The Lord of Misrule – A Short Story

Decorations? Check. Food? More or less sorted. Invitations? In progress. Drinks?

With each item I mentally ticked off, Lenny whumped his tail on the floor. Though the imminent gathering would be small and comfortable, the task of putting it together somehow loomed larger than planning a Grand Gala. Lenny huffed.

“I know, boy.” I blew a loose strand of hair out of my eyes, wondering if I looked as disheveled at the creased bit of paper in my hand. “I just… I really want this to be perfect. For Snow.”

Lenny butted my leg, then pressed a heavy foot down on my toe. I winced, cutting off my protest as Snow herself emerged from her room, the door banging open with a clatter.

“Time to go yet?” she asked, eyeing the list as I shoved it in my pocket. “What’s that? It’s a love note, isn’t it!”

“Who on Earth would I write a—no, don’t answer that,” I said as Snow burst into giggles. Heat touched the tips of my ears but I ignored it, instead pulling on my coat. “Are you ready?”

“Present and accounted for!” Snow saluted, holding the pose for a full second before dissolving into laughter again.

“Come on, you two.” I waved my hand at Lenny, gesturing him ahead. He bounded to the door and nosed it open, holding it wide to let us through.

“Thank you, kind sir.” Snow bowed to Lenny and he sat back on his haunches to wave a regal paw at her.

“Don’t encourage her, Len.”

Snow pulled her lips together, barely stifling the last of her snorts. Contented warmth blossomed in my chest as I watched her smile and shake her head.

She schooled her face, steadied her breath, and then completely ruined the effect by giving Lenny an exaggerated eye roll. He responded with a huff, then jumped up to tackle her, his big tongue lapping at her face as she tumbled over and lay sprawled on the floor, shrieking with laughter as she tried to fend him off.

I heaved a sigh, turned away to hide my own smile, and went downstairs into the shop beneath my flat.

Ellandra sidled over to me just as Snow and Lenny erupted into the tea-shop. “Lady? May I speak to you?”

“Of course,” I said, pulling my gloves on as I looked around at the tidy tea shop. Thankfully, the customers had all left for the day, letting Ellandra close up a few minutes early. Except for the dog and his teenager rolling around, it was spotless.

“Out!” I called to the hysterical duo and they immediately sobered, just long enough to skitter outside. They disappeared around the corner, not quite fast enough to muffle Snow’s burst of laughter.

“Oh. Human children do make a lot of noise, don’t they?” Ellandra’s eyes shined, a smile tugging at her lips as she stared vacantly at the closed door.

“Where’s Gibble?” I asked her. The boggart should have been in the shop with her.

“I sent him out for more of that pretty wrapping for the parcels, Lady.” She hesitated, glancing out the door. “Lady, might I ask your advice? It’s a very serious matter.”

“Of course, Ellandra.” My mind jumped along several threads, wondering what she wanted to ask about. A demi-fae, one with all the knowledge of her kind, surely wouldn’t have a problem I could help with. Though she worked for me, I’d rarely needed to give her any guidance.

“I am familiar with the traditions of your people, and that humans trade gifts at his time of year.”

I nodded. With Christmas just around the corner, I’d been stockpiling gifts, and the elegant necklace I’d found for Ellandra sat in a ribboned box in my bedroom upstairs.

“It is Lenny.” Ellandra heaved a weighty sigh. “Lady, I have looked and looked and I simply cannot find a gift worthy of your companion!”

I wrinkled my nose. “Ell, just get him some bones. Really, it’s—”

“What?” One delicate hand flew to her mouth. “But he is such a noble beast! He is worthy of a gift that reflects his stature and his loyal nature!”

“Ellandra…” I trailed off, wondering if she was right.

The magic he had been imbued with had done so much more than heal his injuries—Lenny’s personality was so close to being human it almost scared me. Then again, there was no disguising the joy on his canine features when presented with a giant bone.

I shrugged and gave Ell a quick grin. “Whatever you get him will make him happy. I promise.”

“But—”

“It’s not the gift, it’s the thought, Ell.”

She sighed again, this time slumping in disappointment. “Well then, what of Gibble? I purchased him a lovely book, but saw the same one in his pocket just yesterday.”

That was a problem I was well familiar with. Gibble’s book collection was more like a personal library and it was getting increasingly harder to find something he didn’t already own.

“I have no idea,” I said with chagrin. “Why don’t you join us this evening? Gibble and I are taking Snow to the night market, to shop for the last of our gifts.”

Ellandra’s eyes widened. “Really, Lady? Oh, that would be wonderful!” She clapped her hands, then set to quickly stacking the last of tomorrow’s morning orders on the counter. I wandered over to the door to flip the tiny sign over to ‘closed’. Five minutes early, but the street was quiet. The lights behind me dimmed as Ellandra hurried over. I let her pass, then warded the door to lock it.

We reached the corner, where Lenny and Snow waited impatiently.

“Ell! Are you coming shopping, too?” Snow darted over to give the demi-fae a hug.

“Yes, I am. Snow, will you help me select gifts for Lenny and Gibble?”

“Just get Lenny a big old bone. He loves those.” Snow didn’t seem to notice the crestfallen look on Ellandra’s face, and trotted ahead with Lenny. He sniffed around, licking at Snow’s pockets as I he thought that maybe, the bone she’d mentioned was hiding in there.

