Break the Ice

by ai rei bel


I was having a really nice dream that involved me, a summery beach, a few very naked and limber guys (twins, maybe, and that totally wasn’t my brain projecting anything) and some very creative uses of suntan oil until I was woken up by the sound of my cell phone ringing. There should be laws about that sort of thing on a bright and early Sunday morning, but given the way my luck ran, and the way my week had been going, it was probably the law on the line. I flipped open the phone with a sigh. “Carsten speaking.”

The normally pleasant, (and if I was lucky, occasionally pleasantly husky) tones of Homicide Detective Brandon Valleta–not to be confused with his twin sister Mallory Valleta, the other most recent scion of the Valleta clan in the Jamestown Police Department, up and coming Vice Lieutenant, especially insofar as Brandon’s dates tended to be mostly of the male variety and Mal’s were split fifty-fifty as the department gossip chain went–practically barking at me over the phone. “Neil Carsten, get your ass down here. There’s another one victim that they found down by the old Porter homestead. Channel Five is already trying to claw the tape down, so get down here and do that thing I pay you for.”

It was the third body this month, and that boded well for no one, including me, lowly police consultant that I was. I jotted down the directions to the scene onto the notepad by my bed and ignored the hissing from the corner of the room as Detective Valleta continued with his rapid outline of the developments in the situation.This body had been found in his office, by a manager. Like the rest, it looked drained, as if there had been exerting themselves heavily before dying, with some minimal self defense wounds. There was nothing else connecting the three bodies so far. It was disturbing, and more to the point, downright strange, which is where I came in as a “licensed practitioner” and consultant for the local force. Licensed practitioner, in case you live under a rock, is the slang for magic people, no matter what we did. The Jamesville Police Department was one of the more regular and more dependable of my customers.

(What I am precisely is a very good question. It’s one I’m not entirely sure of myself, some days. A changeling of the Court of Winter is close. Aunt Leah always did insist on the aunt part, refusing flatly to go by the title of fairy godmother. But beyond that, I had never asked my mother while she was still alive about the subject, and whoever my father was hadn’t stepped up. Maybe Aunt Leah knew, but she wasn’t being particular forthcoming on the subject. Not that it mattered, anyway.

The long and the short of it was that I mostly preferred living among humans, because they weren’t likely to be crazy, insane or assholes, and I preferred to put a stop to the ones who were, which made me at least partially human. Real fairies didn’t seem to be wired that way, which is probably why they’d never bothered to go public officially. And as much as people tried to drag them to the surface, there was a strong enough pull that they were still legally underground, and mostly ignored unless trouble came that couldn’t be ignored.

Oh, sure, magicians had gone public ages ago, but there was something about the not-quite human that most people just didn’t want to deal with. So I mixed a little bit of the mage training ordered by my aunt with the knight training offered in the court, and was lucky to find a job that mostly paid enough to get by.)

I hung up the phone and continued to ignore the hissing of the peanut gallery in the corner as I made my way into the shower, detouring briefly into the kitchen to hit the on button on my ancient coffee maker. When I came out of the shower, I crossed over to my chest of drawers, looking down from the implacable gaze on the dresser. There was a sigh. “So, you’re not going to talk to your Nana, boy?”

I glanced up at the terrarium at the top of the dresser. “Should I?” I asked brightly. “Because last I checked, she didn’t want to hear about ‘crazy, stupid human killers with more testosterone then magic’.” Nana and I had some minor disagreements–well, major, fine–about my taste in both jobs and where I chose to live, but as I was clearly of age, we normally kept our infrequent correspondence to key details and pleasantries. And sometimes, about where the my dear aunt was.

Gershom, my familiar, flicked his tongue back at me. “Three’s a pattern. A significance. You know that.” He slithered forward slightly. “Almost like a spell, hm? It wouldn’t hurt anything but your pride to go to her later. And maybe you’d actually get a haircut first if you did. Take that seer’s charm we finished last night.”

Ignoring Gershom, I quickly got dressed and slopped some coffee into a travel mug. Nana Tera had been my first mentor, and as immortal women went, she was terror for mastering one’s feelings as thoroughly as one’s magic, as well as being a frequent traveler. We’d seen quite a lot of the world before I’d hit the age of my majority and settled down with Gershom, who was an old friend of Nana’s and had decided to be my familiar for his own reasons. I didn’t mind the traveling, but I preferred to do it once every three or four years. As I picked up my jacket and keys, I finally asked, “I’ll try. Do you know where she stopped last?”

“She might be in the area shortly.” The snake shook his head, a very odd gesture on a creature without a neck. “Samhain, boy, and the court is settling here this year, I hear. With your aunt in tow.”

I raised my eyebrows. Aunt Leah being here was bad enough, but the court being here to boot was the note that raised things from a joke to potentially a problem. The Court of Winter’s Lands and Airs wasn’t exactly known for its normalcy. Worse, as an officer of the court, dubbed so by the Queen before I’d left my apprenticeship, I’d have to make social calls. Else I’d get a very polite note wishing me better health from her Highness. And of course, I’d have to make sure the police didn’t try to invade it full force if they got the first whiff of the court, because that would be several levels beyond your ordinary clusterfuck. Damn. I snagged the bottle of aspirin from the dresser, just in case. “And the fresh seeing charm, much as I hated using it at murder sites. “Nice to know sooner, Gersh. I’ll look into it once I’m done, all right?”

“You do that, boy. And pass on my regards and felicitations to your aunt and Nana for me.”

When I finally got to the crime scene, with shoes on the right feet and everything, I was presented with the usual three ring circus of cops, crime scene techs, and the news, trying hard as always to get their perfect scoop. I parked as close as I could, dug my consultant badge out of the glovebox, and clipped it onto my collar before getting out of the car and walking towards the yellow crime scene tape.

Brandon stood behind the line, scowling up at the press of reporters, flanked by two other detectives. The press must be getting restless if they thought that reporters were about to storm the joint. “At this time, the Jamesville Police Department has no comment into what took place here last night. I’m afraid that you’ll have to wait for the official statement later. Now, if you gentlemen and ladies of the press will be as so kind as to let me get back to work…?” He crooked an imperious finger at me as he turned back to the crime scene. The glare told me that he thought that I was pretty late, which was too bad for him as far as I was concerned. I sighed, but I started to work my way through the knot of reporters. Doing paperwork was looking better and better every second.

