Knox was impossibly good at one thing: getting himself into places that he very much, and under no circumstances, he should ever be. He was lithe, agile, and silent on his feet. The shadows welcomed him like a lost son and granted him safe passage. To steal secrets, or plant poison. Though the times were few and far between, sometimes he’d take a life. Knox knew High Court secrets that could devastate entire royal lines. All the truths and histories that were carefully danced around in palace halls. Each one more fragile than the last.
But in the entire known history of the Summer Court, the possibility of hearing a pin drop in a room filled corner to corner with its members was unheard of.
Knox could count on one hand the moments hush fell over the colorful, court of prideful fae, yet the throne room was silent. And after a decree from the Summer King? Unnervingly so.
Skirts were held an inch off the worn tiled floor, no longer hindering feet ready to run. Hands hovered over hilts, and glass globes, waiting for the cue to unleash the fiery brutality that carried from face to face of the frozen fae.
Knox found this to be bad.
Quite terrible, actually. After all, he was certainly not supposed to be in the throne room, and without the chaos of court dealings to grant him room for error his chances of being caught rose significantly. Hidden from sight, he pressed his back to the cool wall just behind the heavy wooden door at the end of the long room. If he moved even an inch to his right, the old frame would creak, breaking the fragile peace suspended in the air. Or, potentially set off the paranoid Brownie he could see through the slight crack between boards, and send the whole room into disarray.
The kind of disarray that could swiftly turn into the massacre of an entire line of reign.
Knox held still, ignoring the ache in his chest that begged for a full breath. Even the slightest sigh. As difficult as it was, he disregarded the overgrowth that clung to the stone above his head, tickling the inner part of his ear. He would not be the cause of regicide. And certainly not the cause of his own death; being crushed between old wood and stone should the room turn to chaos was not a heroic story or thrilling tale to be told when he was gone.
On the other side of the door, countless Faeries watched like statues as Merindah stood in front of the thrones with a delicate hand raised, as if pleasantly gesturing for silence. In reality, the gesture was keeping needle-like thorns, crystalline and frostbitten, threateningly bound around the throats of the Royal Family. They cracked and turned, pinching at the fine fabrics of silk collars. Warning against speaking out of turn.
Merindah spoke, voice brittle and cold. Knox couldn’t make out the exact words of his queen, but he knew there was no longer room for negotiation. If there ever was.
“Those are my terms.” Merindah said, again. Louder, and more sharply than before. She hated repeating herself. “You will accept, or you will all die. Your reign in The Ever Grove will end, and the Autumn Court will flood your foolish ruins before anyone in this overgrown room could realize.”
Moments passed in silence, and whether King Lias had answered or not, Knox did not know. There was too much distance between him and the royal family.
In a fleeting rush of bravery, Knox moved. A step left, careful of the leaves beneath his boot, and then another. He had trained for this, to be a Shadow. There one glance, gone the next. But now, his feet felt heavier, weighed down with the consequences of one wrong move. A rise of anxiety so unfamiliar, it made all he had learned hesitate.
Knox did his best to pass quietly, like a chilling breeze along the wall. Thankful for the colorful foliage that already rustled from wind, gently waltzing through the large arched windows. Each one was propped open, the sun casting glittering rainbows along the floor as the light shifted with time. Shadows moved with the dance of leaves under the midday sun. Knox kept to their veil, sly-footing around the far left corner of the room and up toward the thrones. The closer to the Summer Fae he dared, the more he found the restraint of King Lias’ followers marvelous, or so it seemed at first. Part of it felt off, just so. Something was amiss.
Knox had always been quick to pick up on situations, it was what made him more valuable than other Shadows. A perceptive little deceptor, Merindah had called him, lovingly raising his chin. But the reason the Summer Fae were so still hit him abruptly, it forced a gasp from his chest, stealing his movement all the same. It was as if he’d walked face first into a glass door. Not a muscle in his body listened to the panicked command to step back, to return to his hidden place behind ancient oak doors.
The Summer Fae were not motionless out of fear for their King’s safety. Skirts were not held so tentatively as to not stir chaos, and hands did not hover waiting for the call of loyalty. Tension, so tightly suspended in the air, was not their doing.
It was Queen Merindah’s will, and no one else’s.
A spell so powerful its command ricocheted from fae to fae, spreading through the room. Still frozen in the moment they had begun to stir. Knox knew then, why their expressions held anger and not fear. There would be no harm to come for them, only guilt, overwhelming guilt, if the king did not cooperate.
Across the hall, his eyes met an unbridled green. They were burning like a copper fire, staring straight into him. A second realization poured over him then, dropping a sinking stone in his stomach:
He should have stayed hidden.