*You guys know we talked about doing a shared world. We went with a whole continent so that Dave can have his jungle and I can have my big city with diners. We’re working on a contract which we should have in a week or two (and yes, we’ll post it for your enlightenment although we haven’t decided yet if anyone not in the group can play. OTOH if it’s very successful, we’ll inevitably enlarge it. For now, here’s Elf Blood, book one of Risen Atlantis. And for now it is ©Sarah A. Hoyt 2013. All rights reserved. Do not copy, distribute or otherwise disseminate without the author’s name, and a link to this page. You do not have the right to alter it. You do not have the right to claim it as yours. For permission to do anything other than quote it for review or recommendation purposes, email Goldportpress@gmail.com. This is a work of fiction, all coincidence between it and real people place or events is assuredly imaginary.*
Sarah A. Hoyt
Most people get lost when first arriving in Pomae. They look at the square mile after square mile of buildings, the trains coming in, the cars cramming the streets and only moving when another car moves, the haze of smog in the air, and they go back where they came from, whether it be their little village in the middle of nowhere, or New York City in the US.
I’ve never been to New York city, mind you, but I’m reliably informed that it would fit three times over in Pomae. And in New York City you rarely get eaten by a dragon if you wander into the wrong neighborhood in a dark night. You might have the mob and worse on your trail there, but none of the gangs casts magical spells.
Those who stay in Pomae are used to being lost. Most of them have been lost for years and years.
I’d been lost my whole life. A small village on the outskirts of Bayou country in Atlantis is no proof against mistrust and hate of the stranger — particularly if the stranger had lived there her whole life.
My name is Kassia Smith – at least it is now – and I’m a private detective. That’s not why I came to Pomae. If I came to Pomae for any reason it was to get away from Mudhole. And to begin with I’d put my highschool education to good use and become a stenographer in a faceless company in one of the stone buildings down by the river.
It was a futile endeavor. By the second day, the supervisor of the secretarial pool called me in and asked why someone with my magic profile hadn’t gone to college. When I asked how she knew my magic profile, I found all large companies hired seers to screen the new applicants. My profile had been delayed because the seer had a cold. Otherwise, I’d never have been hired.
There was a strong implication that I must be a government agent, as none of the firm rivals would be stupid enough not to know the company profiled.
And out I’d gone, and into a typing pool down the street, in a firm too small to profile. I’d lasted a month before I’d been caught fixing a typed letter by means of magic, and after that no one trusted me, and one of the bosses had developed the unpleasant notion I’d been sent to keep magical track of him for his wife who wanted proof for an action of divorce. Because the only person with that much magic working the typing pool would be an undercover dick.
So I’d taken what mom had left me and rented an office, down there, by the river bank, in the cheaper area, and bought a third hand desk and a second hand typewriter, and hung a shingle on the door that said Kassia Smith, Enquiries. And waited for business.
A month later, I was considering how to survive in the business, and coming to the conclusion I’d do well enough if I learned to eat only once a week on alternate weeks. The money mom had left me with the idea I’d furnish my first house when I got married – like that had ever been an option – was nearly gone.
Oh, I’d had business. Or at least I’d had potential clients walk in. But it rarely resulted in a case. Two of the women who wanted me to follow their husbands walked back out again because they said their husbands were more likely to turn around and follow me. To men who wanted me to look into their office and find who was pilfering their paperclips, apologized and said I was too conspicuous to mix in the business. Then there was the man who wanted me to track the dragon who was eating his socks, and wouldn’t be dissuaded even on the face of evidence that dragons had never been known to feed on footwear, leather or cotton. They were more likely to feed on the feet.
What two of the gentlemen had tried to hire me to do was best left unsaid.
In a month I had found two lost dogs and someone’s mom who had wandered off in the throes of dementia. I’d also helped bring a kitten down from a tree, I guess because someone confused me with a fireman.
All told it had paid enough for a dozen sandwiches and a gallon of milk. I still had money for the rent on the office and on my closet-sized apartment this month, but after that—
I couldn’t go back to Mudhole. That went without saying. And any other small place I went to, I’d stick out like a sore thumb. It was clear I wouldn’t be able to get a job in this town. Maybe I should just go back to my father’s people and let them put me out of my misery. But no. They were known for prolonging the misery in rather inventive ways before they put an end to it. Maybe I should just go some place that was small and bucolic and innocent about magic. Like New York City or London.
The sun was setting and the red light coming through the rather grimy windows put a patina of gold on my battered mahogany desk, the red leather armchair which I’d imagined would fill the customers with confidence in my abilities and which had cost as much as all the rest of the furniture. The desk lamp was on, and my typewriter set discreetly to the side. In front of me was my notepad and I was holding the good fountain pen, the one mom had given me at graduation.
I was wearing my best grey flannel skirt suit with the hat with the little veil, and I flattered myself I looked the part. But it wasn’t going to feed me.
I’d just got up and opened my desk drawer for my purse, when he walked in.
He was a young man. I knew that before I even saw his face. And he was tall and lean, with broad shoulders, and wore a tailored suit that would cost about a month’s salary for the normal man. And about ten year’s income for me, at the rate I’d been going.
I didn’t sit down. Man dressed like that, coming into a dive like this, could only do it for a reason. Someone had told him that Kassia Smith was a looker.
“May I help you?” I asked, in my frostiest accents.
He lifted his head and looked at me. And I took a step back. I’d seen very few men that handsome outside the stage or the lookies. And lately I hadn’t had enough money for the lookies, not even at matine rates.
Look, you see a hundred faces on the street on your way to work every morning – a thousand if you live in Pomae and you don’t work next door to your apartment – and most of them are neither beautiful nor ugly, just utterly unremarkable unless you have a reason to look at them more closely. Then there are a few so ugly they make you avert your eyes. And there are some so beautiful you can’t help looking.
His was the other kind. A face so beautiful it made you want to look away. There was nothing special about it, not once you tried to analyze the parts. Square chin, straight nose, large eyes, high cheekbones that spoke of some exotic measure. Medium tan.
The eyes were perhaps out of the ordinary, looking like they were not so much grey but silver.
But put the whole together and it took your breath away, at least for a moment. And when the moment passed, you realized this customer was nervous. Really nervous. Which was weird for a man who looked like him, dressed the way he was.
“I—” he said and paused and swallowed, and started again. “I want you to investigate a crime.”
Like what? Someone had breathed wrong on his impeccable coat? Forgot to polish his shoes in the morning? I didn’t say anything.
He swallowed again and seemed not to know what to do with his hands. “I need a private investigator to look into it,” he said. “The police won’t trust people like us.”
People like us. In Pomae that could mean anything from I just arrived yesterday from Flaming Hellohole, Europe and live in an ethnic neighborhood, to My family kills people for a living and the police take a dim view of that.
He looked up hopefully at me, and settled for sticking his hands in his pants pockets, totally ruining the line of the pants and bunching up the coat in a way that would give his valet fits when he saw the wrinkles. And of course man like this had a valet.
It was clear he wasn’t going to say anything else, so I helped him along. “I don’t blame them. People whose men don’t take off their hats in people’s offices shouldn’t be trusted.”
He sighed and swallowed and looked upset, which was an odd reaction to being asked to exert common courtesy. I wondered if he hid horns under that hat. One kept hearing there were devils around in Pomae, but most of them I’d met seemed to be metaphorical.
But when he lifted his hand, and pulled his grey fedora off his head, he revealed only impeccably cut, very straight blond hair. And a pair of elf ears.
“Oh,” I said. And sat down more out of the need to have something support me. “Oh.” My first thought was that they tracked me down, but my second thought was that this family must have been in Pomae for generations and that Father’s people would rather die than cut their hair, even in as fashionable a cut as this. Which mattered nothing. I still didn’t want to get involved. Not with this customer, not with this case. Not with elves. I’d come a long way to distance myself from all that. “I’m sorry. I also can’t take the case.”
He turned pale. He opened his mouth, closed it, then opened it again. He took a deep breath. I wondered if he was about to cast one of those hideous spells on me that people said elves cast. But surely it wouldn’t take in the middle of Pomae? Not with all the cold iron.
“Oh, please,” he said. “You have to help me. I’m going to be murdered.”
“Murdered?” I asked. I looked at the beautiful face, the shining blond hair, impeccably cut suit, and I wondered how someone like that, whose very appearance bespoke carefully ordered life and wealth, could be in danger. I narrowed my eyes at his pointy ears, and lifted an eyebrow. “The devil takes the hindmost?”
He let his mouth drop open. For just a second it looked like he was going to deny that his people practiced the particular form of elvish ritual that included human sacrifice of a ceremonial king. Then he bit his lower lip, probably having realized that with who I was and what I was – and of course, he would know, even if my ears were not pointy. I understand elves can see magical power – he couldn’t tell me the stories my father’s people told humans: that it was all a long time ago, that it was just tales, that these people kept dying in accidents after getting involved with elves out of the merest coincidence.
Or rather, he realized that he could tell it all day long, but I wouldn’t listen.
Something like a a tide of red appeared on his cheeks. It made him look feverish. He closed his mouth with a snap and more or less threw himself down on the red leather chair. His hands clutched his hat in nervous force and probably ruined the brim.
I had just thought that other than giving offense my question was foolish. Devil takes the hindmost, the seven-year-sacrifice of the ceremonial king, to spare the real sovereign and prolong his life, was always done with a human drawn in to the circle of elves, usually by a love affair, and sacrificed at the appointed time. If you were very good, you might last two or three seven year cycles, while the less favored ones went first. But ultimately your role was sacrifice. I remembered mom and set my jaw. I really didn’t want anything to do with elves.
But the point was that no elf ever got drawn in and murdered. That was not how it was done. The whole point was to protect elves, not to sacrifice them. The king and queen of each hill were perhaps more important than the other elves, but at the glacial rate elves reproduced and as bad as they were at surviving their early years, ever elf was considered precious by their breed. Or at least by their hill. Not loved, necessarily – elves were not good on the love thing – but protected and taken care of.
I’d just thought that, when my would-be-client sighed. “Yes. And no. That is—”
He twirled the brim of his hat in his hands, like a boy playing with an imaginary steering wheel and taking a sharp turn. “That is, it shouldn’t– You see, that is why no one will pay attention to me, even if I go to the police, but things are being so arranged… With solstice approaching.”
Unfortunately, he’d caught my attention. Solstice was the normal time for the sacrifice of the ceremonial king and queen. It was less than two weeks away. But what the devil could it mean that an elf – I looked at those pointy ears again – could be in danger of being sacrificed?
City elves are different. My father’s people call them Un’uruh, which means some variety of unclean, but more like “tainted” or “mixed.” I suppose a good number of them are mixed at that. For one, it is said – though of course, no one can know for sure, since it is considered impolite to doubt anyone’s creation myths no matter how silly – that when Atlantis sank, half the elves stayed on. They just built magic bubbles under the sea, and went on living there, leading perfectly normal lives. Some changed themselves into mermaids, whom my father’s people consider just as Un’uruh. That’s proven fact. What is not proven is that some pure, untouched elves remained in Atlantis and that those are the ones we call Wood Elves or Forest Elves.
Maybe it’s true. They are made of different stuff and tend to look Greek. The city elves are often blond and blue eyed, and freely admit they’re descended from the ones who left with the humans as Atlantis was sinking. They usually talk about their centuries in Ireland, in England, in Germany, living among humans, disguised as humans.
My father’s people say that they went and mingled their blood with humans, and made themselves all or part human and that their lifespans are shorter and that this is why they can stand to mix with mortals and carry on business. The fact that their business is usually predatory and that they’re considered worse than mob factions by the police is ignored by my father’s people.
But I’d never heard, not even in my time in the city, not even from my father’s people – who cheerfully considered me Un’uruh too – not even from their worst enemies that city elves sacrificed their own. Not even in the grand every seven year sacrifice.
My would-be client twirled his hat. His eyes showed an almost blank fear. They were the eyes of a wild creature run off its legs by a pack of werewolves, until it still wants to live but it knows it will die.
“Are you serious,” I said. It wasn’t quite a question.
His hands shifted, turning the hat 90 degrees. Light glistened on a wedding ring on his finger. Some polished grey stone. Probably hematite. Elves cannot stand metal, not over a long time. It doesn’t kill them, but it gives them a rash. But the ring was on the wedding finger, so a wedding ring.
He swallowed. “Yes. Yes, of course I’m serious. I wouldn’t have come to– He corrected himself, whatever he’d been about to say, and said instead, “I wouldn’t have come here for help, if I weren’t serious.”
As I said, it was unfortunate that I was interested, but I was. For one, if – as seemed likely right now – my attempt at getting away failed, it wouldn’t hurt for me to know more of what went on among elves. I mean, really went on, beyond what everyone knew and the lies my father and his people had told me. Of course, it was possible that I was too Un’Uruh for even city elves, but maybe not. Maybe I could move in among them, and maybe they’d accept me despite my somewhat rounded years. Well, round enough to pass. They wouldn’t treat me as one of them, but then neither did the humans, and just sorta being one was enough to make me feel completely welcome, I thought, compared to how I’d grown up.
I’d never heard of elves sacrificing their own, or even considering it. The departure from tradition gave me a glimmer of hope. I put the pen down on the paper and said, “Your name?”
He swallowed. “Not—”
“Of course not.” I wanted to say “don’t be stupid,” but I didn’t. The time might come, in this investigation, when I needed his true name for a casting or a protective measure, but expecting an elf to give you his true name first thing out is like expecting someone else to give you a lot of hair or a drop of blood.
He seemed to realize what I almost added, the words that hung unsaid between us, because his lips quirked up on the left, an almost human ironical smile and he said, “No.” Then he straightened up. “You’ll take the case then?”
“I’ll consider it, at least. What exactly do you expect me to do?”
“Prevent my being… Don’t let me be killed.”
“That’s more of a magical bodyguard you need,” I said, and hesitated. I wanted to find out where this went, but I didn’t want to mislead a client. Even this client. “I can protect, of course, but not against full elves.”
“No, no,” he said. “I understand. That’s not what I meant. I’m sorry.” He pulled his handkerchief from his pocket. Kelly green. I repressed the urge to snarl “how precious.” He tapped his forehead, which must be a human-learned gesture, since elves rarely sweated enough to justify that. He looked back up at me. “I’m all to pieces. My nerves are shot. The feeling has been growing… I want you to find out how I’m to be exec—killed, and who will do it. After that I’ll handle it.”
