The Onyx Hall, London: 29 January, 1707
The lights hovered in mid-air, like a cloud of unearthly fireflies. The corners of the room lay in shadow; all illumination had drawn inward, to this spot before the empty hearth, and the woman who stood there in silence.
Her right hand moved with absent surety, coaxing the lights into position. The left hung stiff at her side, a rigid claw insufficiently masked by its glove. Without compass or ruler, guided only by bone-deep instinct, she formed the lights into a map. Here, the Tower of London. To the west, the cathedral of St. Paul’s. The long line of the Thames below them, and the Walbrook running down from the north to meet it, passing the London Stone on its way; and around the whole, touching the river on both sides, the bent and uneven arc of the city wall.
For a moment it floated before her, brilliant and perfect.
Then her fingertip reached up to a northeastern point on the wall, and flicked a few of the lights away
As if that had been a summons, the door opened. Only one person in all this place had the right to interrupt her unannounced, and so she stayed where she was, regarding the newly-flawed map. Once the door was closed, she spoke, her voice carrying perfectly in the stillness of the room. “You were unable to stop them.”
“I’m sorry, Lune.” Joseph Winslow came forward, to the edge of the cool light. It gave his ordinary features a peculiar cast; what would have seemed like youth in the brightness of day—more youth than he should claim—turned into strange agelessness under such illumination. “It is too much in the way. An impediment to carts, riders, carriages, people on foot…it serves no purpose anymore. None that I can tell them, at least.”
The silver of her eyes reflected blue as she traced the line of the wall. The old Roman and medieval fortification, much patched and altered over the centuries, but still, in its essence, the boundary of old London.
And of her realm, lying hidden below.
She should have seen this coming. Once it became impossible to crowd more people within the confines of London, they began to spill outside the wall. Up the river to Westminster, in great houses along the bank and pestilential tenements behind. Down the river to the ship-building yards, where sailors drank away their pay among the warehouses of goods from foreign lands. Across the river in Southwark, and north of the wall in suburbs—but at the heart of it, always, the City of London. And as the years went by, the seven great gates became ever more clogged, until they could not admit the endless rivers of humanity that flowed in and out.
In the hushed tone of a man asking a doctor for what he fears will be bad news, Winslow said, “What will this do to the Onyx Hall?”
Lune closed her eyes. She did not need them to look at her domain, the faerie palace that stretched beneath the square mile enclosed by the walls. Those black stones might have been her own bones, for a faerie queen ruled by virtue of the bond with her realm. “I do not know,” she admitted. “Fifty years ago, when Parliament commanded General Monck to tear the gates from their hinges, I feared it might harm the Hall. Nothing came of it. Forty years ago, when the Great Fire burned the entrances to this place, and even St. Paul’s Cathedral, I feared we might not recover. Those have been rebuilt. But now…”
Now, the mortals of London proposed to tear down part of the wall—tear it down, and not replace it. With the gates disabled, the City could no longer protect itself in war; in reality, it had no need to do so. Which made the wall itself little more than a historical curiosity, and an obstruction to London’s growth.
Perhaps the Hall would yet stand, like a table with one of its legs broken away.
Perhaps it would not.
“I’m sorry,” Winslow said again, hating the inadequacy of the words. He was her mortal consort, the Prince of the Stone; it was his privilege and duty to oversee the points at which faerie and mortal London came together. Lune had asked him to prevent the destruction of the wall, and he had failed.
Lune’s posture was rarely less than perfect, but somehow she pulled herself even more upright, her shoulders going back to form a line he’d come to recognise. “It was an impossible task. And perhaps an unnecessary one; the Hall has survived difficulties before. But if some trouble comes of this, then we will surmount it, as we always have.”
She presented her arm to him, and he took it, guiding her with formal courtesy from the room. Back to their court, a world of faeries both kind and cruel, and the few mortals who knew of their presence beneath London.
Behind them, alone in the empty room, the lights drifted free once more, the map dissolving into meaningless chaos.
About the Author: Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors’ hard work to The Game of 100 Candles and the short novel Driftwood, and together with Alyc Helms as M.A. Carrick, she is the author of the Rook and Rose epic fantasy trilogy, beginning with The Mask of Mirrors. The first book of her Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent, A Natural History of Dragons, was a finalist for the World Fantasy Award. Her other works include the Doppelganger duology, the urban fantasy Wilders series, the Onyx Court historical fantasies, the Varekai novellas, and over seventy short stories, as well as the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides. For more information, visit swantower.com, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.