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The first time I'd knowingly woven planes of existence was under the light of the Blood Moon. That was six months ago, and I'd been under the power of a madman at the time, the ability bursting from me in a magical hemorrhage. Since then, I'd shoved reality around a bit and occasionally pushed or pulled things between planes, but I hadn't made many strides in learning to harness my planeweaving. Last month I'd intentionally woven a net of reality for the first time in an effort to save my best friend. My hands now bore the evidence. Dozens of shiny pink scars crossed over my palms and marred my fingers. Thankfully I hadn't lost any function or feeling, but the scars acted as a daily reminder that I was fumbling my way around a magic I knew almost nothing about.
There had to be a better way.
I needed training. And the only two planeweavers anyone had heard about in generations-besides me, of course-resided in the high court. Which no one could tell me how to reach. I was surrounded by fae these days, even lived in my own Faerie castle, but information on the high court was limited.
My housemate, Caleb, had been born an independent fae and knew very little about the inner workings of the courts. The Winter Queen's knight, Falin, was far more connected, but he was young for a fae and had been raised outside Faerie to increase his tolerance for iron and technology. Ms. B, the brownie who'd appointed herself office manager of Tongues for the Dead, had told me she didn't pay much attention to the "overgrown" court fae when I'd asked her. Not even the rather ancient frost fae ghost who haunted my castle could tell me more than rumors. Unfortunately, that left the list of fae I could ask about the high court depressingly short.
I could request an audience with the Winter Queen-she had to know. But the price she would extract might be worse than my fumbling attempt to learn on my own. The other fae I could ask would be easier to approach, but he was a mystery wrapped in a contradiction. He was a fae in hiding who didn't belong to the local court-which shouldn't have been possible-as well as a prominent member in mortal government, in a party called the Humans First Party, which was basically a hate group against fae and witches. Oh yeah, and he was my father.
My name is Alex Craft, and as one might guess, I have a complicated relationship with my family. I'm a private investigator for Tongues for the Dead, a firm I run with my best friend and fellow grave witch, Rianna McBride. We specialize in raising shades of the dead so that they can be questioned, but we'd take about any case from missing persons to discerning curses on knickknacks. Unfortunately, because of a recent PR nightmare in which I was accused of magical mass murder, business was so dead we could barely justify keeping the lights on. It gave me a lot of time to study the scars and dwell on how very badly I needed a teacher. Which was why I was now staring at my father's phone number. I didn't want to call him, but where else could I turn?
I hit the dial button. He picked up on the third ring.
"My errant daughter. To what emergency do I owe this honor?"
Yeah, maybe I didn't call my father often. But I didn't exactly trust him. Plus, he'd kind of hidden the fact that he-and thus I-was fae, and oh yeah, he more or less excommunicated me when my grave magic appeared and couldn't be hidden.
"No emergency. I just need some answers. How would I contact someone in the high court?"
The line was quiet so long that I pulled the phone away from my ear and checked the screen to make sure the call hadn't been dropped.
"That's not the kind of information I can just give away," he finally said.
Great. "But you do know a way?"
"So what will it cost me? A favor? A quest?" If he said my firstborn, I was never speaking to him again.
Again the drawn-out silence. Finally he said, "I have a request of you. There is an . . . issue that I believe you will be asked to investigate very soon. Accept. Do what you can. Please." The last word sounded like he'd had to painfully pluck it from his mouth.
I blinked in surprise, realizing what he was offering. Apparently it wasn't that he wouldn't tell me how to contact the high court, it was that he couldn't. But he'd just offered me a way to put him in my debt and force him to tell me.
"What will this case involve? And who should I expect to bring it to me?"
"You won't be able to miss it."
"Why is that not reassuring," I said, but I was speaking to empty air. He'd hung up.
The bell on the door chimed while I was still staring at my phone. I jumped to my feet. This can't be the case already. But we hadn't had a client in weeks, and I couldn't feel Rianna's magic-or any magic-so it wasn't her. I rushed around my desk, shoving the phone in my back pocket as I hurried to my office door. I pulled on my gloves in quick, practiced motions-the scars drew too much attention. Then I forced myself to slow down and smile before I stepped into the lobby. I didn't want to look desperate.
Normally-or at least the more recent normal-Ms. B would have been in the front office to greet potential clients, but while she showed up exactly on time each morning and checked for messages and appointments, she'd started leaving for the bulk of each day. Not that I faulted her. Sitting around an empty office was boring at best, and downright depressing in truth. Rianna wasn't in the office today either, as we'd taken to alternating who got the discouraging task of minding the office each day, so that left only me. Which, if this was the case my father wanted me to work, could be a good situation. Or it could be a very dangerous one.
A man stood just inside the door, his gaze scanning every inch of the room. There was a stiffness to his posture, an attentiveness to the way he efficiently searched the space, that spoke to the fact that he wasn't admiring the furnishings but was looking for threats. I forced my smile to hold and kept my own posture nonthreatening. After all, people were often jumpy when dealing with grave witches. Then the man's attention focused on me, and my smile froze, turning brittle. The greeting that I'd been about to utter caught in my throat, tangled with a knot of fear that lodged at my sternum before melting down into my stomach.
It wasn't that the man looked particularly threatening. In fact, if I was honest, he was rather attractive. Tall, with dark hair pulled back from a well-angled face. The dark suit he wore looked ridiculously expensive and expertly tailored over his obviously muscled body. He carried no overt weapons nor any trace of magic, though one hand was suspiciously close to his waist as if a twitch away from an unseen sword. He smiled as our gazes met, striding across the room without hesitation now that he'd determined there were no hidden threats.
Or perhaps he'd been searching for potential witnesses.
