Morgan strode into the Queen’s private audience chamber, sweeping the room with a sharp gaze. It had become a way of life to automatically look for threats.
There was one enemy waiting for him.
The Queen herself.
Isabeau stood with her arms crossed, watching him with the deadliness of a coiled snake. She wore a blue silk dress that matched the blue of her eyes, and her long golden hair flowed in immaculate curls down her back. She was careful with details like that.
A gold chain looped the slender circumference of her waist. The chain was enchanted so that it was virtually unbreakable. She had ordered Morgan to make it. A scabbard made of ancient black leather hung from the chain.
The hilt of a knife protruded from the top, wrapped in the same humble, worn black leather as the scabbard. Deadly Power pulsated like an ebony supernova in Morgan’s mind whenever he glanced at it.
Isabeau never met Morgan without wearing Azrael’s Athame, not since she had captured him. She didn’t dare. Without Death’s Knife to control him, she would become his prey.
How he longed for her to be his prey. No matter how many centuries passed, that longing never ceased. It had become his purpose for existing as everything else had faded away.
He eyed her impassively. While she remained armed whenever he came into her presence, his greatest, most effective weapon against her was calm, bland indifference. It gave him a cold pleasure to know she hated his indifference almost more than anything.
“Shut the door,” she ordered. Raising one eyebrow, he did as she ordered. Private audiences with Isabeau almost never went well, but then he had expected nothing else.
As soon as the thick door settled into place, she grabbed a priceless antique porcelain bowl and flung it at him. Casually, he stepped to one side, and the bowl sailed past him to shatter against the paneled wall.
“I can’t believe you let Oberon’s bastards find a way back to Earth!” she raged. She tore at her own hair, her beautiful face suffused with fury. “How could you do this to me?”
“Because as we know,” he murmured, “it’s always all about you, Isabeau.”
There was no reasoning with her when she got like this. The Queen of the Light Court couldn’t bear to be crossed or disappointed in any way. When everything went the way Isabeau wanted it to, she was all sweetness and flirtatious, pretty smiles.
When things didn’t work out the way she wanted, she flew into uncontrollable rages. She became convinced everything that happened, even the most arbitrary act of fate, was a personal attack against her.
She had destroyed the image of immaculate beauty she had worked so hard to achieve. Her tousled hair parted enough that he caught a glimpse of fury in those lovely blue eyes.
Lunging forward, she raised one hand to strike at him. He strode forward to face her. Pain flared at the sudden movement, and he pressed one hand to the fresh wound in his side.
“Be careful, Isabeau,” he said gently as he looked down into her face. “Remember what happened the last time you hit me.”
She had struck him only once, and in retaliation, he had cast a blight over Avalon’s farmlands and ruined an entire harvest. That had led to a winter so bitterly lean even those at court had felt it, and Isabeau had been forced to dig deep into the crown’s coffers to import enough food so she could still have the luxuries she loved and her people didn’t starve.
She had since forbidden him to take such action against her, but if he had found a way once around the terms of the geas that bound him, he could do it again, and she knew it.
Fear flared in her eyes, and she gripped the hilt of the Knife. She had disemboweled people who had disappointed her far less than he had just now.
But it took a major act of strength to draw Azrael’s Athame, let alone wield it, and she hadn’t done so in a very long time. To the best of his knowledge, she had only drawn it once.
He watched with clinical interest. Did she have it in her to draw the Knife again? In a way, it didn’t matter. The single time she had drawn the Athame, she had struck him with it, and once was all it had taken to trap him.
Her fingers clenched, but the Knife remained in its scabbard. She snarled, “You said it would be impossible for them to reach Earth.”
“Clearly,” he replied sardonically, “I was mistaken.”
“The knights of the Dark Court converged on the old Shaw manor. Even though the house had been built on a broken crossover passageway, somehow Nikolas Sevigny and his human witch found a way through to Lyonesse. They brought hundreds of troops back as reinforcements. I didn’t think it was possible, and I don’t know how they did it, but if they could break through using one broken passageway, they might be able to figure out how to use the other broken passageways as well.”
