For the hundredth time that night, Megan tried to use the ‘meditation breathing’ Fumiko had taught her to get her emotions under control. Don’t give away what you’re feeling, she scolded herself sharply. She had far too many disadvantages already without giving her captors that kind of insight into what she was thinking. They already knew too much about her — while she knew far, far too little about them, or even herself; about what it meant to be fae and what she might be capable of doing in the service of her escape.
Shoot, I don’t even know if it is still night, Megan reminded herself. For the entire time that she had been in Archarel’s captivity, the sun had remained fixed at the height of noon. Who knew how long it had been? At first she’d hoped someone would come to rescue her — but she’d quickly put that hope aside. At least, she thought it had been done quickly. For all she knew it had already been years back in the real world, and her friends had all given up on her.
Except it can’t have been years, Megan reminded herself for what seemed like the thousandth time. Archarel has to use me before the real world begins to forget me, or I won’t be much of an anchor for his people when they go out to execute his plans. Whatever those were.
Which was, in fact, exactly the question Megan was asking herself while trying to hold back from giving away her thoughts about where she’d found herself: the guest of honor at a celebration she was somewhat certain had been thrown in honor of her capture — and in anticipation of whatever came next in Archarel’s plans.
Megan was seated in one of two thrones at the head of a grand banquet table. The table was enclosed in a circular clearing marked off by a ring of glass and crystal arches that reminded her vaguely of Stonehenge. Beyond their border Megan could see more of Archarel’s city: rather than being the sort of idyllic forest she had always imagined fairies would live in, it was a massive collection of buildings, all formed out of glass and crystal and precious metals. They rose up from the ground in great spires toward the center of his kingdom, while smaller buildings sprawled out around it. She suspected that many of them corresponded to real buildings, back in the real world — but she wasn’t positive of that because the sun reflected too brilliantly off of the various spires and rooftops for her to spend time studying the cityscape.
Instead, she had focused on the inhabitants of the clearing with her in the hopes that she could divine the purpose for this gathering by observing its attendants.
They were numerous and wildly varied in dress and appearance. More were constantly coming and going through the arches, even though Megan never saw anyone standing outside the clearing. There were a handful of trolls and goblins scattered among the gathered, but most were beautiful women, stunningly handsome men, sentient beasts and — in more cases than Megan had been able to count — people who were some amalgamation of the three. Megan was most fascinated by the ones that were a combination of the eerily attractive fae and the fantastic beasts: beings with animal ears or eyes or fur or wings.
Wings and horns of all sorts seemed to be particularly popular.
Some wore splendidly elaborate suits or dresses, pulled from all different periods of history. Some wore armor: some of which was archaic, some of which was modern, and some of which was both. There were some that wore fanciful outfits that could have come from the covers of fantasy novels, while others wore simple garb that would not have been out of place in an office building.
Some didn’t bother to wear anything at all.
Megan knew that everyone present was fae, and that as such their wild appearances were matters of choice rather than birth. But knowing that it was possible for a faerie to look like whatever he or she liked and actually seeing a gathering of them were two entirely different things.
For Megan’s part, she remained in her clothes from when she’d been abducted. She felt somewhat shoddy compared to some of the grandeur around her, but she’d never been terribly self-conscious — and besides, her clothes were real. They wouldn’t require any of her essence to maintain, and she certainly wasn’t about to reconsider accepting the change of dress Archarel had offered her.
Archarel was seated to her left. There were dozens of other fae seated at the banquet table, but they kept themselves secluded in their own conversations. None of them spoke with Megan except Archarel — something she suspected was both deliberate and not at his orders. She couldn’t imagine what sort of faux pas it would be if one of his courtiers engaged her in a conversation and accidentally got her to obligate herself to them before their liege managed it, but she didn’t imagine it would end prettily.
So far Megan had managed not to accept anything from her ‘host,’ though as the hours stretched on it grew more difficult to ignore the feast spread out before them. I bet none of them even need to eat — I bet I don’t need to eat! — it’s just a trap of some sort. Unfortunately, whether she needed to eat or not, Megan had believed she needed food for her entire life: something that her stomach was insistently reminding her of.
