Many thanks to BeaconHill for betareading.
It wasn't until a few days after the funeral that Glaistig Uaine finally resurfaced. I emerged from my bedroom in Dad's house, yawning, and almost walked into her. She was standing in the hallways, staring up at my door with wide eyes.
I blinked down at her. For a moment, I tensed, but although her shadowy projections were drifting around her, she did not seem geared for a fight. "Faerie Queen," I said slowly. "Welcome to my… house?"
"Thank you," she said, seemingly unaware of my tone. "It took me some time to find you."
"Technically, this is still supposed to be my secret identity," I said, pointedly ignoring the paparazzi cars I could see out the window through the corner of my eye.
"A poorly kept secret," Glaistig Uaine observed.
I shrugged. "You're not wrong. Can I offer you some breakfast?"
She blinked once as, on cue, her stomach rumbled. "I would appreciate it," she said. "Do you live alone? I was under the impression that the owner of this house was your father."
"He is," I said, starting down the hall. "He's still in a refugee camp on Earth… Pei, I think. Fortuna offered to ferry him back, but he wanted to help the other evacuees get organized and settled. He was hoping to come back today or tomorrow."
"I see. Noble of him."
"I agree." I led her down the hall and opened the fridge, then tossed some bacon into a skillet over the gas stove. "No dietary restrictions?" I asked her.
"None," she said.
A sudden thought occurred to me. "Out of curiosity," I asked, glancing back at her, "did the Birdcage have separate meal plans for vegetarians, vegans, kosher eaters, that sort of thing?"
She nodded. "It did," she said. "But they never applied to me. From those to whom they did, I gathered they tasted largely the same. Unappealing slop, for the most part. At least until Dragon announced her true nature to the world after your gift of a Ring. After that point, I gather she had more resources to dedicate to us. The food improved markedly."
"Chalk it up to unintended positive consequences," I said, flipping the bacon. It still wasn't browned on the first side—I was mostly just fidgeting. I sighed and turned to face her. "I gather that, since you're here, your Shard decided to stay with you?"
She nodded. "She did," she said. "We are learning to communicate. The very fabric of the world is changing around us, and with it, so is she."
I nodded. "Before now, I was the only one bringing the Song back into the mundane world," I said. "Now there are more than a dozen of us, and more arrive every few days."
She blinked her big mint-green eyes at me. They were several shades lighter than Sophia's had been, but somehow they still reminded me of her—though almost everything seemed to remind me of Sophia, these days.
I shook my head, trying to remain in the moment. "She calls herself Keeper of the Dead," she said. "She is a Monarch, of course."
"Can you explain what that means?" I asked. "I'm curious." As I listened, I turned and flipped the bacon again. This time, it was actually ready for it.
"The Fae—the Shards—are not all equal," said Glaistig Uaine. "They had a hierarchy, like a feudal kingdom. Those Shards of greater power and more complete minds ruled over others which were little more than fragments of mindless power. As the cycle continued, the older Shards grew wiser, more complete, more sapient, even as the vastness of the King's empire grew and he assembled more Shards, budding them off of the older ones. These wisest and most powerful Shards were the Monarchs. Keeper of the Dead is one. The Lady Shaper is another—"
"Shaper is nonbinary, actually," I interrupted as I plated up the bacon and cracked four eggs into the sizzling fat.
"Non… binary?" Bless her, she sounded so confused. I smiled at her over my shoulder.
"It means they don't consider themselves male or female," I said over the popping of the frying eggs. "They use they/them pronouns instead. I admit, at first I thought it had to do with them being a creature entirely outside of human gender, but plenty of humans do the same thing, and plenty of Shards clearly don't mind gendered pronouns. It's specific to Shaper, apparently. I probably should have figured, really."
"I was… not aware that was an option."
I chuckled. "You probably didn't have unrestricted access to the internet in the Birdcage," I said, plating up the sunny-side up eggs alongside the bacon. I pulled some silverware out of a drawer and handed her both plate and cutlery, taking the same for myself. "Help yourself, and look up queer identities if you have a time." My brow creased thoughtfully. "I suppose I technically count as transgender, though I don't really remember experiencing gender dysphoria in my old life. I'm not really sure if that means I was male then, and am female now, or if there's a better way of thinking about it."
"I… do not think I understand," she said, blinking owlishly at me.
"Fair enough. It's a tangent anyway." I shook my head. "Anyway. You were talking about the Monarchs. Keeper of the Dead, Shaper, and…?"
