Mermaids attack ships sailing to port. A magical plague caused by malevolent fae grips the countryside. The capital city of Dere is completely cut off from the rest of the kingdom. And Queen Dagmar is pregnant with her first child--and the heir to both the thrones of Niune and of the Faerie Realm.
Cut off from their friends and allies, Pook and Alex must battle their way across a kingdom besieged by forces most folk no longer even believe to be real. Will they survive long enough to discover what has brought on a war between Faerie and the mortal world? Or will the answers they seek come at too high a price?
Elaine Corvidae has been telling stories about faeries, elves, and dragons since she was a small child.
Her dark fantasy novels have won numerous awards, including multiple Eppie Awards and Dream Realm Awards for Best Fantasy Novel.
When she isn’t wandering the worlds of her imagination, she lives in Harrisburg, NC, with her husband and several cats.
Alex stood at the rail of the steamer and watched the shore draw ever nearer. At the moment, it was only a low smudge on the horizon, but the small spyglass she’d bought in Venincia showed her the white of breaking waves, the green of the great marshlands, and the dun pillar of a lighthouse. Gulls swooped and dived all around the steamer, screaming out eldritch warnings as the sun sank toward the horizon.
“See anything interesting?” asked a cheerful voice.
Turning, she saw a beautiful young man strolling up the deck behind her. He wore a white shirt that contrasted nicely with his warm, brown skin, a pair of trousers, a waistcoat with no overcoat to cover it, and sturdy boots. Hair black as the heart of midnight whipped around his face and shoulders in the ocean breeze. The gray eyes regarding her were set with white flecks around the pupil, and accompanied by a wide nose and full lips. One high cheekbone bore a thin white scar, which, along with his silver earrings, gave him a slightly rakish look. Faeling glamour hid the sword he wore at his belt and made the delicate points of his ears less noticeable.
One of the other passengers who stood lined up along the rail, hoping to get a glimpse of the Niunish coast before nightfall, turned to watch his progress down the deck with a wistful expression on her face. At one time, the look might have called forth a twinge of jealousy in Alex’s chest. Now she only smiled, secure in the knowledge that, as mad as it seemed, his heart belonged to no one but her.
“Would you like to see for yourself, Pook?” she asked, offering the spyglass to him.
“Nah.” He slid an arm around her unfashionably-thick waist, “You go ahead.”
“There isn’t much to look at,” she confessed. She’d twisted the heavy mass of her hair up into a bun to keep it out of her eyes, but the wind had set to working the strands loose. Sea spray fogged the thick lenses of her spectacles, and she reflected that, after two months at sea, she would be heartily glad to set foot on land. Permanently, I hope. Or at least, if I leave Niune again, it will be to travel and explore on my own terms, not because I’m being hunted by the fae of my homeland.
“I was hoping to see the plume where the Blackrush meets the ocean,” she said regretfully. “But the tide seems to be going in, and the angle is bad. Not to mention the light is fading fast.”
“Maybe we can look for some stars,” Pook suggested, “once the sun’s down. Or the planets.”
“I’d like that.” As the weather had grown warmer, they’d taken to spending hours together on the deck of the steamer throughout the watches of the night, cuddled in each other’s arms as they picked out the constellations.
“Are we almost there, love?” asked another of their companions.
“Just about, Padgett. You could probably swim the rest of the way,” Pook suggested.
She shot him a glare as she approached, careful to stay well clear of the iron rail. Through Alex’s right eye, she saw only an older, conservatively-dressed woman, with graying hair hidden under a severe cap. Her left eye, the one that could penetrate faery glamour, revealed the lie. Although centuries old, Padgett looked like a woman in her twenties, her copper hair clashing dreadfully with her patched red coat. A pair of tattered wings stirred the air fretfully behind her.
As a seelie fae, Padgett was a creature of light and warmth, whose power was on the rise as the summer solstice drew rapidly near. Unfortunately, that meant a voyage on the ocean, surrounded by fathoms of inimical water, hadn’t been easy on her. It also meant that she was even less likely to voluntarily go into the water than Bug, Pook’s faeling cat.
