Rie stood behind her chair in the family dining room, waiting for her wardens. Her eyes traced the family sigil inlaid in the tabletop. After decades of meals taken in this room, she knew each curve of the clematis vine that wrapped the ebony shield, and could tell you exactly how many flowers bloomed in the wood.
Lhéwen arrived after a few minutes, arms spread to embrace Rie, a broad smile on her face.
“Rie, my dear, I am so happy you’ve come to dinner. I desperately need a break from the gown I’ve been creating for Lady Demeth,” she gave Rie a kiss on each cheek, a harried expression creasing her unlined forehead. “Her daughter is taking a lifemate next month, you know. It will be a huge event, with all of the high nobles in attendance to honor her family, so you’d think she would finally be happy. But no, she’s cried at every fitting, at least once, and I have to sit there the entire time, holding a towel under her chin to catch the tears and protect the gown from saltwater. She is lucky that her beauty outweighs her crying spells.”
“I can only imagine how tired you must be,” Rie replied, returning Lhéwen’s embrace. Lhéwen was a brilliant and much sought after seamstress. As a result, she often had to deal with the eccentricities and whims of the nobles of the High Court. She was always patient when working with them, but the family often had the dubious pleasure of hearing about the episodes over dinner.
“Yes, well, it’s nothing, really.” Lhéwen brushed the fine tendrils of hair out of her face, tucking them into the twisted braid that flowed down her back. Her gown was functional, but fashionable, with tight sleeves and a fitted waist in a shimmering golden hue that almost precisely matched her hair. She tugged on the sleeves, pulling them back into place after a day in the workshop.
Curuthannor arrived, giving his lifemate an affectionate kiss on the cheek. His hand brushed across her shoulders, an embrace that wasn’t. He nodded to Rie, then moved to sit at the head of the table, Lhéwen following suit. Rie waited until both were settled before seating herself.
“Business is good, then?” Rie arranged the creased white napkin in her lap, protecting the pale violet silk of one of her best gowns. Her thumb twitched, nerves jangling while she waited for an appropriate moment to discuss her predicament. Maybe it would all just go away if she procrastinated long enough.
Wishful thinking never got anyone anywhere.
“Yes, quite. Practically the entire High Court is invited to Lady Demeth’s daughter’s wedding, so I have more work than I can handle. I may have to find another assistant to help.”
Rie’s response was interrupted by the presentation of the first course.
“Good to see you, good to see you,” the house nisse, Grmelda, said to Rie as she ladled out the thin creamy soup that was one of Rie’s favorites. “You are not looking well. You eat up today, yes?” Grmelda had been an active part of Rie’s life for as long as she could remember. At less than three feet tall, Grmelda barely reached above the table, yet never spilled a drop or crumb.
“Grmelda’s right.” Lhéwen sounded shocked, and she probably was. She was not the most observant individual when she was involved with a new design, and she might have completely ignored Rie’s condition if Grmelda hadn’t pointed it out. “Your face is scratched. Did something happen?”
The last thing Rie wanted to do was worry Lhéwen, but it couldn’t be helped. Curuthannor needed all of the information to help her sort out a plan, and Lhéwen wouldn’t want to be excluded from the discussion. She would have to tone it down, lay out the facts without too much description. She took a deep breath, and organized her thoughts.
“Lhéwen, before I start, I want you to know that it’s not as bad as it sounds, so please don’t get upset.” Rie faced Curuthannor, directing the rest of her speech to the warrior of the family. “I was given a job yesterday. It was supposed to be a simple message to Lord Garamaen in the Human Realm, but after passing through the portal, I had a premonition of an attack. Assassins were waiting to kill me on the path to Lord Garamaen’s estate.”
Lhéwen’s spoon clattered to the table. Her hand covered her mouth while her pale blue eyes grew wide and frightened. Curuthannor remained stoic, but stopped eating, his hand curled in a fist on the table.
“I killed one of them without a problem, but the second managed a shot with a human pistol, a through and through wound to the thigh. I scrambled away, and with the pixies help, killed the second attacker. Lord Garamaen healed my leg and let me stay in his hall over night. I returned here this afternoon.”
