It was night when Tybalt woke to find himself in the middle of the woods, nursing the kind of bright, punishing headache that told him he had, once again, misjudged his tolerance for wine.
It was hardly the first time he’d found himself alone and hungover in an unfamiliar place. And unless Fate took it upon herself to stick her crooked, wart-pocked nose into his life-threads–something he wouldn’t put past her to do, the wretched, petty thing–he highly doubted it would even be the last.
He sat up, groaning as the insides of his skull gave a painful slosh of protest. All around him, the trees swelled with shadows and a deep, unfamiliar silence.
It was the silence that first made him uneasy. Usually the night air’s timbre rang heavier, full of nightbirds and distant howls, of whispers and screams and the low, mournful, sweeping symphony of wind in the branches.
It should have been a quiet, more than a silence. Quiet still skulked; silence was a carcass.
But as he sat and listened, head throbbing, disgruntled, and disoriented, the silence was all he heard. It made his hackles prick: a silence this deep wasn’t safe.
Tybalt stood, though delicately, and took a quick catalog: tall boots, tailed-overcoat, silk ascot, buttoned waistcoat–he was in his human form, then. Not unexpected, given he was currently in the human world, though considering his history, the expected was never interchangeable with a guarantee.
He ran his fingers through his hair: a touch longer than it had been during his last appearance this side of the Veil, but still thick and dark, without any trace of the gray he half-feared to find. It was always difficult to judge the exact rate that these particular forms aged. Some Shee handled Time’s withering toll with grace, embracing an older human form with the kind of dignity and acceptance that being an immortal spirit of the elements afforded.
For his part, Tybalt not one of these, and would have sooner handled open flames with his bare hands than the first sign of a gray hair.
A slight movement under a short spurt of ferns caught his eye. He snapped around: there, under the broad, arching leaves, he caught the shape of a long, slender shadow–one that didn’t belong.
His shadow, to be precise. It must have grown idle while he slept off the wine and slipped away to find some better source of mischief in the woods.
It made no move to rejoin him at his heels; Tybalt could sense its skepticism radiating through his own mind, the soft, fluttering murmur of a voice not entirely his own, tinged with the bitter note of something like resentment.
Tybalt tsk-ed at it, annoyed. “I don’t need your judgement.”
His shadow did not move.
“Even you have to admit, we’ve been through worse,” Tybalt told it, growing increasingly exasperated. The last thing he needed was the sanctimonious disapproval from his own shadow of their life choices–which, at that particular moment, seemed, admittedly, a bit feckless.
To this, his shadow only responded with the barest shrug. Tybalt snorted again.
“Make yourself useful, why don’t you? See if you can’t track down the cause of this dreadful silence,” and then added, without meaning it, “I hope it’s a Shademonger. What’s more, I hope it gobbles you.”
Tybalt could have sworn he heard a faint hiss as his shadow flitted off into the night–though whether it was one of displeasure, or a soft, scathing laugh, he couldn’t have said.
He glanced around to gather his bearings. It occurred to him then that he wasn’t entirely sure how or why he had Crossed in the first place. Though as there were only two known methods by which to Cross from the Wayside into the human realm, the ‘how’ was the lesser mystery. Furthermore, as he was not currently covered in blood and night blooms, and the nearest eclipse was still several decades off, the second of the two options was the likelier: in his drunken stupor, he’d stumbled through a Bridge.
The realization made his eyebrows arch. Crossing was hardly a trivial feat, even in the best of conditions. The fact that he seemed to have managed it in the throes of a wineskin influence was a testament to his skill–or, perhaps more accurately, his luck.
He cast his glance to the stars. England, he surmised after a moment. What was more, south England. How wretched, he thought. He should have preferred somewhere northern. Yorkshire, perhaps.
The stars were always duller here in this realm, he noted–weaker, exhausted somehow, spread so far apart it almost made him heartsick for their sakes. How lonely it must be, he thought, to be so far removed from your own kind.