                                                                               ***

The port-gate spat us out on a small dirt path barricaded by a flimsy wood-panelled wall. A soft glow rose above the edge and I could see at least four peaked tent tops towering over. Pushing down my excitement, I knocked on the gate while Lenny danced beside me.

“Who begs entry?” a bored, high-pitched voice asked.

“Four who wish to celebrate the passing of the season,” I answered.

Snow jumped in place, then whispered to Ellandra, “Is it as good as they say?”

“Oh no, Lady Snow. It’s better.”

The gate clicked, then swung slowly open as a babble of sound spilled out. Taking Snow’s hand, I stepped inside the Midwinter’s Night Market.

Warmth soaked into my bones as the aroma of hot spices wafted by. The chatter of happy vendors mingled with the sizzle of vegetables on hot stones, while a quick-paced fiddle played above it all. Snow pulled free and darted forwards a few steps, ice crunching beneath her boots. She spun back. “Oh, Emma! It really is as good as you said!”

Ellandra squealed then grabbed Snow’s hand, dragging her to a stall a little way ahead. “These will be just perfect for Lord Umbers,” I heard the demi-fae exclaim as the two flitted over to a stall selling brightly coloured socks.

“Snow?” I called.

She looked up, beaming. “Can I go with Ellandra?”

“Hold up,” I laughed. “I’ve still got your chips, remember?” Fumbling in my purse I pulled out the small handful I’d set aside for Snow. Hard earned by hours in the tea-shop and helping me keep house, I’d added a little more this week. She frowned as I poured them into her hand.

“Em, that’s not right,” she said.

“Yes, it is. Christmas bonus.”

Lenny pressed into me, tail beating a staccato on the dirt. “Deserter. Alright, go with them,” I said. “Keep them safe!”

He ducked his head and loped over, pressing against Snow to let her know he’d accompany them. I had no doubt that between the ferocious, intelligent dog and the incredibly powerful and usually wise demi-fae, Snow would be safe. Even without her companions, the Others here all knew me by name and knew that Snow was my charge. They’d keep an eye out for her.

My eyes lingered on Snow as she fawned over a bright red scarf with a matching money pouch. My heart ached to see her so happy. Since taking her in, she’d become family. It would be the girl’s first Christmas with us and I was determined to make sure it was perfect.

“The Others now sell statues of the Saviour Beaumarchais, do they?”

Whirling around just in time to avoid a handful of snow down my dress, I socked Martin in the shoulder, sending him tumbling into Harrod.

“I thought you were the one with precognition?” Harrod asked his brother with a grin, grabbing his brother by the shoulders to steady him. “She saw that one coming a mile away.”

“Yes, well—” Martin hesitated, then closed his mouth with a shrug. “I’ve got no good answer for that, actually. What are you doing out, Em?”

“Helicopter ride,” I answered without missing a beat.

Martin just rolled his eyes. “Hush, you. I was just making conversation. Are you done shopping, or just getting started?”

I held out my empty hands and shook my head. “You’re struggling with this knower of all things lately, aren’t you?”

Martin clutched his head and gave a dramatic groan.

“He’s getting there,” Harrod said. “But it seems the more he grows into his Seer ability, the fewer brain cells remain in the normal world.”

“It’s hard, ok? I’ve got tonight off, anyway.”

“How do you get a night off from Fae magic?” I asked.

Martin reached into his shirt and pulled out a chain. The blood red stone that dangled from it sparkled in the lights from the nearby stalls. “Bee thought I needed a break. She was bloody well right, too. This magic business is exhausting!”

Despite his joviality, I could see he was telling the truth. Fine lines clawed at the corners of his eyes and his dark skin had just the slightest hint of pallor. “You really are an old man,” I mused.

He returned a look of exaggerated outrage that faded into a disappointed head shake. “That girl of yours is a bad influence,” he said, wagging his finger. “Old man, indeed. Where is she, anyway?”

“Snow wandered off with Lenny and Ellandra. Be careful if you see them—Snow’s hunting down gifts and she’ll be devastated if you spoil any surprises.”

“Duly noted,” he said before sauntering off with his hands in his pockets.

“I did tell him not to try it,” Harrod said as he watched Martin leave.

“What, dumping a pile of slush on me?” I glanced over to meet the rich warmth of his eyes, a few steps to one side. “You might have told him not to, but I didn’t exactly hear you shout a warning or jump to stop him.”

Harrod grinned. “No, I didn’t, did I?”

I debated showing him just how pleasant I could be—my telekinetic spell work was coming along, and I had been practicing with snowballs all week—but his hand was already in the pocket he kept his wand in. Ready to counter any magic I threw at him, I guessed. Resisting the urge to stick my tongue out at him, I grabbed his arm and pulled him over to a tiny table stacked high with row upon row of beautiful fabrics.

“What are we buying?” he asked.

I reached out to stroke the red scarf that had caught Snow’s eye. “This,” I said, running the soft cloth through my fingers. “For Snow.”

“I thought you already had her gifts.” Harrod held a green tie up against his shirt then put it down when I screwed up my face at it.

“I do, but I saw how much she loved this.”

“You’re spoiling her,” he said as I reached out to pluck it off the table.

I hesitated, biting my lip in indecision. “I am a bit. Is that bad? Am I going to turn her into a delinquent?”

