Rie rested in the guest bed of Garamaen’s estate, waiting for sunset to determine her fate. The mattress was so deep with feathers, she felt like she was floating in the warm water of the salt springs, but she couldn’t enjoy it with the anxiety roiling in her stomach. She had lived in the Upper Realm for more than one hundred years, the magic of faerie keeping her young and whole. If Garamaen was wrong, if his home was too human, she would immediately progress to her physical age, probably dying in agony as her skin shriveled, teeth and hair fell out, and muscles atrophied. She clutched the golden twelve-hundred thread count duvet and shivered. It wouldn’t be long now.
“You’re going to be fine, you know. There’s nothing to worry about. Nothing at all,” Niinka said, hanging upside down from the delicate wrought iron chandelier above the fourposter bed.
It was true that the pixies seemed to know things that others didn’t, but Rie’s nerves wouldn’t allow her to believe them, this time. “What do you mean, there’s nothing to worry about? I could end up a mummy!” She pulled the blanket tighter around her shoulders.
“Not a chance. See, there goes the sun,” Niinka said.
“There goes the sun, do do do do,” Hiinto sang from his perch on one of the intricately carved whorls of celtic knots that capped the bedposts. “There goes the sun, and I say, it’s all right, ba dum dum dum dum dum.”
“What’s that from?” Rie squinted to distract herself from the imminent pain and misery.
“Wow, really? You need to brush up on your human culture if you don’t know that song. It’s by a band called the Beatles.”
“I must have skipped that decade.”
“You can open your eyes now,” Niinka said.
Rie slowly opened her left eye and gasped. She had never seen a more beautiful sunset. The purple sky was dotted with soft pink-tinged clouds, slowly blending into the orange and yellow horizon, a rainbow of color that covered the entire skyline. The ocean waves gently crested onto the beach, glistening in the reflected colors of the sky. Palm trees rose high above the cliffs in the distance, absorbing the last dying rays of the sun like pilgrims with arms raised in supplication to their god.
Rie watched and waited. Nothing happened. Her body remained whole, unmarred by the change in the world around her. She laughed, throwing back the covers and jumping out of bed, forgetting for a moment the residual pain in her leg. She wiggled her toes in the thick fur rug, thrilling in the sensation of the soft strands against her still-young skin. She held out her hands, admiring the strength in her arms. “I’m still alive, I’m still me!” she shouted.
“I told you so!” Niinka said.
“Knock-knock,” Garamaen said from the doorway. “How’s it going?”
“Knock-knock, knock-knock,” the pixies echoed, laughing and bouncing around the room.
Rie laughed, unable to contain her jubilation. “I survived sunset. I can’t ask for anything more right now.” Rie bowed, her formal training rising to the surface. She was still angry that he had forced her to stay, despite her changeling nature, but she couldn’t afford to offend him if she wanted to remain a messenger. As a changeling, the alternative was serving the court as a cleaning woman or entertainer, neither of which appealed.
Lord Garamaen — she really would have to remember to call him Greg, even mentally — entered the room and sprawled into the blue and gold striped cushioned chair near the glass wall overlooking the beach.
“You look much better. How’s your leg holding up?”
“I feel much better. Some pain, but I can support my weight. You are a better healer than you let on.”
“Not really,” Greg shrugged. “And the clothes are okay? How was your lunch?”
“Lunch was wonderful. I ate far more than I should have. And the clothes are comfortable, if a bit big.” Rie pulled on the hem of the oversized red shirt Hilgor had insisted she wear to replace her own bloody tunic. It covered her knives, but made it nearly impossible to reach them quickly.
Greg grinned. “No need to frown. Or worry about accessing your weapons. You’re safe here.”
It was like he could read her mind. His grin widened, stretching across his entire face. Could he read her mind?
“No, I can’t read your mind, just your body language,” he chuckled. “Now, I have some news for you, if you’re interested.” He crossed his right ankle over his left knee, stretching his arms across the back of the wide chair. “About your assassins.”
