I gawked. Then the point of Melvin’s sword reminded me that he wanted an answer. “I… what? What?!” was the best I could manage.
Melvin’s expression hardened. “Don’t play coy, Abigail. My memories may still be disjointed from those last two deaths, but no amount of fuzzy recollection can explain this. What. Did. You. Do?”
My heart thundered in my ears. I don’t know, but I’m going to die, aren’t I? “I don’t know!” I shouted. Maybe some people get brave when they’re scared. I get stupid and crazy. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, so get that goddamn sword out of my face!” It was, of course, little more than bluster on my part: I was terrified, and since Melvin was fae he had to know it.
Melvin quivered like he wanted to run that goddamn sword through my heart, but abruptly stepped back and sheathed it, transforming it back into the cane he always carried. “You don’t know,” he said in flat disbelief.
“I don’t even know what I don’t know,” I swore, “let alone what you want to know about it!”
Melvin took that in and frowned. “You don’t know?” he asked — but it sounded like he was asking himself. He started to shake his head in wry disbelief. “You really don’t know,” he repeated with a chuckle. Then he started to laugh. “Well, in that case, Abigail, I’m quite sorry for my rudeness. Ta-ta!” His sword was a cane again, which he lazily twirled in one hand. He gave me a jaunty wave with the other and pivoted, then started to stroll off.
My jaw dropped. What? He put me through that and wasn’t even going to explain himself? “What?” I shouted. “Hey, wait! Get back here.”
Melvin froze. He pivoted again, and then stiffly marched toward me. The expression on his face was no longer amused, and I suddenly wondered if I shouldn’t have called him back.
I swallowed nervously. “I want to know what that was about,” I told him.
His answering smile was saccharine. “And I don’t want to tell you. How unfortunate for you, eh?”
I scowled. My fear had bottomed out, and now I was frustrated and, well, angry for having been forced to feel it. Especially since I knew I was borderline hungry enough that I should’ve been relatively even-keeled. “Tell me,” I growled.
Melvin’s face twitched in some sort of unconscious tic, and then he blurted: “Dammit, Abigail, I want to know what you’ve done that lets you compel me!”
My jaw slipped open and my eyes went wide. “What?” I practically shrieked. “What the hell are you talking about, Melvin?”
Melvin’s shoulders slumped — his whole posture drooped in resignation. This time there was no sign of an internal struggle. “I should have known something was up when you could see through my glamour so easily,” he said. “But it didn’t really hit me until your friend John was being a jackass. I was fully prepared to play a game or two with him — just something to amuse myself until and unless Megan asked me to cease. I honestly expected her to send me off before I could have too much fun — but then you compelled me to leave, instead!”
Melvin was starting to sound angry again, and he began to pace while I listened to him. “Naturally, I desired to confront you about this entirely untenable situation, but when you seemed genuinely ignorant, I decided it would be best to leave you in the dark about the particulars while I endeavored to unearth the source of these straits — except apparently, I can’t even do that because you damn well told me to talk!”
I gawked at him. He was kidding me, right? He had to be.
“I did not compel you to leave,” I said firmly.
Melvin sniffed disdainfully. “You wanted me to, and it carried with it the weight of a compulsion. Had I resisted, I think I would have taken as much out of me as if I’d been foresworn.”
I hesitated. Being forsworn would injure him? How did that work? I was leery of asking questions, though, because he was definitely not acting like his normal self and I didn’t want to set him off again.
Still, I couldn’t help myself: “It actually hurts you to break a promise?” I asked.
Melvin sighed. He looked at me as though considering how likely I was to compel him to answer if he didn’t volunteer. If I’d known how, the answer would have been ‘very.’ Since I didn’t, the answer was ‘god knows.’ Melvin must have assumed I knew how.
“A promise is not a light thing among those who are aware of magic,” he said quietly. “A part of yourself is always bound up in it. And if you break it, then that part of yourself is broken, too. A broken promise is a weakness that any other magician can take advantage of. That is, in fact, how compulsions work. They are built by binding promises and geases around enough of a person’s self that they dare not resist that which they are compelled to do. Anyone can break a compulsion, so long as they are willing to live without the portion of their soul it is wound around. But I have made no promises to you dire enough for you to be able to compel me as you have been!”
