An Urban Fantasy Romance
Marion Garin, the Voice of God, is due to marry the Prince of the Autumn Court by the end of the week - assuming that the world's preternatural leadership doesn't have anything to say about it. They plan to strip Prince ErlKonig of his title, ensuring that Marion can't form a god-forbidden treaty with the angels.
Still injured from his final fight in Sheol, Seth Wilder is seeking a way to stay alive. If he dies, he'll lose more than his life - he'll be slave to the gods' whims for all eternity. He's ready to take drastic steps. Maybe even make a bargain with the vampires. But what the gods want, they get. And they don't appreciate being defied.
Niflheimr’s throne room had changed drastically in the last month, more so than any other part of the palace, thanks to Konig’s mother. Violet had moved in during Marion’s recovery and taken charge of decorating for the wedding. Many of her touches were clearly meant to be permanent, though, from the tapestries of nymphs that concealed the cogs of ice to the furniture scattered around the nave.
The queen herself was seated upon the throne when Marion and Konig arrived. “You’re late.”
“Barely,” said their guest, checking her watch. Deirdre Tombs offered a smile to Marion. “I’ll forgive you for it this time, I guess.”READ MORE
The shifter leading the American Gaean Commission was startlingly young—which said a lot, considering Marion had yet to hit her twentieth birthday. Deirdre wore chunky combat boots, leather leggings, a leather jacket, and a tight leather corset. She looked like she should have been heading to a vampire bar for a night of blood-letting fun.
Deirdre jerked a thumb at the ornate chair Violet was sitting in. “Good move not doing another ice throne. I’ve got no idea what they were thinking the first time around, making a seat that melts.”
Marion extended her hand to shake. “I’m so grateful that you were willing to have this conversation here. I know it’s not convenient for gaeans to travel between the Middle Worlds.”
“Really?” Deirdre looked at her hand, laughed, and pulled Marion into a hug.
“Oh,” Marion said, surprised.
Deirdre looked just as surprised when she stepped back. “What’s wrong?”
Marion hadn’t inferred a friendship with Deirdre Tombs from reading her own journals, which had been written in a code that assigned obscure nicknames to everyone Marion knew. If they were friends, Marion surely would have written about it. She’d have to figure out what she had called Deirdre to know their history.
At least the AGC chair was greeting Marion with a hug instead of a gun.
“Wedding planning is overwhelming,” Violet said when Marion failed to think of a response. “I’m afraid my future daughter-in-law has been distracted these past few weeks.”
“Thanks for the help, mother,” Konig said pointedly.
Violet gave him a thin smile and finally stood.
The Onyx Queen was the obvious source of her son’s otherworldly beauty. White hair flowed around a face shaped like his. Chains dangled from her tiara, just above the delicate bridge of her nose, and the fullness of her lips was the color of roses faded in sun.
When she slid down the steps from the throne, she was trailed by voluminous veils that made Marion’s dress look like something she’d picked up at a gas station. It was the kind of descent that would have made anyone stop to stare. “Jolene Chang has already been released back to Earth,” Violet said. “We couldn’t allow her to stay. She wouldn’t answer any of our questions.”
Deirdre folded her arms. “What did you ask?”
“The wrong questions,” Violet said. “If we’d asked the right things, we’d know why she was in the dungeons. Did you sanction her spying? Is that why you agreed to have this meeting in the Winter Court?”
“Mother,” Konig snapped.
“It’s a fair question,” Deirdre said, lifting one shoulder in a shrug. “Jolene thinks she can find the darknet servers.”
Heather had been right.
“Then you did sanction it,” Violet said.
“No, I told her not to run off. If the darknet servers really are in the Winter Court, then they wouldn’t be easily accessible from Niflheimr, and we’re not in the habit of spying on allies,” Deirdre said. “I’m sorry for Jolene’s behavior. Thanks for taking it easy on her.”
Violet inclined her head in graceful acceptance of the apology. “Then what do you want, Deirdre Tombs?”
“I was hoping I could just talk to Marion,” Deirdre said. “Marion and Konig, if he’s still speaker for the unseelie. And the talk should be alone, ideally.”
“We aren’t really speakers anymore,” Marion said. “We only fulfilled those roles at the summit.”
“You’re both still authorized to make decisions for your factions, though,” Deirdre said. “You know your favorite terrorist’s gone legit, right?”
That was clearly a personal reference Marion should have understood. “Yes, I’m fully aware of your work with the American Gaean Commission. You’re doing wonderful things.”
