Fire is deceptive. From a distance, it hides its heat and fury and shows its dancing light instead. From my vantage point on the city walls, the fire looked almost beautiful, a thousand shades of twining red and orange, its smoke causing strange shadows that snaked through the moonlight.
The blaze was back under control now. It had given up the fight, calming to my will.
I despise using fire as a tool of war and hadn’t planned to today. The idiot sergeant who’d set the first fire pot would be dealt with now that I had the situation in hand. After all, my client wouldn’t appreciate having the city he’d paid us to help him recapture burned to ashes.
Even if ashes were what he deserved.
The wind whipped smoke toward me, the gusts stinging my eyes and burning my throat with each breath. Ashes were about what I deserved too.
The familiar rough voice stopped my reverie. Just as well.
“Yes?” I swung around, stepped down from the half-shattered battlement. Owens, my body man, didn’t like heights. He turned visibly green every time I climbed up anywhere more than six feet above the ground, and I was too tired to take any enjoyment in teasing him.
His face, devoid of the ash and grime that coated mine, looked relieved as my feet hit the stones that lined the parapet. “Captain, there’s a message for you.”
“Can’t it wait?”
“No, sir, he says not.”
“He?” Messages from the lordlings who ran this army usually came on paper. What in the hells had happened that warranted them sending someone in person? I glanced back over the walls, toward the outer perimeter of our camp where the command tents were. Behind me, the dying fire still played softly in the back of my mind, almost like the purr of a cat. But I wouldn’t be rubbing its belly any time soon. I sent another short burst of power at the hottest spots, sinking the heat back deep into the earth.
“Yes, sir.” Owens looked vaguely worried. Which translated to a slight drawing together of his eyebrows. Master of the impassive face, Owens. “The Templar.”
I paused outside the command tent to splash my face with the water Owens proffered and scrub away some of the salty ash sweat caking my face, with a towel. The sentry stepped aside so I could make my way inside. Sure enough, there was a Templar knight standing at parade rest in front of the rough table I used as a desk on campaign. He swung around as I entered, revealing a pair of very green eyes in a dark face. His Templar tunic was travel worn, dusty and dirty, and, I noted with surprise, tailored to accommodate the fact that the knight’s left arm ended at the elbow.
A crippled Templar?
“You’re a long way from home,” I said. I moved around him carefully. One-armed or not, a Templar was no one to be trifled with, and I had no idea if he was friend or foe. He would’ve had to surrender his weapons before he was allowed in the tent, but I could feel the magic rising from him. A sunmage, this one. A strong one.
“You are Asharic sa’Uriel’pellar?”
The hairs on the back of my neck prickled. That was a name that very few people called me anymore. “That’s Captain Pellar to you.”
“Yes, sir.” The knight’s voice was deep, deeper than his young face would have led me to expect. His tone was respectful but resolute. “But you are—”
I cut him off. “Yes.” I wondered if he would ask me to prove it. My Family ring was attached to the chain around my neck, hidden from view by clothing and glamour. I hadn’t worn it for a very long time. Likely longer than the Templar had been alive.
“In that case, sir, I have something for you.” He reached into the leather pouch slung over his shoulder and withdrew a large envelope. It was wrinkled and crumpled, much like him, further evidence that he had traveled hard and fast. But the red wax seal, stamped with the Templar cross, was intact. In the light of the lamps hanging around the room, the wax shone like fresh blood.
He held out the envelope. I took it reluctantly, senses still prickling. I hadn’t heard of any Templar campaigns here in the Voodoo Territories for quite some time. But then, I didn’t really track their movements very carefully. I had no quarrel with them. Still, I had to wonder . . . which Brother House did this young knight to belong to? And whose message was he bearing?
I squashed the thought.
“And your name?” I asked, turning the envelope in my hands, reluctant to open it. To open it would extinguish the small spark of . . . no, not hope; I’d given up on that particular emotion many years ago . . . possibility perhaps?
“Liam, sir. Liam Hollister.”
“Brother Liam, then. My man will show you to a tent to rest.”
“Thank you, sir. But the matter is urgent.”
“If I’m any judge, you’ve been on the road for weeks.”
“Yes, sir, several.” His voice stayed calm. “But I cannot waste any time.”
“You’re no good to whoever sent you if you fall off your horse and break your neck on the return journey.”
“I’ll be fine. And I can be on my way somewhat faster if you’d read the message.”
