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A Stranger Sort of Fairy Tale

A

Chapter 1: Regards from Rus

The  sun  dipped  below the horizon, bathing the Kundalini desert in orangey light as darkness fell. Purple and blue hues descended from the stars, creeping down the Red Mountains, sweeping over the shifting sands around the city of Arubio.  There was a chill  in  the  air,  one  Tarquin  relished as he stepped outside. He glanced to the sky, the pale blue pinpricks showing plainly through the celestial sphere—the stars coming out to play as the moon ascended her throne. He tapped his claws off the goblet he had in hand, listening to the satisfying ting of the crystal as he scanned the constellations.

He lifted his glass to his lips and drank deeply of the wine, although he knew it wouldn’t soothe him to sleep.

For the last week and a half, he hadn’t been the only insomniac in Arubio. The whole city had been wide awake, awash in vibrant lights, the howling and caterwauling of drunkards in the wee hours of the morning. They flowed from the temples as well as the taverns, carrying with them torches burning a hundred different colors, casting strange shadows as their bearers wheeled and danced through the sandy streets. Others carried with them pots and pans, clangers and trumpets—the strangest orchestra ever witnessed. And so they went, men and women, young and old, all of them drunk upon lusty celebration.

It was the first time in two years they’d celebrated like this. Even from his perch on the balcony overlooking the city, Tarquin could see the lingering damage—the boarded up windows, the burnt-out houses, the cracks and the stains—that spoke of struggles only recently ended. It had only been two months since he’d stormed the Iron Gate out of the north with the Duke of al-Kadi at his side, riding at the head of an army ten thousand strong. They’d overwhelmed the gate, pushed the rebels back to the city center.

He looked away from the torches, the wheeling shadows in the streets as the revelers danced through them. Even now, their cries reminded him not of pleasure but of the horrific howls of death and pain. Torches had burned brightly those nights as well.

It had been all they could do to scrabble together the traditional solstice celebrations. There was much to be done after two years of civil war, but the people of Arubio needed this bacchanalian return to tradition. After two years of harrowing horror, they needed such carnivalesque freedom.

Food was scarce, so he’d ordered the palace larders opened to the public. He’d tripled imports of grain, even though they were running a deficit on it. The people needed bread. His uncle, Emperor Theophilus of Rus, had been so good as to secure the loan. Tarquin was reluctant to take on the debt—even to family. He knew all too well the dangers of becoming indebted to Rus. Family or not, the emperor would see to it dues were paid.

The people had bread and wine and cheese, and although the  chamberlain,  Gaius,  informed  him  daily  that  their  supplies would run out before winter was over, it was necessary. Despite being the heir to the throne, Tarquin wasn’t the only choice. After Mother had died—or been assassinated, whichever it happened to be—Arubio had descended into chaos. He’d been ousted from the palace, exiled from his own country, denied his birthright.

He’d fled to al-Kadi to gather strength. His aunt, the empress, had persuaded her husband to send troops to his aid. He was, after all, the son of her deceased brother.

He was the only heir to the Arubian throne, and he was the only heir Rus would accept.

That didn’t prevent other claimants, of course. There had been the organizers of the palace coup—some of Mother’s most trusted confidantes, her closest advisors. They’d tired of the shadows, Tarquin supposed, preferring instead to step into the limelight. They’d practically been making policy in Mother’s stead. He’d warned her, repeatedly, but she’d let them grow too powerful, too full of themselves.

Tarquin had to cut them back down to size.

He dragged a hand across his eyes, rubbed his temples, struggling to hold the memories at bay. He’d done many things in the last two years, many of which he regretted now. No matter how many reassurances al-Kadi offered, no matter how many platitudes his uncle sent, he was a murderer. The men haunted his nightmares now, kept him awake at all hours of the night.

It was a strange sort of irony, really—an incubus, a night terror like him, kept awake by a different sort of horror.

