Exclusive Sneak Preview of Crown of Darkness!
Here’s a preview of Chapter 1 of my upcoming fae book, Crown of Darkness, a prequel to my Dark Elemental Courts series. I hope it whets your appetite for the series!
When is a home not a home? When it’s a prison. I live in a richly furnished palace, have servants to fulfill my every wish, a wardrobe full of bejeweled garments made from the finest cloth and any number of fae or mortal women to warm my bed, but none of these things make a place feel like home.
Home is a place where you belong.
Wan sunlight bathes my face as I blink, then open my eyes. A dull pounding in my head reminds me of the two bottles of honey wine I’d drunk last night. Or perhaps it had been three. Who’s counting?
“Good day, Prince Ciaran. Your father wishes to see you in the throne room as soon as you’ve broken your fast.” Knol, my manservant, folds back a second pair of shutters. Cold light floods the room. “He suggested you eat quickly. And you have a letter from Lady Aerin.” His tone suggests that this is something I should be excited about.
A summons from my father and a message from Aerin. It’s not yet evening and already today is shaping up to be a bad day. I groan and let my head fall back onto the pillow. It’s not the alcohol in the wine that causes my head to throb, but the sugar. A sugar hangover. Another reason to envy the pure-blood fae—they can lap up all the nectar they want and not feel a thing.
“Please, Your Highness.” Knol’s hooves clatter across the stone floor as he crosses to my bed and holds up a black silk robe. He has that fidgety manner he gets when he’s nervous. Father must be eager to see me.
That is unusual enough to make me sit up and grab the proffered robe. Tying it around me, I stride over to the tall narrow doors that lead out to the balcony and thrust them open. The late afternoon air makes my breath freeze in my throat. After all these years, you’d think I’d be immune to the cold, but the frigid stone numbs my bare feet and underneath my thin robe, the hairs on my arms rise in protest.
The Unseelie palace rises from a rocky basalt mound standing at the center of a wide valley. At the head of the valley, hills rise into towering mountains with jagged peaks. My room faces the other direction—out across vast forests and plains that eventually lead to the sea. The entire landscape is painted in shades of white.
In the Unseelie realm, it is always winter.
Back in my bedchamber, Knol has already laid out clothes on the bed—a shirt made from the finest spider silk and pants to match. Walking over to the chest at the foot of my bed, I pull out a set of plainer, warmer clothes.
“But Your Highness…” he protests.
I silence him with a look. “I’m sure my father won’t need me for too long. After I’ve seen him, I’ll ride out. It’s been five days since I left the palace.”
Knol opens his mouth to protest again, then closes it as a loud rap sounds on the door. He hurries over as I quickly dress and turn to the food laid out on the sideboard. The dishes have already been nibbled at. First by Knol, then by one of my guards—just in case Knol decides to poison me—and finally by the human servant girl who sweeps my room, to check for anything that might target the mortal part of me.
My father is a cautious man, but he has to be. As he keeps reminding me, we have many enemies.
The dark, honey-dipped berries remind me too much of last night’s wine, so I grab a cream-filled wheat cake and stuff it in my mouth.
Someone clears their throat. I turn and catch a tall, dour-faced fae staring at me in disapproval. The cream sours in my mouth. If Father has sent Tynan to fetch me then I really am late.
“Prince Ciaran, your father is waiting.”
“I’m coming.” I shove the rest of the wheat cake into my mouth, chewing as I hastily laced up my tall hunting boots.
Tynan turns to the satyr bobbing nervously beside him. “Knol, I trusted you to make sure his highness was appropriately attired for the throne room.” He waves a hand vaguely in my direction. “What is… this?”
Knol’s knees begin to wobble.
I swallow quickly. “He laid out clothes for me to wear but I’m going riding after Father’s finished with me, so I figured I might as well dress for that. I’m sure we don’t want to keep him waiting any longer while I change.”
Tynan shoots an arm out as I move toward the door. “The crown?”
My gaze slides to the mirror on the wall and the dressing table underneath that contains the crown of the Unseelie Prince.
“Your father will be displeased if you do not wear it.”
I give him a pointed look, then glance down at his arm. He may be my father’s personal secretary but that does not give him the right to order me around. Still, my father will be annoyed that I’m late. Refusing to wear the crown will only anger him further.