That was bordering on rude. Templars were usually respectful of authority, and this one was young. He should be following protocol. The fact that he wasn’t made me wonder if he was cocky or desperate.
I pulled my dagger from the sheath at my hip and slit the heavy envelope. The note it contained slid free of its confines with a sound like the memory of a sword slicing through air.
But the words written on the paper cut deeper, making my gut tighten and the taste of ash fill my mouth again. “Is this a serious offer?”
I shook my head. “Impossible. I’m exiled.”
The knight’s eyes dropped, his mouth suddenly flat. When he lifted them again, his green eyes were full of something I thought might be sympathy. “I regret to inform you, sir, that the Veil has fallen.”
I groped for the chair behind me, sat down hard. “Fallen?”
“And who has claimed the Veiled Court?”
“The Veil stands empty, sir.”
My mind swam. The Veiled Queen dead? The court without a ruler?
Fuck. I could go home.
To Half-Light. To . . . others.
If I agreed to fight a war.
We came to the City from the north. I’d forgotten how it looked, spread out across a plain in a sprawl like a tumble of children’s blocks. I’d done my best to erase its image from my mind, yet the familiarity made my bones ache.
Bigger now than when I’d left. Wilder if what Brother Liam had told me was true. I still couldn’t believe it. The Fae Queen dead. The treaty dissolved. A Blood lord—some upstart named Ignatius Grey and not even Lord Lucius, who was also dead—intent on overthrowing centuries of peace and taking control.
It was like the worst of dreams. The kind where you wake and can’t shake the feeling that it was true and reality is the dream. I knew that feeling all too well. I’d been living it for the past thirty years. Every second of my exile.
I kept my gaze on the City, on the gleaming domes of St. Giles Hospital and the thrust of the cathedral spires and the blocky Templar Brother House . . . square and gray and solid like the men who occupied it. The men who’d brought me home.
I looked to where Brother Liam sat beside me on his long-legged bay horse, looking even more rumpled than he had looked more than three weeks ago when he came to fetch me. He’d driven us hard to get us here this fast, pushing as much as we could without injuring horses and men. We’d need those. Still, all of us could use a few good nights’ sleep in beds other than camp cots and hard earth and meals that involved more than stew and bread and cheese and whatever green things we had been able to buy or forage along the way.
Still, I was used to fast travel and my men were too.
The Templars had summoned me here. Me and the nearly two thousand soldiers I brought with me. The soldiers I’d fought with for thirty years and commanded for half that. I hoped we would be enough. My men and women were good and there were other exiled Fae like me amongst them as well as hai-salai, but we’d never fought an army of Blood hell-bent on domination.
Still, it was an invitation to come home.
An invitation I couldn’t refuse.
I’d cursed the City and what lay to its west many times during my exile, but still it held a sway over me. A pull I couldn’t resist.
I let my gaze move—finally—to the lands west of the City. To Summerdale. Fae territory. If I squinted hard, I could make out the glints of sunlight reflecting off the white marble tower that marked the Gate to the Veiled World.
My home once.
I wasn’t sure if it could be again. I wasn’t the same scared and bitter lordling I’d been when I’d left, and I’d left Fae politics and intrigue and protocol far behind me. I’d dealt with little but politics and intrigue and conflict since, but it was different when it didn’t involve my heart.
I fought for those who could pay me best, with the rare exception for those whose cause was obviously the right one. I did my job and got results and then moved onto the next conflict.
There was always another one. Growing up in the Veiled Court had taught me that much . . . always another scheme, another shot at power.
The Veiled Queen had ruled the court with an unyielding hand on the reins of control, but she had also allowed the rest of the nobles their games of influence. Until someone fell foul of her boundaries. Then the punishment was swift and, often, irreversible.
I was proof of that.
But now the queen was dead and my exile, under the laws of our kind, dead with her. I’d never expected it. But here it was.
The only way was forward. No matter what my reception and no matter the mix of anticipation and dread turning my guts to a tangle.
I nodded at Liam. “Shall we?” I said, and nudged my horse forward.
It was nearing dusk when I made my way from St. Giles Hospital to the Templar Brother House. The air was still warm, though it was starting to hint at the crisp night to come. Summer was dying, and with the autumn came both cold and dark. Shorter days were exactly what we didn’t need when it came to dealing with the Blood. Their powers rose with the dark. Under moonlight no one could match them for strength and stealth and violence. But we would try.
