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I’d met senators before. Jie Yin had been an acquaintance of my mother’s since high school; I still remembered the time she spilled ice cream down the front of her dress at my parents’ Labor Day barbeque, and I helped her sponge it off.
Meeting a senator on Capitol Hill was an entirely different thing.
Julia Ramos was not an old friend of my mother’s, and her office stood behind a silver-lined iron fence positioned to disrupt any incoming magic. My visit was not a social occasion. Ramos was one of the people who held my future in her hands.
I’d been to her office twice before, both times in the company of my mother, who leveraged her friendship with Senator Yin to get an introduction. This time, though, I was on my own. The Dirksen Building sprawled to either side of me as I came up the front steps, a blocky, mid-twentieth-century structure that made only passing nod to classical elegance. The effect wasn’t exactly friendly.
Or maybe that was just my apprehension talking. Ramos wouldn’t have asked me to come by after work unless she had major news.
The guards must have been told to expect me, because I got through the security screening in record time. I almost wished it had taken longer; my feet dragged as I climbed the stairs. Major news could be good or bad. I’d been sorely tempted to pull out my tarot cards and ask which way things were headed, but it was hard to get clear indicators on a question too close to yourself, and questions didn’t get much closer than this one.
A lot of people had already gone home, but there were still plenty of staffers pulling late hours for their bosses. I passed half a dozen people on my way to Ramos’ office, and if five of them were too well-disciplined to double-take at the sight of me, I knew all six recognized my face—or rather, my eyes. No doubt they all knew what Ramos was working on. I wondered if I’d be the main topic of gossip over the coffee maker tomorrow.
It was a relief to pass through Ramos’ door at last. Her personal assistant Eduardo greeted me and nodded toward the inner door. “She’s waiting for you.”
At least I wouldn’t have extra time to fret myself into insanity. On the other hand, it also meant I didn’t have time to compose myself. Drawing a deep breath, I squared my shoulders and went in.
Julia Ramos was a tiny woman, barely higher than my shoulder, with hair more black-streaked grey than the reverse. She carried herself with a presence three times larger than her body, though. I imagined she had to, if she wanted to get business done on Capitol Hill. And she didn’t flinch from anything: when I came in, she rose and shook my hand, in a grip no less firm for being so small. My touch had to make her skin crawl—she was a baseline, no psychic gifts at all—but she showed no sign of it. “Kimberly, thank you for coming. Have a seat. Would you like Eduardo to get you a drink?”
“Just water, thanks.” I said the same thing every time I came. My mouth was dry with nerves.
Fortunately, Ramos didn’t beat around the bush. She picked up a thick file from her desk and said, “This is what we’ll be taking to conference tomorrow morning. Do you want to read it? The part that has to do with you, that is.”
The ice rattled as I took my glass of water from Eduardo. You would think, with me specializing in divination, that I would be okay with the idea of somebody holding my fate in her hand. But it was like Schroedinger’s proverbial box: I might be free or I might be trapped. I wouldn’t know until I opened the folder.
Or until I asked. “No, thank you,” I said, clutching the glass in both hands. “Just—can you summarize it?”
“What’s in there isn’t what we hope to end up with anyway,” Ramos said, tossing the folder onto a table. “We have to leave ourselves room to bargain. So there’s a few pie-in-the-sky elements, which we’ll end up conceding to Atwell and his crew—very reluctantly, of course—and when all the horse-trading is done, we’ll have something we can all live with. At least, we can hope so.”
I understood the political realities. Ramos and her people could write up my dream law, word for word . . . but it would never pass. The House and the Senate were far from agreeing on anything right now, my own situation least of all. The conference over this bill was going to be a nightmare.
Ramos gestured me to one leather-upholstered chair and settled into another. “The basic thrust of it is this. The people who wrote the original text for SUPRA assumed that anybody with a Krauss rating above point five was born that way—and mostly they were right. There were still a few wilders left who survived getting their gifts during First Manifestation, but by then most of them had passed away. Which meant everybody was willing to ignore the few leftovers and worry about writing a law that would apply to the children born in the future.
