Going back down the mountain took less than a day with Aladdin leading them. Ugo followed part of the way. Judal could feel his presence weighing on his mind, though it was no longer as painful as before. Aladdin talked to the entity on occasion, laughingly telling him that he would be fine on his own. They never heard Ugo's half of the conversation.
The mounts they had journeyed with were all waiting at the base of the mountain, including Spartos's horse, which stood resolutely in exactly the same spot he'd left it. Judal gave the unsettling creature a wide berth.
Rather than summoning a beast to ride on, Aladdin called a cloud down from the sky and deposited himself on top of it. On the one hand, it was disappointing that he wouldn't be using his exquisite wings to fly alongside them, but on the other hand riding a cloud was still pretty impressive. He lounged on his belly while the rest of them sat astride their steeds, floating around the company to make conversation with everyone at least once.
By the time they returned to the knoll where the rebellion's base camp had been, the bulk of them were gone. A few stragglers remained, tearing down the last few tents and covering evidence of their existence with whatever magic was at hand. Among them, a dark skinned fae sat with a two-headed serpent coiled around his throat, smoking a pipe.
His eyes lit up when he caught sight of them and he leapt up, rushing down to meet them. As it turned out, his excitement was predominantly at the sight of Spartos, whose cheeks he kissed enthusiastically.
Spartos introduced this newcomer as Sharrkan, another fae under the banner of Sinbad's kingdom, who also happened to be Alibaba's old tutor. Sharrkan was handsome and charming, and very clearly over the moon for his elven counterpart. Judal watched how the two of them interacted curiously, trying to gauge the nature of their relationship. It was impossible, though. Fae just didn't telegraph affection the way mortals did.
Aladdin insisted on a meal before they continued on to the rebellion's new homestead. It wasn't as vast as the breakfast they'd eaten with him that first morning, but the faerie still managed to produce an impressive amount of food with little notice. They ate their fill, making idle conversation and indulging in the feeling of camaraderie growing between them. Judal was reminded of the few times he'd gone out with groups of friends during his life as a mortal, except that here, he no longer felt like an outsider.
They left the abandoned knoll as the sun began sinking below the horizon. Sharrkan led the way, taking them across the border of Seelie court and into the fringe of the Wildlands. Here, there was a sort of border after the border, a small channel that buffered the place where Seelie ended from where the true Wild began. By no means tamed or advisably safe, but not as deadly as what lay beyond.
Forest became marshlands, through which they traveled while ducking beneath hanging vines and leaping over pits of sunken earth. Night became day became night again, though the dark never really seemed to swallow them whole. It may have been thanks to Aladdin, who always seemed ready with a circle of jaunty blue flames, or a handful of glittering pixies.
The rebellion's new, permanent home revealed itself on the morning of the third day. It was a castle, hewn from dark stone and covered in moss and ivy, half sunken beneath emerald waters. It was squat and sturdy, with stocky towers and firm parapets lining outdoor walkways that criss-crossed throughout the castle. If there had ever been a clearing about the castle it was gone now, leaving the stubborn structure to be swallowed by damp foliage.
The innate magic of the land that the castle stood on had the feeling of an old war-hardened knight, unmoving and determinedly cantankerous. No doubt one had to earn the castle's acceptance, and respect its age and authority if they wanted to occupy its halls. The newer magic, all meant for concealment and deflection, was accepted grudgingly, like the old knight had been forced to take on a spritely new apprentice.
Hakuryuu approved of the castle immediately.
"Absolutely infested with kelpies when we found it." Sharrkan informed them as they rode through the front gate. "Vicious bastards. Best if you keep an eye on the water, just in case any of them are hanging around."
The castle's threshold didn't welcome them instantly, forcing the group to all pause in the gateway. It seemed to assess them, poking and prodding at their magic until it was satisfied by their identities and lifted its restraints. Judal cast a look back at the gate as he passed through, privately very glad for the discerning doorway.
King Sinbad was waiting for them on the front lawn, framed between Ja'far and what appeared to be a fearsome crossbreed of lion and exotic fish.