“I’ll handle it” was elf for “I’ll kill the bastard before he can kill me.”
But the idea baffled me. “You mean you don’t know?”
He shook his head. “There’s no way of knowing, of course.”
“Of course,” he said. “The year’s executioner and executed are never known. I just got… that is, there was a seeing and other… other reasons. My fear is that the executioner is my wife.”
“Your name?” I said impatiently. The impatience was partly to hide a tide of empathy for him. Look, it’s stupid to feel empathy for an elf, and I’m no dumber than I can help. But at the same time, I was Un’uruh enough that I’d never been able to avoid feeling sympathy with the wounded and persecuted.
A sharp glimmer of thought, not quite words, informed me that I took after my mother and that perhaps that was how she’d been drawn in. After all, I had no proof city elves sacrificed their own.
He was staring at me, his mouth half open.
“Come,” I said. “The one you use among humans.”
He blinked and shook himself a little, and I realized he’d not been looking at myself at all, but at some dismal internal panorama.
“Oh,” he said. “Yes. Ardghal Parthalan. Ard, my family calls me.”
I raised my eyebrows at him. Not at the first name. his first name would be Irish or English or German, and often families used all three, but at the Parthalan. I knew the family. Oh, not in person, but they usually advertised before the talkies. They owned most of the fashion houses in Pomae. In many ways they were the fashion business in Pomae, if not in the whole of Atlantis. I’d never known they were elves.
He seemed to guess my thoughts, and something almost a smile tried to form on his lips, but he suppressed it and swallowed, and nodded. “Yes, that Parthalan. I’m my father’s older son. There is one more, and a daughter.”
Now my eyebrows rose. For an elf family this amounted to bragging. Most elves produced only one son or one daughter, and that was pretty much it. It was well known, too, that the older Parthalan, Ciar Parthalan had arrived here fifty some years ago, a barefoot pauper, and proceeded to build a fashion business, starting with clothes he designed and which his wife ran off on a sewing machine, and which they sold in a grimy store front not far from where I was. My head spun. Elf glamour. No wonder.
Aloud I said, “How old are you, and how long have you been married?” I was writing all this down in my notebook, as though this were a normal interview with a normal client.
“Thirty five,” he said. “And twelve years. Look, is this really necessary?”
“I’m not quite sure what you expect me to do, or how I am to intervene in a grand cycle marriage, but you have to tell me the background in any case, so, please do.”
“I want you to tell me if it’s true I’m to be the victim and that my wife is the executioner,” he said. There was a tone of exasperation in his voice that, for the first time, made him sound almost rude. “That’s all I want. If I know it, I can deal with it myself.”
I bit my tongue. “I will not be party to murder.”
“No one asked you to be party to anything,” he said. “Save preventing my being killed. Or do you have any objections to that, Miss Smith? Is the only good elf a dead elf?”
“I’ve often thought so,” I said, before I could stop myself. I do not enjoy being baited. Then I apologized immediately. “Pardon me, I didn’t mean it.”
He frowned and stared at me a long time, as though trying to decide if I’d liked then or was lying now. “No,” he said at last, as though making a great concession. “Of course not. But trust me that there are ways to save my life that don’t involve killing anyone. It’s part of the reason that I—” He shook his head. “Never mind. That’s internal family matters, and I would be flayed for telling you, even if it has nothing to do with this.”
“Your wife?” I said. “And her background?”
“Her name is Chara. When I married her, her family name was Photine,” he threw the words at me and snapped his mouth shut as though he hoped the words would choke me, and for the first time I realized in exactly how scared he was. An elf wouldn’t give information against his will unless he were on his last rope. I still couldn’t imagine what he thought I could do.”
“A mixed marriage,” I said, trying not to sound malicious. “She’s a forest elf?” I said.
“Yes,” he said. And then reluctantly, “There are apparently considerations that overcome Un’uruh. My being the heir to a vast fortune and even vaster power for instance.” He chewed the corner of his lip, as though considering what else to tell me, then said, “My father opposed the match.”
Curioser and curioser. I’d bet old Ciar was in fact the king of this peculiar hill distributed through his shops and factories all over Pomae. I wondered that he would allow his heir to do something against his will. Most kings had a remedy for that. Of course, perhaps his father had too. Perhaps he’d just been patient. “Any children?” I asked. “Of your marriage?”
He seemed about to say something else, but what came out was “no.” and that wasn’t surprising for an elf marriage of relative short standing. He might live hundreds of years and there was time enough or children. If they didn’t kill him first.
“Look, this is all a waste of time,” he said. “What I had in mind was asking you to come tonight. My father is giving a party at his house. A lot of people he knows and works with, and I can introduce you to everyone.”
“Won’t it look funny?” I asked.
He blinked at me. “What? Oh. That. Not particularly. I’ve been looking for a secretary. Social secretary. We can say I made you an offer but, because of your background, you’re not sure about taking it, and so you came to the party so you can see what a happy family we are.” He twisted his lips. “And that I hope you’ll accept the job. I do hope you’ll accept the job, though of course not as secretary. Secretary will just give you cover to be much around the house and pry into our affairs. We have only two weeks till the solstice, and you must know before then.”
I inclined my head. “I must know before then,” I said. “If I take the case.”
“So, I’ll send the car for you at … six? The party starts at seven thirty and—”
“Mr. Parthalan, I haven’t the slightest intention of stepping into one of your cars. I know what you use for cars.”
This time he smiled. “They’re quite tame, really. Nothing to fear. But yes, I can see… Can you make your way there, though?”
“I can,” I said, firmly. “Because you are going to give me a non-refundable retainer to the amount of a thousand magus. This I’ll use in my preliminary investigation of your case. If I take it, you’ll give me a second retainer.”
I thought he was going to protest. He thought so too. But instead, he drew his wallet from his pocket, and counted out a thousand magus onto my desk. Which of course was impressive, since the currency of Pomae is spelled so no one can fake it, counterfeit it, or make copies. Who carries that much in his pocket, anyway? A month’s salary for most people.
“I’ll give you a receipt.”
“It’s not necessary. You’ll come?”
“You might want to wear—” he said.
“Something respectable but cheap, so no one thinks you’ve been keeping me.”
“Oh. Of course. I will see you at seven or seven thirty, then.”
He left so abruptly he might as well have ported, but he didn’t. Looking down from the window, I saw him getting into a long, shimmering green limo.
It’s a fine mess you got yourself into, Kassia. As though he couldn’t make sure every cab you take is spelled, too.
You just volunteered yourself for the grand sacrifice, wanna bet?
I didn’t answer myself. I would not bet a straw.
The “something respectable but cheap” I bought to wear to the party was not so cheap it wouldn’t be usable again. It was cheap for the man who carried a thousand magus in his pocket, but it was really just an update of my little black dress which had grown a disreputable brownish color with age. Taken care of, this would see me through formal and semi-formal occasions for many years to come.
I was mildly satisfied with that – if with nothing else – as I took a taxi to the Parthalan compound. It was at the top of one of the seven hills, which figured, since all the best enclaves were atop one of the seven hills – scoured clean by the submerging of Atlantis, and emergent again, millennia later with only the remnants of the temples that had once stood on them, they were now landscaped, sculpted, and covered in the best mansions in town. Far above the smog and the crowd, they had the advantage of being close to everything while yet being isolated, each of the hills almost a small town onto itself, high above Pomae.
Before I set out, I’d determined that the Parthalans lived in a compound – a maze of gardens and buildings, a world onto itself. This did not prepare me for the size when we pulled up in front of it. The wall outside seemed to go on for ten city blocks, and that was the size of block on this hill, known as the golden hill. I thought that Mudhole would fit three times over inside those high, white-marble walls.
From behind the walls came the sound of laughter, the tinkle of glasses knocked together, and I thought that the driver could go on through the drive way that unrolled from the gate inward, beneath trees that gave a good impression of being centenary, though I was sure they couldn’t be. Old Ciar must have demolished ten or twelve mansions to get this place built, no more than fifty years ago.
But just as I leaned forward to tell the cabbie to drive on inside, something ran in front of the gate, across the drive. I can’t swear to it, but I thought it was a unicorn. The cabbie pulled his hand brake and turned around and looked at me, “If you were thinking I might drive on in, Miss, you are wrong. One of those things slamming into the side, my cab would be gone and it’s my livelihood. And I know better, I do, miss, than trying to take elves to court. I wouldn’t go in there for enough money to keep me without working the rest of my life.”
I didn’t say anything, just nodded and got out and paid him. Before I turned away to enter the gate, he said, “I’d be careful in there, yourself. You know they do unspeakable things to young women, they do. Their long life is purchased at a price, but they get jaded in all that time, and they do things…”
I’d never been sure if this rumor was true, though it stood to reason that yes, elves would become jaded with normal pleasures. And it was a known thing they had different tastes than humans anyway – more… broad or perhaps more cruel. But none of this was something I knew for a fact, and I also knew the things they said about half-elves, and none applied to me. Oh, I had my own suspicions about elves, and you couldn’t convince me to marry one, any more than you could convince me to — No, forget that. I was going to visit this hill for good or ill.
The guards at the gate stopped me, but I said I’d been invited by Ard Parthalan, and that I was considering the post of secretary. They traded a look over my head, which I was quite sure I didn’t want to analyze, but they let me through.
There must have been a mile between me and the house, and by the time I got there, I was feeling it. It’s stupid to do a mile in high heels, only of course, I hadn’t known I’d be walking that far. There were scenes of merriment all around. In what might be an ornamental lake, but then again might also very well be a pool, a group of people were swimming around and laughing. They looked very young and I almost swear I saw one of them lift a fish tail. I did not stop.
Further on in a glade, a beautiful, blond elf maiden was languishing in the arms of a pan-creature who had almost got her dress off. She was saying “Yes, yes, you big hairy beast,” so I presumed it was consensual and I walked on.
Other party-groups looked more conventional, like the group of people dancing beneath lights wound through the tree above them. The music was beguiling, but I walked on.
On all the way to the house, with its broad marble stair case. From inside it came more music, more laughter, the sound of voices, and the sound of silverware and dishes.
I was walking up the steps, when I met with Ardghal Parthalan coming down. Here, in his father’s house, he looked more at ease, or perhaps he simply put on a good party face. He was wearing evening attire, but the way elves wore it. I didn’t know how much of it was real and how much was glamour, but if it was real, he was wearing enough wealth to buy the city of Pomae in the diamonds forming fantastic dragon motifs all over his pale blue jacket.
He said, “Miss Smith!” and extended both hands to me, as though we were long lost friends. “I’m so glad you came.” He looked around. “Where did you park?”
Apparently he thought I had a car, though arguably he’d given me enough to buy one if I’d gone used and small. “The cab dropped me off at the entrance,” I said.
“Oh,” he said, and looked conscience stricken. He looked up the drive. “You mean you walked? You should have had the guards call me. I never meant for you to do that.”
I shook my head. “It doesn’t matter.”
“Well, I’m glad you are here. I was going to– But never mind that, let me introduce you to my father and get you some food and drink.”
He took me by the arm, as though we’d been old friends, and I could practically see the rumors forming as we walked in. I tried not to mind too much. If they thought I was his mistress, they wouldn’t think I was a detective. And it’s not rare at all for full elves to keep half elves as mistresses. We have the advantage of being a lot more fertile than pure bloods, and sometimes elves don’t care, so long as they can have children, each generation becoming a little less Un’ uruh as they mix with purer blood. Again, if they thought I was his mistress, they would be a lot more relaxed in front of me.
I found myself pulled through a press of people, human and elf both, all impeccably attired, introduced here and there casually with “This is Miss Smith. I’m hoping she’ll become my secretary.”
Some people winked or grinned, but only two leered, and only one – an elderly elf who was probably hiding satyr legs beneath his pants and hooves in his shoes, not to mention horns under his carefully styled hair – said, “I just bet you are, dear boy.”
Ard took me near where an elf-couple was holding court, standing in the middle of a circle of friends. I could tell they were middle aged, which for an elf might mean a couple hundred years. Most wouldn’t be able to, but I knew elves. Yes, they both looked as young as Ard, as young as myself, but there was a staidness to their gestures, a way of looking out at the world that proclaimed their age.
“Father,” Arden said. “This is Miss Smith. I told you about her.”
His father, who looked a lot like him turned around, captured both my hands and, before I could stop him, gave me a resounding kiss on each cheek. “Well, welcome to the family my dear.”
Ard looked startled, then pained. “No, father, I mean to hire Miss Smith as my secretary. We’re not…”
“That’s what I meant,” his father said and gestured broadly with a cocktail glass. “Our little family of employer and employee, and all the merry troop, right? Welcome Kassia, Miss Smith.”
I realized this was one incredibly drunken elf, and I wondered how. Most of them have no reaction at all to our alcohol. It would take being far more Un’uruh that even I was to get that completely gone on alcohol. But Ciar – though I couldn’t do a scan of his power here in this crowded environment – couldn’t be Un’uruh. He couldn’t. Not and be the king of his hill.
But Ard had managed to extricate me from his father, and was presenting me to an older elf lady, a slim creature with dark hair and beguiling features. It took being as much elf as I was to see she was past her first bloom. “And this is Xenia, my step mother.”
A cool hand was put forward for my squeezing and a cool look raked me over. Then seemed to dismiss me as being of any importance. “Very welcome, I’m sure.”
Apparently marrying good forest elf stock was a thing in this family. And of course she knew I wasn’t. Marrying Un’uruh might be all right since he could probably buy her hill ten times over, but it didn’t justify paying too much attention to un’uruh without the advantages of wealth or place.
Ard dragged me away, procured me something that tasted like fruit punch but had an edge of alcohol, and a plate of little rolls and littler cakes. “You can eat, of course,” he said. “It’s all safe for mor– for normal people tonight, since we have several friends of the family in.”
“It would be safe for me, anyway,” I said, and he raised an eyebrow, but said nothing.
Instead, he waited, making small talk while I ate, then said, “We’ll introduce you to the family, now. I was going to look for Chara, for my wife, when I bumped into you. But I’ll try to introduce you to my brother Flaith – Flaithri, if we can find him – and to my sister. Her name is Treasa. You’ll like her.”
