Rie stood outside the door of the Red Chalice, watching the pixies frolic. She took a deep breath, relishing the cool night air. Now that she knew what it was, the coppery stench of blood emanating from the room was obvious. She would not make the same mistake twice. 

Hiinto hovered in front of her face. “You’d think the blood sidhe would be more accepting of us,” he began, his eerie solid black eyes reflecting spots of light from the street. “Sure, we take a little meat with our blood now and then, and we’re not so picky with the source, but we’re practically cousins. You should complain.“

“I think I’d rather we just moved on,” Rie said. “Let’s not create trouble where we don’t need to, especially when my kind are on the menu.”

With a huff, Hiinto flew off to join the swarm. Unable to snag a bite in the bar, they were hunting a furry creature that resembled a house cat, but bigger and without the tail. Rie watched, amused by their antics. Sometimes it was hard to believe they’d been with her for over eighty years.

“I hate to interrupt such deep thoughts, but are you ready to go?” Braegan asked, coming to stand next to Rie under one of the wisp lights.

“Yes.” Rie was ready for this whole ordeal to be over. She knew it was a long shot, but she wanted to go home, back to her job, back to a place where she knew the rules. 

“What brings you to Nalakadr?” Braegan asked as they moved down the street, the pixies trailing behind or flittering ahead, but leaving them to walk alone. Rie glanced at him from the side, watching as he maneuvered through the crowd with smooth grace, without letting any of the other pedestrians step between them. 

Rie controlled the urge to flee, and held eye contact with Braegan, hoping he wouldn’t sense the lie. “My parents sent me to Tharbatiron, to find a position as a waitress or maid at the inn.” She and Curuthannor had developed the story on the ride to Etsiramun. It wasn’t great, but it should be believable, at least on the surface.

“Where are you from?” Braegan moved a fraction closer. It put Rie on edge. She stepped away, not wanting to give him the opportunity to try to enthrall her again. Despite his oath, she wasn’t convinced he could be trusted. “You’re obviously not from Nalakadr, so where did you grow up?”

“A human conclave in the outer district.” 

“Really? I thought they were all abandoned. What’s the name?”

Rie stepped sideways, avoiding a steaming pile of goop, and putting some distance between herself and Braegan. He was asking too many questions and her instincts were urging caution. “Why so interested?”

Braegan’s resonant chuckle sounded forced and lifted the hair on the back of her neck. “Can’t a man be interested in a beautiful woman?” She didn’t quite know how she knew it, but he was avoiding the truth. She masked her suspicion with a coy smile.

“How long have you lived in Nalakadr?” She watched Braegan for any hint of evasion.

“My whole life.” It seemed to be the truth. “My parents have a shop specializing in all things Human Realm, and I do most of the grunt work for them.”

“Do you enjoy it?”

“I love traveling, but it can be a pain in the ass sometimes, too. There are too many rules and restrictions.” Braegan winked and leaned in to whisper. “I would think you of all people would appreciate open travel.” 

Rie sputtered. “What? Why?”

Braegan pushed closer, his head only a few inches from her shoulder. “Come on, you’re not really from a human conclave. Even if they hadn’t been abandoned centuries ago, you wouldn’t be wearing a fancy dress like that if you were from there. And given your reaction to my approach at the bar, I’m guessing you’re not a personal donor or mistress. So…I’d bet money that you’re on the run, fleeing one of the up…”

“Quiet,” Rie hissed. She grabbed his arm in the pressure point above his elbow and scanned the crowd to ensure they weren’t being overheard. No one was paying any attention that she could see. She shoved Braegan out of the street and into an alley, trying to be as discreet as possible without giving him the opportunity to escape. “Do you want to get me killed?”

“No one was listening.” Braegan laughed. “It’s not as if you’re from the High Court.” 

Rie shoved him against a stone wall, pinning him in place with her body weight. “There’s always someone listening. Always.” 

“Oh, shit. You are from the High Court!” Braegan’s eyes grew wide with excitement, but he kept his voice low. He shifted, one thigh pressed close against her hip, the other braced between her legs. The heat of his body seeped into the fabric of her dress and her breathing sped along with her pulse. He slid a fraction of an inch to the side and rocked his leg against her. Slow heat pooled in her belly. 

“I’ve always wanted to meet someone from the Upper Realm.” He lowered his head, chocolate eyes boring into her from under thick black lashes. His lips brushed against Rie’s in a soft caress, then trailed up her jaw to gently pull on her earlobe. Shivers traveled down her spine while she leaned in, tilting her head to the side to give him better access. Her arm relaxed and her hand slid down his chest, across the taut expanse of his abs, and around to cup his ass. 

Her forearm brushed the blunt end of her khukuri. Her mind cleared, the glamour vanished, and sense returned. Unsheathing her blade, Rie retreated from the seductive pull of Braegan’s mouth and held the edge across his throat.

“Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t kill you now.” 

Braegan slid warm fingers down Rie’s bare arm and up again, the look in his eyes a heated invitation. “You’re beautiful and off-limits. You might be the first person from the Upper Realm to travel to the Shadow Realm in a thousand years. Let me show you everything we have to offer here.” Compulsion battered against her willpower. 

Shuddering, Rie clenched her teeth against his caress. She thrust her knee up against his testicles. “Try again.”

The white of Braegan’s eyes showed all the way around the iris and his voice sounded strained. “You need a guide.” Braegan’s throat bobbed against the razor-sharp blade, slicing a thin line of red that slowly dripped down his neck. “I know the city. I can help you.”

He was right, at least theoretically. Rie pulled the knife back far enough to let him talk freely. “Why should I trust you, after you’ve tried to enthrall me not once, but twice?”

“I swear, it won’t happen again. No human woman has ever resisted me before. I had to try again, just to see if I could.” He lifted his hands. “Obviously, you’re stronger than you seem. I won’t push it. You can trust me.”

Rie shook her head. What was the old line? Trick me once, shame on you, trick me twice, shame on me… She shouldn’t even consider giving him a third chance.

“Let me make it up to you. I’ll get you to the Crossroads as agreed, but in addition, I’ll teach you how to act like a Nalakadr native.”

“I’m that obvious?”

Braegan quirked an eyebrow in disbelief at her question. “You dress and carry yourself like royalty. There’s not a person in the city who couldn’t pick you out of a crowd.”

Rie didn’t know how to react to the compliment. In the Upper Realm, no one spared a single glance in her direction. It made her suspicious, but she didn’t really want to murder a man in an alley. She would have to keep an eye on him, make sure he didn’t talk, but the pixies could help with that. 

Rie stepped away and sheathed her blade. “Okay, I believe you. But if you tell anyone about me, I will kill you.”

Braegan wiped the blood at his throat with his hand. “Got it.” He sucked the red off of a finger and winked. 

“Since you’re still alive — for now —and still my guide, why don’t you lead the way.”

“My pleasure.” Braegan held out his left arm, a gentleman escorting a lady. Yeah, right.

“Thanks for the offer, but no thanks,” Rie said. She wasn’t going to accept a position that left her defenseless, unable to move quickly and react independently. Especially when she wasn’t confident in the man next to her.

“Come on, loosen up a little. A human woman alone will draw attention. If you’re with me, no one will bother you. They’ll have to get through me, first.”

Rie rolled her eyes. Men and their egos. “Fine, but I’m not wrapping my arm through yours.”

“How about this?” Braegan took her hand and placed it on his bicep. The position pulled Rie’s body into and slightly behind his shoulder, but left her free to move. Rie synched her steps with his as they once again merged with the crowd heading into the center of the city.

Braegan’s arm flexed under her touch as they slid around one particularly rambunctious group of young goblins playing some kind of ball game in the street. Without thinking, she let her hand squeeze his bicep with gentle pressure, feeling solid muscle beneath the fabric of his shirt. The best glamour in the nine realms couldn’t alter the feel of an object, and there wasn’t a spare ounce of fat on his frame. He had the kind of wiry strength Rie could admire on a man; not bulky to indicate narcissism, but strong enough to prove that, at a minimum, he took care of himself. Her gaze drifted across the broad shoulders and trim waist under the pale blue vest. If she were a gambling woman, she would bet on Braegan having some martial training, perhaps a close-combat specialty. It looked good on him. Realizing the drift in focus, Rie snapped her attention back to her surroundings. 

This section of the city was dedicated to evening entertainment, with bars, restaurants, dancing halls, and even some less savory pleasure outlets. Dark elves predominated the sidewalks, traveling in pairs or trios, looking like the haughty nobility that they were, while a few blood sidhe trolled for available humans. Rie thought she caught Braegan warning away a competitor with a silent snarl once or twice, but it happened so fast she couldn’t be sure. What she did know, was that even though she drew a few eyes, those eyes glanced away without a hint of suspicion. 

“Braegan!” A young blond woman separated from a group of people lounging against a wall about 20 yards ahead, and dashed toward them, flinging herself into Braegan’s arms. Rie removed her hands from the grips of her khukuris and stepped away from the tangle of limbs.

“Darling, it’s been far too long! Where have you been? What have you been doing?” The woman spoke so fast Rie had a hard time understanding her words. 

“I’ve been around. You know — here, there…”

“Everywhere,” the woman finished, the accompanying laugh sounded bright and joyful, free in a way Rie had never experienced. The woman kissed Braegan, wrapping her legs around his waist and rubbing her body against him. His eyes closed and bliss crossed his face as he returned her caress and hauled her against his chest. Rie’s hands returned to the security of her blades. She clenched her teeth, the desire to draw steel near overwhelming.

