Just when I was getting a handle on my magic, my fae family drama, and an unwanted fiance, someone wants me dead. Again.
Series: The Shadow Series
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Becka leaned out the alcove balcony above the great hall, grateful for a few stolen moments away from the crowd. In her youth, she and her twin, Tesse, had retreated to this very alcove to watch the crowds from on high. Observing fae interactions from this vantage point meant they could catch clues about intrigue or flirtations with high-borns who didn’t realize they were being observed.
Now Becka used the alcove as a welcome retreat from the magic worn by so many fae, which drilled like porcupine quills into her brain.
Tonight, Becka’s heart ached fresh over the loss of her sister. She’d done her best to smile and nod to emissaries from the other houses, trying to make connections via small talk. She’d never appreciated the effort required to chitchat, especially with fae magic everywhere triggering her persisting headaches. After an hour or so, she’d escaped upstairs for this much-needed break.
Fishing her bottle of hot sauce out of a deep pocket in her skirt, Becka flipped open the lid one-handed and took a swig. She sighed with relief as her headache instantly abated. She shook a stream of the bright-orange liquid into her glass, swirling the fluid into effervescent, sparkling white wine. Becka then tried to flip the lid closed one-handed, but lost her grip on the smooth bottle because of the silk gloves she almost always wore.
While the gloves might protect others from her Nulling magic, they cost her precious grip dexterity.
There was a moment, perhaps two, where she watched the bottle hang in the air, spinning in slow motion before it hit the marble floor below. A credit to its manufacture, the bottle didn’t shatter. Instead, the distinctive liquid shot out on impact, peppering those in range with the pungent, fiery sauce. A fae elder from House Hazel screeched in surprise as her pale green boots and layered brown robe took the brunt of the blow.
A pair of muted laughs erupted near the stairwell behind her, reminding Becka that her wolf shifter guards had followed along. From the floor below, all eyes lifted to her position in the alcove. It was a good thing she’d grown fond of the shifters. Becka’s usual blunt and direct sense of humor was welcomed by the shifters, unlike her fae relatives, who had little appreciation for it and often took offense.
For a lack of something better to do, Becka waved and smiled down at the crowd like she’d seen beauty queens do on human television. How did it go? Elbow-elbow, wrist-wrist. Smile wide. No, wait – less teeth!
I probably look like I want to throw myself over the ledge, like my hot sauce had done.
If she’d had to name a common emotion on the faces below, Becka would have characterized it as disappointment.
“Way to embrace getting away from the crowd,” whispered Saige, one of her wolf-shifter guards. Becka glanced back at them. Saige’s green eyes glistened with humor, her pixie haircut accentuating her soft, youthful features in the muted light. “I give her a two.”
“Oh, you’re being too harsh,” Luce replied, also whispering. Her hazel eyes never lost their sharp, determined focus. “She’s improving. I’d give her a six.” She’d pursed her lips as if deep in thought. Her wild, shaggy mane of chin-length brown hair cast her features in shadow.
“Six out of…?” Becka asked, feeling her smile falter as she continued to wave down to the onlookers below.
“A hundred,” Luce replied, and the two shifters giggled.
Below, her mother, Duchess Maura, arched a brow at her while rubbing her temple absently. The ruler of House Rowan, adept at creating illusions as convincing as reality, wore a new dress for the occasion, an off-the-shoulder look which wrapped close around her form in layers of green and gold light, a hue which matched her eyes perfectly. Her hair was swept back into a twist atop her head with a few tiny braids accentuating the curve of her neck. The tips of Maura’s layered gown shimmered and shifted in the evening light, reminding Becka of aspen leaves fluttering in the wind.
A water elementalist from House Ash approached the Hazel elder and, fingers twitching with magic, extracted the sauce off her clothes and boots. She deposited it into the sauce puddle on the floor. Not even a stain remained on the elder’s clothes, although her expression remained dour.
Becka remembered House Hazel was renowned for training the best dream spinners, crafting messages and experiences for their targets, despite great distances. At least Becka had no fear of being on the receiving end of a rant in dream form, as her Null ability prevented any such mental trespass.