He dragged me out into the cool perfumed night. The compound was very extensive, well beyond the things I’d glimpsed from the path, and they must have done something with magic to have exotic flowers growing here, in the climate of Pomae, and all of them blooming at the same time.
We found his brother dancing in a clearing not far off. There was a band playing the thing they call elf-jazz, though how you can have a sensual and deep music, that cleaves your soul in two, when the instruments used are mostly flute, I’ve never understood. I suspect glamour. But then I always do.
Flaithri was as tall as Ardghal, but dark. It was clear his mother was Ardghal’s step mother. He responded to the introduction with a wolfish grin and said, “Well, I hope you decide to give Ard a chance. He rather needs someone to keep track of him. Chara—” He shrugged. “It doesn’t do to speak ill—” He stopped again. “Well, my partner is waiting.” And he went back to his dance.
We found Treasa walking the path towards the house, carrying her high heels. She smiled and nodded at the introduction and said she was very happy to meet me, but I said nothing. You see, she was clearly the elf-woman who’d been with the pan-thing back there.
“Did you see Chara?” Ardghal asked. “I thought she’d be by the pool, but she wasn’t.”
“She said something about wanting some time for herself,” Treasa gave a weird malicious smile, as though this should have meant something more. “I saw her walking that way.”
She pointed down a winding, narrower path leading deep into the forest.
“Ah,” Ardghal said, his brow clearing, as though all were explained. “The warm pool.”
We walked down the winding path, under many-colored lanterns, in the scent of flowers. One thing you could say. The Parthalans treated their guests right.
But after a while I thought I detected a weird scent beneath the flowers. It didn’t exactly disturb me because it was hard to pinpoint, but when the path ended in a broad clearing with another of those might be lakes or swimming pools, the smell became unbearable. Blood.
“Blood,” I said.
I wasn’t speaking to anyone. Ardghal had let go of my arm. He ran into the clearing and knelt by what I at first took to be a bundle of sodden rags. “Chara! Chara!” he screamed.
The bundle turned out to be a dark haired, olive-skinned elf-woman. In life, she must have been very beautiful, bit it was hard to judge because she had been stabbed multiple times, her clothes were torn, and there was blood everywhere. To make things worse, it looked like her chest and part of her side had been eaten.
I became aware that there were people behind us, a lot of people. I suppose Ardghal’s screams had called attention and more people seemed to be arriving every minute.
People in this case being elves, or all sorts of magical creatures. They’d arrive giggling or laughing, and then a hush would fall.
I looked back just in time to see Ciar, pushing through the crowd, all elbows and kingly presence, he shoved all the way to where Ardghal was just getting up, looking like a man who’s suffered a blow to the head. “Son,” he said, and looked down at the corpse of Chara Parthalan, and shook his head, then again up at his eldest son and heir. “Son, what have you done?”
Ardghal looked so white that you expected him to glow from the inside. Even his lips were white. It took him a moment to turn his eyes towards his father, and even then, it looked like he was trying to calculate something very difficult in his head, before he said, “Father? I didn’t do anything. I couldn’t have eaten her!” And then as an after thought as his eyes came towards me. “Besides, Miss Smith was with me the whole time.”
“How do you know?” Ciar asked. “How long has she been dead?”
Ardghal swallowed. “I don’t know. I was trying a seeing, but the magic is occluded around here, as though a great magical explosion has gone off and erased all other traces.”
Ciar started to close his eyes. It interested me that now he gave no signs of being confused or tipsy as he’d been when I’d first met him, but then elves were different. Even I had only an inkling how different they were, and I couldn’t guess what could cause that sort of change in an elf king.
“Father,” a shrill female voice. “Don’t even think about it. We need to call the police.”
The voice was Ardghal’s sister, Treasa, and her father looked at her as though she’d grown a second head. “The police?” he said, as though she’d intruded a foreign word upon his thoughts. “In our affairs?”
She had put her high heeled shoes back on, and now stomped a foot, with a clicking sound. “Better,” she said. “Than having you try to illusion it all away and put a veil over it, and then have it discovered years from now and used to discredit us. Besides,” she said, frowning a little. “There is a killer among us. He could kill again.”
Her father made a click with his tongue, “Be your age, Treasa. There are several killers among us, and they will kill when needed.”
“Yes,” Treasa said, even as I absorbed the very odd nature of that comment, though I supposed it was true. Elves had very little respect for human life. And though they had slightly more for one of their own, the whole interdiction on murder seemed odd to them. Also, stupid. “But this wasn’t needed, was it, father?”
He opened his mouth, closed it, then sighed. “Well, no, but—”
“Chara’s father won’t like, father. He will call a vendetta, if he thinks you condoned it. Call the police. It’s the best you can do to protect this hill.”
For a moment I thought he was going to tell his daughter what she could do with her opinions. His body physically swayed from one foot to the other, before he rested on his left foot slightly behind the other. “I—“ he started. There was a concerned look in his eyes, probably the thought of Chara’s wood elf family and how much they’d resent this insult, even if they’d not valued their daughter. He shook his head. “They won’t like coming to Pomae. They never do.”
“But they will,” Treasa said. “For something like this.”
Her father inclined his head as though conceding defeat, and Ardghal said, “I would rather we called the police, and did everything properly.”
His father glared at him. “We know that. You are weak. But your sister is right. It’s not worth the feud.” He sighed. “And I’m responsible for this hill. Ardghal. Call the police. You are Chara’s husband, it will look better.”
I don’t know what I expected. Perhaps I expected that he’d communicate with the police mentally.
Instead what he did was walk up to the house, walking through the crowd of people, first.
Xenia then appeared, materializing out of nowhere, suddenly the perfect hostess. “If everyone will collect in the terrace and the ballroom,” she said. “Drinks will continue being served, and that way you’ll all be available for the police to question.” She paused frowning a little. “The police. How interesting.”
No one else seemed to find it interesting. There were grumbles about being above suspicion and also, really, the shame of putting elf business in front of the police.
It was to no avail. We were herded into a vast room, adjoining a stone-walled terrace, to wait the arrival of the law.
The wait went on for three hours, and after the initial flurry of complaints no one said much of anything. A group of young people, including Treasa huddled in a corner, playing music on some magical player, and dancing. I tried not to focus too closely on it, because among elves dances were never simply dances, and I didn’t want to be caught in whatever the spell might be.
The older people walked around impatiently, or sat in one of several sofas that seemed to have been conjured for the purpose. After a while, waiters circulated with trays of sandwiches and beverages. After an hour I decided to chance it, particularly since what they were distributing were sandwiches made from raised bread, which as all know is impervious to elven spells.
Ardghal and the king were missing from the room. I entertained myself with thoughts that one or both of them had done a bunk, leaving for parts unknown, perhaps some bucolic destination like London or New York, where no one knew magic very well and where they might hide, unheeded for years or centuries. But I didn’t really believe it. As I saw it, the problem was that Ardghal had married a wood elf. If her murder weren’t solved carefully, then the wood elves would descend on the city, something even city flat-foots had to be aware of.
After what seemed like several days but my watch informed me was just short of two hours, the police arrived. I heard the sirens, and we all saw the reflection of the lights through the windows, meaning they had driven up and to the foot of the grand staircase.
After a while longer, the guests started being called out. It was like a reverse announcement. The buttler would come to the door and shout out, “Mr. and Mrs. Elftodder.” Or perhaps, because I didn’t need to know a lot about the world to realize a lot of these were magical nobility from various parts, “The Honorable Count of the Unseen Realm of Tomorrow and Miss Flittgibbet.”
By one, by twos, and at most in family groups of four, the guests would follow him out. Because none of them returned, we never knew whether they were interrogated and let go, interrogated and arrested as material witnesses, or perhaps ground to a pulp and used as fertilizer. Not that I expected the last. Not exactly at least. This was human justice, not elf justice.
I expected to be called last and steeled my soul in resolution, while picking up another two of the delicious sandwiches from the circulating silver tray, and drinking a cup of also most excellent hot chocolate. That last did have a mild spell – I could feel it fizzing against my tongue – but it was a spell for curing drunkenness, and as such it did not apply to me.
I contemplated the social advisability – and also the staining possibilities – of stowing one or more of the sandwiches into my dress. This planning was hampered by the fact that I had no pockets, but spurred on by the fact that my bank account stood at very little, and certainly not enough to allow me to buy the best bread and the tastiest pate filling. This job, as far at least as I went, seemed to be done with, and it was unlikely I’d get much more out of it than the price of a dress. Of course, perhaps I could sell the dress. Worn only once. If I mentioned I’d worn it at this party, I might even get a premium.
“Miss Kassia Smith!”
I shook a little in shock, then got up and followed the buttler out.
I’m not going to sketch the route we took. For one, it felt like we walked for miles and miles along many corridors. For another those corridors were either lined with mirrors or portals to other worlds. No, I don’t know which. I was fairly sure they were mirrors, until I realized I couldn’t see myself in some of them, and in one of them there seemed to be the image of a whole thicket of trees. I swear I caught sight of Ardghal kissing someone under one of those trees. Someone with golden hair.
But Ardghal looked much like any city elf, so it really could have been anywhere.
At long last, a door opened, and the butler shouted again, “Miss Kassia Smith.”
The shout was really overkill in this room, which was the size of a cleaning closet. In fact, I had the impression that was exactly what it had been, until the time had come to make room for the police when cleaning supplies and mops had been removed at speed and instead a battered desk and several chairs had been dragged in.
Behind the desk sat a man – all human. Yes, I used magic sight, if very briefly – in his mid thirties, perhaps. In youth he must have been muscular and powerful, but now he was running a little to fat. Not too much, just enough to show that his days of youthful sports were behind him. I was always reassured by men like that, without an ounce of elf blood. Of course, usually they weren’t reassured by me.
He looked like he’d dressed in the dark and in the clothes he’d worn the day before. His white shirt looked rumpled, and he rolled up the sleeves to the elbows. His tie was askew and also of an odd violet color that didn’t go with the blue coat over the back of his chair.
He hadn’t shaven. His hair, while still mostly black, displayed a few white threads. His eyes were surrounded by dark circles.
He smelled of coffee and cigarettes which mingled oddly with the disinfectant scent of the room – or cleaning closet.
He looked up at me, tired and frowning.
“Sit down, Miss Smith,” he said. “And tell me why you killed her.”
I looked my shock, though I suppose I wouldn’t be shocked. Look, I have many complaints of my father’s people, but one of them is not that they are more suspicious of half elves than anyone else. Nothing equals the suspicion of an half-elf exhibited by normal humans.
I said, keeping my voice steady, “Why would I have killed Chara Parthlan? I didn’t even know her.”
“Didn’t you?” he said. He sighed, as though he were tired of dealing with people who didn’t behave or lied to him or something. “Look, I don’t have time to spar. I got awakened in the middle of the night and sent on this case which no one in his right mind would want to take. I particularly don’t have time to spar with you. What do you turn into, again? A lion? Or a dog or something?”
I didn’t quite laugh in his face. Look, yes, there are elves shape shifters. There have always been, although lions and dogs and such are pretty rare. Mostly they turn to high magic forms like centaurs and unicorns and Pegasus and the occasional winged fairy or angel-like creature. But a cackle escaped my lips before I could stop it. “You know better than that, detective. Or if you don’t you should. No half elf has the ability to change. Ever.”
He scowled. “You’re an half-elf? Not a full one?”
I inclined by head. This I wasn’t used to. Back in Mudhole the police know about elves. Perhaps because they’re fully half of the population. “You can send a detective with magical sight to look me over, but it’s not really hard. And I’m clearly a half elf. Un’uruh.”
“Oh, it means something like unclean or inferior. It’s an elf word.”
“Um…” he said, as though he considered all this baffling. And I started wondering what on Earth his police department could be thinking to send someone like him to what amounted to an elf hill in the middle of the city. But he got up and went to the door and shouted, “Jones!” and said something hurriedly. I couldn’t catch the words. Then he came back to the desk and sat down. “Okay, so, I’m getting your background looked into, right? And meanwhile, I’ll tell you what I gathered from the other interviews I had. It appears that you and Ardghal Parthlan have been lovers for years. At least that’s what the people at the party are sure of. And that Chara Parthlan was jealous, but it was al unavailing, because he still insisted on bringing you to this party and introducing you to the family.
“So you must have gone down the garden to have a row, and you shifted and killed her and ate her.”
“Interesting,” I said. “And all too human for a bunch of elves. They’re throwing the baby from the sled. But I wonder why.”
“The baby? What baby? You and Parthlan had a baby? Or Parthlan and his wife?”
I sighed. I really didn’t think he was stupid. He just looked like he hadn’t slept well in weeks. “I should be insulted, but I’m just baffled. Surely you have heard the legend of the people on a sled, pursued by wolves who throw out the baby in order to delay the wolves. Clearly I’m the baby, but my problem is that you don’t look like wolves.”
He gave me a hard, narrowed-eyes look. “Most people would dislike having the police after them? And might accuse someone to get the police off track. So I think—”
I never knew what he thought, and never had the opportunity to point out to him that these weren’t exactly people, not as such.
Instead, someone knocked at the door and a young man came in. He wore a well-cut suit, and white shirt, with the tie impeccably tied. If it weren’t for a certain tone of blue to the jacket and pants and, well, a certain way of holding himself up, you’d never know he was a policeman. And if you didn’t squint just right, you’d never know he was as Un’uruh as my unassuming self.
I saw him squint at me, then flash me a bright smile. He said, “Sargeant, they want to know if you want sandwiches with the coffee they’re about to bring in.” But I wasn’t stupid, I knew exactly what he’d come in for, and saw the imperceptible nod he gave the guy questioning me. And then moments later, when the butler came in with coffee and a tray of sandwiches, the bright young man – Jones? – put a few sheets of paper on the sergeant’s desk.
The sergeant read them, while drinking his cup of coffee. I noted they’d brought me one too, and didn’t ask his permission to have some. Instead I helped myself liberally to cream and sugar and started drinking.
He looked up at me, “So, it appears you told the truth about being only half elf, and the quick report our magical unit ran on you says you haven’t been involved with Parthlan. We’d know. That sort of thing leaves traces. Also Jones tells me that the people I talked to before tried to do a snow job on me with magical help.” He shrugged. “This is why all our detectives are thaumaturgically shielded, right? But here’s the thing, I want to know – why? Why do they have it in for you?”