“Why didn’t you stop them!”
“I tried, but I couldn’t,” he snapped. “I’m not familiar with the magic they used. If the witch has an affinity for passageways, they might even be able to find the ones I’ve shrouded with cloaking spells—including the hidden Light Court passageways. Face facts, Isabeau. Lyonesse is no longer cut off from Earth. The tide of this war has shifted, and it is not in your favor.”
“You should have killed her! Why didn’t you kill her?!”
He raised an eyebrow. “I had no such orders to kill an American.”
“Yet you knew she was responsible for this!”
“Incorrect. I suspected she might be responsible. Much of what I just told you is speculation. I don’t know anything for sure.”
Like a bird of prey, she swooped away to pace the room. Then she whirled and stalked back to him, lifting her rage-distorted face to his. She hissed, “I should tear your heart out for this.”
His lips pulled back in instinctive, feral reaction to the threat. He met her gaze, and she saw something in his expression that made her recoil.
“You could try,” he growled. “And even if you succeeded, see how long you survive in this war you created when you no longer have me to compel.”
She loved the control she wielded over him, but at the same time, she hated that she feared him. She hated the fact that she needed him. It was virtually the only thing they agreed upon, because he hated it too.
He watched her struggle with conflicting emotions. She ran her gaze down his figure, and the expression in her lovely eyes changed. She was one of the most beautiful of all the Fae he had ever met, but her beauty left him cold. After she had trapped him, she had never bothered to hide her true nature around him. He knew all too well the deadly creature that lived behind the charming façade.
Abruptly, she rapped out, “You demanded an audience with your Queen while you’re still filthy and bleeding. What’s wrong with you? Why aren’t you healed already?”
He sighed. “I’m not healed because they shot me with silver arrows, and silver is anathema to a lycanthrope. I barely got away as it was. If I hadn’t had a lycanthrope’s speed, and if I hadn’t stowed a car nearby, they would have caught me.”
She gestured at his side. “So heal it!”
“Magic spells don’t work on these wounds, and I can’t heal at an accelerated rate. I can’t shapeshift while the silver is in my system, and my ability to cast magic is dampened.” Gritting his teeth, he added, “And I’m here because you ordered me to give you an update as soon as I possibly could. This was the fastest I could arrive.”
He had to follow her orders to the letter. That was the nature of the ensorcellment she had trapped him in. He had warned her before to be careful how she worded her orders to him, but the stupid bitch never learned.
One of these days her utter self-absorption and impetuous carelessness might very well end his life. He lived in hope for the other possibility—that a carelessly worded order from her might give him the chance to end hers.
Rage and frustration took over Isabeau’s features again. She spat, “What use are you like this? Get out of my sight. I don’t want to see you again until you’re fully healed.”
He froze, not quite believing what he had just heard. Isabeau was Light Fae. She had no real understanding of how long it took humans to heal from serious wounds, and he had once been human. His supernatural attributes were of no use to him in healing wounds made by silver. He would have to recover the slow, hard way. The human way.
Lowering his lids to hide the flare of triumph in his eyes, he murmured, “As you command.”
Her gaze darted around the room and fell on a marble figurine. She swept it up and flung it viciously at his head.
He ducked his head to avoid the figurine while his mind raced. He barely noticed when she stormed out of the audience chamber and slammed the door.
If Isabeau’s temper cooled enough to allow her to think, she might realize what she had done. He had to leave before she could find him and rescind her impetuous order.
Tightening his lips against the vivid, tearing pain in his side, he wended his way through the castle, using magic to avert attention from his presence.
Normally his Power flowed like an abundant, nearly inexhaustible river. With the silver poisoning his system, he could barely manage enough for the avert spell.
He didn’t stop at the infirmary to get medical attention or bother going to his rooms to pack clothes. He was too intent on leaving Avalon as quickly as possible.
