The colours of morning bleed together in the sky like they can't quite decide who reigns, but the unfeeling blue is slowly pushing back the golds and reds and pinks of dawn. It's an insignificant battle: the sun rules all of morning's hues, just as we are ruled by greed, and night will claim the sky, just as we are claimed by death, punctuated only by the faint light of starlight, just as our deaths may be made infinitely more beautiful if they mean something.
They don't, most of the time. You just die, and then time erodes you, and that's that. I'm not particularly worried about death, and why should I be? It happens to all of us, the inevitable monster that stands ahead of us and perhaps isn't quite so monstrous. It's more an angel, really - giving us a chance to escape the monotonous sufferings of life. Not that I want to die. But endless life, I imagine, would do torturous things to my mind - and if I'm eighteen and already bruised and broken by the world, what would eternity do to me?
I value death. I have seen it, I have felt it, and I have taught myself how to weave it into curses.
The king's guards have their spears, and the Fae have their magic. Most Fae can't create death curses, but that doesn't stop the fear, and fear makes monsters of men. The way the king saw it, he could fear us or control us.
He did as most mortals would. He chose the latter.
Even his castle is sinister. As I approach, guards swarm like vultures flocking about a dying corpse, and the stone walls whisper their words of superiority into the air. Even the turrets look as though they want to pierce the sky itself, to add another combatant into the sky's endless battle.
I reach the gates, and am stopped by the guards. Their weapons, I know, are coated in silver. Poison to Fae. If we're cut with it, we'll die within a day.
"You're here for the princess's christening banquet?"
I pull my stolen parchment roll from my bag, handing it to the guards for examination, careful not to push my cloak back too far. It covers my wings, and keeps me alive.
"Very well. Enjoy the banquet," the guard smiles, and there is pride seeping through his voice.
"I will," I promise, and the venom in my words is honeyed by the practised overcoat of lies - happiness for the daughter of the man who destroyed my kind. It's feigned, but apparently the guards don't notice. They wave me inside, their joy written across their expressions, their words, the way they stand. Somewhere, now imprisoned by the years of hiding and lying and running, there is a memory of joy.
I can only vaguely remember what that felt like.
We made our way through the market, Mother and Father holding a hand each. Our wings were displayed: a symbol of pride, of our kind, and though some of the mortals veered away a little, they didn't cast us into prisons or slaughter us for our differences.
The market was an explosion of colour and joy and prosperity, with smells painting the air with excitement and voices dancing to the tune of wealth. It was my first time in the city, and I loved it. I loved the way everything seemed to be happening at once, that you could walk here a thousand times and never see the same thing again, the way you could never capture a single moment and keep things frozen.
The city had a heartbeat, and we were the blood it kept pumping - all of us, together, merchants and clients and mortals and Fae.
I was a foolish child, and I knew nothing.
In the courtyard, people are laughing, and their celebration never quite reaches me. To my left, the guarded carriages of the Fae prisoners' seven representatives - the king's so-called High Fae. The most powerful, the most elegant, the ones the king needed to control to bring the rest of us to our knees. I try to resist the burning rage inside of me at the royal seal displayed on the carriages.
The High Fae could have flown here, once, but the king branded them and clipped their wings and stole their flight. Now, they live as his puppets in luxurious houses, permitted only to leave to be paraded as his possessions, dressed up as useless dolls to remind us all that the king is stronger.
Stronger, but arrogant. The High Fae will be forced to bless the daughter with their magic, but that leaves her weak to my curse. I'm almost sorry that I have to do it - but if the father cannot pay directly for his sins, then judgement must tumble to his daughter.
Every fortress has a weak spot, and though they've never said it, everybody knows: the king and his wife have wanted this heir for so long. She is their first, and probably their last. A stroke of luck amidst a sea of desperation.
Luck is weak. Luck is a fragile, fragile thing, and I am all the more powerful because I have never been able to rely on it. I can be strong without it, but the king?
He is weak.
We are ushered into the palace, and I manage to catch a seat near the front. Around me, noble families, filling the hall with their excited chatter, and ahead of me: the High Fae.
