The Vanishing Throne – Elizabeth May

I REMEMBER HOW it felt like the air around me burned with ash and cinder. How his blade broke the skin at my throat, a stream of blood warm down my neck. How the war around me seemed to go quiet and slow as if time had stopped. It was just Lonnrach and me, my life determined by the tip of his sword. One small push— Darkness. My eyelids are heavy, weighted down and burning. Images flash in my mind of the battle, of those precious moments I had to solve the puzzle of a Falconer device to trap the fae underground again before it was too late. The shield of light around me began to weaken, disintegrating from the force of fae attacks. A laugh startles me from my memories. Other voices join in between images. Where am I? Lilting accents like Kiaran’s echo around me, dulcet murmurings in words I don’t recognize or understand. Open your eyes, I command myself. Open your eyes. Panic forces me awake, a minuscule flash of light visible before I’m shoved down again with a hand at my throat, a searing pain at my temple. “I didn’t say you could move.

” The words come out in a hiss, spoken through rows of sharp teeth at my neck. I go numb. I’m immobile, even as someone scratches the length of my arm, nails sharp enough to draw blood. A laugh, deep and purring. A whisper in my ear, breath hot at my throat. You lose. Now you’re mine. Then I’m dreaming again—memories of my life before, of my almost-deaths. A series of near-fatal experiences, each one strung from the other. The first time, when Kiaran saved my life from the water-horse.

The many ever since; hundreds of nameless faeries I slaughtered, who each left their mark on me in different ways. The first one who scarred me. The first one I killed with Kiaran, when his expression showed something akin to pride. We’re going to kill them all, he’d told me, a ghost of a smile on his face. The memory fades like smoke. Suddenly I’m back on the battlefield; my armor is so heavy that every movement is agony. Kiaran’s unmoving body is at my side, bone shining through the burn along his cheek. Dead? No, not dead. He can’t be dead. I scream at him, striking him with my fists.

Wake up. Wake up! Wake— My eyes snap open, closing just as quickly against the light. I draw in a breath, wincing at the pounding pain that lances through my skull. I press the heel of my palm to my temple. Wet. I draw my hand back and blink against my blurring vision until it clears. My fingers are coated with blood, sticky remnants of my injury. I didn’t say you could move. My armor is gone. I find dried blood spattered across my chest, leading down to three distinct claw-marks stark against my upper arm.

The skin is barely broken, as if it were a threat. A warning. You lose. Now you’re mine. Dread unfurls within me, but I shake my head against it. Focus. Find your bearings. The thought comes out in Kiaran’s voice, one of his no-nonsense lessons. Just the thought of him almost holds me back—a quick succession of where is he is he dead is everyone I love dead—but his practical advice stops me again. Assess your surroundings.

I tamp down my emotions, suppressing the hot rising panic in favor of cold rationality. I’m wearing a shift like Sorcha’s, formfitting and exquisite. I brush my hand across the silken fabric—except it’s not like any silk I know. It’s smoother, shinier, and warm. As if raven’s feathers and flowers were somehow woven together to form the garment. The sleeves are loose around my wrists; the fabric slips back when I lift my arms. Slippers adorn my feet, delicate things made of dark orchids and metal beads stitched together. After a quick evaluation of my injuries, I look up to see where I am. Oh god. Alarm breaks through the detached, analytical calm I’d achieved.

This can’t be real. Can it? I’m on a slab of black rock that gleams like obsidian, broken off and floating above a valley of dark crags, a crevasse extending beyond my sight. It’s as if the land has split right down the middle into separate halves, with scattered platforms like mine gliding down the empty space like leaves carried by a stream. The other hovering slabs are topped with buildings—one of them a castle set upon the largest piece; the rock broken off at the bottom is as sharp as blades. The castle itself is magnificent, more beautiful than any structure I’ve ever beheld. It looks as though it is made of pure, gleaming metal—only with a sheen that betrays its otherworldly origins. Even from this distance it has the multicolored luster of opal. Shardlike towers flank the sides of the castle, surrounding a dome of red and blue and yellow metal resembling trapped clusters of stars. Other buildings float on their own platforms below the soaring castle, suspended in the vast space between the towering cliffs. Some have domed ceilings constructed of metal, and others of glistening rock, as if cut from the purest sapphires.

In contrast, the cliffs on either side of me are monochrome, with not a single hint of color to break up the uniformity. Even the trees seem made of glass, with thin spiky branches that appear sharp enough to kill. Flowers glow beneath the trees along the cliff face, with delicate buds of iridescent frost. When I breathe in, the icy scent of winter makes my chest ache. It smells like the beach after a snowfall. Like salt and frost on the wind, with a hint of something like myrrh. I’m dreaming. This has to be a dream. I press my palm to the cold rock at my feet, tracing my fingers across the glossy surface. Along the outer edges of the platform, small shards bite into my skin and leave red, aching welts.

