Sinking my fangs into Etienne’s neck was an exercise in ecstasy. His heart beat like a rabbit’s, pumping shadowy faerie blood out for my indulgence. I reveled in it. The only partially physical blood coiled and drifted in my mouth like smoke — or wine that insisted on swishing itself. I swallowed it down and felt life rush into my aura.
I may have moaned slightly in delight.
“No! Please, mercy!” Sir Etienne’s pleas didn’t fall on deaf ears — if anything, they rang in my supernaturally sensitive hearing. Unfortunately for him, the cries only inspired a surge of predatory greed. I bit down harder, sinking my regular teeth into his flesh — not enough to tear a chunk out of him, but certainly enough to be felt, to leave marks.
I grinned to myself when Etienne cried out again. He struggled to free himself but even though faerie glamours had real substance in this realm he was no match for me in raw strength. I worried my teeth in his neck, shearing open his skin and drinking deeply as I did.
Sir Etienne’s oath of fealty came out in a babble of promises. To obey me. To follow my orders in spirit and letter. To serve me. Honestly, I wasn’t really listening after the first two. I could feel him binding himself more tightly to me — and that was enough. For the moment, all that really mattered was the taste of blood and surge of life. I was too lost in indulgent bliss to be bothered with paying real attention to Etienne’s nattering promises.
Unfortunately, I did have other things that required my attention. Eventually — after taking off the edge of my hunger to the extent that the sun no longer burned — I forced myself to relax my jaw. I eased my fangs out of Sir Etienne’s neck and sucked gently on the leftover punctures. They closed far too quickly, leaving my tongue with only unbroken skin to play over.
I pulled my lips away with a little pop of suction that sounded pleasantly similar to the smack of a kiss. The thought made me smile: between Melvin, Pips, Etienne and Megan I was acquiring quite the harem of faeries. Given my living self’s typical fears, Pipsqueak’s ‘new form’ was likely to be impressively attractive, too. And muscled enough to at least play at holding me down.
Perhaps it was just the rush of life and the fact that the urge to reproduce was one of those major ‘life’ instincts. Or perhaps it was just that my libido was a thing that was real — and that didn’t frighten me when I was more dead than alive. Or maybe it was just that it was Etienne’s life force that had eased my thirst, and he had been rather obsessed with getting back to his nymph. In any event, I was aroused enough to want to do something about it. It was a fucking shame that other things conspired to take precedence, because Hans’ wolf had always been right, in its primitive way: Hunt. Eat. Fuck. They were the most basic of urges, and I’d already caught and tasted my prey.
With a sigh, I made myself sit up, though. Sir Etienne scrambled out from between my legs, then up to his feet while he continued to back away. I tilted my head to look at him and tsked. “Now now, Etienne,” I purred. “Don’t be afraid. I’ve spared your life. I won’t be ending it in the immediate future.” I smiled, as an instant later the immediate future came and went, leaving the promise unraveling before it could even hook into me — although the weave didn’t seem inclined to compel me to follow that one. I let my smile widen while I stood. So, it seemed that I was only bound by faerie limitations like geased promises when I was holding energy in my aura that I had ‘pulled’ rather than that I had ‘drunk.’ It was good to know, and all the more reason to prefer blood over having a faerie push aura — or pulling it myself.
Not that I needed any more reason than the sheer act of drinking blood itself: the predatory rush, the intoxicating taste, the…
I realized I’d taken two steps toward Sir Etienne and grabbed him by the shirt when he whimpered in fear. My smile narrowed slightly, as did my eyes. I was thirsty enough for it to be distracting, even though I’d managed to take the edge off — and the sun wasn’t helping. Perhaps Sir Etienne was right to be frightened.
No, there was no ‘perhaps’ about it. I was a predator, and I owned him. He had every right to be terrified, and I rather appreciated that he was. But I had managed to regain control of myself before I’d ripped his neck open a second time — and he didn’t need to know that I’d been on the verge of slipping.