He looked at me sullenly. “I swear, Abigail, if it turns out you arranged this…”
I swallowed. “You’ll what?” I found myself asking. I didn’t want to be threatened, but I had to know. My brain insisted on knowing what the worst case was, or making one up. And I knew I’d make up something worse than Melvin did.
Abruptly, Melvin perked up. “Actually, I’ll probably be rather amused. It would have been a good play on your part — the bit that has me riled is the simple not knowing what happened, or how. That you don’t know, either, takes a bit of the sting out of it — but it’s certainly less impressive, too.” He hesitated as though debating telling me any more.
“What is it?” I asked.
Melvin scowled, but he answered before I could insist. “I don’t imagine you’ll care, but if there is a compulsion on me that I do not know the source or parameters of, then it is a very serious problem. I swore allegiance to Megan today, Abigail. If you — or anyone — has the power to compel me to act contrary to that oath, then one way or another I will be wounded to the core.”
I frowned. I certainly didn’t know how I was making Melvin do things — if I even was! I still wasn’t entirely sure he wasn’t just messing with me, despite the earnestness of his demeanor. Maybe it was some sort of backlash from when I’d snapped his compulsion, earlier? Like: it had rebounded back on him? But that didn’t make sense… it had still been in place when he and Hans had faced off, later.
“Wait, so Megan can compel you to do stuff?” I was asking on autopilot. I just wanted to keep Melvin distracted and talking while I figured out what was going on. Anything to keep him from going back to threatening to stab me. And frankly: I did not need weird magical snafus going on around me on top of everything else.
“She’s my liege,” Melvin said simply. “I chose to bind my fortunes to hers, because I suspect she will go far — and I would rather serve her than her father,” he added with a snort. “But yes, because of that her orders are quite literally my law, unless I wish to break my oath.”
I frowned, and then an idea clicked. Megan could compel Melvin. So what did Megan and I have in common? We were both apparently bi. We both loved manga. Oh, and on a fundamental, unbreakable level we were linked: I carried a fragment of her soul around with me from when I’d taken her blood as my first meal after death.
I started to giggle.
Melvin looked at me like I was insane — and like he was terribly curious as to what I’d figured out. “What is it?” He asked. “Because I must admit that I do not find this situation funny in the least.”
I tried to restrain my smirk, but I couldn’t quite. Payback is a bitch, I thought. I was still pretty irked with Melvin for putting compulsions on me when he fought with Hans this morning, and now… well, if I was right and whatever magic enforced Melvin’s oath couldn’t tell the difference between Megan and myself, then… “I own you, Melvin,” I said with a snicker that I couldn’t hold back.
Melvin’s eyes narrowed. He probably wasn’t thrilled with me throwing his words back in his face. Or with the idea that a nut case like me had a controlling interest in his soul. “Now, wait, Abigail,” he said hastily. “Yes, something strange is happening — but I will not tolerate it if you endeavor to take advantage of this situation! Had you engineered it on purpose, or had I voluntarily submitted to your geas, that would be one thing, but since neither of us even knows the source of this, I can only presume that its origin is not founded on either of our benefits, and…”
“Hop on one foot,” I said — just to test my theory. And to screw with Melvin for all the times he’d screwed with me. From his babbling, I could guess that he was pretty freaked out about finding himself unexpectedly under my control. Given that he’d put me in the same place this morning, I was determined to exact some turnabout that I could gloat over after I’d fed. And, what can I say? If my private time with Hans was any indication, apparently I really like being pushy.
Melvin’s eyes widened in indignation, and then narrowed sharply. He bent one knee — and then hopped forward, landing on my left foot. I yelped and tried to back up when he collided with me, but since he was standing on my foot I ended up falling over instead.
Then, before I could hit the alley floor, Melvin swooped down and caught me. My breath caught. Even with my hunger edging toward psychotic, being caught in Melvin’s arms after all the threats of violence was too much stimulus. My heartbeat pounded in my ears and I was having trouble breathing — in fact, when I actually convinced myself to start breathing again I was hyperventilating.
