“Lord Archarel!” Mr. Eyelids called out. He wasn’t talking to me anymore. “Lord Archarel, your humble servant calls for your attention. Lord Archarel, I have a gift you shall value far beyond the inconvenience of stepping away from your celebration. I swear it!”
I shivered. My hands were sweating again — my palms, now. It had nothing to do with the faerie land sun, either. I knew that Archarel had to have heard Mr. Eyelids calling to him, just like Melvin always knew when I mentioned his name. I didn’t know if Archarel could actually hear what was being said, but the words were still what made me start to tremble: away from your celebration.
Were we too late? Has Archarel already found a way to trick Megan into wedding him? Or did he just force her? I felt sick. I felt small and helpless and hopeless.
Most of all, I felt despair.
I was too late. We were too late. God alone knew what Archarel had already done to Megan. Even if I could by some miracle free my self and rescue Megan now, I’d never be able to undo her suffering at the faerie king’s hands.
I’ve had more than my fair share of fantasies about Megan. And a lot of them haven’t been nice. Maybe none of them. Not really. But the thought of someone taking her without her consent, raping her for real undid me. I choked on my gag — I couldn’t sob. Tears that I’d tried to hold back when all I’d had to cope with was Mr. Eyelids intimidating me began to spill freely. I slumped. I would have collapsed were it not for the troll holding me upright.
All I’ve done, I realized, is get Emma and Fumiko caught, too. And Bonbon.
And on the realization’s heels came another thought.
Oh, God: What was Archarel going to do to them?!
Before my imagination could torment me with more than a deluge of nightmares — and those were enough to horrify me for the rest of my life — the air in one of the archways around the ‘room’ shimmered. I almost didn’t notice: I was too busy choking back the dead blood I’d thrown up against my gag. My enhanced senses wouldn’t let me miss anything, though. Not even with my imagination taunting me with images of Emma and Fumiko broken, bleeding: finger nails torn out, skin flayed, eyelids cut away.
Out of the shimmering air stepped a faerie. This is my chance, I realized in desperation. Archarel was coming out from behind his guards in response to Mr. Eyelids’ summons. If I broke the troll’s grip and killed Archarel now…
…Emma would die at Mr. Eyelids’ hands. He would run her through with his spear the instant I broke free, just as he’d sworn to. The troll and the other fae would pull me off of Archarel: I couldn’t just kill the faerie king or he would just reform his glamour of a body elsewhere. Or did it work differently in this world? Killing a faerie in our world banished them back to here — what happened to them if they died while they were here? I didn’t know, but I didn’t think it would be that easy. If it were, the ghouls and werewolves and witches and warlocks of The Center would have been able to press on with that offensive that John had wanted: the one he’d said couldn’t be launched because the eternal sun in faerie lands made an assault by vampires utterly impractical.
No, I had to destroy Archarel or he would survive. And I didn’t have the time to drain him — not with so many of his fae on hand to drag me away. Oh, I could get around that by freezing time — except I couldn’t. The very thought made me choke and puke again. Dead blood overfilled my mouth. Held back by the gag, it backwashed up my nose, burning my nasal cavity and dribbling down my lip. I was forced to re-swallow the horrid stuff. It tasted and smelled like rot and metal, and made my stomach roil sickly.
No. I can’t. The memory of the last time — of the agony when I’d been frozen in time for an indeterminate number of infinities while Lewellan’s half-formed geas ripped slivers out of my soul — wouldn’t let me. I can’t! The realization made me hate myself for failing even more.
I forced myself to look up at Archarel. My eyes skimmed past Emma. She held herself straight. Her chin was raised. Despite her gag, her eyes screamed angry defiance.
Not so, me. I was defeated, and I knew it.
“Sir Etienne?” Mr. Eyelids asked suddenly, angrily. “I did not call you.”
The faerie I had initially mistaken for Archarel rolled his eyes at Mr. Eyelids’ protest and stepped further into the roofless bedroom. He had long, white hair that was tied back in a pony tail at the nape of his neck. He wore a white tuxedo over a deep blue dress shirt, with a white bow tie and silver cuff links glinting at his wrists. His ears came up to points above his tied back hair, and he had the same golden, cat-slit eyes as Melvin.
“No,” Sir Etienne agreed with Mr. Eyelids. “You didn’t. Because you are an idiot, possessed of the mistaken belief that anything could drag Lord Archarel from his prenuptial festivities.”
