“She’s three hundred and thirty-seven years old. That’s a bit late to be running away from home.”
“She aren’t running away from home. She just taking a vacations.”
“It looks a lot like running.”
“And how does you know what running look like, you big pansy? You is too old to get faster than a hobbles!”
“Shush!” The hiss in Fiona’s voice got her companions’ attention, and they fell into a tense, bristling silence. “Silent” or “sniping” described how Babbage and Squick spent nearly all their time together, but at the moment, Fiona had other things to worry about. She couldn’t afford a distraction. “I told the both of you that if you wanted to come see me off, you were going to have to be quiet. If you can’t manage that, I can always send you back to the palace.”
The pixie and the imp exchanged fulminating glares, one from the spot where he fluttered beside Fiona’s head, the other from his perch on her shoulder. She ignored them both, concentrating on making sure they weren’t being followed as she picked a path through the dense, cool forest north of the Summer Palace. Normally, no one would have cared that she’d gone and certainly no one would have stopped her, but as she had recently realized, very few things these days were “normal” at the Seelie Court.
“Your Highness,” the pixie broke in again, his tone clearly disapproving, “I really think it would be better—”
She fixed him with a sweetly dangerous smile. “Babbage, my dear friend, if you don’t shut up in the next five seconds, I might just change my mind and take you with me.”
The resulting silence lent a genuine curve to her smile. She could hear Squick chortling beside her ear, but she ignored him. She’d learned long ago not to encourage the imp. Or any imp. It only gave them ideas.
The pixie continued to flutter beside her head and cast disapproving glares in her direction, but disapproval didn’t bother Fiona. She’d grown far too used to it over the years. Babbage, on the other hand, lived in mortal fear of Queen Mab’s disapproval, which was why the threat of bringing him along to the human world had shut him up in such a hurry. Fiona’s aunt had decreed this particular vacation destination off-limits to her people ages ago, and Babbage had never been one to disobey a direct order. Unlike Fiona.
Turning away from examining the trail behind her for followers, Fiona started forward again, her violet eyes scanning the forest on either side of the trail for any sign of pursuit. All remained eerily quiet. For about fifteen seconds.
“Personally, I thinks a little vacation are a fine idea, Princess,” Squick piped up, and Fiona didn’t have to glance over at his perch on her shoulder to know he’d be grinning tauntingly at Babbage as he spoke. “Things has been getting real… complicated at court. A nice refreshing tour of boring human land are just whats we needs for lifting our spirits.”
Fiona shot him a sideways glance. “Who said anything about we?”
The imp looked shocked. “But Missy Fiona! You has to take us with you! Who will protects you if I’s not there? The human land cans be a hideous, dangerous places.”
“I think I can handle it, Squick. It can’t be any more dangerous than court is becoming.”
She grimaced at the truth of her own words. For someone who had grown up at court, as she had, a certain amount of danger was to be expected. There were always intrigues and deceptions to deal with, enemies to avoid and loyalties to question, but these days, the perils of politics had grown unexpected teeth. Ones that had just yesterday attempted to clamp down on Fiona’s unwitting head.
Her mouth firmed into a line of displeasure as she recalled the experience of being cornered in a remote alcove by a particularly ambitious courtier. The entire population of Faerie knew the queen was planning on naming her heir from among one of her two dozen or so nieces and nephews before the next Passing Moon, and apparently the odds on Fiona were high enough to make her an attractive target of would-be consorts. No one seemed to believe her protestations that she had no interest in ascending to the Seelie throne. It had taken a snapped temper and a knee to the groin to get the message across well enough to make her escape, but it had taken significantly less to convince Fiona it was time to take a nice, long, remote vacation.
Too bad her chosen spot was on the banned-travel list.
Ever since an incident a few years ago when the queen’s nephew had been spotted by several humans as he gallivanted around New York, Her Majesty had gotten a lot tougher about enforcing the ban on travel between Faerie and the human world. Most people tried to stay away from upsetting Mab.
There hadn’t been much chance that anything would come of the sightings, considering most humans had stopped believing in the existence of the Fae—Faeries, as they called them—many human centuries ago, but Mab did not like to be thwarted.
Fiona didn’t see how anyone could consider a quick little vacation to the human world as “thwarting,” though. After all, it wasn’t like your average human would be expecting to see a Fae walking among them, and with a little glamour—the smallest form of Fae magic—she could make sure all they did see when they looked at her would be a perfectly normal human woman.
