Season Content notes: con noncon*, pain play, sexual contact, trauma reactions, people handling emotions badly, rape (not explicit), torture (not explicit), pony play, mind fuck (minor), privileged ally is privileged
Mattin had never thought of himself as a country cousin, but Hame forced him to rethink his concept of “city.” Buildings five stories tall were not uncommon, and in some places even taller roofs broke the skyline. Groves were scattered throughout, where the many fae who lived in the stone and dead wood of the city communed with Dannu.
And the fae were everywhere. Mattin had known not all fae were nobles—but knowing and seeing were two different things. The deeper they’d gotten to the heart of the empire, the more common fae had become, but he hadn’t gotten used to it. He did a double take as they passed a fae driving a wagon of late-season gourds. The fae carter ducked his head down and stared hard at his mule. Not seeing Jahlene’s coach the same way people in South Tarn tried not to see Lord Oeloff. As if the common fae were as scared of their betters as humans were.
The palace complex was a gleaming monstrosity: dozens of buildings connected by covered passageways stretching out in all directions. That much Mattin had expected from Brit’s lessoning. He hadn’t expected the bizarre variety of styles—as if each section had been designed to clash with its neighbor. Even knowing nothing of architecture, Mattin found it an eyesore. That level of ridiculous couldn’t be accidental, but why in the world would anyone design something like that?
He never did get an answer.
Behind the palace complex, towering over it, rose a circle of trees. The smallest reached three times taller than any tree Mattin had seen before. According to Brit the fae called the trees Dan Plis, First Grove, in their old tongue. The Empress, the high priestess of Dannu, held her own court within its shadows.
The central courtyard was the site of a complex dance. Nobles, attended by slaves and fae servants, climbed out of a half dozen carriages. Palace servants and stable hands dashed around, getting new arrivals into the palace, carriages, and horses out of the way. It should have been chaos, but the servants knew their jobs and kept everything moving.
A liveried fae met Jahlene and her party. He offered his arm to the lady while a pair of stable hands took over the carriage. A small horde of human slaves descended on the carriage, unloading it even as the stablehands guided it out of the courtyard.
The fae servant escorted the lady to the door, with Mattin, Parlen, and Berta trailing behind, carrying the baggage they would need right away. Another slave gathered up Jahlene’s guards and coachman and led them off, towards the servant’s barracks.
Mattin, distracted by all the activity, didn’t notice the palace door until he passed through it. The doors stood over twenty feet high, each crafted from a single piece of reddish wood. There were no carvings or decorations. Instead, the high polish brought out the grain of the wood. The darker stripes in the wood shimmered and shifted before his eyes, hinting at dreams and nightmares.
Once inside, the servant passed them off to a page, who consulted a sheaf of papers before leading them into the maze. They passed through endless corridors, out into covered walkways, and in and out of a half dozen buildings, all decorated with elaborate paintings, sculptures, and hangings. Even having memorized the maps of the palace, Mattin was quickly lost. He’d need to learn his way around.
The page finally stopped before a door in one of the larger and more elaborate buildings. He handed Mattin a key and disappeared.
Behind the door was a small suite. A bedroom for Jahlene, a sitting room, and a smaller room that doubled as storage and bedroom for the slaves. Seeing the space, all of them breathed a sigh of relief. Late arrivals and nobles out of the Emperor’s favor would be sharing their rooms, with slaves sleeping 12 to a tiny cupboard. As small as the suite was, even Mattin knew that it could have been much worse. Parlen traced one of the trees which formed the suite’s decoration. “The Empress has taken an interest in you, Mistress.”
Even as he began unpacking the first of Jahlene’s court dresses, Mattin caught the lady’s grimace. “Dannu’s Voice doesn’t involve herself in court.”
“So I have always heard, Mistress.”
Taking another look, Mattin recognized the trees from Brit’s endless notes on the fae court—the symbol of the First Grove and the Empress. Barely even arrived, and they had attracted attention… Mattin shuddered.
Jahlene stared at the Empress’ sigil decorating her chambers, then shook herself off. “Enough. Dannu’s Voice will make her wishes known in her own time. We have politics to deal with.”
She began stripping out of her travel clothes. By the time she tossed the last of her clothing aside, Berta had found the nearest bathing room and brought a deep bowl of hot water. Jahlene hurried to scrub off the worst of the travel grime.
By the time she finished, Mattin had laid out the simplest of her court wear. The gown was wrinkled, but not horribly, and there was no time to hang it. Word of her arrival would spread, and court waited for no one. Jahlene grabbed the undershift and started dressing.
Mattin assisted smoothly, finagling buttons, lacing up seams, and such. “How did you become familiar with court gowns?”
Mattin opened his mouth, then froze. Jahlene sighed. “I forgot.”
She shook her head, trying to get her hair settled on her shoulders. There was no time to put it up as she prefered. Like all formal fae garments, her dress left a great deal of skin exposed below the neck. She’d occasionally thought that it was so no one could make any mistake at court about who was—or wasn’t—wearing a collar.
“You may speak to answer my question.” She managed to keep a groan behind her teeth. Cook’s willingness to teach Mattin the old forms was a blessing, but three months of needing to give him permission any time he needed to speak…. It would drive her up the wall, and she had no idea how he was going to handle it.
But Mattin’s mouth quirked in a tiny smile, and he only said, “Brit had me dressing and undressing Parlen every spare moment for the past several weeks, Lady.”
Her eyebrows rose towards her hairline, and she glanced at her secretary, who was unpacking what looked like the drink service.
A knock at the door interrupted further discussion. Jahlene sighed. They’d had over an hour to prepare — it would have to be enough. By Dannu, let Mattin be ready for this!
At Jahlene’s nod, Mattin hurried to open the door. He moved even faster, bowing himself out of the way. A walking avalanche of sartorial splendor blasted into the room. “Now, Jahlene, I’ve never quite approved of your habits,” Duchess Collanne of Port Remtry announced by way of greeting, “but at least you’ve been consistent in them. So what is this about you bringing an attendant with you?” She scanned the room, then walked right up to Mattin and began examining him.
Collanne was tiny for a fae, small even compared to most humans. The top of her head barely reached his nose, but she was a force of nature. Jahlene was amused to see that Mattin reacted to her the way everyone did on first meeting — he looked for a chair to hide behind. “Well, he’s pleasant on the eyes and quite properly terrified. Maybe you’re finally growing up!”