A VOICE WAS SAYING, SOFTLY, "MERRY, MERRY." A HAND STROKED THE side of my face, smoothing back my hair. I turned, cuddling against the hand, opening my eyes. But the overhead light was on, and I was blinded for a second. I flung a hand up to guard my eyes and turned on my side, burying my face in the pillow.
I managed to say, "Turn off the light."
I felt the bed move, and a second later the rim of brightness under the pillow was gone. I raised my head from the pillow and found the room in near perfect darkness. It had been nearly dawn when Roane and I fell asleep. It should have been light outside. I sat up and looked around the darkened room. Somehow I wasn't surprised that Jeremy was standing by the light switch. I didn't bother looking for Roane. I knew where he was. He was in the ocean with his new skin. He hadn't left me unprotected, but he had left me. Maybe it should have hurt my feelings, but it didn't. I'd given Roane back his first love, the sea.
There is an old saying: never come between a faerie and his magic. Roane was in the arms of his beloved, and it wasn't me. We might never see each other again, and he hadn't said good-bye. But I knew that if ever I needed something he could give me, I could go down to the sea and call him, and he would come. But he couldn't give me love. I loved Roane, but I wasn't in love with him. Lucky me.
I knelt naked in the wrinkled sheets, staring out at the black windows. "How long did we sleep?"
"It's eight o'clock Friday night."
I slid off the bed and stood. "Oh, my God."
"I take it that means that you still being in town after dark is a bad thing."
I looked at him.
He stood near the door, and the light switch. It was hard to tell in the dark but he seemed dressed in one of his usual suits, impeccably tailored, compact and elegant. But there was an underlying tension to him, as if he wanted to say other things, more direct things, or maybe, he knew something already. Something bad.
"Nothing yet," he said.
I stared at him. "What do you think is going to happen?" I couldn't quite keep the suspicion out of my voice.
Jeremy laughed. "Don't worry, I haven't made any calls, but I'm sure the police have by now. I don't know why you've been hiding all this time, but if you're hiding from the sluagh, the Host, then you're in deep trouble."
"Sluagh" was a rude name for the lesser Unseelie fey. The Host was the polite phrase. Rude first, polite was an afterthought. Oh, well. Only another Unseelie could say "sluagh" and not have it be a mortal insult.
"I'm an Unseelie princess. Why should I be hiding from them?"
He leaned back against the wall. "That is the question, isn't it."
Even across the room in the dark I could feel the weight of his gaze, the intensity of it. It was impolite for a fey to ask another direct questions, but, oh, he wanted to ask. You could feel the unasked questions like something touchable in the air between us.
"Jump in the shower like a good girl." He lifted a bag from the floor near his feet. "I brought you clothes. The van is downstairs with Ringo and Uther in it. We'll get you to the airport."
"Helping me could be very dangerous, Jeremy."
"I don't have my passport."
He tossed a small paper-wrapped packet onto the bed. It was the packet of papers that stayed
taped under the seat of my car. He'd brought my new identity. "How did you know?"
"You've hidden from the human authorities, your... relatives, and their henchmen for three years. You're not stupid. You knew you'd be found, thus you had a plan to cover yourself. I will say that the next time I'd hide the secret papers in a different spot. It was one of the first places I looked."
I stared at the packet, then at him. "That wasn't all that was under the seat.
He opened his jacket like a model on the runway showing off the smooth line of his shirt and tie. But he was flashing the gun tucked into the waistband of his pants. It was just a darker shape against the paleness of his shirt, but I knew it was a 9-mm LadySmith because it was my gun. He took an extra clip out of one pocket. "The box of extra ammo is in the sack with your clothes." He laid the gun on top of the taped packet and stepped back around the bed, so that it stood between us. "You seem nervous, Jeremy."
"Shouldn't I be?"
"Nervous of me. I didn't think you'd be impressed with royalty." I watched his face, tried to read what lay underneath, and couldn't. He was hiding something.
He raised his left hand in the air. "Let's just say that Branwyn's Tears has a long shelf life. Take the shower."
"I don't feel the power of the spell anymore."