Alex, Pook, and Bug hadn’t suffered nearly as much as Padgett on the voyage. None of them were purely fae--although Pook came close--but the faery blood that twined with the mortal in their veins was that of the unseelie. It leant them dominion over winter, over water and night, over earth and all the things of darkness.
In theory, anyway. In Alex’s case, it meant almost nothing, the faery blood so diluted by generations of human ancestry that she had to work hard to cast even a small glamour.
“It won’t be long,” Alex said kindly. “Will you travel all the way back to Dere with us? It’s only a few hours longer on the water.”
“Aye, lass. I promised King Dubh that I’d be seeing his brother safe home, and I’m taking that to mean back to his own doorstep. After that, I’m off to Faerie to give me report. Then it’s some rest and relaxation, by which I mean a pint or five. Traveling with ye lot is tiring work, if ye don’t mind me saying it.”
Pook scowled. “It wasn’t my fault every damn thing in Ruska tried to kill us, or Alex’s fault, neither.”
“Nor was I saying otherwise, me prince.”
“Don’t call me that.”
Alex shook her head and turned her attention back to the coast. The argument was an old one. Pook hated any reminder that his family had ruled the Unseelie Host, or that he himself had briefly been the King of All Faerie, after ending the centuries-long war between seelie and unseelie. Fairly or not, he considered most of the problems in his life to have been caused by the fae, from the parents who had abandoned him in the human world as a changeling to the attempt by the Ruskan fae to entrap Alex.
Tuning out the voices of her companions, Alex put the spyglass to her eye again and tried to focus on the shore. Although they had drawn nearer, the rocks and waves seemed less distinct rather than more, as if a shadow had fallen over the land. Startled, she swung the spyglass higher and saw that a dark mass of clouds had gathered over the headlands.
How did I miss them before? Hadn’t the sky been perfectly clear just a few minutes ago?
Even as she watched, the clouds thickened and darkened unnaturally fast. The wind picked up, tearing at her hair and flattening her skirts against her legs.
Pook and Padgett both fell abruptly silent, as if a razor had sliced off their words mid-sentence. “Feel that?” Pook asked.
Alex shook her head. “No. But look at the storm.”
It was big enough now to see even without the spyglass: a towering mountain of cloud seething over the sea. It grew even as they watched, looming larger and larger, blotting out the fading light of the sun.
The sailors began to call out in alarm, having spotted the rapidly-forming storm. Even as the captain shouted for all passengers to get below deck, Alex felt a tiny flicker against her skin, as if something slick and cold-blooded had bumped against her.
Hard for her to sense, but by their expressions, Pook and Padgett had felt it long before she had. As she took a nervous step back from the rail, Bug ran to join them. The steamer crew had taken to the unnaturally-large silver tabby, who was forty pounds if he was an ounce, because he’d relentlessly cleared the ship of rats.
“Fae are here!” he squeaked, his long fur standing on end. Fortunately, to anyone without faery blood, his words sounded like nothing more than insistent mews.
“A welcoming committee?” Alex guessed uncertainly. “Remember the selkie, when we left Niune? He wanted you to tell Dubh that he was loyal.”
“Did he now?” Padgett asked with a small frown.
“I know we told you about him,” Pook put in, his gaze still fixed on the growing storm.
“Aye, lad, that ye did, but ye were only saying that a selkie had spoken to ye, not that he was wanting ye to deliver a message.”
“So? What difference does it make?”
“Off the deck!” the captain roared, so loudly that they jumped. “All passengers get below, now!”
They hurried past him with murmured apologies. As soon as they were out of sight of any of the human crew, however, Padgett stopped and cast a glamour of invisibility over them.
“I’m not riding this out below, that’s for certain,” she said grimly, as they made their way to a section of railing as far as possible from the frantic activities of the crew.
Pook cast her an uneasy glance. “You don’t think the fae would try something, do you? I mean, more than the usual mischief? No offense,” he added hastily.
“None taken, love, for I’m not one to deny what’s in our nature,” Padgett replied. The wind tore at her long, fiery hair, twisting it into wild shapes. Spray struck her wings, evaporating with a little hiss as it touched their furnace heat. “And, no, I’m not thinking they intend us any ill, not directly. But that’s not to say I want to be in the belly of this beast if they’re raising a storm to welcome us home, either.”
