Kaelan Rhywiol © 2018
All Rights Reserved
One: Remember Your Vows
“This is a story of vengeance, magic, lust, what it means to love, and what you’ll pay to have it. It’s not a pretty story, but it’s mine, and it’s real. Oh, and I swear a lot. Fair warning.”
Everything ached. I lay back in the hot water lapping around the curves of my breasts and inhaled the intoxicating aromas of jasmine, rose otto, and sandalwood. I needed to restock my essential oils next time I went Earth-side, or maybe just pay someone to go for me. I didn’t really like going to Earth anymore; it brought back too many bad memories. So many things I’d rather forget.
I lifted my foot and tried to let the cascade of drops from my toes distract me.
It didn’t work.
My heart burned like molten lead in my chest and my eyes stung with unshed tears. It’d been three hundred years since I’d fled our small, garret apartment. I’d carried nothing but my clothes and my beloved husband’s guitar.
My family had welcomed me with open arms, and I’d started training in their arts the next day. I rubbed my fingers together over the flat roughness of my bow-string calluses. I’m not sure I would’ve come if I’d known they were assassins. Not even with my father’s threat.
I dropped my head back against the curve of my pool and let the scalding heat of the water soak into my bones. I couldn’t age, but my years weighed heavy as the depths of the sea god Manawydan’s dark home tonight.
I opened my eyes to find dusk had stalked in on cat paws as I soaked. The coronas from my candles gleamed sparkling gold through the steam rising in drifting curlicues on the evening air.
My bath sat in the middle of my backyard, surrounded by riotous dark-green yew hedges. Eldritch hot tubs were so much better than the kinds on Earth. Or so I tried to convince myself. I leaned forward to refill my glass, then settled in to rest against the curved and polished bottom of the pool to sip my wine.
Hoping it would ease the ache of repressed tears as well as numb the pain in my arm.
I finished my drink, and the glass clicked against the polished stone lip of the pool. I needed my solitude, especially tonight. With a glance, I took in the wild pixies zipping over my garden and then listened with closed eyes to the buzz of their wings. All underscored by the mournful howls of the spirit-hounds as they cried their grief.
I’d caused that.
I nibbled a piece of cheese—also imported—a rich, double-cream Brie. Expensive as all get out, but what good was being a god’s assassin if I didn’t use my murder-gotten gains as I wished?
The hellish fire of strained muscles painted my shoulders from grappling my opponent, and I winced as I extended a leg. I think I’d pulled a glute too. Gave new meaning to the concept of pain in the ass.
Which this contract had been, and then some. My prey had taken me all over—this side of the veil—before I’d found and finished her. She’d made me slew through bogs, avoiding the water-leapers, so they didn’t try to eat me. The bat-winged, frog-like, carnivores called llamhigyn y dwr usually left we hunters alone, but avoidance equaled wisdom with something that could make me its dinner.
I lifted my left arm out of the water. Searing claws still raked up the nerves, but I sat watching the wound close that would’ve left a human in surgery for months. It had finally stopped bleeding and healed over.
I poked at it and winced. “Gormless nimrod.” My muttered exclamation hushed the pixies’ quiet murmurs for a moment, but then they went about their business.
The arm was still incredibly tender, and the skin stretched thin and silk smooth over the gouges and punctures. The rogue cwn annwvyn had been evil in the worst definition of the word, and canny with it. The spirit-hunting, red-eared, white hound had marked me well before I’d taken her down.
She’d betrayed our Lord and Master Arawn. She’d taken numerous children in a disgusting pact made with one of the Dark God’s banned scions. But she’d been my friend, and my heart ached with the memory of her blood spraying in searing arterial jets—the same brilliant red as her ears—across my face. My gut twisted at the recollection of how her eyes had glazed over as her life fled. I’d known Halley all my life—or most of it—for all the years since I’d run away from Earth, anyway.
I hadn’t wanted to kill her. The cries of her kin on the wind tortured my already broken heart.
I smiled through my heartache, a battle rictus more like, reaching for some joy to alleviate the grief. At least, I’d been able to restore a child to its family and recalling the sight of the mother’s face filled me with gladness. I only wished I could return all of the stolen bairns. I’d never wanted kids of my own, but seeing the mother’s weak-kneed joy had warmed my heart from the death-born chill of murder. For a while.
A buzzing whir akin to the sound of a hummingbird’s wings came from the darkened maw of the open doors of my home. The jet-black six-inch form of one of my servants—also known as nagging busybodies—zipped through the opening, her eyes blazing gold.
