Authors: Danann, Victoria
A Tale of Two KingdomsBLACK SWAN 6
A Tale of Two Kingdoms
(Black Swan 6)
Copyright 2013 Victoria Danann
Published by 7th House at Smashwords
Read more about this author and upcoming works atVictoriaDanann.com
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Special THANK YOU'S...
Thank you to my assistants, Judy Fox and Sarah Nicole Blausey.
Thank you to Kelly Danann who gave me the confidence to publish the first book.
Thank you to Julie Roberts, world's best editor.
Thank you to my husband, my biggest cheerleader, who values every book sale and gets excited about every milestone.
Victoria is a big fan of the Black Swan A Team.
Cheryl Lewis Fennimore
Elizabeth Quincy Nix
Janine Fromherz Diller
Karin Vaughan Sedor
Kim Staley Schommer
Laura E. Wolf
Nelta Baldwin Mathias
Sarah Beth Junck
Shannon Cutrer Armstrong
Susan Blanford Westerman
Ticia Morton Hall
TABLE OF CONTENTS
This series is also a serial saga in the sense that each book begins where the previous book ended.READING IN ORDER ISSTRONGLYRECOMMENDEDin order to fully enjoy the rich complexities of this tapestry in book form.
There is a very old and secret society of paranormal investigators and protectors known as The Order of the Black Swan. In modern times, in a dimension similar to our own, they continue to operate, as they always have, to keep the human population safe. For centuries they have relied on a formula that outlines recruitment of certain second sons, in their early, post-pubescent youth, who match a narrow and highly specialized psychological profile. Those who agree to forego the ordinary pleasures and freedoms of adolescence receive the best education available anywhere along with the training and discipline necessary for a possible future as active operatives in the Hunters Division. In recognition of the personal sacrifice and inherent danger, The Order bestows knighthoods on those who accept.
BOOK ONE.My Familiar Stranger: Romancing the Vampire Hunters.
The elite B Team of Jefferson Unit in New York, also known as Bad Company, was devastated by the loss of one of its four members in a battle with vampire. A few days later Elora Laiken, an accidental pilgrim from another dimension, literally landed at their feet so physically damaged by the journey they weren't even sure of her species. After a lengthy recovery, they discovered that she had gained amazing speed and strength through the cross-dimension translation. She earned the trust and respect of the knights of B Team and eventually replaced the fourth member, who had been killed in the line of duty.
She was also forced to choose between three suitors: Istvan Baka, a devastatingly seductive six-hundred-year-old vampire, who worked as a consultant to neutralize an epidemic of vampire abductions, Engel Storm, the noble and stalwart leader of B Team who saved her life twice; and Rammel Hawking, the elf who persuaded her that she was destined to be his alone.
BOOK TWO.The Witch’s Dream: A Love Letter to Paranormal Romance
Ten months later everyone was gathered at Rammel's home in Derry, Ireland. B Team had been temporarily assigned to The Order's Headquarters office in Edinburgh, but they had been given leave for a week to celebrate an elftale handfasting for Ram and Elora, who were expecting.
Ram's younger sister, Aelsong, went to Edinburgh with B Team after being recruited for her exceptional psychic skills. Shortly after arriving, Kay's fiancé was abducted by a demon with a vendetta, who slipped her to a dimension out of reach. Their only hope to locate Katrina and retrieve her was Litha Brandywine, the witch tracker, who had fallen in love with Storm at first sight.
Storm was assigned to escort the witch, who slowly penetrated the ice that had formed around his heart when he lost Elora to Ram. Litha tracked the demon and took Katrina's place as hostage after learning that he, Deliverance, was her biological father. The story ended with all members of B Team happily married and retired from active duty.
BOOK THREE.A Summoner’s Tale: The Vampire’s Confessor
Istvan Baka was captured by vampire in the Edinburgh underground and reinfected with the vampire virus. His assistant, Heaven McBride, was found to be a "summoner", a person who can compel others to come to them when they play the flute. She also turned out to be the reincarnation of the young wife who was Baka's first victim as a new vampire six hundred years before.
Elora Laiken was studying a pack of wolves hoping to get puppies for her new breed of dog. While Rammel was overseeing the renovation of their new home, she and Blackie were caught in a snowstorm in the New Forest. At the same time assassins from her world, agents of the clan who massacred her family, found her isolated in a remote location without the ability to communicate. She gave birth to her baby alone except for the company of her dog, Blackie, and the wolf pack.
Heaven was instrumental in calling vampire to her so that they could be intercepted and given the curative vaccine. Baka was found, restored, and given the opportunity for a "do over" with the wife who had waited for many lifetimes to spend just one with him.
BOOK FOUR.Moonlight: The Big Bad Wolf
Ram and Elora moved into temporary quarters at Jefferson Unit to protect mother and baby. Sol asked Storm to prepare to replace him as Jefferson Unit Sovereign so that he could retire in two years. Storm declined, but suggested twenty-year-old trainee, Glendennon Catch for the job.
Litha uncovered a shocking discovery about the vampire virus by accidentally leading five immortal host vampire back to Jefferson Unit. Deliverance struck a deal with Litha to assist Black Swan with two issues: the old vampire and an interdimensional migration of Stalkson Grey's werewolf tribe.
In the process of averting possible extinction of his tribe, the king of the Elk Mountain werewolves, Stalkson Grey, fell in love with a cult slave and abducted her with the demon's assistance. He eventually won his captive's heart and took his new mate to the New Elk Mountain werewolf colony in Lunark Dimension where the wolf people’s ancestors had settled centuries before.
Throughout this portion of the story, Litha's pregnancy developed at an alarming rate. Since there had been no previous instance of progeny with the baby's genetic heritage, no one knew what to expect. The baby arrived months ahead of schedule. The birth was dramatic and unique because Storm's and Litha's new daughter, Elora Rose, "Rosie", skipped the usual delivery with a twelve inch ride through the passes and appeared on the outside of Litha’s body.
BOOK FIVE.Gathering Storm
Book Five openedwith Storm and Litha enjoying quiet days at home at the vineyard with a brand new infant. Sol shocked Storm with the news that he was getting married to Farnsworth and asked Storm to help Glen run Jefferson Unit so that he could take a vacation – his first ever – with his intended. Storm agreed, but when Rosie reached six weeks her growth began to accelerate drastically.
Deliverance was to pick Storm up every day, take him to Jefferson Unit so that he could spend two hours with Glen and supervise management of Sol’s affairs, then return him to Sonoma, but the demon lost his son-in-law in the passes en route to New Jersey. Every paranormal ally available was called in for a massive interdimensional search. Finally, Deliverance was alerted that Storm had been located.
The demon picked him up and dropped him in Litha’s bedroom, but it was the wrong Storm. B Team, Glen and Litha all undertook a project to do a makeover on the fake Storm so that nobody would find out that there was a huge flaw with interdimensional transport.
Jefferson Unit was attacked by aliens from Stagsnare Dimension, Elora’s home world, with nobody there to offer defense except Elora, Glen, the fake Storm, Sir Fennimore, the non-combat personnel and the trainees.
NOTE for fans:If it’s been a while since you’ve read the saga, this collection of references to events leading up to this installment is included as a “previously on” feature.
EXCERPT IThe Witch’s Dream
Though Aelsong had her back to the room, she kept getting the feeling that someone was staring. She finally turned to see who it was and her eyes locked on the navy blue gaze of a dark-haired angel sitting across the room. He didn't look away or try to hide the fact that he'd been staring. She let her eyes wander down his body and back up again before turning back to her group.
The pub had better food than Elora had expected. Everybody had eaten well and seemed to be having a good time. Well, everybody except Litha. Storm had decided to nip the pursuit in the bud by making a big show of flirting with an array of unattached women in the bar while ignoring her. Observing this, Elora concluded that he must be very afraid of Litha's potential power over him to engage in such un-Storm-like behavior.
Song also seemed more distracted than anything. Several times more she turned around to see what her admirer was up to. He was out with friends, raucous friends, but, whenever she turned his way, he stopped what he was doing and looked back like she was the only one in the room of any importance.
Out of nowhere someone yelled, "Elves!"
The music stopped. The talking stopped.
Aelsong said, "Great Paddy. The crap has hit the wind."
Ram looked at Song and Elora and said, "Stay here," forcefully enough to let both know he meant it. As she slid out of the booth right behind him to follow and cover his back, Elora wondered who in the world he thought he was talking to.
When Ram reached the middle of the room he was facing several perturbed-looking Fae, but he was also flanked by a recently cured vampire and three Black Swan knights, one of whom was a berserker and another of whom was his wife who could destroy the building if she had cause.
He said to the crowd in general. "We do no' want trouble. We are here on official business. If our presence makes you uncomfortable, we'll be leavin'."
One of the Fae staring down Ram smirked, raised his voice and said, "Hey, Duffy. The Fen is sayin' he's here on official business."
Aelsong's angel came through the crowd and stood in front of Ram. As she approached, she noticed he was as tall as her brother, which meant he was tall for a Fae. She stopped beside Ram in a show of solidarity.
The angel looked down at her. "You're with him, then?"
"For all eternity. He's my brother."
The prince's mouth turned up at the edges. Then he looked at Ram. "And what be the nature of your official business?"
"Again, we do no' want trouble and are willin' to leave, but why should we be tellin' you our business?"
One of the challengers pointed a thumb at Song's angel. "Are ye daft? You're talkin' to Prince Duff Torquil. You could be sayin' he's the last word on official."
Prince Torquil noticed that Ram showed no outward sign of being either intimidated or impressed.
Aelsong raised her chin and let her eyes wander over him again. A dark fae.
"'Tis no' for public consumption," Ram said.
"I see. And is your sister privy to this intrigue?"
"Very well. Have her come o'er here and whisper it in my ear."
"My sister is no' chattel. I do no' tell her what to do."
At that so very public statement of confidence, Aelsong's heart swelled with pride and affection. She looked at her brother with unconditional adoration for all of two seconds before she walked to the Scotia prince purposefully and stood on tiptoe to whisper, "Black Swan," in his ear.
Duff experienced a moment of sensory overload, a little light-headedness, when Song came near enough to kiss. He couldn't decide whether to focus on her very arousing scent which would have to be called Carnal Knowledge if it could be bottled, or the warmth of her breath on his ear, or the sound of her tinkling wind chimes voice, or the actual words she said. When he managed to restart his mental processes, it registered that she had mentioned The Order.
He looked down into those hypnotic Hawking blue eyes and said loud enough that everybody in the bar could hear, "The elves are in Scotia under my protection." Under his breath, quietly enough that only she could hear, he said, "Fae's gods, it can no' be."
Aelsong swallowed and looked up with wide eyes, her heart shaped mouth forming a silent "o". She started to take a step backward, but he grabbed her wrist. "What's your name?"
He looked like his future had just turned inside out and his brows drew together as he looked down at her. "Hawking?" His heart was sinking.
She backed up a couple of steps unable to look away then Duff's boisterous friends grabbed him and dragged him away.
EXCERPT IIThe Witch’s Dream
They had allowed Aelsong to come since she was officially employed by The Order and was the inductee's sister. Only one other honoree was still living and, at eighty-seven, said he wouldn't have missed it. The royal family had sent the prince as their representative.
When they removed the silk draping from Ram's portrait, Elora didn't even try to stop big tears from rushing down her cheeks and falling on the wool sash of her dress uniform. He looked exactly as he had that Yuletide day she arrived at the cottage in New Forest with his hair pulled back behind his ears, in hunting costume, and his Black Watch Tartan gathered around his shoulders. The artist was as masterful as Rembrandt. The portrait, beautiful beyond description with mere words, but not nearly so beautiful as the elf himself. He beamed as she pressed her lips to his ear and told him there never had lived a male more glorious.
It hadn't escaped Elora's notice that Prince Duff Torquil and Princess Aelsong Hawking continually stole furtive glances at one another throughout the ceremony. She was hoping it had escaped the attention of everyone else.
As inductee, Ram was toasted with champagne and asked to personally speak to everyone in attendance. While he was busy, Elora saw an opportunity to have a word with the prince who was, in his own right, handsome as any fairytale ever imagined in his kilt which was probably his uniform for official state occasions.
She knew she might have only a couple of moments to talk without being overheard.
"Your Highness," she began, "I'm Elora Laiken, proud spouse of the honoree."
Up close she could see that the dark blue in his eyes was coupled with shades of violet. They were so unusual she may have stared just a second too long.
With a smile he said, "I well remember seein' you in the pub last night."
"Was that just last night?" She looked genuinely surprised and he laughed. "Is it difficult for you being here to honor an elf?"
The prince's smile didn't falter, but he seemed to be trying to judge what she might be after. "No' at all, madam. Like many of my contemporaries, I believe 'tis time to put our differences aside. So far as I can tell, it serves no constructive purpose. In short, 'tis silly to continue for the sake of continuin'. But, if I see that in a headline on the morrow claimin' to quote me, I will deny it 'til the Highlands look level."
"I'm pleased to hear your progressive views on the subject. I vow your secret is safe with me though I must add that, if everyone keeps their more abrasive views secret, nothing ever changes."
The prince pursed his lips and nodded. "A good point and well said."
"These contemporaries who share your views were not with you at the pub."
"'Tis true. You caught me sneakin' out on my miscreant night." Elora had to laugh. "Boys from school who can be a little rough after a few pints."
The young prince had an engaging way about him. "It's been very nice to have this talk. I will try to get my husband to reexamine his position on the feud." The prince's lips twitched when she said the word feud. He was thinking that only an outsider could so minimize the past thousand years of elf and fae at war with each other. "And I will also work on my esteemed brother-in-law from the inside."
"Esteemed. A cautious compliment I would say." Torquil's eyes twinkled.
Elora laughed. "You've met him?"
The prince shook his head slightly. "Certainly no'. Let us say I have heard he is no'... a lot of laughs." They both shared a chuckle at the expense of the King of Ireland.
"Perhaps you could begin to ease your own reservations about the status quo into the discussion in your household as well?'
"'Tis a good plan and certainly I enjoy a conspiracy as much as the next prince, but my elders are no' showin' signs of bein' moved either in their political views or away from the throne. 'Twill likely be a long time fore I am king.
"If I may ask, though, what is your mate's position on this question?"
"He's never spelled it out as such, but, the night I first met him, he turned red in the face and turned over a chair at dinner because he thought I was calling him a fairy."
The prince looked serious. "Were you?"
She smiled. "It was an error of innocence. I come from a culture where everyone knows a collection of stories by the name fairytales. Something about that was mentioned."
"I see. And he was much offended."
Elora nodded. "Well, one step at a time then?"
"Always a sound policy."
"Meanwhile, do you think I can trust that my young sister-in-law will be safe in your country? She's the one over there who could almost challenge my husband for good looks."
The prince regarded her with amusement as if to say, "I know that you know and you know that I know. The question is does she know that you know what I know?"
