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Helene Whitney was losing time. Not losing track of time, but missing hours, finding whole blank spaces in her day that she could not account for.
And it terrified her.
The first incident, after a party at the university museum where she worked as the director of development, had been easy enough to explain away. The annual gala was the highlight of the fundraising year, a white-tie dinner with dancing to follow, held in the museum’s grand atrium. It took six months to plan, an army of caterers, musicians, decorators, and florists to execute, and disrupted almost every aspect of the institution’s operations.
For Helene, it was the most important date on the calendar. Her professional life, the direction of her career, forward or back, turned on the success of this one, all-consuming night.
During the day the marble and granite halls of the museum were hushed temples to art, the quiet broken only occasionally by schoolchildren. For the gala Helene had transformed the place into a pleasure palace, awash in flowers and music, dotted with white tablecloths and gilded chairs, champagne always close at hand. She moved through this enchanted realm in a column of pale-blue silk chosen to complement the party’s decor.
It was only natural, once the dessert had been served (lemon soufflé—excellent), the speeches delivered (by the director—tendentious, and by the curators—pedantic), the pledges made (miraculous—considering the speeches), that she should reward herself for a job well done with a glass of wine. Or two. She had not remembered drinking more than that. Not at the gala, anyway.
A small group of important donors and the director had moved on to a bar in the square afterward and she had gone with them. It was the kind of place the students shunned, the preserve of well-heeled academics and successful alumni, attached to an overpriced restaurant in a converted town house.
She didn’t think she had ordered a cocktail, but she couldn’t be certain. She could recall the patio where they sat, small lights twinkling in the trees, the airy country-club atmosphere, and talking to a man whose face she couldn’t remember. When she tried to picture him, the scene blurred, and she was left with only a vague sense of charisma—and then after that, nothing—until the next morning, when she’d woken up at home.
With no hangover. Her only souvenir of the evening was a bug bite—a mosquito from the late-night drinks on the patio, probably, although she couldn’t find a welt—on her right shoulder that itched like mad.
At the time she’d just been grateful to wake up with a clear head. There were a thousand details to attend to the day after the event, thank-yous to write, rentals to return, invoices to pay, donors to follow up with, and though her boss, the museum’s director, treated her like a glorified social planner, she took her job seriously.
Helene wasn’t in it for the parties. She’d started out on a curatorial track, as a collections manager in the European paintings department. She’d quickly discovered that there was never enough money for the things that mattered in a museum: access for schoolchildren and the poor; conservation; exhibitions; sometimes even to keep the lights on. The curator she worked for was an able scholar, but he didn’t have the knack for bringing in money or for cultivating collectors and donors.
Helene did. And when money began to flow into her neglected department, the director, Dave Monroe, noticed. He’d plucked her out of her entry-level job, fired his existing director of development, and installed Helene. She had struggled at first to earn the respect of her colleagues, who thought her too young and inexperienced for the job, but since that time she’d run six annual galas for the museum, each one more successful than the last, and won over most of the staff.
The gala itself was a means to an end. The real thrill, Helene found, came in the days afterward, when money, art, and expertise flowed into the museum. It was the best part of her job.
But not this year. Two days after the gala, she’d looked up from her desk to realize that she had no idea what she’d been doing since ten that morning. A similar occurrence had followed the next day. Then nothing for a week. Then three days in a row she’d simply lost the hours from twelve to two.
The blackouts left her with a feeling of having been violated, a sense that hours of her life had been stolen. She was afraid to confide her fears to any of her friends or family, because no one would believe her.
Except for Beth Carter, and Beth Carter was three thousand miles away. There might be another source of help nearer by, but he was a man—no, he wasn’t a man, he was a Fae sorcerer—whom Helene dared not trust.
She was on her own.
Helene had dated a lawyer once whose firm required him to account for all of his time, his billable hours, in fifteen-minute increments. Recalling his method, she’d bought a ledger like the one he used and begun recording the minutiae of her day. There were exhibition planning meetings and docent lunches and hours spent at her desk drafting brochure copy and press releases, all written in the neat block capitals she liked to use at work.
And then nothing. Blank spaces where she had ceased to record her activities, as if someone had simply flipped a switch and turned Helene Whitney off.
She always woke up from these episodes, apart from the very first, sitting at her desk in her office or standing in one of the galleries at the museum. Safe places. So far, anyway. But she had suffered from claustrophobia since childhood and feared waking up in a confined space, such as one of the small, cramped public elevators, or the crowded storage rooms with their floor-to-ceiling shelves full of objects and their tiny, narrow aisles.
She was never certain where she had been when she’d blanked out, but the last thing she always remembered was that she was always on her own. So she tried, for as many hours of the day as she could manage, to spend time with other people—her colleagues or donors or docents—but at some point she was always left alone. And then it would happen: a yawning black hole in her day.
She was a rational woman, so she had looked for a rational explanation, an environmental or medical cause. Tests on her office and home had come up negative for mold or toxins. Her doctor had given her a complete physical and declared her healthy. She’d consulted a psychologist, discreetly, off campus, because she did not want to jeopardize her job. He’d recommended counseling for alcoholism. She hadn’t gone back.
