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The leprechaun stared at me with his beady red eyes, trying desperately to ignore the huge white wolf at my side. “The deal was for fifteen silver,” he said.
I crossed my arms under my breasts. “Yeah, it was. Fifteen silver a piece.”
The leprechaun growled and bared tiny pointed teeth. “Indigo, you’re a crook.”
“And you’re short, fat and ugly, we all have our crosses to bear.”
My tone was lazy and non-offensive. He knew I meant no harm. My gaze slipped over his shoulder to the vista outside his grime caked window, to the hustle and bustle of the trade quarter. Food, cloth and services of all kinds could be sourced here. If you wanted something found, something lost, or someone ended this was the place you came to find the perfect creature to do the job. As long as you had the silver to pay you were golden. It was a dirty dangerous place, for dirty dangerous creatures, and it was home…most of the time. It wasn’t all bad though. And today was a good day, because Bartelby, who some would loosely call my employer, owed me big.
Transferring my attention back to him, I stared him down. He’d cave. He always did. He had a memory like a sieve, and yeah, the deal had been fifteen silver, but the job had taken longer than expected, thanks to the fact he’d neglected to tell us that our mark had a bunch of friends not afraid to put up a fight. My arse still stung from tiny teeth marks, and poor Cassian had scratches inside his ears. The pixies were a viscous lot.
Bartleby folded his lips over his teeth then blew out a breath of resignation. “Let me see the goods then?”
I unbuttoned my jacket, and his eyes bugged. “Don’t get excited grandpa. Those goods are off limits.”
He grimaced. “Damn it, Indigo, you’re practically a daughter to me.”
Practically didn’t make it so, not to these creatures. “Yeah, a daughter you keep trying to con.”
I yanked the squirming bundle out of the inside pocket of my jacket. Muted squeals and shrieks filtered through the fabric of the tiny sack.
“You want me to open it up?” I arched a brow.
He shook his head, and held out his hand. “That’s fine. I can hear her.”
The pixie in the bag let out a string of curses that made Cassian chuff in amusement. Biting back the urge to ask what would happen to her, I plonked the bag on his desk and held out my hand. “Pay up.”
A pouch of clinking coins sailed my way. I caught it and pocketed it. “What’s next on the menu?”
His jaw moved in a familiar grinding motion that usually indicated there was a problem. He was mulling something over, and, knowing him, trying to find the solution that suited him best.
“Spit it out, gramps. Cassian and I have places to be, silver to spend.” I bounced the pouch in the palm of my hand.
He made a sound of exasperation, more at himself it seemed. “I may have a lead.”
My fingers closed tight over the pouch, and Cassian’s wolf body tensed at my side.
He’d promised, I’d made him promise to pass this kind of information on. But it was a lead that would take us away from the job, which was why he was holding back. “Go on, Bartleby. You’re under oath.”
He puffed out his cheeks. “And don’t I know it. Darn ale.”
I chuckled. “Not my fault you can’t hold your drink. Now spill.”
“There has been tell of missing children.”
“What’s this got to do with the lead? The fey love young flesh and souls.”
He shook his head. “This is different. Some of the children return and they speak of a strange cottage surrounded by a fence made of bone. They recall a woman but not her face.”
My lazy pulse broke into a jog. “Where?”
“A small settlement at the edge of Winter City. They call it Umbridge.”
I turned on my heel and strode toward the door.
I paused and turned my head, offering him my profile.
“From what I dug up, they don’t take kindly to half-breeds. If you go, then be prepared to be shunned.”
Like I gave a shit about the villagers and their prejudices? I cared only about the location of the cottage and the person who dwelled within.
“Line up the next job. We’ll be back in a couple of days.”
I left him ruminating on the wisdom of imparting that particular nugget of information, and cursing his low tolerance for alcohol. I headed down the mildew-ridden corridor to the rickety steps that would spit us out onto the street. I stepped into the late afternoon sun, snow crisp and fresh beneath my boots—a half-breed and a wolf, okay, not a wolf but… Cassian chose that moment in my inner monologue to shift into his human form. Shadows clung to his limbs for a moment before dispersing to wherever they went.
He gripped my shoulders and stared down into my eyes. His dark hair fell against his chiseled cheek and his brows snapped together. “Are you sure you want to do this?” he asked.
Damn if I hadn’t been trying to avoid asking myself that very question, but then Cassian had a way of honing in on what I was trying not to think.
“You think I can just walk away?”
The search had been my life for so long—the driving force to my existence. Every case, every job had been a possible connection to her. And now I had it. A solid lead.