"Fae's gods I pray 'tis so and 'tis no' said casually." He looked past Elora to where Aelsong was talking to guests and stealing glances at him. Sensing that Elora might prove to be a valuable and trusted ally, he leaned a little closer to her. "'Tis most unfortunate that I can no' see to it personally. Tragically so, as a matter of fact. One of the problems with your traditional approach to diplomatic relations is that diplomacy takes a very long time."
"Forgive me for saying that is a youthfully impatient remark, your Highness."
"Oh, aye," he laughed. "And how old be you, Madam?"
She patted her tummy and smiled. "Old enough to be someone's mother. Soon."
"Congratulations to you and the hero of the hour."
"Of the millennium," she corrected.
"So. 'Tis a love match then." He grinned and cast a glance in Aelsong's direction without realizing he had paired the phrase 'love match' with a need to look her way.
At the same time, Elora saw that her conversation with the prince had drawn Ram's attention and that he was regarding her with distinct curiosity. Not wanting to press her luck, she said good night to Duff Torquil who stopped her long enough to shake her hand as he palmed off a card with his personal number on it. "Let us no' lose touch as the Americans say."
Elora walked away wondering where she could put that card. She thought about her bra and then laughed to herself. Had she seriously entertained the idea, even for a millisecond, that her bra might be a safe place to hide something from Ram? She walked straight to Kay and told him she needed him to keep something for her, no questions asked. As she knew he would, he pocketed the card looking straight ahead, no questions asked.
Gods. She loved Bad Company.
EXCERPT IIIThe Witch’s Dream
"Okay. Well, here's the thing then. We haven't had a chance to really get to know each other yet, but I grew up oldest of six. I had five sibs in my own world and two of them were girls. So I have experience being a big sis and I'm comfortable in the role."
"Oh. Aye." Song looked like she wondered where this was going.
"While we're gone for Kay's wedding, you'll be here completely on your own." Song nodded. "Away from home for the first time." She nodded again. "So, on that note, I'm volunteering to put my nose where it wasn't invited and offer advice. It will be best if you take every care to avoid Duffy for now."
Aelsong looked a little baffled, a little surprised, and a lot paler. "Duffy?" she asked cautiously.
"The Prince. You do know his name is Duff and his hooligan friends call him Duffy?"
Song nodded ever so slightly while her expression read shell-shocked. "How did you know?"
Elora pointed at her face with two fingers. "Eyes."
"We were so obvious?"
"Apparently not. Astonishing as it is, I seem to be the only one awake enough to see what is plain as day." Song blew out a breath of relief on learning that her brother was unaware. "I'm going to do everything in my power to help you, but it's going to take some time and a miracle or two."
She was looking at Elora with wide, hopeful eyes that could break Elora's heart. "People around here know how to make miracles. Right?"
Elora cocked her head while she appraised Aelsong. "Can you read for yourself?"
Song shook her head. "That would be handy, but my own future just whirls around like...sort of like smoke. If I try to force it, I see bad things - no' the actual future - things scary enough to make me stop askin'."
"And you can't ask anyone else in this department to read for you because of what they might see."
"Well," Elora reached over and patted Song's hand, "when we get back I will start working on your mother and your brother. And your other brother. But it must be gradual. It's a big change we're hoping for. And Duff is going to see how far he can get from his side."
Song's lips parted and she hissed in a little air. "I saw you speak to him."
Elora smiled at her sister-in-law's reaction. "Guess what we talked about. Indirectly, of course."
Song's eyes coated with a dreamy expression. "He was so gorgeous in his kilt, was he no'? It made my heart hurt."
Elora smiled, knowing exactly how it feels to find a male so beautiful you never want to look away. "Indeed. He is a real life Prince Charming."
Song looked confused. "You mean he's a charmin' prince?"
Elora sighed. She might never get used to living in a dimension without fairytales. "Right. Anyway. He says he has nothing personal against elves and thinks that continuing the feud is silly. That was his word. But he also said that, if I quoted him on that, he would be forced to deny it. He thinks there is a growing movement among some of his peers to resolve the dispute and put an end to the animosity."
Aelsong looked even more enraptured. "He said that?"
"Yes. That does not mean it will happen. He indicated that the mission is daunting from his side."
"Aye. 'Tis from mine to be certain."
"So we're agreed? You'll lay low while I'm gone?"
"It means be super discreet and prudent."
Song grinned. "I shall lay low like a rug."
Gaia kicked at the door lightly and they heard a muffled, "Hands full. Get the door."
Aelsong opened the door to let her roommate in.
Elora stood and readied herself to leave. "Don't tell your brother I was here."
"Alright then. Why no'?"
"Because, due to a turn of events that couldn't possibly be more ironic, I believe he thinks I'm a bad influence on you."
Song blinked twice before erupting into a toothy laugh that started in her belly and ended deep in her throat. Enough said. Elora got a quick hug goodbye and was gone.
EXCERPT IVA Summoner’s Tale
"What do you know about my sister and that prancin' prick of a fairy prince?"
Elora blinked, but in the space of that flutter he learned all he needed to know. He had found out the first time Storm brought her to poker night, back at Jefferson Unit, that her very expressive face telegraphed even the tiniest nuance or feeling or thought. By now he knew her so well that she was as transparent as air.
She was caught off guard because she hadn't expected that question while Ram was cooking a leisurely Sunday breakfast. She recovered and tried to cover.
"Say that three times fast?"
"No' goin' to work this time. Stay on topic."
"You just don't like him because he can stand toe to toe with you and not be cowed by the H.O.H. elfster."
"ELFSTER!? What in Paddy's Name, Elora? And what is H.O.H.?"
"Hall of Heroes."
Ram turned away from frying bacon and gave her a look. It probably didn't have the effect he intended. He was wearing jeans, a long sleeve black tee that stretched across his chest enticingly, and a black Jack Daniels apron tied around his waist. She thought perhaps nothing was sexier than watching Ram's muscles ripple while cooking her breakfast.
"Do no' try to deflect. 'Tis I. And Paddy knows I can tell when you're hidin' somethin'." Ram looked determined.
Glen was giving Blackie a goodbye rough and tumble.
"Not in my living room," Elora said on her way past with her arms full of stuff the baby might need on the plane. She set the load down by the front door, looked around nervously, and pulled Glen aside looking like a woman with conspiracy on her mind. She spoke in a tone that was barely above a whisper. "I need you to do something for me on the down low."
"The down low?"
"Um. Yes. What do they call it here when you're off the record?"
"Off the record."
Elora let out a breath. "Okay. Off the record..."
"Which record are we off?"
"Let's start over. Between you and me..."
"Glen. Shut up." He chuckled. "You're messing with me, aren't you?" He grinned.
"Enough. Limited time here." He nodded.
"I need you to find out everything you can about the elf/fae war."
"Great Paddy, Glen."
"Okay. What exactly are you after?"
"How it started. See if you can find a reliable source - either a primary reference or an authority who knows for sure."
"You got it, boss."
"What has he got?" Ram came in carrying another load of stuff the baby might need on the plane, wearing his damn extra-sensitive elf ears.
"Just getting Glen to keep an eye on my puppies. Like we talked about."
Ram nodded, opened the front door, and started carrying Helm's busload of necessities to the Range Rover.
"Scary," Glen whispered to Elora.
"How easily you lied to him and how genuine it sounded."
"Yeah, well, keep that in mind if you ever get married."
"I'm starting to recognize the appeal of bachelorhood."
Elora pinned him with a look. "Seriously, I would never lie to him if it wasn't to protect someone."
"You're protecting somebody?"
"Yes. I'm protecting them. I'm protecting him. And I'm protecting them from him."
"I'll find out what you want to know."
Elora gave him her high beam smile. "You're the best."
"Is payment involved?"
"Yes. Here it is." She kissed him on the cheek just as Ram came back through the front door.
"Catch! Stop cruisin' my wife and help me move the entire inventory of Babes R Us to the armored tank."
Prince Duff Torquil's family was having a small reception to celebrate his mid-winter graduation from law school from The University of Strathclyde at Glasgow. There was a tradition among the fae monarchy that those who were likely to rule should study history, with an emphasis on Fae history, and go on to law school, the logic being that the law was best administered by those who knew and understood it. The royal family, currently in residence at Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh, considered eight hundred guests a small reception. At that, there were sure to be at least two thousand more who would be in a snit and consider their lack of an invitation a snub.
When Elora received her invitation, she had written to the prince and explained that she and her husband had taken temporary quarters in the States. She added that she hoped it would not be presumptuous of her to ask that her good friend, Istvan Baka, and his bride, both employed by the same organization, take their place. Of course she knew it was presumptuous. After all, she had a background in the gentility of social arts, but she hoped he would grasp the code of her next sentence, which was this:
"You are certain to enjoy Baka's company and that of his new bride, who is popular among the entry level associates where she works. I'm certain you would make a loyal ally for life should you be kind enough to offer an extra invitation for her to bring a friend."
On the off chance that people were smarter than they appeared to be, Duff reread the note twice before tossing it on the glowing embers of the fireplace in his north wing office. He stabbed at the coals with the poker until the paper caught. After watching it burn to ash, he opened the door and stepped out to speak to his secretary. No matter how many times it occurred, the man always appeared startled when the prince leaned out and spoke to him. It seemed the palace staff would never get used to Duff's inappropriately modern and decidedly boorish behavior.
At first it had annoyed Duff that Grieve jumped in his chair whenever Duff opened the door to the outer offices and spoke to him. Grieve had been appointed by his father without giving the prince any say in the matter. Whatsoever. As usual. But eventually he came to terms with the fact that there was an odd little bespectacled man sitting just outside the entrance to his suite of rooms. He managed this internal resolution largely by appreciating the humor of the thing.
Grieve's display of shock had become part of Duff's day to day reality and one that he'd come to look forward to. In fact, he imagined that, should Grieve develop nerves of steel, he, Duff Torquil, Prince of the Scotia Fae and heir to the throne, would be forced to devise ways to deliberately create surprises, simply for the pleasure of seeing Grieve jump, gasp, and clutch his chest.
With that thought, Duff lowered his chin into his chest and chuckled while Grieve got himself together.
"Grieve," Duff repeated.
"Aye, your Highness."
"Please send an additional reception invitation to an Istvan Baka at the Black Swan Charitable Corporation offices, Charlotte Square."
"But, sir, there are no odd invitations left to offer."
"Are you goin'?"
Grieve pushed his glasses higher on his nose. "Oh, aye. My presence is expected."
"Do you want to go?"
Grieve hesitated, mouth open, while trying to decide whether it would be in his interest to speak plainly or not. "I, ah..."
"The truth, man."
"There you have it then. Problem solved." Duff ducked his head back into his rooms and began to close the door.
"But, sir, your father..."
The prince opened the door and reappeared, but without his customary affable and approachable expression. He was clearly not pleased and might even have been scowling, although it could be hard to tell on such a beautifully smooth and youthful face.
"Who do you work for, Grieve?"
"Is that a question or an answer?"
"An answer, sir?"
"Hmmm. Well. I understand that my father hired you."
"But he is no' in a position to oversee the minutia of my affairs every day. Do you no' agree?"
Grieve nodded. "Aye, sir?"
"Well, then it seems you must make a choice. Is your loyalty to the one who appointed you or to the one whom you serve?"
Grieve paused for only a moment before standing and pulling his shoulders back. "My loyalty is to you, sir. You can rely on me."
Truly, Duff was half joking and had not expected the equivalent of a chivalric vow of service, but seeing that the little man was serious, the prince was touched and decided not to dismiss it as a jest.
"Thank you, Grieve. I will treasure your declaration and count on it, from this day forward."
Looking like he had just experienced the best moment of his life, Grieve smiled like he'd just been knighted.
Duff withdrew and closed the door, but stowed away in his heart the knowledge that allies could be made from something so small as a little respect and recognition.
Baka would have loved to skip the prince's reception, but Elora had asked him to go and take Aelsong. So he was standing in front of the bathroom mirror in a blindingly white pleated shirt, trying to tie his black tie. He was just glad his tux came with pants instead of the kilt that most of the male guests would be wearing beneath their formal jackets.
Fresh from the bath, Heaven came up behind him with a towel wrapped around her. She pressed into his back and rose to her tip toes to peek over his shoulder at his reflection in the mirror.
Baka gave her his best debonair smile. "Bond. James Bond."
She giggled. "Here." She urged him to turn around so that she could finish the tie. He could have used a clip-on, but the extra trouble paid off. While she was doing that, he casually unfastened her towel and let it drop to the floor. He pulled her closer with one hand while the other found delightfully wicked things to do to occupy itself.
Baka loved the way her chest heaved when she sucked in a surprised breath. "You don't really want this tied, do you, James?" Her voice had taken on a sultry undertone.
He laughed softly. "Not as much as I want to touch the valet. In fact..." Grabbing her waist, he lifted, turned and set her on the edge of the bathroom counter and stepped between her legs. "...what if we just...?" He froze in place when the door chime rang.
Heaven pushed him back and wiggled down from her perch making him groan as she slid down his body to the floor. "That's Song. Go get the door and entertain her for a few minutes while I finish getting ready."
He acquiesced with a big indulgent sigh and a look that was as good as a promise about what would take place when they were alone again later that night.
Baka pulled open the door and gestured for her to enter. "Song. You look lovely." His baritone had a velvety quality that made compliments sound smooth and sincere as vintage malt.
She hoped "lovely" was an understatement. She was going for good-as-it-gets and had pulled out all the stops.
"Thank you, Baka." She stepped in, looking him up and down. "No one would ever guess there's a dirty old vampire lurking underneath those pretty clothes. And I do mean old."
He chuckled good-naturedly. "My lurking days are over."
Nodding toward the bedroom, he added, "She's almost ready. I think. Something to drink while we wait?" He pointed to a bar that had been cleverly hidden in an antique French secretary.
"No. No' drinkin', breathin' nor sittin' down in this dress or 'twill crease and look a fright."
"Okay. We'll stand up together." The conversation dipped into a lag. "So. What's the mystery behind why the Lady Laiken wanted you to attend this party?"
Aelsong Hawking had the sort of expressive face that revealed every emotion, no matter how small, no matter how fleeting. That was doubly so when the observer was someone who had lived as long as Baka. She might choose not to tell him what it was about, but it was clear that something was up.
"Other than the fact that my sister-in-law seems to like seein' me happy, I do no' have a clue."
Baka knew she was lying. Aelsong knew that he knew she was lying, but he arched a brow and let it go. That was the best that could be expected.
The bedroom door opened and Heaven walked into the living room in very high heels and a shortened, tightened version of the blood-red dress she got married in. She was stunning. Stunning and delighted that Baka was speechless. His face said he liked this version of that dress even better. Her responding smile was like a starburst.
"Great Paddy, Heaven! You can no' go with me lookin' like that. 'Tis a crime for old married women to go sashayin' about the countryside drawin' all the attention for themselves. You should stay home with your old stodgy husband."
"Song. Those are the nicest things anybody's ever said to me. Thank you."
