“REAGHAN, daughter of Owin, bobbled her curtsey when the sprouts growing in crystal bowls lining the long tables to her left snagged her interest.
“I saw that, you know.” Caoilfhinn, Reaghan’s cousin and newly crowned fae queen, teased.
“Of course you did, my queen.” Reaghan’s grin expanded. “It’s just one of your many gifts.”
Caoilfhinn arched a single brow. “Did you come to help with my seedlings or to mock your queen?”
“I would never mock my queen.” Reaghan’s lip twitched with mirth. “But I will always tease my cousin.”
“Hmmmm.” Caoilfhinn pointed at a tray of tiny plants. “How about if you make yourself helpful and bring those.”
“I live but to serve you, my queen.” Reaghan grinned without repentance.
“Oh just stop it.” Caoilfhinn rolled her eyes and motioned for Reaghan to follow. “You know I’m not used to having people bow and cater to me.”
“I know. I’ll go easy on you. For a while.”
“Gee, thanks.” Caoilfhinn stopped next to the area cleared of old plants, then knelt. She gestured for Reaghan to sit nearby. “How are things with Pryderi?”
“Fine.” Reaghan admired the variety of blooming shrubs and flowers around them. It was one of her favorite places in all of Eolande. Some of the realm’s most beautiful plants could be found in the queen’s garden.
Caoilfhinn crinkled her nose. “That doesn’t sound exciting at all.”
Reaghan snorted. “That would be an accurate description.”
A hand tool appeared and dug several small holes near the edge of the pathway when Caoilfhinn waved her hand. “Have you accepted the marriage contract yet?”
Instead of using her powers, Caoilfhinn motioned for Reaghan to hand her one of the plants from the tray. “Are you going to?”
“Do I really have a choice?”
Caoilfhinn stopped what she was doing. “Yes, you do.”
“Then why does it feel like I don’t?”
“Because, as usual, the men involved in the agreement think they know best.” Caoilfhinn situated the tiny sprout the way she wanted and filled the hole in around it. “Do you care for Pryderi?”
Reaghan didn’t even have to search her heart to know the answer. She had debated the issue more times than she cared to admit. “As a friend, yes.”
“But not as a lover?”
“No. It has never been that way between us.”
“Are you certain?”
“Quite.” Reaghan handed Caoilfhinn another sprout. “Several seasons ago, when we were both between attachments, we tried to see if anything sparked.” Her cheeks grew warm but she shrugged it off. “All we succeeded in doing was embarrassing ourselves and proving what we both already knew.”
“What did you know?”
“That we’re better off remaining just friends.”
Another sprout went into a hole. “How does he feel about the agreement?”
“The same as me. That it’s easier to keep pretending that we’re waiting for the right time to announce something.” Reaghan was certainly in no hurry to endure that conversation. To say her mother and father were not going to be pleased would be an understatement.
“Are you certain of his feelings?”
“I thought I had noticed the faint sparkle of a love bond the last time I saw him.”
“You probably did.”
Caoilfhinn frowned then her gaze became distant. “He loves another.”
Reaghan smiled sadly. “Yes.” Learning he loved someone else had been a disappointment at first. But after some intense soul searching she realized her feelings of loss were due more to the fact she had yet to find someone to love and be loved by.
Caoilfhinn blinked away the vision. “You knew this.”
“You already know, do you not?” Since Caoilfhinn became Queen her powers had vastly expanded. Most especially those pertaining to prophecy.
“I want to hear it from your perspective.”
Reaghan handed Caoilfhinn another plant. “Her name is Kaasi. As you probably already know, she’s the daughter of Genaine.”
Caoilfhinn grimaced. “Their families will never approve the match.”
“No. They will not. And Pryderi has no delusions otherwise.” Rivalries and politics between the fae aristocrats were not for the faint of heart. As the daughter of one of the first royal families, there was no escaping it.
Caoilfhinn dug six more holes. “So he pretends to consider the marriage agreement with you while secretly seeing Kaasi.”
“That is correct.”
“And you’re okay with that?”
Reaghan shrugged. “It was my idea.” She smiled when Caoilfhinn’s head snapped up. It wasn’t often she managed to surprise her cousin.
“After I was attacked by the vampire, mother did everything in her power to keep me at home. To the point that it interfered with my training and they threatened to dismiss me. We argued every time I returned to my classes. Father agreed to support me and my training if I agreed to consider the marriage contract with Pryderi.”
