The blood drips from my fingers to the floor, where it coagulates into tiny pearls and baubles. Out of sheer boredom, I flick them through the branches of my narrow cell, my gaol, to be swept up into the skirts of the madames and ladies who fill the dance paths or end up crushed under their golden stilettos. A marble lands in the goblet of a River Knight bargaining for a new mistress, and wine spatters his gorget. My laughter resounds through the bedrooms of the inelegant brothel. I need these small diversions, after all. I am waiting to die.
My laughter goes unheard. The men and women who enter the brothel, bringing with them the salty damp of last night’s flood and the scent of curdled caramelles hawked by the street vendors, do not notice the fairy gaol perched in the corner. One of the boys glances my way once or twice, but he is either attempting to discourage the attentions of a handsome condottiero or conscious of the dangers of revealing his sight to a fairy, for his gaze never lingers. I eye him as he moves through the crowd, distributing cheese, wine, and licquorice among the sweaty dancers. His green eyes and self-conscious grace are attracting attention from all corners of the room. I would gladly wrap him in my arms and drag him into Fairy, were I still at liberty.
A fairy gaol is a ship without an anchor. We drift aimlessly through Istilbe, the last human city. Sometimes we become stuck between walls, or once a broom closet and a hallway, and then it takes a good gust to set us free. Other times, we hover over disreputable alleys. Crowded streets, jostled by windkites and hot-air balloons. These are the times I enjoy the most. The worst was a post office, silent and disciplined, high atop the Fifth Holy Hill where the life-heavy floods never reach. I wanted to bash my head open on its polished tessera floors.
For any fairy, the gaol is the worst kind of punishment. The human smell is so rich, so enticing, their clumsy movements as charming as a baby bird, and as delicious. More than once I catch myself reaching one clawed hand through the bars towards a golden fall of hair or dimpled ankle. But I am bound by the magics of the gaol; I can’t even touch them.
The door opens. The patrons barely glance up as the breeze ruffles the flowers in their hair. He is halfway across the room before a woman offers him wine. He accepts a goblet and tosses her a topaz ring as payment, but he doesn’t stop. She stares after him, surprised and disappointed—as usual, his human guise is perfection, seamless to all but other fairies. Unlike other fairies, the shadowfay—a name coined some ages ago by the king himself—holds a dispassionate regard for humans, analyzing and categorizing them, drawing them this way or that if it suits, but otherwise leaving them be. I know all of his habits. I have been his shadow for centuries, as he has been mine.
As he nears, I fold my hands behind my back, rolling the dried blood together like clay. I will fashion a dagger worthy of his jeweled throat.
“You see, my dear one, I did remember,” he says, tugging a sprig of lavender from his cloak. When I make no move to accept it, he shrugs and weaves it through the lock. “It is your execution day tomorrow, is it not?”
“Your compassion knows no bounds.”
The shadowfay holds a long-fingered hand over his heart. Simultaneously, his doppelgangers mime the gesture. I can see three of them scattered amidst the swaying crowd, but I do not doubt there are more. They are his creations, woven from shadow and cobweb, though they feel real enough to the touch. While a few possess some semblance of independent thought, they are, for the most part, hollow creatures, and obey his whims. As bodyguards, decoys, lovers, they answer many needs.
“I am sorry for this,” he says quietly. His gaze roams my body, taking in the torn silks and mingled blood—my own, a deep rose, and the Fairy King’s, which is a pale silver like fish skin. But it is not pity in his eyes—he forgot pity some aeons ago, when he was made fay. Some say he was the first human to be so honored. I have my doubts about that, but there is no question that he is more ancient than the floods, more ancient than even Theonine, the Fairy King.
“I believe that you are sorry.” I finish the dagger, but I wait until he turns his head to light a pipe before I slide it into a fold in my skirt. “For you know that I will haunt you through eternity, cursing your name.”
“A ghost heart is still a heart. I will win you over again.” A smile plays on his lips as he steps through the cloud of cinnamon smoke. His eyes are dark, no matter what his form. Any attempt at reading his thoughts in that darkness, I learned long ago, is mere foolishness, like scouring the woods for a spider on a moonless night.
I do not want his scrutiny now, with the cool blade of the dagger pressing against my thigh. On the nearest dance path, a woman laughs as a fat prince covers her ears and throat with wet kisses. I feign interest as he spins her across the path, through the starlight that pours into the atrium. Unbidden, I picture our last dance together, on a night so similar and so different.