"I wanted to see you off," he said, once they had dismounted and walked to meet him. "I will be returning to my kingdom, for the time being. Since the Queen of UnSeelie means to make me the tipping point of her conflict, it's best I remain as dutiful as possible to my own Queen in the meantime."
"A wise plan of action." Hakuryuu agreed solemnly. "I expect you will be taking your generals back, then?"
"Not all of them, but like myself if too many are missing at once it will raise too much suspicion. Sharrkan and Spartos will remain to ensure that settlement goes smoothly, and Pisti will be returning with us."
"Prince Kouha has already taken his leave." Ja'far added. "He wished to remain until your arrival, but one of his brothers recalled him several days ago."
Hakuryuu wouldn't say so aloud, but he was disappointed he'd missed his cousin. He and Kouha had never been particularly close, though their age difference was significantly smaller than most of his other relatives. After how Kouha had greeted him upon his return to Sidhe, Hakuryuu thought that maybe there was finally an opportunity to bridge the gap between them.
It would have to wait. There would be time enough to grow close to his family again after all of this was over.
"Alibaba is staying." Hakuryuu announced, allowing no room for protest. "Morgiana as well."
Sinbad nodded his assent.
"If possible," Spartos interjected gently. "I think Yamuraiha should remain after she finishes the barriers. Judal is in need of a proper teacher."
Ja'far pursed his lips, not entirely convinced of this course of action, but Sinbad nodded again.
"She will be glad of a new pupil to occupy her time. You'll make the introductions, Spartos?"
"Of course, my king."
Spartos bowed briefly, then stepped away again, returning to Sharrkan's side.
The lawn was full of fae, all doing their part to make the castle into the rebellion's new home. Most of their traveling party had dispersed among them, taking charge or lending their hands to the efforts already underway. Judal was crouched down to the direwolves' eye level, rubbing their jaws in a final goodbye before they darted off, back into the forest.
"I have to ask," Sinbad spoke, pulling half of Hakuryuu's focus back to the conversation at hand. "What did you give the faerie, to get him to come with you?"
Aladdin, still settled on his cloud, had just wafted over to hover above Judal. At this distance their conversation was incomprehensible, yet he seemed to be holding Judal's fickle interest.
Hakuryuu frowned, wracking his brain for an offering they never gave.
"...I do not know."
Dinner was had in the banquet hall, which might have been austere, if it hadn't been packed with fae and cluttered with crates and barrels of supplies. The high vaulted ceilings and tall, slim windows gave the hall an appearance of regality, aided by the single vast wooden table stretching the length of it. The table was long and wide enough to fit the entire rebellion with the leaders at its head, and didn't so much as groan under the haphazard mountain of food piled onto it.
The meal had been something of a celebration. Word had gotten around that they had returned successful and that the rebellion could now count a faerie among their allies. Aladdin was the focal point of everyone's attention, a position he accepted with great gusto. There was drinking and entertainment, some singing and drunken dancing as the meal came to an end.
Judal thoroughly enjoyed the whole thing. Everything was loud and exuberant and exciting. Wherever he looked there were fae, some who looked almost mortal and others bearing the likeness of animals and plants, some with distorted features and a few who seemed misshapen yet strangely enthralling despite it. Hakuryuu and Alibaba seemed like they belonged there, at the head of the table watching the proceedings, royalty overlooking their subjects.
The festivities were far from over when Judal and Hakuryuu took their leave.
"Oh, it will be like that all night I imagine." Hakuryuu assured, when Judal asked if they should have stayed until the meal was done. "You will find that we fae take any excuse we can for revelry."
With most of the rebellion still at dinner, the castle was quiet. They navigated the halls arm in arm, meandering at their own pace across the high walkways and down spiraling staircases. Judal rested his head on Hakuryuu's shoulder, carrying on a conversation that was more sound than words, lulled by his lover's voice.
The room they had been given was situated adjacent to the entrance to the tallest tower on the eastern side of the castle. Its door was inlaid with emerald, formed into sweeping patterns and subtle runes in a tongue that was familiar, but unreadable. The door handle was silver, weathered by age, and cast in the shape of a lily with a curved stem.
