Awen looked a strange mix of modern technology and quaint village atmosphere, its rough-hewn buildings separated by narrow paved roads and linked by phone lines and electrical wires. The streets were busy with Fae of all shapes and sizes crossing back and forth, weaving around and through the regular vehicles and heavy military trucks passing by. A group of children played on the front lawn of one of the nearest buildings, flinging snowballs at each other and hiding behind drifts. Most of them wore a mix of modern synthetics and leather or fur, and he saw the spark of magic all around them. There were no brand names that he could see on the signs outside the buildings; they had simple names instead, names like General Store and The Drunk Unicorn.
“They make really good beer there,” Ceridwen said, slinging an arm around his shoulders and pointing to the Unicorn. “Kind of a silly name, but the owner’s nice. Close your mouth, little Fae, you’re not a flycatcher.”
Solan obediently shut his mouth, then opened it again to say, “It just looks so...”
“Normal? Were you expecting bloody heads on pikes all around the perimeter?”
“No. And it doesn’t even look that normal either. It’s like... being taken back in time, but bringing a bunch of modern stuff with you. It’s just weird. Do people carry swords and stuff?”
“Knives, maybe.” She touched the knife on her hip. “Most of us have taken to human technology quite well.” She patted the gun on her opposite hip, then pushed him back towards the van. “You can stay with me and Lokan for a bit while you’re checked out, then we’ll find you your own place.”
“But I’m not...” He stopped, leaning back on her arm until she looked at him. “You don’t plan to let me go, do you?”
She gave him a sympathetic little smile. “We can’t. It was this or leave you to die, and we couldn’t leave one of ours to die in the snow.”
“You could’ve just taken me somewhere. Dropped me off at a hospital or something.”
This time she threw her head back and laughed, a rich sound that made the Fae within earshot turn to look at her. “Yes, that would have gone well. You may have noticed that neither I nor Lokan are particularly inconspicuous. And you yourself aren’t all human, so tell me, what hospital was both near enough and willing to take Fae?” She squeezed his shoulder. “You were dying, little Fae. We made an executive decision.”
“An executive decision to hold me prisoner.”
“Think of it as being drafted. But I’ll tell you this much, Solan. You don’t have to hide here, or pretend to be anything you’re not. And maybe in a little while, when we feel you can be trusted to keep your mouth shut, you can make your own decision about whether to stay or go.”
She shrugged. “That depends on you. Now get in the van. We need to go meet our merry little band of lawmakers.”
He studied her face for a moment then got into the van, leaning his cheek on one hand to watch out the window as she drove slowly through the little town. He saw Fae he didn’t even know still existed, in heights from barely up to his waist to over seven or eight feet tall. A handful had horns, though he didn’t see any with antlers like Lokan’s. He saw a man with shiny skin as black as pitch and a woman with pale skin tinged blue and hair like damp seaweed, her feet leaving a damp trail across the pavement. Most of them carried weapons of some sort, slung casually over shoulders and held in decorated sheaths at their waists and hips.
As the houses and shops gradually faded away into factories and then into sprawling military bases, the crowds of people lessened, until he only saw guards dressed in heavy gear and carrying automatic weapons. Ceridwen paused the van at a heavy steel gate set in a long line of fence and leaned out the window to chat with the guard in his tower, both of them speaking in their own language. Solan saw the guard glance at him and raise an eyebrow, then the gate rolled slowly open and they were waved through.
He saw soldiers drilling as Ceridwen slowly followed the cleared path, winding around buildings that he guessed were barracks. She pulled up in front of a squat, nondescript building near the edge of the base and got out of the van, gesturing for him to follow. He did, curious despite himself, and walked behind her into a front foyer guarded by a sharp-eyed woman with long green hair tied back in a tight braid and a semi-automatic cradled in one arm. She looked him up and down, dismissed him, spoke briefly to Ceridwen, and pushed a button to open the door at the end of the foyer.
“This is all really creepy,” Solan muttered, following Ceridwen through.
