The keep was like a cross between Sleeping Beauty’s castle and a gothic church. Towers jauntily sprang up to impossible heights, creating black patches across the evening sky. We’d lost our light now, but I could still see that a lot of the windows looked as though they contained stained glass. I imagined they’d be beautiful in full sunlight. And framing everything, of course, were those brilliant, yellow-orange trees. Volusian had told me that the kingdoms’ seasons were dependent on their rulers’ whims and could last for extremely long times. This was beautiful, but I couldn’t imagine living in a place that was perpetually autumn. I knew some claimed Arizona was perpetually summer, but, then, the people who said that didn’t actually live there. The seasons were subtle, but they were there.
I had to keep reminding myself I wasn’t in some kind of wacky movie as Rurik and his gang led us through twisted hallways lit with torches. People passed, giving us curious looks as they went about whatever one did in a medieval castle. Churning butter. Flogging peasants. I really didn’t know, and I didn’t care. I just wanted to get out of there.
“Wait here,” Rurik told us when we reached a large set of double oak doors. “I will speak to the king before you’re shown into the throne room.”
Wow. An honest-to-goodness throne room. He disappeared behind the doors, and a couple guards watched us but kept their distance.
“Volusian,” I said softly, “did you purposely lead us here?”
“My only purpose, mistress, is to keep you alive. Being here will increase your chances.”
“You didn’t answer the question.”
“You will also increase your chances,” he continued, “if you are nice to King Dorian.”
“Nice? They just assaulted me and threatened to rape me.”
He gave me an exasperated look.
“The king will see you now,” said Rurik dramatically, returning from inside the room. He held the door open for us. Trumpets wouldn’t have surprised me.
The throne room was not what I expected. Sure, there was a dais with a chair on it, just like in the movies, but the rest of the room was in a state of disarray. A large space ran through the middle, for dancing or processions, perhaps, but the rest had an almost lounge sort of look. Small couches, chaises, and chairs were arranged around low tables set with goblets and platters of fruit. Men and women, again dressed in sort of a goth-Renaissance style, draped themselves on the furniture and on each other, picking idly at the fruit as they watched me. I was put in mind of the way Romans used to dine.
More than gentry lounged around, however. Spirits and sprites and trowes and wraiths were also in attendance, along with an assortment of Otherworld creatures. The monsters of human imagining, side by side with magical refugees who had immigrated to this world.
I wondered then if any other shaman had been this far into gentry society. I remembered Roland’s warning, that I could be taken right into the heart of their world. If only our kind had some sort of scholarly journal. The Journal of Shamanic Assassination and Otherworldly Encounters. I could have used this “research” to write a compelling article to share with my fellow professionals.
Conversation dropped to a low hum as the gentry leaned over and whispered to each other, eyes on me. Smirks and scowls alike lit their faces, and I put on the blank expression I would wear going to meet a new client. Meanwhile, my pulse raced into overdrive and breathing became a bit difficult.
Volusian trailed near me on one side while Rurik walked on the other. Wil and the others moved behind us.
“Why all these people?” I murmured to Volusian. “Is he having a party?”
“Dorian is a social king. He likes keeping people around, most likely so he can mock them. He keeps a full court and regularly invites his nobles to dine here.”
We came to a stop. On the throne sat a man, Dorian, I presumed. He looked bored. He leaned into the arm of his chair, one elbow propped on it so he could rest his chin in his hand. It sort of made him view us at an angle. Long auburn hair, reminiscent of the trees outside, hung around him, highlighted with every shade of red and gold conceivable. He could have been autumn incarnate. He had the most perfect skin I’d ever seen in such a vivid redhead: smooth and ivory, with no freckles or rosy color. A cloak of forest-green velvet covered unremarkable dark pants and a loose, white button-up shirt. He had well-shaped cheekbones and delicate features.
“Kneel before the king,” ordered Rurik, “and get used to being on your knees.”
I gave him a withering glance. He smiled.
“I’ll be happy to make you,” he warned.
