Rishtah opened the envelope sitting on her desk the next day. It was a beautiful silver locket necklace on a long silver chain. She immediately recognized the work of Manuel, and noticed that there was a charm inlaid within the filigree of the silver. She knew she couldn’t open it here. With slightly shaking fingers, she slipped it around her neck. She clutched at the locket for a moment before pursing her lips and started working. She responded to correspondence from various fae and after a bit stretched herself, cracking her aching fingers. Relief poured into her and she decided to steep some pomegranate tea before her meeting with the rest of the Elders. There were a couple of them that she couldn’t stand. She knew that they weren’t loyal to Zaria, to the cause.
Even her office wasn’t private; she knew she was never alone here and that she couldn’t let her true feelings and knowledge be known. They thought they were dealing in secret with their betrayals, but she knew. She was disappointed and hurt, but she had to remain as though she knew nothing about them. She couldn’t even let Gareth know. She was glad she had already told them just the fact that no one could be trusted except for a select few. Rishtah knew that they would be devastated when they found out. She quickly wrote a note to the pair, asking them to come over for some post lunch tea, and left her office to find the large meeting room where the rest of the Elders gathered. She smiled at them, warmth casting shadows from her face, greeting each with a handshake and a kiss to the cheek, smothering shudders at the evil-doers of the group. She stood next to one she trusted, chatting about the weather. Her ears strained to pick up other conversations that were had until the meeting officially began. She heard nothing sinister, but then again, didn’t expect it here. She sat down with the rest and started speaking about a new attack plan.
Zaria sighed and snuggled into the crook of Gareth’s arm. She breathed in his scent. Her nose filled with the scent of the woods; pine, cedar, and birch; flowers of gardenias and lilacs; and earth. There was also a faint electric scent on him. The smell of lingering magic pulled down from the atoms of the universe themselves. Stardust was in his veins, pulsing below the surface. She knew that with the amount of energy they stored within themselves now, they could subconsciously hold off an attack while preparing for defense. She didn’t want to let go of this moment, because who knew how many of them they had left?
She froze when she felt him stir, muscles tense as she waited. But he stayed sleeping and she slowly relaxed, melting into a pool in his arms. One of the few times she let her guard down, was in these moments. It was all so bittersweet. All of a sudden she was pinned down on her back and Gareth was hovering above her, holding her arms above her head. Her eyes were wide as she was stunned, never suspecting he had been awake. He gazed down at her wolfishly, with a mischievous glint in his eye. He tickled her stomach with his fingertips, and Zaria started shrieking. She tried folding in on herself, laughing. She grappled with his arms as they both laughed, rolling around trying to top the other. She straddled his middle, her hands closed over his fists as he tried to protect himself from her tickles. No winner was declared when they both lay flat on their backs, gasping for air, grabbing at their aching sides from laughter. She caught his eye and grinned, knowing the complete and love and joy they found in each other.
She didn’t want to think about the bad, but they both thought of it at the same time. They ended up in each other’s arms, comforting and soothing. They didn’t need to speak words. Their emotions trembled around them like fragile guitar strings, so afraid of snapping, of causing the harmony around them to crumble and dissolve into discord. He kissed her forehead and ran his fingers through her hair while she smoothed her fingertips over his arms. They lay like that for a very long time. They let the morning pass by, just listening to the sounds around them.
“There has to be something better than this. I don’t want to be queen. But we can’t let her sit back and slaughter everything good about this world. She will destroy it, eat it up, until there is nothing left,” Zaria spoke up when late morning shadows danced across them.
“I know,” Gareth affirmed quietly. “Who would be queen, then?”
Zaria was glad they were in a bubble of Gareth’s protection so no one could overhear. “I don’t know. I just don’t want to do it. To be in charge of other people?” She frowned and shuddered at the thought.
“What about it is so fearful?” Gareth asked as he traced his fingers down her arm.
