Author’s Note: Because of the universe this is set in, there are a few brief references to off-screen rape, slavery, and torture, but nothing NEAR as graphic as what you would find in the books themselves. I didn’t feel it merited an official content warning, but wanted to say something here just in case I was wrong.
Person of Interest fans who aren’t familiar with the Black Jewels universe can find information on its caste system and Jewel ranks at the links below:
Acknowledgments: Major thanks to my beta reader, NightsMistress (boxlawyer), without whom this would never have been the story it deserved to be. And to Medie, my cheerleader always, who fought off Bears and “OMG I’m writing for WHO?” panic attacks for me so that I could concentrate on writing to the best of my ability. *HUGS* I couldn’t have done it without you guys, and I mean that with all my heart!
Written for: astolat for Yuletide 2012.
Harold couldn’t remember the last time he’d attended a Winsol party.
Not that he was really attending this one–after much discussion of the matter, Reese had reluctantly agreed to allow him to maintain the facade of being the butler instead of the master of the house, even though it was Finch’s money, not the tithes, that was paying for the party. The other servants had all been hired for the event, so they were none the wiser. And those few, aside from Reese, who did know that Harold Finch was the power behind the throne also knew that he preferred to keep to the shadows. They would respect his wishes and not expose him.
As if to prove his point, Jocelyn Carter, Queen of Manhattan, spared him a glance and a smile as she glided by on the arm of her son, but said nothing. She wore a long, elegant gown that matched the color of the Purple Dusk Jewel around her neck and while Finch was hardly the best judge of female beauty, even he couldn’t miss the glow of happiness that radiated from her. Quite a change from the besieged but determined Queen he’d met a year ago.
A year ago. Could it really be such a short time since he’d set this plan in motion? It seemed impossible. Surely he’d known Reese all his life, because everything that had happened both to them and between them couldn’t possibly have unfolded in the span of a year. Yet somehow it had.
The Warlord Prince in question was on the other side of the room, deep in conversation with the Queen of Brooklyn. He seemed to feel Harold’s gaze on him, though, because he lifted his eyes and smiled. Harold resisted the temptation to return that smile; it wouldn’t do for a supposed servant to be seen smiling that way at the erstwhile ruler of York Territory.
That didn’t stop John, who made his excuses and crossed the room, presumably under the excuse of obtaining a cup of hot blooded rum from the tray Harold held in his hands. It was, after all, nearly sunset.
*I’m beginning to understand why you didn’t want to join the party,* John sent wryly along a spear thread.
*Surely the conversation can’t be that dull.*
John smiled and took a silver cup from the tray. “Thank you, Finch,” he said aloud, silently adding, *What makes you so sure I wasn’t referring to the dashing figure you cut in that uniform?*
*I didn’t set you up as Warlord Prince of York so you would have nothing better to do than to flirt with me,* Harold replied acerbically.
A smile twitched the edge of Reese’s lips for a moment before his whole bearing sobered. *It isn’t right. York still needs a Queen.*
It was an old argument between them. Well, not really an argument, since they didn’t have opposing views on the subject, but certainly a long-standing discussion. *I know. But in the meantime, at least we’ve ensured that she’ll have a territory worth ruling when we do find her.*
Which was more or less the same answer he always gave, even if its reassurance never seemed to last for long.
Reese glanced around the room. Most of the people milling around it were their allies–the Queens who’d signed a contract with John in exchange for his protection, some of the many people whose lives they’d saved–but there were still a few who were loyal to Carl Elias and his “male council.” The council wasn’t dead yet, even if John had replaced them as the de facto rulers of York Territory, and they weren’t likely to go down without a fight, so there were bound to be spies. Still, they’d made a great deal more progress than even Harold had believed possible.
Reese seemed to have the same thought, because he remarked, *Did you ever think we could really pull this off?*
Harold couldn’t help but smile at that. *Certainly not when we first met. Of course, that was when I still thought you were lost in the Twisted Kingdom. I remember distinctly being rather appalled that it was you I’d seen…*
A little more than a year ago…
So. This was the man he needed to save York.
Bad enough that the tangled web had shown him a Warlord Prince who was walking the edge of the Twisted Kingdom; did it have to be this Warlord Prince?
Prince Harold Finch observed his target discreetly. A Green sight shield protected him from the curious eyes of most of the people in this public Coach, but one couldn’t be too careful. John Reese was more than capable of breaking through a Green shield, and Finch had no intention of giving him reason to.
Reese’s was not a loved name in York these days. According to Mark Snow, who had been Master of the Guard to York’s Queen and was now a member of the male council that had ruled the territory since her death, Reese was the one who had lured Kara Stanton to an abandoned city in the territory of Qin and there murdered her. Of course, considering that Snow was the one now part of the ruling council and Reese was wandering lost in the Twisted Kingdom, Finch had his own ideas of who was the real Queen-killer. Especially since he had information which suggested that, even if Reese had been involved in Kara Stanton’s death, he’d been coerced into it. Information about a certain Summer-Sky-Jeweled hearth-witch named Jessica Arndt who died mysteriously at almost the same moment that Stanton was murdered in Ordos.
Convincing the Province and District Queens of that might not be easy, however.
Convince them he must, though. From his earliest memories of sitting at his mother’s knee, learning how to protect himself against the threat that Hayll’s spreading influence posed to any dark-Jeweled male, Harold had been haunted by the potential fate of his home territory. And if turning John Reese from an unstable pariah to a paragon of virtue was what it took to change that fate, that was what he’d do.
He just had to figure out how.
Without a blood tie or some other equally strong relationship, a fully-trained Black Widow generally required physical contact. Unfortunately, he wasn’t a fully-trained Black Widow. And even if he were, Warlord Princes being the most volatile and violent of the male castes meant that walking up to a strange one and touching him without asking was never a good idea, no matter their mental state or what Jewels they wore.
Reese had been riding the Coach almost all day. Witches and males had boarded and disembarked several times in that time, and while recognition showed in the eyes of most of them, none were foolish enough to challenge a Gray-Jeweled Warlord Prince, let alone one that was rumored to be a Queen-killer and known to be unstable. Now there were just four people left: Harold, Reese, and two young Warlords who were probably returning home from whatever court they served in.
As reluctant as he was to do so, Harold knew he would soon also have to return home for the night, abandoning his surveillance. Those lost in the Twisted Kingdom weren’t exactly known for being reliable, though, so if he did leave, it might be weeks or even months before he managed to track Reese down again. And by then, who knew how many more witches would have been broken to keep them from reaching their full potential, or how many males would be killed or enslaved? York needed a strong Queen, but what he could discern in the webs suggested to him that the Queen who could rule York wasn’t ready yet, and she would never have the chance to become ready if someone didn’t do something to stop the creeping corruption that was poisoning the territory just as it had poisoned so many others since Dorothea SaDiablo declared herself High Priestess of Hayll.
