Apologies for the lateness of this post, but as you’ll see, it’s a pretty long one.
Arwyn hated to admit it, but she loved esbats almost as much as she loathed them. In spite of the danger they represented, in spite of the sorrow she always felt, and the terror, and the constant pressure to keep her glamour in check; esbats were the only nights when she was allowed out of the castle.
Of course, “night” was a relative concept here in the Unseelie court. Even her mother’s domain, the Borderlands, from whence you could see into Seelie territory and the semblance of an eternal sunset on the horizon, was perpetually drenched in star-speckled darkness. Only the phases of the moon marked the passage of time, and their cycle was so complicated – especially compared to the small, white, sage little moon of Cat’s Court – that they still appeared random to her.
Still, she didn’t need to know the phases to feel the moonlight in the air and know that tonight was esbat. The space between her shoulderblades – her wingroots – had been tingling for days, and the air was positively crackling now.
She took a deep breath and stepped through the gateway to the land outside the castle. The dance was there, under the huge silver moon, spinning in its centre and turning slowly towards the ends, like a galaxy. The air felt warm and electric, like just before a summer storm, only the electricity seemed to be coming from the glowing centre of the dance, the naked bodies of sacrificial fae illuminated from the inside where it snaked and writhed in their veins and shone through eyes already lost.
She could feel it, a faint itch in her muscles that no amount of stretching would relieve. She would have to dance, she knew, or it would spread first to her stomach, then up, through her heart to her brain, filling her with a wild, terrifying joy that would pulse through her, connecting her to the others and throwing her straight through logic and reason into the throes of helpless ecstasy-
Of course, everyone knew she was weaker to it than them, out of practise from so much time away. But only Orren seemed to realise just how vulnerable she was.
“I’m here,” she said tonelessly. That afternoon’s episode had made her sulky.
He grabbed her hand and squeezed it. “I’ll make sure you are.” His protectiveness annoyed her, and distracted her from the itch – she focused on it, stoking her gut into grumbling ire, perfectly aware that she was doing exactly what he wanted. That made her even angrier.
“I don’t need a wetnurse,” she snapped, snatching her hand back and glaring at him. The glare turned to a blush as she remembered that he had come shamelessly naked. She kept her eyes stubbornly on his face – people were watching them, and she shouldn’t show weakness – and he smiled at her. “Catnurse is the term you’re looking for,” he said.
A catnurse was a human whose child you replaced with a changeling. This was supposed to be sore subject for Arwyn – only Orren would have the guts to tease her about it in their mother’s presence.
Speaking of which… “Where is mother?”
“Flirting with the other leanan sidhe.” Orren pointed towards a group of humanish fairies standing a little apart from the others and not watching the dance at all. Her beauty distracted Arwyn from her anger, and the urge to dance resurfaced.
“How can she just ignore it like that?” she asked, fidgeting.
“Practise, sisterling,” Orren sighed. “Practise and glamour. She’s craving it terribly, but she always lets the others go first.”
“Because it’s her duty as Lady of the Border?”
“Ha! No. Because it makes her look stronger than the rest of them, which deters comptetition for her title.”
Arwyn was still having trouble getting her head round the way things worked in the Unseelie court. There were so many rules of etiquette – and they all seemed there just so people could slip round them. Glamour always, but no outright lying. Don’t ask anybody’s true name, but do all you can to find out. Never give your own true name, unless forced, in which case giving it is better than attempting to lie. No smuggling catspawn products – but catspawn sweets are a delicacy to be sought and treasured.
No reading whatsoever. That rule, at least, had no contradiction.
She turned back to where a group of noble unseelie were watching the dance. She had more or less gotten used to seeing other fairies naked, although she still avoided the quite regular orgies. She didn’t particularly care to expose herself in the same way.
At least in that she wasn’t the only one.
“Good esbat, lady Arwyn, lord Orren,” said a tall half-elf who, it appeared, had taken a liking to her over the past few weeks. “I see I’m not the only one who chose to come dressed.”
“Good esbat Tarendal,” Orren said. He sounded friendly, but Arwyn knew he didn’t like Tarendal, although he wouldn’t tell her why. “What’s your excuse?”
“Pure rebelliousness, my dear Orren.” Tarendal bowed. “I shirk the conventions of fairy society and their squeamishness around humans.”
“By dressing as one?”
“Indeed. In some parts of Cat’s Court that I’ve visited, humans have a Hallow’s Eve custom of dressing up as monsters – some of which quite resemble us – in order to scare their neighbours into giving them sweets. I think we ought to start something similar – ideally with humans, our neighbourhoods being quite close of Hallow’s Eve – but until legislation permits such a thing, I’ll have to be content with scaring fairies.”
Orren laughed. “Fairies aren’t afraid of humans.”
“Oh?” Tarendal raised an eyebrow. “We censor most things relating to them. Most of us would do anything to gain control of one, but the gates are heavily guarded because we fear them gaining control of us. Changelings have become rare – no offense, my lady – and it is a common belief amongst humans now that we and our world do not exist at all.”
Arwyn felt her eyes open wide as saucers. True as that may be, it was generally unwise to voice such things, even in private. Orren couldn’t help but throw a furtive glance about them to see if anyone else had heard.