At one point guards ran down the hall. He heard them coming in time to step into an alcove. They might have been looking for him, or they might have been sent on some other urgent task. He didn’t know or care, and he wasn’t about to risk finding out.
I don’t want to see you again until you’re fully healed.
As long as he avoided hearing a countermanding order, he would have weeks of freedom, something he’d never had under the unending yoke of Isabeau’s geas.
His imagination leaped ahead, racing through possibilities.
If he could acquire another injury before he was fully healed, he might be able to prolong this hiatus, perhaps even indefinitely. Unfortunately, he couldn’t reinjure himself. Long ago, she forbade him to commit any acts of self-harm.
What if he found someone else to strike the blow for him? Someone he could trust to wield a silver weapon without killing him?
Would the geas allow it? He was sure as hell going to find out. If the geas would only let him, he would happily stick a silver knife in his own gut repeatedly to avoid returning to Avalon and living as Isabeau’s slave.
He could gain time. Time to himself.
Time to research ancient texts and learn everything he could about Azrael’s Athame. Time to see if he could work around the magical restraints that bound him and still find a way to destroy Isabeau and Modred.
The geas wouldn’t allow him to destroy them himself—Isabeau’s long-ago first order had forbade him to harm either her or Modred—but what if he could set in motion certain events that would destroy them for him?
As for the wound… life was full of pain. He would deal with it.
First, however, he had to leave Avalon.
His strength ebbed in a slow, steady trickle. Pausing only long enough to tear off strips from the bottom of his jacket, he folded a pad of material over the wound and tied it in place. The cloth was soon soaked, and he reached the closest crossover passageway in a haze of blood loss and pain. The guard at the passageway had been doubled, and conviction solidified.
They were looking for him. He had to wait until nightfall, and then he used the last of his magical strength to cast a sleeping spell over those on duty. When the guards were stretched out on the ground and snoring, he eased past them.
Into the passageway, to England, where the cool of a rainy summer evening greeted him. Morgan had money and resources on Earth. Cars, safe houses, and go-bags packed with credit cards, clothes, weapons, and necessities.
Nobody would be able to find him. Not unless he wanted them to.
By the time he reached the spacious country home of a doctor he kept on retainer, he had turned feverish and the insides of his lungs felt raw.
It was late, and he had to pound on the front door before lights came on downstairs. The doctor himself, a lanky human with receding hair and a nervous expression, answered the door.
“You can’t show up on my doorstep at all hours of the night!” the doctor exclaimed. “My wife doesn’t know anything about our arrangement.”
Morgan’s lip curled in a feral snarl, and he had to restrain his response. His lycanthrope abilities might be dampened for now, but the instincts weren’t.
“You want to end our arrangement, fine,” he snapped. “I’ll stop paying your retainer—after you treat me.”
“Who is it, Giles?” a woman called from above a flight of stairs.
The doctor raised his voice. “No one, darling. Just someone asking for directions. Go back to bed. I’ll be up in a few minutes.”
“All right.” Footsteps receded.
Morgan had locked his knees to keep from falling over. He had used the last of his magical ability when he had cast the sleeping spell on the passageway guards, so he had a Beretta tucked into the waistband of his jeans.
A fine tremor ran through his muscles as he waited to see what the doctor would do. He didn’t have the resources to find medical treatment elsewhere. If he had to, he would use the gun to compel the doctor to treat him.
Giles turned back to him. “No need to stop the retainer,” he muttered, avoiding his gaze. “Next time text me, and I’ll meet you somewhere. Don’t come to my house, for God’s sake.”
Morgan began to unbutton his shirt. “Let’s just get through this. We can discuss details of any future arrangements later.”
Giles led him to a large farmhouse kitchen that had been stylishly updated, and as Morgan sat on a stool at one end of an island, the doctor eyed him much as Isabeau had. “Wounds made with silver?”
