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I hate politics. Too bad my father is a big-deal Fae politician, hoping to get bigger. Also too bad that I’d run away from home to escape my alcoholic mother and live with my father in hopes of a more normal life, because what I’d gotten was a heaping helping of anything-but-normal, with a side order of mortal danger. Which is how I found myself dressed in an insanely expensive midnight-blue evening dress—wearing heels, no less—and being escorted by my tux-clad father to a fancy state dinner I wanted no part of.
The dinner was at the Consul’s mansion. My dad and I joined the glittering cream of Avalon high society, waiting in line between the velvet ropes as a pair of Knights controlled traffic and checked invitations. I’d never been to an event anywhere near as formal as this before, and I wouldn’t have been at this one if my dad hadn’t insisted.
When I came to Avalon, the only place where the mortal world and Faerie intersect, I already knew my father was some kind of big-deal Fae. What I didn’t know was all the zillions of ways his status would affect my life. Or that he would try to use me as a pawn in his political chess game. You see, in a little more than a year, the current human Consul—the most powerful person in Avalon, kind of like a president, but not really—was going to have to step down in favor of a Fae. The Consulship changes hands between humans and Fae every ten years, and my dad was bound and determined to be the next Consul of Avalon.
Another thing I’d had no clue about before I’d blundered into Avalon was that every once in a while, when a really powerful Fae—like, say, my father—had a child with a human, that child was … special. A Faeriewalker, someone with enough Fae blood to travel into Faerie and enough mortal blood to travel into the mortal world. But here’s the kicker: not only can Faeriewalkers travel freely in both worlds, they can bring magic into the mortal world and technology into Faerie.
Yup, you guessed it: I’m a Faeriewalker. A rare breed, seeing as the last one before me died almost a century ago. And because of my unique abilities, I became a political asset, which was why my dad was dragging me along to this event when I’d have preferred to stay home and scrounge something from the fridge. Everyone in freakin’ Avalon knew about me, knew I was a Faeriewalker, but Dad had to trot me out to the dinner and show me off, remind everyone that I was his daughter and that if he became Consul, he’d use me to Avalon’s advantage. Never mind that I wasn’t going to let him “use” me for anything, and he knew it.
“Try not to scowl quite so fiercely, Dana,” he said to me in a dry undertone as we inched toward the head of the line.
I tried to wipe the scowl from my face, though I’m not sure I succeeded. “You are going to owe me for this big-time,” I muttered, and out of the corner of my eye, I saw his lips curve into a faint smile.
“Maybe you’ll enjoy yourself,” he suggested, handing his invitation to the Knight with the clipboard.
Knights are Fae warriors, and there was something just wrong about seeing one standing there with a clipboard. Of course, he probably had about a hundred weapons concealed on him, and I could feel the prickly sensation of magic surrounding him. Supposedly only true Fae could sense magic, but I was apparently the exception. Because being a garden-variety Faeriewalker didn’t make me freakish enough. I’d managed to keep my affinity with magic hidden from almost everyone—even my father—so far, and I planned to keep it that way.
The Knight waved us through, and we climbed a set of red-carpeted stairs into a cavernous marble entryway. There were more Knights inside, directing the crowd down a long hallway and making sure no one strayed from the path. They were dressed in tuxes, just like all the other men in the crowd, but they stuck out like sore thumbs anyway, with their muscular builds, their severe expressions, and their not-so-covert surveillance.
“Yeah, this is going to be tons of fun,” I mumbled, keeping my voice low so it wouldn’t echo off the marble. I didn’t need any prior experience with state dinners to guess it was going to include a lot of long, boring speeches. And that Dad was going to introduce me to a lot of people with whom I was supposed to make polite small talk and smile. Just how any sixteen-year-old likes to spend the evening, right?
I could, of course, be a total brat and play the part of the sullen, bored teenager, making my dad regret dragging me along. But he and I were still sort of learning our way around each other, and if I was going to be difficult about something, it would be something more important than whether or not I had to sit through a bunch of speeches.
At the end of the hallway, we had to stand in line again, but this was worse, because I could see—and hear—what was in store for us when we got to the head of the line. There was a tall, thin Fae man standing there, and everyone stopped when they stepped up beside him, then waited for him to announce their names in a loud, deep voice, after which they could finally enter the room and go through an endless-looking receiving line.
Groan! If it took this much time and effort to even get in, I didn’t want to know how long the dinner was going to take. I wondered if I could convince Dad I’d suddenly developed a migraine, or the flu. Maybe Ebola.
“You’re scowling again,” Dad whispered, and I gave him a dirty look.
