THE BACK OF THE VAN WAS EMPTY EXCEPT FOR CARPET AND A MODIFIED seat-belt harness that Jeremy had had installed on one side. Uther's seat. I started to crawl into the middle row of seats but Uther touched my arm. "Jeremy has suggested that if you sit with me my aura may serve to overlap yours, thus confusing our pursuers." Each word was carefully enunciated, because the tusks may have looked like they came out of the skin over the mouth, out of the face, but in reality the tusks were modified teeth, attached inside the mouth. It meant if he were careless, he had a tendency to slur his speech. He'd worked with one of Hollywood's leading speech coaches to learn his Midwestern college professor voice. It did not match a face that was more pig than human, with a double set of tusks curling out of it. We'd had one client faint after he spoke to her for the first time. Always fun to shock the humans.
I glanced up at Jeremy. He nodded. "I may be the better magician, but Uther's got that older-than-God energy whirling around him. I think it'll help them overlook you."
It was a great idea, and a simple one. "Gee, Jeremy, I knew there was a reason you were the boss."
He grinned at me, then turned to Ringo. "It's a straight shot up Sepulveda to the airport."
"At least we won't hit rush hour," Ringo said.
I settled into the back of the van, next to Uther. The van came out on Sepulveda a little too fast, and Uther caught me before I had time to fall. His big arms pulled me against him, cradling me against a chest nearly as big as my entire body. Even with my shields firmly in place he was like a large, warm, vibrating thing. I'd met other fey who had no real magic to speak of, just the very barest of glamour, but they were so old and had been around so much magic all their lives that it was as if they'd absorbed the power into the very pores of their skin. Even the sidhe wouldn't find me caught within Uther's arms. They'd sense him, not me.
I relaxed against Uther's broad chest, the warm safety of his arms. I don't know what it was about him, but he always made me feel safe. It wasn't just the sheer physical size. It was Uther. He had a center of calm like a fire that you could huddle around in the dark.
Jeremy turned in his seat, as far as the seat belt would allow, wrinkling his suit, which meant what he had to say was serious. "Why did you ward my back, Merry?"
"What?" Uther said.
Jeremy waved the question away. "I had an old sidhe injury on my back. Merry put a ward on it. I want to know why."
"You are persistent," I said.
I sighed, cuddling Uther's arms around me like a blanket. "It's possible that the sidhe that injured you could call the dragon out of your back or force you to shapeshift into one."
Jeremy's eyes widened. "You can do that?"
"I can't, but I'm not a full-blooded sidhe. I've seen similar things done."
"Will the warding hold?"
I'd have liked to have simply said yes, but it was too close to a lie. "It will hold for a
while, but if the sidhe that did the spell is here, he may be powerful enough to breech my magic, or he could simply keep hitting the ward with his own power until he wears the magic away. The chances of the same sidhe being on this hunt are very slim, Jeremy, but I couldn't let you help me, and not ward it."
"Just in case," he said.
I nodded. "Just in case."
"I was very young when this was done, Merry. I can protect myself now."
"You're a powerful magician, but you're not sidhe."
"It makes that big a difference? "he asked.
Jeremy fell silent and turned in his seat to help Ringo find the quickest way to the airport.
Uther said, "You are tense."
I smiled up at him. "And you're surprised?"
He smiled, that very human mouth under the curved bone of the tusks, the piggish snout. It was like part of his face was a mask, and underneath was just a man, a big one, but just a man.
He ran thick fingers through my still-wet hair. "I take it Branwyn's Tears were still active when Jeremy went up?"
I'd have never taken time for a shower otherwise, and Uther knew that. "So Jeremy told me." I sat up so that I wasn't soaking his shirt with my hair. "Didn't mean to get you wet. Just forgot. Sorry."
He pressed my head, gently, back to his chest with a hand as big as my head. "I was not complaining, just remarking."
I settled back against him, my cheek resting on his upper arm.
"Roane left just after we arrived. Did he go for help?"
I explained about Roane and his newfound skin.
"You didn't know you could heal him?" Uther asked.
