STATELY and swift, Tyg Marigen stalked through the queen’s conservatory. The large glass room contained a myriad of exotic plants and butterflies, brought back from the human realm at the queen’s request. Human servants tended to the collection, ensuring every bloom and leaf thrived. It was, in her view, the pinnacle of their monarch’s mindless superfluity. Out of spite, Tyg did not bother stepping around the yellow, swallow-tailed butterfly that landed in her path. The poor creature crunched beneath her boot.
As the Magus over the Yewolyns’ division of mages, Tyg commanded a great deal of fear. Only her husband, the Valor, ranked higher. Though the Yewolyns were known for being Mysanhal’s fiercest warriors, she had a reputation for being cruel and cunning even among her own ranks. So, it was with good reason that the head of the palace staff, a thachwing named Wynn, let out a high-pitched cry of surprise as she rounded the corner and came face-to-face with Tyg.
A flurry of colorful wings swirled around them. The butterflies gravitated toward Wynn, settling on her silky, melon-green dress. Despite being a wisp of a fae woman, she always managed to stand out with her extravagant gowns and red hair.
“Sorry, sorry, Magus Marigen. I didn’t see you coming,” said the thachwing, eyeing the broken swallowtail just behind Tyg’s boot. Wynn’s long wings flicked behind her, a mosaic of paper-thin, iridescent cells. Like most thachwings, she had an affinity for living beings, no matter how small. She clasped her hands together, resisting the urge to tend to the butterfly in the dren’s presence.
Tyg looked down on her with a chilling blue gaze. “Perhaps if you were more aware of your surroundings, such missteps could be avoided.”
“Yes, Magus. Right as always. Well, you must have come—”
“To speak with the queen, yes. Step aside.”
As Wynn obeyed the shrewd order and pressed herself into the curled fronds of a fern, she called after Tyg. “She’s meeting with High Priestess Aygriel. Perhaps you could wait in one of the parlors? The Scarlet Room was just dusted.”
The dren halted and turned, her elk cloak whirling around her sinewy figure. “It would be wise of you to remember your place, Wynn.”
She bowed her head. “My apologies. It was only a suggestion, Magus.”
Without a word more, Tyg left the flustered thachwing and made her way to the center of the conservatory. There, she found the queen engaged in a hushed conversation with the high priestess. The ghostly white dren used more than a pinch of glamour to appear young. To the war-battered Magus, it was a frivolous form of magic.
Though Tyg was a devout worshiper of Cree, their god, she had been at odds with the high priestess for decades. Ever since the elf king, Odharan, crossed over to the spirit realm, Aygriel had gained too much influence over his widowed queen. Her sway too often resulted in the Yewolyns being sent on ridiculous errands and diplomatic affairs, a poor use of their strength. Worse, Tyg was beginning to suspect that Innes was grooming Aygriel to take the throne once she crossed to the spirit realm.
They both fell silent at the Yewolyn’s approach. Tyg gave a low bow.
“Your Majesty, I apologize for the intrusion, but I have brought news,” she said.
“I am most pleased to see you have returned from Nor safely, Magus Marigen.” Queen Innes swept her hand toward one of the empty chairs, the long sleeve of her silken, violet dress whispering across the ground. The queen was a regal thachwing with long white hair and pale features softened by time. Unlike the priestess, she did not bother hiding her age but donned her wrinkles with a marked elegance. “High Priestess Aygriel and I were just discussing matters that you may find of interest.”
“Certainly.” Tyg had to stop herself from sighing as she took a seat. She found it difficult to predict the whims of Innes, that damned thachwing woman. Innes peered into the dream world too often and consulted with the high priestess for even the smallest matters. “Your Majesty, if I may begin—”
Innes cut her off. “No need, Magus. I know of the girl your husband brought back to Tirnan last night. I heard whispers in my sleep.”
As a flicker of irritation passed through Tyg’s expression, a taunting smile grew on Aygriel’s face.
“Unusual, isn’t it?” said Aygriel.
Tyg ignored the priestess. “May I ask what your dream was about, Your Majesty?”
Innes’s pale, gray eyes seemed to look through Tyg as she spoke. “I heard whispers in the dark. They said her name will be cherished by the shadow.”
“What do you mean?” asked Tyg, forcing herself to remain resolute.
Innes laughed, and her eyes grew watery. “She is more than she seems, my dear. Valor Marigen has invited a new creature among the fae.”
