I woke up on a bed in a large room. It was mostly dark, except for the flickering shapes a few low-burning candles sent dancing along the walls. But the fact that everything was slightly out of focus told me that something very good had happened while I was out. A glance at the human-looking arm draped over my stomach confirmed it. I was back.
Somebody groaned nearby and I sat up. A very battered-looking Heidar was lying on a nearby chaise, while an old woman in a white apron finished winding a bandage around his waist. "Stop whining, elf," she told him, "your ribs will be sore for a day or two, but you'll live." She didn't sound happy about it, and the squeeze she gave his shoulder as she pulled down his nightshirt was on the wounded side. He drew in air with a hiss, but didn't retaliate. At the moment, I wasn't sure he could.
"What happened to you?" I asked.
The woman spun around. "Ah, you're awake." She bustled over, beaming.
"You fell on me," Heidar said accusingly.
I blinked at him. He was basically one large bruise, which, thanks to his accelerated healing abilities, had left him with bright orange and lavender splotches all over his body.
"Don't you apologize to him! From what I hear, you saved his worthless elf hide." The older woman lifted my arm for a look. I got a look at her, too, and realized that I'd been a little hasty. Whatever she was, woman didn't seem to quite fit.
The head was all right, complete with kind blue eyes, wispy white hair pulled back into a neat chignon and a pair of reading glasses perched on the end of her nose. But the body under the apron didn't move like a human's, and the hand she reached out to me with was more like a claw. I looked down and saw three-toed bird feet peeking out from under the flounce on her skirt. I swallowed, and said nothing. Who was I to talk?
I glanced over at Heidar, who had managed to prop himself up on some pillows. "I thought 'elf' was pejorative."
He scowled. "It is."
"You'll be fine," she said kindly, patting my cheek. "Get some rest and don't let that one make you upset." She said the last glaring at Heidar, then turned and made a hopping sort of exit. A black feather blew out from beneath her skirts and floated slowly to the floor.
"Harpy," Heidar said, before I could ask. He moved around, trying to find some comfortable position, but finally gave up. "I think we need to talk." I looked at him warily. I wasn't sure I was ready to talk about what had happened yet. I wasn't sure I ever would be. "If I am stuck in enemy territory with someone, I would like to at least know who – or what – she is," he was saying. "You could start by explaining what you did to those guards."
"Which guards?" I had a vision of exploding trees and burning silver hair.
"The ones in the village, shortly after we arrived. I meant to ask you about it before but I... was distracted."
I relaxed slightly. Anything that didn't involve scales claws or fathers, I could handle. "I told you. I'm a projective null."
"Nulls block magic. That was not blocking it!"
"It's never happened that way before." I struggled for words that would make sense. "Usually, it just... goes somewhere inside me, like I absorb it somehow, and then it's gone. I've never been able to... redirect it... before."
He didn't look like he believed me. "You used it as a weapon."
I started to shrug, but stopped because it hurt. My whole right side felt sore, like I'd swum a marathon using only one arm. "It was considered one, a long time ago. Nulls used to serve as bodyguards to anybody worried about a magical assault. They brought down the wards guarding their enemies' lands, and some of the strongest stopped entire battles just by walking onto the field. But that was before the Harvesters almost wiped us out."
"To make null bombs."
"Yeah. In the eyes of most of the supernatural community, I'm not a person, I'm a weapon. And the sooner they drain me into one of their bombs the better."
"But your family protected you," Heidar said, more softly. He seemed to realize he'd hit a nerve.
"If you call trying to sell me to the Fey protection."
"I assumed they did so to keep you away from the Harvesters. If you were part of a powerful Fey family – "
I laughed, but it sounded bitter. "My welfare was not foremost in Father's mind."
I sat up and found that I could move with no trouble except for a little stiffness. Someone had put me in a white nightgown liberally trimmed with lace – not my style – but I didn't feel like complaining. I sat on the edge of the bed and looked at poor, beat-up Heidar. Normally, I didn't like talking about my family history, but under the circumstances, I thought it might be relevant.
"My father was always too ambitious for his own good, especially in politics," I said, grimacing a little at the understatement. "When he discovered that Jonas Marsden, the mage who headed up the Great Council, was retiring, he decided he would have the top spot himself or die trying." It ended up the latter, but the prize glittered so brightly that it had blinded him to the risks.
The Council is the ruling body of the Silver Circle, which controls the actions of the entire western hemisphere's magical community. Whoever leads it wields more power than the U.S. president, the Secretary General of the U.N. and a few prime ministers thrown in for good measure – with the added bonus of fewer checks on his behavior. In return for me, the Fey promised to help Father's campaign with a little timely blackmail. It seemed that his chief opponent would have also sold his firstborn for power, if he hadn't already done so for a seat on the Council. I think the Fey found it amusing that one candidate would tarnish another's name by committing the same sin himself – it fit their sense of irony.
"Sebastian convinced Father that only the Fey could insure his victory. And he only had one thing they wanted."
