Mirelle always played her cards close to her chest.
Literally as well as figuratively. Even though this was merely foreplay, a sideline, a prelude to the main event, she dared only lift the cards by the tiniest corner. Her blue eyes, tinted red in the pupils, darted from side to side. She may not be supposed to playing to win — too much — but she would be damned if she would present herself as easy to beat. She would make those men work for every clipped copper they won from her — even if she would make it all back, and then some, in bed.
The child within her kicked, and Mirelle winced — or would have winced, had she dared. For she was always to present herself as happy, as smiling, as content, never mind whatever physical discomfort she may be experiencing. Not for the first time, she thought of the men of her home, of the King and Queen’s court, and the brutes she was forced to serve now. Not for the first time, the brutes came out … wanting.
She sighed as she thought of her people, especially the men, their kindness and consideration, their copper-blooded beauty. They would never treat a woman as she was so treated. A woman in her condition would be pampered, cosseted, comforted, followed around with pillows to lean her sore back upon and slippers to soothe her aching feet. Even the mortal women, not that there were any others able to experience this condition! And no man of Mirelle’s kingdom would refuse to lie with a woman expecting a child — or at least, if they did, it would be because they feared for the health of mother and child, not because they could not be aroused by a woman’s body as it changed and yes, expanded, the better to accommodate the coming babe. They would not look at a mother-to-be with barely-veiled disgust (if they were feeling charitable), and openly scorn her attentions for those of her svelter companions.
Now that Mirelle thought of it in that light, brute was not nearly a strong enough word for it. No, not by a long shot. Beast, perhaps — no, that was an insult to beasts. Lout, perhaps, that was limited to Sims — no, that was not strong enough either —
Mirelle, came the call, accompanied by the ripple of harp strings.
Mirelle, daughter of Melusine, daughter of Shallette, of the clan Peaseblossom!
“Did you hear that?” Mirelle hissed to her companions.
She looked especially at Wei Li, who was by far the most sensitive of those at the gaming table. But Wei Li only cocked her head to one side and asked, “Hear what?”
Mirelle glanced at the men. The merchant and stable-owner Wesleyan seemed barely to have heard her, so intently were his eyes drinking in Wei Li. Whereas the man Robinson rolled his coins and looked bored.
Mirelle’s ears twitched, waiting for another breath of the harp. None came. “Nothing,” she spat to the listening air. “Nothing at all.”
Mirelle, daughter of Melusine, the Queen’s Bard calls you!
Queen’s Bard? Mirelle thought, knowing full well the harpist could hear her. I answer to no Queen’s Bard. I answer to no Queen. I was cast out, thirteen mortal years ago, do you not remember?
You swore oaths unbreakable to the Queen, and her Bard.
And they swore oaths unbreakable, never to let me into our fair realm again, all for a trifle that they elevated to a crime —
Mirelle, daughter of Melusine, of the clan Peaseblossom, neither the Queen nor her Bard wish to discuss your crime. What the Queen wishes to discuss, and what she sends her Bard to speak of, is your punishment.
Mirelle’s ears pricked up. Her punishment? Could it perhaps be lessened? It could hardly be made greater! Had the Queen, and King’s, anger cooled? It had only been thirteen mortal years, it was true, but it was just possible —
The Queen’s Bard will meet Mirelle, daughter of Melusine, of the clan Peaseblossom, at the dancing lawn on the night of the quarter moon.
The quarter moon — that was three nights from now —
A shiver of harp strings was the sign that the Queen’s bard was preparing herself to depart. Wait! Mirelle thought. You did not say what it was about! You did not say —
She was gone.
And so, three nights later, Mirelle forced her aching feet out of the door, into the streets of Avilion, and beyond them, into the woods that stretched between the coastal city of Avilion and the next concentrated center of mortal habitation.
She waddled through the woods without fear, despite the fact that her belly stuck out a full half-mile before her. Though the men and women of this land had largely forgotten her people, her true people, the animals had not. Being cast out had altered her physicality, but not her scent. The friendly animals knew her for a friend. The dangerous animals knew her to be more dangerous than they.
And as for those most dangerous animals of all, the Sims … well, they could not smell her as the animals could. Were she still but as weak and and fragile as any one of them, perhaps she would have had something to fear. Her true people need fear nothing, of course. But all the same, Mirelle — even in her loaded-down, ungainly, fleshly present state — had nothing to fear either. Her fangs and hiss were all the protection that she needed.
