The man bowed deep, dropping to one knee before her. “Majesty.”
A smile split the face of the one who sat upon the throne of obsidian. “Rise, Cian.”
Cian stood, avoiding the gaze that was fixed upon him. He knew that face all too well. He saw it in his dreams, in his nightmares. The pale face of a terrible beauty framed by flowing black hair. The wide, red lips and coal black eyes. He was the Black Queen’s and would be forevermore.
“What would you have me do with them, m’lady?” Cian asked deferentially.
“Put them in the cellar,” she ordered before adding playfully, “with the naughty boys.”
The Black Queen tapped her nails against the stone. They were also, predictably, black. In a graceful, abrupt move, she stood, stepping down to his level. Cian stood stock still, keeping his eyes downcast. She drew a pointed fingernail across the curve of his chin. Cian had to repress a shiver.
“You are my favorite, you know,” she said, drawing up his chin and looking him in the eye. Cian stared back, knowing better than to move. The Black Queen turned suddenly, leaving her back to him. “Bring her to me. The White Queen. Bring her to me and I shall reward you beyond all others.” The Queen turned her head to look at Cian over her shoulder. “Bring her to me and I shall make you my king.”
Cian swallowed, unable to think of anything worse, save one thing. Disobeying her would be worse. Cian heard himself answer as if he stood beside himself. “I will, my lady.”
She smiled, lighting her face with a menacing beauty. “I will wait for it.”
Cian left the castle in a hurry, barely taking the time to pack a bag. He needed to get out of there as if it were an obsessive compulsion. As he went off, he passed a line of soldiers, fully dressed in black armor, marching single file. One at the front turned and raised his spear.
“Fie-foe the Black Queen!” he called.
“Fight for the Black Queen!” the others replied. And they marched on.
Cian hurried past, wondering why. Why did he follow her? Where had she led him? He grabbed a horse from the stables, a black stallion, naturally. Everything was black. In a desperate need to escape the sight of the castle, Cian rode into the forest, ignoring the warnings he had heard from so many elders. He did not believe there was anything in these woods that he could not best with his sword and a bit of luck. Besides, the White Queen’s castle lay on the other end of the forest, over the cliffs and beside the water. This was the quickest way and the Black Queen valued speed.
Cian urged his horse faster, faster, until the castle was a spot in the distance, quickly obscured by trees. He slowed to a leisurely gallop and ran his hands through his shoulder length black hair. Everything was black.
The air was moist, thickening as he rode deeper into the forest. The trees loomed, birds sang and the wind blew as Cian rode by in sorrow. He did not want to capture the White Queen. It was not a question of whether or not he could; he knew that it was well within his range of skills. He was not the Black Queen’s favorite for nothing. In his twenty years, he had not yet failed to do what was asked of him, whatever that may be. Still, the sword weighed heavily at his side, on his soul.
Cian had started out eager, a young boy itching to prove himself, to advance in the ranks of the Black Hunters. In the beginning, killing, capturing, hurting, had been easy. Now, as the years wore on, the hardness that had been ingrained in him since birth had begun to peel away. Somewhere in his soul, a man began to rise. A man to conquer the beast that he had been. Even now, they were raging within him, fighting a battle to the death. It was yet to be revealed whose death it would be. With this discovery, Cian realized love, realized joy, yet had nowhere to express them. He was surrounded by the Black and for once, he resented it.
And yet Cian rode on.
The Black Queen sat at her throne, thin fingers gripping the armrests. “Bring him in,” she commanded.
The guards threw open the oversized doors and two others drug in a man in a torn black tunic, empty sheath dragging against the floor.
The guards forced the man to his feet where he stood unsteadily. The Black Queen tilted her head at him as if amused. “Do you forget who I am?”
The Queen stood, dress flowing around her like black oil. She raised her arms and the fabric shimmered, giving the impression of an aura around her. “I am the Black Queen. I am Lord of Darkness, Queen of the Night. With these hands, I reign, I rule over you. I am your Queen. Yet you think to defy me? To desert my army? You think to flaunt my power?”
“No, m’lady. I will do whatever you say,” he pleaded on the edge of sobbing. “I will be yours. I will fo and I will fie.” He hesitated, then added quietly, as if throwing his life away, “I will do the March of the Black Queen.”
The Black Queen’s lips drew apart in a smile. “Will you now?” she asked, tilting her head. “Very well, then. See that he does,” she told the guards. “Now leave me be.”
The nodded submissively and took the prisoner away. The Black Queen strode to the window, looking out at the forest and wondering how her dear Cian was coming along.
Unaware that the Black Queen was thinking of him, Cian stopped at a small lily pond to let his horse drink. He slid off of the stallion and led it over to the water. As the horse noisily quenched its thirst, Cian looked around at the pool. It was beautiful, really. The lily pads sported blossoming flowers of rich pinks and bright white, a nice change in color from what he was used to. The water itself was a glistening blue and the sunlight danced over it in spots, filtering through the leaves of the trees. The water was so still, so alluring that he could not resist cupping his hands and gathering some with which to wash his face.
As he splashed the cool liquid over his eyes, ran it through his hair, Cian heard something. He heard a delicate song, coming from the pool. Cian leaned closer, letting the music fill his ears. A laugh sounded and a small splash gave away the position of a nearly transparent little creature, thin and graceful with the round face of a newborn. Water babies; he remembered hearing about them. More joined the solitary one and they sang, voices growing stronger. Cian smiled at the innocent creatures, then laughed. He splashed at them and they splashed back. Cian shook out his now wet hair and spun at a noise he thought he had heard in the forest behind him.