They sit beside the king's table, dressed in fine silks and adorned with golden jewellery embedded with exotic gems. They have been reduced to little more than displays of the king's wealth and power, and their identical masks say it all: they do not have an identity. Slavery does that to you, takes away the little things that make you unique, one by one, until your colours are gone and you are grey, grey, grey - just the same as everybody else, all of you dressed in your hopelessness and your desperation and your pain.
When we're all seated, the king rises from his throne, scarlet cloak hanging from his shoulders, as red as the Fae blood he has drawn, his tunic as white and pure as his untainted power. When he speaks, his voice ripples through the hall, filling every inch and every ear until we are drowning in his words.
"For all of you, today marks the birth of your future queen. At dawn, we christened her Beauty, and now, with our closest friends and supporters, we shall celebrate her birth in a banquet I hope all of you remember for the rest of your days! To Beauty!" He raises a gold-plated goblet, and the rest of us join him, our own glass goblets raised.
"To Beauty!" The cry fills the room, suffocating me in a feeble human loyalty to an infant they do not even know yet.
The king starts to speak again, and we fall silent, our own words nothing compared to his, and soon again his tales are filling the room as he recaps every victory he has claimed, every moment of wealth, every favour these people owe him and every debt they must pay in their service to his daughter.
I remember when I had a father like that.
The king took him from me.
It was my second time in the pulsing city, and things were changing. The mortal merchants no longer smiled as we exchanged money for trinkets, but pushed the goods into our hands and eyed us like we were serpents lying in a nest of flightless chicks.
I was confused, I was scared, but I was hopeful.
A new king was to be crowned soon, my parents told me, so maybe he would change things - make the people see, again, that powerful does not mean cruel and different does not mean dangerous.
The streets were darkening with the doubt, but I could still see the beauty: the way the system of people worked so well, the way everybody could still come together and exchange goods in a network of high design, created by trust and companionship and years and years of teamwork.
To me, it was beautiful, and it was enough to warm me in hatred's looming shade.
I never realised it was a fragile network crafted by deceit and lies and backstabbing until the third time I came back.
We spend most of the day dancing and laughing and eating, and everything is false. I have to leash every instinct to kill the girl now, but no, I have to wait, have to time it perfectly... And unless I want to shatter my chances, I have to keep forcing laughter to drip from my tongue like honeyed poison, have to eat the king's sickly foods that were paid for in Fae blood, have to dance with these mortal fools when the guards start eyeing me suspiciously.
It seems an eternity before the king calls us back to our spaces, and the golds of sunset are already seeping through the window.
"Here to present their gifts to my daughter Beauty are the High Fae," the king says, his grin twisted by years of cruelty and chains and hatred. "It took us many years to ensure we were all protected from the Fae. All of you here loyally supported those efforts, lending me your men and your advice and your strength to keep the Fae from our streets. The Fae are no longer a danger, but an advantage." When he speaks of us as weapons upon which he can build his empire, I clench my fists and grit my teeth, because any fury now could damage my plan.
"With us today are the High Fae, and they will be presenting their gifts to my daughter." He gestures to the High Fae before sinking back into the crimson velvet of his throne, and he watches them with the eyes of a ruler.
The first of them rises from her seat, movements fluid, mechanical, inhuman. She walks to the baby in her luxurious cot, and, placing two fingers to the infant's head, says, "To you, dear princess, befitting of your name, I give the gift of beauty." There is a silvery light as the Fae blessing seeps into the princess's blood.
The High Fae sits down, and I start chanting under my breath. Not long now - but first, a curse to deal with the guards.
The third time we went to the city, it was not by our own choice.
"Why do we have to go?" I asked them again, as we landed in the outskirts. The moment my feet touched the ground, it was like a little of my freedom was already tumbling through my fingers, a liquid liberty that I could never keep.
"Because the new king has been crowned, and he wishes to speak to all of our kind," my mother said softly, ruffling my hair even though I was already taller than her at fifteen.
