THEY CAME LIKE A WIND AT MY BACK, THEIR SOUND MELDING INTO A rush of wind like a chasing storm. That's what humans would hear: wind, storm, or a flight of birds. If there'd been humans to hear anything. The street stretched deserted to the end of the block. Eight o'clock on a Saturday night in prime shop district, and there was no one. It almost seemed arranged, and maybe it was. If I could run out of the spell area, there would be people. The wind buffeted against my back, and I threw myself onto the sidewalk, rolling with the impact. I kept rolling, over and over, getting dizzying glimpses of the nightflyers spilling over me, less than a yard off the sidewalk like a run of airborne fish, moving too fast after their leader to change direction.
I rolled into the nearest doorway, surrounded by a roof and glass on three sides. The flyers only took from above. They wouldn't come down on the ground for me. I lay there for a few heartbeats listening to the thud of my own blood in my ears, when I realized I wasn't alone.
I sat up, my back against the window display of books, trying to think of any excuse good enough to explain to a human what I'd just done. The man had his back to me. He was short, about my height, wearing a loud Hawaiian shirt and one of those soft-rimmed caps that come down over the eyes. Not something you see at night much.
I pushed to my feet, using the glass of the window. Why was he wearing a hat to keep the sun out of his eyes at night?
"Some wind," he said.
I eased around the window, keeping the shop awning over me. I still had the gun in my hand. The jacket was loose, flapping like a matador's cape, but it still shielded the gun.
The man turned, and the light from the shop fell upon his face. The skin was black, eyes like dark, shiny jewels. He grinned, flashing a mouthful of razor-sharp teeth. "Our master wants to speak with you, Princess."
I felt movement behind me and turned my head to see, but I was afraid to turn completely around and give my back to the grinning figure. Three figures emerged from the next shop. It was dark, no lights to hide from. The figures were taller than me, cloaked and hooded.
"We've been waiting for you, corr," one of the cloaked figures said. It was a female voice.
"Corr?" I made it a question.
"Slut." A second female voice.
"Jealous?" I said.
They rushed me, and I spilled the jacket to the ground, pointing the gun two-handed at them. Either they didn't know what a gun was, or they didn't care. I shot one of them. The figure collapsed in a pile of cloth. The two others huddled back, clawed hands extended as if to ward off a blow.
I pressed my back to the window, spared a glance for the grinning man behind me, but he was standing in the doorway with his small hands clasped on top of his hat, as if he'd done it before. I kept the gun and most of my attention on the women, though that was a loose term for them. They were hags. I wasn't being mean. It was what they were... night hags.
The one I'd shot struggled to sit, cradled in the second one's arms. "You shot her!"
"So happy you noticed," I said.
The wounded one's hood had fallen back to reveal a huge beaked nose, small glittering eyes, skin the color of yellowed snow. Her hair was a dry ragged mass, like black straw coming barely to her shoulders. She hissed as the second hag spread the cloak enough to see the wound. There was a bloody hole between her sagging breasts. She was nude except for a heavy golden tore around her neck, and a jeweled belt that rode low on her thin hips. I caught a glimpse of the dagger that hung from the belt and was tied to her thigh with a golden chain.
She writhed, unable to get enough air to curse me. I'd hit her heart, and maybe a lung. It wouldn't kill her, but it hurt.
The second hag raised her face into the light. Her skin was a dirty grey with huge pockmarks covering her face, tracing along the sharp nose like craters. Her lips were almost too thin to cover the mouth full of sharp carnivorous teeth. "I wonder if he'd still want you if you didn't have all that smooth white flesh."
The last hag was still standing, hooded, hidden. Her voice was better than theirs, more cultured somehow. "We could make you one of us, our sister."
I sighted at the grey one's face. "The second someone starts a curse, I'll shoot her through the face."
"It won't kill me," Grey said.
"No, but it won't help your looks either."
She hissed at me like some great crooked cat. "Bitch." ', ; "Ditto," I said.
It was the one still standing that I was worried about. She hadn't panicked or let anger get the better of her. She'd suggested using magic against me when she was still partially hidden by shadows and night. Smarter, more cautious, more dangerous.