Even without magic, her basic appearance didn’t give her away. She was human shaped, with one head, two arms, two legs, and the requisite number of eyes and noses and such, and at five feet, four inches, tall she fell easily in the acceptable height range for a human female. Her black hair might be a bit long, since she wore it to her hips as most Fae did, but it’s not like it hissed or anything. And if her skin was paler than the average human, well, she could always say she was afraid of skin cancer. The Fae were immune to it, but she’d read that it was a big concern for mortals. The real need for the glamour came from the subtle, luminous bits of magic that nature had woven into her being. The glow that made her skin look more like moonlight than peaches and cream. The bright glitter of starshine in her pure violet eyes. Those were the things that might give her away, but humans, in her experience, were not that tough to fool.
And while the world full of mortals went about its business in blissful ignorance, she’d be able to do some shopping and take in a few concerts. She’d done it before with no problems. She didn’t foresee any this time, either.
“I’m telling you, I have a bad feeling about this,” Babbage grumbled, apparently unable to bear the living silence of the forest clearing a moment longer. He’d lasted longer than Fiona had expected. Pixies were not well-known for their taciturn natures. “If you step through that gate, you’ll be sorry.”
“You is always feeling bad,” Squick grumbled. “That ain’t nothing new.”
“The only reason why I would be sorry would be if the queen found out,” Fiona said. “And the only way my aunt could possibly find out something like that would be if you told her. Which you’re not going to do. Are you, Babbage?”
The pixie remained stubbornly silent. For once in his life.
Fiona’s hand darted out, pinching his gossamer tunic between her thumb and forefinger and hauling him right up to her face. “Are you, Babbage?”
He glanced from her to the gate on the other side of the clearing and back again. His wings drooped at the edges. “No, Princess Fiona. I will not tell the queen of your rash and ill-advised excursion into forbidden territory.”
“I’ve asked you not to call me ‘Princess,’” she said, and released him with a flick of her fingers.
From her shoulder, Squick stuck his tongue out at the pixie.
Babbage flew back a couple of feet and gave a wounded sniff. “You are a princess.”
“Sure, along with ten of my female cousins, and that’s not counting the other cousins who happen to be princes.”
She peered around the trunk of an old oak tree and scanned the break in the thick vegetation for any signs of movement. Just because she wouldn’t let the fear of getting caught stop her from going through the gate didn’t mean she wasn’t going to try to avoid it.
“None of them had parents who died and left their care directly in the hands of the queen.”
“Babbage, do you want me to take you with me?”
“You can takes me!” Squick shouted, jumping up and down excitedly.
The renewed threat shut the pixie up, but the damage had already been done. He’d reminded her of something she spent a great deal of her time trying to forget, and now she’d spend at least the rest of the day with it hanging over her head. Pesky pixie pest.
Fiona knew that ignoring the truth wasn’t going to make it go away, but that didn’t keep her from trying. On a daily basis. She despised court life, whether it was at her aunt’s Seelie Court or at the Unseelie that was ruled by Mab’s former husband and Fiona’s still officially uncle, Dionnu. The idea of taking the throne when the peace between the two courts had been uneasy at best for most of her lifetime made her break out in hives. And that was exactly the reason that she needed to take a vacation. She didn’t have the patience or the devious ness required to be a successful leader of the Fae, and she had no intention of developing either. Her parents might both have been sidhe—the noble race of Faerie—but she swore that sometimes she wished they’d been goblins or trolls or pixies or sprites or even a dryad and a satyr. Any type of Fae under the sun or moon would have been fine with her, so long as it wasn’t a member of either high court. Sometimes, she reflected, life as a Faerie princess pretty much sucked.
Thinking about it only steeled Fiona’s resolve to screw the rules and seize the opportunity for her much-needed vacation. In the human world, she’d be able to blend in for a little while, to be a nobody. She wouldn’t stand out, and with most of her magic drained from her by the unfamiliar surroundings, she wouldn’t have been able to make much in the way of waves if she tried. It sounded perfect.
She took one last careful look around, set Squick down on the ground beside her, and shouldered her small travel bag. Grinning, she flicked the imp and the pixie a jaunty wave.
