Authors: Kim Harrison
Al pulled his bared-teeth smile from Jenks, mellowing as he turned to me. “Is that so?”
Wanting to improve his mood, I went to get him a coffee. Al propped his cane in the corner and sat in Ivy’s chair by the door, knowing it was the throne of the room. Settling himself with a pompous air, he shook out his sleeves and took a deep breath to speak.
I spun when six pixies came burst in, shouting about something or other. Jenks rose up, but as soon as they saw Al, they flew out screaming. Jenks shrugged, and Al grinned to show me his flat, blocky teeth. “You
have an interesting life,” he said, fluffing the lace at his cuffs. “Now, about Nicholas Gregory Sparagmos. Stealing Rosewood babies? How sure are you that he’s not collaborating with Trent?”
Shocked, I almost sloshed his cup over. “Pretty sure. Trent seemed as angry as I was when we met at the crime scene.”
to a crime scene? No wonder they don’t take you seriously.” Al rolled his eyes dramatically, and frowning, I extended his coffee to him. His eyebrows rose at the rainbow mug, and in a huff, I sat down beside my uneaten sandwich and pushed it away. He was eyeing the cold cuts still out, and I gestured for him to help himself. Coffee I’d get him, but if he wanted a sandwich, he was going to have to make it himself.
Pinkie extended, he sipped from his rainbow mug, his eyes closing in what had to be bliss. “Oh, this is marvelous! Rachel, you have made a capital cup.”
“Al, about Nick,” I said impatiently, and Al set his coffee aside, rubbing his hands in anticipation as he went to the center counter. “Trent wouldn’t help him. He doesn’t want to see more Rosewood babies turning into demons any more than I do.”
Standing behind the counter, Al shook water off the lettuce, looking odd in his silk and velvet. “Trent has been known to work with Nicholas Gregory Sparagmos before,” he said, using his full name to denote his familiar status. “The tricky elf freed Ku’Sox from the prison we put him in. He allowed Nicholas Gregory Sparagmos to escape from his lockdown.” Al put a gloved finger to his nose. “Sounds suspicious.”
I frowned, chin lifted as I refused to let his doubt poison me. “Trent didn’t let Nick go. He was abducted by a demon, probably one that Nick called for that very reason, and probably the same one Ku’Sox got him from.”
“You sound proud of the little man,” Al drawled, and my lips parted when, with a tug on my awareness and a cascading sheet of ever-after, the vision of a British nobleman vanished, replaced with a heart-stoppingly familiar vision of Nick.
“Son of a Disney whore,” Jenks whispered, but I’d gone cold, seeing Nick with his thin build, shaggy mop of dark hair, and sparse stubble. Al even had the faded jeans, tatty sneakers, black T-shirt with the lumberjack-style shirt open and hanging loosely over his narrow shoulders. A chill went through me as he layered cold cuts on white bread, looking like Nick until he blew me a kiss and winked at me with his goat-slitted eyes with a confidence only Al could command.
“That’s not funny,” I said.
“Ahh, you do hate him.” His voice was his own, and I shivered as Al put a last slice of bread atop his pile. Seeing me turn away, he sent a second shiver of ever-after over himself and was back to his usual appearance. “Good for you, Rachel,” he said as he brought his sandwich to the table. “Hate is all that keeps us alive when love is gone. You’re almost there. Not quite ready to let it go yet.” Sitting, he took a large bite. “God slay me, this is good.”
Shaken from the reminder of Nick, I crossed my knees. “So you believe we’ve got a problem?”
He bobbed his head, not letting go of his sandwich to take a sip of his coffee. “We might,” he said, downing half of it in one go. “But you understand I
go to Dali with your scary bedtime story of killer demon babies.”
Jenks’s wings clattered in disgust. I, too, wasn’t happy, my foot starting to bob.
“Ku’Sox hasn’t done anything against the law. That is,
law,” Al said, one hand holding his sandwich, the other his coffee. “Especially if these children are potentially demons. It’s the first time he’s ever shown a hint of an interest in seeing our species regain its health and should be applauded. As for Nick? He’s just a human. Mostly harmless.”
