Hidden within the shadows of her favorite alcove above the great hall Tesse snapped a few illicit pictures of the gala festivities beyond the sight of prying eyes. Wary of others noticing her using her forbidden phone, Tesse stowed the device within one of the secret pockets in her skirt when steady footfalls signaled the approach of another.
“Lady, your mother the Duchess kindly requests you return to the festivities,” said Elena from behind her.
Tesse sighed. Her guards were keeping a watchful eye on her tonight.
Leaning over the railing, she stared at the sumptuous scene. The hall was packed from end to end, filled with revelers celebrating her impending nuptials. Wine overflowed cups. Wispy-clad servers circled the floor, offering an endless abundance of almost every fae delicacy specific to House Rowan and that of her intended’s House Hawthorne on laden platters. Tesse took a moment and counted all twelve guilds in attendance based on the variations of their ceremonial attire and hairstyles. The sheer extravagance caught her breath in her throat.
She’d even spied Mother laughing at a joke made by the stodgy Lord Efraim of House Elm, remarkable because the two hadn’t been on speaking terms for decades. Had the aerial silk performers uplifted their spirits? Or perhaps the bee wearer had mesmerized them, buzzing away their enmity with cascading arabesque flows of bees from hand to hand. Or had the pair of fire and water elementalists taken their breath away by commanding a leaping fire lynx and a diving rainbow trout overhead?
Tesse suppressed a smile, eager to share the photos with her twin sister.
She turned to Elena, who’d been waiting as patient as ever for her reply. Her guard was clad in formal attire for the day’s events, which meant the standard tan form-fitting outfit was dressed out with an Illusionists Guild sash running right shoulder to left hip, a ceremonial dagger slung at her waist, and a light silver filigree armor adorned her shoulders.
Standing as they were in the shadows, Tesse could have forgotten about the elaborate illusion she’d cast on her dress to honor her guild name. She’d had a silver silk couture ball gown commissioned and then she’d illusioned the fabric surface with an ever-changing series of tiny reflecting mirrors. The crowd had gone wild at her entrance into the Great Hall, wowed by the perpetual shimmer of her dress. Even Mother had nodded in a rare show of approval.
In honor of the impending nuptials, they had enchanted the Illusionists Guild formal sash fabric to copy the illusion she’d cast upon her dress. Standing this close, the tiny mirrors reflected back and forth at one another creating an intense, glittering effect.
“I am going for a walk in the rose gardens.”
“I will arrange an escort, my Lady,” Elena replied.
“No, Elena, you will not. The Duchess has guards patrolling the entire estate, including the gardens. There is no safer place in the world for me tonight.”
Elena’s lips pressed together, her shoulders stiffening. “As you wish, my Lady.”
Tesse swept past her, down the softly lit corridor, trotted down the spiral staircase, and then slipped out the side door of the manor house, evading the other guards and escaping into the crisp night air. She could dodge the crowds at this moment, but she’d never avoid the responsibility being thrust upon her shoulders as heir to the House of Mirrors. Feeling the wind through her hair and hearing the chirrups of frogs calmed her nerves. A thin sheen of sweat evaporated at her nape, chilling her. She slowed her stride, basking in the bright moonlight.
She shook her head and let out a wistful sigh. The estate of Rowan was famed for its size and beauty, but what else would you expect from a guild of illusionists? Tesse threaded through the gardens in a deliberate pattern, breathing in row upon row of flowering shrubs, sweetbriar, and wild roses. Will o’ wisp lamps lined the aisles, their green-tinged light reflecting off her mirrored dress, casting a sparkling glow upon the foliage.
At her approach a triad of feisty sprites took flight carrying away a large rose hip, its weight forcing them into comical aerial acrobatics. The pale glow from their long, thin wings drew concentric spiraling orbits in the air above. The marble statues had taken on a lush quality in the evening light. Their shadows deepened, emulating a sense of movement within their fixed forms.
When she’d reached a secluded copse of aspen, Tesse took a quick glance around, and when she’d confirmed she was alone, snuck out her phone. First, she messaged her twin, Becka, the images she’d taken of the party.
Her gaze again flitted around as she dialed her sister, yet the moonlit evening remained quiet. How much trouble would the heir of House Rowan rate for an illicit call to her outcast twin?
Tesse didn’t want to find out…
A rustling in the underbrush gave her pause.
“Tesse?” asked her sister, Becka, from the other end of the line.
“Hold on,” she whispered.
Soon enough the culprit emerged from the hedge victorious, a mouse hanging limply in his predatory jaws.
Tesse let out a laugh. “I thought I had heard something odd, but it turns out it was just Oriani, the proud hunter returning triumphant from his hunt!” This last part she’d directed to her gold and brown tabby, who in thanks, laid his prize at Tesse’s feet, and then sat, cocking his head to the side. The golden sheen in his eyes mirrored her own; a similarity between his feline and her fae-touched eyes despite the difference in species.
“No, not this time, you scamp,” Tesse said. “You carry it into the house. I would never hear the end of it from Mother if I mussed this gown.”