“Take care, little friends,” she called, hurrying toward the shimmering Faerie gate and into the simple, predictable world of the humans.
Tobias Walker hadn’t gotten laid in at least three months. He knew very well that this hardly qualified as an emergency, but he did consider it symptomatic of a larger issue. Not only had he not had sex in all that time—which was not inconsequential for a bachelor werewolf in his prime—but he also hadn’t gone on a date, gotten an uninterrupted night of sleep, watched an entire ball game, or taken a day off. Considering all that, was it any wonder that his mood edged toward cranky as he stalked through his 3:00 a.m. park patrol?
Technically, this wasn’t even his patrol, a fact that only contributed to his case of the grumps. As beta of the Silverback Clan—second in command after the alpha pack leader—Walker had been put in charge of the Lupine-led policing of Manhattan. That meant he got to assign shifts and theoretically give himself one off now and then. Tonight should have been his night to get a decadent five hours of sleep after a double shift on his regular beat through Central Park. Unfortunately, the packmate who had been assigned up here in Inwood Hill Park had come down with a raging case of pregnancy, and her mate had refused to let her out of the house.
Walker could sympathize with the sentiment; his own Lupine instincts would have driven him to react the same way if he’d had a mate. Something attached to the Lupine Y chromosome turned them into raging Neanderthals where the safety of their mates was concerned, but Walker was still single. He also still had an entire city to patrol and a security force already stretched thin to cover it.
He growled and stuffed his hands into his pockets as he stalked through the park, his sharp gaze constantly sweeping the surroundings for anything unusual.
You’d think by now he’d be used to the whole overwhelming thing. It had been like this for nearly six months, ever since the Council of Others and its equivalents from around the world had entered into secret negotiations with the humans. The delicate nature of the talks necessitated an atmosphere of peace, no matter how tense, if the two sides were going to reach an agreement that didn’t lead to bloodshed on either side. And when you were negotiating with vampires, shapeshifters, Others, and human politicians, Walker reflected, bloodshed was always a possibility, no matter how hard he and his pack worked to prevent it.
These negotiations would alter the course of the future, for both the Others, who had finally taken their first step out of hiding, and the humans, who now needed to acknowledge that so many of the things they believed to be safely fictional actually did walk among them. It meant asking the humans to discard centuries of fear and superstition to allow what many of them considered to be monsters to enjoy the same rights and legal protections as anyone else. So in contrast, beefing up Other security to be sure no one got out of line and did anything to frighten the humans into another Inquisition seemed like a wise course of action.
The Council had put the Silverback Clan in charge of making sure that the Others kept themselves in line and did nothing to frighten the humans into breaking off the talks. Since Walker was pack beta and his day job happened to be as head of security at the largest private club for Others in this half of the world, it fell to him to coordinate that security force. Which was why he was currently on his third patrol in twenty-four hours instead of facedown in his mattress.
Heading north at the fork in his path, Walker considered all the changes he and his kind had faced over the past months. No one had really been prepared. Sure, Others had been debating about the Unveiling on and off for most of the last century, but that had been a theoretical sort of thing, an “imagine if” approach to the future. It hadn’t prevented the shock of learning a few months ago that a radical sect called the Light of Truth had gathered enough evidence to take the decision out of their hands and reveal their existence to the humans whether they were ready or not.
That news had convinced the Council of Others that the time had come to take the first steps in claiming an open place in the world around them, hence the secret negotiations. Even the most optimistic members of the Council knew better than to break the news to the human public without first gaining some assurances from their governments that the rights of the nonhumans would be preserved. Optimistic did not equal foolish.
For their part, the Others were prepared to make certain none of their kind did anything stupid, like attack a human. Or even be seen within ten feet of one who happened to be dead, injured, or mildly inconvenienced. The last thing they needed was for the humans to abandon the bargaining table. Walker figured he was currently doing his best, and the best of at least three other people to boot.
Thankfully, things were staying pretty quiet—quiet enough that twenty-four-hour patrols probably weren’t strictly necessary, but you just never knew when that one problem you wanted to avoid would rear its ugly head.
Or scream bloody murder.
Before a sharp feminine cry had even faded from an “eek” to an echo, Walker had whipped around, pinpointed the source of the sound, and launched himself toward it, sprinting through the trees in a blur of speed and swear words.