Although Fae Wolf is the third book in the Samhain Shifters series, it can be enjoyed as a standalone. So feel free to dive right in!
“Friendly, my ass.”
The stranger’s deep rumble carried through the double library shelves before curling around me like a sun-warmed puppy. Maybe that’s why I couldn’t quite hold the obvious rejoinder in check.
“Your ass is friendly?” I shot back. “How do you know? Has it been butt dialing again?”
My jokes, I’m well aware, aren’t exactly funny. But I wasn’t prepared for such a violent response.
The peace of the library was broken by a clatter of falling books from the opposite side of the shelves. A huge hand thrust through the second tier of hardbacks to rake those in his direction also. Then a single tome clenched in strong fingers slammed down flat on the shelf, a face pressing through the gap to rest on the plastic-lined cover.
The stranger was my age or a little older. Appealingly stubble-jawed. Boasting an intriguing tattoo that curved out of his t-shirt and up one side of his neck.
But his eyes were what caught my attention. Startlingly blue, glinting with interest…and shadowed by something wild and furry and entirely familiar.
He was a wolf, like me.
My breath caught. Aiti and I had chosen this town thinking it was on the contested periphery of two werewolf territories, a location unlikely to be visited by either potential owner. We always skirted territory interiors where werewolves were likely to wander.
Apparently our research had proven wrong.
Backing up—one step, two steps—my butt hit the shelf behind me. Right. Library. Shelving. Exits were to the sides, not behind.
“Um, my mistake,” I muttered, trying to heft the massive bag of discards I’d set on the floor while browsing the stacks. I had to stock up when I could since visiting libraries was a rare indulgence. Still, I really should have left after achieving that goal.
But Aiti liked to take her time scavenging goods to bring back with us to Faery, so I had time to kill. And the plastic-sleeved hardbacks on the shelves, the ones I couldn’t actually check out since I had no address here on earth, tempted me with their diversity.
Now, my overloaded pack caught on the sleek wooden paddle—glamoured with a sheen of Faery magic to look like a walking stick—clasped in my other hand. The pack thumped to the floor, the paddle’s handle caught between my legs, and I would have fallen onto the shelf in front of me—the one I’d been trying to scramble away from—if an arm hadn’t shot out of that gap to hold me up.
The stranger’s fingers were warm on my skin but entirely impersonal. They set me on my feet then retreated. The face, when it returned to the gap, no longer had interest sparking in its pupils.
There was now no wolf behind his eyes.
“Hey,” the shifter soothed, “I’m not going to hurt you. I didn’t realize you were a kid.”
I wasn’t a kid. Still, the stranger’s words settled me. They meant my cloak was working, helping me blend into whichever setting I wandered through. Given the backpack and library, I wasn’t surprised my cloak had glamoured me into the form of a rather tall child.
A child with no wolf inside her. I wasn’t about to be slapped with a werewolf territorial battle while boasting no home base of my own.
Grinning from sheer relief, I couldn’t resist a rebuttal. “I’m older than I look.” The sentence amused me because it was both what every kid imaginable proclaimed…and the honest truth in my case.
Meanwhile, my heels settled back onto the floor. This werewolf was safely on the other side of a double-shelf barrier and he thought I was an underage human. Perhaps I could do what I’d never done previously—quench my curiosity about my own kind.
I had to give the other shifter a reason to stick around and chat, however. So I scanned the title of the book beneath his chin. “Pixies,” I noted, “are friendly. Mischievous maybe. Definitely likely to keep you up all night with their revelry.”
He tried to cock his head…and ended up knocking one ear against a book, which promptly collided with another book and created a second mini-cascade of library materials. I considered a joke about bulls and china shops, but the guy’s wince prompted me to let the moment pass.
He, on the other hand, didn’t ignore his blunder. “This kind of thing is normal for me,” the stranger observed after the clatter ceased. He nodded at a librarian who’d poked her head in to check on us. “I’ll pick it up,” he promised. “No worries.”
Proving his good intentions, he stooped, disappearing for a moment then reappearing with books in his arms. His voice lowered to more library-friendly levels as he repaired the damage he’d created save for the gap that let us converse.
“But,” he continued while swapping two titles that were, presumably, in the wrong order, “windstorms don’t usually come out of nowhere and knock my bike off the road. I don’t usually walk into holes that weren’t there the day before. Mosquitoes never used to like me but now when I go outside I get eaten up.”
He frowned and I got the distinct impression he hadn’t meant to spill his guts to a random not-really-kid in the public library. To distract him, I provided information he wouldn’t find in the book beneath his chin.
“Could be spriggans,” I suggested. “Or a curse. But, most of the time, things like that are just our brains trying to make sense of a string of unrelated bad luck….”
I trailed off as the paddle in my hand started moving across the floor without any help from my muscles. It was trying to stroke water…which meant Aiti’s canoe was leaving port.
And all thought of learning about my heritage faded as a pure shot of adrenaline coursed through me. I hadn’t taken a single step, but I was already out of breath when I made the barest of excuses. “Gotta go.”
This time, I managed to get the bag’s strap over my shoulder and myself turned toward the exit without falling over. I was home free, except….
