The drunken Laidy laughs at me, tossing tan curls over her meaty shoulder.
I grin widely, and continue the song I am singing. It's some bawdy thing about a mortal man and one of the Queens from the Histories. It's rather popular, so I know it quite well. I don't need to concentrate on the words, and it's easy enough to observe the happenings around me.
It's a rather small gathering, with about two score of the finest lourds and laidies to the crown. They have gotten themselves quite drunk by now, and they flirt with one another sloppily. There is music playing, and the clear tones from the water lutes have them dancing in clumsy steps. The jewels hung around them blind each other, hypnotizing them each in a very useful way.
The giggling of the laidy has stopped, and I turn back to her. Her eyes are closed tightly, her bottom lip jutting out. Unconscious.
I help myself to a few coins from the cord around her wrist. She always used to give me quite a compensation. Moving on to a trio of younger women, I tuck the coins into the pocket of my trousers. The middle one in particular is quite pretty, bright, curly hair tangled from dancing, and wide eyes dilated. She smiles coyly, trying to hide behind a closed fan, and I chuckle. Most laidies don't get drunk enough to forget the fashion of an open fan.
The other two call out to me.
"Coal, juggle for us please-please?" One of them gets stuck on the word please and repeats it to herself softly over and over, until the words run together.
I pull out the glass balls from my sack, and they watch me in excitement. I wink at the middle one, and she blushes, but keeps staring. I'm lucky to have been born attractive; it keeps the tips coming.
I lightly toss the smallest one and catch it swiftly between my thumb and forefinger. It is so delicate, the size of an Ave egg, thin like rice paper. They are already impressed and begin falling over each other, laughing in confused awe. God, I love drunken women.
I hurl the globes in the air, so high they brush against the roots dangling from the ceiling. It's a hard trick, with glass orbs, because they blend in wonderfully. I can only see them when they catch some light. Then they glitter.
I catch the first one to fall back down and throw it up again, lightly. Repeating this with the others, I begin a pattern, five up in the air, one in my hand.
I speed up the movement, until I have to focus carefully.
My audience has shut up now, and they gawk, sometimes at my hands, but more often at my face. They cling over each other, their sweat-soaked dresses bunching and twisting. The Laidies brake into a simultaneous smile, and one of them pulls away, stumbling towards me. Swaying drowsily, her eyes are wide and unfocused, flitting softly, then resting nowhere at all.
She drops herself, and falls into me, lips brushing my neck without direction. Catching her, I hear my orbs drop and shatter one after another. Damn, those are expensive. Her friends are giggling as they watch me prop her up and try to hand her back to them. Her skin is slick, and I can't seem to get a good grip. Pity it isn't the middle one. I finally manage to return her to the other laidies. She falls limply across their breasts and laughs in a distracted way. They move their eyes suggestively, and I give them a polite smile. They won't ever get the chance to follow up on those suggestions.
I bow swiftly and turn away, to see a pale girl laughing at me. I can tell there is something off about her, like she's of an era ten years back. She isn't here by invitation, I can tell that by her clothes. But there is another thing, too, yet I can't place it.
I'll just ignore her, and someone will find her soon enough. She's likely one of the servant girls wanting a glimpse of noble life. I snicker. If she knew what was to happen tonight then she wouldn't lust to be a laidy.
She looks like she has been faded out, bleached. White, white skin and hair barely yellowed. As if she's very old, with no pigment left in her. Then I see it. Her eyes. Not a normal blue, green, red. A deep, blackened brown.
A cold creeps up from the ground and shoves through my skin. Fuck, what is it here for?
I nearly run across the room, but a Lourd stops me. He puts his arm around my shoulder, claps me on the back and sputters something about consorts. I shove him aside, and manage to make an excuse. It has moved on now, grabbing a berry from a tray and nibbling it. I push through the idiots as they twirl in bright, sticky circles.
Catching up to a lazy pace, I grab its arm roughly. It turns in protest, and its eyes widen when it sees me.
Yanking it to me, I whisper, "Follow me." I dart into a side passageway, where it's secluded and quiet.
"You think it's clever you made it here?"
It looks dazed and I remember the berry. "I wouldn't say clever…"
"I know what you are." Can it possibly think it blended in?
"And I know what you are. Beauutiful…" It's being smart. Head tilted, it looks drugged.
"Stop fucking around. You have to leave." And I have to figure out how to get a mortal girl out of the most brutal Clan of the Fey.
"Relax, nobody's noticed. They're all enjoying the party." It smirks, watching a couple across the hall grope each other.
Doesn't it realize where we are? How did it get in? Are there other clueless, painfully slow mortals here? I have to get rid of them before the assassinations begin.
The guards told me they would begin after the second bell. How long has it been since the first? I can't seem to remember. There was that old lourd who wanted acrobatics, then the Laidy Constatina, then…God, what was after that? Has the first bell rung yet?
I'm thinking so deeply I don't realize it's been rambling absentmindedly.
"…and then he told me all I had to do was rap on the tree, and then I fell from somewhere high and followed this weird metal guy and now I'm here with you." It stops and I see its brow crinkle. "What are you?" The russet eyes manage to bore into mine, even as they twitch and glaze over.
Shit, it doesn't know. That "metal guy"…must have been one of the guards on his way here. What am I supposed to tell…nothing. I'll just have to get rid of it quickly, take it outside.
"Did any others come with you?" I look into her eyes deeply; I need a straight answer on this one.
"Come with me."
I grab its wrist, plump like a child, and pull it toward the exit. The knights are blocking the exits, but they know I know, and passage won't be an issue. My problem is the girl, and its eyes.
I spin around and lean into it, pushing its back against the wall. The pale lips part and shift.
"Don't look at them, alright? Watch my feet. Don't take your eyes off my heels."