The "old stodgy husband" wasn't as pleased. "Well, it's not the nicest thing anybody's ever said to me! I am the furthest thing from stodgy and you know it."
Her gaze flew wide-eyed to Baka as soon as he said it, which alerted Heaven to the fact that there was something in that statement that alarmed Aelsong. Baka wasn't the only person who could read Song easily.
Song had learned enough about humans to know that Heaven would sever the friendship if she knew that Song had shared a memorable night with Baka, one that was wild even by elf standards, and she knew Heaven wouldn't care that it was before she'd met Baka. At least in that lifetime.
"What's going on?" Heaven looked directly at Baka. "What do you mean 'and you know it'?"
"Um. I met Aelsong in Ireland when Ram and Elora were getting married." True. "Didn't I tell you?" No. "I stayed drunk most of the weekend." Also true. "And I kept company with some of the attendees of feminine persuasion." True again, if somewhat understated and a masterfully executed dodge.
"Oh." Heaven looked uncertain, like the conversation had taken an unfortunate turn down a blind alley. She didn't know how to backtrack and recover the mood. Fortunately Baka did.
He gathered her in his arms with a devilishly intimate and reassuring grin. "You are absolutely the most ravishing, beguiling woman in this dimension or any other. And I haven't given another female a thought since the day Director Tvelgar introduced us."
The tension eased when she responded with a crooked little smile. "Introduced us? That's what we're calling it?"
"Works for me."
"Me, too." Song opened the door. "Let's get this party started. The royal family of Scotia awaits."
Baka stepped into the hallway and offered both arms to the lovely ladies on either side of him as the three dazzled their way toward the elevator.
The palace was an easy walk in walking shoes and a marathon in high heels. The doorman had a car and driver waiting, as promised. The women were having such a good time being dressed to kill that Baka was glad about going after all.
Aelsong insisted on an old-fashioned London-style cab so that she could half-stand in the car and try to keep from creasing her dress. "Just a warnin'. Tonight I'm along to listen, no' to talk. If I speak they'll know I'm elf and the ground might open up and swallow us all."
Heaven seemed to mull that over. "You mean the only difference between fae and elves is dialect?"
Song screwed up her face. "Can no' say for sure. But 'tis a tip off. That I can say for sure. You will have to give me cover. Worse comin' to worse, just say I'm mute." When Heaven laughed, Song didn't like the impish look in her eye. "You would no'."
"Would not what?" Heaven batted her eyelashes and feigned innocence.
"You would no' deliberately say thin's, knowin' I can no' respond, that would make me either want to explode or want to squeeze your neck until that pretty amber necklace is permanently embedded!"
Baka was always surprised when reminded just how young his wife really was. "Come now. Nobody is choking anybody else. Heaven will behave."
Heaven looked out the window. "You can behave if you wish, stodgy old man. I will do what seems most fun at the time."
That threat miffed Song enough to make her forget about creasing the peau de soie dress. She sat unceremoniously and tried to reach over Baka to pinch Heaven. Baka blocked her with a stiff forearm while Heaven laughed with the impunity of a lady being protected by a powerful husband.
Baka stood on the fringe of the ballroom talking quietly with Simon Tvelgar. Both men were more interested in using their evening to discuss business than to engage in painfully inane small talk, chatting up people they would probably not see again, if they were lucky. Baka actually saw it as a momentous opportunity, because Simon's hectic schedule left him pressed for time and difficult to see. It was a bit of a challenge to manage verbal code so that nothing said between them would seem extraordinary if overheard.
Now and then Baka's eyes were drawn to his spouse's heavenly body moving through the room in her scarlet dress and her fuck-me shoes. So far as he was concerned all her shoes were fuck-me shoes, but the heels she wore that night screamed naughty by anybody's standards. There could be no doubt that she was having a marvelous time pulling the other beauty along, introducing Song to everyone as her very pretty, but tragically mute friend.
At one point Song leaned into Heaven with a big grin and spoke next to her ear without moving her lips. "I will get you for this if I have to spend years waitin' for the right moment."
Without looking at her companion, Heaven smiled and said, to no one in particular, but within Song's earshot, "Shaking in my knickers, darling. Oh, look, there's someone you haven't met." She grabbed Song to drag her in the direction pointed out by Heaven's beautifully manicured and scandalously red fingernail.
Song gave her a look so evil it would curdle milk. "Years," was all she said.
Baka suspected Heaven was having fun at Song's expense, but it would have been impossible not to appreciate the essence of life and liveliness in that sort of youthful mischief.
Turning back to Simon, with one hand in his pants pocket, the other holding a heavy crystal tumbler of Scotch etched with the monarchy's coat of arms, Baka did look as if he could pass for James Bond.
"One thing is clear. It isn't going to be as easy as we had hoped. So far it's been Myrtle's Law regarding getting the Inversion kick-started. Everything that could go wrong has gone wrong."
"And you couldn't be more wrong about that," Simon replied.
"The worst thing that could have happened would be for the head of the task force to be reinfected with the virus, thereby becoming part of the problem instead of part of the solution."
Baka opened his mouth to respond, but his attention was redirected by a small fanfare.
The prince was being introduced and making a grand entrance.
Heaven leaned toward Song. "Do not tell my husband I said this, but oh, my, my."
Duff's eyes found Song like heat-seeking missiles. It was uncanny. Only a lifetime of pressure cooker discipline enabled him to tear his gaze away. But not before Heaven caught it. "Uh oh."
Song looked at Heaven and shook her head with such a tiny movement that it would have been missed by anyone not staring at her. That, coupled with the pleading look in Song's eyes, told Heaven all she needed to know.
"Let me take back that 'uh oh'." She glanced at the prince. "Bloody buggin' bags full of shite is what I should have said."
A guest standing nearby turned and gave Heaven a look of censure to indicate her severe disapproval of the word choice. Heaven just smiled and bowed her head gracefully like she was a courtier in a Renaissance play. The polite vocabulary enforcer seemed to accept that and moved on.
Heaven turned back to ask Song what the plaintive look was about, but she was gone. While Heaven had been posturing for a stranger who needed some business of her own to mind, Song had noticed a little fae with glasses motioning her toward an alcove. Excited by the intrigue and the idea of possibly speaking to the prince, she ducked off to the side. He placed a handwritten note in her hand surreptitiously.
Her heart was beating a little faster as she opened it and read the words, Meet me. -D. She experienced one of those rare, surreal moments when her intuition worked on herself. And she knew her life was going to be permanently divided into everything that had come before that moment and everything that happened after she'd read the note she was crushing in her gloved hand.
Concealing the note in the palm of her hand, she slipped it into her little bag then looked squarely into the face of the messenger.
"Come with me?" The verbal question mark at the end of that phrase left no doubt that it was not a command, but her choice. She nodded her assent. The time for considering was over. Her course had been set before she'd accepted the invitation to attend the prince's party.
Looking back over her shoulder to be sure no one was paying attention, she slipped away doing her best to look nonchalant and no one saw her leave. No one except a double ex vampire who had been asked to take her to the party and see to her safety while out and about in "fairyland". He had no intention of explaining to the Lady Laiken after the fact of whatever was afoot that he'd been too busy to pay attention to Song's comings and goings.
Baka set his glass on a sterling silver tray as it was carried past, excused himself from his conversation with Simon and followed Song with enough stealth to make a shadow envious.
Grieve led her down several deserted and dimly lit hallways, up a half tower of stairs then turned down a tiny curving hall that seemed to branch off and double back. He stopped next to another set of stairs leading higher.
"Down there." He pointed to the ground.
She stared at the stone steps beneath their feet. "Down where?"
"Fae Gods! You be elf!" he practically hissed.
She narrowed her eyes thinking it amazing that he had discerned that as the result of the utterance of two words. "Aye."
He stared for a moment, pressed his lips together, then shook his head. "Down. There!"
She looked closer at where he seemed to be pointing at the ground. At shin level there was an opening in the wall behind the steps. Her eyes jerked up at him. "'Tis a joke?" she hissed. "You can no' be serious! 'Tis your idea or his?"
"Have no fear, elf. You will fit. I assure you. I'm very good at spatial relationships."
"Spatial relationships," she repeated in a dry tone. "By that you would be meanin' the relationship between the flare of my hips and the width of that openin'."
He blushed a little and looked down, not meeting her eye. "Oh, aye."
"You're thinkin' I will be agreein' to acrobatics on a dusty stair? In this dress?" He continued to look at the ground, but said nothing more.
Song bent at the waist to take a closer look thinking that she could not believe she was considering it for even a millisecond. There did appear to be a room beyond the little opening, but it was too dark to make out what was in there. She looked at Grieve. "You'll be gettin' the dry cleanin' bill and 'twon't be cheap. I can promise you that."
With two fearless older brothers, Aelsong wasn't big on shrinking from challenges. She gripped her little beaded evening bag with her teeth so that she could hold onto the banister with both hands and lowered herself part way, feet first, before letting go. Her hips brushed against old stone steps as her lower body let gravity do most of the work.
She let go of the railing, expecting to drop, but squeaked in surprise when strong hands gripped her waist. She knew that scent. Duff Torquil. He chuckled, preening with male satisfaction as he slowly lowered her down the front of his body. Aelsong, who was anything but inexperienced sexually, caught her breath and decided that, fully clothed and in the near dark, it was still easily the single most erotic moment of her life.
There was just enough light in the room to see the extraordinary shine in the prince's eyes. Every cell of their bodies caught the fire of mating excitation as the ancient and mysterious magnetism did its work. He pulled her closer for a sweet and tender kiss that heated to flash boiling. Since neither of them had ever felt mating frenzy, they were both surprised by the intensity and immediacy of the passion.
Duff took hold of her shoulders and forced himself to break the kiss. Taking a step back, he managed to whisper, "H'lo beautiful," even though his breathing was uneven. "You came."
"No' yet." Ram's sister she simply couldn't let that opening slide.
She tore her eyes away long enough to look around. The room under the stairs was where the palace staff kept the royal family's collection of pewter plates, trays, goblets, tankards and pitchers. There was a large rectangular table in the middle of the room laden with gun-metal gray objects and every wall was lined with crowded shelves.
"Where are we?" she whispered.
He glanced around. "Pewter Room."
"How did you know about this?" She waved at the opening between the steps.
"I used to play hide and go seek with other kids whose parents worked here. I never lost and nobody ever figured it out. The hard part was stayin' in here by myself and bein' quiet until they gave up."
"Aye. I'm almost out where you're concerned."
They looked at each other in the semi-darkness for a few seconds before throwing themselves into kisses and clutches with renewed fervor. Independently, each was thinking they had never experienced anything in life half as good as the feel of each other and each was thinking they never wanted to stop or let go. Again, Duff pushed away.
"What are we goin' to do?" Song's whispered question was couched in between breaths that were coming fast. She was almost panting.
He reached out for one of her blonde curls and rubbed it between his fingers. His eyes met and searched hers. "Run away?"
She stared into his darkened eyes for a few seconds then grinned. "I will if you will."
He laughed softly. "Let's do and say we did no'."
She nodded enthusiastically while he gave her a crooked little sexy grin. Her features went smooth and he knew the moment she became serious. "Are we kiddin'?"
He searched her face before moving to cup her cheeks in his hands. "I do no' have a better plan. I wish I did." He placed a tender kiss on her forehead and then jerked back. "Do you have a phone in that little purse of yours?" She looked down, opened the clasp, pulled out her phone and handed it to him.
He took it and started adding his contact. "This is a private number. My private number. The ID is 'Yam'." He pulled his own phone from the inner pocket of his jacket and handed it to her. "Give me yours. You can call me anytime, but I will only answer when I can. Do no' leave voice message or text. I will see that you called and call you back when I'm alone."
He smiled. "You are mine."
Her lips moved as she repeated the words silently. She tore her gaze away from his handsome face long enough to enter her number in his phone.
He looked at the contact. "IAY?"
"Aye. I am yours."
Duff opened his mouth to say something, but heard Grieve's hushed voice above their heads. "Sir. Someone's comin'."
Duff grabbed Song and kissed her like he thought he had one minute to live then, placing his forehead against hers, he said one word. "Soon."
He left through the room's actual door on the other side from where she'd dropped in. She heard Grieve speaking to someone above her head and knew she needed to remain as quiet and still as possible. Still feeling the warmth and tingle of his kiss on her mouth, she pressed her lips together and closed her eyes. Her mind was racing, imagining a hundred different scenarios of the future. The only thing they all had in common was a big comfy bed with a big and naked dark fae prince in it. Soon.
She smiled into the shadow-filled room, partly because of the idea of a lifetime with Duff Torquil and partly because it occurred to her that she might actually beat her older brother out of the position of family black sheep. Running off with a fae? She could see her father's face turning reddish-purple. She could see her mother's face pinched with disappointment and worry while hurrying away to oversee composition of a press release. Both her brothers would be turning the air blue enough to change the tint of the sky before vowing to hunt Duff down and skewer him.
At least she wasn't the heir. As difficult as it would be for her, she couldn't begin to imagine what Duff would be up against with his family. She let out a whispered laugh. She never asked to be mated to a fae, but there was no point trying to deny it. Life was strange.
EXCERPT VIGathering Storm(conversation between Elora and Glen)
“You remember that thing you were doing for me. What I asked before we left Ireland?”
“You thought I forgot.”
“Of course you would think that. I should have let you know I’m on it. It’s a worthy mystery, tough enough to be fun, cool enough to be interesting. I was at the latest in a series of dead ends, but I’ve got a new lead. So the trail is heating up again. As soon as Sol gets back I’ll request some time off and a pass ride.”
“I don’t know yet.”
“Well, I’m hoping. I wish I could tell you why I need the intel so badly, but just to reiterate, it’s important to some people I know. Really, really, really important.”
Glen cocked his head. “Abandon-my-post important? Or work-on-it-when-I-can important?”
“Scale of one to ten. One means if we never find out it’s no big deal. Ten is the end of days. I’m putting this between seven and eight.”
“Okay. You know I don’t have any free time while Sol’s gone and not much when he’s here. And the lead I need to follow requires travel with flex time and a long leash.”
“When Sol gets back, let me know what you need and I’ll make it happen.”
A TALE OF TWO KINGDOMS
We’ve called them by hundreds of different names.
At times they’ve shown themselves to us as they are.
At times they’ve shown themselves in disguise.
We’ve used each other.
We’ve amused them, entertained them, and provided breaks in their boredom.
In return, they’ve given us the illusion of reason or inspiration or purpose or excuse.
In an exercise as old as the stars, the divinity class teacher told his charges to divide into teams of eight so that he might assign group projects. As it happened there were eighty-seven in the class. Eighty of those responded with the excitement that would be expected from an opportunity to work in committee structure with their friends. They chatted animatedly, drawn to each other as if they were made of magnets. Appearing to be in a state of delight nearing euphoria, they began naming their teams and composing team cheers while they awaited further instructions.
