What did you think of Chapter 1 of Queen of Queens? This one’s from Glori’s perspective…
A few days after we returned, I joined Maeve in the Council audience chambers. Lyall stood to my left, with Valente and Fen beyond him. Angel and Kenji were to my right. On the other side of the tile floor, stood Maeve and her retinue, made up solely of the diminutive Duwende. All her Kitsune followers had been killed trying to protect her from the Unseelie, including her Kitsune consort, Ji-Hwan. Her Duwende consort, Morna, had been tortured to death at Iona’s hand.
Maeve herself had not escaped unscathed. While she had healed most of her subjects, she had no one to heal her. The poor Duwende heir looked haggard and worn in a way that couldn’t be remedied in a few short days. One arm was in a sling, a few cuts were still healing, and her ear was bandaged. Red blood welled up through the bandage, and bruises darkened the tan flesh around her wounds. I knew what it looked like under that bandage — the Unseelie had cut off most of her ear, along with her hair on that side, perhaps in an effort to shame her for her new deformity at their hands.
Duwende normally wore their hair long, but most of her people had also cut their hair short in solidarity with her. In addition to their physical exhaustion, I imagined all the Duwende must be even more emotionally worn out than I was. The Unseelie hadn’t made me suffer nearly as much as the Duwende, perhaps because I was an Elf, but I suspected Iona had other motivations.
I pulled my thoughts back to the present.
The Council assembled in their throne-like chairs upon their dais. As usual, the Elf Edana sat dead center with a small tiara adorning her forehead, as though she were to be queen. Her fellow Elves, Kalan and Athne, flanked her to either side, though their demeanors couldn’t have been more opposite. Kalan avoided looking at either Maeve or myself, his expression screwed up in disdain, as though he could smell our stench from our time in Iona’s prison cells almost a week ago. Yet we were all freshly bathed for this momentous occasion.
Athne, on the other hand, kept casting me playful grins. She acted the youngest of the Council, and I sometimes wondered how she’d secured a spot among them. From Edana’s often beleaguered way of addressing Athne, she seemed to wonder the same.
Mandalina sat to the other side of Kalan, the sole non-Elf among them now that Makoto had sacrificed himself to facilitate our escape from the Unseelie’s stronghold. The Veela Council member had been trying to help me find my final consort for some time to no avail.
The last candidate had turned out to be a bust when he revealed how he felt about Nolan, a so-called oathbreaker. I tried to explain that the oaths he’d broken were to me, and if I forgave him, so should the Veela, but no dice.
“Today,” Edana rose to her feet, prompting the rest of the Council to do the same, “we celebrate the ascendance of two others who join our ranks as members of this honorable Council.”
Athne rolled her eyes at me, and I stifled a laugh. Even she considered this pomp and circumstance overblown. Edana droned on and on until at last the palace guards opened the Council audience chamber doors to admit two more figures, one short and one about Angel’s height. Both were male, bringing balance back to the Council’s numbers. They both proceeded across the beautiful mosaic of the tile floor to reach the dais.
Maeve smiled and nodded to Galvin, a Duwende she’d suggested to join the Council. Galvin was a full millennium old, though his long black hair belied his age. He hadn’t chopped his off in solidarity with Maeve, but she didn’t seem offended. Like most Duwende, Galvin’s complexion was a rich brown, and he had only four fingers to a hand. His ocher-orange eyes were serious as he kneeled before the Council.
“On my life as a Duwende, I swear to uphold the Seelie cause as a member of the Seelie High Council. I swear my allegiance to the Seelie queen, and in her absence, to the five heirs.”
Surprise rippled through the other Council members. Athne raised her eyebrows, her mouth drawn up in a smile at his oath. It made me wonder if any of the rest of the Council had sworn allegiance to anyone but themselves.
Galvin went down the line to receive each Council member’s blessing. As he was only a couple inches over five feet, Athne stepped down off the dais to rest her hands upon his shoulders.
