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I stood at the end of the Road, feeling the frigid breeze and watching the leaves rustle in their dizzying patterns. I had a jerkin and cloak to keep me warm, a long-knife to protect me, but I knew how many souls haunted this place, and it was impossible to feel at ease.
The path and trees were white with snow, but in my mind I saw them red with soldiers' blood. It ran down the trunks like sap and flooded the walk. There was a legacy burned into the core of this place, and the passage of years could not see it forgotten. Fae and human alike were reluctant to set foot here.
It was not my first time traversing the Bloody Road, the site of the historic battle between human and Fae, so some of its mystique was lost on me. But as my legs were stroked by the hands of the lonely and the angry, of those who could not leave this place, a chill seeped into the marrow of my bones. I walked on, passing into the Realm of my people, for though the lonely and the angry of this Road had taken many, they could not capture me. The power of the elements that ran in my blood spared me.
Despite my long journey, my exhaustion fell away once the city came into view. The human world, though fascinating, could be wearying, whereas Chrior, the ancient cradle of Fae magic, was rejuvenating. Nothing had been destroyed to make these homes possible; centuries ago, when the Faerie race had been even closer to the elements, the trees had been manipulated by Earth Fae, the ground had been raised and dropped where necessary, and a city had been constructed while the forest had been allowed to go on living.
Snow shimmered around me, falling and filling my footprints. I dropped my magical shroud and unfolded my membrane wings, which glinted green, gold, and ice-blue like oil in sunlight. Hovering skyward, I let the thin cold air of winter test them as I flew to the Great Redwood, which had long ago parted its trunk for the royal Fae who protected and inhabited it, calling themselves the Redwood Fae. The ancient tree's orangey bark was coated with icicles, but I felt warmth radiating from inside. I ran my fingers over the love-carvings that surrounded the entrance-artistic tributes left by Fae, tiny designs across the surface of a bark that ran deep-and contentment filled my soul. It was good to see the world. It was better to come home.
Far beneath me, on the ground inside the Redwood, the Queen's Court was in session. Revelers with wings in myriad colors feasted and danced, their laughter, music, and conversation bouncing joyously around me.
On her throne of twined roots, Queen Ubiqua presided, and on both sides she was joined by her closest followers: my father, Cyandro, who served as her Lord of the Law; the eight members of her Council, among them my grandfather, the former reigning Prince; and Davic, the young man to whom I had entrusted my heart. Three chairs in addition to my own stood empty, but one most glaringly-the throne that belonged to Ubiqua's husband, who had never occupied it before his death.
I straightened my jerkin and handed my cloak and pack to a member of the royal guard, who would see that they were sent to my quarters. Then I hastened downward, following the spiraling ridge that ran along the inner walls of the tree until at last I came to the floor.
Almost immediately after I pressed into the midst of the Court-a jostling body of heat and fresh-spiced winter scents- arms were flung around my waist from behind, nearly knocking me into another Fae. I craned my head around and saw exactly who I expected to find embracing me. My best friend Ione, her blond waves adorably woven through a headband of scarlet berries, had playfully ambushed me.
"I was hoping you'd be back tonight," she exclaimed, beaming in her modest way. "The entire Court was. May the Queen's reign flourish!"
The cry was echoed by the Faefolk who now surrounded me, and I managed to return Ione's hug before shouts of "Sale!" floated from the crowd. A bark mug was thrust at me, and I happily accepted the drink that ran from our trees and nourished the Faerie kind more powerfully than any food.
Once I'd finished sharing greetings and toasts, I abandoned my empty goblet and approached the Queen. A long queue, monitored by the Queen's Blades in their bedazzling tunics, led to her throne of gnarled and ancient roots. My aunt smiled, kind and patient, as every member of her Court endured the procession to greet her and extend their respects. I drew up beside the line and walked its length, nodding to the Blades I passed.
The Queen's face lit up when I drew near, and I fell to one knee, placing my forefinger upon her earthen perch. When I removed it, a droplet of dew was left in its place among hundreds of others frozen there in her honor, for tonight marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of my aunt's coronation. The droplets were gifts from Water Fae, sparkling amidst leaves and berries from Earth Fae, glowing embers like rubies from Fire Fae, and clearest crystals filled with whispers of fog and cloud from Air Fae. The elemental offerings would dissipate within the week, allowing room for the city's general public and not just the Queen's Court to pay tribute to her.
