Prologue: Thirty Years Before
In the wake of the Iron Age, Aphrodite created sirens for the primary purpose of preventing fae extinction. Sirens are self-replicating constructs who serve as a kind of magical battery: they harvest human fertility and desire, store that power internally, then transmit it to the fae. It is only through siren intervention that the fae are able to reproduce in our iron-poisoned world. Indeed, siren intervention is sometimes the only thing that will prevent a faerie from fading.
–Sirens: An Overview for the Newly-Transitioned, 3rd ed. (2015), by Mira Bant de Atlantic, p. 4.
Marisol’s perennial lightness seemed somewhat forced when she pulled Cordelia aside as the group alighted on Yorkshire’s drab shoreline. “Now Cordelia, this will be but a brief visit. Just remember: once you’ve attended the Aos Sí this time, no one will be able to gainsay you on the basis of immaturity. They’ll be forced to acknowledge you as precocious, and within the next decade, you’ll have a place beside me at Court. All you have to do is to get through the next few days.”
Marisol’s encouragement actually made Cordelia even more anxious. Her progenitor had known about the junior expedition for months, but had never mentioned the possibility that Cordelia might be included. Had she known, she would have accepted Marisol’s offer to shepherd her through her first attempt at fertility transfer at one of the smaller fae preserves in the States. But Cordelia had been enjoying her freedom in Atlantis too much to risk encountering her mother in the U.S.
Her mother always said it was useless to look back, so Cordelia plastered on a bright smile and nodded. Marisol’s eyes twinkled, and the faint lines of tension on her forehead smoothed out. She squeezed Cordelia’s hand. “You’ll be perfect!” Marisol promised.
Courtier Vincent led the dozen young sirens off the narrow sandy beach up the trail that led to the plateau marking the entrance to the North York Moors fae preserve. Sirens had a natural resistance to fae magicks, so whatever spells had been cast to encourage humans to keep their distance didn’t hinder the group’s progress.
Nevertheless as Cordelia crossed the grassy plain into the forest beyond, she felt a slight stickiness on her arms and face, almost as if she had walked through a cobweb. The others seemed to be feeling the same thing because they brushed at their faces and arms as well, though they didn’t seem bothered by the sensation. Cordelia heard laughter, but when she turned, there was no one there. While the fae, and the seelie in particular, were known to enjoy games and mischief with humans, she wondered how much truth there was to the stories of the Aos Sí’s dark humor.
All fae were dependent on sirens to combat their iron-sickness, but the Aos Sí especially. After the Third Mage War, almost two hundred thousand fae had been imprisoned in North Yorkshire. When the mage cabal abandoned England in the nineteenth century, they had called iron to the surface of the soil, ensuring the Aos Sí would remain confined by the constant drain on their strength. Now, this group of fae needed the sirens for their daily survival.
How the Aos Sí must hate us, Cordelia thought, and shivered. It was summer, so it wasn’t cold, but somehow the dim light of the forest reminded Cordelia of the winter sun, bland and dull. You couldn’t even see the sky beyond the thick canopy of foliage. At least the iron didn’t sicken the trees.
“I think we will find a dryad for you, Cordelia,” Marisol remarked from behind. She huffed a little as she tried to keep up with the faster pace Vincent had set. Cordelia slowed so she could walk next to Marisol. “Dryads are fairly gentle, and totally attached to their trees. They don’t play like the seelie, but I’m not sure you’re ready to play games with the fae just yet.”
Marisol sounded anxious again. A little late to be worrying now, Cordelia thought. She consciously strove to recall the lessons from her mother’s textbook: “The fae need sirens. No fae has ever hurt a siren.” But her mother had also cautioned her that what the fae viewed as hurtful was quite different from what sirens considered hurtful. The fae were immortal, after all.
Cordelia was grateful that Marisol was at least considering what kind of fae should be her first. “A dryad, rather than one of the moss folk or a brownie?” she asked hesitantly.