As quickly as she could, she moved to the dancing lawn. Here, in the shelter of circling trees, the veil between the place where Mirelle now lived and her true home grew thinnest. How eagerly she had haunted this place in the early days, hoping that the Queen or perhaps the King would see her in her weakened state and be moved to pity her!
Now, of course, she never came here at all. Except for when she was summoned.
Summoned! By the Queen’s own Bard!
Her footsteps quickened. Soon, soon, perhaps, she would be told she was welcome back. Perhaps they wanted to reverse the punishment, now that she was with child, so that they could have a child fully of their people!
No, no, that would not work. This child’s father was mortal, and among her people they had children of mortals in plenty. Perhaps they would welcome her and her child back — yes, that was it — and maybe they would let her stay mortal for a brief time, long enough to be impregnated again, and then restore her to her natural state. Hers would be the first true child of her people to be born in millenia —
The Queen’s bard stood between the standing stones that marked the entrance to the dancing lawn. Was this a good sign?
“Briary,” Mirelle answered.
“No honorific? I am still a Queen’s bard, even if you no longer recognize our Queen.”
Your Queen no longer recognizes me, thought Mirelle, but she said nothing, having no desire to find out which form was stronger — her new form or her old one. “I did not think one was required between us,” she said instead. “Cousin.”
Briary — or Lady Briary, if one gave her her honorific — nodded. “Cousin.” They gave each other the formal kiss of kinswomen.
After the kiss, they pulled away from each other, each giving the other the kind of formal going-over that women do so well, and kinswomen — kinswomen who had been raised practically as sisters, for they were some of the youngest of their kind and some of the last to be born — did better. Mirelle did her best not to smirk. Even now, with the unseemly rosy flush upon her complexion (well, beneath the undead paleness, that was), Mirelle knew herself for the prettier cousin. Her own beauty was closer to their ethereal Queen’s, while Briary was as sharp and fox-faced as ever.
Really, it was just as well that Briary was Queen’s Bard — Mirelle had no idea how she would attract male attention, if she were not forever bent over her harp, playing bewitching tunes, tunes that made men fall in love with her though she played without thought of seduction, and tunes that kept her face hidden as she concentrated. Then again, Briary had never been much for male attention, either, at least not after their race had proven to be utterly infertile.
And speaking of infertility …
A corner of Mirelle’s mouth poked upward. “Care to bid hello to your newest kinsman or woman?” she asked, patting her stomach.
No mortal would have seen it, but there was still enough fae left within Mirelle that she did see Briary’s wince. “Greetings, my young cousin,” Briary replied. “What a pity you will not get a chance to know my son, Hal.”
A son? She had — ah, of course, she must have had a child with one of the mortals. Things had indeed changed since Mirelle had been cast out. “Hal, hmm? Tell me, was he hard to carry, or no? My first, Rhoslyn, enjoyed kicking every internal organ she could reach, but Pasgen –”
“It would be best if we were to move away from the road. Puck usually does not bring his friends here until the moon is at the full, but curious mortals can strike at any time.” Without another word, Briary ventured deeper into the forest, though she did not leave the circle of trees and flowers. Mirelle could not help but smirk as she followed. I bet she watched her lover waddle about with that huge belly and ate her heart out with envy the whole time.
… Of course, if she’d ever had to waddle about herself, she never would make that mistake, but I’ll be staked before I tell her that!
“This place will do well,” Briary said, turning around. “If you need a seat, please, all I ask is that you conjure one for both of us.”
It was good that it was only the quarter moon; if it was the full, Mirelle was certain Briary would have been able to see the smoke escaping by way of her ears. Even if Mirelle were still one of the fae, she could have never conjured a comfortable bench for them both to sit upon while still in the mortal world!
“I can stand,” Mirelle replied. “If your lover told you that expecting a child is such a trying ordeal, I can assure that … she?” Briary nodded. “Then she was lying.”
“Helena actually did very well with both of her pregnancies,” Briary replied. “Though the second was not mine — it was a favor to Sir Lankin — the King’s Sword, of course.”
“I … see,” Mirelle seethed.
“Kate is rather adorable, though,” Briary continued. “I am so glad that Sir Lankin was kind enough to allow Helena — and I, of course — to share custody. Not that there was any other rational choice, seeing that Sir Lankin is so busy — as am I, at times! But still, it is almost like being mother to two.” Without warning, Briary cocked her head to one side and asked, “And your children? How do they do?”
The tips of Mirelle’s ears began to grow warm. “Well enough.”
“Do you find that they take after you more, or after their father?”
