Into the Heart of Talis (Chronicles of Talis Prequel) Available: Read Chapter 1 Here

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Into the Heart of Talis is out today! Sound the drums!  Witches and spies, magic and explosions!

It is now available on Amazon, iBooks, Kobo, and Barnes & Noble.

Two hundred years have passed since the Witches were driven from Talis. Two hundred years of bitterness and exile, but at last their time has come.

Leonora has been training for this moment all her life, desperate to prove herself worthy. Magic and vengeance flow through her veins, but when her cabin is ransacked and she finds signs of sorcery, Leonora quickly realizes that someone onboard is not what they seem.

There’s the old riverboat captain who watches her, full of unasked questions, the gnome whose bitterness matches her own, and the unrepentant conman who follows her everywhere with greed in his eyes.

One of them knows her secret. One of them is hunting her. But when you hunt a witch, it is far more likely that she is hunting you.

Into the Heart of Talis is a 20,000-word novella that takes place directly before Irons in the Fire.

 

If you haven’t checked out this series yet, the first book, Irons in the Fire, is currently available for free only $0.99 in most stores.

Happy reading!

 

 

From the Desktop-Prequel Announcement

It’s been awhile since my last blog post and I hope everyone’s doing well. I can’t believe it’s already July. Where has 2016 gone?

But now I have returned with an announcement!

First off, for those (handful) of you who are waiting for the sequel to Irons in the Fire, I’m afraid that Book 2 has proved more challenging than expected, but I’m hard at work and The Fall of the House of Talis promises to have all the political intrigue, magical creatures, and simmering tension of Irons in the Fire only even more so.

In the meantime, I’ll be releasing a prequel novella—Into the Heart of Talis—on Friday July 8th.

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Into the Heart of Talis leads directly into the events of Irons in the Fire, and follows the Countess as she makes her secret, perilous way into Talis, pursued by a relentless witch hunter. It fills in a few gaps and hints at some unseen motivations that will play into Book 2 and beyond.

Here is the Blurb and a Brief Excerpt:

Two hundred years have passed since the Witches were driven from Talis. Two hundred years of bitterness and exile, but at last their time has come.

Leonora has been training for this moment all her life, desperate to prove herself worthy. Magic and vengeance flow through her veins, but when her cabin is ransacked and she finds signs of sorcery, Leonora quickly realizes that someone onboard is not what they seem.

There’s the old riverboat captain who watches her, full of unasked questions, the gnome whose bitterness matches her own, and the unrepentant conman who follows her everywhere with greed in his eyes.

One of them knows her secret. One of them is hunting her.

But when you hunt a witch, it is far more likely that she is hunting you.

 Into the Heart of Talis is a 20,000-word novella that takes place directly before Irons in the Fire.

***

I. The Captain

Captain Devos found the Woman alone on the foredeck, bathed in twilight. He was struck, not for the first time, by her beauty, but it was an unpronounceable beauty, otherworldly, almost inhuman. She seemed to shine with an inward light all her own, though her features remained obscured by distance and shrouded in the oncoming night. Devos found that even his memory of her was curiously vague, like a mirage, but her loveliness was certain, beyond all doubt. Beneath her beauty, however, he thought he could sense a terrible yet muffled yearning, deep and unspoken. He could not say where that feeling came from, or what lay behind it, but it was as real as the wind on his face.

As he stood there watching her, it was her presence on deck that astounded him most of all. She had remained in her cabin for the most part throughout the journey, reclusive and silent. In her absence, she had become more a rumor than a person, haunting the minds of the other passengers and crew. Certainly she had been on Devos’s mind a great deal. She was a mystery, and he was not fond of mysteries, especially not these days. Mysteries were dangerous.

“Captain,” she greeted without turning, her voice soft but insistent. He could feel it tickling in the back of his mind, whispering unheard secrets and warnings. Devos cleared his throat. There was no turning back now.

“Miss,” he said.

Devos touched his cap and clambered up to join her on the foredeck. Closer, her features coalesced into something solid and unmistakably human, although he found traces of the wilds about her, overgrown and full of thorns.

