Twirling a dagger around my fingers, I concentrated on making the platinum flame bigger. Its glow matched my warded necklace, and it was exactly as unpredictable. Right now I only had a pinky-sized ember in control.
The fire flickered and sparked. I focused on strengthening my will. Ash wanted to wait until he’d convinced Puck that everything would be okay, leaving me to my own devices in the manor’s yard. There was no more time to figure out how to defend myself. I had power once, so that would be my weapon. The swords on either hip were familiar but merely a precaution.
A breeze picked up, lifting my hair and making the flames dance. I tightened my control. If the wind wanted to blow out a fire, it wouldn’t be mine.
On a silent command, probably issued by my temper, white-hot light streaked around me. The platinum fire formed a circle, still hovering in midair like the ember had, and rose above my head. It stretched all the way to the ground in the next instant. I could only grin as the circle widened and narrowed on cue.
Fire was my strongest affinity before the ambush. I had some power over elementals, as a faery would, yet manipulation was the way to go. Even as a human I had a powerful mind.
Switching the flames to ice, I watched the vortex spin around me in a sudden gust of wind. Part of me believed that the owner of the mansion was still around somehow, even though fey returned to the very land of Faery when they died. But it was the only explanation I accepted for how this yard was helping me.
When I turned it back to fire, I knew it wasn’t my ice that joined the now-golden flames. I snuffed out the circle. Ash stood on the other side. Pride was etched on his face. “Welcome back, my friend.”
“Not completely back,” I told him, not bothering to hide my ongoing grin. “I’m getting there, though.” I fell into step with him as he headed for the edge of the clearing.
Emerald daggers weighed on my back. I sheathed the knife I had been toying with. “Puck’s not happy,” Ash said, almost reading my mind. “He wanted to come with us up until I reminded him that Titania has a bounty on his tiger pelt.” My stride did not falter, but I felt as though someone punched me in the gut. Ash glanced at me. “You seem okay with that,” he commented matter-of-factly.
Considering I wanted to go and kill the Summer Queen… “I’m not really sure where Puck stands with me. I don’t remember him at all, other than the general facts. He’s your partner and my ally, but that’s about as much as I got.” Other than a major heartache from thinking about him skinned.
“You do realize I can hear your thoughts, too,” he whispered as if it really were a secret. “Not as well as Puck, of course, but how do you think I kept you from freaking out that first day?”
That had been a week ago, yet it seemed like a lifetime. “That doesn’t mean I know why I reacted harshly.” Something purposely kept me from recalling my time with Puck, despite my nearly-restored memory on everything else. I assumed it was the curse when maybe it was my own subconscious, trying to protect me from a hurt I couldn’t think of anyway.
Ash went on alert once we crossed into the Summer territory. His black cloak disappeared somewhere, leaving him in dark gray gear similar to mine.
I stepped ahead of him, sensing we were close to the heart of Court. The Winter Prince was familiar at my left shoulder, where a guard would be positioned. On my right was where Puck usually walked. I became painfully aware of the emptiness on that side.
The grief subsided when we strode into the throne room untouched. Unlike the argument in Ash’s old home, music played in the sunlit air around us. The faery on the dais gestured for the quartet to stop. She was tall even sitting down, with a band of roses resting on her brow. Gold/silver hair flowed out along her shoulders and came to a curling halt at her waist.
Where Mab was pale for being the Ice Queen, there was no explanation for the white complexion on Titania. Mab had an inky blue gaze, and Titania had the bright blue of a summer day.
Already I didn’t like the similarities between them.
“You truly are alive.” Titania smiled darkly. “Some may even be glad to see you, Starr.”
My friend started to bristle. “Not you, though,” I responded calmly, hoping Ash had enough agitation for the both of us. “You might have even thrown a party if someone brought you proof of my bloody corpse.” I was glad Ash talked Puck out of coming. If all three of us wanted to kill her, this wouldn’t have gone well. It still might not.
Titania smiled devilishly. “That is true,” she affirmed. “Why have you come to Court?”