Hakuryuu came to a stop before the door. He took Judal's hand from the crook of his arm and laid it flat against the door's patterned surface.
"Tell me what you feel."
Judal turned his head to give his lover a bemused look.
"I feel you, holding my hand instead of letting me into the bedroom."
"Other than that." Hakuryuu chuckled.
"Kind of chilly, because no one in Sidhe appears to believe in glass in their windows?"
A look of fond exasperation from the prince was met with a cheeky grin from his changeling.
"No, Judal," Hakuryuu said. "I want you to feel."
Judal bit back another pithy remark and straightened his posture. He affixed his eyes to the door, staring steadily at the center of their joined palms, and envisioned that their fingers were melting into the wood. Like the emerald, they blended with the seams and grains of the wood paneling, joining and conjugating into one entity.
He inhaled, pulling in ambient magic with his breath, and exhaled slowly, pushing the magic back out again through his veins. It traveled down his arm and out of his hand, spreading through the door in a subtle wave.
"Now," Hakuryuu murmured. "What do you feel, Judal?"
Beneath his palm, the door was cool. Cold wood and colder emerald, but in the seams betwixt where the two met, magic trickled in lazy streams. It had been there since before they had approached, Judal realized. He'd felt it the moment the door came into sight, but hadn't been able to identify it until his own magic touched it.
"It's... an enchantment." he said, slowly. "An old one. It's been dormant for a long while, but we've gone and woken it up."
A sensation, as though a centipede were crawling along his palm, sent a jolt up Judal's arm. He made a quick sound of surprise, yet rather than draw back he pressed his hand more firmly into the wood. A hundred tiny pinpricks spread over his skin, like the centipede's multitude of legs as it walked.
"It's alive!" he laughed wonderingly. "I can feel it!"
"Old magic is like that." Hakuryuu smiled. "Over time it begins to develop a personality, a bit of minor consciousness of its own. Places like this are full of all sorts of characters, magic left over from ages past. Now, tell me, what kind of enchantment is it?"
Judal turned and gave Hakuryuu a bewildered look.
"How am I supposed to know that?"
"Why not just ask?"
So, Judal turned back to the door and asked. He focused intently on his question and whittled it down to bare bones, then engraved it upon the magic still coursing through him to the door. The answer came back to him in sensations, not words. Impressions, which he understood as soon as they touched his psyche.
"Protection." he said. "It was made to defend those who occupy this room. Their privacy, their belongings. Them. It can... memorize someone's magic, kind of like a dog would a scent? And then it considers us... part of the castle. Official residents, I guess."
"It creates a domain within a domain." Hakuryuu elaborated. "The castle itself has its threshold, but this doorway will provide one that is uniquely our own."
"Because the castle itself will allow in whoever its occupants say, no matter who the occupant is, but this room won't."
"Are there a lot of doors like this one?" Judal asked as he cast his gaze over the door, absently stroking his thumb against its surface.
"Yes, it is how we fae manage to cohabitate somewhat peacefully. Some doors are stronger than others... In old abodes like this, it tends to become a matter of earning the room's respect and affection before the door will work fully in your favor."
"Well, I for one think you're a very impressive door." Judal announced to the wood. "And I'd really like to go inside, if that's alright by you."
"Judal, it isn't actually alive."
"Hey! Don't be rude!" He patted the door. "Don't listen to him, he thinks you're impressive too."
"If you want it to open, you could try the handle, sweetling."
Judal stuck his tongue out at Hakuryuu, but reached for the door handle anyway and tried the latch. The lock clicked obligingly and the door swung inward to allow them entry to their new room.
The room beyond the emerald-inlaid door was of the same kind of unfussy beauty, practical in its adornments and without any excess. All five walls were plain, slate colored stone, two inset with large windows that arced to a point rather than being rectangular. The windows were framed by heavy curtains of rich pthalo, while a deep green, circular rug was cast over the stone floor. An oblong table set with two cushioned chairs and a candleabrum sat near the center of the room. A severe looking armoire stood against the wall beside the door.