“This counts as cruel and unusual punishment,” I told him. “And I haven’t even done anything wrong.” The bratty, sullen teenager idea was beginning to hold a certain appeal. Maybe I could embarrass my dad enough to make him send me home.
Dad sighed, but we’d reached the head of the line so he made no comeback. We stood on the landing right outside an honest-to-goodness ballroom, and I was painfully aware that even though we hadn’t been announced yet, and even though there was a lovely Fae woman currently making her way through the receiving line, practically all eyes in the room were on us. My palms felt clammy, and I hoped my face wasn’t flushed with embarrassment.
“Seamus Stuart,” the gatekeeper, or whatever you call him, intoned, and anyone who hadn’t already been looking at us turned their heads in our direction. “And Dana Stuart,” the gatekeeper finished, and I had to clench my teeth to resist the urge to correct him.
I could count the weeks I’d known my dad on one hand, and I’d always gone by my mother’s name, Hathaway. Guess my dad had “forgotten” that when he had me added to the guest list. If it weren’t for our audience, I’d have ripped into him on the spot. Instead, I plastered on the world’s fakest smile and promised myself a good temper tantrum later.
* * *
The next forty-five minutes were about as much fun as sitting in the dentist’s chair. Each time my dad ran into someone he knew—and I swear he knew every person in the room—it was the same thing. They’d exchange some stupid small talk, Dad would introduce me, and then they’d start talking politics.
The high heels were pinching my toes, and I was losing sensation in the balls of my feet as we continued our circuit of the room. My face hurt from the fake-smiling, and I was so bored I had to swallow a yawn every three seconds. And we weren’t even to the speeches yet!
Throughout the torturous meet-and-greet, more people kept arriving at the party, each one announced in a voice that cut through all the chatter. At first, I couldn’t help looking every time someone new came in, but since it was never anyone interesting, I stopped paying attention. Until a wave of silence swept over the room, and even my dad turned to look.
The party had been under way for over an hour, and the Important Dignitaries in the receiving line had abandoned their posts to come mingle with us little people, so there was no line waiting to come in. As a result, everyone in the room had a crystal-clear view of the figure who stood regally in the doorway. I immediately suspected he’d planned things that way.
In some ways, he was a typical Fae man. Tall, lean, with angular features that were painfully beautiful. And yet, he was like no Fae I’d seen before. He was dressed in an outfit that looked like it came straight out of some artsy historical movie, complete with a crimson velvet coat with enormous cuffs and elaborately embroidered lapels, knee breeches, and a frothy white neckcloth. Crimson wasn’t a good color for him, not with his typical Fae pallor and the long red hair that framed his face under a thin gold circlet, but his lack of fashion sense didn’t make him any less breathtaking.
“His Royal Highness, Henry, Prince of the Seelie Court,” the announcer said into the silence that had overtaken the room.
Many of the Fae bowed or curtsied. I glanced at my dad out of the corner of my eye and saw that he didn’t, even though he was a card-carrying member of the Seelie Court. Avalon had seceded from Faerie about a hundred years ago, and in theory, its Fae citizens weren’t supposed to belong to either the Seelie or the Unseelie Court. In reality, there were very few Fae in Avalon who didn’t align themselves with one Court or the other.
Prince Henry soaked in the attention for a moment, standing nearly motionless in the entryway as his gaze swept the room. My stomach did a flip-flop when the prince’s eyes stopped on my father’s face, then slid to me. A smile curled his lips, and there was something oily and unpleasant about it. I took an instant dislike to him and didn’t care that it probably wasn’t fair of me.
The prince finally stepped into the room, breaking the spell of silence he had cast. People started talking again, and the folks who’d been in the receiving line swarmed to greet their royal guest. I rubbed my sweaty palms together and looked at my dad. It didn’t matter that as his daughter, I was generally considered to be Seelie even though I hadn’t sworn allegiance. The Queens of both Courts felt threatened by my abilities and wanted me dead. That made Prince Henry the enemy in my book.
“Who is Prince Henry?” I asked Dad in an urgent undertone. “And shouldn’t we be heading for the nearest exit?”
Dad patted my shoulder in one of his reserved Fae gestures of affection. “You’re perfectly safe here,” he assured me. “Henry is one of Titania’s sons, but she’d never use him in an assassination attempt. And she certainly wouldn’t do it here of all places.”
I’m sure Dad meant that to be comforting, but my mouth had gone dry and my heart was speeding. I couldn’t see it as anything but a bad sign that a member of the royal family was in town. Not when the royal family wanted me dead.
“Did you know he was going to be here?” I asked.
