Seven Black DiamondsMelissa Marr
To Asia, my beloved daughter and absolute dearest friend in the universe, who gave me harsh, frequent, and brilliant notes on more drafts than either of us should count—all while working an archaeological dig in Scotland, finishing university, and getting into multiple top-tier PhD programs. You are a total badass woman and an inspiration.
A dead baby. A score of slaughtered sailors. The truth of what started the war was a matter of which side you were on and how you spun the story. In her grief, the queen wept seven tears into the sea, one for each of her brightest diamonds, and then she waited.
—Iana Abernathy, The Cost of Secrets
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“You were created to serve.” The Queen of Blood and Rage sat on a throne inside her small throne room. The throne in this room was nothing more than wood and vine. It flowered at her will, but the blooms were absent today. The queen herself needed no ornamentation to evoke terror. Her eyes did that without any seeming effort from her. Today, she was worse than usual as she’d been preparing to spar when the Sleepers were brought before her. Her hair was bound back in a tight braid. Her hands were gloved, and she wore armor the color of battle-blackened blood.
Behind her on the wall were an assortment of sharpened blades, swords as well as axes and daggers. In front of her, kneeling on the bone-white floor, were five of her Sleepers, half-fae, half-humans who were created to serve as soldiers in her war on humanity. At the queen’s either side were her two living children, her Unseelie son Rhys and Eilidh, the queen’s daughter with the king of Seelie Court.
No one else was in the room. The usually crowded chamber seemed almost cavernous with so few people present. Unlike many meetings, this one was secret. Neither of the courts knew of the queen’s Sleepers.
Eilidh wished she didn’t know either—especially when the girl kneeling in front of her mother said, “I’m not a murderer.”
“Truly,” the queen murmured.
Anyone who lived in the Hidden Lands would recognize that tone. Eilidh suppressed a wince. She was the queen’s heir, and whether or not she wanted to be the next in line to the Hidden Throne, Eilidh had a duty. She would stand in this small room with her mother and brother. She would witness the proceedings with an emotionless mien.
“I understand that we were born to serve your cause,” the girl said. “We all do.”
The five Sleepers behind her said nothing.
“We will not kill for you though,” the girl said. She was still on her knees, but her voice was strong, echoing slightly in the queen’s private throne room, despite the obvious danger in disobeying the Queen of Blood and Rage. The other five Sleepers remained silent. At least one of them looked as foolishly brave as this half-fae girl who was facing the queen.
Their silence condemned them.
Endellion ruled both the Seelie and Unseelie Courts, and even those fae-blood who lived outside the Hidden Lands. Possession of any fae blood was enough to be declared her subject—by decree of both fae and human law.
“Stand,” the queen commanded.
“You need to understand . . . I was raised as a human. We all were. You can’t expect us just to murder them. It’s—”
“Them or us.” The queen spoke over her as she descended from her throne.
“I’m both,” the girl argued as she came to her feet. “My mother is human. There is no them or us for the Sleepers. Can’t you see that?”
The queen glanced at Rhys, her gaze conveying the order.
When Rhys walked toward the girl, Eilidh stayed beside the queen’s throne. Protocol was a part of life in the Hidden Lands, even in the tiny private room where there would be no living witnesses beyond the royal family. Eilidh’s role as heir was to observe the proceedings, to learn, to see what a queen must do for her subjects.
The girl stood, but she did not move.
Rhys could’ve made her. He was the queen’s most trusted guard and truest servant. If the queen wanted him to move the young half-fae, half-human girl, he would do so, but the queen held up her hand.
She stepped down and walked over to face the girl. “Do you speak for your whole team?”
Eilidh wanted to tell the girl, to tell all of them, to stop what was about to happen. Instead, she forced herself to watch, knowing that these moments were what defined a future queen. She didn’t ever want to take the Hidden Throne, but as she had so many times already, Eilidh swore to herself that she would be a different sort of ruler than her mother.
The girl lifted her head to meet the queen’s eyes. “I do. We are a unit, but not the terrorists you’ve tried to make us become.”
None of the other five people dissented when the queen’s gaze drifted over them. “So you all choose to be human rather than fae? So be it.”
In the next moment, a scream began and ended. One of the queen’s various blades sliced across the girl’s throat. Between one breath and the next, she was dead.
Eilidh didn’t let her wince show on her face. Showing her feelings was not something she was allowed to do, even when the witnesses would be soon dead. Weakness wasn’t ever acceptable.
Looking up from the body at her feet, the queen ordered, “Mind Eilidh’s safety.”
Rhys stepped closer to the heir of the Hidden Throne, as their mother glanced at the rest of the group.
In mere minutes, they were dead. They stood no chance against the queen. She had held the Unseelie throne for centuries and had bloodied her blade with every fighter who came close to being her equal. Even the Seelie King himself wasn’t so foolish as to raise a blade to her. Centuries ago, when she’d walked into his court, dripping with the blood of his best fighters, and had announced that they would mate and unify their courts, he simply acquiesced.