"Good for you, but trust me about the shower."
I looked at him. "It's bothering you to see me nude."
He nodded. "My apologies for that, but it's why Ringo and Uther are down in the van. Just as a precaution."
I smiled at him, and I found myself wanting to step closer to him, to close a little of that careful distance. I didn't want Jeremy in that way, but the urge to see just how much of a hold I could have on him was there like a dark thought. It wasn't like me to want to push the envelope with a friend. An enemy maybe, but not a friend. Was it a leftover urge from last night, or were the Tears still affecting me more than I realized? I didn't think about it again. I just turned and walked to the bathroom. A quick shower and we'd be on our way to the airport.
Twenty minutes later I was ready, my hair still soaking wet. I was dressed in a pair of navy blue dress slacks, an emerald green silk blouse, and a navy suit jacket that matched the pants. Jeremy had also chosen a pair of black low-heeled pumps and included a pair of black thigh-highs. Since I didn't own any other kind of hose, that I didn't mind. But the rest of it...
"Next time you pick out clothes for me to run for my life in, include some jogging shoes. Pumps, no matter how low-heeled, just aren't made for it."
"I never have any problem in dress shoes," he said. He was reclining in one of the stiff-backed kitchen chairs. He made the chair look comfortable, and he looked graceful as he reclined in it. Jeremy was too in control, in a tight modern sort of way, to ever be called catlike. But cat was what came to mind as I watched him curled around the chair. Except that cats didn't pose. They just were. Jeremy was definitely posed and trying to appear at ease and failing.
"I am sorry that I forgot your brown contact lenses. Not that it seems to be a problem. I like the eyes as jade green, striking. Matches the blouse, but very human. Though I'd have kept more red in the hair and made it less auburn."
"Red hair stands out at a glance even in a crowd. Glamour is supposed to help you hide, not single you out."
"I know a lot of fey that use glamour for nothing but attracting attention, being more beautiful, more exotic."
I shrugged. "That's their problem. I don't need to advertise."
He stood. "All this time and I never guessed you were sidhe. I thought you were fey, true fey, and hiding that for some reason, but I never guessed the truth." He stood away from the table, hands at his sides. The tension that had been in him since he woke me vibrated from him.
"That bothers you, doesn't it?" I said.
He nodded. "I'm this great magician. I should have seen through the illusion. Or is that an illusion, too? Are you a better magician than I am, Merry? Have you hidden your magic, too?"
For the first time I felt the power growing around him. It could be just a shield. Then again, it could be the beginnings of something more.
I faced him, feet apart, hands at my side, mirroring him. I called my own power, slowly, carefully. If we'd been gunslingers, he'd have had his gun out, but not pointed. I was still trying to keep my gun in its holster. You'd think after all this time I wouldn't trust anyone, but I just couldn't believe that Jeremy was my enemy.
"We don't have time for this, Jeremy."
"I thought I could treat you like nothing had changed, but I can't. I have to know."
"Know what, Jeremy?"
"I want to know how much of the last three years has been a lie." I felt his power breathe out around him, fill up that small tight space that was his personal aura. He was pumping a lot of power into his shields. A lot of power.
My shields were always in place, tight, and loaded for bear. It was automatic for me. So automatic that most people, even very sensitive ones, mistook the shielding for my normal power level. It meant that I faced Jeremy with shields at full strength, I didn't have to do anything to add to it. My shielding was better than his, just a fact. My offensive spells on the other hand, well, I'd seen Jeremy work magic. He'd never get through my shields, but I'd never be able to hurt him magically. It would come down to blows or weapons. I was hoping it wouldn't have to come to anything.
"Is the ride to the airport still open, or did you change your mind while I was in the shower?"
"The ride to the airport is still on," he said. Most of the sidhe can see magic in colors or shapes, but I've never been able to do that. I can feel it though, and Jeremy was crowding the room with all the energy he was pouring into his shields.
"Then what's with the power trip?"
"You're sidhe. You're Unseelie sidhe. That's just a step above being a member of the sluagh." Jeremy's Highland accent leaked through onto the phrases. I'd never heard him lose his all-American-from-the-middle-of-nowhere accent. Made me nervous because many of the sidhe pride themselves on retaining their original accents, whatever they may be.
