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Authors: Marie Brennan

Tags: #Mystery, #secret history, #murder, #seventeenth century, #faerie, #historical fiction, #historical fantasy, #Fantasy

Deeds of Men

BOOK: Deeds of Men
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Deeds of Men
An Onyx Court Novella
Marie Brennan
Deeds of Men

O, act, most worthy hell, and lasting night,

To hide it from the world!

—V.viii.389-90

Red Cross Alley, London: 2 June, 1625

They found him in a narrow alley, within smelling distance of the riverside wharves and the pestilential tenements that crowded them, with his throat slit from ear to ear.

Sir Michael Deven knelt in the muck, not caring that he ruined the knee of his breeches, and bit down hard on a knuckle to hold back tears.

The long, gangly limbs sprawled without grace, like a child’s doll thrown aside. Even in the poor light, occluded by the overhanging jetties of the buildings on either side, the rich green taffeta of his doublet gleamed incongruously bright, a spot of elegance and wealth in a place that knew neither. Deven noted these details with fierce determination, trying not to acknowledge the bloodless face, the staring eyes, out of which the dreams had gone forever.

For the first time in over six decades of life, he felt old.
Because this is what age is. Not the weakening of the body, nor the dimming of the mind, but your hopes lying shattered at your feet.

He forced down the hard knot in his throat and took the knuckle from between his teeth. Truncated strings dangled from the belt, where a purse should have hung. “Murdered, by a common thief.”

“Beggin’ yer pardon, milord, but I don’t think so.”

The diffident voice was not one he wanted to hear, not when its owner had come to tell him a young man lay dead in a Coldharbour alley. But he made himself look as Mungle sidled forward. The fellow appeared to be a dockside labourer, one of the rough cobs who unloaded goods from ships into London’s voracious maw. A mask, of course, but he wore it well.

Mungle went toward the body, with hesitant steps that gave Deven time to call him back. Grimacing, he bent and rolled the head the other way, so the clouded eyes no longer stared in accusation. Mud caked the left ear, but something still hung from its lobe. “Earring’s here,” Mungle said. “And shoes. And that belt. Worth more than a ha’penny, those would be; any slower getting here, and you’d find them gone. A thief worth his cut would take them.”

“Perhaps the thief was interrupted.”

“In Coldharbour?” Mungle laughed, then swallowed it guiltily. “Who’d bother? I’d guess they took the purse to make it seem ordinary. But they was no thieves. And look—” Mungle lifted one pallid, unresisting hand, stained with blood from a small wound. “Rapier, I’d say. Nicked him on the sword hand. He was fighting somebody—a gentleman.”

Deven stood, moving carefully against the growing sickness in his gut. Mungle was right. This wasn’t simply an unfortunate encounter with a cutpurse. The murderer had a reason beyond gold, and Deven knew of only one great enough to suffice.

Henry Ware’s death was a consequence of the world Deven had brought him into.

Which was, in a way, good news. Because whichever faerie had murdered him, Deven could and would see the creature responsible hanged.

To shine

Bright, as the Moone, among the lesser lights,

And share the sov’raigntie of all the world.

—II.i.35-7

The Onyx Hall, London: 21 January, 1621

Bright laughter danced among the leaves and flowers of the night garden, blooming in a perpetual spring beneath a sky of stone. The buried waters of the Walbrook sang counterpoint as the elegant lords and ladies of the Onyx Court ran down the paths, playing some game whose rules Deven could not discern. But the faeries paused in their flight, bowing or curtsying out of his path with a friendly murmur of “my lord,” before resuming their pursuit.

Lune was not among them. He found her seated in a quiet corner, beneath the satin-soft petals of an apple tree, attended only by Amadea, the elf-lady appointed chamberlain of the court. Upon seeing Deven, Lune smiled and gestured the lady away, making room for him on the cushion at her side. “Welcome home, my heart.”

He had been gone only a few days—a customary absence, to protect himself against the dangers of time spent among the fae. Still, her words were apt; his return always felt like a homecoming. If not to the Onyx Hall, then to her.

They were not so hidden as to be private, so Deven contented himself with a kiss upon her ungloved hand, her skin cool against his lips. Nonetheless, he heard a mischievous giggle from the underbrush of the garden. The fae were hardly puritanical in their behaviour, but they still found delicious scandal in the decision of their Queen to take a mortal consort. Dalliance was one thing; many of them indulged in it from time to time. But love? The emotion—not what the Queen did in her bedchamber—was shocking, even after all these years.

Certainly Deven’s own fellows would be appalled, if they knew he remained a bachelor for love of a faerie Queen.

Already they said too much about him. A man might live fifty-eight years and no one would remark on it. But to live fifty-eight years and show scant sign of it…his health was unflagging, his hair untouched by grey. When in public, he took care to move slowly and stiffly, as if his joints pained him in the damp. That pretence, however, could not hide the smoothness of his face, where time ought to have carved lines marking the passage of his mortal span. Men noticed, though they did not know the cause.

Lune said, “You are brooding on something.”

She spoke the words lightly, chiding him for bringing heavy thoughts into her garden diversion. She might have been the subject of a pagan fresco, there beneath the flowering apple tree, with her moon-bright hair loose like a maiden’s, and the sight of her gave his heart a sudden pang. As little as he had changed, she changed even less: only the style of her hair and gown, idly following in the wake of mortal fashion as it pleased her. Time would never touch
her
face—nor would death.

