A/N: WELL, THIS IS IT, FOLKS!
Working on this monster has been such a journey, and bringing it to a close feels like bringing closure to an entire phase of my life, in a way. When I started this piece, it was just another challenge I was issuing myself, to tackle some things like action sequences, a large cast, and general worldbuilding.
I had no idea where it would take me, or even when it started to take on such a life of its own. I had no idea of all the friends I would gain, all the sleep I would lose, all the tears I would cry over it. Since I started writing The Prisoner, I've lived in lots of different places, held lots of different jobs, fallen in and out of love a few times, with others and with myself, and I find at long last that I am just barely ready to let it go, ready to move forward. I'm ready to focus on new projects, issue myself new challenges, and bring some older projects to a close in order to do so with a free mind and an open heart.
There are honestly so many people I need to thank, and I'm going to try, but if I didn't mention you by name it's probably just because I'm a scattered disaster.
HarpyVixen, for being one of my earliest long reviewers, letting me bounce ideas around and vent about bad experiences.
Nyssasaralee, for your enthusiasm, your art, your encouragement, your bright spirit.
Menzosarres, for your chapter-by-chapter review at a time when the encouragement was especially needed.
Carly, for bringing my attention to the beautiful potential of Kinsale and Zenovia, and for being a friend to me when I desperately needed one.
rocket2saturn, for your art, your inspiration, your friendship, and for genuinely asking me for a hard copy of this nonsense.
Nika, for all of your incredible art, your tireless belief in me, and somehow even more infinite patience. I honestly don't know who I'd be if you hadn't come into my life.
God I'm definitely forgetting about a hundred people.
Every one of you, those who stuck with me to the bitter end and those who got bored about 50 update hiatuses ago, I do not know how to thank you enough. The time I've spent writing this has spanned some very difficult years, during which this story has been the only constant. A lot of people wrote me to tell me that this story helped them get through some difficult times of their own. I don't know how to thank you for your presence, your words, your art. Every time you used one of this silly platform's devices for showing that this story meant something to you, I got to see that a real human person was out there somewhere reading this.
This is the end of The Prisoner, but certainly not the end of this universe or these characters. In the interest of having as complete a first draft as possible, I've made some cursory edits to chapters 16 and 19, since they had large problems that have been bothering me for some time. Now that I've finished the main story, I will force myself to leave it more or less untouched for the next few months, before doing any more editing or working on any more material related to it. As Maleficent says in this chapter, rather than attempting to tear apart every obvious flaw, I am endeavouring to enjoy what I have accomplished.
It's so surreal to be signing off from this. I think a part of me keeps tweaking it, re-reading it, looking for little things to nit-pick, because for it to be well and truly finished is a bizarre thing. Thank you again so much for your readership and for your incredible, incredible feedback. I hope you'll enjoy this celebration of all we've overcome, and please never hesitate to share your thoughts, now, and in all matters to come.
Chapter 35 - The Nameday
"Bit balmy here, isn't it?" Kinsale murmured, dragging an arm across her brow.
"Why do you think I never visited before?" Zenovia retorted as she surveyed the trees above them. They were alight with all manner of colourful birds. A few hundred years ago, Elysia had sent some of them to deliver her letters. It occurred to Zenovia vaguely that perhaps she still did—Zenovia had simply taken to allowing only her trusted owls to deliver her mail past the outermost borders of her land.
The residence they sought seemed little more than an amalgamation of the things that surrounded it—wood and grass and stone all melded together, crawling with more forest wildlife. Before they could so much as get close enough to knock, the door opened a crack, and Zenovia felt all the air rent violently from her lungs.
The face of a little girl peered out, too familiar, too much like Irina. An old memory superimposed itself on this new face, a little girl looking up at her wide-eyed and waiting, trusting even as Zenovia had stood over the bloodied body of their mother.
Too hot, too humid, closing in, and Zenovia couldn't breathe. "Uh. Hello," she managed, staring, still staring at this perfect image of her younger sister, stuck out of time like a ghost.
She felt Kinsale's hand on her arm. Cool, solid, real. "You'll have to excuse her; she's not used to seeing anyone under the age of one thousand."
The little girl smiled. The little girl in Zenovia's memory did not.
"I'm Kinsale, and this is Zenovia."
Wider smile. Zenovia remained paralyzed.
"What a lovely name! It's nice to meet you, Nova. Is your mother in?"
Nova nodded and retreated into the house. Zenovia took a moment to contemplate Kinsale with befuddlement, and no small amount of relief. She'd thought at first it might have been an absurd and sentimental decision to bring her along, and would more than likely cause more problems than it solved, but it seemed she was mistaken already.
Elysia appeared, heavily pregnant, looking very tired, but very happy. Mercifully she looked much less like Irina, but shared the same midnight blue eyes that ran in the family. Zenovia inhaled, exhaled, regained control of her senses.
"Zenovia! Please, come in!" she said. Low, rich voice. Warm. Oddly welcoming. "And Mistress Kinsale, what an absolute delight to meet you! Just finished your Mistress Joy, actually—been meaning to get to it for years, and honestly it's one of the best things I've ever read."
They continued to talk. Zenovia could hardly focus. Elysia led them through the front hall of her home, into a sitting room filled with little knick-knacks: books, toys, signs of life. Nova stayed close at her mother's side, but seemed very taken with Kinsale, and watched her intently as she spoke.
"..fascinating stuff, the Acacia trial..."
"...word is the same will be true of Mistress Sara..."
"...incidentally, I've acquired access to a few firsthand sources..."
"...joining us for dinner?"
"Dinner?" Zenovia echoed stupidly, when she realized both Elysia and Kinsale had returned their attention to her, in wait of a response.
"Won't you join us?" Elysia repeated pleasantly. "It's nothing special, just some local fare I scrounged together, but I'd love it if you'd—"
Her words were halted by a sound, and that sound brought Zenovia's world screeching to a halt as another memory overtook her. Neglected children crying, crying, wheezing, coughing, crying themselves to sleep, she herself still a child struggling to care for them, to care for herself, to care at all, knowing they would survive as she had, not wishing that fate on anyone, the little girl with Irina's face, Irina crying when their mother called for them...
A hand on her arm. Cool, solid, real. "Zenovia."
Kinsale's eyes. Warm brown, concerned.
"What?" Zenovia snapped, pulled her arm away, felt suddenly vulnerable, exposed.
"Elysia went to get her baby," said Kinsale, low, even, almost...soothing. "She just woke up from a nap and she was crying for attention. Everything is all right."
Zenovia turned away from her, focused on some meaningless decoration on the wall. "I can clearly see that everything is all right, Kinsale," she said coldly. It was too warm in here, warm, small, walls closing in, baby crying in the other room, soft cooing noises, low soothing voice, comfort, no comfort, no comfort anywhere—
"There we go! Say hello!"
Elysia reappeared, holding a toddler, a baby with dark blue eyes too big for her head and curls twisted into pigtails. She withdrew a hand from her mouth to wave sleepily at Zenovia. Zenovia, dumbfounded, waved back.
"Oh, what a beautiful little girl!" Kinsale cooed from somewhere beyond her periphery. "What's your name?"
"Can you tell Kinsale your name, darling?" said Elysia.
The little girl gazed up at them, wide-eyed, then buried her face in Elysia's shoulder.
"She's a little shy," said Elysia with a smile. "It's Astrid. Anyway, as I was saying, it's just a soup I threw together, nothing special." She gestured with her free hand. "Come now."
Elysia led them into her kitchen, which had a dining table in the middle of it, and beckoned for her soup cauldron and a few bowls, which made their way swiftly across the room as they gathered around. "Nova, would you do the honours?" she said.
Nova nodded solemnly, and her brow furrowed in concentration as she held her hands out and enchanted the serving spoon to fill the soup bowls.
"Oh!" Kinsale exclaimed with delight. "How lovely!"
"Very good, darling," said Elysia with a curt nod.