"Seb thought it would get me out of the way," I explained, "and clear the road for him to inherit the business. But I doubt he had to talk very hard. I'm almost six feet tall. I tower over the rest of the family like, as Father was fond of saying, the stork forgot to leave the baby and instead took up residence itself. Even worse, I'm a redheaded, green-eyed stork in a family of mostly short, brown-eyed branets." It was a fact constantly brought up by my relatives – assuming they were my relatives.
"And your mother?"
"Also short, although she was blonde."
"No, I mean, did she ever mention anything about having an... unusual encounter?"
"She died shortly after I was born – by falling down a flight of stairs she'd climbed safely a hundred times before. So I don't know much about her. All the family ever said was that she craved hot sauce the whole time she was carrying me." A little tidbit that seemed truly ironic now. "But no one ever mentioned a liaison with anyone tall, dark, and scaly."
Heidar laughed. He looked immediately contrite, but I shrugged. "It's all right. Obviously, it happened."
He raised a brow, then winced as if it had hurt. "You aren't happy to find out about your second nature."
I stared at him. "Happy?"
He sighed and got up, moving stiffly over to the bed. "That's what I thought."
"What part of turning into a monster is supposed to be good news?" I asked, incredulously.
"You aren't a monster, Claire," he told me patiently. "You're simply one of the Two-Natured. There's quite a few of us around, what with all the inbreeding with humans that has taken place over the years. I'm half Light Fey, half human myself."
"Big deal!" I jumped up and a frown creased his forehead as he watched me stride back and forth beside the bed. "In your case, that means you get a great body and wonderful bone structure! The worst you have to put up with is glowing a little sometimes!"
His face brightened. "I have a great body?"
I whirled on him, furious. "And what do I have? That fat, scaly, horrible... thing... with wings!" I broke off because I was close to tears and I didn't want to cry. I just wanted this not to be real. "I killed that horse, and I don't even eat meat!" I collapsed into a heap, crying anyway, remembering how terrified that poor creature had looked right before I barbecued him. He should have been scared – I certainly was.
I felt strong arms go around me, but I refused to look up. I didn't want to see revulsion in Heidar's eyes. I wondered if, somehow, the Fey that had come to Father's had known. Had they seen something in me that gave it away, some small sign I hadn't known to look for? The young one who had called me disgusting – had he seen what I truly was when the layers were pulled away?
A violent shudder shook me and I realized that I was crying, really sobbing, like a small child. I was a mess of conflicting emotions, with fear being uppermost, and no matter how much I cried, it didn't seem to help. Heidar held me for a while, letting me get it out, but when I didn't stop he lifted my chin. I don't know what I looked like – probably nothing very appealing as my skin goes all blotchy when I cry – but he didn't seem to notice. His usually bright blue eyes were virtually black with some emotion, but there was no revulsion that I could see.
He took one of my hands in his. I stared at it, remembering that he'd used the same gesture on my dragon-form. The scales hadn't seemed to bother him. Suddenly, those sensual lips curved into a smile. "I thought you made a really cute dragon, myself."
I stared at him.
"You had these big pansy-colored eyes, and a little shock of purple fuzz, right here." He tickled my chin.
"You're crazy," I told him. At that moment, I really believed it.
"No, I've simply had a lot longer to learn to deal with being Two-Natured than you have." His face turned serious. "And it's not so bad. Yes, there are... challenges... but there are advantages, as well. Both of you gain some of the other's abilities, making you far stronger in either form than you would have been otherwise." He thought for a minute. "Which might explain why you're such a strong null. Your dragon twin lends you extra power."
"I'm a monster," I whispered, wondering how he'd somehow missed that.
"No, you're half Fey, like me."
"I'm not like you!" I yelled into his too composed face. What was he, retarded? "Dragons are... are... things, not people!"
"Now you sound like the Svarestri," Heidar said disapprovingly. "There really are no Light and Dark Fey, Claire. It's something we tell ourselves, but our blood is pretty much the same, when you come right down to it. The Svarestri used to rule Faerie, and they took their fall hard. They've never gotten over it, never learned to accept being on a par with the rest of us. So they refuse to believe that they are."
He settled back against the side of the bed, taking me with him. "They say the rest of the Light Elves have thin blood because we've married so many humans over the centuries. They say the Dark Fey are monsters, ancient experiments gone wrong that the gods never bothered to destroy. Only they are pure, only they are fit to rule. But it's all a bunch of nonsense."
"Is it?" I remembered what I'd looked like, felt like, in that other skin, and shuddered.
Heidar suddenly stood up, lifting me in his arms, and carried me over to a large bay window. I hadn't noticed it because it was draped in dark red velvet that, in the shadows, became almost invisible against the deep gray stone of the walls. He sat me on the bench in front of it and drew back the drapes. Early morning sunlight flooded over the balcony, giving the mellow wood of the floor a cheerful golden glow. "Look out there, and tell me you see monsters," he said softly.
Outside, a glorious sunrise was breaking over a wide patchwork of green fields. A river cut a meandering path across the scene, like a ribbon of fire as the sun hit it. Orange and cherry colored clouds framed the rising sun, bathing the dark castle walls below the window in a soft pink blush. We were high, I realized, maybe twenty stories above the ground, because the castle was built over a ravine. But I didn't have to look down to see what Heidar was talking about.