He leaned into his hand. The cool stone of the balcony railing dug into his elbow, nipping at his flesh as he surveyed the rollicking scene in the streets. He let his eyes slip shut. He’d done what he could. He’d wrested back the reins of power and all he could do now was attempt to be a beneficent ruler and lead the people of Arubio to prosperity, away from the jaws of death the rebels had so willingly led them into.

The council had decided on the solstice as the best date for his coronation. The sooner he was crowned, the sooner he could consolidate power.

He tilted his head, already so heavy even without the weight of the crown.

He shifted his gaze to the cavalcade of nobles and servants alike dashing through the corridors of the palace and the paths of the gardens, bare and sandaled feet alike clapping against stone and sand. He fixated upon them, then heaved a breath, his back, his ribs expanding with the chilled air. Flicking his tongue against the roof of his mouth, Tarquin felt the prick of the twin points hidden there, waiting.

In the distance, the temple bells chimed out the hour. As the last toll died away, there was a knock at the door. Zahir the minstrel stopped strumming his lyre and sat up.

Tarquin rolled his eyes. He already knew who it was.

His long, black kaftan rustled as he stepped back inside. “Enter,” he called, then took another pull of the wine, curling his lip at its bitter aftertaste.

The heavy wooden door of the anteroom creaked open and light poured in from the hallway, turning the chamberlain into nothing more than a shadow. “Highness,” he said.

“What is it, Gaius?”

The rotund servant stepped into the room, bowing deeply. “Your royal sister the Princess Tullia, has requested that you join the celebrations tonight.”

Tarquin looked toward the craggy peaks of the Red Mountains. “I rather think I shan’t.”

“She said you’d say that.”

Tarquin met his questioning gaze unwaveringly. It wasn’t an unusual game for the siblings to play, and he’d only been to the carnival once so far. That had only been because his presence was required at the opening ceremonies.

He had no desire to subject himself to a room so full of bacchanalian energy. He’d been hungover on it for two days.

Being an incubus wasn’t always what it was cracked up to be. He pinched the bridge of his nose. “You may tell my royal sister that I am disinclined to be swayed, but perhaps tomorrow—”

Gaius sighed. “Her Highness must insist you make at least a token appearance tonight. Grand Prince Aleksandru of Rus has arrived.”

Tarquin tightened his grip around the stem of his glass. “Cousin Aleks?” he asked at last, glancing over his shoulder again.

Gaius nodded.

Tarquin gritted his teeth. “Very well. I’ll make myself present shortly.”

“Sire.” Gaius bowed low, then swept out of the room.

“Sire?” Zahir now stood in the doorway, one hand braced on the dark stones that formed the arch there, his lyre grasped tightly in the other. His brows were tented, crinkling smooth, dark skin; worry was burrowed deep in his eyes, glinting in the starlight. He was wreathed in the dull glow of the candles.

“Shall I keep playing?” he asked. “Or shall I retire for the evening?”

Tarquin waved a hand dismissively. “Play on. The sound is soothing and it pleases me that you should play more.”

Zahir nodded. Tarquin watched him as he returned to his perch,  settled  among  the  suffocating  pile  of  overstuffed  pillows near the windows. The sheer drapes billowed in the evening breeze, obscuring the incubus’s view of the minstrel as he strummed the instrument, the first strains of a song filling the air.

It soon faded into the background as Tarquin downed the last of his wine. It was fortification against the insipid carnival. He set the glass upon the sideboard, the sleek teak gleaming in the firelight.

He approached the wardrobe, its polished bronze handles biting into his palms as he flung the doors wide and peered in. The firelight didn’t illuminate the mass of black cloth hanging within—some silks, some jacquards—but it caught upon the garments’ embroidered sleeves, their embellished necklines.

He plucked up one of the dalmatics, the silver weaving none too ornate. He laid it upon the bed, then shrugged out of his kaftan, letting it pool on the ground behind him.

“Sire, if you require assistance—”

“I’m not helpless,” Tarquin assured the minstrel, sliding his hands into the sleeves of the brocade.

