Dash of Fiend – Chapters 5-8

Chapter Five

Greyson called to tell me they’d examined the park and taken the trace in the morning, but I didn’t see him again for two days. He’d been caught up in the investigation, along with meetings with his superiors. When he arrived forty minutes late, brows furrowed angrily, I guessed those meetings hadn’t gone well.  I answered the door to his loud rapping and rather than our usual walk, I suggested we stay in.

“The place looks bigger when it’s empty,” he said.

“I think I’m going to have to extend my days,” I replied with a grimace. “The shop’s getting busier, and people are complaining that I close Sunday and Monday.”

“You won’t get a break at all then.” Greyson sounded horrified at the prospect.

“I’d need to take on help. I know it’s just a matter of finding the right person, but Gibble and I have been doing this alone since we started. Bringing someone else in… it’d be strange.” I locked the front door of the shop, and we headed up the narrow stairs. “It’ll be a big adjustment, but I don’t see a way around it. Even during the week, there are days I can barely keep up with the stock. An extra person would mean I can go and trace the spells during the work day instead of trying to get it all done after hours.”

“I see,” he said, sounding like he really didn’t.

I allowed myself a small smile. In some ways, it was refreshing to be with someone who wasn’t tied up in the world of Talent magic. Our conversations always started on topics relevant to the work we both did, but usually veered towards the mundane – new movies, music, places to eat and things we’d done. It was different for me – because so many mortals weren’t comfortable around Talents, even half-bloods, my friends were almost exclusively Talented in some way, or were Other. The fact that my best friends included a boggart and a hobgoblin made me an anomaly even in my own circles.

“How did your meetings go?” I asked as I clicked open the door to my living space.

“The usual,” Greyson said. It occurred to me he hadn’t been up here before when he scanned his surroundings curiously. His eyes quickly noted the entry and exit points – doors, windows and the fire escape next to the kitchen – then examined the room. The tiny open plan living space was sparse, but comfortably furnished. Most of my waking hours were spent downstairs in my shop, working and being around people. For this reason, I treated my living space as somewhere that privacy and comfort took precedence – the over-stuffed lounge, soft throws, pillows and cushions. Heat rose in my face as I looked around. If I’d known he was going to come up, I’d have tidied the place first. It didn’t seem to bother him though.

He flopped into the couch; it was a garish orange, but the sort that made you feel like melting when you sat down in it. A tiny groan of appreciation escaped his lips when he sank back, and he closed his eyes for a moment, savouring the comfort.

“Tea?” I offered.

“Don’t suppose you keep any coffee around, do you?” he asked hesitantly, as if afraid I’d take offence. I laughed.

“How do you think I drag myself out of bed so early? Of course I have coffee!”

He looked like he’d been living on it for days. I thought for a moment, then rummaged in my cupboards. Ah, there it was. Though coffee beans were notoriously hard to enchant, I’d managed it. This was a blend of nourishment I’d traced into the whole beans, made to get me through my incredibly busy Christmas period. I threw them in the grinder, then made two cups of hot, black coffee.

Taking his coffee and a handful of biscuits, Greyson wolfed down a few bites and a swallow before he started talking.

“Alright, so you know I got your message about the park incident? Well, we managed to get some samples of the grease. It’s definitely Other – our lab is making some real progress analysing some of the substances from over there, but this one’s still unknown. It seems to be animal in nature but they can’t tell us any more than that.”

“Meanwhile, the shit’s hit the proverbial fan as far as the public goes. This morning, someone released a video clip online of the… thing, whatever it is. The guy who uploaded it claims it was from the night the monster was at the zoo, and we’ve confirmed the time and date it was taken coincides with that. There’s been an outcry, people demanding it be caught, shot and burnt, and the rest insisting the damn thing should be rescued and protected. It’s like Greenpeace versus the Gun Club, they’re getting nasty. We’ve got to catch this thing, or scare it off for good before some fool decides to go after it, and gets themselves hurt in the process.”

“Or starts a war with the Others,” I said without thinking.

Greyson winced. “I was really hoping you wouldn’t say that. Is it likely to get that far?”

“Hard to say.” My knowledge of Otherworld politics was spotty. “If it’s a creature under the protection of the Fae, it could get nasty. Worst case scenario would be if they thought the creature was attacked unprovoked, and that it was sanctioned. They may have signed a treaty, but I’d bet my left foot that it’s riddled with conditions to cover situations like this.”

“So we’re hoping it’s not one of their pets?”

Shaking my head, I explained. “If it’s not, then it’s nasty. We’re pretty sure this thing is just lost, right?”

Greyson nodded. “It hasn’t gone after any people, seems to be scared off if someone approaches. I can’t see any sentient creature doing the kind of damage this thing has – it’s random, messy, and unproductive from a criminal point of view.”

“The Fae have claimed guardianship of pretty much all the non-sentient creatures in the Otherworld, especially the gentler ones. There are some exceptions, but they don’t fit with what we know.”

“So if someone goes after this thing, we’re screwed?”

A breath hissed out through my teeth. “Maybe. Probably. The best thing you can do is release a statement, telling people that the department is taking a non-violent approach. Make sure anyone with any kind of official standing knows the risks. What are the guys at the top telling you to do? You said you’ve been hauled into meetings over it all week, I imagine they want it dealt with a certain way?”

“Yeah, they want it dead. I tried telling them that may not be appreciated by our new Council-mates, but they don’t seem to care.” Greyson gulped down the last of his coffee.

“Has anyone approached the Fae on the Council to see if they’ll help? Everything I’ve heard seems to indicate they have an interest in making things good between all parties.”

“Have you met any of the top brass? They expect the Fae to come to us, so we can do them the favour of letting them help. Bunch of blowhards, they are.”

“So, what are you going to do?” He was staring into the bottom of his cup, so I took it and busied myself making a second brew for him.

“Honestly? I don’t have a plan, other than to stay one step ahead of the beast, the Fae and all the damn people who think it’s better off dead. I don’t want to hurt the thing, Em, but if it’s a choice between taking it down and letting people get hurt?” He left the question hanging, but looked at me quizzically. “For someone who told me quite clearly she didn’t want to get involved, you’re asking a lot of questions.”

“Yeah, about that… I’m now involved. I asked Abnett to put someone on the case for you – bastard picked me.” I smiled ruefully. “It’s not that I don’t want to help, Charlie, I really do. I’m just… scared.”

It cost me a lot to say that aloud, but I trusted Greyson enough to admit it. I knew he wouldn’t use it against me, or use it to hold me back.

“Abnett said he’d spring for any costs. I don’t need money for doing this, but it’s there if you need it for the investigation. I think he wants to set something more permanent up.”

“Oh Em, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to drag you into this all unwilling. You let me know as far as you’re comfortable going and I’ll take care of the rest, right?”

“Thanks.” I gave him a heartfelt smile.

“I’ll need you to fill out some paperwork, is that ok? It’ll grant you access to the precinct house and you’ll get a logon for the police database. I made sure to organise all that before I asked you, so it won’t take them long to set it up for you once they have your information. Is there anything you need from me?”

“To be honest, I have no idea what I’m doing,” I admitted. “I mean, there’s one person I can talk to; he works with animals, so he might at least know what sort of creature it is. Do you have the footage there from this morning?”

“Of course,” He fiddled with his phone for a moment, went to hand it to me, cursed, and fiddled a bit more. Finally, he handed it over, video ready to play. The footage started rolling as soon as I tapped the screen.

 A muffled voice said “There’s something trying to get into the zoo!”

“Don’t be stupid. Animals break out of the zoo, not into it.” Another voice, this one slurred.

“Look at it mate, it’s trying to go in!” The speaker laughed.

The camera wavered constantly and the shadows made it hard to see, but there was definitely a creature visible and it definitely wasn’t from the world we lived in. It stood about seven feet tall. Heavily built, it seemed to shamble around both on all fours in a fat, waddling manner, or up on its back legs like a bear. I heard a metallic grinding, scraping sound – that would be the gates. One of the voices said, “Oi, it just ripped through those metal bars!” The creature looked up, orange eyes shining directly at the camera pointed at it.

“Sam, it’s looking at us. Sam?”

“Nah, it’s turned back. Look, it’s… oh my God, it just ripped the gates off!”

True to his words, the video showed the giant creature shaking, then pulling down the iron gates to the zoo. The image swung to the ground and bounced around for a moment before shutting off.

“That’s all they got?” I asked.

“Yeah. We’ve taken it down for now, but it had over ten thousand hits by the time we got to it so it might pop up elsewhere if it hasn’t already. Bloody internet. Does it look like the thing you saw in the park?”

“As far as I can tell. It was so dark; all I can really verify is that the eyes were the same. Can I get a copy of this? I’ll show it to my contact, it might help.”

“Sure, sure.” He took back his phone and frowned at it, pressing the screen, cursing it, then pressing again.

