I quickly discovered that high heels and cobblestones are a bad mix, and that bare feet aren't much better. The street had obviously been laid by a sadist, because some stones stuck up almost an inch above the others. I was limping before we'd gone two blocks, and had stubbed my toe half a dozen times.
Then the storm broke, with slanting sheets of rain hitting down so hard as to almost blow us off our feet. We took cover under a building with a second story that protruded out past the first, but it didn't help much. In less than a minute, I was soaked, the chiffon dress clinging to me like Saran Wrap.
"Stay here!" the Fey yelled to be heard over the sound of the storm.
"What? No!" Before I could grab him, he was gone, the gray cloak blending perfectly into the darkened street. I stood staring out at the rain, thinking murderous thoughts and wondering what the hell I was supposed to do now. With no one to back up my story about how I got here, I wasn't likely to be believed, even assuming I could keep from getting shot long enough to get a hearing. But I didn't dare go anywhere; without my glasses, everything was a big, dark blur until I was right on top of it – including any guards who might be lurking around.
Before anger and fear could edge over into full-scale panic, the Fey was back. "I've found us a bolt-hole. We should be safe there until the storm blows over." He took off his cloak and wrapped me up like a mummy. "It's not far. Try to keep your eyes down. Dark emerald is not a common color among the Svarestri."
I had no idea what he was talking about, and at the moment I didn't care. I nodded.
"And, er, keep in mind that I didn't have a lot of choice about accommodations."
"Fine, let's just get out of here." Anything had to be better than standing exposed on a street corner, waiting to be attacked again.
The Fey led me through a warren of narrow lanes that were fast turning into little rivers, then made a sudden turn into a dark doorway. The room beyond, although lit only by a few lanterns and a crackling fire, seemed bright after the street. I had a brief impression of raucous laughter, trestle tables filled with people, and the smells of wine and roasted meat. Then a large woman in an apron bustled over to us.
She and the Fey started a conversation while I kept my eyes down, trying to melt into the cloak as much as possible. I hoped I looked calm outwardly, but inside I was panicking. How did I know he wasn't bargaining for his own life by turning me in? I hadn't expected us to walk into one of the houses of the people who had just tried to kill us!
It didn't help that I couldn't follow a word of the conversation, but finally, I heard the chink of coins as the Fey paid the woman for something. Then we were following her across the room and into another one, where the lights were even lower and the activities of some of the people made my eyebrows rise. By the time we reached a flight of wooden stairs, I had seen enough to realize why the Fey had found it necessary to apologize. Several sets of hands tugged at the cloak as I passed, but he whipped it away from them almost before I'd noticed. A question was shouted after us, but I didn't understand it and the Fey didn't respond, so I just kept going.
We found ourselves in a small room with a bed, a window closed against the weather, and a washbasin on a stand. The woman said something, then left, clicking the door shut behind her. I couldn't stand it anymore and collapsed onto the bed in a fit of half-hysterical giggles.
"I didn't know you guys had brothels," I wheezed, after a moment.
The Fey had placed the basin on the floor and was balancing over it, taking off one of his boots. What looked like half a gallon of dirty water flowed out of it. "We don't."
"Then what was going on back there?"
"We could go back and take a look, but we might get more offers to join in." He tossed the basin's contents out the window, letting in a chilly gust of wind and rain before snapping it shut again.
"I thought the Fey had, uh, problems in that area."
"Conception and, um..." He looked up from emptying the other boot, amusement filling his eyes, and I trailed off.
"Not for lack of trying," he assured me. He unwrapped a sodden piece of cloth attached to his leg that I realized after a moment was a knife sheath. "This isn't a brothel," he added. "It's a rendezvous point Our people often marry for fertility instead of attraction, but that tends to pall quickly. Sex isn't as enjoyable if it's being done only to conceive."
I just nodded, getting a clear look at him for the first time. The Light Fey are as legendary for their beauty as the Dark are for their gruesomeness, but it's a haughty perfection, sharp as pain. There is no softness about it, no sense that underneath the glacial exterior is anything less frozen. They have the awesomeness of primal forces, like an avalanche or a volcanic eruption. And they use their beauty like a weapon, just as effectively as their swords or enchantments.
Which is why it was a surprise to see one looking like a drowned rat.
Beads of moisture clung to his high arched brows and dark lashes and his hair lay plastered to his skull. His soggy blue tunic and leggings outlined a nice body, but for once I was too amused to care. He also didn't seem to be glowing anymore. He could have passed for a very tall, very wet human, except for the pair of gracefully curved ears that stuck up from the dripping mass on his head.