“Wait.” The stranger’s voice had gone gruff. Lupine. It tried to snag my feet…
…But the cloak’s fae power rebuffed whatever werewolf magic he was spinning. Freed, I sprinted toward the exit, craving the stranger’s presence even as I left it.
I didn’t peer back over my shoulder though. Werewolves were intriguing. This particular werewolf was particularly intriguing.
But my Aiti was my life.
Unfortunately, Aiti wasn’t at the canoe. And our vessel wasn’t bottom-up on the bank the way it should have been. Instead, the boat rested in the water, straining against the rope we’d moored it with just in case the vessel developed a mind of its own.
The tether should have meant we were fine, but the rope was fraying. As if whatever force had pulled the canoe away from this human shore was stronger than braided unicorn-mane—patently impossible.
“Freakin’ fiddlesticks,” I muttered, grabbing the rope and heaving it toward me until there was a little slack to work with. A quick knot to bypass the weak area and I could trust the tether again…for a while at least. But I needed to find Aiti and get her back to the canoe before another strand snapped.
Because if the canoe left without us, we’d be stranded on earth. And while I might be suited to this environment by reason of my birth, Aiti wasn’t. A fae outside Faery was forced to turn to mortals for sustenance or fade away entirely. Of the two options, I knew which my adopted mother would choose.
Meanwhile, the danger shouldn’t have been an issue. Her paddle would have provided the same warning mine did. Why hadn’t she hurried back?
Dropping my books and paddle by the canoe, I spread the cloak over top even though going without was a risk. Wasting time lugging around burdens when the canoe was acting strangely seemed like an even worse bet.
My feet were loud on the pavement as I headed back to town, nothing like the muted whisper they would have made in Faery. “Farmer’s market,” I called to a shopper emerging from a grocery store. When he didn’t reply, I stood taller and made an effort to mimic the brusqueness of earth dwellers. “Where’s the farmer’s market?”
“Crazy hippies.” The man made a face, proving I hadn’t gotten the local intonation down. Still, when I flashed the barest hint of wolf at him, he muttered something even less complimentary then pointed to his left.
The name of the game was to blend in while on earth, and I’d thoroughly blown that. But the human in front of me probably had no idea why his heart rate had picked up when my inner wolf growled.
I could only hope fear hadn’t made him ornery. Hope he’d sent me the proper way.
He had. Colorful tents. Happy chatter. Relief flooded me like helium as I caught sight of Aiti in front of a booth of cheeses.
She was cloaked, which meant she seemed to possess a rather hooked nose instead of a bird beak in the middle of her mostly human features. Wolf senses meant I heard her long before I reached her, and her conversation came across as perfectly ordinary as well.
“You’re worried.” She reached across to pat the hand of the proprietor, a tiny woman who was almost as bird-like as Aiti without the cloak.
The farmer nodded. “Clover is so old. I didn’t mean to breed her, but the bull got in last year. She’s due to calve this week and I don’t think she’ll make it.”
The untrained eye wouldn’t have caught the spark of magic, not in broad daylight. But I was used to Aiti giving away what other fae would have charged an arm and a leg for (possibly literally). So I knew she’d passed over a parcel of good luck along with her second hand pat.
Her gentle words activated the magic. “She’ll make it.”
The farmer smiled, worry easing off her shoulders. “You know, I think you’re right.”
Then I was close enough to grab my adopted mother’s arm. To breathlessly spit out the honorific I used to address her. “Aiti. We need to go. Now.”
Aiti didn’t move. Instead, the farmer was the one who smiled at me as if she and Aiti were old friends rather than strangers who couldn’t have spent more than half an hour together. “This must be your daughter. Skye, right? Try a sample.”
There they were. A row of earthly foods free for the taking, toothpicks at the ready for mess-free handling. Each selection smelled delicious…and if I ate a single bite, Faery would no longer be my home.
My eyes widened. Was that why Aiti hadn’t noticed the canoe’s tug at the same time I had? I’d thought fae could eat whatever they wanted. That my changeling status—not really one thing or the other—was why I had to be so careful about consuming only the food of Faery. But maybe I’d been wrong….
No. I saw her paddle—glamoured to look like a cane—leaning against the table leg. Aiti shouldn’t have set it down. That was the very first rule she’d imparted when she’d deemed me responsible enough to be separated from her during our trading trips. In the decade plus between then and now, our roles had reversed.
Because Aiti was growing older. Her mind, I’d noticed in the last year and a half, was prone to wandering. Especially when faced with another’s pain.
I softened my tone. “Aiti, your cane.”
“Yes?” For a moment, her eyes were confused, empty. Then her mouth rounded. “Oh!”
The moment her fingers closed around the paddle, her urgency exploded. “Be sure to pat your cow tonight,” she called back to the farmer as she ran toward the exit. “And enjoy your new calf!”
Behind her, Aiti left peace. She always left peace wherever we traveled.
She herself, however, was frantic. The moment we emerged from the mass of seething shoppers, she panted out an explanation. “The borders are closing!”
“Closing? What do you mean by ‘closing’?” I grabbed her bag and paddle to speed us up, wishing that I could lift my Aiti and carry her as easily.
I couldn’t, though. It would have offended her dignity.