“I, Athne, a member of the High Council, do accept you, Galvin, as an equal member of this Council.” Then she glanced at me. “I am most pleased to see representation for the other Fae among our ranks.”
Galvin continued down the line with all the Council members saying they accepted him as an equal member. I sensed Edana’s dislike and Kalan’s hesitation over that word ‘equal,’ but Maeve and I had demanded the slight change to their ceremony.
Next up was Helder. He was Angel’s height but darker than any Nixie I’d met. The laugh lines around his mouth reminded me of Angel’s own playful good nature. Similar to the Veela style, Helder’s hair was cropped close to his skull, revealing the unmistakable blowhole in the top of his head. I didn’t know how old he was, but I was willing to bet that, like Angel and Valente, he had never gotten the chance to shift. It was up to me now to right that injustice on behalf of all Fae.
“On my life as a Nixie,” Helder said, “I swear to uphold the Seelie cause as a member of the Seelie High Council. I swear my allegiance to the Seelie queen, and in her absence, to the five heirs.”
Many Fae had cultured accents that sounded like they were from some far-off land, and Helder’s alluring voice was no exception. I had no idea how he’d been chosen, but I was glad to hear no hesitation in his oath. He, too, proceeded down the line of Council members to receive their blessings.
At the end, Helder and Galvin placed their hands on each other’s shoulders to administer the same blessing to one another. Then they traveled to opposite ends of the dais to ascend the steps there. Helder took up a place next to Athne while Galvin stood beside Mandalina.
Now only one chair remained vacant on the dais — Makoto’s former seat. The ancient Kitsune had helped rescue Maeve and me along with the rest of the Duwende from Iona’s stronghold. When Iona unleashed a tatzelwurm to make her escape, Makoto had given his life to slow it down. We owed our lives to him, but from what I understood, no Kitsune lived beyond a single millennium. In their one-thousandth year, they gained their final tail and ascended to the heavens. I had no doubt that Makoto had accompanied my valiant Guard to rescue us so that he could go out fighting.
“What of the remaining vacancy?” Maeve asked.
The Council took their seats before Edana leaned forward to answer. “Makoto specified a successor, and we will honor his wish. We have summoned Kami from the battlefields near the Tree of Life, and she travels this way with a small escort of fellow Kitsune and others as well.”
“It is my understanding,” Galvin said in his low voice, “that this escort will wish to pledge themselves as new members of the Duwende Heir’s Guard, if you accept them as such.”
Maeve nodded. “I am most relieved to hear it. Kitsune illusions are the only reason we remained hidden from the Unseelie for so long. If we need to do so again, I will appreciate greater diversity in my Guard, just as I appreciate more equal representation among the Council.”
“As do I,” I added. With three Elves on the Council, it still wasn’t equal, but there was nothing that we, as heirs, could do about that.
Athne winked at me. “We took your advice during our last session and decided every kind of Fae should indeed be represented among us.”
Kalan frowned, and I had to wonder just what conversations had gone on behind closed doors to reach that conclusion. I doubted Edana and Kalan had been excited to fill out the Council again. With fewer members, they wielded greater control, especially when three of the five had been Elves. Now three of six were Elves, and Kami would become the tiebreaker seventh.
“When can we expect the final ceremony?” I asked.
“We might ask the same of you.” Kalan glared at me. “When do you expect to perform the Tree of Life ceremony?”
Kenji snorted, but kept quiet.
I smiled sweetly at Kalan. “As soon as Mandalina finds a suitable Veela who gets along with my other consorts.”
“It will be difficult, when a member of your own Guard has proclaimed one of your consorts an oathbreaker.” Mandalina raised her chin and then pursed her thick, sensual lips. She could have been mistaken for a human, but no ordinary one. Maybe a lifeguard straight from Baywatch or a supermodel from Paris’s finest fashion runways.
“I will continue to screen your candidates as long as you provide them,” Lyall told her.