“But we can’t assume that anymore, which means we need to adapt our laws to suit the new reality. So what we’re proposing is a newer, more flexible definition for what constitutes a wilder. Or rather, doing away with ‘wilder’ as a single legal category, and creating several new groupings in its place.”
I nodded. I’d read through the text of the original Supernatural Powers Regulatory Act several times, to the point where I could quote parts of it from memory, but I preferred to deal with the plain-language version. “What will the categories be?”
She began ticking them off on her fingers. “The first category will cover everything from infants born with psychic gifts—in other words, wilders as people are used to thinking of them—up through any child who acquires an abnormally high Krauss rating before the usual manifestation of gifts at puberty. They will become wards of the state, as usual.” She paused, eyes flickering upward in a way that said she was suppressing a frown. “I’m hoping to get rid of the current provision about their families. There was no reason other than hysteria and prejudice to write that into SUPRA, and it will be much less traumatic for the older children if they don’t lose all contact with their birth parents.”
That would be a substantial change from the current arrangement. I’d asked Julian once whether he wondered about his birth family, and he’d shrugged it off with a total and apparently sincere lack of concern. He had a family: all the rest of the Fiain. They mattered more to him than the people who contributed DNA before handing him over to the state. But if the Centers started taking in children who had grown up in normal households, the close-knit bond between wilders might start to fray.
Ramos continued on, not pausing for digression. “The second group are children whose Krauss rating becomes elevated after ordinary manifestation, but before the age of majority. They’ll be handled on a more individualized basis, depending on circumstances, but the general idea is that they go away to boarding school. Although the Centers will be responsible for training them, those children will not be wards of the state, and will retain contact with their families even if the first category doesn’t.”
I couldn’t help but blow a breath out at that. This was what Ramos thought she could get through conference? She was a lot more optimistic than I was. Atwell wasn’t technically an Iron Shield, but he spent a lot of time listening to that crowd. They wouldn’t like seeing our current procedures revised this radically.
If I was being honest with myself, it made me afraid for my own chances.
“And so,” Ramos said, “we come to you.”
Me, and everybody like me. Which at the moment was nobody . . . but that could change. The Otherworld was back, after untold thousands of years, and the sidhe had a way to jack up people’s Krauss ratings, inducing the runaway genetic mutation that turned an ordinary psychic into a wilder. What they had done to me, they could do to other people.
But right now, what Ramos was saying applied to only one person on the planet.
She said, “Bloods who have already reached the age of majority when their Krauss ratings increase will be evaluated by officials from one of the Centers, who will be given the power to require additional training if necessary. But that is the limit of their authority.” Ramos didn’t meet my gaze; she had the fortitude to endure a handshake for the sake of manners, but not eye contact. Still, she looked squarely at my chin when she said, “They won’t be able to shield you.”
A shudder ran through me, down to my bones. That last bit wasn’t any kind of surprise; the whole reason I was here talking to Ramos, rather than being at the mercy of Atwell and the Iron Shields, was because she was willing to fight for my right to stay free. But hearing it still made me go weak with relief.
This was the real point of contention. There were other laws that governed wilders, but most of them either didn’t apply to me—I was twenty-one; they couldn’t make me a ward of the state—or else weren’t much of a concern. It would be weird to be Kimberly Fiain, rather than Kimberly Argant-Dubois, and I’d be pissed at the forced change, but I could live with it.
Whether I could live with the deep shield or not was something I’d prefer not to test.
Every other wilder in the United States, and in most of the rest of the world, had it installed in them shortly after they were born. Julian had explained the basics to me last fall, when the sidhe first appeared and he was afraid they were going to find a way to control him. It was a permanent structure, anchored deep within the spirit, that allowed anyone with the key to shut down a wilder’s gifts in an instant.
It was a training tool, and a necessary one. Nobody could maintain active shields on a kid for six years straight, until they were old enough to start learning control. And without some kind of block, those infants and toddlers would be lethally dangerous to themselves and everybody around them. So the deep shield let them grow up safely, in an educational framework that prepared them for the eventual release of their gifts. Once they were ready, the instructors would lift it—at first only for brief periods, getting longer as the kid’s control improved. By the time a wilder reached adulthood, he was fully trained and the shield was no longer necessary.
But the structure for it was still there. And if that wilder ever thought about stepping out of line later on, the deep shield was a very effective threat.