Rie sat back down on the bed, placing her hands carefully in her lap and schooling her face to its most neutral expression. She must be slipping if he could read her that easily. The pixies’ constant squeaks and clicks went silent.
“I went down to the beach to clean up the mess of the fight and ensure that the humans didn’t see anything.”
“I apologize for the disruption.”
“Not to worry, it’s not the first battle I’ve seen or contained. In nearly six thousand years, I’ve dealt with my fair share of bloodshed. But do you want to know what I found?”
Rie felt her eyes widen. Lord Garamaen was powerful, but she hadn’t realized how old he was. He might be the oldest fae she’d ever met. It was no wonder he had barely reacted to the fight on the beach. To him, it must seem like a common problem. She mentally shook herself, bringing her thoughts back around to his question.
“I am curious why I was attacked,” Rie said, carefully.
“That, I can’t answer,” Greg said, “but I do know where the attackers were from.”
Greg raised an eyebrow, but maintained his casual pose. “You already know that the attackers were blood sidhe, therefore from the Shadow Realm.”
Rie froze. Of course the blood sidhe were from the Shadow Realm. It was their home world. But she hadn’t considered the implications. The Shadow Realm was off-limits to anyone from the upperworlds, and vice versa, as decreed by the treaty of the Great War. She had never had any kind of contact with anyone from the underworlds, but if anyone thought she had, her life would be forfeit. King Othin’s hate was so profound, he would have her executed on the spot just for being on the same beach with them.
“The throwing knives used in the attack were made by a master smith in Nalakadr, capital city and home of the Shadow King, Aradae.” Greg tossed the blade on the bed next to Rie. She lifted it from the covers and held it up in the light of the chandelier. About eight inches long, the knife was black powder coated to prevent reflection, except for three engraved slashes on the balance point of the blade.
“That’s the maker’s mark. He’s a gremlin, known for making custom swords and knives unique to each client’s fighting style. He doesn’t usually make throwing knives, but when he does, it’s for a very high price. The assassin must have been good to afford his fee. Do you have any idea why someone from the Shadow Realm would want you dead?”
“Not at all. I’ve never crossed paths with anyone from either of the underworlds,” Rie stated, allowing no emotion to show on her face or find its way into her voice, not that it mattered. King Othin had written the law. Anyone in contact with the Shadow Realm, in any way, would be executed. A noble might be pardoned, or face a diminished sentence, but as a changeling, the best Rie could hope for was a swift beheading. But she wouldn’t let her dread get the best of her.
“You can drop the act, Nuriel. I’m not out to get you, and you can relax here. Think of this as your home away from home.”
“I’m not sure what you mean.”
“You don’t need to hide what you’re thinking or feeling from me. I don’t align myself with either side of that idiotic argument. I’m a neutral party. Take a deep breath, relax, and let’s think this thing through together.”
Rie released a ragged breath. “I have no idea why I was targeted. I’m loyal to King Othin and the High Court of the Upper Realm. As far as I know, I have never even met anyone from the underworlds.”
Greg tapped his fingertips on the armrests of his chair. “You’re a human messenger, sent with a message for me, a self-exiled sidhe lord who prefers to spend time with lowly humans to his own kind.”
“So you think someone wanted me dead because of you? I don’t understand.”
“Your death had nothing to do with you, not really. Your death was the real message someone was sending me, someone who wanted me to get involved in politics. I crafted the treaty and insisted on the clause that made the Human Realm neutral territory. I like humans, I think they’re fun, with their short, emotion-driven lives. Someone knows I would take your death seriously.”
“I still don’t understand.”
“The attempt on your life had two possible outcomes. One: the assassination is successful and the Shadow Court is implicated in the death of a High Court messenger, violating the truce and bringing me back to court. Two: you survive, but it doesn’t matter because of King Othin’s stupid rule that any contact equals execution. He’s been looking for an excuse to eliminate the Shadow Realm completely, so can easily be led to believe there’s a larger plot in the works. The end result is the same. You’re dead and the realms get ready for war.”
“I’d rather not die.”
