Authors: Ryan Graudin
To my mom and dad,
who showed me that true love is possible,
if you fight for it.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
—William Shakespeare, Sonnet 116
he sickness hits even before I reach the outskirts of London. A slow-burning nausea descends on my gut and claws through the intestines of my human form. I kneel by the side of the road and wrap my arms around my stomach. The first wave is always the worst. It will pass. It always does.
A light breeze hits my face as the cars whip past in filed lines, like single-minded ants. None of them will stop, I know, because none of them know I’m here. None of them notice the young redheaded woman crouched on the edge of the asphalt. With the remains of an hours-old veiling spell, the mortals’ attention slips right off, like beads of water on fish scales.
Minutes pass and the agony of my nausea ebbs back into a dull ache. I straighten and continue down the road into London.
London. The city is different every time I step foot in it. Always, it is growing. More glass, more steel, more subways, more souls. Bricks stacking on bricks to house an empire of electric cables and grinding gears. My magic is weaker here. Some spells I can’t even form. It’s the same for all of us. Even the ill-willed spirits can’t draw upon their full powers in the metropolis. The oldest among us aren’t even able come close to the city; its machines and electricity unravel their stiff spirits.
So the Guard is made of younger Fae, the ones who can withstand the forces of technology. Yet there’s always that part of us that longs for the fresh earth: the minty shade of trees and grass, the aroma of rich, crumbling soil—better to us than wine. This is why, during our off hours, many of us haunt the grounds of Saint James’s Park.
It’s almost dawn by the time I reach the royals’ stretch of green. The city has already begun to stir amidst its blanket of violet fog. Black cabs roam up and down the streets and the distant thrum of the Underground resumes beneath my feet. A woman sits by the edge of a lake. She’s wearing tawny, high-laced boots, the same those well-pieced soldiers wore when they left for the Great War. There’s a pouch of crumbs in the lap of her cotton dress and purple-headed pigeons clustering at her feet.
I walk to her bench and finally sit, not bothering to hide my smile. “Good morning, Breena.”
The bird woman looks up, her wrinkled face drawn back with surprise. Crumbs pour down like a small avalanche as she jumps up. “Emrys! What are you doing here? I thought you were stationed in the Highlands.”
I accept the old woman’s embrace with open arms. “I was—but Queen Mab reassigned me.”
Breena draws back and brushes a stray silver hair from her face. “You look good!” Her eyebrows fly up. “That reminds me . . . you’re not supposed to see me like this!”
In an instant, a very different person stands before me. Like me, she looks young—sixteen or seventeen perhaps. Her figure is as slim as a birch trunk and her skin flawless. Her yellow hair sits in a short, curled bob, which she begins meticulously picking through.
“Don’t be vain. You can look however you want around me,” I tell her. Throughout the long years of our friendship, I’ve seen Breena in almost every form imaginable: women both youthful and withered, slinking animals, and soaring birds. But these days she’s fallen into the habit of the blonde girl, as I now never change my redheaded form.
She ignores my comment. “So you’re with the Guard now? Who’s your assignment?”
“Prince Richard.” The sickness stirs again, tightening around my stomach like a hangman’s noose. I fill my lungs with dewy air—as if breathing in the electric hues of morning will make me forget I’m in the epicenter of over two centuries worth of machinery.
Breena’s powder-blue eyes grow wide again. “Richard? Oh no . . . What did you do?”
“I might have managed to lose a Kelpie in a loch. Mab wasn’t too happy about it.” I laugh; a short, barking sound that echoes across the lake and sends a pair of swans flying. Their wings slice through the mist like shears through a curtain—showing the weeping willow on the opposite shore. And beyond that: Buckingham Palace. “Although I can’t say the incident was a complete accident. . . .”
My friend shoots me a knowing stare.
“What?” I defend myself. “I got bored shuffling the Kelpies around to the same pastures every day. I thought a change of scenery might be good for them.”
“So you took them to a loch and lost one? It’s a good thing you’re so talented or else Mab would have shipped you off to the Isle of Man instead. You always were one of her favorites.”
“Some might consider London an even worse punishment.” I shrug off my friend’s comment. It’s true that I’ve advanced ranks in Mab’s court much more quickly than others of my generation, but it isn’t something I enjoy emphasizing.
“She must be mad if she assigned you to the prince.” Breena sighs at the riotous pigeons that cover her feet, squabbling over the promise of crumbs. “There’s no more, you’ve eaten it all. Now, shoo!”
They fly away in swirling tempest of dust and feathers. I whip the cloud of dirt out of my face. “He can’t be
“He’s a challenge. No one volunteers to guard him anymore. He takes too much energy. When’s your first shift?”
“Friday night? You’ll see.” Breena retrieves the leathery shell of her seed pouch and folds it over her fingers, like she’s binding a wound. “He’s just returned from his graduation at Eton. There’s bound to be some . . .
I roll my eyes. No prince could possibly be that bad, even if he is seventeen. No one, not even Henry VIII had pushed the Fae to abandon our oath to the crown. The last time I saw my least favorite monarch, he was covered in boils, grease dribbling down his chin as he tore into the leg of a goose. The ghosts of hiswives—disturbed, unrested souls—clustered around, haunting him in all of their vehemence. But still, he kept eating. He never stopped cramming his gullet with the flesh of beasts.