I swung my arms wide as I walked, trying to stretch the kink from between my shoulder blades. It had been a long day and I had been looking forward to a long bath and a good night’s sleep—as much as I could sleep well these days—until the invitation from the Templar’s Abbott General had arrived. When Father Cho requested my attendance, I couldn’t refuse. Not when, presumably, his request was related to the fact that an army had ridden down from the hills to the north of the City earlier today and camped on the northern side of the outermost human boroughs. Safely beyond the city walls but undeniably here to stay.
I was, I had to admit, curious. Simon DuCaine, sunmage, Master Healer at my hospital and brother to Guy DuCaine, one of the Templar’s most feared knights, had told me that the Templars had sent for reinforcements, but I knew no more than that. Tonight it seemed I was going to find out who exactly had been summoned to our aid.
The prospect made my muscles knot more tightly. I was grateful, of course, for anything that would swell the humans’ forces, but an army meant more violence. More injuries. More for the healers at my hospital and the others in the City to deal with.
We’d been preparing ourselves for weeks. Ever since the Fae had withdrawn in the wake of the Veiled Queen’s assassination, leaving the humans to face the threat of the Blood and the Beast Kind. Or rather the threat of Ignatius Grey—would be Lord of the Blood—freed from the bounds of the treaty he’d broken. He hadn’t yet attacked—perhaps he too was marshaling his forces and making plans—but it could only be a matter of time until he did. Without the powers of the Fae to back up the human mages and the Templars, the humans would need the advantage of numbers.
I glanced northward. I couldn’t begrudge the Templars their desire for reinforcements, but the reason for the soldiers’ presence and the chaos that was about to ensue made my stomach churn with resentment and fear.
I muttered a curse on Ignatius Grey’s head as I reached the gate to the Brother House and greeted the knights on guard.
“Lady Bryony,” one of them said courteously as he admitted me.
He didn’t offer me a blessing as he might have a human. The Templar worship a different god from those powers significant to my kind. Once upon a time, as I understood the history, the order had been a lot more hardheaded when it came to religious tolerance. But that was before the Blood had made their first attempt to take over the City.
Before the treaty and the alliance between the Fae and the humans in particular. Four centuries of that had made the Templars no less steadfast in their belief that their God was the true one, but they were no longer interested in removing the heads of those who refused to believe as they did.
The smell of men, leather, and steel hit me as I walked through the main gates. My years in the City had strengthened my tolerance to the presence of iron, but it was still uncomfortable to move amongst so many men wearing mail and carrying weapons containing the wretched metal.
I would need more than just a bath to restore myself after this. Would need to spend the time to refresh my connection to the earth and rebalance my powers.
Ah well. I was used to that.
The knights all saluted as I passed, a fact that made me want to smile. In the Fae Court the only one who was ever saluted was the queen. Or the king. Not that we had one or the other right now.
No, our queen had been murdered by parties unknown—or unproven rather, given the near certainty that Ignatius had been behind the assassination—at the treaty negotiations, bringing us to our current point of mayhem.
The Fae Court was still in turmoil, not that I had returned to the Veiled World to find out for myself firsthand what was happening. Our queen had ruled us for a thousand years, and the transfer of power wasn’t simple. The strongest Fae would rule eventually, but until the backlash of magic gone wild in the Veiled World was tamed, no one knew who that person might be. There were those who already stood strong amongst the court, but the power had its own whims and fancies and it had, in our histories, chosen its bearers with no regard to their standing in the court or the rank of their Family.
My plan was to stay out of it as far as possible. I had enough trouble to deal with here in the City.
Brother Liam—I smiled to see he had returned safely—found me just outside Father Cho’s office.
“Liam,” I said. “It’s good to see you.”
He smiled back at me, eyes startlingly green in his dark face. “And you, Lady Bryony.”
I studied him a moment. He looked tired but, underneath the fatigue, somehow changed by his travels. He’d been bowed down with grief at the death of a girl he couldn’t protect when he was sent on his mission. Apparently that hurt had receded a little. Also, he met my gaze without a blush. Which was another welcome improvement. He was growing up, this young knight.
“How is your arm after your journey?” I let my gaze fall to the shortened left sleeve of his tunic, which bared the stump of his arm. Simon and I had been unable to save his forearm—torn to shreds by the teeth of a Beast, and it was a failing that pained me.
“It’s fine, my lady,” he said firmly, shifting his stance so his right side was nearer to me.
I accepted his explanation, for now. He had never admitted to pain, not even in the earliest days after his amputation. I made a note to send one of the healers to check him later.
