I nearly turned around when I saw the lake. Lights gleamed gold on the dark water's surface, reflections from a palace of some kind on the opposite bank. One by one, the twelve girls stepped into twelve small elegant boats which began crossing the river—soundlessly, fae, not propelled by anything I could see.
I could leave. I should leave. Going near the water wasn't worth it—not for the half-million reward or to solve the mystery of where these girls went at night. I knew already. I could go back. I glanced back up the path lined with trees that looked like they were made of jewels, silver, and gold—fake. Fae illusions. My training would have told me that, even if experience hadn't.
The foot of the winding staircase was just visible through the trees, waiting for me to dash back up it and get out of there.
But the symbol I'd seen etched at the top was burned in my brain. It meant Riel needed help and that he was expecting me. Finding him was the real mission anyway, and now I knew he was here—or had been.
And much as I wanted to, I couldn't just leave him.
Not even to save my hide from those important selkie shifters.
"Kelpies take you, Riel," I muttered, and jogged to the end of the dock, where I managed to slip into the back of the last tiny boat, just as the final girl sat down in it.
It rocked slightly and she glanced over her shoulder—straight through me.
At least the invisibility cloak, slung over my battered leather jacket, was doing its job. She had no idea there was a guy crouching behind her in the boat—the last place I wanted to be.
I wiped my palms on my torn jeans, resisting the urge to check that my gun was still tucked behind me, and avoided looking at the water as we crossed. Maybe the selkie shifters wouldn't sense that I was near water if I didn't touch it.
When we reached the shore, if I'd had my motorcycle with me, I'd have roared up the winding path to the palace, away from that lake faster than a faerie from iron. I had to content myself with stalking quietly up the icy bridge to the palace, behind the twelve dancers, to the double doors flung wide.
They were ice. The doors, not the girls. Well, as far as I knew; I hadn't had time to assess their personalities. The whole palace was ice, or looked it. I slipped inside after the young women, past the fae guards who didn't see me—although one was busy muttering into a cell phone pressed to his ear (yes, faeries have technology too; they just magic it), so it wasn't like he was paying much attention anyway.
Once inside, I took in the scene from the shadows. A habit of mine, hard to break even while wearing a cloak that made shadows redundant.
A vast, cold, vaulted hall. A ballroom of ice, filled with dancers—faeries and at least a few other species I didn't have time to study, and the girls I'd followed, who immediately swept into the dance. Elegant icy pillars ringed the room, carved with wolves and roses, moons and ravens, snowflakes and reindeer and mountains and vines of ice. Music filled the air, as cold and beautiful as the palace was. The lighting overhead resembled the northern lights and I wasn't sure how it was done. Faeries. Typical.
The floor was like a frozen lake—I hoped it wasn't actually a lake—and on a dais in the center stood a throne, like frozen blocks of ice with the throne's back tipped with icicles pointing the wrong way.
It didn't look terribly comfortable, but the woman sitting on it didn't appear to care. And neither did the young man next to her on a smaller seat of ice, sprawling comfortably with his legs crossed and his arm thrown across the back of his chair.
Gabriel Kenworth. Right in the middle of everything, like he always had to be.
I shoved down the rush of relief at seeing him alive. On the one hand, at least I didn't have to go looking for a dungeon somewhere to find him. On the other hand, it was almost annoying how easy it looked. And I didn't trust that one bit.
Pulling the invisibility cloak tighter, I reluctantly left the shadows. I crossed to the center dais with the throne, quickly, avoiding the dancers sweeping this way and that. Hopefully my reflection, which stared furtively up at me in the mirror-like floor, was only visible to myself.
I stopped on the steps to one side of the dais, planning my next move.
Close up, the queen on the throne was as perfect and stunning as you'd expect a fae queen to be. Almost carved of ice, she seemed. She wore a gown that looked like it was made of a million snowflakes, with a white fur wrap around her shoulders. She was young but ageless, despite the white hair twisted elegantly on her head. A silver-white crown coiled around that. Her eyes were silver starlight, but sheer cold, directed at Riel sitting next to her.
She laughed. "Go on, Kay."
At least he had the brains to use a false name.
Not that being here in the first place showed that he had any brains at all.
Then again, I was here too.
"Oh, I was finished," he said pleasantly. "That was the end."
"Mm. A fine story," the queen said. She fell silent and watched him.
He watched her back, raising his eyebrows ever so slightly under the wave of blond hair over his forehead, as if in question.
"Well, are you going to kiss me or not?" she said finally.
Riel flashed a smile which didn't reach his eyes, but it was all charm. "We've been over this, Your Majesty. Kissing you would kill me, and I happen to value my life right now."
The queen looked up and glanced around. She shouldn't have heard that over the music. Riel didn't react much but a very slight smirk grew in the corner of his mouth. Come on. He couldn't have heard either.
But the queen didn't see me and looked back at him after a moment. She stood quite suddenly. "I'm going for a drink. Care to join me?"
Riel straightened the cuffs of his nice charcoal suit coat, nodding toward a drink on a small table next to him, still full. "If it's all the same to you, I'll wait here."
She awarded him a dazzling smile, gorgeous and deadly, and swept off down the steps and through the dancers, who parted before her.
Riel sat like an ice statue. I climbed the steps and stopped by his chair, still invisible.
"Ah, Sean. How are you?" he said, not looking toward me.
"Better than you, Gabe," I said, "by the looks of things."
He frowned almost imperceptibly at my barb and the nickname he disliked. "It's good to see you too, old boy."
"You can't see me," I growled. "And you're older than I am."
"Figure of speech. Both of them," he said, unfazed. "I knew you'd come."
I snorted. "Oh, did you?"
"I figured I'd be missed."
"Nobody missed you," I lied.
"And yet here you are."
I folded my arms, even though he couldn't see me. "You think you deserve to have everyone running to the end of the world to find you?"
He smirked. "Not everyone. Just you."
"When we get out of here, I swear I'm going to punch you."
"Yes. Well. There might be some difficulty with that," Riel said, his expression strained for the first time.
"I don't see why. You have a face. I have a fist."
"I meant the getting out of here part."
I huffed a breath, frosty on the frigid air. "I knew it. Well, out with it. Tell me what you've gotten yourself into this time, so I can get you out of it, as usual."
Riel gave a tense smile. "I think it's out of your league."
"It can't be worse than the selkies," I muttered.
His shifty look told me more than I wanted to know. It was worse.
"Oh, come on," I said.
YOU ARE READING
Girls, Spies, and Other Things the Faeries StoleFantasy
The name's Sean. All I have to do is solve a mystery about twelve disappearing girls, find and haul back a certain annoying missing agent, and make sure I don't run into any of those important selkie shifters I offended. What could possibly go wrong...