[This is an unedited draft and subject to change in the final version]
Wyn arrived precisely on time, but there was no sign of either train or package as he drew the pony cart to a halt, the sudden cease of hoofbeats leaving a hollow absence in the still morning. Fog clung low to the ground as far as the eye could see, and the dark train tracks disappeared into blankness on either side of the platform. His instincts prickled at the sheer ominousness.
Weather isn’t an omen, not here in the Mortal Realm, he reminded himself. Fog was a perfectly natural phenomenon, the result of damp spring weather and ground-air temperature differentials. Not at all dangerous. His sense of oncoming doom did not abate in the face of this excellent logic. Instead, his magic shivered in restless patterns under his skin, as if it knew something he did not, and a faint hint of petrichor lit in the air. He pushed it down, as he had been doing so often lately, smoothing his thumbs over the leather of the reins to steady himself.
The horse snorted, as if it sensed his unease. Or perhaps it merely objected to his proximity. Animals were harder to fool than humans; Stariel’s horses had always known that there was something wrong with his scent, and it tended to put them a little on edge.
He shook his head and climbed down, leaving the pony cart hitched. As he approached Stariel Station, the billowing grey clouds drew eerie shapes around the straight lines of the station. His irrational sense of oncoming doom increased.
Small scuffling noises came from the platform, and he leaned on his leysight to identify the person hidden in the shadow of the ticket office. The sudden awareness made him suck in a breath, not because of the man’s identity—unsurprisingly, the stationmaster, Mr Billington—but because of the heady combination of leysight with land-sense. He still wasn’t used to that, the way the faeland—his faeland, now—surrendered information so freely.
This is my home now. As always, an uneven murmur of happiness and guilt accompanied the thought, the latter beating a name in the hollow beneath his sternum: Cat, Cat, Cat.
Cat, who was trapped because of him.
He called out to the man as he came onto the platform, not wishing to startle him. “Good morning, Mr Billington.”
“Morning, Mr Tempest,” the stationmaster responded cheerfully without turning from the door. There was a snick of the lock tumbling, and the stationmaster froze as if his own words had only just caught up with his ears. His shoulders hunched, and he slowly looked up. “I mean, Your Highness.”
There was an edge in his tone, halfway between accusation and question. It was the first time the two of them had interacted since Wyn’s identity had come to light—reasonable for the man to be cautious of him, even if it stung a little.
Wyn swiftly considered his response. What exactly did he want to achieve here? He could play the coolly distant royal, if needed. Would Hetta want that of him? His heart twisted, worry and joy twining round his chest in equal measure. A few weeks ago, before the world had tilted on its axis and shaken every priority into realignment, he would have known the answer to be a firm negative; Hetta wasn’t a woman with much concern for rank. Now…would there be some advantage in it, for her, if he made sure everyone acknowledged his title? An advantage for their child?
Child. The word slid through his mind like ice-water, and he shied away from it, mustering a friendly smile for the stationmaster. When in doubt, appear harmless.
“Ah—I see my reputation precedes me.” He wrinkled his nose. “But the formal address is unnecessary. It seems foolish to stand on ceremony, given the length of our acquaintance.” He paused. “And given that you once yelled at me for raiding your plum tree.” That had been Hetta’s idea, not his, years ago, before she’d left Stariel.
The stationmaster’s expression softened. “You and every other youth in the county. Including her lordship, if I remember correctly.” He coloured faintly, and Wyn knew he was wondering about Wyn’s relationship with Stariel’s lord.
He and Hetta hadn’t publicly announced an engagement, but they’d unofficially announced their intentions to Hetta’s family—and the Valstars weren’t exactly discreet.
“They were very superior plums,” he said diplomatically.
“Aye, and still are.” Mr Billington smiled. “This year’s crop looks set to be the best we’ve ever had.” His expression remained cautious, but at least Wyn’s reminder of youthful misdemeanours had drawn a little of the tension from his posture. It was difficult to mistrust someone you’d seen young and sticky with fruit stains.
I haven’t changed, Wyn wanted to say. Not fundamentally. I am still just Mr Tempest, good-natured steward, practically human, and certainly nothing to fear. But he couldn’t pretend things were the same as they had always been. All of Prydein now knew who and what he was. There could be no more pretending. Still, he could do without the way the stationmaster examined the space behind him, as if expecting wings to suddenly sprout. You would know if I were in my fae form, he always felt like telling people. Wings are not exactly discreet and neither are horns.
“Don’t let me keep you,” he said instead, gesturing at the ticket office. “I’m merely waiting the arrival of some seed-barley.” And the other package, of course, but best not to draw attention to that.
