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Ebooks   ➡  Fiction  ➡  Young adult or teen  ➡  Fantasy

Tangled Web (The Arrynna Doe Trilogy #1)

Tangled Web

 

By L.W. Tichy

 

Book One in the Arrynna Doe Trilogy

 

Text copyright © 2015 L.W.Tichy

All Rights Reserved

 

Cover Design:

Aaron Tichy

 

Editor:

Lauren Bromley

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**]

h1=.

In loving memory of

Thomas Roy Westbrook.

 

One of the first and greatest lessons you taught me was that a well learned mind is one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself. Thank you PopPop, for your love, for your guidance, and for your beautiful example of a life well lived. You are loved, you are missed.

 

 

Table of Contents

Title Page

Copyright Page

Dedication

Table of Contents

Epigraph

Prologue

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Epilogue

Acknowledgements

 

 

“Oh! What a tangled web we weave,

When first we practice to deceive.”

-Sir Walter Scott

 

Prologue

“Dr. Wolfensburg?” asked the potbellied man standing by the hospital’s front desk.

“Yes? What can I do for you?” replied the man in question.

“I’m Warren Filt, with Social Services. I’m here to pick up the baby who was brought in last week,” explained the social worker, distractedly cleaning his already spotless glasses.

“Of course! Please come with me,” answered the doctor amicably, heading toward an elevator. “The nursing staff will be sad to see Rynnie go. So will I, actually. She’s a wonderful child… never fusses. Beautiful little thing, too. Almost too beautiful, if that makes sense. You’ll see what I mean when you hold her. Something about Ryne just… entrances you. It will be sad having her gone; we’ve all grown a little attached.”

“Mm-hmm,” murmured Mr. Filt, frowning as he stepped into the elevator with the physician. “I’m sorry, Dr. Wolfensburg, but did I hear you call the child Rynnie?”

“Yes.” He chuckled. “One of the nurses decided to nickname her, and it seems to have stuck.”

“You named her?” questioned the social worker, sounding annoyed. “You do realize that provides an unhealthy sense of attachment for both parties? We strongly advise against doing so. That is something my office will see to.”

“Yes,” replied the doctor, rolling his eyes. “However, we didn’t name her.”

“I’m afraid I don’t follow, Dr. Wolfensburg. You said a nurse nicknamed the infant.”

“Yes. A nickname created from her actual name,” he explained, suppressing a sigh as he stepped off the elevator. “Mr. Filt, how familiar are you with Rynnie’s case?”

“As a pediatrician in this part of town, I am sure you are aware of how busy our offices get,” snapped Mr. Filt, not liking the doctor’s implication. “I was given this case ten minutes before I left for the hospital!”

“I see,” answered Dr. Wolfensburg, sounding clipped as he tried to suppress his frustration with the man. “Rynnie was found with a piece of jewelry with an inscription on it—Arrynna. The police tried to use it to track down her family but were unsuccessful. Nevertheless, it was assumed that was her name. Considering what a mouthful it is, the nurses shortened it.”

“Yes, well…as I explained, our offices do get busy,” Filt remarked by way of apology, once again cleaning his immaculate glasses.

The doctor decided not to comment as he led the social worker into the nursery. Spotting the child, he smiled. She was like no infant he had ever before treated, with her wide, cobalt eyes, her soft, dark curls, her delicately pointed chin, and her sharp, prominent cheekbones, she was somehow both fierce and fragile looking. She invoked in him an almost primal desire to protect.

“This is our little Rynnie,” said the doctor as he looked down into the infant’s large, enchanting, blue eyes.

“She’s the state’s ‘little Rynnie’ now,” Mr. Filt murmured almost affectionately, as he too was drawn in by the babe’s bewitching gaze.

*****

Dr. James Hazen set his briefcase down by the coat closet as he swung the door shut behind him. It had been a long day. He didn’t regret his decision to council children instead of adults, but some days more than others it wore on him. Glad to be home, he quietly made his way into the kitchen and snaked his arms around his wife’s waist from behind. He smirked as she gasped, the plate she had been cleaning slipping back into the soapy water.

“Jimmy!” she exclaimed, trying and failing to keep the smile out of her voice. “One of these days I’m going to break something when you do that!”

“Worth it,” he murmured, kissing the side of her neck. “How are the kids?”

“Outside,” she replied, leaning back against him.

“I can see that.” He smiled as he watched through the window, his son and daughter playing in the sandbox. “I asked how they were, not where.”

“They’re fine, which you can see as well. Though”—she frowned as she looked at her three-year-old daughter—“Rynnie had a bit of a fright.”

“Another episode?” he clarified, concern in his voice. “What happened?”

“She wouldn’t say. She never does; you know that. She just started crying and insisted Jack bring her inside. She was hysterical…more so than usual. I almost called you. Thank God she finally calmed and Jack and I managed to coax her back outside, but… She’s been really subdued since… I know we’ve never really pushed her to talk about these episodes, that you felt it would be better for her to tell us when she was ready but… This time was different, Jimmy—worse. It scared me,” she admitted.

James frowned. He didn’t want to worry his wife—Sara had always been delicate—but Rynnie’s episodes, as they had dubbed them, were starting to scare him, too. She had always had night terrors from the first evening they had brought her home. Rynnie had been eight months old then. James had written them off as a normal part of her development, though. After all, most kids had them at some point. He had been certain she’d grow out of them in time. Then the panic attacks and the hysterics had started during the day for no discernable reason, and she had been too young to tell them why. Still, he hoped time would cure it. Time was better than the alternative. Lately though, Rynnie’s episodes had become worse, almost violent. Just the week before, James had to restrain her during an episode to keep her from hurting herself. He had almost taken her to the hospital, fearing she needed sedation. Eventually, Rynnie calmed—though she refused to let go of him for hours, keeping her little head buried in the crook of his neck. To his immense relief, Sara had been out of town visiting her mother. His biggest worry was that, lately, he had even seen her talking to empty air. James wanted to write it off as an imaginary friend, but his instinct told him it was more. Instinct told him that he had let things go for far too long.

“I’ll talk to her. I’ve been considering it for a while, actually. I think she’s old enough. God knows she’s smart enough. It’s time we figure out what causes these…frights,” he assured his wife. “Speaking of our Rynnie, though… The social worker called. He’s starting the adoption paperwork today.”

“Oh, Jimmy!” she exclaimed, turning in his hold and throwing her arms around him, a happy sob escaping her.

He let out a laugh and grabbed a tissue from the counter. “Here, Sara.”

“Thanks,” she told him, dabbing at her streaming eyes. She smiled. “I’m so happy.”

“Me too.” He smiled back. “How should we celebrate?”

“Cake!” she announced. “Rynnie loves cake, and dinner has a little ways to go; I should have enough time.”

“Have fun, Martha Stewart.” He grinned, giving her a quick kiss. “I’m going to see the kids.”

Jimmy stepped out back to two enthusiastic shouts of, “Daddy!”

Anticipating the whirlwind, he bent down in just enough time to scoop them both up.

“Mama’s making spa-squetti!” was his five-year-old son’s greeting.

“It’s spaghetti,” he corrected.

“That’s what I said—spa-squetti!”

Jimmy smiled. “She’s making cake, too.”

“Really?”

“Why don’t you give her a hand?” he suggested, lowering the boy back to the ground.

“Okay!” he shouted, racing back into the house.

“Did you miss me, princess?” he asked the little girl who had stolen both his and Sara’s hearts two years before.

She nodded, snuggling into him, and said, “Are we gonna talk, Daddy?”

“Yes, ma’am,” he confirmed, carrying her over to the porch swing.

“I don’t wanna talk ‘bout it!” she declared, popping her thumb into her mouth.

It was a habit Sara and he had been trying to break. Rynnie always started to suck her thumb when she was upset, instead of talking to them. For James, it was an indicator that she needed to talk, whether she wanted to or not. He just hoped that, eventually, she would take comfort in talking to them instead of hiding behind her thumb.

“But we’re going to talk about it anyway,” he told her, pulling her thumb free as he sat down.

“I know.” She sighed, sounding—as she often did—a lot older than three.

“You were scared earlier.”

She nodded. “Wearwy scared.”

“You know it scares me and Mama when that happens?”

Her eyes grew wide and she shook her head adamantly. “I don’t mean to, Daddy.”

Once again her thumb found its way to her mouth. And, once again, Jimmy pulled it free.

“I know, sweetheart. We aren’t mad at you,” he assured the girl. “We just want to help you not be scared anymore.”

“You can’t,” she whispered, seeking comfort in her thumb again.

“Now, I remember you telling me that daddies could do anything.” He smiled, patiently freeing her thumb once more.

She scrunched up her face at him, clearly in deep thought, absently twisting her dark curls. Jimmy waited for his daughter to decide, a small, amused grin on his face.

“Anyfing but dat,” she finally declared. This time he caught her thumb before it reached her mouth and held it firmly in his hand.

“We can’t know that until we try. Why don’t you tell me, Rynnie, and we’ll see if I can fix it?”

“I’m scarwed,” she whispered, an edge of panic to her tone.

“You’re scared to tell me?” he clarified. She nodded. “Princess, you know you can tell me anything.”

She nodded forlornly but didn’t say anything more.

“Rynnie, you have to tell Daddy what scares you so bad,” he ordered, deepening his voice slightly.

Rynnie looked up, her lower lip trembling, and whispered, “Have to?”

She already knew the answer though; whenever her daddy used [_that _]tone, it meant no more arguing.

“Have to,” he confirmed.

She started crying. She was scared to talk about what scared her. She was afraid Daddy wouldn’t believe her!

“It’s all right, princess,” he soothed, wrapping his arms around her.

“P-pwomise you’ll believe me, and won’t get mad?” she hiccupped into his shirt.

“Of course I’ll believe you,” he insisted, surprised by her worry. “And why would I get mad?”

“Pwomise,” she repeated.

“Promise,” he agreed.

She nodded. “The monsters scare me.”

“What monsters, honey?” he asked, confused.

“There are all diffwent kinds. Some are meaner den others.”

“Like the one that scared you earlier?” He frowned, starting to understand.

“Mm-hmm. He was wearwy mean! He kilwed the other monster.” She shuddered.

Jimmy struggled to stay calm and relaxed in front of her. While he was quickly coming to the conclusion that she was hallucinating and hearing things that weren’t there, he still wondered what a three-year-old–who had lived a very sheltered life—would know of death and murder? He and Sara didn’t even have a TV in the house!

“Are all the monsters mean, Arrynna?” he asked, careful to keep his tone neutral.

“You’re mad,” she whined, starting to cry again.

“No, honey, I’m not mad.” He tried to ease her worry.

“Yes, you are,” she cried around the thumb she had finally managed to get—and keep—in her mouth. “You only say ‘Awynna’ when you’re mad!”

“I’m not mad at [_you, _]sweetheart. Daddy’s mad at the monsters. I don’t like it when something scares my little girl,” he told her, hoping to pacify her.

“Oh,” she said, easily placated, contentedly letting her thumb fall free as she snuggled into him.

“Are all the monsters mean, princess?” he tried again.

She shrugged. “Some aren’t as mean… Like the one on the swings. She’s kind of pwetty, except for her teeth—dey’re all pointy.”

“On the swings…right now?”

“Mm-hmm.”

James looked at the swing set. There was nothing there. Reason told him there must be a breeze, and that was why one of the swings moved. Reason didn’t stop the hairs on the back of his neck from rising. He was letting a toddler unnerve him, and that wouldn’t do. Rynnie needed him to be in control. But where would she get the idea to make up pointy teeth? She had never been exposed to anything like that. Sara told her princess stories, for heaven’s sake!

“Rynnie, sweetie, there’s no one on the swings,” he told her gently.

“Yes, there is, Daddy. You just can’t see her,” she insisted, more confident now that she knew he wasn’t mad at her.

“Why can’t I see her?” he asked, trying to keep the concern out of his voice.

“I don’t know.” She shrugged, fiddling with one of the buttons on his shirt. “Same weason as why nobody else ever sees dem, I guess.”

“And why is that?” he pressed.

I don’t know!” she repeated with a huff. “They just can’t… I wish I couldn’t see dem.”

“What if Daddy could take the monsters away?” he asked her, feeling sick to his stomach. James hated putting kids on long-term medicine whenever it was avoidable, but the doctor in him knew it was the only option.

“Could you?” she exclaimed, a hopeful expression in her eyes that made her look far older than she was.

He didn’t like that expression. To him, it spoke volumes to how bad her condition was.

“Yes, baby, I can,” he promised, holding her close.

“Daddy, you’re squishing me!” she declared, oblivious to his worry.

“Sorry, princess,” he said, loosening his embrace but not letting go. “How would you like to come into work with me tomorrow?”

“Yes, pwease.” She smiled. She liked Daddy’s work—she always got lollipops.

“Dinner!” Sara’s voice carried out the open kitchen window.

*****

Two Years Later

“Daddy?” Rynnie pouted, tugging on Jimmy’s hand. “I’m tired. Can we go home, please?”

“Home?” he replied, picking the tired girl up. “But you said you wanted to go the park for your birthday. It was all you talked about this morning! Remember?”

“But I wasn’t tired this morning,” she whined, resting her head on his shoulder.

“Close your eyes, sweetheart,” said Sara, reaching up to rub the girl’s back. “We’ll wake you up when we get there.”

“Yes, Mama,” she murmured, already half asleep.

Sara waited a few minutes to make certain Rynnie was fully asleep and double-checked that Jack was still focused on jumping sidewalk cracks.

“Jimmy, how much longer does she have to stay on these meds? She’s just a kid. She’s supposed to be filled to bursting with energy, and instead she spends half her time asleep. She can’t even make it through school. It’s not like the medication is working, anyway,” she snapped.

Tensions were high and they were both overtired. She and Jimmy had stayed up half the night. Rynnie kept bursting into their room during the night because there was a “monster” in her rocking chair. They had taken turns, every time, explaining to her that it wasn’t real so she didn’t need to be afraid. Then one of them would walk her back to bed and tuck her in. It was never long—ten minutes or maybe twenty—before she would come running back in. Sara wanted to let her sleep with them, but Jimmy was so adamant that it wouldn’t be good for her. It was just one in a long line of instances where they had proof the drugs weren’t working! Just the week before, Rynnie—who had been completely potty-trained by the time she was two and never had an accident—had wet herself because she’d been too afraid to go into the bathroom and too afraid to tell them there was a “monster.” It wasn’t healthy for her. Things were only getting worse, and their marriage was paying the price. She wondered how much more she and Jimmy could go on before they needed help.

“I know,[_ _]Sara, but we have to follow the steps her doctor laid out…we have to be certain. If in three months, it’s still not working, then he’ll switch her to something else,” he replied, sounding tired.

“I don’t like it.”

“And you think I do?” he demanded, incredulous. “God, Sara, don’t you think I want there to be a way to fix it without putting her through all this?”

“I didn’t mean it like that, Jimmy.” She sighed in a half-hearted apology.

“Yeah, you never do,” he snapped, picking up his pace.

James knew he hadn’t handled her concerns well. He just didn’t have it in him. He used to find it sweet—the way she needed him. He used to say she reminded him of spun glass—beautiful, precious, and fragile—and he had considered himself lucky that he got care for her, that she depended on him so, that she only trusted him with her gentle emotions. Now though, it was just another burden, and he was tired. They had two kids, one of whom had a lot of needs. He didn’t need a third “kid”! The fact remained, Sara needed kid gloves; he just couldn’t give that to her anymore. The strain of it all was showing in both of them. James was ashamed to admit it, but more than once he’d considered asking for a separation. A man could only take so much before he needed someone else to bear some of the burdens.

“Can I go?” pleaded Jack when they reached the park a few minutes later.

“Wait a minute for your sister,” reminded Sara, halting the enthusiastic child.

“Rynnie? Princess, we’re here. Wake up,” Jimmy whispered, lowering the child to the ground.

She blinked a few times as if getting her bearings. Impatient, Jack grabbed her hand.

“Come on, Ryne!” he insisted, racing off and pulling her after him.

“Watch out for each other,” Sara called after her kids. “And stay away from the tree line!”

Sara felt a small shudder when she looked out over the park. It was small, close, and convenient, but she had never liked it. There wasn’t a proper fence enclosing it because it backed up to a forest, and the line of large, old trees which surrounded the play equipment and benches in a half circle was considered its border. Since the park was small, most parents didn’t worry about their kids wandering off, because it was easy to keep an eye on them wherever they went. Still, Sara worried. She supposed she had heard too many news reports on the radio.

They settled themselves on one of the small wooden benches that overlooked the jungle gym and swings. Jimmy made a comment on the clouds moving in and his suspicion that they wouldn’t be able to stay too long. Sara just nodded, and they fell into a strained silence. Out of habit, they each took turns looking up to make sure the kids were all right. It would have been easy for onlookers to assume they were strangers. And that’s exactly what they felt like.

“Jimmy?” she hedged a while later, breaking the silence. “Maybe we should head home now. We’ve been here a couple hours, and Rynnie was so tired. Besides, it really looks ready to rain.”

“All right.” He sighed, standing. “I’ll get— Sara, do you see them?”

“Yeah, they’re— Oh, God! They were by the slides not even two minutes ago!” she exclaimed, panicked.

Jimmy took off, Sara on his heels.

“Jack! Ryne!” he bellowed, trying to guess where they might have gone from the slides.

“Jack! Rynnie! Answer us!” yelled Sara.

Knowing Jimmy was too big, she climbed into the jungle gym, twisting her way through the small metal openings. Desperate, she grabbed at girls with long dark hair, and boys with buzz cuts, shouting all the while. The children looked at her like she was crazy, but she could hear other parents shouting out her children’s names. They understood, they would help. She felt her top catch on the metal of the jungle gym. She yanked to pull it free and heard her sweater rip. It didn’t matter. Sara looked up to see Jimmy running to the trees. Would they have gone in there? She felt her stomach clench in fear. They had to be all right! They had to be.

A moment later, Rynnie’s scream echoed out of the trees that bordered the park. Jimmy’s instincts had been right, and he tore off after the sound. It didn’t take him long to reach the clearing where Rynnie was kneeling, crying.

“What happened?” he demanded, dropping to his own knees and grabbing her arms. “What happened, Arrynna? Where’s Jack?”

“The m-monster,” she sobbed. “I j-just wanted to help. Jack went with it, b-but the monster lied! She t-took Jack. I couldn’t s-stop her!”

“What happened?” demanded Sara, breaking into the clearing.

“The monsters. The stupid monsters!” he snarled.

“I’m s-sorry!”

“Then tell me what actually happened!” he demanded, shaking her.

“I did!”

“How many times do I have to tell you?” he roared, tightening his hold, panic overtaking him. “They’re not real! The monsters are not real! Jack’s real and he’s[_ ]gone![ _]Where is he?”

“Baby, please,” Sara pleaded, crying. “You have to tell us. We won’t be mad, whatever it is, but you have to tell us the truth. Please!”

“I d-don’t know,” Rynnie wailed. “The m-m-monsters—”

“There are no monsters, Arrynna!” Jimmy bellowed, shaking her.

“D-daddy—”

“What happened!”

“D-daddy, you’re hurting m-me.”

“I want the truth, Arrynna!” he ordered, giving her another shake.

Sara watched in horror as Rynnie broke down in sobs, stuttering so badly she was incoherent; and still, Jimmy pressed her. She wanted to tell him to stop, that he was hurting Rynnie, but…they had to find Jack. She flinched as Ryne’s head snapped violently back, pain and fear etched on her young face. Jimmy didn’t stop—couldn’t stop—as he screamed for the truth over and over again, rage and terror in his eyes. This wasn’t her husband. This was a desperate man who couldn’t stop to think. And Sara didn’t know what to do.

*****

Rynnie sat by the back door, struggling to tie her shoes. Mama always helped her tie them, but she couldn’t anymore, because she was in bed. Mama was always in bed. Rynnie didn’t understand it. She had overheard Daddy and the doctor talking. They had said words like depression and comatose. Rynnie didn’t know what they meant. She just knew Mama needed Jack to come back; then she’d be better. Then she could tie Rynnie’s shoes again, and make dinner, and tuck her in, and laugh… No one laughed anymore.

Rynnie watched the front door open and Grandmother come in. She and Daddy had to go somewhere, because Grandmother only came over to take care of Mama when he was going to be gone. She wished Daddy would just let her take care of Mama, but they didn’t let her see Mama anymore. She had overheard Grandmother say it would be too upsetting. Rynnie hadn’t known what that meant. She didn’t ask Daddy, because he’d only get mad. He didn’t talk to Rynnie much anymore. So she’d asked Grandmother instead. Grandmother was happy to tell her. She had said Rynnie couldn’t see Mama because it would remind her that Jack was missing and how it was Rynnie’s fault, and that was why Daddy didn’t like to talk to her anymore. That made her sad, but she didn’t have anyone else to talk to so she could see if it was really true. She hoped they found Jack soon. She wanted him home. Four months! It had been four months since the monster had taken Jack. She knew because she counted every day! She was tired of counting, and she wanted her brother back so Mama would get well and Daddy and Grandmother would like her again. But she had also overheard Daddy and the police talking. They weren’t looking for Jack anymore, so she didn’t know what was going to happen now.

She heard Daddy clear his throat. Rynnie looked up to see him waiting impatiently by the door, ready to go. Quickly she hopped up and ran, not wanting to keep him waiting, her shoes still untied.

“Daddy? Why did the police stop looking for Jack?” Ryne asked hesitantly, climbing out of the car when they finally arrived.

“Hush, Arrynna.”

“Why didn’t you make Mama come with us?”

She thought that, maybe, if Daddy made Mama get up, she might start feeling better.

“I told you to be quiet.”

“Yes, Daddy,” she whispered, following him inside.

She wasn’t sure why she had bothered asking questions. It only made Daddy angrier. She missed her old Daddy, the one who loved her.

She didn’t like the building. It was even worse than all the other hospitals and doctors’ offices Daddy and Mama took her to. Those ones had nice, happy people who gave her lollipops. They had pretty pictures on the wall. This place was cold. The floor needed to be cleaned, and the lady behind the counter looked mad. She wanted to ask for paper and crayons so she could make pictures for the walls—surely everybody would be happier with pretty pictures—but Rynnie was afraid the mad lady would yell. So she was stuck sitting on the old, torn plastic waiting chair, her legs kicking the air because it was too high for her. All the other people who were waiting looked sad too. She didn’t want to sit any longer. Besides, she shouldn’t even be here. She should be at home, trying to take care of Mama. Mama needed her even more now that Jack was missing, she just had to make Daddy and Grandmother realize that. And why were the grownups taking so long? She hated paperwork. Daddy always took forever with the paperwork, and this place didn’t even have toys! Finally, someone remembered she existed.

“Hi, Rynnie. I’m Dr. Blake,” said an older woman, holding out her hand. “Would you come with me, please?”

Obediently, Ryne took the doctor’s hand. Doctors could be trusted. After all, her daddy was one.

“Wait,” she said, turning back, fear pooling in the pit of her stomach. “Aren’t you coming, Daddy?”

Rynnie waited for him to say something. Instead, he closed his eyes, turned around, and walked out. The doors slid closed behind him. The sound seemed to echo loudly in Rynnie’s head. She didn’t know what to do, so she stood there, alone.

*****

Seven Years Later

“Yes, Rynnie. Come in.” Dr. Tawn smiled. “How are you today?”

“I’m good.” Rynnie smiled politely, unconsciously hunching in on herself. The doctor’s streamlined and ordered office always made her uncomfortable. “How are you?”

“Good. I understand congratulations are in order,” he stated, straightening the pad of paper on his glass desk.

“Huh?” She frowned, sitting down on his hard, black couch.

“You’re twelve today, aren’t you?” he replied, smiling condescendingly.

“Oh, yeah…thanks,” she said, forcing out a laugh when really, she wanted to roll her eyes—the doctors never seemed to care that she didn’t like to celebrate her birthday.

“I have some good news for you, Rynnie.”

“Oh?”

“I’m very proud of you, Arrynna,” he offered unhelpfully. “You’ve made so much progress in the time you’ve spent with us.”

“Um, thanks,” she said, fighting the urge to chew her lip. Was she going to be transferred?

“Because of that, my constituents— Do you know what constituents means?”

Now she did roll her eyes. “Duh. I’m twelve, not stupid, Dr. Tawn.”

“Of course.” He chuckled. “My apologies. As I was saying, my constituents and I believe you are ready to be released.”

“Seriously?” she asked, trying to control her excitement.

“Very seriously. Now, you will still have to meet with me on a regular basis…continue your medications… And we will, of course, need to continue to run tests. But, you don’t need to reside here for that. You’re ready to go home, Ryne.”

“Home?” she questioned apprehensively, yet hopefully.

“Well, a foster home,” he qualified, straightening the glasses case he kept on the end of his desk.

 

Chapter 1

Three Years Later

“Ryne! Ryna! Arrynna! WAKE UP!” yelled Dina, throwing a pillow at her.

“Sorry,” Ryne muttered, tossing the pillow back.

“‘Sorry’ doesn’t let me sleep. And that’s two nights running. It’s getting ri-dic-u-lous,” she snapped, drawing out the word. “Could you ask your crazy doctor for sleeping pills or something? If not for you, then for me?”

“Mm-hmm,” Ryne murmured noncommittally.

“I can’t believe she hasn’t given you something yet,” Dina complained as she re-adjusted her bedding, feeling cranky. “I mean, these really are some crazy bad nightmares… Crazy or not, though, they’re just dreams. Can’t you get over them? They’re always the same anyway; you should be used to them by now.”

“Mm,” Ryne grunted, trying to ignore the nausea that always followed these dreams. She was used to dreaming about her past, having nightmares about it, but these dreams weren’t from her past. She couldn’t figure out what they were about or why she was getting them. The only two things she was certain of were that these dreams meant something—which is why she couldn’t just get over them—and she did not, for any reason, want her “crazy” doctor knowing about them.

“Are you nauseous again?” asked Dina, a hint of concern in her voice.

“Mm-hmm,” she mumbled, wishing Dina would just go back to sleep.

If Dina wasn’t careful, she would wake up their foster parents. The people they lived with were well-off, but because they had never had kids, the couple had bought a house with a small upstairs. It had a large master suite, then, down a short hall, there was a tiny guest room, with a tiny attached bath. That tiny room had become hers and Dina’s. It worked…barely. The foster parents had managed to squeeze in two frameless twin beds, a couple of nightstands, one desk, and a dresser. The girls just had to be careful when they walked around. They were always either stubbing a toe or smashing a shin. It didn’t help that Dina rarely picked up after herself.

“That’s so not normal. Granted it’s you, but still… So, what’d she say about them?” Dina asked, her voice still too loud

“What’d who say?” Ryne played dumb. Dina was always trying to figure out what was talked about at Ryne’s sessions.

“Your shrink. Duh.”

“Oh, you know, shrink stuff,” Ryne responded with a shrug, trying to get comfortable. She just wanted to go back to sleep.

“Oh, wow. Informative,” Dina dead-panned. “What sort of ‘shrink stuff’?”

“The sort that’s private. Doctor-patient confidentiality and all.” Ryne evaded, hoping Dina would let it drop. Her shrink was not her favorite topic, and if Dina kept probing, Ryne knew she’d put it together.

“Oh, puh-lease. They’re just dreams. What could be so very confidential about… that?” Then understanding dawned on her face. “You haven’t told her about them, have you?”

“When’d I say that?” Ryne asked, praying she’d drop it. But that’s not how her luck worked…or how Dina worked, for that matter. Dina meant well, but often got caught up in herself and would push too far or too hard, or was just plain rude, without realizing it until after.

“You didn’t have to say.” Dina smiled, looking like Christmas had come early. “It’s written all over your face.”

Ryne turned over to go back to sleep.

“Arrynna? We both need to sleep. I mean seriously, you don’t look good. The foster parents might not care, but I do…so, if you don’t come home with a prescription tomorrow, I’m going to tell her,” Dina promised. “For your own good. And maybe my own, a little.”

Somehow, Ryne didn’t think the nausea was from the dream anymore.

*****

Ryne contemplated her options as she walked down the cracked sidewalk, past the old derelict building of downtown. Telling her shrink about the dream was [not _]an option. That would open up a whole messy can of worms, especially since they didn’t usually talk about her “crazy issues.” Ryne didn’t even like _thinking about them and was trying hard not to notice the Magicks cluttering the street, visible to only her. She had, by necessity, learned to have tunnel vision when she was walking, because seeing something with horns or wings could really throw a girl off. She couldn’t afford to seem unsettled when she reached her doctor’s office, particularly since her current shrink seemed content to discuss only the normal issues in her life instead of the paranormal ones, and Ryne had no desire to risk changing that.

But if she hears about the dreams from anyone else, that’ll mean an even bigger can of wormslike a whole tub. But she won’t, will she? Even Dina wouldn’t sink that low… unless I don’t come home with something…Crap… I could kill Dina for this… Maybe I could fake it somehowmislabel a bottle? I could tell her the doc wants me to start with over-the-counter meds? It might work, ‘cause I will not tell… Ow!

“I am sorry,” said a man’s voice as a pair of hands steadied her.

“My fault,” Ryne started, looking up. “I wasn’t pay…”

[_Oh no! He’s a faerie. A well-glamoured faerie, but still a faerie. Oh gosh! I’ve stopped talking. Focus, Ryne! _]

“Paying attention.”

Hope he didn’t notice my pause. Relax, Ryne! You can’t look scared! He can’t suspect you know he isn’t human! Why hasn’t he let go of me? Breathe, just breathe…

“A lady’s prerogative,” he replied, sounding smooth and unconcerned. But his eyes said otherwise. “I hope you are all right?”

He still hadn’t let go of her, but Ryne was more concerned by the two unglamoured faeries—who nobody else could see—standing near him. They seemed rather like guards… Was he a powerful faerie? Ryne was distracted from her train of thought as Magicks started to stop and stare. Out of the corner of her eye she could see two gnomes unabashedly pointing.

Oh, crap. I haven’t answered. Crap!

“Yes. Uh…Yes, I’m fine,” she said quickly.

Apparently disbelieving her thanks to Ryne’s lengthy pause, he pressed, “Are you certain?”

Was he concerned? Curious? It wasn’t unheard of for Magicks, faeries in particular, to take interest in mortals. Some even took a good deal more than just an interest. Regardless, she needed to get away and so tensed her arms. To Ryne’s immense relief, he took the hint and immediately dropped his hands. She tugged her over-sized sweater tighter around herself in comfort and tried not fidget with her lightweight scarf. She wore both to help hide how bony she was

“Certain. Thank you.”

He stood there for a few more awkward moments though, as if he were debating whether or not to believe her. Ryne struggled not to blink too much. Whenever she looked at a glamour it was as if she was seeing double, or watching a flickering screen. When she looked at this creature, she saw the tall, broad young man, the short cropped, black hair, and handsome, tanned face with rounded features; at the same time, she saw the faerie underneath, who was taller and broader, with long white dreads that ended in icicles. His face, white as snow, had harsh angles. It disoriented her.

“Well, I am relieved then,” he finally replied, walking past her, his… guards in tow.

Ryne turned just in time to see the faerie drop his glamour and turn to look directly at her. Instinctively, she turned her head back and forth like she was trying to see where he had gone. He smiled. She shrugged, turned around, and continued walking. Nervous though, she glanced at the dirty windows of passing stores.

Crap! They’re following me. Crap!

Every part of Ryne wanted to run. Instead, she kept her pace, making sure her expression gave nothing away, and forced herself to ignore the stares of gawking Magicks. She suppressed a groan as she realized, thanks to passing gazes, that he[_ had_] to be an important faerie.

She let out a sigh of relief as she walked through the glass door of the Downtown Psychiatric Offices and he didn’t follow her in. Walking two blocks at a leisurely and steady gait when every ounce of her being wanted to run as fast as possible, sucked! Stepping into the elevator, she put on her game face, trying to bury the panic that was desperate to break out of her. She didn’t need Dr. Melanie Rose thinking that anything was wrong.

 

Chapter 2

“Sire?” asked one of King Raveed’s bodyguards.

“Yes, Griff?”

“Why did you stage that meeting with the human girl, if you do not mind my asking?”

“I…” he began, except Raveed—the Winter King—wasn’t really sure why. He also wasn’t sure he wanted to try to explain it, at least not to them. “She caught my interest.”

Arrie, Raveed’s other bodyguard, let out a snort of amusement, and said, “It seemed like a lot more than passing interest. And I know I am not the only one who noticed your… attention… judging from the way those Gnomes were pointing.

Raveed frowned; he hadn’t intended to draw attention from other Magicks.

Arrie opened his mouth to comment again, but Raveed gestured for him to fall silent as they entered Winter’s Realm. The change was abrupt and, to some, the sudden presence of snow was disorienting. As the snow crunched beneath his feet and large, fat, swirling flakes settled in his hair, Raveed was comforted. It never stopped snowing in Winter’s Realm, and the huge pine trees, blanketed in snow, the endless buildings—both cottages and mansions alike—practically painted in it, brought him peace. As the large palace came into sight, lights twinkling in the windows, Raveed felt himself breathe easier.

Arrie went to comment again, but one look from the Winter King and he fell silent. Usually, Raveed preferred Arrie’s casual manner, a rarity in his court, to Griff’s nervous and excessively formal one—but today he needed Arrie to behave a little more according to protocol as he tried to order his thoughts. Allowing the conversation to drop, Raveed picked up his pace. He needed to speak with Rayelle before the meeting with his brothers.

*****

“Rayelle?”

“You are back so soon?” she questioned, crossing the room to him. “The meeting with your brothers cannot possibly be over already.”

“It has yet to begin. I needed to speak with you first,” he explained, closing the library door behind him.

“You will be late.”

“My brothers will survive the misfortune.” Raveed smiled at her.

“Well then, my love, by all means, what is on your mind?”

“A girl.”

“A girl?” Rayelle’s mouth twisted in distaste on the word, causing Raveed to smile. His Queen was known for her jealous temperament—an oddity given their court. He didn’t mind the whispered comments about it, though; he found it too endearing a trait to caution her against it.

“Yes. A girl. A [_human _]girl,” he explained, wondering what it was that drew him to her. “She is not a normal human, though. If I did not know any better, I would say that she could See, but the anomaly was purged out of existence eons ago.”

“You should never assume that you know better,” she reminded him, her jealousy assuaged by the girl’s humanity. “Was there anything else about her that made her… stand out so?”

“I was… drawn to her… it was as if I could… sense her. I had no idea what I was feeling. I still don’t. I followed this… feeling. How, I do not know, but when I was finally in the same vicinity, I knew that whatever this… force was, it was coming from her. I wanted to meet her. I needed to meet her. It was as if everything inside of me was telling me that if I did not go to her, [_something _]would have gone terribly wrong… It was more than just being drawn to her… it was… as if I was being pushed to her. When I met her, spoke to her, it was as if I [_knew _]her from somewhere—which makes no sense, she is a human… but still. It is as if she has stirred some deep memory, but I just cannot place it,” Raveed finished, imploring her to have answers.

Rayelle frowned. “Anything more substantial than that?”

“She was heading to a… psychiatric”—he pronounced the word as if it were foreign to him— “office. Those people mortals call… shrinks?”

He shrugged as if it was of no real importance, and perhaps it wasn’t.

“Poor child,” Rayelle murmured as she lost herself in thought, pacing in front of the empty fireplace grate. “Well, she must be of some importance to pull on your magick unconsciously, though I could not begin to fathom what that significance is precisely, or even generally… We need to learn more about her, but quietly. It would not be good to draw unwanted attention. If this girl is important, I want it to benefit [_our _]court.”

“So where does that leave us?” Raveed thought out loud.

“Do you think you could find her again?” she asked, pausing to look at her King.

“I am certain of it.”

“I would like to see her for myself.”

“Of course,” he agreed. “Speaking of unwanted attentions, I should join my brothers.”

 

Chapter 3

“You’re late,” Dr. Rose disapproved as Ryne entered the small but cozy office.

“Sorry,” Ryne muttered, heading to the patched, red, corduroy couch. “I knocked into someone and it held me up.”

“Mm-hmm,” the doctor murmured. But turning to face Ryne, her expression quickly shifted to concern. “Did this person bother you?”

“No, he just made sure I was all right,” Ryne assured, unconsciously rubbing her arms where [_he _]had gripped them.

Dr. Rose frowned.

“I can see you don’t want to talk about it, but if something happened, or even just almost happened, you can tell me. You should tell me,” she nudged kindly.

Ryne shook her head.

“No, n-nothing happened,” she stuttered.

Ryne felt her stomach twist and desperately hoped Dr. Rose hadn’t noticed the slight stutter. She knew it was pointless, every psychiatrist she went to knew what it meant when Arrynna Doe stuttered. It didn’t matter that she hadn’t done it in years; it would still be on the top of her file. The doctor’s face was enough to tell Ryne her mistake hadn’t gone unnoticed. She couldn’t believe she’d slipped up like that. She never slipped up anymore. She couldn’t afford to. [_That faerie! _]He’d just so unnerved her.

Dr. Rose picked up an unopened bottle of water, her heels clicking against the worn mahogany flooring as she crossed the room and sat next to Ryne. Handing over the water, Dr. Rose placed her hand on Ryne’s shoulder in what Ryne supposed was meant to be comfort.

“‘Nothing happened’? Your facial expression when you walked in said differently,” she pointed out, kind enough not to use the obvious and humiliating stutter as evidence too.

“No, n-noth… He j-just… It’s f-fine… Honestly. I s-swear.”

Oh, my gosh! Can I just not have to say anything, please?

“It’s okay, Rynnie. You’re not in trouble. Just take a couple deep breaths, go slowly, and tell me what happened,” the doctor coached, giving Ryne’s shoulder a light squeeze.

Oh, crap! What do I say to her? “Well Dr. Rose, a faerie wearing a human glamour almost knocked me over but caught me just in time, took an unnerving amount of interest in me, followed me here, and now I’m freaked out of my mind! Oh, and I can still feel where he gripped my arms.” Yeah, right. That’s an automatic go-straight-to-institution, do-not-pass-go, do-not-collect-two-hundred-dollars…and no chance of rolling doubles to get out. Life would be so much easier if I were blind…

“Rynnie,” she pressed, sounding concerned.

“I s-swear, n-nothing happened! It’s just, he r-reminded me of s-someone… It brought back m-memories and kind of f-freaked me out,” Ryne fudged.

[_God, I hope she buys it, because he reminded me of someone, all right! He reminded me of a freaking faerie. Just remember, the closer you stick to the truth, Ryne, the better your chance of not stuttering… I hope. _]

“Reminded you of whom?” Dr. Rose pushed, determined to reach the bottom of it because Ryne didn’t upset easily.

“No one im-important. It doesn’t m-matter.”

“It must be important if you’re bothered this much. We’ve made so much progress, you and I,” she tried to soothe. “Won’t you trust me?”

[_Wow, could you have asked a worse question? Trust a shrink—a state shrink? Puh-lease. Okay, Ryne. Get. It. Together. You can do this, _]she coached herself.

“Of… course I… do… but really, I’m… fine… please… don’t w-worry.”

Gah! So close. Stupid W!

“That was good,” Dr. Rose encouraged. “But worrying is in my job description. Now, if you don’t want to say his name, we could read through some of the names in your file,” she suggested, knowing Ryne hadn’t always had an easy time of it in her foster homes, or even the institutions. The girl didn’t know it, but Dr. Rose had made sure those doctors and nurses were investigated, and many of them were let go. “I mean, if he reminded you of someone and it bothers you this much, Ryne, he would be in your records. You wouldn’t have to say anything; just nod yes or no.”

“N-no! That w-w… He’s… He’s… you won’t…” Ryne trailed off in embarrassed frustration. Knowing she couldn’t afford to hide her face in her hands, she settled for picking at the label on her water bottle. It had been years since she’d lost control so severely in front of a doctor. Her freedom was dependent on not slipping up. As she waited in silence to see what direction Dr. Rose would try to steer her next, Ryne decided she definitely needed to improve her game face.

“He’s not in your file?” the doctor guessed correctly, gently adding, “Arrynna, did anyone else see the man you bumped into?”

“Yes!” she snapped, adamantly. “I s-swear, honest to G-God! Other people turned to look! I’m not s-seeing things!”

Ryne had worked too hard to have things messed up now. Unfortunately, Dr. Rose was still clearly trying to decide whether or not she was going to believe her.

[_Time to see if I can take home that Academy Award. _]Ryne thought in desperation, lowering her head and wringing her hands.

“You don’t b-believe me.” Sniff. “But you have my w-word! I’m t-telling the…” Sniff. “T-truth, Dr. Rose.” Sniff. “It’s j-just…” Dramatic pause, deep breath. “He reminded m-me of… of… of h-him.” Ryne looked up and gave her doctor a meaningful look, knowing she looked ready to cry. “You know, f-from the Incident?” Ryne mumbled—referring to that day Jack had been taken—and ducked her head back down, she gave another sniff. She felt Dr. Rose get up. “It f-freaked me out, c-completely. It brought b-back all these m-memories, you know. I should have t-told you, but I j-just…” Feeling Dr. Rose sit back down, Ryne let her shoulders sag in apparent defeat, gave another sniff, and finished in a quiet voice, “I’m s-sorry, Dr. Rose.”

“Here you go, Rynnie,” she handed her a couple of tissues and wrapped a soft, blue, knitted blanket around Ryne, who secretly loved the old, worn thing. She gave Ryne’s shoulder one last squeeze and returned to her regular seat.

“I’m sorry. That must have been hard on you.”

[_ And the award for best performance goes to_]…

“Is there a chance is [_was _]him?”

Ryne ignored the slight tug on her heart she felt, the twinge of guilt, and shook her head no. Dr. Rose was the only one who had ever believed the “him” in question ever actually existed.

“Are you certain?”

Ryne nodded.

“All right. I understand that you don’t want to explore your past, Ryne, which is partly my fault, since I haven’t pushed you to. Please understand that I wanted you to trust me with your present before I asked you to trust me with your past. I also wanted you to know that your present is no less important than your past, so I chose to provide you with an outlet for it. That said, and considering how much today has upset you, I believe it is time we start exploring your past. And maybe a good place to start would be with those dreams you’ve been having?”