So I let her move under her own volition as she panted out explanations. “The last time the borders closed. Oof”—her clawed foot caught on a crack in the pavement and she nearly fell before steadying herself and continuing—“earth and Faery were separated for centuries.”
We rounded a corner and came within sight of the river. For one split second, I couldn’t see the canoe. My breath caught.
Then it bobbed back into view beneath a wooden dock. My knot had held.
Closing the distance between me and the tether while letting Aiti hop along more slowly, I yanked on the rope to draw the vessel to shore then heaved gear into its roomy bottom. Bag of books. Cloak. My paddle. Aiti’s pack.
By this point, my adopted mother was close enough for me to urge her: “Get in!”
But Aiti didn’t hurry into our craft the way she should have. Instead, she took my hand.
Her fingers, I noticed, ended in feathery tufts instead of the human-style nails that had been present last week. Reversion. I winced, shaking my head. Aiti couldn’t be reverting. We’d just spent too long away from Faery during our current trip. That was all.
Unaware of my worries, Aiti peered into my eyes and spouted words that made no sense at first. “Maybe this is for the best, Skye. You’re grown. Earth was always meant to be your home.”
For a long moment, I didn’t understand what she was saying. Then I did and I hated it. “What are you talking about? Earth is for visiting. You draw your sustenance from Faery. If the borders are closing, we need to get back.”
“And be stuck in the Unseelie Court for the rest of your life? It’s not safe for you there.”
“Less safe for you alone.” I couldn’t physically throw my Aiti into the boat, I didn’t think. But I could toss in her paddle and steady the side to make it easier for her to enter. “We need to hurry.”
“We can spare thirty seconds for you to consider your options.” Now Aiti didn’t look lost and abstracted. She looked like the mother who had raised and protected me, teaching me right from wrong and introducing me to the wonder of two worlds. “Think about the decision you’re making. This might be your only chance.”
“It’s an easy choice,” I answered.
And, despite the werewolf in the library, it was easy. Aiti was everything to me. She could only survive in Faery.
I leapt into the boat.
Six months later….
The master of ceremonies was supposed to open the door and announce me. But he was too busy manipulating one of the serving girls like she was a puppet on a string.
“Pick it up.” His voice was fae, which meant it was musical. But the words tinkled like broken glass rather than sparkling with the ease of wind chimes. He was enjoying causing pain.
At first, I couldn’t see what was so pain-inducing about the stooped young woman his maliciousness was focused on. But as I came closer, I made out a long-legged being on the ground in front of her. The fuzzy spider—nearly as large as her palm—tried to scuttle up the girl’s sleeve and her entire body quivered in reaction. She slammed her free hand down around the fabric but didn’t attempt to shake the spider loose.
Didn’t because she couldn’t. The master of ceremonies was grinning so wide his words were distorted: “Now open up your mouth.”
Melissa. That was her name. I remembered the young woman arriving a month ago, pink-cheeked and happy and seeming more like a being of earth than of Faery. Now, she folded in on herself as she tried to cringe away from her own hand. “Sir. Please. Don’t make me.”
Her tormentor shook his head as if she was a recalcitrant child refusing to eat her Brussels sprouts. “Melissa, Melissa, Melissa.”
And the young woman’s mouth gaped open. She had no choice other than to obey since her true name was known by one and all.
The master of ceremonies, in contrast, hid his true name the way all strong fae did. Which meant getting him to back down would require a different approach.
On earth, I would’ve kicked the guy in the balls then called the cops on him. Here, I couldn’t afford to make quite so many waves.
Still, I wasn’t about to let Melissa be terrorized in front of me. So I cleared my throat then launched into diversionary tactics. “You do realize your shoelaces are untied?”
The distraction worked. The master of ceremonies relinquished his control over Melissa as he glanced down at his own footwear, which was pretty stupid of him since his knee-high boots were held in place with copper zippers. “I don’t think…” he began before snapping his mouth shut.
The instant he realized he’d been tricked, a flash of something fiery surged out of him. The heat singed my skin and it wasn’t even aimed at me.
It was aimed at Melissa and the impulse wasn’t restricted to making her eat spiders either. The master of ceremonies intended to follow in his Queen’s footsteps and resort to physical torture.
He intended…but he didn’t succeed. Because Melissa had already skittered away down the corridor. Zip Boots couldn’t leave his post to go after her. And his attention span had proven short in the past.
Without giving him time to turn his maliciousness in my direction, I yanked open the door for myself and entered the presence of a Queen who made the master of ceremonies look like a plush teddy bear. Still, spunk was my only armor against the fae, so I waved as if the Unseelie Court’s monarch was a random acquaintance.
“Hi,” I started. Then, once her perfectly chiseled eyebrows dropped into a glower, I added “—ness. Silent G and H. But you heard them. Right, Your Majesty?”
Last time I’d been this insolent, the Queen of the Unseelie Court had threatened to string me up by my toenails. But we’d both known it was an idle threat. Unlike everyone else in the vicinity, I was a mortal. If the Queen broke me, I’d stay broken. My changeling status made me too entertaining to waste in a fit of pique.
I waited for the flash of anger as the Queen worked through that well-worn mental pathway. Instead, she simply shook her head.
“I don’t have time for your antics, pup.”
