Early March in Seaside was always a drab thing; gray skies painted with seemingly perpetual cloud cover, midnight seas broken only by the churning white caps stirred up by bitter gales. No matter the coming Spring, Winter’s hold on the city of Rhydin was an iron vice, shackling Vaeluthil to her summer bastion, her sole respite from the biting chill of a lingering cold season. The high stone walls kept out the worst of it, and the touch of summer that had planted itself deep within the foundation of the manor and surrounding grounds did the rest, beating back the wind and snow and dreariness. It wasn’t enough to bring out the sun but it was enough to bake the courtyard’s cobblestones to a pleasant warmth, enough so that the lady of the manor could walk outside barefoot without worrying about catching a chill.
As the sun sank on the western horizon it cut a golden glow across the sea, burnishing the cliffs bronze and gilding the stone manor overlooking it all. The courtyard was abuzz with activity, a rarity so late in the evening. The space was typically reserved for afternoon tea or for the rare sunny days when Vael would curl up on the white wicker furniture for a nap or a story read by her druid knight. It was he who oversaw the preparations in the courtyard, directing and approving progress, swift as it came. It gave Vaeluthil ample time to prepare herself for what was to come.
Or more precisely, who.
From the second floor, she watched from a window as they rearranged the tea setup for something more befitting a formal meeting. A long wooden table made from a single solid piece of oak was the centerpiece, around which a dozen chairs had been set. Likely no more than four would be occupied but the goal was to exude an air of open hospitality, an important thing when hosting such important guests. While they gathered the plush cushioned chairs around the table, Vael plucked at the sleeves of the form fitting dress they had squeezed her into as if messing with the sleeves might relieve the tightness of the bodice constricting her ribcage. She found no relief though she half wondered if most of the tightness in her chest was anxiety instead.
Turning away from the window, she glimpsed a sliver of her reflection staring back at her from the glossy windowpane. Loose red curls accented with ribbon twined braids throughout framed a pensive heart shaped face, her lips plush and as blood red as her fiery mane. Mismatched eyes shuttered as she turned, cutting away from the weary face looking back at her. The whisper of silk and velvet around her ankles was her only goodbye, a farewell to the quiet peace of the bedroom, before the muted slap of bare feet on marble carried her down the grand staircase and to the front door where everyone was waiting.
For all that she tried to keep Winter from touching her slice of serenity, she could feel its taunting touch in the breeze that brushed her cheek when she stepped outside, unfurling a tendril of red that flickered across her face, catching on the delicate slope of her nose before slipping away to rejoin its coiled brethren around her shoulders. A curl of her fingers smoothed over the strands, taming them for the time being. Those buzzing (literally and figuratively) around the courtyard came to a screeching halt when the baroness emerged, all eyes turning toward her to take in her splendor.
On display for the first time in what felt like ages were a spread of golden wings, resplendent in their width and delicacy. They were not perfect though, the edges frayed like tattered lace, unable to be repaired fully after all this time. Somewhere between butterfly and dragonfly, they twitched and fluttered behind her, leaving a dusting of gold particulates in her wake. Their bearer was a girl no longer but rather a savage queen, wrapped in hunter green and bronze. Beneath the sheer sleeves of her dress, markings curled around her arms like delicate but thorny vines, stretching all the way down to her fingers and all the way up to the shoulders of her handcrafted dress, disappearing beneath the fabric only to emerge at her throat and ankles to wind their pattern over an alabaster canvas from head to toe. Her cheeks were marked like fletched leaves, green gracing her high cheekbones and temples without obscuring too much of her pretty face. Delicately pointed ears were cuffed with ornate silver approximations of the same leaf touched vines, curling from tip to lobe in comfortably nestled fashion. Upon her hip, a sheathed blade, ironwood wrapped in oak, stood in stark contrast to the femininity of the overall ensemble, by no means just for show.
“My lady,” said a hamadryad by the name of Meliae as he bent into a low bow to her. When he rose, he did so with a sweeping gesture of his hand. “How does it look?”