Her silver gaze sharpened. “What troubles you?”

Deven bent his head, playing idly with her long, delicate fingers. He accepted the impossibility of hiding the evidence of his thoughts from her, but that did not mean he must share their substance. “Nothing you wish me to speak of,” he told her.

But the words were ill-chosen; he might as well have hung out a sign. Lune’s face stilled, and she drew her hand from his. It shivered there between them:
mortality
.

She could shelter him from it, a little. The faerie touch he bore, the legacy of a cup of wine, slowed his aging. Every moment he spent in a faerie realm was a moment in which time stopped. But to stay among them forever would shatter his mind, and so instead he walked between the two worlds, mortal and fae.

And in time, the mortal side must win.

“That day,” she said, “lies far off yet.”

“May it be so,” Deven said, long habit suppressing the more common invocation of God. They would not thank him for that, here in the heart of the Onyx Hall. “But Lune…we must speak of what will come.”

“Why?” It came out angry, but he understood. “’Twill come when it comes, and when it does, my heart will break. Then you will be gone, and I will live on in grief. What is there to speak of?”

“The Onyx Court,” he said.

It quieted the trembling of her shoulders, armoured in their midnight silk. Lune had never studied for sovereignty, not as a prince might. Then again, neither had old Queen Elizabeth. But both women shared a quality that stood them in good stead where no number of books and tutors would: they both held an unwavering commitment to the stability of their realms—though Elizabeth had refused to wed and bear an heir.

Lune’s heir was not in question; immortal creatures need not concern themselves with such things. Deven, however, was another matter.

“You made a promise,” he reminded her.

“Always to rule with a mortal at my side. I have not forgotten.”

Mortal and fae, hand in hand, had created this enchanted palace, hidden beneath the streets of London. That was the whole purpose of its presence here: to bring together two worlds which otherwise stood aloof. “When I am gone,” Deven said, “and you are in your grief…what will become of your promise then?”

She answered him fiercely. “I will keep it. Do you think I would not?”

“I have every belief you will. But for you to search for a successor, in such a moment…”

He left the sentence unfinished. Lune sighed, the fire going out of her body. “I know,” she said, and shifted closer, so she could lay her head upon his shoulder, and he could curl his arm about her waist. “If I cannot face the thought now, how can I face the deed then?”

Deven slid his cheek along the cool silver of her hair. “I have a thought for that. Not a full remedy, I fear, but—”

A tremor in her body; it turned out to be amusement. “What, no miracle? My faith in your omnipotence is shattered.”

Deven smiled. If she could find the heart to jest, then he did not fear to go on. “I am two things to you: your lover, and the man who rules at your side. One of these will be replaced. Might it not therefore profit us to separate the two? Create a title, some office I may occupy in my capacity as your consort. Such a thing may be passed on—
before
I am gone.”

She had not expected it. And it drove back the fear, at least a little; Lune sat up and tilted her head to a familiar angle, considering the prospect. After a moment, a smile curved her sculpted lips, and she gave him a merry look. “You mortal courtiers—always seeking advancement, honours, titles…”

“Your gold turns to leaves in the world above,” he said with a mock-apologetic bow. “I must have
something
to show for all my flattery and service.”

Lune’s merriment faded too quickly, but not to anger or melancholy. “’Tis a thought,” she admitted, “and a useful one, too. To make of this a political thing…wouldst be a faerie king, then?”

He hadn’t aimed that high, and she laughed to see the startlement on his face. “Prince, perhaps,” she suggested. “Enough to make you royal.”

And not enough to imply he stood above her. It was one of the reasons Elizabeth had never wed: few husbands would agree to the lesser position of consort, leaving their Queen-wives to rule the realm. But Deven had been a consort for decades, and did not mind. He said, “Prince
of
something? Not Wales, obviously; the Tylwyth Teg would not thank us for that. But it needs more than the bare word.” He pondered for a moment, then suggested, “Prince of the London Stone?”

Lune frowned. “I’d liefer keep that secret; ’tis too vital to the security of our realm.”

Vital
was perhaps too mild a word for it; that unimpressive block was the heart of the Onyx Hall. She was right to keep it concealed. The sound of the phrase appealed to him, though. “Prince of the Stone, then,” Deven amended. “Where the stone in question might be the onyx of the Hall.”

She repeated his words, as if tasting them. “It might do,” she said at last. “And some ceremony to bestow it upon you. Then you may bear it until another is found.”

Found,
not prepared. No doubt Lune had already surveyed the prospects, even as he had, and deemed them lacking. Few mortals had any dealings with the Onyx Court, despite his and Lune’s efforts; even fewer of them knew it. The fae were slow to entrust their secrets, when iron and Christian faith could hurt them so badly. Of those who walked these halls freely, none, in Deven’s opinion, was fit to be his successor.

You are hardly an impartial judge,
he reminded himself wryly.
No more than Lune.
Both their hearts were bound up in this matter, and to contemplate a change was painful.

But that was, after all, the point of doing it.

He made himself think. A gentleman, at the least—someone with political connections and influence, who could be of use to Lune. Politically aware, or capable of learning. Trustworthy enough to keep their secrets. And agreeable to Lune; she was no mortal Queen, forced to wed for the sake of alliance, with no regard for her inclination.

“I will look,” he promised her, lifting the slender hand once more to his lips. “In all of England, there must be one man I would trust to stand at your side.”

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