My breath caught. My heart started to pound again. Prenuptial festivities? With that one phrase, Sir Etienne claimed the title of being my favorite person in existence. My emotions did flip-flops while I stared at him, silent behind my gag. Was there… was there still time? Still hope?
Sir Etienne grinned at Mr. Eyelids’ outraged growl. “I’ll have you know, you owe me for this, Philippe. I was pulled away from a dance with a lovely young nymph because of your insistence in annoying Lord Archarel. I could have been pulling her behind a discreet pillar right about now. But instead….” He spread his hands and shrugged. “Let us just say that you are not as lovely an alternative, shall we?”
“No,” Mr. Eyelids softly protested. Then, more angrily: “No. You may have taken my post, Etienne, but you will not take these two and claim my rightful reward for their capture! I will not allow it!”
“Capture?” Sir Etienne’s eyebrows rose in exaggerated astonishment. “Philippe, what is it that you think befell those last two you called the guards on?” He chuckled: a rich, friendly noise. “They’re at the party, even now. Lady Fumiko and Lady Megan are old friends, and Miss Jamie is Lady Fumiko’s familiar. Lord Archarel invited them both to join the festivities in order to demonstrate his graciousness to Lady Megan and earn some small measure of her good will. Why ever would you think these two ladies will be any different?”
I wanted to laugh. Fumiko was a guest at the party? Hostage, my paranoid side corrected me. But still: Fumiko was okay. And if Archarel was still trying to win Megan over, then maybe she was, too. And now? Now I was going to be taken there as well? As soon as Sir Etienne had my gag removed I could suborn the guards with their debt to me. All I had to do was make them acknowledge it… Wait, no. They already have. They all fled after I nabbed Pipsqueak, which means they were all afraid I’d do it to them, which means they’re mine.
My despair seesawed dizzyingly into hope. And then Mr. Eyelids opened his mouth and sent it crashing back down.
“Because,” he growled, “while one of these ‘ladies’ is just Katherine’s apprentice, the other one is a vampire.” Mr. Eyelids’ lips curved in a taunting smile.
For just a second, Sir Etienne hesitated. His eyes scanned over me, and then Emma, and then returned to Mr. Eyelids. “How dull, Philippe,” he finally said. “I take it you won’t be informing me as to which is which?”
Mr. Eyelids smirked. He lowered his spear. “If you mean to take the credit for their capture, then you may also take responsibility for who they are. You, Sir Etienne, not I. I wash my hands of them.”
The corners of Sir Etienne’s mouth drifted back up in a mocking smile. “Why Philippe,” he observed, “withholding information on which Lord Archarel’s safety may depend — that seems perilously close to treason.”
“Treason?” Mr. Eyelids spat back. “Me? Certainly you can’t be serious. Yes, if Archarel were destroyed then his hex on my Katherine would unwind and I would be free of this exile — but I am a loyal servant. I sought to inform him of the threat and deliver her in chains. But if you intend to bring an assassin to the festivities, I can hardly be held accountable for your treasonous actions, Sir Etienne. I, after all, am trapped in this miserable exile and you have come to relieve me of my due credit. Do you intend such treachery, Sir Etienne? If so then by all means: walk her right past all of Lord Archarel’s guards.” Mr. Eyelids smirked. “I’ve faced off with her often enough to know not to underestimate her. I doubt she will be able to destroy him, but I know it will not improve your standing in his court if you get him attacked — or even killed. I may even be awarded my station back,” he added with a chuckle. “Or you can admit to Lord Archarel that I have captured the vampire who opposed his invitations to the Lady Megan, call him here to take her from my hands, and let me reclaim Lord Archarel’s good will.”
Sir Etienne waited for Mr. Eyelids to finish, then snorted and shook his head. “Philippe, Philippe, Philippe,” he chided. “This is why I have command of your men now, and you don’t: you think yourself more clever than you are.” He gestured to the fae holding Emma and to the troll holding me: a beckoning for them to follow him. “What I intend is for you to remain here, festering in boredom like you deserve. I will not dance about with indecision to entertain you. But I will relieve you of your companions — my followers, now.” He turned to the other fae. “Gentlemen, your leave for the duration of Lord Archarel’s festivities has been rescinded. Come with me, and bring the two ladies with you.” He returned his attention to Mr. Eyelids and smiled. “Farewell, Philippe. Or fare ill. In either case, I leave you to enjoy the oh-so-stimulating company of your witch.”
