Isa’s list of Things I’m Loath to Do featured a select few items, and dropping off a fugitive at the fae court ranked right under scraping fox poop off her shoes.
The splendor of the royal palace alone rubbed her the wrong way, the fine livery of the guards so unsuited to actual combat, the shining marble and stone so polished it barely sang to her anymore. Not to mention the gold and silver adorning the doors. A small splinter of that would pay for a new bow and more arrows than she could shoot in a month.
But the stares were the worst. The finest of the fae gathered at the court, sycophants basking in the grandeur of the royals, blissed out among the riches of Faerie. Things they were loath to do? Being reminded that not all of Faerie lived this life of luxury, that some actually needed to work to survive.
However, for all that Isa hated those cold stares directed at her—the despised reminder—she relished how she ruined those faeries’ day by daring to walk among them.
So, when she brought her latest fugitive back to the royal court to serve his sentence, she did enjoy the fact she had to drag him through gleaming halls of jewels and precious stone right up to the throne room.
Highborn fae sniffed while she passed them, curled their lips at her dirty attire—she’d chased the escaped faery through muddy wetlands, and hadn’t bothered to change, all the better to scandalize the royals—and muttered sophisticated insults at her. She allowed herself a smile hidden by her talôr, the cloth covering the lower half of her face.
When she arrived at the massive double doors leading into the throne room, the guards blocked her way.
“You will hand your capture over to us, hunter,” one of them said, so proud and uppity in his beautiful uniform. The one with serious design flaws, from the tightness across the shoulders that would impede his ability to move freely in a fight, to how it allowed no room for even the lightest of armors to protect his vulnerable spots.
Idiots. Complacent, that’s what the royal court had become. Thought themselves so safe within the borders of Faerie, so settled and smug in their power, they’d neglected to keep their weapons sharp and their minds even sharper.
She brought the fugitive to heel next to her with a yank on his magical leash. “My contract is with the king, and only with him. His Highness signed it, not you, nor any other guard. Therefore, I will only surrender the capture to His Majesty, and receive my reward from him personally as well.”
The taller of the two fae guards narrowed his eyes. Oh, how he wanted to deny her entrance. It was written all over his handsome blue face, but agreements among fae were considered sacred, and had to be followed word for word. With a clenched jaw, he stepped aside and allowed her through. The escaped fae grunted when she yanked him into the throne room behind her.
Ah, splendid. Nearly the entire court was assembled. Conversation ceased when she marched into the middle of the massive hall, stopped in front of the dais with the two intricately carved thrones, and bent her knee before the royal couple and the noble fae. Hissed whispers floated over to her. Bounty hunter scum. Reeks of humans. So obscene.
Isa squared her shoulders, lifted her chin, and focused on the reward for this job. It’s good money, it’s good money, she repeated to herself, over and over. She’d long ago shed any shame over her profession, and outside of the royal court, she rarely encountered prejudice like this. She was good at what she did, and to hell with those who looked down on her because of it. And yet, something about the combined force of the disdainful stares of those noble fae stung her despite her determination to ignore them.
When the king bade her rise, she stood and released the escaped faery from the magical leash, forcing him to face the thrones. He’d been a real prick to her all the way back into Faerie, and had spit on her more times than she could count. If she began this mission with the slightest scrap of sympathy for him, he thoroughly trashed it with his vulgar taunts, not to mention the attempted bite attack. She didn’t care what he did to incur the royals’ wrath, to make them pay a lovely sum to a lowborn bounty hunter to track him down and haul him back from the humanlands. Not that she usually wondered, or even asked, about the subjects she was tasked to retrieve, but in his case, she honestly couldn’t care any less.
“Bounty hunter,” the king intoned, his blue eyes striking in a brown face just a little darker than Isa’s own complexion, his long blond hair elegantly parted around his pointed ears.
“Your majesty.” Isa bowed. “I present to you the fugitive you tasked me to capture and bring before you. I humbly request to receive the agreed-upon reward.”
The king waved a hand, and a guard hurried forward and dragged the whimpering fugitive to the side. The highest of the highborn fae then tossed a satchel toward Isa. It landed with a metallic clink at her feet. She snatched it off the floor, opened it and started to count the coin, when the king spoke again.
“You are dismissed. Begone.”
With a bow, she moved toward the doors, still counting the money. A spasm clutched her limbs, a hot flash of piercing pain fired up her nerves. The hand that sorted through the coins twitched and numbed. She paused, breathed through her nose, and forced herself to hold her hand still.