I shrugged in turn, and told him that Mr. Parthlan had tried to hire me to be his social secretary.
“Secretary? Aren’t you some sort of PI?”
“I wasn’t surviving very well on that,” I said.
He pursed his lips. “That’s all very well and good, but why was the dead woman having you followed?”
I left the interview in a muddle. Why would Chara Parthlan have me followed? Until her husband had come to hire my services, I hadn’t even known of her existence. I guess I knew her father in law existed, but not who he was. Not really.
Perhaps she’d thought to hire me?
It seemed unlikely. Unless he also thought that she was supposed to be the great sacrifice. Maybe everyone in the hill thought it. If city elves sacrificed their own, I imagined that the atmosphere in a hill leading up to the great sacrifice would be a stewpot of paranoia.
I’d never thought I’d say this, but perhaps my father’s people did it better. Oh, sure, they killed unsuspecting – or even suspecting mortals – but at least the entire hill didn’t boil over with insanity.
And suddenly I realized that with Chara Parthlan dead, Ardghal couldn’t be afraid she was the executioner set for the great sacrifice. That meant the main thing he wanted me to investigate was gone. Which meant that he probably didn’t want to hire me anymore. Which was fine, since I didn’t think I wanted to be hired.
It’s all very well to think of investigating murders up close and personal. It all sounds very grand in imagination and in the sort of lookies about detectives, the detective is either never in any danger, or fully able to meet whatever might happen. But I had been at a party in which a woman – well, an elf, at any rate – had been killed and partly eaten. And the guilty party could be… anyone, including my would be client.
I’d have sworn that Ardghal was innocent, or at least that he’d been truly surprised at finding her dead, but what I was willing to do or say meant nothing. It wasn’t like I knew that much about city elves. It could be argued I didn’t even know that much about my father’s people. It’s not like I’d been petted and cossetted and taken as their own.
It didn’t matter. It didn’t matter. I left the closet-like interview room feeling like someone had lifted a load from my shoulders. I didn’t have to think about the Parthlan’s anymore. And if I saw their stupid commercials on TV, or something about a runway show with their fashions, I would turn it off.
I started towards the door, and it is a measure of the confusion in the house that I was allowed to leave without anyone even asking where I was going. Outside the gates, my feet already sore from the walk through the garden – at least the place where Chara had been found was cordoned off and had police all over it – I found myself wondering whether I should be able to walk all the way into the city and whether it was worth even attempting. I still had enough money to call a taxi, the problem was getting a cab all the way up here. Someone would have to call, and I thought finding the Parthlan’s buttler and asking me to do so might bring all sorts of awkward questions.
“Thank God,” a male voice said, and I felt a hand grab my upper arm. I turned, wrenching my arm free and ready to employ what defensive magic I knew. It wasn’t much, but I had learned it from the hill, so it ought to be enough to floor someone who assumed I was an easy mark.
Only I never let fly. The man looking at me, panting a little as from a race was Ardghal. I registered a delayed shock, since elves never use the divine name, in vain or otherwise. In fact, it is not known if they have a concept of divinity. A lot of the churches say they are a separate creation, independently arisen from the forces that generated the universe. Some say they have no soul. Whether people like myself had a soul confused even more people. Most churches considered us abominations. The one my mother and I had attended considered us mortals, like other mortals, and treated us as such. I felt a great nostalgia for the simple little church which met in a place that used to play lookies. The looky palace had gone under, but the faded red velvet on the chair remained, and something like the odor of glamor long gone. Our pastor had been a small man without even a slight bit of the theatrical, and the contrast had made the services endearing and almost surprising in gentleness.
But I hadn’t found a church in Pomae, and given how other people had treated me, I was afraid to try.
Parthlan stared at me, his eyes wide. “Thank God,” he said, again. “I caught you in time. I must talk to you. I must—”
“I’m afraid not, Mr. Parthlan,” I said in what I hoped was a forbidding tone. “I don’t think we have anything to talk about. I have decided not to take the case.”
“You have decided not to—” he repeated, as though trying to make sense of something foreign or strange. “But, you can’t!”
“Certainly I can,” I said. “It is plain your wife will not be killing you.” I said it matter of fact and repented it immediately. It was as though he got a thousand years dropped on him all of a sudden. His features suddenly appeared ghastly, hard and sharp, as though sculpted in bone, and his skin became pale enough that it might have been bleached bone.
“She won’t be—” he said, and to my horror a sound tore through his throat that bore a strange resemblance to an uncontrolled sob. But he swallowed hard and said, his voice hard, and fast, “Don’t be a fool. Someone else might. And Chara’s– Chara’s murder might be related to that. They might have killed Chara because she said she wouldn’t kill me, or… or something like that. Don’t you see you have to help me? You have to find who killed Chara.”
“I don’t think,” I said, “That I’m equipped to do any such thing. The police are on the case. They—”
“The police!” he sneered. “One of our kitchen maids could obfuscate them with glamour. Please. You must help me. You must investigate Chara’s death. You must solve it before midsummer.”
“But—” I knew I should give him a simple no, and walk away and never look back. Even if by the time I got to the city my soles would be gone, and probably my socks and the bottom of my feet too. “But why me? I’ve never investigated anything!”
“Because the seeing said you were the one to do it,” he said, in the tone of someone tired of sparring.
“The seeing I performed before going to see you. I cast for who, in all of Pomae, would be able to keep me alive through midsummer. And I got you.”
“You got me?” Seeings – foreseeings, by elves, were usually more accurate than that. Unless Ardghal Parthlan’s second sight had a sense of humor this made no sense.
“That’s what I said,” he said, exasperated. Then calmer. “Look, if I go get my car and drive you home, will you let me explain what led me to you.”
I opened my mouth to tell him I wasn’t insane to get in a car with a man who was probably a murderer and was certainly out of his mind with panic. Much less with an elf in the same condition. But what I said was, “The police would never let you leave.”
He shrugged. “A simple glamour. I think they’ve already forgotten I exist. No one will stop us.” He looked at me full on, his eyes very earnest. “Look, give me till we get to your place to convince you to take on the case. If I fail, I’ll never approach you again.”
Surely I wasn’t crazy enough to take him up on this? I really didn’t need to get in a car with a potential murderer. I didn’t need to get in a car with an elf, anyway. I knew what they used for cars.
What kind of madness, then, possessed me to say, “Okay. Sure.”
The car was as I expected – low slung and with the sort of lines that suggested it could go very fast even while standing utterly still. It was the sort of form that the fairy cattle took when it shifted. The only thing that surprised me about it was its bright, glittering green color.
Ardghal stopped in front of me on the drive, and the door opened of itself, making me jump back. Had he laughed at my startled jump, I would not have got in. He didn’t. Instead he looked at me, his eyes intent and almost owlish. I got in and arranged my dress, and submitted to the seat bet wrapping around me. Both the belt and the seat felt warm and living, of course.
Ardghal had on driving gloves, and was holding onto the wheel, but the car started at a muttered word from him. I thought if I closed my eyes, I’d hear the sound of hooves. I didn’t close my eyes. Instead, I said, “doesn’t it disturb you to be inside a living animal?”
“What?” he said, then blinked. “The—Oh. The car. I don’t think of it as a living animal.” He shrugged. “They weren’t precisely horses either, you know. They are… magical forces bound to our service. They took a horse form when horses were common and now…” He shrugged again. He looked somehow, tired. No, not tired. Vacant. I remembered the old legends, that the fey were the afterlife of unrighteous dead, and bit my lip. I didn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe it. I had been sired by one.
“Ah,” I said. “Well, I’m half elf. I don’t have enough power to control them, so– It doesn’t matter.”
His eyes widened at me, and then he said, “Not. Not while we’re within, shall we? I mean, shall we not discuss these matters? We are, you know, inside a magical force, and it is one with a self-directed intelligence. It can… understand human speech.”
No, I didn’t know that, nor did I know why what I said about being half elf mattered or if it did. It occurred to me I didn’t know much about fairy horses, either, and that my discomfort about them might have its origins in all the legends about carnivorous horses. Then I wondered if that’s what the legends came from. And then I shivered. But if these … ah… magical forces were self-aware, then these thoughts too were dangerous.
I started to think about Chara’s death, and what might have killed her, then I looked outside the window and cleared my mind of all thoughts but dresses. Because in a self aware magical force, thoughts of blood and death would be bad. You really didn’t want that. Nor around anything from the fairy. I reviewed in my mind all my dresses, and what they’d need done to them to be really smart, and presently we were coming to a stop in front of the house in which I leased a room.
“No,” I said, as the car slowed to a stop, partly dismayed by the thought that they knew where I lived. “No.” My mind had kicked in with the other uncomfortable ideas relating to this situation. If Ardghal bloody Parthlan thought I was going to invite him up the stairs and into my room, he was out of his ever loving mind. My landlady knew of my origins, of course. I’d thought it fair to disclose it, since sometimes fairyhills do very odd things to their half breeds and the members who escape their hold. She’d endured it because I was half-elf and not elf reared. She’d told me plainly that she would not otherwise have rented to me, and I understood.
So I could just see how happy she would be with my coming in with a glittering full elf, let alone that he was a member of a hill, and that he was male, too, which my landlady had said she wouldn’t tolerate. Well, not males as such, but “no hanky panky in my house.”
“Not in my house,” I said. “There is a diner, around the corner.”
I directed him to Mike’s – which took up the bottom floor of a nearby building. He looked dubious, but whispered a work to the car which let us out, and then drove itself of, whether to park or not, I didn’t know.
Mike’s was almost deserted that time of night, and since it catered to the after-theater crowd from down the block, our party clothes went unnoticed.
Ardghal and I claimed a table in a corner and I pretended not to see him setting in place a privacy spell which would make it hard for anyone to follow our conversation.
After the waitress took our order, Ardghal looked at me and sighed. “Half elves can control the elven mounts. I know.”
I opened my mouth and he sighed again. “I should know.”
Mike’s Deli was almost empty that time before breakfast and after the late night theater-goer rush. I wondered if it was my imagination that the patrician Ardghal Parthlan, drew into himself as we entered the homely establishment, with its smell of fries and spices, and its middle-aged motherly waitresses.
I thought this would be a long way down from the sort of place where he’d normally eat. And then I thought of what he’d said. Surely, he wasn’t intimating that he too was only half-elf. What? The heir to a prosperous hill and raised on everything the elven power could command. Not hardly. And not with that much power, surely. He might have misspoken unintentionally. Or perhaps he was lying to get my attention.
I walked ahead of him, mercilessly ignoring his discomfort, to the booth in the back. When I could – which amounted to my being fairly flush – I came here for a glass of milk and a sandwich.
The booth was scuffed and the table’s aluminum top was scratched, and Ardghal looked truly uncomfortable when he slid in.
But not so uncomfortable I didn’t notice him casually dropping a privacy spell over the booth. Oh, not the sort of thing that would make anything we said inaudible. That would be too obvious. Just the sort of thing that would make it impossible for anyone not paying very close attention to follow the trend of our conversation. They’d hear the words, but not be able to assemble them into anything. It was a sophisticated spell. Sophisticated, unobtrusive. Elven.
I didn’t have time to say anything because Lina, the waitress who was normally on duty this late at night, was standing by the table and looking at me. “Hi, hon,” she said, though she couldn’t possibly remember me from the two or three times I’d come in that late. “What will it be?”
I remembered that spell, and considered that Mr. Parthlan had been altogether too premature. So I grabbed the menu and pointed at the club sandwich, then said, “And a glass of milk.”
Parthlan didn’t look up. “The same.”
Lina looked momentarily puzzled but “The same” wasn’t that hard to put together. She nodded, and smiled, and walked away.
I wanted to ask Ardghal what he could possibly be thinking to set that spell in place before we ordered, but looking up, I saw that his eyes were unreadable. It was as though he were thinking very deeply of something he could never express.
I realized his wife had just died. He’d suspected his wife of wanting to kill him. Whether that was true or not, they were married – city elf and forest elf, foreign and native – surely he’d felt something for her, and surely he was feeling something now. What, I didn’t dare guess.
So, instead, what my mouth said, as my eyebrow went up in a quizzical manner was “Un’uruh? Really?”
I don’t know why I did it, or why I picked that most offensive of words. Surely there were better ways of finding out if he’d misspoken.
A dark blush climbed from the collar of his white shirt to his forehead, and he narrowed his eyes at me, as though deciding if I had done it on purpose. I realized in retrospect I’d done the right thing. I mean, if I offended him, he would not be able to keep up a pretense, if it was a pretense.
But when he said “Yes,” his voice harsh, and catching in his throat, it wasn’t possible to doubt it. He was, as I was, Un’uruh. Or at least he believed he was so. And he’d grown up with the consciousness of it, and the word stung me as much as it stung me.
So it was probably entirely too wrong of me to lean back and cross my arms and say, “Really? Fascinating.”
I supposed he would have liked to slap me. No. he would have liked to shake me until my head rolled off my shoulders. But all he did was say again, “Yes,” this time in a less emotional tone.
We were interrupted by the waitress setting the plates in front of us, and then he waited till she walked away and said, “My father kidnapped my mother. Back in Ireland. It was a runaway marriage. They came here. She could sew better than any elf maiden, he says. I suppose sewing is an accomplishment in the old country, for I daresay my sister wouldn’t know how to mend a hole. Never mind. He came here. And they had me. And I am his heir. And father is stubborn. He could have let it go to my brother, by law, but I am his heir, and father is proud. I might be Un’uruh, but I’m his son, and he gets to decide, and he will make it stick. He refuses to admit something that is half his is not good enough.”
“And … your wife?”
He sighed. “I don’t know,” he said. His eyes were narrowed again, but this time it seemed to me that he was trying to hide emotion, rather than showing it. Was he grieving? Not that it meant much. Many a murderer has grieved for his victim.
I took a bite of the sandwich, because, well, it would be a waste to not eat Mike’s club sandwich. And I took a swallow of the milk, and narrowed my eyes back at him. “you don’t know what?” I asked. “I know you thought she meant to kill you.”
“Yes…” He said, and sounded like it was long ago and far away.
“If you take a bite off your sandwich it won’t turn you wholly human, you know?” I asked. “I’ve been eating human food for years and I remain caught between and Un’uruh.”
