Psst: I wrote this listening to this song. Enjoy.)
Aiden smiled. “What can I do for you, my friend?” he said, and waggled a finger. “Be sure, it will cost you.”
No, it wouldn’t.
Aiden was six when it happened. When the Scepter devoured his uncle and left a leaking, jagged-edged husk in his place.
Before that happened, he’d had it all figured out. Young Fey may have young bodies, but Aiden was precocious. His parents had already grown weary of his machinations and unending energy.
Silly people. It wasn’t his fault he was super-interesting.
Aiden gathered attention like other children gathered flowers, collecting gazes and categorizing them in his own special and juvenile way:
There were amazed people whose dull and dreary dreams were shaken into brightness by his intelligence, his eloquence, his overwhelming cuteness.
There were happy people who believed that life spewed beauty, and who gathered Aiden’s overflowing joyfulness to themselves with cheerful expectation.
There were sick people who saw his silly golden light and wanted to take his magic or his skin or his body or his soul, and use them to feed their own desires in some terrible way. He stayed away from sick people.
Lastly – most importantly – there were gray people. Gray people survived wrapped in an invisible protection of coldness. No matter what came their way – whether funny or angry or scary – they stayed gray, responding to any new thing with mild irritation as if it rubbed too hard and caused redness and itching. Gray people never laughed. They never got his jokes. They never understood when he broke with expected patterns.
Gray people loved words like inappropriate and overdone and quiet time. Uncle Jaden was one of those, and it was too bad for him. Aiden loved being inappropriate and found quiet time a waste of existence.
Uncle Jaden’s single eyebrow-twitch was about the best Aiden could get out of him, but it was worth the effort. It seemed so boring, so dull; it also seemed oddly safe – Jaden never cried, never got angry, and fascinated Aiden with his even temperament.
Then the Scepter changed hands in Aiden’s sixth year, and that’s when Aiden realized being gray was no protection after all.
Even before Jaden was swallowed by the Scepter, Aiden hated it. The Scepter leaked power like low radiation, spilled, sloppy, too hot, and ignoring ordinary boundaries like spreading ink.
The Scepter was the heart of the Seelie world. It swallowed and channeled everyone’s magic, and it was important; it was the reason they were safe, and the reason they were powerful. Regardless, adults hated the Scepter, too, even if they said otherwise.
Adults lied a lot.
Their reactions could be categorized, too. Amazed hearts transmuted into horrified wonder, half-paralysed and half-keen. Happy hearts turned wary as smiles faded. Sick hearts changed focus to their own safety, becoming even more dangerous. But gray people bothered Aiden the most here. Why? Because nothing in them seemed to change at all.
And they should. They should change with that strangeness, swirling around gray people like food coloring in whipped cream, but it left them uncolored. The Scepter’s power penetrated, poking tendrils of self into everything and everyone, but gray people did not change.
Until that day.
Queen Liana had held the Scepter for three hundred years, and it had aged her too soon. It hardened her skin until terrifying granite-gray peeked above her collar and out from the ends of her sleeves. She was far too young to die, but everyone knew she would, anyway. Not that they told Aiden this, but he knew. He was young, not stupid. Soon, she’d choose a new heir, and everyone expected it to be someone from the Cluster, the elite military leadership of the Silver Dawning. Those folks were brilliant, disciplined, detail-oriented, and utterly loyal to the cause of the Seelie people.
But then Liana chose Jaden.
She pointed to him, calling his name so that it leaped up to the high, vaulted ceiling as if trying to escape, and Jaden – gray, imperturbable Jaden – went pale and stiff as if he’d already turned to stone.
There was no arguing, no escaping. There were questions; why him? Why would the Scepter choose someone so… ordinary? He was no politician. He worked as a jewel expert, cleaning and carving them, setting and selling them. He kept his head down, attended to his business, and gave very tiny sapphires to his nieces and nephews to play with.
On the day uncle Jaden was sworn in, the day the Scepter devoured uncle Jaden whole, Aiden found out why.
There was singing, instruments, lots of fuss and firecrackers, lighting up the black stone of the throne room like Aiden had never seen before. He ignored his mother’s hand, craning his neck to see all the colors and lights, and almost missed the hand-off.