Julian hated it like poison. He’d spent two and a half years at Welton studying the theory and practice of shielding in a quest to get rid of the thing. These days I had a quest of my own: making sure nobody had a legal leg to stand on for inflicting it on me.
If Ramos’ proposal made it into the draft legislation for the Otherworld Act, and if the Act got passed, then I would be safe. But . . . “What about the other two categories?”
One thing I kept being grateful for: Ramos wasn’t the type of politician who buried you in a lot of puffery without ever quite answering the question. “Unfortunately, there’s no good answer for that. We have no feasible replacement for the deep shield when it comes to childhood training. So it will apply to Category One wilders, as usual. Category Two will be a grey zone, depending on what the Center recommends. Older children could potentially get away without it.”
I doubted many of them would. The ability to control wilders as needed was too useful. “Okay, then what about removing it from adults?”
Ramos shook her head before the words were even out. She knew that question was coming. “I’m sorry, Kim. Not right now. Not this bill. If we even touch that subject, it will guarantee failure for the whole thing. The Otherworld is back; sooner or later we’re going to have sidhe walking the streets of American cities. Nobody wants to hear that we’re removing safeguards—no matter how good the arguments for it are. But this creates a precedent: if you don’t have the deep shield, it becomes much more difficult to justify keeping fully trained wilders under that kind of control. Give it a little while, and we’ll have a basis of support for removing it from the others.”
I’d heard that reasoning before. My lawyer said nearly the same thing when he told me he was going to drag his heels every step of the way in my court case. The lower courts had all ruled that under the current law, I was a wilder, and therefore subject to the authority of the Division for Special Psychic Affairs—deep shield included. We’d managed to get a stay of execution on that ruling while we went through the appeals process, though, and Lotze had taken his sweet time filing every bit of paperwork he could. It was a delicate dance, making sure he didn’t piss off a judge along the way, but the payoff was that I was walking around unshielded the whole time, a safe and trustworthy member of society. It didn’t have any direct bearing on the legal issues, but the effect was still real. A judge who didn’t believe I needed to be shielded was a judge inclined to look on our side’s case with a favorable eye.
In political terms, I was a live grenade nobody wanted to be left holding. Congress wished the Supreme Court would rule on my case so they wouldn’t have to rewrite the law to deal with pesky ambiguities like me. The Supreme Court wanted Congress to fix the law so they wouldn’t have to rule on my case. And the Division for Special Psychic Affairs was screaming bloody murder the whole time, because their job was to make sure wilders didn’t cause mayhem in the streets. A brand-new wilder with no shield and only half a college degree in divination under her belt was pretty much their nightmare scenario.
The worst part was, they weren’t entirely wrong. Before this happened to me, I didn’t use pyrokinesis much because my gift for it was really weak. Now I didn’t use it at all, because I couldn’t trust myself not to fireball an entire candle when I meant to light the wick. I’d spent the last nine years with a toolbox containing things ranging from screwdrivers to needle-nosed pliers, and then the Unseelie hid the toolbox and handed me a sledgehammer. I was still trying to find where my subtlety had gone.
Which meant, among other things, that I was being exceedingly careful about reading other people. Ramos was hard to read anyway; being a baseline, she couldn’t do any of the unconscious telepathic projection that bloods often did. I had to go by body language alone, and that was an eye-opening experience. I didn’t realize how much time I’d spent around psychics until I found myself working with somebody who had no gifts at all.
We talked a bit longer after that, mainly questions of how long conference would take—Ramos said, “Your tarot cards might know, but I sure as hell don’t”—and what little I could do to help. My mother had been acting as my advocate, working every D.C. connection she had on my behalf, but my own use basically ended at being a poster child for the cause.
Which was galling as hell after last fall. I’d been an active participant in the return of the sidhe, even to the point of being kidnapped and genetically rewritten by the Unseelie. Now I was just a bystander.
Maybe it was my frustration that made me pause as I was about to head out. “Did you need something else?” Ramos asked, already halfway back to her desk.
Part of me said I shouldn’t ask, but the words refused to stay down. “Senator . . . don’t take this the wrong way. But — why are you helping me?”
