Ill-met by moonlight!
Titania Silveroak: Con artist. Runaway bride. Fae princess.
Jonathan Weaver: Doctor. Humorless SOB. Vampire.
Titania flees her controlling bridegroom, Oberon Blackthorne, without a plan. Arriving at Empire General Hospital, she resolves to work one escape-sustaining con—stealing Dr. Jonathan Weaver’s wallet. Oberon, hot in pursuit, immediately ups the ante, kidnapping Jonathan’s estranged daughter to force Titania to capitulate.
Titania is desperate to avoid her murderous intended. Jonathan longs to rescue his daughter and heal the old rift between them. How will Titania and Jonathan join forces to banish Oberon forever?
No one ever plans for that. It just happens.
Sure, I should have thought things through a little before fleeing. A suitcase would have been a great idea—a few changes of clothes and some shoes that didn’t rub blisters. I should have grabbed a wallet too, or at least filled my pockets with some of that folding money favored by mundanes in the great world outside the land of the fae. Coming up with a clear destination would have been a reasonable precaution.
At least I wasn’t totally naive. I’d been tutored by a fleet of the most brilliant scholars in the land of the fae. I’d memorized mundane history, and I’d read about the great inventions of the modern world—computers and automobiles and a thousand thousand spells worked with the magic of electricity. I’d even gone on field trips to London.
Despite my worldly knowledge, from the moment I could say the word bride, I’d known I would wed to serve my people. I was the oldest daughter of the fae king and queen of the Seelie Court. My parents had been trying to negotiate peace with their Unseelie counterparts for centuries.
That was why I looked the other way whenever Oberon Blackthorne’s name came up. The first time I traveled to meet my affianced bridegroom, I pretended I didn’t notice him diddling half the fae in the Unseelie Court. He didn’t owe me anything. We weren’t actually married at the time. Waiting for my carriage to leave, I turned a blind eye as he changed an entire regiment of his loyal soldiers into swine, just for the sport of listening to them squeal. I even accepted his arrival at my parents’s home, drunk on mead, cursing up a storm, and growing horns on any member of the Seelie Court who happened to cross his path.
But the Dark Prince went too far when he turned Fluffy into an umbrella stand.
Sure, her claws were sharp as razors, and she used her teeth when she didn’t get her way. She had an awkward habit of climbing on top of people’s heads. And she attacked the curtains around my bed every single morning, as soon as the sun rose.
But she was little more than a kitten, and a scared one at that. And an umbrella stand? We fae never bothered with umbrellas. Fog, mist, rain—we just cast water-shedding glamours and went about our business.
So as my parents prepared to cast a circle for my marriage vows in the very center of the sacred clearing in the Thousand-Oak Grove, I realized I couldn’t go through with my wedding as planned. My bridesmaids flittered around me. Peas-blossom adjusted my veil and Cobweb pulled at the train of my gown as Moth and Mustard-seed preened for the assembled fae guests. Mother called upon the Green Man in the eastern quadrant. Father called on the Green Lady.
And I faked a coughing fit and fled into the forest, pausing only long enough to grab half a dozen chestnut buns from the tables laden for the wedding feast.
What? I’d built up a brutal appetite, dreading the end of my life as a carefree fae princess.
Shoving one bun into my mouth, I tucked the others into the pearled reticule at my waist. Then, I splashed my way down to the Thames, where I commandeered a craft of thistledown that had carried one of the guests to the so-called festivities. I cast a lure on the captain and ordered him to take me all the way to London. The tricky part was stuffing his ears with fae song, so he couldn’t hear Oberon Blackthorne’s hunting horns, close in pursuit.
Just before I stepped ashore, I wrapped myself in moonshadow, trusting to the silver glow to confound any mortal eyes that happened to be watching. Doubling down on my escape strategy, I headed to the absolute opposite of the Thousand-Oak Grove: Heathrow Airport.
I choked on fumes from the four-wheeled vehicles that darted across the stinking tarmac as I cringed in the shadows. Men with muffled ears conducted lumbering airplanes, guiding them like shepherds with fat, stupid sheep. When I heard Oberon’s dark hounds baying at the end of the long runway, I darted into the belly of the nearest jetliner.