Dad shook his head slightly. “I had no idea. I don’t know what Titania’s playing at, but I have a feeling we’ll find out before the evening is out.”
I watched the knot of people surrounding the prince move closer and closer to us, and my throat tightened. “Is it my imagination, or is he moving in our direction?”
“It’s not your imagination.”
“Great,” I muttered. Not that I thought I was in any real danger. I had a feeling that if a member of one of the royal families showed up at a state dinner and killed one of the guests, that might start an international incident. Maybe even a war. So I was pretty sure Dad was right and Prince Henry wasn’t making his way toward us with murder on his mind. I just didn’t think whatever was on his mind was something I’d like any better.
“Isn’t it time to go in to dinner yet?” I asked, looking around longingly for some sign that the crowd was moving toward the dining room. No such luck.
“Nice try,” Dad said with one of his wry smiles. “Royalty isn’t avoided so easily.”
The prince was getting closer, and though many people were gathered around him, there were four Knights, dressed in clothing just as archaic as the prince’s, keeping the crowd at a respectable distance. I could feel the magic coming off the group when they were still, like, twenty yards away. Seemed a little rude to me to be so blatantly guarding the prince’s safety in the midst of the Consul’s mansion—as if the mansion weren’t a secure location—but what did I know?
Although the prince bore zero resemblance to my dad, I knew my dad had been Titania’s consort once, a long, long time ago, so I couldn’t help asking, “He’s not another half brother you’ve forgotten to tell me about, is he?”
My dad isn’t the most expressive person in the world, but I was getting to know him well enough to see the slight tightening at the corners of his eyes that said I’d hit a nerve. “Connor is my only son,” he said softly, “and you are my only daughter.”
I wished I hadn’t asked. Connor had been captured and basically enslaved by the Erlking, the leader of the Wild Hunt, a group of Fae huntsman who in the olden days preyed on human and Fae quarry. Now, because of an agreement the Erlking had with the government of Avalon, humans were off their menu. And because the Erlking had also made an agreement with both Queens of Faerie, the only Fae they hunted were ones the Queens condemned. None of which helped Connor, who’d been captured before any of these agreements had been made, centuries ago. My father still grieved for Connor as if he were dead, and I wished I could do something to help.
I didn’t have much time to brood about my insensitive question, because Prince Henry had made it through the throng and was now standing face-to-face with my dad. The annoying tingle of the Knights’ magic made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.
“Seamus,” the prince said with a big smile, “you’re looking well.”
My father returned the smile, but there was no warmth in it. Come to mention it, there wasn’t a whole lot of warmth in the prince’s smile, either. Maybe it was just Fae reserve, but I had the instant impression the two of them didn’t like each other. I didn’t think Titania’s desire to have me killed was going to improve their relationship.
“As are you, Henry,” my father said, and though no one’s expression overtly changed, I could feel the mingled outrage and surprise of the people around us. My guess was that calling the prince by his first name was “not done.” The Knights in Henry’s entourage stopped pretending they were oblivious to all but their duty and stared at my father. It didn’t seem to bother him. “Such splendor as yours is rarely seen in our fair city,” he said with a respectful half-bow, and Henry’s smile froze for just an instant.
Wow. Dad really knew how to take something that sounded like a compliment and make it obviously an insult. All the while smiling as if he were being perfectly pleasant.
I had to admit, as … resplendent as Prince Henry looked in his fancy velvet, he also looked like an escapee from a costume party. The Fae—especially those who live in Faerie—take being old-fashioned to the extreme, and I had no doubt that they had yet to embrace modern fashion. But I doubted the prince was so behind the times that he didn’t know how out of place he’d look in Avalon in that getup.
Prince Henry continued to smile. “And you have been absent from our fair Court for too long and have been sorely missed.”
They shook hands heartily, but I was pretty sure that had been a veiled insult as well. It occurred to me that I’d never asked my dad why he’d left Faerie to live in Avalon. I wondered if he’d come to Avalon because he’d lost status when Titania had put him aside as her consort. Or if it had something to do with their son being captured by the Wild Hunt.
“Avalon is my home,” my father said simply, “and I find myself reluctant to leave it even for the joys of Titania’s Court.”
“I hope you can be persuaded to change your mind,” Henry said, then turned his gaze to me.
Maybe it was because my father so obviously didn’t like this guy, or maybe it was just because he belonged to one of the Courts that wanted me dead, but his gaze felt almost slimy, and it made me want to squirm. But I’d stood up to the Erlking a couple of times—mostly to my detriment, I must admit—and I wasn’t about to let Henry intimidate me. At least, I wasn’t going to let him see that he intimidated me. So I met his gaze and fought my urge to squirm, despite the malice I could have sworn I saw in his eyes.