“Relax, you’re safe here. You’ll get used to it.” She stopped outside a pair of heavy wooden doors emblazoned with a twisted symbol he didn’t recognize and turned to face him, straightening his shirt and licking her thumb to wipe at his cheek. “I wanted to at least let you have a shower and change first, but democracy awaits. Stand up straight, don’t yell, and don’t worry. Lokan will look after you.”
“You’re not coming in?” he asked as she stepped away, feeling fear settle heavy in his stomach. “I feel like I’m being sent to the dean’s office for something I didn’t do.”
“Pretty much the same thing.” She opened one of the doors, placed a hand on his back, and gave him a gentle push inside.
He walked into a long room with high arching ceilings and a polished wooden table in the center, surrounded by a dozen plush chairs containing six men and six women. They were all much older than him and he didn’t see a friendly face among them, even when he tried to offer a smile. At the end of the room was a dais raised above the rest of the floor, holding an empty throne beautifully carved out of a wood so dark it was almost black. Lokan sat on the steps leading up to it, one leg drawn up and the other outstretched, still wearing his heavy boots, leather pants, and dark long-sleeved shirt. On his head he wore a simple silver crown, cunningly built to rest around his antlers.
Solan stopped at the foot of the table, swallowing hard and trying not to fidget under the weight of twelve impassive stares. He was suddenly acutely aware that his clothes needed a wash and that he hadn’t had a shower in nearly two days. The woman nearest him looked him up and down disdainfully and he felt himself blush, helpless to stop the heat spreading across his cheeks and up the points of his ears.
“You brought us a half-breed?” one of the men asked, his upper lip curling like a dog’s.
“I didn’t bring you anything,” Lokan said calmly. “He’s not a sacrifice or a toy I brought back from my trip. You’re the ones who insisted on seeing him.”
“And smelling him,” someone muttered, and Solan blushed again at the snickers.
The laughter stopped when Lokan rose to his feet, though he did it without aggression. Standing on the steps, he towered over them, his head tilted slightly under the weight of his antlers. Solan fought the urge to take a step back, feeling like he really had gone back in time despite the bright hanging lights above him and the baseboard heaters warming the room. For a moment he could see Lokan in furs and leathers, wielding a sword splattered with blood.
He blinked and saw one of the women looking at him thoughtfully before Lokan passed them and took him by the arm, pulling him out of the room. Ceridwen had gone and the hallway was empty in both directions. Feeling dizzy, Solan tried to reach out for the wall to steady himself and missed, stumbling into Lokan as he tried to keep his balance. Lokan slipped an arm around him and helped him sit on the carpet with his back against the wall, crouching down beside him.
“I’m okay.” Solan took a deep breath, already beginning to feel better. “Who were they? Who are you?” He gestured to Lokan’s head. “You’re wearing a crown.”
Lokan reached up to touch it then pulled it free, turning it over in his hands. “It’s little more than a silly piece of tin. We should have moved past kings by now, but too many of us still cling to the old ways.” He smiled a little. “Though that lot in there never seem to get tired of telling me how wrong I am.”
“They’re... like your council? Your cabinet?” Solan watched the crown spin in Lokan’s hands, the light sparking off it in hypnotic flashes. “I feel sick.”
“You still need to rest. Can you get up?” Lokan straightened up and offered him a hand, letting the crown dangle from his other hand.
“Maybe.” Solan took his hand and let Lokan pull him up. “You didn’t answer my question.”
“Close enough. They make decisions, then I decide if I like their decisions or not.” He put an arm around Solan when he stumbled again. “Then they argue with me about it.”
Solan laughed a bit. “Democracy.”
“Exactly. Except I was never voted in.”
“Kings usually aren’t.” Solan leaned against him, covering a yawn, as he spoke to the guard in the front foyer. She gave him a slight bow, just enough to be respectful, and opened the door for him to help Solan back out to the parking lot.