“What?” he said, blinking.
“When is the last time you ate?”
He looked as if the privacy veil affected him, and he had no clue what I’d just said. “I don’t know,” he said, at last. “Sometime… in the morning?”
“Eat your sandwich,” I said. “My mother always said if you didn’t eat you couldn’t think.”
He lifted the sandwich and took a bite, and put the food back down, and took a small swig of milk. I got the impression he was doing this to appease me. “Look, I don’t know about Chara. I don’t know if she loved me or not, I don’t know if she ever loved me or not, I don’t know if she wanted to get rid of me – I don’t know anything. A month ago, I’d have told you that we’d fallen in love and married in the teeth of all opposition and that we were still in love and very happy, but now—”
“What happened a month ago?”
“A month ago,” Ardghal Parthlan looked up and I could see him clenching his teeth together. “I found my wife with Flaith– With my brother.”
I opened my mouth to say something clever, but the words wouldn’t come. “Found how?” I said at last. “I mean—”
He shook his head and took a vicious bite of his sandwich. It looked like he was doing it to relieve his spleen as much as as anything else. “Trust me,” he said. “There was no– No doubt. I came home from a business trip my father had sent me on, and I found him and her in—” He swallowed, and seemed rather like someone rather nerving himself to run through a patch of flames. He knows it will hurt, but if he runs fast enough, he will survive, and something at the end is worth is—or he needs to get to the other side. Like that he looked all elf, all cold and glinting determination.
But then he looked all elf anyway, and even his glimmer of power was untouched. Had his mom, herself, been Un’uruh?
If I were going to take this case much further – and no one had yet convinced me I should – I would want to look into his mother’s antecedents. How to do that was something else.
“I came home from a business trip, and found him and her, naked, in my room… our room. Chara’s and my room. It was—” he stopped and his face showed, in quick succession what it was, shock and revulsion and an unbelievable sense of betrayal, like a child who approaches his mother for a treat and is instead given a slap. He might not be able to put it into words, but then he didn’t need to put it into words. It was all there, in that naked, unguarded look. I asked, “You had no idea anything was going on between them?” but it wasn’t needed, and when he shook his head, it wasn’t a surprise.
“What are your relations with your siblings? I assume,” I remembered Tessa blond and lank beauty. No wood-elf blood there. “That your sister is your full sister and Flaithri your half brother?”
He nodded. “My mother, I presume, was given the … You know, the food that makes you part of the hill, and as such, she could have gone on living in the hill, pretty much forever, barring accident or injury. At least I assume so, because she ran away with my father when she was in her twenties, and lived twenty or thirty years with him here – I’m not absolutely sure on the chronology. We… Elves don’t talk about time.”
I knew that well enough, the permanent glittering summer was in part a decision not to talk about the world as it existed and as it went on. It was worse among wood elves. They didn’t want to admit any time had passed, or that Atlantis had once been submerged fathom deep in the waters, leaving the world almost without magic. In fact, if you referred to that time, or asked how they’d survived – which human scientists had long ago determined had been through the creation and maintenance of a magic bubble – they would look at you blankly, and then talk again as though their magic groves had remained through the centuries, giving the impression of un-passing time.
“Anyway, she had me when for a mortal she would be quite old, and then three years later she had Tessa and—” He twirled a piece of bread in his long, well-manicured fingers, until it became a tiny, hard, round pellet. “And she died from it. I remember her only very hazily. She looked a lot like Tessa, but she was… softer? Or perhaps– I don’t know how to put this, but the word that comes to mind is stronger. More solid. Anyway, Father knew there would be problems, and so he sent to the forest elves for a midwife. One who specialized in cross breeds. But it didn’t work, and mother died, and then the midwife stayed on to look after Tessa, and my father married the… midwife, within six months.” Ardghal bit his lower lip, suddenly. I got the impression he was about to say something else about his step mother or his family, but nothing came out. He shrugged. “She had Flaithri three years later, when I was six, and I think– But no, I have no right to say that.”
I let it pass. There really was no point prodding his sore spot. The more I heard about the Parthlans, the less I wanted to be involved with them. Instead I said, “This is all fascinating, but I fail to see what I can do in the matter.”
“Please,” he said. It was the first time I’d heard an elf say that word, and even knowing he was only half-elf it struck me as shocking. “Please. I need you to find out how to– I need you to find out who killed Chara. I’m afraid for Tessa’s life. And… and my own.”
“But I… why would you think I could do anything?” I asked Ardghal. “I am Un’uruh, and unlike you, I lack the … power most full elves have. I can’t see through elf glamour or elf magic. I… I couldn’t fight this battle. I’d be as helpless as the policemen if your family chose to… to cast a glamour or to confuse him.” I didn’t want to tell him, though I suspected he could read it in my look, that I felt as though I’d been pixie-led ever since he’d walked into my office.
For the first time it occurred to me to wonder whether he’d in fact cast a glamour on me, and if I’d been under it, ever since. Surely I felt like what I’d done wasn’t rational. I’d gone out to an elf hill. I’d agreed to come back with him.
But then there was the fact that I was starving and that money was its own kind of glamour. I didn’t want to go back to Mudhole.
His mouth worked. There was a long silence, as though he were trying to think of words, or perhaps to invent words to describe his predicament. Then he sighed. There was a bead of moisture on the table, either condensation or perhaps spilled from his glass. He started drawing on it with the tip of his finger. I kept a weary eye on it, because when elves draw, it could be doodling. Or it could be a spell in itself.
“Look,” he said. “I didn’t want to tell you, because you might think…” he paused and took a deep breath, as though drowning. “I mean, I know someone like you… we know something… that is… I found something of your history, and I know you’d be wary of elves and of elf magic and I…” He shrugged. “With midsummer approaching, on a cycle of the Great Sacrifice, I thought that with… that is Chara was you know, perhaps in love with my brother, or at least…” He foundered again. “I have trouble believing it, see. It’s almost impossible, though I saw it with my own eyes. My wife… We loved each other. There was no—“ He shook his head. “But I thought, if she loved him, or if she’d decided marrying him was a better way to get queenship and to… to be safe in the hill – my step mother didn’t like her, see, so I thought – anyway, I thought she might be chosen as assassin and myself as the sacrifice. So…” He liked his lips which looked dry almost to cracking, but he did not take a sip of his drink. “So I thought that I would do a casting. I went away from the hill. I know it can influence things. I went right away from the hill, and I did a casting, both for my fate at midsummer and for anyone who could bring me safety, and this is what I got–
“I got that I would be in great peril, and that you could save me. I didn’t know… I didn’t think that the death symbol that showed around the great peril was for Chara and not for myself. So I didn’t think to examine… to ask… but I did a casting, and that’s what I got. So you see…” He looked desperate and defenseless. “So you see you have to help me.”
I thought of telling him that his wife might have done her own casting, or sensed his, since she’d investigated me, but instead I chose to stay away from it, “But the most complex case I’ve investigated before this,” I told him. “Was the old lady who confused me with the fire department and hired me to bring her cat down from the tree.”
He looked surprised, but a wrinkle of amusement formed on the side of his mouth. “And did you?”
“Yes,” I waved my hand. “Elementary spell. I called it forth with a promise of tuna.”
He looked as if he were considering this. “See,’ he said. “There’s horse sense there, and I know your family… your bloodlines.”
I bristled. “I don’t have family. My mother died.”
“Yes. A great sacrifice.” He squinted. “You know, I’ve been wondering– lately I’ve wondered very much if my mother was also one.”
“What do you mean? You said she’d died in childbirth.”
“Yes, but the grand sacrifice doesn’t need to be overt murder.” He ticked off his fingers. “Why did my father call forth an elf midwife, to attend a mortal woman. You know that is not done. In fact, elves know far less of midwivery, they—We have fewer children. Also, what elves do know when they know involves magic, which can and mostly will be fatal to mortal mothers. Sometimes for difficult births, elves call human midwives…. Or kidnap them. But why an elf midwife, and why one who was the daughter of the king of a hill?” He shook his head. “And my sister was born on midsummer night.”
I opened my mouth to tell him that the whole affair seemed even more unlikely and fraught than I’d thought and the last thing I wanted was to immerse myself in it.
We’d been so busy, I’d failed to notice that men had entered the diner, men who now stood behind him, staring at him.
There was a big, burly policeman, unmistakably a policeman, from his expression, his sense of assurance and I’d have thought it was a mistake to send him after such as us – which clearly someone had – but for the aura of power around him that made him at least as magical as I. He was wearing a rumpled suit, and he hadn’t removed his hat. I wondered if it would reveal pointed ears.
“I see,” he said, in a tone of deep amusement looking us over. “That the accomplices are having a conference.” A gesture and he tore the veil of privacy that Ardghal had created. “Perhaps it’s time we found what they are saying.”
I was about to say that all police stations look alike. This is not precisely true. For one the only other police station I knew was in Mudhole.
Mind you, I knew it very well indeed. Whenever something happened the police didn’t like, they didn’t look to their own children and grandchildren, the scions of the human community – if you can call scions to the children of farmers and small-crafters. And they would never – being rather fond of continuing to draw breath – look to the elven hill. Maybe some police chiefs did at one time, but those clearly didn’t stick around to continue the tradition, and it’s unlikely they moved elsewhere, too. At least elsewhere in this world.
So, when something of a magical nature went wrong in Mudhole, I made a suspect line of one.
From when I was about six and not absolutely sure why they were questioning me, to the final questioning session that drove me out of Mudhole by making it clear what my father’s people were planning, I’d been in that station hundreds of times.
The thing is the room in which I was questioned in Mudhole was almost wildly cheerful. I’d sometimes suspected they’d painted it bright yellow and brought in colorful furniture because I was so young when they’d first questioned me over milk and cookies, to make the interrogation go down easier.
Yes, as an adult I could see the magic baffles on the ceiling and feel the blessed mortar on the walls, supposed to keep other people outside the room safe, should I lose my mind and explode in malevolent magic.
But none of this really meant anything when I was six, and after that it had the charm of familiarity. Why, it was almost comfortable.
Also, only two of the times I’d been hauled in had I had anything to do with the incident in question. And I had never turned Ms. Frutari into a frog. I’d just made her believe she was a frog and made everyone else think she was a frog. So, when the police chief asked me if I had turned her into a frog, I could answer no, and not all of their truth-sounding could find me at fault. The same, with the thing with Bobby Randall. By then I knew the routine of interrogation so well, I could lie with impunity and no one would ever know.
So I wasn’t in the least nervous in the station. Also they’d gotten used to perfunctory questioning before letting me go.
But this city police station was all wrong. First of all it was not the one-story, five-room building of my childhood, but a skyscraper, right in downtown Pomae. And as far as I could tell all of it was police. I found myself, getting out of the car at the door and looking up at the floors disappearing into the gloom of the early morning sky, wondering what they could possibly do with all those floors. Oh, yes, surely, there would be more crime in Pomae than in Mudhole, but then this couldn’t be the only police station.
Then I noticed the holy symbols in a friese across the top of the first floor, probably repeated all the way down, and the magic-potency built into the cement of the building, and I started thinking that whoever had built this had been more than anything else scared to death of high magic users.
Not that I could blame them. After all, high magic users, with more inherent magic than mere humans could command were mostly creatures related to those who’d either hid among humans for centuries – influencing human history with total lack of compunction – or they were the more dangerous sort who had weathered the time of the sinking and remained in Pomae, unaccustomed to human interference, and frankly not thinking of humans as quite the same sentient creatures as themselves. Those were my father’s people, and everyone should always be cautious around them.
But it didn’t bode well for their interrogating me.
They’d separated me from Ardghal, which was actually a relief, as I still wasn’t sure how I felt about the elf – half elf? If he was telling the truth, which was a big if – prince. But I suppose they thought they were keeping accomplices from conspiring.
They were also a little rough in pulling me from the car and marching me down the hallway, one policeman on either side. Both policemen were clearly magic users. I could feel and smell the power coming off them. Human, but quite strong. And they clearly were not having any compunctions about making me upset at them. Maybe their building protected them that much.
The interrogation room was a windowless place in the second subbasement, and the walls were either made of lead or of something that looked like lead and had the same magic-dampening capabilities. My interrogators were enclosed in a sort of shiny power-capsule. I’d never seen it, but I could tell that it was a magic shield of high effectiveness, so even if I let all my power loose in this room, they’d survive. And of course it wouldn’t go outside the room.
They looked like normal policemen other than that immaterial magic shield, which shone like dust motes in the sun all around them.
I pulled away from the hands of the policemen who’d brought me there, and sat down in the folding chair that stood in front of the desk behind which the two protected-policemen sat.
I barely heard the door close behind me. I was trying to think.
Look, in Pomae things were different than in Mudhole. In Mudhole the only person to object to my frequent detentions for interrogation was my mother, and mother tried not to raise to many waves, given her status and that she hoped they’d be kind to me.
In Pomae… there were enough half-elves, even if most of them were low status, to raise a stink over arbitrary detention. They couldn’t simply have brought me in because I was a half elf. Oh, okay, they could, but they’d have to be crazier than I could believe. No.
Once the newspapers got hold of it, and the local citizens, they could get in real trouble for bringing someone in just because she had elf blood.
So, they had to have some reason to really suspect I’d been involved with Ardghal in the killing of his wife. But what could it be? What beyond elf-blood and the fact I’d been at the party.
One of the policemen had a blunt bulldog like face that wasn’t actually unpleasant, but betrayed a certain “likeableness” in its lines. He looked at me and sighed. “You should have told us the truth at the party, instead of a tissue of lies.”
Since what I’d told them was the absolute truth, I could do nothing but stare at them.
He sighed again, “When did your affair with the elf prince start? And why kill his wife? Wasn’t the role of mistress enough?”
“I didn’t have an affair with Ardghal,” I said. “I met him for the first time—“
The sigh was more obvious and more pitying. “Look, you probably could get out with a claim he used undue magical influence on you. He probably did. He’s far more powerful than you are, and he has the hill behind him. You’ll get off with a time in a rest home and magic detox place. Come on. Tell us the truth.”
“I told you the truth,” I said. “I met Ardghal Flairti this week, when he—”
The bulldog-like head shook. His friend, who had remained quiet, smoking a cigarette, shook his head. “Show her, Jim.”
