The tangled tree roots all seemed to stop at the same point, forming a rough path towards who knew what. Something brushed my shoulder as we pushed our way into the sea of brambles and tangled underbrush. For an instant I thought I saw a gnarled hand with bulbous knuckles and unnaturally long fingers reaching for me. I jumped before realizing it was nothing more threatening than a low-hanging branch, the moss on it damp and clammy against my skin.
Even worse was the way the place smelled. The meadow had been warm and fresh and flowery, but there was no pleasant green scent here. The forest was dank and mildewed, but below that was something worse—sour and faintly rotten. I thought about it as we plodded along, and it finally hit me. It was like being in the presence of a terminally ill person. No matter how good the hygiene, there is always a faint odor clinging to them that doesn’t smell like anything else. The forest reeked of death—not the quick, red-clawed end of a hunted animal, but the long, lingering sickness of someone death has stalked for a very long time. I vastly preferred the meadow.
I pressed closer to Tomas, who was thankfully still oblivious, and tried not to look as spooked as I felt. But there was something unnatural about these woods. It was in the murky light that made it instantly twilight, and in the age, which pressed down like gravity had somehow increased as soon as we left the field. I couldn’t even begin to guess how old some of the trees were, but every time I thought they couldn’t get any bigger, they managed. And my tired brain kept seeing faces in patterns in the bark—old, craggy ones with mushroom hair, lichen beards and shadowy eyes.
Marlowe tried several times to start a conversation, but I ignored him until he gave up. I had other things to think about, like how I was going to find Myra and what I was going to do with her when I did. Now that I was here, I understood why she’d chosen to hide in Faerie. It was an entirely new playing field, and one I knew nothing about. Getting close enough to spring the trap was going to be difficult if my power was unreliable, and I had no idea how many allies she had. After seeing what happened to Mac’s wards, I wasn’t as confident about the Senate’s weapons as I had been. What if they didn’t work in this crazy new world?
My mood wasn’t improved by more mundane considerations, like how heavy the damned coat was getting, how much I could really use a bath, and how badly I wanted to see Mircea. The craving hadn’t diminished, and although it was bearable, it wasn’t fun. I felt like a three-pack-a-day smoker at the end of a twelve-hour flight. Only, for me, there was no relief in sight.
We finally stopped for a breather. Wind rustled the tree-tops, but down at ground level, there wasn’t so much as a breath of air. Billy, who had been bitching about Tomas’ weight the whole way, swore we’d been walking for a day, but it had probably been only an hour or so. I stripped off the lead-lined torture device Pritkin had stuck me with, and it helped a little, but no breeze hit my soaked clothes.
I was bent over, panting and exhausted, sweat running off my face to drip onto the leaf-strewn forest floor, when I saw it: my first proof that this really was an enchanted forest. A tree root, covered in bright red lichen like a scaly arm, reached up from the path to position itself on the ground under my nose. I shied back, giving a surprised yelp, then watched as it sucked dry every leaf that held any of my sweat.
"W-What is that?” I pulled back a leg as the root came closer, rummaging through the leaves like a pig after acorns. It couldn’t see me, but it knew I was there.
“A spy.” Marlowe’s resigned tones came from above my head. “I knew we couldn’t avoid them, but I was hoping for a bit longer than this.”
“A spy for whom?”
“The Dark Fey,” Pritkin answered, coming alongside. “This is their forest.”
“Very likely,” Marlowe concurred. “But I should reach our allies before—”
“You aren’t going,” Pritkin interrupted. “Give me a token and I’ll do it.”
“Go where?” I asked, but no one was listening.
“They don’t know you,” Marlowe protested. “Even with an introduction from me, you could be in danger.”
Pritkin smiled sourly. “I’ll take the risk.”
Mac cleared his throat. “It might be best if I go,” he offered. “You’ve got enough trouble keeping that one in line”—he nodded at the golem, who was running his hands over the trunk of a nearby tree, an expression of wonder on his features—“and it doesn’t know me. If something sets it off again, I can’t guarantee I can control it.”
“It’s coming with me.”
“It won’t be much good in a fight right now,” Mac said doubtfully.
