Sara shot a quick glance over her shoulder and sniffed. Then glared up at Rainey.
“I suppose you’ve no diapers,” Rainey went on in a low, soothing tone. “No food, or change of clothing. We’ve plenty of that here.”
Of course, Sara had nothing, I thought with a rush of bitterness and relief. She hadn’t been in the streets long enough to realize a child on her own needed many, many places to hide. All that she’d managed to beg, borrow, or steal was stashed in the house that was taken from her.
It was time for tough love. I said, “Do you want your baby sister to get diaper rash? Or catch cold from the weather? How will you get medicine if one of you gets sick? You might be able to survive out there, Sara, but the others won’t. What if something happens to you? What will your sisters and brother do then? You’re responsible for them. You have to be strong enough for four. Now isn’t the time to be shortsighted and selfish.”
Sara flinched and cried, “I’m not selfish!” Fear, isolation, crushing responsibility, she woke up to it, lived it all day, and fell asleep with it—a too-heavy stone in her too-empty stomach. I wanted to hug her. Take her in my arms and promise her life would be good again. Not selfish at all. Selflessly doing everything she could. But I needed to get her inside the door of the townhouse. There were three bastards skulking around out there, preying on the innocent, with my sights on their backs.
I knew what she was thinking, freedom conferred a certain solace: When it’s only you taking care of your world, you feel as if you have some control over the many things that might go wrong. When you widen your circle to trust others, the risks increase exponentially.
As if she’d just ended an inner debate on the same thought, Sara Brady tensed, rising onto the balls of her feet again, trembling but determined.
I shot Rainey a look that said, She’s going to bolt.
On cue, Rainey pushed the door to the townhome open all the way, allowing the scent of baking bread and a slowly simmering stew to waft out.
I watched Sara carefully. I’d had to drag a few kids inside, kicking and screaming, and had no problem doing so now. But more often than not, what words failed to accomplish, the promise of a hot meal did. It was easier for them in the long run if they took that first step willingly.
“Sara, I’m hungry,” the younger girl cried plaintively. “And thirsty and I need to pee! Just tonight, okay?”
“Can we, huh, Sara, please?” Thomas chimed in. “I’m cold!”
Sara looked from my eyes to Rainey’s and back again. Few adults probed gazes with such intensity. But the fate of her entire family was in her eleven-year-old hands. I wanted to tell her how proud I was of her. That she impressed me with all she’d done to keep them alive and together. But Rainey would say all that and more.
“Okay,” Sara Brady said tightly. “But just for tonight. One night,” she repeated, glaring at her siblings.
Once my charges were tucked safely inside and the door was closed, I smiled as I melted into the night.
That was what they all said, at first. Then found their fears were no match for the breadth and scope of Rainey Lane’s heart.
Seeing Mac’s mom was always uncomfortable for me. Given the unspoken that lay between us.
She’d never been anything but welcoming and kind. It was why I’d chosen to bring the first of the children to her and her husband, Jack, that bloody night, months ago. And why I would continue bringing them, assured she would always grant them safe haven.
Anyone who would welcome someone like me could never turn away a child.
* * *
I tracked my prey into Temple Bar and out, across the River Liffey and back again, debating whether the trio was so powerful, so drunk or drugged, or just so bloody stupid that they brazenly walked the killing fields of our city.
Their deaths would save countless lives.
Still, my sword hand itched so much from not being allowed to use it to kill the Fae now that Mac was queen, I’d begun to question my sentencing methods. I’d been taught a taste for the kill at a young age. Patterns like that are hard to break. I was good at it and someone had to do it. Then Dancer died and the finality of death took on new meaning for me. I still haven’t found mercy—with the exception of kids and animals—but I’ve discovered creative sentencing. I had a few choice fragments of Faery—IFPs, Mac used to call them—I’d begun using for prisons.
Speaking of my sword hand, it really was itching, and scratching it through my fingerless glove wasn’t working so I peeled it off.
My palm was black and cold as ice. The last time I’d seen it this bad was years ago, standing in a cemetery, watching shadows explode from the graves. Shadows I’d been hunting for the past two years, with no success. No one else had seen them that night, and no one had seen them since.
I watched as the darkness spread, creeping around to the back of my hand then shooting up into my fingers. A sudden, sharp pain stabbed beneath all my nails. Black veins exploded up my wrist, vanishing into the sleeve of my jacket.
I stripped off my coat. Inky veins and black streaks marbled my left arm, nearly to the shoulder.
I was fourteen when I stabbed a Hunter through the heart with the Fae Hallow, the Sword of Light. The giant winged beast gushed black blood and shot me an incomprehensible look before closing fiery eyes. I thought I killed it but when I returned to snap photos for my newspaper, the enormous dragonlike creature was gone. My hand turned to dark ice within the hour, making me worry something of the creature had seeped up my sword and infected me. I was enormously relieved when my hand regained its normal color and temperature a few days later. I’d since discovered spells work better when etched with that hand and if, occasionally, I woke in the middle of the night to find it dark and freezing, I considered it a static oddity.
It was no longer static. Something had changed.
I waited to see if the darkness under my skin would continue to spread. When it didn’t, I put my glove on and shrugged back into my jacket.
There was nothing I could do about it. I couldn’t unstab the Hunter. I’d think about it later.
My hunt took me in the direction of Barrons Books & Baubles. I liked seeing the lovely, spatially challenged bookstore that was sometimes four floors, sometimes six, slicing the night, bastion eternal, spotlights blazing on the rooftop. It was a promise, made of timeless stone, polished wood, wrought iron, and stained glass: One day, Mac and Barrons would come back. One day, I’d bang in that door again. One day, the people who mattered to me would return.
Through the many disasters and riots that had befallen our city, even the ice age of the Hoar Frost King, Barrons Books & Baubles had remained untouched. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn it had stood there since the dawn of time. There’s a special feeling about the spot, as if once, a very long time ago, something terrible nearly happened at this precise longitude and latitude, and someone or -thing dropped the bookstore on the gash to keep the possibility from ever occurring again. As long as the walls stand and the place is intact, we’ll be okay. Some people have churches. I have BB&B.
I turned a corner, anticipating the familiar sight, the rush of warm memories.
The bookstore wasn’t there.
I narrowed my eyes, blinked and looked again.
Still not there.
I scowled down damp, fog-wisped blocks at an empty concrete lot. Then I kicked up into the slipstream and devoured the distance, stopping shy of where the front wall of the bookstore should be. If the building was concealed with glamour, I had no intention of crashing into it. I sported fewer bruises these days and liked it that way.
Beyond the empty lot, Jericho Barrons’s epic garage was gone, too. In its place was another empty, concrete-surfaced lot.
My stomach clenched.
I reached out and felt around. No wall. I took a few steps and groped blindly about again. I strode forward until I was standing dead center in the rear seating area of the bookstore. Mac’s fireplace should have been to my right, the Chesterfield behind me.
There was nothing.
I got a sudden chill. “Nothing” wasn’t quite the right word. The bookstore was gone. But a thick, gluey residue lingered, as if something cataclysmic had transpired here, leaving a miasma of emotional, temporal, or spatial distortion in its place. Perhaps all three.