She stopped, laying her hands on the surface of her desk. Her steady regard made me shift uncomfortably. “You mean, why would a baseline like me take an interest in a cause that is so profoundly about sidhe blood and its gifts.”
I never would have said it that way. But now that she had, I didn’t want to lie. I nodded.
Ramos looked down at her hands. She wore a wedding ring, and touched it now with her thumb, rotating it slightly. “You never knew my wife. She passed away a few years ago—she was quite a bit older than I am. She was a blood, and a doctor. Her specialty was dealing with psi-sickness.”
I swallowed hard. The return of the sidhe had brought the answers to a lot of questions, one of which was the nature of psi-sickness. It turned out to be the flip side of the wilder coin: if people like Julian were the success story, my brother Noah and others like him were the failures. I was lucky I’d survived what the Unseelie did to me. My odds had not been very good.
Ramos said, “My wife had a child when she was much younger. A wilder. I haven’t mentioned it before now because I don’t feel right trying to claim her experience for my own; I’m not the one who lost a child to the current law. But I know that if she were still alive, she would have supported you.”
“Thank you for telling me,” I said quietly. It seemed insufficient somehow, but I didn’t know what else to say.
“I am not doing this only for Carrina,” Ramos said, her voice stronger. “Don’t start thinking you’re only a pity case, a memorial for my late wife. But that is where it started.”
I would have accepted being a pity case, if it meant having an ally as effective as Ramos. But I was glad to be more than that. “Good luck tomorrow,” I said, and headed home to fret.
Surprise and confusion stopped Julian in his tracks. Almost no one called him that, because every wilder was a Fiain. Even in official situations, they usually went by their first names. The only reason for someone to call him “Mr. Fiain” was if the speaker had no idea who he was.
He turned to look, wondering if someone was in trouble and calling for a Guardian—someone they assumed was a Guardian—to help. What he found instead was a table with a middle-aged woman standing behind it, and an array of flyers in front of her held down by lumps of crystal. It was still possible she needed help, though, so he kept his expression neutral as he approached. “Yes?”
She was white and probably in her forties, and psychic. She didn’t meet Julian’s eyes, of course, but she directed her gaze and her words at his sternum with no shortage of enthusiasm. “Will you sign our petition? The government has to listen, if you speak.”
It would be nice if that were true, he thought sourly. “What’s the petition?” A quick scan of the flyers showed an array of Wiccan symbols and some familiar words. Otherworld. Sidhe. It gave him an inkling even before she answered.
“A request—no, a demand—for them to let the sidhe come home! The Otherworld has returned to us at last, and they think they have the right to keep the two worlds separate? They’re keeping you from your family!”
At times like this, Julian was grateful for the long years of practice that taught him not to show his true thoughts. Without that, he would have laughed in this woman’s face.
She didn’t recognize him. His name had been in the news often enough after Welton closed down, and sometimes they included his picture . . . but until technomagic found a way to convey psychic powers through audio or video, an image would always fall short of truly representing a wilder on screen.
If she actually looked at him, she might recognize his face. So long as she kept her gaze below his chin, though, she had no idea he’d been the first one to make contact with the sidhe last fall.
“They aren’t my family,” he said, trying to keep the words neutral instead of harsh. Even the friendly Seelie were far more alien to him than human beings were. “And the planar injunction is a good idea. Without it, we’d have chaos right now.”
They had some amount of chaos anyway, and whether or not the planar injunction was having any real effect was anybody’s guess. It was the greatest undertaking of ceremonial magic in recorded history: a global ward placed at the boundary between the mortal world and the Otherworld, restricting contact between the two. Julian was certain the sidhe could violate it if they wanted to, though they had promised the U.N. they would respect it until some kind of agreement could be reached about relations between the two realms. Whether they could violate it without anybody noticing was less certain.
But at least it prevented people like this woman from jaunting off to meet the fairies. And it meant there weren’t sidhe openly walking around every major city, sparking riots and religious revivals everywhere they went. There had still been some riots, usually when demonstrations and counter-protests went sour, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been—at least so far.
“Chaos?” the woman said indignantly. “This is the promised day! Our immortal cousins have returned to us at last! Once they bring their gifts to the whole world, we won’t suffer these problems, the hatred of the baseline for the blood. You won’t be shunned for your power!”
