a smile as her aunt, the Fae Queen, strolled through the great hall in a trailing gown the color of pine needles. The queen’s hair had been braided artfully around her twisting amethyst-and-ink-hued horns. Though she was a nightmare crafted of snide remarks and cold looks, Aury had to admit the lady was gorgeous.
The queen’s gaze flicked away, focusing on her glittering court, and Aury slid out of the hall and into the corridor.
Her fine slippers were nearly silent on the mosaic tiles, but pureblood fae had far better hearing than her half-fae, half-human ears, so she kept the wine as some sort of excuse to be wandering. She crept onward, stealing down the passageway on the sides of her feet and holding her breath. She only needed a peek at the queen’s court itinerary to see why in the world she was to be sent on a mysterious journey in the morning.
Nearly to the door now…
A mewling sounded, and Aury’s heart jumped. She turned to see a calico ball of fluff climbing the curtains.
“Oh, no. You can’t be here, little love.” She set her wine on the floor, then detached the kitten from the silken drapes. It was the runt from the barn cat’s last litter. “The servants will beat you with a broom if they see these claw marks.”
Doing her best to keep quiet and silently praying to the Source the kitten’s mews weren’t heard, she hurried to the nearest window on the outer wall of the palace. Unlatching the locks, she gently deposited the kitten on the pebble path that led to the stables and the gardens beyond.
“Go find your mother, little love. Hurry now!”
The kitten mewed once more, then ran clumsily toward the barn.
Aury exhaled, closing the window and going back to her wine and her mission to discover where the queen was sending her tomorrow.
In the near dark of the corridor, her foot caught on something. Knee hitting the floor, she lost hold of the goblet and the wine flew, splattering red like blood over the stone walls.
“Oh, sorry!” Bathilda said, even though she was never sorry. “I didn’t mean to trip you like that.” Her lip curled as she looked down her nose at Aury. “Let me help you up, half-breed.”
Ducking out of Bathilda’s reach and away from her sharp nails, Aury grabbed her slightly cracked goblet, then shot to her feet. “I’m fine, but thanks ever so much.”
But the pureblood wasn’t to be thwarted. Bathilda snatched her arm roughly and pulled her toward the great hall. “Your presence is required, Aurora.”
Bathilda thrust Aury into the great hall, then grabbed a servant. “Take that hideous necklace off of the half-breed,” she said to the servant.
The servant tore Aury’s necklace, sending the tiny, flame-colored pearls of the dragon goddess Nix rolling across the tiles. Tears burned Aury’s eyes, and her neck throbbed where the broken chain had bit into her skin. Nix was the goddess of fire and festivity, and Aury had always loved the hilarious tales her cousin told of the long-ago dragon shifter.
Bathilda pointed a finger at Aury’s face. “Don’t even start to tell me that your dear cousin Werian bought you that necklace. I don’t believe he cares for a half-breed like you. You lie and lie, a deceit only those with human blood can manage. You’re disgusting, and you’re a thief.”
Werian had indeed given Aury the necklace, and she’d treasured it as a symbol of the one individual who actually seemed to care for her. “I’ve never stolen a thing in my entire life,” she said, meeting Bathilda’s glare with one of her own.
“Save your breath. I don’t believe you. I’ll make certain you’re punished for stealing tomorrow.”
“But tomorrow, I’m leaving. The queen told me so herself.”
Bathilda shrugged. “You’ll be back. And I’ll be waiting in the shadows.” Her cruel smile sent chills down Aury’s back. Bathilda crooked a finger at the servant, who had quietly stepped away. “Fetch a washing bowl. Aurora has stable mud under her fingernails.”
Aury glared. “Better than the blood of innocents.”
Bathilda laughed coldly. “What do you know of innocence? I saw you sneaking toward the queen’s rooms.”
“At least I don’t sneak toward her consort.”
Bathilda raised a hand to slap her. Aury fought the urge to flinch, and somehow, she managed it. Bathilda noticed the queen’s wandering gaze and relaxed her arm.
The servant took Aury’s goblet, then shoved a bowl of water into her hands as Bathilda sauntered away to join in the festivities.
A buzz traveled through Aury as she shook off her encounter with Bathilda, a blend of curiosity and joy. Tomorrow, she was leaving the fae court for the second time in her entire life. Finally, she’d have a break from this place and see more of the human regions of Lore.
As she pulled her hands out of the wash bowl, a deep, golden light passed through the uneven lines of the water’s reflection. She paused, lingering over the basin. A cool tingling spread over her body, down her arms, then into the tips of her fingers as a quiet, rushing sound echoed in her ears. It was a sound like the waves she’d heard at the Sea’s Claw during her only visit to the ocean. The reflection in the bowl of water showed her face—that of a nineteen-year-old with pointed ears, blue eyes, and silver hair.
But her features faded away. Another face appeared.
