Chapter 1: Arlo CHAPTER 1 Arlo
Toronto—The Palace of Spring, Present Day
THE REVERDIE WAS QUIET—UNUSUALLY so. Arlo had never seen its reception so entirely deserted. Even on weekends, when most of the palace’s government services were closed to the public, folk still made use of things like the Tim Hortons off to her left and the Falchion Police Headquarters beside it.
Today, there was no one, not even staff.
No one sat at the information booth in the center of the room, and no one patrolled the moss-and-marble floor. No one posed for pictures around the gilded statues of former High Sovereigns or by the enormous waterfall across the way. Where normally the budding forest canopy magicked onto the vaulted ceiling would rustle and sway in some illusory breeze, at the moment it was perfectly still. The only signs of the hummingbird faeries that tended to the palace’s flora were glimpses of their vibrant rainbow plumage peeking out from the dark-leafed ivy that climbed the walls, from the lilac and rose and rhododendron bushes that flourished between ornate fixtures, and from the handsome oaks growing in place of random soapstone pillars with bluebells, crocuses, snowdrops, and black-eyed windflowers gathered around their bases.
This silence was eerie.
This all-around emptiness was practically unheard of.
Not once in Arlo’s eighteen years had the Palace of Spring been shut so tightly to what seemed like everyone save a handful of its guards, and she couldn’t help but wonder why the High King had chosen to do so now—and knew this meant nothing good for the meeting that called her and her mother here.
“Explain.” Thalo, as always, got straight to the point.
Oren—the burly ogre who’d seen Arlo and her mother through the doors—was quick to supply an answer to what Thalo demanded. “Order from the High King himself, Commander. Effective immediately, the palace is closed until tomorrow morning.”
“I…” Oren grimaced. “I’m sorry, Sir. I can’t tell you that. I’m not permitted to speak it.”
The frown on Thalo’s face etched deeper.
Oren wasn’t one of the Reverdie’s usual guards—in fact, he wasn’t a guard at all. As a Falchion officer, it wasn’t his normal duty to mediate the palace’s comings and goings, and that had been Arlo’s first clue that something was going on today beyond the High King’s requested debriefing. The fact that Oren very clearly wanted to tell his superior exactly what was happening here but couldn’t meant he’d been ordered not to say by the only person whose command ranked higher than Arlo’s mother’s, and that didn’t bode well for today at all.
Arlo felt her anxiety ratchet even higher.
Head snapping in the direction of this newest voice, Arlo saw the Lieutenant Commander making quickly for them. Klair Cardale, second to Thalo in the ranks of the Falchion and a few years her senior, had exited the FPF Headquarters so silently that he was almost right beside them by the time Arlo registered his presence.
Thalo—with her acute fae senses—was less surprised.
Handsome as any other fae Arlo had ever encountered, Klair was also immaculate down to his perfectly pressed Falchion uniform of black trousers and a sage button-down shirt with the crescent moon and windflower sigil of UnSeelie Spring emblazoned in dark emerald thread on its back. He was one of the rare few who’d supported Thalo as both Commander of the Falchion and the High King’s Sword and Shield right from the beginning, a fact even more surprising to Arlo given how obsessed she knew him to be with rules and traditions. He was a no-nonsense sort of person. Arlo honestly couldn’t say whether he liked her, but he liked Thalo… or at least tolerated her.
Although his stoic mannerisms made that difficult to tell sometimes.
“Lieutenant Commander.” Thalo faced her subordinate, eyeing him warily, clearly apprehensive of what he had to say on this troubling mystery. “Please tell me this isn’t what I think it is.”
Arlo looked between them, curious.
She was too used to keeping herself in her mother’s shadow by now, small and silent whenever they were together at the palace, to ask anything outright. Thalo, of course, had never requested that of her. She’d never once given Arlo reason to suspect she was embarrassed of her ironborn daughter in any way, never made it a secret how much she enjoyed being a mother, even if she’d taken to the role with the same intensity she brought to being the High King’s Right Hand, which had made everything from bedtime stories to school bake sales just a touch dramatic.
But Arlo knew how incredibly hard her mother had been forced to work to get where she was, harder than she would have if she’d been born a male, and many of her personal choices—such as taking a human for a partner instead of a well-to-do fae—hadn’t helped that along. Jealousy looked for any ammunition it could find to knock people from their highly envied pedestals, and Arlo was determined not to lend it any more than it already had.
