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OFQ5: Chapter 1

Below is the first chapter of Queen of Queens, which arrives to Amazon and Kindle Unlimited on January 19! (You can read Chapter 2 next!)

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Nolan

After rescuing my fellow Duwende and recovering the scrolls, we all returned to the palace tree feeling victorious. But less than a day later, some of us felt more frustrated than victorious. Notably, me. The Council had allowed but one night to rest before demanding we report in. Glori and Maeve had complied, although, as heirs, they would have been well within their rights to send others in their stead.

I had joined Glori in the Council’s audience chambers, along with her Guard — it was clearer every day that no one considered me part of the Elven Guard anymore. What little remained of Maeve’s Duwende Guard joined her, along with all the other Duwende who had been imprisoned with me at Iona’s stronghold. We’d all heard the same debrief. We’d all noticed Maeve’s missing ear, evidence of the torture she’d suffered.

As Iona’s captive, I’d been left with more questions I hoped to use the scrolls to answer. That list of questions grew after hearing Maeve’s admission that she’d tried to surrender her queenhood to Iona. It had shocked me as much as anyone, possibly more so.

Of course, I understood Maeve’s drive to prevent further torture of her consorts and subjects. She’d failed, and her people had paid the price, suffering Iona’s wrath. But how and why had her gambit failed?

Maeve should have easily passed on her queenhood if she gave intention to it and deemed Iona her heir. If Maeve had succeeded, her consorts might still be alive, and we might all be under Unseelie rule by now. Iona would have ascended as queen, replenishing only Elven magic at the Tree of Life, leaving the rest of the Fae to die as our magic continued to fade.

So, despite the loss of Duwende lives, I was thankful Maeve had failed to pass on her queenhood — even if I didn’t understand why. Unfortunately, the palace guard had seized my translations and taken them to the palace library the moment we returned. My fingers itched to unroll them and begin the search for answers, but I’d been forced to exercise my patience so far.

Still, I intended to unravel this mystery sooner rather than later. If I had to wait for access to my translations, I could at least pursue other avenues of inquiry. Which is why I found myself taking the sloping corridors of the palace tree up to the more prestigious levels where my fellow Duwende were quartered to learn more.

Like Glori, Maeve had also refused to stay in the Last Queen’s chambers, but I was pleased the Council had not relegated Maeve to the lower rooms near me — instead, her chambers were located nearly as high up as the Council’s own. While Glori remained with her Guard in the Queen’s Guard chambers, Maeve took the heir’s chambers, and the rest of the Duwende made themselves at home in the old Heir’s Guard chambers.

“It’s good to see a Duwende in these halls again,” a Nixie said as I passed, not recognizing me as Glori’s consort. It didn’t surprise me. To the other Fae, all Duwende were alike, interchangeable, largely invisible — at least until they were missing entirely, apparently. I gave him a polite smile and a nod, but didn’t stop.

On my way up, I passed many Fae, some transformed into squirrels, chipmunks, cats, foxes, and kitsune. Elves and Kitsune tended to use their alternate forms to travel more quickly through the palace tree’s clogged interior tunnels. I could recognize Elven foxes versus the kitsune thanks to their multiple tails, depending on their age.

Most Nixies I passed smiled and nodded at me as I went by. I could tell which Veela recognized me, as they avoided my gaze due to my oathbreaker status. To them, there was no greater sin, and word of such traveled quickly among them. At least while I was ‘under protection,’ none of them would try to slay me on sight.

I could attempt to explain my thought processes, how I’d been trying to protect the Duwende, and how wrong my actions had been — how I should have had more faith in Glori all along — but it would be to no avail. To the Veela, once an oathbreaker, always an oathbreaker. It made me worry that association with me tainted Glori in their eyes, making her an unworthy future queen. Rorik had already implied as much, suggesting that was a reason Glori hadn’t yet found a suitable Veela consort.

If no Veela would become Glori’s final consort, she couldn’t become queen. Not that it was impossible, but performing the ceremony without a Veela consort would leave their entire race unable to use their deeper magic for another century. Their lifespans would continue to dwindle, and many would die before the next Tree of Life ritual. And Glori wouldn’t allow that.

Now that we knew the whereabouts of the other Duwende, Glori might have been better served taking one of them as consort instead of me, an oathbreaker. At least then no Veela could hold that against her.

Determined to deal with one problem at a time, I soon reached the old Heir’s Guard chambers where the Duwende now stayed. Two Seelie palace guards — a Veela and a Kitsune — stood to either side, but neither of them spoke to me. Though I saw no evidence of animosity from either, I still couldn’t help but stray a little farther from the Veela’s side, keeping my eyes firmly on the ornate carvings of the door.