Something sharp tugged at my wrist. Oberon strode in, a similar crown made of thorns sliding off his head. He looked as though he’d come back from the Hunt. “Ash and I come bearing a message,” I answered, greatly distracted by whatever the Erlking held that was calling me.
“Lokesh is likely to rise again within the next few weeks,” Ash swept on easily. I decided he spent too much time with Puck in the past. “If he hasn’t already, he will be more powerful than ever before.” He refused to bow when Oberon swept a cool gaze over him, simply continued talking. “We come asking the Seelie army to join our fight.”
While he handled the diplomatic stuff, I sent my focus toward the throne, so that Oberon hopefully would not realize I was searching. My pendant gave off a steady thrum of energy.
Are you going to drain yourself? Ash asked without looking at me.
“Starr, is this really what you want?” Oberon inquired at the same time. I blinked, trying to catch up to the conversation. “To go against Lokesh after years of having your own life?”
Hope not, I replied to Ash. “He’s cursed my friends,” I reminded the Erlking fiercely. And because I could, I added: “Unlike you, I don’t turn my back on my allies.” It had to have been something that was given to me. Whatever it was had wards similar to my pendant and responded to the wave of indignant glamour coming from the Summer Queen. My wrist was starting to drip blood from the shooting pain that ran through it. There was silence in the throne room, and then:
“This belongs to you, I believe,” Oberon quietly remarked.
I stared at the chain he dangled from his fingers. The way the sunlight glinted off it, I could imagine it was more of a snake than a chain. A memory resurfaced, of a being made of light giving me her beloved guardian pet, which I then gave to Kelsey. The snake could turn into jewelry at will. Another image floated into my head. This time it was a creature of darkness ripping the jeweled armlet from Kelsey, the snake hissing all the time. Her bracelet hadn't just been ornamentation, after all. “What’s the price?”
“No price,” he informed. “Take it.”
When he threw it my way, Ash lunged forward to catch. “She owes you nothing for this?” he echoed dubiously. “No price, no favor, no Summoning attached,” he persisted, silver eyes shadowed with doubt and concern.
Fanindra came to life and slithered across Ash’s shoulders to rest on my own. I moved the chain she solidified into onto my wrist, opposite my hidden-knife bracelet. “I can assure you there are no strings attached to this gift.”
“Promise it,” I ordered sharply.
Lightning crackled at the Seelie Queen’s command, but it could not break the barrier I unknowingly put around the two of us. Oberon clenched his jaw. He shocked me by actually swearing an oath. Ash tensed beside me as if it were a curse, not quite satisfied with the whole situation.
The snake gave a soft hiss as soon as Oberon finished speaking. I stroked the chain reassuringly. “There is something else here we require from you,” Ash stated, glancing sidelong at me.
What? “And that would be?” Titania queried through gritted teeth.
Just trust me. “Robin Goodfellow’s private chambers,” the Winter Prince requested. “He left something that may be of use for us to track him through the wizard’s dimension, or wherever he might end up after what's happened.”
“Why is my jester with Lokesh?” Oberon cut in.
Why are we going to need to track him? I echoed. Because of the fey’s inability to lie, I helped in the deception. “We don’t know where he is, and part of the curse on the tigers is that they need to be near each other. Lokesh probably made it a bit different when he captured Puck, but it’s been years. He could slowly waste away.”
“Or he switched sides,” Ash chimed in again, ignoring me.
The Erlking scowled. I heard the earth crack behind me. “My jester is a fool, but no traitor,” he growled. Titania did not seem to like this half of the conversation, when she was being overlooked, essentially unimportant.
“I’m aware of that,” my dark faery retorted. I can’t keep this up and steer it in the right direction to hide your weakness. “We have a plan.”
Wind brushing my face, I smiled disarmingly. “We were all close to him, Oberon. Of course we know he would never willingly betray us. But who knows what Lokesh could have done to him after all this time? Maybe his new curse is his being turned against those he used to protect.” The words got caught in my throat, since they did apply to one of us… “He could have been stripped of his memories and just brainwashed.” I might have actually been a compulsive liar, the way things were going. I was curious, and apparently getting at his room was important to Ash.