I grinned, and he arched an eyebrow. "You should see yourself," he told me. I was actually glad I couldn't.
"Gerald's is supposed to be neutral territory," I said, trying to figure out what about his face was bugging me. "How did you get a knife past the wards?"
"Mysterious Fey trickery. That and the fact that I didn't take in anything big. Which means that this," he held up the small item he'd wrestled from the sodden sheath, "is our only weapon."
"How do you know I'm not carrying one?"
He smiled, those blue eyes running over me. "That would be a good trick."
I looked down to find that the rain had made the damned evening dress all but transparent, and I hadn't been able to wear much underneath because of its almost nonexistent back. I closed the front of the cloak, and he made a slight moue of disappointment. "I talk too much," he commented.
"Too little." I finally figured out what was odd about him. His jawline was stronger than those of the other Fey I'd seen, but it was mainly his expressions that were off. He had some.
He leaned against the wall and looked at me quizzically. "Name a subject."
"You could start with why you were trying to buy me." Everyone knew the Fey used to kidnap witches to help with their population problem, but it had been illegal for centuries. I disapproved of slaving in principle, and even more when I was the target.
"We've suspected Gerald of stretching a point on any number of sales through the years," I was told, "but have never been able to catch him doing anything illegal. When I saw you there, I realized you could serve as the witness we needed." He looked at me reproachfully. "You would never have been a slave. The Blarestri don't do that sort of thing." He paused. "Well, not anymore."
"The Blar what?"
"Blarestri." He looked surprised that I didn't automatically know what that meant. "That is my... clan, I suppose you would call it."
"And I take it from our reception that we didn't land in your clan's territory?"
He grimaced. "No. We're somewhere in the Svarestri lands, but I'm not certain of the exact location. I'll try to find out tomorrow."
"And the Svarestri are what? Another clan?"
"There are three leading clans of what you call the Light Fey," he said slowly, as if he thought he was being teased. He moved to join me on the bed, ending up a little too close for comfort, but I couldn't very well object as there were no chairs in the room. I suppose the people who came there didn't do a lot of chatting. "Mine is one, the Svarestri are another. We, er, don't get along."
I'd figured that much out on my own. "Why do they hate you?"
"Too many reasons to list. But I'm sure they would be very interested to know how I was able to get into one of their towns – with a large stuffed dragon's head no less – without being seen." He picked up one of my bruised feet, regarding it with a frown. "You won't be doing any more running for some time. We're going to need a horse."
I refused to be distracted by his touch. "I still don't understand how we got here. I thought all portals into Faerie were well guarded."
"The official ones are," he agreed, beginning absentmindedly to stroke the length of my arch. I knew I should pull my foot away, but it felt incredibly good. "But, according to legend, the rune can transport its user from any point on Earth to any point in Faerie. Unlike someone using the official portals, which have set targets, with the rune the user has only to think of a destination and there he is."
The Fey's expression told me that there was more going on here than I understood. When he spoke about the rune, he looked almost euphoric. "So?"
"So whoever has the rune could place spies behind enemy lines, put assassins into an enemy leader's bedchamber, or even send an entire army into the heart of their rival's territory – all with no warning being given!"
"You're planning to invade?" I asked nervously.
"Not unless the Svarestri force our hand." His eyes narrowed to sapphire slits. "They once ruled all of Faerie, and have ambitions to do so again. The rune would serve as a significant deterrent."
I put two and two together. "That's why you were at Gerald's."
"One of our human contacts saw the listing and brought it to our attention. We thought it – what is the phrase? – a long shot, but worth investigating."
"Maybe the Svarestri thought the same, and the mage was their contact."
"Unlikely. They despise humans, even magical ones. And they know little about your world, which they frequent only rarely. If he was working for anyone, it would be the Alorestri. Of all our people, they have the most contact with humans."
"Alorestri?" All these Fey names were starting to get confusing, and the slow strokes he was making along my arch weren't helping.
"The Green Fey, as they are commonly known, because their livery is green and white," he explained. "The Svarestri, meaning the Black Fey, wear black and silver in battle. My people are commonly called the Blarestri, because our colors are blue and gold. Our real names, of course, are never used."
That, at least, I understood. Names carried power, and I'd heard rumors that the Fey never told anyone theirs for fear it would strengthen any spells used against them. But something was bugging me. "Then you were thinking about the Svarestri at the auction?"
"No. I assure you, I think about them as little as possible."
"I wasn't thinking about them, either," I told him quietly.