The van was gone but Lokan took him to one of the heavy trucks parked nearby and helped him into the passenger seat. He closed his eyes for the ride, absently pressing one hand to his sore ribs, and dozed a little until he felt the truck turn somewhere and slow to a stop. He opened his eyes to see Lokan had pulled into the driveway in front of a two-story house surrounded by snowy land, the bulk of one of the mountains rising up behind it. It reminded him so much of his parents’ house that he felt a painful wave of homesickness and had to duck his head and take deep breaths until it passed.
He followed Lokan up to the front door under his own power, leaning against the wall until Lokan unlocked the door and led the way inside. Solan braced himself against the wall to toe off his boots and followed Lokan further into the house, his socked feet slapping against the tiles on the floor. They went to the kitchen first, where he was handed a glass of water and ordered to sit at the table to drink it while Lokan nuked two bowls of soup in the microwave and made toast.
Neither of them spoke as they ate; Lokan’s eyes were distant and Solan was more interested in eating as fast as he could to quiet the growling in his stomach. He looked up once or twice to study Lokan briefly, wondering if he wanted to try asking—begging—Lokan to let him go home. In the end he decided not to, not when Lokan looked so preoccupied and cold. When he was finished, he took his bowl and plate quietly over to the dishwasher and loaded them in, then hesitantly said Lokan’s name.
Lokan glanced at him, violet eyes still distant for a second before he focused. “Bath’s upstairs. You’ll find towels in the cupboard. I’ll get the guest room set up and find you some clothes while you’re at it.”
“Uh, thanks.” Solan hesitated, on the verge of asking him about leaving anyway, then just bit his lip and made his way upstairs.
He found the bathroom at the top of the stairs and carefully made sure the door was locked before turning the water on and stripping off his clothing. While the water was running, he unwound the bandages around his shoulder and torso and examined his new scars, running his fingers over the raised pink flesh. Both looked to have healed cleanly, though the scars still looked raw and ugly. He wondered what Kyr would say about them then shoved that thought hurriedly away, trying to blank out his mind completely as he got into the tub.
Ceridwen’s voice brought him out of the doze he fell into and he shoved himself to his feet, stepping out of the bath and grabbing a towel to wrap around his waist before he opened the door. She gave him a smirk that made him blush, then directed him down the hall to the guest bedroom, where the bed had been somewhat clumsily made up and a pile of folded clothes waited for him.
“Lokan tries, but he kind of sucks at anything domestic,” Ceridwen said, straightening out the bedsheets.
“Kings don’t really need to know how to make a bed.” Solan looked around. “Um, why is a king living in a house like this?”
“I’m a little offended on behalf of my house.”
“You know what I mean. Kings have palaces and servants and a bunch of horses.”
“You find a horse capable of carrying Lokan, you let me know.” She fluffed up the pillows. “He doesn’t like all that stuff. He was kind of thrown into this whole kingship thing just by being born.”
“I hear that happens a lot.”
She flicked his ear, making him wince. “He’s got antlers. You see anyone else around here with a rack like that? That’s how kings are chosen around here, and it doesn’t happen often. So now we’ve got a king and we’re going to war.”
“You... okay with that?” Solan shifted his weight and started to scratch at his ribs, then had to make a hasty grab for his towel to keep it from slipping.
“I grew up with Lokan. He’s like my brother. Where he goes, I go.” She bent down to kiss his cheek. “Now put some clothes on and get some rest. Nobody’s showed up to demand your arrest, so I guess it’s okay you’re here.”
“Why wouldn’t it be?” he asked as she headed for the door. “Lokan wouldn’t tell me why his cabinet wanted to see me. Isn’t it kind of a pain in the ass to look at everyone new who comes in?”
She paused in the doorway. “You’re the first new person to show up here in years. The borders were closed twenty years ago. I guess they wanted to make sure you weren’t some sort of spy who’d seduced me and Lokan somehow.”
“In your dreams.”
“Please, my dreams are a lot more exciting than an eighteen-year-old boy, little Fae. Get some sleep. Tomorrow I’ll show you around.” She gave him a small wave and left the room, pulling the door shut behind her.