“Yes.” Lycanthropes might heal with supernatural speed, but sometimes injuries still needed attention. Broken bones needed to be set correctly—or often rebroken and set—and wounds made with silver needed treatment just like a human’s injuries would. He shrugged his good arm out of the sleeve. “After you clean the wounds, I need stitches, pain medication, and antibiotics.”
“Don’t tell me how to do my job.” Despite his irritated response, Giles proceeded to do just as Morgan had said.
He cleaned both wounds, gave Morgan a shot for the pain and another shot of antibiotics. After he had stitched and bound the injuries, he left the kitchen. Morgan scooped up his lacerated shirt and jacket and followed the doctor into his office, where he watched Giles unlock a cabinet tucked in one corner.
Giles pulled out bottles and turned to him. “I’m giving you two pain medications. One is a narcotic, so use it sparingly. Take the full course of antibiotics until they’re gone.”
“Understood.” He eased his way back into the shirt.
Giles eyed him with a frown. “I don’t like this,” he said abruptly. “That wound in your side is especially concerning. You should be on an IV in hospital.”
Morgan took the bottles and tucked them into the pockets of his jacket without replying. The less Giles knew, the less the doctor could do to betray him.
Whatever else Giles was, he wasn’t a stupid man. The doctor muttered, “The trouble you’re in—it won’t be coming here, will it?”
“I don’t know.” Morgan turned away. If he’d had a drop of Power left, he would have spelled Giles to forget his visit, but he was bone-dry on magic, and he would only get it back with rest and healing. “Most likely not, but anything’s possible. You might use some of that exorbitant retainer I pay you to take your wife on holiday.”
The doctor trailed behind him as he strode for the front door. The last thing Morgan saw of the doctor was his pale, frightened face as Giles stood in the doorway and watched him climb into his Volvo.
So many people had looked at Morgan with that same frightened expression over the centuries that he had grown immune to it a long time ago. Putting the car into gear, he reversed down the long, winding drive.
Then he drove until exhaustion forced him to stop. Finding a quiet, out-of-the-way place to park, he slept in the car, and when morning came, he bought coffee and a hot breakfast and drove until he again couldn’t go any farther.
Morgan had plenty of safe houses, but he didn’t go to any of them. Instead, he kept traveling north until he reached Glasgow. Only then did he search for a place to stay.
He checked into a hotel in the stylish West End area—some place big enough that he could get away with unusual behavior—and used one of his alternative IDs along with a new, unused credit card to pay for a week’s stay.
When he finally carried his bag into the hotel room, he kicked off his boots, shed his clothes, set out a Do Not Disturb sign, and fell into bed, where he slept for thirty-six hours straight.
The next several days passed in a blur. He slept, waking only to take the medications, order room service, and wolf down food.
The fever broke after the third day. By the fourth, he felt a trickle of magic return, the flow of Power steadily increasing. On the morning of the fifth day, he appeared downstairs in the dining area for breakfast, clean and freshly shaven, albeit moving somewhat stiffly.
The fever and his own inhuman metabolism had worked to hone his features. He knew he was leaner and harder-looking, not quite so pleasant and therefore not nearly as forgettable, so he went out of his way to be agreeable to the waitstaff.
After breakfast, he stopped at the hotel office to tell a brief story of recovering from a bout of flu, to request his room be serviced, and to pay in advance for another week.
The manager was more than happy to oblige, and oh dear, the flu! She was sorry to hear Morgan’s visit to Glasgow had gotten off to such a poor start, and was there anything else she could do for him?
He told her mildly no, he didn’t want for anything, and everything in the hotel was perfectly lovely, thanks. To keep up the appearance of a man on holiday, he paused in the front hall to collect all the pamphlets on sightseeing tours and local attractions, then left to walk to the nearest café, where he ordered a coffee and settled at a corner table to pass the time while his room was cleaned.
He could sense a few of Isabeau’s Hounds searching for him. They were trapped in the same immortal geas he was, like monsters captured in amber, their lives frozen in the moment they had been taken.
In the usual course of things, Morgan was their captain. The Hounds were his to command in her majesty’s service. Now they were hunting him, to fetch the Queen’s wayward captain back to her.
