Cruel EnchantmentBy: Anya Bast
EMMALINE Siobhan Keara Gallagher.
Clang. Clang. Clang. The shock of hammer to hot iron reverberated up his arm and through his shoulders. As Aeric shaped the hunk of iron into a charmed blade, Emmaline’s name beat a staccato rhythm in his mind.
He glanced up at the portrait of Aileen, the one he kept in his forge as a reminder, and his hammer came down harder. It wasn’t every night the fire of vengeance burned so hot and so hard in him. Over three hundred and sixty years had passed since the Summer Queen’s assassin had murdered his love, Aileen.
Emmaline Siobhan Keara Gallagher.
He’d had plenty of time to move past his loss. Yet his rage burned bright tonight, as if it had happened three days ago instead of three hundred years. It was almost as if the object of his vengeance were close by, or thinking about him. Perhaps, as he’d imagined for so many years, he shared a psychic connection with her.
One born of cruel and violent intention.
He was certain that if the power of his thoughts truly did penetrate her mind, she had nightmares about him. If she ever thought his name, it was with a shudder and a chill.
If Aeric knew what she really looked like, he would envision her face with every downward impact of his hammer. Instead he only brought her essence to mind while forging weapons others would wield to kill, maim, and bring misery. If he could name them all, he would name them Emmaline.
It was the least he could do, but he wanted to do so much more. Maybe one day he would get the chance, though odds were against him. He was stuck in Piefferburg while she roamed free outside its barriers. Aileen was far from him, too, lost to the shadowy Netherworld.
He tossed the hammer aside. Sweat trickling down his bare chest and into his belly button, he turned with the red-hot length of charmed iron held in a pair of tongs and dunked it into a tub of cold water, making the iron spit and steam. As he worked the metal, his magick pulled out of him in a long, thin thread, imbuing the weapon with the ability to extract a fae’s power and cause illness.
Aeric O’Malley was the Blacksmith, the only fae in the world who could create weapons of charmed iron. His father had once also possessed the same magick, but he’d been badly affected by Watt syndrome at the time of the Great Sweep. These days he wasn’t fit for the forge, leaving the family tradition to Aeric.
Making these weapons every night was his ritual, one he had kept secret from all who knew him. His forge was hidden in the back of his apartment, deep at the base of the Black Tower. The former Shadow King, Aodh Críostóir Ruadhán O’Dubhuir, had been the only one who’d known about his illicit work; he’d been the one to set him up in it.
Now the Unseelie had a Shadow Queen instead of a king. She was a good queen, but one who was still finding her footing in the Black Tower. Queen Aislinn might not look kindly on the fact the Blacksmith was still producing weapons that could be used on his own people. Queen Aislinn wasn’t as . . . practical as her foul biological father had been.
He pulled off his thick gloves and wiped the back of his arm across his sweat-soaked forehead with a groan of fatigue. The iron called to him at all hours of the day and night. Even after he had done his sacred duty riding in the Wild Hunt every night, the forge summoned him before dawn. He spent most nights fulfilling orders for illegal weaponry or sometimes just making it because he had to, because his fae blood called him to do it. As long as his magick held out, he created.
The walls of his iron world glinted silver and deadly with the products of his labor and in the middle of it all hung Aileen’s portrait, the one he’d painted with his own hands so he would never forget what she looked like.
So he never forgot.
Despite the heat and grime of the room, her portrait was still pristine, even as old as it was. Angel pale and golden beautiful, she hung on the wall and gazed down at him with eyes of green, green as the grass of the country she’d died in.
His fingers curled, remembering the softness of her skin and how her silky hair had slipped over his palms and mouth. His gaze caught and lingered on the shape of her mouth. Not that he needed to commit the way she looked to memory. He remembered Aileen Arabella Edmé McIlvernock. His fiancée had looked like an angel, walked like one, thought like one . . . and made love like one. Maybe she hadn’t been an angel in all ways—no, definitely not—but his memory never snagged on those jagged places. There was no point in remembering the dark, only the light. And there was no forgetting her. He never would.
Nor would he ever forget her murderer.
Emmaline had managed to escape the Great Sweep and probably Watt syndrome, too. He couldn’t know for sure; he just suspected. His gut simply told him she was out there in the world somewhere and he lived for the day he would find her. She’d taken his soul apart the day she’d killed Aileen and he’d never been able to put it completely back together again.