It made him long deeply to be back in the Wayside. Nights in the Wayside did not go softly, with long stretches of starless black sleeping between the celestial bodies. They went with a roar; a riot; a blazing, diamond-studded delirium so ferocious the light could shred your eyes and mind to ribbons if you looked too long or too hard.
Suddenly, any distant notion of detouring to Yorkshire lost its appeal.
“Home is where the stars are,” he muttered, turning north. “And that’s where I should be.”
But the Bridge was shut when he arrived.
He found it easily enough–or at least, where it should have been. It was the only Bridge in this part of the world, the only place where the thin veins interweaving what magical currents were left in the human realm intersected, aggregating into a mass of energy just volatile enough to split the Veil between worlds. Ley Lines, the humans called them, or so Tybalt had heard.
He’d sensed the closest Line a short distance off from the spot in the trees where he woke. Even in a human form, it was easy enough to perceive: a kind of reverberation, something between a sound in the air and a pull he felt in his chest, a cold, silver, intangible thread, leading him deeper into the undergrowth, a call–a path–a promise of home he could feel as tracery.
He followed it for perhaps a mile. And then, suddenly, the thread vanished.
Tybalt stopped short in alarm. It was as if the Ley Line had simply snuffed out, like a candle or a lantern in a sudden wind.
But magical currents were not candles, or lanterns. And they did not simply snuff out on a whim. Not unless something was dangerously wrong.
Something, perhaps, just dangerous enough to cause the woods to fall into an unnatural silence.
“Decidedly not a Shademonger, then,” he murmured.
He began to turn around, already with half a mind to see if he could retrace his steps to recover his sense of the current, only to find himself face-to-face with the black mantle of a towering, hooded figure.
Tybalt gave a yelp and jumped back, his heart leaping into his chest.
But the figure did not respond. It never moved, or even betrayed the slightest sign he had noticed Tybalt at all.
It was only after several seconds that Tybalt noticed the moss creeping up the hems of the figure’s cloak. His eyes narrowed, and a moment later, he let out a short, barking laugh.
The statue’s face was overshadowed by its hewn hood, though Tybalt could see the sharp point of a beard peaking out into the moonlight. Ivy grew in a thick rash over the pedestal, obscuring it from sight so thoroughly that Tybalt hadn’t seen it in the dark. With his boot, he toed aside the weeds, searching for a placard, an inscription, a clue–but there was none to be found. The rough marble was too weathered. Any name the statue might have boasted once was long lost to the rough touch of time and savagery of the elements.
It was only then that Tybalt realized he had accidentally bent the moonlight, rendering himself invisible to the casual eye. Inwardly, he tsk-ed, admonishing his own carelessness. It was an instinct that flared when he was caught by surprise, though in the human world, it was one that might eventually cost him. His power was not inexhaustible this side of the Veil. Caution when using spells or expending power would be imperative–especially when it seemed that what natural magic currents remained were vanishing.
Sluggishly, his body reappeared, the bent moonlight peeling back like worn paint to reveal his hands, arms, then chest and body. The illusion continued to shed, until he stood, whole and revealed once more, casting around in the moon-tipped gloom.
He turned his back on the statue. A pox on this night, he thought dully, tugging his coat straight. Next time, I’ll bring more wine. Leastways I won’t have to put up with the inconveniences of this world sober.
He was barely three strides out of the grove when there was a noise. It was soft, barely more than the chitter of a cricket–but in the silence, it might as well have been a shout. He halted dead mid-stride.
A fairy’s voice. He’d know the sound of it in any world.
He whirled again, flummoxed. A small, spindly knot of legs and wings came tumbling out from beneath the shadow of the statue’s hood, scales and spines glinting in the moonlight. The creature caught itself mid-air with two pairs of long, translucent wings that unfurled from pointed shoulder blades the size of his thumbnail.