Una’s guard had once taken up residence here. The Council had been flustered by having two heirs and their Guards in the palace tree at once. The Queen’s Guard chambers were, of course, at a higher elevation in the tree than the Heir’s Guard chambers. I could see how, to the Council’s way of thinking, it had been a slight against Una. By now it had become very clear that Glori was most likely to become queen, and the Council grew less concerned about appearances.

It was just another way the Duwende differed from most of the other races. We were much more practical and disinterested in the petty desire of higher ‘status.’ Putting the queen and her audience chambers so high in the tree, with so few corridors to reach them, made perfect sense from a tactical perspective. Her guards could protect her from below, cutting off all methods of ingress on the inside or outside of the tree. The heir’s chambers were nearly as secure. At least in this, status and practicality aligned.

Before knocking on the ornately carved door, I took a deep breath, centering myself in the typical Duwende calm. Years had passed since I was last among my people, other than our stressful time imprisoned in Iona’s stronghold at the Edge. I raised my hand and lifted the knocker. Before I could let it fall, the door opened, and a familiar Duwende face appeared. As soon as he saw me, Tauro’s stoic expression broke into a wide smile.

“Nolan! Well met once again, old friend,” Tauro said.

He was fair-skinned for a Duwende, with light brown hair that had once been long, now trimmed close to his skull like Maeve’s. He was shorter than me by an inch or two, making him one of the smallest adult Fae. A bruise covered the side of his neck, and I had to wonder if he’d been strangled, and if so, why Maeve hadn’t healed him yet. But it would be rude to ask.

“Well met,” I agreed. “Under much better circumstances this time.”

“Indeed.” That was all either of us needed to say to acknowledge our time together as Iona’s prisoners and torture victims. “Vito, Shayla, and I were all about to head to the kitchens. Care to join us?”

“I have some questions for all of you, so as long as you won’t mind me asking them on the way, I would be happy to.”

“I don’t. Vito, Shayla, did you hear that?” Tauro called over his shoulder.

The two of them appeared in my line of sight. Tauro had barely opened the door wide enough to facilitate his own passage through, but I couldn’t blame him. The rings in the doors were set high, not made to accommodate Duwende residents.

After all, until the Last Queen split the magic, all queens and heirs had always been Elves. Never mind they’d all had Duwende consorts for longer than any living Fae could remember. In the palace tree, aesthetics were prized over accessibility for non-Elven Fae, especially the Duwende.

“I’m ready enough.” Vito grumbled, then noticed me standing outside. “Are you barring Nolan entrance, Tauro?”

Vito was about my height and coloring, but with a tougher demeanor that had always made me feel a little inadequate in his presence. He radiated strength and power, not only in the width of his shoulders and his wide stances, but in his personality as well.

Tauro laughed. “No, I was inviting him to join us in the kitchens.”

“Good, let’s go!” Shayla said, and Tauro lunged forward as though pushed from behind.

I sidestepped as the three of them piled out. As the two tallest, Vito and I pulled the doors closed behind them. To my surprise, Shayla’s hair was also trimmed close to her head, causing me to wonder if they’d all cut their hair short in solidarity with the Duwende heir. If so, I was the odd man out, as usual. The Unseelie had apparently cut Maeve’s hair near her missing ear to add insult to injury, and the Duwende were making the best of a bad situation.

Shayla was much shorter than me, but with a cute button nose and a kindly mother’s face. She took Duwende stoicism to a different place, with kindness and compassion, instead of mere practicality. About four centuries my senior, Shayla had always treated me as a kid she needed to look out for.

“It’s good to see you again.” Vito took both Shayla’s and Tauro’s hands as the little group headed down the hall.

“I didn’t know you were together,” I commented to Tauro, who fell in beside me when the corridor narrowed.

“Shayla and Vito have been together for a decade now,” he said. “Vito and I are a more recent development. What’s it been, three years now?”

“Aye,” Vito replied.

“I’ve been courting Bowdyn too,” Tauro confided. “But he and I don’t see eye to eye on a few things.” He shrugged. “Maybe it’s not meant to be.”

It was interesting to hear how the relationships between my fellow Duwende had changed over the last few years. I’d always devoted myself to Braga alone, but that wasn’t typical for any Fae, not even the Duwende. Fae relationships waxed and waned, ever changing and reforming.

I’d once considered asking if the four of them would offer themselves as consorts for Una and Glori. At the time, I hadn’t known who they were committed to, but I now saw that if any of them became consort, doing so would break many relationships.

Though I was now Glori’s consort, it wasn’t out of the question that one of my friends might still need to become a consort. After all, if no Veela would accept Glori, but would favor Una or Maeve, then they would become the best option to perform the ceremony. And both Una and Maeve needed to bond with a Duwende since Iona had killed Morna, Maeve’s Duwende consort.