“Uh, do you want me-”

Looking relieved, he passed it back and I quickly figured out how to email it. After tapping in my address, I hit send and passed it back.

“I’ve saved my email address for you too, in case you need to send me anything else.”

“Cheers. Damn things, just can’t work them out. Handy though.” He smiled. The coffee was kicking it and he looked less ragged around the eyes. He’d slumped into the chair a little, losing the tired, buzzing energy he’d come in with. Leaning back into my own chair, I contemplated the man on my sofa. He was good looking, kind and enjoyable to be around. Our one date had gone well, but ended suddenly when he was called out to work. We’d talked about doing it again, but between his job and my shop, we never seemed to be able to find the right time.

“How long have you been on the force?” I asked on an impulse.

“Too long.” He gave a wry chuckle. “Somehow, I’ve ended up in a position that has me working more hours than I ever have, I’ve taken more meetings this week than I did last year and the idiocy I deal with from above and below makes me wonder how the human race has even survived this long.”

“That bad, huh?’

“I’m bloody loving it.” The smile that crept over his face showed the truth of his words. “I’m finally doing something to make a tangible change, something that no one has succeeded in doing ever before. There’s gotta be some fun in that, right? Half the O.C.U. are now people I trust, people who’ve moved over because they believe in what I’m working towards. Another year and I think I’ll have dispelled a good lot of the stigma around the position; then, I can start attracting even more talent.”

“Sounds like you’ve got it sorted then.”

“Feels like it. Of course, that’s usually the cue for it all to go to shit.” He laughed. “Always the way, isn’t it? Look, we’ve got all the samples and photos of the scenes down at the station. Why don’t you and your boys come down for a look? You can fill out this paperwork while you’re there.”

“My… boys?”

“Yeah. Harrod’s rank gives me some leeway in regards to security clearance. Bloody stupid rule, but I’ll use it if I need to. If you want to bring them, you can. I know they helped you with that other thing last year. I mean, if you’d prefer to work solo that’s fine too, or I can provide you some backup from one of my men – can’t deny I’d feel safer if you had someone working with you, but it’s up to you of course.”

And that, I reflected, is how you get someone to do what you want.

“Sure.” I said. “I’ll give them a call. Is first thing tomorrow a good time?”

“Perfect,” he said. “I’ll let the crew know to expect you, they’ll let you straight through.”

Greyson tipped his cup up to drain it, looking disappointed that it was empty. The lines around his eyes weren’t as deep and he had a spark back that he’d been missing when he came in. Smiling, I offered him another cup. His shoulder dropped and he declined.

“I wish I had time, I really do. You’ll come by soon though? To the station, I mean.”

“Of course, I’ll let you know when to expect me.” I took his cup over to the sink, then turned back. “Charlie?”

He looked up, pausing in the act of picking up the coat he’d draped over the back of the chair.

“Thank you. For not pushing me into this, and for… well, being there, I guess.”

A couple of quick strides and he’d enveloped me in a hug. “Anytime, Em. Anytime.”

Chapter Six

Harrod and Martin were both eager to join me the next day. Greyson met us at the entrance to the building – it was small, run down and pretty much embodied the way the department viewed the Otherworld Crime Unit. As we traipsed past the dead garden bed out the front, I traced a small spell of nourish on the area. It wouldn’t do much, but might give some of the local wildflowers a fighting chance. Harrod saw what I did and his lips twitched into a smile.

The inside was as dismal as the outside. A window was cracked and looked like it had been that way for a while. The front desk was dated and had little accommodation for computer equipment and the computers themselves probably had less processing power than my phone. The officers – seven of them present at the time – seemed divided into two camps. Four were well dressed, polite and working. They must be part of the team Greyson had brought over. The other three sat in a corner, leaning back in chairs and glaring at us as we passed them. Their wrinkled shirts were untucked, badges lying loose on a nearby desk. I imagined these were the last of the dregs that had been assigned to the department as a form of punishment.

A small room out the back held the evidence that had been collected. As Greyson unlocked the door, I noticed the lock was newly installed, and heavy duty. I waited until we were inside and the door had closed before I asked about it.

“New locks?”

“Yeah.” Greyson looked away. “Just want to make sure nothing gets… compromised in any of our cases.”

I had a strong suspicion that things had been compromised in the past, and that it had come from inside the department. He pulled out a plastic box and dumped the contents on the table. Sorting through sealed bags, he set them out for us to examine. The small table felt crowded with the four of us clustered around it. Martin stepped back to give us more room.

“So,” Harrod said leaning back. “Exactly how much progress has your department made? Do you know what we’re dealing with yet?”

“Not yet,” Greyson admitted, nonplussed by the bluster in Harrod’s tone. “That’s why you’re here. We have an idea of what it looks like, where it’s hit but now where it goes afterwards or where it’s coming from.”

“You need to put officers on the port-gate that leads to the Other. That’s the only thoroughfare, if the beast is moving between worlds, it would have to pass there,” Harrod said.

“Actually, it’s the only legal thoroughfare. We’ve got it under surveillance, don’t you worry about that. The other access points are watched as best we can, but that’s spotty at best.”

“Wait,” I interjected. “Other access points? I thought there was only one way in and out, except through brute magic?”

“It is,” said Harrod. “If there were other port-gates the Council would know about them. Something like that couldn’t be kept a secret, not from us.”

“I suppose it could if it were set up by someone who wanted to avoid Council notice – and clearly, it has been.” The slightest note of irritation was creeping into Greyson’s voice, though he didn’t look up as he spoke.

“What? Then why haven’t the council been notified? And why isn’t it being watched twenty-four-seven? Any manner of business could be passing through a gate like that.”

“We did.” Greyson folded his arms and stared Harrod down. “The Council member assigned to liaise with us seemed neither convinced, nor concerned. I’m not sure whether he thought we were wrong, or if it just didn’t matter because it was being used by mortals, not his own kind.”

“Right.” Harrod had his hands on his hips, nodding sarcastically. “So you’re just letting people pass through this secret gate willy nilly, without any kind of surveillance?”

Greyson took a breath and blew it out through his nose, mouth settling into the same kind of tight line I imagined he’d been using through a lot of his recent meetings.

“We can’t watch the gate it if we don’t know where it is.”

“You said-”

“This passage isn’t like a port gate.” Greyson cut Harrod’s words off, raising his hand. “It moves. It’s a temporary setup that disappears a short time after we get on to it, then pops up somewhere else. Seeing as the mighty Council doesn’t seem to want to help shut it down, we’re on our own. As much as I’d like to, I can’t have a man standing on every corner waiting for a gate to pop up.” Harrod raised his eyebrows but didn’t speak. “Our surveillance tools are limited as well. Some of our watching officers have noticed goings on that’d suggest that even when we can see the gate, we can’t see who’s passing through. We’re doing our best but I’m sure you’ll appreciate the constraints I’m working under, especially considering the lack of support from other parties.”  Greyson’s tone dared Harrod to say another word. A smart man would have backed down. Unfortunately, Harrod wasn’t feeling very smart that day.

“Clearly you need to get a better handle on your department then. Lodge more funding applications, train your men better – those three I saw out there, they aren’t doing anything productive-”

“Now you listen to me-”

“Harrod, stop.” I couldn’t take this anymore. “You know the state this department was in before Greyson took over, and far as I can see he’s done a bloody wonderful job of getting it up to scratch.  I know it smarts to hear your precious Council dropped the ball, but don’t take it out on him.”

“I was only suggesting-”

“Oh Harrod, just shut up, will you?” Martin broke in irritably. “You’re making yourself look like an idiot. Pipe down and let the man do his job.”

There was a tense silence for a moment.

“You have my apologies, detective.” Harrod said abruptly.

Greyson just nodded, leaving it be. He tossed me a bag with a small, plastic jar in it. The jar had a glob of grey stuff in it.

“This is a sample of the grease?” I asked.

“Got it from the park last night.” He confirmed, then held up another one with black gunky residue. “This is what our older samples look like, I thought you might have more luck with the fresh one. You know anyone who could take a look at it?”

“I can do it right now.” Harrod plucked the small jar out of my hand and I struggled to hold back from growling at him. What was his problem? Harrod traced a light spell. At least, he didn’t show any effort while doing it. I couldn’t see what he was doing but assumed he was laying a revelation type spell on it.

“It’s from a kind of Otherworld animal,” he said proudly. “Something large. This is a coating on its skin.”

“Yeah, we knew that Harrod.” I’d have let it slide if he hadn’t been acting like a jerk, but I wasn’t going to let him think he could crow over Greyson for something we’d already established. “Greyson told me the other day his trace lab had already confirmed that. You didn’t find anything else?”

“Oh. Err, no, I didn’t.”

“It’s ok, I know someone I can show it to.” I looked at Greyson and he nodded to indicate I could take the sample. I slipped it in my pocket.  “What else is here?”

