Megan turned easily through the steps of the dance. That had been the deal she’d been forced to strike with Archarel: he would treat Fumiko and her companion as guests so long as Megan stopped keeping to herself. It hadn’t been a hard deal for Megan to accept. Yes, on the one hand she knew that every interaction with another faerie was a risk, a chance for someone to slip a geas over her. But on the other? Fumiko’s safety was ensured. And, frankly: Megan was an extrovert. Keeping to herself when so many fascinating beings laughed and danced and talked around her had been driving her to distraction.
It probably helped that no one seemed to want to sink their hooks into her. Probably because they didn’t want to get in the way of Archarel’s bid to control her. Megan privately thought that Fumiko was actually in more danger of being tricked into becoming some faerie’s prize — but Fumiko was smart, no-nonsense, and had been there when Jack had been explaining to Megan about geases and all the ways a faerie could entrap someone.
Fumiko will be fine, Megan told herself as the song wound down. Megan gave her partner — a dryad in the form of a willowy woman with leaves for hair and smooth bark for skin — a curtsy. She hadn’t gotten a chance to speak to Fumiko, yet: they’d both been swarmed by fae. Probably on purpose, to keep us apart. Megan had felt secure enough for the moment to send Jack to Fumiko in her place. Once they’d had an opportunity to speak, he was to come back to Megan and bring her up to speed on what had been happening in the real world since her abduction.
Jack was still working his way through the crowd of faeries, though. While the courtesans imposing themselves on Megan had been reasonably polite about it, the faeries of Archarel’s court had descended on Fumiko like — as Abby would say — wild wolves on fresh bunny.
The thought made Megan smile even though it brought with it a pang of remorse. Abby. She must be frantic right now. She always blames herself when things go wrong. Even when they’re things she bears no responsibility for. It had only been a day, but Megan already missed her. And, before her unexpected arrival, Fumiko. And Emma, for that matter. Seeing Abby and Emma together had been… hard. She broke up with me so I would ask out the woman she knew I had a crush on, Megan thought. How ironic that now they’re together and I’m alone. The worst part was that Megan hadn’t wanted to break up with Emma in the first place. Things had been good between them. At least, Megan had thought so.
Megan even found herself missing Katherine. She hadn’t seen her friend — should I even still think of her as that? — since their arrival. All Archarel had been willing to say about her was that he’d given Katherine a home within his demesne. The only reason that Megan wasn’t worried that Archarel had killed Katherine was that she had gotten good enough with leylines to feel the one that extended between herself and the older woman. She couldn’t read anything from it, but at least she knew that Katherine was alive and in this world.
Megan’s partner returned her curtsy, distracting Megan from her mental wool gathering. Thus far each of Megan’s partners had been introduced to her by the one before — save for the first, who had been introduced by one of his friends. This time, however, when the dryad straightened and saw the white-haired faerie in a white tuxedo approaching, she studiously ignored him.
“It was a pleasure, Lady Megan,” the dryad said instead.
“Likewise, Lady Prudence,” Megan agreed. They shared a friendly smile and then the dryad slipped away, easily plucking another faerie out of the crowd as the musicians began another reel.
The faerie in white scowled at Prudence’s retreating back, but banished his expression of displeasure when he stepped forward to take Megan’s hand. “Lady Megan,” he nearly purred, “it is a pleasure to make your acquaintance. I am… one of Lord Archarel’s knights.” He bent and kissed the back of Megan’s hand. “We will doubtless come to know each other better throughout tomorrow, but I had hopes to manage our introduction before that unpleasant business in the mortal realm was undertaken.”
He shot Prudence another frown. “It is a pity that some of the more squeamish among us should let petty rudeness hinder such things.”
Megan arched her eyebrows. “Squeamish?” She’d actually rather enjoyed her dance with the dryad — Prudence had been soft spoken, light on her feet, and fascinatingly exotic. She’d also prefaced their dance with the statement: ‘I hereby swear to release you from any geas that the weave may bind between us, so long as I am aware of its existence and you wish to be unhindered by its presence.’ They actually hadn’t spoken much after that, as Megan had been going over the statement again and again, looking for a hidden loophole instead.
Megan hadn’t found one. Abby would have, if she’d been here and there was one. Emma would have just taken the oath at face value and peppered Prudence with questions, though. Megan had resolved to ask Jack his opinion of it, and then try to secure another dance with the dryad.