Well… crap.

“Dina called you!” Ryne exclaimed in outrage, shrugging off the blanket as she processed exactly what the doctor was saying.

[_Why, that little… When I get my hands on her… _]Ryne struggled to control her temper.

“I wish she hadn’t. I wish you had told me about them,” Dr. Rose said, playing the guilt card to no success—Ryne was just too mad.

“They’re j-just dreams,” she sulked. “There’s n-nothing to tell.”

“Rynnie,” the doctor chided, “when dreams wake you up screaming and nauseous, there is something to tell.”

“I beg to d-differ,” Ryne grumbled in response.

The rest of the hour passed slowly, Dr. Rose trying to make Ryne open up about the dreams, to no avail.

In the end, she settled with, “I suppose we’ll pick this up next week. In the meantime—”

“Next week? But I come every two weeks,” Ryne protested.

“Not anymore, Rynnie,” Dr. Rose said with an apologetic smile. “I think it would be good for you if we went back to meeting every week. I’ll speak with your caseworker tonight. It’s not a punishment, Rynnie. Really, you could look at it as more of a gift. Now, in the meantime, I’m going to give you something to help you sleep; you’re looking peaked. Then, hopefully, we can get to the bottom of these dreams.”

Ryne nodded like a good little crazy girl.

“And then, maybe, we could talk about the Incident?”

Ryne froze. She did not talk about that…to anyone…ever! Never had, never would. It wouldn’t change anything; those memories were best left in the past. Dwelling on it wouldn’t bring Jack back or make anyone—other than Dr. Rose—believe there had actually been someone there that day. The police had decided he must have gotten lost and fallen into the river that ran through the woods by the old park. The currents were fast, and he wouldn’t have stood a chance. Case closed. So, really, what was the point in talking about it anymore?

Apparently, Dr. Rose’s great powers of observation picked up on that, because she backtracked, saying, “Or not. It’s up to you; your pace, your comfort. I’m just here to help and guide, not control.” She smiled and handed Ryne the prescription. “I’ll see you next week.”

“Thank you.”

Ryne left.

 

Chapter 4

“Finally decided to grace us with your presence, Raveed?” grumbled Wrathin, King of the Unseelie, from his seat at the old stone meeting table.

“He is not [_that _]late,” King Laetis pointed out impatiently—the ruler of the Autumn Court often found his patience tried by his brother’s bickering.

“Besides, considering[_ your_] attendance record, Wrath, you might not want to comment,” added the King of Summer, Raider. “So why the delay, Ravi? Trouble on the home front?”

“Simply occupied,” he answered. And needing the attention off of him, he added, “[_My _]court, after all, is not one of frivolity.”

“Are you suggesting mine is?”

“Stating, actually.”

“Frivolity has its place. There is a time for everything, after all.” Raider shrugged with a façade of calm, spoiled by the unexpected thunderclap echoing through the cavern they occupied.

“Fair point, brother. Except your court’s time seems to be devoted to only [_one _]thing.” The Winter King smiled back as Raider opened his mouth to give another retort.

“And now, we are further wasting time,” Laetis’ deep voice boomed, bringing them all back to attention.

Satisfied that his fellow kings were frustrated enough with the petty argument not to further question the oddity of his tardiness, Raveed went to his place at the ancient table, the thick purple smoke, which coated the cavern’s floor, swirling around his feet as he walked.

“Before we start the business at hand, there is an unexpected matter I wish to discuss with you all,” began King Apollo, looking at each of his brothers, not sure how this was going to play out on him—the King of Spring often chose to abstain from the politics and the power plays of the Faerie World, so he could not be sure how seriously they would take what he had to tell them. “Have any of you… sensed anything lately?”

Apollo forced himself not to wince over how pathetic the question sounded.

“Have we [_sensed _]anything?” Wrathin and Raider echoed in unison, their tones equally derisive.

Unperturbed by his brothers, however, Apollo continued, “I know I am not phrasing it correctly, but I am unsure of how else to put it… More a[_ pull,_] I suppose, than a feeling. But the need to follow this pull is almost unbearable; only, I have not figured out [_how _]to follow it, as of yet.”

Raveed hoped to maintain a thoughtful expression at the Spring King’s statement. As for Wrathin and Raider, it was clear Unseelie and Summer recognized Apollo’s “pulling,” but had no intention of saying so.

“While our loyalties are divided between the courts we each hold, we are united by Faeriedom and our desire to… maintain the upper hand in Magick.” Laetis sighed, sounding as if he had been over this too many tiresome times before. “I have felt this… pulling, for lack of a better term. We [_all _]have, even if the rest of you will not admit it. I also share Apollo’s foreboding. It would serve us well to work together on this; I fear it will become bigger than our individual courts.”

The Autumn King watched his brothers in silence as they made their decision and he forced himself to ignore the bit of guilt he felt. Despite his insistence on working together, Laetis chose not to reveal what one of his Oracles had told him—whatever was happening, it wouldn’t just become bigger than their individual courts. It would encompass all of Magick. That disturbing tidbit, Laetis felt, was better left for another day.

“Agreed,” Raveed volunteered first, knowing he and Rayelle would have to maneuver even more deftly now, but not seeing any immediate alternatives.

“Agreed,” Apollo added, looking relieved.

“Since the majority has already won,” said Wrathin, who, if he were not so frightening, would have seemed to be pouting, “I suppose I am agreed.”

“Since my vote is of no importance now,” said Raider, who [was _]pouting, “I advise we attempt to understand this… _pull, as Apollo calls it, on our own time, and move on to more pressing concerns.”

“Certainly,” replied Laetis, pleased with the outcome. He would have room to maneuver on his own while keeping a hand in their schemes as well. “To start, my scouts have found nothing, per usual.”

“Nor have mine,” stated Wrathin, all joking gone. The five of them had searched for years at the behest of the Seelie King, and still they had found nothing.

“Same,” replied Apollo, sadly.

Raider simply shook his head, looking oddly somber.

“Mine have not found anything, either,” said Raveed, gravely.

“Whose turn is it to report to Morrin?” Laetis sighed, wishing he could stop feeling so disappointed every time they came up empty handed.

Raider’s serious expression quickly became a scowl. “Mine.”

 

Chapter 5

As she left the Downtown Psychiatric Offices, Ryne was relieved to find that her Faerie Stalker, as she had dubbed him, was nowhere to be seen. That relief, however, was short-lived. She had just entered her local drugstore, when she realized that he was back—back and staring. And to top it all off, there was another faerie with him—a female, who had four guards! This was not a good sign.

[Don’t look, don’t look, don’t look! Just continue shopping like everything is fine. Man, sometimes I wish I really was crazy instead of all this being real. Crap! Pay attention, Ryne! You can’t look like nothing is wrong if you don’t pay attention to your shopping. Lip gloss! Need lip gloss… lip gloss, lip gloss, lip gloss… Got it. Keep ignoring them. And moving on to eye makeup remover… Don’t let them unsettle you! _]she coached herself[. They can’t unnerve you! Mascara… Where’s the mascara?_]

Finally done with her list, Ryne glanced at her phone to see how much time she had managed to waste.

Good. It should be done, she thought, and made her way over to the pharmacy counter.

“It’s under Doe,” Ryne said when she got to the pickup counter.

“Oh, yes. Here it is,” replied the pharmacist, who looked like a rather picturesque grandmother. “Would you like— Are you all right, dear?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Are you sure? You look as if you’ve seen a ghost.” She smiled kindly.

“Uh… Thank you, ma’am, but I’m fine,” Ryne assured, trying not to think about her invisible stalkers.

“All right, then. Do you want to check out here, dear? You don’t have too much.”

“Yes, ma’am,” she answered.

While fumbling in her purse for her wallet, Ryne stole a glance at the congregated faeries behind her.

[_Crap! There are even more of them! Oh, no. The new three are Unseelie, _]she thought in fear.

Years of bearing witness to the magickal world had taught her that the Unseelie Fey were more than just malignant pranksters, as human folklore generally suggested; in actuality, they were a court of nightmares, twisted and depraved. Ryne tried not to think about them, particularly the largest of the Unseelie who had come. She had never seen one so terrifying. And it wasn’t even how he looked. Though frightening in his own right, it was more powerful than that—he simply exuded fear. His tall frame, wide through the shoulders, with extra joints in his arms and legs, towered over the others; his long, unkempt, black hair didn’t hide his prominent cheekbones and strong jaw. Shadows seemed to crawl across his smooth alabaster skin as if this faerie’s dark magick couldn’t rest, even when he did. It took almost all her self-control to turn her head away, and not allow his deep-set black eyes to draw her in. It took the rest of her self-control not to run, as his white pointed teeth flashed while he spoke, a forked tongue slithering out every now and then. Just glancing at the creature gave her foreboding chills—she needed to get out of here.

“Dear?”

“Yes, ma’am?” Ryne said quickly, turning away from the deep black eyes that studied her out of snakelike slits, hoping she hadn’t been distracted by the faeries for too long. Moreover, that they had not noticed her distraction.

“You sure you’re all right? You really don’t look well. Maybe you should call someone to pick you up?” she pushed.

“No ma’am… Thank you, though,” Ryne insisted, though the pharmacist continued to look unconvinced. “Really, I’m fine. Just tired. What was my total?”

Although she didn’t look completely satisfied, the old woman apparently decided to accept Ryne’s fib and said, “Fifty-eight-eighty-seven.”

Taking her bag, Ryne walked out of the store feeling both the pharmacist’s and the faeries’ eyes on her back.

“Hey, Rynnie,” came Dina’s voice. Ryne, however, walked past her. “Oh, don’t be like that!”

Ryne’s face hardened as she fought the urge to scream. For most of the day, fear had been in the forefront of Ryne’s emotions. But unfortunately for Dina, anger had just pushed past it.

“‘Don’t be like that’? Are you kidding me?” Ryne snapped incredulously.

“Rynnie!” Dina pleaded, impatiently brushing her long blond hair out of her face as the wind blew. “Don’t you think you’re overreacting?”

“No!” Ryne barked, her voice close to a yell, Dina’s expression clearly saying she had just proved her point.

“Ryne, just calm—”

“You called my shrink!” she growled, enunciating each word slowly, forgetting the fact that they were in a very public parking lot. “Do you realize how many lines that crosses?”

“Well, excuse me for taking the initiative that you wouldn’t!” Dina retorted, her own anger starting to well up, her olive-green eyes flashing.

“No! It wasn’t your place to take the initiative.”

“It is when you won’t, and it’s your yelling keeping me up at night,” Dina snapped back.

“I was going to take care of it, but no, you had to stick your big nose where it didn’t belong and complicate everything!”

“First of all,” Dina lashed back, sounding indignant, “my nose is not big; it’s perfect. Second of all, you were already complicated, or you wouldn’t be seeing a crazy doctor, so what’s the big deal?”

Ryne turned and walked away, hating how horrible Dina could be at times.

“Rynnie? Rynnie, wait. Please! That was wrong and I shouldn’t have said it.” Ryne, however, kept walking. “C’mon Ryne! You know me… I speak without thinking. It’s not like I meant it!”

“And that makes it okay?” Ryne demanded, incensed, because she knew that part of Dina had meant it. “Just because you know some of my past… that does not give you the right to use it against me!”

“I know, I know. I do, really. It was thoughtless and wrong and I’m sorry, I am… But you forgive me, right?” asked Dina, as if she were the one who had been insulted.

“For which offense?” Ryne reminded, raising an eyebrow.

“Um… All of them?” Dina smiled and Ryne started to walk away again. “No, I’m serious, Ryne. I’m sorry I called your shrink. I won’t do anything like that again. And my comment was stupid and I’m sorry for it. I will probably make another stupid and hurtful comment at some point—it’s me, speaking without thinking is my specialty—but I do promise to be sorry for it. Forgive me, please?”

What’s even the point? My being angry isn’t going to change the fact that Dina is Dina… Ryne thought in frustration, then conceded, “Fine.”

“Yay!” Dina squealed, launching herself at Ryne in a hug. Or at least, she was trying to hug her. Ryne was too busy trying to regain her balance. “You know most people hug back.”

“Well, I’m not most people. Could you please let go before we both fall over?”

“Fine.” Dina sighed, letting go. “So, how much do you love me?”

“Why?” was all Ryne responded, since that question usually meant Dina wanted something.

“Because, I came in my car, and I’m going to give you a ride to work. And I’m going to give you a ride home so you don’t have to walk in those stilettos you insist on wearing.”

“If you were as short as me, you’d insist on wearing them, too. And right now, I love you a lot.” Ryne smiled back as Dina looped their arms, relieved to have things back to normal between them.

“Good, you should,” Dina agreed.

Ryne’s stomach clenched as she slid into the passenger side of the car. She had completely forgotten about her Faerie Stalkers while she and Dina had been arguing. She couldn’t let herself be that careless. Then, to her horror, she heard one of them ask, “Well, what do you make of her?”

Oh crap!

*****

“She is a pretty thing,” observed Wrathin.

“Is that always the first thing you notice?” The Winter Queen asked with disdain, as she turned to look at him, the icicles clinging to the ends of her long white hair clinking musically.

“Usually.” He smirked, unrepentant. Then, clearly entertained by the mortals’ fight, he added, “I noticed her temper too. Feisty thing, isn’t she?”

“It seemed she had every right to be angry,” she answered him. “And to describe her as pretty is more of an insult than a compliment. Do you not agree, Raveed?”

“I suppose, though her appearance was not a concern to me. We have more pressing issues to consider,” he answered nonchalantly, unknowingly making Rayelle smile.

Wrathin, on the other hand, gave a cough that sounded rather like, “Whipped.”

“That is such a mortal term, Wrathin. I do not understand why you find their vernacular so amusing. Must you really be so vulgar?” Rayelle demanded.

“My darling, it’s my nature.” He smiled. He never tired of picking at the Winter regent’s icy demeanor.

[That infuriating smirk, he makes me want to freeze the grin right off his face. No! I am calm, detached, _]the Winter Queen reminded herself as she fought to hold onto her outward composure[. An outward display of anger would be entirely unacceptable_]—at least, over something so petty. I. Am. Calm. I will not react… The girl. Focus on the girl.

The girl did seem oddly familiar to her, which surprised Rayelle, as she was not one to dabble with humans like many Fey did. Attempting to determine why the girl struck her so, and not trusting her own temper, Rayelle left Wrathin to the Winter King. And he was far from pleased.

“Nature or not, brother, you will show my Queen the respect demanded,” he warned calmly, not amused by Wrathin’s antics.

Rayelle suppressed a smile as her stomach flipped. Raveed’s voice—so calm, so cold—made her wish they were alone. It was his voice that had first drew her attraction all those millennia ago in the early days of her reign. He was a perfect and complete embodiment of Winter. It was why he ruled their court so well, so effectively. Rayelle strove to achieve that same personification but unfortunately failed more often than succeeded.

“If she feels disrespected, let her say it for herself,” Wrathin sneered. “Look at her—her face is as emotionless as a corpse. I would lose my mind if Lordis needed such coddling!”

“Wrathin, I make no pretense of trying to understand your… marriage—though I use the term loosely—or your court. I would advise you to pay the same courtesy to mine,” Raveed replied, cold condescension sliding over every word. “Now, unless you have anything else to share concerning your observations of the girl, I suggest we go our separate ways.”

“The first good thing you have had to say all night. It has been interesting, as usual, Raveed… My Lady…” Wrathin sneered, giving a mock bow to Rayelle before he turned and left.

Once certain the Unseelie King was gone and that their guards were too far off to hear their whispers, Rayelle said, “I find him absolutely insufferable.”

“As do I,” replied Raveed, sounding distracted.

“It was kind of you, though.” She smiled, imagining herself reaching up to run a hand over his white dreadlocks, but maintaining her restraint.

“Always,” he replied distractedly. “What do you make of the girl?”

Sighing, as she had learned long ago just how single-minded he could be, Rayelle answered, “I do not feel the pull you and your brothers do, but there is something familiar about her. I just cannot seem to place it.”

*****

“Wifey,” Wrathin called—another mortal term he enjoyed—as he entered his bedchamber.

He knew she would be waiting for him, they had unfinished business to attend to.

“You know I hate it when you call me that.”

“Yes,” he replied with a grin.

“I was not expecting you back so soon,” she said, allowing her silk robe to fall before making her way over the large bed, causing him to smile again.

“I can only endure Raveed and his Frost Queen for so long.”

“That is more than I can say for them,” she responded absentmindedly as she laid herself out on the bed, angling her body appealingly.

“Mmm,” he murmured back, however, losing himself thought.

Disappointed—she was not in the mood for court concerns—she sat up, the slit of her nightgown falling open wider, exposing the whole of her toned leg. She asked, “The girl?”

“Yes. She was an interesting little thing. And the draw to her…” Wrathin thought out loud. Turning to look at Lordis, he continued, “I thought it was strong before, but that near to her it was…”

He trailed off, apparently lost the words.

“If you are so… drawn to her, have your fun with the girl and be done with this,” she snapped, not understanding his hesitation. What purpose did mortals serve, if not for the pleasure of their taking?

Wrathin let out a laugh that filled the cavernous room, echoing off the stone walls. Ignoring her scowl, he said, “Short and direct—one of the many reasons I am attracted to you.”

“Why did you laugh at me?” She pouted.

“It was at the idea, not you.”

“It was my idea.”

“It is just not that sort of draw. It is… not sexual,” he told her, his eyes trailing over the curve of her lush thigh, red and gold scales running down it in a twisting pattern. “The only one I am feeling that kind of a draw to right now is you.”

“Then why are you still over there?” She smiled, seductively, running a talon-tipped hand over the rounding of her hip, letting a thin strap slide off her shoulder.

It was all the invitation he needed.

 

Chapter 6

The door shut behind her, apparently of its own accord. It was heavy, old—just like the room she had stepped into. She could taste its age, its… power? She wasn’t quite sure. She was, however, sure that she didn’t want to be here. But want didn’t matter; she had to be here. Besides, even if she could have willed herself to turn around, to leave, she didn’t have the strength to open the door, and they wouldn’t help her.

“You are brave, child.”

She didn’t know where it had come from. It seemed to echo all around her, [within _]her. But that Voice… That Voice meant the world to her. And for that Voice, she would do this, whatever _this was.

She stepped forward and suddenly wanted, needed, desperately to scream. She couldn’t. All she could do was stand in painful silence as the air was ripped from her lungs. It was as if an invisible pillow was pressed to her mouth and nose, while every millimeter of air was sucked from her. She couldn’t breathe.

The Voice! She held on to that thought with all she had and did the only thing she could, she took another step forward. The air didn’t rush back into her as she had hoped. Instead, it seemed she no longer needed to breathe. She wanted to. Her lungs burned as if she was still suffocating and she could do nothing to ease it. But it wasn’t killing her. She took another step forward.

Everything went black. She was… suspended? Floating? Water! She was submerged in water. A distant part of mind supposed it was good she no longer needed air, but she took little comfort in it, knowing things were only going to get worse. They always got worse. If only she could remember how.

It hurt! She opened her mouth and though no sound emerged, the scream in her mind was deafening. It was as if the blood coursing through her had doubled, only her veins and arteries and organs had not. The pain of it, of her blood trying to push its way through spaces far too small… She could almost hear her body screaming in protest. And just when she thought she could not take it anymore, that surely every blood vessel must burst, it stopped. No pain, no nothing. Just empty, as if she no longer had any blood running through her. And just as suddenly, she was back—standing in that room, afraid. She looked down at her hands. Even if she could have somehow made herself scream without oxygen, she wouldn’t have. She was, in that moment, enveloped by a new fear, one that not only stole her voice but also any desire to use it.

The faint blue lines she could usually make out under her skin were gone. Her eyes traveled farther up her arm and still no blue lines. What had happened to her? She wanted to run—run and never look back. No air, no blood… She should be dead! Why couldn’t she just be dead? She didn’t want to face any more. She should walk away, just leave all this. It would be smart to walk away. But the Voice… She took another step forward.

It went dark again, but this time it was cool and damp, not cold and wet. She wasn’t floating either. She was… She didn’t know. The smell and feel were familiar, but she couldn’t place it. She gripped with her bloodless hands and they enclosed on… dirt. She was underground! The realization made her stomach clench, and then the pain came.

It was as if her skin were being stretched like putty as the earth pressed in around her. It hurt so badly. She needed to scream, to run, to blackout—something, anything! As her skin continued to pull, painfully and unnaturally stretching, she could feel the dirt pushing itself into every pore. And just when she thought that surely the pain would kill her, it was done. She was back in the room where she had started, feeling worn and used.

What had happened to her this time? She clasped her hands together, thinking to steady herself, but let go instantly. They didn’t feel like her hands. They felt creased and leathery. Shaking, she forced herself to look down. Oh God! Her mind screamed in protest of what her eyes were seeing. Her skin! It wasn’t hers! She had the skin of the old woman, dirt seeming to pour from it with every movement. What else could possibly await her? Had it not been enough? But she had made her choice, and she would follow it no matter how hard. She was dedicated to that Voice, which meant… She took another step.

Nothing. She was herself again. She could breath, see the blue lines of her veins stretching underneath her smooth, youthful skin. But before she could even begin to process her relief, it hit her. Not physical this time. So much deeper, far more potent. It was as if some monster had burrowed inside her to her very soul and was shredding it. She didn’t know it was possible to feel so much. So much pain, sorrow, desperation, fear, anger, and loneliness. She could feel the corruption of her entire world, and it was drowning her. There was a consequence, a price to be paid for their evils, and she was going to pay it.

It was overwhelming her, pummeling her, suffocating her. It was too much. She couldn’t survive it. And then… It was gone. Over. And she was… empty.

She stood there, alone and abandoned. The Voice—why had It forsaken her? She took another step. There was no other way.

To her right, out of the corner of her eye, she saw it. Bright blue. White. Before she could turn and face it fully, the fire consumed her. Wrapped itself around her, molding itself to her. Unable to move, she felt as if she was tied to a stake on a pyre, not standing there by choice.

Trapped, burning, she screamed with everything she had. She screamed at the pain, at the wrath radiating from the white-hot flame as it consumed her with righteous judgment. She screamed as it condemned her… killed her. Screamed as the fire burned, consuming her oxygen, boiling away her blood, burning away her skin, incinerating her very soul. The pain of it, of ceasing to exist… How could she still be screaming? How could she still be alive?

And then she was gone.

The door shut behind her, apparently of its own accord. It was heavy, old. Just…

*****

Dina knocked on the door of the small bathroom attached to their shared bedroom. “Are you okay?”

“Peachy,” Ryne snapped as she curled up on the floor by the toilet, waiting for the next wave of nausea to hit.

“Let me in?”

“No. Go away.”

“Is it from the dream? I mean, I didn’t hear you wake up last night, so…” Dina trailed off.

Ryne hadn’t woken up, and that was the problem. The prescription sleeping pills had made her sleep through the night, but that didn’t stop her from dreaming. Instead of dreaming it, waking up, and getting over the awful nightmare, she had instead been trapped in a continual, endless loop all night long—dreaming it over and over again with no way out. When she did finally wake up in the morning, her body decided to respond by throwing up seemingly everything she had ever eaten.

Instead of admitting that to Dina, she answered, “I think what I ate at work last night was off.”

“Oh, sweetie, I’m sorry. Let me in?”

“No, go—” Ryne heaved herself over the toilet midsentence as the next wave of nausea hit. She just made out a clicking noise before the sound of her own retching drowned everything else out. When it finally passed, Ryne realized her long, curly, dark hair was being held back for her. Smiling slightly as she wiped her mouth with a piece of toilet paper, she flushed the toilet.

“Thanks,” she said, as Dina helped her to the sink so she could rinse out her mouth.

Despite being a pain a lot of the time, Dina had her moments of thoughtfulness.

“Of course.” She smiled, apparently in a good mood. “That’s what sisters are for.”

“I love you too, Dina,” Ryne confessed, right before she was forced to duck back over the toilet.

It took two more heaving sessions, but finally, the nausea passed.

“Thank goodness!” Dina sighed as Ryne brushed her teeth for the fifth time. “Because throwing up is seriously disgusting. I’m going to get a candle.”

 

Chapter 7

“I swear if one more person asks me if I’m okay or says I should go see the nurse, I’m going to… gah!” Ryne finished in frustration, not knowing what she would actually do. Probably nothing.

“How very well thought out. A foolproof plan,” Dina responded dryly, pulling a book from her locker as students pushed past them in the crowded hall.

“It’s just so irritating!” Ryne complained.

“It’s not like they don’t mean well,” Dina pointed out

“That’s not the point. It doesn’t change the fact that it makes me want to scream,” she whined back.

“Puh-lease! Don’t be so dramatic. And it should matter, because it’s actually sweet of them, considering how antisocial you are. It never ceases to amaze me how much people like you when you don’t even try. Actually, you specifically try to keep them from liking you. Anyway, yes, it’s irritating,” Dina conceded, “but still sweet. Try looking at the glass as half full.”

Ryne grunted in response.

“Why are you so touchy today?”

“Um, annoying people? Lack of sleep?” She shrugged, hoisting her messenger bag onto her shoulder as she slammed her locker shut.

“Well, get over it, because you’re getting on my last nerve.”

“Yes, and as we all know, Your Royal Highness, it is my life’s sole desire to fulfill your every wish,” Ryne retorted.

“Exactly. As long as you remember that, we’ll be great.” Dina smiled as she shut her own locker.

“You are just so… gah!” Ryne exclaimed as she pantomimed strangling.

The bell rang, interrupting their bickering.

“Okay, the day is almost over, so put up with it for a couple more periods. Just remember, they ask because they care. I mean, you really don’t look—”

“Don’t! Don’t even think about finishing that sentence. I. Am. Fine. I’ll see you later,” Ryne snapped in frustration, turning and heading towards her class.

But I’m not okay. I’m so very far from okay, it’s ridiculous, she thought as she glanced to the side to see the Unseelie faerie was back and trailing her again. She knew it wouldn’t be long before others joined him. When are they going to give up? I mean how many times can they view the same attraction before they get bored? I’m not that fascinating.

Ryne turned to go into her class and saw another golden-haired faerie out of the corner of her eye. She felt some amount of relief wash over her. She had only seen this one a few times, but he at least he seemed to get along with the scary faerie better than all the rest managed to.

Although, that might not be a good thing, she reminded herself as he and the Unseelie laughed over something the dark-haired faerie said. If they were arguing, then they couldn’t focus on me as easily… Yeah, this is not a good thing!

Ryne made her way to her seat, waving off the classmates who tried to talk to her. She wasn’t in the mood to play the role of “normal, happy teenager.” She dropped her bag next to her desk and then eased herself down. On the first day of class, she had claimed the seat in the back corner by the bank of windows, and no one had challenged her on it, even though their history teacher didn’t actually assign seats. She wasn’t sure why her classmates left her alone about it, since the back corner in any classroom was always prime real estate, and she managed to get it in any class. Dina said it was because people liked her; Ryne thought it was because people were afraid of her, at least a little. The florescent light above her flashed and wavered as the ancient bulb struggled to keep shining, and Ryne closed her eyes, let her body slump back. Their history teacher was always late.

“Hey, Ryne?”

She didn’t open her eyes, but said to the boy sitting next to her, “What?”

He gave her arm a playful shove, “Wake up. Did you finish your paper? The one due on Monday?”

“Yeah, why?”

“Then no excuse… There’s a party on Friday. Dina’s already coming,” he offered.

“Can’t. Work,” Ryne told him as the bell rang.

“You should get someone to cover you; it’s going to be epic!” said the girl in front of her, who had turned around.

“No.”

They both opened their mouths to argue but stopped when Ryne narrowed her eyes at both of them.

Maybe they like me and they’re a little afraid of me, she speculated as the teacher walked in.

Ryne slouched back in her seat and tried to act normal. It was odd to discuss things as normal as homework and parties while two invisible, magickal creatures leaned against the heater that ran along the windows, only a few feet from her. Things were getting out of hand. It hadn’t been easy over the years, seeing and ignoring a whole other magickal world on a daily basis; but at least then, the magickal world was ignoring her as well.

Just relax, Ryne, and keep ignoring them. It’s worked for years, they’ve never taken any notice of you before. Eventually they’ll lose interest, she told herself, not really believing it. [That’s how it’s supposed to go. I ignore them, they ignore me. At least, that’s how it did go before that freaking faerie practically ran me over. Why couldn’t it have just ended there? One little, isolated incident. No big deal. But no… He had to be curious _]and[ get his other faerie freak buddies in on it. ]And[ they just had to be powerful faeries too. This is all so not even remotely good, and I don’t know what to do! I can’t even talk to anyone about it! Why can’t my life go back to normal? Oh no! No, no, no. They’re staring again. Ignore them. Ignore them! What if it doesn’t go back to normal?] She tried not to shudder as that terrible possibility dawned on her. [_If this doesn’t stop, I’m going to end up having a nervous breakdown. I really will need to be institutionalized then. Oh, Lord, Ryne! Don’t go there. I need to get away from them… Psh. Like that’s going to happen, Ryne. You’re a fifteen-year-old kid in the foster system with crazy stamped on every page of your file! Yeah, good plan there. As if you could get away from them. You sneeze wrong and it gets written down. You’re not going to be able to just move… But I have—]

“Miss Doe!” came an angry voice from above Ryne’s head.

She looked up to see her history teacher glaring down at her.

“Yes?” she said, turning a rather embarrassing shade of red.

“How kind of you to turn your attention back to my class. I hope it wasn’t too much of a bother,” he sneered. “Now if you wouldn’t mind answering the question I have asked you three times already?”

“Um, could you ask it a fourth, please?”

“What are the reasons,” he asked in a slow I’m-talking-to-a-moron voice, “for the South’s attempted succession from the Union?”

Prick! she thought. As if there isn’t enough going on my life right now…

“Well, the most common reason is slavery, how—”

“An answer any seven-year-old could have given me, and not the answer I was looking for, which you would have known if you had been paying attention,” he interrupted, walking back to the front. “Now what Miss Doe failed to tell us and what you all need to know is…”

*****

“Hmm, I believe her face is approximately the same color as a cherry,” commented Raider, amused, his bronzed skin all but glowing in the worn classroom, putting the old fluorescents to shame.

“She does not like drawing attention to herself,” said Wrathin, unsure why her being bothered effected him so. It was odd. Usually, he enjoyed the discomfort of others. But with this girl it made him angry, his eyes darkening with his emotions.

“I think, brother, you have been following her too long.” Raider smiled, a dimple peeking out, and, at Wrathin’s confused expression, continued, “‘She does not like drawing attention to herself.’ It was a statement, not a question. It would seem that you are getting to know her rather well.”

I am not getting to know her! She is a human, he thought with disgust. Then he said, “Was that not the point of our… ‘stalking,’ for lack of a more refined term?”

“The point of our stalking,” the Summer King explained, in a condescending voice, “was to get to know about her, not to get to know her… So, what caused your interest?”

“Who said I have an interest?” Wrathin replied, not denying it.

Raider laughed again, the air around him shimmering with warmth.

One hit would shut him up. One hit. No! If she can… Now is not the time. Get control, _]Wrathin ordered himself, slowing down his breathing, struggling to reign in the thick, inky shadows seeping off of him as his Unseelie magick strove to escape his control in his anger. Focusing on the girl instead, Wrathin thought, [_She seems so nervous. If she curls in on herself anymore she will disappear. It is as if she can hear us or, at least feel the effects of us… Can she? Why is she nervous? Her earlier embarrassment? Something more? Can she See? There is certainly evidence to suggest… But that should be impossible… More time. I need more time. But how long will I have before my brothers decide for a more direct approach? How much time can I risk before acting? And how should—

“I understand the girl is… unique, as far as humans go, and why she warrants our interest. She certainly has caught my attention. But this is ridiculous. There is no reason to skulk in the shadows. We should simply take her and find out what we need to know directly!” exclaimed Raider in frustration.

Did she just tense up? She definitely looks paler… Did she hear what Raider said? Wrathin wondered. “We ‘skulk in the shadows,’ as you so eloquently put it, so we have some idea of what we are about when we do act directly. If we go in blind, we could fumble everything,” explained Wrathin, causing Raider to frown this time. Happy to be frustrating his brother, he continued, “Besides, humans never take well to us, and yet you propose kidnapping a human child in order to try and learn something. Ridiculous. She would panic and we would gain nothing.”

“I am not a fool, Wrathin! I meant to lure her, not to kidnap her!” Raider snapped.

“So you mean to kidnap her…nicely?” Wrathin sneered back, the shadows swirling around his feet dissipating as his temper turned to amusement. “Regardless of the manner in which you intend to go about it, it is still kidnapping and my point still holds.”

“It could be done. You just have an ulterior motive and therefore will not even consider it,” claimed Raider, who sounded as if he were pouting—a bad habit of his.

“And you do not?” Wrathin countered. When the other remained silent, he continued, “Furthermore, if you would take more time to ‘skulk in the shadows’ you would also know that she is, as mortals say, ‘mentally unstable’.”

“How so?” asked the Summer King, his light blue eyes showing his intrigue.

“I do not know all the details,” Wrathin misled, not wanting to lose all his leverage with the girl but also not wanting Raider to blunder in his ignorance and hurt the girl. Why do I care whether she is hurt? “I know that she is currently seeing a… psychiatrist—I believe that is the word. Also that she spent her childhood in mortal… asylums? No, wait… They use a new term now. An institution? Yes, that is what they call them. The details, however, are not easily gleaned and will, therefore, require some measure of time and caution.”

“All right, then. So she is not all there. I do not see how that changes anything. Actually, that should make it easier.”

“Hardly… Think of her like an animal. When an animal has been traumatized, it becomes skittish and harder to hunt. You must be slow and careful. Hunt with your brain, not your brawn. This girl requires delicate handling, and if you cannot see that, then you are a fool.”

The two lapsed into silence.

The moment a bell rang, the girl fled the classroom, ignoring her teacher’s calls. Her speed was impressive; actually, it was almost inhuman. She was a mystery. One the Unseelie King wanted to unravel. That, however, required time and patience he did not have.

[_Does her fleeing suggest what I think it does? _]he wondered.

“Well, as fascinating as all this has been, and no insult to your company, I have other responsibilities, which do not include following an embarrassed human girl. I am sure Apollo or Laetis will be joining you soon,” said Raider in farewell.

Finally. Now, which direction is her pull coming from?

*****

[Stupid, stupid, stupid! You never run! But, they’re… They’re… They’re hunting me! Okay, Arrynna, panicking will not solve anything. Breathe! Slowly. In and out. Just calm down. _]She leaned her head against the door of the bathroom stall. Finding the cold of the metal helped her to focus, to relax, she pressed the palms of her hands flat against it too.[ You need to listen to and observe the faeries,—_]she felt slightly nauseous at the prospect— just don’t let them know you’re onto them. Maybe it will buy me time… As long as they don’t realize I know anything. Eventually, it won’t matter. They’ll break into my files. Or if I slip up… No! But they will figure it out eventually, no matter what… Then, they’ll take me. I just have to be as ready as I can when it happens. Listen, observe, and don’t let on! At least I sort of know why they’re following me, now.

The bell rang, pulling her from her thoughts. Ryne stepped out the stall and studied herself in the mirror for a moment. She was still pale, and her eyes looked too big in her sharply angled face, but at least she had stopped shaking.

*****

Ryne sat at her desk, trying, and failing, to concentrate on her history homework. She could not fall behind in this class. It had been close to a week since she’d overheard the faeries discussing her during class, and her nerves still felt stretched tight. The problem was people really were starting to notice how on edge she was and nobody was happy that she didn’t want to pour her heart out, Dina especially. The tension in their bedroom was palpable.

“You’ve been staring at the page for almost an hour,” Dina snapped from where she was curled up on the window seat. Then, for what seemed the hundredth time that week, she asked, “Are you going to tell me what’s wrong?”

“I’m just stressed over school work,” Ryne lied, barely getting the words ‘school work’ out.

“Bull-”

“Dina! Back off would you?” Ryne threw back, cutting her off.

“You know what?” Dina glared at her. “I’m done! I’ve been trying for weeks to be there for you because something is clearly wrong! But all you do is shut me out and I’ve given you no reason to do that. So, I’m done. When you remember how to be my friend let me know. In the meantime, I’ll go find someone who actually wants my company!”

Ryne watched dumbfounded as Dina jumped up and snatched her purse. Without a backward glance, she stormed out of the room. Ryne just sat there feeling utterly empty with no idea what to do. Until that moment, she had never realized how much she needed Dina. Had she finally pushed her too far away?

 

Chapter 8

Lady Rayelle of the Winter Court,

It is my desire to summon your presence to the Seelie Court. In these trying times, and as a subject of Faeriedom, I trust that it will please you to both obey and appease your overlord, and that you will, therefore, stay as a guest of the Seelie Court and at my pleasure. I know that you will convey to your subjects the honor this bestows on you, and on them, as your loyalty and trustfulness are my happy expectation. Though they will surely miss your presence for a time, I know also that the privilege of my invitation shall surely overshadow any melancholy or hesitation. With your King’s expected blessing, the Seelie Court awaits your presence, post haste, where, Lady Rayelle, you may presume to comfortably reside, at my pleasure, as a celebrated guest. In our world, allies are a valuable commodity. I look forward to your swift arrival, as, I am sure, we will not lack for conversation.

_His Royal Majesty, _

King of the Seelie Court,

_Overlord of the Five Low Fey Courts, _

_Master of the Realms of Magick, _

And faithful servant of Edryn,

_King Morrin of the Seelie _

Frost hardened the edges of the invitation where Rayelle tightly gripped it, her hand shaking with anger.

Who does he think I am? One of his Fey? A low-born? I may reign over a lesser court, but that does not make me his to order as he wishes! Rayelle thought in anger, unaware of the thin coat of ice which, in her anger, had spread over the dark marble floor and up the walls like a frozen spider web, dancing across the ceiling, pouring into hundreds of icicles, and turning the small parlor into a beautiful ice cave.

Preparing to embark on another mental tirade, the Queen was brought to a halt by the knock on the door. Rayelle turned, ready to storm over and ream whomever had dared interrupt. Fortunately, reason caught up with her quickly, as she realized what she had done to the room. Rayelle forced herself to calm down. Taking a deep breath, she tucked the invitation up the wide, flowing sleeve of her deep green dress, ensuring it was out of sight. Steadily, she drew the winter she had unleashed upon the room back into herself. Only when every stray piece of ice had vanished did she turn and call, “Enter.”

“Is all well, My Lady?”

“Why would it not be?” Rayelle snapped, causing the maid to look hurt. The Winter Queen had a reputation for being good to those who served her. Further frustrated with herself, she said in a gentler voice, “Thank you, Drezlyne, but you need not worry yourself.”

“Yes, My Lady,” the maidservant responded, though she still looked hurt over the Queen’s earlier sharpness.

“Drezlyne,” Rayelle called out, hoping to assuage the Fey. The maid had potential even if she was still green. She just needed to be refined.

“Yes, My Lady?”

“Is our King home yet?”

“Yes, My Lady,” Drezlyne responded, eager to please. “The King returned almost an hour ago. I believe he is with the Unseelie King.” She shuddered at the thought of their court’s guest. “Shall I go see for you, My Lady?”

“No, thank you. I will do that myself,” she answered, suppressing a sigh. “There is something else I need you to attend to.”

“Yes, My Lady?” Drezlyne replied calmly, though her eyes betrayed her youthful exuberance to serve her Queen.

Kyrse always chooses well, Rayelle thought of her chief lady’s maid who had hired Drezlyne. Then she said aloud, “I will be leaving shortly, for an extended stay at the Seelie Court. I trust you can see to my packing? Kyrse will come later to finalize it all.”

“Yes, My Lady.” She gave a curtsey, clearly excited to be trusted with such a responsibility.

“Drezlyne,” Rayelle called after her.

She looked back around, “Yes, My Lady?”

“I would like to keep this quiet, for the time being.”

“Of course, Your Highness.” She bobbed another courtesy.

*****

Hoping the Unseelie King had left their court already, as she did not think she had the fortitude needed to deal with him today, Rayelle knocked on the door to the Winter King’s study.

“Enter.”

“Are you occupied?” she asked, walking in.

“For you? Never. You just missed the Unseelie King.” He smiled, standing and going to the window, taking advantage of her interruption to step away from the responsibilities littering his desk.

“Did I?” She feigned ignorance. “However shall I bear the disappointment?”

“If only I could be as unfortunate as you. I, however, had the unwanted pleasure of spending the past hour with him. And it is not a pleasure I recommend.”

“I shall do my best to avoid it.” She smiled, pleasantly surprised when he wrapped his arms around her but happy to lean into him.

It was not their nature, especially not Raveed’s, to show affection around others, and they were not often without company. They had not married for love but for practical, political reasons, and while Raveed certainly cared for Rayelle, he had not grown to love her as she had him. He tried to be loving, as she suspected he knew how her heart felt, but often he treated her as friend and business partner, not a wife. So moments like these, when he was momentarily more husband than king, were bittersweet for her. A reminder of her own weaknesses—that she led more with her heart than the Queen of Winter should—and yet a joyful reminder that part of him, at least, cared for her. Rayelle allowed the invitation to slip from her mind, one hand idly playing with his long, white dreadlocks.

“Rayelle?”

“No…”

“Rayelle”

“Please?”

“My love,” he insisted, smiling as he wondered if she knew just how much she touched his heart. There had been talk when she had first become queen that she had not been a good choice, that she was too emotional to be the Queen of Winter. But he had never regretted the decision. His own pleasure aside, she had been good for Winter, bringing a balance it had been lacking.

“Just a moment more,” she asked.

“I cannot think of a place I would rather you be, my treasure, than here in my arms,” he told her. He rested his forehead against hers, feeling momentarily content and unburdened, and completely unaware of how surprised she was by both the endearment and the sentiment. “Stealing just a moment, when we can forget the burden of who we are…”

“However?” She sighed, knowing she could procrastinate no longer, and not certain she was ready to think about what his momentary tenderness might mean.