He’d just about made up his mind to give it up anyway and just take the risk, when a group of young Warlords boarded the Coach, laughing and jeering at each other as they brushed past the two who were disembarking. Harold stiffened, even though none of them wore darker than Opal and therefore couldn’t pierce his shield. All of them reeked of Hayll’s influence.
The leader of this group wore Purple-Dusk, which was surprising since even the Opal seemed to defer to him. Aristo, no doubt, and convinced that some arbitrary accident of wealth and privilege could supersede the Blood’s inborn hierarchy.
To Finch’s horror, he was bragging about a young witch he’d broken, egged on by his friends’ own lewd commentary. Fighting the gorge that rose in his throat as the Warlord lovingly described shattering the young woman’s inner webs, Harold tried to tune it out, but was only somewhat successful.
When the sordid tale finally concluded, the Warlord looked around for some new amusement…and his eyes settled on the bottle of some sort of brew that Reese had clutched tightly in his hands. Hands that hadn’t moved in hours. “What’s this?”
No–he couldn’t be that stupid, could he?
Apparently he could, because the Warlord crossed the Coach and reached for the bottle. “You bring enough for all of us?” he jeered.
For the first time, Reese moved. Eyes the color of Summer-Sky Jewels snapped open and fixed on the Warlord with a look that was only a push away from riding the killing edge. A voice honed to a deadly rasp by rage and disuse demanded, “Tell me again about the witch you broke, and if you’re lucky, I won’t kill you for it.”
For the first time, the Warlords had the sense to look frightened. “Anton, let’s get out of here,” one of them murmured in a low voice. “We could have the next Coach all to ourselves.”
Anton wasn’t as bright as his friend, because he tugged his arm out of Reese’s grip and shot back. “What do you care, Queen-killer?”
Harold had only just enough time to throw up a shield before everything in the Coach went straight to Hell.
Jocelyn Carter, Queen of the Manhattan district of York Territory, was not having a good day. On a good day, four light-Jeweled Warlords weren’t stupid enough to pick a fight with a darker-Jeweled Warlord Prince, especially not when that Warlord Prince was the infamous John Reese. The fight, not surprisingly, had resulted in one of the Warlords in question–Anton O’Mara, the ringleader–making the transition to demon-dead, two of them being broken back to basic Craft, and the remaining one back to his birthright Jewel. The fact that all four weren’t dead suggested a remarkable amount of restraint on Reese’s part, especially for a man who was supposed to be wandering the Twisted Kingdom.
And now O’Mara’s family was demanding a blood price. Mother Night. As if she had anyone in her court who would dare try to extract a blood price from a Gray-Jeweled Warlord Prince, even if she was inclined to give the O’Maras what they wanted. Anton was a bully who broke young witches for fun because he could. As far as Joss was concerned, the sooner she could ship him off to Hell for the High Lord to deal with him, the happier she’d be.
But that didn’t solve the problem of John Reese.
Though she’d never admit it aloud, part of her was hoping he’d already be gone by the time she walked through that door. She’d heard the rumors, of course. They all had, every Queen in York Territory, probably to make sure none of them had the audacity to give him any sort of asylum. Carter wasn’t sure she believed the rumor–it was all a little too convenient for Mark Snow, if truth be told–but Queen-killer or no, no sane witch walked into a room with a male whose Jewels were that much darker than her own without being a little wary.
Joss’s Master of the Guard, Lionel Fusco, trotted by her side. Truth be told, she wasn’t entirely sure of him either, these days. Or any male in her court, for that matter: Elias and Snow and their “male council” had been quietly eliminating all the males who were loyal to the old order for months now, so if Fusco was still around, he must be useful to them. Probably by spying on her. But he wore Summer-Sky and she was nowhere near her moon time, so that was a problem that could be dealt with later.
Joss was fairly certain she couldn’t count on him to defend her if Reese did decide to attack, but since neither of them wore Jewels dark enough to stand up to the Gray, that didn’t really matter.
If John Reese wasn’t the man rumor held him to be, however…
“Wait out here for me,” Joss commanded.
Fusco looked both startled and relieved, but tried to play it off. “You sure? You shouldn’t be going in there alone.”
“Don’t take this the wrong way, Fusco, but if that man in there wants me dead, there’s not a whole lot you’d be able to do about it.”
He had the decency to look abashed, but nodded. Joss put her hand on the door and turned it.
Before she’d even crossed the threshold, she saw Reese take in her psychic scent–Queen, lighter-Jeweled–and respond to it, his bearing and his eyes instantly protective in the almost feral way that was unique to Warlord Princes. Though she didn’t dare let it show, Joss nevertheless let her relief wash over her. No way in Hell that was the reaction of a man who’d betrayed and murdered the Queen he served.
Then he looked at her, really looked at her, and his eyes changed. “Hayllian,” he growled.
Damn. It wasn’t anything new, the way people tended to prejudge her the minute they saw her, but that didn’t make it any less aggravating. Joss snorted. “Not anymore. Not for a long time.”
Which was true. Her mother had left Hayll when Joss was still a baby, getting her young Queen daughter as far away from Dorothea SaDiablo as she could. And since Joss was a mother herself now, with a son she’d no intention of seeing turned into a slave, it’d be a cold day in Hell before she ever thought about going back.
Her words were apparently emphatic enough to ease Reese’s mind, because he relaxed back into his chair. Those startling summer-sky eyes continued to watch her though, surprisingly sharp for a man who was rumored to walk in the Twisted Kingdom.
Knowing somehow that he respected courage, she strode across the room and perched herself on the edge of the table, close enough that she could pitch her voice too low for anyone but the two of them to hear. “That boy you killed, Anton O’Mara. They’re calling for a blood price.” He knew as well as she did that there was nothing she could do to make him turn himself over to them. Still, she added, “But there’s something I need to know from you before I decide whether or not to give it to them. What really happened in Ordos?”
For an instant so fleeting she’d have missed it if she hadn’t been staring him in the face, something like despair flickered through Reese’s eyes. But he didn’t answer, and he didn’t drop his gaze. Carter wondered if he even knew she’d seen it. Did he even really see her at all, or was she just some vague, amorphous shape of a Queen in the Twisted Kingdom, a representation of the Queen he’d lost?
Joss felt a swell of compassion. No, this man was definitely no Queen-killer. But he’d been there. Whoever had murdered Kara Stanton, they’d managed to pull it off in spite of her being protected by one of the darkest-Jeweled men in Terreille. He had to feel that failure like a knife. No wonder he’d slipped into the Twisted Kingdom.
“I know how you must feel. But you don’t deserve what they’d do to you.”
There was a gleam in his eye now that suggested it wasn’t him she’d need to worry about. Hell, maybe she should turn him over. Let him take out the male council–if he could get close enough. It was tempting, but without knowing anything about the man it was impossible to say if the benefit would outweigh the risk.
Reese still didn’t answer her questions.
