Fragile Eternity tf-3Melissa Marr
( Tattoo Faeries - 3 )
Seth never expected he would want to settle down with anyone — but that was before Aislinn. She is everything he'd ever dreamed of, and he wants to be with her forever. Forever takes on new meaning, though, when your girlfriend is an immortal faery queen.
Aislinn never expected to rule the very creatures who'd always terrified her — but that was before Keenan. He stole her mortality to make her a monarch, and now she faces challenges and enticements beyond any she'd ever imagined.
In Melissa Marr's third mesmerizing tale of Faerie, Seth and Aislinn struggle to stay true to themselves and each other in a milieu of shadowy rules and shifting allegiances, where old friends become new enemies and one wrong move could plunge the Earth into chaos.
Tattoo Faeries Series, Book 3
To Loch, for being my forever and always…
Seth knew the moment Aislinn slipped into the house; the slight rise in temperature would’ve told him even if he hadn’t seen the glimmer of sunlight in the middle of the night. Better than a lantern. He smiled at the thought of his girlfriend’s likely reaction to being called a lantern, but his smile fled a heartbeat later when she came into his doorway.
Her shoes were already gone. Her hair was loosened from whatever arrangement it had been forced into for the Summer revels she’d been at earlier that night. With Keenan. The thought of her in Keenan’s arms made Seth tense. She had these all-night dances with the Summer King every month, and try as he might, Seth was still jealous.
But she’s not with him now. She’s here.
She unfastened the bodice of an old-fashioned dress as she stared at him. “Hey.”
He might’ve spoken; he wasn’t really sure. It didn’t matter. Not much did in these moments, just her, just them, just what they meant to each other.
The rest of the dress fell away, and she was in his arms. He knew he didn’t speak then, not with sunlight like warm honey against his skin. The Summer Court revel had ended, and she was here.
Not with him. With me.
The monthly revels weren’t mortal-friendly. Afterward, she came to him, though, too filled with sunlight and celebration to simply sleep, too afraid of herself to stay with the rest of the Summer Court all night. So she came to his arms, sun-drunk and forgetting to be as careful with him as she was on other nights.
She kissed him, and he tried to ignore the tropical heat. Orchids, a small ylang-ylang tree, and golden goddess branches clustered in the room. The perfumed scents were heavy in the humid air, but it was better than the waterfall a few months ago.
When she was here, in his arms, the consequences didn’t matter. All that mattered was them.
Mortals weren’t made to love faeries; he knew it each month when she forgot just how breakable he was. If he could be strong enough, he’d be at the revels. Instead, he admitted that mortals weren’t safe in throngs of unrestrained faeries. Instead, he hoped that after the revels she wouldn’t injure him too badly. Instead, he waited in the dark, hoping that this month wasn’t the month that she stayed with Keenan.
Later, when speech returned, he plucked orchid petals from her hair. “Love you.”
“You too.” She blushed and ducked her head. “Are you okay?”
“When you’re here, I am.” He dropped the flower petals to the floor. “If I had my way, you’d be here every night.”
“I’d like that.” She snuggled in and closed her eyes. There was no light in her skin now—not when she was calm and relaxed—and Seth was grateful for it. In a couple hours day would break; she would see the burns on his sides and back where her hands had touched him too much and she’d forgotten herself. Then, she’d look away. She’d suggest things he hated to hear.
The Winter Queen, Donia, had given him a recipe for a salve that healed sunlight burns. It didn’t work as well on mortals as it did on faeries, but if he put it on soon enough, it would heal the burns within the day. He glanced at the clock. “Almost breakfast time.”
“No,” Aislinn murmured, “’s time to sleep.”
“Okay.” He kissed her and held her as long as he safely could. He watched the clock, listened to her even breaths as she fell deeper into sleep. Then, when he could wait no longer, he started to slide out of the bed.
She opened her eyes. “Stay.”
“Bathroom. Be right back.” He gave her a sheepish grin in hopes that she wouldn’t ask any questions. Since she couldn’t lie, he did his best to avoid lying to her in return, but they’d been down this road a few times.
She started to look at his arms, and he knew neither of them wanted to have the conversation that would follow—the one where she told him she shouldn’t come when she was like this and he panicked at the thought of her being at the loft with the Summer King instead.
She winced. “I’m sorry I thought you meant you weren’t hurt—”
He could argue, or he could distract her.
It wasn’t a difficult choice to make.
When Aislinn woke, she propped herself up on one arm and watched Seth sleep. She wasn’t sure what she’d do if she ever lost him. Sometimes she felt like he was all that held her together; he was her version of the vine that wrapped around the Summer Girls—the thread that kept her from unraveling.
And I hurt him. Again.
She could see the shadowed bruises and bright burns on his skin from her hands. He’d never complain about it, but she worried. He was so breakable in comparison to even the weakest faeries. She traced her fingertips over his shoulder, and he moved closer. In all the weirdness of the past few months since she’d become Summer Queen, he’d been there. He didn’t ask her to be all mortal or all faery; instead, he let her be herself. It was a gift she couldn’t ever repay him for. He was a gift. He’d been essential to her when she was a mortal, and he had only grown more important as she’d tried to keep steady in her new life as a faery queen.