Mentally he ran through his actions since he had left Avalon. The rain had been on his side. Any trace of his scent would have been washed clean. They would check with Giles, along with every other physician and safe house they had a record of him using.
But he had told Giles nothing, and in any case, the doctor had probably taken Morgan’s advice and gone on holiday with his wife. And Morgan had driven much too far for the Hounds to have any chance of picking up his scent trail anywhere.
He was unaware he had settled into complete stillness until he caught a few sidelong glances from a young couple sitting at the neighboring table. In an attempt to appear more normal, he riffled through the pamphlets he had set beside his coffee cup.
One caught his attention. Indifferently, he ran his gaze down the page.
The title Wildfire sprawled across the top. Underneath, there was a large glossy photo of a woman’s silhouette on a stage. She had been captured playing a violin in front of a crowd, her body as taut as the bow she gripped in slender fingers. Various quotes of praise followed the photo.
The Standard: “Genre-bending.”
Rolling Stone magazine: “Simply transcendent.”
The Telegraph: “Sidonie Martel took my breath away!”
A sliver of Morgan’s attention engaged.
But mostly it did not. Once he had been a famous bard in his own right and an advisor to kings, but it had been many, many years since he had played any kind of music.
The desire to play had been burned out of him by the geas, and as the desire to play had faded, so too had his desire to listen to music for pleasure. He had never heard of many modern singers and musicians. Sidonie Martel’s name meant nothing to him.
Still, there was something about the photo that held his gaze. The woman’s stance, her tension, vibrated off the glossy page. She was so full of passion. His mouth twisted in a self-deprecating smile. He couldn’t remember the last time he had felt such bright, creative joy.
A young woman at the neighboring table leaned toward him. “Can’t help but notice the pamphlet you’re holding,” she said in a friendly tone.
Morgan’s gaze lifted. “Indeed.”
The woman grinned at him. “If you’re thinking of going, you should try to get a ticket. We went last night, and it was amazing.”
“True, mate,” said her companion. “We’d go again if we ’ad the quid.”
“Thank you for telling me.” The hotel staff had to be done with his room by now. Taking a last sip of his coffee, he gave the couple a pleasant smile, and as he exited the café he set the stack of pamphlets on a table by the door.
Walking back to the hotel, he assessed his injuries. The wound in his biceps was lighter and would heal faster, but the arrow he had taken in the abdomen had gone deep and would take longer. It lay burning in his side, the nagging pain a constant reminder of its presence.
How long would it be before it healed enough for the geas to kick in? Two more weeks? Three? He needed to try to find someone willing to stick a silver knife into him before then, or he would be forced to return to Isabeau’s side.
He already had silver weapons, so that wasn’t a barrier, but he couldn’t approach any of his usual contacts, not with the Hounds searching for him. He had to recruit someone new.
As he entered the hotel, his gaze was drawn to the table of pamphlets, and the Wildfire photo leaped out at him again. This time he paused, head cocked.
He might find a few possibilities worth exploring at the concert. Like his physical strength, his magic was not yet at full strength, but with the right nudge and a subtle spell of persuasion, he might be able to engage someone’s interest and discover just how far he could push the geas before it intervened.
He took another pamphlet with him up to his room, and a quick phone call informed him that night’s concert wasn’t sold out. The performance started at seven. He bought a ticket, rested until it was time to leave, and then took a taxi to the large arena at the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre.
As he filed meekly to his seat, just one more man among many, the crowd’s electric, happy anticipation washed over him. It left him unmoved.
Looking around, he took note of the various individuals who seemed like they might be worth approaching—a rougher-looking male working the ground crew near the stage or perhaps the few blokes lounging near the exit.
His sensitive lycanthrope nose had caught the scent of drugs as he’d strolled past them, but as he ran his gaze over his potential prospects, he felt no urgency. The night was young. There would be a concession break and time afterward to make contact if he wanted, and in any case, it wasn’t necessary for him to find someone that evening.