Harrod laughed and pulled the scarf down, handing it to me. “You really think she’d get away with that under Gibble and Lenny’s supervision?” He waited until I’d paid for it and tucked it into my bag before continuing. “I was only joking, Em. I think you’re dong a great job with Snow.” He looked down, a wistful note entering his voice. “She’s really become part of your family.”

“I can hardly remember what it was like before,” I said quietly. “Harrod, do you think she misses her friends?”

“The ones that ran off to the Other?”

When I’d shut down the illegal Talent fighting rings, the Fae had offered the children a place in the Other to call home. They’d all gone, all except Snow.

Harrod trudged beside me beneath strings of multicoloured glow balls that cast bright patches of pink and green onto his skin. “Have you asked her?”

“No.” Discomfort wormed in my gut. “I didn’t want to ask, in case I made her feel worse.”

“You know that rarely works out for the best.” At my heavy sigh he reached an arm around me and squeezed tight. “Emma, I meant what I said. You are doing a wonderful job. Snow came from an awful situation and you’ve given her so much happiness and hope.”

I blinked away the burning in my eyes. Trust Harrod to say exactly the right thing.

“Do you have much shopping to do?” I asked.

“Just a few things. I still haven’t found anything for Martin.” He stopped to look at a table strewn with pocket watches. “A bit much, don’t you think?” he said, fingering one that had a fat green stone on the front and tiny engravings around it.

“You like it?” The stall holder towered over us, his bare chest level with my face as he reared up on furred goat legs. “Only five chips for a friend of the Lady Beaumarchais! Is a beautiful time keeper, Lord.”

One of the etchings caught my eye and I stooped down to look closer. “For Martin? That’s more perfect than you realise” I said, snorting.

Harrod lifted an eyebrow and squinted at it, tracing a glow ball of his own to highlight the patterns. He frowned, then his eyes sprang open and heat touched his cheeks. He fumbled, almost dropping the pocket watch in his haste to put it back on the table.

“It is a classical piece, enchanted with virility for extra punch!” The satyr thrust his forearm into the air to emphasise his point.

“Uh, no. No, thank you, we’re fine, just…” Harrod backed away from the roaring laughter of the satyr behind the table.

“Harrod, your face—” I dissolved into giggles.

“Very funny.”

He dragged me away and we wandered slowly, stopping to look at trinkets and gush over luxurious fabrics. Harrod pressed one, a soft, forest green spider-silk weave, against his chest. The colour brought out the bronzed tones of his skin and offset the depth of his eyes.

My stomach let out a loud growl.

“You haven’t eaten yet?” Harrod asked, dropping the cloth in his hand.

I shook my head. “We really did just get here when we bumped into you.”

Harrod put down the scarf and slipped an arm through mine. “My treat. Have you ever tried roasted cloud-tubers?”

“No.” I narrowed my eyes at him. “Do they taste as bad as pickled oak hearts?”

He’d served those at a dinner party once, not bothering to mention it was for the Fae guests, not the humans. The delicacy was popular in the Other, but tasted like rotten fish.

“I promise, it’s nothing like that,” he said with a chuckle. As we drifted towards the food pavilion, he explained. “Imagine the creamiest, fluffiest mashed potato, but a tiny bit firmer and just a little sweeter, and with an outside coating that crackles when you bite into it.”

“That sounds amazing,” I admitted. My stomach growled again. My mouth watered at the aroma of the food ahead.

Harrod held back the flap so I could enter first. Inside the high-topped tent, chairs were strewn between heavy tables loaded with foods. Nearby, a goblin flipped a crepe into the air and it spun, flipped, then fluttered over to a nearby patron who casually plucked it from the air.

We made for one of the few empty spaces, ducking under a stream of coffee being poured horizontally across the meandering pathway. Harrod pulled a seat out for me, then jiggled his own trying to dislodge it. A large barrel blocked his way and he glared at it as if expecting it to move on its own.

Silence fell.

Not the silence of awe, or expectation. It was a dead, stifling silence that left everyone still and afraid. A crepe slapped a tabletop and coffee splashed to the ground as the vendors snatched their wares away.

The tent flaps blew open and a man walked in, too tall to be human despite his mundane appearance. He had blue eyes and wavy, blonde hair, and a face sculpted like a Grecian statue. Then again, mundane didn’t usually cover a man dressed head to toe in the guise of a court jester, complete with a golden wand with a porcelain likeness of himself as the topper.

“Greetings, revellers!” he called, voice booming with a strange echo in the quiet tent. “Please, take a knee. Bow down in respect to the Lord of Misrule.”

***

My body was forced upright out of my seat. Something had control of me, pulling my limbs like a puppet-master. Heart in my throat and fear racing through my veins like iced water, I grabbed hold of my magic instinctively. I snatched at my gift and blocked the Fae lord’s control, cutting it off like a snapped rubber band. I could move again.

That left me standing in the midst of a room full of kneeling people. As Misrule ran his eyes over the crowd, a second spike of fear dropped me to one knee. He may not control me, but this might not be the best time to let him know.

“What is this?” I whispered to Harrod.

“Some bloody Fae disaster, I’ll bet,” he ground out between clenched teeth. “Of all the nights…”

He gave me a weak smile and my heart thumped with relief. He might be kneeling, but he still had some control.