"Prince Dugan," I said, forcing myself to stand my ground and not flee back into my office. My fingers itched to draw the enchanted dagger hidden in my boot, but I didn't. The prince of the shadow court wasn't my enemy-and I didn't want to make him such-but he wasn't exactly a friend either. He definitely had to be the case my father wanted me to work, though I had no idea how he'd gotten here so fast. I'd literally just gotten off the phone when the bell on the door had chimed.
"My lady," Dugan said, inclining his head ever so slightly toward me. His ground-eating stride took him to a spot less than a yard in front of me before he stopped. He smiled again, but there was little warmth to the expression. His lips moved, but his eyes were weary, guarded. Not hostile, though, and he didn't try to close the last bit of space he'd left between us.
The professional smile I'd been clinging to shattered, giving way to a suspicious frown as I studied him. The afternoon sunlight streaming through the front window seemed to shy away from him, or maybe it was that the shadows in the corners of the room reached out toward him. I wasn't sure if that was a passive effect of being a prince of the shadow court, or if he was using glamour to draw in the shadows like a cloak, even in the light, but it was an eerie effect.
"My father mentioned you'd be coming, but he didn't tell me anything about the case you're bringing."
The prince cocked his head to the side, a look of genuine bewilderment crossing his features. "Your father?"
My frown deepened. "He didn't send you?" But I could already read the answer before he shook his head.
"I've not seen nor spoken to him in months."
Right. So then was this not the case he'd mentioned? And if not, what was Dugan doing here? Not just in my lobby, but in Nekros City. "What can I do for you?"
"That is your . . . office?" He said the last word as if it were a foreign concept to him, but he nodded toward the door I'd emerged from when I'd heard the bell chime. "You usually take clients there?"
I nodded, stepping aside as I gestured to the door. He didn't hesitate, but swept past me, the misplaced shadows following him into my small office. I stared after him for a moment, wondering again what the hell he was doing here. Nekros City was winter court territory, and I was fairly certain the Winter Queen would take none too kindly to the presence of any shadow fae in her land, let alone the prince of their court.
As if summoned by my thoughts, the front door burst open and the queen's knight, Falin Andrews, stormed into the lobby. His movements were smooth and lethally efficient as his icy blue eyes made a quick sweep of the room. When his gaze fixed on me, relief softened the hard planes of his handsome face as he assessed that I was safe and seemingly alone.
"Come on, we have to go," he said, holding out a gloved hand toward me. "The prince of the shadow court has entered Nekros."
Aside from being the Winter Queen's knight-her bloody hands she sent to do any dirty work she might have-Falin was also the head of the local Fae Investigation Bureau, my one-time-only lover, a housemate of sorts, and a friend. It was impossible to miss the fact that he'd been worried when he'd entered. Which meant he really wasn't going to like what I was about to say.
"I know. He's here."
Right on cue, Dugan stepped out of my office. Falin's gun was in his hands and aimed at the fae behind me before I even had time to register that he'd drawn the weapon.
"I claim the right to open roads," Dugan said, opening his palms in a gesture clearly meant to show he was not going for a weapon.
Falin didn't lower the gun. "That custom was intended for use by independents, not a Sleagh Maith prince."
"Still, all the same, I can claim it."
I frowned between the two of them. "Is someone going to explain what's going on? What is the right to open roads?"
Falin's eyes flickered toward me, but he kept his gun trained on Dugan a moment longer before he apparently decided he wasn't going to shoot the prince and lowered the weapon. But while it wasn't trained on the other fae anymore, he didn't holster it.
"The right to open roads is a very old agreement the courts made that dates back to a time when communication and travel were more difficult. It gives an outside fae the right to pass through the mortal realm territories of a court in which they don't belong as long as the two courts are not at war and the fae is not banished, exiled, or otherwise named an enemy of the court. It can only be invoked once a year and only for twelve hours." He nodded to Dugan. "You have your token?"
Dugan reached into his pocket-causing Falin's hand to visibly flex on his gun. The prince didn't miss the movement. His eyebrows rose, but he kept his motions slow as he pulled a small stone from his pocket and held it up for Falin to examine. A deep blue light pulsed in the center of the stone. I couldn't be sure, but I was guessing the "token" marked that his twelve hours were still in effect.
"Fine." Falin barked out the word, less than happy but bound by the laws of Faerie. "Now shouldn't you be using your open roads to move along?"
"I am also invoking the Sanctuary of Artisans."
If Falin's glare had been frosty before, it now turned subzero and he spared a flicker of it for me.
"Wait, the what of the who? What am I missing here?" I asked, glancing between the two men.
"What did he hire you to do?" Falin asked, studying me.
"We haven't gotten that far," Dugan said, and for the first time, true emotion bled into his voice. That emotion happened to be annoyance. Awesome. "I only just arrived, but as you can see, I have come to her place of business with the purpose of commissioning her. So my presence here is justified by the Sanctuary of Artisans."
I crossed my arms over my chest. "Is anyone going to explain that one to the girl that didn't grow up in Faerie?"
The two men stared at each other. Dugan was clearly being purposefully nonthreatening, and it was just as clear that the necessity of the action annoyed him. For his part, Falin had also taken things down a notch, but it definitely irritated him that he couldn't challenge the Shadow Prince over his presence in winter's territory. I was between them, both physically and metaphorically. I'm not a short girl, but both men were taller than me, and broad with muscles, so I felt absolutely petite. Which was rather irritating. I crossed my arms over my chest, standing up straighter, but it didn't make a difference. The Shadow Prince was all darkness with his tailored suit and inky black hair. Falin, in contrast, wore a crisp white oxford, his platinum blond hair pulled back from his well-chiseled face. I felt stuck between yin and yang, but it didn't make me feel balanced. More like a tug toy.