“This must be your daughter, the Faeriewalker,” Prince Henry said.
Dad put his arm around my shoulders, which was a positively effusive gesture for him. “Yes, this is Dana,” he said, a hint of warning in his tone.
“What a great pleasure it is to make your acquaintance,” Prince Henry said, reaching out his hand as if to shake.
I didn’t want to touch him—he was giving me that bad a vibe—but there were about a million people watching us, and I didn’t want to be openly rude. Unfortunately, instead of shaking my hand like I’d thought, he raised my hand to his lips and planted a kiss on my knuckles. His lips were uncomfortably wet, and I had to resist an urge to yank my hand from his grip and wipe it on my dress.
He held on to my hand longer than necessary, looking at me expectantly. I suppose he was waiting for a polite response of some sort, but he’d creeped me out so badly that my throat had closed up and I couldn’t say a word.
There was a flare of satisfaction in the prince’s eyes when he finally let go of my hand, and I cursed myself for being such a wimp. There’d been a battle of wills going on, and I’d lost. I turned my hand slightly as I brought it back to my side, letting the back of it where he’d kissed me rub against my dress. I was trying to be subtle about it, but I can’t say I was overly upset when the slight narrowing of the prince’s eyes told me he’d seen it.
“There are many people more important than us eager to greet you,” my father said, his arm tightening around my shoulders. “Please, don’t let us monopolize your attention.”
What I heard—and, judging by his expression, what Henry heard—was “get out of my face.” For a moment, I thought the prince was going to lose his cool and say something openly rude, but he recovered.
“I have one more item of business to discuss with you,” he said through what I suspected were gritted teeth. He held his hand out to one of the Knights, who gave him something that looked very much like a scroll. “My mother, the Queen, is very anxious to meet this long-lost daughter of yours.” He handed the scroll to my father. “She invites you to bring your daughter to the Sunne Palace to be formally presented at Court.”
I felt my father’s jerk of surprise through his arm, and it was all I could do not to gape in shock myself.
“Is this a joke?” I found myself asking. “She wants to—” My dad’s hand tightened painfully on my shoulder, and I swallowed the rest of my sentence. I’d already said enough to win me some sharp looks of disapproval from our audience. But really, how else was I supposed to react to an invitation like that? The Seelie Queen wants to kill me, so I should leave the relative safety of Avalon and travel to her palace in Faerie to meet her in person? Either Titania was nuts, or she thought I was.
Prince Henry was staring at me again, his shoulders stiff and an expression almost like a snarl on his lips. “Rarely is an individual with mortal blood so graced by Her Majesty. She does you an unprecedented honor.” One Henry didn’t think I deserved, if the look on his face was any indicator. “You would do well to remember that and be appropriately grateful.”
Wow, my outburst must have seriously rubbed him the wrong way. I felt like I’d just been called to the front of the class and yelled at by the teacher while everyone watched. My face was hot, and I tried to keep my gaze focused on the prince so I didn’t have to see how many people were watching. I bet my dad was wishing he’d let me stay home after all.
Prince Henry turned to my dad. “It is past time you bring your daughter to receive the Queen’s blessing. One would not want to foster the impression that there is bad blood between your family and the Queen after your sister’s unfortunate actions.”
He was referring to my Aunt Grace, who’d concocted some crazy plan to use my powers to help her usurp the Seelie throne, but I didn’t see what that had to do with anything. Grace was dead, and it wasn’t like my dad and I had conspired with her.
My dad bowed his head respectfully. If he was pissed off by my outburst or Henry’s public reprimand, he hid it well. “We are, of course, greatly honored by the invitation. However, Queen Mab has shown rather less hospitality, and I fear it would not be safe for my daughter to travel into Faerie.”
I bit my tongue, hoping I didn’t look as indignant as I felt. I knew Mab wanted me dead, but I thought Titania’s murderous intent was more relevant at this point.
Prince Henry made a face that I think was supposed to express polite concern. “Of course, Her Majesty would never dream of endangering the dear child.” He smiled, raising his voice a little so that all the observers could hear his every word. “You will travel to the Sunne Palace with me as my honored guests. Rest assured that none of Mab’s people would dare to trouble my entourage. You will be quite safe. We leave in three days. Now, if you will excuse me…”
He didn’t wait for an answer, simply turned his back to us and approached one of the high-society types who’d been listening in. The prince’s Knights then stepped between us and the prince, just in case we didn’t get the hint that we were dismissed.
Copyright © 2011 by Jenna Black