Astrid became chatty as they settled in to eat. "Soup!" she exclaimed a few times, at random intervals, and "No-uh!" pointing to her sister, and then "No-uh!" pointing to Zenovia.
"Clever girl," Elysia remarked, with a small smile. "You're quite right, darling—Nova is named after your Aunt Zenovia!"
"Oh!" Kinsale cried again, delighted, and tapped Zenovia's arm.
"Hm," was all Zenovia managed.
"It came out a bit salty, I'm afraid—" Elysia remarked, of the soup.
"Tsk, you're being too modest—this is wonderful!" Kinsale effused. She had that affected charm about her now, too bright, too warm, almost biting, that Zenovia had spent centuries despising. Now she imagined it was an overcompensation for her own rapidly souring mood. "You must be an excellent cook, cobbling together whatever you find. I'm horribly unimaginative, myself."
Elysia did not seem to mind it. "Well, if Zenovia ever answered her mail, I might have sent a few recipes along—"
"I never asked you to write to me," Zenovia snapped, and suddenly it was as though all the warmth, all the light had drained from the room.
There was a moment's tense silence before Elysia replied, evenly, "I know, Zenovia. I was only teasing. I did it for myself. My own reasons."
"Why?" Zenovia demanded, with a slam of her hand upon the dining table.
When she rose to her feet, she towered over everyone in the room, a clear threat. The children cowered. The baby didn't even dare to cry out.
Zenovia turned her attention to Kinsale, gestured to her vehemently. "Why do you feel compelled to do these things for me? Go out of your way for me when I wouldn't do the same, wouldn't even think to do the same?"
Kinsale's face remained impassive but for the subtle knitting of her brow. "Because," she said, gentle as rain, "that's just it, Zenovia. I don't think that you wouldn't, only that you wouldn't think to. We can only give the kindnesses we know, ourselves."
Zenovia's eyes darted between them, between Kinsale's dark brown, her extended family's dark blue, between the little girl who couldn't have been older than Zenovia was when she made her first kill, the strange woman cradling a terrified infant who had felt compelled to write to Zenovia unanswered for centuries, the truly bizarre woman who had very nearly given her life to save Zenovia, who now endeavoured to offer up her heart, as well.
On this fateful day, Zenovia did something she'd sworn every day of her life she never would: she turned and ran out of the room.
There was a certain relief in being chained to a wall. No one left to fight, no one left to impress, no one left to command, to defend, no one left for whom even to spare a passing thought. Sara had heard it was very common for wicked fairy children to be chained to their bedroom walls as punishment. She wondered if they ever realized what a boon it was, not to have to move anymore.
So much misery in the world. Such pestilence. Only so long anyone could stand it before she became numb to the weight of it. Sara had cared too much once. Sara had believed in life and goodness and forgiveness. She'd looked upon those miserable creatures called the dark fae with pity in her heart, looked upon those fragile fleshy things called humans with the urge to protect.
Where had it gotten her? Mistrusted, reviled, betrayed, and now?
Poor fools, always tearing themselves apart. Someday they'd all see in turn that she would have done them a kindness. There was only so much a heart could take before it hardened, before it turned on all it loved most dearly.
It took her some time to remember why she was here, what she had done that someone had deemed unacceptable, but she could not bring herself to feel remorse. The memory was distant, dark, painted in greys in her mind's eye, and it left her feeling only hollow. No rage, no vindication, no remorse, nothing. She had never considered herself a very emotional fairy. She wondered when she'd last felt anything but a vague, cold sort of determination.
The Queen came to see her sometimes, with this kind of distant pity shining in her eyes. Sara almost laughed at the sight of it. She and the Queen were much the same, she was certain—how could a being at least twice her age still have the capacity to feel for the vermin of the earth so far beneath her?
She imagined it troubled her, not to feel more.
"Your people have petitioned for a hold on your trial," Titania told her one day. Or night, perhaps. Such things mattered little now.
"What is it they hope to uncover?" Sara wondered.
"I hoped you would know," said Titania.
"I expect most have already made up their minds about me," said Sara. "One way or another."
"Time...eases some tensions," said Titania slowly. "It seems to me your supporters are hoping to wait until the outrage has quelled."
"Outrage," Sara echoed vaguely.
"You tortured a human girl," the queen reminded her, with a severity that sounded affected.
"Do you truly care so deeply?" Sara wondered, even bothered to put in the effort to lift her head.
"How can you say such a thing?" the queen implored her, all burning amber eyes and delicately furrowed brow.
Sara felt a faint smile playing at her lips. It had been so long since she'd found cause to smile. "You don't," she said simply.
"You used to care so deeply for so many things, Sara," said Titania, shaking her head gravely. "What happened? Do you know? Do you even remember?"
Sara inclined her head contemplatively. "Such misery in the world beneath us. Such misery in the world around you. There is only so much a heart can care for, Majesty."
Suddenly the queen was too close, burning bright eyes too much in the near-darkness, kneeling before her, just behind the bars of her prison. "Only if you try to force it, Sara," said the queen, too gently, too softly, like pity, like cruel mockery, and Sara felt her fists clench, felt her muscles strain against the chains that held her.
She saw the human girl in her mind—fire in her eyes, too, fire on her hands and feet, too—and tried to feel something, tried to feel the burning on her own skin. She shook her head, collapsed into her restraints.
"I don't want to have to kill you, Sara," said Titania, voice growing heavy. Pleading. "I don't want to have to make that call."
Sara laughed coldly, was stunned to feel wetness upon her cheeks and a stinging in her eyes. She felt neither mirth nor sorrow, only a hollow echo of something like surprise. "There are worse fates than death, Titania," she said.
It was better on the roof. Cooler, less crowded. Zenovia could see treetops and distant mountains half-obscured by gathering clouds, and birds flying overhead, and she could curl her knees up to her chest and wrap her arms about them without worrying about being seen in such an objectively pathetic position. She wasn't surprised when Kinsale joined her, only that she didn't immediately start talking.
Zenovia knew she probably ought to be doing the talking, namely an apology of some sort, but she hadn't the faintest idea where to begin. Or, achieving that, where to end.
After awhile, Kinsale spoke quietly. "What was it like?"
"The battle," Kinsale clarified, cautiously. "With your mother."
Zenovia sighed. "Are you mining me for writing material already?"
Kinsale chuckled lightly. Her laughter was like music, a song of chimes carried on the wind. "Maybe a little. Mostly I was only curious."
"It was terrible. What else do you expect?"
"i don't know," said Kinsale, "I just...I had no deep love for my mother, but I don't think I could have done it.
Zenovia scoffed. "Of course you could have, if you wanted to survive."
Kinsale was quiet for awhile after that, but Zenovia wasn't fool enough to think that would be the end of the conversation. The chatter of exotic birds filled the silence between them. Zenovia rather preferred the silence of her fortresses.
"I heard stories," said Kinsale when she spoke again. "Rumours, really, third or fourth or fifth-hand information, about your mother, what it was like for you and your sisters."
"You and everyone else," said Zenovia, but it didn't have much of the bite she'd intended. Mostly she felt...tired.
"It seems like Elysia and her children are happy," said Kinsale cautiously. "Healthy."
"But...and of course, I'm not claiming to know much about anything, only...it seems to me that...children, family...those..." Kinsale waved her hand vaguely, "...kinds of things... are hard to do alone. And that's what we're all conditioned to do—to isolate ourselves. Maybe Elysia kept writing to you because she admired your strength, your resilience." Kinsale paused, hesitated. "Perhaps it made her feel less alone, to write to someone, to know someone she admired so much might know what she was going through, even if she never responded."
Zenovia bit the inside of her cheek, hard. She didn't respond.
"Why did we come here?" Kinsale pressed, still almost too gently.
Zenovia shrugged, and when she spoke her voice came out strained and hoarse. "I don't know," she said. "To see. To know. To..." she gestured vaguely "...reach out."
"Oh?" Kinsale wondered lightly. "Not just to yell about your mail?"
We can only give the kindnesses we know, ourselves, Kinsale had said earlier, inside when Zenovia had...
