Authors: Unknown Author
Tags: #Don Bassingthwaite
A sidhe was the last kind of Kithain Tango would have wanted to meet. It had been inevitable that she would encounter one at court — Duke Michael was a sidhe himself — but she had been hoping to meet some other lowborn Kithain first. A gossipy eshu. A hedonistic satyr. Even a crude, vicious redcap. Anyone but a sidhe. In this case, unfortunately, she didn’t have any choice. Taking a last bite of the ice cream, she dropped the cup into a trash can and approached the sidhe just as he was turning around. He saw her before she could speak, and flashed her a smile that would have sent a human woman’s heart into pounding delirium. “Hello....”
She cut his sidhe charm off curtly. “I’m looking for a pooka named Riley, Jester to Duke Michael’s court. Where can I find him?”
The bright smile didn’t falter. “Riley or Duke Michael?”
“You’re not from Toronto, are you?”
What was your first clue
? sprang immediately to Tango’s tongue, but she bit the words back. If she was going to get the sidhe’s help, it would be better not to antagonize him. “No. I’m not. Riley’s an old friend of mine. He invited me here for Highsummer....”
This time the sidhe cut her off. “Do you know where he is?”
The demand grated against her nerves. “If I did, would I be asking you?” Tango snapped back.
The sidhe’s smile vanished into a hard line, like high clouds scudding across the sun. “Come with me.” He walked off without even a backward glance, taking her obedience for granted. Tango watched him go, wishing that she had any choice but to follow him. Except she didn’t. She couldn’t risk trying to find another Kithain and then failing. Cursing, she ran after him.
The sidhe led her down the very mews she had passed through before, but this time walking the other way, south to north. Halfway along, he turned sharply to the left, disappearing into the recessed entrance of a trendy sushi shop with carefully crafted plastic imitations of its creations in the window. When she reached the entrance, Tango turned as well and went in. There was no sign of the sidhe in the sushi shop. Flustered, apologizing to the maitre d’ and silently cursing the sidhe, she stepped outside again.
“Down here, sister.”
The voice was old and rough. She glanced down. A deep shadow resolved itself into a narrow doorway at a right angle to the door to the sushi shop. Two steps led down, and then the passage turned sharply and more steep stairs led into darkness. Standing in the corner of the turn was an old woman so gnarled, and dressed in clothes so dark and wrinkled, that she blended in with the stones and mortar of the wall. Another nocker, as ancient a Kithain as Tango had ever seen. The old nocker spoke again. “You following Dex, sister?”
“The sidhe?” Tango stepped down into the shadowy passage. There was a dim light at the bottom of the steep stairs, and she could hear music. The smell of cigarette smoke mixed with the damp odor of the stone.
“Like a piece of the sun, isn’t he? If I were younger...” The other nocker pumped her hips. “Whumpfh! He wouldn’t know what hit him.”
“I presume this is Duke Michael’s court?”
“Such as it is, yes.”- A twisted hand emerged from the dark clothes. Tango shook it. “I’m Ruby, the duke’s gatekeeper. You better get down there. Dex doesn’t like having to wait.”
“Thanks.” Tango started down the steps, then glanced back up. The duke’s gatekeeper had already faded back into the wall. “Ruby, I’m looking for Riley. Is he here?”
“You’re a friend of Riley’s?” Ruby’s voice was startled. “Sweet almighty, sister! Hurry and get down there before the duke gets angry!”
Abruptly, Tango was at the base of the stairs, as if the step she had been standing on had suddenly become the bottom one. A black-painted door with one small window of grimy glass opened and the sidhe, Dex, glared at her. “Where were you?”
Tango glared back. “You took the corner too fast and lost me.” She pushed past him into Duke Michael’s court.
Nothing, as she had observed back in San Francisco, was quite the way it used to be in Kithain society. Once the Unseelie tradition had been not merely a rejection of the values of the Seelie, but a dark reflection of it as well. Where the Seelie Kithain had been all golden pomp and pageantry in brightly lit fairytale halls, the Unseelie had been disorder and abandon... in shadowy fairytale halls. No more. Duke Michael’s court was disorder and abandon in a shadowy pool hall.
The only light came from lamps over the three pool tables that filled the big room, and from a pass-through window into a snackbar. There were maybe a dozen Kithain present, playing pool, watching the others play pool, or just talking in the dark corners. The ceiling was low enough that Dex could have easily placed his palm against it — at one end of the hall, a massive troll brushed the ceiling with his head. The floor was cheap black-and-white tile, and the grubby walls were decorated with old travel posters for such exotic destinations as Chicago and Atlanta. A portable stereo blasted out some British rock group that Tango only recognized because the DJ at Pan’s refused to play them. There was a haze of smoke in the air.