Beneath the commotion, inaudible but nonetheless present, were the groans and anxious stomach rumbles of the remaining seven who would rather take a millennium’s detention than participate in a group project. When the huddles were completely formed, those seven looked around to see who was left and gradually, grudgingly, began to drift toward shared space.
Dr. Pierce quietly observed, looking down from a raised platform and a condescending attitude. He knew the process of group project assignation was painful for the socially vulnerable, but it wouldn’t do for him to recognize that he enjoyed that. No, indeed. He viewed it with clinical dispassion, thinking it almost resembled a dance. Some were adept and some were not.
He was one of the first beings ever created and looked it. Though he had managed eternal survival physically, he’d discovered the truth of the Peter Principle rather early in his career and had, thereafter, become known for his bitterness expressed at times in biting wit and, too often, misdirected at powerless students.
He watched the progress of the formation of the eleventh, odd number group, with some distaste. He resented the fact that his instructions were being delayed by the slowness with which they came together. He resented the fact that they were such ne’er-do-well loser misfits that they had forced him, in his own mind, to have already given them a failing grade on the project before they had even heard the assignment. Because of that he was already formulating a plan to give them the subject with the least likely chance of succeeding - the realms of Earth.
It wasn’t intended as a punishment. Exactly. It was more an anti-reward.
The seven sat down at a corner conference table, eyeing each other cautiously, waiting to hear sentence pronounced – that being how long they would be stuck working together on a group project. None of them knew each other well enough to be labeled so much as acquaintances. Of course they’d seen each other around, but had never had either occasion or desire to interact on any level.
Still young and inexperienced in the grander scheme of things, they were aeons old, a concept unimaginable by lesser minds. They were a motley crew, beautiful for their oddities, pure in their extremes, comical in their eccentricities, but all of that could only be appreciated if viewed through a prism of generosity. And the absence of that was one of the essentials that had held Dr. Pierce back from a more illustrious and transcendent career.
Pierce restored quiet to the space by holding up his hands in a gesture of authority that was a tad grander than required for the event, but the preferred pupils were wily about their surreptitious jests at his expense. Pierce’s assistant passed out the parameters of the assignment.
Every team would be given a world with a starter complement of elementals, flora, fauna… the usual. The common Hominin prototype was to be used to populate at least a portion of the dimensions. The more humans, the greater the points. The experiment would be judged as a whole, but each student would be encouraged to pursue an individual “hobby” project, which could result in extra credit.
As the students looked over the outline of the assignment, Dr. Pierce drifted down from his platform, holding eleven tablets. Each tablet held the name of the team’s destination where they would be spending the next several thousand years together.
He drifted from one team to the next handing out tablets until there was only one tablet left and one team left, the team of seven, joined together by necessity rather than choice. One of them stood to receive the tablet and the others raised no objection. Pierce put it in his hand, then said to the group, “There are lessons to be learned from those who will people your study. When you have absorbed those lessons, you will return and advance to new challenges.”
One of the seven said, “Oh, joy,” sarcastically.
Pierce’s gaze jerked toward him in reprimand. “Clearly that won’t be soon. All the better for me.”
When Pierce was gone, the one holding the tablet raised it and read it out loud. “Earth.”
The seven looked at each other quizzically and responded with shaking heads and shrugging shoulders.
And so The Council was formed. The seven were…
Heralda the Dark
“Have you no’ had a niggle of a tap then?”
Duff looked up at his friend. He’d been staring into a pool of dark ale like he was a soothsayer and it was a diviner’s tool. They sat in a corner of a pub like a sad pair of leftover bachelors.
“Ah, Brean, no’ you, too.”
“Me, too? ’Tis only I here, Duffy. How many are you seein’, man? And ‘tis only your third pint.”
“Was referrin’ to me mum. Earlier this very e’en, was mindin’ my own affairs when the grand dame comes sashayin’ ‘round and orders my own secretary away so that she can discreetly inquire as to my ability to mate.”
Brean waited for two entire breaths before he began to beat the table and laugh hard enough to squeeze moisture from his eyes.
From a certain point of view, Duff supposed he could admit it might be comical.
Duff’s mum had wandered into his suite that afternoon and nodded at Grieve in that way that said, “Did you no’ just remember somethin’ needs doin’ down the hall there?”
As the door was open to his assistant’s office, he was able to observe the entire exchange. Grieve, who had not survived fifteen years in palace employ without skills, knew how to take a subtle hint. He rose, gave a slight bow, and asked for leave by excuse of errand for the prince. She graciously gave him leave.
Once the secretary had vacated the rooms, the queen began to slowly walk about Grieve’s office looking at this, studying that, as if she was visiting a museum and expecting to be tested later on what she saw. She was exactly twenty-five years older than her son and still lovely enough to drive sales of magazines when she appeared on the cover.
He had gotten his big-boned frame and height from his father, but his dark hair and violet eyes were the unmistakable stamp of maternal genes.
“Social call, Mum?”
“What else, love?”
“Well, that’s nice.” Duff looked up. “Tea?”
“Thank you, no. Had my fill already.”
There was nothing to do but wait until she said what she had to say. “Would you care to sit then?”
“Um? Aye, perhaps.” She strutted herself to the smart red leather armchair in front of Duff’s desk and sat down as gracefully as a woman half her age. “I was thinkin’…” Duff groaned. “What was that?”
“Did no’ say a thin’, Mum.”
Lorna Torquil was Queen of Scotia fae, but for the moment, she was simply a woman looking at the male child she had raised to adulthood, who was also her own heart walking outside her body. He was her only son, but he was also her only child, which probably intensified her feelings. All that maternal impulse was trained on one fae who normally saw that as a blessing.
“I was thinkin’,” she began again, “that ‘tis past time for the matin’ to come callin’?”
The way she cocked her head he felt like he’d been placed on a glass rectangle and slid underneath a giant microscope for closer scrutiny.
“Aye. I look at the social pages, you know. I see how many of your friends have had you standin’ up for them at their handfastin’s. Droppin’ all ‘round you, are they no’?”
Her gaze was boring down. She was doing that mother thing. The one where she examined him closely, looking for some sign that he might be clipping the truth. It was some mystical means of lie detection that was practically foolproof.
He knew the color was spreading up his neck and he knew she could see it. So he decided the best cover was to laugh.
“Mum. You’re embarrassin’ me. Aye. I’m practically the last one standin’. Thanks very much for stoppin’ by to point that out. Now I really ought to get ‘round a couple details before…”
She stood abruptly. “Very well. I shall no’ detain you from yourveryimportant work. Let me just leave you with the thought that you’re no’ likely to come face to face with your intended while you’re shut up in here with Grieve. Because one thin’ I’m certain of, she ain’t him.”
He laughed. “I can no’ believeyousaid ‘ain’t’.”
“Got your attention, did it?”
“You always have my attention.”
“What a lovely liar you are, my love.” She turned to go.
“Like your hair that way, Mum.”
“Shut it,” she said without turning back.
“And that would be ‘she ain’t he’, no’ ‘she ain’t him.” he yelled after her and heard the muted tones of the bawdy laugh she reserved for when she was at home with family. She was already at the end of the long polished hallway, moving quickly with the resumed purpose of a woman who has a royal schedule to keep.
It had been over a year since Duff had first seen Aelsong Hawking sitting with her back to him in a pub in the shadow of the Balmoral Hotel. Since then he’d only seen her twice and, of those three encounters, had only been alone with her once.
He’d given Elora Laiken a chance to talk to her hothead husband and get him to lay some groundwork, or whatever her plan had been. He’d given the times a chance to change and, while some of the younger fae were definitely making noises that they didn’t really see the point of the hostilities, there was no catalyst. No motivation sufficient enough for either side to move off dead center. There wasn’t even a reason to talk about it.
The following day Duff had a mid-morning appointment with the Director of Communications. On the way back into his office he stopped to spin the giant globe that sat between the window and fireplace in the outer office occupied by Grieve. It was one of those objects that regularly failed to capture notice because of the combination of its familiarity and lack of use. On that particular day, however, something about the blues, greens, and yellows was captivating.
As the sphere rotated deosil, his eye was naturally drawn to Scotia, sitting atop the islands of Britannia to the north. Looking down at the top of the world, from his vantage point, he watched as the tundra of the cossacklands seemed to go on forever before coming to a small break where the Bering Sea separated continents. As rotation continued, he was reminded again of how drastically a flat map distorted the representation of size and space relationships on the Earth’s surface and that Canada’s land mass was immense.
As he was thinking just that, he reached out and stopped the globe with his large fingers under the word ‘Canada’. His eyes moved to the right. He knew that people often talked about the severe Canadian cold, but Edinburgh, the city in which he was standing, was further north than every major Canadian city. Cold was not a Scotia fae’s biggest problem.
He spoke to Grieve without turning around, allowing his eyes to continue to move over the uppermost band of North America: Newfoundland, Quebec, Ontario.
“What do I have for the rest of the day?”
“Lunch at the Ministry of Finance. The king said to mark that one mandatory. The Royal Mile Tourist Commission will be here at three to petition you for permissions to use various national monuments for the stagin’ of events.”
“Photographs with royal scholarship recipients at four.”
“How long will that take?” Grieve blinked as if he didn’t fully grasp the question. “Without the usual dawdlin’.”
“Without dawdlin’, perhaps fifteen minutes.”
“So done at four-fifteen then?”
“Call Pey and tell him I need to see him today. In a professional capacity. My office. His office. Dinner. I do no’ care. Tell him I’m buyin’ and tell him I’ll no’ be takin’ no for an answer.”
“May I ask how long an appointment you’ll be requirin’, your Highness?”
“I need a half hour for business, but would linger over dinner with port and cigars after if he has time. If ‘tis to be dinner, reserve my table in the wine cellar at the club where we could talk without bein’ overheard. Oh, and, Grieve…”
“Aye, your Highness?”
“Ah, never mind.”
A couple of minutes later Grieve knocked lightly on Duff’s office door and poked his head in.
“Mr. Innes says he can get a mutton quickie past his mate if ‘tis early enough, but ‘twill be safer to forego port for a better excuse. Yule perhaps.”
Duff chuckled. “Tell him six then. Call the kitchen at Highlander and have them to do up a mutton saddle with roasted potatoes for the pair of us and have it ready to serve at six fifteen.”
“Very good, sir.”
Glen closed the phone as Rosie opened the door of his office and strolled in smiling. She was wearing a backpack over her shoulder that was girlie-looking, made out of something like bronze satin, kind of vintage, kind of cute. Everything about Rosie was kind of cute except her nymphomania. And that was definitely hot.
He looked at his watch. Three o’clock. Right on time. “Aye, my darlin’,” Glen said with his very best attempt at an Irish lilt. Rosie laughed and nodded toward the door in a gesture of, “Let’s go.”
Glen had promised Elora he’d get to the bottom of the cause of the Elf Fae War four months before. He didn’t like making excuses about the delay, but a few things had come up: Animal House, filling in for Sol, a major search and rescue operation for the real Storm with simultaneous makeover for a Storm pretender, Rosie… well, Rosie, aliens trying to demolish Jefferson Unit on his watch, and Sol dying having left him in charge and without naming a real replacement.Criminently!
A lesser person might have succumbed to a nervous breakdown, but he, the Great Glen, had managed to manage. More importantly, he emerged with the best lead so far. He’d promised Elora that he would pursue it as soon as he could get away for a week or so. Now the week was at hand. Jefferson was put back together. The people who had converged on J.U. from every corner of the globe to pay their respects to Sol had all returned to their respective stations of duty and things were quiet.
He was going to get away for a few days with his girl and do the Lady Laiken the favor of a secret mission at the same time. Of course it didn’t hurt that his girl was first class transportation personified. Just the sort of companion needed for an impossible journey such as the one on which they were about to embark.
He had a very fine evening planned beginning with a ride through the passes, courtesy of his very lovely date, to Doolin, Ireland, where they would eat pub food at Gussie O’Connor’s until they were ready to burst at the seams, see how many pipes and fiddles could cram into one pub on a fine Irish night, then snuggle together in a warm bed at Mrs. McGann’s, thousands of miles away from where either of them was expected to be. Perfect.
Everything about Glen’s first night in Ireland with Rosie was as wonderful as each of them had hoped it would be.
When they woke on their first morning after having slept together, Glen found out that there were a lot of unusual aspects to having a girlfriend like Rosie. He snuggled close to give her a morning kiss.
She turned her head and said, “Ew. No. Morning breath.”
He said, “I don’t care,” and started to gather her close when she simply disappeared out of his arms. “Hey! No fair!”
He heard her giggle in the bath when the water came on. They were lucky to get a room with a bath. He threw back the covers and stood up, intending to stomp after her and show her who was boss, but was stifled by a gasp. The shock of the cold air in the room momentarily froze him in place. He looked down and realized that his privates had shriveled to miniature replicas of themselves and decided that he’d rather not present himself to Rosie in that condition after all.
She opened the bathroom door and looked at him with a question on her face.
“Cold,” was all he could offer.
She laughed at him. “Get in the bed, big baby. I know how to fix that.” Gently pushing him back under the covers, she eased her body on top of him. “Youarecold.”
He was shivering and his teeth were chattering.
“How can you possibly be so warm?”
As she began moving her body back and forth over his, creating the most delicious friction, she kissed the hollow of his throat, raised up and gave him a smile that was erotic and evil at the same time. “Maybe I have hellfire and brimstone in my veins, just like the Dante myths.”
The light that originated behind his eyes was trained on her like a beam and made her catch her breath. She was sure that what she was seeing was what love looked like.
“Maybe, but it feels like heaven. So I don’t care. Just keep doing that.”
As he slid his ice cold hands over the cheeks of her exquisitely curved derriere she jumped straight up with an, “Eek!”
He laughed, grabbed her around the middle with both arms and rolled her onto her back. “You got something for me?”
“Thanks to your magical womanly warming techniques, Idohave something for you. You want it?”
She grinned. “Only if you can manage with no hands.”
“No hands, huh?”
“Let me see what I can do about that.”
The people in the room next door, who would have liked to sleep for another hour, might venture to say that Glen was a capable companion with or without hands. At least from the sound of things.
The cliffs were so windy Glen was afraid Rosie was going to blow right off. He supposed she could manage even if that did happen, but he was having to consciously work to stay upright.
He thought she was a good sport to agree to combine an investigation with a getaway. Of course there was always a chance that his lead was another dead end, in which case he would have to say that the only thing he had to show for his trouble was a fine few days with his sweet Rosie and some very happy balls. Though he would certainly omit the last of that when he reported to Rosie’s auntie, the Lady Laiken.
The weather had turned cooler than normal and they had rummaged through the backpacks to layer clothes. The plan was for Rosie to transport herself out to the distant island, barely visible in the mists, so that she could spot the entrance to the fabled Ogram’s cave where the hermit was purported to live. If she could find it, she would return for Glen and they would go together.