“Not easily,” he said. “But we can do if you want. We can forget it.”
I offered him a smile. “We deserve answers, Cass.”
His handsome face tightened, and his amber eyes sharpened. “Yes. I suppose we do.” His breath plumed between us and he pressed his forehead to mine. “And, once it’s over, we can move on.”
His exhalation was sweet and fresh and the urge to lean into him was almost overwhelming, but it would be a mistake. Cassian was tactile, but only on his own terms. He instigated, and I followed. Anything more and he’d withdraw from me, and the chill that left was always too much to bear. Up until a few years ago, we’d slept tangled together on a single bed, and then something had changed. He loved me just as I loved him, a deep unshakable bond forged from being raised together, from surviving side by side, by having each other’s backs. But he was a man now, and I was a woman.
Making do with a hearty inhalation of his unique scent of leather and the wild, I stepped back, saving him the trouble of having to do it.
“Here.” I opened the pouch and reluctantly counted out fifteen silver. Knowing its destination left a bitter taste in my mouth. “I’ll meet you at home.”
He had that faraway look in his tawny eyes. Probably deliberating on which whore he’d bed this afternoon.
My stomach clenched.
His large, warm hand cupped my cheek. “Be safe, Indigo,” he said roughly.
And then he melted into the crowd, his huge body swallowed by the manic hubbub of this awful place we called home.
Tearing myself away, I walked across the street and into the food court. Shelves of fresh produce arranged in neat rows greeted me. Mica’s was the place to get a little of everything. A shy spriggan, Mica rarely interacted with his customers. The protocol was to take what you needed and leave the money on the counter. There was a tray of silver and coppers, and customers would pay and take their own change. The odd idiot who tried to cheat the spriggan would be haunted by the sound of incessant knocking until they came back and paid up. His goods came straight from the inner-city and the prices reflected that. But today, my pockets were heavy with coin, and if Cassian could get his pleasure between a woman’s thighs, I’d get mine through a delicious meal. Yeah, it didn’t sound as good when put that way, but I’d take what I could get.
Bacon and eggs, and some choice cuts of meat went into my basket. A bottle of milk and some bread and cheese for the journey tomorrow should do it. It was quiet today, just a few other customers loitering in the confectionary isle. The fey had an eye for delicacies and Mica had the contacts to get hold of the most wonderful sugar-woven creations.
At the counter, I dropped two silver into the tray and turned away, not bothering with the change.
A sharp rap froze my feet. Yep, there he was. “You all right, Mica?”
One rap for yes.
I smiled. The spriggan seemed to have a soft spot for me. “Business been good?”
“I left the change on purpose by the way. Consider it a tip.”
I rolled my eyes. “It’s not a favor.” Fey did not like favors; they didn’t like owing anyone anything. “It’s a gift.”
A long pause, then one rap.
“Great. See you around.”
Although it was unlikely I’d ever actually see him. Spriggan were, by nature, elusive. Supplies clutched to my chest in their paper bag, I rounded the corner and walked over to my mammoth all-weather bike with sidecar. She was my baby, but Cassian maintained her, made sure that she crooned. I’d named her Mariah after the singer Baba used to let us listen to.
Thinking about her made my throat ache and my stomach hurt with longing. Stowing the bag with my purchases in the side car, I mounted Mariah and kicked off the brakes. The sun was already beginning to set. Nights were long in Winter City, and the unseelie fey liked it that way. It was when the bogies and bogles and abbey lubbers came out to play. Nasty buggers.
The engine purred to life, a wild beast in its own right, and I imagined I heard her sing, the low note—the one that had made my pulse race as a child. She vibrated between my thighs, eager to be off—one moment girl, just a moment. The crowd parted and I was free, hurtling down side streets and past three-story buildings, some business, some residential, and onto the main streets built for motors. Traffic was light today just the odd car and a customized van painted neon green with golden wings. Halflings liked to get creative with their rides. The bikes alternated between sleek and fast, to bulky and powerful. Mariah was both, courtesy of my contacts with some of the best mechanics in the outer city. A burst of sea air smacked me in the face, and a yearning for the coast reared up inside me. It had been a long while since Cassian and I’d taken a trip to the sea. Maybe once this was over, we could visit with friends on the coast.
The roar of a powerful engine had me checking the side mirror. A monolith tailed my ass. Bike twice as big as Mariah, and the body seated on top was simply monstrous. Even at a distance, I could see the horns protruding from his forehead and the tusks jutting up from his bottom lip. He bared his teeth and revved his engine.