Jim, if that was Bulldog’s name, reached into his breast pocket and pulled out an envelope. He handed it to me gingerly. His shield crackled as our fingers came near touching.
The envelope was white and gave signs of yellowing, as though it were old. The pictures inside looked old too. Not old, old, but like they’d been kept for a year or more.
I stared at them, uncomprehending.
“They were in the dead woman’s dresser,” the man said. “Under the underwear. Human or elf, that’s always where women keep things.”
I only half heard. The pictures were clearly of myself and Ardghal. And they showed us in various instances of embrace. I felt for magical modifications and could feel none. But neither could I explain them.
I stared at the pictures in disbelief. I could not detect any means by which the pictures had been tricked out, but my magic was not the strongest one around.
Yet, I thought of how Ardghal’s family had received me, their seemingly invincible conviction that I was involved with him, and I felt a cold finger down my spine.
I don’t know what I would have done and said, if one of my interrogators hadn’t said, “You might as well talk. Your paramour has confessed, and he says the murder was your idea.”
I pushed the pictures back across the desk. Do policemen not read crime novels? Maybe there is a rule against it in the police force.
Surely, even they must know, though that “fly all is discovered” or its close cousin “Your accomplice has confessed and thrown you to the lions, so you should do likewise and tell us all” was the oldest trick in those stories.
I didn’t know how the pictures had been tricked, but I was now sure I was and that it had been contrived by the police.
You see, what I’d been afraid of, momentarily, is that something had been done to my mind. It’s not easy to do that to half-elves, but it is possible, and my father’s people could have tampered with my mind – and perhaps so could these odd city elves, as well.
I stared at the policemen now, and let my contempt show in my eyes. “I don’t know how those pictures were contrived,” I said. “Though I can think of many ways of doing it, but there is no more between myself and Mr.Parthalan than what I told you about before.”
They tried, of course, but I could see from the way they looked that their gambit had failed, and I think so could they.
They kept me for another four hours – maybe they had to justify their salary? Do investigators get paid by the hour? – and then let me go. I managed to grab a cab home.
My apartment is about the size you’d expect. Meaning I didn’t have room to swing a cat. Which was just as well, since I didn’t have a cat. If I’d had one, we’d have had to arm-to-paw wrestle for who got to eat most weeks, anyway, so it was all to the good.
Though right then I’d have been very glad of a cat or a dog or someone who would have shown joy at my coming home after a night out.
There was a streak of light showing in the grey slice of Pomae sky visible through my window. It looked pink and faintly embarrassed. And I felt faintly embarrassed coming back to my apartment, too, even if there was no one to see me.
I’d know it was a bad idea to get involved in the affairs of Ardghal Parthalan. I should have known, at any rate. What didn’t I know about the inadvisability of dealing with elves? If I didn’t, no one did.
So I took off my high heels, sheepishly, by the door, and looked with vague annoyance at the mess I’d left behind while getting ready to go out. The sofa-bed was littered with a confusion of stockings, which I’d decided were not good enough for this outfit. There was makeup strewn on the coffee table, and the three pairs of shoes (all that I owned and two of them inherited from mom) I’d auditioned for this dress were lined up in front of the sofa.
I picked them up, threw them in the closet, then went into the bathroom, removed my dress, which I threw outside the bathroom. I did this for practical reasons. After all, the bathroom was so small that if I’d left the dress in there, I’d be using it as a bathmat. And I was sure I could have it dry cleaned and sell it for enough to maybe pay a month’s rent.
Then I finished undressing, turned on the shower, waiting for the water to stop running rust-colored, and for the pipe to stop making alarming sounds not unlike a train chugging into a station. It gave its loud clang which meant that the real water was finally forthcoming and it started giving out lovely warm water.
I stepped under it and scrubbed the smell of police station, and the smell of the Parthlan’s party – mostly a smell of fear and suspicion – from my skin.
As I was drying myself, it occurred to me my landlady would want to know why I was taking a shower at that hour. Never mind. She’d undoubtedly be told when I’d dragged home, and there was always a real chance that she would end up tossing me out for being involved with the police. But maybe I would use a tiny little bit of glamour, just this once. I wasn’t sure I could afford to live anywhere else. Even here, it often taxed my resources.
I finished drying myself off, put on my robe, picked up my dirty clothes and put them in the hamper, and hung up my dress in the closet, away from the other clothes. Then I went to the kitchen – that is, the south wall of the apartment, and started making tea. What I wanted was milk, and maybe a couple of scrambled eggs and a bit of bacon. But what I had was tea.
I was sitting down on the folding chair, drawn up to the table that let down from the wall, ready to take my first sip of sugared tea, when someone pounded on my door.
I huffed, testily, half expecting it to be the police again.
This apartment was so old that it didn’t even have a magic viewer for the door. So I had to get up and go all the way to the door, to look through the small glass inset. I’d decided if it was the police, they could wait till I was good and dressed and ready to see them.
But the person on the other side wasn’t a policeman or, as I half expected, Ardghal Parthlan.
Instead, standing there, impeccably dressed, and obviously having enjoyed at least a passable night of sleep, was Treasa Parthalan.
I opened the door the limit of the chain and said, “I’m sorry. I just got home from the police station, and I’m truly in no mood for this. I’m officially off the case. I’ve told your brother as much. And you must leave me alone. I can’t help any Parthalans.”
She gasped, and I wasn’t sure if it was at what I said, or at the thought that someone had said no to her – something I guessed to be rare. Her huge, guileless blue eyes, much less clouded or guarded than her brother’s, turned to me, and she said, “I wasn’t going to ask you to take the case. I was going to warn you. That is… I think you should know what my father is planning.”
I sighed. If she was Un’uruh too, as Ardghal claimed, I should be able to take her on. In fact, unless she were camouflaging her power expertly, I should be able to. I doubted she’d had to learn as many dodges as I had, and unlike Ardghal she didn’t partake of the power of the hill inhering in the role of heir.
I opened the door, ready to stun her or drop her with a spell if needed. She came in, looked around and said “How—” but stopped, probably realizing that “How quaint” or “how cozy” would mean I’d hate her the rest of her life.
Instead, she waited while I closed the door, then turned back to her and asked, “What is your father planning?” And as she hesitated. “If you are going to tell me he’s going to separate me from Ardghal or some such nonsense, please stop. I have not had an affair with your brother, and only met him yesterday, and that only as a PI and client.”
She frowned at me, and shook her head. “Oh no,” she said. “Who’d think that nonsense. Ardghal doesn’t like women.”
I probably gasped. Look, this is not unusual among elves – or at least it’s somewhat higher than among humans – but I’d talked to him, and I’d swear he’d been in love with his wife. And then there was the fact his father thought I was involved with him. “What do you mean doesn’t like women?” I asked.
She colored. “I– Well… I’ve never heard that he liked men, either, if that’s what you’re thinking. But Chara said their marriage was never consummated.” She gave me a smooth up and down look. “And if he wouldn’t do that, surely he wouldn’t have an affair either?”
Forget her insulting look, that meant that no sane elf would bed me, of course. I wanted out of this case now.
Note, There was no Chapter Fifteen
It took me some little while to get rid of the fairy princess. When she left, still without my committing to help her or her brother, and I regained the full possession of my apartment, I went over to the window and looked down.
Early morning in Pomae, and in the street below, isolated from light by the looming buildings on either side, people were hurrying along to their jobs.
It made me feel a great desire to go to one of those boring jobs, myself.
That was my first thought, but it was followed quickly by another.
Looking at those people, down there, hurrying to work… There were so many of them.
It’s not that I didn’t care whether or not Ardghal Parthalan had ever consummated his marriage with his wife. It wasn’t that I didn’t care who might have killed her. I could even entertain a passing thought that if he hadn’t liked the pure-blood elf princess, perhaps he was angling for a half blood. Ardghal was beautiful. I wasn’t intending to get emotionally involved – with anyone. All I needed right now was another encumbrance in my life. Keeping myself alive was hard enough. Besides, look at what love with an elf-king had done to my mother.
But there was the secret gloating feeling that perhaps he’d prefer me, nonetheless. Perhaps it’s human. Or elf. They’re not all golden and devoid of jealousy. Whatever they’d have you think.
The matter interested me, in that sense, and in the sense that it was a puzzle. As it was a puzzle why there were pictures of myself and Ardghal in… intimate congress.
But suddenly, looking at all those people, down there, I was sure as I could be that there was a much bigger puzzle behind this whole thing.
Look, I don’t know how many million people there are in Pomae. Someone once said that half the population of Atlantis was there. I know the numbers change daily, usually upwards.
What I knew, with absolute certainty, is that there were many many millions of people in Pomae.
Some of them, of necessity, sane and not, well disposed and not, must be half elves. I couldn’t be the only one.
And I couldn’t be the most competent one. So, I was a private eye. Supposedly. But the Parthalans didn’t want a ring found or a cat brought down from the tree. They wanted a murder solved. My experience and competency in that area was exactly none.
So, why me. Not just Ardghal, who struck me as rather hapless in some ways, but his wife too had had me followed. The police were sure I was involved in it, and not just as Ardghal’s bit of fluff – which rationally was the most they should think. Then there was Treasa.
No. No, none of this was a coincidence. There was some reason why Chara’s murder, and whatever the trouble might be in the Parthalan household – and what MIGHT it be? Exactly – revolved around me.
The hair rose at the back of my head as I thought the time for the great sacrifice drew near. But why would they fix on me even for that? Being the great sacrifice was not hereditary. Considering they preferred virgins for that, it couldn’t be. Not even in the cases like me, where the sacrifice left a child behind.
So – what?
After a while of looking out the window, I realized I couldn’t go to bed, which had been my original intention. I also realized something else. I had to get out of this place. If I sold the dress I’d bought for the Parthalan party, I could get a ticket somewhere. Not Mud Hole. That would be no more safe than Pomae. I was known. Somewhere, it didn’t much matter where.
I’d heard of wealthy half-elf families who required half elf nannies. I wondered if anyone would be stupid enough to hire me.
Moving rapidly, I bagged the dress to take the cleaners. The consignment shop would not take it in this state. Then I trotted down the stairs to the road, and walked the two blocks to the cleaners. They were in a little alley off the main street.
Before I entered the alley, I noted there was a car parked at the entrance to the cleaners, but I paid no attention. Chauffeurs often parked there to pick up laundry for their masters.
But as I tried to edge past the car, a hand grabbed my arm. I yelped, involuntarily, as the dress went flying.
Something pressed in the middle of my back and a voice I didn’t know said “You. Get in the car.”
When people press guns to your back, you don’t fight, particularly not when the people in question have an aura of power that you can see, standing out from them a palm, and not when you can smell in the air the “sense” that they’re hill people. Well, you don’t fight unless you’re sure they’re going to kill you, anyway, and I wasn’t sure.
Which is how I came to find myself tied and foot and flung down in the space between two seats, face down. This of course, in theory at least meant that I couldn’t see where I was going. It certainly meant that no one would see me being driven out of town by my kidnappers, and that part worried me a little, since it quite clearly didn’t preclude their disposing of me somewhere.
What gave me heart is that they clearly had no idea whom they were dealing with.
What I mean is, I was elf enough to know where I was going. It wasn’t exactly far seeing – one doesn’t do a complex spell with very high power people in the car – but it was enough for me to sort of sense the road. And the road we took headed straight out of Pomae.
Which wouldn’t have scared me half so much if I didn’t realize we were on the road to Mudhole.
At least tracking the way we were going gave me some distraction from what would otherwise have been hours of unmitigated boredom as the car wound amid buildings, and then through the High Hill gate, and out of town.
If you’re thinking I’m a poor spirited thing, not to have screamed or given any sign of distress, you’d be wrong.
You see, given the power of the people in the car with me, I could tell they could throw a damper over any attempt to attract outside attention before I could, and besides, there would be no point in trying to attract the police.
The three men in the car with me were large, perhaps a little prettier than they should be, were they pure humans, strong and highly magical. And one of them, at least, I’d last seen in the interrogation room at Ardghal’s family Hill.
I might be stupid, but I’m not that stupid. Somehow, I thought, since I doubted this was normal police tactics, even against people like me—somehow, at some point, the police force of Pomae had got infiltrated by elves. Perhaps elves who made them believe they were, like myself, half breeds. At least the gent sitting above me, his face impassive, hadn’t been letting his full power flow forth when last seen.
But it seemed churlish to hold his deception against him – though I did. After all, what good was it when half-elves were held out of civic life on suspicion of being too magical, while real elves could sneak through and past human defenses?
So I concentrated on knowing where they were taking me. After all, it might be optimistic, but I was hoping to come the other way under my own power.
The funny thing is that I was almost sure the car wasn’t a fairy steed. Unless they were indeed powerful beyond all knowledge and capable of controlling its power and the tell tale sense of its individual will. I hoped not. Elves shouldn’t have godlike powers. They’re already conceited enough.
The car slowed down as we went up a hill, and I felt the power emanating from it and was both scared and relieved. Scared, because it was elf power, and strong. Relieved because it was not my father’s hill. In fact, we were about fifty miles away from that, though I had trouble believing that my father allowed a hill of a rival to subsist that close.
Physically the place was a mansion, looking much the worse for the wear and set on heavily treed grounds. Behind us was a gate that presumably had opened to let us through but was now closed and locked. And a long gravel drive. In front of us the house, foursquare, painted white, built of stone, with stone staircases leading up to the door.
I was led up the steps by my captors, and into a hall carpeted in red, and up a stair case, and down another hall to a large room completely surrounded in ornate buildings.
The room was decorated in red – curtains, carpet and the plush sofa onto which I was flung.
A mirror opened revealing itself a door, and a man came in. No, not a man, an elf, whose power revealed him to be the king of this hill, however large and however powerful or weak.
For a second, confused, I thought it was Ardghal. Then I realized that though the two looked somewhat alike this elf was dark and his power was the ancient type.
I presumed this was Ardghal’s half brother.
Flaithri Parthlan looked even better put together than Ardghal. What I mean is, every one of his carefully combed dark curls was naturally in place, in golden skin glistened with health, every pore perfect. His eyes was an odd color between violet and blue. He looked at me on the sofa and smiled. And the wave of his glamour hit me like a hammer.