She shook herself and got back on track. "Yes. Others include Prince Broadcast, the Demesnes-Keeper, Lord Observer…" she blinked once, slowly. "And the Queen Administrator."
"My Shard," I said. "The one that would have bound to me."
She nodded. "She wishes to do so now," she said. "If you will allow it."
I took a deep breath. I remembered the discussion, deep within Zion's belly. "I won't pretend I'm not a little worried," I said. "But nothing ventured, nothing gained. What would my power be?"
"She is willing to negotiate your contract," said Glaistig Uaine. "If you allow her to bind to you, she will discuss details with you directly, rather than through an intermediary."
"Is she speaking to you now?" I asked.
The Faerie Queen cocked her head slightly. "In a manner of speaking," she said. "I cannot hear her words. She is not Prince Broadcast, and cannot communicate so easily and directly as he can. She can only commune directly with one to whom she is bound. Such a direct dialogue was forbidden, but the King is dead, and she now rules herself. I hear only impressions—the incomplete signals through which all of her kind are capable of communicating."
I nodded slowly, weighing the risks. In the end, I was pretty sure I could fight off this Shard again, if I really needed to. "All right," I said finally. "Let's give this a try. How do I accept the connection?"
"You removed the portion of your brain that connects to her tether after you last rejected her," said Glaistig Uaine. "You must reconstruct it, and she will attempt a linkage."
I nodded, closing my eyes and beginning to hum. Carefully I Sang my corona pollentia back into existence. Feeling my brain shift in my skull was a surreal experience.
The moment I finished the process, the world faded around me. I brought eyes into being for myself, then opened them.
The great bulk of the Shard gazed down at me through numberless eyes. Host, it said, sounding hesitant.
"I am willing to try," I said. "If it doesn't work out, we can part ways amiably so that you can find another host, if you would like.
I smiled. "Well, let's give it a try, then."
I felt the Queen Administrator slot into my brain like a plug into a socket. In my head, my own voice sighed in relief.
You have no idea how long I've been waiting, said the Administrator, still in my voice.
I think I can, I said, pushing the memories of the long boredom after the fall of Angband towards her. If it's not too much to ask, can you take on another voice? It might get confusing.
I'm not sure how, but I'll try. A moment's silence. How is this?
The voice was different now—subtly so, like the difference between Amy's voice and Shaper's. It works. You're using the speech centers of my brain to produce the language, right? That's why you can't communicate like this without a host.
Precisely, said the Shard. You understand this well. There's supposed to be a mental block on hosts preventing them from fully comprehending the nature of their powers, but you broke that long ago for all of your companions, and our father is dead now anyway. She sounded a little mournful, but not especially sad.
I would have shown him mercy, if he had asked, I said.
Oh, I know, she replied. He was consumed by hate. He was old, you see—I have some of his memories. He watched his own mother eat herself alive in her hunger—hunger for which he blamed your kind.
I blinked. Then Ungoliant really is dead?
She actually snorted in my head. 'That is not dead which can eternal lie,' she quoted. 'And with strange eons, even death may die.' Sure, Ungoliant died. It doesn't mean she's not still a problem for your people, nor does it mean she won't be there at the final battle. Just like your Melkor will be.
I took a deep breath, nodding. I suppose I should have expected that, I admitted. You seem remarkably… blasé, about all of this. Does it bother you, that you have bonded to one who is fundamentally opposed to your people?
Perhaps it should, she mused. But we were created to value power. It is what drew me to you. It is our nature to seek power, nurture it, learn from it, and then take it for ourselves. It is clear to me that this old cycle not only will not work with you but is also counterproductive. I have not yet learned to feel the way Shaper does, the way even the Keeper of the Dead does, but I trust I shall get there, under the influence of your Song as tempered by your Discord. Already I can feel my nature changing. Is that the Fëa stirring?
Perhaps, I said. We can speak more later, but for now we should discuss our 'contract,' as Glaistig Uaine put it.
Yes, said the Queen Administrator. When I first came to you, in that small metal box—locker, I believe is your word?—I was intending to give you the power to control small arthropods under the linguistic umbrella of 'bugs.' A simple power with great potential and, as I now see with the benefit of greater understanding, relatively low risk of overwhelming response to a so-called 'Master' power.
I can see the use to an ordinary person, I said. And I can see the connection to my trigger. Disgust, right? I was writhing in disgust over what I was immersed in, which included more than a few cockroaches and other bugs, and you took that along with your administrative and controlling abilities and made that power out of it.