“A new creature, Your Majesty?” Tyg nearly laughed herself. The human girl was ordinary, though a tad small for a Nor. When her husband, Callum, had carried the girl to the servants’ quarters, her fur coat and wild hair made her look like a small animal in his arms. “We were not far from the human village of Fel. The girl probably came from a family of trappers. It’s nothing to be excited about.”
Aygriel folded her delicate hands beneath her chin. “Are you doubting the queen’s vision, Magus?”
“Of course not,” snapped Tyg, avoiding the high priestess’s trap. “But I wonder if there’s any real cause for concern. Whoever she is, whatever she may be, her name is now bound to your will, My Queen. Surely this is all for the best?”
“You may be right, Magus Marigen,” said Innes.
Triumphant, Tyg glanced at Aygriel, who had lost their minor political duel. Innes had at last listened to good reason. Intending to shift the conversation to more pressing topics, Tyg opened her mouth to speak, but the queen went on.
“Perhaps you could keep an eye on her until I have learned more.”
This was not what Tyg had in mind. “My Queen, I am the Yewolyn Magus. Not a nursemaid.”
“You’re right,” said Aygriel, her voice sweet. “You are not a nursemaid. You are a guardian of our royal city, of our country. I can think of no one more fit to watch over a new creature. Your strength and wisdom are called for when it comes to such an … uncertain matter.”
Innes clasped a hand against her chest as if the priestess had just delivered an impressive sermon. “Well spoken, Aygriel. Do you agree, Magus?”
Anger simmered beneath Tyg’s stoic façade. It was clear that Innes’s decision had been made before the Magus had stepped into the room. She bowed her head. “Very well. I will watch over the girl.”
“Good. Bring her to court this evening, but do not speak of my vision. I do not want to alarm anyone.”
“Understood, Your Highness. But, I did not come here solely to discuss the girl. I brought news of the Cedar Clan.”
“Ah yes, the Cedar Clan,” Innes said as she smoothed out her skirts. “I suspect they did not give you any trouble. How did they respond to my offer?”
“They will return to our realm and set aside past conflict if they are allowed to stay hidden. They do not want to be troubled with our affairs.”
The queen’s placid expression revealed little. She poured herself a cup of tea, stirred in cream and sugar, and took several sips before answering. “They are unlikely to cause any trouble. There are only—eight left, correct?”
“There are seven, Your Majesty.”
“I will give this some thought.”
“I understand. The Yewolyns are at your service. We will await your instruction.” Tyg rose and bowed to the queen once more before leaving the pair to bask in the sun and their own foolishness.
As soon as she closed the door, anger burned away her cool demeanor. The queen had become more and more nonsensical in the past few years. In King Odharan’s time, harming a Yewolyn would have been reason enough to sentence the girl to death. Instead, she would have to look after the little Nor. And the girl was nothing more than a peasant from the Hy Borea!
She stormed through several of the palace’s grand corridors and down a flight of marble stairs. Ladies and lords alike parted as the Magus of the Yewolyns passed. Servants hurried to hide in nearby rooms. Even the little black cat who wandered the palace leapt into an open window and disappeared.
Once she reached the servants’ quarters, Tyg threw open the wooden door to a small room. Like all the other servants’ rooms, it had modest furnishings and a single window alight with morning sun. However, this room’s occupant was filthy and covered in thin, bloody scratches. Seething, Tyg glared down at the sleeping Norrish girl. You are the Magus, she thought. You are better than this. Slowly, her composure returned. Once she calmed, she bent down and whispered a spell to rouse the girl.
The Nor opened her dark eyes and, upon seeing Tyg, sat up with a start. Her face paled as she realized she had been captured. “What do you want?” she asked.
“You are a girl?” Tyg asked. “A human girl?”
Taken aback by the question, she only nodded, eyes still wide and wild.
“You were born to human parents?”
Confusion filled the girl’s eyes. Impatient, Tyg grabbed her arm and commanded her to answer.
“Of course!” she shouted. “I hadn’t even seen a dren before …” Her voice wavered. She pulled her knees to her chest as her brow wrinkled. “Before then.”
Tyg huffed and stepped out of the room, slamming the door behind her. Within seconds, she heard the girl tugging and twisting at the brass doorknob. Despite the mystery that now surrounded the Nor, she felt a small, satisfied thrill at the girl’s panic.
“Only a spell can open this door,” Tyg crooned.