I had purposefully not used glamour to hide. I was standing in front of a lighted bookstore window with a gun in plain sight, obviously pointed at someone. The gunshot alone should have sent someone to ,; the door or to call the police. I gave a quick flare of power, searching, and found the thick folds of the glamour. Heavy and well made. I was good at glamour, but not this kind. Sholto had covered the entire street with it, like an invisible wall. The humans in the shops would just want to stay inside. No one would see or hear anything to alarm them. Their minds would explain the gunshot as some ordinary noise. If I screamed for help, it would be the wind. Short of throwing someone through the window in back of me, into the shop itself, no one would see anything.
I'd have been willing to throw any and all of them through the glass, but I didn't trust them up close. The hands that clasped at the wound had black claws like the talons of some great bird. The teeth that bared when she hissed were made for tearing flesh. I would never win a one-on-one battle. I needed them at bay, and the gun kept them there, but Sholto would come, and I needed to be gone before that happened. Once he arrived I'd lose. Come to think of it, I wasn't doing too well now. They couldn't hurt me, but I was trapped. If I moved out from under the awning, the nightflyers would get me or at least mob me, then the hags and the grinning man could take me. I'd be disarmed or worse before Sholto showed up.
I had no offensive magic. The gun wouldn't kill any of them, only hurt and slow them. I needed a better idea, and I couldn't think of anything. I tried talking. When in doubt, talk. You never know what the enemy might let slip.
"Nerys the Grey, Segna the Gold, and Black Agnes, I presume."
"Who are you? Stanley?" Nerys said.
I had to smile. "And they say you have no sense of humor."
"Who're they?" she asked.
"The sidhe," I said.
"You are sidhe," Black Agnes said.
"If I were truly sidhe, would I be here on the shores of the Western Sea hiding from my queen?"
"The fact that you and your aunt are enemies makes you suicidally foolish, but it doesn't make you one ounce less sidhe." Agnes stood so straight and tall, like a black pillar of cloth.
"No, but the brownie blood on my mother's side does. I think the queen would forgive the human taint, but she can't forget the other."
"You're mortal," Segna said. "That's the unforgivable sin for a sidhe."
My hands were starting to cramp. My arms would start to tremble soon. I had to either shoot something, or lower the gun. Even a two-handed stance isn't meant to be held indefinitely.
"There are other sins my aunt finds just as unforgivable," I said.
A man's voice said, "Like having a nest of tentacles in the middle of all that perfect sidhe flesh."
I turned the gun toward the voice, keeping my vision on the three hags. I was soon going to have so many targets in so many different directions that I'd never be able to shoot them all in time. At least the movement and the fresh rush of adrenaline had helped chase away the muscle fatigue. I was suddenly sure I could hold the shooting stance forever.
Sholto was standing on the sidewalk, hands at his side. I think he was trying to appear harmless. He failed. "The queen said that to me once, that it was a shame that I had a nest of tentacles in the middle of one of the most perfect sidhe bodies she'd ever seen."
"Great. My aunt's a bitch. We all knew that. What do you want, Sholto?"
"Give him his title," Agnes said, that cultured voice holding an edge of anger.
It never hurts to be polite, so I did what she asked. "What do you want, Sholto, Lord of That Which Passes Between?"
"He is King Sholto." Segna spat the words at me, almost literally.
"He's not my king," I said.
"That could change," Agnes said, the implied threat nicely subtle.
"Enough," Sholto said. "The queen wants you dead, Meredith."
"We've never been friends, Lord Sholto. Use my title." It was an insult for him to have omitted my title after I'd used his. It was also an insult to insist on it from someone who was king of another people. But Sholto had always complicated his life by trying to play lord of the sidhe and king of the sluagh.
A look passed over the strong bones of his face-anger, I think, though I didn't know him well enough to be sure. "The queen wants you dead, Princess Meredith, daughter of Essus."
"And she sent you to fetch me home for the execution. I figured that much out."
"You couldn't be more wrong," Agnes said.
"Silence!" Sholto put the bite of command in that one word. The hags seemed to shrink in upon themselves, not bowing, but like they thought about it.
The grinning man to my right stepped closer. I didn't take the gun off Sholto, but I said,
"Take two big steps back or I shoot your king."
I don't know what the man would have done because Sholto said, "Gethin, do what she asks."
Gethin didn't argue, just stepped back, though I noticed out of the corner of my eyes that his hands were folded across his chest. He wasn't doing the hands on top of your head routine anymore. Fine as long as he stayed out of immediate reach. They were all too close. If everyone rushed me at once, it was over. But Sholto didn't want me crowded. He wanted to talk. Fine with me.
"I don't want you dead, Princess Meredith," Sholto said.