Another door stood to their left, leading out of the pentagonal room and into a triangular one. This room was equally sparse in its furnishings, boasting a single sizable stone tub fashioned with copper taps, and a circular window close to the ceiling, through which one could see the sky.
The most intricate thing about the main room was the headboard of their bed, which took up the entirety of one wall. It looked as though it had once been much smaller, but whichever artisan had crafted it had put so much love and attention into it that it had simply continued growing over the centuries. Now, it spilled out across the wall in braids of wood festooned with living things. Actual blossoms and fragrant smelling mushrooms, a whisper of morning glories near to the window and roots disappearing into the stone at its base.
Like any dwelling that has gone a great length of time unused, their new quarters distinctly lacked any kind of liveliness. There was an unmistakable feeling of impersonality, as if the room were a skeleton waiting to be dressed in muscle, skin and clothes.
It may have helped to unpack the pair of trunks resting at the end of their bed. One Judal recognized from Hakuryuu's tent, which he could only assume meant that the other belonged to him now. The armoire stood stern and empty, and would probably feel more welcoming once filled with their belongings.
However, there was a far more enjoyable way to go about claiming the space as their own. It was, in general, how faekind preferred to fix most things.
And, in the prince's opinion, it had been far too long since he'd taken his Judal to bed.
Their first kiss hid none of their intentions, all open mouths and purred words of want, while their hands tugged and pulled at the pesky necessity called clothing. Layers were shed, tossed to the rug with utter disregard. Hakuryuu caught Judal by his waist and hoisted him up, growled his contentment when Judal braced his knees against his sides and transferred his hold to his thighs.
Tumbling into the bed was unfamiliar, they hadn't had a proper mattress since the mortal realm and this one, old as it may be, far outstripped their last one in quality. Judal laughed his satisfaction, grinning broadly while his prince settled over him.
Later, they made use of the grand stone tub, and claimed that room as their own as well.
Judal was in a very good mood the next day. He had woken up in Hakuryuu's arms, pleasantly sore and marvelously relaxed, and they had had another round of brilliant sex. While Hakuryuu had to get up, Judal was allowed to go back to sleep for another hour or two before making himself rise and face the day.
Their room felt fuller now that they had let free their passions and filled it with the ambient energies of their own beings. Hakuryuu had already claimed half of the armoire, which opened onto a cavernous space much bigger than the piece of furniture itself, and Judal resolved to fill his half later. He felt too energized to do something simple, like unpacking.
The trunk of borrowed clothes yielded several new options for him to try on, some of which he was certain Kouha had slipped in before leaving, as he didn't remember picking them. Judal couldn't be annoyed. He put on a pair of shorts that belted around his middle and flowed around his thighs, and used a piece that seemed almost like a silk robe for a top.
In the mortal world, he wouldn't have walked outside in this if you paid him. Too flashy and definitely too revealing, what with his long legs on display and the robe fluttering open enough to show most of his chest. It absolutely delighted him that in Sidhe no one batted an eye at what he was wearing, unless they were pausing to give him appraising looks.
Presumably, Hakuryuu had gone off to attend to rebellion business, which left Judal to wander the castle as he pleased. He ate breakfast in a smaller dining hall with some of the other rebellion members, none of which he personally knew, and then did some more wandering.
There wasn't much for him to do without Hakuryuu around. Judal could entertain himself with a ball of string and a cherry pit, but it wasn't stimuli he was lacking in. Everywhere he looked there was something new, something intriguing, some facet of this world that he was eager to soak in. Between the varying fae who made up the rebellion and their many assigned tasks, Judal had a plethora of things to occupy his time.
The problem was that there wasn't really a way for him to join in. Moving things was left to fae with extreme physical strength, those with stronger magic were enforcing and placing wards, and others were running military-like drills. Judal wasn't particularly strong, didn't have an incredible grasp on magic yet, and he had no interest in becoming a soldier.
But what he had said back at the meeting before they left to find Aladdin held true; he hadn't come here to sit around.
Spartos had approached him at dinner the prior evening and told him that he meant to make an introduction between Judal and a woman named Yamuraiha, per Sinbad's request. Because Spartos hadn't promised to do this, Judal was pretty sure he wouldn't get in trouble with his king if Judal went off and found her on his own. If it was an issue he could just introduce them formally anyway, it's not like it had been specified that it had to be their first introduction.