The two detectives who were standing next to where Valleta had been closed the gap between them, politely neutral at the mass in front of them, but they stepped apart again as I finally pushed my way past the crew from Channel Five. “Morning, Detective Rymer. Detective Carabello. Nice weather, isn’t it?”

Detective Carabello crooked an eyebrow as she held up the tape for me. “Only if you’ve missed the storm clouds and the chance of thunderstorms. Thought you’d take the scenic route to get here or something?”

I shook my head. “Exercising my own right to sleep in my own bed and shower. I thought the wheels of justice kept on grinding on?”

Detective Rymer shook his head as he smiled pleasantly at one of the reporters who was trying to step forward with the patience of a kindergarten teacher and the dental work of a shark. She shrunk back as I scrambled by. “Must have missed that part of the law. But then again…” He took a sniff as I passed. “I’d stop to wash my hair too, if I could get it to smell that good. Like standing in an orange grove. New shampoo?”

Carabello frowned. “Nic! Let the consultant earn his pay and you can deal with your fruit obsession on your own time, before His Highness calls for his beheading.” She waved me off in the direction of the stream of techs. Brandon chose that moment to stop and glare at me again, so I smiled apologetically and jogged to catch up with him.

I hurried on to the office behind Brandon. Despite being taller than him by at least six inches, he was easily outpacing me. He snapped out over his shoulder, “All right. In here. And don’t ask about the cameras on this place: they’re getting them, for all the good they’ll do us.”

I nodded, and brought out the envelope with the fresh Seer’s Charm inside. I held it up and said, “By the right of law and justice, and in pursuant as my duties as a Special Liaison, I am invoking this charm of seeing on the crime scene. I call for the record of the past, in the name of justice for the fallen, for he who lies here, and for the two before him, to find that which eludes defining.”

The detective nodded back, touching his badge in one hand and the envelope in the other. “As the presiding over this crime scene, and by the warrant of the Court of Jamesville, I swear and witness this seeing.” In my hands, the charm started to glow, and I pressed it to my forehead.

There, a handsome looking brunette man lay. If he had his feet still, I estimated that he would be a little under six feet. From his clothing and his arms, which were pretty torn up I could see that he’d been in some sort of fight with the person or thing that’d killed him. After a moment to steel myself, I closed my eyes and opened up my shields just a crack, then looked again.

The scene flickered before my eyes. I could see before me the dead man, walking with a pile of reports into the room–presumably his office?

He stops, short as a shadow rises up out of the darkness. Big, impossibly so–a normal human couldn’t have hidden in a room that cluttered. And yet, the silhouette was almost familiar.

The man throws the folders at the creature, and turns to run. It’s over in a few moments. The monster stabs his chest. As the man lays shuddering on his claws, another, smaller shadow steps out. Closer to human size, this one is.

The man’s body is laid on the ground with a gesture from the smaller shadow and the picture starts to get fuzzy as the shadow reaches out and puts his hand on the man’s shadow…?

I gasped as the charm dissolved and I was brought back to reality, with the sharp tinge of a lingering headache. I turned away as the ambulance attendances were called into the office to deal with the body. Detective gave me a hard look. As I began to walk back to my car, he fell into step behind me. I unlocked the door, grabbing my lukewarm mug of coffee out, chugging it half down before turning to face Brandon, and the notebook that he had. “He was killed by a shapeshifter of some kind, I can tell you that much. That thing was hunting him, but for what reason, I’m not sure yet. No signs of any local shifters in the magic community, still. Any connection with the other victims?” Besides being another human being, that is. The coffee threatened to rise up in my throat, and I swallowed hurriedly. “Have you identified him yet?”

Detective Brandon nodded. “He’s the office manager. Some quarterly paperwork was due today, and he put in a little overtime to get it all done. Besides the security guy, he was the only one here. He lives alone, has a boyfriend. Supposed to go out on a breakfast date, and he didn’t show up, so he was over at his place when the squad cars went by. He lives with a roommate, and the roommate vouches for him. They went shopping last night after he got off work, and we’re trying to get ahold of the security log to confirm that.”

I nodded. “Unless he can hulk up into something seven feet tall and furry, or he’s some sort of evil overlord, I don’t think he’s your man. Get Nic and Rani to look him over. If they think he smells funny, I’ll look him over, but otherwise, I bet he’s legit.”

Brandon frowned, but merely grunted. Now was as good idea as any to fill him in on the rest.”I got a tip this morning, but the people are little bit… tricky to get ahold of.” He raised his eyebrows, and I hurriedly continued. “But I should have some news for you later. I’ll give you a call, all right?”

Brandon stared at me for a few more seconds, but finally gave me a grudging nod. “All right, Carsten. Benefit of the doubt, but if you don’t get me some sort of update by tomorrow afternoon, I’m going to be harassing your ass every hour until I get one. And if there’s any leads, I want to hear about it sooner rather then later, and your signed statement at the precinct within the next 48 hours. Clear?”

I nodded. It would be a tight fit, but as long as he didn’t assign someone to follow me to where I was going next, I could probably get everything done and wrapped up before I had to ask any questions about what I knew. “Fine. I’ll do that.”

“Fine.” And with that, I was waved off to my own devices, and not a moment too soon. Possibly a few moments too late, given the way things tended to escalate around the Courts once set in motion, but that was neither here nor there. I got back into my car and started the long drive out to the closet section of abandoned farms.

By the time that I had found a suitably run down building with the nice, big glamor that shouted “I AM BORING AND CLOSED. BREAKING INTO ME WOULD NOT BE EXCITING, GO AWAY”, I had finished off most of my coffee and the Seer’s Charm had worn off enough that I was starting to feel the slight vertigo of an oncoming headache, although I had an entire evening of that to look forward to. Not that I really thought that I’d get the chance to take a break anytime soon, but the temptation to just pull over and take a nap for a hour was getting to be really high. I pulled the car over into the yard, parking it on the end of last of the usable sections of driveway. After popping two aspirin and chased it with the last of my coffee, I got out of the car. It wasn’t going to get any easier after a nap.