Outraged, I stood. “Al, you are underestimating the danger here. Yes, Nick is
just a human,
but he’s not afraid to do things that might kill him if he thinks the risk is good. You can’t fight something like that. Will you just listen to me? How come no one listens to me! Is it the dress?” I snapped, my anger misplaced but real. “Maybe the curves? If I shaved my head and dressed like Newt, would you take me seriously then?”
The demon’s chewing paused as he sent his eyes over my shape, silent as he took a sip of coffee. “Now, now, no need to go to extremes,” he said softly. “Where is the proof that he’s planning mischief, itchy witch?”
My shoulders slumped. If he was calling me itchy witch, he believed me, believed the danger, and that was all I wanted. “I talked to him. He as much as admitted so.”
Red goat-slitted eyes showing over his glasses, Al made a bland face. “You talked to Ku’Sox?”
I blinked. “God, no. Nick.”
“Ahh.” Clearly relieved, he took a bite of sandwich. “Then you have nothing,” he mumbled around his full mouth.
Frustrated, I slumped back into my chair, my elbow just missing my scrying mirror. Jenks’s dust sifting down seemed to fall through the glass, but I was too frustrated to care.
“Oh, very well,” Al grumped with bad grace. “I suppose you’ll be bad-tempered until I talk to Dali. I’ll do it in the morning—he’s crankier than you if he doesn’t get his beauty sleep.”
My head came up, and I smiled, glad I had him to go to. Then I wondered how I’d gotten to the point where going to a demon was a good thing. “Thanks,” I said, meaning it.
Al stood, coffee in one hand, half-eaten sandwich in the other. “Indeed,” he said, then vanished in a wash of ever-after. His cane in the corner went with him, and then my eyes darted to the counter when the coffeepot popped out.
“Hey!” I shouted, but it was too late. My fingers drummed once in discontent, but I could sympathize. You couldn’t get a cup of decent coffee in the ever-after for any amount of money. I’d pick the coffeepot up Wednesday, but experience told me that a rank burnt-amber smell would taint the coffee for weeks.
“What an ass,” Jenks scoffed. “He took our coffeemaker!”
Shrugging, I went to open the window. “I’ll get a new one tomorrow on the way out to Trent’s.” The slider moved up with its accustomed ease, and I stood a moment, listening to the pixies playing in the night as the stink of demons filtered out. My thoughts went to Nick, and my heart hardened. He had lied to me, misled me, and betrayed me time and again. I’d warned him, and I wouldn’t feel guilty for whatever happened.
“You going to call Ivy?” Jenks asked, and I turned, my arms around my middle as I looked at her empty chair and her shut-down computer. Anything left open was going to smell like ever-after, and I bent to get the trash can out from under the sink. My first impulse was yes, seeing as she would like a piece of Nick’s ass in a glass as much as me, but she’d tell Glenn, and Glenn didn’t work for the FIB anymore. He had retired after finding out that HAPA had infiltrated the FIB, refusing to work for a company he couldn’t trust implicitly and moving to Flagstaff with Daryl in the hopes that the higher elevation and cleaner air would help the nymph. Calling Ivy would only get them all in a turmoil.
Pinning the trash bin against the center counter, I ran my arm over the counter, throwing away the food that was open. “No,” I said, and I met Jenks’s eyes when he clattered his wings in disapproval. “It’s the first time she’s ever done anything healthy in her relationships,” I said, not sure it was the right thing to do. “I’m not going to screw it up. She’ll be back in a week.”
Jenks’s dust shifted from an uneasy green to a more neutral silver. “Yeah, maybe you’re right,” he said as he flew to sit on the windowsill to watch his kids.
But it didn’t feel right.
f I were to die and come back as a horse, I’d want to be a horse in Trent’s stables. The stalls were large, the hay sweet smelling, and the layout set to funnel the wind from the pasture right through it all to create the sensation of an open pavilion. Tucking a strand of hair back under my hat, I gave Molly a pat, running my hand down her side to feel the swallow of air she’d taken in to inflate herself so the saddle wouldn’t be so binding. I’d have to walk her until she released it before I tightened the cinch a final time.