There were photographs of the scenes – pictures of the damage wrought by the monster, some blurred, muddy footprints and other strange marks in the dirt. I couldn’t make sense of the markings. It was as if the creature had been dragging a heavy, flat object behind it. There were swirls where perhaps the creature had turned around, and deep indents in soil where long claws had dug in. The grease had smeared over surfaces where it had pushed against things – trees, the zoo gates. The police had taken pictures of the park where we’d seen it, and in another area, similar damage. A second huge old elm tree, some way from the one we’d been sitting near, had been flayed and dug up around the roots.

“This damage – has it done this at any other tree, or just these two?”

Greyson took the picture off me, and picked up the other one from the park.

“No. They’re both the same kind of tree, aren’t they? You think it’s worth looking into?”

I shrugged. “Could be.” My hunch would probably turn out to be nothing; I was new at this and had no idea what I was looking for, didn’t have Greyson’s training or experience. Still, if I said nothing and it later turned out to be relevant, I’d feel like an idiot for not speaking up.

“Do you have a map of the city?” I asked.

“In my office. Anything else you need in here?”

After I shook my head, we packed up the boxes. Greyson pulled out his jumble of keys and locked the doors behind us. Three pairs of eyes followed us as we walked over to his office.  It took him a moment to clear a space in the small, crowded room. His desk was littered with papers, coffee cups and rubbish, and the filing cupboard in the corner sat ajar, so overstuffed it had no chance of closing. He scrambled to tidy it and pull up a couple of chairs.  Excusing himself, he dashed out to dump the cups in the small kitchenette outside. While he was gone, I eyed Harrod. 

“Best behaviour,” he promised, raising his hands in supplication.

 

#

When Greyson returned, he motioned us to a large map across one wall, littered with flat markers of various colours. On it was marked the three sites that had been attacked along with some blue marks and date ranges. Other spots were marked in red with notes, scribbles of dates and codes I didn’t understand. As my eyes scanned familiar street names, I noticed some of the markings corresponded with the killings from earlier in the year. My fingers reached out to gently touch a little green pin. That was my friend, Carmel. Other green pins were scattered about – more people I knew, who’d been killed. It had been six months, the man responsible was dead… why did my heart still stop every time I thought of it?

“The map tracks everything. I’ve an online version you’ll be able to access through the system. You can filter out the labels you don’t need, so it only shows the attacks or the gate locations, but I wanted to show you this first. It shows every major instance of Otherworld or Talent related crime or reportable activity over the last twelve months, along with every reported sighting of a gate, and the dates we know it was active.” His fingers slid to the blue markers. “Looks like a dog’s breakfast, but I keep hoping something will throw light on when and where these damn portals are showing up.”

“The map tracks all the Talented activity outside the wall?” Harrod sounded impressed.

“As much as we can. There’s a… where is it… oh, here. This overlays it with the residences and port gates, along with other general places of interest.” A large, clear sheet rolled down to superimpose new marks on the existing map, littering it with new marks. “Does anything stick out?”

“Well, yes,” Harrod said immediately.  “These portal locations.  They’re all on ley lines.”

Martin, Greyson and I looked at him. When he didn’t clarify, I asked.

“Ley lines?”

“Yes. The strongest ones, too.” His eyes roved the map as he nodded to himself.

“Harrod, what is a ley line?” I asked.

He looked at us, surprised. “You don’t know? Oh right, of course you don’t. They’re lines of magical energy, where our world rubs up against the Other. It creates a weak spot, tracing magic along one can be a bit unpredictable. The Others who don’t need to use port gates usually flit through along the lines, it costs them less energy.”

“So you’re saying someone’s tapping into these ley lines and using it as a conduit?”

“Well… it makes sense. The way lines fluctuate through the moon cycles.  I bet if you tracked that, you’d find the gates are being constructed when they’re strongest.  That’s why they don’t stay in one spot. Three days… Yes, sounds about right.”

“Harrod, can you get us a map of those?”

“I could. I’ll have to tell the Council about the gates you realise?”

I looked at Greyson, who shrugged.

“Go ahead. Like I said, I’ve already told them. They just didn’t do anything about it.”

“Well, perhaps I’ll have a quiet word with Abnett about that, too.”

“I’d appreciate that. We have no way of knowing if our information gets through to him, or if it’s filed away before anyone’s passed it on. If Talented bureaucracy is like ours, it wouldn’t surprise me.” Harrod nodded thoughtfully.

I frowned at the map.  There didn’t seem to be any connection between the crime scenes and the gates.

“OK,” I said.  “I think I have everything I need. These samples might shed some light on the beast we’re hunting, and if Harrod gets that map of way lines, I can see how it lines up. Unless you’d rather do that yourself?” I queried Greyson, wary of stepping on his toes. The feeling of discord among his team wouldn’t be helped by a half-blood nobody sticking her nose in more than was needed.

“I’ve got a good data analyst who’ll take a look at it for me.” Greyson’s voice was distant as he mulled over the new information. He snapped back into the present and added, “Take a look at it anyway. You might come up with something he doesn’t, and the gods know we need all the help we can get on this one.”

“Sure.  But you can get me access to the online version?”

“If you fill out the paperwork today, I should be able to hand over your login details by lunch time tomorrow. Is that soon enough?”

At my nod, he pulled out a slim folder and slid it over the desk towards me. I flicked though – it was an application form to allow me to access department resources, along with the appropriate legal and confidentiality clauses. Looking for a place to sit in the crowded office, I cleared some paper off a seat and perched on the edge, leaning the documents on a corner of the desk that seemed a bit flatter than the rest.

“We can wait outside,” Martin said. “I’ve got a call to make. Harrod?”

Harrod looked up, startled. He’d been off in his own little world, absorbed in the map on the wall. He nodded and the two left, leaving Greyson and I alone. Typical for any kind of governmental application, the form was laborious. My personal details, references, travel history and Talented lineage was all asked for, along with a police check that Greyson had already done. When I finally had it done and signed, I handed it over.

“Look, I’m really sorry about before. Harrod’s just been under a bit of stress lately. Personal stuff. He’s not normally that…” I trailed off, not quite sure how to describe his earlier behaviour. Greyson had no hesitation in helping me out.

“Arrogant? Stuck up? Insufferable?”

Sighing, I just nodded.

“It’s fine,” he said, and grinned at me. “He’s just used to being the biggest fish in the room. Under the new agreements, I outrank him out here. Don’t worry, I know he’s a good bloke; you  wouldn’t be friends with him otherwise. He’ll settle down before long.”

It had felt like there was more to it, but I didn’t say anything. Instead, I ran my eyes over the map one last time, settling again on the little green dot. Ever perceptive, Greyson wrapped an arm around me.

“I should have warned you about the map. They’re pins on a board to me, but they were your friends. Sorry.”

“It’s fine,” I said with a too bright smile. “I have to deal with it sooner or later, right?”

“You’re human. It’s right to grieve and it’s normal for that to take time.”

Something broke inside of me at his words, letting out a grief I didn’t know I was still holding on to. My chest was tight and tears pricked at my eyes as I turned to bury my face in his shoulder.

“Thank you for understanding,” I whispered. He held me for a moment in a fierce hug, then stepped away as someone cleared their throat at the door to his office. Blinking, I raised my head to see Harrod standing at the door, looking at us. His cheeks were fiery red, and his eyes darted away as soon as he saw me lift my head.

“Ah. Martins just – he’s gone. Out.” His voice was hoarse and he cleared his throat roughly. “He’s late for a date, apparently. I just… came to tell you.”

He turned abruptly and walked back out of the building. Suddenly, everything made sense. Oh hell. What had I gotten myself into?

“Time for me to go,” I said to Greyson. He turned to me and gave a reassuring smile.

“You take care, Em. I’ll come see you tomorrow?”

Nodding, I headed for the door. Before I stepped outside, I pulled out my phone to send a quick message. Harrod waited for me in his car, staring gloomily out the window. Just as I hopped in, my phone beeped.

“Hey, would you mind dropping me off at Melanie’s?  She just sent me a message and asked me to drop by.” It was only a little lie.

“Sure, of course.” Harrod didn’t look at me, and I didn’t know what to say. I resolved to keep my mouth shut until I worked out what I wanted to say to him.

                                          #

It was only a fifteen-minute drive, but it was the most awkward one I’d ever endured. We rode in silence, Harrod twice looking at me as if to speak, but changing his mind at the last moment. Finally, we arrived, and I let out a breath of relief. Melanie coasted down the driveway in her wheelchair to greet me.

“Emma!” she called enthusiastically.

“Hi Mel,” I replied quickly. “Harrod was just driving me home when I got your message, so I came straight over.”

“I’m so glad, Emma.” Without missing a beat, she said to Harrod, “Sorry for pulling her away. I’m having a small emergency. Ciao!”