“Not fearful, but distasteful. I mean, I was on my own for my entire adult life. I didn’t need anyone or anything to tell me what to do. I would be angry if anyone else tried, and tried to rule over me. Don’t people get mad about that?”
“Well, the council makes all the rules here. But they care for the good of everyone, to protect everyone.”
Zaria chewed on that for a while. She conceded that especially now, people should be protected. “But if people were better informed, wouldn’t they be able to protect themselves?”
“Everyone knows that we are in danger from Awen, but they still do things that put everyone in danger, like go outside the perimeter. So the Elders had to strengthen the walls so that not just anyone can get in. You have to have permission.”
Zaria didn’t know what to think. She didn’t want to rule over other people, but that was even assuming they would all live. Her mind and body ached from the effort and stress of training with Gareth, for the purpose of saving people from death and destruction. “Can we have a day off?”
Gareth laughed. “Well I guess, I don’t see why not. We’ve already had the morning off. But this can’t be a daily occurrence,” he smiled and kissed the top of her head.
Zaria sighed. “Good. Maybe we can talk to Aria about having dinner. That would be fun.” They reluctantly got out of bed and ate a late lunch while Zaria contacted Aria about dinner. They were more than happy to accommodate the two of them. They then got an urgent message from Rishtah to meet at her house just after lunch for tea. They glanced at each other worriedly, and rushed over. They knocked on the door and Rishtah opened it, ushering them inside. They felt her do an extra spell of protection. They sat at the kitchen table. Rishtah had a beautiful necklace around her neck, and she took it into her hands, unlocking the piece. She handed Gareth a small piece of paper, and fiddled with the locket, unable to keep her hands still. She knew she could finally let her guard down and show her worry.
Rishtah quietly told them about the damn bird. She trusted her wards, but she spoke softly nonetheless. Zaria paled, clutching Gareth’s hand. How much time did they have? Not much. The wedding wasn’t far away now, and Zaria kept the information about trusting others in the back of her mind.
“We can trust Manuel,” Gareth affirmed. “He would never hurt your sister,” he squeezed her hand in his and raised their hands to his lips, kissing the back of her fingers.
“I don’t know if we can trust her though. I mean, we were just reunited after a century apart. I hate to say that, but it’s true. She’s also the one that brought the bird in here.” It was a hard thought to swallow, and she didn’t want to dwell on it. She knew it was a possibility though, and she hated it. With her free hand she tugged on her hair, a nervous and worried gesture.
“To be fair, she might not have known that the bird was Awen’s spy,” Gareth tried to reassure, but Zaria didn’t reply. “Besides, why would she be involved in a plot that would end her life?”
Zaria didn’t speak right away. “Maybe she wasn’t aware of that part,” she finally said hollowly.
Rishtah said nothing. She had contemplated telling them who she knew for sure were betrayers, but still came to the conclusion that she couldn’t tell them. In a way, it would be safer to, but knew the shock would betray the knowledge to the defectors, which was actually more dangerous. Nothing could be given away until the moment it became public. And it would. They couldn’t live in the shadows forever. She questioned telling them about the bird because she thought emotions might spoil that they knew, and she didn’t know if they could hide it and act normal. But she didn’t want any important information said in front of the thing.
They talked a little more, and informed Rishtah that they were going to Aria’s for dinner, and that the bird might be present. She warned them to be careful, and rushed back to the office. Gareth and Zaria went back to his house, where they relaxed as much as they could with books before dinner. The birds were chirping outside, and sunlight was streaming in through the window. There was a false sense of cheeriness from it all, and Zaria was brooding as she was trying to read. She read the same page five times, the first paragraph of it ten times before she closed the book and just gazed outside. Gareth sensed her unease, but didn’t say anything. They headed over to dinner when the sun was just starting to cast longer shadows. They walked slowly, hand in hand. Zaria plastered a smile on her face as Aria opened the door for them. She hugged and kissed her sister, hoping she gave nothing away.