Her father, Duke Vott of House Rowan but also Elder Vott of House Alder by birth, caught her eye. Even from this distance, his usual gentle gaze held a stony glint. His simple, floor-length robes with embroidered flycatcher birds at the lapels added to his willowy form, accentuating his height. His long hair hung loose except for a pair of thin braids running in front of each ear, framing his regal face. Vott raised his hand and summoned her downstairs with a single swipe of his fingers, a forced smile on his lips.
Becka sighed, wishing she’d had more time to let the pain in her head subside. “Well, I knew it couldn’t last.” She downed half her drink, and then turned to go down the stairs.
Saige and Luce stood against the wall to let her pass, careful not to brush against the ruffles in Becka’s ornate deep-indigo ombre dress. Hers was likely the only outfit in the room which wasn’t enchanted in some manner. Except for the shifters who wore tailored, fitted pants with matching shirts in brown tones, which was about as formal as she supposed Vott could talk them into being.
Wolf shifters were anything but typical guards for a fae. Humans? Sure, she’d seen that plenty back in the city. But these wolves were loyal to Vott for reasons she didn’t yet understand. Vott had assigned them to Becka after the Shadow-Dweller attack three months ago, neither asking her opinion nor permission, but she’d been grateful for the protection.
Her attire for this event had been delivered an hour in advance of the festivities with a note from Maura. “I know this isn’t your style, but it’s befitting a lady of your station.” Surely the sheer volume of ruffles paired with the circumference of the skirts might be considered a war crime. But she’d appreciated the indigo hues and was determined to win over at least one dignitary, so she’d relented and donned the dress.
“Could you two teach me to be stealthier? I never hear you coming unless you want me to,” Becka asked.
Luce barked out a laugh. “You can’t learn the innate gifts of shifters. Besides, we don’t need to encourage your sneakiness.”
“Not to mention,” Saige replied, the two following her down the stairs, “there’s no way to sneak about in that dress.”
Said the women who moved with the lithe grace of hunters. Becka figured they’d be graceful and silent no matter what they wore.
Becka turned to Luce. “I know why I answer Vott’s call, but why do you go when Vott calls you?”
“That’s a long story, and it’s not mine to tell,” Luce replied.
Becka opened her mouth to ask more, but Luce had that determined look in her eye, the one that brooked no argument.
Her feet hit the marble floor of the Great Hall, and while she’d snuck away without notice, her return was the subject of scrutiny. Becka downed the rest of her drink, loving the spicy zing of the hot sauce, and then placed her glass on a nearby tray.
House Rowan hosted the annual regional trade delegation, which drew emissaries from not only all the nearby houses but even ones from farther-flung territories. The group wasn’t as large or diverse as those who had shown up for Tesse’s wedding and then stayed for her subsequent funeral. Those few months ago, none of the houses had wanted to miss the grand affair of the heir of House Rowan’s nuptials. Now, the attendees were bent on more pedestrian matters.
Maura had been busy the past couple of weeks preparing to receive the delegations. House Rowan had made space for all the attendees at the manor, as most planned to stay a few days. After losing Tesse, Maura’s concern had turned to strengthening Rowan’s relationships with the other houses. She’d confided to Becka that, with the Shadow-Dwellers being a menace, they needed all the allies they could muster for the days ahead.
The Great Hall was full enough that Becka had to thread her way carefully through the crowd, heading for Vott at the far end of the hall. The last thing she wanted was to run into someone, and their magic, sparking another round of headaches for herself.
A tall, imposing man with deep creases around his eyes moved into her path, and Becka rocked back on her heels, eager to avoid running into him.
“Lady Becka,” he intoned, bowing his head for a moment. “‘Tis an honor to see you again.”
Becka pursed her lips. Who was he again? “Oh, Elder Berkeley of… House Birch.” She remembered him from those who attended her sister’s funeral. “It’s nice to see you again too.”
He gave her another quick incline of his head, assuring her she’d gotten his name right. “This is a more fortuitous time for an introduction. How have you found your return to House Rowan?” The glint in his eyes was filled with rapt interest.
Is he being sarcastic? Becka doubted it, but at the speed of fae gossip, no doubt most had heard things hadn’t gone smoothly. “The past three months have been a challenge, but I’m sure life at the manor will get easier over time.”