“You haven’t visited the messenger barracks or made a report to your supervisor.” Curuthannor made it a statement, but it was really a question.
“No. Because of my injuries, I didn’t report in on time. That, combined with the physical evidence of an incident, means there will be an inquiry, and the attackers were blood sidhe.”
Lhéwen gasped, her hand trembling at her lips.
Rie kept her voice controlled and even. She held her chin level and made eye contact with Curuthannor. She could do this. Logic would dictate her next steps. “Lord Garamaen has asked me to travel to the Shadow Realm and investigate for him. In return, he will use the information I find to vouch for me to King Othin. I was going to speak with you about it after dinner, Curuthannor. I need your advice.”
Lhéwen’s voice could barely be heard, even in the silence of the room. “Lord Garamaen asks too much.” Curuthannor kept his eyes trained on Rie, studying her. At his lack of response, Lhéwen’s voice rose, firm and demanding. “Rie can not be expected to go to the Shadow Realm. For one, it is against the law, but it is also too dangerous. She has no contacts, no knowledge of the underworlds.”
“Nuriel can handle herself, of that I am unconcerned. However, this is not a task to take on lightly.”
Rie hid her pride behind her spoon.
“You face an impossible task. If you are caught, you will be called an oathbreaker and executed for treason. Why won’t he vouch for you to the king?”
“He agrees that I am not to blame, and believes that I have no dealings with the underworlds, but he can’t prove anything. Plus, he says that I can investigate without drawing attention to the situation, where he cannot.”
A deep furrow crept between Curuthannor’s eyebrows. He took a bite of soup.
Lhéwen’s face scrunched and her jaw clenched. “This is his job, his task!” Rie had never seen her so angry.
Curuthannor retained his composure. “True, Lord Garamaen’s word should be enough to convince the king, but perhaps he fears Othin’s prejudices will prevent him from taking honorable action. I suppose, if you can identify the real traitor and provide proof of his or her culpability, then Lord Garamaen will be able to ensure his ability to be heard.” He took another spoonful.
“But if she goes to the Shadow Realm, there will be incontrovertible proof that she’s violated the law. She cannot go,” Lhéwen said.
Curuthannor nodded, but continued as if he hadn’t been interrupted. “As far as I can see, you have two options. You can return to the messenger service and hope for leniency. Or, you can heed Lord Garamaen’s request and travel to the Shadow Realm. The first case will most likely end in your death.”
“The king surely wouldn’t execute her for surviving, would he?”
Curuthannor turned to his lifemate, his expression cold and serious. “He might. I’ve heard rumors of unrest, certain factions wanting to reestablish economic relations with the Shadow Realm. Nothing concrete has been discovered, but King Othin is looking for a way to reinforce his edict. And there’s precedent. Remember the executions in the palace square?”
Rie had never heard any of this. “What happened?”
“Shortly after the Great War, when the direct portals were closed, a few enterprising merchants decided to run a black market in Shadow Realm goods. King Othin had them publicly beheaded, and their bodies burned. That’s also when he established the Watchers to monitor traffic through the portals. He takes the law seriously.”
Lhéwen’s face turned gray, her skin losing its usual luster while her bottom lip trembled. “But she’s a messenger. That must count for something.”
Curuthannor reached out, squeezing her hand on top of the table. “Rie’s worked hard to gain some level of respect, but you and I both know that outside of these halls she is barely more than a servant. King Othin will want to make an example of her, instill a little fear in the hearts of the lesser fae and even the nobles, especially those who might consider the law antiquated and unnecessary.”
They twined their fingers together before Curuthannor returned his attention to Rie. “I can try to use my influence to convince him spare your life, but I’m afraid it won’t be enough,” he said.
“Then let her hide here. She used Lord Garamaen’s signature to get here, so they don’t know she’s returned to the Upper Realm. They might assume she’s dead.”
