Desert TalesMelissa Marr
To the readers who asked me to write this one
Please note that this is a companion story to the original five Wicked Lovely novels. The overarching plot of the series stands on its own without Desert Tales. Much like the Wicked Lovely series short stories, Desert Tales is intended to be “extra content.”
This story began while I was writing Fragile Eternity. I started pondering the Winter Girls and Keenan’s past relationships with them. I also knew that Keenan was going to be absent in Radiant Shadows, and I started thinking about where he went. When I ponder, I write. In this case, to figure out what was happening elsewhere outside the courts, I wrote the three-volume Wicked Lovely: Desert Tales manga.
However, I also try to listen to reader requests when possible. When readers said they wanted the Wicked Lovely stories all in one place together, we released Faery Tales & Nightmares, a collection that included five Wicked Lovely short stories and a handful of other folklore-rooted stories. Likewise, when readers asked to read the story of Desert Tales without reading it as manga, I decided that not only was that a great idea but that if I were going to do it, I’d go further and expand on the story. It’s been fun for me to revisit the Wicked Lovely world; I hope you enjoy it too.
With thanks for your support,
Excerpt from Wicked Lovely
About the Author
Books by Melissa Marr
About the Publisher
As she took—and failed—the test to become the missing Summer Queen, Rika’s mortality ended. She stared at him from snow-filled eyes, icicles tipping her fingernails, frost clouds rising from her lips. She’d thought she loved him; worse, she’d believed he loved her. As the cold filled her, Keenan didn’t touch her. He simply turned away.
The next time they spoke, he told her that he’d found the girl who might be queen, another mortal who had no idea what he was, the one who could be what she wasn’t. It wasn’t difficult at all to tell girls that Keenan wasn’t to be trusted, and it wasn’t as hard as she’d expected to convince that girl not to take the test.
Again and again, she met the girls who were not the one. Again and again, she tried to convince them not to trust him—and she succeeded.
Years passed, and all Rika had for comfort was the wolf who first came to her when she was filled with ice. No faery offered her friendship, not even those she’d spared from the fate she endured. The loneliness weighed her down almost as much as the ice that crackled across her skin, yet time and again, she stood in front of another mortal girl who refused to lift the staff. Each time, Rika was torn between the sharp satisfaction of seeing Keenan falter and desperate sorrow that her own tenure carrying the ice would continue.
Until Donia . . .
Despite all of Rika’s warnings, Donia decided that Keenan was worth the risk. The color drained from her as her mortality was replaced, as she failed the test. For the first time in years, the tears that slid down Rika’s face were not frozen. Water slipped over her skin instead of ice while Donia’s pale blond hair became white, her body bowed under the pain, and her lips turned blue from the cold.
Rika’s freedom was gained only by another’s loss.
Donia fell heavily to the ground, and Rika couldn’t even touch her to help her to stand. Sasha, the wolf, went to the new Winter Girl. He was hers now, like the pain and the ice. Rika felt a burst of guilt as she wished she could keep the wolf, that someone would choose to stay with her.
Rika glared at Keenan as he stood there glowing and then turned away from Donia as he had once turned from her. He had destroyed both of their lives, yet he offered comfort to neither girl. One of the faeries who advised him came to Rika, explaining her new future, treating her with all the barely hidden disdain she’d come to expect of them after she’d convinced girl after girl not to trust the Summer King.
She was no longer ice-filled, but she couldn’t go back to the life she’d left behind. Everyone she’d known was dead. Rika was a faery with no family, no friends, no court; she was untethered, just as alone as she had been for the past decades. Now, however, she no longer even had a purpose.
So she’d fled to somewhere hot, hoping to burn away the memories of the ice that had lived inside her skin. When she arrived, faeries so different than any she knew in the Summer Court or Winter Court watched her, but she’d turned away from them, pretended that they were no different than the landscape around them, and they’d let her—at least, she’d thought they did.
They never acknowledged her until one night when she watched the Alpha, Sionnach, dance in the wide-open desert under a full moon. It wasn’t the first or even the fifth time she’d watched him, but this time, he looked at her and grinned. Late that night, he came to her cave and was the first to talk to her. For years, he was the only one who visited her, who teased her. He didn’t force her to join the faeries here, but he was her friend—her only friend.
Until Jayce . . .
Trusting Keenan had been the mistake that informed Rika’s entire life, a mistake that had cost her both her humanity and her happiness. She’d given everything—her mortality, her family, her health—but it wasn’t enough. She wasn’t enough.
So when she’d escaped to the desert and hidden herself away from both humanity and faeries, she’d kept to herself. It was a quiet life, but she was happy—until she met Jayce. Admittedly, met might not be the right way to describe her encounters with the mortal boy, but it was as close of a word as she knew, and as close as she’d come to a relationship in a very long time. She spent countless hours at his side talking to him or simply enjoying their shared silence. Jayce, of course, hadn’t known how much time they’d spent together because Rika remained invisible during all of it. She might not have been born a faery, but she followed the rules: faeries weren’t to carelessly reveal themselves to mortals.