“Oh, has it been that long now?” His brows rose, although surely, he could count the time that had passed as well as she could. “I suppose I will receive an invitation to your upcoming nuptials any day now?”
Oh, hells no, not if I can help it!
Becka’s breath hitched in the back of her throat, while she searched for the right words. “You’re always welcome at House Rowan’s festivities.”
“Hmm,” he replied, but he didn’t call her out for dodging the question. “I assume the duchess will be sending you to us for fertility treatments?”
Becka recalled Berkeley’s generous offer of fertility treatments to Maura for her house, but the thought of using one herself gave her a shudder.
“Oh no, I’m not getting knocked up!” Becka blurted out a little too loud.
There were a few raised brows around her. It was as if she could see others’ pointed ears twitch toward their conversation.
“Knocked up?” he asked. “Whatever do you mean?”
Becka pinched the bridge of her nose with her fingers. She kept forgetting the fae-touched lacked the vernacular she’d become accustomed to in the city. “I meant to say I’m not planning on having children anytime soon.”
Berkeley’s eyes lit with understanding and his smile turned poisonous. “Ah, some city-speak, I suspect. How… quaint and colloquial.”
Irritated over his condescending tone, Becka searched for a reasonable response. “I lived there for the last third of my life.”
“As you say,” he replied. “But why would you not wish to contribute to the lineage of your family as soon as possible?”
Becka didn’t even know where to begin, but, remembering her promise to Vott and Maura, she held her tongue.
“I’m sure it will work itself out in time,” she replied, holding to an enigmatic and thus fae-approved response.
He smiled and inclined his head. “You are welcome at House Birch whenever you are ready.” His gaze shifted to the two shifters behind her and then back to Becka, confusion knitting his brow. “Pardon, but why are Vott’s shifter guards with you?”
Grateful for the change in conversation, Becka smiled. This was an easy explanation. “He assigned them to me after the Shadow-Dweller attack.”
Having uttered the words, Becka didn’t miss how the rhythm of conversation around her hiccupped when the phrase Shadow-Dweller left her lips.
“How curious,” Berkeley replied. “I admit I find the shifters’ presence most unsettling. It’s so rare to see them within fae territory. Unless they are working with the enforcers, of course.” His frown spoke volumes.
You know the shifters can hear you, right?
A short for-a-fae and curvy woman stepped into their conversation, as if invoked. Becka took a half step back, and she sensed the shifters behind her stiffen.
“What a curious excuse! Shadow-Dwellers are but a story told to children to make them behave. Why would Elder Vott feel the need to protect you from boogeymen?” The lady’s arched brow and sneer reeked of contempt.
Becka held her breath a moment and then exhaled slowly. “The Shadow-Dwellers are very much real. Woden… I mean Lagan, proclaimed himself one of them.”
Elder Berkeley’s eyes grew wide with the glint of humor. “You can’t be serious,” he said, incredulous.
The woman’s countenance filled with an icy fury. “I have seen no independent proof of your claim, which you had every reason to invent to justify your transgressions. I grew up with Lord Lagan and he was never anything but kind and generous to me. The word of a city-living fae-touched will never be enough to change my mind.”
Who is this woman?
“You’re from House Holly?” Becka asked.
The fae drew herself up to her full, if diminutive, height. “Indeed. I am Lady Cordelia and I will not tolerate your lies concerning my kin.”
Could Cordelia also be a Shadow-Dweller like Lagan? Or was this just proof at how well they’d integrated within normal fae society?
“You are welcome to read the enforcers’ reports as well as anyone. It’s all in there,” Becka replied, keeping her voice even.
Cordelia held her hand to her throat. “Oh, I have read them, and from what I can gather, the two of you fought an unsanctioned duel and poor Lagan lost. Most likely defending himself from your dangerous new gift. I know we consider declared duels lawful and a fair test of powers, but since when has a fae died during one?” She shook her head and fanned herself vigorously. “I’m still confused why you weren’t jailed over his death!”
Heat radiated from Becka’s ears, and she had to work to keep her balled fists at her sides. “I told you, he admitted to being a Shadow-Dweller!” Her voice came out louder than she’d intended. Definitely too loud for polite company, based on the heads turned her way.
