Dr. Redmond Fall, the Unsee’s leading criminal psychiatrist’s head pounded. He fought the urge to scream. Everything I have worked for, all that I’ve built, she would destroy. His resolve faltered as he gazed on Queen Lizbeta, one of the fabled three sisters. She was beyond lovely, like someone had dipped the ethereal brunette in sapphires and mirrored obsidian. I cannot listen to this. I should never have let her through the gates.
“Redmond…. Dr. Fall.” She gently laid a hand on his shoulder. He flinched.
“Please, there is no one else. There is nowhere else.”
He felt the tentacles of her magic, a nuanced mix of glamour and persuasion, tap at his brain like the big, bad wolf encouraging three tasty little pigs to come out and play. He let out a stream of breath. On it he floated a silent defense ward so well practiced that not even Lizbeta Summer, queen of the Mist, would notice.
“I would not have come,” she continued, “if there was another way. My sister May is too strong for me to hold.”
He regretted his words as they left his mouth. The queens were not to be trifled with, even Lizbeta, whose magic was predicated on peace. “She is your sister. She is your responsibility.”
Lizbeta pulled back. She gazed on him and then looked out the window of his turreted study hundreds of feet in the air. It was the highest remaining structure in the Unsee. He watched as she took in the view, the grounds of the Center… his Center, a gleaming white marble city, the one place in the realm that Lizbeta’s power-mad sister May had never conquered, though she had tried. Beyond the Center’s high walls was a ring of meadow ablaze with the purples and golds of spring. Then came the moat, as broad as a lake, which encircled all with its deep waters and scaly inhabitants ever eager to munch on the unwary and unwise. Beyond that was forest to the east and, should she look out the opposite window, the sea to the west. On clear days even her realm, the Mist, like a giant curtain from sky to sea, could be glimpsed, proof positive that their world was not the only one, though all sentient creatures on this side of the Mist knew of the three realms and had heard legends of more.
Her silence distracted him and pricked his anxiety. This is all bad. He again questioned the wisdom of agreeing to meet. But he could not deny his curiosity… which killed the questling, he mused.
“Yes.” She broke the silence. “May is my sister, and if I could control her, I would. But I cannot.”
Redmond snorted. “And you think I can. That’s absurd.”
She held his gaze. “It is not. In the centuries since you constructed the Center, it has never been breached. Though she has tried.”
“And you have learned from her failed attempts.”
“Correct… though I am not fool enough to tempt the fates.”
“Your wards are unparalleled.”
She flatters me. She tries to use my ego to draw me in. “So you say. But what you ask is reckless. I will not agree to it. I cannot put those who seek safety within these walls at such risk.” He braced for her response. Her proximity was a distraction, her movements imbued with subtle magic as the afternoon sun glittered in the jewels of her gown and the strands of faceted black volcanic glass laced through her hair. I cannot let her glamour me. What she asks is suicide.
Lizbeta’s hands played at her temples. With stooped shoulders she stared at the floor and then at him. “I have failed.” She was about to say more when a frantic knock sounded at his study door.
“Enter,” he said. The door flew open to reveal two wide-eyed and winded sprites, one forest green and the other sky blue. “Luluba, Seamus, tell me what brings you to my door.”
His two students looked from Redmond to his royal visitor, whose graceful presence heightened their obvious panic.
“A giant fire-breathing salamander is on a rampage in the east,” Luluba blurted. “It shoots fairy fire!” Seamus added as his hand sought Luluba’s.
Redmond’s breath caught. He looked from his terrified students to the window behind them and then to Lizbeta. I knew she could not be trusted…. Cool your temper. It will do no good. In a calm low voice, he spoke to Luluba. “Tell me everything.”
Luluba, who always sat in the left corner of Redmond’s lectures in front of his podium, let go of Seamus’s hand. Her voice faltered. “A group of pixies from the east came to the gate. They’re there now. They said that a massive white salamander burned their village. They woke to houses on fire.” Tears tracked down her cheek. Her pointed chin trembled. “It ate them. Mothers, little babies. I don’t understand.”
Redmond felt the room close in. Brutal memories nipped at him. The murder of his parents by Queen May and the deaths of all those who had opposed her. Her reign of terror was the impetus for the Center’s existence. And like the beating of a butterfly’s wing that caused earthquakes millennia in the future, this moment felt surreal and all too familiar.
He turned on Lizbeta. “You’ve not been honest.”
She looked at the two young sprites. “I’ve not lied.”
Redmond’s early life at the court of the three queens hit him like a train off its tracks. He gritted his teeth. “No, of course not a lie. We don’t lie, and you know better than most how to twist and bend the truth. Queen Lizbeta, now is not the time for your mist and your charms. If you want my help, if you mean to bring danger to those I love and all I have built, tell me in clear words what has happened. Tell me the truth of your sister May and stop trying to glamour and persuade me. Tell me.” His words tumbled out harsh and fast. But just the mention of fairy fire sent ice through his veins. For him, like so many others, many of them in treatment at the Center, fairy fire had ramifications far beyond its destructive burn. Because after fairy fire came the horrible and enslaving intoxication of fairy dust. Even now, if he let himself, he could smell that delicious reek, like cookies fresh from the oven. Don’t go there. With an effort he blocked the memories of his addiction, of decades shrouded by the drug and the unending cycle of hunger and oblivion. Don’t think about it. He started to salivate.
