Bad Boy's Bard (Fae Out of Water, #3)
This title is #3 of the Fae Out of Water series.
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As far as rock star Gareth Kendrick, the last true bard in Faerie, is concerned, the only good Unseelie is . . . well . . . there’s no such thing. Two centuries ago, an Unseelie lord abducted Gareth’s human lover, Niall, and Gareth has neither forgotten nor forgiven.
Niall O’Tierney, half-human son of the Unseelie King, had never lost a wager until the day he swore to rid the Seelie court of its bard. That bet cost him everything: his freedom, his family—and his heart. When he’s suddenly face-to-face with Gareth at the ceremony to join the Seelie and Unseelie realms, Niall does the only thing inhumanly possible: he fakes amnesia. Not his finest hour, perhaps, but he never revealed his Unseelie heritage, and to tell the truth now would be to risk Gareth’s revulsion—far harder to bear than two hundred years of imprisonment.
Then a new threat to Gareth’s life arises, and he and Niall stage a mad escape into the Outer World, only to discover the fate of all fae resting on their shoulders. But before they can save the realm, they have to tackle something really tough: mending their own broken relationship.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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“Niall. Do you know how long I’ve been searching for you?”
At the sound of his brother’s impossibly deep voice, Niall O’Tierney jumped to his feet, knocking over his stool.
Eamon advanced into Niall’s quarters, his broad shoulders barely clearing the door. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you.”
“You didn’t.” But jumping to attention when he was addressed was a hard habit to break. “What brings you to my little corner? Shouldn’t you be getting ready for your wedding?”
“That’s why I’m here.” Eamon eyed the fire roaring in the hearth. “How you can suffer through this heat is more than I can fathom.”
Niall righted the stool. “Heat? My dear brother, compared to what I’m used to, your Keep is positively arctic.”
Eamon’s forehead wrinkled in concern. “I’m sorry. I should have—”
“It’s all right. You needn’t treat me like an invalid.” Even if I am one. “Don’t forget, I’ve survived a night drinking with the duergar. And that involved shots of fermented dragon bile infused with crushed holly berries.”
Eamon smiled, shaking his head. “How you could stomach that—”
“Oi. It was a wager, all right? Besides, it netted me a boon. I’ll call it in one day.”
Eamon’s smile widened. “No wonder they’re so nervous around you. I’d never thought duergar capable of anxiety.”
Niall shrugged. “Just takes the right leverage.” Niall had always known how to apply it.
“Yes. Well.” Eamon cleared his throat. “There are several issues that we must discuss before the Convergence ceremonies. Some things that might . . .” He grimaced. “Disturb you. I wish you to be prepared.”
Niall bowed his head. “You needn’t ask, Your Highness. I appreciate the consideration.”
“Ah, give over, Niall. You don’t need to address me that way. We’re brothers.”
“Yes, and you’re the King by Faerie’s acclamation, even though you’re putting off official coronation until after the Convergence. We wouldn’t want to scandalize the court by an unseemly display of informality.”
“You mean we wouldn’t want to give anyone else the chance for insolence.”
“That too. I’m surprised the whole court didn’t forget that Tiarnach had any sons at all, let alone two of them.”
“All the more reason for us to present a united front. Tonight is a critical juncture. If we—”
A startled cheep from the doorway made them both turn. Peadar, a brownie who’d been one of Niall’s staunchest allies for most of his life, cringed at the threshold, his arms full of velvet and fur. “Your pardon, Majesty, Highness. For the interruption. I bring Prince Niall’s clothing for the feast and the ceremony.”
Despite the reforms Eamon had already put in place after deposing their father, the lesser fae on the Keep staff who’d toiled under the old King couldn’t make the transition to the more lenient regime overnight. They still instinctively expected a blow at every transgression, no matter how small.
Niall could relate. Thanks to his own punishment at Tiarnach’s hands, he had the same reaction himself.
He strode across the room and took the bundle of clothing from Peadar’s arms. “Please don’t call me Highness. I’m not a prince.” Not anymore.