“Bah, enough. Leave her in peace,” intoned Dorian laconically. He didn’t change posture. Only his eyes portrayed any sort of interest in these goings-on. “If she’s been with you for the last hour, she deserves a break. Go sit down.”
Rurik’s smugness flashed to embarrassment, but he bowed before the throne and backed off. That left Dorian and me staring at each other. He grinned.
“Well, come here. If you won’t kneel, I at least want to get a good look at the ‘terrible monster’ they’ve brought to me. They all seem quite afraid of you. I confess, I didn’t really believe it was you when they told me. I thought Rurik had been into the mushrooms again.”
“Do you know how many of our people she has killed and forcibly banished, sire?” exclaimed Shaya from somewhere behind me. “She took out three in under a minute just now.”
“Yes, yes. She’s quite terrifying. I can see that.” Dorian looked at me expectantly.
I shook my head. “I’m not moving until you offer us hospitality.”
This made him sit up. He kept smiling. “She’s clever too, though, admittedly, asking for hospitality before you crossed our humble threshold would have been more clever still since any of my subjects could have attacked you just now.” He shrugged. “But we’ve made it this far. So, tell me, Eugenie, why – er, wait. Do you prefer Eugenie or Miss Markham?”
I considered. “I prefer Odile.”
That smile twitched. “Ah. We’re still clinging to that, are we? Very well, then, Odile, tell me what brings the shining ones’ most feared enemy to my door, asking for hospitality. As you might imagine, this is without precedence.”
I glanced around at all the watching, listening people. Ignore them, ignore them, an inner voice whispered. Focus on Dorian for now. “I don’t really want to talk about it in front of the peanut gallery. I’d rather meet with you in private.”
“Oh.” He pitched his voice for the crowd. “Well, well. Odile wants to meet with me in private.”
I blushed, hating myself for doing it. Nervous laughter ran around the room, soon growing stronger and more confident as the king’s did. Interesting, I thought. I remembered Volusian’s comments about Dorian, and his soldiers’ hesitation about his wrath. These gathered people were sheep, obviously, ready to dance or laugh at Dorian’s command, but suddenly I wondered if they were sheep who also feared the whims of their capricious shepherd. I wondered if I should be afraid too.
I kept my silence, not acknowledging his joke. He leaned forward, putting both elbows on his knees, letting his chin rest in both hands now. “If I offer you hospitality, you must reciprocate in kind. I’ll see that no one harms you in my household, but in return, you can harm no one under my roof.”
I glanced back at Volusian. “You didn’t mention that.”
“Oh, for God’s sake,” he hissed, displaying a rare loss of patience. “What did you expect? Take it before your imminent death becomes more imminent and robs me of my chance to kill you myself.”
I turned back to Dorian. I didn’t like this turn of events. I didn’t like being in a nest of gentry, nor did I want to be at one’s mercy. Why was I here again? In my head, I summoned an image of little Jasmine Delaney, imagining her being tormented in a similar way over at Aeson’s court. Only she would be subject to more than just mockery.
“I accept,” I said.
Dorian regarded me in silence and then nodded. “As do I.” He looked up at the crowd. “Odile Dark Swan is now under the protection of my hospitality. Anyone who so much as lays a finger on her will get his own fingers chopped off and fed back to him.” He issued the threat with as much cheer as Volusian might have.
A buzz spread through the crowd, not entirely pleased. “What’s to keep her from breaking her oath?” I heard someone mutter. Another said loudly, “She could slay us all!”
Dorian’s eyes flicked back to me. “Did you have any idea what a creature of nightmare you are around here? Mothers tell their children Odile Dark Swan will come for them if they’re bad.”
“Hey, I don’t seek them out. I only come for them if they come for me first.”
“Interesting,” he said, arching an eyebrow. “But if that’s how you like it, so be it. I always admire women who know what they want in the bedroom.”
“Hey, that’s not what I – ” I hadn’t realized the extent to which our slang had permeated the gentry world. Theirs was a reflection of my own; things seeped through.
He cut me off with a gesture. “I gave you hospitality, now come up here. I want to see the terror that haunts the darkness.”