“However, my love, we both know this is not why you sought an audience.”

“No, it is not,” she agreed, unhappily pulling away and taking the invitation out of her sleeve. “But your father is.”

“My father always handles his business with our court through me directly,” said Raveed, sounding worried.

“Apparently he has decided to change tactics.” Rayelle held the invitation up to him.

Frowning, he took it and started reading… And rereading, and rereading. He finally moved over to his desk and lowered himself into his chair, having analyzed every sentence, considered every meaning, and walked through every possible repercussion.

“Well, it has to be accepted,” he declared.

Smiling, she said gently, “I have a maid seeing to my packing, and I advised her of the necessary discretion.”

“Of course you have,” he agreed, shaking his head at his own foolishness and rising again to join her at the window.

Taking advantage of their proximity, and deciding he seemed to be in an affectionate enough mood, she leaned against him and smiled as he wrapped his arms around her again.

“What do you think he means by it?” she asked, allowing her worry to show, knowing she could trust him with it.

“I have many possible answers to that question, my love. And I doubt they are any different than the possibilities, I am sure, you have already considered. At least I know what caused the drop in temperature earlier.” He chuckled. “Wrath suggested I was trying to intimidate him and made it quite clear that was impossible. I found it rather entertaining.”

“Did it complicate matters?” Rayelle asked, concerned, and once again frustrated with herself for losing her temper.

“No, actually. In spite of his claims, I think it may have unsettled him some, which helped,” he assured her, tightening his grip.

“Either way, I should not have let my emotions rule.”

“Either way, what is done is done,” he said, not having the heart to condemn her further. She was hard enough on herself. Redirecting the conversation, he continued, “When will you leave?”

“It will depend on how soon I am ready—either tonight or tomorrow morning. Why?”

“So I can take the time to see to your guard.”

“What of my usual?” she questioned, confused.

“Without a doubt, they will be going with you. But I intend to send two more.”

“Ravi.” She frowned up at him. “Do you not think that is being a little obsessive? After all, it is the Seelie Court. I would probably be perfectly fine on my own.”

“Obsessive?” He frowned back. “Of course. But when it comes to the well-being of my Queen, I reserve that right. Besides, until I know what my father is playing at, I have no intention of trusting him, particularly with you. Rayelle, you will not argue with me on this.”

Leaning her head against his broad, cold chest, not sure whether the order was from her King, her husband, or both, she answered, “I am not arguing, Ravi. You could ask me to take a dozen guards and I would. You know that.”

“Thank you.” He sighed in relief.

“Why are you so worried?”

“It is my job.” He smiled.

“Yes, but there is more to it,” she pushed.

“Our life is filled with worries. You know this well. I would rather be over prepared. Do you not need to see to your preparations?” he pointed out, hoping to distract her.

“Do not avoid the question, Raveed,” she snapped, pulling away, the temperatures dropping a few degrees as she continued. “Keeping me in the dark does not protect or help either myself or our court in any way. In actuality, it cripples us. Ravi, you have never kept concerns from me before. Whatever it is now, I need to be prepared. Please, tell me.”

Walking back over to his desk chair, not sure why he sought to protect her from it, he sat down and said, “How familiar are you with the prophecies regarding The Unraveling?”

“I know the basics,” she answered, worried. “Why do you ask?”

“The Keepers could of course be mistaken, could be misinterpreting, but…”

“But you do not think they are?”

“No, I do not.”

“What have they told you, Ravi?” she asked, walking over to take his hand.

“That the prophecies are lining up. That there are signs suggesting the time of The Unraveling is upon us,” he answered grimly.

“Raveed, we do not have—”

“I know. They know,” he cut her off, tiredly.

“That is a fairly large strike against their argument, my love,” she pointed out gently.

“But it is not a damning one,” he insisted. “They would not have come to me with this concern if they did not have a good foundation for it.”

“What does this mean for us, though? What do we do?” she asked, not liking the fear that ran through her. While the Winter Fey were taught to yearn for The Unraveling, she couldn’t bring herself to fully accept that her eternal life would be brought to an end.

“We stay the course. As for what it means, its implications, I cannot begin to speculate.”

“This is not good,” she murmured, pulling away, returning to the large window overlooking the gardens.

“I would say it is not ideal. Good or bad, though… We will simply have to wait and see.”

“We should be planning. We are going to need some level of control,” she pushed, not liking how afraid she felt.

“No. As I said before, we stay the course, take what comes as it comes,” Raveed insisted. But, as she did not see eye to eye with him on this, he walked over and took both her hands. “What will be, will be, my love. All we can do is walk under Him and trust to Him, which we are already doing. Do not worry. Besides, my father will take notice if you do, Rayelle. There truly is nothing for us to fear.”

Only that we will die before you can love me as I love you, she thought sadly, not feeling reassured as he had intended. She said, “I leave tomorrow. I wish enough time to visit His Temple before I leave.”

“And I will see to your guard,” he told her, smiling, and took a few steps back, pulling her with him. When they were no longer in front of the window, he continued, “We cannot be sure how long you will be gone for. Come to me tonight?”

“I had hoped you might ask.” She smiled back, her deep blue, snowflake-shaped iris’s brightening, neither allowing herself to dwell on the fact that he still insisted on the protocol of separate quarters, nor allowing herself to hope he would let her to stay the whole night. Sometimes she truly detested the constraints of the Winter Court, and she wondered how it was she was so different.

Then, to her surprise, he slipped his arms around her waist, pulled her against him, and kissed her. It was a kiss that made her forget everything except that he was kissing her. She let her long, thin fingers trail up his sleeve, leaving snowflakes of frost. Resting one hand on the side of his face, cold enough to cause frostbite if he were anyone else, her other hand continued up, tangling in his hair as her restraint slipped free. As Raveed deepened the kiss, she felt herself go slack in his arms. Before she lost complete control, however, he ended it, both breathing hard and standing in a small pile of snow. Leaning against him, Rayelle took a few moments to get control. This was only the second time in the several thousand years they had been together that he had kissed her outside of his bedchamber. The first time had been their wedding kiss.

“I like being alone.” She smiled as she finally straightened up, wondering what that kiss could have meant. “If only we could be alone more often.”

“If only,” he said regretfully, trailing his fingers along her jaw as she stepped away from him.

“I need to get ready.”

“Of course.”

Settling himself at his desk as Rayelle closed the door to the study, he found it very difficult to focus. The realization that he might just not have eternity with Rayelle was making him act on emotions he had long kept buried. It might have been out of character, but he could not regret his actions.

*****

Rayelle was a cautious Fey, even among those of her own court- her mother had instilled that behavior in her early on. There were two faeries in her life whom she trusted unconditionally—her King, first and foremost, followed closely by her chief lady’s maid, Kyrse. The faerie had been appointed as her nursemaid at birth and had gone on from there to be her nanny, instructing her, raising her, guiding her. When she had been too old to need a nanny, Kyrse had become her companion, staying with her through countless ups and downs and becoming her chief lady’s maid when Rayelle was crowned Queen. In some ways, Kyrse was still her most trusted confidant, a rarity among her kind. It was for these reasons Rayelle had no qualms leaving all the necessary preparations needed for visiting another court to her, allowing her to spend her evening in the Temple. She had much to pray about.

*****

Having collected an offering, washed, and changed—she would not shame The Highest or herself by entering unclean—Rayelle was greeted at the Temple’s entrance by Izah, the Master Keeper and leader of the Servants of Edryn.

“Master Keeper.” She inclined her head respectfully.

“Rayelle.” He smiled back, taking her offering. “Shall I prepare this for you?”

“Yes. Thank you, Master Keeper.” She inclined her head again.

Rayelle may have been Queen, but within the confines of the Temple, the Keepers were her superiors. Outside, they were her equals.

*****

The Master Keeper joined Rayelle as she made her way out of the ancient Temple and, to her surprise, followed alongside her. Night had fallen.

“My Queen.” He inclined his head and waited.

“You do not need my permission, Servant of Edryn.”

Nodding, he continued, “You worry, My Lady, greatly.”

“Yes, Master Keeper,” she agreed.

“In all my time as a Keeper, I have never seen a Child of Edryn spend so long in Temple Devotion—and I have been doing this for almost two thousand years,” he stated, then paused as if unsure of how to continue. “You are expecting trouble, My Lady?”

“Our King does not keep secrets from me,” she said pointedly, knowing he would catch on.

“Ah, yes, My Queen. I understand. It is not a matter I take lightly. I would not have brought this to him if I had doubts.”

“I know. That is what worries me,” she told him frankly.

“The Unraveling is something to rejoice over, My Lady,” the Master Keeper chastised.

“Of course. I meant simply that it will be hard to guide our court through the unknown,” she corrected.

“That is why He grants us faith.” He smiled. “Shall I see you to the gates?”

“That is generous, but my guards will be there. I will be fine.”

“Of course, My Lady. Though… the King would have my head if I were not to see you to them. After all, your safety…” he trailed off, offering his arm.

“Of course, Master Keeper. Your concern means much,” she replied serenely as she took his arm, though she would far rather have stormed off.

She was Winter’s Queen, but at times felt she had less freedom than a slave. It was infuriating. But she was a queen, which she reminded herself of often. That meant accepting all the title carried with it. And so her expression never faltered.

*****

Rayelle used her private entrance to Raveed’s quarters. The white marble floor that looked like snow was cool against her bare feet. She walked over to the expansive bed, draped in silver blankets and pillows, which she knew from experience would be as soft as fresh fallen snow. She stopped to page through a book on Raveed’s nightstand when she felt his arms encircle her waist. Frost was spreading on the windows before the book even closed.

 

Chapter 9

These faeries are turning me into an actual crazy person! I mean, really! Five! They really need five to stalk me? What are they even waiting for? It’s been a month now; why can’t they just do something? Crap. Now I want those freaking faeries to act? Lord, I’m losing it. Like, really losing it. Get it together, Ryne! I will not crack, I—

“Arrynna? Arrynna? Arrynna!”

“W-what? Oh. Sorry, Dr. Rose. What were you saying?” Great job, Ryne. Zone off during therapy.

“Where did you go?” the doctor asked, using her gentle voice—like Ryne was an animal that might spook.

“N-nowhere… Just zoned out,” Ryne answered, mentally wincing at the stutter, which now reared its ugly head at every single session.

The doctor smiled back sadly. “Do you tell me anything anymore? Did you ever tell me anything, Rynnie?”

“I—”

“Don’t, Arrynna. I’m tired of all your stories and excuses. I don’t think a little honesty is too much to ask. You just keep so many secrets.”

“And you don’t? Are you telling me you never had a secret? Some part of you that was just yours? My entire life,”—she enunciated each word slowly and loudly—“everything about me has been on display, recorded for every doctor, nurse, attendant, social worker, shrink, foster parent, and principal who’s come into my life. No matter how personal, no matter how humiliating, no matter how trivial, it’s there in black and white. I can sneeze and it’s written down. Everything I do is questioned and examined! I can’t ever just be me; I have to be the[_ right_] me. If I have an off day, it’s automatically, ‘Oh no! Maybe we need to adjust her meds. Let’s run some tests.’ Can’t I just have an off day and that be the end of it? Have you never had a bad day? So… yes, I have secrets. Yes, there are things I don’t tell you. I want some part of my life to be just mine! Is that really so much to ask?”

Okay, wow. I don’t think I have ever said that much to a shrink (and have it all be true) in my life, Ryne thought, baffled at her outburst.

“I see.”

‘I see’? After all I just said, the best she can do is ‘I see’?

“I understand your desire, your… need for privacy, and even a few secrets. If it were just about some guy you went to school with or a fight with your friends, I’d let it go. After all, in the past, you’ve been completely open and honest about those things. But I don’t think those are the secrets you are keeping. Ryne, am I right about your secrets?”

“How sh-should I know?” Ryne snapped, the stutter ruining her attempt at incredulity. But she plowed ahead anyway. “I can’t read m-minds!”

“Fair enough,” Dr. Rose conceded, though her expression said Ryne’s stutter had been the real answer. “I think you’re keeping one of two possible secrets. Either your medication is no longer working, and you’re seeing things again—which is frightening and distracting you—or… you never stopped seeing things and have been telling everyone what they want to hear, which you are talented enough to do. However, it has recently become worse for you and therefore, you are having a harder time maintaining your façade. Regardless of which it is—though, I think the latter poses far more problems in the long run—things have become harder, but you refuse to seek help like you should, because you are terrified of having your life turned upside down. So you are trying to handle everything on your own instead, which is taking its toll. Can you tell me I’m wrong?”

Well, crap! What do I say to that?

“I thought so. I want to run some tests, try adjusting your medication…see if we can help you, even if you won’t ask for it.” She smiled at Ryne as if she were expecting a thank you.

“Wow… That crap you just spewed is almost as bad as ‘Elvis was abducted by aliens’,” Ryne snapped, anger and fear putting her on the defensive. She’d worked too hard to have everything undone by a nosy doctor. “Are you seriously suggesting that from the time I was eight, I’ve managed to fool every single person in my life? I can tell you right now, my acting skills are not that good.

“And by the way, thank you for proving my point. ‘I want to run some tests, try adjusting your medication’,” she mimicked unkindly. “That is exactly why I don’t tell you everything—because you and everyone else’s first response is, ‘Let’s drug her up some more’!”

“Maybe if you were honest, I wouldn’t have to read into things,” Dr. Rose replied, unfazed by her patient’s outburst.

“Fine! You want honesty?” Ryne snapped, hoping to high heaven her shrink would buy what she was about to say. “I’m barely two months into honor classes and I already feel like I’m drowning! But, as my principal keeps pointing out, it’s really the only shot I have at college, considering my past. My history teacher must have gotten a look at my file, because every class has gone from U.S. History to Humiliate Ryne 101. But, he’s tenured, so basically I’m screwed. There’s a group of guys at school who won’t leave me alone, but if I do anything about it, I’ll be even more ostracized.” [Actually, it’s five faerie guys who don’t go to my school, but I can’t say anything or I’ll be institutionalized, again, _]she mentally amended.[ _] “So, yeah, I’ve been a little off my game for a few weeks, especially since I’m still barely sleeping, which the pills do nothing for. Everybody assumes the worst and that I’m lying. Dina will barely speak to me and the foster parents are convinced I’m smoking something, so they won’t even listen to me. And then I come here, and you tell me to trust you and then try to scare me into telling you what you want to hear. So there you have it. No more secrets. Happy?”

Dr. Rose was silent for a few moments while she sucked thoughtfully on the end of her pen before finally saying, “I’m not saying what you told me is not true, Arrynna, but I don’t believe it’s the [_whole _]truth.”

“Well, of course you don’t. But you know what? Times up. I’d say it was a pleasure,” Ryne hissed as she made her way to the door, “but that’d be a lie, and I know how you feel about those. So, until next week.”

“Arrynna, privacy isn’t a right; it’s a privilege. It’s a privilege earned through trust, which can only be earned by honesty.”

Stupid shrink. She slammed the office’s door behind her.

*****

Ryne looked over her shoulder. The lights of the small, cozy diner where she worked were now too far away to see. She wished she were still there, sitting in one of the worn vinyl booths, drinking hot coffee and waiting for a ride. Sylvie, the old Southern spitfire who managed the place, would be telling stories and making her laugh while they waited. That hadn’t happened since Dina stopped talking to her. Her best friend’s cold shoulder had extended to not giving her rides home anymore, too. Sylvie often offered, but Ryne knew by the end of the day, the older woman was beat. It was one thing to sit ten minutes while Ryne waited for a ride; it was another for Sylvie to have to drive in the complete opposite direction of her home.

[Stupid, stupid, stupid! _]She chastised herself in frustration[. Okay, Ryne, when you work late, in a bad area of town, wearing stilettos, and you have faerie stalkers, you do not walk home! What was that? ]She jumped at the distant noise.[ Stray cat. Just a stray cat. Get a grip. Just a mile to go… Ow! Really should have brought flats to change into… Actually, I should’ve called Dina for a ride. Dealing with her would have been worth it… Relax, your alm—_]

“I cannot believe you let her get away. She would have been such a good time, too,” the elegant voice echoed in the dark night.

“You could have helped me,” answered a rough and scratchy voice.

“And get my hands dirty? That’s not how our arrangement works.”

“Well then, don’t comp- wait a minute. What is that?” asked the course voice.

“A pretty little trinket, that’s what. Though, she is only human. I doubt she would have much stamina,” replied the smoother, more refined one.

“She could still be a decent time. And she’s better than nothing.”

“True.”

Ryne tried to keep her growing fear from showing and fought the urge to shrink even further into the shadows of the abandoned buildings lining sidewalk. After all, they had already seen her. But if they knew she was aware of them, there was no way they would pass her by. She felt her breath catch as they glamoured themselves, turning in her direction. Their glamours reminded her of the truckers who stopped at the diner: large, rough, and worn. Their leers reminded her of the serial killers on the cop show Dina was always watching. It didn’t help that their true selves kept flashing through the glamours. Thin and lanky, they looked as if they were made from long, flimsy tree branches, their sallow skin as wrinkled as old bark.

Crap! I can’t outrun them, but… Crap! Breathe, Ryne! Just keep walking and breathe.

“Hello, my darling. We don’t usually run into people here at this hour; most consider it unsafe,” said the one with the polished voice, smiling and letting some of his actual faerie teeth—yellowed and pointed—show through his glamour.

Ryne, trying to hold onto her façade, gave him a tight smile and kept walking.

“Not so fast,” said the other faerie, stepping in front of her and blocking her path. “We’re glad you came our way, aren’t we?”

“That we certainly are.”

She could feel the other faerie breathing on the side of her neck, his fingers trailing up and down her arm. There was nothing she could do. The two fairies were infinitely stronger and faster. They hadn’t done anything yet, but they had already won. They could do anything they wanted and there was nothing she could do to stop it.

[_You might be screwed, Ryne, but you are not going to let them know you know! No showing fear! _]she ordered herself, having no intention of going down without a fight.

“Well, sorry to disappoint, but seeing as I’m already running late, I’m afraid we’ll have to reschedule,” she replied, forcing herself to sound cavalier.

She tried stepping to her left and around, but the faerie to her right wouldn’t allow it. Grabbing her arm painfully tight, he yanked her towards him and twisted so Ryne’s back was quite suddenly pressed against him.

“We said not… so…. fast!” He leaned in and kissed her neck, his hands moving over her body, touching, pressing, squeezing. It made her want to scream. “My friend here’s going to explain the rules to you, trinket.” He returned his attention to her neck, and his hands… Oh God. His hands made her want to crawl out of her skin. She kept her outward composure. Ryne knew fear would only feed their desires.

“See, sugar, we’re bored and we picked you to be our entertainment. Now here’s the thing—we’re going to have our fun, regardless of what you want or do.” He smiled, not bothering to glamour any of his teeth. He reminded her of a piranha as he cupped her face in a mock caress.

“No, really? I hadn’t figured that part out yet. Well, poor little old me,” Ryne snapped with a bravado she didn’t feel, relieved that her voice didn’t shake.

“Feisty little trinket. We’re going to enjoy that,” interjected the faerie behind her, forcing him to cease, momentarily, slobbering on her neck. His hands, however, never stopped moving as he continued, “Not that it will do you any good. There’s nobody around to hear you scream.”

“Well, no… freaking… duh! Maybe that’s why I haven’t screamed?” she snapped, hoping they were buying her act. Because she wanted to scream; she wanted to scream so badly. She couldn’t remember the last time she had been so terrified. Ryne was holding onto her composure by her fingernails…and they were slipping.

The faerie behind her let out a laugh as Ryne felt her head snap to the side. Her vision blurred and the side of her face burned. Sticking her tongue out slightly, she could taste blood on the corner of her lip.

“Don’t interrupt. Now then, sugar,” continued the faerie in front of her, his sandpaper voice making her cringe, “we’re going to give you a choice. We’re nice like that.”

When Ryne didn’t respond, one of the hands traveling up and down her body suddenly gripped her, painfully. Unexpected, unwanted, she found herself letting out a gasp as her composure cracked a bit more. They laughed.

“See, you can play along or we can take. So, option A: We all have a good time… Or, option B: You feel a lot of pain. So, darling, what’s it going to be—pleasure or pain?” He smiled at her like his options were kindness. When she said nothing, he continued, “Shall I clarify?”

Without waiting for an answer, he gripped her chin, leaned in, and… The kiss wasn’t exactly painful, but under the circumstances, she would never call it pleasurable, either.

Finally pulling away, he said, “Pleasure?”

Then, tightening his grip to the point of pain, he leaned in again. This time it was rough and violent, she could hardly breathe and her jaw felt ready to break under the pressure of his grip. This kiss was invasive, forceful… painful. He bit down on her lip as he pulled away. She tasted blood again.

“Pain?”

She wanted to say pleasure. The part of her that was terrified out of her mind wanted to agree to anything that would make this easier, even if it was only an illusion.

Instead, she hissed, “Is that supposed to scare me? What? A few threats and you think I’ll do whatever you want? You picked the wrong girl.”

The faerie behind her laughed again and brought his hand to rest over her stomach, the tips of his long, talon-like nails pressed against her vulnerable flesh.

“Are you certain, trinket?”

“Did I stutter?” she snapped, trying to ignore the way her breath was catching in her throat, the way her heart was racing.

I should have chosen A, was her last thought as her control shattered, his long fingernails digging into her stomach, eliciting a stilted cry as he pushed in up to his knuckles. She gasped as he paused for a moment. But he wasn’t done. He pulled his fingers out partway—inducing a pain-filled whimper—and then dragged them, ripping and tearing her fragile flesh from her belly button to her hip. Finally, pulling his hand free, he raised it up to her face.

“What a lovely shade of red, trinket.”

The other faerie stepped forward and grabbed her by the neck; there was nothing light about the pressure from his resting fingers.

[_Oh God, are they going to kill me already? No! I will not die! _]Ryne thought with renewed confidence. She was still terrified, but somehow she knew she would live. Whatever happened, she would not die here, this night.

“Don’t you wish you’d chosen A?” he asked.

“Not really,” she assured him stubbornly, her voice sounding weak.

He smiled. Her feet were no longer on the ground, and the brick wall of an abandoned building was coming at her fast. Her head and shoulder collided with the wall, but her hip broke the fall as she fell back to the ground, reigniting the pain of her torn flesh. Ryne didn’t bother to get up. She just lay crumpled where she landed.

Please, let them leave! Let them think I’m dead!

“I told you she wouldn’t last long.”

“I don’t know; maybe she’s just pretending. Either way, we can still have fun with her.”

Oh no! No, no, no! Can’t I just pass out? Haven’t they hurt me enough for that at least!

One of them delivered a kick to her lower back, sending her colliding with the brick wall again. Ryne screamed out in pain.

“I thought I told you, trinket, no one can hear you scream.” He laughed, yanking her up by her hair. Back on her feet and face-to-face with her attacker, she spat the blood welling up in her mouth into his face.

He leered at her, unfazed. “Ready to get to business, trinket?”

[They’re done toying with me already? Thank God, they’re… They’re… Oh God, now they’re going to… No! You may be scared… And alone… And there may be nothing you can do to stop them… but you will not cry! You’re hurt, not broken, and you are _]not[ going to give them the satisfaction of seeing you cry!_] she ordered herself.

Taking advantage of the copious amounts of blood still pooling in her mouth, Ryne spit at him again instead.

“I guess that’s a yes.” He grinned and placed his hand, already soaked in her blood, on the back of her neck.

Ryne tried to pull away, pushing against his chest. He just laughed at her futile attempts, though, and snaked his arm low around her waist.

“You can have seconds,” he told the other faerie.

“Let go of me! No!” She squirmed, desperately trying to get away. “No!”

“Yes, trinket.” He pressed his lips to hers.

It didn’t matter how hard she tried, his grip was a vice, which he tightened, pressing her closer to him, trapping her arms. As the arm around her waist slid further down, she could feel his tongue push into her, tasting her. She wanted to throw up. She wasn’t going to cry!

He angled the hand on her neck so his bloodstained nails pressed against her fragile skin. A muffled scream erupted out of her, feeding his desire as he pushed his claws into her, dragging them down her back, tearing shirt and skin, blood pouring free. Her legs went limp, the pain almost blinding in its intensity. Without breaking the kiss, he lowered her to the ground, digging his sharp nails deeper. Finally, he pulled away a little.

“You’re a tasty trinket” He smiled as if it were a compliment.

She would not cry. She might not have been able to stop shaking, especially as rock and gravel dug into her injured back, but she could stop herself from crying. Barely.

Gripping the neck of her shirt, he yanked, ripping it down the front. Admiring his handiwork, the faerie placed a hand on each side of her bared ribcage, his tongue darting out to lick his lips.

“What are you doing?” came a new—though familiar—voice, low but furious.

“Showing the girl a good time. Now go away. She’s ours.”

“Sire,” exclaimed the other faerie, dropping to one knee and bowing his head.

“Release her, Drig!” the voice snarled.

“Sire!” Drig gasped in shock and recognition. Paling considerably, he relinquished his hold, turning to mirror his companion’s pose.

Looking up, Ryne saw the frightening faerie who had been following her. Her stomach clenched in horror.

Oh God! What’s he going to do? No, don’t cry. Don’t! She panicked, not sure how much longer she could hold on.

What are you doing?” Wrathin enunciated each word, making them visibly shudder.

Ryne, not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, began to inch herself away. She clenched her teeth to keep from crying out as pain radiated through her with each small movement. She squinted as her blurring vision worsened. She no longer wanted to pass out, though. She needed to stay conscious long enough to get away. This could be her only chance.

“Sire, we were just… being ourselves… having a good time. This is nothing we haven’t always done. You know that. There was no one else around. We swear. We always make sure there are no witnesses, magickal or mortal. We have broken no laws, Sire,” pleaded the faerie who had recognized him first.

“‘Broken no law’,” he sneered without mercy, his fangs lengthening in his anger. “What made you think she was yours to play with?”

As comprehension dawned on their faces, Drig, looking sick, pleaded, “Sire… We… You never take human pets… Sir, we did not… She had no mark… If… If we had known she was yours… We would never… I swear, Sire, we had no idea she was yours!”

Ryne pushed back another couple of inches, but bumped—painfully—into a pair of legs. Looking up, she made out the Unseelie King suddenly standing behind her. He’s so fast! Vine-like shadows began pouring off him, circling her, quickly becoming darker, thicker, wrapping around her, twining together, until she couldn’t see for the shadows.

“Now you know. I suggest you leave before I decide to kill you both, regardless.”

*****

It was the night of the Unseelie Hunt and the moon shone bright in the dark sky. The Sidhe—second in command of the Seelie Court—and Queen Lordis, as well as the Attendants of the Hunt, raced the nearly empty streets of the mortal world, terrifying the humans who fled from them. The humans did not know they were being toyed with, that their fate was already sealed. It was that delicious false hope they carried within them that spurred on their dark pursuers.

The Unseelie Queen, running down back alleys, was trailed by only a few attendants. Instinct told her she was close, her prey within her reach. For a moment, just a moment, she chafed at having to rely on instinct instead of being able to know. The particular glamour she had cast suppressed most of her supernatural abilities, making her talents more human than Fey for the time being. However, she knew harder hunts insured not only better entertainment, but also better captives. Lordis forced herself to refocus on the task at hand. A yell suddenly sounded from the next valley. A wicked smile spread over her face.

Rounding the corner, the Unseelie Queen found the young red-headed girl scrambling to get back up. Lordis smiled again. Somehow she had known it would be the boy who won. When she first chose a herd for the evening’s hunt, she had seen him and hoped he would last until then end…and become her prize. Now, he would be. She had been pleasantly surprised to find this girl lasted a good deal longer than she had ever expected. But in the end, the girl still fell.

Lordis let her glamour fall, revealing her true self, as she approached the prey. It shrieked.

“Yes, creature, scream!” a slightly deranged Lordis commanded, drunk on anticipation. As if on cue, it let out another earsplitting screech. Releasing an unhinged sounding laughter, Lordis continued, “Such entertainment. It makes me want to do so much more to you. If not for my husband’s rules on such things, I would”—Lordis paused, struggling, failing to regain control of her urges until, finally, a rebelliously determined expression settled on her face—“if not for his laws, I would kill you tonight, creature. Here and now. And I’d enjoy it so… I miss killing on the hunt. ‘It’s wasteful,’ he says. ‘It means less for our court,’ he insists, as if you mortals don’t spend half your time breeding anyway. I want to kill you…and what Wrathin does not know…”

The Unseelie Queen took another step toward her prey, who tried desperately to crawl backwards out of reach. As it was impeded by its pathetic, human speed, the Unseelie Queen caught it easily by the throat. Screams turned the sobs, its body falling limp as the fight abandoned it.

“You would give up so easily, creature?” Lordis sighed in disappointment. “Nonetheless, I can still—” her grip on the creature’s throat tightened as she felt a surge of magick… dark magick… Unseelie magick. This magick could only have one source, considering its magnitude.

Wrathin! Either you are in serious trouble or you have done something very stupid, and knowing you…

“I do not have time for you anymore,” she growled in disappointment, releasing the human girl. “Do not move!”

The girl, who had begun to inch back again, froze and started whimpering.

“Silence!” the Unseelie Queen ordered as she focused on drawing her shadow home. She had released it earlier so it could trail the hunting party following after the boy. When she felt it slide back into place, she turned to the attendants who had followed it to her and said, “We are done for the night. Who caught the boy?”

“My Lady,” said a young faerie, stepping forward with an unconscious human boy over his shoulder. Smiling proudly, he answered, “I did.”

“It seemed you lived up to your boasting, Ardil. You’ve done more than well for your first hunt,” she complimented in surprise. Waving behind her, she offered, “Take it for your private pet. You have earned her.”

“Thank you, My Lady,” he said in greedy excitement. To be granted a pet that was yours and yours alone was a rare honor. He handed the boy to another faerie. Walking over to the girl, he crouched in front of her. “Hello, pet.”

The girl looked into his leering eyes and began to sob even harder. She didn’t try to move or fight, not even when he threw her carelessly over his shoulders. She just hung limp in defeat and sobbed.

“Just be certain to take care of the carcass when you’re eventually finished with it,” Lordis reminded him. “We are done for the night.

Without waiting, she strode off in the direction of the Unseelie Court to find out exactly what Wrathin had done. The human girl’s cries quickly faded into the background.

*****

Ryne blinked against the darkness, hoping her eyes would adjust, then suddenly the shadows were gone, as were the two faeries who had attacked her. The Unseelie King was kneeling down next to her, though. She quickly clutched her shirt together. To her surprise, he took her chin gently between his thumb and forefinger, turning it back and forth as he examined the cuts and bruises. It didn’t help her already swimming head. One moment his nose was long and thin and patrician, the next he had two. She tried, instead, to focus on his mouth, wide and full and as pale as the rest of him, as he was saying something.

“I am sorry,” he said, sounding sincere, his forked tongue slithering out with the S.

“For what?” Ryne asked, apprehensive.

“For them. For what they did to you. What they were planning to do to you. For not getting here sooner. For marking you as mine. For having followed and scared you so much for the past month.”

“That’s quite the list,” she responded, surprised.

[Wow. My head feels so weird. Why does my head feel weird? _]Ryne wondered, finding it hard to focus[. Oh, yeah… concussion. Is that why I feel all floaty, too? Wait. What did he say? Who is he? Oh, yeah… Faerie King Dude. I was being stalked by a Faerie King? I think that should scare me. Shouldn’t it? What?_]

“What?” she forced out, remembering he couldn’t hear it if she didn’t say it out loud.

“I said, yes. It is quite the list.”

After gently probing her bruised shoulder to assess the damage, he placed his hand carefully on the back of her neck and started to slowly lower her back.

“Ah!—” she quickly bit down on her yell.

No matter the Unseelie King’s gentleness, any sort of movement really hurt.

“I’m sorry,” he murmured again.

He lifted part of Ryne’s shirt so he could inspect the deep punctures and gaping, jagged tears in her stomach and, along her hip, the nasty bruise that was spreading fast. Shaking his head as his anger wanted to rear back up, Wrath lifted her back into a sitting position. She bit down another cry, but judging from his apologetic expression, he clearly heard the groan she hadn’t managed to stifle. He began to peel the back of her shirt up so he could examine the claw marks.

Ah!

There was no chance of biting down on that one, she knew, her body going limp as pain drained the little strength she had.

“I am truly sorry,” he said again, supporting her weight. “I will do my best to examine it without moving your shirt.”

“It’s okay,” she told him, still feeling shocked by his kindness. “Are you a doctor, too?”

“No.” He chuckled, trying to hide his concern over how weak she sounded. “But I can determine whether you need magickal healing or if mortal medicine will suffice.”

“Well, what’s the verdict, Dr. Faerie King?”

“Hush.”

While he was gentler on the second examination and it was less painful as he left her shirt alone, it still hurt. A lot. She didn’t even try to fight the whimper that wanted out.

“So,” she started before he could apologize again, “what was with the shadows?”

He took her chin in his fingers again and turned her face to his, saying, “You’ve lost a lot of blood. I need to get you to the hospital.”

“That doesn’t answer my question,” she persisted, her words starting to slur.

Chuckling again, he took off his jacket and explained, “The shadows were to mark you so none of my Fey will ever harm you again—or any other court for that matter.”

“Well[_ thazz_] good,” Ryne slurred in response.

“Yes, it is.” He smiled, gently wrapping his overcoat around her, which, to her surprise, didn’t really hurt.

Actually, she didn’t really hurt all that badly anymore. Everything felt slightly dulled, and the Faerie King sounded like he was talking from far away.

“I am afraid taking you to the hospital will be somewhat painful. I will be as careful and as gentle as I can,” he assured.

“It’s okay. I don’t really hurt anymore. Are you doing that?”

“No,” he answered, looking worried.

“Oh,” was Ryne’s well-developed response.

The Unseelie King slid one arm under her legs. The other he slipped behind her arms around her back. He was careful of jarring her shoulder, but there wasn’t anything he could do about the pressure of his arm on her back. And then, suddenly, she was no longer on the ground.

“Knight in shining armor.” She smiled dazedly, her voice barely audible. But then she frowned. “Why are you doing this? Helping me?”

He frowned and answered truthfully, “I don’t know.”

“Oh.”

And then he ran. His speed was unbelievable, and had she not been hurt, Ryne probably would have enjoyed it. As it was, she just felt sick from it. Closing her eyes, she buried her head in his shoulder and groaned.

“We will be there soon. I promise,” he assured her.

That was when she passed out.

Why do I feel so weird? Oh, yeah.

Ryne groaned as she returned to consciousness.

“Do not worry. We are here. You are going to be all right. When you are well again, I will find you and we will talk, Little Mortal.”

Little Mortal? Why would he call me that?

“Oh, my God!” The voice was loud and panicked—too loud for Ryne’s overly sensitive head.

“I found her. She had been attacked. Can you help her?”

“Yes. Put her down here,” said a much calmer and commanding voice.

Ryne felt something soft beneath her. Someone was checking her pulse.

“Miss? Can you tell me your name?”

Little Mortal? Why would he call me that? Am I moving again?

“Did she say ‘little mortal’?”

A light was shined in her eyes, causing Ryne to flinch.

Why would he…

“Honey, do you know your name?” asked a female voice.

Why… He wasn’t wearing a glamour! He knows I can See! Well, crap…

“She’s fading. Get me—”

Ryne lost consciousness, again.

*****

“I want to know when she is awake,” the Unseelie King demanded, as he paced his chamber.

“Yes, Sire,” the faerie nodded and bowed himself out as Lordis entered.

“You want to know when who is awake?” she inquired, her voice deceptively calm.

“I thought you were out hunting?” Wrathin replied, hoping to sidetrack her.

“I was.”

“No luck?”

“No… The hunt was good.” She smiled wickedly, thinking fondly of the mortal plaything waiting for her.

“Then see to your prize. If memory serves, that is a job you do not usually delegate to the Cage Carers.”

“That was my intent, but I was distracted when I realized that my husband was either in serious peril or had done something incredibly stupid. Considering that you appear to be no worse for wear, I am assuming it was the latter,” she answered tersely, crossing her arms.

Crossing his own arms, Wrathin sat in one of his many armchairs and waited her out. Several minutes stretched on in silence, Lordis’s anger becoming more and more obvious, one set of talons tapping an impatient beat on her arm.

What did you do?” she finally hissed out, the red of her eyes glowing like embers.

“Oh, come on, wifey.” He smiled at her in amusement. “Since when do you care about such things?”

“Do not call me that!” she snarled, black smoke trailing from her nostrils as fire burned deep in her throat, her inner beast longing to break free.

“Do not ask impertinent questions,” he countered, a slight hissing at the back of his throat as his own anger began to slip from his tight control.

Standing, needing distance, Wrath crossed to the window. As if a switch had suddenly flipped somewhere inside her, Lordis stepped up behind him, running her hands over his shoulders, soothingly rubbing—all traces of her anger gone.

“Me? Impertinent?” she cooed, nipping at his ear as she trailed her fingers down his chest.

“Yes, very. Now stop,” he instructed tensely.

She didn’t stop. He didn’t move away.

“Why, Lordis?” He sighed.

“Why what?” she asked, pressing herself against him.

“This,” he grunted. “Temper and seduction. It is all you do. If one does not work, then you switch to the other as naturally as you breathe. But that is all I ever get from you.”

“Because, my pet, millennia with you have proved them effective,” she answered, moving so she could face him.

He kissed her. Placing both hands on her hips, he backed her up, pinning her between him and the old stone wall. He kissed her again.

“What happened, my pet?” she pressed, as she kissed him back.

Sighing, Wrath pulled away from her and returned to his original seat. “It was the girl.”

“I thought as much,” she said, her nose wrinkling slightly in distaste.

“Then why did you ask?”

“Because assuming is a dangerous business, my pet.”

“You have your answer. Go see to your actual pet and leave me be,” he ordered tiredly, pinching the bridge of his nose.

“No. I want details first.” She pouted, unwilling to be dismissed so easily.

Sighing again, he allowed his head to fall back. “You are exhausting!”

“No. That girl is exhausting,” she snapped, resisting the urge to stamp her foot. “What in Faeriedom could she have done to require so much?”

“It is not what she did, but what our court did. She was being attacked by our own Fey.”

“So? Stopping them—killing them, even—would not require anywhere near that much power, even if you chose to be creative,” Lordis reasoned.

“I stopped them. I did not kill anyone… She asked me not to,” he answered, sounding perplexed by his own actions.

“Wrath!” she screeched in frustration. “What did you do?”

Wrathin looked up at the Unseelie Queen, his face hardening, daring her to challenge him. He offered, “I granted her our court’s protection.”

Lordis’s face grew distorted in anger, her eyes burning ruby red, black smoke pouring from her nose again. She took a step forward as frighteningly large dragon wings burst from her back, her body quickly becoming more scale than flesh. Flexing hands and feet, her talons grew a few more inches as she released a primal snarl.

“Lordis!” the Unseelie King hissed, his snakelike tongue shooting out as he stood to his full height.

Her face darkened at the warning as she watched his eyes change as well, the slits becoming even narrower. She took a step back.

“Get control,” he ordered, his words coming out in a hiss, his fangs lengthening.

Grudgingly heeding her King’s warning, Lordis dove through the window, glass spraying, and soared into the night. Slowly, his features returning to normal, Wrathin fell back into the chair and sighed. The death toll would be high. The Unseelie Queen always chose to vent her anger through slaughter, and he had given up trying to rein that in long ago. Better she massacre mortals than their own Fey.

One battle at a time, he thought. Just be grateful she is not formally challenging the protection.

She couldn’t have it overruled—his word was still absolute law. But she could cause unrest. Sighing, Wrath looked away from the shattered glass, knowing someone would see to it. Before he could lose himself in thought once again, a knock sounded.

“Enter,” he called.

“Your Highness,” came a soft feminine voice, causing him to look up. “The Cages Master asked me to report the Hunt to you.”

Wrathin nodded, admiring the way her hips swayed, the way her barely-there dress teased him, reawakening the desire Lordis had not satiated.

“It was a great success, My Lord. The Cages”—a term used to describe the quarters where the Unseelie playthings were housed when not being used—“are overfull. Our Queen collected a great and pleasing variety—”

“Strip,” he interrupted lazily. It had been too long since he had enjoyed the fruits of his court.

The girl did, unhesitatingly, continuing her report as her dress slid to the floor. “They have good spirit, too. Only a few will break quickly. And none perished in the hunt.”

“And what of your spirit?” he asked, not caring whether his rules had been followed. “Will it satisfy me, I wonder? I wish to hear no more of the Cages, the Hunt, or protocol. Come, girl.”

She obeyed, when she reached him, saying, “The Cages Master expects my return.”

“Your responsibilities will wait,” he instructed, rising up, pressing his lips to hers. “Tonight you will serve your King.”

“Yes, Sire.” She smiled as he lifted her into his arms.

*****

Wrathin stood by the window which had been repaired sometime during the night. If only Lordis’s temper could be repaired so easily. He turned as the Cages girl stepped out of his bedchamber.

“What is your name, girl?” he asked, liking that she wasn’t bothering to cover up.

“Nyta,” she told him, her voice just as seductive as the night before. If only he hadn’t other responsibilities to see to…

Wrathin nodded. “You will accompany me to the Hunt Celebration tonight.”

“I’ve never been to one… just the cleanup.”

“You’ll be excused from that tonight. I’ll want you to retire with me.”

“Yes, Sire.”

“Go find Maskyte, Lordis’s attendant. Tell her I want her to see to you… make you presentable.”

“Yes, Your Highness. I am honored.” She inclined her head and left, her dress still lying on the floor.

Yes, he liked her very much.

 

Chapter 10

Queen Rayelle wandered the Seelie palace, longing for home, for winter, despite the fact that she had only just arrived. She found the opulence of the Seelie Court to be… off-putting. She walked on a floor made of gemstones, for faerie’s sake! The palace’s long and winding corridors were closed in by delicate, flowing archways that granted views of the expansive grounds. The archways appeared to be a merging of stone, wood, and glass, sealed together with lines of gold and diamonds. It was beautiful, but overdone. It seemed to Rayelle as if the ground had opened and given all its treasures to build the Seelie King’s home.