“The train’s running late,” Mr Billington said, unnecessarily. He grimaced at the fog. “Not surprising, really. It’s the slick tracks as much as the visibility. Probably be another ten minutes at least.” He let himself into the ticket office. “You can come in to wait out of the chill, if you’d like…sir,” he said cautiously, waiting for Wyn’s reaction to the address.
Wyn did not particularly feel the cold, but he recognised a peace offering when he saw one.
“Thank you.” He nodded, ducking into the small space. Though in truth, he would have preferred to spend the time pacing the length of the platform. A restlessness had hold of him this morning, and his feathers itched under his skin, aching to be unfurled. But continuing to settle the stationmaster’s anxieties was a better use of ten minutes than brooding.
“Tell me, how goes your Johnny?” he asked, rifling through his memories. “He must be nearly finished his apprenticeship?” Johnny was the stationmaster’s nephew, and he and his wife doted on the young man. He’d taken an apprenticeship with a cabinetmaker down in Alverness, or so Wyn had heard.
The stationmaster grinned. “Six months more, he reckons,” he said. The ten minutes passed quickly as he spoke of his nephew’s accomplishments, his career prospects, and the sweetheart he was apparently courting. A small warmth lit in Wyn’s heart, the reminder of domestic successes and concerns a pleasant one.
Mr Billington eyed him sidelong. “We’ve told him he needs to finish his apprenticeship before he asks the lass, though—otherwise how will he afford to keep a wife?”
“Sound advice,” Wyn said, pretending he hadn’t heard the subtext. Can I afford to keep a wife? The question briefly amused him, having never considered it from that angle before—it was a very mortal construct. But his amusement faded quickly, because the answer was a resounding no. Hetta did not benefit from a match with him; it could only cost her. She can ill-afford me.
“Yes, though of course we’ve told him he must have care for the girl’s reputation, in the meantime.”
Oh dear. Well, on the one hand, he could not fault someone for caring about Hetta’s good name. On the other, the judgement in the stationmaster’s expression rankled, since Wyn would have liked very much to announce an engagement to all and sundry—but the obstacles preventing him from doing so were not ones that he could explain in casual conversation.
Firstly, Hetta’s queen is expecting me to return to the capital in the role of King of Ten Thousand Spires before she announces our engagement—and that is no longer possible. Secondly, my own High King needs to grant me permission to marry a mortal—and my godparent still hasn’t returned with word of how to find him.
He was still searching for some alternative reassurance to give the man when the long, mournful blare of the train horn saved him.
“Ah, there she is, eleven minutes late,” the stationmaster said, glancing at the clock with something like satisfaction at his earlier prediction. They both left the ticket office to watch the train roll in.
The engine drew to a halt with a slow grind of brakes, the weight of the iron warping the leylines in a way that made all his muscles tense. He forced them to relax. Iron resisted fae magic, but it wasn’t painful. Why should it bother him so much this morning? Perhaps it was only that he was already on edge, and the fog made the train’s emergence vaguely menacing, its lights creating narrow beams in the whiteness. I’m being melodramatic even by fae standards, as Hetta would say.
The train attendants moved briskly, throwing open the doors to the luggage carriage and ferrying the mailbag and other items marked for delivery onto the platform. The attendants closed the doors and hopped back aboard, while the stationmaster walked the length of the train and blew his whistle to sound the all-clear. The train began to move again, pulling away into the fog bank.
Wyn was scanning for the package he’d come for among the train’s leavings, when his gaze fell suddenly on a small potted plant next to the seed barley. The stationmaster made some remark, but he didn’t hear it over the sudden thunder of his pulse. The stunted, leafless stick of thorns was only a few inches high, black as pitch, but it seemed to suck in what little light there was.
The world froze in a beat of disbelieving recognition.
No. No, it could not be what it looked like, not here, not now, not sitting in the perfect ordinariness of Stariel Station like a viper. He leaned on his leysight and blinked against the sudden glare of the plant’s magic, bright as the noonday sun. His instincts hadn’t been quite as ill-informed as he’d told them. Maybe stormdancers have more foresight than I thought.
Gritting his teeth, he resisted the urge to blast the cursed plant with a lightning bolt. A stiff envelope was tied to the black stem, and as he leant down to examine it, a taste of cherries and beeswax bloomed on the back of his tongue. He knew the signature, and wished he did not.
Tearing the envelope free, he stared down at the mocking words written in Princess Sunnika’s hand: I am calling in my debt, Prince Hallowyn.