Yes, here in Faery I was considered a child, and not because of any cloak magic. After all, if you live forever, twenty-five years is the blink of an eye.
I wanted to make the most of my remaining eye blinks, so I dropped into a genuflection so deep it was almost parody. And…my nemesis ignored that also. Something had to be going on.
“You’re certain you saw it.” While my head was down, the Queen had turned away to address a fae who didn’t look familiar to me. Not a Court fae. Or maybe a Court fae who’d donned a different glamour. It was confusing hanging out with beings able to change their physical aspects at will.
Which, I mean, I could also. Just in a slightly different way…and, for the last six months, only with the Queen’s consent.
“I’m certain, Your Majesty,” the fae answered. His voice was so soft I could barely hear it. He was terrified of the Queen, and I realized why when she spoke next.
“You’re certain…or you think bringing false information will save you from punishment? I didn’t grant permission for you to leave last Samhain.” The Queen crooked one finger, waiting until the guy shuffled three minuscule steps forward. Only then did she purr out an ice-loaded order. “Tell me again what you saw.”
“I”—he gulped, a tremor running across his face then down his throat—“I saw your son pull a sword out of the ground. One moment there was nothing but pavement. The next moment a gleaming weapon was present. It had to be the Kingmaker.”
“Soon to be known as the Queenmaker,” our covetous monarch murmured. Then, louder: “We’ll see about that.”
She snapped her fingers and Mr. I-Forgot-My-Boots-Zip stopped hovering in the doorway so he could roll a vast silver mirror away from the wall. Until two seasons ago, this is what the Queen had used to spy on the human realm. Now….
I scrambled up out of my genuflection and inserted myself into their conversation. “In case you’ve forgotten,” I told the Queen unhelpfully, “you sealed the borders after your son fled.”
“In case you’ve forgotten,” she countered, “I have ways of boosting my reach.”
So that’s why I was here. For one split second, I closed my eyes and dropped deep inside myself to where a wolf waited.
“Skye.” My name on the Queen’s tongue was harsh.
But I wasn’t fae so I was able to ignore her. To whisper to my other self: Hide.
The wolf’s ears twitched once. A searing pain shot through me, as if someone had stabbed my kidney with an icicle. Then my fur form was gone, hidden so deep inside that I couldn’t have shifted if I wanted to.
“Skye.” The Queen’s temper had always been short, but today her repetition of my name was redolent with something darker. Where her lackey had turned hot in his annoyance, she instead seemed to suck all oxygen out of the air.
Perhaps it was time to stop playing games.
I opened my eyes and bowed my head. “Your Majesty. I choose my left shoulder.”
Shoelaceless was pushing up my sleeve, hands rough, when the Queen’s voice slapped both of us. “Did I say you had a choice in the matter?”
The resulting silence was deafening. My sleeve dropped back down over my wrist as the Queen’s lackey stumbled back.
For an endless moment, we all waited. Then, deciding that the Queen wanted an answer to her rhetorical question, I provided one.
“No, Your Majesty.” Deep, apologetic bow. “My mistake.” Deeper bow, which ended up cracking my forehead against the throne arm. Ow.
The Queen’s smugness cupped me. She hadn’t cared what I answered. She just wanted to prove she could make me kowtow.
Well, mission accomplished. Turning away, she addressed He-Who-Didn’t-Know-What-He-Was-Wearing-On-His-Smelly-Feet. “Tattoo her cheek.”
I winced. That would be painful…and would also make it harder to blend in during trading missions.
If, that is, the border ever reopened.
But I knew when to cut my losses. I tilted my head and waited for the needle to push into the thin skin over my left cheekbone. My wolf’s steadfastness would have proven handy at this moment, but I’d told her to hide.
So I gritted my teeth and bore the pain as a fae only a quarter as evil as his mistress tattooed strength and energy out of my skin.
My tattoo channeled energy into the Queen’s mirror, turning the formerly reflective surface back into the visual portal it had once been. With the borders closed, none of us could physically cross over to earth. But a little boost was enough to morph an already magicked mirror into a window into the past, present, or near future.
Sure enough, the mirror shimmered awake before Copper-Zip-Or-Was-That-Zit? had finished. The surface swirled to display an alley lit by human lampposts. Bodies wove in and out of the half-light so quickly it was hard to distinguish them. All I could tell was that a battle was taking place.
No, that wasn’t all. The scene settled and I saw the fae who the Queen had been questioning, the wound on his cheek present as a fresh cut rather than the scab it was now. If I had to guess, this vision occurred sometime in the recent past, half a week ago maybe.
“Now,” the Queen purred, “we’ll see whether your story is enough to save your skin.”
Here in front of me, the fae in question shrank in on himself. In the mirror, the past aspect of the same fae found himself at the center of the melee.
He and two others fought with nothing but glamour and kindergarten trickery. Having crossed over without the Queen’s permission, they were unbearably weak.
Weak by fae standards, but strong compared to the mortals trying to best them. My gaze caught on one of those enemies, a man as rough around the edges as the Queen was perfectly polished.
He was surprisingly familiar. Tattoos. Stubble. Startlingly blue eyes….
The werewolf from the library. My heart rate sped up.
And a sword sliced so close to the side of his head that hair sprayed out like a halo. Rather than growling, the shifter grinned.