Standing in the room with her children, the floor strewn with bodies, Endellion sighed. “I need to speak to the other handlers. Most of the Sleeper cells are not performing as they need to be.” Her longsword was pointed at the floor; blood dripped from the fae-wrought steel to the stone floor. The queen herself wasn’t even winded. She sighed and said, “My jewels are the only Sleepers that haven’t needed to be eliminated . . . yet.”
“Why?” Eilidh asked before she could stop herself.
Her mother smiled. “Because they were created with a diffe
rent level of attention.”
Eilidh had questions, but she didn’t bother asking. The queen shared only what she thought necessary. That was the privilege of ruling. Eilidh bowed her head and held her silence.
Rhys drew their mother’s attention then. “Shall I clean this or do you still want to spar?”
Endellion looked briefly at him and then back to her heir. “Eilidh will tend to this. You will spar with me. Come.”
And then she walked away with no other word, leaving Eilidh with five dead bodies.
“You need to stop hiding and go downstairs.” Shayla stood in the doorway to Lily’s bedroom. Her long graying hair fell neatly over her shoulders instead of being bound into some kind of twist or held captive under one of her innumerable scarves. An elegant dress, no doubt by a runway designer, made her look like the lady of the house rather than Lily’s caretaker, assistant, governess, whatever-her-title-was-now.
“I know. I just don’t want to. Daidí knows I don’t like parties.”
Shayla’s entire attitude switched from sweet to stern. “You’re being honored. Act like it.”
Lily couldn’t meet Shayla’s eyes.
“You will put a smile on that pretty little face of yours and march yourself down there,” Shayla continued. “You’ll go thank your father for the party, and you’ll smile at the guests, and make a point to say hello to that Morris boy that’s going to sing.”
Despite herself, Lily smiled. Creed Morrison was in every tabloid, toured worldwide, and was even in a movie. As if being a rock star wasn’t enough, he had to add acting. He had been her fantasy since she’d seen her first photo of him—and now he was here in her home.
“Morrison,” she said. “His name is Creed Morrison, Shayla.”
Shayla waved her hand dismissively. “Whatever. Creed. Morris. Unless he is in one of those musicals your father gets me tickets to see, I don’t care.” She came over to stand in front of Lily and fussed with her hair, pulling at the curls, unpinning and re-pinning it in several places as she spoke. “What matters, Lilywhite, is that Nicolas brought the boy here to sing for you. So go be charming.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Lily leaned in and kissed Shayla’s cheek before heading toward the door. Once she was sure she was out of reach, she teased, “Maybe you ought to come down too and check on Daidí. Make sure he’s not under siege from one of the fripperies.”
“Your father can handle himself just fine with those girls,” Shayla said.
“Come on. For me?”
“Hmph.” Shayla didn’t bother arguing further. She went on in front of Lily, effectively buying her a few minutes of peace.
Shayla was the closest thing to a mother that Lily had. Shayla and Daidí both swore that there was nothing romantic between them, but Lily kept hoping. Her mother had been gone for twelve years, and Shayla had filled her vacant place. They certainly functioned like a family. Shayla raised Lily when Daidí was off on business trips, and she looked after both of them when he was home.
Slowly, Lily walked through the hall, hating that she had to wear shoes, even though the tiny sandals were nothing more than a few strips of leather. She’d learned to tolerate shoes, but heels still made her feel wrong. Feet were meant to touch the earth, the floor, the sea. They weren’t to be locked away in prisons of leather or fabric. Sandals were the closest to normal that Lily had found, and tonight—surrounded by people—she needed the comfort of nearly bare feet.
At the top of the great staircase, just out of sight, Lily paused to smooth down the skirt of the dress she’d been given to wear. It wasn’t as fancy as Shayla would like, but the pale-green dress made especially for her was as flattering as any dress could be. An asymmetrical neckline and fitted bodice topped a skirt made up of layers of some sort of delicate material. Tiny stones sewn into the layers caught the light and shimmered as she moved. Lily didn’t have the heart to ask if they were real gems or not. It was easier to avoid an argument if she didn’t know. She’d already lost the fights about her bracelets. Obscenely expensive diamonds and emeralds dangled from her wrists and ears.
The short blade that Lily had sheathed in a hand-sewn leather holster under her ephemeral dress was real too though. Its weight made her feel secure despite the glittering facade. Lilywhite’s blade was a double-edged dagger that had been handcrafted for her. She wasn’t eager to use it, preferring the tidiness of her longer blades, but she could never be truly unarmed.
For all of her father’s protections, he’d also taught her that she was ultimately responsible for her own safety. The party was at her home, and the guests had all entered through a metal detector and been patted down, but she was the daughter of the head of one of the most successful criminal organizations in the world. That meant that, even here, she was armed.