It was a plan custom designed to deflate a young man’s ego, but it was also the most practical so Glen had to agree that sense trumped pride.
“Back in a flash.”
She gave him a big kiss on the cheek and was gone. It only took Rosie a second to locate two shadows that could be possible targets. The first was only a shadow. The second was a cave, but only three feet deep. However, once at the entrance to that cave, it was possible to see another that was entirely obscured by a limestone lip that curved downward from a shelf above. It matched the description Glen gave her. She switched on the light, did a quick sweep, and went back for Glen knowing he’d be anxious.
He jumped when she materialized next to him, but at least didn’t yelp. Thankfully.
She looked serious and started to shake her head.
His shoulders slumped a little. “Okay, well, it’s just…”
She grinned. “It’s there. Come on.”
He didn’t have time to switch gears before he was standing inside the head of the cave.
“This is it, right?”
He couldn’t see Rosie’s face because the light was to her back.
“I think so.”
He fumbled in his pack, retrieved a contraption with duct tape sticking out everywhere, and secured it to his head. Rosie was fascinated and hadn’t yet decided whether she was going to laugh or worry.
“What is that?”
Glen made an adjustment on his forehead and then switched the thing on. The cave was flooded with light. “Oh. I didn’t like any of the ‘head lights’,” he used air quotes, “on the market. This gives us a good six hours. It’s a bike light. Nice, huh? A NiteRider 350, and a… um, jock strap. Look at that.”
She smiled to herself, thinking it was hard to argue with results. “So what now?”
“Well, I guess we go further in? See if we can find the…”
“Yeah. The hermit.”
“You think there really is a hermit?”
“Well, the thing was right about the cave.”
He waved the paper in his hand. As they moved deeper into the cave the light from the entrance faded away as did the sounds of both wind and North Atlantic waves crashing into the cliff sides below. “Got a copy right here from Puddephatt. Claims the foremost authority on the subject of elf/fae history is this cave-dwelling hermit. Oral tradition.”
“Oral tradition,” she said drily. “Yes, but Glen. How would this hermit get in and out? What does he do for supplies? It would take hours to scale the cliffs and be almost impossible to do alone. Unless you think he has a part Elemental delivery service?”
Glen stopped and, when he turned to face her, she squinted when the light shone straight in her eyes.
“Oops. Sorry.” He pushed the light to the side so that he could face her without blinding her. “Why did you assume he’s human? Maybe he’s like you.”
She looked around and raised her eyebrows. “Then why would he live here? It’s bloody cold. You know? Did you bring hand warmers?”
“No. Here.” He blew on her fingers while he was considering why anyone would live there. “I don’t know why anybody would want to be a hermit much less why one would want to live in a cold cave.” He stopped and held up a hand. “Shhhh.”
They heard something like a pebble falling followed by a deep, but pleasant voice that sounded unmistakably amused. “Cause I like it here.” Glen’s head jerked in the direction of the sound and the light found the figure of an attractive elf who appeared fortyish, wearing jeans, a black tee, and biker boots. He was showing a couple days growth of blonde beard and his light curls were pulled back behind his ears. “You wantin’ to see me?”
Glen felt Rosie crowd close against his back. “Ah. We did. Um. Do. If that’s okay. If you’re the, ah, hermit?”
The elf rubbed a hand over his scratchy face and smiled. “Hermit, is it?”
“We must be in the wrong place.”
“Who sent ye?”
“We’ll just be going.”
“So I’m thinkin’ you two are no’ only young, but naive as well.”
“Why are you thinkin’ men become hermits?”
Rosie poked her head around Glen’s shoulder. “Because they don’t like people.”
“Aye. So, that bein’ the case, what were you thinkin’ would be in store if you went callin’ uninvited on someone who’s an introvert to the third power? Tea and crumpets?”
“I’d like some,” Rosie said.
“He’s not offering, Rosie. He’s being facetious,” Glen said without taking his eyes off the elf.
“Still sounds good. I could use a hot tea.” She shivered visibly.
The elf’s mouth might have twitched just a little. “Well, had ye thought it through? What was your plan? And, for that matter, why are ye here?”
“Look. We’re not spelunkers and we don’t work for “I Wanna Know”. We’re here on an important errand for information that, apparently, onlyyouhave.” Glen could feel Rosie shivering more against his back. The hermit was wearing a short sleeved shirt while appearing as warm as if he was in the tropics. “I guess it’s part of the hermit job description to be rude so as to discourage guests.”
“Guests?” He cocked an eyebrow. “That’s what you’re thinkin’?” He tried to peer around Glen to see Rosie better. “So what have you there behind you, young inquisitor?”
Glen scowled at the question and was just about to tell Rosie to get them out of there. “Seriously, we…”
“Name’s Finrar. Now you’re here, you may as well get what you came for. Follow me.”
He turned and walked away, leaving Glen wondering whether they should stay or go.
“Rosie, what do you think?”
Squeezed against his back, he felt her life her shoulder and drop it. “We can just go, pfffft pffffft if we don’t like the direction of things.”
“Okay. I like the way you think, but stay close because only you can go pfffft pfffft.”
Soon the uneven rocky floor of the cave opened up to a flat sandy tunnel. They entered a light-filled chamber that was warm and comfortable.
The elf motioned for them to sit on a smooth limestone ledge. “Underground hot springs.”
Rosie looked around. “Do you scale the cliffs every time you need food or supplies?”
The elf looked her up and down then waved his hand in the air. “There’s another way in.”
“Hmmm. Tunnel access by a door in the side of a hillen. ‘Tis well-concealed.”
He smiled. “Does no’ sound as glamorous or dangerous as a hermit scalin’ the cliffs with meager stores for his inhospitable seaside cave?”
“Well, no. It doesn’t.”
“So tell me why that old rat catcher sent you ‘round here?”
Glen cleared his throat. “I’m on an errand for a knight of The Order of the Black Swan. Puddephatt said for me to tell you that.” Finrar licked his bottom lip and nodded. “I’m to learn why the elves and fae are at war. No one seems to know. Every time I think I’m headed in the direction of a promising theory, it proves misleading. Puddephatt says that, if anyone knows, it’s you.”
The elf’s eyes flicked to Rosie.
“I’m Glendennon Catch, by the way. I work for The Order. This is Rosie Storm. Her dad is a knight emeritus. Her mom is still on the payroll. Magick.”
“Well, Rosie. I do no’ have crumpets, but I could fire a pot of tea. As to you, Catch, what I have to give ye is the tale of how the Great War came to be. I can no’ say ‘tis fact. I can only say that, like most thin’s called historical, ‘tis a good measure of truth to be found within. If ye will have what I offer, I will give it.”
“The words life and death were not used to describe the importance of my mission, but it was impressed upon me that the outcome is urgent. There’s no doubt in my mind that the Lady Laiken needs us to return with anything we can learn. Whatever you have is treasure.”
“Aye. Well, my experience with knights of The Order is that they have a leanin’ towards the drama, as you may have noticed yourselves.”
Glen’s mouth fell open and he started to rise up in defense of all Black Swan knights, but Rosie grasped him by the arm with both hands and kept him sitting.
In a short time, Finrar brought her tea made from leaves in a cup that appeared to be old hammered pewter. He handed her a small cloth to use for grasping the handle so she wouldn’t burn herself and took a seat across from them.
“Does no’ take long to tell ‘cause very little of the detail is still known. ‘Twas a long time ago. There were annals o’course, but nothin’ remains of them.
“Have you ever heard of the Danu?”
Glen looked at Rosie. She shook her head. Glen turned back to Finrar and shook his head no.
“The children of Danu had migrated to this world and set up a colony in what is now the north of Wales. The country was rough and tumble, but that suited the Dana fine. They liked roasted meat and liquid spirits and they were right handy with song and dance, but they could also be a fierce bunch and were ready to fight at the blink of an eye.
“There was a place of witches in the Britons in those days. You might even say it was an Order. Some of those witches took a likin’ to the Dana, thought we were magical or some such.” He gave Rosie his boyish smile, so fetching, as if to say he knew full well why those witches thought they were magical. He was making a halfhearted attempt at pretending humility for courtesy’s sake.
“When stories about Romans began to reach the western lands, the Dana paid no mind. Enemies are a fact of life like bugs and the occasional limp cock, so I hear, but the witches were alarmed and kept insistin’ that the Romans were a great plague runnin’ deep and wide. After a time they convinced the Dana to move the colony to an island in the middle of the Irish Sea where the witches could keep them safe. Once there, the ladies brought up a mist to shield the island from discovery.
“As the story goes, the mist provided an ideal hidin’ place for creatures such as Dana and practices such as sorcery. But it also formed a sort of shield against inclement weather, like a sort of insular dome, good for growin’ all manner of food, particularly apples.
“The Dana made good use of their time there. They learned Anglish.” He smiled. “Even if they put their own stamp on it by retainin’ the cadence of the old language. They shared their games and festivals and sacred observances with the witches, and the witches taught the females healin’ and sight . Life was simple, quiet, and good.
“Within a few years the chief’s mate bore twin sons. Twins were unheard of among the children of Danu, but no one thought anythin’ of it except to see it as twice blessed.
“The boys, princes, were named Galfine and Galfae. Beautiful as the sun with eyes the color of the sea and hair shot through with streaks of rust and copper. They got on well with the other young ones and were everythin’ the royal pair could ever have wished for.
“All was well until the boys were in the late part of their twenty-fourth year. They were struck by the matin’ instinct at the same time. Now, normally, ‘tis an occasion for rejoicin’, but…”
“It was a woman,” Glen said. “It’s always a woman.”
“Oh, what rot!” Rosie countered. “Shut up and let him finish the story.”
“As I was sayin’, and it sounds like you’re both ahead of me, naturally the boys were both drawn to the same female. The new way of sayin’ it is that they both originated from the same egg that split in two. The old way of sayin’ it was that they were of the same heart and mind.”
“What did the girl do?”
“Ah, the young female. Garineen. A tragic victim is what she was, susceptible to the same matin’ impulse as the princes. She loved the both, no’ one more than the other and could no’ choose between them. It was breakin’ her heart to see them fallin’ out on her account. Thinkin’ she could stop the feud by removin’ herself from the equation, she had one o’ the witches cast a spell to disguise her so that she would be invisible to them.
“I would like to tell you that the story ended there, with the ruin of three lives, but sadly that was no’ the way of it. When the lads deduced that the object of their affection had been hidden by magical means and could no’ be found, well… I was told that they were so enraged that their fury made the seas boil and the earth tremble, but I suspect that part was poetic embellishment.
“The brothers regarded each other with a hatred so complete they could no’ tolerate the idea of occupyin’ the same land mass. ‘Twas at that point the children of Danu split into factions. Some sailed to the west with Galfine and claimed Ireland for their own. Some sailed to the east with Galfae and claimed Scotia for their own. A few stayed on the island of the witches, but no’ many.
“The fin, or elves, of Ireland taught their children to despise the fae of Scotia and t’other way ‘round. Generations went on, separated by the sea and no desire for contact. The speech gradually became different enough so that the Dana could identify one another as elf or fae on hearin’ the tongue spoken. No doubt both clans are of a mind to believe the differences run deeper than a turn of syllable, but ‘tis all there is to it.
Glen and Rosie sat for a couple of minutes in silence as if they were waiting for Finrar to say something else. Finally, Glen cleared his throat and asked, “Why do you think more people don’t question the status quo?”
“Because the thin’ about comfort zones is they’re comfortable. ‘Tis as much philosophy as may be expected from an introverted cave dweller such as myself.”
Glen understood the cue and stood to leave. “It’s way more than I expected to tell you the truth. We thank you very much for your time and for the information. It was, in fact, exactly what we needed.”
“Yes,” Rosie said. “Thank you for the tea. And you have a lovely, um, environment.”
Finrar smiled. “Shall I show you out then?”
“No. No,” Glen said. “We know the way.”
“Yep. Going right now. The way we came. Won’t tell a soul we’ve been here.”
After a minute the echo of footsteps had faded into silence.
“You can come out now.”
Deliverance emerged from the shadows. “You know what rhymes with introvert?” Finrar said nothing. “Pervert.”
“Certainly you would know.”
“So what’s the game, Archie?”
“Don’t call me that, demon.” Kellareal resumed his innate form. “You know I’m not an archangel.”
“Sensitive. Again, what are you playing at?”
“It’s no game. It’s Council business, which means it’s none of yours.”
“Maybe not, but my granddaughterismy business.”
“I’m not going to hurt her and you know it.”
“All the same, it won’t hurt for you to know I’m watching.”
The angel sighed. “If you must know, we’re setting the wheels in motion to resolve this elf fae conflict.”
“They. The Council.”
Deliverance gaped. “Excuse me while I fall down laughing. The seven of them couldn’t agree on a movie, much less resolve a two-thousand-year-old war. Fairies and pixies sharing a Coke?” He was shaking his head when he said, “Not in this dimension.”
“There’s no justification for ethnic slurs. They’re stuck. They need a push.”
The demon considered that. “A push, huh. What do you have in mind?”
Kellareal regarded him coolly. “Again. Not. Your. Business.”
“Maybe I could help.”
“When did you become interested in helping anyone other than yourself?”
The angel thought he may have seen just the briefest flicker of something other than jest or cynicism pass over Deliverance’s flawless features, but he recovered so fast it was impossible to tell.
“I didn’t. I’m not. Goodbye.” And he was gone.
Rosie popped them back to their room and sat down on the edge of the bed. She looked up at Glen.
“If you knew how you looked with that thing on your head, I feel sure you would want to take it off.”
Glen eyes drifted upward almost like he’d forgot he was wearing a biker light attached to his skull by a jockstrap. Actually he hadn’t thought about it the entire time they’d been with Finrar. Pulling the contraption off his head, he looked at it like he’d never seen it before and was embarrassed for himself in arrears.
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
Rosie laughed. “I didn’t think about it either.” She saw that he was serious. “What’s the matter, Glen? You okay?”
The combination of preoccupation and the dislodging of the contraption had left him looking like an absent minded professor with bedhead. It was captivating and cute.
His eyes jerked up to meet Rosie’s. “I’m gone for you.”
Her lips parted. “Glen.”
He put the head light down and pulled her down so that she sat next to him, thighs touching. She could feel his breath on her cheek. “There’s something I have to tell you.”
“Okay.” She sounded just as breathless as she felt. She didn’t want to feel anxious about what was happening, but Glen wasn’t acting like himself.
“I declared for knighthood. I’m in.”
She stared into his eyes trying to process. She hadn’t known what he was going to say, but she wasn’t prepared for that.
“One of the members of Z Team retired. I’m taking his place.”
“You’re not.” She said it so quietly it almost sounded like it was coming from somebody else.
“I am. I’ve been training for this for a long time and I need…”
She stood up quickly. “No.” She shook her head. “That’s not… You can’t.”
“Look, baby. I’m not saying I’m doing it forever. I’m just saying I’m not ready for a desk job. You know?”