"And your point is what?" But I had a sinking feeling that I knew where he was going with it. I'd almost have rather had a fight.
"The Unseelie thrive on deception. They are not to be trusted."
"Am I not to be trusted, Jeremy? Does three years of friendship mean less to you than old stories?"
Some bitter thought crossed his face. "It is not stories," and again his accent thickened. "I was cast out as a boy from the trow lands. The Seelie Court would not deign to notice a trow boy, but the Unseelie Court, they take in everyone."
I smiled before I could stop myself. "Not everyone." I don't think Jeremy got the sarcasm.
"No, not everyone." He was so angry that a fine trembling had started in his hands. I was about to pay the bill for a centuries-old grievance. It wouldn't be the first time. It probably wouldn't be the last, but it still pissed me off. We didn't have time for his temper tantrum, let alone one of mine.
"I'm sorry that my ancestors abused you, Jeremy, but it was before my time. The Unseelie Court has had a publicist for most of my lifetime."
"To spread the lies," he said in a brogue so thick, it was guttural.
"You want to compare scars?" I lifted my shirt out of my pants and let him see the handprint scar on my ribs.
"Illusion," he said, but he sounded doubtful.
"You can touch it if you want. Glamour fools vision, but not touch, not for another fey." This was a partial truth at best, because I could use glamour to fool every sense, even of another fey, but it wasn't a common ability even among the sidhe, and I was betting that Jeremy would believe me. Sometimes a plausible lie is quicker than an unwanted truth.
He walked toward me slowly, distrust clear on his face. It made my chest tight to see that look on Jeremy's face. He peered at the scar, but stayed out of touching range. He knew that the sidhe's most powerful personal magic was touch-activated, which meant he knew the sidhe more intimately than I'd thought.
I sighed and laced my fingers on top of my head. The shirt slid down over the scar, but I figured Jeremy could move the cloth. He kept peering up at me as he moved forward into arm's reach. He touched the green silk, but stared into my eyes for a long time before he raised it, as if he were trying to read my thoughts. But my face had gone back to that familiar polite, slightly bored, empty look that I'd perfected at court. I could watch a friend be tortured or put a knife into someone's gut with the same look on my face. You don't survive at the court if your face betrays your feelings.
Jeremy lifted the cloth slowly, never taking his eyes from my face. He finally had to look down, and I was very careful to make no move, however small to spook him. I hated that Jeremy Grey, my friend and boss, was treating me like a very dangerous person. If he only knew how very undangerous I was.
He ran fingertips over the raised, slightly roughened flesh.
"There's more scars on my back, but I just got dressed, so if you don't mind, this is as far as I'm going."
"Why didn't I see them when you were naked or in my office being fitted for the wire?"
"I didn't want you to see them, but I don't bother hiding them when they're under my clothes."
"Never waste magical energy," he said, as if to himself. He shook his head as if he were hearing something I couldn't hear. He looked at me, and his eyes were puzzled. "We don't have time to stand here and argue, do we?"
"I've been saying that."
"Shit," he said. "It's a spell of discontent, distrust, discord. It's means they're coming now." Fear flowed over his face.
"They could still be miles away, Jeremy."
"Or they could be just outside," he said.
He had a point. If they were just outside the door, then a safer bet might be calling the police and waiting for help to arrive. I wouldn't say that Unseelie bad guys were hiding in the bushes, but I was pretty sure that if I called up Detective Alvera and said that Princess Meredith was about to be killed on his turf, they'd send help.
But if I could, my preference was sneaking away. I needed to know what was out there.
Jeremy was looking at me strangely. "You've thought of something. What is it?"
"The Host isn't made up of sidhe, except for one or two sent along as keepers, masters of the hunt. It's part of the horror of being chased by them. I may not be able to find the sidhe if
they don't want to be found, but the rest of the Host, them I can find."