He opened his eyes to stare up at her. “You look like you’re far away.”
“About?” He quirked his pierced brow.
And her heart fluttered exactly as it had when she’d tried to be just friends with him. “The usual…”
“Everything will be fine.” He rolled her under him. “We’ll figure it out.”
She wrapped her arms around him so she could tangle her fingers in his hair. She told herself to be careful, to moderate her strength, to not remind him that she was so much stronger than a mortal. That I’m not what he is.
“I want it to be fine,” she whispered, trying to force away thoughts of his mortality, of his transience now that she was eternal, of how very finite he was—and she wasn’t. “Tell me again?”
He lowered his lips to hers and told her things that didn’t require words. When he pulled back, he whispered, “Something this good can last forever.”
She ran her hand down his spine, wondering if he’d think she was weird for wanting to let sunlight into her fingertips as she did so, wondering if it would only remind him of how not-mortal she was now. “I wish it could always be like this. Just us.”
There was something she couldn’t read in his expression, but then he pulled her to him and she let go of thoughts and words.
The High Queen walked toward the lobby with a sense of trepidation. She normally required that visitors be brought to her, but in this case, Sorcha would make an exception. Having Bananach roaming the hotel was far too dangerous.
In the past few months, Sorcha had moved the High Court to the edge of the mortal world, taking over a city block
and remaking it as her own. Stepping within that block meant one left the mortal realm and entered the edge of Faerie. Her domain stood separated, divided from all else. The rules of the mortal world—their sense of time and place, their laws of nature—were all moot within Faerie, even in this space-between where she’d brought her court.
It was the closest to the mortals’ realm Sorcha had taken her court in centuries, but now that the other courts were shifting, Sorcha couldn’t stay quite so far removed. Her being in the mortal realm too long was untenable, but living at the edge of mortality wouldn’t alter their world. It was the reasonable path. The boy king was enthroned with his centuries-missing queen in the Summer Court. His beloved was holding the Winter throne. And Niall, Sorcha’s almost-temptation, had taken the Dark Court throne. None of it was unexpected, but all had changed in barely a blink.
She ran her hand along the stair rail, touching the smooth wood, cherishing the reminder of simpler times—and promptly dismissed the lie of nostalgia. She’d held her court for longer than memory. She was the High Queen. Hers was the unchanging, the heart of Faerie, the voice of the world removed, and she was the Unchanging Queen.
The alternative—her antithesis, her twin, Bananach—stood in the room. She swayed toward Sorcha with a slightly mad look in her eyes. Every stray thought of chaos and discord that could have been Sorcha’s found its way to Bananach’s spirit instead. As long as Bananach existed to host those feelings, Sorcha was mostly spared the burden of such unpleasantness. It made for an awkward bond.
“It’s been a while,” Bananach said. Her movements were tentative, hands glancing over surfaces as if she needed to familiarize herself with the world, as if the tactile experience would anchor her to reality. “Since we’ve spoken. It’s been a while.”
Sorcha wasn’t sure if these were questions or statements: Bananach’s grasp on reality was tenuous on her best days.
“It is never as long as I’d like.” Sorcha motioned for her sister to take a seat.
Bananach lowered herself to a floral divan. She shook her head, unsettling the long feathers that spilled down her back like mortal hair. “Nor I. I dislike you.”
The bluntness was off-putting, but war wasn’t concerned with delicacy—and Bananach was the essence of war and violence, carrion and chaos, blood and mayhem. The Dark Court might be Sorcha’s opposing court, but it was Bananach who was her true opposition. The raven-headed faery was neither contained by the court nor divided from it. She was too primal to be within the Dark Court, too conniving to be without it.
Bananach’s unflinching attention was disquieting. Her abyss-black eyes sparkled unpleasantly. “I feel less right when you are near me.”
“So why are you here?”
Bananach tapped her talons on the table in a discordant way: no music, no pattern. “You. I come here for you. Each time, no matter where you are, I will come.”
“Why?” Sorcha felt herself caught in the centuries-old conversation.
“Today?” Bananach tilted her head at an angle in her avian way, watching, tracking the slightest movement. “I’ve things to tell. Things you’ll want to know.”
Sorcha held herself still; not reacting was usually safer with Bananach. “And why should I listen this time?”
“Because you’re not here to help me.” Sorcha wearied of their eternity of discord. Sometimes she wondered what would happen if she simply did away with Bananach. Would I destroy myself? My court? If she knew that answer, if she knew she could kill her sister without damning them all, she’d have done so centuries ago.
“Faeries don’t lie, sister mine. Where’s the reason in not listening?” Bananach crooned. “You’re Reason, are you not? I am offering you Truth…is there logic in ignoring me?”
Sorcha sighed. “So acting on what you tell me will presumably cause some sort of chaos?”
Bananach swayed a bit in her seat, as if she suddenly heard a thread of music that no one else could—or would want to—hear. “One can hope.”
“Or failing to act will cause chaos…and you are prodding me to get me to do the inverse,” Sorcha mused. “Do you ever tire of this?”