"Interesting," he said. "Very interesting."
I looked up at him. "Do you know something I don't about what happened?"
He gazed down at me, small eyes almost lost in his face. "I know that Roane is a fool."
That made me stare at him, searching his face, trying to read what lay behind those eyes. "He's a roane, and I've given him back the ocean. It's his calling, his heart of hearts."
"You're not angry with him?"
I frowned, shrugging awkwardly in his arms. "Roane is what he is. I can't blame him for that. It would be like yelling at the rain for being wet. It just is."
"So it does not bother you, at all?"
I shrugged again, and his arms settled around me, cradling me almost like a baby, so I could gaze up at him more comfortably. "I'll admit to being disappointed, but not surprised."
"I might as well be understanding, Uther-I can't change things." I rubbed my cheek against the warmth of his arm and realized what part of Uther's charm was. He was so large and I was so small, it was like being a child again. That feeling that if someone could hold you in their arms completely, nothing could hurt you. It hadn't been true when I believed it as a very little girl, and it certainly wasn't true now, but it was still nice. Sometimes false comfort is better than no comfort at all.
"Damn," Jeremy said, raising his voice for our benefit. "There's a wreck up ahead-looks like Sepulveda is completely blocked off. We'll try to take side streets around it."
I rolled my head back against Uther's arm to see Jeremy. "Let me guess, everyone else is trying to exit here, too."
"Of course," he said. "Settle in. It's going to take a while."
I moved my head so I was looking up at Uther again. "Heard any good jokes lately?"
He gave a small smile. "No, but my legs are going to fall asleep if I must keep them tucked under like this for long."
"Sorry." I started to move away so he could adjust.
"No need to move." He put one arm under my thighs, kept the other arm behind my back, and picked me up. He held me like a baby, effortlessly, while he straightened his legs out in front of him. He settled me onto his lap, one arm behind my back, the other lying loosely across my
legs and his.
I laughed. "Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to be... big."
"And I wonder what it would be like to be small."
"But you were a child once. You remember what that was like."
He gazed into the distance. "Childhood was a very long time ago for me, but yes, I do remember. But that is not the kind of small that I mean." He looked down at me, and there was something in his eyes, something lonely, needy. Something that pierced that calmness in him that I valued so much.
"What's wrong, Uther?" My voice was soft. There was something very private about us being back there alone with no one in the middle seats.
His hand rested lightly on my thigh, and I was finally able to read the look in his eyes. It wasn't a look I'd ever seen in Uther's face. I remembered his comment when I was getting fitted for the wire, how he'd wait in the other room because it had been so long since he'd seen a naked woman.
The surprise must have shone on my face, because he turned his face away from me. "I'm sorry, Merry. If this is completely unwelcome, tell me so, and I will never mention it again."
I didn't know what to say, but I tried. "It's not that, Uther. I'm about to get on a plane and go Goddess knows where. We may never see each other again." Which was partially true. I mean, I was leaving town. I couldn't think of any way to finish this in this short drive without hurting his feelings or lying to him. I wanted to avoid both.
He spoke without looking at me. "I thought you were human with some fey blood in you. I would never have suggested this to someone who was raised human. But your reaction to Roane's desertion is proof that you don't think like a human." He turned almost shyly back to me. The look in his eyes was so open, so trusting. It wasn't that he thought I'd say yes. He didn't know, but he was trusting me not to react badly.
It had just been yesterday that I'd first thought of how very alone Uther must be out here on the coast. How many times had I cuddled against him like this, thinking of him as some kind of big brother, a father substitute? Too many. It had been unfair, and he'd always been the perfect gentleman because he thought I was human. Now he knew the truth, and it had changed things. Even if I said no, and he took it well, I'd never be able to treat him this casually again. I'd never be able to cuddle in his big arms in innocence. That was gone. I mourned that, but there was no recovering it. All I could do now was try and keep Uther from getting hurt. The trouble was I didn't know how to do that because I didn't have a clue what to say.
My thinking had taken too long. He closed his eyes and moved his hand off my thigh. "I'm sorry, Merry."