“That’s enough!” Misrule barked. “Get up, you simpering idiots. I didn’t tell you to stay down there forever.”

He briskly shook his head as people stood, one by one, and brushed their clothes off. Nervously, I rose to my feet to join them. When he stilled his head, he wore a different face. His eyes were now green, hair red. A smatter of freckles speckled his round cheeks.

“Now, who can tell me what caused the great battle of Brugenhall?” Misrule asked his bewildered audience.

“You know as bloody well as I do, Misrule.” A dryad stepped out, his upper branches swaying in an absent breeze. They all did that, the dryads. It was as if they needed to keep air moving through their leafy mane in order to breathe.

“Of course I know, Mikel. I want to see if they know.” Misrule gestured at the crowd dismissively.

“You’ve no business here,” the dryad persisted. “Your Lords and Ladies won’t take kindly to you stepping over this side of the gates.”

Misrule glared at him. “One must have a little amusement every now and then. Once in a thousand years surely isn’t too much to ask?”

Mikel shrugged, the branches jutting from his woody shoulders rustling as he moved. “It is of no matter to me, but I’ll not partake in your games.”

Misrule wrinkled his mouth in disdain. “You leaf-shakers never were any fun. Very well, off you go.”

Mikel stormed off, but no one else moved. Misrule began to hum, prancing around the room as he dipped his finger in a bit of food, then dabbed it on a lady’s dress to clean it.

“Harrod, can we go?” I asked quietly.

He shook his head, a tiny movement I would have missed if I hadn’t been watching.

“Can’t move my feet,” he explained.

He cocked an eyebrow at me and I shuffled to the side, ever so slightly.

Harrod blew out a slow sigh. “Thank the gods for that. I’ll create a distraction. You run for it.”

“No!” I scolded softly. “He hasn’t eaten anyone yet. I wouldn’t leave you here if he did, either.” I doubted it would come to that. Misrule might be disruptive, but many of the Fae were. The tight laws they abided under meant that usually, they wouldn’t cause harm.

“Stubborn,” he muttered beneath his breath.

“I’d call it brave and selfless, myself,” I said with a smirk.

Harrod rolled his eyes as the Lord of Misrule barked out a laugh. “None of you know of the battle of Brugenhall? Where harpies, serpents and Fae came to blows over a peace treaty celebration?”

“Uh, my lord?” The trembling voice was almost lost, even in the silent room. “My lord… did they not go to war when a member of the dinner celebrations disrespected our fine Maiden?”

“Aha!” Misrule wagged a finger at the trembling gnome. “At last, a man who has studied the most important turning points in our history. Tell me, friend, what manner of disrespect was shown our kind Lady?”

“Well, sir…” the gnome faltered, looking around at his friends for support. He found none in the pale faces that stared back. “I, uhh…. I believe a cherry-dust pie was thrown at her. And her all in white, too.”

Misrule roared with laughter. The sound fluttering the tent walls and shaking the tables.

“Oh, yes, she did look so proper in that pristine dress, didn’t she? It made it all the funnier when Berkam reached for that particular pie. I couldn’t have planned it better my—” he stopped, laughing again. “Oh! Oh, of course. I did plan it!”

The room exploded in hearty laughs. Even Harrod wheezed, bellowing with mirth as tears ran from his terrified eyes.

“Harrod?” I hissed. “What are you doing?”

“Can’t…” He burst into giggles again. “Can’t help it.”

I ducked my head so Misrule wouldn’t notice my straight face. Right now, I couldn’t have mustered a laugh if my life depended on it. Which, come to think of it, it might. Misrule had tight control of everyone in the room and my confidence in the rules of the Fae was quickly fading.

“In honour of the prestigious occasion,” the lord bellowed over the laughter, “I declare a fight of foodstuffs!”

The first thing to go flying was, luckily, just a soft, dry crepe. The next was a little messier. The contents of a pitcher of mead sprayed into the air like old dishwater, showering half the room and eliciting screams and more shrieks of laughter.

Bread rolls, fairy floss, peanuts and soups were all thrown with abandon. Harrod looked around, searching for something to toss.

“Oh no,” I said, backing away as his eyes fell on the large barrel of wine. “No, Harrod. Don’t you dare.” Surely, he couldn’t lift it?

“Food fight,” he said, chuckling as he grabbed the barrel. It sloshed without spilling—the damn thing was only half full, and light enough for him to heft into the air.

With one mighty heave, he dumped it over my head. Cold wine washed down my dress, chilling me to the bone. I gasped, lungs straining for breath even as they constricted from the freezing cold.

“STOP!” I roared, my power sparking with my fury and blossoming into a hot flame. It rushed out, encompassing the room.

Everyone stopped.

***

I wiped wine from my eyes with the back of a soggy sleeve, panting as I began to shiver in the cold air.

The Lord of Misrule looked over at me, eyes sparkling as his flesh warped and shimmered until he transformed into a fine-boned man with dark skin and golden eyes.

“What have we here?” He crooned, swooping over to run a finger over my shoulder. I held back a shudder as his sharp nail dug into my flesh. “Something… special.” He hissed the last word as though it were a threat. Perhaps it was.

I glared back at him, unwilling to show my unease. “Let these people go,” I growled.