Finding Yamuraiha wasn't that difficult. Apparently, word had spread about the UnSeelie Prince's changeling consort, because the fae he approached all treated him with a surprising level of respect. Yamuraiha was a well-known individual, he gathered, as he followed her trail across the castle. If a fae didn't know where she was or had been, they knew someone who did, so it didn't take more than what constituted as an hour to find her.
She was overseeing a group of fae spinning energy into the atmosphere, fueling a domed barrier that shivered into view every few seconds. Judal watched from a distance for a little while, fascinated by the flow of magic as it dispersed through the air with clear-minded purpose. Group magic looked different than magic done by an individual. It rolled and shaped itself like smoke, twisting multiple tendrils together into one mass of intent, fixated on a shared goal.
Yamuraiha turned to face him when he approached, a frown of interest creasing his pretty face.
"Spartos tells me that you'd be willing to teach me about magic." Judal stated bluntly, in way of greeting.
This had been the right thing to do. Yamuraiha's expression morphed instantly into a delighted smile, complete with flushed cheekbones and sparkling eyes.
"You must be the changeling!" she she beamed. "My king told me about you, he said that Prince Hakuryuu brought you back from the world of men."
Judal nodded his affirmation, then turned it into a shallow bow. It wasn't much more than a dip of his head and shoulders, but it seemed to please Yamuraiha anyway.
"You can call me Judal." he said. "And yeah, I came with Hakuryuu."
"And you may call me Yamuraiha." she replied. "Come, let us walk!"
Yamuraiha waved an unspoken order at the still-casting fae, all of whom nodded in return before turning their attention back to the barrier. She then led Judal away from the group, across the lawn towards the opposite side of the castle wall. They skirted the edges of large groups and twined around any active training that was being done, until they could trail the castle's perimeter.
"What do you know of your magic?" Yamuraiha asked, looking at him with quizzical eyes. "Do you know the nature you're inclined towards? What sort of spellwork you like best? Which elements come to you most easily?"
With great effort, Judal shook his head instead of scowling.
"No." he huffed, frustration seeping into his tone. "Spartos showed me a little about how to connect to the elements, but nothing in particular stood out. I don't think I've ever done anything that counts as a spell, either."
To her credit, Yamuraiha only nodded. After the way his pseudo-mortality had been viewed previously, Judal had expected at least a hint of pity, if not outright disdain, for his lack of magical knowhow.
"Tell me how you respond to magic. Has Prince Hakuryuu ever cast a spell on you? Something that did not work how he intended it to?"
Judal crossed his arms and tilted his head back, pondering this. The sky was an abstract ring overhead, gutting its way valiantly through the dense blanket of treetops. The trees, for their part, bowed inward, as if they meant to eat the dredges of sunlight and fluffy white clouds.
"Well..." Judal said thoughtfully. "I think so?"
"Yeah. We went out sometimes and Hakuryuu would bring his sword, y'know, in case anything happened I guess. No one ever noticed it, but I could always see it just fine."
"A glamour." Yamuraiha concluded, nodding again. "Perhaps it was not meant to shield the blade from your eyes?"
Judal squinted at the sky, wracking his brain. The outline of a memory from that first outing made itself present, filling itself in slowly.
"No... No, he was pretty surprised that I could see it, the first time we went out. I don't think he meant me to."
"Can you think of any other veils he has cast around you? Any others you have seen through?"
Another pause, then;
"Yes. Yeah. He threw one up around the garden by the place I lived. I mean, he said he did, I didn't see anything that wasn't actually there."
Yamuraiha had gills. They weren't visible unless she tossed her hair over her shoulder and revealed the skin behind her ear and just below her jaw, which explained why Judal hadn't immediately noticed. This explained why she hadn't been breathing, which he had noticed, since the gills appeared to do it for her.
Apparently, when she got excited Yamuraiha flicked her hair about, and her gills fluttered like butterfly wings.
"Your Sight must be incredible! Seeing through a Prince's veil, stars, that is not something easily done!" she said excitedly.
