Chapter I - The Mongrel Thief
Adra steps through the ornate, gilded frame, and into the painted landscape beyond.
As usual, it feels like walking through a waterfall. She gasps with discomfort that borders on pleasure, turning to take in the view. The sky is smoke and tangerine, stooping down to kiss a horizon made of rainbow oil-slicked ocean. Along the shoreline, a few gangly creatures with spindly legs and jagged horns roam. The ill-favored animals flute and bugle to one another. It’s a funeral, morose sound. The air smells of salt.
She cracks her neck. It’s time to work.
The Spark has to be here somewhere. As soon as she can find it, she’ll have only minutes to extract it. After, the countdown will begin. The dreamscape will begin to unravel, and the landscape will crumble around her. She’ll have mere moments before she’s trapped, held hostage in someone else’s twisted psyche forever. She suppresses a shudder.
Adra glances over her shoulder, up and over, at the only way out. The frame hangs in the air a few feet above the sand. It’s a heavy, almost tawdry affair that offsets the furtive dreamscape. It encapsulates a dark window, the hushed gallery she has broken into, has stepped out of. The faster she gets this done, the better. She turns back towards the ocean and quickens her pace.
There is a pair of swan skeletons mating in the dust. Their long white bones clatter and clack as they smash against one another. They grind their pearlescent, hollow remains into dust against one another. Their desiccated necks arch, perhaps in tormented ecstasy, perhaps not. Adra wonders if they can feel any of it, or if they’re caught in an endless loop. She presses on, deeper into the painting.
In the distance, white whales surface and dive, blasting plumes of saline spray into the smudged sky. It’s scorching hot and the air is dirty. The spangled ocean is alive with light, kaleidoscopic, polluted. She can see the floating mountains in the distance. One hour. A little less. Enough time to find the Spark and get the hell out.
The Spark is the small piece of every artist’s soul that remains within any creative project after it is completed, or abandoned, as some would have it. The Winter Fae and some of the Summer Court as well will pay a handsome price at the Night Market to anyone insane or desperate enough to steal it.
She looks up. The floating mountains are close, but she’s reached the water’s edge. The ocean looks like spilled gasoline. Like all the Fae, she hates crossing running water, but her human blood allows her to if she must. Still, why make things harder than they have to be?
Adra concentrates, then rises up into the air like a dandelion seed. Grinning, she revels in the reckless feeling of flight. She hovers a few feet above the water, gaining speed as she approaches the craggy mountains. As she draws closer, she can make out the waterfalls that spill over the edges of the landmass. They evaporate before they can touch the waves below. She pauses, wavering between her curiosity and her better judgment. Firmly, she shakes her head, then picks up speed.
She can sense the Spark somewhere close. She reminds herself she’s still in control. She can manipulate her surroundings up until the moment she removes the Spark. It’s afterward when things get messy.
“Interacting with created landscapes is just like lucid dreaming,” she mumbles, trying to slow her drumbeat pulse.
No matter how many times she’s done this, she always feels uneasy.
The mountains float above her head, revolving. She imagines that she is a soap bubble, and her body rises high into the air. She alights on the rocky ledge.
The air up here is thin. She can feel the energy of the Spark somewhere up here, dangerously far away from the exit hanging in the frame. There’s a chance she won’t make it back in time, but she doesn’t allow herself to think about that possibility. The fear will paralyze her. She pivots, looking around the plateau.
She pinpoints the Spark at the same instant she registers the tall figure.
There’s someone else here.
A man is standing over the Spark. Her blood freezes in her veins. Her mind spins into overdrive, reeling through the short list of possibilities. He can’t be human, she knows that. Only the Fae know how to enter dreamscapes, the places beyond or in-between. She braces her feet, clenching her small hands into fists.
The Spark shimmers indigo and violet, a glowing orb roughly the size and shape of a human heart. Its surrounded by a bouquet of razor-sharp knives. The Spark pulses, once, a flicker of purple fire. Time stops.
The man explodes into motion. He snatches the Spark before she can react. Pure shock roots her to the ground. She shouts something incoherent, then launches herself towards the man.
The earth shudders with a massive boom and cracks as the Spark tears free. Instantly, the landscape begins to tear itself apart. The floating mountain tilts sideways like a sinking ship. There’s no time to be afraid. She is thrown to the ground so hard her teeth clack together. Growling, she scrabbles in the dirt as she tries to stop herself from falling.
She slips off the edge of the mountain and plunges down into the icy water. The pain fills her skull with a hornets’ nest. Kicking towards the surface, she comes up hissing like a pissed-off wildcat.