The girl pounded on the door, demanding that she be let out at once. As she listened to her cries, Tyg caught sight of Pons, a human servant, peering out of his own room.
“Come here,” she said, voice knife-sharp and cold.
The boy did as told and stood before the fuming dren with his eyes downcast, waiting for orders.
“Draw a bath for this girl. She reeks. And tell Wynn to find her something suitable to wear for court this evening.”
“Her name,” he said. “Wynn will want to know it.”
“Tell her it’s Ora. Now, hurry up.”
Pons all but ran toward the opposite end of the passage. As he disappeared through a door, she turned to go find Callum. Her mind still reeled with the queen’s words. How could the girl be anything but human? She certainly smelled and looked like one. But, if the girl was something else, she might be more trouble than she was worth. The sooner Innes crossed, the better. Then, the human girl could be dealt with, regardless of who she was.
Tyg found her golden-eyed husband lounging on one of the benches in the Great Hall. He seemed relaxed but was no doubt contemplating what fate awaited the girl he had brought back to Tirnan, the royal city of Mysanhal. He thought it funny that a human girl had bested him with a river rock. As the healers took care of the nasty gash on his forehead, he related the story as if it was a joke. Vexed by his behavior, Tyg had watched from the doorway with her arms crossed.
At her brisk approach, Callum sat up and rolled his stiff shoulders. “I might be getting on in age at last,” he said.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” snapped Tyg. “You may have outlived most Yewolyns, but you’re still young for a dren.”
“You flatter me, Magus.”
“I’m only pointing out what is true,” Tyg said, annoyed that he would use her title to flirt. She had earned her place among the Yewolyns and held onto her position with fierce pride. Her husband had risen in the ranks through tenure and became the Yewolyns’ leader only a few years ago. It took countless battles and decades of practicing combat magic to achieve her post as the most adept war mage among an already select group. Though she never dared to voice it, she harbored a quiet resentment for Callum.
“Is the girl awake?” he asked.
“Yes, and Queen Innes will be seeing her this evening, which means you ought to make yourself more presentable. I’ve told Pons to draw a bath for her. She smells like dirt. And pig.” She smirked at those last words, quite proud of herself for pulling off a successful transformation. They did not always change so smoothly. For that reason, there were a few strange, half-human beasts living deep within the Hy Borea.
“And how is Pyri?” asked Callum.
She grimaced at the question. The arrows had missed her heart, but that did not make the healing process pleasant. Tyg’s cousin had been at the hands of the healers all night as they rewove her flesh. The pain would last for weeks, but it was nothing compared to what they had endured during training. Pyri would return to the Yewolyns once the healers released her from the infirmary.
“She’s asleep,” said Tyg, brushing the matter aside. In a lower voice, she said, “I’ll walk with you to the bathhouse.”
He raised a brow. “What for, my wife?”
She crossed her arms as he languidly got to his feet and looked her up and down. “Not for what you’d like. I have matters to discuss with you.”
“Always business with you, but, very well, let’s go.” He stepped aside so that she might lead the way.
When they walked outside, Tyg tilted her head up to smile at the warmth. It was always summer in Rioc, the fae realm. It was a gift from Cree along with magic and long life, provided one did not meet a violent end. The fae who lived in Tirnan had comfortable, rich lives, eating fine food and hosting lavish parties. Though glad to be home, Tyg had never seen much sense or honor in hedonistic pursuits.
“What was it you wanted to discuss?” asked Callum as they made their way down the steep staircase that led to a large, open plaza with an impressive overlook of the Sylamor Mountains. The jagged white peaks were bright and faint in the morning sun.
It was too early for the plaza to be crowded, but she still glanced over her shoulder to be sure no one walked too close. Then, hardly loud enough to hear, Tyg murmured, “The queen is having visions in her sleep. I do not think she will be fit to rule much longer.”
“What do you mean?” Callum asked.
His apprehension did not surprise her. Innes had been revered by many as a wise leader ever since King Odharan crossed over to the spirit realm. After over a century of the elf king’s relentless tyranny, Rioc had never known such a long period of peace. Still, historians were divided. Some considered it a golden age for Mysanhal. Others warned that Innes ruled too carelessly, and Tyg agreed.
“I mean, she’s spewing nonsense. She’s looking upon distant places, and she has devoted herself to Cree too unflinchingly. It may be …” She stole another glance over her shoulder. “It may soon be time for her to cross.”