I hesitated, both from distrust and defiance to his taunting. Volusian’s voice whispered in my ear. “He will not harm you now that he’s given his word.”
“I don’t know if I can really believe that.”
“I do.” My minion’s voice was calmly serious. “You know I can’t lie to you.”
Turning back to Dorian, I took the steps until I stood at the same level as his chair. I met his gaze evenly. “Look at those eyes,” he sighed happily. “Like violets in the snow. You smell like them too.”
Beyond us, I heard another rise of murmurs in the crowd.
“What’s got them all worked up now?” They couldn’t hear our discourse.
His own eyes danced. They were golden-brown, the color of autumn leaves falling from the trees. “You’ve broken protocol. They expected you to stop one step lower. Instead, you’ve put yourself at the same level as me. The fact that I’m not chastising you means I’m treating you as an equal, like royalty. You should be flattered.”
I crossed my arms. “I’ll be more flattered when we have the private talk.”
He tsked me. “So impatient. So human. You’ve asked for my hospitality. You can’t expect me to not give it now.” He made a gesture with his hands, and spirit servants appeared, bearing serving platters of food. For some reason, I suddenly started thinking of the song “Hotel California.” “We were about to eat when you so kindly dropped in. Dine with us, and then we’ll have as many ‘private encounters’ as you like.”
“I’m not stupid. I won’t eat anything in the Otherworld. You have to know that.”
He shrugged, still sprawled out on his throne like a comfortable cat. “Your loss. You can sit and watch, then.” He rose gracefully and offered me his hand. I stared at it blankly. Shaking his head with mirth, he simply walked with me down the steps, not touching.
“Where’s the rest of my group?”
“Your servants and human friend are safe, I assure you. We’ve given them their own accommodations since they don’t have a guest-of-honor seat at my table, that’s all.”
He beckoned toward a low, polished table, a bit larger than the others in the room. Like the rest, it was surrounded by sumptuous-looking chairs and sofas, patterned in bright brocades and velvets. Dorian settled down onto a small loveseat and patted the spot beside him.
“Keep me company?”
I didn’t dignify that with an answer, instead sitting down in the chair next to his sofa. It was a single seat. No one could sit with me. We were soon joined by about a dozen others, including Rurik and Shaya. She reported to Dorian that the people I’d injured had been healed and were recovering.
True to my word, I didn’t eat any of the food set out before us, but I confess, it looked pretty good. Stuffed Cornish game hens. Fresh bread with steam still rising from it. Desserts I would have committed murder for.
But I didn’t give in. One of the first rules of the game was to never eat outside your own world. Stories and myths abounded about those foolish enough to ignore that precaution.
The other diners tried hard to pretend I didn’t exist, but Dorian was fascinated by me. Worse, he flirted with me. At least he wasn’t as crass as every other gentry I seemed to encounter, but I didn’t rise to any of it – even if it was charming at times. I took it all in with a stoic face, which seemed to delight him that much more. The other women at the table were less resistant. Any look, any word, and they practically melted with lust.
In fact, many other people in the room also seemed to melt with lust. Very explicitly so. During and after dinner, I watched as people – couples usually, but sometimes more – touched each other brazenly. It was like being in junior high again. Some of it was just kissing. Some of it was heavy groping – a hand fondling the breast or sliding up the thigh. And some of it was…more. Across the room, I saw one woman climb on top of a man and straddle him, moving up and down. I was pretty sure they had nothing on beneath the voluminous folds of her skirt. At a table nearby, one woman was on her knees in front of a man, and she was –
I hastily averted my eyes, turning back to my own table. I found Dorian’s gaze on me and knew he scrutinized my every reaction. Through some unspoken command, a blond slip of a woman slid into the empty seat beside him, the one I had refused. She draped a leg over his lap and wrapped her arms around him, kissing his neck. He moved one hand up her leg, pushing up the skirt to reveal smooth flesh, but he otherwise seemed oblivious to her as he regarded me and the other guests.
