This story is set in the same universe as Visitor and Changeling.
This story is also available in audio, which you may find on this episode of Wingardcast.
She opens her eyes in a bubble of air at the bottom of a lake, so deep and so dark that she does not know if it is night or day at the surface, cannot discern the silver color of her own hands in front of her face.
She knows other things, though.
She knows how to breathe, speak, sit up, stretch her wings.
She knows that if she swims up from her bubble, she will eventually find the lake surface, and air and light and plants and fairies.
She knows her name.
She knows everyone's name.
She starts calling herself Bubble, immediately. It is not a very good name, but Bubble wants rid of hers as soon as possible. If she doesn't know it, she can't let it slip. If she manages to be Bubble, so hard and so consistently, that she cannot remember what she woke up knowing under the lake, then she will be safe. She thinks safety is very scarce outside of the lake.
She dreams enormous dreams, dreams the size of all the world. She picks fruit from the trees on the shore, every day, and sinks under the water to curl up in her air pocket, every night. She is cautious - but she imagines palaces and armies and consorts and everyone knowing that she reigns supreme. She is lucky, but luck will not be enough if she is not also smart. Her luck will be someone else's tool if she makes a mistake. They can't hurt her - but there are ways and ways.
Bubble will not be seduced. Bubble will not be driven mad in a cage in the dark until she will name herself just to see flowers and starlight. Bubble will not be caught off guard.
Bubble will be queen.
She explores the space around the lake. There are dozens of fairies who visit it for water now and then; a handful live at the shore. In a burrow in the sand, in a treehouse, in a cairn made out of the river stones, out in the open getting rained on once a week when clouds overtake the sky in their scheduled time. No courts interact with the lake, and this decides Bubble's initial strategy.
Bubble might be able to subvert an entire court by finding its master and whispering thereto, but she would be dealing with a fairy with practice, a fairy who had held vassals for years, centuries, millennia, who knew how to word things and how to see where there were gaps.
Bubble has no practice. Taking a whole court would be efficient if she succeeded, but she would be so likely to fail. And she is not in much of a hurry.
She takes the fairies who live near the lake. One by one. She tells them hold, makes them be still. Permits them to speak only to critique the wordings she's devised for contingencies and threats and guarantees and forbiddances and permissions.
They can think of very few mistakes. Bubble is very good at this.
Bubble works her servants over until every escape is patched, every hope of defiance or retaliation transparently worthless. She doesn't hurt them because they don't try to resist. If they can get good things by trying to please her, and it is really, completely impossible to get away from her, then they will try to please her in thought and word as well as by obedience.
Bubble connects names to faces for the fairies who visit the lake for their water, and Bubble's servants snare them for her, and then there are dozens.
And these fairies have neighbors.
Some of those neighbors have courts.
It's so easy. She doesn't take it lightly, she treats every step with care and caution, but it's easy. The Queen laughs and her power spiderwebs out from her lake in all directions.
Courts have structure.
It is tedious to give a hundred thousand fairies all personal instructions, even if you can assemble them in groups and shout. Worse when they hate you; simpler when they fear you or love you; but tedious any which way. Courts have layers and sections and branches and satellites, and the Queen's court has more than others, because her court is whoever she likes.
She winnows, after she's taken the whole great crescent island for herself. She means to go over the glittering ocean - and under it, too, there are rainbowfin courts there - but first she must get her things in order. Useless servants are dismissed - forbidden to speak or act against her or her own, but they may go about their business in bits of the land she doesn't care about, isn't using. Those with theoretical value but rebellious attitudes are punished. She isn't a sadist, or at least she doesn't think so, but she can't be facing hostility at every turn, which means it must become an instant personal disaster for any fairy to offer her any.
The Queen gains skill, between tutelage from her vassals with experience in mastery and sheer practice, in making those personal disasters terrifying by rumor and tailored to break whoever has earned one.
But not every fairy is opposed to the regime. Some of them were under harsher masters than her, eager to be eased out from under their old yokes and given lighter ones. Some of them enjoy being cogs of an unstoppable juggernaut of sovereign unanimity. Some of them admire their Queen personally, for her power, her beauty, her wit.