Elder Berkeley held up his hands. “Now, now… Have some decorum, my dear.”
Ignoring him, Cordelia leaned closer and whispered, “Eventually, you will be held to account.” She backed away and barked out a bitter laugh. “Your house may entertain your wild fantasies, but no one else is required to.”
“Believe what you want,” Becka whispered back. “Lagan was a psychopath.” The memory of her blood running down her leg. His blood on her hands. Even months later, the stark images were still fresh in her mind, pulling her focus inward.
Dazed, Becka ambled off towards where she’d last seen Vott, continuing across the hall and needing a few moments to settle herself. This time others made way for her with no prompting. She strode through a group from House Oak, which she assumed based on their stocky builds, who quieted and parted ways as she passed through. No doubt their stoic intuition informed their actions, discouraging engagement.
Catching sight of Duchess Maura, Becka headed in her direction, taking a moment to compose her thoughts. Her Aunt Astrid, head trainer of the Illusionists Guild, stood next to Maura, deep in discussion with a handful of fae.
As Becka drew near, Maura raised her hand, a silvered orb of energy launching from her fingertips towards the ceiling. It exploded like fireworks, full of harmless, dazzling sparks which drew everyone’s attention.
When the room quieted, Maura spoke. “House Rowan is delighted you’ve made the journey and we welcome you to our annual regional trade negotiations. At this time, all delegates are invited to the council chambers to introduce their terms for discussion. I look forward to hearing your proposals and aiding in the mediation process. Shall we?” She gestured towards the rear staircase.
Lady Wynne of House Ash, who Becka had met briefly yesterday, noticed her and then smiled her way politely. “Will Lady Becka be joining us tonight?” she asked Maura.
Maura’s face was as placid as a lake. “No, she will not. Although she is my legal heir, she’s not yet guilded.”
Wynne’s eyebrows shot up. “Oh yes, I had forgotten she’d blossomed into her powers at so advanced an age.”
What am I, a spinster? I’m not that old!
“Does it take longer to train when they start later?” Wynne asked Astrid.
“It varies,” Astrid replied, resplendent in her floor-length red silk dress. “In Becka’s case, the lack of understanding about the unique aspects of her power adds to the challenge. But those who develop later often take longer to fully grasp the complexities of their powers.”
Maura turned to Astrid, “Will you join me?”
Astrid nodded, and the two headed to the council chambers. Lady Wynne was not far behind them.
Becka watched them go, feeling kicked in the shins and more than a little embarrassed. When would she feel like she belonged here? Would she ever? Becka shook off her thoughts, again trying to find Vott in the crowd.
Which was when Alain Hawthorne, her fiancé, found her.
“My dearest Lady Becka,” he intoned, his voice smooth with confidence. He reached for her gloved hand, depositing a chaste kiss on the back of it with a flourish. A fiery phoenix perched atop Alain’s shoulder, stretching its wings as if to maintain its balance as he bent forward. But, as the creature had no intrinsic weight, the display was all for show.
It was a lovely fire elemental, intricate to behold, but the presence of the phoenix so close to her made Becka’s head throb. Worse, she’d told Alain it pained her when she encountered other people’s magic, and yet he didn’t seem to realize that his magical displays also caused her pain. Did he think showing off his skill was going to impress her? All it did was demonstrate that his need to look good eclipsed being considerate to Becka.
A cheerful lady accompanied Alain, full of smiles for Becka. “May I introduce my cousin, the Lady Hanna Hawthorne?” he said.
Hanna reached for Becka’s gloved hand and grasped it firmly and fearlessly. “I am so grateful to make your acquaintance, Lady Becka. Alain has told me so much about you, and I can’t wait to get to know you better.”
Alarm bells went off in Becka’s head. No fae was this over-the-top ingratiating and sweet, at least not without an ulterior motive. What did Alain have up his sleeve?
Just then, Becka spotted Vott talking with her brother Calder and his lady friend of the month.
“Lady Hanna, how lovely to meet you. Now, if you two will excuse me, I’m afraid Vott sent for me.”
More the spirit of the truth rather than the letter, but any excuse would do at the moment.
“Of course,” Hanna replied and gave her a slight bow.