“Molly, you’re a sweet horse, but predictable,” I said as I turned her around in the expansive box stall and walked her into the corridor. Around me were contented snuffs, grindings, and flicking of ears and tails. We weren’t in the wing where Trent kept his racehorses. No, these were the animals he kept for the Hunt, and they were far more intelligent and levelheaded.
My boots were silent on the sawdust as I headed for the north paddock. In the background was Ceri’s high, serious voice going over our route with the stable manager. As soon as Jenks got back with Trent and Ray, we’d be taking the river path where we could stay in the shelter of the old-growth forest.
The late-morning sun was high and it was unusually hot outside, but the upper housing units caught most of the rays to leave the open stables cool. I couldn’t help but be reminded of camp—though I didn’t recall a lot of it, I did remember the stables. My endurance had been nil then, and the horses had made me feel strong. Though seemingly sure of himself, Trent had been anything but—until I told him to stop letting Lee bully him and stand up for himself. They found Lee in the camp well three days later. Maybe Trent listened to me more than I thought.
My faint caffeine headache was finally easing, and I grabbed my to-go cup for the last swallows. It had gone cold, and tossing the empty cup in the trash barrel, I came out blinking into the sun, Molly clopping behind me. Seeing Quen already there with Lucy waiting for us, I smiled.
Quen was standing sideways with Lucy on his hip, making a striking statement in his black-and-green riding clothes. A big gray horse hung his huge head over Quen’s shoulder, snuffing at Lucy’s bonnet. The little girl was sweet in her white riding outfit, the picture of privilege as her chubby hands reached up to the unfamiliar brim. Her expression was pinched in annoyance as she tried to pull it off so as to see it. The little girl had Trent’s looks and Ellasbeth’s attitude, and when the curious horse blew out his breath, the little girl squealed, reaching for his floppy lips.
“You need your hat today, Lucy,” Quen said, moving before Lucy could get a grip on the horse. “We don’t want to have to ask Aunt Rachel to spell your sunburn away.”
Aunt Rachel. I liked that, and squinting despite my hat, I ambled forward with Molly. “I would, you know,” I said, touching Lucy’s soft-soled shoe and beaming at the little girl now shouting out nonsense, just to hear herself talk. “Even if it took a curse to do it.” My gaze lifted to Quen’s. “Shouldn’t they be back by now?”
Quen peered at the height of the sun. “Give or take a few. Here,” he said, holding Lucy out to me. “Your cinch is loose.”
“I know,” I said, then dropped Molly’s reins as I found myself suddenly holding a squishy, surprisingly heavy small person. She smelled like snickerdoodles, and I laughed when she wiggled, almost jumping in my arms. “I was going to walk her to get her to exhale first,” I said, scrambling to get my hat’s strap out of Lucy’s mouth.
“She let go already.” Head lowered, Quen eased the cinch up a notch. Molly flicked an ear, sighing. He gave her a pat and reached for Lucy, now patting my neck where my tattoo was. Realizing she was trying to say flower, I grinned. She was only a year old, but elves grew up fast. Not like witches, who Jenks swore were not able to be on their own until they were thirty. Ahem.
“They’re just over the hill,” Quen said as he took her back, his smile making his few wrinkles fold in and hide his pox scars. “Evaluating the three-year-olds practicing the gate.”
“Oh.” I didn’t really know exactly what he meant, but I could guess.
“He’s quite good at reading them,” Quen was saying as I gazed over the nearby hill. “He’s like his father there.” Quen turned to the hill expectantly at the soft rumble of hooves. “Kal was extraordinary on a horse. He had a knack for knowing what it was thinking and countering it with just the right amount of force.”
I looked up from playing peekaboo with Lucy, and Quen seemed to straighten. “That’s him now,” he said softly, then turned to the stables. “Ceri? He’s back!”
My eyebrows rose at the informal hail, but being around horses tended to do that to a person. Big horses with jockeys looking like children on their backs were coming over the hill in pairs, high-stepping and sending up puffs of dust from the soft path. I didn’t see Trent yet, but clearly practice was done.