He just looked at me for a second, then his eyes widened. "It was the mage who opened the portal; his thoughts must have determined where we were sent."
I finished the thought for him. "And if he was working for the Alorestri, why was he thinking about the Svarestri when he activated the rune?"
He clenched his jaw. "I must get it back! We would use it as a deterrent, but I do not trust the Svarestri to do the same!"
"How do we get back, if the rune is on the other side of the portal?" Despite Sebastian's interest, I thought my chances would be better back home. Seb would prefer to take me alive, so he could sell me to his damned Harvesters. The Fey didn't seem to have that handicap. And I definitely didn't want to get stuck in the middle of one of their wars.
"That will depend on where we are. The Alorestri try to maintain good relations with everyone. Their lands ran alongside the border with the Dark Fey and they need troops from all of us if they are to hold it. If we can make it into their lands, I should be able to persuade them to let us use one of their portals."
"And if we aren't near the border?"
"Let's hope we are."
I nodded and tried to focus on something other than the interest in his eyes. He was clearly examining my face and seemed to like what he saw. I could only assume he had peculiar tastes, since my hair was frizzing into a big red ball as it dried, and my dress was torn and muddy. But he wasn't looking away even as he saw me recognize his interest for what it was. A particularly charming smile lit up not only his features, but also his eyes.
"I keep thinking of you as 'that beautiful redhead who landed me in so much trouble,' but it's a bit of a mouthful. What should I call you?"
I blinked in surprise, both at the unfairness of the accusation, and at the compliment. I also had no idea what to say. Normally, when dealing with humans the Fey use a false name or a title. Anything personal is reserved for those they hold a lot more intimate. I wasn't sure I wanted to be on that kind of footing with him, but he could hardly call me "hey you" for what might be a long trip. And I didn't feel like making something up and then trying to remember to answer to it.
"I'm Claire," I finally said, throwing caution to the wind.
He nodded thoughtfully. "And if I may ask,' what does that mean?"
I shrugged. "I don't know. I never looked it up."
He arched a brow. "You bear a name," he said slowly, "and do not know what it means?"
"A lot of people do."
"Not in Faerie."
"So what's yours?"
"That is a very personal question among the Fey. It is better to ask what people call one. It's considered more polite, as it doesn't directly ask for a personal name."
"Okay, what do people call you?"
"Geisli when I was a child – it means sunbeam," he explained, "or sometimes Haddi, because they said I had too much hair. Asmundir is often used at court, because it is indicative of my function as protector of the people. Alarr means general, but I have never yet led an army in battle so it's somewhat misleading. I believe Father gave it to me to impress the Svarestri. And sometimes I'm referred to as Huitserkir, because my armor is white and gold – "
"What do you like to be called?" I asked, desperate to get away from the warm press of his fingers. The touch was light, but a lot more disturbing than it should have been. And he was right – he talked too much.
He looked puzzled. "Others give us our names."
"Then you don't care?"
"I didn't say that." He thought about it for a ridiculously long time. "Some of my shield brothers gifted me with the name Heidar," he finally said. "It means 'bright lord.' They say my hair is easy to see in battle."
"Okay. Heidar it is, then." I felt like I'd won some sort of major victory, just getting his name. Now maybe he'd let me go.
"I am glad to be known to you, Claire," he said, sounding formal all of a sudden. Then strong arms circled me and a warm mouth closed over mine.
Or maybe not.
The kiss started out tender and brain-meltingly sweet, but didn't stay that way. That was mainly my fault. My hands came up, one grabbing Heidar's shoulder, the other curling around the back of his neck, threading its way through his hair and pulling him close. My tongue darted desperately against his as I thoughtlessly drove the kiss deep. He responded after a moment's startled hesitation, clasping me gently, while running a hand down my bare back to cup one of my hips. His hands on my body felt shockingly, achingly good, and he tasted sweet – of spices and some indefinable sunny flavor. I couldn't get enough of the taste, the scent, the feel of him – it was like I was drunk on it.
When we broke apart for air, I found my tongue tracing the vein throbbing in his neck. I had somehow ended up on his lap, my thighs straddling his, and I could feel him firming against me. Someone made a soft exclamation of need and the sound broke through a little of my haze. I stared at him, wide-eyed and suddenly frightened. I felt vulnerable – I needed this too much and it worried what little part of my mind was still capable of thought.
He noticed my expression and frowned. "What is it?"
"I don't know," I whispered, from a throat half closed with panic. "I think something's wrong with me."