Alain’s slight frown was the only sign of his disappointment. “Tomorrow, then, we’ll speak more? I must be off to the meeting anyway. I’m the designated envoy for House Hawthorne.”
By the way he puffed out his chest, Becka guessed she was supposed to be impressed. Hanna’s smile shone up at him, which made Becka even more suspicious of this overly cheerful Hawthorne cousin. Becka wondered at the reason for Hanna’s visit. Would she be expected to spend a lot of time with Hanna?
“Lord Alain,” Becka replied, neither confirming nor denying any obligations for tomorrow, and then with a nod she headed towards Vott.
She’d moved so quickly towards Vott that when she stopped, her skirts whooshed forward around her, the multi-layered dress rocking against her legs.
“Vott,” she said. “Calder.” She nodded briefly at both of them.
“Eloquent, as always, sister Becka,” Calder replied with a shake of his head. “Have you met my paramour, the Lady Alvilda?”
Becka could see why Calder appeared captivated by this new girl. Alvilda’s hair hung loose down to her hips, her platinum tresses so shiny they were almost reflective in the candlelight. Her dress wasn’t as fancy as some Becka had seen tonight, but the understated pale blue sheath highlighted the petite yet curvy fae’s form. Alvilda’s arm tightened around Calder’s, and her perfect heart-shaped lips held a forced smile not reflected in her pale gold eyes.
“Not yet. Pleased to meet you.” Becka shot out her gloved hand, to which Alvilda gave a somewhat horrified expression before accepting the handshake, a gesture which was tentative and lasted a mere moment.
Calder didn’t appear to be sharing complimentary stories about sister Becka to his lover. Fair enough.
“I need to excuse myself for the meeting,” Calder said. “Vott, will you be joining us?”
“No. As elder of House Alder, there are no proposals from my birth house for me to present. Maura is well-equipped to manage House Rowan’s interests. Besides, the initial proposals are often tedious and long-winded, and the trade talks run long enough as it is for my liking.” He laughed, and his genuine humor was so infectious they all joined in. Well, Becka didn’t laugh, but she returned his smile. “But you should get going, Calder. It’s your first one, and I have a feeling you’ll enjoy it. Give me an outline of what I need to know over breakfast before the negotiations begin, yes?”
“As you say, Father.” Calder leaned in close to Alvilda and gave her a quick kiss on the cheek. “Join me in my room later?” he asked, not bothering to lower his voice.
“I will eagerly await your arrival,” Alvilda replied, a slight flush warming her cheeks.
Was this open affection standard, or were Calder’s intentions towards Alvilda more serious than Becka had assumed? Surely, their mother Maura had more lofty plans for Calder’s future wedded union, but that wouldn’t necessarily limit his dalliances. By her overly effusive smile, Becka was sure Alvilda had every intention of cementing her place at Calder’s side.
Calder bowed to Vott and then excused himself.
Vott, smiling pleasantly as if he didn’t have a care in the world, turned to Becka. “My dearest, would you please join me on the rooftop garden for a cup of tea?”
“Sure,” Becka replied after a pause. Vott tried so hard to help her, she found it hard to turn him down despite the late hour. “Let me just run by my room first and then I’ll be right up.”
“Don’t dawdle.” He wagged a finger at her, and then turned to go, leaving Becka standing with Alvilda.
A few uncomfortable seconds hung in the air between them. Although Alvilda presented as a fawning partner to Calder, Becka suspected Alvilda had lofty aims. Why else would she attend this event hanging on Calder’s arm for all to witness? Did she think Maura would take her more seriously if she saw the two looking the part of fae royalty?
Perhaps it was rooted in her own dislike of prestige, but Alvilda’s focus on upward mobility made Becka instantly dislike her.
“Give my regards to Duke Vott,” Alvilda said with a wink.
How boldly familiar! Just because she was involved with Calder didn’t mean Becka had to be friends with her.
“I suspect I’m in for a more enjoyable evening,” Alvilda continued. She didn’t wait for Becka’s reply but swept off in a swirl of gold and gray mist trailing her steps.
“With my stuck-up brother? I doubt it,” Becka replied, just loud enough for the departing fae to hear.