The running water makes her every nerve ending scream with pins and needles and her teeth ache deep in their roots. She forces herself to think through the pain. She can probably still fly, but her manipulation of gravity will be sloppy. No time, now. She launches herself above the ocean.
Adra races after the stranger, struggling to maintain her focus. After her dunk in the ocean, she feels like she’s wearing cement blocks on her feet. She’s relieved when she realizes the man is also flying low and slow. He must be full-blooded Fae and injured after his dive beneath the waves. For once, she just might have the advantage.
The tide is drawing away from the sands, black waters rushing even as the rest of the islands come crashing down. She is grimly aware that she’s gaining. That’s her money right there, and she’s damned if she loses it after the work she’s put in. Her speed increases, closing the gap between them.
A massive wave is gathering. She can sense it behind her, and the hairs on her arms rise. The man falters, fumbles the precious Spark. She knows this much water must be making him feel weak, nauseated. She senses her opportunity. She gains. She is close enough to make out his tattooed wrists, markings of the Summer Fae court, close enough to smell his metallic sweat. Shrieking a triumphant cry, she delivers a swift punch to his kidney and makes a grab for the Spark. They crash onto the sand. The Spark is flung high into the air and lands a few feet away.
The stranger strikes her, hard, in the nose. Blood vessels break. She is momentarily blind, can taste the blood running hot over her lips. She snarls at him, a practiced, animal sound she learned to make as a child. The man’s face registers blank shock as he takes in her mismatched eyes. His gaze pins itself to something behind her, and her stomach drops out. The terror in his eyes makes her jerk her head around. They both look up at the wave that is descending like Ragnarok upon the desolate beach.
The massive tsunami is an iridescent, beetle-greenish black. It sucks the light from the world. Gaping like the ravenous maw of a behemoth sea monster, it lunges forward to devour them. Adra recovers first and grabs for the Spark. The stranger punches her again. She sees stars, reaching blindly until her hand closes over her prize.
The wave breaks like a tower collapsing, like the sky crumbling into ruin.
Water boils over her, flaying her senses. Knives drive themselves into her eyes, down her throat, lancing her eardrums. She screams in pain and her mouth fills with liquid fire. She keeps her fist closed tight around the Spark and opens her eyes. All she can see through the murk is a vague purple glow. Her lungs feel lightning-struck but she kicks off the sand, straining upward. She is almost to the surface when a hand closes around her ankle.
Adrenaline spikes through her veins. She thrashes and kicks, but the Summer Fae’s vice-like grip is dragging her down. Striking out with her feet, she connects with something soft.
She’s free. Her hands close around the Spark as she surfaces.
She thrashes out of the water, retching and coughing as she gains altitude. She knows her heaving stomach and dysphoria are nothing compared to what the full-blood must be experiencing. Flying low like a wounded bird, she surges forward. The wave is already drawing away, preparing for another assault. There’s no time left. The copper figures are turning green before her eyes, flash-rusting hundreds of years in a few seconds. Her pulse surges beneath her tongue.
The frame hangs right where she left it, suspended against a backdrop of faint stars. There is a rainbow shimmer lurking within the rectangle that terrifies her. She recoils from the sand crawling away underneath her feet, like insects picking the flesh from a corpse. She has minutes.
The Summer Fae, against all odds, has emerged from the foaming breakers. He is stumbling across the sand, unable to fly. Her entire focus is on the frame, her only escape. Adra vaults over the swans, which have grown stringy ropes of muscle and ragged strips of angry, raw flesh. There is a wild scream behind her.
“You can’t leave me here!”
She makes it to the frame. With a rush of relief, she tosses the Spark though. She lifts her leg over the edge and the man shrieks. The cry reverberates through the small bones in her ears, impossible to ignore. She pauses, half in the frame, and turns to look over her shoulder.
The man is tiny against the gigantic wall of water. The animals are running, panicked, their spindly limbs breaking like glass. She can hear them pop and shatter, a broken-heart sound she knows is her fault. They falter into the unforgiving sand, bleeding, as the Summer Fae drops to his knees.
Adra vaults back into the painting. She sprints to the stranger and hauls him to his feet, cursing her own stupidity. He’s at least a foot taller than her and heavy. She slaps him in the face, hard.
“Move your ass!”
Together they stumble towards the frame. Her muscles are on fire, her spine telescoping under the man’s weight. There is a static shimmer within the frame and the image of the hushed gallery flickers. Terror stabs her. She shoves the man towards it.