He sighs, following my gaze. “I missed you, oldest friend.”
I laugh. “And yet tomorrow you will watch with the others as the King’s Crows tear me apart bone by bone, and feel no regret. You know I speak truth.”
He shrugs and leans his shoulder against the gaol, which is made of branches from the ancient baobab trees of Fairy, woven together to form intricate runes and diagrams. I watch the pulse tick in his neck, but I don’t move—curiosity grips me. The last time I saw him, he was plunging my bone sword into the Fairy King’s chest.
“I’ve learned a number of things since then,” he says, reading my expression.
“Yes—Theonine’s death was instructive.” He glances over his shoulder as the green-eyed boy darts past somewhat too quickly. The shadowfay must appear odd to them, talking to a blank wall, but then this place has born witness to far more entertaining displays of madness. “After the king lay dead at my feet I undertook a dissection of his vital organs... ah, the secrets that were hidden there.”
“I guessed as much,” I say dryly. When I awoke from the shadowfay’s treacherous spell, King Theonine’s blood trickling from my limbs, as it does still, and his many children screeching curses in my ears, I found a heart in my hand. The king’s. Veined in strange script and cool to the touch, it seemed unnaturally small—barely as large as a robin’s egg. I consider asking the shadowfay what he meant by placing it there, but decide that he’s too pleased with himself already.
“Here we are,” he says, pulling a box from his cloak. He unclasps the lid and a shiver of music passes through the air, drawing the gazes of nearby mortals. The doppelganger draped languidly across an opium chaise asks one of the madames to dance, drawing their attention away from the shadowfay.
I wrinkle my nose as he holds the box open for me to see. King Theonine’s ruby eye, nestled in an ocean of pine needles, gazes up at the starry night. Next to it is a scrap of his voice and a lock of his goosedown hair.
“What do you need such things for?”
“Research,” he says. “This is for your benefit, darling. It will benefit us all.”
“I fail to see how your experiment will benefit me, dear one,” I say, suppressing a shudder as the king’s eye rolls towards me. “Shall it spare me from execution tomorrow?”
He waves this aside, closing the box again with a neat flick of his wrist. “You know I dislike it when you parse my words; it’s so tiresome. My experiments will help us—changelings, I mean—to begin again. To reclaim what we lost when the Unfinished Ones remade us in their image.” He uses the old-fashioned term—never fairy, the name of their choosing.
I wonder if he’s gone mad. “You would become human again?”
He smiles. “Does that surprise you?”
“I don’t believe it.” I have heard of changelings who not only hunger for mortality but refuse to give up their memories of those short, blurry days before they were made new. Changelings who sink into torpor for want of such days. Unfathomable. I remember only bits and pieces of my own humanity. The thought of them is unpleasant, like the brush of recollected delirium.
He caresses my fingers, and I glimpse his true self beneath the human guise, the black hollows of his face and long, podotheca fingers, which used to imprint my bare skin with strange lines, like ogham. My fingers itch for the knife. We are almost close enough.
“But I am not there yet.” He sighs, his gaze on my hands. “My experiments fail. Even with the blood and sacred parts of the king, I can’t unlock the secrets of our making. The changelings regain their mortality, yes, but not its essence. They still hunger for human hearts and flesh. They lack those human qualities that escape the Unfinished Ones... hatred, charity. Remorse. And without their immortality they merely wither away. It’s frustrating.” His fingers drum a rhythm on the bars.
I try to imagine him wanting these qualities, but find it impossible.
“Why?” I murmur.
His gaze sharpens as he meets mine. There is no escaping the chill that accompanies that gaze. The mention of it always made him gloomy, and when I was younger I would strain, unsuccessfully, to suppress the inevitable shiver that raced through my body whenever he had reason to scrutinize me. As I grew older, I learned to bear the chill without flinching. I even yearned for it.
“A memory, I suppose,” he says.
“You go to a lot of trouble for a memory. It must be a very good one.”
“Quite the opposite,” he says with a melancholy laugh.
I turn away. “Why do you involve me in these strange fantasies?”
“I want you to understand.”
“Understand what? Your betrayal? I understand that well enough.”