We turned and hurried inside, leaving Harrod to take himself home. Closing the door behind me, I twitched the curtain to make sure he’d left. Mel clapped her hands in glee, grinning wildly.

“Go on, spill the beans. I’ve never had a text like that from you. Is it Harrod that’s got you all in a tizz?”

“Sort of. Maybe. Oh I don’t know how I got myself into this mess, Mel! Greyson and I still haven’t moved any further, we’re really just friends. Only, Harrod’s suddenly gone all jealous and I don’t even know what brought it on! I just want to be friends, with both of them.”

“The both of them? Oh, don’t tell me yet, we’ll need to break open the stash for this one.”

Fifteen minutes later we were settled on her couch sharing a bottle of red, some soft cheese and a packet of biscuits. Mel didn’t stand to occasion when I was around – the biscuits were straight out of the box. I loved her for it.

“I think Harrod might have a thing for me,” I confessed.

Melanie snorted into her wine and raised her eyebrows at me as if to say ‘you’re only figuring this out now?’

“Oh, don’t! We’re just friends, it’s never been anything more than that. Then, today, he was acting like such an ass around Greyson and-”

“Wait, you put him in a room with Detective Tightpants and expected him to roll over and play nice?”

Rolling my eyes, I ignored her pet name for Charlie. “Yes. How was I supposed to know it’d be such a problem? Anyway, Harrod left and I thought he was outside, but he saw Charlie giving me a hug. The look on his face was a dead giveaway. I didn’t know what to say!”

“So you came straight here?”

I nodded.

“Good. So the first question is: what is it you want?” Melanie gulped the last of her wine and held out her glass for a refill. I obliged, buying time for my response.

“Nothing. I’m happy, Mel. I like spending time with both of them but that doesn’t mean I want it to go further.”

“Em, are you trying to convince me, or yourself? You said things were going well with Greyson, what happened?”

“There’s just too much going on, for both of us. It doesn’t help that we’re working together now.” I filled her in on Abnett’s little arrangement, along with my suspicion that he’d want to make it a long term agreement.

“And you’re not interested in starting anything with Harrod…” Melanie raised her eyebrows as if sceptical.

“No. We’re just friends, that’s it. He’s too overbearing, and he already treats me like a porcelain doll. You know me, Mel, I hate being treated like that.”

“So, tell him you’re not interested in anything more than friendship. I know it’s awkward but it can’t be any worse than it is now, right?”

“I guess so. He does try – I mean, he’s slowly figuring out what a jerk he can be sometimes, and he’s trying to change. Mel, what if I tell him no and then change my mind?”

“Then change it, you goose! You’re not signing a binding contract and if he turns around and says no, it’s not the end of the world, right?”

It wasn’t that simple and she damn well knew it. But then, it also was that simple. Heaving a sigh, I buried my nose in my glass. I wasn’t sure what I wanted, just that I was comfortable. Comfortable isn’t exciting but it’s a damn good place to be sometimes. Why did he have to go and complicate everything?

“Speaking of your bevy of gorgeous blokes, how’s Martin?” Melanie didn’t meet my eye.

“Oh he’s ok, I guess. Every time I turn around it seems he’s got a new Fae dangling off him arm.” I grimaced. “It’s not safe for him but ever since he came to the Other with us it’s like he’s obsessed. Harrod’s been trying to make him step back a bit but you know how he is. Martin’s probably just doing it to prove a point now.”

“Do you think they did something to him?”

“You mean the Guardians?” My stomach twinged like it did whenever I considered that possibility. “It wouldn’t surprise me, but I don’t know if I could do anything about it if they did.”

“Damn. Well you tell him if he ever needs a human body…” Mel offered up a cheeky grin.

“I thought you were the one who broke it off with him?”

“Oh, I was. Girl can change her mind, can’t she?”

 

Chapter Seven

 

Olfred agreed to meet with me, as long as I went to him. Gibble knew the old god and they were friends, of a sort. Unfortunately, that friendship didn’t make Olfred agreeable to meeting at a time of my choosing, so that Wednesday, I had to close up early. This was getting ridiculous. There were several protests as I ushered the straggling customers out, despite the very obvious sign on the door that I would be closing at two. Perhaps it really was time to start looking for someone to help run the shop.

 I’d asked Harrod and Martin to join me but to my surprise, Harrod declined, saying he had a prior engagement. He didn’t say what it was. So, as I was locking the door, it was Martin that emerged from the old Bentley alone. Davoss stuck a furred hand out of the window to wave goodbye as he pulled away, and I waved back. After I locked the door, Gibble, Martin and I set off on foot to the port-gates.

We were meeting Olfred in the Otherworld, something that scared the pants off of me. Gibble, sensing my mood, offered me an arm to hold.

“It be different this time, Lady. We be going to meet one with purpose, not be seeking audience with them.” He spat the word out venomously, making it clear how he felt about the Guardians. “They will have no hold over you and it be an easy trip, Gibble does promise that be true.”

Comforted by his words, I felt some of my anxiety settle. He would never let harm come to me, in either world. I felt braver than I expected as I reached out to grasp Martin’s hand, then stepped through the gate. After my last trip through to the Other, I knew to expect the strange sensation of being turned inside out as we passed between worlds. Still, I wasn’t quick enough to avoid being dumped on my behind when a gust of wind, followed by a whooshing pop dropped us at our destination.  Martin landed on his feet like a cat and held a hand out to me, trying not to laugh.

We’d arrived in what looked for all the world like a small village on a bright, sunny day. Gibble glanced around and nodded, satisfied that we’d come to the right place. Our path cut right through the centre, a road made from nothing but pressed mud, lined by tiny thatched houses. There was no one in sight, despite signs of inhabitants. Washing hung on a rope, a pie sat on a window sill and fresh hoof prints dotted the ground before us. Without stopping to look in any of the buildings, Gibble led us straight past the cottages and into a stand of trees that bordered the small town.

It was an easy walk and the day was beautiful. The sparse smattering of trees soon condensed into deep woods, cool and dark under a tight network of branches and leaves overhead. After a short time, we emerged in a small clearing that took my breath away. It was like in a story. A parting in the trees opened onto a small pond, fed by gentle falls. Sun peeked through the leaves, gently reflecting on the rippling water to throw sparkling light in the forest. The water was pure and fresh and the fish that swam in the pool were like rainbow darts, shooting around in circles. Birds sang amongst the trees and the occasional rustle suggested other small animals were close by.

“What is this place?” I whispered. “It feels like home… but better somehow”

“It’s the Other,” Martin said. “It’s not a copy of our world, it’s more. So much more.” His voice was soft and he had the same look in his eyes that he did after a date with a Fae. Had they been bringing him over here?

“Olfred did be making this place to remind him of where he be born.” Gibble whispered. “The druids did be summoning him in a place like this, though I don’t be knowing if it be a true copy, or one he be making to suit his own self better.”

“It’s a true copy, ye big git, an’ don’t ye be tellin’ otherwise.”

With a clatter of noise, nearby leaves shook violently as Olfred emerged from the underbrush. Martin started, not expecting the little man sudden appearance.

#

“When folk be summonin’ a God, they be doin’ it in a place that be worthy of such things, hear? And this do be that place.”

“Olfred, Gibble be meaning no harm.” Gibble’s voice was steeped in affection for the little tree god. “It be a beautiful place you have made, and it be suited well for a god.”

“Aye, well I’m no’ a god now, am I? Just a wee old man lookin’ for some peace. Peace that’s been interrupted by ye friends. What do they be wantin’?”

“We need your help to identify a creature that’s been escaping through to our world,” I said carefully. “It’s been destroying property and my people are afraid. We need to find, return it to its home before one of the mortals take matters into their own hands. I’m worried someone’s going to get hurt.”

“Ay, well if one of ye mortal fools get himself speared by a collywobble, that be none o’ my doin’, is it now?”

“And if the mortal fool takes to it with a shotgun? Olfred, I’m afraid the people in charge are going to go after it. I don’t want anyone – or anything – to get hurt. Will you help, for the sake of whatever it is?”

“Ye don’t even know what ye fighting? That be foolish indeed.”

“We were hoping you could help us identify it. We have a photograph and some samples of a substance it left behind.” Martin spoke respectfully to the small ex-god, lowering his head respectfully as he handed over the pictures and the sample jar Greyson had given me. Olfred squinted at the images, then took the jar. He opened it, gave it a sniff. Sticking his finger in to scoop out a smear of the greasy stuff, and before I could stop him, he stuck it in his mouth. Then, he spat violently and made a choking sound.

“Ack, pah, ye fed me poison? Argh.” He wheezed horribly, and fell to his knees, heaving. “Ye did be coming te kill old Olfred? After… all I done… for ye?”