Then he stepped forward, toward the center of the audience chamber. I frowned. His bond with me filled with doubt, bunched up like twine tangled with a ball of other emotions I couldn’t identify. He’d done well to hide it until moments before he spoke up.
“Council members, I wish to bring one other matter before you on this day,” Lyall said formally, his head tilted down in a semblance of a bow.
I glanced over at Kenji and Angel, but they both shrugged.
Helder’s melodious voice rang out first. “We’re listening.”
“I have proven myself a poor leader who could not recognize a traitor among his own people. As a result, I no longer feel capable of leading the Elven Heir’s Guard.” Lyall’s words struck me like physical blows. Why hadn’t he talked with me about this? “I ask the Council to approve my successor when I find one.”
Galvin shook his head even as the rest of the Council broke out in a variety of reactions. “I’m afraid we cannot make such an important decision when one of our members is absent.”
Kalan snorted in derision. “We can if it’s a unanimous decision or if the majority rules.”
“I agree with Galvin.” Athne raised her chin. “This decision is too important to determine yet, especially when the candidate is unknown to us.” She glanced Lyall up and down, her expression unreadable for once. “Have you chosen a successor?”
“Not yet,” he admitted, and I breathed a sigh of relief.
I was too stunned to speak. Angel and Kenji’s bonds were full of as much confusion and disappointment as my own. They both moved closer to me in support, though they didn’t touch me in this formal situation. Fen and Valente maintained their stoic expressions, so I had no idea whether they’d known this was coming.
“I, too, agree we should wait,” Helder said. “Which makes three of us.”
Edana sighed and frowned at Lyall. “Why even bring it up if you haven’t chosen a successor?”
“I have not yet found someone to agree to the role, but I ask the Council’s blessing should I choose a successor who is not an Elf.”
“Preposterous,” Kalan said. “The guardleader is always an Elf.” Then he glanced over at Maeve. “That is, he’s always the same race as the heir or queen he protects.”
His words reminded me that I would be yet another in a long line of Elven queens, but I would strive to treat all Fae equally. Kalan’s reaction showed he didn’t consider Maeve in the running anymore. It was understandable in some respects, considering she had no more consorts, but it still wasn’t right. Maeve had proven to be as strong and brilliant as Una, though in her own ways.
“Regardless, no point worrying about it now, until Lyall makes his choice,” Galvin said. “I move that we dismiss this topic until it becomes relevant.”
“Seconded,” Mandalina practically growled. The faintest hint of a breeze picked up. I couldn’t imagine why Lyall’s plan annoyed her, but I didn’t fault her. I was angry at him, too, mainly because we’d previously talked about how neither of us would make big decisions without the input of the other.
Maeve stepped forward toward the center of the room. “Good, then if there are no further topics of interest, I would like to speak with my fellow heir.”
And I wanted to talk to my guardleader. The Council gave words of assent and motioned us away, and Maeve and I headed out with our retinues following behind.
As soon as the doors closed behind us, I whirled on Lyall, upset that he would make such a public display without first discussing it with me. “I will want to discuss this later. But for now, you’re dismissed.”
I wouldn’t have the patience to talk with Maeve while Lyall remained in my sight.
Lyall bowed to me. “Yes, my queen. I leave you under guard by Fen and Valente.”
I shooed him off, and he took off at Elven lightning speed down the corridor leading away from the Council audience chamber. Angel and Kenji stepped closer to me, their bonds full of silent support and understanding.
Angel squeezed my hand, his sapphire eyes seeking mine. “I think I should try to talk to him.”
My heart jolted as though Angel were choosing Lyall over me, but then I came to my senses. Perhaps if anyone could talk any sense into Lyall, it would be a fellow consort. Behind Angel, Valente inclined his head as if he’d read my mind and agreed.
“Thank you,” I said to Angel, nodding to him and releasing his hand.
With his lopsided grin, he gave me a slight bow and then headed down the corridor in Lyall’s wake. I only hoped he could catch up to him and talk some sense into him.