The clop of hooves turned me around. Ceri was beaming as she looked up from adjusting her boot, the sun glowing in her hair caught back in a veil/hat kind of thing. She was utterly beautiful in her proper English riding outfit, sitting atop her horse with a happy air about her. Green eyes squinting, she was both breathless in anticipation and relaxed in the saddle. The voices of the jockeys became louder, and her mount backed up, nervous as the adjacent paddock filled with an aggressive energy.
“Do you have Lucy, love?” she asked Quen as she calmed her horse, and the older, pox-scarred man looked down at the little girl. His own mount didn’t care about the spirited stallions and feisty mares, calmly twitching an ear at them.
“Down,” Lucy whined, twisting until she could reach her hat. “Down. Down!”
“I’ll take her,” Ceri demanded, but Quen only smiled a private smile and handed her to me instead. It was then that Jenks showed up, and I almost dropped the little girl when Lucy squealed, reaching for the little funny man with wings who managed to stay just out of her reach.
“Jeez, Jenks!” I exclaimed, scrambling for a hold as the little girl wiggled. “If she ever gets a hold on you, I’m going to sell tickets. Back up, will you?”
“Awww, she won’t hurt me,” he said, but he hovered unmoving until I could hand the slightly squishy Lucy up to her mom. Or Ceri. Or whatever. Technically speaking, Lucy and Ray didn’t share a drop of common blood, and the only thing that linked them were their perfect, uncropped, and somewhat pointy ears. But still.
Ceri was cooing over Lucy, adjusting her bonnet as I checked the cinch again and swung myself up. Immediately I felt taller as Molly took three steps to the gate before I pulled her back. Last-minute details were being sorted out as Ceri settled Lucy before her and talked to the stable manager—diaper bag, water, sunscreen, phones checked for a proper charge—but it was Trent my attention was on.
He had come in last with Ray sitting in front of him, and he was accompanied by a heavy, small man on a sedate quarter horse. Quite simply, Trent looked amazing on Tulpa, the same horse I remembered from camp. The tall black would be ancient by now, but being Trent’s familiar had extended his life span, sort of a capacitor for high-voltage magic as well as allowing Trent to reach a ley line when surrounded by water.
His back to me, Trent discussed something with his manager. Seeing him there, Ray sitting before him, the picture of wealth and privilege, I felt something catch in me. It wasn’t just that he looked good but that he was comfortable, at peace without the mask of perfection that he felt he needed everywhere else.
Molly flicked an ear at Jenks, and the pixy landed right between them. “Yeah, the elf looks good on a horse,” he said dryly. “But he’s mean to them.”
My gaze jerked from Trent to Jenks. “Mean?”
Jenks nodded, using his heel to scratch Molly between her ears. “Mind games. Remind me not to piss him off. He’s good at them. Little cookie maker.”
I took a breath to ask him to explain, but he darted off to Lucy. The little girl was calling to him, shrieking at the top of her lungs for “Inks! Inks!” Ceri was looking harried, and I wondered how long it would be until she gave her back to Quen.
“Mind games?” I breathed, and Trent looked up as if hearing me across the distance.
His eyes met mine briefly in acknowledgment, then went back to the manager. “No, I want her across from Managed Detail, not out of his sight,” he was saying, gesturing to a stable hand. “Where he goes, she goes three steps behind. We made progress, but it will mean nothing if she thinks the rules apply only on the track.”
The stable hand lugged a bucket of water out, and Tulpa nosed him before dropping his head and sucking it in.
“I want Red right across from Managed Detail in a box stall,” Trent said, his eyes again flicking to me. “He is to be lavished with attention for at least an hour starting now, and then special treats on the hour until sunset. I want her so frustrated and jealous that she does exactly what Ben tells her next time.”
Mind games . . .
“Yes, sir,” the manager said, squinting up at him, and we all looked at a fiery-tempered horse only now coming into the paddock. She was high stepping and beautiful, her jockey needing every ounce of his attention to keep her in bounds. Frustrated? I’d say she was that already. It was obvious to me she was pissed she’d been held back when everyone else got to go back to the stables.
The wailing of an ambulance drew my attention to the nearby service road, and everything became more serious. Seeing it, the manager sighed. “She’s not a bad horse, sir.”