A leader needed helping hands, but holding them at arm’s length was wise.

He sashed the dalmatic, contemplating his reflection in the full-length mirror across the way as he shook out the sleeves. “I must away. Do as you wish, minstrel; I shan’t look for you here upon my return.”

“Sire,” Zahir replied, dropping his head.

Tarquin stepped through the portal, then tucked his hands into his sleeves.

It wasn’t a particularly long walk from his chambers to the Great Hall, for which he was thankful. It gave him less time to brood.

Aleks was not his favorite cousin, certainly; the blond’s endless optimism grated on him. They were like night and day, diametrically opposed in every conceivable way. Tarquin was swarthy featured—dark hair, dark eyes, black, curling horns that gleamed like the finest ebony in the sunlight. His skin was the characteristic color of the people of these southern climes, although there were several gradations between himself and the laborers who spent their hours in sun-soaked fields.

Aleks  was  fair-haired  and  blue-eyed,  with  skin  as  pale  as snow upon the mountaintops. But more than that, he was as cheerful as a beam of sunshine, burning as brightly as that most luminescent of orbs.

He was exuberant, joyous, outgoing, and infectious, a disease people were all too pleased to catch. By contrast, Tarquin was reserved and brooding, cold and calculating. It was true he could be cutting when he spoke, and he’d been told his mannerisms were clinical. He inspired little love among those who had to do business with him. Instead, he commanded respect, perhaps grudgingly given more often than not.

Tarquin had never cared for Aleks’s boisterous nature. The flurry of rambunctious activity that followed his cousin everywhere unsettled him, made him anxious.

Perhaps more unsettling, at least in Tarquin’s mind, was Aleksandru’s keen intellect, his sharp wit. Few recognized it, sheathed as it was beneath his effected airiness, the proverbial dagger beneath his cloak of sunny ways.

Tarquin knew it well, from the summers he’d spent in his uncle’s court in Rus, far to the north. Aleks was no less shrewd, no less calculating than Tarquin himself. He merely masked it differently.

Not that he didn’t need to be. Aleks was heir to the throne of Rus, the mightiest empire on the face of Uchakka.

Aleks had been sent as an emissary from the court of Rus to bear witness to the coronation. The emperor himself was occupied with other things—insurgents from the West traversing his realm on their journeys to the East, the tribes of the North badgering for freedom from the empire. So he’d sent the grand prince to signify Rus’s support of the new Arubian monarch.

Other nobles were less significant in that regard, but Tarquin was expected to be cordial nonetheless. The more he wooed the aristocracy to his side, the more they would support him, the more ruling and crushing the remaining opposition would be simplified.

And he desperately needed the situation to be simplified. He couldn’t set about overseeing Arubio, debating policy if rebellion lurked behind every closed door. Anyone might be a traitor, and there were still those who wore pleasant smiles but had treason lurking in their hearts.

And, of course, there were those who threatened to crush Arubio from the outside, the barbarian tribes of the Southeast and the Western Shores, the heathens who lived across the sea.

His anxiety knew little relief, except when he was working on a plot to assassinate one of his contenders or brokering a deal with a saber-rattling rival. Sleep had become elusive, and then a distant memory. He dreamed that he’d dreamt once upon a time.

It had become an increasing concern these last few months among his confidantes. In the throes of rebellion and war, it had served him well. Now, he needed to transition to peace.

He was wasting; his gaunt face reminded him every time he glanced in the looking-glass.

He slowed his step as he descended the final staircase, the towering doors to the grand hall now looming before him. The guards saluted as he approached. His feet were lead; dread hissed at him to flee the party before he’d even arrived.

Already, the headache  pulsed by  his  temples,  rapping  out time to the music. He could taste the revelry on his tongue, thick and sickeningly sweet.

“Your Highness.”

Amira’s musical voice was recognizable anywhere. The dragon sashayed toward him, her blue gown swishing side to side, as though she had not a care in the world. The fabric swirled about her feet, blending into the rug, spinning the illusion she was floating as she approached him.