“Maybe we can get their attention and tell them to quit it,” Pook suggested.
A sudden swell hit the steamer, almost knocking Alex off her feet. Clutching at the rail, she said, “I think that would be for the best. Perhaps you should remind them that Dubh will hardly be pleased if they send us to the bottom.”
“Like as not, they’re just being a bit enthusiastic,” Padgett said. “But I’m not above dropping names if it will keep this damned boat on an even keel until we hit dock.”
Pook nodded and stepped up to the rail, although Alex noted he was careful not to actually touch the iron that would bind his power. The wind whipped his dark hair around him, and spray soaked his white shirt so that it stuck translucent to his mocha skin. His gray eyes narrowed into a look of concentration as he invoked the magic that ran so strongly in his veins. The sea spray turned into stinging pellets of ice, and frost coated the wooden decking around his feet.
“Come on,” he muttered impatiently. “Come on, you bastards, and we’ll have a nice chat, won’t we?”
The onrushing storm wrack swallowed the remaining rays of the sun. Lightning flickered across the waves, followed by the loud crack of thunder. The swells rose, as if stirred by a massive hand, so that the steamer had to climb laboriously up one side before sliding down the other. The first line of rain hit them, cold despite the season, sticking Alex’s dress to her skin.
At first, Alex thought the fae were simply ignoring them. Had they been over the deep ocean, she wouldn’t have been surprised; the fae of the depths cared little for their land-going cousins. But we’re on the very shores of Niune. The fae of the shallows have traditionally owed fealty to the Faerie King.
Then a fae rose up from the water before them, answering Pook’s summons at last.
She was a giantess of the deep, looming over the steamer even though most of her great length vanished beneath the water. The upper part of her body parodied that of a woman. Dark green hair hung in a tangled mass around a sharp, predatory face with enormous, pale eyes. Her skin glittered oddly, although it took Alex a moment to realize that she was covered by thousands of tiny scales. The scales grew larger at her waist, blending into an emerald tail that belonged more to a sea serpent than a fish. Barnacles clung to her sides, and seaweed mingled in her hair.
The overwhelming smell of fish filled the air, and it was everything Alex could do not to gag. Pook took a surprised step back, then caught himself. Firming his back, he put a hand to the hilt of his sword.
“Hey!” he shouted, and Alex recognized his volume for a show of bravado that he didn’t really feel. “What do you think you’re doing, anyway? Dubh ain’t going to be real happy if you sink the damn boat, hear me?”
In response, the mermaid simply flung back her head and laughed.
“Well, that was disturbing,” Padgett muttered. Raising her voice, she called, “Listen here! This boyo is Prince Tamnais, King Dubh’s brother, so unless ye’ve been sleeping on the bottom for the last few years, ye ought to know who that is! And if ye don’t, the selkies will be glad to be telling ye, but for now, ye need to settle down and leave us to get on with our business!”
“Speak not to me of the traitorous selkies,” said the mermaid, all her mirth collapsing at once. Her green-tinged lips drew back, revealing row upon row of shark’s teeth. “And as for the rest of you, you’ll never set foot on land again.”
She dove, then, her long tail uncoiling behind her as she vanished into the churning depths. Once below, she let out a cry that Alex more felt in her bones than heard with her ears.
“Oh hell,” Pook said, pointing to the storm-tossed waves. All around the ship, scales flashed as fins broke the water. Green hair and beards mingled with the foam from the churning sea, and eyes like mother-of-pearl stared at them with some alien expression Alex couldn’t even begin to read.
“They’re coming!” Padgett shouted. “Get back from the rails!”
“Grab a hold!” yelled Pook. He spun in place, reaching for Alex.
Then something massive struck the underside of the boat, heaving it clear of the water. The world turned over, sky and sea changing places, and Alex had just enough time to draw breath to scream.
Then the ship slammed back into the ocean, and everything fragmented into darkness and water.