"I'm quite a house-guest," she murmured derisively.
Kinsale laughed, leaned her head against Zenovia's shoulder. "I expect you'll be forgiven. The dark fae have shown far greater tempers than that."
Zenovia frowned, clenched a fist into the fabric of her trousers, half-consciously turned her cheek to feel the softness of Kinsale's hair against it. "May those children know no worse temper than mine in all their days," she said gravely. The bird chatter reigned for a few moments before Zenovia asked, quietly, "What was your mother like?"
"Hm," said Kinsale, like a sigh. "It's not a question I've had to answer in some time. I always used to say she was only the expected level of dreadful, but...you know, she could be quite nice. Cruel, certainly. Crazy. Unhinged. And I loathed her for it then," she said the word—loathed—so softly, light as the cool mountain air Zenovia was so missing just now.
"But you know..." Kinsale continued, and the waver in her voice gave away that she was not quite so detached from the memory as she wished to be, "...there were five of us altogether, and she raised us all alone, more or less. Looking back, I can't imagine how she could have done it any better. My brothers aren't all bad, after all, and even I can be tolerable from time to time."
A small breath of laughter escaped Zenovia's lungs. "Only on occasion."
Kinsale laughed and kissed her cheek, and Zenovia felt somehow lighter, as though the smallest fragment of a thousand-year-old burden had at long last been lifted from her heart.
"Do you think it's silly?"
"I think it's lovely."
"Then why are you smiling like that?"
"I'm not permitted to smile?"
Briar Rose had been overcome by a whimsical notion to enchant her ballgown (one of Mistress Kinsale's devising) to fade from pink to blue and back again whenever she moved. Kinsale had found the notion delightful, and had pointed her to a few spellbooks that might lead her down the right path. After going through all that effort, and pulling the charm off flawlessly, she'd become suddenly quite embarrassed that she'd put so much time into it at all, and Maleficent's smug expression did not aid her in this circumstance.
"You look like you're about to make a joke at my expense."
"I expect that is because I rarely smile under circumstances not related to the misery of others," Maleficent replied coolly. She approached, and offered her hands to Rose. "But you may rest assured that my pleasure is genuine. You look...radiant."
Rose took Maleficent's hands, averted her eyes when she felt her cheeks flush hot. "There will be a lot of people."
"If that was a concern of yours, you oughtn't to have entrusted the event to Mistress Kinsale in the first place."
Rose laughed. "No, I know, it's just...it will be strange. Seeing them all again. A lot has changed. I feel...different. New."
Maleficent considered this a moment before she responded. "And so shall you be," she said, slowly, "whether others see it or not."
Rose took this in, let it sink into her skin, and she nodded slowly. "I suppose you're right," she said quietly.
"Of course I am," Maleficent replied, with the subtlest of smirks playing at her lips.
Kinsale was a vision of shimmering silver and gold, so bright she seemed almost to light up the room wherever she walked. She wore her hair mostly down tonight, wild curls spilling down to the small of her back, tied away from her face with tiny sparkling pins that looked like doves on the wing.
Zenovia had chosen, despite Kinsale's fervent protestation, a simple black suit and black shirt beneath it. Where Kinsale brought light, Zenovia seemed to bring darkness. The result was nonetheless striking in its own way, and only after Kinsale had conceded this did Zenovia, rather smugly, pluck one of Kinsale's fluttering dove pins from her hair and pin it to the lapel of her tailcoat.
"Oh, it's wonderful!" Kinsale effused when Rose twirled in her gown to demonstrate the way the colours changed. She plucked another fluttering pin from her hair and clipped it into Rose's. "How are you feeling, darling? Nervous? Excited?"
Rose ran her hand over the back of her head, still unaccustomed to the shortness of her hair. "A little of both," she said. "Ready."
Rose wanted to stand at the door with Kinsale and Maleficent, but Kinsale insisted she 'make an entrance' after everyone had arrived. She felt more than a little silly at the prospect, and was reminded rather uncomfortably of her last unintentional grand entrance, still half-asleep and sure she was dreaming, hanging onto the arm of Prince Phillip and searching for something she knew in a sea of strangers. She wondered if it would be much the same tonight: another new beginning.
"Well, of course you're ready," said Kinsale. "But trust me, darling, the wait will be worth it in the end."
She gestured that Maleficent should follow her, and then Rose was left alone with Zenovia, who looked at once like she wished to say something, and like she wished to leave and never return.
"You look...quite dashing," said Rose shyly.
Zenovia raised her eyebrows. Surprise showed subtly across her sharp features. "Dashing?" she echoed.
"Striking? Handsome?" Rose embarrassed herself. She averted her gaze, rubbed the back of her neck again. "You...look very nice," she finished lamely.
She'd expected a scowl, or perhaps a curt grunt of acknowledgement, but instead, the corners of Zenovia's lips quirked suddenly upward into the tiniest of smiles, and a small huff of laughter escaped them.
Thank you," she said, and Rose felt herself returning the smile at least twice over.
A moment's silence passed. Downstairs, they could hear the chatter of arriving visitors. "I don't like parties," said Zenovia.
Rose was stricken by a memory. "I read your book...Essential Camouflage," she said. "I remember thinking that. That you must not like parties."
Another breath of amusement. "Maleficent always liked those spells."
"She doesn't like parties, either," Rose guessed.
"On the contrary," said Zenovia. "Maleficent has quite the taste for drama, when the mood strikes her. She just likes to complain."
Rose caught sight of herself in a mirror Kinsale had fashioned for her—Zenovia didn't have any mirrors, and flatly refused to have anything to do with making one. "I'm not sure if I like parties or not," Rose confessed. "I haven't been to very many."
She could see Zenovia behind her in the mirror, looking at her, and not either of their reflections. "I expect Kinsale will see to it that you enjoy this one," said Zenovia. "It's all very performative, I think, and Kinsale and Maleficent enjoy that, to varying degrees."
"Performative," Rose echoed. Yes, that made sense. Playing the role she was meant to play, Princess Aurora and not Briar Rose. Smiling for the crowd, smiling for her mother, smiling for her prince and saviour, not making them feel too badly about her condition...
Zenovia turned away behind her, and she turned away from the mirror to observe, or perhaps only to distract herself from her own dour turn of thought.
"I don't enjoy performing, have no need of eyes upon me to feel powerful," Zenovia continued as she surveyed the room. "However, a show of power can be useful, and that can be enjoyable enough, if there's motivation behind it." She seemed to locate an imaginary point in the air, and withdrew from nothingness a ring or a chain of some sort, which seemed to be fashioned out of shards of different metals into links and barbs and thorns and little twists like flowers.
Zenovia turned to face Rose again, approached slowly, as though expecting Rose to back away. "It seems fitting, actually. Briars and roses." Zenovia offered her the chain. "You're familiar with Avasina," she said, as though that were an explanation and not a thousand fresh questions.
"Like the...?" She could not bring herself to voice the word, Chains.
Zenovia contemplated the chain she held in her palm. "A fairy so powerful that all the forces of the skies could not contain her. The story goes that the righteous fae fashioned a thousand different chains for her, all of them broken within a day. She kept a fragment of each metal they used to bind her, and used the fragments to add to her power."
Rose leaned in, dared a step forward. "Is it true?" she breathed.
Zenovia inclined her head thoughtfully. "As with all such tales, I imagine there is some truth to it. There's no doubt that the Chains of Avasina serve their intended purpose on most of the dark fae." She raised her head to meet Rose's rapt gaze. "As to whether they truly held Avasina captive, there is some cause for doubt."
"What do you mean?"
Zenovia opened a clasp on the strange chain. "May I?"
Rose nodded, felt fear and anticipation well up in her heart.
Zenovia moved to stand behind Rose and situated the chain upon her neck. Rose could feel the magic in it, rolling off in waves, pulsing, alive. It was...terrifying. And intoxicating. She shivered.