Oriani sneezed, unimpressed with her explanation.
“You know he grows more cantankerous each year?” Tesse whispered to Becka.
“Uh, huh? That’s why he was always your cat. Good gods, Tesse, these pictures are amazing!” Becka said. “Oh my, is that the silver and black headdress of House Vine?”
“Yes. Somehow Mother convinced everyone to turn up for my event. Anything to build alliances, she said.”
“Speaking of, do you have any pictures of your dress?”
“No, but I will see what I can manage later,” Tesse whispered. “I wish you could see all of this for yourself. Or even better, I could attend YOUR wedding instead.”
“Can you even imagine how they’d react if I showed up? Oh my gods, I have pink-tipped hair I wear in a messy ponytail now. And can you guess how many ear piercings you can fit on fae-tipped ears?”
Tesse gasped. “You never told me about the ears! How many?”
“Six!” Becka laughed. “Seriously, some old lady behind me in line at the store yesterday talked like I was just some young college degenerate! It’s like she didn’t even notice I was a fae-touched. It was amazing!”
Tesse chuckled. “Gods, I miss you.”
“I miss you too.”
“Are you speaking with the cat?”
“Alain!” Tesse spun around, heartbeat suddenly racing as she dropped her phone at her feet. Moving to hide the phone with her full skirts, she whapped Oriani across the snoot. “I did not hear you approach.” Had he seen the phone? How much of the conversation had he overheard?
She listened to Oriani scamper away through the rose hedges. Poor dear, she’d have to make it up to him later.
“My apologies,” Alain bowed at the waist with a flourish, the pale golden sheen of his fae-touched eyes never left hers. She held his gaze, struck by a sudden fluttering sensation in her chest and stomach. Was it because of his heated expression or the anxiety over being caught communicating with an outcast?
If there was a standard of aristocratic perfection amongst the fae-touched, Alain was a prime example. His long, platinum hair fell in well-manicured plaits down his shoulders and back, framing his perfectly symmetrical face and pointed ears. The cascade of his hair and the cut of his long, formal robes exaggerated his lean, tall frame.
He was everything she should find enchanting in a mate. She hoped in time and as they got to know each other better, she’d warm to him.
Tesse took a steeling breath and then motioned for him to rise. They had embroidered the fine linen of his over jacket with a leaf and fire pattern in reds and browns, the symbol of House Hawthorne. It was minimal, and yet perfectly executed.
“Did I hear something?” he asked.
Tesse searched for the right response and came up lacking.
“Likely just my cat, Oriani,” she stammered. “He is a talker. And a mouser. He makes many noises.”
Ugh! She needed to get better at lying. Tesse smiled and hoped he’d let the matter drop.
Alain opened his mouth, closed it again, and then spoke. “As you say, my Lady.”
Thank the gods for social decorum. “Are the guards out looking for me?”
“No, my Lady. When one asked if I knew where you had stolen off to, I informed her you wished a discreet audience with myself so we could get to know each other better.”
By better, he must mean at all. She and Alain had shared only a handful of conversations since their families set the terms to their engagement months ago.
“The guards took your word for it?”
“Well, I am your betrothed and a lord within my house. They had no reason to doubt me.”
His sly grin was infectious. Tesse pursed her lips, a slight smirk curling the edge of her mouth.
“These gardens are vast, yet you found me easily enough.”
Alain spread his hands wide. “You are a vision of beauty in this silver gown. And may I say the exquisite braiding of your tresses creates such fetching cascades of light and shadow? Under the full moon, you are a veritable beacon of light, as befits your house.”
Tesse’s smile fell and her nose wrinkled. This level of etiquette was well over the top. Was this how he always spoke, or just for the occasion?
“I needed some fresh air. They have packed the great hall to the gills with fae-touched. I have never seen so many.”
He gave a quick nod. “One day you will inherit this estate and title from your mother. Esteemed fae from around the globe are in attendance for our wedding not just for an enjoyable party, but also to meet her heir. No doubt, they hope to win your favor or at the least, remain memorable. It is not every day the eldest of the House of Mirrors, a Rowan-born, marries.”
Tesse curled her fingers and then stopped, reining in her outward response. Couldn’t they have a normal conversation?
“Except I’m not the eldest. That position was my twin’s rightful place. I will walk forever in her vacant shoes.”
Alain’s smile faltered, and sadness creased his brow. “The vagaries of fate are not ours to comprehend. We must abide by the customs of our people. You are the rightful heir now.”
Tesse stared at the man she would marry tomorrow but said nothing, lest her turmoil of emotions betray her outer calm. She still missed her sister, even after all these years. Tesse would have happily ceded the position of the heir to have her twin back in her life. Tesse knew she lacked her mother’s drive and desire to rule, yet as the de facto eldest the position fell to her.
After a few moments, she replied. “I know. But the least I can do is uphold her vision. It’s the correct course of action.”
“May I ask, what vision in particular?”
“Becka had intended to further race relations between human and fae. She argued we had not gone far enough in building trust and cooperation.”