“I hate to ask any of you about what happened in Iona’s stronghold, but—”

“You’re a scholar, Nolan,” Shayla said. “Go ahead.”

“Don’t worry about dredging up bad memories either,” Vito added.

Tauro nodded. “Regardless of whether we talk about it, we can’t help but think about everything we went through.”

I appreciated their reassurances, and as usual, their Duwende practicality. They knew I wouldn’t pry if I didn’t have some reason behind it.

“I’m trying to get a better understanding of how the queen’s magic works,” I explained. “This is the first time the queen’s magic has ever been split this way.”

“Or given to anyone other than an Elf,” Shayla pointed out.

I nodded. “Does it bother you that Gloriana is the closest to becoming queen?” Better I know now than later.

“Replenishing magic to us all must be of highest priority,” Tauro said. “We all understand that. Why delay and cost older Fae their lives if an heir stands ready to perform the ceremony?”

I glanced at Vito and Shayla to see them both nodding. That was a relief. I wasn’t sure what I would have done if they had judged me. All the other Duwende probably considered Maeve their heir, just as I had done until recently. Now, my loyalties were with Glori, without question. Had there been any animosity toward her, it would have come between me and my fellow Duwende, a thought I hated to even consider.

We reached a fork in the corridor and headed steeply downward. They seemed to know their way around very well, making me wonder if they’d been to the palace tree before, perhaps while I was gone. I’d traveled in the human realm with the Elven Heir’s Guard for centuries, sometimes going decades at a time without visiting the Encante, chasing first Nuala — Glori’s mother, who had been the Elven heir — and then pursuing the Unseelie women who had kidnapped infant Glori after slaying Nuala.

“I’m glad we all agree,” I said.

“Of course,” Shayla replied.

Although we needed someone to replenish Fae magic, they might not fully support Gloriana. As her consort, I wanted to pave the way for her success. “Gloriana will be a fair and good queen. She sees us all as one people — the Fae. Not as five races. In part because she wasn’t raised among the Fae.”

“The Unseelie kept her among humans, didn’t they?” Shayla asked.

I nodded. “Not only that, they never told her she wasn’t human.”

Tauro laughed. “I can’t imagine her surprise when she came of age and gained her new magic. Well, some of it.”

None of us had ever experienced what it was like to use our lost magic. The Duwende who were old enough to have done so were on the verge of extinction. Fifteen hundred years or so seemed to be the upper limit to Duwende lifespans now, where once our lifespans had stretched to double that.

“What are your questions, Nolan?” Vito asked. “Will we be able to stomach them over lunch?”

To my surprise, we’d nearly reached the level of the kitchens already. Talking with my fellow Duwende made the time pass more quickly.

“I promise not to ask anything gruesome,” I agreed. “I want to find out what you observed regarding Maeve’s queenhood and how Iona attempted to take it from her. And…” I hesitated.

“You want to know why it didn’t work,” Shayla said quietly as we passed two Nixies in the hall.

“Yes.”

“Unfortunately, none of us know the answer to that,” Tauro said from behind me in the corridor. It was narrow enough now that we had to go single file to let other Fae pass us in the opposite direction.

“None of us were with Maeve when she tried it.” All playfulness had gone from Vito’s voice.

“Those who were… Well, they didn’t make it.” Shayla’s somber words reminded me how important it was that we Seelie win. “That’s why Maeve tried. They tortured and killed them right in front of her. She did what any of us would have done in that situation.”

I nodded, but she was wrong. The Last Queen had done the unthinkable. Instead of giving in to try to save her consorts and her royal guards, she defied the Unseelie and split her magic five ways, flinging it far from herself. She named five heirs from five different races to further foil the Unseelie’s plans. Though her consorts and most of her guards had paid the price, the Last Queen’s desperate plan had successfully stymied Iona’s efforts in all the centuries to follow. The Last Queen herself had died to keep her queenhood from the Unseelie. Had her sacrifice been even more effective than we’d suspected?

“Can you confirm Maeve named Iona her heir? That’s the only way—” I started.

“Yes,” Vito said, “but you should really ask Maeve for the details. She told us she tried everything she’d ever heard about passing on the queen’s magic to another.”

He was right. No one else had survived that day in the torture chamber with Maeve, so only she could explain. I hesitated to call upon the wounded Duwende heir, however. My loyalties would always remain with Glori from now on, and Maeve wouldn’t appreciate me prying into her darkest moments.

“Perhaps it’s not possible for an heir to pass on her magic to someone else,” Shayla speculated. “After all, under normal circumstances, the queen names an heir. It stands to reason that if the queen chose a different heir, then she would move the magic, since she is the source.”

“And since the Last Queen is dead…” Tauro shrugged. “Maybe the heirs are stuck with it until someone ascends.”

“That’s a good point,” I said, but something told me that wasn’t the answer.