"I am much older than the fairies who wield that monstrosity called the Chains of Avasina about so recklessly," said Zenovia, and suddenly she seemed it, sounded it, like she carried the gravitas of her existence in her words. "I am the only surviving daughter of a mother who was, herself, the sole survivor of a madwoman. Avasina outlived many children."
Rose didn't dare to breathe. Zenovia fastened the clasp of the necklace, and Rose felt somehow more immense, more infinite than she could fully comprehend.
"But fairies are seldom entirely mad," said Zenovia, low and dark like distant thunder. "My mother once told me that Avasina went madder with each capture, grew crueler with each link she added to this necklace."
And Rose could see it, faintly, when she closed her eyes—she could see darkness and the shimmering metal bars of prison cells a hundred times over, and she could hear countless crying infants, and she could not bring herself to care for them.
"So, you tell me, Briar Rose," said Zenovia quietly, quieter than the screams of children long gone, less real than the chains on her wrists, chains that could never hold her. "You are hunted and captured, and certainly tortured, as well, a thousand times or so. Do you say, keep trying? Do your worst, make your next, most horrible invention, and let it terrorize my people for generations to come?" Rose turned to face Zenovia, midnight blue eyes shining brighter than the darkness of the necklace's memories, like stars in a night sky. "Or do you one day grow weary enough to say, these Chains are enough? I will fall to these so that someone else might survive them?"
Downstairs the chatter was beginning to build, and strange, unidentifiable instruments started up tuning. Rose could hear children's voices, loud and happy and laughing—so far removed from the cries of neglected infants in the necklace's memory that it was jarring. She realized suddenly it was strange to think of wicked fairy children, when her best examples were Maleficent and Kinsale and Zenovia and Joy. She couldn't imagine any of them as anything but infinite as compared to her own transient lifespan.
She touched the tips of her fingers to the necklace—delicately, for the barbs were as sharp as they looked. She felt as though Zenovia had given her something monumental, something she might not fully understand for some time to come.
"Perhaps tonight," said Zenovia, and her voice was almost gentle, "you may give yourself leave to celebrate all you have overcome. Wear your broken chains around your neck as a badge of honour."
Impulsively, Rose threw her arms about Zenovia's shoulders. Zenovia made a small noise of disgruntlement, but she did not push Rose away. She returned the embrace stiffly and awkwardly, and just when Rose was about to tell herself to come to her senses and let go, Zenovia said quietly, "And Rose?"
Rose released her vise grip, but did not quite let go of Zenovia's arms. Zenovia allowed it. "Yes?"
Zenovia's brow furrowed subtly, and she thought for some time before she spoke again. "Do not feel you must soften the blow of what you have endured for those who inflicted it upon you. Whether you wish to forgive them is your concern, but the burden of their crimes against you is theirs to bear." Zenovia touched Rose's cheek, lightly, with just her fingertips, and somehow her expression became even more severe than it had been before. "If they cannot endure your anger," she said gravely, "they are unworthy of your mercy."
"Maleficent." Konstanze met her gaze icily.
"Konstanze," Maleficent replied in kind. "I see you brought your vermin."
Kinsale stepped on Maleficent's foot pointedly. Konstanze opened her mouth as though to retort, but swallowed whatever she meant to say, glared, and followed after the horde of children she and her sister Eleanore had ushered in before them.
"One would think it needn't be said, but most fairies do not like it when you refer to their children as vermin," Kinsale admonished her, but not very successfully, as amusement still sparked in her eyes.
Maleficent raised her chin defiantly. "You knew what you were courting when you asked me to stand here with you," she replied coolly.
Kinsale's attempt at sternness broke instantly. "I did, at that," she agreed wickedly.
There was a certain comfort in being able to feel cold again. Everything was warm with dragons, warm blood, warm breath, warm thoughts, melting or igniting. Maleficent breathed in the cool mountain air that rushed in when the doors opened and closed, and wished vaguely that she'd been able to appreciate the beauty of this place when she'd lived here a century prior. She hadn't been able to appreciate much of anything then.
Maleficent didn't find most of Kinsale's acquaintances nearly as fascinating as she seemed to, and so she quickly grew bored with their conversations. She whiled away the time until she might escort Briar Rose to her prescribed 'grand entrance' by flexing her freshly-returned ability to shapeshift. She grew her fingernails, sharpened them, rounded them out, clicked them together, traced the places where the scars she'd been accumulating over the past few years had melted away in a matter of days, until it was as though they were never there at all.
Nonmagical creatures did not lose their scars—they kept them as the reminders their minds could not always contain. Maleficent traced the curve of her cheek absently while Kinsale laughed at someone's asinine idea of a joke, even went so far as to paint on the scars that had lingered there.
"Maleficent, you remember Lovenia, I'm sure."
Maleficent allowed the scars to fade away with a sigh. She would remember them, whether or not she wished it.
She focused her attention on the good fairy Kinsale was introducing to her, and realized that she remembered Lovenia because Lovenia had been among the Mountainland Fairies who had almost murdered her over a bit of unfortunate hearsay.
Maleficent glowered. Lovenia seemed somehow to shrink. She muttered something unintelligible before disappearing into the growing crowd.
"You're really a terrible greeter," said Kinsale, with muted delight.
"Am I dismissed yet?" Maleficent raised an eyebrow, hopeful.
Kinsale linked her arm with Maleficent's. "Not a chance, darling. I haven't had this much fun in years."
Though she knew Kinsale would never admit to it if pressed, Maleficent felt her physically tense when Felicity and a handful of her lackeys showed their faces.
"Felicity, darling!" she said, smooth as silk. "I'm so glad you could make it."
Felicity's smile did not reach her eyes. "A great many events have unfolded of late which I'm sure will prove to be...historic," she said sweetly. "I will be very interested to see how this little spectacle of yours fits among them."
Kinsale's smile was razor-sharp. "What is life without a little spectacle, Felicity?"
Felicity's thin smile faltered. "I pray you know where one ends and the other begins," she replied pointedly, then gestured to her companions to follow her, as though issuing a battle command. "Thank you for the invitation, Kinsale," she said, by way of parting words.
Kinsale sighed pleasantly. "I do hope to see her rotting away in a prison cell someday," she said dreamily.
A harsh cough of laughter escaped Maleficent's lungs. "I was thinking more along the lines of burning alive at a stake."
"Pit of vipers?"
"Bed of hot coals."
"Ooh, good one. I'd love to see her dance."
"May I go yet?"
Kinsale hung heavy upon her arm again. "Just a little longer, please? I'll be bored out of my mind without you."
Maleficent leveled her with her most long-suffering look. "Then why invite such insufferable people at all?"
Kinsale tsked and shook her head. "A great many events have unfolded of late that will prove to be historic," she said pointedly. "I intend to count this among them."
Maleficent raised her eyes to the ceiling.
"A show of good faith," said Kinsale more plainly. "Mending relations and all that."
"Good faith," Maleficent echoed derisively. "The only show of good faith I have witnessed thus far was Mistress Zalia being carted away to the Sky Dominion for Chaining a human."
"Yes, well, Felicity never technically did anything wrong," said Kinsale.
"Not to anyone still among the living," Maleficent retorted.
"Kih-aaale!" cried the piping voice of a toddler, and Maleficent flinched. A woman with a softer, rounder version of Zenovia's face materialized, and removed the toddler in question from her hip.
"Why, Astrid!" Kinsale cried, delighted, and scooped the child up into her arms. "I'm so glad you could make it. Do you like parties?"
"Yeah," the child nodded.
"Do you like music?"
And so forth. Maleficent quickly lost interest. "Mistress Elysia, I presume?" she said to the adult, though now that she examined the woman more clearly, there was another little shadow hiding behind her.
"Mistress Maleficent," Elysia guessed. "It's quite an honour, I hear." She dropped her gaze. "Nova, darling, do you want to say hello?"
A little girl with Zenovia's eyes peered out from behind Elysia. She waved shyly. Maleficent waved back awkwardly, surreptitiously stepped on Kinsale's foot.
"Hmm? Oh! Hello, Nova, darling! I didn't even see you! You must take after your great-aunt."