And yet the place was filled with Glamour that sent ripples of excitement singing through every part of Tango’s body. So much Glamour that a kenning settled over her spontaneously, the magic of the court calling to her Kithain soul.
The hall was still dark, but now it was the great hall of a dusky palace, with an arched ceiling that soared up into shadows. Tapestries hung on the walls in place of posters. The floor was marble. The smoke was heavy, sweet incense. The pass-through to the snackbar was a passage into a shining banqueting hall. The Kithain were fabulous courtiers in rich costumes bearing the duke’s crest. A few things were essentially the same, though enhanced by the Glamour. The music, for example, was still British rock, but it seemed to emanate from a phantom chamber quartet. The pool tables were still pool tables, except that one, down at the end of the room where the troll stood, was raised up on a dais. Two sidhe played there. One was dressed in rich black velvet embroidered in silver thread, with a black halfcape caught around his neck with a silver chain. His face and build were identical to Dex’s, although his skin was pale instead of tanned, he wore a pearl-drop earring instead of a diamond stud, and his hair was the blond of white gold. The other sidhe wore unrelieved black. He was as handsome as his opponent, but his hair was as black as his clothing, and he wore no ornamentation at all. He was also somewhat older, perhaps Tango’s age. There was something odd about his face; his eyes were strangely shadowed, it seemed. He bent over the table and lined up a shot.
Tango couldn’t see what the shot was, but she heard the clack of pool balls striking each other, followed by soft thuds as they dropped into pockets. Dex’s twin winced. “Shit.”
That one very mundane syllable broke the spell that the Glamour wove over the court. The pool hall snapped back to everyday reality. Tapestries were posters, marble was cheap tile. The Kithain at the head table were dressed in normal clothes. The black-haired sidhe wore dark pants and a black silk shirt. Dex’s twin wore patched black jeans, motorcycle boots and a black T-shirt — with a pearl in his ear. He took a deep, frustrated drag on a cigarette as his opponent rapidly cleared the table. “Good game, Your Grace.”
Duke Michael shook his head. “Don’t flatter me, Sinister,” he said flatly, “I missed pockets I should have made easily.”
A Kithain with the wiry hair and swarthy face of a satyr stepped up and whispered in the duke’s ear. The duke looked toward the door and nodded. “Dexter,” he called. “Come forward.”
Riley’s description had been right, Tango decided. Duke Michael might have been Unseelie, but his rigid demeanor carried ail of the traditions of the Kithain. Including the arrogance of the sidhe. Dex brought her up to stand across the pool table from the duke. “Your Grace, she is looking for Riley. She says she is a friend of his and that he invited her to the Highsummer Party.”
“Dexter.” The duke’s voice was quiet, pitched just so that only those gathered around the table could hear it. “Does
have a name?”
Dex flushed. The sidhe that the duke had called Sinister snickered. Tango took a swift, confident step away from Dex. “I’m Tango.” The duke raised one eyebrow. Tango realized suddenly what it was that seemed odd about his face. His left eye was dark and shadowed, but his right was absolutely black. Not bruised. The eyeball itself was truly black, and cold. An artificial sphere of enameled metal. It was a rare thing to see a sidhe disfigured. “Your Grace,” she added, as smoothly as possible. The words almost caught in her throat, partly out of her dislike for the sidhe and their overbearing titles, partly out of shameful, disgusting pleasure at the duke’s disfigurement.
Duke Michael gave her a calm nod. “Do you know where Riley is, Tango?”
Briefly, Tango considered lying to him.
He didn’t meet me at the airport here, Your Grace. He told me to meet him at his apartment, Your Grace, but didn’t give me the address. In San Francisco, Your Grace.
Anything to avoid embarrassing herself with the true story in front of the court — and the sidhe. Then she looked at that scar again, and at the way Duke Michael w
as holding his pool cue. A normal person would hold it casually. Lightly. Duke Michael held his like a king would hold a scepter. No less than Dex, Duke Michael expected obedience. And a sidhe didn’t get to be a Kithain duke on expectations and polite questions alone. Tango wondered where he had gotten that scar. It was hard to swallow her pride, but she forced herself to do it. “Not really, Your Grace. I was expecting to find him here in Toronto, but he might still be in San Francisco.” Sinister and Dexter, as well as the satyr at the duke’s elbow, stirred uneasily. Duke Michael frowned. “Why do you say that?”