There were words. Fancy words. Then Liana handed Jaden the Scepter.
Jaden’s soft gray eyes cracked and blazed with orange light, and the sound of his scream carried over the singing and cheering. Liana – the very moment she let go – staggered backward, aging so fast it was a bad dream, going white like stone, hardening so quickly that before anyone could help her, she fell and shattered on the floor.
Aiden screamed, but that sound was lost, too.
Somehow, Jaden stayed on his feet. He swayed and staggered and gasped, but made his staggering way to the throne, where he sat like a sack of wheat, the freaky orange light peeking through the cracks in his irises – and then he looked at Aiden.
But it wasn’t Jaden. It was the Scepter, looking through Jaden’s eyes, and as it did, something invisible and cold touched Aiden’s skin.
You, came the whisper.
Aiden panicked. Fanfare played, and Aiden’s parents tried to quiet his sobs, but who would listen to the scared ramblings of an imaginative boy? In Jaden’s hands, the Scepter seemed strangely renewed, a black and gold bar with a ball on the end of it, heavy-looking but nothing compared to the weight it actually carried. The magic of the entire Seelie Fey world ravaged through uncle Jaden’s veins, and no one wondered at his shaking.
And whatever lived in it wanted Aiden. That shattered, cracked, jagged-edged Scepter would come for him, and in a sudden cold flash, Aiden understood: Liana was dying; Aiden himself was too young; but by taking Jaden, it put Aiden squarely next in line.
The Scepter would have him. There was nothing he could do.
“You’re the king’s heir, you know,” some idiot told Aiden at the afterparty, drunk on moonlight, and laughed as if that was a good thing.
They didn’t stop, those invisible tendrils reaching under Aiden’s clothes to touch his skin, cold and terrible.
So Aiden ran away.
Technically, he didn’t run away, but for anyone who was watching, yes, he’d run.
He did whatever he wanted. He distracted himself from that cold, unseen touch with many willing warm ones. He became the life of the party, generous to a fault with everything, including himself; his presence guaranteed a good time, and above all, he strove to never be alone.
His handlers and body-guards never stopped him. They knew what was coming, and they pitied him enough to let him do as he pleased.
Aiden befriended the happy and the amazed (and yes, a few sick, because life shouldn’t be dull). He cheered the gray and made connections with any who would welcome him, no matter what world, no matter what People, and he laughed and smiled and seduced and told no one that his future lay in the sucking hungry endlessness of the Scepter’s broken soul.
Becoming a broker of favors was a natural step; he knew everyone, kept secrets, understood what buttons to push and ropes to tug.
The Scepter, he thought one dreary morning before his fellow partiers woke up, knew what it was doing. Aiden had a gift. Less than two centuries old, he held true power beyond the Silver Dawning’s confines: a Fey with connections in all worlds, to all people, with the power to tug strings and control entire countries.
He’d gone beyond super-interesting. Now, he was valuable.
No wonder it wanted him.
Revenge was impossible; what could Aiden do against power like that? Against an object, alive, bound to the magic of all the Seelie Fey? But there were some things he could do. He could deprive the thing, rob it, steal what it coveted. So he lived harder, traded more, and left his mark and his lips and his fingerprints on everyone and everything in his wake. He earned and gained and bargained, until nearly the whole world owed him much, until the unseen touch of the Scepter’s magic seemed to twitch in hungry anticipation.
And Aiden made sure it would all count for naught.
It was written down, signed with his own blood, inviolable. The day he took the Scepter, all debts would be forgiven. All secrets would be returned to their owners. All treasures distributed as he saw fit while he was still his own self. The Scepter wanted him? The Scepter would have him… but not anything that he owned. He’d use himself up. Give everything away. When the Scepter came for him, it would get a weary, world-worn husk, and that was all.
He would do this.
Meanwhile, Jaden slipped. His wholeness faded, and his gray eyes bloomed more bright orange cracks as time went on, as though lava surged in his soul. But he hung on, fought on, refused to die quickly, long past the point when Aiden was old enough.
Jaden fought for him, and they both knew, and neither of them ever spoke this out loud.
And so, Aiden smiled. “What can I do for you, my friend?” he said, and waggled a finger. “Be sure, it will cost you.”
No, It wouldn’t.