“I’m so glad you’re here!” Aria exclaimed, going to hug Gareth. “We have so much to talk about! I’ve finally chosen the menu. I know, I know. It’s so late, but I just couldn’t make up my mind. Brenda has been so kind putting up with me about this.” Aria chattered on as they walked to the living room. “The food is almost done, I hope you like it. Manuel has been cooking some juicy steaks!”
Zaria almost tripped when they moved into the dining room and she saw an extra place setting. “Is mother coming to dinner?”
“Oh, no, that’s for Buster! He loves steak!” As though the brilliant blue bird knew they were talking about it, it flew into the room and landed just at the edge of the plate. Zaria stiffened, but didn’t say anything. Gareth gave a warning squeeze to her shoulder and she tried to relax.
“That’s so cute,” she commented with a little laugh. She knew she had to be more convincing and natural, but she was finding it very difficult.
Manuel brought in the steaks, and swooped Zaria up in a hug when he set the platter down. “It’s so good to see you!”
She laughed and turned red. How could he be so normal? It was as though he knew nothing was wrong. He seemed to sense her unease because he spoke to her with his eyes as he wasn’t facing the bird. It was a warning, just like Gareth’s squeeze. She was frustrated. She had no practice with this kind of thing. Gareth had been double crossing the queen for a very long time. They sat down and Manuel turned to her.
“So when are you and Gareth going to tie the knot, huh?”
Zaria nearly choked on her bread. She gulped down some water, but was saved by Gareth.
“I don’t think we’re quite ready for that yet,” he said laughing.
“Well why not? You two are absolutely smitten,” Manuel winked at her.
“I don’t think we’ve been together for nearly long enough to think about marriage,” Zaria smiled. She happened to glance at the bird at that, and caught those beady eyes staring at her. She felt so creeped out and unnerved by it that the smile immediately fell from her face. She kept glancing from her plate to the bird, and the bird’s gaze never moved from her face. She gave up all pretense of pretending everything was fine. Her hands dropped to her lap and she stopped eating the delicious vegetables, her stomach now turned to acid and churning.
Gareth saw her, and looked at the bird, who was staring intently at Zaria. He shouted something he didn’t remember and scooted back from his chair, and it fell to the ground.
Awen stared at Zaria from the bird’s eye. She didn’t know how, but she knew that she knew. Then she realized that rat Manuel had outed her. She screamed with rage, making the bird fly straight at Zaria and her perfect face. Maybe she couldn’t kill her using this bird form, but she could maim her, and in that she would take great delight.
Zaria was pushed aside by Gareth, and she cried out in the confusion. She wasn’t sure what had happened to make him jump up from his chair, but she was glad he had when the bird flew straight at him just as he did. Shakily, she realized that the bird had been aiming for her. With a cold realization, she knew that Awen knew that they knew. She threw up a bubble of protection without a thought, enclosing them inside. The bird changed course and headed for Aria. Zaria screamed and broke the bubble, rushing to her sister, but it was too late. The bird attacked, going for her eyes. Aria moved just in time to save her eyes, but the bird got her cheek. She screamed, blood running down her face. Zaria didn’t even think about it, but threw a massive amount of energy at the bird, and it crumpled at her feet.
Now that the bird was dead, Awen was cast out, and it changed back into its normal shape. A halfling lay at their feet. A dead halfling. Zaria scrambled to reach her sister’s side, who was clutching her face and sobbing. She forced Aria’s hand down from her face, and assessed the wound. It wasn’t that deep, but was still bleeding quite a bit. She no longer questioned her sister’s loyalty. Awen wouldn’t have attacked her if she has been on her side.
Awen screamed when the bitch killed her bird, some of the energy reaching her. Her brain was frying, her body was on fire. She knew it wouldn’t kill her, but she still lay on the ground writhing until it was over, seething. She stood and her anger was beyond the pale. Furious, because even through some stupid halfling, that princess bitch had been able to hurt her. She gathered an army, and ordered them to prepare to march.