I reached up and touched his chin. "No, Uther, I'm flattered."
He opened his eyes, looked at me, but the hurt was there, plain to see. He'd put his heart on his sleeve, and I'd put a knife through it. Dammit, I was about to get on a plane and never see these people again. I didn't want to leave him like this. He was too good a friend for that.
"I am part human, Uther. I can't..." There was no delicate way to put it. "I can't take the damage that a full-blooded fey could take."
So much for being coy. "You're too large for my body, Uther. If you were... smaller, I could have sex with you for an afternoon, but I don't see us dating. You're my friend."
He looked at me, gaze searching my face. "You could truly sleep with me and not be repulsed?"
"Repulsed? Uther, you have been too long among the humans. You are a jack-in-irons and you look exactly as you are supposed to look. There are others of your kind. You are not a freak."
He shook his head. "I am exiled, Merry. I can never go back to faerie, and here among the humans I am a freak."
It made my chest tight to hear him say that. "Uther, don't let other people's eyes make you hate yourself."
"How can it not?" he asked.
I laid a hand over his chest, feeling the sure thick beat of his heart. "Inside is Uther, my friend, and I love you as a friend."
"I've been among humans long enough to know what the friend speech means," he said. Again he turned away from me, his body growing stiff and uncomfortable, as if he couldn't bear for me to touch him.
I got to my knees. I would have said I straddled his legs, but the best I could do was to put a knee on each thigh. I touched his face with my hands, exploring the slope of his forehead, the thick eyebrows. I had to lower my arms and come from underneath to trace his cheeks. I ran my thumb along his mouth, rubbing my hands along the smooth bone of the tusks. "You are a handsome jack-in-irons. The double tusk is highly prized. And that curve in the end-the jacks consider it a sign of virility."
"How do you know that?" His voice was soft, a whisper.
"When I was a teenager, the queen took a jack named Yannick as her lover. She said, after she'd been with him, that no sidhe could fill her as her jack of Hearts could." In the end she'd called him her Jack of Fools, and he'd fallen out of favor. He'd gotten away with his life, which was more than most of the queen's non-sidhe lovers managed. The humans usually ended up committing suicide.
Uther stared at me. With me kneeling on his legs we were almost eye to eye. "What did you think of Yannick?" he asked, voice low and lower, so that I had to lean in to hear him.
"I thought he was a fool." I leaned in to kiss him and he turned away. I put a hand on either side of his face and brought him back to face me. "But I thought that all the queen's lovers were fools." I had to sit on Uther's lap, a leg to either side of his waist to get an angle to kiss him. The tusks got in the way for kissing. But if it would take that hurt from his eyes, it would be worth the effort.
I kissed him as my friend. I kissed him because I didn't find him ugly. I'd grown up around fey that made Uther look like a GQ cover boy by human standards. One thing the Unseelie teaches is the love of every form of fey. There is beauty in all of us. Ugly is simply not a word you use at the Unseelie Court. At the Seelie court I was considered ugly, not tall enough, not slender enough, and my hair was the blood auburn of the Unseelie Court, not the more human red of the Seelie Court. Among the Unseelie I hadn't had many "boyfriends" either. Not because they didn't find me attractive, but because I was mortal. A sidhe that was mortal frightened them, I think. They treated it like a contagious disease. Only Griffin had been willing to try, and in the end I hadn't been sidhe enough for him either.
I knew what it was to be forever the outsider, the freak. I put all that into the kiss, closing my eyes, cupping his chin in my hands. I kissed him hard enough to feel how the bones of his upper jaw widened before they curled upward.
Uther kissed like he spoke, carefully, each movement, like each syllable, well thought out. His hands kneaded my lower back, and I could feel the amazing strength in them, the potential in his body to break me like some fragile doll. Only trust would take you to his bed and let you expect to come out the other side unharmed. But I did trust Uther, and I wanted him to believe in himself again.
"I hate to interrupt," Jeremy said, "but there's another wreck up ahead. There's a wreck at every side street we've tried."
I drew back from the kiss. "What did you say?"
"We're two wrecks for two side roads," Jeremy said.