Finally, she gave up on trying to distract herself with the crowd of faeries who would not speak with her and turned instead to the one beside her, who had himself given up on trying to engage her some unknown minutes, hours, days or years ago. Hours, at most, she reminded herself. Despite the fact that the gathering was so vibrant and raucous that she couldn’t keep track of its denizens — let alone how long their revelry had lasted — she knew it couldn’t have really been years. Maybe days, or weeks.
“You must realize that I will refuse to help you, or allow myself to be bound to you,” Megan said. More to firm up her own resolve than to ensure Archarel knew her intentions, unfortunately. Not that she was very worried that she would buckle in her determination, but she was beginning to understand what Abby had told her about some fae apparently making rash decisions or limiting themselves out of pure boredom. Her best bet at not getting caught up by some obligation to Archarel, after all, lay in not talking to him at all.
Archarel wore a sharp medieval suit: all whites and soft blues and brocade and velvet. He had pointed ears and cat-slit eyes, but other than that he looked nothing like Jack, the only other fae Megan knew with similar features. Instead, Archarel’s hair was gold and his eyes were crystal blue. He carried a sword openly at his side — and instead of wearing a top hat, he wore a crown of white crystal flowers, bound together by white silk.
He turned his attention from a pretty faerie with butterfly wings and goat horns, wearing a red cardigan over a black blouse and long skirt, to Megan. The faerie woman faded back into the crowd as though she’d been explicitly dismissed by Archarel — which perhaps she had. Megan was nowhere near as good at reading the auras of the fae around her as she suspected they were at reading her, but she also suspected that they didn’t need to speak among each other with just words.
Archarel smiled, and Megan redoubled her effort to keep her emotions in check. He had a dazzling smile, and she had never been one to be ashamed of enjoying another person’s appearance. Now, though, she really didn’t want him to know she thought he was handsome. Especially since she despised every other aspect she knew of him. He was a domineering, egotistical, megalomaniacal kidnapper, and no amount of good looks would make up for that in Megan’s estimation.
“My dear,” Archarel said jovially, “you aren’t going to be given a choice in the matter. Once you are a part of my family it won’t matter if you intend to assist in my endeavours or not. You need merely be present for them, and you will serve as an anchor well enough.”
Megan scowled at him. “I’m not yours,” she snapped — mindful of what Abby and Jack had told her about the fae. “And I will not be joining your family,” she spat back. The dress Archarel had offered her had been a wedding gown, confirming Abby’s speculation as to his plans. Well, we’ll just see about that. There’s only one person I want to spend the rest of my immortal life with. “Even if I must starve myself, no offer you can lay before me will entice me to your side or allow you to force my consent to wed you,” she said stiffly. “You may as well just let me go home.” She wished Jack were still here: he had appeared beside her shortly after Katherine had forced her from her home, only to be swarmed by Archarel’s minions before he could assist her or escape himself. She would have desperately appreciated having someone else to talk to, or who could talk on her behalf while being more aware of potential traps in the conversation.
In response Archarel barked with laughter; he guffawed so hard he threw his head back while the peals escaped. “Is that why you have been playing at such a dour countenance?” He asked once his mirth had its run. He chuckled again and shook his head. “Megan, this is a wedding celebration. As such this feast is freely given to all its guests, be they my subjects or not. There will be no obligation should you partake of it — and I would be insulted at the insinuation that I would demean myself to force a bride to the altar, were it not so ridiculous!” He laughed again, and the nearer fae joined him.
Megan shifted uncertainly. She didn’t believe him, but it was hard to ignore the guileless hum of his aura while he’d spoken. “Then… whose wedding celebration is this?” She asked.
Archarel smiled at her. His eyes glinted mischievously. “My own, of course.” He watched Megan’s confusion for a long, long moment before laughing again. “But not to you,” he chuckled. “Heavens no! I’m afraid my bride has yet to…” Abruptly he cut off. His gaze snapped to one of the arches ringing the gathering, and he stood.
All other conversation stopped as well, and those fae who were seated also rose. Megan scrambled to her feet, too: not because she didn’t want to disrespect Archarel by remaining seated when he was not, but because she wanted to see what everyone else was looking at.
Because everyone else was looking at whatever it was that Archarel had focused on.
Megan silently cursed herself for being short. Blast propriety, she decided and scrambled up on her chair — a sturdy affair of silver and wood — in order to better see.