Her hands wrapped about his arm; he glanced down at her red-lacquered claws, just as long as his own.

She drew his gaze up by tucking one of those wicked claws underneath his jaw. She pursed her lips—also painted a brilliant, bloody red. “It is a pleasant surprise to see you here,” she purred.

“A pleasant surprise indeed,” he echoed as he took the last steps to the door.

The guards saluted him again. He wrapped his hand around the handle and pulled it open. A medley of light poured out— reds and purples and oranges illuminating the hallway.

“Quin,” Amira said, her voice drowning as the music swelled again.

He didn’t spare her a backward glance, but slipped inside. The room was a masquerade of shadows, all of them gyrating to the frenetic beat. The music seemed alive, pulsing and twisting its way through his temples, even as he sidled along the wall, inching his way toward the dias where the magicians were performing. On either side of the platform, a narrow staircase twisted up to the balconies, where his sisters Tullia and Tanaquil were seated.

He dodged a stray arm, looking back at the hypnotized girl who had thrown it; her eyes were glazed, suggesting she’d either been drugged or dragged under by the music.

He flattened himself against the wall and inched by, worming his way through a thick throng. One of the ancestral tapestries cushioned him.

He elbowed his way into the crowd, batting off questing hands, stray feet as he went. He grabbed the railing of the staircase, then hauled himself to the first metal step. He broke free of the crowd, took the stairs two at a time.

He met Tullia at the top, her crimson gaze deeper with annoyance, her lips a thin line across her face. “Took you long enough.”

“Just open the gate.” He resisted the urge to roll his eyes. Tullia was imperious, brusque, and irritable at the best of times.

She peeled it back, still glowering as he slipped into the relative seclusion of the balcony. Tullia closed the gate again, peering down the stairwell to ensure no riffraff had decided to follow him up.

Tanaquil smiled demurely at him, ducking her head in deference. He leaned back as she did so; her branching horns, so unlike his and Tullia’s, were always at risk of stabbing someone, even though she would never hurt someone intentionally. The albino succubus was far too gentle for that.

He extended his hand to her, which she took and pressed her petal-soft lips to. She glanced up at him, a slow smile quirking her lips, even as they were flush against his skin.

He pulled away. Tanaquil was a rarity, an exquisite beauty, but she still unnerved him at times. Normally, her gentle nature had a calming effect for him, nullifying more vibrant energies such as Tullia’s.

Not so tonight.

“I heard you requested my presence, sister,” he said, turning to Tullia.

“I did,” she replied, lifting her head just a touch.

“I also heard our cousin was here.” He slid his hand along the ornately carved arm of one of the chairs.

“I am.”

He jolted. Aleks was nearly hidden in the shadows and the thick curtains drawn over the doorway at the other end of the balcony. He grinned at Tarquin, all fangs.

Tarquin tucked his hands into his sleeves, bowed low himself. “Your Excellency,” he murmured, “pardon that I did not see you there in the darkness.”

“Your eyesight must be going,” Aleks said, still grinning as he inspected his claws. “Is twenty-one really so old?”

He paced around Tarquin, who eyed the blond warily. “Hm? Or perhaps you’ve gone blind from lack of sleep. Or perhaps this new-fangled diet you’ve taken up has done more damage—”

Tarquin straightened. He sought Tullia’s gaze. “What did you tell him?”

“Oh, Quin,” Aleks scoffed, “she didn’t have to tell me anything. We’ve heard all about it in Rus, so Father sent me to get it straight from the lion’s mouth.”

“You can’t believe everything you hear,” Tarquin countered.

“No, but I don’t think my eyes deceive me, and you are a sorry sight to see, cousin!”

Tarquin whirled on Tullia. “Is this it? You’ve called me down here to have him badger me into what exactly? You’ve staged some sort of intervention for—”

“Quin.” Exasperation bled from her tone.