Peadar looked down his long nose. “Those as act like a true prince are treated as one. Highness.” He bobbed his head at Eamon and scurried out.
Niall returned to the hearth where his brother was waiting. “I’m sorry. What did you want to discuss?”
“Do you recall the Seelie traitor we left in the underworld along with Father when we rescued you?”
“You mean the Daoine Sidhe—the one-handed one, who spewed such invective when you removed his mute curse?”
“The very same.” Eamon scowled. “He was Caitrìona’s—that is, the Queen’s—former Consort until he tried to usurp her throne.”
Niall chuckled, his laugh still sounding like an unoiled hinge, since he’d had so little opportunity for amusement in the last two centuries. “Jealousy doesn’t become you, Your Majesty.”
“I told you not to call me that.”
“Is that an order?”
Eamon sighed. “Of course not. But I want to be your friend again, Niall, not your sovereign. I’ve missed you.”
And here I’ve been acting like a typical self-absorbed Unseelie arsehole. “Forgive me, Eamon. I missed you too, and I’ve never even asked. What were you doing during my unfortunate incarceration? Finding new and creative ways to make Tiarnach’s life miserable?”
“No. I . . . I spent it in exile. I returned the same night you did.”
Niall goggled at him. “What? Why have you never told me this?”
“When have I had the opportunity?” Eamon’s voice took on an exasperated edge. “You’ve spoken barely a word to me in the entire two weeks since your release. You dodge me, hiding here in your quarters, or down in the kitchen, huddled by the fire, surrounded by lesser fae who regard me like I might suddenly turn into Father and dash their brains out against the hearth.”
“So you’re telling me Tiarnach got rid of us both? Was it . . . was it my fault?”
“In a way . . .”
“Shite,” Niall muttered. “I brought nothing but misery to everyone I cared about. If I had known—”
“Peace.” Eamon held out his hand and Niall clutched it perhaps harder than he should have, but Danu’s tits, if he’d known Tiarnach would vent his fury on Eamon . . .
“I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t be.” Eamon squeezed Niall’s hand in return. “I don’t blame you for Father’s decision. Although he used my assistance to you as an excuse, I have no doubt he’d have found another reason to curse me in the end. He was convinced one or the other of us was plotting to usurp him.”
Niall forced a smile that was doubtless a parody of his old irreverent grin. “A rather prophetic fear, at least in your case.”
“More like a self-fulfilling prophecy. If he hadn’t been obsessed with punishing you, with killing Gareth Cynwrig—”
Niall’s belly clenched, and he dropped Eamon’s hand as if it were molten iron. “Don’t. Please.” Niall had taken the sentence Tiarnach had meted out—every stroke of the lash; every hour, every day, every year of the futile backbreaking labor. Stoking the fire, hauling piles of metal scrap from one cavern to another, working the bellows as Govannon forged weapon after weapon—only to melt them down again into scrap and leave Niall to drag it all off to the scrap room to begin the cycle again the next day. He’d taken it, and gladly, because Tiarnach, certain Niall would break and be brought to heel, had declared none but Niall would kill Gareth. Niall had clung to that, believing that as long as he remained imprisoned, Gareth’s life was safe.
“I’m not ready to talk about him.” I may never be ready. Because not two days before he’d been liberated, his back still bloody from another unscheduled flogging, he’d learned it had all been for nothing. Tiarnach had confessed gleefully that he’d grown tired of waiting and killed Gareth himself.
Niall could only hope Tiarnach had been more merciful to Gareth than he’d been to his own sons. How likely is that, you bloody great twit?
“Niall.” Eamon laid his arm across Niall’s shoulders and Niall flinched, his back no more fully healed from that last beating than his heart had healed from Tiarnach’s final blow. Eamon dropped his arm. “I’m sorry. I thought—now that you’re back in Faerie, haven’t you recovered yet?”
“When the whip is wielded by a god, my brother, not even a fae royal can heal the wounds.”
“I never thought Govannon was so very cruel.”