Today, as she had so many other times since she’d first discovered Jayce staring into the sky with a bemused smile on his face, Rika was enjoying one of their art dates. She cherished her days with Jayce. Unlike the faery king she’d thought lovely when she was a mortal, the human boy she’d fallen for was the kind of beautiful that faeries couldn’t be. Jayce had thick dreadlocks that were such a dark brown that they were only a shade shy of black—except for the few that were dyed purple. Today, the dreads were pulled back in a ponytail, but a few had escaped and fallen over his shoulder as he sketched.
Oblivious to her as always, he perched on a rock, sketchbook on his knee, bottle of water at his feet. Pencils, charcoal, and other art paraphernalia jutted out of his satchel and spilled onto the ground next to him, but he was lost in the moment. His attention drifted between the desert and his paper.
Rika shaded her portrait of him while he captured the desert landscape with his colored pencils. “Another perfect date,” she said.
; Jayce looked up, but not at her words. Like most mortals, he couldn’t see or hear the fey. Fortunately, her invisibility also meant that he’d never reject her, never tell her that she wasn’t the girl for him. Unfortunately, it also meant that he would never reach out and draw her closer. Still, she’d decided almost a year ago that their relationship was better if he didn’t know she existed.
She followed his gaze to where a desert tortoise plodded across the ground. When Jayce saw it at the edge of the road, he dropped his sketch pad on top of his satchel and picked up the tortoise.
He carefully lowered the tortoise onto the sand on the other side of the road. “Too many dangers for you out here.” Jayce watched the tortoise continue its journey into the desert. Then he glanced at the darkening sky. “Looks like it’s time for me to go too.”
As he packed up his art supplies, Rika packed hers as well, but when she looked in the same direction Jayce had, her happiness fled. What appeared to be an ordinary storm to Jayce was something Rika saw as far worse: a faery raced toward her in the heart of a swirling dust devil. Surrounded by twisting sand was the source of all of her greatest sorrows, Keenan, the Summer King himself.
Embarrassingly, even in the midst of the waves of ugly emotion his presence elicited, Rika couldn’t stop the sigh that escaped her at the sight of Keenan. When she’d fallen for him, Keenan had still been a bound king, the strength of summer hidden from him inside a mortal girl. Even then, he was captivating. Now that his curse was broken, he was devastating to see.
He’d spent nine centuries seeking his Summer Queen, romancing innocent after innocent. At one point, he’d convinced Rika that she was the one he needed. Worse still, he’d convinced Rika that she loved him enough to risk finding out if she was the one he needed. She hadn’t been the missing queen, and as a result of the curse, she’d been transformed into a faery, filled with ice and cold as punishment for failing the test. Such was the horrible cost of trying to break the curse that bound summer.
Many years and many foolish girls later, the Summer King had found his mortal—a girl named Aislinn—and taken her humanity as he had all of the others. This time, the newly fey girl was filled with sunlight, and Keenan was finally radiant with the summer strength he’d been seeking for so long. To herself, Rika could admit that she was happy that the curse was un-made. A world slowly freezing would have eventually killed every living creature except for those faeries who were a part of the Winter Court. It had been a horrible curse, a horrible fate for the world.
But I still can’t forgive him. Not for the loss of my mortality. Not for the trickery. Not for the years of carrying ice in my skin.
Spirals of wind and sand whipped out around Keenan as he stopped in front of her.
“Why?” Rika asked.
“Why what?” Keenan had stilled, but the air around him hadn’t. The sand was uplifted, held aloft by his magic.
It wasn’t really a question she could explain—or one he could ever answer to her satisfaction. Rika’s words were careful, whether out of sorrow or anger she couldn’t say. “Why do you still bother me?”
He paused, and in a moment, Keenan had willed the sand into two chairs. Rika wouldn’t admit it aloud, but the chairs were beautiful: they appeared as solid as sandstone cliffs, like rocks with striations. The sand-formed chairs were positioned at slight angles to each other, as if they were at a small two-person table in a bistro, not in the vast expanse of desert. The Summer King wasn’t quite posturing, but like every court faery he was clearly aware of his appearance. He always had been, even when half of his power was hidden away from him. Now that he was freed, he was positively preening. He sat upon a chair that hadn’t existed until he willed it and waited, looking like the king he was, expecting her to be flattered by his attention and awed by his skills.
She wasn’t flattered. His attention never boded well. So Rika didn’t sit. Instead, she folded her arms over her chest and glared at him.
He frowned. “Is it truly such a chore to talk to me?”
“I think it is,” she said. Fairies couldn’t lie—that rule was as old as the cliffs that stretched out in the distance of the desert—but they could prevaricate or temper their words. Rika stepped farther away from him.