I walked up to the barn and pressed my fingers to the door. A mild, buzzing filled my hand, and I pushed a little bit harder, letting the ring on my hand–seal as a Knight Officer of Winter’s Court, and a key to all of Her Majesties’ public spaces, which this most definitely was–come in contact with the door. The buzzing faded and was replaced by a numb feeling. I ignored it and let myself in. Inside, the light illuminated a dusty barn. Innocuous enough, if someone had gotten past the first and second spells. The third level of protection was always strictly based on reality, and in this case, what you saw was what you got, unless you knew what you were looking for. I stepped inside to the oddly bright patch of sunlight in the mass of shadows and brought out my knife, made of platinum and set in a long bone casing, part of my emancipation holdings from Nana. The security system around here was old. Medieval, really. But some traditions couldn’t be beat. I opened up the knife and pressed it against my thumb, then drew it across fast, leaving me with a thin cut that seeped just enough blood. I touched the blood to my ring, then I knelt on the ground, and touched the ring to the center of the circle.

With a rush, the ground came up around me and then wobbled for a second. When everything cleared, I was in a cold, still grove, perfectly lit by lamps made out of cleverly constructed frost. I shivered. The sudden drop in temperature was always the worst part. From behind, there was a careful clearing of a throat. It sounded very much like the high pitch of ice cracking. “Hello, nephew.”

Ah, Aunt Leah. As still amused by me as she’d been when I was four, when I was too young to know better, and had shortened her name. Maybe she thought I still didn’t. The pressure around my forehead tightened as I turned around with a smile. “Dearest Aunt, quite the surprise.”

She smiled as she walked closer, and it was perfect, and lovely, and utterly devastating with mockery. “Of course. Come, sit. Let us, ah, catch up.” Gracefully, she sank onto a bench that sure as hell wasn’t there thirty seconds ago. Furniture, most inanimate objects, and even some animate ones tended to do that around Aunt Leah: reality tended to see her as a very magnetic personality. She was one of the key advisers of Her Majesties court. You didn’t argue with Leah–or, if you were to call her by her full title, the Leansidhe, Lady of Last Snowfall– unless she wanted to argue with you: she was frequently used as a diplomatic envoy for that reason. Getting straight information out of Aunt Leah was going to be a lot like pulling teeth, unless I was lucky and she felt like it was time to be forthcoming.

I sat on the other end of the bench even though I would rather have this conversation walking. No need to confrontational, yet. “It’s been awhile, hasn’t it? I wasn’t expecting to see anyone from the Court quite so soon. Did her Majesty tire of the Cold Hills?” The Cold Hills was the main residence of court, such as it was. I was pretty sure it was located somewhere in Maine, although getting to it could be accomplished any number of ways, if you knew how. But a relocation wasn’t entirely unheard of, if Her Majesty so desired.

Aunt Leah looked as if I’d inadvertently said something absurd and she was doing me the courtesy not to laugh. Which, knowing her, was probably true. “We happen to be entertaining an ambassador of one of the Courts of Summer. The ball in his honor will held tonight. Perhaps you could do us all the honor of attending. It will be quite the fete, more so for you, as long absent as you have been from the Courts.”

I nodded noncommittally. “Perhaps I could. Though I’m afraid I’d likely be mixing work and pleasure.”

Aunt Leah pursed her lips. Being a workaholic was nearly as bad as being tone deaf with the Winter Court, sometimes: it could lead to just as many levels of awkardness. “Well, if you must. Is it anything dreadfully important, or is it as dull as most of your, ah, work?”

“You’ll have to forgive my bluntness. I’m on the trail of a shifter today, Aunt. There wouldn’t happen to be any who have drifted through recently, would there? Petitioned for her Majesties Hospitality?” Hospitality was honored in both the courts. It would be both easier and harder to get whoever it was if they’d decided to go to ground here. It wasn’t exactly as if one served a person of the Queen of Winter’s court with anything so ordinary as a police warrant, let alone her guests.

“None that’s presented themselves as such. Though, I suppose, no matter what you say, you’ll have a good look around for something like that, wouldn’t you? Blundering about, asking things that you know not to ask. Hmph.” Aunt Leah shook her head, smiling again. “There are a few new faces at court, but the best way to meet them would be to come to the ball. As I expect you have doubtlessly tedious errands to do, and no proper wardrobe of your own, come again to my rooms by just past sundown, no later. I will see that you are properly outfitted such that you will not be a disgrace to my name and house. And perhaps then, I may tender you some introductions.” She rose, and I was forced to rise with her. “I suppose it’s too much to hope for that you have a companion to bring on such short notice as well,” she continued. “I suppose I will have to improvise.”

Hastily, I shook my head. “Ah, hopefully that won’t be necessary.” My mind flashed back to Brandon–not only would I need to check in, he’d probably make an acceptable date. Plus, backup, as mundane as it would be, couldn’t hurt any.

Aunt Leah inclined her head. “Indeed? Well. Then I will see what I can do for your companion as well. Until sundown, nephew.” She vanished deeper into the cold grove. I stood up stiffly, and made my way outside to the car.

After I’d turned the heat up full blast and driven out to a McDonald’s to order two large coffees, I was slowly starting to defrost a little and ready to make a couple of phone calls. The first one was to Brandon’s cell, and I got a busy signal. Fine. When the voicemail beep came, I simply said, “It’s Neil. Call me, I think I have a lead to follow up on, but I could use some backup.” I included the location of the barn, then hung up.

By the time I made it back to the barn, Detective Brandon’s car was sitting outside the barn waiting for me. I parked and walked over with the extra cup of coffee, and Brandon got out of the car with a grumpy look on his face. “All right, Carsten, what’s so important that you needed backup?”

I sighed. Time to do the part of the routine that lost me more steady boyfriends then any other. “So, after I talked to my aunt–”

“Aunt?” Detective Brandon squinted at me as he took a sip of coffee. “You have an aunt? I was under the impression that you’d been born under a rock in the middle of nowhere, and somehow, you didn’t kill yourself before adulthood.”

I glared. “Will you be quiet for a few minutes and let me finish this? Yes, my aunt.”