“He’s not, at least not purposely. But he’s neither judge nor jury—only the jailer, and indifferent to anything but atoning for his own guilt. Once Tiarnach condemned me, Govannon’s duty was to carry out the sentence. So he did.”
Eamon closed his eyes, his face contorting with pain. “Believe me, if I had known what Father had planned, I would have done everything in my power to dissuade him.”
“Your belief in the power of words is touching, but nobody has ever convinced Tiarnach to change his mind. To do so would be to admit he was wrong in the first place. Inconceivable.”
“I was fully aware of Father’s ruthlessness, but I never imagined he’d take leave of his reason so completely.”
Niall gripped Eamon’s forearm. “It’s done. In the past. Leave it and tell me what’s got you worried about the future.”
“Very well. According to Fionbarr, we need—”
“He’s First Mage now, the primary architect of the Convergence spell. He says that in order for the Convergence to succeed, all fae—and no one else—must be present, inside the gates, when the spell takes effect. That means both Father and Rodric Luchullain must be brought into the Keep from the forges.”
Niall shivered. Once again under the same roof as the man who was unfortunately his father? I’ll bear it. I must. “Will I need to be present then, or share the room with him?”
“No. I’ll make sure you’re advised well in advance, and Fionbarr has orders to take them to the dungeons directly. They’re shackled with a druid-made chain, and Fionbarr will be escorting them, along with a full cadre of guards.”
“Very well. Is there anything else?”
Eamon ducked his head, looking as shamefaced as six feet eight inches of solid muscle could. “The procession from the Keep to the Stone Circle will leave soon after the feast. Caitrìona’s entourage will leave her pavilion in the Seelie realm at the same time.”
“A parade.” Niall applauded slowly. “How festive.”
“I’m afraid you must be part of it, Niall. I’d spare you if I could, but your presence is necessary for the spell. Also . . .” Eamon’s gaze dropped to his feet. “I would ask you to stand by me at my handfasting.”
Ah, shite. How could he refuse? “Of course. But I warn you—I’ll not be able to stomach the feast. You’re on your own there.”
“I suspected as much.” Eamon withdrew a small velvet bag from his belt pouch. “I want you to have this.”
Niall took it, hesitant to look inside, but by the weight and size, the bag held an item not much bigger than his thumbnail. “What is it?”
“Fionbarr calls is a binding stone. Caitrìona has the mate to it. We’ll offer them to him on the altar as the final part of the Convergence spell.”
Niall thrust the bag back. “Then you keep it.”
Eamon closed his fist over Niall’s. “No. You’ve been disregarded in Faerie almost since your birth because of Father’s attitude and court politics.” Eamon released Niall’s hand and smiled wryly. “Your own antics didn’t help, of course. Baiting the trows with enchanted dice? You were lucky to escape with your head.”
Niall shrugged, then winced at the chafe of his shirt on his back. “I was in no danger. They were too busy trying to cheat each other to wonder why I won every third throw.”
“Nevertheless, I want you to be part of this new Faerie. We’re so few now, where once we were many. All fae should feel welcome: Unseelie, Seelie, greater, lesser, Scots, Irish, Welsh—and whatever of the Cornish, Manx, and Bretons we can find. You’re somewhat of a hero to the lesser fae, you know.”
“Me? I never did anything special.”
“No? As I recall, the incident with the trows involved a pack who’d attacked a bauchan den. And somehow the courtiers who lost most disastrously at your famous card parties were the ones who were most churlish to the Keep’s staff.”
Niall shifted uneasily. He hadn’t realized he’d been quite so transparent in his targets. “Those arseholes simply thought they were better players than they actually were.”
“Niall. Accept it. You were treated as an outsider your whole life, and I know it hurt you. I don’t blame you for your rebellion. In fact, I envied your courage at the same time I despaired of your recklessness. I’d never have dared oppose and flaunt our Father’s will as you did.”
Niall held up his abraded wrists. “Much good it did me in the end.”
Eamon grasped his biceps. “I want you to be a part of this ceremony. Integral to it. Like it or not, you’re the standard bearer for the disenfranchised.”
