I got this story idea from a fascinating news item about an elderly gentleman who found a priceless crown under his bed. What a mystery! What a story opportunity! What fun! As for who Theron is talking to… well. His name is Owen, and you haven’t met him in a book yet. But here’s a fun bit of trivia: Owen is Grey‘s father. Oooh.
Time doesn’t work for us the way it does for humans. Look: there’s a reason we call them Ever-Dying. From the moment they’re born to the moment they collapse, old and incontinent just a few years later, they’re dying. Their hair stops growing properly, pigment fades, skin loses elasticity and gains bruisability, and every organ pretty much quits. That’s what half their machines are for: to substitute for failed organs and keep them alive.
I’m telling you this because I need you to understand I didn’t mean to defraud Hans Weber. He got old! He died on me, inconsiderately, less than a century after our encounter.
I still hadn’t paid him back! Life-debts inflate with every passing generation, I don’t have to tell you, and I hadn’t meant to engorge this one. Well, engorge it, I did. And as a result, I had to figure out a way to make good on this before things got even more complicated.
I was fortunate enough that he only had one child, or I’d have been in even worse trouble. By the time I thought to check in on old Hans (just to make sure he wasn’t thinking I owed him interest or something), I found him inconveniently replaced by his elderly son.
Elderly, after only seventy-eight years. Can you believe the nerve?
Well, this son had six kids. Six. Which meant my debt—doubled when Hans died and it passed on to Charles—was in danger of sextupling, which after being doubled is really like… What’s the word for “multiplying twelve times?”
Duodecuple? Really? Who would even use that?
Never mind. I’m off the subject.
So Hans had a boy named Charles, and Charles had six children whose names I didn’t care about, and I was pretty sure that seventy-eight-year-old Charles wasn’t going to be around long, so I was out of time.
But how the heck was I supposed to pay this debt back?
Ordinary human gold was too inconvenient to get. I’m a small-time thief. I can’t deal with cameras and lasers and whatever else humans use to guard their treasures these days. And forget robbing one of the other Peoples of Earth; what do I look like, a pro? I can barely keep food on my own table.
So that left one way. One way, which is why I’m sitting here now, being examined by you, for a break-in which I committed as a result of a theft I didn’t quite pull off. You see, I had to rob the royal treasury.
I’m not mad. The treasury isn’t even guarded! We all know it’s not because the Throne keeps it safe. An army couldn’t fight their way past the Throne. But it seemed to me that some great chair with tentacles wouldn’t have ears, and so avoiding the front door and instead digging my way through the back-end should have been a snap.
So that’s what I did.
I use earth-magic, you see. It’s just my strength; most of my fellow Fey acquire magic through music and conjured emotions, but I’ve never been able to carry a tune, so I siphon my power from the ground.
Well. From healthy ground.
Well. From healthy ground with growing things.
All right, from healthy ground with growing things near moving water…
Enough. The point is, the earth and I have a good relationship, so I just asked the dirt to displace itself for me—just enough to let me wriggle through—and it did.
And wriggle, I did.
I had no idea what I was getting into.
See, the Royal Unseelie Treasure room is completely sealed in Adamantine—the real stuff, diamonds and the bones of Guardians ground together to make a sort of impenetrable cement. The result is pretty simple: no matter who you are or what you do, all your external magic sources get neatly cut off the moment you step inside it.
I found myself deaf, dumb, and blind, exposed to the ravages of time and terror. Just like a human!
I’d wondered if you would make it all the way through there, came a voice, which would be when I knew I was screwed. I thought you’d give up around the fifty-meter point. That’s when most of your ilk usually call it quits—but you didn’t. Bravo.
It’s true I’d run into a patch of stubborn granite right around there, but anyway. I know this sounds idiotic, but I couldn’t reply to her. I stood really still, sort of hoping in a demented, last-ditch fashion that if I didn’t move, she wouldn’t see me.
Ha. Ha-ha. Let’s see you act rationally in the dark with all your powers cut off and no sense of sight.
What is your name, little thief? she said next.
I couldn’t avoid answering. I couldn’t not answer. It was impossible; power—real power, like the sun is real heat compared to the heat from a match—ripped through me, simultaneously letting me know just how much we Fey are missing with our own magic siphoned off and just how badly I was out-classed. “Theron.”