There was a melancholy in the air that was not his own, carried on the cool breeze, vibrating through the deck beneath his feet. Devos could feel it pressing against him, invading his own thoughts, coloring his mood. Perhaps she had a touch of faërie in her blood, after all. Changelings and half-breeds were still common near the border.

They stood side by side in silence, watching the water ripple past. Neither of them felt compelled to speak. The captain kept his eyes ahead, trying not to stare at her or to pry. She would speak when she was ready. He doubted that she had emerged from her seclusion simply to sample the night air. She had a purpose. It was written all over her face, although he could not even begin to guess at its nature. That was frustrating. The other passengers were of a more familiar sort. Most of them were from the border or the wild Faërie Lands beyond. Devos understood them and their ilk, even the faëries, but the Woman refused to be understood.

A faint whistling intruded on the night air and he turned. Mr. Hamel was making his nightly promenade around the deck. Devos scowled behind his hand. Hamel was unmistakably human, which was more than could be said for many of the other passengers, but he was a trader of dubious morals and questionable character. He had brought several crates of cargo with him and had secreted them in the hold. They were likely stolen, and no doubt highly illegal, but Devos preferred not to speculate. He had been well compensated for his troubles, and kept his judgments to himself. It wouldn’t be the first time he had smuggled some mysterious cargo into Talis.

Devos was not the only one who turned at Hamel’s approach. The Woman had finally taken her eyes from the horizon, and she was watching Hamel with a curious expression. Devos could not say if it was attraction or suspicion, or both, but something passed between them in that moment. Hamel noticed her attention and gave her a roguish smile and a wave. She replied to neither but that didn’t seem to bother him.

“Some friendly advice,” Devos said. “But I wouldn’t trust that man if I were you.”

The Woman tilted her head and studied him for a moment. “Why not?”

Devos frowned, choosing his words with care. “His only loyalty is to his purse, and he has suspiciously close ties with both humans and faëries, and even the goblins.”

“I see,” the Woman said. “Interesting.” There was a wealth of thought behind her words, impenetrable and deep, but they said no more nothing more about him. As the sun sank behind them at last, she returned her gaze to the mountains and the river.

The Woman had come aboard at the foothills dressed in rags and tatters, but with an inborn grace that hinted at a coiled power within. She had paid for passage on The Wanderer in pure gold and he had found himself unable to refuse. Devos had regretted it then and he regretted it now. Money was money, but it was difficult to trust a woman with no name.

Such secrecy was not suspicious in and of itself. She was clearly from the borderlands where faërie enchantments were strong and wild, and names had jagged edges that could break or bind you. Keeping her name hidden was simple common sense, but there was more to her than mere caution. Devos was certain of it, just as he was certain that a great deal might depend on what lay behind her mask. He shivered. It was a sudden, chilling thought, but perhaps it had only been the wind.

*

There were a number of lights visible on either side of the river, like strings of diamonds, luminous and strange. They moved along the banks and in the woods, and a ghostly music followed after them.

“Faërie bands,” Devos told the Woman softly, hesitant to interrupt their songs. “Roaming the dukedom like our friends in the hold.” The Lints were a family of bird-like creatures who had booked their passage a few nights ago—refugees running from some terrible calamity that they could not, or would not, name.

The Woman nodded to show that she was listening, but kept her gaze firmly on the distant lights and one ear on the music. Her face was unreadable.

“There have been more and more of them recently,” Devos continued. “Wild faëries descending down from the mountains in waves. It’s making everyone nervous. The dukes are hard pressed and the Emperor is trying to keep his hands clean, but that can’t last for long.”

Devos glanced at the Woman. She was absorbing his words with a sudden, sharp attention, as if now, at last, he was saying something worth hearing. Her eyes, however, remained fixed on the lights and the shore.

“The trouble is that there’s no more room. The Protected Crescent is overflowing. We are the last bastion, a tiny sliver of humanity on the edge of the world. Beyond the Twelve Cities there is only the ocean.” He sighed, the words and worries coming from him suddenly. “The Crescent is caught in a vise. Behind us are oceans and islands filled with monsters and creatures and before us lies the vast uncharted wilderness filled with faërie lands beyond number and counting.”