Caoilfhinn shook her head as she filled in another hole.
“It didn’t take long for me to realize the primary benefit of being in a pre-contract relationship.”
“And what benefits would you be referring to? You’ve already said sex between you Pryderi is off the table.”
A snort escaped before Reaghan could stifle it. “The string of marriage hungry suitors virtually disappeared. It left me in a unique position to evaluate potential suitors without external pressure.”
“Ah.” Caoilfhinn nodded as she sprinkled pale purple foam over the plants she had been working with. Almost instantly each one perked up and produced a tiny blue bud. “And what did you discover during your covert search?”
“Mostly that what I want, what I believe in my heart to be what I need in order to truly be happy, may not exist.”
“You’re still young. There is still time for you to find what you want and need.”
Reaghan hung her head. “At this point I have met all of the eligible bachelors here in Eolande. Between my training and my personal travels, I have been to almost every human country.” She shrugged. “My visits to the mortal plane spanned multiple generations. Yet not once have I made a connection with anyone that I felt would last a lifetime. Much less a fae lifetime.”
Caoilfhinn wiped the dirt from her fingers then reached for one Reaghan’s hands. “The lore doesn’t lie. There is someone for everyone. Our other half, if you will. The trick is being patient until you find them.” The queen’s eyes swirled with the misty gray fog that indicated she was peering into the beyond. “You will find yours when the time is right and not a minute before. That time is drawing near though.”
Reaghan waited silently for fear that she might interrupt the vision’s flow and miss some key piece of information about the man meant for her.
“He will be strong. A leader. The sound of his voice holds the power to sway even the hardest of hearts. But darkness surrounds him.” Caoilfhinn sucked in a breath of air and squeezed Reaghan’s hand.
The mention of darkness sent chills down Reaghan’s back.
“The darkness grips him tightly. He feels as if he has been consumed by it. That his very soul is scarred. But you will bring light to his life. Light that has been missing for more than a century.”
Reaghan’s heart skipped a beat. A century. Not a human then.
Her cousin shook off the effects of her vision. She patted Reaghan’s hand and smiled. “Remind me again. What human name do you usually use?”
Caoilfhinn nodded. “A good name.”
“Your Majesty.” One of Caoilfhinn’s attendants called out as she rushed toward them, preventing Reaghan from asking any questions. When the attendant reached them, she dropped into a curtsy. “Councilman Sativola has sent a message.” She handed a folded parchment to the queen.
Caoilfhinn took the missive and scanned its contents. She was frowning by the time she reached the end. “Thank you, Locklyn. That will be all.”
“Yes, my queen.” Locklyn bobbed a courtesy then hurried away.
Whatever Caoilfhinn had read obviously bothered her a great deal. She stabbed the hand-tool she had been using into the ground then stared at the new plants with a frown.
“Everything all right?” Reaghan finally asked.
“We don’t have much time.”
Her entire body tensed. “For what?”
“I need a favor of you.”
“Of course.” She lifted her chin. “I’d be happy to help you with anything you need.”
Setting the tool she had been using aside, Caoilfhinn motioned to Reaghan. “Come with me. I don’t want to risk being overheard.”
Curious what the queen might tell her that would be so secret, Reaghan followed. Caoilfhinn led her to center of the garden. They stopped near a large stone fountain that bubbled and gushed sparkling streams of purple and blue liquid over pale white stone.
“I’m sure you have heard about the daughter of Sativola.”
Reaghan nodded. “Yes, of course. She’s the girl who went missing in the mortal plane not long ago.” It was a shocking story. She prayed Eirin was simply being reckless and ignoring her parents’ attempts to contact her.
Caoilfhinn grimaced. “There are few who haven’t heard about it at this point.”
“People do talk.”
“Yes, they do. And often, too much.
The favor I need relates to the council sessions about her.”
“The council.” Reaghan frowned. Doubt crept in diminishing the excitement she originally experienced at being asked to help her queen. “Are you certain you would not be better off talking with Father?”
“No, I most certainly would not. What I need neither your father nor your brother can provide. And I trust no one else to accomplish the task.”
Reaghan’s chest swelled with pride. “What would you have me do?”
“I want you to go to the mortal plane and ascertain the status and mindset of Eirin, Daughter of Sativola.”
“Yes.” Caoilfhinn gestured for Reaghan to sit on the edge of the fountain with her. “I need to know whether or not she is being held in thrall or against her will.”