“It will do. Now, please watch the skies and call for me when they have arrived.” She said, passing him by to seek out Cael amidst the chaos. The sun was fast setting and the courtyard’s shadows were beginning to stretch their dark legs across the stonework. The moon hadn’t yet decided to make an appearance but Vaeluthil knew it was just a matter of time. She needed only be patient. As the others cleared the courtyard, disappearing into the dark to take up designated posts in and around the manor grounds, she conferred quietly with the druid, rehearsing just what she would say when their guests arrived.
“Ah… there they are.” She said at last, squinting into the dark sky at a pair of pinpricks of light that seemed to be getting larger and closer with every moment. The sharp bite of winter air preceded them, nipping at the baroness’s pointed ears and whipping her hair into a fiery frenzy. She did not budge though, standing tall against the wind no matter how it pushed at her. As the pair of lights got bigger, they began to take shape before their very eyes and rather than balls of light, they were riders upon glowing steeds, one white, one blue, both forms masculine. They seemed to ride upon moonlight itself, hooves clattering against the liquid mercury that painted their way. They touched down fifty yards from the gate, which opened slowly with a nod from Vaeluthil. The horses slowed to a canter and finally a stop just shy of the open gate. With her knight and her attendant, Vael moved forward, coming to a stop as well just inside the courtyard.
“Lady Whitevale.” One rider spoke without dismounting, leaning forward on his steed just enough to make it look like a bow.
“Iramorn, son of Riarrian Nightingale, you are what the Winter Lord has sent me?” She asked with a tilt of her head. Her posture was loose but her tone was perturbed bordering on offended and half a step behind her, Cael and Pepper exchanged furtive looks.
“My lady, I come only to present you our Emissary.” Iramorn said sheepishly, his back going stiff as he gestured aside to his companion. “I giveth thee Ser Aranthas Greymoon, Emissary of the Court of Winter.”
Iramorn may have been a disappointment to the baroness, but to have Aranthas Greymoon, the Aranthas Greymoon, before her was enough to spark a lift of her brows. It was hard not to look impressed, or at least, it would have been hard if it weren’t for the gravity of such a thing. Winter had sent no less than a dozen visitors to come and attempt to persuade her to return with them. A jilted master in the lands of eternal winter seemed to have a long memory for a doll lost to the wylds of Rhydin. But a doll no longer was she and each one had been sent away empty handed much to their chagrin. Aranthas Greymoon, however, was known for his results. Tension caught her jawline, coming with a clench of her teeth and a lift of her chin.
“Ser Greymoon, a name I have oft heard whispered in hushed tones by unmarred faces afraid to get their hands dirty. Before I invite you in, do tell, will your hands be dirty ‘pon your departure?” She asked, saccharine sweet words dripping in honey and sugar as they fell from her tongue. Aranthas, an attractive but lowborn sidhe, let out a booming baritone laugh that made his roguish features even more rugged than before.
“Lady of Marigolds, daughter of the Vale, it would not do to treat my hostess so. I assure you we come but to parlay and perhaps to indulge in some of the tea and taffy I have heard so much talk about.” He said when he finally stopped laughing. In a practiced motion, he dismounted, smoothing a gloved hand over his steed’s neck as he stepped away from it. Iramorn quickly followed, albeit less gracefully, as he hopped down into the wet muck wrought by melting snow. Where Iramorn was awkward tension, Aranthas was calm collection as he took the reins and wrapped them around a single fist.
“Good, because I shant tolerate tomfoolery here. We’ve accorded neutral ground but a stone’s throw from here too, keep that in mind. They mustn’t be disturbed.” She said with a firm nod before turning to the gruff on her left. “Miss Pepper, please see to our guests’ horses. Malted oat should do the trick, do spoil them. Then please send Meliae out with refreshments.”