That was when she had forced herself to face the undeniable truth: there was no rational explanation for what had been happening. Unfortunately, and much as she had tried to forget, she already knew that the world was not an entirely rational place.
Last autumn, Beth Carter, curator of Celtic antiquities at the museum, had brought more than artifacts back from her dig in Ireland. She’d brought a man back with her as well. Tall, strong, inhumanly handsome, Conn was one of the Fae. The Good Neighbors. The Fair Folk. The Tuatha Dé Danann. The People of the Mounds. The Aes Sídhe. They had many names because no one wanted to call them what they really were: ancient, immoral, tricksy, and jaded. The ancient god kings of Ireland were a mythic race apart: impossibly beautiful, long-lived, seductive, and cruel.
Her first instinct, once she acknowledged that her problem was not mundane, was to call Beth. The young archaeologist possessed some magic herself—she was descended from the Druids who had banished the Aes Sídhe. Beth would not only believe Helene, she might even be able to help.
Helene picked up the phone in her office, a space she had once loved, with its pale carpets, spare decor, and large plate-glass windows. It now felt frighteningly open and exposed. She dialed the country code for Ireland, then Beth’s number.
Her friend answered at once. Helene had been ready to spill her problems. The tale had been on the tip of her tongue. But when she opened her mouth, nothing but small talk came out. She asked Beth about the dig—an Iron Age burial mound—and Conn and the weather.
And Beth told her how much she was enjoying having a real partner—her first husband had been an archaeologist like Beth, but had made his reputation by stealing her work—and finally being seen as a major player in her field. Helene told her about the gala and the latest antics of their executive director.
Every time Helene tried to say something is happening to me and I need your help, other words came out. Later, when she tried to email Beth, she typed the same nonsense.
Something was very, very wrong. She was scared. Scared enough to turn to the man—no, the creature—she had hoped never to see again: the Fae sorcerer and criminal who lived in South Boston, who had staked his claim to Helene’s body and soul and only given it up when Beth had threatened to use her newfound Druid powers against him—Miach MacCecht.
• • •
Miach MacCecht sat at his desk in his comfortable library overlooking Boston Harbor. The room would not have been to everyone’s taste. The dark wood shelves and red embossed leather walls gave the chamber a mysterious, chthonic air, and the spectacular view made the large windows feel like the mouth of a seaside cave.
The house itself was a decidedly Victorian structure, a maze of rooms entirely devoid of symmetry. There were cupolas and octagonal chambers and towers all clad in lavender-and gray-painted shingle, and such an abundant tangle of mixed ornament inside and out, of carvings and tiles and wallpapers that drew on so many different cultures and eras and styles that it would take even a dedicated student of art history a month to sort them all out.
Miach liked the crazy quilt of styles, the Egyptian acanthus and Moorish tile that warred with each other in the conservatory, the classical columns that supported the ceiling of a parlor with linen-fold gothic paneling. It was a little bit like a scrapbook of all the human eras he had lived through these past three thousand years, and while it lacked the elegant simplicity of good taste, it satisfied his deeper Fae craving for sensation.
The object on his desk fit deceptively well with the rest of the house, but it was not the work of human hands. It was an arm, severed at the shoulder, made entirely of silver. Like the medieval reliquary of some dismembered saint, perhaps. But a closer look at the detail would tell even the casual observer that this was not the product of some pious serf. It had the lifelike quality of Michelangelo’s genius, and drapery that could have come from Bernini’s chisel. The froth of lace at the wrist looked as though it might move in the breeze.
That was because it once had. The arm belonged to the Prince Consort, the Fae Queen’s lover. Unfortunately for humanity, the Prince Consort had not been imprisoned with his Queen and the rest of the Court. The Druids had kept the Prince and Miach and a handful of other prisoners chained with iron to the stone walls of their grassy temple mounds. Until the Fae, allied with the Roman invaders, had escaped their bonds and annihilated the Druids.
That had been two thousand years ago. Miach’s scars—the Druids had experimented on their captured Fae, searching for the secret to their power—had faded, and he had learned to live among men. He had fathered a sprawling clan of half-bloods whom the true Fae would not have tolerated—except as playthings—and he did not want the old Court, the Queen and her cruel courtiers and lackeys, back.
But the Prince Consort wanted nothing else. He had spent the last two thousand years searching for a way to free the Fae in exile, to release the Wild Hunt. He was a formidable warrior, possessed some talent for magic, danced, sang, painted, and excelled in all things Fae. He was the perfect Sídhe, the only Fae good enough for the Queen, and he exulted in the adulation of the court. The Prince Consort had spent the last two millennia since the Druids had turned the tables on the Fae trying to bring down the wall between worlds, to connect the ley lines and open a gate, to free his brothers and his Queen.
His most recent attempt to use Beth Carter for that purpose had failed, and he had lost his arm and been hurled into the Otherworld for his troubles. Now the Prince existed in two planes, his body with the Fae Court in exile, his arm here on earth.
