And we fairies, that do run
By the triple Hecate’s team,
From the presence of the sun,
Following darkness like a dream.
William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream
QUINCE SAT at her desk by the window of her flat, staring off into the distance through the floor-to-ceiling plas window.
Outside, the storm was coming. It had roared out of the Pyramus Mountains that morning, causing flooding all the way down to the Gildensea, and now the vast tempest was approaching Oberon City. The angry purple clouds stretched up to at least 30,000 feet above sea level, and great multiforked lightning bolts lanced down from the sky.
She was tired of everything—the city, the attitudes. A winged skythane woman among all these wingless lander men.
The streetscape of the city lay spread out below her, thousands of amber lights running in strings along the main roadways where the ground transportation rumbled among the mostly industrial buildings.
In the distance beneath the clouds, she could just make out the blue shadow of the Pyramus Mountains, their peaks a sharp-toothed wall of darkness along the eastern edge of the world. Above them, in a break in the clouds, the stars swam in the deepest night, thickest overhead.
Neither Hermia nor Lysander, Oberon’s two moons, was up to challenge the stellar dominance of the night sky. Somewhere out there, Titan Station tracked slowly across the heavens.
She watched it all from her small apartment, perched halfway up one of Oberon’s great arcos—ten two-hundred-story residential-commercial habitats that housed most of the population of the city.
In her mind’s eye, she could see the waters of the Argent Sea on another world, lapping at the rocks far below her bedroom window, half a lifetime ago.
She closed her eyes and remembered the day it had all begun.
QUINCE WAS all alone in the forest just outside Ballifor, searching for hoarberries to take back home to her uncle’s house. She walked under the great redoak trees, the sunlight filtering pink through the branches and leafy canopies down to the forest floor.
Something cracked behind her, and she spun around, catching her foot on a root and falling hard to the ground. When she looked up, winded by the fall, the most beautiful creature stood there, looking down on her.
It was a nimfeach. She… or was it a he? It, she decided. It looked like a luminescent butterfly as tall as a human being, its gossamer wings trailing off into a shower of soft sparks, golden in the darkness under the trees. Its features were humanoid, but its eyes were far larger, and its face was heart shaped.
The nimfeach had existed here for as long as humanity. There were legends about them going back to the first skythane settlers. Some said they brought luck; others that they were tricksters.
Quince was unafraid. She stood and approached the creature. Its large eyes regarded her with what she could only interpret as curiosity.
It held out a glowing hand with three fingers, and she lifted up her own so that they met.
I have come to find you.
Quince broke contact, surprised. How could such a beautiful creature know someone as lowly as she, let alone want to speak with her?
The voice persisted. There is a task we must ask you to perform. It will not be easy, and it will profoundly change your life.
Quince considered. Her life was dull beyond words, living here in a small village away from Gaelan and the Court. Maybe it was time it changed for the better. She nodded. “What do you want me to do?”
The creature smiled, and Quince was flooded with warmth. When the Queen of the Gaelani calls for you, you must go. She has borne a child….
Shortly after, she had been summoned by the Queen. Apparently Robyn had gotten a visitor too.
A LOUD crack of thunder startled her out of her reverie. She had been so young then. Sometimes she felt she’d lived a century in these past twenty-five years.
These storms had grown worse these last few months. Her time here was growing short.
The last message from Robyn had arrived in a tube tied to the scaled leg of an imprean along with a vial of pith, a delivery method so antiquated it made her smile.
The news inside had not.
The King was dead. Whether by natural causes or the machinations of the invaders, it wasn’t clear. But what was clear was that their quarter-century wait was at an end.
Coincidental or not, the crisis they had anticipated was upon them.
With luck, they would be reunited soon, and the years-long occupation of Gaelan would come to an end. All their carefully laid plans were coming to fruition at last, but there were so many things that could still go wrong.
She tapped the side of her head, activating her cirq. “Ari, where is Davyn?” she asked quietly. It had taken Quince a long time to get used to the tech of the Common Worlds, so different from how simple things had been back home, so inherently invasive, and yet, so convenient.
Her personal assistant responded immediately. “Xander is at home. All vital signs seem normal, though he does appear to be in a state of some excitement.” The voice was warm and professional.
Quince chuckled. I’ll bet he is. “And Lyrin?” He’s finally coming home.
This time it took longer.
While she waited, Quince went over her contingency plans. She had to get the two of them together, and soon. The fate of both worlds depended on it.