She was watching him now, studying him intently, sifting through his words, as though searching for something. There was intent and purpose behind her eyes. Devos sensed that she had learned more from him than he knew himself. It was an uncomfortable feeling. He suddenly felt small beneath her gaze.

“What of Talis?” she asked, at last.

Devos chuckled sadly. “Have you ever been there?”

“No,” she said wistfully. “But I have dreamed of its spires and beauty all my life.”

Devos raised his eyebrows, but made no comment. She had revealed something of herself, at last, though he could only guess at its meaning.

“These days the spires are covered in grime and the city is on the brink of chaos,” he said gently. “But it still has a beauty to it, I suppose.”

“You suppose?” There was peculiar quality in her voice, a tremor between yearning and despair. After a moment, Devos realized what it was. In her own way, she was begging.

“I’m sorry,” he said, and he was, not only for her sake. “Talis is not what it was in my youth. It is strong but crumbling, and I fear its beauty is that of a storm about to crash.”

“I see,” the Woman said. “Well, thank you, Captain, for your honesty.”

Devos opened his mouth to ask a question, then thought better of it. Instead he merely nodded.

“G’night, miss,” he said and left her as he found her, alone on the foredeck.

Captain Devos did not consider himself a particularly clever man. He had never learned to read or write, but he knew how to trim a sail and rig a ship, and he knew people. The Woman was still a mystery to him, but he had his suspicions now, vague and half-formed, but growing clearer.

Devos had sailed up and down the river most of his life, had traded with goblin kingdoms and fairy brughs. He had even spent five years on the open seas hunting kraken for their ink and oil. Devos had seen magic, wonder, and terror in his life, and he saw the touch of all three within her, hidden, but unmistakably there, if you knew where to look.

There was purpose, as well, written beneath her skin in blood and hatred. It clearly had to do with Talis, and Talis meant Witches. The nameless woman with her air of grace and hidden power was dangerous in a way that Devos had never encountered before, and that was most disturbing of all. Not that it was any of his business. He was just an old riverboat captain, after all, but he couldn’t help but wonder. He couldn’t help but see.

Captain Devos lit his pipe and wandered back toward the bridge. He would keep his thoughts to himself for now, but perhaps it was time he retired to some distant isle, far away from Talis.

Far away from her.

***

 

Irons in the Fire—Now Available In Print!

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Irons in the Fire is now available in print! It’s a thing now, a physical thing—cover, spine, and all! It’s odd really. My book has been out for months now, but there’s something about being able to hold it in my hands that makes it feel more…real. It has weight and texture. My story is in the world.

If you’re interested, you can pick up a paperback copy here: http://amzn.to/1NDnfJo

Irons in the Fire—New Cover Reveal

Behold! Irons in the Fire has a brand new cover! It’s all shiny and explosive, literally.

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I chose James T. Egan of Bookfly Design to do the redesigns and I couldn’t be happier. I gave him a tangled mess of ideas and concepts—some unhelpfully vague, and others unhelpfully specific—and he came up with something I never would have expected. It captures the dangerous tone and tension I was hoping for, of the city on the brink of exploding. Literally a bomb.

James will also be doing the cover for The Fall of the House of Talis—Book 2 of the series, which should be out this fall.

In the meantime, I’ve received the trade-paperback proof for Irons in the Fire, so that will be available in print as soon as possible.

First Novel: Irons in the Fire is Published!

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And so it begins. I’ve dipped my toes into the world of indie publishing, but now it’s time to take the plunge. Irons in the Fire is a steampunk fantasy filled with mystery, murder, magic, and revolution. It is the first novel in the Chronicles of Talis and now available for a limited launch price of $0.99 at Amazon, iBooks, Barnes & Noble and Kobo.

 

Here is the Blurb and a Brief Excerpt:

The City of Talis is a fragile beacon of civilization on the edge of the Faërie Lands. Beyond lies a wilder world of dark enchantments and terrible wonders, but behind the city walls humans and faëries live together in uneasy peace—until an explosion rocks the city and long-smoldering tensions threaten to ignite. 

As the Commandant of Police, Baron Hessing has maintained stability for decades. But with a murderer on the loose, an anarchist bombing the city, and rumors of a faërie uprising, he is starting to lose control. Hessing finds himself caught in a web of interlocking conspiracies and he may need to choose between saving his city and saving his family. 