Yes, elves can smile without casting glamour. My reaction to glamour is that of many an Un’uruh. Having learned to defend ourselves in our cradle from the manipulation of our full elves relatives, we take glamour and absorb it, like a pile of sand absorbing water and letting it pass through unmolested.
Once I did that, I realized that was minor glamour that hadn’t triggered my defenses. Flaithri didn’t look as composed or put together as he would have me believe. In fact, he was sweating, his eyes darted around with an impression of expecting an attack from behind at any minute, and he looked altogether… ferrety. I really don’t know how else to put it. I wondered, in passing, whether he was one of those elves who had a secondary animal form, and whether that animal form was a ferret. Not that it mattered, or not particularly.
What mattered is that he was neither cool, nor composed, but distinctly uncomfortable. I didn’t let him see what I’d done to the glamour. Instead I stared at him, my eyes wide, my look that of one bespelled and said, in a faint voice, “Why did you bring me here?”
He cocked his head sideways. “I want to know why my brother brought you to the party, of course.”
He wandered over to a table in the corner. It was set with an elaborately carved crystal bottle and crystal glasses. I had a feeling it wasn’t either. I mean, I had a feeling that the bottle and the glasses weren’t crystal, and that the whole appearance of this place was probably an elaborate glamour. But I wasn’t going to tell him that. And I wasn’t going to narrow my eyes and pull at the glamour and see what was beneath, either, not while he was in the room.
“He brought me to the party to find out why his wife was trying to kill him,” I said.
Flaithri shook, though I think that he didn’t realize I’d seen it. The glamour should have stopped my noticing it, or perhaps even my perceiving it. He turned around almost immediately and fiddled with the glasses.
He came back, each glass half filled with red liquid, and smiled at me, something strangely worried behind the smile. “It is safe, of course.”
I didn’t protest. If I were glamoured, I wouldn’t. I took the glass, took it to my lips. The smell that rose from it was both floral and alcoholic.
While it’s not as dangerous for Un’uruh as for mortals to drink of the drink of fairykind, I suspected the wine? Had some kind of glamour reinforcing attribute. Or perhaps of course Flaithri didn’t know I was Un’uruh. In that case, the drink of fairykind could enslave me completely.
Being Un’uruh is an odd thing. Most elves and other Un’uruh can spot you on sight. But there were elves who were no better at it than humans. Still, I presumed, having investigated me as this family seemed to have, he would know, right?
I decided not to drink any of the wine, just in case.
But he seemed to have forgotten my answer, because he said again, “Why did Ardghal bring you to the party? And what did he mean to do to me?”
I stared at him, trying to fake the confused look of the glamourized. Took the glass to my lips again, tipped it. Did not drink. “Ardghal,” I said. “Brought me to the party to find out why his wife was trying to kill him.”
“But – Chara wasn’t!” Flaithri said, heatedly.
“He thought she was,” I said.
He pouted at me. He pouted at me, like a small child. It was obvious however he expected this interlude to go differently than it had. I wondered why and what he expected to get from it.
Suddenly he put his glass down. “Well, I’ll leave you to think of your predicament. I’ll let you out if you tell me the truth.”
I didn’t say anything. He left through the same door he’d used come in.
And I was left to contemplate the strangeness of what had happened. If he weren’t a pure blood, I’d think he was being manipulated. He behaved very much like a magical automaton. On the other hand, since he was a pure blood, and since he seemed scared, it made me wonder what he was trying to do.
Mind you, pure bloods often aren’t very bright. They don’t have to be. They can use glamour and magic to patch in what their intelligence should do.
But even for a pureblood, that was no interrogation. It made no sense. Why kidnap me to question me, if you weren’t going to question me?
It occurred to me that the reason to kidnap someone is not only to hold them in one place, but also to take them away from some place. Why would they want to take me away from my normal haunts? Several ideas occurred to me, including that they might want to search my home and office.
That could be it. It could very well be it.
I put the glass of fairywine on the desk, and narrowed my eyes at the surroundings. As expected, the grand setting vanished. I was in a wooden cabin and there were holes between the boards. A shed of some sort. The glass on the desk was still a glass, but the stuff inside it bubbled.
Maybe the idea had been to poison me? I noted that Flaithri’s drink too was untouched.
In either case, I was now involved in this. I’d been trying to stay out of the affairs of the Parthalans. But if they weren’t going to leave me alone, and they clearly weren’t, I was now in them. And I must find my way through.
I must discover who had killed Chara Parthalan, and why the family was so intent in having me connected with it, one way or another.
Once I’d seen the place where I was kept prisoner for what it really was, it wasn’t difficult for me to get out of it. I mean, the shack was practically falling to bits. I could almost have walked out between some of the boards. Except that it had been set with a perimeter alarm should I try to leave.
However, further examination showed me the alarm was only set into areas bespelled to look like doorways. I wondered why then realized something. Flaithri was saving his magic force. That is, he couldn’t have the approval of his father, the king of the hill, as he was not drawing on common power, but on his own, which meant he couldn’t use too much before he rendered himself weak.
I collected hat as data, and then started towards one of the larger fissures, where I could pull the board away and walk out. But before I reached out for the board I did something else. I might be Un’uruh, but by father was an old-country elf, which meant his magic, or that portion of it which had passed on to me was stronger, and purer than the magic of city elves, which Flaithri had got from his father. Whatever he’d gotten from his mother, his magic was in fact not that far from my own.
It was something I’d never thought of. You see, I’d always thought of myself as Mother’s Daughter and no part of dad’s people. This was both because of mother’s untimely end, and because of the way the local elves had always treated me: as something someone had trailed in on his shoe, and which needed to be scraped of at all costs, and with the greatest expediency. Which meant that I was not of them because they defined me as being against them/separate from them and I accepted the definition.
But then I’d seen Ardghal, no more and no less Un’uruh than I was, and perhaps less powerful, since he had his father’s more dilute magic, and yet, he lived as an elf prince, commanded the elven steeds, and did everything the elves in my region had done. And I’d started wondering.
And now, looking at Flaithri’s defenses, I saw that I could in fact use the same power or a little more. Well, well.
So I used my power, carefully setting in some of the spells I’d learned – mostly by undoing my father’s people’s spells, in order to survive my adolescence – to make the fact I was not in this room less… obvious. Anyone coming in would see me, out the corner of his eye, just not when he turned fully. I had a feeling I wouldn’t get more than a cursory look-in for some hours, and that would do.
And then I set a do-not-trace me spell, making it as unobtrusive as possible.
Then I did reach for that half-hanging board and rip it off the wall.
I half expected some sort of magical alarm to sound or for Flaithri to come running into the room, but it didn’t happen. So I caught my breath and walked out.
Outside it was wild woods, and dark night. I sensed where my father’s hill lay, mostly to keep away from it. The “do not trace” should help there as well. No, I didn’t think Father was particularly interested in capturing me or recovering me, but midsummer was approaching and he might be looking around for a sacrifice. It wasn’t one of the mandatory years, but it was after all a way to space it further, before you had to take someone you actually cared about.
Then I found the road with mage vision and started towards it. This involved walking down a slope covered in pine needles, and made darker by the trees looming overhead.
Something large came lumbering towards me through the woods and I felt at it. Was shocked to feel the magic and mind of a unicorn, and stayed, stock still, while it approached.
It was a beautiful thing, white and shining and fugitive. The horn on the muzzle was a pure gold spiral, shining in the moonlight.
It approached and made a soft equine sound at me. Not that it looked fully equine. It was one of the creatures, like the true elves, who had survived in Atlantis when full submerged, by twisting themselves to another axis of time, and living there, until the continent had resurfaced and recovered enough they could return.
As such it was a member of an older order of creation and looked like a horse crossed with a cat.
I stood, frozen. There were many things I knew about unicorns, but perhaps the most obvious was the one veryone knew: they didn’t hurt virgins. In fact, it seemed to not be hurting me. The next sound it made was close to prrrr and I found a soft wet muzzle pressed against my palm. Its motion made me brush his horn with an electrical feel, and it widened green, slitted eyes at me.
And then, in a second, as though something internal had called it or sent it, he backed away and went running through the forest again, as not where it had come from but forward. I wondered who’d called it, as I continued my cautious way towards the road.
It was modern asphalt, well maintained, and I blinked at its solidity and modernity under the moonlight.
It looked like this was the main way out of here. That meant, if I sat out to walk along it, they would eventually catch up with me and capture me.
On the other hand, if I didn’t go on the road, I’d be even slower, and they could – with magic – find me from the surrounding forest as easily as seeing me.
So. I was stuck. Unless…
I remembered the unicorn and its reaction to me. It certainly hadn’t acted as it would have to a human maiden, which unicorns often enthralled.
I remembered Ardghal and his commanding of the elf steeds. For a virgin – for anyone really, except that unicorns were deadly for non-virgins, elf steeds were much more dangerous than unicorns. Unicorns would only attack you or enspell you. Elf steeds which you failed to command would eat you.
But Ardghal could command elf steeds, and he was no more pure elf than I was. And without transport, I would be caught and killed, anyway.
I closed my eyes. I sensed the forest around. This close to my Father’s hill there would be elf steeds. They grow wild on mountain slopes, anyway, and feed off the leakage of magic that comes from the hill. Their range is often twenty to thirty miles around the hill.
Of course they’ll ignore you – ignore most people – unless you call them, and fail to control them.
I bit my lip. I could sense wild herds nearby. I would have to call one. And hope I got only one. With my magic I sensed through, looking for a young and pliable colt.
Finding one, I called, with imperious magic, demanding he come to me.
For a moment nothing happened, and then, as though he’d been materialized out of the road and moonlight, he was there.
He was silvery white, his eyes as feline and slitted as the unicorn’s, his hide shining, his hooves pure silver on the ground, his body more what a dream horse would be than a real body, flesh and blood.
He was light and speed, and strength and enchantment not as real horses possessed them, but as humans imagined them in horses since time immemorial.
He dipped his head, not in obeisance, but rebelliously, then tossed it, throwing back his mane, and opening his mouth to show the sharp, serrated teeth of his kind.
“None of that, now,” I said, and extended my hand to him, trying not to think of withdrawing a bloody stump. Instead I thought of my ancestry, going back through the centuries in my father’s hill. They’d commanded fairy horses. And I could still.
I touched it, which was like touching the unicorn horn, all fizzle and electrical shock. “Stay,” I said. It stopped its dancing, and looked at me, slitted eyes surprised, shocked.
“Be,” I said, and thought the shape of a car at him.
Suddenly what I was touching was a low slung sports car, white and shining, and low under the moonlight. The door opened for me, and I climbed in and sat down. The interior was luxurious red leather.
The steeds weren’t physical. They never were. They simply could manifest how they wished in the physical world, in all senses and forms. They could choose how you experienced them. Or you could. I had. My beautiful steed was a very comfortable car.
I thought Pomae at him as a destination and leaned back and closed my eyes. When I got there, I thought, I’d first see the police and see what that Un’uruh detective knew that I could find out.
The lights from Pomae were light a splash against the horizon, and even in the elven steed I could feel the power from the city coursing through me.
Things had started to assemble themselves in my head, on the long drive. Among other things I’d realized why people like me were feared by mortals and also, I thought, by elves. Oh, the elves disguised it as all sorts of things: hatred and disdain and good old fashioned snobbery.
But I’d come to think they were yellow with fear, afraid of people like me, because we could call magical power like humans could, without depending on the feed line of the hill, on the magic flowing through the collective minds and power of the elves… on the community that controlled them. Un’uruh I might be, and I’d heard it said most of my life with a sneer and a curl of the lip when it came to my father’s people, but what it meant in fact is that I could get my own elf steeds, and live life my own way too…
I wondered if all Un’uruh were capable of it. If Ardghal was, for instance.
I took the elf steed all the way into Pomae. I could feel it shying and wishing to rear at the entrance to the city, which was natural since it was a wild thing, with a lot of old magic blood in its veins, and they dreaded the cold iron and the rational thought of the humans who had built Pomae.
In other days I’d have let the poor thing go, feeling its distress, feeling sorry for it. I still had no intention of going full elf-ruthless and not feel pity on anyone, ever.
Oh, I could see it could be a temptation, when you had this much power, this handy. But I didn’t intend to let it take over me. It would require watching, I thought. The problem with the elves was that not only didn’t they watch themselves, they would have no idea why they needed to. Having been raised by my mother, I didn’t think I could ever forget myself to that point.
But I’d watch for it.
Meanwhile a little ruthlessness was needed. I’d been pushed around like a ball in a particularly energetic billiard game, and I still had no idea why or what elves and police and all of them had meant to do with me.
I suspected Ardghal was the victim of a plot, but he might very well have been the instigator. There was no way to know.
But I meant to find out.
So I had the elf-car drive me all the way to the police station where I’d been questioned. A trendil of magic, sent ahead, gave me a good feeling for where that Un’uruh detective was. He was at the station. Good. I wondered if, like me, he’d discovered the power of Un’uruh. I doubted it. I suspected most people never did, which was why the elves could get away with trampling us under foot. Or perhaps the trampling was what kept us so scared of anything having to do with elves, we never tried. Hadn’t I been pushed, I’d never have found out.
By the time we got to the station, the elf-mount was truly rearing and fighting, and I let it stop and got out, and released it, watching it speed out of town, its shape changing from a car to a maddened cat-horse.
People who’d seen me get out gave me a wide berth. And even I would have given me a wide berth if I had been a spectator a week ago.
I walked to an alley to the side of the station, and I sent that tendril of power again, finding the Un’uruh officer – did the police know what he was – and sending out my call.
“Come out, come out, wherever you are!”
I felt resistence, puzzlement, and then, as though unable to fight back, acquiescence.
Minutes later, a tall man, much more handsome than he had any right to be, stepped into the alley.
And I realized with a shock he wasn’t the one I’d met before. And he wasn’t Un’Uruh.
“You are not whom I was calling,” I said, which must rank up there with the most stupid words ever spoken, right behind when George III is supposed to have said “Atlantis cannot have risen.” Or Napoleon, just before the English Magicians rolled him up, “Magic has never worked before.”
Okay, my words might not have had the same world-resonance, but they were stupid nonetheless. The policeman facing me smiled, and it occurred to me that while I didn’t know if he was half or full elf, but I knew for an absolute fact that he was a policeman. He was too tall, too slim, too perfectly shaped, too handsome, too unreal to be full human. And yet, even in a creature of mostly or halfway magic, the clothes of a plain clothes policeman managed to look wrong.