The grounds, however, were breathtaking! Acres of rolling hills covered in grass the color of emeralds, wild-but-peaceful Seelie animals roaming amongst the giant trees of every variety. The Seelie Court had thousands of gardens, each one different than the last, but all tended to peaceful perfection. Whether they were tame and manicured or left carefully wild, each one could seem to enthrall you. She knew from experience that one could wander for hours and not see them all. The crowning glory of the Seelie Court, though, was its mountains. Wide and towering, the beauties surrounded the palace and grounds on all sides, settling the Seelie Court in its own private valley. And when the light hit just right, it all seemed to glow.

The Winter Queen was pulled from her musings by the sound of footsteps.

“Sereyne?” asked Rayelle, surprised—as the Autumn Queen was never away from her own court. “I had not expected to see you here.”

“Or I you, Rayelle,” she responded, wondering what the Seelie King was playing at. “Are you seeking an audience? Or did you receive… an invitation as well?”

She studied the Autumn monarch for a moment, unsure of how she wanted to answer. Sereyne stood patiently, her wide, yellow eyes looking relaxed. She was beautiful and soft, lacking the hard angles that usually defined the Fey. The Autumn Queen’s body curved and rounded in a way that almost made her look human, if one didn’t look closely. Then the thin lines of bark that decorated her body became obvious, spreading like a delicate spider web from head to toe, ending in long, pointed fingernails which looked like jagged twigs. Her feet appeared to be wrapped in thin tree roots. Even when she moved, colorful leaves seemed to fall from her long auburn hair constantly, as if they grew from her thick strands. She reminded Rayelle of a living tree, more so than any nymph she knew. She also knew Sereyne was not one to play games.

“Yes, the Seelie King extended an invitation,” Rayelle answered shortly, a hint of anger tingeing her words, which told Sereyne just how furious she actually was. The Winter Queen always remained impassive.

“It has been a long time since the Seelie Court has played host to a lesser court. How long do you expect that they will extend their hospitality for?”

“Attempting to guess at the intentions of the Seelie Court is futile. Though it is probably safer to assume our visit will be on the longer side. When did you arrive?” Rayelle responded, her composure returned.

“Only earlier this morning. And yourself?”

“Roughly the same.”

The two queens lapsed into silence as they strolled down the airy, open corridor, the midmorning sun shining through the arches that led to the extensive gardens. After a few minutes, two Seelie Court-serving Fey found them at the same time.

“Your Highnesses,” said the two in unison, giving identical curtsies. They glanced at each other, as if surprised by the other’s presence. Blushing, they both turned back to the queens.

“The King requests your presence,” said the one.

“For dinner this evening,” continued the other.

“At seven,” finished the first.

When they didn’t say anything more, Rayelle asked, “And where are we to meet the King at seven?”

It was only from years of dealing with her that Sereyne was able to hear the Winter Queen’s impatience.

“One of us will come for each of you at quarter ‘til,” they said in unison, with mirrored bows. “Your Highnesses.”

“They were… entertaining,” Sereyne observed with a slight smile as the two serving Fey disappeared around the corner. Noticing the other queen’s distraction though, she added, “Rayelle, worrying about what we do not know, even about what we[_ do_] know, will only distract us. And if your invitation was anything like mine, neither of us can afford to be distracted.”

“Us?”

“It would be imprudent to trust the Seelie Court at the moment, as we are both… stranded here. I think it would serve us well to ally ourselves,” suggested the Autumn Queen.

“I could agree to that, until we are released from our stay,” Rayelle conditioned.

“Agreed.”

“Sereyne?” said the Winter Queen, pausing and looking out one of the passageway’s many arches and into a sprawling garden. “Who is that sad creature? She does look familiar.”

“Yes, she does…” Sereyne agreed, narrowing her eyes so she could study the woman in question. “I am not sure. I think she may be human.”

“Do you?” Rayelle questioned, studying the forlorn-looking woman again. “I believe you are right… But why would a mortal be in the palace of the Seelie Court? And why does she seem so familiar?”

“I do not know. I wonder why she seems so wretched? The few mortals taken in by the Seelie Court are usually unreasonably, exuberantly joyful.” The Autumn Queen frowned over the oddity, as there was some speculation among the other court’s that the Seelie did something unnatural to their mortals to make them that way. She could not understand why this one was so different, and she was ready to give it up when the memory came to her. “Wait, Rayelle. Do you remember that human girl Morrin was so fond of?”

“You don’t mean…” The Winter Queen gasped, turning to look at Sereyne. “The one he had made his queen? I would not have thought she would still be around. Surely he would have tired of her—she was a human.”

“That is what I would have thought. At the very least, he would have let her go to appease his court. No faerie could tolerate being ruled by a mortal. But… I am certain it is her. It is—”

“Morrin’s old pet,” Rayelle finished.

“My old wife, actually,” came the deep, disapproving voice from behind them. “Though age is a sensitive issue for her, so I would not recommend discussing it where she could hear.”

The two turned around.

“Sire,” they said in unison, dropping deep curtsies.

“My Ladies.” Morrin inclined his head to each of them. “My wife and I are glad to have you both as our guests.”

“Of course, Sire,” responded Sereyne, frustrated with herself for having let him fluster her so, and for having forgot he had made the mortal his wife.

“A visit to the Seelie Court is never something I refuse, Sire,” replied Rayelle, her icy composure back in place.

“Until dinner, then, Your Highnesses.” The Seelie King nodded to each of them in turn and moved past to catch up to his wife. He paused a moment, though, and turned back, saying, “I assume your guards will be joining us? There are fourteen between the two of you, yes? One would think my sons did not trust me.”

When the Seelie King could no longer hear them, Sereyne whispered, “I wish there could have been a way to refuse coming.”

“Worry will only distract you, Sereyne,” Rayelle reminded, good-naturedly.

“I assume the Winter King decided you needed additional protection as well?” she asked, smiling.

“Indeed. I find kings worry far more than they need. Speaking of the guards, I should return to mine before they send out a search party.”

“I as well,” Seryene agreed. “I will see you at dinner.”

The two queens turned in opposite directions, both thinking that if it wasn’t for politics, they would probably enjoy each other’s company.

*****

“Thank you, Sola.” Hearing the door close, Sereyne turned, surprised to find her chief guard still in the room.

“None of the others will say anything regarding your absence; I will see to it. It is not their place.”

She frowned at him. “But it is yours?”

“My Lady, we are charged with your protection, upon pain of death. We cannot protect you if we do not know where you are,” he told her, and unlike her other guards who would have maintained a monotone, submissive voice out of respect, Sola had no qualms letting his anger show over her disappearing act.

“Sola, this is the Seelie Court. There is no competition here like with the lesser courts. There is nothing to protect me from.”

“With all due respect, My Lady,”—though there wasn’t much respect in the way he bit off his words—“that is not your decision. You are Queen of our court. You have a duty to our people to stay safe, which means you have to accept the security measures our King orders, whether you want them or not. Actions like that endanger the entire court, My Queen!”

“‘My Queen’?” Sereyne repeated, her voice low, the flowers in the room wilting as her anger spread. “Yes, Sola. I am Queen. It would serve you well to remember that our friendship does not make us equals. Do not speak to me as if I were nothing more than a wayward Feyling!”

“Then do not act like one, Sereyne,” he snapped back, in anger and worry.

They both froze, Sereyne’s mouth snapping shut, her expression shocked. Sola stood stock still, his mouth open. Recovering herself a little, the Autumn Queen said his name, several times, finally getting his attention.

“Your Highness!” Sola sunk down to one knee and crossed his arm over his heart, he kept his eyes to the floor. “I should have never… It was not my place… I… I am truly sorry, My Queen. I had no right to speak to you so. I shall have one of the others take my place as your chief guard. When we return to the Autumn Court, I will—”

“Enough, Sola! You made your point.” Sereyne’s voice was slightly hollow-sounding. She walked to the window, leaving Sola bowed on the floor.

She didn’t want to lose him. He had been chief of her guard since her first day as Autumn’s Queen. He was more of a brother than a bodyguard.

[But such impertinence, such boldness, is entirely unacceptable… Is it not? He did not have the right to speak to me in that way… Did he? _]She sighed, resting her head in her hand, forcing herself to push her emotions to the side. She could not allow either temper or affection to impair her judgment. [_He did not say anything that was untrue. But how he said it… _]She sighed again as realization hit, lifting her head to look back at Sola. _He said it the only way I would hear.

Shaking her head at herself, she walked back over to Sola.

She offered her hand, saying, “Stand up, Sola. You will neither resign from your position, nor will you berate yourself in any way.”

“But, Your Highness, what I said—”

“Was true and what I needed to hear. I am Queen. As such, I have responsibilities, such as my safety, like you said, but I also have a responsibility to listen to my fey—or in this case, faerie—even when I do not want to hear it.” She smiled at Sola’s confused expression as she held out her hand to him again. This time he took it, allowing her to pull him up. She continued, “The only one who should be apologizing, my friend, is me. I am sorry. You have been nothing but faithful and dutiful to me and our court in your centuries of service. I know I do not make things easy for you. Will you promise me something?”

“Of course, My Lady.” He sounded slightly shocked and still more than a little confused.

“You are one of my closest friends, more brother than guard. I trust you, implicitly. Promise me you will always be honest with me, no matter what. Especially when I am being a fool and do not want to hear you. Do not spare my feelings. Will you promise me, Sola?”

Returning to his knee and crossing his arm over his heart once more, he promised, “On my life Sereyne, you will always have truth from me.”

“Thank you. And I will make you a promise in return,” she said, lowering herself to a mirror position of Sola. “You have my word, Sola, no matter how angry I may be, you will never lose your position or my friendship for being honest with me.”

Slowly, they both rose.

“Sereyne, you will not always like my honesty.”

“I never expected I would. Now, if you will excuse me, I have a dinner to prepare for.”

“Of course, My Lady.” Sola bowed himself out, but paused by the door. “My Lady?”

She turned to face him.

“I was thinking, logistically, it might be better to leave two guards to watch over our chambers during our stay.”

“Thank you, Sola.” Sereyne smiled.

“For what, My Lady?” He smiled back and left.

*****

“Your hair is fine and there is no time to change it!” The Winter Queen scolded herself as she studied the intricate up-do.

Frustrated with herself for allowing her nerves to get the better of her, Rayelle turned from the mirror to join her guards in the next room. Her six guards rose and crossed their hands over heart in salute. Smiling internally, she sat down, allowing her guards to as well. Normally, even the Winter Court didn’t even stand upon such formalities, unless, of course, other courts were present. Her guards, it seemed, were still abashed. She had been surprised to win the argument. Normally, despite being Queen, her guard retained final say over anything they felt affected her safety when the Winter King was not there. Usually, she accepted it as part and parcel of her life. Today, however, she had had enough. She ruled her guard, not they her. A fact she had made clear earlier, well enough that they had the sense to err on the side of caution with their behavior. She knew her efforts would be forgotten by the morning, but tonight they would remember she was Queen. Besides, having them well in hand would be beneficial for the upcoming dinner.

[I do not want to go to this dinner… I do not want to be here at all. If only I had some idea what he was after… I am going in there blind. I would rather go to the Unseelie Court blind, deaf, and dumb, _]she thought in desperation, forcing her hands to unclench. She had to relax.[ I cannot let on, least of all to my guards. I am a pillar of my court, a strength for my faeries. ]She coached herself with the litany Kyrse had taught her long ago, when the needs of her people had seemed so overwhelming. And like always, the familiar words started to soothe her. [_I will not show fear or worry in public. That is not a luxury afforded to the Queen of Winter…to any good queen. I will be calm and collected…]

“Do stop pacing,” she instructed, her voice detached, unconcerned. “It makes you seem nervous, when you need not be. We are simply going to dinner, so unless you have forgotten how to eat, desist.”

“Yes, My Queen,” the guard crossed his arm over his heart in a formal salute and then sat, looking relieved.

Satisfied with her effort, she crossed the room to sit near her chief guard and began an idle conversation regarding the dinner and the remainder of their stay. Knowing the Queen well, he joined in but began signing subtly, grateful for the small table that blocked their hands from view.

[_What is your concern, Your Highness? _]signed the guard.

[_I knew you would not believe me as easily as the others did, _]she responded.

Of course not, My Queen. I have protected you for too many centuries to be fooled so easily. You are worried. It wasn’t a question.

Yes. Actually, she was terrified, and for good reason.

[_This dinner could be dangerous? This whole stay? _]he continued to gesture, cautiously.

Very much so. The Seelie Court does not involve itself in the concerns of lesser courts lightly.

Then what is it you need from me, My Queen?

Firstly, I need you to be composed. We may be walking into the lion’s den, but I intend to walk in as if we are the lions and they are the lambs. I expect the same from you and your men. They will follow your lead.

Your Highness, forgive me for being contrary, but that is not realistic. We are the lambs. A little humility might go a long way.

[I am not saying we will not be humble, _]she countered.[ We are guests, after all. I am simply saying that we shall not be naïve and let them see our weakness. Being humble does not mean that we cannot be smart. Besides, a little pride can be a good thing, too._]

While signing was convenient for privacy, Rayelle hated that she could not shade her words with any sort of tone, especially as he still looked unconvinced.

[_ Rashyd, we are the Winter Court. We are not naive and pleasing like Spring, not frivolous and temperamental like Summer, nor easy-going and unconcerned like Autumn. We are not corrupt and cruel like the Unseelie Court, nor aloof and controlling like the Seelie Court. What we are- is Winter—calm, cold, detached… no matter what! And you will remember that tonight! Am I understood? _]

[Completely, Your Highness, _]he deferred, though his expression said that he still didn’t agree with her. As long as he listened, his agreement wasn’t necessary. _It will be as you say.

Good. Secondly, I want you to leave my protection to the others—

My Queen, I cannot—

[_You can and will! Do not interrupt me again. There are more important things than my protection. We need information. You have had centuries of observing others, your surroundings, interpreting threats and meanings. I need your help with that tonight. I am trying desperately to figure out what the Seelie Court could be after, but I cannot do it alone. I need your skills to help me piece together the puzzle we are in. Can I trust you to do that? _]she signed, her gestures sharp with impatience.

It will be as you say, My Lady, he signed back, obviously unhappy.

[_Rashyd, you trained them well. Do not worry. They will make you proud, and I will be safe, _]she tried to reassure.

As you say, My Queen.

[Do not pout, Rashyd. You are better than that. _]There was a knock at the door.[ Do not test my orders._]

“Enter,” she called.

“Your Highness… Sirs,” said one of the little faeries from earlier, ducking her head. “Are you ready?”

Her tone said it was a courtesy question, nothing more.

“Lead on,” Rayelle responded, rising, her guards following suit.

*****

Moira looked over the table setting and the wine selection for a final time before joining her husband on the balcony. Smiling, he pulled her into his arms.

“I was not certain it would ever meet with your satisfaction.”

“I’m not that picky.” She laughed. Or at least something close to a laugh.

There was a sadness that seemed to tinge every facet of her. Her husband had learned to live with it many years before. Not that he had given up. He still hoped for success, to help her find peace and happiness, even if he was running out of time. He knew that one day he would find peace, but as for his wife… he could only hope that he would succeed in time.

“Actually, my dear, you are. Do not be upset by it; it is one of the many qualities I love about you.” He leaned down and kissed her softly. “Would you like to hear the others?”

“You can’t love my pickiness. Nobody loves pickiness.”

“I do.”

“Well, you’re biased.”

“Absolutely. I am biased by my love for you and for our people.” He smiled. “Fastidiousness is a good quality in a queen… What is wrong?”

“They aren’t really[_ my_] people—”

“Moira—” His voice was a clear warning to let it drop.

“No, Morrin, they aren’t. Not as long as I am human. I am queen in name because you declared it. But I’m not truly their Queen. They know it, I know it, but you refuse to see it. They tolerate me because they view me as your pet. The respect they show me is given out of fear of you, not real respect for me! They know I am only here temporarily. When I die, they know you will take another faerie for your queen.”

“Moira, do not speak of that. Your humanity is a gift—a gift I refuse to take away,” he replied sadly. “Especially over your vanity. Immortality is a burden. We are cursed beings, and I will not curse the woman I love, for any reason. Why will you not understand? My decision to leave you mortal was not out of cruelty but out of love.”

“Vanity!” She sounded outraged. “You think this is about my vanity! My place in your court, my aging—those are nothing more than pet peeves. This has nothing to do with my vanity. This is about the opportunity to spend multiple lifetimes with the faerie I love. Instead, you sentence me to only one—”

“Which is more than some have, Moira. Why will you not be happy with—”

“You think I don’t know that?” she interrupted. “Trust me, I understand my blessings. But really, it’s like being offered a Kingdom and saying, ‘Only give me a village. It’s more than most have’—”

“First of all,” he interrupted, “I think what we have had is worth far more than one little village. Secondly, I have not offered you the kingdom, so—”

“Stop trying to make light of this, Morrin! Besides, that is not the only reason, not the most important, and you know it. If I stay human, I will never see—”

“You do not know that, Moira—”

“Don’t I? It’s been more than a decade, which is a lot for a human,” she pleaded. “I’m almost fifty. What if it takes another decade? Two? Even three? We’re no closer than when we started, and you know it. Is it so bad that I want to see—”

There was a heavy knocking on the door.

“We can finish this later.” He sighed, sounding tired, as if it were an old argument he didn’t have the energy for anymore. “For now, though, our guests are waiting. Will you not smile?”

“Don’t I always?” She sighed back, her voice sounding empty, but she took his offered arm and pulled her face into a semblance of calm.

“Come in.”

“Your Majesty?” The faerie bowed towards his King. “Heza and Hela have arrived with your guests.”

“See them in.”

“Yes, Sire.”

The Autumn Queen was shown in first on the arm of her chief guard. She was followed in by three others, who stationed themselves discreetly around the room. The Queen smiled brightly when she saw the Seelie monarchs.

“Your Majesties.” She and Sola bowed appropriately. “It has been a long time. Your invitation was kind.”

Although she knew Sereyne was apprehensive and probably had an agenda up her sleeve—all the courts’ monarchs did—Moira could never help but like the Autumn Queen. She had a steady warmth to her, making her far more pleasant to be around than most. Moira stepped forward and inclined her head.

“We are glad to have you, Your Highness. We hope you will enjoy your visit.”

“Thank you, Your Majesty,” Sereyne replied, stepping to the side as the Winter Queen entered on the arm of Rashyd.

“Your Highness, I know it has been a while, but I am certain you remember Moira, my wife and queen?” the King stated.

“Of course, Your Majesty,” she replied, bowing just deep enough to not be considered disrespectful. Then she turned to Moira and, bowing more deeply, said, “Your Majesty, it has been a long time.”

Though she harbored no ill will toward the Winter Queen, Moira had never been able to like her. Part of it, she knew, was that Rayelle was an easy rival to Morrin when it came to political games and manipulations, so she could never doubt that Rayelle had her own agenda. As for the rest of it, she just couldn’t seem to like the faerie.

“Too long.” The mortal Seelie Queen smiled, inclining her head. “We are happy you came. I hope you find your stay with us pleasant.”

“Considering the Seelie Court’s reputation, I am sure it will be everything I expect,” Rayelle answered with a slight smile.

“We will try to meet your expectations,” she replied with her own polite smile.

“Now that our formalities are over,”—the Seelie King smiled at his guests—“might I offer you something to drink? Rayelle? Sereyne?”

“That would be lovely, Morrin.” Sereyne smiled.

“Yes, thank you,” responded Rayelle.

At the side of each monarch appeared serving faeries with a selection of wines already poured.

“Well, my dears, pick your poison.” Morrin smiled jovially.

Unnerved by his word choice and his unusually laid-back manner, Rayelle forced a smile and chose the coldest winter wines. Once the Autumn Queen had made her choice as well, Morrin continued, “Sereyne, will you join me on the balcony?”

“That would be lovely. I have heard the garden it overlooks is spectacular,” she answered calmly, hiding her nerves behind trivial pleasantries as she let him lead her outside.

As if on cue, Moira stepped forward. “I hope you settled comfortably?”

“Yes. The accommodations are lovely,” Rayelle answered, hiding her surprise over this divide-and-conquer tactic.

“I trust all is well for you, seeing as you were able to come on such short notice?”

“And I trust things are well for the Seelie Court, as you and Morrin are able to entertain guests?”

“Touché.” Moira smiled. She never had a talent for politics—she was far too blunt—and could not conceive why Morrin had left Rayelle to her. They lapsed into an awkward silence.

“What is it Morrin wants you to glean from me, Moira?”

The Mortal Queen let out a laugh, giving Rayelle a sense of déjà vu.

“I’m not used to you being direct. You have quite the opposite reputation. But since I don’t, we’ll get right to it. Lately, our spies have noticed— Don’t look so surprised Rayelle, it’s unattractive on you. Just because we don’t interact with the other courts often doesn’t mean we don’t keep tabs on them. Anyway, they’ve noticed a lot of activity from the other monarchs, as well as a neglect of regular responsibilities… yet nothing has been reported. We would like to know why.”

“I am sure Morrin would. Maybe he should ask his sons themselves, instead of pursuing elaborate schemes,” the Winter Queen replied.

The direct approach of the human queen was not a tactic Rayelle was used to, and it was throwing her off—which, she realized, was probably what Morrin hoped for. Unless of course, it was all a red herring… after all, spies had not been detected in the Winter Court for years. Had he really gone to such an elaborate measure for something so simple?

“And will his sons tell him what he wants to know?”

“Probably not.”

“Which is why you and Sereyne are here instead of Raveed and Laetis.”

“And what makes you think either of us would betray our Kings?” the Winter Queen snapped, her voice calm, cold, her usually pale complexion finding an even whiter shade.

Sounding impatient, Moira snapped, “Don’t be so dramatic. We’re not asking either of you to betray anyone. We are simply expecting that you will provide us with information, which the Kings in question would provide us with, eventually. We just don’t want to waste time.”

“When—or more accurately—if you gain the information you are after, is my King’s decision not mine!”

“Rayelle, we both know my husband and yours do not get along. Your stubbornness is simply a waste—”

“Precisely. They do not get along, and I stand with my King, not yours. Furthermore, when I became Queen, I also became Raveed’s partner, his confidant—not the go-between for him and his father.”

“Don’t be foolish; the wife is always the middle-faerie in family conflicts. If you didn’t want that responsibility, you should have married someone else,” Moira snapped in frustration at how poorly the conversation was going.

“‘Married someone else’? That is a ridiculous comment, Your Majesty. Though, it is not truly your fault. When you have lived for only half a century, you cannot be expected to remember the intricacies of what took place millennia ago.” Rayelle smiled innocently at the look of outrage on the Mortal Queen’s face. It was a familiar look; she just couldn’t place it.

“Allow me to explain it to you. I, unlike you, did not choose to marry my husband. I was instructed to for political reasons and did so out of loyalty for my court. Whatever emotions exist between the two of us, developed countless centuries after we married because, unlike you, neither of us had the luxury of falling in love before our vows. Yes. I am his wife. But first and foremost, I am his subject and Queen.

“Secondly, though, again, I cannot blame you for not understanding, because, after all, you are human—not Fey,” Rayelle continued condescendingly and fought a smile as the other woman’s expression became even angrier. “Faeriedom does not have families as mortals like yourself do. Our loyalties are to our courts. They are our families. So, as I told you before, if you want information, speak with my King. I, however, cannot help you. Your invitation was a wasted effort, Moira.”

“I suppose only time will tell. I’m sure, Rayelle, you prepared for a long stay?” Moira snapped and, without waiting for an answer, called out, “Morrin, dinner is ready to be served.”

*****

Rayelle took Rashyd’s arm as they left the dinner. She wished it were Raveed so she could have had the luxury of actual leaning on it. When they finally reached their quarters, he lowered his voice and asked, “Do you wish to speak tonight, My Queen?”

“Is there anything urgent?”

“No, My Lady.”

“Then we will speak in the morning. I wish to retire.”

“Yes, My Lady.”

“Who is taking first watch?”

“I am.”

“Rashyd, that is not necessary. You deserve a full night’s sleep.”

“My Lady, you would not allow me to do my job earlier; at least allow me to do it now?” he asked, clearly frustrated.

“As you wish.” She sighed. “Until the morning, then.”

She had been in her bed for over an hour, unable to sleep, when, gasping loudly, she sat bolt upright. “That is why she was so familiar—”

“My Lady?” Rashyd, with his overprotective nature, had burst in at her slight sound. “What is wrong?”

“Nothing is wrong.” She smiled at him, looking like the cat who caught the canary. “Just a piece of the puzzle.”

 

Chapter 11

“Why isn’t she waking up? You said her concussion wasn’t severe.”

“Miss Behr, please calm down. Your friend has been through a lot, and while her concussion isn’t severe, it certainly isn’t mild. She is also recovering from multiple other injuries. Her body will wake up when it’s ready,” came the frustrated reply.

“But—”

“No. I’m sorry, but I’m afraid all you can do is wait. And you’re going to have to do that waiting at home. Visiting hours have long since passed, and only family is allowed now.”

“What? But—”

“Those are the—”

“She is family. She stays.” Ryne’s voice sounded croaky and weak.

“Miss Doe, you’re awake.” The nurse sounded relieved.

Ryne felt someone take her hand. She hadn’t managed to open her eyes yet, but she had a good idea of who it was, anyway.

“Can you open your eyes, dear?”

“Um, working on it,” Ryne mumbled, unsure why she was having such a hard time doing what the nurse asked. She just knew she wanted to go back to sleep. “Ugh! Bright.”

“Yes, you may be a little sensitive to light for a couple of days. You took quite the blow to your head.” She smiled understandingly.

“Mm-hmm.” Ryne tried sitting up and discovered it was a very bad idea. “Ow.”

The nurse’s hand on her shoulder pushing her back down wasn’t necessary; Ryne barely made it a few of inches before she fell back.

“Honey, you’ve been through a lot. It’s probably best if you just lie still.”

“Um, yeah.”

“What’s your pain level on a scale of one to ten, dear?” the elderly nurse asked while looking over monitors. “And be honest. I won’t have any bravery here.”

“Um…” Ryne hesitated. She hurt, a lot, but she didn’t want to stay in the hospital any longer than necessary. “I don’t know. I mean, I’ve felt better.”

“‘Um’ is not a number. But judging from your reaction to movement, I’d say you could use something for the pain.” She smiled.

“Um, okay,” Ryne responded, relieved.

“Now, the doctors are going to have some questions for you, and the police will need—”

“The police! What’d I do?”

“Nothing, honey. But you were attacked,” the nurse assured in a low, soothing voice. “If they’re going to find the monster who did this to you, they’ll need some information first.”

“Oh,” Ryne replied, feeling embarrassed at her outburst.

The nurse smiled gently. “But I think you’ve been through enough, so why don’t we wait till morning to let them know you’re awake?”

“Thank you,” Ryne replied, feeling more gratitude than the woman could know.

“Of course, dear.”

“What time is it?”

“It’s a little after eleven-thirty at night, so try to get some sleep—which the pain medicine will help you with.” She smiled, again, and then turned to Dina, who had let go of Ryne’s hand and was now sitting on the end of the bed. “As for you, it is way beyond visiting hours. If I had known you were here earlier—”

“But—” It was as far as either of them got.

“Dears, we have rules. I am sorry, but nobody past visiting hours who isn’t family.”

“But she is family,” Ryne rushed to get out. “She’s my sister!”

“Honey, sentiment is nice. But like I said, we have rules. If you don’t want to be alone, I can call someone—”

“There isn’t anyone to call! How often have my foster parents checked on me? Have they even called to see where Dina is? We’re all each other have.”

The nurse frowned at them both in turn. “Sisters?”

“Yes, ma’am,” they answered in unison.

“If anyone asks, I did not okay it,” she instructed. In a happier tone, she continued, “Press the red button if you need anything.”

Shaking her head but smiling, the nurse shut the door behind her.

“Oh, my goodness!” -Dina threw herself at Ryne, who just managed to stifle a yell-

“Oh, my goodness. Oh, my goodness,” she continued as she wrapped her arms around Ryne, which, considering her injuries, hurt a lot.

“Dina—”

“You never came home and I was freaking out and—”

“Dina—”

“But they wouldn’t listen to me—”

“Dina—”

“No one would listen to me—”

“Dina—”

“I even called your therapist. I know I said I wouldn’t, but I thought maybe she might have heard from you—”

“Dina—”

“I tried the cops again. I was so worried. And then the hospital called—”

“Di-na—”

“Three days, Rynnie! I thought you were dead! If you ever work a late shift again, you call me! Promise?”

“DINA!”

“What?”

“You’re [_hurting _]me.”

“Oh, my gosh!” She bolted up. “I’m sorry. Oh, my gosh. I’m so sorry!”

“I’ll be fine,” Ryne assured her friend. Then smiling, she asked, “So, I take it you were worried?”

“Oh, you know…” She smiled, showing a little bit of space between her thumb and forefinger.

“Wait… Did you say three days? I was out for three days!”

“Yep. You knocked your head good. Oh!” She frowned a little. “Um, don’t get mad, okay? But, uh…” She chewed her bottom lip. “The doctors say you might scar—a lot. I’m sorry, sweetie.” She rushed and screwed her face up, waiting for Ryne to freak out.

“Fantastic.” Ryne sighed.

“Wow, you… uh… took that well.”

“Yeah, well, I used up my energy on my last outburst.” She shrugged. “Ow.”

“You shouldn’t really move,” Dina pointed out.

“Thank you, I hadn’t realized,” Ryne commented dryly.

Dina frowned.

“What?”

“If you weren’t so hurt, I’d hit you.”

“Excuse me?” asked Ryne, indignant.

“Don’t you ever—and I mean ever—be that stupid again!”

“Yes, mom.” Ryne sighed.

“No. I’m serious. You could have been killed, or worse!”

“All right, Din,” she agreed, completely serious. “I[_ am _]sorry and I’ll call from now on, okay? But you’re not allowed to stop talking to me anymore. Deal?”

Dina studied Ryne with a frown for a moment. “All right, but only because I think you’re actually sorry… If I ever get my hands on those guys…” Ryne shuddered involuntarily. “Oh, honey!”

She went to hug Ryne again… but caught herself in time.

“I’m fine,” Ryne assured.

“And I’m the queen of jolly old England,” she snapped. “Here, move over—carefully.”

“What? Why?”

“Just do it, Rynnie.”

“Fine.” She slid, slowly, to the side, gritting her teeth as she did so.

“Now, was that so hard?”

“Yes, actually.”

“Oh, don’t whine.” She kicked her shoes off and climbed in next to Ryne. Gripping her hand, Dina continued seriously, “I’m sorry you were hurt.”

“Me too,” Ryne replied, relieved that the painkiller was starting to work.”

“You’re always so brave about things, Ryne. It’s like you don’t let anything bother you.”

“Thank you.”

“It wasn’t a compliment. It’s okay to feel things; pain isn’t always a bad thing.”

“Good night, Dina,” Ryne replied, having no desire to start this conversation.

“Ryne, what happened?”

“I…” She fell silent. Crap!

“Ryne, you have to talk to somebody about it and the sooner, the better. Besides, we both know you don’t want to talk to your shrink about it, which leaves me as the perfect outlet,” Dina reasoned.

“I… I don’t… really remember well. It’s blurry,” Ryne fudged, hating to lie to Dina again.

“If it was blurry, you wouldn’t have shuddered when I mentioned those guys and you wouldn’t have been relieved that you didn’t have to talk to the cops yet,” she pointed out, clearly annoyed.

“Dina—”

“Why won’t you tell me the truth?” She sounded hurt.

“You wouldn’t believe me.”

“Try me!”

“I… can’t,” Ryne answered lamely.

“No, you won’t. There’s a difference. You won’t trust me with anything, especially lately,” Dina complained, sounding like she was fighting tears.

“Dina, I—”

“I understand having secrets. Especially, why [_you _]keep secrets, but I’m not a doctor or social worker, Ryne. I’m your best friend. I mean… We say we’re sisters—and sisters tell!”

“I… Dina…” she trailed off, trapped between a rock and a hard place.

“I would understand if you still decided not to tell me,” she said, sounding like she was trying to convince herself, not Ryne, “but… don’t make something up like you have been—just say you won’t tell me, please. I promise, though, I would keep your secrets—always.”

“Thank you Dina, but… I’m not going to tell you what happened,” Ryne said, trying to ignore the horrible wave of guilt that swept over her.

“Okay,” she agreed, sounding hurt. “Rynnie?”

“Yes?”

“I want you to know, I don’t care what anyone says. I know you and I don’t think you’re schizo. I mean, I know I give you a hard time about it—which isn’t nice—but I don’t actually mean it. I never have. I know you’re not crazy.”

“Really?” said Ryne, feeling slightly baffled by the turn in conversation. “How?”

“Because, like I said, I know you.” She shrugged, as if it were that simple.

“But… you’ve never said anything?”

“I know… I kind of liked being able to pretend you were more messed up than me.”

“I probably still am.”

The two girls fell silent. Ryne began to worry that Dina had fallen asleep. She knew she should tell Dina, needed to tell her, even though it went against everything she had convinced herself of years before. But… she had to trust someone, and Dina deserved to know. Besides, if Ryne were honest with herself, she wanted [_someone _]to know.

“Dina?”

“Yes?”

“Don’t laugh… They were faeries.”

“Thank you.”

“That’s it?” asked Ryne dubiously, her eyes going wide.

“I made up my mind a [_long _]time ago that no matter what your secrets were, I would believe them,” she said simply. “[_And _]when I lived with my grandmother, she believed in all sorts of stuff, faeries included—”

“You always said your grandmother was certifiable,” Ryne interrupted.

“Oh, she was, without a doubt, but—”

“So you don’t believe I’m schizophrenic or crazy, but you’re putting me in the same category as a crazy lady?” demanded Ryne, struggling to follow her friend’s thought process.

But,” Dina plowed on as if she hadn’t been interrupted, “I always thought she was a lot smarter than all the ‘normal’ people. And she had her lucid moments. Anyway, the point is, she always believed in the paranormal, faeries in particular. They terrified her. She was always warning me about them. She said they weren’t cute like Tinkerbell. Actually, she never let me watch Peter Pan, claimed it was ‘a gross and inaccurate misrepresentation of the truth, that misled children into believing Fey creatures could be trusted and liked, when under absolutely no circumstances could they ever be.’ Anyway, because of her, I learned a bit about the supernatural—faerie lore in particular. Not sure how accurate it was. Like I said, she was crazy. But you get the point.”

“Right… Well, that makes all this easier,” Ryne said slowly, the situation feeling far too surreal. “But it’s not as simple as that. There are a lot of other magickal creatures out there. Faeries are just the most dominant.”

“I figured. At least about there being other magickal creatures. I mean, if faeries are true, why wouldn’t the rest be?” replied Dina as nonchalantly as if they were discussing the weather. “You’re going to fill me in on this whole magickal world thing, right? The stuff I don’t know, I mean?”

“Uh, yeah… I was scared,” Ryne admitted. “Terrified, actually.”

Dina squeezed her hand again, “When the police come, tell them it was dark and they had you from behind. When you were finally able to get a look at them, you had already hit your head, so you can’t remember what they look like.”

“Has anyone ever told you that you’re awesome?” Ryne asked in gratitude for everything, not sure how much longer she would last—the pain medication was finally making her tired.

“Once or twice, but I never tire of hearing it,” Dina answered smugly.

Ryne rolled her eyes. “Night, Dina.”

“Night,” she yawned back.

There was more to tell Dina, so much more, but there would be time for that later. For now, it was enough.

*****

Apollo sighed inwardly as Wrathin strolled into the nearly finished meeting.

“Have you finally decided to grace us with your presence, Wrathin?” asked Raveed, crossly.

“Why? Did you miss me?” he replied sarcastically, dropping into the vacant seat. “Did I miss much?”

“Yes!” snapped Raider.

“Lucky me.”

“But you are just in time to discuss the girl,” Laetis interjected, ending his brothers’ bickering.

“Lucky me,” said Wrathin, far less enthusiastically.

“Why is she in the hospital?” Apollo inquired, trying to sound curious but not concerned.

“How would I know?”

“Because there are Unseelie Fey swarming that hospital, and they will not allow any of ours near it, let alone near the girl,” barked Raider, truculently.

“Is that so?”

“Wrathin!” yelled Raider, banging his fist on the table, a blast of heat sweeping the room.

“Enough!” sounded Laetis’s deep, resonating voice. “It is clear that the girl is of some import, Wrathin. It would be wise for us to work together, as I have said before.”

“Profitable. You mean it would be profitable for us to work together,” corrected Wrathin, his eyes narrowing, darkening.

“I suppose that would depend on what you view as profitable,” conceded Laetis. “The point is that the inane bickering accomplishes nothing.”

“Was I bickering?” Wrathin asked, all traces of his vehemence gone.

“Wrathin!” growled Laetis, looking as if he too wanted to hit the table.

“Rumor has it she was attacked by Unseelie Fey,” commented Apollo, trying to pin Wrathin down.

“Do you believe everything you hear?” he dodged.

Your court attacked the girl?” exclaimed an irate Raveed. “And now, they have the gall to refuse us access to her?”

“There was a… misunderstanding,” answered Wrathin with feigned indifference.

“A misunderstanding?” roared Raider and Raveed in unison, both coming to their feet in anger. _ _

“This girl looks to be one of the greatest commodities our world has seen in a long time,” hissed Raveed, the temperature dropping dangerously.

My, my brother, it would seem your emotions are getting the better of you. How unusual,” drawled Wrathin, desperately tamping down on his own anger. Commodity!

“Wrathin! This is not a matter to be cavalier about! This girl is important to our world. She means something for us, but we will never find out what if she gets killed,” Raider thundered, raising the temperature till it sweltered.

Fools! She is a girl, not an object, thought Apollo, suppressing a sigh.[_ It is who she is, not what she can offer us that should matter…_]

“[_I _]am acting cavalierly?” hissed Wrathin, a forked tongue slithering out. “[_You _]debate as if she were nothing more than an object to be bought and traded however you please! You do not actually care that she is hurt—only that your plans might be interrupted. You are always ready to lecture me on my court’s treatment of the human race, on how we are supposed to protect and guide them, not use them. Yet, the moment one of you stands to profit off a mortal, you forget all of your preaching? Hypocrites! At least my court acknowledges its corruptions.”

Wrathin pushed himself away from the table and stood, his skin tinged with shadows, a slight hissing issuing from the back of his throat.

“Wrathin, you have a fair point,” responded Laetis’s voice of reason, as he tried to soothe the Unseelie King. “Perhaps we have been… overzealous for the wrong reasons. Sit down. Calm down. We still need to discuss things. You need to stop acting as if she belongs to you. Our courts need to—have a right to—observe the girl as well. You need to call off your Fey and—”

“Actually, I do not,” interrupted Wrathin quietly, his voice dangerously calm.

“Wrathin—”

“As long as the girl is in the hospital, none but mine will be allowed near her. I suggest you heed me, because my Fey will see my orders done, and I will not instruct them to be kind about it,” he warned, pitch black shadows seeping off him in his anger, swirling around his feet and chair as if they were alive. With one final look around the table, he strode from the room.

The slammed door echoed around the acutely silent chamber. The faces of the different monarchs seemed torn between shock and anger. Apollo, however, was amused.

“You know, I think he might actually care about the girl,” he commented, effectively breaking the stunned silence.

“Hardly. The only things he cares about are power and pleasure,” Raider replied, also taking his leave.

“Wrathin has plans in play, which he stands to gain from no matter what he says.” Raveed sighed, departing.

“Perhaps… I am not sure what to think. How did you know she was attacked by Unseelie Fey?” queried Laetis.

Apollo let the corner of his mouth curl in a slight smile. “My court is not nearly as naive as I allow others to believe.”

Laetis’s twig-like brows furrowed in curiosity, but he decided to leave it be for now. Bidding farewell, he closed the door behind him.

“Fools,” Apollo muttered to the empty chamber, shaking his head.

*****

It had been almost a week since Ryne had woken in the hospital. She had talked to the police—who had actually been glamoured Unseelie Fey—but hadn’t seen her faerie stalkers around, except the one who had saved her… though he hadn’t spoken to her yet. She knew she should be grateful for small favors, yet she couldn’t help but be worried by the fact that he hadn’t sought her out. Another part of her, a part she didn’t like to admit existed, was bothered by it because she [_wanted _]to speak with him.

“Sorry to disturb your daydreams, Miss Doe,” said pinched-nosed nurse named Leanne, who Ryne had not noticed come in. “I have some papers I need you to sign. I already had your foster parents and social worker sign everything else this morning.”

Leanne dropped a clipboard on Ryne’s lap.

“Papers?” she asked, confused.

“Yes,” snapped the nurse as if it were obvious. When Ryne didn’t say anything, she rolled her eyes and explained, “For your release.”

“Oh!” she exclaimed, brightening. “Where do I sign?”

“Well, first you need to read it,” instructed the nurse, sounding impatient.

“As long as you have my signature, do you really care?” Ryne pointed out.

Releasing a sigh, Leanne said, “You need to sign the bottom of each page—there should be a line—and initial at the top… again, there should be a line… Mary should be in shortly to change your bandages. She’s just going over it with that friend of yours—Donna.”

“You mean Dina?”

“If you say so. Then you and Dana can head out.”

“You mean Dina.”

“Are you finished?”

“Sure thing, Linda.”

“It’s Leanne.”

“I know.” Ryne smiled, handing back the clipboard.

“You all done with the paperwork?” asked a happy Mary—the same grandmotherly nurse who had been there when Ryne first woke up.

“Yes ma’am, and Lucy was just so helpful,” answered Ryne, her smile widening.

The pinched-faced Leanne left.

“You and Leanne get along so well,” Mary said sarcastically.

“Don’t we just? I think it’s the start of a beautiful, lifelong friendship. Don’t you?”

“Hardly,” she replied with a snort of laughter. “Are you ready?”

*****

“Would you go to work?”

“I can call out, you know. I mean, work won’t miss me and you know they”—Dina jerked her head toward the door to indicate their foster parents—“won’t do anything for you.”