A golden face noticed me and flew over to hover just outside the glass. Huge wings beat the air in powerful strokes, holding him in place as we stared at each other. Sunlight glinted off his scales, making him look like he was wearing tight-fitting, golden armor, and behind him, four more dragons hovered close, trying to catch a view. One was green, one a fiery red and two more a softer gray-blue. Like I had been.
"They're very excited," Heidar whispered against my hair. "A child is a great joy among us, and none of them even knew you existed until last night. Your mother didn't live long enough to tell her lover, or perhaps she was afraid he would want to take you away from her if he knew."
I found myself completely unable to tear my eyes away from the scene outside the window. They looked so... free. Something about the way they rode the air – with a command, a presence, an ownership of it – tore at my heart. My dragon form had been fat and clumsy, with small wings that would never have allowed me to fly even if I'd known how. "I'll never do that," I said softly.
Heidar laughed, his blue eyes reflecting the color of the sky. "Your twin self is a newborn, Claire! How many babies know how to walk? Give it time."
"It's why your father was able to find you," Heidar said, hugging me against him. The compulsion I'd felt to touch him seemed to have gone, but the pleasure remained. I was glad that something, at least, had stayed the same.
"When one of the Two-Natured reaches puberty, they usually come into their second self. If not, it tends to happen the first time they have intercourse with another Fey. The power unleashed is always considerable, and some families can feel it when a new child manifests. Your father was here, in the Dark Fey lands, when he felt your second nature being born. He left immediately to look for you."
"Good thing." The giant face didn't smile, I wasn't sure it could, but one great eye dropped me a wink. Then he flew away a short distance so the others could get a look. "Who are they?"
"An aunt, two cousins, and your half-brother."
"I have a brother?" It was too much to take in. The closest thing to a sibling I'd ever had was Seb. And for some reason, I'd never really counted him.
"That would be the red one. He was, er, a little perturbed with me, as you can see."
"What?" I turned to see Heidar rubbing the side of his jaw ruefully.
"He packs quite a punch."
"I thought you said I fell on you?"
"You did. Your brother just... helped connect the dots, so to speak."
I turned back to see a bright, fire-engine-red snout pressed against the glass. The eyes that met mine were a shocking, vivid green. He reared back when he saw my hand find Heidar's, and those magnificent eyes narrowed to slits. He looked like he was contemplating having Fey for dinner.
"Why is he upset with you?"
Heidar looked sheepish. "For good reason. I knew you were Two-Natured as soon as I met you, but I didn't realize until much later that you had never birthed your second self. And even when I did, I assumed – foolishly – that you were half Light Fey. Our twin's birth tends to be somewhat... less dramatic... so I wasn't too concerned. Even so, I shouldn't have risked it. As your brother pointed out, I nearly got both of us killed."
"It wasn't your fault." If he could be honest, so could I. "I practically threw myself at you."
"Of course you did." He said it so matter-of-factly, that it took a minute to register.
I withdrew my hand. "What?"
"It was the first time you'd been around another member of Faerie since coming of age – other than those Svarestri sticks in the mud. Of course you were drawn to me. Your twin needed me to manifest." He grinned. "Not to mention that my family has a reputation for being irresistible."
"So you're saying what? It was just hormones?"
"In your case, I don't know. But it was not my first time with another Fey. I could have controlled myself better. I should have." He flushed slightly. "It's simply been a very long time since anyone looked at me the way you did – anyone Fey," he added after a moment.
"I thought you said you were irresistible."
"I'm also half-human. Fey women who are full-bloods want full-blooded children, for the prestige and also because many estates cannot be passed to half-bloods. Those who are already partly human also want a full-blood so as not to weaken the line further." He gave me a slight, lopsided smile. "When it comes to anything permanent, I suppose I am resistible after all."
"It sounds like Fey women are as stupid as the Svarestri," I said, climbing into his lap. If it hurt him, he didn't let it show.
"You could do better," he told me seriously. His eyes had turned the purest dark sapphire, and were brimming with an expression I couldn't quite define. "I'll never inherit, Claire. My father is the Blarestri king, but the throne can only pass to someone with a majority of Fey blood. So our children could never hope to – "
"Aren't you getting a little ahead of things?" I snuggled into his lap and bent my head to his delicate, pointed ear.
Slowly, deliberately, I caressed its outline with my tongue. Within seconds, he was almost vibrating with need, and my own body was starting to feel the onset of another all-consuming tide of pleasure. God, I loved Fey men! "We haven't made a baby yet," I whispered.
Heidar's eyes widened as I began to move against him. "I don't believe that will be a problem."
I waved at the gamboling dragons outside, who were now obviously showing off for my benefit. It would have been a scene to take my breath away, under other circumstances. At the moment, it was just making me dizzy.
"Later," I said when I could trust my voice. "We need to talk about how we're going to get that damned rune back."
Heidar reached up to draw the curtains, and rolled me beneath him, all in one motion. "Much later."