Into this maelstrom appears the Countess. Trained from birth for a single purpose—vengeance—suddenly she appears everywhere from secret catacombs to the halls of power. Beset by enemies on all sides, it will take all her training to succeed in a city on the brink of revolution. Plans are in motion, centuries in the making, that will change the fate of Talis forever. 

 

***

Prologue

The boy had light fingers and quick hands. Sergeant Obry almost hadn’t noticed him. He watched the pickpocket as he weaved through the crowd and sidled up to an unsuspecting satyr. The boy lifted the faërie’s wallet and gold watch too, for good measure. Then he was gone. No one else had noticed. Not that anyone would have cared. Even the boy probably didn’t realize he had been seen. Sergeant Obry chuckled to himself at the thought.

The Rook Gate was crowded. Carriages and carts vied with omnibuses and trolleys, while pedestrians—human or otherwise—slipped in-between, heedless of the danger. It was easy for the boy to lose himself in the hustle and bustle.

Across the street, a cut-rate illusionist offered spells for a penny, but there was more trickery than magic in him. Probably a dropout from the local Wizarding College, Sergeant Obry thought, and he wondered how the illusionist had been permitted to ply his trade so close to the Gate. Someone had been paid under the table, no doubt, but it hadn’t been him. A block over to the right, a monkey and his organ grinder churned out the same few songs over and over again, adding to the cacophony of noise—the clattering hooves, the rattling carriages, and the rumbling of the overhead train.

Obry’s vision wasn’t what it used to be, but he had a well-trained eye and the benefit of long experience. He found the pickpocket again, almost too easily. He never would have admitted it, but he was a little disappointed. He had expected better. The boy had made his way across the street into the shadow of the great wall that encircled the Old Quarter, all that remained of the original City of Talis.

One of the oldest of the Twelve Great Cities, Talis was second only to the capital in wealth and prestige. It straddled both sides of the river and over the centuries had risen into a multi-tiered hodgepodge of crumbling rooftops and smoke-stained spires. There was a thriving population of nymphs, hobgoblins, fauns, pixies, and all manner of faërie creatures, largely segregated in their own Quarter. It was safer for all concerned.

Obry found it difficult, sometimes, to pin down what precisely constituted a faërie. It had become a catchall term for any creature or being that came from beyond the Twelve Cities, from the Lands of Faërie. There were few true fairies or fey among them, and in Obry’s experience most of them had been born in the Cities themselves, until recently at least.

Shaking himself from his thoughts, Obry turned his attention back to the boy. He had chosen a human this time, a dandy, all frills and powders. Obry sighed; as amusing as the pickpocket’s antics were, it was no longer any of his business.

He glanced down. The paperwork all seemed to be in order. He stamped the permits with the Official City Seal of Talis, and returned them.

“Have a nice day,” Obry said.

The family didn’t reply. The father took the papers without a word, while the mother and her children avoided his gaze. Strange bird-faced creatures, they kept their heads down as they passed beneath the armed guards and continued through the Gate.

Obry turned and craned his neck upward. A cyclops loomed above him in an ill-fitting coat and tails.

“Papers please,” Obry said, stifling another sigh. Sometimes it was hard to remember that he had requested this assignment, put in the transfer request himself. He had spent forty years on the streets, patrolling the Faërie Quarter, spying in bars, doing Commandant Hessing’s dirty work, but he was older now. He was tired. Hessing had understood. The Commandant was an old bastard himself, but he made a point of rewarding loyalty, and had personally arranged Obry’s new post.

He stamped the cyclops’ permit and waved him through. The cyclops gave him what could have been a polite nod. Obry returned it. The Rook Gate was the most secure checkpoint in the city. Armed guards lined the wall, and there were specially trained sniffer dogs, their three heads alert for the slightest whiff of magic. It was an easy assignment, free from excitement, a way station on the road to retirement and a chance to line his pockets. He and Johanna wouldn’t be able to live comfortably on a policeman’s pension alone.