“Yes, I think a dryad would be a good choice. They’re sweet and somewhat single-minded. There’s a rowan I like quite a lot. He’s attached to Titania’s tree, so is rather a special dryad, after all.”
Cordelia’s mother had always hated Marisol’s fixation on status, but Cordelia was grateful for her attention to such details. Contrary to her mother’s determined obliviousness, status mattered on Atlantis. And in the States, too. Everywhere, really.
“Of course, Marisol,” Cordelia said. “Whatever you think best.”
“Nanna, remember,” Marisol corrected, squeezing Cordelia’s arm gently. “I amyour progenitor, after all.”
“Nanna,” Cordelia obediently replied, and Marisol smiled.
“I think you should go today. Get it over with, don’t you think? Then you won’t be fretting about it.”
Cordelia’s heart pounded, and she thought she’d rather watch a few of the more experienced sirens first. But she said nothing, not knowing how to admit to Marisol that she was scared.
“You know, I’ll show you first. I’m full to the brim, and it does get rather uncomfortable feeling so stuffed. Of course, it’s important when coming to the Moors that you’re as full as possible. The Aos Sí need so much. It’s impossible, really...” Marisol’s cheer faded and her voice trailed off.
Perhaps the reconcilers were right, Cordelia mused. This continued imprisonment of the Aos Sí wasn’t good for the Atlantics either. All the sirens who cycled through the Moors seemed to return in a very bad mood. Even her progenitor’s air of carefree bonhomieevaporated for a time after she returned from one of her trips to England.
Marisol had been asked to serve as a courtier because of her prodigious capacity for fertility transfer. It was said she could hold the full fertility of more than a dozen humans, and such a power was obviously greatly needed here. While Marisol relished the status her power gave her, she never seemed quite herself after traveling to Yorkshire.
“Marisol! You have returned!” a deep voice echoed through the small clearing, and an enormous silver-white falcon flew down from the trees to cross their path before soaring back to its perch above. Its wingspan stretched at least six feet across, and Cordelia wondered if the bird might in fact be a glamoured fae.
The trees shook a little as the leaves of the large hawthorn on their left slowly bloomed into a dense fog of small white flowers with pink speckles. The whiteness of the blossoms glowed in the dim light of the forest. The rest of the group were a bit farther ahead, but at the sound of the faerie’s greeting, paused to look back.
The juniors had welcomed Cordelia on the expedition, despite the fact that she’d been a last-minute addition and was far less prepared than they were. She knew that but for Marisol’s influence, she wouldn’t have been included, but then Marisol probably wouldn’t have agreed to chaperone had it not been for her. Perhaps the juniors were only being nice to her because of that; everyone knew how beloved Marisol was by the fae. Having her shepherd them through this obligatory visit to the Aos Sí would definitely reduce their risk … if it was, in fact, risky. One moment, the juniors would speak as if visiting the Aos Sí were no big deal, but in the next, they’d remind each other of the various atrocities committed by the Aos Sí during the Third Mage War.
As the heavy odor of wet, rotting leaves overcame the smell of honeysuckle that had originally welcomed them into the forest, Cordelia moved closer to Marisol, who seemed delighted by the hawthorn’s transformation. Cordelia now understood why the others were so grateful for her presence, and tried to find some comfort in Marisol’s enjoyment of the fae magick.
The white flowers slowly shrank back into the tree’s branches, and gradually a white face emerged from the greenery. The seelie’s pale skin glowed like the surface of the moon, and only the scattering of pink freckles across his cheeks broke up the luminosity of his face. He had grass-green eyes, and a full mouth that smiled a welcome at Marisol. He was easily the largest person Cordelia had ever seen; standing more than seven feet tall, he towered over Vincent, who had come back into the clearing with the group.
“Boyaryshnik, you always know me, no matter what face I wear.” Marisol giggled and extended her hand in a limp wave.