“We won’t make it.”
Fury flaps its wings inside her heart.
“Shut up and move!” she snarls.
He’s mumbling, moving like a sleepwalker. Slow, too slow. She can make it if she leaves him, she thinks, and then they are at the frame, and she is helping him up and over. She clambers over head first and the frigid waterfall sensation blasts through her. Her vision whirls as she lands in a heap on the gallery floor.
She’s alive. If only everything didn’t hurt so much, she could kiss the hard ground beneath her. She tries to slow her breathing, to focus her double vision on the man she has saved.
He is vomiting a few feet away. She feels like she might join him, fighting back waves of nausea. She forces herself to take deep, even breaths.
Rook flaps down from his perch on a sculpture near the exit. He quorks and runs his curved black beak through her tangled mane. The sight of her raven Familiar reins in her galloping heart. She pets his glossy feathers on reflex, then startles upright. The Spark. Where is it? Frantically, she glances around her.
A glimmer catches her eye. Galvanized, Adra forces herself to her feet but Rook is faster. He pecks her on the back of the hand reproachfully and hops over to the Spark, which has come to rest in the middle of the room.
Rook tries to grab the Spark in his claws. It’s too big, even for a raven of his size, and he croaks in frustration. She staggers over and picks it up. After the ordeal she’s been through, she’s almost resentful of the damn thing. She closes her hand around it for a moment, then drops it into the grubby pillowcase she brought for this purpose. Selling the Spark will bring her a small fortune, one she’s definitely earned now. She breathes a sigh of relief. Rook flaps over to land on her shoulder and her knees buckle.
“Nevermore,” he croaks, followed by “fuck, fuck.”
She laughs and closes her eyes, and that’s when the stranger’s hands close over her throat.
She scratches at his tattooed hands, writhing, but he is bigger and stronger. Furious, she bites, snapping her jaws at him. The man is rasping his ragged breath in her ear. She jackknifes against him, and they crash into a sculpture, knocking it over.
He screams, and his grip on her loosens.
Adra seizes her opportunity and twists free, searching for a weapon. Rook is shrieking, pecking and clawing at the Summer Fae’s eyes. He punches at the raven and she goes cold with rage. Rook flaps out of reach. She grits her teeth and grabs a piece of the sculpture, a twisted piece of iron that is almost too heavy to lift. The pain of the metal against her halfling skin burns like dry ice, but she holds tight.
His eyes widen as he sees what she has done. He takes in her unglamored, single yellow eye, her clear lack of identification tattoos. She sees the understanding flicker across his face. That’s right, she thinks, right now it’s you or me, and you’ve fucked with the wrong half-breed. She presses the iron deep into his flesh.
There is an alarm screeching, but the man’s screams are drowning it out as Adra and Rook hit the street outside. Hopefully, the iron was a strong enough message, and she won’t regret leaving him alive. Again. Years of experience tell her she should have finished him off, but she’s a thief, not a murderer. She hands Rook the pillowcase with the Spark, which he grasps with his claws. The human cops will be here any moment, even if the Summer Fae doesn’t follow her. She needs to move fast.
“Get back to the train car, you know what to do!” she gasps. She sends him a telepathic sensation of urgency and haste, which she knows must prickle.
“Fuck, nevermore!” he squawks.
He flaps up into the night sky. She hobbles away, trying to conjure some sort of glamor for disguise. She is hollow, too weak to even hide her Fae eye. She musters herself into a limping jog when she hears footsteps on the pavement behind her. She can barely believe her own rotten luck.
“No good deed ever goes unpunished,” she mutters.
There is no other choice. She is unable to glamor, injured, and moving far too slow. She suppresses a shudder.
She is going to have to use one of the Doors.
The closest one she knows of is down a graffiti-tagged street in a bad area. Adra pushes Rook’s mind, telling him to hurry. He sends back the smell of three different shades of yellow and the taste of snow. Vocalizing “one human” and then “danger,” he wings away, still holding the pillowcase with the Spark in it.
She turns onto one of the main streets and is instantly surrounded by a mob of tourists. They swim around her like spawning fish, blocking the crowded sidewalk. Grateful for the camouflage, she hobbles as fast as she can towards the monorail.
After an anxious few minutes, she gets off the rail. Something tingling at the base of her spine tells her she’s still being followed. Rook swoops down in front of her, hopping and quorking. She only understands half his vocalizations. He’s too excited to send her coherent messages, but he sends an image of the Spark dropping into a dumpster. She groans. If she survives this, she’ll be digging through garbage in the sweltering heat tomorrow. Rook croaks.