Obry frowned. For a moment he thought he’d heard a faint whistling, but a quick glance at the crowd revealed no whistlers. He shook it off and nodded to the waiting faërie, a minotaur in a top hat. His papers were not in order, but the fifty-pound note concealed among them certainly was. Obry pocketed the money subtly and stamped the minotaur’s papers.

“Have a nice day,” he said again with a little more cheer in his voice. The minotaur gave him a secret smile.

Unlike many of his colleagues, Obry didn’t mind working with faëries and monsters. Some of them were almost human and he was even friendly with a few of them, or as friendly as their kind could be. There were more of them now than ever before. Refugees of every kind and shape were flooding into the city daily. None of those Obry had spoken to had been willing or able to explain what they were running from, but they were all filled with a nameless dread.

Talis was starting to creak under the strain, and while he wasn’t much given to politics, Obry was of the opinion that they could avoid a lot of unpleasantness if Parliament and the Duke just granted passed the Faërie Rights legislation. Not equal rights, of course. His Ma, Gods rest her soul, would have turned over in her grave, but a few gradually implemented rights to calm them down and help civilize them wouldn’t be amiss. They weren’t living in the Faërie Lands any longer, but there was no reason they couldn’t adapt.

Obry stamped an air sprite’s papers absently. The whistling was back again, closer now. He thought of asking one of the nearby guards, but they didn’t seem to have heard anything. Obry wasn’t fond of them anyway. The puffed-up bastards would only laugh and call him ‘Grandpa.’ Obry had confronted rampaging manticores and goblins, even faced down a witch one terrible night, armed only with a cudgel. Let the idiots laugh, with their rifles and shiny bayonets.

Obry barely even skimmed over the next permit. The whistling was getting louder now. It was distracting, and worse, it was making him nervous. Something was wrong. A train had just rumbled through the rooftops and screeched to a halt at the new platform high above the street. That could have been it, but Obry knew it wasn’t. It had been a whistle not a shriek. People and faëries were descending from the platform into the already crowded streets. Obry caught sight of the boy again as he headed down a side alley, almost dancing through the masses, picking pockets left and right, but that wasn’t what he was looking for. His eyes darted through the throng, desperately.

Obry finally spotted him—a little hobgoblin man in a shabby coat, with a whistle still on his lips. Their eyes met for a long moment, and then the figure smiled mischievously and nodded toward the Gate. Obry followed his gaze, but saw nothing. When he turned back, the hobgoblin was gone, vanished into the crowd. Obry was genuinely worried now. He studied the Gate more closely, wrought from iron and designed especially to keep the faëries at bay. Still nothing. Unless…

There. Nestled in a shady corner flush against the wall was a small brown paper package wrapped in string. In an instant Obry knew, without being told, what was inside. His instincts were screaming the answer, but he couldn’t understand how the hobgoblin could have gotten close enough to plant the package, right under the guards’ watching eyes. It shouldn’t have been possible. The guard dogs would have smelled the telltale scent of magic. But that didn’t matter now. Obry leapt to his feet, a warning on his lips. He was too late.

Sergeant Obry was killed instantly. There was a terrible flash, a blinding and burning. The whole world seemed to tremble with the force of the blast. Every window within a mile’s radius shook and shattered. There was nothing now but dust and death, and the screams, so many screams. A world of mangled corpses—humans and faëries were buried beneath masonry and shrapnel, their parts mixed together until you couldn’t tell human from griffin or minotaur.

There was a crater where the Rook Gate had once stood, a gaping, smoking gash in the ancient wall. The fire was everywhere. A plume of dense acrid smoke rose into the sky and coated the remains in ash. Worse were the survivors, some no less mangled than the dead. Their voices filled the air, their cries and pleas in a thousand tongues, some not even remotely human, all in pain.

The city responded slowly, as if in a stupor. Policemen poured in from all across town, to dig through the rubble. Ambulances and fire engines came wailing, as fast as their horses and unicorns could carry them. Others came too—onlookers, volunteers, and scavengers—to pick over the dead and dying.

Amidst the chaos, the little hobgoblin man in a shabby coat made his way untouched and unnoticed through the ruins of Worst Street, away from the fire and death, whistling an old Merman Ballad to himself, as he went.