Her stomach lifted like she’d jumped from the balcony of the Agate Palace. “What in the name of Nix’s Fire…”
It was a man—handsome, with a slightly crooked nose, as if he’d been in a few fights. She couldn’t see his ears. He could have been human, fae, or elf. His storm-gray eyes flashed below jet-black eyebrows. Wind Aury couldn’t feel or hear tousled the man’s dark hair. His image tugged at her, demanding attention. The vision in the ripples was hazy, but stubble showed on his strong chin, and his lips were surprisingly soft-looking and full for such a man.
The vision expanded to reveal that he was holding an axe and pacing around a much larger fellow. Through the inconsistent haze of the golden light on the water, the black-haired man’s mouth curved into a grin shaped like his opponent’s mountain saber—sharp, dangerous.
The handsome man lifted an eyebrow. The axe slashed through the image.
Aury gasped, heart drumming in her ears alongside that strange rushing sound. The Fae Queen glanced her way, her cold eyes filled with a level of disdain only pureblood fae could manage.
The servants took the bowl away and left Aury standing with her refilled wine goblet, frozen and panicked. Did the queen sense the puzzling inside her head? Was she going mad? It was certainly within the realm of possible outcomes.
Horns sounded, and Aury jumped, nearly spilling her wine on Werian, who had just approached.
“Do we truly need to bring down the skies for every announcement?” she asked him, tugging a length of silver tinsel from his black horns and hoping he didn’t notice the absence of the dragon goddess necklace. She didn’t want to make him angry on her behalf. Not tonight.
His eyes held mischief, the same look he used to have when he sketched human villages and ships for her when they were young. The Fae Queen had never approved. “You know how my mother loves her drama.”
“The king and queen of Lore!” the herald shouted.
Aury looked to Werian in question, but he just shrugged, his gaze skirting away. “This should be interesting,” she murmured.
The Fae Queen approached the royal retinue with open arms, as though the king and queen of Lore were friends, but everyone knew the Fae Queen had no friends. She had allies. Entertainers. Kin. The human rulers weren’t the last two, so they must have been the first. Allies to the fae court.
“What do they do to make her smile like that?” Aury asked Werian.
“They control the farmland and vineyards. My mother may like rubies and intrigue most,” Werian said, “but she also enjoys a nice braid of light bread and spiced red wine. You two have that in common at least.” He raised an eyebrow at her empty goblet.
She elbowed him. “I can’t put up with you pure types without proper intoxication.”
He placed a hand on his chest and shut his eyes briefly. “I understand.” His gaze flicked to where the king and two queens were chatting it up. “If it weren’t for the human army of Lore, we fae would’ve been ground into dust by our enemies.”
“Why are the human rulers here?” This was the first she’d seen of them. They didn’t come around here, supposedly because of an old grievance with the Matchweaver Witch that had happened around the time when Aury was born.
In his youth, the human king had probably been a fine-looking man with flaxen hair, but now his beard looked stained, as if he smoked a pipe a little too often. He held a water mage staff that was covered in runes.
The human queen’s eyes were soft, but her mouth had the hard lines of someone who did more frowning than smiling.
“I don’t like them,” Aury said.
Werian’s gaze landed hard on her face.
“Do I have something in my teeth?” She looked around for a pitcher to fill her goblet.
Werian didn’t answer; he only crossed his arms and watched his mother talk with the human rulers. “I have loved you, Aury,” he finally said, his voice a whisper. “You are my dearest cousin. And a friend. Remember that.”
A cold finger of dread dragged across Aury’s neck. “Are you drunk?” Of course she knew he cared for her. She loved him too. But to say it like that, with that sadness… Her stomach clenched. “What are you not telling me?” she hissed.
“I was bound to keep the secret, Aury. Remember that, as well.”
Werian stepped back as the human rulers approached. She hadn’t realized they were walking toward her, and now, here they were, and she felt unsteady, for once wishing she hadn’t had all that wine.
She bowed clumsily. The Fae Queen, standing behind the retinue, looked skyward and sighed as if Aury’s manners were the worst sort of torture.
The king took Aury’s chin between his thumb and finger and studied her face. The urge to whinny like a bought horse nearly overcame her good sense. “You are a lovely woman, Aurora Rose.”
Rose? She’d never been called Rose. That was…
The human queen smiled, her perfume rolling in like fog. “You have my second name, my dear.”
“Why would I be named for you?” Aury asked. “With respect, of course.”
The human king and queen traded a look and laughed like only royal people can. Aury forced a smile. What was happening? She looked for Werian. He stood beside his mother, his head lowered as he spoke to a servant.
The king took Aury’s arm and looped it through his. “Let’s take a walk through the gardens, Aurora Rose. We have much to discuss.”
She let him fairly drag her across the great hall with the two queens trailing. Unless this king fellow had something to say about horses, pain-in-the-arse fae, fig tarts, or wine, they had absolutely nothing to discuss. “I’m sorry, but what are we talking about?”
“The two greatest forces, my dear. Magic and marriage. Specifically…yours.”
And suddenly, the emptiness of Aury’s goblet became the least of her worries.