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.
At the age of Six, Aiden had it all figured out.
Aiden was precocious, said his teachers. His parents said he was a handful, which was just silly. Aiden wasn’t a handful. He was determined. He even had a quest.
That quest was to make his uncle Jaden laugh.
Jaden never laughed. He responded to any new thing with mild irritation as if it rubbed too hard and caused redness and itching. He loved words like inappropriate and overdone and quiet time.
Aiden loved being inappropriate. Quiet time didn’t exist.
Getting a laugh was easy with anybody but Jaden, and it drove Aiden crazy. He was sure something magical would happen if he ever managed; it was like facing a dragon, or finding a treasure. Someday, he’d do it. He’d find the words that worked.
But the Scepter got to Jaden first, and when that happened, everything went wrong.
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, and everyone knew that meant she was going to die.
What an honor, said the adults. Adults lied a lot.
When the night came for her to choose a new heir, Aiden was dismayed to find he was now old enough to be dragged along.
Boring! His new robes itched, and all the food was tiny and weird and grown-up, and nobody talked to him and he wanted to go hide in a corner. So he did.
The perimeter of this party was a lot better, occupied only by Aiden and members of the Cluster, the elite military. They left him alone and he left them alone, and it was a good combination for all.
He’d nearly fallen asleep by the time Liana stood and walked down the dais, and everybody went quiet.
Silent, she walked through the crowd, every step slow as though she struggled to move, and the Scepter was thick and ugly in her hands.
“What?” whispered the guard to Aiden’s left, and Aiden realized she’d stopped in front of his family.
Liana pointed at Jaden.
She called his name so that it leaped up to the high, vaulted ceiling, echoing flatly over gasps and soft curses, and Jaden – gray, imperturbable Jaden – went pale and looked very afraid.
“You,” said Liana softly, and held out the Scepter.
It happened so fast.
Music started suddenly, singing, instruments, lots of fuss and firecrackers, lighting up the black stone of the throne room. Jaden took the Scepter, and he screamed.
His soft gray eyes cracked and blazed with light that colored everyone orange, and in that brief titian flare, Liana stumbled back. The moment she let go, the very moment she let go, she aged, hardening so quickly that before anyone could move, she fell and shattered on the floor.
Aiden screamed, and the sound was swallowed by terrible celebration.
Quinn, the majordomo, fell to his knees beside the queen’s pieces, weeping. Jaden staggered away. No one else moved, as though all of this were perfectly normal.
Aiden cried as Jaden staggered to the throne, and Jaden gasped and swayed, but made it up the dais, and finally collapsed in his new seat like a sack of flour.
Aiden hyperventilated, looking back and forth between the grieving majordomo and the pieces of the former queen and the uncle who suddenly stared right at him, seeing him in the dark of the room’s perimeter, and a voice that was definitely not Jaden’s whispered in Aiden’s mind:
You, came the whisper.
There are moments when we know things we cannot know, things beyond our understanding that we grasp regardless of possibility. In that moment, Aiden knew the Scepter wanted him, but he was too young, and so had it stolen Jaden as nothing more than a stopgap.
Aiden panicked. Fanfare played, and he cried so hard he vomited, and no one came to comfort him. In Jaden’s hands, the Scepter seemed strangely renewed, a black and gold bar with a ball on the end of it. The magic of the entire Seelie Fey world ravaged through uncle Jaden’s veins, and no one wondered at his shaking.
The Scepter would have them both. There was nothing he could do.
So Aiden ran away.
It wasn’t the kind of running away humans did. All Seelie magic flowed through the Scepter like blood through veins, and hiding was impossible. So instead, Aiden ran away from duty.
He was a good boy, but that would change. He’d make the Scepter want somebody else.
So Aiden learned to lie, and he did it better than any adult he knew.
He learned to steal, and did it so well that the lack of suspicion was almost boring.
When he grew older, he learned to seduce, and that was more fun than stealing.
His parents didn’t stop him. His adulthood freed them of that responsibility, and Aiden didn’t really regret the loss.
None of it turned the Scepter against him. Every required meeting, every forced celebration in that throne room, every association with Jaden, he felt the crawling fascination of that horrible thing and whatever lived inside it, as though he couldn’t make himself dirty enough for it to not want him.
One dreary morning after an orgy of truly epic proportions, he lay thinking before his fellow partiers woke, and considered his possibilities.
It wanted him. It wanted what he had, his golden light, his craftiness, his skill. So what could he do to hurt it most?
Deprive it of what it coveted.
No longer was not running away or playing a game. Now, this was for real.
Aiden learned to network. He wielded cheer and appeal like knives, and made connections with any who would welcome him, no matter what world, no matter what People, and he laughed and smiled and told no one that his future lay in the sucking hungry endlessness of the Scepter’s broken soul.
He smiled more, traded more, left his kiss and fingerprints on everyone and everything that mattered, and wrapped the strings of world-conquering secrets around his fingers.
It was disgustingly easy. Aiden had a gift. People trusted him, gave him their secrets and their sex. He accepted all, hiding it away, leveraged carefully until he’d gathered so much treasure and so many favors until he could drown the world in both.
The unseen touch of the Scepter’s magic seemed to twitch in hungry anticipation. Nights in the throne room were worse, more painful, and it took all Aiden’s willpower to hide his horror.
He managed. He was flighty, so they said, unreliable and silly and a slut, except that he wasn’t any of those things, and the Scepter only thought it knew him.
See, he’d already pulled the switch.
He’d gone to dark places and formed a spell, sealed with his own blood, inviolable. The day he took the Scepter, every single debt owed him would be forgiven. The day he took the Scepter, every single secret he held would be returned to its owner, erased from his mind. The treasures he’d earned? Distributed to aid Fey out in the human world, starved for magic. All his influence and power? Gone. It would be gone, erased by his own clever hands.
The Scepter wanted him. The Scepter would have him… but it would get a weary, world-worn husk, and that was all.
If Jaden disapproved of Aiden’s lifestyle, he never said. 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, long past the point when Aiden was old enough to take his place.
It was as if Jaden fought for him. They both knew, and neither of them ever spoke this out loud. They each waged a secret war, trapped and losing, but on their own terms.
Strange how that brought the old quest made its reappearance, and this time, Aiden embraced it with the understanding of an adult: somehow, someday he would find a way to make Jaden laugh.
He had no idea how, but there was time. There had to be. There must.
Meanwhile, he had a Scepter to defraud, 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.