Khallan righted his bicorne hat and trudged up the muddy slope overlooking Taliomar. Half a day he’d waited, so fewer people would spot him at this late hour. Evening fog snaked through the city as lantern-keepers on stilts lit street lamps with torches. Noble carriages scurried to their requisite abodes as red-coated Bravos patrolled the curbs. If he was successful, he’d ride in a carriage of his own soon.
The overcast sky darkened from gray to black, same as it had every day of his life. Never had Khallan seen the fabled Sun, hidden by Horizon Realm sorcery. Hurrying along, he sucked in a trembling breath.
Never had he been more driven as he approached a wheel-less coach atop the slope. It housed Aria, the most famed singer from Kingdom days. For years he’d heard her singing from afar, but hadn’t dared to investigate. Until now.
Khallan gripped the hilt of his sheathed rapier and neared the coach. Rusted hinges had curled back from the door. Faded white and purple paint hung in chips from its wooden sides. Over the earthy scent of damp soil, an aroma of sharp perfume and musky linens wrinkled his nose.
“Who comes yonder?” a soft female voice called from the coach. Wind rustled filthy pink drapes on the vehicle’s window. Locals claimed Aria had resided alone in the broken coach for many Solars, hiding her cursed Inborn features.
Thunder growled in the distance. A blue-white streak cut the sky, making Khallan grip the rapier tighter. Taliomar and all the cities of Calandren had been cursed by the Horizon Kin decades ago. Lightning was theirs to command.
Straightening his black Rake coat, Khallan cleared his throat. “Khallan O’ Delver’s Way.”
Her milk-white hand, studded with tarnished rings, brushed aside the drapes. “Oh? Aria sang there once. The sunlight lit the ivy balustrades in such wonderful tones then. Yet no sun shines now, nor does Aria sing for Kingdom brass coins or princes. What does a Rake want with delicate little Aria?”
“I need to call forth a faerie, ere the morn. Talk is you know the proper song.”
Aria’s tinkling laughter sounded like an ancient harpsichord. “Faeries have almost been sundered by those who hate Horizon magic. All-too beautiful reminders of when we were the Horizon Kin’s allies. Before the wars. Before the Inborn. And you desire one?”
Leaning on the coach, Khallan removed his hat. His blonde ponytail dangled past his cheek as he hunkered before the coach window. “I just want its services. I’ve no need of a pretty trinket to trap in a lamp. Aye, I even brought this.”
He held up a small glass bottle to her open window.
“Horizon glass? You came to Aria prepared. But in all ways, I wonder? Aria always requires payment. You know Aria’s plight, Aria’s curse. Why would a Rake risk his reputation by coming to lonely, delicate Aria for a faerie lullaby?”
“The…the Lady Inganiad would very much like to hear it.” Khallan glanced over the city, where the fortified mansion of House Aballinore dominated the streets atop a hillside. The faerie’s magic would give Inganiad a child, and him a position commanding the Lady’s guards. Long had he admired her. She had given him this one chance to prove himself as more than just another paramour in the shadows.
“And you will pay Aria?” she asked in a whisper. The tender hand gripping the coach window belonged to a younger woman than Aria should have been.
Khallan stiffened. “Whatever you require.”
Young alley waifs still sang tunes about Aria’s appetites. Khallan himself had whistled them as a youth. Though twenty Solars in age, the years hadn’t lessened those fears. Stories about her devouring flesh, stealing one’s breath-but he’d brave them for Inganiad.
“Pass Aria the bottle.”
After giving her the vessel, he stepped back. Lamplight from the thoroughfares below revealed Aria’s slim silhouette. A gauzy veil covered her features.
Long moments passed. Khallan almost cleared his throat to get a response from the infamous soprano, but a light hum emitted from the coach. Clean and unbroken, it filled the air and held Khallan in place. Rising in volume, the hum became a simple melody, crystalline and heartfelt. Khallan closed his eyes and took in Aria’s vocal brilliance. It was a sound from a different era, when the sun shone. Surely a monster couldn’t make such a noise?