It’s nice to meet you, Theron. I am the Throne.
Like I didn’t know that.
The Throne, the Throne, the sentient repository of all Unseelie Fey powers. The true leader of our empire, no matter who wears the crown—hey, that isn’t traitorous! It’s merely true, and you damn well know it.
Well. I was boned. “I didn’t mean any harm,” I said. Well, I squeaked. Well, I sort of gasped out. Have you ever felt power like that thrum through you, deep enough to energize and then drain you all in a second? It was worse than catnip.
I’m sure you did not. Theron the thief, what drives you so deeply that you would risk my wrath and all the dangers of my home for a handful of golden coins?
Technically, by burrowing in from behind I hadn’t risked the palace, per se, but I wasn’t going to argue that now. “A life-debt.” I told her everything. Told her about Hans pulling me out of the jar that damned Dark Djinn had trapped me in. Told her how I meant to pay the debt back, and Hans had, in fact, specified a particular monetary amount, but it’s nearly impossible for non-musical Fey to make cold, hard cash these days. I mean, really! Just because the majority of you gather magic via emotions and music doesn’t mean those of us who don’t rely on music shouldn’t have a place! It’s wrong, I tell you! Proletariat! Bourgeoisie! Mean!
I was ranting, wasn’t I? Sorry. Ranting. On we go.
That is quite a predicament for an Earth-bound Fey, she said, and I swear to you—I know it’s impossible because she was in the throne room and I was under it, but I swear—she touched me with those wide golden tendrils of hers. They’re thin as air, supple as breasts, deadly as the truest blade.
I was sure in that moment they’d be cleaning my guts off the gold by morning.
Perhaps we can make a deal, you and I, she said, which is definitely not what I expected. In fact, I was so shocked, she had to repeat it before I’d reply.
“A deal? With you? With me? What could I possibly offer you?” I squeaked/gasped/gulped/etc.
A favor. One that requires the ability to leave these premises, and while I have many abilities, travel is not among them.
I wasn’t sure if that was meant to be a joke or not, so I panicked and laughed anyway.
Those tendrils—they say they look like hammered gold, but these felt like silk—brushed over my mouth, my face, my shaking shoulders. I need one to carry a message for me. Perhaps we can help each other. Perhaps I can make it so worth your while that you are willing to place my needs in a higher priority than your own.
This had to be good. Or it was a trap. Or… I didn’t know. Look, I doubt you’d have done any better. “Sure. Why not? Hey, I’m all about service to the, er, throne. The head of state. The… bottom of state? Sorry, I don’t really know the terminology—”
And she gave me a message. Then, she gave me your name. Then, she gave me something I’ll never forget for all my days.
Look, I know you know this, but our power—the magic Fey naturally create—is taken from us before we’re born. Siphoned, stolen; we never even know what it feels like to simply make magic like everybody else because we’re never given the chance. It’s taken, given to the Throne and the Crown, and then they keep us safe (or play celestial conkers, or whatever the hell they do with it all). And we get along just fine, substituting by taking it from outside sources, learning to generate it wherever we can.
But we have no idea what it’s like to feel it welling from inside like life’s blood.
I do now. I do. She gave that to me, with the promise that I’d have more, if I’d just get this message to you.
So that’s why I’m here, all right? It’s why I broke in, why I purposely tripped your alarms to get your attention (yes,that was on purpose, dammit), and why I stuck around afterward and let you catch me.
I need it again. I need to feel that. I need it back, my own power, what I myself am creating, blooming inside me. And she’ll give it if I just give you this message:
There. See? Simple. Two little words! Just “come home!” She doesn’t even ask that I ensure you obey it, just that I deliver it!
So that’s done now, and I have this crown she gave me from the treasury, which I need to deliver to Charles (I’m going to stick it under his bed, or something).
No, I’m not hanging around here. My power is back, you see. I know your own gathered power is probably better, off-hand, but this… this is coming from inside me. I’m making it. It’s my very own. Haha! Hahaha! You couldn’t stop me from leaving if you tried.
Oh, and I think you’d better obey her and go home. I have a feeling if you don’t, next time she won’t send some down-on-his-luck thief. I think next time, you might not be given a choice.
Ciao. Time to go make an elderly human very rich, indeed.