Joss sighed. Well, not like there was much she could do to protect him anyway. “All right. Have it your way.” Rising, she moved towards the door. Just in case he was paying attention, though, she threw a pointed, “Don’t go anywhere,” over her shoulder, knowing if he was smart he’d do just the opposite.
“So what do we do now?” Fusco asked as the door closed behind her, leaving Reese alone. “Shield the room, so he doesn’t get out?”
“Nothing we can do,” Joss answered honestly. “You know a single person in this building capable of building a shield that will hold a Gray-Jeweled Warlord Prince if he doesn’t want to be held?”
Fusco grimaced, falling into step beside her as he always did. “Fair point. So what do I tell the O’Maras?”
“Tell them the truth: that if they want to extract a blood price, they’re going to have to do it themselves. We couldn’t hold him.”
Even though it benefited him, there was something troubling to Harold about the idea that a Queen’s court, even that of a district Queen, had no one in it who could see through a Green sight shield. If his intentions had been less than honorable, he could have wreaked absolute havoc on this court without anyone being the wiser. The mere fact that the council’s minions hadn’t already done so was testament enough to how easy they knew it would be.
Still, troubling or not, the fact that it gave him free reign was the only thing right now allowing him to continue his observation of Prince Reese. And that observation had led him to an absolutely stunning conclusion: John Reese was not lost in the Twisted Kingdom. He might still be in despair, might be trying to drink himself to death for lack of a more proactive means of suicide, but Reese was very much sane.
It was a mind-blowingly clever move. By assuming the appearance of madness, he’d removed himself as a threat. The male council had left him alone when most of the other males who’d been loyal to Stanton had been either broken, enslaved, or outright killed. The question now became, why?
The obvious answer was that Reese had been involved in his Queen’s death after all, and had no desire to be removed as an inconvenient loose end by those who had orchestrated it. But that didn’t fit with the man he’d seen in his visions. Which left another alternative, a far more audacious one.
There had been a string of mysterious deaths not long after Stanton’s murder, deaths that didn’t fit with the council’s pattern of eliminating strong witches or loyal males. Maybe, just maybe Reese had been taking out those responsible for the death of his Queen.
He stayed silent and shielded through the non-conversation with Carter, only becoming more and more convinced that his theory was correct. He also remained behind in the room after the Queen of Manhattan had realized she wasn’t going to get an answer and left, her last words a pointed invitation for Reese to escape. That was probably why Finch was the only one who saw the man use Craft to blithely walk through the walls of Carter’s home and wander out into the street.
He followed, infused with new purpose.
Harold dropped his sight shield as soon as they were out of sight of Carter’s court, and in a moment of boldness called out to the other male. “Prince Reese. I wonder if I might have a word with you?”
Reese stopped. Fortunately, this gave Finch a chance to catch up with him. His own injuries from the council’s purge had made running impossible and walking much more difficult, so he didn’t move as quickly as he once had.
“If I owe you money, I’m afraid I’m fresh out.”
Well, the Warlord Prince still had a sense of humor. That was something.
“I’m afraid what I need from you is significantly less tangible than money,” Finch responded as he reached him. “I need your help, Prince. To save this territory from its own short-sightedness and greed.”
Reese’s eyes darkened. He turned away. “I’m not interested.”
Well, of course he wasn’t. Harold had probably started off with the worst possible appeal to a man whose territory had, in essence, betrayed him. He tried a different tack. “I’m not talking about the current rulers of York. I’m talking about the people. The district and province Queens. The witches and the loyal males who are suffering for not sharing the ‘council’s’ ambition. You could protect them.”
Reese chuckled darkly. “I think you’ve got the wrong guy. I haven’t been doing very well at protecting anyone lately.”
“Because you were caught off guard, forced into an impossible choice,” Finch rejoined. “What if you never had to worry about that again? What if you could know?”
Reese still looked like he found the other male amusing at best, but he was humoring him for now and that was a step in the right direction. “And how do you suppose I would do that? You have a Black Widow hidden around here somewhere?”
Finch couldn’t help but smile a little. “Yes, actually,” he responded dryly. “In a manner of speaking.”
That got the Warlord Prince’s attention, although not quite in the way Finch had intended. His eyes turned dangerous and he closed the distance between them, his temper clearly rising to the killing edge. Harold had only a second to reflect that Reese’s instinct to protect the distaff gender was certainly intact before the Warlord Prince had him by the throat. “Where is she?”
“Standing right in front of you,” Harold managed to croak out. That confused Reese enough that his grip loosened, even if the feral rage in the lines of his body didn’t fade. Finch took a deep breath and for the first time in his life admitted his secret to another living being: “It’s me.”
Reese let go of him, stepping back from the killing edge. “There’s only one Male Black Widow in the Realms, and I’m sorry but you don’t look like the High Lord of Hell.”
“Let me clarify,” Finch corrected. A couple of wheezing coughs racked his body, a reaction to nearly being strangled a moment before. “My mother was a fully-trained, natural Black Widow. When she saw what was happening to dark-Jeweled males in Hayll, and starting to happen in other Territories as well, she wove a tangled web to discover my fate. She never told me what she saw in it, but she taught me a little of the Hourglass Craft in secret so I could use it to protect myself.” He touched the Green Jewel in his ring and admitted carefully, “Including a spell to conceal my full psychic strength when necessary. I can weave a simple tangled web that tells me when someone is in danger, but not why or from whom. I’ve found…other ways to obtain that information, however.”
“That’s nice.” Reese had lapsed back into that deliberate nonchalance he affected when he wasn’t pretending to be mad. “So then what do you need me for?”
“You wear the Gray. You’re a Warlord Prince who honors the old ways. You’re trained as a warrior. And, at least as far as I can tell, you’re sound in mind and body, no matter how much you may want others to believe differently. Knowledge is not my problem, Prince. It’s doing something with that knowledge.” To drive home his point, Finch dropped one hand to his leg to massage long-ago damaged muscles that were genuinely beginning to ache. “You’re a Warlord Prince,” he reiterated. “Protecting the distaff gender is bred into your bone, even moreso than the other castes. I can give you a chance to be that person again.” He paused, then added carefully, “York needs you.”
Reese’s face clouded. “York needs a Queen.”
He turned away and Finch panicked. If Reese walked away now, knowing that someone was looking for him, he might wrap a Gray sight shield around himself and disappear. Instead of it taking months to find him again, he might never find him again. “You’re right. York does need a strong Queen, and I’m sure that the right Queen is out there somewhere. But if York is going to be saved from Hayll’s shadow long enough for her to become ready, it needs your protection.”
Reese kept walking.
“I can offer you something else, too,” Finch called after him. “Your revenge.”
That made Reese stop. He didn’t turn around, though: waiting for Finch to say something he felt was worth hearing. So, he did. “Prince Elias. Prince Snow. You killed the Warlord who murdered your hearth-witch but you can’t touch the male council that was behind it, behind Kara Stanton’s murder. If you help me, I can help you change that. The council needs to be taken out anyway.”