“Oh Gods, Gibble, do something! Olfred, no we just took that sample, we didn’t think you’d-”

Olfred erupted into hearty laughter. Startled, I looked at him then Gibble who was trying very hard to keep a straight face.

“Ye think a bit o’ barrow goop could hurt me? Ye silly lass, oh but it was worth the look on ye faces!” He dissolved into laughter again. Smiling myself at the joke, I tried to get him back on track.

“Barrow goop – does that mean you know what the creature is?”

“Well o’course, nowt makes this stuff but a barrow fiend. Ye do know what a barrow fiend is, don’t ye?”

“It lives in a barrow – or under one… and it’s a little fiendish?” Martin said sardonically. Olfred burst into laughter again.

“Nay laddie, they flatten barrows. It do be fiendish, I’ll give ye that. They be havin’ blunt horns on a bony head, and sharp diggin’ claws at their front. Flat back feet an’ tail for swimming and pushing mud. The grease, it coats the fur to protect its skin from the acids it produces. It’s a buildin’ animal. It flattens the barrows, then builds ‘em up back how they want them. They eat water nymphs, the cheeky buggers, but tha’s about the worst of it, other than they be messin’ around with the flow of creeks and streams at crossroads. Cause all sorts o’ trouble for them Fae bastards, it do.” He chuckled again at the thought of the barrow fiends ruining one of the famed Fae crossroads.

“So it’s like a giant beaver? That’s adorable!” Martin said

“Pah. If beavers could burn through yer skin with a touch, and rip yer innards out wi’ the flick of a paw… ay, I suppose they’re a wee bit the same.”

“Ah. It just got a whole lot less adorable, didn’t it?” Martin wrinkled his nose in distaste.

“Olfred, please, what else can you tell us about them?” At this stage I thought any information would be of help.

“Well, the fiends live in herds and they do be liking the dark and the wet. They do be blinded by light and the sun in ye world would dry its skin. I dinna think a barrow fiend be able to survive wi’out help outside the Other.”

“Why is it in the city destroying parks, why did it try to get into the zoo? Where is it going?”

“Och, ye be askin’ a lot o’ questions, lassie.” His gnarled, tree-like features twisted into a look of concern. “The poor beast should’na be outside o’ the Other. Creatures like that have no reason to pass through to the land of mortals. They be gentle by nature and they no’ be leaving the herd.”

“Could there be more than one coming through?” Martin asked.

“No’ likely. If it were a full herd o’ beasts, ye’d have more than a mite o’ damage done, ye can trust old Olfred on tha’. Summat’s amiss, lass, and I no’ be likin’ the feel of it.”

“Tiny god,” Gibble said deferentially. “What of the takers? Do you be thinking they be involved?”

“Takers?” I asked.

“Atch.” The mere mention of the word seemed to offend Olfred and he spat on the ground. “That do be likely, boggart. They do be causing more problems here of late. Filthy scum.”

“The takers be humans who be taking the creatures from the Other to sell.” Gibble’s eyes were full of pain as he spoke, and he shook his head sadly. “There do be a market for it. It be a sad thing, that a creature may be taken from here… It be a very sad thing.”

“You mean… people are smuggling out Otherworld animals and selling them on the black market?” Martin asked.

“Aye. And if I do catch one of them at it…” Olfred’s words failed him at this point, his tiny fists screwing up in rage. “Gah, I do think they be involved. The poor wee fiend mebbe lost, or perhaps it be a young ‘un that be taken and it be his mam that be passin’ over te look for it. Sweet things, but they dinna be clever.”

“Wee beast?” I asked. “Olfred, the thing we’re looking for is about this high when it stands.” When I raised my hand about two feet over my head, Olfred snorted.

“Aye, a wee beast. If ye be thinkin’ tha’ be anything but, ye nowt be seein’ the creatures that dwell here of a regular, lass.”

“Right.” I said, a little disturbed. My skin crawled and I had to resist the urge to look around, lest a not-so-wee beast was lurking in the trees around us. “So, we need to track down any known dealers and try to find out if a barrow fiend has passed by them.”

“Ye be finding them takers and ripping the innards out o’ their skin an’ settin’ them alight wi’ your magic. That’s what ye be doing. Then, ye be finding the poor wee creatures an’ setting them free. Ye be doin’ this for the love o’ ye doggy – ye know if he were taken from ye’ and sold te some rich mortal for his collection, that’s what ye’ be doin’. I charge ye’ wi’ this duty lass, for these creatures be mine as ye be Lenny-dog’s.”

My insides cramped. Me? Shut down an illegal trade in Otherworld creatures, run by who knows what kind of people – or even what kind of creatures? Olfred’s eyes blazed in righteous anger and I remembered the day he’d saved Lenny’s life. He was right. He loved every one of these animals just as much as I loved my dog.

 I kneeled to look him directly in the eye. “I’ll do my best, Olfred. I’ll try, I will. I’ll try as hard as if it were Lenny they held captive, but I can’t promise I’ll win.”

Olfred returned my gaze, taking my measure. “Aye, lass. That ye will.”

He turned and left, just like that. As he disappeared into the forest, Gibble gave a small bow to his retreating figure. 

                                                                              #

“You did be making a promise, Lady. You be knowing that be a heavy weight to an Other.”

“I know, Gibble.” I was locked in now, no turning back. Yet, try as I might, I couldn’t make myself want to take back the words. They’d been said with all the intent that any promise to an Otherworlder should be. Seeing how much Olfred cared, and knowing I was the only one who might be able to stop them made that impossible. Oh, he’d manipulated me by mentioning Lenny, that was obvious. He knew the dog was family to me, and that I felt I owed a great debt to him for healing Lenny.

Martin shook his head.

“He’s going to kill me, you know,” he muttered to himself. “Keep her safe, he said. Don’t let her do anything stupid, he said. Sure, like I had any chance stopping that from happening.”

Gibble led us away from the clearing and a few moments later, we were back at the public port-gate in the centre of London. I looked at Martin, who was still grumbling away under his breath. He caught my glance and raised an eyebrow.

“Don’t get me wrong, I think you’re very brave,” he said. “It just so happens I also think you’re incredibly stupid. Do you know anything about smuggling rings? Have you got any idea how dangerous they are?”

“And I suppose you have first-hand experience?”

“I watch television!” He looked at me, daring me to argue. There was no point. He was right, I’d just made a promise to a very dangerous creature to do a very dangerous thing.

We walked back to my place and as I opened the door, Martin sighed.

“Like I said, I think you’re brave. And you already know Harrod and I have got your back, even if he’s… well, he’s Harrod.”

Without asking, Martin followed me inside and up to my living space. The ease with which he did that made me momentarily sad that I didn’t have the same comfortable relationship with his brother, but I knew Harrod thrived on manners and formality. Without those… well, he wouldn’t be Harrod. Steeling myself, I asked the question I’d been dreading. I didn’t want to broach the topic but I’d rather ask Martin than Harrod himself.

“He, um… didn’t say anything about yesterday, did he?”

“What, about finding you in the arms of a ruggedly handsome police officer, and reacting so badly his unrequited feelings are now completely exposed? Not a word.” Martin collapsed into the couch and grinned at me.

“Ah, hell. That bad?”

“Not really.” He shrugged, seeming unworried. “It’s Harrod, he’s always been a bit melodramatic. Look, he spent so much time inside the walls working towards political goals, it didn’t leave a lot of time for romance. Outside, he just plain didn’t know anyone. I know crazy old hermits with more of a social life than my brother. He just got a bit caught up in all the attention, that’s all. He’ll come round eventually.”

“You know you don’t sound the slightest bit convincing, right?”

“Can’t say I didn’t try.” He gave another frustrating shrug.

“Besides, I’m not dating Greyson, we went out one time! What happened yesterday was nothing. He said something that touched a nerve, I got upset and he gave me a hug – that’s all.” I was on the defensive for no reason. Trying to calm my voice, I continued, “Look, I like Harrod. We’re really good friends, all three of us are. He’s done so much for me since we met, and he’s fun to hang out with. That’s all it is though, I’m not looking for anything else.”

“You mean you’re not looking for anything else with him.” Martin’s tone was easy, with no trace of judgement. My shoulders dropped.

“Maybe? I don’t know! Greyson’s just… I don’t know. If I had a thing with him, that’s all it’d be, you know? Just ‘a thing’, not a lifetime commitment. It’s different with Harrod. I’m not ready to start something I can’t walk away from.”

“Oh, he’s different alright. Don’t give me that look, you bloody well know he is. You’re saying he wouldn’t settle for a fling, and you’re right. He knows it too, which is why he’s not here now. He figured you both need a breather before tomorrow night.” The blood drained from my face. “Oh dear. You forgot about tomorrow night, didn’t you?”