Melvin’s arm was curled around the small of my back. His feet had slipped off mine, which left my legs trapped between his. His face was far too close to mine: so close I couldn’t see his expression. I couldn’t escape his cat slit eyes. “Be careful what you ask for,” he growled, and I could hear the threat behind his warning.
“Let me go,” I stammered.
Melvin did. My back hit the ground and I hit my head — hard enough to hurt, not hard enough to be serious. It distracted me for a second, and then I realized that Melvin was still over me. He wasn’t holding me, but now he knelt over me, his legs straddling and trapping mine. He was leaning on his elbows, which penned in my shoulders — but left his hands free. One hand caressed my cheek teasingly. “Better?” He asked, and his voice dripped with the cruel certainty that it was not.
What the hell had I been thinking?! There was no way I could freak out Melvin to the degree that he could freak out me, and apparently he’d seen through my attempt and decided to prove it.
“Get off!” I cried in a full and unreserved panic. My hands pounded at his chest, trying vainly to shove him away. He laughed in my face and then sat up. But he didn’t get off of me.
“If you insist,” Melvin purred. He shucked off his overcoat, and I stared in horror as his hands descended. What was he..?! He unfastened his belt. I noted in that detached way you notice things when your brain is too busy panicking to spare resources for coherent thought that his pants didn’t seem to zipper or button – instead they just started to open at his touch.
Because, of course, they were just a glamour and he was actually already naked wasn’t he? Naked and on top of me, and apparently getting ready to get himself off! He grinned down at me, clearly enjoying my distress. And I couldn’t even get upset about that, because I was way too busy being terrified.
“Snot Bubbles!” I shrieked.
Melvin froze, momentarily nonplussed. I couldn’t think why I’d shouted it, but I didn’t care. I was in pure, reactive panic and my auto pilot was calling all the shots now. “What?” Melvin asked, as though he wasn’t sure what he’d heard.
“It’s a safe word,” I babbled. “You have to stop now. That’s the rule. You have to stop when someone uses a safe word.”
Melvin blinked at me. Evidentally he was having as much trouble believing what he was hearing as I was having believing I was saying it. That was supposed to stop him? Yeah, right! He started laughing at me at about the same time I realized just how screwed I was if I was pinning my hopes on something as hopeless as his clearly nonexistent restraint.
Then Melvin’s laughter cut off and his cruel smile returned. He leaned down. “Well, I would… except that wasn’t a safe word. It was two. So clearly it fails the definition of ‘word.'” By the time he stopped talking his lips were almost brushing me. He was pressed back down over me, but at least his hands had moved from his waist — to my wrists, which I’d somehow let him pin down above my head. “Besides, I know you, Abigail.” His mouth tilted, as though about to press against mine, but it didn’t. Instead he whispered: “And I know that your fears’ only competition are their conflicting desires.”
I felt warm. Far too warm. Was it just from Melvin’s body pressed over mine?
Melvin’s mouth traveled along my jaw — never quite touching me, always hinting that he was just a second away from kissing or biting or… god knows what. It was torture. “You’ve bowed to your fears often enough,” he cajoled. “Why not let me show you what happens when you choose the other side of the coin?”
My heart hammered incessantly, drowning out every other sound in the world. Except, of course, for Melvin’s whispered words — which would not get out of my head. I was going to say yes. I knew I was: I was too scared to say anything else, too scared to think anything else, too certain that he would only stop once he’d had his way with me — and far too desperate for him to stop to let him draw my agony out.
“Queef,” I whimpered.
That, apparently, had not been the response Melvin expected. He pulled back again, though not so far as he had when he’d been sitting up on my legs. For a second he tried to keep intimidating me, but the intensity of his stare wavered. His lips twitched. Finally, he sputtered a laugh that was not quite amused, but also not quite frustrated, angry, or cruel. He sat up again and threw up his hands.
