I took a bite of buttered toast and watched Cari, the youngest of the children we’d rescued from Shedraziel’s prison, push scrambled eggs around her plate with a plastic fork. She huffed out a breath that fluttered her sleep-matted, wheat-blond hair. “My tummy feels funny.”
“Take a few more bites,” prompted Emma, my friend and co-conspirator who’d helped save the kids. She set her hand on the little girl’s back and gave her a warm smile. “We’ve got a long time till lunch. You don’t want to get hungry in between.”
My heart ached as I watched the four-year-old load her fork and shove it in her mouth. Emma wasn’t wrong about the girl needing to eat, but eggs weren’t going to solve the funny feeling Cari described. We’d saved a total of eleven children from Shedraziel’s realm and erased the memories of their time there, but the physical effects weren’t so easily overcome.
Behind Emma and Cari, children ranging from six to sixteen lounged among pillows and blankets in front of the cabin’s large, stone fireplace. All were battered, underfed, and hopelessly addicted to goblin fruit—the effects of which were just starting to show. Three had thrown up that morning. Half the kids had fevers. I could only hope my fae grandfather, Bael, sent the medicine he’d promised before their symptoms became more severe.
Long, cool fingers twined with mine under the table. James smiled at me, though the expression failed to crinkle the skin at the corners of his pale-blue eyes.
They’ll be all right. His voice echoed through our telepathic link—a side effect of sharing a piece of his vampire soul to save my life that had grown stronger since I’d given James my “true” fae name. His presence in my mind was simultaneously comforting and unsettling.
I hope so.
Cari took three more bites and announced she was done, then climbed off the bench to join the other children in front of the fire.
Emma pushed a wavy strand of teal-dyed hair back from her eyes and shook her head, causing her many piercings to flash and jingle. “All the kids are complaining about aches and pains. May says her stomach’s been cramped all morning.”
We all looked at Emma’s little sister, curled up in an overstuffed chair with faded floral upholstery. She wore the body of a girl in her mid- to late teens, but she’d been eleven less than a week ago—before being trapped in the altered time of Shedraziel’s prison. She had the same Japanese-Hawaiian features as Emma, but where Emma’s body was all soft curves, May had a willowy, stretched-out appearance marked by hard angles and protruding bones. She stared into space, her bandaged fingers tapping out a rhythm on the armrest.
“The treatment will be here soon,” I said with more confidence than I felt. “In the meantime, just make them as comfortable as you can.”
Emma’s deep, brown gaze swung back to me. “That makes it sound like you won’t be here.”
I shifted in my seat. I would have liked nothing better than to hole up in the little cabin with Emma and James until the kids were recovered and could be returned to their families. Even the single morning of near normal interactions as the kids woke up and ate breakfast had been a welcome break from the chaos of my life. But I had other obligations.
My recorded confession about being a fae halfer who could handle iron without the side effect of burning to death had stunned the human community, though not as much as the footage of my friend Sophie shifting into a werewolf and using my leg as a chew toy. Now the world was being torn apart. Lines were being drawn, sides chosen. Law-abiding members of the paranatural community, like Emma’s practitioner teacher Luke, were being rounded up and sent to detention centers. As were suspected paranatural sympathizers, like my very human, very pregnant friend Maggie.
Even with the PTF’s seeming acceptance that werewolves were a form of local paranatural—unlike the fae who came from different realms—an anti-fae fervor was sweeping the world. And the questions raised by my confession weren’t helping.
“I have to clean up the mess my confession caused, especially now that Shedraziel’s free. I need to do what I can to avert another war.” I hugged myself, my own breakfast suddenly feeling like a nest of insects crawling around my gut. “I’m turning myself in to the Paranatural Task Force.”
Emma’s jaw dropped. Her eyes went wide.
James stilled. No breath swelled his chest. I wouldn’t have been surprised to find his pulse absent for the space of time it took my words to settle over him. A trickle of silver swirled into the blue of his eyes. Then he blinked, and sucked in a long, deep breath.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” Emma blurted.
Several kids looked our way.
She lowered her voice. “You saved these kids from Shedraziel. How can you just abandon them?”