Focused on curling her fingers into her palm. She shook from the effort. Sweat broke out on her skin. Seconds ticked by, but she managed to make a fist, to fight back the debilitating numbness until she felt her hand again.
The curse was acting up again. Sooner than she expected. With a sharp shake of her head, she refused to consider the implications.
She finished counting the money instead. Her stomach curled in on itself. Her pulse sped up. Heat washed over her.
Suppressing a growl, she turned back to the dais. “Your Majesty.”
He barely spared her a glance.
“Your Highness.” She cleared her throat, spoke louder. “This is not the sum we agreed on.”
The king’s deep blue eyes focused on her, as did the queen, sitting beside him in her exquisitely fancy dress, her moss-green skin radiant in the light of the chandeliers, her red locks adorned with her sparkling crown. Boredom lurked in her gaze, as well as a finely-honed cruelty, and it was she who replied to Isa’s accusation.
“There has been an amendment to the contract. The reward has been adjusted.”
Isa exhaled through her nose. Her pulse pounded in her ears. “With all due respect, my lady, that is illegal.”
“Against the law, yes?” The queen leaned forward. “Pray tell me, sayunai, who is it that makes the law?”
It had been a long time since someone had referred to Isa with that term, a name for bounty hunters that wasn’t quite an insult, but carried enough of a sneering undertone that it felt like one.
“You are welcome to file a complaint about your remuneration,” the king chimed in, his smirk revealing the knowledge that Isa would do no such thing.
And he was right. She knew when to cut her losses and run. Filing a complaint would lead nowhere, might even eat up more money than she’d get out of the process in the end.
“No, thank you,” she murmured, clutched the satchel and strode toward the exit.
She was almost at the threshold when the double doors slammed shut with a bang that reverberated in the lofty hall. Stunned, Isa swiveled around, her hand already hovering over the dagger at her thigh, her eyes darting toward the royal dais and the guards.
But they looked just as baffled as she felt.
Bang, bang, bang.
Three more doors along the walls of the throne room slammed shut as well. Agitated whispers ran through the ranks of the two dozen or so highborn fae in attendance. Before anyone could move, a storm of rage and hatred blasted through the one remaining open door, which closed behind the intruder in the very next instant.
With a gasp, Isa backed up against the wall, the hand that had reached for her dagger now flattened against the smooth surface of the stone. As soon as she touched it, she called upon her magic, and it sang to the stone, flowing over and through her until she merged with the marble at her back. She wasn’t really part of the wall, of course, just concealed so well that, for everyone else, she’d become invisible.
Whatever was about to happen here, it was going to be ugly, and she wanted no part of it.
Magic swelled in the air to deafening levels, and the storm in the middle of the throne room raged on, swirling, howling, whipping, and then collapsed in on itself with a whoosh that rang in Isa’s ears. The lone figure of a male fae emerged out of the lingering cloud of darkness—and murder whispered about his vibrating form like mist gathering upon graves.
The king took one look at the intruder and yelled at his guards to arrest the threat…those feeble, arrogant, complacent guards, whose last serious battle might well have been hundreds of years ago.
Still plastered to the wall, Isa could only watch in horrified paralysis while the royal guards met their match—and their deaths.
The intruder moved like liquid, like lightning, there and gone again in the span of a heartbeat, wielding his slim sword with lethal efficiency. The guards around him fell like flies. Panic surged in the room, and the noble fae rushed to the doors, rattled on the handles—in vain. Magic locked all the exits.
The blood of the guards spilled over the gleaming stone floor, saturated the air with its thick, coppery scent. Hissing, the king threw out his arm toward the attacker, but whatever power he’d meant to hurl fizzled out when the intruder blocked the magic with a flick of his hand.
“You killed her!” the attacker bellowed. “You murdered them both!” He took a step toward the dais, where the king and queen sat in horrified paralysis. “Their blood is on your hands. Now I’ll drench this room in your blood. This is for Roana!”
With a roar, the intruder launched himself at the royal pair. The queen jumped to the side and threw a dagger at the attacker. It penetrated his chest, yet didn’t slow him at all. As if forged from the fires of wrath, the intruder seemed unfazed by any of the king and queen’s defensive moves. Neither magic nor weapons deterred him. Within seconds, he decapitated the king and shoved his sword through the queen’s eye. She twitched once, and collapsed in a lifeless heap. The intruder planted his foot on her face and pulled his sword out of her head.