“Did you hear the one about the guy with a sword in his ear?” he asked nobody, the sound not coming through the mirror but his lips easy to read. He waited a beat, during which he parried and attacked before completing the joke that no one other than me seemed to be paying attention to. “Well, neither did he. Hard to hear through a sword.”
I stifled a smile, both because of the awfulness of his joke and because I’d been partially successful. Hiding my own inner animal had done that much, at least. The Queen had stolen enough energy from me to power sight but not hearing.
It was almost as if the shifter was privy to my pleasure. His eyes rose until they met mine through the mirror and his mouth quirked upwards even further. Our gazes locked and something warm tugged at my belly.
Then another fae leapt up behind him and I couldn’t help myself. I pointed….
And the burly shifter twisted away just in time. Twisted and skewered his attacker, who poofed out as all earth-based fae did when run through with steel or iron. The fae wasn’t dead, just sent back to the world in which I now stood.
“Those are mayfly swords.” The Queen broke the moment that had to have been in my imagination only, using the insult fae often threw at mortals. Mayflies—we lived for a mere season. We weren’t worth bothering with.
And now the Queen was growing bored with watching mayflies; I could tell by her voice. Nobody was bleeding in the scene on the mirror, which meant someone in this room would bleed soon. I could only hope the someone in question wasn’t me.
“The Kingmaker hasn’t arrived yet,” the fae who was both in the mirror and here told her. His voice trembled, but he was incapable of lying. All fae were. Likely, he was just scared to death.
“Then why…?” the Queen started.
Before she could finish her query, we saw it. Every one of us saw it—those in the audience chamber and those in the alley. A silver sword with a copper handle popping into existence like something out of an Imbolc glamour show.
But Imbolc glamour shows didn’t happen on earth. No wonder the rough-around-the-edges shifter emoted. Silently yet perfectly understandable.
I couldn’t help it. I laughed.
“What did he say?” the Queen demanded.
“Perhaps you should take a course in lipreading,” I countered.
Which was stupid. I needed to learn to hold my tongue before I lost it. Because my insolence had fixated the Queen’s attention on me. Never a good thing.
Her eyes narrowed. “This vision should be stronger. You disobeyed me. You shifted.”
“I didn’t.” Which wasn’t entirely true. Eight months ago, I’d been unable to resist the glow of the moon above foggy waters when my adopted mother and I paddled our canoe through Faery waters, back when crossing over was something we did monthly. I’d donned fur and swum alongside her for fifteen glorious minutes….
But releasing pent-up energy three seasons in the past wasn’t why the Queen’s scrying had only half-worked this time. The reason was my wolf, hiding so deep inside even I couldn’t find her. The coldness in my belly overtook the warmth from the shifter’s grin and self-preservation kicked in.
Turning the conversation back to the Queen’s original question, I told her: “He said, ‘well, will you look at that.’”
Unlike the fae, I could lie. And I was lying…but only to keep the peace. The Queen didn’t allow expletives in her presence and the shifter had actually said, “Fuck a duck.”
“Hmm.” The Queen returned her attention to the mirror. There, her son—one of her two sons, actually, the younger one who was fully fae but who had willingly left Court to live on earth—drew the sword out of the alley’s pavement. The gesture should have taken extreme effort, but he made it look as easy as picking a cookie up off a tray. “And what,” the Queen continued, “did my mayfly-loving son say next?”
This one was easier. “I believe, Your Majesty, that Erskine’s response was, ‘Huh.’”
Then Erskine was using the Kingmaker to swipe through fae who’d frozen into place. Fae who didn’t even try to dodge as he skewered them one after the other, cutting short their jaunt in the human world and returning them here, to the Unseelie Court. Home sweet home for all of us ever since the borders had slammed shut.
Erskine should have been exhilarated at the success. After all, gossip in Court had it that he’d chosen mortals over fae, had chosen to work with the group known as the Samhain Shifters to send fae back to Faery. A selfless gesture, one intended to protect those who had a hard time fighting back against the magically endowed.
And he’d succeeded. As of today, there were no recently crossed over fae remaining in the human realm.
But in this particular vision, Erskine wasn’t elated. He didn’t look like the playful fae prince who’d once blended in with the beauty of Court without ever turning malicious either.
Instead, his eyes were sunken into his head. Lines I didn’t remember bracketed his mouth. And, as the final fae invader faded out of the alley, the Queen’s son turned to the rough-around-the-edges shifter and said, “I can’t do this, Ryder. I don’t want this.”
Ryder shrugged. “Throw it away then. Good riddance to bad rubbish.”
“The Kingmaker isn’t rubbish.”
A shiver spun through me. Erskine knew what he held, and soon the Queen would ask me to translate….
But she’d seen everything she needed to see. The Kingmaker existed. Her son had the sword. She no longer cared about earth-based conversations.
Turning away from the mirror, she jerked her chin at Zip-Boots. “Peel him.”
“This faithless courtier. Like a grape. Remove the skin.”
It would grow back. We all knew that. But the pain would be unbearable, the regrowth worse as skin itched back into existence.
The fae being sentenced collapsed into a quivering heap at her feet. “Your Majesty, please. I promise….”