“Which is why I have you. But seriously, you can’t be with me twenty-four-seven. Now, to my right, I have all my meds and enough fluids to keep me in the bathroom all night. Plus there’s the phone for emergencies. Then, to my left, I have a stack of books and enough junk food to make Willy Wonka jealous. And finally, here’s the remote. Besides, we both know I’ll probably sleep for most of the evening anyway. Now, you’ve done your job. So would you go do your[_ actual_] job?” Ryne pleaded.

“What if you need to use the bathroom?”

“You couldn’t pee for me even if you were here. Besides, it’s only five steps away. Now go!”

“All right, all right!” Dina held up her hands in surrender. “Call if you need anything. Promise?”

“Scout’s honor.” Ryne smiled, putting up her first two fingers.

“Rynnie, you were never a scout.”

“And?”

“Whatever. Oh, shoot! I’m going to be late. I’m blaming you,” Dina called as she raced through the door, which she didn’t shut behind her.

Gritting her teeth, Ryne pulled herself out of bed. By the time she reached the door, she was breathing heavily.

“I would have done that for you.”

“Wha—” She tried to spin toward the voice.

However, between the surprise and an already weak body, her legs crumpled. Not to mention that trying to spin around made the room actually spin around.

“Easy there,” said the voice, as arms caught her before she hit the ground.

Ryne heard the door shut but kept her eyes on the ground; looking up would just make the situation more real.

“You should not be out of bed, Little Mortal.” Then, like the last time he had come to Ryne’s rescue, her feet were no longer on the ground. She forced herself to look up at him, “So, you do have eyes.”

What am I supposed to say? _]She chewed her lip nervously. [_I’ve known magickal creatures have existed my whole life, but I’ve never really had a conversation with one. This is so weird. I mean, do I just say, ‘Thank you, Mister Faerie’? Or… Oh! I should probably say thank—

“Are you all right? May I get you anything?” He looked concerned as he set her down on the bed.

“I… Yes, I’m fine. Um… Why are you here?”

“Why are you so surprised, Little Mortal? I told you we would talk.”

“Yes, you did. Though, in fairness, that part of the night is a little fuzzy.”

“Yes, I suppose it would be… I wish I could make the whole night ‘fuzzy’ for you,” he added sadly.

“Me too,” she whispered. Then feeling slightly rude, Ryne said, “Um, can I get you anything?”

He laughed, though not unkindly, and said, “You do not even have the energy to get from the bed to the door and back, but you’re going to get me something?”

“All right then, I won’t be polite,” she answered, bristling.

“No need to get miffed.” He smiled, amused.

“Who said I’m ‘miffed’? Why are you here?”

“I guess we are done with small talk, then?”

Ryne raised an eyebrow at him.

“Right, then. Why am I here… Well, first and foremost, to see how you are, I suppose.”

“Why?”

“‘Why’ what?”

“Why do you care?”

“Why would I not care?” he asked innocently.

“Don’t play games. You’re a faerie, an Unseelie faerie. I’ve seen magickal creatures my whole life, seen the things your people do. It’s a fair question and you know it!” she finished, flabbergasted at her own outburst.

“You are right.” He sighed, seemingly impressed with her ardor. “And to be honest, I do not know why I care. So for now, I am just… going with it.”

“Huh,” she responded, still suspicious but knowing there wasn’t anything else she could do. Fiddling nervously with the blanket, she asked, “So, the police I talked with—they were Unseelie Fey?”

“Yes.”

“Could you please expound a little? I mean, how come the real police never came?”

“They were real police, the mortal world is just unaware that some of their officers are… not human. As you pointed out before, Little Mortal, faeries—my kind in particular—are not the most wholesome. We find it… helpful having well-placed Fey to clean up our… messes.”

“Oh. So when your faeries [_actually _]rape a girl, there’s someone to help them get away with it?” Ryne snapped. Keeping her mouth shut had never been one of her strong suits.

The Unseelie King looked angry. “That should have never happened to you… I should have them killed for it.”

“You won’t, will you?” she demanded at his pronouncement, her eyes going wide, not certain how serious he was.

“Won’t what?”

“Have them killed,” she reminded.

“You already asked me that.” He smiled, relieved to have distracted her from the realities of the Unseelie Court.

“I did?”

“When I was carrying you to the hospital. You were fairly out of it and kept passing out, but you managed to rouse every so often and ask me to spare them—three times, actually.”

“Oh… Well, will you? Please?” she asked a fifth time, feeling embarrassed.

“I have yet to decide.” He shrugged,

“Please don’t,” she pleaded, unsure of why she thought he would listen.

“Why not?” He frowned, confused. Shouldn’t she want them punished?

“I don’t want anybody dying because of me.”

“Even after what they did?”

“But they didn’t [_do _]anything,” she pointed out. “At least, not really. You stopped it before anything could have really happened. Thank you, by the way. So, you know… I’ll live. No harm, no foul. Right? So… So please don’t kill them,” she finished.

He let out a growl of frustration and stood up. Nervous, Ryne pulled up her knees and wrapped her arms around them.

Why?” he rounded on her, his voice close to shout, his eyes narrowed, the green and black snakelike scales decorating his long hands spreading up his tanned arms.

“‘Why?’ Why what?” she asked, dumbfounded.

“Why do I care? I have [_never _]cared before. You are nothing more than one little mortal! So why do I care? Why does it bother me? And why do I want to kill my own when I think about what they did… what they tried to do! Why do I hesitate to execute them simply because you ask it?” he finished, staring at her angrily.

Crap! A powerful Unseelie faerie—in my bedroom—is losing it. At me! Crap!

His face softened and he continued in a far more gentle tone, “Why do I care that I am scaring you?”

“I don’t know,” she mumbled, still holding onto her knees. “And you’re n-not scaring me.”

Sitting back down, he said, “I am sorry, Little Mortal.”

“It’s okay,” she told him, relaxing.

She felt safe again. Why, she didn’t know. Because she shouldn’t have. She was still sitting in a small room with the same faerie who, moments before, had been terrifying her… and yet she still felt completely safe.

“No, it is not. But you are kind… Are you in pain? Your face is all scrunched up.”

“I’m fine.”

“That’s what you told the nurse, too.” He smiled, moving to look over her nightstand.

“The nurse?” she asked, confused.

“When you woke up in the hospital.”

“How do you know what I said?”

He turned back to her, holding a glass of water and a pill. “This one will help you sleep, too. You should rest.”

“That doesn’t answer my question… What should I call you?”

“Wrathin.”

“All right, Wrathin. How do you know what I said in the hospital?”

“Pill first,” he stipulated. When she had complied, he continued. “I wanted to be sure you were going to be all right, so I… um… stayed—out of sight—in your hospital room,” he explained, oddly embarrassed.

She smiled, oddly touched. “Thank you.”

She wasn’t sure why his staying meant so much to her, but it did. The two sat in a comfortable silence for a few minutes. Feeling her head become foggy surprisingly fast, she leaned back against her pillows.

“You never answered my question.”

“Which one, Little Mortal?” He smiled.

“Are you going to kill them?”

“Not if you do not wish me to.” He sighed.

“Thank you, Wrathin.” She yawned, as he pulled the comforter up.

 

Chapter 12

Ryne tied off the loose braid she had made in her hair and dropped her sore arms. She flinched slightly as it pulled on her stitches, but only slightly. She had been home for a week and, as long as she was slow and cautious, she could move with little to no pain. She wasn’t even taking painkillers anymore.

She had a checkup the next day, which would give her the green light for work and school. She was looking forward to getting out of the house. She looked at herself in the mirror, noticing how tired she appeared and made a mental note to wear makeup to her checkup. She had been sleeping worse than ever this week. The nightmare she had been enduring almost every night for the past couple months was now intermingled with the memories of what those faeries had done… what they had tried to do. Then, on top of all that, there were the conversations she had been having with Dina which, to her surprise, were exhausting. Trying to explain the invisible world of Magick to Dina, who couldn’t See—never had and never would—was like trying to explain a symphony to a deaf man. She knew that she didn’t have to try all the time—that Dina would let her do it at her own pace—but she felt like she owed too much to Dina to go slow. On a more selfish note, it was also just a relief to have someone she could be honest with without having to worry about getting institutionalized again.

Deciding that her window seat would be infinitely more comfortable than the toilet lid, Ryne stood up. She let out a groan as she had stood up too quickly for her body’s liking.

“Are you all right, Little Mortal?” a deep voice called from the bedroom.

Ryne rushed into her bedroom, regretting her haste the moment she stopped moving. She hadn’t moved with that much speed in quite a while and her body felt it. She forgot her discomfort, however, when she saw [_him _]sitting in the desk chair.

“I wasn’t sure you’d come back,” she said, glad her voice didn’t betray the excitement she felt. The world of Magick had always been taboo, and she liked being on speaking terms with it now.

She also just liked Wrathin. There was something endearing about him, in a scary sort of way. Slowly, she made her way to the window seat.

“Not come back? With an interesting specimen like you? I wish I could have come back sooner,” he said, managing to make the sentiment sound sweet. “You’re moving decidedly better, though from the looks of those bags under your eyes, you should be getting more rest.”

“Well, you certainly know how to make a girl feel good about herself.” She frowned.

“Don’t be touchy. It is not as if I called you unprepossessing.”

“Uh… called me what?”

“I believe you would translate it to…‘looking like crap,’” he clarified, with a smile.

She threw him a dirty look and said, “Gee, thanks. I feel so much better now.”

“I’m relieved.” He smiled smugly. “So, how much longer are you on forced… What is the mortal term…‘R and R’?”

“I have a checkup tomorrow. If he gives me the all clear, I’m free to go back to my crazed and stressful life.” She smiled as if she couldn’t think of anything more wonderful.

“You might miss being able to lie about with nothing to do,” he pointed out.

She snorted. “Not likely. I like being busy. So… before, you said I was an ‘interesting specimen.’ What exactly does that mean?”

“A number of things, actually.”

“Well, as pointed out before, I have nothing to do but sit here. So, feel free to elucidate; I have all the time in the world.”

The Unseelie King pressed his lips together, studying her for a moment as if deciding what to tell her.

“Please?” she whined.

“It’s not important,” he replied, casually.

“‘Not important,’” she said quietly, her eyes narrowing, her temper rising. “You and four other faeries have been stalking me for over a month now, and I have no idea why! I grew up Seeing your world, whether I wanted to or not, and I know the horrors in it. In some ways, I know better than most Magicks. And let me tell you, your world terrifies me! I’ve had nightmares from it my whole life.

“You have no idea how hard it is to go about my everyday life and force myself to act as if there is nothing out of the ordinary, as if nothing impossible or horrific is taking place all around me. It’s enough to drive anyone legitimately crazy, but I do it. I manage it, as hard as it is. Then, for no reason I can see, you and yours start following me! Can you even comprehend how frightening that would be for me, how unnerving? Yet I’m still stuck pretending everything is just peachy keen. And then [you _]come in here and say that I’m an ‘interesting specimen’ and that you wanted to come back sooner, but it’s not important for me to understand or know anything about that? That’s a load of bull! There _is something going on here, and I have a right to know!”

“For Faerie’s sake, you are a feisty thing,” he responded with an amused smile..

“Get out,” she ordered, not sure where her bravado was coming from but not willing to question it.

“What?”

“I said get out. If you’re going to keep giving me crap instead of answers, then get out. Because I don’t want to hear it.”

He let out a sigh, running his fingers through his long, unruly hair. “I suppose you have a point, Little Mortal.”

“You think?” She raised her eyebrows at him. “Well, what’s it going to be—answers or the door?”

He let out a laugh. “It’s not as if you could actually make me leave, but I will give you your answers, as best I can.”

“Thank you,” she said primly, crossing her legs and wiggling her foot impatiently.

Shaking his head, he began, “First off, you have The Sight—an oddity we believed had been purged out of existence many centuries ago… millennia, really.”

“Millennia? But what about that thing in… England? Ireland? Anyway, there were claims of people seeing faeries, and that was, um… like early nineteen hundreds? And, I mean, that just got the most attention, but there are plenty of people who have claimed to see faeries.”

“Yes, but that is not true Sight. It was merely rogue faeries glamouring themselves into what the mortal world has long imagined the Fey to look like. They have fun with unsuspecting mortals in the hope of stirring up trouble, which they often do. Actually, almost all mythological ‘sightings’ are Magicks having fun. If it had been true Sight, those people would have seen all the different Magicks that exist—like you do.”

“Oh, great.” She pouted, drawing out the word great. “Magickal confirmation of my odd, unnatural freakiness.”

“I told you, you are an interesting specimen. When did you first start Seeing?” he asked.

“Why?”

“Well, when it was more commonplace, Sight would manifest in people at different ages and for different reasons. Knowing the age could sometimes help us determine the trigger. And in knowing that, there were times when we could take their Sight away.”

Ryne chewed her bottom lip in thought. “So, Sight was something that [_developed _]in people?”

“Yes.”

“When did most people start to See?”

“Their childhood. It never started in anyone over the age of sixteen. The youngest, I believe, was six. I would say that nine to ten was the average age, though. Why? How old were you?”

“Um… young.”

“How young? Can you give me a number?”

“Well, um… zero.” She shrugged, hesitantly. “I’ve always been able to See your world. I don’t remember much about my childhood—it was unpleasant—but I know the first time I told someone I saw stuff, I was three. And if I had to judge from what I’ve been told about my behavior before then, I’ve always had the Sight.”

Frowning at her, he said, “I’ve never heard of someone always having it. That does not mean it has never happened before; it’s just unusual. The Seelie Court scholars would know more, but getting their help would be complicated, and…[_ unpleasant_] for you.”

“Right, then. No Seelie Court scholars,” she stated, attempting to sound cavalier. Knowing she hadn’t succeeded, Ryne continued, “Um, so, you said there were several reasons…”

“You are not going to give up till I tell you everything, are you?” he asked, already knowing the answer.

“Of course not,” she replied, sounding as if any other course of action would be preposterous. “Well?”

“All right, all right, I’m getting there. Now, please keep in mind, some explanations won’t clarify anything for you. Actually, my brothers and I are still confused about a lot of all this.”

“All right,” she agreed and made a mental note to ask about his “brothers.”

“We felt a draw to you.”

“Huh?” She raised an eyebrow.

Smiling at her response, he continued, “A draw… I am not sure how to explain it. I suppose… It was—is—as if some force pulls us to you. We can feel it when we are not near you. When we are near you, we can still feel it, but it no longer feels… stretched taut. Do you understand?”

“Yes and no.”

“How do you mean?”

“Well, your explanation makes sense, so I get what you’re describing. I’m just confused as to the why behind it. Like in algebra—you might understand how an equation works, just not why. So like I said, yes and no.”

“Fair enough,” he conceded, completely at a loss for what “algebra” was. “Unfortunately, we do not understand the why either.”

“Great.”

“Regardless, the long and short of it all is—that’s why we began to follow you. We recognized what we were feeling, but we wanted to know the why, too. We hoped that if we got to know about you, we might find some answers.”

“I can’t decide if knowing why you all were stalking me is a comfort or not.” She smiled ruefully.

“And therein lies my problem with the truth, Little Mortal. It is many things, but comforting is not one of them. Actually, most of the time, it is quite the opposite. And I like my comfort.” He smiled, leaning back in her desk chair.

“Doesn’t everyone?” she pointed out.

“True,” he replied.

Wrathin fell silent, apparently lost in thought. Ryne let him; she had her own thoughts to work out. His answers hadn’t done anything to assuage her worries. In some ways, he had made them worse. She had gone from knowing she had a puzzle to solve, to having a few pieces that in no way allowed her to grasp the full picture. Instead, they just sat in her head, taunting her. She needed more information but had a sinking feeling that Wrathin didn’t know much more.

“We are in troubled times, Little Mortal.” Wrathin sighed, interrupting Ryne’s thoughts.

“What do you mean?”

“I am not sure, exactly. Things in my world are changing. I can see chaos coming, ready to break loose. From what I remember of my studies and recent findings with Unseelie Oracles, I believe certain ancient prophecies are starting to line up. I think dark times lay ahead. And I believe that you are somehow connected to it all, at the center of it.”

Ryne just stared at him, not saying anything.

“Are you all right, Little Mortal?” he asked, sounding worried.

“No! You tell me something like that and you want to know if I’m okay? Are you serious?”

“Fair point, again” he agreed, joining her on the window seat. Sounding unsure of himself, as if he were treading unfamiliar ground, Wrathin continued, “It’s not as if you are alone in this… I don’t know why, but I do want to help you. I will help you. And my brothers do not want chaos. They will help for that reason alone.”

“If you say so,” she replied, sounding unconvinced. Changing the subject, she asked, “You keep saying ‘my brothers’ and ‘we.’ Who… what do you mean? How do they figure into this?”

“My brothers are Kings of the Seasonal Courts and therefore have a direct concern for Faeriedom,” he explained, as if it were obvious.

“Wrath…” She frowned at him. “I may have grown up able to See your world, but that doesn’t mean I understand the hierarchy and inner political working of it.”

“I suppose you wouldn’t.” He laughed. “I am afraid [_this _]explanation is going to take time.”

“Like I said before, I’ve nowhere else to be.” She shrugged.

“Well…”

The two continued talking long past his explanation of Faeriedom. Hours passed as they talked about anything and everything. It was easy for Ryne to talk with him, and it seemed he felt the same way. They connected. She didn’t know why, and she wasn’t sure she liked it, but it didn’t change the fact that they were happy in each other’s company.

*****

[]“So, I mean, you’ve told me all this stuff about this magickal world…but, like, how did you find it out? I mean, you didn’t exactly have access to a library growing up. And even if you did, I don’t imagine they’d have a section on ‘the secret world of Magick that no one can see,’” Dina asked, rolling her car window up to keep her hair from blowing in her face.

“I didn’t find out; I was told,” Ryne answered, her mind going back to that day all those years ago.

“Well? Details?” Dina demanded, taking the exit that would get them to the doctor’s for Ryne’s checkup.

Ryne laughed. “Sorry. It’s weird being able to talk about it. Anyway, I was eight. The main nurse who worked my floor at the time had a drinking problem, and she’d come in hungover—a lot. That was kind of good, though, because it basically gave us free rein, considering they were understaffed. We weren’t supposed to be outside unsupervised, and technically we weren’t, but—”

“Hangover,” Dina surmised.

“Exactly. She was too concerned with her throbbing head to pay attention. Anyway, there was this beautiful garden, but it was closed in with iron—and I don’t mean like a fence, but like a cage. The older girls said they used to lock the patients in there so the nurses didn’t have to worry about watching them as much. At some point, apparently, it was declared a fire hazard and they stopped.

“I had already realized that the things I saw—well, most of the things I saw—stayed far away from it. For the most part, it’s really only faeries that hang out in our world. Other magicks just pass through or come for something specific. I didn’t know that at the time, I just understood it was safer.”

“So you played by the abandoned metal cage, of course,” Dina guessed. “It’s a miracle you’re not more screwed up than you already are. I mean, what kind of kid sees a giant metal cage and thinks, “Ooh, safe haven’?”

“No arguments here. Anyway, there was a faerie in the cage one time. He was dying. He didn’t realize I could see him; he was practically delirious…” Ryne trailed off, her expression growing distant.

“And you couldn’t leave him to die. Let me guess, you went and stole the key so you could let him out?” Dina guessed.

“Yeah, I did.” Ryne shrugged. “But I paid for it later, with a nice dose of electric shock therapy. Not an experience I recommend.”

Dina shuddered. “Lovely.”

“Not really. I unlocked it, though, and had to practically drag the creature out. Not an easy feat at eight. I was just going to leave him outside the cage before someone came looking and I got in trouble, but he said, ‘Further’.”

“So, what? You dragged him further and had a nice chat about the things you saw?” asked Dina rolling her eyes.

“Uh… pretty much. He explained the basics to me and then told me that I couldn’t let anyone else know what I could see—magickal or human. He told me what I could do was rare, but that there were creatures in his world who would come for me if they knew.”

“Why did he warn you?” Dina asked, pulling into the parking lot. “I mean, why not stalk you like these faerie kings have been doing? Or just take you himself?”

Ryne laughed. “That’s what I asked. He said I reminded him of someone he once loved very much. It was after he was strong enough to leave, and the nurse realized I had taken the key, that I made my decision. They were wheeling me to the room where they performed the electric shock therapy, and I decided that I wasn’t crazy and I would do whatever I had to in order to be free. So I started playing along, until it was finally safe to pretend I couldn’t see them anymore.”

“Did you ever see that faerie again?”

“No,” said Ryne, undoing her seatbelt. “Thinking back on it, it was so surreal.”

They both got out of the car and headed to the doctor’s office. A boy their age, by one of the other offices, let out a whistle. When they looked, he wagged his eyebrows.

“You need to walk around with a sheet over you,” grumbled Dina.

“He was whistling at you, actually,” said Ryne, holding the door—she couldn’t believe how oblivious Dina could be.

“Yeah, right,” Dina deadpanned.

“Seriously, Din, look in the mirror. You’re tall, curvy, and blond with a perfectly symmetrical face. You’re the sexy girl next door that guys kill for.”

“Aww! Who needs a boyfriend when I’ve got you to stroke my ego? I am kind of hot, aren’t I?”

“Oh, lord.”

“Though, I still maintain guys like tiny girls like you. But you’re right, he was probably whistling at me.” Dina smiled.

“Great, can we move on?” Ryne rolled her eyes, as she stepped up to the front desk.

As they drove home from her checkup a little while later, Dina continued asking questions about the world of Magick and Ryne answered robotically. Her mind was still on the memory she had shared with Dina. And on Wrathin. She knew her friend deserved her full attention, but Ryne couldn’t stop thinking about Wrathin, wondering when they would talk again. He had promised it would be soon.

“Huh? What’d you say?”

“Is it that difficult for you to pay attention to our conversation?” Dina snapped, sounding hurt.

“I… No… I’m just distracted. Sorry.”

“By what?” Dina asked, impatiently.

“By him.”

“‘Him’ who, Rynnie?” she demanded impatiently.

“Sorry… I’m, sorry. It’s hard to keep track of what I’ve told you. Did I ever tell you how I got away the night I was attacked?”

“No. You didn’t, actually,” Dina answered, surprised that she hadn’t noticed the accidental omission before.

“I was rescued by an Unseelie faerie. The King of the Unseelie Faeries.”

What?”

“Keep your eyes on the road!” Ryne yelled.

“Sorry, sorry. I don’t understand, though. Why would an Unseelie Fey help? I mean, I’m glad he did… I just would have thought he would, like, cheer them on or something. Help them, even. And why didn’t you tell me before?”

“It slipped my mind I guess—”

“Only [you _]could let something like _that slip your mind,” Dina grumbled.

“And…” continued Ryne, ignoring her friend’s complaint, “I don’t know why, Din. That’s what I would have thought, too. It’s what I did think when he first showed up… He isn’t sure why he helped either.”

“Whoa, wait! How do you know that?” Dina demanded.

“He told me.”

“He told you, like, that night? You talked with him… that night… like the Unseelie King was nothing more than an average Joe?”

“Yes, that night, and a couple times since. I know it’s weird… but I like talking to him.”

“A couple… You like… Wait!” Dina’s eyebrows shot up and a wicked grin spread over her face. “Do you like him? Like, like-like him?”

“Ew! No, I don’t ‘like-like’ him. What are you, five? First off, he’s the wrong species. Second, I don’t think of him like that. Third, he’s old enough to be my great-times-a-million grandfather. And fourth… wrong species!”

“If you say so,” Dina said, not sounding fully convinced. “So, what does it all mean—him saving you, you two talking, et cetera?”

“Well, I’m not sure, but I think it means I’m friends with a faerie.”

 

Chapter 13

“You missed [_another _]meeting!” Lordis accused angrily the moment she had opened the door to her husband’s chambers. “Well?”

Wrathin, lost in thought, didn’t respond. She walked over to him and snaked her arms around his chest from behind. His body tensed in surprise, and she had to force back her frustration that he was just now noticing her presence. She stretched up on her toes to whisper in his ear. In spite of her own impressive height, Wrathin still towered over her. In fact, standing so high on her talons that she looked like a ballerina, Lordis was still a little short of his ear.

“What has you so distracted, my pet?” She kept her voice low, sultry, and, balancing on just one set of talons, she wrapped a leg around him. “Whatever it is, I am sure I could do better.”

“Lordis,” he growled, breaking free of her, “go play with your mortal pet. I am in no mood for you.”

Hurt by his rejection—no one rejected her—she placed her hands on her ample hips. “No one is ever ‘not in the mood’ for me!”

“There is a first time for everything, my love. Would you stop pouting? There are plenty who would gladly go to your bed right now,” he pointed out.

“But right now I want you, not them.” She smiled coquettishly and tried to press herself against him only to be pushed away again.

“Leave, Lordis. Now,” he ordered.

“No,” she said defiantly, settling herself in an armchair.

“‘No’?” His tone was furious. “Are you disobeying a direct order from your King?”

“No.” She matched his tone. “I am ignoring a temper tantrum being thrown by my husband.”

Placing a hand on each of the arm rests, Wrathin leaned in so their noses were almost touching. “You take too many liberties here of late and are pressing my patience, Lordis. I told you I am in no mood for you today, and you will not like it when my restraint runs out.”

Lordis forced herself not to shudder. Wrathin, she knew, was a dangerous faerie at the best of times. As for the worst, well… she tried not to think about those times. If she wasn’t careful, she would probably leave with a few bruises. Except, knowing Wrathin, she would probably leave bruised no matter[_ how_] careful she was. His ire would not leave her unscathed.

Not really in the mood to be patient either, though, Lordis decided to accept the inevitable and throw caution to the wind. “Can you not see what this girl is doing to you?”

“Doing to me?” he scoffed. “Enlighten me.”

“She is changing you!”

“Oh, Magick forbid, we cannot have change!” he mocked. “If you do not have anything better than that, Lordis, then you are wasting your time. Worse, you are wasting mine. Faeries change; time does that to all.”

“Not you, Wrath,” she countered. “In the centuries I have ruled by your side, you have always been constant, unwavering. And now—less than two months around that girl and I barely recognize you!”

“And is that so bad?”

“Yes!” she hissed, sounding disgusted. “Wrath, our people have needs, demands, that have to be met, and you are not doing that! You are not being the King our court needs!”

“Oh? And what, precisely, is that supposed to mean?” he asked, his tone a dangerous warning not to persist.

Heedless, she continued cruelly, “It means you are becoming weak because of her!”

She felt the back of his hand slam into the side of her face with a strength he had never used on her before. She felt dizzy and knew if she hadn’t been sitting, it would have knocked her to the ground. As it was, it had almost thrown her from her chair.

“Hit a sore spot, have I?” she asked, callously.

Wrathin raised his fist again, but, changing his mind, dropped it back to his side.

“See,” she taunted him, “Like I said—weak!”

“Lordis, please.” His voice sounded strained.

“Please what?” she snarled. “Am I to sit by and watch as this girl destroys you? She is nothing, Wrath. Nothing! Yet you are… obsessed. And still you refuse to take her as your pet, because you say you do not ‘feel’ that way about her—”

“I [_don’t _]feel that way about her!” he repeated for the umpteenth time.

“What other reason could there be? It does not make any sense… But you know what, my toy? It does not really matter. She is simply a distraction that needs to be removed. If you will not put her from your mind, then get rid of her. And if you refuse to step up and do it, then I will. I always have done your dirty wor— Ah!”

Wrathin had grabbed her upper arm and yanked her to her feet, the floor cloaked in swirling shadows as his anger spread beyond his control. Maintaining his painfully tight grip on her arm, he pulled her close to him.

“You’ll do what?” he hissed at her.

“What I always do, toy, your[_ _]dirty work,” she said, attempting to sound arch as she worked her free hand up his shirt, hoping to dispel his anger. “You are hurting me.”

He grabbed her throat with his other hand.

“Drop your hand, love,” he ordered, tightening his grip on her arm. “You will not bring any harm to that girl, directly or indirectly. I will have your promise on it.”

“I will do no such thing,” she rasped. “I am Queen and—”

Before she could say more, he hooked a leg around hers, causing them to fall. However, he kept his hold on her arm and neck, so when they landed, he had her conveniently pinned. He immediately tightened his holds.

“You forget yourself, Queen,” he mocked as he watched her struggle to breathe. “It would seem I have given you too free of a reign and you are now confused. Allow me to disillusion you, love. [_Our _]court is not like the Seasonal Courts, remember? Where a king and queen rule equally—preserving balance, preserving nature. The Unseelie Court does not need balance. We revel in the extremes of our nature and need power only. You are a queen in name only, a tool for me to use as I see fit.

“It is time you remembered, my love, that you only have power because I [_graciously _]allow it. I will strip you of your power at any time I see fit. Allow me”—he tightened his grip on her throat—“to make myself abundantly clear in this matter. I will have your promise or you will spend your rule under lock and key, governed by your guards. Is that what you want, Lordis? To spend your immortal life a prisoner? Answer me!”

“No!” she choked out, her talons digging into her own throat as she desperately sought to loosen his hold.

“I thought not. Perhaps, after a few centuries, I would be kind and just kill you. Would you like that, love?” He smiled wickedly, his canines lengthening as his darker nature enjoyed its release.

“No… Wrath… Please,” she whispered, barely audible.

“Then you will give me your word, Fey, or I will do far worse,” he promised, his snakelike tongue slithering out on the S. “You will in no way bring any harm to my mortal, either directly or indirectly. You will do nothing in regards to her that would displease me. Swear it me, Lordis, on your life,” he finished on a growl, releasing her throat so she could answer.

“You have my word, Wrathin… On my life!” she gasped, sounding desperate and frightened—not realizing the gravity of the mistake she had just made.

“Leave, now,” he ordered, standing up.

The moment he was off her, she fled—not bothering to shut his chambers’ door, not caring who saw her run in panic, and not stopping until she had shut the door to her own chambers. Panting, she collapsed against it and sank to the floor.

*****

Nyta stepped out of the King’s bedchamber and, looking toward the door through which the Queen had just fled, asked, “Would you like me to leave as well, Sire?”

Wrathin looked up, the presence of his lover calming him. He smiled at her, and, holding out a hand, said, “No, my lovely. Come here.”

She went to him, enjoying the way he pulled her into his embrace. She liked how he was always gentle with her—a rarity in their court. “My Lord?”

“Yes?”

“Some of the Cage Carers have the night off. They’re going to one of the Unseelie clubs tonight. I haven’t seen them since the last Hunt.”

“And you wish to go, my lovely?”

“Just for a few hours, Sire.”

“Two. Then you return to me.”

“Yes, My Lord,” she agreed simply, her tone sober.

“Nyta, my sweet, do you not enjoy my attention?” he asked, unexpectedly apprehensive.

“Of course, My King! It is my honor,” she exclaimed.

“Am I no more than that to you, sweet? Just your King?” he pressed, feeling his heart beat faster, realizing how much her answer meant, wondering when she had become more than just a distraction.

“Would it be appropriate for me to feel more?” she asked, hopeful.

Smiling, he cupped her face gently. “My sweet, darling Nyta, do you not see it? I have fallen… I care for you, greatly.”

“Just as you care for the Queen?” she asked, disappointed.

“No!” He laughed and kissed her. “I have never lo— cared for Lordis. I chose her for political reasons, but the Queen has never touched my heart.”

“Truly?” she pushed, feeling slightly shocked. She’d had a crush on him since that first night he’d touched her, though she had never hoped it would be reciprocated.

He smiled again. “You please me greatly, Nyta. Over these past weeks… Well, I cannot give you up. Do you know, my lovely, the last time I felt this way?”

“No, Sire.” She smiled. “You aren’t exactly known for your heart.”

“Indeed, my lovely, but you have changed that a little. The last time I felt this way was long before I ruled the Unseelie. I was little more than Feyling. I had not thought”—he cut off. It was one thing to… care, but another to ramble.

“I do not know what to say, Sire,” she told him, still baffled.

“Nothing is needed, Nyta. All I ask is for your affection and loyalty. Continue to show me both, and I shall continue to keep you.”

“Yes, My Lord.” She sighed in pleasure. A few weeks before, she had never even been in the King’s presence, and now he not only wanted her, but cared for her, too!

“Now, my lovely, go enjoy your friends. But remember, two hours—no more,” he instructed, with a gentle nudge to the door. “I do not take disappointment well.”

*****

Lordis set about pulling herself together, and found it harder than she liked to admit. In spite of their differences—and the two had many—Wrathin had never been so angry with her before. And she had pushed him to what she had believed to be his limits often over the years.

Usually, when he became angry, she would give herself over to her own temper, matching him blow for blow. This time though… He had never threatened her like that before, and she had known him long enough to know that Wrathin did not make idle threats.

[I had to promise, though. There was no other choice, _]she told herself,[ _]knowing there would be repercussions. [_Unless I can find a way out of my promise… I have to. I have to salvage this, or Wrathin’s anger will be nothing to what I will have to face… but how? Gah! I cannot think. A distraction—I need a distraction. _]

Dispatching her shadow with orders to fetch their lady’s maid, Lordis opened the door to her chambers.

“Draskin?”

“Yes, My Lady,” answered the head of her bodyguard.

“I want my pet brought to my chambers. And have someone ready to clean up; he hasn’t much use left to him,” she instructed as she felt her shadow slide back into place.

“Of course, My Lady. Would you like a hunting team readied as well?

“No. Not tonight. But I will most likely hunt again tomorrow evening. There is a concert in a nearby park which should prove… satisfactory.”

“Yes, My Lady,” he replied, turning to carry out her orders.

“My Lady?” entered a high-pitched voice.

“It took you long enough, Maskyte. My dressing chamber.”

*****

“I want something black. No, not that. I don’t want anything delicate. No… Yes, that one.

Moving to stand before her three-way mirror, Lordis slid out of her dress.

“Come in,” she called to the tap at door.

Draskin stepped in, not-so-subtly raking his eyes up and down her unclothed form.

“I have brought him, My Lady. He is in your bedchamber,” he told her, his disappointment showing as Maskyte began to help her dress.

“Enjoyed yourself?” She smiled.

“Always.”

“Wise answer.”

“Do you need anything else, My Lady?”

Lordis looked past him, through the open door to her bedchamber. Her most recent acquisition stood there, wearing nothing more than a pair of loose-fitting black pants which hung low on his waist and ended tightly just below his knee. She licked her lips, admiring his bronzed, toned skin, his strong build—the bruises and cuts still healing from their last session. It was a pity he wouldn’t survive tonight. She had gotten lucky to find such a strong, tasty treat. Her previous pet had been a disappointment.

“No, you—” She cut off, suppressing a grunt as Maskyte began tightening the stays on her corset. “I want it as tight as you can manage. No, Draskin. You are dismissed for the night. Oh! If you go to your chambers, I will send Maskyte to you when she is finished here.”

“Yes, My Lady.” He grinned lasciviously, wagging his thick eyebrows in Maskyte’s direction before taking his leave.

Lordis was grateful the girl had enough sense to keep her focus on the corset. She didn’t want to have to give a lesson in manners.

With a final tug, Maskyte said, “Finished, My Lady.”

Lordis gazed in the mirror, admiring the effects of what she wore. She liked to admire herself, to recognize the lust she knew others felt for her.

“My mane,” she commanded, settling at her vanity.

Lordis took to idly sharpening her talons as Maskyte brushed through her thick, dark mane. She asked, “Have you seen my pet?”

“Yes, My Lady,” she answered, the desire slipping out in her voice.

“You like him?”

“Yes, though it is no surprise. You always collect the best.”

“I do,” she agreed, pausing to admire the pointed talons on one hand. Starting on her other, she continued, “I will be hunting again soon, girl. Would you like to come… learn?”

“Might I, My Queen?” Maskyte asked, the brush snagging in her excitement.

“The brush!” Lordis hissed. “For Homes sake, do your job right.”

“Yes, My Lady. I am sorry,” she said earnestly, rushing to undo the knots she had caused.

“Never expose your eagerness so, girl. Others gain an advantage when they can see how you truly feel about something. But yes, you may come—as long as you are willing to pay my price.”

“Yes, My Lady, anything!” she exclaimed, trying and failing to contain her excitement, as she brushed the Queen’s now knotless mane.

“I have claim to anything you capture.”

“Gladly, Your Highness.”

“Good. Enough,” she ordered, examining her other set of talons. Then, rising, she said, “Now, I do not intend to go easy. This pet has, perhaps, a few hours in him.”

Lordis stood in front of her mirrors again, flipping through glamours. Finally, she settled on an old favorite. While it made her look human, it was close enough to her real form that when she dropped the pretense, her pet’s realization would be slow. She preferred their gradual horror, found it more satisfying than a quick shock. Lordis found pleasure in playing with both the body and mind. She turned from the mirror and walked over to Maskyte, enjoying the feel of the corset as it strained against her swaying hips.

“I want you to tell the Sidhe to join me when I have finished with the mortal. Once you have delivered my order, I expect you to go to Draskin, as I told him you would.”

“Yes, My Lady,” she agreed, sounding petulant.

“Do not pout, girl,” Lordis ordered. “He may not be much to look at, but I assure you, he more than makes up for it.”

“Truly?” she inquired, sounding far less cross.

“Could I lie to you?”

“No, My Queen,” Maskyte agreed, sounding excited.

“Now, girl, I know your reputation. So you had better live up to it when you are with him, or I [_will _]see you regret it,” the Queen threatened.

“I will, My Lady,” Maskyte promised quickly, fear flashing across her face.

“Good. Now leave,” she ordered, smiling as the girl ran.

Lordis walked into her bedchamber, leering as her pet turned to face her. Crossing the room, he wrapped his arms around Lordis, pulling her close as he trailed gentle kisses along her neck. Smiling, she let herself melt into him, allowing the creature to think it was in control. She smirked in anticipation of when she would take power back from him, of how he would quake in fear as she took and used. And he was just the beginning of her evening entertainment.

*****

When Lordis woke up early the next morning, she found herself tangled in an overly crowded bed. She smiled as the memories returned, and then frowned as still earlier memories returned. Knowing she couldn’t afford to waste any more time, Lordis extricated herself from the jumble and made her way to her dressing chambers. Lordis washed quickly and changed into a revealing black, two-piece dress. Showing more skin than it covered—baring her belly, barely holding her cleavage, the slits exposing her legs as she moved, the red and gold dragon scales decorating her body like tattoos—the dress made her look like a goddess from ancient times.

[That’s what I should be, _]she thought in disgust, _a goddess over those weak mortals.

Wrapping a black cloak around her highly exposed body, she left her chambers. Lordis looked around the empty hall, happy to see that Maskyte’s reputation had proved true, so she wasn’t encumbered by Draskin’s presence. She would have to reward the girl. And knowing the Sidhe—second in command and head of the Unseelie guard, leader of their army, and protector of the court—was still safely passed out in her bed, she left the Unseelie territory with full confidence she would not be followed, or even missed, for some time yet. Still preferring to be cautious, though, Lordis used an unknown route in one of the back gardens, making a thoroughly unnoticed escape from the home of the Unseelie.

***

The Unseelie Queen made her way down the cracked sidewalk, surrounded by dilapidated homes and a few delinquent human youths, who had managed to wander into the Slum Realm. Lordis smiled, knowing the idiots would not survive long. She clutched her cloak tightly to her, the hood pulled low. The area was the slum of the magickal world and frightened some of the most powerful faeries. Lordis wasn’t bothered by it, but the thought of being recognized made her cautious. She was, however, frightened by the witch, Balmoral. She was considered an ancient Wise One, though few knew much of anything about her origin, or if she was truly one of the Ancients—the powerful creatures created by Edryn and considered to be the firsts of their respective magickal lines. Balmoral had not come to power until sometime after the Breaking, yet she was given the deference of an Ancient. Lordis longed to know more about her but knew upsetting the witch was not a smart move. She was powerful, and Lordis needed power on her side. She finally stopped in front of the largest house on the street and easily the most run-down. Taking a deep breath to steady herself, she knocked.

“I am here to see the witch,” she said to the old, hunched leprechaun who had answered the door.

“And what makes you think she’ll see you?” he asked in a raspy voice.

“The business of your betters is not your concern. However, my anger at being kept on this stoop by you, is,” she hissed back.

Rolling his eyes, he asked in a mockingly professional voice, “What is the reason for your visit?”

Her anger getting the better of her, Lordis sent the creature flying back with a wave of twisting, solid shadows. She strode into the entrance hall, saying, “Again, creature, that is not your concern! Now, where is your mistress?”

“Right here,” the leprechaun rasped again, an evil smile distorting his face.

Lordis watched in horror as the creature she had mistaken for a simple servant began to change. Falling to her knees, out of both fear and respect, Lordis tried not to shake as a very angry, very powerful witch now towered over her, the front door shutting on its own.

“Forgive me, Wise One!” she pleaded, prostrated on the ground. “I thought—”

“No, girl, you did not think, or you would not have been so foolishly rude. Perhaps I should teach you some manners?”

Lordis did shake at that threat and begged, “No, I… Please! Please, I am sorry. I do not need a lesson. Please, Wise One.”

“We’ll see. Now, for Home’s sake girl, get up and come with me.”

Lordis scrambled to her feet and fell in behind the witch. She led the Unseelie Queen into a sitting room, which was surprisingly bright and cheerful, especially in comparison to the worn outside of the home. Feeling slightly off balance, Lordis went to sit.

“Did I tell you to sit, girl?”

“I… No. Sorry,” she mumbled, standing up.

The witch smiled as she settled herself into an armchair.

“I think tea is in order, don’t you?” she asked, and without waiting for an answer, a tray appeared on the table. “Well, girl, aren’t you going to pour me a cup?”

“Oh! Yes, of course.” Lordis rushed to pour it.

“One sugar and a little milk. I figured you wouldn’t remember to ask.” The witch smiled.

Anger and fear warred inside her. Lordis tried to look meek as she handed over the readied tea.

“Are you going to have a cup, girl? Or are you going to be rude and refuse my hospitality?”

“N-no, I… Of course not,” she stammered, quickly making a cup of her own.