“Why, you’ve already taken them from me, pretty one.” A corner of his mouth turned up in a wicked smile.

I looked around and saw those around me pulling back from the mischievous lord in fear, nervously whispering to their companions. His spell had been broken.

“Run,” I said, my voice wavering. I cleared my throat and spoke louder. “Run!”

Risking a glance to Harrod, I gave my head a tiny jerk, gesturing for him to leave.

“Oh, don’t leave on my account,” Misrule said with a laugh. “I can see I’m not welcome. I shall return before the night is out, though. Then, we will dance until our feet bleed and raise havoc across the countryside. And you, my dear, shall lead them.”

Like a smouldering scrap of tissue, Misrule dissolved into a swathe of bright sparks, snatched away by a gentle breeze.

“Bastard,” I spat after he’d gone. “Gods, I’m cold.”

“Oh, Em. Em, I’m so, so sorry.” Harrod stumbled back, almost tripping on his chair. “I didn’t mean it, I swear!”

“I know you didn’t,” I grumbled. “But I’m still going to take your jacket.” I held a hand out and waited.

He stared at me for a brief moment, looking petrified. Then, he quickly fumbled out of his coat and thrust it at me. “Towels. You need towels. Let me see if I can…” he looked around. In the sparse food tent, there were no towels to be found. “Towels?” He whimpered, avoiding my eyes.

Despite my burning irritation, I couldn’t stay mad at him. After all, it really hadn’t been his fault. Still, the experience seemed to have fried his brain a little. I waggled my wand at him expectantly, shaking too hard to cast the intricate spell myself.

“Oh!” Harrod fumbled for his own wand, then flicked it around in a tiny pattern. Steam wafted from my clothes as they dried.

“Come on,” I said once my soggy clothes were merely damp. I shrugged into his coat, aware that it would stink of wine later but unable to muster up too much sympathy. “We need to find Martin. I refuse to believe he didn’t have some idea something would happen tonight. What’s his magic good for if it can’t predict wine-showers?”

“He’s got that bloody necklace on,” Harrod muttered. “Still. He’s not very reliable at the best of times.”

“What do you mean?” I asked, picking my way through upturned chairs and cream-covered tables. “And… why aren’t these people running in fear? Or at least tidying up.”

Most of the patrons had simply sat back down after Misrule had left, and were now starting to eat again. I passed a long-faced troll trying to scrape what looked like a shattered pie of the table.

Harrod shrugged. “I suppose it was no worse than your average Otherworld dinner party,” he said. “And as for Magic Martin, his most recent claim to fame was predicting sunshine and clear skies last Sunday.”

Last Sunday had poured with rain. “Oh.” I gingerly lifted a fruit-splattered chair with my toe, toppling it out of the way.

“Yes, ‘oh’ indeed. He gets it right about half the time, but when he’s wrong, he seems to be spectacularly so.”

Harrod shoved a fallen keg out of our way, then lifted the tent flap so I could leave. The gesture brought to mind our entrance—when I was warm, dry, and happy. Now, I was anything but, and at the reminder, my nostrils flared and my teeth made little grinding sounds.

“Where is your dear brother,” I wondered, pulling out my phone.

I blew on it, then wiped the screen on Harrod’s jacket. “Oh. I’ve got twelve missed calls from him. Maybe he did see something.” I pulled up his number and called it, holding the phone between me and Harrod on speaker.

“Oh, Emma, thank the gods!” Martin gushed. “Listen, something rather awful is about to happen over at the food—oh. Wait. I’m too late, aren’t I?”

“Just a little,” I answered through chattering teeth. I debated asking Harrod to try and dry me off again.

“Oh. Err, sorry about that. At any rate, I need you to meet with me over by the entryway. Someone wants to speak with you.”

“Who?” I asked as the call cut off. “Great.”

I dropped the phone back into my purse, which was still mostly dry on the inside.

“Off we go, then?” Harrod said tentatively.

***

Martin leaned against the thick canvas fence near the gates. A short figure bundled up in thick robes stood quietly beside him.

I wheeled around, determined to leave before I was spotted.

“Emma!” Martin shouted the cheery greeting so loud half the market may have heard it.

Groaning, I turned. “This isn’t my problem.” I glared at the shadowed figure beside him.

Finally, she stepped forwards. “It is not. And yet, it will be your task to rectify it.” She pushed back her hood, revealing the cherubic face of the parlour guardian.

“That’s rubbish!” Harrod exclaimed. He walked up and thrust his finger at her diminutive figure. “This is a Fae problem. We’re not here to clean up your mess.”

The Guardian sighed patiently and turned to me. “Emmeline, you do look a frightful mess.”

She waved a hand and suddenly, the last of the wine evaporated. I wasn’t just dry, either—the sticky residue was gone and a quick pat of my hair revealed she’d styled it into ringlets like her own. I rolled my eyes at that, but didn’t say anything.

“Misrule is… difficult. He has little power in the Other, but here?” The Parlour Guardian lifted her hands in a small shrug. “Here, he pulls strings like a puppet master. If left unchecked, he will create havoc in your world.”

“He mentioned that,” I said pointedly. “If he has so little power in your realm, how did he get here?”

The Guardian blushed. “He snuck out.”

Harrod threw his hands up and turned his back on her. “He’s a vengeful god and you say he snuck out? Like a rebellious teenager?”