“They sent me to escort you,” Liam continued.
“Are we to meet in Father Cho’s office?” I asked, respecting his change of subject.
“In the conference room. I’ll take you there.”
He led the way, though I knew the route all too well. There had been too many conferences with the Templars and the human council these last few months. I probably could have found my way to the conference room in my sleep.
A babble of noise as we approached the room told me that I wasn’t the only one who’d been summoned.
But as I stepped through the door and saw the man who stood beside Guy DuCaine, tall and sleekly muscled with night dark hair and dark gray eyes set in a face I had tried my best to forget, I only wanted to turn around and run.
But running wasn’t an option. Particularly not with a very solid Templar knight standing behind me and blocking any possible retreat.
I turned to Liam. “What is he doing here?”
He looked puzzled. “Who? Captain Pellar?”
Captain Pellar. Not the name I knew him by. But then again, the man I had known had left a long time ago. “Yes.”
“Father Cho sent for him. The reinforcements are his army. They’re good. At least, they’d better be, the amount of gold we’re paying.” He muttered the last part almost under his breath.
Shal e’tan mei. Mercenaries. I had tried very hard not to think about what Asharic sa’Uriel’pellar might be doing to occupy himself during the long years of his exile, and I had mostly succeeded. But in the moments when I failed, I hadn’t imagined that he would have taken up fighting for gold.
What had Father Cho been thinking? Weren’t there other Templar Brother Houses he could have appealed to? Or, for that matter, mercenaries not led by Asharic? I turned back to watch the group of men. They hadn’t looked in my direction yet, intent on whatever they were discussing. Which gave me a few more seconds before I had to face him. And, despite my better instincts, I couldn’t look away. I just stood and watched. Studied the man I didn’t want to study, unable to stop myself cataloguing the changes in his appearance.
His skin had always been olive, but now it was a deeper, richer color, speaking of time in harsher, hotter climes. His dark hair was shorter than last time I’d seen it, though it wasn’t cropped human short. It fell around his face unevenly, hiding half of it from view. Just as well.
Guy nodded at something Ash said, looking satisfied. I suddenly knew whose bright idea this had been. Not Father Cho’s. Guy’s. Veil protect me from DuCaines. They came up with harebrained and ridiculous schemes at the drop of a hat. Though, to give them their due, they usually managed to pull them off with aplomb. After all, Guy’s brother, Simon, had managed to kill Lord Lucius, and Guy himself had braved the Veiled Courts and won a duel against a rogue Fae lord to help the woman he’d fallen for. And then there was their sister, Saskia, a metalmage who’d bonded with a hai-salai seer who was one of the wild-card powers of the City.
And now they’d done the worst thing of all. Brought back Asharic sa’Uriel’pellar.
“My lady, is something wrong?” Liam asked.
“That’s—” I cut myself off abruptly. Liam was young . . . he probably hadn’t been born when Ash had entered his exile and left the City. Come to think of it, thirty years ago Guy himself would’ve been barely five and Simon just a baby. Maybe none of them—other than Father Cho perhaps—knew his—our—history.
If I had my way they never would.
Ash. Veil take the man.
Take him far, far away.
It was a futile hope. If he was here, if he’d accepted a commission from the Templars, then he wouldn’t turn away. He was unstoppable once he’d decided on a course. Stupid, pigheaded, stubborn—
The chain at my neck sparked with an irritated burst of power and then, from across the room, I felt an answering pulse of magic—bright and fierce as the flames he summoned with such ease. Ash pivoted like a weather vane spun by an ill wind, and his eyes found mine.
I stayed where I was with an effort of will. Met that startled storm-cloud gaze with what I hoped was perfect calm, calling on my power to wrap myself away from any insight his power might grant him into my state of mind.
Let him look. I would show him nothing.
His expression cycled through startled to shocked to a smile of pure delight that made my desire to run stronger than ever.
A dangerous weapon, that smile. More dangerous than his magic and wit combined. Women crumbled at that smile. Men too, come to think of it.
I thought I’d forgotten it—banished it from memory over the long years he’d been gone—but now I realized I still knew it like my own face. There was a faint scar now, above his upper lip—which was careless of him—but it didn’t dim the smile’s impact.
“Bryony,” he breathed, my name clear on his lips, though I couldn’t hear his voice. Beside him, Guy swung around, eyebrows lifting.
“You two know each other, my lady?” Liam asked at my side.
