Hearing Megan refer to ‘her kingdom’ was a little surreal. It probably didn’t help that she wasn’t dressed up like a faerie queen. Instead, she looked like she would have any other day: she was wearing slacks with heels, a cute black blouse with a deep neckline and some sort of zigzagging lace running up and down the torso, and a thin silver choker. It was very ‘girl next door’ — if the girl next door happened to be a curvy goddess — with just a hint of goth. Emma was a little more casual, in jeans and a soft blue sweater. Given that they hadn’t been wearing either of those outfits last night, I had to think that their current ones were glamours. Which naturally made me think they were both actually naked.
Valerie stepped around Mr. Fiore’s solocks and thrust her hand out toward Megan. “Hello,” Valerie said. “I can only imagine what this last week has been like for you — Abby has told me a lot, but I would love to hear it all from your side, too.” The excitement in Valerie’s voice underscored the youthfulness of her appearance, but the way she left Mr. Fiore and his professional paranoia in the dust didn’t leave much doubt that she was the one in charge. The topic she launched into next proved it beyond a doubt.
“I’ve never met a faerie noble who welcomed vampires into her realm like this,” Valerie said. “And even the handful of courts that aren’t hostile have never really been willing to be allies with us. I’m hoping, however, that since you were raised as a changeling you see people as more than a source of sustenance — and that since you actually are a noble, it means that we can come to some sort of broader understanding of how our people relate to each other. I would like to see a proper accord between us, not just an uneasy alliance. And I’m hoping that your reign will mean the start of some changes in how other faeries think of mortals.”
Megan’s return smile was dazzling. She accepted Valerie’s hand and shook it. “I was hoping, when Abby said she wanted to invite another vampire here, that your interest would be because of something like that. I’ve actually already started making some headway. I’ve dispatched one of my advisers, Lady Prudence, to discuss options for a moral, sustainable coexistence between my kingdom and Abigail’s city with a representative of the local covens.”
Hearing Megan refer to it as my city jarred me out of my silence. I didn’t want to be in charge of a city! Even if I had told Lewellan that by his own criteria he should name me the head vampire of the city due to my handling of the faerie problem.…
Oh shit, I did tell him that. While we were in a faerie duel. What were the odds that the weave had taken that as the prize I wanted for defeating Lewellan? After all, it wasn’t like I’d explicitly asked for anything else before destroying him, and apparently he had possessed the authority to give that away. Aw… dammit.
“Wait!” I protested. I wanted to protest that it wasn’t actually my city, but I felt a tug at my aura: I’d claimed it as mine when I’d self-defensed Archarel out of existence, too. And again, sort of, when I’d declared my destruction of Archarel to be an act of self-defense done in preservation of my city, thus establishing myself as a political entity capable of waging a war in order to justify keeping Orlina as a prisoner of war so that she wouldn’t be shipped back to Megan’s father or killed by her so called ‘guards.’
Fortunately, my autopilot neatly subverted that protest before it wound up throwing a monkey wrench into, well, all of that. “This is my city,” I said. “I should have been in on that.” Dammit dammit dammit. Well, at least ‘vampire protector of a mortal city’ is one of those secret positions the public isn’t supposed to be aware of. Hopefully that’ll cut down on the number of speeches I have to give and appearances I’ll have to make and politicking I’ll have to politic with the politicians. Hmm. Maybe I can appoint a steward so I only have to come out when someone needs obliterated. That would only be every other day, at this rate.
Megan grinned. “Oh, I hope you will be!” She exclaimed. “Prudence said that having both of us in agreement on how to go about this would help extend the strength of any restrictions we place over acceptable feeding behaviors of fae out into the mortal realm. But right now I’m just trying to figure out what sort of ways for faeries to cross into your world would be viable for them to gather strength without being immoral, too. And I wanted to give you some time to deal with everything else before dropping that on you. It… Um…” For a second she seemed embarrassed. “It was something I meant to bring up after everything else, the next time we had a chance to talk in private.”
“Oh,” I said. “Okay.” I’d actually been trying to think up ways for that to work out, too, ever since I’d found out that Megan was a changeling and needed to feed on emotions. But I hadn’t been thinking about it in terms of feeding more than one faerie — just in making sure Megan was okay. I chose to ignore my curiosity about the rest of that conversation, though. It hadn’t escaped my attention that while Megan had rushed forward to hug me, Emma had chosen to hang back by the portal they’d entered from. If she doesn’t want to come near me, I thought, I can’t blame her. Not after everything I put her through.
“Have you sent a message about this to Fumiko, yet?” I asked. “Bonb… er, her familiar, Jamie, seemed to be reasonably ethical about it. I think.”