“Yes, my lady.” Pepper bent her front legs in a bow to the little faerie before clattering off to do as was asked. Vael gestured for the men to follow once they had relinquished their steeds. They walked behind her while Cael took up the rear of the procession to keep an eye on the baroness’s back for her. From there, they entered the warmer confines of the courtyard, the gates closing in their wake with a creaking groan. Though night was setting on Rhydin City, painting the sky with starlight ink, the manor’s grounds were lit with pinprick faerie lights, gently bobbing in their strategically placed locations to give the entire area a warm glow.
“A beautiful home you’ve made here, Lady Whitevale,” Aranthas intoned from two steps behind the lady of the manor. She didn’t look back but gave him a nod as she led the way to the courtyard where all was set to receive their guests. “It’s my understanding it was obtained through… some sort of ritual combat?”
“Dueling. Of the bladed sort.” She said, one narrow shoulder bobbing in a bored shrug. For as much as she loved the sport, she wasn’t here to talk swords with him and the less information she gave him, the better. The less they would be able to hold over her head like some sort of Damoclean doom.
“Surely such a thing is below the station of the King’s favored daughter and my Lord’s favored lady?” Aranthas asked, a brow arching. Almost. Almost the woman before him faltered but as neatly as ever, she turned a smile over her shoulder, all sharp teeth and wolfish chagrin.
“If I were either of those things, I may be inclined to agree.” Vael turned back to their course and stepped beneath the eave of a canopy made of ethereal light bobbing pleasantly above the courtyard’s table. There were a dozen chairs though less than half would be in use. At the head of the table, she stood, waiting for her guests to take their seats before she too sat. Cael sat to her right, but a short reach away, while the seat to her left remained empty for the time being. Midway down the table, Aranthas took a high back chair three seats to her left and Iramorn sat directly across from him where he cut semi-concerned looks askance at the druid only two chairs away from him.
“I surely doubt you came for a social visit.” Sweet as her tone may have been, the scathing in her gaze was unmistakable, burning bright in mismatched eyes that took in far more than they let on. Meliae poured the Baroness’s tea, doctoring it with a hearty dose of sugar and a pinch of what looked to be cinnamon. She nodded her gratitude and just as quickly as they appeared, the dryads were gone.
“Alas, my lady, I meant no offense by the question and surely I’ve done nothing to warrant these hostilities from my hostess.” Accusations abounding, Aranthas gave her a pointed look that made Iramorn pale and Cael bristle in their respective seats. Vaeluthil’s back straightened, her hands folding delicately upon the tabletop. The smile she wore was a cold thing reminiscent of the winds in the lands from which Aranthas and Iramorn hailed.
“You’re too bold, Ser Greymoon. Far removed as I am from the Court, the fact I even entertain your presence belies my grace. Do not question that grace again, I will not tolerate your disrespect no matter how you may have clawed your way up from the Wastes to get to where you are.” It was plain to see that she had no intention of mincing words any longer. The gates had closed upon the grounds, enclosing them in stone and wrought iron. Though both men were armed, likely to the proverbial teeth, they were still in what amounted to enemy territory and were vastly outnumbered. A moment passed between Vaeluthil and Aranthas before the former finally smiled, the air of righteous fury dissipating in favor of a turn of her hand to the spread upon the table before them. “Fresh baked, do indulge. And please, make plain your case. The hour is late already and it does not do well for me to forego my beauty rest.”
“Forgive me.” With his words, he bowed a head crowned in chestnut curls to the diminutive mistress of the estate and took up a piece of taffy, a twist of his gloved fingers unwrapping it so that he could pop it into his mouth. As he chewed, he turned the charcoal of his gaze first to Iramorn before looking back to Vaeluthil. It wasn’t until he swallowed that he spoke again. Manners, or something of the sort. “You speak of Court but refuse to return as requested. Seasons pass and your station remains void of a steward, your family dishonored by this… self imposed exile. I speak bluntly not to offend thee but rather to ‘make plain’ as you have requested.”