"Anya! How was your journey?" Queen Ubiqua effused, leaning forward to be heard above the revelry. Having her gaze upon me, as always, was like meeting Time-there was something incomprehensible about her, something infinite. She didn't suffer the same worries I did because her wisdom transcended them.
"Enlightening," I replied, rising, but I could not keep my eyes from drifting toward Davic. It was proper to acknowledge the Queen before the others around her, but it was he who was foremost on my mind. His gray-blue eyes muted the bedlam in the trunk, drawing me in as though nothing existed beyond the landscape of his elegant jaw, the black hair pulled into a ponytail at the nape of his neck, and the parting of his lips, an aphrodisiac in itself. He grinned at me, gripping the arms of his chair like he might propel himself upward at any moment and fly to my side.
"Go to him," Ubiqua laughed, tipping her head in Davic's direction, aware that she no longer held my attention. "You and I can talk later."
In need of no convincing, I hurried to my promised. He'd come to his feet, and he snatched the hand I extended to haul me onto the dais and into his arms. I laughed, wrapping my legs around his waist when he picked me up and holding his face for a lengthy kiss that was continually disrupted by our smiles.
"I almost forgot what you looked like," he teased, pushing our foreheads together. Our pose, somewhat unseemly for a royal and her partner, nevertheless charmed the assembly and drew a few shouts. We both turned scarlet and hid our faces in each other's shoulders, then Davic returned to his seat, taking me with him.
"I missed you, too," I murmured, settling against him and twining our fingers together. Soon I felt the heat of someone's gaze; I turned and exchanged a warm nod with my father, then took his hint that I should move to my own chair. I kept Da-vic's palm snug against mine while I scanned the empty seats, making note of who else was missing-Zabriel, the long absent Prince of Chrior; and my cousin Illumina, the orphaned daughter of Queen Ubiqua's brother.
Leaning close to Davic, I asked, "Where is Illumina?"
Though I could have guessed his answer from his resigned look, I waited for him to confirm it.
"She only stayed for an hour, maybe less. At least she was here for a while. Let's not dwell on her tonight."
I nodded, for Illumina's lack of participation was not unexpected. Quiet, studious and easily overshadowed, she avoided crowds to whatever extent possible. Still, I would have liked for her to be here. Not only was she a niece of the Queen, she was also heir to the throne due to the Prince's defection, and learning to connect with the people was an important part of her future.
Davic and I did not have much opportunity to talk during the festivities, and we were glad when Ubiqua called her Court to a close and we could fly to the branches of the Great Redwood where I made my home. Davic also had an alcove in the mighty tree, though his family had no interest in Court life and lived far on the other side of Chrior. There was only one section of the Redwood that was unoccupied, a place where the branches were dry and dead and could hold little weight. The destruction was viewed as a tragedy and rarely discussed, but from what I understood, a fire had defiled our people's ancient refuge.
My residence was a small place, but practical. Davic walked the perimeter of the main room, focusing on the energy inside himself as he ran his finger along the love-carved indentation to spark and ignite it. Finished, he fell onto the sofa, putting his hands behind his head. The house warmed at once, and I curled up beside him, breathing in his familiar scent, musky with an undercurrent of Tanya flowers, which only grew on this side of the Road. The whole evening I hadn't given a thought to how truly tired I was, but now I relaxed, the heaviness in my limbs a reminder of how little I had slept the past few days.
"Well?" Davic asked after a bit. "How was the human world this time?"
"I made it to Tairmor before you called me back," I replied, offering him a smirk. "You're impatient, Davic."
He brushed my auburn hair behind my shoulder and kissed my forehead. "How long would you have been gone if I hadn't called you?"
"I wanted to see Sheness, the port city. A few more weeks."
His countenance grew wary, lips pursing and eyes slightly widening. He was the worrier of the two of us, and his expression was endearing in its predictability.
"Anya, your father has warned against Fae traveling that far west. He says there's been a resurgence of piracy over the past year."
"I'm aware of my father's warnings." I gave his hair a playful tug, making it difficult for a scowl to emerge. "But pirates surely don't lurk around every corner in Sheness, waiting to attack. They have their business, and I would have had mine. I do know what I'm doing out there. Anyway, it doesn't matter now. I didn't go near the port."
"You're not invincible, you know." He was looking at me sideways, not yet pacified. This was a variance we'd had before-he meant well, but he had a hard time trusting anything if it was beyond Chrior's borders, including me.