“Tsk. I wish you’d be more careful, mistress.” One of my few servants, Carys, was a burly pixie female dressed in nothing but her saffron yellow hair. She lifted the clay pitcher of wine to fill my glass. “You heal well, but I don’t like seeing you injured. You may be a big, bad hunter for our god, but you’re still my charge.”
Pixies, like most of us otherkin, took their vows seriously.
“Don’t fuss, Carys. Please. I’m absolutely knackered.”
“Yes. Well. I’ll worry if I want to.” She stuck her nose in the air and sniffed at me. With a sad look on her face, she said, “A messenger has just come and brought this for you, mistress.”
Carys’s great-granddaughter, Aderyn—one of the other pixies belonging to the small clan that made its home with me—flew into the back garden. She dodged curls of steam, carrying a gold-flecked green-black scroll case. I dried my hands on a plush teal towel before I reached for the elaborately carved item.
Only one being would send me something like that. The value of it on Earth-side would be enough to feed a small country given the price of kin-stone. The gemstone created from the crystallized blood of my people was rare, tightly regulated, and difficult to work with.
My guardian pixies waited like attendant cats while I uncapped the case, pulled out and unrolled the high-linen-fiber paper from its kin-stone spool. I read the words written in old Welsh three times before I believed them, and then rage boiled like bile in my gut, threatening to overwhelm me.
“No.” My voice echoed a broken note against the enshrouding hedges and standing stones of my garden as my present life crashed into the wreckage of my past.
“What is it, mistress?”
For a long moment, I couldn’t speak. Then I didn’t as I closed my eyes, concentrating, reaching within myself for the blood-bond with My Lord and Master. A bond born of loyalty and arcane blood ritual. ‘Why?’
He answered immediately. ‘As you have had a trying day, I will explain. This time. You are the only available hunter I have with the appropriate skill sets. You are deserving of the boon. You have served me well as a hunter for two centuries. It is more than time I honored you with a promotion and lands of your own. You are beautiful, which will be of aid to you as my ambassador. You have contacts in many layers of society, and you are currently off mission. It behooves me to send you there. Your abilities and attributes are ideal for the assignment and… you have avoided it long enough, my hunter.’
‘No, I don’t want it. No.’
‘Yes.’ His tone made it clear He’d accept no argument. That to Him, an immutable decision had already been made. ‘You have crossed the veil several times over the centuries, and you have never seen him. Never dealt with it. Aside from that, your predecessor has been murdered, and you are the only one with enough skill on the otherside in the twenty-first century to be able to solve the mystery. You are the only one of my hunters who I can send. It is immaterial that it is to London.’
‘Yes. I expect you to find amelioration with him and remember your vows.’
‘Do you love and trust me, my hunter? Do you have faith in me to know what is best for you, and to look out for your well-being?’
I did love Him, and I trusted Him, but this asked too much. I reluctantly answered, ‘Yes, My Lord.’
‘Congratulations on your promotion, my pwca.’
‘Yes, My Lord.’
He cut off the contact, and I sat in my bath, my arms wrapped around my waist. Tears leaked down my face in a scalding rain as my pixies looked on in worry.
“Which bloody vows?” My voice echoed forlornly in my garden, sounding as lost as my soul felt.
I liked the life I’d forged here in Annwvyn. I loved my home. I glanced up at its graceful, silvery branches swaying above my head. I adored my place among the other hunters, free of burdens other than the contracts given us by our Lord. I held no title and wanted none. I had the honor of being part of Arawn’s court with none of the responsibilities and the freedom to avoid most of my nasty family.
As His warrior, His messenger, His enforcer and assassin, He paid me well, and I got to exercise my bloodlust within acceptable boundaries. This? This boon of His? It tore me from everything I loved about my life, taking with it every ounce of peace I’d managed to find to fill the void in my heart.
“Fuck.” I reached for my wineglass and guzzled it.
Carys silently refilled it. “My lady?”
“He’s promoted me. The rat-bastard is sending me to the otherside to hold Ontario for Him.”
“But…isn’t that where—”
“Yes, of course. He knows that too.”
“Oh, my lady, I’m so very sorry.”
I laughed, harsh and bitter. “Me too, Carys. Me too.” I swallowed through a tight throat full of sandpaper. It hurt to force words out. “Pack my bags. I’ll need to cross over soon. His Lordship hasn’t ever been known for patience.”
“Yes, mi’lady.” The two pixies, jet-black bodies and brilliant hair flashing, disappeared into a tree the size of a skyscraper, my home, to pack my things.
I stayed in the tub, drinking wine like water and silently raging at my Master.