Courts have structure, and it is nothing if not traditional for that structure to include room for a handful of favorites.
Some of the favorites are great sorcerers, excellent multipliers of power, who defend her and build her edifices and see to her comfort and channel her resources into the finest products ever seen in the world. Some of the favorites are cunning masters - breeder matriarchs and vassal-collectors who know how to be just so with words and minds and networks, and will tell her just how, rearranging the court until it all works just how she likes it without burdensome intervention from her.
A few of the favorites are pretty and smiling and affectionate, and there would be no point to being Queen if she could not have such things.
Her favorite of favorites is a dark-eyed lace-swift going by Satin, who comes up to her shoulder. He dances, when she asks him to, leaping with slim legs and gesturing with delicate hands. He has wings like fine nets of white which can keep him aloft for months if he doesn't care to land, if he drinks rain and eats floating seeds. He seeks her out. He was in one of the small courts she absorbed, kept for his beauty there, too, and he wants her to think that he's lovely, to want to look at him, to reach out for his moon-pale face.
He is so lovely, and the Queen wants, and she has no reason to deny herself anything she wants, not ever, she is so lucky.
She takes. She consolidates. Her sorcerers pull her bubble out of the bottom of her lake for her, and she pulls her favorite wordsmiths into it with her and goes into the ocean and takes the rainbowfins. She is almost ready to go across it. There are continents and continents and she wants them all and why shouldn't she have them?
Satin is allowed to say whatever he likes. Under the stars on her balcony he strokes her arm, the edge of her wing - suggests that he could fly across first, make a present to her of all he can learn about the way the far continent is laid out.
The Queen kisses him and says he may.
She was not careful to make him honest or make him tethered.
She cannot find him anywhere.
Satin warned the fairies on the far continent before he disappeared, that a Queen was coming, that she knew all their names. This makes it slightly more difficult to colonize. Her advantage is still overwhelming and she takes and takes and takes. She will have everything and tear it apart until she finds the traitor. It is only expected that servants will object to being commanded. They must be punished, but it's all business. Satin is in another category entirely.
The Queen delegates. She organizes. She commands. She recites names until she's breathless. She sleeps under guard. She is crueler to those she has cause to harm.
He is not on this continent. He is not on the next. Satin has been fleeing for his freedom for five hundred years before a Queenscourt band of sorcerers catches up with him and brings him to her.
The Queen offers to let Constellation, one of her current favorites - there are two, neither so trusted as Satin once was, not ever again - punish Satin under her supervision.
Constellation hesitates. Too long.
The Queen bids Constellation hold and asks Lucid if she'd like to try. On Satin, on Constellation too, on anyone who comes close and will not belong to their Queen.
Lucid doesn't so much as blink before she obeys.
Lucid's kind doesn't have to sleep. The screaming lasts for decades, pausing only when the Queen wants Lucid's attention on herself, instead. Lucid switches tasks when the Queen asks, instantly.
The Queen doubts, eventually, whether this is Lucid's loyalty or her fear or her sheer fascination with sandpaper and acid -
She doesn't like not being able to tell. She does not know how to root out the uncertainty. She can command her fairies not to lie, she can even command them to spend hours introspecting. But she cannot guarantee that their answers will be right. She is terrifying. They will be terrified; or they will sublimate their terror until they can't tell her that it's there no matter how she demands their sincerity.
The true map of her subjects' emotions is not something she can take.
Lucid goes to a position of honor in a satellite court and Satin goes into the dungeon and Constellation is turned into a bird and flung out the window. The Queen takes no new lovers. She colonizes. She prunes her court. She bids the promising learn magic and the useless get out of her sight.
She has palaces. She has armies. She has all of the names in the world. She must keep all of these things or the consequences will be intolerable. She issues orders and organizes tasks.
She visits Satin in the dungeon, sometimes, and looks at him where he is kept continually drowning in a glass bowl, and she does not know the map of her own emotions, either.
The Queen goes about her business.