I wait for Tynan to drop his arm, then turn and walk over to the dressing table, catching sight of myself in the mirror. The baby face I had when I was brought here from the mortal world has long gone, but there’s still a softness in my cheekbones and the line of my jaw that marks me out as not being pure-blood fae. My hair, black as the obsidian crown that awaits me, was inherited from my father, but my brown eyes, tinted with green, come from my mother.
Six years I had with her. Six years never knowing that I was any different from the human children I played with. Six years of love and kindness.
Remember, Ciaran, that light can shine in the darkest of places. Never forget who you are or who you want to be.
Two nights ago, I awoke from the strongest vision I’ve had yet, still able to feel the heat of her blood on my hands, the stickiness between my fingers. Mortal blood is thicker than fae blood and bright red. Once, I cut myself to see what color I bled. Then, my blood was red.
I have not dared cut myself for many years.
“The crown, Prince Ciaran.”
Tynan startles me from my thoughts. My hand tightens on the drawer handle, delaying the inevitable for as long as possible. The crown whispers to me through the ancient wood of the dresser, speaking of power and truth, honor and justice. The drawer slides open smoothly on well-oiled rails. Inside, on a bed of purple silk lies the crown of the heir to the Unseelie throne. Woven from the purest obsidian in the deepest fires of the Earth, it is smooth, sinuous, beautiful. A crown fit for a fae prince.
Never forget who you want to be.
I slam the drawer shut and turn. “Not today,” I say, striding past Knol and Tynan and out through the door before they can call me back. The crown represents power, respect—everything I should want. But there is a darkness to it that scares me. A sense that it is more than just a molded piece of glass. It sounds crazy even to think of it, but deep inside, it feels like it wants to possess me. I already have to put up with my father controlling my life. I’m not going to have a stupid piece of glass tell me what to do too.
The wheat cake sits heavy in my stomach, last night’s wine still thick in my head as I stride through the palace. Servants, some human, some fae, scurry out of my path.
My rooms are in the south wing, the opposite side to the throne room and formal meeting rooms. Rather than taking the circuitous, indoor route, I cross the inner courtyard, a vast area of gardens, training grounds and stables. My breath fogs in the air, the icy wind sharpening my mind. Behind me, Tynan curses as his thin slippers soak up the damp from the ground, and a spiteful stab of satisfaction settles in my stomach.
The carved blackwood doors to the throne room are open, the daily dose of petitioners filing out after pledging their grievances or requests to the king. Only a small group remains congregated around the throne as I stride across the room. My father does not look up as I approach. The crown of the high king sits on his head, a taller, more ornate version of the crown that lies in the drawer in my chamber.
“By the power invested in me as the High King of the Unseelie, I accept your fealty and the fealty of the Court of Lightning. You have committed yourself to the Unseelie realm and will have the protection of the land, air and waters and all who dwell here. May your nights be long and prosperous.”
The king touches the tip of the ceremonial hazel wand of the Unseelie king to each shoulder of the fae knelt in front of him. The Court of Lightning is a low court, so their leader is a lord, not a king. A tall, emaciated-looking figure with skin the color of dying embers and a shock of white hair that stands on end, he looks uncomfortable, his body folded and contorted as he debases himself in front of my father. It is a relief when he and his courtiers are finally permitted to rise and shuffle past me out of the room. It makes my stomach curdle seeing them prostrate themselves in front of him, begging for favors. My father loves it. It makes him feel powerful.
I wait until the last the courtiers departs the room before approaching the throne. Halting five paces away, I incline my upper body the appropriate distance. “Your Majesty.”
“Ciaran.” As always, his voice is flat and disinterested. “Why are you dressed like a human peasant? And where is your crown?”
“I intend to go riding, Father. Unless you need me…”
I don’t know why I bait him like this. Wearing mortal clothes, asking questions to which I already know the answer. Of course he doesn’t need me. Though I attend council meetings when ordered, I am never asked for my opinion, never invited to contribute to the conversation. Fae politics is a game, played out in half-truths, secret bargains and unearned flattery. It’s not a game I enjoy playing.
“Ciaran, you must wear the crown.”
“Why? So you can control my life even more?”