Without so much as a pause, he went for the rest of the noble fae huddling against the walls and in the corners. He slashed and ripped and stabbed, blood sprayed, screams filled the room, fear and darkness descending until Isa couldn’t breathe anymore.
He was down to the last remaining faery, a female already lying on the floor, holding her injured side, but still alive. When he raised his sword to deliver the death blow, the fae rasped, “Your child lives…”
The intruder hesitated, halted his downward strike.
“Your son…” the fae coughed. “He’s…alive.”
A sound escaped from the attacker’s throat, so anguished, so broken, it reminded Isa of the rabid wolf she once had to kill in an act of mercy. The intruder lowered his sword, his chest heaving with his labored breaths.
“How?” His single question was half a growl, half a whisper.
The female fae shuddered, her light brown skin reduced to a sick pallor. “I…smuggled him out. Exchanged him… Witch family…” She coughed again. “Murray.”
The attacker’s sword clattered on the floor. He went down on his knees in front of the fae. “Why?”
“Roana…” The fae lifted her head to look directly at the intruder, her face wracked with pain. “She was my friend.” Old magic echoed in her words…so much love, so much devotion it made Isa shiver.
The attacker gingerly propped the fae up against the wall, fumbled over her wounds for a moment, his hands shaking. “You’ll live,” he said hoarsely. “Your injuries aren’t fatal.”
He fidgeted for a few more seconds before he grasped his sword and stood abruptly. Looking up, he seemed to calculate something for an instant. In the next second, he called upon power that tasted of the earth, of green and thriving things. The floor rumbled, broke apart in front of him, and branches shot out of the hole. They twined around him, enfolded and surrounded him, and then they rose, rose, rose, lifting him up to the lofty ceiling, where starlight twinkled through high-arched windows at the top, right under the dome of the throne room. As soon as he reached those windows, the intruder jumped off the branches, through the glass pane, and into the dark of the night.
Isa shook so hard her hand almost slipped off the stone wall, which would have exposed her presence. She couldn’t leave now. She had to wait for the guards to break through the magically locked doors—which should open soon, now the intruder and his magic were gone. She could then try to sneak out through the open exits.
If they saw her here, she’d be implicated in the massacre. Who’d believe a lowborn bounty hunter when she told them about an attacker with powers beyond anything she’d seen in recent times and how he slaughtered the entire royal court in the span of a few heartbeats? No, they’d assume she played a part in it, and no fair trial would await her.
While the magic securing the doors still worked—guards shouted outside, rattled the handles, in vain—something stirred among the carnage. One of the fallen fae rose on unsteady legs, clearly injured, yet able to crawl-walk over to the female fae propped against the wall.
Two. There were two survivors. Plus Isa, merged with the stone.
The other wounded fae—a male, his skin a golden glow underneath the blood painting him in gory strokes, his hair probably silver—sank down in front of the female fae.
“The witch family’s name,” he said in a low voice, “is Murray?”
The female eyed him, hesitated.
He pulled out a dagger, plunged it into one of her wounds. She uttered a gurgling scream.
“Yes?” he asked.
“Yes,” she hissed. “Murray.”
And he slit her throat.
Isa flinched, pushed her back harder against the wall in an instinctive urge to sink into the stone, to reinforce her cloaking. Her heart thudded against her ribcage, its drumbeat pounding in her head. Sweat coated the hand she held pressed against the stone, praying it would continue to keep her hidden, and safe.
The magic in the air, the one barring the doors, eased, then vanished. The male fae—a member of the royal court, judging by his expensive tunic—lay down next to the female he just killed, and when the doors burst open and guards streamed inside, he groaned and cried out for help.
In the flurry of agitation while the guards inspected the room and carried the male fae out, Isa inched closer to one of the open side doors, keeping her hand on the wall and herself hidden in stone. She timed it right, made it out when no one was looking—the doors were wood adorned with gold, nothing she could work her magic on, so she had to make herself visible to sneak out—and immediately plastered her hand against the stone again once she was out of the room.
She walked as fast as she could without losing contact with the walls, until she was far away enough from the throne room that she wouldn’t arouse suspicion. And then she ran. Because for the first time in twenty-six years, she had hope, real hope of surviving this curse. She just had to find the changeling.
Problem was, she wasn’t the only one looking for him.