Wonderful things, and dangerous things. Deirdre represented direct opposition to Rylie Gresham’s institution. She’d also been gathering faction-free North American Union preternaturals at her back, forming something that resembled a rebellion, if not an overt army. She was chaos in shifter form, as far as the establishment was concerned, but she draped herself in the robes of justice. Democracy.
Deirdre presented a thick binder with “Proposal for International Preternatural Council” on the cover. “I want to make a permanent coalition out of the people who attended the summit. I think we can accomplish a lot of good for the world with ongoing cooperation. Here, look at this.”
Marion took the binder and sat in one of the chairs on the floor of the throne room. It was the kind of furniture that Violet liked, all hand-carved wood and hard seats. She was forced to sit very straight or slide off onto the ground.
She flipped through the pages. It was a lot of information, but as a half-angel, Marion was capable of consuming staggering amounts of information in minimal time. Once she’d realized that she could speed-read at a rate of ten thousand words per minute with a little touch of angel magic, it had made tearing through her old journals a much easier chore.
Now she employed it to inhale Deirdre’s proposal.
“It’s good,” Marion said, shutting the binder.
Amusement touched Deirdre’s full lips. Amusement, but not surprise—she must have known Marion well indeed. “Gotta say, I’m relieved to have your approval. You’re the linchpin.”
“How so?” Konig asked.
“In the same way that she ensured the honesty of negotiations at the summit.” Deirdre lifted her wrist to flash a bracelet identical to the one that Marion had used on Geoff Samuelson.
Marion relaxed a tiny amount—as much as she could while sitting in one of Violet’s stiff chairs. The bracelet’s compulsion meant Deirdre couldn’t lie. When she said that she wanted to use the group to benefit the world, she must have been honest about the good intentions.
“We’ve also adapted the magically binding contract you wrote up for the summit to create a new contract for this council,” Deirdre said. “I’ve got copies both of you can check out. All the other factions have already signed on, including Adàn Pedregon, and he’s a real pain in the ass.”
She took a pair of envelopes from her bag, handing one to Marion and then climbing the stairs to give the other to Konig. He’d sat on the throne that his mother had vacated. His lazy rockstar posture made him look a little too sullen to be king.
“Here’s the proposal for those who can’t read War and Peace in a half hour. Each speaker agrees to contribute to a system of checks and balances for the factions. When we vote on something, the vote’s binding, magical-style. If we all vote to say that it’s illegal for sidhe to eat cupcakes, we’ve all gotta enforce that.”
“I’m not voting against cupcakes,” Marion said.
“Just an example,” Deirdre said. “Full disclosure, motivated by my fancy-shiny bracelet: the voting body will also be capable of removing people from power. If Rylie Gresham goes nuts, we’ll be able to vote a new Alpha in without a nationwide election.”
Violet peered over her son’s shoulder at the contract. “This sounds unconscionably intrusive.”
“It’s a way to take overwhelming power from any one faction. It’s a safety net.”
“It’s undemocratic to take leadership choices away from the people,” Marion said.
Deirdre smiled at Marion. “The Alpha only became an electable position because Rylie wanted it that way, so she’s still got absolute power. Without this agreement, she can change her mind about holding elections at all.”
“This would impact the sidhe royal families.” Violet plucked the contract out of Konig’s hands. He took it back.
“Stop, mother,” he said. “This is my choice. You made me speaker for the unseelie. And I have to say, Deirdre, I’m intrigued.”
“You should be. This could save lives. A lot of lives.” Deirdre planted her hands on her hips. “Look, Genesis screwed everything up, big time. And you know what caused that?”
“The gods dicking around with reality?” Konig suggested.
“Pre-Genesis factions pissing off the gods,” Deirdre said. “The angels were getting all up in everyone’s business, and the demons pulled the Breaking thing, and it was a mess. Rebooting the universe was the gods’ solution to cleaning it up. We’re lucky we didn’t get forty days and nights of rain too.”
“You want to be able to have all of the factions magically bound together to prevent another Genesis,” Marion said.
“Exactly. We’ll only vote on big stuff like that. It takes ten of the twelve factions agreeing we need a vote in order to do it. Although we can also chat more casually about other stuff—open up more diplomatic relations and stuff.”
Marion skimmed her copy of the contract. It was bordered with ethereal runes like those she had all over spellbooks in her private home, back on Vancouver Island. She traced her fingertips along the runes as the internet guides to magic had instructed. The spells whispered their truths to her.
Despite the simple designs, the magic behind them was immense. The elegance and complexity were breath-taking. Marion had a hard time imagining she’d ever been able to craft such a thing even though her fingerprints were all over it. The spells practically sang in delight at her acknowledgment.
It would be easy enough to activate the runes in the master contract. Marion could definitely bind the council.