“You need it to unlock your full power.” A flicker of irritation enters his voice and I am surprised at the dark satisfaction that flows through me at this small display of emotion from him. “War is coming and you must be ready.”
Always the same speech. I have spent decades preparing for a war that always seems to be just around the corner but never materializes. I straighten my shoulders and meet his gaze. “I am ready, Father.”
He regards me coolly. “No. You are not.”
And just like that, shame crawls into my belly, setting up home like an unwanted and unasked for guest.
I hate that I so desperately want his approval. I hate that I want him to love me, even though I know he cannot. I hate that every time I look in the mirror, I see him. Though my eyes are my mother’s, and my skin is a shade lighter than his—the warm brown of earth baked by the sun rather than the deep brown of rain-soaked soil—in every other way I am my father’s image. A fae of the Deep Earth Court through and through.
Most of all, I hate the mortal weakness inside me that craves his acceptance while at the same time, tempts me to reject the person he wants me to be.
The High King of the Unseelie taps his fingers on the arms of the obsidian throne, waiting for me to respond.
But I have no words. Stood in front of him, I see myself through his eyes. Small and insignificant. Not worthy of the title of Prince of the Unseelie. Not worthy to fight at his side. Not worthy to be his only son and heir.
“Renwick tells me that you have been skipping your lessons.” Taking my silence as confirmation, he sighs. “Come with me.”
I follow him over to the tall window at the head of the throne room that frames the icy mountain peaks.
“When you were born, the Fates foretold that you would be the greatest high king the Unseelie has ever known. For that reason, I sought no other mate and took women to my bed for pleasure alone rather than to conceive another child. I put too much faith in a prophecy, choosing to forget that the Fates are even wilier with their words than we are. I put too much faith in you.” He turns to look at me. “The time of waiting is over, Ciaran. For too long, I have been patient and waited for you to accept your power and your position.”
His words rush through me, my mind still frozen on his first sentence. The greatest high king the Unseelie has ever known?
“If you continue to flaunt me, to deliberately suppress your power, to act like a child, then I will be forced to choose another heir. You have until Samhain.”
“You have until Samhain.” He flicks his fingers in dismissal. “Go to the Lady Aerin’s revel tonight. We need a stronger alliance with the Lunar Court and her mother is open to a match between the two of you. Sylphs are flighty and quick to take offense. See that you stay on her good side.”
I open my mouth, but a cough from behind makes me turn. Tynan stands a respectful distance away. “Your Majesty, the ambassador from the Shadow Court has arrived. I have shown him into the antechamber as you requested.”
Is it my imagination or do my father’s fingers tighten momentarily on the hazel wand? I frown. Having been forced to memorize the names and faces of all the ambassadors to the Unseelie Court, I know there is no Shadow Court ambassador among them. I didn’t even know such a court existed.
My father sweeps from the room, Tynan following hard on his heels, leaving me alone. Turning back to the window, I press my fingertips to the glass and stare out at the snow-covered landscape, letting the cold flow through me. Always, I seem to have more questions than answers.
I will be forced to choose another heir.
I have always known I am a disappointment to my father. Though he had no choice but to take a mortal woman to conceive an heir after burning through a host of fae mates, he has always despised my mortal blood. He thinks it makes me weak. And perhaps it does. I am not cruel enough, not smart enough, not wily enough for a fae.
But the thought that he would take another heir had never crossed my mind. If he did, what would that mean for me? Would I be banished from the court? Perhaps I’d be sent to the border patrols, guarding the wall between the Seelie and Unseelie realms. That wouldn’t be so bad. At least I’d be able to put my training to some use. Or I could go to live in the mortal realm. A spark of excitement flares inside me. I’d be able to choose what to do with my life. Take control of my destiny.
But I know I am being too hopeful. Though they may be named heir, a new prince would see me as a threat to their position. A threat that must be eliminated.
The veiled message behind my father’s words was clear. It’s not just my future that’s on the line—it’s my life.
He has given me one more chance to prove myself. I try not to focus on the fact that Samhain is only seven days away.
Turning from the window, I walk over to the throne and run a finger down the carved obsidian arm, pricking my finger on one of the razor-sharp thorns. A drop of dark red blood wells up.
The Unseelie Court is a place full of questions.
It is time to get some answers.
(c) Alison Ingleby 2020.