"A-alright." It sputters, flushing.
I pull the mortal along again, quickly.
We have just reached the gate, when the bell rings, and I don't know if it is the first or second time. The silver-suited knights stand stiffly in robes coated with titanium. They grin as they see me and the girl.
"Who's that, Cole? Friend of yours?" Mert grins, claps me on the shoulder.
It's a relief to me: they've just created a solid reason for taking the girl away from here.
"Fine, isn't she?" I quickly grab a piece of her hair and finger it. "All that gold…" I keep my eyes still, steady, but the nerves want to twitch.
The knights chuckle, nudge each other, and don't notice my shifty eyes. For all that a creature's eyes can tell, no one ever looks into them.
The girl leans into me, falling against my back. That berry she ate earlier…
I smile warmly, just one of the boys. "If you'll excuse me, I've, ah, got some matters to attend to." They snigger, and pull open the brass, leafy doors.
I pull the girl behind me, and she stumbles, tripping over the door frame.
I wait until the gate is closed, then spin around.
Its eyes are unfocused, the brown muddy and spinning.
"Follow me, and if anyone speaks to you in the halls, just nod and keep your head down, alright?"
It nods absently. "What's your name?"
I turn swiftly, and it jogs to keep up with me.
"Hey—I asked you a question." I ignore it; names don't matter, not when the girl won't remember them.
I slow down for it. Its legs are short, flimsy with the drug of the berry.
The hallway is lit dimly, and I have to squint to see ahead, make sure no one is approaching.
"Look, I know you're not like me."
I glance over. Its forehead is crinkled, and I can tell it wants hard to concentrate.
"What I mean is…you don't have to worry. I won't hurt you." She smiles at me reassuringly.
It obviously can't see how dangerous this place is, that a single glance could kill her.
I want to tell her this, scare her into silence, but she sings a little song now and I find I cannot. I can't make out her words, but the melody dips and reaches up like my glass orbs, spinning in perfect clarity. She sighs, chuckles out a shaky breath, and the hum crashes and cracks.
I pull at her, for she has stopped now, and is looking at the wall strangely.
"We haven't all night." I managed to whisper this out through gritted teeth. And then I follow her gaze.
A deep, purpled liquid seeps from the compacted walls. Droplets snake around the gnarled branches, dribble onto the floor.
It reaches out a hand to touch, but I grab her wrist. "There is no time." And I don't want to tell her the acid from those branches might have chewed her arm off.
I pull her along. Damn, the passages have never seemed so long. I feel her shiver, the hairs on her wrist poking up in goose-bumps.
"What was that…that liquid in the walls?"
"Tree sap." I decide a bit of fear might do her some good, make her walk faster. "It's acid, a poison for mortals. If you get any on you, your skin will rot off within the week." I don't mention the numerous ways I have seen it used in the Clan to torture humans. Too much fear, it can paralyze you.
She cringes, starts looking up at the ceiling. For drips, I realize.
"Stay along the wall, and you'll be fine. The torches ward it all off: it doesn't like fire."
She quickly moves over to my other side. We are almost to the gate, when a very tall hobgoblin pushes past me and knocks open my grip on the mortal's wrist. She stumbles, nearly falls into the wall, but I catch her swiftly, tugging at the collar of her shirt. All the years of juggling and balance have improved my reflexes tremendously.
I ask her if she is alright.
She nods, smiles, shrugs. I ignore her and we continue on, through the gate, and up the winding staircases to the mortal world.
I start up them at a quick trot, taking two at a time. At the top of the first flight I see she is still at the bottom, leaning on the railing heavily. That berry…it's making my work a lot harder than it should have been.
I slide down the railing, twist off before it can send me flying into the rough walls.
"I'm sorry, I don't know what's wrong…I just—just can't see the stairs…"She is holding her head, swaying weakly.
"Lean on me, if you need to." I haven't the strength to carry her up, but I sure as hell won't admit it.
She shakes her head, meaning to nod. I position her between me and the railing, instruct her to use us both for support. The thin, decorative metal whines, and I smile empathetically.
I try and get her to hurry, but it is fruitless. The faster she goes, the more likely she will fall all the way to the bottom. Then I would be forced to carry her back up, like the Old Fay story of Sisaefus. Forced to roll the largest boulder for eternity, without completion or respite. I chuckle and slow down significantly. She seems grateful for this, and leans a bit less on me.
We seem to inch towards the surface, every step a long mile for her dizziness and my fatigue. The think iron door at the top beckons us on, and we are almost there, maybe twenty feet away, when I hear the door slam open, crash against the wall.
There is yelling, and I sweep my eyes down. There are three guards, tall and menacing in their stiff metal armor. They are rushing up the stairs, but move slower than I had expected, the heavy suits weighing them down.
Someone must have seen her eyes… I remember the hobgoblin, how he bumped into her, sent her sprawling. He must have seen those telling eyes, and told.
"We've got to move, mortling. You don't want to be caught by this Clan."
She doesn't seem to understand, her eyes fogged up and glistening. But she allows me to speed up, and we trip and stumble upward at the fastest pace I can muster.
The guards are calling out to each other, and are now only a flight or so away. We need another way out, one where they can't follow us.
Even if we do manage to make it outside, I can't make it anywhere they can't follow us.
There is a door directly left of me, it glimmers faintly around the edges. I know that there are several Portals in our haven, but I have yet to find one. But if this were to be one…. Well, we might have a spitting chance.
I look down at the girl. She is barely conscious, and leans so heavily on the railing I fear she will fall straight off and into the hands of the enemy. Enemy? These men were my people, this mortal is the enemy. She suddenly pitches forward. I grab her around the waist, shove open the glittered door, and tug her inside after me.
I see nothing but the darkness of being nowhere at all, and then the utter brightness of sunshine.