There was still no answer, but at least he was still listening. So, Finch reiterated his first, most important point. “There are still Queens in this territory who honor the old ways. You can’t tell me they don’t deserve protecting.”
Finally Reese turned around. “All right. Where do we start?”
“So basically you want me to set myself up as ruler of York.”
They had long since relocated the conversation to Harold’s…he couldn’t really call it a home: his hideaway, perhaps. Reese seemed to appreciate the opportunity to bathe without commentary, and Harold had been relieved to be somewhere private. A lifetime of hiding had left him still uncomfortable in public unless he was well shielded. So, once they were both safely ensconced in his library, he’d revealed to Reese his entire plan. “It works well enough for Dhemlan.”
Reese grunted. “The Warlord Prince of Dhemlan is the most powerful male in the Realms. It would take Witch herself to outrank him.”
“And you’re the most powerful male in York.” All right, so perhaps that wasn’t entirely true, but he wasn’t ready to reveal all his secrets quite yet.
“I still served,” Reese answered quietly.
“I know you did. When there was a strong, honorable Queen worth serving, we all did. And when such a Queen returns, we will again. But unless you know a Queen who meets that description now…”
Reese frowned. “No. Carter is honorable, but she doesn’t have the strength to hold the Territory. Neither do any of the other Province or District Queens.”
“Jewel strength isn’t a requirement for ruling a Territory,” Harold pointed out.
Reese snorted. “It is these days.”
Finch resisted the impulse to smile. “I think you’ve just made my point for me, Prince.”
Reese sighed, unfolding his long, lean frame from the chair and rising to pace the room. “All right then: it takes more than just strength. If I set myself up as Warlord Prince of York without the support of the Queens, I’m no better than Elias and his council.”
“I never said we should do it without the consent of York’s Queens.”
“And how do you suggest I gain their trust? I have something of a reputation, remember? And it’s not exactly pretty.”
Harold stood and stumped over to the heavy wooden desk. “Since you seem so fond of Lady Carter, I suggest we start with her.” He picked up the web in its frame. “I saw two things in this web, Prince Reese. One of them was you. The other was that the council is almost ready to make its move against the Queen of Manhattan.”
It wasn’t that Fusco didn’t feel bad about what he was doing. He was a Blood male: of course he felt bad about betraying his Queen. Especially after the lengths she’d gone to, to protect not only him, but also his son.
But he was a Summer-Sky-Jeweled Warlord, and even Carter only wore Purple Dusk. Sooner or later, the council was going to find a way to take Manhattan away from her, either by breaking her or worse. When that happened, if he wasn’t on the right side, he wasn’t going to survive much longer himself. Maybe if he were the kind of male who valued his honor more than his life…but he wasn’t, and there was no use pretending otherwise. Still, it was a good thing Ma hadn’t lived to see it. She’d always bragged that her boy was as loyal as the night was long.
Fusco had told Carter he was going to a Red Moon House. She didn’t exactly approve, but since everyone knew his wife had divorced him over a year ago, no one blinked twice at the idea of him seeking out a little paid female company. He just didn’t mention that it was one of Elias’s Red Moon houses, or that he wasn’t going there to sheath his spear, but rather to meet with his council-appointed contact.
Giving the driver his destination, Fusco climbed into the carriage with a sigh. York was changing, and there wasn’t anything he could do about it except try not to get trampled.
They’d gone about six blocks when out of nowhere a long, lean shape suddenly detached itself from the shadows inside the Carriage and a voice that chilled Fusco’s blood said blandly, “Hello, Lionel.”
Fusco bolted for the door, but it refused to budge. A quick blast of Summer-Sky power was as ineffectual as he’d thought it would be against a Gray lock, but he had to try. When he knew for a fact he couldn’t escape, Lionel sank back into his seat and stared in horror at the Gray-Jeweled Warlord Prince who sat across from him, no longer wrapped in the sight shield that had prevented Fusco from knowing he was there before he got in.
John Reese. Mother Night. And looking as sane as he’d ever seen a Warlord Prince look–which, granted, to Fusco most Warlord Princes always looked like they were walking the edge of the Twisted Kingdom anyway. But Reese sure as Hell didn’t look like he had when they’d brought him to Carter after the altercation on the public Coach.
“What do you want?” Fusco demanded, sounding bolder than he felt.
“You’ve been a bad, bad boy, Lionel. Ratting out your Queen? Somebody needs a lesson in Protocol.” Even though he could barely see Reese’s face in the dim interior of the Carriage, there was a dangerous edge to his voice that only increased Lionel’s terror. He was trapped in an enclosed space with a Warlord Prince who was only inches away from the killing edge.
Well, damn it, if he was going to die anyway, he was at least going to die honest. “I know Protocol,” he spat back. “But I also know what happens around here lately to a male who doesn’t obey the council. I don’t particularly want to wear a Ring of Obedience, or worse, see one on my son.”
“The council isn’t going to be calling the shots around here much longer.”
Fusco scoffed. “Oh really. And who is?”
Lionel felt cold all over. When a Gray-Jeweled Warlord Prince made a statement like that, he had the power to back it up. Mother Night, the darkest Jewel on the council was Elias’ Sapphire–that Red-Jeweled Bitch from Hayll wouldn’t have backed them if there was anyone who could challenge her power.
Problem was, he had no idea whether to feel relieved or even more terrified. Snow still insisted that Reese had been the one who murdered Stanton in the first place. Add to that the fact that until a couple of hours ago he was supposedly wandering the Twisted Kingdom, and it didn’t really seem like that much of an improvement.
Reese let him stew for a moment, then went on. “Of course, if I’m going to take out the council and win the Queens’ support, I’m going to need someone on the inside. That’s where you come in.”
“So you’re saying I answer to you, now.” Hell, he’d switched sides in the first place to save his own skin. Doing so again wasn’t exactly out of character.
“That’s exactly what I’m saying.”
Fusco shifted uncomfortably. “What exactly does that entail? You want me to stop reporting to the council?”
The most powerful Warlord Prince in all of York shook his head with a lazy smile that would probably be a lot less scary on anyone else. “Oh, no, you’re going to keep reporting to the council, but you’re going to report what I tell you to. And you’re going to protect Carter with your life, because if you don’t, I’ll kill you myself: slower and more painfully than either you or the council can imagine. And Lionel? I won’t give you the mercy of the final death.”
Fusco imagined himself wandering Hell for centuries as a mutilated corpse, and shuddered. “Fine. What do you want me to say?”
*Well, that should take care of Lord Fusco,* Reese sent on a spear thread.
