“Humans are such quaint creatures. They wrestle with life, determined to best it, despite knowing a new player will soon enter the arena, only to defeat them...Death. Remarkable, just remarkable.”
Twisting her threads of gold, silver and pearl about her fingers, High Lady Griselda had always had a habit of idle chatter. Idle chatter to the unpractised or unwilling ear, perhaps. Praising humans in the Fae Realm was not just laughable, but callous. To speak respectfully of those whom one’s race had enslaved, was dishonourable to one’s moral character. And the Fae were nothing if not honourable. Moral…not quite as much.
I could not find it in myself to begrudge her scratchy, frail little voice as it prattled on. What I found remarkable was that she was ever High Lady in the first place. One usually murdered one’s predecessor for that coveted position. Lady Griselda had been alive so long, I doubted she even remembered who she had assassinated to reach her seat.
It was hard to imagine her ripping someone’s jugular out with her teeth. That was the accepted assassination method. The Fae Book of Law said so.
As her slave, it was not my right to question the hypocrisy of her admiration for my kind. She did not personally snatch me from my land when I was a mere babe in the cradle. No, that was a child snatcher. The dirty little scum of the earth and betrayers of their own people: the human merchants whose wares were children. The Fae preferred children. Easier to mould into desirable slaves.
I could have been landed with someone much worse. A low-ranking Fae general whose only delight was drink and the anguished screams of his human possessions. I had heard nightmarish stories from other slaves in passing. Or any one of the other High Lords and Ladies, known for the vile precipices of hedonism they traversed.
I was just fine with my human-loving, eccentric, beautiful Griselda.
She ensured I knew where I came from. She taught me history by the fireside as she wove her highly coveted resham cloth, a marvellous fabric that when worn, made the wearer look to be enshrouded in falling sheets of water. At the hem, it melted, like steam from a hot spring, disguising the wearer’s feet. Griselda’s resham was always in demand.
“Four kingdoms, my love,” she would murmur, eyes unfocused as she wove, “four kingdoms for the humans, and three for the First Races.”
It was my cue to speak.
“First, the Golden Kingdom, mighty and bold,” I obediently recited, watching her bob her head dreamily in time with the words, “The richest and the greatest of the mortal kingdoms of old. Second, the Han Kingdom, fierce warriors of the sea, with the largest fleet the world has ever seen. Third, the Norse Kingdom, the grandest of all, with an army before whom, all enemies fall. And fourth, Nirayana, land of the free, with wielders of magic and the zodiac…tree.”
I would always hesitate before saying the last word. As I said it, I wished to impress her with the magic I had inside myself. It was not much. Enough to make a feather lift off the sill without the aid of any wind, but that was all. Such an effort on my part that my face turned red doing it. But she would always clap in delight.
“You are a true zodiac!” she would squeal.
“I didn’t train with the Mages Guild. So, it’s for nothing,” I muttered.
“Don’t say that,” she sighed, “practice, practice, practice! I have all the books you need. You are too bright a child to require guidance from a guild. You will learn to master your power, I know it.”
I didn’t think I could, but I didn’t say so. Even Griselda had a limit to her patience.
Aquariuan. That was what I was.
Aquarius, the eleventh zodiac. Air elemental. It was a rare power to be born with. Tornados. Hurricanes. Freezing winds. Flight. All things I had read about and marvelled over in Griselda’s library of books as a young child. Things I once fancied I could wish into existence. Until I grew a little older and understood I was in the wrong environment. I was certainly without the guidance that could allow me to reach the extent of any power I might have before I became an old, wizened woman.
Not every Nirayani was born with a power. Had I lived there, I would have been forcibly conscripted into the Mages Guild, and by extension, the Regent’s army. Magic was already a commodity in the mortal world. Human magic wielders only existed in Nirayana, the land where the Zodiac Tree grew. The tree had given the Zodiac mages their names.
I knew neither land well, Nirayana or Eironia, the Norse Kingdom’s other name, the country of my parents’ origin. I saw pictures in books and I saw glimpses of other slaves that came from each. The Nirayani had sleek, golden brown skin with dark hair and eyes ranging from darkest brown to hazel. The Eironians usually had fair hair, light eyes and pale skin that reddened in the sun. I had never seen slaves from either the Han Empire and the Golden Kingdom, or Zahava as the latter was known. They were rare, if any were in the Fae Realm at all. Their kingdoms must have fought hard and well to keep their people out of subjugation. How lucky for them.
I remembered my parents vaguely. Both were light haired. I, on the other hand, had dark brown hair, thick and very long. Griselda liked it that way. She liked brushing it every night before she put me to bed. She’d never had children. I suspected she considered me hers. And I quite liked her as a parent, if I tried my hardest to forget my status.
We had a nice existence, the High Lady and I, her personal handmaiden.
For seventeen years, I was led to believe I would serve her for the rest of my short lifespan. With her glib admiration of my kind and my mellow respect for her, we made a nice pair.
Remarkable, the ability of mortals to fantasise. The Fae lived forever and lost their ability to dream. We only intensified ours as Death came ever closer. I may have been raised in the Fae Realm, but I was still stupidly mortal.
Because all such hopes of long life and peace were dashed the day the Fae Queen and her wife, the Queen Consort, invited us for high tea.