The smile fell from his face as the music died. Seeing nothing, Cian turned away from the forest and back to the pool. The water babies had disappeared and he was alone, save the stallion. Cian stood and straightened his tunic, wondering what had come over him to feel so young and playful just a moment ago. It must have been some kind of strange magic coming from them.
Shaking his head to clear his mind, Cian remounted the horse and continued on, wondering if he should not have paid more heed to the elders in the village who talked of the strange creatures in this forest.
Soon enough, night fell and Cian chose a low, thick tree and tied his horse to it. He climbed up to the lowest branch and spread his blanket for some modicum of comfort. Stretching out on the hard tree limb, Cian gazed up at the stars, knowing that he would soon be nearing the White Queen’s domain. In the morning, he would set off early and, hopefully, by afternoon reach the cliff that overlooked her castle. From there, he could climb down to the sea and swim to shore. After that, he would have to improvise and perhaps make use of his sword.
Cian propped his head up on his hand and closed his eyes. Not long after, the branch beneath him seemed to move. He opened his eyes but saw nothing; he figured that he must be paranoid. Cian closed his eyes once more and adjusted his position so as to be more comfortable. A thin branch fell and hit him on the arm. Cian jolted, nearly rolling out of the tree as he sat up. After a moment of panic, he steadied himself, looking around and seeing nothing.
Just as Cian was about to dismiss the branch as a work of the wind, a light blue monkey swung down in front of his face with an unearthly screech. Cian let out a yell and jerked back, rolling off the side of the branch. He managed to grasp an offshoot of the main branch as he fell and held fast, catching himself with a wince. Feet from the ground, Cian let go, landing lightly on his feet.
Cian cradled his throbbing wrist against his chest and looked up, seeing at least a dozen blue Powder Monkeys leaping from branch to branch silently, barely making a rustle. That was, until they began to play. One of them seemed to institute a game of sorts when it hopped to another’s branch and screeched in its face. The first then hopped away lithely, the other chasing after it, making an incessant racket. Soon, others joined in and the trees were alive with darting blue shapes.
Cian was not amused. He was exhausted and needed sleep. Figuring that there was nothing for it, he pulled his blanket onto the ground and, forming a sort of tent with wide banana leaves, tried to tune out the monkeys and get some sleep.
He was only partially successful and was less than well rested when he set off the next morning. After a breakfast of hard tack, Cian rode off, cursing every Powder Monkey alive. It took quite a while before the forest thinned and he could again see the clear blue of the sky and the open expanse that waited beyond the trees. With great relief, Cian guided his horse onto the plain that stretched to the edge of the cliff. After stopping for a brief rest and lunch that consisted of dried meat and an apple for the horse, they moved out to the very edge of the cliff.
Cian dismounted and looked over the edge. The rough seas lapped at the rocks not too far below. The waves rolled more gently to the white sands of the beach that framed the cove in which the White Queen’s castle sat. It was built of marble with tall spires edged with gleaming gold. It was quite a sight to behold, much more so than the castle with which he was familiar. There were many windows, bright and open, and a courtyard with green grass rather than black sand. A cobblestone pathway led up to the door and through a set of golden gates. Cian watched several carriages and single riders pass through unbarred. It would be no issue to get inside.
Yet Cian was no longer sure that he wanted to. Bugger that, he was certain that he did not want to. In fact, he was sure that he never did. The only thing that had brought him this far was the fear of what the Black Queen would do if he refused. Now, that and the fear of what she would do if he succeeded fought, just as the man and beast within his soul did. As he gazed upon the castle, he wondered what it would be like to live there. Wondered what it would be like not having to live in fear of messing up, of making a fatal mistake.
“They would never accept me,” Cian said to himself. “Even if I defect.” Even the White Kingdom had standards. They could never trust a traitor and he did not blame them. Still, would it hurt to try? But if he tried and failed, they would send him back to the Black Queen for trial. That would almost be worse than death. Death. Was that the answer? Cian considered this point, looking over the cliff. The drop might just kill him. It might, or he might survive and then what?
Perhaps he should just follow orders as he had been taught; forget about all of these wild thoughts.
Spread out your wings, a voice said from behind him. Cian turned, seeing nothing, no one. It seemed to carry on the wind, a light, soothing voice. Spread out your wings, you are an angel.
“Someone there?” he asked, knowing the answer already.
Whatever you choose, remember to deliver love, deliver joy, with the speed of light, child, the speed of light...
The voice faded. Cian had always believed in the super natural. He had always believed in the powers beyond his world. It was a sign and he knew it. Cian raised from his crouch and stood, patting the horse lightly on the snout.
“Find your way home,” he told it, releasing the reigns. He slapped its back and watched the black beauty gallop away. Soon, the black dot disappeared. Cian stood at the edge of the cliff, looking out as he had before. The beast and man within him had reached a stalemate and Cian knew it.
Spread out your wings, the voice had said. Cian lifted his arms. If he died, the beast would die with him. If he survived, the man would survive and he would try to carve out a new life in the White Kingdom. Either way, she lost. To the night, the dark, the city of the fireflies, he would surrender but he would do so on his own terms.
“Dance with the devil,” he said to the Black Queen as a sort of curse, hoping that somehow, even so far away, she would get the message.
And so Cian threw himself from the cliff. Whether it be the rocks or the water that broke his fall would decide his destiny.
You are an angel, the voice echoed in his mind as he plunged towards his fate.
In the Black Kingdom, in the Black Castle, on a black throne, in a darkened room, the Black Queen screamed.