“He wasn’t on the flight that he told me he was going to take....” Tango grimaced. That wasn’t going to make much sense. She started the whole story from the beginning. As she talked, the duke’s face grew sharper and sharper with anger. At one point, when she mentioned Riley’s errand to the Cult of Ecstasy mages in Berkeley for “party favors,” she saw his hands clench convulsively. When she finished, she glanced up at him. His lips were pressed together in a thin white line. The court was quiet. She licked her lips and asked cautiously, “I take it that you don’t know where he is either, then?”
“No.” The duke’s voice was furious. He drew a tight breath and bellowed, “Epp!”
“Coming!” A heavy, gray-haired woman hustled out of the snack bar. She was a boggan, a Kithain descended from the old faeries who had lived as servants and guardians in human houses. She had a pencil tucked behind one ear and a notebook shaggy with loose papers in one hand. By the time she reached the head pool table, she was winded. “Yes, Your Grace?”
“What flight was Riley due to return on, and what was his seat number?”
Epp opened her notebook and rifled through the pages. “Air Canada flight 2800, seat 6A. Departing San Francisco 9:30 RM. Pacific time, arriving Toronto...” “Are you sure?” demanded the duke. “Did he have the ticket?”
“Oh, yes.” Epp flipped through her book again. “He picked it up from the travel agency on...”
“Thank you.” The duke put his hands down on the edge of the pool table and rested his weight on them, looking down at the green baize of the tabletop.
Tango frowned, suddenly worried. This didn’t feel like a prank. The duke had been expecting Riley back last night, too. Todd’s warning returned like an echo. That made her even more nervous. Riley hadn’t been in Toronto last night, of course, but that didn’t mean something couldn’t have happened to him in San Francisco. And there was the matter of his ticket. Riley
bought a ticket. Something had wiped that purchase from the airline’s records. She took a step toward Duke Michael. “Your Grace...”
The duke’s head came up. There was hot anger smoldering in his eyes. “That pooka bastard. I’m not sure whether I should look for him or not!” Tango stopped. He glanced at her, then waved his hand sharply. “You may leave, Tango. Take her out, Dexter.” “No.” Tango shrugged off the blond sidhe’s hand. “What’s happened to Riley? Why won’t you look for him?”
“You want to know?” Duke Michael clenched his teeth. “All right. Riley was correct when he told you that he is organizing the Highsummer Night party for my court.” He gestured to Epp. “I assigned Epp to be his aide. She has helped my Jesters organize Highsummer parties for the last twenty years. This year, Riley decided that he wanted to do something a little different. He asked my permission to go to Montreal and buy enchanted drugs from a'group of Cult of Ecstasy mages there. I refused.” The duke looked around the court, his angry glare sweeping over his pool-hall courtiers. “Am I a tyrant?” he demanded.
The Kithain were silent. “No, Your Grace,” Dexter answered for them.
“Do I rule fairly?”
“Very fairly, Your Grace,” said Sinister.
“Do I fulfill all of the obligations that your oaths of loyalty place upon me as your liege?”
“Yes, Your Grace,” the satyr beside him replied. “In the best manner of the fae and your House.”
“And if I choose to issue certain decrees, Lucas?” The satyr coughed. “That is your place as our liege,
by the oaths we have sworn.” Tango held her tongue. Sidhe oaths of loyalty left a bad taste in her mouth, though many other Kithain swore them happily.
The duke slapped his pool cue dow
n onto the tabletop like a schoolmistress slapping a ruler against a desk. “And what was the first decree I made after I became your liege?”
“No Kithain of your court and no Kithain entering your domain,” the court droned in unison, “shall have dealings with mages.”
“Yes.” The duke turned back to Tango again. He was pale with anger, making his black metal eye seem even blacker. Shiny scar tissue cutting through one eyebrow and onto his cheekbone caught the light. She could make a good guess at how the duke had lost his eye. “Riley,” he continued, clear enunciation making his voice harsh, “thought he could talk me into releasing him from that restriction this one time. He was wrong, but he went away quietly. Several days later, he came back with another proposal. He had found a source in San Francisco for tailor-made,
drugs that would do what he wanted. I’m not against drugs, Tango; my court’s influence was built on them. 1 believed him and let him go to San Francisco.”