There was no way to answer her that wouldn’t turn into an argument. Have you read any First Manifestation history? would only make her defensive. The Unseelie nearly killed the woman I love by sharing their “gifts” with her would give away his identity and draw far too much attention.
If you’re so eager to see me welcomed in, why won’t you look me in the eye?
“I’m afraid I have an appointment to keep,” Julian said, and walked away.
Naive as that woman was, Julian had heard and read about far worse. A cult had formed in New Mexico and then committed mass suicide, convinced they would reincarnate as sidhe. A new Christian sect was on the rise in Iowa, preaching that the return of the Otherworld was the Second Coming, and a Seelie Christ would rain destruction on all the baselines while sweeping the sidhe-blooded psychics into paradise. Fiain had been attacked in Seattle, Houston, Kansas City. At least that woman and her petition weren’t violent.
Things in D.C. had been relatively quiet, thanks to some well-calibrated efforts to keep the peace. A number of Fiain Guardians had arrived over the last few months, likely drawn there by the ancient geas that guided them to where trouble would be. Marches and protests were monitored for flash points even before they began, courtesy of extensive divination, and the failure of the nation’s capital to go up in flames helped keep things from spinning out of control elsewhere in the country.
And the whole time, Julian stood by and watched.
Four Mile Run Park wasn’t heavily populated after dark. A few joggers went by, some of them with dogs in tandem, and cyclists flowed past on their way through, but the night wasn’t warm enough for people to sit on the benches just for the pleasure of fresh air. The bars were chill beneath his legs before he threaded heat into them, and the wind bit at his cheeks as he waited.
Fortunately, he didn’t have to wait long. Grayson was a punctual woman.
Julian rose to his feet when he saw her approaching. Once she was near enough to speak without raising her voice, Grayson said dryly, “You make me feel like a character from a spy thriller, meeting you this way.”
She could pass for one without much trouble. Her black coat blended with the shadows, and her dark skin scarcely stood out more; only her cropped hair was a spot of brightness, shocking white beneath one of the scattered lamps. Julian said, “I can’t exactly do things officially, when nobody has made me official.”
Grayson inclined her head to one side. He took the implicit invitation, ambling across the grass at a slow pace, away from the cyclists and joggers, toward the stream that gave the park its name. “Your unofficial status means I shouldn’t even be talking to you,” Grayson said. “Unless you called me out here for a chat about your courses for next fall — which I doubt.”
Julian didn’t smile. They both knew he wasn’t likely to ever go back to Welton. As near as anyone could tell, half the impulse that sent him to college in the first place had been work of the geas. Now that the Otherworld had returned, there was no need for him there anymore. The other half . . . .
No one was likely to let him go on studying how to break the deep shield. Not when they were busy arguing about whether they should be allowed to inflict it on Kim, too.
“I’m tired of being useless,” Julian said bluntly. “If they aren’t willing to make me a registered Guardian yet, fine. But I want to do something.”
It was galling, being relegated the sidelines after everything that had gone before. Julian had no illusions; he knew the task of dealing with the Otherworld was no longer his problem. It had only been circumstance and the geas that put him on the front lines in the first place. The situation was much too large for any single person, and there was little space in it for a private citizen to help out. It was a matter for the governments of the world and their duly appointed representatives.
At first he’d been able to help. He’d been questioned more than a dozen times by everyone from the DSPA to the CIA, relating every last bit of information he’d gathered about the sidhe. He even submitted to telepathic interrogation, letting one of his fellow wilders drag out shreds of memory too small for him to consciously recall. He hated the mental intrusion, but he was willing to endure it, for the sake of doing what he could.
After that, though . . . nothing.
“You took yourself out of the system,” Grayson reminded him. “There are well-honed procedures in place for shifting wilders from the Centers into the Guardian Corps, but not for doing the same with a college student barely two years into his degree.”
The difference shouldn’t matter. College student or no, Julian was still a wilder. He had the Krauss rating and the resulting strength of gift, and he had all the training the Fiain received before reaching the age of majority. There were things he still needed to learn, but that was true of every wilder when they left the Center. There was no reason he couldn’t go through the usual crash course and be certified as a Guardian.