Rie shook her head, her brain throbbing a slow beat within her skull. “They’ll come looking for me. They’ve probably been called to investigate already, or will be soon. And if they find me, you will be branded accomplices. Your reputation and your business would be ruined. I can’t let you take that risk.”
Curuthannor flashed her a sad smile and continued with his analysis.
“You have a better chance of survival with Lord Garamaen. You would be working with a powerful man, helping him calm political tension and avoid war by finding the real traitor. He will be able to get you in and out of the Shadow Realm without detection, so there’s a chance you could stay hidden there, even if you don’t find the answers you need. But if you choose that path, you must understand that you may never be able to return to the Upper Realm.”
Curuthannor held Rie’s gaze for several seconds, waiting, watching. The throbbing intensified, a premonition bursting to life.
The High Court throne room, light glinting off a double-headed axe on the upswing. Dozens of warriors charging, faces grim and determined. Twelve statues arranged in a circle, the smell of rosemary thick in the air. An imp, tears in its eyes, wrapped in a towel. A hand on her back, comforting and familiar…no…family. A man with mocha skin, golden eyes, laughing. Fire blazing up a sword. A platinum ring with a sparkling blue stone.
Rie shook her head, clearing away the last vestiges of the vision. It was an incoherent mess, dark and chaotic.
Lhéwen scanned Rie’s face. Her forehead creased, furrows forming between her brows. “What did you see?”
“I don’t know. It was a jumble, confusing.” The images were barely discernible flashes, not the single scenes she was used to, and she couldn’t tell whether it would happen in the near or distant future. “I don’t know what to do. I swore an oath to abide the laws of the Upper Realm and faithfully serve the High Court messengers. I have done both to the best of my ability, and yet I find myself in an indefensible position. I didn’t report back to headquarters on time. By now, the messengers know something happened. It won’t take long for the story to reach Rolimdornoron’s ears, and he won’t hesitate to forward it on to the King’s Counsel. This will be the first place they look to find me.”
Lhéwen’s voice was strident, ringing with determination. “Lord Garamaen should be your shield, your protector in this. He should not leave you to fend for yourself.”
Rie sighed. “He isn’t letting me fend for myself. He has given me an option. It’s just not an easy option to take.”
“So you have made up your mind, then?” Curuthannor asked.
Rie paused, taking a deep breath and holding it for a few heartbeats before answering, resigned. “Yes. I must follow Lord Garamaen, give him what he wants in order to save myself. I will go to the Shadow Realm.”
Lhéwen pressed her eyes closed and hung her head, but Curuthannor nodded, his expression unsurprised. “If you are going to go forward with this, you will need to be prepared. Please excuse us, Lhéwen. Nuriel, come with me.”
Rie rose from her chair and followed Curuthannor. She wouldn’t have been able to finish Grmelda’s wonderful meal anyway, not with the nervous knots tying up her stomach. She buried her thoughts before entering Curuthannor’s office.
The hexagonal room had been one of Rie’s favorite places to study during her childhood in the estate. It was spacious, but not overly large, with comfortable chairs for reading the books that lined the walls. Curuthannor stopped in front of one of four large windows and gazed out at the manicured rose garden in full bloom behind a decorative willow branch fence. A gnome trundled by with a wheelbarrow full of weeds, finishing his day’s work.
“So far, your experience has been limited to the Upper Realm and the Human Realm, correct?” Curuthannor began.
“I was granted one mission to the Winter Court, as well,” Rie replied.
Curuthannor nodded, his face impassive. He rarely spoke more than a few precise words to Rie, but it appeared that this conference might be an exception. He seemed to be thinking, perhaps gathering his thoughts. Rie waited patiently. Whatever he had to say, whatever advice he had to give, would be valuable beyond measure.
“The underworlds are similar, yet also very different from any of your experience thus far,” Curuthannor began, finally breaking the silence. “The dark elves and blood sidhe in the Shadow Realm are powerful, but no more so than the greater fae of the upperworlds. Nor are they any more dangerous, at least not from the perspective of their abilities. Just like each of the upperworld races, they have their strengths and weaknesses. Some individuals are extremely powerful, but most have unremarkable abilities. However, the underworlds are more openly violent and vicious. You must always be on guard, watch for attack out of any corner, and be wary of offending anyone in any way.”