Chapter One

Her name was Countess Antoinette Wyman-Straus, and she had the documents to prove it. Very good documents they were too, printed on official paper, with the proper seals and signatures, all in order, all correct. They were fake, of course, as fake as her smile, and Mr. Covét ought to know. He had forged them himself.

Covét was an elderly faun with a severe white beard dressed in an old-fashioned frockcoat, expensive and well cared for, but decades out of style. The Countess could feel his eyes on her as she finished perusing the documents. They were quite satisfactory; but then, Covét had come highly recommended, although she had been forced to endure his constant unfriendly glances when he thought she wasn’t looking.

“These are flawless,” she said.

Covét sneered at the compliment.”Did you have any doubts?”

“None at all.” She smiled apologetically, her proper little smile, but he wasn’t paying attention, pointedly staring over her shoulder. The awkwardness lingered, and Covét showed no sign of breaking it.

“You don’t like humans very much, do you, Mr. Covét?” she asked at length, reaching into her coat.

“No, I don’t,” he replied, but took her money nonetheless. He couldn’t afford to be too particular when it came to clients, especially those who could pay.

“£1500,” she said, “as agreed.”

He lived in a ramshackle apartment above a print shop in the Faërie Quarter writing invectives and editorials for an anti-human rag, and supplemented his income with forgeries for his mostly human clients. It was only a meager living and it showed. The furniture was tattered and dusty. The wallpaper was cracked and peeling and the books were faded and well worn. They were everywhere. Every available wall space was covered in shelves, and there was a whole shelf of ancient tales containing everything from The One-Eyed King of Huor to The God-Eater and The Tripartite King. More books were piled on the floor, in chairs, or propping up tables. Only his workspace was pristine. It needed to be.

“Appearances can be deceptive,” the Countess said. “Perhaps I’m not as human as you think. Perhaps I’m something a little more.”

Covét glanced up from counting the money and gave her a once-over. She was younger than he’d thought—mid-twenties, perhaps younger, perhaps older. Human ages could be tricky, and she was human. There was no doubt of that, with her long coat and big red hat. Disgustingly, fashionably human.

“Ah,” he said. “You’re one of those. You think we can’t do it alone; think that we need humans to help us, that we’ll latch ourselves gratefully onto the first friendly face.” He sneered. “You’re not the only one to make that mistake. These days every human with a guilty conscience claims a faërie relative. Ten or twelve times removed, of course.”

She blinked at the vitriol in his voice, and what it implied. Someone else was making unwanted overtures in the faërie community. That was useful information, and so too was his response, and the speed with which he had dismissed her claim. She said nothing.

“Well,” Covét continued, “aren’t you a woman of many facets—a criminal and a faërie sympathizer.”

“I am not a criminal,” she said, her voice level.

Covét snorted. For someone so cultured, it was a surprisingly animalistic sound. “In my experience, the only humans who come to old fauns like me for help are criminals.”

He moved to the window and peered down through the curtains, his hooves clomping softly on the rug.

“Take a look, Countess,” he said.

She collected her identity papers and joined him at the window. It took her a moment to see what he was pointing at, but only a moment. There were six of them, loitering across the street. One appeared to be in a drunken stupor outside a tavern. Another was panhandling in rags and tatters, and a third leaned against a telegraph pole assiduously reading the newspaper.

“Hessing’s jackboots,” said Covét. “Spying for the Duke.” They were all too casual, carefully not watching the third floor apartment, exactly as they had been trained to not watch. And they weren’t all human. There was a bull-faced man with sharp teeth, and hiding on the far corner, a fairy of the fey fluttered on its dragonfly wings and a sphinx curled up, seemingly asleep, but with one eye open.

“Traitors,” Covét spat, then stopped himself, remembering the Countess. “I wonder which one of us they’re watching for.” He glanced at the Countess slyly. “Shall we find out?”

*

They descended the narrow stairwell together. The air was close and stale, and there was barely space for two to walk abreast. The Countess went first, silently, keenly aware of Mr. Covét’s breathing on her neck and the stamping of his hooves. She forced herself to maintain an even pace; she would not rush, or, more importantly, let him see her rush.