No reason except bureaucracy. He’d dealt with it before, when he convinced everyone he should be permitted to get out of the system and go to Welton. Now he had to climb that mountain again, this time to get back in.
“Are you active again?” he asked Grayson.
She shook her head. “I did my tour of duty. I have official status as an advisor, but I’m not going back into the field.”
Which meant she wouldn’t be able to pull strings on his behalf. She was just a professor, teaching students who sometimes became Guardians in turn.
The next thought had barely formed in his mind before she shook her head. “No, Julian. I won’t train you on the sly. It isn’t my place, and if someone found out, it might do your cause more harm than good. I’m afraid you’ll just have to wait for the bureaucratic snarl to sort itself out.”
There was an undercurrent to her words. Julian wondered what she wasn’t saying. “Is it just a snarl? Or is there something else?”
The stream lay just ahead; Grayson stopped before the grass became marshy. She locked her hands behind her back and gazed at the water, not answering him.
Which was an answer in its own right. Julian couldn’t keep the bitterness from his voice as he said, “I suppose I haven’t really proved myself. I only have more first-hand experience of the sidhe than just about anyone on the planet.” Anyone except for Kim.
“Look at it from the other direction,” Grayson said. Her breath huffed out quietly, almost a snort. “Think of history.”
First Manifestation? No, something else; he caught a whiff of that from her, though no specifics. Julian’s knowledge of history was patchwork at best. It was a lesser priority at the Center than magical education. But with her comment about spy thrillers fresh in his mind, he saw where she aimed.
He supposed it made sense. After all, the Unseelie had managed to suborn Kim for a time, turning her into their willing agent. What if they had done something subtler to Julian himself? The full extent of their abilities was still a dangerous unknown. With a jolt, he wondered if the telepathic interrogation had stopped at surveying his memories. He doubted it had.
“I’m not working for the Unseelie,” he said. The words sounded flat and cold even to his own ears. “Not voluntarily. Not if my life depended on it. And if they planted any kind of trigger in my mind, someone would have found it.”
Grayson nodded. “Indeed. And yet.”
And yet, they didn’t trust him. Which was more valuable to them? One wilder, not yet fully qualified to work as a Guardian? Or the assurance that they could trust the Guardians they had?
Julian clamped down on his anger by reflex, then almost laughed. He should be embracing the impulse. Weren’t his feelings a defense against the sidhe? If they’d left a trigger in his head, his sheer hatred of the Unseelie would have erased it by now.
But the training was too ingrained, the years in which any open display of emotion would have met with disapproval, even punishment. He maintained control, even when he didn’t want to.
Grayson said, “You have ways to keep busy, I’m sure. Assisting Kim, for example. And I happen to know that Guan recently came to the city. No doubt you have other friends here, too, who would be glad to see you.”
Julian went still. Grayson’s expression was mild, looking out over the water, at the lights of the city. But that hadn’t been an idle comment. Grayson didn’t make idle comments.
If Guan was in town, that might solve several problems at once.
“Thank you,” Julian said.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t be of more use,” Grayson said. “Do stay in touch, though.” Without any further farewell, she turned and headed for the nearest path.
Julian stayed by the pond, looking at the water. Then he took out his port and began to search for his old teacher.
The rocking of the Metro train threatened to put me to sleep on the way home, but I tried to stay alert. The late meeting with Ramos meant the car was mostly empty, which was both good and bad. Good because nobody had to try to avoid bumping into me; bad because one of the few people there might decide to cause trouble. It had happened two weeks ago, when a group of guys started shouting at me—“Go home, changeling,” that sort of thing. Fortunately there had been enough other people in the car to keep them from really coming after me. But it meant I couldn’t relax.
Not that I’d been relaxing much lately, on trains or off them. Going home to Atlanta after Welton closed down should have been a relief. As it turned out, not so much. My mother would never yell “Go home, changeling” at anybody on a train, but her prejudice against wilders was more deeply ingrained than I’d realized.