“For what? To what end, for what purpose? I can’t control it, Tullia. If I could sleep, don’t you think I would? If I wanted to eat, don’t you think I’d do so?”

“Quin.”

He threw his arms wide. “It’s pointless!” he cried. “Your concern is misplaced, your efforts misguided—”

“Quin.”

He glanced down at Tanaquil, who smiled up at him. “There’s someone you ought to meet.”

He  groaned  inwardly.  He  didn’t  even  want  to  know  how many women he’d been gifted in the last two months alone, as everyone scrambled to curry favor with the new king of Arubio. The harem was overflowing.

He couldn’t keep them all, and he certainly had no desire to. He hardly slept with them. In the past few months, his feeding had become less and less frequent, such that most of the newer additions to the harem had never seen the inside of his chambers. They were beautiful, eager to please. But there was something faux and distasteful about it, as though they’d all been told to get on their knees, that if they used their mouths to worship him with more than words, one of them might be queen.

It made him sick. He could scarce stand the taste of ambition, the desire for love, the adoration they heaped upon him. And it wasn’t them alone; it was everyone in the palace, every noble he met, every warlord. They were all bitter with ambition, sour with ulterior motives.

He’d forced himself to eat before, but lately, he couldn’t be bothered. What was the point of feeding if it brought him no pleasure?

Aleks turned and pushed the curtains aside, leaning out into the hallway. He waved a couple of times, his robes swinging wildly. “Your uncle has taken it upon himself to ensure you be-gin work on securing and solidifying your reign. Your coronation tomorrow is excellent, but you ought to turn your attention to domestic matters, such as marriage.”

Tarquin couldn’t help how his lip curled in disdain. The last thing on his mind was getting married. He was even less inclined if someone had made the arrangement for him. Incubi mated for life, and, given that he could live a millennium or two, he didn’t fancy a marriage of political convenience.

“I present to you Crown Prince Viridian of Fiddach.” Something—someone—ducked  through  the  portal  and stepped into the light, even as Aleks let the curtain swing shut again.

Tarquin stared at the creature, and the creature stared back. It was humanoid, much as any of them were, but it most certainly was not human. It had a shock of fire-red hair and enormous green eyes, like emeralds in its moon-pale face. Its nose was very slender and rounded at the end. Its mouth was thin-lipped and rosy, open just slightly, two tiny white fangs poking out.

It was long-limbed, slender, and it was swathed in an ornate gown of layers and layers of airy, red chiffon.

Perhaps most curious of all were its wings. There were four of them altogether, arranged in two sets, with the forepair extending some feet above the creature’s head. The hindwings were smaller, much more tailored. All four were brilliantly green, metallic and glimmering in the lights, dashed through with purples and golds.

“What is she?” he asked finally. He’d never seen anything like it.

“You don’t know?” Tanaquil had a hand to her lips, suppressing laughter.

Hes a fey,” Aleks said, and the creature stood up a little straighter, a look of indignation crossing his face. “This is an estelline fey.”

“A star faery,” Tanaquil said, turning to him with that strange smile of hers.

Tarquin grunted, then tucked his hands in his sleeves.

The fey stared at him, blinking those unnaturally large eyes, and he stared back, unsure of what to say or do.

An arm settled about his shoulder, and he looked at Aleks, who grinned. “What do you think?”

He dragged Tarquin closer to the fey, who blinked again. His antennae bobbed as he tilted his head to the side.

Aleks grinned, holding out Viridian’s hand to Quin. “He emerged just before we left. Of course, you know with fey, you don’t know whether they’re male or female until they’ve come out of the cocoon. He’s the first male.”

“What  do  I  want  with  a  male?”  Tarquin  huffed.  “In  case you’ve forgotten, I’m male myself, and so—”

The fey jerked away so violently, it was almost like a slap. Tarquin stared at him, and Aleks glanced between the two of them, almost laughing. “He’ll warm up,” Aleks said, offering Tarquin an apologetic grin. “It’s been a long haul, you understand, and he’s a little disoriented, likely—they’re not really nocturnal creatures either, so …”

He trailed off, sucked at his teeth. He glanced down at his feet, then gestured to the fey. “Well, go on! Say hello!”