Lily rounded the corner and started down the stairs. Her father looked up at her, and the pride in his face made her feel guilty for delaying. He smiled at her, and she knew that she’d been wrong to stall. Mingling at the over-the-top birthday party that Daidí insisted on this year was a little bit beyond terrifying, but he wanted to celebrate her birthday, so celebrate they would. These events layered civility and elegance onto their often violent world, and Lily knew well that the layer of softness was important—not just for how others saw the underworld, but for how the demimonde saw itself.
As she walked down the stairs, she could hear soft music in the ballroom. Soon, Creed Morrison would sing, but right now, a chamber orchestra played classical music that wove around the spaces between conversations. Servers circulated with finger foods and drinks. Usually, Lily stayed at her father’s side when she had to attend these sorts of things. Tonight, though, Daidí insisted that she talk to people her own age—other than just her friend Erik.
Erik was there, of course, but for Lily’s seventeenth birthday celebration, Daidí had invited all of his associates’ children, and he’d hired her favorite singer. It was perfect on paper, but Lily didn’t mingle with people her own age. She could escort Daidí to parties, play hostess of the manor as needed, make small talk with the leaders of the underworld, but around other teenagers—even those groomed in the odd etiquette of their society—she felt awkward.
And Creed Morrison? How, or even why, her father hired him for her birthday party was a mystery. He was only a year older than her, but he was already an international phenomenon. If he wanted to, Creed could have dropped out of school entirely. He’d never need the things that were taught in the classroom—any more than she would. Her curriculum consisted of drug routes, interrogation methods, and old family hierarchies.
Those lessons left her ill equipped for casual conversations, but they would be essential if she took over the family business. The social part didn’t come naturally to her. It never had, but she’d never be much of an asset to Daidí if she couldn’t handle her peers.
Smile firmly affixed, she descended the stairs until she reached the landing. Daidí stayed where he was, talking to one of the growers from the South Continent. As she walked through the black-tie crowd, Daidí’s associates smiled and wished her a happy birthday. Their children were a little less practiced in their false magnanimity, but they were far more polished than they’d been the last time Daidí had to insist on their socializing. Being Nicolas Abernathy’s heir apparent and a daughter meant that people her own age weren’t sure what to do with her.
Several boys nodded at her. The girls, however, kept their eyes carefully averted. Lily wasn’t like them. She wasn’t a bartering chip that would be used to strengthen ties to other organizations, nor was she sheltered from the ugliness of her father’s job. The boys acknowledged her, even though they weren’t sure if they should approach her as a potential date or as a future colleague. The one exception was her friend Erik. They’d shared a few kisses now and again, but under threat of retribution if any word of it was spoken.
Daidí knew, of course, as did Shayla, but they also underst
ood that Erik didn’t occupy her heart. Instead, she fantasized about Creed Morrison and Zephyr Waters—celebrity darlings she suspected of sharing her same hidden, and illegal, heritage. She’d studied them in the magazines, but she’d had no intention of ever meeting them. That was part of their appeal. Having one of them here was not something she knew how to address.
Daidí didn’t mean to upset me. As she did with everything confusing in life, Lily thought through the Abernathy Commandments until she found her answer: Commandment #9: Be kind to those who deserve it. Her father deserved her kindness.
As she walked toward her father, her step was measured, and her smile was convincing. She might be filled with anxiety, but no one would know.
The crowd was manageable. Everything was okay. She could succeed at this if she thought of it like a regular business gathering.
She straightened her shoulders and sailed through the crowd—until Creed Morrison stepped into her path, stopping her advance, leaving her uneasy in a way no one ever had.
Creed had the beautiful dark complexion of the Seelie fae. The fae long thought to be both kinder and better were those whose skin was sun-burnished. Creed’s skin had the telltale signs of fae heritage, but Creed’s human father was African American, so Creed had a human excuse he could use to explain his Seelie-dark skin. Lily shared his heritage, but she’d inherited her father’s pale skin instead of her mother’s dark skin. Not all of the fae-blood were able to pass as human, not like Lily was.
“Lilywhite,” he said. She’d heard his speaking voice, listened to interviews for hours actually, but hearing her name from his lips made her unable to reply.
She nodded. Abernathy Commandment #2: Be yourself.
“I looked for you before the crowd arrived,” he said, as if they were friends.
In the tuxedo- and gown-filled room, Creed’s jeans, T-shirt, and boots were very out of place. The art etched on his skin stood out, more because it was visible than because it existed. He was far from the only person in the room with tattoos, but his weren’t hidden under sleeves or jackets. Creed Morrison demanded attention. It was a well-documented—and oft-photographed—fact. She’d read every article on him, clipped pictures from magazines and filed them away. It wasn’t an obsession; actually speaking to him was the last thing she wanted. She had suspected that he was fae-blood and wanted to understand how other fae-bloods lived. Now, seeing him in person for the first time, she knew. Now, he was here, and he was exactly what she suspected—and she wanted to flee.