“Seriously?” He asked. Then he shook his head. “You have no sense of dignity, Abigail, nor of adventure — and no idea what you’re missing out on. Just ask your friend Fumiko,” He added with a wink. “But no matter.” He stood. “I hope that my point is made, at least? There is no order you can give that can’t be twisted. I don’t know how you stole this power over me, but I can tell you that if you decide to use it, I will make my new game circumventing your every intention in the worst way you can imagine — and I am quite familiar with those things that frighten you the worst.”
I scrambled back and up to my feet. I tried to put as much distance between Melvin and myself as the alley would allow without running into the street — unfortunately, Melvin was between myself and the alley entrance, and a yard fence blocked the other way.
“Yeah,” I gasped. “You made your point.” I felt like I was flushed from head to toe. I was not at all convinced that he had been just intent on making a point, but I didn’t call him on it. I was too afraid of what he’d do.
Although, a sick and disturbed part of me noted, he did follow the rule about safe words when I didn’t leave him a technicality to ignore it on. And he did hop on one foot when I told him to. Admittedly, he’d hopped on my foot, but still: I did clearly have some kind of control over him. If he tried to do anything like this again, I could stop him. In fact, if I wanted to press my luck I could probably threaten to turn him into an on-demand blood bank if he ever tried pulling another stunt like this again…
No. No, I would not bait the damn sadist! What the fuck was wrong with me? This was not a fun encounter with Hans. Melvin was scary, unpredictable, and creepy. Just because he’d stopped this time, and saved my life a few times, and was in denial about being in love with me, and was kind of handsome in a disturbingly alien way, and had blood that tasted fucking fantastic… it didn’t mean I could trust that I would ultimately be safe around him! He was dangerous. Hell, the ‘handsome’ and ‘tasty’ bits just made him more dangerous, overall.
I glared at Melvin to let him know I wasn’t happy with his behavior, but he just grinned back at me. “Good,” he purred. “Now, why don’t you go ahead and answer my original question? What exactly did you do, Abigail?”
“Nothing,” I said bluntly. And I hadn’t. He’d sworn allegiance to Megan. And it was just his bad luck that Megan and I shared a part of a soul. I certainly hadn’t expected to be able to compel him through his oath to Megan, but apparently magic wasn’t bright enough to figure out that she and I weren’t the same person. Or maybe it just didn’t care? Or maybe I was over-anthropomorphizing some sort of mystic, universal force that didn’t actually follow any fully knowable rules, and Melvin had just had a really crappy roll of the dice when choosing his mistress. Or mistresses, as the case turned out to be.
Not that I wanted to be Melvin’s mistress!
Melvin’s eyes narrowed. “Abigail,” he warned. His tone hinted that he was dangerously close to the end of his patience.
“Honest!” I cried. I held up my hands defensively. “I didn’t mean for this at all. It’s just… You swore your allegiance to Megan, and…” I stopped before I could actually tell Melvin that Megan had been my first blood. One the one hand, I wanted to placate him. On the other, I was kind of worried about what he would do with that knowledge.
And on another hand — a hand that belonged to the gibbering part of my brain that hadn’t finished panicking earlier — I couldn’t help but notice that the shadows behind Melvin had started to move of their own volition. My jaw sank open wordlessly as they started to congeal. I tried to say something, but nothing came out — even though my brain was screaming oh shit oh shit oh shit as loudly as it could.
“What?” Melvin asked. I could tell from his tone that he was doing his best to feign patience. “And what, Abigail?”
Then it seemed to dawn on him that I wasn’t really looking at him anymore. Melvin twisted around to look over his shoulder, and then he pivoted fully and sprang backward toward me. His sword was already drawn in one hand; his other held the cane’s wooden sheath like a club and his arms were spread as though he were keeping me back.
Or maybe to keep himself between myself and them?
Them, because the first of the shadows had already turned into a row of fae — goblins, trolls, gremlins; all manner of monstrous beings were suddenly choking the entrance to the alley, clinging to the walls of the adjacent buildings and even descending on black wings to perch on the eaves above us. There were so many of them that some didn’t even seem to have enough room to manifest at all. Instead, a roiling cloud of shadows rippled and heaved around those that had already appeared, moving like a malevolent fog, blocking all view to or from the street beyond.
And at the front of the horde, grinning with gap-toothed, vindictive glee?