“It isn’t going to be fighting.” Pritkin glanced at me. “I suppose you want to stay here and tend him?” He didn’t name Tomas, but we both knew whom he meant. I looked at Marlowe before replying. He was adjusting the bandages around his curls as if they pained him, and grinned when he caught my eye.
“The storm didn’t do my head any good,” he explained, wincing slightly as his hand brushed a tender spot. “First Rasputin cracks my skull, and now this. You would think someone could aim for another part of my anatomy just once, but oh, no.”
I didn’t smile back. Marlowe might really be in pain, or he might be trying to convince me how weak he was. If the latter, he was wasting his time. I’d seen enough injured vamps to know: if they were conscious and moving, they were deadly. There wasn’t much I could do for Tomas, but at least I’d make sure Marlowe didn’t cut off his head. I looked back at Pritkin and nodded.
“Then I’ll need to borrow your servant.”
Billy had collapsed into a sweaty heap as soon as we stopped and was now tugging on one of his black boots and swearing. I guess he had tender baby feet to go along with the new stomach. “You sure? He’s not much of a fighter.”
“He’s only there in case something goes wrong. To run back and warn you.”
“He should be able to handle that.” I nudged Billy. “You’re up.” He bitched, of course, but eventually beer won out over blisters and he agreed to go.
Marlowe scribbled a brief note on a piece of paper that Mac had located among our supplies. It seemed somehow wrong to be using lined notebook paper and a ballpoint to write an introduction to the Fey, but no one else seemed to notice. “I’m not sure my contacts are still there,” Marlowe said, handing over the finished note. “Time doesn’t flow the same way here. My spies have sometimes entered months apart to find that they arrived on the same day, or on other occasions that decades had passed. We’ve never been able to determine a pattern.”
“I’ll manage,” Pritkin said, rummaging through my discarded coat for ammunition. He fished out three large boxes. I didn’t ask what he thought he’d need that many bullets for. I didn’t want to know.
He had exchanged his leather trench for a dark cape with a hood from Mac’s pack and, after a brief struggle, managed to get the golem to accept being put into his coat. It wasn’t a great disguise, considering that the golem was still orange, bald, seven feet tall and barefoot, but it beat the alternative. “Shouldn’t he stay here?” I asked doubtfully.
Pritkin didn’t answer me, but Marlowe smiled slightly. “If the mage does not bring a gift, he will never gain an audience. Fey protocol.”
“A gift?” It took a few seconds to sink in. “You mean— but that’s slavery!”
“He isn’t actually alive, Cassie,” Mac protested.
I looked at the childlike being blinking slowly at Pritkin as he was buttoned into the long coat. He seemed to find the buttons fascinating, and kept poking at them with an orange, but otherwise very human-looking, finger. “He looks alive to me,” I said.
“I’ll retrieve him later—he’s merely to get me in!” Pritkin said crossly. “Or would you prefer to offer
Billy gave me a panicked look and I sighed. “Of course not.”
“Then refrain from giving advice about matters you don’t understand,” I was told curtly before the trio disappeared into the foliage.
Over the next few hours, a number of things conspired to rub my remaining nerves raw. One of the most annoying was the roving roots that followed me around like nearsighted puppies. I was bone weary but could I sit down for five minutes? Hell, no. I had to play keep-away with the local flora while being stared at by the fauna.
A short time after Pritkin left, it seemed like every bird in the forest—ospreys, eagles, owls and even a few vultures— had congregated in the trees around us, along with some small mammals. They made no noise except for a fluttering of wings as the early arrivals shuffled around to make room for newcomers. After a few minutes their collective weight began to bow some of the smaller limbs they were using as perches, but none collapsed. They looked eerily like spectators assembling for some type of entertainment. Since we weren’t doing anything interesting, I assumed the show started later, a thought that didn’t improve my mood.
Neither did the tension of being able to do nothing for Tomas, who lay unmoving on his blanket. Not only could I not help him heal—if, in fact, that’s what he was doing—I couldn’t get near him for fear of bringing my bark-covered fans along. They absorbed sweat—who knew what else they ate?
The most irritating factor of all, though, had to be Marlowe’s suddenly renewed interest in conversation. He waited until Pritkin was out of hearing range, then turned to me smiling cheerfully. “Let’s chat, Cassie. I am certain I can put your fears to rest.”