He sends an image of the Summer Fae, a block away and gaining. Adra wonders how he’s managing to keep up with her. She reckons he’s jacked up on enough Ichor to kill a horse.
She squints. The walls of this alley are a riot of colorful defacement illuminated by a jaundiced streetlight. Somewhere around here is a splashy, filthy mural that houses a hidden portal. Her ticket away from this mess.
Rook croaks again, flapping his wings in panic, and she knows the stranger must be close. She runs her hands over the walls, searching for the green man’s face. She’s desperate. If the Fae Courts find out who she is and what she’s been up to, she is as good as dead. The alley stinks of piss and her own fear. She scrapes her knuckles on the rough cinder blocks.
There. Almost obscured by neon yellow spray paint is a weathered, wise face, crowned with hair of painted leaves. Adra almost sobs in relief. There’s only one way to open the portal, and the price she’ll have to pay is steep. Desperation overpowers her fear. She leans her forehead against the green man and whispers her lie-offering into his painted ear:
“I’m not afraid.”
Nothing happens. Adra’s heart plummets. Numb disbelief smothers her. She opens her mouth to try again and the paint starts to wiggle. The green man opens his mouth and a scarab beetle the size of a teacup crawls out.
Her lie is accepted and the Door unlocks with a click. It cracks open an inch or so, and she can see a flicker of what looks like firelight beyond. She knows that using the Door will result in crushing bad luck for her later. The inconvenience is nothing compared to the alternative. Frantic, she calls to her Familiar with her mind. Rook swoops down to land on her shoulder.
She pushes open the door as a hand grabs her roughly by the hair.
Wild with fear, she thrashes for her life, powerless in a vice-like grip. She and Rook both scream as she is dragged roughly backward. There is a sharp pain in her head, then nothing.
Adra’s skull is pounding. She sits up, and the world tilts beneath her like a carnival ride. Moaning, nearly blind, she sends her mind out towards Rook. She can feel his distress somewhere behind her. She casts her mind in a spiral and brushes against his consciousness. He sends her the smell of rain and a reassuring shade of blue, like water. It’s his way of telling her to remain calm. She can sense another presence in the room, someone other than Rook and herself.
This must be bad.
She forces herself into a casual sitting position and opens her eyes. Dark shapes swim into focus.
“Nice of you to invite me here,” she says.
Best to act like she’s still in control. She cracks a crooked smile and discovers that her lip is bleeding. Details begin to take shape. She’s on a plush carpet, which she struggles not to vomit all over. Where has the Summer Fae brought her? She struggles to keep her fear from showing on her face. She’s damned if she spends her last moments as a solitary Fae looking weak. Slowly, she raises her eyes.
Above the carpet is a set of steps, leading upwards to a raised platform. Atop the dais is a massive throne carved entirely of bone. Graven serpents and flowers twine up the arms and back. A river of tormented souls flows along the sides, while two jewel-encrusted human skulls adorn the arm-rests. It is a thing of terrifying beauty, eclipsed by its occupant. A woman is sitting on the throne, watching Adra. Her stiletto-shod feet are tap-tap-tapping, rhythmic.
Their eyes meet. Adra feels a cold spike of horror and flinches. She digs her hands into the carpet and forces herself to meet the woman’s gaze. Mouth twisted in a cruel smile, the woman slings her long, sleek legs over to prop her feet up on one of the skulls. Her strawberry-blonde hair sweeps away from her face, flawless and cruel. She wears jewels which glitter like a galaxy at her ears, fingers, and throat.
Adra looks into the violet eyes of the Queen of the Fae and knows for certain that she is dead.
“This is the part where you beg me to kill you quickly.” The Queen’s voice is sweet and high, like a necromancer’s bells.
Adra’s stomach fills with ice water. Buried in the soft carpet, her fingers convulse. She forces a shaky laugh.
“Kill me quickly, your liege-ness. I mean, your magnificence. Pretty please?”
The Queen pouts, a bored, practiced movement of her exquisite face. A strangely detached part of Adra’s mind wonders if she practices that look in the mirror. She smothers a crazed giggle. Think, she needs to think. She tries to breathe evenly, to slow her erratic heart rate.
“You can beg prettier than that, can’t you, half-breed,” drawls the queen. It isn’t a question. “I do so love it when trash like you cry before I end their useless lives.”
