Through a Mirror Darkly
To mortals, it is an old tree, gnarled, hideous, its branches knobby and sprawling in all directions.
But mortals are simple, and foolish, and have no sense of time, for they exist merely for the flickering of a candle. One can snuff them out and they are forever gone from this world, into the endless beyond, into that meager darkness where their feeble magic cannot pluck them out again, not without our help.
To me, it is a very young tree, though long decaying. It was young when it breathed its last after centuries of life. And it is not hideous to me, though weak human eyes would see it as such; it is Life, and Death, and all that lies in-between.
It contains whatever last spark exists of the Gentleman, when the new King pounded him to dust within its roots. His beautiful spells shattered, those wonderful, entwining spells that held Lost-hope together, that brought the mortals in from the grayness of the world, plucked them from their obscurity and pathetic lives and gave them a higher calling in his court. The ungrateful wretches could not see that what he did for them was merciful, for he took them from their bleak world and brought them into ours, a place of endless wonders, of countless balls, of frivolity and violence.
Lady Pole was the beginning of the end, that icy, empirical beauty, resurrected from death and granted life in exchange for a trifling thing, a mere half of her wretched human life. She spent her days in their world, her nights in ours. And then came Arabella Strange, and after her, those damned magicians… and now Lost-hope is gone, altered; and my King is dead, devoured by the earth. And the Raven King was behind it all, spinning his story around us, catching us up in a net of thinly woven magic… the interfering self-professed monarch over us all, whose dance we must dance, whose tune we must sing, whose presence is vapid and fleeting, who comes and goes in whispers of wind and raven's eyes, who destroys that which we most love and passes again into nothingness.
Everything about Lost-hope is detestable to me now, for it is not even called Lost-hope anymore; the boorish Stephen has altered it with his … goodness. The mere word causes an awful taste in my mouth, like sun-drenched strawberries in a field of lavender. The castle is restored, its corridors gleaming, its ballroom floor repaired, a mood of deplorable mortal happiness threading through the air. He forces us to do nothing. He forces mortals to do nothing. He invites them to attend the ball if they wish, with no thought of reaping any reward. He opens gateways from our world into theirs and stops no one from walking the many paths. The awakening magicians of England summon him pathetically through candles, and he appears to them quite kindly and assists, without asking for anything in return. I shudder to think of it.
Gone are the days when we entered England and had nimble peasant maidens dance to death for our amusement. Gone are the days of rituals and throwing children out of watch towers. Gone are the days of conquests and disintegrating spells and fear for our kind, respect for our abilities, awe of our darkness. His deplorable goodness—that vile thing that so enamored our former king to the nameless slave—even begins to alter us now. Our moods are not so capricious, our arguments not as violent, and there is a dreadful desire in me to simply … give in to it, and become that which King Stephen would wish me to be… content. The past threatens to fade into a haze, to fall away from me, memories of the Faerie King seem like distant echoes from a dream slowly being forgotten.
But I will not forget, nor will I ever forgive. That the two magicians are still caught up in the eternal darkness means that his last spell holds. He is not utterly destroyed, and where there is one speck of him remaining, one sliver of dust, one fingernail, one whitish wisp of his thistledown hair to be found, there is … hope.
Ugh, such a vile word, full of so much promise, a concept that mortals cling to in their hour of desperation. That I reach for it proves Stephen's influence over me; his own spells are beginning to take root in Faerie. I feel them stretching out around me, calling to me, pulling me into an endless lyrical dance, but he does not compel my feet. He invites me.
The music is beginning. The faces that surround me are no longer glazed and weary, but exuberant. King Stephen is laughing, his dark skin gleaming in soft starlight as the stars themselves float around and above us, casting us in an ethereal glow. Where once we were pale and terrifying we are now … more than before, and less, for our essence is altered. His loathsome warm eyes, so full of life, fall upon me and linger, evoking a terrible inclination in me to smile.
I will play along, and bide my time, and search for that bit of Lost-hope that still remains, until such time that I can bring the Gentleman back, in all his terrifying glory. But tonight, I shall dance.