Curuthannor faced Rie, his hands clasped behind his back, feet wide, legs balanced. He pinned her with a stare.
“Though you’ve been in faerie since you were a baby, you are still of the human race. Blood sidhe require human blood for sustenance. There are laws in the Shadow Realm about taking blood from unwilling donors, but you are outworld and it is unlikely that anyone would come to your aid. You are well trained, but you are still at a disadvantage against even a weak blood sidhe. They will enthrall you and use glamour to make you see anything they wish. Be cautious, therefore, and do not put yourself in a situation where you might be at risk.”
“Yes, sir,” Rie answered, with a slight nod.
Curuthannor was even more intense than usual, if that were possible. Then again, he had fought the Shadow Realm at King Othin’s side and would have made a detailed study of his enemy.
“The dark elves are masters of soul magic. They won’t be drawn to you the way the blood sidhe are, but they are still dangerous. Do not offend them. The powerful ones can strip you of your soul, or control the screaming banshees that will deafen and drive a warrior insane.”
Curuthannor rolled forward on the balls of his feet, as if preparing for a fight. Rie carefully eyed him, waiting for the tiniest detail that would predict his intent. “Before the Great War, I frequently traveled to the Shadow Realm on business for my father. He preferred the iron ore found in the black hills for his steel blades.”
“Your father was a bladesmith?” Rie asked. Curuthannor had rarely spoken of his parents, who died in the war.
“The best in the Upper Realm. He was a great swordsman as well, and taught me all that I know.”
“Did he die fighting?”
“No. He died in his smithy, when it was overrun by red caps from the Shadow Realm.” With a severe glance, Curuthannor put an end to that line of questioning.
Reaching into one of four narrow drawers in his mahogany desk, he continued, “As I was saying, I used to travel to the Shadow Realm quite frequently to purchase the iron ore, and I would stay at the same inn each time. I became friends with the proprietor, Tharbatiron. If he still runs the inn — and unless he is dead, I can’t imagine he would do anything else — he will help you. Just give him this.” Curuthannor removed a silver medallion from a drawer and handed it to Rie. It was stamped with Curuthannor’s shield on one side, and a celtic cross on the other. “It’s the Crossroads Inn, at the center of the capital city, Nalakadr, near the outdoor market. The Nalakadr public portal opens outside the city walls, or it used to, but all major roads lead to the center of the city, so it shouldn’t be too difficult to find.”
Curuthannor strode to his personal bookshelf, a locked cabinet to the left of the windows. The cabinet held Curuthannor’s most valuable and powerful possessions. He had never opened it in front of Rie, let alone allowed her to look inside.
“I have one other gift for you, which will aid you on your path,” Curuthannor said, pressing his right thumb to the door and unlocking the cabinet with a whispered word. He removed a black and red enameled box, then closed and locked the cabinet before returning to Rie. Holding the box with both hands, he cautiously held it out, as if the contents might burst into flame. Rie handled the box with equal care.
“What is it?” she asked.
Rie set the box on the desk, pulled apart the clasp and carefully opened the lid, turning her head slightly in case something dangerous or explosive lay inside. It wouldn’t be the first time that Curuthannor had tested her abilities without notice. She was astonished at the priceless gift before her. Two matching red handled khukuri blades were cushioned in black velvet inside the box, their dragon scale sheaths nestled beneath. Rie’s court mask fell and her mouth hung open in shock. She’d never seen blades half as precious or deadly, and she had certainly never been allowed to touch anything so valuable.
“May I hold them?” she asked, hesitantly.
“They are yours. You may do with them as you wish,” Curuthannor replied.
Rie drew her fingers along the flat of each blade, feeling the cold steel warm to her touch. They began to vibrate and hum, as if excited, until she wrapped her fingers around the grip, when they burst forth with a single clear note and went silent. She removed the blades, testing their weight and balance. She spun them in a circle, feeling their movement. They were like extensions of her body.