“So if I can be brought back into the fold, there’s hope for anyone?” Niall couldn’t help the scorn in his tone.
“Think of it this way—if you refuse, will all who look to you as a champion believe that the new order will be as corrupt, as rigid, as the old? Do this for me, Niall, please. Do this for Peadar and Heilyn and all the other lesser fae who look to you for fair treatment.”
Niall took a deep breath. As little as he wanted to plunge back into politics, how could he refuse Eamon this simple request? It was little enough.
Eamon, however, had done the impossible—forged alliances between natural enemies, defeated his own curse, deposed Tiarnach—and won the Seelie Queen as his mate. Yet the first thing he’d done afterward had been to release Niall from captivity.
A public gesture in support of his brother and the Queen. What could it hurt? He could always hide out again afterward.
“Very well. What must I do?”
“Fionbarr will call for the stones at the proper time in the ceremony. You only need to come forward then and hand this one to me. Stand next to me during the handfasting.”
“Will Caitrìona have someone at her side as well?”
“She will, but not family. Her champions, Lord Cynwrig and Lord Maldwyn.”
Niall flinched and turned away, staring out the narrow embrasure at the forest beyond the Keep. Gareth’s brothers. He’d never met them, but he’d heard of them. They couldn’t have taken the news of Gareth’s death well, yet they’d still chosen to take part in the ceremony. They’d know about Gareth’s life in the years I lost—how he filled his days, what made him smile, his music . . . If Niall’s heart weren’t still so raw from the loss, and if he weren’t certain they’d hate him for his betrayal, he’d beg them for the tales.
“Have you studied the documents I gave you? The details of the Convergence spell?”
“A bit.” Niall glanced guiltily at the rolls of parchment on his table. “There are a lot of them.”
“Yes, because it’s a very complicated spell. I’d value your opinion.”
“Me? But I’m not a mage.”
“No, but you’re clever, far cleverer than me. That cleverness is something Caitrìona and I desperately need in the combined court. She has her trusted advisors in the Cynwrig brothers. I have only you.”
Niall shifted uneasily from foot to foot. “Surely Fionbarr—”
Eamon waved one giant hand. “Fionbarr is interested in the Convergence only as a magical puzzle. He has no real allegiance to me, or to anything other than his own study of magic.”
That raised the hair on Niall’s neck. “Perhaps that is something you should worry about. A man with power but no loyalties is more dangerous than a known enemy.”
“You see?” Eamon said heartily. “Again, you show how much I need you.”
“Nonsense. Besides, until I’ve recovered fully, I’m of no real use to you—no better than a human, like my mother. There are enough at our own court who never considered me a fit prince for that reason alone. If you couple that with my reputation?” Some twist in Niall’s half-human heritage had given him the ability to discern the crack in another’s character, the flaw that when stressed would cause them to shatter. And once he’d seen it, he couldn’t resist applying the necessary pressure. It hadn’t made him popular. “Do you think they’ll accept me in your . . . what do you call it? Administration, like the Outer World governments call it?”
“They’ll have to learn.”
Really, Eamon? Are you still so naïve? “But that’s the point. They may not be able to. Not without help. I can accept change because I’m half-human. True fae might take more persuasion.”
“You’re a true fae, and I’ll challenge any who say different. Besides, who better than you to persuade? You persuaded the last Seelie bard into your bed.”
Niall froze, hands fisting in the folds of his cloak. “How dare you, Eamon? How dare you?”
Eamon’s perfect brow puckered. “What do you mean? You did, just as you said you would, then defied Father to keep him.”
“And that got me chained in the forges for two hundred years. And Tiarnach killed Gareth anyway.”
Eamon blinked, then pity flickered across his face. “Oh my dear. I didn’t realize— Gareth isn’t dead.”
Niall staggered back until he stumbled against the stool, his heart knifing sideways in a painful thump. “Not . . . not dead?” He could barely force the words out of a mouth gone dry as bone dust. “Don’t toy with me, Eamon. Please.”