“Can he talk?” Tarquin asked, tilting his head to get a better look at the creature’s face. His eyes were about the same color as his wings, rimmed with black markings. His features were delicate, almost feminine.

“Oh, yes,” Aleks said. “He’s just … shy.”

The fey curled away again, and one of those wings shot up, forming a barrier between them.

Aleks frowned. “Oh, come now,” he muttered. “Don’t be like that.”

Tarquin sighed, then turned to the pages. “Take him away— I’ll figure out what to do with him later.”

“Later?” Aleks said. “Where shall they put him in the meantime? Just shove him in a closet or the hallway, or the harem—”

“There’s no room for him there.”

“I take it you’ve received a lot of gifts lately,” Aleks chuckled with a sinister grin.

“And yet only one male purported to be a bride fit for a king,” he muttered, tucking his hands in his sleeves. “You can figure out what to do with him.”

“Very well,” Aleks said, “send him to the king’s chambers.”

Tarquin glared at his cousin. “Are you quite mad?”

“I believe I’m the only one in the room with any sense. Does it not make sense to send a bride to the husband’s chambers if every other room in the palace is full up?”

Tarquin gritted his teeth. “Enough. I’ll excuse myself from this chicanery,” he growled.

“Cousin!” Aleks cried. “You’re such a dour old man already. It’s scarcely gone midnight. Is your carriage going to turn back into a pumpkin?”

Tanaquil held her hand across her mouth; it did nothing to disguise her laughter. Tarquin crinkled his nose. “A what?”

Aleks waved a hand airily. “The party’s just getting started! Why, sometimes, parties in Rus rage until dawn.”

“Ugh.”

“It’s not like you sleep,” Tullia huffed. “Where are you hurrying off to?”

“Peace and quiet,” he returned without hesitation.

Tullia rolled her eyes. “Not this again,” she muttered.

Aleks quirked a brow. “What again?”

“He’s ‘sensitive,’” she sneered, crunching her fingers.

“I am!” Tarquin snapped.

“Oh please!” Tullia whirled on him. “What kind of incubus are you? Can’t stomach anything—not even pleasant emotions, not even a little taste of the sheer euphoria in this room?” She pointed to the floor below them, the thronging crowd undulating to the music.

Tarquin gritted his teeth. “I can scarcely stand anything, least of all the hedonistic ecstasy of three thousand drug-addled barons, these peacocks, the—”

“Enough,” Tullia scoffed, crossing her arms. “The very idea is ridiculous. It’s pleasant—”

“It’s disgusting.”

“You two are making it rather unpleasant,” Tanaquil murmured.

Aleks laid a hand on either of their shoulders. “Quin, Tully,” he said, drawing a glare from either of them, “let’s stop this bickering. Quin, what’s say we continue your audience with Viridian in private?” He leered.

“I’ve no reason to entertain a man further than I already have.”

“Oh, I think you’d be surprised.”

Tarquin rolled his eyes. Aleks clapped him on the shoulder. “Come! There’s much to discuss about the marriage contract.”

“I am not discussing marriage contracts—”

Aleks tightened his grip on his shoulder, digging his claws in. He smiled at Tullia. “Good night, dearest cousin!”

Tullia kicked at the carpet, then muttered, “We’ll see you at breakfast.”

“And when, pray tell, is breakfast?” Aleks asked. “I can’t imagine the dining hours are very regular in your household, given the master’s dining habits.”

Tarquin ignored the jab. “We keep regular dining hours.” Tullia was unmoved. “You’ll find us in the banquet hall an hour after sunrise—eight.”

Aleks nodded. “Very well,” he said, “I look forward to our next meeting.” With that, he herded both Tarquin and the fey out of the room.

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