The monarchs exchanged a look. “Tansy will show you to the guest chambers so that you may rest first,” Titania said.
“We can rest when I’m guaranteed we are safe,” I snarled. My temper sparked under the weight of my growing impatience. “Bring us wherever you wish. I can change it, destroy you, erase this land from the map; I can do more than you believe. So” –– suddenly my dagger was in my hand once more, a metallic blur twirling around my fingers –– “do you plan on giving up what we want, or should I tear down your forests to find it?”
A hazel-haired satyr materialized from the Hedge, which made up the walls surrounding every room in the Summer Realm. “I can show you,” Tansy offered, curtseying deeply.
“Glad one of you has manners,” Ash grumbled dramatically, turning on his heel. “You never answered our question, either.”
As I faced Tansy, I heard from behind me, “Seelie knights will follow you into battle.” Only when we were out of sight of the throne room did I let myself smirk. Ash was successfully hiding his own grin, which I saw in the mercury depths anyway.
What are we looking for? I asked him silently, nervous the walls had ears.
My dark faery rested one hand casually on the hilt of his sword. Tansy glanced over her shoulder at us, hazel irises gleaming apologetically. The branches curled away from us, afraid of us on their own accord, and they had every right to be after threatening my and Ash’s safety.
“You are excused, Tansy,” Ash told her as soon as we arrived. I entered the dimly-lit room. Ash snapped his fingers, bringing to life a blue flame. “I’m sorry for not being able to tell you, especially after you helped me deceive Titania and Oberon. But what I need is between me and Puck alone.” I manipulated the fire until it was green, like Puck’s glamour would make it. “From before we sided with you or even vowed to kill each other over our friends’ deaths.” The last part was whispered, so he was probably thinking out loud. And he was: “We should get Ren and Kishan some, too…”
I looked around the room. It had hardly ever been touched. I knew Puck had gotten safe houses in various places on Earth, if he ever had to escape from being the Seelie jester. God, it pissed me off how many times Oberon called Puck his. The trickster had long since left behind his court, with good reason.
A tiny voice breezed through the back of my mind. Because he’s yours now.
“Starr?” Ash hesitated near the closet. “Everything alright?”
While he knew something happened, he didn’t know what. I nodded, forcing myself not to stiffen. “I’ve picked up my brooding habits from you.” I had no clue whose voice that was, or if it was even an actual being. True, Goodfellow I had claimed in the past, and once more recently, yet there was nothing that kept me tied to him now. Puck and I had to relearn each other’s habits, in a way.
Still seeming dubious, Ash continued moving through the room, collecting stuff I couldn’t name in a spider-silk bag. I stared at the fabric curiously. There had been something I’d made out of spider-silk once… at least, I thought so. Or maybe that was Meg.
“Let’s go,” Ash said suddenly. “If I’ve missed anything, Puck will have to come back to get it himself.”
I raised one eyebrow as I followed him through the winding paths of the Hedge. “His secret hiding place was to put things in plain sight?” Ash’s already long strides turned heated when a howl cut through the summer air. I was grateful for my naturally fast pace, to be able to keep up. Almost too delayed, Ash nodded. “Damn,” I muttered, impressed. It was exactly what I would have done if I were in Puck's shoes.
The Winter Prince unsheathed his sword when the briars stretched toward us. They pulled back from the icy blue light with almost a hiss, reaching for normal sun. I took the pouch from Ash, not that he needed what little help it provided. It was surprisingly heavy for all the small things I’d seen him put inside. A shiver crept up my spine.
“She warped the Hedge,” Ash cursed.
Power rose inside me. “I can’t get us out of here, but I can distract the Hunters our dear Oberon decided to invite.” I hoped. It all took a change in scents, which would not be easy to do. “You need to find the nearest trod.”
My dark faery yanked me close, his fingers laced tightly with my own. “Do what you must,” he responded.