“Yes,” Megan said. “Getting Fumiko’s feedback was one of my first thoughts, after I brought Prudence in on the idea. We’re going to discuss it some while we hang out tomorrow, and until then Prudence is going to talk to Jamie’s prior warlock, Kelson.” She laughed musically. “You know, I knew him. Before all this. I would never have guessed he was a warlock!”
I looked at Megan and blinked twice. Then I smiled. I couldn’t help it. “I would have,” I said. I would have choked that back, any other time, because it meant I was admitting how messed up I was — but right now my aura was full, my emotions were stable, and I was talking to Megan. She knew me.
And she laughed. “You probably would have, too,” she agreed. “Even without knowing about all the rest of this.”
“Hey,” I protested in my own defense. “I was spot on with Mr. Salvatore!”
I regretted it as soon as the words left my lips. They kicked the legs out from under what had been a relatively good conversation. Or at least out from under my good mood at seeing Megan again. Mr. Salvatore. Hans had shot him, but I had killed him. The only change that Hans’ intervention brought about was that Megan and I didn’t burn to death with him — if he hadn’t been shot by Hans, I would have fought him until the sun incinerated us both.
Fortunately, the collapse of my good mood over being with Megan again was interrupted by Mr. Fiore. Unfortunately, it was interrupted by Mr. Fiore. “Wait!” He protested. He stepped out of the box of solocks, and they shifted uneasily as everyone they were protecting abandoned their perimeter — but at least their still had their guns pointed at the ground. “Are you talking about letting faeries feed on humans?” His words came out as something of a shout as anger raised the volume of his voice. “About letting more of them back into our world? That is unacceptable! You cannot think we’ll allow that!”
Megan took a half-step back. She blinked once and her lips parted, but she seemed stunned by his sudden intrusion — or maybe by his vociferous anger. I wasn’t even a faerie and I could practically feel the outrage radiating off of him. It made my fingers curl into fists and tripped all of the protectiveness of Megan I’d been channeling the for the last week.
Fortunately for Mr. Fiore, someone else got to him before that protectiveness could channel into enough anger to overwhelm my better judgement — or social anxiety, or whatever — and make me rip him a new one, again.
“Actually,” Emma snarled as she shoved between Megan and I, “She’s talking about bullshit double standards and ending wars and promoting peace, jackass.” She didn’t stop when once she was between Mr. Fiore and Megan and I — instead she kept right on going, getting in his face and forcing him back a couple steps by sheer force of personal fury. “I was a vampire’s donor,” she snapped at him when he opened his mouth to say something. When he tried again she jabbed him in the chest and made him retreat another step. “What Megan is suggesting is letting the faeries do exactly the thing you guys do, only without the emotional screw over you put your donors through when you enthrall them to keep them in line. So as long as vampires can feed on humanity, you can shut your fangs when someone’s talking about letting faeries do the same damn thing ethically.” She jabbed him again. “Got it?”
Mr. Fiore recoiled from Emma’s repeated finger stabbings, and I could see him getting ready to strike back. I was pretty sure it was going to be verbally, given how I’d managed to make him back down by yelling at him before — but I could feel the spike of fear that had transfixed Megan when her girlfriend got up in an angry vampire’s face. Worse, one of Mr. Fiore’s solocks appeared to be just as uncertain as to what was about to happen: the muzzle of his gun drifted slightly up toward a ready position. Fortunately for him, Valerie interceded before I could rip his arms off and break his rifle over his head.
“STOP IT!” she roared, freezing everyone in place. I had to glance over my shoulder to see her. She had moved so fast I would have sworn that she had frozen time if it weren’t for the fact that I knew someone moving in accelerated time couldn’t have shoved herself between two people, but before she’d even finished yelling she was between Mr. Fiore and Emma. Of course, that was the same amount of time it had taken for me to move, too, so maybe she had accelerated and I hadn’t noticed?
But at least her anger was focused on Mr. Fiore. “I am the ranking representative of The Center here, Fiore,” Valerie reminded him coldly. “I want to hear what these plans are. I think we can come to an agreement with Queen Megan as to the conduct of her people, and if you want to be a part of that process you will not do so by shutting it down out of hand. If you have concerns, you may voice them — but if your voiced ‘concerns’ are to say that we will not allow something instead of bringing up your protest as to why you think a course of action they have suggested is dangerous, then you are overstepping your authority here.”
Valerie looked back at Emma, who glared at her defiantly — but only for a moment before she stepped back toward Megan. Emma wrapped her arms protectively around Megan and shifted her glare to encompass Mr. Fiore and his solocks — and I hoped not me — as well. Megan clung to her as well. I didn’t know if anyone else could see it, but through my link to Megan I could feel how fright and relief riddled her emotions, and I knew that she was holding Emma as much to reassure herself that Emma was okay as anything else. Then Valerie swept her gaze to me.