“No. I don’t know. Why are you telling me this? Is it like a this-sure-was-fun-have-a-nice-life talk?”
“No! I… I don’t know exactly. I guess it’s a can-we-talk-about-this talk.” He felt his stomach muscles clench when he saw a big tear roll down her cheek and, for a moment, he was considering second thoughts.
“Well, you must have had something in mind, Glen. Break it down. Let’s say that you’re going to Marrakesh. Z Team is getting you instead of the sixty public lashes they deserve.”
“What, exactly, do you see me doing while you’re there?” Glen stared at Rosie for a couple of beats and then dropped his gaze. “Son. Of. A. Bitch. You chose that over me.”
She continued to stare at Glen, but he wouldn’t look at her.
“It’s Tuesday, three a.m. at home in California. If you change your mind before supper Thursday, maybe decide it’s me instead, let me know. Otherwise, fair warning, I’ll be gone. You won’t get another chance.”
She stood up, but he still didn’t look at her.
“Coward,” was all she said before she vanished.
Glen sat on the edge of the bed for the next hour without finding the motivation to move other than to breathe in and out. Finally he reached for his phone and dialed Simon.
“I need a ride.”
“E’en, your Highness. Mr. Innes is here and havin’ whiskey at your table.”
The manager of the Highlander Club took Duff’s coat.
The prince smiled in greeting. “Thank you, Aels. I know the way.”
“Very good, sir.”
Duff descended the stairs to the wine room. His guest looked up when he heard the seal of the door swish open.
“Pey. You can no’ possibly have grown as respectable as you look.”
His friend scowled. “Of course no’. What do you take me for?”
After a one-armed embrace during which Peyton Innes never relinquished hold of his whiskey glass, they sat in companionable warmth. Peyton was the older brother, by three years, of one of Duff’s closest friends. He was big and ruddy and redheaded and gave every impression of being fearless. He’d gone into law and had been with an old legacy Edinburgh firm since graduation.
“Shall I ask how’ve you been or shall I ask what sort of solicitor services you’re in urgent need of?”
Duff smiled. “For now, let me just ask, how you’ve been?”
“Fine, Duff. Yourself?”
“Well. Your mate?”
“All will be well if I’m home before the clock strikes eight and no’ smellin’ like I’ve been makin’ love to Scotch.”
Duff laughed and glanced at the tumbler. “Should I be takin’ that from you then?”
“Only if I begin demandin’ another.”
After a few seconds of quiet, Duff said, “About the question of respectability…”
“I’m hirin’ you to perform a few services on my behalf. I must know that you will be holdin’ the legal tradition of confidentiality sacred. I’ll be needin’ your word that I can count on that.”
Innes set his glass down and sat back in his chair as he gave Duff a professional look of appraisal. “Well, Duffy, I must be askin’ you a couple of things first. You know the law as well as I do. There are legal exceptions to confidentiality, as you are aware, and I’m previously bound by a partnership trust that supersedes any vow I would now make to you.
“Under the circumstances I would normally ask two thin’s, but in your case the first would no’ seem to apply. You are no’ likely to be involved in the pursuit of tax evasion since taxes are paid to you indirectly through your family. As to the second thin’, will any money launderin’ activity be involved?”
Before Duff could respond, the door opened was held open by the club manager while two servers delivered the mutton and potatoes, cooked and dressed to perfection, and served it on hand-painted pottery plates picturing a red stag leaping through a ring of heather. Duff didn’t need to glance at his watch to know that Aels would have made sure the request for service at six-fifteen was honored.
When the staff was gone, the room seemed very quiet of a sudden. Not wanting the moment to become awkward, Innes picked up knife and fork and cut into his meat. “Nothin’ like a ripe mutton, eh, Duff? Looks lovely indeed.”
“Aye. Most appealin’. As to the question put before me just ahead of the lamb’s arrival,” the prince held up his right hand in a mock taking of oath, “the answer is no, Pey. No money launderin’ activity is associated with anythin’ I may be askin’ about.”
Innes stopped and looked Duff full in the face with the sort of sincerity that Scots are known for. “In that case, my answer is aye. Certainly you have my word, little brother. ‘Twould be yours whether I was bound by the legal profession or not.”
“Thank you, Pey. When all ‘tis done, I hope you’ll still be callin’ me brother.”
When Duff reached the top of the third floor stairwell and turned he could see the light in the outer offices at the end of the hall. He didn’t go out of his way to sneak up on his assistant, but the man was focused on his task to the exclusion of all else.
As expected, Grieve cleared at least three inches from the seat of his chair when Duff said his name and clutched at his lapel near his heart. “Sir,” he panted.
“Grieve, are you goin’ deaf, man? I was no’ exactly bein’ stealthy on my approach.”
“Perhaps, your Highness. I shall look into it.”
“What are you doin’ here so late?”
Grieve looked at his watch. “’Tis only eight.”
“Aye. What time did you arrive this mornin’?”
“Seven thirty, sir.”
“I see.” Duff sighed. “I do no’ deserve you, Grieve. But do you no’ have a hobby or any, em, thin’s of interest outside this room?”
Grieve looked mystified. “What could be of more interest than affairs of state, sir?”
“Indeed, Grieve. Carry on.”
“About my schedule? Heavy as you please tomorrow, but clear the pages from then till Monday mornin’.”
“Sir?” Grieve’s eyes were big as he blinked like an owl.
“I’m takin’ some personal time, Grieve.”
“Personal time, sir?”
“Aye. ‘Tis what Americans call it. You may use me as you wish tomorrow. Dawn to midnight. I will skip meals if necessary.”
“Oh, sir, I do no’ think ‘twould be…”
“But! Tomorrow night at midnight, I do no’ serve at the pleasure of the fae again until Monday.”
“I see, sir. A most unusual idea.”
“Aye. And that bein’ the case, ‘twill be no need to mention it to anyone.”
“I understand, sir.”
“Good night, Grieve.” Duff nodded and continued on toward his personal rooms feeling a little guilty about the worried look on Grieve’s face.
As many of the Thursday and Friday appointments as possible were moved to Wednesday and every second of Duff’s day was booked to the point where the hallway leading to his office was lined with people waiting like Washington D.C. Congressional lobby cues. Now and then it occurred to Duff that Grieve might have been enjoying himself, having taken instructions quite literally.
When the hall was empty it was just after nine o’clock. Grieve poked his head in.
“That was the last of them, sir. Your calendar is clear till Monday mornin’ for, em, personal time.”
Duff looked up. “Good job, Grieve. I do no’ want to see you till then.”
Grieve looked shocked. “But sir! I have work!”
“Then take it home. You are no’ to set foot in this place before Monday mornin’. If you attempt to do so, I will have security give you the bum’s rush.”
“Sir!” Clearly the image of being taken by the seat of the pants was enough to make him feel outraged, which was exactly the reaction Duff was hoping for.
Duff tapped his watch. “Monday mornin’.”
Duff ran down to the kitchens to see what there might be to eat. Grieve may have initially protested the idea of booking appointments right through mealtimes, but had scheduled him with no break for the entire day. The kitchen staff had already cleaned up from dinner, but the coolers were stocked full and it wasn’t much trouble to put together a respectable plate of cold cuts, cheeses, fruits and bread. He sat at a twenty-foot-long stainless steel preparation table and ate alone, amazed at how good food tastes when the first meal of the day is eaten very late in the day.
While he ate with his hands he began planning the next day, feeling a little giddy about being on his own. That alone was cause for celebration. He went back for a second helping of shortbread and washed it down with pale ale. He looked around the immense, dimly lit kitchen. He had a full tummy and was feeling a little bit tired from a day of too many people wanting too many things, and a little bit cranky about the fact that Grieve had clearly wanted to make sure that it didn’t happen often. But underneath all that was something else. Some sensation that wasn’t there before. It was sort of pleasant and sort of warm. One minute it was butterflies in the stomach. The next minute it might be an inexplicably stimulated groin. Anticipation maybe.
He gathered up a store of snacks -cheese, shortbread, beer, nuts, and a variety of sweets he probably shouldn’t consume,and headed upstairs to his version of a lockdown retreat.
Sitting at his desk in his bedroom with a portaputer, a bagel and lox and maps spread all across his floor and his bed, Duff was enjoying a rare and profound sense of freedom. He had closed and locked the outer office doors, the inner office doors, the sitting room doors and withdrawn into his own private chambers with no one expecting to see him again until Monday. Even so, he sat barefoot on the side of an immaculately made bed – a holdover from his days of rigid military school training no doubt - wearing jeans and a navy blue long sleeve tee with a Strathclyde emblem.
Pulling out his phone, he scrolled down his list of contacts.He knew there was no one else in the room, but looked around anyway. It was enormous. Of course. A rectangular shape perhaps forty feet by thirty feet with a fireplace as tall as he and ten feet wide. At the end of the room a bank of east facing casement windows showcased rain being splashed by wind currents. The entire room and everything in it was a very pale sage green.
Monochrome. Just like my life. But ‘tis about to change. Forever.
He selected IAY, send message, then texted,Sunday 10pm. It was their method of making a phone date. He looked at the curious response and took a deep breath.ok xoxo
He set the phone down and got to work on the task list. It was taking shape in his mind. He’d spent a sleepless night running through various scenarios, playing them out in a series of events that always ended the same. In disaster. He didn’t have a clear winner, meaning a plan with no risk. What he did have was a plan with the big risk preloaded up front. If he could get past the big gamble he was about to make, the rest was just a matter of list making.
His chief worry was making decisions for Aelsong without her agreement because half their fate was hers, but right or wrong, sometime near dawn he’d decided that’s exactly what he would do.
With hours to kill until it was nine a.m. in Ottawa, he began making lists to keep himself busy in the meantime. Around noon he got hungry. The last thing he wanted was to run into somebody who wanted something, which meant the kitchen was out of the question. Too many people likely to ask the wrong things. What was he doing? Why was he dressed like that? Why wasn’t he at work? Where was Grieve? Didn’t he have a lunch appointment?
So he pulled the hoodie up over his head and ran down the back stairs two flights to the tour guides’ break room, which was an obscure little nook tucked into a corner and typically unnoticed by anyone but those who used it. Of course he knew every cranny. Any child left to his own devices for any length of time knows everything about his home including the contents of every drawer and cupboard.
The tour guides, mostly university students who worked part time showing off the bits of the palace that were open to the public, couldn’t have been more shocked when the prince burst in, shut the door behind him and leaned against it like someone was after him. As soon as they recovered they all stood.
He looked at the curious faces and half-eaten sandwiches. “I’m sorry to be disturbin’ what appears to be a very fine lunch. Please do no’ mind me. Just pretend that I’m no’ here.” At that, they looked at each other, some more wide-eyed than others. He pointed at the door. “I’m, em, waitin’ for a pizza delivery.”
With theatrical timing as perfect as a director’s cue, there was a knock on the door. Duff nodded in that direction in a gesture meaning, “Go ahead. Open it. “
It was not a door that was used as an entrance or exit. Ever. But a young elf wearing a kilt in MacKesson tartan, pulled it open to find a pizza deliveryman. It was a testament to Duff’s directions that he’d found it at all and an even greater feat that he’d managed to get past the palace detail. But there he stood in a Mac under a shallow portico with sheets of rain forming watery walls on three sides.
Duff came forward, took the pizza and thanked the deliveryman who stood with mouth open. “You’re the prince, ain’t ye?”
“No. I just play him on TV.”
“Oh. Well. That’ll be eight pound thirty.”
Duff almost looked surprised, reached into his pockets and realized he hadn’t brought money down. He hadn’t thought about it since he didn’t normally carry money around his own house.
He looked up at the poor man who had braved a deluge in hopes of a nice tip by a palace occupant and looked around at the young expectant faces as mortification set in. “I’m, ah, sorry. I’m afraid I…”
The lad who had taken it upon himself to act as doorman came to his aid. “’Tis quite alright, your Highness. Please allow me to buy you lunch.”
“Oh, that’s very decent of you, kind even, but I could no’ impose…”
“No’ in the least. I shall ne’er be without a story to tell again,” he chuckled.
“No,” said a red-haired girl who had found her voice and was advancing from the corner. “The prince’s pizza pie will be on me! I insist.”
As the argument ensued the prince backed away. When he reached the door, he said, “Thank you for your kindness. Allow me to invite you all to dinner in the Stirlin’ room. Monday night at eight.” He counted in the air. “Seven. How many would like to plus one?” Every one raised a hand. He smiled. “Very well. Fourteen it is. I’ll be leavin’ word at the front door.”
Duff raced upstairs. The smell was driving him crazy. Truthfully he’d never had a bite of pizza before in his entire life, but it was a day for new possibilities and celebrating the beauty of common things. He relocked every door on his way back to his room, opened a beer, and bit into a pepperoni, Italian sausage, mushroom, black olive and green pepper pizza. He hadn’t known what to order so he’d asked the girl who took the order for a suggestion. He groaned out loud. He had eaten in most Relaix Fontaineau restaurants in the world and couldn’t remember groaning out loud.
He was glad he’d ordered a large pizza and was already planning on getting another for dinner. He stuffed some currency into his pocket while he was thinking about it.
Sometime later he realized he wasn’t hearing rain anymore. He glanced at the windows and then at the clock. He’d gotten so lost in the mechanics of planning a future that he’d gone past his target time. No matter. Later was probably better.
The where had come to him with the simple random action of the turn of a globe on the way past. Canada wasthe world’s second largest country. If he and Song wore caps or wore their hair over their ears, with their coloring, in most places they could blend in.
Canadians spoke a version of the same language. It was cold. True. But they were both from the same latitude as the southern half of Canada so weather wasn’t the issue that it might be for some. Lots of beautiful, sparsely populated land. It might not be heaven, but close enough. Be it ruinous or fortuitous, he would let their future ride on the casual spin of the globe.
Duff had met the Canadian Prime Minister at a state dinner a few months before and, in all modesty, she had seemed taken with him. She’d made a point of remarking that, seeing him in person, she certainly understood why he’d been named World’s Sexiest Bachelor.
He knew her response to his request for sanctuary would depend on a variety of factors. The granting of political sanctuary would draw worldwide attention and Canada was not known for being at the center of mediating international affairs. It could cement the office on her behalf until she died or decided to resign. Or it could shorten her political career and become the entire character of her legacy. Much would depend on her mood and personal ambition, both of which could only be known by the Prime Minister herself.
He hoped his voice wouldn’t shake. It wouldn’t normally have occurred to him except that, when he lifted the phone, he noticed his hand was shaking a little. He had a lot riding on that one phone call.
After talking with three levels of bureaucrats, Duff was put through. “Madame Prime Minister.”
“Your Highness. To what do I owe the honor?”
“My mate and I want to be citizens of your beautiful country. We are formally requestin’ political asylum. We will no’ be a drain on public resources. We have the means to support ourselves.”
Fifteen minutes later, Duff had spelled out the issues and the need for asylum.