Taking refuge behind a massive pile of suitcases, I set a glamour on myself, becoming a dowdy gnome woman. My heartbeat was as slow as the earthen halls gnomes lived in. I had hair on my flat, broad toes. Most importantly, I had a long, woolly beard to provide warmth in the airtight cargo hold. At the same time, I transformed my wedding gown into a gnome’s sturdy jerkin and thick felted trousers. My reticule became a leather pouch.
I only forgot one thing: I neglected to hold back a little of my native fae power, enough to change back to a fae princess the instant the plane landed. Oh. I also failed to figure out where I was going before the cargo doors slammed closed.
No matter. It had to be better than returning to Oberon.
That’s what I thought, the entire time I was in the air. But when I landed and discovered I’d made my way to the Eastern Empire…
No fae had set foot on the shores of the New World for nearly two hundred and fifty years. We were banned from the territory, exiled after a particularly successful Game that involved Thomas Jefferson, a cask of aged claret, and a pack of marked playing cards.
Still, I had to leave the airplane. And, exhausted from my wedding day exploits, I couldn’t shift back to my fae form—not without a long night of sleep to replenish my depleted reserves.
Dulles Airport was no place for a gnome woman. I had to make my way toward the massive city that glowed on the horizon. At least my furry feet could discern the power of ley lines as I walked. Generations past, those lines had trailed across grasslands, linking together points of power. Now, I drew on their ancient golden magic to keep myself hidden from mundane eyes.
I passed obelisks and gleaming temples and dark, shadowy streets, but I could not marvel at any of them. I had to concentrate on the ley lines. With my own power dwindled to a mere whisper, I was forced to a building at the intersection of three different lines of ancient power: Empire General Hospital, according to the discreet sign by the side entrance to the massive stone house.
Standing in the shadows, looking up at row after row of darkened windows, I swayed on my calloused feet. Exhaustion made me feel as drunk as a lord.
Well, in for an acorn, in for an oak.
I took a step forward, swaying as I abandoned the comforting power of the ley lines. As my feet sank into a rubber mat, the double doors whispered open. I’d seen a similar arrangement in London, on my very first field trip. Cold iron jangled beneath the rubber, vibrating like a beehive, ready to burn me with frozen fire.
My gnomish glamour protected me, though. So long as I wore my bearded mien, I could touch iron with impunity. Not that I wanted to, of course. I’d spent a lifetime learning to avoid the stuff.
I stumbled a little as I cleared the rubber mat. A tile floor stretched beneath my feet, spotless and cold. Bright lights glared overhead. An empty row of bright orange chairs seemed farther away than I could ever manage on my short, exhausted legs.
“May I help you?” The question came from my right, from behind a tall desk. I craned my gnomish neck to look up, even as a sprite darted from behind the barrier. I recognized her kind immediately; half a dozen sprites lived in the springs that wound through the Thousand-Oak Wood.
This one wore loose lilac-colored trousers and a matching short-sleeved shirt. Soft-soled shoes of the identical shade let her glide across the floor quickly enough to support me as I fell.
Braced against the sprite, I blinked, trying to bring her smooth face into focus. It was far easier, though, to let my head loll back, to stare at the flickering screen on the far wall.
I’d seen televisions in London. I’d felt the unbearable compulsion to watch their ever-changing images, more captivating than a breeze in a grassy clearing or oak leaves shifting against a summer sky. My attention snagged like a fallen branch caught against stones in a brook, and I gaped, powerless.
A mundane woman with thick blonde hair stood in front of a wire cage that was filled with spinning balls. Her eyes were the color of a meadow under midsummer sun. A bright smile curved her lips beneath her strong Roman nose, softening the line of a jaw that was just a shade too square for true beauty.
She gestured toward a row of balls displayed on tiny metal stands. “And those are your winning lottery numbers for tonight! This is Abigail Weaver on behalf of the DelMarVa Lottery, wishing you all the best of luck!”
“Doctor!” The sprite called, her voice flooding with urgency as she supported more of my gnomish weight with her spindly body. Her motion turned my head enough to break the television’s spell.
I groaned a little, trying to ease the ache across my twisted gnomish rib-cage. My beard itched like a demon, and it stank of mud where the ends had dragged along the road for miles.
“Doctor Weaver!” The sprite called again.
I must have been more exhausted than I’d thought—or the television was even more captivating than I imagined. Because I didn’t notice the vampire until he whirled away from viewing the DelMarVa lottery.