I turned back to Maeve, who gazed after Angel.
When she faced me, however, she mentioned nothing of my wayward guardleader. “Since the Council brought up the matter of the Tree of Life ceremony, I wanted to discuss it with you.”
I steeled myself, wondering what this could be about. I’d assumed she supported me in becoming the queen, but perhaps I shouldn’t have. “Maeve, I—”
She waved me off as some of her Duwende started down the corridor alongside Valente. Maeve and I walked side by side. I’d never felt more gigantic than standing next to her. There was more than a foot difference between our heights.
“I don’t need your pity.” Maeve’s firm voice was even and unemotional. “I always knew that the Fae wouldn’t accept a Duwende as their next queen.”
Kenji defended me. “Glori wanted Una to become the first Nixie queen.”
I added, “That was before I knew you still lived.”
“Alas, neither of us has many consorts,” Maeve said, sidestepping the issue. “So, it’s up to you now.”
I suddenly wondered how much of Nolan’s plan Maeve had been aware of. Had she been hoping to become the queen of the Duwende, divorced from all other Fae, as Nolan had been attempting? I said nothing, unsure of how to address such a delicate topic. This was exactly why I’d wanted Una to ascend instead. She was so much better at the politics than me.
Valente and the Duwende guard up ahead kept a slow pace, giving Maeve and I time to continue our conversation in the relative privacy of the deserted upper corridors.
“Since there is no queen,” Maeve continued, “you can’t ascend by her leave. That means your only avenue for ascension is by performing the Tree of Life ceremony. It’s a delicate moment. The Unseelie know this, which is why they worked so hard over the last millennia to corrupt the small villages near the Tree of Life.”
I nodded. I knew that much. “But Nolan tells me we can perform the ceremony anywhere in the forest, since all the trees here are connected to the Tree of Life through its roots.”
Maeve dipped her head. “Indeed. Yet the threat of the Unseelie remains, as you discovered in a most unfortunate manner. We cannot trust the Elves among the palace guard.”
She hesitated, and I wondered if she also considered the Elves on the Council suspect. The thought had crossed my mind that Kalan might be as complicit as Abarta had been in the fall of the Last Queen. He certainly seemed disdainful of other Fae, much like an Unseelie.
“What do you suggest? The Council refused to suspend the Elves among the palace guard. They say they’re too few in number thanks to everyone dispatched to the Tree of Life.”
Maeve frowned. “Yes, and they refuse to call them back, despite Nolan’s assertion that we could perform the ceremony from anywhere.”
I wasn’t sure how to feel about her use of ‘we’ in that sentence, but she continued, leaving me with no chance to ponder it further.
“When the time comes for the ceremony, I would like to offer my people’s services. Duwende can see through glamor, so we’ll be able to spot any Elves who try to sneak in and disrupt the ceremony using false appearances.”
“I was hoping to break tradition and keep the ceremony small for that very reason,” I said. In the past, all the Fae had ‘participated’ by having a giant orgy alongside the queen and her consorts. I didn’t like the thought of being on display for so many, which was the true reason I hoped to break tradition.
“Indeed, it is wise to keep only those you trust nearby to guard you while you and your consorts are occupied.”
We soon reached a fork in the corridor. One way sloped upward to where I’d taken up residence with my Guard in the Queen’s Guard chambers. The other way led downward to the rest of the tree, including the Heir’s Guard chambers where Maeve’s people now resided since Una and her Guard were hiding elsewhere.
Silence fell between me and Maeve.
I shared a glance with Kenji, wishing the consort bond would let us communicate more than just emotions. Was she trying to gauge how much I trusted her and her people? Nolan’s plans to divorce the Duwende from the rest of the Seelie had fallen by the wayside when the scrolls were taken. But now we had them back, making me wonder if Maeve had rekindled her hopes of becoming an independent queen of the Duwende.