“You claim to speak for my family?” Vaeluthil arched a thin brow, her hand curling around the warmth of her teacup. The others at the table remained silent, watching the exchange with bated breath. She could sense the tension rising in Cael. He had disliked her acceptance of the meeting from the beginning, worried that it would come to harm for the little faerie despite her reassurances to the contrary. “For whom do you speak? My sisters, Nephinae and Essaerae? The ones who sold me to the lands of Winter and covered up my disappearance? My brother, Vesryn, who visited my captors and laughed at my pain as they made me dance upon shoes made of knives? Or perhaps you speak for my mother, the Lady of Oleanders herself? A woman who has cared not for my existence a day in her life unless it served to further her station. Because I know you of all people do not speak for my father. So do tell, good Ser, who do I dishonor that has not already dishonored themselves?”
The collective wind was stolen from the courtyard, silence falling even as Vaeluthil’s smile remained. If there was ever a sense of Done-ness, she exuded it perfectly without even breaking a sweat. For years they had hunted her, following her all the way to Rhydin where they begged, threatened, and pleaded for her to return. Aranthas Greymoon was not the first fae to come to Seaside’s door in search of her but her waning patience could very well guarantee he would be the last. It took Aranthas a few moments to compose his thoughts, during which he nibbled at the edge of a pastry drizzled lightly with honey. He set it down and wiped his hands off upon a pale green cloth napkin. Unshaken, he returned her gaze levelly, going so far as to offer her an even smile.
“I speak for those who wish only for you to be exalted to your rightful place within the Court. You have been missed, my Lady. And my Lord bids you return with promise that you will not be punished for your time away and even guarantees you your choice of station within his household.” He said, the roll of his words slow as if he anticipated a strong reaction to them. Cael snorted and very nearly rose from his seat but Vael stilled him with a look and a smile before looking back to the emissary.
“This is not the first time Traeliorn has sent someone to bid me return. But it will be the last.” She said, matching his tone and leaving the words to linger for a pregnant moment as if to impress that she may cave. But she didn’t, instead lifting her teacup for a dainty sip before replacing it upon its saucer. “I have the feeling that you do not intend to leave without me. Am I correct?”
Iramorn and Aranthas exchanged a look that said more than words ever would and for the first time since arriving, Aranthas looked visibly uncomfortable. The weight of Vaeluthil’s gaze lingered upon him, boring into him as if she could stare a hole right through his forehead. Iramorn tugged at his collar, clearing his throat softly. He reached for his teacup, a subtle tremor sending ripples through the cooling liquid as he drank deeply from the cup. Aranthas followed suit though his hand was steady through a short lived sip before he set it aside with a pop of his lips.
“Nae, Lady, I do not. Trust when I say that I do not wish for this to come to violence, but if it must, we both know my reputation precedes me.” He said, prompting Cael to straighten in his seat until he was looming over Vael’s end of the table, positioned between her and their visitors. The hulking druid practically radiated innate power, and more importantly, hateful malice, but it wasn’t the druid that the winter fae should have been worried about.
“What is this treachery?” He demanded, snarling as he turned toward the head of the table. Cael was already out of his seat and rounding the table behind the redheaded faerie who remained effervescently unruffled as she lifted her own teacup for a delicate sip. Aranthas’s hand went to the sword on his belt but before he could draw it and before Cael could invoke the protective elements that had shielded his fae charge for so long, the table between them exploded upwards in a shower of splintered oak as a thick, thorned vine burst through it.
At the tip, the vine was but the diameter of its summoner’s petite wrist but it fast tapered to thick, trunklike proportions. For its bulk, it moved quicker than Aranthas could respond, darting out to snake around his midsection. He hacked at it with his blade, spewing emerald sap as the steel struck true before lodging midway through the hearty plant. Beneath his feet, cobblestones cracked as a second and then a third vine shot forth, one seizing his swordhand and squeezing until he was forced to release his hold on the blade. The other wrapped around his neck and collectively, they lifted him from his feet amidst a strangled cry from Aranthas and residual gurgling from Iramorn, who had been forced from his seat by the ruination of the table and had toppled to the ground where he twitched and spasmed, still alive but unable to move or otherwise aid Aranthas.