“If you can get here unaided, you’ll be granted asylum.”
She promised that their conversation would not be leaked until after Song and Duff were safe on Canadian soil. He said that he would confirm with her the exact date and place when they would arrive.
Step Two.Pick a GO DATE.
Materials needed: calendar.
There will never be a perfect time. Looking for a perfect time equals procrastination. Procrastination is the first step toward failure. Best chance of success. Pick a self-imposed, hard deadline.
He looked at the calendar. It was March third. His eyes drifted downward. March fifteenth caught his eye. His mouth twitched. No surprise why. March fifteen marked the end of boar season in Germany. It was one of his favorite things in the world. An area of the Black Forest was maintained as a nature preserve. Every spring they allowed a few dignitaries, on application, to huntwithoutmodern weapons, during the very short season, to keep the population manageable.
Duff hadn’t been in two years. He looked up and laughed out loud.Perfect.
He grabbed his phone, ran through his contacts and tapped the screen. It rang.
“’Tis the crown callin’ for back taxes.”
“Duffy! You sod! Your old man’s bleedin’ me dry, I tell ye. So you can no’ be too poor to hire cute lassies to dun poor citizens out of their rightful earnin’s?”
“Cute lassies, you say? Have you seen Grieve?”
“’Tis damn hard to be you.”
“Aye. I’ve always said as much. Strange that ‘twould take a tax collection call to make you see.” The reply was good-natured laughter. “So would you happen to know what month ‘tis?”
“’Tis pig stickin’ month.”
“Aye. ‘Tis. Hard to get one past you, Iwan. Can you get away?”
“Believe I might. What are you thinkin’?”
“I’m thinkin’ do a favor, get a favor.”
“Oh? Let’s hear it then.”
“Well, I need to be somewhere that is no’ here without explainin’ to anyone, particularly my mother, where that might be, if you’re understandin’ what I mean.”
“I believe I do.”
“So I thought I might say I’ve gone huntin’ with the boys.”
“Aye. Duffy, I will cover your ass should it become necessary and you know you do no’ even have to ask it, e’en though lyin’ to the queen is probably a hangin’ offense. But…”
“I imagine it goes without sayin’. You’re no fifteen, you know.”
He sighed deeply. “Ah, Iwan. All jokin’ aside. Bein’ prince is complicated.”
“Well, we already established ‘tis hard to be you. Tell me the details.”
After they discussed who might go and when they would leave, Duff hung up making a mental note to do something special for Iwan no matter how things turned out. Step Two complete.
Go date:March 10th
1.) Arrange clearance for hunting party with German ambassador.
2.) Have Grieve clear my calendar from March 10ththrough 16th.
3.) Have Song tell The Order she will be going home for personal time.
Step Three.Getting away.
Goal:To be there before they know we’re gone.
Needed: 1.) passports and travel documents 2.) transportation
Inform PM when itinerary is set.
Step Four.A new life.
Needed: 1.) money 2.) place to live
Duff thanked the gods that he was one of the one percent of the one percent who need not worry about money. His grandfather, on passing, had left him a trust that had matured on Duff’s twenty-fifth birthday. He’d never touched a penny of it. Never so much as thought about it. But there was enough there to support a couple for a lifetime if they lived a reasonably humble lifestyle.
At times in his life he’d wondered if he should feel guilty because he knew that extreme privilege or power almost always began with plunder, but he’d had more opportunity to curse his ancestors for their success with war and coastal raiding than thank them for it.
Wanting to reach Innes before office hours ended Friday, Duff called with his list.
“I need to move my trust to Canada.”
“Have you given thought as to how you’ll be wantin’ to do that?”
“I have. I was thinkin’ to have you rush through purchase of a legacy corp, then open a bank account with Scotiabank in Canada with myself as signatory and transfer the balance from RBS.”
“Hmmm. That would work. It will also cost a fortune.”
“’Tis fortunate I have one then. And it needs to be accomplished by next Wednesday.”
“Well, Duffy, you never were one for lettin’ grass grow under your feet.”
“Take it as a compliment that I chose you then, Pey.”
“’Tis. Indeed. Still, could be tricky. Next.”
“I’ll be wantin’ you to make some purchases on my behalf. First, I want a very specific plane. A Tecnam P2006T. Call the plant in Capua. They have a wait list, but perhaps sufficient incentive could insure delivery to an out of the way private hanger in Aberdeen by Thursday early mornin’. With prepurchase inspections completed, maintenance check, fueled up and ready to go. Of course.”
“Of course.” Innes sighed heavily. “Thursday, you say. I feel a weekend in the office comin’ on.”
“Were you sayin’ you’re ready for the next item?”
“Aye. You heard right.”
“I would like to acquire some property in Canada. I believe it would be most expedient if the corporation purchases it on my behalf?”
“As a recap, I understand you want the corporation in placewithmoney transferred by Wednesday. In the most unlikely event I am able to perform miracles and brin’ this to pass, when are you hopin’ to transfer the property into the portfolio of your Canadian corporation?”
“Well, if you have a willin’ seller and a willin’ buyer and an unencumbered title and a local lawyer who can use a printer, then I see no reason why it could no’ be accomplished on Thursday.”
“I’m a solicitor, Duff. No’ a sorcerer.”
“Do you recall the strawberry blonde you pulled out of the hat check in London?”
“Duff!” he said with a tone of warning. “There are certain thin’s friends are supposed to forget once their friends are well and truly mated.”
“Where is that written?”
“It does no’ need to be written to be true and I predict that I shall be remindin’ you of this conversation soon enough with a few recollections of my own.”
“Thor’s Brows, simmer down, I’m givin’ your folly a twirl. ‘Tis a bit more wiggle room on the closin’ of the real property. Say, Tuesday. Wednesday latest.”
“Well, at least it seems more within the realm of reality, which is where my legal practice is most comfortable. And, on the subject, since you have hired me as your personal solicitor, the capacity of advisor bein’ implied, It behooves me to be askin’ certain questions.”
“Do you want to tell me what this is all about?”
“I do, Pey, very much. But that information will no’ be forthcomin’.”
After a pause, Innes said, “All right. Do you have the information on the real property?”
“No’ yet. I’m doin’ research online and will have a list of possibilities for you to look into, say, noon tomorrow. I do no’ want to communicate by email. I’ll type out the URLs and maybe you could come pick them up.”
“Come pick up URLs?”
“Aye.” Duff gave him directions. “Oh. And bring a pizza.”
“A pizza?” Innes sounded like he wasn’t sure what it was.
“Aye. I like the round sort of pepper sausage thin’s. Whatever you want will be fine.”
“All right, Duff.” Innes bore the indulgent tone of a man set on a visit with a friend committed to an institution.
Duff closed the phone. He’d been staring at the monitor with the Tecnam P2006T specs on it while he was talking to Innes. Once he knew where he and Song were going, it hadn’t taken long to reason out that their best chance was to be gone before anyone knew it. With a face as readily recognizable as his, that made leaving the country a problem by air, sea, or rail. Unless he could get away by private plane.
If he showed up at a large airport terminal, paparazzi would be everywhere. If he chartered a private jet, it would hit the entertainment news and speculation about use of the phrase “playboy” was bound to arise and draw attention. However, if he showed up at a small hangar to try out the new twin engine plane of a friend, he could drive right onto the tarmac and might even sneak into the cockpit without being noticed.
Duff had gotten his pilot’s license when he was fourteen. He loved flying and, in another life, might have found a way to make a living at doing that instead of being a professional manikin, available for photo shoots with sports teams, or the token royal entertaining officials at lunches.
The plane he was staring at was perfect in every way. It was agorgeous twin engine, high wing, retractable gear beauty with Garmin glass instrumentation. Stable. Responsive. Sleek. Lightweight. Fast. It only needed a thousand feet of runway or, in a pinch, a stretch of smooth fairway.
The view of the interior with its modern molding and classic instruments was romantic. He could so easily picture eloping in that plane. He envisioned the beautiful elf with the bright blue eyes and the luscious smile sitting just inches away, looking breathless about an unknown future, but so happy that they were facing it together just inches apart.
He pulled his attention back to the task at hand. When lovers are fleeing, they need an exact destination. Canada is far too general. Second, they need a flight plan. He decided to work on finding a place to live first.
It took longer than he thought - all night, in fact, but when it was done, he had something to give Peyton. Three choices, but the second and third were far below number one. He had his heart set on the first and hoped it didn’t turn out to be an old, cached, expired listing. With luck it would turn out to be already vacated or arrangements could be made to prepare for new owners immediately.
He’d started out looking just on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, but some urge kept driving him further west until he’d gone almost to the other side of the world. That’s when he found it, the very thing that made his heart sing. There was a picture of the Canadian Rockies and the river that meandered in front of what he hoped would be his future home.
A hundred and seventy-four acres of timberland on the Fraser River near McBride, BC, bordering on park land, about one hundred fifty miles from Prince George to the west and one hundred fifty miles from Jasper to the east. One thing was for sure. No one would be doing a casual drive by to say hello.
The description said the year round off-grid home was solar/wind powered with a diesel generator as backup. The main wood stove was located downstairs, with the kitchen cook stove upstairs, which also heated water, so there would be a continuous supply of hot and cold running water.
It also went into great detail about the attached greenhouse that allowed early gardening. “Eat salads before the snow is off the ground,” it said. As for outdoor gardening, it described separate gardens of established strawberries, asparagus, and assorted other berries as well as an herb garden, large vegetable garden complete with removable hoop houses for earlier planting, and an apple orchard.
Among the wildlife mentioned were moose, elk, deer, bear, wolves, coyotes, and migratory birds.
He hadn’t known it was possible to want something so badly it made your teeth hurt. Other than Song, of course. He’d never had a chance to ask how she might feel about any of it, but he knew how she felt about living apart. He wondered what she would think about growing strawberries. He wondered if she even liked strawberries. He looked at his watch. It was the wee hours. He wished he could just pick up the phone, call and ask if she liked strawberries. As for himself, he liked them fine, but wasn’t sure if they grew on a tree or bush or vine.
He got a few hours’ sleep, and woke just in time to go greet Innes. He didn’t have time to shave and knew he looked unkempt. He hadn’t had proper dinner, hadn’t had any breakfast, but he felt great.
He pulled up his hoodie, ran down the two flights of back stairs and burst in on the tour guides right at noon. They stopped eating, stopped talking, rose from their seats quickly and stared, but didn’t look nearly as surprised as they had the day before.
He could see that they were waiting for some bit of courteous pleasantry. He mulled over what that might be and, at length, settled on, “Good afternoon.”
Collectively they nodded and murmured, “Good afternoon,” like an en masse responsive reading.
“Please do no’ let me interrupt again. I’m just meetin’ a friend.” He smiled. “For a pizza.” He shrugged. “But no worries. I brought money.” He waved some bills.
They neither moved nor said anything in return, but did look at each other. Again, there was a knock on the door as if on cue. The same young elf rose to open it. It was raining even harder than the day before.
Innes was standing there in an elegant black waxed coat with water pouring off him as the shallow portico couldn’t protect him from windblown rain. He was holding a cardboard pizza box with a bit of plastic over it as haphazard protection and looked as pitiful as a stray dog.
“Come in, man,” Duff said as he motioned him forward. Innes stepped inside and nodded to the little assembly. “These are some of our finest tour guides. ‘Tis little doubt that each of them knows infinitely more about my family tree than do I. I’m afraid I’ve interrupted their noon meal two days in a row now.”
They all rushed to say, “No. No’ at all, your Highness. ‘Twas a pleasure.”
“This is my friend and solicitor, Mr. Innes. If you’ll excuse us, we’ll just…” Looking at Innes, Duff stopped. “Perhaps you’d like to leave your wrapper here? The gang will look after it for ye.”
He looked up at the guides for confirmation. They all rushed to assure Mr. Innes that his coat would be safe with them. So Duff took the pizza and ran off leaving his solicitor to struggle out of his coat and give chase like they were boys.
By the time they reached Duff’s suites, Innes was so red faced and heaving Duff was concerned he may have done the man injury.
“Peyton. Fae’s gods, man. I could no’ have dreamed you’d let yourself go or I never would have tested ye. Please accept my apology. And, when you can once again draw breath, I’ll offer you a beer to go with your pizza.”
“Very funny. If I had lost sight of you in this damned infernal place, I may have been wanderin’ about for days before bein’ found, only then to be imprisoned because of no’ bein’ able to properly explain what I was doin’ here. Deliverin’ a pizza to the prince! A likely story indeed, solicitor.
“My mate would be told I was found lookin’ like a drowned rat goin’ door to door sayin’, ‘Duffy? Duffy?’ You should be ashamed of yourself.” Duff just laughed. “You know, Duff Torquil, what you’re needin’ is a mate. Settle you right down by all the gods.”
“Right you are, Pey, and I’ll be agreein’ to the marrow in my very bones.”
“Are you goin’ to eat that whole thin’ by yourself or were you plannin’ to share?”
During pizza and beer, Innes took a look around at the state of Duff’s bedroom with maps and papers strewn everywhere, also noting the dark circles under his eyes and the two days growth of beard.
“Duffy. Can’t help noticin’ there’s a lot of movin’ parts bein’ put into play here. Also can no’ help noticin’ that your groomin’ is in a wee state of decline.”
“Just a minor speed bump while I work out details. No’ to worry. In fact, in many ways I have ne’er been better. Do your part in this and I’ll be eternally grateful in ways that mere fees can no’ express.”
“A sweet speech, lad. But I am worried nonetheless.”
Shaking his head, the prince motioned toward the door. “Come let me show you the way out. I can no’ have you gettin’ lost,” he laughed. When they reached the guides’ break room, they shook hands outside the door.
Duff said, “Call or text me as soon as you have some good news.”
He was referring to the British Columbia property that Duff had shown him online. As the prince had rightly said, people in the business of buying and selling real estate were actively engaged in commerce on weekends.
Back in his room, alone again, Duff was thinking Innes was right. There were a lot of moving parts, which meant there were a lot of things that could go wrong, which meant that he had to be excruciatingly meticulous about every detail. He went back to work planning the last big step. How to get there.
He spread the biggest maps he could find out across the floor and then set the portaputer down on top of that with his notebook, ready to start the flight plan. He smiled to himself.
Before the days of airplanes, the word flight was only used in reference to humans to describe fleeing. As Duff planned their escape it occurred to him that both meanings of flight applied to their elopement.
They were fleeing by flying.
How he wished she was with him.
He wished she was sitting next to him on his bedroom floor helping to calculate the flight plan as they conspired together about their getaway, imagining their new life, whispering about strawberries and caribou between kisses and touches while the rain beat against the casement windows of the northeast wing where fae royalty had slept and made more royal fae for three hundred years.
The critical calculations began with cruising speed, which fully loaded and fueled would average a hundred fifty-five miles per hour. Cumulative endurance range equaled four hours or seven hundred thirteen miles. In layman terms, that meant whatever came first.