She rose to his height, her bright, black eyes gleaming like cuts of polished onyx. When she chittered at him again, her frost-white teeth glittered like pins in the dark.
Where did the Bridge go, my lord?
The question confirmed Tybalt’s worst fears. He held out one hand to her, though slowly, pale fingertips gliding nails-first into the pool of moonlight, all the elegance of a swan skimming the water. “Where are you sisters, sweetling?”
It wasn’t like lesser spirits to roam this side of the Veil alone. The human world represented all sorts of complications, not in the least of which being that humans themselves were difficult creatures to predict. One moment, they’d be invoking you for a bargain, demanding wishes with the fervency of a monarch demanding taxes. The next, they’d try to skewer you with an iron spike, throwing oaths and holy water and other nonsense in the name of whatever god was fashionable to that particular region and era. If she was here alone, she was either very brave, or very, very lost.
There was a split second when it looked like the fairy was about to answer. But then, instead, she let loose a tiny, howling sob.
There were very few things in the world –in either world–that could move Tybalt to pity. Pity was not, strictly speaking, in his preferred repertoire, as it invited a whole host of inconveniences he rarely had either the time or the wherewithal to stomach. Besides, word might get out that he had a soft side.
And yet, as he reached to scoop the disconsolate spirit out of the air, he wasn’t thinking about the word getting out. He wasn’t thinking about the inconveniences his pity would invite.
Home feels twice as far away when you’re alone, was his only thought. Even the stars feel it here.
“Gently, sweetling,” he said softly, “gently. You have not been forgotten.”
The faerie looked up, black eyes swimming in tiny, cold, shattered rainbows as her tears refracted the distant stars.
Tybalt sank into the forest floor, his back to the rough stone hems of the statute. Gingerly, he deposited the faerie on the apex of his crooked-up knee, before fumbling inside his coat pocket.
“Do you know who I am?” He asked, keeping his voice low. A single breath with too much force could send her pinwheeling into the undergrowth.
The faerie gathered her knees under her pointed chin, looking him up and down. Her responding chitter was slow and uncertain, broken in places by the squeak of hiccups:
You are the Prince of Dusk.
Never one to shy away from such a lofty accusation, Tybalt smiled. “Well spotted,” he said, and was about to go on, but she interrupted him with a gushing question of her own.
Can your music really call down the stars? Can it split the sky and drive those that hear it into madness?
Tybalt’s eyebrows shot up. A part of him was bitter that his legacy had been reduced to the role of a weapon–a threat only to be feared, the monster under the bed, the mesmerizing voice from the sea that only meant death and despair and destruction, something to be avoided, ostracized.
The other part of him was flattered she’d heard it at all.
Deep inside his jacket pocket, his hand came into contact with something smooth and cool and light, something polished and carved from wood. With a flourish, he drew it into the moonlight, mindful not to knock the fairy from her perch as he straddled the emerging violin over his lap. Even in the gloom, its redwood body gleamed a sharp, shocking crimson. Even in the hush of the shadows, the blood-color of its polish burned.
The fairy loosed a distressed squeal at the sight of it. She tripped backward, toppling into the air in an effort to get away. Tybalt had to lunge to catch her before she cracked her dainty skull on an unseen rock or a thorn.
“Hush now,” he said, tipping her onto her feet. “Music is a language, like any other sound. Any language can do as much, in the hands of a master. Language can cut, bite, obliviate, can bring the seas to heel or summon a storm, if you know the right words.”
Here he extracted his bow from his pocket–another long, sweeping gesture, then took the violin up and fitted it to his chin.
“But language can do so much more than that, sweetling,” he went on. “Language can soothe, restore, repair, entertain. It can sweep you off your feet and into foreign lands, and heights, and skies. Language can make you pine. Language can court you. Language,” he said, sneaking her a wink, “can ask for a dance.”
And with that, he gave an easy one-two count, the rhythm of fresh-thawed spring splashing over rocks, of the first, soft snowfall of a mild winter, and began to play.