There is a smell of burning rubber that’s adding to her headache. Another wave of nausea hits. Adra turns her head, swallowing hard. Out of the corner of her eye, she can see Rook, tied to a silver ring embedded in the floor a few paces away. Rage and relief shudder through her.
The raven flaps his wings, rasping. He struggles to reach her, thrashing wildly enough to hurt himself. Sick with fear, Adra crawls towards him, sweating. She needs to calm him before he does himself an injury. Gritting her teeth, she sends him the smell of wet grass and spangles of light on the surface of a lake. He grackles back at her and then quiets when she strokes his feathers.
“Now that is sweet. A wild little halfling and her pet. Maybe I’ll kill him first. I hear the bond-severance is enough to drive a person mad with the pain.”
Her false bravado evaporates.
“Let him go, he’s just a stupid bird, none of this is his fault.”
Varroa laughs and claps her hands like a delighted child. Adra’s skin is hot and her eyes are filling. She wishes she could grab the knife hidden in her boot, but her wrists have been duct-taped. She’s not sure if she’ll take a slice at the Queen’s beautiful face or stab herself in the leg. This is all her fault. She was stupid enough to put her and Rook in this mess.
There’s a dull ache in her hands. She glances down. Her fingernails have gouged into her own clenched fists. Rook rasps and croaks, sensing her distress.
“Now, mongrel, how would you like to die? Earth, water, fire, or air? Earth, I bury you alive. Fire and water are obvious. Air, I fling you from my penthouse.”
Adra experiences the sensation of falling for an instant.
“I like water the best” Varroa’s voice is light and conversational. “It sends the right message to any Fae who would consider crossing me. The only drawback is that, for full-blooded Fae, it’s all over rather fast.” She taps a varnished fingernail against one of her long eyeteeth. “In your case, you’d last a bit longer. What was it, your father who was Fae? It must have been. Any Fae woman would never bear a mongrel child.”
The old wound re-opens, and cold fury lends Adra courage. She works her mouth, preparing to spit at Varroa’s feet. The Queen continues.
“Theoretically, I understand why we haven’t subjugated the humans yet. Your world keeps ours from fading away into dust. Without the energy of the human realm to draw from, our, older, feeble world would fail. The ancients harnessed our universes together to prevent this from happening. Maintaining the balance keeps us from withering away.”
Varroa crosses and uncrosses her legs before continuing. Light gleams off her smooth, apricot-golden skin.
"There’s also the issue of humans as a species. Only a small percentage of your population is born with any magical ability, fewer still manage to maintain it past childhood. None of you can truly appreciate the life-giving power that pulses within the oceans and forests of your living environment. You breed like vermin and fill your world with a horde of mindless consumers.” Her voice rises.
"You ravage and gnaw, fouling the nest, you are a scourge, a pestilential virus killing your host!”
Varroa’s face twists, veins popping beneath the creamy skin of her neck and forehead. She closes her eyes for a moment and a spasm wars across her features. She takes a deep breath, smoothing her face before she continues.
“You humans have numbers we cannot compete with. The Veil limits our forays into your domain. And so we wait.”
A door screeches open to the left of the dais, and a ratty-looking Winter Fae scuttles towards the throne. He prostrates in front of Varroa, who flicks a hand at him.
“What could possibly warrant this interruption?”
Her voice is a low hiss, and suddenly her face is hag-like, monstrous. Disgusted, Adra shrinks back, but the Queen’s beauty returns in the blink of an eye. She almost wonders if she imagined it.
The ratty Fae approaches the skeletal throne. He whispers into The Queen’s ear, squinting at Adra with rheumy eyes. Varroa whips her head towards her like a cobra. Her face is once again smooth and flawless, but her eyes are black pools.
“Tell me, halfling, why Lotus of the Hotel Datura would pay a seventy percent tithe for your life?”
Adra’s pulse skyrockets. Rook squawks in response. Goddess, what has Lotus done? She tries to keep her face blank.
Quick as a flash, she looms over Adra. One of her scimitar-sharp fingernails presses against the pulsing vein in her neck. Every cell in her body screams at her to run. She tries to hold as still as possible.
“Do not lie to your queen, you worthless polluted half-breed whelp!” Her voice crashes like thunder.
Adra’s temples pulse with sharp agony.
“Stop! I swear! I’ve never been to the Datura in my life! I don’t know anyone there!”
Varroa shakes Adra like a dog, then flings her to the ground so hard her teeth rattle. The Queen of the Fae looks at her with something hungrier than hatred.