Boyaryshnik bowed over Marisol’s hand, his massive torso folding in a perfect ninety-degree angle. He was so close, Cordelia could see the lace trim on his gray shirt twist suddenly into bark and then back again. So this was a seelie. She had never met one of the fae elite before. Her mother had warned that because the seelie aped human ways, they were even more dangerous than the fae who appeared less human: Their mannerisms made it too easy to forget that the fae thought so differently than humans or even sirens. At least living with sirens for the past four years enabled Cordelia to ignore Boyaryshnik’s shocking handsomeness.
His cheekbones and chin seemed almost chiseled into perfection, and the thin, close-cut fabric of his gray shirt and old-fashioned breeches were designed to show off his musculature. Unlike the sirens, who often draped their magical beauty beneath loose-cut fabrics, the fae were known to enjoy accentuating their glamoured figures with their clothing.
“Marisol, I did not expect you for months! This is a real treat.” Boyaryshnik’s voice rumbled in a deep bass that Cordelia found unexpectedly appealing.
“And who is this delight beside you?” Boyaryshnik focused his attention on Cordelia, who felt her face grow hot as she looked away from the faerie’s glowing eyes. She wasn’t affected by him, not like a human would have been, but nevertheless she felt uncomfortable with his attention.
“This is my offspring, and I am pleased to accompany her on her first trip to visit the Aos Sí.” Marisol didn’t offer her name, and Cordelia was frankly relieved when Boyaryshnik glanced about at the others who had formed a semicircle around them.
“Ah, these are the young Atlantics Titania promised were coming to play.”
Cordelia saw a flicker of light around the edge of the clearing and realized that there were probably several fae hiding in the undergrowth.
“We shan’t be staying long enough to play many games this time. But come, I’m full to bursting, and you seem even paler than usual after your elaborate display.”
“Marisol, really? Can’t this wait until we get to the old-growth forest?” Vincent complained.
“We’re here, and you said we ought to do a demonstration before the group splits up. So why not get started now? Never say I’m anything but diligent at my work.” Even Cordelia caught the barbs in Marisol’s tone. Clearly, Vincent’s offhand put-downs of Marisol as too flighty to serve as a courtier had reached her ears. Perhaps she had come on this trip to prove her worth to the High Court, and not merely to ensure that Cordelia succeeded at this rite of passage.
“I had better start us off. After all, my capacity is double yours, is it not?” Marisol spoke sweetly, and didn’t bother waiting for Vincent’s acknowledgment before moving even closer to Boyaryshnik.
“Ah, so I’m to be a demonstration? Is that all I am to you, love?” Boyaryshnik seemed impossibly flirtatious, but Cordelia thought his face looked tense.
Marisol ignored his comment as she looked at the junior sirens. “The Aos Sí are simply fae, just like all the others you have met. There is no difference, really. Watch.” Marisol gestured, and Boyaryshnik obligingly knelt down, so that his face was within Marisol’s reach. “Just a gentle kiss to restore what you lost when you loosed your gyrfalcon,” Marisol said softly.
“You noticed,” Boyaryshnik rumbled.
Marisol patted his shoulder. “I love your falcons. And you called my favorite for me. Such a welcome deserves a guesting-gift in return.” Marisol clasped her hands on the sides of his face and kissed him gently on the mouth. Cordelia could see his eyes flutter, then close. The sound of rain enveloped them, and as Cordelia looked around to see where it was falling, suddenly Boyaryshnik stood up and Marisol stepped back, practically into Cordelia.
It seemed that Boyaryshnik’s whole demeanor had changed. Cordelia couldn’t pinpoint exactly why she thought so. Perhaps it was the languid grin that had changed his visage. His prior smile had an edge to it that she hadn’t noticed until it was replaced by this new expression. It was almost as if he had been starving before, but now had finally had a feast.
“Ah, Marisol, for that, I will let you flymy birds. Come, let me lead the way.” And with that, Boyaryshnik swept Marisol to the front of the group.