The hounds of Annwvyn continued to mourn.
Two: They Sing Their Pain
Earth-side, again. I’d crossed over a couple days ago, making calls and getting ready to move to Canada. Now, I sat on a passenger train as it slowed for its final approach into London two hours or so outside of Toronto.
Freaking settlers must’ve been missing home, almost everything I’d seen on the cross-country train-ride had been named after cities in the old-country. I adjusted my reclining seat as the train slowed with an easy, rhythmic, clacking of wheels on tracks. The polite announcement, in both English and French, that we’d arrived in London shouldn’t have sent chill fingers worming through my gut, but it did.
I slid my Chopard de Rigo Vision sunglasses over my face. I’d been ridiculously in vogue as a model the last time I’d tried to come back, and if I were photographed wearing the glasses, I’d get a kickback from the company.
I wasn’t rich enough that I couldn’t use more money, and I had no intention of modeling again, so a payout would be welcome. I’d popped back to do shoots for years, so I was still current…and, unfortunately, recognizable.
If I’d known My Lord had this planned for me, I would have stopped modeling and let my face become less well-known. At least the bloody glasses were large enough that I hoped I wouldn’t be spotted. Fat chance of that.
I tugged the frayed edge of my oversized dark-blue hoodie down over my forehead and nibbled my lip. Being back on this side of the veil irked me. This whole assignment enraged me. I hated what My Lord and Master had assigned me to do. I loved hunting, the track, the pursuit, and when I was being honest with myself, I loved the kill as well. It got me hot like sex never did. Almost never, you lying wanker. This position, this promotion, would take so much of that away from me. Especially now that I’d arrived in London. Investigating a murder wouldn’t let me ease my bloodlust. It just wouldn’t.
Here, I’d be responsible for overseeing the heads of otherkin clans and working out problems between them. I’d have to clean up any messes they’d inevitably make before the humans found them. I’d also need to maintain alliances and treaties with the various non-Welsh clans of supernats.
My Lord and Master had taken me from my beloved home, my job of an assassin, and plopped me into a fucking bureaucrat’s position. If He could die—and stay dead—I’d almost consider it, I was so pissed off at Him.
On top of that, I could almost feel the nearness of him. Of my husband. My beloved, my betrayer.
“Fuck,” I muttered and stood up. The rest of the business-class passengers glanced askance at me, and I bit my lip again. I’d have to rein in my urge to cuss like an old sailor if I were going to be schmoozing with some of the upper crust. Gods forbid one act real around that lot. They’d glance away at their peers, delicately shudder and wince at the slightest hint that I wasn’t refined, cultured, normal. I could ape it with the best of them—but damn me for a sinner—it’d gotten old a few centuries ago, and I just wasn’t in the mood.
I shouldered my bag; it too was a gimme from a company hoping I’d be photographed with it. Unlike the sunglasses, I loved my bag. I adored it so much I’d used and worn it for close to a decade.
I didn’t have much in it, just a few personal mementos, ID, a change of clothes, a hair pick, and toothbrush. Intercontinental flights weren’t my favorite, because I actually hated to fly inside a plane, but I knew the routine well from my last sojourn on this side.
The last time I’d tried to come back. ’Cause fuck me with a swizzle-stick? That’d been a piss-poor idea. Just wait, I’m good at those.
In the time it’d taken me to get my bearings and travel from Cardiff, Wales, to London Ontario, Canada, my assistant and friend Meg would’ve managed a lot. She was almost eerily efficient and by now would’ve either ordered clothes for me or had my shipping container brought over. Probably both.
My heart rocketed in my chest, hoping against hope that he’d be there when I stepped off the train. He’d been informed by then that I was assigned here. What I’d have done if he were there, kiss him or kill him, I didn’t know.
I cursed myself for a pillock as I made my way through the vestibule, past the smiling service attendant and clunked down the metal steps. The sound of my heavy leather boots echoed in the well. My worn jeans chuffed as I purposefully dragged my heels against the floor.
Anything to break the habit of the catwalk stalk I’d used professionally. Anyone trained to kill thinking beings—you know, like me—could recognize another by their walk. I couldn’t let myself forget there was a murderer in London. It could even be Kai for all I knew, and he’d know what I’d become by now. After all, I knew almost everything about him.
In the sanguine trade, a person’s walk and hands were just as recognizable as their faces. With a murderer on my to-do list, I needed to change as much about me as I could. I walked into the VIA terminal and couldn’t stop myself from looking for Kai. But there were no towering, dark-haired, bronze-skinned men waiting for me. I’m barmy, bleeding daft.