I hopped over a root trying to curl around my ankle. “Why do I doubt that?”
“Because you’ve never had a chance to hear our side of things,” he said, giving me a warm, understanding smile that immediately raised my hackles. “We would have had this conversation before, but when you came back from your mission with Mircea you failed to give us the opportunity.”
“I tend not to open dialogues with people who threaten to kill me.”
Marlowe looked surprised. “I can’t imagine what you mean. I certainly don’t want you dead, and neither does anyone else on the Senate. Quite the opposite, in fact.”
“Did you tell Agnes the same thing?”
Marlowe’s brows knitted together into a small frown. “I’m not certain I understand you.”
I brought out the small charm Pritkin had given me. He’d never asked for it back, so I’d stuffed it into a pocket. Now I let it swing in front of Marlowe’s eyes like a pendulum. “Recognize this?”
He took it and gave it a once-over. “Of course.”
I stared at him. It wouldn’t be a shock if Marlowe had been the one to mastermind the assassination—it fit his reputation—but I hadn’t expected him to just admit it. Did he think I’d be pleased that he removed Agnes and cleared my way to succeed?
“It’s a Saint Sebastian medallion.” He took it from my limp fingers. Mac had closed in, but he wasn’t saying anything. Maybe he also thought we were about to hear a confession. If so, he was disappointed. “I haven’t seen one of these in years. Of course, there’s been no need for them.”
“What need?” Mac had a look on his face that reminded me of Pritkin at his most suspicious.
“The plague, mage,” Marlowe said impatiently. “Sebastian was the saint believed to be able to ward off disease. These were still popular on the Continent in my day, although most were made in the fourteenth century, during the Black Death.”
I leaned in for a closer look. “So this is what, a good-luck charm?”
Marlowe smiled. “Something like that. People wanted to believe they were doing something to protect themselves and their families.”
“Kind of ironic,” I said. Mac nodded, but Marlowe looked confused. “This was used to kill someone recently,” I explained.
Marlowe’s brows rose. It was the first expression I’d seen him wear that didn’t appear contrived. “The Pythia was murdered?”
Mac said one of Pritkin’s bad words. “And how would you know that if you didn’t do it?” he demanded heatedly.
Marlowe shrugged. “Who else were we talking about?” He turned the thing over in his hands, frowning. “Someone’s cut it open.”
“We did that,” Mac said, snatching it out of his hands. “It had arsenic in it!” He said the latter as if he expected it to stagger the vamp, but Marlowe didn’t appear fazed.
“Well, of course it did.” At my expression, he explained. “Powdered toad, arsenic—a whole host of substances were often put inside these things before they were soldered together. They were thought to ward off sickness, and added to the medallion’s value—and its price, of course.”
“You mean there was
to be poison in there?” I looked at Mac. “You’re sure she was murdered?”
“Cassie—” he said warningly. He obviously didn’t want to discuss this in front of Marlowe, but I couldn’t see the harm. If Marlowe had arranged the Pythia’s death, he already knew about it; if not, maybe he could provide a few clues.
“A medallion like this was found next to her body,” I told Marlowe. “Is there any way it could have been used to kill her?”
He looked thoughtful. “Anything that comes in contact with the skin can be a danger. Queen Elizabeth was almost assassinated by poison rubbed into the pommel of her saddle. And I once killed a Catholic by soaking his prayer beads in an arsenic solution,” he added nonchalantly.
He was creeping me out, but at least it looked like I’d come to the right guy. “Would that sort of method take a long time to kill someone?”
“An hour or so.”
“No, like six months.”
Marlowe shook his head. “Even assuming someone soaked her necklace in a weak solution, and she was in the habit of fingering the medallion, it wouldn’t have worked. Arsenic causes redness and swelling of the skin over time— she would have noticed. That’s why gradual poisoning is usually done in food. It’s tasteless and odorless, and in small doses, its symptoms are similar to food poisoning.”
“Her food was specially prepared and carefully tested,” Mac said. “And Lady Phemonoe was extremely . . . careful about poisons. You might almost say she was, well, not paranoid exactly, but—”