A quick twist of his head cleared most of his hair from his eyes, and he cursed himself for not tying it back earlier. With the sun down and the storm overhead, there was no light, but his fae eyes picked out moving shadows within the murky water. With only instinct to tell him which direction was up, he began to swim toward what he hoped was the surface--
Something cracked across his skull, so hard that he saw stars. He flailed wildly, striking out with his sword, which he had managed to keep hold of only through the relentless training from his long-dead sensei. Whatever had hit him didn’t seem to care about the sword, though, only kept pressing him inexorably down toward the seafloor.
A length of rope uncoiled beside him, and he realized to his horror that he wasn’t under attack from the fae after all. He was trapped beneath the sinking ship, while it took an express trip to the bottom.
Shit! Alex--where is she? Is she down here, too?
Panic stole more of his rapidly dwindling supply of oxygen. Praying that Alex hadn’t been trapped, he tried to swim to the side, across a narrower part of the steamer. Dangling rope tried to entangle him, and boxes and baggage drifted down like rain, each one a hazard.
He almost sobbed in relief when his hand scraped the railing, despite the familiar sting from the iron. He shoved past the rail and struck out for the surface, his lungs burning now, all his willpower focused on keeping his treacherous body from taking a deadly breath of water.
His head broke the surface, and he dragged in wild gulps of air. A wave lifted him savagely, then dropped him again, and he glimpsed the phosphorescent crest and gleaming eyes of a marool. The fish-like fae lunged at him, but he was ready and froze the water into a solid block of ice around it.
A huge sheet of lightning briefly lit up the scene, and Pook’s heart sank faster than the ship. Enormous waves towered all around, tossing flotsam of every kind: barrels, ropes, planks from the deck, and bodies. The ship must have broken in two: part of the wreck still bobbed half-heartedly on the air trapped beneath it, but it wouldn’t be long before it went to the bottom along with the rest.
“Alex!” Pook screamed, but the roar of the storm drowned out his voice.
Then he felt it, like an unexpected gust of hot wind on his face: seelie magic. Padgett. Got to be.
He struck out in the direction of the magic, not knowing what else to do. Alex didn’t have enough power to make herself heard even under the best circumstances, and any magic Bug used would be hidden by the swirl of unseelie power charging the storm and whipping up the sea. Please, please, let them be with Padgett. We can’t have gone through so much just to die here, right off the shore, killed by fae who were supposed to be our damned allies!
Light blazed, but this time it wasn’t born of the storm. He caught a confused glimpse of a figure clinging to a barrel amidst a raft of rope and other debris, her figure outlined in coruscating fire. Then the mermaid rose up, blocking out the light.
“Oh no you don’t, bitch!” Pook shouted, and got a lungful of seawater for his trouble. A drowned body floated nearby, so Pook snatched the darkness from its eyes, weaving it with the shadows in the rapidly sinking hold, forming a shroud to blind the mermaid.
The huge mermaid thrashed wildly as shadows closed around her face. Padgett seized the opening and struck, twining a rope of fire around the mermaid’s arms.
Had they been on land, Padgett’s spell might have brought the mermaid down long enough for them to make an end of her. But on the water, the seelie fae’s power was greatly weakened. The mermaid flexed her arms, and the fiery ropes snapped. Letting out a shriek that sounded like the scream of a gull, she shredded Pook’s spell as well.
She turned in his direction, her eyes gleaming like mother-of-pearl in the darkness. He raised his sword, prepared to shatter any spells she cast at him on the fine edge of its enchanted blade.
Something hard and muscular twined around his ankle.
He barely had time to register the touch before she jerked him to her, the coils of her sea-serpent’s tail looping around him, pinning his arms and legs. He tried to get the sword in a position to stab her, but he had no leverage, and the blade only scraped across scales hard as armor.
She lifted him out of the water, dangling him in front of her. He spread out his power like a net, snatching frantically at the rain, the sea, the mist, anything he could use to fight her. But she was of the sea far more than he could ever be, and it all slipped through him like water through a sieve.
A terrible grin split her face wider and wider, until he found himself staring into a gaping maw lined with shark’s teeth. Mermaids were flesh eaters--and this one was going to take his head off with a single bite.