“Respectfully, is that not an overly optimistic, or even fanciful ideal? Considering we are only two generations out from the Great War, how well are we expected to get along?”
“That’s exactly the challenge. If we do not work to improve relations, they will develop without our intention guiding the outcome. We need to drive to the future we wish our children to live within.”
“I see now why Becka’s vision inspired you. It’s a lofty goal, but perhaps, together, we can realize progress.”
“Thank you, Alain.”
Tesse regarded him afresh. Despite their short association, he appeared quite taken with her. His set jaw and heated gaze conveyed his regard to her in a way the conversation hadn’t. Perhaps it was a good match, despite her initial reservations and his adherence to etiquette. The conversation drifted as Tesse imagined a future with Alain by her side.
After a particularly long pause, Alain nodded. “Lady Tesse, I will take my leave of you, so you may enjoy the wonders of this starry night as you intended.”
“My apologies, Alain. I am afraid I am not the best company at the moment. Let me breathe in the night air and recharge just a few moments longer and I promise I will return refreshed to the gala.”
“My Lady,” he replied with another flourishing bow.
Tesse turned away. The sound of Alain’s retreating footsteps soon faded.
Tesse roamed her gaze out across the rows of roses, wishing life felt as sweet as they smelled. No doubt in time she’d warm to Alain. He hadn’t earned her ill temper.
She heard footsteps again, and yet Tesse refused to turn around. Instead, she cherished this moment of quietude. She considered casting an illusion spell to hide away for a little while longer. But what would be the point when whoever approached already knew where she stood? She waited for Alain, the guards, or whoever approached to announce themselves.
Instead of stopping, the person behind her sped up. Casting her gaze behind her, all she could make out was a form clad in black bearing down on her at full speed. Tesse took off running, an instinctive panic coursing through her veins driving her forward.
“Guards! Intruder!” she yelled.
Acting reflexively, Tesse spoke the words to summon two doppelgängers. With a flick of her fingers, she sent them running in different directions; the lamplight reflecting off each separate mirrored gown, creating a dazzling display upon the foliage. One of them followed her present path. She turned to the right, sweeping around a series of sweet briar patches and heard her pursuer hit one and stumble. Ideally, her pursuer wouldn’t know which of them to follow.
Crap! Her pursuer followed her turn to the right. Either he’d gotten lucky, or he’d seen through her magic. She looked back and tried to focus on her pursuer, but all she could make out was a nondescript form wrapped in darkness.
The manor was some distance away. Fae-touched were renowned for their enhanced senses, but would it be enough for them to hear her? Even if they heard the alert, could they save her in time?
Again she summoned her skills, speaking the words to vanish herself. Then Tesse turned and headed straight for the lights and crowds. Where earlier she had fled from her people, now all she wanted was to be safe within the walls of her home.
In her panic, she’d misjudged the twists and turns to evade her pursuer. From behind a triad of frolicking nymph statues, a dark form came at her from the right as she passed and crashed into her, hurling both of them down into the damp grass.
How had the illusion failed again?
Tesse gasped for breath, pushing up with her arms and flailing her legs, fighting to drive her attacker off. After a forceful kick, her attacker flipped Tesse over onto her back and pinned her down again. The fabric of his form-fitted clothes lacked ornamental detail but reminded her of how guards or trainers dressed except for the hood covering his head.
She searched for his face. A mask of moving shadows which reflected no light obscured their features. An illusion fit for her own Illusionists Guild…could he be one of them? But surely not, they quarreled but none of them would ever hurt one of their own. Perhaps the mask was commissioned, an easy enough thing.
Cool, gloved hands encircled her throat. She dug her nails into his arms, desperate for leverage.
In a last-ditch effort, Tesse whispered the words to a mind-bending spell reenacting a violent earthquake followed by an explosion of noxious gases she’d watched from a recording. Caught up in the illusion, the world around her appeared to rip asunder, rocks and earth heaving. The ground dropped away, slamming them down onto piles of ash. Flames engulfed them. The crackling and popping of nearby trees reached deafening levels.
Tesse had to remind herself it wasn’t real to forestall the panic mounting in her mind.
And yet, her attacker showed no signs of being impacted by her illusion. Could he not see it? Was he somehow immune? Tesse did not understand, all she could do was continue her struggle to push him off.
“What do you want?” she croaked out. “I can grant you whatever you ask!”
“I have what I came for,” he growled. “Yet you are such a disappointment.”
Tesse tried to scream, yet no sound escaped from under his vice-like grip. Keeping her pinned with one hand, he slashed his other hand across her neck and shoulder. Sharp claws ripped through her neck, followed by a warm river of blood gushing out in time with her heartbeat. Each breath burned in agony.
A mumbled cadence spilled forth from his mouth, but Tesse couldn’t make sense of it. Couldn’t focus long enough to work her magic. Her pain was all consuming.
His was no magic she recognized. With every syllable he uttered, she felt further separated from her body until her spirit ripped free from her dying flesh.