"It'll be fine," my dad added, his confident grin burrowing into my fear and pushing it aside.
With both of them there, I felt a little safer - my family were beside me, the new king could restore the people's opinion of the Fae, and everything was going to be okay.
With my eyes focused on the streets ahead, I never noticed the knowing smirks of the king's royal guard as they strode through the city, ushering us to the palace courts.
The next High Fae rises, standing before Beauty and touches her fingers to the princess's head. "To the daughter of the wise and intelligent king and queen, I give the gift of wit." More light - silver, again, like the blades the mortals used to cut us down.
I keep chanting, the words almost silent as they slip from my tongue. My eyes dart about, assessing the guards. There are at least twenty, all of them trained as brutal machines to offer their lives for the king. Monsters, crafted by lies of the king's excellence and endless days spent training.
"To aid you in the future, Beauty, I give the gift of dance." Another gift - three of them now, three blessings that already make the princess better, in some way, than the rest of us. But that's just how the world works, isn't it? Some come into this world with nothing, while a princess sits in a golden cot and is blessed by seven Fae before she even has the chance to comprehend the significance of this magic or the price at which it was chained to her.
Regardless of this inevitable injustice, however, death takes all people just as easily, be they princess or Fae.
"For the beautiful daughter of our king and queen, I give the gift of song."
Four of them have blessed her, now, and my curse is almost done, the words almost complete. I continue to glance around, judging how far my curse must reach to. If it fails to eliminate a single guard, I will be exposed to the silver-coated blades and spear-heads and arrow-heads. I am not afraid of death, but I will not let it claim me before my work is done.
"Befitting of a princess, I give the gift of grace." I can tell, when she speaks, that regret has carved its tone into her words, and I watch the king intently as her silver blessing magic fades. His expression shifts slightly so that he's glaring at her, and from here I can just about see a shudder echo through her slender frame.
And then she is seated, and the next Fae is rising.
I glance around the hall.
The mortal guests are completely transfixed, as though the king and his High Fae puppets have scorched their song into their guests' minds, singing it just out of reach and luring everybody to come closer, listen to more, keep obeying. These are the foolish sort of people, the ones whose shielded minds are so unaccustomed to threat that, when faced with it, they cannot think or move or speak.
The guards' curse is almost ready.
"To keep this kingdom fair and place you in high standing with those around you, I give the gift of goodness." As the High Fae speaks, there is power in her words, the subtle hints of rebellion. To keep this kingdom fair, she said. The king's glare is a promise: later, she will be punished.
I admire her for her bravery.
She does not seem to flinch as she blesses the child, and her steely persistence fuels my own. The final few words leave my lips, and I am ready.
When we were all gathered in the square, the king appeared at the parapet flanked by guards. I squinted, but could only make out the outline: black against the pale of the sky, no blurred lines, no in-between, just light and dark, right and wrong, mortal and Fae.
He was a shadow, a compacted storm of all the mortal fear and hatred and lust for power. We were helpless, naïve, hopeful.
When he started talking, his voice was powerful and entrancing, and I was caught by it instantly. It was the sound of a song you could not walk away from, the breeze as it whispers for something more, the ocean's roar. He thanked us for coming, made sure we were all there. And then, his words cold and heartless and sharp, he said, "I'm introducing a new law. Today, for the protection of our city's people, all Fae will be imprisoned or killed. Guards are to capture, but kill if not possible."
A few moments lingered in the air: the lazy kind of moment that is bleeding with tension and realisation and shock but doesn't care or want to move on, the kind of moment that stays a while, burning itself into your memories so you can never forget the fear.
And then: chaos. Everything was a roar of movement and sound and terror, and before I could think, my mother was pushing me away, and suddenly my father was screaming and all I could see was blood, his blood, crimson and endless and burning and the guard was smiling.
I don't remember my mother dragging me away, because that memory ends with blood and blood and blood and blood, and it's never really stopped.
I stand, raising my palms to the air as I slice my knife across my palm and bring my wounded hand to my lips.