“We did once,” I said. “A long time ago.”
“Before he was exiled?”
So he knew that much. “Yes.” Thirty years ago. A lifetime for Liam. But just a fraction of mine.
Ash said something to Guy. Guy shook his head.
“Did you know him well?” Liam asked.
“He’s High Family. We knew each other,” I said, which was the most noncommittal answer I could come up with.
“Do you know why he was exiled?” Liam sounded uncharacteristically curious. Usually he was painfully polite and restrained. Maybe some of Ash had rubbed off on him in the weeks they’d spent traveling together. Though obviously Ash had not seen fit to share his history with him.
“That is not my tale to tell,” I replied. I made myself look away from Asharic and focused on Liam, who made an apologetic face.
“Of course, my lady. I shouldn’t pry.”
“Don’t apologize,” I said. “Just don’t ask me about Asharic Pellar. If you want to know about him, ask the man himself. Though I would advise you not to take everything he says as gospel.” We Fae might not lie directly, but we can spin a tale if we choose to do so, and Ash was a master weaver.
Across the room, I heard Asharic’s laugh and wondered if he’d heard me. The man always did have ears like an owl.
I ignored him and made myself walk into the room as though there was nothing remotely of interest about his presence.
“I see,” Liam said. He opened his mouth to say more, but at that moment, Father Cho lifted his hand and the assembled Templars fell into obedient silence. It took a few seconds for the others gathered in the room to follow suit.
“Please be seated,” Father Cho said. We took our seats around the huge wooden table. I took care to sit on the same side as Ash and as far away from him as possible. Liam took the chair opposite me.
“Some of you may know that we have, these past weeks, been holding our ground, waiting for additional forces,” Father Cho. “Tonight, I am happy to announce that that wait is over. I would like to introduce you to Captain Asharic Pellar, who some of you may know by reputation. Captain Pellar and his forces will be assisting us.”
A ripple of low-voiced comments ran through the room, anticipation buzzing under the words. The Templars had been, as Father Cho had said, holding their ground. But against the Blood and the Beast Kind, there were not enough of them to win a victory if it came to outright conflict. Now that the problem of strength had been solved, it was time to decide what exactly happened next.
But as Ash stood to speak and I made sure to keep my eyes on Father Cho—I wasn’t ready to study Ash too closely just yet—there was a commotion outside the door.
A female voice, demanding entry. Mail clinked as the two Templars guarding the room protested. I knew who the woman was. . . . The feel of her—or rather the strange space in the earth song her presence made—was as unique as the feel of Asharic’s magic. I wondered how he would take her presence. He’d been traditional once . . . nearly a proper young Fae lord.
There was another rumble of voices and then the cool female voice came again. “I can always just walk through, you know.”
I hid a smile. Lily wasn’t my favorite person in the world—I was still Fae enough to be uncomfortable around a wraith—but I respected her determination.
Hopefully the Templars were sensible enough not to try to bar her from the room or she might just carry out her threat, turn incorporeal as only a wraith can do and walk through solid wood and metal. I hoped she would, if only to see Ash’s face when she did so. But no, the dead spot she left in my senses stayed right where it was. That dead spot was, of course, the reason that my kind didn’t like hers, even if wraiths were technically hai-salai, half-breeds. Born of Fae women. Our lore said they were soulless, based on the fact that we couldn’t sense their connection to the earth as we could every other living thing. Even the Blood showed themselves to our senses, though they felt faded and tenuous and could almost disappear completely if they were using their powers of deception and camouflage.
But the guards outside apparently didn’t want to risk the wrath of a wraith. The door creaked open and Lily stepped through, a scowl drawing her red eyebrows down over pale gray eyes. She scanned the room, hands resting on the daggers she wore at each hip. When she spotted Simon sitting near Guy, her face relaxed a little. Only a little. She still directed a glare at Guy as she walked around the table.
“I take it my invitation was lost?” she said as she joined Simon. He smiled at her—his eyes a brighter blue than Guy’s icy ones—looking suddenly relaxed. Summer and Winter, some of the Fae called the DuCaine brothers. Simon’s hair was a more golden-blond than his brother’s and his eyes were warmer, yes, but he was just as fierce as Guy when he needed to be. Like now, when he was being glared at by a wraith, which was enough to make most men—human or not—quail.
I couldn’t blame Lily for feeling irritated. She had earned the right to sit in our councils. Earned it with blood and heartache.