She could not, would not, admit that she had given up her children! No fae would be able to understand that, and Mirelle had only done it under duress. So all she said was, “I am not in a position to find out. But come now, cousin,” she asked, shrugging slightly. “Surely you did not cross into the mortal world simply to chit-chat about babies. What is it you desire?”
“I bear a message from the Queen.”
I imagine you would.
“She is not pleased, Mirelle. Nor is the King.”
The — King? It was rare — very rare — for High King Auberon to send a message by way of the Queen’s Bard —
“Your sentence was to be sent to the mortal world, and become mortal, Mirelle. Not to — circumvent –”
“My sentence was to be banished. Have I returned Underhill, since –”
Briary waved her hand. “The question is immaterial. The way is barred to you.”
“A way is barred to me! I may yet find another!”
“You may no longer age in your current state, Mirelle,” Briary replied, “but you are far from immortal. If you returned Underhill, it would be death to you, and you know it. Do you think the King’s Sword knows not how to dispatch one of your kind?”
“Do you not think that, knowing what the King’s Sword can do, I might be better equipped to fight him than any vampire? Even Count Henrik and Contessa Clemencia have not half my knowledge, half my capability!”
Briary looked to the side and sighed. “Mirelle, you have spent far too much time in the mortal world, if you name mortals born almost a millennium after the first of the half-fae as being lesser than yourself, and take pride in that fact.”
“In any case, you are well aware that you are not permitted to return Underhill. Ever. The Queen and King will not permit it, Mirelle. And, though you do not age, I can assure you that you cannot possibly live long enough to see the Queen and King’s will change on this matter.”
“Or see the day when their will no longer matters, perhaps?”
Briary rolled her eyes. “No matter how careful you are, I am sure an errant beam of sunlight will catch you ere that happens!”
“Some kinswoman you are, to call down death –”
“Mirelle. You were banished. I did my best to plead for you before the Queen and King passed their sentence, but you should have known your days among our number were done the moment you slipped a love potion to Demetrius. Perhaps you can delude yourself into believing that you will someday return, but I prefer to limit my imaginings to the realm of the possible.”
“Now, will you hear my message, or will you not?”
Mirelle let her fangs glisten in the waxing moon. “Go ahead.”
“The Queen and the King with her wish you to know that she knows of your condition.”
“That she … knows of my condition?” Mirelle asked, waiting for more. “You mean …?” She gestured to her belly.
“Your other condition.”
“Oh,” Mirelle murmured. “… That is all?”
“Indeed. That is all.”
“So … what do they intend to do about it? I seem to recall you say something about circumventing my punishment.”
Briary blinked once. “Their Majesties were not pleased to learn of what you had done, Mirelle.”
“And what do they intend to do about it?”
“Aye, do about it! Now they know that I have circumvented their punishment for three mortal years!”
One of Briary’s eyebrows went up. “They knew what you had done within a mortal year of your meeting Count Henrik.”
If Mirelle’s heart had continued to beat, it would have skipped a beat. “Did they.”
“And so it took them two years to decide what to do?”
“No, Mirelle. It took them two years to decide whether or not to tell you that they knew.”
She truly had spent too much time in the mortal world, Mirelle realized, if it surprised her that the Queen and King would take two mortal years in determining just that question. She took a deep breath and bared her fangs. “I see … and let me guess, telling me that they know, it is meant to be taken as a threat?”
“Only if that is what you wish, Mirelle. I hope you will take it as a warning.”
“A warning. Against what?”
“Banished though you are, you are still one of our people –”
“And subject to all of your laws? I think not!”
“Mirelle, the King and Queen are willing to let you alone, so long as you do not force their hand. They feel responsible for you — they will not permit you to terrorize all of the mortals –”
“I am terrorizing no one!”
“Then continue to do so, and there will be no problems.”
Mirelle scoffed. “If I do not terrorize mortals, it is because I chose not to — not because the Queen and King frighten me! There is Cold Iron a-plenty in this mortal world, and I am not so sensitive to it as I was!”
“Oh, Mirelle, Mirelle. Kinswoman, cousin. Must we argue so? I am but the messenger, and the message is not so harsh. Do not continue to push the Queen and King, Mirelle. For while you are right and there is much Cold Iron in this world, and you are no longer as sensitive to it as you used to be …”
Briary sighed. “There is also much sunshine in this world, and you are far more sensitive to it than you were.”
Author’s Note: Special thanks to Hat for her Stolen by Faeries mod — without her mod, Lady Briary wouldn’t exist in my game!