"Coincidence does not stretch so large," Uther said. He kissed me gently on the cheek and let me slide out of the embrace to sit beside him, still staying in the shadow of his energy. The hurt look in his eyes had vanished, leaving something more solid, more sure of itself behind. It had been worth a kiss.
"They know I was at Roane's apartment, but they don't know where I am now. They're trying to cut off all the escape routes."
Jeremy nodded. "Why haven't you sensed them?"
"She's been too busy," Ringo said.
"No," I said. "But as Uther's aura keeps them from spotting me, so his aura interferes with me sensing them."
"If you move away from him, you'll be able to sense them," Jeremy said.
"And they me," I said.
"What do you want me to do?" Ringo asked.
"We seem to be stuck in traffic. I don't think there's anything you can do," I said.
"They've blocked all the roads," Jeremy said. "They'll start searching among the cars now. Eventually, they will find us. We need a plan."
"If Uther will move up with me, I'll look and see if my eyes can sense something that the rest of me can't."
"My pleasure," Uther said, and smiled.
We were both smiling as I crawled into the second row of seats. Uther hovered over the back of the seats, one big hand on my shoulder. There were cars parked on one side of the street, and two lanes of traffic trailing from the streetlight. The reason we weren't moving was a three-car pileup at the light. One car was upside down on the pavement. The second car had smashed into it, and a third into both, so the three cars formed a pile of twisted metal and broken glass. I could visualize how the second and third car smashed into the first. What I couldn't figure out was how that first car had gotten on its side, upside down in the middle of the road. No scenario that I could come up with would have flipped the car dead center into the middle of the road. Flipped it so that it formed as large a barrier across the street as possible. I was betting that someone or some things had turned the car over and let the other cars hit it. They'd formed a dam of machines and bleeding people. As long as they could use glamour to hide themselves and not be blamed, they wouldn't give a damn about injured bystanders. My family-how I hate them sometimes.
There were people gathering on the sidewalks, people getting out of their cars, standing in the open doors. There were two police cars parked in the middle of the intersection, stopping the traffic that was still trying to drive on the cross street. The lights on the police cars cut the night in splashes of colored light, competing with the signs and lighted windows of the businesses and clubs that were on either side of the street. I could hear the wail of an ambulance coming closer, probably what the police were clearing the traffic for.
I searched the crowd with my eyes, and there was nothing unusual to see. I cast out with that other sense. I'd be limited with Uther's energy leaking all over me, but not completely helpless. I might be able to spot how close they were before I revealed myself.
The air wavered two cars ahead of us, like a ripple of heat, except it wasn't heat, and you never got that effect after dark. Something large was moving between the cars, something that didn't want to be seen. I cast out farther and found three more ripples. "Four shapes moving out there, all bigger than a human. Closest one is only two cars up from us."
"Can you see shapes?" Jeremy asked.
"No, just ripples."
"To be able to hold glamour in place when you're tipping over cars is more than most fey can manage," Jeremy said.
Apparently, none of us believed the first car had gotten on its roof by itself. "Even most of the sidhe couldn't do it, but some of them can."
"So four larger than human, and at least one sidhe close by," Uther said.
"What's the plan?" Ringo asked.
A good question that. Unfortunately, I didn't have a good answer. "We've got four policemen at the intersection. Are they going to be a help or a hindrance?"
"If we could break their glamour, make them visible to the police, and they didn't know it right away..." Jeremy said.
"If they did something harmful in full sight of the police..." I said.
"Merry, my girl, I think you've grasped my plan."
Ringo looked back at me. "I don't know much about sidhe magic, but if Merry isn't a full-blooded one, is she powerful enough to break their glamour?"
They all looked at me. "Well?" Jeremy said.
"We don't have to break the spell. All we have to do is overload it," I said.
"We're listening," Jeremy said.
"The first car was turned over, but the rest just crashed. They're peering in the cars, looking for me but not touching anyone. If we get out and fight them, the sidhe won't be able to keep them unseen."
"I thought we wanted to avoid a direct fight if possible," Ringo said.