He held up a hand. “Okay, geeze. Yes, shutting up. But it had better mean that you’re not connected to the murderer, or that she is.”

I sighed. “No. I don’t think she is. But… she’s the Queen of Winter’s head diplomat. As in, the head of one of the most important fairy courts in the land? Worse luck, I think there’s a good chance that the murder’s on the diplomatic staff for the other one.”

As I spoke, I was treated to the rare sight of Brandon turning first pale white, then increasingly red; the latter twice in one day, a personal best. When he spoke, he sounded practically strangled. “Is there anything else you’d like to tell me? A secret career as a jewel thief that you’ve been hiding?”

I raised an eyebrow. “What?”

Brandon looked into my face, and there was a hint of fury. “You’re just springing this on me? By the way, the mythical faeries in the garden are the ones that might have got your guy, and oh, by the way, one of them’s my aunt? I’m supposed to believe this crap?”

I winced. “I can prove the aunt bit before the ball. I can’t prove the first one, but it’s the lead I’ve got.” I saw a twitch at the word ‘ball’ so I continued hurriedly. “About the ball–there’s a diplomatic one tonight. The whole entourage’ll be there, and maybe we can draw him out and go from there. And it would look a lot less suspicious if I had a date, even if it was a completely platonic one and you were just there for ass-kicking purposes, okay?”

“Oh, sure. Disappear on the night of the start of another round of interviews? That’s going to go over real well with my captain, if I come back with nothing. Which I might, since this is a goose chase that you want to lead me on. Or a snipe hunt. Or better yet, completely fucking insane!”

“I, uh… well, maybe a little?”

“A little? As little as the list of goddamn laws that I sincerely hope you’re not caught breaking on my watch!” Brandon took a deep breath, then looked up. “Look. I know that you want to help, but if there’s any other way we can do this…”

I shook my head firmly. “Nope. Diplomatic immunity until we’d proved he’d violated the law. Which, hey, would apply to you too. Hence the need to be sneaky about it. But once we did, he’d be ours under their law, which means that we’d get a chance to try to make him stand trial.”

“Hmph.” Brandon closed his eyes, massaging the bridge of his nose for a second. When he opened them, he shook his head. “I must be crazy, but here’s what we’re gonna do. We’re gonna go in. I’ll bring a recorder. See if we can find something big enough to pull this open further. And my gun. If that’s okay with your Highness, scion of fairyland?”

I winced. “Sir. I’m a knight of the court, nothing fancy. And I don’t think we’re going to be able to get away with a gun. Knife, maybe, but nothing made of that much metal is going to get past the warding spell.”

“Great. So not only is it going to be dangerous, I can’t be armed. This is going to end so well.” Brandon finally took a sip of his coffee. “So, if there’s any other bad news, I’d better hear it now.”

I started in on my briefing without any hesitation: if he’d finally agreed, this was it, and I needed to cram him with how not to get killed. When Detective Brandon was done with his coffee and I was done on my quick and dirty fairy politics lesson, I snuck a peak at my phone. “Okay. That’s all the time we have. Time to get back and let them play with us.” He raised an eyebrow, and I continued. “You’ll feel pretty different once they’ve gotten us all dolled up.”

A few hours later, after a bath, a haircut, and a change of clothing, there he was, tugging at his cravat and making a face at the breeches. I favored him my best smirk, shamelessly swiped from Aunt Leah. “Shouldn’t mess it up too early. They’ll think that you hate their work.”

He glared back at me, ignoring my chuckle. “Oh, and you can say that. You’re used to this shit. The magic, all of it.”

I shook my head. “Yeah, but I find it pretty stupid sometimes. You do get used to it fast enough. I guess this is why most of them treat it like a game, because it makes it more interesting when it’s what you have to do. Anyway, so the deal is that we’re going to be introduced by Aunt Leah.” I raised a hand to cut him off. “Yes, she’s always like that, so just try to smile and play along. I don’t think you should eat or drink anything if I’m not there or unless Leah vouches for it. You’re a guest, but let’s not tempt anyone too much, huh? Think of it like being the hot girl in the nightclub for the night.”

Brandon made a face. “Thank you for that startling and unwelcome analogy, Carsten. Let’s do this, shall we?”

I held out my arm for him. “Neil. I thought you’ve done this undercover thing before, Detective.”

He stared at my arm for a few moments, but eventually, he took it with a very dangerous looking smile that I found ridiculously hot. “Of course, Neil. And I’m sure this will be a delightfully…instructive evening.”

We casually strolled through the halls, discretely being pointed in the right direction by the palace staff. There was a herald by the door, who I showed my seal ring to. He nodded imperceptibly, and with a low bow, calculated precisely to my station, he held the door to the ballroom open. “Sir Neil Carsten, of the Fresh Snow.”

Brandon was stiff on my arm as we moved forward through a sea of curious gazes to where Her Majesty was seated on her “informal” throne in a small receiving area, a bare six inches off the ground, dressed a dramatic gown of darkest purple against pale white skin and raven black hair brushed away from her face. A wrought iron crown of pearls and shimmering gems was weighing her brow. I dropped Brandon’s arm, pressing my fingers against his arm to get him to stay, then walked three steps forward and sank to my knee, eyes cast down. “Your majesty. It has been far too long.”

She nodded, regally, and her gown rustled as she held out her hand. “Sir Carsten. Of late, I have wondered at your stay amongst the mortals. You shall have to recount your experiences to Us at some later time. But, first, your companion?”

I rose to my feet as Brandon walked forward. “Detective Brandon Valleta, officer of the Jamesville Police Department, your Majesty. Detective Valletta, her Majesty, Maeve, the Queen of Winter’s Shadow.”

Brandon managed to do a credible bow to the waist–I wondered briefly if the servants had tutored him, then dismissed it as irrelevant–as her Majesty nodded gravely. “A pleasure, Detective. You are made welcome as a guest of the Court tonight. Do enjoy yourself.”

He nodded as Aunt Leah glided forward and curtsied gently to her Majesty. “If you don’t mind sparing Sir Carsten, Your Majesty, I did promise to show the pair around the court tonight. I would so hate for my ward’s guest to be left adrift.”