“So long as the PTF is hunting me, you’re all safer without me around. These kids have been through enough. The last thing they need is to get scooped up by the PTF and interrogated until they die of an addiction the humans won’t understand or be able to treat. We have to keep them hidden until the goblin fruit is out of their systems, but that could take weeks if not months. Meanwhile, the humans and fae are all gearing up for a war both sides seem to think is inevitable, and paranaturals like the practitioners and werewolves are being hunted and caged because no one’s sure where their loyalties lie.”
Her shoulders slumped. “I’m starting to think war is inevitable, too. And, speaking as a practitioner, I’m not sure where my loyalties lie right now. I feel like I belong with humans, but the humans want to lump me with the fae.”
“The problem is a lack of communication. We’ve got three plus groups that don’t understand each other. But Director Harris, for all that she’s been a serious pain in my ass, seems like a reasonable woman. If I can talk to her, convince her my immunity to iron is just a genetic fluke and not some fae countermeasure in preparation for an upcoming conflict with the humans, maybe I can get the PTF to stand down from this red alert they’ve been on since that video hit the internet. At the very least, I can shed some light on the werewolves . . . make her realize hunting them like animals will only make matters worse.”
Emma opened her mouth, but before she could speak, a shout went up among the kids.
Cari was kneeling on the hardwood floor, whimpering. The eggs we’d insisted she eat were splattered in front of her. The pungent, sickly-sweet smell of vomit wafted through the small cabin . . . again.
I started to rise, but Emma lifted a hand. “I’ve got this.” She cut her eyes to James, then back to me. “You guys finish talking.”
She waded through the wall of children standing in a circle around Cari. Emma wasn’t much taller than the oldest kids, but even the relatively subdued outfit of her faded jeans and pale-blue t-shirt with a series of yellow emoji faces across her chest stood out like a beacon in the crowd of oversized green tunics and leather pants provided to the kids by Bael’s guards. They looked like a troupe of child actors from a Robin Hood play.
Carefully avoiding the mess on the floor, Emma scooped Cari up and carried her into the bathroom. May grabbed a bottle of cleaner and a roll of paper towels from under the sink.
I shifted my attention to James’s profile. His long, jet-black hair fell over his shoulders, unbound. I reached out and slid my fingers through the silky strands. “You’re being awfully quiet.”
He continued to watch the children, his eyes half-lidded, his lips pursed. “I finally have you back by my side, and now you’d have me watch you leave again?”
I closed my eyes, but I couldn’t hide from the hurt and frustration coming through our connection.
“It’s not as if I want to go.”
His words rattled me, but he hadn’t drawn on the power of my true name. His plea was just that—something I could heed or ignore as I chose. James had only issued one command since learning my true name, and it had saved my life. He’d given his word not to use the strange power of the fae name I now carried against me, but I couldn’t silence the niggling voice that insisted I’d made a mistake, that I’d regret giving anyone, even James, the means to control me.
“The PTF is looking for someone to lynch right now,” he said. “Handing yourself over to those fools is almost as bad as throwing yourself on the mercy of Purity.”
I flinched. I’d been in the hands of Purity members before—zealots who believed all magic should be eradicated. I’d barely survived. One of my friends hadn’t. James really knew how to hit where it hurt.
“The humans, fae, and paranaturals are all at each other’s throats because they’re afraid of one another,” I said. “As someone with a vested interest in all three groups—” I took a deep breath. I’d only just discovered I had practitioner blood mixed with my already confused DNA, and I hadn’t had time to fully come to terms with it yet. “—maybe I can act as a . . . a bridge, an intermediary.”
“What makes you think you’ll even get to speak with Harris?” he continued. “Or that she’ll be willing to listen?”
“Harris will want to talk to me, to interrogate me if nothing else. But I’ve also got an ace in the hole that ensures she’ll want to hear what I have to say.”
He quirked an eyebrow.
“Bael.” The name dropped like a bomb. “The PTF doesn’t have a direct line to any of the fae lords. I do. If Harris wants to avoid a full-out conflict, I’m her best chance at negotiating.”
“What if she doesn’t want to avoid a war?”