Like fuck I’d let him catch up. Arrogant troll. Picking up speed, I put some distance between us. But the troll was only just getting started, and slowly, but surely he began to gain on me. Damn it, should have sprung for the extra juice on this baby while we’d had the coin last month, but no, we’d spent it on helping out a halfling family looking for accommodation. I bloody hated those attacks of humanity. And now I was about to get run off the road by a huge dirty troll. The damn things were over endowed and over sexed, and there was no way he was getting his paws on me.
But Mariah had other ideas as she began to drop speed.
The troll sidled up beside me, and swerved, forcing me off the road. Shit. I brought my baby to a halt.
“Not your fault.” I gave her a soothing pat. “I still love you.”
The troll had come to a stop behind me, and was now dismounting. Two choices. I could drive off now and hope Mariah didn’t pack up on me before I got home, or I could face the troll. Blowing out a deep breath, I swung my leg off the bike in time to watch him approach. Damn, he was huge, and built. Yeah, trolls were built, except this was a halfling. Half troll, half human. Yeah, the thought didn’t even compute, like how? How did you even?
But there was no time to dwell because his fierce face was breaking into a grin and he charged. Shit, shit. And then I was swept off my feet and over his shoulder, eyes tightly closed as he whirled me around and took liberties feeling up my arse.
“Indi, baby. Where have you been?” he growled in that low timbre that did funny things to my lady bits. His hand was still rubbing my arse cheeks and a tingle ran up the backs of my thighs. Damn, it felt good. He felt good.
“Put me down, Ronnie.”
His chest rumbled and he slowly slid me down his body deliberately allowing me the benefit of feeling every ridge and plane of the muscles in his chest. My neck heated and my cheeks burned, because yeah, I’d gone there. Once. Too much elderberry ale and the moon and stars and shit…Ronnie was hot for a troll. He had that beastly vibe going, but with the human genes it evened things out. Plus, he was the leader of the Blazer biker gang which a year ago had seemed pretty cool. It had pissed Cassian off though. Yeah, Cassian did not like Ronnie.
Ronnie looked down on me with those beautiful thick-lashed violet eyes of his, and I melted just a little. I’d been up for a casual thing, but it had become obvious pretty quickly that Ronnie wanted more. Way more than I was willing to offer.
“You been avoiding me, Indi?”
“No. Just been busy, Ron.”
He ducked his head and toed the ground. “Feels like you been avoiding me.”
Aw, man. That tusky pout. Argh. “Ronnie, you and me…it won’t work, babe.”
“I came on too strong, didn’t I?”
“No. It’s not you. It’s—”
“Don’t say it.”
I snapped my mouth closed. “Sorry.”
“We miss you at the club though. The boys still be telling the story about the night you—”
“Don’t say it.” I laughed and pressed a hand to his chest. Those pectorals, wow.
“Good times,” he said.
Yeah, we’d had some good times. I slid my fingers off his chest. He watched my hand as it dropped to my side, then he fixed his attention on me with a look that told me he knew it was over.
He carefully picked up a lock of my hair between his thick fingers. “You come by and hang sometime, beautiful. No rutting.”
Oh man, there was that flash of heat again, because that part had been good. “Yeah, I’ll do that.” I cleared my throat. “I have a thing, a case…but when I get back…yeah.” Damn it. I was blushing like a teenager. But then Ronnie had that effect on me when in his presence for too long.
He leaned down and pressed a gentle kiss to the top of my head. “See you around, beautiful.”
He mounted his bike, but waited for me to rev up and get going and then he trailed me all the way to the narrow street Cassian and I called home. Once I’d parked up, he accelerated away.
My place was a rental, a flat above a public house—one of Bartelby’s many investments. It was ours because we were his—his best investigators and his casually adopted offspring.
This was as good as it got for the likes of us. The inner city was out of the question. The glittering metropolis that the full blooded unseelie fey called home, was merely a few miles east, but it may as well have been a million miles away. Visiting was one thing, but residence was by invitation only, an invitation that came with a pretty enchanted silver chain and a lifetime of servitude for most.
Popping on Mariah’s brakes, and flexing my chill-bitten finger, I headed round the side of the public house aptly named the Frost King in honor of the winter city fey monarch, and up a flight of precarious steps to the doorway that led to home.