“I would never joke about such a thing. He’s alive. In fact, he’ll be here tonight.”
Niall’s knees gave out and he collapsed, missing the stool completely and falling on his arse, uncertain whether the sounds tearing from his throat were hysterical laughter or racking sobs.
“Gareth, what the hell?” Spence banged a discordant chord on his keyboard. “That’s the third time you’ve fucked up that bridge. I didn’t think you fae bards could fuck up.”
“Since I’m the only one there is, it’s kind of hard to find a basis for comparison.” Gareth fingered the chord progression again. It wasn’t that difficult. “Sorry, guys. I’m . . . my mind’s not on the music at the moment.”
“This moment or any moment in the last two weeks.” Tiff unslung her bass and set it on its stand.
“What she said.” Hamish bounced behind the drum kit, flipping one stick. Gareth scowled at him. Hamish always agreed with Tiff on everything—but it didn’t do him a damn bit of good. She still wouldn’t go out with him.
Josh laid his violin in its case and moved to the front of the practice room. “Look, everyone. It’s been a tough time for Gareth. We all know that, right?” Josh fixed each of them in turn with his wide brown gaze. Trust Josh to make the peace.
Unfortunately, it made Gareth feel like an even bigger arsehole, since he’d let Josh down more than the rest of Hunter’s Moon. The two of them hadn’t written a new song for the band in months. At some point, the fans would get tired of hearing the same old shite in every concert and start drifting away.
He owed it to Josh—to the whole band—to get it together.
“Too bad you don’t have ‘it’ anymore, ain’t it, boyo?”
Gareth’s fist clenched around the neck of his guitar. Gods-bedamned Voices. Would he ever be rid of them? He’d hidden his bardic talent in the days millennia ago when he and his brothers had still lived in Annwn, before the Unification, before Arawn abandoned the Welsh fae and Annwn disappeared. He’d hidden it for as long as he could, but when Arawn discovered it, he’d decreed Gareth needed training.
Unfortunately, there’d been no living fae bards to teach him, so Arawn found a dead one: Gwydion himself.
To this day, the voices of the dead, who’d first invaded his thoughts when he’d been sequestered with Gwydion during his training, always found the chink in his armor, in his confidence. Usually music kept them at bay; it was the one thing he was good at, after all. But his music was abandoning him now too.
Ever since the Queen had decreed that the Seelie and Unseelie realms would merge, that Gareth would be cheek to jowl with the creatures he’d loathed since the day one of them had taken his first and only lover—his human lover—his music, the bedrock of his life, had cracked like a wren’s egg.
This evening, it would all happen—the Convergence, the handfasting between the Queen and her Unseelie monster betrothed—and Gareth was ordered to be there, whether he liked it or not.
No wonder he’d fucked up the bridge.
“Thanks, Josh, but they’re right. You deserve better, and I’ll try to get it together. I promise. After tomorrow—”
“Why will that be any better?” Spence asked. “If you’re this whacked out just thinking about the Convergence, how are you gonna act when it’s a done deal? Hell, when you have to help make it happen.”
Damned good question. “I don’t have to participate in the spell. I’m just playing at the feast.”
“So you can nip out right after?” Hamish asked.
I wish. “No. I have to stay for the ceremony. All fae are required to be present.”
Hamish launched a drum stick into the air. “You think you can be there without wanting to stab a few Unseelie in the eye?” He grinned. “As I understand it, some of ’em only have one eye to start with.”
“I can handle it.” I hope. As long as I don’t see that one. The one who kidnapped Niall.
“Do you want company?” Josh asked. “I mean, we’ve played in Faerie before. We can do it this time too if it would help.”
“Nah. Thanks, mate, but this is a fae-only event. Not even my brother-in-law can go, nor Mal’s fiancé.” Gareth winced when he remembered the vile words he’d flung at Mal and Bryce that night in the Stone Circle. He switched off his amp and sat down heavily on the beat-up orange sofa in the corner of the room. “The worst part will be facing my brothers. I was kind of a dick to them last time I saw them.”