Tentatively sipping her tea, Lordis stood by the couch waiting on the witch.

“Oh, for Home’s sake, girl! We can’t have a proper conversation with you standing. Sit!”

“Yes, Wise One,” she mumbled, lowering herself onto the couch.

“Now we can get to business,” said the witch, knowingly. “Now, why in the Master’s name did you make that ridiculous promise? And you can get that shocked look off your face, girl? Yes, I know [all _]about it. _He knows all about it. Well?”

“I… I had to. Th-there wasn’t a… a choice,” the Unseelie Queen stuttered under the witch’s glare.

“‘Wasn’t a choice’? I do believe he offered you the option of imprisonment and eventual death,” she pointed out, her voice dangerously low. “Did it ever cross your unbelievably thick head that maybe, just maybe, the Master’s plans are more important that you pathetic little life?”

“I…I…”

“I believe the word you’re looking for is no!” The woman glared.

“B-b-but, do you realize the th-things my guards would have d-done to me?” Lordis choked out, all the color gone from her face. The Unseelie Court was not kind to its outcasts.

“Yes. And if you are very lucky, the Master won’t do too much worse to you,” she sneered as Lordis began to shake. “So, because you couldn’t endure a little sacrifice, all of our plans have been complicated and the situation is near impossible. Yes?”

“But [_how _]have I ruined our plans?” Lordis asked, hating that she had been kept in the dark about most of it.

“How? The girl is a critical playing piece, and thanks to your foolishness, you can no longer bring her to harm!” snapped the witch, in irritation.

“Yes, but what role does she play? Why is she so important?”

“That,” said the witch, clearly angry, “is not your concern. If you were supposed to know, you already would!”

“Yes, Wise One.” Lordis tried to sound apologetic, afraid that this meeting was going to end in her death—or worse—if she wasn’t careful.

“Save your breath, girl. We both know you are only being contrite in the hope you will be spared.”

“So… So you will help me?” she asked hopefully.

“[_Not _]because I want to. Fortunately for you, the Master has decided you can still be used and, unfortunately for me, I am to help you.”

“Thank you, Wise One,” Lordis whispered, trying to sound reverent.

Deciding she couldn’t really overdo it, she lowered herself to the ground, crawled over, and kissed the hem of the witch’s skirt. It was an ancient custom that most witches didn’t enforce any more, but there was the off chance this witch would take it as an offense if she did not.

“At least you haven’t forgotten all your manners. Now get up, girl,” she barked.

“Yes, Wise One,” Lordis murmured, scrambling back to her seat.

“Now then, what do you know of Voodoo?”

“I… Um… It gives you power over person, power to cause pain?”

“You’re not as stupid as you look, girl,” the witch sneered. “But there is more to it than that. Your understanding is like that of a mortal—accurate, but incomplete.

“Ages ago my people’s magic was stolen—but only in part. This stolen part you would know as mortal voodoo. However, real witch Voodoo gives and takes… which is how I intend to rectify your mess, girl.”

“Thank you,” Lordis said, hoping the witch didn’t realize how little she actually understood.

“You don’t understand, do you?” The witch sighed. “Perhaps you are as stupid as you look. With a voodoo doll of you, yes, I can give you pain and misery… but I can also reverse the magick. That way instead of using the doll to influence you, what happens to you will transfer to the doll. Thus, removing the consequences of your stupid promise and”—the witch’s face split into a wide smile at her own genius—“making you the first faerie who can lie.”

Lordis sat in dumbfounded silence.

“You could thank me, girl,” she snapped.

“I… Yes… Thank you, I… Thank you,” she stuttered, still trying to wrap her head around the reality of what this could mean for her.

“Well, better late than never, I suppose. Wait here!”

The witch vanished from her spot on the couch. Lordis sat, stunned, hardly able to believe it. She wasn’t going to be killed and she would be able to finish the Master’s plan… [_And _]she would be able to lie! The possibilities of that freedom were endless.

“Did you break anything, girl?”

Lordis jumped in surprise and looked up to see the witch staring down at her.

“No! No! I haven’t moved!”

“Good,” she said. Then, sitting down, she held up her palm, a pair of scissors appearing. “Now to discuss price.”

“Price?” Lordis questioned, feeling wary.

“I don’t help others unless I’m getting something in return, girl. So, price… You have a reputation, yes?” She smiled.

“You want my reputation?”

“Something like that. I have a reputation too, girl, which keeps me from certain… pleasantries.”

“You want my ‘pleasantries’?” asked Lordis, even more confused

“Yes.”

“I do not understand.”

“Oh, for Home’s sake, girl! You are even more stupid than you look.” The witch sighed. “Now try to follow. Because of my reputation, I am denied basic physical pleasantries. You, however, are not denied anything in that field. So, in fair exchange, you are going to siphon the excess off to me… a touch here, a night there. You won’t miss much, girl. Not that it would matter if I took it all; you don’t have a choice.”

“I suppose I don’t,” Lordis agreed, sounding defeated and feeling thoroughly disturbed.

“Good girl. Now if you agree, take the scissors, cut off a piece of your mane. Ah!” said the witch, holding up a finger to stop Lordis from taking the scissors. “Do you gift me with it freely, child, and of your own volition?”

“Yes, Wise One.”

Gritting her sharp, pointed teeth, Lordis gripped the scissors with a surprisingly steady hand. She cut a piece where it would be the least noticeable and, before she could change her mind, handed both the piece and the scissors over to the witch. The moment the witch’s hand touched the offering, Lordis felt an unpleasant chill run through her, making her skin feel like it was suddenly coated in something thick and heavy. She shuddered visibly.

“A Sealing.” The witch smiled with satisfaction. “It’s what you felt pass through you. The Sealing binds you magickally to your oath through your offering, so not even this doll can free you. Now, to finish it…”

The witch pulled a pin out of thin air and used it to secure the piece of hair to the doll’s head.

Ow!” Lordis said, rubbing her head at the same time that she felt another Sealing settle into place.

“It would seem everything is working.” The witch smiled and, waving her hand over it, made the doll disappear. Grinning at Lordis’s shocked expression, she said, “You didn’t believe I would allow you to hold onto it, did you girl?”

“But, if you have it, you can—”

“Reverse the magick on it? Absolutely.” She smirked. “Think of it as my insurance policy. Now, girl, you got what you came here for, and seeing as how you’ve wasted enough of my time, consider your welcome at an end.”

“Yes, Wise One. Thank you, Wise One,” Lordis murmured and hurried to leave before anything else could backfire.

Unfortunately, right as she reached the entrance hall, she felt her body freeze. Unable to move herself, Lordis felt her body turn back to the witch as if she were a puppet on strings.

“I almost forgot, girl, I owe you a lesson in manners,” the witch said cheerfully.

Lordis tried to plead but found herself unable to speak. Smiling broadly, the witch moved her hands in a complicated pattern, and Lordis crumpled to the ground. Her voice returned to her but was now coming out in screams. The Unseelie Queen’s body convulsed on the ground in pain, and she could do nothing to stop it.

“If you want it to stop, girl, just ask. But, remember to ask properly,” the witch conditioned.

Lordis wanted to point out that she had no control over her writhing body but doubted the witch would listen, let alone care. Instead, she attempted to force her body into a bowed position. But every time Lordis came close—which was a long and painful process— a sharper jolt of pain would shoot through her, causing her to topple back over. Lordis wasn’t sure how long the cycle lasted, only that somewhere along the way, she gave up counting.

Her body ached and her throat was raw from screams that had long since turned silent. Knowing it was the last attempt she had the strength for, Lordis forced contorting body into prostration before the witch and, to her great surprise, didn’t fall back over.

Relief made her want to collapse. Instead, she held her ground and croaked out, “Please.”

The intense pain subsided, but the aftereffects didn’t provide much relief, as her pain-weakened body pitched over.

“Aren’t you going to thank me, girl? I didn’t have to take the time out of my day to teach you.”

“Thank you, Wise one,” she gasped, terrified of receiving another lesson.

“The next time we meet, girl—and there will be a next time—you had better remember your manners or I will not be as kind. If you think my lessons are bad, you do not want to endure my punishments. Now leave!” The witch’s command echoed through the house.

Lordis knew the only way she managed to make her body move, let alone flee, was through pure, simple terror. Somehow, she managed to grab her cloak and cover herself on the way out. Desperate, she turned down the first alley she passed and collapsed behind a dumpster. How long she lay there, she didn’t know. All Lordis knew was consciousness came and went and night had long since fallen before she was able to stumble home.

 

Chapter 14

“You are certain this is all right?” asked Wrathin as they strolled down the mostly empty sidewalk. He had chosen to glamour himself as a teenaged boy to avoid drawing attention. “Your parents are not going to be bothered that you were out all day?”

“No.”

“Little Mortal, even Unseelie Feylings are not allowed complete freedom. Surely your parents must have some rules or restrictions?” Wrath pressed.

“They’re not my parents, and no, I promise, they won’t be bothered. Dina and I can pretty much come and go as we please.”

“They are not your parents?”

“That would be what I just said,” answered Ryne, rolling her eyes.

“What are they to you, then?”

“My foster parents.”

“I am confused. What is the difference?”

“Huh. It’s weird being the one in the know, for once.” Ryne smiled, launching into an explanation of the mortal world’s foster-care system.

“And your foster parents do not care what you do or when you do it?” Wrathin asked, sounding appalled.

“Not really. As long as Dina and I stay out of trouble and leave them alone, they’re happy to return the favor.”

“Your monarchs trust people like that?” asked Wrathin, disgusted that the mortal world cared so little for its offspring. For all the criticisms of his court, they at least took care of their own—mostly.

“Well, we don’t have monarchs, but they don’t really know. I mean, when Social Services visits, we pretend we’re one big, happy family, and it works. Actually, this one time, Dina came up with this whole ‘family weekend’ and went on and on about how much fun we had at the beach, but how the museum was our favorite. The social worker looked ready to jump over the moon. That’s how Dina got her car. The foster parents were so happy with how good she made them look, the next check they got, they gave to her.

“And not all foster families are like that, either. Some really do care and really do try to make the kids part of their family. It’s just hard when the kids could be gone in two months or there for a year. And the people Dina and I live with aren’t bad; they’re just… indifferent.”

“But why?” he pressed.

“They don’t really like, or want, kids—let alone two who aren’t theirs.”

“So why did they take you in?” asked Wrathin, feeling more confused by the minute.

“We don’t really know. I mean, they care a lot about image and how they look to their friends, and this makes them look pretty charitable. So we think that may be part of it. But I think they mostly did it as a favor to our social worker. They’re friends, and she was having a hard time finding someone who would take two teenage girls, so… yeah.”

“Why did she have to find the same home for both of you?”

“We refused to be separated.” She shrugged.

“Why?” he asked, curious. Ryne was usually a loner who liked her space, so he found her attachment to Dina fascinating.

She rolled her eyes. “Do I ask you this many questions?”

“Yes.” He smirked. “Now it’s payback.”

“Fine.” She sighed. “We were placed together when we were twelve—well, I was twelve, she was thirteen—and, oddly enough, we just clicked. I mean for three years now we’ve shared homes, rooms, lives… you know? Foster care can get lonely, and we’re all each other has. And I trust her…mostly. We’re sisters in every way but blood, so we refuse to be separated.”

She shrugged again.

“And your, uh… social worker just goes along with it?” he asked, quirking an eyebrow.

“Believe it or not,”—she grinned—“the two of us can cause quite a fuss when we want to.”

“Oh, I believe it.” He laughed. Then, more seriously, he said, “I still think you’re monarchs should take better care of its younglings.”

“‘Younglings’?” Ryne snorted, not bothering to correct the monarch comment again.

“I assure you, Little Mortal, I find your dialect just as amusing.” Wrathin smiled. “So what happened to your actual parents?”

“Don’t know,” she said, not really comfortable with the topic.

“How do you not know?”

“Never really had any.” She shrugged, slamming the door on the memories that wanted to surface.

“You wouldn’t exist if you didn’t have parents,” Wrathin pointed out.

“Details,” said Ryne, waving a hand as if it didn’t matter.

“I’m serious, Ryne.”

“So am I. Look, I’ve as good as never had any. I was abandoned when I was an infant and my parents were never tracked down.”

“You’re a[_ foundling_]?” asked Wrathin sharply.

“Well, the term’s a little outdated,” said Ryne, raising an eyebrow, “but I suppose so. Yes. Does it matter?”

“That would really be up to you, wouldn’t it?”

“Once again, you’re not answering my question.” She sighed, knowing it would do no good to press. Wrath was a master of diverting. “Where are we going?”

“If I tell you, Little Mortal, it will not be a surprise.” He grinned.

“But I don’t like surprises,” Ryne whined.

“But I do.”

“Then surprise yourself and tell me.” She smiled. “Please?”

“Nope.”

“Pretty please?”

“Nope.”

“Pretty please, with sugar on top?”

“I don’t like sugar.”

“Come on, Wrath— The museum!” she squealed.

He smiled in response.

“Thank you! I’ve been dying to come since they opened up the new exhibit.”

“I know.” He laughed as she picked up her pace, amused by how such a little thing could please her.

*****

“I told the hunting party I did not think you intended to go tonight, but they are ready should you choose, My Lady,” Maskyte said, as she filled the Queen’s tub.

“No, I will not be going tonight. But it was right of you to keep them on the ready,” Lordis replied, starting to disrobe, hoping the hot water would soothe her aching body.

“No… Tonight I intend to seduce the King. Maskyte, he is angry with me—angrier than he has ever been. I do not know if I will even make it into his chambers. It is imperative I do, though. For our court’s sake, the two of us need to be united. Find me something to wear. It has to be perfect—not something I have worn before.”

“Do not worry, My Queen, you always get what you want. I will find what you need and he will let you in,” she assured, as she helped Lordis into the water. “He won’t even remember why he is mad at you, My Lady… You take such care of our court.”

“You are a good girl, Maskyte,” she murmured, as the water enveloped her.

*****

“Tavid?”

“My Lord?”

“I need you to get me information.”

“What do you need to know?”

“There is a mortal building on the corner of Corinth and Fifth. It will have information on Ryne there. I need you to retrieve a copy of all they have on her.”

“May I ask why, My Lord?”

“This girl is important; it won’t hurt to be over prepared.”

“Yes, Sire… Is this a priority or…”

Wrathin sighed, reminding himself that he could not put his curiosity before his court, and said, “Sooner would be preferable to later, but your other responsibilities still come first.”

“Yes, Sire. Was there anything else?”

“Yes. The girl who works with the Cages Master… Nyta… Tell the Cages Master to replace her,” Wrathin said as they continued down the dark hall.

“He already has. You look surprised, Sire.” Tavid chuckled. “You’ve barely let the girl out of your bed since the Queen’s last hunt. In fact, there is talk…”

“Talk?” Wrathin snapped out.

“My Lord, you have not been so singular since you first discovered Lordis all those years ago. And it is no secret that Unseelie King and Queen are on bad terms, at the moment,” Tavid said boldly.

“I am not looking to replace Lordis.”

“I am not the one who needs to be convinced,” he added, knowing he was on thin ice.

“I will not deny my pleasures, not even for my court.”

“Yes, My Lord. It’s just…”

Wrathin sighed, knowing his actions were courting trouble, and he said, “Tavid, it has been over a century since I have taken a regular mistress. However, I have no interest in taking a new queen.”

“But you do wish to curb the Queen’s power?”

“Yes,” he agreed, not surprised that Tavid had realized this.

“If you have her officially declared as your concubine—a Princess of the Court—it would ease the court’s worries, and could be used as a tool against the Queen. Although…” Tavid cut himself off.

“No, continue.”

“How much do you wish to restrict the Queen?”

“Lordis’s purpose was to be a figurehead only. It is time she was returned to it,” he growled.

“Then might I suggest a second, in addition to Nyta?”

“Who?” Wrathin asked, curious. He had almost forgotten how much he enjoyed Tavid’s devious mind.

“Maskyte.”

“The Queen’s handmaid?” he verified, surprised by the suggestion.

“Yes. They are close. If she were to protest it, she would lose face. And if she does not protest the one, she cannot protest the other. Also, you could appoint a new handmaid for the Queen—one of your choosing. The court would see it as gift or an indulgence for your Queen. But the Queen, depending on whom you chose, would see it… differently. Furthermore, you can take responsibilities from Lordis and grant them to the princesses. The court would not realize what you are really doing.”

“Several birds, one stone. Very well. Thank you, Tavid. Collect them and have them prepared. See that my adjoining room is made ready for them. And have two seats added to the dais in the throne room. We’ll have a celebration later tonight… announce it to the court,” instructed Wrath. Then, smiling wickedly, he added, “And appoint Ulca as the Queen’s new handmaid.”

“My Lord?” said Tavid, trying not to grin over his King’s last order.

“Yes?”

“If, privately, you forbade the Queen from attending, it would be seen as disrespect by the court. She would have to make up for it by embracing you and the princesses completely, even while you strip her power.”

“Excellent. Tavid, do you believe you could win against the Sidhe in a fight?” asked Wrathin.

“No, Sire… Are you saying—”

“Then I suggest you get training. I intend to make you my second.”

“But the Sidhe—”

“Is far too close to Lordis, and the only way for you to replace him—”

“Is to kill him,” Tavid finished.

“You have two weeks,” Wrathin instructed, as he continued on to his room.

*****

“Have you found anything?” Lordis demanded, as she walked into her dressing chambers. The water had helped enough that she could hide the pain.

“Yes. It is perfect, My Lady. It was still in its wrappings, too,” said Maskyte, holding it up.

The negligée was black and see-through. It was full-length but split on each side up to the hip. The back was completely exposed with just a few delicate crisscrossing strings to hold it on; the front was a gaping V-neck that plunged down to below her waistline.

Lordis slipped into it and found it fit her like a second skin. It hid nothing and highlighted everything.

“It is perfect, Maskyte,” she purred, admiring her reflection affectionately.

*****

“Leave, Lordis,” Wrathin ordered, when she cracked the door of her private entrance to his chambers.

Bracing herself for the worst, she took a deep breath and went the rest of the way in.

“Lordis,” Wrathin growled again, not looking up from the documents in his hand.

“Don’t be a spoilsport, my pet,” she purred enticingly.

“Don’t be a fool, my love,” he hissed back.

“Don’t be rude, my toy,” she cooed, crawling onto his lap, knocking his papers to the floor. Continuing in a playful voice, she said, “I won’t stand for it.”

She began unbuttoning his shirt as she let her robe slide off one shoulder.

“Leave, Lordis, or I will have one of my guards drag you out of here by your mane,” he threatened, though he sounded more tired than angry.

He stood up, causing her to fall to the ground and land painfully, her already undone robe falling the rest of the way open exposing the nightgown… and the bruises Wrathin had caused the day before. He glared down at her.

“Are you going to strangle me again, my pet?”

Noticing her bruises for the first time he started, “No… I—” He paused, noticing what she wore for the first time, as well. “You always did have appealing taste in nightwear, my love.”

“This old thing?” She smiled.

Leaning over, he gripped her waist and lifted her to her feet.

“I should throw you out.” His voice was rough.

“But you won’t,” she said, her voice low.

Entwining her arms around his neck, her hands up into his hair, she hoisted herself up, wrapping her legs around his waist.

“You’re cheating,” he growled, starting to kiss her.

Lordis let out a moan. She may have had her pick of the whole of the Unseelie Court, and then some, but no one could compare to her Wrathin. She had just begun to kiss him back when she felt a sudden jerk, only her body did not move with it. It felt as if it should, though. It felt as if Wrathin should have felt it, also.

Payment time, girl! came the witch’s voice in her head, and suddenly Lordis was no longer in control. It was as if she were buried deep in her mind, trapped, and unable to get out, but fully aware of the witch making love to her King. She couldn’t feel it, but she could see it, could hear it…

She screamed.

The witch laughed…

“Why are you looking at me like that?” asked Lordis, lying in her bed with Wrathin, sometime later, relieved to once again be in control of her body.

“Are you all right?” he asked frowning.

“Of course.” She smiled, turning to rest her head on his chest. And forcing false amusement to hide her worry, she said “Why? Was it not to your satisfaction?”

“No, it was… satisfying.” He smirked, wrapping an arm around her. “It’s just… You were different.”

“Was I?” she asked, nervous. “Well, is that a bad thing?”

“No.” He laughed. “It definitely was not bad. It was just… different. Ignore me. I’m tired. I have a lot on my mind and am probably not making much sense.”

“Oh,” she said, relieved. “Shall I help clear your mind?”

“Lordis!” He laughed. “Did you not hear me say I was tired?”

“For Home’s sake, I did not mean that. Roll over.”

“What?”

“Roll over… Please?”

“Fine.” He sighed, complying.

Lordis climbed onto his lower back, straddling him.

“Now, my toy, try to relax,” she instructed, as she began to massage his back.

Wrathin suppressed a groan of pleasure, and for a moment, one brief moment, felt a slight hesitation for what he was about to do. But that, he reminded himself, was exactly why he was in this predicament. Lordis had her moments when he truly enjoyed her company. Wrathin had found it too easy over the years to turn a blind eye when she crossed lines; in hindsight, he knew she had manipulated him. Lordis knew exactly when to pull back and put him at ease. He could not allow that pattern to continue.

[_Be done with it. Waiting will only make it worse, _]he ordered himself. “Enough, Lordis.”

“Are you not enjoying it, my toy?”

“I did not ask you to come to me, nor did you request an audience,” he said harshly, pushing himself up and knocking her onto the bed.

“Wrathin? I do not understand,” she said, seeming—for once—truly thrown off balance.

“I told you before, you take too many liberties here of late. That is going to change,” he informed her calmly, as he stood and dressed.

“Wrath—”

“I never did give you leave to address me by name,” he mused before turning to her. “I am your King, faerie, and you will address me as such.”

Lordis stared at him a moment, shock turning quickly to anger, the red of her eyes deepening.

“Before you speak, Lordis, bear in mind, I will not ever indulge your temper again. I have been far too lenient with you over the years, and it is time you remember who is King. Everything is about to change for you,” he stated calmly.

Lordis gaped at him, longing to lash out, to show that she could not be cowed, but… he was calm. Wrathin’s temper was usually passionate, fiery, and that was dangerous. But when it was cold, collected… then it was deadly. She[_ had_] been too rash of late and it had cost her. She should wait this out.

“I understand… Sire,” she forced out.

“No, you do not, Lordis. But Ulca will explain it to you.”

“Ulca!” she hissed out, her temper rising again. “What does she have to do with this?”

What, she wondered, [_could that old hag have to do with anything? _]

Ulca was Wrathin’s oldest and dearest confidante in the Unseelie Court, and she had never approved of Lordis as Queen. To this day, the faeirie treated her more like a poorly behaved Feyling than the Queen of the Unseelie. And Wrathin had never checked her for it. Nothing involving her could be good.

“There is to be a celebration in our court tonight. You are forbidden from attending. Instead, you will stay confined to your chambers until morning. No guests.”

“What, My Lord, is the celebration that I am not allowed to attend? And why am I being shamed so?” she asked, her voice tight, her anger barely leashed.

“Ulca will explain it all.”

Lordis clenched and unclenched her talons several times before asking, “Sire, would you please tell me what Ulca has to do with this?”

The Unseelie King smiled. “Well, my love, Maskyte has tempted me for some time, as you know, and I am tired of denying myself. I decided to save you the trouble of finding a new handmaid and appointed Ulca to the position.”

“That… was not necessary… Sire.”

“No, but it was certainly my pleasure. Before you return to your chambers, Lordis, you will not come to me for anything unless summoned. If you need something from me, let Ulca know.”

“Yes, Sire,” she hissed, her fury radiating under the surface.

“And Lordis, I know the two of you have not always seen eye to eye, but I trust you will respect Ulca, same as you would me?’

“You mean[_ obey_]!” she snapped.

He just smiled.

*****

“Did your mother never teach you to knock, my dear?” asked Rhettin, both intrigued by and wary of his guest.

“My mother always said breaking and entering was more fun.”

“I never did like your mother.”

“Neither did I.”

“Why does that not surprise me? It has been a long time since I’ve had the pleasure of your company, my dear,” he offered, hoping the Fey would get to the point.

Rhettin, who refused to align himself with any court and instead simply pursued his own profit and pleasure, was often approached by other Fey for help. He was happy to take them up on their offers and requests so long as he stood to make a profit from it. This Fey, however, was dangerous, and had almost cost him everything once before. Yet, he knew he would listen.

“Disappointed?” The faerie smiled coyly.

“Hardly. But I know you well enough to be worried. The last time you came to visit, it cost me… dearly.”

“Am I not worth it?”

“Oh, I never said that,” he skirted. “So, my dear, why have you risked the wrath of your King and decided to visit me this time?”

“Because, in some ways, you are more powerful than the Seelie King himself.”

“I am not a king, my dear.”

“You may not have the title, but you have the power, and it is the latter which matters.”

“My dear, I have connections. That is all,” Rhettin maintained.

“That is not all. You could command every courtless Fey there is, and you know it. You could probably command the pledgeless, too, if you chose to.”

“But I don’t choose to. My dear, this is an old argument—one we have had for centuries. Neither of us ever wins, so what do you say we move on to more pleasant things?” he asked, pulling her onto his lap.

“You always did possess a one-track mind, Rhettin.”

“It is why we get along so well, my dear.”

“Business first, pleasure later,” she instructed.

“All right, my dear.” He sighed in disappointment—it was a bad sign that he couldn’t distract her; when she focused in on a goal she was relentless, which [_would _]cost him! “Please, let’s just make it quick.”

“All right,” she agreed, settling herself in.

“So, Lordis, why are you here?” he asked, wariness still in his tone.

“A mortal girl.”

“Oh, yes, my dear. I have heard some delicious rumors about her and the commotion she has no idea she is causing,” he replied, suddenly sounding like a child in a candy store.

“She is a thorn in my side that I want removed!”

“Having her killed without drawing attention would be… difficult,” he replied, unfazed by the Queen’s outburst.

“No. I do not want her killed. Eventually… yes,” she clarified, waving a hand as if it were a minor detail. “But first I intend to use her.”

“Oh? How so, my dear?”

“Consider how much trouble she has caused by merely existing. Now, what if we were to harness that trouble?” She smiled wickedly.

“I am afraid, my dear, that your mind is simply too brilliant for me to follow. The idea itself is interesting, but how is it plausible? How, exactly, do you propose we, as you say, ‘harness’ it?”

“Did I mention, Rhettin, that my husband has given her the Unseelie Court’s protection?” she asked, innocently.

Rhettin paused in thought for a few moments before saying, “Now[_ that_], my dear, is a juicy tidbit I had not heard, and it may just be the key to your plan.”

Our plan. And it is the key.”

“Now when, precisely, did this become our plan?”

“When you did not throw me out.”

Rolling his eyes, he said, “What is it you want to use the girl for?”

“Chaos, violence, war… We can use her to turn Faeriedom upside down and, in turn, the rest of Magick.”

“To what end, though? And do not say there isn’t one, my dear. I know you too well.”

“The end is not your concern.”

“If I am going to be helping you, it is.”

“Rhettin, you may not have dreams of grandeur and power, but I do.”

“Grandeur? Power? My dear, you are the Queen of the Unseelie Court.”

“Yes, but after a few millennia, being Queen becomes old,” she whined. “I want more.”

“And how is it you plan to get more? You are not powerful enough to go against the Seelie King. And I have no desire to.”

“You are right. I do not have that kind of power… at least, not directly. But in the shadows,”—Lordis raised a golden and onyx scaled eyebrow—“we can turn that girl’s trouble into chaos, and that chaos into violence. We can then use that violence to start a war. We both know that the balance of power between the courts is precarious at best. Even[_ within_] individual courts, there are power struggles. We faeries do not share power well. And war has always caused devastating trouble for our kind; our natural instincts to manipulate and deceive are too strong. The right war would [_topple _]our delicate courts, leaving the spoils to me for the taking… well, and you.”

“You’re pitching a dangerous game.”

“Those are the only kind worth playing.”

Rhettin shook his head. “Then what? Would you set yourself up as the Seelie Queen?”

“I prefer the sound of Empress,” she answered nonchalantly. And someday, goddess.

“You are an ambitious, wicked, and slightly insane creature, my dear… which is probably why I like you so much.” He smiled, running a finger along her jaw. “This sudden power play wouldn’t have anything to do with the rumors regarding your court, would it?”

“What rumors?” she asked casually, forcibly burying the rage that wanted to break free.

“Rumor has it, you’ve lost the King’s favor… more that you’ve gained his ire,” Rhettin stated, his curiosity plain.

“Is that so? I assure you that everything is as it should be,” she lied for the first time and had to resist the urge to grin. Maybe she would tell a few more, simply because she could.

Lordis struggled not to grin again. The freedom to lie, she decided, was euphoric!

“So the Unseelie King has not taken two steady mistresses, one of whom is your former handmaid, [_and _]given them titles?”

“I amaze myself at times with what I can accomplish.” She smiled, with forced serenity, relieved that he had not heard about Ulca. The faerie was making her life very difficult. Lordis nearly hadn’t been able to get away.

“Are you saying you orchestrated it all?” he asked, sounding both curious and skeptical.

“I am saying I find it convenient that the Unseelie King’s attention is not on me. So will you help me?” she pressed, putting an end to the topic and hoping to gain a promise. Then it would be easier to keep him pinned down when the situation became messy.

“You would not have come here unless you felt certain of my help in the first place, my dear,” he evaded. “And now, we have done far more business than I care to do in one sitting. There will be time to settle the details later.”

 

Chapter 15

“You need a ride, honey? And don’t tell me, ‘No, ‘cause it’s still light out,’” said Sylvie in her thick Southern drawl, as she eased herself into a red vinyl chair. “Not after what happened last time.”

Ryne smiled at her gray-haired manager. Sylvie was a mother hen who couldn’t seem to resist the urge to both lecture and care for everyone who worked with her or ate in the diner. She maintained it was her Southern responsibility. It had been weird to Ryne when she first started, but now she found it almost endearing.

“Thank you, ma’am. I…” Ryne paused, her face splitting into a wide smile as she saw Wrathin. “I have a ride, but thank you.”

Ryne grabbed her bag and raced out of the restaurant, barely remembering to check the street before crossing.

“A convertible today?” she inquired, raising an eyebrow as she stopped in front of him, peeking to the side to admire the car’s sleek lines.

“On a day like today?” He smiled, gesturing to the clear blue sky with one hand and opening the door for her with the other. “How do you walk in those?”

“Practice,” she told him, sliding into the car and taking off her heels.

“Why would you spend hours waiting tables in those? They cannot be comfortable.”

“Comfortable? No. But they do get me good tips.” She grinned.

Wrathin chuckled, getting in on his own side. “That is rather devious, Little Mortal. I approve. Do you have any plans tonight?”

“No. Why?”

“Good.”

“Why?” she persisted, as he started the engine.

“It’s a surprise,” he said, hitting the accelerator.

“But I don’t like surprises!” she hissed, crossing her arms.

Wrathin just laughed.

*****

“I wonder what he is playing at?” Laetis asked out loud.

“Nothing good, I expect,” Apollo replied.

“It almost never is with Wrathin.” The Autumn King sighed. “Though you indicated at our last meeting that you believe he cares for the girl.”

“I did, and I still do.”

“And yet you believe he is still using her?”

“I do.”

“I wish I didn’t agree with you,” conceded Laetis.

“The girl is a curiosity; I understand that. But we should have come to a decision together before any direct action was taken. He has complicated everything,” vented the usually calm Apollo.

“Unfortunately our brother never sees beyond his own interests—none of our brothers do, actually. Approaching her now will be a near impossibility. It is obvious she trusts him or… at least, she trusts who she thinks he is…” Laetis trailed off.

“When we do approach her, which we will have to do at some point, she will already be in his pocket. If she were to learn of his deception it would, I think, prove… problematic. Humans, the dear creatures, are just so skittish when it comes to magick,” Apollo finished on a sigh, running a hand through his pale blond hair.

“What is he after?” Laetis demanded, returning to his original train of thought, his twig-like eyebrows drawing together. “I mean, he has made quite a commitment… The trouble of gaining her trust, creating a background story, the constant glamour… What can he expect to gain from it?”

“Should we speak with him?”

The Autumn King ran a hand over his face and down his long auburn beard—a rare sign of frustration from him—and said, “Not yet. I don’t think.”

*****

“Raider, calm down! Causing a heatwave—or worse, a tsunami—in winter will not do us any good,” Queen Ghanima instructed, knowing he was angry enough that his power would easily extend beyond the Summer Realm and into the mortal world.

“That girl is important, Ghani!” exclaimed the raging Summer King. “I do not know why or how, but she is! And Wrath has something up his sleeve!”

“I am not contesting either point, Raider, but losing your temper will not accomplish anything,” his Queen insisted.

“How do you stay so calm?” Raider demanded, sinking into a chair, letting his head fall into his hands as he tried to rein himself in.

“It is hardly without effort. Besides, my darling, is that not my job? Where would our court be if I could not balance you? All passions must be tempered, at times.” She smiled and walked over to massage her King’s shoulders.

“I knew he was impatient to be more direct, even if he claimed otherwise. I knew he would try something, I just… thought I would have more time.”

“We all did. Wrathin may not be known for his patience, but even for him, this was fast.”

“But what are we to do now, Ghani?” he asked, dropping his hands to gaze up at his Queen. “He has the advantage, and the Unseelie Court is already worryingly strong.”

Letting out a sigh, the Summer Queen came and knelt in front of her King. Taking his hands in hers, she said soothingly, “All is not yet lost. We may still turn the tide in our favor. After all, we do not know how much the girl is aware of. She may know nothing. If that is the case, we can use his deception… expose him to gain her trust. You see, Raider, we can still outmaneuver him.”

“You may be right,” he conceded, looking thoughtful. “We would have to decide how best to approach her, but it should work… Unless…”

“Unless what?”

“Unless she knows more than we realize. What if Wrathin has told her? What if… It should not be possible, but…”

“But what? Raider, I cannot read your mind.”

“Ghani,”—Raider sat up straight, absently tucked a few stray golden hairs behind one of his wife’s pointed ears—“I think she might have the Sight.”

“That is impossible,” insisted the Summer Queen, shaking her head, a few petals falling out of the small violet and orange flowers that sprouted from her gold locks.

“It should be, but that does not mean it, without a doubt, is,” he reminded her. “Few things are certain in the world of Magick.”

The Summer monarchs lapsed into a thoughtful silence, the Queen still holding onto one of the King’s hands, both their minds racing with the possibilities.

After a few moments had passed, Ghanima began mumbling to herself, Raider only able to catch a word here and there.

“I cannot read your mind, Ghani.” He smiled as he used her words from earlier.

Ignoring the comment, the Summer Queen rose and began to pace. “Even if he has been… honest, he is no fool. He cannot have told her all—not about the Unseelie Court, anyway. The truth about his court disturbs our own kind, let alone a simple mortal… If she were to find out, she would be terrified. She would run from him. If we play our hand right, can we not ensure the girl runs right into our waiting arms?

“And even if she does possess Sight, it would still work. Actually, it might make it easier. The child will already have some idea what the Unseelie Court is about; we would simply need to reveal his connection to it. The girl seems innocent enough. If she has Sight, like many before her, true reality—our world—must terrify her. And you know how mortals let their fear rule them… Wrathin would not be fool enough to allow her to know he is with the Unseelie Court, let alone that he is the King. If we were to see to it that she were enlightened, she would, undoubtedly, turn from him. And once again, if we are careful, she will turn right to us. Mortal pets always handle the transition to the Fey world best in the Summer Court. Why should it not hold true with her?”

“Have I told you how brilliant you are, lately?” He smirked, rising to join her.

“I never tire of hearing it,” she answered, as she walked to meet him halfway. “Our priority now is determining how much she knows.”

*****

Ryne sat on the worn corduroy couch, plucking at the loose threads. She had been at Dr. Rose’s for close to fifteen minutes and neither of them had said a word. She knew it was because the doctor wanted her to initiate and open up—as if that were going to happen. Maybe the whole session would pass in silence. She wasn’t in the mood to placate her shrink today. The doctors sigh seemed to echo around the tiny office, pressing in on her.

“How are you recovering, Ryne?”

“The doctor gave me the all clear weeks ago.”

“I didn’t mean physically.”

“What’s done is done.” She shrugged, determined to brush it aside.

“You were attacked, Ryne. Brutally attacked. You were almost raped,” said Dr. Rose gently, noticing the way she tensed. “It’s okay to be upset, to be angry. It’s healthy to feel that way.”

“What’s done is done,” Ryne repeated, trying not to grit her teeth in frustration; she did not want to discuss this.

The doctor sighed and switched tactics, knowing full well Ryne would not budge until she was ready. “Classes are going well?”

“Yes, I’m getting the hang of them.”

“Good. What about you and Dina?”

“Peachy keen,” she replied, allowing her frustrations with the questioning to show.

“You two weren’t a month ago,” Dr. Rose pushed.

“Well, we are now. Kissed and made up.” She attempted to grin, although it was more baring of teeth. Her temper had been harder to control of late.

“And those boys?”

“Backed off.”

“The teacher?”

“Well, I can’t have everything.”

“You always have an answer, don’t you?” said Dr. Rose, clearly disappointed.

“What is the problem?” Ryne snapped, sitting up straight. “Yes, my life is good right now. I’m happy. What is your issue with that? Why can’t you just let me be happy?”

“I do want you to be happy, Ryne,” the doctor answered, sounding surprisingly earnest. “I would just like to understand, and I would like for you to understand, too. The why is important. You have had quite a change from last month, and I think it would be healthy if we could both discover why that is—the real, true reason why. You might find it helpful.”

“…”

“Ryne?”

“…”

“Arrynna?”

“…”

*****

The afternoon sun glinted through the windows, streaked from a bad cleaning job, catching a few of the old chairs and booths where the red vinyl had torn. The diner was old, and Ryne often wondered if the Fifties-themed décor was actually from the Fifties. The black and white linoleum floor looked more black and yellow, no matter how many times it was cleaned. The food was good though, if fattening, and the service top notch. Ryne actually liked working there, even if her feet hurt by the end of the day.

“Hey, Rynnie.” Sylvie smiled. “We have a new girl. You up to training her? She’s the same age, so I figured it’d work better than if one of us old birds did it.”

“Sure,” Ryne agreed, knowing Sylvie hadn’t actually been asking.

“She’s in the back, honey, and she has a bit of attitude. Well, okay… she has a lot of attitude. I swear the child thinks she’s royalty.” The Southern woman sighed, shaking her head. “But we need the help, and people ain’t exactly jumpin’ at the bit to fill out our applications.”

“Well, this should be a fun shift,” said Ryne, dryly.

“I’m sure you’ll manage, honey. And besides, nothing like ole’ fashioned hard work to knock a diva like her down a few pegs.”

“This could actually be fun.” Ryne smirked.

“Now, Rynnie, I can’t have her quittin’ on her first day, you hear?” admonished the grandmotherly woman. “So do an old lady a favor, and try to be nice?”

“I’m always nice, Sylvie,” said Ryne, a contradicting Cheshire grin on her face.

“Of course you are, honey,” said Sylvie as she rolled her eyes. “And I won the lottery and I’m gonna retire to Boca. Now, if you’ll excuse me.”

Ryne made her way to the back room, trying to decide what menial, unwanted task she would give to the new girl.

“Hey, new girl, you back here?” she called, looking around.

“Oh, you must be Ryne,” came the new girl’s voice, as the bathroom door opened up. “I’m Jamie. The lady, Sylvie, said you would be training me. Although, I wouldn’t be here if my dad wasn’t on my case. I’m just glad someone else my age works here, you know? I mean Sylvie seems nice and all. I’m sure the cook is, too. And the other woman who works here… the mother, right? Well, anyway, like I said, I’m sure they’re nice and all, but you can’t really be friends with them, you know? It’d be like… I don’t know, like being friends with your grandmother, right? Especially since it’s bad enough I’m stuck here when I don’t want to be. So anyway, I was really glad when she told me about you.”

“Right,” said Ryne, who was trying to keep a neutral expression, despite her pounding heart. “Whatever you say. Um, you can start with bussing the tables. If we’re slow, just shadow me when I take orders a couple times. And, you know… if you have any questions, just ask.”

“What’s ‘bussing tables’?”

“When people leave, clear all the plates, glasses, and silverware to the back without breaking any, and then you wipe down the table,” explained Ryne, wanting to get away from the new girl.

“I have to clean?” She sounded appalled.

“Welcome to the charmed life of a waitress. The lunch rush just ended, so why don’t you go start clearing?”

“Aren’t you coming?” snapped the new girl, raising one perfectly tweezed eyebrow.

“Eventually… Those tables aren’t going to clean themselves,” Ryne snapped. Only the girl didn’t move. “That means you should go out there and do your job.”

“Fine, I’m going!” Jamie hissed, stalking off.

Ryne heard the door to the front shut and barricaded herself in the bathroom to calm her nerves. The new hire was a faerie.

*****

“Is it always that busy?”

“Actually, today was slow,” answered Ryne.

“Oh… So, what’s there to do around here?” Jamie smiled, hoping to draw the girl into a conversation. So far, every attempt had failed.

“‘To do around here?’” Ryne questioned, shutting her work locker.

“Oh, didn’t I tell you? I’m new to town,” said Jamie cheerfully, following after Ryne as they made their way to the door.

“Well, I’m pretty sure this city’s the same as most others, so whatever you did where you used to live, I’m sure you can do here.”

“Right,” said Jamie, frustrated at how difficult the girl was being—weren’t human children supposed to be sociable? “What do[_ you_] do in your spare time?”

“Uh… Sorry, my ride’s here,” Ryne answered, then ran across the street to a teenaged boy who was leaning against a motorcycle.

The glamoured faerie watched with a frown as the disguised Unseelie King shook his head before the girl could say anything and instead handed her a helmet. He shot a glare across the street before getting on the bike in front of the girl and speeding off.

*****

Instead of taking her home, Wrathin finally stopped in front of a large, old park. He knew she would need to talk and, frankly, he had some questions himself. She climbed off the bike first, pulling off her helmet and shoving it at him.