With a wave, we were released into Aunt Leah’s charge. Leah took firm hold Brandon’s arm as we walked forward. “You’ve got nice legs, Detective. Perhaps you’ll do me the honor of a dance after we’ve done a turn or two.”

I turned my forced smile up a few more notches as Brandon silently choked and Leah steered us around the ballroom. We drifted through the court and all its beauties: ladies covered in cobweb gowns, pixies dressed in wondrously woven dried pine needles, shadows dressed in drops of ice and frost, lords in their armor spun of fog, so fine that it was, in some cases, practically obscene. Not that I was complaining. The view of Winter’s Court was always worth it for the first hour or so.

Mixed in with the usually-monochrome crowd were a few bright spots here and there, but they were mostly concentrated on the other end where another small reception area had been set up. It was conspicuously missing anything more than a few comfortable stools, so it was likely that the Ambassador wasn’t connected directly to the royal family of Summer’s Court, but obviously high enough in rank to get his own sizable entourage. As we approached, I started to scan the crowd for likely a likely looking shifter. Using any sort of seeing spell directly would be a breach of etiquette, but using the eyes I had wasn’t, as long as I was subtle enough about it, something I had learned as a child from my Nana.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t really seeing anyone that matched the description as we approached the Ambassador’s chair until I looked right in front of me as Leah introduced us to a flawless looking man dressed in court finery that fit the profile of the second shadow better than anyone else I’d seen since. Bowing automatically, I half-listened to Leah as my mind whirled. “And this is my ward, Sir Neil Carnesten and his guest, Detective Brandon Valleta of Jamesville, Lord Ambassador. Gentlemen, may I introduce to you the Lord Ambassador Xianus of the Shortest Night, late of the Queen of Summer’s Court?”

Brandon darted a glance at my face as I bowed to the Lord Ambassador, which was a sign that I probably needed to calm myself, so I forced a smile. “Lord Ambassador. It’s an honor to meet you.” Brandon took the cue and dipped his head and murmured something polite. I was mildly surprised when he reached out with one hand for mine, and a little more so when the skin of the ambasdor’s lips met my skin for a kiss to the top of my hand. It felt electric, like a little shot of fairy icewine, heady and strong with a touch of glamor. I managed to keep the smile from slipping with a will, but there was nothing I could say to stop Brandon when the Lord Ambassador took his hand as well, and I noticed absentmindedly that his hands were bare. He looked fairly dazed as the Ambassador let go of his hand and I groaned mentally. If he had the hots for the Ambassador, my job was about to get a little bit worse. Maybe a lot worse.

“So, Sir Carsten,” the Ambassador purred, “however did you meet this… ‘Detective’?” The way he said the name was probably an act, but courtesy meant that I’d at least have to play along at first. I made a note to ask Gershom or Aunt Leah at some point about how close the closest of Summer’s Courts was to human lands once I got out of this mess. I was beginning to suspect that Ambassador knew more then he was letting on about humanity.

I cast around for a sufficiently polite version of the truth. “I loan my skills out to his, ah, land’s service. We’ve worked together several times, Lord Ambassador.”

“Service?” Somehow, he managed to make the word sound obscene. “Are you helping the peacekeepers then, sir? How kind of you to offer your skills,” the Lord Ambassador murmured. He looked speculatively at Brandon. “I would hear more, if you’d honor me, Detective.” Crap. Hopefully Brandon remembered everything I’d tried to drum into his head earlier, and his police training to boot. He’d need it to make sure the guy didn’t get something out of him.

As Brandon made his way over to the proffered seat, I muttered to Leah softly, “What did you say his title was again?” The rank was traditional, but each title was made new again as the person assumed it, that I was sure of in both courts. Some themes were traditional among families, but the title of the Ambassador’s was nagging at me.

Leah, who had much more experience about the subtle communication the I did, murmured back, “The Shortest Night.”

The name gave me a chill between my shoulder blades as she repeated it, but I couldn’t pin the feeling down. I drifted to the side, to a comfortable perch, keeping an eye on the crowd around the Ambassador. Maybe I’d see something that looked like the first shadow too. Aunt Leah was called away quickly, but I managed to stand there for a good hour or so, my feet growing practically numb by the time the Ambassador finally led Brandon out to the dance floor by the hand. I finally had tracked down a server who I trusted the look of to get me a plain glass of nectar which I had started to sip at as I chatted idly about living among humans with one of the older knights I had studied with briefly, Sir Kergan, who found humanity fascinating at a distance. Unfortunately, his knowledge of humanity was also only accurate at the same distance. Clearly we’d reached the stage of the evening when I’d normally bow out and do something actually entertaining, but I didn’t want to leave a unintended human at the dance.

I was scanning the room as the Lord Ambassador’s bodyguard wandered past the door in their uniform tunics without the Ambasador, and as they did, I nearly choked. Either the Seer’s Charm was far more effective than it had any right to be, or my brain was working overtime, but I could have sworn I’d seen a very large pair of shadows that could have passed for the first of my targets. When Sir Kergan looked up from his mead with concern, I held up a hand for forgiveness as I rapidly scanned the room for Brandon and found him missing, which only increased my concern. “I really must be going, sir. Terribly sorry.” After his confused nod, I walked, fast, in the same direction that the bodyguards gone, following them out into the halls.

After a few minutes of running, I was at dead end. Confused, I turned around and ran smack into the chest of the first bodyguard, only he was now an enormous slab of fur and muscle where I had seen nothing but shadows earlier. Cursing under my breath, I tried to step back, but he grabbed my arms. “Hey!” I shouted as he dragged me forward at a wall and then through it. Which I guess solved the problem about how they were getting into the crime scenes unnoticed. Mystery solved. I patted myself on the back mentally for tying it all together finally as I passed out for a few seconds.

Inside the wall–or was it a room with a door that had been hidden? I could see a faint outline of something that had been there–the Ambassador was sitting on a bed of furs with Brandon, who was practically naked. I was pretty sure that the slightly glazed look in his eyes wasn’t natural and I cursed myself. Skin to skin contact, right. I’d seen those crime scenes, and it was entirely possible that those spells had all been done by skin to skin contact. And if they had enough resources to do this kind of phasing spells without the power of a full Court behind him, then being able to get rid of evidence like fingerprints or DNA would likely also be possible.

