The night had cooled off considerably. I made a point to wear my boots and leather jacket while my friends each tried out one of the many outfits they’d bought. Kelsey also made new friends since she moved here, apparently, because there were a few catcalls as we walked the five minutes from her house to the circus. I kept my collar turned up, my pendant long since tucked away, and my head down. I wasn’t interested in the stares thrown my way. Or the growl that seemed to permanently wrap around me.
“You play the mystery card a lot,” Meghan remarked, falling into step with me. I bit my tongue on a retort. “So you still don’t like anybody?”
I shook my head. The growl stopped abruptly, as if the owner was listening intently. Abruptly, I recognized the dirt under my feet and glanced up for the briefest second. Somehow in that heartbeat my eyes immediately found Ash’s.
“Nice to see you, girls,” he greeted, attention flicking more to me and Meghan than our friends. “Finally found some beautiful new outfits, then.”
Meghan ducked her head before he could see the blush on her cheeks, but I still noticed it. Kelsey and Ky exchanged a look, the excitement on their features barely contained. I decided I liked my rep as the mysterious one. It saved me from being an idiot alongside them.
“I heard they’re getting all three tigers in the ring today,” Kels said, breaking the silence. To her credit, she managed to sound normal. Ash tore his intense gaze from me to give her a smile. “How’d you manage that?”
“It wasn’t me. When I got here to check on them before dinner, Rob almost seemed normal.”
Clearing my throat in a way that reminded the two that three of us still didn’t know who those cats were, I knew I could guess from my exploration earlier. The blonde seemed to shake herself. “We have a black, white, and a golden tabby,” Kelsey explained. “I only know their show names. Prince Kishan, High Prince Dhiren, and Robin Goodfellow, respectively. Kishan and Ren are brothers named after the boys in an ancient Indian legend.”
“Rob was named for the Seelie trickster in Shakespeare’s play,” Ash finished for her, something gleaming in the unearthly depths. A double meaning to his words, maybe.
My heart slammed against my ribcage. I was breathless from the emotion, and my pendant’s sudden burning against my chest did nothing to help. They would not show unless someone looked too closely, but tears stung my eyes. Unfortunately, Ash’s focus instantly shot back to me. Icy calm flowed into my veins.
Kelsey pressed a hand to the small of my back. “Are you okay?” It was Meghan who asked.
Noticing how Ky had disappeared, I took a few more normal breaths, afraid my lungs would burst at the changes back and forth. Cold air flowed around me soothingly. Ash at least knew enough to stop staring at me so much, yet I could tell that he could not turn away from me until I was completely better. “I’m fine,” I replied as soon as I felt my control settle.
“Come on, we should go find our seats.” Ky was there, where I thought she hadn’t been. Even though I narrowed my eyes musingly, I did not miss the glare Ash sent in her direction. She winked at him. “We can fan girl over Winters later.”
Fighting the urge to punch her was something I definitely did not expect to do on this trip. When Kelsey and Meghan trailed in her wake as she headed for the stands, I held back. Ash’s touch was feather light on my wrist. “If I could tell you, I would,” he murmured. I turned to face him curiously, but he was already gone.
The circus wasn’t anything I missed from my childhood. I was glad for our seats toward the higher end of the benches, farther away from Ash on the ground. I fell into one of those half-asleep states during the first hour of the show. The announcement for the big cats woke me up fully.
Ren and Kishan walked onto the inch-tall stage calmly, blue and gold searching the crowd with intrigue. I straightened in my seat as a tabby blur shot onto the stage. He prowled the edges of the ring, not seeming to hear the calls of the trainer or how there was someone with a whip in the opposite corner. Emerald eyes frantic, he tossed his head and swatted at the whip as it came for him. Out of my periphery, I saw Ash launch to his feet yet stand there, fists clenching helplessly.
My breath caught in my throat again for an entirely different reason this time. Goodfellow’s ears pricked ever so slightly; his head snapped around toward me. The frenzy in the too-green depths settled.
The whip lowered, and I could breathe easier. Ash slowly perched on the edge of his seat once more as the real show started up. I tried to watch the princes, but I couldn’t. My gaze kept drifting back to the trickster. There was something about him that I felt I had to recall, even though I had never seen him or this big top before in my life. I had proven to myself that I was very much sane.