I looked up into his eyes and provided my best sultry smile. Since his life force was becoming me, I knew that our emotions were linked — he had to have felt all of my hungers, just as I’d felt his preoccupation with the nymph he’d left at the party. I ran my tongue over my lips and stepped closer than I probably should — just to test my will against the desire to sink my fangs into him, and to feel someone’s body pressed against my own, and to make him even more uncomfortable — and, vindictively, to freak myself out when I finally had the leisure to sate my thirst and returned to my ‘living’ self.
“If you are afraid, though,” I purred, “perhaps you should follow up on those promises and make yourself useful by doing something about this sun.”
Almost instantly, a parasol coalesced over the two of us. It was wide and frilly: white cloth with a faint cream pattern of birds woven into it, trimmed with soft blue lace. For all that it was just one of Sir Etienne’s glamour’s, it blocked the sun admirably.
“Very good, Sebastian,” I praised him.
He hesitated. “Sebastian?” he asked weakly.
“The best butlers have to be named Sebastian,” I assured him. Then I arched an eyebrow. “Unless you mean to tell me that you don’t intend to serve me to your best, Sebas.”
Sebastian blanched. “No, not at all,” he babbled. “I mean, of course I will serve my best… Ma’am?”
I smiled and took the parasol from him. Then, leaving Sebastian to sweat out his nerves I turned around. Reid the troll was sitting on his heels in the corner of the ‘room,’ with his massive hands covering his ears. His lips were bit together and my supernatural hearing could pick up on the fact that he was humming to himself.
I snickered and waved for Reid to get up, signaling that he could rejoin our conversation. Now that I had the leash — or noose — on Sebastian, it was time to see if I could secure my hold over the troll as well.
Before I could say a thing, though, Reid spoke up. “I know how you operate, Abigail,” he said. “Nathaniel told me. I shielded you from the sun. And now I’m promising not to interfere with you in your conflict with Lord Archarel. And that makes us even.”
I blinked in surprise. So far, Reid was the only one of the fae who owed me who had gotten a chance to make good before I’d gotten a chance to threaten his existence. Shielding me from the sun had been an unasked for favor on his part, and his promise not to make trouble for me had — now that I was paying attention to our connection — accounted for the boon he owed me. He was smarter than he looked, and more cautious than Sebastian, and I wanted that among my allies.
“Reid,” I said when he lowered his hands and faced me. “I would prefer your oath of service.” I left the statement flatly between us, without any threats to adorn it other than those implied simply by my being what I was. Frankly, I was slightly surprised Reid hadn’t fled entirely when I’d told him to dis-include himself from my conversation with Sebastian: at this point there was nothing to prevent him from simply disappearing somewhere along a leyline and hiding until I departed.
“That’s not an option,” the big troll said.
I allowed a frown to curve my lips. Apparently, being able to freely teleport away was giving him some measure of his courage back. I wondered if he had been unable to do the same when he’d been holding me, and if that had accounted for his fear then — or if it was more that having the balance between us at an even keel was what allowed him to so casually gainsay me.
Reid hastily held up his hands. “Don’t misunderstand me. I can’t because I swore not to trouble you, Miss. If I actively help you, then that puts me in direct conflict with the bindings Archarel has over me. One way or another, I’d have to break an oath.”
I nodded in understanding. “And that would break you,” I concluded. “How unfortunate. What would it take to remove that complication?”
Reid gave me a gap-toothed grin of chiseled teeth. “That’s not an option, either,” the troll said. “You’d have to make a deal with him, or kill him. Lord Archarel, I mean. When a fae dies, they lose something. Not… not a quantity of their aura, but when we coalesce again it’s never quite the same. Different bits of the released aura bind back together in the form of the soul; bits of soul that don’t pull together in time dissolve into aura. So sometimes it’s a few memories that go foggy — little details that go missing, or that come back. And sometimes it’s a connection that unwinds — or snaps back in place.”