The Lord Ambassador smiled congenially at me. “A detective, and you a consultant. In homicide no less. I’m sure your Lady is very proud of your generosity, Sir Carsten. Sit, and let’s talk. And for the sake of you and your friend, I wouldn’t try to cast anything. There’s no need to be overexcited.”

I tried to squirm away again, but I was guided into onto a rough chair by the goons as the Ambassador started to stroke Brendan’s hair. A creepy guy, a kidnapper, and a molester to boot. I was having a really good feeling about this evening, all right. I glared at the Ambassador. “So, talk. What do you want, Lord Ambassador?”

Xianus chuckled. “Ah, so prickly and suspicious. Though, I suppose if you weren’t, you wouldn’t have gotten this far. So I shall congratulate you first. Well done on figuring me out so far.” He held up a hand as I tried to decide if the feeling of helpless laughter was worse then the desire to yell. “No need to thank me, however. For I suppose I’m going to have to get rid of both of you. But not without having a little bit more fun, first.”

“Fun? Like a game? Don’t you need to share the rules when it comes to games?” A chill ran up my spine as I spoke, unable to keep off the shiver but able to sound steady enough as I did so.

The ambassador laughed. “Oh, you want to make this a game, then? We could do that, if you agree to all my terms. But that wasn’t what I…” In his arms, Brandon stirred and I grit my teeth. I’d been the one to fuck this up, so I’d better win, whatever those terms were.

“Fine,” I gritted out, interrupting his speech. “Let’s hear the alternative.” I had to stall: if I was lucky, someone eventually come looking for us and find the bodies. Maybe they’d even find a reason to stop him, although I supposed that if the Ambassador was hunting here, he thought he was untouchable or protected enough by the right of hospitality to get away with anything he was caught doing. Either way, I guess we were fucked anyway.

He smiled, and practically purred as he held out a hand. “I just want the truth, Sir Carsten. And do try to be clear about it: after all, we’re all friends here, aren’t we? We all work on the same thing at different angles.”

“If you think I’m the same–” I half rose to my feet before the walls of fur pressed me back down and I subsided: if their master could intoxicate with a touch and they could walk through walls, what could they do with their hands pressed against mine? Not a question worth thinking about.

“Of course we are. I’ve given you work, haven’t I? I’ve done things for you and your ‘detective’ that have left you all stumped! It’s rather like a learning experience. And I suppose you’ve absorbed a lot if you managed to track my men.” At my bitten back snarl, he chuckled. “Yes, I did rather see that. I’m hardly the fool, but I am curious. How did you find us out so quickly?”

I cleared my throat, ignoring the claws pressing into my throat, pushing it into the same category as Brandon’s moaning. “Lucky guess. I still had enough of a Seer’s Charm active to see their shadows. They’re mostly shadow now, aren’t they, if they’re able to phase through walls like that? Anyway, after I saw them follow you out of the ball, it all fell into place.”

The Ambassador tilted his head. “Lucky for you indeed. I thought Winter’s court was free of most ties to the human world. I didn’t expect to come across one at her gatherings.”

“I guess I’m a bit of a gray area, Your Grace. I think they tend to ignore it.” I shrugged slightly. “The Leansidhe tends to set a great many of her own standards, as you’re probably aware. I’ve been her ward for most of my life. She insisted, so there you go.”

“Ah, yes. And to think that she lets you wander freely among the humans. Truly, should I have ever any cause to pick up a ward myself, I would seek to keep him close by, and have him rise as fast as possible. A puzzle, your aunt.”

I shrugged again. “But what that truly do for her, Your Grace? She’s already got the ear of the Queen. And I’m just the leftovers to a favor to someone else. I wouldn’t do her any good in court, I’m sure.”

“No?” Xianus raised a very elegant eyebrow. “Your eye is quite talented for one so young: I’m sure the Lady would find a use for it, were it hers to command in a place like this. You and your friend, both.” He put his hands on Brandon’s shoulder for a moment, sitting him upright onto the bed, and murmuring at him for a second to stay. “And I think there’s a favor you could do for me now. Give me your hand.”

Mentally, I froze, trying to find a way out of it. If I let the asshole touch me again, it was probably all over. But I automatically thrust my left hand forward with my seal ring. It was tied to the magic of the Winter court, in a way that the Ambassador might not know about. He chuckled as he accepted my hand, and a growing sense of numbness slid down my arm. “So gracious, my dear Neil–may I call you that? I’m sure we can drop out titles now. After all, you’re both mine now, aren’t you?”

I was still mostly frozen in place as he dropped a kiss on the ring and a spark of electricity flowed down my arm after the numbness. The Ambassador jumped back, dropping my hand and Leah appeared in a flash of brilliant light, her teeth bared in an expression nothing like a smile. She gestured once as the Ambassador’s guards started to move forward, and a wall of ice flowed from her fingers and from their chests, encasing them in ice. As they struggled to get out, the ice began to grow inward, fueled by Aunt Leah’s anger or the Court’s itself, I wasn’t sure. Hastily, I jumped out of the chair and rolled as the Ambassador tried to dart forward with a cry, but Leah threw a dart of ice at him as well, which he feinted back from with blurry shadow. I grabbed Brandon’s shoulders and dived into the pile of furs, shielding him with my body as the two ambassadors fought each other across the room.

As they slung their bolts back and forth, I looked around to see if there was anything I could do. Magically, I wasn’t even in their league, but I didn’t exactly feel like letting this asshole get away with anything. My eye fell on the stool I’d been sitting on, which was now a few feet away, and I made a lunge at it, and then swung. The Ambassador spotted me the moment before the stool connected, but still slumped to the ground in a gratifying manner. Aunt Leah hit him with the same ice bolt spell, then calmly walked over to the bed as the Ambassador’s body was covered in ice.

Leah peered at Brandon for a few moments, then up at me. “A glamor spell, designed to befuddle him into being quite the pliant toy. Don’t worry about removing it, I think I have it covered. What happened here? I felt someone trying to tamper with your seal ring. Presumably, him?” As I spoke, she passed a hand over Brandon, starting to tug the spell away.