The Guardian pursed her lips, thinking. “A teenager… Yes! Lenny did explain to me this… teenager. It does sound like an apt description.”

“Wait. You’ve been talking to Lenny?” I snapped, bristling. Lenny was my dog!

She smiled. “He is such a delight. I sometimes visit him in the dreamlands, when I am unhappy. He cheers me.”

The soft smile on her face unravelled my irritation at her secret visits to my dog.

“So, how do we stop him?” I snapped, unwilling to be entirely polite. She had, after all, admitted this was their fault.

“You will need to make him return though a portal to the Other. Once there, we will ensure he does not escape again.” She gave a delicate shrug. “It should not be too difficult.”

“Difficult?” Harrod gasped. “How in the hells are we supposed to pull that off?”

“Well,” she answered, brows creasing in a tiny frown. “I suppose tricking him will not be the answer. Fooling a trickster god is never advisable. So, you will have to force him.” Her satisfied nod indicated that was all the answer we could possibly need.

“Great,” I grumbled. “We just have to catch an ancient god and force him through a hole in the fabric of reality. No big deal.”

“You humans do have such wonderful expressions,” the Guardian remarked. “But, I must leave you. One of my status would cause discomfort if seen in this place.” She leaned close to whisper in my ear. “My children do behave like… teenagers, at these places of trade and celebration. Having a Guardian here would certainly stifle their fun.”

Her breath tickled my ear but when I turned to speak, there was only empty air.

“Dammit!” I clenched my fists in irritation. “Does she have any idea how rude that is?”

“Careful,” Martin warned. “You never know when they’re really still here, listening. Sneaky bastards. I’m quite jealous of them, actually.”

“Can you help?” I pleaded.

He grinned wolfishly. “Not a bit. I’m on vacation, remember?”

Martin lifted the chain between his fingers to let the moonlight sparkle on the pendant. With a chuckle, he strolled off back into the markets.

“Sometimes I can’t believe he’s my brother,” Harrod muttered.

I stared at Martin’s retreating back, slowly shaking my head. “No.”

“No, you don’t believe it either?” Harrod asked.

“No, I don’t believe him,” I said. “He’s far too calm, and that grin… he’s up to something. Vacation my ass.”

Harrod raised an eyebrow, but didn’t comment.

“Come on,” I said. “We have to find this guy before he ruins anyone else’s night.”

***

We walked back to the market slowly, keeping an eye out for the Lord of Misrule.

It wasn’t hard to follow the trail. A crystal seller scowled at a table full of shattered stone. The stall Snow had lingered at was now just a pile of unraveled wool. Lenny and Ellandra will keep her safe, I reassured myself.

We passed a table flat on the ground with no legs. Further on, four table legs stood upright on the grass, four immaculate place settings on the grass directly under where the tabletop should have been.

Everyone we passed wore furious glares and spoke with sharp tongues. The whimsical atmosphere of the night market had disappeared, replaced with anger and suspicion. Worry nagged t my gut.

“Harrod, how in the world are we going to stop him?” I asked.

He looked at me, surprise etched in his features “You’ll block him, of course. I’ll try and be a little quicker on the wand, this time.”

I shook my head. “I don’t know if I can. Harrod, my magic control may be better than it was a year ago, but I still can’t call up that level of power on command. Unless you’ve got a spare barrel of icy wine to throw at me, I don’t know if I’ll be able to do it a second time. And even then…”

Fatigue was setting in from my earlier effort. A quick inventory of my faculties brought up a brain leaning on the far side of sluggish and feet like lead.

“Well, I hope you start getting angry soon,” Harrod said. “Because I think I just found him.”

He gestured to a nearby tent. Music streamed out and flickering shadows danced along the fabric walls. The cries from inside could have just been raucous celebration, but there was an edge to the babbling chatter.

“They’re just dancing,” I said hopefully. “Aren’t they?”

He shook his head, brows knitted together. “Look at how they’ve synchronised.”

I watched, and finally saw what worried him. Each dancer moved in perfect unison, lightning fast steps tripping past one after the other in harmony. The fiddles picked up pace and so did the dancers.

It wouldn’t be the first time a Fae spell had ensnared unwilling dancers. When caught by a fiddler, a human or a lesser Fae could be compelled to dance until their feet bled… or worse.

“Come on,” I said, dragging him towards the door. A few steps short of the tent, I stopped. “Maybe you should wait outside?”

Harrod grinned. “Not a chance. But let’s take a peek first, hey?”

I nodded, and moved to a gap in the fabric. Peering through, I watched the dancers move.

A woman spun past, tears marring her makeup and painting dark streaks down her face. “That’s not good,” I whispered.

Harrod shuffled beside me. “That has to be him,” he said.

I winced as he bumped me and I almost fell. “Stand still,” I hissed. “Or you’ll knock me over and we’ll be done for.”

“Uhh… Emma?” He asked.

My heart raced at the fear in his voice. “What is it?” I asked.

He looked at his feet and as my eyes followed his, I saw them slowly stepping in a familiar pattern.

He grabbed my hand and looped an arm around my waist. “Oh hells,” he groaned.

I tried to slip out of his grasp but his arm tightened around me. Never missing a step, he danced me backwards, away from the edge of the tent.

