Chronologically, this scene fits in immediately before The Court of Mortals starts. Think of it as an unofficial prologue to Book 3.
(Spoiler alert if you haven’t read Stariel #1 and #2 yet!)
Wyn sat in the library opposite an innocent sixteen-year-old mortal and steeled himself to begin. I promised I would do this, he reminded himself, reluctantly unfurling the merest whisper of magic.
The morning sun poured through the nearby window and outlined Miss Alexandra Valstar in gold as she reached to pick up her cup from the small table beside her. He held his breath as she took a sip, his chest constricting.
She replaced the cup neatly in its saucer. The soft scrape of the china startled her, and she blinked slowly down at the willow-patterned cup as if she had no recollection of how it had come to be there. Then all at once, she jerked to life and shoved it away. Tea sloshed over the saucer and onto the table, and she sat back in her armchair as if burned. The kitten that was curled up on the arm of his own chair started awake at the commotion and gave a meow of protest.
“I wasn’t ready!” Alexandra accused. Her big powder-blue eyes, rare among the generally grey-eyed Valstar family, bore into him.
He returned her gaze steadily, despite the tightness in his chest. “And I said this would be harder.”
Alexandra scowled at the teacup and drew further into her armchair. The kitten beside him began to stretch, digging its claws into the leather. He absently sent a stray bit of magic at it, suggesting that claws were not to be used in such a fashion. The kitten flicked an ear but otherwise ignored him. It was half catshee, but even normal cats were immune to anything short of outright compulsion, and he wouldn’t use that magic trivially anymore, not even on lowfae. Not after two months of these lessons with Hetta’s sister.
“It was easier to notice with the peppermint tea,” Alexandra grumbled. That had been the flavour they’d used in previous lessons, unlike today’s brew. Today’s tea was chamomile–her favourite.
“That’s because you dislike peppermint, so it was easier to notice my compulsion. That’s why this is harder, today, using a tea you like,” he explained. Making her sip tea had been the least harmful method of practising this he could think of. “The further something goes against someone’s nature, the harder it is to compel them to do it.”
The corner of her mouth reluctantly lifted. “Peppermint tea is against nature.” She brooded down at the teacup, her smile fading, the expression in her eyes too old for someone of her years.
“It’s a sign that you’ve made progress, that we needed to make the switch.” He smiled to convey a reassurance he didn’t feel. Alexandra had been having nightmares, ever since his sister Aroset had compelled her; his fault, ultimately. Much as he disliked these lessons, he’d do far more to help Alexandra feel less helpless.
Alexandra wrinkled her nose. “You’re just saying that to make me feel better. I wish I were like Marius. He doesn’t end up drinking stupid tea he doesn’t want to.” Her oldest brother was naturally immune to compulsion.
“And I’m sure he wouldn’t mind having the Sight,” Wyn said lightly, trying to cheer her up. Alexandra could see through illusion and glamour both, and her Sight had been growing in strength. Now not even Wyn’s glamour—the glamour of a royal fae, no less—could fool her.
Alexandra shook her head. “I’d rather have a more useful gift. Like Hetta.” Her expression grew wistful. “How old was Hetta when her powers manifested?”
“Seventeen.” He remembered the occasion vividly, a younger Hetta’s eyes shining with amazement. The illusions she’d accidentally summoned had lit up the old tower in a drunken rainbow. A wisp of fond nostalgia thawed at the edges of his mood.
“Well, I only just turned sixteen. Do you think that means I might manifest more magic?” She perked up hopefully, golden braid curled artlessly over one shoulder. Had he ever been that innocent? He doubted it, somehow. Faerie didn’t foster innocence, even in the days when his mother had still been at court.
“I think you should pay more attention,” he said gently, as she took another unwitting sip of tea, the compulsion spilling from him with too much ease.
She started and nearly dropped the cup. “Did I…?”
“Yes. One sip.”
“I thought you said I was getting better at this!” she wailed. “I didn’t even notice!”
“You are getting better, more so than I thought might be possible. Even greater fae have trouble with compulsion. There is no small triumph in the progress you have already achieved, if you wish to halt here.” Don’t ask this of me anymore, the selfish part of him wanted to say, but he wouldn’t. The lessons would continue for as long as Alexandra needed them to.
Alexandra’s mouth set. “No. She’s still out there, so I have to be better. And you said you weren’t an expert in compulsion, which means you don’t know that I can’t get better at this.”
“True,” he acknowledged. “Very well, Miss Alex.” Besides, she was right. Aroset was still out there, somewhere, though he’d heard nothing from the fae courts yet. Rakken had said he and his twin Catsmere had some plan to ensure Aroset didn’t inherit, but surely they ought to have prevailed by now? Was no news good news? What if it wasn’t? I’d know if they were dead, he tried to reassure himself for the thousandth time. It wasn’t particularly reassuring.