The look of horror on my face made that fact very clear. I’d agreed to it weeks ago – an invitation from Dyson and Columbine Undridge for an intimate dinner. Like the other invitations we’d received, Harrod had been very clear it was me they wanted to see. Since my appearance at a Talented gala some months ago, all the gentry wanted the opportunity to meet me. My father had been important when he was alive, and had involved himself in several political movements, including the progression of right for mortal and half-bloods, like myself. Those who’d worked with him wanted to meet me and to perhaps persuade me to join their political cause. Others just wanted the social recognition of netting me for a meeting.

Harrod had been vetting each one, telling me who each person was, why they’d likely want me there and helping me to choose which ones to accept or decline – each answer made a statement politically and I needed all the help I could get juggling that.

Tomorrow’s meeting was one of the few I’d looked forwards to. I’d already met the Grand Master and his Duchess, and had somewhat enjoyed their company. They seemed genuinely interested in meeting me for the sole fact of getting to know me, the daughter of a man they’d known as a friend. Rather than having a political agenda, I hoped this dinner would be a chance to find out more about my family. Of course, that was before yesterday’s awkwardness.

“Look,” said Martin. “It’s not that bad, I promise. He’ll be fine!”

Somehow, I doubted that… 

 

Chapter Eight

 Bee surprised me by dropping by the next morning. Usually, I would only see her if I needed a new gala dress, and I was more that fitted out for those now. Despite being the most highly esteemed dressmaker in the Inner City, able to charge small fortunes for each one of her creations, she had always insisted on dressing me for events at no cost. For a human, that would be unusual. For a Fae like Bee, it was downright strange. She insisted it was because my position as the half-blood child of the Talent Lord who fought hardest for my kind, meant all eyes would be on me. Free advertising, she called it.

 

 

 

I snorted softly to myself as she sailed gracefully into my shop. She, of all people, didn’t need cheap marketing tricks. Bee smiled serenely at the hulking giant she passed, and proceeded to step right up and interrupt my conversation with a customer. The customer, a young man who’d come in asking for a nerve tonic, nearly fell over himself when he saw her. Stammering an apology – apologising to her for interrupting him – he stood patiently by while he waited for me to speak to her, cheeks flushed and mouth hanging slightly open as he watched us.

“Emma dearest, just thought I’d wander past and see if you needed anything?”

“I’m good thanks, Bee. You’ve supplied me well, and my schedule isn’t as thick as it was a few months ago.”

“Nonsense.” Cherry lips formed a pout. “You haven’t had a fitting for weeks, and anything you own will be well out of season. My reputation hinges on you, you know.” She eyed my simple pants and blouse with distaste. “There’s a gala coming up in three weeks and you’ll need something new for that, so perhaps I’ll do a matching set. And a little something for your shop?”

Her eyes slid to Gibble, who looked back at her in alarm. Surely she wasn’t considering dressing Gibble as well? His entire wardrobe consisted of basic linen pants and shirts, and he’d worn nothing but for as long as I’d known him. Last time she made me a ‘matching set’, it included six outfits of varying complexity for attending small and large events within society, along with more practical clothes for day to day errands within the Inner City. I’d only used three of them.

“Bee really, it’s too much. I don’t need anything, the blue set you made will be just-”

“Blue? In this weather? Don’t be obscene. I’ll have it to you in a fortnight.” She leaned in to kiss my cheek.

“Serraceuse,” she said in a low whisper, then directed a cautionary glance at Gibble.

“What-”

“Farewell my pet, I shall see you with new accoutrements by the new moon.” Waving, she breezed back out of the shop and turned a beatific smile on the young man, leaving him practically drooling on my floor.

I sighed. “Here,” I said and thrust a cup of hot tea into his hands. Luckily, the samples I had out for the day were for clearing the mind. “Drink this, it’ll wear off faster.”

“Wear off? No way love, I want this to last forever.” Completely forgetting what we’d been speaking about earlier, he wandered out of my shop and off in the approximate direction Bee had left in. Bloody Fae.

After we closed that afternoon, I asked Gibble about Serraceuse.

“Where you be hearing that name, Lady?” he asked, voice rough with alarm and the fine hair on his body standing on end. “Do not be saying that name to any other. It be a very dangerous name to know.”

“Who is he though?”

“Lady, he be a very bad man. He be mortal, but be doing many deals with Others who… they not be the kind you be meeting, Lady. That man be having power, but not like Talent magic.”

“Bee whispered his name in my ear earlier. Could she know about our meeting with Olfred? Maybe he’s connected with the smugglers he told us about.”

“Stupid Fae woman.” His head twitched and he snapped his teeth in a feral manner. “Gibble be speaking to her of this. The man be a part of most bad things that be happening between this-world and Other. He not be someone to go against, Lady. Forget promise to Olfred. Gibble be talking to little tree-god, telling him it be too dangerous for Lady and for him.”

“No way, Gib, I gave my word. What Olfred said, about Lenny? I’d go up against anyone for him, or for you. I don’t like it and I’m scared as hell, but I have to do this.”

He made a low humming sound, as if he wanted to argue but was forcing himself not to.

“I’ll be careful, I promise. Now, I have to go and dress for tonight.”

#

The car – not the Bentley, but a larger one I hadn’t seen before – arrived on time. Harrod, Martin and a gorgeous Fae woman were inside. Harrod darted around to open my door as I approached. As he put his hand on it, he looked at me and started to form an apology. I gave a quick shake of my head and he stopped. Careful not to let my pale yellow dress touch the ground, I slid into the car across from Martin’s date.

“Emma, meet Graenn.” Martin spoke to me without taking his eyes off his stunning date.

“Emmeline, so wonderful to meet you.”

Graenn put a slender hand out to touch her palm to mine, a formal greeting amongst the Fae. It was sign of great respect to be greeted this way and I did my best not to fumble the motion. She settled back in her seat and placed a hand on Martin’s leg. He looked at her, completely enamoured.  I could understand that – I was finding it hard not to stare myself.

Her eyes were green. Not human – green, but the colour of dark leaves. Her hair had a tinge of it too, not in a sickly way but in a manner that made her look like a forest nymph. A charcoal dress set the colours off vibrantly and made me feel plain in comparison. That was fairly typical of being around the Fae and I chided myself for allowing it.

Graenn started up a lively chatter about the latest fashions within the City – it seemed that darker colours were in, and sunset hues. Open backs were out and shoes were getting flatter which was, she said, an absolute relief. The men looked about awkwardly – though both of them could brush up well themselves, they had a fairly normal appreciation of the finer points of fashion. That is to say, they were bored out of their brains.

Talk moved to rumours of a planned visit from Ashik Farun, a renowned musician born of both Talent and Fae blood. A very rare combination and the product was one to behold. He not only held the stunning looks, grace and musical talent of the Fae, he’d perfected the art of combining Talent and Fae magic to enhance his musical performances. Harrod joined in on this conversation – he’d heard the Ashik play once before, several years earlier. He told us of a trip to Germany that had coincided with the musician’s tour of the country, and conversation moved on to Europe’s success in abolishing the divide between Talent and mortal.

“What is it that makes your people so reluctant to accept their differences?” Graenn asked, all wide eyed innocence. Her act was almost convincing… however, the simple fact that she was Fae meant she was, more than likely, playing some kind of political game.

“Oh, I think we’re making good progress,” Harrod said, eyes refusing to meet hers. A soft snort escaped me.

“You disagree, Emmeline?” Graenn turned her green gaze to me.

“Yes.” Not wanting to sound rude, I explained further. “As a half-blood, I still don’t have the basic right of protection. No, don’t you dare.” I shot Harrod a warning look at he opened his mouth to protest. “Greyson has made that his mission, but it’s not law, and he doesn’t have the ability to protect us from people like Opius. If he leaves the department, people like me are back to square one, with no one to turn to. If a mortal is in trouble, there are laws they can call on to seek help. Talented are the same. We half-bloods are still stuck in the middle of a fight between the two that exists beyond rhyme or reason, and certainly has nothing to do with us.”

“If the mortals wanted integration, they’d have agreed-”

“To give up all autonomy?” I cut Harrod off, my voice rising. “To submit to a superior race?”

“No one said we’re a superior race, we just have access to better facilities. Having Talent allows us access knowledge and power that-”

“That allows you to act like you own the place, with no regard for the needs of others. When are you going to get it out of your thick head that you don’t know everything? That maybe, just maybe people like me are the best judge of what people like me really need?” Throwing myself back into my seat I glared out the window, face flushed with anger. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Martin awkwardly look away while Graenn watched me with appraising eyes. Her glance slid to Harrod and I felt him shift in the seat next to me.

The rest of the journey passed in silence.

#

The short drive finally ended and we arrived at the manor. Martin attended to Graenn while Harrod helped me out of the car and pulled me aside.

“Look, I know we don’t see eye to eye on a lot of things, but I don’t want to fight. I have a lot to learn, I know that.”

“You can’t keep using that as an excuse, Harrod.” I stared at the ground like a petulant child.