Aria’s voice lilted into a higher register. Eyes still shut, Khallan stepped towards the coach. The lullaby drew on something within him, as if Aria tugged a string attached to his soul. She sung in an even higher timbre, breathy and sensuous while possessing an innocence so sweet it made his skin tingle.
He’d no idea she could sing like this. By the Noon King, maybe she was bewitching him…
A bright glare flittered before his eyes, and Khallan opened them. A pinkish mote of light hovered between him and the coach window. Tiny wings buzzed like the honey bees of Kingdom legend. He thought he spied a sharp face and limbs as the faerie flew into the coach. Not since childhood had he grinned so much. A real faerie!
Aria’s song took on a cooing quality, but the sound of the bottle being uncorked added an odd dissonance. The faerie’s pink illumination revealed Aria sitting on patched cushions, her body swathed in an old white ball gown. Lace as fine as spider webs lined its collar and cuffs.
With deft hands Aria placed the bottled faerie beneath a pillow. “Now you must pay.”
Eager to get the faerie to Lady Inganiad, Khallan leaned into the coach window. Aria cringed from him. Perhaps all the gossip and stories about her had been false. There seemed nothing to fear from her.
“What do you wish of me?”
“Close your eyes.” Her priceless voice shook.
Khallan grasped his rapier handle in instinct but obeyed her. Maybe she wanted a lock of his hair to work some esoteric Kingdom witchery, or a drop of his blood to create an ogre or shade panther.
Slender, soft hands caressed his cheeks, then traveled down his chin. Fingered his ponytail, drew circles along his earlobes. Khallan had never been so lovingly touched, not even by the strumpets selling their bodies on the curbs. Breath smelling of rotten dusk berries passed over his face.
Khallan tensed. “What–?”
Stiff feathers brushed his nose and ruffled. Wet lips brushed his cheek.
Eyes open, he jerked back as Aria turned away. White and violet feathers covered her neck, crown, and ears. Her sallow, sunken cheeks might have belonged to a lovely face. Large amber eyes blinked and a sob rose in her throat, but no tears came.
Cursed at random by Horizon magic, Inborn couldn’t shed tears. As punishment for human wars against them, Horizon Kin had caused many humans to grow bestial features. Inborn never aged, bore children, or dreamed. Most had been exiled to the Channels beneath Taliomar’s streets, like in other cities. No doubt she’d wanted to nip his face, bite off his nose. Steal his breath.
Pink light lit the coach interior as the bottle rolled out from the pillows and rested between them.
Shoving her back with one hand, Khallan snatched the bottle with the other.
“You must pay Aria!”
Khallan stuffed the bottle into his jacket, donned his hat, and hurried down the slope.
“Never tread this way again,” her anguished voice echoed from above. “Never!”
A chill not borne of storm or night made him shudder. As thunder boomed overhead, though, Khallan glanced back and snorted. The coach now seemed more like a hovel, with some old hag inside. He had the faerie. Soon he’d have Inganiad. Fearing an Inborn was just his old superstitions.
House Aballinore numbered among the wealthiest noble families in Taliomar. It still possessed a brigade of loyal soldiers and two batteries of old Kingdom cannons. Strolling up the cobblestone path to the main gate, Khallan kept a hand on the bottle inside his jacket. Oil lamps hanging from carved pewter rods lit the abode’s thick stone walls and battlements.
Two guards attired in blue buff coats, tricorne hats, and black gaiters barred his path with ceremonial halberds. “State ye business, Rake,” one of them said.
“Aye, I return from a mission for the good and gracious Lady Inganiad.” Khallan pulled aside his left jacket flap. Pinkish luminescence glowed forth.
The guards gaped at each other, then recovered their stoic bearing. “In with ye, then.”
Khallan doffed his hat and passed through the wooden gates. Beyond the three-foot thick walls stood a four-storey mansion dotted with tall rectangular windows. Porticos chased with pewter and white-painted roundels contrasted with the structure’s broken guttering and chipped shingles. Soldiers in the same blue and black livery sat around campfires all across the dirt lawn. Leafless trees, dead since Kingdom days, cast gnarled shadows.