“Okay, first off… just because it’s unlikely we’ll get into an accident with you driving—and you probably wouldn’t be hurt even if we did—does not mean you don’t have to wear a helmet. It’s the law. Second, am I free to speak now?” she harrumphed, glaring at Wrath.

“Yes.” He laughed, choosing to ignore the helmet comment. He didn’t answer to mortal laws. “We can talk about it now.”

“Good,” she said, slightly calmer, as they entered the shade of the old oaks. “Did you recognize the faerie? And do you have any idea why she would be pretending to work at a diner, wanting to be all buddy-buddy with me? Because there is no way she’s there because she wants to be a waitress.”

“I recognized her, all right,” he said, suddenly serious. “Her name is Ghanima and she is the Summer Queen.”

“The Queen?” Ryne gaped, coming to a stop. “I thought fairies couldn’t lie.”

“We can’t,” said Wrathin, not following her train of thought as he stopped too, leaning up against one of the trees.

“Well, she did. She said her name was Jamie and that she was new to town.”

“She must have based her glamour on an actual mortal,” said Wrath, straightening up and giving Ryne a slight push to get her moving again.

“What does that have to do with anything? What does that even mean?” asked Ryne, confused.

“The mortal she is pretending to be must actually exist, which means when the Summer Queen is using that glamour, it is technically not a lie if what she is saying is true for Jamie,” he explained, stepping over a fallen branch.

“Stupid faerie technicalities,” she grumbled, tripping over the fallen branch. “For a species that is supposedly unable to lie, you sure do manage a lot of deceiving.”

“We have had millennia to perfect bending the rules that bind us, Little Mortal.”

“Well, apparently the rules that bind you all have a very loose definition of what lying is.” She frowned.

“Indeed. Language—wording—among the Fey, is a rather refined art. We may speak no word that is untrue, according to our curse. That leaves a lot of… wiggle room.” He smiled at her indignant expression.

“Right. A queen? That explains the two Fey that kept leaving and coming back in different glamours. I should have realized they were guards. So what’s a queen doing pretending to be a lowly waitress, and why is she so obsessed with being friends?” demanded Ryne, wanting to get back on track, as they strolled deeper into the park.

“I have told you before—you are quite the mystery and curiosity to me and my brothers. And the other courts are not pleased over my interaction with you. My guess is the Summer Court wants to usurp me and gain control of you for themselves.”

“‘Control of me’?” Ryne asked coldly, her eyes narrowed, as she stopped once again. “You don’t control me.”

“Of course I don’t. But they don’t view it that way. The other courts do not know you the way I do, Little Mortal. As far as they are concerned, you are little more than a mortal plaything they are drawn to. And because they do not know why that is, they each are afraid of not having you in their grasp,” he explained, his exasperation at their viewpoint evident. “They are monarchs, Ryne, and like to be in control.”

“And so they believe you befriended me just to gain control of me?” she asked, a slight accusation in her tone.

“Yes. And they are wrong, Ryne,” he promised her, pushing her to walk again.

“Sorry,” she told him, guiltily, as they resumed their strolling pace.

“I cannot really blame you for wondering if it might be true,” he told her gently, knowing it was certainly in his nature to be that manipulative.

“So, why is Ghanima doing it this way? Creating an alias and all that? Why not just come talk to me, like you did?”

“I doubt they realize just how honest and open I have been with you, or that you can See. Besides, I only opened a dialogue with you because I did not have any other viable options at that point.”

“Right. So, what do I do?”

“Nothing.”

“I’m sorry, what?” she asked him, tripping over an exposed tree root in her surprise. Wrathin caught and steadied her.

“You do nothing,” he repeated, shaking his head over her clumsiness. “Do not let her know you can See or that you know what I am. For now, we play their game. Just treat her like you would if she were just another human.”

“Fine.” She sighed, shoving her hands in her pockets. “Because life wasn’t complicated enough.”

“It won’t be that bad, Little Mortal.” He smiled at her pout.

“I know, I’m just… Ignore me. I’m tired,” she said running a hand through her hair.

“Not sleeping?” Wrathin inquired, concerned.

“Not like it’s anything new,” she said, hoisting herself up to sit on one of the park’s picnic tables in the clearing they had reached.

“I thought you were getting used to that dream, that it wasn’t waking you up anymore.”

“I was, and it isn’t,” she said, yawning.

“The attack?” he asked darkly.

Ryne shrugged. “Like I said, it just brought back a lot of memories, and I’m just… having a hard time shaking it.”

“That is not the sort of thing you shake. Do you want to talk about it?” he asked, sounding uncertain.

“Lord, no.” She shuddered.

“Ryne—”

“What I want,” she interpreted with an impish grin, “is to get ice cream before I have to go deal with homework.”

“All right.” He sighed, frustrated by how quickly she could close up. “Will you talk to Dina?”

“Wrath, let it go.”

“No.”

“Wrath—”

“You need to talk to someone,” he pushed, his tone firm.

Maybe I’ll talk to Dina. All right?”

“All right.” He sighed, wanting to push, but knowing it was the best he would get from her at the moment. “Where do you want to get ice cream from?”

*****

“So, why were you in such a foul mood last night?” whispered Dina, once the librarian had passed them.

“Jamie,” answered Ryne, glancing up from her research.

“Stupid faerie queen,” grumbled Dina. “I’m really sick of her trying to replace me!”

You’re sick of her?” snapped Ryne. “You’re not the one who has to deal with her. And don’t say the F word.”

“Don’t be so paranoid. The police aren’t going to come storming in just because I said fae— the F word.”

“No,” hissed Ryne, “but the men in white coats just might… Or have you forgotten?”

“Oh, fine. But I still say you’re being totally paranoid.”

“Yeah? And your point is?”

“Fine… So why do you keep brushing ‘Jamie’ off?”

“Seriously? Dina, you know what… who she is!”

“Yeah, I also know what Wrathin told you, and treating her like the plague is not exactly acting normal, you know?” Dina pointed out.

“I’m sorry, how long have you known me? I don’t do the whole buddy-buddy thing, Din.”

“Of course you don’t, and I’m not telling you to. I’m just saying you could be little nicer. I mean, Ryne, you’re distant, not cruel.”

“Maybe… She’s just so annoying.” Ryne sighed.

“So are most people. Look, I’m not saying you should go shopping with her or anything. Just be nicer to her at work. Besides, maybe if she thought she was getting somewhere with you, she’d back off a little?”

“Maybe…”

“No ‘maybe’ about it. I’m right and you know—”

“Girls!” The librarian’s voice came from behind them. “If I hear any more whispers out of either you, you’ll both be finishing your conversation in detention.”

[* *** *]

Kahsi—who made his living by taking on the more indecorous jobs of the magickal world—made his way into the club and grimaced. There were more Unseelie than usual, which meant there’d be more humans than usual. He found mortal pets such an irritation that the pleasures weren’t worth it. Nonetheless, he really wanted a drink and the anonymity to think, so he continued on to the dark and crowded bar.

He should never have taken the job, he decided, as he sat at the bar and ordered. The money was just so good! Greed had blinded him to reason—which, of course, Rhettin knew would happen. It was why he had offered so much. It was a lot of money… He could retire comfortably after this job. He wouldn’t, but he could. Still, this job was dangerous, deadly if anyone connected him to it. Kahsi almost wanted to go back and tell Rhet that he had changed his mind. Almost. Sipping his drink, he turned his attention to the masses moving over the dance floor. One fey in particular caught his attention.

“Drig, come dance with me again.” A willowy courtless pouted as she playfully tugged on his arm.

“Don’t worry, my trinket. I’m not finished with you yet,” said the faerie, apparently known as Drig, with a leer. He was familiar to Kahsi.

She giggled.

“I’ll find you after I’ve had a drink,” Drig told her, pushing her back towards the dance floor. She let out another childish giggle, but obediently began swaying her way back toward the gyrating bodies.

Kahsi studied the other faerie— Drig—very carefully. There was something frustratingly familiar about him. Something he couldn’t place.

“Is there something I can help you with?” snapped Drig, as he seated himself at the bar. It clicked.

“Drig? You’re the one who tried to play with the Unseelie King’s new pet, aren’t you?”

“What about it?” Drig hissed. “It was an honest mistake!”

“Of course it was,” Kahsi soothed, an idea occurring to him. A little reconnaissance could be useful. “It was also impressive.”

“You’re one of the few who think so.” Drig snorted.

“You should tell me about it.” He leered, hoping he could persuade the drunk Fey into talking.

It didn’t take much persuading, however. Drig was happy to brag. It helped that he was drunk. Very drunk.

“And here’s another thing… I haven’t told anyone this; you should count yourself lucky. When the King interfered, he wasn’t wearing a glamour.”

“All right,” Kahsi said, suppressing the urge to shrug and walk away. This Drig hadn’t provided anything that was useful!

“No! You’re not getting it!” the drunk Fey exclaimed, hitting the scarred, wooden bar top with his fist. Fortunately, in a place like this it didn’t garner any notice. “He wasn’t wearing a glamour!”

“And?”

“And? For Faerie’s sake, do I have to spell it out for you?”

“Apparently,” he replied, dryly.

And the girl Saw him.” Drig smirked, looking inordinately pleased with himself. Although, that would change if the Unseelie King ever found out he had let this information slip.

A smile crept across Kahsi’s face. Now [_that _]was useful.

*****

“I love fireworks!”

“I know. You told me a few weeks back,” Wrathin said. Then, smiling, he continued, “And at least a dozen times tonight. It’s why I took you.”

“That’s just it. You listened, and cared,” Ryne explained, her expression wistful. “Outside of Dina, nobody has ever done that for me. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.” He smiled, feeling a twinge of pity for the girl. “Where is Dina?”

“Work. She should be home soon, though,” replied Ryne, settling back in her window seat.

“I should probably be going then.”

“Why? It’s not like she doesn’t know. And you can wear a glamour.”

“Not tonight.”

“Fine.” She rolled her eyes.

He smiled. “I didn’t say never, Little Mortal. Can Dina give you a ride home from work tomorrow night?

“Yeah, but why can’t you?”

“I’ll be busy,” he answered cryptically, not wanting to explain the changes he was making in his court, knowing Ryne would never approve.

“Busy?” She raised an eyebrow.

“I have court business to attend to,” he reluctantly explained, not looking forward to parading Nyta and Maskyte around when Tavid challenged the Sidhe. He’d far rather spend the day in his chambers with Nyta. He’d started this game, though. He’d see it through. And Tavid deserved his support.

“Oh.” Ryne frowned.

She liked Wrathin. She trusted him… Or at least, she wanted to. But she couldn’t get past the fact that he was King of the Unseelie Court. She wouldn’t approve of that court. The things they did were… evil. Even other Magicks shied away. Ryne suppressed a shudder.

“And this is why I originally said ‘busy,’” he told her in frustration.

“I didn’t say anything,” she defended, raising her hands in a placating gesture.

“Your face said more than enough.”

“Well, I’m sorry.”

“No, you’re not. And it drives me mad!” he exclaimed. “Why do you refuse to accept who I, and my faeries, are?”

“Because it’s an excuse!” she snapped, her own temper rising.

“An excuse? I cannot deny what I am, Little Mortal,” Wrathin sneered, making the usual endearment sound like an insult. “Darkness is my nature. I am Unseelie.”

“So what if it is? It’s still an excuse,” she insisted. At his confounded expression, she continued. “You’re using your nature as an excuse to make the lowest standard of behavior acceptable, so you don’t have to feel guilty. Wrong is wrong, Wrath, regardless of your nature.”

“According to you,” he replied, his tone patronizing.

“According to basic morality! You don’t get to justify your…your… sins by saying it’s just your nature and so there’s nothing you can do about it. I mean… It’s a rapist’s nature to rape, but that doesn’t mean he’s not guilty of rape or that he doesn’t face the consequences or that it’s okay that he rapes!” she argued, trying to keep her voice down, hoping if she connected her argument to what almost happened to her, he might actually listen… understand.

“I cannot fight my own nature, Ryne,” he replied instead—simply, quietly, offering no defense or apology.

“It’s not that you can’t; it’s that you won’t. You refuse. You’re not some dumb beast that’s unable to use reason, Wrath,” Ryne persisted, unwilling to back down. “You choose not to, but that doesn’t mean you are incapable. I mean, think about it, a… pedophile who… I don’t know, kills himself before he hurts another child is fighting his nature.”

“So I should kill myself?” he snapped.

“What? No! God!” Ryne groaned in frustration, raking a hand through her hair. “It was an example, not a suggestion.”

“A rather dramatic example,” he grumbled, crossing his arms.

“Yeah, well… The Unseelie Court isn’t exactly known for stopping at minor offenses. I’m just… tired of your excuses, Wrath.” She sighed, her shoulders slumping. “You could be so much better than you are, but you won’t even try. You choose not to be.”

“Good night, Little Mortal,” Wrathin said in answer, angrily.

Moving quickly, he was out the window and away before she could say any more. He wasn’t interested in being judged; least of all, by someone he cared about, respcted even.

“Great.” She sighed again, sinking onto her bed.

*****

“Night, Sylvie,” Ryne called as she left the diner.

“Night, honey. You be safe,” she drawled back.

Ryne headed toward a café across the street to wait, pulling out her phone to let Dina know she was off early.

“Great.” She sighed, dropping the dead phone back into her purse.

She debated going back into the diner to call, but that meant dealing with “Jamie”—who would tell Ryne to just wait twenty minutes and she’d give her a ride home, which was definitely not a good option. Veering her course a little, Ryne made her way toward the payphone half a block down. She was a few feet away when she noticed just how oddly deserted the area was.

[Probably should have gone back into the restaurant to call, _]she thought, frustrated with herself.[ I could have come up with some excuse why I needed Dina to pick me up. Too late now._]

Ryne was reaching for the door to the booth when a rather frightening faerie landed almost directly in front of her. Years of practice and instinct kicking in, she continued to reach for the door as if nothing were wrong. To her great surprise however, the faerie knocked her outstretched arm down.

“There is no point in pretending, mortal. I know you can See. Your secret is out,” the faerie sneered.

Fear warring with instinct, Ryne hesitated just a moment too long. She stumbled sideways from his hit and tasted blood. What she didn’t understand though, was why she had only stumbled. A hit from a faerie—an unrestrained, hard hit—should have, at the least, knocked her to the ground, if not across the street. Attempting to regain her balance, Ryne staggered a few steps back.

The faerie started to move with its supernatural speed, but to Ryne, it suddenly didn’t seem all that fast. It was as if everything was all of a sudden in slow-motion… except for her. She saw him lunge for her and made her own lunge to the side, instead.

She looked back to see her attacker on the ground. It didn’t make sense. She was escaping a faerie. She shouldn’t be able to. She shouldn’t—

You shouldn’t keep wasting time. Run. You have to run, Ryne! she ordered herself.

Ryne took off, running faster than she had ever run in her life. She couldn’t hear anyone following her, but she refused to stop until she was certain she was safe.

Iron! I need iron… But where? The old church… But it’s too far. It’s miles. I couldn’t get there—

Ryne’s internal ramblings were cut short when she tripped on the old cracked pavement… right out front of the old church.

“How—” She stopped, deciding not to look a gift horse in the mouth.

At least, she wouldn’t until she had the time and safety to do so. She raced to the church and, once inside, shut the old iron-adorned doors, quickly releasing her hold on them, her hands stinging painfully. That had never happened before either, but she pushed that thought aside for now as well. Ryne loved the old church because every window and door was decorated with iron—the ultimate safety for her and the ultimate deterrent for the Fey. There were times when the stress of pretending became too much, so she would come to this church and just sit in one of the pews—sometimes for just a couple hours, sometimes all day—until she felt her equilibrium return. Disconcertingly, she didn’t feel the same peace this building usually brought. In fact, she felt almost ill, her skin tingling as if hundreds of ants were crawling all over. Shuddering, Ryne pushed the worry and discomfort aside. She had other concerns at the moment.

Having cleaned herself up little in one of the front restrooms, Ryne set out to find a phone but was intercepted by a kind-looking, elderly priest.

“Might I help you?”

“ N-no… I… Y-yes…” She paused to take a breath and steady herself. She didn’t need the priest thinking something was wrong, at least nothing more wrong than a split lip. “Thank you, Father. I need a phone.”

“And I thought all kids your age had your mobile phones.” He smiled, the hint of an English accent gracing his words.

“Oh, I do, Father. It’s just dead.”

“I see.” He smiled, looking like a gentlemanly grandfather. “Well, let’s just see if we can find you a working phone, shall we?”

“Thank you, Father,” she replied, feeling relieved that he was helping instead of asking a dozen different questions, as most adults she knew would have done.

The priest led her through a series of old cramped hallways until they finally reached an old, small, mahogany door. Telling her it was an office with a phone, he offered to wait outside, allowing her privacy and guaranteeing a guide out of the maze-like offices.

“Thank you, Father,” Ryne said as she shut the door. Then, dialing the one number she had memorized besides 911, she said, “Dina? Oh, thank goodness! Listen, I need a ride… Yes, I know I’m still supposed to be at work. Yes, something is wrong—very wrong. I’m not sure… Look, just pick me up, please? I’m at the old church on Middlewood.”

*****

Dina pulled up to the old church and honked her horn a couple of times. She watched as Ryne raced out to the car, her speed making her blur slightly. Dina felt her eyes widen. Something was definitely wrong.

“Let’s go,” Ryne ordered, as she secured her seatbelt.

“Holy crap, Ryne, I’ve never realized how fast you were before.”

“I know. That’s the problem.” She sighed, running a hand through her hair. “Part of it, anyway.”

“What?”

“Just drive. We’ll talk at home.”

“All right,” she agreed, deciding to be compliant for once.

*****

“Okay Rynnie, we’re back. We’re safe. We’re good. Now spill!” Dina demanded, her patience worn.

“I shouldn’t… I can’t… I… But… But… Unconscious… I don’t…” Ryne spluttered, stopping her pacing to sink onto the bed. “What’s happening to me?”

“Well, honey, I’m going to need you use some complete sentences before I can answer that,” Dina replied dryly.

“Oh, right. Complete sentences… Okay…” said Ryne, wringing her hands as she nodded.

“Rynnie,” Dina pushed gently when her friend didn’t continue.

“I’m not me anymore, Din,” she offered unhelpfully.

“Sweetie, what does that mean?” asked Dina, being uncharacteristically patient.

“I’m not sure; that’s the problem. It’s just… everything’s falling apart and I don’t know what to do,” Ryne moaned, dropping her head into her hands.

Dina walked over and, crouching in front of Ryne, pulled her hands down, forcing Ryne to look at her, before saying, “Please, Rynnie, what happened tonight? You need to tell me—coherently.”

Taking a deep breath, Ryne stood and crossed to the window. Gripping the curtains as if they were her lifeline, Ryne said, “I got off early and Wrath wasn’t coming to pick me up—”

“Yeah, why is that? You two have been inseparable here of late.”

“H-he… I… It d-doesn’t matter,” Ryne declared, her breathing uneasy as if she were trying not to cry. “The point is I was calling to let you know I was off early, as promised, since you were my ride. But my cell was dead. I didn’t want to go back into the restaurant because the Faerie Spy was still working, so instead, I went to the closest payphone. But there was a faerie. Courtless, I think… Not that it matters. Anyway, he knew I could See him.”

“That’d be unnerving,” Dina sympathized, still confused as to why her usually unflappable friend was freaking out so bad.

“But it’s more than that, Din. He hit me—”

“Your lip,” she interrupted. “Honey, I’m sorry—”

“It’s not about him hitting me. That’s… that’s a non-issue. It’s the fact that he hit me as hard as he could, and not only is my jaw unbroken, I stayed on my feet.”

“Um, you lost me.”

“Come on, Din. You remember how I fared the last time faeries attacked me, and they were holding back. They’re strong. Like, really strong. I’m talking herculean, here. Don’t look at me like that, Dina. I’m serious. You remember from a couple of years back, that statue they had in the center of town? The solid marble[_ _]one that got smashed to gravel somehow?”

“Yeah. Of course. They never figured out what happened to it.”

“Dina, a faerie happened to it. One, lowly, little faerie who looked as if a strong wind could break every bone in her body. She destroyed that huge marble statue as if it were nothing.”

“Okay,” said Dina, nodding as she took in exactly what Ryne was saying. “So fairies are strong.”

“Din, his hit should have sent me down the block and through a building. It should probably have killed me… I barely stumbled.”

“You could just count your blessings, Ryne. I mean, it would kind of suck if you got squished like a bug,” she replied, nonchalantly. At Ryne’s glare, she continued, “For heaven’s sake, I’m not an idiot. I am getting the seriousness of what’s going on here. I’m just saying to count the good with the bad. So, did anything else out of the ordinary happen?”

Sinking to the floor, Ryne looked up and whispered, “I ran.”

“Um, Rynnie, honey, everyone runs. Running is normal, and it apparently got you away—which is good. So, um, I’m going to need a little more detail from you, because clearly I’m not getting why you’re so bothered,” said Dina, trying to hide her frustration.

“Din, I have never run that fast in my life,” she said softly, staring down at her hands. “I outran that faerie! I ran five miles in five minutes and I wasn’t even winded. That is not natural!”

“So, what’s it all mean?” asked Dina, for once in her life managing to keep her face impassive.

“I don’t know!” Ryne moaned. “That I’m changing, I guess. But, any more than that, I don’t… I’m scared, Dina.”

“Oh, sweetie,” Dina tried to soothe, as she lowered herself down next to her usually imperturbable best friend. “It’s going to be okay. We’ll figure it out, I promise… And, I mean, worst-case scenario… you turn into some freaky faerie, I’ll still love you.”

“Thanks… I think.” Ryne smiled.

“Maybe you should talk with Wrathin. He may have answers for—”

“No.”

“Why not?” Dina asked, confused by Ryne’s adamancy.

“The why doesn’t matter.”

“It matters if it keeps you from getting answers,” Dina prodded gently.

“We had a fight. He was angry and… I wasn’t nice. I… I don’t know if he’s going to come back,” Ryne explained, blinking back the tears that wanted to escape. She had let herself get too attached.

“Oh, honey, I’m sorry. I’m sure he’ll come around. I’ll make him, if I have to,” Dina promised, wrapping a comforting arm around her friend. “Then you two can patch things up and, with his help, we’ll figure it all out.”

“What if he doesn’t? What if we don’t? What then?”

“Well, as I said before, I’ll make him—faerie or no. And if that doesn’t work, you still have me. Ryne, I’m with you on this, thick and thin. We’ll figure it all out, I promise.”

“Thanks Din,” said Ryne, resting her head on her friend’s shoulder.

“Don’t mention it,” Dina replied, leaning her head against Ryne’s.

*****

“What a pleasant surprise, brother.”

“And you did not choke on your words. I’m touched.” Wrathin smiled, stretching out his arms as if in welcome.

“Surprisingly enough, Wrath, I do not always dislike your company. Sometimes I even enjoy it. It does also help that it has been close to a century since you last paid me a visit,” Laetis replied with a slight smile, returning to his gardening, his long, thick, auburn hair, which had been divided into multiple tails and tied off with colorful leaves, hung down his broad back, the tips brushing the grass. “That does not stop me from being wary, however. So, when do I get to find out the reason for your company?”

“It is hardly a secret that out of all my brothers it is your opinion I have the most respect for. It is also no secret that I rarely have the patience for our brothers’ attitudes or political games,” Wrathin explained.

“That is touching,” said Laetis, sounding both surprised at Wrath’s admittance and genuine in his appreciation. “But it is only a partial answer.”

“I find myself in something of a philosophical, or perhaps moral, quandary. Something I have not experienced since I was a Feyling,” said Wrathin, with a slight chuckle.

“And what, precisely, is this quandary?” asked Laetis, keeping his surprise hidden.

When Wrathin did not answer immediately, the Autumn King turned back to his gardening, allowing the Unseelie King time to compose his thoughts.

“Do you think I am capable of being better than I am, Laetis?” Wrathin finally forced out. “Even though I am the embodiment of the Unseelie?”

“Of course. I have always maintained that opinion,” Laetis answered, not turning from his work, his large, thick hands, delicately adjusting the fragile flowers. “And there is no need for you to take offense, Wrath. My belief in that applies to all intelligent creatures, myself included. Perhaps it could apply a little more so to you, due—as you said—to the nature of your kingship. After all, the Unseelie Court is hardly known for its… self-control. Regardless, we can all be better than who we naturally are.”

“But… I cannot fight what I am, who I am. I cannot fight my own nature!” exclaimed Wrathin in frustration.

“Of course you cannot.” Laetis sighed, turning to face his brother, his warm, yellow eyes wide in their earnestness. “Wrath, I will of course attempt to answer your questions to the best of my ability, but I cannot guarantee you will be happy with my answers. Actually, I can almost guarantee the opposite.”

Laetis paused, expecting a response. When he received none, he stood up—the knees of his long, dark orange robes stained with dirt—and said, “Shall we walk? As I said before, no, you cannot change your nature—”

“Then why does everyone tell me that I must?” Wrath interrupted, clearly irked.

“Everyone?” Laetis questioned but received no answer. Sighing, he continued, “I did not say it could not be changed, simply that you yourself cannot change it.

However—”

“Then it cannot be done!” Wrathin interrupted, again. “It is my nature, my responsibility. I am the master of myself. If I cannot do it, then it cannot be done!”

“More or less the response I expected, as I’m sure the idea provides comfort for your actions,” the Autumn King replied solemnly. “Might I ask why you suddenly care so much?”

“A recent… acquaintance has caused me to question some of my beliefs,” Wrathin explained awkwardly.

“The girl?”

“Yes,” he answered stiffly, not wishing to discuss her.

“Why are you not speaking with her about it then, since she is the one who started the wheels turning?”

“I… I regrettably lost my temper with her.”

“Did you hurt her?” Laetis demanded sharply, knowing just how volatile his brother could be.

“I would never hurt her,” he answered quietly. “At least, not physically. I have no doubt I hurt her feelings.”

“That can be repaired,” Laetis replied, sounding relieved.

“I hope so. That is part of why I came to you. You have a way of… providing perspective.”

“Perspective I doubt you will like. We have never seen eye to eye in our beliefs.”

“Consider me warned, Laetis,” Wrathin growled in frustration. “I came for your opinion, knowing full well that I might not like what I hear.”

“All right, then,” Laetis conceded. “As I said before, I have always thought that you settle—again, a belief that could be applied to most.”

“But you also said I cannot better myself,” Wrathin said, aggravated.

“Correct. You cannot better yourself or, as you said, fight your nature. But that does not mean you should not try—”

“But if I am to fail regardless then what is the point? If failure is the only option, then is it not simply easier to accept what I am?”

“Easier? Absolutely. However, this is not about what is easy. This is about what is right. I can tell you, right is never easy. But that does not remove our responsibility to it.”

“Responsibility to… But why? I do not see the point if there is no chance to succeed,” Wrathin grumbled.

“The why is purely because it is right, regardless of the outcome. I did not say there was no chance, though. I said you cannot do it yourself. We can be better. We can fight our natures through His—”

“I see,” Wrathin snapped, cutting his brother off.

“I warned you, you might not like—would not like—my answers,” Laetis reminded.

“Yes, you did,” Wrathin conceded. “And I overestimated my patience. It would seem we have reached the same impasses the girl and I came to. I should go.”

“If you wish,” Laetis replied, not wanting to push.

“Until the next time, brother.” Wrathin smiled, his swagger returning as he strolled out of the Autumn Court.

“Will wonders never cease?” Laetis murmured to himself with a slight frown as he returned to his garden, his mind ablaze with curiosities, once again wondering how much his brother had revealed to the girl.

Perhaps I did let things be for too long.

[_ _]

Chapter 16

“Have Kyrse see to my things. Where is the King?” Rayelle demanded of the guard stationed at the entrance to the Winter Court’s sprawling palace.

“M-my Queen,” he stuttered in surprise, standing up straighter. “Welcome home. It will be good to have our court comp—”

“I asked you where my husband is,” she interrupted, having neither the patience nor the time for small talk.

She would have to seek the guard out later and make amends for her abruptness, but for the time being, her only concern was getting an answer.

“I believe he is in his study, My Lady,” the guard offered. “May I—”

Rayelle, however, did not wait to hear him out but strode ahead in search of her King. When she reached the level which housed the King’s study, she paused, having been distracted by her urgency. She turned to face her bodyguards, who had dutifully, quietly, followed her so far.

“I am sure you all have plenty to see to. We were gone for far too long. I also doubt I will be leaving the court today. For the time being, you are dismissed,” she informed them and, without waiting for a reply, continued on.

*****

“You are back, my love.” Raveed smiled, affection clear in his voice, though he did not look up from his work. “I began to fear I might never see you again. What was my father after?”

“Nothing important,” she rushed, her voice sounding off.

“That does not sound like my father,” he started, looking up and seeing the anxiousness on her face. “What is it, Rayelle? What is wrong?”

“It is not so much wrong as it is urgent. Actually, if we play our cards right, it could be very good. The problem is time, especially since Wrath has already acted, at least from what I have heard. If only I had been able to return sooner…” Rayelle trailed off in thought.

“Rayelle,” Raveed said, gripping his wife’s arm, ceasing her pacing. “Would you please explain to me what is going on?”

Rayelle looked up, a triumphant smile spreading over her face. “I know who she is, Ravi. The girl. I know who she is and why you and the others are drawn to her.”

He just stared at his wife, the anticipation keen. Would they finally have answers?

“Ravi, she is Arrynna!”

*****

“So, you failed,” Rhettin replied shortly.

“F-failed,” Kahsi stuttered angrily. “There is more to that… that [_girl _]than you lead me to believe.”

“I do not see your point. I hired you for a job—a job you assured me you could do. Considering your reputation, I trusted you to handle the assignment regardless of any complications that might possibly arise. Are you telling me that all of your jobs have always gone exactly as you planned? You have never had to adjust to the unexpected? How was this any different? You had a job to do, and the unexpected came into play. It was still your job. You should have adjusted and finished what you were hired to do. But you didn’t. Instead, you panicked, ran, and—regardless of how you wish to phrase it—failed. You failed to do the job. You failed me,” Rhettin finished quietly, his eyes dangerously narrowed.

Anger overriding reason, the faerie snapped back, “You are… We are arguing semantics. My… failure is not what matters. That girl is not human. Rhettin, my hit should .sent her flying, and the girl barely stumbled. There is something not right about her. And her speed… She could have kept up with a Royal. Rhet—”

“Enough. You have made your point. Mine, however, still stands. You botched the job, and I will no longer be requiring your services. I trust you know your way out?” Rhettin said, returning to his paperwork.

“What about my pay?” Kahsi growled.

“Pay? For what? You didn’t do the job I hired you for. Why would I pay you?” queried Rhettin, not bothering to look up.

The faerie growled in frustration. But, knowing better than to argue further, he turned on his heel and left, slamming the door behind him.

“Lordis!” Rhettin snarled, the moment the door had shut, abandoning his paperwork in favor of hunting down the Unseelie Queen.

*****

Raider frowned at the sudden increase in temperature. Ghanima was not due home for a few hours yet and his own mood was steady. He stood, heading towards the door, when it burst open. The Summer Queen strode into the room.

“You are home early?” he questioned.

“The girl was attacked, again,” she informed him, though she didn’t sound worried.

“By whom? Is the child unharmed?” he demanded.

“A courtless. And yes, she is fine. That is what I am here to dis—”

“You interceded for her?” Rader interrupted. “That could complicate things. How did you explain it to her?”

“No, Raid. I did not interfere. She handled it on her own. That is what I’m trying to tell you. The girl cannot be human.”

*****

“It certainly would explain a lot, and the pull would make sense as well,” Raveed reasoned. “Though, I do not understand why it started so suddenly.”

“I am sure there is an explanation for it,” said Rayelle dismissively. “Though, I hardly think that is important at the moment.”

“And you are certain? Beyond any doubt?” Raveed asked yet again.

“I have already told you I am absolutely assured. I promise, my love, there is no doubt or hesitation in my mind,” Rayelle answered impatiently but firmly.

“All right, all right,” he yielded. “It just seems…”

“Too good to be true?” she finished for him, resting a comforting hand on Raveed’s arm.

“This whole time we have been searching… and to think, she has been right here, under our very noses.”

“I know, Ravi,” she comforted, giving his arm a light squeeze. “But the past is done and set. We cannot change it. All we can do is act in the present, handle what is before us.”

“You are right, of course,” he agreed with a sigh. “It does not help that she has been able to see us all along. Faerie, we must have terrified her!”

“Regardless, we need to decide how we are going to act now,” replied the ever-practical Rayelle.

“Yes, well, we need to keep the advantage in our court. If we go to the Seelie Court, they will take over and we will lose the power this could bring us. We could wait, but then we may be giving the advantage to Wrathin,” the Winter King reasoned.

“Which leaves us with only one option. We need to approach her ourselves, now.”

*****

Ryne heard a slight thump by her window and, without needing to see to know, said, “I wasn’t sure if I would see you again.”

“Neither was I. I needed time to think.” He paused, but when she didn’t say anything, he continued. “You may have had a point… or not. I am still not certain what exactly I think. Either way, I am sorry.”

“Thank you,” she said quietly, turning around. “I should have—”

“What happened?” Wrathin demanded, gripping her chin so he could better see her injury.

“Oh, nothing, I’m fi—”

“No, you’re not.… Your lip is split and your jaw bruised. Now, what happened?” he snapped.

Glaring, Ryne pulled free and walked over to her dresser. Crossing her arms, she leaned against it, indecision clear in her eyes. She wanted to talk to him. She should talk to him. But he had blown her off before just because he was angry. What could happen if he became angry again? Could she trust him? Should she trust him?

“Please?” he asked gently, his concern obvious.

“You don’t get to do that, okay? Friends don’t do that,” she told him.

“Don’t do what, Little Mortal?” he asked, clearly confused.

“You got mad, and you just left.[_ Friends_] don’t do that.[_ Friends _]work it out.”

“We did work it out, just now.”

“Only because you graciously decided to return. I had no say. When this happened,” she ranted, gesturing to her bruised face, “I wanted to talk to you. I needed to talk to you, and I couldn’t because you were too busy nursing your pride to be my friend. And there was nothing I could do about it. That is not okay.”

Wrathin frowned at her moment before saying, “May I see your phone?”

“What?”

“May. I. See. Your. Phone,” he said clearly, enunciating each word and trying not to laugh at her indignant expression.

“I heard you the first time, Wrath. You know what I meant,” she said, glaring at him.

“I know.” He smiled. “Your phone?”

“No. Now stop changing the subject,” she told him crossly.

“I am not, Little Mortal, and if you would just pass me your phone, you would see I am very much staying on subject,” he replied, holding out his hand.

“Oh! Fine,” she growled, slapping her phone into his outstretched palm.

“You were right,” he told her, fiddling with her phone for a minute before handing it back. “Hold down one and it will dial my cell.”

“Oh,” she said, obviously surprised. “Wait… Faeries have cell phones?”

“Of course.” He smirked. “Even magickal, mythological, supernatural beings must progress with the times, Little Mortal.”

Ryne laughed. “I suppose. It’s still weird… Thanks.”

“Now, will you please tell me what happened?”

Ryne sighed, running a hand nervously through her hair. Her anger and amusement vanished with Wrathin’s reminder. It was replaced, instead, with worry and, to his surprise, fear. It was not a common emotion for her, and it worried him.

“Ryne?”

“I don’t know exactly. I was walking to a payphone and this faerie—I don’t know what court—tried to attack me. And I don’t even know how that’s possible. You said I was under your court’s protection. But, anyway, that doesn’t even really matter right now. Wrathin, something is wrong with me! I mean, I barely stumbled when he hit me, and I was able to dodge him when he rushed at me, and then I ran. And I ran so fast, Wrath… my speed wasn’t normal, wasn’t human!” Ryne babbled, some of the panic and fear pouring out with her words. Then in a small-sounding voice, she asked, “Wrath, what’s wrong with me?”

Wrathin kept the concern and surprise off his face, crossing his arms as he studied Ryne. The idea that there might be something not right about her, not human, made him reevaluate her appearance. The girl was beautiful—there was no question there—but the more he considered it, there was also something a little off-putting about that beauty… something inhuman. She was so fragile looking, so delicate, and yet she radiated strength and ferocity. It was… unearthly. Even frightening. It was… very Fey-like. He had never noticed it before, but then again, he was a faerie. The Fey-like features and characteristics weren’t off-putting to him, so why would he have noticed it?

“Um, Wrath, you’re kind of freaking me out here,” she told him, her eyebrows furrowed in confusion. “I mean, do I have something on my face all of a sudden?”

“No.” He chuckled. Then, more somberly, he said, “First of all, the fact that he was able to go after you to that severity means he was courtless. Either way, I will see to him. As for the rest, I cannot be certain. I have some… possibilities, but nothing solid I can give you.”

[Possibilities, like you being part Fey, my Little Mortal. Possibilities that I doubt you will like. Possibilities I have no desire to burden you with, _]he thought sadly.[ So what do I tell you?_]

“Well, what sort of possibilities?” she asked, sounding disappointed and impatient.

“Oh, Ryne… You don’t really want to play the guessing game right now, do you?” He sighed, running his fingers through his long hair. When her stubborn expression didn’t changed, he added, “A few different ideas, or rather the seeds of ideas, are rattling around in my head; I need to look into some things, talk to a few Fey and other Magicks.”

“Great, just great,” she muttered sarcastically.

“Come on, Ryne,” he said, trying to sound patient as he did not want to end up in another fight. “I know you are upset—”

“Upset!” she screeched. “My body is going supernatural on me, you don’t have any actual ideas, and all you can say to me is that you need time! Wrath, I need more than that. Please! I mean, everything is topsy-turvy, and you’re telling me there’s nothing you can tell me… So yeah, I’m upset… to put it mildly.”

“Oh, for Faerie’s sake, Ryne! It’s not as if I said, ‘You’re screwed,’ and left. I’m here and I’m trying to help. But it will take time, whether you like it or not.”

“Well, I don’t like it.” She pouted.

“I noticed,” he said dryly.

“Come on, Wrath,” she whined. “There’s got to be more than just seeds rolling around up there. Give me something, please. Something I can think on, something I can distract myself with. Who knows, maybe I’ll make some progress… just… something.”

“I don’t know,” he said uncertainly, pausing as he ran his fingers through his hair again. “Remember, these are just possibilities…”

“You made your point, so stop stalling,” she instructed, rather impolitely, as she crossed her arms.

“All right,” he snapped, his own impatience finally showing. “There are two ideas which I believe have the most credence. The first is, since you know nothing of your family or where you come from, this could somehow be connected to them.”

“All right. And the second?” she inquired, sounding less rude this time, though clearly not realizing the full implications of what he had said.

“The second possibility,” he began, his tone kinder as well, “is that it could be connected to all this.”

“All this?” She raised her eyebrows at him.

“All this,” he replied, stretching his arms out. “The draw to you, the coming prophecies, my marking you, us spending time together—all this.”

“So… Wait, prophecies?” she said, cocking her head.

“There are some ancient magickal prophecies, which have been, or at least seem to be, lining up. Like I said before, it is nothing substantial yet,” he answered cavalierly.

Scowling, she let her arms drop and said, “Great. I spend most of my life avoiding all of you, and within a few months of you all coming into my life, everything goes to pot. And now I’m… I’m like this huge freak of nature… well… a bigger freak than I already was. Great, this is just so great!”

“Well, I’m sorry to inconvenience you with my friendship!” he snapped back.

“Inconvenience? Because of you and yours, I spent my childhood locked away and drugged. Inconvenience doesn’t even come close!” she retorted.

“It is not my fault you were born with Sight, Ryne!”

“I’m not saying it is,” she threw back.

“Then what are you saying?” he demanded.

“I’m saying… I’m saying… I don’t know what I’m saying! I’m just… frustrated and confused and scared and… I don’t know what to think, or do, and… and…” Ryne clamped down on her runaway mouth before she could say any more.

Unfortunately, she still felt the stinging sensation around her eyes from unshed tears. She couldn’t take much more. She just wanted, for once in her life, to have someone tell her that it would be okay and that she didn’t have to handle it all on her own. And she hated that she wanted that. She was just tired of feeling alone, of always having to be strong, and she really wasn’t sure how much more she could handle before she did actually lose her mind.

She also really hoped Wrathin hadn’t noticed she was ready to cry. She wanted to say something to change the subject, but Ryne didn’t trust her voice. She wished he would say something, anything, or she would start crying—something she hadn’t done in years. Then, to her great surprise, he was right in front of her, wrapping her in both his arms and wings.

“I know, Ryne. I should not have lost my temper,” he said in apology, rubbing comforting circles on her back. “Everything will be all right, my Little Mortal. You are not alone in this.”

Touched in a way she hadn’t believed possible—Wrathin’s assurances doing what his yells could not—Ryne cried. In fact, she sobbed.

*****

“Raider…” The Summer Queen sighed in frustration. “That is the third time you had me tell you what happened, and my telling has not changed once. I have not left anything out, you have my word. Now, would you please stop that infernal pacing and tell me what you are thinking?”

“She is human, Ghani—”

“She cannot be. I told you—”

“Allow me to finish. She is human—at least, in part.”

“Raider, you know how rare it is for there to be offspring between Magicks and Mortals. And we never leave them in the mortal world… not for millennia. That is how we eradicated the gift of Sight in the first place. You know that,” she reminded.

“I do know that, which is why I think this girl is her.”

Comprehension dawned on Ghanima’s face. “It would make sense… a lot of sense. Ryne could easily be a shortened version of Arrynna. I never thought…”

“None of us did. The question is, how we are to be certain? And what should we do when we are?”

“For now? I believe we should stick with our original plan and in the meantime, we delve into her past, by whatever means necessary.”

*****

“I’m sorry,” Ryne mumbled, pulling out of his embrace. “I don’t know… I mean, I haven’t… It’s been years… I’m sorry. I don’t usually lose control like that.”

“Don’t be.” He smiled in an open manner she had never seen before. Handing her a tissue box from her dresser, he continued, “At least, that is what my mother always said…‘Tears are poison leaving the body.’”