Finch looked up from the book he’d been reading, startled. One of the things he liked about the abandoned manor that he’d chosen for them was its extensive library, whose shelves he’d happily set to filling as soon as he moved in. The other was that its run down state had made it easy to hide behind a sight shield without anyone becoming suspicious–it was simply assumed that the house had been destroyed. *Is he…?*
*Lionel is, shall we say…newly persuaded that it’s in his own best interests to remain loyal to his Queen.*
Well, at least he wasn’t dead. He’d been half expecting that when Reese had said he was going to ‘deal with’ Lionel Fusco. Still, the heavy-handed tactic left a bad taste in his mouth. *Did you have to threaten the man?*
He could almost hear Reese chuckle silently. *If you wanted to avoid violence, you should’ve picked someone other than a Warlord Prince for a partner.*
Harold winced. He couldn’t really argue that. He’d been surprised, however, by how Reese had responded to his revelation about the threat to Carter’s life he’d seen in his latest web. He could weave the webs well enough, but apparently his lack of natural talent was more problematic in the area of reading them. Hence they found themselves working with limited information. The Queen of Manhattan was in danger and Reese was essential to saving her, but that was about all he had. The rest, Reese had extrapolated on his own. *What makes you so certain the threat will come from within her court?* he asked.
*Because that’s how Elias works. He doesn’t get his hands dirty. He recruits someone the Queen trusts and then after the job is done, they take the blame.*
Ah, of course. *You mean like they did with you?*
Reese’s mental voice took on a harder edge. *No. They threw me to the wolves to punish me, because I refused to play their game.*
Clearly that particular topic was still dangerous ground. Harold steered away from it. *Then if the threat is likely to come from within, we need to clear everyone. Lionel Fusco’s only a Summer-Sky-Jeweled Warlord; the most he could really do to protect Lady Carter is to buy us a little more time.*
Reese agreed. *I’ve got Fusco checking out her consort, Beecher, and the Steward, Donnelly. If they’re in the council’s pocket too, they’ll talk to him. Szmanski, Fusco’s second, he’s solid. But none of them wear darker Jewels than she does. If I’m really going to protect her against the Sapphire, I need to protect her myself.*
*Are you sure that’s such a good idea?* Harold asked warily. *Remember, the last time you met Lady Carter, you were still playing the madman. She may not be eager to trust you.*
*She doesn’t have to trust me yet. I just have to get close enough to shield her.* What he didn’t add was that no one in Carter’s court was powerful enough to stop him if he made up his mind he wanted to get that close to her.
Finch sighed. *Does that mean you’re not going to be home any time soon?*
*Why, Harold, do you miss me?*
He was beginning to regret ever allowing Reese to learn his first name. The man wielded it with entirely too much unholy glee. Pointedly not answering the question, he retorted instead with, *Just try not to get yourself killed too soon. I’d hate for all the effort I’ve put into this arrangement to be in vain.*
The estate where Joss held her court was the same one where the previous Queen of Manhattan had lived–she’d inherited it when Diana stepped down. As a result, no matter how long she lived in these rooms, sometimes she still felt like a visitor. That feeling had only gotten worse since the male council had started making demands they knew she wouldn’t meet, trying to pressure her into stepping down and leaving Manhattan to a Queen they could control.
Her mother had left Hayll so Joss wouldn’t have to make choices like that. Joss had stayed and raised her son here because, under Kara Stanton, York had been a place where she believed they’d both be safe; Stanton had been a ruthless Queen, but a good one who honored Protocol. But Kara was gone, and Joss was only too aware of how tenuous her own position had become. Sometimes she thought about leaving, about finding another territory where Dorothea’s poison hadn’t reached yet. But that would mean abandoning her people, and as terrified as she was for herself and Taylor, that was something she refused to do. She was a Queen. That meant she had responsibilities to the land and its people that didn’t involve abandoning them to the tender mercies of someone with the same caste but not the same principles.
How any Queen could lack those principles was something she had never been able to comprehend, but she’d met enough unprincipled Queens to know it did happen. And it was happening more and more as Dorothea SaDiablo’s influence bled through Terreille.
One thing was for certain: Dorothea was a master manipulator. She twisted Blood males and witches alike, using them against each other. Her pet males broke the strong witches before they could be a threat to her, and her pet Queens used the Ring of Obedience to control strong males that she couldn’t corrupt. Carl Elias was too smart not to know that Dorothea didn’t give a fig about him or his council– that she had just used them to eliminate a powerful potential rival in Kara Stanton–but he didn’t care because right now he had what he wanted.
Or, well, mostly he had what he wanted. As long as Joss was Queen of Manhattan, Elias would never totally control her city. Nor was she the only Queen in York who was holding out. The problem was, when he finally decided to make his move, all of them put together might not be enough to stop him.
The council knew that, and used it to put pressure on the Queens to give just one more inch, to compromise just that little bit. Like today, for example.
Taking a deep breath, Joss opened the door and confronted her unwelcome visitor. “Prince Snow. To what do I owe the pleasure?”
If he heard the sarcasm in her voice, Snow ignored it. He turned to face her with a beneficent smile. “Lady Carter. It’s been too long. How’s your son?”
Joss smiled tightly in return. The council never failed to remind her of that she had someone in her life that they could hurt if she disappointed them. “Growing into a fine young man. He’ll be making the Offering to the Darkness soon.” Not that it would make him any safer. She’d prayed through Taylor’s entire birthright ceremony that he would come out with a Jewel darker than her own, or at least with the potential to descend to darker, but in that the Darkness had not been merciful. He wore Tiger-Eye, just as she once had.
“But you didn’t come here to talk about my family,” she stated pointedly. “What exactly is it that you want?”
Snow took a seat. Or rather, he took the biggest seat in the room, as if he were the one holding court. “I understand you had John Reese in your custody recently, and you let him go.”
Carter snorted. She might’ve known that’s what this was about. “In case you forgot, that’s a Gray-Jeweled Warlord Prince you’re talking about. I didn’t ‘let’ him do anything.”
“But you did speak with him.”
“More like spoke to. I did some talking, he didn’t do any answering.”
Snow steepled his hands together. “And what would you say was his mental state when you spoke to him?”
“How should I know? Do I look like a Black Widow to you?” Honestly, if the man sitting across from her wasn’t a Sapphire-Jeweled Warlord Prince, she probably would’ve thrown him out by now. She was losing patience at an unhealthy rate. “Look, you know and I know you didn’t come here today to check in on John Reese’s mental health, either. So, stop beating around the bush and cut to the chase already.”
Snow didn’t look happy, but conceded. “All right. The council is concerned because ever since the day you say you spoke to Reese, his behavior has become increasingly erratic.”
Joss frowned. “What exactly qualifies as ‘erratic’ behavior from a Warlord Prince who’s been lost in the Twisted Kingdom for years?”
“Grant Whitaker was a Warlord whose brother murdered his entire family and then took his own life, or so everyone believed. When Grant found out his niece, Theresa, was still alive, he tried to find her. Reese killed him, and no one has seen the niece since.”