Something flickered in his line of sight, a hint of movement at the window behind Alexandra. He stilled, about to draw up his leysight, but it proved unnecessary because the small, furry lowfae crept warily into view and wrapped its long fingers around the sill so it could stare at him. Its wide amber eyes had flower-shaped pupils.
Alarm thrilled through him, despite the fact that it was only a lowfae. That flowered mark was common to many low and lesser fae of DuskRose’s court, and for his entire life it had meant one simple thing: enemy. His magic swarmed to the surface, and he wrestled it back before his foolish instincts could fry the poor creature into oblivion—and probably himself also. I am inside a house. Even assuming he had control enough to direct it—a very large assumption—lightning would be a spectacularly bad idea.
Alexandra turned to follow his gaze and gasped, seeing straight through the lowfae’s minor don’t-see-me glamour. “What’s that?”
The lowfae started at the sound of her voice and slipped off the ledge in a blur of long-tailed grace. The kitten beside him leapt across and onto Alexandra’s chair, scrambling up onto the chair-back so it could stare at the now-empty windowsill too.
“They’re called lametsu,” he answered softly as he rose, the name swimming up from an old memory. “A type of wyldfae.” He’d been to the Court of Dusken Roses exactly once, to a small settlement just inside the borders, where the marriage treaty had been agreed between him and Princess Sunnika. Lametsu were wyldfae native to that court, swinging effortlessly between the trees on their prehensile tails. Wyldfae were too insignificant generally to activate Stariel’s boundaries, unless they were oath-bound to a foreign court—a fact that whoever had sent the lametsu had banked on.
He strode to the window and peered around, finding the lowfae perched on a drainpipe below the sill. It blinked up at him suspiciously, its large ears twitching.
“Good morning, little one.” His magic reacted aggressively to the tiny fae’s presence, and he had to fight to keep compulsion from spilling out. No, he told himself firmly. “What brings you so far from home?”
The lametsu tilted its head to the side, pale yellow ears twitching. Not all of the lowfae could talk, though they generally understood speech fairly well. It uncurled the long fingers of one hand to reveal a tiny scroll.
He held out a hand for the message, but the lametsu withdrew the scroll and chittered at him in a haggling sort of way. Nothing came free, in Faerie.
He narrowed his eyes. The lowfae blinked back, unrepentant.
“Oh, very well.” He snapped his fingers, emitting a spark of magic in the lametsu’s direction. It opened alarmingly wide jaws, swallowed the minuscule amount of magic with a burble of pleasure, and scampered up the drainpipe to drop the scroll on the window ledge. Chirping happily, it hurried away, its tiny body glowing to his leysight. Lowfae had little magic of their own and relied on the lesser and greater fae for scraps.
He watched it clamber away down the side of the house. Paying a lowfae with royal magic, regardless of the amount? He grinned mirthlessly. Father would turn in his grave. Inevitably, the Indigoes drew his gaze, to where King Aeros’s bones lay deep in the earth, where Stariel had swallowed him. Wyn hadn’t been up there since. His smile faded, and he turned away from the view to examine the tiny scroll lying on the ledge. It sang with foreign magic, but it wasn’t hostile, as far as he could tell.
“It gave you a message? Who’s it from?” Alexandra asked, coming to stand beside him and craning her neck to try to follow the lametsu’s path.
“Do I pry into your correspondence, Miss Alex?” He knew exactly who it was from, but he still hoped he’d somehow misread the magical signature.
“Yes!” she said indignantly. “Remember Gwen?”
He had to laugh, despite his mixed feelings about Alexandra’s relationship with the DuskRose lesser fae—and despite knowing that if he’d been here to pry into the last message Alexandra had mistakenly thought Gwendelfear had sent her, Aroset might never have gotten the chance to compel her.
“A fair point. I do pry,” he said lightly, unrolling the scroll and scanning its brief contents, his heart sinking as he did. Ten o’clock, the note said. His gaze went to the grandfather clock in the corner. Barely enough time. The short notice was deliberate, of course. “We’ll have to end today’s lesson early, I’m afraid.”
Alexandra made a small sound, and he looked up to find her steeling herself to say something, her shoulders up around her ears. “Are—are you going to tell Hetta you’re getting messages from strange fae?” she said in a rush, and then went bright red.
He smiled, a real one this time, glad to see this sisterly protectiveness emerge. She’d been so subdued of late. “This method does have a faintly clandestine air about it, doesn’t it? But yes, I am.”
Without much effort, he reached out with his leysight and located Hetta in her study, the blaze of Stariel’s lord’s presence on her own faeland as bright as a greater fae’s. For a moment, his heart softened at the familiar sense of her magic, a deep, powerful yearning filling him. There was dim presence next to her; Lady Phoebe, he judged. Oh dear. But there wasn’t enough time; he would have to trust Hetta had the situation in hand. As she would have to trust him.
He let go of his leysight and re-focused on Alexandra. “In fact, I would appreciate it if you could give her a message from me.”
Hetta would forgive him, in the circumstances. Sunnika, however, would not.
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