A quiet calamity, because while the Prince Consort had been defeated and the gate between worlds had been closed, that most dangerous of Fae now had a presence on both sides of the divide. Miach had studied the Prince Consort’s silver arm—the product, he suspected, of some enchantment the Queen had placed upon her lover to preserve his life even in the face of the gravest injury—and discovered something troubling. It could not be destroyed.
It was impervious to heat and cold and no blade could so much as scratch it. It moved when no one was in the room with it, dragging itself, Miach presumed, by its silvery hand, across the floor toward some unknowable goal.
Miach’s studies had not been idle curiosity. He had taken charge of the arm because he feared what power it might exert, and his observations had revealed that his worst fears were true: the wall between worlds was weakening.
And he did not know how to stop it.
Miach had not made the wall between worlds, but he had studied it for two thousand years. It was an intricate Druid construct, a magical barrier that straddled two realms, its foundations deep in the earth of this world and the fabric of the plane where the Fae dwelled in exile. Its engineering was a marvel, and Miach admired it from a strictly technical standpoint. Viscerally he recoiled from the edifice that had imprisoned his race, evil as they were, on the other side. It was a monument to an epic betrayal and the bloody annihilation that followed, in which he had played no small part.
And it was vulnerable. It sat balanced like a fulcrum between worlds, had been erected to hold a precise number of Fae, and now held one more. Enough, Miach suspected, as age decayed its foundations, to tip it off balance. And unbalanced, the wall could tilt and align the gates and let the Fae out. A measure of force, from one side or the other, might send it reeling. Or create a crack. Or cause it to crumble altogether.
In which case the world of men and Miach’s human family in particular would be well and truly fucked.
It was possible that the wall could rebalance itself, adjust to one more Fae on the far side, find some new equilibrium, but that was not a hope he could pin his family’s safety on. Or the world’s.
A knock at the door interrupted his speculation. His granddaughter, or, really, great-great-granddaughter, or more—he had lived among the race of men for two thousand years and begotten a large and boisterous family that was difficult to keep track of—put her head in.
“Your tea is ready,” she said pointedly. He had been taking his afternoon meal in his study for weeks, working late into the night and missing dinner, searching for some way to neutralize or at least contain the power of the Prince’s silver arm, and the mini matriarch who ran his household and managed her child along with her sister’s children had declared yesterday that she would no longer stand for it.
He returned the arm to the lead-lined box where he stored it. After the children had sworn they’d heard something tapping inside the box last week, he had barred his family, except for Nieve and his “right hand,” Elada, the Fae warrior who was bound to him, from the room.
Just as he closed and locked the lid on the box, the whole house shook. It felt like the shock of an earthquake, but Miach knew it was nothing of the kind. The house and grounds were warded. It had been a long time since any Fae had been foolish enough to try to attack him with magic. His race, even reduced as it was, warred constantly: to settle old grudges, to satisfy an ingrained need for violence, to fight the boredom of the centuries. But Miach’s enemies knew better than to bring the fight to his doorstep.
Nevertheless, someone had just carried magic into his house. A grave offense, one the miscreant would die for. His wards would already have dissipated any petty spells the intruder carried. Death would take care of the rest.
And it would be meted out by Miach and Elada. Fae sorcerers always went into battle teamed with a champion. The warrior protected the sorcerer, who would be vulnerable while performing complicated magics, and the sorcerer healed the swordsman and enhanced his battle skills with spells to multiply dexterity and speed.
Elada passed into the library, employing the Fae ability to travel through any substance but cold iron, and appeared in the center of the room, sword in hand.
“Finn?” he asked, alluding to the Fae warlord who controlled Charlestown, and who had been Miach’s rival for centuries, but quiet just of late.
“Most likely,” said Miach. When trouble came, with the recent exception of the business with Beth Carter and the shocking reappearance of Conn of the Hundred Battles, it usually came from Finn and his unruly family.
The video chat on Miach’s computer rang. It was an improvement over the scratchy old intercom and it helped make the rambling house livable.
“You have a visitor,” said Miach’s almost human grandson, Liam, who, along with his brother Nial, ran much of Miach’s legitimate business—and most of his criminal enterprises as well.
“I could guess as much, Liam. Who is it?” asked Miach.
“Remember how you asked me to keep an eye on Helene Whitney, even though you promised the Druid woman to let her well alone?” asked Liam, whose all too human conscience often proved inconvenient.
“I promised not to approach her myself,” said Miach. He had taken a geis upon himself when he made the promise, stronger because it had been made to a Druid, and one who would come very near to being his equal in power someday. “What does Helene Whitney have to do with our visitor?”
“My contracts professor would call your claim a distinction without a difference,” said Liam.
Miach knew he would regret loosening his hold on this younger generation, allowing them to live more fully in the human world outside South Boston.
“Your contracts professor would be unwise, then, to bargain with a Fae.”
Liam sighed. “Beth Carter told you to leave Helene Whitney alone.”
“And I have,” Miach said pleasantly.
“Then why is she here, with enough magic on her to trip the wards and break every glass in the house?”