It was only fair he should be able to take Emmaline’s soul apart in return. Slowly. Piece by bloody piece.
The chances she’d walk through the gates of Piefferburg and into the web of pain that awaited her was infinitesimal, but tonight, as Aeric gazed at the portrait of Aileen, he hoped for a miracle.
Danu help Emmaline if she ever did cross that threshold into Piefferburg.
He’d be waiting.
THE fae checked in, but they never checked out. It was a fae roach motel. Did she really want to cross that threshold and possibly end up a squashed bug? No, of course not. Problem was, she had no choice.
Emmaline Siobhan Keara Gallagher stared at the outer gates of Piefferburg. Was she really ready to take this risk? After all she’d done, all the years and energy she’d committed to the cause, she still shuddered at the thought of going in there for fear she may never come out.
She stared at the hazy warding that guarded the fae from the human world, set a few inches out from a thick, tall brick wall. The wall didn’t go all the way around Piefferburg, since the detention compound—resettlement area was the more PC term—was enormous and the borders included not only marshlands, where a wall could not be built, but the ocean, too. It was the Phaendir’s warding that kept the fae imprisoned, not that thick wall. That was there only for the eye of the humans. An almost organic thing, the warding existed in a subconscious, hive portion of the Phaendir’s collective mind—fueled by their breath, thoughts, magick and, most of all, by their very strong belief system.
That warding was unbreakable.
Or so it was thought.
She jumped, startled. Emmaline turned at the name the Phaendir knew her by, something close enough to her real name to make it comfortable. Well, as comfortable as she could be while undercover in a nest of her mortal enemies. That didn’t exactly make every day a picnic.
Schooling her expression and double-checking her glamour—she was paranoid about keeping it in place—she turned with a forced smile. “Brother Gideon, you frightened me.”
His thin lips pursed and he smoothed his thinning brown hair over his head, favoring her with a glance that anyone who didn’t know him would call nervous. Emmaline, of all people, knew better. Gideon was confident, dangerous. The face he presented to the world was one calculated to make people underestimate him.
Brother Gideon was average in every way possible—medium brown hair, average height and build, unremarkable brown eyes, weak chin, receding hairline. A person walking by him on the street would glance at him and immediately dismiss him as nonthreatening. In reality, Brother Gideon was the most menacing of all the Phaendir, a black mamba in a cave filled with rattlers. While you were busy overlooking and underestimating him, he’d be busy killing you. That’s what made him extra dangerous.
It was no secret that Gideon was nursing a crush on her. She’d been carefully fostering that crush for quite some time now, using it as an effective tool. It wasn’t a pleasant or easy thing, having a man as vicious as Brother Gideon admiring her. It was, however, a useful thing. Useful to the HFF—Humans for the Freedom of the Fae—an organization to which she’d dedicated her life.
“I’m sorry, Emily,” he replied in his very average light tenor of a voice. “I didn’t mean to startle you. I just saw you standing out here and wanted to see you off.”
A little over a year ago Brother Gideon had attempted a coup. He’d tried to obtain the Book of Bindings before Brother Maddoc, the Archdirector of the Phaendir, could do it. Emmaline was certain it had been a move to take over Maddoc’s place. Brother Gideon strove very hard to implement his much bloodier agenda for dealing with the fae and he needed that top spot to put it into action.
Luckily Gideon had been caught and punished by being demoted four places in the Phaendir power structure. But Maddoc should have killed him. During the last year, two of the Phaendir who occupied spots above Gideon had met their ends in freak, horrific accidents. The murders had been brilliantly executed and no one could prove Gideon had anything to do with the deaths. Emmaline had no doubt he was behind them.
Maddoc needed to watch his back.
The prospect of having Gideon leading the Phaendir made her mission more critical. It even made her fingers itch for her old crossbow and it took a hell of a lot for that to happen. If anyone needed a quarrel through the throat, it was Brother Gideon. Maddoc needed killing, too, but he was several shades less threatening.
She forced a smile. “And I’m so glad you did.”
“Are you sure you’re ready for this?”
“I may be human, but in my heart, I’m Phaendir. I live to serve.”