“I know. It’s just… maybe I don’t want to believe it’s that bad. I worry about you enough, Emma. Imagining you being attacked on the street just because of who you are, unable to defend yourself, not being able to help? That’s my worst nightmare.”

Breathing in deeply, I looked up at him. “Harrod, I’m not a helpless child and it’s insulting to-”

“Dammit, I know, I’m making it worse again.” He looked away and ran a hand through his hair. “I know you don’t need me. I understand that, I do, but maybe I want… no, gods I’m making a mess of this. I wish you didn’t have to go through what you do, I wish I could just make everyone get along and accept you and your kind like they should. It’s what I spend every day fighting for. I see some of the worst of my society, and of the mortals, and it’s not pretty. Egos big enough to fill a room and everyone so sure that they’re right. If they catch a hint of weakness, they pounce. The only way to deal with them is to sound like I know what I’m doing, even when I don’t.”

“And you think it’s fine to treat me like that, too?” I tried to keep the heat from my voice.

“No. I’ve done poorly by you, and by Martin. I’m sorry, Emma. All I can promise is that I’ll keep trying.”

I sighed. That wasn’t much of a promise. Still, no use arguing about it now. Harrod took my arm and we walked to the door, Martin and Graenn waiting patiently for us to catch up. I flushed, wondering how much of our conversation they’d heard.

The Duchess Columbine greeted Graenn and I with a kiss on the cheek, while the men clasped hands and offered the usual formal greetings. We retired to a sitting room to spend the time before dinner was served. The room was small but well laid out, in a way that let the two groups split off for separate conversations. Columbine tinkled a tiny bell and a piske appeared.

“Flyss, we’re ready for the refreshments now if you please?”

Her tone was more respectful than most Talented gentry when they spoke to their house staff. I’d expected this – Harrod was vehemently against slavery even of the less sentient creatures that served. Piskes and faskes were commonplace in larger households. They couldn’t survive without some kind of servitude agreement, and many generations of Talents had taken advantage of this.

It was good to see that more of them were placed in houses where they were treated with respect, and shown gratitude for their service. Not all of them were treated so well, but progress was picking up and I had a strong hope that soon, they’d have their own protection directly from the Council agreements. I glanced at Graenn and saw that she too had noticed the short exchange, and approved. Fae were reluctant to intervene in matters not of their own, but I knew they disproved of many practises the Talented indulged in.

“My dear Emmeline, it’s so good to see you again. I’m sorry it took so long to extend an invitation to you. Dyson hasn’t been well, so we’ve been keeping to ourselves a little more than usual. And of course, you yourself have been quite busy fielding requests for appearances. I can’t say I envy you that, I imagine it’s quite a chore after the first few?”

“Yes,” I said before realising how that might sound. “I mean, I was really looking forwards to tonight, but it’s the only one so far. Thankfully, Harrod has helped me avoid some of the… less accommodating houses.”

“I’m glad to see he’s taking good care of you dear. The two of you have been well?”

“Ah… yes, we have.”

Flyss returned with two trays of delicately presented hors d’oeuvres, saving me from having to answer further. That was the biggest drawback of these dinners – most of the Talented community believed Harrod and I were a couple, and we’d done nothing to dissuade that view, worried that some of our hosts would take any opportunity to exclude him from the invitations offered to me.

Though most of the hosts were simply after the social prestige that came with having a new celebrity come to visit and others hoped to secure my help to further their political position, I couldn’t be sure they all had such innocent motives. We hadn’t actively encouraged the rumour, but Harrod’s attentiveness to me and the fact that we were so often seen together cemented the assumption in most people’s eyes.

“There is much afoot inside the Wall these days. You’ve been kept informed?”

“I’ve been busy,” I said. “I’m barely keeping up with my own work at the moment.”

“Ah yes, that business with the police, I assume.” Duchess Columbine noticed my surprise and said, “Abnett made it known you were working with them. I trust it wasn’t supposed to be kept confidential?” She heaved a sigh in response to my horrified face. “The man means well, but he wouldn’t see the need for discretion if it thumped him in the head. No matter, it’s done now. Are you making progress?”

Swallowing down my unease, I said, “We think so, but there’s still a way to go. We think smugglers of some kind may be involved.”

“You mean… Oh, my dear girl.” The colour drained from Columbine’s face and her hands trembled. “Child, those that dabble in that sort of trade with the Others are not to be reckoned with lightly.” She shook her head at my expression of dismissal. “No Emmeline, I mean it. This is not the first time these vile people have surfaced and there have been casualties in the past. Mark my words, this is a dangerous, dangerous position you’re now in. Promise me you’ll tread lightly?”

“I promise,” I said, relieved that she hadn’t asked me to drop the case. It felt like I was making an awful lot of promises lately.

“With your permission, I shall have a quiet word to Dyson about it later. Abnett approached him to assist in the development of a task force to assist Detective Greyson’s team on a permanent basis. It’s being discussed, but with no real urgency. We’ll see if it can’t be streamlined, so you may have at least some assistance. You have others helping now?”

“Yes. Gibble – that’s my boggart – and Harrod and Martin of course. Detective Greyson is giving what help he can and we’ve reached out to one of the Others, an old god who has taken it upon himself to act as protector to the creatures of our world and theirs.”

Columbine looked at me sadly and a niggling feeling of worry settled in my gut. “I fear that will not be enough… not to deal with this. However, there’s not a thing we can do about it tonight. Let us leave this unsavoury discussion and move on to more pleasant things.” She picked up a glass of sparkling lavender wine and took a large gulp. Giving me a brittle smile, she gestured to our companion. “Graenn my dear, we’ve been neglecting you. Would you tell us how you found that scallywag over there?”

The talk did indeed move on to lighter things. Graenn told us how she had met Martin through a mutual friend and been instantly enamoured with him. His name had become quite popular amongst the Fae. This concerned me greatly, and the knowing glance our hostess gave me suggested I wasn’t alone. She and Columbine moved over to the topic of fabrics – it turned out Graenn was an apprentice dressmaker. Among the Fae, those with a trade such as this were highly respected amongst their peers. Fae artisans spent many years perfecting their craft to earn a higher place within their society and often received high acclaim even amongst the Talented, not that the Fae put much stock in that.

Graenn shifted her attention to me. “I know you are a close friend to Bee. I’d be most grateful if you could mention my name when next you see her. Training with her would be the utmost honour, but she hasn’t taken on a student in decades.”

“Of course,” I said, wondering if she knew Bee had also briefly dated Martin. “Though I don’t know that I have any influence over her decisions.”

“Oh truly, that alone would mean a lot to me,” She clapped her hands in glee as we settled back into conversation.

#

The sitting room door opened, and a faske bowed to the Lord and his Duchess to signal the dinner was ready. We headed into the dining room – a magnificent chamber with tall windows along one wall looking out onto a small courtyard. A grand chandelier hung from the ceiling and twinkling lights drifted down from it, winking out a few feet from the table. The effect gave the room a truly magical feel. The table itself was laid with fine bone china and beautifully crafted silverware. Though I’d attended dinners like this before, and though I was far more comfortable with these people than others I’d dined with, I still felt a rush of nerves as I approached the table. As always, Harrod sensed this and gave my arm a gentle squeeze.

I was getting much better at the formalities of dining with Talented nobility, but there was so much to remember. Before sitting, we each gave a small bow or curtsy to our hosts, who returned the gesture in kind. I sat, and waited patiently for the table attendant – a small, waist-coated piske – to lay a cloth over my lap. Then I folded my hands in my lap until our hosts thanked us for our presence and sat. The Duchess, highest ranked in the room, took the first mouthful, her husband the second. Then, it was permitted for guests to eat. The bevy of piskes hovered back and forth, serving food and topping up drinks. I managed the order of utensils without too much difficulty, though had to wait and copy the others when it came to dessert, which was a crispy, sugared pastry shell that looked impossible to pierce with a knife or fork without causing it to crumble. Harrod simply picked his up between thumb and forefinger and ate it carefully. I followed suit, trying not to let any fall. It was harder than he made it look, as it crumbled at my touch, sending fine dustings of powdered sugar puffing away. When Dyson fumbled his and cursed as it crumbled on his lap, I relaxed a little. He noticed and laughed.

“Damned chefs. Why can’t they serve normal bloody food, food a man can eat without making a cursed mess.”

“My Lord knows quite well that he personally requested the pastry, forgetting that he makes this same complaint every time.” Duchess gave him an exasperated look.

“Ah, yes. I did at that. No matter, at least it tastes ripping wonderful.”

“Dyson, I do wish you’d stop trying to sound like you’re twenty. I’m not saying you’re old, but you are supposed to be a distinguished gentleman of the court.”

“But my dear, I simply like to keep up to date with the latest terminology. Helps me to adequately communicate with the younger constituents of the gentry.”