Perhaps our magic is getting even weaker than I thought.
“I think I can handle him,” I say in a voice even tarter than lemons. “I’ve guarded the royals before this, you know.”
The acid behind my tongue only grows, rises like a beast coming out of a long winter sleep. I can’t ignore it anymore. It’s too present. All over. The edges of my mouth grow heavy with spit as whatever’s inside my stomach begins its inevitable escape.
“The world’s changed,” Breena warns. “You haven’t been in the Guard for a long time. My guess is you’ve gone soft.”
My palm, flat as a board, presses into my lips. But it doesn’t matter. The sick rises and I bend double. Gravel digs sharp into my hands, coating them in a layer of soft, white dust. The sourness in my mouth gets worse—spills out. My knees shake and the bile sticks to my lips.
“You’ll see,” Breena says, bending slightly to give my shoulder a pat. “Welcome back.”
It’s been long years since my last shift—years spent tending to Mab’s Faery court in the Highlands. It was an existence I quite enjoyed, soaking up the power of the hills for endless days and joining the scouts: Fae of old, too ancient to enter the cities. We scoured the land for wild, errant magic—spirits who sought to break that strict barrier between the realms of magic and mortal. Spirits whose chaos might tear the thinly stretched veil we maintain. I’d considered my days in the grimy modernity of London long behind me. But Mab had other plans.
Despite this gap, the necessary spells come like a reflex. I cover myself in all of the cursory enchantments before I head to Kensington Palace for my first shift. Helene, the youngling I’m relieving, exudes both gratitude and pity as she leaves me instructions.
“Don’t ever let him see you, and if he does by chance, erase that memory. You must cloak yourself or take the guise of a stranger at all times.”
I nod, barely suppressing my impatience. Helene is only telling me what every Fae in the Guard already knows. But Helene’s younger than me; from the tinge of her aura, she’s no more than two hundred years old. If we were outside of the city, spinning across the moors and lochs or feasting in the subterranean chambers of Mab’s court, she wouldn’t dare speak to me first, much less instruct me. Age is superior among the Fae. Everywhere, it seems, but here. In London, everything is messy.
“Oh, and don’t
let him leave your sight.” The young Fae wags a finger in the air to make her words feel bigger, more important. “There’ve been . . . incidents over the past few weeks. Green Women and the like. Richard attracts them like moths to a bonfire. Tonight’s bound to be a wild one, with his just finishing Eton and all. Good luck.”
“Thanks. I’ve got it,” I say curtly. I try not to think of how my mouth holds just a hint of bile.
Some breeze throws strands of flaming hair in my face. I don’t have to turn to know that Helene has left.
Through the crack in the door, I see the corner of a large bed filled with rumpled, cloud-white sheets. One of Richard’s lanky arms drapes over the side, his fingertips brushing the ornamental rug.
Like the rest of London, the prince’s bedroom is a living collage to the passage of time. Richard’s bedside table—a decadent, nineteenth-century piece crafted out of wolf-gray marble and mahogany—is covered with the unnatural blinking lights of electronics. A digital clock. A mobile phone that shivers and glows at odd moments. His chrome laptop is tucked in the back of the same antique desk Queen Victoria once wrote her letters on. Chubby, meticulously painted cherubs born in George I’s era gaze down from their ceiling frescos at stereo speakers. They smile on, as they always have.
It’s almost seamless, the way the past is entombed with the present here.
“Why are you sleeping?” I slip into the room and approach the bed. The light filtering through the curtains is quickly dropping into the bruised plum color of night. No normal mortal is asleep at this hour.
As I draw closer to the prince I can feel the magic pulse more strongly through my limbs. Something in the royal blood excites our magic, strengthens it. It’s that source of strange, untapped power we call “blood magic.”
The first time I saw Prince Richard, he was bareheaded and swaddled against his mother’s breast. My second, most recent glimpse of His Majesty was during a visit to Breena over a decade ago, when he made his younger sister cry at Wimbledon by giving her an inappropriate and painful wedgie beneath her tennis dress. Through the tangle of sheets, I catch my first sight of teenage Richard. His teeth are no longer too large for his lips. The round, fat face of his childhood has sharpened—sharp, freckle-dusted cheekbones rise to set off a nice pair of finely lined eyes. These, along with his sleek, dirty-blond hair, are enough to make any girl aware of his presence, even without his royal title.
Richard gives a very un-regal snore; the noise makes me twitch. Was I leaning in too close? Even with all of the magical precautions, mortals sometimes feel our presence. I take a step away from his bed. Perhaps there are some things I’ve forgotten over the years.
His eyes open, and for the briefest second I feel their hazel irises on me. Something inside me clenches. I jump and check the veiling spells—the delicate magic that keeps me hidden from all mortals’ view. They’re perfectly in place.
Richard crawls out of bed and when the sheets fall away his bare body comes into view. To my surprise, my cheeks grow hot and I find myself staring at the Persian rug: studying the story of warriors on horseback and blooming fruit orchards some artist wove into its jewel-toned threads. I know they’re from a different time and place, yet they don’t look so different from the Knights of the Round Table: waving their spears and swords, digging their heels into the stallions’ flanks.