A butler in a wig so silver it shined led Khallan into the house proper. Old Kingdom tapestries hugged the walls as if glued to them. Soft red carpet cushioned his footsteps. Smells of dust, soap, and wood oil hung in the air, reflecting efforts to maintain the mansion despite Taliomar’s supply shortages. Ancient suits of armor, oil paintings, intricate glassware, and banners stolen from rival Houses crammed the floor and walls. Many of them stolen by him.
Entering a room with a grand dual-staircase, Khallan bowed at the waist as the butler departed. Lady Inganiad waited at the top of the stairs. A slight smile creased her oval, powered features. A tall white wig covered the flaxen curls he knew she had underneath. Her pastel blue gown, trimmed in golden lace with matching elbow-length gloves, hinted at the finery he’d see everyday once she awarded him. No more muddy alleys for him.
“My Lady, I have returned with this here promised item.” Khallan produced the glass bottle. The faerie’s pink light glowed, much like the warm emotions in his heart.
“How very pleasant.” Inganiad lifted her gown and descended the stairs. Her steps were hesitant, as if she walked with new feet. Every few seconds she steadied herself on the banister.
As Khallan neared her with the bottle, her smile dropped. Green eyes regarded him with cold focus.
“I trust you had enough propriety not to be seen by my rivals? House Keis Dor and House Gallartan must not know I have resorted to hiring Rakes off the street.”
“None can know about my deeds. Aye, milady’s reputation is safe.” Khallan bowed again. Why was she so distant? Usually she embraced and kissed him.
Inganiad sniffed and walked into an adjacent sitting room. Again she touched the wall or an upright suit of armor for balance as she went.
Oil-painted murals encircled the sitting room. Each depicted old-fashioned scenes of nobles hunting among green-leaved trees or across sunlit hillsides. Two plush divans sat opposite each other. A single oil lamp lit the empty room. Khallan grew excited. Soon he could cast off this black Rake jacket and don the blue livery of the Master of the Guard of House Aballinore!
Inganiad sat on one of the divans and grunted. With agitated movements she enveloped her feet in the folds of her gown. “As you know, I am to provide Lord Aballinore with an heir.”
Her voice sounded flat, tuneless. The voice of a woman accustomed to being obeyed, but never truly being heard.
“You have done me a service, Khallan. None outside my handmaids know that Lord Aballinore is…infirm when it comes to what I want.” Inganiad’s stony gaze softened and she tugged off her gloves. “Forgive my frustration. Come hold your Lady’s hands .”
Sighing, Khallan knelt before her divan. Scented hands squeezed his, their blue-lacquered nails biting into his flesh. Surprised, he looked up. In their previous trysts, she’d never touched him in a rough manner.
Staring at him, Inganiad’s bodice rose up and down in quick breaths. She swallowed several times. “Will the faerie work?”
“My lady…” Khallan smiled to calm the fear he sensed broiling inside her. “Aye, the Lord will be fooled and think the faerie’s old Kingdom magic gifted you a child.”
She squeezed his hands harder. “That is not why I require that faerie. Pull up my gown and petticoats.”
In times past, Khallan’s blood would have burned with passion at such a request. Making love to her in the four-poster bed upstairs or in the wine cellar had been in his thoughts much of late. He could give her a child and guard her far better than the elderly Lord Aballinore. It mattered little if the public remained ignorant of their affair. The desperation in her eyes brought no fire to his blood now, though.
Gently he lifted the hem of her gown, then the silken petticoat beneath. The familiar cloying scent of her lily fragrance and thigh sweat mixed with something rank and thick.
Inganiad wore no shoes, nor would she ever again. In place of the dainty feet he’d kissed were a pair of canine paws. Golden-brown fur covered them and reached up to her calves, enveloping the shaven skin he’d so enjoyed.
“You’re an Inborn.” Khallan’s statement made her flinch and rub her knees together.
“Give me the bottle,” she whispered.
Stilling himself, Khallan passed her the small glass vessel. The faerie darted about inside, wings pattering against the bottle’s interior.