Yes. Vampire. We’ve got them at the Seelie Court, too.
Well, we had one, about a hundred years ago. The bards recorded his visit in the classic lay The Lady and the Nighthawk. I’d memorized the words when I learned to play its mournful strands on my lute—the nighthawk’s sharp white teeth, his pale, pale skin, his need to drink the blood of a living creature, the fae queen who gave herself willingly to save the rest of the Seelie court.
The bards, though, forgot to mention the vampire’s gaze.
I was staring into eyes as green as a meadow, eyes that glowed above an assertive aquiline nose, eyes that seemed to see past my gnomish glamour, delving deep into my hidden fae heart. Those eyes knew every secret I’d ever kept, even the ones I dared not tell myself. I could be lost in those eyes for a lifetime.
“Get a basin, before she pukes,” the vampire barked to the sprite.
So much for the bards’ romantic hero. I licked my lips and swallowed hard, throwing my shoulders back to summon my most regal tone.
And then I remembered that—by all appearances—I was nothing but a short, hairy, gnome. I rooted my spatulate fingers around in my tangled beard, trying to think of a legitimate reason I could have stumbled into the hospital emergency room. Scratching my chin felt obscenely good. I dug my nails in a little deeper and took a step away from the sprite.
“I— Um— Yes,” I said. Excellent. My elocution tutor would be thrilled by my diplomatic overtures. I cleared my throat and said, “I’m not going to puke.” There. That was a much better way to begin a conversation.
Before I could add something more dignified, I heard a sound in the distance: The rising swell of hunting hounds.
Oberon Blackthorne had followed me to the Eastern Empire. I couldn’t say what magic he’d used, how he’d negotiated the ocean, and the airport, and the long road into Washington DC. But from the sound of those baying hell-beasts, it was a matter of minutes before the Unseelie Prince barged into Empire General and carried me back to the Thousand-Oak Grove.
I needed to flee the hospital—now, before Oberon trapped me inside its lifeless stone walls. Perhaps I could find a wayside inn here in the Eastern Empire. Maybe hire a knight to protect me. I might bribe my way to protection from the authorities in this strange land.
There was just the little matter of funds. I didn’t have any.
But Dr. Weaver had a wallet tucked into the front right pocket of his jet black trousers.
Anyone would have noticed that. Anyone whose gnomish head was at the precise level of the good doctor’s belt. Anyone who was close enough to imagine the stony vampire muscles beneath his perfectly tailored…
Right. I wasn’t thinking about stony muscles right now. I was freeing myself from the fae prince who wanted to force me into a horrific marriage and a life of virtual slavery.
Despite my rather unimpressive current physical form, I was a fae princess. And we fae had made a living for centuries with our tricks played on the mundane world. We lured folk to fae feasts. We fooled the unwary with fae gold. I’d learned the fae Games before I’d learned to walk.
And a vampire was fair game—especially with an outraged Unseelie prince coursing closer to the door.
I didn’t have a choice. It was the Spilled Ink Game or nothing.
I didn’t have any ink at hand, but I could improvise. Pretending to swing my beard out of the way so I could approach the increasingly impatient vampire doctor, I dragged my left hand through the mud that caked the bottom of those curling black hairs.
Even as I stumbled forward a few feet, I extended my hand, clumsily attempting to break my fall against Dr. Weaver. My filthy palm landed squarely on the hem of his shiny white coat. Mud smeared the garment, stark and ugly.
“I’m sorry,” I grunted in my gnome voice, even as the vampire jerked back. “I didn’t mean—”
“It’s nothing,” he said, combing disgust from his voice with professional courtesy.
“I was so clumsy,” I said, surging forward to brush away the worst of the mud, but only smearing it more with my fat fingers.
Those cursed fat fingers. I hadn’t counted on them when I gambled on Spilled Ink. But I managed to fish out Dr. Weaver’s wallet, disguising my action in yet another attempt to wipe his coat clean. I added an awkward stumble—far too easy on my exhausted gnomish feet— and as I recovered, I slipped the stolen wallet into the leather pouch that hung at my waist.
Before I could straighten, the hospital doors whooshed open. In strode Oberon Blackthorne and half a dozen of his deadly hunting hounds.