“Abby,” Valerie said, “Put him down, please.”
I blinked twice and looked at the solock I was holding off the ground by the neck. Oh right. This guy. He had both of his hands wrapped around my wrist — so at least I hadn’t detached his arms yet. I had ripped his rifle away from him, though, and was holding it by the barrel like it was a club in my other hand. I slowly lowered him to the ground. The other three solocks had moved to cover me with their rifles. I sheepishly let go of the guy I’d picked up. I couldn’t even quite remember moving: just the need to protect Emma and some vaguely formed intentions of brutal dismemberment.
“Don’t point your guns toward my girlfriend,” I told him in an effort to explain myself. He looked back at me in wide-eyed terror. “Pointing them at me is okay,” I quickly added for the sake of the other three, who seemed just as keyed up on adrenaline and fear. “But Emma or Megan? No.”
And that reminded me that I was still holding the first solock’s rifle. I reluctantly offered it back to him. “Um. Here. This is yours. I hope I didn’t break it too much.” The barrel was deformed where my white-knuckled grip had squeezed it shut. It was definitely broken too much to be used — which seemed to be just about the right amount of breakage to me. Then I retreated to Megan’s side again. The other solocks lowered their weapons as I got too close to Megan and Emma — apparently they were smart enough to realize that ‘pointing their guns at me’ was not okay if it also meant pointing them in the general direction of the people I cared about. I caught Megan’s arm and gave it a squeeze. I glanced at Emma, but she was still glaring at everyone else.
I thought her emotions were stable, I thought at Megan.
They are, Megan replied. She’s been angry all day because of how little she’s been able to do anything in everything that happened over the past few days. And vampire donors and enthrallment is sort of a big deal for her.
And I just got Megan back, Emma added faintly. So I’m a little protective of her right now.
I almost let go of Megan in surprise. Emma?! You can push thoughts?!
Not really, Emma thought.
Megan took over from there. I’m her familiar, Megan reminded me. We found out earlier that when we’re close enough and she’s drawing essence from me I can pick up on what she’s thinking and she can ‘hear it’ if I push my thoughts to her. And since I can do the same for you, I’m sort of… sharing? For both of you?
Oh, I thought dumbly. I wasn’t even paying attention to the explanation. I was too busy being flummoxed by the emotional content of Emma’s thoughts: I glanced at her and her cheeks were flushed, but with embarrassment now rather than anger. Thank god, I thought to myself in relief. She’s not mad at me.
Oh yes I am! Emma protested. Kind of. I’m mad at a lot of things right now, dammit. But I’m not so mad that I’m going to ditch you, Abigail. You’re mine, just like Megan. And you still owe me a proper dinner date, anyway. I could feel her frustration under the attempt at humor. We were supposed to get to talk this all out in private, she complained. Not while being scrutinized by strangers.
I think my relief was palpable. I know it was to Megan, and I could only assume that she was passing that along to Emma. Okay, I thought. Then let’s deal with this, and as soon as we get a chance we’ll have that talk.
I heard Valerie take in a breath and let it out again. “Alright,” she said, oblivious to the mental exchange that had taken place right in front of her. “Now, if we can carry on in a more civil fashion…” She shot another glare at Fiore before turning back toward Megan. “I was earnest in my desire to figure out a better way for our people to coexist. And I believe the actual point of Mr. Fiore’s protest is two-fold. There is very little trust right now between the mortal and faerie worlds — and faeries are known to feed stealthily, taking essence from humans without consent and tormenting them in the process. I would like to propose that when we do try something, we do so on a trial basis, with significant oversight. And that consent be a cornerstone of any proposed feeding plan for the fae.”
I felt a worm of uncertainty start to wriggle its way up through my gut. I felt like what Valerie was saying was the right way to go about it, but how were faeries supposed to get consent to feed when the majority of mortals would banish them with disbelief before they could ask? I was pretty sure that Valerie’s restrictions would preclude how Bonbon had fed herself — and I was equally confident that most faeries would not willingly spend a lot of time around witches and warlocks for fear of getting roped into being familiars. “I think we’d have to make it some kind of explicit trade, rather than donations,” I said. “Faerie understanding of ownership would make it so that if they had donors they’d wind up being geased into servitude.”
“Yes,” Megan agreed with me. “That’s why they typically feed ‘stealthily,” she added. “Well, that and not being able to show themselves. But if the essence they’ve taken was ‘rightfully stolen’ then they don’t owe anything to the person they took it from.” Then, perhaps sensing Mr. Fiore’s temper flaring at the phrase ‘rightfully stolen,’ she hastily cleared her throat and turned her attention back to Valerie.