Face hardening, Inganiad popped the bottle open and grabbed the faerie. Such dexterous speed had never been hers. Khallan drew back. With her other hand Inganiad snatched his jacket collar, holding him in place.
“Your dirk,” she said with deep intonation. A sweat bead crawled from beneath her wig and plowed through the powder lining her right cheek.
Inganiad jerked his collar with terrifying strength. “Spill the faerie’s blood on my feet.”
She lowered her face near his. “Have you so easily forgotten how you suckled those toes, how those calves straddled you in the hot hours of our nights together? They can be so again, and I shall have my child. Our child. Now slay this frivolous trifle.”
Closing his eyes, it seemed he was back in Aria’s coach. Her breath wafting over his face, her frightened touch. She’d not been a horrid beast. All those years he’d heard that voice…and the woman before him now, the one he thought he’d loved, acted the monster. Faeries had been lost to the world, and now she asked him to kill one just so she could be whole again? Even if he did so, Khallan wondered if the coldness in her eyes would ever fade.
Inganiad slapped him.
“Listen to me! A faerie’s blood might remove this curse. But I cannot be the one who kills it. You must draw its blood!”
Khallan didn’t recoil from her furious scowl. “I said no.”
Gnashing her teeth, Inganiad clasped the faerie in both hands. Sobs heaved up from her stomach and filled her bodice with agonized inhalations. Khallan’s heart wilted like Kingdom crops had done when the sun disappeared. Her eyes clamped shut. Blue-dusted eyelashes flittered. Her fingers dug into the faerie.
No tears came.
“May the Dawn Queen damn you!” Inganiad wrung her hands and crushed the faerie. A tinkling pop sounded as the pinkish luminance winked out. With a cry she tossed the rare Horizon glass bottle against the wall. It smashed into a mural where an ancient prince hunted with his dogs.
“So you leave me to be the Bitch of Taliomar? I shall have you whipped and branded and hung from the walls! Guards–!”
Khallan leapt to his feet and drew his rapier in one motion. The blade’s tip touched Inganiad’s throat. Pangs of betrayal and hurt hammered in his chest. His selfishness was no less than hers, desiring to father her child and command her guards. Attempting to rise above a lowly street Rake, he had sunken to new depths.
Inganiad’s glare melted as her shoulders shuddered with greater sobs. She tugged off the wig and tossed it to the floor. Blonde curls, matted and sweaty, framed her pleading visage. The faerie flopped from her hands to the floor. Not taking his eye off her, Khallan stuffed the limp body into his jacket.
“What am I to do? I’ll be exiled, like all the other Inborn! The curse will spread to the rest of my body, it always does. Will you not help me?”
They stared at each other. Self-loathing filled Khallan as his face scrunched up in sorrow. He had slain the faerie as much as she. Killed the illusions he’d had about love. About himself.
“Khallan?” Hope rose in her eyes.
Something wet ran down Khallan’s cheek. “Aye. A trade. Hand me that yonder faerie.”
He wiped away the tear, keeping it on his fingertip. As she slowly passed him the tiny crushed body, he dabbed his tear on her cheek. Inganiad shut her eyes and kissed his hand.
“Please, no. Khallan…please, I’m sorry. I can still be saved…”
“I have shed a tear for you, milady, for you have none. May the Noon King shine on you someday.”
Khallan kept the rapier up as he backed away. Body tense, he prepared himself to fight and flee House Aballinore. With so many soldiers about, he had little chance of escape. Little chance of anything now.
Hugging herself, Inganiad looked away. All trappings of haughty nobility gave way to the terrified human being beneath. She gave no shout for the guards, shot him no hateful looks. Instead she touched his tear on her cheek and whimpered. It almost sounded like the whine of a puppy.
Khallan sheathed his rapier and hurried from the sitting room. The oil lamp’s dying light revealed the grime and dust coating the world he’d tried to enter.
Mud had dried on the slope, but Khallan took cautious steps. In a few hours dawn would creep over Taliomar, though little difference would be discernible in the sky. He refused to glance at House Aballinore on the hillside.