Greg chuckled, lips quirking in a wry smile. “Glad to hear it.”
“So you’ll tell King Othin I had no connection to the assassins, and convince him there’s no threat. Since I survived, how would anyone even know?”
“If you show up in the messenger barracks wounded and wearing ill-fitting clothing, or worse, your own tattered outfit, there will be questions. The truth will come out, your reputation and that of your adoptive parents — your wardens — will be ruined, and you will most likely be executed for breaking Othin’s ridiculous law.”
Rie’s thoughts whirled as she struggled to comprehend Greg’s logic. Having never been involved in anything close to politics, she was beyond confused.
Greg leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees and clasping his hands in front of him. “I need to find out who hired the assassins. But I can’t investigate, or I’ll draw attention to the situation, potentially escalating the threat.”
“What are you saying?”
“So far, no one knows what happened but me and your friends, the pixies. I want you to investigate for me. Find out who hired the hit men. You can go places I can’t right now.”
“I’m already in enough trouble. I don’t want to make things worse. Plus, I’ve never been to the Shadow Realm. I have no experience with any of this. I can’t go off on some hare-brained scheme. I should just report back to the messenger barracks and explain what happened.”
“And be executed for something that’s clearly not your fault?”
“Right, because Othin is known for his patience and tolerance.”
He wasn’t. King Othin was known to torture and execute servants for no better reason than that they had spilled his wine and he was bored. But she was an oath-bound citizen of the Upper Realm. Fleeing punishment would be held against her as proof of treason.
“That sounds great, and all, but I swore an oath as a messenger to King Othin, that I would perform my duties and abide by the laws of the High Court. If I go to the Shadow Realm, I will be an oathbreaker. I can’t do that.”
“You wouldn’t be breaking your oath if you were performing a service in loyalty to the High Court. In fact, you’d be protecting Othin from his own short fuse. But you don’t have to decide anything now.” Lord Garamaen rose from his chair, heading for the door. “Tomorrow I’ll open the portal directly to Curuthannor’s hall. The portal Watchers won’t be able to track you, and no one will know what has happened for at least a day. Talk it over with your adoptive parents, and think through your options. One word of caution; avoid the High Court and messenger barracks until you’ve made a decision, or it will probably be made for you.”
Curuthannor opened the door to a cloaked servant, dripping wet from the deluge outside. He was short and squat, but the cloak hid the fae completely. The servant kept his face hidden, but a four-fingered hand emerged from the dark gray fabric, holding out a medallion with the image of a sword backed by the sun.
“Please come in,” Curuthannor said, holding the door open wide to allow the servant into the entry and out of the rain. “May I take your cloak?”
“No, I stay but a moment. The patron sends his regards, and praises your work with Nuriel. He is pleased with her knife skills, and is happy to see her developing foresight. He sends me to deliver a gift for her,” the gravelly voice replied.
“Nuriel isn’t here. She maintains quarters at the messenger barracks at the High Court.”
“Yes. She ran into some trouble. The patron will send her here tomorrow. The patron asks that you give this to her at some point during her visit, and imply that the gift is from you.”
The servant held out an oilskin wrapped box tied with waxed twine. Curuthannor accepted the parcel, handling it with care. Any gift from the patron would be powerful and precious.
“What is the gift?”
“I was told they are matching blades. You may look at them.”
Curuthannor pulled apart the twine and removed the oilskin wrapping to reveal an intricate red and black enameled box. The top of the box was inlaid with the patron’s sigil of a sword backed by the sun in white. He unhooked the silver clasp on the front and slowly lifted the lid to reveal the gifted blades.
The blades were unlike anything Curuthannor had seen in his fifteen hundred years. Eight inches of razor-sharp curved solid steel with a bulbous tip, the enchanted khukuri blades were deadly beautiful, designed to strengthen and protect their handler. Identical red jasper grips were inlaid with a long stripe of white aventurine; elements of fire and air to promote mental fortitude, heal, and improve perception. The center of the grip was studded with a deep black jet palm ring, set with sparkling red garnets; earth and fire to aid on a journey and repel negative energies while increasing physical strength and magic. The copper bolsters at front and rear were perfectly balanced and engraved with four sacred runes: Ansuz for insight and communication, Perthro for seeing the future and knowing one’s path, Tiwaz for honor, justice, and leadership, and Uruz for physical strength and speed.