“No, you do not,” he says. “You cannot. Not being what you are... but I thought that perhaps, after what I did to you, my dearest one, you would understand the measure of what I am not. What you are not.”
I laugh. His words are nonsense. I pace the gaol, summoning a wild southern wind to whip the tatters of my hair and gown into a fury. The women cry out, grappling daintily with their skirts and blossoms. Someone runs for the door, and shuts it.
He follows my movements with his eyes, and so does the green-eyed boy, I realize. He has dropped a tray of oysters, and they have broken and scattered across the marble. In the mêlée of music and laughter, few take notice. The shadowfay notes my attention, and begins to turn, but I reach through the branches and grasp his hand. I have seen what he does to sighted mortals. I don’t want him distracted before I have had my revenge.
“How can I help?” I murmur. “Surely that’s why you’ve come. Tell me, love, what can I give you? My secrets? My blood? My left eye, to match the king’s?”
“I came only to see you one last time.”
I sweep him a mock-curtsy, starring the walls with the Fairy King’s blood. “Do I satisfy you? Am I magnificent?”
“Always.” He steps closer, close enough to brush aside a strand of my hair. “As magnificent as your death.”
“Is that so?”
“Oh yes.” He continues to stroke my hair. “It will be the grandest celebration Fairy has ever seen. The sky will blaze with fireworks. Mortals will be chained to every tree. The King’s Crows will tear you apart with their customary enthusiasm, and then they will scatter you, and every scrap of magic you possess, across the king’s corpse like rose petals. When his children bury him, he will be adorned with the blood and marrow and magic of the one who killed him... or so they think. For such a display, all the ancient lords of Fairy will emerge from their kingdoms—dark corners of time and place where I dare not tread—to weep and plot over their lord’s body. And your own.”
His tone is mild, but I, who have known him long enough to memorize every stray gesture and intonation, understand that he wants me to press him.
“And?” I oblige, tilting my head into his familiar hand.
“We—” he nods at the doppelgangers—”will wait for them. My hope is that they will fill in the gaps in my experiments.”
“You will kill the Fairy Lords?” Something inside me softens. He would do all this for me, as much as for himself.
“We’ll see.” His brow furrows. I believe that he is lost in the intricacies of tomorrow—what might go wrong, how to foresee the inevitable complications. He planned the king’s death so exquisitely I find it hard to believe he is worried. But then I realize that he is gazing at the charm I wear around my neck. It was formed from his blood and saliva. He has its twin, made from my hair and scapula—I have never seen him without it before tonight.
“I love you,” I say. The realization that he no longer wears the charm pains me beyond all reason, and my voice catches.
“No.” Something passes across his face, something dark and lovely that I have never seen before, and cannot understand. His remoteness, which I have always found so alluring, infuriates me now. He steps closer, as if to kiss me through the branches.
It is then that I raise the dagger and slide it easily into the pocket of skin beneath his jawbone. Another twist, and I sever the vein that carries blood direct from his heart. He is still staring past my shoulder as the knife slips free, thinly coated in green blood.
His body folds in on itself, pieces falling away. As they strike the floor they resume their true forms—a pocket watch; a pair of pliers; a dog’s jawbone closed on a mussel shell; silk scarves; an empty wine carafe; chains of iron, silver, mother-of-pearl; black buttons; a coin or two; vagrancies; four stitches—all the things that made him what he was, a ghost, an impostor. Another doppelganger, the finest the shadowfay has ever created.
My scream tears at my throat. I shake the baobab bars until the birds take flight, squawking, and my hands are bloody with splinters. The other doppelgangers quietly leave the brothel. Only one glances at my cell. He has left his partner on the ivied dance path—a plump, pretty girl with fair curls. She gazes after him longingly—and will follow, no doubt, as soon as the madame’s back is turned. He always has an appetite for such girls and will dispose of her with his usual bored thoroughness.
He, the shadowfay, holds my gaze a moment longer. He does not speak, or smile. He merely leaves.
I bloody the gaol with my fists. Even the woodwoses are scandalized and burrow themselves deeper into the baobab.
When I have calmed down sufficiently, I turn my attention to the fallen doppelganger that he had puppeted. Reaching through the branches, I search its blood for something useful, but the shadowfay has left nothing for me but a few worthless spells. I suspect he is mocking me. This, too, is a puzzle for me to guess at, a riddle to which he already knows the answer. Absently, I draw one bloody finger across my forehead. A fishnet veil coils from my brow, dappled with pearls. I leave the remainder on the floor, and a few swallows burst into existence as it dries, like popping corn.