“She’s magnificent.” Trent frowned as Red squealed and snapped at the horse next to her. “But if she doesn’t learn that playing with others is more fun than playing alone, we will be the only two to know it.”
“Trenton . . .” Ceri cajoled, a hand to her eyes. “The sun is getting hot, and the girls will be napping before we get to the woods.”
Trent raised his hand acknowledging her, then turned back to his manager. “We’re done with practice. Tomorrow take her and Managed Detail on a ride and let them go. He has more endurance and can bring her to exhaustion. She’ll gate next time.” Pulling Tulpa together, he angled to the gate between the two paddocks. A stable hand ran to open it. Turning, Trent looked over his shoulder. “Treats every hour!” he reminded him. “Don’t forget. And I want a call as soon as you know how Ben’s collarbone is.”
The manager jotted a note on his clipboard. “Yes, sir.”
“And keep her away from everyone else. I want Managed Detail her best frenemy.”
The older man smiled. “Yes, sir. Enjoy your ride.”
Molly barely moved an ear as Trent rode up, but my heart gave a thump. Blinking, I looked away, pretending to fix my boot but taking sideways glances at him. Damn, he looked good, his trim physique—usually only hinted at underneath a suit—defined and definite in the jeans and button shirt he had on. I think normally he would be in full English garb but he had dressed down either for gate practice or me. I didn’t mind. I rather liked seeing that wisp of chest hair and his muscles moving behind his shirtsleeves. Ray looked sweet beyond description in her sturdy pale green riding dress complete with white leggings, soft boots, and matching hat, happily playing with the bells woven into Tulpa’s mane. Seeing her there only layered “paternal” over everything and hit just about every button I had. No. Working for Trent would be a mistake.
A big mistake.
“Ready?” he said, the sun and wind in his hair, and Jenks snorted, rising up from Lucy and making the little girl whine.
“Rather,” Ceri said as she nudged her horse into motion toward the far gate. A hand waited to open it for us. “Red is not suited for the track, dear. Why do you insist on tormenting that animal?”
Waiting for Quen to go first, Trent smiled. “You have to admit my methods have good results.”
“Yes, but why?” Ceri insisted, her hand gentle on the reins as she angled her horse closer to me. “Let Red be who she is. She’s better tempered to the Hunt and will make a magnificent courser.”
Trent turned in the saddle to look behind him at the stables. “That mare is going to break women’s hearts and men’s fortunes, Ceri. I want the world to know her name. She will never be forgotten.”
Confused, I turned to Quen. “Red?”
The man brought his eyes back from the edge of the woods where he’d been scanning, always on alert. “Her papered name is Kalamack’s Sunrise Surprise. But we call her Red.”
I looked at Trent, his horse predictably out front. “Because of her color? That’s original.”
Quen leaned closer with a creak of leather. “No, her attitude. Red zone? Danger? We’d put a red collar on her if everyone didn’t know to look out for her already. She bit Trent three hours after she was foaled.”
Passing through the gate to open field, Trent looked at his hand ruefully, clearly having heard us. “Oh,” I said softly, and Jenks snickered, coming to a landing on my saddle horn. Dropping down, he sat cross-legged, his wings glinting and his head drooping in the hot sun.
With a soft clicking, Ceri encouraged her horse to come even with Trent’s and we went two by two. We were almost to the woods, and I was eager for the shade. “There’s nothing wrong with anonymity if one is the best at their art,” Ceri insisted. “The horse is a born hunter. Let her be.”
They rode side by side, the girls they shared between them reaching out to touch each other. “If she doesn’t gate tomorrow, I will let her be,” Trent said, reaching across the space to kiss the top of Ceri’s hand in a formal acquiescence.
Seeing them there, I glanced at Quen. His eyes were tired, but the only other emotion I saw was a fond pleasure that both Ceri and Trent were happy in their familiar but platonic relationship. He was secure in his love for Ceri, and it was obvious that though Ceri liked Trent, her heart belonged to the older man. Somehow it all worked. But even though the girls and their past bound them all together, I was dogged by the feeling that though Trent was a part of this, he would forever be somewhat . . . sidelined. His future demanded so much of him that love was a luxury his fortune couldn’t buy.