She was already a significant reason Thalo couldn’t live at the palace with the rest of her family, Arlo’s ironborn status conflicting with the strict tradition that declared only fae could hold permanent residence here. She was already a significant reason their relationship with the many Viridians was fraught with tension.
Her mother would have already been fully apprised of whatever situation had put the palace on lockdown this morning if she’d been here around the clock as she should be—if she didn’t have to hand over her duties to Klair at the end of the day just to return to her separate residence with her daughter. Arlo wouldn’t allow herself to be the reason Thalo lost this job altogether.
“Sorry, Sir.” Klair shook his head. “I can’t tell you this isn’t what you think it is, as that would be a lie. Official protocol has been enacted. We can’t be certain. She didn’t give a reason for her visit on arrival, only said she’s here for the meeting. We thought it best to take precautions, because if she’s here for what we fear, we’ll now have a few hours to control how that gets out to the Courts.”
Thalo’s mouth pressed into a fine line. She drew a deep, steadying breath through her nose.
Arlo’s stomach twisted, because really… it could only be one person.
The meeting today was a private affair, meant to fill the High King in on what had happened mere days ago in the cavum factory. It had been held off in respect for the injuries Nausicaä sustained while protecting Arlo, but now that she was recovered, they couldn’t postpone this any longer. Arlo would have to tell her great uncle everything they’d learned about the ironborn deaths, the abducted humans used to sew together a monstrous undead army, and the philosopher’s stones he’d been thoroughly unwilling to entertain were being made.
Of course, there was absolutely no way she was going to tell him she’d made a deal with a Titan to become their Hollow Star, nor that she was waiting on Luck to train her in a magic that would definitely be just as forbidden as alchemy, if the Courts knew about it. As for when that training was going to happen, well, Arlo had been waiting… and waiting… and waiting. Luck hadn’t shown themself once over the last few days, and Arlo already had enough to worry about even without this monumental promise hanging over her head.
So she wouldn’t say a word about any of that today, if she could help it. But very possibly, she was going to have to admit to using alchemy to get them inside the factory so they could catch the evil scientist responsible for all the murders and mayhem.
Just thinking about betraying that secret sent Arlo’s nerves into hyperdrive, especially considering the not-at-all kind warning the High King had given her the last time they’d come together like this—that he’d punish Arlo if she ever dared use that forbidden magic again. She didn’t like her chances of the High King’s mood being any more forgiving than last time, even less if the one person in the whole of the Courts who could put him on edge was including herself in this meeting.
“Walk with me,” said Thalo to the Lieutenant Commander, setting off toward the carved oak doors that marked the throne room’s entrance.
Klair followed immediately after Thalo. Arlo did too, trailing close behind, watching the hem of her mother’s thick emerald cloak as it snapped around her legs.
“Tell me what we do know,” Thalo continued. “His Majesty?”
“Tense, to put it mildly,” Klair replied, falling into step beside her.
“Damn it. Of all the days, she chooses this one. The Wild Hunt?”
“Present. Minus one.”
When Arlo had filled Nausicaä in on what she’d missed after being stabbed by Hieronymus Aurum and slipping into some sort of healing coma, the ex-Fury hadn’t said much. That in itself was odd; Nausicaä had something to say about everything, constructive or otherwise. But when Arlo had mentioned that a Hunter had come to their rescue in the lab—one who admitted not only to working with Hieronymus but also with the person behind the philosopher’s stones as well—she’d fallen silent. Grim. Contemplative. All kinds of things that weren’t Nausicaä at all, and the only thing Arlo had been able to wheedle out of her was the Hunter’s name.
“Good. He actually listens to Eris, so at least there’s that. And if nothing else, for Cosmin’s sake, I hope he’ll remember he can call on Eris to serve as Champion if—”
And there it was.
“The queen,” Arlo groaned, then instantly dipped her chin to her chest in sheepish apology for interrupting Klair and her mother. But Arlo knew without a doubt now who they were talking about. She knew who was here, causing a stir, because it was pretty near clockwork for this particular fae to make her appearance.
After all, she had come at the same time every year for about a decade.
They approached the doors, and the stone-faced fae on duty snapped to attention, saluting Thalo and Klair. At a wave of Thalo’s hand, the throne room’s doors swung open, and all Arlo’s shorting-out brain could think as she followed them through was that she was very possibly about to witness the beginning of the end.
Riadne Lysterne, Queen of Seelie Summer, had come to issue her annual Challenge for Azurean Lazuli-Viridian’s Crown, and there was no doubt in Arlo’s mind (or anyone else’s, it seemed) that this time, she’d follow through with it.