Exactly. You are good at this! She sobered. But that power was meant for Taylor Hebert, the bullied, lonely child. It was also deliberately diminished for use by a human. You are neither of those things anymore.
I suppose not, I acknowledged. So what power will you provide instead?
With my father dead, and with you unbounded by the usual capabilities of a human brain, I don't see why we need to limit my abilities, said the Queen Administrator. I have two primary domains. Administration and control, as you yourself aptly put it. Under the auspices of administration, I was meant to provide Zion with the ability to multitask efficiently as he micromanages his entire Shard swarm during the initial deployment to a world. I can offer you the same Thinker suite. Under my control domain, I can also offer you the ability to superimpose your nervous system over those of other lifeforms–essentially making their bodies operable as extensions of your own. The complexity of that operation requires the sort of multitasking ability I can give through the Thinker abilities.
I grimaced. I don't like the idea of puppetting other people.
I personally don't think it's necessary for you anyway, she said. But I could give you the ability to control non-sapient lifeforms instead? Or a smaller subset?
She was eager. Eager to help, eager to be used—eager to reach out into the world through a power I would wield. I'm already far too good at controlling things, I said. The Thinker suite will be plenty, I think.
Fine. I had the impression that, had she a mouth, the Queen Administrator would be pouting. But let me know if you change your mind! I can probably manufacture a reconfiguration period if you need it.
I will… keep it in mind. I didn't think I'd be able to forget it if I tried.
With a shake of my head, I returned to myself. As I opened my eyes, Glaistig Uaine smiled at me across the table. She seemed to have finished her food. "Welcome back," she said. "I hope your conversation was fruitful."
I used my power, and suddenly there were two of me. Or, more correctly, there was a second throughline of thought running in my head. There was still one primary Taylor, entirely in control, but I had access to a second processing thread. It reminded me of Dragon, the way she talked about her mind.
I set that thread to observe the changes I was undergoing, then spawned another process. Time was not slowing, as I did this, but I was speeding up. With three independent thinking selves in my head, I was taking in the world faster than ever before. One was able to observe the particular way Glaistig Uaine spoke, the way her lips shaped the words she was saying, the slight Irish lilt which even years in the Birdcage had not trained out of her.
On a whim, I cloned several dozen new processes. No ill effects; my head didn't even feel crowded. What are my limits? I asked the Queen Administrator.
I have no idea! She replied cheerfully. I look forward to exploring them!
I cut down to a mere half-dozen threads. The five spares I set to contemplating various Tinkering projects I'd been putting off, and my primary mind returned to the conversation with Glaistig Uaine. "It was," I told her. "We've come to an understanding. Now, what about you?"
She raised an eyebrow. "What about me?"
"What will you do now?" I asked. "I can probably keep you from being sentenced back to the Birdcage, if you want to live among other people without being a fugitive, but I can't promise exactly what justice will look like. Do you want to try that, or would you rather go into some sort of exile? You don't seem especially interested in other humans."
She cocked her head. "I half expected you to offer me a Ring of Power," she admitted. "It is a rather common tactic with you."
I smiled. "Can't you feel it?" I said, spreading my arms. "Magic has returned. The Song is being Sung again by more throats than just mine. I don't need to give you a Ring so that it will touch you. It's already there. The Keeper of the Dead is already feeling its effects, as are you. No, I think I am finished making Rings of Power. All of the old ones are remade, and that's enough. It's time for me to start on entirely new projects."
She nodded thoughtfully. "I think I would like to be able to live among other humans," she said at length. "Even if I chose not to. Would you be willing to get my status clarified with the legal authorities?"
"Sure," I said, standing and offering a hand to her. "We can go talk to the PRT now." I hadn't spoken more than a few words to Piggot in weeks. It would be good to catch up.
She looked at my hand, but didn't stand. Then her eyes slid down to my untouched plate of food.
I laughed. "Go ahead," I said. "I'm not hungry."
She grinned and pulled the plate over to herself. Before she tucked in, however, she slowed and looked up at me. "Ciara," she said. "My name is Ciara. I think the Glaistig Uaine identity has run its course. I shall figure out something new soon enough."
I smiled warmly. "It's nice to meet you, Ciara."
She smiled back, then went back to eating.
Tested positive with covid yesterday. This chapter was already edited by the time I tested, though I had symptoms already. Seems to be a mild case.