Sir Etienne didn’t waste time letting the other fae be amazed by his deductive reasoning. Almost as soon as he finished explaining how he knew I was a witch and Emma was a vampire, he laughed at their stunned expressions and waved his hand, indicating Emma and the fae holding her.
“Take her away,” Sir Etienne said. “Somewhere dark and secure. Lord Archarel will want to deal with her personally, after his wedding.”
The fae holding Emma practically scurried back through the archway we had entered from. I was just as glad: the longer they stayed, the more likely it would be that one of them broke down under the weight of their conflicting obligations and told Sir Etienne he was wrong. ‘Dark and secure’ didn’t sound good, but if Lord Archarel was supposed to deal with her personally, later, then that probably meant she would be safe for the moment.
The departure of the others left Sir Etienne, my troll, and myself alone.
“Are we… are we taking this one to the festivities, then?” The troll rumbled. Despite his inherently deep, gravelly voice I could hear the hitch of nervousness in his tone. I recognized that too easily to be mistaken: he was scared, probably just as scared as the other fae had been when Sir Etienne had made his mistaken announcement as to my and Emma’s identities.
I could imagine why: Lord Archarel was his lord. And if I was brought into the faerie king’s presence I would be looking for a way to kill him. And that was probably a much larger conflict of obligations than just keeping his mouth shut about Sir Etienne’s mistake after Sir Etienne himself absolved the lot of them of having to identify me, anyway.
Sir Etienne chuckled. He smiled at the troll, then let his eyes slide down to me. He was still holding my face, his thumb and fingers mashing my cheeks painfully through the gag. “Just a moment, Reid,” he said to the troll.
Sir Etienne ran his fingers down my cheek and the gag disintegrated as his fingers stroked over it. My heart started to hammer uncomfortably. He hooked his fingers under the ski hat that Daniel had given me and pulled it up over my face. I wanted to swallow, but my mouth was dry. There was nothing overtly sexual about it, but about seventy-five percent of my being was screaming some variation of oh god no he’s stripping me I’m still chained this is bad help me help me help help help…
It didn’t help that the first thing I tried to do once the gag was gone was breathe in deeply, but I was too nervous to do more than start hyperventilating.
“There we go,” Sir Etienne said. He studied my face for a moment, then smiled at me. “No,” he said to the troll — to Reid — while carefully watching my expression. Sir Etienne’s lips quirked in a slight smile when I whimpered. Oh god, he’s like Eyelids. Something bad is happening and he doesn’t just want me to see it coming, he wants to see me see it coming. The realization whipped my panic into even more of a frenzy.
“No,” Sir Etienne continued. “We will not be bringing her to the festivities just yet. Lord Archarel has already conveyed the message to Lady Megan that he can be a kind and generous liege. With this one he has instructed me to convey a different message.” Sir Etienne continued to watch me with that sick half-grin. I knew he was watching my emotions, too. He was a faerie and I was terrified: it was probably intoxicating. My aura wasn’t being stolen though, which could only mean that he intended to frighten me even more before tearing into me.
“My instructions were to choose the most expendable of Lady Megan’s friends to arrive this time, and make an example of them,” Sir Etienne said calmly — as though he were just saying he had been instructed to greet someone at the door, not torture them in obscene ways that I couldn’t even imagine… even though my paranoid half was doing its damnable best to try.
He’s going to start by chaining me down to something, I know it. Then cut off my clothes. Dehumanize me, not that faeries seem to need to dehumanize humans before tormenting them. The sun will start to burn, unless the Reid keeps looming over me. The thought of a massive troll — the same one who had been taking my oh god there’s a man behind me panic response and fucking it violently since the moment he’d grabbed me — in proximity to my naked, helpless self brought up a series of images that almost made me start crying again in fear. I know I was whimpering.
So, Hans wasn’t going to be my first after all. Unless Reid’s debt kept him from doing anything too horrible to me.
What was I thinking? In that case, Sir Etienne would be the one to be the rapist, wouldn’t he?