Sir Etienne turned on his heel and strode back through the arch. He disappeared rather than passing through to the other side. Without hesitation, the fae who held Emma followed. She struggled and kicked, but they did not let her free. The troll who held me shuffled after them: still stooped over me so that I could walk in front of him and his bulk shielded me from the sun. I didn’t struggle. I didn’t want him to lift me from the ground — to straighten, and leave me to bake again.
When we passed through the arch I held my breath and squeezed my eyes shut. Then the troll stopped moving, and I realized I couldn’t hear Katherine’s heartbeat anymore. We were somewhere else, and I hadn’t even noticed whatever the process was that took us there. I opened one eye to take in my surroundings.
We were in another open-roofed ‘room,’ this one with less greenery and more marble. Sir Etienne had stopped just steps from the archway and turned around; Emma and I were being held for his inspection. The fae holding Emma seemed nervous about something. I didn’t know if the troll holding me was as well.
Sir Etienne looked up from his perusal of Emma and I and laughed at the expressions on his followers’ faces. It was the same friendly laugh he’d used while taunting Mr. Eyelids. “Relax,” he said. “I am not about to test your debts to Philippe against your duty to me by ordering you to reveal which is which. This is a game for which I am easily a match.”
The fae around Emma did seem to relax slightly, but didn’t say anything back. Conflicting debts, I thought, mean conflicting geases. That would be bad for them — their auras would be torn up no matter what they did. Can I use that at all?
Not while you’re still gagged, my pessimism pointed out to myself, cheerfully.
Sir Etienne went back to examining Emma and me. Emma glared back at him angrily. When it was my turn and he leaned in to look at me I found myself intimidated by his clinical gaze, and couldn’t make myself meet his eyes. I was less worried about Fumiko and Megan — at least momentarily — and more and more aware that I was gagged, bound and helpless. And of all the ways that could go horribly sideways. Melvin would have a field day with this, I thought.
I really, really hoped I wasn’t blushing.
Finally Sir Etienne straightened and took a step back. “She is the vampire,” he declared while pointing at Emma. His finger swung to point at me. “And she is the witch.”
If my jaw wasn’t already forced open around the gag, it would have dropped in shock. What? How had he gotten it backward? The fae around Emma shifted uneasily: probably trying to figure out the same thing. Possibly trying to figure out if they had to say something now that Sir Etienne had gotten it wrong, or if they could keep silent because he’d told them he wasn’t going to make them pick their obligations as his followers over their debts to Mr. Eyelids.
Sir Etienne smirked at them. “Relax, I said,” he said. “You didn’t give it away. It just wasn’t that hard to figure out. If any of you had been here when Katherine first arrived, you would have heard her bitch about how her apprentice had fallen for another vampire. Well, look at them. The witch’s aura is diminished, while the vampire’s is nearly intact. Clearly she has been feeding on her lover.” He held up a finger. “That’s one.”
“Next,” Sir Etienne continued, “Look at them. Look at their auras. She,” he gestured to Emma, “clearly wants to eat us alive. While the witch has been terrified this entire time.” He chuckled. “Philippe told me not to underestimate her, and I’ll take his advice: obviously the vampire who killed Salvatore and usurped his city, bested Philippe twice and sent the lot of you cowering back to our world isn’t the one who’s been weeping in fear and despair this whole time.”
Sir Etienne smirked. “And for a third, even more obvious tell…” He nodded toward Emma again. “Keep looking at her aura. It is depleting. Burning away under the sun’s rays.”
I snapped a panicked glance at Emma — and at her leyline. Her aura was depleting. But it wasn’t because of the sun. It was because of the taint of the vampire curse, eating its way down to her soul. How long does she have before she goes comatose again? I had to save Megan. Save Megan, so Megan can save Emma. Save Fumiko, so Fumiko can save Megan. Save all of them, so all the horrible things that happen otherwise won’t be my fault.
“And if looking at their auras isn’t evidence enough,” Sir Etienne concluded. “Look at her face.” He stepped forward and cupped my chin; his fingers mashed into my cheeks and he tilted me toward the fae holding Emma. I wanted to scream. I wanted to run. I wanted to kick him. But I couldn’t even move. All I could do was think: I’m bound. Gagged. Manhandled. Helpless. Help. Help, help help help help… in a frantic circle.
“A vampire heals if they have the magic to,” Sir Etienne said with authority. “And if they do not, then their wounds are dry. Either they have the magic to heal themselves, or they are starving and lack blood.” He snorted. “And that is why Philippe is an idiot. Anyone who knows anything can figure out that the one with the nosebleed is not the vampire.”