“I take it mine was too,” another female voice came from the open door, and all of us not facing it turned again.
Adeline Louis, leader of those of the Blood who had broken from Ignatius and sought Haven amongst the humans, stood framed in the doorway, her pale skin gleaming against the black satin dress that clung to her body like a glove. She had taken to dressing somewhat provocatively since she came to the Brother House—Veil knew where she was getting the dresses—as though she wanted to make the knights—and everyone else—uncomfortable. Maybe she did. The Blood play at intrigue almost as relentlessly as the Veiled Court do.
“Lady Adeline.” Father Cho rose courteously. “I did not think you would be abroad so early.”
That was somewhat disingenuous of him. The older Blood do not have to sleep the sunlight hours away, and Adeline, while not as old as Lucius had been, had definitely seen a century or two.
“Well, I am here now,” she said. Nice of her. She could’ve made a scene if she’d chosen but instead was behaving. Given the tenuous nature of her position and the alliance she had barely forged with the Templars, it was a sensible approach. Though, from the little I’d gleaned of her in the time I’d known her, I doubted she would remain sensible and accommodating if she was truly annoyed or truly determined to get something she wanted.
As she moved into the room, Adeline’s gaze fell on Ash and she smiled, one eyebrow arching. “I seem to have missed out on the introductions.”
“Captain Asharic Pellar, ma’am,” Ash said with a slight bow. I had to give him credit; he hadn’t yet let any startlement he might be feeling at the presence of both a wraith and a Blood lord at the Brother House show.
Adeline’s expression turned both amused and speculative. She slanted a glance at me and I stared back without letting my expression alter. Veil’s bloody eyes. Adeline was definitely old enough to know Ash’s history.
“Asharic sa’Uriel’pellar?” she asked.
Ash nodded, his expression turning faintly wary.
“Well, well, well. How . . . interesting. Welcome home . . . Captain.” Her eyes slid back toward me for a moment, but then, to my relief, she turned her attention back to Father Cho. “Where shall I sit, Abbott General?”
Father Cho jerked his chin at one of the younger Templars seated a few chairs down from me, and the knight rose rapidly, vacating his seat then holding the chair politely for Adeline.
“Will anyone else of your party be joining us?” Father Cho inquired.
Adeline shook her head. “Digby is outside, but I will fill him in later. Do continue.”
Father Cho nodded and turned back to Ash. “As I was saying, Captain Pellar has brought his men to strengthen our forces.”
Adeline leaned forward in her seat and stared at Ash. “And are you intending to use your men, Captain Pellar, or perhaps just burn out the warrens on your own?”
Damn. She did know Ash’s history. Including, it seemed, his vaunted ability with fire. He could tame fire or call it. But I didn’t think even he could control a fire the size it would take to burn the warrens—the underground realm of the Blood that stretched for miles and miles beneath the City streets—and the mansions that stood above them. And without control, such a fire could consume the whole City, and it wouldn’t discriminate between Blood and Beast and human while it did.
Besides which, unless he had changed greatly from the man I knew, I didn’t think Ash would agree to do such a thing, kill so many indiscriminately. I hoped the wince that had flitted across his face at Adeline’s questions meant I was right. If I wasn’t, I couldn’t imagine that the Templars would sanction such an approach. They killed when they had to, but they didn’t slaughter without reason.
I held my breath, hoping I was right, as Father Cho regarded Adeline steadily for a moment before he said, “For now the plan is to hold the boundaries while we see what develops in the Veiled Court.”
“And if Ignatius presses the point?” Adeline asked.
Father Cho shrugged. “We will deal with that eventuality when we have to.”
Thin eyebrows, painted stark black to stand out against white skin, drew together. “There are innocents in the warrens. Humans.”
“We are well aware of that,” Lily said, her voice edged with impatience.
She knew the warrens better than any of us, having grown up there. Which reminded me, I needed to speak to her, to see if she’d had any time for one of her covert night missions into the warrens lately. We still hadn’t found any trace of any of the Fae women who’d disappeared in the months before Ignatius broke the treaty.
“Good.” Adeline’s expression was fierce. “I hope you remember it, in the days to come.”
“Are you asking us to show mercy to Ignatius Grey?” Guy asked.
“I’m asking you to think about the consequences of the decisions we make here.”
“We always do,” Father Cho said. “And we have no desire to cause any harm to innocent bystanders.”