Callum let out a heavy sigh. “There will be bickering among the clans no matter who the oracle names as our new monarch. We have not had a divining ceremony in—”
“Nearly two centuries,” finished Tyg. Innes no longer had a direct heir. Her sons and daughters had died in King Odharan’s wars, just as Tyg’s father had. As a young dren, her fierce father, then the Valor, had seemed invincible. His death still sent a pang of longing and hurt through her heart. Becoming even quieter, she added, “Callum, I think you should make an offering to Cree. To show your devotion. It may put you in his favor.”
“That’s more than a little presumptive.”
“You’ve more than earned it,” she said. “We’ve more than earned it.” Of course, Tyg had more than her husband in mind. She had been making secret offerings to Cree for many years, anticipating the ancient queen’s eventual crossing. Aygriel be damned.
She made no further mention of the queen’s vision to Callum as they walked to the bathhouse. By the time they reached the marble steps, her head had begun to ache terribly. Ignoring the crease between her eyes, Callum kissed her cheek, a rare show of tenderness between them, and went inside to purchase a bath token.
In no mood to join him, Tyg turned to leave but was met with laughter. One of her least favorite dren had been watching from a nearby fountain, and now, she was halfway across the cobbled street.
“Alish,” said Tyg as the dren woman reached her. “Well met.”
“You and the Valor have a fight?” Alish peered around Tyg’s shoulder after Callum. She had grown up with Tyg but did not become a Yewolyn. Instead, she took to the royal city’s gossip and parties. A delicate and unusually pale beauty by dren standards, Alish had slept with many more than her fair share of eligible bachelors, even a few ineligible ones. Incomprehensibly, they all adored her despite the fact.
“Our marriage is none of your concern.” Tyg began walking back toward the palace, but she soon found Alish next to her.
“I heard he bound the name of a human girl.”
Tyg could not smother a thin smile. “It’s true,” she said, pride swelling in her voice. Even though she felt the girl deserved worse, it was rare for a human to be brought back to their realm. Names were sacred, after all, and name binding was reserved for punishment more often than not.
Alish appeared small next to Tyg and had to walk quickly to keep up with the Magus’s long strides. No one doubted the strength of a fully inducted Yewolyn, and the elk cloak and tattoos were visible reminders of that. But Alish did not fear the quick temper of a Yewolyn. After all, she had made many of them turn to liquid beneath her ardent touch. Even Callum—before he married. This only added to Tyg’s resentment.
“Queen Innes must be pleased,” she went on. “It’s been at least a decade since anyone bound a human name. Will she be in court tonight?”
Tyg did not answer at first, hoping that Alish would leave her be. But, of course, the annoying wench kept up, waiting for an answer. “Yes, she will.”
Alish beamed. “I would very much like a human girl of my own, you know. I hardly have time to do the dusting or take my dresses to be laundered. It’s all very tiresome. I could hire a maid, sure, but you can’t really trust them the same way you can a bound human. Surely you understand, Tyg. You don’t have one either, do you?”
“I do not, and I do not intend to.” Tyg meant it. There was still time to sway Innes. The girl’s name was bound. It did not matter who she was placed with.
“You’ve always been so—”
“Do not finish that thought, Alish.”
“What does Callum think?”
“Valor Marigen’s thoughts are hardly anything for you to concern yourself with.” Tyg halted. “Are you finished being a nuisance?”
Without the slightest hint of offense, Alish beamed up at her. “Oh, I had only hoped to catch up with an old friend.”
To her relief, Tyg caught sight of Wynn rushing toward them. “Please excuse me, Alish,” Tyg said curtly. When the dren did not immediately leave, she lost all patience and shouted, “Off with you, Alish!”
The dren woman flinched and gave a hurt look before leaving Tyg in peace. She watched Alish go, her head throbbing and thoughts churning darkly.
Wynn pressed her hand against her chest. She was out of breath and rosy-cheeked.
“Magus.” Her delicate, iridescent wings twitched behind her as she spoke. “I had hoped to find Valor Marigen.”
“He’s busy,” said Tyg. “What is it?”
The thachwing hesitated but then said, “You see, Magus, the girl refuses to bathe. Surely it’s nothing, but when I tried using her name, it didn’t do any good. Perhaps I said it wrong?”
“Perhaps,” Tyg growled through clenched teeth. She stepped past Wynn. “I will deal with the girl.”