He made a sweeping motion with his hands. "Then by all means." He didn't argue. Didn't ask if I could do it, or if it was safe. He just accepted it. He wasn't acting like my boss anymore. I was Princess Meredith NicEssus, and if I said I could search the night for the Host, he believed me. He would never have believed Merry Gentry, not without proof.
I cast outward, keeping my shields in place, but flinging my power wide. It was dangerous, because if they were on top of us then that opening might be all they needed to overwhelm me, but it was the only way to know how close they were. I felt Uther and Ringo outside, felt their beings, their magic. There was the force of the sea and a thrumming to the land, the magic of all living things, but nothing else. I cast farther and farther outward. Mile after mile and there was nothing, then, there, almost at the edge of my limit something pressed on the air like a storm moving this way, but it wasn't a storm, or at least not a storm of wind and rain. It was too far away for me to get a clear sense of what creatures of faerie rode with the sidhe, but it was enough. We had some time.
I pulled sack inside my shields, squeezing them tight. "They're miles from here.'
"Then how did they do the spell of discord?"
"My aunt could whisper it on the night wind and it would find its target."
"It might take a day or three, but yes, from Illinois. But don't look so worried. She would never dirty her hands personally with fetch-and-carry duties. She may want me dead, but not from a distance. She'll want to make an example of me, and for that they'll need to get me home."
"How much time do we have?"
I shook my head. "An hour, maybe two."
"We can get you to the airport in time then. Getting you out of town is the only thing I can offer. One sidhe magician, one not even on the spot, kept me out of Alistair Norton's house. I can't break sidhe magic, and that means I'm not going to be any help to you."
"You sent the spiders through the warding at Norton's house. You warned me to hide under the bed. You did great."
He gave me a strange look. "I thought you did the spiders."
There was a moment when we stared at each other. "It wasn't me," I said.
"It wasn't me, either," he said, softly.
" I know this is a clich'e, but if it wasn't you, and it wasn't me..." I left the rest unsaid.
"Uther isn't capable of something like that."
"Roane doesn't do active magic," I said. I was suddenly cold, and it had nothing to do with the temperature. One of us had to say it out loud. "Then who was it? Who saved me?"
Jeremy shook his head. "I don't know. Sometimes the Unseelie can befriend you before they break you."
"Don't believe all the stories you hear, Jeremy."
"It's not a story." Anger made those simple words hot and unpleasant. I realized suddenly just how afraid he was. The anger was a shield for the fear. His reactions all had a personal taste to them. He wasn't just afraid in a general way. It was specific, based on something besides stories or legends.
"Have you been up close and personal with the Host?"
He nodded and unlocked the door. "We may only have an hour. Let's get out of here."
I pressed my hands to the door, stopped him from opening it. "This is important, Jeremy. If you've been in thrall to one of them, then that sidhe will have... power over you. I need to know what was done."
Then he did something I hadn't expected. He started unbuttoning his shirt.
I raised eyebrows. "You're not still being affected by Branwyn's Tears, are you?"
He smiled, then, not his usual smile, but still an improvement. "I was befriended once before by a member of the Host." He left the tie and collar tight, but unbuttoned the rest, slipped his jacket off, folded it over one arm, and gave me his back. "Lift the shirt."
I didn't want to lift the shirt. I'd seen what my relatives could do when they got creative. There were so many awful possibilities, none of which I wanted to see carved into Jeremy's flesh. But I lifted the crisp, grey cloth because I had to know. I didn't gasp because I was prepared. Screaming was overkill.
His back was covered in burn scars, as if someone had pressed a red-hot brand into his flesh again and again. Except this brand was in the shape of a hand. I touched his scars, as he had mine, lightly, fingers tracing them. I started to put my hand over one of the hand marks, then hesitated, and warned him. "I want to place my hand over one of the scars to see the size."
The hand was much bigger than mine, bigger than the mark on my own body. A man's hand, the fingers thicker than most of the sidhe. "Do you know the name of the one who did this?"
"Tamlyn," he said. He sounded embarrassed, and he should have.
Tamlyn was the John Smith of faerie aliases. Tamlyn along with Robin Goodfellow and a handful of others were favorite false identities when true names were to be hidden.