The ripple was almost here. "If anyone's got a better idea, you've got about sixty seconds to share it. We're about to be searched."
"Hide," Uther said.
"Merry hides," he said.
It was a good idea. I slipped behind the secondary seats, and Uther moved away from the wall just enough for me to worm behind him. I didn't think it would work, but it was better than nothing. We could fight later if they found me, but if I could hide... I pressed myself against the cool metal wall and Uther's warm back and tried not to think too hard. Some sidhe can hear you thinking if you're agitated enough. I was completely hidden from sight. Even if they opened the big sliding door, which I didn't think they would risk, they wouldn't see me. But it wasn't really their eyes I was worried about. There are all types of fey, and not all of them have a human's reliance on their vision. That wasn't even counting the sidhe who was doing the glamour. If we were the only car with fey occupants, the sidhe would come to investigate before they left this area. He, or she, would have to see for themselves.
I wanted badly to watch that wavering in the air peer in all the windows. But that would have defeated the purpose of hiding, so I crouched behind Uther and tried to be very still. I heard, felt, something brush against the metal wall at my back. Something large was pressed against the metal. Then I heard it, a loud sniffing like of some gigantic hound.
I had a heartbeat to think, "It smells me," then something smashed through the metal inches from me. I screamed, scrambling out from behind Uther, before my mind had fully registered the fist, large as my head, stuck through the side of the van.
A sound of shattering glass whirled me around. An arm big as a tree trunk and a chest wider than the car window was pressed through the driver's-side window. Ringo beat at the arm, but it grabbed the front of his shirt and started pulling him through the broken window.
The gun was in my hand but there wasn't a clear shot. Jeremy moved across the seats, and I saw the flash of a blade in his hand.
Metal screamed as giant fists pulled the side of the van apart until a huge leering face peered into the hole. He looked past Uther like he wasn't there, yellow eyes on me. "Princess," the ogre hissed, "we've been looking for you."
Uther smashed his fist into the huge face. Blood sprayed from the ogre's nose, and the face fell back from the hole. There were screams from outside, human screams. The glamour had collapsed under the violence. The ogres had simply appeared to the humans like magic. I heard a man's voice yelling, "Police, stop where you are!"
The police were coming. Yeah. I put the gun back in my waistband. I didn't want to explain it.
I turned back to the front seat. Ringo was still in the driver's seat. Jeremy was leaning over him, and there was blood on his hands. I moved through the middle seats to them. I started to ask if Ringo was hurt, but the moment I saw his chest, I didn't have to ask. The front of his shirt was soaked with blood, a piece of glass as wide as my hand stuck out of his chest.
"Ringo," I said his name softly.
"Sorry," he said, "I'm not going to be much help to you." He coughed, and I could see it hurt.
I touched his face. "Don't talk."
I could hear the police talking to the ogres, telling them things like, "Hands on top of your heads! On your knees! Don't fucking move!" Then I heard another man's voice, a smooth masculine voice, with just a touch of accent. I knew the voice.
I scrambled to the big sliding door, while Jeremy was still saying, "What? What is it?"
"Sholto," I said.
His face remained puzzled. The name meant nothing to him.
I tried again. "Sholto, Lord of That Which Passes Between, Lord of Shadows, King of the Sluagh."
It was the last title that widened his eyes, and drove fear sharp in his face. "Oh my God," he said.
Uther said, "Shadowspawn is here?"
I glanced at him. "Never say that to his face." I could hear the voices through the broken window, so very clearly. I felt like I was moving in slow motion. The door didn't want to open, or I'd grown clumsy with fear.
That voice was saying, "Thank you so much, Officers."
"We'll wait for transport for the ogres," the policeman said.