As I thought this, I realized that it was not so much that they were wrong, as they were… well… false. A policeman still has the bearing of policeman, no matter how cheap or how expensive his plain clothes are.
Policemen in plain clothes were like people going into the world in disguise, all the time, and not expecting to be noticed, even when their disguise was a big paste nose, two horsehair eyebrows and glasses with no lenses in them.
And then on the heels of that it occurred to me that I too had been going into the world in the sort of disguise that made me more noticeable than if I’d gone around under my own guise. The thing was I didn’t know it was a disguise. I’d been told Un’Uruh was half as powerful as elves but less than that, because Un’Uruh, unless acknowledged by their elf parent and given the privileges of a full elf – and how rare was that – could not draw power from the hill, and so had to make do with what they were, with the narrow confines they’d been born with. Not full elf, not full human, and with that despised. Which now that I thought about it, as an adult, made absolutely no sense. If that were the case, and my power smaller and more confined than both elf and human, why would both elf and humans despise and fear me?
Despise yes, but fear?
I was standing in an alleyway beside a police station. Somewhere behind me there was a cat trying to court a female with the most annoying screeching seen this side of elf-opera, there was a much-too-handsome elf-or-part-elf policeman smiling at me in a disquieting way, and I was having an existential crisis. Which is the sort of thing that happens to me and only to me.
“Miss Smith, I presume?” the policeman said, with the sort of smile that implied he knew very well my name was quite different.
I was not about to play. Or I was not about to let him play me. “And your name?” I said.
“Jones,” he said, with a half laugh. “Albert Jones.”
“And what are you, precisely?”
“You don’t expect my real name?”
“I don’t expect anything. What are you? Un’uruh or—” I stopped. I didn’t need to ask. When you’ve been called something you resent from your moment of consciousness, it’s impossible not to show the sting on your features, even when you’re an adult and in command of your own destiny. He showed the sting. “I see,” I said.
And suddenly his hand was on my chest. Not on my breasts, but just beneath them, and pushing me hard against the brick wall of the police station. He still looked beautiful, in the purely features sense, but all cool and suave demeanor was gone. His mouth contorted in a snarl, and he whispered, low and vicious, “You think you’ve discovered a new thing, Miss Smith. You think you are on top of the world. Well, let me tell you, your cute little trick is not new, and it won’t surprise anyone, and none of us who use our full powers want our cover blown. So you will learn to play the game, or we will end it for you.”
“Madam,” a voice said somewhere to my left. “Is this man bothering you?”
Part of me reacted without thinking, and sent out a “shield” of protection. My mind sort of assumed this was an unprotected bystander, and I didn’t want the creature pinning me to the wall to hurt him.
But my shield slid off, and I turned my head, to see the police officer I’d first been trying to call.
The other man turned around snarling, “Applewood!”
The police officer smiled. He did something. The other man let go of my chest, and – while I was recovering breath – did something with his hand. I felt as if a shot of flame had flown by my face, and realized they were trading energy bolts. Whether they were killing energy bolts was answered as the police officer laughed and shot back a bolt, that sent Albert Jones reeling back against the wall. He slid down it, unconscious, but I could tell still alive.
“You didn’t kill him,” I said, and Officer Applewood grinned. He was still offensively good looking and wore the suit that gave him away as a police officer, being too cheap and creased to be worn by any elf making more than survival pay.
“No,” he said. “But not worth the paperwork it would take to justify it. As for you, Miss Smith, I think you should know better than to send out calling signal for Un’uruh near a police station. Were you under the impression that all of us of mixed blood were on the side of angels?”
I was about to ask him if angels really existed, in the sense of mingling with humans, but thought better of it. It had been that kind of day, when my thoughts were all too close to the surface.
“You wished to talk to me?” he said.
“Yes,” I said. “About the… the murder.”
He raised an eyebrow. “How did you intend to make me break the secrecy of my profession?”
I said, doubtfully, “My power to compel you?”
He raised his eyebrow higher. “And that would be? Your beautiful eyes, or more… No,” he said, saving himself a slap. “Not more material enticement, if I read you right.”
I stomped my foot, the heel clicking on the pavement. “No, my Un’uruh power.”
He opened his mouth, closed it. “I think,” he said at last “That you and I need to have a talk about Un’uruh power, Miss. You shouldn’t be out this late and alone, and I don’t know why you are, but I insist on walking you home, and we can discuss it on your way, shall we?”
We started walking, through the darkened streets. No one accosted us, though a middling unsavory area lay between the station and my rooms. I figured Applewood was using something to stop anyone even seeing us, but I couldn’t see what.
“Mr. Applewood,” I said. “Who are you?”
“Ian Applewood, Miss,” he said. “Officer third class, in the serious crimes unit.”
“No,” I said. “I mean, who are you?”
“I’m a forensic magician, graduated from the university of Pomae, but really, I end up working any crime where elf involvement is suspected, because the department only has three of us and any crime involving elves and humans requires one of us.”
“Not crimes involving elves only?”
He made a sound part sigh and part apology. “in theory. But no one really can stop the crazy bastards killing each other if they so choose, and meanwhile…” He shrugged. “The ones with humans and elves are the ones that we attend to.”
“But the Parthlan murder was elf on elf.”
There was a long silence. Then he said, “I’m still not going to give you any information, Miss Smith, I’m sorry. Suffice it to say that it’s not precisely as it appears.” Another sigh, and this time it was tired. Our steps echoed, together off the tall buildings on either side of the road, and somehow, managed to make me feel more alone than if I’d been walking by myself. “Very few things involving elves of any kind are.”
“You are… a city elf?”
“I am Un’uruh, like yourself,” he said.
“But your father—”
“My mother,” he said firmly. “Is an elf of the Aglaia clan. She comes from the Northern Mountains, where she fell in love with my father, while he was doing a spot of surveying. She ran away from home, and they married in Pomae, where they live.”
I didn’t know what to say. I think you could count on the fingers of one hand all the Un’uruh currently alive who weren’t bastards. I wondered how weird this made him, that he was the child of such an unequal marriage.
“You have the wrong end of the stick, you know?” he said, suddenly, his voice a sort of hissing whisper. “About Un’uruh and power. Yes, we can have more power than practically anyone else, because we can both use the communal drawing of our elf parent, and the individual power of our human ancestor, but you miss the fact that you have to draw power on your elf side, or you will only have the human side, and only a portion of your human parent’s power. I draw my power from the police force and our… ah… charming friend, Jones, draws his from what can only be called the elvish mob. As for you, without a group, you really are a half-power, as Un’uruh means.”
“No,” I said. “I have power on my own.” I told him about calling the horse and the power of it.
He blinked, then turned and looked at me full on. His mouth dropped open. “You are drawing power, though,” he said. “I wish I knew from where.”
We walked along the dark streets, my mind trying to work through the events of the last two days. I’d complained often in my life in Mudhole that nothing Ever happened. This was not precisely true. Things happened, but they were predictable and usually unpleasant.
None of which meant I was happier with the crazy merry go round my life had become since I’d first seen Ardghal in my office.
As I walked through the dark streets of Pomae with the nice – was he nice? – Un’uruh officer, I found myself wondering whether the reality I’d thought supported and surrounded my life was true, or whether the truth was this other glimpsed reality, where Un’uruh were mistreated because everyone was afraid of their power, and where Un’uruh could become, at the drop of a hat, a sort of demi-god who drew from unsuspecting mortal populations.
On the one hand, my whole life, I’d been taught that Un’uruh were despised beings, not nearly as powerful as our full-elf cousins, and even they, for that matter, not nearly as powerful as the original forest elves from whom they were descended. This was because the forest elves before Atlantis sank, we were led to think, were one mind, in multiple bodies, and could therefore channel the magic of the many, the endless mind of immortals into every magical task. And the full elves still could, at will, share the mind and the magic of the hill, and were therefore more powerful than us, lowly Un’uruh.
I looked sideways at the policeman and my mind made one of the leaps my mind will make when I feel cornered and threatened. I raised my eyebrows at him. “Are you telling me,” I asked. “that this entire city is undergirded by mobs of the Un’uruh, each one competing with the other for full dominium and each one making a pretense of not existing?”
His perfect face distorted into a grimace. The chuckle that escaped through his twisted lips sounded hollow. “This city!” he said. “If only it were just this city. And the worst part,” he said. “The very worst part is not being able to tell your mortal colleagues what is really happening. They know – they think – that we are dangerous. Something in their most basic instincts tells them that. They don’t believe it, though. They think that we’re untrustworthy because we’re half elf. They think the elves are the real threat. And they feel saintly and tolerant for giving us work, we who are maimed and semi-useless elves.”
Our steps seemed to echo hollowly off the buildings, as he turned to face me. “You see, I discovered my powers…” He hesitated. “I was unusual, for the child of such a misbegotten union as we all are. Well, perhaps not as unusual as Ardghal, but unusual enough. You see, my parents fell in love, and my father, the younger child of an elf prince, escaped the hill to marry my mother and live with her. It didn’t last, of course. The hill will not tolerate runaways nor defilers of its blood, and it’s almost impossible to escape it when they can reach into your mind at any time. So, he was killed and my mother raised me, as an humble widow in one of the outlying districts of Pomae. I didn’t know I was Un’uruh, and no one found out, not even the mandatory magic scanning in elementary school. My father had, as his very last act in this world, cast a veil over my magic, before I was even born. That was to prevent his… relatives from killing my mother, and myself, at the time simply a glimmer in my mother’s eye, a potentiality in her womb. The veil held until adolescence, when I discovered my power.” He made a face. “Which is when I discovered what you have just had revealed to you. I was… I’d rather not speak of what I did in that time. Like any other young man with more power than wit, my mistakes were numerous and perhaps fell just short of crimes because I didn’t know what I was doing. But they weren’t any less monstrous for that.”
“And I found myself under the attention of … mobs is a good description for them. Associations of Un’uruh, each one wanting to suppress my individuality and to make me work for their ends. You see, what makes an Un’uruh dangerous is not the elf half. It’s the human half. Elves are predictable, even if high magic. Humans—” He shrugged.
“And so you joined the police?” I asked, not fully sure I understood the decision.
He laughed, catching my tone of doubt. “And so I joined the police,” he said. “Where I might fail, but I will at least fail in the cause of… trying to make sense out of this, our fractured polity. Where I try to keep normal people – elves and humans – safe from my kind.
Which is why this murder of yours—”
“It is not my murder!”
“This murder of yours called my attention,” he said. “You see, Ardghal is Un’uruh and it’s hard to tell how perfectly he is attached to his hill. And so are you, and you’re not attached to any hill, in any way.”
We’d reached the street where I had my lodgings, and I wasn’t sure how to take leave of this man, or what it would mean. If he was telling the truth, did it mean that I could be jumped on by a mob at any time. And worse, I had the feeling that he had ideas. Yes, that sort of ideas.
We’d been walking together through the darkened city, and I had a feeling he was thinking this was some sort of romantic occasion and perhaps he would try to kiss me at the door.
Question: what happens when you slap a powerful Un’uruh who is also a policeman?
I wasn’t dying to find out. Not dying being, rather, the whole point.
So I was trying to find a plausible excuse that would allow me to duck up into the stairs to my room. I was also trying to remember the little formal magic I’d ever learned, wondering what protections I could set on my lodgings. If he was right about Un’uruh power then none would be powerful enough. On the other hand, I was also Un’uruh.
And then, as we stopped in front of my lodging, and he smiled at me, and I turned to tell him that I must go in, and thank him for his protection, there was…
That’s how I perceived it at first. A bright light shining from my right, illuminating the street in a weird, bluish glow.
I said “Oh,” and then my eyes adjusted and I perceived an image within the glow, and then I blinked and realized I was looking at sending performed by a powerful elf-king.
A sending was not exactly a projection of the elf creating it. I mean, he wasn’t here in any sense, except that we could see him. It was more like, through his power, he caused our eyes to perceive him where he was.
It was Ardghal, and where he was was in the middle of a well appointed room. I had the vague idea it was an office, but I couldn’t know for sure, since all I could glimpse was part of a fireplace and bookcases.
He was wearing a business suit, but his tie was askew and his shirt collar wrinkled, as if he had tried to get more air by shoving two fingers under the collar and pulling forcefully. He was pale, which was saying something for an elf who seemed to be made partly of snow. His hair stood up as though he’d run a hand through it without any idea what it was.
And yet he projected an aura of majesty he hadn’t projected when perfectly dressed and combed, in my office. Power crackled around him and from him, filled the sending with the sense of it, and seemed to project outwards into the street where we stood, to such an extent that I expected it would wake up the people sleeping in the lodgings around us. It was, to those capable of sensing power, like a punch in the nose. Not that he was doing anything, or hitting us with his power. His power just was. And by being, it was so massive, so unconquerable, that it couldn’t help but affect all magicians.
Officer Ian Applewood had felt it too. He took a step back, as though reeling, and looked towards the sending with a belligerent expression, like a man expecting a challenge. “Yeah?” he said.
But Ardghal Parthalan only ran his hand backwards over his hair again, and opened his mouth, and when no sound came, pulled at his collar again and swallowed audibly. “Come. Please come,” he said. “You must come. Something has… something has happened.”
“What has happened?” I asked, and officer Applewood echoed me a moment later.
“It is my brother,” Parthalan said, and swallowed hard again. “He—”
He moved aside. There, on the heartrug, in front of the blazing fire, lay the elf I was sure had just tried to kidnap me. His head had a hold on the side of it. Blood had leaked onto the rug, making a red and sticky puddle. He was undoubtedly dead.
“I need help,” Ardghal said. “Something is stalking my house and killing us. Please help us.”
“Mr Parthalan,” Applewood said. “You must know the police has to come. I know you sent this to Miss Smith, but the police—”
Parthalan seemed to focus for the first time, “Yes, yes, the police too, but we must have Miss Smith, also, please. Please come.”
And then the sending shut off.
I started awake, as though I’d been dreaming, just as a fairy steed, in sports car form pulled up. “I am sent by King Parthalan” formed in the air, not quite sounds, but a strong feeling. I took a step towards it and Officer Applewood grabbed my arm. “Don’t be a fool,” he said. “You know you won’t be safe.”