Aside from the free love and utterly medieval setting, there was almost something, well, normal about this place. The gentry I’d run into were always causing trouble in my world. Luring humans. Using magic indiscriminately. But this was like any other social occasion or party. People knew each other and regarded their friends with warmth. They discussed love and children and politics. True, they were still foreign and other to me, but I could also almost see them as human. Almost.
Needing to do more than sit there and stare, I reached into my coat and pulled out one of the two Milky Way bars I’d brought along. It was also a utilitarian move, seeing as how I was so hungry from watching all the feasting around me. Dorian immediately became intrigued.
“What is that?”
I held it up. “It’s a Milky Way. It’s…candy.” I didn’t really know what else to say about it. I wasn’t even sure what was in it. Nougat? I had no idea what the hell that foamy stuff was, save that it was delicious.
He eyed it curiously, and I broke off a piece, tossing it over to him. He caught it deftly.
“Your majesty,” exclaimed one of the men, “don’t eat it. It’s not safe.”
“It won’t hurt me here,” rebuked Dorian in annoyance. “And don’t even start in about poison or I’ll let Bertha the cook have her way with you again.”
The man promptly shut up.
Dorian popped the piece into his mouth, chewing thoughtfully. Watching the expressions his face went through was almost hilarious. It took him awhile to work through all that gooey scrumptiousness, and I fostered a compelling image of him with saltwater taffy.
“Entertaining,” he declared when he’d finished. “What’s in it?”
“I don’t know. Some chocolate and caramel. A bunch of stuff sort of fused into other stuff.”
One woman, her hair curly and brown, fixed me with a combative look. “That’s so typical of them. They twist nature and the elements for the sake of their perverted creations until they no longer know what it is they do. They are an offense to the divine, bringing forth monstrosities and abominations they cannot control.”
A snappy retort rose to my lips, but I bit it off. Volusian had warned me to be nice. In light of their relatively civilized behavior at dinner, I could do no less, so my voice stayed calm. “Our monstrosities do great things. We can fix injuries you can’t. We have plumbing and electricity. We have transportation that makes your horses look like dinosaurs.”
“Like what?” asked one of the men.
“Bad analogy,” I replied.
Shaya shook her head. “We can achieve many of the same results with magic.”
“Magic couldn’t do much against my gun earlier.”
“Our people survived. Only a human would brag about her ability to wield death.”
“And you in particular would have good reason to,” pointed out Rurik. “No other human in memory has killed as many of our kind – spirits or shining ones – as you. You would have killed me last week if you’d had the strength. You would have killed our people in the woods today if you could have.”
“I don’t always kill. I even avoid it if I can. But sometimes I have to, and when I do…well, then, that’s the way it goes.”
Glowers regarded me all around the table. Only Dorian’s face stayed politely curious.
“Rumor has it you’ve killed your own kind too,” he noted. “Doesn’t it keep you up at night to have so much blood on your hands?”
I leaned back in my chair, as always trying to keep my emotions off my face. It did bother me sometimes, but I didn’t want them to know. I hadn’t killed many humans – only a handful, really – and most of it had been self-defense. They’d been humans working with gentry or other creatures to do harm in my world. That had justified the kills in some ways, but I could never ignore that I was taking a life. A human life. A life like my own. The first time I’d seen the light fade out of someone’s eyes – wrought by my hand – I’d had nightmares for weeks. I’d never told Roland about that, and I certainly wasn’t going to tell this group.
“Actually, Dorian, I sleep very well, thank you.”
“It’s King Dorian,” hissed a plump man across from me. “Show respect.”
Dorian smiled. The others glared further.
“The gods will punish a murderer like you,” warned one of the women.
“I doubt it. I don’t murder anyone. I defend. Everyone I’ve killed was doing damage to my world or – in the case of those humans – helping your kind cause harm. Those who merely trespass, I don’t kill. I just send them back. It’s not your world, so I protect my own. That’s not a crime.”
Dorian sent the blonde away with a quick motion of his hand and leaned over the couch so he could speak closer to me. “But you know it was once our world too.”
“Yes. And your ancestors left it.”
Shaya eyed me, cheeks flushing. “We were driven out.”