“‘Kind of’?” Tiff snorted. “From what you said, I’m surprised Mal didn’t drop-kick you out of the Circle—right after Alun ran you through.”
Gareth sighed. “I’d have deserved both. But sometimes—”
“That’s right, boyo. Sometimes you have to let them know how much hate you really have. For the Unseelie swine. For the Queen who failed you. For your sodding brothers—”
No! Not my brothers. They’d put up with his moods, year after interminable year, granting him more indulgence than he had any right to deserve. Which filled him with shame. Which gave the Voices a way in again.
Goddess, he missed Niall. When they’d been together, it had been the only time the Voices were truly silent.
“You’ll be back in time for our next gigs, though, right?” Josh sat down next to him. “The second Portland show is the replacement for the one we had to cancel last summer. If we bail again—”
“Don’t worry. The feast and the ceremony are the only requirements.” Then he could get the hells out of Faerie before he had a psychotic break.
* * * * * * *
Eamon’s disclosure left Niall on edge, unable to decide whether he most wanted to see Gareth again or hide in the dungeons until the whole thing was over.
No hiding in the dungeons. Not with Tiarnach and his Seelie accomplice there.
When Gareth saw him again—if Niall had the courage to show himself—what would he think of the wreck Niall had become? He couldn’t do much about his wounds, but the least he could do was look less . . . feral.
To save the Keep staff the burden of hauling water to his quarters, he skulked down to the bathing rooms used by the lesser fae, then stood staring at the steaming water as he realized he couldn’t go in without compromising the dressings on his back. Heilyn, a bauchan who acted as Eamon’s valet, found him there. Clucking in concern, they shooed Niall into the water, holding towels for him when he emerged. Then they trimmed Niall’s hair and rebandaged his back.
He spent the rest of the day next to the fire in his bedroom, alternating between trying to make sense—unsuccessfully—of the Convergence spell documents and peeking in the looking glass, wondering what Gareth would see when they were face-to-face once more.
He laid out the clothing Peadar had brought him earlier. Royal blue velvet and ermine? Gold bullion embroidery? Not bloody likely. He dug out one of his old, less ostentatious court outfits from his dusty trunk and struggled into it. The doublet was too tight through the chest and arms, putting agonizing pressure on his back. The breeches, though . . . they might work if—
No. This was ridiculous. Danu’s tits, was he actually attempting to primp? What good would that do? Even if he were suddenly as perfectly beautiful as Eamon on the outside, the inside would still be rotten with his lies and deceptions.
Best to make the outside match.
He donned his old loose clothing again and made himself concentrate on the spell, his back to the window. But as the day aged, he couldn’t help but glance over his shoulder to check the sky for the green of midafternoon, when the pre-Convergence feast was to begin.
Gareth. Alive. Here. All Niall had to do was walk down the corridor, cross the throne room, and enter the Great Hall and he’d see him again. He clutched the quill he’d been using to make desultory notes. Was he grateful? Overjoyed? Terrified? Yes and yes and yes.
Why was it that the one thing you thought you wanted above everything else was the last thing you could face?
I can just take a peek at him, I don’t have to talk to him yet. Niall wasn’t sure he was ready for that. He was not the same man that Gareth had known. He was broken. Scarred. Damaged. But above all, Unseelie and assassin.
He’d never revealed those little details. One of the gifts from his human mother—other than his connection with the ethera that allowed him to understand and adapt to changes in the Outer World—was the ability to appear fully human without resorting to glamourie. He’d been masquerading as human when he’d tracked Gareth to the eisteddfod in Corwen, only half-serious about making good on his wager with Tiarnach to deprive the Seelie Queen of the one thing she had that the Unseelie court could never boast: a true bard.
Tiarnach, being the unimaginative bastard that he was, probably thought he’d ordered Niall to kill Gareth. After meeting Gareth—and falling in love with him—Niall had hatched the brilliant notion of convincing Tiarnach that the way to score off the Queen was not to kill the bard, but to bring him to the Unseelie court as Niall’s consort instead.