The door slid open and I had a frozen moment to see everything. Three of the ogres were on their knees on the sidewalk, hands clasped on their heads. Two policemen had their guns out. One officer was on the sidewalk in front of the ogres; the other one, separated from them by the line of parked cars. A tall figure, though only human tall, stood by the cars and that policeman. The figure was dressed in a grey leather trench coat with his white hair trailing down the back of it. The last time I'd seen Sholto, he'd been wearing a grey cloak, but the effect was surprisingly similar as he turned, as if he felt me standing there. Even from yards away in the electric-kissed darkness I could see that his eyes were three different shades of gold: metallic gold around the pupil, then amber, and last a circle the color of yellow autumn leaves. I was afraid of Sholto, always had been, but when I saw those eyes, I realized how homesick I was for the sidhe, because for a second, I was glad to see another person with a triple iris. Then the look in those familiar eyes sent a chill across my neck and the moment of connectedness was gone.
He turned, smiling, back to the police. "I will attend the princess." He started walking toward the van, and they didn't stop him. I realized why as he moved closer. He had the queen's emblem, a badge that her Guard carried, hanging from his neck. It looks surprisingly like a police badge, and it had been well publicized that to use one of the emblems if you didn't deserve it came with a curse. A curse that not even a sidhe would risk.
I didn't know what he'd told them, but I could guess. He'd been sent to stop the attack on me. He'd see me safely home. All so very reasonable.
Sholto moved toward me in a long-legged, graceful stride. He was handsome, not the heartbreaking beauty of some of the sidhe, but striking. I knew that the humans watched him as he walked, because they could not help themselves. The grey coat blew back and there was the faintest bulk around his middle. Sholto had the hair, the eyes, the skin, the face, the shoulders, everything- except that from just below his nipples to vanish into his pants was a nest of tentacles, things with mouths. His mother had been sidhe, his father had not.
Something touched my shoulder and I jerked, screaming. It was Jeremy. "Close the door, Uther."
Uther slid the door shut, almost in Sholto's face. He leaned against it, so that it couldn't be opened from the outside without some effort.
"Run," Uther said. 11
"Run," Jeremy said.
I understood. Outside of a war, the sluagh hunted one prey at a time, and I was it. Sholto wouldn't hurt them if I weren't here. I slipped out the jagged metal hole that the ogres had made on the other side, managing to worm through without cutting myself. I could hear Sholto knocking, oh so politely, on the van's big door. "Princess Meredith, I've come to take you home."
I dropped low to the ground and used the parked cars to hide me as I made it to the sidewalk and the crowd that had gathered to watch the show. I threw another coating of glamour over me. Hair a nondescript brown, skin darker, tanned. I moved through the crowd, changing my appearance a little at a time so that no one would point and draw attention to me. By the time I made it out the other side and started down the side street, the only thing that still looked the same was the clothes. I slipped the suit jacket off, took the gun in my hand, and rolled the jacket around my hand and arm. Sholto had seen an auburn-haired woman with pale skin in a navy jacket. Now I was a brown-haired woman with a tan, and a green shirt. I walked calmly down the street, though there was a place between my shoulder blades that itched as if he were staring a hole through me.
I wanted to turn around and glance back, but I forced myself to keep walking. I made it to the corner without anyone yelling, "There she is!" When I got to the corner, I stopped for a second. Dear Goddess, I wanted to look back over my shoulder. I fought the urge and stepped around the corner of the building. When I was safely out of sight, I let out a breath I hadn't known I was holding. I wasn't out of danger, not with Sholto on this coast, but it was a start.
A noise came from overhead. A high, thin sound, almost too high to hear, but it pierced through the normal sounds of the city like an arrow through the heart. I scanned the night sky, but it was empty, except for the distant trail of an airplane glowing against the darkness. The sound came again almost painfully high, like the sounds of bats. There was nothing there.
I started walking backward, slowly, still scanning the sky, when a movement caught my eye. I followed that flicker to the top of the nearest building. A line of black shapes huddled on the building's edge. They were like a line of ink-black hoods the size of small men. One of the "hoods" shook itself like a bird settling its feathers. The blackness raised its head to flash a pale, flat face. A slit of a mouth opened and that high-pitched cry sounded.
They could fly faster than I could run. I knew that, but I turned and ran anyway. I heard their wings unfurl with a sharp sound like thick, clean sheets snapping in the wind. I ran. Their high-pitched calls chased me into the night. I ran faster.