The scene in the mirror had begun lightening back to silver as the Queen’s attention turned to more sadistic pursuits. But there was just enough residual magic to let me see what the Queen did not.
The sword—the Kingmaker—had just changed hands.
“Really?” the rough-around-the-edges shifter said. “When I asked for a heartfelt gift, I thought you’d give me something useful. Blood maybe. Get it? Heart? Blood?”
I choked on my laugh. Not at the joke, but at the look on Erskine’s face. He might live among mortals now, but he was fae at his core. Earthly humor was beyond him.
Only, my laughter was a mistake just as it had been before. It drew the Queen’s attention back to me…and to the mirror.
My breath caught. But the scrying surface now shimmered silver and impenetrable. The Queen’s stare, in contrast, was as tangible as a slap.
“You think this is funny, pup?” She took a step toward me…which just so happened to grind her heel into the fallen fae’s fingers. He whimpered, but she didn’t even glance downward. Just twisted her foot to deepen the pain then continued pacing forward until she was in my face.
In my face, stinking of flowers and Queenliness. My wolf wanted to rise up and protect me, but I couldn’t risk it. Not if another tattoo was imminent.
I clenched my fists and stood my ground, no stronger than a human. “No, ma’am. Nothing funny here.”
“What will be funny,” the Queen murmured, voice so low I could barely hear with my wolf hiding, “is when I peel someone else alongside this traitor. Someone who can handle enough pain to be entertaining.”
Her foot shot backwards, right into the fae’s chin. As if she knew without looking where all of his weak spots were.
Just like she knew the location of mine.
“You might consider pleasing me,” the Queen continued, “for your Aiti’s sake. Or should I say…for the sake of your Mom?”
I somehow made it out of the audience chamber on autopilot. Looked tough enough so I wasn’t messed with by any of the fae I stalked past on the way to the quarters I shared with my mother.
But my brain was a mess. Aiti. I’d picked the honorific off a list when I first grew into my human skin over a decade ago. I’d thought no one would ever guess what it meant.
“Why can’t I call you Mom?” I’d asked, my mouth contorting as it tried to work itself around sounds I’d heard spoken all my life yet had no ability to spit out of my lupine snout. Newly two-legged, I finally had the requisite human anatomy…and the words still had trouble emerging from my flexible lips.
My adopted mother understood though. “It’s not safe for either of us to let the world know the depth of our connection.” She’d pulled me into her side, turning the wooden spits we used to cook campfire dinners out in the Between where few fae traveled. One turn to her vegetables, an endless gentle spin to my hunks of meat to make sure there were no burnt spots.
“The Queen,” she continued, “could take advantage when we’re at Court. She thinks affection is a weakness. She’s wrong…and she’s right.”
We had to go to Court to sell our goods, so I knew what my mother meant. Court-dwelling parents sent their children off to be raised by others for everyone’s protection. The one set of fated mates I’d met—fully bonded and unable to live apart—were constantly terrorized. Caring, in the Unseelie Court, was like displaying an open wound and begging for it to be poked.
Still, before the border closed, the time we spent in Court was short and infrequent. My mother’s argument had seemed irrelevant at the time. “I could call you Mom when we’re traveling. I just won’t use a name when we visit the Queen. That’s not strange. Fae dance around their true names all the time.”
In lieu of a reply, Aiti cradled my face just like she used to when I was four-legged and she was the center of my tiny universe. She’d found me as a pup when I’d been tossed aside by shifter parents unwilling to raise a bloodling—a wolf-form baby. Ever since, she’d nurtured me even though I wasn’t fae or even the right kind of werewolf.
Despite our differences, it had been the two of us against the world from that moment forward. I fully expected her to accept my naming compromise.
Instead, she’d murmured: “And if you slip up? What then?”
So I hadn’t called her Mom. Instead, we’d agreed upon a better solution. So many cultures, so many languages. It wasn’t hard to find one where children addressed their mothers with a name that sounded nothing like Mom.
I’d thought we were clever. A few times during Court visits, I’d twisted Aiti until it sounded like “Cruel Mistress, must I really obey you?” Fae had tittered. I’d known word of my antipathy would travel to the Queen.
But what had proven effective during short stays in Court hadn’t stood up under a six-month travel ban. The Queen was as clever as she was cruel. No wonder she’d sniffed out how much I loved this fae woman and how much Aiti loved me back.
Had sniffed out our weakness and understood how to use that formerly hidden chink in my armor against both of us. Aiti wasn’t mortal. She could be tortured without risking permanent loss to one of the Queen’s useful tools.
All of this went through my head as I rushed down the corridor. Thrusting open the door to our quarters without knocking, I found my Aiti curled up on the window ledge reading one of the books I’d snagged out of the discard bin. Reading wasn’t quite travel, but losing herself in story was close enough.
Any other day, I would have curled up beside her, offering the comfort of my presence while taking the same from my Aiti. It was hard on both of us being cooped up in Court.
But snuggling wasn’t going to fix this problem. So I closed the door and padded closer. Then, speaking quietly so no one in the corridor could hear, I told her, “We have to cross over. Tonight.”
Aiti didn’t answer at first. Instead, she stuck a brilliant blue feather she’d molted out of her crest between the pages in lieu of a bookmark. Pierced me with eyes lacking irises. Cocked her head.