“This has been a real clusterfuck of a day. I had no idea the unregistered riffraff were desperate enough to steal Sparks. I’ve had a monopoly on that lucrative little scheme for decades. The Summer Court man who brought you in is filthy rich. I doubt he needed the reward money I paid him.”
She straightens her blouse and fluffs her hair.
“If you’re sticking to this story, I guess I’ll have to send my Hags out on a little hunt.”
Adra’s whole world shrinks to a pinprick. The words rattle around her head, echoing. The Hags. Her heart is beating so hard she’s afraid it might stop. She tries to speak and fails.
Varroa pauses, and her face goes still, almost slack.
“Although it seems a waste, doesn’t it? I can always use another thief. Especially a half-crazy mongrel thief. You can pass from our realm into the human world with ease. No need to wait for a solstice.”
Shakily, Adra stands up. Sticking her chin out, she finds her words.
“I don’t work for anyone.” They’re out before she can swallow them.
“You will, halfling-bitch. Everybody serves somebody.”
Varroa smiles, revealing long, luminescent teeth. She leans forward, and her voice drops, sweet and soft.
“Why not come work for me? One job and I’ll let you pledge to the court of your choice. Although you’ll probably want to stick with Winter. Once a criminal, always a criminal, as they say.”
Her knees are in danger of collapsing, but she gives Varroa her best shit-eating grin.
“Thanks but no thanks, your highness. I’m lucky enough to have lived free for this long. Don’t think I’d like you telling me what to do, and who to rob.”
Varroa throws back her mane of hair and laughs. It’s a manic, high-pitched sound that grates on Adra’s nerves. The duct tape on her wrists prevents her from clapping her hands over her ears to block out the noise.
“Oh sweetie, you don’t have any choice. You’re in my pocket now. You’re going to work for me. You’ll do as I say, or I’ll pluck your little birdy, wring his neck, and eat his heart. And then I’ll drown you. Lotus paid for your life, but now that life is mine to direct in whatever way I see fit.”
That’s what you think, but you have no idea what I’m capable of.
Rook rustles his feathers at her defiance, but aloud she says nothing.
“Oh, you’re a lucky little one alright,” Varroa spits the words at her like bullets. “You must be Lotus’ latest whore, to have fetched such a high price. Why she would wish to waste her time screwing a half-breed is beyond me. I guess there are always those with an appetite for bestiality.”
Adra picks herself up off the floor and stands as tall as her five-foot frame allows.
“Fuck you, your majesty.”
The ratty Fae is on her in an instant, slobbering and zealous.
“Apologize, bitch, or I swear I’ll rip your arms -
“Stop.” Varroa’s voice is glacial. “We need her unharmed for this transaction. Let her go.”
He shoves Adra, who manages to stay on her feet. She thinks about breaking one of his arms, but Rook screams, spreading his wings. She settles for glaring at the rat-faced Fae, forcing herself to think.
Lotus. How did she know? How long has she been unconscious? She staggers over to Rook, and they let her. Gently, she preens a few of his glossy black feathers, which are ruffled and bent with rough handling. Showing her familiar affection in front of the Queen is a grave, obvious mistake, but she’s past caring. She undoes the tether and Rook flaps into the air, swearing.
He sends her a bloody red taste, earthworms and carrion, and an image of him pecking out an eyeball. A pang of anxiety stabs through her.
Quietude/Rook/no/not/don’t/ she presses into his mind. He squawks his rage.
A hood is shoved roughly over her head.
“I want you to steal something for me, half-breed.”
Varroa’s whisper comes through the scratchy hood, along with the smell of burnt hair.
“It’s an easy job. There’s a human with something that belongs to my people. A Fae artifact with no real value, but it is sentimental to me and belongs in my keeping. Steal it, and bring it to me. You can live out the rest of your days as a registered Winter Fae, paying your tithe and working for me.”
Varroa can force her to do anything she wants, once she has pledged. She’ll never be a solitary Fae again. Once they tattoo her, it will be impossible to disappear. To be free. Adra growls in the direction of Varroa’s voice.
“Think about it,” whispers the Queen, “I can be a powerful friend to those in need. All I ask is a little service in return. One easy mark and you’re one of us. No one will challenge your mismatched looks when you bear my tattoos on your skin.”
Adra thinks about walking among her people. She could go about her life like everyone else, unglamored, proudly undisguised. There’s a bitter taste on the back of her tongue when she opens her mouth to speak.
“One job. Not that you have a choice, darling.”
Adra is prodded roughly through a door and outside, into the sweltering wind.