Getting to Faerie was always a fairly easy task. It was the closest part of the Otherside to the real world, on a metaphysical level, as a general rule. There were exceptions, and there were individuals who were tied to another domain on a level that left them more easily able to connect to that domain. Jötnar were a good example of that; they could find their way back to Jotunheim, generally, but anything beyond that was unlikely.
More often than not, though, some part of Faerie is the option of choice for staging areas when traveling through the Otherside. I couldn’t even guess at how many times I’d been through there over the years.
This was a bit different. It was easier, for one thing. I’d never been much good with portals; I’d gotten better over the years, with a great deal of practice, but it had been a slow process, and even then the results were limited. It wasn’t a magic that came naturally to me, and that showed. I’d been slow and clumsy at it, even with the focus I’d made for the purpose, and I didn’t have that focus now.
But at this point, going to the Midnight side of Faerie was easy. It felt simple, natural. It was just a matter of wanting to be back there, and letting the power flow out to make that want a reality. A pool of shadow deepened, became more real, and after a minute or so ceased to be a pool of shadow entirely, and became a hole in the world, the portal appearing so smoothly that I wasn’t entirely sure when it happened.
How much of the focus on darkness in the power I’d gotten was inherent to its nature, I wondered, and how much existed only in my mind? It seemed like it was probably the latter. The Unseelie Court wasn’t inherently dark, wasn’t really the Midnight Court except in the sense of having that title assigned to it by outsiders. Night had some thematic elements in common with it, some similar energies, but they weren’t at all the same. It was just such a pervasive element of how I saw the Court that it colored every element of how it manifested through me.
The second difference was something I noticed when I stepped through, and found myself standing just outside of Aiko’s new castle. I felt more coherent, more real, like the body I’d woven for myself had more substance to it.
It made sense, in a way. I’d noted in the past that magic, and especially more creative magics like building constructs, were considerably easier on the Otherside than in the world I was native to. Now that I was, effectively, dependent upon that kind of magic just to maintain my existence, I got a considerable benefit for being there. It was easier to put together a body, easier to maintain it, with the fabric of reality so much more amenable to being warped.
Snowflake still passed out, though. That was, in a strange way, almost comforting. I was so accustomed to being bad at portals it would have been more disturbing if it was a smooth transition.
I wasn’t in the mood to wait for her to wake up, though, and it didn’t seem prudent to wait outside anyway. I might be a VIP around here, these days, but that wasn’t at all a guarantee of safety with the Midnight Court. It just meant that killing me would be more of an event to celebrate, rather than just another day.
So I picked her up and slung her over my shoulder. The weight was negligible to me at this point anyway. She barely twitched as I did, and the only sign of her displeasure as she started to regain consciousness was a faint mental grumble, though I knew that once being moved so soon after a portal would have left her violently and messily ill.
We’d both come a long way. For better or worse.
In the castle courtyard, I paused and looked around, unsure which door I should choose. Then I shrugged and picked one at random. I was guessing whatever I chose would turn out to have been the right choice all along anyway, since this was sort of my place now.
The first room in was one which I hadn’t seen before, a sort of long gallery. Windows along one side provided an expansive view over the moonlit water, though there had been more castle there from the outside, and I was reasonably confident that side of the room shouldn’t have had a clear view out from the island anyway.
There were more people than I’d seen on my previous visits here. The room wasn’t crowded, by any means, but various fae things stood in small groups here and there, talking quietly in a language I didn’t recognize, or doing things I couldn’t grasp at all.
I walked past them without hesitation, and none of them questioned my presence. On the contrary, every one that I passed close to nodded politely in my direction.
The next room in was darker, though I could still see. The walls, floor, and ceiling all glittered with faint sparkles of light, giving the illusion that I was walking through an endless field of stars, and providing just enough light that a human could have barely functioned. I could just make out another door across from me, and walked in that direction. Snowflake prodded me when I was halfway across, and I set her down again with a gentle clink of armor on stone.
Past the next door, illogically and unsurprisingly, was the throne room. It looked much the same as the last time I saw it, dim and red and cold. Aiko was lounging on her ruby throne, and some Sidhe lady was standing in front of her. It looked like she’d paused right in the middle of some wild gesticulation when we walked in, giving her a rather comical look.