Disturbed by her own jealous reaction, Rie looked away. She couldn’t believe she was feeling possessive over a man she had just met. Worse, he’d tried to take advantage of her twice already. She shook her head. She could admit he was attractive, but lust would have to be repressed until her life wasn’t in danger. 

A faint buzzing announced the arrival of Niinka and Possn. They came in fast, landing hard on Rie’s shoulders before wrapping themselves in her hair. 

“Gag me,” Niinka whispered. “If you ever behave like that in public, I’ll have to claw my own eyes out.”

“So says the woman wearing no clothes.” Rie kept her voice low, pitched for the pixies alone to hear. It was ironic really, that the blond woman’s scanty clothing bothered her, when the pixies nakedness never had. 

Niinka huffed. “If we wore clothes, we couldn’t hide. Obviously.” 

Rie’s lip twitched with a suppressed smile, but she let the conversation drop. It had been enough of a distraction to regain her composure; any more would draw attention. 

Braegan ended the kiss and set the woman on her feet. He met Rie’s gaze across the short distance and smiled, looking a bit embarrassed or maybe apologetic. He held out an arm, motioning Rie to come closer. With a quick shake of her head, Rie declined. 

The woman leaned into Braegan’s side and ran a hand down his arm. Blue eyes examined Rie with interest, and Rie returned the favor. On closer inspection, the woman was older than she appeared, several decades older than Braegan, if Rie had to guess. Her face was tiny and heart shaped, her hair cropped into a messy pixie cut. The top of her head barely reached Rie’s shoulder, but her legs — bare but for strappy sandals and black shorts that barely covered her butt — seemed to stretch on for miles. Her midriff was also bare, her bouncy breasts tucked into a tight pink top that wrapped around her ribs and neck. The theme of her outfit, if it could be described in one word, was ‘skin’. 

“She looks tasty. I hope you’re planning to share.” The woman flicked her tongue between extended fangs. Rie tried not to let her disgust show. 

Stepping away from the woman, Braegan grabbed Rie. He hauled her into his side and draped his arm across her shoulders. “‘Fraid not.”

The woman placed a delicate hand on Braegan’s chest, running hot pink nails across the fabric of his vest. Her voice dropped several notches, a husky murmur. “We could break her in together, just you and me. For old times.”

The woman’s nails drifted closer, her body sliding in to striking distance. Rie unsheathed the knife at her thigh, keeping it out of the woman’s line of sight even as Braegan’s embrace tightened a fraction. “I’ve got it under control.” He maneuvered Rie further out of the woman’s reach.

“Really? From where I’m standing, she smells untouched. The three of us could have so much fun together.” Rie sensed a push of compulsion, but it was far weaker than Braegan’s had been, and she easily ignored it. The woman reached across Braegan’s body to run a finger along Rie’s cheek. She failed to notice the pixies, who took it as an invitation to feast.

Niinka launched herself onto the woman’s hand, tearing away the offending fingernail, while Possn bit into the exposed flesh between her thumb and forefinger. The woman screamed, flicking her hand from side to side and flinging the laughing pixies into the air. The high-pitched wails brought her friends over at a run.

There were four of them, all male, and all blood sidhe. Rie pulled her second knife and stepped away from Braegan. The pixies, all five of them, hovered around her, clicking and squeaking in Pixl. 

Braegan audibly sighed, rubbing his hand across his face. “Fuck me,” he mumbled under his breath before addressing the group. “Stay the fuck back. Jean had it coming, and deserves what she got.”

“My nail! Look at my fucking nail.” The woman, Jean, extended her hand. Blood seeped down her finger from the raw nail bed, and a good sized chunk had been torn from her hand. The shallow wounds were already healing, the blood drying on fresh pink skin, but the claw was probably gone for good. As a group they turned and hissed, eyes flashing in the lamplight. 

 There was a time for diplomacy, but now it was time for strategic bravado. Jean wouldn’t see her as anything but a meal and a plaything unless Rie stood her ground. “My friends thought you were threatening me. I can’t say I’m sorry, but next time you might open your eyes before thrusting your hand where it isn’t wanted.” 

“Bitch! I’m gonna drain you dry.”

Gikl, the silent marauder, darted in and tore off a second nail. It was nice to have friends, but sometimes the most well-meaning gesture could spark more trouble. Jean’s face contorted into a savage grimace and a harsh growl emanated from deep within her throat. Her lips receded from too sharp teeth, the skin of her face seeming to fold back as her jaw unhinged in preparation for attack. Her friends moved to flank her, coming up on either side. Teeth and claws glistened, ready for action.

Rie’s pulse sped. Her thumb twitched. She shifted back and forth, balanced on the balls of her feet. Keeping her eyes on Jean, Rie watched for the first indication of intent. The odds weren’t in her favor. Even with the pixies help, it was unlikely she would survive against five blood sidhe. Worse, even though Braegan had sworn to get her to the inn unharmed, she still couldn’t trust him.

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