I chuckled. "Of course I'm not invincible, but Fae are more powerful than humans, and we have our elements to protect us. Anyone who tried to hurt me would be swept away by a wall of water before they could blink, while I flew away to the rooftops." My point stood even though that wasn't exactly how Fae connections worked. We had to rely on physically present matter that we could move and manipulate rather than conjuring our elements, but for me that matter could include blood and mist as easily as rain or river water, leaving me with a lot of power at my disposal. "Try not to be such a killjoy when everything is, at present, perfect."
He rolled his eyes, but I felt his body relax against mine. I plucked at the fabric of his shirt, nervous about the confession I was about to make. "I was a little worried, though, that something might be wrong when I felt your call."
Davic and I had been promised by a mage, the same mage who had wed my aunt and her husband, and the aura that bound us let us reach out to one another no matter how far apart we were. I'd felt the tug from Davic in Tairmor, the capital of the Warckum Territory, and had started home at once.
He chewed his lip, looking adorable as he made a bid for clemency. "Are you annoyed? I was thinking about you, and next I knew I'd signaled you before I'd even decided whether or not I should. If you're upset with me, I'll say I'm sorry it happened. Really."
"Aww, you'd say whatever I'd like to hear to save your own hide? You're so sweet." I shoved him, not upset in the least. Our bond was still fresh, and it would take time to adapt to its intricacies.
He let out a relieved breath, then played with my hair. His thoughts traveled over his face in what he believed to be a private course, though his ultimate expression told me he had landed on the matter I'd hoped he'd leave alone until the morning at least.
"Do you ever get homesick out there? I mean, you stay away for so long. I just wonder if ..you don't like coming back."
Without fail, this conversation followed my returns and preceded my departures. Unlike me, Davic was content in Chrior, with no interest in journeying. He hadn't even been on his Crossing, the traditional rite of passage for young Fae. Following my Crossing, I'd developed a taste for the human world, a wanderlust that not even my promised's pleading could overcome, and certainly one that he had trouble understanding.
"The fact that I enjoy being in the Territory doesn't mean I don't enjoy being here."
"You spend more time in the human world than you do here." Preempting my response, he added, "I'm not trying to stop you from traveling, but it seems to me that spending time with me and your friends, with your father, is something you just tolerate until you can leave again."
Why couldn't we have a pleasurable reunion and leave it at that?
"It's not being away from you I enjoy, Davic. It's seeing what's out there, what's different about how the humans live. How the politics move and shift." I frowned, lost in thought. "For instance, there's something different about the mood in the Territory right now. I don't know what exactly, but I was seeing more Constabularies and military units. Maybe the Governor is just cracking down on crime. If he keeps it up, my father won't have much to warn about in a few months."
Governor Ivanova, elected conservator and custodian of the Warckum Territory, was known for the strict and swift enforcement of his laws. He was also known as King Ivanova by his detractors, because the governorship had been in his family for so long it was practically an inherited position, with no sign of change on the horizon.
"Then perhaps you should wait for the all-clear before you head out again. All right?" He kissed my forehead, then sought my eyes. At my grudging nod, a tease at last entered his voice. "You know, it sounds like I called you out of potential danger. Doesn't that mean I deserve a thank-you?"
"No, it means you're off the hook for cutting my trip short," I laughed, and he rolled over, trapping me beneath him.
"In that case, I should probably tell you that I didn't do it for me. The Queen asked when you'd be back and seemed disappointed in my answer. She didn't actually tell me to interrupt your travels, but it was clear that was what she wanted."
I pushed myself up on my elbows, Davic scrambling back to accommodate my sudden movement.
"She didn't tell me that."
"It must be urgent." My heart was thumping a little faster as I tried to imagine what could have led Ubiqua to summon me.
Davic shrugged. "I doubt it. She didn't try to talk to you at Court tonight."
"I should still go to her. At once."
Davic's brows shot upward, and he bent closer again.
"Or you could wait." He pressed his lips lightly to my neck, and, against my better judgment, I allowed my mind to cloud with the sensation, slipped my hands into his hair and slid back underneath him, indisposed to argue.
Davic and I slept in longer than we-or rather I-intended. Though he awoke when I rose and we spoke briefly, he was asleep again by the time I left, laying there still dressed from the night before. There was something about him that was angelic. Yes, he frustrated me when our differences came head-to-head, but my trust in him ran deep. He was solid and predictable, like a form of gravity. He would never hurt me, and his arms would always hold me whether my behavior was rational or nonsensical.