I tried to open my mouth: to command Reid to release me, or to tackle Sir Etienne, or to do something. But instead my autopilot started babbling for me. “Please no,” I begged. “Please. Don’t.” Sir Etienne’s almost-grin broadened into a full smile. It made me feel sick as my mind kept throwing up images of how he could torture me.
He’s going to get an egg timer, a tiny part of me proposed. He’s going to hold you down and have his way with you for five minutes at a time, until you start to want it not to stop because it only stops when a fucking alarm goes off.
My eyes widened at the thought. For all that it was sick and horrible and managed to tie fucking alarms in with my fear of being raped and murdered, the tiny part of me that had proposed it also realized it was ridiculous. That didn’t stop the rest of me from freaking the fuck out, but it did give my autopilot another track to follow. I started to laugh.
They were anxiety-driven peals of nerve-wracked giggles, the kind you have before a very serious mental collapse. “Please no,” my autopilot begged — but it wasn’t the version that obeyed my fears. It was the version that said fucked up weird shit just to screw with people and prove that I wasn’t afraid even if I really was. “Not the egg timer. Anything but that! I swear: I’ll give you the launch codes. Just don’t make an alarm ring at me, for the love of anything good!”
Sir Etienne recoiled in surprise. His eyes narrowed in a frown that didn’t reach his lips. “Laughter in the face of fear? Mocking my intentions won’t save you, little witch.”
“That’s too bad,” my autopilot shot back. “I don’t actually know the launch codes. Sorry.” A larger part of my mental reserves were getting under control. Alarms drove me fucking nuts, but I wasn’t afraid of them. Or maybe I was — but in the moment, with my aura torn up from entering Archarel’s realm uninvited, that part of my usual psyche was helpfully diminished. And since I’d effectively started obsessing about being tortured with timers instead of… no, I wasn’t going to undo my relative grip on myself by thinking about the things I wasn’t thinking about anymore.
“What launch codes?” Sir Etienne shouted in exasperation. I felt for him, I really did. Removing my gag so I could react to being scared had been a critical mistake on his part. I could talk now, and so far every time I’d been able to talk around fae I’d managed to trick them, or intimidate them, or generally screw their plans over. I knew my luck with that couldn’t last, but the half of me that knew that — the half that was terrified — was dwindling. It had been seventy-five percent of myself, just a moment ago.
Own it, I reminded myself. Own the fuck out of it. This guy wants to torment you? Fuck with him first. “To the nukes,” I threw back flippantly.
“Stop it,” Sir Etienne snapped.
I smiled at him. “I can’t. I just told you: I don’t have the launch codes.” I affected a concerned tone. “I know you faeries live for like, ever, but have you considered checking into a home for the elderly? Hearing is supposed to be the first to go.”
Sir Etienne twitched. “I am not amused,” he said. I recognized his tone of voice: I’d annoyed people with my insane rambling often enough to recognize that, too.
“Neither is the queen of England,” I said, “But I don’t hear her threa…” Abruptly I was gagged again: phantasmal cloth just appearing in my mouth and strapped into place. I choked on it despite knowing it was an illusion. Fucking glamours, I thought before the realization that I’d just been silenced again hit. My emotions surged. My internal balance didn’t tip in favor of fear, though. It was more like fear dumped everything on the other side into a garbage disposal, and then ate the fucking scale.
Oh god no, I thought. Why the fuck hadn’t I said something useful? What was wrong with me?! I’d had one chance to get Reid to do something, and I’d fucking thrown it away being neurotic. I didn’t need a therapist. I needed to be on suicide watch, because I was clearly trying to die as horribly as possible.
The anticipation was worst, so I reached out for Reid’s leyline. At least I’d be able to tell when he was going to rip my arms out before he actually did it.
Except he didn’t seem to be getting ready to follow an order to tear my limbs off and beat me to death with them. Or do anything else to me. My eyes widened slightly. Reid had been anxious before, but now he was terrified.
Oh, yeah, I thought, he knows he owes me. He knows I’m a vampire — the scariest undead around. And he knows I could have made him do something to help me. But instead I just joked around like I wasn’t actually afraid… and pissed off the guy in charge of ‘making a message’ out of me. So clearly Reid thinks I have some sort of plan that doesn’t even rely on him at all. I wanted to giggle, but the gag ruined that. Sir Etienne had seen through my bullshit, but I wondered if Reid actually thought there were a bunch of nukes somewhere with covens of warlocks around them just waiting to get the code to gate them into Archarel’s kingdom.