“Then we’re already screwed. But I can’t believe that’s true.”
His pale-blue eyes stared into me, through me. He held my name. I had no secrets from him. I let him see my fear and uncertainty, but also my determination. It was my fault the PTF was freaking out about iron-resistant fae. It was my fault Shedraziel, the psychotic fae general, was out of prison and preparing an army. It was my fault the werewolves were targeted, their secret exposed. I’d made a mess. I needed to do what I could to clean it up before any given side reached a breaking point and the conflict we all feared was coming couldn’t be stopped. Right now, there was still a chance.
I have to try. I pushed the thought through our link.
Anger and grief mixed with pride and love flowed back.
For one terrifying moment, I worried he might try to compel me despite his promise—to use the power of the true name I’d given him and command me to stay, to keep me safe despite my wishes.
Then he cupped my face in his hands and pressed his lips gently against mine. “My beautiful, brave, reckless love . . . you will be the death of me.”
Resignation radiated through our connection. He wasn’t happy—not by a long shot—but he wouldn’t try to stop me from doing what I felt I must.
The tension binding my muscles slowly released. I reached in my pocket and pulled out the fist-sized glass marble given to me by Rhoana, the captain of Bael’s guards. “Keep this with you. Rhoana, or whoever she sends with the kids’ medicine, will use it to find you.”
He lowered his hands and I dropped the ball on his palm. The lines around his eyes grew tighter. He looked over the table to the gathered children. May was still scrubbing the floor. The others were sitting or lying on the sparse furniture. Many were pale and glassy-eyed. Some hugged themselves as though cold.
James’s frown grew more pronounced. “I might prefer facing Purity zealots and PTF troops.”
I started to smile, thinking his words a joke, but the sadness in his heart froze me. James had been alive for a long, long time. He’d had lovers . . . and he’d had children. Facing an armed enemy was easy compared to watching a bunch of kids wasting away when you couldn’t do a damn thing to stop it.
“Rhoana will send the treatment soon,” I said again, though my words came out choked. “In the meantime, Emma seems capable of taking care of them. But she can’t protect them if they’re discovered. Not alone.” I waited until his gaze locked with mine. “Promise me you’ll protect them.”
Silver danced in his eyes like whitecaps on a pale ocean, showing the depth of his turmoil, but when he spoke, they settled to the color of pure glacial ice. “You have my word.”
Part of me felt like a coward for dumping the kids on Emma and James, but I was useless with children anyway. This way, the kids would be taken care of, and maybe I could prevent a war. That was for the good of everybody, right?
I swung my legs over the bench seat and stood up. “Time to arrange my ride.”
Morgan sipped black coffee from a chipped green mug in the shade of the cabin’s front porch. The rusty chains of the bench swing she sat on creaked as she pushed herself back and forth with one foot, the other tucked beneath her. Her ash-gray complexion, long, dark hair, and Victorian Gothic blouse made her look like the subject of an old photograph, but her tight leather pants, tall boots, and black trench coat ruined the effect.
I pulled the blanket I’d snagged on my way out the door tighter around my shoulders and watched my breath steam in the chill air. We’d all slept well past dawn, but the pale sunlight couldn’t dissipate the cold. Beyond the porch, patchy snow covered the ground, broken by muddy trails that led between a half dozen cabins like our own. One housed the property manager from whom James had rented the cabin. The rest were, presumably, full of vacationers looking for a bit of seclusion. Hopefully none of our neighbors were the type to say hello.
“Mind if I join you?” I nodded to the space next to Morgan on the swing.
She lowered her tucked leg and shifted to make room.
“Was our little escapade enough to ease your boredom?” I kept my voice light, my face forward, but I studied her out of the corner of my eye.
“You tell a good story,” she said. “I especially liked the part about Bael showing up to rescue you only to find you’d gotten the upper hand on Shedraziel.” She took a drink. “I would have liked to see that for myself.”
I nodded. Morgan was a high-ranking fae from the Shadow Realm. As such, she couldn’t just walk willy-nilly into Enchantment with us. She’d had to remain behind in the mortal realm while I faced off against Shedraziel—just like James, blocked as he was from crossing realms by the demon twined in his soul.