He had to calculate what “fully loaded” meant, which included Aelsong’s weight. He knew it would be hopeless to ask her that and trust that the answer would be correct. He did know a little about females. So the only way to solve that problem was with a guess.
Starting with Aberdeen, ninety-two miles from where he sat, they would take off from a small airfield and be over land for about fifteen minutes, over the North Sea for about fifteen minutes, over the highlands of Scotia for another fifteen minutes and then they would be flying north by northwest over the Norwegian Sea en route to the Faroe Islands.
The Faroes were under Danish sovereignty, which could not be better for Duff. He and the Danish prince had both been educated at Eton and had gotten along well. If there was any issue at the airstrip in the Faroes, a phone call would resolve it. Three hundred sixty-eight miles. A little over two hours.
Of course he could go further, but they needed to stop because of the way the next two legs would play out. If they didn’t spend the night in the Faroes, they’d be forced to stop at Rekjavik where he would be recognized and pandemonium would follow. They had to get to Canada before the hounds of Hades, otherwise known as paparazzi, were set free. And, he thought, they could do worse than a staggeringly beautiful, like-nowhere-else-on-Earth stop for their first night together.
That stopped his train of thought in its tracks. His first night with his mate, the first time he would make love to her for that matter, would be the Faroe Islands in the middle of the Norwegian Sea. Keeping that in mind he started scanning available lodging.
Since it was a far cry from tourist season, there was plenty available. He found a guesthouse described as unpretentious, honest and delightful. “Read between the lines,” he muttered to himself, at the same time thinking plain was okay. He and his intended were beyond being impressed by luxury. He jotted down the info including a note on the private annex building which he would send off to Innes so that arrangements could be made that were not traceable back to him.
They would make a stop for fuel, a piddle and food in Iceland, which was the only real worry. Keeping their heads down, weather and gods willing, they would get as far as the Kalusuk settlement at Tasiilaq, Eastern Greenland on the Denmark Strait just south of the Arctic Circle before dark and spend the night in a cold, but truly picturesque village.
Greenland was politically neutral and not a concern.
Stop for fuel, food and a piddle at Igaluit, Canadian Territory, Arctic. On to Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Newfoundland and Labrador. Stop for the night.
From the time they reached Igaluit they would be able to breathe easy because, even if no formal announcement had been made, they would be under protection of the Canadian government and could not be reclaimed by the Irish and Scotia monarchies without Canada’s permission.
Make it to Quebec by two o’clock where the Prime Minister would meet them. The Prime Minister would have an escort waiting at the airport and a press conference set up at theFairmont Le Chateau Frontenac. From that time on, the world would know.
It was anybody’s guess whether the families would demand they return orsimply disown them.
They would continue theirjourney to Winnepeg with a stop in Sault Ste Marie. He would ask the Prime Minister for a small security detail just to be sure that they could get to a hotel and back to the airport without a problem.
Stop in Saskatoon then on to Prince George where a hangar had been leased for the plane. The hangar came with a little hostel style efficiency in the back where they could spend the night.
Buy two cars. Buy supplies. Drive a hundred and fifty miles to McBride and start settling into their new home.
There it was. What could go wrong? A lot.
As to how to anticipate every eventuality and put a Plan B in place, that was easy. Give up. It couldn’t be done. The Fates claim their share of outcomes in spite of the best of plans. And that’s that.
Duff spent most of Sunday pacing up and down, going over it all again and again looking for flaws. He was also giving himself a crash course on things most people take for granted like budgeting money, trying to decide how much you can spend after you pay for necessities, which Duff had never thought about. Ever.
It was a whole new world. And it was exciting.
There were so many unknowns. He didn’t know if they’d be well-received, if the locals would get used to them, accept them and allow them to simply live their lives. He stopped in front of the mantel whereupon sat a collection of photos. He couldn’t say he’d miss his father at all, but he did feel pangs of both guilt and sadness about leaving without telling his mother goodbye.
He was so antsy by nine thirty that he couldn’t stay indoors anymore. If he was caught leaving the palace, there would be the devil to pay. If he wasn’t mobbed, then he certainly would get the speech about the dangers of going about with security, meaning assassination or kidnapping. He put on a black skull cap that covered his hair, pulled a navy hoodie low over his brow, and kept his head down.
It was dark. It was late. It was Sunday night in early March. There were not that many people out and about and those that were would not be expecting the prince of the fae to be out walking alone late at night. So he stuck his hands in the fleecy front pouch and took a brisk jog up Calton Hill. There was nobody up there but an old man walking a dog.
It wasn’t quite ten, but he couldn’t wait a minute longer. He took a chance that she was as eager as he and already situated somewhere private to accept his call.
He closed his eyes when he heard her voice, like a lick of honey.
“There you are.”
“Here I am.”
“Do you know how hard it was to find out what xoxo means?”
She laughed and the sound pulled all his nerve endings up tight like she was the symphony conductor and his body was a collection of instruments for her to play.
“’Twas a puzzle then?”
“Aye. And I was already too busy gettin’ us away from here.” There was no response except that he thought he might have heard a little catch in her breathing. Finally, he said, “Song? Do you hear me?”
She started to say his name, but her voice did break and then she was crying. “Duffy. Are we really goin’ then?”
He didn’t know exactly what he’d been expecting, but he hadn’t expected tears. He sat down on a bench that was cold through his jeans. “Thursday mornin’ early. You tell The Order you’re goin’ home for a visit. Pack your warmest. ‘Tis really cold where we’re goin’. And take your keepsakes cause we can no’ know for sure we’ll be comin’ back.”
“Be sure. ‘Tis a bell we can no’ unring. You can say no, but do it now.”
“Stop your teasin’, Duff. ‘Tis you I’m wantin’ and no other. And ye know it.”
His chest filled with the burn of that. “If what you’re describin’ is only a little of what I’m feelin’… Be ready to go by seven. I’m havin’ someone drive you to Aberdeen. I’ll be waitin’ for you there.”
He smiled. “Someone with outrageous pink hair who’s married to your brother.” Pause. “Speechless, are ye? I have a feelin’ I should relish these times as they may be few and far between.”
“‘Tis easy to say when you’re standin’ who knows where? ‘Twill be a sight different when I can get my hands on you.”
Duff lowered his voice. “Aye. ‘Twill be different whenIcan get my hands onyou.”
The words hung in the air with all the promise, anticipation, and excitement of fanfare. Her body recognized his meaning and tone and responded with a shiver that was more like a quake. If she had known that he was standing atop Calton Hill, and that a dash out the door, down the street, five blocks and a breathless run straight up could bring her into his arms, she wouldn’t have been able to stop herself. She took a deep breath and let it out. “Aye. Agree.”
“Do no’ forget your passport.”
“I will no’.”
“Four days. Will ne’er be without you again.”
Song didn’t need as much as two seconds to regret leaving her job at The Order just as she hadn’t hesitated to accept when she’d initially been approached by the recruiter. Her brother had never talked to her about his life, what he did, the organization or anything about it, of course, but her talent enabled her to see quite a lot. She’d been dazzled by the idea of being a cog in a wheel of such monumental importance and, though she might not ever be a legendary vampire slayer like her brother, she was eager to make a difference with her own gift.
She had spent the entire time in testing. Not doing testing, being tested. A year and a half later, she had not been called upon to do one thing of consequence other than the Alternate-Storm project for which she was specifically requested, by name, by the temporary acting head of Jefferson Unit, Glendennon Catch. As soon as the results were compiled and filed, she was sent right back to testing and all resumed, as if the trip to New Jersey had been a dream. Nothing had changed. At all.
Elora had to do some quick thinking to come up with a plan that would enable her to help her sister-in-law without lying to Rammel outright. She wouldn’t be needed at all if it wasn’t for the fact that Aelsong was an elf living in the Fae Kingdom. Otherwise, she could simply walk out the front door, smile at the doorman, and stroll away.
She could do that regardless and, if she never spoke, she’d be safe because certainly no one could tell the difference between elf or fae on sight. But anyone could be alarmed or put in danger and vocalize spontaneously. If she was caught alone and discovered, she would be assumed to be a spy. Someone had to help her get away and Elora was the only candidate.
Fortunately, she was able to talk Litha into combining a short shopping trip to London with a one night stopover at the apartment The Order kept for Storm and Litha at Headquarters in Edinburgh. All Elora had to do was make sure she was there Wednesday night.
With a lot of fast talking about how much she needed a break from Helm and trainees and assassins, it was hard to argue with all that. So Rammel gave his blessings and, of course, Litha provided transportation. After Litha gave the bell service a tip, not much of one because they didn’t have any luggage, he closed the door to their suite at the Hyde Park Hotel and left. She walked through the parlor into the bedroom where Elora had sprawled across one of the overdone beds.
“Right here.” Litha pointed to a spot on the rug with her shoe. “Must have tumped the tea cart.”
“Oh.” Elora got up on an elbow to look.
“No! Not that kind of spill. The kind that means now is the time to shed the light of truth on what’s going on here.” Litha waved her arm at their surroundings. “You’re not a spend-the-day-at-Harrods kind of girl. You’re a shop-online-while-Ram’s-watching-rugby-on-TV kind of girl.”
“Maybe I did need a couple of days away.”
“Maybe you did. But not for shopping.” As Litha’s eyes narrowed, Elora’s got bigger and more innocent looking in inverse proportion. “So what did you need the time away for?”
Elora sniffed and looked away. “I admit it wasn’t shopping. Although, now that we’re here, we do have to shop since there’s no way to ride the passes with luggage.”
“Spit it out.”
“I can’t spit it out without implicating you and I need you plausibly ignorant.”
Litha took a deep breath that ended with shaking her head and that turned into a chuckle. “I couldn’t possibly be more scandalized than to have my best friend think it would be possible for me to be plausibly ignorant. Whatever happened to good old-fashioned plain-Jane ignorance without the modifiers?”
“Okay. So I knew it was unlikely that I’d get this past you. I guess I just hoped you’d let it slide.”
“If you need me to play dumb for you, I will. Just as long as you know I’m not dumb and I’m not one of those you’re trying to play.”
“Oh, for all the gods, Litha.” Elora slumped on the bed. “When you say it like that, you make me feel like something that should slither off through the storm drain never to be seen or heard from again. The one I’m trying to protect isn’t dumb either.”
Litha sat on the other bed facing Elora’s. “You kept me propped up when Rosie was on the way. You helped keep things together when Storm was lost. After all that you don’t think you could trust me with anything?”
Elora sat up and cocked her head. “Sure. It’s not that. Not that at all. It’s that I don’t want to put you in that position if it isn’t necessary. And it’s not when you could just be my partner in shopping crime.”
Elora’s brows were wrinkling in the middle.
Litha smiled. “Okay. Tea and a toes up?”
Elora grinned. “Yeah. It was a hard trip. Are you going to call room service or conjure up the tea?”
“Already checked the closets. No cauldron,” Litha deadpanned as she reached for the room service menu.
She set the menu down in her lap.
“What is it?” Elora asked.
“I know where my mother grew up. I even know where I was born and where my people lived for generations. It’s funny. I’d never had the slightest desire to go there or even thought of it until just now.” She looked closely at Elora. “Would you like to go there with me some time?”
“Of course. I’d love it.”
Song pulled her things out into the hallway as quietly as possible to keep from waking her roommate, Gaia. She’d gotten a text from Elora the night before with instructions to meet in the garage beneath the building at seven. The Order kept a small fleet for use of the staff and visitors.
Elora had claimed one of the vehicles, a silver Vauxhall, the most common car in all of Scotia and least likely to draw notice. The sun would just be coming up and Elora wanted to be away from the city before anyone who might recognize Song was likely to see her.
When the elevator opened, Elora was waiting with a big grin on her face. Song started to laugh, but somehow the laughter turned into something that was a confused fusion of crying and laughing. She went as fast as she could rolling the bags she had un-nested and packed for the trip.
Gaia had said, “Seems like you’re taking a lot for a trip home. And it’s notthatcold.”
Song had lied like she was used to it. “I’m thinkin’ of changin’ some thin’s out. Leave some. Take some. You know.”
She dropped the luggage handles and threw her arms around Elora who said, “Quick kiss. We can cry all the way there if you want, but we’ve got to get started.”
They more or less threw her bags in the boot and jumped in. Elora had to produce credentials. She wasn’t recognized on sight since she didn’t normally drive when she was there. The gate opened. They drove up the incline and out of the garage. When they turned onto the open street, the two women looked at each other and laughed spontaneously like they had just escaped from a prison.
“You know, Song, your brother is the hero. But this may be the mostromanticmoment of the century. How are your map reading skills?”
“Map readin’? Does this automobile no’ have geo-guide?”
“No. That’s a feature of higher end cars. Um. How’s your driving?”
Song grinned. “I’m your girl.”
“Maybe we should trade places. You’re used to left side anyhow. Makes sense.”
“Just past that roundabout, pull over at the market.”
That turned out to be easier said than done. After listening to Elora’s tirade on roundabouts, Song was all the more sure that she was the one who should be driving.
“Bloody fucking roundabouts! If you go, they honk at you. If you don’t go, they honk at you. If you go fast, they honk. If you go slow, they honk. It’s just one big bloody honking country full of honking idiot drivers.”
Song was laughing when they switched places. “Is that my brother’s influence I hear? Ne’er mind. I’m all about the roundabouts. I shall steer the steely beast. You shall navigate.”
Aelsong was masterfully at ease with the rules – and quirks – of the road, not to mention gear shift on the left instead of the right. By the time they got to the Forth Road Bridge going north over the water toward Perth, they were speeding along and the tension in their bodies was melting away.
Elora had never taken a road trip in Scotia and was thoroughly enjoying the scenery.
“I suppose you were plannin’ to drive back by yourself?”
“I was. Yes. I am. Did you eat before we left? Are you hungry?”
“I did no’ eat. I can no’ say I’m hungry exactly.” She looked over at Elora and smiled shyly. “More nervous, maybe. Should we stop for somethin’?”
“We can’t stop and sit down, but maybe we could get take-out.”
“We have no’ quite perfected the art of to-go like the States. What did you have in mind?”
“I’ll settle for a bottle of water and a bag of nuts if I can’t do better.”
Aelsong looked at her and laughed. Fifteen minutes later they were pulling away from a roadside grill with a to-go breakfast of eggs, lamb goulash for Elora and latte for Song. Elora was ecstatic enough to hum yummy sounds while she ate.
“Do you know where in Aberdeen we’re goin’?”
“Hmmm.” Elora had finished and was reconciling containers into trash for the backseat floorboard. “It’s a row of private plane hangars on the outskirts of the airport. I’ve got the address and a code to give security when we arrive.”
“So we’re flyin’ somewhere. What else do you know?”
“Not much, Song. I get the feeling that Duff wants to be the one to tell you everything else and, not that it’s likely I’ll be tortured, but it’s probably best I don’t know everything.” Song nodded. “I’ve been wondering how you feel about, you know, leaving everything.”