The power flows through me, and I cannot fight the grin. The guards are already running, but they are too late: my curse magic, turned to reality through my own blood, flows through the hall in a ripple of power, freezing the guards in place as I was once frozen, helpless and unprotected and completely pathetic, unable to save the father I loved.
I turn to the king, I push back my chair, and I stride to his table. He doesn't move, can't move, because though he pushes danger upon people, he cannot take its weight himself.
"Who are you?" his wife whimpers finally, and I unclasp the cloak, letting my dark, dark wings open up and catch all the light in the room, never really letting it go.
"I'm the only remaining member of the Bloodshadow line," I purr, and the king takes a sharp gasp of breath. "You can't be! My men killed you!"
I can't help the laughter that throws itself from my lips, cascading through the hall as my twisted satisfaction undulates from my body in waves.
"Or so you thought."
My mother and I managed to stay away from the king's guards for two years before they found us. It had been a nightmarish two years - time that is filled with dread and fear and all of the other demons that fill your heart with emptiness, and I hated it.
But at least I had my mother.
The girl who saw colour and joy and companionship with mortals was gone, driven out and replaced with a great big nothingness that grows in your chest and consumes you.
I was lost, broken, and my mother was the only thing holding me together.
The guards were disguised, and though we'd been hiding our wings beneath cloaks, somebody must have known who we were, because one of them jumped out and drove a knife into me, then gagged my mother so she couldn't chant a curse.
It happened too quickly, and for a while it seemed like I was watching through the eyes of an omniscient god that has lost all faith and has stopped caring completely.
My mother, being dragged away, kicking and screaming and trying to reach me.
And then she disappeared from sight, and the pain rushed in and in an explosion of desperation I realised I was hurting and dying and bleeding-
A healing blessing crawled its way from my lips, slowly, but there was fear in my heart and my mind because I had to go after my mother, had to stop them, couldn't fall apart not now not when the Fae needed me not when everything was crumbling...
I didn't know it then, but I gave up on getting my mother back. Hope is a funny thing, and it stabs you in the back when you least expect it to.
I put my finger to Beauty's temple, and before the king can react to stop me, I shout, "To you, daughter of a monster, I give the curse of death. One day, princess, you will prick your finger on a spinning wheel and die."
The golden glow of the curse magic seeps from my fingers and engulfs the child, casting her in a metallic luminance before it pushes itself through her skin and into her blood and bones and lungs and heart until she is filled with it.
The king's line will end with her, and maybe the Fae will be freed.
Before I get my chance to gloat, the final of the High Fae steps forwards, striding to Beauty's side.
"You can't stop the curse," I tell her, and I don't bother to leash the arrogance.
"I know," she says, "but I can do this."
When she speaks, there is something of home and familiarity and safety in her words, and for a moment I am just as helpless as the king, frozen in the unrelenting grip of shock.
"To the girl who must not pay for the sins of another," my mother whispers, "I give the gift of hope. You will fall asleep, and can be woken by the kiss of anther noble-born."
Love and hope and mercy.
"Mother," I choke out, and she turns back to me.
"I am sorry," she says to me. "Now go."
I take a step towards her, but she shakes her head.
"You're still free. Stay that way."
I can't move. Can't breathe can't think can't do anything, because my mother is here and I thought she'd died in a dark and crowded prison, but not this, I'd never thought this-
"Go!" she screams again, pushing me away, and there is something about the desperation in her voice that resonates with the logical part of my mind. I chant the spell of reappearance by some subconscious force, but I'm lost in the reality that my mother is alive, she's still breathing and she still wants to protect me.
"I love you," I whisper, and then the words are lost because I'm standing back outside the palace, the Fae spell cast successfully.
I fall to my knees, and weep.
I weep for my mother. I weep for the Fae. I weep for the girl who did nothing, who I condemned simply for being who she is.
I weep for the world, and I weep for myself.
And when night starts bleeding into the sunset, I look at the golds and reds and pinks that are always fighting, always ruled by time, brief flashes of hope. They go swiftly, but they will come back.
The stars are bright above me, and though I am broken and guilty and lost and in pain, I am not afraid.