So I’d fled Atlanta for D.C., persuading my boss at Future Advisory Research to let me start my summer internship a few months early. At least that gave me something to think about besides my own problems—even if that something was other people’s problems. Plus, being here made it easier to meet with my lawyer, Ramos, anybody who might be able to help me. I’d testified in front of congressional committees several times, and would have been called in more if my mere presence didn’t make people’s skin crawl. It was a fine line to walk between reminding everybody who would decide my fate that I was a real live human being, and reminding them that nearly a third of my DNA actually wasn’t human.
Letting myself think about that was a mistake. It was just a hop, a skip, and a jump from there to remembering how I got this way. My breath shallowed; my heart sped up. I made myself go through one of the calming exercises my therapist had taught me, cataloguing everything on the train. Nine support poles. Eight seats in each block. Three blocks of seats on each side of the train. I wasn’t in the Otherworld. Hell, this was one of the old train lines; with the steel rails rushing by beneath me, I was about as far from the Otherworld as I could get.
But my nerves were frayed by stress and bad sleep, and it was easy to get worked up over nothing.
It would have helped if I had any social life to speak of. Apart from Julian, the only human contact I got these days was with co-workers, politicians, and my lawyer. Welton had closed for the rest of the academic year, scattering my friends to the four corners of the globe. Robert’s father had pulled strings to get him enrolled in the Ardcholáiste na Draíochta in Galway, and Robert feared, not without cause, that he might not be allowed to escape Ireland a second time. Liesel was having a better time of it: she’d been allowed to sit in on an interdisciplinary program for psychiatry, empathy, and social work, even if she wasn’t earning credits for any of it. The rest of the Palladian Circle were at various schools — not that I could count myself as a part of that group anymore. The sympathetic connection between us had been severed before I left Welton, as a security measure.
No, that wasn’t fair. Michele had sent me a message immediately afterward: You’re still one of us. That bond was sacred as well as magical, at least to her, and no athame could cut it entirely.
But messages were no substitute for real human contact. At least I talked with Liesel on a regular basis, though it shamed me to admit half of that was because I hadn’t yet found a therapist in D.C. Liesel wasn’t a professional—not yet, anyway—but she’d been there for the events at Welton, and that mattered. I didn’t have to recount yet again how I’d been kidnapped by the Unseelie, my genes rewritten, my spirit bound to fight for their side. I didn’t have to explain my mother’s prejudices against wilders; I could just tell her how badly my mother was coping with the fact that her daughter had become one. Liesel couldn’t work her empathic mojo over a video call, but being able to talk helped.
The PA system announced my stop. Yawning, I got to my feet and slouched out onto the platform. Nobody else got off, which was unusual. I was reaching up to tie my hair back when I realized I’d made a mistake. This was McPherson Square, not Rosslyn—but the train was already pulling out of the station.
I stood frozen, my hands behind my head. I was tired, but not that tired. I had distinctly heard the loudspeaker announce Rosslyn.
A glitch, then. I would have to wait for the next train.
But the platform was dim and deserted, and bits of trash made skittering sounds as a draft blew them across the concrete. It was late enough that I’d be waiting quite a while for the next train—much longer than I wanted to. The station was dim and grungy, barely renovated since First Manifestation, and I wanted to be home.
Laughter ghosted through the air.
Every nerve in my body went on high alert. This was all too familiar. Last fall one of the Unseelie had staged a poltergeist scene in Talman Library, starting with books and ending with shards of computer screens. Were they about to do the same here?
There wasn’t much to throw, apart from stray candy wrappers. Unless they could rip the benches free of their bolts? I put my back to an information post, trying to look in all directions at once, and cursed myself for not carrying my athame. I still barely knew how to use the ritual knife as a combat tool, but it did give me comfort, and a way to focus my power.
The Unseelie had left me alone since last fall. I’d deluded myself into thinking that meant I was safe.
Or maybe I was deluding myself now. That could have been some passenger laughing, somebody downstairs on the platform for the Diamond Line. Just because I’d been their target once didn’t mean I would be again. The sidhe weren’t supposed to be here anyway; Ring Anchors like my mother were helping to keep them out.
Even if this was just a panic attack, I’d feel calmer if I were ready. I brought my shields up, blessing the fact that I’d been practicing with Julian. Emotion, at least of the more complex sort, helped defend against the sidhe; they lacked our capacity for it, and it could eat away at their magic. But I couldn’t stage an empathic assault unless I had a target to aim it at.