“I understand your concern,” Megan said. She let go of Emma, though Emma and I both still held on to her. “That is, in part, why I asked Prudence to look into the possibilities before calling on Abigail to get her approval on anything we might try. I don’t know yet what might be viable in the long term, but I do know that there are options. Dryads like Prudence don’t actively feed on humans at all — they draw in the essence that is naturally put off by mortals who are appreciative of the trees and plants that they tend. And house gnomes would be another one.”
“Dryads? House gnomes?” Mr. Fiore asked. He said ‘house gnomes’ like he thought Megan was just fucking with him.
“House gnomes,” Megan confirmed. “Prudence told me about them. They would pick a home and do odd chores and things, ward it against curses and other fae, give warnings to the occupants by pushing emotions to them if someone was hurt or in danger — little things like that. And in exchange they would sustain themselves off of the gratitude that the homeowners naturally radiated out to them. That’s why in the stories they would always abandon the home or turn hostile if they were taken for granted: it meant they were no longer receiving essence in return for their labors. Unfortunately, with the onset of the age of reason, belief in them — and gratitude toward them — waned. Faeries couldn’t sustain themselves like that any more. Some of the more bitter ones started acting out as gremlins, and then that became something of a fad because it worked.”
“Oh,” I interrupted. “When I was talking about trade I was thinking more like the shoemakers and the elves, only instead of giving away tiny clothes, a warlock or a witch could voluntarily shed some of their aura into the world for the faeries.” I waved for Emma to back me up on that. “You know. Like Linda’s coven did for you, when your aura was in so much trouble because of… um. Me.” God dammit! What was with me and being an absolute conversational mood killer?
“Actually,” Emma said — ignoring my mental outburst, “I asked about that while Megan and Prudence were geeking out about making their faerie/human shared society a reality. And according to Bertram,” she nodded toward the squat faerie who stood beside Melvin, “that story was probably about a group of house faeries that wound up homeless and in need of a new place to settle. Odds are they did consume essence — they just took in the gratitude that was represented by and tied to the gift — and then moved on to find a proper home to settle in.”
Megan smiled. Then I felt the spark of an idea striking her. “Valerie,” she asked, “You don’t have a liaison yet, do you?” It was a rhetorical question, but Valerie shook her head anyway. “Just a moment,” Megan said in response.
Prudence, I heard Megan psychically call along someone else’s leyline, I have an idea. There’s a vampire here who represents The Center…
For now, I interjected. Valerie is the oldest of the scions, but she’s outranked by the Directors. On the other hand, I had absolutely no intention of allowing another Director in my city, so Valerie was probably going to end up being the highest ranked member of The Center I was willing to talk to.
Megan shared that with Prudence and then continued. If you are willing, I’d like you to act as her liaison. She seems receptive to the idea of a shared community between faeries and supernatural mortals, and I think the two of you will be spending a lot of time discussing the possibilities and options, anyway. It would probably be…
Megan’s projected thought trailed off and she glanced over her shoulder. I followed her gaze and saw a faerie I didn’t know appear in the archway that Megan and Emma had entered from. Megan smiled widely and turned back to Valerie as the faerie joined us.
“Valerie, this is Prudence,” Megan said. “Prudence, this is the current representative of The Center, Valerie Grenz. Valerie, I think that you would get more out of discussing this with Prudence right now than you will with me, since I haven’t heard her report yet myself. And I, personally, would like to hear your input on the options as well. So, if it is agreeable to both of you, I would like to propose that Prudence act as your liaison with my kingdom so that the two of you can discuss these matters in depth and at your leisure — and perhaps in a setting that has Mr. Fiore less on edge. Then when she and brings me up to speed on the issue she can include your input as well.”
Valerie turned to regard Prudence. Her eyes sparkled with fascination at the faerie’s exotic appearance. “I think that might be a good idea,” she agreed. She smirked and her eyes shifted toward Mr. Fiore but she didn’t actually turn her head to look at him. I immediately knew that the next thing to come out of her mouth was going to be a teasing tweak at his expense. “For Mr. Fiore’s sake,” she agreed with Megan, “if no other reason.”
“It would be a pleasure,” Prudence added on her side.
“Wonderful!” Megan exclaimed. She freed her arm from my hand so that she could clap her own hands together in excitement. “As liaison, Prudence can also contact me should it be needed, and give you access to my kingdom so long as your intentions in visiting do not overstep the boundaries of good behavior that I laid out when you first arrived.”
Megan’s grin was infectious — and shameless. “And while the two of you work on figuring out how our realms can coexist, Emma and I can finally take some time to catch up with Abigail.”