At the far end of the gathering, two strings of new fae were emerging from one of the arches. They were just as fierce and beautiful and strange as Archarel’s courtesans, but there was something about them that made it known that they were not his. There was a more primitive air about them and their garb that put them at odds with Archarel’s more cosmopolitan followers. And something in their auras resonated with Megan in a way she couldn’t grasp or even put into words.
Each of the two rows of fae spread out as they emerged, forming a half circle around the gathering, extending from the arch that disgorged them. They stood at fierce attention along the perimeter of the gathering, clearly on guard.
Then, once the lines of guards had taken their posts, two more figures emerged from the portal.
Megan recognized the first one: Jack, still dressed in one of his Victorian suits and that same old, battered rust red top hat. And beside him…
Megan gasped despite herself. The young woman beside Jack was just a little on the short side. She was wearing a simple white and blue dress, with a crystal diadem that matched Archarel’s crown. There was nothing inhuman about her beauty: no horns or wings or other animal features, nothing unnaturally perfect about her figure or face. Her ears were not pointed, and her eyes…
Those are my brother’s eyes. And my mother’s chin, and Dad’s nose, Megan thought, dumbstruck. The family resemblance was inescapable.
Jack nodded to a small goblin — one of Archarel’s — who grinned and rose to his full height. The short goblin’s chest swelled with an inhalation, and then he bellowed: “Presenting the Princess Orlina, accompanied by courtiers of her father’s domain.”
Archarel’s voice seemed just as loud in the ensuing silence. “Be welcome,” he called, “and join us for this joyous occasion. Be at ease and celebrate, everyone.” He smiled widely, and made a gesture that encompassed the gathering. Almost at once, conversations began again and those fae who had been standing at attention along the edges merged into the crowd of revelers; those who had been standing along the banquet table resumed their seats.
Except for Archarel, whose gaze remained on Orlina. And Megan, who hopped down from her chair but remained standing.
Jack gave his arm to the princess, then lead her to the head of Archarel’s table. There she divested herself of his arm so that Archarel could claim her hand. “My lady,” he murmured over its back, just before kissing it.
“My lord,” Orlina answered.
Megan looked wildly over to Jack, but his expression was blank and she couldn’t read anything from him. But even without Jack to confirm it, she knew who Orlina was.
Archarel took a step back from the table and pulled Orlina a step closer to Megan. “Orlina,” he said cheerfully, “Allow me to introduce you to Megan — the woman who took your place in the mortal realm when you were adopted into fae royalty. Megan, this is Orlina — your adoptive sister, and my betrothed.” He chuckled to himself. “I bound your man with a geas and sent him to your father with my proposal — which I knew would be accepted. After all, Megan, it costs me nothing to imprison you for a few decades — but it would have cost your father whatever plans he might have for you himself.”
Archarel’s smile was wide and self-satisfied. “So Megan,” he said, “I know you thought I meant to marry you, but do try not to let your jealousy prevent you from enjoying the rest of the celebration.” He snorted derisively. “To think you thought I would bind myself in marriage to you. What immortal in his right mind would affix himself to another immortal for all eternity?” He gestured for Orlina to sit in a small throne that twisted into existence on the other side of his own. She did without comment — her expression did not even flicker. Archarel smiled at her like a man looking on a possession he was particularly fond of.
“Instead,” Archarel said aside to Megan, “by mortal daybreak you will be my dear sister-in-law. Our families will be joined for the more reasonable span of Orlina’s finite life, and you will accompany my knights to the mortal realm — whether you care to or not — where they shall deliver a most overdue scolding unto my own adopted daughter. Once her petty wards and coven of opposition is broken, I will proceed to reclaim the city of mortal fodder that was denied me with my daughter’s death.” He turned and smiled down at Megan, who stared back, horrified, at him. His aura remained utterly devoid of guile or subterfuge. “We will strike throughout the day, while Salvatore’s young replacement slumbers. Of course, once we find where she rests, there will be a most unfortunate — for her — fire. I assure you, however, that since she is your friend we will be respectful with her remains. I will even allow you to attend the somber ceremony when I scatter her ashes over one of my kingdom’s seas.”
“And then,” Archarel added with a broad, cruel smile, “as your father requested in exchange for his blessing on my union with your sister, you will be returned to his kingdom to serve out his own purposes, whatever they should be.”