Just like always, her silence pulled words out of me. “The Queen knows what ‘Aiti’ means. Court is no longer safe for you. I know the borders are closed to fae, but I’m from earth. I think I can get us across.”
I’d put a lot of thought into this over the last six months. Back then, I’d hopped into the canoe because I’d thought Faery was the only place where my mother could survive. But here at Court, nosing into places that were none of my business, I’d learned about alternatives.
“You wouldn’t have to steal energy to live on earth. You could just soak up overflow when humans are exuberant. It would be enough for survival if not for major magic tricks. The feeding method is entirely benign.”
She hummed for a moment, the vibration both soothing and musical. Then: “Leaving will be dangerous.”
My mother wasn’t trying to talk me out of it. The ache in my chest loosened despite the pang of knowledge about what we’d both be losing. Spring flowers that sparkled like jewels. Bird song that rivaled earth orchestras. Faery’s beauty was profound…and leaving was easy if it meant my mother would remain safe.
So I grabbed my traveling bag—dusty from long disuse—and started stuffing essentials inside it. “Not more dangerous than staying here.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I noted that Aiti hadn’t picked up her own luggage. Instead, she remained still in the way only fae could. My hands slowed, then stopped.
My mother’s face could be hard to read for those unaccustomed to her increasingly bird-like features. But the wateriness of her eyes suggested she was sad. “Does your gut say this is the right thing to do?”
Aiti was big on intuition. I nodded.
“Are you sure? Look deeper.”
We didn’t have time to waste, but I obeyed her anyway. Closed my eyes and felt into the darkness of my psyche as if I was walking blind through a cave.
I wasn’t actually going anywhere, just seeking out my wolf and her instincts. A waking dream, maybe. Whatever it was, within seconds, my immaterial fingers brushed against the fur of my lupine half. The knot in my stomach eased at her presence. I fisted her ruff and let her act as my guide.
As always, my wolf was ready and willing. Tugging me forward, we left behind both Court and the land of Faery. Passed through darkness into light.
On the other end was an unshaven shifter with a smirk on his lips. “Knock, knock,” Ryder said, tapping on my head by way of greeting.
The touch—completely unreal—sent a tingle up my spine anyway. Meanwhile, my brows drew together.
Was that why I wanted to cross over? Animal attraction? If so, Aiti was right. This was a fool’s errand.
“Hmmm.” My mother’s breath feathered across my forehead right where the shifter hadn’t actually tapped. Opening my eyes, I expected to find her intent attention spearing me.
Instead, she was across the room, filling her own sack with oystershell for her beak plus clean pairs of spider-silk underwear. “Alright then,” she told me. “Let’s go.”
Our canoe was moored in a watery cavern, deep beneath the hallways of the Queen’s palace where no one else ventured. Water dripped from above, Aiti’s faery light barely illuminating the way forward. I expected to be stopped at any moment, but no one leapt out of the shadows and into our path. So I passed the time debriefing my mother about the Kingmaker and the Queen’s new threat to her person.
Aiti stiffened as my reasoning for fleeing Faery became apparent, muttering something I couldn’t quite make out. Then, as we approached the canoe, she shook her head as if to clear it before waving me forward. “You’re the one with ties to earth. You take the stern.”
This was new. The person in the back of a canoe steered the craft and Aiti had always been our guide previously.
Still, I nodded. Clambered into the wooden bottom and waited for Aiti to follow. She was lighter on her feet than I was, barely making the water slap against the sides as she settled herself. Our paddles dipped in tandem. We shot forward into the dark.
To cross from Faery to earth wasn’t an easy matter, but Aiti had made a career of it. Always before, she’d let her faery light wink out, traveling by what, for all I knew, was smell. But this time it was my job to guide us. I closed my eyes and drew my paddle through the water. Faster, harder…and the prow slammed into a stone wall.
Aiti’s laugh was a squawk of humor. For some reason, it reminded me of the rough-around-the-edges shifter even though there was nothing lupine about my adoptive mother.
“Thoughts?” I asked once her laughter faded.
“Nary a one,” she answered. “Since the borders closed, I haven’t been able to make it even this far.”
She’d tried? That was news to me.
We floated in total darkness for one long moment. The water was so still I could barely hear it lapping against the canoe sides. There was no current to pull us backwards or forwards. No indication which way we’d need to travel to reach earth.
“A tattoo,” I said at last.
“No.” Aiti’s answer came so hard and fast I almost lost control of my paddle. “I promised to never take from you. Not even to fuel our crossing over. You are my daughter. Not a…a…battery.”
I waited until her words stopped echoing off the walls of the cavern. Then I answered. “You’re not taking if I give you the energy as a gift.”
As I spoke, I dug into my satchel, wishing I’d thought ahead while packing. Housewifery wasn’t within my skillset so I didn’t own a mending needle. The closest I came to tattoo equipment was a pen plus a knife.
The faery light winked back on. Aiti had turned her whole body around to face me, never once making the canoe sway. That’s what it meant to be fae. Perfect grace, no matter what the pressure. “Skye, escape isn’t worth that. We’ll find a spot to rusticate in the country.”