Gideon smiled and she fought the urge to vomit on her hiking boots.
She looked away from him, up at the hazy warding. Gideon thought she was human and a human wouldn’t be able to see the warding, so she motioned to the wall. “It’s immense and so . . . strong.” She made sure she glanced at Gideon with a shy smile as she said the last. “It’s a beautiful thing, this place the Phaendir have created to keep us safe.” She used the reverent tone of the Worshipful Observer that Gideon believed she was.
Gideon came to stand near her and clasped his thin, pale hands in front of him. “Labrai wills it so.” He paused. “As He wills your entry into Piefferburg and your eventual success. You’re a woman with a strong, stable character. You’re destined to do well.”
She wanted to laugh. A strong, stable character. Right. Her characters were so layered even she had trouble parsing them. She was a fae HFF member currently undercover as a human Worshipful Observer who was soon going undercover as a member of the Faemous TV show crew in order to mine information for the Phaendir while actually working a mission for the HFF.
Yeah. Not confusing at all.
It was an event that would ironically blow all her covers, bringing her back to what she really was. A free fae.
As if she wasn’t already bewildered enough.
Danu and all the gods, why was she going into Piefferburg of her own free will? She swallowed hard. The Blacksmith was in there. She had nightmares about coming face-to-face with him often enough to warrant a prescription for Xanax.
And hell, she was seeking him out. He was the only one who could help the HFF at this point. How crazy was that? He wanted to kill her . . . maybe. Probably.
It had been so long—over three hundred and sixty years—since the night she’d killed Aileen Arabella Edmé McIlvernock. She didn’t even know if Aeric had survived Watt syndrome, though she hoped he had. If he hadn’t survived, and if there was no other fae who could forge a charmed iron key, they were all doomed. She knew Aeric’s father also had the talent, but he’d been one of the first fae to come down with Watt syndrome. At the time she’d left Ireland, he’d been very ill and not expected to live.
She wasn’t sure about his father, but she felt it in her blood that Aeric O’Malley had survived. She could feel him in there, within the boundaries of Piefferburg. Almost as if he was waiting for her. She shivered. That couldn’t be possible, of course; it was only her vivid imagination.
And he wasn’t the only one who might be thirsting for her blood. Once upon a time, when she’d been the Summer Queen’s greatest weapon in the Seelie war against the Unseelie, she’d burned some bridges. Many, many bridges. There were those in the Black Tower who would love to cross the charred ruins of those very bridges . . . to strangle her.
Danu, she hoped her glamour was strong enough to fool the Blacksmith. If the illusion slipped, if he found out who she really was, her life was as good as gone. If any of the Unseelie found out who she was . . .
Or if the Summer Queen found out . . .
Or Lars, the Summer Queen’s barely leashed pit bull . . .
Emmaline shuddered. Once she was in Piefferburg, she would have to go to the Rose Tower and check in as part of the Faemous film crew. From there she’d have to find a way to get over to the Black Tower to find Aeric.
She shivered. The Rose. She wished she didn’t have to step foot in it. At least she could avoid the Summer Queen, who likely thought the Faemous crew beneath her notice. There was no way she was voluntarily going anywhere near the woman who’d screwed up her life so much and, via Lars, planted nightmares in her subconscious that put the ones she had about the Blacksmith to shame.
Gods, why was she doing this again? Oh, right, because she was the only one who could. Damn it.
“Emily? Are you nervous?”
She blinked and glanced at Gideon, pulling herself back from the muck of her thoughts. For a moment, she groped for something plausible to respond with. “Well, a little. I’ve heard the stories about the goblins.” Humans were terrified of goblins, though as a fae she didn’t swallow the boogeyman tales. There were other races that were much more terrifying and, honestly, their religion was quite nice. “I saw the bodies of the Phaendir you sent in after the book—”
He waved his hand, not wanting to take that conversational road. He’d sent Phaendir into Piefferburg last year to retrieve the Book of Bindings and the men had returned gnawed upon. “You’ll be fine. You’re going to the Seelie Court, to the Rose Tower. They’re much more hospitable to humans than the Unseelie. No goblins there, only the tamer breed of hobgoblin and a few brownies. They’re servants, mostly.”