With the utmost care, I sent out a tentative probe. The iron in the architecture made it hard to do, but I persevered. If there was a sidhe out there, I needed to know.
Something spun my mind like a top, giving me vertigo. Only my grip on the post at my back kept me upright. What the hell had that been? Some kind of attack? Or just my tiredness getting the better of me, too much energy drained out of me at the end of a long day?
I could run. The signal boards were black and dead; it might be half an hour until the next train. If I left the station . . . McPherson Square wasn’t the best area at night, but I’d feel better with people around. Assume for the moment the Unseelie were indeed after me again: would that deter them, or just put innocents in the line of fire?
The wind picked up. I craned my neck, but there was no train approaching, that might account for it. More and more trash blew through the station, as if all the rubbish of McPherson Square had been gathered for the purpose. I wrapped my hands around the post, bracing my hips against them, concentrating on making a telekinetic shield. Newspapers couldn’t hurt me, but gods only knew what might be concealed behind them. Did the Unseelie want me dead, for having escaped their grasp?
The sudden blare of the train whistle made me scream. Light flooded the platform, the beams far too bright in the dimness. I flinched away—and that saved me.
A figure had crept up the stairs on my right, shrouded by the whirling trash. Even as I turned, it raised its hands to shove me into the path of the oncoming train.
I reacted on pure instinct. It wasn’t a fancy combat trick or anything Julian had taught me; it was just a gout of flame, roaring from my own hands straight toward the sidhe who was trying to kill me.
Toward him . . . and through.
The afterimage burned in my retinas, temporarily blinding me. I blinked it away, and found the station quiet.
No whirlwind of trash. No approaching train. No sidhe.
Just a smoldering sign where my flame had struck the wall at the head of the stairs—and a man collapsed on the steps, arms wrapped protectively over his head.
My breath came in quick gasps. Oh, gods. A trick. None of it had been real. A glamour, maybe—several glamours—and I almost hit a stranger . . . .
“Are you okay?” I hurried forward, though not without a swift glance around to make sure nothing else was coming. The man started to get up; I reached out to help. My hand touched the bare skin of his arm, and he threw himself back with a cry.
Shit. I had forgotten.
He stared at me in horror. The light was full on my face; there was no way he could miss the golden eyes. Unseelie eyes, and a wilder’s skin-crawling touch—and from his perspective, I had just tried to burn him alive.
“Please, wait!” I cried, but it was too late. The man flung himself past me at full tilt, just like I’d once run from the Unseelie in Talman. “It was—”
He leapt up the nearest escalator two steps at a time and vanished into the station above. “An accident,” I whispered, sagging down onto the filthy floor.
Except it wasn’t an accident. I closed my eyes and sent my senses outward again, bolder this time, sweeping the station for any hint of the Unseelie. I found nothing. They had to have been here, and probably more than one; we didn’t know all of their capabilities yet, but we knew it was hard for them to make large or full-sensory glamours. What I’d just experienced would have taken several working in concert: one for the train, maybe, another for the trash, a third for the attack. I cursed through my teeth. One on the train, to make me get off at the wrong stop, a deserted platform where I could be more easily manipulated.
I couldn’t even be sure that man had been real.
No, he was real. Maybe the Unseelie could have faked that — but it would entertain them more to make me endanger an actual person.
My breath was still coming in quick gasps. I floundered for a calming exercise, but couldn’t think of one. Fuck. My focus was in shreds. I got up and started walking in little circles, burning off the nervous energy. The posts around me were not stalagmites, were not Unseelie sidhe lying in disguised wait. The Metro was not the cave where they’d changed me. Where had that guy gone? I wished I could run after him, try to explain what had happened. If he’d even listen. But the only way to find him would be to chase him down psychically, and I didn’t think that would help matters any.
The sign at the top the stairs, announcing repairs to the Diamond Line, was still smoldering. I dragged myself together by sheer force of will and snuffed it out.
Enough of my panic had faded that my body was shaking. I sank down onto one of the benches, wrapping my arms tightly around my middle. I had gone three months without facing any of the sidhe.
It wasn’t long enough.