I dared not ask outright. “Since both you and Una are heirs, what will happen when I become queen? Will you both remain heirs, or will I be forced to choose just one of you?”
“We shall ford that river when we come to it,” Maeve said. “For now, I hope you know my people are loyal to the Seelie cause.”
I let out a breath. “Thank you for offering to help protect me and my consorts during the ceremony. I accept.”
Maeve’s smile lit up her face. The strain of her suffering had hidden her beauty until now. “Most excellent. We may yet defeat the Unseelie.”
“Indeed. With your counsel, I hope to usher in a new Seelie age.” I wanted her to know that just because I would become queen didn’t mean I would throw her aside. I needed her and Una’s help if I were to become a good leader.
She patted my elbow. “I look forward to it. And I am most pleased at how we’ve already begun, by filling out the Council.”
I supposed I had gained some confidence, considering we’d stood up to the Council together. “I was surprised there was no Duwende previously. Galvin will do well, though I’m sure he has his work cut out for him with that bunch. And Helder… did you have a hand in selecting him?”
Maeve shook her head, sending her beaded necklaces clattering. I hadn’t noticed them before amongst the folds of her ornate fabrics fit for a queen. “I don’t know him, but thus far I find him a solid choice.”
“My ladies,” Valente turned to us.
“Yes?” I bid him speak. Perhaps he was being more formal because Maeve was with me.
“I know Helder personally. We were both once palace guards. He is a good Nixie who will serve the Fae well as a member of the Council.”
I was happy that Valente could vouch for him. “Is he as old as most of the Council seems to be?” When Valente tilted his head at my question, I added, “I was wondering if he lived during the Last Queen’s rule and whether he’d gotten a chance to experience shapeshifting.”
“I’m afraid not,” Valente answered with a sad frown. “I doubt any Nixie alive has done so. Our lifespans seem to have shortened to no more than fifteen hundred years, give or take.”
“Which was about when the Last Queen fell to Unseelie torture,” Kenji pointed out.
Valente nodded. “I hope we live to see the day the Tree is revived, for all our sakes.”
Sounds of assent came from the Duwende around us at Valente’s words. He was right, of course. Now that Maeve and I had seen to it that the Duwende were represented on the Council, it was time to turn my attention in another direction. Toward important things like replenishing magic to an entire world.
The Council was a distraction from what I personally needed to do next. So, too, was the question of whether Iona truly held my father prisoner — a man I’d never met and hadn’t even suspected might be alive until I was captured. Now that she’d vacated her previous stronghold, we had no idea where she’d gone. She might have lied about everything, even about killing my mother.
For now, I chose not to believe anything Iona told me because she’d been trying to break my spirits as her captive. The alternative was too horrible to consider, and there was nothing I could do about it, anyway. I needed to focus on the task at hand — renewing long-lost magic for all Fae and reviving the Tree of Life. My bond with the Tree pulsed in the back of my mind, ever present in the Encante.
I shared a glance with Maeve, who gave me a reassuring nod and wished me well before setting off down the corridor along with her people. There were so few Duwende left, and their eldest might die before I could perform the ceremony, further diminishing their population. The weight of responsibility settled over my shoulders. It was a weight I was adapting to, as much as I still didn’t want it.
To ensure magic returned to all Fae, first I had to get one of the prideful Veela to join me as consort. Kenji looped my arm into his as we headed to our chambers.
“We’ll always have your back, Glori,” he said.
“I know.” I smiled at him. “Thank you.”
I tried to ignore Angel and Lyall’s bonds within me for the moment. Kenji’s bond burned with warm reassurance and the belief that we would succeed. I hoped he was right, but Mandalina had yet to find me any good candidates since I’d dismissed the previous two.
I couldn’t suppress the resigned sigh that escaped when I realized what my next step had to be. Despite my wishes — and his — I owed it to the Fae to have one last conversation with Rorik about becoming my Veela consort. The lingering doubt remained… would there be enough of a connection between us for the magical consort bond to form?
We had to at least try.
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