Tiarnach was not impressed by the brilliance of Niall’s plan. Niall had gotten chained in the forge instead, and had never seen Gareth again.
But now, he had that chance. Would Gareth still be angry that Niall had left without a word? If Niall were to explain the reasons for both for the deception and the abandonment, would Gareth forgive him? He’d never thought to have the opportunity, not after Tiarnach’s last crazed announcement.
I’ll never know if I don’t try.
* * * * * * *
When Gareth crossed into Faerie late that afternoon, nausea roiling in his belly and anger prickling his skin, he wasn’t sure he could avoid the psychotic break after all.
“You know what they did after they took him from you? What they always do to humans? They fucked him. As many times as they wanted. Every day. Every hour. And they made him want it. Made him beg for it. The glamourie can counteract the pathetic love you were so sure was yours.”
“Shut up,” Gareth growled.
“I didn’t say anything.” Alun, Gareth’s older brother, stepped out of the shadows under the trees.
“Sorry. I wasn’t talking to you.”
Alun looked at him uneasily. Gareth didn’t blame him. How did you apologize for being a total arsehole to your brothers? Groveling is in your future. He’d have to face it, but it wouldn’t be easy.
“This way.” Alun didn’t waste words. He was probably afraid that Gareth would launch into another tirade.
Gritting his teeth, Gareth followed through the trees and across the unseen—but definitely felt—barrier from the Seelie sphere into the Unseelie.
They walked along in silence, Gareth humming under his breath to keep the Voices at bay, forming guitar chords on his left thigh to keep his hands from shaking.
Out of nowhere, a large gate suddenly barred their way. Mal stood outside it, thumbs hooked in his belt. Both hands. At least his brothers were whole and curse-free now.
“That’s because both of them found truuuuue looooove. Something you’ll never find. You’ll be broken forever. Just like us.”
“Gareth. You made it.” Mal made a slight motion, as if to hug Gareth in his old enthusiastic way, but hesitated.
Bugger that. Gareth took two giant steps forward and grabbed Mal in a hug, burying his head on his shoulder. “Goddess, Mal, I’m so sorry for what I said to you.” He’d accused Mal of more than one unthinkable act—not only a treasonous conspiracy with the Unseelie, but also with forcing a permanent partnership on a non-fae, like some renegade old-school Sidhe. Although Mal’s lover wasn’t a defenseless human like Niall. He was a gods-bedamned druid.
Oak and bloody thorn, Gareth still couldn’t wrap his head around the notion of his brother mated to a druid. Not as bad as if he were to take an Unseelie to bed, but druids and fae had been wary of one another for millennia for good reason.
Mal chuckled, and his arms came around Gareth, patting him on the back. “No worries, mate. We all have our bad days, right? Bryce says I have enough of them for any ten other bastards. But if you’re going to give me a cuddle, at least get a haircut first. These bloody curls in my face—”
Gareth pulled back. “Fuck you. I like it this way.”
Mal’s grin dimmed a bit. “I know.”
Niall liked it this way. “Never mind.” He turned to Alun and gave him a hug too, even though it was hampered by the sword sheathed along Alun’s back. “Thank you for standing by me.” He stepped away. “Thank you both.”
“There was never a question, Gareth. You ought to know that.” Alun’s eyes were serious, his tone holding no recrimination. “We’re brothers. We’ve always got each other’s backs.”
Mal slapped Alun’s shoulder. “Then we’d better get our backs inside before we’re late to the party. The Queen will forgive a lot, now that she’s crazy in love, but she’s still a stickler for punctuality.”
Mal opened the gate and led them up to the Keep proper, where two guards—one a Daoine Sidhe from the Seelie court, and one a hulking Unseelie trow—flanked the open doors.
Light spilled out onto the path, and inside fae milled about the entrance hall, some in the elaborate finery of high humanoid fae—both Seelie and Unseelie, Gareth suspected. The non-humanoid, in nothing more than mottled skin and fur, were de facto Unseelie, excluded from the Seelie realm by the elder gods’ notion of what constituted beauty.