“It would if they weren’t too busy laughing at you behind your back to pay attention to what you’re actually saying.” Though her words had bite, her tone was soft and affectionate. The two were clearly close, even after all these years amongst stuffy nobles. Most Talents married for station or magical ability rather than love; though Dyson and Columbine were well matched politically, it was clear there was genuine affection between them.

After dinner, we retired back to the sitting room, this time sitting as a group. Dyson asked me about the general feel outside the Wall.

“It’s getting better,” I said, choosing my words carefully. “The half-bloods are starting to have some hope that things will improve. The mortals seem… well, they’re still divided and the recent attacks have caused some panic. The small faction that wish to oust the entire magical community are trying to use it as leverage, but as long as no one’s actually been hurt, it doesn’t seem to be getting much traction with anyone outside their own circles.”

“And how are police dealing with the threat?”

“Dyson, dear,” the Duchess spoke up. “You know Emmeline likely can’t answer most of your questions, yes?”

“It’s alright,” I said. “Sounds like most of what I have to tell has already gotten out anyway. There’s a possibility that the creature escaped a smuggler, who was transporting creatures from the Otherworld to sell on the black market. We’re short on leads, but we’re following what small clues we have.”

“Smugglers, eh?” He looked as worried as Columbine had when I’d mentioned it to her. “Horrible business, that. You’re certain there’s no one you can hand the case over to? I can speak to Abnett-”

“Oh for goodness sake Dyson, she’s not a porcelain doll or one of your children. She’s quite competent, and she knows enough to step back if it’s too much for her to handle.”

Reddening at the chastisement, Lord Dyson grunted and buried his nose in a glass of whiskey.  Harrod’s cheeks also had a hint of colour, knowing that he’d said exactly the same thing. Giving her a grateful smile I wondered why she’d come to my defence, after her words to me earlier. Maybe, just maybe, she understood.

“Really, dear,” Columbine continued. “I’d think after all these years of marriage you’d know better than that.”

“Very well.” He gave a resigned sigh. “Have you told them about your little escapade with smugglers back in the day? Unless your father had filled you in on that debacle?” He looked at me questioningly and I shook my head, bewildered. Columbine examined me closely, eyes narrowed. She gave a small nod, as if satisfied by what she saw.

“I suppose you should know then,” she said. “So you can decide for yourself if it’s a risk you’re willing to take. It was about thirty years ago – no, a little more than that, before you were born dear. Your father, myself, and a couple of friends had been working towards abolishing the slavery of the brownies, faskes and piskes. Clearly we didn’t get far with that, though I hope to live long enough to see it happen. At any rate, there certainly were laws regarding the demi-fae. There was a risk of it coming to war between some of the Otherworld factions, so it was heavily enforced.” Columbine took a steadying breath. “We discovered there was a smuggling ring, operating in the Other. They were poaching creatures from the Otherworld, bringing them here and selling them for ridiculous prices. We found the man responsible. A terrible person, the sort that would give you chills just running into him on the street.” Her voice dropped as though she were talking to herself. “Serraceuse was more story than man, a monster to scare children into staying in their beds.”

His name made me flinch, but all eyes were on the Duchess as she spoke, hanging on every word. I didn’t dare interrupt.

“We went after him, of course. We weren’t officially sanctioned by the Council, but they knew of our work. In this rare case, they actually approved of it. We found out where he was bringing them though and went to shut the port-gate down. Someone had tipped him off though. Well, we think so. At any rate, he knew we were coming. The five of us – your father, myself and the friends we worked with – came up against twelve Talents, some of whom I’m sure had a touch of Fae. We took down two but… Daniel and Myr were both killed.” Columbine stopped and looked out the window, cleaning her throat before continuing.

“The rest of us ran, tails between our legs. We eventually stopped the smugglers with the help of the Fae and some of their allies. All but Serraceuse. He hunted us for a time, the bastard. Dyson had an entire stable full of thoroughbred horses, all slaughtered simply because he was courting me at the time. Your father woke one morning to find the house alight and the door to your sisters’ room warded shut. They got out of course, I believe your boggart had somewhat to do with that. Other attacks – family pets, threats, tokens left in bedrooms. We were all terrified. Then… it just stopped. It took months to believe it, but the threats, the attacks, all stopped.” She unfolded the small lace napkin she’d been twisting in her lap and smoothed it out with shaking hands. “Our hope is that someone he crossed eventually caught up with him, but we can’t be sure.  It truly was the most terrifying time of my life.”

“That is why you must take the utmost care, my dear.” Dyson had no trace of condescension in his voice. “That bastard might be gone, but we don’t know who’s taken his place. If the ring is still operating, or if a new one has sprung up to take its place, you can be sure it’s being run by a hard, hard man. It takes a cold heart to go against the Fae, and a lot of firepower if you expect to live through it. Don’t underestimate them, don’t think you can out-best them alone.”

I was sure my face was as white as a sheet. I’d told no one of Bee’s mention of Serraceuse to me. Could she have simply been warning me of this past ghost, or did she believe he’d come back? There was no way to know without talking to her, and no point terrifying the nobles if it was merely the former. Please, let it be the former.

“Oh my sweet, I didn’t mean to frighten you.” Columbine reached out to clasp my hand.

“No,” I said, voice husky and dry. “Better I know what I’m up against.”

Graenn had watched the exchange with interest.

“You were one of the gaiscedach?” she asked the Duchess.

“Yes,” she answered simply.

“I thought the gaiscedach were just a story,” I said in awe. “You really did those things?”

“Your deeds are still celebrated amongst the Fae.” Graenn said, then turned to Martin who was looking rather lost. “The gaiscedach were a band of warriors, masked heroes that used subterfuge and cunning to free many creatures that were held in terrible conditions. They alone had the bravery to confront the worst of the Talent Lords and take from them that which they did not deserve to have.” Graenn turned back to Columbine. “I hadn’t realised the connection. Your true names are not well known, I’m afraid”

“Oh, that was by design, my dear. We didn’t wish for fame or fortune, just to do our work and hopefully make a little progress.”

#

Conversation drifted after that, to matters of little import. After some time, Lord Dyson caught me trying to stifle my third yawn, and insisted we wrap up for the night. We said our farewells, with promises to meet again soon. I really did feel comfortable in their company and, despite the dire warning it had contained, I’d enjoyed hearing about my father’s exploits in his younger days. Martin requested to be dropped at the port-gate with Graenn, to Harrod’s displeasure. That meant Harrod left first, saying a stiff farewell to Graenn and Martin, and an awkward one to me. When we reached my house, Graenn whispered something in Martin’s ear and exited the car to speak to me.

“Martin believes his brother does not approve of his choice of lovers, and he feels you share that view. Is it true?”

Taken aback by her bluntness, I stammered before answering. “I… it’s not that – Look, I like those of the Fae I’ve met, and I have the utmost respect for your people. I’m just worried. Mortals can have bad reactions to spending too much time in the Other, or with full blooded Fae. I don’t want to see him hurt, or changed.”

“Then let me put your mind at ease my dear. He is one of the most important people to your success. As such, he has a certain level of protection placed upon him. His time with us will not cause him to be altered and he will be free from the addiction that plagues many of your kind.  It’s because of this – and, in truth, because he’s quite simply delicious – that we so love to spend time with him. It’s so rare to be with a mortal and not have to guard from the kind of harm you speak of.”

“What do you mean, my success?”

“Your quest.” She said the words with a serene expression, as though expecting me to know exactly what they meant. At my blank look, she paled. “You don’t know, do you? Oh dear. I’d assumed that after your meeting with the Guardians, they’d… perhaps I shouldn’t say any more, though in truth I don’t know much of it myself. They guard their secrets well.”

“Please, tell me.” Desperation shone through in my voice. “Please – I know they have something in store for me, and it terrifies me. What do you know, how does it involve Martin?”

Graenn studied me carefully. “I can tell you this – your destiny was not set by the Guardians, simply foretold by them. They shall give you tools, but they won’t interfere in your destiny other than that. They have an interest in keeping you and your friends safe.”

“There must be more than that.” My insides quivered, wanting but not-wanting to know.

“There was a prophecy child, before you were born. I know they’d been looking for you for some time. You are a catalyst to great events that may lead to the golden age of the Other, or to its total demise. Martin and Harrod will play a part, though I don’t know what. You must keep your friends close, Emmeline, you must.”

“What else?” I begged, sick of the vagueness of her explanation.  

“I can’t.” She shrugged gracefully, eyes wide and earnest. “I just don’t know. There is truth and there is rumour, and I doubt it will serve you well to have too much of either right now. Take care, and know that Martin will be well taken care of.” She kissed my forehead and slipped into the car. Dammit. The Guardians were terrifying and I hated knowing I was blipping on their radar.

That night, I coaxed Lenny into my bed and together, we curled up and went to sleep.

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