“Even now?” Keenan asked. Heat radiated from him, to him, as if his skin was breathing the extreme temperature in and out. He was the Summer King as he had only ever been in the moments when mortal girl after mortal girl risked everything for him. Now that he was unbound, he would be fully himself all the time, but the memories of seeing him like this pushed against her as fiercely as the heat.
When Rika didn’t answer, he added, “You’re free of the ice.”
“I still dream of it.” Rika turned to face him even though she knew she still looked vulnerable. “I wake up convinced that winter is still inside my veins. What you did—”
“I didn’t do that to you.” Keenan’s voice filled with frustration and the heat around them flared momentarily stronger. “I didn’t want you to suffer. I never wanted any of you to suffer.”
“Did you choose me?” Rika asked softly, tilting her head so that her short hair, cut in a modern way she knew he hated, brushed her shoulder. She moved so he could see the silver jewelry piercing her ear. She was not going to live in the past, not going to look like the girl who was foolish enough to trust him. When he didn’t reply, she added, “Did you convince me that you loved me?”
“I did, but—”
“Did I carry ice in my body for years because of that mistake?” She stepped closer. “Because I believed you loved me?”
“So why wouldn’t it bother me to see you?” She moved so close that she was in his space. He could crush her without any effort, incinerate her with the sunlight he carried inside of him, but she didn’t care. She’d decided many years ago that she would never bow before him. All she had left was her pride. He’d taken everything else, and when she hadn’t been the girl with sunlight inside of her, he’d rejected her.
Keenan ran his hand through his hair in a familiar gesture of frustration. The strands shimmered like glistening copper, like solidified sunlight, captivating even now. He couldn’t argue without lying, but he wanted her to bend.
Rika couldn’t. In the desert, the passive were less free. Maybe it had been the same in the faery courts and in the human world. Back then, however, she didn’t know how important it was to speak for what she believed. She’d learned though. “Look at where we are. Cities are poisonous to me, Keenan. Iron, steel, they leave me sick now. . . .”
Despite her still-raw anger, the Summer King didn’t flinch. “That’s part of being faery. Almost all faeries have that limitation. It’s not—”
“—fair, Keenan,” she finished. “It’s not fair.”
She turned her back to him and sat in one of the sand chairs.
“It’s not unusual,” he corrected. “I was going to say it’s not unusual. Faeries are weakened by steel and iron. It’s just the way we always have been.”
“But I wasn’t always like this. I was human before you.”
“A long time ago.” He reached out as if he’d touch her. He didn’t, but a sand-filled breeze that looked ever-so-slightly like fingertips brushed her cheek. “I can’t take it back, but I’m sorry you’re sad. I did love you.”
“That was a long time ago too. And look where it left me. . . .”
Keenan’s eyes flashed in anger. He waved his hand, and myriad paths—like unpaved roads—formed like patterns stretching across the desert. “So go. You’re far stronger than you admit. You might not be able to live in a city, but you can leave here.”
“There’s nowhere else I want to be. After the years of ice, I like the warmth, and”—she glanced at the distant cliff again—“what I’ve found here.”
Keenan made a noise of irritation, but he kept his silence, and she felt no need to explain herself further, not to him. She could leave if she thought there
was somewhere she’d be freer, happier, but it had only been here in the desert where she’d come close to happiness. When she’d first been freed from the cold, she’d wandered, but there was no peace in it. Since she’d made that ill-fated choice to attempt to be the queen Keenan sought, she’d been unhappy. It was only recently that she’d come near to the sort of happiness she’d always wanted.
Because of Jayce.
There was no way she’d tell Keenan about him; faeries had a long-standing tradition of cruelty to humans, and now that Keenan had no need to seek among them for his missing queen, she wasn’t entirely sure what he’d do. There were whispers of rumors, murmurs that he was even fonder of mortals lately, but he also had a peculiar possessiveness toward all of the faeries who he’d chosen in hopes that they would be his queen. He might have rejected her, but that didn’t stop him from acting like she would always belong to him.
“What do you want?” she asked.
“I wanted to tell you that I’m unbound and that Donia’s . . . the new Winter Queen.” Keenan’s eyes clouded at the mention of the Winter Girl who’d replaced Rika, the one who’d become Winter Queen when he’d found his Summer Queen. Overhead, clouds formed, their darkness matching his expression as a summer storm rumbled over the desert. In mere moments, the shadows of the clouds on the ground stretched and darkened. He was still tempestuous, perhaps more so than when she’d first met him, only now he had the strength to go with his moods.
“I know. All the desert fey heard. Donia will be a good queen.” Rika smiled at the thought of Donia’s ascendency. She, too, was originally mortal, and she’d made the same foolish mistake that so many girls had—to love Keenan and risk everything. Rika grinned before adding, “She’ll be good at standing against you too, especially since she hasn’t forgiven you.”
Lightning hit the ground behind her, and Rika laughed at him. Like so many of those born faery, he was a petulant child sometimes. When she’d first become fey, such outbursts frightened her. Now, she knew that he was merely stomping his foot in a way that only he could.