“And before you think about killing me until I lose my connection to Archarel,” Reid hastily added, “That won’t work. He holds the balance of power between us. So if you want to wrest me free of Lord Archarel, you’d have to either make a deal he found fair enough to accept, or kill him enough times that he loses his grip on me and I can break loose.” Reid laughed. “Or take both routes and kill him enough times that he gives up the tie between us in exchange for not getting killed anymore,” he said.
I nodded thoughtfully. Melvin had forgotten about his bandage after one too many deaths: it was how I’d identified him when he was in the form of Zane. “What if I just destroyed him?” I asked.
Reid sputtered out a disbelieving laugh. “Holy shit,” he said. “Your warlock said that Lord Archarel was screwed if he started a war with you, but….” He stopped slowly. “Are you serious?” he asked quietly.
“Of course,” I answered back. My warlock? Did Reid know Mr. Kallaher? Or Kelvin? “You fae seem only to understand obligation, intimidation, and force. I’ve bound Archarel’s fae in the mortal realm. I’ve intimidated them into staying out of my way, twice. Archarel himself still doesn’t seem to have gotten the message, so I am going to deal with him directly, now. And in the event that I decide to simply put him out of my annoyance, would you be inclined to accept me as a new liege?” I needed the donors, and fae were the best. If I could get Reid to bind himself to me without having to threaten his life, then that would be perfect: especially since he was clearly wary enough of me to flee at an instant’s provocation, now that he had paid back the boon he owed me.
Reid swallowed. Abruptly he looked very nervous again, and I felt almost the same level of fear roiling inside his aura as I had when he’d been holding me. He glanced at Sebastian, and then back at me. “Yeah,” Reid finally said. “Yeah, I would.”
Sebastian made a strangled sound. I felt the brief clash of oaths on the other side of the leyline that connected us and laughed. “Relax, Sebastian,” I said without bothering to look at him. “I’m not about to suborn one of ‘your’ men into a mutiny against Archarel that you would be oath-bound to prevent at the same time as you are oath-bound to support me. Everything we’re talking about is purely speculative, and predicated on the notion that Reid would serve me after Archarel was gone. There would be no conflict at that point.”
I smiled again at Reid. “Of course, this does raise the questions: why are you so eager to see your liege destroyed, and do I even want so disloyal a minion among my entourage.”
Reid nodded and hastened to explain himself. “I’m already on Archarel’s shit list,” he said. “So are all of us: all the fae you’ve scared out of the mortal world. We have been for decades.”
I tilted my head. “That doesn’t make sense,” I pointed out. “You’re the ones who have been given the opportunity to become more powerful by feeding on mortals, not any of the other fae in Archarel’s kingdom.”
Reid barked with bitter laughter. “The opportunity to… You’ve got it wrong, Miss. We don’t get a choice. Lord Archarel compels those who dissatisfy him and exiles us out into the mortal realm to make it up by bringing aura back to his kingdom. He strips what we’ve gathered for his own use. No one gets to keep any of it except the handful who really are batshit crazy enough to volunteer to hunt in a city with a fucking resident vampire. Oh, and our lieutenants — Archarel’s courtiers, like Etienne — or Philippe before he ran into you and joined us at the bottom of the pile. But unless some serious shit is going down, like catching that Changeling who popped up, they just pass along orders from the pampered safety of Archarel’s court.”
“And you know what?” Now that Reid had started to vent it seemed he was working up a steam. “It wasn’t so bad when it was just the wolves in the city. We’d run around, hitting easy targets; they’d sniff us out and kill us off — and we’d get to come home, at least for a little bit while we pulled ourselves back together. But then a fucking vampire moved in, and did Archarel let us pull back? Let us come home to safety until the vamp moved on? Hell no! If the vampire got us: ‘oh well.’ It’s not like Archarel can’t just pick his next least favorite unexiled follower to throw into the meat wagon. He doesn’t even let us take on other forms since the longer we hold to our hunting glamours the more a part of us they become and the stronger we are in them, even in the mortal realm. I’ve been a goddamn troll for the past one hundred and sixty-three years now.”