“Who would be holding her against her will? Eirin may be young, but she isn’t without skill. And in the mortal plane, she should be more than capable of overpowering any mortal.”
“Her father believes she has come under the influence of a vampire.”
Reaghan stiffened as flashes of the vampire attack she’d suffered bubbled up through her memories. She quickly shut them off and focused on what Caoilfhinn was saying.
“I am aware of your own experience with the human undead. And while it seems cruel to expose you to something you have every reason to hate, I am afraid that I have no other choice.” Caoilfhinn dipped her fingers into the fountain. The flow of lavender liquid immediately reversed itself.
“The council is at odds. Lairgnen and I are being pressed for a decision on the matter. I do not believe, however, that we have been given all of the facts. Worse, I believe some of the information we have been given is, shall we say, inaccurate.” Caoilfhinn shrugged. “At a minimum, skewed in a manner that suits one side or the other. If this matter cannot be cleared soon, we may find ourselves at war.”
Reaghan’s hands clenched into fists. Fear warred with anger. Why were some people in such a hurry to start wars? Yes, she had been trained to fight. Because of her history, she wanted to be able to defend herself. It didn’t mean she wanted to use those skills on everyone she met. “Surely there is something that can be done to prevent war.”
“There is.” Caoilfhinn captured her gaze.” My solution however requires your help.”
“And when I do?”
“If she is being held against her will or under nefarious circumstances, free her. If she remains in the mortal plan of her own free will, I need her confession.”
Tamping down old fears, Reaghan focused on her task. “What of the vampire?”
“If he possesses a threat to you or to her, do what you must.”
“Very well.” Reaghan wiped her palm against her thigh. “How will I get through the portal?”
“I will open one.”
“Won’t the elders sense it?”
Caoilfhinn shook her head. “Not if it isn’t open long.” A noise near the entry caught their attention. In a lower voice, Caoilfhinn rushed to add, “Meet me here in the garden after first supper. Tell no one. Carry only what you must. I’ll supply you with enough coin to purchase whatever you need in the mortal world.”
“How shall I return?”
“I’ll reopen the same gate in three human days.”
Reaghan’s brows rose in surprise.
“I am afraid that is all the time I can give you to find Eirin. Any longer and I fear we will have to take steps that none of us are prepared for.”
“What should I tell Mother and Father?”
“Nothing.” Caoilfhinn waved her hand in the air. “Leave that to me.”
“Very well.” It was a relief to know she wouldn’t have to deal with her mother’s reaction.
Caoilfhinn quickly added, “The vampire they believe has taken Eirin is expected to attend the vampire clan meeting at Tullamore Castle. That meeting is your best chance of finding Eirin or at least obtaining enough information to find her.”
An entire clan of vampires? Could she really do this? It didn’t look as if there was another option. “When will that meeting be held?”
“It’s a three day event that begins tonight.” Caoilfhinn raised one finger. “And I have an idea for getting you into the hotel where the meeting is being held.”
“I don’t have to be a building inspector or something equally tedious, do I? You know I don’t mind learning new human oddities, but some of those jobs are horribly dull to read about.” She clung to humor to drown out the fear threatening to bubble to the surface.
The narrow braids that hung near Caoilfhinn temple swayed as she shook her head. “No. Nothing like that. But you will need your violin.”
Reaghan’s brow rose with curiosity.
“There is one thing you should know since you have never been there. Tullamore grounds are considered neutral territory. There is absolutely no fighting allowed. And your glamour, no matter how good it is, will not fool the castle care takers. I think it best if you do not reveal your true self to any mortals, vampires, or any Others you come in contact with.” Concern flickered across Caoilfhinn’s normally impassive expression. “No sense in riling any of the clans unnecessarily.”
“I understand.” Ideas floated through her mind of the things she would need to take with her.
“And Reaghan, you must return home before sunrise on the fourth day. If you remain in the mortal world for even one moment past sunrise the portal will be closed to you and I may not able to open it again for some time.” She reached for Reaghan’s hand. “You do understand how important it is that we obtain an accurate accounting of Eirin’s state of mind, do you not?”
“I do understand.” Reaghan lifted her chin. “I swear I will do everything in my power to find Eirin and learn what has become of her.”
“Good.” Caoilfhinn got to her feet. “Now go. We both have things to do to prepare.”
“I will see you tonight.” Reaghan made her courtesy and turned to go.
“And Reaghan?” She waited until Reaghan faced her again. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome, cousin.” With one last dip of her head she hurried away from the queen’s garden.