“Winter!” Aiko called out, sitting up a little straighter. “You have really good timing. Have I ever told you that?”
“Probably at some point,” I said dubiously. “What is my timing good for, specifically?”
“Well, I was just explaining to Sylfaenwe here that continuing to be an obnoxious pest was liable to have some detrimental effects in her immediate future,” Aiko said cheerfully. “But actually demonstrating my point myself might require me to stand up, which I’m not feeling terribly inclined to do at the moment.”
“Cool,” I said. “You want her dead, or just maimed?”
“Let’s go with maimed for the moment. It should be fairly easy to step that up to dead later if necessary.”
The Sidhe woman glowered, her eye twitching slightly. “I am hardly the only person who will object to this,” she said. “Do you intend to kill all of us?”
“I could,” Aiko said. “I mean, think about it. Who’s going to stop me? I’ve got the capability, and I’ll still be filling my role within the Court, which is all the other Queens really care about. You’re powerful, sure, and yes, you’re useful against the Daylight Court. But ultimately, you’re still disposable and we both know it. If I kill you, there are comparably powerful people who will be more than willing to take your place.”
Sylfaenwe ground her teeth, but didn’t actually disagree.
“Now, right now, you’re pretty annoyed,” Aiko continued brightly. “In part because, while we both know that this is the reality of your situation, outright stating it is gauche. And I’m telling you this because I want you to know that I’m aware of the implications, and I’m choosing to do it anyway. But believe it or not, I would actually rather not kill you, if only because doing so would make my life slightly more complicated. So what’s it going to be?”
Sylfaenwe glanced at me. I bared my teeth in what could charitably be described as a smile, and looked at the snowbank she was standing next to.
She looked back to Aiko. Her eye twitched again, so slightly that I doubted she was even aware of it, and she said, “What would you have of me, my Queen?”
“I would have you accept the reality of your situation, and stop struggling pointlessly against it. I would have you tell your friends, and those who owe you fealty, to do similarly.”
Sylfaenwe ground her teeth some more, but she bowed her head. “It shall be done,” she said, and beat a hasty retreat out of the room. I caught a glimpse of her face on the way past, and…well, if looks could kill, Aiko and I would both be getting sized for coffins. Ten years earlier, I might have actually been intimidated by it.
“About time,” Aiko said once she was gone, promptly standing up. “Took almost an hour for me to get her to agree to that.”
“What are you doing that they’re so opposed to, anyway?” I asked.
She shrugged. “It’s hard to put it into words,” she said. “Trying to…adjust how my piece of the Midnight Court expresses itself, I guess. Put more of an emphasis on the mischief and pranks, and less on the political scheming.” She collapsed loosely into one of the heaps of snow. “Come on, sit down. That chair is as uncomfortable as it looks, trust me.”
We joined her, me sitting in the snow next to her and Snowflake lying across our feet. “I don’t know that I would have associated mischief and pranks with the Midnight Court,” I commented.
Aiko shrugged again. “It’s a valid way to interpret the concept,” she said. “There are lots of stories about faeries playing tricks on people, causing mischief. I mean, it’s not like we’re talking harmless mischief here, this is still the Unseelie Court. A lot of those pranks have an element of real malice and danger to them. But they’re still pranks, and I’m a lot more comfortable with that than with politics.”
“But your minions don’t agree.”
“Some do,” she said. “Some of them are very pleased with the new focus. But the people that like political maneuvering are less than thrilled.”
No change makes everyone happy, Snowflake said. Not even a good change.
“I know,” Aiko said. “After a while, everyone should adjust to the new regime, and it’ll be business as usual again. The transition is just going to be a bit rough in some ways, since as far as I can tell Scáthach’s preferences were pretty nearly the polar opposite of mine.”
“I’m not sure if there’s anything I can do to help with that,” I said. “But if there is, just ask.”
“Actually, your timing really was good,” she said. “I was going to ask whether you could come after I finished with that round anyway. You just showed up a little early.”
I paused. “Early for what?”