I mentioned something about having a migraine to my friends, an excuse to escape from the rest of the show. As soon as the livelier tent was behind me, I sprinted toward the tigers’ den.
A roar shook the ground under my feet. I slid to a halt inside the tent. Another, softer roar followed suit. “It’s okay,” I told him, covering the distance between us in three long strides. I could walk fast when I wanted to. Plaintive emerald depths tracked my movements. “Hey.” I knelt in front of his cage. “You were good tonight. Once you stopped freaking out about the crowd, you looked like a powerful hunter.” I smiled to Kishan and Ren when one of them grunted. “You boys were good, too, but you weren’t the ones having a heart attack in public.” I leveled my gaze back on Goodfellow, who sat as close to the metal as he could, eyes boring into me in a way only cats could accomplish. “If I could get you three out of here safely, believe me, I would.” I sighed and reached my hand out to the golden tabby. He nudged it but made no move to hurt me.
“So you were the one who helped out the trickster.”
My fingers dug into the fur under his ear. A deep purr rumbled in his chest. “Ash,” I welcomed quietly. My dark faery sat down beside me, clothed in all black like me.
“You trust me yet?” In response, I leaned my shoulder against his. Goodfellow’s eyes, which were narrowed in pleasure, snapped wide open; his purring stopped. “Relax, Puck, I’m not stealing her from you.” The trickster continued to stare at him anyway. Ash ignored him. “I heard you and Ky are having a falling-out.”
I laughed bitterly. “That’s one way to put it.” Ash got more comfortable by leaning back on his hands, one arm wrapped a bit around me. Puck’s stare turned almost angry. I ignored him, too. “Since you showed up, she’s different. I know she’s a huge fan of your writing, or at least the writing you’ve taken credit for, but that doesn’t explain anything she’s been doing.”
“Like I said before, if I could tell you, I would,” he echoed. “The problem with that is it’s not my story to tell.” Puck growled.
Taking my hand back, I ordered, “Hush.” The emerald depths reflected hurt. Instinctively, I curled against Ash when foreboding shot up my spine. My mouth kept talking when my mind shut up. “All I want to do is get through this week. I miss Meg and Kels, really. It’s just that they’ve changed, and that Ky is screwing with our dynamic.” Speaking of Ky, was it bad I could feel her presence?
Apparently not, since Ash gently moved me closer to the cage in the next heartbeat. He launched to his feet with a speed that belied the softness of his touch, power radiating furiously from him. Three growls of varying timbres resonated around me.
“Letting the Unseelie Prince fight your battles now?”
I opened my mouth either to ask what she meant or to bite her head off verbally. A true migraine, the kind that could paralyze someone, smashed into my skull. I gasped at the agony crashing through my head.
“Starr!” A blue glow engulfed the tent. My pendant scorched my skin as conflicting powers rose around me. Frost crept along the ground. The protective streak I’d noticed in Ash came out harshly in a sudden snowstorm. “Next time you mess with my queen, remember that you will die.”
Little warrior, a shaky voice I recognized drifted into my mind. I whimpered at the hammer it brought down on the migraine. Look at me, Starr. Please.
By some feat of willpower, I lifted my bleary gaze to Puck. The golden tabby’s emerald eyes held a promise. The sound of the evil that took the form of Ky dying broke through my haze. I fought my pain and reached up to unlock Puck’s cage. Unafraid of the tiger when he rested his furry head on my stomach, I let my pounding head fall backward. Instead of hitting the ground, though, I hit a well-muscled chest. The coolness that settled over me could only mean Ash.
“You don’t remember us, do you?” Ash murmured, trailing a gentle finger along my left eyebrow.
My hand came up to Goodfellow’s scruff. “I want to.”
Somehow Ren and Kishan had been let out, too; they sat at the entrance to the tent, facing opposite sides to watch me and the tent flap. I was hyperaware of three pairs of eyes on me, the fourth darting to me then away, all waiting for something I couldn’t give them. I shut my own eyelids tightly. The Unseelie Prince… an ancient Indian legend… the Seelie trickster….
Puck nosed my hand as my fingers stilled against his pelt. The memories were there, I could feel it. Unknown terror ricocheted through my veins, turning them colder than Ash ever could. His ice vanished from my face. Puck moved closer, and he brushed against the white-hot necklace.
Come on, little warrior, you know who you are.I screamed.