A yowling scream cut above even the roar of the storm. Pook caught a confused glimpse of Bug launching himself from the same barrel on which Padgett had taken refuge. As the cat flew through the air, he grew abruptly bigger, so it was a feline the size of a carthorse that the mermaid suddenly found attached to the side of her head.
She shrieked and thrashed, her coils tightening reflexively around Pook, until he thought she might shatter his ribs. Bug clung to her face, his foreclaws sunk deep in hair and scalp, his back feet kicking viciously at her left eye and cheek.
She grabbed at Bug, but his thick fur fouled her grip. Now that she was distracted, Pook tried his own magic again. Some of the floating planks still carried within them the memory of frost, so he used that to freeze the heavy coils around him. The seawater slicking the scales went to ice, and the mermaid relaxed her hold, although she didn’t let him go altogether.
It was enough, though, to let him work his arms free. Gripping his sword’s hilt with both hands, he stabbed the blade deep into the thickest part of tail he could reach.
She hurled him away with a scream. For an instant he was weightless; then he struck the surface of the sea, so hard that all the breath was driven from his lungs.
Stunned, he began to sink beneath the waves. Something big parted the water beside him, and long teeth closed on the back of his shirt. After a moment of disorientation, he realized that Bug had grabbed him like a kitten and was dragging him back through the water in the direction of Padgett’s barrel.
He jerked his head up at the sound of Alex’s voice. Bug shook him impatiently, as if wanting him to be still, but he ignored the giant cat.
The waves had shoved together a great mat of flotsam. Padgett crouched precariously on a barrel nested in the midst of rope and broken spars, obviously trying to keep herself as far out of the sea as possible. A few feet away, caught in the same tangle, bobbed a large sea chest. Alex clung to it, half-in the water. Her hair hung about her face, and there were ugly scratches on one cheek, but otherwise she looked unharmed.
Pook went limp with relief. Satisfied, Bug paddled closer, releasing Pook near the edge of the mat. He thrashed his way through, freezing and breaking the rope in his way, until he reached the trunk and Alex.
“We thought you’d been killed!” she said over the sound of the storm, and he heard the edge of tears in her voice. Her skin was chalk-white, and salt had reddened her eyes, but at that moment she was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen.
“Same here.” He put his hand over hers. Having shrunk back to his normal size, Bug scrambled onto the chest’s lid, where he huddled soaked and miserable.
“Glad I am to see ye, lad,” Padgett called from her unsteady perch. “Are ye well?”
“I ain’t dead, so that’s something.” Pook looked around uneasily. “Now what?”
“The tide is going in,” Alex said. “It should carry us to land.”
“Or dash us against the rocks,” Padgett put in sourly. “But I’m not seeing any choice. I can’t swim that far, that’s for certain, and I’m thinking Alex can’t, either.”
Just clinging to a chest and waiting, all the while hoping the fae didn’t come back for a second round of fighting, didn’t sit well with Pook. But like Padgett, he didn’t see they had much of a choice. “I’ll get on the other side of the chest, balance it out better,” Pook decided. “You going to be all right, baby?”
She nodded. “I’ll be fine. But I’m tangled in some rope. Can you help me?”
He untangled her while she clung to the chest; once freed, she could pull herself a bit farther up on it. Pook positioned himself on the other side of the chest, then reached over and locked one hand around her wrist. “I got you,” he said. “Don’t worry.”
“I won’t,” she said with a reassuring smile.
He wasn’t sure he believed that. He was worried, that was for damned sure. Although the air was warm, the water was freezing. He and Bug could take it, no problem. They might not like it, but their portion of unseelie blood outweighed the mortal, so they were more or less impervious to the cold.
Alex and Padgett were a different story, though. Too long in the water, and they might be in bad shape.
Assuming the fae don’t come back. Or sharks. Picturing the fathoms of water beneath his feet, Pook found his imagination populating it with horrors of every kind. Are there sharks here?
Alex might know, but he didn’t want to scare her. Instead, he just clung grimly to the chest and listened to the sound of the waves breaking on the shore as they drew ever closer.