Gareth took a deep breath, drawing strength from the presence of his brothers beside him, of the harp on his shoulder—his brothers and his music, the two things he could always depend on.
“You sure about that, boyo?”
Gareth bit back a retort and marched forward. “Let’s do this.” To drown out the Voices, he attempted to keep up desultory conversation with his brothers, while avoiding contact with the Unseelie as unobtrusively as possible. The humanoid ones were nearly indiscernible from Seelie courtiers. The only differences were the side glances and sneers they cast at the Kendrick brothers as they made their way through the corridor.
“Great Hall’s yonder.” Mal pointed to a vast archway off to the left where the tide of chattering fae was already heading. “The feast will be there. They’ve even got a minstrels’ gallery, believe it or not. The old Unseelie King must have snatched his architect from the Plantagenets.” He winced. “Sorry, Gareth. Bad joke.”
“No worries, Mal.” In truth, Gareth was relieved. If he retreated to the gallery for his command performance, he wouldn’t have to be among the crowd.
The brothers were borne along with the throng, which began to disperse to the tables that ringed the room. Mal nodded at the far end of the hall, to a dais shoulder height above the floor. “We’ll be sitting yonder, along with Eamon and the Queen, and a couple of the Unseelie honchos. Fionbarr, the mage who’s casting the spell; Eamon’s brother; a bloke who’s the Lord High Something-or-other—”
“Lovely.” A Seelie page passed by with a tray of silver goblets full of wine. All three of the Kendricks took one. Gareth downed half of his at one go. I’ll need another one of those soon. “I assume we’ll be on the Queen’s left?”
Mal snorted. “Not like I perused the fecking seating chart. I expect we’ll sit where we please.”
Alun nodded at the bauchan standing at the end of the dais, his head just visible above the table. “I think the steward will point us the way.”
“Hey, it’s Heilyn.” Mal raised cup in an air-toast, and the bauchan tugged its green forelock, baring its rows of sharp teeth in what passed for a grin. “Heilyn’s all right. A good fellow with a cudgel, not to mention the go-to fae for any supplies, if you catch my meaning.”
“Mal, must you?” Alun growled.
“Supplies? You mean—” Gareth gulped, stomach roiling. Mal had actually had sex in the Unseelie realm? “You . . . and an Unseelie?”
“Are you daft, man? With Bryce, after Rodric and his barmy ex-Majesty were dispatched to the hells.” Mal frowned. “Place was too good for them if you asked me.”
Gareth shrugged, trying to rid his mind of the image of Mal with an Unseelie. “Sorry. But you can’t blame me for jumping to conclusions, considering your reputation.”
“That’s all in the past, mate. Bryce is all I’ll ever need.”
Imagining Mal with a druid wasn’t much better. “With the Queen about to mate with her monster—” Make nice. He forced a chuckle. “To be honest, I never knew Her Majesty had such a taste for blue.”
“Blue?” Mal asked.
“Her soon-to-be-consort’s skin, of course. Blue and scaled. A far cry from Rodric Luchullain, but maybe that’s the point.”
Mal frowned. “Hold on, mate. You know Eamon was under a curse, right?”
“Shite, I forgot. When you saw him, he hadn’t transformed yet. That’s not how he really looks.”
“Really? I—I suppose I didn’t think about it.”
A short fanfare from the bells of invisible trumpets played, and the crowd’s noise dropped to a low murmur.
“That’s the cue for the grand entrance, so you’ll meet him directly. If you like Alun, you’ll like Eamon—he’s got nearly as big a stick up his arse as our brother when it comes to duty.”
Most of the crowd had already taken their seats, but all now stood in a scrape of chairs as the Queen entered the Hall on the arm of a tall, dark-haired fae with golden-brown skin.
Gareth stared at him, his goblet falling from nerveless fingers to splash wine across the flagstone floor.
It’s him. The one who took Niall.
Gareth hadn’t seen the bastard for two centuries, but he’d never forget the fae who’d ruined his life.