“You forget where we are, Tarendal,” he murmured. “Not everyone here is as open-minded as we leanan sidhe. Esbat is not the best time to make a target of yourself.”
Tarendal inclined his head. “Of course, I shan’t speak of it any more. Still, lady Arwyn, tell me at least: what do you think of my costume? I tried to find something subtle.”
Tarendal’s clothes were a pair of very human-looking trousers tied with a very fey-looking scarf, and that was it.
“I’ve never seen a human dressed like that,” Arwyn said, glad of a distraction. “That’s not spidersilk, is it?”
“Actually it is, but like your outfit, it has been treated with moonsnail slime.” He looked incredibly pleased with himself, despite her answer. “Wonderful stuff for esbats.” He gestured towards her outfit. She had glamoured the ribbons to form a sort of dress over the moonslime costume, through which the moonslime patterns were now visible, and turned the spidersilk scarf and feathers into wings. “Those are particularly ingenious,” he complimented her. “You almost look like a human disguised as a fairy. I would have never thought of that.”
She laughed, scrutinizing him through half-shut eyes. He looked sincere, but then so did all fairies. She wasn’t good enough yet to sense the small changes in glamour that signalled treachery and lies.
Not lies, she thought. Fairies don’t lie. Or they can’t. Not outright.
She wondered how long it would take for her to stop being capable of lying again, and quashed that thought immediately.
“Lord Orren, I believe Echo is looking for you,” Tarendal said.
Orren smiled. “She can’t be looking very hard.”
“Well no,” conceded Tarendal. “It is Echo. She’s a lot like Rayth in that respect.”
“And like Rayth towards my sister, her tricks do not work on me,” Orren replied, to which Tarendal chuckled appreciatively. Arwyn thought she felt her brother relax a little.
“Speaking of which, isn’t that Echo’s kid sister?”
A small halfling was approaching, the bottom half of whom was indeed the body of a kid. The rest was human, barring the tiny stumps of horn poking through her thin blond curls. Arwyn was surprised to find that she couldn’t feel any glamour coming off her at all.
She bowed before Arwyn.
“The ladies have sent me to petition you to dance with Rayth,” she murmured.
Arwyn looked in the direction she had come from to see a crowd of impatient-looking female fae of several sorts, all purebred, surrounding a type of fairy she couldn’t identify.
“He’s a lankin,” said Orren, seeing her frown. “He asked you to dance last time, remember? You refused because you’d already stepped on Tarendal’s feet so much that he had to go home limping.” There was amusement in his voice, and Tarendal chuckled.
Arwyn scowled openly. She wasn’t as bad at dancing as all that, but the esbat dance required a level of self-control she hadn’t attained yet. She stepped on her brother’s bare foot, regretting that she hadn’t thought to bring shoes. “Sorry, brother. I’ve obviously made no improvement.”
Orren cursed. “Obviously not,” he muttured through a grit-toothed smiled.
“Why do they want me to dance with him anyway?” she asked Tarendal.
“He won’t dance with anyone else until you do, my lady,” said the halfling.
“You’ve really no choice,” Tarendal said. “Unless you want to incur the wrath of most of the ladies of our court.”
Arwyn groaned and looked down at the girl. She really was quite small.“What shall I call you?” she asked her.
“I am called Sylvali.” The girl paused, and added “But they call me Syl.” She didn’t look very happy about it.
“Sylvali. Such a pretty name. It would be a shame to shorten it.” Arwyn smiled at Sylvali’s surprised expression, then sighed. “I suppose I had better get it over with, then.”
She stood, took her leave of Orren and Tarendal. As Sylvali escorted her across the room, she said, “Tell me, Sylvali. Does Rayth have the same effect on you as he seems to have on everyone else?”
Sylvali seemed to look terrified for a second, before smoothing her expression to one of polite interest. “He is beautiful and fascinating,” she said. “His conversation is entertaining, his family is noble, and his bloodline pure enough to be Seelie.”
“That wasn’t what I asked,” Arwyn murmured. Sylvali slowed. They were approaching the group, who were pretending not to notice them. “I asked how he affected you. Do you understand why they flock around him, like bees to honey?”
Sylvali hesitated, then gave the tiniest shake of her head. Arwyn smiled.
“Neither do I,” she said. “And I’d be immensely grateful to anyone who could enlighten me.”
With that she left the girl standing on the edge of the crowd, tapped one of them on the arm, and glamoured herself to composure.
“I believe you sent for me?”
They turned to look at her. The tall, snarky-looking fairy she’d spoken to, said “So you’re the cause of all this fuss?”
“I apologise if I’ve caused any distress,” Arwyn said. “My dear lord Rayth, I don’t believe it is fair to refuse to dance with the ladies of the court just so that you can make fun of my clumsy steps.”
He grinned at her. “Oh, but Rowan was telling me he’d seen you dance with Tarendal, and that your skills had much improved – although I can’t imagine how he could tell when you had such a poor partner.”
“Perhaps you might test me?” she smiled sweetly at him. “My brother is a strict teacher, but I fear I’ve made no progress at all.”
He stood and held out his hand. She took it, knowing that everyone was watching them and judging her, and stepped out onto the floor to pretend it didn’t matter.