Everything strained against the fury I felt building in my veins. My self-control faltered for the briefest second, and more howls echoed around us. Ash tucked me into his side as best he could. I thought of unraveling the magic instead of letting it explode. The farther away I made our scents drift, laying on trees and thickets just about everywhere in the Hedge, the more confused I became in my own skin. If Ash hadn’t been there, I would have collapsed and not been able to return to the manor.
“What the hell?” a new voice asked. I stumbled on a branch that wasn’t there, and that same being cursed. “Give her to me.”
Magic tearing apart my consciousness, I felt Ash helping me onto something’s back. Fur tickled my nose as I slumped forward, my dark faery somewhere on the ground near us. It smelled of the forest, and the other Hunters that chased us from the Hedge. It was hard to move with the creature’s bounding leaps when I was essentially drugged.
“Starr,” Ash began, cutting through the haze in my mind. “You can stop now.”
I was drained of everything the instant the glamour left me. We were again in the wyldwood, the forest that bordered just about every territory in the faery realm. My mind was still trying to process what had happened when we broke through into an achingly familiar clearing. The wards did nothing to help the migraine growing in the center of my forehead. I leaned heavily on Kishan when the Indian prince appeared to help me to the ground.
Blinking, I saw a giant black wolf shaking out its pelt. His golden-yellow eyes stared back at me, natural malice warring with an unprecedented protective instinct. The size of a horse, he was the Leader of the Hunt and the reason we escaped.
“You have only been in our dimension for a week, and yet you have caused more trouble in that amount of time than Robin Goodfellow in the Dark Ages.” I did not believe that for a second, but I heard Kishan bite back a chuckle behind me. The omniscient gaze turned on Ash. “Care to explain why my allies were asked to fulfill a bounty on both your heads?”
“Why did you help us, Wolf?” Ash responded evenly.
The Big Bad Wolf seemed to grin. “You never did trust me, prince. At least your friend kept pretenses between us.” He leveled his yellow eyes on me solemnly. “Starr has the ability to change fate, as does Lokesh. Only one of them will preserve my legacy and ask for nothing in return.” I managed to hold his stare.
Kishan rested his chin on my shoulder. “The Wolf has helped us before, Ash.”
“At a price.” Mercury depths fell on me. “And both of you nearly lost your lives that time.”
Without looking at him, I commented, “We’re both alive now, aren’t we? Plus the Wolf doesn’t ever really die.” I could read the omnipotent build as easily as I could discern the worry on Ash’s face. “His price has always been that his legacy continue on, so that he may always be free from servitude, and from death.” The Wolf would have never let anyone on his back no matter what the price, and I almost reminded my dark faery of that.
“I missed hearing that authority,” Kishan murmured under his breath, for my ears only. Then, on a lighter note: “Especially after Ash’s and Ren’s bossiness.”
“Thank you, Wolf,” I said. I broke the minute-long stare-down to look at Ash. “I know what that entails, and I mean it.”
The youngest Indian prince was most likely grinning behind me, if I knew anything about him. Both the Wolf and Ash looked taken aback by my words. Faeries were unused to hearing thanks come from someone’s mouth other than a human’s, since the rest of us had learned from the past. While I usually followed their lead on these kinds of things, I did owe the Wolf. Whatever favor he had in mind after I said that… well, I’d just have to wait and see. But I also trusted him now more than I had in the past. The two of us worked well as a team when we got along. Hopefully those words wouldn’t endanger that.
The black wolf dipped his head. “Get inside and rest, meteor. What good is rescuing you if you’ve exhausted yourself?” He turned to walk away with a flick of his tail. “Oh, and be wary, boys. There are shadows hiding even the most vulnerable of hearts.”
“On that note––” Kishan morphed back and lifted me up from underneath. Not nearly as big as the Wolf, his tiger body was still able to carry me.As my eyelids drifted shut, I sensed Ash trailing behind us. He was brooding again, for the first time since he’d come to me. Meteor, I heard the Wolf saying. Darkness overwhelmed me, with a warning that wasn’t meant for me ringing in my head.