“Yes,” the faerie in white drawled. “Dryads always were an odd sort. Quite the thing to be, some decades ago. I suppose you could liken them to ‘vegans’ if you needed a mortal analogy. And I won’t lie: taking sustenance only from the auras of flora and those mortal energies that are directed towards their nurture requires an impressive amount of discipline. But it’s hardly the sort of thing that lets a faerie grow in strength, especially in a populated region of a modern industrialized nation. Most of that clique in Lord Archarel’s court have moved on with the times, allowing practicality to trump their so-called ‘moral’ objections, but Prudence keeps trying to make the case that she could thrive if she anchored to a community garden or park or some such. Lord Archarel won’t hear of it, of course. And wisely so: she would be easy prey, trapped in one locale like that, for the local vampire to hunt down.”
He shrugged. “Alas, she refuses to be reasonable and take on a different form, one more suited for feeding as our kind is meant to: on the emotions of more highly developed lives. And so she remains forbidden from traveling the mortal realm — and takes out her displeasure with such petty displays as the one you just witnessed. Always toward those of us who enjoy a more robust diet.” He snorted derisively. “Her company won’t win you any friends who matter,” the white-clad faerie said dismissively.
“Ah,” Megan said without thanking him for his explanation. “I see.” Inside, however, she was reeling. If there was a way for her to derive sustenance without preying on others… I have to know how, Megan thought. And not just for her own sake, but for Abby’s as well. Even if pushing energy to her isn’t as effective as blood is for Abby, if I can sustain myself and then willingly donate my blood to her… wouldn’t that fix things? Megan was uncomfortably aware of how their friendship had changed, and couldn’t shake the feeling that it was her fault. After all, Abby died trying to save me. I have to make that up to her. Somehow.
And it was in the middle of that thought that Megan felt her connection to Abigail suddenly swell. For a second, Megan was stunned. Abby? She reached out along the leyline, but she could no more read Abby’s emotions than she could Katherine’s: despite the open archways surrounding it, Archarel’s court was encompassed by a warded circle. Although Megan could feel the strengthened presence of the leyline between herself and Abby — and herself and Emma! — she couldn’t draw anything from them; not even enough to fuel her natural empathy.
The faerie in white settled his hand on Megan’s waist and pulled her into step with him. She wanted nothing more than to grab Fumiko and escape — to find Abby and Emma and run — but there was no more a way out of Archarel’s gathering now than there had been all night.
Maybe Jack can… Megan’s half-formed thought was interrupted by Archarel’s sudden appearance.
“Sir Etienne,” the faerie king said — interrupting their dance before it could begin. “I’m afraid I must relieve you of my future sister-in-law’s company. Philippe is throwing a bit of a fit: it seems a few more of Lady Megan’s friends have decided to crash my celebration.”
Sir Etienne released Megan. He took a step back and bowed. “Of course, Lord Archarel. Shall I bring them here?”
Archarel chuckled and shook his head. “No,” he said. “Not yet. I have shown Lady Megan that I can be kind and generous — now I think it is important for her to see the other side of the coin, lest she get it into her head that my kindness can be taken advantage of. Secure them in the dungeon, for now. But, Sir Etienne: So long as you do not kill them before I’ve decided what their long term use will be, you and your men may torment and draw from them as you please.” He smirked. “Should one of them be emptied before the break of dawn, then by all means bring that one here to serve as an object lesson. They can sit beside Lady Fumiko at our feasting table, so that Megan may more easily see the choice she is actually making if she were to choose to make a fuss when we bring her into the mortal world tomorrow.”
Sir Etienne released Megan. She barely refrained from blurting out a protest that could too easily be twisted into something she hadn’t meant to say. The white-clad faerie bowed low to Archarel again. “You are indeed generous, Lord Archarel.” He turned to Megan. “Fair Lady, perhaps we will have occasion to complete our dance in the future.”
Megan did not reply. She was too busy praying that her heart wouldn’t beat its way out of her chest. After the way Etienne had derided Prudence’s ‘veganism,’ the thought of Emma and Abby being set upon by a… a carnivore like him was terrifying.
I mustn’t let it show, Megan told herself. If they can see this frightens me, they’ll find a way to make it worse.
Sir Etienne frowned, but didn’t wait on Megan’s reply any longer than that. He gave her a stiff bow, then turned and strode toward one of the arches at the edge of the gathering. Megan stared blankly after him.