Ryne smiled at him, knowing she was seeing a part of him that centuries of ruling the Unseelie Court had buried deep. She liked it.

“What was your mother like?” she asked innocently, hoping he would answer.

“She was—” He started but cut off, his usual guarded manner returning. Then, taking the tissue box back, he shook his head. “It does not matter.”

“It does to me,” she wheedled.

“Maybe another time,” he told her, his tone sealing off the topic.

He put the tissue box back. Unfortunately, he also knocked over Ryne’s small and overfilled jewelry box in the process, sending its contents cascading across the floor. Releasing identical grunts of frustration, the two automatically bent down to clean up the mess.

“Is that everything?” he asked after a few minutes of searching.

“Yeah, it… No. Where… Crap!” she muttered, sounding panicked as she looked through her abundant jewelry collection again. Not finding it, she began searching the floor again.

“What is it? What are you missing?” Wrathin asked, confused by her sudden dismay.

“My necklace!” she told him, her fingers feeling around frantically. “I have to find it. It’s what I was found with. It’s all I have…”

“It’s all right,” he soothed. “We’ll find it. Just relax.”

“I can’t! I have to find it. I can’t have lost it!”

“You haven’t, Ryne. It is in the room somewhere. We will find it,” he assured her, dropping to the ground, trying, and failing, not to roll his eyes over her panic.

After a few minutes of searching to no avail, Ryne’s panic began to go up a few notches.

“Just relax, Little Mortal. We’ll— Wait, is this it?” he asked, pulling a necklace out from under her dresser.

Seeing the glint of gold, Ryne rushed over.

“Yes! Thank you!” she exclaimed, relieved as she held her hand out for it. “I don’t know what I would have done if you hadn’t found it… Wrath, what is it?”

“I haven’t ever seen you wear this?”

“No. It tends to get people’s attention when I wear it, which means questions I don’t want to answer, so I almost never wear it,” she explained.

“What exactly is this, Little Mortal? I mean, why is it so important to you?” he asked, staring at the necklace still, his expression unreadable.

“Well, it’s called a necklace—my necklace,” she answered sarcastically. In a more serious tone, she continued, “It’s what I was found with. It’s all I have of my past, and it’s how I got my name. It saved me from the horror of being named Jane Doe. Some people have no imagination.”

“You said your name was Ryne,” he told her sharply, glancing up from the necklace.

“It is. Well, I mean, that’s part of it. Ryne and Rynnie are nicknames. They’re short for Arrynna.”

“Your name is Arrynna!” Wrathin demanded sharply, his voice and expression shocked—both at the possibility, and that he hadn’t considered this before. But truly he had believed the girl was dead. “You were found with this necklace, and your full name is Arrynna?”

“Yes,” she answered slowly, sounding confused. “Wrath, what’s the big deal? It’s a name. An awesome one, I grant you, but… Seriously, what’s up?”

“How old were you?

“Huh?”

“When you were found!” he snapped impatiently. “How old were you, exactly?”

“Oh, um… I think the doctors estimated eight months,” she told him, feeling baffled by his sudden intensity.

“Are you certain? I need you to be certain, Arrynna.”

“I’m not going to swear on my life, but I’m pretty positive. At least, like I said, that’s what the doctors estimated,” she replied, trying not to sound disgruntled. “Wrath, what’s going on?”

“I am not certain, Little Mortal,” he muttered, staring at the necklace again.

After a few minutes of silence, Ryne said, “Wrath, you’re really freaking me out. Again.”

“I told you, I am not certain. But I may have some answers for you. I just need to check some things out first. I’ll be quick. Stay here.”

“Wait… what? Where are you going?” she demanded.

“I need to look into some information I was given a while back.”

“What information?”

“I asked one of my guards to do some searching on your past. He checked out that place called Social Services. I’d hoped it might help me to understand the draw to you. However, I have not had the time to actually look over what he brought me,” he explained.

“And so you’re going to do it now?” Ryne asked, even more confused.

“Yes. It has information in it I need to know before I can answer your questions, Ryne.”

“Okay,” she replied slowly. “I’ll wait here, I guess.”

“Good. I will be quick,” he said, turning to leave.

“Um, Wrath?”

“Yes?”

“My necklace?” she reminded, holding out her hand again.

“Actually, I would like to hold onto it—just for a bit. If you will trust me with it?” he asked.

Ryne paused for a moment. Trust did not come easily to her and she did not want to lie to Wrath. Actually, lying in general had become oddly difficult for her. At times it was downright impossible. She had tried to pass it off as her stutter becoming worse, at least to herself. But it seemed lately she only stuttered when she was trying to twist the truth. It was why she found herself surprised when the words came out without hesitation and without doubt…

“I trust you, Wrath.”

“Stay here.” He smiled. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

*****

“Are you insane? What are you doing here?”

“Getting answers!” Rhettin growled, grabbing Lordis’ arms. “What are you not telling me?”

“But—”

“Your warden is occupied for now. We will not be interrupted.”

“How do you know about Ulca?” she demanded.

“Please, Lordis. It is the talk of the slums. Now, I asked you a question. What are you not telling me?”

“Not telling? What are you talking about, Rhett?” she demanded, nervous that even if Ulca was occupied, one of her guards might find him here. It wouldn’t do for there to be rumors that she was in contact with Rhettin again.

“Do not play dumb with me, Lordis! I deserve better than word games from you! The girl is more than a simple human!”

“That is news to me!” she snapped back, pulling free of his grip. “Now, calm down and tell me what this is all about.”

Rhettin, still simmering, seated himself in one of the Unseelie Queen’s chairs as if it were his throne and proceeded to explain his conversation with the faerie he had hired. He watched for any sign that she may have expected something like this, or that she was truly surprised. Her face, however, remained impassive.

She stayed silent for a few minutes after he finished, her face still completely unreadable. Sometimes he forgot how imposing she could be.

“Well, I suppose this complicates matters,” she said, finally.

“How eloquently and inadequately put, my dear. What do you think it means? What is she?” he asked, sounding less furious now that he was starting to consider that Lordis may not actually have known.

“I do not…” She trailed off, her expression going thoughtful then slowly turning triumphant as realization hit. “I never did bother to learn her name, Rhet. She was just a human. How could it have mattered? But now I wonder. That may have been a mistake.”

“Why? What is going through that pretty little head of yours, my dear?” Rhettin asked, leaning forward in anticipation. Her mind never ceased to fascinate him.

“I think she might just be Arrynna.” The Unseelie Queen smiled wickedly.

 

Chapter 17

Ryne tried to distract herself, but her mind always crept back to Wrath and what he might be doing. In the end, she settled for pacing, trying not to think about the possibilities Wrath had suggested. They opened doors she wasn’t yet ready to consider. Ryne heard her door open, though, and turned.

“The hall window must be open again,” she muttered, trying to ignore the two fairies who just entered—especially since she recognized one of them.

“You are frighteningly good at that, child,” said the female faerie, her voice placating.

Ryne, who had resumed her pacing, continued to fake ignorance.

“Oh, for Faerie’s sake. We know you can See us. Let the charade go,” the female faerie said.

Crap!

Ryne felt her stomach clench but kept her face smooth, impassive. She made her way to the desk where her cell phone was, her intention to call Wrathin.

“Rayelle, I do not think you are helping,” the male faerie said quietly. Then more loudly, he addressed the girl. “Child, I understand your apprehension, but we are not here to harm you. If we were, would we not have done so already, instead of peacefully trying to reach out to you? It would make more sense for us to simply use force, would it not? If we meant you harm in the end?”

Having finally reached her cell phone, Ryne paused, knowing his argument made sense. Deciding to change tactics, she slipped the phone into her pocket, hardened her expression and turned to face them.

“Then why are you here?” she demanded, grateful her fear hadn’t bled through into her voice.

“Finally,” said Rayelle, eagerly stepping forward.

“Rayelle?” Raveed whispered in warning.

Her face a mask, Ryne couldn’t be sure how Rayelle felt about her companion’s interruption. She listened regardless, though.

“We are here simply to talk to you, Arrynna,” he told her.

Ryne felt her stomach clench, again, at the use of her name.

[It’s okay. It’s okay. Just breathe and _]don’t[ let them know that you’re freaked!_] she instructed herself, trying to stay calm.

“An actual conversation? No bump-and-run this time?” she asked sarcastically, quirking an eyebrow.

Smiling apologetically, Raveed answered, “Yes. I am sorry about that. It was not my intention to frighten you.”

“Then perhaps you shouldn’t have followed me,” Ryne snapped back.

“In fairness, Arrynna, he did not know you could See him,” Rayelle interjected, her voice surprisingly gentle.

“I’m not interested in fair! You all have made my life hell these past months!”

“I’m sure we have,” she conceded.

“You’re Rayelle?” she asked with a scowl. When the female nodded, Ryne continued, “And what’s yours?”

“Raveed,” he answered.

“All right, then. I want to know how you know my name and what you’re here to talk about.”

“We know your name, child, because we realized who you are,” Rayelle explained, still using her gentle voice. “Which is what we are here to speak with you about.”

Feeling wary, Ryne asked, “And just who do you think I am?”

“You are one of us, Arrynna,” she answered.

Ryne’s expression turned to a mix of fear and disbelief. It wasn’t true. She wouldn’t believe it. The claim was absolutely ridiculous. She was a human! Unfortunately, a small part of her—a part of her she really didn’t like at the moment—was giving the idea credence.

“More accurately, you are half one of us,” Raveed further explained. “Half Faerie, half mortal.”

“You all are crazy,” accused Ryne, taking a step back.

The two fairies took a step forward, Rayelle saying, “Please, Arrynna? I know this must be a lot, but would you please hear us out?”

Ryne took another step back, which the two faeries matched with a step forward.

Crap!

Ryne could feel the fear she usually kept locked away coursing through her. Their claim was ridiculous and she wouldn’t… couldn’t listen to them. She couldn’t be in the same room with them. Hoping her newfound speed would work, Ryne steeled herself to run.

As if realizing what Ryne was about to do, Raveed took another step forward. Sounding desperate, he said, “Arrynna, please?”

Ryne felt like a blur as she fled the house, doubting any humans could even see her at the speed she was running. Instinct told her the faeries were following. Fear made her push harder. Through it all, she just had one thought in her head—Wrathin.

*****

“What—” Wrathin started casually, as he helped Ryne to her feet since, in trying to stop, she’d crashed into him and fallen. Taking one look at her face, however, he asked more urgently, “What is it? What happened?”

“F-faeries… They…” She panted, gripping his arm as if her life depended on it. “Th-they… to-told—”

“You [_are _]fast, Arrynna,” Raveed complimented.

Ryne tensed even more.

“Raveed. Rayelle,” Wrathin said stiffly, swiftly pulling Ryne behind him. “What an unpleasant surprise.”

“Do you know who she is?” Raveed demanded.

“Yes. I assume you do as well.”

“Let her go, Wrathin,” Rayelle ordered. “We need to take the child home.”

“Why don’t we let Ryne decide that,” Wrathin said. Without waiting for an answer, he continued, “I am afraid, Little Mortal, that you have only two choices right now.”

“Okay,” she answered, her voice steady.

“You may go with my brother and his wife, or you may stay with me.”

“You!” she answered without hesitation.

“Wrathin, you have no right,” Raveed began angrily, taking a step forward, frost spreading out from where he stood.

Dark shadowlike vines shot out from Wrathin, rising up between the two parties, twisting and turning together to create a solid, living barrier—blocking Raveed’s way.

“Actually, brother,” Wrathin began, his voice quiet with anger, “I have every right. She is under my court’s protection and has just chosen to come with me, which means, the one with no right is you!”

“Child, please… The Unseelie King is dangerous and cannot be trusted. We simply wish to take you home where you will be safe,” Rayelle tried, desperate.

When Ryne only gripped his arm tighter, Wrath called, “Sidhe?”

“Yes, Sire?” Tavid—who had successfully killed his predecessor just a few nights before—answered as he stepped out of the shadows.

“Would you take Ryne home? Leave her in my chambers.”

“Yes, Sire.”

“Sidhe?”

“Yes?”

“I do not want anyone getting near her, especially Lordis. On your life,” he ordered.

“Yes, Sire,” the guard promised. Then, holding out his hand, he addressed Ryne, “Are you up to running?”

“Yes,” she answered. And, trusting Wrathin, she took the faerie’s hand.

Raveed watched horrified as the girl ran off with the Unseelie Court’s Sidhe. Furious, he demanded, “What have you done, Wrathin? She belongs to the Seelie Court!”

“Once again, Raveed,” he answered, letting the wall of shadows fall and flow back into him, “[_that _]decision belongs to Arrynna.”

“We will go to Morrin,” Rayelle threatened.

“Then go to him.” Wrathin laughed. “It will change nothing. The girl is still under my court’s protection and will remain so until she chooses otherwise. Morrin cannot—will not—violate that law, and you both know it.”

*****

“Sire,” exclaimed Raider’s second-in-command, bursting into his King’s study. “My Lady, there has been a confrontation between regents.”

“What?” they demanded in unison.

“Winter and Unseelie… they clashed. No blood was drawn, though,” he informed his King and Queen.

“Thanks be.” Ghanima sighed, sinking into one of the chairs. If blood had been drawn, court tensions would have spiraled beyond control.

“Was it about the girl?” asked Raider, tension radiating from him.

“Yes, Sire. And rumor has it, she was there for the conflict.”

“[_That _]complicates things.” The Summer King sighed, running a tanned hand over his face.

“There is more, My Lord,” the second-in-command said, nervously licking his bottom lip with his forked tongue. “Rumor also suggests that the girl willingly chose to return with King Wrathin to the Unseelie Court’s home.”

“May Edryn protect her,” murmured Raider, feeling suddenly weak as he gripped the back of a chair.

“Raid? What do we do?”`

*****

Rayelle had never seen the Winter King this enraged before, which considering the length of their marriage, said a lot.

“What is he thinking?” Raveed demanded for the umpteenth time. “I know my brother is selfish, but he is still usually smart. But this is madness! What can he possibly hope to gain? We are now trapped with an obligation to go to the Seelie Court. If we do not, and Morrin were to find out…”

Rayelle shivered. If that were to happen, the Seelie King’s retribution would be terrifying. Rayelle longed to comfort her King, to soothe his distress, but she could think of nothing other than to listen. No words or gestures could change the truth of the situation. Rayelle flinched as Raveed slammed his fist down on the desk, ice encasing and shattering it almost instantly.

“Ravi,” she said gently, walking through the snow and ice that had accumulated in his unbridled anger.

“As it is, there will be war… despite Wrath’s claims of court protection. How can he not see that?” Raveed yelled, golf-ball-sized hail breaking through the window. Rayelle put more energy into trying to control the storm her husband was unleashing, a storm so powerful she could feel it spreading to the unsuspecting mortal world. She could not be sure how much of a difference she was making, but she hoped it was a fair bit, considering the effort was severely draining her.

“Morrin will demand he surrender the girl. And if he refuses, the Seelie Court will bring war. Morrin might wage war regardless, simply for the affront of having to ask.… A war begun by the Seelie Court will not stay confined to Faeriedom. The other races will choose sides. Who knows how many deaths there will be? It could even spill over into the mortal world. Wrathin is going to pull the magickal world apart at the seams, and for what?” Ravi finished loudly, looking as if he very much wanted to break something again.

“Ravi, please,” Rayelle murmured, starting to sway with the effort of tempering the Winter King’s unleashed magick.

Realization dawned, and he nodded, holding her arm in support as he tried to rein himself in. It took a few minutes, but Raveed managed to tamp down his temper. Rayelle released a sigh of relief as she felt the beginnings of an Ice Age return to a simple blizzard.

“You are fortunate it is already winter in the Mortal Realm,” she said, feeling her own strength return.

“What are we going to do?” he said, his voice tightly controlled, his roiling emotions still ready to break free at the slightest loosening.

Rayelle slipped her arms around him in assurance and answered, “What we must do. We go to Morrin and tell him. Then, we will do as you so often remind me—we will trust Him.”

 

Chapter 18

Ryne sat in one of Wrathin’s overlarge armchairs, hugging her knees to herself, wondering when he would get back. It had been far longer than she had originally expected. Hearing the door finally open, she looked up and let out a sigh of relief.

“Are you okay?” she asked.

“Shouldn’t I be asking you that?” Wrathin smiled.

“Probably, but I d-don’t want you to,” she confessed, wincing at the slight stutter. She needed to get her nerves under control.

“Why not?” he inquired, sounding puzzled.

“Because I can’t lie,” she said, swiping away an errant tear. She knew Wrath wasn’t going to deny his brother’s claims.

“I see.” He frowned, not liking how helpless she seemed. It was something he had never witnessed in her before.

“W-what took you so l-long?” Ryne asked, wanting to avoid the elephant in the room.

“I wanted to arrange protection for your friend Dina,” he told her.

“What?” she demanded, her own concerns momentarily forgotten. “Why would she need protection?”

“You are the one always telling me how well you understand the evils of my kind. Why do you think she would need protection?”

“Oh, God!” She paled, putting a hand her mouth. “He w-wouldn’t, would he? Your b-brother, I mean. He w-wouldn’t really g-go after Dina, would he, Wrath?”

“Slow down, my Little Mortal. Calm down,” he said, not adding that it would ease the stutter. “Raveed is not needlessly given to cruelty. However, he can be… determined. And he has a habit of becoming rather single-minded when he has a goal in mind.”

“But Dina has n-nothing to do with this!” Ryne insisted.

“But she has a lot to do with you, Little Mortal, and you have everything to do with this. Ryne, think about it… If he were to inform you that he had Dina and the only way to secure her safe release was to surrender to him, what would you do?”

“I’d go,” she whispered, her hands falling to her lap in defeat.

“I am not saying he has made that connection, just that I want to be prepared if he does. I have guards watching over her, instructed to protect and bring her safely here if one of the other courts try to contact her. We do not need to worry about that now. I am just taking precautions. Understand?”

“Yes. All right,” she agreed.

“Now, you want to tell me how you are doing, my Little Mortal?” he said, bringing the conversation full circle.

“Wrath, th-they said… said I’m… I’m…” She stopped, unable to bring herself to say it.

“That you are like us?” he finished, seeing fear settle on her face at the idea.

“Am I?” Ryne asked, her voice sounding oddly fragile.

“May I tell you a story first, Little Mortal?”

“Um… I guess,” she agreed, not sure where he was heading.

“Good,” he replied, sitting in chair across from her. “Now, once upon a time—”

“Wrath!”

“No, I am serious. Bear with me, and don’t interrupt,” he instructed.

“Fine.” She sighed, curling up in the chair.

“Once upon a time, there was a king and queen named Morrin and Sharnna. Now, this king and queen loved each other very much and together they had five sons—Apollo, Raider, Laetis, Raveed, and Wrathin. These sons became kings of their own… [_territories _]once they were grown.

“This royal family was immortal, and so King Morrin and Queen Sharnna believed they would have eternity to be together. Unfortunately, a great war erupted.

“This war was devastating, and it cost countless lives. Most believed that it would never truly end, especially since it was not just fought by armies on battlefields, but on the streets and in back alleys, by all.

“Until the very end of the war, royalty—for the most part—managed to remain unscathed. Sadly, the kings and queens of the different…[_ peoples_] were content to let their commoners die as long as they had a chance to claim victory.

“In the end…” He paused, a painful expression on his face. “In the end, Queen Sharnna was caught in the crossfire…”

Wrathin paused as if momentarily unsure of how to continue.

“Your mother… Wrath, I’m so sorry,” Ryne said, stretching her hand toward him in comfort, once again distracted from her own concerns by a side of Wrathin she did not often see.

“Don’t,” he said, catching her wrist before she could reach his shoulder. Then, softening his tone, he said “‘All things carry a purpose in them, even when we cannot see it.’ I did not believe her—my mother—until today.”

The two sat in silence for a few minutes, Ryne respecting Wrathin’s grief. When she looked up again, all traces of his sorrow were hidden.

“Queen Sharnna’s death was devastating to all, but for King Morrin, well… he was never truly the same. And it was Morrin’s anger that ended the war. In his grief, he found the strength to do what he had never thought he could be capable of. His actions ended the war.” Wrathin paused and studied Ryne for a few minutes, debating. “You do not need to know the specifics of what he did, just that it changed him. Irrevocably so.

“In time, the different monarchs and their subjects began to heal, though none were ever the same… Eventually, though, King Morrin found love again.

“This time, he fell for a mortal named Moira. They are still together. Fifteen years ago, they had a daughter. A daughter whose birth was prophesied millennia ago. I had a gift made for her, in celebration of her birth. The gift was a gold pendant with court’s symbol carved upon it, her name engraved on the back.

“Unfortunately, the joy this child brought did not last. This baby was taken and never found,” Wrathin told her, handing over her necklace. “All the courts searched for her. We still do. Most, in their heart of hearts, came to believe she was dead, as no trace of her was ever found. Not the Mortal Queen, though. She never stopped believing her daughter was alive.”

Ryne looked down at her necklace. The gold pendant necklace bearing her name on one side, an engraved symbol on the other; a symbol Ryne had never been able to make sense of. She ran her finger over the engraving, feeling the etched tree, roots and all, the mountain tops behind it, the unicorn rearing up beside it. She couldn’t stop herself from shivering.

“Little Mortal, do you know what that baby’s name was?”

Ryne continued to turn the necklace over and over in her fingers. “No… I d-don’t w-want to hear th-this. Wrath—”

“Arrynna, pretending I have not told you this, pretending you do not know, does not change the truth. You are the half-Fey, half-Human Princess of the Seelie Court, regardless of whether you want to be… You are also my half-sister,” he added, as an afterthought.

Burying her hands in her hair, Ryne began to shake her head. “N-no… No… I c-can’t… I w-w-won’t… No!… I’m human. I’m n-not… No!”

Ryne rested her forehead on her knees, her dark, thick hair a falling around her like a curtain. Every so often her head would shake and Wrathin would make out the word no. Deciding she needed at least a few minutes to process it all, and something to calm her nerves, Wrath made his way over to the bar and took his time pouring her a drink. When he returned however, nothing had changed. Setting the glass down, he kneeled in front of her.

“Ryne?”

“I’m n-not,” she mumbled.

“Look at me, Arrynna,” he ordered, gripping her upper arms and forcing her to straighten up.

He had never before seen her look so absolutely terrified, which, considering what he had seen her deal with over the past months, said a lot. He found it disconcerting; the usually headstrong and confident girl seemed so utterly lost. He wasn’t certain how to go about it, but he knew he had to fix it. He had promised this girl—his little sister—that it would be okay, that she would not be alone in this.

“Are we truly so horrible? Does the idea disturb you that much?”

Ryne tried to tell him no, but couldn’t make the words come out.

He grimaced. “No lying, Little Mortal. It’s the Faerie coming out in you. You have to be honest… Well?”

A tear running down her cheek, Ryne whispered, “Yes, it does.”

She hoped he knew how much she hated saying that to him, how much she didn’t want it to be true. She knew how much those words had to have hurt him… But she just couldn’t be a monster.

As if reading her thoughts, he said, “Not all Magicks are monsters, Ryne. How many times have you told me that I am not my nature, but my choices? You are not a monster, no matter your blood!”

“My blood…”

“Yes. You are part Fey. Eventually, you will have to accept that, Little Mortal… If you need proof, it is how you found me before, when you ran from the Winter monarchs. In gifting you my court’s protection, you can now find my help when you have need of it. It is more than just a mark if you are magickal. If you were only mortal, Ryne, you would never have been able to track me down. That instinct, telling you where to run, was your magick calling to my protection,” he explained. “You cannot deny what you are.”

“What does this m-mean?” she asked in a small voice.

“That is really up to you, Ryne. I cannot guarantee what Raveed and Rayelle will do if you leave here. You are, of course, welcome to stay. I’ll have chambers made up for you… Dina too, if you would like. I gave you the promise of my protection and I meant it. You have a home here for as long as you want,” he assured her as she nodded absently. “Though, I think, you already know what you need to do, Little Mortal.”

“I… It’s t-too much… I c-can’t decide anything tonight.”

“I understand,” he said, taking the wine glass from a side table. “Here.”

She looked up. “I’m not old enough.”

“Don’t be so mature.” He smiled. “Besides, you’re part Fey, and faeries do not have age requirements. It will help, Ryne.”

Shrugging, she took the glass and tried a sip. It was good. Dark and rich… and somehow sweet, too. It soothed, leaving the taste of what she could only describe as [_night _]on her tongue. Greedily, she took another drink of it.

“You will stay here tonight? Until you decide what you want to do. We can talk in the morning.”

“I can’t… Dina,” she told him, taking another long drink.

“I will speak with her, explain it all.”

“All?” she inquired, bringing the glass back up to her lips.

“All,” he assured.

“Okay,” she agreed, relief in her voice.

Frowning, Ryne looked down to find her drink empty. As she looked back up, the room started to spin.

“Whoa, easy,” said Wrathin, steadying her as she swayed in her seat.

“What did you put in it?” she asked tiredly.

“Something to calm you down and help you sleep,” he admitted sheepishly. “Though, I had not expected it to work so quickly, or so strongly. Come on.”

She felt him haul her to her feet. She swayed. Her whole body felt heavy, and she knew he was supporting most of her weight. Her legs felt odd as he made her walk, his voice distant as if she were underwater. When morning came, she couldn’t remember him putting her to bed. She did, however, remember the dream.

*****

Ryne was a child again, at least in appearance, and she was stranded in a wood. But, oddly enough, she wasn’t frightened by it. Instead, she was enthralled. The wood was beautiful and expansive… peaceful. She didn’t know where she—or the wood—was, but it didn’t matter. She just thanked her lucky stars that she was not in her usual dream.

“It was not your lucky stars who brought you here,” said a deep, amused voice, which seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere all at once.

“Who said that?” came her own voice, small and delicate-sounding as it had been when she was a child.

“I did,” said the Voice, only this time she could put a direction to it.

Turning to her right, Ryne found herself looking at a clearing where there stood the most magnificently terrifying creature she’d ever seen. He was pure white and huge—more than twice the size of any horse she had ever seen. His mane and tail were long and thick, falling smoothly almost to the ground. But it was the horn that drew her eyes. Long and pale silver, it stretched nearly two feet long.

The unicorn looked her straight in the eyes and said, “Are you not going to come forward, Little One?”

“I… I…” Ryne wanted to go to Him, but years of witnessing the magickal world told her that anything with a horn was dangerous. “I-I’d rather not…Um, if that’s okay with you… Sir?”

“It is not.”

“But, um… Well, you just seem… dangerous, Sir.”

“I am, Little One. Very dangerous.”

“B-but… I…”

“You are scared?”

“Yes,” she whispered.

“What do you want, Little One? Under your fear and your common sense, in the deepest part of your heart that you have not known since you were child, what is it you want?”

Ryne thought for a moment, fighting past years of instinct and experience. When the realization came to her, she knew she could not lie—that she did not want to lie—so she admitted, “I want to come to you, Sir.”

“Then come, My Little One,” he said warmly.

Ryne took a deep breath and started forward, fighting the urge to rush, but knowing she shouldn’t dawdle. It was odd, this creature made her feel like the child she currently looked. It was a feeling she’d rarely had, even when she was a child.

“I’m… I’m here. Sir?” she said when she was standing right in front of him, trying desperately to not think about how he towered over her current six-year-old frame.

“Yes, you are.” He smiled kindly. She hadn’t realized a unicorn could smile, but it took her breath away.

“Sir?” Ryne said quietly, chewing her bottom lip.

“You may ask,” he told her.

“Where’s here?”

“Here is wherever I choose to make it. I thought this would make a pleasant change to the setting of your usual dream.”

“It does, Sir.” She frowned. “Why do I have that dream? And how do you know I have it?”

“You always do get straight to the point.” He chuckled and, lowering himself to the ground, continued. “Sit, Little One.”

She followed his example and was going to press her question again when her face lit up in recognition.

“It’s your Voice I hear in my dreams, Sir. Isn’t it?” she exclaimed, childlike excitement filling her voice and face at the realization.

“Yes, it is,” he confirmed. “Just as it was my Voice all those years ago. And in answer to your other question—I know you have that dream, Little One, because I give it to you, so that when the time comes, you will understand the full weight and consequence of the choice that awaits you.”

“What choice, Sir?”

“It is not yet time for you to know. There is another decision for you to make first.”

Ryne just stared at him, not understanding.

“Whether or not you will go to the Seelie Court tomorrow,” he clarified.

“Oh.” Then to her great surprise, Ryne found herself asking, “Can’t I stay here with you, Sir?”

“Not yet, Little One.” He chuckled. “Not yet.”

“But someday?”

“Yes,” he promised.

That one word made her feel a happiness that reached into every part of her, a happiness she had not known it was possible to feel.

“Before, Sir, when I asked you whether it was your Voice, you said it was… just like before. What did you mean?”

“When you were trapped in those institutions, do you remember when it became unbearable, my Little One?” he asked, his eyes sad.

“Yes, Sir,” she answered quietly, looking down at her lap.

She didn’t like remembering those times.

“Do you remember what would happen?”

“I would pray, desperate, that I could be anywhere else.”

“And I would answer your prayers. I would make you sleep, make you dream. And sometimes I would join you in those dreams.”

“I remember,” she gasped, her face lighting up again. “Or, at least, I remember some. Sir, I don’t know if you ever told me… If you did, I don’t remember…” She chewed on her bottom lip again.

“Ask, my child.”

“Who are you?”

“I haven’t ever told you. When you were little, I did not need to.”

“Oh… So, who are you?”

“I Am.”

His Voice rumbled loudly, once again seeming to come from everywhere and nowhere all at once.

“I… I don’t understand, Sir,” she said, shivering as if she could still feel the powerful echo of his words around her.

“I do not expect you to. Just know that in time, you will come to know me as Edryn. But for now, my Little One, it is time for you to go back.”

“Will I see you again, Sir?”

“Yes.”

Ryne could once more feel the word echoing all around and through her. Then he was gone, and the wood was fading all around her.

*****

“Morning.”

“Dina?” grunted Ryne, her voice sounding like gravel.

“Yep.”

“What are you doing here?” she mumbled, trying to rub the sleep from her eyes, as if that might push it from her brain as well.

“Oh. ‘Good morning to you too, Dina. I’m so glad you’re here. Your poor mind must be reeling from everything Wrathin told you! So, how are you doing, my best-and-most-amazing friend of all time?’” Dina said, sarcastically.

“Good morning. Happy?” Ryne snapped back.

“Yes. So, how are you? Your mind must be reeling,” Dina said, sounding far too perky for early morning.

“Surprisingly, it’s really very clear now,” she admitted.

“Oh?”

“Yeah. I’m going to the Seelie Court.” She shrugged as if she hadn’t made some life-altering decision.

“Told you, Faerie King,” said Dina, holding out her hand. “Pay up.”

“Fine,” he grumbled, stepping forward and dropping a few gold coins into her hand. Then, turning to Ryne, he said, “Are you certain?”

“Yes,” she answered. Then, giving them both a glare, she said, “And I can’t believe you two took bets! I was in the middle of a crisis!”

“Oh, get over it,” said Dina, unconcerned. “We were bored. Besides, I knew you’d be fine in the morning.”

“No, you didn’t. You just got lucky.”

“You say tomato, and I say to-mah-to.” Dina shrugged.

“Mm-hmm,” Ryne muttered, doubtfully. “So, in all your bored, free time, did you happen to think of something to tell the foster parents and… well, everybody?”

“Foster parents, school, shrink, et cetera… It’s all taken care of. And, yes, you’re welcome… Because your faerie friend here was just going to send you off to the Seelie Court without a second thought to all the drama that would leave behind in the plain old human world. However, I was more than happy save the day,” she explained proudly.

“You saved the day? If I recall, I was the one who had to cash in some very valuable favors. Witches don’t work for free,” added Wrathin.

“Whatever.” Dina shrugged. “You’re a king; you’re supposed to be able to call in favors and make demands. Or else, what’s the point?”

“Thank you, both of you. What’s that?” Ryne asked, her gaze falling on a pile of duffel bags, before Wrathin could respond to Dina.

“Luggage.”

“Obviously. You packed my stuff?”

“Obviously. And again, you’re welcome.”

“Um… Dina, I don’t have that much stuff.”

“Of course you don’t. But we do.”

“We?”

“Duh,” Dina answered, matter-of-factly.

Ryne smiled and turned to look at Wrath. “So, when do we lea— Wrathin, you’re not wearing a glamour?”

“Of course not,” he replied.

“But… How? Dina… she can see you, right?… You can see him? Right?”

“Of course I can see him,” answered Dina, rolling her eyes.

“But, you can’t… He’s not… How?”

“It’s simple enough,” Wrath began. “I knew—”

“Rynnie, keep up! I know everything. There wasn’t any point in keeping up the pretenses. Besides, I’m going to go to the Seelie Court, and they can’t all wear glamours all the time. Plus, it’d be creepy not knowing how many were going around without glamours… and I wouldn’t be able to see them,” Dina finished with a slight shudder.

“But, how…” Ryne trailed off, baffled.

“He gave me Sight, using some sort of faerie magick. Don’t act dumb. And, yes, that is possible… obviously. Hey, Faerie King, how about you use your kingly resources and get sleepy here some coffee? Come on, Ryne, you need to get ready,” she instructed, once again sounding far too perky as she pulled Ryne from the bed.

*****

“King Raveed, Queen Rayelle. Who would have thought I would find you here?” said Wrathin, an amused smile on his face, as he strode into the Seelie Court throne room. “Your Highnesses will be here for the good news.”

“Good news?” questioned Morrin, raising an eyebrow.

“That would be what I just stated, Your Majesty.”

“Well, I am afraid you will have to wait, Wrathin,” replied Morrin, not paying his son the courtesy of a title. “The Winter Court has petitioned and been granted an audience already. Unseelie matters will have to wait for another day.”

Choosing to ignore the Seelie King’s slight, Wrath said, “Of course, Your Majesty. I simply assumed trivial court matters would not be as important as the long-lost Princess.”

To Wrathin’s disappointment, the Winter monarchs simply smiled and stepped to the side of the throne room, giving him the floor. He had been hoping for some sort of reaction; he enjoyed it when the Winter monarchs were unable to hold to their calm demeanor.

“Your Highness?” the Mortal Queen spoke, sounding strained.

“Yes, Your Majesty?” he replied, without any mocking.

“What do you know of our daughter?”

“That she is no longer long-lost. In fact, Your Majesty, she is here,” he replied, happy to finally get a reaction.

“She’s here?” the Queen choked out, half standing.

“Yes, Your Majesty. She is waiting in the room we were appointed upon our arrival.”

The Seelie Queen’s speed as she raced from the throne surprised Wrathin—a mother’s love, he supposed.

*****

“Rynnie, honey, you need to breathe.”

“Breathe? Breathe! I could meet my long-lost, estranged, royal, and apparently magickal parents at any moment… and you’re telling me to breathe? You’re lucky I can still stand!”

“Wow. Okay. You are really freaking out. Okay, Rynnie, sweetie, listen,” said Dina, grabbing hold of Ryne’s hands to stop her pacing. “They are going to love you! They can’t not. A, you’re they’re daughter. Yeah, that’s weird to say… Anyway, B, you’re you. Everyone loves you. Regardless, I’m here and I’ll be here for you as long as you want.”

“Promise?” Ryne pressed, tightening her grip on Dina’s hands.

“Okay, wow. I would like to reiterate—you are really freaking out. And yes, I promise.”

There was a knock on the door. Ryne opened her mouth, but nothing came out.

“Oh, Lord.” Dina sighed, rolling her eyes and dropping her grip on Ryne. She called, “Come in.”

A beautiful, older mortal woman, dressed in an intricately designed gown, jewels threaded throughout her long, thick dark hair, stepped into the room and froze, looking back and forth between the two girls.

“You must be Moira.” Dina smiled excitedly. Then, understanding the woman’s confusion, she amended, “Oh, it’s not me. She’s your kid. She’s Arrynna. I… I’m just going to sit over there now.”

Moira nodded distractedly and turned to face Ryne. “Hi…”

“Hi…”

“I’ve waited so long for this… It’s surreal,” she said with a nervous laugh, taking a few stilted steps forward.

“Yeah… Definitely in the weird category,” answered Ryne with a nod and an identical nervous laugh. “I mean… It’s not a bad weird… Just… Yeah.”

Ryne bit her bottom lip. Moira tucked a stray strand of hair behind her ear. They stood there, neither sure what to do next, both overwhelmed by the situation.

“So, the Unseelie King found you?”

“Yeah, Wrath… He sort of, accidentally, figured it out the other day. And here I am.” She shrugged. She’s your mother, Ryne. Just relax!

“Wrath? So, you and the Unseelie King are close?” asked Moira, ringing her hands. Get a grip! She’s your daughter, act like it! Stop wasting time with pointless small talk!

“Yeah. He’s, uh, better than the other courts give him credit for… At least, he’s always been good to me.” She shrugged, again. Your mother, Ryne. Your mother! Just hug her! Stop babbling!

“That’s good… I… You… We…” Moira fell silent, feeling like a fish out of water.[_ Your daughter, Moira. Your daughter! You’ve dreamed of this… just hug her._]

The two continued to just stand there, neither know what to do or say next. Moira held back, terrified of overwhelming the daughter she had mourned for fifteen years. Ryne stood there frozen, terrified of disappointing the woman she had yearned to meet for ten years.

“Um, look, not trying to interfere in the whole reunion thing, but if you two are getting tired of the whole standing and staring thing, I’m pretty sure, according to Dr. Phil, Oprah, and all those other touchy-feely talk show gods, this is where you two are supposed hug. Just saying,” said Dina, getting up and going into one of the connecting rooms.

The two women turned identical, gawking stares at the closing door. Ryne bit her lip and slowly looked at her mother. She couldn’t do it. Five steps and she’d be right there. She just couldn’t do it. Ryne fought back the burning feeling in her eyes.

Moira looked her daughter in the eyes and decided the girl could handle being overwhelmed. She took those five steps and, to Ryne’s surprise and happiness, gave the girl what she’d always wanted—her mother’s arms around her.

Moira didn’t bother to restrain the tears. She had her daughter back. That was all that mattered.

 

Epilogue

Ryne walked barefoot down the long hall, trying not to trip over the hem of one of the many long dresses that now filled her and Dina’s closet. Apparently the Seelie court had yet to discover shoes and denim. She stole a peek at her father, who was leading her down the long hallway, feeling uncertain. She and Dina had been at the Seelie Court for a month now, and she had, to her surprise, become quite close with her mother. So had Dina. But as for King Morrin… she had barely spent any time with him. He didn’t seem like a father to her. He had quite the presence, the presence of the king, but there was nothing paternal about him. Maybe it was because he only spent time with her when it was absolutely necessary. She stopped as he opened the door for her.

“This room contains the history of our kind, our world. It would be beneficial to familiarize yourself with it. The librarian will of course assist you with whatever you may need,” he told her shortly, turning away.

“Sir,” she called. She was uncertain of how he wanted to be addressed and, so far, had gotten away with just Sir.

“Yes?”

“Um…” She hesitated, then, unable to stop herself, asked in a rush, “What did you do to end the Great War?”

Looking her dead in the eye, he answered without emotion, “I killed my only daughter.”

[
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* Acknowledgements*

First and foremost, my thanks belongs to my Lord, my Savior. Your blessing are innumerable, without You neither I or this book would be here. Thank You for Your love and Your saving grace.

There are so many who deserve my gratitude and appreciation in making this book a reality. To my husband, Aaron, thank you for your continual support and confidence that this would happen, thank you for your leap of faith that allowed me to write full time despite hard times, otherwise this would still be filed away somewhere waiting for me to make the time. I love you. And I love my cover!

To my family, thank you for being my guinea pigs, over and over and over again. Mom, you were the first to read it and you’ve been my constant cheerleader and plot-hole spotter since. In so many ways, you became the backbone of this book- thank you. Dad, you gave me my love of books; thank you for introducing me to the amazing world of literature and your never ending support, despite my stubborn dislike for descriptions (some did make it in). Zack, Tess, thanks for being my readers, your excitement for this project was such an encouragement whenever I felt my own floundering. Nana, Alex, thank you both for your love and support (and for your inspiring gold pendant, nana).

Beth, I couldn’t imagine a better best friend. Thank you for your constant, unwavering friendship, you’ve influenced this book in more ways than you know.

Finally, Lauren Bromley, I am so happy to have had you as my editor. You gave my book the polish it needed, thank you for helping me achieve this final product.

And, to any who read this book, thank you. I hope you enjoy reading Ryne’s story as much as I enjoyed writing it.


Tangled Web (The Arrynna Doe Trilogy #1)

When fifteen year old foster kid and diagnosed schizophrenic, Ryne, bumps into a strange man only she can see, the carefully constructed pretenses of her life start to crumble, forcing Ryne to choose between the safe, mundane, mortal world that’s labeled her crazy, or the magickal world of nightmares she has spent her life pretending doesn’t exist. The truth will set you free. Not. At least, not for Arrynna Doe. The only thing the truth will bring Ryne is a straight jacket and a room at the local, state funded institution, again. So she lies- to her doctors, to her foster parents, to her best friend. Because, really, who’s going to believe there is a whole world filled with terrifying magickal creatures only she can see- faeries, witches, vampires, and werewolves, even dragons? That’s right, nobody! Ryne has her routine mastered- pretend you’re normal, lie to everyone you know, ignore supernatural beings. And the routine works, until the day she acquires stalkers. Faerie stalkers. As Ryne struggles to keep her days normal, she finds herself questioning the tenets’ of her life. Why can she see things that no one else can and why are these creatures suddenly interested in her? Because maybe there is more to it all than she ever dreamed. Will she discover the truth? Or is she just as crazy as the doctors have always said? Either way, Ryne is facing a crossroads, and pretty soon she’s going to have to make a choice.

  • Author: L.W. Tichy
  • Published: 2016-09-27 03:20:17
  • Words: 68104
Tangled Web (The Arrynna Doe Trilogy #1) Tangled Web (The Arrynna Doe Trilogy #1)