When I was done, she sighed. “Well. That’s quite the incident that he’s created here. Attempting to entrap a Knight of Winter, and my ward, at that? This is going to cause rather a fuss with the Summer Court.” She didn’t look at all displeased with the prospect; her smile showed perfect, snow-white teeth. “I think I can keep you safe here, for the time being. My word is inviolate enough: you should be able to both leave here safely in the morning, as well as that which you came seeking here in the first place.”

I frowned. “Wait, what about the other court? Won’t they be able to break in?”

She shook her head. “Doubtful. He did mention to me once that these guards of his were a rare pair of cousins from a distant line of his family. That, and you’ll be safe from the eyes of the court from now. It will have to do.”

I pushed Brandon into the bed of furs that the Ambassador had so conveniently set up for his own use, along with its own special table of rare oils and other luxurious comforts. Lucky us. Brandon looked up at me with a dazed look that was rapidly being replaced by a growing awareness of what he was and what he was doing. Which is great, because I like taking care with the enchanted the same way I liked dealing with people on roofies, no matter how attractive they were. I suppressed a shudder. But Brandon was, well. Sort of special, I guessed. I wasn’t going to be able to just wipe this and walk away, as much as I wanted to. It would be so much easier if I could. But he had to remember enough to help me close the case in the end, and tampering with his memory of tonight, as chancy as memory spells could be, wasn’t exactly going to help with that. The only thing I could do was to ride out the wave of the spell, and hope no one did anything that they were going to regret. Especially Brandon.

I stood up, walking to the other side of the room, drawing a soft whimper from Brandon as I stepped away. “Neil? It’s cold in here, where are you going?”

I turned back, smiling gently. “Just looking for some more blankets, that’s all. Get comfy, we’re stuck here until dawn, remember?” Maybe if I was lucky there’d be enough of them somewhere so I could sleep on the floor.

He frowned. “Does this have to do with the fact that there’s some stupid spell on me? Is this some sort of professionalism thing?” I shook my head but he continued. “Because, right now, I co-could care less. I’m freezing, really.”

He was managing to shiver under the pile of furs, which was a little too impressive and starting to look a whole lot more wonky. I hurried back over to the pile of furs and put a hand on his head, murmuring the words that would help me see if the spell was wearing off, and a few moments later, swore. The enchantment was wearing off and being replaced by a nasty trick that I’d only heard of, never seen. A spell for turning someone colder and colder, unless they were touching the skin of someone else. A good way to get someone to sleep with you, if they were starting to be stubborn under an enchantment. I wasn’t going to do anything like that, but I clearly couldn’t just let him sleep on his own. I had to try to break it. Failing that, well, I couldn’t let him just freeze to death.

“Brandon, I think there’s a spell I missed on there that might be causing this. But you have to be calm and let me touch you again? I think that I can get it to stop, if I’m careful. Okay, buddy?” I drew off my waistcoat and lay it on top of the pile of furs, and then took off my shirt so that my chest was bare and we’d get some good skin to skin contact. Brandon was looking at me with some confusion, but was shivering so hard that I could barely make out his nod as I helped him sit up and wrapped my arms around his naked chest gingerly as I settled under the furs, something I’d normally love to have a chance at. Gah. Half naked guy who I was having a really nice dream about last night pressed up against me for life-giving warmth, a situation right out of a Harlequin novel, ignoring the part about evil fairies and murder Maybe even then. My day officially couldn’t get any more awkward. I closed my eyes and forced myself to start to trace the construction of the enchantment.

Thankfully, the spell was a temporary one, but it looked like it was the last break on that front. I shivered as I started to untangle some of the lines of the weaving. Brandon squirmed, and I murmured some soft nonsense at him to calm him down. I was already caught in the untangling of the spell though, and I didn’t want him to move too much, so I tightened my grip slightly and lost myself again in tracing the tangles that were spread over him like a net. Gradually, I started to see the net start to drift across his body, practically unmoored. The squirming and shivering was starting to turn into grinding, so I suspected that however that damned Ambassador had planned this to end (I wasn’t kidding myself: the odds that there was a special twist to even this spell was starting to look increasingly likely) I started to work faster. If I didn’t fix this soon, this was going to end someplace way beyond uncomfortable.

Of course, a few minutes later, I couldn’t help as my breathing started to waver a little myself as Brandon arched and pressed a kiss against my ear. Not thinking about how the height he had would be perfect grinding a little more freely against mine at all, no sir. I tugged harder at the last few strands with a gasp and make a valiant attempt to scoot back, letting go of Brandon. I say valiant, because of course what happened is that Brandon wriggled and followed me back, which in turn pressed me against the bed as he leaned those last few feet forward, grasping my shoulders, landing a very possessive kiss against my mouth. While I was distracted for a few seconds by all the blood in my head deciding to rush down to my dick just in case, he positioned himself against my lap, and as I was about to get up, ground against me. I managed to break away and gasp, “You’re making this acting like a professional, let alone a decent human being thing very difficult, you know.”

Brandon looked up at me with a very steady expression, if that can be applied to someone who’s also looking at you like they want to take you apart. Which was way hotter than it should have been, for the record. “So sorry. Let’s see if we can fix that.” As I opened my mouth again to say something truly stupid, he ground down again and looked at me expectantly. I knew he was clean of spells now, because I had just finished the job myself. And now it was down to me and my ethics.

“So,” he interrupted again, just as I was getting ready to make my final argument before I went and found my way out of the room to sleep in front of the door or something else extremely undignified, holding up a hand, “right now, I’m not exactly in the mood for prolonged debate. Despite what you’re saying, I’m guessing you’re not exactly either.” Brandon dropped his hand, directly onto the ties for my breeches. Where, god knows I was more than ready for the kind of reciprocation he was talking about. “So why don’t we just try this my way for a little bit, huh? I even promise it’s not going to hurt much. And if this turns out to be a really stupid mistake, let’s forget about it. All right, Neil?”

I breathed out. “Yeah. Okay. Let’s, ah. Start there. Sounds good. So, since you’re full of bright ideas, what next?”