I shook my head, stuffed my despair—stupid emotion—down into the darkness of my soul where it belonged, and pushed out of the station and into the balmy caress of fall sunlight. At twenty-four degrees Celsius, you’d never know it was late October.
I guess it must’ve been because this tip of Ontario was farther south than much of the upper northeastern US. The latitude and weather were apparently close to northern California’s, or so Meg had informed me when I called from a layover.
I looked up just as my best friend rammed into me. My breath oofed out as she wrapped soft arms around my waist and buried her blonde head under my chin. I turned mine and rested my cheek on the top of her expensively highlighted hair. I held her deliciously curvy body close.
“Meg.” I inhaled the scent of her; she always smelled like cinnamon and vanilla. I wished my body responded to her the way I wanted it to. I wanted—so badly—to love her as more than a friend, had wanted that for a long time—to be able to return her love, but I just didn’t work that way. There was only one person on the planet I’d never regretted having sex with. Him.
Last time I’d been on this side of the veil, I’d finally found words to describe my experiences with sex and romance. It still felt weird to have actual words, but at least knowing I’m gray-aromantic and demisexual made a huge difference in how gently I treated myself. For too long, I’d thought I was broken ’cause I didn’t feel desire like most everyone around me. Because, in general, romance in real life confused me.
Take the gorgeous armful of woman in my arms. I’m bisexual, and we’d been close for years. Having sex with my best friend could’ve been something to make me happy. Unfortunately, without a deep, emotionally satisfying connection, I didn’t desire sex. Just the way I’m built. If I tried to force myself—and I’d done more than my share of stupid shit trying to feel normal—I’d end up empty, numb, and really wishing I hadn’t gone there. Then would come the self-punishment because I’d tried again, adding nauseated and dirty to the mix. After that…well, some people ate to punish themselves. Some exercised. Me? I washed. I scrubbed myself ’til I almost bled to maybe, finally, get it into my thick freaking head that sex just didn’t work for me.
The soft weight of Meg’s breasts against my chest and the curve of her underwire push-up bra would’ve stirred just about anyone to desire. Not me. Even if I did just go for it and had sex with my gorgeous—in love with me—best friend with the delicious Irish accent, I’d regret it in the morning. My reaction might even ruin our friendship. I squeezed her, using a fraction of my strength, and she squeaked.
“Careful, a chéadsearc. I’m just a human.” She whispered the words against my throat in her heavy Dublin accent and dropped a quick kiss on my shoulder before pulling back. “Come on. Parking costs are rapacious here.”
I looked around the small downtown parking lot on Richmond and York. While the train station was gleaming and pretty—all concrete and shining glass—downtown itself mixed old buildings with faded murals and new pavement, upscale boutiques, mom-and-pop convenience stores, and head shops.
The stink of road work—tar, oil, and gasoline fumes—blended with the crisp scent of death floating in the air. The loamy reek of dying leaves and the earth sliding into sleep.
I hadn’t been back Earth-side for more than a day in over five years. Now My Lord expected me to live there. I shuddered. I’d gotten used to not hiding who and what I was. It would take me a bit of time to blend again, time I couldn’t afford.
Meg guided me to a lux BMW Z-series roadster. She unlocked the two-seater with a beep from her key fob. “I’ve got the house opened up, a rúnsearc, and we’ve an appointment at the couturier tomorrow for your first fitting.”
I groaned, let my head fall back against the butter-soft leather of the seating, and yanked the door closed. “Not another bloody dress?”
“Of course, you have a position to maintain. We’ll need to be holding some sort of formal meet and greet, like a ball with your clan heads sooner than later.”
The door sealed with a muffled, well-crafted thump as I belted myself in and tugged the hoodie down again. Meg’s vociferous hug had skewed it, revealing the scarlet shock of my hair.
She glanced sideways at me from big blue eyes as she pulled out of the parking lot and onto York. “You can’t hide who you are, Risk. The second you show your face without those ridiculous glasses, you’ll be recognized by someone. North Americans love European models, and you’re world-renowned.”
“Hey, these are the most expensive sunglasses in the world.” I cringed at the sight of my own face on a Balenciaga billboard as she drove up Springbank Drive. “Modeling was a bad idea.”
“Oh, I don’t know. I liked that black-and-white bikini on you. Their spring collection is sharp. Made you look as sexy-scary-dangerous as you really are.” She pushed her sunglasses up on her perfect—plastic-surgeon enhanced—nose. “Besides, if you hadn’t modeled, I’d never have met you, and I’m rather glad I did.”
“True, but I still have this sneaking feeling I shouldn’t have done it. It was different the last few times.”