“These are incredible, Curuthannor. You honor me. Thank you for this priceless gift.” The heartfelt words tumbled from her mouth. If ever there was a sign of Curuthannor’s love, this was it.
“You know better than to thank the fae,” Curuthannor admonished, not meeting her gaze.
“I am in your debt, regardless,” Rie replied. “It matters little whether I thank you or not. But these blades are the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.”
“I am glad you value them. They were the work of many years, and your skills are deserving of better blades than you currently carry. They will serve you well.”
Rie set the knives back in their case, wistfully running her finger across the metal before shutting the lid. She couldn’t wait to practice with them, to feel their power as she moved through the forms.
“May I come in?” Lhéwen called from the doorway.
“Of course,” Curuthannor replied, his severe face softening as his lifemate entered the room. The love they shared was a palpable thing, almost painful to watch. Rie quickly looked away.
Lhéwen set large a bundle of fabric on the desk, her expression composed of uncompromising lines.
“If you have to go, you’ll go prepared.” She shook out a soft gray gown with a subtle shimmer that made it come alive in the waning daylight. “I’ve been working on this for awhile, intending to give it to you at your nameday next month, but I think it is better served now. It’s made of spider silk, strong but elegant and light as air. It will keep you warm on cool nights, and cool on hot days. I’ve cut the skirt high on each thigh so you can wear your blades hidden beneath but still have quick access when necessary.”
Rie held the dress in front of her, watching the light catch the fabric. The collar and cap-sleeved bodice were edged with delicate hand-embroidered clematis vines, the heart of each purple flower sparkling with a single crystal. Matching fabric covered buttons fastened the top across the chest and down the right side, from the point of the deep v-neck down to the waist. Rie was speechless, in awe of the sheer number of hours that must have been put into the dress.
“The color isn’t ideal for the High Court, but with your warm skin tone and dark hair…well, I thought it would be lovely on you regardless. I think it will be perfect for the Shadow Realm. And the flowers will bring out your eyes, especially if you wear just a touch of kohl.”
“It’s beautiful.” They both knew Rie was too practical to bother with the makeup. It didn’t matter what she wore or how hard she tried, she would never be able to draw any complementary attention to herself from the high elves of the Upper Realm. Lhéwen’s advice was well-intentioned, but futile.
“The Shadow Realm will be reasonably warm, but you want to hide your identity as much as possible,” Lhéwen continued, shaking her head. “You’ll need this.” She held up a cropped jacket with a hood made out of a thicker version of the same gray silk.
“And Curuthannor helped me with this piece,” Lhéwen set aside the jacket and picked up a black leather corset. Rie gingerly draped the dress over the desk before examining the mildly embarrassing undergarment. “It’s lightly reinforced and will provide support and some protection.” The leather was thick, but had been worked into a flexible form that would — as Lhéwen would say — ‘hold her up and tuck her in’. It laced up the side instead of the back, allowing Rie to easily dress herself, and since it had no boning, she would still be able to bend and move.
“Minimum protection from glancing blows only,” Curuthannor added.
Lhéwen’s eyes twinkled, silently laughing at her lifemate. “Unfortunately, hardened leather is both uncomfortable and unflattering; inappropriate for underwear.”
Curuthannor crossed his arms, but there was a subtle smile flickering around the edges of his mouth.
Rie had no idea what to say, no words came to mind.
“I…” she began. “This is more than I could ever ask for. More than I need.”
“Well, then, you’d better try everything on. I want time to make adjustments before you go. And then you should pack. I’ll ask Grmelda to put together some travel cakes.”
“I’m sure it will all fit perfectly.”
“Don’t even think about running off in the middle of the night without saying goodbye, either.”
“She will leave before first light,” Curuthannor interrupted. “She needs to remain unseen for as long as possible.”
Lhéwen sighed. “All the same, I will see you off.” She rushed out of the room, quickly brushing her right hand across her cheek.
“She will miss you.” Curuthannor stood stoic, arms still crossed over his chest. “Be careful.”