"Speaking of which, Maleficent, why don't you go and find Zenovia? I expect she's up hiding with the guest of honour."
"Gladly," Maleficent drawled as she turned towards the stairs.
Kinsale had made quite the spectacle of Zenovia's foyer. The room looked much bigger than it was, somehow, all bright and glittering and filling up with people. It was curious to see someone so unyielding make so many concessions, and yet a part of Maleficent understood it well. At the moment she had hinged much of her immediate future upon the decisions of another, and generally, she wasn't certain she was adapting very well to waiting around. However, given that her own decision would have been to spend the next century or more endeavouring to outrun her emotions, she had conceded that it might be in her better interest to allow someone else to guide her for a time.
She wondered if perhaps Zenovia felt a similar impulse—the impulse to change, to make monumental decisions, or to allow control to be taken from her, in manageable quantities, in the hopes that the new direction would produce new results.
Elysia and her children seemed happy enough, though Maleficent was no expert in such matters. The invitation to the tropical island Elysia called her own had been extended to Maleficent as well as to Kinsale, but the fact that Maleficent despised children notwithstanding, it had seemed a strangely intimate venture, one Maleficent was loath to intrude upon.
She imagined Rose would have enjoyed the trip far better than she, but there would be no telling how a human sorceress would be received there. Zenovia's ancestors, at least, were not renowned for their tolerance. Maleficent supposed that question might well be answered during the course of this evening.
In any event, there were far worse leads Maleficent could follow. Briar Rose could very well pave a bright path for herself, with the resources and the notoriety she had gained. And Maleficent...
Well. Maleficent was not so very much older than Rose by fairy standards, and yet she felt the weight of every last year upon her shoulders. She remembered in her youth she'd known fairies of one or two hundred who still ran about like overgrown children. She supposed they all must have died by now. If not directly by Sara's hand, then as good as. It was a strange time to be alive, a strange time to have lived through, and the change had not yet had time to set in.
There came a gentle knock upon the door, and Rose's heart stuttered in her chest.
"They found us," Zenovia said dourly.
Rose hazarded a tiny smile in her direction. Zenovia winked.
"Come in," said Rose at last.
Maleficent reentered the room quietly, and Zenovia made a show of sighing heavily.
"I met your great-grand-nieces," said Maleficent flatly.
"They adore Kinsale," Zenovia replied with marked bemusement.
"Something you wouldn't understand in the slightest," said Maleficent.
Zenovia sighed, adjusted the fluttering dove pin on her lapel. "I don't like anyone when I'm being forced to talk to them," she replied crisply before making her way out of the room, closing the door behind her.
Rose had taken to staring at her reflection in the mirror again. She was beginning to understand why Zenovia refused to have anything to do with them. It was strange to see herself, looking so different and yet so very much the same, all at once.
Maleficent appeared over her shoulder. She, too, avoided looking at her own reflection.
"Do you remember," Maleficent began quietly, "when you thought it was an insult to say I'd never had sex with a man?"
Rose's laughter surprised her, intermingled with a mortified groan as her face descended into her hands. "I was just thinking about how much has changed," she said, in the general direction of the floor. "That sums it up well enough."
Maleficent chuckled, almost gently, and ran her fingertips along the curve of Rose's spine. Rose dared to peek out from the cover of her hands to see that Maleficent was smiling at her. She touched her fingertips to Avasina's necklace.
"Did you know that Zenovia was the granddaughter of Avasina?" Rose breathed, still hardly believing it herself. She couldn't believe that Avasina, a name she had associated only with the worst days of her life, had been a living, breathing person.
"I did," she said quietly. "Though, not because she told me."
Rose lay her hand over Maleficent's upon her chest. "It feels...ancient, and heavy. It holds...memory, as well as magic. It's...more than I can understand, I think. But I feel..." she felt a secret smile playing at her lips. "Wear your broken chains like a badge of honour, that's what she said." She looked up into Maleficent's black eyes, so much softer than she'd ever remembered them. "I feel proud to wear it," she said at last.
Maleficent took Rose's face in her hands, cold and long-fingered, and tingling with a magic all their own, at once unknowable and deeply familiar, and she pressed her lips to Rose's forehead. "So you should," she said. "It suits you."
They stood together in silence for another stolen moment. Rose knew well enough that Maleficent had come upstairs to fetch her, and Maleficent surely sensed Rose's hesitation. Rose tried to remember what Maleficent had said to her before, that she'd be what she was no matter what others saw, but now, faced with the reality of what this evening might hold, she felt little more than cold terror in her veins.
"Shall we?" Maleficent urged at last.
Rose was overcome suddenly by another memory—of Kinsale hiding her away in her study when her aunts, all three of them, alive and well and worried about her, had come after her. She remembered the way the surge of emotions had threatened to tear her apart then, the fear and the longing and the uncertainty.
It was a sad memory now. There were so few memories of Aunt Flora that Briar Rose could stand to entertain, and that one stung particularly badly, even in light of all that had followed. At the same time, there was a twisted sort of comfort in its distance.
She did not feel as though she would be torn apart now. She did not feel uncertain of herself, even if the path ahead of her was unclear.
Zenovia had given her a tremendous gift, indeed.
Rose raised her eyes to Maleficent and nodded firmly, and Maleficent led her from the room. They paused just shy of the light streaming into the upstairs hallway, Maleficent's fingertips at Rose's back. "Are you ready?" Maleficent asked her one last time, low and rich, not a breath away from her ear.
Rose leaned into her a moment, soaked in the faint warmth and the comfort of her sturdy presence. She closed her eyes, breathed in, and forgot about the world that awaited her. Whatever happened, whatever people saw, or thought, or said, or did, she would still be herself. And she would still have Maleficent at her side. After all that had transpired, that was...so much more than she ever could have dreamed.
"Ladies and gentlefairies!" Kinsale's voice resounded through the halls, magically amplified.
Rose felt Maleficent's lips against her temple.
"It is my honour to present to you, celebrating her nineteenth nameday and her blossoming sorcery, Mistress Briar Rose!"
Celebrate all you have overcome. Wear your broken chains around your neck as a badge of honour.
Maleficent offered her arm, and Rose leaned heavily upon it as they came into the light and descended the stairs together.
She felt another memory overtaking her, the past burning brighter than the present in her mind's eye, a frightened child just awoken from a cursed sleep, scanning a room full of strangers for something to hold onto. There'd been music then, too, she thought, and no one had announced her because no one had known she was coming, and she had barely understood, herself, only known that she must keep moving forward, must keep grasping onto Phillip's arm, must not fall asleep again.
Just as before, Rose's eyes fell at last upon the face that was like the mirror her friends avoided, the face of her mother, the Queen. Queen Leah stood like a beacon, along with her aunts, her guardians, the ones who had loved her all the days of her life, in whatever way they knew how.
And Briar Rose found that she was happy to see them again. And just that, the ability she found within herself to feel happiness at the sight of them, overwhelmed her with joy, and she smiled at them.
An endless stream of fairies, both wicked and good, appeared to greet her. Most took her hands in theirs and bowed their foreheads against her knuckles. Some wicked fairies did not reach out for her, only folded their hands and bowed their heads solemnly. Rose returned whatever gesture she was offered in kind.
At last she landed upon her Aunt Fauna, who embraced her fondly. "I'm so happy to see you," Rose put voice to her thoughts.
"Oh, me, too, Rosie," said Fauna, and when she pulled away Rose could see that her smile was a tearful one. "We've so much to catch up on, don't we?"
Rose felt tears stinging in her own eyes, but they felt...happy. Light. She nodded. "I'd like that," she said, "very much."
"Who'd have thought," said Merryweather, shaking her head. "Being invited to a wicked fairy party. Ha!"
"Oh, Aunt Merryweather, I meant to—look!" said Rose, and twirled a few times to show off the way the colours of her dress changed from pink to blue and back again.
"Rose..." Merryweather breathed. "You did that? You made that?"
"Well," Rose inclined her head in the direction of Kinsale, all glittering silver and gold as she mingled with her guests, "I had a lot of help, of course."