“Ahh, our star dancers have arrived!” The call from inside rang out over the loud music, beckoning us inside.

My feet moved. I didn’t intend for them to move, but they moved. A quick three-step, then a hop, and suddenly I was dancing.

Fear clutched at my throat and I grasped for my magic, but it slipped away.

“Harrod!” I cried.

“Emma, you have to stop him.” His other hand slid to my waist and he lifted me, spinning me around in the air, edging ever closer to the dancing tent’s entrance.

“I can’t,” I whispered.

We were inside. Dancers spun past us in perfect formation as we nimbly stepped our way through, keeping up with the frantic fiddler’s pace. My feet darted back and forth, missing Harrod’s toes by a hair. He lunged, dipping me down, then gracefully pulled me back up and turned me around.

“Harrod!” I gasped.

We’d danced together so often that it felt as natural as breathing. Balls and galas, private dinners, and sometimes just to practise. Harrod had enticed me onto his ballroom floor more than once to show me a new step, or to refine something we’d pulled off by luck alone.

But this was different.

This wasn’t dancing. Instead of two people moving, judging our distance, concentrating on the next step… this was like breathing. No thought, no guessing, no fear of missing. My fading terror merged with a heady excitement as we danced.

We moved as one, gliding out to the centre of the floor where the Lord of Misrule clapped in time to the music, trotting next to us as we danced and spun across the floor.

The other dancers formed a circle, leaving the middle of the floor open. Harrod flicked his arm out, propelling me away. Misrule caught me, holding me gently, breath hot on my neck.

“What do I sense here?” He whispered. “Mmm, nothing like a bit of unrequited love to spice up an evening.”

“What?” I gasped.

He didn’t answer, instead lifting me into the air, then swinging me between his legs. I went sliding across the floor, back to Harrod who scooped me up, then jerked me around into a familiar position.

“A tango?” I groaned. It was one dance we’d never attempted.

We had never discussed it, but any time the music had changed to the dramatic, sensual tones of a tango, we had left the dance floor.

Harrod had tempered his feelings for me remarkably well, over the years. Though my romance with Detective Greyson had long since ended, I still hadn’t admitted those feelings were beginning to be reciprocated.

Harrod’s cheeks flushed red and despite the awkwardness of the situation, I couldn’t help but giggle. “Your cheeks are lit up like a Christmas tree,” I said as he marched me one way, then flipped around to stomp across the floor again.

“I’m going to burn this bastard to the ground,” he said through clenched teeth. I could practically see the steam coming from his ears.

We continued dancing, hands and bodies twisting and twirling to the music while our audience formed a ring around us, clapping in time to the music. My heart fluttered at our closeness and my cheeks flushed as hot as my dance partner’s. Then, Harrod dipped me low to the floor.

The music stopped. He froze. Slowly, he pulled me closer.

Helpless desperation filled his eyes as I realised what Misrule intended. This was no innocent dance.

As Harrod’s face drew closer to mine, my heart leaped into my throat.

No, I thought. Oh, gods, I want to kiss him so badly. But not like this, never like this.

White rage seared my bones, melting away Misrule’s hold on me.

“No!” I said, voice cold and hard.

Harrod pulled back and I stood. Relief sagged his face as his hands dropped away from my waist.

“NO!” I yelled, turning to Misrule.

He glowered at me, eyes flashing with green sparks. His face shimmered and contorted. Instead of a man, he wore the face of a beast, horns sprouting from his forehead and hair oozing from his cheeks. The demon before me bellowed.

“Dance!” He screamed, voice so loud it shook the ground beneath us.

“No.” I stepped forwards, eyes locked on his. Magic coursed through me, a heady mix of power and freedom giving me courage.

“You do not know who you refuse, witch,” he snarled.

You do not know who’s behind you,” I whispered, smiling.

Misrule turned. Gibble loomed behind him, beside Mikel, the dryad. Mikel’s arms were folded and one long, twiggy finger tapped his barked arm.

“Go home, you old fool,” he said. He raised a hand and snapped his fingers with a rustle.

Misrule whipped his head around, eyes wide in shock. “No. No, don’t send me—”

White light blossomed at his feet, widening as he tried to stumble away. The portal moved beneath him, scooping him up. As he fell, his howling scream dwindled into nothing.

The portal snapped shut.

“He’s in the Other?” I asked.

Mikel nodded. “Apologies for the disruptions,” he said. “Apparently, he was hidden in my crown when I popped through to do some shopping.”

“Hidden.. in your…” Harrod shook his head, lost for words.

Mikel shrugged. “I just haven’t had time for a trim,” he said.

The ridiculousness of his statement undid me. I burst into laughter, clutching at Harrod to stay upright.

He looked down at me, bewildered. “He brought a god through the portal in his hair?” He said.

“…haircut!” Was all I could choke out before dissolving into more giggles.

Harrod shook his head, a smile twitching at his mouth. The smile broadened, then turned into a laugh, one that deepened as he, too, lost control.

Gibble looked down, face straight. “Humans be strange,” he grumbled, which made us both laugh harder.

Mikel bade us farewell, unfazed by our state. Gibble clapped him on the shoulder. “I be going with you, friend Mikel. Lady be like this for a long time, Gibble think.”

“Buh… bye, Gibble!” I called between gasps.

