The door to the throne room opened and they were bathed with the sound of chamber music. A string quartet of sylph stroked their bony forearms against their instruments, milking out an elegant harmony together. A banquet of food was set out on long tables, laden with exotic fruits, wines, and flaky pastries. Fairies in gilded mantles mingled throughout.
“You’re having a party?” Oboe said, wrinkling her nose. “Right now??”
“The Titled are accustomed to being entertained,” Beira Stormbreak said. There was a hint of disgust in her voice. “The world is ending outside, but a bare minimum of pampering must be accomplished before any work can be done.”
“I did not come here to feast,” Theo said as a tray of food was presented to him. “I’m here to mediate on behalf of the crown.”
“Oh, believe me, I am as anxious as you are,” Beira said. “These fickle hens are impossible to motivate. They’ll wait until the gong is rung and not a moment sooner. You might as well partake until then.”
The food was offered to Oboe. The hors d’ouvres trembled when she reached out to take one. Little apple wedges with runny cheese on top were lined on a tray, held up by a frightened serving pooka. She had blue-gray fur, long floppy ears, and eyes she kept pointed at the floor. After Oboe took a morsel, the servant was quick to hurry away from her. It made Oboe sad to see her so scared. Forgetting to taste the food, she wondered what that creature’s life was like.
“Deputy Grayweather? Oboe?”
Oboe looked up to see a nymph. Short, with chestnut skin and hair like braided grass. Her plain white hood was drawn, but her soft milky eyes were clear. Oboe recognized her. This was the priestess who had helped the fate-starved dream sowers affected by the Duke Ambergrail’s fairy ban.
“Gardner Feather?” Theo said. “It’s been a while.”
“It is good to see you both again.” She bowed. “I wish it were during a less troubled time.”
“What are you doing here?” Oboe said. “Are you one of the Titled?”
She shook her head. “The Circle is honor bound to grant a seat and a voice to the church at times such as this. Although, they do not often listen to what we have to say, I am here to remind them that the Mother of Magic is watching. We must let Her guide us.”
“Yes, yes, how wonderfully inspirational,” Beira said, impatient. She craned her neck toward Oboe. “Queenslayer, may I trouble you to speak a moment in private?”
Oboe felt uneasy. She didn’t want to stray too far from Theo, but he did not look at all frightened. He arched his eyebrows as if to give permission. “Um. I guess,” she said.
The countess led her away.
“I admire you,” the unicorn said. “You came and, in a few days, accomplished what I had only dreamed of for years. You freed us from a tyrant.”
“I killed my grandmother,” Oboe said.
“All the more incredible. I cannot tell you how glad I am to see you here at the council. It would be a shame if the one who gave us this opportunity was not here to participate. There is so much more work to be done.”
Beira paraded her around the hall. Titled fey throughout the room reacted to the sight of Oboe with fright and surprise. She wished they wouldn’t stare. The Countess seemed to delight in their reactions.
“I don’t want to be here,” Oboe said. “I only came so the Circle can become a better place.”
“Then we are the same,” Beira said. “We need bold voices to shake the Titled from their precious comfort. It is up to us to uproot them from stagnation and finish the work of liberation.”
They approached a hulking bug creature, who was waddling back and forth along the buffet table. She was a sylph, like Thistle, but giant. A proboscis dangled from her face, sucking up the last of the frosted pastries. Her enormous abdomen dragged along the floor behind her and little normal sylph hovered nearby to collect any stray eggs she happened to lay.
“Hive mother!” Beira said, in a sing song voice. “It is so good to see you in the palace again after all this time. You are looking well. Have you had a chance to give any more thought to my proposal?”
Chitinous antennae twitched and swung in the direction of the unicorn. The Hive Mother’s face was like a mask, with great black eyes that shined. She withdrew her proboscis and clattered her mandibles.
“Countess Stormbreak, I have told you already.” Her voice was loud and rumbly, like a train passing. “We will not help you. The Whirlskepp sylph have made a good life trading with the humans. There is nothing you can say that will make me throw that away.”
“How unfortunate.” Beira sighed. “Then let us talk about other things. Have you had a chance to meet the Queenslayer?”
Attention turned to Oboe. She held up a nervous hand. “Hello.”
“The Queenslayer was just telling me how she thinks the Circle needs to change. Isn’t that right?”
The Hive Mother’s eyes shone brighter, staring. It made Oboe even more uncomfortable.
“Do not think you can threaten me, Stormbreak,” she said. “The matter will be settled at the council, and no sooner.” With that, she heaved herself in another direction and stomped away in the same hurry as the serving pooka.
“…Everyone’s scared of me,” Oboe said.
“Yes, they are,” Beira said. “You’re very lucky.”
“Lucky?!” Oboe was baffled. “How am I lucky??”
“When other creatures are afraid of you, they listen.” Beira dipped her snout in a punch bowl for refreshment. “It opens doors, and keeps enemies in check. Bassoon understood that. It’s why she ruled as long as she did.”
The praise did not sit well with Oboe. “I thought you said she was a tyrant.”
“Yes, she was,” Beira said. “A selfish, vile, overgrown weed that stunted the growth of our people for centuries. For what? So, so she could toy with the humans and extend her life forever?” She trotted around to look Oboe in the eye. “The Circle has so much potential, and she squandered it. You see that, don’t you? That’s why the Fates brought you to this moment. Something needs to change, and I think if we work together we can mold the Circle into what it was meant to become.”
Something was wrong. The things Beira said sounded wonderful, but the words were honeyed. It reminded her too much of how grandmother spoke to her. Flattery and threats all used to point Oboe in a direction, a direction that hurt others. She didn’t know what Beira really wanted, and she wasn’t going to let herself be manipulated again.
“I don’t know that we want the same things,” Oboe said, tugging at her bandages. “You talk phony. You just tried to use me to talk the sylph into changing their mind. I don’t trust you.”
Beira shook her mane. “This is how the game is played, child. If you don’t like it, help me change the rules.”
Oboe didn’t like her. “I’ll decide who I want to help after I’ve heard everyone speak.”
“As you will,” she said, her tone turning sharp. “A word of warning, though. I meant what I said: It is time for the Circle to change. I won’t let us fall into the old pattern, and I won’t let the humans trample us. I WON’T, do you understand me? You and your conspirator are free to throw your lot in with whomever you choose, but if you get in my way, I promise that you will regret it.” She turned and cantered off. “Change is coming. One way or another.”