Merryweather grinned, squeezed Rose's hands, and her wings fluttered and her feet left the ground as she twirled around with Rose. "I love it!" she cried. "I love it, I love it, I love it!"
Rose embraced Aunt Merryweather soundly while they laughed, but the smile faltered upon her lips when she locked eyes with the face like a mirror.
"Rose," said the Queen.
"Oh, it's so wonderful, Rosie!" Merryweather patted her arm. "We'll go mingle and give you a minute to catch up." Merryweather took Fauna's arm and dragged her towards the refreshments.
As she watched them go, Rose saw Joy for the first time all day. She'd chosen trousers and a waistcoat for her formalwear, but the brightness of her tunic suggested Kinsale's interference. Her arm was slung about the shoulders of a wicked fairy whom Rose thought she might be able to identify as Makeda of the Desertlands, both talking excitedly, and spilling punch from their glasses when they laughed.
Rose returned her attention to the Queen. "You can call me Aurora, if you like," she said. "I don't mind."
The Queen smiled sadly. "Whoever you are to me doesn't change who you are to yourself," she echoed words from before, not comprehending the difference.
Another memory—the Queen bound by a spell Rose didn't know—Maleficent had brought her there for Rose to find, for Rose to...
Rose forced a smile, wrung her hands. "Thank you," she said, simply.
They stood in silence a moment too long, each struggling for something to say, and somewhere nearby, one of Kinsale's brothers was saying, "Aw, come on, sis, is this a wicked fairy party or what?"
And Kinsale cried in response, "The punch was already spiked, you idiot!"
Rose stifled a chuckle in spite of herself, and as she hazarded a glance at them, suddenly, she could see it. She could see the wicked fairy children running after one another, and she could see Kinsale and her brothers as children, too. Life, slower and more drawn out than that of humans, but moving forward nonetheless.
The Queen's brow was furrowed. "I was glad of the invitation," she said slowly. "But I confess...I cannot imagine how you feel...at home, here."
It was a strange thing to say, and Rose felt herself bristle instinctively. But she reminded herself to have patience, not to lash out just because she was feeling vulnerable, or awkward. She remembered what Maleficent had said to her—that she would be what she was, no matter what anyone else saw.
She touched her fingertips to her necklace, and remembered the screams of a woman who could not bring herself to feel sympathy. She tried to be better.
"Would...you like me to...introduce you?" she tried, with an awkward shrug.
The Queen's brow furrowed further. "To whom?" she almost...challenged. "To Maleficent?"
Rose shook her head in frustration. "Did you come here to pick a fight?" she wondered, perhaps cruelly, and the Queen's surprise made her feel instantly guilty.
"No!" said the Queen. "Why would you say such a thing?"
Rose steeled herself, closed her eyes a moment to block out all the colour and light and noise. "So much has happened," she said, quietly. "Everyone is here because...well. Most of them are here to make amends. To make a new start. Can't we...put aside...some of the past, just for a little while?"
The Queen regarded her with something like skepticism, but she nodded slowly. "All right," she said quietly. Her gaze fell somewhere over Rose's shoulder, then, "All right," she said again, more firmly.
Just over the Queen's shoulder, Rose could see Mistress Elysia's children leading the children of Mistresses Konstanze and Eleanore into swarming Zenovia, all alight with questions and senseless chatter. Zenovia stared down at them with marked vexation, glanced around the room as though to determine their motives, and caught sight of Rose watching her. She winked, mouthed, now you see me, and waved herself from existence. The children cheered.
Rose laughed along with them, and before she had time to realize what had transpired, the Queen was making her way across the room to where Kinsale and Maleficent stood.
"Kin-saaaaale!" One of the Mountainland Fairies—Euphemia, or something—clapped Kinsale on the shoulder, and pulled her into a strangely aggressive sort of embrace.
"Good to see you, darling," said Kinsale. "I'm glad a few of your comrades can see reason."
"Ugh," she agreed, and ran her hand through her spikey hair. "I love them all to pieces, but they can get their heads lodged so far up their asses sometimes, I swear. Hey, uh..." her attention turned suddenly and sharply to Maleficent, who had been studying the contents of the beverage Kinsale had shoved into her hand. "Speaking of which, no hard feelings, yeah? About almost killing you, I mean. It was all...a pretty horrible misunderstanding."
Maleficent raised her eyes, disbelieving, took a long sip from Kinsale's mystery beverage. "No hard feelings," she echoed, with as little mockery as she could manage.
"Right," said Euphemia. "Well. Enjoy your drink. Anyway, talk later, Kinsale?" Another clap on the shoulder, and then she disappeared quickly into a crowd of good fairies.
"She was trying to apologize," Kinsale whispered.
"And here I thought only the wicked fae were terrible at apologies," Maleficent replied mildly.
Kinsale tutted and shook her head. "Drink your punch and try not to start a brawl," she said, and then her eyes positively lit up. "Oh, here's an excellent chance! That pretty little human is coming over to talk to us!"
Maleficent did not generally indulge in the use of foul language; however, she felt that if ever there were a time for an expletive, it would be this one. "Shit."
Kinsale's voice was heavy with barely-contained laughter. "Come now, be nice to your—what's that human phrase? In-law?"
Now it was Maleficent's turn to step on Kinsale's foot.
"Hello," said Queen Leah.
"Your Majesty!" Kinsale effused, and reached out to take her hands and press her forehead against them. It was an old form of deference most common among the wicked fae. There was something strangely refreshing about seeing it displayed so often this evening. "What an honour that you were able to make it! I hope I didn't deter His Majesty from joining you."
The queen averted her eyes. "No," she said, but there was a small smile upon her lips. Maleficent had met few who were not susceptible to Kinsale's charms. "King Stefan...did not wish to join me, for his own reasons," she finished, cryptically.
"Well, it's his loss, isn't it?" said Kinsale with a charming grin and a wink. "Anyway, I'd best get back to mingling. Let me get you a drink, Majesty!"
"Oh, no, that's—" but the drink had already flown into her hand. "Thank you," she managed, but Kinsale had already orchestrated a hasty exit.
Queen Leah's eyes, the same bright violet-blue of Rose's, fell upon Maleficent.
"Your Majesty," said Maleficent stiffly, with a small bow of her head.
"It's strange to find ourselves here, isn't it?" the Queen wondered.
"I...suppose so, yes. What, if I may ask, were the King's 'own reasons'?" Maleficent wondered.
The Queen lowered her eyes to the drink Kinsale had thrust at her, traced her finger along the rim of the glass idly. "He refused to come into...well, into a wicked fairy's home," she confessed.
"The den of a monster?" Maleficent guessed airily.
Queen Leah didn't answer. "I feel I owe you some sort of apology," she said, instead, still talking into the glass.
A small breath of amusement escaped Maleficent's lungs. "It seems you share that impulse with many others tonight."
Queen Leah turned too-familiar eyes on her once more, as though searching for something in her face. "I'm not sure where to begin," she said sorrowfully.
Maleficent inclined her head contemplatively. "Neither is anyone else," she said.
The Queen averted her eyes once more. "This whole party feels...pointed. Almost vengeful, if I'm speaking plainly. Do you...think it is?"
Were Maleficent another person, she might have indulged in a cold kind of chuckle. As it stood, she merely felt an old irritation prickling at her skin. "Coming from one so spiteful as myself, I hope you will be able to appreciate the gravity of what I am about to say to you: to look upon this glittering assemblage before us and to think of it as merely a ploy to spite you, or a handful of your people, is...remarkably self-indulgent. If I am speaking plainly," she amended, icily.
"How else am I supposed to see such an invitation?" the Queen countered, affronted.
Maleficent shook her head, disbelieving. She was beginning to feel out of her depth, and the sensation did not sit well with her. "As an attempt to make amends?" she waved vaguely. "A friendly gesture? If you look at a celebration of life and see only old wounds, Majesty, then I've no idea why you've ever seen fit to look down upon me." She took a long sip from her drink, finally tasted the alcohol in it, said a silent thanks to Kinsale for small mercies.