I pressed my lips together. I wasn’t so sure I agreed with that statement right at this moment. After all, no one had thought through the consequences of bringing Asharic back to the City. At least, not the consequences to me.
“It seems to me that the only way to another lasting peace, in addition to defeating Ignatius, is to convince the Fae to form the treaty again,” Adeline said.
“The Fae remain in Summerdale,” Guy said.
And seemingly not inclined to help the humans.
The Veiled Queen was dead. She had been the one to forge the treaty and to hold the peace for four centuries, and look what it had gotten her. I doubted that our next ruler—and Veil only knew who that might be—would be so quick to put themselves in danger to protect the City. The Veiled Queen had spread her protection over the City and around the surrounding land until it reached the borders of the adjoining human territories. The Veiled World—Summerdale—shared some edges with the City and the human lands, but they were not quite of the same world. Another realm, really.
One where the Fae could live in safety without ever having to interact with the outer lands if they chose not to. Our future ruler might choose to withdraw and not expose themselves to the risks the queen had taken. Judging by the current lack of communication with Summerdale, that option seemed more than likely.
True, it wasn’t the humans who had killed the queen. But it was to save the humans that the queen had made the treaty and enforced it all these years. Since then the humans had grown stronger and the City had flourished but at the same time become more inimical to my kind as the use of iron, even rationed as it was, spread. There weren’t many places in the City—in the human boroughs at least— where there was no iron.
There had been those in the Veiled Court who had wanted to break the treaty before this, to leave the humans to their fate and retreat to the safety of Summerdale. My father was amongst that faction. No doubt he would be doing what he did best and busying himself politicking at the court, trying to influence who might next assume the Veil. Much good that might do.
The court could scheme all they wanted, but the power would fall as it would. To the strongest of us. Whoever that might be. The High Families were powerful, yes, and their magics ran deep, but there were others who were strong. Those who stayed apart from the court and the games of power.
I couldn’t help looking at Ash. Why had he returned? Was it really so simple as being asked now that the queen was dead? Did he have another agenda? He was powerful. More powerful even than he’d been when he was exiled. I could feel his magic from where I sat, like a fire banked within him. When last I had seen him, it had been wild and headstrong. Bright with anger and rebellion, barely controlled. Frightening. It was that power that had gotten him into the trouble that led to his exile. Had drawn the attention of others in the Veiled Court. Others who chose to view Ash as a threat.
Now it curled to his will, quiescent, so that only a whisper of its song caught my ear. But beneath the calm, I could feel its depth like an ocean beneath my feet, making my skin tingle. He had mastered his gifts during his exile. Grown into them perhaps. Who knew what he could do now?
Most of the Fae healers I worked with at St. Giles were powerful and skilled, but their magic didn’t feel like this. At least not here in the City, where iron tamped all of us down. It was almost as though Ash carried a piece of the Veiled World with him, letting his power run free. Or maybe he had learned a trick or two whilst he was away.
Either way, I would not care, I told myself firmly. What lay between us was an old, old story and I had no intention of cracking open its dusty pages.
There was quite enough chaos in my life already.
I realized I had missed the last few sentences of the conversation as Guy rose to his feet and leaned over the map spread across the center of the table. We all leaned in, waiting to see what he wanted to show us.
Or show Ash and his men, more to the point.
The rest of us were all too aware of the situation in the City, of the boundary lines that had been drawn between the human boroughs and the ones belonging wholly to the Night World now. Of ground lost and won. Of loyalties stretched and strained and nerves fraying along with them.
Guy’s finger traced the line of the humans’ territory slowly, as if he was marking off each of the boundary points where sunlamps and Templar forces kept the Blood from crossing each night.
There had only been minor skirmishes up until now, but we had all felt the weight of anticipation building, the roiling anxiety and pressure in the air. Ignatius had to make his move at some point.
Had to try to take control.
Otherwise the Blood would eventually be cut off from the supply of blood that the human Nightseekers surrendered to them. They could drain their Trusted—the humans who served them—dry, of course, but then they would be defenseless during the day. And they would have no hope of a future without Trusted to turn into the next generation of Blood.
Ignatius wanted power, not to preside over ruin. He needed humans. Wanted them to be his to do with as he pleased. Which meant sooner or later he would start his push into our territories. Unless we could stop him.
Guy spoke calmly, setting out the situation for Ash, giving him both the background and the latest intelligence we had.
Lily spent half her nights roaming the Night World, walking the shadow where only she could go, but so far that was all she did.