Hysteria fading as exhaustion crept past the last of my adrenalin, I collapsed into Harrod.

“You just had to wait until the very last minute, didn’t you?” Harrod asked, wrapping an arm around me.

“The dancing wasn’t so bad,” I said with a smile. “I’ve always loved dancing with you.”

“If I’d… um.. you know. Would that have been… bad?”

Harrod’s face flushed again, this time turning purple from his collar to the roots of his hair. He didn’t meet my eyes.

“Only because you didn’t want to,” I whispered.

“And…” He cleared his throat. “If I did want to?”

I looked into his eyes, wondering if I was ready. He didn’t blink, didn’t move closer, didn’t squeeze me tighter. I knew that if I moved away, just the tiniest bit, he would let me go. He’d clear his throat, drop his gaze, and pretend he’d never asked. And he would still be my best friend.

“If you did,” I said softly. “Then, as long as there’s not a trickster demon behind you… then, I guess I’d kiss you back.”

He gave a wavering smile, then checked over his shoulder.

“Nope. No demons. Not one.”

“Then what are you waiting for?” I asked.

He pulled me to him, lips brushing mine with the gentlest of touches. Pausing, he looked down as if to make sure I hadn’t run away. Then, his head dove down and his lips pressed hard, kissing me with two years of pent up passion.

My breath caught in my throat and I stopped breathing, one hand clutching his hair, the other pulling his body closer.

“I hear this is where the cool people hang,” a voice spoke up behind me.

I pulled away from Harrod and spun to see Martin’s triumphant grin.

“Harrod?” I said softly. “Can you punch him in the nose for me? I’d do it myself, but I think I might break it.”

***

I breathed in the scent of pine and cinnamon, tinged with coffee. “Oh, is that for me?” I asked, and gratefully took the cup Martin offered.

“Only the best for you, Em.” He winked and I stifled a groan.

“Martin, you’ve got today off. Only today, mind.” He grinned and made to take the mug from me but I jerked it back, almost spilling it. “But leave this. Seeing as you went to all the effort.”

After confirming Martin had known about Misrule’s little visit all along, Harrod hadn’t stopped me when I’d used a spell to bind his brother, gag him, and start turning his hair hideous shades of pink in front of a crowd of eager spectators.

I had finally let him speak, and accepted his peace offering: he would act as my servant for a whole month. It was supposed to teach him a lesson, but he was enjoying it far too much.

“Little Snow, is another gift for you.” Gibble passed her the package from under the tree.

“Emma, this one’s from you!” Snow squealed.

Ellandra leaned over to look, placing one finger neatly down to hold the bow she was halfway through tying on Lenny’s head. It was the same colour as the one on his tail… and the half dozen decorating the new winter jacket she had gifted him. As ridiculous as it looked, he didn’t seem to mind being decorated like a Christmas tree.

She ripped the paper off her gift, knocking over the cluttered pile of wrapped boxes in her excitement. Lenny darted out of the way, almost tripping over his own legs as he retreated to the safety of the floor in front of me.

“Sorry, Lenny.” Snow reached out to rub his snout, then carefully lifted out the scarf. “Oh, I just love it!”

“Look, we’re a matching pair,” Martin called. He flapped the gloves Harrod had gifted him earlier.

The delicate, looping pattern on the ends of Snow’s burgundy scarf matched those around the cuffs of Martin’s forest green gloves.

I sat back, wiggling my toes into Lenny’s warmth and clutched my coffee so it wouldn’t spill as Harrod plonked himself down next to me.

“This one’s for you,” he said quietly. He passed me a small, wrapped box with a little bow on it.

I carefully slid my finger under the tape and pried it open, then popped the lid off the box inside.

The snow-globe was clearly Fae-made. Minuscule snowflakes swirled around two glass figures, slowly dancing. The man held the woman’s waist and lifted her toes off the ground, slowly spinning in a circle before setting her down to start the loop again.

The detail was incredible and I drew closer, squinting. I could just make out the faces on the dancers.

“Oh, Harrod,” I breathed, tears welling in my eyes.

“One of the dancers trapped in the tent was the glass blower,” he explained. “He saw us, and said he could recreate that moment.”

My hand caressed his face and I pulled him closer, touching my lips to his. “I love you,” I whispered.

“Oh, gods, have we got to put up with this for the next fifty years?” Martin yelled across the room.

“Harrod and Emma, sitting in a tree, K-I-S—” Snow ducked the first pillow I threw at her, but missed the twitch of Harrod’s wand that sent it flying into the back of her head.

“No fair!” She cried. “Martin, get him!”

Martin chuckled, shaking his head. “If I do, Emma will make me pay for it tomorrow. Come on, let’s go make a snow-boggart and leave these lovebirds to swoon over each other.”

Once they had all piled out and Harrod and I were all alone, I snuggled into his embrace.

“And to think,” I said wistfully as I watched the glass figures dance. “All I got you was a boring watch.”

“Just a watch?” He asked, laughing. “No. You got me the best gift I ever could have asked for.”

“What’s that,” I asked, eyes narrowed suspiciously.

“This.” He leaned forwards to kiss me again and I closed my eyes.

Oh, yes. That. As I melted into him, I realised that finally, the happiness Martin had promised me was here, all because of a visit from the Lord of Misrule.

Maybe I could forgive him, after all.

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