"You were injured?" Two large hands began running over me, looking for wounds I suppose, but I almost screamed from the sensation. I was oversensitized, raw with need to the point of pain wherever he touched me. It felt like my body was something apart from me, a hungry, predatory creature that was no longer completely under control. I was scaring myself, and I didn't know how to stop.
I scrambled away from him to the far side of the room, near the window. "Don't touch me!"
"I'm sorry." He looked perplexed, and I really couldn't blame him. "I thought – "
"Claire, I'm trying to apologize, if you'll give me a – "
"Svarestri!" I hissed, my problematic libido temporarily forgotten. "Outside."
He was beside me in an instant. A whole cadre of the silver-haired guards were filing through the main door of the tavern. Maybe it was coincidence, but I didn't think so. They didn't have the carefree, laughing manner of people on their way to a good time; they looked like they meant business.
"The roof," Heidar said, throwing open the window as soon as the last guard disappeared from view.
"What about it?" I demanded, hoping he didn't mean what I thought. But he was already outside, balancing on the rain-slick windowsill and looking up. The next second, he disappeared into the dark, just as someone knocked on the door.
I jumped and stared at it, then quickly scrambled out onto the sill. I couldn't see anything but heavy clouds overhead and, where they parted, a dark sky dusted with stars. And rain, a lot of it. It clouded my vision whenever I tried to catch any movement on the roof. "Heidar," I called nervously, as someone started throwing their weight against the door. I stood on the ledge, clinging to the wet planks on the side of the building, trying to figure out if being inside or outside scared me more. Then the decision was made for me when two arms reached down and plucked me off my feet.
For a moment, I dangled above the street, which suddenly looked a lot further down than two stories. A guard came back outside, pulling his collar up against the rain, and caught sight of me suspended there. We just stared at each other for an instant, before he let out a yell and grabbed for his weapon. Luckily, it was under his rain cape and before he could get it free, I was on a flat-topped roof running as fast as my sore feet could carry me.
The rooftops were very close together, almost touching in places, and the storm made us virtually invisible. At least, I assumed it did since I couldn't see a damned thing. I stumbled after Heidar, trying not to slip off a roof or into one of the gaps between buildings. He wasn't doing much better himself, with his boots back in the brothel and the rainwater making the rooftops dangerous, but at least no one was shooting at us.
I'd no sooner had the thought than I felt something whiz by my ear. Heidar spun us behind a tall chimney, whispered, "Don't move," and disappeared. After a second, I saw him silhouetted in a lightning flash as he jumped to another rooftop and took off. Several dark forms, one with a lit lantern in hand, ran after him, leaving me shivering and alone in the night.
I stayed in the shadow of the chimney, hoping Heidar was planning to backtrack and hadn't just decided that I was an unnecessary burden. I hated feeling this helpless, hated Faerie and, most of all, hated rain. I had started to dry out back in the warm little room, but the downpour had me soaked to the skin once again despite the cloak. Its sodden folds were heavy and clung to my limbs clammily. Then a gutter collapsed on the taller building next door, sending a cold stream to douse me. I sighed. I had reached the point where I literally couldn't get any wetter.
A warm hand suddenly gripped mine, and I turned toward it gratefully. "Let's get out of here."
The hand tightened, and a lantern was shoved in my face. It almost blinded me, but I got a glimpse of opaque, silver eyes, and that was enough. I didn't scream – I was too surprised. I reached for his power, but this one must have been older or stronger than the other Fey, because he fought me. We just stood there for several seconds, teetering on the edge of the building, wrestling metaphysically. It hurts when they resist, and by the time I found a way inside his shields, I was gasping in pain.
He didn't scream like the last one when I pulled on his power, but collapsed heavily against me, his weight almost knocking me off the building. I saw the glint of a blade in the lantern light and realized what he was trying to do: if he couldn't take me out one way, he'd use another. I gathered everything I had and pushed, no direction in mind, no thought, just a desire to get him away. The most I'd hoped for was that it would throw him out of arm's reach. Instead, he went flying off the roof as if shot from a cannon, far out across the city. For some reason, the lantern in his hand didn't go out, making him look weirdly like a comet streaking across the dark sky.
I stood there, staring incredulously after him, as yells came from rooftops on all sides. Heidar ran up the next moment, sounding breathless. His lips, looking strangely bloodless in the moonlight, were parted in shock. "What have you been doing?"
"Surviving! Where the hell were you?"
"Stealing a horse."
I stopped, mid-rant. "Good answer."
Little points of light from the guard's lanterns were starting to converge on our position. "Well, they know where we are now," Heidar said grimly. "Run!"