Joss felt a jolt of surprise. Theresa Whitaker was the name of the young witch who’d appeared on her doorstep suddenly a few weeks ago. The girl had told her that she’d been told she could trust Joss by a “friend” who had saved her life. She’d ended up sending her away to Janette, the Red-Jeweled Queen of Toronto Territory, with a promise to keep Theresa safe at least until she was old enough to make the Offering.
“What makes you so sure it was Reese?” Joss asked carefully.
Snow grimaced. “No one else in York has the power to do what was done to Whitaker.”
Joss frowned again, this time in frustration. Truth be told, she wasn’t quite sure what to make of the story she was hearing. When Theresa had come to her, she’d been absolutely terrified, but she’d refused to say anything about who or what she was running from. Was John Reese the threat that had her so afraid, or was he the one who’d saved her life?
“Whitaker isn’t the only one either. A Warlord Prince named Andrew Benton recently disappeared under mysterious circumstances after Reese was seen following him. And there are others.”
She knew the name Andrew Benton as well. A couple of years ago, not long after Stanton died, the family of Gabrielle Tillman had come to her for restitution after Benton had raped and broken her on her Virgin Night. He’d claimed it was an accident, but after Joss dug a little deeper and found out this wasn’t the first time, she’d decided in favor of the family. The council had swooped in, revoked her decision, and whisked Benton away to another part of the territory before she’d been able to act. She’d been furious, let the council know in no uncertain terms that their pet rapist was only safe so long as he stayed away from Manhattan. If he set foot in her District again, she’d have him executed, personal consequences be damned.
If Reese had killed Prince Benton, as Snow seemed to imply, then as far as she was concerned he’d done her a favor. Maybe done every woman in York a favor.
“Murder isn’t against Blood law,” Joss pointed out.
Snow sighed and rubbed his face with his hands, a surprisingly human gesture. “Look, I know what you think but I’m not out to get John Reese. Believe it or not, he was my closest friend when we served in Kara’s court together. But there was a woman he loved–a Summer-Sky-Jeweled hearth-witch named Jessica–and something shattered in him when she was broken and murdered. He blamed Kara: thought she should have been able to prevent it. That was why he killed her. Now we think he’s trying to set himself up as Warlord Prince of York, that he doesn’t trust any Queen to rule well any longer. Maybe he thinks he’s avenging someone, protecting someone by what he’s doing, but he needs help. If there is anything at all that you know that could help me find him, please. I need you to tell me.”
It sounded plausible. In fact, it made a horrible sort of sense. If Joss had ever had a reason to trust Mark Snow, she might’ve believed it without question. But Snow had every reason to lie to her, especially about Reese. If he was sane again, he was probably the only person in the whole of York who could pose any real threat to the council.
She sighed. “Maybe it was those Warlords in the Coach. Maybe they triggered something in him, I don’t know. But I haven’t seen or heard from John Reese since he walked out of here.”
Still frowning, Snow rose from his seat. “If he makes contact, I’d appreciate hearing from you.”
“I’ll make that call if and when the time comes, Prince. And when I do, I’ll decide based on what’s best for my district, not for you.”
Snow frowned, clearly unhappy with her answer, but aware he’d been dismissed. He stood and bowed stiffly, then saw himself out.
Joss waited until Snow was well away from her home before rising from her seat with every intention of finding Donnelly and sending him on a little trip to the Keep. No matter what anyone said, she wasn’t doing anything until she knew more about this string of supposed murders.
“It’s nice to know my old friend Mark still cares so much about my welfare.”
Joss spun around, instinctively calling a weapon to hand. Her surprise turned to anger, however, when she saw the Gray-Jeweled Warlord Prince reclining casually in one of the chairs by the fire. Immediately she understood why Snow was so worried because John Reese looked nothing like the man she’d tried to communicate with all those weeks ago. He was clean, clean-shaven and well dressed, and most importantly of all, he looked undeniably sane.
“What in Hell are you doing here?” she demanded.
Reese shrugged. “I came to talk, but Snow beat me to it, so I thought I’d wait and see what he had to say.”
“Uh huh. And even after hearing what he had to say, you still thought it would be a good idea to sneak up on me?”
He looked sheepish, but only asked, “Do you believe what he said?”
Joss sighed. “Let’s just say that I’d be a lot less likely to consider it if you hadn’t broken into my home and spied on me.” She vanished the blade and folded her arms over her chest, still wary but not sensing any immediate threat. “You want to talk? Fine. Talk. But this better be good.”
Reese turned serious. “I came to warn you that your life is in danger.”
“My life is always in danger.”
He shook his head. “Not like this. The council is ready to make their move. Elias wants you dead.”
A cold knot of fear tied itself in Carter’s stomach. She didn’t know how he knew that, but after Snow’s visit she had little doubt that it was probably true. As much as he’d genuinely wanted to know what she knew about Reese, he was almost certainly also testing her. Giving her one last chance to show she could be pliable before they wrote her off. But at the same time…
“And why should I trust you? For all I know, Snow could be telling the truth about you setting yourself up as Warlord Prince of York.”
Reese shrugged. “He is telling the truth. About that part.”
Joss dropped her face into her hands. “Mother Night. Tell me again why I should believe a word that comes out of your mouth?”
Something in Reese’s face hardened, but it wasn’t directed at her. “Because I know as well as you do that what York really needs is a strong Queen who honors Protocol. But we don’t have one of those. So maybe the next best thing is a strong male who honors Protocol. One who’d be not only willing but eager to step down when the right Territory Queen comes along, but who could protect the honorable District and Province Queens in the meantime.” He shrugged then and added, “It works for Dhemlan, anyway.”
“We’ve got plenty of Queens in this territory who honor Protocol,” she objected. “Why not just elevate one of the Province Queens?”
He turned eyes to her that had more shadows in them than Kaeleer. “Kara Stanton wore the Sapphire and I never left her side, yet Elias still found a way to destroy her right under my nose. We were attacked, not by a stronger Jewel but by so many enemies that no matter how many we killed, more kept coming. I had her create a Shadow and used it to try to lure them away, fully intending to sacrifice myself so that she could escape. But I failed. If I support you or one of the other Queens to take over the Territory, I paint that exact same target on your back, and the backs of everyone you care about. I can’t do that again, not until I know the council is no longer a threat.”
Joss frowned, taking a seat across from him and rubbing a hand over her eyes. It still felt wrong, almost foul.
Reese leaned forward. “Maybe it won’t be necessary. Maybe the Queen we need will show up out of nowhere tomorrow and you can forget I ever brought it up. Right now all I’m asking is for the opportunity to earn your trust; the rest can wait.”
“And how do you plan to go about ‘earning my trust’ after a suggestion like that?” she demanded.
“Take me into service for a few months. It can be third circle, nothing flashy.”
Joss laughed ruefully and shook her head. “Oh, no. If I take you into service then I’m responsible to the families of anyone you kill.” She looked at him. “You did kill Grant Whitaker, didn’t you?”