Cordelia’s gaze was caught by the flash of a firefly, and she paused, wondering whether it were truly a firefly, or perhaps a will o’ the wisp. Suddenly, she realized that she was in danger of being left behind, and hurried to catch up. A tree root rose in her path, and Cordelia stumbled. Out of nowhere, a rail-thin woman appeared, taking her arm to steady her.
“Take care,” she said, so softly that Cordelia wasn’t sure she had actually heard her. Her eyes and skin were a pale blue, and her touch was as cold as she looked. Perhaps she was a vila, though her long hair was more colorless than blond. It seemed to float behind her as if blown by a nonexistent wind.
“Thank you,” Cordelia responded politely, then remembered that gratitude was not an emotion understood by the fae. She waited nervously as the faerie considered her.
“You are younger than the others,” the faerie finally said.
“I am much older than those who remain. Older than Ares, older than Taara, older than Titania, older even than Num and Nga, whose greed cast us out,” the faerie whispered in almost a sing-song soprano.
“Oh?” Cordelia looked around urgently, hoping Marisol would realize that she had been left behind.
“Do not fear, child. I mean you no harm. I have sent a look-alike ahead to mask our little conversation.”
Cordelia gulped. Sirens were generally immune to all but the most powerful of fae magicks. For this slender faerie to have cast such a spell meant she was quite powerful indeed. “Why did you want to speak with me?” Cordelia was honestly surprised at being singled out, and didn’t feel at all relieved by the faerie’s assertion that she didn’t intend Cordelia harm.
“I want to give you a welcome-gift. A gift that only one such as I can give. A gift freely given.”
“‘Beware the gifts of the fae,’” Cordelia quoted without thinking, then gasped.
But the faerie only smiled. “Fairly said. But this is a gift of truth. You value true-telling, no?”
“I thought the fae couldn’t lie,” Cordelia said.
“We can’t, but truth is more than just the absence of lies, is it not? Truth is pure and brilliant and hard like a diamond. Real truth shines like a jewel and pulses from your heart. I think that you are one who would value truth.” The faerie tapped Cordelia’s chest gently, and she felt the ice of the vila’s hand sink deeply to circulate through her body, like frozen blood. The sound of her own pulse throbbed in her ears.
“Diamonds are also sharp,” Cordelia murmured.
“Absolute truth is sharp, but would you rather live in a fog of unknowing? Of deception woven out of misdirection and obfuscation? Would you remain ignorant?”
And here the faerie touched upon her weakness. Indeed, Cordelia hated feeling so stupid. So unqualified. Having to pretend to understand what she didn’t. Knowing she didn’t even know the right questions to ask to gain the understanding that might make her less of a fraud. “What truthdo you have to share?” she asked hesitantly.
“The truth of our existence here. I will let you feel what we feel, amplified perhaps, like sunlight refracted through diamonds. But only for a brief spell, instead of an eternity.” Suddenly, the thin faerie disappeared into an explosion of icy wind that whipped through the trees, surrounding Cordelia in a shroud of freezing mist.
A soft keening began at the edge of the clearing, growing in volume and intensity until Cordelia had to cover her ears against the sound. It was so painful that Cordelia didn’t even realize she was crying until she felt herself gasping for air, then noticed the hot wetness of her tears dripping onto her knees. She didn’t know when she had dropped to the ground, or how long she had huddled there.
While her heart should have been pounding under the strain, it seemed to beat in an ever-slower tempo. Cordelia felt the clenching of her heart-muscle as it tried to contract, and each second was an agony of fiery cold as her chest tried to rise. This must be what humans feel when they drown, she thought. Cordelia panted, but still couldn’t get enough air.
The oppressive weight that had knocked her down and compressed her into herself gradually dissipated, until only the shocking memory of pain lingered. It was an odd feeling: Not relief or euphoria, but an absolute ennui. Cordelia had never notcared about anything before. But in that moment, Cordelia didn’t care if she died or if the pain started again or if she just stayed frozen on the wet ground forever. She just didn’t care.
Then she felt a touch of ice on her forehead, breaking the spell. A soft voice whispered in her ear: “Truth.”