I shook my head, shaking the canoe more than I should have. I wasn’t fae and, with my Aiti, I didn’t have to hide my emotions. “Everywhere in Faery answers to the Queen. I won’t let her hurt you.”
Aiti was silent. So I unscrewed the pen—a human-made ballpoint picked up off an earth street a year ago. Snapping the ink cartridge in half, I let darkness ooze onto the point of my knife.
“I won’t let you do this for me.” Aiti’s hand covered mine. Her fingers were feathered up to the knuckles now. Was the stress of Court speeding her reversion? If so, hopefully she’d settle back into her normal self once we reached earth.
“I’m not doing it for you,” I lied. Then, strong as a wolf, I shook her off and stabbed the knife into my ankle.
It didn’t work. Tattoo or no tattoo, our canoe was dead in the water. I swallowed down the lump of desperation in my throat and felt like a child as I turned to Aiti, expecting her to solve the disaster we found ourselves in.
And…she did. She always did. Her fingers came up to my throat, unbuttoning my shirt. “Take this off.”
My eyebrows drew together as I shed clothing. “And shift?”
The Queen had been annoyed when I hid my wolf, but she’d gotten a good dose of my energy anyway. Post-shift, there’d be no magic left to channel out of my pores for days or even weeks. If I went wolf now, we couldn’t risk returning to Court, not for a good long time.
Aiti knew that as well as I did, but she nodded anyway. “If you swim with a rope between your teeth, it’s just possible you’ll be sucked back to earth and the canoe will go with you.”
The plan made a fae sort of sense, and my beast wanted out. So I let my wolf and Aiti guide me. Shed everything except the locket that hung on a chain around my neck, the one that matched my mother’s and was infused with the closest thing she had to a fated-mate bond.
Aiti and I were nothing alike physically, but in that moment, we were one being. She steadied me as fur pressed through my skin. She soothed the ache as my spine elongated into a tail for balance.
Then, before I could leap out into the darkness, she grabbed my furry cheeks. “Promise me, Skye, that if something goes wrong you’ll let go of the rope. I’ll drift back to Faery. Find a spot so remote even the Queen can’t find me. I’ll be fine.”
I nodded even though we both knew I was lying. I wouldn’t leave Aiti alone in the Between. With the borders shut, she might be trapped there forever. Even if she made it back to Faery, the only places outside the Queen’s influence were far too dangerous for one lone fae trying to survive.
So I snapped up the lead rope between my teeth and splashed into the dark water. I’d pull Aiti to earth. Now that I’d shifted, there was no going back. My plan had to work.
First, though, I needed to catch my breath. Frigid water had slammed all air out of my lungs the instant I left the boat. The liquid was colder than ice, even though that wasn’t scientifically possible. Insidious, invading my fur and pressing against skin far faster than real water should have.
I gasped for oxygen and a trickle of water seeped down my throat in the process. The liquid tasted foul. Like rot and roses, the scent of a funeral…or of the air around the Queen’s throne.
And none of that mattered. Rope in my teeth, I started paddling in the direction my gut told me was the right one. Tugging the canoe into motion, I nearly foundered as a wave came out of nowhere to break over my head.
“To your left!” Aiti shrieked.
I spun, but I couldn’t see what had scared her. Couldn’t see anything, actually. Aiti’s faery light had winked all the way out.
Then the rope went taut. As if something was yanking us backwards just as fast as I tugged us forward. Aiti squawked out something that wasn’t quite a word, her paddle slapping hard against the water.
I splashed in an awkward circle, heading toward her. Didn’t matter that the Queen would fillet me if I showed up without any shifter magic to be harvested. Nothing mattered other than the sounds of struggle. Aiti was in danger. Aiti was…
…silent now. And the rope had gone lax.
I shifted, using up even more of the Queen’s precious battery power in an effort to regain human abilities. “Aiti?” I called.
No answer. No matter. I’d tread that awful water while tugging on the rope with both hands until we met in the middle.
The rope slid through my fingers easily. So whatever had grabbed onto the canoe was no longer fighting our forward progress.
Right hand. Left hand.
I’d reassure myself Aiti was still in the boat, then I’d shift—I had maybe one shift left in me before I collapsed from exhaustion—and pull us to the land where I’d been born.
Right hand. Left hand.
Yes, I was aware something was wrong. My Aiti wasn’t answering, and she always answered. But, on earth, I’d have time and energy to tend her. We’d….
Right hand. No left hand.
The end of the rope slipped through my fingers. Tattered. Torn. As if someone had sawed through it with the knife I’d left in the bottom of the canoe.
“Aiti!” This time I screamed her name.
And, somewhere very far away, my mother answered. “Swim forward!”
She meant toward earth, but her voice was as good as a compass. I struck out toward her…
…And a massive wave swept up underneath me, pulling me so quickly in the opposite direction that I expected to be slammed against the cave wall. Instead, the wave peaked. For one split second, I thought I saw a sky full of stars.
Then the wave slammed down, down, down, pulling me with it. Tumbling me into sand and rock that scraped raw patches in my bare skin. Into water—not foul, but algae sweet—that thrust itself up my nostrils and made me gag.
Into warm arms that encircled my waist and pulled me upward until we both broke the surface.
“I’ve got you.”
His voice was honeyed gravel. I knew who I’d see before I opened my eyes.