Stopping a few feet from the coach, Khallan cleared his throat. A pale hand drew aside the rotted drapes.
“Who disturbs Aria? You are no dream or nightmare, so be gone with you.”
Khallan walked to the coach window and removed his hat. “Khallan O’ Delver’s Way.”
The hand clenched into a fist and shook at him. “Aria warned you! Aria will peck out your eyes! Now go!”
“You have no beak.” He eased closer to the wagon, then drew the small body from his jacket. On the way he’d bought a shred of muslin cloth and wrapped the dead faerie in it.
“Aria has nails.” The hand clawed after him, but Khallan grabbed it and remained still. Unlike Inganiad, Aria didn’t take advantage of her increased Inborn strength. For all her struggle, he could have been wrestling a child.
“Know you of a ditty to send a faerie home?”
“Humans have burned the faeries’ homes. Be gone, Aria says!”
Khallan took a deep breath, then yanked open the coach door. Paint and splinters flaked off it. Ducking, he entered as Aria scurried into the far corner.
“This one has no need of a home now.” Khallan unwrapped the muslin around the faerie. Aria gasped and hugged her knees.
“Faerie blood for a child?” Aria asked in a scolding tone.
“Aye, she once wanted that. As did I. Twasn’t slain by my hand. Know you a song or not?”
“Aria has a price. Aria doesn’t want you to be the one to pay. Go!”
Khallan knelt and laid a hand on her shoulder. The trembling form underneath made him swallow in guilt. “I’ll pay as much as you want. Yet this here faerie deserves a funeral ditty. Deserves some honor, I should think.”
With a shaking hand Aria touched the small corpse. A plaintive cry excited her mouth, then transformed into a flowing melodic discourse filled with despair. Her song now had a raw edge mixed with deep, rich intonation. Breathy delivery lent each note an intimacy Khallan would have died for. An intimacy he’d never built with Inganiad despite their sexual dalliances.
Warmth seeped into Khallan’s palms. He straightened as Aria lay both her fine-boned hands over the faerie. The song rose into higher registers but lowered in volume. No words, just emotive sounds.
Pinkish light glowed in Khallan’s grasp.
Aria’s voice lowered just above a whisper, soothing Khallan’s own troubled heart even as the faerie’s body disappeared. In its place a mote of pure pink light flitted from their touching hands and flew about their faces. Though it possessed no wings or body now, its animated life made emotions rise within Khallan’s chest.
As soon as Aria sang her final note, the mote sped from the coach into the night.
Khallan stared out the coach window on one side, then the other. The mote had vanished.
“Go. You owe Aria nothing.” She hunkered in the corner.
“I’ll hear none of that. Aye, we’ve a trade.” Khallan drew her towards the window facing Taliomar. She didn’t struggle, not even as he slipped the veil from her face. Beauty still resided there, though the physical and vocal loveliness she possessed paled in comparison to the splendor in her eyes. All the emotion of unspent tears welled up in them. All for a faerie Inganiad had killed just to save herself, while Aria had simply empathized with its fate.
Khallan embraced her while gazing out over Taliomar. Oil lamp light flickered in the breeze as Aria whimpered and sobbed against his body. Tender fingers dug into his hair, cradled his ears. Quivering lips released hot breath on his neck, whispering all her fears and regrets. After a long while her body ceased shuddering with sobs.
“Dawn is near,” Khallan whispered.
“Aria…Aria thanks you.” She pulled back from him and looked down at her hands. “Aria has not been hugged for so long. Hasn’t touched, or smelled, or heard…”
“Nay. My thanks to you.” Khallan exited the coach and cleared his throat. “Maybe I’ll come again for a ditty?”
“Aria would like that.” Huskiness permeated her breathy voice.
Walking down the slope, Khallan righted his bicorne hat. He almost slipped in the darkness until a pink light darted in front of him. It steadied, then floated over the dried mud trail, illuminating it. He smiled and followed the mote as an old Kingdom lullaby drifted from the coach above.
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