Dorian ignored the outburst. “You gave us no choice. Once we were all one people. Then your ancestors turned away from the power within and sought it without. They built. They subdued nature. They created things with their hands and the elements that we had only thought magic capable of. Some even surpassed what magic could do.”
“So what’s wrong with that?”
“You tell me, Odile. Has it been worth it? You can’t have it both ways. The ability to force ‘magic’ from the world killed the magic within. Your lives shortened as a result compared to ours. Your sense of wonder disappeared, short of anything that can be proven by numbers and facts. Your people will soon have no gods but their machines.”
“And despite all this,” observed Shaya bitterly, “humans continue to flourish. Why haven’t they been cursed? Why do they spawn like cats and dogs while our numbers suffer? They are the abominations, not us.”
“Their short lives, their burning need to create before they die, drive that. Their bodies can’t help but produce life so readily. We do not feel that urgency.” Dorian grinned. “Well, physically we do, but subconsciously…our souls know we have time.”
“That’s another wonder of modern medicine. We can help the infertile.”
Dorian frowned, again more curious than angry. “Enlighten us.”
I hesitated, suddenly regretting my comment. In as brief a way as I could, I explained artificial insemination and in vitro fertilization.
Even Dorian had trouble stomaching that one.
“This is how your numbers grow?” asked a woman near Shaya. Her voice was an awed whisper.
“Only for some,” I told her. “Most don’t need it. If anything, I think we have too many babies.”
Seeing their shocked faces, I felt a little bad about upsetting them with all this. After all, I was a big advocate of respecting cultural diversity. Yet that core belief of mine wavered around these people. Maybe that was unfair, but I had spent my life being taught that they were not human. They might seem so now, but I didn’t think one dinner could truly alter my ingrained views.
Shaya shook her head, face pale. “This, then, is what has displaced us from our homeland. These are the things that forced us from the place we came from and into the world of spirits and lost souls. We lost to twisted creatures who breed easily, who rape and pillage the earth in homage to their metal gods.”
“Look, I’m sorry it upsets you all so much, but that’s how it is. You guys lost. You have to deal. You did an okay job fighting, I guess. You still show up in a lot of fairy tales and myths. But you still lost. History’s like that. There are wars, and unfortunately, in the end, who wins and who loses is more important than who’s right or wrong.”
“Are you saying your people were wrong, then?” asked Dorian quietly.
“No,” I said with certainty. “Absolutely not.”
“You’re very loyal to your own kind.”
“Of course I am. I’m human. There’s no choice there – especially when your people do nothing but cause trouble for mine when they cross over.”
“Look around this room. Of those gathered…I would say only less than twenty have ever visited your world. And of those, only a small amount ’caused trouble.’ You have degenerates in your world too. Yet, you wouldn’t use them to define your entire race as bad.”
“No,” I agreed. “But I’d still punish them. Look, maybe I’m overly jaded toward your kind, but then, the only ones I’ve ever met have been the deviants. It’s hard not to judge.”
Dorian stared at me for a long time, and I couldn’t read him. Everyone else looked like they would have killed me on the spot, if not for the hospitality prohibition. I wondered if I’d made Dorian mad enough to regret giving his oath.
His thoughtful face changed to its typical expression, the perpetually amused and lazy one. He rose from his couch, sweeping the cloak behind him. Everyone else hastily followed suit. I took my time getting up.
“I thank you all for a lovely evening, but I must take my leave now.” He spoke loudly, so that his words carried to more than just our table. Conversation in the room dropped. “I daresay my guest is growing restless and eager for some privacy, and I do so hate to disappoint.”
The toadies laughed appreciatively, and I steeled myself not to blush again. Dorian glanced at me as we slowly walked out of the hall.
“If I offered my hand again, I don’t suppose you’d take it?”
“Not a chance. I don’t want to give them any ideas.”
“Oh. Well. I’m afraid it’s too late for that, once they see where we’re going.”
I cut him a warning look. “Where are we going?”
“Why, to the most private of places. My bedroom, of course.”