Lizbeta nodded. Her blue-black eyes, like the obsidian spangle on her dress, were fixed on Redmond’s. “Yes, I have concealed and twisted. I will tell you what you need. But know this, Dr. Redmond Fall—everything I have done, both now and backward through the millennia, has been to preserve the realms: the See, the Unsee, and the Mist. I hold the worlds of humans and of sidhe separate. On this point my sister May disagrees. That is what this is about. What it’s always been about.”
Redmond softened his tone. “This is known, my lady. May thirsts for greater and greater power.” A pit deepened in his gut. “She steals what she cannot have. She dines on the blood of her subjects. She is a despot and a bully, though even those terms don’t approach her depravity and cruelty.”
“Sadly, yes. Even as a child that was true,” Lizbeta said. “She’d find clusters of pixies and devour them. Our father, hallowed be his name, thought it cute. He called her his little carnivore. But Katye and I knew otherwise. There was a darkness in May from the start. We knew that as she grew, enough would never be enough.”
“I would know of those early days,” Redmond said. “For everything in this world… or any world, is caused. To understand the present, one must peer through the past.” And that’s when it hit him. He held out his hand and felt his own special magic course down his arms and through his fingertips.
Like a dancer, Lizbeta lifted her hand to meet his. “I know what you are doing, Redmond. You have a reputation.”
“Yes.” He let the emotions of the queen pass through her flesh and into his.
“It is a good reputation. It is why I came.”
“That and the hope that I can contain your sister in my city of marble and magic.” He smiled as her thoughts and emotions flooded into him. There was a first wonderful sensation of her magic, her special. In ways it was a bit like fairy dust, though it carried none of the haze or forgetfulness.
“Yes. This… you… are my last hope.”
“Come with me.” With her hand in his, he gently pried at her thoughts and memories. He glimpsed a horrific white beast shackled in the Mist. Its maw was smeared with blood as it rampaged on powerful legs over the shattered bones of dozens, if not hundreds, of magical creatures. He released her hand and nodded. Without turning he spoke to his two students. “The danger is real. Find Gark and tell him to close the gates. No one is to enter or leave without further notice and without my approval. I will be down shortly to reinforce the wards.” He pretended to a confidence he did not possess. “We will get through this. Now do as instructed.”
Luluba, in obvious awe of the rarely glimpsed Lizbeta, struggled to find her voice. “This is Queen May’s doing.”
“But they say it’s a fire-breathing salamander.”
“They do.” And slipping into his professorial mode, he again took Lizbeta’s hand and grilled his favorite pupils. “Tell me of salamanders.”
Seamus, not to be overshadowed by Luluba, on whom he had a painfully obvious crush, spoke. “They start their lives in water with gills, fins, and tails. As they mature, they get legs and crawl to dry land. They hide beneath rocks and can change color.”
“Continue,” Redmond said, “but soften and open your mind. Like there’s air between your ears.”
Seamus nodded. “They are found beneath logs and timbers of houses burned to the ground.”
Redmond looked to Luluba. “Take it further. Shift between the solid and the magic.”
She swallowed. “There is a legend that says they are born in fire, like the phoenix.”
“So a creature who is at home in different elements—water, earth, fire.” He felt a rush of emotions flow from Lizbeta into him as he spoke. She hides much. Through the physical contact—her fingers entwined with his—images came. Like splitting his mind in two, he carried on the conversation while passively watching moving pictures of the great beast tethered by magic and surrounded by bones. “And all of this has to do with our bloodthirsty queen. It’s time for me to learn what I must. You two do as instructed, and then join me for evening rounds in the hospital.”
With nervous glances between them, the two sprites nodded, and with a breeze that wafted through the windows, they took flight on the currents and vanished out and down.
“They are dear to you, those two,” Lizbeta commented.
“Yes.” And I have brought them into horrible danger. But I see no choices here. Yes, we could all take to the winds and fly far, far away. But no matter how far the currents would carry us, she would follow.
“I can see why. They are young. He is obviously smitten with lovely Luluba, though she’s not yet set on him.”
“You observe well.”
“Said the master to the neophyte.” She took in Redmond’s comfortable quarters, from the quarried dark amethyst floor to chairs and sofas in deep green and burgundy fabrics. Even the ornaments, polished globes and graceful mobiles, invited the viewer to pause and look inward. “I hear this is done on a couch,” she commented.
“If you’d like, though for many, especially those who’ve known pain and who’ve suffered, a couch in a stranger’s home may feel too dangerous.” Still holding her hand, he led her to a pair of deep-burgundy chairs set apart at a forty-five-degree angle. He inhaled. What the hell am I doing? This is madness.
She sank into a chair. Her hand fell away from his. “Tell me what I am to do.”
With a practiced efficiency born from thousands of such sessions, he sat across from her. This is wrong. I cannot, must not trust her. But what left his mouth was his very own Once upon a time. “Start at the beginning. Tell me about your childhood.”