Reid took a deep breath and let it out shakily. He seemed slightly surprised at his own outburst. “Lord Archarel makes us risk our destruction every day and has for decades,” Reid said more quietly. “The only reason we aren’t still out there now — even though there’s more vampires in town than I’ve seen in centuries — is that Archarel pulled everyone back to celebrate his upcoming nuptials. And those of us on his shit list still aren’t even invited to the celebrations. It’s just his way of twisting the knife: we’re home, but we can’t actually be with any of the people we’ve been exiled from because they, of course, are all required to be in attendance. So yeah. If you destroyed him, I’d swear my oath to you.” The corner of his mouth twitched as his cheek expressed a tic. “Just give me leave to come home — even for a day, even just once a decade — and my loyalty won’t ever be in doubt.”
I considered this. “I see,” I said. “Very well then, I consider this a binding promise. Pending the destruction of Lord Archarel, should I choose to enact it, then you are mine, Reid.” I smiled and tilted my head to the other side. “I look forward to seeing your other forms some day,” I purred. As big as he was, if he could pull off handsome, too, it would definitely be fun. Even if I’d only enjoy it when I eventually got hungry enough to feel a bit of schadenfreude with myself for my living side freaking out about it. “And since you’ll be keeping out of my way, and away from the festivities, and in need of something to do: allow me to sweeten the offer. Any fae that you get to promise the same, I will make you lieutenant over when Archarel’s end comes to pass.”
“Ma’am,” Sebastian hastily — but deferentially — interrupted. “That is unwisely phrased. The promise Reid would be gathering from the others would make them bound to serve you if you destroyed Archarel, but the promise you are offering now is to make those fae subservient to Reid if Archarel is destroyed, even if you aren’t the one to do it.”
“Ah,” I said. Sebastian was right, and as unlikely as it was that someone else would end Archarel, it would complicate things if it came to pass. Which it just might, if I decided it wasn’t worth the trouble to do myself and just grabbed Megan and went home. I didn’t need some faerie geas catching up to me centuries down the line because someone else destroyed Archarel, and I wound up with a debt to Reid that I couldn’t deliver on. “Very good, Sebas. An amendment, Reid: should I destroy Archarel, then I will make you lieutenant over any other fae that you convince to also promise to swear fealty to me should I destroy Archarel.”
“Deal,” Reid whispered hoarsely. And then he vanished, popping down a leyline so quickly it almost seemed to happen in a literal flash — but that was only the sudden contrast of his dark skin being replaced by the backdrop of the stone wall that had been behind him.
I surveyed the room and turned to Sebastian. “Where is Pipsqueak?” I asked.
Sebastian glanced aside, at a bit of crumbling wall. “You, ah, killed him when you batted him aside, ma’am. I’m afraid he is likely still pulling himself back together.”
I pursed my lips and regarded the wall, then nodded. “Very good,” I said. That was one promise out of the way — even if it was only a promise I’d made to myself and hadn’t been enforced by fae-pulled aura being twisted into a geas. “Then I think we should get going.”
Sebastian looked at me and hesitated. I laughed at him.
“Come now, Sebas,” I chuckled. “You have promises to keep, and I didn’t spare your existence for nothing. Here I am: empty of aura.” I’d managed to pack what I’d drawn from Sebastian tightly into my buffer around my curse, but even with the parasol the Sun was becoming annoying. “Give me a dress for the party: something Victorian and prudish, I think, with a high neck and gloves and as little skin shown as possible, and then let us be on our way. I believe there is a seat waiting for me, right across from my Megan.”
Sebastian hastily bowed and started shaping a glamour over me. I smiled, but I kept my lips closed. My fangs were slipping out again as my bloodlust swelled.
If Archarel thought he could take my Megan from me… well, I would just have to make an appearance and dissuade him of the notion.
As violently as required.