Stove lit, I rustled up the eggs and bacon. It was a meal fit for a queen. Cassian would eat out, probably at the whore house. He’d come home and go straight to the washroom before bed. I knew the incredible need that gripped him shamed him. He held off as long as he could between visits, but he never spoke of it. Didn’t need to. I just knew. I knew because the same need ran through my veins. I’d sated it once or twice the old fashioned way, a fling here and there, but things always got complicated. Now, I fed it with the thrill of the hunt and the exhilaration of a night-time ride on Mariah, sans sidecar. I’d skirt the inner city, courting danger. And once, just once, I’d slipped onto the immaculate streets and ridden between the towering, sparkling, buildings where the unseelie lay their heads. And on the wind, rushing by my ears, I’d heard their song—the melody of their desires and the beat of their depravity.
Cassian had been furious when I’d returned. He’d been waiting for me in our bedroom, eyes flashing, jaw so tight I’d worried he’d bitten off his tongue.
“Don’t ever go without me.” He’d pressed the words into my mind with a growl. “Don’t ever do that again.”
It was all he’d said and, damn, it’d been enough.
From the table for two by the window, I watched the world go by—the half-breeds, or Halflings as the polite term was, and full-bloods going about their business. You’d be hard pressed to find a human in Trader’s Quarter. The majority of humans lived on the outskirts of the fey cities, and the ones who ended up on the inside were nothing more than pets and playthings for the full-blooded fey.
Pity was a sour taste on my tongue. Those poor souls who ended up on the end of a silver chain probably believed they’d claimed the best life they could—delusional fools. Thank goodness for my halfling status, it offered me some protection at least. The fey tolerated us, let us be as long as they were feeling generous. We were, after all, the spawn of their conquest—the leftovers of a war too fleeting.
The food should have been delicious, but for some reason it tasted like ashes.
I wouldn’t relax until he was home. A shudder ran up my spine. Damn, it was cold in here. But then we were in winter’s domain. Its fingers touched the outermost reaches of the city leaving frost and chill in its wake. The unseelie that called this their home didn’t feel the chill though. Cold as ice themselves, did they even have hearts? And the king was said to be the worst of them all, a twisted depraved being, hell bent on nothing but the pursuit of his own pleasure.
Fisting my hands, I squeezed and relaxed to get the circulation going again. The heating system didn’t always function, probably because we had black market connections to the power grid. Siphoning off the fey was dangerous, but pretty much everyone in Trader’s Quarter did it. So far, the fey had chosen not to take offense. Our services were too valuable to them. There was always some noble or high ranking fey in need of assistance in some matter or other. For the most part, I kept out of their politics, running the job and not asking questions. The asking questions part was Bartelby’s domain.
Plate in the sink, I headed to the heater, they called them radiators because they radiated heat once switched on. The heat came from hot water coursing through the pipes, but most of the time the damn pipes were frozen. Well, here went nothing. I flipped the switch and waited for the gurgle and thunk that signaled that something was working, but was greeted with silence.
Blankets it was then.
Cassian strolled in two hours later. Peeking out from beneath the covers on my bed, I listened to the thud of his steps as he locked himself in the washroom—rinsing off the stench of his debauchery, no doubt. I burrowed back under the covers and closed my eyes. Long minutes ticked by and my body failed to warm up. I was going to have to put on more clothes. All the bloody clothes. A soft knock on the door was followed by Cassian’s voice.
“Indigo, are you awake?”
Poking my head above the covers, I grimaced. “Unfortunately.”
He stepped into the room, hair damp from his wash, dressed in a vest and loose pants, his feet bare. The sod never felt the cold, and if I didn’t know better, I’d have pegged him for fey.
He closed the door firmly behind him. The bungalow was a one-bedroom affair, and we shared this space when sleeping. He sat on his bed and ran his gaze over me, a lump under a mountain of blankets.
Damn, my feet were cold. I pulled the blanket up higher. “Pass me my boots.”
His brows flicked up. “You’re going to sleep in your boots?”
“It’s bloody freezing.”
God, I hated him with his higher than normal body temperature. Why couldn’t I have been blessed with that particular ability? Instead, I got great intuition and the gift of being able to see through glamour. Yay me.
What was that expression on his face? He looked torn. Almost as if he was in pain, but the expression was fleeting.
Cassian cursed under his breath. He stood up slowly. “Move over.”
My pulse skipped a beat and then slowed. “What?”
He stepped up to the bed and motioned for me to move up.
Oh, God. I had heard him right. Well, yippee for me, because sleeping with Cassian was like having a warm hug that lasted all night. I moved over quickly, my back to him, before he could change his mind, and then wriggled backwards so my back was pressed to his front.
“Dammit, Indigo, quit moving about.”