I couldn't keep the suspicion off my face. "You'd go up against the queen and all her sidhe to save me?"
"Much has happened in the last three years, Princess. The queen relies more and more on the sluagh for her threat. I do not think she would start a war over you being alive if you were safely out of her sight."
"I'm as out of her sight as I can get and still be on dry land," I said.
"Ah, but perhaps there are others at court that whisper in her ear and remind her of you."
"Who?" I asked.
He smiled, and it made that handsome face almost pleasant. "We have many things to discuss, Princess. I have a room in one of the better hotels. Shall we retire to it and discuss the future?"
Something about the way he worded that bothered me, but it was the best offer I was going to get tonight. I lowered the gun. "Swear by your honor and the darkness that eats all things, that you mean all of what you just said."
"I swear on my honor, and by the darkness that eats all things, that every word I have spoken on this street to you is the truth."
I clicked the safety on the gun and tucked it at the small of my back. I picked my jacket up off the ground, shook it out, and slipped it on. It was a little wrinkled, but it would do.
"How far is your hotel?"
The smile this time was wider, it made him less perfect, but more... human. More real. "You should smile more often, Lord Sholto. It becomes you."
"I hope to have reason to smile more often in the near future." He offered me his arm, even though he was yards away. I went to him because he'd sworn the Unseelie's most solemn oath. He could not break it without risking a curse.
I slipped my hand in the crook of his arm. He flexed under my hand. Sometimes a male is a male is a male, no matter what flavor they are. "Which hotel are you staying at?" I smiled at him. It never hurts to be pleasant. I could always be unpleasant later if I needed to be.
He told me. It was a very nice hotel.
"That's a little far to walk," I said.
"If you like, we can get a taxi."
I raised eyebrows at that, because once inside the metal of a car he wouldn't be able to do major magic. Too much refined metal interfered with it. I could do major spells inside solid lead if I had to. My human blood was good for a few things. "Won't you be uncomfortable?" I asked.
"It's not that far, and it's our mutual comfort I've come to see to."
Again, I felt there were shades of meaning in his words that I was missing. "A taxi would be lovely."
Agnes called after us. "What are we to do with Nerys?"
Sholto looked back at them and his face was cold again, that carved handsomeness that made him seem distant. "Make your way back to your rooms any way you can. If Nerys had not tried to attack the princess, she wouldn't have been wounded."
"We have served you for more centuries than that piece of white flesh will ever see, and this is the treatment you give us," Agnes said.
"You get the treatment that you earn, Agnes. Remember that." He turned, patting my hand on his arm, smiling at me, but his triple-golden eyes still held the edge of that coldness.
Gethin appeared at Sholto's side, floppy hat in his hands, a bow curving him toward the sidewalk. He had impossibly long ears, like those of a donkey. "What would you have of me, Master?"
"Help them get Nerys to the rooms."
"Happily." Gethin flashed another toothy grin as he stood, ears flapping down to frame his face almost like a dog's or maybe a lop-eared rabbit's. He turned and almost skipped back toward the hags.
"I feel like I'm missing something," I said.
His hand wrapped over my hand, warm, strong fingers sliding over mine. "I will explain all when we get to the hotel." There was a look in his eyes that I'd seen in other men's, but it couldn't mean the same thing. Sholto was one of the Queen's Guard, which meant he couldn't sleep with any sidhe except her. She didn't share her men, not with anyone. The punishment for breaking the taboo was death by torture. Even if Sholto was willing to risk that, I was not. My aunt might execute me, but she'd make it quick. If I broke her most strict taboo, she'd still kill me, but it would not be quick. I'd been tortured before. It was hard to avoid it if you lived at the Unseelie Court. But I'd never been tortured at the queen's own hand. I had seen her handiwork, though. She was creative, very, very creative.
I'd promised myself years ago that I would never give her an excuse to be creative on me. "I'm already under a death sentence, Sholto. I won't risk torture on top of it."
"If I could keep you alive and safe, what would you risk?"
"Alive and safe? How?"
He just smiled, held his hand up, and yelled, "Taxi!" Three of them appeared within minutes on the empty street. Sholto just meant to call a taxi. He had no idea how impressive it was in Los Angeles to be able to call three taxis within minutes to an empty street. He could also reanimate corpses that hadn't grown cold yet, and that was impressive. But I'd lived for three years in the city, and a taxi when you wanted it was more impressive than a walking corpse. After all, I'd seen walking corpses before. A convenient taxi was a completely new animal.