I wonder if that would work…
Dammit, I hoped not: It wouldn’t help me now, and I did not need a reason to actually fucking know some nuclear launch codes after I got out of this mess.
Etienne took a breath to calm himself and glared at me. “As I was saying,” he said, “I was asked to deliver a message through you.” He tilted his head while he studied me. There was a slight crinkle to his brow, and I wondered if he was as confused about how much more afraid I’d suddenly gotten as I was angry with myself for not capitalizing on the opportunity he’d briefly given me. I wasn’t confused as to why I hadn’t taken it, though. I know I’m probably insane.
I tried to laugh again, but the gag was just as effective as it had been before: all that came out were inarticulate whimpers. Or at least, that’s probably what they sounded like to Sir Etienne, since he smiled on hearing them. Reid, on the other hand, seemed to realize what I was trying to do — maybe because he was holding me and I was trembling like someone with the giggles instead of like someone trying to curl up in fear. I felt his hands tighten around my arms and the sense of anxious fear I was picking up through his leyline — which was much clearer now that I knew his name on top of the fact that he owed me — spiked up to a new plateau.
Sir Etienne smirked. “However, I have a few messages to convey, myself. Lord Archarel wants Lady Megan to know just how serious his displeasure can be. But there is nothing preventing me from attending to a few of my own desires along the way.”
Etienne tapped my nose playfully. This time my muffled squeak was a cry of fear. His grin spread at that, and he opened his mouth to say something — but then he looked up and behind me, instead. Toward the archway we had come through and Emma had left through.
I couldn’t bring myself to look. Reid was blocking most of my vision in that direction, anyway.
“Ah, Nathaniel,” Sir Etienne said cheerfully. “I have a gift for you.” He chuckled. “I was just explaining to this little morsel how much I wished to convey to the knights under my appointment that I would see to their well-being, and so their loyalty should be to me and not that failure Philippe. Of course, to prove my point — and to let her mistress know that crippling one of my men is unacceptable, I simply had to let you have her first.”
I heard a startled intake of breath from the faerie who had arrived — Nathaniel. I squeezed my eyes shut. I should have said something before he arrived, when it was just Etienne and Reid and my mouth was free to give commands. My heart thumped like a drum beating out a meter of doom.
“That is unexpectedly generous,” Nathaniel replied, and my eyes flew open again. I twisted my head to the side and stared.
Nathaniel looked back at me. His expression was almost unreadable: I could glean nothing from it except the glitter of sadistic glee in his eyes.
“Drain her to emptiness, Nathaniel,” Sir Etienne ordered. “Your current form is too ravaged to be of use in the mortal realm, and I need my people to be in fighting trim when morning breaks. We have Lord Archarel’s blessing to break her, so do. Be as violent as you need to take her aura, so long as she lives through the experience.” Sir Etienne smiled. “It is your first task under my command. Drain her aura completely, and take your new form from her fears. Then, when her soul has recovered, you may use it to drain her again, and again — until there is nothing but gibbering madness left.” He transferred his smile to me. “Then, when the witch is too far gone to be of entertainment, we will throw her in with her vampire mistress. She will be starving, by then. She will kill you, witch, for the little scraps of life that might cling to your tattered soul.”
My heart thumped harder. Sir Etienne’s words sank into me, and I was distantly horrified that this was what he would have done to Emma had he not confused the two of us. But I was only distantly aware of that, because all the rest of me was still trying to process the presence of the faerie who Etienne had just given my soul to for a meal. Nathaniel.
Nathaniel looked gaunt to the point of starvation: like a twisted caricature of a goblin. His eyes were sunken deep in his skull, but glittered with the malice I remembered from when last we met. He was taller than I remembered, too. His form had changed, but his voice was unmistakable.
“Of course, Sir Etienne,” Pipsqueak replied without looking away from me. “This shall be a pleasure.”