"You mean to say that we are the same?" the Queen balked.
Maleficent's eyes fell to the Mountainland Fairies, talking jovially with Kinsale and her brothers across the room. No hard feelings. She contemplated Queen Leah, weak-willed, a slave to the world she had grown up in, who had asked for Maleficent's help and then been unable to muster the courage to pay her price.
No hard feelings.
She scanned the room once more until her eyes found pink and blue swirling in and out of one another. Briar Rose was talking happily with Mistresses Fauna and Merryweather, introducing them to Kinsale's brother Velan, of all people.
I will try, she had promised. She closed her eyes. "It is strange to find ourselves here, yes," she said at last. "But perhaps for the moment, rather than attempting to tear apart every obvious flaw, we might endeavour to...enjoy it." She frowned to herself, scanned the room once more, thoughtfully. "For whatever time it lasts," she amended quietly, speaking far more to herself than to the Queen.
Briar Rose caught her eye from across the room, left momentarily unattended by her good fairy guardians, and Maleficent jumped at the opportunity to excuse herself. She had endured five minutes more idle chatter than she ever would have dreamed. That was quite enough trying, as far as she was concerned.
"Hey, hey!" Joy was yelling over the din of the crowd, and she was gesturing excitedly to the band, stretching her arms like she was going to fight. The fairies holding strange instruments grinned and nodded at her, and one of them produced a musical score proudly. She waved her hand in a pattern, and the others grabbed eagerly at the magical copies that appeared.
Joy turned and waved her hands at the room. "Hey, everyone! Who remembers this one?"
The band erupted into a vivacious song, strange and otherworldly as anything fairies ever played, and Joy threw herself into a dance that was truly bizarre to witness. She sashayed across the floor, slapping her knees and clapping her hands in time with the lively music, jumped in the air, spun around a few times, and eventually repeated the pattern. Some of the guests started laughing uproariously, or clapping along, and they all dispersed to make room for Joy.
"Hell's sake, that's so old, Joy!" someone cried, and she responded with an obscene hand gesture as she spun around in the air and moved her dance in Kinsale's direction.
"Come on, Kinsale, you know you want to!" she cried as she approached, and Kinsale hopped excitedly, gathered up her skirt, and joined in with a skillful twirl to start the next round of the strange pattern.
Everyone watched, and clapped, and laughed, and some even bounced along, and after another round, a few more brave souls joined in the strange dance. Rose leaned in, fascinated, and then chanced a glance up at Maleficent, who was watching them almost solemnly.
"An old...wicked fairy dance?" she guessed.
Maleficent regarded her as though surprised to see her still standing there. "Very old," she drawled.
Rose twisted her fingers in the shimmering fabric of her skirt. "It...looks fun," she said, averting her gaze back to the ever-growing array of enthusiastic dancers.
Kinsale had stopped to teach the dance to her terrifying Mountainland Fairy friends, and Joy was across the floor tugging at Zenovia's arm as though she had any chance of moving her with physical force. Fauna and Merryweather were huddled up against the wall with a group of good fairies who appeared to have no intention of joining in, but the Queen, to Rose's immense surprise, was leaning in with interest just as Rose was.
She felt Maleficent's hand upon her back, nudging her forward, but a peculiar kind of anxiety twisted her stomach, and she shook her head. "No, I don't...I couldn't. I mean."
"What's stopping you?" Maleficent wondered.
Another old memory, or perhaps several, all intermingled and bleeding into one another. Dancing alone in the woods and dreaming a handsome prince would come and dance with her. Dancing with the mysterious stranger and getting all caught up trying to follow the practiced pattern of his feet. Being Chained and forgetting all she'd ever known of music, not being able to produce a simple melody, remember a string of words. Singing wordlessly to the birds outside the Sea Kingdom just to prove she could, that she was still alive, that she had not been broken irreparably.
Wear your broken chains around your neck like a badge of honour.
Rose's pleading look rather abruptly turned mischievous. "What's stopping you?" she countered.
"I don't dance," she replied crisply.
Rose raised her chin. "I think you do," she dared.
Maleficent's eyes narrowed. "Oh? And what makes you think such a thing?"
The band came to the end of the song, and a handful of revelers cried out in a chorus, "Again, again!" They all hurriedly flipped back to the beginning in their scores to start afresh, and everyone cheered, and started up dancing right away. The dance looked absurd when just one person was throwing herself about, but when a whole room full of fairies imbued with otherworldly grace threw themselves about together, it was marvelous to behold.
At the edge of the room, Kinsale approached Zenovia with hands clasped behind her back and a sway in her hips. Zenovia regarded her coolly for a moment, but then Kinsale leaned in and said something, and Zenovia's face broke into a full grin, and she laughed, audibly, shook her head in disbelief, and allowed herself to be pulled into the dance, grinning widely at Kinsale the whole way.
"I think you want to dance, too," said Rose as she watched them hop wildly across the floor together.
"Perhaps," Maleficent conceded. "A bit later." She pressed lightly upon Rose's back again. "Go. Joy will teach you." Rose shot one last hopeful glance in Maleficent's direction, but Maleficent inclined her head and added, "And take your mother with you. She's depressing me."'
Rose's eyes fell to the Queen once more, still leaning in like she wanted to join, wanted to reach out, but something was stopping her, forever holding her back.
Rose squeezed Maleficent's arm before she rushed forward into the fray, grabbing the Queen's hand as she went and waving wildly at Joy.
Joy let go of Makeda's hands with a flourish and waved them over, delight so much more fitting upon her features than the usual exhausted melancholy. She greeted the Queen the way the other wicked fairies had greeted Rose, by taking her hands and bowing low to press her forehead into them.
Then, in stark contrast to such a show of deference, she waved her hands in the general direction of her thighs. "Now, get a good hold on those damned skirts of yours, ladies," she called over the music. "I don't want any fragile humans breaking their ankles!"
She taught them the most basic steps, which felt as awkward and silly as they'd looked at first, and then, without so much as a word of affirmation, she shoved them both into the center of the floor. Mistress Elysia faltered a moment, looked at them sharply as they approached, but after she'd watched them attempt the wicked fairy dance for a few seconds, she inclined her head thoughtfully and nodded, as though to herself, and suddenly the family resemblance to Zenovia was much easier to spot.
"One more time!" Joy cried to the band.
"One more time, one more time!" the crowd cheered. Rose could see the fairies in the band laughing as they flipped through their music. A couple switched out their instruments, and when the tune started up again, there were new tones, impossible to describe in human terms, and the whole piece took on a new life, like the music was dancing along with them.
They jumped and twirled, jumped and twirled, ran around one another and wove in and out in lines, and as they passed, the wicked fairies who recognized them whooped and pumped their fists in approval. The Queen smiled at them, small and subdued, but real, and Rose realized suddenly that the Queen looked happier, and more alive, than she ever had, in the entirety of Rose's acquaintance with her.
Across the way, Joy had linked arms with Zenovia, and they traced some complicated pattern of their own together, something that felt as ancient as the necklace Zenovia had offered.
They jumped and twirled, jumped and twirled, and as the music drew to a properly dramatic finish, they all collapsed, or doubled over, panting and sweating and smiling and laughing, good fairies and wicked fairies and humans, all together.
"Kinsale, Kinsale!" someone in the band was whispering, but loud enough for the whole room to hear. Rose looked over to see Kinsale, glistening all over, being handed some new strange instrument and ushered to a seat with a score.
She was laughing, waving them off, as she situated her instrument and her music to her liking, and then she began to play, and the room went silent but for her song.
Rose realized, slowly, that she thought she knew the song. It was like an echo of something she'd once heard, a tune she used to sing to herself, a waltz and a lullaby and a relic from a life she'd hardly had the time to know, augmented by whatever mystical quality made a harplike contraption sound like the distant calling of some ancient spirit whenever it sounded.
I know you, I walked with you once upon a...
