Imagine a city divided . . . a city readying itself for a war. The vampire Blood and the shape-shifting Beast Kind seek to seize control now that the treaty is broken. Only the humans stand in their way . . . but they stand without their Fae allies . . . and they desperately need help . . . .
I chose to stay with the humans when the Fae withdrew from the City. I am a healer, and they need me. I know the odds are against them. I know they need reinforcements. But I never expected them to turn and seek aid from the depths of my past. Asharic is a powerful Fae, exiled by the Veiled Queen, thirty years ago, leaving me behind. But the queen is dead and the throne is vacant, and Ash is returning to the City—my City—with his mercenary army.
It would be false to deny that there is still a spark between us, but I will not be taken in again. And I’m not the only one disturbed by his return. A Blood lord is poised to conquer the Half-Light City, and other enemies, new and old are gathering to eliminate the threat Ash poses. To save the City, we will have to join forces. And pray we’re not the ones who burn . . . .
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.
Second chance romance, working with the ex, oh no not you again, the one that got away, found family, pick someone else to solve the world’s problems, torn loyalties
All the politics, blood, war, vampires, werewolves, fae, crappy families, explicit sex, injuries, addiction issues, magic
Series: The Half-Light City (Book 4)
Next in series: This is the final book in the series
Publication date: 6 May 2014
ISBN ebook: 9780451465382
ISBN paperback: 9780451465054
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