He pulled on a pair of the provided pyjama pants, knotting the drawstring securely around his waist when they threatened to slide down his hips. The bottoms puddled around his feet and he wondered if they belonged to Lokan. The thought of Lokan in green plaid made him bite his lip against a snicker and he climbed into bed, settling between the fresh sheets with a sigh.
He slept most of the day and got up again only long enough to eat dinner with Lokan and Ceridwen in the kitchen, half-listening to their conversation about a training mishap that had resulted in someone nearly losing an eye. He went back up to bed once he’d finished eating and slept again, until he woke up in the middle of the night feeling wide awake and restless.
The house was so quiet he winced when he got up and a floorboard creaked under his heel. Trying to stay on tiptoe, he went first to the bathroom, then wandered downstairs to see if a hot drink would help him feel sleepy again. He saw the light on in the kitchen and paused, then went to look.
Lokan was sitting at the kitchen table, smoking and spinning the crown around one finger, his gaze fixed on the dark window above the kitchen sink though he didn’t seem to be focusing on anything. Solan hesitated in the doorway and was on the verge of sneaking back upstairs when Lokan glanced at him suddenly, then pointed to the chair opposite him in a gesture that wasn’t quite a command.
“Couldn’t sleep?” he asked when Solan sat down.
“Slept a lot already.” Solan mustered up a smile. “You?”
“I don’t sleep much.” Lokan set the crown down on the table with exaggerated care. “Ceridwen said you’re unhappy.”
“Wouldn’t you be? I just want to go home. I miss my parents, and I miss Kyr. I still don’t even know if he’s okay.”
Lokan made an ‘ah’ noise and got up, going to the counter to look through a pile of newspapers and junk mail. “Here,” he said, handing Solan a newspaper clipping. “Ceridwen said that was for you.”
Solan looked at it and was struck so suddenly by the photo of Kyr at the top of the article that he had to put it down on the table and press the heels of his palms into his eyes, taking a shuddering breath. Gentle fingers touched his bare shoulder briefly then he heard the creak of Lokan’s chair as Lokan sat back down. Wiping at his face, Solan picked the article up again and read the whole thing, though the title told him all he needed to know. Relief at knowing that Kyr was okay—and hadn’t even been sent to jail—made him feel weak but he couldn’t help smiling at the same time.
“Your boyfriend’s a human?” Lokan asked.
Solan glanced up at him quickly, but Lokan only raised an eyebrow at him, leaning back in his chair and blowing smoke out of his nose. “Um, yeah. We met at school. Not everybody cares so much about Fae versus human.”
“You’re living proof,” Lokan said mildly.
“Yeah.” Solan folded the clipping and put it in his pocket. “So now you know why I want to go home.”
“Like I said. We all do. Instead of being stuck up here.” Lokan gestured around the room and stubbed his cigarette out in the ashtray on the table. “We used to live in Arian Mawr. We used to live all over this country. Now we’re kept in small areas, feared and beaten and arrested and driven into hiding just to live. You’ve had it easy, little Fae.”
“I’m sorry,” Solan said, not sure what else he could say and too tired to get angry. “I just... Keeping me here isn’t going to solve any of that.”
“When I trust you, maybe then you can go.” Lokan waved towards the stairs. “Go back to bed. Ceridwen wakes early, and when she’s awake, she wants us all awake.”
“Night, Lokan.” Solan got to his feet and headed for the stairs, but turned back when Lokan said his name.
“The tattoo on your back,” Lokan said, leaning forward and resting his elbows on the table. “Why did you get it?”
“It’s based off a painting my mother did. Why?” He fidgeted a little when Lokan said nothing, only studied him intently. “Lokan?”
“It’s familiar,” Lokan said finally. “Though I’m sure there are millions like it. Go to bed.”
Solan looked at him for a moment then just nodded and did as he was told. He lay awake for a while after crawling in under the blankets, long enough to hear the creak of Lokan’s footsteps come up the stairs, and fell asleep still trying to figure Lokan out.