She recited Elyra’s prophecy—written seven hundred and fifty years before—that she had long ago committed to memory:
Tempest comes with clash and thunder,
Skies alight with rainbow’s blood,
When the sunlight runs to red,
Comes the reaper for the dead.
One with wings as black as night
One with wings of golden light
Spin the worlds back into one
To save them from the murdering sun.
It looked like the end time was finally here.
Ari broke into her reverie. “Jameson is on approach—he has arrived at Titan Station and is expected in Oberon City by shuttle this afternoon at 13:20.”
“Thank you, Ari.” Everyone said personal assistants were just bioware, that they had no true feelings, but it cost her nothing to be polite. One never knew.
“You’re welcome, Quince.” Ari sounded satisfied.
Quince closed her eyes and sat back, thinking about all the things that could’ve gone wrong up to this point. Thinking about Robyn with her long dark hair, her eyes alight with mischief….
She shook her head. This was no time for fanciful daydreams. “Ari, access protocol ‘clear screen.’”
There was a slight pause. “Are you sure?”
“Yes, I’m sure. Please run the protocol.”
“Running protocol ‘clear screen.’”
In five minutes, all record of her time here would be erased from Oberon’s grid. Even in the virtual jungle, it was best to cover one’s tracks.
She stared off toward the edge of Oberon City for a moment longer. Beneath the approaching storm, the neat, geometric lines of the city scrambled and snarled in the Slander, where the Syndicate held sway.
Quince stood and took one last look around the small, sparsely furnished room. It wasn’t much. She had chosen it mostly for the view, which had astonished her when she had first arrived in this thriving, decadent metropolis so many years before. The room held a bed, a small writing desk by the window, and a couple chairs.
There was an open carry sack on the mattress, filled with the few possessions she cared to take with her.
The apartment was impersonal, and yet it had been hers for these twenty-five long years.
She closed her eyes. She was tired of fighting. So tired. She sighed, resigned to the fact that her life was about to change once again, but soon enough it would all be over.
She checked the contents of her carry sack once more, then ran her hand over the edge of the bag to seal it seamlessly. She snapped the straps over her shoulders, letting the sack rest between her white-feathered wings.
She closed the door closed behind her, leaving the place empty.
As if she had never been there at all.
ROBYN SLÉITE sat on the cold stone at the edge of the wide reflecting pool, her hand trailing in the water, creating ripples that cascaded across the still surface to the other side. They disturbed the reflection of the worryingly yellow-tinged sun in the sky above.
The crown sat heavy upon her head today. She was alone with her thoughts in the stone courtyard of the House of the Moon; her husband, the King, lay in state, attended by those lander bastards who had wormed their way into his counsel. She spat out the word in her mind, detesting them with all her will. They had all but taken her city from her, first by guile as “advisors” to the King, and then by force with superior weaponry. She’d been powerless to stop them.
The sun was directly overhead. The day was warm, with fluffy clouds peppering the pink-tinged sky above. Still, she was uneasy.
She had sent her last message upon the death of her husband, four days before. Soon it would reach Quince on the other side, and events would be set in motion that would bring her long pain to a close, if all went as planned.
She put her palm on the silver hilt of the dagger at her side.
After twenty-five years, she still wasn’t sure she had made the right choice, and she had no one here in whom she could confide. Even her own husband had remained ignorant of what had truly happened that day. Theron Sléite would have had her head, queen or no, if he ever found out what she had done, then and with Quince in the years before.
Soon, Quince would be with her again.
She stood, spreading her black wings in defiance. If her husband, the King, had had his way, they would have kept her son there in Gaelan. He would have been killed, and all would now be lost, or so the nimfeach, floating in the air like a phosphorescent butterfly, had told her on that winter day in the forest, so many years past. She had believed it, and it had sent Quince to her side.
She still regretted the day she had sent her lover away to the Erriani.
Robyn’s wings settled against her back, and she wiped the corners of her eyes before turning away from the pool. Someone needed to go see what those invaders were doing to her husband. She supposed it had to be her.
Once he was buried and gone, she would clean house and send them all packing.
“Your Highness, a word?”
It was Dani, the leader of the lander invaders.
“I’m busy at the moment.”
“It wasn’t a request.” The woman put a hand on her pulse rifle.
Robyn glared at her. They treated her like a dog, expected to respond to their every beck and call. “What did you want, Dani?” She tried to keep the sneer out of her voice.
“Just come with me, ma’am.”
Robyn stood and followed her, her wings shaking with annoyance. Soon. Very soon.