“These are beautiful, and priceless,” Curuthannor said, glancing down at the servant.
“They have been custom designed for Nuriel, measured, weighted and balanced for her hand. The runes were cast by a tenth-level rune-master, and the blades have been blessed by an elemental from each realm. It took ten years to craft them to the patron’s standards. They will serve her well and awaken many of her skills.”
“Please reassure the patron that I will follow his instructions to the letter. Nuriel will not know about him until he chooses to reveal himself. However, I would also like to suggest that she may be ready to accept her heritage. She is coming into her powers and will soon be unable to ignore them.”
“I will pass along your message.”
Without another word, the servant turned and left, disappearing into the shadows. Curuthannor carefully returned the blades to their case and re-wrapped the box. He stood for several minutes, listening to the rain pound on the roof of the vestibule. The weave of Nuriel’s destiny was growing tighter.
Rie entered her wardens’ home as surreptitiously as possible, treading barefoot on the marble floors to avoid detection. The pixies had gone on ahead to meet up with the rest of the swarm and show off their new treasures, rubbing it in to the others who had chosen to stay. Unfortunately, even without the pixies, Rie was too loud to sneak past Curuthannor. He met her at the end of the long arched hallway that led from the dining room to her personal quarters.
“Nuriel,” Curuthannor said, using her full name. Nuriel meant servant-daughter in the low-tongue, and was a sign of her status as a changeling. She preferred ‘Rie’, but Curuthannor had never called her by her chosen nickname.
“Curuthannor,” Rie replied. She made a deep curtsy, her loose black hair brushing the floor as she bent toward the ground. She would remain in that position until Curuthannor gave her leave to stand. Throughout her life, Curuthannor had insisted upon adhering to the strictest court etiquette.
“You may stand,” he said, emotionless, no hint of his thoughts or intentions. Rie couldn’t even tell whether he was surprised to find her home. She did as instructed and moved into a relaxed warrior’s stance, feet hip-width apart and arms held loose by her side. Curuthannor’s storm gray eyes traveled the length of her body and back, assessing her condition. Rie locked her gaze straight forward, staring at the center button of the brown leather vest that covered his torso from neck to waist.
Standing over seven and a half feet, Curuthannor was tall, even for a high elf. When she had still been little, the corded muscles that wrapped his wiry frame had seemed protective, but as her private trainer, they were intimidating.
“You wear ill-fitting Human Realm clothing, unsuitable for a confrontation,” he said.
Rie felt the sting in his words. Curuthannor insisted on being ready for attack at all times. He preferred combat-ready clothing over the more fashionable court robes that most nobles wore, and insisted that Rie find ways to incorporate weapons and defensive garments into her uniform. Even at home, Curuthannor carried twelve-inch tactical knives on each thigh and likely had others stashed elsewhere on his person.
“Apologies,” Rie replied, keeping her chin up. “I did not have an opportunity to return to my quarters at the messenger barracks to change into more suitable attire after my recent delivery. I had hoped to change here before meeting with you.”
“I see. Are you injured?” Curuthannor’s tone remained bland and unreadable, but Rie sensed a surprising depth of emotion beneath the words.
“I sustained a gunshot wound to the leg. Lord Garamaen healed the majority of the damage. I remain sore, but otherwise functional.”
“And the attackers?”
“Good.” Curuthannor’s mouth twitched, nearly rising into a smile. For one brief moment, Rie thought she saw pride in his eyes, but it vanished before she could be sure. “Lhéwen will be pleased to see you,” he said.
“And I her. It has been too long since my last visit.”
“Dinner will begin shortly. You may join us, and afterward, you and I will talk in more detail.”
“Yes, sir.” Rie exhaled a sigh of relief as Curuthannor passed her in the hall and strolled away.