“Sorry. Mmmm, this is nice.”
His fingers skated across my nape and snagged on the chain Baba had gifted me too long ago. “Fuck, you’re like ice.”
“And, you’re hot.”
“I know,” he said smugly.
He chuckled, his breath warm and tingling on the back of my neck. “Just relax. It’ll warm up soon. Body heat.”
He sounded suddenly tired, resigned even. Something was bugging him, and anxiety was a lit match in my chest. I turned to face him, the question on my lips, but got tangled in his intense tawny gaze, like a fly in amber.
“I’m fine.” His fingers grazed my cheek like warm brands seeping into my flesh. “Just tired.” And just like that my anxiety melted out to be replaced by lethargic warmth.
“Sleep, Indigo. I shall watch over thee.”
Our childhood mantra, the one Baba had taught us. My throat tightened. “And when I wake, I shall lead thee.”
His smile was soft and intimate. “You remembered.”
“Of course, I did.”
He grazed my temple with his lips, and rested his cheek against the top of my head for a minute. Lost in the moment, transported back to the old days, I dropped my guard and slid my arm about his waist. The muscles under my arm tensed. Shit, I pulled back as the shadows crawled over him and his body morphed into that of a wolf.
“Sleep.” His voice echoed in my mind.
Disappointment warred with relief. But he was right, this was better. When he was a wolf, it wasn’t forbidden to touch him. I snuggled closer and slipped my hand into the fur at his neck. He nuzzled my cheek with his snout and a low rumble lit up his chest.
He was so warm. “Where do you think the shadows come from?”
“I don’t know.”
It wasn’t a new topic. We’d considered the possibilities on several occasions. Shadows were rare in our world. There were tales of a time when every human had carried his own shadow. Fairytales if you ask me, because only inanimate objects cast shadows. Living things did not, but they seemed to like Cassian. It was the shadows that allowed him to morph, to become a wolf, or an eagle, or a man. It was one of the things we couldn’t share, a feeling I’d never know, and for some reason that bugged me.
“What’s it like?”
“Like taking a breath,” he said. His voice was like syrup in my mind. “Sleep now and we will leave at first light.”
“Do you still remember?”
“I can’t forget.”
“I remember the music. Such strange music.”
“Human music. She played it to us. From the time before the war.”
“Yes. And the dancing.”
“The warm hugs,” Cassian said.
Warm…yes, the bed was now toasty warm. I snuggled down. “She loved us…didn’t she?”
“Yes. I believe she did.”
I slept and dreamed a memory. As if by thinking of her I’d summoned it. She was ushering us to the door of our cottage.
“Come now children,” Baba said. We must leave if we are to find the berries we require for our culinary experiment.”
Cassian picked up the bag containing supplies: water, bread, some cheese and flint. “Why do we need so many supplies this time?”
Baba paused in the doorway and turned to glance over her shoulder, her face was a smudge, as it always was in my memory now. But her hair was like winter fire.
“Today we go much farther than the old elm tree,” she said.
A gasp exploded from my lips. “But, you said we should never go past the elm tree.”
“I know what I said, my petal, but today is a special occasion.”
If it was a special occasion, then why did she sound so sad? “Baba, why are you crying?”
She swiped at her eyes. “I’m not crying, silly. I have something in my eye.”
Cassian shot me an anxious look, and suddenly pie didn’t seem so appealing. In fact, leaving the cottage wasn’t looking too attractive either.
I took a step back. “I don’t want to go out.”
“Really? You don’t want the fresh air? You don’t want to chase rabbits, and splash in the steam?”
Oh, gosh, I really, really wanted to do those things.
“Come on, poppets. The sooner we set out, the sooner we can come home.”
In the dream, the door was a yawning chasm waiting to swallow my childhood, to rip away the sunshine and leave nothing but winter.
In the dream, the forest was dark, always dark. In the dream, we awoke from a nap and found Baba gone. We were alone, in a part of the forest we didn’t recognize, and no matter how far we walked, how long Cassian spent tracking as a wolf pup, we couldn’t find our way home. But the dream was a memory, our last memory of our final trip with Baba.
Baba, the only mother we’d ever known.
I was suddenly awake and staring into the moon-bathed room. Cassian had shifted back to human form in his sleep. He did that sometimes, but my body was too lethargic to untangle our limbs. It felt right, safe. He felt right. Tomorrow, we would find the answers. Tomorrow, we’d get closure. In the meantime, I snuggled close and inhaled his wild aroma and slipped into a dreamless slumber.
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