“Treachery is selling a child into servitude. Treachery is forsaking kith and kin for greed and power. Treachery is the theft of innocence.” The vines tightened further as Vael’s anger grew, a fire stoked and left to consume all around it. Aranthas’s lips began to turn blue and then purple, blood vessels bursting in the whites of his eyes. “All I wanted was my peace, Greymoon. Far from the Courts, far from the lands of Summer and Winter, far from the likes of those like you who profit and further themselves on the backs of the weak and impecunious. But a wise druid once read me the words of a man smarter than you or I… Si vis pacem, para bellum, Aranthas.”
The vines slackened just enough for Aranthas to breathe but still curled firmly around his limbs and midsection, keeping him several feet off the ground and well away from his fallen blade. Vaeluthil looked up at him, her mouth twisted into a dispassionate frown. He gasped and struggled, glad for the air but panicked at how the tables (literal and figurative) had so quickly turned.
“You don’t know just who--” He rasped out only to be cut off abruptly when a smaller, sharper thorned vine pierced the back of his neck, pushing painfully through his spinal cord and out through the front of his throat, spattering those on the ground with a spray of shimmering red. His limbs went slack save for involuntary spasms, the light fading slowly from his eyes even as the unspoken words lingered like cement thick upon his tongue. The lost light lived briefly in Vaeluthil’s smile as one by one, the vines curled tightly around the burgeoning faerie emissary’s limbs and tore him apart in a single blink, painting the courtyard crimson beneath the full moon sky.
“And I am prepared.”
Silence overtook the manor’s courtyard, broken only by Iramorn’s quiet gurgling and the slithering of monstrous vines as they retreated back into the ground, their thorns heavy with flesh torn from a man too dead to miss it. Left to the macabre remains of Aranthas and their tea table, Vaeluthil sent Cael to summon the help while she stooped to kneel beside Iramorn.
“You are the son of a good man, Iramorn. It is only by this virtue that you yet live. And it is by my grace that you will go back to the Court with a message.” She said softly, her voice so low that not even the wind could eavesdrop upon her words. Her hands, stained dark with Aranthas’s blood, brushed along Iramorn’s cheek, smearing his fair skin further with glimmering red. “You will tell them that they sent their best and I tore him limb from limb. You will tell them that if I return, it will be on my terms and it will be to take their heads should they ever disturb my peace again. Do you understand me?”
Iramorn could only groan, his limbs still thick with paralysis. Vael smiled down at him. At the mouth of the courtyard, a small contingent of redcaps descended upon the broken grounds to clean up the gore and to tend to the destruction.
“It is but Larkspur, my good lord. You will be fine in time but you will always remember me.” She bent further to press a red lipped kiss upon his forehead, impressing a pillowed outline of her lips against his skin before she rose. Her redcap captain, a sharp toothed savage named Elidyr, was the first to meet her. After he swept a low bow, she bid him see to the courtyard as well as Iramorn. “Do not harm him for he is our messenger. He is to take his steed as well as that of Ser Greymoon and return to the Nevernever. See to it that he makes it there and does not return. Keep ears out for the aftershocks, please.”
With Elidyr’s affirmation, Vaeluthil withdrew from the courtyard, finding herself upon the threshold of the manor she had held for over three years. She looked over her shoulder at the carnage one last time before turning back to the druid who had appeared in the doorway in the blink it took her to survey the stonewalled yard. He looked her over for any obvious signs of injury but none of the blood she wore was her own. Empty of the fire she had shown so easily only moments before, she peered up at him and shrugged. Cael wrapped his arms around her delicate shoulders, ushering her into the manor and closing the heavy door behind them to shut away the aftermath outside. “Come on, Little Dove, let’s get you out of that dress and cleaned up.”
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