"You must have been very young not to suspect something when he gave that name," I said.
He nodded. "I was that."
"May I check your aura?"
He smiled back at me over his shoulder. The movement wrinkled the skin on his back, making the scars form shapes. "Aura is a New Age word. The fey don't use it."
"Personal power then," I said, but I was staring at his back. I pushed the cloth of his shirt over his shoulders. "Were you tied while this was done?"
"Can you put your hands in the position they were tied in?"
He took a breath as if he'd ask why, but he finally just raised his hands above his head, and moved into the door so that his body was flush against it. He raised his arms until they were held extended as far as they would go, slightly out from his body until he formed a Y shape.
The shirt had slipped back into place and I had to raise it again. But when I did, I saw what I thought I'd find. The hand-shaped burns had formed a picture. It was the image of a dragon, or maybe more accurately a wyrm, long and serpentine. It was vaguely oriental-looking because of the hand shape, but it was most definitely a dragon. But the burns only formed the picture if Jeremy was in exactly the same position as when he was tortured. When he lowered his arms the skin separated and it was just scars.
"You can lower your arms," I said.
He did, turning so that he could look at me. He started tucking in his shirt. I don't think he even realized he was doing it. "You look grim. What did you see in the burns that no one else has seen?"
"Don't tuck your shirt in, yet, Jeremy. I need to lay a warding on your back."
"What did you see, Merry?" He stopped fussing with his shirt, but didn't untuck it for me.
I shook my head. Jeremy had carried the scars for centuries and had never known that the sidhe had played a little game upon his flesh. It showed such disdain for the victim, a callousness that was hard to wrap your mind around. Of course, it might be very practical; cruelty with a purpose, as it were. The sidhe, whoever it was, could have laid a spell on the burns. They might be able to call a dragon out of his flesh or shapeshift him into one. Probably not, but better safe than sorry.
"Let me ward your back, then I'll tell you on the way down to the van."
"Do we have time?" he asked.
"Sure. Hold the shirt out of the way so the burns are bare."
He looked like he didn't believe me, but when I turned him to face the door, he didn't argue. He held the silk shirt out of the way so I could work.
I spilled power into my hands like holding warmth cupped between my palms. I slowly opened my hands, palms facing Jeremy's bare back. I placed my hands just above his skin. That trembling warmth caressed his back, and Jeremy shivered under its touch.
"What runes are you using?" he asked, voice just a touch breathless.
"I'm not," I said. I spread that warm power across the scars, down his back.
He started to turn.
"What do you mean, you're not using runes? What else can you use?"
I had to kneel to make sure the power covered every scar. When I was sure that everything had been covered, I sealed it, visualizing the power like a coating of glowing yellow light just above his skin. I sealed the edges of that glow so that it clung tight to his skin like a shield.
Jeremy's breath came out in a shivering gasp. "What are you using, Merry?"
"Magic," I said, and stood.
"Can I let the shirt down?"
The grey silk slid into place, and the warding was so solid in my mind's eye that I felt like the cloth should bunch over the magic, but it didn't. The silk slid over his back as if I'd done nothing to it. But I never doubted that I'd done my job.
He began to tuck the shirt in, before he even turned to face me. "You used just your own personal magic for that?"
"Why not use runes? They help empower our magic."
"Many runes are actually ancient symbols for long-forgotten deities or creatures. Who knows? I might be invoking the very sidhe that injured you. I couldn't risk it."
He slipped his jacket on, straightened his tie. "Now tell me what scared you about the scars on my back?"
I opened the apartment door. "While we go to the van." I went out into the hallway before he had time to argue. We'd used up too much time, but not to ward his back would have been too careless for words.
We clattered down the stairs in our dress shoes. "What was it, Merry?"
"A dragon. A wyrm actually, since it didn't have legs."
"You saw a vision in the scars?" He got to the outside door before me, and held it open out of long habit. I drew the gun from behind my back, clicking the safety off.
"I thought the Host was miles away," Jeremy said.
"One lone sidhe could hide from me." I held the gun down at my side so it wouldn't be immediately noticeable. "I won't be taken back, Jeremy. Whatever it takes."