Meg made a derisive noise akin to bodily effluvia and smirked. “Yes, darling… when the artists are using oil paint, it’s a bit different from digital photography. Besides, you said it yourself, the money was brilliant.”
“I didn’t need the dosh that badly.”
“Everyone needs the money, Risk. Even you. Even if it’s only as a cover for where your real lolly comes from.”
I stabbed a finger into the on button of the stereo system and smiled at the sounds of Yelawolf’s “Best Friend.” My soul happy, I said, “Cheers, Meg. I missed my music.”
“If you can call it that.”
“They sing their pain. It lets me feel mine. That’s why I like American hip-hop so much.”
“Hmmm.” Meg turned onto Colonel Talbot and gunned the engine to take us over the hill. The car responded like the well-oiled, expensive ride it was and raced up the curving lanes of the road. Dark-green shadows of still heavily leafed trees wearing fall colors raced over us as Meg drove us to my new home. My new life. Our new home. My stomach roiled.
She put on her blinker and turned right onto Southdale. We passed small farm stands selling local produce. Cornfields and defunct orchards zipped by. We drove up and down twisty hills until we turned right on Westdel Bourne. A quick dog-leg and a left had us cruising up Elviage Drive to a private entrance.
Multimillion dollar homes dotted the landscape, surrounded by discreet, elegant gardens and old hardwood forests. She guided the overpriced car up the private driveway and reached up to tap the garage door opener on the back of her visor.
One of the four—my eyes widened—four garage bays opened up. Meg slid the Beemer into the cool dark of the building and turned off the engine as the door slid almost soundlessly shut behind us.
“I instructed the chef to prepare a luncheon for us before I left.”
My stomach grumbled, loudly. “We have a chef?”
“And a butler, accountant, lawyer, on-call concierge medical service, landscapers, poolkeepers, stable keeper, mechanic, underbutler, IT staff, web security, security team, personal trainer, on-call media liaison, and a masseuse.” She took a deep breath and rattled off another stream of people who worked for me. “We have a head housekeeper and cleaning staff, as well as a floral gardener on top of the landscapers. I’m pretty sure most of them are Tylwyth Teg, except perhaps the social secretary. Though, of course, I haven’t asked. The budget for entertaining the heads of your clans could feed a small country, and the one for entertaining the ambassadors of the non-clan otherkin? Wow.” Her lush lips—painted scarlet—quirked to the side. “Though I don’t recommend doing the two at the same time.”
“Gods. Fucking. Dammit.” My tone dripped vituperation. “I almost hate Him for this.”
“How can you hate Him? He’s a god. Your god to be specific.”
“He’s also an arsehole who’s taken a very large portion of my choice away from me. I have no option but to see Alkaios again.”
“Hmmm.” The disbelief and gentle I-told-you-so were so clear in Meg’s voice that I slid out of the car, grabbed my bag, and stalked into the house.
“Gods blind me.” My eyelids ached with how widely they stretched.
Meg’s smirk was audible. “Right? We’re used to the good stuff, but I wouldn’t doubt that the faucets and taps are real gold.”
I didn’t respond but looked around the new place.
The garage let us out onto the mosaic-tiled foyer behind one of two sets of sweeping stairs curving in opposing arches to a landing at the top. The staircases looked like wings and the mosaic depicted, with many tiny tiles, the Dark God in all His glory. Stag horns, cloven feet, and red robe. It didn’t come close to capturing His majesty, though.
Meg insisted on giving me a tour of the main floor, library, entertainment room, fully staffed kitchen, dining room with a table that could’ve seated thirty, ballroom with ridiculous chandeliers, and various other rooms, and then she led me back to the foyer and the front stairs.
“Come on, then.” With a wave of her hand, Meg kicked off her heels—heels that made me wince at their height and everything they reminded me of—and walked in her stockinged feet up the ivory-colored runner on the crimson-carpeted stairs.
I eyed the gracious curve of her calves and wished I felt desire for her. You know, good old-fashioned want-to-have-sex kind of desire. I didn’t, and that made my heart ache, because I wanted to. As it stood, I just appreciated the view. Aesthetic attraction, we asexuals called it. The desire just to appreciate how someone looked without going there, sexually.
The ivory gave way to gold-and-cream edged Prussian blue in the upstairs hall, and I sighed in pleasure when she showed me the bedroom. It was like someone had designed it just for me. Shades of peacock blue and black covered the real-silk wall coverings. Thick, soft carpets with designs carved into the nap cushioned our feet and the wood gleamed a deep, dark cherr