After all, the queen’s magic had already done something we’d never seen before — when the original heirs died, it had moved from them to their daughters. Pregnancy was a rare and treasured gift among the Fae, and the queens of old were no exception. Because children were so uncommon, we didn’t build our society around bloodlines and inheritance the way humans did.

Even upon one rare instance I remembered from history when a queen had given birth to a daughter, her queenhood hadn’t passed to the child. The queen’s magic had always been bestowed, not inherited. So the Last Queen would not have chosen that as the model to pass along the queenhood.

We were in uncharted territory when it came to the new behavior of the queen’s magic.

Vito tilted his head in thought. “Or maybe, since Maeve’s not a queen, she can’t give it to whoever she wants, but only to those who the Last Queen intended. Perhaps the heirs are meant to choose among themselves who becomes the next queen, and give all their queen’s magic to her.”

“Perhaps you’re right,” I said as we crossed the threshold into the kitchens. Something about his theory bothered me, but I couldn’t place it.

A couple Kitsune mingled with a few Nixies and an Elf, all of them eating together at one of the big tables. Their eyes followed us as we headed toward the cupboards, but not in a malicious way. Duwende had become a bit of a curiosity now that we were so rare.

As my fellow Duwende focused on preparing food, I merely went through the motions, chopping vegetables they put in front of me. My thoughts were elsewhere, even as the three of them engaged in a conversation amongst themselves.

Iona had no doubt done everything she could to pull Maeve’s magic from her, just as Vidonia had planned on doing with Gloriana. But would Vidonia have failed just as Iona had? If Vito’s theory held, it meant that Vidonia never could have taken Gloriana’s queenhood, even if she’d successfully manipulated Glori into trying to pass it to her. Una had once theorized that heirs couldn’t give each other their queen’s magic, and Maeve and Una both seemed to think heirs couldn’t heal each other. Who was right?

Performing the ceremony without all the answers risked so much. Though none more significant than the ongoing risk that Iona might find the answers before one of our heirs ascended — genocide was decidedly the worst threat on the table.

After eating with my fellow Duwende, I excused myself and headed for the library at the heart of the great palace tree. It was a few levels up from the kitchens, and my thoughts swirled as woodland creatures raced past me in the narrow corridors.

Passing by a nook in the corridor, I averted my gaze as a naked Elf appeared and donned the clothing hung on a hook there. As one of the heir’s consorts, I couldn’t give the appearance of having even the slightest sexual curiosity in any other Fae, especially as an oathbreaker. My intentions were already suspect.

Not one but two Veela guarded the library doors when I reached them. I took a deep breath before stepping between them, making as if to open the doors on my own. My heart dropped as their axes crossed in front of me.

“No oathbreaker shall gain entry to our most precious secrets,” the male Veela on my left sneered. Despite the chainmail he wore over his green livery, his shoulders remained bare, revealing his swirling tattoos.

Did no one remember me being in the library before now?

“What are these new restrictions?” I drew myself up as much as my short stature would allow and glared up at him. “As the future queen’s consort, I demand entry. It’s of the utmost importa—”

“I don’t think so.” The other Veela cut me off. “She may be an heir, but no Veela will join her as consort. Even now Veela court the other heirs.”

“You dare defy an heir’s will, even if she will not be the newest queen?” I raised an eyebrow. Though I suspected it might not be true, I pointed out, “She will remain heir, becoming the next queen after.”

The Veela on the left snorted. “Your threats are empty, oathbreaker.”

I let out a sigh, staring at the ornate carvings on the library’s doors.

“I was the one who translated the ancient scrolls. I was there only days ago.”

“No matter. Today you are a known oathbreaker, and although we cannot kill you, we can prevent you from plundering Seelie knowledge.”

His words made me seethe. “I’m Seelie, too.”

“You may not be Unseelie, but you are an oathbreaker to us all.”

I’d tried to divorce Duwende magic from the rest of the Fae. As far as they were concerned, I was as much of a traitor as the Unseelie.

I turned away before they could insult me further. It was imperative that I learn more from the scrolls now that we had them back. Glori would have to intercede on my behalf. But if I was unable to do even the simplest tasks without Glori’s oversight, what kind of consort did that make me?

Their words chilled me to my core as I considered whether all Veela might share the same animosity toward me and therefore toward Glori. Glori was so close to replenishing all Fae magic, but stupid Veela pride kept it from all of us. Yet was it truly their fault? I had brought the title of oathbreaker down on myself.

I should have foreseen how the Veela would react to an heir who took an oathbreaker as consort. I’d failed to place my faith in her before, and when I finally gave in, I failed to consider the consequences of my mistakes.

Had I cost Glori the throne? And, more importantly, would it cost the Fae — especially the elder ones — their lives?


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