“This absolutely cannot go through,” Violet said.
“It’s not your decision,” Deirdre said. “Right, Prince ErlKonig?”
He puffed up at being addressed directly. “Right.”
“I like the idea,” Marion said. The last thing they needed was another Genesis, and the gods had made it clear they weren’t afraid of interfering when people made them angry. “I have to wonder, though—what’s the specific motivation behind getting this together now?”
“It was inspired by events at the summit,” Deirdre said promptly. “We’ve got to be able to unite against threats—like demons—that might motivate another god-driven catastrophe.”
She set the master contract out on a marble-topped table and produced a pen.
Everyone had signed it. Everyone. Ten of twelve factions.
“I’m amazed you got everyone to cooperate,” Marion said. She’d barely survived the week of the summit without punching anyone in the nose, and she wasn’t exactly the nose punching type.
“You’re not the only one who’s good at politics,” Deirdre said. “Plus the whole ‘I can set fire to anyone who pisses me off’ thing doesn’t hurt.”
Marion’s eyes widened. She’d been told Deirdre Tombs was a shapeshifter. What kind of shifter could set fire to people?
Deirdre misinterpreted her reaction. “I’m kidding. I’ve spent weeks talking everyone into it. Cupcakes might have been involved—not cupcakes I made, mind you, because I’m awful at baking. Good cupcakes.”
“You didn’t bring any for me?”
“Sorry, I didn’t think they’d last the trip between worlds. I’ll give you an IOU if you sign.” She offered the pen to Marion. “All my work to this point means nothing if you and your husband-to-be don’t join the group.”
Violet ripped the pen out of Deirdre’s hand. “Where were you, Deirdre Tombs, when the sidhe courts needed to be established? What did you sacrifice to establish benevolent monarchies that would care for the sidhe, when nobody else did?”
Deirdre didn’t even blink. “I was getting shuttled between orphanages because Genesis killed my dad and left me without a home.”
Konig sauntered down the stairs and took the pen from his mother. “I’ll sign, and you will too, Marion.”
“You’re making a grave mistake,” Violet said.
Her son had already signed.
Now he extended the pen to Marion. “Do it, princess.”
Deirdre was practically glowing as Marion signed. “Now you just have to activate it,” the shifter said. “Go ahead.”
Marion stroked the page. She felt the instant that the binding spell activated. It locked into her breastbone like an invisible golden chain.
For a moment, the pain was so immense that she couldn’t breathe.
It was gone as quickly.
“Thanks,” Deirdre folded the contract and tucked it into her bag again. “I look forward to seeing you guys at the vote next week.”
Marion blinked. “Next week?”
“We’re voting to have Konig’s title as Prince of the Autumn Court removed. He won’t be heir. He won’t hold lands. That way, if the two of you get married, the peace treaty with the angels still won’t extend to the Winter Court.” Deirdre’s shrug almost looked embarrassed. “Sorry.”
“But…but…” Marion’s mouth opened and closed. The only thing she managed to get out was, “You’re wearing the bracelet.”
“I told you nothing but the truth, so help me gods. The voting body is meant to prevent god-level disasters again. And like you told us at the summit, Marion: the gods will have blood if you let the angels have the Winter Court.” Fierce light filled Deirdre’s eyes. “I’m not going to let that happen.”
“That’s not what we’re planning to do,” Marion said. She’d never dream of giving the Winter Court to the angels once Leliel killed the refugees.
“But you could do it,” Deirdre said. “Just like how Rylie doesn’t have to have elections for Alpha because she’s got absolute power. Nobody can have absolute power to ruin the world—even you, Marion.”
Shimmering magic overcame Konig. Niflheimr trembled with his fury. “I signed your contract!”
Marion felt dizzy. Ten of twelve people are needed to call a vote.
Everyone Deirdre had spoken to had agreed that Konig needed to be removed as prince.
Everyone she had worked with at the summit.
“Get her!” Violet roared, thrusting a finger toward the shifter.
The Raven Knights materialized from the ley lines. Even Marion, mostly immune to the reality distortion effects of sidhe magic, found herself incapable of standing when they swarmed in with battle magic flaring. She lost all sense of body. Her eyes and ears overloaded, reducing Niflheimr to fuzzy whiteness.
She could still see enough to know that Deirdre shifted in a burst of flame. The AGC chair became a fire bird—something halfway between heron and hawk, assuming she’d been rolled in kerosine then shot through a bonfire via cannon.
Deirdre seized the bag with the contract in massive talons and vanished into the night, untouched.
“So much for cupcakes,” Marion said faintly.COLLAPSE