Age of the Dark Court, 99
“Do you think she’s dead?”
“She’s breathing, you idiot.”
Tinny voices permeate the twilight space between sleeping and waking. I groan and pull the thick covers over my head.
“See? I tolds you.”
Something hard thunks onto flesh and the screeching wail of an Imp stabs through my skull, erasing any hope that they will find some other entertainment before I’m fully awake. I throw a pillow in the direction of their noise. “It’s too early for your nonsense.”
“Not nonsense, Mistress.” Their squabble ceases. I open my eyes to discover two vermilion faces peering at me, only tall enough that the tips of their hooked noses hover above the edge of the bed. “We’ve brought you something.”
With a chorus of grunts, the Imps heave a text onto the enormous mattress and slide it toward me. I push myself to sit up, curiosity overriding my irritation. “Where did you get this?”
“Valmar says to bring it right to you. Says we weren’t allowed to wait, case it gots lost.”
Which occurs more often than not with the Imps. I run my hands over the book’s cover. It’s not a material I recognize, like leather, but scaled and slightly rough. I wonder if it’s dragon hide. If so, it’s exceedingly rare and old.
“Has Valmar brought more Imps from Malterre?” It’s been years since we welcomed anyone from those blighted lands into the Dark Court.
“Aye.” One of the Imps uses his companion as a ladder and clambers up onto the bed. He points a clawed finger at the book. “Will you read it to us? Been too long since we had a story.”
I trace the sigil stamped into the cover, the unique material made darker against the nearly translucent shade of my skin. A broken Fae orb of the Vila crest surrounded by a circle of raven feathers.
I knew that court, Mortania whispers from her den. It could contain powerful magic.
The tingling of my curiosity intensifies. I’ve learned so much from the relics and books the Imps carried with them from the ruins of Malterre—all manner of rituals and the history of the Vila courts. I cannot wait to see what secrets this one provides. Maybe, impossibly, even something about breaking curses.
“I haven’t even eaten breakfast,” I say to the Imps, hoping they’ll scurry off and leave me to explore the book in peace.
But the first one fishes a stone out of his pocket, tosses it into the air, and claps. By the time he catches it, the rock is transformed into a glazed pastry. He presents it to me with a flourish and a jagged-toothed smile. “Your favorite.”
The other Imp applauds. I accept the pastry but give him a playful pinch anyway. It was a blessing when we discovered the Imps and their small magic. They can turn almost any bit of rock, wood, or material into a feast. And my skill in the kitchen never improved from the months I lived here alone.
“A story, then,” I say around a mouthful of nutty chocolate filling, and crack open the text, releasing its smell of musty parchment.
“With plenty of guts and blood,” one of the Imps instructs, the veiny ridges of his ears quivering.
“Find one with a beheading. We love those.”
I thumb through the pages, scanning entries detailing various events in the fallen court. Council meetings and ceremonies and special occasions. Births and deaths. Logs and ledgers. A few diagrams illustrating how to conduct rituals I’ve not yet encountered, which I make a mental note of to revisit later. “This isn’t a storybook,” I tell them, tapping a corner of the page. “And these dates suggest that it was written before the War of the Fae, so I doubt there are any beheadings. Vila courts didn’t do that to their own.”
“Sounds boring.” An Imp yawns.
The other nudges closer. “You sure there’s not anyone having their innards ripped out?”
I eat the rest of the pastry, lick my sticky fingertips, and am tempted to ask for another. “Not that I can see.”
Their ears droop in disappointment. One scrambles from his place and scurries to the foot of the bed, which, as this is the former royal suite, is fashioned to look like the head of a roaring dragon just landed from battle. Its massive, mahogany tail winds down one of the bedposts, and taloned wings dip down over the sides. “I shall tell a story, then,” he announces. “Of Mistress Nimara and how she turned beastie and toppled the fat old king and rescued us Imps from the Fae courts! How she swooped in with her green fire and—”
“You’re telling it wrong! You left out her claws. And her teeth. Thems the best bits.” The other rushes across the bed and barrels into him. Both fall in a tangle of limbs onto the floor.
I rub my temples. I definitely should have asked for another pastry while I had the chance. Or at least tea. An impatient tapping draws my attention to the window. I kick free of the bedclothes and draw the curtain back.
“Where did you get off to?” I crank the panes wide, and my kestrel wings past me with a peal of pleasure. She completes a lap of the room and then settles on the back of a chair. The Imps greet her with a cheer. Everyone at court adores Callow. “There was a storm last night. I worried about you.”
She clacks her beak in a way that informs me that she has no patience for my fussing, and the Imps turn handfuls of pebbles into dried beetles and fling them at her. She catches them midair, and they are beside themselves with glee.
Of all the surprises of the last century, Callow’s steadfast presence is by far the best. In truth, I’m not entirely sure how the kestrel hasn’t aged. Regan’s theory is that I unknowingly bound Callow sometime during my years in Lavender House. We learned of binding curses in the Vila books, and I could have unwittingly initiated one anytime the kestrel nipped me hard enough to draw blood, allowing my magic to enter her body. My power centers on intent, and I’d wanted Callow to stay with me badly enough that I ensured she always would.
There’s a knock on my door, and then Regan enters. She stops short at the Imps. “What are you lot doing in here?”
But they’ve invented a game in which they toss the beetles to each other instead of Callow, and the kestrel is swooping back and forth between them, extremely annoyed.
I thread my arms through an ermine-lined cape to ward off the cold. “They brought me a book from Valamar.”
Regan dodges out of the way before one of the Imps smacks into her. It’s been a century since she first arrived in this palace, but she looks the same as when she discovered me in the old library. Both of us do, our magic slowing our years and preventing our appearances from significantly altering. Even though I can Shift, my human form is easiest to maintain.
“Anything interesting?” she asks about the book.
“I’m not sure yet.” I go back to where I left it on the bed, keeping out of the line of Imp fire. “But I’m fairly certain it was written before the time of the Briar Queens, maybe even before Leythana.”
Regan disappears into the wardrobe, which is a cavern unto itself. Before Briar’s fall, this suite belonged to King Tarkin, and he cared about his clothes almost as much as he did about his army. “You’ll have to read it later,” she calls from within. “Torin is waiting in the council chamber. The Goblins sent a report of their progress in the Fae courts.”
She returns with a gown draped over her arm. A rich garnet velvet cinched at the waist with a thick chain belt. Metal clasps form an inverted triangle down the front in an almost military style. I shrug off my dressing gown and step into it.
“Wonderful.” She helps me tighten the laces in the back, her fingers deftly familiar with the task. The bone spikes on her knuckles graze the nape of my neck. Sometimes it seems impossible that there was ever a time here without Regan. We’ve become closer than sisters. “They have the Court of Dreams on their toes. It’s sure to fall soon, which makes six of the seven courts destroyed.”
The Imps let out a feral cheer and complete a series of celebratory somersaults. I hadn’t envisioned a second war with the Fae when we founded the Dark Court. But then we heard of the Imps being used as slaves in Etheria. In the course of liberating them, and as more joined our ranks, the cry for vengeance against the Etherians became all but deafening. It started with Goblins and Demons sneaking over the Etherian Mountains border just to tweak the noses of the Fae. But when the Etherians retaliated, the conflict swelled to a wildfire.
You did not argue against it, pet.
No. The Lord Ambassador Endlewild treated me like I was vermin when I was the Dark Grace, poisoning my mind against my own kind. And the Fae are responsible for the supposed protections on Aurora’s curse, which ensure she will not recognize me if she wakes. I may not have set out to start a war, but I intend to finish it.
Copyright © 2022 by Heather Walter. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.