Not a dream. Not a dream. A panicked rush of breath bursts from my lungs. I jerk my hand back and push to my feet, stopping just before the platform ends. I make the mistake of looking over the edge. My stomach clenches. Below me is nothing but darkness, an escarpment that descends to nothingness. No light penetrates the blackness below and there’s nothing to grab on to if I need to escape. No other platforms nearby, or rocks to jump onto, and the floating buildings are too far into the distance. This is a prison, with the only escape a lethal drop.

Where the bloody hell is this place? “Good. You’re awake.” I whirl to find Lonnrach on his own platform, smaller than my own. In my distraction, I hadn’t even noticed the taste of his powers, the lingering touch of flower petals against my tongue and the sweet taste of nature and honey. Gone is his gleaming fae armor. Instead he’s dressed like a human, in smoke-gray trousers and a white lawn shirt. His salt-white hair is pulled back and gathered at the nape of his neck. His eyes are on my head injury. “I’d hoped that didn’t cause any permanent damage.” Why? I almost ask, but just the sight of him still alive fills me with rage.

My gaze strays to the mark on his cheek, the one left by my sword. I had the chance to kill him and I didn’t take it. I won’t make that mistake again. “Where are we?” I ask. My voice is rough, my throat raw. Calm. Stay calm. “The Sìth-bhrùth, in what was once the Unseelie Kingdom.” As Lonnrach’s gaze lingers on the crags to either side of us, his expression hardens. “What’s left of it.

” Were we in a ballroom, and I didn’t know Lonnrach as something other than human, I would have described him as achingly beautiful. Magnetic. But that’s all part of his physical allure, his ability to entice human victims with such ease—a skill that all daoine sìth possess. I was tempted by that power back on the battlefield, but now he’s just the bastard who injured me, made me bleed, captured me, and— “If you’ve done anything to my home . ” My voice dips low, dangerous. “I’ll kill you.” I’ll kill you regardless. I’ll just take my time. Lonnrach tilts his head slightly. There’s an amused, slow lift to his lips, as if we’re at an assembly and he’s participating in light flirtation.

His smile is unnerving. An arrogant hint of I know something you don’t and whatever the something is almost breaks my hard-won control. “Will you?” he asks. I bite my tongue to stop myself from asking about Kiaran, about everyone I love. I can’t let him know my worry that they’re all dead; I have to pretend that I don’t feel a thing. Instead, I brush my fingers against my seilgflùr necklace, plaited together in a single strand. The soft thistle is deadly to Lonnrach’s kind, effective enough to burn through his flesh. “I could wrap this around your throat if I wanted. It’s not a quick way to die. I’ve seen it.

” Lonnrach stuffs his hands in his trouser pockets, and I’m certain if his platform had something to lean on, he would be standing against it. Cold, casual, obviously not the least bit concerned. Perhaps he has a talent for lying, too. Just like me. “You’re not in any position to make threats,” he says lightly, glancing down into the crevasse at its deepest and darkest point. I try to resist looking, too. I fail. Even if I managed to kill Lonnrach, I’d be trapped. Pushing him over the edge isn’t exactly an option—he’d likely survive the fall, damn his indestructible fae body. I let my expression settle and appear cold, detached.

It takes every skill in deception I’ve learned since I first discovered the fae were real and one of them had murdered my mother. With the fae, everything is a game. Even grief. If given the chance, Lonnrach would use it against me, torment me with it. I have to play the game, too. One breath, two, to steady myself. “How do I know it’s not a trick?” My voice is almost playful, chastising; it is as calm as a mountain stream. I am a masterful liar. I learned from the best, after all. “This place?” Lonnrach’s expression doesn’t change.

“It’s not.” I think of his fleeting smile and the possibility that everyone and everything I care about is gone. Then I really do have nothing to lose by being reckless. But Lonnrach does. There’s still one thing he needs: Me. If he didn’t, I’d be dead. Time to test that. I approach the edge of my small platform on the side closest to him. “So if I do this”—I balance on one foot, on the tips of my toes—“and fall, it’ll kill—” Before I can even blink, Lonnrach is off his platform. His body slams into my own, knocking me off my feet so hard I fear we’ll go over the other side and he’ll kill me anyway.

We don’t. In the end, he hauls me up, his hand painfully gripping my upper arm. His silver eyes glow bright with anger. I’m surprised by the display of emotion; the fae always seem so in control, every feeling perfectly reined in. “You are a foolish girl,” he says. Now I know. Lonnrach forgot the foremost rule of our little game: Never let your enemy know how desperately you require something. He needs me alive, not just as a prisoner of war. That’s why he cared about my head injury causing lasting damage. But I can’t focus on that.

I can’t. I find that the question I truly desire to ask—if he’s killed everyone I love—sticks in my throat. So I try another. “Where is Kiaran?” I don’t miss how Lonnrach’s eyes avert briefly from mine, as if he’s trying to smooth his expression first. “His sister killed my men to rescue him.” His smirk is brutal; it cuts right through my heart. “They obviously didn’t think you were worth saving.” Another memory of Kiaran flashes in my mind from the battlefield. Of his motionless body and his scorched face. Wake up.

Wake up! I couldn’t get him to move. Not even his lashes fluttered. Lonnrach said Kiaran was alive, but if that were true, Kiaran would never have left me behind. He couldn’t have.

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