Personally, in Father Cho’s place, I probably would have sent her to kill Ignatius by now, but the Abbott General had not been taught the art of ruthless politics by my father. He was still seeking a lasting resolution for the conflict. One that would restore the peace in the City and let the humans walk the nights in relative safety once more.
“This is all very well,” Adeline said when Guy paused in his monologue. “And I’m sure Captain Pellar appreciates the information, but we still don’t have a plan as to how we’re to solve this problem once and for all.”
It concerned me, sometimes, that Adeline and I seemed to think alike. The Blood were only a few steps away from abomination to my kind, their undying life after death unnatural in our eyes. I shouldn’t think like one of them. War, it seemed, made for strange bedfellows.
And that thought sent my gaze skittering back to Ash, like a compass seeking north. I pulled it away again and, in need of a distraction, said, “I assume what Lady Adeline is trying to ask is, what we are going to do about the Fae?”
Guy nodded. “We had agreed to wait and see what overtures might come from Summerdale, Lady Bryony.”
“That’s true,” I agreed. “But a month has passed since the Fae withdrew. A month with no news at all and no one has left Summerdale that we can tell.”
The humans had watchers in the villages outside the Gate to the Veiled World, and it had stayed stubbornly shut since the Fae had retreated after the queen’s murder. Some of the Fae in the City had fled home, but no one had emerged.
“Are you saying we should send a delegation?”
“I’m saying we’re nearing that point.” I’d led the last human delegation into Summerdale. That time, thanks to the sacrifice of Fen and others, we had convinced the queen to return to the negotiations.
Which had led to her death.
Guilt and regret still turned my stomach to acid every time I thought of it. I could not claim to have ever been close to the Veiled Queen. I had decided the healer’s path was for me early on and had stayed out of court politics as far as that was possible for anyone raised by my father. And I’d left Summerdale altogether when Ash was exiled, not wanting to be forced to either play the games of court or become another of their unwitting victims. But close or not, she had been my queen, and I, like all the Fae, had felt the whiplash shock of her passing and the aching void in the threads of power that should have linked us all.
Like reaching for something that had always been there and feeling nothing. Worse than nothing.
I looked at Liam, at the space beneath his neatly shortened sleeve where his forearm was missing. I wondered if that was how it felt for him when he tried to use his arm. I still regretted that I hadn’t been able to save his arm, but it had been nearly severed, hanging by skin alone, too grave a wound for me to heal fully here in the City. And he would have died from the blood loss if we’d tried to take him to Summerdale—even if we’d been able to convince the Fae healers there to heal a Templar.
“Lady Bryony?” Father Cho prompted. “Do you think it’s time?”
“Yes. We need to discuss how we approach the Fae, unless we are abandoning the hope of a renewed treaty for all-out war with the Blood.”
My words caused more than a few muttered responses. I knew that some of the Templars would welcome a chance to wipe the enemy from the City completely. But there were Blood in other lands and sooner or later they would try to return. Better to reforge the peace and the balance between the races.
Though I doubted that could be done with Ignatius Grey still alive. His death, I was prepared to accept.
Father Cho shook his head. “No. No, I do not think we are ready to abandon hope.” He sighed then, ran a hand over his cropped head, and rubbed at the back of his neck. “But that is a longer conversation, and the night is growing darker. Captain Pellar, do you have the information you need for now?”
Ash nodded. “Yes. My men will be able to relieve yours tomorrow, if you can hold for another night. They will do better if they have one good night’s rest.”
“I think that is a request we can accommodate,” Father Cho replied. “Things are not so dire that we need you immediately.”
This caused another, slightly more annoyed-sounding murmur to roll through the room. The Templars were stretched thin and all of them were tired. But I had to agree with Father Cho. Mixing one tired force with another who hadn’t even been properly briefed on the situation wasn’t a good solution.
“Thank you, sir,” Ash said, and then leaned back in his seat. For a moment I thought I saw fatigue on his face, but then it returned to his set expression of earlier.
“Good.” Father Cho turned to Guy. “You can continue to brief Captain Pellar tomorrow morning.”
“And the Fae?” Adeline asked.
“Lady Bryony and I will also discuss that in the morning. She is best placed to advise us how to make the approach.”
I breathed a sigh of relief. I had been expecting Father Cho to ask for a meeting tonight. Perhaps I had some hope of seeing my bed at a reasonable hour after all.
Though, after the sudden reappearance of Asharic in the city, I wasn’t at all certain that I would sleep.