Bananach tilted her head in several small increments and snapped her teeth as if she truly had a beak. It was a version of laughter, a curious gesture Sorcha disliked. The raven-faery peered at her with an intent gaze. “Why would I?”
“Why indeed.” Sorcha sat in one of the innumerable water-carved chairs that her staff had scattered throughout the lobby. It was studded with uncut jewels, ruining the comfort of the thing but heightening its raw beauty.
“Shall I tell you then, sister mine?” Bananach leaned closer. Her dark eyes glittered with a sprinkling of stars, constellations that sometimes matched the mortal sky. Today, Scorpius, the beast that killed Orion, was in the center of Bananach’s gaze.
“Speak,” Sorcha said. “Speak so you can be gone.”
Bananach’s demeanor and tone became that of a storyteller. She quieted, leaned back, and steepled her hands. Once, many centuries past, they would have been near a fire in the dark for these disagreeable conversations. That was when she liked to come with her mutterings and machinations. But even here, in the near opulence of the mortal-made palace, Bananach spoke as if they were still at a fireside, the words lilting in the cadence of tale-tellers in the dark. “There are three courts that are not yours—the one that should be mine, the court of sun, and the court of frost.”
Bananach caught Sorcha’s gaze with her own and spoke over her, “And among those courts there is a new unity; a mortal walks unimpeded through all of them. He whispers in the ear of the one who has my throne; he listens as the new Dark King and the new Winter Queen lament the cruelties of the boy king.”
“And?” Sorcha prompted. She was never sure how long these tales would last.
This time, it seemed a short telling. Bananach came to her feet as if she saw a specter in the room who’d beckoned her closer.
“The boy king has much potential for cruelty. I might like Summer.” Her hand stretched out to touch something no one else could see. Then she stopped and scowled. “He won’t see me, though.”
“Keenan does only what he must to protect his court,” Sorcha murmured absently, already musing on the point behind her twin’s tale: it wasn’t the Summer King’s propensity for cruelties that mattered; it was the role of the mortal. Mortals shouldn’t have voice in the affairs of the Faerie courts. If things were kept properly in order, they wouldn’t ever see faeries, but Sorcha’s objection to mortals being granted Sight was disregarded from time to time.
As if mortals born Sighted weren’t more than enough trouble.
But trouble was what Bananach craved. Small troubles led to larger disorder. On this, at least, they agreed. The difference was that one of them sought to prevent disorder and the other sought to nurture it.
Hundreds of moments of seeming insignificance combined to create Bananach’s desired results. She had been the voice urging Beira, the last Winter Queen, to smite Miach—the centuries-gone Summer King and Beira’s sometimes lover. Bananach was the voice that whispered the things they all dreamt in silence, but generally had the sense not to act upon.
Sorcha was not about to have another small problem evolve into chaos-causing troubles. “Mortals have no business meddling with Faerie,” she said. “They shouldn’t be involved in our world.”
Bananach tapped her talon-tipped fingers in a seemingly satisfied rhythm. “Mmmm. This mortal has their trust, all three of the courts-not-yours listen to his words. He has influence…and they protect him.”
Sorcha gestured for more. “Tell me.”
“He lies with the Summer Queen, not as a pet, but as if a consort. The Winter Queen gave him the Sight. The new Dark King calls him ‘brother.’” Bananach retook her seat and assumed a somber demeanor, which always troubled Sorcha—with good reason: when Bananach was focused, she was more
dangerous. “And you, sister mine, have no influence over him. You cannot take this one. You cannot steal him as you have the other Sighted pets and half-mortals.”
“I see.” Sorcha did not react. She knew that Bananach waited, holding back something to needle her last reserves of calm.
Bananach added, “And Irial had a pet, a little mortal thing he bound and caressed like she was worthy of being in the presence of the Dark Court.”
Sorcha tsk’d at Irial’s idiocy. Mortals were too fragile to bear up under the excesses of the Dark Court. He knew better. “Did she expire? Or go mad?”
“Neither, he gave up his throne over her…so corrupted was he by her mortality…sickening, how he cherished her. That’s why the new one sits on the throne that should be mine.” Bananach’s storyteller’s guise was still in play, but her temper was growing uglier. The emphasis of words, that rise and fall of tones she adopted when telling tales, was fading. Instead random words were emphasized. Her covetousness over the Dark Court’s throne upset her; her mention of it didn’t bode well for her state of mind.
“Where is she?” Sorcha asked.
“She’s of no influence now….” Bananach fluttered a hand as if to brush webs from in front of her.
“Then why tell me?”
Bananach’s expression was unreadable, but the constellation in her eyes shifted to Gemini, the twins. “I know we’ve shared…much; I thought you should know.”
“I have no need to hear of Irial’s discarded pets. It’s a deplorable habit, but”—Sorcha shrugged as if it didn’t matter—“I cannot control the depravity of his court.”
“I could…” A yearning sigh followed those words.
“No, you couldn’t. You’d destroy what little self-control they have.”
“Perhaps”—Bananach sighed again—“but the battles we could have…I could come to your step, blood-dressed and—”