The crowd began to fall away around Briar Rose, and she was stricken by a peculiar chill in the air, somewhere around her shoulders. She turned to see only Maleficent, parting the sea of people as though by magic, eclipsing everything around herself as she made her way to the center of the room.
"Her Excellency," said Maleficent, quietly, but crystal-clear above only the music Kinsale played, "has requested a dance." She offered her hand.
Rose felt her hands clench into fists in the fabric of her skirt. She felt every eye in the room shift suddenly from Maleficent to her, and she realized, belatedly, that her Excellency referred to her, to Briar Rose.
Rose's fingertips found their way to the necklace then, for some strange kind of comfort, or guidance, or for a warning, but instead of Avasina's memories, she felt only her own. She remembered footsteps on stairs in a winding tower, a mysterious shadow that wanted her dead, a mysterious shadow in chains who only wanted to live, who offered Briar Rose her freedom in return.
She remembered fear, and confusion, and a mind always sluggish and hazy as she struggled to take in the newfound breadth of the world around her. She remembered an enigmatic woman who showed her a dragon, who showed her magic, who showed her fragments of a life so far removed from anything Rose had ever known that it was endlessly overwhelming. She remembered struggling to read Mistress Joy, humans are forgetful in their transience, Kinsale's razor-sharp smile and how she'd had no choice but to trust it.
She remembered a hand, reaching, longing to reach out, and a hand, clenching, a woman, towering over her, meaning to frighten, to intimidate. She remembered a feeling of foolish helplessness. How could she ever have hoped to grasp at these fragments she had been shown?
She remembered wrists bound and wrists breaking. She remembered faces, people she wanted to love, looking upon her with nothing but dutiful pity, refusing to help her, refusing to understand. She remembered the dearth of music and of magic where they had always been, so much a part of herself that she had hardly known what to miss when they had been rent from the very marrow of her bones, so much a part of her that of course her bones would break from the absence of them.
She remembered darkness. Utter hollowness. Blood. Certainty.
In the present, she felt her feet moving forward, slowly, stuck out of time, and her hand outstretched even as one remained steadfastly at the necklace of Avasina. She saw only Maleficent, eyes all at once dark like the night and bright like a beacon, the only thing driving her onward, the only thing keeping her afloat.
In her memory she saw Maleficent half-dead in the room they'd shared in Zenovia's tiny fortress, a hovel compared to this place she called her home. She saw Zenovia as she had seen her then, impossible, infinite, tall and hulking and severe and offering to help. She saw Maleficent, smaller, diminished, a shadow of herself, and remembered the warmth, the closeness, the desperation when Maleficent begged her to turn away from these fragments of life she had been offered.
She remembered...horror, ancient and recent, centuries-old wounds and ones still fresh and aching. Intermingled with a wicked fairy's consciousness, it was as though the very air screamed around her, all torn apart with the garish colours of battle magic. Horror after horror flashed before her eyes, some horrors hers and others Avasina's—an emaciated child with Zenovia's eyes wielding a staff, a middle-aged good fairy screaming as she was rent to pieces by a spell its caster did not understand, a thousand chains or more, each one broken, each one added to a necklace, to be worn as a badge of honour, but each one demanding a piece of her as payment for her freedom, a woman with a face like a mirror begging her to turn her back on these fragments of life she could not begin to grasp at, telling her it wasn't too late, telling her there was still time.
Her vision blurred in and out of reality—saw Maleficent in darkfinery reaching out to her for a dance and Maleficent with the wild eyes of a dragon, allowing herself to be taken down. She felt the fury, the loathing, the heartbreak, the guilt, as though they were new.
Footsteps on stairs in a winding tower, a mysterious shadow that wanted her dead, but she'd hardly had a life to speak of. Footsteps on stairs leading down, an enigmatic woman in chains whom she loved desperately, who had forgotten what it was to live, who had forgotten why it mattered.
In the present, Rose's hand found Maleficent's. Maleficent's lips quirked upward in a secret smile. She curtseyed low and pressed her forehead against Rose's proffered hand. Rose curtseyed in kind, felt a small smile of her own taking shape, felt the tiniest flicker of hope taking shape within her heart.
"I'm...not sure I remember how," Rose faltered, turning wide, searching eyes upon Maleficent. "I'm not sure I ever knew." She didn't know how to explain, how it had been so long since she had danced like this, and how that felt more like a distant dream than a memory.
"There is no shame in that," said Maleficent. "So much has transpired, and you have emerged from the wreckage all new. What matters now," she rested a hand upon Rose's waist, moved in closer, "is that you wish to try."
And after a few seconds, Rose forgot all about the steps and struggling to follow them. She allowed her feet to fall where they might, allowed Maleficent to carry them both with that otherworldly fairy's grace of which Rose possessed only a fraction. She allowed the faces of the crowd watching them to fade away, allowed herself to imagine that they were dancing on air, that they were dancing among the stars or among clouds.
Beyond the realm of her perception, others joined in the dance. Joy coerced Zenovia into dancing with her, the two Mountainland Fairies joined in with fluttering wings to carry them, and Kinsale's brother Velan came sort of shuffling over to Merryweather and asked her, with no small amount of awkwardness, if she might like to dance. Merryweather's first response was one of somewhat rude surprise, but Fauna nudged her gently, and Merryweather considered Velan a moment with skeptical eyes before she frowned, nodded sternly, and offered her hand.
Fauna and Leah stood at the sidelines, watching the bizarre configurations of good and wicked fairies spinning across the floor, each avoiding looking at the two who danced in the center of it all. Their eyes fell to Mistress Kinsale, who was still happily plucking at her stringed contraption, adding in flourishs that soared like a song from the heavens, while the fairies who had been in the band took up dancing, themselves, and scanned back over to Merryweather and Velan, who were at the very least smiling amicably as they fumbled through the steps of the waltz.
There was a flash of blue, pink, blue as Maleficent led Briar Rose in a sweeping turn beneath her arm, and when Rose moved into Maleficent, Maleficent was smiling so brightly it wrinkled her prominent hooked nose and dimpled her gaunt cheeks. Rose threw her arms about Maleficent's neck and pulled her down for a kiss before they spun into the waltz once more.
Fauna clasped a hand over her mouth to stifle a sudden sob.
"Why, Fauna, dear," Queen Leah touched her arm. "What's the matter?"
"Oh," she breathed tearfully, shook her head as she watched them, her little Rose and the fairy she loved, who, in spite of everything, was trying to love her, "it's nothing, really. I just..."
The waltz ended with a flourish, and the dancers broke apart all smiling at one another, laughing or holding hands or clapping, or crying out, "One more, one more!"
One of the Mountainland Fairies tapped Kinsale excitedly, produced some strange instrument of her own from thin air, and shoved Kinsale in the general direction of the dance floor, where Mistress Zenovia held out a hand to her. The hulking good fairy with the spikey hair played a different tune, something darker and richer. Zenovia and Kinsale danced like they'd done it a thousand times before, like they knew one another inside and out, and each anticipated the other's movements so flawlessly that they pulled off turns and flourishes and rapid changes that baffled the senses of the casual observer.
Kinsale's eldest brother, Nicodemus, was busy attempting to cajole Joy into dancing with him, and though she made a great show of exasperation, she relented with a smirk, and they tore across the room like a natural disaster.
Rose stood on Maleficent's feet as they danced, so Maleficent could lead her in the steps. For the most part, she watched with rapt attention to pick up the movements, but there was an instant where they both paused, eyes locked, and shared a smile all their own, before they fell into step with the other dancers, a twirl of purple and black and blue and pink and green and gold.
"I just...love happy endings," Fauna breathed at last, so quietly she doubted the Queen could hear her over the soaring music. In her mind, she imagined Flora standing next to her, looking faintly scandalized at the way things had turned out, but conceding to happiness in spite of it all.
Yes, she'd say, patting Fauna's arm. I do, too—oh! Blue. What a ghastly colour.
As though in response, Briar Rose twirled under Maleficent's arm, and her dress flashed from blue to pink and back again.