“Yes,” he answered briefly.
“Just answer me this: did you do it to protect Theresa?”
John met her eyes evenly and repeated: “Yes.”
“And did you kill Andrew Benton to avenge Gabrielle Tillman?”
He just tilted his head and asked, “What do you think?”
Well, that was something anyway. It proved her instincts had been right about him at least to a point. And the fact that no one knew he was here and yet Reese hadn’t made a move to hurt her, that proved something else. Joss didn’t trust as easily as she once had–she couldn’t afford to–but it helped a little that so far she’d seen nothing to support Snow’s version of Reese’s character.
“How about this?” he suggested. “How about you let me serve you unofficially for a few weeks?”
He looked at her seriously and said, “By keeping you alive.”
Joss gave him a long, hard look for a couple of moments before deciding. “Fine. You wanna play bodyguard? I’ll give you your chance. But you do it on my terms. Which means nobody dies without my say-so, and I don’t even want to see you unless there’s an Opal or darker involved. Otherwise, I can take care of myself. You got me?”
“And if you can’t?” he countered. “Even lighter Jewels can overwhelm a darker one in force.”
“Then that’s for me to decide.” Her eyes didn’t leave his. If one of them was going to back down, it was going to be him because this wasn’t an option in her book. “If you can’t respect that, you and I have nothing more to say to each other.”
Reese’s expression didn’t change, but something like admiration sparked in his eyes. He’d respected her caste from the beginning; now maybe he would respect her. “Understood.”
He rose to leave, but she stopped him with a gesture. “One more thing. I’ve got no problem with Andrew Benton and his ilk getting what’s coming to them. But in the future, if they live in my city? You give them to me. You’re not Warlord Prince of York yet.”
The Warlord Prince in question seemed to ponder that for a moment. “What if there’s not time?”
She gave him a look that brooked no excuses. “Then you knock them unconscious and make the time.”
When the attack finally came, it wasn’t what either of them had been expecting.
Manhattan had long ago absorbed all of the surrounding landen villages as it grew, so that these days it was more accurate to say the city had a landen quarter. Despite Carter’s best efforts, the quarter wasn’t pretty, but under her rulership it was at least safe, something the residents respected her enormously for. It increased Reese’s respect too: too many of the Blood these days looked on their landen neighbors as just a labor force, or worse, an inconvenience. That Jocelyn Carter was a Queen who cared about all of her people, even those without any Craft ability, only made him more determined to protect her.
Earlier that day, Carter had disciplined a Warlord who’d been making trouble in the landen quarter, threatening and harrassing the people. True to his word, when Finch had learned about the Warlord’s identity, Reese had delivered him to Carter. The way she stood her ground and delivered Queen’s justice with a firm but fair hand had only further convinced him that Jocelyn Carter was a Queen the Realms couldn’t afford to lose.
Once Alvarez was taken care of, so she’d come down to the landen quarter to let them know Alvarez wasn’t going to be bothering them anymore. Reese had been along more as a formality than anything, because he’d helped bring him down rather than because of any real threat. He was sight shielded as usual because of his promise not to be seen, a choice he would later regret, because perhaps if they’d seen what they would be dealing with, the outcome would’ve been different.
Carter was busy talking with the leader, so he had wandered off a bit to discuss with Finch on a psychic thread their progress in weeding out the disloyal from Joss’s court.
Things had changed so suddenly that he barely had time to respond. One minute Carter had been offering to treat the leader to dinner, and the next second he apologized as a mob descended on her. Carter was well trained enough that she had a shield up in an instant, and was sending quick bursts of Purple Dusk power into the crowd to disable her attackers. That didn’t stop his protective instincts from kicking in.
It was over in minutes. Those landens who hadn’t been killed by the bursts of Gray power that he released had fled. If Carter hadn’t physically interposed herself between him and the rest to stop him from going after them, he probably would’ve wiped out the entire quarter. “Stand down, Prince!”
Still riding the killing edge, Reese growled, “They tried to kill you.”
“Because the council threatened their families if they didn’t; threatened to wipe out the whole quarter. They were terrified, and with damn good reason. Now, stand down.”
They stared at each other, but after a moment Carter’s presence–steadfast and alive–eased the pounding in his blood. Reese stepped back. Satisfied, she crouched down beside the body of the mob’s leader, a man she’d called “BC”, then looked back up at him sternly. “I told you, no killing without my say-so.”
Reese didn’t answer, trusting her to understand that he hadn’t been entirely in control of his actions. She was a good Queen, so there would be consequences anyway, but he had to believe it wouldn’t hurt his case too badly.
“This man had a family,” she stated quietly. “His wife died years ago. His kids have no one else. So since you took their father away from them too, that makes you responsible for them.”
Justice, not revenge. Just like she’d given Alvarez. Reese nodded. “I can do that.” Finch had been very generous when he’d “hired” him, so he’d gone from having nothing to having just about everything he needed almost overnight. Taking responsibility for a landen family would scarcely make a dent, but it was a fair recompense for him depriving that family of its provider.
*Prince Reese? What’s happening?* Finch asked anxiously.
*It’s over,* he replied shortly. *Carter’s safe. I should’ve seen this coming, Harold. It’s the same tactic Elias used in Ordos after I refused to turn. Superior numbers to weaken the shield and drain the intended victim’s psychic strength until they’re vulnerable.*
*In that case, it’s a good thing you were there.*
Not privy to the silent conversation, Carter spoke again, this time with a cold fury in her voice and her dark eyes burning like Black Jewels. “Damn Elias and that council of his. These people are just so much garbage to them. Disposable.” She paused next to the body of the group’s leader, a man she’d addressed earlier as ‘BC,’ and gently closed his eyes, even though he had been the one to lead the assault. “What were they supposed to do? Fight back?” Her hands clenched into fists so tight that her fingernails drew blood. “And when the council learns they’ve failed, they won’t care why. They’ll retaliate anyway.”
Reese nodded. “Come on. Let’s get you home.”
Joss stood, the fire in her eyes flashing much darker and more dangerously than her Jewels warranted. “Oh no. And leave them to fend for themselves?”
Obedience was the third law, but at at time like this John cared a lot more about the first two. “Then I’ll come back. But you’re my first concern.”
“These are my people, Prince. If I don’t do everything in my power protect them, I don’t deserve to rule over them.” Her face had turned a sickly shade of gray, but she stood her ground. “Besides, I need you for something more important.”
“And what’s that?”
The eyes that Carter raised to his face spoke volumes, even though she only said one word. “Taylor.”
Reese swore loudly in a few of the more colorful languages he’d learned before coming to York. “I won’t let anything happen to him.” He’d let Elias offer him an impossible choice once, between the woman he loved and the Queen he served, and in the end he’d lost them both because he refused to choose. He wouldn’t let the same thing happen to Carter. “But if you even think it’s going to be more than you can handle, will you send for me?”