Even though the photo had been of a woman with a violin, the apparatus on the stage looked like the setting for a rock concert. Ah well, the Standard had promised something genre-bending. Bored, he stifled a yawn.
There was a warm-up band. Everyone around him appeared to enjoy it. His sensitive ears felt assaulted, but he endured.
When the opening act finished and the lights dimmed, a few invisible entities flowed into the concert hall. Morgan’s attention sharpened. He tracked the entities with his magic sense as they settled at either end of the stage. Most of the crowd would never know they were there.
More Djinn flowed in until the arena felt charged with the thunderous impact of their presence. There was little that Djinn adored more than music. The presence of so many was high praise all on its own. Despite his ennui, a sliver of curiosity brought Morgan to his feet along with the rest of the audience.
With an explosion of color, the lights flared, and the crowd roared as she blazed onto the stage. Other people followed her, a drummer, a bass guitarist, along with more musicians, but they faded into the background as she, the woman carrying a violin and a bow, captured everyone’s attention.
She didn’t so much walk onto the stage as dance across it. Or maybe she stormed it. As she conquered the space, seeming barely connected to the ground, she carried so much energy she felt larger than life.
Instinctively, he double-checked his impressions. Even though she wore three- or four-inch heels, the top of her head came to the nearby drummer’s shoulder. She had to be small, no more than five foot two or three.
His gaze lifted to the large telescreens, although he barely registered her features. She was pretty, or appeared to be, but she was wearing so much stage makeup every feature was accentuated, and it was hard to tell what she really looked like. He got the impression of high cheekbones, a full mouth, and perhaps a touch of Asian ancestry in long, elegant eyes.
Then she tucked her violin against her neck and lifted her bow. Expectant silence swept the arena. She began to play.
The first strains raced after each other like hawks lunging through the air, and all Morgan’s ennui fell away. His hatred for Isabeau, the wounds, and his untenable situation were forgotten, all his emotional distance shredded.
He didn’t welcome it. Part of him went into shock. That part of him hated it, hated her for doing it to him.
He still felt passion, but long ago his passion had turned dark and tinged with crimson. It had died down to a single thread, a burning desire to destroy those who had laid waste to his homeland and had enslaved him. That had become his mission in life.
This. This buoyant crescendo of sound.
It had no place in his life. He had other things on his agenda. Important things, blood-drenched things he had longed to do for centuries.
He had no room for this music. No time for it.
Yet he couldn’t shake the hold it had on him.
She was everything the quotes promised, everything and more. Transcendent. Genre-bending. Her music ran through him with electric energy, more joyous than anything he could remember and more painful than silver. No wonder the Djinn flocked to listen to her. He didn’t think there had been a musician like her in generations.
He didn’t sit. None of them did. For the duration of the entire concert, his attention stayed riveted on her enlarged image, and when it was finished, he felt emptied, wrung out.
He didn’t try to make contact with any of the likely people he had marked earlier. Instead, he made his way to his hotel, and as soon as he was back in his room, he called the ticketing agency to book another of her concerts. And another.
While he called, he ran a Google search on Sidonie Martel on his phone. Of French Canadian and Vietnamese descent, she was thirty years old and a graduate of Juilliard. Five of her albums had gone platinum, and she had won three Grammys.
He stared at the headshot posted on her website, at the high cheekbones, the spark of intelligence in her long, elegant eyes, and that full, sensual mouth. The impact of her personality leaped off the screen at him. Her thick black hair fell in a straight waterfall past slender, shapely shoulders.
When he tried to buy a ticket for a fourth concert, the ticket agent told him, “Sorry, that’s the last concert she’s doing in Glasgow. I’m afraid her next one will be in London.”
“Is it sold out yet?”
“Not quite, but close. Most of her European tour is sold out.”
Tapping his fingers on the table, he surrendered to this new, unwelcome obsession.
“I’ll buy a ticket for every concert of hers that’s still available.”