"No, Judal, your Sight. It is the eye within your eye, that which allows you to see all that is true. All fae have it, but just as some may have better eyesight than others, the same can be said for the Sight itself."
This made sense, otherwise the point of glamours and veils would be moot. If all fae could simply see through them, then why bother?
"Like many of your senses, your Sight will only improve once you come fully into your own." Yamuraiha went on. "That in itself is impressive, with what it's already capable of!"
"So, once I'm all fae, I'll be able to See more?"
"Yes, and that is a good thing, Judal. The Sight is a powerful weapon, in its own way, and few have it strongly enough to use it as such. If you do, as I believe you will, then you will most assuredly be a formidable opponent for those who rely solely on illusions."
This was good news. Trickery was in faekind's blood, but that didn't make it any easier to deal with. The way Yamuraiha talked about it, Judal assumed that especially strong Sight wasn't common enough for fae to come prepared to face it, which meant he had an unexpected advantage already at his disposal.
He smiled to himself. He wouldn't just be Hakuryuu's consort, he'd be useful.
"Pisti mentioned something," Yamuraiha said, drawing his attention. "From when you were on Aladdin's mountain. You have met her, so I imagine you know that she can get a bit flighty with her words. Do you know...?"
"Oh, yeah, that." Judal cocked his head and frowned at the air. He hadn't even thought of the things that had gone on on the mountain. "I got this feeling from these stones, really specific stones, and I kept picking them up. I used them to make a circle, I guess? And then I did it again later, and again when we got to Aladdin, but I used big rocks instead.
Yamuraiha's gills fluttered with interest.
"Circles are a means of protection. How many stones?"
"Every time. But I thought three was the powerful number?"
"Oh, it is." Yamuraiha confirmed. "Three is the most powerful number there is. Seven is another number of power, though. As are five, eight, and thirteen."
Five walls in their room, three walls in the bathroom, three windows between both rooms. Five corners in one room, three in the other, that made eight.
"Does it mean something, picking up seven stones to make a circle?"
"Not especially, though I commend your audacity, using them in a faerie's lands."
Judal flashed her a half-cocked grin. Yamuraiha smiled back.
"As I said, a circle is a means of protection. Craft it from a single line, or as you did, a set of items numbering the strength you wish to imbue it with. Seven is strong, it is difficult to break a barrier like that, when it is made correctly. The fact the stones called to you suggests you have a strong connection to magic itself."
She patted Judal between the shoulder blades gently, her expression turning soft.
"Which is good, Judal. It means that whatever you are, you are not of lesser fae. Your intuition is strong, as is your Sight, and from what I have heard, you take easily to the magic your instincts guide you to. From what I can tell, you have nothing to worry about."
And you know, up until that moment, Judal hadn't even realized he was worried.
Tension drained out of him, like someone had just pulled the stopper out of a bath they'd left standing so long they'd forgotten the tub could be empty. Relief followed briefly, then settled into him as confidence.
"So you'll teach me?" he asked, suddenly almost giddy at the prospect of beginning his lessons. "About magic, and Sidhe, and all of it?"
"Yes, of course I will! Oooh, this is so exciting!" Yamuraiha gushed. "I have never gotten to teach someone all the way from the beginning! We will begin at once, come along, apprentice!"
Judal didn't need to be told twice. He quickened his pace to keep up with Yamuraiha as she led the way across the lawn towards the castle, unable to wipe the grin from his face.
How he had gone so long without noticing all that anxiety was beyond him, but if he had to guess, he would trace it back to a certain nightmare he'd had before leaving the mortal realm. He had thought he was over it, that he had dismissed the unpleasant dream into memory after Hakuryuu's reassurances. Maybe the effect of it had lingered, an itch left after a scab had healed, waiting to be scratched.
Now, Yamuraiha had scratched it. She was an unbiased party, someone with no stake in his happiness or comfort, and she had told him that everything was going to be okay. That there was no need to be concerned about his magic, or his Sight, or losing his mortal flesh.
Whatever was under his skin, it was still going to be better than being a plain old, helpless human being. That was what mattered.