Brandon smiled as he started pulling on the drawstrings to my breeches. “Let’s just see where this leads us, hey?” I nodded and lifted myself up to help him get my pants off, leaving me completely naked with him still on top. I reached for the top button of his pants intending to do him the same favor, but he smacked my hand away again. “My turn to do something here, hey. Don’t make me tie you somewhere, Neil.”

I grinned. “Kinky on the first date, huh? Tell me more, Detective.”

Brandon shook his head as he picked up one of the vials of oils by the bed, cracking it open to release a scent of summer wildflowers into the room. “Only if you get as far as the second date, Neil. Now hold still.” Carefully, he scooted off my lap and down to my thighs, perching so he’d have easy access to my dick which was beginning to enjoy the chance to enjoy someone else’s touch finally after what was an uncomfortably long dry spell with me and my hand alone together. I held my breath as Brandon dabbed his fingers into the oil, then traced a line down my erection.

As I bit back a groan, he dipped his finger into the oil again, and repeated the same line down the other side. He kept repeating the tracery as he leaned forward and leisurely began to lay kisses into my mouth. I bit at his lips as he finally slipped a finger into my ass, which got a chuckle from him, as he slid a little bit further down. He trailed a series of small licks down my body as he worked me open, gently smacking my hands every time they started to started to wander down his body any further then his shoulders. “I was serious about the tying down bit, if you can’t behave.” I settled my hands lightly onto his shoulder and used all my concentration to try to keep my grip as light as possible as he leaned forward and put his mouth onto my erection. He smirked as my breathing hitched, breaking away to whisper, “I didn’t think you’d like it that much.”

I shook my head. “Don’t. Jump to any conclusions there, Detective. Wouldn’t want to lead you astray or anything.”

Brandon laughed. “Oh, I like my odds. Tell me how this works for you, hm?” He leaned down to rub my now fully erect dick as he experimentally placed another finger into my ass. I gripped down, and he grinned as he slowly began to withdraw his fingers, his other hand still firm around me. “Words, Neil. Try using a few more words.”

“Pretty good,” I panted, “but it reminds me of something else you could try.” I arched off the furs as he plunged a third finger inside of me, the oil starting to warm on my erection with the friction of his hand against my skin.

He laughed and shook his head. “What was that you wanted? I’m sorry, I couldn’t hear you.”

“I–” I took an involuntary breath as he thrust his hands in time with each other. When I was breathing more normally, I licked my lips, and said, “I’d like you to try that with your dick instead, Brandon.”

“Hmm.” He tilted his head as if considering it as he stroked me a few more times, watching my increasingly unsteady breathing and tightening grip with lidded eyes. “I might be able to manage that.”

He stood up, taking his hands away from my body, and I may have whimpered a little bit as I watched him pour the oil into his hands, still slightly glistening with the oil from my skin and a touch of precome and massage them onto his dick, coaxing it to further stillness. Just knowing that he’d been doing it to me a few moments before was pretty nice. “On your knees, Neil.”

It took me a few moments to position myself, but it didn’t take very long for him to push his way inside of me, subtly adjusting the angle of my hips ad he did so. It took a few strokes, but he was beginning to breathe in time with his thrusts, which were coming faster and faster. I whimpered as he carefully closed his hand around my erection again, rubbing it with a few hard strokes that had me coming across his hand calling his name shortly. I managed to keep my knees locked for long enough so that he could finish himself off with a cry inside of me and pull out.

I heard him rustling inside the basket for a few seconds, before he returned to the bed with a clean rag which he offered to me. I took a second to clean myself up, then I tossed it over the side of the furs and managed to guide Brandon down onto the furs next to me for a kiss. “Hey,” I mumbled against his lips, “sorry for the lack of dinner on the first date. You probably would have gotten food poisoning though, if that’s any help.”

He pulled away for a second and shook his head. “Next time, I’m choosing where we’re going. Your idea of a good time sucks.”

I yawned. “Can’t argue there. Let’s talk about this later, okay? Nap now.”

As the night began to fade, a pair of Leah’s silent servants appeared in the doorway with our clothing, cleaned and mended. Somehow they’d taken all of our court clothing from the room, which would have been both mildly embarrassing and creepy if I hadn’t learned to tolerate it ages ago, when Leah had first taken me in. Brandon blushed real hard once he saw the clothing, though, and I had the distinct pleasure of having him bury his face into my chest as they laid out the clothing. Having the offer to have them dress us would probably be too much this time, so I said, “Thanks, guys. We’ll take it from here.”

I waited until their footsteps had faded, then tried to coax Brandon’s face out of my chest with a kiss, which caused him to mutter, “So that’s it? We put on our clothes and skedaddle, knowing that that bastard did it?”

I shook my head. “Aunt Leah promised, Brandon. If I promise you that if we get out of this circus, there’ll be a surprise waiting for us, can we get going? Not that it isn’t really nice, but you should probably get him into custody.”

He peered up at me suspiciously. “You know those don’t stick against fairies. Never have before. They don’t exist.”

I raised an eyebrow. “And who’s the expert on what they do and don’t do, huh? Trust me on this one. Aunt Leah will find a way to deliver to them us somehow. Now c’mon, I’ll buy you a doughnut before I drop you off at the precinct.”

Brandon scowled at me as he stood up and reached for his pants. “Just for that, you owe me coffee, too.”

We’d made our way out of the Court and all the way to the doughnut shop next to the precinct before I finally noticed the squeaking noise. I looked in my backseat. There, in a cage were three familiar looking rats, sitting in a cage on top of what looked like a shredded green and black pile of fabric. There was also a note, which simply read, I heard you might be looking for snake treats. -L.

I sighed, folding the note in my hand as I got out of my car and handed it to Brandon. “And that’s how you can tell Leah likes you. Or just your legs. Otherwise, you’d be on the other end of the equation.”

Brandon stared at the note, then into my backseat.

I ended up going home with the rats: they can get pretty noisy sometimes, but keeping them next to Gersh means that they don’t try to fuck around too much. I’ve looked into changing them back, but I’ve had no luck on that front. And the minute any of them tries to escape, they’re snake food. Not the sort of end to a diplomatic incident that Brandon wanted, but the sort of ending I’m used to, courtesy of my fairy aunt. With extra chance of a second date. I’ll take it.

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