She took another sip of coffee. “What’s next?”
I rocked the swing back, eliciting another loud squeak. “James and Emma are going to stay with the kids, hopefully treat their addiction. Then we’ll start contacting their families.”
“And you?” She quirked an eyebrow. “I realize I may look young to you, but I’m two hundred and fifty years old. An adolescent slumber party is not my idea of a good time.”
“You don’t want to come where I’m going.”
She straightened, lowering her mug. “Do tell.”
I smiled. Like many of the court fae I’d met, Morgan seemed desperate for entertainment, and she was willing to trade services to get it. “Will you give me a ride?”
She pursed her lips. “Depends. Do I get to see the action this time?”
I shrugged. “I’ll be staying in the mortal realm, if that’s what you mean.”
“Where do you need to go?”
“Back to Missouri, near the gas station we visited on our way east.” With any luck, there’d be a PTF presence, thanks to my previous phone call, and finding me there would stop them looking as far away as Ohio for my friends.
“And what will you be doing there?”
“Will you take me?”
“One trip? There and back?”
“One trip,” I agreed. Though I wouldn’t need the return.
She lifted her chin. “Deal. What are you going to do in Missouri?”
“Turn myself over to the PTF. I’m going to try to avert the war Bael thinks is inevitable between the humans and fae.”
She perked up. “Now that sounds like an interesting diversion.”
I frowned. “This isn’t a game. As an unregistered, full-blooded fae, in the current political climate, you’d probably be executed if the PTF got their hands on you.”
She snorted. “I’d like to see them try.”
“I wouldn’t,” I said. “The point of this mission is to avoid bloodshed.”
“And if you can’t?”
I sighed. “Then I guess I’ll have a front-row seat for the start of the next Faerie War.”
She set her mug on the ground, folded her hands behind her neck, and leaned back. “Battles are fun—I love a good skirmish—but all-out wars?” She shook her head. “They’re not as exciting as you might think.”
I raised an eyebrow. “What’s the difference?”
“A bar fight, a riot, a raid, those are fast and passionate. War though . . . war is cold, calculated. When there’s a war, everything becomes about that war. I prefer to observe the full spectrum of mortal behavior. Drama, humor, angst, action, romance.” She put her arms down and twisted toward me. “Imagine you’re in the mood for a light romantic comedy, but the only movies you can find are dramas.”
It was weird to think of human behavior in terms of browsing movie selections, but I could kind of see where she was coming from. And any fae against the war, for whatever reason, was a win in my book.
“Will you help me negotiate a new peace treaty? I can get to Bael and the Shifter Lord—I’ve dealt with them before—but someone with the ear of the Shadow Lord would certainly help. The more factions we can bring to the table, the better our chances.”
“Long, boring conversations aren’t exactly my bailiwick,” she said. “But if you get the mortals and Enchantment to a table, I’ll call my brother. He handles most of Shadow’s diplomacy.”
Morgan’s twin brother, Galen, was the Shadow Lord’s heir, and we were on decent terms since I’d saved him from a vampire dungeon not long ago. Too bad I’d already called in the marker that had earned me.
“In the meantime, will you stay with James and Emma? They could use a fast escape if the authorities discover them, and nothing’s faster than the shadow roads.”
“I’m not a babysitter, and I’m not taking a bunch of snot-nosed bedwetters onto the shadow roads. It was bad enough dragging them through one at a time. Together . . .” She shuddered and held up a single finger. “One kid loses focus and the whole lot are ghosts. I don’t need that kind of karma.”
My heart sank. “Then what will you do after you drop me off? Do you have a number I can call to reach you? A magic hankie I can summon you with?”
“Maybe I’ll head down to New Orleans. Carnival season should be in full swing right now.” She smiled at me. “I’ll keep an eye on the news. If it looks like you’ve got a shot at peace, I’ll call my brother.” She shrugged. “Though, more likely, I’ll see a thirty-second report on your arrest and you’ll be sitting in a PTF cell while your world burns. I intend to get what enjoyment I can from this realm before that happens.”