A shadow falls across the branches. I know without looking that it is the green-eyed boy—he smells of sweat and oysters.
“Twelve aureas,” I murmur without turning around. He does not laugh at the joke. It’s customary for human seers to make their living from the inside of a cage—safer for their customers, as madness so often accompanies their visions. In another mood I would laugh because I can easily foresee this boy’s future. It will be short and unpleasant, if he is so easily induced to reveal his sight to the fay.
“I know what you are,” he says. I hear his skin brush the bark and I turn, amazed. His hand rests on the gaol door, a crude, flimsy composite of twigs and fisherman’s rope.
“I doubt that.”
His body trembles with fear, curiosity, longing, and the effort of hiding them. He is nineteen, twenty at most, still mesmerizing in his hesitant, artless motion. “Why are you in there?”
“Why, because I can’t open the door.”
He eyes it with suspicion, and the gaol itself, its branches, hungry mouths, and sweet, intoxicating berries. I realize that he cannot see the stilled doppelganger. Another reason to marvel at the shadowfay’s ingenuity, I think darkly.
“You’ll hurt me.” His voice is doubtful. His hand hesitates over the door.
I must strain to keep the growing astonishment from my face. What would tempt a sighted mortal into such danger? But then I remember how I must look to him—bone-thin limbs and pale, bloodied face. My honey-dark hair is a thicket of tangles mixed with leaves. All this, a harmless self-indulgence. I am fay and can change shape as easily as a human woman slips out of a dress.
My mouth twitches. I arrange the crimson folds of my magnificently tattered gown about my limbs, sighing as if the effort pains me. He follows my movements with his gaze, his tongue flicking nervously across his lips.
I slide to the floor of my gaol, my fingernails scraping against the bark. “Why would I hurt my savior?”
He glances over his shoulder. I realize that beside the cooking fire, where three lambs smolder amongst the flames, is a dour woman, forty perhaps, but balding and emaciated. The pestle in her hand endlessly circles the mortar, as the stars circle Istilbe. Her gaze has never strayed from the boy. I see him reflected in her green eyes.
“Will you reward me?” he demands. “Are those stories true?”
“And you will do it?” He seems set on obtaining my word. Clever. “And my mother? You will reward her also. She needs healing that is beyond medicine. You can do this?”
“Yes, yes. Anything,” I murmur. I hold his gaze with my own, allowing my yellow eyes to grow larger, till they are near half the size of my face.
“I have your word?”
“You have my life. I will die if I remain here.”
“Well,” he says. His hand shakes as he pulls the door open, scattering the blackbirds. The heady smell of humanity tingles in my nostrils. And layered under that, the sweet smell of the sea.
I leave my little home, humming and swaying between the tired dancers and broken madames, the dear, lonely princes. I run my hands over them all. An eyelash here, a toenail there. They will never miss such treasures. I follow a young couple into the street, where we stand knee-deep in salt water. The floods reach all the way to the bell tower tonight. Tomorrow morning, Istilbe will find that the barnacles have advanced another pace, marching inexorably towards the city’s heart like the ghost in the children’s story, who each night moves one pace closer to the bed.
The boy comes to stand beside me, shivering as the waves lick his skin.
“I do not forget,” I say. I hold out a hand to him, and he takes it, wincing as my fingers coil up his arm. I gaze out over the dark water splashed with lamplight and stars. The shadowfay’s scent is gone, but I will find him again. I will fulfill my promise and haunt him until he is dead, at my hand or another’s.
A phantom shiver runs down my spine, but I cannot trace its origin. I feel I am being watched. My eyes search the mosaic parapets and spires, dark now with a few pale lights gleaming through the cracks. There, in the space between two gargoyles, I sense a watchful presence.
It is him, of course—he, who knows me better than anyone, knew I would escape, and is watching me now with that infuriating smile on his face. But as my eyes adjust I realize that the space is empty. I shiver again, conscious for the first time of a matching hollowness somewhere deep inside myself. But the delicious smell of the mortal revives me and I smile, pulling the boy after me through the floods, to a place where he will forget his worries and sorrows.