“Well, here’s the thing,” she said. “One of the things I’m supposed to do, as the Maiden of the Midnight Court, is do the whole fighting with the Daylight Court thing. It’s kind of an important part of the role. So here in a bit, I’m going out to lay a beatdown on them and prove that I can. And I’d kind of appreciate having you there, since this is, um…a bit outside of my comfort zone, I guess.”
“Wouldn’t miss it,” I said.
Not for the world, Snowflake added. Really glad that I decided to tag along on this trip now. I was considering taking a nap instead, but this is much more fun.
Aiko snorted and curled a bit further into the snow, resting her head on my chest. “What about you?” she asked. “You find anything interesting?”
“Sort of,” I said. “Tracked that group back to their base and cleared it out. Seems like they’re being supported by the Guards.”
“What kind of support are we talking about here?”
I shrugged. “Hard to say on the grand scale until my people finish sifting through the data we got out of there. Locally, seems like it was quite a bit. They were based out of an underground complex that attached to the building the Guards took over. I think they were providing those nutjobs with logistical support and information too, but I’m not sure yet.”
“Using them as a weapon,” Aiko said. “Disposable, deniable assets. The Guards are human, so there wasn’t much chance of the human supremacists turning on them, and it would be easy to sic them on anyone that was getting inconvenient.”
“That’s my current assumption,” I said. “Yeah.”
“This is the same group that attacked that Pack meeting, right? I can’t imagine Conn will be happy about that.”
“No,” I said. “I don’t imagine he would be.”
I had a brief image of Conn declaring war on the Guards. Now that the unofficial ban on letting people find out about the world hiding behind the scenes was lifted, there was nothing stopping them from going at it openly.
It was not a pleasant image. It really didn’t matter who won that fight, it wasn’t going to be a good thing.
At the same time, there was a certain…satisfaction in the thought. They’d caused me so many problems, always with some excuse, always hiding behind that veil of secrecy, and I’d never had the power to do anything about it. Now that I finally had something solid that I could pin on them, the idea of taking the Pack and the Midnight Court and everyone else that I could convince to help out and just obliterating them was surprisingly tempting.
“It might be better not to tell him,” I said after a moment.
“You think it’s worth more as blackmail material?”
“That,” I said, “and also…the Guards have done some shady things. But they are still helping to hold things together. And at this point, we can’t afford to lose anyone who’s helping with that.”
Aiko was silent for a moment. “It’s interesting that you still say ‘we,'” she said at last.
“I know I’m not really one of them,” I agreed quietly. “I guess I never really was, but even less now. But I still like that world.”
“So do I,” she agreed. “And we’ve got friends there who don’t want the world to fall apart. I get that.” She paused. “Although we will have to find out how much they had to do with bringing that thing in from the void. If they were a part of that, you might have to revise that stance on whether they’re doing more to help or hurt.”
“If they were a part of that I’m prepared to kill every last one of them,” I said. “If they were dumb enough to get involved in that? Yeah, they’re done. That’s too dangerous to take any chances with.”
“Just so long as we’re on the same page there,” Aiko said. “Okay, so you’ve got nothing to do until that fight with the Daylight Court, right?”
“Nope,” I said. “Just waiting on people to go through all those files, and it sounds like it’s going to take a while. Some kind of encryption or something.”
“All right, then,” she said. “That’s not for another hour or so. I’m not in the mood to deal with more Court things in between, so unless you have a better idea I’m thinking I’ll just stay right here.”
This is a good plan, Snowflake said. It means I get my nap after all.
I snorted. “I’ve got nothing better to do,” I said.
True to her word, Snowflake was dozing in just a few minutes, and fully asleep in a few more. Aiko took longer, but it wasn’t that much longer before she was out cold as well, eyes closed and mouth slightly open with her head on my chest. Had anyone from Court seen her in such an undignified position it might have been detrimental to her reputation, but given that we were alone, it was harmless.
I did not–of course–sleep. But I didn’t get stiff, or tired, or even bored, as such. There was no reason to move, or even to breathe, so I didn’t. I just lay there on the snow, alone with my thoughts. They weren’t as happy as they should have been, considering the circumstances.