She smiled. “I know I’ll be fine. You would never let me come to harm, would you, Brother Gideon?”
He smiled at her and she suppressed another shudder. There was lust in his eyes—a thing no woman wanted directed at her by him. “Never.”
“Anyway, like I said, I’m ready to sacrifice my life for the cause of the Phaendir.”
Gideon took her hands in his. His skin was papery feeling, dry. On his wrists, she could feel the start of the scars that marked his arms, chest, and back. Brother Gideon flagellated himself every day in the name of Labrai, though Emmaline had long suspected he enjoyed the floggings with his wicked cat-o’-nine tails. “But I am not willing to sacrifice your life, Emily. Not for anything.” He blinked watery brown eyes.
“Oh, Gideon,” she said in a practiced, slightly breathy voice. “Your piousness is already so attractive and to know you actually care about me as a person is so . . . moving.” She didn’t melt against him or bat her eyelashes, but she did stare adoringly into his eyes.
“Shh, I understand. I only hope that one day—”
“Brother Gideon? Emily?” It was Archdirector Maddoc’s voice coming from behind them.
Gideon gritted his teeth for a moment. His face—just for a heartbeat—made the transformation from medium to monster. Veins stood out in his forehead and neck. His skin went pale and his eyes bulged. He dropped her hands and moved away from her, his natural, unassuming visage back in place in a matter of seconds. Just the glimpse of Gideon’s true self was enough to leave Emmaline shaky, a reaction that luckily worked for this particular situation.
The tension in the air between Gideon and Maddoc ratcheted upward. Power struggles within the structure of the group seemed to permeate all their interactions. Then, of course, there was the carefully orchestrated charade she’d been performing for Gideon to make things worse—making Gideon believe she was sleeping with his archenemy.
As undercover HFF, it was her job to throw wrenches into the best of the Phaendir’s machines and she was good at her job.
“Are you ready?” asked Brother Maddoc with a warm smile. Brother Maddoc was annoyingly likable, considering he was Phaendir. With him, you got what you saw on the surface. Trouble was, he hated the fae. Not as much as Gideon hated the fae, but enough to want to keep them imprisoned forever.
Her smile flickered. “No.”
Maddoc laughed and pulled her against him for a hug. “Don’t worry, you’re all set up. They’re expecting you at the Rose Tower as the newest addition to the Faemous crew. Just go in like you’re a real anchor and start snooping around for information about the bosca fadbh. I don’t think I need to impress upon you how important a job this is, Emily.”
Except it wasn’t her real job.
She knew all about the bosca fadbh, and what she needed concerning the valuable puzzle box would be found nowhere near the Seelie Court. The fae already had one piece of the box. The second piece, the one the HFF was trying to get, was halfway around the world, off the coast of Atlit, Israel. It just sucked that the only man capable of helping the HFF get that piece was stuck in Piefferburg.
She laid her head on Maddoc’s shoulder, an action that made Gideon shuffle his feet and cough as he tried to conceal his irritation and jealousy. “I won’t let you down, Brother Maddoc.”
“I know.” He smiled and kissed her temple. “Now go. They’re ready to let you in.”
She turned toward the heavy wrought-iron gates that separated Piefferburg and most of the world’s fae from the fragile human world. The huge doors opened with a groan and all the heavy protocol that went with the admission of individuals began. On this side of the gate things were monitored by the Phaendir. On the other side of the gate, all deliveries or people passing through were carefully inspected by the fae and all arrivals reported to both towers.
Of course neither side trusted the other. The fae exerted what little control they had by checking to make sure no Phaendir entered—some had tried; all had been brutally killed. The Phaendir, of course, would not allow any fae to leave. Humans could come and go at their own peril. Not many did. Only the very brave and the very stupid dared cross into the land of the fae.
Or the very desperate. That would be her.
Glancing back at Gideon and Maddoc and shooting them a look of uncertainty she didn’t have to feign, she stepped past the gates.
Surely the Blacksmith wouldn’t recognize her under her powerful glamour. Surely she would be safe from his wrath. If she could fool all of the Phaendir, she could fool one fae. Even if somehow he did recognize her, hundreds of years had passed since that unfortunate day and her errand was of monumental importance to his people.
Surely this would turn out all right.