She nodded, calling in a weapon and holding it so tightly that he doubted even he would’ve been able to knock it out of her grip. “Just promise me you’ll keep my son safe.”
John squeezed her free hand. “You have my word.”
He turned away, calling out to Finch on a psychic thread as he did so. *Finch, Carter’s son. When the council finds out they failed to kill her, he’ll be the next target.*
*I’m on my way to his school now,* Finch promised. *With any luck, I’ll get there before the council even knows what happened.*
Reese glanced hesitantly back over his shoulder before adding, *They may have already grabbed him, as insurance.*
*Then I’ll find out where they’re keeping him.*
There was something unique about the relationship between a mother and son, Harold reflected as he watched the reunion between the Queen of Manhattan and her son. She was his protector, his teacher, the first woman he ever loved or served. And every mother was a Queen to her son, whether that was her caste or not.
He was alive today because of his own mother. Because she had taught him what he needed to survive, tradition be damned, and because she had sacrificed her own life for his. He still missed her, and even though this wasn’t what she had intended for him, a large part of the reason why he was determined to save York instead of just leaving to find another Territory where the Queens still honored the old ways was because of her. This had been her birthplace as well as his, and he wasn’t going to let it go to ruin as long as it was in his power to prevent it.
Moments like this made it all worth it.
Reese reached him then, and turned at his side to watch the embracing pair with a smile. “You know what? For the first time, I’m starting to believe this crazy plan of yours might actually work.”
“It’s nice to know you doubted me before now,” Harold answered dryly. At this hour of the morning, when the sunlight was still weak even if the sun had technically cleared the horizon, the streets were virtually empty. Nevertheless, Finch sent his next question to Reese along a Green spear thread. *I’m curious, Prince, why you sent me to help Lady Carter defend the landen village instead of helping you locate Taylor. I have quite a few contacts around the city, you know.*
Reese answered without turning. *I needed someone I could trust watching her back. Someone with a darker Jewel than Fusco.*
*And if she’d been wrong, and Elias had sent someone with a Jewel stronger than Green to deal with the landen problem?* he prodded.
*Then you would still have been able to handle them.*
Harold blanched. Although perhaps he should have, he hadn’t been expecting that answer. *How…?*
Now Reese looked at him. *You said it yourself, Harold: your mother taught you how to hide your true strength. If you were birthright Purple Dusk descended to Green, you would most likely use the Purple Dusk. But you always use the Green, so that has to be your birthright Jewel. Which means your Jewel of Rank has to be at least Sapphire or Red, possibly darker. So why did you need me?*
*As I said before, you’re a Warlord Prince. I’m a Prince. You’ve probably noticed I don’t have much taste for violence, even when necessary.* He sighed. *I’d appreciate if you didn’t…*
Reese chuckled under his breath. *Don’t worry, Harold, your secret is safe with me.*
Apparently satisfied that he was real and alive, Carter finally released her son from the tight embrace she’d pulled him into almost the moment Reese brought him into sight. Still keeping one arm around the boy’s shoulders, she closed the distance between them and where Harold and Reese stood, stopping hesitantly in front of the two men. “I wanted to thank you. Both of you.”
“It was no trouble, Lady Carter,” Finch answered respectfully.
Her eyes narrowed as she looked at him, no doubt trying to figure out how exactly he fit in. In spite of the fact that Reese trusted her, Harold still wouldn’t have been upset if she never did figure it out. A lifetime of hiding didn’t allow him to give up his secrets easily.
The Queen of Manhattan seemed to understand that much. She smiled faintly at him and then turned her attention to Reese.”I may live to regret this, but if you still want me to talk to the other Queens about signing a contract with you, I will.”
Finch was the one who answered. “Yes, we would very much appreciate that.”
*If it makes you feel any better, Harold,* Reese told him as he lifted his cup of blooded rum to his lips. *I had doubts about your sanity when we met too. After all, it’s not every day you meet a Gray-Jeweled Prince who’s pretending to wear the Green and claims he was trained as a Black Widow, let alone one who wants to set you up as the ruler of a whole Territory.*
Outside, the sun was starting to dip below the horizon, so Harold set down his tray and, after discreetly looking around to make sure no one was paying attention, helped himself to a cup.
His lips pursed into something resembling, but not quite, a smile. *I suppose I can see how that might have been difficult to believe. But you stayed anyway.*
It hadn’t been an easy road and they’d faced obstacles other than just the council or the approval of York’s Queens, but they were several steps closer now to making Harold’s vision a reality, something he knew he couldn’t have accomplished without the Warlord Prince at his side.
John nodded. Another moment of silence, though, and the smile slowly bled off his face. *Even if we succeed, though–even if we wipe out the council and purge York of Hayll’s influence–it won’t be enough, will it? Because neither one of us belongs to any of the long-lived races. And Carter and Taylor don’t have the power to fight it on their own.*
*No,* Harold admitted with no small pain. *Eventually, all of Terreille will fall into Hayll’s shadow. But it will still mean something if what we’ve done keeps York safe for at least the next generation, maybe even the one after that.*
Across the wide ballroom, musicians struck up a traditional Winsol tune and people began drifting onto the dance floor and selecting their partners.
The Warlord Prince of York turned instinctively towards the activity, but glanced back over his shoulder at his partner in crime. *Aren’t you going to join in the dancing?* he teased.
Harold grimaced. *I rather think Witch would be far more glorified by my decision to refrain.*
Reese smiled, chuckling at the image, and took a sip from his cup of blooded rum. He was silent for a long moment before asking, “Do you think She’ll ever come again?”
Harold looked up at John, confused. “Who?”
“Witch. The Queen of the Darkness.” There was the same longing in his voice that was always there when he spoke about the Queen that York needed.
Finch lowered his own cup to the table and frowned thoughtfully. “My mother told me once, when I was a boy, that Witch is born every time someone dreams a dream so powerful that it ripples through the Darkness and reaches the dream-weavers of Arachna. They weave a tangled web that binds that dream to flesh and send her out into the Realms to find the dreamer. So while sometimes Witch is a powerful Queen, she can also be an artist’s inspiration or merely a beloved daughter. It all depends on the dreamers.”
Reese nodded, and Finch could see by the haunted look in his eyes that he was once again remembering his Summer-Sky-Jeweled hearth-witch. “And what happens when that dream gets shattered?”
Harold thought about it for a long moment as he watched the dancers. It seemed overly simplistic somehow, to assume that a dream could only be woven into reality by the Arachnans. Surely there was room for a dream that had been built with hard work and sheer stubbornness, even in Blood society. A dream shaped not with silk but with blood and tears, just they way he and Reese and the Queens who’d ultimately backed them had built this fragile web of protection around their home. A part of him even felt like that sort of thing ought to mean more.
Harold looked over at John and this time he didn’t hide his smile.
“Then I suppose you find a new dream.”