I stepped into the soft California night, before he could say anything. A lot of the fey, especially the sidhe, considered modern weapons cheating. There was no written rule against using guns, but it was still considered bad form, unless you were a member of the Queen's, or the Prince's, elite guard. They got to carry guns if they were protecting the royal body from harm. Well, I was a royal body, a wee, disowned royal body, but still royal whether the rest of them liked it or not. I had no guard to protect me, so I'd do it myself. Whatever that took.
The night was never truly dark here-there were too many electric lights, too many people. I searched that gentle darkness for a lone figure. I searched with eyes, and energy, casting outward in a straining circle as we hurried to the waiting van. There were people in the other houses. I could feel them moving, vibrating. A line of seagulls moved along one of the roofs, half-asleep, moving in protest, aware of my magic sweeping over them. There was a party on the beach. I could feel the energy rising higher, excitement, fear, but the normal fear; should I do it, should I not; is it safe? There was nothing else, unless you count the shivering energy of the sea that was constantly with you near the shore. It got to be like white noise, something ignored, like the crush of so many people, but it was always there. Roane was somewhere in that huge rolling power. I hoped he was having a good time. I knew I wasn't.
The sliding door of the van opened, and I got a glimpse of Uther crouched in the dimness. He held his hand out to me, and I gave him my left hand. His hand engulfed mine, pulling me into the van's interior. He slid the door closed behind me.
Ringo looked back over the driver's seat at me. He barely fit in the driver's seat, all that muscle, those inhumanly long arms, that huge chest squeezed down into a seat made for humans. He smiled, revealing a mouth of some of the sharpest teeth I'd ever seen outside of a wolf. The face was slightly elongated to accommodate the teeth, which made the rest of his more human face seem out of proportion. The teeth flashed out of a solid brown of skin. Once upon a time, Ringo had been a fully human gang member. Then a group of visiting sidhe from the Seelie Court had gotten lost in the wilds of deepest, darkest Los Angeles. A group of gang members had found them. Cultural interaction at its best. The sidhe got the worst end of the fight. Who knows how it happened? Maybe they were too arrogant to fight a bunch of inner-city teenagers. Maybe the inner-city teenagers were just a hell of a lot more vicious than the visiting royals had expected. However it happened, they were losing. But one of the gang members got a bright idea. He switched sides on condition that he get his wish.
The sidhe agreed, and Ringo shot his fellow gang members to death. His wish was to be one of the fey. The sidhe had given their word to grant his wish. They couldn't go back on their word. To make a full human into a part fey, you have to pour wild magic, pure power, into them, and it is the human's will or desire that chooses the shape of that magic. Ringo had been in his early teens when it happened. He'd probably wanted to appear fierce, frightening, to be the toughest son of a bitch around, so the magic had given him his wish. By human standards he was a monster. By sidhe standards, ditto. By fey standards, he was just one of the gang.
I don't know why Ringo left the gangs. Maybe they turned on him. Maybe he got wise. By the time I met him, he'd been an upstanding citizen for years. He was married to his childhood sweetheart and had three kids. He specialized in bodyguard work and did a lot of celebrities that just wanted some exotic muscle to follow them around for a while. Easy work, no real danger, and he got to rub elbows with the stars. Not bad for a kid whose mother had been a fifteen-year-old junkie, father unknown. Ringo keeps a picture of his mom on his desk. She's thirteen, bright-eyed, well groomed, pretty, with the world in front of her. By the next year she was on drugs. She died at seventeen, overdose. There are no pictures of his mother after age thirteen in his office or in his home. It's as if, for Ringo, everything after that wasn't real, wasn't his mother.
His oldest daughter, Amira, looks eerily like that smiling picture. I don't think she'd survive if he found her doing drugs. Ringo says that being on drugs is worse than dead; I think he believes it.
Neither of them remarked on the gun as I slipped it back into the waistband of my pants. They'd probably been with Jeremy when he found the gun and the papers.
Jeremy got in the passenger-side seat. "Let's get to the airport" was all he said. Ringo put the car in gear and away we went.