I have to do something, she thought. A… a deal. I can make another deal with Archarel, like I did for Fumiko. I can… I can willingly help him tomorrow. Megan’s chest clenched. Archarel had told her that he wasn’t after the city as a whole, like Abby had been afraid he was. He just wanted to ‘punish’ the changeling who had betrayed him. Except… Megan couldn’t willingly participate in someone else’s torture — or death. Not even for Abby and Emma. I could offer him something else. I could promise not to try to escape — that wouldn’t stop me from trying to help the changeling escape. Or… I could offer to swear allegiance to him, like Jack did to me. In exchange for all their lives.
Archarel’s eyes glinted as he watched Megan frantically thinking. Despite her best efforts, she could tell that he was having no difficulty in reading her. A small smirk graced his lips, prompting Megan to check her breathing — to try and calm down and think before she did something irrevocable. Archarel seemed content to let her stew. He probably knows not to bargain against himself, Megan thought bitterly. He knows that whoever came after me is going to be someone I care about. But does he realize how much? Megan shied away from that thought: she couldn’t tell, herself, which of the two she cared about more. But she did know that Abby faced even more danger at Archarel’s hands than Emma would. Abby was a vampire, after all. Oh no… does he know that one of them is Abby?!
But Megan didn’t get the chance to make her deal, or to probe the extent of Archarel’s knowledge. Before she could say anything, another person joined them. Orlina, the human Megan had replaced at birth.
“Lord Archarel,” Orlina inquired politely. She ignored Megan. “If it pleases you to bestow a boon upon your bride-to-be, may I be granted the pleasure of this dance?”
Archarel’s eyes glittered at Orlina’s submissive tone. His smirk, directed at Megan, broadened. He’s going to leave me, to make me wait and be more desperate for fear of whatever is happening to my friends before he lets me try to bargain with him, Megan realized.
“But of course, Lady Orlina,” Archarel answered in a sickeningly condescending tone. “I would not slight my bride-to-be by refusing her so simple a request on the very eve of our nuptials.”
Orlina stepped between Archarel and Megan. She curtsied low to the faerie king. “You are indeed quite gracious, Lord Archarel,” she said — and then pivoted in place. Megan found her hand in Orlina’s and Orlina’s hand on her waist before she even registered what was happening, and then Orlina executed a swift trio of steps that left the faerie king behind. Megan caught a brief glimpse of Archarel’s startled expression before Orlina led them among the other dancers and out of easy view of Archarel.
“What…” Megan started to ask, but Orlina interrupted her.
“We haven’t long,” Orlina said. “He won’t break his promise and interrupt, but he won’t give us longer to plot than he must.”
Megan blinked twice, but Orlina didn’t slow down at all.
“Megan,” Orlina said, “I’m sorry. I don’t want to marry him. I don’t have a choice. I know I’m just a pawn in this and he’s just using me to bind you to him. I can’t do anything about it: I was raised by faeries, and I am bound to your father’s court by geases so thick I would die if I defied them.”
“You don’t have to apologize,” Megan said — at an utter loss for how else to reply.
“I do,” Orlina contradicted her. “I have to make you understand. I’m not doing this of my own free will. I barely have my own free will, Megan. That’s why… that’s why I need you to understand what Archarel is really up to. The changeling he’s after? She’s the human half of a pair. Like me. Somehow she managed to defy him; to betray him. Somehow she survived it. And now he wants to kill her. And he probably will. And I don’t think you can stop that any more than I could stop your father from sending me to be Lord Archarel’s bride. But Megan, please: I need you to find out how Lord Archarel’s changeling slipped her bonds.”
Megan’s eyes widened as she felt the weight of Orlina’s request settle against her soul. If she did this thing, Megan knew, then Orlina would become bound to her.
But Orlina wasn’t done. She twirled Megan and caught her, stepped around another pair and said: “Please, Megan, if you feel any obligation to me for the life you’ve lived — the life that was stolen from me and given to you — then you must help me. Find out how a changeling can escape a faerie court, and help me flee your father’s.”
Megan’s jaw trembled. For all that she had been stunned when Jack had introduced Orlina to Archarel’s court, she hadn’t thought about what it must have been like for a human to be raised surrounded by faeries. “I will,” Megan whispered. She didn’t have a choice: she did feel a debt for the life she’d lived, for Orlina’s stolen childhood, and she could feel that debt taking root and flowering through her soul as she became aware of it. “I’ll find a way for us to both be free,” Megan said. “I promise.”