They passed a hag on the stairs with a long, crooked nose and spindly fingers, struggling with a bushel of groceries under each arm. She narrowed her eyes at the Countess and muttered to herself disapprovingly in her own tongue. The Countess idly wondered if those had been groceries or ingredients for hexes and spells. Not that it mattered. Not to her. Finally, they emerged out onto the street.

After the claustrophobia of the stairs, the Countess stretched and took a deep breath. She immediately swallowed back a dry retch. The city stank of sweat and soot, of manure, and other things. The old stories spoke only of wonder; they never mentioned the stench. Faëries and other monstrous creatures were inhuman and they smelled like it. She had forgotten that in her need for open air. She would have to control herself better in the future.

The Countess turned back to Mr. Covét, who was watching her with a knowing, bitter smile. She had lost ground there, a childish mistake. Composing herself, she held out a hand to shake. “Pleasure doing business with you,” she said.

Mr. Covét studied her for a long moment, glanced subtly across the street at their secret observers. Her hand didn’t waver. He shrugged and then shook it. Covét’s grasp was firm and he stared into her eyes, more curious than before, but still bitter. They parted ways with exaggerated politeness and headed in opposite directions.

Most of the spies contrived to follow Covét—the ones they could see, anyway—but two trailed after her. It was almost absurdly obvious, if you knew to look, but she wasn’t laughing. While she had been shaking the faun’s hand, the Countess had caught sight of a hobgoblin in an overcoat from the corner of her eye, but when she turned, he was gone and she couldn’t find him again. She was sure there were other spies who had escaped her notice, and that was not a comforting thought.

Still, the Duke, or Hessing, or whoever had sent those spies, clearly considered Covét the greater threat, an understandable error. She allowed herself to relax, but only slightly. It had been a long, strenuous few days, spent hiding in carts and stowing away on riverboats, but she was here at last, in Talis. She had prepared so long for this moment, too long. There were dangers all around, but she welcomed them. It was better than the endless lifetime of waiting that had preceded it.

A primly dressed young woman emerged from the crowd and took her place half a step behind the Countess. It was delicately handled. She appeared from one moment to the next, as if she had always been there.

“How did it go, my lady?” she asked.

“Mr. Covét was exactly as you described, Elise,” the Countess said. “Sullen but competent.”

“I’m glad,” Elise said with a pleased smile. The Countess gave her a tight nod, but her eyes flickered to the panhandler and the drunk who were following them. Elise didn’t turn, but she knew immediately where the Countess was looking.

“I see them.” Her hand strayed to her waist, where she had a knife secreted in her bustle, sharp and deadly. “Shall I handle them, my lady?”

Although they had only met the night before, the Countess knew that beneath her dress, Elise had a thin, wiry strength, and the Countess had no doubt that her prim and proper companion could handle the spies easily.

“Best not to draw too much attention to ourselves,” said the Countess. “Not yet. Let them see what they will see.”

“Yes, my lady.”

As they continued down the street, the crowd seemed to part around them, almost unconsciously. Men, women, and faëries found themselves stepping out of the way as if by happenstance. Elise kept her head down, but she was not surprised. For her part, the Countess was too preoccupied to notice, but if she had, it would have worried her. She should have had more control than that. It had been beaten into her for years. Control was paramount, especially for someone like her. She had been ordered to abstain from magic as much as possible, but a day in the city and already she was slipping.

Covét had been more difficult than she had expected, even with Elise’s warning; and if he was indicative of the general sentiment in the Faërie Quarter, she might have to adjust her tactics. She could be flexible. She had to be. All in service to her glorious, all-consuming purpose. She could feel it always, burning inside her, influencing her thoughts, twisting her, nudging her down the right path for its fulfillment.

“Is everything prepared for the Ritual?” the Countess asked.

“Jules is gathering the last of the ingredients. It is a delicate matter,” said Elise.

“I want to perform the Ritual as soon as possible. There’s no time to waste.”

“My brother knows that.”

“Good.”

The Purpose had been passed to her by her mother, as a legacy and an infection. Three generations had toiled beneath its auspices, and had sacrificed everything. Elise and her brother had helped prepare the way and she was grateful, but the Countess knew with terrible, vivid certainty that her purpose was hers alone. The real work had only just begun.

 

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